My Polish Grandfather

A Dark History, with Flashes of Light

Poland was forced to take a new look at its World War II past last year after the publication of a book about a horrific massacre in one village. I looked back as well. The book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross (Princeton University Press, $19.95, 261 pp.), led to much soul searching in Poland and in the United States. My family argued about it, and we uncomfortably looked back sixty years at our own secrets, reevaluated the family’s experience of persecution during the war, and questioned our claim to an uncompromised, heroic past. The subject of Gross’s book was not an anonymous place on the other side of the world. Jedwabne is in the same part of eastern Poland where my family lived during the war. But it is a place from a nightmare in a faraway time. A place where a smiling, round-faced Basia, my mother, will forever peek out of a black-and-white photo taken just before the German invasion. The way I now view that picture is forever changed.

Gross’s book tells of the 1941 massacre of Jedwabne’s sixteen hundred Jewish residents. Gross, a Polish-American historian at New York University, revealed that Jedwabne’s Jews were not murdered by the Nazis, but were stabbed and clubbed, and those still standing were herded into a barn and burned alive by the town’s Polish Catholic villagers. Gross’s book was the cause of much anger in Poland, a nation that arguably suffered more than any other under the Nazis, and felt itself betrayed and abandoned by the West when it was handed to the Soviets at Yalta. Most Poles think that the sufferings of the Polish people have never been fully acknowledged in the West. Instead, at the site of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other concentration camps, Poland has become a symbol of genocidal anti-Semitism for many. The Poles respond by arguing that the Germans, not the Poles, carried out the Holocaust, and that Poles were also mentioned as targets for extermination by the Nazis, but then chosen as a source of slave labor.

The slaughter at Jedwabne has forced a reconsideration of the Polish sense of martyrdom and of the relationship between Poles and Jews. Last July, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski went to Jedwabne, where he offered an apology for the killings on behalf of the nation. As Adam Michnik, the famed dissident and current editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper, wrote in the New York Times (March 17, 2001), most Poles initially found Gross’s accusations hard to believe. Poland’s "image of itself [is] as an innocent and noble victim of foreign violence and intrigue." Anti-Semitism was prevalent, but few thought Poles could be complicit in Nazi crimes against the Jews. "During Hitler’s occupation, the Polish nationalistic and anti-Semitic right didn’t collaborate with the Nazis, as the right wing did elsewhere in Europe, but actively participated in the anti-Hitler underground," Michnik, who is Jewish, wrote. "Polish anti-Semites fought against Hitler, and some of them even rescued Jews, though this was punishable by death."

Though paradoxical, what Michnik wrote is true. I know it’s true because my Polish grandfather was an anti-Semite who fought in the patriotic resistance against the Germans. In his resistance work, he helped to rescue Jews from the Nazis. History is rarely as books or family legends suggest. Human motives may be contradictory; our frailty allows good and evil to intermingle and coexist.

In 1903, my grandfather, Alexander Peter Gwiazdowski, escaped a lengthy prison sentence for his revolutionary activities against Czarist Russia. He made his way to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen, and married my grandmother, Agnes Gradalska. After earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Columbia University, he taught at a number of technical schools and universities. In the 1930s he returned to Poland where he received the Polish Medal of Independence for his revolutionary exploits. Polish war hero and dictator Marshal Josef Pilsudski awarded him the medal. Polish Jews affectionately called Pilsudski "Dziadek"—grandfather—because of his progressive views on issues of concern to Jewish people. My grandfather, however, did not share those views. He blamed his business failures on the "international conspiracy" of Jewish bankers. My grandfather’s anti-Semitic theories appeared in a bizarre, sickening, but prescient postscript to a relative’s 1933 book, In the Clutches of the Jews. The preface began: "Probably no race has been subjected to such long and almost continuous harrying and persecution as the Jewish people." The book claimed to be a repudiation of German anti-Jewish fascism by giving examples of a young woman’s "record of her actual experiences with typical representatives of this remarkable race [Jews]." Despite many philo-Semitic tributes and descriptions of interfaith friendship, the book is infected by the repeated canard about Jewish wealth and influence. The book ends with my grandfather’s words: "Will Hitler and his followers save Germany’s hungry and unemployed? No! They represent the hatred, and so—must perish. It took the Jews a few generations to ruin imperial Russia—Hitler’s Germany will be ruined in our days...Mutual extermination may start soon...Evolution sometimes uses war, revolution, and even massacres as the tools to accomplish the desired results. The Jews are an ideal instrument of social evolution."

Holding such views, why did my grandfather risk his life and the lives of his family to save Jews from the Nazis? I’ve gone back and forth on this question for many years. At times I’ve doubted the family history I was taught. There must be some even darker truths about my grandfather’s behavior, I thought. But after confirming his imprisonment, conviction, and his aid to Polish Jews during the war in a Communist-era Polish history book about the underground, I’ve concluded that he was both a hero and a bigot.

My mother was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1929. When she was a little girl, my grandfather moved his family back to his hometown, Suwalki, Poland, near the border with Lithuania. Sometime after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, my grandfather and others started an anti-Nazi resistance group called "Revival of the Nation." They forged documents, collected arms, and were couriers to the Warsaw underground. My grandfather was the editor of the group’s underground newspaper. He also possessed an illegal radio and used to listen to Allied war news. In occupied Poland, it was a capital crime for Poles to offer help to the Jews. Still, my grandfather and his group, along with local farmers, helped Jewish people escape. In one instance, my grandmother, along with my uncle, smuggled a Jewish man across the Polish border into Lithuania in a horse-drawn cart.

In May 1941, more than a month before the Jedwabne massacre, the Gestapo arrested members of my grandfather’s resistance unit, including its leader, Stanislaw Wydornik. A snitch had infiltrated the group.

After my grandfather’s arrest, the Nazis seized our family home, and my grandmother and mother fled hundreds of miles to a relative’s home near Kraców. Shortly thereafter, on a day my mother was absent, her grammar school classmates were rounded up and taken to Germany as slave laborers, where many perished. My mother also tells the story of how she was walking down the street one day when an old man nearby didn’t produce his identification card fast enough for a German soldier, and was executed before her eyes. She remembers blood and bits of brain raining down.

My grandfather was sentenced to death, but his sentence was later changed to seven years hard labor. He spent four years in various Nazi jails. All but a few of his comrades were executed by guillotine. In the final weeks of the war he escaped the Germans during a forced march west as the Soviets approached from the east.

When he returned to the United States in 1945, he wrote a long letter to American war-crimes prosecutors about Nazi prison officials and about the Volksdeutscher (persons of German descent living outside Germany): "This traitorous group of scum had already tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of European Jews even before the Nazis set up their systematic mass executions by use of machine guns and gas chambers."

In all his writings that was the only time he mentioned how Jews were singled out for extermination. He detailed what happened to the Catholics: "I have witnessed in that same town of Suwalki the torturing of Polish priests, teachers, lawyers, judges, workmen, and farmers. Later, these victims were shipped to concentration camps, where, as far as is known, they all died in abject misery."

Surviving Polish Catholics point out that 3 million non-Jewish Poles died in World War II. They contend that the suffering of Polish Catholics was just as real as the Jewish Holocaust. Of course, all those murdered by the Nazis deserve to be remembered and atoned for. But terrible as conditions were for my family, Catholic children were not ceaselessly hunted by the Nazis merely because they were Catholic. Nor could a Polish Jew receive a ration of sugar for revealing where a Catholic was hiding. There was a qualitative difference between the likely fate of Catholic and Jewish Poles. Worse, it cannot be denied that Polish anti-Semitism made it easier for the Nazis to carry out their plans.

Still, the behavior of individual Poles, and individual Polish anti-Semites, varied enormously. In 1938, a year before the war, Stanislaw Wydornik, the leader of my grandfather’s resistance group, had joined a far-right, anti-Semitic political group, OZN, which proposed anti-Jewish policies much like those in Germany. Nevertheless, Wydornik, the anti-Semite, led a conspiracy that helped Jews avoid capture by the Nazis. Wydornik and sixteen others in Revival of the Nation paid for those actions with their lives. They were executed on May 3, 1943, in the same East Prussian penitentiary where my grandfather was imprisoned.

As cultural anti-Semites, my grandfather and his fellow right-wing nationalists believed Jews were "socially corrosive" because they didn’t assimilate. In his book I Survived Hitler’s Hell, my grandfather’s anti-Semitic references begin in the dedication: "To the millions of men, women, and children who perished in concentration camps, in gas chambers, and under guillotines. To the Jewish martyrs abandoned by their rich coreligionists and rabbis." There is another passage in the book in which he blames rich Jews for the fate of poor Jewish victims. It makes me cringe when I read it.

Years ago a friend, a Holocaust survivor, asked to read my grandfather’s book. She is a Polish Jew whose family was murdered by the Nazis. She had survived, after being helped and then betrayed by fellow Poles, by posing as a Polish Catholic girl. As such, she had worked in a German officer’s home taking care of his children, and subsequently wrote her own book about the war. When she handed my grandfather’s book back to me, she shrugged her tiny shoulders. "He didn’t have it so bad," she said.

She was right. Compared to what happened to her, my family had it easy. Still, I was offended and hurt by her words. By choosing to stay and fight the Nazis, rather than return to America, my grandfather had risked his own life and the lives of his wife and children. But courageous as he was (my mother says reckless), life was very different for a Catholic Gwiazdowski than for a Jew in Poland. My uncle, himself tortured by the Gestapo’s men, his wife a slave laborer, once said, "We didn’t suffer. The Jews suffered."

On September 1, 1939, there were twenty-five thousand people living in Suwalki. Fifteen thousand were Jewish; ten thousand Catholic. There are still thousands of Catholics living in Suwalki, but there are no Jews. Go through every Polish village and city, and much the same will be true. The shtetls are no more. Some have observed that post-war Poland is a Jewish cemetery.

When my mother talked about the war, she usually mentioned that our family saved Jews. But she usually added that the Jews in general were not grateful for this sacrifice. The proof of this, she said, was that Jews accuse Poles of being anti-Semitic.

My mother regularly sang the Polish national anthem, and I grew up believing that for all its sufferings Poland was the "Christ of nations." We were special for having been persecuted. Our Lady, Virgin Mary Queen of Poland, interceded to save "us" time and time again, we told one another. We were the other chosen people, even though that didn’t make it into the Bible.

Now I think that even using the phrase "Christ of nations" implicitly denies the existence of Polish Jews in much the same way as the giant cross that was put up outside the gates of Auschwitz. As a product of more enlightened times, I wasn’t taught that all Jewish people are Christ killers who, without conversion to Catholicism, would suffer eternal damnation. My grandfather’s generation grew up on that teaching, and worse.

My mother told me of being afraid of Jews in Suwalki before the war. She would run past their homes. She says she can’t remember why she was afraid.

The Catholic Church officially disavowed the charge of deicide against the Jewish people only in 1965, nine years after my grandfather died, and two years after my First Communion.

It is necessary for Catholic Poles and Polish Americans to acknowledge, as the Polish president recently did, that distinctly Polish and Roman Catholic anti-Jewish stereotypes and prejudices were a reason why more Poles did not risk their lives to save their Jewish brothers and sisters; why the majority watched as their neighbors were slaughtered by the Nazis, or rounded up for annihilation elsewhere; why neighbors denounced Jews in hiding, or, in the most hideous of pogroms, murdered them years later when the few survivors of the concentration camps tried to return home.

I know well that Poland has more "righteous gentiles" honored at the Israel memorial Yad Vashem for saving Jews than any other country. I know about the non-Jewish Poles slaughtered by the Nazis. I know that except for a fateful missed day of school for my mother, I might not have been born. But none of that can change the anti-Semitism that predated and survived the Nazis, and the failure—including my own failure as an adult—to admit the extent of anti-Semitism among Polish Catholics, and in my own family. Also, through words, deeds, and inaction, my beloved Roman Catholic Church laid a foundation for the Holocaust. I confess these sins, and find hope in the words written in a Jerusalem memorial: "Remembrance is the way to redemption."

Maybe my penance, as a civil-rights lawyer, is to remind everyone, myself included, that we are lucky to be living in a nation where our Constitution was amended to proclaim that black or white, rich or poor, Jew, Muslim, or Christian, are all equally human and equally precious under the law. May our past failures instruct us, warn us, and prepare us for these uncertain and dark times.


Related: Ordinary Poles, by John Connelly
The Miracle Worker, by Mollie Wilson O'Reilly

Published in the 2002-01-11 issue: 

Alexander Charns is a lawyer, author, and parishioner of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Durham, North Carolina.

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