A. Wierzcholska: Nur Erinnerungen und Steine sind geblieben

Nur Erinnerungen und Steine sind geblieben. Leben und Sterben einer polnisch-jüdischen Stadt: Tarnów 1918–1945

Wierzcholska, Agnieszka
Paderborn 2022: Ferdinand Schöningh
Anzahl Seiten
665 S.
€ 89,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Izabela Paszko, Institut für Zeitgeschichte München–Berlin

In 1956, the last 200 Jews left Tarnów – a midsized town in south-eastern Poland. Their exodus marked the end of the centuries-long Jewish presence in this area. The tragic events during the Second World War culminated in the vanishing of the Jewish community from the city’s landscape. In her book, Agnieszka Wierzcholska tells the story of the local Jewish community before, during, and after the Holocaust against the background of the social constellations in Tarnów. She reconstructs the events and social trajectories that led to the erasure of the Jewish inhabitants of the town who had made up 47 percent of its total population in 1936.

Wierzcholska’s book is based on her PhD thesis defended at Freie Universität Berlin in 2019. Wierzcholska skilfully uses official and private documents for creating a well-balanced narration based on a broad corpus of original sources. Her meticulous and detailed analysis significantly expands the scope of the existing literature on the subject.[1] While the wartime period constitutes the bedrock of her study, Wierzcholska provides essential prewar context to it. What is more, she extends her research to the immediate years after the war as well. In this way, the history of the Tarnów Jews and their extermination during the Holocaust is not detached from historical continuity. Wierzcholska’s attention for the postwar period contributes to explain the actual postwar departure of the remaining Jewish population from Tarnów. More importantly, Wierzcholska courageously approaches what she calls „explosive material” by facing difficult questions on antisemitism, collaboration and the intentions behind rescue and denunciation by non-Jewish Poles (p. 3).

The decision to choose Tarnów for a micro-historical study on these issues is well justified: Wierzcholska opted for a midsized Polish town (within the Polish borders before and after the war) with representative source material and proven continuity ("pre- and postwar") of Jewish presence in the town (p. 8). After initial archival research on Siedlce, Chełmno, Nowy Sącz and Tarnów, Wierzcholska decided to focus on the latter due to the richness of the source corpus available.

Wierzcholska’s book is structured in two main parts, which are devoted to the interwar period and to the Holocaust (including the postwar years until 1956) respectively. Her text is arranged along spaces of interaction. Referring to the symbolic dominants of the microcosm of prewar Tarnów, which crystallised in the three recognisable buildings of church, townhall and synagogue, Wierzcholska reconstructs the social (and power) relations within the walls of public schools, city councils, etc. In this way, Wierzcholska stratifies her narration in layers and succeeds to penetrate the micro-history of Jewish Tarnów.

In the first part of her book, Wierzcholska unfolds the dynamics of the division of power that was established in the city after Poland regained independence in 1918. She charts the map of mutual local dependencies, in which two socialist groups came to the fore: the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and General Jewish Labour Bund. In the context of local self-government institutions, a new Jewish urban elite emerged, headed by Zygmunt Szaja Silbiger – the Jewish vice president of Tarnów. Wierzcholska problematizes the place of Jews in the newly-founded Polish state and their identity, alongside the ongoing politicisation of the category of ethnicity. She also contextualises the microcosm of local politics with the polarisation of approaches towards the Jews. The intensification of antisemitism in the late 1930s would pave the way for German antisemitic policies in many ways.

The narration in the second part of the book follows the systematic chronology established in Holocaust historiography. Accordingly, Wierzcholska differentiates between three main phases, starting from the occupation of the town by the Wehrmacht, through mass extermination in the course of Operation “Reinhardt” (from early 1942), and closing with the liquidation of the Tarnów Ghetto in 1943. The fates of the Jewish inhabitants of Tarnów were intertwined with the attitudes and actions of non-Jews (ethnic Poles), many of which were not easily justifiable. Wierzcholska presents the whole spectrum of interactions, from selfless help and acts of kindness to denunciations and “hunts for Jews” (Judenjagd). The places of mutual interaction changed after the implementation of anti-Jewish policies by the German occupiers. Interactions shifted from the market square and town streets to hollows in ghetto walls, hideouts in the attics, and fields outside the town. With regard to the progressing exclusion Jews from the public space, Wierzcholska follows Tim Cole’s concept of “landscape of exclusion”. She agrees with the British historian, that the Shoah occurred not only within space but through it (p. 376).

The relations between Jews and non-Jewish inhabitants of Tarnów are described with a focus on the particular actions charted by rescue and betrayal. Potentially “explosive material” is especially analysed in the part concerning civil denunciations of those Jews who managed to escape from the ghetto. Due to its small size, the town did not provide enough anonymity for relatively secure survival of the war in hiding. Nevertheless, Wierzcholska’s work is far from generalisations, and she explicitly rejects allegations that the majority of ethnic Poles denounced Jews (p. 566). Instead of categorising the tangled relations between ethnic Poles and Jews in a dichotomous way, she raises further questions.

Challenging Hilberg’s triadic typology of genocidal violence (perpetrators – victims – bystanders), Wierzcholska asks for a more relevant category than “bystanders” with regard to the non-Jewish residents of Tarnów (p. 570). She questions the applicability of this category for both the “ordinary” inhabitants and those groups who were allegedly involved in the persecution of the Jews, namely the Blue (Polish) Police, Baudienst and the “Junacy” paramilitary youth organisation. Wierzcholska follows the footsteps of the methodology developed by Jan Tomasz Gross, Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking and explains the involvement of some local ethnic Poles in the abovementioned groups. She raises the issue of the fine and variable line between the persecution of Jews in the framework of official duties and individual initiative. On the other hand, Wierzcholska elaborates extensively on locals who provided rescue to persecuted Jews. Thus, her balanced narration provides another, important voice in current public memory debates on wartime Polish-Jewish relations.

In Wierzcholska’s take, the history of Tarnów’s Jews does not end with the atrocities during the Second World War. As an important post scriptum, she investigates the immediate postwar years, when Jewish returnees came back to Tarnów. Wierzcholska tackles the uneasy topic of hostility by non-Jews who had already taken over the properties of the Jews, who were not expected ever to return to their homes.[2] Yet, in the gloomy reality of Stalinist Poland, it seemed that Jewish life in Tarnów was restabilising itself again. The superficial process of rejuvenation was overshadowed by the drastic worsening of the relationship between Jews and non-Jewish Poles, culminating in pogroms in Kraków (in 1945) and Kielce (in 1946).

Wierzcholska’s coherent and well-structured book is a much-needed contribution to the growing literature on the Jewish micro-histories of small-sized towns and shtetls.[3] Not only does it chronicle the history of the Jewish community of Tarnów, but it asks difficult questions and often provides even more difficult answers. By expanding the chronological focus and giving nuance to the socio-political landscape of Tarnów, Wierzcholska provides essential context for her research on the annihilation of the Jews. She explores the whole spectrum of inter-group relations among the inhabitants of a town and succeeds to integrate both micro and macro perspectives into her narration. In doing so, she makes a significant contribution to recent research focusing on the social dynamics and local power relations before, during, and after the Holocaust in Poland.

[1] See Melanie Hembera, Die Shoah im Distrikt Krakau. Jüdisches Leben und deutsche Besatzung in Tarnów 1939–1945, Darmstadt 2016.
[2] Cf. Łukasz Krzyżanowski, Ghost Citizens. Jewish Return to a Postwar City, Cambridge, Mass. 2020, reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by Markus Nesselrodt, 19.01.2021, https://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-29727 (18.03.2023).
[3] Cf. e.g. Omer Bartov, Anatomy of a Genocide. The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, New York 2018, reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, 29.06.2018, https://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-26915 (18.03.2023); Mary Fulbrook, A Small Town near Auschwitz. Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust, Oxford 2012, reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by Markus Roth, 11.06.2013, https://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-18849 (18.03.2023).