Poland and the Jews: A few facts about Poland's WWII history

The Poles, like the Jews, were considered by the Nazis to be “Untermenschen” (sub-humans) to be extinguished.

Flag of Poland, variant polish coat of arms. (photo credit: OLEK REMESZ/ WIKEPEDIA COMMONS)
Flag of Poland, variant polish coat of arms.
Poland was the first country to oppose Nazi Germany in WWII. It was attacked by the Germans on September 1, 1939, and its forces defended themselves for over a month. Unfortunately her allies France and the UK did not rush to help, and on September 17th Poland was invaded from the east by the Soviet Union. Victory against two such powerful enemies was impossible, but Poland never surrendered. A large part of the Polish armed forces and Poland’s government were evacuated through Romania to France, and then to England, and continued to struggle against the Germans until the end of the war.
Already in September 1939 crimes against the Polish population were committed.
The German Luftwaffe was bombarding towns and cities indiscriminately.
The German army and special police forces were killing civilians and disarmed soldiers in villages, especially in places where they found strong resistance, and hunting down and executing people working in local administration, like mayors and other town officials.
The Poles, like the Jews, were considered by the Nazis to be “Untermenschen” (sub-humans) to be extinguished. The goal of Operation Tannenberg was to identify the members of the Polish middle class: public officials, scholars, actors, Catholic clergy, and murder them. It is estimated that in the norther part of Poland called Pomerania, which was of special German interest, 36,000 to 42,000 Poles were killed in mass executions before the end of 1939.
In the Intelligenzaktion – the action against the Polish intelligentsia in the area of Poznan, about 2,000 Polish intellectuals, public officials and clergy were murdered.
On November 9, 1939, professors of Jagiellonian University, the oldest university in Poland (est. 1364), were summoned to a meeting by the head of the Sicherheitspolizei – German security police – to be immediately arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. They were the first Polish prisoners of this famous German camp, which served as a model for the new extermination camps, particularly Auschwitz, which was established in April 1940.
It is true that, especially after 1942 and the Endlösung decision (“Final Solution to the Jewish Question”), the Jews were a special target for Nazi Germany and were systematically killed in such Nazi German extermination camps as Auschwitz- Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec or Kulmhof (Chelmno). These camps were located in occupied Poland – the place where the majority of European Jewry was then located.
But it is also true that Poles were targeted for extermination as well. Since the Polish population was much larger than the Jewish one, the methods employed to extinguish the Poles were to be different.
The first targets were prominent citizens and intellectuals, and political opposition – people suspected of being members of the underground resistance.
The first mass transport to Auschwitz occurred on June 14, 1940, and included 728 Polish political prisoners and a small group of Jews.
The second target for extermination were the Poles living in areas that were attractive for the Germans. It happened often that one would be removed from one’s house and property overnight, either to be immediately shot or send to a concentration camp or moved to Germany as a slave laborer.
In the Aktion Zamosc a large area of land was cleared of its Polish population simply because the soil there was good; the over 100,000 Poles who were removed were to be replaced by German settlers.
Families were divided and most of them, including children, were either killed or sent to Auschwitz and other camps. Several thousand young Polish children, especially those who were good looking, with blond hair and blue eyes, were taken from their parents and sent to Germany to be Germanized. Out of those only 800 were recovered after the war and returned to Poland.
However, it was not the German goal to murder all the Poles at once, as they were trying to do with the Jews, but rather in stages. The reasons were economic. The German war machine needed production, so the Germans could not afford to kill all Polish factory workers, and it needed food, so they could not kill all Polish farmers. Although the methods of genocide were different, the Nazi German goals with regard to the Jewish and Polish population in Poland were in fact the same: total extinction.
From the beginning of WWII there was an underground Polish military resistance against the Germans. The strongest underground military organization was called the Home Army (AK). The AK was aware that the first target of the mass extermination for the Nazi Germans were the Jews. Therefore, in collaboration with the Polish government in exile, it established a special unit, Zegota, whose role was to do everything that could be done to save Jewish lives. It is estimated that they saved about 50,000.
In each society, there will be some collaborators. In occupied Poland there were very few. On the contrary, there was widespread resistance, and substantial help to the Jews, which was extremely dangerous because of the German occupation law that for hiding the Jews one faced the death penalty. Contrary to this jurisdiction, the AK declared that any Pole helping the Germans to kill the Jews, by for example informing where they were hidden, would be sentenced to death. Also, the AK made sure that information about the German crimes against the Jews was known to the world.
Of the special importance were reports of Karski.
Jan Karski, AK officer and later professor at Georgetown University, together with his brother, head of the Warsaw Police, whose many members collaborated with the underground, prepared three reports on the situation in occupied Poland. He was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto, and entered the Izbica concentration camp disguised as a guard. Especially significant was his third report, in which Karski described the extermination of the Jews.
One the basis of this report, on December 10, 1942, the Polish government- in-exile in London prepared a diplomatic note that was sent to 26 countries, including the UK and US, that had signed the Declaration of the United Nations. This was the first official report informing the governments and public opinion in the West about the extermination of the Jews and the horrors of the Holocaust.
Karski was then transported secretly abroad and sent to Washington to tell the American government and the Jewish-American organizations about the Jewish genocide. On July 28, 1943, Karski met with US president Franklin Roosevelt. He described the situation in Poland and proposed some military actions against Germany, such as bombing roads and installations in the camps, to obstruct the German genocide of the Jews. However, surprisingly, no one seem to believe in what he had to say and there was no practical response to his report.
His testimony is brilliantly conveyed in his book Story of a Secret State. This book of the great eyewitness of the heroism of the Polish resistance and the Nazi German brutality in the occupied Poland should be widely read to dispel falsehoods about the war.
Today Auschwitz is a symbol of the Jewish Holocaust. It is true that the Poles were mainly in Auschwitz I, which was a concentration camp, whereas the majority of the Jews was directed straight to Birkenau, which was a death camp. However, since they were both classified as Untermenschen, both Jews and Poles would ultimately face extermination.
The Jews had to wear the Star of David; the Poles had to wear a red triangle. They were equally brutalized, deprived of their humanity and condemned to death. In the concentration and labor camps they lived longer; in the death camps they were subjected to immediate murder. But in the eyes of their German oppressors, their fate was meant to be same.
However, some might raise the objection: if the Jews and the Poles were equally the targets of Nazi German extermination, why were there Poles that cooperated with the Germans? Why did Jedwabne happen? First, the Jedwabne case, in which about 40 Poles were involved and about 340 Jews killed, and which is described in the well-known book of Jan Gross, Neighbours, is not properly documented by Gross and not yet fully investigated.
According to witnesses, the Polish neighbors who helped the Germans burn some hundred Jews in a stable were in fact forced to this action by the German police forces. They were not doing this willingly. Some of them escaped from the site in order not to be involved. The German police was present, although its full involvement is still not fully clarified.
Now, we can turn this question to the other side and ask why were there were so many Jews who cooperated with the Germans. By contrast to those Poles from Jedwabne, who were probably forced or at least encouraged to act against the Jews, the members of the Judenrat and Jewish police who cooperated with the Nazis did so willingly. As is powerfully stated by Hannah Arenth in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem and in many other documents, they were seriously involved in crimes by selecting and sending thousands of their neighbors to death, hoping perhaps to save their lives, but in the end this was a false hope.
There will always be some who, because of their weak character or other reasons, agree to cooperate with the enemy. But Poland did not agree to surrender to the Germans and no collaborator government was ever put to existence. Although there were traitors, the Polish police in the occupied Poland was largely serving the underground resistance, for which the best proof is perhaps the Karski reports.
For five long years, Poles did everything possible to resist the Nazi German occupation. Having lost 20% of its population, Poland is in fact the greatest victim of the war. And even if some Poles were antisemitic before the war, this feeling disappeared during the war.
The prevailing attitude was awareness of the Jewish genocide and of the common suffering.
On a personal note, my mother’s brother, Wieslaw Miller, was part of the resistance, and with my mother, who was a small girl at that time, smuggled bread to the Warsaw Ghetto. He was killed during the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.
After the uprising fell and Warsaw was almost completely destroyed, my mother, with the rest of the family, was sent by the Germans to Henningsdorf labor camp near Berlin. There she was subjected to numerous insults and severe beatings.
If the war had lasted a few months longer she would not have survived, and I would not be here now. She died at a relatively young age because of an illness contracted in the camp.
For the future of Jewish-Polish relationships, it is very important that we all have a good understanding of our history. Israel needs friends and Poland, where the Jews lived in relative peace and security for centuries, can be one, but friendship requires a common basis, and this is historical truth and mutual understanding.
The author is a philosopher and political thinker, a professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw and Zayed University in Dubai. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford. In the early 1980s he was a student leader in Poland’s Solidarity movement, and in 1991 was elected deputy mayor of Gdansk.
He was also a diplomat and an ethics expert of the European Commission. He has taught at many universities and is the author of several books, including Tractatus Politico-Philosophicus: New Directions for the Future Development of Human-kind.