Secret City:

The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945

by Gunnar S. Paulsson


Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945
by Gunnar S. Paulsson
(c) 2003 Yale University Press New Haven and London
ISBN 0-300-09546-5Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945
by Gunnar S. Paulsson
(c) 2003 Yale University Press New Haven and London
ISBN 0-300-09546-5



winner of the

Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History

and the

Biennial PSA/Orbis Prize


Yale University Press New Haven and London

ISBN 0-300-09546-5 Copyright ) 2002 by Gunnar S. Paulsson


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Jacket illustration: Eli Silberstein with his Polish protector. Courtesy USHMM


What the book is about:


When the Nazis forced most of Warsaw’s Jews into the city’s infamous ghetto during the Second World War, some Jews either hid and never entered the Warsaw Ghetto, or escaped from it later in what Gunnar S. Paulsson calls “the greatest prison-break in history”. This book, the first analytical history of Jewish escape and hiding anywhere during the Holocaust, tells the story of these hidden Jews of Warsaw.



From the back cover:


“an intelligent, fresh, and independent-minded analysis.”

Michael Marrus, Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies Emeritus, University of Toronto


“an important, formidable, and bound-to-be-controversial  book” - Berel Lang, Professor of Humanities, Trinity College, Hartford CT






“the best, most complete examination we have to date of the texture of hiding and rescue in Nazi-occupied Warsaw –  or anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe for that matter” Lawrence Powell, Professor of History, Tulane University



Reviewers’ comments:


“… controversial and seminal … a masterful contribution to the history of the Holocaust and to our understanding of Polish-Jewish relations.” – Samuel D. Kassow, Journal of Modern History

 “Paulsson's conclusions challenge most of our preconceptions about what happened to the Jews in Poland and the role of "by-standers" in general.  … Paulsson does not minimise the intensity of Polish anti-semitism.  But his scrupulous study of a complex, contested history provides balance to the customary, grim narrative.” - David Cesarani, The Guardian (click for full review)


“This amazing and moving study sheds new light on details of the Holocaust that have up until now not been examined. … Detailing a wealth of incident … [A]n important and fascinating analysis that calls for serious thought and reevaluation.” – Publishers’ Weekly


“an engrossing and innovative study, both in terms of method and substance, that will force us to re-think many assumptions about Jewish responses, Jewish-Polish relations, the topic of rescue, Jewish leadership and their decision making, and even the behavior of the perpetrators and the Jewish police. . . . Paulsson paves new ground, asks questions hitherto avoided and courageously allows the evidence to make his case.” Michael Dobkowski, Jewish Book World


“a welcome and significant contribution to the ongoing debate on Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust … succeeds in using diversified sources and convincing methods to solve the quantitative questions … One of Paulsson's achievements is his new conceptualization of phenomena discussed in Holocaust-related research. … A most interesting and quite novel approach to the issue of rescue … may lead to the reopening of a wider question concerning attitudes and actions of "bystanders." … a most significant addition to the immense Holocaust literature, both as a specific case study of a single community and as the initiation of a debate concerning some of the most crucial aspects in Polish-Jewish relations under German occupation.”

Shimon Redlich, The American Historical Review


“impresses with its careful scholarship and restrained presentation of a controversial set of propositions. Ultimately, by combining statistical analysis with analysis of oral histories and memoirs, he succeeds in telling a very moving and important story, one which adds a whole new dimension to our understanding of the Jewish experience in Warsaw during World War II.” - Anita Shelton, History: Review of New Books





introduces a neglected dimension to the study of the Holocaust…. Thanks to his adept use of … sources, a significant achievement of this book is to endow hidden Jews with self-respect by showing with great empathy (Paulsson is himself the son of a hidden survivor in Warsaw) how much initiative, resourcefulness, clear-headedness, and sheer nerve life in hiding demanded of Jewish fugitives from Nazism. … Through impressive use of memoir material, both published and unpublished, Paulsson paints a compelling portrait of Jews in hiding, skillfully describes not only the travails but also the fortitude of thousands of Jews who survived – and perished – in hiding, thus bestowing dignity on this specific response to Nazi persecution.” - Gabriel Finder, East European Politics and Societies


“The significance of Paulsson’s book is not simply that it is the first full-length study of the nature and extent of Jewish hiding on the Aryan side in wartime Warsaw, but also that it offers a model of studying the relatively neglected topic of evasion during the Holocaust … a passionate call for historical engagement with the surviving traces” - Tim Cole, IHR Online Reviews, Institute of Historical Research, University of London (click for full review)


“… a model of clarity for the handling of so intricate a topic. Paulsson frames his account very carefully: glossaries, tables, even a pronunciation guide for all Polish words as well as clear summaries of each chapter’s intent and findings all help keep the reader’s attention … when properly introduced in a course and complemented by, say, a diary selection, Secret City promises to help readers rethink their understanding of ghetto life and Jewish-gentile relationships under conditions of war and genocide. - Guillaume de Syon, History Teacher (click for full review)


the most fascinating part of the book is based, unexpectedly, on statistics. It is these numbers, both the precise ones and the estimates, that in the skilful hands of the author turn into the most convincing part of the argument. His calculations do not only support seemingly improbable claims, like the one that the survival chances of Jewish fugitives in Warsaw were more or less the same as in Amsterdam despite much harsher general conditions, but they give us new insights into Warsaw’s wartime realities.”

Piotr Kuhivchak, Cambridge Review

Links to other published reviews online


George Rosie, The Glasgow Sunday Herald



The Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History is awarded annually by the Wiener Library, London, for “an outstanding, unpublished work in English, German or French in one of the fields of interest of the Wiener Library. These include Central Europe and Jewish history in the 20th century, the Second World War, fascism and totalitarianism, political violence, racism, etc.” The manuscript on which Secret City is based was the winner in its category in 1998.



The biennial PSA/Orbis Prize is awarded by the Polish Studies Association in conjunction with Orbis Books Ltd., London, for “the best first book in English on any aspect of Polish affairs published in the past two years”. Secret City was the winner in 2004.

The Polish Studies Association is an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.


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About the author


Gunnar S. (Steve) Paulsson holds a D.Phil in Modern History from Oxford University. A Commonwealth Scholar, he has been the Senior Historian of the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum in London, Koerner visiting fellow and lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and Pearl Resnick fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is the son of a Holocaust survivor.


E-mail the author



Available from:


Yale University Press (US)

Yale University Press (UK)

Amazon Books (US)

Amazon Books (UK)

Amazon Books (Canada)


NetstoreUSA (US/Canada, Australia/NZ)

Seminary Co-op Bookstore

Deutschland: Alphamusik Amazon

France: Amazon

Skandinavien: Bokfynd



Other links:


Polish-Jewish Heritage Society

Wroxton Speakers' Bureau



Secret City is being translated into Polish, and will be published by the Znak Publishing House in Kraków in 2007





Table of Contents new

Foreword, Glossary,

Guide to Polish Pronunciation, Acknowledgements



Prior literature • Evasion, the Unexplored Continent of Holocaust Studies • Escape and hiding in Warsaw • Sources • Methods • Representativeness of the memoirs • Limitations


1 Networks

Introduction • The Jewish Milieu • The Polish Milieu • A Case Study • Conclusions


2 Escape

Staying out: the Formation of the Ghetto • The Main Ghetto Period • The First Liquidation Action • The “Shops” Period • Escape during and after the Ghetto Uprising • Conclusions


3 The Secret City

Introduction • Life in “Aryan” Warsaw


4 City under Siege

Threats from the German Side • Threats from the Polish Side • Conclusions


5 The Warsaw Uprising and its Aftermath

Introduction • The Course of the Uprising • The Jewish Experience of the Warsaw Uprising • Jewish Perceptions of the Uprising • Atrocities: the Prosta Street Massacre • Other Atrocities • Jewish Participation in the Uprising • The Treatment of Jewish Civilians by the Insurgent Authorities and the Population • The Aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising • Summary and Conclusions


6 Numbers

Study 1. How many Warsaw Jews were Hiding on the Eve of the Warsaw Uprising? • Development and Finances of ŻKN Study 2. How many Warsaw Jews Survived the War? • Summary and Conclusions


Summary and Conclusions


Notes, Bibliography, Index



Teaching Guide new


Secret City can be used in Holocaust and Genocide studies,  Jewish or Polish studies, or ethnic relations  courses, in the following topic areas:

·         Jewish responses to the Holocaust / Victim responses to genocide. Secret City is currently the only substantial study of escape and hiding as a response to the Holocaust. The Introduction discusses Jewish responses in general and the treatment of this subject by historians. Questions for classroom discussion: Has “resistance” become so broadly defined as to be meaningless, and do we need a new way of looking at Jewish responses? Under what circumstances were escape and hiding available as a third way between compliance and resistance, and should that change how we look at both?

·         As a supplement to films and memoirs such as The Pianist or Winter in the Morning, Secret City places the authors’ experience in its historical context. The Introduction discusses the handling of autobiographical sources. Questions: What is the relationship between memory and history? Which is the “truer” reflection of reality? Why do we need both?

·         Jewish resistance. On the eve of the Ghetto Uprising, one-third of the remaining Jews of Warsaw were living “on the Aryan side”, while two-thirds had prepared hiding places within the ghetto, hoping to ride out the next German Aktion. What implications does this have for the standard narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, according to which the Jews had only a choice between two ways of dying – with honour, fighting; or “going like sheep to the slaughter”? Does honour require martyrdom (“Kiddush haShem”), or is survival a form of “Kiddush haChaim”, the sanctification of life? In this light, were the ghetto fighters really fighting only because they had no choice, or did they make an active decision to sacrifice themselves, when survival was possible?  Do we need to reassess the role of the minority ŻZW, which had a different theory about how to fight (and has been almost written out of history)? What are the implications for our understanding of Jewish resistance in general?

·         Bystanders. The book’s material on Polish-Jewish relations can be used to stimulate classroom discussion of the role of bystanders in deciding the fate of the Jews.

·         Rescue. Secret City shows that survivors were not merely the passive recipients of help but were very actively involved in taking the initiative and in helping each other. In the light of this, does the study of “rescue” provide an adequate or even accurate account of how Jews survived?  Secret City proposes that we should speak of “help” rather than “rescue”, and that Jewish self-help made a significant contribution to survival.

·         The Holocaust in Poland. Secret City offers facts and statistics on Europe’s largest Jewish community and its fate.

·         Polish-Jewish relations. Isolated behind the ghetto wall, most Jews were not affected by Polish attitudes, positive or negative. The major exception was those who put their lives in the hands of their Polish neighbours by escaping from the ghetto and going into hiding. What do their experiences tell us about the neighbours’ attitudes and their effect on the Jews’ chances of survival?

·         Perpetrators. The book offers examples of German, Polish and Jewish policemen who helped smuggle food into the ghetto and helped Jews to escape. These included members of the 304th Orpo Battalion, similar to the “Ordinary Men” (101st Orpo Battalion) about whom Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen have written. The existence of some “good” policemen complements the picture that Browning and Goldhagen draw, and also undermines the excuse that the “Ordinary Men” had no choice but to obey orders. Some uniformed Germans retained their humanity: why not the others? And was the negative image of the ghetto police justified?

·         On the whole, Secret City describes and analyses the complexities of Jewish life, Jewish-Gentile relations and even the conduct of the perpetrators, avoiding moral simplification. It gives rise to many other questions for discussion.

Last updated 2007-02-18 12:27:34



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