Testimonies Collection in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw

The Holocaust Survivors Testimonies collection (Record Group 301) held in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw consists of 6967 testimonies. It was established in 1944 and further testimonies were added to it over the years until 1995, when it was decided to close the collection. The first accounts came from Lublin. On July 26, 1944 Lublin was liberated by the Red Army, and on August 10, the first Jewish organization – the Jewish Aid Committee – was established in this city. Activists of this committee, at first established as a social welfare institution, realized that the world should learn about the fate of Polish Jews during the war and that the seemingly unbelievable information about the scale of the Holocaust should be accurately documented. To this end, on August 29, 1944, they established the Jewish Historical Commission and immediately began to collect and write down the accounts of Jews coming out of hiding. The earliest report is dated August 20, namely Gertner’s account of the liquidation of the ghettos in Staszów and Sandomierz (the name of the witness and the data of the person recording the oral testimony are missing). On November 12, 1944, the Central Committee of Polish Jews (CKŻP) was established in Lublin, composed of representatives of various political parties. It assumed general management over Jewish institutions reestablished in Poland. On December 15, 1944, the Central Jewish Historical Commission (CŻKH), subordinated to the Central Committee of Polish Jews, was established. The commission was headed by the historian Filip Friedman, before the war a teacher in Jewish schools in Łódź, who survived the war in hiding in L’viv. As the Polish territories were being liberated, branches of the commission were established in various cities, the most active of which was the provincial commission in Kraków headed by Maksymilian Borwicz.

In 1945, the collection of testimonies developed significantly. Not only people who came out of hiding, but also freed prisoners from concentration camps told about their experiences. Significant importance was attached to the collection of relacje (testimonies, reports), which were not only to constitute a historical documentation, but were also to be used as evidence in war crimes trials. In 1945, CŻKH issued an instruction for persons gathering testimonies and a separate instruction for people who recorded children’s stories. While we have 44 accounts dated 1944 (which does not however give a full picture of the work of the commission, because many testimonies are not dated), there are 1221 dated accounts from 1945 and 982 accounts from 1946. From March 1945, the commission was based in Łódź. Provincial commissions were established in Białystok, Gdańsk, Katowice, Kraków, Lublin, Warsaw, and Wrocław, local commissions were established in Bielsko (today Bielsko-Biała), Częstochowa, Kielce, Kutno, Piotrków Trybunalski, Przemyśl, Radom, Tarnów, and Włocławek.

Jewish historical commissions were usually located in the same buildings as the local Jewish committees (branches of the Central Committee of Polish Jews). Jewish survivors reported to the committees on various matters, for example to register, to receive information about the family from whom they were separated during the war, or to receive material help. The employees of the historical commissions would incidentally turn to the persons visiting the committee and ask them to tell about their wartime fate. Many agreed, understanding the necessity of documenting the Jewish tragedy, but there were also those who did not want to return to the difficult experiences in the ghettos and concentration camps. Regarding such cases, one of the historical commission employees in Kraków suggested that the Jewish committees should impose the obligation on survivors to submit testimonies. This request was, of course, rejected.

CKŻH established relations with institutions responsible for prosecuting war criminals: the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes, the Ministry of Justice, and the Supreme National Tribunal. In 1947, CŻKH, which after the departure of Friedman from Poland was directed by Nachman Blumental, was transferred to Warsaw and transformed into the Jewish Historical Institute. The local commissions were liquidated. The work on collecting the testimonies continued, with 1005 accounts dating from 1947, 615 from 1948, and finally 171 from 1949. In later years, after the departure of the majority of Jews from Poland, the gathering of testimonies was not continued, but they continued to flow in regardless. Gradually, there were fewer and fewer accounts of Jews or Poles of Jewish descent. The reports were often submitted by Poles who wanted to testify about their participation in helping Jews during the occupation (such statements were often accompanied by the confirmation of the truth of the story told, prepared by people who had helped). From 1950 to 1959, there were 322 reports, 564 from 1960 to 1969, 155 from 1970 to 1979, and finally 153 from 1980 to 1995. In addition, 17 reports were dated to the years 1941 to 1943, although most of these constituted post-war copies of documents (mainly letters) from the period of occupation. It should also be remembered that the collection contains 1218 undated testimonies, including reports from the early post-war years as well as later.

The majority of the accounts are written in Polish. The collection also contains 1176 testimonies in Yiddish, 264 in German, 25 (in whole or in part) in Russian, 17 (in whole or in part) in English, and 9 (in whole or in part) in Hebrew. In addition there are 11 reports written in Belarusian, Czech, French, Spanish, and Ukrainian, or containing attachments in one of these languages.

In addition to Record Group 301 there are also testimonies from the occupation period in other collections. Among others, the Warsaw Ghetto Archive (Ringelblum Archive) contains accounts collected in the Warsaw Ghetto and concerning the fate of the Jewish population in other Polish towns in the years 1939 to 1942.