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Poland, Czech Republic, Germany and Croatia are four European countries that I have visited in the past ten years and each has a story to tell of the tragic destruction of their Jewish communities. They were betrayed and destroyed by both the Nazis and their collaborators.In my own personal background I have one Polish Jewish gradmother who was my mother’s mother. Mini Levitson moved to England as a young girl together with her family that included her grandmother. So as far as I know none of my direct close relatives from her family perished in the Holocaust. That of course does not mean that members of my extended Polish family did not die under the Nazis and their Polish collaborators.
My Mom – Annie Mechanic nee Abrahms
Please Note that the recorded programme differs substantially from the written record on this blog
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Prior to WWII, one in ten Poles were Jewish, which made 10% of the polish population Jewish. The Pale of Settlement included Poland:
The Pale of Settlement (Russian: Черта́ осёдлости, chertá osyódlosti, Yiddish: דער תּחום-המושבֿ, der tkhum-ha-moyshəv, Hebrew: תְּחוּם הַמּוֹשָב, tẖum hammosháv) was a western region of Imperial Russia with varying borders that existed from 1791 to 1917, in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed and beyond which Jewish residency, permanent or temporary, was mostly forbidden. Most Jews were still excluded from residency in a number of cities within the Pale as well. A limited number of Jews were allowed to live outside the area, including those with university education, the ennobled, members of the most affluent of the merchant guilds and particular artisans, some military personnel and some services associated with them, including their families, and sometimes the servants of these.
The Pale of Settlement included all of Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova, much of present-day Ukraine, parts of eastern Latvia, eastern Poland, and some parts of western Russia, roughly corresponding to the Kresy macroregion and modern-day western border of Russia. It extended from the eastern pale, or demarcation line, to the Russian border with the Kingdom of Prussia (later the German Empire) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Furthermore, it comprised about 20% of the territory of European Russia and largely corresponded to historical lands of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Cossack Hetmanate, and the Ottoman Empire (with Crimean Khanate).
The Russian Empire in the period of the existence of the Pale was predominantly Orthodox Christian. The area included in the Pale, with its large Jewish, Uniate and Catholic populations, was acquired through a series of military conquests and diplomatic manoeuvres, between 1654 and 1815.
The end of the enforcement and formal demarcation of the Pale coincided with the beginning of the First World War, and ultimately with the February and October Revolutions of 1917, i.e., the fall of the Russian Empire.
Though Jewish life in Poland was at times turbulent and difficult for its Jewish population prior to WWII, there was never an attempt to systematically annihilate its Jewish population as the was promulgated by the Nazis. What is tragic is the many Polish citizens collaborated with the Nazis, as was the case with Ustasha in Croatia. However, far fewer devout Catholics were willing to participate in the Nazi genocide and a much higher percentage actively protected and hid Jewish people during those dark days. This included, priests, nuns and Catholic lay folk.
The Catholic Church in Poland was brutally suppressed by the Nazis during the German Occupation of Poland (1939-1945). Repression of the Church was at its most severe in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany, where churches were systematically closed and most priests were either killed, imprisoned, or deported. From across Poland, thousands of priests died in prisons and concentration camps; thousands of churches and monasteries were confiscated, closed or destroyed; and priceless works of religious art and sacred objects were lost forever. Church leaders were targeted as part of an overall effort to destroy Polish culture. At least 1811 Polish clergy died in Nazi concentration camps. An estimated 3000 clergy were killed in all. Hitler’s plans for the Germanization of the East saw no place for the Christian Churches.
The massive crimes inflicted against Polish Catholicism took place in the wider context of the Nazi crimes against Poles under Generalplan Ost, as the German regime implanted a general policy of eventually eliminating Poland’s existence. Adolf Hitler himself remarked in August 1939 that he wanted his Death’s Head forces “to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language.”
Catholicism had a presence in Poland stretching back almost 1,000 years. The historian Richard J. Evans wrote that the Catholic Church was the institution that, “more than any other had sustained Polish national identity over the centuries”. By 1939, around 65% of Poles professed to be Catholic. The invasion of predominantly Catholic Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939 ignited the Second World War. Britain and France declared war on Germany as a result of the invasion, while the Soviet Union invaded the Eastern half of Poland in accordance with an agreement reached with Hitler. The Catholic Church in Poland was about to face decades of repression, both at Nazi and Communist hands.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the West on 1 September 1939 and a period of brutal occupation commenced. Racist Nazi ideology targeted the Jews of Poland for extermination and categorized ethnic Poles (mostly Catholics) as an inferior race. Jews were rounded up into Ghettos or sent to extermination camps. The ethnic Polish intelligentsia were also targeted for elimination, with priests and politicians alike murdered in a campaign of terror. Forced labour was also extensively used. The Red Army invaded Poland from the East on 17 September 1939.The Soviets were also responsible for repression of Polish Catholics and clergy, with an emphasis on “class enemies”. Operation Barbarossa, the German attack on the Soviet Union was launched in June 1941, shattering the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, and bringing Eastern Poland under Nazi domination. Norman Davies wrote:
Jews and Poles faced a common enemy through the Nazi onslaught
The Nazi plan for Poland entailed the destruction of the Polish nation. This necessarily required attacking the Polish Church, particularly in those areas annexed to Germany. According to Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, in his scheme for the Germanization of Eastern Europe, Hitler made clear that there would be “no place in this utopia for the Christian Churches”. Historically, the Catholic Church had been a leading force in Polish nationalism against foreign domination, thus the Nazis targeted clergy, monks and nuns in their terror campaigns to eliminate Polish culture. Nazi ideology was hostile to Christianity and Hitler held the teachings of the Catholic Church in contempt. Hitler’s chosen deputy and private secretary, Martin Bormann, was firmly anti-Christian as was the official Nazi philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg. In his “Myth of the Twentieth Century“, published in 1930 Rosenberg wrote that the main enemies of the Germans were the “Russian Tartars” and “Semites”—with “Semites” including Christians, especially the Catholic Church:
In Search of a Lost People – Part 2 B
Due to the length of Part 2 A – Part 2 B is a separate Podcast that will follow next month
In 2008 a friend Dave Traher and I visited Cracow:
Day One: Visit to the Jewish Old Town in Cracow
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is the resting place for some 1.5 million people, as the site once served as a concentration camp and extermination site of the European Jewish community during World War II. Today, Auschwitz-Birkenau is an important historical area, allowing visitors to reflect on the monumental horrors that occurred during the genocide.
Auschwitz-Birkenau tours take visitors through some of the 13 surviving prison blocks that now feature museum exhibitions, many dedicated to victims and displaying documentary photographs and historical artifacts. In addition the main camp, a much larger camp called Birkenau (or Auschwitz II) sits about 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) to the west. This site has been left almost exactly as it was when the Nazis abandoned it at the end of the war, complete with gas chamber ruins, and is also considered a part of the UNESCO-listed Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. An official visitor’s center can be found at the entrance to Auschwitz I.
The two sites are often visited together on group or private tours from Krakow Old Town, available in a number of languages and generally including transport between the memorial areas, plus hotel pickup and drop-off or airport transfers. It’s recommended that travelers allot about 90 minutes for each of the sites. A visit is also sometimes combined with a trip to the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine.
At lunch time we went to the Ariel Jewish restaurant and I ordered a traditional Polish Jewish meal as did Dave. I asked the waiter if he was Jewish and he replied that he was not. I then enquired as to whether the owner was Jewish and he again said that he was not a Jew and nor was the chef – Yes a Jewish style restaurant, but no Jews were involved. This was symptomatic of the reality of Polands lost Jews. Shadows and memories of Polands tragic history.
On the Tuesday morning bright and early our tour coordinator picked us up at the hotel where Dave and I where we were staying. Together with four other British visitors we traveled the 40 miles to Auschwitz and joined a lager group of English speaking visitors.
Our tour guide for the morning at the main camp gave us each headsets so that we could listen to her commentary as we progressed through the concentration camp.