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Hundreds of Jews are freed from forced labor in Warsaw

Hundreds of Jews are freed from forced labor in Warsaw

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On August 5, 1944, Polish insurgents liberate a German forced-labor camp in Warsaw, freeing 348 Jewish prisoners, who join in a general uprising against the German occupiers of the city.

As the Red Army advanced on Warsaw in July, Polish patriots, still loyal to their government-in-exile back in London, prepared to overthrow their German occupiers. On July 29, the Polish Home Army (underground), the People’s Army (a communist guerilla movement), and armed civilians took back two-thirds of Warsaw from the Germans. On August 4, the Germans counterattacked, mowing down Polish civilians with machine-gun fire. By August 5, more than 15,000 Poles were dead. The Polish command cried to the Allies for help. Churchill telegraphed Stalin, informing him that the British intended to drop ammunition and other supplies into the southwest quarter of Warsaw to aid the insurgents. The prime minister asked Stalin to aid in the insurgents’ cause. Stalin balked, claiming the insurgency was too insignificant to waste time with.

Britain succeeded to getting some aid to the Polish patriots, but the Germans also succeeded-in dropping incendiary bombs. The Poles fought on, and on August 5 they freed Jewish forced laborers who then joined in the battle, some of whom formed a special platoon dedicated solely to repairing captured German tanks for use in the struggle.

The Poles would battle on for weeks against German reinforcements, and without Soviet help, as Joseph Stalin had his own plans for Poland.

Bone Chilling Pictures of Jews Being Humiliated And Led Off To Be Exterminated By Nazi Germany

Adolf Hitler and the other Nazi leaders of Germany believed that Jews were racially inferior and dangerous. They used propaganda to convince the German people that they had to be dealt with. The Nazis made laws that deprived Jews of their rights and property. Then they forcibly separated them from the rest of German society and put them into ghettos.

They were made to wear yellow triangles so that everyone would know they were Jews. They made a plan to kill not only all the Jews in Germany but all the Jews in the countries that Germany had conquered. They called this plan the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish ‘problem.’ The world has come to call this terrible atrocity the ‘Holocaust.’ Jews call it ‘Shoah.’

Between 1941 and 1945 almost 9 million European Jews were murdered. This genocide was one of the largest in history. And not only Jews were oppressed and killed. Russians, Poles, Romani (Gypsies), the physically and mentally disabled, communists, homosexuals and many other minority groups suffered.

Every branch of the German government was involved in the genocide. Over 200,000 officials were involved in the murders. Germany ran 42,500 concentration camps and other facilities involved in moving, detaining and killing Jews and other people. Some of the most infamous of the extermination camps were Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Belzec. Most were killed with poisonous gas.

Others were shot or worked to death. Before the poor victims were killed, they were often made to work for the Nazis without proper food and rest. Nazi doctors also performed horrible experiments on them.

After the war, Nazi leaders were put on trial by the Allies or these and other crimes. The trials took place at Nuremberg in Germany. Many were found guilty and imprisoned or executed.

German war photographers took pictures of all that happened in the Third Reich that included the treatment of the Jews.

We have made a selection of these pictures that have been made available by the Bundesarchiv.

Minsk – Jews force marched through the streets

Poland, Ghetto Litzmannstadt – Jews performing forced labor

Greece – Salonika, Jews being herded together to be sent to forced labor camps. 1941.

The Soviet Union- Jews marched off for forced labor, 1941.

Serbia – After Belgrade was captured the Jews were rounded up to be set to work

North-Africa – Tunis, Jews marched off to perform forced labor

Polish Jews performing forced labor

Poland – Jewish man and woman reading a proclamation restricting them further

Poland – Jews in a Jewish prison camp in 1939

The Soviet-Union – Jewish men taking a break

France – On the border between Nazi-occupied France and Vichy France a large sign says, “Jews are not allowed to cross the demarcation line into occupied France.”

France – A Jewish Man rounded up for forced labor

France – Marseille, Gare d’Arenc. Deportation of Jews to a concentration camp

France – Marseille, Gare d’Arenc. Deportation of Jews to a concentration camp

Poland – Arrested Jews moved by truck

Poland – Jewish men on the streets

The Soviet Union – Jews forced to clean the streets

The Soviet Union – A Jewish man being pulled through the streets by locals while German soldier watch

Poland – Warsaw, Polish men forced to clear the streets of rubble

Translated Nazi propaganda text: “We’ve got them at last!’ Jews from Germany, who escaped via Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Warsaw to Amsterdam and are interned in the Netherlands in order to spread their nasty stories all over the world. We have managed to capture a few of those Jews leading this, others managed to escape to Paris and London, but we’ll find them and find a fitting punishment for their poisonous interference!”

Greece – Jews in the process of being deported

Beard forcibly cut off a Jewish man

Smiling Germans from the SD while transporting arrested Jews

Latvia – Salaspils Concentration Camp, a Jew being beaten in front of other prisoners.

Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto being transported in open trucks

A large sign outside the Ghetto Litzmannstadt “Jewish living area, entry forbidden.”

Jews in the Ghetto Litzmannstadt behind barbed wire

French Jews being held in Drancy – 1941

Polen, Krakau – Germans move in for a “Razzia” rounding up Jews.

Poland – Krakau, German soldiers from the Ordnungspolizei rounding up Jews

Dachau Concentration Camp, Jewish prisoners

Frankreich.- Beaune-la-Rolande, prisoners (presumed to be Jews) living in huts

Jewish men being sorted in Auschwitz, those that will be forced to work are separated from those who will be dead within 6 hours.

Auschwitz – Large pile of glasses taken from murdered Jews


Before World War II, 3,300,000 Jewish people lived in Poland – ten percent of the general population of some 33 million. Poland was the center of the European Jewish world. [6]

The Second World War began with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and, on 17 September, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. By October 1939, the Second Polish Republic was split in half between two totalitarian powers. Germany occupied 48.4 percent of western and central Poland. [7] Racial policy of Nazi Germany regarded Poles as "sub-human" and Polish Jews beneath that category, validating a campaign of unrestricted violence. One aspect of German foreign policy in conquered Poland was to prevent its ethnically diverse population from uniting against Germany. [8] [9] The Nazi plan for Polish Jews was one of concentration, isolation, and eventually total annihilation in the Holocaust also known as the Shoah. Similar policy measures toward the Polish Catholic majority focused on the murder or suppression of political, religious, and intellectual leaders as well as the Germanization of the annexed lands which included a program to resettle ethnic Germans from the Baltic states and other regions onto farms, ventures and homes formerly owned by the expelled Poles including Polish Jews. [10]

The response of the Polish majority to the Jewish Holocaust covered an extremely wide spectrum, often ranging from acts of altruism at the risk of endangering their own and their families' lives, through compassion, to passivity, indifference, blackmail, and denunciation. [12] Polish rescuers faced threats from unsympathetic neighbours, the Polish-German Volksdeutsche, [12] the ethnic Ukrainian pro-Nazis, [13] as well as blackmailers called szmalcowniks, along with the Jewish collaborators from Żagiew and Group 13. The Catholic saviors of Jews were also betrayed under duress by the Jews in hiding following capture by the German Order Police battalions and the Gestapo, which resulted in the Nazi murder of the entire networks of Polish helpers. [14]

In 1941, at the onset of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the main architect of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich, issued his operational guidelines for the mass anti-Jewish actions carried out with the participation of local gentiles. [15] Massacres of Polish Jews by the Ukrainian and Lithuanian auxiliary police battalions followed. [16] Deadly pogroms were committed in over 30 locations across formerly Soviet-occupied parts of Poland, [17] including in Brześć, Tarnopol, Białystok, Łuck, Lwów, Stanisławów, and in Wilno where the Jews were murdered along with the Poles in the Ponary massacre at a ratio of 3-to-1. [18] [19] National minorities routinely participated in pogroms led by OUN-UPA, YB, TDA and BKA. [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] Local participation in the Nazi German "cleansing" operations included the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941. [25] [26] The Einsatzkommandos were ordered to organize them in all eastern territories occupied by Germany. Less than one tenth of 1 per cent of native Poles collaborated, according to statistics of the Israeli War Crimes Commission. [27]

Ethnic Poles assisted Jews by organized as well as by individual efforts. Many Poles offered food to Polish Jews or left it in places Jews would pass on their way to forced labor. Other Poles directed Jewish ghetto escapees to Poles who could help them. Some Poles sheltered Jews for only one or a few nights others assumed full responsibility for their survival, fully aware that the Germans punished by summary execution those (as well as their families) who helped Jews.

A special role fell to Polish physicians who saved thousands of Jews. Dr. Eugeniusz Łazowski, known as the "Polish Schindler", saved 8,000 Polish Jews in Rozwadów from deportation to death camps by simulating a typhus epidemic. [29] [30] Dr. Tadeusz Pankiewicz gave out free medicines in the Kraków Ghetto, saving an unspecified number of Jews. [31] Professor Rudolf Weigl, inventor of the first effective vaccine against epidemic typhus, employed and protected Jews in his Weigl Institute in Lwów his vaccines were smuggled into the Lwów and Warsaw Ghettos, saving countless lives. [32] Dr. Tadeusz Kosibowicz, director of the state hospital in Będzin, was sentenced to death for rescuing Jewish fugitives (but the sentence was commuted to camp imprisonment, and he survived the war). [33]

Those who took full responsibility for Jews' survival, perhaps especially, merit recognition as Righteous among the Nations. [34] 6,066 Poles have been recognized by Israel's Yad Vashem as Polish Righteous among the Nations for saving Jews during the Jewish Holocaust, making Poland the country with the highest number of such Righteous. [35] [36]


The number of Poles who rescued Jews from the Nazi German persecution would be hard to determine in black-and-white terms, and is still the subject of scholarly debate. According to Gunnar S. Paulsson, the number of rescuers that meet Yad Vashem's criteria is perhaps 100,000 and there may have been two or three times as many who offered minor help the majority "were passively protective." [36] In an article published in the Journal of Genocide Research, Hans G. Furth estimated that there may have been as many as 1,200,000 Polish rescuers. [37] Richard C. Lukas estimated that upwards of 1,000,000 Poles were involved in such rescue efforts, [5] "but some estimates go as high as three million." [5] Lukas also cites Władysław Bartoszewski, a wartime member of Żegota, as having estimated that "at least several hundred thousand Poles . participated in various ways and forms in the rescue action." [5] Elsewhere, Bartoszewski has estimated that between 1 and 3 percent of the Polish population was actively involved in rescue efforts [38] Marcin Urynowicz estimates that a minimum of from 500,000 to over a million Poles actively tried to help Jews. [39] The lower number was proposed by Teresa Prekerowa who claimed that between 160,000 and 360,000 Poles assisted in hiding Jews, amounting to between 1% and 2.5% of the 15 million adult Poles she categorized as "those who could offer help." Her estimation counts only those who were involved in hiding Jews directly. It also assumes that each Jew who hid among the non-Jewish populace stayed throughout the war in only one hiding place and as such had only one set of helpers. [40] However, other historians indicate that a much higher number was involved. [41] [42] Paulsson wrote that, according to his research, an average Jew in hiding stayed in seven different places throughout the war. [36]

An average Jew who survived in occupied Poland depended on many acts of assistance and tolerance, wrote Paulsson. [36] "Nearly every Jew that was rescued, was rescued by the cooperative efforts of dozen or more people," [36] as confirmed also by the Polish-Jewish historian Szymon Datner. [44] Paulsson notes that during the six years of wartime and occupation, the average Jew sheltered by the Poles had three or four sets of false documents and faced recognition as a Jew multiple times. [36] Datner explains also that hiding a Jew lasted often for several years thus increasing the risk involved for each Christian family exponentially. [44] Polish-Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Hanna Krall has identified 45 Poles who helped to shelter her from the Nazis [44] and Władysław Szpilman, the Polish musician of Jewish origin whose wartime experiences were chronicled in his memoir The Pianist and the film of the same title identified 30 Poles who helped him to survive the Holocaust. [45]

Meanwhile, Father John T. Pawlikowski from Chicago, referring to work by other historians, speculated that claims of hundreds of thousands of rescuers struck him as inflated. [46] Likewise, Martin Gilbert has written that under Nazi regime, rescuers were an exception, albeit one that could be found in towns and villages throughout Poland. [47]

There is no official number of how many Polish Jews were hidden by their Christian countrymen during wartime. Lukas estimated that the number of Jews sheltered by Poles at one time might have been "as high as 450,000." [5] However, concealment did not automatically assure complete safety from the Nazis, and the number of Jews in hiding who were caught has been estimated variously from 40,000 to 200,000. [5]


Efforts at rescue were encumbered by several factors. The threat of the death penalty for aiding Jews and limited ability to provide for the escapees were often responsible for the fact that many Poles were unwilling to provide direct help to a person of Jewish origin. [5] This was exacerbated by the fact that the people who were in hiding did not have official ration cards and hence food for them had to be purchased on the black market at high prices. [5] [48] According to Emmanuel Ringelblum in most cases the money that Poles accepted from Jews they helped to hide, was taken not out of greed, but out of poverty which Poles had to endure during the German occupation. Israel Gutman has written that the majority of Jews who were sheltered by Poles paid for their own up-keep, [49] but thousands of Polish protectors perished along with the people they were hiding. [50]

There is general consensus among scholars that, unlike in Western Europe, Polish collaboration with the Nazi Germans was insignificant. [5] [51] [52] [53] However, the Nazi terror combined with inadequacy of food rations, as well as German greed, along with the system of corruption as the only "one language the Germans understood well," wrecked traditional values. [54] Poles helping Jews faced unparalleled dangers not only from the German occupiers but also from their own ethnically diverse countrymen including Polish-German Volksdeutsche, [12] and Polish Ukrainians, [55] many of whom were anti-Semitic and morally disoriented by the war. [56] There were people, the so-called szmalcownicy ("shmalts people" from shmalts or szmalec, slang term for money), [57] who blackmailed the hiding Jews and Poles helping them, or who turned the Jews to the Germans for a reward. Outside the cities there were peasants of various ethnic backgrounds looking for Jews hiding in the forests, to demand money from them. [54] There were also Jews turning in other Jews and ethnic Poles in order to alleviate hunger with the awarded prize. [58] The vast majority of these individuals joined the criminal underworld after the German occupation and were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, both Jews and the Poles who were trying to save them. [59] [60] [61]

According to one reviewer of Paulsson, with regard to the extortionists, "a single hooligan or blackmailer could wreak severe damage on Jews in hiding, but it took the silent passivity of a whole crowd to maintain their cover." [59] He also notes that "hunters" were outnumbered by "helpers" by a ratio of one to 20 or 30. [36] According to Lukas the number of renegades who blackmailed and denounced Jews and their Polish protectors probably did not number more than 1,000 individuals out of the 1,300,000 people living in Warsaw in 1939. [5] [62]

Michael C. Steinlauf writes that not only the fear of the death penalty was an obstacle limiting Polish aid to Jews, but also antisemitism, which made many individuals uncertain of their neighbors' reaction to their attempts at rescue. [63] Number of authors have noted the negative consequences of the hostility towards Jews by extremists advocating their eventual removal from Poland. [64] [65] [66] [67] Meanwhile, Alina Cala in her study of Jews in Polish folk culture argued also for the persistence of traditional religious antisemitism and anti-Jewish propaganda before and during the war both leading to indifference. [68] [69] Steinlauf however notes that despite these uncertainties, Jews were helped by countless thousands of individual Poles throughout the country. He writes that "not the informing or the indifference, but the existence of such individuals is one of the most remarkable features of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust." [63] [68] Nechama Tec, who herself survived the war aided by a group of Catholic Poles, [70] noted that Polish rescuers worked within an environment that was hostile to Jews and unfavorable to their protection, in which rescuers feared both the disapproval of their neighbors and reprisals that such disapproval might bring. [71] Tec also noted that Jews, for many complex and practical reasons, were not always prepared to accept assistance that was available to them. [72] Some Jews were pleasantly surprised to have been aided by people whom they thought to have expressed antisemitic attitudes before the invasion of Poland. [36] [73]

Former Director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Mordecai Paldiel, wrote that the widespread revulsion among the Polish people at the murders being committed by the Nazis was sometimes accompanied by an alleged feeling of relief at the disappearance of Jews. [74] Israeli historian Joseph Kermish (born 1907) who left Poland in 1950, had claimed at the Yad Vashem conference in 1977, that the Polish researchers overstate the achievements of the Żegota organization (including members of Żegota themselves, along with venerable historians like Prof. Madajczyk), but his assertions are not supported by the listed evidence. [75] Paulsson and Pawlikowski wrote that wartime attitudes among some of the populace were not a major factor impeding the survival of sheltered Jews, or the work of the Żegota organization. [36] [73]

The fact that the Polish Jewish community was destroyed during World War II, coupled with stories about Polish collaborators, has contributed, especially among Israelis and American Jews, to a lingering stereotype that the Polish population has been passive in regard to, or even supportive of, Jewish suffering. [36] However, modern scholarship has not validated the claim that Polish antisemitism was irredeemable or different from contemporary Western antisemitism it has also found that such claims are among the stereotypes that comprise anti-Polonism. [76] The presenting of selective evidence in support of preconceived notions have led some popular press to draw overly simplistic and often misleading conclusions regarding the role played by Poles at the time of the Holocaust. [36] [76]

Punishment for aiding the Jews

In an attempt to discourage Poles from helping the Jews and to destroy any efforts of the resistance, the Germans applied a ruthless retaliation policy. On 10 November 1941, the death penalty was introduced by Hans Frank, governor of the General Government, to apply to Poles who helped Jews "in any way: by taking them in for the night, giving them a lift in a vehicle of any kind" or "feed[ing] runaway Jews or sell[ing] them foodstuffs." The law was made public by posters distributed in all cities and towns, to instill fear. [77]

The imposition of the death penalty for Poles aiding Jews was unique to Poland among all German-occupied countries, and was a result of the conspicuous and spontaneous nature of such an aid. [78] For example, the Ulma family (father, mother and six children) of the village of Markowa near Łańcut – where many families concealed their Jewish neighbors – were executed jointly by the Nazis with the eight Jews they hid. [79] The entire Wołyniec family in Romaszkańce was massacred for sheltering three Jewish refugees from a ghetto. In Maciuńce, for hiding Jews, the Germans shot eight members of Józef Borowski's family along with him and four guests who happened to be there. [80] Nazi death squads carried out mass executions of the entire villages that were discovered to be aiding Jews on a communal level. [35] [81] In the villages of Białka near Parczew and Sterdyń near Sokołów Podlaski, 150 villagers were massacred for sheltering Jews. [82]

In November 1942, the Ukrainian SS squad executed 20 villagers from Berecz in Wołyń Voivodeship for giving aid to Jewish escapees from the ghetto in Povorsk. [83] According to Peter Jaroszczak "Michał Kruk and several other people in Przemyśl were executed on September 6, 1943 (pictured) for the assistance they had rendered to the Jews. Altogether, in the town and its environs 415 Jews (including 60 children) were saved, in return for which the Germans killed 568 people of Polish nationality." [84] Several hundred Poles were massacred with their priest, Adam Sztark, in Słonim on 18 December 1942, for sheltering Jewish refugees of the Słonim Ghetto in a Catholic church. In Huta Stara near Buczacz, Polish Christians and the Jewish countrymen they protected were herded into a church by the Nazis and burned alive on 4 March 1944. [85] In the years 1942–1944 about 200 peasants were shot dead and burned alive as punishment in the Kielce region alone. [86]

Entire communities that helped to shelter Jews were annihilated, such as the now-extinct village of Huta Werchobuska near Złoczów, Zahorze near Łachwa, [87] Huta Pieniacka near Brody [88] or Stara Huta near Szumsk. [89]

Additionally, after the end of the war Poles who saved Jews during the Nazi occupation very often became the victims of repression at the hands of the Communist security apparatus, due to their instinctive devotion to social justice which they saw as being abused by the government. [86]

Richard C. Lukas estimated the number of Poles killed for helping Jews at about 50,000. [90]

A number of Polish villages in their entirety provided shelter from Nazi apprehension, offering protection for their Jewish neighbors as well as the aid for refugees from other villages and escapees from the ghettos. [91] Postwar research has confirmed that communal protection occurred in Głuchów near Łańcut with everyone engaged, [92] as well as in the villages of Główne, Ozorków, Borkowo near Sierpc, Dąbrowica near Ulanów, in Głupianka near Otwock, [93] and Teresin near Chełm. [94] In Cisie near Warsaw, 25 Poles were caught hiding Jews all were killed and the village was burned to the ground as punishment. [95] [96]

The forms of protection varied from village to village. In Gołąbki, the farm of Jerzy and Irena Krępeć provided a hiding place for as many as 30 Jews years after the war, the couple's son recalled in an interview with the Montreal Gazette that their actions were "an open secret in the village [that] everyone knew they had to keep quiet" and that the other villagers helped, "if only to provide a meal." [97] Another farm couple, Alfreda and Bolesław Pietraszek, provided shelter for Jewish families consisting of 18 people in Ceranów near Sokołów Podlaski, and their neighbors brought food to those being rescued. [98]

Two decades after the end of the war, a Jewish partisan named Gustaw Alef-Bolkowiak identified the following villages in the Parczew-Ostrów Lubelski area where "almost the entire population" assisted Jews: Rudka, Jedlanka, Makoszka, Tyśmienica, and Bójki. [91] Historians have documented that a dozen villagers of Mętów near Głusk outside Lublin sheltered Polish Jews. [99] In some well-confirmed cases, Polish Jews who were hidden, were circulated between homes in the village. Farmers in Zdziebórz near Wyszków sheltered two Jewish men by taking turns. Both of them later joined the Polish underground Home Army. [100] The entire village of Mulawicze near Bielsk Podlaski took responsibility for the survival of an orphaned nine-year-old Jewish boy. [101] Different families took turns hiding a Jewish girl at various homes in Wola Przybysławska near Lublin, [102] and around Jabłoń near Parczew many Polish Jews successfully sought refuge. [103]

Impoverished Polish Jews, unable to offer any money in return, were nonetheless provided with food, clothing, shelter and money by some small communities [4] historians have confirmed this took place in the villages of Czajków near Staszów [104] as well as several villages near Łowicz, in Korzeniówka near Grójec, near Żyrardów, in Łaskarzew, and across Kielce Voivodship. [105]

In tiny villages where there was no permanent Nazi military presence, such as Dąbrowa Rzeczycka, Kępa Rzeczycka and Wola Rzeczycka near Stalowa Wola, some Jews were able to openly participate in the lives of their communities. Olga Lilien, recalling her wartime experience in the 2000 book To Save a Life: Stories of Holocaust Rescue, was sheltered by a Polish family in a village near Tarnobrzeg, where she survived the war despite the posting of a 200 deutsche mark reward by the Nazi occupiers for information on Jews in hiding. [106] Chava Grinberg-Brown from Gmina Wiskitki recalled in a postwar interview that some farmers used the threat of violence against a fellow villager who intimated the desire to betray her safety. [107] Polish-born Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Natan Gross, in his 2001 book Who Are You, Mr. Grymek?, told of a village near Warsaw where a local Nazi collaborator was forced to flee when it became known he reported the location of a hidden Jew. [108]

Nonetheless there were cases where Poles who saved Jews were met with a different response after the war. Antonina Wyrzykowska from Janczewko village near Jedwabne managed to successfully shelter seven Jews for twenty-six months from November 1942 until liberation. Some time earlier, during the Jedwabne pogrom close by, a minimum of 300 Polish Jews were burned alive in a barn set on fire by a group of Polish men under the German command. [109] Wyrzykowska was honored as Righteous among the Nations for her heroism, but left her hometown after liberation for fear of retribution. [110] [111] [112] [113] [114]

In Poland's cities and larger towns, the Nazi occupiers created ghettos that were designed to imprison the local Jewish populations. The food rations allocated by the Germans to the ghettos condemned their inhabitants to starvation. [115] Smuggling of food into the ghettos and smuggling of goods out of the ghettos, organized by Jews and Poles, was the only means of subsistence of the Jewish population in the ghettos. The price difference between the Aryan and Jewish sides was large, reaching as much as 100%, but the penalty for aiding Jews was death. Hundreds of Polish and Jewish smugglers would come in and out the ghettos, usually at night or at dawn, through openings in the walls, tunnels and sewers or through the guardposts by paying bribes. [116]

The Polish Underground urged the Poles to support smuggling. [116] The punishment for smuggling was death, carried out on the spot. [116] Among the Jewish smuggler victims were scores of Jewish children aged five or six, whom the German shot at the ghetto exits and near the walls. While communal rescue was impossible under these circumstances, many Polish Christians concealed their Jewish neighbors. For example, Zofia Baniecka and her mother rescued over 50 Jews in their home between 1941 and 1944. Paulsson, in his research on the Jews of Warsaw, documented that Warsaw's Polish residents managed to support and conceal the same percentage of Jews as did residents in other European cities under Nazi occupation. [59]

Ten percent of Warsaw's Polish population was actively engaged in sheltering their Jewish neighbors. [36] It is estimated that the number of Jews living in hiding on the Aryan side of the capital city in 1944 was at least 15,000 to 30,000 and relied on the network of 50,000–60,000 Poles who provided shelter, and about half as many assisting in other ways. [36]

Poles living in Lithuania supported Chiune Sugihara producing false Japanese visas. The refugees arriving to Japan were helped by Polish ambassador Tadeusz Romer. [117] Henryk Sławik issued false Polish passports to about 5000 of Jews in Hungary. He was killed by Germans in 1944. [118]

Ładoś Group

The Ładoś Group also called the Bernese Group [119] [120] (Aleksander Ładoś, Konstanty Rokicki, Stefan Ryniewicz, Juliusz Kühl, Abraham Silberschein, Chaim Eiss) was a group of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists who elaborated in Switzerland a system of illegal production of Latin American passports aimed at saving European Jews from Holocaust. Ca 10.000 Jews received such passports, of which over 3000 have been saved. [121] The group efforts are documented in the Eiss Archive. [122] [123]

Several organizations dedicated to saving Jews were created and run by Christian Poles with the help of the Polish Jewish underground. [124] Among those, Żegota, the Council to Aid Jews, was the most prominent. [73] It was unique not only in Poland, but in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, as there was no other organization dedicated solely to that goal. [73] [125] Żegota concentrated its efforts on saving Jewish children toward whom the Germans were especially cruel. [73] Tadeusz Piotrowski (1998) gives several wide-range estimates of a number of survivors including those who might have received assistance from Żegota in some form including financial, legal, medical, child care, and other help in times of trouble. [126] The subject is shrouded in controversy according to Szymon Datner, but in Lukas' estimate about half of those who survived within the changing borders of Poland were helped by Żegota. The number of Jews receiving assistance who did not survive the Holocaust is not known. [126]

Perhaps the most famous member of Żegota was Irena Sendler, who managed to successfully smuggle 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. [127] Żegota was granted over 5 million dollars or nearly 29 million zł by the government-in-exile (see below), for the relief payments to Jewish families in Poland. [128] Besides Żegota, there were smaller organizations such as KZ-LNPŻ, ZSP, SOS and others (along the Polish Red Cross), whose action agendas included help to the Jews. Some were associated with Żegota. [129]

The Roman Catholic Church in Poland provided many persecuted Jews with food and shelter during the war, [129] even though monasteries gave no immunity to Polish priests and monks against the death penalty. [130] Nearly every Catholic institution in Poland looked after a few Jews, usually children with forged Christian birth certificates and an assumed or vague identity. [36] In particular, convents of Catholic nuns in Poland (see Sister Bertranda), played a major role in the effort to rescue and shelter Polish Jews, with the Franciscan Sisters credited with the largest number of Jewish children saved. [131] [132] Two thirds of all nunneries in Poland took part in the rescue, in all likelihood with the support and encouragement of the church hierarchy. [133] These efforts were supported by local Polish bishops and the Vatican itself. [132] The convent leaders never disclosed the exact number of children saved in their institutions, and for security reasons the rescued children were never registered. Jewish institutions have no statistics that could clarify the matter. [130] Systematic recording of testimonies did not begin until the early 1970s. [130] In the villages of Ożarów, Ignaców, Szymanów, and Grodzisko near Leżajsk, the Jewish children were cared for by Catholic convents and by the surrounding communities. In these villages, Christian parents did not remove their children from schools where Jewish children were in attendance. [134]

Irena Sendler head of children's section Żegota (the Council to Aid Jews) organisation cooperated very closely in saving Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto with social worker and Catholic nun, mother provincial of Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary - Matylda Getter. The children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sister Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate at Turkowice and Chotomów. [135] Sister Matylda Getter rescued between 250 and 550 Jewish children in different education and care facilities for children in Anin, Białołęka, Chotomów, Międzylesie, Płudy, Sejny, Vilnius and others. [136] Getter's convent was located at the entrance to the Warsaw Ghetto. When the Nazis commenced the clearing of the Ghetto in 1941, Getter took in many orphans and dispersed them among Family of Mary homes. As the Nazis began sending orphans to the gas chambers, Getter issued fake baptismal certificates, providing the children with false identities. The sisters lived in daily fear of the Germans. Michael Phayer credits Getter and the Family of Mary with rescuing more than 750 Jews. [38]

Historians have shown that in numerous villages, Jewish families survived the Holocaust by living under assumed identities as Christians with full knowledge of the local inhabitants who did not betray their identities. This has been confirmed in the settlements of Bielsko (Upper Silesia), in Dziurków near Radom, in Olsztyn Village [pl] near Częstochowa, in Korzeniówka near Grójec, in Łaskarzew, Sobolew, and Wilga triangle, and in several villages near Łowicz. [137]

Some officials in the senior Polish priesthood maintained the same theological attitude of hostility toward the Jews which was known from before the invasion of Poland. [36] [138] After the war ended, some convents were unwilling to return Jewish children to postwar institutions that asked for them, and at times refused to disclose the adoptive parents' identities, forcing government agencies and courts to intervene. [139]

Lack of international effort to aid Jews resulted in political uproar on the part of the Polish government in exile residing in Great Britain. The government often publicly expressed outrage at German mass murders of Jews. In 1942, the Directorate of Civil Resistance, part of the Polish Underground State, issued the following declaration based on reports by the Polish underground: [140]

For nearly a year now, in addition to the tragedy of the Polish people, which is being slaughtered by the enemy, our country has been the scene of a terrible, planned massacre of the Jews. This mass murder has no parallel in the annals of mankind compared to it, the most infamous atrocities known to history pale into insignificance. Unable to act against this situation, we, in the name of the entire Polish people, protest the crime being perpetrated against the Jews all political and public organizations join in this protest. [140]

The Polish government was the first to inform the Western Allies about the Holocaust, although early reports were often met with disbelief, even by Jewish leaders themselves, and then, for much longer, by Western powers. [125] [126] [129] [141] [142] [143]

Witold Pilecki was a member of the Polish Armia Krajowa (AK) resistance, and the only person who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. As an agent of the underground intelligence, he began sending numerous reports about the camp and genocide to the Polish resistance headquarters in Warsaw through the resistance network he organized in Auschwitz. In March 1941, Pilecki's reports were being forwarded via the Polish resistance to the British government in London, but the British government refused AK reports on atrocities as being gross exaggerations and propaganda of the Polish government.

Similarly, in 1942, Jan Karski, who had been serving as a courier between the Polish underground and the Polish government in exile, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and reported to the Polish, British and American governments on the terrible situation of the Jews in Poland, in particular the destruction of the Ghetto. [144] He met with Polish politicians in exile, including the prime minister, as well as members of political parties such as the Polish Socialist Party, National Party, Labor Party, People's Party, Jewish Bund and Poalei Zion. He also spoke to Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, and included a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec.

In 1943 in London, Karski met the well-known journalist Arthur Koestler. He then traveled to the United States and reported to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In July 1943, Jan Karski again personally reported to Roosevelt about the plight of Polish Jews, but the president "interrupted and asked the Polish emissary about the situation of. horses" in Poland. [145] [146] He also met with many other government and civic leaders in the United States, including Felix Frankfurter, Cordell Hull, William J. Donovan, and Stephen Wise. Karski also presented his report to the news media, bishops of various denominations (including Cardinal Samuel Stritch), members of the Hollywood film industry, and artists, but without success. Many of those he spoke to did not believe him and again supposed that his testimony was much exaggerated or was propaganda from the Polish government in exile.

The supreme political body of the underground government within Poland was the Delegatura. There were no Jewish representatives in it. [147] Delegatura financed and sponsored Żegota, the organization for help to the Polish Jews – run jointly by Jews and non-Jews. [148] Since 1942 Żegota was granted by Delegatura nearly 29 million zlotys (over $5 million or, 13.56 times as much, [149] in today's funds) for the relief payments to thousands of extended Jewish families in Poland. [150] The government-in-exile also provided special assistance including funds, arms and other supplies to Jewish resistance organizations (like ŻOB and ŻZW), particularly from 1942 onwards. [142] The interim government transmitted messages to the West from the Jewish underground, and gave support to their requests for retaliation on German targets if the atrocities are not stopped – a request that was dismissed by the Allied governments. [142] The Polish government also tried, without much success, to increase the chances of Polish refugees finding a safe haven in neutral countries and to prevent deportations of escaping Jews back to Nazi-occupied Poland. [142]

Polish Delegate of the Government in Exile residing in Hungary, diplomat Henryk Sławik known as the Polish Wallenberg, [151] helped rescue over 30,000 refugees including 5,000 Polish Jews in Budapest, by giving them false Polish passports as Christians. [152] He founded an orphanage for Jewish children officially named School for Children of Polish Officers in Vác. [153] [154]

With two members on the National Council, Polish Jews were sufficiently represented in the government in exile. [142] Also, in 1943 a Jewish affairs section of the Underground State was set up by the Government Delegation for Poland it was headed by Witold Bieńkowski and Władysław Bartoszewski. [140] Its purpose was to organize efforts concerning the Polish Jewish population, to coordinate with Zegota, and to prepare documentation about the fate of the Jews for the government in London. [140] Regrettably, the great number of Polish Jews had been killed already even before the Government-in-exile fully realized the totality of the Final Solution. [142] According to David Engel and Dariusz Stola, the government-in-exile concerned itself with the fate of Polish people in general, the re-recreation of the independent Polish state, and with establishing itself as an equal partner amongst the Allied forces. [142] [143] [155] On top of its relative weakness, the government in exile was subject to the scrutiny of the West, in particular, American and British Jews reluctant to criticize their own governments for inaction in regard to saving their fellow Jews. [142] [156]

The Polish government and its underground representatives at home issued declarations that people acting against the Jews (blackmailers and others) would be punished by death. General Władysław Sikorski, the Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, signed a decree calling upon the Polish population to extend aid to the persecuted Jews including the following stern warning. [157]

Any direct and indirect complicity in the German criminal actions is the most serious offence against Poland. Any Pole who collaborates in their acts of murder, whether by extortion, informing on Jews, or by exploiting their terrible plight or participating in acts of robbery, is committing a major crime against the laws of the Polish Republic.

According to Michael C. Steinlauf, before the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, Sikorski's appeals to Poles to help Jews accompanied his communiques only on rare occasions. [158] Steinlauf points out that in one speech made in London, he was promising equal rights for Jews after the war, but the promise was omitted from the printed version of the speech for no reason. [158] According to David Engel, the loyalty of Polish Jews to Poland and Polish interests was held in doubt by some members of the exiled government, [143] [155] leading to political tensions. [159] For example, the Jewish Agency refused to give support to Polish demand for the return of Lwów and Wilno to Poland. [160] Overall, as Stola notes, Polish government was just as unprepared to deal with the Holocaust as were the other Allied governments, and that the government's hesitancy in appeals to the general population to aid the Jews diminished only after reports of the Holocaust became more wide spread. [142]

Szmul Zygielbojm, a Jewish member of the National Council of the Polish government in exile, committed suicide in May 1943, in London, in protest against the indifference of the Allied governments toward the destruction of the Jewish people, and the failure of the Polish government to rouse public opinion commensurate with the scale of the tragedy befalling Polish Jews. [161]

Poland, with its unique underground state, was the only country in occupied Europe to have an extensive, underground justice system. [163] These clandestine courts operated with attention to due process (although limited by circumstances), so it could take months to get a death sentence passed. [163] However, Prekerowa notes that the death sentences by non-military courts only began to be issued in September 1943, which meant that blackmailers were able to operate for some time already since the first Nazi anti-Jewish measures of 1940. [164] Overall, it took the Polish underground until late 1942 to legislate and organize non-military courts which were authorized to pass death sentences for civilian crimes, such as non-treasonous collaboration, extortion and blackmail. [163] According to Joseph Kermish from Israel, among the thousands of collaborators sentenced to death by the Special Courts and executed by the Polish resistance fighters who risked death carrying out these verdicts, [164] few were explicitly blackmailers or informers who had persecuted Jews. This, according to Kermish, led to increasing boldness of some of the blackmailers in their criminal activities. [75] Marek Jan Chodakiewicz writes that a number of Polish Jews were executed for denouncing other Jews. He notes that since Nazi informers often denounced members of the underground as well as Jews in hiding, the charge of collaboration was a general one and sentences passed were for cumulative crimes. [165]

The Home Army units under the command of officers from left-wing Sanacja, the Polish Socialist Party as well as the centrist Democratic Party welcomed Jewish fighters to serve with Poles without problems stemming from their ethnic identity. [a] However, some rightist units of the Armia Krajowa excluded Jews. Similarly, some members of the Delegate's Bureau saw Jews and ethnic Poles as separate entities. [167] Historian Israel Gutman has noted that AK leader Stefan Rowecki advocated the abandonment of the long-range considerations of the underground and the launch of an all-out uprising should the Germans undertake a campaign of extermination against ethnic Poles, but that no such plan existed while the extermination of Jewish Polish citizens was under way. [168] On the other hand, the pre-war Polish government armed and trained Jewish paramilitary groups such as Lehi and – while in exile – accepted thousands of Polish Jewish fighters into Anders Army including leaders such as Menachem Begin. The policy of support continued throughout the war with the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union forming an integral part of the Polish resistance. [169]

From the Ghetto Revolt to the Warsaw Uprising – Hungarian Jews in KL Warschau

“We were clearing up the ruins of the devastated Warsaw ghetto…While clearing the rubble, we found many dead bodies. Despite the [Germans’] ban, we gave them a burial. Some had knives and weapons in their hands” – remembered 19-year-old Hungarian Jewish survivor, József Davidovics in 1945. Roughly a year after the Warsaw ghetto revolt was oppressed by the SS, Hungarian Jewish deportees were tasked with clearing the immense desert of rubble left after uprising. The remains of thousands of Jews were still buried under the ruins. Davidovics was a prisoner of former Konzentrationslager Warschau, a camp the Nazis set up on the ruins of Europe’s largest ghetto. It was liberated by Polish resistance fighters in the summer of 1944, making KL Warschau the only main camp that was not freed by Allied troops, but members of an anti-Nazi insurgency.

Hungarian testimonies as sources of the KL’s history

The SS destroyed the majority of relevant documents before evacuating the camp in the summer of 1944. Our knowledge on the KL is therefore rather scarce. Warsaw is another example of a persecution site about which perpetrator documents have hardly remained. Therefore survivor and eyewitness testimonies are crucial if we would like to reconstruct KL Warschau’s history. As most prisoners were Hungarian Jews, the testimony of 60 of the camp’s survivors held by the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives constitute a particularly significant source material. Their analysis offers insight into the camp’s history as well as the fate of people imprisoned in it.

The Warsaw Ghetto

The second page of József Davidovics’ testimony dealing with the details of his imprisonment in Warsaw. It was taken by the DEGOB (Deportáltakat Gondozó Országos Bizottság/National Committee for Attending Deportees) in Budapest, 6 October 1945.

Before the war, Warsaw was home to the second largest Jewish population in the world after New York. After the German occupation, 450,000 people from Warsaw and the neighboring localities were crammed into a ghetto set up by the Nazis, that was closed off with a wall on 15 November 1940. Barely 10,000 of them received enough food. Until the summer of 1942, an average of 3882 people starved to death or died due to epidemics each month. 1 These casualties were dwarfed by the so-called Grossaktion Warschau launched on 22 July 1942: in two months the SS deported more than 250,000 Jews into the gas chambers of Treblinka extermination camp. Further thousands were shot on the streets others starved to death or committed suicide. Only 70,000 to 80,000 inmates stayed in ghetto – mostly young people, fit to work. In February 1943, Reichleader SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the complete demolition of the ghetto. But this time, the SS troops met an unexpected Jewish armed resistance. Hundreds of young Jewish men and women attacked the SS forces entering the ghetto. It took the Germans almost a month to oppress the unprecedented resistance. The Nazis systematically blew up ghetto buildings during the fight. 15,000 to 20,000 Jews were killed in the uprising and a further 56,000 were deported to Treblinka and the work camps around Lublin. On May 16, 1943 SS General Jürgen Stroop was proud to report to Berlin that “there is no longer a Jewish Residential Quarter in Warsaw… With the exception of eight buildings … the former ghetto has been completely demolished”.

Ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1945 (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Juliusz Bogdan Deczkowski)

KL Warschau

Besides a few thousand people in hiding, no Jews were left in Warsaw after the uprising. In June 1943, Himmler, who already planned to create a concentration camp in the city as early as October 1942, ordered the SS-WVHA (SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt/SS Economic and Administrative Main Office) to set up a camp on the site of the former ghetto. He also ordered the SS to have the rubble cleared, usable building material collected, Jewish hiding places liquidated and a park set up. The plan had a rational element – as the Nazis planned to rule the “East” for a thousand years, it seemed pointless to sustain a vast field of rubble in the middle of a large city in the long run.

KL Warschau officially started its operation on 19 July 1943. As the ghetto area had only a few buildings left, the new camp started run in the former prison complex of the German Sicherheitspolizei in Gęsia (in Polish: goose) Street. (Soon the camp was dubbed as “Gęsiówka”, i.e. “little goose”). Later the camp was extended with two more sections. Twenty barracks were erected built of bricks and wood.

Camp SS

The first camp commander was SS-Obersturmbannführer Wilhelm Göcke. Although he was discharged from the Waffen-SS in 1941 due to a scandal, now he was surprisingly assigned to command KL Warschau. After a few weeks he was redeployed to lead KL Kauen (Kaunas) in Lithuania. His successor in Warsaw, 54-year-old SS Captain Nikolaus Herbet did not have an extensive camp experience either. Indicative of the general lack of cadres, for a while there was no chief physician in the camp and the Political Department (the camp Gestapo) was also operating without a commander. Initially the site was guarded by 150 SS men. Most of them were ethnic Germans from Romania, Yugoslavia and Poland. On average they belonged to the older age cohort – they were born between 1899 and 1921. They were supported by Ukrainian SS men from the Trawniki training camp. The camp’s surroundings and the former ghetto site were patrolled by an SS and police regiment. 2

Slave labor, economic failure, corruption

A remaining watchtower of KL Warschau (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Juliusz Bogdan Deczkowski)

The first 300 prisoners arrived from KL Buchenwald in July 1943. They were German political prisoners and professional criminals. They became the first functionaries – capos, overseers, administrators. According to German estimations, the SS needed 10,000 prisoners to clear the rubble, but the infrastructure, including lodging, was not in place. Therefore until November 1943 only 3683 Jews were transported from KL Auschwitz. After the ghetto revolt, the Nazis did not want prisoners in Warsaw, who knew Polish, were familiar with the place and hence could have been capable of fleeing or getting organized. Hence mainly Greek Jews were sent, but Dutch and French prisoners also arrived and eventually a few Poles as well. From a Nazi point of view, the history of KL Warschau proved to be an economic and administrative disaster. The rubble clearing and the erection of the ghetto were delayed. As there was no proper water supply and the prisoners could not wash themselves, a typhoid fever epidemic broke out and decimated the inmates. By March 1944, 75 percent of the prisoners had died and the camp had to be quarantined. 3 The SS had to hire thousands of Polish workers instead of using free Jewish slave labor. It was almost a year before the SS-WVHA could report that the camp would be soon completed in the summer of 1944. According to SS data, 34 million bricks, 1300 tons of iron ore, 6000 tons of scrap metal and 805 tons of other metals were collected from the ghetto rubble. The seemingly impressive numbers covered a disappointing reality: the extraction of the building material worth of 5 million Marks and the erection of the camp cost 30 times as much, 150 million Marks. 4 Moreover, an SS-WVHA investigation revealed cases of serious corruption in KL Warschau. It became clear that the SS leaders not only sold the prisoners’ underwear on the black market, but – together with the prisoner functionaries – they also plundered the inmates and stole the valuables found beneath the ghetto ruins. Commander Herbet and others were arrested and interned in KL Sachsenhausen. Parallel to these events, KL Warschau lost its independence and became a sub-camp subordinated to KL Lublin (Majdanek) as “Arbeitslager Warschau”. New guards and the new commander, SS-Obersturmführer Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert, were redeployed from Majdanek. He became the last commander of the camp.

Warning sign in four languages (German, Polish, Hungarian and French) erected at the barbed wire fence of the Warsaw camp (Leonard Sempoliński). “Attention! Neutral zone. You will be shot without warning!” The Hungarian text has a mistranslation and a spelling mistake as well.

Hungarian Jewish transports

Restructuring the camp’s operation and replacing the commander had not solved the most crippling issue: the lack of workforce. To remedy this, as of May 1944, the SS deported thousands of Hungarian Jewish men to Warsaw from Auschwitz-Birkenau. No documentation pertaining to these transports survived. The lack of German documents raises the significance of the testimonies of dozens of survivors taken in Budapest in 1945 by the National Committee for Attending Deportees (Deportáltakat Gondozó Országos Bizottság – DEGOB), a Hungarian Jewish relief organization.

The analysis of these testimonies provides a meaningful amount of information regarding the Hungarian Jews arriving in Warsaw. Most of them were deported in late May 1944 by the Hungarian authorities from the ghettoes of Munkács, Huszt, Técső, Ungvár in Carpatho-Ruthenia (today: Ukraine) to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Others were taken from Eastern Hungarian cities, such as Mátészalka. Typically they arrived in Birkenau after three days of travel. Those from Carpatho-Ruthenia were selected by Dr. Mengele, while the Mátészalka transport was received by SS-Rapportführer (Roll Call Leader), Oswald Kaduk, who was later sentenced to life in the so-called Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt. 5 Those deemed unfit to work were murdered in the gas chambers immediately. The ones capable of working were taken to sections BIIc, BIId and BIIe of Birkenau. Here they spent 3 to 10 days in average. The oldest among them was born in 1890, the youngest in 1930. Most them were 15 to 25 years old: teenagers and young men. They were not registered in Auschwitz therefore they were not tattooed with prisoner numbers either.

The number of Hungarian Jews transported from Auschwitz to Warsaw is unclear. The literature’s estimates vary from 2500 to 5000. 6 However, it is certain that they constituted the most populous prisoner group of KL Warschau.

The analysis of DEGOB protocols suggests that at least two transports carried them from Birkenau and their number was around 4000. According József Davidovics (mentioned earlier) “we went with two transports, ca. 4000 of us”. 7 The accuracy of his testimony is supported by other Hungarian survivors as well and an account by a Polish Jew also confirms that the first, 2000-strong Hungarian groups arrived in KL Warschau at the end of May 1944. 8

Conditions, rations

Under the new SS leadership deployed from KL Lublin, the general conditions somewhat improved. Most Hungarian survivors remembered founding themselves in a more favorable situation than Birkenau. They were accommodated in brick barracks that housed 160 to 250 prisoners. According to a boy from Munkács, „everybody has his own bed to sleep in and an extra rug to cover with. … It was heavenly compared to … Auschwitz.” 9 Another prisoner remembered as follows: “We lived in a relatively clean camp. We received [clean] underwear every fourth day. Food supply was satisfactory. We received white bread on more than one occasion.” 10 According to other testimonies, the prisoners received 50 decagrams of bread and 0.75 liters of soup twice a day. Rations in other commandos (working group) were far from this: “the only thing they gave us to eat was carrots” – complained a survivor from Budapest.

After the ghetto revolt: executions, cremations

As the Nazis were suspicious that Polish prisoners – who spoke the local language – would try to escape, they preferred sending Hungarians to external workplaces. Ferdinand Wald and 150 other prisoners were assigned for deforestation works. Another Hungarian team worked at the building of the new crematorium which “was completed when we left the site”. 11 Most Hungarian Jews toiled away among the ruins of the ghetto and collected bricks, stone, and iron beams. They were ordered to clean 250 bricks per day per person. 12 One of the commandos shoveled rubble 12 hours a day in the ghetto, even when they were sick and had 40-degree fever. However, other Hungarians were engaged in burning corpses found in the ghetto: “Once we cremated the corpses of 240 people. They piled the bodies up, poured gasoline over it and then set the pile on fire. In 10 minutes the whole cremation was over. We loaded the firewood, the Poles piled up the corpses and ignited them.” 13 Others witnessed the murder of Jews who had been hiding among the ruins for a year. Henrik Stein and other prisoners “dug up the ground and many times they found Jewish families who for years lived in these narrow underground cellars. They were immediately executed [by the SS].” 14


Prisoners were regularly beaten. German capos were especially brutal. “Our overseers were German Aryans, mainly criminals who would beat uswithout any particular reason” – remembered a Hungarian Jew. According to a 14-year-old boy from Munkács, they were even worse than the SS: “The guards treated us well, but there were German prisoners, robbers and murderers, the so-called green triangles, who were functionaries which meant they did with us whatever they wanted they kept beating us up as they pleased.” Other Hungarian Jews gave account of SS brutality: “They set the dogs on us and these tore chunks of flesh out of our legs. I still carry the mark caused by a dog like this biting my thigh” –remembered a 50-year-old survivor. 15 Sixteen-year-old Mendel Klein suffered the most brutal beating of his life in Warsaw: “Once we had to pull a car. There were 60 of us so obviously all of us couldn’t get to the car. Up came an SS and slapped a boy and then he came up to me and wanted to hit my head with his rifle. As a reflex I defended my head with my arm and I pushed him by accident. So he beat me up so badly that I spat out four of my teeth right on the spot.” 16 He reported the incident to the US authorities after the war as well.

The first page of Klein Mendel’s testimony taken by the DEGOB (Deportáltakat Gondozó Országos Bizottság/National Committee for Attending Deportees) in Budapest, 29 July 1945. He mentioned the incident took place in the camp, when an SS man “beat me up so badly that I spat out four of my teeth right on the spot” at the end of the first paragraph. Mendel Klein was liberated in KL Dachau. He also reported the same incident to the US authorities: 𔄜 teeth beaten out by SS-man in Warszawa”. Source: ITS – Arolsen Archives 01010602 oS.

Mátyás Teichmann, a bookbinder from Alsóverecke remembered that the name of the most brutal SS was “a Lagerführer, named Omschwitz, who treated us very badly”. 17 Most probably he thought of 23-year-old Schutzhaftlagerführer Heinz Villain, who the prisoners called “Umschmitz”.

Corruption and escape

Though the SS-WVHA changed the leadership of the camp, the level of corruption remained the same in the summer of 1944. Polish and German capos sold bread for gold teeth and jewelry. Many Hungarian Jews took valuables they dug out from the ghetto ruins to the black market. 18 Capos plundered discovered Jewish hiding places in the ghetto and they robbed the prisoners as well. 19 Corruption was part of the everyday operation in Warsaw and its level was even higher than in many other camps: the prisoners could even buy their freedom. Inmates from József Davidovics’s group “managed to escape from the camp and to join the partisans by bribing the SS”. Prisoner escape was not infrequent. 15-year-old Henrik Stern from Huszt worked with Polish Jews. Many of them escaped. The SS threatened with mass retribution and declared that “they will execute ten Jews for every escapee”. 20

Evacuation of the camp

As the Red Army was fast approaching, the Warsaw camp’s evacuation was launched at the end of July 1944. The SS asked the prisoners if they felt fit for a 120-kilometer march. Those who said no stayed in the camp with the sick prisoners. A working group of a few hundred men also stayed here under the supervision of 90 SS guards. Their task was to cover the traces. The others, ca. 4000-4500 prisoners, were marched towards Kutno. Before evacuation, the prisoners saw that “the SS destroyed all the documents of the camp”. According to survivors Ernő Roth and Salamon Weisz, those left behind were taken to the camp hospital and “as we later heard, the Transportführer stepped up to their beds and shot everyone”. A survivor from Munkács knew from hearsay that 270 people stayed in the camp hospital: “the sick were given an injection and then they were cremated”. According to another witness, a Hungarian physicians later told him that they saw with their own eyes that 500 prisoners who were unfit to march, “were shot dead together with the sick”. Another prisoner stated that when they set off towards Kutno, the total number of prisoners was 500-600, including the cleaning commando and the sick. Later he received contradictory news about their fate. Some said they had been killed and incinerated, others told him the prisoners in the camp were liberated. 21

Both versions were correct. Experienced Polish prisoners warned the Hungarians not to trust the SS’s promise as those left behind would be most probably murdered. It was in vain – ca. 180 Hungarians did not feel strong enough to walk. Soon after the column left the camp, “Umschmitz” and another SS (dubbed by the inmates as “the Gypsy”) shot them and the sick in the head. The corpses were cremated on the former ghetto site by a group of prisoners. 22

SS-Unterscharführer Heinz Villain, dubbed as “Umschmitz” by the prisoners (Der Prozeß – Eine Darstellung des Majdanek-Verfahrensin Düsseldorf. Tv series directed by Eberhard Fechner) He served as Schutzhaftlagerführer of the Warsaw camp in the summer of 1944. Previously he was stationed in KL Lublin as Feldführer. Despite the fact that he tortured and killed several prisoners, he was sentenced for only 6 years imprisonment in the third Majdanek trial in 1981 in Düsseldorf.


On 1 August 1944, the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), the underground military organization of the Polish Government-in-Exile, launched the Warsaw uprising against the Nazi rule. On the first day, resistance fighters liberated 50 to 70 Hungarian and Greek Jews who worked in the SS warehouse of the so-called Umschlagplatz – a symbolic site from where more than 250,000 Warsaw Jews had been deported to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Four days later, one of the units of the Home Army’s “Zośka” battalion broke through the gate of the Warsaw camp with a captured German Panther tank. In the 90-minute shoot-out some of the SS and SD guards were killed, the rest escaped. In total, 348 Hungarian, Greek and Polish Jews were liberated, some women among them. Thus Warsaw became the only (former) Konzentrationslager liberated by anti-Nazi resistance fighters.

August 5, 1944: Jewish prisoners of Gęsiówka camp and their Polish liberators from”Zośka” battalion (wikipedia).

Hungarian Jews in the Warsaw uprising

200 to 250 of the liberated prisoners were Hungarian Jews. Most of them joined the resistance. They were “drawn up military-style in two long ranks…and one of them came to me and saluted ‘Sir…the Jewish Battalion ready for action’ ” – reported Wacław Micuta, one of the Polish commanding officer. “Many died in combat. Our losses were horrendous. But those soldier-Jews left behind them the reputation of exceptionally brave, ingenious and faithful people.” Later Micuta said that the Jews “were fighting like mad, I think three of them survived.” 23 Another Polish fighter recalled: “When we finally entered, I saw an amazing thing: a large group of Jews speaking different languages such as Hungarian and French… There was a huge joy… Some of them joined our unit… They took up arms against the Germans with us.” 24

In most cases we only know the first names or nicknames of the Hungarian Jews who joined the resistance. One of them, named Kuba, and a Polish corporal fixed a broken canon under the fire of the SS and chased away the Germans by shooting at them with the weapon. On 16 August Kuba and his comrades were conducting a diversion attack among the ghetto ruins while resistance fighters were smuggling ammunition through the sewage system to a cut off Polishunit. Kuba was killed mid-September while fighting for the Czerniaków bridge head. Two other Hungarian Jews, Koloman (maybe Kálmán) and Tibor also died here. This is where another Hungarian Jew, Pawel (probably Pál) died too – he was a member of the “Parasol” battalion and he destroyed German tanks and armored vehicles. On 22 September, when his unit was encircled by Germans, Pawel, who spoke good German, was sent to approach the German lines as an envoy. He was accompanied by another probably Hungarian Jew, a certain Dr. Turek (maybe Török). The Nazis shot both of them. 25 Hungarian Jews without a military training also contributed to the resistance efforts. They built barricades, serves as couriers and carried ammunition. They were highly visible targets in their striped uniforms, therefore many was killed. Fifty-four-year Lázár Einhorn from Técső was working on the Umschlagplatz on 1 August under SS supervision. After completing their work there, the Germans drove the prisoners on trucks towards the Danziger Railway Station. On Wildstrasse the resistance ambushed the convoy and freed the prisoners. Glück and other Jews from his unit joined their ranks. For two months they build barricades and buried the dead other times they carried water in the midst of air raids and shelling. After the defeat, posing as Polish civilians, they were captured again. They survived the war in a labor camp under disguise. 26

One fighter of the “Zośka” battalion wearing German uniform and two liberated prisoners (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Juliusz Bogdan Deczkowski). Those who did not change their striped camp uniforms in time were murdered by the SS as the uprising collapsed.

Keeping the camouflage of not being Jewish was necessary as the SS was constantly combing through the masses of prisoners in search for Jews. “Their first action was to separate the Jews from everyone else. It was easy for them as we were all wearing prisoner uniforms. I have no idea what happened to the others and who survived this. I don’t know anything about my brother either who was separated from me. As for me, as we walked in front of the hospital, I stepped into the building, found a doctor’s coat which covered my prisoner uniform thus I was put into a cattle car with the other Poles and taken westward” – reported a Hungarian survivor in 1945. 27

Ca. 200 of KL Warschau’s former prisoners were still alive when the uprising was put down. 28 Most of them – many Hungarians among their ranks – were executed by the SS.

Death march and death train

Most of the 4000-4500 prisoners taken from the Warsaw camp towards Kutno were Hungarians. According to survivor testimonies, the SS forced them to march for 3-4 days in the scorching summer heat. The prisoners were not given food or water. “If someone leaned over to get some water from the ditch or the puddles, the SS shot them. Many people died like this – a lot of them were from Munkács…” 29 At least 200 prisoners were murdered – some testimonies estimate an even higher number. Many accounts mention a mass execution at a river crossing, when first the prisoners were allowed to drink from the water, but soon SS men started to hurry them to carry on marching and eventually opened fire on the prisoners: 30 “Voraciously we started to drink, but the SS set off his dog on us and ordered us to come out. Meanwhile he also shot someone – he was still alive when the SS made his dog get into the water and the animal mangled the dying prisoner’s throat” – remembered two survivors. 31

After days of marching, they arrived at a train. 90 to 110 prisoners were crammed into each cattle car, but half or more of the space in the cars was taken up by the SS and the capos. The prisoners literally laid on each other in the unbearable heat. Only one bucket of water was placed in each car. Handing out water portions, understandably, led to stampedes. “Everyone jumped up so they wouldn’t miss the water, but the guards started the beating and slapping. Many people were beaten to death” – remembered 19-year-old Salamon Junger after the war. 32 In other train cars the SS opened fire. The Farkas brothers were crammed into a car with 110 other prisoners. Many of them lost their minds because of the thirst. The guards immediately shot them. Others were so desperate that they broke out the golden teeth from their mouths in exchange for a glass of water. The SS took a whole barrel of water into another car and started to sell it publicly for gold. In Jenő Majrovits’s car the SS simply murdered those with golden teeth. 33

Holocaust scholar: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had many heroes

'Jews out' scrawled on Warsaw Ghetto uprising monument in Poland

Trailblazing Holocaust historian Israel Gutman dies

Israeli militarism subsists in the shadows of Auschwitz

Don’t minimize the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt

The real point of no return in the Jewish-Arab conflict

Myth of the Warsaw Ghetto bunker: How it began

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – the very name is deceptive. The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto never revolted. In the summer of 1942 some 300,000 Jews from the ghetto were sent to Treblinka and murdered. Around 50,000 people were left in the ghetto they were spared death at the time because they were skilled professionals who worked in German factories both inside and outside the ghetto. These people never thought about revolt, they thought about survival.

Only a small group of young people revolted, whose size and efforts were inflated to mythic proportions in Israel after the state was established in 1948. More importantly, the uprising, which started on April 19, 1943, contradicted the survival strategy of the masses of Jews who remained in the ghetto.

The idea of the revolt and armed warfare jibed with the ethos of the prestate Jewish community in Palestine and the young nation. It was exaggerated by the activist part of the Labor movement – the Ahdut Ha'avoda party and its affiliated kibbutz movement – which also laid claim to the uprising while repressing the memory of other movements that took part, like the Bundists, Communists and right-wing Revisionists.

Due to pressure from this part of the Labor movement, the memorial day for the destruction of European Jewry was named Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, as if there was any proportionality between the two parts of the phrase. Ahdut Ha'avoda attacked David Ben-Gurion and Mapai – another precursor to the Labor Party – and waved its banner of military activism: In Israel the Palmach, in the Holocaust the ghetto fighters.

The uprising was also inflated by a blurring of the numbers: the number of German casualties, the number of ghetto fighters and the length of the uprising. In the first works after the Holocaust, writers talked about hundreds of Germans killed. But the daily reports sent out by the commander who destroyed the ghetto later came to light. Based on these reports from SS Gen. Jurgen Stroop, which no one questions, 16 Germans were killed in the fighting. After these reports came to light, the original writings on the uprising were filed away and never mentioned.

A second murky figure is the number of people who took part in the uprising, in which two umbrella organizations participated. One was the left-wing Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or ZOB), which included groups from movements with socialist and communist leanings, both Zionist and non-Zionist. The second consisted of the people from right-wing Beitar, which operated within the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy, or ZWW).

Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman (Icchak Cukierman) was a ZOB leader and a key figure in building up the uprising's image after the war in Israel . He claimed that around 500 fighters took part in the revolt. Another participant in the uprising, Stefan Grayek, put the figure at 700.

Among historians, Prof. Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem states (without giving details) that there were some 750 to 1,000 fighters, while Prof. Israel Gutman, who took part in the uprising and wrote a book after doing separate research, put the number at only 350. None of these numbers – except it seems Bauer’s – include the fighters of the right-wing organizations from which there were no survivors to provide testimony and whose contribution was met with thunderous silence for many years.

The most reliable testimony on many points about the uprising, including the number of participants, was given by one of its leaders, Marek Edelman. Edelman, a Bundist, remained in Poland after the war and therefore became an untouchable as far as the institutions that organized the remembrance in Israel were concerned.

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Edelman put the number of ZOB fighters at about 220. When asked what he based his figures on, he responded: “I was there and knew everyone. It’s not hard to know 220 people.” As for the gap between this figure and Zuckerman’s, Edelman said: “Antek had political motives and I didn’t.”

Assuming that the number of fighters in the right-wing organization – for which there are no clear numbers – was smaller, it’s reasonable to assume that the total number of participants in the revolt was less than 400 people, out of some 50,000 people in the ghetto.

Just two days of hard fighting

The figures on the length of the real fighting were also inflated. Gutman stretches out the uprising to a month. But Stroop’s reports, as well as the testimony of the uprising’s leaders, show that the actual battles took place over only two days. This was because the ZOB’s battle plans were never carried out in full. Their conception was to take positions in windows, fire guns and throw grenades, and then take new positions.

At the start of the revolt on April 19, the Germans were surprised by the armed resistance and retreated from the ghetto. But after they reorganized, they had no intention of chasing the Jews from house to house and suffering casualties. Instead, they decided to destroy the ghetto and set it ablaze.

The members of the ZOB who thought the fate of the Jews in the ghetto was set in any case – to die – had planned to fight and die with their guns in their hands. But they found themselves hiding and searching for an escape from the destruction and flames. In the end, they were forced to flee and burned up with the ghetto’s inhabitants, in opposition to their original plans.

Zivia Lubetkin, a leader of the revolt, wrote about it this way: “We were all helpless, shocked with embarrassment. All our plans were ruined. We had dreamed of a last battle in which we knew we would be defeated by the enemy, but they would pay with a great deal of blood. All our plans were ruined, and without any other opening the decision was made: We would leave. It was no longer possible to fight.”

Zuckerman wrote: “We knew all the exits very well, all the rooftop passages. If the war had been carried out . without flamethrowers, thousands of troops would have had to be sent into battle to defeat us.”

The first group of ZZW fighters left the ghetto on April 20, the revolt’s second day, through tunnels prepared in advance. A second group left on April 22 and a last group on April 26. Most if not all were killed when they were discovered on the Polish side.

The ZOB fighters, who had not intended to leave the ghetto, had not prepared escape routes. Only thanks to the sewage tunnels and help from the Polish side could they leave the ghetto. On April 28 a first group left. On May 8, Mordechai Anielewicz, the ZOB’s commander, committed suicide after his group’s basement hiding place was revealed. On May 9 the remnants of the ZOB left the ghetto. All told, some 100 ZOB fighters fled.

Within a few days the two military organizations left (or fled) the bombed and burned-out ghetto and its 50,000 inhabitants, leaving the residents to the terrible revenge of the Germans. It is thought that the Germans murdered 10,000 ghetto residents they sent the rest to camps near Lublin.

Ruining a survival strategy

The uprising thus interfered with the survival strategy of the masses of Jews in the ghetto. To understand this, one must first understand the change in the situation between the mass transports in 1942, when the vast majority of Jews in Poland were exterminated over a short period of time, and the situation in 1943.

During this time came the turning point of World War II. In November 1942 the Russians broke through the front around Stalingrad and by the beginning of February 1943 the entire Sixth Army had surrendered. At the same time the Germans were defeated at El Alamein in the Egyptian desert, and the Allies landed in French Northwest Africa.

These routs breathed hope in occupied Europe for a relatively quick defeat of Germany. Even the Jews’ hopes were buoyed. If they could somehow hang on another day, maybe they could be saved.

There was even something of a change in the German policy toward the Jews. The destruction of every last Jew may still have been the highest priority, but the urgency eased a bit after most of the goal had been reached and in light of the war’s economic needs. The Germans needed workers for its factories after the entire fit German workforce had been drafted for fighting. Forced labor was used all over Europe.

The 50,000 or so Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto after the transports of 1942 had survived, as in other ghettos in occupied Poland, largely because they worked in factories for Germany. Many of these factories were owned and managed by Germans, who negotiated with the German authorities and the SS to hold on to their workers.

In light of all this, the Jews’ belief grew that somehow they could survive. They had two bad options: Flee the ghetto to the hostile Polish side or continue working in the German factories. Both options meant living day to day in the hope the war would end quickly.

At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews survived in Poland and Germany. In Warsaw alone the number of survivors is estimated at about 25,000. Death in battle, as the ghetto fighters planned, did not keep with the intentions of the vast majority of Jews remaining.

Many historians of the Holocaust and the uprising came from a political camp enlisted for political purposes. Their influence on the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum was great. They wrote our history books and shaped our remembrance of the Holocaust.

Their influence on their students and followers is still greatly felt today. Thus the question has never been raised: What right did a small group of young people have to decide the fate of the 50,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto?

Eli Gat is a Holocaust survivor and the author of “Not Just Another Holocaust Book.”

Key Dates

October 26, 1939
Forced labor instituted for Jews in Poland

As soon as German forces occupy Poland in September 1939, Jews are drafted for forced labor to clear war damage and repair roads. This practice is formalized in October, when the Germans institute forced labor for Jewish men between the ages of 14 and 60 in occupied Poland. Later, Jewish women along with Jewish children aged 12 to 14 are also required to perform forced labor. Forced-labor camps for Jews are established throughout occupied Poland and Jews in the ghettos are required to report to the German occupation authorities for work. Jews generally work 10 to 12 hour days under harsh conditions, receiving little or no pay.

May 21, 1942
I.G. Farben plant opens near Auschwitz

The I.G. Farben synthetic-rubber and petroleum plant opens at Monowice, near Auschwitz, using Jewish forced laborers from the camp. The German conglomerate IG Farben established a factory there in order to take advantage of cheap concentration camp labor and the nearby Silesian coalfields. It invested more than 700 million Reichsmarks (about 1.4 million US dollars in 1942). Auschwitz III, also called Buna or Monowitz, is located nearby to provide forced laborers for the plant. Life expectancy for workers at the giant plant is extremely poor. By 1945, about 25,000 forced laborers have died in the Monowitz plant.

July 11, 1942
Jews in Salonika, Greece, held for forced labor

The Germans require all Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 45 living in Salonika to report to Liberty Square where they are to receive forced-labor assignments. 9,000 Jewish men report. About 2,000 are assigned to forced-labor projects for the German army. The remainder are detained until the Jewish communities of Salonika and Athens pay a huge ransom to the German occupation authorities for their release. As part of the payment, the Jewish cemetery in Salonika is transferred to city ownership. The city dismantles it and uses stones from the cemetery in the construction of a university on the site.

The War on Jews in Poland

The German invasion of Poland was devastating not only for Poles but also for the more than 3.5 million Jews who lived there in 1939. In Germany, Jews were about 1% of the population in Poland they made up 10%, and the proportion of Jews was often much higher in Polish cities such as Warsaw. In the first few days of the invasion, Jacob Birnbaum discovered how he and his fellow Jews would be affected by German occupation:

On Tuesday, September 5, at 4:00 in the afternoon, German ground troops entered [the town of] Piotrkow and conquered the city after two hours of street fighting. That same day they set out on a search for Jews in the almost deserted city, found twenty, among them Rabbi Yechiel Meir Fromnitsky, and shot them in cold blood. Thus it began.

The next day, September 6, the Germans set fire to a few streets in the Jewish quarter and shot Jews trying to escape from their burning homes. . . . Both individually and in groups the Germans invaded the Jewish community and stole virtually everything they feasibly could—clothes, linen, furs, carpets, valuable books. They often invited the Poles on the streets to take part in the looting, after which they would fire bullets into the air to give the impression that they were driving away the Polish “thieves.” These scenes were photographed by the Germans to demonstrate for all that they were protecting Jewish property from Polish criminals.

Jews, many of them elderly, were kidnapped and sent to forced labor camps where they were tortured and beaten—often to the point of loss of consciousness. These kidnappings took place during the days preceding Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish new year], as well as on the holy day [Yom Kippur] itself. Jewish men hid themselves in cellars, attics, and elsewhere, yet most were caught. The worst fate was that of the Jews sent to the SS Precinct. The main objective of the work there was torture, not productivity. Jews were forced, for instance, to do “gymnastics” while being beaten and subjected to various other forms of humiliation. . . .

One common insult suffered by the Jews during the early days under the new regime was their being chased away or beaten as they tried to wait in line for food together with other citizens. All Jews who attempted to resist were gunned down immediately.

During the holy days of Rosh Hashanah, as Jews hurriedly gathered to pray in the synagogues and private homes, still more torture was inflicted upon them. Several German officers entered the Great Synagogue stirring up much confusion among the worshipping Jews, many of whom attempted to escape. Twenty-nine worshippers were beaten brutally and taken away to prison, among them the lay leader of the congregation. The news of this event spread rapidly through the city, causing a great deal of fright, consternation, and anxiety. There were no worshippers in the synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Two days before Yom Kippur [the Jewish day of atonement], German officers and troopers entered the shut synagogue, broke up the furnishings, and completely demolished the beautifully ornamented eastern wall. 1

As the fighting in Poland continued, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Central Security Office, called a meeting in Berlin of the leaders of several SS units known as the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads made up primarily of German SS and police personnel). At the meeting, Heydrich distinguished between “the final aim (which will require extended periods of time)” and “the stages leading to the fulfillment of this final aim (which will be carried out in short periods).” He began by ordering that Jews be forcibly moved from the countryside to large cities. Jewish communities with less than 500 persons were to be dissolved and their residents transferred to the nearest “concentration center.”

By the end of 1939, all Jews in occupied Poland aged ten and above had to wear yellow stars on their sleeves to indicate that they were Jews. Jewish-owned shops had to display signs in their windows. Also, Jews could be treated only by Jewish physicians. 2 Failing to obey these or any of the other laws the Nazis imposed could mean ten years in prison. The Germans established at least 1,100 ghettos and hundreds of forced labor camps in occupied Poland. Historian Richard Evans writes that in the General Government, “if Poles were second-class citizens, then Jews scarcely qualified as human beings at all in the eyes of the German occupiers, soldiers and civilians, Nazis and non-Nazis alike.” 3

Forced Resettlement

In Warsaw, the Nazis established the largest ghetto in all of Europe. 375,000 Jews lived in Warsaw before the war – about 30% of the city’s total population. Immediately after Poland’s surrender in September 1939, the Jews of Warsaw were brutally preyed upon and taken for forced labor.

  • In 1939 the first anti-Jewish decrees were issued. The Jews were forced to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David and economic measures against them were taken that led to the unemployment of most of the city’s Jews.
  • A Judenrat (Jewish council) was established under the leadership of Adam Czerniakow, and in October 1940 the establishment of a ghetto was announced. On November 16 the Jews were forced inside the area of the ghetto.
  • Although a third of the city’s population was Jewish, the ghetto stood on just 2.4% of the city’s surface area. Masses of refugees who had been transported to Warsaw brought the ghetto population up to 450,000.

Surrounded by walls that they built with their own hands and under strict and violent guard, the Jews of Warsaw were cut off from the outside world. Within the ghetto their lives oscillated in the desperate struggle between survival and death from disease or starvation.

The living conditions were unbearable, and the ghetto was extremely overcrowded. On average, between six to seven people lived in one room and the daily food rations were the equivalent of one-tenth of the required minimum daily calorie intake.

Economic activity in the ghetto was minimal and generally illegal, smuggling of food being the most prevalent of such activity. Those individuals who were active in these illegal acts or had other savings were generally able to survive longer in the ghetto.

The walls of the ghetto could not silence the cultural activity of its inhabitants, however, and despite the appalling living conditions in the ghetto, artists and intellectuals continued their creative endeavors. Moreover, the Nazi occupation and deportation to the ghetto served as an impetus for artists to find some form of expression for the destruction visited upon their world. In the ghetto there were underground libraries, an underground archive (the “Oneg Shabbat” Archive)youth movements and even a symphony orchestra. Books, study, music and theater served as an escape from the harsh reality surrounding them and as a reminder of their previous lives.

The crowded ghetto became a focal point of epidemics and mass mortality, which the Jewish community institutions, foremost the Judenrat and the welfare organizations, were helpless to combat.

  • More than 80,000 Jews died in the ghetto. In July 1942 the deportations to the Treblinka death camp began. When the first deportation orders were received, Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Judenrat, refused to prepare the lists of persons slated for deportation, and, instead, committed suicide on July 23, 1942.

4 Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB)

Following the deportation process, approximately 55,000 to 60,000 Jewish people continued to live in the Warsaw ghetto. The small group of people left behind chose to form various underground self-defense units. For example, they started the Jewish Combat Organization, also known as ZOB, who smuggled a small supply of weapons from anti-Nazi Polish people.

When the Nazis stepped inside the ghetto on January 18, 1943, to prepare another group of residents for transfer, they were ambushed by the ZOB unit. The fighting between the Nazis and ZOB lasted for many days until the Germans withdrew. Consequently, deportations from the ghetto were suspended for a few months. [7]

Forced labour

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Forced labour, also called Slave Labour, labour performed involuntarily and under duress, usually by relatively large groups of people. Forced labour differs from slavery in that it involves not the ownership of one person by another but rather merely the forced exploitation of that person’s labour.

Forced labour has existed in various forms throughout history, but it was a peculiarly prominent feature of the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (especially during the rule of Joseph Stalin), in which it was used on a vast scale. Under these regimes, persons either suspected of opposition or considered racially or nationally unfit were summarily arrested and placed under long or indefinite terms of confinement in concentration camps, remote labour colonies, or industrial camps and forced to work, usually under harsh conditions.

The Nazi Party’s rise to power in Germany during the 1930s was accompanied by the extensive use of concentration camps to confine classes of persons who were opposed to the regime or who were otherwise undesirable. The outbreak of World War II created a tremendous demand for labour in Germany, and the Nazi authorities turned to the concentration-camp population to augment the labour supply. By the end of 1944 some 2 million prisoners of war (mostly Russians and Ukrainians) and some 7.5 million civilian men, women, and children from every German-occupied nation of Europe had been put to work in German arms factories, chemical plants, mines, farms, and lumber operations. Although the earlier arrivals in Germany were “volunteers,” the vast majority (from 1941 on) were rounded up by force, transported to Germany in boxcars, and put to work under appallingly harsh and degrading conditions. A large percentage of the slave labourers had died from disease, starvation, overwork, and mistreatment by the time the war ended. Many of those who had become unfit for further labour because of the harsh conditions were simply exterminated.

Forced labour was also extensively used by the early Soviet government. In 1923 the Soviet secret police established a concentration camp on Solovetski Island in the White Sea in which political prisoners were first used extensively for forced labour. The secret police established many corrective labour camps in the northern Russian S.F.S.R. and in Siberia beginning in the late 1920s and, as the number of those arrested in Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s grew into the millions, a network of hundreds of labour camps grew up throughout the Soviet Union. The Soviet concentration-camp system became a gigantic organization for the exploitation of inmates through work. The inmates of the camps in the northern Soviet Union were used primarily in lumbering and fishing industries and on large-scale public-works projects, such as the construction of the White Sea–Baltic Sea canal. The inmates of the Siberian camps were used in lumbering and mining. The inmates of the Soviet labour camps were inadequately clothed for the severe Russian climate, and the standard rations of bread and soup were scarcely adequate to maintain life. It is variously estimated that from 5 million to 10 million persons died in the Soviet labour camp system from 1924 to 1953. (See Gulag.) The use of forced labour greatly diminished after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the subsequent de-Stalinization of Soviet society. Forced labour was also used by Japan during World War II, and by the communist government of China at times from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Khmer Rouge regime (1975–79) of Cambodia made a particularly widespread and brutal use of forced labour.

In 1957 the International Labour Organisation adopted a resolution that condemned the use of forced labour throughout the world. The convention was ratified by 91 member nations. Forced labour continues to be used by a few authoritarian and totalitarian governments on a relatively small scale.

Prisoner of war camps

This drawing by prisoner R.G Aubrey depicts room ten of barrack fourteen at the German prisoner of war camp Marlag and Milag Nord, based in North Germany. This camp was used to incarcerate British Navy personnel from 1942 until its liberation in May 1945.

This drawing by prisoner R.G Aubrey depicts room ten of barrack fourteen at the German prisoner of war camp Marlag and Milag Nord, based in North Germany. This camp was used to incarcerate British Navy personnel from 1942 until its liberation in May 1945.

Typically, inmates in prisoner of war camps were allowed to send and receive letters from their families, although this process could take several weeks or months. This is an unused prisoner of war airmail letter.

Typically, inmates in prisoner of war camps were allowed to send and receive letters from their families, although this process could take several weeks or months. This is an unused prisoner of war airmail letter.

The prisoner of war camps were subject to strict rules and regulations. This document shows a list of ‘General Camp Orders for all Prisoners of War’. The first two rules state ‘1. The prisoners of war must observe strict military discipline in the camp and outside the camp. 2. The camp leader and the guards are the superiors of all the POWs of the camp to whom they must behave according to military honours. In addition it is their duty to salute all members of the German army, the leader of the village farmers and the boss’.

The prisoner of war camps were subject to strict rules and regulations. This document shows a list of ‘General Camp Orders for all Prisoners of War’. The first two rules state ‘1. The prisoners of war must observe strict military discipline in the camp and outside the camp. 2. The camp leader and the guards are the superiors of all the POWs of the camp to whom they must behave according to military honours. In addition it is their duty to salute all members of the German army, the leader of the village farmers and the boss’.

Allied military officers and personnel who were captured by, or surrendered to, the Nazis were also imprisoned in camps. These camps were called prisoner of war, or POW, camps. Over one thousand prisoner of war camps existed throughout the Third Reich during the Second World War.

The camps held British, American, French, Polish and Soviet military personnel. There were many different types of camps, some held specifically Navy personnel, others held only officers, and others held a more general array of prisoners.