Contested Memories: Poles and Jews during the Holocaust and Its Aftermath

By Joshua D. Zimmerman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Psychological Distance
between Poles and Jews in
Nazi-Occupied Warsaw
BARBARA ENGELKING-BONI

In this essay, I examine the psychological aspects of Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War. The field of psychology, and particularly of collective psychology, is speculative and subjective. Historians will find no facts here apart from those documenting emotional experience presented through the oral testimonies of those who lived through the tragic years of the Nazi occupation. I shall concentrate not on the objective facts of Nazi policies, but on the resulting subjective, psychological, and emotional differences in the daily life of Poles and Jews in wartime Warsaw. 1

Before the war Jews constituted 30 percent of Warsaw's population. Their community was highly diversified with respect to national identity, social status, attitude toward religion, and political standpoints. Notwithstanding the many assimilated, upper-middle-class, and professional Jews in Warsaw, Poles and Jews generally made up two different communities, and social barriers were hard to overcome. They created feelings of alienation and remoteness on both sides. The growing antisemitism, aggressive publications in the press, anti-Jewish squads, and excesses at universities contributed to the growing popularity of Zionist and socialist ideas in the Jewish community. Poles and Jews were two different communities. Despite the goodwill of many people on both sides, the gap between the two communities widened and conflicts became sharper in the 1930s.

A decrease in tension between Poles and Jews occurred immediately before the outbreak of war and continued throughout September 1939. In the face of the common enemy, earlier conflicts receded into the background. Citizens of Warsaw—Poles and Jews—jointly dug trenches, jointly put out fires, and jointly defended the city.

However, not long after the initial shock of the Nazi and Soviet invasions, the feeling of common fate proved short-lived and illusive. As a contemporary

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