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Lukas, Richard C. Forgotten Survivors: Polish Christians Remember The Nazi Occupation. University Press of Kansas, 2004.

© Copyright 2004 by the University Press of Kansas. All rights reserved.


[…] When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, they embarked on a racial war which, as Hitler himself declared, was intended to kill "without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language." Hitler and his lieutenants measured success not in terms of a Polish military defeat but, in Hitler's own words, "the annihilation of living forces." The scale of the violence against Polish civilians in the September Campaign far exceeded anything the Germans committed against civilians during World War I.

The war against the Poles was a war of annihilation and continued long after Poland's military defeat in October 1939. In many ways, the Polish campaign provided a laboratory for the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. As one historian recently described the German war against the Poles, "The Third Reich's invasion of Poland was not an ordinary war, but a new kind of conflict, a Volkstumskampf, or ethnic struggle, that conflated the unique ideological goals of National Socialism with the traditional military-political objective of establishing a German empire in Eastern Europe."

The German concept of empire was predicated on the conquest of an area long coveted by the so-called superior German race. Poles were untermenschen, or subhumans, who were to be murdered or enslaved. If Heinrich Himmler had his way, "All Poles will disappear from the world ... the great German people should consider it as its major task to destroy all Poles. " German hatred of Poles was visceral. As Dr. Jan Moor Jankowski, a member of the Polish Underground, put it, "The Germans hated Jews by order, but they hated Poles with their blood."

The cooperation between the SS and the Wehrmacht in killing Polish civilians continued not only during the September Campaign but also in the months that followed. Wehrmacht firing squads shot no less than 16,000 Poles by the time the war ended early in October 1939. By December 1939, the Germans had killed approximately 50,000 Polish citizens, of whom 7,000 were Jewish.

The first large-scale atrocity on Polish soil, which set a precedent for innumerable slaughters that followed, took place in a forest near Piasnica Wielka in Pomerania in the period October-December 1939. The Gestapo and German field gendarmerie shot 12,000-14,000 people, including Poles, Jews, psychiatric patients, and Germans un-sympathetic with the Nazis. Many of the Piasnica victims were part of' the Nazi euthanasia program, even before Hitler gave his official mercy-killing order. Approximately 12,000 Poles were victims of this program, which included the elderly, invalids, those with incurable diseases, and hundreds of children, who were given lethal injections because they were invalids or suffered from terminal disease."

The German campaign against the Poles focused largely but not exclusively upon the elimination of anyone with the least political or cultural prominence. Years before their invasion of Poland, the Germans drew up lists of prominent Poles slated for execution or imprisonment. The German definition of "elite" was so broad that it not only included teachers, professors, physicians, priests, officers, landowners, writers, and government officials, but also anyone who had attended secondary school.

Himmler and his SS and police forces were largely responsible for the campaign against the Polish elite. He told his cohorts, "You should hear this but also forget it again-to shoot thousands of leading Poles." And the head of the General Government, Dr. Hans Prank, told his subordinates, "The Fuhrer told me what we have now recognized in Poland to be the elite must be liquidated; we must watch out for the seeds that begin to sprout again so as to stamp them out again in good time."

The Germans killed their Polish victims in a variety of ways – shooting, gassing, hanging, torture, hard labor, lethal injections, beatings, and starvation. The first victims of the gas chambers at Auschwitz were Poles and Russian prisoners of war. The Nazi determination to obliterate the Polish intelligentsia resulted in wiping out forty-five percent of Polish physicians and dentists, forty percent of professors, fifty-seven percent of attorneys, thirty percent of technicians, and a majority of leading journalists.

The Germans realized that if their policy of subduing and enslaving Poles had any chance of success, they had to destroy the organization and leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, which historically had fostered the spirit of Polish nationalism and acted as a unifying force during times of political and social turmoil. By annexing the western part of the country and turning the remainder of German-occupied Poland into a penal colony, the General Government, the Germans succeeded in destroying the structure of the Polish church.

The clergy in the annexed lands suffered especially cruel treatment at the hands of the Germans. Arrests, deportations to concentration camps, and executions were common. Only in Poland did the Germans arrest and imprison clergy of episcopal rank Whereas the German objective in the annexed lands was to Germanize the Polish church, the Nazis sought to control, not to obliterate, the church in the General Government. Consequently, the clergy in the General Government did not suffer the same degree of persecution that their confreres did in the annexed lands. Nevertheless, twenty-five percent of the 10,017 diocesan clergy in Poland in 1939 were lost."

Most priests, nuns, and monks behaved with dignity in the face of the German occupation. They played an important role in charitable and humanitarian work on behalf of Poles and Jews and in the Polish resistance movement. As many as two-thirds of the religious communities of nuns in Poland hid Jewish children and adults during the German occupation. The eminent Jewish historian, Szymon Datner, said, "No other sector was so ready to help those persecuted by the Germans, including the Jews ... this attitude, unanimous and general, deserves special recognition and respect."

A major component of German policy toward Poland was the Germanization of land annexed to the Third Reich. The Germans also had an ambitious program of Germanizing a belt of land in the eastern part of the General Government, centered around Zamosc, which they renamed Himmlerstadt. Approximately one million Poles were deported from the annexed lands and transferred either to Germany or to the General Government. The deportations were conducted under appalling conditions. The victims traveled in cattle cars in freezing weather in the winter of 1939-1940 without water and food. In the Zamosc area, the Germans expelled 110,000 Poles to clear the space for German colonists. In the Bialystok region, the Germans deported 40,000 residents. The expulsions, sometimes accompanied by pacification raids, took the lives of hundreds of people. The majority of Poles, fearing they would end up like the Jews in similar deportations, abandoned their property, often setting it on fire, and fled to the forests. Others actively resisted the Germans and died in German reprisal operations.

Consistent with their racist view of the world, the Nazis established an elaborate classification of people considered to have German blood. It contained provisions concerning the rights and duties of people in each classification. Called the Volkliste, or Racial Register, the Germans subjected 2.2 million Poles to some form of denationalization. In Silesia and Pomerania, the 1.8 million residents were automatically Germanized by being placed on the Volkliste.

The Nazis especially focused on Polish children who met their grotesque criteria for Germanization. For all their racist propaganda about the alleged inferiority of the Poles, the Nazis were amazed by the number of Polish children who possessed the Nordic features that they regarded as so desirable. "When we see a blue-eyed child we are surprised that she is speaking Polish,” Hans Frank declared. If we have to bring up this child in a German spirit, she will grow up as a beautiful German girl.” If the Germans continued to Germanize people with "German racial traits,” Frank added, "in the course of time [there is] a possibility to destroy this part of the General Government."

To Nazi fanatics like Frank, this alleged Teutonic blood had to be recovered by kidnapping children from orphanages, hospitals, schools, and homes. They also took Polish youngsters from concentration camps and those who worked as slave laborers in Germany. German leaders had no doubt that Germanization was as important in determining the future of their nation as military victories against the Allies. Himmler summed up the Nazi goal, saying, "What the nations offer in the way of good blood of our type, we will take, if necessary by kidnapping their children and raising them here with us.” Obviously, the denationalization program was part of the ongoing struggle of Germans against Poles. 'It is a mere nothing today to shoot ten Poles, compared to the fact that we might later have to shoot tens of thousands in their place, and compared to the fact that the shooting of these tens of thousands would be carried out even at the cost of German blood” Himmler concluded.

The Germans deported 200,000 Polish children for Germanization. Not all were considered suitable, but some youngsters were so thoroughly Germanized that they did not want to return to their parents or guardians after the war. Only fifteen to twenty percent of the children taken by the Germans were recovered at the end of the war.

The Germans tried to turn Poland into a cultural desert. "The Poles," Frank said, "do not need universities and secondary schools." In the annexed lands, they even closed elementary schools where Polish was the language of instruction. In the General Government, they restricted elementary schools in operation so greatly that the number of children attending them was not much more than fifty percent of what it had been before the war.

The Germans closed universities, pillaged libraries and laboratories, confiscated and destroyed archives, and stripped art collections." They closed scientific, artistic, and literary institutions, often plundering their property and funds. The rich and varied prewar Polish press gave way to a monolithic, propagandistic German one. The assault on Polish culture even extended to the de-Polonization of cities – Gdynia became Gotenhaven, Lodz gave way to Litzmann-stadt, and Rzeszow was renamed Reichshof. The Germanization of Poznan – Posen to the Germans – was more extensive than other Polish cities.

The German plan to destroy Poland meant the total exploitation of its economy. Through a plethora of bureaucratic agencies, they confiscated and administered Polish property. They seized all the property of the Polish state and all private property considered essential to fulfill their goals. The plunder of personal property was so extensive that the Reich Minister of justice worried that the Poles who had lost so much might engage "in further expression[s] of hate and acts of sabotage against the Germans." The consequence of these German policies was the pauperization of the Polish people.

Next to the Jews, the Poles had the lowest food rations of anyone in German-occupied Europe. Malnourishment led to huge increases in infectious diseases. Poles needed the black market to bridge the gap between starvation and survival. Polish smugglers, who also helped many Jews to survive in the ghettos, did their work so well that one Polish wartime leader said, "They deserve a monument to perpetuate their memory." Warsaw had become the largest illegal commercial center of any area under German occupation.

The German occupation of Poland was a reign of terror. The Germans shot Poles not only for resisting or fighting them but also for being out after curfew or selling black market goods. Even children were vulnerable to the death penalty for making anti-German statements or demonstrating what the Germans called a "hostile mentality." For little or no reason, the Germans rounded up Poles and shot them. Poles lived in constant fear of arrest, torture, and death. The German reign of terror continued throughout the Nazi occupation of Poland. Maintaining a large number of SS and police forces in Poland, supported by the Wehrmacht, the Germans routinely executed and deported Poles to concentration camps and to slave labor in Germany. One million Poles were interned in German concentration and other camps during the war. An additional one million, including 300,000 prisoners of war, from the annexed lands and 1,281,000 from the General Government, ended up in Germany as slave laborers."

The Germans applied the principle of collective responsibility in cities and villages. For every German killed by a Pole, 100-400 Poles were shot in retribution. In Lublin, the Germans wiped out the entire village of Jozefow for the death of one German family."

Poland lost six million of its citizens during the war. Half of them were Polish Christians. Most Poles lost their lives at the hands of the Germans. The Soviets, who occupied eastern Poland during the period 1939-1941 and all of Poland in 1945, were responsible for the lives of other Poles, who died in massive deportations, executions, and confinement in the Gulag.

In addition to Polish citizens who died during the war, the Germans brought one million Jews and thousands of non Jews, mostly prisoners of war, to die in occupied Poland. "In all," wrote Professor Tadeusz Piotrowski, "about 2 million people from twenty-nine countries and belonging to fifty different nationalities were also ex-terminated by the Germans on Polish soil. In no other country did so many citizens of so many other nations die at the hands of the Germans.”

In response to German genocidal policies, the Poles developed an extraordinary culture of resistance. Every Pole was to boycott German orders and measures harmful to Poland, to conduct sabotage whenever possible against the Germans, and to obey Polish Underground authorities, who represented the legal government-in-exile. In addition to economic sabotage, which Poles performed in factories, farms, and businesses, civilian resistance also meant the maintenance of the entire fabric of Polish cultural life through under-ground schools, universities, theaters, music, and press.

The military expression of Polish resistance came through the Union for Armed Struggle (Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej), known as the ZWZ, led by the brilliant, charismatic General Stefan Grot-Rowecki. In February 1942, the ZWZ evolved into the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), or AK in 1943, the SS arrested Rowecki and the AK came under the leadership of General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski.

The AK was a large umbrella organization of many military groups that represented all shades of political opinion, except for the extreme left and right. It conducted an array of activities, including providing valuable intelligence to the Allies and carrying out sabotage and diversionary operations. Above all, the AK was to prepare the country for an uprising against the Germans when they reached the point of military collapse.

Interestingly, the greatest contribution of the Poles to the Allied victory over the Germans came before the outbreak of World War II. Under the leadership of the brilliant Polish mathematician, Marian Rejewski, Poland succeeded in achieving what had eluded France and Great Britain – namely, duplicating the German cipher machine, Enigma, which allowed the Poles to read German codes. "Poland did what no other country had done – and what the Germans believed impossible” David Kahn wrote. Before the outbreak of the war, the Poles provided the French and British with Enigma machines, enabling them to solve German cryptograms after Poland's military defeat.

On August 1, 1944, the Home Army launched an uprising in War-saw in order to seize control of the Polish capital until the Soviets, who had successfully thrown back German armies to the environs of the city crossed the Vistula River and entered the Polish citadel. The Home Army, along with its civilian counterparts in the underground, expected to become the de facto political landlords of Warsaw, a fait accompli that the Poles assumed the Soviets would have to recognize when they entered the city.

To their regret, the Poles learned that the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, decided to make a political statement of his own. He ordered his troops to stop their successful advance against the Germans near Warsaw and waited for German forces to destroy the Home Army in a bloody sixty-three day battle. During the uprising, SS units committed some of the worst crimes of the war against Polish civilians in the Wola and Ochota districts of Warsaw, where they engaged in an orgy of killing, plundering, and raping.

When the tragedy in Warsaw finally ended, 200,000 people had been killed. As the Germans systematically subdued one part of the city after another, they removed hundreds of thousands of surviving civilians to Pruszkow, which served as a transit camp. From there, they deported the Poles to other parts of German-occupied Poland, to concentration camps, and to slave labor."

Determined to wipe out Warsaw, Hitler ordered what was left of the city to be razed to the ground. The demolition took three months. When the Soviets finally entered Warsaw on January 17, 1945, they found a skeleton of a city, eerily dusted with snow.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, the Soviets were well on their way to establishing a Communist regime in Poland. By 1947, their absolute control over Poland was complete. Despite the Sovietization of their country, most Polish refugees in the West decided to return home after the war. Approximately forty percent of the Polish intelligentsia in Great Britain went back to Poland to help rebuild their country. However, as late as February 1947, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (iTNRRA) was caring for 335,117 Polish refugees in Allied occupation zones in western Germany. A large number of them refused to return to Poland. Many had originally come from eastern Poland and had bitter memories of the treatment they had received from the Russians. As one contemporary observer pointed out, these Poles "would commit suicide [rather] than return to Poland.”

Despite the pressure exerted by United States authorities in Germany on these Poles to return to Poland, they resisted and eventually found permanent homes, primarily in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Most of the men and women who contributed their memoirs to this anthology were among the thousands of Poles who opted to build new lives in the free and democratic countries of the West. […]