Victims of the Nazi Era, 1933-1945

During World War II Poland suffered greatly under five years of German occupation. Nazi ideology viewed "Poles"--the predominantly Roman Catholic ethnic majority--as "subhumans" occupying lands vital to Germany. As part of the policy to destroy the Polish resistance, the Germans killed many of the nation's political, religious, and intellectual leaders. They also kidnapped children judged racially suitable for adoption by Germans and confined Poles in dozens of prisons and concentration and forced labor camps, where many perished.

German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Polish troops fought valiantly in the face of vastly better equipped forces, with fierce engagements around Warsaw. Exhausted of food and water, the besieged capital surrendered on September 27, and fighting by regular Polish army units ended in early October.

Hitler's pretext for military expansion eastward was the "need" for more Lebensraum,"living space," for the German nation. On the eve of the invasion he reportedly stated in a meeting of high officials:

I have issued the command--and I'll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by firing squad--that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness--for the present only in the East--with orders to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space that we need.

In 1939 Germany directly annexed bordering western and northern Poland, disputed lands where many ethnic Germans(Volksdeutsche) resided. In contrast, the more extensive central and southern areas were formed into a separate "General Government," which was ruled by German civil administrator Hans Frank. Cracow became the capital of the General Government, as the Germans planned to turn the Polish capital of Warsaw into a backwater town. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Germany also seized eastern Poland. (This territory had been invaded and occupied by the Soviets in September 1939, in accordance with the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 that divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union.)

One aspect of German policy in conquered Poland aimed to prevent its ethnically diverse population from uniting against Germany. "We need to divide [Poland's many different ethnic groups] up into as many parts and splinter groups as possible," wrote Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, in a top-secret memorandum, "The Treatment of Racial Aliens in the East," dated May 25, 1940. According to the 1931 census by language, 69% of the population totalling 35 million inhabitants spoke Polish as their mother tongue. (Most of them were Roman Catholics.) Fifteen percent were Ukrainians, 8.5% Jews, 4.7% Belorussians, and 2.2% Germans. Nearly three fourths of the population were peasants or agricultural laborers, and another fifth, industrial workers. Poland had a small middle and upper class of well-educated professionals, entrepreneurs, and landowners.

In contrast to Nazi genocidal policy that targeted all of Poland's 3.3 million Jewish men, women, and children for destruction, Nazi plans for the Polish Catholic majority focused on the murder or suppression of political, religious, and intellectual leaders. This policy had two aims: first, to prevent Polish elites from organizing resistance or from ever regrouping into a governing class; second, to exploit Poland's leaderless, less educated majority of peasants and workers as unskilled laborers in agriculture and industry.

Terror Against The Intelligentsia And Clergy.

During the 1939 German invasion of Poland, special action squads of SS and police (the Einsatzgruppen) were deployed in the rear, arresting or killing those civilians caught resisting the Germans or considered capable of doing so as determined by their position and social status. Tens of thousands of wealthy landowners, clergymen, and members of the intelligentsia--government officials, teachers, doctors, dentists, officers, journalists, and others (both Poles and Jews)--were either murdered in mass executions or sent to prisons and concentration camps. German army units and "self-defense" forces composed of Volksdeutschealso participated in executions of civilians. In many instances, these executions were reprisal actions that held entire communities collectively responsible for the killing of Germans.

During the summer of 1940, the SS rounded up members of the intelligentsia in the General Government. In this so-called A-B Aktion(Extraordinary Pacification Operation), several thousand university professors, teachers, priests, and others were shot. The mass murders occurred outside Warsaw, in the Kampinos forest near Palmiry, and inside the city at the Pawiak prison.

As part of wider efforts to destroy Polish culture, the Germans closed or destroyed universities, schools, museums, libraries, and scientific laboratories. They demolished hundreds of monuments to national heroes. To prevent the birth of a new generation of educated Poles, German officials decreed that Polish children's schooling end after a few years of elementary education. "The sole goal of this schooling is to teach them simple arithmetic, nothing above the number 500; writing one's name; and the doctrine that it is divine law to obey the Germans....I do not think that reading is desirable," Himmler wrote in his May 1940 memorandum.

In the annexed lands, the Nazis' goal was complete "Germanization" to assimilate the territories politically, culturally, socially, and economically into the German Reich. They applied this policy most rigorously in western incorporated territories--the so-called Wartheland. There, the Germans closed even elementary schools where Polish was the language of instruction. They renamed streets and cities so that Lodz became Litzmannstadt, for example. They also seized tens of thousands of Polish enterprises, from large industrial firms to small shops, without payment to the owners. Signs posted in public places warned: "Entrance is forbidden to Poles, Jews, and dogs."

The Roman Catholic Church was suppressed throughout Poland because historically it had led Polish nationalist forces fighting for Poland's independence from outside domination. The Germans treated the Church most harshly in the annexed regions, as they systematically closed churches there; most priests were either killed, imprisoned, or deported to the General Government. The Germans also closed seminaries and convents, persecuting monks and nuns. Between 1939 and 1945, an estimated 3,000 members of the Polish clergy were killed; of these, 1,992 died in concentration camps, 787 of them at Dachau.

Expulsions And The Kidnapping Of Children.

The Germanization of the annexed lands also included an ambitious program to resettle Germans from the Baltic and other regions on farms and other homes formerly occupied by Poles and Jews. Beginning in October 1939, the SS began to expel Poles and Jews from the Warthelandand the Danzig corridor and transport them to the General Government. By the end of 1940, the SS had expelled 325,000 people without warning and plundered their property and belongings. Many elderly people and children died en route or in makeshift transit camps such as those in the towns of Potulice, Smukal, and Torun. In 1941, the Germans expelled 45,000 more people, but they scaled backed the program after the invasion of the Soviet Union in late June 1941. Trains used for resettlement were more urgently needed to transport soldiers and supplies to the front.

In late 1942 and in 1943, the SS also carried out massive expulsions in the General Government, uprooting 110,000 Poles from 300 villages in the Zamosc-Lublin region. Families were torn apart as able-bodied teens and adults were taken for forced labor and elderly, young, and disabled persons were moved to other localities. Tens of thousands were also imprisoned in Auschwitz or Majdanek concentration camps.

During the Zamosc expulsions the Germans seized many children from their parents to be racially screened for possible adoption by German parents in the SS Lebensborn("Fount of Life") program. As many as 4,454 children chosen for Germanization were given German names, forbidden to speak Polish, and re-educated in SS or other Nazi institutions, where many died of hunger or disease. Few ever saw their parents again. Many more children were rejected as unsuitable for Germanization after failing to measure up to racial scientists' criteria for establishing "Aryan" ancestry; they were sent to children's homes or killed, some of them at Auschwitz of phenol injections. An estimated total of 50,000 children were kidnapped in Poland, the majority taken from orphanages and foster homes in the annexed lands. Infants born to Polish women deported to Germany as farm and factory laborers were also usually taken from the mothers and subjected to Germanization. (If an examination of the father and mother suggested that a "racially valuable" child might not result from the union, abortion was compulsory.)

The Zamosc expulsions spurred intense resistance as the Poles began to fear they were to suffer the same fate as the Jews--systematic deportation to extermination camps. Attacks on ethnic German settlers by members of the Polish resistance, whose ranks were filled with terrorized peasants, in turn provoked mass executions or other forms of German terror. Throughout the occupation, the Germans applied a ruthless retaliation policy in an attempt to destroy resistance. As the Polish resistance grew bolder in 1943 after the German defeat at Stalingrad, German reprisal efforts escalated. The Germans destroyed dozens of villages, killing men, women, and children. Public executions by hanging or shooting in Warsaw and other cities occurred daily. During the war the Germans destroyed at least 300 villages in Poland.

Forced Labor And Terror of the Camps

Between 1939 and 1945 at least 1.5 million Polish citizens were transported to the Reich for labor, most of them against their will. Many were teenaged boys and girls. Although Germany also used forced laborers from western Europe, Poles, along with other eastern Europeans viewed as inferior, were subject to especially harsh discriminatory measures. They were forced to wear identifying purple P's sewn to their clothing, subjected to a curfew, and banned from public transportation. While the actual treatment accorded factory workers or farm hands often varied depending on the individual employer, Polish laborers as a rule were compelled to work longer hours for lower wages than western Europeans, and in many cities they lived in segregated barracks behind barbed wire. Social relations with Germans outside work were forbidden, and sexual relations with them were considered "racial defilement" punishable by death. During the war hundreds of Polish men were executed for their relations with German women.

Poles were prisoners in nearly every camp in the extensive camp system in German-occupied Poland and the Reich. A major camp complex at Stutthof, east of Danzig, existed from September 2, 1939, to war's end, and an estimated 20,000 Poles died there as a result of executions, hard labor, and harsh conditions. Auschwitz (Oswiecim) became the main concentration camp for Poles after the arrival there on June 14, 1940, of 728 men transported from an overcrowded prison at Tarnow. By March 1941, 10,900 prisoners were registered at the camp, most of them Poles. In September 1941, 200 ill prisoners, most of them Poles, along with 650 Soviet prisoners of war, were killed in the first gassing experiments at Auschwitz. Beginning in 1942, Auschwitz's prisoner population became much more diverse, as Jews and other "enemies of the state" from all over German-occupied Europe were deported to the camp.

The Polish scholar Franciszek Piper, the chief historian of Auschwitz, estimates that 140,000 to 150,000 Poles were brought to that camp between 1940 and 1945, and that 70,000 to 75,000 died there as victims of executions, of cruel medical experiments, and of starvation and disease. Some 100,000 Poles were deported to Majdanek, and tens of thousands of them died there. An estimated 20,000 Poles died at Sachsenhausen, 20,000 at Gross-Rosen, 30,000 at Mauthausen, 17,000 at Neuengamme, 10,000 at Dachau, and 17,000 at Ravensbrueck. In addition, victims in the tens of thousands were executed or died in the thousands of other camps--including special children's camps such as Lodz and its subcamp, Dzierzazn--and in prisons and other places of detention within and outside Poland.

Polish Resistance

In response to the German occupation, Poles organized one of the largest underground movements in Europe with more than 300 widely supported political and military groups and subgroups. Despite military defeat, the Polish government itself never surrendered. In 1940 a Polish government-in-exile became based in London. Resistance groups inside Poland set up underground courts for trying collaborators and others and clandestine schools in response to the Germans' closing of many educational institutions. The universities of Warsaw, Cracow, and Lvov all operated clandestinely. Officers of the regular Polish army headed an underground armed force, the "Home Army" (Armia Krajowa--AK). After preliminary organizational activities, including the training of fighters and hoarding of weapons, the AK activated partisan units in many parts of Poland in 1943. A Communist underground, the "People's Guard" (Gwardia Ludowa), also formed in 1942, but its military strength and influence were comparatively weak.

With the approach of the Soviet army imminent, the AK launched an uprising in Warsaw against the German army on August 1, 1944. After 63 days of bitter fighting, the Germans quashed the insurrection. The Soviet army provided little assistance to the Poles. Nearly 250,000 Poles, most of them civilians, lost their lives. The Germans deported hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to concentration camps. Many others were transported to the Reich for forced labor. Acting on Hitler's orders, German forces reduced the city to rubble, greatly extending the destruction begun during their suppression of the earlier armed uprising by Jewish fighters resisting deportation from the Warsaw ghetto in April 1943.

Daily Life For Poles Under German Occupation

We were...survivors of a period in which every able-bodied person aged 14 and up had to work ten hours a day, six days a week. Otherwise, we would be shipped to Germany, to forced labor camps, or to work in factories of the German war machine. We were given rations of food so most of us went--often--hungry. We were decimated by disease--typhus and typhoid fever were prevalent....We were terrorized by continuous dragnets--lapanka we called it in Polish. You walk on a street from your house to your aunt's house and suddenly the street is closed by the gendarmes on both sides and all the people are surrounded and asked to show their papers. 'Are you working somewhere? Who are you? What's your occupation? What are you doing now?' Whoever appeared not employed in a meaningful way that involved supporting the German war effort was being singled out, put on a truck, and shipped to the railroad station and put on a train and shipped to Germany. There were hardly any families that did not feel the tragedy of war.

--A young Polish Catholic who emigrated to the United States after the war, Wallace Witkowski, describes the harsh conditions in wartime Poland. He served as a courier for the Polish resistance.


The Nazi terror was, in scholar Norman Davies's words, "much fiercer and more protracted in Poland than anywhere in Europe." Reliable statistics for the total number of Poles who died as a result of Nazi German policies do not exist. Many others were victims of the 1939-1941 Soviet occupation of eastern Poland and of deportations to Central Asia and Siberia. Records are incomplete, and the Soviet control of Poland for 50 years after the war impeded independent scholarship. The changing borders and ethnic composition of Poland as well as vast population movements during and after the war also complicated the task of calculating losses.

In the past, many estimates of losses were based on a Polish report of 1947 requesting repatriations from the Germans; this often cited document tallied population losses of 6 million for all Polish "nationals" (Poles, Jews, and other minorities). Subtracting 3 million Polish Jews victims, the report claimed 3 million non-Jewish victims of the Nazi terror, including civilian and military casualties of war.

Documentation remains fragmentary, but today scholars of independent Poland believe that 1.8 to 1.9 million Polish civilians (non-Jews) were victims of German occupation policies and the war. This approximate total includes Poles killed in executions or who died in prisons, forced labor, and concentration camps. It also includes an estimated 225,000 civilian victims of the 1944 Warsaw uprising, more than 50,000 civilians who died during the 1939 invasion and siege of Warsaw, and a relatively small but unknown number of civilians killed during the Allies' military campaign of 1944-45 to liberate Poland.

Source: Poles: Victims of the Nazi Era, published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Used with permission.

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