World War II crimes in occupied Poland
Momentum, a cast-iron memorial to Polish people "deported" to their deaths in World War II, Warsaw
|Cause||Invasion of Poland|
|Participants||Wehrmacht, Gestapo, SS, Selbstschutz, Sonderdienst, NKVD, SMERSH, Red Army, OUN-UPA|
Approximately 6 million
German Nazi crimes against the Polish nation
Soviet repressions of Polish citizens (1939–46)
Massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia
Rape during the liberation of Poland
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Approximately six million Polish citizens, divided nearly equally between Christian and Jewish Poles, perished during World War II. Most were civilians killed by the actions of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, as well as their allies. At the Nuremberg Tribunal, three categories of wartime criminality were established: waging war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. These three core crimes of international law were set apart from other crimes, and for the first time since the end of war categorized as violations of fundamental human values and norms. They were committed in occupied Poland on a tremendous scale.
- 1 Civilian atrocities during the invasion of Poland (September 1939)
- 2 Joint German and Soviet occupation (1939 until June 1941)
- 3 Soviet war crimes against Poland
- 4 Terror in the German zone of occupation
- 5 German-Soviet war of agression (July 1941 to December 1944)
- 6 The Holocaust in Nazi occupied Poland
- 7 Ukrainian massacres in occupied Poland
- 8 German massacres during the Soviet counter-offensive
- 9 The end of German rule and the return of the Soviet terror (January 1944)
- 10 Estimated casualties of World War II and its aftermath
- 11 See also
- 12 Footnotes
- 13 References
Civilian atrocities during the invasion of Poland (September 1939)
From the start, the war against Poland was intended as a fulfilment of the plan described by Adolf Hitler in his book Mein Kampf. The main assumption of the plan was that all of Eastern Europe should become part of the greater Germany, the so-called German Lebensraum ("living space"). The German Army was sent out, as stated by Adolf Hitler in his Armenian quote: "with orders to kill without mercy and reprieve all men, women and children of the Polish race". This could be seen as an attempt to destroy the entire nation. The Germans saw both Poles and Polish Jews as racially inferior to them.
Indiscriminate executions by firing squad
The Germans carried out massacres and executions of innocent civilians from the very beginning of war against Poland. It is estimated that 200 executions were carried out daily. Typically, the executions were conducted in public spaces such as the town square in order to inflict terror.
Civilians were murdered every single day during the Wehrmacht advance across Poland in September 1939. The locations, dates and numbers include: Starogard (2 September), 150 Poles and 40 Jews; Świekatowo (3 September), 26 Poles; Wieruszów (3 September), 20 Jews; Widawa (3 September), Rabbi burned to death, massacre in Częstochowa (4 September), between 600–1,000 or more people murdered, including 110–180 Jews; Imielin (4–5 September), 28 Poles; Kajetanowice (5 September), 72 civilians massacred in revenge for two German horses killed by German friendly fire; Trzebinia (5 September), 97 Polish citizens; Piotrków (5 September), Germans set fire to Jewish section of city; at least 6 Jews shot; Bedzin (8 September), 200 burned to death; Tuchola (8 September), one man shot in passing; Limanowa (9 September), nine Jews and one Pole; Kłecko (9–10 September), 300 Polish citizens; Mszadla, Łódź Voivodeship (10 September), 153 Poles; Gmina Besko (11 September), 21 Poles; Kowalewice, Łódź Voivodeship (11 September), 23 Poles; Sucha Dolna, Łódź Voivodeship (11 September), eleven Poles; Kokoszkowy (13 September), ten Poles; Pilica (12 September); 32 Jews and 4 Poles; Olszewo (13 September), thirteen people (half of the villagers) from Olszewo and ten people from the nearby village of Pietkowo. The Polish victims, including women and children, were murdered from stabbing by bayonets, shooting, being torn apart by grenades, and being burned alive in a barn; Mielec (13 September), 55 Jews burned to death; Piątek, Łódź Voivodeship (13 September), 43 Poles and 7 Jews; Przemyśl (14 September), 43 Jews massacred; Sieradz (14 September), 5 Jews and 2 Poles; Solec Kujawski (14 September), 44 Poles; Linsk (19 September), 1 Pole; Tuchola (28 September), 1 Pole; Gostycyn (28–29 September), 6 Poles; Zurawki (29 September), 9 Poles; Gzinka (30 September), 11 Polish citizens; Chojnice, 40 Polish citizens; Gmina Kłecko, 23 Poles; Bądków, Łódź Voivodeship, 22 Poles. Dynów, 200 Jews; Needless to say, public executions continued well beyond September, and included Wieruszów County, Gmina Besko, Gmina Gidle, Gmina Kłecko, Gmina Ryczywół, and Gmina Siennica, among others.
Along with civilians, captured Polish Army soldiers were massacred also. On the very first day of invasion (1 September 1939), Polish POWs were murdered at Pilchowice, Czuchów, Gierałtowice, Bojków, Lubliniec, Kochcice, Zawiść, Ornontowice and Wyry.
The Luftwaffe took part in the mass killing by strafing refugees on the road. The number of civilians wounded or killed by aerial bombing is put at over 100,000. The Luftwaffe dropped thousands of bombs on open cities inhabited only by civilian populations. Amongst the Polish cities and towns bombed at the beginning of war were: Brodnica, Bydgoszcz, Chełm, Ciechanów, Kraków, Częstochowa, Grodno, Grudziądz, Gdynia, Janów, Jasło, Katowice, Kielce, Kowel, Kutno, Lublin, Lwów, Olkusz, Piotrków, Płock, Płońsk, Poznań, Puck, Radom, Radomsko, Sulejów, Warsaw, Wieluń, Wilno, and Zamość. Over 156 towns and villages were attacked by the Luftwaffe. Warsaw suffered particularly severely with a combination of aerial bombardment and artillery fire reducing large parts of the historic centre to rubble. The Soviet Union assisted the Germans by allowing them to use a radio beacon from Minsk to guide their planes.
As part of their military campaign, the Nazi war propaganda used the Bydgoszcz incidents to enrage German nationals. In the town of Bydgoszcz, the German Fifth Column (see: Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz) attempted to aid the invading forces by shooting at Polish soldiers. The Polish Army executed a number of them in reprisal, including for possession of military weapons. The Nazi German government claimed wholesale slaughter of Germans in the city, which was not true. As soon as Bydgoszcz was talken over by the Wehrmacht, some 20,000 civilian Poles were murdered for revenge, wrote Davies.
Joint German and Soviet occupation (1939 until June 1941)
Following the invasion of Poland by Germany on 1 September 1939 from the west, on 17 September 1939 their Soviet ally attacked Poland from the east in accordance with the terms of their secret agreement. Within a month, Poland had been divided between two occupational forces. Germany annexed 91,902 square kilometres with 10 million citizens and controlled the so-called General Government which consisted of a further 95,742 kilometres with 12 million citizens. The Soviet Union occupied 202,069 square kilometres with over 13 million citizens. There were many similarities between the two zones of occupations.
Both invaders executed Polish civilians and prisoners-of-war in parallel campaigns of ethnic cleansing. "The scale and extent of the brutality practised in occupied Poland far exceeded anything experienced in other occupied countries."
Soviet war crimes against Poland
Amongst the first to suffer mass repressions at the hands of the Soviets, were the Border Defence Corps. Many officers were murdered by the NKVD right after capture. Polish General Olszyna-Wilczyński was shot without due process at the moment of his identification. In the Wilno area all higher officers were murdered, same as in Polesie, where 150 army officers were executed before the rest of them were taken prisoner. In Rohatyń, any uniformed men captured, were murdered with their wives and children.
The Polish regular troops in Lviv, including Police force, voluntarily laid down their arms after agreeing to the Soviet terms, which cynically and dishonestly allowed them to travel to neutral countries (Rumania and Hungary). The Russian leadership reneged on their agreement entirely. All Poles were imprisoned and instead sent to Soviet POW camps including 2,000 army officers. Soviet estimates put the total number of captured Polish servicemen at 9,350 officers and 181,233 soldiers.
Katyn massacre of Polish military echelon by the NKVD
The Katyn massacre in April and May 1940 has become the most notorious example of Soviet war crimes committed by the NKVD against prisoners of war following the invasion. The Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia, is the primary location where 4,443 officers (the entire Polish military echelon under incarceration), were murdered by the Soviet secret police. Most victims were Polish reserve officers including political leaders, government officials, and intellectuals. The name Katyn is now associated with the systematic execution of up to 21,768 Polish citizens in several nearby locations.
From the outset, the Soviet secret police began to eliminate the Polish social activists and community leaders through judicial murder. Captured Poles were transported to the Soviet Ukraine where most of them were executed in the dungeons of the Kharkiv NKVD offices. The Soviets set out to destroy former Polish system of administration and remove Polish cultural influences under concocted premises of class struggle. All Polish nationals were declared citizens of the Soviet Union subject to Stalinist laws as of 29 November 1939.
Soviet deportations as a means of ethnic cleansing
In a grim foreshadowing of the near future, an estimated 1.2 to 1.7 million Polish nationals (entire families with children, women and elderly) were loaded onto freight trains and deported to the Eastern parts of the USSR, the Urals, and Siberia. The Soviets used against Poles the same process of subjugation used against their own citizens for many years beforehand, especially mass deportations. In 1940 and the first half of 1941, the Soviets removed Poles from their homes in four major waves. The first deportation action took place from 10 February 1940 on, with more than 220,000 victims, sent to northern European Russia; the second, on 13–15 April 1940 affected 300,000 to 330,000 Poles, sent primarily to Kazakhstan. The third wave, in June–July 1940 totaled more than 240,000 victims perhaps 400,000. The fourth one took place in June 1941, deporting 200,000 Poles. The fourth wave included a large number of children. Upon resumption of Polish-Soviet diplomatic relations in 1941, it was determined, based on Soviet information, that more than 760,000 deportees had already died. A large percentage of the dead were children, who had comprised about a third of all deportees.
On top of deporting Polish citizens en masse, the Soviets forcibly drafted Polish men into the Red Army. It is estimated that a staggering 210,000 young Poles were conscripted as newly declared Soviet subjects.
Cultural destruction of Kresy
In the Soviet zone of occupation Polish language was replaced with Russian in official usage. Religious education was forbidden. Schools were forced to serve as tools of communist indoctrination. Monuments were destroyed (i.e. in Wołczyn, the remains of King Stanisław August Poniatowski were ditched), street-names changed, bookshops closed, libraries burned and publishers shutdown. Collections from Tarnopol, Stanisławów and Sokal were transported to Russian archives. Soviet censorship was strictly enforced. Even the ringing of church bells was banned. Notably, a small minority of Polish citizens of various ethnic backgrounds (i.e. Belarussians) welcomed the Soviet invasion in the hope of gaining political concessions.
Taxes were raised and religious institutions were forced to close. The Soviets replaced the zloty with the ruble, but gave them blatantly absurd equal value. Businesses were mandated to stay open and sell at pre-war prices, hence allowing Soviet soldiers to buy goods with rubles. Entire hospitals, schools and factories were moved to the USSR.
Terror in the German zone of occupation
During the German invasion of Poland (1939), special action squads of SS and police (the Einsatzgruppen) were deployed in the rear, and arrested or killed civilians caught offering resistance against the Germans or considered capable of doing so, as determined by their position and social status. Tens of thousands of government officials, landowners, clergy, and members of the intelligentsia — teachers, doctors, journalists, and others (both Poles and Jews) — were either murdered in mass executions or sent to prisons and concentration camps. German army units and paramilitary Selbstschutz ("self-defense") forces composed of Volksdeutsche also participated in executions of civilians. The Selbstschutz, along with SS units, took an active part in the Mass murders in Piaśnica, in which between 12,000 and 16,000 Polish civilians were murdered.
One of the most well known examples was the deportation to concentration camps in November 1939 of 180 professors from the university of Cracow. The German occupiers launched AB-Aktion in May 1940 a plan to eliminate the Polish intelligentsia and leadership class. More than 16,000 members of the intelligentsia were murdered in Operation Tannenberg alone.
The Roman Catholic Church was suppressed in Wartheland more harshly than elsewhere: churches were systematically closed; most priests were either killed, imprisoned, or deported to the General Government. In the General Government, Hans Frank's diary shows he planned a "war on the clergy". The Germans also closed seminaries and convents and persecuted monks and nuns. Between 1939 and 1945, an estimated 2,801 members of the Polish clergy were murdered (in all of Poland); of these, 1,926 died in concentration camps (798 of them at Dachau). One hundred and eight of them are regarded as blessed martyrs, Maximilian Kolbe as a saint.
German "pacifications" of Polish towns and villages
The so-called "pacification" operations sometimes named the anti-partisan actions, constituted the core policy of the Nazi regime against Poland and were of a large scale, resulting in the death of approximately 20,000 townspeople in less than two years following the attack. They were mainly conducted in the areas of General Government, Pomorze, and in the vicinities of Białystok and Wielkopolska.
Terror killings committed by uniformed troops included: Otorowo (20 October 1939), 5 or 19 Poles shot because Swastika flag was removed by someone; Szamotuły (20 October), 5 Poles in a crowded spectacle at the city centre; Warsaw (22 November 1939), announcement of the first anti-Jewish legislation: 53 Jews executed in public as punishment for one einheimischen Polizisten assaulted on the street; Wawer (27 December), 106/107 murdered; Palmiry (December 1940 to July 1941), 2,000 Poles during secretive German AB-Aktion in Poland; Kościan (2–23 October, 7 November 1939), 68 Polish intelligentsia including parish priest and a count; Gniezno, 15 Polish townsmen including Father Zabłocki; Bydgoszcz, 136 Polish school boys including 12-year-olds with about 6,000 others by end of 1939; Leszno, 250 Poles; Śrem, 118 Poles; Wolsztyn, a group of Poles; Kórnik, 16 Polish citizens; Trzemeszno, 30 Polish citizens; Mogilno, 30/39 Poles and a Jew; Antoninek, 20 Polish citizens shot. Other execution sites included: Rawicz, Grodzisk Wielkopolski, Nowy Tomyśl, Międzychód, Żnin, Września, Chełmno, Chojnice, Kalisz and Włocławek.
Extermination of psychiatric patients
In July 1939, a Nazi secret program called T-4 Euthanasia Program was developed in Germany with the intention of exterminating physically or mentally handicapped people. The programme was put into practice in the occupied territories during the invasion of Poland. Initially, it was implemented according to the following plan: a German director took control over the psychiatric hospital; under the threat of execution no patient could be released; all were counted and transported from the hospital by trucks to an unknown destination. Each truck was accompanied by soldiers from special SS detachments who returned without the patients after a few hours. The patients were said to be transferred to another hospital, but evidence showed otherwise. The first action of this type took place on 22 September 1939 in Kocborowo at a large psychiatric hospital in the Gdańsk region. Along with their patients, six hospital employees including a deputy director, were murdered by a firing squad. By December, some 1,800 patients from Kocborowo had been murdered and buried in the Szpegawski forest. In total, 7,000 victims were buried there. Another extermination action took place in October 1939 at a hospital in Owińska near Poznań where 1,000 patients (children and adults) were killed (200 more a year later).
In addition to executions by firing squad, other methods of mass murder were also implemented for the first time such as at the hospital in Owińska. Some 400 patients along with medical staff, were transported to a military fortress in Poznań where, in Fort VII bunkers, they were gassed with carbon monoxide delivered in metal tanks. Other Owińska hospital patients were gassed in sealed trucks by exhaust fumes. The same method was performed in Kochanówek Hospital near Łódź where 2,200 persons were killed between March–August 1940. This was the first "successful" test of mass murder using gas van poisoning and this "technique" was later used and perfected on many other psychiatric patients in occupied Poland and Germany. Starting in 1941, gas vans were used on inmates of the extermination camps. The total number of psychiatric patients murdered by the Nazis in occupied Poland between 1939 and 1945 is estimated to be more than 16,000, with an additional 10,000 patients who died of malnutrition and hunger. Additionally, approximately 100 out of 243 members of the Polish Psychiatric Association met the same fate as their patients.
Treatment of Polish Jews prior to the Holocaust
While ethnic Poles were usually subject to selective persecution in an effort to discourage them from resisting the Germans, all ethnic Jews were targeted from the outset. During the first 55 days of the occupation approximately 5,000 Polish Jews were killed. As of November 12, 1939, all Jews over the age of 12, or 14, were forced to wear the Star of David. They were legally banned from working in key industries and in government institutions; to bake bread, or to earn more than 500 zloty a month. Initially, the Jews were killed at a lower rate than ethnic Poles.
Inside occupied Poland, the Germans created hundreds of ghettos in which they forced Jews to live. These World War II ghettos were part of the German official policy of removing Jews from public life. The combination of excess numbers of inmates, unsanitary conditions and lack of food resulted in a high death rate among them. The first ghetto was established in October 1939 at Piotrków. Initially the ghettos were open but on 1 May the Łódź ghetto was closed by Germans sealing the Jews inside. The Warsaw ghetto was closed in November 1940. The Germans started a reservation for Jews near Lublin.
The Germans tried to divide the Poles from the Jews using several cruel laws. Another law was that Poles were forbid from buying from Jewish shops in which if they did they were subject to execution. Maria Brodacka became the first Pole to be killed by the Germans for helping a Jew. The Germans used the incident to kill 100 Jews being held as hostages. At the start of the war 1,335 Poles were killed for sheltering Jews.
The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of the Jewish ghettos located in the territory of General Government during World War II, established by Nazi Germany in Warsaw, the prewar capital of Poland. Between 1941 and 1943, starvation, disease and mass deportations to concentration camps and extermination camps such as during the Gross-aktion Warschau, reduced the population of the ghetto from an estimated 445,000 to approximately 71,000. In 1943 the Warsaw Ghetto was the scene of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The ghetto was reduced to rubble.
From 1940 to 1944, it is estimated that starvation and disease caused the death of 43,000 Jews imprisoned in the Holocaust ghettos. Most Polish Jews subsequently perished in the German death camps. Towards the end of 1942, the mass extermination of Polish Jews had started with deportations from urban centres to death camps including Jews from outside Poland.
As part of the concerted effort to destroy Polish culture and heritage, the Germans closed and destroyed universities, schools, museums, libraries, and scientific laboratories. They demolished hundreds of monuments to national heroes. Polish leading academic institutions were turned into German establishments. By the end of 1942 "over 90%" of the world-class art previously in Poland – as estimated by the German officials – was put into their own possession. Polish language had been banned in Wartheland. Children were forced to learn the basics of German under harsh physical punishment. To prevent the birth of a new generation of educated Poles, German officials decreed that the schooling of Polish youth would end at the elementary level.
- "The sole goal of this schooling is to teach them simple arithmetic, nothing above the number 500; writing one's name; and the doctrine, that it is divine law to obey the Germans. I do not think that reading is desirable."
In his capacity as Reich Commissioner, Himmler oversaw the kidnapping of Polish children to be Germanized. Historians estimate that between 50,000 and up to 200,000 Polish children were taken from their families during the war. They were sent to the farms and families in the Reich never to return. Many of the children remained in Germany after the war unaware of their true origin.
At the end of October 1939, the Germans introduced the death penalty for active disobedience to the German occupation. Plans for mass expulsions and the system of slave labor camps for up to 20 million Poles were made. Himmler thought of moving all Poles to Siberia. In May 1940 he wrote a memorandum; in it, he promised to eventually deport all Poles to the east. Most of them were intended to die during the cultivation of the swamps.
Forced evictions and roundups of slave labor
The Germans planned to change ownership of all property in the land incorporated into the Third Reich. In a speech to German colonist, Arthur Greiser said: "In ten years there will not even be a peasant smallholding which will not be in German hands". In the Wartheland, the Nazi goal was complete Germanization. The formerly Polish territories were to become politically, culturally, socially, and economically German. The Nazis closed elementary schools where Polish was the language taught. Streets and cities were renamed (Łódź became Litzmannstadt, etc.). Tens of thousands of Polish enterprises from large industrial firms to small shops, were seized without payment to the owners. Signs posted in public places warned: "Entrance forbidden for Poles, Jews, and dogs." The forced resettlement affected 2 million Poles. In the severe winter of 1939–40 families were made to leave behind almost everything without any recompense. As part of Operation Tannenberg alone, 750,000 Polish peasants were forced out of their homes which were leveled, and the land given to German colonists and servicemen. A further 330,000 were murdered.
Jews were treated slightly differently as they were gathered together into ghettos in the cities. Heinrich Himmler ordered all Jews in the annexed lands to be deported to central Poland. In winter 1939–40, about 100,000 Jews were thus deported.
All Polish males were required to perform forced labor. Between 1939 and 1945, at least 1.5 million Polish citizens were captured, and transported to the Reich for forced labour against their will. One estimate has 1 million (including POWs) from annexed lands and 1.28 million from the General Government. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes the figure was more than two and half million during the war. Many were teenage boys and girls. Although Germany also used forced labourers from Western Europe, Poles, along with other Eastern Europeans viewed as inferior, were subject to especially harsh discriminatory measures. They were forced to wear identifying purple Ps sewn to their clothing, subjected to a curfew, and banned from public transport. While the treatment of factory workers or farm hands often varied depending on the individual employer, Polish laborers as a rule were compelled to work longer hours for lower wages than Western Europeans and, in many cities, they were forced to live in segregated barracks behind barbed wire. Social relations with Germans outside work were forbidden and sexual relations with them were considered "racial defilement", punishable by death. During the war, hundreds of Polish men were executed for their relations with German women.
Citizens of Poland, but especially ethnic Poles and Polish Jews were imprisoned in nearly every camp of the extensive concentration camp system in German-occupied Poland and in the Reich. A major labour camp complex at Stutthof, east of Gdańsk/Danzig, existed from September 1939, till the end of war. An estimated 20,000 Poles died there as a result of hard labour, executions, disease and starvation. Some 100,000 Poles were deported to Majdanek concentration camp with subcamps in Budzyn, Trawniki, Poniatowa, Krasnik, Pulawy, as well as the "Airstrip", and Lipowa added in 1943. Tens of thousands of prisoners died there. An estimated 20,000 Poles died at Sachsenhausen outside Poland, 20,000 at Gross-Rosen, 30,000 at Mauthausen, 17,000 at Neuengamme, 10,000 at Dachau, and 17,000 at Ravensbrück. In addition, tens of thousands of Polish people were executed or died in their thousands at other camps, including special children's camps such as in Łódź and its subcamp at Dzierżązna, in prisons and other places of detention inside and outside Poland.
The Auschwitz concentration camp went into operation on 14 June 1940. The first transport of 728 Polish prisoners consisted mostly of schoolchildren, students and soldiers from the overcrowded prison at Tarnów. Within a week another 313 arrived. There were major transports in August (1,666) and September (1,705). This so-called "Polish" phase of Auschwitz lasted until the middle of 1942. By March 1941, 10,900 prisoners were registered at the camp, most of them Poles.
The most notorious concentration camps in occupied Poland as well as along Nazi German borders included: Gross-Rosen in Silesia, now part of Poland, Janowska, Kraków-Płaszów, Poniatowa (reassigned from forced labor camp), Skarżysko-Kamienna, Soldau, Stutthof, and Trawniki.
Forced labour camps
The World War II camp system where Poles were detained, imprisoned and forced into slave labour, was one of fundamental structures of the Nazi regime, and with the invasion of Poland became the backbone of German war economy and the state organized terror. It is estimated that some 5 million Polish citizens went through them.
The incomplete list of camp locations with at least 100 slave labourers, included in alphabetical order: Andrychy, Antoniew-Sikawa, Augustów, Będzin, Białośliwie, Bielsk Podlaski, Bliżyn, Bobrek, Bogumiłów, Boże Dary, Brusy, Burzenin, Chorzów, Dyle, Gidle, Grajewo, Herbertów, Inowrocław, Janów Lubelski, Kacprowice, Katowice, Kazimierza Wielka, Kazimierz Dolny, Klimontów, Koronowo, Kraków-Podgórze, Kraków-Płaszów, Krychów, Lipusz, łysaków, Miechowice, Mikuszowice, Mircze, Mysłowice, Ornontowice, Nowe, Nowy Sącz, Potulice, Rachanie, Słupia, Sokółka, Starachowice, Swiętochłowice, Tarnogród, Wiśnicz Nowy, Wierzchowiska, Włoszczowa, Wola Gozdowska, Zarki, and Zarudzie.
German-Soviet war of agression (July 1941 to December 1944)
Following the German attack against Soviet forces in eastern Poland, the Soviet NKVD panicked and executed their prisoners en masse before retreating. One estimate puts the death toll in the prisons at up to 30,000, although, there may have been as many as 100,000 victims at the Soviets hands as they retrogressed. Another estimate puts the total at 120,000 for those killed in NKVD prisons and during the flight. Stalin ordered the execution of those believed to have spied on the Soviet Union which meant practically everyone for the secret police executioners.
Soviet executions of civilian prisoners June/July 1941
The Soviets left thousands of corpses piled up in prison yards, corridors, cells, basements, and NKVD torture chambers, usually in a sea of blood; as discovered by the advancing Germans in June/July 1941. The following is a partial list of prisons and other secret execution places, were mass murder took place; compiled by historian Tadeusz Piotrowski, and others.
In eight prewar Polish voivodeships, they included in alphabetical order; Augustów prison: (with 30 bodies); Berezwecz: (with 2,000, up to 3,000 dead); Białystok: (with hundreds of victims); Boryslaw, (dozens); Bóbrka: (9-16); Brzeżany: (over 220); Busk: (about 40); Bystrzyca Nadwornianska, Cherven, Ciechanowiec: (around 10); Czerlany: (180 POWs); Czortków, Dobromil: (400 murdered); Drohobycz: (up to 1,000); Dubno: (around 525); Grodno: (under 100); Gródek Jagiellonski: (3); Horodenka, Jaworów: (32); Kałusz, Kamionka Strumilowa: (about 20); Kołomyja, Komarno, Krzemieniec: (up to 1,500); Lida, Lwów (over 12,000 murdered in 3 separate prisons); Łopatyn: (12); Łuck: (up to 4,000 bodies); Mikolajów, Minsk: (over 700); Nadworna: (about 80); Oleszyce, Oszmiana: (at least 60); Otynia: (300); Pasieczna, Pińsk: (perhaps hundreds); Przemyślany: (up to 1,000); Równe: (up to 500); Rudki: (200); Sambor: (at least 200, up to 720); Sarny: (around 90); Sądowa Wisznia: (about 70); Sieniatycze: (15); Skniłów: (200 POWs); Słonim, Stanisławów: (about 2,800); Stryj: (at least 100); Szczerzec: (about 30); Tarasowski Las: (about 100); Tarnopol: (up to 1,000); Wilejka: (over 700); Wilno: (hundreds); Włodzimierz Wołynski, Wołkowysk: (7); Wołożyn: (about 100); Wolozynek, Zalesiany, Zaleszczyki, Zborów: (around 8); Złoczów: (up to 750); Zółkiew: (up to 60) and Zydaczów.
It was not only prisoners who were murdered by NKVD as the Soviets retreated. Other Soviet crimes included Brzeżany, where Soviet soldiers threw hand grenades into homes, and Czortków, where four priests, three brothers and a tertiary were murdered.
The Holocaust in Nazi occupied Poland
The first German death camp in occupied Poland was established in late 1941 at Chełmno (Kulmhof in German). In the Chełmno extermination camp, the SS Totenkopfverbände used mobile gas vans to murder mostly Jews and Romani imprisoned at the Łódź Ghetto (German: Litzmannstadt). At least 152,000 people were killed at Chełmno, according to a German verdict, and up to 340,000 estimated by GKBZNwP.
After the Wannsee Conference of 1942, the German government secretly built three regular death factories in occupied Poland as part of Operation Reinhard (most deadly phase of the Final Solution) using faster methods of killing and incinerating people, this time by semi-industrial means. They were as follows: the Treblinka extermination camp, Belzec, and Sobibor extermination camp. Parallel killing facilities were set up at Auschwitz-Birkenau within the already existing Auschwitz I, at the Majdanek concentration camp, and finally, at the concentration camp Warschau.
In September 1941, 200 ill prisoners, most of them Poles, along with 600 Soviet POWs, were killed in the first gassing experiments at Auschwitz. Beginning in 1942, Auschwitz's prisoner population became much more diverse, as Jews and other "enemies of the state" from all over German-occupied Europe were deported to the camp.
About 960,000 Jews died at Auschwitz among its at least 1.1 million victims, including 438,000 from Hungary and 300,000 Polish Jews, French 69,000, Dutch 60,000, and Greek 55,000. The Polish scholar Franciszek Piper, the chief historian of Auschwitz, estimates that 140,000 to 150,000 Poles were brought to that camp between 1940 and 1945, and that 70,000 to 75,000 died there as victims of executions, of cruel medical experiments, and of starvation and disease. There were also hundreds of thousands of victims at concentration camps in Majdanek, Treblinka, and Warsaw.
Ukrainian massacres in occupied Poland
For many years during the Soviet domination over Communist Poland, the knowledge of Ukrainian Massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia perpetrated against ethnic Poles and Jews, by Ukrainian nationalists and paesants was suppressed for political propaganda reasons. Among the first to suffer mass killings were the units of Polish Army fleeing the German advance in 1939. On top of uniformed men being ambushed, there are records of civilians being murdered along with them, and women raped.
Following the German attack against the USSR, many ethnic Ukrainians viewed Nazi Germany as their liberator, in the hopes of establishing an independent Ukraine. The ethnically motivated killings intensified after the Soviet occupation zone was overrun across the regions of Kresy. Some 200 Polish refugees were murdered at Nawóz. Ethnic Ukrainians were also among the supporters of the rounding up and murdering of Jews.
Numerous sources state that as soon as the Germans advanced toward Lviv, Ukrainian countrymen began to murder Jews in territories with predominantly Ukrainian population. It is estimated that, in this wave of pogroms across 54 cities, some 24,000 Jews were killed. With many Jews already executed or fleeing, the organized groups of Ukrainian nationalists under Mykola Lebed began to target ethnic Poles, including even pregnant women and children.
During the subsequent campaign of ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian nationalists gathered into paramilitary groups under the command of OUN-UPA and OUN-B partisans, some 80,000–100,000 Polish citizens were murdered. Locations, dates and numbers of victims included (in chronological order): Koszyszcze (15 March 1942), 145 Poles plus 19 Ukrainian "collaborators", 7 Jews and 9 Russians, massacred in the presence of the German police; Antonówska (April, 1942), 9 Poles; Aleksandrówka (September, 1942), 6 Poles; Rozyszcze (November, 1942), 4 Poles; Zalesie (December, 1942), 9 Poles; Jezierce (16 December 1942), 280 Poles; Borszczówka (3 March 1943), 130 Poles including 42 children killed by Ukrainians with the Germans; Pienki, Pendyki Duze & Pendyki Male, three locations (18 March 1943), 180 Poles; Melnytsa (18 March 1943), about 80 Poles, murdered by Ukrainian police with the Germans; Lipniki (25 March 1943), 170 Poles; Huta Majdanska (13 April 1943), 175 Poles; Zabara (22–23 April 1943), 750 Poles; Huta Antonowiecka (24 April 1943), around 600 Poles; Klepachiv (5 May 1943), 42 Poles; Katerburg (7–8 May 1943), 28 Poles, 10 Jews and 2 mixed Polish-Ukrainian "collaborator" families; Stsryki (29 May 1943), at least 90 Poles; Hurby (2 June 1943), about 250 Poles; Górna Kolonia (22 June 1943), 76 Poles; Rudnia (11 July 1943), about 100 Poles; Gucin (11 July 1943), around 140, or 146 Poles; Kalusiv (11 July 1943), 107 Poles; Wolczak (11 July 1943), around 490 Poles; Orzesyn (11 July 1943), 306 Poles; Khryniv (11 July 1943), around 200 Poles; Zablocce (11 July 1943), 76 Poles; Mikolajpol (11 July 1943), more than 50 Poles; Jeziorany Szlachecki (11 July 1943), 43 Poles; Krymno (11 July 1943), Poles gathered for church mass murdered; Dymitrivka (22 July 1943), 43 Poles; Ternopil (August, 1943), 43 Poles; Andrzejówka (1 August 1943), 'scores' of Poles murdered; Kisielówka (14 August 1943), 87 Poles; Budy Ossowski (30 August 1943), 205 Poles including 80 children; Czmykos (30 August 1943), 240 Poles; Ternopol (September, 1943), 61 Poles; Beheta (13 September 1943), 20 Poles; Ternopil (October, 1943), 93 Poles; Lusze (16 October 1943), two Polish families; Ternopil (November, 1943), 127 Poles, a large number of nearby settlements destroyed; Stezarzyce (6 December 1943), 23 Poles; Ternopil (December, 1943), 409 Poles; Ternopil (January, 1944), 446 Poles.
It is estimated that anywhere between 200,000, and 500,000 civilians of all ethnic backgrounds died, during the OUN-UPA ethnic cleansing operations in eastern Poland. Some Ukrainians also collaborated as Trawniki guards at the concentration and extermination camps, most notably at Treblinka.
Other retaliatory actions included the Jedwabne pogrom (or Jedwabne massacre) of Jewish people living in and near the town of Jedwabne in Bezirk Bialystok during occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, that took place in July 1941. The official investigation of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance confirmed that the crime was "committed directly by Poles, but inspired by the Germans.".
German massacres during the Soviet counter-offensive
By 1943, it was common for the population to be subjected to mass murder, such as in the Józefów Massacre, where 1,500 Jewish women only with children and elderly were killed. The Gentile population of Polish metropolitan cities was a target of the łapanka actions, in which the detachments of SS, Wehrmacht and police rounded up civilians on the street. Between 1942 and 1944, there were approximately 400 Poles captured in Warsaw łapankas daily. From 1943 until 1944, the Warsaw concentration camp (Konzentrationslager Warschau) holding up to 40,000 victims, was used as death camp in the extermination of population of the capital. During the existence of the KL Warschau, it is estimated that tens of thousands of civilians were killed there, most of them Polish inhabitants of the city. Some estimates put the total at 200,000. Prisoners were shot in publicised executions of hostages, or died due to deplorable conditions in the camp and typhus epidemics. Historians including Maria Trzcińska postulated the existence of a gas chamber in a railway tunnel at Bema Street; however, this claim is considered controversial.
Warsaw Uprising massacres
During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, German forces committed many atrocities against Polish civilians, following the order by Hitler to raze the city and "turn it into a lake". The most severe of them took place in Wola district where, at the beginning of August 1944, tens of thousands of civilians (men, women, and children) were methodically rounded-up and executed by Einsatzkommando of Sicherheitspolizei operating within the SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth group under the overall command of Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski. Executions in the Wola district, sometimes called the Wola massacre, also included the killings of both the patients and staff of local hospitals. Victims' bodies were then collected by the members of the Verbrennungskommando, comprising captured Polish men, and burnt. The carnage was so bad that even the German high command were stunned.
Other similar massacres took place in the areas of Śródmieście (City Centre), Old Town, Marymont, and Ochota districts. In Ochota district, civilian killings, rapes, and looting were conducted by the members of Russian collaborators from S.S. Sturmbrigade R.O.N.A.. Until the end of the September 1944, Polish resistance fighters were not considered by Germans as combatants; thus, when captured, they were summarily executed. After the fall of the Old Town, during the beginning of September, the remaining 7,000 seriously wounded hospitals' patients were executed or burnt alive often with the medical staff caring for them. Similar atrocities took place later in the Czerniaków district. A number of captured insurgents were hanged or otherwise executed after the fall of Powiśle and Mokotów districts as well.
- Timeline of civilian massacres during the Warsaw Uprising
- 2 August 1944 - Rakowiecka Street Prison – about 500 prisoners and Jesuits murdered.
- 2 August 1944 - Ochota - Germans murder all their hostages.
- 2 August 1944 - Old Town - 300 patients are murdered.
- 4 August 1944 - Ochota – Start of massacre residents.
- 5 August 1944 - Wola – Start of massacre of residents. In total 10,000, 20,000 or 40,000 residents murdered.
- 5 August 1944 - Wolski Hospital – about 360 patients and personnel murdered.
- 5 August 1944 - St. Lazarus Hospital – about 1,000 patients and personnel murdered.
- 6 August 1944 - Karola i Marii Hospital – over 100 patients murdered.
- 8 August 1944 - Old Town - Germans set fire to historic buildings in the Old Town.
- 10 August 1944 - Ochota - Brigade SS-RONA are continuing to kill residents.
- 13 August 1944 - Old Town – Explosion kills 350, mostly civilians.
- 28 August 1944 - Polish Security Printing Works - Injured, field hospital staff and civilians sheltered in the basement are murdered.
- 29 August 1944 - Unknown - Germans murder old people and invalids from a captured municipal shelter.
- 2 September 1944 - Old Town – 7,000 civilians are murdered.
More than 200,000 Poles were killed in the uprising. Out of 450,000 surviving civilians, 150,000 were sent to labour camps in Germany, and 50,000 to 60,000 were shipped to death and concentration camps. After the rising had ended, the Germans continued to systematically destroy the city. The city was left in ruins. Neither Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski nor Heinz Reinefarth were ever tried for their Warsaw Uprising atrocities.
The role of Soviets is debated by historians. Questions are asked about the Soviet political motives in halting their advance on the city during the uprising, thus allowing for the destruction to continue, and denying the use of their airfields to the RAF and US air force.
The end of German rule and the return of the Soviet terror (January 1944)
With the return of the Soviets, the killings and deportations started again. Stalin turned his attention to the AK (Home Army) which was seen as an obstacle in Soviet goals of controlling Poland hence the NKVD set out to destroy them. The Poles were accused of having Germans spies in their ranks, trying to take control of the Polish units fighting along with the Red army, and causing desertions. Home Army units which fought against the Germans in support of the Soviet advance had their officers and men arrested. At Wilno and Nowogrodek, the Soviets shipped to concentration camps 1,500 officers and 5,000 troops.
The Home Army was made illegal. As a result, it is estimated up to 40,000 Home Army partisans were persecuted and many others deported. In the Lublin area more than 50,000 Poles were arrested between July 1944 and June 1945. It is suspected that the NKVD carried out killings in the Turza Wood where 17 bodies have been found, although witnesses put the total at 600. At Baran Wood, 13 bodies have been found but witnesses again claimed hundreds. Records show that 61 death sentences were carried out plus 37 in October 1944 alone.
During World War II, Polish Jews suffered the worst percentage loss of human life compared to all other nationalities; nevertheless, there are rare instances of Jewish pro-Soviet groups being accused of perpetrating atrocities also. The most infamous were the massacres at Koniuchy in 1944, and Naliboki in 1943 committed by forest partisans. The Jews also served as the only guards at Szebnie concentration camp in the south-eastern part of occupied Poland from 1943 on, maintaining discipline and administering torture – before being sent to death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz concentration camp themselves.
Internment of Polish nationals (Gulags, concentration camps, trials)
Upon the conclusion of World War II, Poland remained under Soviet military control. Approximately 60,000 soldiers of the AK had been arrested by the NKVD. Some 50,000 of them were deported to the gulags and prisons deep in the Soviet Union. After several months of brutal interrogation and torture, 16 leaders of the Polish Underground State were thrown into Soviet jails on trumped-up charges after a staged trial in Moscow. The Soviet Army Northern Group of Forces stationed in the country until 1956. The persecution of the anti-Nazi resistance members was only a part of the reign of Stalinist terror in Poland. In the period of 1944–56, approximately 300,000 Polish people had been arrested, or up to two million, according to differing accounts. There were 6,000 political death sentences issued, the majority of them carried out. Possibly, over 20,000 people died in communist prisons including those executed "in the majesty of the law" such as Witold Pilecki, a hero of Auschwitz.
Estimated casualties of World War II and its aftermath
Poland is now estimated to have lost between 4.9 and 5.7 million citizens at the hands of the Germans. Between 150,000 and 1 million more died at the hands of the Soviets. In total, about 6 million Polish citizens died.
The vast majority were civilians. The daily average loss in Polish lives was 2,800. Poland's professional classes suffered higher than average casualties with Doctors (45%), lawyers (57%), University professors (40%), technicians (30%), clergy (18%) and many journalists.
It was not only Polish citizens who died at the hands of the occupying powers but many others. One estimate is 2 million people from 29 countries died in occupied Poland. This includes 1 million Jews moved to the Nazi extermination camps and 784,000 Soviet POWs.
- Historiography of the Volyn tragedy
- Massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia
- Janowa Dolina massacre
- Generalplan Ost
- Pacification Operations in German-occupied Poland
- Nazi crimes against ethnic Poles
- Treatment of the Polish citizens by the occupants
- World War II evacuation and expulsion
- List of war crimes
- Nuremberg Trials
- Consequences of German Nazism
- List of Polish war cemeteries
- Communist crime
- Eastern Catholic victims of Soviet persecutions
- The Black Book of Communism
- Soviet occupations
- Hunger Plan
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