In my previous installment – which you could find here – I gave an introduction to Poland’s performance at the start of the World War II, particularly by dispelling some pervasive myths about their martial ability. This section will explore what happened once the Poles fell. It’s unfortunate that occupied countries are treated as having passively absorbed in the Nazi empire, even though many continued the fight as intensively as any independent nation – with Poland at the forefront.
Protecting the Jews
Jews have a long and rich history in Poland, which until World War II probably hosted the largest Jewish population in the world, at 3 million. While anti-Semitism existed among the Polish people, as it did nearly everywhere, Jews had it comparatively better than elsewhere in the world (indeed, throughout history the Poles were markedly tolerant by European standards, which are why their Jewish population was so large to begin with). But in any case, the Holocaust became a grim test of Polish attitudes towards its Jewry.
Numerous Poles risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. This was despite the fact that Germany imposed uniquely harsh laws against granting any sort of aid to any Jew: an entire family would be killed if just one member was caught doing so much as giving bread or water to a Jew on the street. It’s believed that tens of thousands of Poles lost their lives for this reason.
Indeed, Poland was unique among occupied countries in that it established a formal organization specifically aimed to help the Jewish people: Żegota, or “Council for Aid to Jews”. The group was politically and financially supported by the Government-in-Exile, and among its many activities, it provided shelter, food, medicine, money, and false documents for Jews across the country. The most well-known example is that of Irena Sendler, who allegedly saved around 2,500 Jewish children with the help of Polish families.
Individual Poles also did their part, and there are innumerable stories of their bravery and sacrifice. In fact, most Polish Jews were saved by people unconnected to any formal organization like Zegota; the number of those saved could range from 40,000 to 120,000. Of all those recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations (an award given by the State of Israel to Gentiles who saved Jews from extermination during the Holocaust), Poles made up the largest number by a considerable margin: so far, 6,266 Polish men and women have been given the award, representing 25 percent of all recipients (the number is still high even when adjusting for population).
To be sure, as one helpful Polish commentator pointed out below, the Polish-Jewish relationship was far less rosy than I may be suggesting. Anti-Semitism may have been less acute than in other parts of the world, but that doesn’t say much, given the pervasiveness of bigotry towards Jews. Many Poles were complicit in the exploitation, arrest, and murder of Polish Jews, and the use of blackmail against hiding Jews was not uncommon. It was a complex and often tragic situation, but that makes it all the more warranted to focus on where humanity excelled.
The Polish Resistance
We have a tendency to see wars as ending the moment a country capitulates or is occupied. Despite centuries of military history giving lie to this seemingly intuitive assumption, it remains a misconception to this day (consider the recent examples of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars).
But many wars are arguably decided by the response of “defeated” states, which often chip away at the manpower, supplies, and political will of their victorious occupiers. Many a successful ruler has swept through nation after nation, only to see their subsequent empire fall apart shortly after. Nazi Germany was no exception.
Most Americans know only of the French Resistance, which has become an iconic example of insurgency against Nazi forces. However, every occupied state had a resistance movement of some kind, and many of the largest and most effective– not only Poland’s, but also Yugoslavia’s and the Soviet Union’s – are forgotten about.
As I discussed before, the Polish Resistance Movement was probably the largest and most sophisticated of it’s time, helped by the fact that it was often led (albeit nonexclusively) by a well-organized underground state. It also included a full-fledged army, the Armia Krajowa (abbreviated AK), which numbered some 400,000 soldiers at its peak, not including many more sympathizers and irregulars. The AK functioned like any military force, AK coordinating its operations with the Polish Government in Exile.
Originally, its main focus was on sabotage, tactical diversion, and intelligence gathering. Even during this time, however, it carried out thousands of raids and bombings, initiated spying rings, and clashed with German police and military. Close to 7,000 supply trains were damaged, over 4,000 army vehicles were damaged or destroyed, and tens of thousands of military equipment being built by Polish laborers were purposefully constructed with defects. In also provided intelligence and advance warning to the Soviets ahead of the Nazi invasion of 1941.
In 1943, it AK lead a nationwide uprising known as Operation Tempest, which included the famous Warsaw Uprising I discussed before. Though it was viciously quelled, the fighting continued until the very end of the war: German losses to the AK and other Polish partisans began to average 850 to 1,750 every month, and even early on the resistance would claim a few hundred occupiers per month.
As a result, the Third Reich had to devote a substantial part of its military forces to keep Poland under control, draining its resources from elsewhere (which was part of the Polish resistance’s objectives). Even at its lowest point, during the first month of occupation, the Nazis maintained a total of 630,000 soldiers, police officers, and SS units in the country; towards the end of the war, this force had grown to over 1 million.