Posts Tagged ‘Poland’

Well, it’s been a month again…this little endeavor hasn’t gone so well the last year or two.  This month, it was a project at work that took nearly every waking minute (and several minutes that should have been non-waking).  Regardless, it seems that when I want to write, things conspire against me.  I think it’s “decision time”.  I need to figure out if I want to continue, or maybe go in another direction, or simply stop.  I’ll use the next month to work it out.  By the end of February, if I haven’t picked it up, I’ll call it a day.

But since I’m here this evening, let’s at least share something.

Stutthof concentration camp isn’t nearly as well-known as several of its more famous counterparts (say, Treblinka or Auschwitz), but as I soon as mention it in concert with those others, students of history will immediately see images come into their minds.  They include the rows of huts, the emaciated prisoners, gas chambers (yes, Stutthof had one), and crematoriums.  The images will also include those of incredible suffering and death.

This particular camp was located in a rather marshy forested area, roughly 20 miles from Gdansk, Poland and a 20-minute walk from the Baltic Sea.  It was the first camp built in Polish territory, and it grew large enough to house more than 50,000 prisoners.  Conditions there were probably typical of most camps, which is to say appalling.  And while it wasn’t strictly a “death camp” like the six biggies, there was suffering and pain and death aplenty there.

Like most of these camps, Stutthof’s existence lasted while the fortunes of war were in Germany’s favor.  When things turned sour and the Russians began pushing the Germans back, it was time to vacate.  Many of the camps were razed in an effort to hide the crime, while others were simply abandoned.  And by January of 1945, the retreat was running at full speed, thanks to the Russian offensive that began on the 12th.

Stutthof was abandoned on the 25th, with nearly 50,000 prisoners beginning a death march of nearly 90 miles…it’s cold in Poland in January.  As they marched, those that fell were executed.  Eventually, the Russians cut off the German escape, so the prisoners were forced to retrace their steps back to Stutthof.  Nearly half of the prisoners would die.

But for several thousand – the numbers, depending on the source, range from 3,000 to 5,000 – the end came more quickly, and just as brutally.  They were the survivors of more than 13,000 prisoners that had fled one of Stutthof’s sub-camps.  On the evening of January 31, 1945 (the night after the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed), they were marched to the edge of the frigid Baltic Sea and forced into the water under rifle and machine-gun fire.  There were only a handful of survivors.

Recommended Reading:  The Holocaust Research Project – A lot of good information and a detailed write-up of Stutthof.

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From the time the death camp at Auschwitz received its first inmates in 1940 until it was taken by the advancing Red Army in early 1945, very few people even attempted to leave the camp of their own free will.  Hundreds of thousands walked into the camp, only to be turned to dust, having been fed to a ghastly machine that used their gassed remains for fuel.  Numerous prisoners would be transferred from this massive “production” center to other camps, and nearly 20,000 would be forced to leave when the Russian guns got too close for German comfort.

But escape?  Well, there were numerous attempts, but success was almost impossible.

But not totally impossible.

On April 7, 1944, Rudolf Vrba (on the left) and Alfred Wetzler (on the right) took their shot at freedom.  And while these two had no other companions, they had the assistance of many.  A new camp in the “Mexico” section was under construction, and there was a large pile of wood sitting outside the fences of the main camp, but inside the guarded outer cordon.  Men belonging to the camp underground dug out a foxhole underneath the pile of wood and, at 2pm that Friday afternoon, Wetzler and Vrba entered the hole.

They went in alone, but not empty-handed.  They carried detailed plans of Auschwitz and its location, as well as the names of officers.  Filip Müller, a fellow prisoner in the crematoria and eventual author of Eyewitness Auschwitz, did his part as well.  He writes, “I handed to Alfred a plan of the crematoria and gas chambers as well as a list of names of the SS men who were on duty there.  In addition I had given to both of them notes I had been making for some time of almost all transports gassed in crematoria 4 and 5.”  Müller also described to the men in detail the extermination process and provided them a real prize, a label from a Zyklon B canister.  Of course, these were the canisters that held the cyanide pellets used to gas those arriving on the trains.

Wood was quickly piled over the opening, followed by dirt.  But since their German captors searched with dogs specially trained to sniff out escapees, wood and dirt alone wouldn’t be enough.  Soviet POWs, experienced in escape attempts, suggested drenching the area with paraffin (kerosene) followed by a generous dusting of tobacco.

Shortly after the 7pm roll-call, the sirens began wailing throughout the camp.  The absence of Wetzler and Vrba had been discovered, and the waiting process now began for those who knew of their escape.  It was well-known that the outer cordon around the camp would only be removed after three days of searching for escapees.  The plan was to have the two men sit in their pitch-black hovel for 3 days, then make their way out under cover of dark.

Inside the camp, the men held their breath, eyeing the gallows already constructed for the to-be-captured prisoners…gallows on which Wetzler and Vrba would never swing.  Miraculously, the two men emerged from their hideout three nights later and, wearing Dutch suits and boots taken from the camp, made their getaway.  But more than that, with all pro-German authorities scouring the countryside for them, they successfully reached the Polish/Slovakian border and crossed over.

They reached Jewish friends and, using their contraband from the camp, began making detailed reports about Auschwitz and its activities.  The rumors that had been floating around since Wannsee were now confirmed for all the world to see and hear.

Recommended Reading: Eyewitness Auschwitz

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©Angelo Celedon

Filip Müller noticed the change.  People he considered “enemies” were now actually showing him a bit of deference.  Those in authority over him, while still attempting to do their jobs, were displaying, in his opinion, affability.  And while Müller may have wanted to attribute this change in attitude to a change in heart, he knew better.  It was more likely the low rumble of artillery fire in the distance that caused the transformation.

Filip Müller’s three-year internment in Auschwitz exposed him to man at his basest and most inhumane.  I think for any of us that read accounts of the Holocaust, what strikes us…well, I probably shouldn’t speak for “us”.  I think what strike me as most frightening is that some of the men who carried out the Final Solution did so with such a matter-of-fact, almost casual, detachment.  But I’ve only read about it…Müller lived it…every day.  Each sunrise brought with it the prospect of his own death and the inevitable death (by gassing or bullet or experiment) of hundreds who were herded into this most infamous of camps for their first (and last) visit.

But the rumble of guns changed the equation.  For the Germans, it was as though a dream had been interrupted by the harsh reality that they were losing the war.  And what’s more, they were losing it at a faster pace in the east, where all the extermination camps were located, than in the west.  And the uneasiness of the SS commandants and guards was directly proportional to the volume of those guns.  They grew together.

In his dreadful, yet eye-opening, account titled Eyewitness Auschwitz, Müller writes, “And then came that memorable 18 January 1945.  There was great confusion throughout the camp.  Early in the morning columns of smoke could be seen rising in all parts of the camp.  Quite obviously the SS men were destroying index cards and other documents.  The prisoners who normally at this time of day were bustling about, seemed almost paralyzed with inaction:  not a single team left camp for work.  The rumble of guns and the explosions of heavy shelling were very close…”

Müller and his comrades were almost certain that this day would be their last, so they were somewhat surprised when summoned for the evening’s roll call…the last roll call.  And then they were told to prepare for transport.  Shortly before midnight on January 18, 1945, after frantically grabbing the things they might need to keep warm in the frigid conditions while trying to keep their euphoria in check, they marched out of Auschwitz…nearly 20,000 of them.

Left behind were 7,000 prisoners, considered too weak or sick to make the journey.  They would be liberated by the Soviets just nine days later.  For Müller, and those with him, the ordeal would continue.  But one chapter at least had been closed.

Auschwitz had been abandoned.

Recommended Reading: Eyewitness Auschwitz

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The German invasion of Poland, which began on September’s first day in 1939, wasn’t originally scheduled for that date.  It had been set to start nearly a week earlier, on the 26th of August.  But it was delayed at the last minute when Adolf Hitler got wind of a new pact that Britain had signed with Poland, one which promised military assistance should Poland be attacked.  So the German Chancellor slammed the brakes hard on Fall Weiss (Case White) to evaluate this new development.  And almost everybody got the message.

Lt. Albrecht Herzner did not.

Lt. Herzner’s small band of 24 commandos, which was officially called “Construction Training Company 800 for Special Duties”, were charged with capturing a railroad station at Mosty, Poland.  Located on the border with Czechoslovakia (which had been taken over by Germany earlier in the year), this target was important not so much for the station itself, but for the railroad tunnel to which the tracks led.  He and his men didn’t hear anything about a delay.

At 4:00am on August 26, 1939, Herzner’s band of men arrived at the station.  Within minutes, they had captured the station and taken a few prisoners.  He convinced the Polish Lieutenant on duty that Germany was invading Poland and that bloodshed was unnecessary.  What Herzner didn’t know was that the station had a basement with a fully functioning military phone…and someone was frantically dialing for help.  The alarm had been sounded.

Polish soldiers arrived on scene to protect the tunnel and drive back the invaders.  Herzner wisely realized that his raid wasn’t going well (and reinforcements hadn’t arrived) and he and his men scattered to the surrounding forests, suffering two wounded, and requiring half a day to extricate themselves.

And then the Germans had a lot of explaining to do.  Herzner had given away not only his team’s objective for Fall Weiss, but he had told Polish officers that an invasion was at hand.  The Polish military may have been out-manned, out-gunned, out-tanked, and out-planed, but they certainly were not out-brained.  They knew something was up.  The Germans tried to cover over their huge communications gaffe by saying one of their low-level officers had gone insane, made up the invasion story, and launched an attack on his own.  They hoped the Poles bought it.

When the actual invasion was launched, that railroad tunnel near Mosty was one of the first things the Polish army blew up, so I’m guessing the story of an insane office didn’t pass muster.

Recommended Reading: Best Little War Stories From World War II

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©David Shankbone

For the people living in Treblinka, their one-year anniversary brought little joy, for reasons obvious and less-known.  In case you aren’t familiar with it, Treblinka was one of six extermination camps created by the Third Reich to rid Germany territories and, ultimately, the world, of the Jewish people as well as numerous other people-groups considered “subhuman”.

In the year since it had been brought online, hundreds of thousands of Jews had entered the premises…none had left.  Accurate counts of those destroyed in Treblinka’s gas chambers and crematoriums are impossible to attain.  Official numbers are placed around 800,000.  But survivors say the actual number was seven figures in size.

But while the Jewish workers experienced the horror of the slaughter first-hand, the eve of the one-year anniversary brought news more ominous.  In the late spring, Heinrich Himmler had visited the camp and ordered the bodies of the dead, to this point buried in graves, dug up and burned.

For the prisoners, this action had a single meaning:  Treblinka was destined for dismantling.  The prisoner leadership (the “Committee”) had begun planning a revolt and, at one point, had commandeered several boxes of hand grenades and set a date…only to discover the grenades contained no fuses.  But they managed to get a copy of the armory’s key made, which they kept, waiting for the next opportunity.

And it had arrived in form of news from Camp Two on July 20, 1943.  The final gravesite was being exhumed and the camp was just two weeks from liquidation.  The rebellion and mass escape was on…and tentatively scheduled for August 2, 1943 with a cry of “Revolution in Berlin!”.  The day came and the tension among the prisoners was so powerful that everyone was certain the plans would be discovered.  They were not.

Like all good plans in combat, they were the first casualty of the revolt, but the determination, desperation, and sacrifice of the prisoners carried the day.  Of the 1,500 prisoners, more than 600 made their escapes.  Of those, 40 to 60 eluded capture and execution to survive to the War’s end.  None of the Committee that planned the uprising escaped.

By the end of 1943, Treblinka was gone.  Jean-Francois Steiner writes, “Some time after the revolt the camp at Treblinka was razed and the land plowed.  All the documents were destroyed.”

The buildings and crematorium were replaced with a farm. But the grounds gave up their secrets in the form of bones, skulls, and fragments of clothing. These discoveries, combined with the powerful witnesses that survived, ensure that Treblinka’s memory is never lost.

Recommended Reading: Treblinka – A must-read, though it’s very sobering.

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, so let’s talk, for just a few minutes, about something related to it.

Oswiecim is a town in southwestern Poland.  My talent with foreign languages is limited to a bit of Spanish, but I believe it’s pronounced “oss-vee-hay-chim“, with an emphasis on the “hay” and a mostly silent “h”.  Anyone who knows better than I should chime in and correct me.  Anyways…

This town lived in almost complete obscurity until January 27, 1945.  Since then, it’s never been far from the lips of those discussing the Holocaust.  But even today, Oswiecim itself is relatively unknown, unless you use the German translation of the town.  Then, it’s instantly recognizable.


It is, without question, the most infamous of the six death camps that existed during World War II, and only one of two death camps to be captured intact (the other being Madjanek in mid-1944).  Rudolf Hoess, the camp’s commandant, estimated that 3 million people (mostly Jews) had been killed there, but more accurate (and reliable) figures put the number at a still-staggering 1+ million.

The camp was first opened in early 1940 (shortly after Germany had overrun Poland), but the first mass killings didn’t take place until September of 1941, when several hundred Soviet POW’s were executed.  It wasn’t until 1942 that arriving Jews (and other “undesirables) were killed in large numbers, and late 1942 and 1943 marked the time of the camp’s largest expansion.

But by the end of 1943, most Germans troops in eastern Europe were moving westward, retreating in the face of the Soviet juggernaut and the failure of Adolf Hitler’s titanic gamble in the east.  In late 1944, an uprising in Auschwitz led to the destruction of one of the camp’s five crematoriums, but already the Germans were giving thought to dismantling the rest and removing all traces of the camp.

Events, however, would see otherwise.  The Soviet armies advanced so quickly that discipline among the Germans at the camp began to break down.  Orders to destroy the camp were either ignored or took second place to a more basic need…escape.  The Germans fled in January 1945, taking most of the prisoners on forced marches west toward other camps or packing them in westbound trains.

The arrival of the Soviet army on January 27, 1945 found Auschwitz mostly standing and 7,000+ remaining prisoners with a horrific tale to tell.  While Auschwitz is the most well-known death camp, it’s pretty safe to say that Treblinka was the most powerful killing machine.  That camp, in all likelihood, killed more people than died at Auschwitz, and accomplished it in little more than a year.

But because it still stands as a testament to the depravity that man can unleash, one camp is remembered above all.  A massive camp outside the small city of Oswiecim.  Auschwitz.

Recommended Reading:  Eyewitness Auschwitz – A look inside the camp from one who survived nearly 3 years there.  A great book.

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For two and a half weeks, the German army had been swarming over Poland.  Since the start of the invasion on September 1, 1939, Poland had only offered the weakest resistance to their enemy’s armies and air force.  And just when the Poles thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

On September 17, 1939, the Soviets attacked from the east.  With well over half a million troops, the Red Army surged into Poland, in keeping with their secret agreement made with Germany back on the 23rd of August.  Russian dictator Joseph Stalin called the action a “liberation”, but for thousands and thousands of Poles, it was anything but that.

Stalin had determined in his mind that all traces of Poland would cease to exist.  And because he no longer viewed Poland as an entity, niceties such as the Geneva Convention and concern for the citizens had no meaning.  So as the army moved westward, behind them came the NKVD with their lists of names.  Polish law enforcement officers, public and government officials, professors and scientists, and military personnel were all rounded up (like those shown above).  Nearly all of them would be executed.

And as with the German invasion, the Soviet invasion of Poland would be met with stern condemnation from Great Britain and France (both of whom had made military guarantees to Poland), but nothing else.

In all pratical ways, Poland was gone.

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