Germany's WWII Occupation of Poland: 'When We Finish, Nobody Is Left Alive'

By Michael Sontheimer

Part 2: A Nation of Slaves

Photo Gallery: The Horrific German Occupation of Poland Photos
Getty Images

The Nazis' aim was to transform the Poles into a nation of slaves. In May 1940 Himmler wrote that "the non-German peoples of the East may not receive any education beyond four-year elementary school." Their educational goal was to be as follows: "The ability to do simple sums no higher than 500, write their name, and understand that it is their divine duty to obey Germans, be honest, diligent and well-behaved." The SS Reichsführer did not consider reading an essential element of the Polish curriculum.

In October 1940 Hitler ordered "all members of the Polish intelligentsia" to be killed. SS leader Heydrich therefore instructed the heads of the security police task forces to ensure that the remaining members of the Polish "political leadership" be "rendered harmless and placed in a concentration camp." He also saw to it that lists of "teachers, clergymen, noblemen, legionaries, returning officers, etc." were drawn up immediately.

Poland's new masters were interested not only in landowners but more specifically in the influential Catholic clergy. German soldiers murdered 214 priests in the West Prussian diocese of Kulm-Pelplin alone. Elsewhere in West Prussia, Protestant ethnic Germans sawed off Catholic crucifixes and demolished statues of the Virgin Mary. Some 60,000 Poles fell victim to the Nazis' campaign against the intelligentsia.

In the fall of 1939, occupied Poland became a nightmare of often spontaneous and wanton terror. For instance, the head of Radom district threatened the death penalty for anyone caught felling trees in the forest for use as firewood. Throughout the country, the SS and the police slaughtered all those they considered to be Polish nationalists. The race-based expulsions and resettlement carried out by Himmler's henchmen sowed fear, unrest and chaos.

Creation of Jewish Ghettos

But the Jews would soon be the main focus of the Nazis' attention. Poland's Jews were forced to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David almost two years before Jews in the Altreich were made to sew yellow stars on their clothes. As early as September 21, 1939, Heydrich decreed that "the Jewry" in the areas under his control were to be "concentrated in ghettos for easier control and subsequent expulsion."

The occupiers set up the first major ghetto in Lodz, which they renamed Litzmannstadt, in the "Reich District of Wartheland" (also known as the Warthegau), where 3.7 million Poles and 400,000 Jews were resettled for "germanization." In late April 1940, regional governor Friedrich Uebelhoer had 144,000 Jews corralled into an area of just 4 square kilometers (1 sq mi). As a result, the people in Lodz ghetto had to live six to a room on average.

In mid-November 1940, the Nazis set up the Warsaw ghetto, into which they packed at least half a million people. Very soon, more that 5,000 people a month were dying of hunger, typhoid and other infectious diseases in this "Jewish reservation."

In his novel "Kaputt," Italian author Curzio Malaparte reported that Governor-General Frank had pointed out the high wall of the ghetto to him, saying, "Those poor Jews all have lung disease, but at least this wall protects them from the wind."

The creation of Lviv ghetto in late 1941 more-or-less completed the imprisonment of Poland's Jews, who could now be given "special treatment," as their systematic annihilation was officially termed.

"The Jewish problem must be solved during the war because this is the only way it can be completed without a general global hullabaloo," wrote Franz Rademacher, the diplomat who headed the "Jewish department" of the German foreign ministry. Although no written order has ever been found in which Hitler ordered the "final solution of the Jewish problem," there is much evidence to suggest that the Fuhrer decided to wipe out the European Jewry in the fall of 1941.

'We Have to Destroy the Jews Wherever We Find Them'

In mid-December of that year, Governor-General Frank told his cabinet in Krakow that he had asked Berlin what was going to be done with the Jews. The reply had allegedly been: "Liquidate them yourself." Frank therefore announced, "Gentlemen, I would ask you to steel yourself against any thoughts of compassion. We have to destroy the Jews wherever we find them."

Measures were quickly put into place to carry out this genocide. The SS had the first extermination camp built in Chelmno near Lodz in November 1941. To this they had added the slaughterhouses of Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Majdanek by the summer of 1942. The lack of technology for large-scale killing initially proved the biggest problem. At first the SS locked Jews in sealed trucks and poisoned them with exhaust fumes, but that wasn't considered quick enough.

SS researchers eventually hit upon a more satisfactory procedure whereby Soviet prisoners-of-war and Poles in Auschwitz were poisoned using the pesticide Zyklon B, which contains cyanide. In this way, the SS murdered more than a million people at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp alone. Rings, coins and tooth fillings from the victims were melted down, enabling Himmler's men to send a phenomenal 33 metric tons of gold to the Reichsbank in Berlin.

Some Poles considered the mass murder of the Jews "a strange stroke of luck of divine providence." One Catholic priest said, "Setting aside all the injustices the Germans have committed and continue to commit in our country, this is a good start that shows us a way in which the Polish people can liberate themselves from the Jewish scourge, a solution that should be pursued by the Poles themselves, albeit naturally in a less cruel manner, when they are eventually liberated."

Nevertheless, sympathy and solidarity with the Jews were more widespread in Poland than anti-Semitism. Tens of thousands of Jews in the General Government survived the occupation, most of them hidden by fellow Poles, even though the Nazis typically shot all the members of any family found to be harboring Jews.

Even minor offenses led to Poles being sent to Germany as forced laborers. In this way, more than two million people were enslaved.

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