A land invaded, occupied and partitioned for centuries
At the time Irena was born in 1910, Poland had been divided up (partitioned) between Russia, Prussia and Austria for over 100 years. During Irena's life, Poland would regain its independence after one war, only to be invaded once more in 1939, leading to one of the most turbulent periods of its history.
A Democratic Poland
Back in the 16th century, Poland was the largest nation in Europe and also the most democratic. Then, over 150 years, Poland became smaller and smaller as Russians and Prussians (Germans) invaded border areas.
Revolution and Occupation
In 1791, a revolution in Poland saw the establishment of a strong - but still democratic - government. In response, Russia, Prussia and Austria decided to wipe Poland off the face of the map. In 1795, Poland became a country under Russian and Austrian occupation. Amongst the Poles rose a deep feeling of nationalism and a longing for independence. It was a movement which, as in other occupied countries, was very nationalistic in flavour.
At first the Russians had been quite liberal in their ruling of Poland but Polish uprisings provoked an increasingly brutal Russian reaction and oppression. The uprisings, though fought with great courage, failed to win the independence they aimed for. In the second half of the 19th century, the industrial revolution came to Poland. Millions of peasants left the land to find work in the overcrowded cities, and all the tensions linked with a new industrial society rose up.
The dark side of nationalism - anti-Semitism - reared its ugly head here as elsewhere. The fact that Jews made up a large section of the urban middle classes, many more than in Germany and other countries, made anti-Semitism worse in Poland than elsewhere. One of the leading political parties in the late 19th century in Poland was the National Democracy Party, which preached national independence and anti-Semitism.
An Independent Poland
The other leading party in Poland was the Socialist Party. Its leader, Josef Pilsudski, became a national hero during World War 1 by organising Polish forces to fight for the liberation of the country. He was imprisoned by the Germans but, at the end of the war, he was freed, sent back to Poland and given command of the country's Army.
The Polish - Russian War
The return of Polish independence after World War 1 was a wonderful turn of events for the Poles, but the country was soon threatened by a major invasion from Russia. Pilsudski led the successful Polish defence in the Polish-Russian War of 1919-21, and then, after the war, to save Poland from the chaos which seemed to be overtaking it, he led a coup in 1925 which seized power; he himself became president.
Until World War 2, Poland was governed by an authoritarian government, which became more and more nationalistic and anti-Semitic. Not all Polish people were anti-Semitic. Irena's father, for example, believed all people were equal and all should be treated with compassion and respect. He was one of the few doctors who were prepared to treat Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century. His respect for all people was passed on to his daughter. Irena hated the growing anti-Semitism. She got in trouble at school and university, where classes were segregated, for sitting on the Jewish side, to show her solidarity. There were others of a similar opinion, as the growing threat of war became apparent in the 1930s.
German and Russian Invasion
In September 1939, Poland was invaded and occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. In 1941, the Russian troops were defeated by Germany and driven from Eastern Poland. Unlike most other countries occupied by the Germans during World War 2, Poland was directly governed by Nazi officials, under one of the most brutal of all Nazi leaders, Hans Frank.
A Very Brutal Regime
The Polish nation suffered more, under Nazi Germany, than any other people. One of the first actions of the Nazi occupation forces was to round up the Polish intelligentsia (very intelligent, high status people) and ruling classes, and massacre them. A network of concentration and extermination camps were built and operated in occupied Poland. Throughout the course of the war to these camps were sent political prisoners: those who helped the Jews, as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, those with mental handicaps and the Jewish people themselves.
A High Price in Polish and Jewish Lives
From 1939 onwards, Irena, along with many of her colleagues in the department, were involved in helping the Jewish population. Irena's boss, for example, was sent to Auschwitz for faking documents to get food and clothing to the Jewish poor. Others like Irena smuggled or helped hide Jewish people. Despite the anti-Semitism of the pre-war years, in Poland, perhaps because of the long history of oppression, there was much less collaboration than in other occupied countries. More than three million Jews were killed, but the same number of non-Jewish Poles also died through Nazi action. In all, between 10% and 20% of all Poles were killed by the Nazis.
The centre of Jewish culture and life in Europe
Poland was a country with a long history of Jewish life and culture. Although anti-Semitism was widespread, the country also saw many people risk their lives to save Jewish people in WW2. It is estimated that nearly 1 in 12 helped in some way, more than in any other country.
The Early Days - Living in Tolerance
Important Jewish communities had lived in Poland since about AD 1000. Through the Medieval period, they experienced much more tolerance in Poland than elsewhere in Europe. After 1492, Poland received an influx of Jews and became the centre of Jewish life and culture in Europe.
The Jews' position deteriorated after Poland had been partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1795, and Polish Jews were treated the same way as they were in those countries. After the 1850s, the Tsarist government ordered all Jews within the Empire to move to an area called "The Pale", which was in Polish territory. As a result, the population of Jews in Poland shot up to 4 million.
In the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, there were many local anti-Jewish riots, or "pogroms", in which hundreds of Jews were killed. This anti-Jewish activity reached a peak in the years after World War 1, when Jews were believed to be pro-communist (a mistaken idea that came from the fact that Karl Marx had been a Jew) and so must be working for Poland's enemies.
The newly independent republic of Poland had the largest Jewish population of any European country, when considering its total size. Most of these had come from the Russian Empire in recent decades and many could hardly speak any Polish and did not mix in Polish life. Since most of the 3.5 million Jews in Poland lived in towns and cities, most of these had large Jewish populations, often between a third and a half of all inhabitants. This very large group of people lived separately from the rest of the community.
Restrictions on the Jewish Community
Anti-Semitism was more extensive in Poland than in most places in Europe. The economic depression of the 1930s made this situation worse. Some very wealthy business owners were Jews, others were doctors, teachers, journalists and so on. Most, however, earned modest livings as tailors, shoemakers, shop-keepers and factory workers. Falling economic standards led to boycotts of Jewish shops and the banning of Jews from government jobs. The numbers of Jewish students were also limited, and they were segregated in Polish universities.
World War 2
Nothing, however, that had gone before could have prepared the Jewish population for the horror that would happen during the occupation of Poland during WW2. By 1939, the Jewish population of Poland was both the largest (at 10% of the population, compared with 1% in Germany) and the poorest of any in a European country.
Setting up of the Ghettos
After the Nazi invasion, all Jews in Poland over 12 years old were forced to wear armbands displaying the Star of David. They were restricted to living in ghettoes, set up in every town and city in the land, and made to work in German factories. Some of the ghettos were enormous, housing hundreds of thousands of Jews; others were tiny, with a few hundred occupants. Their numbers were swollen by the forced resettlement of Jews from all over occupied Europe - first from Germany and Austria, then from Holland, Belgium and France; later from Hungary and the Balkans (see the Warsaw Ghetto).
The Final Solution
On January 20, 1942, at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, a conference was held by the Nazis to plan "The Final Solution to the Jewish Question". The protocols from the conference, contained the phrase "transportation to the East". These words were used to mean the killing of all of Europe's 9 million Jews. From spring 1942 until the autumn of 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to exterminations camps all over Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Death Camps
There were six Nazi extermination centres in Poland. Two of them Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, were also used as forced-labour camps. On arrival at these camps, people were divided: those sent to the right were put to work, those sent to the left went immediately to the gas chambers. At the other camps, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Chelmno, there were no "selections" made. All the people who were sent to these camps, with the exception of a few who escaped, were immediately killed in gas chambers. No record was kept of their deaths. Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek were still operational shortly before being liberated by the Soviet Union towards the end of the war. The other extermination camps had been dismantled.
Destined for Treblinka
It was to the camp at Treblinka that most of the children rescued by Irena would have been sent. Over 777,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were sent to Treblinka. In 1933, it is estimated that around 9 million Jews lived in the 21 countries of Europe that would be occupied by Germany during the war. By 1945, two out of every three European Jews had been killed by the Nazis.
High walls, starvation, disease and death
Before the start of World War 2, Warsaw had the largest Jewish community in Europe (380,000). Soon after the invasion of Poland, the Nazis started to identify and isolate the Jewish community. They had to wear yellow armbands with the Star of David on. Their shops and businesses had to be clearly marked.
The Jewish Council
On October 4, 1939, a few days after the city's surrender to the Nazis, a 24-member Judenrat, (Jewish Council) was set up headed by Adam Czerniakow. The council was responsible for organising the internal affairs of the Jews and for implementing Nazi orders in the Jewish community.
Setting up of the Ghetto
On 15th November 1940, Ludwig Fischer (the city's German Governor) officially created the Warsaw Ghetto. It was the largest of a number of ghettos set up in Poland. An area of the city, a little more than a square mile, was enclosed by 3m high brick walls topped with broken glass. Within the walls almost 400,000 Jewish people were confined.
At first there was some semblance of normal life. Cafes were still open, school lessons continued and people tried to live as normally as possible. As the days passed the people were packed together in increasingly crowded conditions.They were forced to work in government factories under appalling conditions. Before long, hunger and disease were thinning the population, although new arrivals from all over Poland kept the overall numbers from falling.
Food was strictly rationed and many starved in the bitter winters. The official food ration of around 200 calories a day per person was less than 10% of the ration for Germans. When possible food was smuggled into the Ghetto by bribing guards at the gates or carrying it in via underground canals. As more and more Jewish people were brought in from the neighbouring towns and villages, conditions became even more cramped. The money for bribes dried up. Many of the Ghetto inhabitants were starving.
Death and Diseases
Deaths from typhus and TB were common. A typhoid epidemic, caused by the poor sanitary conditions, saw 6,000 people a month dying by April 1941. It was into this Ghetto that Irena and her small band of colleagues went nearly every day, dispensing medicine and food where they could and smuggling the children and babies out to safe places.
The Final Solution and the Warsaw Ghetto
From 1942, the numbers were reduced by a new factor - deportation to the death camps. The 'Final Solution' was decided upon early in 1942. In early July 1942 rumours spread across the Ghetto about rail cars waiting to deport people to the east. The SS denied the rumours until the 22nd July when the Judenrat received instructions that all Warsaw Jews were to be deported to the east, starting immediately at the rate of 6,000 a day. The people were to be rounded up by the Jewish Ghetto Police. Failure to comply would result in immediate execution of some 100 hostages. Realising he had been lied to Adam Czerniakow commited suicide the next day.
The Nazi forces conducted mass deportations between July 22nd and September 21st, 1942. Thousands of Jewish people from the Warsaw Ghetto were transported to the Treblinka Extermination Camp, in north east Poland. At first few believed that the rumours of these death camps were real. Eventually towards the end of 1942, the evidence that was fed back was so strong, it could not be denied and people began to confront the awful truth.
Realising the Truth
Leaflets were spread throughout the Ghetto warning people of the fate that awaited them. The leaftlets advised: "Don't let yourself be caught! Hide, don't let yourself be taken away...Don't be fooled by registrations, selections, numbers and roll calls! Jews, help one another! Take care of the children!" Bunkers and hideouts were hurriedly constructed in many ingenious ways. The Jewish population went underground, via camouflaged entrances to secret rooms in attics, and basements that were inter-connected by newly constructed passageways, through a maze of underground tunnels and sewers.
The Ghetto Uprising
The first resistance began in January 1943. By this time the great majority of Jewish people in the villages and cities had been murdered. As the Warsaw Ghetto emptied out, some of the 50,000 people still alive, armed with little more than home-made bomb launchers, small arms and grenades, rose up against the Nazis. The main uprising occurred on 19th April when the SS, police and Wehrmacht units, with their armoured vehicles, entered the Ghetto to take the remaining Jewish people for transportation to concentration camps. The troops found themselves under attack. Pitched battles continued day and night between the troops and groups of about 20 or 30 Jewish people - both men and women. (For more details see the Resistance section.)
The Destruction of the Ghetto
On April 23rd, Himmler issued the order to complete the task of emptying out the Warsaw Ghetto. Troops were to employ the greatest severity. It was decided to destroy the entire Jewish residential area by setting every block on fire. Nevertheless, the Jewish rebels held off the SS brigade for three weeks before they captured the main headquarters. After this the remaining people were killed or moved out of the Ghetto. General Juergen Stroop, charged with crushing the Uprising, recorded that they did everything they could to combat the Jewish bandits. He said: 'They prefer to remain in burning buildings rather than surrender ..." On June 2nd, Himmler ordered that the Ghetto "be leveled flat with the earth ..." Partisan skirmishes continued, however, until mid-July, when the area was reduced to rubble. By 1945 there were no ghettoes, and no Jewish communities, in Poland.
Effect of the Uprising
The Polish underground newspaper Glos Warszawy (The Warsaw Voice) wrote at the time that all oppressed peoples, including Poles, ought to use the Ghetto Jews as a role model. "We can all learn a lesson from this battle. The revolt in the Ghetto teaches us that it is possible to fight a war against the Germans ..."
Well organised sabotage and doomed uprisings
Some areas of Poland were never properly conquered by the Nazis, thanks to the tough resistance movement that operated in the country from the very first days of the war. A significant proportion of Poles were also involved directly or indirectly in sheltering the Jewish population.
A Well Organised Army
The Polish resistance was very well organised. At one time there were over 100 radio stations broadcasting in occupied Poland. The government in exile played a key part in running the non-communist resistance from Britain. From April 1941, the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Union for Armed Struggle started 'Operation N', a cover name for sabotage, subversion and propaganda activities. The largest of the Polish resistance organisations was the Home Army (AK) but there were many others, including the communist People's Guard.
Occupying the German Army
Throughout the war the Partisan Units blew up railroads and disrupted German supplies. As a counter measure, the German authorities formed a special 1,000-men-strong anti-partisan unit of combined SS-Wehrmacht forces. There were many Polish operations against the occupying forces. They had a real influence on the war by keeping large numbers of German troops tied down and therefore unable to be sent to front-line action.
Such strong resistance came at a cost, as the reprisals by the Germans were savage in the extreme. In fact, so extreme that the Polish resistance all but ended its work for about 10 months in 1942. The Special Operation Executive (SOE) in London could not effectively assist the Poles because of the distance involved.
Alerting the World to the Holocaust
From March 1941, reports were forwarded to the Polish government in exile and on to the Allied governments. In 1942 three Polish prisoners and a Ukranian escaped from Auschwitz concentration camp dressed as SS officers in an SS staff car. They smuggled out a report from Witold Pilecki, a member of the Secret Polish Army (a Resistance Group), who had got himself imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp in order to gather intelligence. Pilecki's operation enabled the Polish Government in Exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust was taking place. However, the allies believed his reports to be exaggerated and took no action.
Zegota - A Resistance Organisation for Helping the Jews
Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where there was a secret organization dedicated to assisting the Jews, it was set up in 1942 and known as Zegota. It operated under the authority of the Polish Government in Exile. It was run jointly by Jews and non-Jews from a wide range of political movements. For a long while a number of individuals had been helping the Jewish population. The risks however were huge and the practicalities hard to manage. Zegota was set up by people who were already rescuers and who knew the difficulties.
What did Zegota do?
Zegota set up hundreds of small cells across the country. Their main task was to channel aid to Jews in the ghettoes and in hiding and to help them find safe places to hide. The founding members of Zegota were also members of the Polish underground (resistance movement) and hence they had contacts with access to forged papers (of the highest quality), supplies, medical help, homes and emergency hiding places. Half of the Jews who survived the war were aided in some shape or form by Zegota.
As the movement of Jews to the death camps continued, there were a number of uprisings in the ghettos and at the camps. The largest and most organised was that of the Warsaw Ghetto that took place in 1943. The Jews, armed mainly with homemade weapons and smuggled small arms, fought and held off fully armed German units for several weeks. Help from outside the Ghetto was limited, but Polish resistance units from the Home Army and the People's Guard attacked German units near the Ghetto walls and attempted to smuggle weapons, ammunition, supplies and instructions into the Ghetto.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
The Uprising started on January 18th, 1943, when SS and other forces entered the Ghetto to begin the next round of transportations to the camps. By this time, the people of the Ghetto were aware that they were being systematically killed. Two resistance organisations, the ZZW - Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Związek Wojskowy) and the ZOB - Jewish Combat Organisation (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa) had taken control of the Ghetto. They built dozens of fighting posts. The remaining food and supplies were cleverly stored and an extraordinary subterranean defence was erected in days. The resisters set up illegal radios to communicate with the various underground units. The Jews had been ordered by the Nazis to assemble with their papers. Instead, while Jewish families hid in their "bunkers", the ZZW and ZOB engaged with the troops.
SS Under Attack
To their amazement the SS found themselves under attack. They were stunned and confused. With only handguns and a few rifles, the Jewish resistance used every means at their disposal, including gasoline bottles and homemade incendiary devices. They dashed onto the streets to retrieve weapons, grenades and ammunition from the dead and wounded. The deportations were halted within a few days.
Flying the Flag
The most significant part of the rebellion took place from April 19th until May 16th, 1943. This time the SS troops entered the deserted Ghetto with tanks and machine guns. In command was an experienced SS General, Juergen Stroop. The Jewish underground, however, was well prepared. Many were willing to fight: both men and women. Its young leader, Mordechai Anielewicz, gave the command for all who had arms to fight and for the others to conceal themselves in the bunkers and hiding places. They fought hard and a stunned Stroop had to withdraw. Stroop was further incensed when a blue and white Hebrew flag was hoisted, which could clearly be seen in the city outside the Ghetto. The news reached Berlin. A furious Heinrich Himmler commanded Stroop to crush the resistance "with ruthless and murderous tenacity."
The Ghetto Ablaze.
SS General Stroop ordered his forces to burn down the entire Ghetto. The Nazis used flamethrowers to burn down every building and bunker in sight. Dogs and smoke grenades were used to flush the people out of their bunkers. When the weapons ran out, the Jewish defenders resorted to guerrilla tactics. For about three weeks the Ghetto inhabitants held the troops back.
The End of the Warsaw Ghetto
Eventually, the Nazi forces succeeded in battling their way to the resistance bunker headquarters on Mila Street. A few fighters escaped into 'Aryan' Warsaw, others committed suicide. 13,000 Jews were killed in the Ghetto during the Uprising. Most of the remaining of the 50,000 inhabitants were captured and shipped to extermination camps, in particular to Treblinka. Stroop's SS burned down the Warsaw synagogue, and 900 years of Jewish heritage in Poland came to an end. He wrote to Berlin, "There is no longer a Jewish district in Warsaw!" Under the order of Himmler, the Ghetto was reduced to rubble. In its place the Warsaw concentration camp complex was established. Thousands of people died in the camp or were executed in the ruins of the Ghetto.
Warsaw Rising of 1944
The Uprising in the Ghetto was not the last to be seen in Warsaw. On 1st August 1944, the Warsaw Rising took place when the Polish underground rose up in an attempt to drive the Germans from the city and liberate it ahead of the advance of the Red Army. During the Warsaw Rising, the AK battalion 'Zoska' was able to rescue 380 Jewish concentration camp prisoners from the Gesiowka sub-camp, most of these immediately joining the AK and fighting in the Polish uprising. The Polish troops fought bravely for 63 days before finally surrendering. During the uprising 18,000 young Polish soldiers died and nearly a quarter of the city's buildings were destroyed. The city was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945.
After the War
When the Communists took over, after the war, they gave no recognition at all to the courage and sacrifice of the resistance organisations or of the thousands of individual Poles who had aided the Jews. Many, like Irena, were treated with suspision. Most Jews who had survived left as soon as possible for Israel or the West.
The battle to save the children
During World War 2, 1.5 million children were murdered. As well as 1.2 million Jewish children, tens of thousands of Gypsy children and thousands of handicapped children also died. Many of these were killed in the death camps, others perished in the ghettos through starvation or disease.
A Sense of Normality
In the early days of the ghettos, attempts were made to maintain a sense of normality for the children; schools were opened and playgrounds organised. In the Warsaw Ghetto, as more and more people entered, the schools were ordered closed and the conditions deteriorated.
A Time for Action
Activists realised that something must be done or many young lives would be lost. The most well known activist was Irena Sendlerowa. Irena managed to obtain a pass from Warsaw's Epidemic Control Department and she visited the Ghetto daily. As starvation and disease took hold, she realised that the only way to save many of the children was to smuggle them out and place them into hiding on the Aryan side. This was no easy task: arrangements had to be made to provide the children with new identities and papers as well as find people willing to shelter them. At this time the rations for ordinary Poles, even outside the Ghetto, were near starvation levels and, if caught harbouring Jews, the punishment was death. At first Irena rescued mainly orphan children.
Mass Deportations - No Exceptions for the Children
The Judenrat received instructions, on July 22nd, 1942, that all Warsaw Jews were to be deported to the east, starting immediately at the rate of 6,000 a day. Czerniaków, the leader of the Judenrat, realised that deportation meant death. He went to plead for exemptions, including the children from the Janusz Korczak's Dom Sierot (House of the Orphan). His request was refused. When he failed, he returned to his office. The next day, at 4:00 p.m., Czerniakow took his own life using a cyanide capsule. He left a suicide note to his wife, saying, "They demand me to kill children of my nation with my own hands. I have nothing to do but to die..."
The Children of the Orphanage Leave the Ghetto
On August 5th or 6th, 1942, the orphans of Dom Sierot were ordered out for deportation. Janusz Korczak, who was in charge of the orphanage, a well known children's author and paediatrician, had been given several opportunities by the resistance to escape. He refused; he knew the children in his care would be frightened without him. Surrounded on all sides by Nazi troops the children, dressed in their best clothes, marched in organised columns. The elderly Janusz Korczak was at the front holding the hand of a child. Each child carried a favourite book or toy. They marched out of the Ghetto to a field beside the railway yards, where they were kept until they were ordered into goods-wagons. Janusz Korczak, his assistant Stefania Wilczynska, the orphanage staff and the children (nearly 200) were taken to the Treblinka concentration camp. Here they were murdered.
Providing Support and Organisation
As the transportations out of the Ghetto began and the difficulties for individuals trying to smuggle people out increased, Zegota (The Council for Aid to Jews) was organised in Warsaw (See Resistance section). Members were all rescuers. Irena Sendlerowa was entrusted with running the branch that dealt with child welfare. She worked under the false name of Jolanta.
Many secret planning meetings took place in order to ensure that everything would run smoothly. Now, as part of a larger network with resistance connections, getting forged papers, supplies and places of safety was easier. The most difficult problem was persuading parents to part with their children. Sometimes the team failed and came back the next day only to see that the whole family had been sent to Treblinka.
Taking the Children Out of the Ghetto
Irena had a small team of about 20 helpers. Many escape routes were established. The children were taken through the courts on Leszno Street; those able to chant a few prayers could be taken out through a church (although this was a dangerous route). They were taken through work fields, which led into the city via cellars and sewers. Rescuers also used the trucks of the sanitation department, ambulances and carts, body bags, coffins and any other containers or goods in which the children could be hidden.
A Place of Safety
After getting out of the Ghetto, the children had to be placed in special 'Custody Points'. Here they went through a period of adjusting to their new environments. Next, the children went to one of three places: foster families, city institutes or convents. A large number of Polish people were involved directly or indirectly in this activity. Many individuals took on children and so did the Catholic Church.
With the Help of the Church
Catholicism was deeply bound up with Polish national identity. There were many Catholic Churches - they were located every city, town and village in Poland - as well as many monasteries, convents and orphanages dotted throughout the country. It was the support and involvement of the Catholic institutions that enabled Irena and her team to place so many children successfully. Irena herself said: "I sent most of the children to religious establishments...I knew I could count on the Sisters." Lists, written in code, of all the children and their placements were kept by Irena, in the hope they could be reunited with family after the war.
Many ordinary Poles were executed for sheltering Jews. Others, like Irena, were taken to Gestapo headquarters or prisons where they were tortured, before execution, to get them to reveal names of other resistance contacts. It was under torture that a contact of Irena's had disclosed her name. Irena herself never gave any information about her contacts or about the locations of the children she was hiding.
Despite their best efforts, the resistance could not stop the transportations or save all the children. However, their bravery saved many who otherwise were destined for certain death. Irena herself was involved in saving the lives of 2,500 children, many already hiding outside the ghettos and a large number smuggled from inside.
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