Joshua Zimmerman Discusses Polish Underground

Photo by Hope Patti

In January 2014, Professor Joshua Zimmerman of Yeshiva University completed his book “The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945.” On Wednesday, Zimmerman came to Ramapo to discuss his book and the messages in it. Students and staff alike gathered in the Trustees Pavilion to hear Zimmerman talk on his book.

Zimmerman began researching for his book in 2004 when he went on sabbatical from Yeshiva University and spent the year abroad. In the fall of that same year, Zimmerman was in Warsaw doing archival research and later found himself in London during the spring of 2005, working in the archives of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust. To supplement his material, Zimmerman completed several research trips to Poland and Israel. He began writing the book in 2011.

“The book is about the behavior and attitude of the Polish underground … those clandestine elements in occupied Poland, loyal to the Polish government in exile in London … towards the Jews during the Second World War,” Zimmerman stated during his speech. “The key element of the book is the methodical, dispassionate examination of archival sources from the beginning of the war until the end, covering all regions of Poland.”

He added that it is the first such scholarly book in any language on this topic that covers the entirety of the war. Zimmerman said that he feels his main finding is that parts of the Polish underground were anti-Semitic, but other parts aided Jews, with many individuals risking their lives.

Zimmerman stressed his main point: that his research revises the current view in Jewish historical works that the Polish underground was “wholly anti-Semitic,” and instead suggested that the attitude and behavior of the underground towards the Jews varied widely; there were extraordinary acts of aid all the way to criminal acts of murder. Zimmerman concluded that, therefore, the Polish underground was both pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish all at the same time.

He went on to point out that an important feature of his book is the number of interviews with Holocaust survivors and Polish underground activists, which include Jewish members of the underground who, until recently, were reluctant to tell their stories.

“This is because their experience in the Polish underground contradicted the prevailing consensus in Holocaust testimonies, that for Jewish partisans the Poles were as dangerous to them as were the Germans,” Zimmerman said.

He went on to add that it was only after the year 2000 that many Holocaust survivors who had positive experiences with the underground felt comfortable making their stories public. One of the survivors Zimmerman interviewed, Stanislaw Aronson, told him that everything he thinks he knew about the story of the underground and the Jews was only half-true; that the subject is much more complicated than one would think. Other survivors also put forward a more nuanced view.

Students reacted to Zimmerman’s speech and ideas with positivity and interest.

“Dr. Zimmerman provided the details of how he became captivated with the subject of Polish appeasement and how this had led to him to become a scholar. The picture painted by his speech, that the Germans were not the sole perpetrators of the Holocaust, was intriguing,” said junior Karlito Almeda.

“It was really interesting to hear about other aspects of the Second World War,” Emily Shovlin, sophomore, commented. “We're inundated with information on the Germans and I've rarely heard stories about the Polish underground. His speech was really compelling.”