The Holocaust, also known as haShoah (Hebrew: השואה), was a genocide officially sanctioned and executed by the Third Reich during World War II. It took the lives of three million Polish Jews, destroying an entire civilization. Only a small percentage survived or managed to escape beyond the reach of the Nazis. The Holocaust in German-occupied Poland involved the implementation of German policy of systematic and mostly successful destruction of indigenous Polish-Jewish population. The official Nazi term for the 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. 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.
Throughout the German occupation, many Poles – at great risk to themselves and their families – engaged in rescuing Jews from the Nazis. Grouped by nationality, Poles represent the biggest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. To date, 6,135 Poles have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel – more than any other nation.
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, 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, Sobibor 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.
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. 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.
Treblinka extermination camp located 100 km (62 mi) 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 railway station 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 – began immediately. 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). 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). The chambers, expanded in August–September 1942, were able to kill 12,000 to 15,000 victims every day, with the maximum capacity of 22,000 executions in twenty-four 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.
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, 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, 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
Sobibor 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.
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. 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 in early November 1943, Majdanek had only 71 Jews left.
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!" 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 subsidiary until the official date of closing the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in December 1944.
The relations between Poles and Jews during World War II present one of the sharpest paradoxes of the Holocaust. 10% 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. The nature of this paradox was debated by historians on both sides for more than fifty years often with preconceived notions and selective evidence.
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 to capital punishment at the hands of the German Nazi occupier if found offering any kind of help to a person of Jewish faith or origin.
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 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.
Polish Jews were a 'visible minority' by modern standards, distinguishable by language, behavior and appearance. As the Yiddish author and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in 1944, for hundreds of thousands of them Polish language was as unfamiliar as Turkish" (his article "Jews and Poles Lived Together for 800 Years But Were Not Integrated" in Forverts, New York). 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 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. 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 began.
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.
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The 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 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. The government in exile also provided special assistance – funds, arms and other supplies – to Jewish resistance organizations (like ŻOB and ŻZW). 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. In occupied Poland death was a standard punishment for a Polish person with family and neighbors, for any help given to Jews, one of the many coercive techniques used by Germans. 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. 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, 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). 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". 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.
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, 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.
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, 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 alleged Jewish participation in anti-Polish terror following Soviet 1939 invasion of Kresy.
The ultra-nationalist Narodowe Siły Zbrojne (NSZ or National Armed Forces) allegedly participated in murders of Jews during wartime.[not in citation given] 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".
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. Poland was the only Eastern Bloc country to do so upon the conclusion of World War II. Consequently, the Jewish emigration from Poland increased dramatically. Britain demanded from Poland (among others) to halt the Jewish exodus, but their pressure was largely unsuccessful. 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."
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, but most Polish Jews in the 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, and, contrary to popular misconceptions, the risk of them being turned in by the Poles was the least likely.
The questions regarding the Jewish real chances of survival once the Holocaust began, continue to draw attention of historians. For once, 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. David J. Landau suggested also that the weak Jewish leadership might have played a role. 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.
It is estimated that about 350,000 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust. Some 230,000 of them survived in the Soviet territory, 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, with Stalin's vexed approval, 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 the need for Western visas or Polish exit permits. Uninterrupted traffic across the Polish borders intensified. By the spring of 1947 only 90,000 Jews remained in Poland.
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 '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 by 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. The survival rate among the ghetto escapees was relatively high given the severity of German measures designed to prevent this outcome, and by far, became the most successful.
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.
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