The Holocaust in Poland

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Map of the Holocaust in occupied Poland during World War II with six extermination camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór and Treblinka; as well as remote mass killing sites at Bronna Góra, Ponary, Połonka and others. Marked with the Star of David are selected large Polish cities with the extermination ghettos
Period September 1939 – April 1945
Territory Occupied Poland, also present day western Ukraine and western Belarus among others
Major perpetrators
Units SS-Totenkopfverbände, Einsatzgruppen, Orpo battalions, Trawnikis, BKA, OUN-UPA, TDA, Ypatingasis būrys [1][2][3]
Killed 3,300,000 Polish Jews [4]
Survivors 50,000–120,000 [5]
Armed resistance
Jewish uprisings Warsaw, Białystok, Łachwa, Częstochowa, Wilno, Będzin, Mińsk Mazowiecki, Pińsk, Sosnowiec, Mizocz, Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibór

The Holocaust in German-occupied Poland was the last stage of the Nazi "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage) marked by the construction of death camps on Polish soil in 1941–42. The genocide officially sanctioned and executed by the Third Reich during World War II, collectively known as the Holocaust, took the lives of more than three million Polish Jews. The extermination camps played a central role in the implementation of the German policy of systematic and mostly successful destruction of over 90% of the indigenous Polish-Jewish population of the pre-war Second Polish Republic.[6]

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 used for deportation of Jews.[7][8] 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 and beyond.[6][9]

Throughout the German occupation, at great risk to themselves and their families, many Christian Poles succeeded in rescuing Jews from the Nazis. Grouped by nationality, Polish rescuers represent the biggest number of people who saved Jews during the Holocaust.[5][10] Already recognized by the State of Israel, the Polish Righteous Among the Nations include 6,620 gentiles, more than any other nation.[10] A very small percentage of Polish Jews managed to survive World War II within the German-occupied Poland or successfully escaped east beyond the reach of the Nazis into the territories of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union,[11] only to be deported to camps in Siberia along with the families of up to 1 million Polish non-Jews.[12][13]


Following the 1939 invasion of Poland in accordance with the secret protocol of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact,[14] Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned Poland into several occupation zones. Large areas of western Poland were annexed by Germany.[15] The Soviets tricked the Poles into believing that they crossed the border to help Poland fight Germany; and subsequently took over some 51.6% of the territory of Poland with fewer military losses.[16] The entire Kresy macroregion – inhabited by about 13,200,000 people – was annexed by the Soviet Union in the atmosphere of terror surrounding the rigged referendum staged by the secret police and the Red Army.[17] Within months, the Polish Jews in the Soviet-occupied zone who refused to swear an oath of allegiance were deported to Siberia along with the Catholics. Their number is estimated at about 200,000 men, women and children among those who managed to survive in extreme conditions.[18] Both occupying powers were equally hostile to the existence of sovereign Polish state.[19] However, the Soviet rule was short-lived because the terms of the Nazi–Soviet Pact signed earlier in Moscow were broken, when the German army crossed the Soviet occupation zone on June 22, 1941. From 1941 to 1943 all of Poland was under the control of Nazi Germany.[20] The semi-colonial territory of the General Government set up in central and south-eastern Poland took up 39 percent of the occupied area.[21]

The German Nazi extermination policy

File:The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied.pdf
"The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland", by the Polish government-in-exile addressed to the wartime allies of the then-United Nations, 1942

There were 3,500,000 Jews in the Polish Second Republic prior to World War II, about 10% of the general population, living predominantly in the cities. Between the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and the end of World War II, over 90% of Polish Jewry perished.[5]

Persecution of the Jews by the German occupation authority began immediately after the invasion, particularly in major urban areas. In the first year and a half, the Nazis confined themselves to stripping the Jews of their valuables and property for profit,[6] herding them into makeshift ghettos and forcing them into slave labor in war-related industries. During this period the Germans ordered Jewish communities to appoint Jewish Councils (Judenräte) to administer the ghettos and to be "responsible in the strictest sense" for carrying out orders. After the German attack in June 1941 on the Soviet positions in eastern Poland, German police battalions (Orpo), SiPo, and special-task Einsatzgruppen operated behind the front lines along with Ukrainian and Lithuanian auxiliaries systematically shooting tens of thousands of men, women and children independently of the army. Massacres were committed in over 30 locations including Tarnopol, Radomyśl, Białystok, as well as provincial capitals of Łuck, Lwów, and Stanisławów among others.[22][23] Gas vans were made available in November 1941.[24] The survivors of mobile killing operations were incarcerated in the newly created ghettos of pure economic exploitation,[21] and starved slowly to death by artificial famine (künstliche Hungersnot) at the whim of German authorities.[25]

At the Wannsee conference near Berlin on January 20, 1942, Dr Josef Bühler urged Reinhard Heydrich to begin the proposed "final solution to the Jewish question". Accordingly, in spring 1942 the Germans began their program of mass murder of the Jewish people by means of poison gas; 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 measures of the Holocaust, the extermination of millions of Jews from Poland and all over Europe, 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,[26] despite the sometimes used misnomer Polish death camps. Out of Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3,500,000 only about 50,000–120,000 survived the war on Polish soil.[5]

Ghettos and the extermination program

The plight of Jews in war-torn Poland can be divided into stages defined by the existence of the ghettos. Before their formation,[27] 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".[28] The escape from the ghettos became the only chance for survival once their brutal liquidation began in round-ups for the so-called resettlement trains. The final liquidation of the ghettos across Poland was closely connected with the formation of highly secretive killing centers designed by the SS and built at about the same time by various German companies including I.A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, and C.H. Kori GmbH.[29][30][31] Civilians were forbidden to approach them and often killed if caught near the train tracks.[32]

Entrance to Camp I at Auschwitz (top) with the sign on the gate reading Arbeit macht frei, compared with the real death factory nearby (bottom) at Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Unlike other Nazi concentration camps where prisoners from all across Europe were exploited for the war effort, German death camps – part of secretive Operation Reinhardt – were designed exclusively for the rapid elimination of Polish Jews subsisting in isolation. The camp's German overseers reported directly to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler in Berlin, who kept control of the extermination program, but who has 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.[33][34]

Death camp at Chełmno

The Chełmno extermination camp (German: Kulmhof) was built in 1941 as the first-ever, 50 kilometres (31 mi) from Łódź, following Hitler's launch of Operation Barbarossa. It was a pilot project for the development of the remaining sites. The experiments with engine exhaust gases were finalized by murdering 1,500 Poles at Soldau.[35] The killing method used in Chełmno was based on the clandestine Action T4 program run by the SS before and after the invasion of Poland, in which busloads of unsuspecting hospital patients were gassed in air-tight shower rooms at Bernburg, Hadamar and Sonnenstein.[36] The killing grounds at Chełmno consisted of a vacated manorial estate similar to Sonnenstein, used for undressing (with a truck-loading ramp in the back), as well as a large forest clearing 2.5 miles (4.0 km) northwest of Chełmno, used for mass burial and open-pit cremation of corpses introduced some time later.[37]

All Polish Jews from the Judenfrei district of Wartheland were deported to Chełmno under the guise of "resettlement". At least 145,000 prisoners from the Łódź Ghetto perished at Chełmno in several waves of mass deportations lasting from 1942 to 1944.[38][39] Additional 20,000 foreign Jews and 5,000 Roma were brought in from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.[40] All victims were killed with the use of mobile gas vans (Sonderwagen) which had exhaust pipes reconfigured, and poisons added to gasoline (see Chełmno Trials for supplementary data). In the final extermination phase their bodies were cremated in open-air for several weeks during Sonderaktion 1005, to remove the evidence of mass murder. The ashes, mixed with crushed bones, were trucked every night to the nearby river in sacks made from blankets. Proper gas chambers and industrial-scale crematoria were constructed elsewhere in occupied Poland.[41][42]


Auschwitz II Birkenau prisoners

The Auschwitz concentration camp located 50 kilometers west of Kraków was the largest of the German Nazi extermination centers. Auschwitz was fitted with the first five permanent gas chambers at Birkenau, beginning in March 1942, and from June 1943, with four additional large gassing-rooms.[43] The extermination of Jews with Zyklon B as the killing agent,[44] began in July 1942 following the ruthless "selection process" at the Judenrampe. Only about 10 percent of the transports organized by the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) were registered and assigned to barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau.[45] Overwhelming majority of prisoners delivered by an average of 1.5 Holocaust trains per day,[46] were sent directly to the gas chambers.[47]

By early 1943 Birkenau was a killing factory with four crematoria working around the clock. Up to 6,000 people were gassed and cremated there each day.[48] Auschwitz II extermination program resulted in the death of 1.3 to 1.5 million people.[49] Over 1.1 million of them were Jews from across Europe including 200,000 children.[47][50] Among the registered 400,000 victims (less than one-third of the total Auschwitz arrivals) were 140,000-150,000 non-Jewish Poles, 23,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet POWs and 25,000 others,[49][51] on top of 200,000 Jews from Poland, delivered aboard cattle trains from liquidated ghettos and transit camps,[52] beginning with Bytom (February 15, 1942), Kraków (March 13, 1943),[53] Sosnowiec (June–August 1943),[54] and several dozen other metropolitan cities and towns,[55] including the last ghetto left standing in occupied Poland, liquidated in August 1944 at Łódź (Litzmannstadt).[56] 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.[57]


Sketch of KZ Treblinka from the 1967 Franz Stangl trial in West Germany

Designed exclusively for the implementation of the Final Solution, the Treblinka extermination camp was one of only three such facilities in existence; the other two were Bełżec and Sobibór. All of them were situated in wooded areas away from population centres and linked to the Polish rail system by a branch line. They had transferable SS staff.[58] There was a railway platform constructed alongside the tracks, surrounded by an eight-foot high barbed-wire fencing. Large barracks were built for storing belongings of disembarking victims. One was disguised as a railway station complete with a fake wooden clock and signage to prevent new arrivals from realizing their fate.[59] Passports and money were collected for "safekeeping" at a cashier's booth set up by the Road to Heaven; it was a fenced-off path leading into the gas chambers disguised as showers. Directly behind were the burial pits dug with a crawler excavator.[60]

Located 80 kilometres (50 mi) northeast of Warsaw,[61] Treblinka became operational on July 24, 1942 after three months of forced labour construction by expellees from Germany.[62] The shipping of Jews from the Polish capital – plan known as the Großaktion Warschau – began immediately.[63][64][65] During the two months of summer 1942, about 254,000 Warsaw Ghetto inmates were exterminated at Treblinka (or at least 300,000 by different accounts).[66] On arrival, disrobed men followed by women and children were forced into double-wall chambers and gassed in batches of 200 with the use of exhaust fumes generated by a tank engine.[67][68][69] The gas chambers, rebuilt of brick, and expanded in August–September 1942, were able to kill 12,000 to 15,000 victims every day,[70] with the maximum capacity of 22,000 executions in twenty-four hours.[71] The dead were initially buried in large mass graves, but the stench from the decomposing bodies could be smelled up to ten kilometers away. As a result, later, the Nazis began burning the bodies on open-air grids made of concrete pillars and railway tracks.[72] The number of people killed at Treblinka in about a year, ranges from 800,000 to 1,200,000 with no exact figures available.[73][74] The camp was officially closed by Globocnik on October 19, 1943 soon after the Treblinka prisoner uprising,[75] with the murderous Operation Reinhard nearly completed.[73]


The Bełżec 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 brick and mortar,[76] enabling the facility to handle over 1,000 victims at one time. At least 434,500 Jews were exterminated there. The lack of verified survivors however, makes this camp much less known.[77] 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 pits in October 1942.[78]

Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein from Waffen-SS, supplying Zyklon B from Degesch during the Holocaust,[79] wrote after the war in his Gerstein Report for the Allies that on August 17, 1942 at Belzec, he had witnessed the arrival of 45 wagons with 6,700 prisoners of whom 1,450 were already dead inside.[80] That train came with the Jewish people of the Lwów Ghetto,[81] less than a hundred kilometers away.[82] The last shipment of Jews (including those who had already died in transit) arrived in Bełżec in December 1942.[83] The burning of exhumed corpses continued until March.[84] The remaining 500 Sonderkommando prisoners who dismantled the camp, and who bore witness to the extermination process,[85] were murdered at the nearby Sobibór extermination camp in the following months.[86][87]


Top secret document, the so-called Höfle Telegram, confirms at least 101,370 Jewish train deportations to Sobibor in 1942.

The Sobibór extermination camp, disguised as a railway transit camp not far from Lublin, began mass gassing operations in May 1942.[88][89] As in other extermination centers, the Jews, taken off the Holocaust trains arriving from liquidated ghettos and transit camps (Izbica, Końskowola) were met by an SS-man dressed in a medical coat. Oberscharführer Hermann Michel gave the command for prisoners’ "disinfection".[89]

New arrivals were forced to split into groups, hand over their valuables, and disrobe inside a walled-off courtyard for a bath. Women had their hair cut off by the Sonderkommando barbers. Once undressed, the Jews were led down a narrow path to the gas chambers which were disguised as showers. Carbon monoxide gas was released from the exhaust pipes of a gasoline engine removed from a Red Army tank.[90] Their bodies were taken out and burned in open pits over iron grids partly fueled by human body-fat. Their remains were dumped onto seven "ash mountains". The total number of Polish Jews murdered at Sobibór is estimated at a minimum of 250,000.[89] Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp dismantled following a prisoner revolt on October 14, 1943; one of only two successful uprisings by Jewish Sonderkommando inmates in a Nazi extermination camp, with 300 escapees (most of them were recaptured by the SS and killed).[91][92]


The ovens inside the crematorium on display at the Majdanek State Museum

The Majdanek forced labor camp located on the outskirts of Lublin like Sobibór and closed during typhus epidemic, was reopened in March 1942 for Operation Reinhard, first, a as storage depot for valuables stolen from the victims of gassing at the killing centers of Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka,[93] It became a place of extermination of large Jewish populations from south-eastern Poland (Kraków, Lwów, Zamość, Warsaw) after the gas chambers were constructed in late 1942.[94] The gassing of Polish Jews was performed in plain view of other inmates, without as much as a fence around the killing facilities.[95] According to witness's testimony, "to drown the cries of the dying, tractor engines were run near the gas chambers" before they took the dead away to the crematorium. Majdanek was the site of death of 59,000 Polish Jews (from among its 79,000 victims).[96][97] By the end of Operation Harvest Festival in early November 1943 (the single largest German massacre of Jews during the entire war),[98] Majdanek had only 71 Jews left.[99]

The "resettlement"

Liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto. Families walk to Prokocim railway station for the "resettlement". Point of destination: Auschwitz, March 1943

The scale of the Final Solution would not have been possible without mass transport. The extermination of Polish Jews depended on the railways as much as on the secluded killing centres. 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 a "resettlement" program.[7][100] In one telephone conversation Heinrich Himmler informed Martin Bormann about the Jews already exterminated in Poland, to which Bormann screamed in response: "They were not exterminated, only evacuated, evacuated, evacuated!"[46]

Unspecified number of deportees died in transit during Operation Reinhard from suffocation and thirst. No food or water was supplied. The Güterwagen boxcars were only fitted with a bucket latrine. A small barred window provided little ventilation, which oftentimes resulted in multiple deaths.[101] Millions of people were transported in such trainsets to the extermination camps under the direction of the German Ministry of Transport, and tracked by an IBM subsidiary, until the official date of closing of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in December 1944.[102][103]

Death factories were just one of a number of ways of mass extermination. In the Eastern regions conquered by Germany during Operation Barbarossa, the SS had recruited collaborationist auxiliary police (Hiwis) from among Soviet nationals.[3][104] They were known as "Trawniki men" (German: Trawnikimänner) for deployment in all major killing sites of Operation Reinhard (their primary purpose of training). Trawnikis took an active role in the executions of Jews at Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka II, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (on three occasions, see Stroop Report), Częstochowa, Lublin, Lwów, Radom, Kraków, Białystok (twice), Majdanek, Auschwitz, the Trawniki concentration camp itself,[3] and the remaining subcamps of KL Lublin/Majdanek camp complex including Poniatowa, Budzyń, Kraśnik, Puławy, Lipowa, and also during massacres in Łomazy, Międzyrzec, Łuków, Radzyń, Parczew, Końskowola, Komarówka and all other locations, augmented by members of the SS, as well as the reserve police battalions from Orpo (each, responsible for annihilation of thousands of Jews). The Order Police performed liquidations of the Jewish ghettos in German-occupied Poland, filling boxcars with Jews and shooting people unable to move or attempting to flee, while the Trawnikis conducted large-scale massacres in those places.[98][105] Mass executions of Jews (as in Szebnie) was part of regular training of the auxiliary Ukrainian 14th Waffen SS Division soldiers from the SS Heidelager troop-training base in Pustków in south-eastern Poland.[106][107] In the north-east, the "Poachers' Brigade" of Oskar Dirlewanger trained Belarusian Home Guard in murder expeditions.[108]

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 10 percent of the Jews survived, less than in any other country; and yet, Poland accounts for the majority of rescuers with the title of 'Righteous Among the Nations', i.e. people who risked their lives to save Jews. The Poles honored by Yad Vashem are a fraction of the true number of deserving individuals and: "so far represent only the tip of the iceberg," according to Paulsson.[109] The nature of this paradox was debated by historians on both sides for more than fifty years often with preconceived notions and selective evidence.[109]

Many Jews, persecuted by the Germans, 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. This rescue effort occurred even though (since October 1941) ethnic Poles themselves were the subject to capital punishment at the hands of the Nazis if found offering any kind of help to a person of Jewish faith or origin (Poland was the only country in German-occupied Europe in which such a death penalty was applied).[109][110]

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.[26][111][112] In total, some 30,000 Poles were executed by the Nazis for hiding them.[113][114] Over 700 Polish Righteous among the Nations received their award posthumously, having been murdered by the Germans for aiding or sheltering their Jewish neighbors.[115] 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 safer countries of Western Europe.[116]

Difficulties in rescue attempts

Children of the Warsaw Ghetto

Toward the end of the ghetto liquidation period, the largest number of Jews managed to escape to the 'Aryan' side,[109] 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. 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][117] The number of Polish Jews kept in hiding by non-Jewish Poles was around 450,000.[5] To put these numbers in perspective, three and a half million Jews lived in Poland before the war, out of a total population in Poland of about 27 million people.[5]

Polish Jews were a 'visible minority' by modern standards, distinguishable by language, behavior and appearance.[109] For hundreds of thousands of them the Polish language was barely familiar.[118] According to Polish census of 1931 only 12% of Jews listed Polish as their first language while 79% of them declared Yiddish and the remaining 9% Hebrew as the mother-tongue.[119] By contrast, the overwhelming majority of German-born Jews of this period spoke German as their first language. The presence of such large non-Christian, mostly non acculturated minority in prewar Poland,[120] was a source of competitive tension, 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.[109] 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.[121] 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,"[109] once the Holocaust began.

Public execution of ethnic Poles in Przemyśl as punishment for helping Jews, 1943

Poland was occupied by the Nazis from 1939 to 1945 and no Polish collaboration government was ever formed during that period.[122] The Polish Government in Exile was the first (in November 1942)[123] 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) since 1942 for the relief payments to thousands of extended Jewish families in Poland.[124] The government in exile also provided special assistance – funds, arms and other supplies – to Jewish resistance organizations (like ŻOB and ŻZW).[125] The Polish Underground State strongly opposed collaboration in anti-Jewish persecutions and threatened with death the informers against them, on behalf of the Polish military tribunals of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa).[126]

In some cases, the Germans across Europe were able to exploit the local populace's anti-Semitism, and Poland was no exception. In occupied Poland death was a standard punishment for a Polish person with family and neighbors,[127] for any help given to Jews, one of the many coercive techniques used by Germans.[26] Some persons betrayed hidden Jews to the Germans, others made money as extortionists (szmalcownik), blackmailing Jews in hiding and Poles who protected them.[128] 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,[122] 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).[129] 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 stated "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".[129] 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.[122]

Role of national minorities

The Republic of Poland was a multicultural country before World War II, with almost a third of its population originating from the minority groups: 13.9% Ukrainians; 10% Jews; 3.1% Belarusians; 2.3% Germans and 3.4% percent Czechs, Lithuanians and Russians. Hundreds of ethnically German men joined the Nazi Sonderdienst formations,[130] launched in May 1940 by Gauleiter Hans Frank who stationed in occupied Kraków.[131] The existence of Sonderdienst constituted a grave danger for the Catholic Poles who attempted to help ghettoised Jews in the cities which had sizable German and pro-German minorities, as in the case of the Izbica Ghetto or the Mińsk Mazowiecki Ghetto among numerous other locations. Anti-Semitic attitudes were particularly visible 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 against their own compatriots, and mass deportation of up to 1 million ethnic Poles to Siberia,[13][132] 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 ethnically Polish or other victims.[133][134]

A number of German-inspired massacres were carried out in that region with the active participation of indigenous people. The guidelines for such massacres were formulated by Reinhard Heydrich,[135] who ordered his officers to induce anti-Jewish pogroms on territories newly occupied by the German forces.[136][137] In the most infamous series of Lviv pogroms committed by the Ukrainian militants in the eastern city of Lwów (now, Ukraine), some 6,000 Polish Jews were murdered in the streets between June 30 and July 29, 1941 on top of 3,000 arrests and mass shootings by Einsatzgruppe C.[138][139] The Ukrainian People's Militia formed by OUN with the blessings of the SS spread terror to other locations.[140] In Tarnopol 600 Jewish men killed,[141] some of whom were decapitated,[142] although the SS shot three times as many Jews.[141] In Stanisławów – another provincial capital in the Kresy macroregion – the single largest massacre of Polish Jews prior to Aktion Reinhardt was perpetrated hand in glove by Orpo, SiPo and the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police brought in from Lwów on 12 October 1941; tables with sandwiches and bottles of vodka had been set up about the cemetery for shooters who needed to rest from the deafening noise of gunfire; 12,000 Jews were murdered before nightfall.[143] A total of 31 deadly pogroms were carried out throughout the region in conjunction with Belarusian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian Schuma.[144] Further north-west, during the massacre in Jedwabne, over 300 Jews died (Institute of National Remembrance's Final Findings),[145] burned alive in a barn set on fire by a group of Polish men in the presence of German Ordnungspolizei. The circumstances surrounding the events in Jedwabne are still debated, and include the ominous presence of the Einsatzgruppe Zichenau-Schroettersburg under SS-Obersturmführer Hermann Schaper deployed in Bezirk Bialystok,[146][147] as well as 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 alleged Jewish participation in anti-Polish terror following Soviet 1939 invasion of Kresy.[148]

Some members of ultra-nationalist National Armed Forces (NSZ, or Narodowe Siły Zbrojne),[149][150] participated in executions of Jews during wartime, according to Stefan Korboński.[151] Other NSZ units rendered assistance to them and included Jews in their ranks as well as Polish Righteous Among the Nations.[152] The NSZ Holy Cross Brigade rescued 280 Jewish women among some 1,000 persons from the concentration camp in Holýšov. A Jewish partisan from NSZ, Feliks Parry, suggested that most of them "didn't have the slightest notion of the ideological underpinnings of their organization" and didn't care, focused only on resisting the Nazis.[153] In postwar Poland, the communist secret police routinely tortured the NSZ insurgents in order to force them to confess to killing Jews among other alleged crimes. 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".[154]

In 1946, over a year after the end of the war, 42 Jews were massacred in the Kielce pogrom, prompting Gen. Spychalski of PWP to sign a legislative decree allowing the remaining survivors to leave Poland without visas or exit permits.[155] Poland was the only Eastern Bloc country to do so upon the conclusion of World War II.[156] Consequently, the Jewish emigration from Poland increased dramatically.[157] Britain demanded from Poland (among others) to halt the Jewish exodus, but their pressure was largely unsuccessful.[158] The massacre in Kielce was condemned by a public announcement sent by the diocese in Kielce to all churches. The letter denounced the pogrom and "stressed that the most important Catholic values were the love of fellow human beings and respect for human life. It also alluded to the demoralizing effect of anti-Jewish violence, since the crime was committed in the presence of youth and children." Priests read it without comments during Mass, "[h]inting that the pogrom might have in fact been a political provocation."[159][160]

Rate of survival

The exact number of Holocaust survivors is unknown. 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,[1][2] but most Polish Jews in the Generalgouvernement stayed put. Prior to the mass deportations, there was no proven necessity to leave familiar places. 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, and, contrary to popular misconceptions, the risk of them being turned in by the Poles was very small.[109]

The question regarding the Jewish real chances of survival once the Holocaust began continues to draw attention of historians.[109] For one, the Germans made it extremely difficult to escape the ghettos just before "resettlement" to the death camps. 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 dictated letters back home, stating 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 actual outcome seemed unthinkable at the time.[109] David J. Landau suggested also that the weak Jewish leadership might have played a role.[161] 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.[109]

It is estimated that about 350,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. Some 230,000 of them survived in the Soviet territory,[162] including eastern half of Poland annexed after the 1939 invasion. Soon after the war ended, some 180,000 to 200,000 Jews took advantage of the repatriation agreement meant to ratify the new borders between Poland and the USSR. The number of Jews in the country changed dramatically, with many Jews passing through on their way to the West. Poland was the only Eastern Bloc country to allow free Jewish aliyah to Mandate Palestine,[156] with Stalin's vexed approval,[163] seeking to undermine British influence in the Middle East. In January 1946, there were 86,000 survivors registered at Central Committee of Polish Jews (CKŻP). By the end of summer, the number had risen to about 205,000–210,000 (with 240,000 registrations and over 30,000 duplicates). Most refugees crossing the new borders left Poland without Western visas or Polish exit permits.[156] Uninterrupted traffic across the Polish borders intensified.[163][164] By the spring of 1947 only 90,000 Jews remained in Poland.[136][165][166]

Gunnar S. Paulsson estimated that 30,000 Jews survived in the labor camps and up to 50,000 in the forests and among soldiers who returned with the pro-Soviet Polish "Berling army" formed by Stalin ahead of his advance into Germany. The number of Jews who successfully hid on the "Aryan" side individually could be as high as 50,000 according to Paulsson's estimates. Many did not register themselves after the war, as was the case with Jewish children hidden by non-Jewish Poles and the Church.[109] The survival rate among the ghetto escapees was relatively high given the severity of German measures designed to prevent this occurrence, and by far, these individuals were the most successful.[109][167]

Holocaust memorials and commemoration

There is a large number of memorials in Poland dedicated to the Holocaust remembrance. Major museums include the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum with 1.4 million visitors per year, and the nearly-completed Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw. Since 1988, an annual international event commemorating the Holocaust: March of the Living, takes place in April at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex on the Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the total attendance exceeding 150,000 youth from all over the world.[168]

See also


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  161. 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.”
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