In 1939, following a nonaggression agreement between the Germany and the Soviet Union known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Poland was again divided. That September, Germany attacked Poland and conquered the western and central parts of Poland while the Soviets took over the east. Part of Poland was directly annexed and governed as if it were Germany (that area would later include the infamous Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau). The remaining Polish territory, the “General Government,” was overseen by Hans Frank, and included many areas with large Jewish populations. For Nazi leadership, the occupation was an extension of the Nazi racial war and Poland was to be colonized. Polish citizens were resettled, and Poles who the Nazis deemed to be a threat were arrested and shot. Polish priests and professors were shot. According to historian Richard Evans, “If the Poles were second-class citizens in the General Government, then the Jews scarcely qualified as human beings at all in the eyes of the German occupiers.”1
Jews were subject to humiliation and brutal violence as their property was destroyed or looted. They were concentrated in ghettos or sent to work as slave laborers. But the large-scale systematic murder of Jews did not start until June 1941, when the Germans broke the nonaggression pact with the Soviets, invaded the Soviet-held part of Poland, and sent special mobile units (the Einsatzgruppen) behind the fighting units to kill the Jews in nearby forests or pits. It was also in occupied Poland that the Nazis first experimented with killing Jews using gas vans. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,
Gas vans were hermetically sealed trucks with engine exhaust diverted to the interior compartment. Use of gas vans began after Einsatzgruppe members complained of battle fatigue and mental anguish caused by shooting large numbers of women and children. Gassing also proved to be less costly. Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) gassed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and mentally ill people.
Within occupied Poland, the Germans built six of the most notorious death camps, Chełmno, Sobibór, Bełżec, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz was in an area of Poland that was completely annexed and ruled by the German government as part of Germany). By 1942, Poland was the focus of the Nazis’ first factory-style killing plan, although by the time the death camps were operational, large numbers of Polish Jews had already been murdered. By the winter and spring of 1945, when Soviet and Allied troops liberated the country, Poland’s once-thriving Jewish population was decimated; by 1950, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there were only about 45,000 Jews left in Poland. The actual number of Jewish survivors was higher, but postwar killings and pogroms convinced many Jews to leave. Scholars suggest that between 40,000 and 60,000 of the Jews who survived were rescued by Poles.2
However, the majority of the Polish population was under the brutal control of the Nazis and was not in a position to help. While 6,532 Polish rescuers have been honored at Yad Vashem, the most of any country, many more Poles were simply trying to survive, while others collaborated or were complicit with the German occupiers. Recent scholarship has revealed several instances in which Polish civilians massacred Jews without German participation.3
- 1 Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War, 48.
- 2 see Theresa Prekerow, “The ‘Just” and the ‘Passive,’” in Antony Polonsky, My Brother’s Keeper, 73.
- 3 see Anna Bikont, The Crime and the Silence, 2015.