Jewish Poland

The history of the Jews in Poland dates back over a millennium. For centuries, Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world. Poland was the centre of Jewish culture thanks to a long period of statutory religious tolerance and social autonomy. This ended with the Partitions of Poland which began in 1772, in particular, with the discrimination and persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire. During World War II there was a nearly complete genocidal destruction of the Polish Jewish community by Nazi Germany, during the 1939–1945 German occupation of Poland and the ensuing Holocaust. Since the fall of Communism there has been a Jewish revival in Poland, characterized by the annual Jewish Culture Festival, new study programmes at Polish high schools and universities, the work of synagogues such as the Nozyk, and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 through to the early years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe. Known as paradisus Iudaeorum (Latin for “Paradise for the Jews”), it became a shelter for persecuted and expelled European Jewish communities and the home to the world’s largest Jewish community of the time. According to some sources, about three-quarters of all Jews lived in Poland by the middle of the 16th century. With the weakening of the Commonwealth and growing religious strife (due to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation), Poland’s traditional tolerance began to wane from the 17th century onward. After the partitions of Poland in 1795 and the destruction of Poland as a sovereign state, Polish Jews were subject to the laws of the partitioning powers, the increasingly antisemitic Russian Empire, as well as Austro-Hungary and Kingdom of Prussia (later a part of the German Empire). Still, as Poland regained independence in the aftermath of World War I, it was the center of the European Jewish world with one of world’s largest Jewish communities of over 3 million. Antisemitism, however, from both the political establishment and from the general population, common throughout Europe, was a growing problem.

At the start of World War II, Poland was partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The war resulted in the death of one-fifth of the Polish population, with 90% or about 3 million of Polish Jewry killed along with approximately 3 million Polish non-Jews. Examples of Polish gentile attitudes to German atrocities varied widely, from actively risking death in order to save Jewish lives, and passive refusal to inform on them; to indifference, blackmail, and in extreme cases, participation in pogroms such as the Jedwabne pogrom. Grouped by nationality, Poles represent the largest number of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

In the postwar period, many of the approximately 200,000 Jewish survivors registered at Central Committee of Polish Jews or CKŻP (of whom 136,000 arrived from the Soviet Union) left the Communist People’s Republic of Poland for the nascent State of Israel and North or South America. Their departure was hastened by the destruction of Jewish institutions, post-war violence and the hostility of the Communist Party to both religion and private enterprise, but also because in 1946–1947 Poland was the only Eastern Bloc country to allow free Jewish aliyah to Israel without visas or exit permits. Britain demanded Poland to halt the exodus, but their pressure was largely unsuccessful. Most of the remaining Jews left Poland in late 1968 as the result of the Soviet-sponsored “anti-Zionist” campaign. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, the situation of Polish Jews became normalized and those who were Polish citizens before World War II were allowed to renew Polish citizenship. Religious institutions were revived, largely through the activities of Jewish foundations from the United States. The contemporary Polish Jewish community is estimated to have approximately 20,000 members, though the actual number of Jews, including those who are not actively connected to Judaism or Jewish culture, may be several times larger.

Oskar Schindler

“I just couldn’t stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had to do, what my conscience told me I must do…”

~ Oskar Schindler, Righteous Among the Nations.

Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist and a member of the Nazi Party who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and munitions factories near Krakow. These Jews were registered on what came to be known as “Schindler’s List”.

Thousands of descendants of “Schindler’s Jews” are alive today thanks to his brave actions.

Oskar Schindler died on the 9th of October 1974 in Germany, and is buried in Jerusalem. Before his death, a tree was planted in his and Emilie’s honor in Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous. He is pictured standing next to his tree on Yad Vashem’s campus.

Oskar and Emilie Schindler are among the 27,000+ heroic non-Jews recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Sources: Yad Vashem

Nazi Camp Hierarchy

SS

Theodor Eicke, an SS Lieutenant General, had established a structure for how to run a camp from his experience of running Dachau. The systems and buildings Eicke had developed at Dachau soon became the basic model by which all concentration camps would be established and managed.

The camps were split into five sections:

  1. Commandants office This office oversaw the whole camp.
  2. Political department This department was responsible for registration of prisoners, interrogations, the camp prison and crematoria.
  3. Protective custody camp This section oversaw the prisoners complex. It was ruled by the infamous SS Death’s Head Units.
  4. Administrative department This department was responsible for all administration for the camp, such as the maintenance of the camps own equipment and facilities.
  5. Medical department This department was run by the camp physician, and provided medical care for the SS and prisoners – though the quality of this care varied greatly between the two.

In the protective custody camp, prisoners were also used as staff in the form of Kapos.

Kapos

Kapos were inmates of Nazi camps who were appointed as guards to oversee other prisoners in various tasks.

There were three main types of Kapos: work supervisors, block elders, and camp administrators.

  1. Work supervisors oversaw prisoners at work, and were responsible for ensuring efficiency, making sure that no one escaped, and reporting delays.
  2. Block elders supervised the barracks. Typically, there was one block elder per block, and they ensured all prisoners kept the barracks clean, made their beds, and got to roll call on time. They were also responsible for counting the prisoners (accounting for any that had died or were ill), and handing out food.
  3. Camp administrators undertook various other jobs, such as supervising work in the kitchen, in the storeroom, or working as secretaries/interpreters.

Kapos had more authority than regular prisoners and were typically given preferential treatment, such as extra rations, not having to complete hard physical labour or more hygienic and larger sleeping spaces.

Whilst there were incentives to becoming a Kapo, there were also disadvantages. Kapos were under the direct authority of the SS, and had to report to them daily. Any failures meant they could quickly be removed from their post. In addition to this, their authority, especially in regards to punishing or informing on other fellow prisoners meant that they were often unpopular and disliked.

Auschwitz Sonderkommando Revolt

7 October 1944 | Jewish prisoners who were forced to work in the Sonderkommando at the German Nazi Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp organized a revolt – the biggest and most spectacular mutiny and escape attempt in the history of Auschwitz.

Prisoners set crematorium IV on fire, causing serious damage, and attacked the SS men in the vicinity. A group of prisoners from crematorium II (approximately 80) cut through the barbed wire fences enclosing of the crematorium as well as the adjacent women’s camp and fled in a southerly direction. SS units gave chase and caught up with them some 1.5 km from the crematorium.

Around 250 Jewish prisoners were killed during the revolt, including resistance leaders and organizers of the revolt, including Załmen Gradowski and Józef Deresiński. The SS lost three men killed and more than ten wounded.

Later, as the result of repressions, another 200 Sonderkommando prisoners were killed. The female prisoners who were employed in the Union factory and who had supplied the explosives, were publicly hanged in early January 1945.

Warsaw Ghetto

On September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. By September 8th they had reached the suburbs of Warsaw and began a siege. That siege continued until September 28th, 1939 when the Warsaw surrendered. The Nazis entered Warsaw on October 1st

After approximately a year of German occupation, during which time the Jews of Warsaw suffered through a reign of terror, arrests, Nazi-sanctioned beatings at the hands of Polish street gangs, kidnappings forced labor, theft and confiscation of property, and a long list of anti-Jewish decrees and laws, the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed off in November 1940.

In April 1940, the Judenrat was ordered to construct walls to prevent the movement of Jews into “Aryan” neighborhoods. After a few SS attempts to establish a Ghetto in the city, a decision was reached in the fall of that year, to confine the Jews in a Ghetto. On Yom Kippur, October 12th, 1940, the decision to establish a Ghetto was announced. According to German data, 113,000 Poles were removed from the area marked for the Ghetto, and 138,000 Jews, from all over the city, were transferred to the site.

On November 16th, the Ghetto in the Jewish neighborhood in the northern part of the city was sealed off. Thirty percent of the population of the city was squeezed into an area the size of 2.4% of the total city land mass. German statistics report six to seven people per room. In an area comprising 73 city streets, 450,000 people lived during the period of greatest population concentration in the Ghetto. Some of the residents had been transported from other parts of Poland, and later, people arrived from the Reich territories. With the move to the Ghetto, many lost their livelihoods. Survival depended on finding some way to make a living inside the Ghetto. About 9,000 Jews who worked in the “platzovki” [placowki – crews accompanied by guards] went out to the “Aryan” side to work.

In 1941, living conditions in the Ghetto became even more unbearable. Official German food allocations were set at 184 calories a day per person and the Judenrat, (the Jewish Council), under Adam Czerniakow, failed to meet both the needs of the Jews and the demands of the Germans. An intricate system of smuggling arose in the Ghetto. Organized Jewish underworld criminal gangs, working hand in hand with Poles, smuggled food and raw materials for underground industries into the Ghetto and also smuggled finished goods out to the “Aryan” side. At the same time, independent smugglers, mainly women and children, managed to bring in food for their starving families. The Germans used all the means at their disposal to combat the smuggling activity especially because smuggling entailed leaving the Ghetto and necessitated contact between Jews and Poles, who, despite their “racial inferiority” (in the opinion of the Germans), still belonged to the “Aryan” race. Starting in November 1941, Jews caught outside of the Ghetto were executed. As part of the campaign against smuggling, the Germans decreed that buildings found to be used by smugglers would no longer be part of the Ghetto. Fences, later replaced by walls, were erected even in the middle of streets.

In the winter of 1941, the situation became even more desperate as typhus epidemics caused many deaths. Until the summer of 1942, there was no systematic German policy regarding the murder of Jews. In essence, the German program was an assault on human dignity, aimed at humiliating and debasing the Jews. In light of this, the help people gave each other, and the struggle to maintain humane relationships in the Ghetto was remarkable. Public figures and Jewish businessmen representing the entire range of political affiliations joined together to form the Jewish Mutual Aid Society and in addition to welfare projects, they founded soup kitchens, developed a network of Building Committees, organized cultural affairs, and strove desperately to alleviate the hunger of thousands of starving children in the Ghetto. These activities and the determination of many to lead Jewish lives reflect the struggle to preserve basic human values, while fighting for survival.

On July 22, 1942, the Great Deportation began in the Ghetto. [Aktzia Action; the term used for the deportation to the death camps]. In the four escalating stages of the deportation approximately 265,000 Jews were sent to the death camp at Treblinka. About 50,000 received “life numbers” – official permission to live and work in order to support the German military effort. Another 10,000 “wild” Jews (without this German permit) managed to survive the Great Deportation. These survivors were concentrated in an area known as the Main Ghetto, around the German factories in which they worked.

On January 18,1943, the Germans initiated the second stage of the deportation, designed to dilute the Jewish population in the remaining Ghetto area. This provoked the first Jewish armed insurgence against the Nazis, carried out by members of the Jewish Fighting Organization. On April 19th 1943, Passover Seder night, the final deportation began and served as the spark that ignited the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In the Ghetto’s last months, 20,000 Jews found shelter on the Polish side of the city. Many were assisted by members of the Polish Underground movement, who formed the Council to Aid the Jews, known under its code name Zegota, The few thousand Jews who did not perish in the flames that devoured the Ghetto, or were not murdered during the German attempts to crush the Uprising, were sent to the Majdanek concentration camp, or to various other work camps.

As a symbol of the suppression of the Uprising and the German victory over the insurgent Jews, the SS General Jurgen Stroop ordered the destruction of the Great Synagogue on Tlomacka St. on May 16th 1943, and in his report he wrote, “the Warsaw Ghetto is no more”.

Zyklon B

2 October 1942 | The Auschwitz camp administration issued an order of departure for a 5-tons truck with a trailer to Dessau for “materials for Jewish resettlement”. In Dessau there was a factory that produced Zyklon B, a pesticide used to kill people in gas chambers.

The decision to use Zyklon B to murder people in Auschwitz was first linked with the deportations of Soviet POWs to the camp. This method of killing was later used in the program of extermination of Jews.

Sobibór Extermination Camp

Sobibór extermination camp was built in a marshy forest area by 80 Jewish forced laborers who were murdered immediately following the completion of their work. During the construction process, the German’s put into practice lessons learned in Bełżec. The infrastructure of the murder facilities was improved, particularly the sealing of the gas chamber doors. Transporting Jews to the facility was better organized, based on meticulous planning for the regional population. It was also decided to create a permanent core of Jewish prisoners as “skilled” staff, in order to make camp maintenance and the extermination process more efficient.

The camp at Sobibór occupied an area of 400 600 meters. Here, some 250,000 Jews were killed. The camp at Sobibór was in operation for 18 months — much longer than its two sister camps Bełżec (which operated for eight months) and Treblinka (which operated for 13 months). The extermination camps in the Lublin District were initially intended to exterminate Polish Jewry alone, while the more sophisticated gas chambers at Birkenau, which began operating in the late summer of 1942, were meant primarily for the extermination of Jews from the other countries of Europe.

Beginning in the early spring of 1943, in accordance with regional planning, dozens of long trains moved back and forth across Poland, picking up human cargo, transporting it to the death camps, and making additional runs. The camp at Bełżec was closed after it completed its task of murdering the Jews of the Lublin District and Galicia. Treblinka began operating as the extermination camp for the Warsaw ghetto, which had a Jewish population that outnumbered that of most of the occupied countries. When the number of transports dwindled toward mid-summer 1943, it appeared increasingly possible that the camp would soon be closed.

At Sobibór, located at the heart of the regional network of forced labor camps, labor selections for the various camps took place regularly, in contrast to Bełżec and Treblinka. For this reason, and despite its relatively long period of operation, far fewer people were murdered at Sobibór than at the two other camps. On July 5, 1943, after Bełżec had already been closed and when Treblinka was about to be closed, Himmler ordered the conversion of Sobibór into a concentration camp. Prisoners in the camp, who were of course unaware of this changed function, feared that the construction of the new wing, the mining of the area (aimed at defending the future concentration camp from partisan attacks), and the less frequent transports reflected an intention on the part of the Germans to close the camp and murder the hundreds of Jews it still held.

Evidence of this fear can be found in the notes in the clothes of the final 300 prisoners who arrived from Bełżec and were murdered at Sobibór in the early summer of 1943, after the camp was dismantled. The moment the sealed car doors were opened in Sobibór, the prisoners sprang from the cars and ran in all directions. All of them were shot and killed before they were able to leave the ramp. The notes found in their clothing reveal that they had made a firm decision not to enter the gas chambers.

This is the general background for the crystallization of a Jewish underground in Sobibór. Prisoners tried to escape throughout its entire period of operation, and some attempts were successful. However, most escapees were caught, and in reprisal the Germans carried out public executions of dozens of Jewish prisoners. In this context, the Jewish underground resolved to organize a rebellion during which all the prisoners would escape, making it impossible to inflict collective punishment on prisoners who remained in the camp.

Most of the plans considered were rejected by the underground due to their lack of military expertise. But in September 1943, the transports of Jews from Vilna, Lida, and Minsk included Jewish prisoners of war from the Red Army who supplied the underground with the operational knowledge they lacked. Eventually, the underground produced a daring plan for an uprising that would involve killing the SS soldiers, securing weapons, and breaching the camp fence in battle in an area that was not mined, to enable all the prisoners to escape. Although the plan encountered serious difficulties as a result of unanticipated developments, the uprising was carried out, resulting in the death of 11 SS soldiers and a few Ukrainians. Some 600 camp prisoners began to escape, but approximately half were killed in the minefields or by German fire. Some of the prisoners did not even try to escape, in some cases due to physical exhaustion and in other cases — mostly non-Poles — because they were unfamiliar with the surrounding area and did not know the language.

Prisoners who worked in the camp’s extermination area did not participate in the uprising because the other Jews in the camp had no way of contacting them, and they knew nothing about the plan. Despite the problems encountered, approximately 300 prisoners succeeded in reaching the woods, though most were subsequently killed during the chase. The few who survived were killed after the war in pogroms that took place in Poland. Of all the prisoners of Sobibór, only 50 survived. After the uprising, it was decided to close the camp. The last Jews to work dismantling the camp — particularly those who worked in the extermination area and covering the traces of the extermination process — were shot when their work was completed.

By July 1944, the Germans were using the facilities in the proximity of the ramp and huts that remained standing as a construction services camp. Between 1945 and 1947, the ramp served as a major railway junction for the transport of Poles from the east in preparation for their resettlement in western Poland, and the transport of Ukrainians from Poland for “resettlement” in the Ukraine. At times, large masses of displaced persons had to stay at Sobibór for a few days, and the camp’s remaining huts provided them with wood to burn for heating and cooking. The forester’s watchtower and the kommandant’s building were eventually returned to their rightful owners. The train station in Sobibór operated regularly until 1999.

80th Anniversary of the Murder of the Jews at Babi Yar

Marking 80 years to the Murder of the Jews at Babi Yar:

On 29-30 September 1941, approximately 33,771 Jewish men, women and children from Kiev and the surrounding areas were murdered at Babi Yar by Einsatzgruppe soldiers (mobile killing units) with the assistance of local collaborators. Jews who managed to escape the massacre in September but were discovered in the ensuing months, were also brought to Babi Yar and murdered.

Yad Vashem (Israel Holocaust Museum & Memorial) has 80 photos and stories of the Jews murdered at Babi Yar and now an online special exhibit on their website.

The photos were submitted to Yad Vashem together with Pages of Testimony containing the names and brief biographical information of the victims. Each Page is a mute testament to the persecution of an entire Jewish community: Rabbis, teachers and pupils, traders and artisans, philosophers and scientists- and in many cases entire families.

In this moving exhibit we can see the faces and explore the stories of 80 of the Jewish men, women and children who were murdered 80 years ago at a ravine called Babi Yar.

Sources: Yad Vashem

Treblinka Extermination Camp

Treblinka was one of the three death camps that were part of “Operation Reinhard”. It was built as the place of execution for the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and its surroundings. It was located near Malkinia, about 80 kilometers north-east of Warsaw. Malkinia was a station on the main Warsaw-Bialystok railroad line in a densely populated area and hidden among deep woods. Jewish and Polish prisoners worked in a punishment camp called Treblinka 1 built as early as 1941. When the extermination camp was built in 1942, the railroad line was extended into it.

“Operation Reinhard” was the code name for “the final solution to the Jewish question” (the extermination of all the Jews) in the areas in Poland under the jurisdiction of the General Gouvernment in the Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka camps. Several months after work began, the name was suggested in memory of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD (The Security Police of the SS) and one of the architects of the “final solution to the Jewish question”, who was shot to death by Czech Underground fighters in May of 1942.

The camp was built in the shape of a polygon, 400 x 600 meters. It had a double barbed wire fence. The inner fence was entwined with branches designed to hide the camp and what was happening there. There were 8 meter high guard towers in each corner and all along the fences.

The living quarters, which included those of the staff (Germans and Ukrainians), offices, the infirmary, storage buildings and workshops. A separate fenced-in area housed the Jewish prisoners’ barracks, sewing shops, a shoemaker and a carpentry shop.

The reception area included the train platform and tracks for shipments, two huts in a fenced-in area where the victims were ordered to undress, and two buildings where the victims’ possessions were kept and sorted. The extermination area was small, only 200 x 250 meters, with a white building which held three gas chambers. There was a diesel motor housed in a building nearby. The victims were executed by carbon monoxide gas that was forced into the chambers through a pipe connected to the roof and into regular shower heads, in order to sustain the illusion of a real shower. One hundred and fifty yards away to the east, were large pits for burying the victims. Between the “reception area” and the “extermination area” there was a narrow path surrounded by wire and intertwined with branches, called “the Pipe,” or “The Way to Heaven”, used by the staff and prisoners (“Himmelfahrtstrasse”). The naked victims were led along here from the undressing huts into the gas chambers.

There were 20-30 SS guards in positions of command and organization and about 90-120 Ukrainians. These were Soviet prisoners of war who volunteered to serve the Germans. They acted as guards and assisted in operating the gas chambers. The 700-1,000 Jewish prisoners did all the work in the camp. They were divided into work groups or “Kommandos”. The uniforms of each Kommando unit had a stripe of a designated color which distinguished them from one another. The exterminations began on July 23, 1942 and continued until April 1943.

From the spring of 1943 only a few transports arrived and then began the burning of the bodies that had been buried in mass graves. Hundreds tried to escape from the trains, most of whom were murdered by the guards. In the early years, before stringent guarding arrangements were established, a few Jews managed to escape from the camp. From time to time there were incidents of Jewish uprisings and from early 1943, an underground existed comprised of prisoners from all parts of the camp.

Uprising:

There was an uprising on August 2,1943, when the last of the bodies had been burned and the camp destroyed, indicating that soon the remaining prisoners would be executed. During the uprising most of the camp burned. The remaining prisoners were ordered to take the buildings and fences apart and try to erase signs of the crimes committed there. When the work was done, everyone was shot. The camp was plowed over, and trees were planted. A farm was established and Ukrainians settled there. About 70 of those who managed to escape from the camp during the uprising survived until the end of the war. 800,000 people were murdered at Treblinka; 2000 of them were Gypsies and most of the rest were Jews. The Jews came from Warsaw, Bialystok, Grodno, Radom, Czenstochowa and even Lublin. Jews from Theresienstadt were also executed there. As the Red Army approached, even the farm that had been established on the camp site was plowed over.

Memorial:

In 1964 the Polish authorities established a stone memorial site, built on the camp ground. A stone pathway leads up to a stone gate on the spot where it is believed that the entrance to the camp stood. The story of the camp is told in several languages on stone plaques. A series of flat stones indicate the railway line that led into the camp and stone pillars mark the camp boundaries. A stone monument at the left of the path which leads to the center of the monument shows the victims last walk – “the Pipe”, the “Shlauch” – of the Jews to the gas chambers. To the right of the path, memorialized in stone, are the names of the places from which the Jews arrived in the transports.

At the heart of the memorial site stands an enormous stone gate that resembles a raised sarcophagus. On one side, the martyrs’ story is told and on the other side there is a menorah, symbol of the Jewish people. Black granite stones symbolize the pits where the victims’ bodies were burned. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, obliterating the Jewish way of life that had existed for hundreds of years in Europe. Seventeen thousand stones are strewn around the area to symbolize the final resting place of the Jewish world that perished.