FROM THE BALTIC to the Black Sea, Slavic anti-Semitism was already well entrenched by the time the Nazis took it upon themselves to wreak havoc on Central and Eastern Europe. In the regions of White Russia, the Volhynia, Pololia and the Ukraine, there had long existed a four-tiered, distinctly racialized social structure: at the top was the Polish-speaking Roman Catholic landowner; below him, the Ukrainian peasant; and then the Volksdeutsch or Ethnic German farmer; and finally, at the bottom of the pecking order, the Jew, the ‘Christ-killer’ whose violent expropriation and subjugation had been sanctioned, hundreds of years earlier, by no lesser an authority than Martin Luther himself. At the end of the First World War, Ukrainian nationalist gangs brutalized and murdered many thousands of Jews, with pogroms and mass killings reported in various Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian cities.
When these former Tsarist provinces became occupied protectorates of the Nazi Reich, this deeply rooted anti-Semitism found expression once more. The charge brought by the authors of Golden Harvest is that a significant core of Eastern European society (the study is principally focused on Poland) adopted, in respect of their occupiers’ genocidal project to eliminate the Jews of Europe, a position somewhere between sympathetic acquiescence and outright, active complicity. The accounts in this short volume offer a highly persuasive snapshot, reminding us that the Nazis’ campaign of extermination was also “a confrontation between institutions and civilian populations of occupied Europe and the Jews who had lived in these countries for generations.” The book’s chilling cover image, a grainy photograph, recently discovered, of a group of peasants who have been digging for gold in a mountain of ashes at Treblinka long after the war’s end (the skulls of murdered Jews are proudly arranged “as if they were pumpkins or watermelons,”), is a fitting point of departure; the Polish enthusiasm for fleecing, blackmailing and killing their Jewish fellow citizens, though fuelled by base racial hatred, was intimately bound up in the business of property acquisition.
The point was made with discomforting frankness by the Polish journalist Kazimierz Sakowicz, who was stationed near Vilnius during the Nazi occupation: “For the Germans 300 Jews are 300 enemies of humanity; for the Lithuanians they are 300 pairs of shoes, trousers, and the like.” But the distinction is by no means a clear one: the “Aryanization” of Jewish assets within Nazi Germany, described by the Holocaust scholar Frank Bajohr as “one of the most prodigious property-transfers in modern times” was as much a cynical, large-scale theft as a purely hate-driven purge of “enemies.” Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans profiteered from the policy, and in much the same vein the Poles, Ukrainians and Lithuanians who traded in what they called ‘post-Jewish’ property (a euphemism denoting property stolen from Jews) were merely bearing out the internal logic of the Holocaust.
The precise extent of Polish involvement in hunting down and killing Polish Jews remains something of a lacuna. Acknowledging this, the authors of Golden Harvest emphasize that their study is unashamedly impressionistic and qualitative; the statistics may be unreliable but, they insist, “as a number of detailed narratives exhibit concurring characteristics, we ca...read more