Holocaust

As the preeminent Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg wrote at the tail end of the 1950s: “The territory of occupied Poland became an experimentation field. In a short time… the repression machine surpassed the bureaucracy in Berlin and moved far further.”

In plans and practice, from the start of WWII Polish Jews became the object of Germany’s brutal terror, subject to forceful displacement, robbery and isolation. A temporary solution devised by the Nazi German authorities was to be to concentrate Jews in separated Ghettos (around 400 of them). Terrible conditions existed in these ghettos: overpopulation, lack of heat; hunger and illness was rampant. In the largest of the ghettos, a quarter of the inhabitants perished due to malnutrition: 100,000 in Warsaw and 45,000 in Lodz.

Ghettos for Jewish people were formed on Polish territory during the German occupation. Terrible conditions existed in the ghettos. The court building on Leszno street connected the Warsaw ghetto to the “Aryan” side of the city. Pictured: starved residents of the ghetto on the court stairs on Leszno street, 1941-42. Photo: East News
Ghettos for Jewish people were formed on Polish territory during the German occupation. Terrible conditions existed in the ghettos. The court building on Leszno street connected the Warsaw ghetto to the “Aryan” side of the city. Pictured: starved residents of the ghetto on the court stairs on Leszno street, 1941-42. Photo: East News

Ghettos were only the introductory phase to the planned systematic mass extermination of Jews, which was officially decided in the Fall of 1941. The Germans decided at the Wannsee Conference (20 January 1942) that the Final Solution was to take place in occupied Poland. Already in December 1941 in Chelmno by the Ner River, not far from Lodz (on territory incorporated into the Reich) Germans initiated the killing through the use of fumes from truck exhausts. By mid May 1942 55,000 Jews were murdered there. The main killing fields of the Jews, however, were to be located in the eastern part of the General Government, where three killing factories were established, in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, as well as in Auschwitz-Birkenau (on territory incorporated into the Reich). In the first three 1.5 million Jews were killed: 500,000 in Belzec, 850,000 in Treblinka (including 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto) and 130,000 Jews in Sobibor. In the gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau close to 960,000 Jews were murdered. Polish land became a cemetery for the Jewish people of Europe.

The ghetto for Jewish people in Krakow was established by the German occupying authorities in 1941 in the Podgorze neighborhood. It was one of five of the largest ghettos in the General Government. In June 1942 a portion of the ghetto inhabitants ghetto were deported to the Belzec death camp. Pictured: Lwowska street on the day Jews were deported. Photo: Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute.
The ghetto for Jewish people in Krakow was established by the German occupying authorities in 1941 in the Podgorze neighborhood. It was one of five of the largest ghettos in the General Government. In June 1942 a portion of the ghetto inhabitants ghetto were deported to the Belzec death camp. Pictured: Lwowska street on the day Jews were deported. Photo: Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute.

However not all of the Jews went to their deaths without a fight. Some escaped into the woods, creating their own partisan units, or they joined Polish and Soviet units. Underground resistance networks were organized in the ghettos, including the Jewish Military Union and the Jewish Fighting Organization which put up a heroic struggled which was doomed from the start. The largest of these was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April 19-May 15 1943), where Jewish fighters initially forced Germans to retreat. Resistance attempts were also made in the ghettos in Bialystok and Sosnowiec. Desperate resistance was also attempted by inmates in the camps. On August 28, 1943 close to 350 inmates escaped from Treblinka, having previously killed several of their captors (an estimated 100 of the escapees survived the war). A similar attempt was made on October 14, 1943 in the Sobibor Camp (where roughly 50 escapees survived the war). The rebellion by Jewish crematorium workers in Auschwitz on October 7, 1944 had an important symbolic meaning as well.

300,000 Polish Jews survived the war, a mere 10% of the prewar population. Half of them survived by escaping into the USSR, the rest through hiding or by surviving the camps.

Removal of the Jewish population from Miedzyrzec Podlaski. Pictured: gendarme overseeing the loading of cattle cars. Photo: unknown
Removal of the Jewish population from Miedzyrzec Podlaski. Pictured: gendarme overseeing the loading of cattle cars. Photo: unknown