The Second World War, which began with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, was the greatest catastrophe in Polish history. The country suffered enormous population and material losses as well as irreparable damages of cultural property. Poland emerged from the war with new borders, new political system and new demographic structure. The war heavily affected all residents of Poland, however it was Polish Jews who faced ruthless mass extermination.
Historians and demographers continue to debate on the numbers of the victims of WW2. Even if we assume that the symbolic number of 6 million citizens of the Republic of Poland who perished in its course is historically correct (recent estimates reduce this number to approximately 5,6 million), the scale of the calamity which devastated the Jewish community is shocking. About 2.8 million Polish Jews lost their lives as a result of the Second World War, namely half of the number of Polish citizens murdered by the Nazis. At the same time, Polish Jews constituted half of the total number of Holocaust victims. These two statistics are a clear indication of the Holocaust impact on the Polish history of World War Two.
Due to the differences in the numbers of Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Poland, the percentage of victims in these two groups is fundamentally different. 85% of Polish Jews perished in the course of WW2, mere 15% survived. With the non-Jewish population, these proportions are reverse. The majority of Polish-Jewish survivors spent the wartime years in the far regions of the Soviet Union, as the chances of survival in the territories occupied by the Third Reich were minimal. According to the most recent in-depth research of the nine districts of the General Government, only 1%-6% Jews survived the Nazi occupation there.
Nazi determination to exterminate all Jews, fueled by their mad racist ideology, is proven by the number of victims as well as by the pace at which the perpetrators implemented their plan of Jewish genocide. It was launched by mass shootings of Jews in the summer of 1941, after the Germans invaded Poland’s eastern borderlands, formerly occupied by the USSR. In December 1941 they opened the first center of mass extermination in Chełmno on the River Ner; in the subsequent months other centers were put to operation in Bełżec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, only half of Polish Jews perished in gas chambers. The other half were murdered in mass executions in the East, or during the deportation actions in the ghettos. Thus, the Genocide was in fact taking place in front of the non-Jewish neighbors’ eyes, who surely must have suffered a long-term trauma in its wake. This fact is demonstrated by a quote from one of the Government Delegation for Poland’s reports from October 1942: “The whole of Poland became an arena of the bloody slaughter of Jews.”
The year 1942, especially its second half, was most atrocious in the history of the Holocaust of Polish Jews—the majority of them were dead by the end of the year. In total, the Nazis realized their plan of exterminating Jews over the course of 28 months—from July 1941 until November 1943. In 1944 only one center of Jewish life still existed, namely the ghetto in Łódź, ultimately liquidated in August of that year. Several dozen thousand Jews survived in Nazi-occupied Poland—they remained in hiding, they fought with the partisans, or managed to survive German labor camps. The civilization of Polish Jews that had been blooming for 800 years ceased to exist.