Seventy-five years since the fateful Warsaw Uprising of 1944 – a précis of the role of Poland and the Poles in World War II (Part Two)
By Mark Wegierski
Poland under German and Soviet occupations
On September 17, 1939, Stalin's armies crossed the eastern frontiers of Poland, preparing to seize that part of Poland guaranteed to them by secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Hitler annexed Polish Pomerania (“the Corridor”), the area around Poznan (Posen), and the part of Silesia belonging to pre-war Poland, directly into the Reich. These areas were to be 100% Germanized. Most of the Poles in those areas who refused to officially renounce their nationality were deported eastward.
The rest of German-occupied Poland was designated the General-Gouvernement, where the Poles were slated to become mindless slave labour for the German “settlers.” Stalin at this time planned to deport all Poles from the areas he had annexed, deep into the Soviet Union – both regimes committing themselves to perpetually maintain the extinction of Poland.
The Polish state, nation, people, and culture were basically ground to near-destruction between the two great totalitarian terror regimes of the 20th century -- Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union.
-- Nazi and Soviet murders of Polish intelligentsia and Poles of all classes began in the first days of the war;
-- there were extensive property confiscations by both Nazis and Soviets;
-- November 1939, the professors and researchers of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow were treacherously seized and sent to German concentration camps, where most of them died from ill-treatment;
-- the first transports to the German concentration camp of Auschwitz in 1940 consisted of Christian Polish intellectuals and national leaders;
-- in the Winter of 1939-1940, close to one million Poles were deported for slave labour from eastern Poland to Siberia, and other ghastly remote regions of the Soviet Union;
-- in April 1940, Stalin ordered the execution of 15,000 Polish military officers and 11,000 other Polish state officials, the cream of Poland's national elite, at the forest of Katyn, and other sites;
-- Nazi Germany imposed slave labour on millions of Poles;
-- there were thousands of “Lidice’s” in Poland -- Polish villages whose population was
-- the Poles had one of the largest and best organized underground resistance movements in Nazi-occupied Europe, and no local Quisling government or military formations aiding the Germans;
-- the very mention of Poland or display of its state and national symbols was strictly forbidden by the Germans -- Nazi Germany aimed at the extirpation of Polish national culture -- the Polish intelligentsia and clergy were hunted down and sent to the concentration camps -- entire libraries, archives, and art-collections were burned or plundered -- Polish national monuments in cities and towns were systematically destroyed – even thousands of roadside religious shrines in the countryside were demolished;
-- over five million Poles (one-fifth of the pre-war Polish population of about 25 million) perished as a result of the Second World War -- close to nine million citizens of the pre-war Polish state (from a total population of about 35 million citizens) perished, including five million Poles, and nearly three million Jews who were citizens of pre-war Poland
Stalin’s change of policy
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, a significant change in Stalin's policy toward the Poles perforce occurred. He allowed tens of thousands of surviving Poles, from the close to one million he had ordered deported to Siberia, and other ghastly remote regions of the Soviet Union, to slowly make their way southward to join the Polish Second Corps forming in the Near East. He also eventually allowed Poles to volunteer for military units to be formed in the Soviet Union, the so-called Kosciuszko Division (named after the American Revolutionary War and Polish Insurrectionary hero, Tadeusz Kosciuszko). Their most notable action was probably their breakthrough at the Pommernstellung (Pomeranian Wall) fortifications in early 1945, quickly opening the path to the Baltic Coast.
The Holocaust of European Jewry
The German occupation in Poland, as in most of the conquered lands to the east of the Reich, was thoroughly savage and brutal – far different from the occupations of Western and Northern European countries, where the Germans acted in a comparatively restrained fashion. It must be remembered that all efforts to save Jews occurred in a context where the Christian Poles themselves were being subjected to a thoroughgoing and systematic genocide. Most Christian Poles were living on the edge of extermination or starvation, and the German occupation forces would enforce the death-penalty (often on entire families, and often by burning alive), for the slightest aid given to fleeing Jews. One could be killed for as little as giving a glass of water to a Jewish person.
Of the six million Jews who perished, nearly three million had been citizens of pre-war Poland. In pre-war Poland, although there certainly were frictions, actual violence was very rare. The notion put forward in the widely known book by William Styron, Sophie’s Choice (which was also turned into a highly prominent film), that a professor of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow would be calling for the extermination of the Jews, is totally false. Even the most fringe Right parties in Poland never approached the degree of hatred and revilement against Jews seen across a very broad stratum of society in Germany already in the early 1930s. The pre-war Polish government, which could be seen as a “centrist authoritarianism”, actually jailed prominent Polish Far Right leaders, trying to dampen down ethnic tensions as far as possible.
As the war reached its apogee on the Eastern Front, the Nazi leadership accelerated its program of extermination against the Jews. More Jews were shipped from other parts of the Nazi empire to German-occupied Poland (especially the so-called General-Gouvernement), where the largest death camp, Auschwitz, was located.
The reports of the Polish underground about the slaughter, being carried to Western Allies at this time, for example, by Jan Karski, were largely ignored and disbelieved.
To be continued.
(Partially based on an article co-authored with Apolonja Kojder that appeared in Polish American Journal, August 2004.)
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.