Germany’s occupation of Poland during World War II began in September 1939 following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Nazis and the Soviets then launched a successful military campaign against Poland and divided the country into three sections, mostly under German rule. In 1941, Nazi leader Adolph Hitler violated the treaty by attacking the Soviet Union and gaining complete control over Poland. Hitler regarded the Poles and Jews as less than human and persecuted them mercilessly.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler attacked Poland using a calculated blitzkrieg strategy intended to surprise and swiftly overpower the enemy. Hitler’s aim was to annihilate the opposition and inflict terror into the citizenry by heavily bombing little villages, as well as big cities. Nazi soldiers looted vacant buildings and absconded with German artifacts while destroying anything Polish or Jewish, including libraries, art collections and significant Polish architecture. Germans damaged schools, universities and research laboratories. The Schutzstaffel, or SS, shot several thousand teachers and college professors. Roman Catholic churches were destroyed or closed; priests, nuns and monks were killed or imprisoned.
Soon after the German invasion, an estimated 2 million Jews were segregated into squalid, urban ghettos awaiting transport to concentration camps, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Known as Operation Reinhard, the Nazis established three killing centers in the Lublin and Warsaw District. Upon arrival, Jewish men, women and children were told to strip, robbed of personal belongings, boarded into locked vans and gassed with carbon monoxide pumped into the vehicle. The largest concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland was Auschwitz, which included barracks, gas chambers and a crematorium. According to Jewish Virtual Library data, 3 million Jews were killed in Poland during World War II.
Families Ripped Apart
Under Hitler’s orders, the SS forced Polish and Jewish families from their homes, businesses and farms to make room for German resettlement. Displaced family members were split up and transported to concentration camps, forced labor camps or prison, depending on their age, ethnicity and ability to work. Polish children were kidnapped and screened for Aryan ancestry to determine suitability for adoption by German couples, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's website. The museum says that most of the 50,000 abducted children were deemed unfit for German acculturation, and were therefore killed or sent to group homes.
When it soon became apparent that Poland had no chance against the invading German armies, leaders of the Polish government fled to Romania, and later to London, where they plotted against the occupants. Polish activists who stayed behind in Warsaw formed the Polish Victory Service, an underground resistance movement that worked in conjunction with exiled Polish government officials. The PVS formed the Home Army that recruited and trained soldiers to resist the Germans through sabotage, such as destroying military warehouses, supply trains and aircraft.
- Humboldt State University: Conditions for the Jews in Poland
- Florida Center for Instructional Technology University of South Florida: Poles: Victims of the Nazi Era, 1933-1948
- MilitaryHistoryOnline.com: The True Strategy of the Blitzkrieg
- Commission for Art Recovery: Poland
- United States Historical Holocaust Museum: Terror Against the Intelligentsia and Clergy
- United States Historical Holocaust Museum: Operation Reinhard
- Jewish Virtual Library: The "Final Solution": Estimate of Jews Killed
- United States Historical Holocaust Museum: Expulsions and the Kidnapping of Children
- Warsaw Uprising 1944 by Project InPosterum: Warsaw Uprising 1944: August 1 - October 2
- Yad Vashem: The Holocaust
- Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images