A Brief Summary of the History of the Holocaust in Poland  

From the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, the Nazis unleashed a wave of persecution and violence specifically directed against Polish Jewry. (Their initial conquest of the Western half of Poland gave them control over 2,100,000 Jews, whereas the area of Poland occupied by the Soviets had 1.2 million Jews.) Shortly after the invasion, the Germans began forced expulsions of Jews from the areas slated to be incorporated into the Third Reich to the areas designated as the General Government. They also began establishing Jewish councils to carry out German directives regarding the Jewish population.

Once the General Government, headed by Hans Frank, was established on November 25, 1939, it introduced compulsory forced labor for Jews and obligated all Jews above age ten to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David. The Jews’ freedom of movement was also severely restricted. The Judenrats (Jewish councils) were forced to assume responsibility for housing, employment, and sanitation in the ghettoes which were established by the Nazis, as well as to create a local Jewish police force. From the very outset the Nazis sought to humiliate the Jews, isolate them from the rest of the population, systematically rob them of their possessions, and exploit them as a source of cheap labor. This was primarily achieved by ghettoization which began in some cities as early as late 1939.

The ghettoes were an important step in the Nazis anti-Jewish policies which steadily escalated, and in effect served as interim prisons until the launching of the Final Solution. The conditions in the ghettoes depended on a variety of local factors, but the most populated ghettoes – such as Warsaw (500,000 inhabitants) and Lodz (165,000) – had the worst conditions. Mass starvation, epidemics, horrific sanitary conditions, and mass unemployment resulted in thousands of deaths per month even before the Nazis began to systematically mass murder Polish Jewry. Thus, for example, the mortality rate in the Warsaw Ghetto was 90 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants in 1941 and 140 in 1942.

The Nazis’ attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 signaled the beginning of the implementation of the Final Solution in Poland. Accompanying the Wehermacht as it moved into the area of eastern Poland were the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), which began the systematic mass murder of the Jews. Shortly thereafter, on December 7, 1941, the Nazis put into operation the first death camp, in which mass gassings of inmates took place, at Chelmno, northwest of Lodz. By May 1942, a total of 55,000 Jews in 66 transports were deported to the camp, where they were immediately murdered in gas vans.

In the fall of 1941, the Nazis began preparations to launch what they later called “Operation Reinhardt,” their plan to annihilate all of Polish Jewry. In order to carry out the mass murders, three additional death camps were built: Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. Belzec was the first to begin operation, on March 17, 1942, and it was the camp to which the Jews of Galicia were deported to be murdered. By November 10, 1942, over 250,000 Jews had already been sent there. In the first half of 1942, the Jews of the Lublin district were deported to Sobibor, whereas the Jews of the districts of Warsaw, Radom and Bialystok were deported mostly to Treblinka. The largest deportations in Poland took place in the Warsaw Ghetto from July 22, until mid-September 1942 and encompassed 300,000 Jews who were sent mostly to Treblinka, where they were gassed upon arrival. Nazi SS and police personnel together with Ukrainian and Latvian security police, and with the assistance of Jewish ghetto police, carried out these actions. Invariably, these operations were presented as steps to resettle the Jews outside the ghettoes, an attempt to delude them as to the Nazis’ true intentions.

Initially, some of the Jews whose work was considered productive or essential to the German war effort or economy were spared deportation to the death camps. These postponements, however, usually proved to be only temporary, although such considerations did apparently delay the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto, for example, until the late summer of 1944.

The liquidation of the ghettos in Poland continued throughout 1943 and by early 1944, all their inmates had been deported, mostly to the six death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. Some of those fit for work who were deported to Auschwitz and Majdanek, which were also labor camps, were sent to do forced labor, whereas the others were gassed shortly after their arrival. Some Jews were initially deported to labor camps, but in early November 1943, all the labor camps in the Lublin district were liquidated and the others followed shortly thereafter. In fact, the mass murders were only halted in November 1944, when the Germans’ desperate military situation prompted SS-chief Henrich Himmler to attempt to use the surviving Jews as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with the Western allies for a separate peace treaty, and Himmler therefore ordered the stopping of the mass murder of Jews at Birkenau.

In all, approximately three million Polish Jews were murdered during the Holocaust