From the very beginning of the occupation of Poland, the Germans introduced a series of regulations and decrees aimed at achieving a drastic marginalization of the Jewish population. The exemption of Jews from society proved to be of vital importance at a later stage in the design of the Holocaust. The network of prohibitions and injunctions created an invisible barrier between Poles and Jews, which additionally hampered any attempts at help, and the physical separation which occurred in late autumn of 1940, with the introduction of closed ghettos, was the inevitable final stage of the separation of the two populations.

Jews were banned from public places as early as October 1939 – they could no longer enter cafes, restaurants, and some shops. In February, 1940, they were forbidden to use the railway and public transport available to “Aryans” – as non-Jewish people were labelled in Nazi terminology. In time, the streets of Warsaw saw streetcars adorned with the Star of David, and the words “nur für Juden.” By the autumn of 1939, Jews were legally required to bow to Germans they met on the streets, and move out of their way by stepping off the pavement. Shortly afterwards, mandatory work was imposed on all Jews between the ages of 14 and 60. From that day on, columns of Jews being led to perform heavy public labour became a constant image in the composition of the wartime landscape. The German authorities commenced a large-scale pillaging of Jewish property, starting with placing all Jewish-owned businesses, and later, all Jewish-owned real estate, under compulsory administration. In January, 1940, severe limitations were placed on Jewish bank savings, and the registration of all Jewish-owned valuables began. The failure to report entailed drastic punishments, which in time, increased to eventually include capital punishment. On December 1st, 1939, possibly the most visible means of separating Jews and Poles was introduced: the Star of David armband, to be worn on the right arm by every Jew over the age of 12. It should be noted that the German definition of “Jewishness” was intrinsic, since it was based on parentage, rather than faith, which had previously been the grounds for the distinction before. By the end of December 1939, pension payments were withheld from Jewish retirees, and health benefits and medical care were refused to all Jews. At the same time, the food rationing system was differentiated – Jews were provided with coupons for rations, which were much smaller than the rations distributed to Poles. Alongside this, the authorities devised an entire chain of oppressive regulations, devoid of any fiscal or economic logic, meant only to further reduce the morale of the Polish Jews (an example was the prohibition of ritual slaughter of animals, introduced on October 26th, 1939).

The physical separation of Jews and Poles grew deeper each month. Differentiation in enforced curfews was introduced in the spring of 1940, with Poles being allowed to stay on the streets longer than Jews. On September 13th, 1940, the Governor-General issued the so-called First Regulation, limiting the right to stay in the territory of the General Government (Verordnung über Aufenthaltsbeschränkungen im Generalgouvernement), a prelude to closing off the Jewish population in ghettos. The authorities began preparations for the closed Jewish district in Warsaw, in the summer of 1940, and by mid-November it was walled off, which meant the final division of the Polish and Jewish sections of the city. Over four hundred thousand Jews were forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto. Similar ghettos were organized in other cities in Poland. Some of them were not surrounded by walls, but nevertheless, any large concentration of Jewish people suffered total isolation. The flow of the population was supervised by German police, the Polish Blue Police, and the Jewish Ghetto Police, established specifically for this purpose. Passes were issued reluctantly, and in time, the Jews were almost completely unable to leave the closed districts. Simultaneously, the German authorities began propaganda operations aimed at strengthening the already-extant animosities and reinforcing anti-Semitic prejudice. The formation of the ghettos was justified as a hygiene measure whose objective was the protection of the Polish population from the dire consequences of typhoid fever, running rampant among the Jewish populace. Posters, articles in propaganda newspapers, and travelling exhibitions were to convince Poles that the Jews were the true masterminds of the world war, as well as the ones responsible for the proliferation of Bolshevism worldwide. Echoing the hate campaigns that ran before the war by the Polish National Democracy, the Germans argued that removing Jewish involvement from trade, industry, and freelance occupations would open the way for unprecedented social advancement for the “Aryan population.” Although the cynicism of the German propaganda apparatus was as obvious as their primitive methods, for many, their arguments held some merit.

The situation of the Jews being locked in the ghettos continued to worsen. On April 29th, 1941, the authorities issued the second regulation on the “right of residence”, designating the ghettos as the sole legal place of residence for Jews. Ludwig Fischer, the governor of the Warsaw District, issued his own decrees, imposing further limitations on the Jewish population. Demands of increasing the severity of anti-Jewish legislation were also posed by doctor Hagen, the physician responsible for the sanitary and epidemiological conditions in the ghettos. On July 7th, 1941, he wrote to Governor Fischer, “Anyone leaving the Jewish district should be subjected to flogging, and should they own any financial resources - a fine as well. Jewish vagabonds should be shot.” On October 15th, 1941, Hans Frank issued the third “Proclamation on the limitation of right to residence”, introducing capital punishment for Jews caught outside of the ghetto without an armband or a pass. In order to discourage and intimidate Poles, capital punishment was also instated for any person hiding Jews. Germans adopted the principle of group responsibility in this regard, and the punishment for hiding Jews was often meted out not only to the culprits, but to their neighbours as well, in these instances, accused by the Germans of insufficient vigilance. The issue of aiding Jews took on even greater significance in the summer of 1942, when the Nazis began their planned extermination of the Jewish population. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish fugitives fled from the hundreds of liquidated ghettos to the Aryan side, seeking help from Poles. In many cases, the people emerging from years of isolation, hunger, disease, and daily terror, had no inkling of the actual situation of occupied Poland. To make matters worse, many Jews either spoke Polish with a distinct accent, or not at all. This made finding any hideout a grave challenge. The risk was increased by the fact that anyone hiding Jews often had to brave the lack of any understanding, or even the threat of denunciation on behalf of their neighbours. The existing prejudice and German propaganda also carried some weight. Even in the underground, opinions on aiding the Jews differed. Propaganda Centralna, the underground paper of the nationalist groups associated with the National Armed Forces, felt no need for restraint. At the turn of 1942/43, they wrote: “We need to stigmatize those who seek to hide Jews among them, and not shy away from proclaiming them traitors to the Polish cause. For any righteous Pole knows that in Poland reborn there is no room for neither the German nor the Jew.”

In the face of such attitudes, saving Jews in occupied Poland became highly dangerous - decidedly more so than “mere” resistance, viewed by society in a unanimously positive light. All the more respect ought to be shown to the ones, who, in those terrible times and trying circumstances, were ready to risk their lives, daily and for years, to save the lives of their fellow men. 

From the Album „Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust – Recalling Forgotten History“, Łódź 2009