[* Asterisks denote author’s own experiences]
I am ambivalent about re-memorating again and again the horrors of WWII. The events are now three generations old. I do not want to revive old hatreds. I want to look forward and not backward. On the other hand, we must remember that Hitler attempted to justify his own genocidal plans by referring to how quickly the world forgot of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1907 and 1915. Commemorating the Holocaust ought to warn the new generations that such horror should not be allowed to happen again.
The Holocaust of non-Jews in Poland is almost unknown in the west. There are no university courses on this subject, no dedicated museums, no monuments and very few publications in English. It is for instance, well known, that Hitler forced Jews to wear the Star of David called by the Nazi’s, “Schandzeichen” (“sign of infamy”). It is, however, mostly unknown that all the close to three million Polish forced laborers deported to Germany had also to wear a “sign of infamy”: a rhomboid of yellow fabric framed in purple with a purple “P” in the center. In the Nazi mythology the color yellow signified treachery, and purple indicated sexual deviation. The Poles who had to wear that sign were not inmates of German concentration camps; they were forced laborers, deportees to Germany as workers, who lived and worked among the Germans but were not allowed any social contact with them: not only any socialization but also the use of street benches, visiting of parks, cinemas or restaurants. Sexual relationship between Poles and Germans was called “ Rassenschande” (racial infamy), and was punishable by death for the Polish partner.
Hitler’s plans for extermination of Poles were first stated in his 1927 book Mein Kampf. He called for Germans to give up their attempt to regain their former colonies (lost after WWI) and to revert instead to their ancient “Drang nach Osten” (Push Eastwards) so as to conquer new territories for German expansion (“Lebensraum”) in Poland. Twelve years later, in a speech to the leaders of German armed forces on August 22, 1939 Hitler ordered: “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women or children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space (Lebensraum) we need. The destruction of Poland is our primary task. The aim is… annihilation of living forces.”
Already in May 1939, four months before the outbreak of war, the German political police, “Gestapo”, created the unit “Zentralstelle IIP Polen” (Central Unit IIP-Poland) under Reinhardt Heydrich to coordinate the ethnic cleansing of all Poles. Two years later at the infamous Wansee Conference, the same Reinhardt Heydrich coordinated the Final Solution for killing of all the Jews. The code name of the ethnic cleansing of Poles was “Tannenberg,” after the German name of a village where in early 15th century a Polish king defeated and repulsed the medieval German “Push Eastward.” Apparently, 600 years later, the remembrance rankled in the minds of some Germans.
At first, and still prior to the outbreak of WWII, 2,000 Poles living in Germany were sent to concentration camps, never to return. The Zentralstelle prepared a special list of 61,000 Polish leaders “Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen” (Special Prosecution Book-Poland) prior to the September 1, 1939 German attack on Poland. Within the first few months of the war, all the Poles on the Zentralstelle list were killed outright or sent to concentration camps to die. They included the nobility, priests, university professors, teachers, doctors, lawyers and other community leaders, and even a prominent sportsman who won the gold medal in his category at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. In the first days of September 1939, in order to terrorize the population, an additional 20,000 randomly captured non-Jewish Poles were killed in the Polish fields and streets, in 310 mass murder actions, including in my own hometown.* Stacks of bodies, mostly women and children, were heaped at the very large square in front of the Cathedral Church. At the same time, in September 1939, about 50,000 civilians were killed by the indiscriminate air bombing during the siege of Warsaw, choosing clearly marked hospitals as the first targets.* There I received my first WWII injury. Ninety-five percent of the city’s buildings was destroyed or damaged. The city looked so horrible that tears run down the face of my father, a veteran of four years in WWI, as he came out of the cellar following the first major aerial bombing. Many more such bombings were to follow.
In May 1940, by a special order of SS Chief, Heinrich Himmler, a “contingent of 20,000 young Poles” was captured and sent to concentration camps. From November 1939 to May 1940 a series of “Intelligenzaktionen” i.e., killing of Polish “intelligentia”, the leadership of the nation, was carried out throughout conquered Poland. No complete figures are available, yet only in one territory, “Intelligenzaktion Pommern” (Northwest Poland) in Autumn 1939, 23,000 Poles were killed. Altogether, in the “Universe Concentrationaire” of occupied Europe there were 9,000 concentration camps of various types, 2,000 of them in Poland. (This in addition to about 300 ghettos and killing camps for Jews.)
The infamous Auschwitz Camp was established in late 1939 specifically for Poles who were the initial prisoners. In 1942, a new sub-camp, Birkenau, was built as a killing camp and used first for killing of Poles and Soviet war prisoners and then for the “Final Solution” killing of Jews, Gypsies and other “sub-humans.” The incarceration and killing of Poles in Auschwitz continued in parallel to the murder of the Jews, and there is scarcely an educated Polish family which did not lose one or more members there.* In 1943, I escaped while being transported, presumably to Auschwitz. In addition to the numerous newly built concentration camps special prisons were used to incarcerate and kill Poles, like the infamous Pawiak* in Warsaw, where only 3 percent of the 100 thousand prisoners survived. I spent there several months before escaping.
I can only list approximate numbers of the victims of the Polish Holocaust because the information on the murders of Poles is difficult to obtain. The Soviet and Polish communist rulers of Poland until 1989, had their own reasons not to disclose the extent of the killings. An example is the Konzentration Lager Warschau (KLW, Concentration Camp Warsaw), in which it is estimated that the Germans killed more than 200,000 random Warsovians.* I was imprisoned there in winter 1943-1944 and severely injured during the interrogations. Most prisoners were random Poles caught in street hunts in Warsaw and elsewhere. Every few days the very large room in which I was imprisoned was emptied of most prisoners, leaving only a few which were, like I, under investigation and mostly suffering from injuries inflicted during the interrogations. The room would then fill again within a few days with fresh captives only to be emptied in the evening. Only in 2002, did I learn that the prisoners were periodically executed in the gas chambers and crematoria of the KLW. Records show that immediately after the flight of Germans in 1945, the large area of the camp and its surrounds; the sewers and manholes were found filled with ashes and ground human bones. Almost immediately, in 1945, however, NKWD took over the camp and continued to use it with its gas chambers and crematoria to kill Poles opposed the Soviet takeover. In 2002, the present Polish authorities halted the investigation of the Camp’s history by the Polish judge, Maria Trzcinska. She has been investigating KLW since 1973, most recently for the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. Many members of the current Polish government, however, are former communist “nomenklatura,” who may wish their past NKWD connections not to be known. Judge Trzcinska published independently the results of her investigation. The publication caused uproar in Poland. This is an example of the difficulties that exist, even today, to ascertain the truth of the Polish Holocaust.
The killing by the Germans continued until their withdrawal from Polish territory in 1945. It is calculated that about 400 Poles were killed each day. To compare with the German occupation of the Western countries, in France a village of Oradour-sur-Glane was destroyed by SS in 1944. The men were separated from the women and children and shot in barns; 400 women and children were locked in a church and burned alive. The village was also burned. This is the only recorded instance of such a massacre in France. In Poland, however, hundreds of villages and their inhabitants were destroyed and killed by the same method.
Then, in August 1944, in Warsaw, the Polish Underground Home Army (AK) rose against the German occupants and fought for 63 days during which the Germans killed more than 200,000 unarmed civilians. Subsequently, systematic burning and dynamiting of the remaining ruins destroyed entire Warsaw. The 600 thousand inhabitants remaining after the capitulation of the Home Army were sent to concentration and labor camps.
Manhunts in towns and villages during the entire German occupation resulted in 2,800,000 Poles taken from their homes, captured on the streets, in churches or in the fields, and sent to Germany as forced laborers. Many of them did not return. Poles were defined racially as “Untermenschen” (subhuman), yet about 200,000 Polish children, blond and with blue eyes, were forcibly taken from their parents to be Germanized by the organization “Lebensborn” (born again). Only 15% of the children returned to Poland after the war.
Various publications estimate that more than three million non-Jewish Poles were killed under various circumstances. One of them, which is little known, is the killing of Poles who hid or helped their compatriots of Jewish origins. Not only the “perpetrator” but also his entire family (“Sippenhaft” – family liability), as well as neighbors, often entire villages, were killed and burned to the ground for as much as offering some food to the starving Jews. Historical studies estimate that there were one-half to a million Poles involved in helping the Jews but it is not known how many paid for it with their lives.
Killing and deportation were also carried out by the Russians. Stalin never forgave the Poles that during the Polish-Bolshevik war in 1920, which the Poles won, he barely escaped with his life. In the 1930’s, he ordered all Polish adults in the “Polish Autonomous Territories” in the Soviet Western Ukraine and Belarus (several hundred thousand) to be killed or sent to Gulags. In November 1944, I was in Zhitomir, Ukraine, a town inhabited before the war by Jews and Poles. By the time I arrived there, all the Jews had been killed by the Germans in 1941. The remaining population consisted of ethnic Polish people over 60, and their grandchildren. It was quite strange. No middle-aged people could be seen on the streets.
On September 17, 1939, the Russians, collaborating with the Germans, attacked Poland from the east, and occupied half of its territories. The Russian deportations and killings started almost immediately. In 1940, there was a meeting in the Polish town Zakopane between the Gestapo and the NKWD to coordinate the killing and the deportation policy of the then allied Germany and Soviet Russia. All together, it is estimated the Russians deported to the Gulags or killed 1,700,000 Poles before the Germans attacked Russia on June 22, 1941. As the Germans attacked Russia, the fleeing NKWD had no time to evacuate the Polish political prisoners: thousands of them were killed in cold blood, tortured, crucified on prison doors, and left to die. A special case is the murder, in 1940, of 20,000 Polish officers taken prisoner by the Russians and killed individually by a bullet in the neck at Katyn and two other localities. They were mostly reserve officers, the professional elite of the country, whom Stalin eradicated in one full swoop. I lost there a beloved uncle, a physician.* The Russians occupied Poland again starting in 1945 and the NKWD then deported large number of Poles to their Gulags. Others were killed on Polish territories. The deportation lasted until 1957 and still today, numbers cannot be ascertained.