The Experience of Jews in Hiding within Polish Literature

How was the Holocaust experience written about in Polish literature? In their works, how did Zofia Nałkowska, Tadeusz Różewicz and Ida Fink present the topic of Jews in hiding? What did hiding on the "Aryan side" mean to them? Read this piece by Dr. hab. Tomasz Żukowski, literary historian of the Literary Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who deals with issues of public discourse in Poland. This article is part of the thematic tab: The Holocaust from the Perspective of Polish Culture.


What was it like to be in hiding on the "Aryan side"? We are used to thinking that escapees from the ghettos were hiding from the German occupiers. They certainly were - but not only. The need to hide came from the fact that Polish Jews on the "Aryan side" were in a space where their fellow citizens, the local Polish population, denied them the right to be a part of their community. The classic and most frequently cited text  on the exclusion of Jews is the story "Wielki Tydzień” ["Holy Week"] by Jerzy Andrzejewski, published in 1946. It reveals a cross-section of Poles' attitudes towards their Jewish fellow citizens.

In this text, I refer to lesser-known works, written just after the war (Wiza ["Visa"] by Zofia Nałkowska, Gałąź ["Branch"] by Tadeusz Różewicz) and, published several decades after the Holocaust, Schron ["Shelter"] by Ida Fink.

I chose them in order to propose an understanding and description of the phenomenon of hiding, not only in the context of the planned extermination carried out by the German state, but also in the context of Polish culture and Polish attitudes.

I want to show that being stigmatised for being Jewish and hiding from that stigma are also associated with the exclusion of Jews in Polish culture.

During the Holocaust, being stigmatised posed a deadly threat. But the issue existed both before and after the war. Many Jewish Poles feared returning to the Jewish identity even after liberation. 

A Word Destroys a Hiding-Place - in Hiding According to Tadeusz Różewicz

In his memoirs of the occupation, Michał Głowiński describes the situation which he experienced as a young boy, after escaping from the Warsaw ghetto, waiting in a cafe for his guardian, who was searching for a hiding-place:

"There were no more  than five tables in the tiny place. There were only a few people, so that I could hear everything that they were saying. [...] Women - maybe helpers, maybe customers -are gathered around the owner and whispering something. They were also looking intensely at me.

"As a Jewish child in hiding, I was already experienced enough to immediately understand what this meant and what it could lead to. My fear level increased dramatically. I could palpably feel this watching, as if it was hitting me. [...] I heard, 'A Jew, definitely a Jew ....'."

This is just one of the many descriptions of the same, repeated situation. It is always accompanied by fear and sense of mortal threat.Those in hiding reacted by immediately running away - if there was still time. We need to realise that, in the realities of the occupation, revealing the presence of a Jew on the "Aryan side" meant, with almost 100% certainty, the appearance of a szmalcownik [blackmailer] or an informer. This, in turn, meant death. About wartime Warsaw, Marek Edelman wrote, "At the time, if they didn't help you, they'd kill you on the other corner”. There was always someone, among the passers-by, who recognised and informed.

The subject of the novel Gałąź (written in 1948 and only published in 1955) is similar in situation and experience. Różewicz extracted from them what, in my opinion, is the most important - eclusion from community. Gałąź can be treated as a story about "hostile territory”, being the stage and context of being in hiding.

Tadeusz Różewicz knew the realities of the occupation. In his autobiographical prose Drewniany karabin [Wooden Rifle], he wrote about how he had to "disappear" from his hometown of Radomsko, when his school friends behan talking about his mother's Jewish origins.

Gałąź tells the story of a young teenage Jewish boy locked in a wardrobe in a single-storey house in the suburbs. It shows his lonliness and how he missed his mother. The boy waits for her and wants leave the wardrobe to meet her. He hopes that someone will come, from the space from which he is separated by the walls of the  hiding place, to save him.

However, things turn out differently, When he goes to the window, he is noticed by boys playing in the yard. Only one word is uttered, "Jew!" - following by a rock.

Różewicz's text is a classic novella. The narrator focuses on one thread, the increasing tension and its ultimate point of release. This point is where the Polish environment and the word "Jew!". The Polish word, or perhaps the Polish language in general, thus becomes perhaps the most important central character of the novella. We do not learn what happened to the Jewish boy. Those, who know the realities of the occupation, can guess this. Różewicz focuses on something else.

Recognising and naming a person in hiding, by Polish children, is an action. The cry of "Jew!" is a gesture of exclusion. It means that there is no place, in the common space, for someone stigmatised in this way. The word - like a stone - destroys the hiding place. It is an act of violence and results in the violence of the environment.

Michał Głowiński wrote about the special nature of the word "Jew" in Polish culture and language, about the fact that it cannot be used in a purely descriptive function, like other terms of nationality or origin. According to the cultural norm, it means stigmatisation and exile and, in fact, it is. That is why it was and is used in public speech to discredit and deny the right to exist among "us", among "our own".

Not only did the physical space of Polish cities and towns not provide Jewish Poles with a safe shelter, but neither did the Polish language, understood as the cultural space in which we all live. Under the conditions of the Holocaust, this meant, as I wrote above, a death sentence. Różewicz shows that hiding meant remaining in an environment which was hostile at the deepest level and which exluded. Ultimately, it wants to kill and it kills.

Hiding as a game against others - Zofia Nałkowska on Identity During and After the Holocaust

In Zofia Nałkowska's story Wiza [Visa] (part of the Medaliony [Medallions] collection, published in1946), hiding meant playing games with those around you, pretending to be someone else. The narrator talks with a former Auschwitz prisoner. The story is presented as a reportage, but we know that Nałkowska, right after liberation, as a member Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, actually listened to many testimonies of the victims of Nazi crimes. The report begins with a surprising sentence:

"So that [she] really has no animosity towards Jews, even though she, herself, is a Christian. At the beginning of the war, when she badly struggled seeing so much injustice and cruelty, she converted to Catholicism. The thoughts of the sufferings iof Jesus Christ helped her to bear it more easily. She had a Polish surname and Polish papers [ed: identity documents]. She was in the camp as a Pole - not as a Jew.”

"So [she] really has no animosity towards Jews, even though she is a Christian herself. She converted to Catholicism at the beginning of the war, when she was very tired of seeing so much injustice and cruelty. The thought of the sufferings of Lord Jesus helped her bear it more easily. She had a Polish surname and Polish papers [identity documents - ed.], she was in the camp as a Pole, not as a Jew.

When talking about the atrocities, does the story's heroine mean the initial persecution of the Jews, after the Nazi army's invasion, which also threatened her? Could she have endured them more easily realising that she had managed to escape from the ranks of those who were condemned? When "thinking about the sufferings of Lord Jesus” was she also thinking that she would be safe under the cross as a christian?

To some extent, she probably did, because the connection between Christianity and the persecution of Jews clearly worried her. It was as if she had an uncomfortable awareness of moving from the side of the persecutors to that of the oppressors. She held no animosity towards Jews, "even though she, herself, was a Christian”. Not  despite that she was, but despite that fact.

The reluctance to enter the post-war world is also characteristic:

"She did not part with her grey and blue striped camp uniform. Until now, she also has her hair cut short, like a man and, on it, the same striped camp”.

The word "chałat” [long coat] calls to mind the Jewish stigma. It is a hallmark, But the striped camp uniform had a triangle with the letter "P". So it was, like Christianity, a pass to the world of the majority, because camp prisoners were treated like national martyrs. The striped uniform was yet another form of camouflage which allowed you to survive in hostile territory.

Nałkowska's main character wants to travel, see the sea, visit her friend in Poznań. In 1945 and 1946, travelling around Poland was not safe for Jews. Many of them did in "train operations", in which underground units killed Jewish travellers. "Her brown eyes shine brightly. Her cheeks are dark and rosy”. Nałkowska draws attention to her appearance, which may prove dangerous.

Readers usually remember the story because of the scene in the camp kitchen. While peeling potatoes, the prisoners find a mouse nest amongst some peelings and wonder what to do with it. Give it to the cat? The peel from an eaten potato is a hiding place for the little mice, just like Christianity and a striped uniform are for the heroine. Thus her passion for others is exposed to view and her lack of defence exposes her to violence.

"So I put them back in the shale and buried them deep in the straw."

Women, expelled "on a visa" - in camp language, this was the name for the meadow to where naked prisoners were forced during disinfection, were in the same situation. The mice were "as if naked", while the female prisoners looked "as if they were some kinds of animals".

The story aims an open manifestation of a hidden identity. Initially, only her suggestions appear, "The Germans must have hated them so much, because there was so many of them - French, Dutch, Belgians and many Greek women. These Greek women were in the worst condition. The  Polish and Russian women were stronger”. The nationality statements refer to the condemned Jews, but we learn of this from the last sentences of the story, "On that day, the Greek women sang their national anthem - not in Greek.They sang the Jewish national anthem in Hebrew”.

The statement about identity - around which Nałkowska's heroine's story revolves - is powerful, but also dangerous. The Greek Jewish women sing with a strength of "longing and desire", "as if they were healthy", even though they were the weakest. They probably shared their longing and desire for freedom to be who they were with the prisoner on "Aryan papers", who observes them. Revealing your identity turns out to be fatally dangerous. "The next day, there was a selection. I came for a visa and the visa was empty".
Nałkowska's heroine cannot break away from the history of the women from "visa" - she keeps returning to it. “She still talks about them, not about herself,” the narrator emphasises several times, as if directing the reader to what is marginalised and difficult to express directly. However, the story of the “visa” is essentially its story. It is a way to talk about yourself and, at the same time, maintain camouflage. “Visa” is not only a camp meadow. This word primarily means a permit granted to foreigners to cross a border and stay in the territory of the country. In talking about a "visa", there is a desire to express one's identity and, at the same time, a fear of its consequences.

The Hiding-Place as a Metaphor for Social Order - Ida Fink on the Exclusion of Jews

In the Visa story, the end of the war, for Jews, is not the end of hiding. Why? Ida Fink, who herself had to hide her Jewish origins during the war by working under a false name as a forced laborer in Germany, takes up the topic of hiding and connects it with the permanent exclusion from the Polish community.

In the story Schron [Shelter] (from the volume Skrawek czasu [A Scrap of Time], published for the first time in London in 1987) a Jewish couple visits a Polish family with whom they survived the war.  They came to see the new house, which their hosts had built using money received for helping to hide them. It turns out that, when building the house, they did not forget about a place for those who depended upon them during the war:

"[The host] lifted up a red polished board and told us to look inside:

'Well, now, you won't be in a nest like chickens, but in a proper, comfortable shelter!'

I leanet forward and saw stairs leading down into a dark, windowless, doorless, small room, with two beds, two chairs and a table.

For the survivors, the meaning of such an organised space was clear, 'How can we accept [...] this sentence of shelter [...]', asks a man. A death sentence has been passed on us again? And by whom? By good, friendly people … [...] There, in the cottage, as if I was leaning over my own grave …”.

They cannot come to terms with the place assigned to them, under the floor, with the obvious belief that the violence will repeat itself and that their position, as Jews, has not fundamentally changed.

The new home is a metaphor for a social order and the positions occupied, within it, by the story's characters. These, who have been excluded, can only pay for emergency help and then return to their former place. A humanitarian act does not change the social rules within which both the rescuers and the rescued are immersed. it does not practices and does not provide equality. It goes unnoticed because, obvious to most, signs and micro-actions rebuild the original difference - the difference between the hosts with full rights, and those whose place is in the shelter, who are discreetly reminded - in good faith and from kindness, of course, - that they are only temporarily and conditionally within a common space - not a room for guests, but in a hiding-place.

The new home was built using money from its former occupants. They could not pay immediately, but the promised to pay for its construction after the war. Survivors understand that this agreement is something which results from the solidarity established between both parties.

In return for help when they were in a situation in which they were excluded, they offer help to lift themselves out of poverty and, as a result, from the type of exclusion which applies to their hosts. They act ass though the act of solidarity, which allowed them to survive, removed differences - in this instance, social differences.

The Polish family - despite their closeness and kindness - treats this situation differently. When the house is ready, it does not become a common place, where differences disappear, as the survivors would like. The space that was supposed to end exclusion reminds us of it.

The new house can be treated as an announcement of community, solidarity, maybe even equal rights. The survivors happily return to the Polish family. The heroine recalls, "We're alive. We're together… nothing threatens us. Through the window, I waved to who was waiting for us at the station … to the host”.

Showing us the shelter and so reminding us of our position is an end to illusions.  On the way back, at the station, "their quick, nervous step gave the impression of flight."

Poland had turned out to be a country, where the difference could not be overcome.

The exclusion of Jews, rooted in culture, was an indispensable context for hiding during the occupation. The hiding-place became a necessity, when it was impossible to find shelter in the common Polish space.

Hiding was a defensive strategy against the German Holocaust but, at the same time, it testified to the place, or rather lack of it, for Jews in the Polish community and space. Tadeusz Różewicz, in his poem Chaskiel, wrote:

"on that day
he wanted to hide
like a cricket in a crack
so that no one would be angry
that in this world
he wouldn't breathe”

The cited texts allow us to understand why the experience of Jewish Poles, in hiding, was so painful and why it also casts such a deep shadow on their attitude towards their Polish, non-Jewish surroundings - even in the case of those who managed to survive despite everything.

They also allow us to understand the fear of the survivors after the war. For many of them - like the heroine of the Visa story - leaving their wartime hiding places turned out to be extremely difficult.

Dr hab. Tomasz Żukowski,

ed. Joanna Król-Komła, Mateusz Szczepaniak

English translation: Andrew Rajcher

April 2024

Read more:


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