Biskupska on Person, 'Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation'
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 Jadwiga Biskupska (Sam Houston State University) Published on H-Poland (August, 2021) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56798
One of Hannah Arendt’s most controversial accusations in Eichmann in Jerusalem was on the role of Jewish police and officials in the prosecution of the Holocaust. “To a Jew,” Arendt insisted, “this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” As the decades have unfolded since, we know considerably more about this “dark story,” the nature of its perpetration, and the complexity of the vast Jewish community that was persecuted and died across Nazi-controlled Europe. We also have, thanks to recent Polish Holocaust historiography, much more information than Arendt did about the nature of power and policing in Nazi-occupied Poland. A careful examination of the Ordnungsdienst—the Jewish or “yellow police” in the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto under Nazi control—is thus especially timely. Katarzyna Person’s Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation aims to clarify myths and rumors about the men of the Ordnungsdienst and their work between 1940 and 1942. (I shall refer to them as “policemen,” as Person does, though there is a conversation to be had on whether this is the right term.)
Who were these men and what did they do? Person’s first and essential service is in answering this basic question. These two thousand-odd men and officers were Jewish inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto tasked with facilitating basic orders on behalf of Adam Czerniaków’s Judenrat and ultimately on behalf of the Nazi German occupation. Competition for posts was fierce and nobody was coerced into joining. Ordnungsdienst men did not police crime but directed traffic and human movement (including forming part of the guard at the gates), supervised sanitation, conscripted people for labor, and liaised with the Polish “blue police” (policja granatowa) and Nazi police services, putting them in regular interaction with aspects of “Aryan” Warsaw. The greater lethality and parallel corruption of native Polish and occupation German police forces are noted but are not Person’s focus. Ordnungsdienst duties, subordinate to Polish and German policemen, nevertheless gave them significant power over other ghetto inhabitants.
How should we understand the Ordnungsdienst’s role in the Holocaust, and what myths about them need dispelling? After a too-brief introduction, Person works through a number of entrenched misconceptions. The most basic assertion with which we need to begin is that the terrible reputation of the ghetto policemen—which Arendt repeated but did not invent—was born in the ghetto itself in the experiences of the Jewish community and is not a retrospective condemnation by historians or survivors. Person does not attempt to defend the policemen but carefully contextualizes their behavior, turning them from a monolith into a hierarchy of often-vulnerable individuals.
The first myth she takes up is that the Ordnungsdienst was staffed with converts to Christianity and not “real” Jews. This is not quite true. Józef Szeryński, one of the Ordnungsdienst’s leaders, was a convert, but he was unusual. Most policemen were educated, assimilated, Polish-speaking Jews in their thirties and forties, not Christian converts. The durability of the myth reveals Jewish religious and class complexity, discomfort with polonization across the Yiddish-speaking majority, and the desire to “other” policemen, managing their betrayal by placing them outside the community—a pattern of recrimination across Nazi-occupied Poland. The second myth was that the policemen were violent and corrupt. This was undoubtedly true. Person explains that rank-and-file policemen were unpaid, compensated only by the uniform that (mostly) protected them from roundups and by the opportunity to demand bribes. Armed with batons, policemen threatened, beat, and occasionally raped ghetto Jews in defiance of regulations, and escorted them to imprisonment, labor conscription, and execution. Related to this was the assumption that policemen got rich through bribes and looting, another myth. Person qualifies this considerably, noting a chasm between a narrow ghetto elite including police leadership who feasted ostentatiously and the rank and file who went hungry and lacked adequate shoes and clothing for their patrols: some policemen demanded bribes and kickbacks to feed themselves and their families. The main police victims were the ghetto’s poorest inhabitants, who had neither connections nor money to protect them from their own police, Poles, or Germans. They were disproportionately recruited for punishing labor, targeted with vicious “disease prevention” tortures, and died. And, of course, the final myth was the ghetto assumption that policemen were protected from persecution, including the final Grossaktion of summer 1942, the deportations to the gas chambers of Treblinka. It was the Ordnungsdienst’s assistance in these deportations that undergirds their murderous reputation, and their summer 1942 behavior is the subject of chapter 8, “Umschlagsplatz.” The reality was more complicated: policemen facilitated the 1942 deportations, saving family and friends and sending neighbors to Treblinka in their stead. But Person details a world in which policemen’s privileges were dangerous and fleeting. Those who assisted in the Treblinka deportations were often subjected to forced labor, execution, and the vengeance of the emerging ghetto underground in 1943. Their “visibility,” Person argues, ironically made them the people “most exposed to violence” in the ghetto, and few escaped unscathed or survived the Holocaust (p. 119).
The most important chapter in the book, “Policemen’s Voices,” attempts to articulate the policemen’s own motivations. It reveals the architecture of Person’s source base, which mines Poland’s various municipal archives and Holocaust collections around the world, coupled with Gazeta Żydowska and a library of memoirs, to capture ghetto inhabitants’ perspectives. Rank-and-file ghetto policemen, however, left few written records. Person quotes one policeman (likely a man named Stanisław Gombiński) who chafed under the responsibilities of his job and the disrespect and condemnation of his fellow Jews, and his brief remarks must stand for his peers. Person’s text is sustained by the writing of Jews outside the Ordnungsdienst, who vilified them and noted the effects of their work on community solidarity and the lives of the poor. The result is a multifaceted and rich explanation of the Jewish community’s condemnation of the Ordnungsdienst that leaves room for the acknowledgment that ghetto policemen, like Poland’s Jewish community more broadly, had few if any better options in the face of the Holocaust.
Paired with a wealth of haunting photographs of the policemen at work in 1941, this short volume performs an essential service in expanding the English-language conversation on Jewish community life during the Holocaust and on the complexity of the perpetration landscape in Nazi-occupied Poland.
. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 117.
Citation: Jadwiga Biskupska. Review of Person, Katarzyna, Warsaw Ghetto Police: The Jewish Order Service during the Nazi Occupation. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. August, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56798This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.