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Monday, April 19, 2021

The Polish Home Army and the Jews by Professor Joshua Zimmerman

The Polish Underground’s military wing – the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK) - was the largest resistance movement in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War. While several resistance groups operated inside German-occupied Poland, the Home Army was by far the largest, constituting approximately three-fourths of underground fighters. Established by order of the Polish government-in-exile in November 1939, the Home Army (then named the Union of Armed Forces, ZWZ) served as a part of the Allied war effort fighting Nazi Germany. Its commander in Warsaw swore allegiance to the Polish government-in-exile and carried the title of deputy commander of the Polish Armed Forces. Through this chain of command, the Polish government-in-exile theoretically directed military actions inside occupied Poland throughout the war. 

By June 1944, the Home Army swelled to an estimated 350,000 fighters making it the second-largest resistance movement in German-occupied Europe next to Yugoslavia.1 Due to its numerical strength, the underground army represented a cross-section of Polish society as a whole, with members drawn from all social classes. Until March 1944, when part of the extreme right-wing National Armed Forces (NSZ) joined, the Home Army consisted of members loyal to one of the five prewar opposition parties: the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), the Democratic Party, the centrist Christian democratic Labor Party (SP), the center-right Peasant Party (SL) and the right-wing National Party (ND). The underground forces of the Polish communist party, the fighters of the Polish Worker’s Party (PPR) established in January 1942, remained separate throughout the war as well, as did the National Armed Forces (NSZ). Since the fall of communism in 1989, the Home Army has remained “one of the sacred icons of Polish memory,”2 as internationally acclaimed writer Eva Hoffman maintained. 

When the German occupying authorities ordered the mass murder of Jews in Soviet lands occupied in the second half of 1941, the organizational initiative for responding to the genocide fell almost entirely upon the Polish Underground and its military wing. The response of the Polish Underground to the systematic annihilation of Polish and European Jewry is both complex and controversial. 


The reaction of the Polish Underground Home Army to the persecution and annihilation of the Jews was extraordinarily varied, ranging from aid efforts to the murder of Jews both in hiding and fighting as armed partisans. The reasons for this seeming contradiction – that the same organization both aided and harmed Jews - is connected to the structure of the underground itself. The Home Army was an umbrella organization representing Polish society as a whole, including socialists, liberals, peasants, and extreme nationalists. Home Army members were drawn from clandestine forces of the various parties in the underground’s political wing. The attitude of these men and women towards the Jews often corresponded with the platforms of the political parties to which they belonged and which shaped their civic values. The underground’s non-military bodies – the Delegate’s Bureau and the Political Advisory Committee - were also drawn from a wide range of social and political elements within Polish society. Thus, to the question of whether or not the Polish Underground was hostile to Jews, the answer can only be a variegated one. 

Assessing Home Army attitudes also has to take into account changes in the underground itself during the different periods of the war. Throughout the war, the Polish Underground incorporated new political and military groups under its command. Most egregious with regard to the Jews was the incorporation of the clandestine forces of the Cadre Strike Battalion (UBK) in August 1943, as well as a part of the National Armed Forces (NSZ) in March 1944. The latter organizations were openly antisemitic. There is documentary evidence that some of their units collaborated with the Germans in northeastern Poland in the pursuit and murder of hidden Jews.

In stark contrast, and at the same time that the UBK and NSZ were hunting for Jews, the central authorities of the Polish Underground issued and carried out death sentences against Poles who blackmailed Jews (szmalcowniks). Polish historian, the late Teresa Prekerowa, found that 30% of the death sentences pronounced by the underground court in Warsaw on collaborators were for szmalcowniks.3 The latter pronouncements were published in the clandestine press of the Home Army & Delegate’s Bureau with the names and addresses of the criminals to exact maximum shame and to provide disincentives for would-be and current szmalcowniks. 

The Polish Underground, on the initiative of the Home Army's Jewish Affairs Bureau and Catholic organizations, also established one of the largest Jewish aid networks in German-occupied Europe. The Council for Aid to the Jews (Żegota) was established in December 1942 under the auspices of the Delegate's Bureau. The organization, with funds from the Polish government-in-exile and Jewish organizations in the US and Britain, gave assistance to Jews hiding outside of ghettos and camps. It provided the essentials needed for survival on the Aryan side: sets of false papers, money, work permits, and shelter. Perhaps the most outstanding representative of Żegota was Irena Sendler, who, with her legion of Polish helpers, rescued an estimated 350 children from the Warsaw Ghetto.4  Żegota also included Jews on its executive board, such as Adolf Berman and Shmuel Feiner, thus making it a collaborative, Polish-Jewish aid organization.

The Polish Underground also played a key role in getting out vital information to the free world about the fate of the Jews in what became known as the Holocaust. The Home Army’s Jewish Affairs Bureau chief, Henryk Woliński, was instrumental in preparing reports on the ghettos and death camps for the underground authorities in Warsaw. A steady flow of these reports, beginning in the second half of 1941, reached London where they provided the Polish government-in-exile with enough reliable evidence that it presented to the United Nations as proof of Nazi crimes.5 In occupied Poland, the clandestine press of the Home Army and Delegate’s Bureau, with few exceptions, aggressively informed Polish society about the course of the Holocaust. It also used its pages for the dissemination of death sentences on Polish szmalcowniks.6

Geography was another factor that accounts for the immensely varied response of the Polish Underground to the persecution and destruction of the Jews during World War II. The Home Army in Eastern Poland, established in 1941-1942, brought into the ranks of the underground new social and political elements. In northeastern Poland, in particular, the attitude towards the Jews was more decidedly hostile than in other parts of Poland. Here, in territory that the Soviet Union officially regarded as their own, the local Home Army often saw Soviet partisans as a greater threat than were the Germans. As the tide of the war turned inexorably in favor of the Soviets, and it became clear that liberation was going to come from the east, and together with it the threat of long-term Communist occupation, the Home Army in northeastern Poland increasingly identified local Jews as hostile, pro-Soviet elements. This led to several cases of local Home Army commanders waging battles against Jewish partisans desperately trying to survive in the forests. Reports of local Home Army commanders to the district chiefs in northeastern Poland falsely labeled Jewish partisans “Bolshevik-Jewish bands”. Jewish partisans in the area of Nowogródek, Białystok, Vilna and Lublin often lived in fear of repercussions and persecution at the hands of the Home Army.7 

Jewish partisans in Eastern Poland commented on this phenomenon. “The members of the Armia Krajowa,” Harold Werner remarked, “were very anti-Semitic, exhibiting the same attitudes they had held before the war. Now, however, they were armed, and Jews were ‘fair game’ for their attacks.”8  Still, others, like Norman and Amalie Salsitz, concurred. Norman, who posed as a Catholic when he joined the Armia Krajowa in Eastern Poland, shared the organization's goal of defeating the German Nazis. Yet the antisemitic orientation of his unit became quickly clear. When the unit commander authorized a mission to murder Jews hiding in a bunker on a local farm, Norman volunteered. As the unit approached the farmland, Norman turned on his unit, shooting the AK members in order to free the three hidden Jews. It is not surprising, therefore, that Norman and his wife – also a former partisan – later remarked that "the AK groups began to roam the forests and they proved just as dangerous to us as were the Germans.”9

In contrast, the local Home Army in the southeastern district of Lwów tended to see Jews as loyal elements in the increasingly bloody Polish-Ukrainian conflict. The consequence of this unique set of circumstances in the Lwów district was not only the enlistment of many Jewish individuals into the Home Army but the case of Jewish platoons fighting under a friendly Polish Home Army command. The most dramatic case was Hanaczów, a village located 25 miles southeast of Lwów that was under Home Army control and was protecting 250 Jews. When, in April 1944, German forces, aided by the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, entered Hanczów to ferret out the Jews, the Home Army commander – Lt. Kazimierz Wojtowicz - ordered his fighters to attack the enemy. While holding the Germans and Ukrainians at bay, the Home Army commander ordered his remaining forces to evacuate all Jews in hiding to evade capture. By the time the Germans broke through the Home Army lines, two-thirds of the Jews of Hanaczów had already fled. The result was that 180 of the 250 hidden Jews survived the war. Based on the testimonies of these survivors, Yad Vashem bestowed upon Lt. Wojtowicz and his two deputy commanders – his brothers Alojzy and Antoni - the title of Righteous Among Nations. In their memoir published in 1992, brothers Alojzy and Antoni expressed a deeply-felt pride in having protected Jews and deep sadness for the ones who were murdered in the raid on Hanaczów.10

One of these Jewish evacuees was 17-year-old Selma Horowitz. Born in Hanaczów in 1927, the Home Army evacuated Selma, her mother, and her three younger siblings in April 1944. "The Home Army helped us," Selma recalled, "because we knew many of its people from Hanaczów. They came from the same village. They were also educated people – most of them had gone to the university in Lwów.”11 

In central Poland, the Home Army record was more mixed. Here, the bulk of the liberal wing within the Delegate's Bureau and Home Army operated in the central underground bodies, and this led to a more favorable climate. 

Based on the documentary evidence, both unpublished and published, we can conclude that the bodies making up the Home Army linked to the Polish government-in-exile were both pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish, friendly and hostile, righteous gentiles at best and vicious murders at worst. Joe Cameron, a Jewish partisan from the Vilna region, expressed this mixed legacy when asked if the entire Home Army was antisemitic in character. “I didn’t have bad experiences personally,” he replied, “but it was a feeling that [the Home Army] didn’t like Jews, not everybody, some.”12 

Joshua D. Zimmerman
Eli and Diana Zborowski Professorial Chair in Holocaust Studies 
and East European Jewish History 
Yeshiva University 

1. Tomasz Strzembosz, Rzeczpospolita podziemna: Społeczeństwo polskie a państwo podziemne, 1939-1945 (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krupski i S-ka, 2000), 224.
2. Tomasz Strzembosz, Rzeczpospolita podziemna: Społeczeństwo polskie a państwo podziemne, 1939-1945 (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krupski i S-ka, 2000), 224.
3. Teresa Prekerowa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie, 1942-1945 (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1982), 294.
4. Anna Bikont, Sendlerowa: w ukryciu (Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2017), 246.
5. See, for example, The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland: Note Addressed to the Governments of the United Nations on December 10th, 1942, and other Comments  (London & New York: Republic of Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1942).
6. Examples of such announcements of Poles executed for blackmailing Jews in the Home Army press include, in Warsaw: “Obwieszczenie,” Biuletyn Informacyjny (Warsaw), 8 July 1943, p. 2; “Obwieszczenie,” Biuletyn Informacyjny, 16 September 1943, p. 1; & Biuletyn Informacyjny, 9 December 1943, p. 1; in Kraków: Biuletyn Informacyjny Małopolski (Kraków), 27 November 1943; & Biuletyn Informacyjny Małopolski (Kraków), 5 December 1943.  For a discussion of these cases, see Joshua D. Zimmerman, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945 (2017), ch. 11.   
7. See Zimmerman, The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939-1945, ch. 10. 
8. Harold Werner, Fighting Back: A Memoir of Jewish Resistance in World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 155.
9.  Norman and Amalie Salsitz, Against All Odds: a Tale of Two Survivors (New York: Holocaust Library, 1990), 350-351; and
10. Wojtowicz, Alojzy and Antoni Wojtowicz. Kronika małej ojczyzny: w Lwowskim Okręgu AK. (Zielona Góra: [s.n.], 1992). 112.
11.Selma Horowitz, telephone interview with the author, 30 March 2009.
12. Transcript of interview with Abe Asner and Joe Cameron, September 2001, Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation oral history archive, Tape 6;  On Joe Cameron, see