Sylwia Szymanska-Smolkin

Sylwia Szymanska-Smolkin
Sylwia Szymanska-Smolkin

Claims Conference Fellows come from, and are studying in, numerous countries. Sylwia Szymanska-Smolkin, originally from Poland, is one of the scholars whose research is partially funded by the Claims Conference.

Sylwia is studying the Polish Police and their dealings with the Jewish population during WWII, but growing up in Jozefow, Poland, she was not really aware that there had been a Jewish population to speak of. Sylwia was born in nearby Otwock, a town that was once more than 50 percent Jewish, but the past was buried, even if it was a shallow grave and a Jewish presence was never mentioned. Sylwia can remember a class that spoke about the fate of Poles in WWII; the teacher spoke of Polish victimhood, admiration for the Polish resistance and pride in the home army. There was only a brief mention of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But Sylwia heard something in the void and a whisper of words not said.

1989, with Communist rule overthrown, was the beginning of a more public discussion of the Jewish history in WWII. By 1991, as Sylwia started high school, books on this topic were more readily available. Going to her local public library, Sylwia found a small worn book that drew her attention, a Polish translation of Isaac Bashevis Singer. In the back was a glossary of the Yiddish words. It took little more than that for Sylwia to fall in love with the language and to realize that Jews were co-creators of a rich Polish culture. It’s hard to know which had the greater hold over Sylwia, the intellectual challenge of a history unexplored or her new romance with this language that spoke to her heart.

By the time Sylwia finished high school, it was a foregone conclusion that she would be studying Polish Jewish history. Because of her personal connection to Otwock, she decided to start there. Otwock was the second largest ghetto in the Warsaw district and had up to 15,000 Jews before it was liquidated in 1942. Before the destruction of its Jewish past, Otwock was home to a thriving Jewish community and a large resort town.

Sylwia’s Master’s thesis focused on the Jewish population of Otwock during the Second World War. One of her recently published articles on the topic begins, “On August 19, 1942, the German and Ukrainian units liquidated the Otwock ghetto and deported over seven thousand Jews to Treblinka… In one day, the second largest ghetto in the Warsaw district ceased to exist… What made the Otwock ghetto so unique was that it occupied much of the area of a popular resort town.” It is the study of a resort town’s transformation. The Otwock ghetto was divided into residential living quarters and health resort living quarters. The latter had no equal. Sylwia studied this relatively open ghetto, which maintained contact not only with the “aryan” part of town but with the Warsaw Ghetto as well; how the ghetto affected the lives of Poles and Jews; and how contact was maintained between the ghetto inhabitants and the local Polish population.

While researching the Otwock ghetto Sylwia came across a record of a Polish Police chief who helped Jews. “There was a police chief in Otwock,” she says, “who helped a few kids. After the liquidation of the ghetto he helped hide them in a convent and would warn them about German searches. A few years ago he was posthumously recognized [by Yad Vashem] as a righteous among the nations.” This led to her study of the Polish Police, the topic for her doctoral dissertation, and a search to determine if there was collaboration between the Nazis and Polish Police as a whole institution, or if it was the personal collaboration of individuals. Her thesis is titled, “In the Service of the Third Reich: The Polish Police and Their Policies Towards the Jewish Population in Occupied Poland, 1939-1944.”

Continuing her Yiddish studies, Sylwia met her husband at a Yiddish seminar. He was a Canadian-born Jewish musician and artistic director of the Ashkenaz festival and when they married she moved to Toronto, his hometown, which put her squarely in the Jewish community. More than anything, the move gave her the opportunity to meet Holocaust survivors from the towns of which she wrote. And history came alive. When she was able to meet the people who lived through what she read about, “it had a huge impact,” explains Sylwia. “Sometimes it is hard to write the history of place that is just in documents. It is a dry history. But then I met someone who left Otwock in September 1939 and survived the war in Russia, losing his family to the gas chambers. And I met another survivor who at the age of 13 escaped the ghetto just before liquidation, and my research came alive. It’s so important that I met them.”

Sylwia’s mother and sister are still in Poland. Asking Sylwia how they feel about her studies and interests she laughs, “I always get that question.” Though she and her family are not Jewish themselves, her parents were always supportive. Sylwia will admit though that her continued interest did inspire her mother, and many of her friends, to pick up a book on the topic and learn a little about Poland’s Jewish past. At this point Sylwia intimates that it’s possible some of the silence stems from discomfort. “Because of the issue of restitution, it is easier not to think about the Jews who once lived in your home.”

In her research Sylwia has found that there were those who neglected orders when they could and were arrested for helping Jews, and there were those who went beyond what was asked of them in their cruelty and brutality. The Polish Police had to work under the occupying German forces. Local Poles despised them as servants of the Germans, while Germans threatened them with camps and death if they did not follow orders. And their responses were varied. “I realized that the long-sustained black and white picture of the Polish Police, that they were collaborators, was not so black and white,” Sylwia explained.

Having flown more than 30,000 miles to uncover research in different archives, Sylwia is tired of travel and itching to begin writing. But there are still archives to search and documents to study. She would like to explore the degree to which Nazis were involved in the day-to-day activities of the Polish Police and the degree to which the Polish Police bear sole responsibility for their actions. But as of now, she is still wary of drawing any conclusions as to how to depict the Polish Police during WWII.