“Protest!” by Zofia Kossak (1942)

On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of dissemination in the occupied Warsaw of the appeal by Zofia Kossak, one of the most important cultural texts related to the heritage of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations, we are publishing a study by Prof. Tomasz Żukowski, a literary historian from the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who deals with the problems of public discourse in Poland. Please read about the circumstances of the  creation of Protest!, learn the content of the proclamation, get to know more about the reception and meaning of this text in the discussion about the attitudes of Polish society towards Jews during the Holocaust.

Table of contents

Protest! is a document of consciousness – a founding text for Polish thinking about saving Jews. It was disseminated in the form of a leaflet on the streets of Warsaw in August 1942, with a circulation of 5,000 copies. It was a response to the ongoing mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the extermination camp in Treblinka. On behalf of the underground Catholic organization, Front for the Rebirth of Poland, its author, Zofia Kossak – a writer and social activist, called for opposition to extermination. There is an ongoing dispute about the Protest!. Jan Błoński wondered about this text that he considered “very pro-Jewish […] and at the same time… glaringly anti-Semitic.” 

Antisemitic fragments of the proclamation are usually quoted so at to infer from the overall stance of the author a conclusion about Polish innocence in connection with the extermination of Jews, and about the fundamental difference between Polish and German anti-Semitism. As a result, the image of Polish culture and Poles remains clean. Jan Błoński, in the article Pole-Catholic and Catholic-Pole, summed up his reflections on Zofia Kossak: the Christian tradition “allowed anti-Semitism, but at the same time it did not prohibit it, but limited, not allowing the crime of murder (mutilation, possibly robbery).” 

We know from the research conducted over the last twenty years that the conclusion formulated by Błoński is incompatible with the facts. At the same time, it was considered obvious until recently. So let's go back to Kossak’s Protest! so to capture the moment when the knowledge about the reality of occupation and the attitudes of non-Jewish Poles towards their Jewish neighbours disappear from the cultural perspective.

Empathy and hate. What is Zofia Kossak’s Protest! about?

The first part of the text describes the situation in the Warsaw ghetto and presents details of the extermination action. Kossak devotes much space to the description of Jewish suffering, she wants to shake consciences, and the emotional fervour of her enunciation proves that she herself is also shocked. For her, the events behind the wall are something terrible and absolutely extraordinary. However, an important element in the description is missing, and this lack could not escape the attention of a witness of those events: Poles and their behaviour towards Jews trying to save themselves on the “Aryan side.” We get the impression that the crime is taking place in a space where there are only Jews and Germans, and Polish neighbours – including Kossak – are watching it from the position of an observer not participating in the events. 

The emotional and clearly empathetic description contrasts with the argument substantiating the need to oppose German crimes and at the same time presenting Jews as enemies who, together with the Nazis, vilify Poles on the international stage. 

Both parts seem to come from incompatible orders. In the second, the emphasis is not on the suffering of the victims, but on Polish harm, Polish self-image, and above all on Polish superiority in relation to Jews. Only someone who sets himself the highest moral standards can respond with loyalty to the extreme disloyalty of slandering the good name of Poland. In this context, opposition to extermination becomes a moral victory in the face of unjustified Jewish hatred and unfounded, harmful accusations. 

The Protest! motives laid out by Kossak turn it into an element of Polish self-presentation. The compassion in the first part is no longer compassion for people like us, but for enemies who, by their attitude, remove themselves from the circle of human and civic solidarity.

 Concealed knowledge. What we cannot find in Zofia Kossak's appeal?

Disproportion between the two parts of the Protest! raises the suspicion that Kossak's argument lacks an element that would justify the zeal of the protestation, because the awareness of whose suffering we are actually dealing with would have to introduce at least some coldness to its description. It is worth remembering that in the story Kobieta cmentarna (The Cemetery Woman), Zofia Nałkowska put the words from Protest! in the mouth of its protagonist and portrayed a compassion that does not hinder vicious hate. 

Following the trail of emotions, we come to the point where the horror at the fate of the murdered is accompanied by the fear of possible accusations, which Kossak would like to dismiss. At the end of the appeal, the author allusively mentions phenomena that are particularly painful for her. It is about the demoralization of Polish society: 

“We also know how poisonous the seeding of crime can be. The forcible participation of the Polish nation in a bloody spectacle taking place on Polish land can easily breed indifference to harm, sadism and, above all, the ominous conviction that one may murder one's fellow humans with impunity”.

The article Proroctwa się wypełniają (The Prophecies come True) published in May 1942 in the monthly “Prawda” (Truth), published by the Front for the Rebirth of Poland, points to the traces of events that the author might have meant when speaking of the “seeding of crime”. We read there:

“On the other hand, the demoralization and savagery that the slaughters of Jewish population cause among us, becomes a burning issue. For not only the members of Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, Volksdeutsche or Ukrainians are used for monstrous executions. In many towns (Kolno, Stawiski, Jagodne, Szumów, Dęblin) the local population volunteered to participate in the massacres. Against such a disgrace it is necessary to counteract by all possible means. [...] So far no one is addressing this matter and the evil is spreading like an epidemic, the crime turns into an addiction.”

The dimensions of the “epidemic” and “addiction”, that is the omnipresence of Polish violence, which Kossak is aware of, are the cause of dread. The article, The Prophecies Come True, leaves no doubt that the author's emotions are not so much caused by the fate of the Jews, but by the Polish “disgrace” and thus not only the by condition of Polish society, but also its image. Now the description of the fate of the dying is joined by coldness: “Under no circumstances should we allow for the plague of animalism and sadism to spread among us. God justly does what he does, but for people who voluntarily become instruments of his punishment it would be better not to have been born.” Once again we are confronted with the striking contrast between the ruthlessness of the passages on the justness of the punishment falling on Jews and the emotions caused by concern for Poles, their moral condition and the image of the Polish society.  

Dissonances in Protest!: discrimination against Jews and the self-image of Poles

Zofia Kossak does not revise her views on Jews in Poland. While familiarising the reader with the question of demoralisation, she writes about the mistakes of “our Jewish policy”:

“We all know that these errors were glaring, and our attitude towards the Jews was unplanned, chaotic, inconsistent, wavering between two extremes: slave submission to the Jews or bashing them. It should be assumed that these errors will not be repeated and that in relation to the remaining Jews in Poland, the society will be able to find emotional and purposeful forms, consistent with the interest of the nation and with Christian ethics.”

The combination of the words “emotional” and “purposeful” in this context causes a shiver of horror. Kossak gets entangled in contradictions from which it is not easy get out of. She upholds discriminatory beliefs and, what’s more, does not intend to withdraw from discriminatory practices. Both remain unquestionably obvious to her. She agrees about the goals of “politics in the nation's interests” as if they could be separated from the methods of achieving them, which must be brutal anyway. Thus, she proposes a breakneck solution: positive feelings towards people whose extermination – which in May 1942, is taking place in the most literal sense – she considers to be God's “righteous” verdict. She also wants to combine these feelings with a “purposeful policy” in line with the interests of the nation,” clearly understood in an anti-Semitic way.

At the same time, she feels that she is a witness of the crime and knows that the Polish society is taking part in it, and its participation “becomes an epidemic” and “turns into an addiction.” She feels this crime as repulsive and claims that this feeling stems from Christian motives, while the same Christianity makes her believe in the “rightfulness” of God's judgments. She sees this whole mixture from the perspective of the “world” and of the image of Poland, being vaguely aware that the external criteria for assessing Polish attitudes may be radically different from her own, and that the image of Poland resulting from these criteria is highly unfavourable. The main element of these external criteria is compassion for the victims and condemnation of the crime – both of these attitudes must be recognized by Kossak as justified. They become the basis for camouflaged, indirectly formulated and allusive accusations against the majority of Poles, who do not live up to their own ideas about themselves and those of the author of the Protest! about Poland and Poles.

In this node, empathy fulfils two functions: on the surface of the text, consciously, it becomes an argument in favour of Poles, entangled at the same time in the juxtaposition of Polish “generosity” and Jewish “meanness;” in a layer that slides into silence – it remains an accusation against a society that “volunteers to participate in the massacre”.

“Hostile action against us.” The discriminatory phantasm of Zofia Kossak

Protest! and the motive of opposition to Nazi crimes creates a model of talking about the Righteous in Poland. The theme of the Righteous usually comes at the times of the outbreaks or revitalisation of anti-Semitism: after the Kielce pogrom in 1946, in March 1968, and finally in the Third Polish Republic in reaction to the books by Jan Tomasz Gross. Usually, these timely coincidences are overlooked or merely explained as balanced assessment of history. However, after reading the sources, it is hard to resist the impression that talking about Polish aid to Jews is connected with discrimination and is part of it. It creates a broader model of thinking and acting, well-established in Polish culture, and what is worse, replayed unconsciously, often with the best intentions.

In Protest! by Zofia Kossak, the motif of Poland being slandered by the perishing appears twice:

“Our feelings towards the Jews have not changed. We continue to regard them as Poland's political, economic and ideological enemies. Moreover, we realize that they hate us more than the Germans and make us responsible for their misfortune.”

I further on:

“In the stubborn silence of international Jewry, in the efforts of German propaganda that is already trying to throw off the odium for the slaughter of Jews on Lithuanians and... Poles, we sense the planning of a hostile action against us.”

“Making us responsible for their misfortune,” i.e. – translating it into the language of reality – speaking openly about anti-Semitism and violence directed at the exterminated and presenting these phenomena as a problem of Polish culture turns out to be the axis of the discriminatory phantasm present in Kossak's text. The proof that the Jews “hate us more than the Germans” is precisely in talking about Polish responsibility and guilt. Kossak goes as far as to suggest the collaterality of the actions of the Nazis hostile to Poland and of “world Jewry,” whose “stubborn silence” is combined with “the efforts of German propaganda.” It is because of so understood “hostility” – I put it in quotation marks, because this term describes the author's view, and not the actual attitude of the Jews – Jews turn out to be “enemies of Poland.”

Excluding by rescuing. Protest! as a model of narrative about the Righteous

The story of the Righteous is the inclusion of Jews in the Polish society only to exclude them immediately. Protest! revives compassion for those suffering and the awareness of Christian duty, and yet it places the highest moral demands on Catholics-Poles, At the same time, Kossak creates a contrast between the dominant majority and the discriminated minority. A Pole is the better and the more deserving admiration, the worse the Jew turns out to be. Against the background of the “hostile action against us” shines the Polish Catholic and national spirit. Helping enemies is a sign of superiority and a moral victory over the Jews, the supreme proof of which are the examples of Righteous-anti-Semites that are often referred to.

For Zofia Kossak, helping the victims of the Shoah does not mean invalidating the “Jewish question” and thus giving up prejudices. Jews remain dangerous to her, now as those who slander and will slander Poland. Their “ingratitude” that is, their alleged disloyalty in response to acts of solidarity, gives the impression as if they place themselves outside the community. No wonder that Poles do not like those who reply to an outstretched hand with slander. This kind of manipulation creates the most important cog of the anti-Semitic mechanism present in Protest! And later in the narrative about the Righteous. The phrases that shocked Błoński are only a consequence of it.

How does this scheme work in practice?

It turns out to be not only a model of narration, but also a practice in the sense that talking about the Righteous becomes an action towards Jewish Poles, puts them in a certain situation and demands answers from them. Let us recall a few examples of the use and development of the model of thinking about Poles and Jews present in the Protest!.

Two weeks after the Kielce pogrom, a note from the editors appeared on the front page of “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly. The authors speak of forty-one dead, but the text is almost entirely devoted to “the Polish people brought up in the spirit of Christian morality.” We learn that “the facts of intolerance and occasional riots were exceptions in Poland and never involved wider circles of society.” The Righteous are to serve as the proof: “During the last war, many Poles, risking their own lives, helped and protected Jews during the period of the most terrible extermination of this nation by the Germans. Undoubtedly, had it not been for this help, hardly any Jew in this country would have been able to save his life.”

The editors of “Tygodnik” unequivocally condemn violence, but at the same time create an impression of Polish superiority. The situation of the victims recedes into the background. The authors do not focus on the crime and its cultural causes, but on how it affects the image of the Polish society in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world. The conclusions of this peculiar reasoning are that despite the crimes in Kielce, Jews are debtors of Poland, Catholicism and Polish society. Polish reader, though abhorred by the pogrom, can sleep peacefully: nothing bad is happening in his community. “There has never been any racial or religious persecution in the traditions of the Polish nation,” is written in the weekly.

The Jews, however, had reasons to be afraid. Shortly after the war, they died in Poland on trains and on the roads, returning to their abandoned and already inhabited houses turned out to be risky, in 1945 pogroms broke out in Kraków and Rzeszów. A strike was organized to defend the perpetrators of the Kielce pogrom. “The planned from the late 1930s ‘cleansing’ Poland of Jews by forced emigration, redefined at the end of the occupation as the ethnic cleansing project, was almost fully implemented,” summarizes Andrzej Żbikowski in the article Morderstwa popełnione na Żydach w pierwszych latach po wojnie (Murders committed on Jews in the first years after the war). The Jews were aware of the antipathy that surrounded them and of the real threat. The assertion that they owed their lives to Poles – even if they did owe it to someone who managed to hide them from their neighbours – they must have read as a threat. The more so since the editors of “Tygodnik,” writing about the pogrom, did not resist admonishing: “It is clear that this kind of provoked reaction (though no less criminal because of it) is an isolated and exceptional phenomenon. For this reason, too hasty and arbitrary generalizations should not be allowed.”

After such words, the rescuers and the rescued certainly realized that when talking about their experience, they must be careful about every word on the Polish majority.

They would not do that for us…

On the monument dedicated to the Righteous, near the place of the Kielce pogrom, erected after the transformation of 1989, next to the brass plaques with the names of the rescuers, there are two plaques. On the left, an inscription: 

“To the memory of Poles
Murdered by Germans 
In the years 1939–1945
For providing help to Jews
and saving them from the Holocaust.”

On the right, a four verses poem by a Jewish author: 

“Ja słyszę ten tytuł i staram się 
o tych ludziach myśleć, co chronili mnie. 
Ja pytam i pytam: o na miły Bóg, 
czy ja bym na ich miejscu tak uczynić mógł?”

(“I hear this title and I try
to think about these people, who protected me.
I keep on asking: oh dear God,
could I have done so in their place?”)

Signature Chaim Chefer. This is yet another version of the belief in the Polish superiority present in Protest!

After the Kielce pogrom, Stefania Skwarczyńska in an article in “Tygodnik Powszechny” addressed the Jews as follows:

„The word about truth becomes an obligation. But whose? I think not those who were every second giving their lives for their brother. But that is this brother's obligation. I know it is difficult [...]. Say to yourselves as we once told ourselves while confronting the threat you were facing: that’s what we have to do. In a moment of civil courage, pay us back the debt owed to our military courage which was not afraid of the risk of death.”

In the narrative about the Righteous, Jews turn out to be essentially inferior to the Polish community. They not only slander Poland, although they owe Poles virtually everything, because they survived only thanks to them. They are also unable to bear witness to the Polish attitude. Skwarczyńska calls on them to make a heroic gesture. In speaking of “civil courage” there is a suggestion that in being just to Poles, Jews must oppose some overwhelming and vague pressure. The pressure of their own community hostile to Poland, the pressure of the “world” and perhaps the communists or the USSR. They need to be reminded of decency, because as a group they are not inclined to remember it. They were given something that leaves them no chance of a rematch because, in the opinion of the dominant majority, they are unable to reciprocate in the same way.

That is why so important in the narrative about the Righteous is the highest sacrifice of life made by Poles who were helping those threatened with extermination. Its emblem is the slogan “Life for Life.” The symmetry of Polish and Jewish suffering turns out to be equally important. Since we suffered similarly, the story about the Righteous gives an idea of how different were the reactions of the two communities to the calamities of war. Some thought only about how to save themselves and therefore could not do for us what we have done for them; the Righteous were engaged in saving the Jews who, incidentally, did not deserve it very much.

Stefania Skwarczyńska drew the consequences of this notion: Jews are to make a self-criticism. Therefore, she calls them to testify, they should tell the truth about Poles. And indeed, four weeks later in the “Letters to the editor” section, Laura Kauffman's text kept in an apologetic and thankful tone, appears in the “Tygodnik” weekly. “I am grateful not only to those who helped me directly, but to Polish society, to Poland.” And further on: “I am afraid that the passionate screams and malicious whispers will stifle the calm and just voices. Therefore, the Kielce murder is twice as painful for me: the horror of the act hurts, but also the propaganda that is unfair and harmful to Poland.” We understand that “unfair propaganda” is a phrase referring to Jews who decided to say what they experienced in Poland, what they think and how they feel about it. The author distances herself from them. An ear sensitive to the voices of the epoch will hear in her reaction the fear of the Polish majority and of repression.

This pattern will be repeated. The year 1968 is the time of a real flood of declarations of this kind, which are at the same time laurels in honour of Poland and Poles, just to mention the book by Szymon Datner, Las Sprawiedliwych (The Forest of The Righteous), or a series of articles by Adam Rutkowski, the then director of the Jewish Historical Institute, published in “Polityka” weekly in April and May. One of them had a telling title: Musiałbym dziękować całym gminom (I would have to say thanks the entire municipalities).

Rutkowski, like others before and after him, realized that he had to do what the dominant majority expected of him, otherwise there would be no place for him in Poland, and the future of institution under his management would become uncertain. Each of those called to answer knew how it was and what they and their relatives experienced if they had actually survived. Self-criticism, however, required to play the role of someone asking forgiveness for all ungrateful Jews and for oneself. The Jews who self-criticised themselves also praised Poles and pretended that they were not forced, although they were still subject to violence and had already experienced quite a lot. It was humiliating. In addition, this ritual was to last forever: the Jew, who wanted to appease the majority, was after all trying to pay off the debt, which in the dominant narrative could not be in fact repaid.

Summary: the figure of the Righteous-anti-Semite and good self-image restoration mechanism

Zofia Kossak and her Protest! are emblems of Polish attitudes in Polish culture. Jan Błoński in the text Polak-katolik i katolik-Polak (Pole-Catholic and Catholic-Pole) defends the notion about the folk and Christian character of Polish anti-Semitism, as evidenced by the views and attitude of Zofia Kossak. According to Błoński, antipathy to Jews, however strong, did not take on the form of open aggression in Poland. “The anti-Semitic enragement – writes Błoński – would come to an invisible boundary and the hand already clenched into a fist, would drop down.” In his opinion, Polish anti-Semitism is fundamentally different from Nazi, modern, totalitarian and pagan anti-Semitism, which led to extermination. 

Let's take a look at how the figure of the Righteous-Anti-Semite works. 

To confirm his notions, Błoński quotes an excerpt from an anonymous diary, describing pre-war pogroms:

“But when the slogan ‘Beat the Jew!’ almost took the form of pogroms […], the clergy saw that the people had gone too far in their ardour. The clergy started to mitigate, but people who learned to politicize do not obey bans, beat them, enraged. They beat old people and children – although I am an anti-Semite, I do not approve of it.”

We are dealing here with an uncontrolled outbreak of physical aggression, caused by the agitation of the elite – activists of the national movement and the clergy. The perpetrator is the “population,” that is, the majority. The use of the Righteous-Anti-Semite figure makes all this disappear from sight. The words “although I am an anti-Semite, I do not approve of it,” invalidate the information about the actual role of the clergy and elites, about the scale of aggression, the scale of participation in aggression, and finally – most importantly – about the duration of the aggression and the cultural norms that support it. Everything we already knew ceased to exist for us. The conclusions that Błoński draws from the cited accounts are surprising: “There is no doubt what this anti-Semite will think a few years later, when he sees the Nazis at work... The same thing worked in him as in the frightened clergy, the same as in Kossak-Szczucka, rescuing ‘enemies’: an evangelical command, embedded in the Christian tradition of the nation.” 

And what about those who were beating? After all, both the clergy and the diarist himself were unable to stop them. Calling for self-control, they turned out to be an insignificant margin. Despite the facts he refers to, Błoński creates an image of the “nation” as a majority influenced by the “evangelical command.” It is worth noting that the meaning of this “evangelical command” also remains doubtful, as it was the clergy that caused the outbreak, although perhaps this and that priest was shocked by the consequences of his own sermons. The distance to violence – by the way limited to “I do not approve” – is only expressed by the diarist referred to by Błoński, and his attitude does not reflect any change that could be noted apart from his isolated case.

This fragment is a model example of the generalization in the figure of the Righteous-Antisemite and the concealment related to it. At the same time, it turns out to be so obvious in Polish culture and thus invisible to the public, that Błoński does not hide the rhetorical measures he resorts to, or he is simply not aware of them.

Prof. Tomasz Żukowski, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, August 2022

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  • J. Błoński, Polak-katolik i katolik-Polak. Nakaz ewangeliczny, interes narodowy i solidarność obywatelska wobec zagłady getta warszawskiego, [in:] idem, Biedni Polacy patrzą na getto, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1996. 
  • Z. Kossak, Proroctwa się wypełniają, „Prawda”, May 1942.
  • Z. Kossak, Protest!, August 1942.