My wife and I made our first trip to Poland a few weeks ago. It was a trip prompted by low airfare ($775 RT Chicago to Warsaw on Delta & Air France). We spent four nights in Warsaw, three nights in Kraków, and we met my wife’s cousins for the first time. We took the three hour Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum tour and visited the Warsaw Uprising museum For about four hours.
My wife is the daughter of polish immigrants. Her father grew up in a small town on the east side of pre-war Poland, but that area is now part of either Belarus or Ukraine – never got a clear answer on that. Her mother was from a small farming community near Bialystok which was in central Poland before the war and is now near the eastern border.
I plan to provide impressions, photos and connections in future posts, but I feel it is important to understand the history, so here goes.
A Polish history lesson (1939-1945)
Germany was defeated in World War I without losing any German territory to the allied forces. In fact, they had achieved substantial gains in Belgium, the Netherlands and France. The German people were largely caught off guard by the defeat. They knew of many dead and injured soldiers, and food was scarce, but neither the government nor the newspapers gave any indication that surrender was imminent.
The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to assume guilt for the war, pay reparations to the winners, accept military restrictions, and cede 25,000 square miles and the 7 million inhabitants who lived In those lands to other countries. Germany’s attempts to pay the reparations and revive the post-war economy led to excessive printing of money and hyperinflation. The Great Depression affected the United States most dramatically, but Germany was the country which suffered the second most. This situation led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.
In opposition to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler’s Germany began to build up its military and demand annexation of certain lands in which a number of German speakers lived. France complained, but the other powers acquiesced because they felt the treaty had been too punitive on Germany. The United Kingdom believed that Germany would not start a war because Hitler himself had written that fighting a two front war twenty years earlier has been a fatal mistake. The prevailing thought held that if Germany started a new war, they would have to fight on all sides and would lose, so Hitler wouldn’t risk it
On August 23, 1939, the German and Soviet governments signed a non-aggression pact. Stalin of the USSR felt the pact allowed him time to rebuild following his purge of the military leadership during the 1930’s. For Hitler, the pact meant that he could wage war in the west and not worry about an attack from the east; Germany would not have to fight a two front war. In secret protocols attached to the pact, the two powers divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. The area of Poland roughly east of the Bug River (shown in grey on the map) was promised to the Soviets and the rest of pre-war Poland (in white) was to be Germany’s.
Germany invaded Poland from the west nine days later, and the Soviet Union – claiming that they were guarding against German aggression – invaded from the east sixteen days after that. The two forces generally kept to the territorial agreement in the secret protocols attached to the non-aggression pact.
The German invasion of Poland led to declarations of war from France and the United Kingdom, but no fighting ensued, just threats and trade actions. That changed in May of 1940 with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and France, followed by the Battle of Britain from early July to mid-September of that year. Hitler’s forces were unable to subdue the U.K. by air, so Germany ended the campaign and built strong defenses in France to guard against an invasion. Hitler no longer had to worry about fighting on the western front. This didn’t bode well for the Soviet Union.
Taking advantage of the security promised by the non-aggression pact with Germany, the Soviets invaded Finland on November 30, 1939. The Winter War didn’t go as planned. Much smaller Finland inflicted twice the casualties on the Soviet army as they suffered, and the war lasted 3-1/2 months before Finland capitulated. Hitler watched this and concluded that the the Soviets were weak. Germany invaded the USSR through Poland in June 1941.
Occupied Poland became the primary location for concentration and extermination camps during the war. Auschwitz was a former Polish army camp which the Germans used to house Polish prisoners early in the conflict. Nazi Germany enacted programs designed to wipe out Polish identity. Leaders in Polish government, military and education were rounded up, imprisoned, and generally executed. The Nazis changed the names of cities and towns from Polish names to German ones. In fact, Auschwitz is a German name; the Polish name was Oświęcim.
By 1942, the Nazis recognized the camps as the means toward the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.” For nearly two millennia, Christians in various regions would turn against the Jews and send them packing – those who survived the assaults, that is. One of the more receptive countries was Poland. The pre-war Jewish population was about 10%; the post-war population was 0.4%.
The concentration and extermination camps were not just for Polish Jews. Jewish people from all occupied territory were subjected to capture, deportation and extermination in the camps in Poland. Gypsies and the disabled were also killed in order to purify the human race.
In Warsaw, the Jewish people from the city and surrounding area were forced to live in the walled and guarded ghetto. 400,000 Jews lived in about 1.3 square miles. That is a population density of about 308,000 per square mile; New York City’s population density is about 26,000. It is estimated that 75% of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto died from starvation, extermination, German military response to an uprising and subsequent destruction of the ghetto.
The German military reached the suburbs of Moscow in late fall 1941, but stalled there. The Germans were not outfitted with winter clothing and the winter of 1941-1942 was exceptionally cold. German soldiers suffered severe frostbite and many froze to death, while the German tanks, trucks and planes could not operate on frozen fuel. For the next year and a half, the front moved in both directions with attacks and counterattacks, but the Nazi invasion had failed to meet its goal of the collapse of the Soviet government. Beginning in 1943, Germany fought a defensive war which merely slowed the Red Army advances. Following the successful invasion of France on June 6, 1944 (“D” Day), Germany was again fighting a two front war.
Soviet victories in the east accelerated once fighting resumed in France. The Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw in late August 1944. Polish underground fighters rose up against the German occupiers fully expecting the Red Army to join the fight. The Soviets offered very little help in the Polish struggle, and approximately 18,000 Polish fighters and 180,000 citizens were killed over the following month as the Germans crushed the uprising. They then systematically destroyed almost every historic building in Warsaw’s city center.
That’s it for my abridged Polish history. My next post will be less scholarly.