The forest is a hugely significant, but somewhat marginalised landscape of the Holocaust. Initially woodland was the chosen site of the Einsatzgruppen shooting squads, helping to facilitate the mass murder and disposal of thousands of Jews. However, they later became one of the few places where Jews could escape and attempt to survive either individually or in small groups and family camps, and even engage in violent acts of partisan resistance to impede German progress. Up to 80,000 Jews fled into the forests of Eastern Europe , where they could evade the continuous gaze of their oppressors, which plagued the experiences of ghetto and camp life.
However, there were still numerous other groups and actors in the forest landscape and its immediate periphery, including local collaborators, bystanders and righteous gentiles (those who aided the Jews). The title of this study, which isolates the relationship between Jews and local inhabitants, is merely a method of focusing research. Unfortunately the scope of this study cannot include the nature of relations between Jewish forest dwellers and other groups such as Soviet and Polish partisans. More importantly, this is not attempt to propagate an ultra-functionalist interpretation of the Holocaust, placing disproportionate blame on the local populations of Eastern Europe. While anti-Semitism existed throughout Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, and many local people willingly collaborated with their occupiers in ideological agreement or for their own personal gain, Hitler, the Nazis and Germany should not be absolved of their responsibility.
The main primary material for this study will be Kazimierz Sakowicz’s Ponary Diary, and The Memorial Book of Wlodawa, complied by the Nizkor Project. The former is written by an often sympathetic Polish bystander, chronicling the experiences of the Jews and the local people of a small Polish-Lithuanian town. The latter is a collection of first-hand accounts by Polish Jews, many of whom escaped from the Wlodawa region into the forests of Poland. They offer two different perspectives – one from local bystander, and the other from minor Jewish partisans and fugitives in hiding.
Jewish experience in forests and rural areas during the Holocaust is a problematic area of scholarship for a number of different reasons, some of which are common to wider Holocaust memory, and others which are forest-specific. One is the lack of written record by Jews during their time in the forests, because the luxuries of free time and writing materials were rarely available in the harsh and dangerous conditions. Furthermore, survivor testimony written after the experience is relatively scarce, as 90% of forest escapees did not live to see the end of the war. The high mortality rate, caused by persecution, starvation and disease, also led to the incredibly fluid and short-lived nature of family camps and resistance groups in the forests.
Furthermore, in post-war Eastern Europe, communist governments promoted a narrative of Soviet history, based on an ideology which stressed the collective suffering of fascism, not allowing room for specifically Jewish histories of persecution, resistance and survival. As Omar Bartov bemoans, the nations denied Jewish Holocaust scholarship in this manner were those needing it most. It was in the forests of these very countries where Jewish groups lived, and died. The communist imposed silence of several decades has stunted the growth of more complete Jewish wartime histories in Eastern Europe, and forest scholarship has to be counted as a major casualty.
However, the ambivalence to explore the reality of Jewish experience in Eastern Europe was not only imposed from Russia. Both countries have not always been eager to expose acts of anti-Semitism and local collaboration during the Holocaust, especially damaging to a Polish national identity based on total solidarity against the Nazis. This remains a sensitive and contested problem in Eastern Europe to this day. Nationalists would rather point to the fact that over 5,000 individuals have been granted Yad Vashem’s title of ‘Heroes Amongst Nations’ for helping Jewish people during the Holocaust, the highest number from any nation by some margin.
Silence on the topic of Jewish agency and resistance during the Holocaust can also be partially attributed to the development of Jewish understandings of the Holocaust, particularly in America. Despite the fact that many Jewish people today feel ‘ashamed by the image of the Jew as passive victim… popular media and literature have helped promote this image.’ While Yad Vashem commemorates acts of heroism and bravery amongst Jewish people during the Holocaust, many historians argue that other Jewish groups actively seek a narrative representation which frames Jews only as the victims. Consequently, popular understandings of the Holocaust revolve around the landscapes of death camps, particularly Auschwitz. It is here where Jews apparently went like ‘lambs to the slaughter.’ Acts of violence, theft and intimidation, by Jews, in family camps and partisan units, against local populations, complicates traditional binary representations of perpetrator/victim and right from wrong. Therefore forests occupy a place on the periphery of the Holocaust, not just geographically, but also in terms of collective memory. When forest survival was portrayed in Hollywood’s Defiance, characters were still dictated by simple binaries of ‘good’ peasants and actively ‘bad’ collaborating officials. Furthermore, the Bielski Otriad’s story was a rare success in an otherwise grim and unforgiving reality.
Jews who managed to survive in the inhospitable landscape of the forest found that it offered a chance to enact meaningful agency, compared to the camps and ghettos elsewhere. Berger argues that the freedom from physical control and supervision enabled Jews to resist in ways which were not purely symbolic. Instead, meaningful resistance and agency ‘involved acquisition of material resources that made living possible.’ However, total self-sufficiency was not possible, especially for larger groups. Without the aid of partisans or local villagers the acquisition of food, clothing, raw materials and firearms was impossible. If local people would not help willingly – through trade or donation – theft, coercion and violence became necessary. The most common hostile acts Jews committing were minor, usually theft of food and clothes, to survive. However, James Glass notes that for younger and able-bodied Jews, arson and the killing of local collaborators and their German superiors became a purpose and means of survival in itself. Weber also asserts that the Jews became willing to act in ways which ‘may have been deemed deviant in another place and time’ because of the desperate circumstances they found themselves in.
In any given encounter between the two groups of actors, Jews and local inhabitants possessed a number of available responses which could result in hostile or peaceful relationships. To varying degrees, Jewish survival in forests was therefore ‘dependent on factors beyond the individuals’ control.’ This structuralist approach is valuable for analysing the broader relationships between Jews and local people, ‘avoiding characterising Jews [or local people] in overly negative or overly heroic terms’, or relying on individuals for explaining acts of violence.
End of Part 1