Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Schmaltzer: Pay Up or Take the Train to Treblinka

   By Gary Dorion

           It was difficult enough for a Jew to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto-established not long after the German occupation of Poland in 1939. But many Jews had to leave the ghetto for Aryan Warsaw either legally (with a pass) or illegally to get food or check on loved ones in hiding or to try to get weapons from the Polish underground armies. Many also never lived in the ghetto or had escaped from the ghetto and were hiding in “Aryan” Warsaw. When they ventured out into the city they entered a minefield of risk where Schmalzers-the unscrupulous ever-vigilant blackmailers of Jews-were on the hunt. "Pay up or take the train to Treblinka."

           The Schmalzers preyed upon those who were already victimized 24 hours a day-the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and the many Jews in hiding on the so-called Aryan side (outside of the Ghetto). As long as these Jews had money or jewels to hand over to these criminals, they were okay. But when the valuables ran out so could their luck. The Nazis policy of forced starvation kept the cost of food and goods extremely high in the ghetto and it brutalized the Jewish poor and lower middle class. The policy was designed to deprive the Jews of their wealth and their lives. It forced the economically underprivileged to take the greatest risks. The Nazis also rewarded Poles and others for betraying their Jewish citizens.
          It was not until after the 1942 massive transports of the majority of the 400,000 Warsaw Ghetto Jews to Treblinka that Yitzak "Antek" Zuckerman, a survivor and commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa), began to order assassinations. Yet he apparently never marked these scavengers for assassination as he later ordered for Jews who had betrayed their own people to Nazis-too bad because the Schmaltzers had a devastating impact upon many lives and not just Jewish lives.
          After the major transports, Zuckerman states in his memoir, A Surplus of Memory, the ZOB was the authority in the ghetto and those Jews who were left recognized this fact. Each assassination of a Jewish traitor sent a chilling message to those seeking to profit by collaborating with the Nazis to the detriment of other Jews. By then of course, most of the ghetto Jews were gone.
          Had the Schmaltzers been targeted for assassination and ZOB leaflets circulated taking credit for assassinations as the ZOB did later for Jewish collaborators, it is doubtful that the Schmaltzers would have had such a free hand to blackmail Jews. But those were difficult times for the Jewish underground which was constantly and intensively hunted by the Gestapo, SS and their Polish collaborators.
           In his memoir Zuckerman describes various encounters he had with Schmaltzers. He stated,  “…don't forget that when the ghetto was established, the Polish blackmailers, the Shmaltsovniks, were already operating, making a living by blackmailing Jews. (Zuckerman, 126, A Surplus of Memory). "They worked near the cemetery gates. For instance, if I left as a Jew with a document and an armband, they knew I was leaving with a pass, but they followed me; and if they saw me take off the armband, I could wind up very badly."
         The Schmaltzers, of course, knew that Jews had to wear the Star of David that identified them as Jews. Thus it became very problematic to try to contact, for instance, the Polish underground armies-either the smaller underground Communist army known as the Armia Ludowa (people’s army supported by the Soviet Union under Stalin) or the underground national or home army known as the Armia Krojowa. You had to be able the to pay off the blackmailers. It took a person who was skilled at subterfuge to evade the Schmalzters-especially after they knew your face and you already had paid up once or twice. Zuckerman, who noted in his memoir that he always had money, knew how to play the game. The man was a born survivor who was lucky on many occasions. You could not have survived as a Jew in those days without being skillful or at least very lucky.   
         According to an article in Wikipedia (, “the most dangerous blackmailers and informers were the members of the anti-Semitic fascist organizations Grupa Szańca (group of earthwork or group of rampart) and Miecz i Pług (Sword and Plough) ... The Polish Secret State considered szmalcownictwo an act of collaboration with the German occupiers. The Armia Krajowa (Home Army) punished it with the death sentence as a criminal act of treason. Blackmailers had been sentenced to death by the Special Courts of the Polish Underground for crimes against Polish citizens. The Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego (Polish Committee of National Liberation) by its decree of 31 August 1944 also condemned this act as collaboration with Nazi Germany. This decree is still a valid law in Poland, and any person who committed an act of szmalcownictwo during the war faces life imprisonment.”  
             According to the same article, “Blackmailers (szmalcownicy) were plentiful in Warsaw, sometimes gangs of them. Gunnar S. Paulsson, author of Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945, estimates that their total numbers were as high as "1 or 2 percent" of all Warsaw Poles. “The damage that these criminals did was substantial. Most were interested in money. By stripping Jews of assets needed for food and bribes, harassing rescuers, raising the overall level of insecurity, and forcing hidden Jews to seek out safer accommodation, blackmailers added significantly to the danger Jews faced and increased their chances of getting caught and killed. Jews who lived on the Aryan side were more afraid of szmalcowniks than of the Germans because Polish blackmailers were experts in distinguishing Jewish facial features. At the beginning of the German oppression, szmalcowniks were satisfied with a few hundred zlotys in extortion, but after the death penalty for hiding Jews was introduced the sums rose to several hundred thousand zlotys. Paradoxically, Germans sometimes treated szmalcowniks as criminals and imposed punishments on them. The reason was that szmalcowniks also bribed German officials and policemen — after the denunciation of a rich Jew, szmalcowniks and corrupted Germans shared the robbed money.”     
             Paulsson estimates that there were 28,000 Jews in hiding in Aryan Warsaw at one time or another after the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto. He contends that nearly all Warsaw Jews in hiding were victimized by Schmaltzers. The Jews in hiding, Paulsson states, constituted an underground, "secret city" who were supported by many non-Jews, often for pay. "Each Jew was also confronted with an army of blackmailers, denouncers, policemen  and so forth, and faced a huge impassive city of strangers who had to be presumed hostile until proven otherwise ... Unbeknownst to the Jews, however, these various groups of friends, paid helpers and other Jews in hiding intertwined to form a huge network, connecting every Jew to every other Jew," Paulsson wrote.
              In their recently-published, controversial book, Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust, Jan Tomasz Gross and Irena Grudzinska Gross, make a case that the economic and physical exploitation of the Jews by Poles during the Nazis occupation was much more widespread that previously believed or even surmised by researchers.
              Schmaltzers are generally perceived, it seems, to have been a relatively tiny, criminal element in Polish society who preyed upon the Jews. Golden Harvest goes further to claim that an anonymous photograph (used as a basis or at least an inspiration for the book) proves that ordinary Poles partiicpated in the exploitation of Jews and allege that this photo shows Polish peasants and others pausing while engaged in digging up a mass grave outside of the Treblinka concentration camp in search of gold and other valuables that the Nazis and Sonderkommandos might have missed.  
              An on-line Time Magazine article dated March 22, 2011, states that, “While the photo did not create much of a stir, the book — which was published in Poland on March 10 — has. Co-written by Gross's wife Irena Grudzinska Gross, Golden Harvest charges that some Poles searched mass graves to retrieve golden teeth from the skulls of Jews murdered by the Nazis, traded glasses of water for golden coins from emaciated Jews being transported to death camps and pointed out hiding Jews to the Nazis in order to get a hold of their belongings. "Plundering Jewish property was an important element of the circulation of goods, an element of economic life, and thus a social fact, not an incidental behavior of demoralized individuals," the article quotes Gross as stating about the villagers living near the death camps in Poland. The article can be viewed at the following:

 Controversial, un-authored photo allegedly showing Polish peasants
outtside of the Treblinka camp during a pause in the digging.

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