Reflections on the Fate of the Jews in Occupied Poland, 1939–1945 Cover Image

Refleksje na temat losu Żydów w okupowanej Polsce 1939–1945
Reflections on the Fate of the Jews in Occupied Poland, 1939–1945

Author(s): David Silberklang
Subject(s): History
Published by: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej

Summary/Abstract: The article examines the fate of the Jews in Poland in the Soviet and German occupation zones. Nazi and Soviet policies affected all Jews, both as Jews and as part of the general population. But particularly under the Nazis, the Jews suffered a special fate, as reflected in the different, if connected, timetables of World War II and the Holocaust. By the end of 1942 most Polish Jews were already dead; by the time the Allies arrived or the Poles were ready for their national uprising, almost no Jews remained. The salient features of Soviet treatment of the Jews were suspicion and dissolution – suspicion of all political and religious activity; suspicion and dissolution of all private enterprise; dissolution of Jewish educational and communal frameworks. Still, most Polish Jews generally preferred the Soviets – the lesser of two evils – to the Nazis.The salient features of Nazi treatment of the Jews were totality and relentlessness, from the early wanton violence, forced labor, mass expulsions, death marches, and mass murder, to the later more systematic policies. The Jews became increasingly isolated and faced their persecutors alone. Between October 1939 and spring 1941, tens of thousands of Jews were expelled from western Poland to the Generalgouvernement. The Nazi sought not only to Germanize these territories, but also to drive all the Jews out of German territory. The Jews were outside Nazi population policies, meant in the long run to disappear. Economically, Jews were completely impoverished, which in turn affected their health profile. Starvation and disease became rampant in the large ghettos, resulting in mass death well before the “Final Solution” began. When the Nazis embarked on the murder of the Jews, devoting the full force and resources of a powerful, ideologically motivated, modern state to this national project, this was a seek-and-destroy mission that meant to leave no Jew alive. Here, too, the Jews were largely alone. The salient features in the Jews’ responses to the Nazis were helplessness and a sense of living in a hostile environment. They struggled to understand Nazi racial antisemitism. Seeing that following Nazi rules could spell death, the Jews needed to learn to become outlaws in order to hope to survive. Jews generally did not understand the Nazi intentions for them, and even if some did, this realization came only after most of the Jews in a community were already dead. Being a Jew in Poland during the Holocaust meant being constantly hunted, harassed, isolated, and threatened with death, not only from the Germans, but also from neighbors or others from among the local population, even if some local people were willing to lend them a helping hand.

  • Issue Year: 12/2008
  • Issue No: 1
  • Page Range: 113-126
  • Page Count: 14
  • Language: Polish