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Poland Paid the Ultimate Price in World War II

On 1 September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany. This began World War II, the largest military conflict in the history of mankind. Poland suffered the most: it is estimated that during the war, 6 million people – about 22 per cent of the Polish population, died or were forced to relocate, or were deported. The brutal occupation of Poland by Germany caused irreversible damage, which is still felt and seen today.

Taken by surprise, and without the military support of her allies, Poland stood no chance against the overwhelming power of the invaders, notwithstanding the heroic struggle put up by the Polish army and civilians. On 17 September 1939, Poland was attacked from the east by the Soviet Union, which fulfilled the provisions of the clandestine Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The two totalitarian regimes, Germany and the Soviet Union, obliterated the sovereign Polish state.

The Invasion of Poland 1939. Civilian victims of an air raid

After the invasion, the Polish government refused to sign the act of capitulation to the Germans, which resulted in extremely brutal repressions, including mass executions of the civilian population. Throughout World War II, Poland remained an active member of the Allied Forces and was Europe’s only government that refused any form of collaboration with the Germans.

The German invaders instituted a reign of terror in Poland and instituted policies that were designed to deprive the Poles of their national identity. The German administrative measures served two major goals: to complete the Germanisation process and benefit the Third Reich. Hans Frank, the Governor General of German-occupied part of Poland, said: I received a command to ruthlessly pillage the invaded Eastern territories; my goal is to ruin them economically, socially, culturally and politically.

The German plan was to eradicate Polish identity in any shape or form by pillaging and destroying the cultural heritage and putting a stop to the political and social life of the Polish nation. Any form of resistance against the German authorities would end in bloodshed. The presence of the German administration was felt almost everywhere. Street and city names were changed to German, and the largest squares were renamed to celebrate Adolf Hitler. The Gothic font, which was the Nazis’ favourite, was used to emphasise their rule.

The action that targeted the Polish elite was one of the main measures to force Germanisation in the territories incorporated into the Third Reich. The Intelligenzaktion was designed to exterminate the opinion-formers in Polish society. About 100,000 citizens, who were particularly vital to Poland’s infrastructure (including teachers, scientists, clergy, doctors, lawyers and former soldiers) were murdered in mass executions, or deported to German concentration camps, where only a few managed to survive. Children were exposed to the Germanisation process. It is estimated that throughout World War II, about150,000 young Polish citizens were displaced from Poland to Germany.

Each and every Pole feared for his or her life and the lives of their nearest and dearest. Poland’s German invaders thought nothing of the international humanitarian law. They administered the most severe repressions for the slightest offence often for no reason other than to induce fear in people and force them into total submission.


The Polish Underground State: Unprecedented Resistance against Germany

The resistance movement against Germany operated in a number of European countries throughout World War II. However, the Polish Underground State was undoubtedly the largest resistance movement in the whole of Europe.

In contrast to France or Belgium, no legitimate Polish authorities would collaborate with their German invaders. The Poles created the overseas-governed underground state in the areas invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union. The government structure was divided into ten or so departments that were very much like pre-war ministries. Several hundred thousand Poles risked their lives in the service of their underground state.

Home Army

The military structures were the first to emerge. In September 1939, an underground military organisation was set up. Reporting directly to the Polish government-in-exile, it gave rise to what is now known as the Home Army. This was the largest military organisation in German-occupied Poland, and at its height, counted about 380,000 members. It also boasted extended field structuresoutside Warsaw. The Home Army carried out numerous sabotage and intelligence actions, and they also provided aid to the Jewish resistance fighters during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The organisation’s main goal was to create a regular army that would be able to seize the country’s independence.

Military and civilian jurisprudence was also present during German occupation. The underground Polish courts held clandestine sessions in which they dealt death sentences to those who performed activities detrimental to the Polish nation, and those who for their own benefit denounced and turned in the Jews to the Germans. There was zero tolerance for collaborating with the Germans. The Poles who did collaborate were treated as traitors.

The underground judicial system passed hundreds of death sentences on German officials and their collaborators. Justice was served, even on Franz Kutschera, the SS and Police Leader in the Warsaw District of the General Government. The German criminal was sentenced to death by the Polish judicial system for launching a reign of terror against the civilian population that included mass executions and numerous round-ups in the streets of Warsaw. The sentence was carried out by a Home Army unit.

General Stefan Rowecki, pseudonym Grot (“Arrowhead”)Draconian punishments were meted out for any form of resistance against the German authorities. Service to the Underground Polish State was punishable by death or deportation to a concentration camp. One of the persons affected was General Stefan Rowecki, pseudonym Grot (“Arrowhead”), the most prominent figure of the Polish Underground State and the Home Army’s founder.  Soon after his capture by the Gestapo in July 1943 he was transferred to Sachsenhausen. He was tortured and repeatedly encouraged to form an alliance between the Home Army and Germany against the Soviet Union, and later, to stop the Warsaw Uprising. The General remained adamant and was eventually executed.

Many civilians arrested for underground activity also died in the German camps. The underground education system provided tuition to over one million Polish people throughout the war. Nine thousand teachers and over 600 academic lecturers paid the ultimate price for their activities. The Roman Catholic Church in Poland also suffered repressions. Father Maksymilian Kolbe was only one of thousands of Polish priests who lost their lives in the German concentration camps.



Hell on Earth: German Death and Concentration Camps

There has never been such a thing as “Polish” death and concentration camps. The places where millions of innocent people were tortured and murdered ruthlessly were established by Germany. The Germans created a network of extermination camps with a design to annihilate various ethnicities. Jewish, Sinti and Roma people were condemned to death due to their national extraction. Used as slave labour, Polish people died in labour and concentration camps.

The history of the atrocities began in the 1930s during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, when the Germans created a network of penal institutions for the “enemies of the Third Reich”. The first concentration camp was set up in Dachau, a town near Munich, Bavaria. Initially, the site was used to incarcerate political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s witnesses. The inmates, who were made to perform gruelling labour, were murdered on a regular basis. Over time, the camp was filled with prisoners from all over German-occupied Europe. Dachau was used as a model for several equally atrocious extermination sites set up throughout Germany. Following the invasion of Poland in 1939, similar sites were also established in occupied Polish territories.

On Friday, 14 June 1940, 728 Polish political prisoners entered the gates of KZ Auschwitz. The German guards immediately shattered their hopes of survival. Karl Fritzsch, Deputy Commandant of KZ Auschwitz, would greet the newly arrived prisoners with these words: “This is not a health resort but a German concentration camp, and the only way out for you is through the chimney stacks of our crematoria. If you don’t like it here, you can always try our electric fences. The Jews in the transport will survive for no longer than two weeks, the priests for a month, the rest for three months”. The date marks the launch of KZ Auschwitz, which was a veritable hell on earth.

KZ Auschwitz was established only 10 months after the beginning of World War II and was specifically designed to annihilate the Polish nation. In the first years of its operation, Polish people accounted for the largest proportion of the prisoners deported to the camp. The criminal machine was gradually extended.

On 1 March 1942, the second section of the camp, which is otherwise known as KZ Auschwitz II-Birkenau, was set up in the demolished village of Brzezinka. KZ Auschwitz II-Birkenau became the largest German extermination site in the history of the Holocaust. Designed to serve the German holding IG Farbenindustrie, KZ Auschwitz III-Monowitz was established in the same year. KZ Auschwitz comprised a total of 48 different satellite camps, where prisoners were forced into gruelling labour in the service of the German economy.

Unbearable hunger and work beyond human strength, together with violence, torture and pseudo-medical experiments, were a daily reality in KZ Auschwitz. For the Germans, the prisoners at the camp were mere numbers – worthless digits, devoid of any human value or dignity. Therefore, prison doctors tortured them unscrupulously. A fine example of one such torture was what is now called “X-ray sterilisation” where men had their testicles and women their ovaries, irradiated. The process resulted in severe burns and purulent lesions, which were difficult to heal. Many such cases resulted in death.

The SS officers and guards working in the camp derived particular pleasure from administering inhumane punishments to the prisoners, who were already exhausted from malnutrition and gruelling labour. The punishments included public flogging with a wooden stick, incarceration of several people for up to twenty nights in a cramped room that was just one square metre in size and with very little air. The prisoners had to stand all night, and also continue to work without flagging throughout the day.

A particularly severe punishment was administered at the “post”: a prisoner with their hands tied at the back, would be hung, feet from the ground, from a hook for several hours on end. This form of torture invariably ended in ruptured arm tendons, which meant the prisoner, unable to use their hands to work, was doomed to be sent to the gas chambers.

Extermination by gassing was not the only way the German personnel murdered their prisoners. They were also executed by firing squad, public hanging, or starvation. Around 1.1 million people died in KZ Auschwitz at the hands of the Germans: people of 20 different ethnicities, of different denominations and beliefs, scholars and factory workers, men, women, children, and the elderly.

These barbarous activities were perpetrated not only in KZ Auschwitz, but also in  many other concentration camps throughout German-occupied Poland. In 1940, KZ Gross-Rosen was set up, where 40,000 people were murdered by 1945. In 1941, KZ Lublin was established, which goes by the name of Majdanek. About 80,000 people died in that camp. Other German concentration camps in Poland include KZ Płaszów (about 7,000–8,000 victims), KZ Stutthof (about 63,000 victims) and KZ Warschau (about 20,000 victims). The camps were staffed by the SS.

German extermination camps in Poland constitute a whole different category. They were created with a design to totally annihilate the Jewish population of Europe. Roma people and Soviet POWs were also murdered in the camps. Extermination camps began to operate in 1941 in locations such as Chełmno on the Ner, and in 1942 in Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau and KZ Lublin are in turn considered to be both concentration and death camps.

Masses of people were murdered in extermination camps over a specific period of time. In Chełmno on the Ner, the victims were pushed into the lorries and suffocated with exhaust fumes. These mobile gas chambers were used by the Germans to exterminate from 200,000 to 300,000 Jewish people from Germany, Austria, France, Belgium and the Netherlands as well as Polish people from nursing homes in Łódź and Włocławek or Polish children from the vicinity of Zamość. Most of the 450,000 of Bełżec victims and the 170,000–180,000 of Sobibór victims were Jewish. Treblinka, where ca. 800,000 people died, was also designed to institute the “final solution”. The German administration began the process of liquidating the camps in December 1942. The last camps remained until January 1945. The Germans tried to cover up the traces of their barbarous activity. They destroyed the gas chambers, demolished the barracks, and had the camp areas thoroughly ploughed and planted with grass.

Apart from the death and concentration camps, the German administration also created hundreds of other camps in Poland. Forced labour camps accounted for the largest proportion in the group. Their inmates worked as road builders and farmers. They were also forced to build fortifications. The camps were notorious for their high fatality rate caused by hunger, gruelling labour, terror and terrible living conditions. Forced labour camps for Polish people were in operation until 1945.

Photos by courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum

Witold Pilecki: A Volunteer KZ Auschwitz Prisoner Bears Witness to the German Atrocities

Not only were we hit with rifle butts in the head, but also our ideals and values that guided us in life were brutally trampled upon, said Witold Pilecki in his eye-witness account of the arrival at the camp in Auschwitz. Pilecki is one of the greatest heroes in Poland’s history. He volunteered to become a KZ Auschwitz prisoner in order to organise a resistance unit in the camp and pass on reliable information on the fate of its prisoners.

In 1940, the Underground Polish State had only fragmentary intelligence on KZ Auschwitz. A decision was made for the dramatic rumours to be confirmed with eye-witness accounts. The lethally dangerous mission was taken up by Witold Pilecki, a cavalryman and a veteran of the Polish-Soviet War (1919–1921) and the September Campaign of 1939.

On 19 September 1940, he deliberately provoked his capture by the Germans in Warsaw. He entered the notorious gate with the “Arbeit macht frei” inscription on the night of 21 September 1940. The first few days were completely overwhelming. It was as if I had been transported to another planet, said Pilecki on witnessing the unimaginable ruthlessness of the German camp guards.

Tattooed with the number 4859, the new inmate immediately began his clandestine operation. He established an underground resistance unit called the Secret Military Organisation. People under Pilecki’s command encouraged mutual aid and fostered morale among the prisoners; they also provided intelligence to the outside world and prepared their own military units to organise an uprising and seize the camp. The inside knowledge of what was happening in KZ Auschwitz was passed on by Pilecki to the Home Army in the reports dispatched by the inmates Pilecki helped to flee the camp. He escaped KZ Auschwitz after two years of the ordeal.

After leaving the camp, Pilecki wrote a number of reports on what was happening behind the fences and on the activity of his underground organisation. Promoted to the rank of cavalry captain, he continued his struggle against the German invaders as a Home Army soldier and participated in the Warsaw Uprising (1944). Following Warsaw’s capitulation, he was transferred to Lamsdorf and Murnau POW camps. When World War II ended, Pilecki returned to Poland to continue his struggle against the Soviet invaders. He was arrested by the communists on 8 May 1947. After a ruthless investigation that involved brutal torture, he was put on a show trial and was sentenced to death. He was executed on 25 May 1948 with a shot to the back of his head.

The intelligence Pilecki collected in KZ Auschwitz is known to be one of the first eye–witness accounts of the German atrocities. It was used by the legitimate Polish authorities to raise the alarm and to inform the Allied Forces about the tragic situation of the prisoners and the unprecedented genocide occurring in the camps. The Allies were never to react.


Maksymilian Kolbe: He Saved a Human Being and Human Dignity in KZ Auschwitz

Father Maksymilian Kolbe

The starvation bunker

Franciszek Gajowniczek
Franciszek Gajowniczek, a prisoner saved by Father Kolbe

It is July 29 1941. The wailing of the alarm distracts the KZ Auschwitz prisoners away from their gruelling labour. The Germans assemble a special roll-call to count all the prisoners. They have discovered that one of the inmates in Block 14A is missing. The rules in the camp are clear: one missing prisoner means that another ten must die.

The prisoners from Block 14A will have to stand in a line for the rest of the day and through the night. In the morning Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch stands in front of the frozen crowd. He glares at the prisoners, points at various individuals and says in German, “Du!” (“You!”). He chooses ten men whose fate will be to die from starvation. One of them is Franciszek Gajowniczek, a September Campaign veteran and an active member of the Polish resistance movement. My entire body went stiff, and as my fellow inmates later told me, I groaned terribly. I knew I would never see my wife or children again, he reminisced. Franciszek Gajowniczek survived the war, though he was detained in German concentration camps until the very end of the conflict (in October 1944 he was transferred to KZ Sachsenhausen).

As the ten prisoners prepare to leave the roll-call area, something unexpected happens. Father Maksymilian Kolbe, a Polish inmate and a Franciscan, pushes his way through the ranks. He comes up to Fritsch, even though in KZ Auschwitz the very act of leaving the line is punishable by death.

What does this Polish pig want? the furious SS man asks his assistant.

I want to die for him, replies Kolbe, pointing at Gajowniczek.

Who are you?

I’m a Polish Catholic priest.

Why do you want to die for him, sir? enquires the SS man, with marked politeness, unheard of in a German concentration camp.

He’s got a wife and children.

As you wish.

Ten men head towards the starvation bunker. Kolbe walks at the end of the procession and helps another condemned man, who is barely able to walk. Naked, the prisoners are thrown into a small cell, where they are fated to die from cold and hunger. After about ten days the Germans come and open the bunker to take away their bodies. It turns out that Father Kolbe is still alive. On the 14 August 1941, the Polish monk is murdered by the German guard Hans Bock with an injection of carbolic acid. The next day his corpse is transferred to the crematorium.

The Polish priest had the courage to show how powerful the love for another human being can be, even in a place as inhumane as KZ Auschwitz. In 1971, Pope Paul VI beatified the monk, and in 1982, Pope John Paul II canonised him as a martyr. The martyrdom of Maksymilian Kolbe became the symbol of victory – the victory over the whole system of contempt and hatred for humanity the Pope said.

Photos by courtesy of the Niepokalanów Monastery

Polish Heroes: Righteous in the face of Atrocity

In German-occupied Poland, an inhumane law was put in place by the Germans. Entire Polish families would be executed in punishment for the slightest form of support rendered to the Jewish population. Despite the risk of death, thousands of Poles saved their Jewish neighbours from extermination.

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The Ulma Family: Symbol of Polish Heroism in the Face of German Brutalities

They were a happy loving Polish family. He worked hard to provide for them. She took care of the hearth and home and raised the children. With their unique bravery in the face of German brutalities, the Ulma family became the symbol of heroism in times of adversity. They epitomise all those Polish people who saved their Jewish neighbours.

The Ulma family lived in the village of Markowa in south-eastern Poland. Józef, despite having only an education of only four years in primary school and a farming course, was a veritable jack of all trades. He tried his hand at a tannery, at bee-keeping, at silkworm farming, and as a fruit-tree grower. He also earned a living as a documentary photographer and volunteered his services in a library. Wiktoria devoted all her time to raising six small children. They lived a modest but happy life. They took a life-threatening risk to save two Jewish families (eight people in total) in mid-1942. They were perfectly aware that if the Germans found out, they would face a firing squad as was stipulated by the brutal and inhumane law of German-occupied Poland.

It was a cold spring morning on 24 March 1944. The Ulma family home was approached by four horse-drawn carts carrying a squad of eight German soldiers and Blue-Police officers (a Police formation consisting of pre-war Polish police officers, who were conscripted by the German administration). Blue-Police officers stayed outside. The Germans were ruthless. They barged in and murdered three people in their sleep. As soon as they had killed all the Jews, they led Józef and Wiktoria, who was in the last weeks of her pregnancy, to the front of their house, and unscrupulously killed them while their children stood and watched. They had no mercy for the children, either. Eight-year-old Stanisław, six-year-old Barbara, five-year-old Władysław, four-year-old Franciszek, three-year-old Antoni and eighteen-month-old Maria soon joined their parents. Look and see how the Polish pigs die, Joseph Kokott was reported to have shouted.

What made the Ulma family risk their own lives to save others? Base motives, such as monetary gain, can easily be excluded, since a lot of savings were found with the murdered Jewish families. In all likelihood, the Ulma family did this from compassion for their neighbours. Józef Ulma was known to have taken a selfless risk to aid another Jewish family. He assisted them in building a dugout in the nearby forest and regularly brought them food supplies. Although the Germans found the shelter and killed four people, they were not able to find their helper.

The Bible discovered in their home seems to suggest what values guided the Ulma family in their lives. Two important passages were marked in their copy. The first to be highlighted was the “Commandment of Love” and the parable of “The Good Samaritan”. The second was on the passage defining Christian duties: “For if you love only those who love you, what reward have you earned?” (Matthew 5:46, Weymouth New Testatment).

In 1995, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were posthumously awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”. In 2010, they were decorated with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta by President Lech Kaczyński. Their beatification procedure is under way in the Vatican. In March 2016, the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in the Podkarpacie Region was established.

Photos by courtesy the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jewish People During World War II in Markowa.

Why the Phrase “Polish Death Camps” is Harmful to Poland and Polish People

The phrase “Polish death camps” has a xenophobic undercurrent and defames Poland, the country worst affected by the barbarous policies of Germany. The term suggests that Polish people were responsible for the crimes committed in German concentration camps.

What was the truth? The Polish state was never involved in establishing the camp network, never administered it and never derived any benefits from it. Throughout World War II, Poland refused to collaborate with Germany and was always in the Allied Forces coalition.

It is Germany and not Poland that administered the areas in which the concentration camps were established. Set up by the Germans in occupied Poland, the camps were operated by the SS, a military formation that would never have admitted any Poles to their ranks. The fact that memorials to German concentration camps are located in today’s Poland does not justify those who, unwittingly or not, use phrases such as “Polish concentration camps”.

AuschwitzAuschwitz-Birkenau, which remains the symbol of German atrocities, was set up with the intent  to exterminate Polish citizens. Right from the outset, the legitimate Polish authorities gave the alarm to the public worldwide about the tragedy happening in the camps. The heroic mission of the Polish cavalryman, Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to become an Auschwitz prisoner, provoked little to no reaction from the Allies.

Many Polish people showed exceptional valour in the face of the mass extermination industry created by the SS in the network of German concentration camps. They stood up to the evil and paid the ultimate price. One such heroic martyr was Saint Maksymilian Kolbe, a monk who died in terrible circumstances when he gave up his life to save a fellow inmate.

Those who suggest that Poland was complicit in the German mass extermination program by using the term “Polish death camps” commit a hate crime against the Poles. Survivors of the German concentration camps are particularly affected by this phenomenon. The victims of German pseudo-medical experiments and the Polish resistance fighters who risked their lives to fight the German invaders and who were incarcerated in these camps as a result of their bravery, still live in Poland. Concentration camp survivors went through a veritable hell on earth. Despite their age or ill health, they still bear witness to these tragic events. The duty of each and every one of us is to pass on their testimony.

Photo by Andrzej Banaś
Photo by Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum

The Polish state was never involved in establishing the camp network, never administered it and never derived any benefits from it. Throughout World War II, Poland refused to collaborate with Germany and was always in the Allied Forces coalition.