Everyday life in occupied Poland

Polish collective memory of World War II is shaped by such great events as the Battle of Monte Cassino or the Warsaw Uprising. But in reality, the most important Polish battle of the time was the everyday struggle waged by society to survive.

As the literary historian Kazimierz Wyka wrote, already at the start of the occupation Polish society was faced with a “simple dilemma: either accept what one is now allowed to eat and die from hunger, or figure out a way to survive.” In German plans, occupied Polish territory was to primarily serve as a source of food and cheap human labor. Attaining the first was tied to a policy of starvation of the local population. City inhabitants found themselves in the worst situation, as did laborers and members of the intelligentsia, who were forced to work – often overworked – for pay that did not cover basic sustenance. For example in 1941, the daily wage of a laborer in Warsaw allowed for the purchase of 40 decagrams of bread on the black market, which people were forced to resort to as the official rations were not only negligible but also hard to come by. In order to survive, it was necessary to violate the imposed German laws, and risk the possibility of being killed or sent to a concentration camp. Worker’s successfully “privatized” and robbed German factories, and illegal production and trade flourished. The countryside, even with large restrictive quotas applied on them, was able to produce enough surplus to allow cities to survive. The black market became a separate facet of the economy. It also wasn’t uncommon to establish illegal businesses, which not only had their own transportation, but also a web of suppliers and distributors.

As was mentioned, Poland was also to supply Nazi Germany with necessary human labor. Forced labor was instituted both locally, as well as through the forced transportation of labors to Germany. For instance, the 400,000 Prisoners of War captured after the September 1939 Campaign had their status changed from POW to civilian laborers. During the course of the entire war, 2.8-3 million Polish citizens served as forced laborers, often made to work in the armaments industry. Strict discipline was enforced on all forced laborers, and even a small offense such as not wearing the insignia “P” or going to the movie theatre could result in whipping or being sent to a camp. Oftentimes living on the territory of the factory, the forced laborers frequently died during the factories bombardment. More varied was the experience of laborers employed in farming: some were treated as extended members of the family, others as subhuman.

Most of the forced laborers strived simply to survive, but many also took part in fighting, such as sabotage and intelligence gathering.