Situation of Jews in occupied Poland

As a result of the events of September 1939, Poland was divided between two occupying powers – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Both of them brought about a reign of terror and oppression for the Polish citizens, even though the situation of Polish Jews varied considerably. 

Poland under occupation during World War II

As a result of warfare in September 1939, the territory of the Second Republic of Poland was occupied by the two occupying powers: Germany and the USSR. For the citizens, both occupations meant terror and repressions, yet the situation of the Jewish population differed in the two occupied zones. 

In the territory incorporated into the Third Reich and within the borders of the General Government created by the German occupation authorities, Nazi Germany pursued policy aimed at the total extermination of Jews.

In the lands incorporated into the USSR, due to the nature of Stalinist terror resulting from class rather than racial motives, Jews were persecuted on an equal level with other social groups. 

Repressions against Jews under German occupation

Initially, the German authorities’ policy towards Jews was to isolate them from Poles. The Jewish population was publicly humiliated, sent to forced labour, deprived of their property, marked by having to wear patches or bands with a Star of David on their clothes, and then force to move into the ghettos. 

Germans established the first ghetto in occupied Europe in Piotrków Trybunalski as early as October 1939. Nearly 600 closed districts were established in 1940, the largest of which were in Warsaw (nearly 400,000 people) and Łódź (over 200,000, known as the Litzmannstadt Ghetto). 

The ghettos differed in the degree of isolation from the so-called “Aryan side”, districts inhabited by Poles, by surrounding them with a high wall, a fence, barbed wire entanglements, and in other cases only by delineating the area that Jews were not allowed to cross.

Starting in the autumn of 1941, Jews were punished by death for leaving the ghetto and hiding on the so-called “Aryan side”. Also, providing them with help – a shelter or even an immediate support–was forbidden under the threat of severe punishment, including death penalty.

Plan for the extermination of Jews 

Jews died of hunger and disease in ghettos, and were often killed by the Germans for the pure reason of being Jewish. In mid-1941, organized mass executions by the Einsatzgruppen special forces (Operation Groups) in the East began, and at the end of 1941, the first executions using gas chambers took place.  

On 20 January 1942, during the Wannsee Conference near Berlin, which was attended by Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office, Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo and deportation expert Adolf Eichmann, the plan for the “final solution to the Jewish question” in Europe, i.e. the murder of all Jews, was formally accepted.   

Death of Jews in extermination centres in occupied Poland

The liquidation of ghettos, i.e. mass deportations of Jews to extermination camps, began on 16 March 1942, when 1,600 people were sent from the Lublin ghetto to the camp in Bełżec.

Under the pretext of being sent to forced labour in the East, Jews were transported by trains to extermination centres located in the territory of Poland incorporated into the Third Reich – to Chełmno nad Nerem (Kulmhof) and Oświęcim (Auschwitz-Birkenau), as well as to four centres within the General Government: Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka and Majdanek. In the General Government, extermination was carried out under the code name “Action Reinhardt”.

Almost six million European Jews were killed in the course of the Holocaust; half of them were Polish Jews.

Jews on the so-called “Aryan side”

Some Jews resisted the decree forcing them to move to the ghetto. There were also those who, having being imprisoned in the ghetto, took the risk of escaping to the so-called “Aryan side”. In order to survive, they had to hide or change their identity.

The main factors increasing the chances of survival of those who managed to escape from the ghetto were: cultural assimilation, fluent use of Polish (before the war most Jews spoke Yiddish and Polish with a strong accent), the so-called “good looks” (fair hair, blue eyes), knowledge on the practices of the Christian religion.

An important factor was being in a possession of a Christian birth certificate and a false identity card, i.e. an identity card valid in the General Government

The key was financial resources that could be used to pay for food and shelter, as well as contacts with the non-Jewish community. Jews with Polish acquaintances from work, school or district could try to ask them for—paid or unpaid—shelter, or other kind of support.

How many Jews survived the war in hiding?

It is estimated that about 40,000–50,000 Jews survived on Polish lands.

The results of the research to date do not allow us to determine precisely what percentage of this number are people who survived the war in hiding or under false identity on the so-called “Aryan side”. Some of them survived thanks to the selfless help of the Poles. It happened that Jews saved themselves and survived only thanks to their own resourcefulness, or – which was much more frequent – they received help in return for substantial profit.

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