Today, as in 1945, the Auschwitz concentration camp fell into Soviet hands. Therefore, today marks the international day of commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
Undoubtedly, the Jewish people were the main victims of the extermination campaign organized by the Third Reich in World War II. Few peoples have suffered a horror comparable to that suffered by European Jews in those years. That is why the Jews have a prominent role in the tributes to the victims of the Holocaust. It is also frequent that these tributes remember other groups that were victims of genocide crimes at the hands of the nazis: gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled …
Polish Catholics: massacred by both Germans and Soviets
However, it is often forgotten that one of the groups that especially suffered the Holocaust were ethnic Poles, mostly Catholics, and on two fronts, since the genocide crimes they suffered during World War II were not only perpetrated by the Nazis, but also by the Soviets. We must recall that in September 1939, Poland was invaded not only by Germany, but also by the USSR, following a secret pact signed by the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin in August of that year: according to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), 150,000 Poles died from the Soviet occupation, partly murdered and partly during the deportations to Siberia ordered by Stalin (in total some 320,000 Poles were deported by the Soviets, a fact also considered a crime of genocide according to the Statute of Rome of the International Criminal Court).
The figures of Poles killed by the Nazis were considerably higher. According to IPN data published in 2009, the Germans were responsible for the death of between 5.47 and 5.67 million Polish citizens during the Second World War. The group that suffered the most horrors of the occupation was that of the Polish Jews: around 3 million were exterminated by the Third Reich (half of the total number of Jews killed in the Holocaust). In additio, the Germans killed around two and a half million ethnic Poles, in crimes against humanity that began in the first days of the war. An example of that genocidal zeal was the murder of more than 20,000 Polish men, women and children in Bydgoszcz in September 1939, partly shot and partly sent to concentration camps: 14% of the population of that Polish city at the beginning from the war. The massacres continued during all the years of the German occupation, reaching extremes such as the 150,000 Poles killed by the Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, crimes that included mass rapes of women and girls and the death of hospital patients that were burned alive in their beds. In the Polish capital there were massacres such as that of the district of Ochota, with 10,000 dead, and the massacre of the district of Wola, with more than 40,000 victims.
The fate of hundreds of thousands of Polish children
On the other hand, of the 400,000 children kidnapped by the Germans in the occupied countries, 200,000 were Polish children. Many of them were handed over to German families and Germanized. Others ended up in concentration camps. I have already spoken here about the case of the 14-year-old girl Czesława Kwoka, a Polish Catholic whose photo is the head of this article. Czesława lived in the county of Zamość, from which 116,000 Poles were deported in order to install a German colony in its place. Of the deportees, 50,000 were taken as slave labor to Germany, and the others were killed in their villages or sent to concentration camps. Czesława was taken with her mother to Auschwitz. Like hundreds of other children from Zamość, this girl was murdered on March 12, 1943 by means of an injection of phenol. Her eyes full of fear and her face beaten, her lip bleeding, have remained for posterity as a symbol of the terror of many children victims of the Holocaust.
The attempt to destroy Polish culture by Hitler and Stalin
The dimensions of the massacres perpetrated by the Germans against the ethnic Poles are explained, as well as the extermination of Jews, by racist motivations. For the Nazis the Poles were “untermensch”, that is, “subhumans”, inferior beings who lacked human dignity. That is why they sought not only their physical annihilation, but also the disappearance of Poland’s own pillars as a Nation. In this, by the way, coincided the two totalitarian powers that invaded the country in 1939. Both Hitler and Stalin wanted to make Polish culture disappear: the name of the country was even banned in the German and Soviet occupation zones, where it was also the teaching of the Polish language and the printing of books in Polish were forbidden. Schools, universities, bookstores, museums, cinemas and theaters were closed in both areas. Both Nazis and Soviets plundered, stole and destroyed Poland’s artistic heritage and burned books in the Polish language. In the zone of German occupation the use of the Polish language in public places was even prohibited. Of the 175 museums that Poland had in 1939, 70 were destroyed, and half of the 603 scientific institutions in the country also disappeared. The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, came to order that the Slavs of the occupied countries, among them the Poles, did not have to learn more than to write their name, to count (not more than 500) and to assume as a divine commandment that they owed obedience to the Germans.
In their eagerness to eliminate the Polish culture, both Germans and Soviets tried to destroy another of the pillars of Poland as a Nation: the Catholic religion. In the German zone, thousands of Polish priests and religious were arrested, tortured and sent to jails and concentration camps. Of the 14,000 priests in Poland in 1939, 1,811 were murdered by the Nazis. The Catholic Church has already declared 108 of them martyrs, on the understanding that they were killed because of their faith. Both Germans and Soviets subjected the Catholic clergy and Polish Catholic organizations to harsh persecution.
Many Nazi criminals were tried: the Soviets went unpunished
As we can see, when we talk about the Holocaust in Poland, we can not limit ourselves to remembering the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis: it is a moral duty to remember also those perpetrated by the Soviets, since it was two countries – and not just one – that invaded Poland at the beginning of that war, being used with a great viciousness against the local population. Perhaps this is the reason why Polish Catholics are the great forgotten of many tributes to the victims of the Holocaust. Although many Nazi war criminals were tried and convicted after the war, Soviet criminals went unpunished. The suffering of those deported and massacred Poles is today an uncomfortable memory for many who, even to this day, continue to use expressions such as “liberation of Poland” to refer to the occupation of the country by the USSR at the end of the Second World War and the establishment of a communist dictatorship. A strange “liberation” to which there is added the mass rape of 100,000 Polish women and girls at the hands of the Soviets, some crimes whose victims were between 4 and 80 years old: many of them, moreover, were murdered. It is time for the world to remember those Polish Catholics and point out, with equal firmness, both the Nazi criminals and the Soviet criminals who subjected them to a colossal genocide.
(Main photo: Czesława Kwoka was a Polish Catholic girl of 14 years. She lived in the county of Zamość, from which she was deported in December 1942. She died in the Auschwitz concentration camp on March 12, 1943. Photo colored by Marina Amaral)
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