War­saw Ghet­to Police: The Jew­ish Order Ser­vice dur­ing the Nazi Occupation

Katarzy­na Person

  • Review
By – August 23, 2021

Among the many sol­diers and civil­ians who were reviled for their behav­ior dur­ing the Nazi era, per­haps some of the most detest­ed are those Jews who were per­ceived to be col­lab­o­ra­tors: Jews who open­ly turned against their own peo­ple to work with the Nazis to bru­tal­ize oth­er, less pow­er­ful Jews, some­times for their own gain, often for their own pro­tec­tion. Stand­ing out among these peo­ple were the mem­bers of the Jew­ish Police in the War­saw Ghet­to, an intense­ly despised group of men who took on the role of police­men in the net­work of life in the ghetto.

His­to­ry tells us that the 2,000 mem­bers of the Jew­ish Police, for­mal­ly known as the Jew­ish Order Ser­vice, clear­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in the destruc­tion of Warsaw’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, yet War­saw Ghet­to Police deals with the more dif­fi­cult, lay­ered ques­tion of what exact­ly con­sti­tut­ed Jew­ish col­lab­o­ra­tion. Who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Jew­ish Order Ser­vice? What kind of peo­ple were they? Katarzy­na Per­son explains that they came from all walks of life; they were lawyers, engi­neers, young yeshi­va grad­u­ates, and sons of busi­ness­men. Start­ing in the autumn of 1940, these men coa­lesced into the Jew­ish Police, or the ZSP, as they were known, and fol­lowed direct orders from the Jew­ish Coun­cil that ran the War­saw Ghet­to via the Nazis’ dictates.

This book is the first thor­ough study of the Jew­ish Police in the War­saw Ghet­to that suc­cess­ful­ly chal­lenges close­ly held assump­tions and sep­a­rates myth from real­i­ty. Through the author’s metic­u­lous research and fine writ­ing skills, the actions of the Jew­ish Police in the ghet­to are placed in their his­tor­i­cal con­text, reveal­ing the men’s dai­ly life and tak­ing us inside the intri­cate web that dic­tat­ed their decision-making.We see with stun­ning clar­i­ty the actions they were forced to take and the con­se­quences that ensued.

Were they per­pe­tra­tors, vic­tims, or both? Did they direct­ly aid in the col­lapse of val­ues in the harsh real­i­ty of the occu­pa­tion, or did they suf­fer from the intense­ly shift­ing bound­aries and stan­dards of behav­ior along with the oth­er prisoners?

The com­mon sto­ry of the Jew­ish Police is that they were sadis­tic oppres­sors in the ghet­to and often self-hat­ing Jews. It is impos­si­ble not to cringe at descrip­tions of how they pos­sessed knowl­edge of the Ger­man author­i­ties’ plans to deport the Jews in spring 1942 and how they were direct­ly involved in the actu­al depor­ta­tions in the sum­mer of that year. Yet we also see them direct­ing traf­fic in the ghet­to, as real police­men do, and haul­ing away the trash.

Through these descrip­tions of every­day life in the ghet­to, Per­son takes on the dif­fi­cult task of pre­sent­ing a nuanced study that uncov­ers diverse atti­tudes toward the police­men and explores their indi­vid­ual moti­va­tions with­in their own minds and pri­vate moral uni­vers­es. She presents a well-bal­anced judg­ment, hav­ing delved deeply into pri­ma­ry source mate­r­i­al, includ­ing first-per­son tes­ti­monies of Jew­ish Order Ser­vice mem­bers and mem­o­ries of the ghet­to res­i­dents them­selves, plus Pol­ish and Ger­man archival doc­u­ments, con­tem­po­rary news­pa­pers, and wartime and post­war accounts. A detailed appen­dix even gives us a copy of the offi­cial instruc­tions from the Jew­ish Coun­cil to the police­men in the ghet­to that elab­o­rate­ly defined the role of the police.

A wealth of pho­tographs offers a crit­i­cal lens through which to view the men — scenes in which they are ful­ly garbed as police­men, at oth­er times in suits and ties, often with a range of read­able facial expres­sions. The trans­la­tion from the Pol­ish is smooth and seam­less, and the book will appeal to both schol­ars and an edu­cat­ed gen­er­al audience.

At the end of this thought­ful jour­ney, we are left with the ques­tion of how a nation decides to remem­ber peo­ple whose alle­giances were nev­er clear. With sig­nif­i­cant guid­ance from the author, we have the infor­ma­tion to decide for ourselves.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions