Reactions of Lviv Residents to the Holocaust

ID: 199
Theme ellaborates on the behavioral models spectrum and multiplicity of reactions on the Holocaust among non-Jewish residents of Lviv. 

The theme was prepared as a part of the program The Complicated Pages of Common History: Telling About World War II in Lviv.

The extermination of Jews during World War II took place in plain sight and sometimes with the direct participation of their neighbours. In discussions about the behaviour of Ukrainians or Poles during the Holocaust, two extremes can often be observed, namely, emphasizing and generalizing the attitude of compassion and help or, conversely, anti-Semitism and cruelty. Researchers identify several common reactions of the civilian population of the Nazi-occupied territories to the Holocaust: long-term assistance to Jews, situational assistance, passive compassion, refusal to assist for fear of Nazi terror, indifference, blackmail and szmalcownictwo (activities of szmalcowniki, a Polish term for people, who blackmailed Jews in hiding or those who helped them), reporting Jews to the Nazis and participation in anti-Jewish violence (pogroms and killings). Among the reasons for the indifference and aggressive hostility to Jews during the Nazi occupation, historians cite not only ingrained anti-Semitic attitudes, such as stereotypes of "Jewish communists" or boundless "Jewish wealth”, but also settling personal scores and using the wartime situation for one's own profit. Thus, Stanisław Lem, recalling the last months of the Nazi occupation in Lviv, wrote as follows:

I have another strange and horrible memory. So, before the war many houses belonged to Jews, and there were rumours that Jews were burying their gold in the basements. Crashing and knocking could be heard everywhere, as if it had been a Klondike: people spent days searching the basements. I do not know whether they found anything…
(Świat na krawędzi. Ze Stanisławem Lemem rozmawia Tomasz Fiałkowski, Kraków, 2015)

Not the least role was played by the processes characteristic of many societies in conditions of military conflict, such as the collapse of the usual system of values and laws, general demoralization, impoverishment, getting used to everyday cruelty and death and constant fear. Significant influence was exerted by anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda, which portrayed all Jews as, for example, carriers of typhus or followers of communism. Non-Jewish reactions to public violence varied. The actions of the Lviv pogrom at the beginning of the Nazi occupation took place on the streets of the city with the active participation of its inhabitants. Rabbi David Kahane recalls that the destruction of the synagogues attracted crowds of observers, many of whom openly rejoiced at what was happening. At the same time, Nazi reports also mention that brutal anti-Jewish actions provoked a negative reaction from other residents, tarnishing the "German reputation" in the city.

The phenomenon of szmalcownictwo became one of the manifestations of the collapse of the social coexistence norms in the time of war and extreme violence. The word szmalcownik comes from the criminal dialect, from ger. Schmalz (lard), meaning "dirty, greasy money"; this name was given to those who demanded ransom from Jews or their rescuers under threat of reporting them to the Nazis. Investigating this phenomenon in occupied Poland, historian Jan Grabowski questions the thesis that the szmalcowniki were exclusively members of the police or came from criminal circles or social margins. The researcher also distinguishes between the phenomena of blackmail and szmalcownictwo. We can talk about blackmail until the autumn of 1941, when German occupation law did not envisage the death penalty for violating anti-Jewish laws. The situation changed dramatically on October 15, 1941, when Governor-General Hans Frank ordered the death penalty for the Jews cought outside the ghetto and for the non-Jews who assisted them. Unlike the occupiers, prewar neighbours could easily identify Jews they often knew personally. The szmalcowniki acted individually or in groups, taking turns at the entrances to the ghetto in search of fugitives. In such situations, poor Jews or those who had lost all their pre-war savings, had virtually no chance of escape. The most tabooed topic was the gender aspect of szmalcownictwo, as women who could not afford to pay blackmailers could become victims of rape. Szmalcownictwo was mostly used for profit, some believed that they carried out the orders of the occupying regime, while others were motivated by ideological and anti-Semitic attitudes or old personal scores. In addition to the immediate victims, a side effect of szmalcownictwo was growing fear both among Jews who feared escaping from the ghetto and among those who hesitated to help them because of the threat of blackmail and denunciations.

In pre-war Lviv, characteristic features of interethnic relations were ethnocentrism and national isolationism. These tensions escalated during the Soviet time and reached a climax during the Nazi occupation. Most non-Jews also suffered from the Nazi rule, mostly remaining passive as to the fate of their neighbours during the Holocaust. In conditions of constant fear and physical and social separation of the city's national communities, even the slightest assistance to the Jews was much more difficult. The rescuers of the Jews belonged to a small part of society. Guided by various motives, they made the difficult decision to help others, risking their own lives and the safety of their loved ones at risk of the death penalty.

An important role was played by organizations and structures that could provide an effective network of help and support at various stages of the rescue of Jews. In Lviv, the most active organized assistance was provided by Żegota, an underground council for the aid to Jews, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It is difficult to create a comprehensive portrait of people who tried to save Jews from extermination. Among them, there were people of different ethnic backgrounds, genders, religions and educations — both members of the local intelligentsia or clergy and poor and illiterate people. The help took various forms of individual or organized activity, such as short or long-term hiding, organization of shelters, assistance in escaping from ghettos or forced labour camps, production of forged "Aryan" documents, financial, medical, psychological support, food and medicine, etc. Many of the rescuers and survivors had close professional or personal relationships before the war. Sometimes members of the same family — or even the same people — worked for the Nazis and, at the same time, rescued their Jewish acquaintances. The decision to help was often made without the knowledge of the immediate environment due to the danger of denunciation. Financial support was important, in particular the issue of keeping and feeding those in hiding in wartime conditions of shortage and impoverishment. Sometimes the help was free; sometimes, however, the Jews had to pay their rescuers much more than the situation required.

In 1953, by a resolution of the Knesset, the Yad Vashem Institute was established in Israel to honour the memory of the Holocaust victims and heroes. One of its tasks was to honour the "Righteous Among the Nations." The righteous were non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. A commission was set up under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Israel to award this honorary title. In its work, the commission is guided by clear requirements, examining documents, testimonies of survivors and witnesses, evaluating the accompanying circumstances, on the basis of which it decides whether a particular case meets the necessary criteria. As of June 16, 2018, this title was awarded to 2,573 Ukrainians and 6,706 Poles. By the number of the Righteous, Ukraine ranks fourth in the world. These statistics do not include the cases where the rescued did not live till the end of the Nazi occupation, did not testify to the aid they had received or when rescuers were executed for their actions. Most of the titles were awarded in the 1990s and 2000s, when the subject of the Holocaust ceased to be a taboo after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus, it is very difficult to establish the exact number of those who provided assistance. The fragmentary and limited wartime sources and oral history do not make it possible to clearly define the relationship between those who helped and those who reported, blackmailed or committed violence. Through the personal stories of Lviv residents who had different experiences during the war (were victims, rescuers, witnesses, perpetrators), we will consider the conditionality of the boundaries and categories that divide this experience as well as the dynamics of human behaviour in conditions of extreme violence.

List of places:
1. In one house: neighbours, housekeepers and concierges. Ul. Jabłonowskich 8a (now Shota Rustaveli)
2. Personal networks in conditions of extreme violence. Ul. Akademicka (now prosp. Shevchenka)
3. Black market as a space of contact: "Krakidaly”, now the Dobrobut market. Pl. Krakowski (now vul. Stara, 3)
4. (Non)-saving work. Ul. Gródecka boczna (now vul. Korotka)
5. The Church and the Holocaust: St. George Cathedral and the Metropolitan Palace
6. Żegota, Council for Aid to Jews in Lviv, ul. Nabielaka 14 (now vul. Kotliarevskoho)
7. Rudolf Weigl’s Institute. Ul. Potockiego 45 (now vul. Henerala Chuprynky)
8. Maksymilian Goldstein: a saved collection. Ul. Nowy Świat 15
9. Stories of rescuers: Władysław Różycki. Railway station, pl. Wilsona 1 (now pl. Dvirtseva)
10. Stories of rescuers: Zdzisław and Zofia Bielińscy. Ul. Czarneckiego (now vul. Vynnychenka)
11. Stories of rescuers: Remigiusz Węgrzynowicz. Ul. Królowej Jadwigi 24 (now vul. Marka Vovchka)
12. Stories of rescuers: Maria Huszcz-Borusińska. Ul. Żółkiewska 48 (now vul. B. Khmelnytskoho)
13. Survive in Lviv: the Allerhand family (map story). Ul. Sobieskiego 32 (now vul. Brativ Rohatyntsiv)

All stories



In one house: neighbours, housekeepers and concierges

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Personal networks in conditions of extreme violence

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Black market as a space of contact: "Krakidaly”

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The Church and the Holocaust

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Żegota, Council for Aid to Jews in Lviv

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Rudolf Weigl’s Institute

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Maksymilian Goldstein: a saved collection

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Stories of rescuers: Remigiusz Węgrzynowicz

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Stories of rescuers: Zdzisław and Zofia Bielińscy

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Stories of rescuers: Maria Huszcz-Borusińska

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Cover photo: Lviv, view of the Hauptstrasse (now vul. Ivana Franka), 1941-44. Source: City Media Archive of the Center for Urban History

Anna Chebotariova
Translated by Andriy Masliukh