Chronology of Mass Violence in Poland 1918-1948

10 May, 2010
Potel Jean Yves

Long partitioned between the Russian, Austrian and German empires (1795-1918), Poland recovered its independence on 11 November 1918. Its baseline borders were recognized by the League of Nations (LN) in 1923, in the aftermath of several military campaigns. A territory of plains stretching 389,000 square kilometers, it was bounded in the west by the districts of Katowice, Poznań and Toruń, with access to the Baltic Sea near the free city of Danzig (Gdańsk), and in the east by Wilno (Vilnius), Tarnopol and Stanislawów. The new state adopted a parliamentary democratic constitution in 1921. At that time, it had a population of 31.9 million, including various minorities – Ukrainians 14.3 per cent, Jews 7.8 per cent, Belorussians 3.9 per cent and Germans 3.9 per cent – all of whom were Polish citizens (Glowny Urzad Statystyczny, 2003: 382).

For 30 years in the first half of the twentieth century, the country experienced several waves of violence, which varied greatly in scale. For the first twenty years, and in the immediate post-war period, political and inter-minority tensions resulted in a climate of insecurity for large swathes of the population and led to civilian casualties during armed clashes. On the other hand, mass violence reached unprecedented proportions during the war (1939-1945), which for Poland ended in the loss of more than 17 per cent of its civilian population (including 90 per cent of Polish Jews). Decided during the Allied conferences at Yalta and Potsdam (1945), boundary changes and transfers of German, Ukrainian and Polish populations fashioned a mono-ethnic society from 1948 onwards. The waves of violence were spread over four periods:

I. Tensions and violence against minorities (1918-1939)

II. Nazi terror and Stalinist repression (1939-1941)

III. Extermination of the Jews and racial purification of the territory (1941-1945).

IV. Seizure of power by the communists (1945-1948).

I. Tensions and violence against minorities (1918-1939)

The new Poland founded on 11 November 1918, with Józef Pilsudski (1867-1935) at its head, faced a delicate political situation. It undertook to unify three territories that had been separated during the nineteenth century and to modernize an economy dominated by agriculture. It formed an administration and an army while involved in six conflicts on its borders, in particular with Bolshevik Russia. Devastated by the First World War, of which it was one of the main theatres, Poland had to confront internal tensions with its minorities. In the so-called regions of the ‘Confines’ in the east, where Poles were in a minority (except in the towns), the eastern borders were bitterly disputed between 1919 and 1921 (capture of Wilno [Vilnius], the Polish-Soviet and Polish-Ukrainian war), involving national clashes that proved murderous for the civilian populations. In the south, an uprising by Poles made possible the incorporation of Upper Silesia (August 1920).

The new independent state, whose borders were internationally recognized by the LN in 1922-1923, adopted a democratic constitution of the parliamentary variety, inspired by the French republican model (1921). But the executive power experienced numerous problems in the face of escalating competition in parliament and unrest on the streets, symbolized by the assassination of the first President of the Republic, Gabriel Narutowicz (1865-1922) a mere two days after he had assumed office. In 1926, Marshal Józef Pilsudski, supported by the left and the national minorities, seized the reins of power following a coup. He curtailed the powers of legislators and launched a ‘clean-up’ (sanacją ), which was initially conducive to the country’s development. Then, amid economic and social problems, he restricted political liberties and concentrated more and more power in his own hands. Shortly before his death, his successors reformed the constitution (1934) and transformed the regime into a semi-dictatorial state.

From the start of the 1920s, the Polish authorities embarked on policies of ‘Polishification’ that exacerbated national demands and stored up disputes for the future. Although constitutionally enjoying the same rights – in 1920, Poland ratified the Treaty on Minorities appended to the Versailles Treaty – the minority populations (Germans, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, etc.) complained of numerous forms of discrimination. The treaty commitments were not complied with. Thus, the Ukrainians of eastern Galicia and Volhynia (annexed in 1923) met with policies of forced assimilation and colonization which, under the cover of ‘pacification’, turned into bloody confrontation with the nationalists (assassinations). Likewise, anti-Jewish feeling, stoked up by Polish nationalist groups and the Catholic Church, frequently translated into murderous acts: boycotts of Jewish firms and businesses, quotas and ‘seating ghettos’ at universities, pogroms and so on. Moreover, having broken with the Treaty on Minorities (adopted under the auspices of the LN in 1934), the government ended up having openly anti-semitic laws voted in 1938 (restriction of ritual slaughter) and ordered the army to destroy orthodox churches in Ukrainian areas during summer 1938 (Korzec, 1980: 248ff.; Beauvois, 1995: 318).

At the same time, social agitation reached the major cities (Warsaw, Lódź, Lwów), even as the economy was recovering and the prospect of a ‘popular front’ on the left being foreshadowed. However, the violent repression of strikes and peasant movements (1937-1937), and the restriction of political liberties, blocked this outcome. The rulers used the tensions as a reason for restricting civil liberties and arresting opposition leaders.

Abroad, Poland’s rulers sought to neutralize its two large neighbors in accordance with a ‘balancing principle’ established by Marshal Pilsudski. They signed non-aggression pacts with Stalin’s Russia (1932) and Nazi Germany (1934), while accepting guarantees from France and the United Kingdom. Faced with German pressure demanding Danzig’s incorporation into the Reich, the appeasement policy of the British and French (Munich Agreement, 1938) backed Poland’s rulers into a corner. Notwithstanding an economic recovery, this helped to fuel nationalist recklessness (ultimatum to Lithuania and annexation of Tesin, 1938) and led the country to disaster. In addition, these leaders could not anticipate the rapprochement between Hitler and Stalin (German-Soviet Pact, August 1939), which facilitated Hitler’s offensive and a new partition of Poland (Cienciala, 2007).


1918-1919: Pogroms in Vilnius, Lwów, Pińsk and Other Towns

The conquest of Poland’s eastern borders gave rise to nationalist and anti-semitic outbursts that caused a wave of bloody pogroms affecting 100 localities. Looting was often at the heart of the massacres. Thus, in Lwów, following the entry of Polish troops on 22-24 November, soldiers went on the rampage against the Jews while ‘off-duty’: 72 dead, 300 wounded, 3 synagogues destroyed according to an international commission of inquiry dispatched to the site shortly afterwards (Cohn, Renaudel, Schaper and Shaw, 1920: 16). Similarly, in Pińsk in April 1919, Polish troops who had just recaptured the town massacred 35 Jews accused of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; in Vilnius, after three days of fighting (April 1919), the Jews were accused of aiding the Red Army: ‘There were 67 dead, men, women and children. The looting that followed the entry of the troops lasted not only a few days, but weeks’ (Cohn et al. , 1920: 28). In Mińsk, on 8 August, with the entry of Polish troops the Jewish quarter was looted (37 dead), as were surrounding villages (around 160 dead). This anti-semitic frenzy was not restricted to the Confines. In Kielce, the looting of the Jewish quarter in November 1918 caused 4 deaths and hundreds of injuries (Maciagowski, 2008: 38) and in Cracow there were two deaths in the market in June 1919 (Cohn et al. , 1920: 16-30; Korzec, 1980: 75-85; Tomaszewski, 1984; Engel, 2003)** .

1930-1938: The ‘Pacification’ of the Ukrainian Territories

The incorporation of western Ukraine (Galicia and Volhynia) into the newly independent Poland, agreed by the Conference of the ambassadors to the LN (15 March 1923), was to be accompanied by measures of autonomy for Ruthenians (Uniate) and Ukrainians (Orthodox Christians), who formed the majority in the countryside. However, the Polish authorities did not comply with the commitments of the Treaty of Minorities. They multiplied measures of ‘Polishification’: predominance of Polish in Ukrainian schools, colonization by settling tens of thousands of Poles in the countryside (in particular, soldiers demobilized after the war against the Bolsheviks), refusal of autonomy for local communities, and so on. This forced assimilation inevitably provoked the opposite reaction from the one intended. Nationalist groups became more radical, multiplied terrorist attacks that caused dozens of victims (including, in June 1934, the Interior Minister Bronislaw Pieracki), and demanded an independent state, with real resonance in the Ukrainian population. The Polish authorities responded with vast campaigns of police repression and closed schools and universities. From 16 September to 30 November 1930, the army ‘pacified’ the Lwów region, ‘arrested 1,739 people and prosecuted 1,143 of them. The Ukrainian schools of Rohatyn, Drohobycz and Tarnopol were shut down’ (Beauvois, 1995: 318). This repression extended over the whole period up to 1938, which saw the closure by the army of 190 Orthodox churches. The nationalists – in particular, the OUN (the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and its armed wing, the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) – exploited this, rejected any compromise, intensified their terrorist activity, and even turned to the German secret services, their members being trained in the school of the German Workers National Socialist Party (NSDAP) in Leipzig. The number of civilian victims of these ten years of conflict is unknown, but it generated hatred between Polish and Ukrainian populations whose consequences were to prove tragic in the 1940s. (Beauvois, 2005; Paczkowski, 2007) * .

1935-1937: Violence in Grodno, Warsaw and Galicia

In response to the appeal of anti-semitic groups (ONR, radical nationalists) linked to the government, attacks on Jewish shops, on individuals and even bomb attacks multiplied in the mid-1930s. A wave of violence developed in the Confines of the east, to the extent that reference has been made to pogroms (Cala, Wegrzynek and Zalewska, 2000: 258) in Grodno (June 1935) and then in Mińsk, Mazowiecki, Odrzywól, Truskolas, Klobuck, Prztyk, Brześć and many other places (1936-1937): ‘The incidents erupted very easily. It was enough, in fact, for one Jew to be found at fault for the whole Jewish community to have to answer for its actions’ (Korzec, 1980: 246). Assessment of the scale of this violence is still uncertain. The most recent work tends to minimize the number of victims; out of the 100 acts of violence documented, fourteen victims have been recorded (Zyndul, 1994)* .

II. Nazi Terror and Stalinist Repression (1939-1941)

The German attack on Poland on September 1, 1939 was followed on the 17 by an invasion of the eastern zones by Soviet troops. The Polish army, badly prepared and less well-equipped than its enemies, found resistance difficult, while the civilian population attempted to flee – more than 600,000 succeeded, including 270,000 Jews (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 34, 106). The Polish government took refuge in Romania during the night of 17-18 September; the population of Warsaw resisted until the 28.

The ‘September campaign’ ended for the Polish army in 70,000 dead (officers and soldiers) and 133,000 wounded. 300,000 men were taken prisoner by the Germans, 230,000 by the Soviets, and 83,000 escaped (through Hungary and Romania) or hid (Luczak, 2007: 24ff; Roszkowski, 2005: 91). The two occupiers partitioned Poland along a border fixed on 28 September by a new German-Soviet agreement.

In the west, the German zone contained 48.4 per cent of Polish territory and 62.7 per cent of the population (22.1 million). Part of it (Toruń, Poznań, Lódź and Katowice) was integrated, together with the city of Gdańsk, into the Third Reich under the name of Warthegau (the Warta is Poznań’s river), while the four central provinces were formed into a Generalgouvernement Polen under the authority of a German administration headed by the governor-general, Hans Frank (1900-1946), an intimate of Hitler’s. Throughout the zone, the occupier immediately set up a gigantic repressive apparatus directed against the inhabitants: thousands of labor and transit camps, 18 concentration camps (Stutthof, September 1939; Auschwitz, May 1940; etc.), and 500 Gestapo prisons where torture was routine (Chmielarz, 2009: 91-100).

The terror against civilians began in September. From the outset, it was racial and exterminatory. In the rear of the Wehrmacht forces, special units (German police, eight specially prepared Einsatzgruppen – ‘intervention groups’ – and units of Volksdeutsche ) multiplied mass arrests and executions of Jews, priests and the Polish elite, who were deemed ‘anti-German’ (cf. Browning, 2004: 16, 28). The populations of German nationality or German origin in the occupied territories were classified according to four categories defined by Himmler: 2 million of them, including half in Silesia, signed – sometimes under duress – a Deutsche Volksliste (DVL), which signified rallying to the occupier (Paczkowski, 1995: 24). Depending on their category, they enjoyed benefits in kind (housing, food). Around 375,000 were incorporated into the Wehrmacht , although only 40 per cent were ‘Poles of German nationality’ prior to the war (Zmyślony, 2009).

‘Transfers’ of hundreds of thousands of people were organized from one zone to another, with a view to clearing a ‘living space’ free of Jews or Gypsies, with a minimum of ‘Slavs’ reduced to slavery. Every Polish citizen was obliged to work from the age of 14 (12 in the case of Jews). The Nazi administration conscripted them and sent them to Germany – 2.85 million from 1939 to 1944 (Glowny Urzad Statystyczny, 2003: 366) – with the exception of the Jews, who were directed to construction sites and labor camps in the occupied territory.

From the first days of the occupation, Jews were subject to multiple proscriptions. They were counted, branded (wearing of a white armband with a blue Star of David), and isolated from the other populations. From October 1939 (in Piotrków Trybunalski), the Germans sealed them in districts separated by walls or barbed wire – the ghettos. Prior to this, ‘Jewish councils’ (Judenrat ) and a ‘Jewish police’ were appointed for ‘complete execution’ of Nazi orders (cf. Hilberg, 1985: 75). In these ghettos – around 400 of them – where for two years more than 90 per cent of Polish Jews subsisted, the mortality rate (hunger, typhus, etc.) was very high (Hilberg, 1985: 96ff.).

For SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942), the major Nazi organizer of this terror, ghettoization of the Jews was intended to serve the complete germanization of the ‘living space’. It was also an intermediate step towards a ‘final solution of the Jewish question’, initially envisaged as expulsion to remote regions, in Madagascar or Siberia (Hilberg, 1985: 160-161).

In the east, the Soviet repression followed a different logic. On 17 September, at 2 o’clock in the morning, the Polish ambassador was summoned to Moscow, where the authorities informed him that in ‘view of the bankruptcy of the Polish state’ the Red Army had entered Polish territory ‘to protect the Belorussian and Ukrainian populations’ (cf. Roszkowski, 2005: 90). The occupied zone contained 13.1 million inhabitants in the remaining 51.6 per cent of Polish territory. They were integrated from November 1939 into the Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belorussia and, in August 1940, Lithuania. The local elites, Polish in the main, were broken up; numbers of civilian or religious leaders were arrested; small-scale property owners and shopkeepers were expropriated. The Stalinist terror called on a populist rhetoric that dressed up imperial objectives in a blend of class oppositions and national hatreds. The elites of the administration of the Polish Second Republic, landowners and some industrialists, generally Polish and Catholic, were singled out for persecution by workers and poor peasants, who were mainly Ukrainian, Belorussian or Lithuanian. As for the Jews, caught in the middle of these conflicts fuelled by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), while they appreciated the absence of official anti-semitic discrimination, they did not escape attacks from the new regime in their capacity as religious figures or small shopkeepers. Most of the refugees rejected the Soviet passport imposed on them by Stalin and were deported with ‘the socially alien elements’ of the local population to the ‘colonies’ of the Gulag.

In total, around 110,000 civilians were arrested in the territory occupied by the Soviet Union and at least 320,000 Polish civilians (18 per cent of them Jews) were deported in four waves to the east of the USSR (Glowny Urzad Statystyczny, 2003: 368). To these must be added 45,387 prisoners of war interned in several re-education camps. In April-May 1940, 14,587 Polish soldiers and officers were executed on Stalin’s orders, with a bullet in the neck, including 4,404 officers in the Katyń forest (Zaslavsky, 2003; Grabowski, 2009: 17).

Chronology in the German zone

September 1939–Spring 1940: ‘Radical Purification’

As soon as the Wehrmacht entered Polish territory, the Einsatzgruppen (3,000 men) proceeded to the arrest and execution of civilians. Their targets had been identified in an order from Heydrich: ‘Jews, intelligentsia, clergy, nobles’ (Browning, 2004: 18). They immediately carried out more than 10,000 arrests and executed around 17,000 people up to the end of October. On 2 September, near Gdańsk, a first concentration camp was opened at Stutthof (Sztutowo), where the Germans imprisoned roughly 250 Poles. Volunteers from the German minority formed auxiliary units, the Selbstschutz , which distinguished themselves by their savagery (especially in Bydgoszcz on 8-10 September). At the beginning of October, they numbered 17,667 men in eastern Prussia and had already executed 2,247 Poles. ‘Radical purification’ (Flurbereinigung) then became systematic. Begun in eastern Prussia and Warthegau in autumn 1939, and continued in south-east Prussia in the winter, it reached the Generalgouvernement in spring 1940. The number of victims of these summary executions is estimated at 60,000 for this period. The massacres were accompanied by arrests and deportations affecting all categories of the population. Thus, 531 towns and villages were burnt in one month; on 6 November, 183 professors at Cracow University were sent to camps from which most of them would never return. Secondary and higher education institutions were closed on 15 November, primary education institutions on 4 December (Browning, 2004: 28-35; Luczak, 2007: 56)*** .

Autumn 1939: Euthanasia

In October 1939, the mentally ill and handicapped of Pomerania were transported to occupied Poland to be eliminated (Friedlander, 1995: 137-137). Throughout the autumn, patients from psychiatric hospitals in the regions of Gdańsk and then Warthegau and the General-Gouvernement were killed. In Poznań, 1,000 patients from Owinska were either suffocated or gassed in a bunker of Fort VII from October 1939, and then roughly 6,000 for the whole of Pomerania (Gut, 2005: 12). The total number of people involved in 1939-1940 for Poland is estimated at 12,000 (Nasierowski, 2008; Colloque polono-allemand, 2009; Chmielarz, 2009: 96)*** .

September 1939–January 1940: The Branding of Jews

From the outset, Reinhard Heydrich, appointed head of the Central Security Bureau of the Reich (Reichssicherheitshauptamt , RSHA) by Himmler, ordered special measures for Jews (identified in accordance with the criteria of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935). They were to be concentrated in towns and transferred to the east, obeying a special set of regulations. The first Judenrat was appointed in Warsaw on 7 October and the first ghetto formed on 8 October, in Piotrków Trybunalski; and the Jews of Wloclawek were the first in Europe to be compelled to wear a yellow triangle on their clothing (24 October). By decrees of the governor-general, Hans Frank, forced labour was introduced. Ritual slaughter was proscribed; bank accounts belonging to Jews were frozen; the sum of freely available cash was restricted (26 October). On 23 November, the wearing of an armband with the Star of David was generalized for Jews over the age of 12 (from 1 December onwards) and all Jewish businesses were marked out. On the 28th, Jewish councils were appointed throughout the territory of the General-Gouvernement (Trunk, 1996). In January 1940, Jews were forbidden to change residence without a special permit (11th), to conduct business in the street (15th), to travel by train without special permit (26th). The Germans inventoried and registered goods owned by Jews (24th) and closed all synagogues and prayer houses. Some of them were burnt and destroyed (Lódź). On 18 July 1940, Jews in the General-Gouvernement were forbidden to enter certain public places like cafés, restaurants, hotels and parks (Hilberg, 1985: ch. 3)*** .

September 1939-1941: Massive Population Transfers

The Nazi project of racial purification of a living space had only been conceived in broad outline when the offensive against Poland began. Thus, a certain improvisation characterized the transfer in autumn 1939 of masses of civilians, in what were often inhuman conditions that resulted in numerous casualties. The rounding-up of Jews, their expulsion from the territories annexed to the Reich, and their provisional stationing in ‘reserves’ at Nisko and Lublin in the General-Gouvernement , prior to their supposed dispatch to remote areas (Madagascar, Siberia), involved more than 700,000 people during this initial period. However, if the Nazis made numerous evacuation plans, it is difficult to know exactly how many Jews and Gypsies from Warthegau were actually expelled. The organization was defective and, above all, Hans Frank expressed his reservations because of a lack of space. Furthermore, the project of a Jewish colony on Madagascar had to be abandoned (Browning, 2004: 36-110)*** . At the same time, only a minority of ‘Slav’ Poles were to remain in the Reich, with the rest having to make way for Germans repatriated from the east. Hundreds of trains transported the expellees, who were stripped of their belongings and could only take 20 kg of luggage per person (10 kg per child).

In total, according to German data, from September 1939 to March 1941 around 450-460,000 Poles (including at least 40,000 Jews) were transferred by train to the General-Gouvernement (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 65). Conversely, from 1939 to 1944, around 500,000 ethnic Germans were settled in Warthegau, mainly from Volhynia, the Baltic countries, Bukovina and the General-Gouvernement (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 160). In the district of Radom, in 1940-1941, 160 villages were emptied of their Polish populations (Chmielarz, 2009: 97).

February 1940–April 1941: Establishment of Ghettos for the Jews

The first sealed ghetto was set up by the Germans on 28 October 1939 in Piotrków Trybunalski (south of Lódź), with 28,000 Jews, but it was in spring 1940 that this policy was generalized. Jewish urban ghettos, intended as temporary way stations on the road to complete deportation, now became a factor with which local German authorities unexpectedly had to cope on a long-term basis … ghettoization policy as practiced in Poland in 1940 and 1941 would be the direct result, not of Heydrich’s Schnellbrief of September 21 ordering the concentration of Jews in cities, but rather of the Germans’ failure to carry out the subsequent deportations envisaged therein’ (Browning, 2004: 113)*** . Within a year, hundreds of ghettos had been constructed and imprisoned all of Poland’s Jews, to whom other Jews, transported from Europe by the Germans, were added.

The order to construct a ‘quarter reserved for Jews’ in Lódź was published on 8 February 1940; the ghetto was completely sealed on 30 April, with 160,000 Jews (cf. Baranowski, 2003a; Dobroszycki, 1984; Podolska, 2006). In Warsaw, the decree to construct a ‘sealed Jewish quarter’ was made public on 16 October and the ghetto was sealed with more than 350,000 people during the night of 15-16 November (Ringelbaum, 1961-1963, 1988; Archives clandestines du ghetto de Varsovie, 2007; Engelking and Leociak, 2001; Czerniaków, 1996). In Cracow, the ghetto was sealed on 3 March 1941, with 60,000 Jews (cf. Pankiewicz, 1998); in Lublin, on 20 March, with 43,000 Jews (Radzic, 1999); in Kielce, on 31 March, with 24,000 Jews (Maciagowski, 2008); in Radom, on 3 April (32,000 Jews); in Częstochowa, on 9 April (12,000 Jews); and so on (Hilberg, 1985: 74-89); Lafitte and Bensoussan, 2006).

April-May 1940: Opening of Auschwitz KL

The order to create a concentration camp for prisoners (Konzentrationslager , KL) in old Polish artillery barracks at Oświęcim (Silesia) was given by SS-Reichführer Heinrich Himmler on 27 April 1940. The idea was initiated at the end of 1939 by local Nazi leaders, concerned about overcrowding in the existing prisons. After several appraisals, the site was chosen because it was outside the town and at the heart of a rail network. The first commander-in-chief of the camp, Hauptsturmführer Rudolf Höss (1900-1947), was appointed on 4 May.

He immediately conscripted 300 Jews from the region for the works, as well as 40 Polish secondary schoolchildren arrested in Lódź. The first prisoners to be tattooed (numbered 1-30) were German common law prisoners from Sachsenhausen (May) and 728 Polish political detainees from the prison of Tarnów on 14 June (numbered 31-758). Following a visit from Himmler, it was decided to expand the functions and capacity of the camp, which was to anticipate the reception of tens of thousands of prisoners. The opening of a rubber factory (IB Farben) and a farm was also decided. In June 1940 and then March 1941, the Germans expelled and expropriated most of the Polish families living near the camp and in surrounding villages. They delimited a ‘zone of interest of the camp’ of around 40 square kilometers; hundreds of people were arrested and sent for forced labor in Germany (250) or the General-Gouvernement (1,600).

In its early years, the camp predominantly received Polish and German political prisoners (26,288) and Soviet prisoners of war (9,997). Many of them died during the extension work and as a result of the harsh living conditions. Before March 1941, 1,755 prisoners had been shot or otherwise killed; 2,500 died as a result of malnutrition or brutality by the Schutzstaffel (SS). Then, up to the end of January 1942, nearly 18,000 inmates died of hunger, wounds or on account of work in inhuman conditions – notably during the expansion of the camp and the construction of the factories. During his second visit, on 17-18 July 1942, Himmler witnessed the first gassing of Jews. He decided to transform KL Auschwitz into a centre for the mass extermination of Jews (Gutman and Berembaum, 1998; Czech, 1994: 20-32)*** .

5 and 9 November 1940: Creation of a Camp for Gypsies in the Lódź Ghetto

5,007 Gypsies (Roma) from Austria (Burgenland), including 2,689 children, were shut up in a special camp in the Lódź ghetto. They were stripped of their belongings and abandoned, without adequate hygiene or nourishment, in a dilapidated building surrounded by barbed wire and ditches. The Jewish doctors of the ghetto found it extremely difficult to treat them when a typhus epidemic broke out, causing 629 deaths. In January 1942, they were all gassed with carbon monoxide in lorries in Chelmno nad Nerem (Baranowski, 2003b)** .

October 1939: Forced Labor

A set of decrees and regulations made work mandatory for all Polish citizens from the age of 14 (12 if they were Jewish). They were routinely conscripted and sent to Germany. The round-ups were constant from the early days of the occupation. In January 1941, 798,000 Polish workers had already been deported to Germany and the figure reached 1 million by 15 September (Glowny Urzad Statystycny, 2003: 307). Many of them were never to return: of the 670,000 Poles from Warthegau deported up to 1944, around 60,000 died there (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 65). The Jews concentrated in the ghettos were exploited like slaves on hundreds of construction sites or on the spot, in workshops. They built roads, camps, pipes, or produced equipment for the Wehrmacht (Toebbens factories in the Warsaw ghetto; 100 workshops in the Lódź ghetto; etc.). Thus, in the Warsaw area alone, which contained 75 ghettos, there were 76 labor camps; in that of Lublin, 154; in that of Radom, 71; and in that of Cracow, 64. Every day, groups of slaves were led from the ghettos to these camps, where working conditions were inhuman (Janczewska, 2007: 274)** .

Chronology in the Soviet Zone

17 September 1939–21 June 1941: Arrests and Repression

With the advance of Soviet troops, NKVD units proceeded to arrests; Polish military and civilians were killed. Estimates of the number of victims remain uncertain. n the basis of documents supplied to them by the Russians at the start of the 1990s, Polish historians estimate the number of arrests at 110,000 (65,000 in the Ukraine, 43,000 in Belorussia and 2,000 in Lithuania). Around 40,000 people seem to have died in prison. However, these figures are not precise. Thus, in April 2009, Russian experts let it be known that Beria’s archives contained higher estimates (Jasiewicz, 2009: 227ff.)* .

February 1940–June 1941: Four Waves of Deportation

As the Soviet authorities ‘integrated’ the occupied territories into their republics, Polish citizens became Soviet citizens and had to register to obtain an internal passport. Many refused and were treated in the same way as other ‘counter-revolutionary elements’ (‘kulaks’, religious figures, etc.). They were deported to the east in four phases: 10 February 1940 (140,000 people), 13 April (61,000), June (79,000) and June 1941 (40,000). Out of a total of 320,000 people, 18 per cent of whom were Jews, at least 16,000 were dead by August 1941 (Grabowski, 2009: 17; Zbikowski, 2006)** .

March–April 1940: Execution by Shooting of Polish Prisoners of War

Among the 230,000 Polish soldiers who were prisoners of the Soviets in 1939, more than 45,000 suffered a tragic fate. More than 25,000 remained in captivity until August 1941, 2,300 died between 1939 and 1941, and as many were arrested by the Germans. Historians have only been able to establish partial lists of names and go on estimates. According to the most recent, 14,587 prisoners were shot on Stalin’s orders at Katyń, Kharkov and Tver – a list of the names of 14,463 victims, including 4,404 officers at Katyń, has been established (Ciesielski, Materski and Paczkowski, 2009: 17)** .

III. The Extermination of the Jews and the Racial Purification of the Territory (1941-1945)

The German occupation extended over the whole of the former Polish territory after the attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The frontline very rapidly shifted east, before being fixed in front of Moscow and Stalingrad. Up to January 1944, occupied Poland remained a support base for the Wehrmacht , where hundreds of thousands of men and a great quantity of armaments and military materials were stationed, but a hell for the local civilian populations. The army and Waffen SS liaised in order to avoid the tensions and malfunctioning noted in 1939. In the rear, the Nazi administration, the camp and prison system, the Einsatzgruppen, the battalions of police, gendarmerie and Ukrainian or Latvian auxiliaries controlled the whole of the territory and terrorized and starved the population.

Nazi Germany embarked on an ideologically driven ‘war of destruction’. It pursued two objectives that need to be distinguished in terms of intention and result, even if the levels of violence reached were considerable in both instances. On the one hand, from its preparation the war involved the genocide of the Jews (Browning, 2004: 213-214, 424), in the sense defined by the Polish jurist Raphaël Lemkin (Lemkin, 1944). On the other hand, it pushed the project of racial purification of the Polish territories marked out for German colonization to an extreme.

From March 1942, the German decision to exterminate all Jews (Endlösung or ‘final solution’) translated into the ‘liquidation’ of the ghettos and industrial killing (Aktion Reinhard ), principally in six camps especially equipped for this purpose: Treblinka (800,000 dead), Belżec (490,000), Chelmno nad Nerem (150,000), Sobibór (60,000), Majdanek (60,000) and Auschwitz-Birkenau (300,000), or an estimated total of 1.86 million. The other Polish Jews died of exhaustion from forced labor, hunger and illness in the ghettos (around 500,000), or were shot on the spot and in forests such as those of Ponary (73,000 Jews were executed from 1941-1944). In total, between 2.7 and 2.9 Polish Jews were killed, or more than 90 per cent of the pre-war population (Arad, 1999; Grabowski, 2009: 32). Other populations met with a similar fate, like the Gypsies. Of the 75-85,000 Gypsies in pre-war Poland, 50,000 were executed or gassed, notably 21,000 at Auschwitz (Grabowski, 2009: 34).

There was no let-up in the terror against the other Polish civilian populations. In addition to the massive deportation of workers to Germany, the Nazis hunted down the internal resistance (Armia Krajowa , AK), which from 1942 was unified. The occupier multiplied arrests, the execution of hostages and torture in 500 Gestapo centers and prisons. For the city of Warsaw alone, between October 1943 and July 1944 the Germans proceeded to the public execution of 8,000 people (Paczkowski, 1995: 25). Of the 1.4 million Polish citizens (not recognized as Jews) deported to the camps constructed in Poland, the number of victims is estimated at around 600,000 (Chmielarz, 2009), including 75,000 at Auschwitz (Piper, 2007: 212). In 1943, when the genocide of the Jews was at its height, the German army undertook vast operations of ethnic cleansing of ‘living space’ by transferring civilian populations and destroying villages. This was the case in the Zamość region in 1942-1943, with the removal of 116,000 inhabitants from 300 villages (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 65-67); while in western Ukraine the occupier relied on nationalist groups that massacred tens of thousands of Poles in Volhynia in 1943-1944 (Bankier and Gutman, 2003).

With the German defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk (February and July 1943), the front was reversed. On 4 January 1944, the Red Army once again crossed the former borders of Poland. Now an ally of Great Britain and the United States, Stalin wanted to reach Berlin as quickly as possible, while ensuring control over Polish territory en route. The AK, which was fighting the German occupier under the authority of the Polish government in exile in London, participated in the liberation of the first major cities (Vilnius, Lwów, Lublin). Once the fighting was over, its military chiefs and numerous partisans were arrested by the Soviet NKVD and deported. A Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN), formed in Moscow, was established in Lublin on 30 July.

On 1 August 1944, as the Red Army approached the capital, the AK called for an uprising in Warsaw. Abandoned by Stalin, who kept his forces on the other side of the Vistula, the ‘Battle of Warsaw’ was crushed by the Wehrmacht after two months of fierce fighting (150,000 dead on the Polish side). The Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries removed the 650,000 surviving civilians from the capital and its environs, of whom 60,000 were sent to concentration camps (cf. Grabowski, 2009: 34; Kunert, 2009: 185).

Finally, in the winter of 1944-1945 the German civilian populations fled in the face of the Soviet advance or were evacuated in dramatic circumstances, while the Nazis pursued their genocidal goal until the last moment (death marches, Auschwitz).

Polish historians today reckon that it is impossible to establish the exact number of civilian victims during the Second World War. Referring to the 1939 borders, and comparing all the existing sources (Polish, German and Soviet), they estimate between 5.47 and 5.67 million Polish citizens. This comprises: 2.7-2.9 million Jews, 1.8 million Poles (1.55 million of them victims of the Germans, around 100,000 of the Ukrainians, and 200-300,000 of the Soviets), 50,000 Gypsies, and something under 1 million from the former German, Ukrainian, Belorussian or other former minorities (Materski and Szarota, 2009: 9, 18).


June–August 1941: Executions by the Einsatzgruppen

In the months preceding the German offensive against the USSR, four Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service (SD) were set up on Himmler’s orders to ‘look after security’ in the conquered zones in the rear of the German troops. These 3,000 men, divided into groups A, B, C and D, were deployed the length of the Elbe (in the Pretzsch sector) and organized in small units (Einsatzkommandos ) to follow the advance of the Wehrmacht on 22 June. And from the outset they arrested and shot Jewish civilians. This was the start of genocidal mass executions, even if historians do not agree on the exact date of transmission of ‘the order to kill the Jews’, irrespective of ‘person, sex or age’ (cf. Husson, 2008: 447-451). Two of these intervention groups were given responsibility for the former Polish territories occupied by the Soviets, before continuing further east to Mińsk and Kiev.

In the north-east, commandos from Einsatzgruppe B reached Vilnius on 30 June and Bialystok on 1 July. In the former Lithuania, groups of auxiliaries organized with the help of the German security police engaged in numerous massacres of Jews in Kaunas (3,800 Jews in July) and the Vilnius region, where, with the aid of Lithuanian auxiliaries, Einsatzkommando IX shot 500 Jews a day (Hilberg, 1995: 98-99). The executions were immediate in Bialystok, where nearly 900 Jews were killed in two days and 700 others packed into the synagogue and burnt alive. Then, following a surprise visit by Himmler on 9 July, a new liquidation operation resulted in 1,200- 3,000 victims on the 10th. In total, nearly 4,000 Jews were executed in two weeks. And on 1 August, after a Judenrat had been appointed, the 42,000 remaining Jews were concentrated in a ghetto and forced to work.

In the south-east, Einsatzgruppe C moved into Galicia (which was to be integrated into the General-Gouvernement on 1 August) and marched on Kiev. Units entered Lwów on 30 June, the day after the city’s capture. A pogrom was in the air. The Soviets had shot 3,500 Ukrainian prisoners before fleeing. The Ukrainian crowd turned against the Jews and, over three days, hundreds of them were killed in the streets under the benevolent eye of the Wehrmacht (1-3 July). Next, ‘on the Führer’s orders’ and in retaliation for this chaos, 1,000 male Jews, rounded up in a sports ground by the Ukrainian militias, were shot by a commando of Einsatzgruppe C. Finally, after a Judenrat had been appointed, the Lwów ghetto was sealed on 15 December, with 120,000 Jews.

A further 30 ghettos were created in Galicia, while massacres in the rear of the Wehrmacht multiplied, often with the participation of local populations: there was a pogrom in Boryslaw (2 July), with 350 dead; in Zloczów, the Ukrainian militia executed 1,400 Jews (3 July); and in Tarnopol, the Germans and Ukrainians massacred 4,500 (3-6 July). In August, 6,000 Jews were executed in Pińsk (6th) and 22,000 in Kamieniec-Podolski (26th-28th). The massacres continued in September and October, in particular on 12 October with the killing of 10,000 people at Stanislawów and then the execution of 40,000 Jews by the commandos of Einsatzgruppe B in the forest of Ponary, 13 kilometres from Vilnius (Arad, 1999; Ogorreck, 2007: 127-171; Hilberg, 1985: 99-153; Goldhagen: 1996, 147-163). There is no doubt that as early as July, women, children and the elderly featured among the Jewish victims in increasing proportions (cf. Husson, 2008: 160-161)*** .

5-10 July 1941: Wave of Pogroms in the Lomża Region

In the Lomża region, in the north-east of today’s Poland, just after the Soviet troops had withdrawn but before the Germans had arrived, collective murders of Jews by their Polish neighbors occurred in twenty localities. The most violent of these incidents were in Jedwabne and Radzilów, a neighbouring market town (Zbikowski, 2002: 159-273).

In Jedwabne, on 10 July 1941, the Catholic population abused the village’s 800-900 Jews, who were assembled in a barn and burnt alive. The inhabitants then seized their possessions (Gross, 2002). In Radzilów, on 7 July, 500 Jews were rounded up and killed by their Polish neighbors, some with axes (Bikont, 2004: 277-285). Small German units of the SS and the Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo) encouraged the local population in this type of action. Their presence is attested in Radzilów, but not Jedwabne (cf. Machcewicz and Persak, 2002: 39)*** .

March 1942–November 1943: ‘ Aktion Reinhard

Most historians concur in locating in autumn 1941 Hitler’s decision to make the transition to a new phase of the ‘the final solution of the Jewish question’ (Endlösung der Judenfrage ) and kill all of Europe’s Jews. Its implementation was placed under the supreme authority of SS-Reichführer Heinrich Himmler and coordinated by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. During the conference that brought the leaders of the Reich together at Wannsee (20 January 1942), it was decided that ‘Europe will be combed from west to east’, starting with the territories annexed to the Reich and the General-Gouvernement (cf. Husson, 2008: 311ff.). At this conference, ‘the genocidal implications were totally and unmistakably clear’, comments a historian (Browning, 2004: 412; Arad, 1999)*** .

Organization: In the former Polish territory, the operation was directed by SS-Brigadeführer Odilo Globocnik (1904-1945), chief of police and the SS for the Lublin district, whom Himmler had appointed plenipotentiary for the creation of SS and police centers in the eastern territories. He was assisted by SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle (1911-1962), who was in charge of the organization of deportations, the camps and economic spoliation of the victims, and by Polizei-Kriminalkommissar Christian Wirth (1885-1944), himself in direct contact with the Chancellery of the Reich, who was organizer and inspector of the extermination camps. This high command and its administration were established in Lublin. The operation was called ‘Aktion Reinhard’ in homage to its designer, Reinhard Heydrich, who was assassinated in Prague by a resistance group on 27 May 1942.

In less than two years, they possessed all the requisite armed forces (police and gendarmerie), both from the German administration of the General-Gouvernement and the Bialystok district, to execute around 2 million Jews and expropriate their possessions. The booty collected was assessed by Globocnik in January 1944 at 178,045,960 Reichsmark – approximately 700 million euros (Libionka, 2004).

The extermination camps: From the summer of 1941, Nazi leaders were aware that mass shootings and exhaustion through labour or hunger were insufficient to kill all the Jews. They resorted to the technique of gassing on the basis of the experiment of Program T4 for the elimination of the insane and handicapped in the Reich and of the ‘gas lorries’ used at the start of the offensive against Poland in 1939-1940. At the instigation of Heydrich-, experiments were conducted at Sachsenhausen, Koźminek and Auschwitz. They were conclusive. On 3 September 1941, 600 Soviet prisoners of war were gassed in the basement of block 11 at Auschwitz, followed by other groups. And from autumn 1941 it was decided to generalize the use of the gas Zyklon B to carry out the extermination of the Jews (Piper, 2007: 180). Thus, camps of a new type were required. Anticipating Hitler’s order, the leaders of the SS readied themselves:

- In Warthegau, in July, a Gauleiter (head of a regional branch of the NSDAP) had the idea of establishing a station for gassing by carbon monoxide at Chelmno nad Nerem (80 kilometres from Lódź), and brought it into service prior to the plans made at Wannsee. On 7 December, the first convoys arrived from Kolo, a neighbouring village, and 700 Jews were gassed in a lorry. From 5-12 January, it was the turn of 5,000 Austrian Roma from the Lódź ghetto and then, on the 16th, of 5,000 Jewish children and elderly from the same ghetto (Baranowski, 2003b; Krakowski and Pawlicka-Nowak, 2004).

- On 13 October 1941, Himmler and Globocnik decided to set up a killing centre at Belżec (construction began in December). Its architect, Christian Wirth, refined mass gassing techniques there (Reder, 1999; Kuwalek, 2007; Sereny, 1974: 111).

- The extermination camp at Sobibór was built in March 1942 and from 16 April the first convoys arrived for gassing (Sereny, 1974; Lanzmann, 2003).

- In May-June 1942 the Treblinka extermination camp, north of Warsaw, was constructed (Sereny, 1974; Wiernik, 2003; Rajchman, 2009).

In the space of a few months, the Nazis had thus built four killing centers for Aktion Reinhard , to which must be added gas chamber complexes in two concentration camps. At Majdanek, near Lublin, gas chambers were operational from April 1943 onwards, while at Auschwitz-Birkenau a second gas chamber became operational on 30 June 1942, prior to the camp becoming the largest death factory for Europe’s Jews at the start of 1943 (Gutman and Berembaum, 1998; Piper, 2007).

The Killing: March 1942 may be regarded as the start of the systematic killing of Polish Jews, with the liquidation of the Lublin ghetto and the deportation of 26,000 Jews to the extermination camp of Belżec (17 March–14 April); and then, from 18 March, deportations from the district of Galicia (Lwów), which continued non-stop until mid-June. Thereafter, massacres, deportations and immediate gassing were incessant.

June 1942: First deportations from the Cracow district to Belżec (3rd); resumption of deportations of Jews from the ghettos of the Galicia district (15th).

July: Massacre of 1,800 Jews of Józefów (13th). Order from Himmler encouraging completion of the process of extermination of the Jews of the General-Gouvernement between now and the end of 1942 (19th). First convoy to the Treblinka extermination camp (22nd). Start of the ‘Great Action’ in the Warsaw ghetto, with the deportation of more than 300,000 Jews (up to 21 September). Suicide of Adam Czerniaków, president of the Warsaw Judenrat (23rd). Liquidation of the other ghettos in the Galicia and Cracow districts.

August: Deportations of Jews from the Radom district, Kielce, Częstochowa and other provincial ghettos. Deportation of children and teachers from the orphanage of Janusz Korczak to Treblinka extermination camp (5th- 6th). Massacre of 1,600 Jews at Lomazy (19th). Deportation of Jews from the ghettos of the Warsaw district (19th).

November: Start of the liquidation of the Jewish ghettos in the Bialystok region and deportations to the camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka (2nd). SS shootings in the Drohobycz ghetto, resulting in 100 deaths, including the Polish writer Bruno Schulz (19th).

December: Last convoy entering the camp of Belżec (11th); end of gassings, but burning of bodies until March 1943, followed by the camp’s destruction.

As of 31 December: 1,274,166 Jews have already been killed in the camps of Belżec, Sobibór, Treblinka and Majdanek (according to German reports).

January 1943: Second phase of deportation of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto; first clashes between the Jewish resistance (Jewish Combat Organization, ZOB) and the Germans (18th-21st).

March: Opening of two new crematory furnaces at Auschwitz-Birkenau. For the first time, 1,500 Jews are gassed with Zyklon B in a single day (13th).

April: End of the first phase of operation of Chelmno extermination camp (7th-11th). It resumes activity in April 1944 for the liquidation of the Lódź ghetto. Start of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (19th) and appeal to Poles by the ZOB: ‘This is a struggle for our freedom and yours’ (23rd). 23 groups fight, containing around 500 armed fighters. The Zionist right (Jewish Military Union, ZZW) fights around the Muranów Square, with about 200 fighters organized in two units (Libionka, 2008). Attempts at external support from the Polish resistance fail: that of the Communist People’s Guard (GL) on 22 April and that of an AK detachment on the 27th.

May: The Germans locate the ZOB’s command bunker on Mila Street; death of the fighters, including Mordechaj Anielewicz (8th). In London, suicide of Szmul Zygielbojm, member of the National Council of Poland, trade unionist and member of the Bund, in protest at the world’s silence and passivity in the face of the extermination of the Jews (12th). Dynamiting by the Germans of the great synagogue of Warsaw, on Tlomackie Street, as a sign of the definitive quelling of the uprising (16th). Only small groups of fighters manage to save themselves (28 April and 10 May). The Nazis deport 56,000 survivors to the camps of Majdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki.

June: Armed Jewish resistance to the liquidation of the Częstochowa ghetto (23rd-25th).

August: Revolt in Treblinka extermination camp; continuation of extermination operations with gas until the end of August and then destruction of the camp by the Germans in September. Resumption of deportations of Jews from the Bialystok region. Armed resistance in the Bialystok ghetto and armed resistance by Jewish prisoners during the liquidation of the Krychów labour camp (16th). Armed resistance during the liquidation of the last Jews in Będzin and Sosnowiec.

October: Revolt in Sobibór extermination camp; more than 200 prisoners escape (14th). Final liquidation of the Mińsk ghetto (21st).

November: Under the codename ‘Harvest Festival’, the last remaining Jews in the labor camps are shot in two days in the Lublin district: they are concentrated at Majdanek (18,000 shot) on 3 November, and Trawniki (6,000 shot) and Poniatowa (14,000 shot) on 4 November. The Jewish labor camp on Janowska Street in Lwów, where more than 300,000 bodies are burnt, is destroyed on 9 November.

[This list of massacres and executions is not exhaustive: readers are referred to Arad, 1999; Libionka, 2004; Browning, 1993; Piper, 2007; Kranz, 2007; Kuwalek, 2007]

February 1942–27 January 1945: The Extermination of Jews from Europe

The extermination centers constructed by the Nazis in former Polish territory also served for the extermination of Jews from Europe. From January 1942, German, Austrian and Czech Jews, who had been transferred to ghettos, figured among the victims. And, from February 1942 onwards, convoys of Jews from other European countries made for Sobibór, Majdanek and, above all, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The first transport of ‘foreign’ Jews to Auschwitz came from Bytom (then in Germany) on 15 February 1942, and the last one from Hungary on 2 May 1944. Between these dates, Jews arrived from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, the Czech countries and Moravia, Norway, Greece and Italy. Around 960,000 Jews were killed out of the 1.1 million deported to Auschwitz. The last gassings occurred on 2 November 1944 (cf. Piper, 2007). On 18 January 1944, the majority of the SS left the camp, taking 66,000 prisoners on a ‘death march’. On the 20th, the last remaining SS dynamited crematoria II and III, and then crematorium V, just before fleeing on the 26th. On 27 January, the camp was liberated by Soviet troops (Wieviorka, 2005)*** .

November 1941–August 1943: Deportations of Poles from the Zamość Region

In addition to population transfers, the Nazis’ project of racial purification comprised the expulsion and often the destruction of whole villages. Thus, in the Zamość region, at the same time as the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews, a vast operation deporting Poles began in November 1941 (Kuklowski, 2008). Up to August 1943, 300 villages were emptied and sometimes burnt, and 110,000 people (including 30,000 children) were deported, either to Auschwitz and Majdanek or to Germany as forced laborers (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 67)** .

March 1943–February 1944: The Volhynia Massacres

In the former Polish provinces of the Ukraine occupied by the Germans, incidents between Poles (in a minority) and Ukrainians were frequent from 1941 onwards. The two nationalist organizations – Andriy Melynk’s OUN, which formed its own SS divisions in agreement with the occupier, and Stepan Bander’s Ukrainian Insurrectional Army (UPA), which embarked on underground struggle in 1942 – stirred up these inter-ethnic hatreds, which had many historical referents behind them. In March 1943, a wave of murderous operations unfolded, aiming to ‘cleanse’ the territory of Polish populations. It began in the eastern zone (Kostopol, Sarny), where 15,000 people were killed in a month, and continued in April in the cantons of Luck and Krzemieniec, reaching a peak of violence at Kowel and Wlodzimierz Wolynski (June-July) and Lubomel (August). In July, the AK sent emissaries to try to negotiate. They were killed by the UPA. The cruelty of the massacres is still very much alive in Polish memories: villages burnt, peasants killed with guns, axes, saws, scythes or knives, some of them crucified.

Historians do not agree either on the scale or on the intention of these massacres, although discussions between specialists of the two countries are progressing (Paczkowski, 2007). The number of victims given varies: between 35,000 and 60,000 Poles from June-December 1943 (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 69) in one total; in the whole of the Ukraine from 1942-1945 around 100,000, including 60,000 in Volhynia (Materski and Szarota, 2009: 9). For their part, Ukrainians cite reprisals by the AK, which are said to have caused tens of thousands of deaths (15-20,000, according to a Polish source). The second point under discussion concerns the responsibilities of Ukrainian nationalist organizations and their coordination (or otherwise) with the Germans. However, it seems to be established that from March 1942 their leaders planned the transfer (if not the elimination) of Polish populations (Filar, 2003)* .

1 August–5 October 1944: The Warsaw Uprising

Launched on 1 August 1944 at 17.00hrs by the commander of the AK, General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski (1895-1966), the ‘Battle of Warsaw’ aimed to be a decisive step in Operation ‘Burza’ (‘Tempest’), begun further east in February to liberate the country. Abandoned by its allies, it ended in failure. After weeks of heroic fighting, the human losses are estimated at 150,000 dead on the Polish side (16-18,000 AK insurgents and 120-130,000 civilians). The city was emptied of its population and systematically destroyed by the Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries. 550,000 inhabitants of Warsaw and more than 100,000 inhabitants of the surrounding areas were driven from their homes; 160,000 of them were deported to Germany (forced labor) and 55,000 to the camps at Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, Mauthhausen and Sachsenhausen (Kunert, 2009, 185; Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego)*** .

July 1944–January 1945: Arrests and Deportations by the NKVD

The entry of Soviet troops into the confines of the former Polish territory and the withdrawal of the Germans gave rise to numerous exactions by soldiers against the civilian population (rapes, robberies, repression, etc.), probably affecting tens of thousands of people. The PKWN formed in Moscow was installed in Lublin on 30 July. With the support of NKVD advisors from Moscow, its security apparatus proceeded to arrest AK cadres in the liberated zones. Then, from October onwards, following the strengthening of the apparatus by the NKVD general Ivan Serov (1905-1990), the arrests affected soldiers of the line and civilians sympathetic to the AK. According to a cautious estimate, 20-25,000 people were arrested before the end of 1944 in ‘Lublin Poland’ – that is to say, the zone controlled by the Red Army (3.5 million Soviet soldiers were stationed in this territory) (Wnuk, 2008: 15)** .

October 1944–May 1945: Evacuation and Flight of German Civilian Populations

The crossing of the borders of eastern Prussia by Soviet troops on 16 October 1944 created great disquiet among the German civilian populations who came from these regions or had been transplanted there by the Nazis. On 21-22 October, the Soviets executed 30 civilians in a small German village (Nemmersdorf) and panic ensued. The civilians fled. Vast evacuation operations were improvised by the local Nazi authorities and the Wehrmacht in catastrophic conditions, leading to a very high number of casualties. In less than a year, more than 6 million civilians took to the roads or waded into boats. 2.1 million fled, often by sea, from the regions of Königsberg and Gdańsk, 1.1 million from Pomerania, 812,000 from the Lódź region and 3.2 million from Silesia. These refugee convoys and boats were treated as military targets by the Red Army; aircraft pounded them and boats were sunk. Such was the fate on 30 January 1945 of the Wilhelm Gustloff off Gdańsk, which was transporting 10,000 refugees (Grass, 2003); of the Steuben on 10 February (4,300 refugees); and of the Goya on 16 April (7,000 refugees). The civilian populations were often evacuated at the last minute in tragic conditions, as in January in the case of 60,000 women and children who left Breslau (Wroclaw) on foot and in the snow after the city had been bombarded by the Russians for two days (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 166-175)** .

1939-1945: The Camps, the Prisons and the Germanization of Poles

Today, the number of non-Jewish Polish victims of the German repression is estimated, on the basis of joint research by Polish and German historians, at 1.55 million people killed, 1.3 million of them by the General-Gouvernement (Materski and Szarota, 2009: 18-19). This estimate corresponds to the calculations made by the historian Czeslaw Luczak in 1994. In addition to the massacres and deportations already cited, the following data have been established.

From 1939, in the former Polish territory the Germans opened 18 concentration camps, 1,978 labor camps and 214 transit camps. Among the 500 Gestapo prisons, where torture was routine, some were distinguished by the number of executions: Fort VII in Poznań with a gas chamber (10-15,000 dead), Fort VII Twierdzy in Toruń (1,500 shot), the Château of Lublin, the Rotunda at Zamość, the Radogoszcz prison in Lódź, that of Montelupich in Cracow or Pawiak in Warsaw. In the last-named, 60-65,000 were imprisoned, of whom 32,000 were executed (often publicly) and 23,000 deported to camps.

The fate of Polish children under the age of 16 deemed ‘Aryan’ is uncertain: around 200,000, many of them very young, were sent to families in Germany (Lebensborn ); only 15 per cent (30,000) were recovered after the war. Another group of children was subject to special treatment – that of displaced families assembled in transit camps. Thus, in the Gdańsk region (Naklo), nearly 800 children under the age of 14 died in 1939. Similarly, in the 22 camps set up in Silesia for Poles who refused to sign the Deutsche Volksliste there was a high percentage of children – 38-42 per cent, depending on the camp (Chmielarz, 2009: 91-100). A labor camp for Polish children was opened in Lódź in December 1942. According to some estimates, it contained around 1,600 boys and girls, some of whom died from typhus or exhaustion from work, while 136 were executed. On their liberation in January 1945, there were no more than 900 survivors (Podolska, 2009: 164)*** .

IV. The Seizure of Power by the Communists (1945-1948)

Liberated from the iron rule of the Nazis, Poland remained under the control of the Red Army and the NKVD, while the Polish communists and their allies took power. The Allied conferences at Yalta and Potsdam (February and August 1945) ratified the borders imposed by Stalin, assigned Poland new territories (eastern Prussia and Silesia), and advocated population exchanges.

A provisional coalition government was supposed to reorganize the country within its new borders and prepare free and democratic elections. However, in March, when the resistance movement linked to the government in London sent sixteen delegates to negotiate, the NKVD arrested them and deported them to the USSR. Several more months, and insistent pressure from Churchill, were required for the constitution on 28 June of a Provisional Government of National Unity (TRJN), with the participation of Stanislaw Makolajczk (1901-1966), the head of the government in exile in London. This government was dominated by the communists and their allies. It organized a referendum (June 1946) and general elections (January 1947), which were fixed. Massive fraud gave absolute power to the communists of Boleslaw Bierut (1892-1956), who banned other parties. Mikolajczyk resigned and had to go into exile (Paczkowski, 1995: 79-99; Roszkowski, 2005: 151-170).

This political confusion, at a time when the bulk of Soviet forces had moved west (Battle of Berlin, April-May 1945), strengthened the popularity of armed groups that rejected what they regarded as a new Soviet occupation. The National Committee in exile in London was officially dissolved on 1 July and the AK on 8 August. Groups of partisans refused to surrender, despite often misleading promises of amnesty. From September onwards they formed themselves into a resistance movement for ‘freedom and independence’ (WiN). For their part, formations deriving from the ultra-nationalist resistance (National Armed Forces, NSZ) created their own anti-semitic and anti-Soviet commandos. This resistance scored some initial successes against the security forces in 1945-1946, particularly in the east of the country. But it was violently repressed and hunted down. At the same time, the government succeeded in persuading many partisans to demobilize in return for a new amnesty in April 1947 (Wnuk, 2008).

This civil war unfolded in a country in ruins and bled white, where refugees and populations in transit following the Potsdam agreements were constantly intersecting. Vast transfers were organized and gave rise to violence against civilian populations. 3.5 million Germans were transferred west of the Oder (February 1946–October 1947); others were deported to the USSR. Half a million Ukrainians were sent to the Ukraine (October 1944–June 1946) or dispersed over Polish territory (‘Vistula Action’ in 1947); and ‘in return’ 1.2 million Poles were repatriated from the Confines to the formerly German ‘recovered lands’. Finally, more than 2 million Polish deportees returned from captivity in Germany or the Soviet Union (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008).

Of these, the repatriation in February 1946 of 137,000 Jews (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 144), who had survived in ‘colonies’ in the USSR, involved numerous incidents. More than 1,000 Jews were killed in trains and on the roads, while several pogroms (particularly in the city of Kielce in July 1946) struck the survivors (Szajnok, 2006).

Finally, in the zones annexed by the USSR, Stalin’s iron rule was imposed and silenced any nationalist or democratic desires. The Polish populations were requested manu militari to move to the other side of the new borders, while opponents (above all, former resisters) were imprisoned and deported (the last deportations occurred in January 1952).


March 1945–April 1947: Arrests, Imprisonment and Deportation of Resisters

Despite the repression of autumn 1944, more than 100,000 partisans still remained underground at the start of 1945. In March 1945, the Polish Security Services (UB) became fully operational thanks to Soviet training (NKVD). They combined targeted repression, which was frequently very violent (executions), with attempts to persuade the partisans to surrender. Following a brief period of promise for the ‘men of the forest’ (April-June 1945), the political offensive, reinforced by the formation of the provisional government and the decisions of the Potsdam Conference, achieved an initial success: around 30,000 partisans demobilized following the amnesty of August 1945. Most of the WiN’s major units were dissolved. Then, in 1946, following several clashes and numerous police operations, the remaining groups were disrupted. The fixed elections of January 1947 and the consolidation of communist power made continuation of the struggle difficult. 76,574 partisans took advantage of a new amnesty (53,517 emerged from the underground and 23,257 acknowledged their involvement); and the bulk of the resistance was dismantled. There remained no more than a few hundred partisans, who were increasingly isolated – the last of them were to surrender their weapons in 1956 (Wnuk, 2008: 20). In total, the number of victims of this ‘civil war’ is estimated at ‘8-10,000 partisans’ (Paczkowski, 2007: 168), 12,000 security agents, and around 79,000 arrests, the majority of them among supporters of the partisans (Wnuk, 2008: 20-21)** .

February 1947–October 1947: The Transfer of German and Ukrainian Populations

The transfer of German populations, in accordance with the decisions made at Potsdam, occurred in better conditions than in 1944. Following bilateral agreements in 1946, 1.2 million people were transferred to the British occupation zone (February 1946) and 2.3 million to that of the Soviets (May). The transfers ended in October 1947. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was tense, especially in Silesia. Some tens of thousands of Germans were deported to the USSR and thousands confined in camps and obliged to perform forced labor in Poland until the beginning of the 1950s (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 188). Similarly, from October 1944 to June 1946 the transfer of 480,000 Ukrainian civilians to the Ukraine was organized in circumstances that had been negotiated. But the following year, the communist government hardened its position against the remaining Ukrainian villages. It embarked on a military campaign of cleansing known by the name of ‘Vistula Action’ and in June-July 1947 villages were destroyed and their inhabitants (141,000 ‘Ukrainian bandits’) dispersed over the new lands of the west (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 214-215)** .

1945-1946: Anti-Semitic Pogroms and Crimes

Amid the transfers of populations and crowds of refugees, local conflicts and ethnic hatreds took a turn for the worse. Jews identified by their physical profile were attacked in the street and on trains; 1,000 were killed in a month – estimates vary from 500 to 1,500 depending on the historian (cf. Gross, 2008: 34-80; Engel, 1998). In the Lublin region, 118 murders were recorded between summer 1944 and autumn 1946 (Kopciowski, 2007). Various brawls turned into a pogrom in Cracow (August 1945), Rzeszów (June 1945) and especially Kielce. In that city, on 4 July 1946 the crowd attacked a refugee centre for a day, following the disappearance of a child. It accused the Jews of practicing ‘ritual murder’. In the end, 42 Jews were killed, including women and children (Szajnok, 2006; Maciagowski, 2008). In the months that followed, 70,000 Jews fled Poland (Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 145)*** .

1944-1952: Repatriation of Poles

Following an agreement between the PKWN and the Soviets (September 1944), and then after the Potsdam Conference (August 1945), the Polish citizens who had remained outside the new borders were repatriated and generally settled in former German regions. Between 1944 and 1946, around 1.2 million civilians were repatriated (including 620,000 from western Galicia, 134,000 from Volhynia, 26,000 from Belorussia and 148,000 from Lithuania). From the west more than 2 million prisoners and conscripted laborers returned (including 700,000 from Germany and Austria). From the east more than 300,000 Polish citizens (half of them Jewish) returned from Soviet ‘colonies’ or camps in the years 1945-1952 (cf. Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 2008: 84-87)** .


Brigadeführer : rank in the SS. Wehrmacht equivalent : Generalmajor. British army equivalent : Brigadier.

Einsatzgruppen : (literal translation: «intervention groups »). Paramilitary units under the control of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), which operated in the occupied territories of the East (Poland, Soviet Union and Baltic states) in the rear of the Wehrmacht.

Generalgouvernement Polen : name given to the administration of part of Polish territory, occupied by the Third Reich in September 1939 ; extended to Galicia in 1941.

Judenrat : « Jewish council » appointed by the German occupier to administer the Jewish ghettos and implement the orders of the Nazi authorities.

Hauptsturmführer : rank in the SS. Wehrmacht equivalent: Hauptmann. British army equivalent : Captain.

Obergruppenführer : rank in the SS. Wehrmacht equivalent: General. British army equivalent : Lieutenant-General.

Reichführer : title of the highest SS leader, including of its armed branch, the Waffen SS. It was more of a political function than a military rank, since the title did not assign any role of operational command to its bearer.

Selbstschutz : elite unit of the Gestapo ; paramilitary « self-defence » unit.

Sturmbannführer : rank in the SS Wehrmacht equivalent: Major. British army equivalent: Major.

Volksdeutschen : populations of German or Germanic origin dispersed across Europe.

Waffen SS (« arm of the protection squadron») : military branch of the Schutzstaffel (SS), one of whose components it formed with the l'Allgemeine SS and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD).

Wehrmacht : « Defence Force ». Name given to the German Army from 1935-1945 under the Nazi regime.


AK : Armia Krajowa , Home Army

DVL : Deutsche Volksliste , list of the German people (list categorizing people according to racial criteria)

GL : Communist People’s Guard, military wing of the Polish Communist Party (KPP)

KL : Konzentrationslage , concentration camp

LN : League of Nations

NKVD : Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del , People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs

NSDAP : Nationalsozialistische Deutsch Arbeiterpartei , German Workers National Socialist Party

NSZ : Narodowe Siły Zbrojne , National Armed Forces

ONR : Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny , National-Radical Camp

OUN : Orhanizatsiya Ukrayins'kykh Nationalistiv , Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists

PKWN : Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego , Polish National Liberation Committee

RSHA : Reichssicherheitshauptamt , Central Office of Security of the Reich

SD : Sicherheidtdienst , Security Service of the Gestapo

Sipo : Sicherheitspolizei , German security police. It contained two bodies : the Gestapo (Geheime Staats Polizei , the Reich’s political police) and the Kripo (Kriminal Polizei , the criminal police).

SS : Schutz Staffel (« protection squad »), elite troops forming the armed wing of the Natzi state

TRJN : Tymczasowy Rząd Jedności Narodowej , provisional government of national unity

UB : Urząd Bezpieczeństwa , the Polish security services in the Stalinist period

UPA : Ukrains'ka povstens'ka Armiya , Insurrectionary Ukrainian Army

UVO : Ukrayins'ka Viys'kova Orhanizatsiya , Ukrainian Military Organization, armed wing of the OUN

WiN : Wolność i Niezawisłość (« Freedom and Independence »), armed resistance movement against the new pro-Soviet government in Poland

ŻOB : Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa , Jewish Combat Organization

ZZW : Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy , Jewish Military Union


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Cite this item

Potel Jean Yves , Chronology of Mass Violence in Poland 1918-1948, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 10 May, 2010, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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