Traditional anti-Semitism was rife in pre-war Eastern Europe and was not a recent phenomenon. Yehuda Merin asserts that ‘most of the local population harboured feelings of hatred for the Jews in the family camps… well-rooted in past ages.’ This was certainly the case for many rural areas, where Catholicism was strong and integration between Jewish and non-Jewish communities was less developed. Such attitudes in Poland and Lithuania were encouraged by German propaganda, and the rhetoric of some nationalist political organisations (such as the Lithuanian Activist Front). In Poland too, ‘on the basis of anti-Semitism and anti-Sovietism, some groups even tried to get along with the occupier, thanks to a common ideological language.’
Thus, encroachment onto land, and theft of property by forest fugitives could be framed as a distinctly Jewish problem. Sakowicz echoes this kind of anti-Semitism in one of his diary entries, as Jewish activity around Ponary became more frequent. His opinion, previously one of sympathy for the Jews, sours after escapees try to survive at the expense of local people:
‘More or less until this year  the Jews banded together in the forest behaved correctly. Now, however, they have become bandits, attacking individual houses in the villages and even whole villages… The villagers escaped and began to defend themselves, turning Jews over to the Lithuanians. On Monday, July 12, there was a manhunt in the forest…’
He appears to sense no moral complexity about the actions of the Jews, given their dire situation. Furthermore, there is no condemnation of the villagers organising the man-hunt, or the Lithuanian troops who presumably executed the Jews. Instead, his complaints are aimed only at the Jews. An insight into one of Ponary less anti-Semitic individuals allows us to speculate on the less moderate thinkers of the village. Many local inhabitants may have deemed it unacceptable for Jews to even band together in their local forests at such close proximity to the town in any capacity at all.
Rural farming communities in Poland, Belarus and Lithuania were also generally impoverished. Sometimes excess food and other materials had to be given to the Nazi occupiers, or Soviet partisans operating in the area in the form of a quota. Some local people may have been sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, but could rarely afford to give goods away to them. German historian Klaus-Peter Freidrich claims a number of agrarian communities in Poland, close to urban centres and Jewish ghettos, witnessed a boom prices for their produce, especially on the black market, which meant the ‘early years of occupation were advantageous for farmers’ material situations.’ Consequently, ‘in the countryside there prevailed a less hostile climate to the Germans’ , and by extension, a lesser incentive to help the Jews. John Connelly has questioned the validity of this argument in the wider context of Polish experience however, pointing to the destruction of over 650 Polish villages and other agriculture.
Some rural communities, especially in Lithuania, initially preferred the German presence over the Soviets and were willing to help them maintain control over their region. Sakowicz, in one diary entry notes: ‘Today a truck with Germans was welcomed to Ponary. They were quartered in practically every household, occupying the best rooms.’ Friedrich has also found statements of Polish eyewitnesses describing the ‘joyful reception of Wehrmacht troops’. Compounding this, ‘the German leadership strove to create the impression that the initiative for the destruction of the Jews came from the local populations.’ To do this, they made denouncing a Jew an act which resulted in material and monetary rewards, and in some instances the seizure of property, clothes and valuables and, gruesomely, even gold teeth from the victims.
Many rural peasants had a life-long, intimate knowledge of the local topography, and as Shenko, a Jewish partisan, recalls, this made them extremely effective at finding fugitive Jews:
‘In judgement over the farmers of Samolidzca, having had expelled the previous year Jews [in] hiding… and delivering them to the Germans… we killed twenty of them that night. Among those who had been killed there were some who had known every path in the forest and had betrayed to the Germans the hiding places of the partisans especially of the Jews.’
While there was profit to be made from collaborating with Nazis, being caught aiding Jews in any capacity usually meant imprisonment or death. For locals who were sympathetic, it was often still too dangerous a risk to aid Jewish refugees in the nearby forests. As a result many, understandably, would not part with their property unless they were threatened, killed or the victims of theft by Jews.
Farms were the main targets for Jewish groups and individuals trying to survive the hardships of forest life. Sakowicz notes several times that Ponary’s farmers suffer raids frequently. He specifically places the blame, based on hearsay, on Jewish ‘bandits’, even though they could have easily been Soviet or Polish partisans. This vitriolic condemnation demonstrates an underlying anti-Semitism in much of the local population and himself:
‘At night, a band robbed the farmer[s]… Who did it? The Jews… Practically all of Gob, and actually all the richer farmers in Gob, were thoroughly robbed last night… [and] grievously beaten and several dogs shot… [by] the Jews’
There was also a stereotypically anti-Semitic belief that Jews trying to escape to the forests, or Jews already in hiding there, were still very wealthy. One example of ‘absolutely uninvolved people, seeking to gain “Jewish gold”’ is the story of Jewish girl Serafima Stavitskaia, who was led to the forest on the promise of meeting partisans. ‘The guide received his pay and left. Only by nightfall did they realise they had been tricked.’
In his diary, Sakowicz also unquestioningly reiterates rumours that ‘the attacks by Jews are not dictated by necessity, that is, lack of money…. [because] the Lithuanians found considerable sums of money on the bodies.’ Even if the Lithuanian’s did find large sums of money on this specific group of Jews, it does not accurately reflect the conditions of life for the majority forest dwellers.
The forest acted as a physical and mental shield, which made Jews faceless, invisible enmies, and thus easier to condemn. Their guerrilla tactics made them cowardly. They were no longer people like the Jewish neighbours that inhabitants of Ponary may have been friends with before.
Despite the dangers of helping Jews, the material gains to be made from denouncing them, and the considerable hostility and anti-Semitism in Poland and Lithuania, many people did give help in some form. Often, this involved simply turning a blind eye to their presence. In Wlodawa, Perla Knapfmacher was seen by villagers hiding in the forests and fields near the village. The ‘Wit’, the head of the village, organised a search party to bring her to the Nazis. When she was discovered by man, the thick undergrowth offered him the chance to help her:
‘Suddenly I felt someone treading on my foot… but he bent down pretending as if looking for something and whispered to me: “Don’t be afraid… I will not tell them”. He withdrew walking and… I heard him saying loudly so that I could also hear: “I searched the whole field but she was not there. She certainly escaped.”’
Instances such as this probably occurred relatively frequently, went mostly undocumented and saved many lives. In this circumstance, the man would not be recognised as a ‘righteous gentile’, because he did not endanger his life, or devote his time, to helping a Jew.
Others were willing to go a step further and feed Jewish fugitives, but not offer them shelter, forcing them to return to the forest. Perla recalls another such an experience:
‘An old farmer came out of his hut and… gave me something to eat and to drink and immediately he put out the light of the lantern saying… he was afraid to keep me in his house because of the frequent searches of the Germans after hiding Jews and he continued that the neighbours were even worse than the Germans denunciating every hiding Jew to the “Schwaben”’
Fewer still were willing to help facilitate Jewish partisan activity against Germans and local collaborators. Tec does find evidence that in friendly areas, partisans could frequently enter nearby villages and exchange their valuables for firearms. Polish Jewish partisan Shenko recalls that a small number of farmers were ‘in favour of the partisans and did us many services. [Some villages] had a leader who supported [and] advised us as to how and when to attack the German guards and the wagons delivering food for the Germans.’
Forests clearly offered a radically different arena for interaction between perpetrators, collaborators, victims and bystanders during the Holocaust. Unlike in ghettos and camps, the ‘victims’ could take their fate into their own hands, and use agency including violence and aggression against their persecutors. Likewise, local people in isolated or infrequently monitored areas could help Jewish people, or capitalise on their misfortune. In reality, most Jews and local people interacting on the peripheries of the forests were not partisan soldiers or murderous, opportunistic anti-Semites respectively.
Many local Poles and Lithuanians may been aware of Jews in the forests around their villages, but done nothing to persecute them. They may have aided the Jews in a small way by not informing their Nazi occupiers, but they did risk anything to actively help the fugitives. In this way, such people are nothing more than bystanders in the most literal sense. Thousands more small acts of kindness and aid by Poles and Lithuanians will have gone undocumented too. This covers offerings of food or shelter to individual Jews lost, roaming the forest on their own, to the supply of firearms and German intelligence to partisan groups.
The history of local activities in the Holocaust is a politically charged debate where nationalists, revisionists, Zionists and even Holocaust deniers all claim a different narrative. The scope of the Holocaust, over so many countries, communities and peoples, means that there are no definitive answers to questions on complicity and assistance for Eastern Europe as a whole. National and regional variations have to be taken into account; for example, in Lithuania, German occupiers granted more autonomy to local authorities than in Poland so circumstances were different. However, the two countries both have a murky history; a mix of heroic acts to help Jews, as well as ideologically and materially motivated collaboration.
Centuries of anti-Semitism, and the impoverished situation of many rural Poles and Lithuanians were both powerful forces, which affected even the more educated and compassionate individuals such as Ponary’s Sakowicz. . Especially in a war-time context, both of these factors can become more pronounced. Xenophobia and support for the political far-right have a tendency to take hold during times of trauma and uncertainty.
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