Polish Society and the Holocaust


At the beginning of the war Jews were pulled out of Polish society, taken from their homes and shut up in closed-off ghettos. Until 1941, they were murdered in indirect ways through the effects of forced labor, hunger and disease. After 1941, Jews were transferred to the death camps: Auschwitz with one and a half million victims; Treblinka with one million victims; Belzec with 430,000 victims; Chelmno (Kulmhof) with 360,000 victims, Sobibor with 260,000 victims, Majdanek with 230,000 victims. Majdanek was unique among the death camps in that the Jewish victims were not an overwhelming majority.

The camps were places of death not only for Polish Jews but also for Jews sent there by the Nazis from all over Europe. Many Jews never made it to camps but were killed on the spot — especially in the Soviet Union. During the invasion of the Soviet Union, over 3,000 special killing units (Einsatzgruppen) followed the German troops and conducted mass killings of Communist officials and of the Jewish population that lived on Soviet territory. Entire communities were wiped out.
The attitudes of Poles towards the tragedy of Jews varied. The majority was terrorized by Nazis — we should remember that during World War Two, the Nazis killed three millions Poles. They were unable to help Jews in the closed-off ghettos. It is important to remember too that in Poland the Nazis ordered the automatic death sentence for anyone caught trying to help Jews, and the penalty was extended to the family and even neighbors of any rescuer—a penalty that only existed in Poland. Probably a few thousand Poles were killed by the Nazis for helping the Jews.

Against all the odds a few hundred thousand Poles helped with different forms of relief for the Jews. The Polish people are, in fact, the biggest ethnic group among the “Righteous Among the Nations,” that is the rescuers of Jews under the Nazis rule. Only a small group of Poles—extreme nationalists and criminals—supported and actively helped the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews. Blackmailers, who lived on the money of Jews in hiding, were an especially big problem.
A courier of the Polish émigré government in London, Jan Karski, was the first person to inform US President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill about the mass extermination of Jews in Poland. However, as we know, the Western allies did not even bomb the rail lines going to the Auschwitz camp.

The attitude of Poles towards the Jewish tragedy depended in large part on their political outlook. A section of Jewish refugees who had escaped from the ghettos joined the Communist guerrilla “resistance.”  Inside the ranks of the Polish Communists there were 17 guerrilla units with a large number of Jews. At the same time, extreme Polish nationalists, mainly from the National Armed Forces, were responsible for more than 120 cases of killing Jewish refugees (individuals and groups) in the Polish forests. The arrival of the Red Army ended the slaughter of Jews in Poland. By then 88 per cent of Polish Jews had been wiped out in the Holocaust.

Adapted from Poland and the Holocaust by August Grabski



Essentially there were two major uprisings in Poland during World War II.  The first took place in the Warsaw ghetto beginning on January 13, 1943,  with the most active portion of the insurgency occurring between April 19 through May 16.  The intent of the rebellion was to stop Nazi Germany’s continued transport of Jews to the extermination camp Treblinka.   The Uprising ended when poorly armed and insufficiently supplied fighters were crushed by German troops under the command of Juergen Stroop.  The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest single revolt by Jews during the Holocaust.

The second uprising,  a nationwide struggle against the Nazis, was waged by the Polish Resistance Movement and began on August 1, 1944.  Named Operation Tempest, it was intended to last only a few days until the Soviet Army reached Warsaw.  However, the Soviet advance stopped short while Polish resistance against the German forces continued for sixty-three days.  The Poles surrendered on October 2, 1944.

Initially, the resistant Poles seized large areas of Warsaw, but because the Soviet Army did not make it to the city as planned, the uprising failed.  Allegations point to the theory that Josef Stalin stalled his troops so that later Soviet occupation of Poland would not be contested.  

With both uprisings, it is estimated that by January 1945, 85% of Warsaw was destroyed.  Although no exact number of casualties is known, it is estimated that 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and another 6,000 wounded.  Nearly 200,000 civilians died, many as a result of mass murders conducted by the Nazis.  During the uprisings 16,000 German soldiers lost their lives.