When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II, the Polish people hardly knew what the Nazi leadership had in store for them. According to General Plan East, the Nazi grand design for the solution of Germany's so-called lack of space (lebensarum in German historiography), the whole of Polish territory was gradually to be cleared of its native population for colonization by German ethnic populations and eventually incorporated into the Greater German Reich. Considered as an inferior race (as other Slav nations), the fiercely nationalistic Poles in their considerable majority (some 80-85 percent of the population), after a careful sorting of those elements within it considered capable of being "re-Germanized" on strictly racist lines, would have to abandon their ancestral home and be removed to distant Siberia. The several million remaining Poles, reduced to the status helots, would be expected to obediently serve their new masters.
The transformation of Poland into a German province was to be carried out over a short period of twenty-five or thirty years. Hence, no mercy was to be shown to this population, no temporary alliances formed with collaborationist elements (as in other, even Slavic, occupied territories), no rudimentary forms of autonomy to be tolerated. "It is clear as daylight that the Vistula [Poland's main river] country will be as German as the Rhineland," Hans Frank, the Nazi military governor, triumphantly gloated in his diary. (1)
To guarantee the success of this fast despoliation, the intelligentsia was to be liquidated. "It sounds cruel," Hitler reportedly told Hans Frank, "but such is the law of life." "The whole of the Government General [the name given to occupied Poland, with the exception of the Western provinces, which were immediately annexed to Germany] was simply to be treated as a concentration camp," Hans Frank noted in his diary. "The only people who would be allowed any freedom of movement would be the guards."
Through restrictions on marriages, lowering of sanitary conditions, a severe reduction of rations (half of what German nationals were entitled to), and the removal of hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men for labor in Germany, a biological campaign was carried out to bring about a sharp reduction of the population. Polish children in institutions and orphanages in the annexed territories who were considered racially akin to Germans were forcibly abducted and removed to Germany for "re-Germanization" (250,000 children, according to some figures), for the "lost blood" of previous generations had to be salvaged and restored to its original heirs. Polish families, claiming Germanic ancestry were reclassified as ethnic Germans ("Volksdeutsche") and accorded preferential treatment. In the annexed provinces, the Polish language was banned from use in all public offices, and Polish towns were given Germanic names (such as Lodz, renamed Litzmannstadt). Universities and secondary schools were closed, and cultural activities were severely hampered. In the eastern Zamosc region, some 110,000 Poles were evacuated from villages and replaced with 25,000 German colonists.
This premeditated and constant harassment of the Polish population led to an unremitting reign of terror, which stands out as exceptionally ruthless and severe by contrast to other occupied countries, and which lasted for the full duration of the occupation. Individual arrests were conducted on a massive scale, and street roundups for labor in Germany became a common, frightening reality. The Germans reserved the right to impose the death penalty for even minor infractions (such as removing German posters), and any German could shoot any Pole with impunity, and for almost no reason. With the exception of the Jewish population, the Poles suffered more losses of life than the people of any other Nazi-occupied country. It is estimated that close to two million Poles lost their lives during the war years and over a million were consigned to forced labor in Germany.
Given all this pervasive cruelty, a wide gulf, nevertheless, separated the sufferings of the Poles from Jews. As told to the Polish underground commander Jan Karski by Jewish leaders at the height of the Holocaust: "After the war Poland will be resurrected. Your cities will be rebuilt and your wounds will slowly heal. From this ocean of tears, pain, rage, and humiliation, your country will emerge again, but the Polish Jews will no longer exist....The Jewish people will be murdered."
The country slated for destruction by the fiercely antisemitic Nazi German state, by a tragic twist of history, also contained the largest concentration of Jews on the European continent --some 3,250,000 Jews, a tenth of the population. Although present on Polish soil since the early Middle Ages, they were, at the dawn of the twentieth century, still by far a nonassimilable community. Apart from the language barrier (most Jews still claimed Yiddish as their native tongue), Jews stood out from the general population in dress,habits, names and surnames, and nonverbal language, such as gestures, facial expressions, and mannerisms --but mostly in the very different religious practice of Judaism in a country considering itself profoundly Catholic. All these factors, coupled with the concentration of Jews in the larger cities(where they constituted between one-third and one-fourth of the total population) and a no less significant presence in smaller ones, contributed to make most Jews easily recognizable, and frankly resented by the majority of Poles.
Again, by an additional historical paradox, the Polish Jews, accused by antisemites of secretly hoarding wealth for dishonorable purposes, were actually the poorest of all Jewish continental communities, and many were literally subsisting below the poverty level. This process was accelerated in the 1930s by government economic measures (aimed at transferring most enterprises into Polish hands) which amounted to economic strangulation of broad sections of the Jewish population, and was also exacerbated by other discriminatory measures, such as the restriction of Jewish students in universities (the infamous "numerous clausus"), random violence on streets and schools, and open adulation of Nazi anti-Jewish measures across the border. The powerful Catholic Church failed to take a stand against the official antisemitic policies of the ruling class (some even condoned it, accusing theJews, as in Cardinal Hlond's 1936 pastoral letter, of corroding the morals of the youth).
In the Nazi world, there was to be no place for Jews, not even for dehumanized and enslaved Jews. For reasons not yet fully explainable, Poland was chosen as the main killing site (most serious authorities point out the linkage of geographical feasibility, Jewish population figures, and local anti-Jewish sentiments as the configuration which helped mold the Nazi decision), as the slaughterhouse of millions of Jews (and other nationals); of those inhabiting the country and others who would be transported there by train. Thus the Polish countryside was dotted by an array of death camps whose names (such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Chelmno) will forever remain indelible stains on the human record. There the practice of death was developed into a science and sank to unfathomable depths of depravity, as millions were done to death in various gruesome forms, with gassing eventually becoming the main killing device.
The killing operation went through several stages. At first, the Nazis experimented with various repressive measures --random mass shootings and hard physical labor-- causing death to thousands. But this was only a temporary expedient. More rational and "scientific" methods were in store for the hapless trapped Jews. They were expelled from smaller locations and herded into ghettos, where they were restricted to an area which before the war supported only a fraction of the population now inhabiting it. This was coupled with a severe lack of sanitary conditions and starvation-level rations (half of what the underfed Polish population was allotted) causing large-scale deaths inside the ghettos (tens of thousands in the Warsaw ghetto alone). Then, starting mid-1941, coinciding with the invasion of Russia, special liquidation units, known as Einsatzgruppen, practiced wholesale murder in the newly conquered territories, killing hundreds of thousands.
When this proved ineffective (not enough were being killed), the Nazi hierarchy decided that the principal method of death would henceforth be gassing, in especially constructed sites, and almost all of them on Polish soil. A special government-sponsored conference was convened in January 1942 in Berlin (known as the Wannsee Conference) to coordinate this vast official killing operation, comprising all European conquered Jewish communities. All Jews were to be transported in cattle cars to death camps in Poland, where, save for able-bodied persons, they would immediately be gassed. Those capable of performing heavy labor would be done to death gradually, as a result of brutal treatment and exhaustion. In all such camps, crematoria and other forms of incineration were to take care of the quick disposal of bodies, thereby also preventing the outbreak of infectious diseases (always the bane of Nazi fears).
Following this master plan, close to four million Jews saw the last light of day on Polish soil, comprising whole communities from as far as Holland, Belgium, and France in the west; Norway in the north; and Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece (even the island of Rhodes, off the Turkish mainland) in the south. The vast majority of Polish Jewry, close to three million men, women, and children, were trapped in this vast inferno and perished in the conflagration.
All this took place within view of the local population, who could not help but watch the constant movement of trains and hear the desperate cries of their harried occupants as the cars inched their way slowly toward the death camps; nor could they avoid witnessing the incessant smoke billowing out of the crematoria furnaces and the concomitant stench of human flesh, nor the occasional massacres on the street and near open ditches in the countryside. Horrid tales of mass killings would also be confirmed to them by their own kinfolk, imprisoned in many of these notorious camps, for various offenses, who as camp inmates were treated harshly, but less so than the Jewish ones, and were able to communicate with the outside world.
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How would the Polish population react to the massive slaughter of the Jews in their midst --in their own backyard? This question is especially crucial in light of the unenviably difficult situation Jews found themselves in at the height of the killings. They were physically trapped, with all escape valves tightly shut. Surrounding Poland were territories under the control of German and S.S. troops or collaborationist paramilitary units (Lithuanian, Latvian, and Ukrainian). Facing them inside Poland was an immense array of German military and security forces (including S.S., Gestapo, Kripo, S.D., Schutzpolizei), of a magnitude not known in other occupied countries. On the local scene, thePolish police, willy-nilly, became accomplices in this giant murder conspiracy.
Shorn of outside aid, fearing resistance would only aggravate an already impossible situation and definitely doom them, the Jews had no other recourse than to turn for guidance to their own German-appointed leaders. These, cowed into submission by the Nazis, and having nothing practical to suggest, counseled patience and strict obedience, in the hope that the murderous appetite of the Nazis would eventually slacken and thus a remnant would be saved (this, for instance, was the gist of Haim Rumkowski's position, head of the Lodz ghetto).
When the 50,000 remnants of the once close to 500,000 Jews of the Warsaw ghetto rose in rebellion in April 1943, it was not meant to be a rescue operation but simply a last desperate effort to go down fighting and thus save the honor of the condemned Jews. If any Jews were to survive this unprecedented crime in the annals of history in order to tell the world of what their eyes had beheld, this would be the result of either sheer luck (survival in the camps) or of enduring the occupation through help by the non-Jewish population, itself suffering from the lashes of the Nazi whip, but not threatened with immediate destruction. Thus, survival for many Jews was a function of the attitude of the local population. How would the people of Poland react to the plight of the Jews, and how would they respond to the tearful pleadings for aid by an ethnic group which was being swiftly decimated, and would soon disappear for good from the Polish landscape?
The weight of evidence from eyewitness accounts and documentary material, it must be said in full candor, points to a widespread antisemitism that militated against a serious attempt to render succor to the afflicted Jews--difficult as such undertakings would have been in light of the Nazi terror machine which operated with a special brutality against the Polish population. In many quarters, there was even sort of an eerie satisfaction that the Jewish Question in Poland (an irritating 10 percent of the population) was at long last being solved for the good of the country, coupled with a revulsion among some at the methods used to achieve this end.
Antisemitism in Poland had already reached high proportions in the immediate years before the war (although Jews enjoyed unprecedented liberties during the Middle Ages, at a time when their brethren suffered persecution in the rest of Europe). This antisemitism played into the hands of the Nazis, who needed, if not the outright cooperation, then at least the silent acquiescence of the conquered populations if their genocical plans were to succeed.
It is interesting that Emmanuel Ringelblum, the noted Polish-Jewish historian (whose authority is also lauded by non-Jewish Polish historians), castigated Polish society for its antisemitism; he labeled the Poland of the prewar years "the leading anti-Semitic country in Europe, second to Germany alone." He condemned the Polish police for playing a "most lamentable role inthe extermination of the Jews of Poland," and for being "enthusiastic executors of all the German directives regarding the Jews." Ringelblum wrote these words in a major study he was preparing on Polish-Jewish relations, from his hiding place in Warsaw. Ringelblum lamented the antisemitism of the non-Jewish population and their satisfaction "that Warsaw had in the end becomejudenrein."
Ringelblum's gloomy analysis of the anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland is borne out by numerous testimonies of survivors, even of those whose lives were saved through the courageous help of non-Jews. As stated by the historian Hersztein, "the historical account must conform to the documents, not the otherway around." Testimonies by survivors, even of those who survived thanks to the aid of benevolent persons, are replete with accounts of unfriendliness shown toward Jews, which in many cases took violent form.
Ringelblum terms these gangs "an endless nightmare" to the Jews on the Aryan side (the term generally used for the area of habitation outside the ghetto, forbidden to Jews on the pain of death). The evidence shows that there was hardly a Jew in hiding who did not have an encounter with them at least once, and who did not have to buy himself free for a sum of money. They brought disaster to thousands of Jews who has succeeded in eluding the Nazis. Numerous eyewitness accounts from other survivors (even of rescuers whose lives was made doubly dangerous and miserable from fear of blackmailers from among their own kinsmen) only tend to confirm this shameful phenomenon for which there was no parallel (to such an extent) in any other Nazi-occupied country.
The plague of the blackmailers was so widespread that the Polish underground felt it necessary to begrudgingly take measures, if not to fully eradicate it, at least to contain it. In practice, only a few informers were actually punished. The few steps taken in this direction bore absolutely no proportion to the magnitude of the crimes committed by the Nazis and, hence, had little effect in reducing the blackmailing plague, which continued festering undiminished till the last days of the occupation.
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Under the impossible conditions in which Jews found themselves in Nazi-occupied Poland, help by non-Jews was an inescapable precondition for any Jew hoping to survive the Holocaust. The most common form was providing shelter in the rescuer's home. For the Jewish person on the run, help meant escape from certain death; for the rescuer, the risk of apprehension through betrayal and Nazi-style punishment for an infraction that was parallel to acapital offense. How so?
The occupation authorities threatened with death any person who obstructed Nazi designs to destroy the Jews. This dire punishment was not only written in the law and known to studious attorneys but made public by posters on bulletin boards in all major cities. Any Pole caught hiding a Jew could be shot on thespot. If lucky, he would be dispatched to a concentration camp. The murder of Polish inhabitants by the Nazis was common even for lesser infractions, let alone for rendering assistance to Jews. As early as October 15, 1941, Governor General Hans Frank published an ordinance which under paragraph 4b1 stated: "Jews who, without permission leave the district to which they have been confined are subject to punishment by death. Persons who deliberately offer a hiding place to such Jews are also subject to this punishment." On November 10, 1941 the death penalty was enlarged to apply to those who help Jews "in any way: by taking them in for a night, giving them a lift in a vehicle of any sort."
These stern admonitions were repeated throughout all major cities in occupied Poland and worded in three languages (German, Polish, and Russian). That the minutest form of aid was also to be withheld was made clear by Dr.Boettcher, the German police chief of the Radom district, who exacted the death penalty to anyone "who feed[s] the runaway Jews or sell[s] them foodstuffs, even if they do not offer them shelter." Similar threats were issued by other district governors.
Those caught violating these admonitions were either shot on the spot (usually in outlying farms or smaller towns and villages) or haled before military tribunals for quick sentencing. "Sentences will be imposed by special court in Warsaw," Dr. Fischer warned the residents of Warsaw in late 1941. "I forcefully drawn the attention of the entire population of the Warsaw district to this decree, as henceforth it will be applied with utmost severity."
Death could also come less ceremoniously, by hanging on the nearest pole or by setting fire to the farm and burning the residents. At times, the Nazis buried the bodies of those shot for aiding Jews in unconsecrated ground: in the open field, woods, or in Jewish cemeteries, which to Catholic Poles was viewed as a sign of disrespect to the martyred victim. Those fortunate enough to escape the firing squad were dispatched to concentration camps for "special treatment." In no other occupied country was aid to Jews punished with such severity as in Poland.
The threat facing would-be rescuers, however, also came from the direction of the local population. There were not a few Poles who exerted pressure on rescuers to expel their Jewish wards. These coercions came not only from strangers, but also from next-door neighbors and members of the rescuer's family, who were infuriated at the rescuer for risking the lives of his family, of neighbors, and the local community (who could suffer retribution at the hands of the Germans), all for the sake of the "despised" Jews. Many are the stories of rescuers who, under intense pressure, felt constrained to suddenly let their Jews go (in some cases only momentarily, until the pressure had somehow abated), or hurriedly made alternative arrangements for their wards to be hidden elsewhere. Not a few rescuers suffered violence after the war at the hands of their own kinsmen, when through indiscretion the story of their courageous deeds became known; others hurriedly moved to new locations to escape the wrath of their infuriated neighbors.
Thus, Polish rescuers had to overcome greater pressures and fears than their counterparts in other occupied countries, especially in Western Europe. In Ringelblum's own case, a bunker was prepared where he and many other Jews lived in daily fear for a nine-month period, and were cared for by Mieczyslaw Wolski and his family, including the family's matron, Malgorzata. The hiding place was, unfortunately, betrayed by the Gestapo on March 7, 1944, and all thirty-four residents were put to death. In addition to the rescuers Mieczyslaw Wolski and his nephew Janusz Wysocki.
The threats faced by would-be rescuers, both from the Germans and blackmailers alike, make us place Polish rescuers of Jews in a special category, for they exemplified a courage, fortitude, and lofty humanitarianism unequaled in other occupied countries. When to these dangers are added the severe economic hardships experienced by the population, the uniqueness and outstanding humanity of those that decided to help, in spite of such unbearable risks, are the more praiseworthy and their deeds close to legendary.
Suggestions for Further Readings:
On Nazi plans for the dismemberment of Poland and its eventual incorporation into Greater Germany, the enslavement of its populace, and life for Poles under the occupation:
On Jewish-Polish relations before the war:
On Jewish-Polish relations during the war:
For a contrasting opinion:
On Nazi threats against helping Jews:
On the Polsh underground:
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