The Holocaust in Poland: Wikis


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The Holocaust, also known as haShoah (Hebrew: השואה‎) was the officially sanctioned genocide that took the lives of three million Polish Jews in World War II, destroying an entire civilization. Only a small number survived or managed to escape beyond the reach of the Nazis. The Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland was an event involving the implementation of German policy of systematic and mostly successful destruction of indigenous Polish-Jewish population.[1][2]

The official term for the Nazi's extermination of Jews during their occupation of Poland was the euphemistic phrase Endlösung der Judenfrage (the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question"). Every arm of the sophisticated German bureaucracy was involved in the killing process, from the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry; to German firms and state–run trains for deportation to the camps.[citation needed] German companies bid for the contracts to build the crematoria in concentration camps run by Nazi Germany in the General Government and other parts of occupied Poland.[1][3]

Holocaust in occupied Poland: the map

The German Nazi extermination policy

Prior to Second World War there were 3,500,000 Jews in Polish Second Republic, about 10% of the population, living predominantly in the cities. Between the 1939 invasion of Poland, and the end of World War II, over 90% of Polish Jewry perished.

Persecution of the Jews by the Nazi German occupation government, particularly in the urban areas, began immediately after the invasion. In the first year and a half, the Germans confined themselves to stripping the Jews of their valuables and property for profit,[1] herding them into ghettoes and putting them into forced labor in war-related industries. During this period the Germans forced Jewish communities to appoint Jewish Councils (Judenräte) to administer the ghettos and to be "responsible in the strictest sense" for carrying out German orders. After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, German police units, especially the Einsatzgruppen, operated behind the front lines to shoot 'dangerous elements' (Jews and Communists). About 2 million Jews were shot and buried in mass graves, many in the areas of eastern Poland which had been annexed by the Soviets in 1939. The survivors were incarcerated in newly-created ghettos.

At the Wannsee conference near Berlin on 20 January 1942, Dr Josef Bühler urged Reinhard Heydrich to begin the proposed "final solution to the Jewish question". Accordingly, in 1942, the Germans began the systematic killing of the Jews, beginning with the Jewish population of the General Government. Six extermination camps (Auschwitz, Belzec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór and Treblinka) were established in which the most extreme measure of the Holocaust, the mass murder of millions of Jews from Poland and other countries, was carried out between 1942 and 1944. The camps were designed and operated by Nazi Germans and there were no Polish guards at any of the camps, [4] despite the sometimes used misnomer Polish death camps. Of Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3,500,000, only about 50,000-120,000 would survive the war.[5]

Ghettos and the extermination program

The entrance to Camp I at Auschwitz, with the sign on the gate reading Arbeit macht frei

The plight of Jews in war-torn Poland can be divided into stages defined by the existence of the ghettos. Before their formation, the escape from persecution did not involve extrajudicial punishment by death. Once the ghettos were created however, death by starvation and disease became rampant, alleviated only by smuggling of food and medicine described by Ringelblum as "one of the finest pages in the history between the two peoples".[6] The escape from the ghettos became the only chance for survival once their brutal liquidation began.

The liquidation of Jewish ghettos across Poland was closely connected with the formation of highly secretive killing centers built at about the same time by various German companies including I.A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, and C.H. Kori GmbH.[7][8][9] Civilians were forbidden to approach them. Kulmhof (Chełmno) extermination camp was built as first. It was a pilot project for the development of the remaining sites. Unlike other Nazi concentration camps where prisoners were exploited for the war effort, German death camps – part of Operation Reinhardt – were designed exclusively for the rapid elimination of Polish Jews in ghettos. Their German overseers reported directly to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler in Berlin, who kept control of the extermination program, but delegated the work in Poland to SS-Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik. The selection of sites, construction of facilities and training of personnel was based on a similar (Action T4) "racial hygiene" program of mass killings developed in Germany.[10][11][12]

KZ Treblinka, by Franz Stangl

Treblinka extermination camp located 100 km (62 miles) northeast of Warsaw,[13] was ready on July 24, 1942. There were two barracks near the railway tracks for storing belongings of prisoners; one disguised as a railway station complete with a wooden fake clock to prevent new arrivals from realizing their fate.[14] Their valuables were collected for "safekeeping". The shipping of Jews from the capital – plan known as the Großaktion Warschau – began immediately. [15][16][17] During the two months of summer 1942, about 254,000 Warsaw Ghetto residents were exterminated at Treblinka (or at least 300,000 by different accounts).[18] On arrival, stripped victims were marched to one of ten chambers and gassed in batches of 200 with the use of monoxide gas (Zyklon B was introduced some time later).[19][20][21] In September 1942 the new gas chambers were built, able to kill three hundred people in two hours. The dead were initially buried in large mass graves, but the stench from the decomposing bodies could be smelled up to ten kilometers away. So, later, they were burned on open-air grids made of concrete pillars and railway tracks.[22] The number of people killed at Treblinka in the next year ranges from 1,000,000 to 1,400,000.[23] The camp was dissolved on on October 19, 1943 following the prisoner uprising,[24] with the murderous Operation Reinhard nearly completed.

Auschwitz concentration camp located 50 kilometers west of Kraków was fitted with the first gas chamber at Auschwitz II Birkenau in March 1942, and the gassing of Jews with Zyklon B,[25] following a "selection", began almost immediately. By early 1943 Birkenau was a killing factory with four crematoria working around the clock. More than 20,000 people were gassed and cremated there each day. Auschwitz II extermination program resulted in the death of over one million Jews from across Europe,[26] among them, 200,000 Jewish people from Poland,[27] delivered in cattle trucks from liquidated ghettos in Bytom (February 15, 1942), Kraków (March 13, 1943),[28] Sosnowiec (June–August 1943),[29] and many other cities and towns including Łódź (August 1944),[30][31] where the last ghetto in Poland was liquidated. Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers and crematoria were blown up on November 25, 1944 in an attempt to destroy the evidence of mass killings, by the orders of SS chief Heinrich Himmler.

This document, the so-called Höfle Telegram, confirms at least 434,508 Jews killed at Belzec in 1942

Belzec extermination camp created near the railroad station of Bełżec in the Lublin district, began operating officially on March 17, 1942 with three temporary gas chambers, later replaced with six – made of concrete – enabling the facility to handle over 1,000 victims at a time. At least 434,500 Jews were exterminated there. The lack of varied survivors however, makes this camp much lesser known.[32] The bodies of the dead, buried in mass graves, swelled in the heat as a result of putrefaction making the earth split, which was resolved with the introduction of crematoria. The last shipment of Jews (including those already dead in transit) arrived in Bełżec in December 1942.[33][34] The remaining 500 Sonderkommando witnesses of mass extermination who dismantled the camp and incinerated leftover corpses, were murdered in Sobibor extermination camp in the following months. [35][36]

Sobibor extermination camp disguised as a railway transit camp not far from Lublin, began mass gassing operations in May 1942.[37][38] As in other extermination centers, Jews taken off the trains from liquidated ghettos and transit camps (Izbica, Końskowola) were forced to hand over their valuables, split into groups and strip. Oberscharführer Hermann Michel in medical coat gave the command for prisoners’ disinfection. They were led to gas chambers which were disguised as showers. Carbon monoxide gas was released from the exhaust pipes of tank engines. Their bodies were burned in open pits partly fuelled by human body-fat, and turned into seven "ash mountains". The total figure of Jews murdered there is estimated at a minimum of 250,000.[39] Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp dismantled following a prisoner revolt on October 14, 1943.[40][41]

The ovens inside the crematorium at Majdanek

Large Jewish populations in south-eastern Poland (Kraków, Lwów, Zamość, Warsaw) were the reason why Majdanek forced labor camp – also on the outskirts of Lublin – has been revived in March 1942 after an obliterating Epidemic Typhus.[42] It served as storage depot for valuables stolen from the victims at the killing centers in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka,[43] before it became a killing ground for Polish Jews with gas chambers constructed in late 1942.[44] The gassing was performed in plain view of other inmates, without as much as a fence around the buildings. "To drown the cries of the dying, tractor engines were run near the gas chambers" before they took the dead away to the crematorium, according to witness's testimony. Majdanek was responsible for the death of 59,000 Polish Jews.[45][46] By the end of Operation Harvest Festival in early November 1943, Majdanek had only 71 Jews left.[47]

The scale of the Final Solution would not have been possible without mass transport. The extermination of Polish Jews was dependent on the railways as much as on the Nazi killing factories. The Holocaust trains sped up the scale and duration over which the extermination took place, and, the enclosed nature of cattle wagons also reduced the number of troops required to guard them. Rail shipments allowed the Nazi Germans to build and operate bigger and more efficient death camps and, at the same time, openly lie to the world – and to their victims – about the "resettlement" program. In one telephone conversation Heinrich Himmler informed Martin Bormann about the Jews already exterminated in Poland, to which Bormann screamed: "They were not exterminated, only evacuated, evacuated, evacuated!"[48][49] Unspecified number of deportees died in transit from suffocation and thirst. Waffenn SS officer Kurt Gerstein wrote in the Gerstein Report that on August 18, 1940 he had witnessed at Belzec extermination camp the arrival of "45 wagons with 6,700 people of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival."[50] Millions of people were transported to the extermination camps in trains organised by German Transport Ministry and tracked by an IBM subsidiary until the official date of closing the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in December 1944.[51][52]

Poles and the Jews

German Nazi poster announcing the death penalty for any Pole giving help to Jews (Warsaw, 1942)

The relations between Poles and Jews during World War II present one of the sharpest paradoxes of the Holocaust. Only 3 per cent of the Jews survived, less than in any other country; yet, Poland accounts for the majority of rescuers with the title of 'Righteous Gentiles', people who risked their lives to save Jews. The Poles honored by Yad Vashem represent only one–to–ten per cent of the deserving cases.[53] The nature of this paradox was debated by historians on both sides for more than fifty years often with preconceived notions and selective evidence.[53]

Many Jews, persecuted by the Nazis, received help from the Poles; help, ranging from major acts of heroism, to minor acts of kindness involving hundreds of thousands of helpers acting often anonymously. The occurrence of such rescue effort is "one of the most remarkable features of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust,"[54][55] because ethnic Poles themselves were the subject of extreme and brutal harshness with any kind of help to a person of Jewish faith or origin punishable by death at the hands of the occupier.[53]

See: Polish Righteous among the Nations, Rescue of Jews by Poles during the Holocaust, Poland and collaboration during WWII, Polish death camp controversy

On November 10, 1941, the death penalty was expanded by Hans Frank to apply to Poles who helped Jews "in any way: by taking them in for the night, giving them a lift in a vehicle of any kind" or "feed[ing] runaway Jews or sell[ing] them foodstuffs." The law was made public by posters distributed in all major cities. Capital punishment of entire families, for aiding Jews, was the most draconian such Nazi practice against any nation in occupied Europe.[56][4][57] Thousands of Poles were executed by the Nazis for aiding Jews.[58] Over 700 Polish Righteous among the Nations received their award posthumously, having been murdered by the Germans for aiding or sheltering their Jewish neighbors.[59] Many of the Polish Righteous awarded by Yad Vashem came from the capital. In his work on the Jews of Warsaw, Gunnar S. Paulsson has demonstrated that despite the much harsher conditions, Polish citizens of Warsaw managed to support and hide the same percentage of Jews as did the citizens of cities in reportedly less anti-semitic and safer countries in Western Europe.[60]

Polish Jews were a 'visible minority' by modern standards, distinguishable by language, behavior and appearance.[53] The presence of such large non-Christian, mostly non acculturated minority[61] was a source of competitive tension in prewar Poland, and periodically of violence between Poles and Jews. Here is where the temptation to jump to conclusions with regard to Holocaust rescue comes into play according to Gunnar Paulsson.[53] As elsewhere in Europe during the interwar period, there was both official and popular anti-Semitism in Poland, at times encouraged by the Catholic Church and by some political parties (particularly the right-wing endecja faction), but not directly by the government. There were also political forces in Poland which opposed anti-Semitism, particularly centered around the tolerant Polish dictator, Józef Piłsudski. In late 1930s after Piłsudski's death, reactionary and anti-Semitic elements gained ground.[62] Nonetheless, "leaving aside acts of war and Nazi perfidy, a Jew's chances of survival in hiding were no worse in Warsaw, at any rate, than in the Netherlands,"[53] once the Holocaust began.

At the end of the ghetto liquidation period, the largest number of Jews managed to escape to the 'Aryan' side,[53] and to survive with the assistance of their Polish neighbors. In general – during the German occupation – most Poles were engaged in a desperate struggle for survival. They were in no position to oppose or impede the German extermination of the Jews even if they had wanted to. There were however many Poles risking death to hide Jewish families and in various ways assist the Jews on compassionate grounds. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands, or even a million Poles, aided their Jewish neighbors.[5][63] The number of Polish Jews kept in hiding by non-Jewish Poles was around 450,000.[5]

Man showing corpse of an starved infant in the Warsaw Ghetto

The Polish Government in Exile was the first (in November 1942)[64] to reveal the existence of Nazi-run concentration camps and the systematic extermination of the Jews by the Germans, reported by its courier Jan Karski and the activities of Witold Pilecki, a member of Armia Krajowa who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to organize a resistance movement inside the camp itself. In September 1942 the Provisional Committee for Aid to Jews (Tymczasowy Komitet Pomocy Żydom) was founded with assistance from the Underground State and on the initiative of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka. This body later became the Council for Aid to Jews (Rada Pomocy Żydom), known by the code-name Żegota. It is not known how many Jews were helped by Żegota, but at one point in 1943 it had 2,500 Jewish children under its care in Warsaw alone. Żegota was granted nearly 29 million zlotys (over $ 5 million dollars) since 1942 for the relief payments to thousands of extended Jewish families in Poland.[65] The government in exile also provided special assistance – funds, arms and other supplies – to Jewish resistance organizations (like ŻOB and ŻZW).[66] Poland was occupied by the Nazis from 1939 to 1945 and no Polish collaboration government was ever formed during that period. The Polish underground resistance, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army, AK) and the Communist People's Army (AL) opposed collaboration in German anti-Jewish persecution, and punished it by death.

In some cases, the Germans across Europe were able to exploit the local populace's anti-Semitism, and Poland was no exception, despite the fact that in occupied Poland death was a standard punishment for a Polish person with family and neighbors,[67] for any help given to Jews.[4] Some persons betrayed hidden Jews to the Germans, and others made their living as "Jew-hunters" (szmalcownik), blackmailing Jews in hiding and Poles who protected them.[68] Estimates of the number of Polish collaborators vary. The lower estimate of seven thousand is based primarily on the sentences of the Special Courts of the Polish Underground State, sentencing individuals for treason to the nation; the highest estimate of about one million,[69] includes all Polish citizens who in some way contributed to the German activities, such as: low-ranking Polish bureaucrats employed in German administration, members of the Blue Police, construction workers, slave laborers in German-run factories and farms and similar others (notably the highest figure originates from a single statistical table of outdated scholarship with a very thin source base).[70] Relatively little active collaboration by individual Poles – with any aspect of the German presence in Poland – took place. All Nazi propaganda efforts to recruit Poles in either labor or auxiliary roles were met with almost no interest, due to the everyday reality of German occupation. The non-German auxiliary workers in the extermination camps, for example, were mostly Ukrainians and Balts. John Connelly quoted a Polish historian (Leszek Gondek) calling the phenomenon of Polish collaboration "marginal" and wrote that "only relatively small percentage of Polish population engaged in activities that may be described as collaboration when seen against the backdrop of European and world history".[70] The unique Polish Underground State considered szmalcownictwo an act of collaboration with the enemy, and with the aid of its military arm, the Armia Krajowa, punished it with the judicatory death sentence. Up to 10,000 Poles were tried by Polish underground courts for assisting the enemy, and 2,500 were executed.[69]

Anti-Semitic attitudes were particularly strong in the eastern provinces which had been earlier occupied by the Russians following the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. Local population had witnessed the repressions and mass deportation of up to 1.5 million ethnic Poles to Siberia,[71] conducted by the Soviet security apparatus, with some of the local Jews collaborating with them. Others assumed that, driven by vengeance, Jewish Communists had been prominent in betraying the Polish victims.[72][73]

A few German-inspired massacres were carried out in that region, with the help of, or even active participation by, non-Jewish Poles. The guidelines for such massacres were formulated by Reinhard Heydrich,[74] who ordered his officers to induce anti-Jewish pogroms on territories newly occupied by the German forces.[55][75] In the most infamous massacre in Jedwabne, between 300 (Institute of National Remembrance's Final Findings)[76] and 1,600 (Jan T. Gross)[77] Jews were beaten and burned alive in a barn by some of Jedwabne's citizens in the presence of German gendarmerie. The circumstances surrounding these events are still debated and include German Nazi pressure, anti-Semitism, but also resentment over Jewish cooperation with the Soviet invaders during the Polish-Soviet War of 1920 as well as the Jewish participation in anti-Polish terror following Soviet 1939 invasion of Kresy.[78]

The ultra-nationalist[79][80] Narodowe Siły Zbrojne (NSZ or National Armed Forces) allegedly participated in murders of Jews during wartime.[81] The Polish secret police in postwar Poland routinely tortured the NSZ insurgents in order to force them to confess to such general charges. This was most notably the case with the 1946 trial of 23 officers of the NSZ in Lublin. The torture of political prisoners by the Ministry of Public Security did not stop automatically when the interrogations were concluded. Physical torture was also ordered if they retracted in court their confessions of "killing Jews".[82]

Rate of survival

The exact number of Holocaust survivors is controversial. About 300,000 Polish Jews escaped to the Soviet-occupied zone soon after the war started, where many of them perished at the hands of OUN-UPA, TDA and Ypatingasis būrys during Massacres of Poles in Volhynia, the Holocaust in Lithuania (see Ponary massacre), and Belarus,[83][84] but most of the Polish Jews in Generalgouvernement stayed put. There was no proven necessity to leave familiar places prior to mass deportations. When the ghettos were closed from the outside, smuggling of food kept most of the inhabitants alive. Escape into clandestine existence on the ‘Aryan’ side was attempted by some 100,000 Jews of whom, 80,000 registered in 1945, and, contrary to popular misconceptions, the risk of them being turned in by the Poles was the least likely. The questions regarding the Jewish chances of survival once the Holocaust began however, continue to draw attention of historians.[53]

The Germans made it extremely difficult to escape the ghettos just before "resettlement". All passes were cancelled, walls rebuilt containing fewer gates with policemen replaced by SS-men. Some victims already deported to Treblinka were forced to write letters back home to dictation, that they were safe. Around 3,000 others fell into the German Hotel Polski trap. Many ghettoized Jews did not believe what was going on until the very end, because the alternative seemed unthinkable at the time and wasn’t realized soon enough.[53] David J. Landau suggested also that the weak Jewish leadership might have played a role.[85] Likewise, Israel Gutman proposed that the Polish Underground might have attacked the camps and blown up the railway tracks leading to them, but as noted by Paulsson, such ideas are a product of hindsight.[53]


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  74. ^ Christopher R. Browning, Jurgen Matthaus, The Origins of the Final Solution, page 262 Publisher University of Nebraska Press, 2007. ISBN 0803259794
  75. ^ Paweł Machcewicz, "Płomienie nienawiści", Polityka 43 (2373), October 26 2002, p. 71-73 The Findings
  76. ^
  77. ^
  78. ^ Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, "The Politics of Apology and Contrition" by prof. Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, Georgetown University, Washington DC, June 8, 2002.
  79. ^ Steven J Zaloga (1982). "The Underground Army". Polish Army, 1939-1945. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 0-85045-417-4. 
  80. ^ The Polish Army 1939-45 By Steven J. Zaloga, Richard Hook
  81. ^ Piotrowski, Tadeusz (1997). "Polish Collaboration". Poland's Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic, 1918-1947. McFarland & Company. pp. 77–142. ISBN 0-7864-0371-3. 
  82. ^ Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, The Dialectics of Pain Glaukopis, vol. 2/3 (2004-2005). See also: John S. Micgiel, “‘Frenzy and Ferocity’: The Stalinist Judicial System in Poland, 1944-1947, and the Search for Redress,” The Carl Beck Papers in Russian & East European Studies [ Pittsburgh], no. 1101 (February 1994): 1-48. For concurring opinions see: Krzysztof Lesiakowski and Grzegorz Majchrzak interviewed by Barbara Polak, “O Aparacie Bezpieczeństwa,” Biuletyn Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej, no. 6 (June 2002): 4-24; Barbara Polak, “O karach śmierci w latach 1944-1956,” Biuletyn Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej, no. 11 (November 2002): 4-29.
  83. ^ Timothy Snyder. (2004) The Reconstruction of Nations. New Haven: Yale University Press: pg. 162
  84. ^ Józef Turowski, with Władysław Siemaszko, Zbrodnie nacjonalistów ukraińskich dokonane na ludności polskiej na Wołyniu 1939-1945, Warsaw: Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w PolsceInstytut Pamięci Narodowej, Środowisko Żołnierzy 27 Wołyńskiej Dywizji Armii Krajowej w Warszawie (English: Crimes Perpetrated Against the Polish Population of Volhynia by the Ukrainian Nationalists, 1939–1945, published by the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in PolandInstitute of National Remembrance, and Association of Soldiers of the 27th Volhynian Division of the Home Army; Warsaw, 1990.
  85. ^ David J. Landau, Caged — A story of Jewish Resistance, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2000, ISBN 0-7329-1063-3. Quote: “The tragic end of the Ghetto [in Warsaw] could not have been changed, but the road to it might have been different under a stronger leader. There can be no doubt that if the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto had taken place in August—September 1942, when there were still 300,000 Jews, the Germans would have paid a much higher price.”


External links

Further reading

  • Gunnar S. Paulsson. Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-300-09546-3, Review

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