By the 1920's and '30's the majority of Polish Jews were living in varying degrees of poverty, the result of the overall poor economy of the newly independent Polish state, compounded by government sanctioned anti-Jewish measures such as a 1938 law revoking the citizenship of Polish Jews living abroad. Jews had limited access to Polish universities and professions. They lived in a general climate of anti-semitism which not infrequently flared into violent pogroms. So even before the Nazi occupation, Jews in Poland were isolated from the mainstream and in a poor position to defend themselves against the extremely severe measures that were to follow.
Hitler's army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the start of the second World War. On September 17, following the agreement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty, the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east. The ill prepared Polish army soon succumbed, surrendering to Germany's vastly superior forces on September 27. The Polish government fled into exile in Romania. Re-forming with new leadership, it eventually operated from London, coordinating and sending support to the various underground resistance groups in Poland.
On September 28, Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned Poland into three major areas. (See map ) The western territories were annexed into Germany, eastern areas into The Soviet Union, and the central portion, named the General Gouvernement, became a German protectorate, governed by German civil authorities under the autocratic leadership of Hans Frank.
German-directed upheavals to the Polish population were immediate and drastic. In the first months of the war, tens of thousands of Polish intellectuals, including many teachers and religious leaders, were killed. The Germans forcibly expelled Poles residing in the annexed western terrritories, sending them to resettle in the General Gouvernement, while many others living in the new Soviet territories were equally displaced. The Germans regarded Poles as "sub-human" and Polish Jews somewhere beneath that category, treating both groups with extreme and brutal harshness.
The German program for Polish Jews was one of concentration, isolation, and eventually, annihilation. Initially they forced the Polish Jews from the annexed territories and from all rural and smaller urban areas into large, overcrowded urban centers. Now in large concentrations, they isolated them from Polish society into sealed ghettos--walled-off cities within cities--where they had to endure appalling living conditions. Governing each ghetto was the Nazi-mandated Jewish Council, or Judenrat, whose members were former Jewish community leaders. While aspiring to alleviate the tremendous suffering of ghetto inhabitants, they actually played into the hands of the Nazis, making their job of annihilation easier. Eventually the German authorities deported the debilitated ghetto populations to concentration camps specifically built to kill people on an unprecedented scale.
By 1942, Poland was the Nazi regime's dumping ground for Jews from all over Europe; first the Polish ghettos, and then the concentration camps being the destinations for Jews rounded up in every Nazi-occupied country.
By the end of the war, over three million Polish Jews were dead, with only fifty to seventy thousand surviving.
Jews are liable for forced labor. They can be picked up off the streets for work at manual labor jobs such as digging ditches, shoveling snow, and cleaning streets.
Synagogues destroyed throughout General Gouvernement.
Jews forbidden from certain areas of major cities in General Gouvernement.
Jews must wear identifying star on their clothing.
Every Jewish community must elect a Jewish Council. After the formation of the ghettos the Jewish Councils became the governing bodies, trying to provide social services, but also serving the German authorities by delivering Jews for forced labor, and deportations to the death camps.
All Jewish bank deposits frozen. Jews can withdraw only $50.00 per week.
Jews can not change residence.
Curfew for Jews enforced from 9 PM to 5 AM.
Jews can not travel by train without special permission.
Jews are required to register ownership of all property, including clothing, furniture, and jewelry.
First major ghetto built, at Lodz. Curfews in the ghettos are enforced from 7 PM to 7 AM.
Warsaw ghetto built. The city's Jewish population is sealed inside.
Mass deportations of Jews, Gypsies, and Poles from other Nazi-occupied countries to the General Gouvernement area of Poland begins. Since the death camps are not built yet, they are first sent to the overcrowded ghettos.
Crackow ghetto built.
Jews forbidden to leave ghettos on pain of death.
Gentiles who knowingly help Jews are subject to the death penalty.
Lvov ghetto formed, the third largest in Poland. Most of the ghettos in Poland were established by the beginning of 1942.
Death camps begin operations. Poland is the site of six major concentration camps set up to kill Jews: Lublin, Kulmhof, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Auschwitz.
Jews from Lublin ghetto deported to Belzec death camp.
300,00 people deported from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka death camp.
Crackow ghetto liquidated.
Attempt to liqudate Warsaw ghetto is met with unexpected armed resistance.
The Warsaw ghetto is liquidated.
The Lvov ghetto is liquidated.
Late 1943 until liberation in 1945:
The pattern is repeated in every city with a ghetto population: Those able to work are organized into slave labor battalions to produce goods for the German military. Everyone else must fend for themselves. Food supplies are at starvation levels. Lack of santitation and overcrowding promote the rapid spread of disease, especially typhus, resulting in an extremely high mortality rate. Periodic mass deportations from the ghettos to the death camps are followed by an influx of newly arrived Jews from all areas of the German Reich.
A HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST, Yehuda Bauer, Franklin Watts, New York: 1982
THE WAR AGAINST THE JEWS, 1933-1945, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York: 1975
UNEQUAL VICTIMS: POLES AND JEWS DURING WORLD WAR TWO, Yisrael Gutman and Schmuel Krakowski, Holocaust Library, New York: 1986
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE EUROPEAN JEWS, Raul Hilberg, Holmes and Meier, New York: 1985