Explosive new book reveals harrowing account of WWII Jews forced into doing the unthinkable
When the Germans established the Warsaw Ghetto in autumn 1940, they used the classic strategy of turning victims into perpetrators, ordering the creation of the Jewish Order Service, a quasi-police force that would do their dirty work.
For the thousands of hungry young men with families to feed, becoming a ‘Jewish Policeman’ was initially an attractive option.
Whilst they received no pay, they did get larger food rations, as well as the chance to earn a bit of money on the side by taking the odd bribe. Duties such as traffic control and keeping pavements clear seemed easy. More importantly, it provided an exemption from being sent to one of the dreaded labour camps.
While some saw the Jewish police as fellow victims, others viewed them as a more dangerous threat than the Germans themselves.
Just under two years later, these same young men, educated and from good families, were whipping women and children onto wagons at Umschlagplatz, knowing full well that death awaited them in Treblinka.
Their furious zeal and determination to make sure they filled the quotas of fellow Jews to be delivered for deportation set by the Germans has horrified the world ever since and prompted uncomfortable questions about the nature of man.
In a book published in English yesterday, Holocaust academic Dr Katarzyna Person sets out in shocking detail the path that these men followed that made it possible for them to take part in the destruction of their own community.
In ‘Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation’, Dr Person is careful to avoid easy judgments.
She told TFN: “The story of the Jewish Order Service is not of a single homogenous unit. It is made up of the stories of thousands of people who constantly had to make impossible decisions over the time that the service functioned.
“The truth therefore is very differentiated, there is no single dark legend that can summarise the whole of what happened.”
The Jewish Order Service was not created from scratch, but on the basis of an already existing Order Guard of the Labour Battalion.
Their role was to deliver Jews assigned for forced labour by the Judenrat’s labour department to the muster points. This guard became the nucleus of the new police force.
The force, which swelled to 2,000, was largely made up of lawyers, engineers, journalists, graduates and sons of businessmen with connections.
Like all other Jews, they had to wear white armbands with a star on the arm, but in addition they had yellow armbands with the inscription Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst (Jewish Order Service).
They were given caps and truncheons, and the poorer ones even received shoes. They were quickly trained and sent out onto the streets.
Though it was formally under the supervision of the Polish Blue Police, which itself was controlled by the Gestapo, the Jewish Order Service was largely left to itself inside the ghetto the walls.
For many in the ghetto, it was a relief to see Jewish policemen on the street and not Germans.
Dr Person shows, though, how the Germans forced the Jewish police to implement their increasingly oppressive policies against ghetto residents.
These included roundups for forced labour. Dr Person quotes ghetto chronicler Ludwik Landau, who wrote on September 19: “Roundups of men who were to be sent to labor camps but didn’t show up are held every night; because of the news arriving from the camps, almost no one goes voluntarily—despite the repeatedly enthusiastic reports printed in Gazeta Żydowska about life in the camps.”
The peak of the roundups came in the spring of 1941 when the Germans threatened to interrupt food supplies.
“Roundups were usually carried out according to an established plan: an apartment building was blockaded, men were brought down into the courtyard, and those who did not have documentation exempting them from forced labor were taken away,” Dr Person writes.
Many managed to bribe their way out of a round up. To replace them, the police caught people on the street or in cafes.
Sometimes Jewish police were delegated as guards to the camps, where they carried out roll calls and escorted workers to work.
The policemen in the camps had much better living conditions than the forced laborers. However, they dreaded this service, believing that closer proximity to German overseers would be dangerous.
The roundups, corruption, bribe-taking and excessive consumption of food and alcohol by senior officers deepened the ghetto population’s antipathy toward the Jewish Order Service.
Dr Person shows how the officers responded by closing their ranks and boosting morale with justifications that they were making heroic sacrifices.
“There is no doubt that Jewish policemen were often blamed for carrying out the orders of the German administrators of the ghetto, in particular roundups for forced labor,” she writes.
While adding, “policemen often emphasized the need for accommodation and used the “lesser evil” argument, claiming that roundups carried out by Germans would be much worse for the population than those organized by the ghetto police.”
Policemen were keen to point out that they were often harassed by German military police. “This particularly affected policemen serving at the gates, as they were among the few people in the ghetto who had daily contact with the Germans who were rotated in to guard the ghetto,” Dr Person writes.
Toward the end of 1941, information about the mass murder of the Jewish population in the eastern parts of occupied Poland had begun to reach the ghetto.
On May 1, Józef Szeryński, the commander of the Jewish police, was arrested. He was replaced by Jakub Lejkin, known for his efficiency in carrying out roundups for labour camps.
These continued but were different to those carried out in the spring of 1941. People were taken from their homes, most often at night, according to prepared lists of names. The roundups were a preamble to deportation.
In June, reports from Sobibór and the first information about the construction of Treblinka extermination camp began to reach the ghetto.
On July 2, 110 Jews accused of resisting German orders, among them 10 policemen involved in smuggling, were executed.
On the morning of July 22, SS Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, the head of Operation Reinhard in Warsaw, summoned Lejkin and Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Judenrat. He informed them that deportations were to start immediately.
The order stipulated that the Jewish Order Service was to carry out the deportations. A few hours later, posters with information about the ‘resettlement’ appeared on the streets of the ghetto. The next day, Adam Czerniaków committed suicide.
“On the first day of the operation, the policemen were to bring two thousand people directly to Umschlagplatz before four in the afternoon,” Dr Person writes.
The police first targeted children from the ‘refugee town’ located at Umschlagplatz.
Dr Person quotes an observer describing the scenes: “The cry of mothers looking for their children echoed through the walls of the apartments. People shut themselves up in apartments. Mothers threatened and cursed the Jewish Order Service. The service did not give any explanation as to why they were after children.”
From that day on, the Jewish Order Service was to bring 6,000 people to Umschlagplatz every day.
Waiting for them at Umschlagplatz were more police headed by Mieczysław Szmerling, who supervised the Umschlagplatz during the day .
According to Dr Person, he was “a symbol of the often mindless, impulse-ridden cruelty of the Jewish Order Service.
“He was uniformly described as a bribetaker who made a great deal of money from the tragedy of the ghetto and a sadist who freed no one on the square—not even for the highest bribe or even when ordered by German officials and soldiers,” she added.
It is not known how many of the 2,000 policemen took part in the deportations. Many left the service at the start of the operation and Dr Person quotes a source who wrote that around eight policemen committed suicide in the first week of the operation.
Many escaped the ghetto with their families in the chaos of the deportations. For those that remained they shared a similar fate to the rest of the ghetto population, going through successive selections before being shot.
For Dr Person, the Jewish Order Service is “a universal story of people who are placed in an impossible situation during war and the decisions they make.”
In her conclusion she says, “For a short time, the functionaries of the Jewish Order Service were given the chance to save themselves, their wives, and their children, and many were ready to pay any price for it.”
Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation is published by Cornell University Press.