Victims of the
During World War II Poland suffered greatly under five years of German occupation. Nazi ideology viewed "Poles"- the predominantly Roman Catholic ethnic majority- as "sub-humans" occupying lands vital to Germany. As part of the policy to destroy the Polish resistance, the Germans killed many of the nation's political, religious, and intellectual leaders. They also kidnapped children judged racially suitable for adoption by Germans and confined Poles in dozens of prisons and concentration and forced labor camps, where many perished.
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Auschwitz mug shot of Czeslawa Kwaka, who was born August 15, 1928. She arrived at Auschwitz on December 13, 1942, and died there March 12, 1943.
Mug shot of Jan Oglodek, an architect, who arrived at Auschwitz on April 5, 1941. He was one of 151 inmates shot in the first mass execution at Block 11, on the Polish national holiday, November 11, 1941.
Mug shot of Eugenia Smolenka, who was born October 2, 1886. She entered Auschwitz on November 27, 1942, and died there March 8, 1943.
THE INVASION AND OCCUPATION OF POLAND
View a map of German-occupied Poland, 1942
A Polish priest, Father Piotr Sosnowski, before his execution by German Security Police, near the city of Tuchola, October 27, 1939.
Institute of National Memory
Polish women being led to a German execution site in the Palmiry forest, near Warsaw late 1939.
Institute of National Memory
At a December 14, 1942, meeting with Nazi Party leaders in the General Government, Governor General Hans Frank bluntly presented "extermination" of the Poles as a policy option in conflict with the growing demand for Polish labor.
Expulsion of Poles from their village in territory annexed by Germany.
Institute of National Memory
One eyewitness of the kidnapping of children at Zamosc later recalled "I saw children being taken from their mothers; some were even torn from the breast. It was a terrible sight: the agony of the mothers and fathers, the beating by the Germans, and the crying of the children."
Institute of National Memory
Some children ultimately rejected for Germanization were interned in the Dzieyzazn children's camp, where the mortality rate was very high.
Institute of National Memory
A young Polish Catholic who emigrated to the United States after the war, Wallace Witkowski, describes the harsh conditions in wartime Poland. He served as a courier for the Polish resistance.
Music from the Museum's Aleksander Kulisiewicz Collection. A Polish poet and musician, Kulisiewicz himself wrote many songs during his imprisonment in Sachsenhausen from 1939 to 1945.
German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Polish troops fought valiantly in the face of vastly better equipped forces, with fierce
engagements around Warsaw. Exhausted of food and water, the besieged
capital surrendered on September 27, and fighting by regular Polish
army units ended in early October.
Hitler's pretext for military expansion eastward was the "need"
for more Lebensraum, "living space," for the German nation.
On the eve of the invasion he reportedly stated in a meeting of high
I have issued the command and I'll have anybody who utters but one
word of criticism executed by firing squad-that our war aim does not
consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of
the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readinessfor
the present only in the East with orders to send to death mercilessly
and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation
and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space that we need.
In 1939 Germany directly annexed bordering western
and northern Poland, disputed lands where many ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche)
resided. In contrast, the more extensive central and southern areas
were formed into a separate "General Government," which was
ruled by German civil administrator Hans Frank. Cracow became the capital
of the General Government, as the Germans planned to turn the Polish
capital of Warsaw into a backwater town. After Germany invaded the Soviet
Union in 1941, Germany also seized eastern Poland. (This territory had
been invaded and occupied by the Soviets in September 1939, in accordance
with the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 1939 that divided
Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union.)
One aspect of German policy in conquered Poland aimed
to prevent its ethnically diverse population from uniting against Germany.
"We need to divide [Poland's many different ethnic groups] up into
as many parts and splinter groups as possible," wrote Heinrich
Himmler, head of the SS, in a top-secret -memorandum, "The Treatment
of Racial Aliens in the East," dated May 25, 1940. According to
the 1931 census by language, 69% of the population totaling 35 million
inhabitants spoke Polish as their mother tongue. (Most of them were
Roman Catholics.) Fifteen per cent were Ukrainians, 8.5% Jews, 4.7%
Belorussians, and 2.2% Germans. Nearly three-fourths of the population
were peasants or agricultural laborers, and another fifth, industrial
workers. Poland had a small middle and upper class of well-educated
professionals, entrepreneurs, and landowners.
In contrast to Nazi genocidal policy that targeted all of Poland's 3.3
million Jewish men, women, and children for destruction, Nazi plans
for the Polish Catholic majority focused on the murder or suppression
of political, religious, and intellectual leaders. This policy had two
aims: first, to prevent Polish elites from organizing resistance or
from ever regrouping into a governing class; second, to exploit Poland's
leaderless, less educated majority of peasants and workers as unskilled
laborers in agriculture and industry.
TERROR AGAINST THE INTELLIGENTSIA AND CLERGY
During the 1939 German invasion of Poland, special action squads of
SS and police (the Einsatzgruppen) were deployed in the rear, arresting
or killing those civilians caught resisting the Germans or considered
capable of doing so as determined by their position and social status.
Tens of thousands of wealthy landowners, clergymen, and members of the
intelligentsiagovernment officials, teachers, doctors, dentists,
officers, journalists, and others (both Poles and Jews)were either
murdered in mass executions or sent to prisons and concentration camps.
German army units and "self-defense" forces composed of Volksdeutsche
also participated in executions of civilians. In many instances, these
executions were reprisal actions that held entire communities collectively
responsible for the killing of Germans.
During the summer of 1940, the SS rounded up members of the intelligentsia
in the General Government. In this so-called A-B Aktion (Extraordinary
Pacification Operation), several thousand university professors, teachers,
priests, and others were shot. The mass murders occurred outside Warsaw,
in the Kampinos forest near Palmiry, and inside the city at the Pawiak
As part of wider efforts to destroy Polish culture, the Germans closed
or destroyed universities, schools, museums, libraries, and scientific
laboratories. They demolished hundreds of monuments to national heroes.
To prevent the birth of a new generation of educated Poles, German officials
decreed that Polish children's schooling end after a few years of elementary
education. "The sole goal of this schooling is to teach them simple
arithmetic, nothing above the number 500; writing one's name; and the
doctrine that it is divine law to obey the Germans. . . . I do not think
that reading is desirable," Himmler wrote in his May 1940 memorandum.
In the annexed lands, the Nazis' goal was complete "Germanization"
to assimilate the territories politically, culturally, socially, and
economically into the German Reich. They applied this policy most rigorously
in western incorporated territoriesthe so-called Wartheland. There,
the Germans closed even elementary schools where Polish was the language
of instruction. They renamed streets and cities so that Lodz became
Litzmannstadt, for example. They also seized tens of thousands of Polish
enterprises, from large industrial firms to small shops, without payment
to the owners. Signs posted in public places warned: "Entrance
is forbidden to Poles, Jews, and dogs."
The Roman Catholic Church was suppressed throughout Poland because
historically it had led Polish nationalist forces fighting for Poland's
independence from outside domination. The Germans treated the Church
most harshly in the annexed regions, as they systematically closed churches
there; most priests were either killed, imprisoned, or deported to the
General Government. The Germans also closed seminaries and convents,
persecuting monks and nuns. Between 1939 and 1945 an estimated 3,000
members of the Polish clergy were killed; of these, 1,992 died in concentration
camps, 787 of them at Dachau.
EXPULSIONS AND THE KIDNAPPING OF CHILDREN
The Germanization of the annexed lands also included an ambitious program to resettle Germans from the Baltic and other regions on farms and other
homes formerly occupied by Poles and Jews. Beginning in October 1939,
the SS began to expel Poles and Jews from the Wartheland and the Danzig
corridor and transport them to the General Government. By the end of
1940, the SS had expelled 325,000 people without warning and plundered
their property and belongings. Many elderly people and children died
en route or in makeshift transit camps such as those in the towns of
Potulice, Smukal, and Torun. In 1941, the Germans expelled 45,000 more
people, but they scaled backed the program after the invasion of the
Soviet Union in late June 1941. Trains used for resettlement were more
urgently needed to transport soldiers and supplies to the front.
In late 1942 and in 1943, the SS also carried out massive expulsions
in the General Government, uprooting 110,000 Poles from 300 villages
in the Zamosc-Lublin region. Families were torn apart as able-bodied
teens and adults were taken for forced labor and elderly, young, and
disabled persons were moved to other localities. Tens of thousands were
also imprisoned in Auschwitz or Majdanek concentration camps.
During the Zamosc expulsions the Germans seized many children from their parents
to be racially screened for possible adoption by German parents in the
SS Lebensborn ("Fount of Life") program. As many as 4,454
children chosen for Germanization were given German names, forbidden
to speak Polish, and reeducated in SS or other Nazi institutions, where
many died of hunger or disease. Few ever saw their parents again. Many
more children were rejected as unsuitable for Germanization after failing
to measure up to racial scientists' criteria for establishing "Aryan"
ancestry; they were sent to children's homes or killed, some of them
at Auschwitz of phenol injections. An estimated total of 50,000 children
were kidnapped in Poland, the majority taken from orphanages and foster
homes in the annexed lands. Infants born to Polish women deported to
Germany as farm and factory laborers were also usually taken from the
mothers and subjected to Germanization. (If an examination of the father
and mother suggested that a "racially valuable" child might
not result from the union, abortion was compulsory.)
The Zamosc expulsions spurred intense resistance as the Poles began to fear they were to suffer the same fate as the Jewssystematic
deportation to extermination camps. Attacks on ethnic German settlers
by members of the Polish resistance, whose ranks were filled with terrorized
peasants, in turn provoked mass executions or other forms of German
Throughout the occupation, the Germans applied a ruthless retaliation
policy in an attempt to destroy resistance. As the Polish resistance
grew bolder in 1943 after the German defeat at Stalingrad, German reprisal
efforts escalated. The Germans destroyed dozens of villages, killing
men, women, and children. Public executions by hanging or shooting in
Warsaw and other cities occurred daily. During the war the Germans destroyed
at least 300 villages in Poland.
FORCED LABOR AND TERROR OF THE CAMPS
Between 1939 and 1945 at least 1.5 million Polish citizens were transported to the Reich for labor, most of them against their will. Many were teenaged
boys and girls. Although Germany also used forced laborers from western
Europe, Poles, along with other eastern Europeans viewed as inferior,
were subject to especially harsh discriminatory measures. They were
forced to wear identifying purple P's sewn to their clothing, subjected
to a curfew, and banned from public transportation. While the actual
treatment accorded factory workers or farm hands often varied depending
on the individual employer, Polish laborers as a rule were compelled
to work longer hours for lower wages than western Europeans, and in
many cities they lived in segregated barracks behind barbed wire. Social
relations with Germans outside work were forbidden, and sexual relations
with them were considered "racial defilement" punishable by
death. During the war hundreds of Polish men were executed for their
relations with German women.
Poles were prisoners in nearly every camp in the extensive camp system in German-occupied Poland and the Reich. A major camp complex at Stutthof,
east of Danzig, existed from September 2, 1939, to war's end, and
an estimated 20,000 Poles died there as a result of executions, hard
labor, and harsh conditions. Auschwitz
(Oswiecim) became the main concentration camp for Poles after the arrival
there on June 14, 1940, of 728 men transported from an overcrowded prison
at Tarnow. By March 1941, 10,900 prisoners were registered at the camp,
most of them Poles. In September 1941, 200 ill prisoners, most of them
Poles, along with 650 Soviet prisoners of war, were killed in the first
gassing experiments at Auschwitz. Beginning in 1942, Auschwitz's prisoner
population became much more diverse, as Jews and other "enemies
of the state" from all over German-occupied Europe were deported
to the camp.
The Polish scholar Franciszek Piper, the chief historian of Auschwitz,
estimates that 140,000 to 150,000 Poles were brought to that camp between
1940 and 1945, and that 70,000 to 75,000 died there as victims of executions,
of cruel medical experiments, and of starvation and disease. Some 100,000
Poles were deported to Majdanek, and tens of thousands of them died
there. An estimated 20,000 Poles died at Sachsenhausen, 20,000 at Gross-Rosen,
30,000 at Mauthausen, 17,000 at Neuengamme, 10,000 at Dachau, and 17,000
at Ravensbrueck. In addition, victims in the tens of thousands were
executed or died in the thousands of other camps-including special children's
camps such as Lodz and its subcamp, Dzierzaznand in prisons and other
places of detention within and outside Poland.
In response to the German occupation, Poles organized one of the largest underground movements in Europe with more than 300 widely supported
political and military groups and subgroups. Despite military defeat,
the Polish government itself never surrendered. In 1940 a Polish government-in-exile
became based in London. Resistance groups inside Poland set up underground
courts for trying collaborators and others and clandestine schools in
response to the Germans' closing of many educational institutions. The
universities of Warsaw, Cracow, and Lvov all operated clandestinely.
Officers of the regular Polish army headed an underground armed force,
the "Home Army" (Armia KrajowaAK). After preliminary
organizational activities, including the training of fighters and hoarding
of weapons, the AK activated partisan units in many parts of Poland
in 1943. A Communist underground, the "People's Guard" (Gwardia
Ludowa), also formed in 1942, but its military strength and influence
were comparatively weak.
With the approach of the Soviet army imminent, the AK launched
an uprising in Warsaw against the German army on August 1, 1944. After
63 days of bitter fighting, the Germans quashed the insurrection. The
Soviet army provided little assistance to the Poles. Nearly 250,000 Poles,
most of them civilians, lost their lives. The Germans deported hundreds
of thousands of men, women, and children to concentration camps. Many
others were transported to the Reich for forced labor. Acting on Hitler's
orders, German forces reduced the city to rubble, greatly extending the
destruction begun during their suppression of the earlier armed uprising
by Jewish fighters resisting deportation from the Warsaw ghetto in April 1943.
The Nazi terror was, in scholar Norman Davies's words, "much fiercer and more protracted in Poland than anywhere in Europe." Reliable
statistics for the total number of Poles who died as a result of Nazi
German policies do not exist. Many others were victims of the 1939-1941
Soviet occupation of eastern Poland and of deportations to Central Asia
and Siberia. Records are incomplete, and the Soviet control of Poland
for 50 years after the war impeded independent scholarship.
The changing borders and ethnic composition of Poland as well as vast
population movements during and after the war also complicated the task of calculating losses.
In the past, many estimates of losses were based on a Polish report
of 1947 requesting reparations from the Germans; this often cited document
tallied population losses of 6 million for all Polish "nationals"
(Poles, Jews, and other minorities). Subtracting 3 million Polish Jewish
victims, the report claimed 3 million non-Jewish victims of the Nazi
terror, including civilian and military casualties of war.
Documentation remains fragmentary, but today scholars of independent Poland
believe that 1.8 to 1.9 million Polish civilians (non-Jews) were victims
of German Occupation policies and the war. This approximate total includes
Poles killed in executions or who died in prisons, forced labor, and concentration
camps. It also includes an estimated 225,000 civilian victims of the 1944
Warsaw uprising, more than 50,000 civilians who died during the 1939 invasion
and siege of Warsaw, and a relatively small but unknown number of civilians
killed during the Allies' military campaign of 194445 to liberate