Given the sheer scale of starvation, genocide and physical destruction Warsaw witnessed during World War II, memories of the city during the previous World War tend to pale in comparison and are largely forgotten. In Warsaw today there is almost no concerted public effort to recall or reflect on the suffering of its citizens during the Great War.
According to historian Robert Blobaum, two explanations exist for this historical amnesia in Poland’s collective consciousness: Firstly, most of the written records documenting the war were either destroyed, or else were taken from Warsaw by the occupying powers at the time, never to return. Secondly, the narrative doesn’t fit well with the history of modern Poland, which is one of victimization and martyrdom, Blobaum explains.
“There has been no effort at the state level in Poland to bring this [history] together. And there is not even a World War I museum in Poland,” he says.
The professor of history at West Virginia University recently published “A Minor Apocalypse: Warsaw During the First World War,” which seeks to understand the social and political history of Warsaw between 1914 and 1918.
‘There is not even a WWI museum in Poland’
Along with other central and eastern European cities, Warsaw was caught between the armies of the Russian Empire and the Central Powers, and occupied by both.
Warsaw entered the war not as a capital city, but as a third city of the Russian Empire, after St. Petersburg and Moscow. It was occupied by the Russians until 1915, and then by the Germans until the war ended in 1918, after which Poland received its independence.
Unlike the Poles, who had mixed feelings about the Russian evacuation in Warsaw and the arrival of the new occupiers, most Jews greeted the end of Russian rule in 1915 with open relief.
“Russian rule was obviously not very friendly to Jews in Warsaw during the first years of the war,” says Blobaum.
‘Russian rule was obviously not very friendly to Jews in Warsaw during the first years of the war’
“Jews became suspected of spying and were called ‘enemy aliens,’ a category they shared with ethnic Germans. There was also a crackdown and complete banning of the Yiddish language press in Warsaw as the Russians prepared their evacuation. The last year of Russian rule was particularly unfriendly to Jews,” he says.
Warsaw and other such cities in central and eastern Europe during this period, Blobaum explains, were not yet the “bloodlands” they would become during WWII.
But they were certainly “war lands” says Blobaum, where death, starvation and disease happened to the city’s citizens on an unprecedented scale.
The historian — who is also the author of “Rewolucja: Russian Poland,1904-1907” and editor of “Antisemitism and its Opponents in Modern Poland” — spends significant time in this latest tome looking at the fate of the Jews in Warsaw, both in the pre-war period and during the war itself.
His book points out that over the course of the war an estimated 200,000 Jewish refugees passed through Warsaw, a crisis that caused mass hysteria in the Polish press at the time. There were widespread claims that these Jewish refugees caused public health concerns for the city.
These Jews were coming predominantly from the shtetls around Warsaw, Blobaum explains.
“The peak number was around 80,000 at one time. Most were coming from areas of the Russian-German war zone — communities that were simply uprooted by the Russian army, and where the only place they had to go was Warsaw,” he says.
Before WWI, Blobaum’s book explains, relations between Poles and Jews, the two major ethno-religious groups in Warsaw at the time, were not good.
But they were about to get far worse. Much of this conflict arose out of the mass and electoral politics that emerged from the 1905 Russian Revolution, and the subsequent rise of Jewish separatists who demanded equal rights, including certain rights for the Yiddish language.
A widening rift
“Two sides came out [politically] in Warsaw following the 1905 Russian Revolution,” Blobaum explains.
“The Polish National Democrats, who became increasingly radicalized and anti-Semitic in the process. And the Zionists, on the Jewish side, who were also nationalists, but of a different sort altogether.”
“There was also an increasing radicalization within the Zionist movement,” Blobaum adds, “so the victory of nationalism was always going to magnify divisions and help to sharpen them.”
It was assumed in the pre-war period that the much-feared Judeo-Polonia — an anti-Semitic term Polish nationalists used to describe the supposed domination and takeover of Jews in Polish politics and society — had occurred on the banks of the Vistula. Nationalists claimed Jewish voters joined the Polish Left in defeating the candidate of the Polish Center-Right, Jan Kucharzewski, for Warsaw’s seat in the Duma elections of 1912.
“From about 1912 to 1914, there was a Polish nationalist-led boycott of Jewish commerce in Warsaw,” says Blobaum.
Polish nationalists during this period become deeply concerned about the Jewish vote, says Blobaum. There was also the question of who controlled Warsaw’s commerce.
‘There was a fear — manufactured for the most part — that Poland was being overrun by Jews’
“So numbers became increasingly important in the Polish national political discourse,” says the historian. “There was a fear — manufactured for the most part — that Poland was being overrun by Jews. Even though in overall numbers, the Jewish population was decreasing relative to Polish populations.”
Prior to WWI, this downward spiral of relations between Poles and Jews in Warsaw must also be seen as part of a much larger narrative about the deterioration of Christian-Jewish relations in central and eastern Europe in general, Blobaum says.
“Images of Jews being associated with dishonesty, speculation and fraud were typical in Poland before WWI, as they were in other parts of central and eastern Europe too,” he says.
The transfer of power, once the Russians evacuated Warsaw in 1915, was not actually directed to the Germans, but to the Warsaw Citizens Committee. The non-governmental organization (NGO) was formed at the beginning of the war, with imperial Russian approval, to assist the Russian authorities in dealing with the war’s economic and social side effects on the home front.
As the war continued, the committee became the city’s main welfare organization.
As Blobaum explains, the Warsaw Citizens Committee was not particularly friendly to Jews. The organization was dominated by Polish nationalists and Catholic conservatives, who had their own issues with Jews.
The organization also had its own militia: the Citizens’ Guard.
‘Images of Jews being associated with dishonesty, speculation and fraud were typical in Poland before WWI’
Distinguished by their blue caps and red and white armbands, the Citizens’ Guard constituted the only real police authority in the city at the time, and they often took power into their own hands.
“During the days of what was a kind of power vacuum that existed between the Russian evacuation and the German entrance into the city, the Citizens’ Guard controlled Jewish streets [across Warsaw],” says Blobaum.
“And their presence in the Jewish community was a cause of concern. There were numerous complaints about brutality, harassment, and discrimination. And that would carry over into the subsequent period,” the historian adds.
The road to Auschwitz
Blobaum also focuses his attention to Imperial German policies and practices in the occupied east during WWI, and wonders if there is any correlation, in terms of treatment of Jews, between this earlier period and the Nazi occupation regime during WWII.
Before WWII, the population of the city stood at 1.3 million. Between 1939 and 1945, however, 700,000 deaths arose as a direct consequence of the conflict and the Nazi occupation. Many of these occurred in the Warsaw ghetto, where 400,000 Jews were forced to live in an area of 1.3 square miles, and where death rates exceeded birth rates at a ratio of four to one.
By April 1943, meanwhile, the Warsaw Uprising had begun.
When Soviet troops liberated the city in 1945, it had been completely leveled. Only 174,000 people were left in the decimated metropolis. 11,500 of the survivors were Jews. The majority of Jews who had been in the ghetto previously, before it was liquidated, were sent to death camps such as Treblinka.
With all of that in mind, Blobaum in his current book, asks rather directly: Does the road to Auschwitz somehow lead through Warsaw during the Great War?
“The economic conditions of WWI and the early post war period certainly helped to exacerbate the kind of anti-Semitism that inspired the Nazi movement,” Blobaum admits.
However, the historian claims there are no visible signs from the historical documents available from this period of anti-Semitism from the Germans within Warsaw itself during WWI.
In fact, once the German army began to occupy Warsaw following the Russian evacuation of 1915, Blobaum claims they seemed determined to perform a balancing act between Poles and Jews as a means of keeping the peace.
“There is a long debate in German historiography about this issue,” says Blobaum.
“But the Germans, especially early in the occupation, tried to preserve the peace in Warsaw. The Jews of Warsaw were relieved when the Germans came in.”