nasza witryna Yaffa EliachÂ’s Big Book of Holocaust Revisionism
Review by John Radzilowski


 

Published in JOURNAL OF GENOCIDE RESEARCH, vol. 1, no. 2 (June 1999), City University of New York.

The release of Yaffa Eliach’s There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998) is the much-anticipated work by the writer whose sensational claims about the murder of her mother and brother caused an uproar in the U.S. and Poland. At over 800 pages and with a price tag of $50, the book is big in size and price, but small in serious historical content. Although the middle sections of the book, on everyday Jewish life in a Lithuanian shtetl, contain useful and important ethnographic information for understanding the history of east European Jewry, when Eliach veers off into general east European history, the history of Polish-Jewish relations, and the period 1939–45, the work becomes a disaster.

The worst part of the book is her effort to portray Poles as authors or part authors of the Holocaust (see pg. 613). In this, Eliach joins a growing group who use the tragedy of the Holocaust to promote political ends and even ethnic hatred. Eliach is a Holocaust Revisionist in the truest sense of the word, and her relentless publicity efforts that use anti-Polonism as a goad and a crowd-pleaser is common demagoguery. Worse yet, her new book and the TV special that will follow will destroy any semblance of good relations between Poles and Jews in America, frustrating efforts in both communities (Note 1).

Summing up Eliach’s feelings about various ethnic groups is easy and it shows how simplistic and partisan she is. All Jews are good, especially those from Eishyshok who are all intelligent, handsome/beautiful, brave, generous, and their children are all above average. On the few occasions they do anything wrong, it is usually by mistake caused by the stress of living among all those Polish murderers. Lithuanians were good, until they came under the influence of Christian Poles, whereupon they became anti-Semites (pgs. 23–26). With a couple exceptions all Poles are bad. They are all anti-Semites, and most are drunks, fanatics, degenerates, betrayers, murderers, and more or less subhuman. The author contrives to say something bad about Poles on almost every page. Eliach’s language is fascinating. Poles alleged to have done something bad, are referred to as Poles or members of the Armia Krajowa (AK, or Home Army). When Poles give assistance to Jews, they are often referred to as “locals” or “local peasants.” Germans, who killed most of the town’s Jewish population with the help of Lithuanian and Belarusin auxiliaries, appear infrequently. Jews killed by the Germans are often referred to as having “died in the September 1941 massacre” with no reference to who perpetrated the massacre.

This book is rife with error. For example, Józef Pilsudski is referred to as “the president of the Polish Republic” (pg. 561), a position he never held. Even more bizarre, Eliach writes that “At the end of October 1939, Poland ceded Vilna and the surrounding region to Lithuania” (pg. 566). A photo showing a parade is captioned “Polish Independence Day, May 3” (pg. 56). The author is even confused about important dates, such as when World War II started (pg. 678), when the AK was formed, or when the Warsaw Uprising began (pg. 613).

More serious still -- and indicative of Eliach’s effort to rewrite Holocaust history with Poles as villains -- is her assertion that during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising “no AK members fought alongside the Jews; whereas during the Polish Uprising of August 2 [sic] - October 2, 1944, over a thousand Jews converged on Warsaw, individually and in small groups, to help their compatriots. Some had been inmates of the Gesia Street concentration camp” (pg. 613). This is a strange falsehood, contrary to the evidence of both Polish and Jewish scholars and ignorant of the fact that fifty-five Polish AK soldiers died in the Ghetto fighting and others were decorated by the Israeli government for having fought in the Ghetto Uprising (Note 2). Furthermore, the author’s mention of the Jews from the Gesia Street camp in this context without mentioning that these inmates were freed as a result of a special AK operation demonstrates either bad faith or incompetence (Note 3).

Not content with using terms established by scholars, Eliach invents her own. For example, the Teutonic Knights are referred to almost exclusively as “Crusaders,” while the Polish Home Army is labelled with a curious and prejudicial Soviet-style term: “White Poles.” It should be no surprise that Polish words, terms, names, and book titles are usually misspelled or rendered in incomprehensible forms. (Like alleged Poles with names such as “Yaschka,” or “Sharavei,” or even “Kadishon.”)

The bookÂ’s minor errors are too many to address in a single review, but they set the stage for worse problems. Eliach is infamous for giving multiple and conflicting accounts of events she claims to have witnessed to her many admirers in the American media. Here again her stories conflict. For example, in Marian MarzynskiÂ’s peculiar film Shtetl, Eliach is interviewed and tells the following story:

Marian Marzynski: We are at the home of Yaffa Eliach in Brooklyn. . . .

Yaffa Eliach: LetÂ’s say a family . . . for instance, the family of Rogowski escaped [the ghetto], five sons and a sister. And they came to a [Polish] farmer that was very friendly with them and they asked him for honey because honey you could keep for a long time. He gave them. The minute they walked out from the house, he took a gun and shot and killed. He killed four. One escaped. One, Binyamin Rogowski. So from the entire Rogowski family, one son survived. (Note 4)

Yet in her book, on page 612, we read:

[M]any Eishyshkians knew the story of the Rogowskis’ sons. . . . The three Rogowski brothers, Leibke, Hillel, and Niomke [Binyamin], and their sister Hayya, had escaped Ghetto Radun on May 9, 1942, and had gone to live in the forest. One night the three and a friend of theirs went to the Shiemaszka [sic] family, Christian friends who had been entrusted with a large portion of the Rogowski’s quite considerable stock of valuables. . . . Thus it was only to be expected that Mr. Shiemaszka would welcome them with a big smile and a handshake. However, he was also carrying a machine gun. . . . Moments later another of the Shiemaszkas joined them, also armed with an automatic weapon. He told his father to invite everybody in so they could eat and refresh themselves. In the midst of a dinnertable conversation, at very close range, one of the Shiemaszkas opened fire on the Rogowskis. Niomke started to run. “No, no,” the Shiemaszka screamed as he gave chase. “It was a mistake; please come back.” . . . Wounded in the hand and foot, Niomke made it to the house of another farmer, where he was later joined by his older brother Leibke and their friend, both of them unharmed. (Note 5)

Which version are we to believe? It is hard to image how a credible scholar could promulgate two versions of the same event so radically at odds, especially one who claims her every statement is true and fully verified and who has proclaimed her mission to be to teach the anti-Semitic Polish people their own history (Note 6). Sadly, this is not an isolated case. In virtually every interview given to the popular media, Eliach unveils new and unverified stories of Polish atrocities or even her own biography. Old stories are often reworked, with new details added or taken out. (Note 7)

Eliach has been repeatedly challenged to prove her claims about alleged Polish atrocities. This book is supposed to silence such challenges. In public remarks addressed to her critics she has said that every statement in the book is correct and has been fully authenticated and verified. (Note 8)

Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Few of the most controversial points of the book are backed up in the text. The endnotes are rife with problems. In one spot, on the Katyn massacre, Eliach even cites “index” instead of page number, as if she could not be bothered to write down the page numbers or even look at the books she cites (pg. 745n4). Worse, Eliach sometimes cites reputable sources, such as Israel Gutman’s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, to back up her wild claims and then criticizes those sources for failing to provide the interpretation she would like and for which she cited them in the first place (pg. 613, 745n5).

The Poles, according to Eliach, collaborated with the Nazis in just about everything. There is no mention of Poles ever having fought against the Germans. Rather, Jews are shown as bravely fighting for Poland in the Polish Army, only to be hamstrung and undermined by their Jew-hating fellow soldiers. The Poles always run away or collaborate. The Jews stay and fight (see pgs. 565–66, 613).

The two periods of Soviet terror are glossed over in a few pages, with only brief mention of local Jews (among them her own father) who collaborated with the Soviet security forces who persecuted their neighbors. There is only one passing mention of the murder and deportation to Siberia of tens of thousands of ethnic Poles from the region around Eishyshok (pg. 598), which is also the only mention of non-Jewish victimization in the entire book (save those allegedly killed by the AK for helping Jews). When the Germans arrive in Eyszyszki the Poles are there to cheer for them, according to Eliach, a fantastical reverse of the reception accorded to Soviet troops entering eastern Poland in 1939 by the non-Polish population (Note 9). Poles are consistently described as cheering the murder of Jews and even Poles who rescue Jews are portrayed as making statements supportive of genocide.

The gist of Eliach’s story is that the AK was an anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi organization whose goal was hunt down and kill Jews and righteous gentiles, and very secondarily communists. In one of the most calumnious statements yet penned about the Poles in World War II, Eliach writes of the AK “Anti-Semitism took precedence over all other goals” and “Despite the loyalty of many Jews to Poland they -- not the Germans and not the Russians -- bore the brunt of AK attacks” (pg. 613). For the former statement, the author’s endnote cites Israel Gutman’s work as the source, but then promptly criticizes Gutman for not sharing her bizarre view of the AK. For the latter statement, not even Eliach can invent a credible source. It is frequently unclear how the author knows that a particular person is an AK member or that a particular massacre in which there were no survivors was committed by the AK, but evidence is not something Eliach is much concerned over.

Virtually every unexplained death or even disappearance of a Jew is automatically attributed to the AK (see pg. 403) (Note 10). According to the author, Jews who stepped on landmines were also killed by the AK, whose members were apparently clever enough to know exactly where Jews were going to walk (pg. 642). Even Jews who died in 1939, before the AK was formed, were, writes Eliach, “killed . . . by the Armia Krajowa” (pg. 402). Clearly, Eliach is not competent to discuss the history of the AK or east European history in general. In her heavily padded bibliography, Eliach lists only one secondary work on the AK (which is never cited in the footnotes). She also lists an AK regional archive as one of her sources of primary documents, but cites not a single document from this collection in her notes (pg. 753). She is apparently unaware of large bodies of relevant primary and secondary source material, including published AK documents relevant to the wartime history of Ejszyszki (Note 11). This incompetence extends to other areas of wartime Polish history. For example, Eliach believes that the Polish communist army was formed in the USSR solely at the initiative of Wanda Wasilewska and that Stalin supported the underground Polish communist People's Army, “because he knew the Russians would need the backing of the Polish political left when they entered Poland” (pgs. 679, 747n26). It is hard to see how someone who claims expertise in east European history can make such remarks.

The culmination of the story is Eliach’s claim that her mother and baby brother were killed as the result of a deliberate “pogrom” perpetrated by Poles. Eliach has eagerly courted publicity with this story and her various and conflicting accounts have appeared throughout the U.S. media. Her claims have been effectively dissected by more than one critic. It is not the purpose of this review to rehash arguments better made elsewhere, but as this new book is said to provide “irrefutable” evidence for her claims, it is worthwhile to examine exactly what “new evidence” Eliach has come up with.

Eliach now claims the AK entered into an official agreement with German authorities in the Wilno area in late 1943. The terms of the alleged agreement were that the Poles would receive arms and supplies in return for hunting down and killing Jews and communists. Eliach cites a document from the German federal archives to support this claim (pg. 746n1). Although one cannot comment on material one has not seen, it is curious that she does not quote from this document verbatim.

The history of eastern Poland during this era is extremely complex, making simplistic judgements easy and easy to accept by those unfamiliar with the literature. Eliach’s refusal to discuss this context leads her to dangerous distortions. The Soviet role in the mass murder of Poles and their attempts to wipe out or take control of Polish partisan units meant that Poles in the Wilno-Eishyshok region faced two enemies. At times they cooperated with Soviet units, such as when Polish AK forces spearheaded the joint Polish-Soviet liberation of Wilno (during the same period Eliach claims Poles where fighting on the German side) (Note 12). Although there is no evidence that the Poles ever cooperated with German forces, the fact that there were contacts has long been known. Whereas the Germans sought to turn the Poles toward fighting exclusively against Soviet partisans, the Poles sought to gain intelligence on German morale and preparedness and perhaps to acquire some badly needed weapons. At times the Poles were able to acquire arms and the two sides observed an occasional ceasefire. Yet, no evidence has yet emerged to suggest that Jews were ever the suggested target of such talks or that the AK ever carried out any actions at the Germans’ behest or conducted any systematic attacks on Jews. To the contrary, during the period under discussion the AK region leader Aleksander Krzyzanowski (“Wilk”) issued explict orders that no ethnic group, including Jews, should be mistreated (Note 13). It should be noted that these talks were with the regular German military (Abwehr), not the Gestapo, and that Krzyzanowski rejected the idea of a formal agreement (Note 14). AK commanders who tried to enter into unauthorized agreements with the occupiers were disciplined by Polish underground authorities and all reputable specialists agree that the AK never collaborated with the Nazis. (Note 15)

Perhaps Eliach’s most infamous document is one that she claims “proves” that the AK deliberately planned to exterminate Jews on its own initiative after the German withdrawal. Eliach does not actually possess this document. Nor has she ever seen it. However, her father told her about it. During a 1996 lecture at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, when challenged by members of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council to provide documentation of her claims, she mentioned this document and joked “they didn’t have Xerox machines back then.” Indicative of the author’s inability to provide straightforward explanations is the origin of this mystery document. In 1996, Eliach claimed it was shown to her father by the Soviet secret police (which in itself raises many questions). She more or less repeats this version again in an endnote (pg. 745n12). Yet, she contradicts herself in the text, noting that her father himself discovered the incriminating document while collaborating with the NKVD on a raid against the AK (pg. 671). The fact that no serious scholar would dare cite a non-existent or lost document as the sole basis for such a controversial claim, let alone provide two conflicting accounts of its provenance in the same book, only shows the lengths to which Yaffa Eliach will go to make a case that is not scholarly but ideological.

There is yet another set of documents that Eliach claims prove her case and which she cites many times to prove her assertion that the attack that killed her mother and brother was an anti-Jewish pogrom: trial documents of AK members taken prisoner by the NKVD. Reliance on the good name of Soviet military justice is a cruel joke at best. Leaving aside the countless and well documented instances of torture, coercion, trickery, and intimidation inherent in these trials, and the fact that the basic rights of defendants were non-existent, these were political show trials of members of an organization the Soviet security forces were murdering or deporting to Siberian gulags by the tens of thousands. Membership in the AK or any other related Polish organization was a crime in Soviet eyes. Thus, to cite such documents in this case without any corroboration begs the question.

Nevertheless, let us assume for for the sake of argument that such documents accurately reflect reality. The passages Eliach cites in the text contradict nothing of what serious Polish and Polish-American scholars and commentators having been saying all along. That is, that Eliach’s mother and brother were killed during an attack by the AK, but that this attack was not a pogrom, but a military operation against a house that was giving shelter to Soviet officers involved in the persecution and murder of Poles (pg. 680). As to Eliach’s oft-repeated claim that the Poles marched into town shouting slogans calling for a Poland free of Jews, she can apparently find no documentary evidence. (See, for example, the fudging on page 673 with regards to this slogan which is carefully sandwiched between two statements for which she claims she does have documentary evidence.) In sum Eliach has been able to find only a single citeable document, the testimony of one Michal Iwaszko to the NKVD, to show that the Jews were the target of a “Polish pogrom” (pgs. 673, 747n21) during which her mother and brother were killed. Not having seen this document, the reviewer cannot comment on its nature, however it is clear that Eliach has failed to examine a whole range of other relevant source material: Polish, Jewish, and Soviet. In short, the author has utterly failed to present hard evidence to back up her revisionist claims and seems only remotely conversant with the norms of scholarly research and communication.

EliachÂ’s book raises many questions few of which are answered. The role of her father, for example, seems to be a key to the story and to her own attitudes. At the end, he emerges as a bitter and deeply cynical man (pg. 697). His collaboration with the NKVD is an important detail whose full impact on the course of events the author does not consider. Indeed, the failure to consider the murderous role the Soviets played in wartime eastern Europe is a serious problem throughout much of the English-language literature. Furthermore, as painful as it may be, the role of Jews in collaborating with the Soviet and Germans must not be ignored any more than the collaboration of Poles or any other group. Such considerations are lost on Eliach.

Perhaps the most troubling question concerns the whole field of Holocaust studies. That is, how could such an error-prone book be released by a major publisher and nominated for a book award when responsible organizations and individuals had challenged the author publicly and contacted the publisher with their concerns at least two years ago? Clearly, the concerns and questions raised by Poles (as well as many non-Poles) are being systematically and deliberately ignored and this is severely impoverishing the scholarship. The production of books like There Once Was a World and the current effort to pretend it is some sort unquestionable gospel of truth, will, in the end, only play into the hands of Holocaust deniers. (Note 16)

The tendency to play fast and loose with the facts regarding Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust is not confined to Yaffa Eliach (Note 17). Yet, this is an author who has consistently courted publicity and made extremist statements to the media, a fact that cannot be ignored in such an error-laden book. The author has sought controversy as the means to advance an agenda that has nothing to do with scholarship. Her incredible claim that everything in the book is correct, accurate, and fully documented is sheer hubris. The fact that she is writing on the most difficult of subjects -- the Holocaust -- raises troubling questions about her motives.

There is no question that eastern Poland (i.e., the lands seized by the USSR in 1939) were among the most ethnically complex territories on earth. Due to the terrorism and the cynical manipulation of two totalitarian regimes, these lands were turned into a hell on earth between 1939 and 1945, a hell that, thank God, has rarely been equaled before or since. Of the unfortunate inhabitants, of whom all were victimized, some more than others, no ethnic community emerged with clean hands or a clean conscience. Not the Poles, not the Lithuanians, Belarusins, or Ukrainians, and not the Jews (Note 18). Although there are still many questions unanswered about this time and place, what we do know should lead us to reject simplistic morality tales that neatly divide historical actors into the good and the bad along ethnic lines in order to advance questionable ideological goals. Ethnic relations are complex and more so in the time of the Shoah and even more so in eastern Poland during the war. Until we begin to accept and understand the complex reality of these events, until writers like Eliach forsake the sickening “war of the victims,” the angry ghosts of the dead, crying out in a host of languages, will continue to haunt us.


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Footnotes

1. On recent efforts at Polish-Jewish dialogue, see the recent (1998) special Polish-English issue of the Catholic intellectual journal Wiez, “Under One Heaven: Poles and Jews.” Also Sarmatian Review 18, no. 2 (April 1998) and 19, no. 1 (January 1999). (Back to text)

2. See Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: Harper, 1961), 324; Franciszek J. Proch, Poland’s Way of the Cross, 1939–1945 (New York: Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi and Soviet Concentration Camps, n.d. [1987]), 113; Stefan Korbonski, The Polish Underground State: A Guide to the Underground, 1939–1945 (New York: Hippocrene, 1981), 130–33; Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, The Blood Shed Unites Us (Warsaw: Interpress, 1970), 134. (Back to text)

3. Korbonski, The Polish Underground State, 133.(Back to text)

4. Taken from the transcript of the film found on the PBS website: www.pbs.org in January 1999. The transcript is also at http://www.logtv.com/shtetl/scriptmenu.html. Marzynski’s film aired on PBS’ Frontline, April 17, 1996. The film’s many embarrassing problems are discussed in The Story of Two Shtetls: Bransk and Ejszyszki (Toronto and Chicago: Polish Educational Foundation in North America, 1998), vol. 1. (Back to text) 

5. Eliach, of course, makes it clear that the shooting was not an accident caused by an inexperienced farm boy carrying a gun he didn’t know how to use. For Eliach, the only reason Poles do anything is out of hatred of Jews. See also p.644. (Back to text) 

6. During one public lecture this reviewer attended, Eliach stated “there is a problem with Polish culture.” It is hard to image an objective scholar making such prejudicial statements. (Back to text)

7. A few of these versions, many of which conflict with the testimony of her own brother, are discussed in Mark Paul, “Anti-Semitic Pogrom in Ejszyszki? An Overview of Polish-Jewish Wartime Relations in Northeastern Poland,” in vol. 2 of The Story of Two Shtetls: Bransk and Ejszyszki, 20–34. Cf. pages 664–73 of There Once was a World. For a similar problem in the history of the Bielski partisans and other postwar accounts, see Paul, “Anti-Semitic Pogrom in Ejszyszki?” 34–38. (Back to text) 

8. Yaffa Eliach, Public lecture, Jewish Community Center, St. Louis Park, Minn., 15 November 1998. Videotape in the author’s possession. (Back to text) 

9. Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 28–35. (Back to text) 

10. Alternative explanations for these deaths are never considered. For the suggestion that Belarusin bands may have attacked Jews in the area, see Joseph R. Fiszman, “The Quest for Status: Polish Jewish Refugees in Shanghai, 1941–1949,” Polish Review 43, no. 4 (1998): 442. (Back to text)

11. See, for example, Armia Krajowa w Dokumentach, 1939–1945 (Wroclaw: Ossolineum, 1990), 3:473–74. This volume and its companions contains much important information on Polish-Soviet conflict and role played by Jews in that conflict. (Back to text) 

12. Korbonski, The Polish Underground State, 157. (Back to text) 

13. See Krzysztof Tarka, Komendant Wilk z Dziejów Wilenskiej Armii Krajowej (Warsaw: Oficyna Wydawnicza Volumen, 1990), 66–70. The text of the order, dated April 12, 1944, is found in Roman Korab-Zebryk, Biala Ksiega w Obronie Armii Krajowej na Wilenszczyznie (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Lubelskie, 1991), 26–27. Although Eliach accuses the AK’s Wilno-area commander of being a prime instigator of crimes against Jews, she is apparently unaware of these books or the order in question. (Back to text) 

14. See Tadeusz Piotrowski, Poland’s Holocaust (Chapel Hill, N.C.: McFarland, 1998), 88–90. (Back to text) 

15. Ibid., 88; Joseph Rothschild, Return to Diversity: A Political History of East Central Europe since World War II, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 57. The fact that one has to even answer such scurrilous charges is reminscent of the situation one faces in dealing with Holocaust deniers who loudly and repeatedly proclaim their position whatever the weight of evidence against it may be. (Back to text)

16. For pro-Eliach cheerleading, see Stephen J. Dubner, “Thousands of Ordinary Lives,” New York Times Book Review, Nov. 15, 1998. See also, the articles of Richard Z. Chesnoff in U.S. News & World Report and Newsday. (Back to text) 

17. For a discussion of the research problems posed by the Polish-Jewish conflict, see John Radzilowski, “Bondage to the Holocaust,” Periphery: Journal of Polish Affairs 4, no. 1–2 (1999). (Back to text) 

18. PiotrowskiÂ’s PolandÂ’s Holocaust discusses wartime collaboration of all these ethnic groups in some detail, with separate chapters on Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Belarusins.

John Radzilowski, , 0000-00-00

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