Make no mistake: Terms such as “Polish death camps” are historically inaccurate and distort our understanding of how and why Nazi Germany came to build killing centers in that country. A clear-eyed look at the facts demonstrates that the record of Christian Poles, amid the German occupation and the crimes of the Holocaust perpetrated in their country, is not uniformly one of complicity or innocence. Poland was the victim of German aggression, suffering one of the most brutal occupation regimes among countries in the Nazi orbit. Despite severe penalties, more Christian Poles have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations—those who risked their lives to aid Jews—than citizens of any other country in Europe. But many others supported and enabled Germany in its campaign to exterminate the Jews.
Prior to World War II, anti-Semitism was an increasingly visible factor in Polish society, and government authorities took formal measures to exclude Jews from key sectors of public life. The modern country of Poland was a new one established in the aftermath of the First World War, and during the 1920s and 30s it was still struggling to define its ideological footing and identity. A nationalism deeply rooted in Catholicism was central to that struggle.
On the eve of the Holocaust, Polish Jews made up some 10 percent of the young country’s population and approximately one-third of the residents of the capital city, Warsaw. Disturbed by what they saw as outsized Jewish influence, some Polish politicians even pressed for the mass emigration of Poland’s Jewish population. It was against this fractious backdrop that the country found itself in a devastating war. Following the German and Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, the country was divided between those two occupiers. Then in June 1941, after the German attack on the USSR, all of Poland came under German domination.
The Nazis viewed Poles as racially inferior and deliberately targeted Poland’s leadership for destruction, killing tens of thousands of Catholic priests, intellectuals, teachers, and political leaders. The Nazi goal was to decapitate Polish society, thereby reducing the chance of meaningful resistance by eliminating the groups most likely to lead it. At least 1.5 million Poles were deported to Germany as slave laborers in support of the war effort, and hundreds of thousands of others were incarcerated in concentration camps. In total, over 2 million non-Jewish Polish civilians and soldiers died during the course of the war.
As German authorities implemented killing on an industrial scale, they drew upon Polish police forces and railroad personnel for logistical support, notably to guard ghettos where hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were held before deportation to killing centers. The so-called Blue Police was a force some 20,000 strong. These collaborators enforced German anti-Jewish policies such as restrictions on the use of public transportation and curfews, as well as the devastating and bloody liquidation of ghettos in occupied Poland from 1942-1943. Paradoxically, many Polish policemen who actively assisted the Germans in hunting Jews were also part of the underground resistance against the occupation in other arenas. Individual Poles also often helped in the identification, denunciation, and exposure of Jews in hiding, sometimes motivated by greed and the opportunities presented by blackmail and the plunder of Jewish-owned property.