, also known as haShoah
( ) was the officially sanctioned genocide
that took the lives of three million
in World War II
, destroying an entire
civilization. Only a small number survived or managed to escape
beyond the reach of the Nazis
Holocaust in Nazi-occupied
was an event involving the implementation of
German policy of systematic and mostly successful destruction of
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
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. 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
Holocaust in occupied Poland: the
The German Nazi extermination policy
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
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, herding them into ghettoes
and putting them into forced labor in
. 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
which had been annexed by the Soviets
in 1939. The
survivors were incarcerated in newly-created ghettos.
conference near Berlin on 20
January 1942, Dr Josef Bühler
urged Reinhard Heydrich to begin
the proposed "final solution to the
Accordingly, in 1942, the Germans began
the systematic killing of the Jews, beginning with the Jewish
population of the General
. 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, 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.
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,
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". 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. Civilians were
forbidden to approach them. Kulmhof (Chełmno) extermination camp was built as first.
was a pilot project for the development of the remaining sites.
Unlike other Nazi concentration
where prisoners were exploited for the war effort, German
– part of Operation Reinhardt
– were designed
exclusively for the rapid elimination of Polish Jews in ghettos.
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
The selection of sites, construction of
facilities and training of personnel was based on a similar
) "racial hygiene
" program of mass killings
developed in Germany.
extermination camp located 100 km (62 miles) northeast of
Warsaw, was ready
on July 24, 1942.
There were two barracks near the railway
tracks for storing belongings of prisoners; one disguised as a
complete with a
wooden fake clock to prevent new arrivals from realizing their
fate. Their valuables were collected for "safekeeping". The
shipping of Jews from the capital
– plan known as the Großaktion Warschau
immediately. During the two months of summer 1942, about 254,000
exterminated at Treblinka (or at least 300,000 by different
accounts). On arrival, stripped victims were marched to one of ten
chambers and gassed in batches of 200 with the use of monoxide gas
was introduced some time later).
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. The number of people killed at Treblinka in the next year
ranges from 1,000,000 to 1,400,000. The camp was dissolved on on
October 19, 1943 following the prisoner uprising, with the
murderous Operation Reinhard nearly completed.
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, following a "selection", began almost
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, among them, 200,000 Jewish people from
Poland, delivered in cattle trucks from liquidated ghettos in
Bytom (February 15, 1942), Kraków (March 13, 1943), Sosnowiec (June–August 1943), and many
other cities and towns including Łódź (August 1944), where the last
ghetto in Poland was liquidated.
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.
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.
least 434,500 Jews were exterminated there. The lack of varied
survivors however, makes this camp much lesser known. The bodies of
the dead, buried in mass graves, swelled in the heat as a result of
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.
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.
extermination camp disguised as a railway transit camp not far from
Lublin, began mass
gassing operations in May 1942. 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.
Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp dismantled following a prisoner
revolt on October 14, 1943.
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
It served as storage depot for valuables stolen
from the victims at the killing centers in Belzec, Sobibor, and
Treblinka, before it became a killing ground for Polish Jews with
gas chambers constructed in late 1942. 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. By the end of
Operation Harvest Festival
November 1943, Majdanek had only 71 Jews left.
The scale of the Final Solution
not have been possible without mass
. 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
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
informed Martin Bormann
about the Jews already exterminated in Poland, to which Bormann
screamed: "They were not exterminated, only evacuated, evacuated,
evacuated!" 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."
Millions of people were
transported to the extermination camps in trains organised by
German Transport Ministry and tracked by an IBM
until the official date of closing the
Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in December 1944.
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.Gunnar S. Paulsson, The Rescue of Jews by Non-Jews in Nazi-Occupied
Poland Journal of Holocaust Education, Vol.7, Nos.1&2,
1998, pp.19-44. Published by Frank Cass, London.
of this paradox was debated by historians on both sides for more
than fifty years often with preconceived notions and selective
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," because ethnic Poles themselves were the subject of
extreme and brutal
with any kind of help to a person of Jewish faith or
origin punishable by death
hands of the occupier.
- See: Polish
Righteous among the Nations, Rescue of Jews by
Poles during the Holocaust, Poland and
collaboration during WWII, Polish death camp
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. Thousands of
Poles were executed by the Nazis for aiding Jews. Over 700 Polish
Righteous among the Nations received their award posthumously,
having been murdered by the Germans for aiding or sheltering their
Jewish neighbors. Many of the Polish Righteous awarded
Vashem came from the capital.
In his work on the
Jews of Warsaw, Gunnar S.
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.
Polish Jews were a 'visible minority' by modern standards,
distinguishable by language, behavior and appearance. The presence
of such large non-Christian, mostly non acculturated minority 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. As elsewhere in Europe during the
period, there was both official
and popular anti-Semitism
at times encouraged by the Catholic
and by some political parties (particularly the
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. 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," once the Holocaust
At the end of the ghetto liquidation period, the largest number of
Jews managed to escape to the 'Aryan' side, 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. The number of Polish Jews kept in
hiding by non-Jewish Poles was around 450,000.
Polish Government in
Exile was the first (in November 1942) 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
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
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. The government in exile also
provided special assistance – funds, arms and other supplies – to
). 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
Army, AK) and the Communist People's
(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
Polish person with family and neighbors, for any help given to
Jews. Some persons betrayed hidden Jews to the Germans, and others
made their living as "Jew-hunters" (szmalcownik
), blackmailing Jews
who protected them. 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
nation; the highest estimate of about one million, 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
, 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). 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
) 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". The unique Polish
an act of collaboration
with the enemy, and with the
aid of its military arm, the Armia
, 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.
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
, conducted by the Soviet security apparatus
, with some of the local Jews
collaborating with them. Others assumed that, driven by vengeance,
prominent in betraying the Polish victims.
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
, who ordered his
officers to induce anti-Jewish pogroms on territories newly
occupied by the German forces. In the most infamous massacre in
Jedwabne, between 300 (Institute of National
Remembrance's Final Findings) and 1,600 (Jan T. Gross
) 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
The ultra-nationalist Narodowe Siły Zbrojne
National Armed Forces) allegedly participated in murders of Jews
during wartime. 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
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".
Rate of survival
The exact number of Holocaust survivors is controversial.
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,
but most of the Polish Jews in Generalgouvernement stayed
There was no proven necessity to leave familiar places
prior to mass deportations. When the ghettos were closed, 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.
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
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. David
suggested also that
the weak Jewish leadership might have played a role. Likewise,
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.
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Heydrich, the main organizer of the "Final Solution"; also,
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43 (2373), October 26 2002, p. 71-73 The Findings
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prof. Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, Georgetown
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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):
Snyder. (2004) The Reconstruction of Nations. New
Haven: Yale University Press: pg. 162
Turowski, with Władysław Siemaszko,
Zbrodnie nacjonalistów ukraińskich dokonane na ludności
polskiej na Wołyniu 1939-1945, Warsaw: Główna
Komisja Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce – Instytut Pamięci Narodowej,
Środowisko Żołnierzy 27 Wołyńskiej Dywizji Armii Krajowej w
Warszawie ( – Institute of National
Remembrance, and Association of Soldiers of the 27th Volhynian
Division of the Home
Army; Warsaw, 1990.
- 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.”
- Lucjan Dobroszycki, Yivo
Institute for Jewish Research, Survivors of the Holocaust in Poland: A
Portrait Based on Jewish Community 1994, 164 pages.
- David Engel, Facing a Holocaust: The Polish Government-in-exile
and the Jews, 1943-1945 1993, 317 pages.
- Tadeusz Piotrowski, Poland's Holocaust 1997, 437 pages.
- Naomi Samson, Hide: A Child's View of the Holocaust 2000, 194
- Eric Sterling, John K. Roth, Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust 2005,
- Gunnar S. Paulsson. Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw,
1940-1945. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, ISBN