Poland during WW II

1. Poland after outbreak of the WW II

World War II began for Poland on September 1, 1939 at 4.45 am from attack on Polish military base at Westerplatte in Gdansk by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein.

Battleship Schleswig-Holstein shooting at Westerplatte

It was preceded by a day earlier Gliwice provocation, during which Germans pretending Poles attacked German radio station in Gliwice, what was intented to blame the Polish side for unleashing the war. Assumed by Hitler as blitzkrieg, this invasion evolved into a campaign lasting more than a month, during which Poles mounted fierce resistance despite the vast superiority of the German forces.

Battle of Bzura (September 9 / September 18-22) and defence of Warsaw

Devoid of any chances and real military help from outside, also attacked on the east by the Red Army, which on September 17 invaded its eastern territories, Poland finally surrendered on October 5. The consequence of it was another partition of Poland, whose lands were:

  • included in Third Reich (Pomerania, Poznań Province, parts of the province of Lodz, Lodz, Upper Silesia, Dabrowski Basin, the western districts of Cracow province, northern province of Warsaw and Suwalki region – totally 93 000 km2 inhabited by about 10 million people)
  • administered by Third Reich as the General Government (part of the province of Warsaw with Warsaw, part of the Lodz region, the province of Kielce, Lublin, Cracow and the province of Lviv)
  • incorporated into USSR according to Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939 (territories east of the Bug River – totally 200 000 km2 with 13 million people)


black – Third Reich; white – General Government; red – USSR

According to military historians Czeslaw Grzelak and Wojciech Stanczyk (“Polish Campaign of 1939. Beginning of World War II”, 2005), about 63 000 soldiers and 3 300 officers were killed in fighting, about 400 000 were taken prisoner in Germany, and 230 000 in USSR.  About 80 000 soldiers escaped to neighboring Polish neutral countries:  Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (12 000), Romania (32 000) and Hungary (about 40 000). Part of the Polish army left the territory of the Polish state already with the government on September 17, 1939, going to Romania or Hungary, where they were interned. The authorities of these countries, however, did not try to interfere with the mass escapes of soldiers who were trying to get to France, where, under the Polish-French Agreement of September 9, 1939 first Polish army units were formed. Some of the soldiers headed to Western Europe by sea or by Yugoslavia and Italy, some went to Syria and Lebanon.

Polish military volunteers in France

After the surrender of the Polish army many soldiers tried to get to the West (through Hungary and Romania) by illegally crossing the southern, so called “green” Polish border. They were carried out by special couriers. It was very risky however due to the Slovaks, who controlled the border and transferred catched Poles to the Germans. For these refugees were then created Polish armed forces in the Western Europe, who took an active part in the fight against Germans in Europe and on other continents.

2. Resistance

Despite remoteness from the country the Polish government in London maintained its control over many areas of social and political life in occupied Poland. It was represented by Government Delegate at Home, which had control over 14 departments – the equivalent of ministries. The military force was the Home Army (Armia Krajowa – AK), which nucleus was already formed in October 1939. Also peasant and folk organizations created their own military units, Peasant Battalions and People’s Guard, mainly of guerrilla character.

Soldiers of the Home Army

Dziś do ciebie przyjść nie mogę (I can’t come to you today) – popular guerilla song

Actions against the occupant had a different character – sabotage and diversionary (destruction of industrial facilities and transport, railway, military warehouses, bridges, industrial plants, municipal offices, sawmills, telephone lines) or directly military (attacks on outposts of gendarmerie, police, border guards, attacks on German military commanders). Many of these daring feats, and the same troops and their commanders, later passed into legends. The activities of the resistance movement was aimed not only for blocking the activity of German military forces, but also as protection against displacement of the Polish population (especially on eastern Zamojszczyzna) and dispatching them for work in the Reich. On the photo above: underground anti-German propaganda.

Civilians did not remain idle, using passive resistance and boycott of the orders of the German authorities, sneering them in songs and propaganda, providing valuable intelligence information. It operated an underground newspapers, and organized in the large-scale secret schools at primary, secondary and higher education. En masse, the rural population declined from supplying food to Germany, falsifying data on manufacturing – illegal food was used to supply the cities. Forms of combat with the enemy was different, and every manifestation served as sustaining of the spirit of the nation, even though civilians often paid a high price for this fight. On the pic: the Home Army band.

Here are 2 movie clips from “Forbidden songs” (1946) illustrating life in occupied Poland:

 anti-German song in a street car (authentic) /  – autentic war song praising trade (“Who trades that lives”)

  3. Holocaust

The number of Jewish community before the war was more than 3 500 000 people (10% of the population in Poland), of which – according to various estimates – survived the war only from 100 000 to 300 000 people. After the outbreak of war Jews were displaced en masse to areas of the General Government and closed in ghettos. The largest of them were located in Warsaw (about 460 000 inhabitants in 1941) and Lodz (about 160 000 inhabitants).

Concentration camps and ghettos on the Polish territories

Important note: the map shows nazi concentration and extermination camps on Polish territiories what is often wrongly named as the Polish concentration and extermination camps!

 Ghetto in Warsaw

Those, who survived the inhumane living conditions and hunger, were deported to death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor and Chełmno. Those remaining outside the ghetto also were killed by Germans in their settlements and unfortunately it happened that Poles also participated in some of those massacres. One of the saddest example is the massacre of the village of Jedwabne (July 10, 1941), where in the barn about 340 Jews were burned alive. The Poles’ attitude to the persecution of Jews during the World War II was different. A large part of the population harbored open hostility toward Jews (in the interwar period openly anti-Semitic parties enjoyed great popularity) and used their tragic situation for personal gain. For example, forcing the payment for silence, hiding or other help or even “selling” them to Germans (what was punishable by death by Polish underground institutions). A large part of Poles, however, provided assistance to Jews at the risk of their life, because Poland was the only country occupied by Germany, which introduced the death penalty for the help. On the photo: ghetto in Lodz.

The government in-exile formally joined in this support by creating in 1942 the Council for Aid to Jews, called Zegota. This help included providing false documents to Jews, repatriating from the ghetto and hiding Jewish children, and organizing the hiding places on the Aryan side. One of Zegota members was Irena Sendler (on the photo), who exported from the Warsaw Ghetto about 2 000 Jewish children (it is shown in the American movie “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler”, we also recommend highly Roman Polanski movie “The Pianist”, which shows life in Warsaw ghetto, based on memories of Polish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman). During the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which started on April 19, 1943, Home Army supplied the insurgents with weapons, gunpowder and ammunition, and its members even took an active part in combat. The same applies to other places.

The Warsaw ghetto uprising

4. The Warsaw Uprising

This is one of the most controversial events in Polish territories during World War II, and still a subject of hot disputes and debates. Inspired by the Home Army, it broke out in Warsaw on August 1, 1944 and ended on October 3, 1944. Militarily it was directed against Germans occupying the city – organizers expected encirclementing and defeating them in just 5 days. Politically it was directed against Soviets, whose army had just liberated eastern Polish territories and stopped at the line of the Vistula river. It was intended to play a host of the capital, demonstrating the sovereignty and legitimate transfer of power by the followers of pre-war Polish government, which is understandable in light of the fact that since July 22, 1944 Poland had another government, the Polish Committee of National Liberation created in Lublin, just liberated by communists. In the broader sense, the uprising was a desperate attempt to deny the international commitments that tended towards acceptanceof the  territorial changes made in the east by the USSR on September 17, 1939.

Warsaw during uprising

  Warsaw children – insurgent song

Calculated for 5 days, uprising lasted 63 days, what was incredible as insurgents did not possess enough ammuntion and armory and had to get it from defeated Germans. Unhappily the fight did not meet any of its targets, bringing in exchange annihilation of the city and the death of 120 000 – 150 000 civilians.

From the very beginning Warsaw Uprising was rated very differently. While after war people’s authorities applied black propaganda to it, claiming it was extreme political irresponsibility, the population of Warsaw honored their heroes, creating  a special cult of this patriotic event. In recent years, however, historians begin to outweigh the highly critical assessment. Prof. Jan Ciechanowski, historian and former insurgent, believes that „the fight was ill calculated by the leadership as in those political and geostrategic conditions it had no chance of success. What’s more, they didn’t consider at all the worst, not wondered how the insurgent forces were able to ensure safety of civilians”. The same aspect was raised by another insurgent, general Zbigniew Scibor-Rylski, who recently apologized civilian inhabitants of Warsaw for making them victims of the uprising. This statement was condemned by some patriotic circles but average Poles rather share critical opinions about necessity of the uprising. Whatever is being said, however, it is necessary to honor the great Warsaw’s youth, who without hesitation sacrified their lives for the freedom of Poland. Their enthusiasm and patriotic fervor has been permanently etched into the beautiful part of the legend.

Young insurgents

Where are the flowers of those years – pictures with a song commemorating young insurgents by Sława Przybylska

5. Under Soviet occupation (September 17, 1939 – June 22, 1941)

After the seizure of the eastern Polish territories by the USSR on September 17, 1939 Polish population had been subjected to harassment, which was motivated by the struggle of the proletarian state against Polish bourgeois  and imperialism. The first one to suffer from this was intelligentsia (politicians, representatives of local authorities, judges, clergy, professors, writers, social  and trade union activists), and also Polish troops – both groups were arrested immediately. Representatives of intelligentsia were sent to the Urals, Siberia, Kazakhstan, Arkhangelsk and Krasnoyarsk and forced into slave labor in labor camps, under extremely adverse conditions. In February 1940 they were accompanied by peasant land owners (about 300 000 people) who received land through land reform of 1925. On the photo: Russian army entering Lviv.

Deportation of the Polish population

 Russian invasion on Poland

Soldiers, who were denied the status of prisoners of war, were imprisoned in the camps, and the officers, soldiers, border guards and police from camps in Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov (approx. 16 000) were murdered in the spring of 1940. The remaining Polish population was also subjected to harassment – they were forbidden to speak Polish language, had their property confiscated, the young men were inducted into the army and Polish cultural institutions were closed.

In the spring of 1943 Polish communists came to terms with Joseph Stalin on the creation of the next polish forces on USSR territory. The creation of Polish units started on May 6, 1943 in Sielce by the river Oka with the Infantry Division (their patron was General Tadeusz Kosciuszko). In August 1943 it was transformed into the Polish 1 Corps, and in March 1944 into a 1 Polish Army, which took part in the liberation of Poland and fought in the final capture of Berlin. In 1944 also 2 Polish Army was created, which took part in the liberation of Prague.

The oath of the 1st Infantry Division – Sielce

Oka – the song of the 1st Infantry Division

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