Curry on Person, 'Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation'

Author: 
Katarzyna Person
Reviewer: 
Alison Curry

Katarzyna Person. Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation. Translated by Zygmunt Nowak-Soliński. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021. Illustrations. xii + 232 pp. $15.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-5017-5408-1; $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-5407-4.

Reviewed by Alison Curry (UNC Chapel Hill) Published on H-Judaic (July, 2022) Commissioned by Robin Buller (University of California - Berkeley)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57574

One of the more complicated issues in Holocaust studies is that of Jewish participation in genocide. Testimonies and memoirs from the war frequently describe Jews who were seen as traitors for either directly or indirectly participating in the genocide. But as the field of Holocaust studies attempts to tease out the complexities behind the labels “perpetrator,” “bystander,” and “collaborator,” thorough investigation of Jewish participation in the Holocaust is necessary. Katarzyna Person’s book, Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service During the Nazi Occupation, is a significant addition to our analysis of collaboration during the Holocaust. In this book, Person expertly details the formation and responsibilities of one of the lesser-understood actors of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish Order Service, often described as the “Jewish police” in first-person accounts.

From the first page, Person lays out the intention of the book: to identify the people of the Jewish Order Service and how they became members. As she writes, members of the Jewish Order Service “were lawyers, engineers, young yeshiva graduates, and sons of businessmen with connections. They came from Warsaw and its suburbs, and many came from Łódź” (p. 1). Through understanding who the Jewish police of the Jewish Order Service were before and during the war, Person dispels some common myths about the service: first, that members were all converts to Christianity, and second, that this was a homogenous group that made uniform decisions as part of the service.

Though myth-busting seems to be a primary goal of this book, Person starts by delineating the functions and responsibilities of the Jewish Order Service in the Warsaw Ghetto. By examining the establishment of the group along with its responsibilities within the ghetto, Person finds that the Jewish Order Service was on the one hand clearly defined as an “auxiliary service” (p. 7) functioning under German authorities, the Judenrat, and the Blue Police. On the other hand, its position in the ghetto was notably ambiguous. Person identifies this as the “as if” complex: that the Jewish police “often became symbols of the superficiality of ghetto institutions, of ghetto ‘life as if’” (p. 46). In reality, the Jewish policemen played a genuine role in the functioning of the ghetto. Their duties included regulation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, patrolling streets, guarding ghetto gates, and overseeing the cleanliness of various spaces within the ghetto. However, their responsibilities expanded during the war, and their violence and corruption irrevocably altered their perception in the ghetto.

Those who witnessed their actions often remembered Jewish police as perpetrators of the Holocaust. As Person describes, “If they were spoken of, it was as a means of exacting revenge in the name of those who perished, of recording their names as perpetrators rather than as a means of understanding their behavior” (p. 156). However, Person contests that their culpability was much more complex. Some policemen saw their role in the Jewish Order Service as a career, while others saw it only as a means of survival. Whether they were rich, poor, religious, or assimilated before the war did not matter. Most policeman believed earnestly that “they could not choose the responsibilities given to them; they could, however, choose the way they assessed and fulfilled them” (p. 156).

Warsaw Ghetto Police is an example of thorough historical research and analysis. Utilizing testimonies, photographs, letters, memoirs, and various types of documents from the ghetto administration such as orders, reports, and studies, Person seamlessly creates a compelling and clear narrative on the Jewish Order Service. Person is able not only to illuminate an often confusing aspect of Holocaust studies—where the Jewish police fit into discussions of culpability—but also how police officers themselves saw their own work, alongside how witnesses perceived them.

Beyond the meticulous source work, the organizational structure also aids in the clarity of Warsaw Ghetto Police. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 outline the establishment of the Jewish Order Service, its organization and responsibilities, and the role of violence and corruption in its duties. Person then utilizes the next few chapters to illuminate the view of the general ghetto population toward the Jewish Order Service as well as how members of the service saw themselves and their participation in policing the ghetto. These chapters stress two important components in the discussion of collaboration during the Holocaust: first, that Jewish witnesses saw the service members as perpetrators and even stripped them of their Jewishness, and second, that Jewish policemen had a range of experiences during the war and yet were also quite willing to deny complicity in the Holocaust.

The subsequent chapters work chronologically to discuss the Jewish Order Service’s response (or lack thereof) to reports of violence and corruption, as such acts increased in 1942. These chapters are also significant as they suggest that there was very little administrational response to violence and corruption within the Jewish Order Service and that Jewish witnesses directly tied the deportations in 1942 to the Jewish policemen. However, the story of the Jewish Order Service does not end with the deportations of 1942, as their responsibilities shifted to the post-1942 resettlement actions. It is significant that Person ends the book with a discussion of justice and revenge, in which post-Holocaust courts attempted to convict Jewish policemen for crimes committed during the war. Ultimately, Warsaw Ghetto Police skillfully unravels the complexity of responsibility for Holocaust crimes through an assessment of individual action and witness perspective in the historical record.

Person’s Warsaw Ghetto Police should be a staple read for courses in Holocaust history. Not only is the work an impeccable example of historical scholarship—meticulously researched and organized—but it also precisely articulates significant historical themes surrounding the Holocaust, such as responsibility, collaboration, memory, choice, and justice. This book not only describes the Jewish Order Service in great detail but also illuminates the relationships between every component of the facilitation of the ghetto, including the Judenrat, German authorities, the Blue Police, and the Thirteen. Person also suggests additional areas of research concerning the Jewish Order Service, such as examinations of policing in other ghettos to investigate whether the model of the service in the Warsaw Ghetto was implemented as German anti-Jewish policy elsewhere. Person’s book is an eloquent reminder that labels such as “collaborator” are much more complex than they may initially seem.

Citation: Alison Curry. Review of Person, Katarzyna, Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57574

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.