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The author Terese Pencak Schwartz is a Polish American Jew born in Germany after World War II, currently conducting research on Polish Holocaust survivors.
Growing up in a Polish community, and raised by Polish-speaking parents, I heard many stories about the atrocities of the Holocaust. I learned very early how one of my family’s homes in Poland was burned to the ground by Nazis. I learned that my uncle was shot in the head by Nazi soldiers because they suspected that the family was hiding a Jewish woman. Painful as it was for them to speak about it, my parents felt it was important that I knew the story of the Holocaust.
It was only after I moved to the Los Angeles area several years ago that I realized that many people were not aware that millions of victims of the Holocaust were not Jewish. Outside the Polish community, I heard very little mention about the five million non-Jewish victims — usually referred to as “the others”.
Whenever I would say that my parents were survivors of the Holocaust, people would look at me oddly and say, “Oh, I didn’t know you were Jewish?” The impression I got was that people were not aware of any other Holocaust victims except Jews. This concerned me greatly.
I am Jewish. I converted in 1979 after studying at the University of Judaism one year before marrying a wonderful Jewish man. I belong to a temple where our daughter attends religious school. I love the Jewish religion and I admire the Jewish community. In no way do I want to diminish the enormous magnitude of the victimization and murder of the 5,860,000 Jewish people during the Holocaust. The Jews were singled out by the Nazis for total extermination — a significant fact that I do not repudiate, nor want to diminish in any way. The Jewish people have done an extraordinary job of making the younger generation around the world aware of their persecution and immense tragedy during the Holocaust.
But what about “the others”? There were five million of them. Who were they? Whose children, whose mothers and fathers were they? How could five million human beings have been killed and forgotten? Thus, I began my search. After studying several carefully documented books, and interviewing non-Jewish survivors, I found more information about the five million forgotten than I had ever imagined. I found out things that most of the world does not know. My parents were correct. They were truly victims of the Holocaust. All Polish people suffered enormously during the Holocaust — Jews and non-Jews.
Eleven million precious lives were lost during the Holocaust of World War II. Six million of these were Polish citizens. Half of these Polish citizens were non-Jews. On August 22, 1939, a few days before the official start of World War II, Hitler authorized his commanders, with these infamous words, to kill “without pity or mercy, all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space [lebensraum] we need”.
Heinrich Himmler echoed Hitler’s decree: “All Poles will disappear from the world…. It is essential that the great German people should consider it as its major task to destroy all Poles.”
On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland from three directions. Hitler’s invincible troops attacked from the west, the north and the south. Poland never had a chance. By October 8, 1939, Polish Jews and non-Jews were stripped of all rights and, were subject to special legislation. Rationing, which allowed for only bare sustenance of food and medicine was quickly set up. Young Polish men were forcibly drafted into the German army. Use of the Polish language was forbidden. Only the German language allowed.
All secondary schools and colleges were closed. The Polish press was liquidated. Libraries and bookshops were burned. Polish Art and culture were destroyed. Polish churches and religious buildings were burned. Most of the priests were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Street signs were either destroyed or changed to new German names. Polish cities and towns were renamed in German. It was Hitler’s goal to obliterate all traces of Polish history and culture. Proportionately, Poland suffered the largest loss of life and property during World War II.
Hundreds of Polish community leaders, mayors, local officials, priests, teachers, lawyers, judges, senators, doctors were executed in public. Much of the rest of the so-called intelligentsia, the Polish leading class, was sent to concentration camps where they later died.
The first mass execution of World War II took place in Wawer, a town near Warsaw, Poland on December 27, 1939 when 107 Polish non-Jewish men were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and shot. This was just the beginning of the street roundups and mass executions that continued throughout the war. The goal of these executions, deportations, and the ruthless domination of citizens was to terrorize all Poles into docile subservience.
At the same time, on the eastern border of Poland, the Soviet Union invaded and quickly conquered. Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland in half — each grabbing as much land as possible. The western half, occupied by the Nazis, was decreed in October 1939 as a new territory: “General Gouvernment”. The eastern half was incorporated within the adjoining Russian border by Soviet “elections”. This new border “realignment” conferred Soviet citizenship on its new Polish inhabitants. And all young Polish men were subject to being drafted into the Soviet army.
Just like the Nazis, the Soviets also reigned terror in Poland. The Soviets took over Polish businesses, Polish factories and destroyed churches and religious buildings. The Polish currency (zloty) was removed from circulation. All Polish banks were closed and savings accounts were blocked.
During the war, Poland lost 45% of her doctors, 57% of her attorneys, 40% of her professors, 30% of her technicians, more than 18% of her clergy, and most of her journalists. Poland’s educated class was purposely targeted because the Nazis knew that this would make it easier to oversee the de-Polonization campaign and control the country.
Non-Jews of Polish descent suffered over 100,000 deaths at Auschwitz. The Germans forcibly deported approximately 2,000,000 Polish gentiles into labor for the Third Reich. The Russians deported almost 1,700,000 Polish non-Jews to Siberia. Men, women and children were forced from their homes with no warning. Transferred in cattle cars in freezing weather, many died on the way. Polish children who possessed Aryan-looking characteristics were wrenched from their mother’s arms and placed in German homes to be raised as Germans.
The Polish people were classified by the Nazis according to their racial characteristics. The ones who appeared Aryan were deported to Lodz for further racial examination. Most of the others were sent to the Reich to work in labor camps for the benefit of the Germans. The rest were sent to Auschwitz to die. Polish Christians were actually the first victims of the notorious German death camp. For the first 21 months after it began in 1940, Auschwitz was inhabited almost exclusively by Polish non-Jews. The first ethnic Pole died in June 1940 and the first Jew died in October 1942.
Because of the obliteration of the Polish press by the Nazis, most of the world was not aware, including many parts of Nazi-occupied Poland, of the atrocities going on. Even to this day, much of the documentation of the Holocaust is not available. The entire records of Auschwitz were stolen by the Soviets and not returned. The Nazis’ goal was to rewrite history. They destroyed books, monuments, historical inscriptions. They began a forceful campaign of propaganda to convince the world of their invincible superiority and power and likewise the inferiority and weakness of the Polish people.
While there is no argument that Hitler abhorred the Jews and caused almost six million to be ruthlessly killed, often non-Jewish victims are tragically forgotten from Holocaust remembrances. Eleven million precious human lives were lost during the Holocaust. Five million of these were non-Jewish. Three million were Polish Christians and Catholics. It would be very sad to forget even one precious life extinguished so ruthlessly. It would be a tragedy to forget five million.
Information for this article was taken from “The Forgotten Holocaust”, by Richard C. Lukas, The University Press of Kentucky and “The Jews and the Poles in World War II” by Stefan Korbonski, Hippocrene Books.
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Poles who rescued Jews from the Holocaust
BARBARA SZYMANSKA MAKUCH
JOHN DAMSKI Polish Rescuer
How One Pole Tried to Stop the Holocaust
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