Military history



The German terror began in the sky. At 4:20 in the morning on 1 September 1939, the bombs fell, without warning, on the central Polish city of Wieluń. The Germans had chosen a locality bereft of military significance as the site of a lethal experiment. Could a modern air force terrorize a civilian population by deliberate bombing? The church, the synagogue, the hospital all went up in flames. Wave after wave of munitions fell, seventy tons of bombs in all, destroying most of the buildings, and killing hundreds of people, mostly women and children. The population fled the city; when a German administrator arrived, there were more corpses than live people. Throughout western Poland, scores of towns and villages met a similar fate. As many as 158 different settlements were bombed.1

In the Polish capital, Warsaw, people saw the planes race across the clear blue sky. “Ours,” people said to themselves, hopefully. They were wrong. The tenth of September 1939 marked the first time a major European city was bombed systematically by an enemy air force. There were seventeen German raids on Warsaw that day. By mid-month the Polish Army was all but defeated, but the capital still defended itself. On 25 September Hitler declared that he wanted the surrender of Warsaw. Some 560 tons of bombs were dropped that day, along with seventy-two tons of firebombs. In all, some twenty-five thousand civilians (and six thousand soldiers) were killed, as a major population center and historic European capital was bombed at the beginning of an undeclared war. Throughout the month, the columns of refugees were already streaming east, away from the Wehrmacht. German fighter pilots took their pleasure in strafing them.2

Poland fought alone. France and Britain declared war on Germany, as promised, but took no meaningful military action during the campaign. (The French advanced a few miles into the Saar region and then withdrew again.) The Polish Army rushed to take defensive positions. The Polish military had been trained to expect an attack either from the east or the west, from either the Red Army or the Wehrmacht. In the war plans and war games of the 1920s and 1930s, both variants had been taken into account. Now all available forces, some thirty-nine divisions (about nine hundred thousand men) were thrown against the fifty German divisions (1.5 million troops). Even so, Polish forces were outnumbered, outgunned, and outflanked by the motorized assault from the north, west, and south. Yet resistance in some places was stiff.

The Wehrmacht had become used to strolling into countries that had already given themselves up, such as Austria and Czechoslovakia. Now German soldiers were actually facing hostile fire. Not everything went their way. In Danzig, the free city on the Baltic coast that Hitler wanted for Germany, Poles defended their post office. German firemen poured gasoline in the basement, and burned out the defenders. The director of the post office left the building waving a white handkerchief. He was immediately shot. Eleven people died of burn wounds. The Germans denied them medical treatment. Thirty-eight men were sentenced to death and shot for the supposedly illegal defense of the building. One of them, Franciszek Krause, was the uncle of a boy named Günter Grass, who later became the great novelist of West Germany. Thanks to his novel The Tin Drum, this particular war crime became widely known. It was one of many.3

German soldiers had been instructed that Poland was not a real country, and that its army was not a real army. Thus the men resisting the invasion could not be real soldiers. German officers instructed their troops that the death of Germans in battle was “murder.” Since resisting the German master race was, in Hitler’s terminology, “insolence,” Polish soldiers had no right to be treated as prisoners of war. In the village of Urycz, Polish prisoners of war were gathered into a barn, where they were told they would spend the night. Then the Germans burned it down. Near the village of Śladów, Germans used prisoners of war as human shields as they engaged the remnants of a cavalry unit. After the Germans had killed the cavalrymen, who were unwilling to shoot at their fellow Poles, they made the prisoners bury the bodies of their comrades. Then they lined up the prisoners against a wall at the bank of the Vistula River and shot them. Those who tried to escape by jumping into the river were shot—as the one survivor remembered, like ducks. Some three hundred people died.4

On 22 August 1939, Hitler had instructed his commanders to “close your hearts to pity.” The Germans killed prisoners. At Ciepielów, after a pitched battle, three hundred Polish prisoners were taken. Despite all the evidence, the German commander declared that these captured soldiers were partisans, irregular fighters unprotected by the laws of war. The Polish officers and soldiers, wearing full uniform, were astonished. The Germans made them disrobe. Now they looked more like partisans. All of them were gunned down and thrown in a ditch. In the short Polish campaign, there were at least sixty-three such actions. No fewer than three thousand Polish prisoners of war were murdered. The Germans also murdered the Polish wounded. In one case, German tanks turned to attack a barn marked with a red cross. It was a Polish first-aid station. If it had not been marked with a cross, the tank commanders would likely have ignored it. The tanks fired on the barn, setting it aflame. The machine gunners fired at people who tried to escape. Then the tanks ran over the remnants of the barn, and any survivors.5

Wehrmacht officers and soldiers blamed Polish civilians for the horrors that now befell them. As one general maintained, “Germans are the masters, and Poles are the slaves.” The army leadership knew that Hitler’s goals for the campaign were anything but conventional. As the chief of staff summarized, it was “the intention of the Leader to destroy and exterminate the Polish people.” Soldiers had been prepared to see the Polish civilian population as devious and subhuman. One of them was so convinced of Polish hostility that he interpreted a Pole’s death grimace as the expression of irrational hatred for Germans. The soldiers quickly took to taking out their frustrations on whomever they happened to see. As a rule, the Germans would kill civilians after taking new territories. They would also kill civilians after losing ground. If they took casualties at all, they would blame whoever was at hand: men in the first instance, but also women, and children.6

In the town of Widzów, the Germans summoned the men, who, fearing nothing because they had done nothing, answered the call. One pregnant wife had a sense of foreboding, but she was torn away from her husband. All of the men of the town were lined up against a fence and shot. In Longinówka, forty Polish citizens were locked in a building, which was then set aflame. Soldiers fired on people as they leapt from windows. Some of the reprisal actions were unthinkably casual. In one case a hundred civilians were assembled to be shot because someone had fired a gun. It turned out that the gun had been fired by a German soldier.7

Poland never surrendered, but hostilities came to an end on 6 October 1939. Even as the Germans established their civilian occupation authorities that autumn, the Wehrmacht continued to kill Polish citizens in large numbers in quite arbitrary reprisal actions. In December, after two German soldiers were killed by known Polish criminals, the Germans machine-gunned 114 men who had nothing to do with the incident. In January the Germans shot 255 Jews in Warsaw after the Jewish community had failed to turn over someone whom the Germans, judging by his last name, thought to be Jewish. The person in question had nothing to do with the Jewish community.8

German soldiers had been instructed to regard the Jews as eastern barbarians, and in Poland they did encounter something that they never would have seen in Germany: large communities of religious Jews. Though Hitler raged on about the destructive role of Jews in German society, the Jews were an extremely small proportion of the German population. Among the German citizens defined by the Nuremberg laws as Jewish, most were secular, and many did not identify strongly with the Jewish community. Jews in Germany were highly assimilated, and very often married non-Jews. For historical reasons, Jewish life in Poland was very different. Jews had been expelled from Germany in the late middle ages, as they had been from most of central and western Europe. Poland had been for centuries a haven for Jews, and became and remained the center of European Jewish settlement. In 1939 about ten percent of the Polish population were Jews, and most of these were religiously observant and traditional in dress and custom. They generally spoke Yiddish, which Germans tended to hear as a deformed version of their own language. In Warsaw and Łódź, the most important Jewish cities in Poland, Jews were about one third of the population.

Judging by their correspondence, German officers and soldiers saw Polish Jews as living stereotypes rather than as human beings, a special blight on an already benighted Polish land. Germans wrote to their wives and girlfriends to describe an inhuman assemblage of disorder and filth. In their image of Poland, everything that was beautiful was the work of previous German settlers, while everything ugly was the result of Jewish corruption and Polish laziness. Germans seemed to feel an uncontrollable urge to neaten the appearance of the Jews. Again and again, soldiers would surround Jewish men and shave their sidecurls, while others would laugh and take photographs. They would also rape Jewish women, casually, as though this were not an offense for which they could be punished. When they were caught, they were reminded of German laws against racial mixing.9

In the town of Solec, Jews were taken as hostages and locked in a cellar. After an escape attempt, soldiers threw grenades into the cellar, killing everyone. In Rawa Mazowiecka, a German soldier asked a Jewish boy for some water. When the boy ran away, the soldier took aim and shot. He hit one of his own comrades instead. The Germans then gathered hundreds of people in the town square and killed them. In Dynów, some two hundred Jews were machine-gunned one night in mid-September. In all, Jews were about seven thousand of the forty-five thousand or so Polish civilians killed by the Germans by the end of 1939, somewhat more than the Jewish share of the Polish population.10

Even more than a Polish soldier, a Jewish soldier posed a problem for the Nazi worldview in which German soldiers and officers had been indoctrinated. Jews had been purged from the German armed forces since 1935. Yet Polish Jews, like all male Polish citizens, were subject to military service in the Polish Army. Jews, especially Jewish doctors, were well represented among officers. Germans separated Jews from their units and sent them to special punitive labor camps.


Germany had all but won the war by the time the Soviets entered it on 17 September. On that day the German air force was bombing Lwów (today Lviv), the most important Polish city in the southeast, as the Red Army approached it. The crossing of half a million Soviet soldiers into Poland had elicited both fear and hope. Poles wanted to believe that the Soviets had come to fight the Germans. Some confused Polish soldiers, driven eastward by the German attack, could believe for a moment that they had found allies. The Polish armed forces were desperate for support. 11

The Soviets claimed that their intervention was necessary because the Polish state had ceased to exist. Since Poland could no longer protect its own citizens, went the argument, the Red Army had to enter the country on a peacekeeping mission. Poland’s large Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities, went the Soviet propaganda, were in particular need of rescue. Yet despite the rhetoric the Soviet officers and soldiers were prepared for war, and fought one. The Red Army disarmed Polish units, and engaged them wherever necessary. Half a million men had crossed a frontier that was no longer defended, to fight an enemy that was all but defeated. Soviet soldiers would meet German soldiers, demarcate the border, and, in one instance, stage a joint victory march. Stalin spoke of an alliance with Germany “cemented in blood.” It was mainly the blood of Polish soldiers, more than sixty thousand of whom died in combat.12


In cities like Lwów where both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army were nearby, Polish soldiers had a difficult choice: to whom should they surrender? The Soviet military promised them safe passage back home after a brief interview. Nikita Khrushchev, who had accompanied the Soviet soldiers, repeated the assurance. The artist Józef Czapski, a Polish reserve officer, was among those who were betrayed by this lie. His unit had been beaten back by the Germans, and then surrounded by Soviet armor. He and his men were promised that they would be taken to Lwów and released there. Instead, they were all packed into trucks on the city’s market square. Tearful women threw them cigarettes. A young Jewish man bought apples from a stand and tossed them to the prisoners in the truck. Near the post office, women took the notes that the soldiers had written for their families. The prisoners were taken to the train station, and sent east.13

As they crossed the Soviet border they had the feeling of entering, as Czapski recalled, “another world.” Czapski sat with a botanist friend, another reserve officer, who marveled at the tall grasses of the Ukrainian steppe. In another train, Polish farmers looked through the cracks at Soviet collective farms, and shook their heads in distress at the disorder and neglect they saw. At a stop in Kiev, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, Polish officers met an unexpected reception. Ukrainians were saddened to see Polish officers under Soviet guard. Some of them, it seems, still believed that it would be the Polish Army that would liberate Ukraine from Stalin. Instead, about fifteen thousand Polish officers were taken to three Soviet prison camps, run by the NKVD: one in the eastern part of Soviet Ukraine, in Starobilsk, and two more in Soviet Russia, at Kozelsk and Ostashkov.14

The removal of these men—and all but one of them were men—was a kind of decapitation of Polish society. The Soviets took more than one hundred thousand prisoners of war, but released the men and kept only the officers. More than two thirds of these officers came from the reserves. Like Czapski and his botanist companion, these reserve officers were educated professionals and intellectuals, not military men. Thousands of doctors, lawyers, scientists, professors, and politicians were thus removed from Poland.15

Meanwhile, Soviet occupying forces in eastern Poland placed the lower orders of society in the vacated heights. Prisons were emptied, and political prisoners, usually communists, were put in charge of local government. Soviet agitators urged peasants to take revenge on landlords. Though most people resisted the call to criminality, chaos reigned as thousands did not. Mass murders with axes were suddenly frequent. One man was tied to a stake, then had some of his skin peeled off and his wound salted before being forced to watch the execution of his family. Usually the Red Army behaved well, though sometimes soldiers joined in the violence, as when a pair killed a local official and then took his gold teeth.16

In the background, the NKVD entered the country, in force. In the twenty-one months to come it made more arrests in occupied eastern Poland than in the entire Soviet Union, seizing some 109,400 Polish citizens. The typical sentence was eight years in the Gulag; about 8,513 people were sentenced to death.17


West of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, where Germany ruled, methods were even less subtle. Now that the Wehrmacht had defeated a foreign army, the methods of the SS could be tried against an alien population.

The tool of persecution, the Einsatzgruppe, was the creation of Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich. The Einsatzgruppen were special task forces led by Security Police and including other policemen, whose apparent mission was to pacify the rear areas after military expansion. As of 1939 they were subordinate to Heydrich’s Reich Security Main Office, which united the Security Police (a state institution) with the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD (the intelligence service of the SS, a Nazi party institution). Einsatzgruppen had been deployed in Austria and Czechoslovakia, but met little resistance in these countries and had no special mission to kill selected groups. It was in Poland that the Einsatzgruppen were to fulfill their mission as “ideological soldiers” by eliminating the educated classes of a defeated enemy. (They were in some sense killing their peers: fifteen of the twenty-five Einsatzgruppe and Einsatzkommando commanders had doctorates.) In Operation Tannenberg, Heydrich wanted the Einsatzgruppen to render “the upper levels of society” harmless by murdering sixty-one thousand Polish citizens. As Hitler put it, “only a nation whose upper levels are destroyed can be pushed into the ranks of slavery.” The ultimate goal of this decapitation project was to “destroy Poland” as a functioning society. By killing the most accomplished Poles, the Einsatzgruppen were to make Poland resemble the German racist fantasy of the country, and leave the society incapable of resisting German rule.18

The Einsatzgruppen approached their task with murderous energy, but lacked the experience and thus the skills of the NKVD. They killed civilians, to be sure, often under the cover of retaliatory operations against supposed partisans. In Bydgoszcz the Einsatzgruppen killed about nine hundred Poles. In Katowice they killed another 750 in a courtyard, many of them women and girls. All in all, the Einsatzgruppen probably killed about fifty thousand Polish citizens in actions that had nothing to do with combat. But these were not, it seems, the first fifty thousand on their list of sixty-one thousand. They were very often groups selected on the spur of the moment. Unlike the NKVD, the Einsatzgruppen did not follow protocols carefully, and in Poland they did not keep careful records of the people they killed.19

The Einsatzgruppen were more successful in missions against Jews, which required much less discrimination. One Einsatzgruppe was tasked with terrorizing Jews so that they would flee east from the German occupation zone to the Soviet side. As much of this as possible was to be accomplished in September 1939, while military operations were still taking place. So in Będzin, for example, this Einsatzgruppe burned down the synagogue with flamethrowers, killing about five hundred Jews in two days. Einsatzkommandos (smaller detachments) fulfilled similar missions. In the city of Chełm one of them was tasked to rob wealthy Jews. The Germans carried out strip-searches of women who looked Jewish on the street, and cavity searches in private. They broke fingers to get at wedding rings. In Przemyśl between the sixteenth and the nineteenth of September Einsatzkommandos shot at least five hundred Jews. As a result of such actions, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled to the Soviet occupation zone. In the vicinity of the city of Lublin more than twenty thousand Jews were simply expelled.20

After the conquest of Poland was complete, the Germans and their Soviet allies met once again to reassess their relations. On 28 September 1939, the day Warsaw fell to the Germans, the allies signed their treaty on borders and friendship, which changed the zones of influence somewhat. It assigned Warsaw to the Germans and Lithuania to the Soviets. (It is this border that appears on the maps as the “Molotov-Ribbentrop line.”) It also obliged the two sides to suppress any Polish resistance to the regime of the other. On 4 October Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to a further protocol, defining their new common border. Poland had ceased to exist.

A few days later Germany formally annexed some of the territories in its zone, leaving the rest as a colony known as the General Government. This was to be a dumping ground for unwanted people, Poles and Jews. Hitler thought that Jews could be held in some eastern district in a kind of “nature preserve.” The general governor, Hitler’s former lawyer Hans Frank, clarified the position of the subject population in two orders issued in late October 1939. One specified that order was to be maintained by the German police; the other, that the German police had the authority to issue a death sentence to any Pole who did anything that might appear to be against the interests of Germany or Germans. Frank believed that Poles would soon realize the “hopelessness of their national fate” and accept the leadership of the Germans.21


East of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, the Soviets were extending their own system. Moscow enlarged its Ukrainian and Belarusian republics to the west, forcing their new populations, the residents of what had been eastern Poland, to participate in the annexation of their own homeland. When the Red Army entered Poland, it presented Soviet power as the great liberator of the national minorities from Polish rule, and the great supporter of the peasants against their masters. In eastern Poland, the population was about forty-three percent Polish, thirty-three percent Ukrainian, and eight percent each Jewish and Belarusian, with a small number of Czechs, Germans, Russians, Roma, Tatars, and others. But now everyone from every nation and every class would have to express a ritualized support of the new order. On 22 October 1939, all adults in what the Soviets called “Western Belarus” and “Western Ukraine” had to vote in elections to two assemblies, whose provisional character was revealed by their one legislative undertaking: to request that the lands of eastern Poland be incorporated by the Soviet Union. By 15 November, the formalities of annexation were complete.22

The Soviet Union was bringing its own institutions and practices to eastern Poland. Everyone now had to register for an internal passport, which meant that the state had a record of all of its new citizens. With the registration of citizens came the military draft: some 150,000 young men (Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews) soon found themselves in the Red Army. Registration also allowed for the smooth pursuit of a major Soviet social policy: deportation.23

On 4 December 1939 the Soviet politburo ordered the NKVD to arrange the expulsion of certain groups of Polish citizens deemed to pose a danger to the new order: military veterans, foresters, civil servants, policemen, and their families. Then, on one evening in February 1940, in temperatures of about forty below zero, the NKVD gathered them all: 139,794 people taken from their homes at night at gunpoint to unequipped freight trains bound for special settlements in distant Soviet Kazakhstan or Siberia. The entire course of life was changed before people knew what had happened to them. The special settlements, part of the Gulag system, were the forced-labor zones to which the kulaks had been sent ten years before.24

Because the NKVD defined family very expansively, the trains were full of aged parents as well as the children of people who were thought to be dangerous. At halts on the journey east, guards would go from car to car, asking if there were any more dead children. Wiesław Adamczyk, an eleven-year-old child at the time, asked his mother if the Soviets were taking them to hell. Food and water were given very irregularly, and the cattle cars were without facilities and extremely cold. As time passed, the children learned to lick the frost from metal nails, and watched as the elderly began to freeze to death. Now the adult dead would be taken out and thrown into a hastily dug mass grave. Another boy looked out and tried to remember them, writing later that even as the dead disappeared, “in our thoughts remained their dreams and their wishes.”25

During the passage alone, some five thousand people would die; about eleven thousand more would perish by the following summer. One little Polish girl in a Siberian school described what happened to her family: “My brother got sick and in a week died from hunger. We buried him in a hill on the Siberian steppe. Mom from worry also got sick from hunger swelled up and lay in the barrack for two months. They didn’t want to take her to the hospital until it was the end. Then they took her mama lay in the hospital for two weeks. Then her life ended. When we learned this we were seized by a great despair. We went to the burial twenty-five kilometers away we went to the hill. You could hear the sound of the Siberian forest where two of my family were left.”26

Even more than the kulaks who had preceded them, these Poles were alien and helpless in central Asia or the Russian north. They usually did not speak Russian, let alone Kazakh. The locals, especially in central Asia, saw them as one more imposition coming from the center. “The natives,” as one Pole recalled Kazakhstan, “spoke little Russian and greatly resented the whole arrangement and the new mouths to feed; and would at first sell us nothing, nor help in any way.” Poles could not have known that a third of the population of Kazakhstan had starved to death only a decade before. One Polish father of four was murdered for his boots on a collective farm. Another father died of starvation in Siberia. As his son remembered, “He swelled up. They wrapped him in a sheet and threw him in the ground.” A third father died of typhus in Vologda, the north Russian city of death. His son, age twelve, had already learned a kind of philosophy: “A man is born once and dies only once. And so it happened.”27

Deported Polish citizens had probably never heard the Russian word kulak before, but now they were discovering its history. In one Siberian settlement Poles found the skeletons of kulaks deported in the 1930s. In another, a sixteen-year-old Pole realized that the foreman at his work camp was a kulak. “He told me frankly,” the boy remembered, “what was in his heart”: faith in God. Because Poles were thought to be Roman Catholics and thus Christian believers, their presence elicited such confessions of faith from Ukrainians and Russians. But even in the distant east the Soviet authorities reacted with great hostility to any sign of Polishness. A Polish boy who came to town to sell his clothes for food met a policeman who struck the cap from his head. The cap had a white eagle, the symbol of the Polish state. The policemen would not let the boy pick it up from the ground. As Soviet journalists kept writing and teachers kept saying, Poland had fallen and would never rise again.28


With calculation, classification, and practiced violence, the Soviets could force Poles into a system that already existed. After a few weeks of chaos, they had extended their state westward, and dispensed with the most dangerous of possible opponents. In the western half of Poland, west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, the Germans could take no such approach. Hitler had enlarged his Reich very recently, into Austria and Czechoslovakia, but never into territories populated by quite so many non-Germans. Unlike the Soviets, the Nazis could not even claim to be bringing justice and equality to oppressed peoples or classes. Everyone knew that Nazi Germany was for the Germans, and the Germans did not bother to pretend otherwise.

The premise of National Socialism was that Germans were a superior race, a presumption that, when confronted by the evidence of Polish civilization, the Nazis had to prove, at least to themselves. In the ancient Polish city of Cracow, the entire professoriate of the renowned university was sent to concentration camps. The statue of Adam Mickiewicz, the great romantic poet, was pulled down from its pedestal on the Market Square, which was renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz. Such actions were symbolic as well as practical. The university at Cracow was older than any university in Germany. Mickiewicz had been respected by the Europeans of his day as much as Goethe. The existence of such an institution and such a history, like the presence of the Polish educated classes as such, was a barrier to German plans, but also a problem for Nazi ideology.29

Polishness itself was to disappear from these lands, to be replaced by “Germandom.” As Hitler had written, Germany “must seal off these alien racial elements, so that the blood of its people will not be corrupted again, or it must without further ado remove them and hand over the vacated territory to its own national comrades.” In early October 1939, Hitler conferred a new responsibility upon Heinrich Himmler. Already the leader of the SS and the chief of the German police forces, Himmler now became the “Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom,” a kind of minister for racial affairs. In the regions that Germany annexed from Poland, Himmler was to remove the native population and replace it with Germans.30

Although Himmler embraced the project with enthusiasm, it was a difficult assignment. These were Polish territories. There had not been a large German minority in independent Poland. When the Soviets said that they were entering eastern Poland to defend Ukrainians and Belarusians, this had at least a demographic plausibility: there were about six million such people in Poland. There were, by contrast, fewer than a million Germans. In Germany’s newly annexed territories, Poles outnumbered Germans by about fifteen to one.31

By now Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had mastered the German press, so Germans (and those who believed their propaganda) had the impression that there were massive numbers of Germans in western Poland, and that they had been subject to horrible repressions. The reality was quite different. It was not just that the nine million or so Poles massively outnumbered the Germans in the new districts of the Reich. Hitler had just added significantly more Jews (at least 600,000) to his Reich than he had added Germans, and for that matter nearly tripled the population of Jews in Germany (from about 330,000 to nearly a million). If the General Government (with its 1,560,000 Jews) was included, he had added well over two million Jews to Berlin’s dominions. There were more Jews in the city of Łódź (233,000), which was added to Germany, than in Berlin (82,788) and Vienna (91,480) combined. There were more Jews in Warsaw, now in the General Government, than there had been in all of Germany. Hitler had added more Poles to the Reich in this annexation than he had added Germans in this and all previous annexations, including Austria and the border regions of Czechoslovakia. Taking into account the General Government and the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia annexed from dissembled Czechoslovakia, Hitler had added about twenty million Poles, six million Czechs, and two million Jews to his empire. There were now more Slavs in Germany than in any other European state, except the Soviet Union. On a crusade for racial purity, Germany had become by the end of 1939 Europe’s second-largest multinational state. The largest, of course, was the Soviet Union.32

Arthur Greiser, placed in charge of the largest of Germany’s new regions, known as the Reichsgau Wartheland, was particularly receptive to the idea of “strengthening Germandom.” His province extended west to east from the major Polish city Poznań to the major Polish city Łódź. It was home to about four million Poles, 366,000 Jews, and 327,000 Germans. Himmler proposed to deport one million people by February 1940, including all of the Jews and several hundred thousand Poles. Greiser began the project of “strengthening Germandom” by emptying three psychiatric hospitals and having the patients shot. Patients from a fourth psychiatric hospital, at Owińska, met a different fate. They were taken to the local Gestapo headquarters in October and November 1939 and gassed by carbon monoxide released from canisters. This was the first German mass murder by this method. Some 7,700 Polish citizens found in mental institutions were murdered, beginning a policy of “euthanasia” that would soon be followed within the boundaries of prewar Germany as well. Over the course of the next two years, more than seventy thousand German citizens would be gassed as “life unfit for life.” Strengthening Germandom had an internal and an external dimension; aggressive war abroad allowed for the murder of German citizens. So it began and so it would continue.33

The goal of removing the Jews from Germany clashed with another ideological priority, that of resettling Germans from the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet Union had extended its borders west by taking eastern Poland, Hitler had to be concerned about the Germans (formerly Polish citizens) who then fell under Soviet rule. Hitler arranged for these people to be sent to Germany. They would live in the Wartheland, on the homesteads vacated by deported Poles. But this meant that Polish farmers, rather than Jews, had to be deported in the first instance, to make room for these incoming Germans. But even if Jews were allowed, for the time being, to remain in their homes, they faced enormous suffering and humiliation. In Kozienice, Orthodox Jews were forced to dance next to a pile of burning books and chant that “the war is our fault.” In Łowicz on 7 November 1939, the entire male Jewish population was forced to march to the prison, to be ransomed by the Jewish community.34

In the first deportation from the Wartheland to the General Government, carried out from 1-17 December 1939, the vast majority of the 87,883 people expelled were Poles. The police chose in the first instance Poles who “represent an immediate danger to German nationhood.” In a second deportation, carried out between 10 February and 15 March 1940, another 40,128 people were sent away, again most of them Poles. The journey was rather short. In normal times, the journey from Poznań, the capital city of the Wartheland, to Warsaw, the largest city of the General Government, would take a few hours. Nevertheless, thousands of people froze to death on the trains, which were often left idle on side tracks for days. Commented Himmler: “It’s just the climate there.” The weather in Poland, needless to say, was essentially the same as the weather in Germany.35


The winter of 1939-1940 in Poland and Germany was unusually cold. The winter in Ukraine, Russia, and northern Kazakhstan was even colder. As the days shortened in the Soviet special settlements, thousands of Polish citizens fell ill and died. In the three camps in Soviet Russia and Soviet Ukraine where the Soviets held the Polish prisoners of war, the men followed their own political and religious calendar. In Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobilsk, people found ways to commemorate the 11th of November, Polish independence day. In all three camps, the men planned to celebrate Christmas Day. These prisoners were generally Roman Catholics, with a considerable admixture of Jews, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and Greek Catholics. They found themselves in desecrated Orthodox monastic complexes, praying or taking communion in quiet corners of crumbling cathedrals.36

The prisoners saw the signs of what had happened to the Orthodox monks and the nuns during the Bolshevik Revolution: skeletons in shallow graves, outlines of human bodies traced in bullets against the walls. One prisoner at Starobilsk could not help but notice the clouds of black ravens that never seemed to leave the monastery. Nevertheless, prayer seemed to bring hope, and the people of various faiths worshipped together—until 24 December 1939, when the priests, pastors, and rabbis were taken away, from all three camps, never to be seen again.37

The three camps were a sort of laboratory for observing the behavior of the Polish educated classes. Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobilsk became Polish in appearance. The prisoners had no other clothes but their army uniforms, with white eagles on their caps. Needless to say, no one wore that particular emblem in public in the former eastern Poland, where the public space was now graced by the hammer, sickle, and red star. Even as Polish universities were closed on the German side or made Ukrainian and Russian on the Soviet, camp inmates organized lectures led by the prominent Polish scientists and humanists who were among the reserve officers. Officers organized modest credit unions, so that poorer officers could borrow from richer. They declaimed by heart the poetry that they had learned at school. Some of them could recite from memory the massively long novels from the period of Polish realism. Of course, the prisoners also disagreed, fought, and stole. And a few people—as it turned out, a very few—agreed to cooperate with the Soviets. The officers disagreed about how to comport themselves during the long nighttime interrogations. Yet the spirit of national solidarity was palpable, perhaps to the Soviets as well.38

The men were nevertheless lonely. They could write to their families, but could not discuss their situation. Knowing that the NKVD read everything they wrote, they had to be discreet. One prisoner at Kozelsk, Dobiesław Jakubowicz, entrusted to his diary the letters he wished to write to his wife, his dreams of watching her dress, and of playing with their daughter. The prisoners had to give a sanatorium as their return address, which led to much painful confusion.39

The prisoners befriended the dogs who served as sentries, and the dogs from nearby towns. Dogs would visit the camps, entering through the gate past the guards or through holes in or under the barbed-wire fences too small for a man. One of the reserve officers at Starobilsk was Maksymilian Łabędź, the most famous veterinarian in Warsaw. An older gentleman, he had barely survived the transport. He looked after the dogs, and occasionally even performed surgeries. His special pet was a mutt that the officers called Linek, which was short for Stalinek—“Little Stalin” in Polish. The favorite among the dogs that visited was called Foch, after the French general who was supreme commander of the allied armies that defeated Germany in 1918. This was a time, in late 1939 and early 1940, when a Polish government in exile had established itself in Paris, and when Poles generally hoped that France could defeat Germany and rescue Poland. They attached their own hopes for contact with the outside world to the little dog Foch, who seemed to have a home in town. They would tuck notes under his collar, hoping for a response. One day, in March 1940, they got one: “People say that soon you’ll be released from Starobilsk. People say that you’ll go home. We don’t know if that’s true.”40

It was not true. That month in Moscow, Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenty Beria had come to a conclusion, perhaps inspired by Stalin. Beria made clear in writing that he wanted the Polish prisoners of war dead. In a proposal to the politburo, and thus really to Stalin, Beria wrote on 5 March 1940 that each of the Polish prisoners was “just waiting to be released in order to enter actively into the battle against Soviet power.” He claimed that counterrevolutionary organizations in the new Soviet territories were led by former officers. Unlike the claims about the “Polish Military Organization” a couple of years before, this was no fantasy. The Soviet Union had occupied and annexed half of Poland, and some Poles were bound to resist. Perhaps twenty-five thousand of them took part in some kind of resistance organization in 1940. True, these organizations were quickly penetrated by the NKVD, and most of these people arrested: but the opposition was real and demonstrable. Beria used the reality of Polish resistance to justify his proposal for the prisoners—“to apply to them the supreme punishment: shooting.”41

Stalin approved Beria’s recommendation, and the mechanisms of the Great Terror began again. Beria established a special troika to deal rapidly with the files of all of the Polish prisoners of war. It was empowered to disregard the recommendations of the previous interrogators, and to issue verdicts without any contact with the prisoners themselves. It seems that Beria established a quota for the killings, as had been done in 1937 and 1938: all of the prisoners at the three camps, plus six thousand people held in prisons in western Belarus and western Ukraine (three thousand in each), plus especially dangerous elements among noncommissioned officers who were not in captivity. After a quick examination of the files, ninety-seven percent of the Poles in the three camps, about 14,587 people, were sentenced to death. The exceptions were a few Soviet agents, people of ethnic German or Latvian background, and people with foreign protection. The six thousand from the prisons were also condemned to death, along with 1,305 other people who were arrested in April.42


The prisoners of the three camps were expecting that they would be allowed to return home. When, in April 1940, the first groups were taken from the camp at Kozelsk, there were given a farewell reception by their comrades. Fellow officers formed, as best as they could without their weapons, an honor guard as they walked to the buses. In groups of a few hundred at a time, the prisoners were taken by rail through Smolensk to the smaller station at Gniazdovo. There they found themselves disembarking from the train into a cordon of NKVD soldiers with bayonets fixed. About thirty of them at a time entered a bus, which took them to the Goat Hills, at the edge of a forest called Katyn. There, at an NKVD resort, they were searched and their valuables taken. One officer, Adam Solski, had been keeping a diary up to this moment: “They asked about my wedding ring, which I. . . . ” The prisoners were taken into a building on the complex, where they were shot. Their bodies were then delivered, probably by truck in batches of thirty, to a mass grave that had been dug in the forest. This continued until all 4,410 prisoners sent from Kozelsk had been shot.43

At Ostashkov, a band played as the prisoners left the camp, to lift their spirits. They were taken by train, in groups of about 250-500, to the NKVD prison at Kalinin (today Tver). All were held briefly while their data were checked. They waited, not knowing what would come next, probably not suspecting until the very last moment. An NKVD officer asked one of the waiting prisoners, alone then with his captors, how old he was. The boy was smiling. “Eighteen.” What did you do? Still smiling. “Telephone operator.” How long had you worked? The boy counted on his hands. “Six months.” Then he, like all of the 6,314 prisoners who passed through this room, was handcuffed and led to a soundproofed cell. Two men held him by the arms as a third shot him from behind in the base of the skull.44

The chief executioner at Kalinin, whom the prisoners never saw, was Vasily Blokhin. He had been one of the main killers during the Great Terror, when he had commanded an execution squad in Moscow. He had been entrusted with some of the executions of high-profile defendants of show trials, but had also shot thousands of workers and peasants who were killed entirely in secret. At Kalinin he wore a leather cap, apron, and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform. Using German pistols, he shot, each night, about two hundred and fifty men, one after another. Then the bodies were driven, in a truck, to nearby Mednoe, where the NKVD had some summer houses. They were thrown into a large pit dug earlier by a backhoe.45

From the camp at Starobilsk, the prisoners made the trip by rail, a hundred or two hundred at a time, to Kharkiv, where they were held at the NKVD prison. Though they could not have known this, they had been brought to one of the main killing centers of Poles in the Soviet Union. Now it was their turn, and they went to their deaths ignorant of the past, ignorant of what was happening to their comrades in other camps, ignorant of what would happen to them. After a day or so in prison they were taken to a room where their details were checked. Then they were led to another room, this one dark and without windows. A guard would ask “May I?” and then lead in the prisoner. As one of the NKVD men remembered, “there was a clack, and that was the end.” The bodies were piled onto trucks. Jackets were pulled over the heads of the corpses so that the truck platform would not be stained by the blood. The bodies were loaded head first, then feet first, so they would stack.46

In this way 3,739 prisoners of Starobilsk were killed, including all of Józef Czapski’s friends and acquaintances: the botanist whom he remembered for his calm, but also an economist who tried to hide his fears from his pregnant wife, a doctor who was known in Warsaw for visiting cafés and supporting artists, the lieutenant who recited plays and novels by heart, the lawyer who was an enthusiast for a European federation, all the engineers, teachers, poets, social workers, journalists, surgeons, and soldiers. But not Czapski himself. He, like a few others from each of the three camps, was sent on to another camp, and survived.47

Fyodor Dostoevsky had set a crucial scene of The Brothers Karamazov at the Optyn Hermitage in Kozelsk, which in 1939 and 1940 became the site of the Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. Here took place the most famous exchange in the book: a discussion between a young nobleman and a monastery elder about the possibility of morality without God. If God is dead, is everything permitted? In 1940, the real building where this fictional conversation took place, the former residence of some of the monks, housed the NKVD interrogators. They represented a Soviet answer to that question: only the death of God allowed for the liberation of humanity. Unconsciously, many of the Polish officers provided a different answer: that in a place where everything is permitted, God is a refuge. They saw their camps as churches, and prayed in them. Many of them attended Easter services before they were dispatched to their deaths.48

The prisoners in the three camps, or at least many of them, guessed that they were being filtered, selected for some role that they might play in the Soviet Union. They had little or no idea, however, that when they failed this test they would be killed. They knew nothing of the Polish operation of the Great Terror, in which tens of thousands of Soviet Poles had been shot only two years before. Even had they understood the stakes, it seems hard to imagine that very many of them could have demonstrated any sort of believable loyalty to the Soviets. In the camps they had to see Soviet newspapers, watch Soviet propaganda films, and listen to Soviet news broadcasts over loudspeakers. They generally found it all ridiculous, and insulting. Even those who informed on their comrades found the system absurd.49

The two cultures did not communicate well, at least not without some obvious shared interest. During this period, when Stalin was Hitler’s ally, no such common ground could easily be imagined. The possibilities for misunderstanding, on the other hand, were enormous. Collectivization and industrialization had modernized the Soviet Union, but without the attention to the population, or rather to consumers, that characterized the capitalist West. The Soviet citizens who ruled eastern Poland were falling off bicycles, eating toothpaste, using toilets as sinks, wearing multiple watches, or bras as earmuffs, or lingerie as evening gowns. Polish prisoners were also ignorant, and about more fundamental matters. Unlike Soviet citizens in their position, the Poles believed that they could not be sentenced or killed without a legal basis. It was a sign of the great civilizational transformation of Stalinism that these Soviet and Polish citizens, many of whom had been born in the same Russian Empire, now understood each other so poorly.

The chief interrogator at Kozelsk, the man who inherited the residence of Dostoevsky’s monastic elder, put this delicately: it was a matter of “two divergent philosophies.” In the end, the Soviets could extend and enforce theirs. Jokes at the expense of the Soviets in eastern Poland could be answered with the easy retort: what is the country called now? The Poles in the camps would not be made to fit Soviet civilization. They did not live like Soviet people: this was the recollection of the Russian and Ukrainian peasants who saw them, who decades later recalled their neatness, cleanliness, and proud bearing. They could not be made to live like Soviet people, at least not on such short notice, and not in these circumstances: but they could be made to die like them. Many of the Polish officers were stronger and better educated than the NKVD captors. But disarmed, confused, and held by two men, they could be shot by a third, and buried where no one, it seemed, would ever find them. In death, it seemed, they could join the silence of the citizens of Soviet history.50

In all, this lesser Terror, this revival of the Polish operation, killed 21,892 Polish citizens. The vast majority of them, though not all, were Poles by nationality. Poland was a multinational state, with a multinational officer corps, and so many of the dead were Jews, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. Some eight percent of the victims were Jews, corresponding to the proportion of Jews in eastern Poland.51

As in the Great Terror, the families of the repressed were to be punished as well. Three days before proposing that all of the prisoners in these camps be shot, Beria had ordered that their families be deported. The Soviets knew who these people were: this was why they had allowed the prisoners to correspond with their loved ones, to collect names and addresses. Operational troikas in western Belarus and western Ukraine prepared the names of 60,667 people to be sent to special settlements in Kazakhstan. Most of them were family members of what one order called “former people.” These were usually families without husbands and fathers. Wives were told, in a typical Soviet lie, that they were being sent to join their husbands. In fact, families were dropped on the Siberian taiga (“the eternal mud and snow” as one thirteen-year-old Polish boy remembered it) as the men were being shot at Katyn, Kalinin, Kharkiv, Bykivnia, and Kurapaty. Some Polish children wrote to Stalin on 20 May 1940, promising to be good Soviet citizens, complaining only that “it’s hard to live without our fathers.” The following day NKVD men were given cash awards for having cleared out the three camps without allowing a single escape.52

Because the men were absent, this deportation was even harder on its victims than the one in February. Women were dropped with their children, and often with their aged parents-in-law, in Kazakhstan. Departing in April on a moment’s notice, most women had inadequate clothing. The clothes they brought they often had to sell to buy food. Women survived the following winter by learning to collect and burn dung for heat. Thousands of women died. Many of them had to decide how to keep their children alive. They wished to raise them as Poles, but often realized that they had to give them to Soviet institutions if they were to be fed and to survive. One woman left five of her six children at an NKVD office, and disappeared with the sixth at her breast, never to be seen again. The pregnant wife of the worried economist held at Starobilsk and killed at Kharkiv gave birth to their child in exile. The infant died.53

At the same time, in March 1940, NKVD chief Beria had ordered a deportation of people who had declined to accept a Soviet passport. This meant a rejection of the Soviet system, and also a practical problem for Soviet bureaucrats. Polish citizens who refused to allow their identities to enter Soviet records could not be observed and punished with desirable efficiency. As it happened, the vast majority of people who had rejected the Soviet passport were Jewish refugees from western Poland. These people had fled the Germans, but had no wish to become Soviet citizens. They feared that, if they accepted Soviet documents, they would not be allowed to return to Poland—once it was restored. So, in this way, Jews proved to be loyal citizens of Poland, and became victims of both of the regimes that had conquered their homeland. They had fled the depredations of the SS, only to be deported by the NKVD to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Of the 78,339 people deported in the June 1940 action that targeted refugees, about eighty-four percent were Jewish.54

Usually people who had no experience in the countryside, Polish Jews were at least as helpless as the Poles who had gone before them. Artisans and cobblers were sent to the far Russian north to fell trees. A Jewish boy called Joseph remembered that the Jews in his hometown had been forced to burn down their own synagogue as the Germans laughed. His family fled to the Soviet zone, but refused the Soviet passport. His brother, father, and mother all died in exile.55


In western Europe, this period was known as the “phony war”: nothing seemed to be happening. France and Britain were at war with Germany as of September 1939. But that autumn, winter, and the following spring, as Poland was defeated, destroyed, and divided, and tens of thousands of its citizens murdered and hundreds of thousands deported, there was no western front in the war. The Germans and their Soviet allies were free to do as they liked.

The Germans invaded Denmark and Norway in April 1940, thereby securing access to mineral reserves in Scandinavia and preventing any British intervention in northern Europe. But the phony war was well and truly over when Germany attacked the Low Countries and France on 10 May. By 14 June about a hundred thousand French and sixty thousand British soldiers were dead, and the Germans were in Paris. France had fallen, far more quickly than anyone expected. That same month, June 1940, the Soviet Union also extended its empire to the west, annexing all three of the independent Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.


The largest and most populous Baltic State, Lithuania, was also the one with the most complicated nationalities issues and international relations. Throughout the interwar period Lithuania had claimed the city of Vilnius and its environs, which lay in northeastern Poland. Though these territories were inhabited mainly by Poles, Jews, and Belarusians, Lithuanians regarded Vilnius as their rightful capital, since the city had been the capital of an important medieval and early-modern state known as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the 1920s and 1930s, the leaders of the independent Lithuanian state had used Kaunas as an administrative center, but regarded Vilnius as their capital. Stalin played on such emotions in 1939. Rather than annexing Vilnius to the Soviet Union, he granted it to still-independent Lithuania. The price, not surprisingly, was the establishment of Soviet military bases on Lithuanian territory. Soviet forces, already installed in Lithuania, stood at the ready as a political revolution, even more hasty and artificial than in eastern Poland, was imposed in summer 1940. Much of the Lithuanian political elite escaped to Nazi Germany.56

All of this was carefully observed by the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, who was in Kaunas to monitor German and Soviet military movements. In summer 1940 the Japanese leadership had set a clear course: it would seek a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union. With the north thus secured, the Japanese could plan a move southward for 1941. Sugihara was one of the relatively few Japanese officials in a position to follow German-Soviet relations after the fall of France. Lacking a staff of his own, he used as his informers and assistants Polish military officers who had escaped arrest by the Soviets and the Germans. He rewarded them with Japanese passports and the use of the Japanese diplomatic post. Sugihara helped the Poles find an escape route for their officer comrades. The Poles realized that it was possible to arrange a trip across the Soviet Union to Japan with a certain kind of Japanese exit visa. Only a very few Polish officers escaped by this route, though at least one of them reached Japan and filed intelligence reports about what he had seen while crossing the USSR.57

At the same time, Jewish refugees began to visit Sugihara. These Jews were Polish citizens who had originally fled the German invasion of September 1939, but who now feared the Soviets. They had heard of the June 1940 deportation of Jews, and feared the same for themselves. They were right to do so: a year later, the Soviets would deport about 17,500 people from Lithuania, 17,000 from Latvia, and 6,000 from Estonia. With the help of the Polish officers, Sugihara helped several thousand Jews escape Lithuania. They made the long trip across the Soviet Union by rail, then to Japan by ship, and then onward to Palestine or the United States. This action was the coda, silent but firm, of decades of Polish-Japanese intelligence cooperation.58


In 1940 the Nazi leaders would have liked to rid themselves of the two million or so Jews in their half of Poland, but could not agree among themselves as to how this was to be achieved. The original wartime plan had been to create some sort of reservation for Jews in the Lublin district of the General Government. But since the area of German conquest in Poland was relatively small, and Lublin not much further from Berlin (seven hundred kilometers) than the two great cities from which Jews would have to be deported, Warsaw (six hundred kilometers) and Łódź (five hundred kilometers), this had never been a satisfying solution. Hans Frank, the general governor, objected to the arrival of more Jews in his terrain. In late 1939 and 1940 Himmler and Greiser continued to dump Poles from the Wartheland into the General Government—some 408,525 in all, similar to the number of Polish citizens deported by the Soviets. This brought enormous suffering to the people in question, but did little to change the national balance in Germany. There were simply too many Poles, and moving them from one part of occupied Poland to another brought little more than chaos. It hardly fulfilled Hitler’s grand dreams of living space in the east.59

A specialist on deportation, Adolf Eichmann, was recruited in autumn 1939 to improve the efficiency of the operation. Eichmann had already shown his skills by speeding the emigration of Austrian Jews from Vienna. Yet the problem of deporting Jews to the General Government, as Eichmann found, was not so much inefficiency as senselessness. Eichmann learned that Hans Frank, the general governor, had no wish to see any more Jews in his colony. Eichmann managed to send about four thousand Austrian and Czech Jews to the General Government in October 1939 before this policy was halted. Eichmann then drew what must have seemed like the obvious conclusion: that the two million Jews under German power should be deported east to the vast territory of Germany’s ally, the Soviet Union. Stalin, after all, had already created a zone of Jewish settlement: Birobidzhan, deep in Soviet Asia. As the Germans noted (and would have occasion to note again), the Soviet regime, unlike their own, had the state capacity and sheer terrain required for effective mass deportations. The Germans proposed a transfer of European Jews in January 1940. Stalin was not interested.60

If the General Government was too near and too small to resolve what Nazis saw as the racial problem, and the Soviets were not interested in taking Jews, what was to be done with the racial enemies who made up its native population? They were to be held under control and exploited until the time for the Final Solution (still seen as deportation) came. The model came from Greiser, who ordered the creation of a ghetto for the 233,000 Jews of Łódź on 8 February 1940. That same month Ludwig Fischer, the German mayor of Warsaw, entrusted the lawyer Waldemar Schön with the task of designing a ghetto. In October and November more than a hundred thousand non-Jewish Poles were cleared out of the northwesterly district of Warsaw that the Germans declared to be the ghetto, and more than a hundred thousand Warsaw Jews moved in from elsewhere in the city. Jews were forced to wear a yellow star to identify themselves as Jews, and to submit to other humiliating regulations. They lost property outside the ghettoes, in the first instance to Germans, and then sometimes to Poles (who often had lost their own homes under German bombs). If Warsaw Jews were caught outside the ghetto without permission, they were subject to the death penalty. The fate of the Jews in the rest of the General Government was the same.61

The Warsaw ghetto and the other ghettos became improvised labor camps and holding pens in 1940 and 1941. The Germans selected a Jewish council, or Judenrat, usually from among people who had been prewar leaders of the local Jewish community. In Warsaw the head of the Judenrat was Adam Czerniaków, a journalist and prewar senator. The task of the Judenrat was to mediate between the Germans and the Jews of the ghetto. The Germans also created unarmed Jewish police forces, in Warsaw headed by Józef Szerzyński, which were to maintain order, prevent escapes, and carry out German policies of coercion. It was not at all clear what these would be, although with time Jews were able to see that life in the ghetto could not be sustained indefinitely. In the meantime, the Warsaw ghetto became a tourist attraction for visiting Germans. The ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum noted that the “shed where dozens of corpses lie awaiting burial is particularly popular.” The Baedeker guide to the General Government would be published in 1943.62

The Germans themselves returned in summer 1940, after the fall of France, to the idea of a distant Final Solution. The Soviets had rejected a deportation of Jews to the Soviet Union, and Frank had prevented their massive resettlement in his General Government. Madagascar was a French possession; with France subdued, all that stood in the way of its recolonization was the Royal Navy. Himmler mused along those lines: “I trust that thanks to a great journey of Jews to Africa or to some other colony I will see the complete extirpation of the concept of Jews.” That, of course, was not the end of the ambition, as Himmler continued: “Over a somewhat longer period of time it must be possible to cause the disappearance on our territory of the national conceptions Ukrainians, Górals, Lemkos. And what has been said about these clans applies, on an appropriately greater scale, also to the Poles. . . . ”63

Jews were dying at high rates, especially in the Warsaw ghetto, where well over four hundred thousand Jews were assembled. The ghetto comprised an area of only about two square miles, so the population density was about two hundred thousand people per square mile. For the most part, however, the Jews dying in Warsaw were not Warsaw Jews. In the Warsaw district, as elsewhere in the General Government, the Germans drove Jews from smaller settlements into the larger ghettoes. Jews from beyond Warsaw were usually poorer to begin with, and lost what they had as they were deported. They were sent to Warsaw with little time to prepare, and often unable to carry what they had. These Jews from the Warsaw district became the vulnerable ghetto underclass, prone to hunger and disease. Of the perhaps sixty thousand Jews who died in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 and 1941, the vast majority were resettlers and refugees. It was they who suffered most from harsh German policies, such as the decision to deny any food to the ghetto for the entire month of December 1940. Their death was often a hungry one, after long suffering and moral degradation.64

Parents often died first, leaving their children alone in a strange city. Gitla Szulcman remembered that after the death of her mother and her father she “wandered aimlessly through the ghetto and became entirely swollen with hunger.” Sara Sborow, whose mother died with her in bed, and whose sister then swelled and starved and died, wrote: “Inside myself I know everything, but I can’t say it.” The very articulate teenager Izrael Lederman understood that there were “two wars, a war of bullets and a war of hunger. The war of hunger is worse, because then a person suffers, from bullets you die at once.” As a doctor remembered, “ten-year-old children sold themselves for bread.”65

In the Warsaw ghetto, Jewish community organizations established shelters for orphans. Some children, in their desperation, wished for their parents to die so that they could at least get their food allotment as orphans. Some of the shelters were awful spectacles. As one social worker remembered, the children “curse, beat each other, jostle each other around the pot of porridge. Critically ill children lie on the floor, children bloated from hunger, corpses that have not been removed for several days.” She worked hard to bring order to a shelter, only to see the children catch typhus. She and her charges were blockaded inside, in quarantine. The shelter, she wrote in her diary with uncanny foresight, “now serves as a gas chamber.”66

Whereas the Germans preserved prewar Polish-Jewish elites, choosing from among them a Judenrat to implement German policies in the ghetto, they tended to regard non-Jewish Polish elites as a political threat. In early 1940, Hitler came to the conclusion that the more dangerous Poles in the General Government should simply be executed. He told Frank that Polish “leadership elements” had to be “eliminated.” Frank drew up a list of groups to be destroyed that was very similar to that of Operation Tannenberg: the educated, the clergy, the politically active. By an interesting coincidence, he announced this plan to “liquidate” groups regarded as “spiritual leaders” to his subordinates on 2 March 1940, three days before Beria initiated the terror actions against the Polish prisoners in the Soviet Union. His basic policy was the same as Beria’s: to kill people already under arrest, and to arrest people regarded as dangerous and kill them too. Unlike Beria, Frank would use the opportunity to execute common criminals as well, presumably to clear prison space. By the end of summer 1940, the Germans had killed some three thousand people they regarded as politically dangerous, and about the same number of common criminals.67

The German operation was less well coordinated than the Soviet one. The AB Aktion (Ausserordentliche Befriedungsaktion, Extraordinary Pacification Action), as these killings were known, was implemented differently in each of the various districts of the General Government. In the Cracow district prisoners were read a summary verdict, although no sentence was actually recorded. The verdict was treason, which would have justified a death sentence: but then, contradictorily, everyone was recorded as having been shot while trying to escape. In fact, the prisoners were taken from Montelupi prison in Cracow to nearby Krzesawice, where they dug their own death pits. A day later they were shot, thirty to fifty at a time. In the Lublin district people were held at the town castle, then taken to a site south of the city. By the light of the headlamps of trucks, they were machine-gunned in front of pits. On one night, 15 August 1940, 450 people were killed.68

In the Warsaw district prisoners were held at the Pawiak prison, then driven to the Palmiry Forest. There the Germans had used forced labor to dig several long ditches, three meters wide by thirty meters long. Prisoners were awakened at dawn and told to collect their things. In the beginning, at least, they thought that they were being transferred to another camp. Only when the trucks turned into the forest did they understand their fate. The bloodiest night was 20-21 June 1940, when 358 people were shot.69

In the Radom district, the action was especially systematic and brutal. Prisoners were bound, and read a verdict: they were a “danger to German security.” As in the other cities, Poles did not usually understand that this was supposed to have been a judicial procedure. They were taken away in large groups in the afternoon, according to a schedule: “3:30 binding, 3:45 reading of verdict, 4:00 transport.” The first few groups were driven to a sandy area twelve kilometers north of Częstochowa, where they were blindfolded and shot. The wife of one of the prisoners, Jadwiga Flak, was later able to find her way to the killing site. She found in the sand the unmistakable signs of what had happened: shards of bone and bits of blindfold. Her husband Marian was a student who had just turned twenty-two. Four prisoners who were members of the city council had survived. Himmler’s brother-in-law, who happened to be the man who ran the city for the Germans, believed that he needed them to construct a swimming pool and a brothel for Germans.70

Later groups from Częstochowa were taken to the woods. On 4 July 1940 the three Glińska sisters, Irena, Janina, and Serafina, were all shot there. All three of them had refused to disclose the whereabouts of their brothers. Janina called German rule “laughable and temporary.” She said that she would never betray “her brother or another Pole.” She did not.71

On the way to the killing sites, prisoners would throw notes from the truck, in the hope that passersby would find them and convey them to their families. This was something of a Polish custom, and the notes would surprisingly often find their way to their destination. The people who wrote them, unlike the prisoners in the three Soviet camps, knew that they were going to die. The prisoners at Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobilsk also threw notes from the buses as they left the camps, but they said things like: “We can’t tell where they are sending us.”72

Thus a difference between Soviet and German repression. East of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, the Soviets wished for secrecy, and barring some extraordinary accident they preserved it. West of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, Germans did not always want discretion, and were poor at maintaining it even when they so wished. So the victims of the AB Aktion were reconciling themselves, or trying to reconcile their families, to a fate they foresaw. The people awaiting death disagreed about the meaning of it all. Mieczysław Habrowski wrote that: “The blood shed on the Polish land will enrich her and raise the avengers of a free and great Poland.” Ryszard Schmidt, who had physically attacked his interrogators, wanted to discourage revenge: “Let the children not take revenge, for revenge breeds more revenge.” Marian Muszyński simply bade farewell to his family: “God be with you. I love you all.”73


Some of the people going to their deaths in the AB Aktion were thinking of family who had been taken prisoner by the Soviets. Although the Soviets and the Germans did not coordinate their policies against the Polish educated classes, they targeted the same sorts of people. The Soviets acted to remove elements that they regarded as dangerous to their system, on the pretext of fighting a class war. The Germans were also defending their territorial gains, though also acting on their sense that the inferior race had to be kept in its place. In the end, the policies were very similar, with more or less concurrent deportations and more or less concurrent mass shootings.

In at least two cases, the Soviet terror killed one sibling, the German terror the other. Janina Dowbor was the only female among the Polish officers taken prisoner by the Soviets. An adventurous soul, she had learned as a girl to hang glide and parachute. She was the first woman in Europe to jump from a height of five kilometers or more. She trained as a pilot in 1939, and enlisted in the Polish air force reserve. In September 1939 she was taken prisoner by the Soviets. According to one account, her plane had been shot down by the Germans. Parachuting to safety, she found herself arrested by the Soviets as a Polish second lieutenant. She was taken to Ostashkov, and then to Kozelsk. She had her own accommodations, and spent her time with air force comrades with whom she felt safe. On 21 or 22 April 1940, she was executed at Katyn, and buried there in the pits along with 4,409 men. Her younger sister Agnieszka had remained in the German zone. Along with some friends, she had joined a resistance organization in late 1939. She was arrested in April 1940, at about the time that her sister was executed. She was killed in the Palmiry Forest on 21 June 1940. Both sisters were buried in shallow graves, after sham trials and shots to the head.74

The Wnuk brothers, who hailed from a region that had once been in east-central Poland but was now quite close to the German-Soviet border, met the same fate. Bolesław, the older brother, was a populist politician who had been elected to the Polish parliament. Jakub, the younger brother, studied pharmacology and designed gas masks. Both married in 1932 and had children. Jakub, along with the other experts from his institute, was arrested by the Soviets and killed at Katyn in April 1940. Bolesław was arrested by the Germans in October 1939, taken to Lublin castle in January, and executed in the AB Aktion on 29 June 1940. He left a farewell note on a handkerchief: “I die for the fatherland with a smile on my lips, but I die innocent.”75

In spring and summer 1940, the Germans were extending their small system of concentration camps so that they could intimidate and exploit Poles. In late April 1940, Heinrich Himmler visited Warsaw, and ordered that twenty thousand Poles be placed in concentration camps. At the initiative of Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Himmler’s commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom for the Silesia region, a new concentration camp was established at the site of a Polish army barracks close to Cracow: Oświęcim, better known by its German name, Auschwitz. As the AB Aktion came to a close, prisoners were no longer executed, but sent to German camps, very often Auschwitz. The first transport to Auschwitz was made up of Polish political prisoners from Cracow; they were sent on 14 June 1940 and given the numbers 31-758. In July transports of Polish political prisoners were sent to Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald; in November followed two more to Auschwitz. On 15 August began mass roundups in Warsaw, where hundreds and then thousands of people would be seized on the streets and sent to Auschwitz. In November 1940 the camp became an execution site for Poles. At around the same time it attracted the attention of investors from IG Farben. Auschwitz became a giant labor camp very much on the Soviet model, although its slave labor served the interests of German companies, rather than Stalin’s dream of planned industrialization.76


Unlike the Germans, who wrongly believed that they had eliminated the Polish educated classes in their part of Poland, the Soviets in considerable measure actually had. In the General Government the Polish resistance was growing, whereas in the Soviet Union networks were quickly broken and activists arrested, exiled, and sometimes executed. Meanwhile, a new challenge to Soviet rule from Ukrainians was in view. Poland had been home to about five million Ukrainians, almost all of whom now inhabited Soviet Ukraine. They were not necessarily satisfied by the new regime. Ukrainian nationalists, whose organizations had been illegal in interwar Poland, knew how to work underground. Now that Poland no longer existed, the focus of their labors naturally changed. Soviet policy had made some local Ukrainians receptive to the nationalists’ message. While some Ukrainian peasants had initially welcomed Soviet rule and its gifts of farmland, collectivization had quickly turned them against the regime.77

The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists now began to take action against the institutions of Soviet power. Some leading Ukrainian nationalists had interwar connections with German military intelligence and with Reinhard Heydrich’s SS intelligence service, the Sicherheitsdienst. As Stalin knew, several of them were still gathering intelligence for Berlin. Thus a fourth Soviet deportation from the annexed territories of eastern Poland chiefly targeted Ukrainians. The first two operations had targeted mainly Poles, and the third mainly Jews. An action of May 1941 moved 11,328 Polish citizens, most of them Ukrainians, from western Soviet Ukraine to the special settlements. The very last deportation, on 19 June, touched 22,353 Polish citizens, most of them Poles.78

As a little Polish boy from Białystok remembered, “They took us under bombs and there was fire because people began to burn up in the cars.” Germany invaded the Soviet Union in a surprise attack on 22 June, and its bombers caught up with the Soviet prison trains. About two thousand deportees died in the freight cars, victims of both regimes.79

In purging his new lands, Stalin had been preparing for another war. But he did not believe that it would come so soon.


When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in a surprise attack on 22 June 1941, Poland and the Soviet Union were suddenly transformed from enemies to allies. Each was now fighting Germany. Nevertheless, it was an awkward situation. In the previous two years, the Soviets had repressed about half a million Polish citizens: about 315,000 deported, about 110,000 more arrested, and 30,000 executed, and about 25,000 more who died in custody. The Polish government knew about the deportations, but not about the killings. Nevertheless, the Soviets and the Poles began to form a Polish Army from the hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens now scattered across Soviet prisons, labor camps, and special settlements.80

The Polish high command realized that several thousand Polish officers were missing. Józef Czapski, the Polish officer and artist who had survived Kozelsk, was sent to Moscow by the Polish government with the mission of finding the missing men, his former campmates. A sober man, he nevertheless understood his task as a calling. Poland would now have a second chance to fight the Germans, and Czapski was to find the officers who would lead men into battle. As he journeyed to Moscow, to his mind came snatches of Polish romantic poetry, first the deeply masochistic reverie of Juliusz Słowacki, asking God to keep Poland on the cross until she had the strength to stand by herself. Then, speaking to an appealingly honest fellow Pole, Czapski recalled the most famous lines of Cyprian Norwid’s poem of desire for the homeland, written in exile: “I long for those who say yes for yes and no for no / For a light without shadow.” An urbane, sophisticated man from a nationally mixed family, Czapski found solace by understanding his own nation in the terms of Romantic idealism.81

Czapski was indirectly invoking scripture, for Norwid’s poem cites the Book of Matthew: “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” This was the very same verse with which Arthur Koestler had just ended Darkness at Noon, his own novel of the Great Terror. Czapski was on his way to the Lubianka prison in Moscow, the setting of that novel; this was also the very place where Koestler’s friend, Alexander Weissberg, had been interrogated before his release in 1940. Weissberg and his wife had both been arrested in the late 1930s; their experiences were one source of Koestler’s novel. Czapski was intending to ask one of the Lubianka interrogators about his own friends, the missing Polish prisoners. He had an appointment with Leonid Reikhman, an NKVD officer who had interrogated Polish prisoners.82

Czapski passed Reikhman a report, describing the known movements of the thousands of missing officers. Reikhman seemed to read it from beginning to end, following each line with a pencil, but marking nothing. He then spoke some noncommittal words, and promised to call Czapski at his hotel after he had informed himself about the matter. One night at about midnight the phone rang. It was Reikhman, who claimed that he had to leave the city on urgent business. He had no new information. He provided Czapski with some names of other officials with whom to speak, all of whom had already been approached by the Polish government. Czapski even now did not suspect the truth, that all of the missing officers had been murdered. But he understood that something was being concealed. He decided to leave Moscow.83

The next day, returning to his hotel room, Czapski felt a pair of eyes staring at him. Weary of the attention that his Polish officer’s uniform drew in the Soviet capital, he paid no attention. An elderly Jew approached him as he reached the elevator. “You’re a Polish officer?” The Jew was from Poland, but had not seen his homeland in thirty years, and wished to see it again. “Then,” he said, “I could die without regrets.” On the spur of the moment, Czapski invited the gentleman to his room, with the intention of giving him a copy of a magazine published by the Polish embassy. On the first page happened to be a photograph of Warsaw—Warsaw, the capital of Poland, the center of Jewish life, the locus of two civilizations, and the site of their encounter. The castle square was destroyed, the famous column of King Zygmunt broken. This was Warsaw after the German bombing. Czapski’s companion slumped against a chair, put his head down, and wept. When the Jewish gentleman had gone, Czapski himself began to weep. After the loneliness and mendacity of official Moscow, a single moment of human contact had changed everything for him. “The eyes of the poor Jew,” he remembered, “rescued me from a descent into the abyss of unbelief and utter despair.”84

The sadness the two men shared was of a moment that had just passed, the moment of the joint German-Soviet occupation of Poland. Together, between September 1939 and June 1941, in their time as allies, the Soviet and German states had killed perhaps two hundred thousand Polish citizens, and deported about a million more. Poles had been sent to the Gulag and to Auschwitz, where tens of thousands more would die in the months and years to come. Polish Jews under German occupation were enclosed in ghettos, awaiting an uncertain fate. Tens of thousands of Polish Jews had already died of hunger or disease.

A particular wound was caused by the intention, in both Moscow and Berlin, to decapitate Polish society, to leave Poles as a malleable mass that could be ruled rather than governed. Hans Frank, citing Hitler, defined his job as the elimination of Poland’s “leadership elements.” NKVD officers took their assignment to a logical extreme by consulting a Polish “Who’s Who” in order to define their targets. This was an attack on the very concept of modernity, or indeed the social embodiment of Enlightenment in this part of the world. In eastern Europe the pride of societies was the “intelligentsia,” the educated classes who saw themselves as leading the nation, especially during periods of statelessness and hardship, and preserving national culture in their writing, speech, and behavior. The German language has the same word, with the same meaning; Hitler ordered quite precisely the “extermination of the Polish intelligentsia.” The chief interrogator at Kozelsk had spoken of a “divergent philosophy”; one of the German interrogators in the AB Aktion had ordered an old man to be killed for exhibiting a “Polish way of thinking.” It was the intelligentsia who was thought to embody this civilization, and to manifest this special way of thinking.85

Its mass murder by the two occupiers was a tragic sign that the Polish intelligentsia had fulfilled its historical mission.

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