Warsaw on Fire during German Air Raid

The Holocaust in Poland

After the 1939 invasion of Poland there was widespread panic and fear amongst the civilians as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact came into effect and mandated the partition of Poland into a Soviet sphere and a German sphere.  Those stuck on the German side included residents of Warsaw; Gdansk; and Krakow, on the Soviet side until 1941 would be Lvov; Bialystok that eventually even Vilno (modern day Vilnius, Lithuania.) After Operation Barbarossa the Germans would take all of Poland; Lithuania; Latvia; and move further into the Soviet Union than thought possible.  For many of the residents there it was seen as liberation – the Ukrainians; the Lithuanians; the Latvians, they all had strong ethnic nationalism and did not like being part of the Soviet Union as it suppresses their culture.  The Jews were obviously at a disadvantage under any sort of Nazi rule, but the Polish people? They fell somewhere in between.  They were brutalized by both the Soviets (despite both being of Slavic origin,) and they were hated by the Germans.  It is sad that Polish civilians had one of the highest death tolls for the Second World War.

That being said, there is still quite a bit of controversy surrounding the Polish place in history’s recounting of this time: victim? Or perpetrator?  It’s true that many Jews were saved by their Polish neighbors; that the sheer number (3,500,000) of Polish Jews must say something about the nature of the Polish ability to coexist; and that almost as many Poles as Jews were killed in concentration camps.  However, it is also true that the Polish people gladly pointed out their Jewish neighbors; participated in the murder and looting; and held many high level positions within the Nazi bureaucracy.  Today, like most of Eastern Europe, Jewish Poland has assumed almost a biblical/mythological place in the minds of both.  As the scarred minds of those who lived through this apocalypse slowly begin to expire, the once-vibrant community stands at about .0005% the size it was in pre-war Poland.


Gleiwitz Incident

On the night of 31 August 1939, a small group of German operatives dressed in Polish uniforms seized the Gleiwitz radio station in Silesia. The Germans (pretending to be Polish partisans) then broadcast a short anti-German message in Polish. The Nazis’ goal was to make the attack and the broadcast look like the work of anti-German Polish rebels. They wanted to use this as an excuse for the aggression against Poland that they planned for the next day.

September 1, 1939

The Invasion of Poland began on September 1, 1939 when the Germans marched across the border into the young nation of Poland. Although they did fight valiantly, they were no match for the German army machine.  The country would capitulate and be split between German and Soviet forces within a matter of months.

German Administration

The Western Regions of Poland were annexed by Germany and became part of the Reich, while a large area of land in the middle of the pre-war Polish State became the Generalgouvernement.   The annexed areas became incorporated into the Reich and were prepared for German settlement – this included Danzig; West-Prussia; Upper Silesia; and Poznan. The Generalgouvernement became a dumping ground for all of the deportees that had nowhere to go.  It was by far the worst location for Jews and Poles during the war. The Germans knew that the 1,800,000 Jews that fell under their jurisdiction by the time the Soviet border had closed at the end of the year, would not be emigrating.  This was no longer feasible as it was with the German and Austrian Jews – there was now a war, which closed borders, and the Polish Jews were of a different, less assimilated stock than the German Jews and would therefore not be as welcome in foreign lands.  Instead they began the process of ghettoization, deportation, and extermination of the Polish Jews they now controlled.
Partition of Poland 1939

Soviet Administration

The Soviets occupied their portion in the east on September 17, 1939.  They came to acquire a land that was more ethnically diverse than the Western portions – 38% Polish; 37% Ukrainian; 14% Belarusian; and 8-9% Jewish; with a sprinkling of Russians and others making up the rest. All Polish territories occupied by USSR were annexed to the Soviet Union with the exception of the area of Wilno, which was transferred to Lithuania (although Lithuania was also annexed by the Soviets one year later.)  Life under the Soviets was brutal for all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, because the Soviets did not discriminate based on race, but rather based on ideology.  They were just as brutal as the Nazis and there were many notable cases of cruelty and mass murder, including the mass murder of Polish people in the Katyn Massacre. Soviets are known to have killed many, many innocent members of the intelligentsia, and many more were deported to the Soviet camps in Siberia.  In fact, many wealthy Jews who were deported to Siberia later considered themselves lucky to have avoided the Nazi invasion that would come in 1941.


The secret codename for the plan that was orchestrated by Germany in order to dismantle the Polish state by murdering many members of its elite.  The members of the upper classes of Polish society – nobles; preists; nationalist officials; – were the targets during the first few weeks of the War.  Many Catholic clergymen were also rounded up and shot.  German authorities prohibited any kind of scholastic work for the Polish people: they shut down newspapers; closed museums and institutions; and used the Polish people for slave labor.  

Exhumation of Bodies at Katyn

Soviet Attrocities

On 5 March 1940, it was decided that Polish POWs detained in camps – 14,700 at Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov; and 11,000 prisoners incarcerated in Western Belarus and Western Ukraine – were to be killed. Lavrenty Beria’s proposal was approved and the members of the Politburo, acting on behalf of the USSR, sentenced 25,700 Polish citizens to death.  There was another issue that arose from this time period: further compounded anti-Semitism due to the conflation of Jewishness with Bolshevism.  While it is true that many of the early Bolsheviks were of Jewish descent, by the time the Soviets had occupied the Eastern regions of Poland most of the Jews had been purged from the central governing body of the Soviet Union.  Regardless, Germany continued to pump out more and more propaganda that associated Jews and Communists with one another.  The sad part of it all is that Jews were oppressed at the same rate as their gentile compatriots in the Soviet sphere of influence – Soviet discrimination was based on ideology, versus Nazi discrimination, which was based on race.


German mobile murder battalions, called Einsatzgruppen, are ordered to kill Jews following the German march eastwards during Operation Barbarossa. These squads came behind the German army as it advanced deep into Soviet territory, and carried out mass-murder operations.  Initially it was only the Jewish men that were being targeted, but then things changed after 1942.  Wherever the mobile killing squads went, they shot all Jewish men, women, and children, without regard for age or gender. By the spring of 1943, the mobile killing squads have killed more than a million Jews; and smaller numbers of other minorities including Soviet POWs and Roma.

For More on the Einsatzgruppen

The Einsatzgruppen In Poland

The Polish occupation by German forces was in its own cateogry when it came to the Einsatzgruppen that were assigned to the region.  Einsatzgruppen I – VI were the operational groups that were active in Poland.  These Einsatzgruppen are less well-known than their counterparts that were functional around the time of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 (the non-Polish Einsatzgruppen were lettered A, B, C, and D, unlike the Polish factions that had roman numerals.)  They were initially charged with the extermination of all ideological enemies of the Nazi state – Communists and Jews especially, but also many prominent Poles were murdered in the beginning.  . In July 1939, five operational groups of the Einsatzgruppen were assigned to each of the 5 armies under the agreement between SD Heydrich and the commander of the Wehrmacht land forces. In September 1939 two further groups (VI and a “special purpose” group) were created, which were used in Silesia and in Wielkopolska.  The Einsatzgruppen often had a lot of help from the locals in their extermination of Poles and Jews.


During World War II the Jews of Poland were made to leave their houses and relocate to ghettos where they were segregated and isolated from the rest of the population. Many Jews died in the ghetto.  There is technically no evidence of the purpose of the creation of the ghettos – whether they were made simply to isolate the Jews, or if they were made in order to concentrate the Jews in preparation for the Final Solution.  Regardless, the ghettos served as a means to demoralize, weaken, and ultimately kill the Jews of Europe. 

The Germans were not concerned by the huge number of Jews dying from hunger and lack of basic humane living conditions.  There was so much overcrowding in the ghettos of Europe that many families had to share one single room.   Despite the notion that Germans were extremely precise and organized, ghettoization was a chaotic and unplanned event, and there was not a uniform code for governance of these cities-within-cities.  On September 21, 1939, when Reinhard Heydrich called for the centralization of Polish Jews into separate areas of cities and used the term ghetto, he didn’t include any stipulations other than to form a Judenrat (Jewish council to lead the community and disemmenate information) and isolate the Jews. Thus, each ghetto was unique: when it was set up; how it was sealed off from the rest of the city; and how it was governed, were all the decisions of regional government officials.

The first ghetto in Poland was established in the city of Piotrkow Trybunalski in October 1939, just a month after the war broke out. Next, a ghetto was closed off in the city of Lodz on April 30, 1940.  The Lodz ghetto became the first ghetto to have over 100,000 residents, thereby making it one of the more infamously horrible places top live in terms of hygeine, mortality rate, and cruelty of overseers.  The largest ghetto in Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto, was created in November 1940 – the Warsaw Ghetto would reach a population of close to 500,000 Jews at its peak.  Most Ghettos were established by 1941, but in some areas of Southwest Poland they weren’t even functioning until 1943.  

Living in the Ghetto

Each ghetto was closed off and guarded in its own particular way. The Lodz Ghetto was set off from the rest of the city by a wooden fence and barbed wire. In some spots, a brick wall was also built. Guards stood on both the inside and outside of the line dividing the ghetto from the outside. The Warsaw Ghetto was surrounded by an 11-mile wall. Guards patrolled the wall and were posted at its gates. However, it was possible to smuggle food and other items into the ghetto. The Piotrkow Trybunalski Ghetto did not have a barrier wall, so the Poles and Jews both went in and out of the ghetto freely (It was only locked at the end of 1941.)  In October of 1941 conditions began to become overtly inhumane as the Jews ran out of money and sustenance.  Life in the ghettos became impossible: dozens of families huddled into dilapidated rooms without plumbing; feces and dead bodies in the street; starvation diets of less than 300 calories a day; and constant terrorization from the guards all became facts of daily life.  Hans Frank, the head of the Generalgouvernement region of central Poland (under German administration,) ordered the execution of any Jew found outside the ghetto area without permission to be there.  Some of the larger ghettos had their own post office; schools; welfare services; and other services – unfortunately the Jews had to run these themselves and lacked greatly in supplies.  For some reason, many of the ghettos were two separate cities connected by a foot bridge – sometimes this was to avoid including a central road and sometimes they segregated the prisoners based on ability to work.  Jews living in the ghettos of the east obtained food in two different ways: either from official German sources; or from the black market.   In most ghettos it was almost crucial for survival to engage in black market importing of food into the ghetto.  Only the wealthiest of the Jews could afford black market food, the rest simply slowly starved to death.  There are also instances of Jews who worked in German factories receiving food on the job.

Liquidation and the Final Solution

 The first ghettos were liquidated in the spring of 1942, after the Wannsee conference earlier that year.  The Lodz ghetto was the last ghetto standing in 1944 when it was destroyed and its inhabitants murdered.  The deportations almost always ended up at Auschwitz; Sobibor; Treblinka; or Chelmno – only a small number were taken to work at  forced labor camps near the end of the war.  Ghettos were especially popular in the areas that were under German control from 1939 as these were times when the Final Solution had not yet been fully realized.  


June 22, 1941

The Invasion of the Soviet Union started in June of 1941 when the Germans went back on their treaty with Stalin and began Operation Barbarossa.  The German forces swept across the line that divided the Polish partitions and quickly took all of Poland.  The Jews left behind in the cities of Eastern Poland were subject to unspeakable acts and the Holocaust by bullets began immediately after the Germans entered the territory.

Lvov Massacre 1941

Operation Barbarossa in Poland

In 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  Eastern Poland was one of the first battlefields as the Nazis swept in and the Soviets capitulated.  As the Soviet occupiers fled east, the German Einsatzgruppen units moved in immediately after them. Polish towns and villages that had survived the Soviet NVKD now faced German mobile killing squads.  In addition, the NKVD had been particularly brutal in some locales and the people were eager to seek revenge of Jews (whom they alleged were communists.) The Einsatzgruppen (death squads) rounded up Jews; potential political opponents; and innocent civilians for detention or massacre.   By the time 1941 rolled around the German mass killings – particularly against Jews – increased in scope and brutality. 

Many towns existed where people celebrated as the Nazis approached, believing them to be their saviors from Jewish oppression and Communism.  Certain members of the elite were killed almost immediately after the Germans took over.  Hitler wanted the Poles to have nobody left to lead them and was extremely persistent in the notion that Poland should never have a sate.