What happened to the Jews in Poland?

By Carl O. Nordling

It belongs to general education to know that the National Socialist regime exterminated about six million Jews, about three million thereof being Polish Jews. The Holocaust supposedly implies that only a fraction of the German Jews and the French Jews were exterminated and less than half of the Hungarian Jews. In contrast to this, the Polish Jews are believed to have been wiped out almost completely. If this holds good, the fate of the Polish Jews would certainly constitute a veritable Holocaust. This applies even if it should turn out that the Jews from other European countries were not systematically murdered at all, but just persecuted and deported to places where many died. What happened to the Jews of Poland is crucial to our evaluation of the scope of the Holocaust. It is certainly worthwhile to look thoroughly into the problem. To start with, let us cover the "authorized" version.

In the 1961 version of his book The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg states that 50,000 or 1.5% of the Jews of Poland survived the Holocaust.[1] 24 years later, in the 1985 version of the same book, the same author states that the number of survivors was about 350,000 or 10% of the total.[2] Naturally, one wonders how trustworthy such figures are if they can easily sevenfold within 24 years. Will the number of Jewish survivors keep changing in Hilberg's imagination?

Luckily, there are three other standard works in the field, the Encyclopaedia Judaica,[3] the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust[4] and Dimension des Völkermords.[5] Let us see what they say about the war time fate of the Jews in Poland.

According to the Judaica, there were 3,351,000 Jews in Poland in September 1939.[6] From these, 55,509 are said to have been registered as survivors in June 1945. This number is said to comprise Jews having survived in Poland and Jews who returned from their wartime sojourn in the USSR. Another 13,000 Polish Jews are said to have survived as members of the Polish Army, and 1,000 would have survived posing as "Aryans" (and for some reason not counted among the 55,509). To these, the Encyclopedia Judaica generously adds 250,000 survivors in the USSR and 50,000 in camps in Germany, thus bringing the total up to 369,000 or 11% of those presumably present in 1939.

The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust gives a total of 380,000 survivors, 165,000 thereof having returned from the USSR and 75,500 having survived in Poland.[7] These two groups, comprising altogether 240,500, are said to have registered in Poland in June 1946. The rest, 139,500, would presumably be Jews who survived abroad and stayed abroad after the war. Even those who returned to Poland seem to have been eager to shake the Polish dust off their shoes as soon as possible. The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust tells us that within the next year 160,500 of the registrees left Poland, leaving only 80,000 behind. Apparently, Poland was not a preferred place of abode for the Polish Jews when Poland had become practically "deutschenrein" (clear of Germans) and surely free of National Socialists.

Dimension gives the number of 2,700,000 Polish victims of the Holocaust. The number of Jews in hiding is said to have been 300,000 or 100,000 according to various researchers. Dimension further quotes a certain Shmuel Krakowski who estimates the total number of survivors at 80,000, including both "illegals" and camp internees who managed to survive. Dimension reduces the number of returned Jews from the USSR to 130,000, but states on the other hand that no less than 98,071 Jews were members of the Unit of Polish Patriots (within the Red Army). Many other diverging figures are mentioned, and finally Frank Golczewski, the author of the chapter on Poland, decides on 300,000 as the "realistic" number of survivors "regarding the Jews living within the borders of the Polish State after 1945" (whatever that may mean).

To sum up: The standard works provide no unambiguous information about how the Holocaust befell the Jews of Poland. Much is pure speculation, and in general it all depends on the veracity of a list on page 495 in Dimension telling us that 2,019,000 Polish Jews were exterminated in the camps of Kulmhof, Sobibór, Belzec, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek (974,000 thereof in Treblinka alone). About 700,000 would have died in ghettos, in labor camps or would have been murdered by Einsatzgruppen or by ordinary criminals.

Thus, the figure of 2,700,000 victims seems to require that about two million of them were exterminated by the Germans. Dimension offers no proof, however, of even two thousand people, let alone two million, being actually put to death in the camps mentioned. And it is well known that the usual evidence for mass murder is totally missing in the areas where these camps were located. No mass graves, no heaps of human bones or human ashes are to be found there.

One gets a similar impression from a generally very well informed report by Eugene M. Kulischer of 1943: The Displacement of Population in Europe.[8] This book contains detailed data about deportations of Polish Jews. The author quotes sources like The Black Book of Poland (1942), S. Segal, The New Order in Poland (1942), Poland Fights (1942), Contemporary Jewish Record (April 1943), and Polish Review (1943). Yet still, there is nothing in it that indicates knowledge of the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, which are said to have already been exterminated in Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, and Treblinka by the end of 1942, according to Dimension.[9]

Let us therefore disregard the figure of 2,019,000 exterminated Polish Jews and pretend temporarily that we know nothing about the number of extermination victims and gas chambers. Let us consider the most probable course of events without any preconceived ideas about the number of exterminated Jews.

The official version seems to be based on the assumption that the Polish Jews behaved like a flock of sheep readily led to the slaughterhouse. Let us assume instead that they were as bright and observant as people are in general, and that they took the obvious measures to protect themselves from menacing dangers.

Let us start from the last census in Poland before the war, in 1931. It registered 3.1 million Jews in Poland. We have every reason to assume that this number had fallen drastically by September 1939. Considering the situation in Poland in those years, a substantial Jewish emigration would have been the natural outcome of the circumstances. Prior to 1933, large numbers of Polish Jews had emigrated to the United States, to Germany, and to France. Many Polish Jews had relatives in the USA which facilitated emigration. This ongoing emigration certainly received an impetus when Hitler assumed power in Germany (1933) and the Polish government endorsed (1937) Jabotinsky's plan to transfer 1.5 million East European Jews to Palestine within a decade (Encyclopaedia Judaica).

Finally, in October 1938, the Polish government issued a decree making Polish passports invalid for re-entry into Poland without official prolongation. The decree was primarily directed against Polish Jews living in Germany. The German government reacted to this by transporting the Polish Jews residing in Germany with special trains to the German-Polish border in order to enable those Jews to renew their passports before they expired. The Polish border troops, however, refused to let those Polish citizens enter Polish territory, even though their passports were still valid. With those thousands of Jews who found themselves in "nowhere" land between Germany and Poland for several days until Germany finally had to give in and re-admit the then stateless Jews, was the couple Grynspan, parents of Herschel Grynspan, who at that time lived in Paris. After he learned about the situation of his parents, he assassinated the German embassy secretary Ernst von Rath, who, as is well known, died as a result of the injuries on November 9th. From this event arose the so-called "Reichskristallnacht," the pogrom against the Jews.

Considering the official and general social anti-Semitism, which was raging in Poland during that period, which was comparable or even worse than the German version, it would not be surprising if the Jewish emigration from Poland was extremely intense at the end of the 30s right up to the outbreak of war. We have seen above that the Polish Jews shunned Poland even after these threats were removed. It is therefore very likely that the Polish Jewry lost some 350,000 through emigration (as well as some 100,000 through natural decrease) in the period 1933 to 1939. Zukowski refers to Polish studies showing that about 350,000 Jews had emigrated to overseas countries in the period 1918-1938.[10] Many emigrants probably left Poland during the very months preceding the German assault, as they had feared precisely this happening. Says e.g. Zygmunt Nissenbaum:[11]

"The outbreak of the war came as no surprise to us, we all had feared it for a long time..."

Then came the partition of Poland. About 1,830,000 Jews would have landed up on the German side according to Dabrowska, Waszak and Grynberg,[12] that is, if everybody had stayed where he was. Dr. Richard Korherr, however, stated in his famous Report[13] that the number of Polish Jews in German controlled area decreased by 763,000 through emigration and excess of deaths over births between 1939 and 1942. More recently it has been calculated that as many as 850,000 Jews escaped out of the German-to-be zone during the campaign and the next few months.[14] This figure, too, seems astonishingly high at first sight. But let us compare this with other similar events. For instance, no less than 1.5 million Belgians fled to France during the short Western campaign in 1940. And still later a whole 90% of all the Danish Jews fled over the sea when they realized that they were threatened. In contrast, there was no sea to prevent people from escaping to the eastern part of Poland, the territory that the Red Army occupied a couple of weeks later. Even Gentile Poles fled by the multitude.

We should expect the Polish Jews to have had an even better preparedness for flight than the Belgians and the Danish Jews. Also, the Germans wanted the Jews out of their zone just as they wanted them out of their zone in France a year later.[15] It was only a year later, in the summer of 1940, that the Jews were forbidden to leave Poland.[16] But even as late as in 1942, Jews are noted to have fled from Poland. A report from an SS man, dated Lodz, July 2, 1942, says that Jews on the countryside "are constantly trying to leave their home districts in order to cross the green border near by."[17] One example is Prof. Herbert A. Strauss (*1918), who left German controlled territory one year after his deportation into the Warsaw ghetto.[18]

If we stick to Sanning's figure of 850,000 Jewish refugees on the Soviet side, there would have been altogether about 1.8 million Polish Jews in Soviet custody in the spring of 1941. This corresponds to the estimates by Elizibieta Hornowa (1,694,000) and Eugene Kulisher (2,000,000).[8] Other authors have mentioned figures from 500,000 to 1,200,000.[19]

Those who managed to flee to some other country than the Soviet Union were the lucky ones. Most of the Jews, however, had bad luck, to say the least. During the first days of the attack many Jews died, together with lots of their Gentile countrymen. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 32.000 Jews would have fallen in battle, fighting as soldiers of the Polish Army, while another 20,000 would have been killed in the bombing of Warsaw. These figures are inconceivably high. Most certainly they are greatly exaggerated. Considering the total number of Polish losses, it seems reasonable to assume some 10,000 Jewish soldiers and, let us say, a maximum of 2,000 civilian Jews fell victim to the military campaign in September 1939. (The civilian losses among Finland's 3.8 million population amounted to 600 persons killed - resulting from frequent bombing during the Winter War 1939-40 that lasted 105 days.)

After the losses and the exodus in 1939, there would have been left a hypothetical number of 838,000 Jews in the German part of Poland. What happened to them?

Let us make a spot check. For want of anything better, we may look at the 67 Polish Jews born 1860-1909 who were prominent enough to be mentioned in the Encyclopaedia Judaica as having been living in the German-occupied part of Poland in January 1940. We find that 13 of them (19%) managed to leave the country during 1940 and 1941. 54 stayed behind, and out of these 33% ended up in concentration camps, 4% in POW camps, 19% were murdered (outside the camps) and 44% escaped any type of German arrest and assault. Apparently, the German persecution of Jews in Poland was not particularly efficient. These 54 individuals represented the Jewish 'intelligentsia'. According to National Socialist ideology, the Jewish intelligentsia was regarded as the most harmful group of people. Certainly the National Socialists found it most urgent to make off with all Jewish professors, authors, political leaders and other such figures in occupied Poland, if they pursued such a policy. We may assume that they were a little bit more indulgent towards ordinary tailors, shoemakers, musicians, and shopkeepers. (Especially tailors and shoemakers were in great demand in wartime Germany.) On the other hand, emigration was more difficult to accomplish for an ordinary Jew than for a member of the intelligentsia.

Considering the fate of the 'VIP Jews' of Poland, it seems likely that about 400,000 out of the Polish Jews ended up in German camps sooner or later, while about as many others (hypothetically 438,000) stayed in the ghettos or in hiding. Jews of the latter group would certainly not have been gassed to death, but otherwise they would have suffered many hardships. They would either have survived the war by the skin of their teeth or died from old age, epidemics, starvation, occasional murder, enemy bombing, or - in the case of Warsaw - been killed in action during an uprising.

It is well known that the Germans ordered the Polish Jews to concentrate in the city ghettos, to begin with. The largest of these was the Warsaw Ghetto. Since it is likely that a considerable part of Warsaw's 400,000 Jews had fled before and during the campaign, there may have been some 200,000 (or 300,000 at the most) living in the Ghetto. A considerable number of Polish Jews (61,000 according to Encyclopaedia Judaica) languished in POW camps for years, and we may therefore consider the number of Jewish internees in the civilian camps to have been about 340,000 (out of the 400,000 internees estimated above).

The death rate in wartime prison camps has proved to be remarkably high in many cases. After the civil war in Finland in 1918 the death rate among the imprisoned insurgents reached 11% during a single month. Of all the internees about 16% died before they were released although the mean duration of internment was only four months.[20] The American POWs in North Korean camps suffered a death rate of 39%.[21] The Red Army soldiers in Finnish POW camps during the Finno-Soviet war of 1941-44 suffered a death rate of 29%. Of the Finnish soldiers in Soviet prison camps only 30% returned after the war. Most of the remaining 70% probably died in the camps.[22] No intentional killing has been suspected in either case. Considering these figures as well as the typhus epidemics and the scarcity of provisions towards the end of the war, it seems likely that the death rate among the imprisoned Polish Jews stayed within the range of 30-70%. For the sake of a provisional calculation, let us say 50%, or 200,000 (ordinary old age deaths exclusive). We may now summarize the above estimates as follows.

Deaths due to war:



Deaths in POW camps:



Fallen in uprising:



Total of war victims:



Deaths in concentration camps


(excluding old age deaths):



Criminal murder


(e.g. by Pol. and Ger. anti-Semites):



Total of persecution victims:



The figure of 170,000 deaths in concentration camps may be compared with a certain sample of Jewish casualties available in Sweden. Outside the Stockholm synagogue there are a number of stone slabs engraved with the names of more than 5,000 Jews who perished under German occupation of their home country and whose relatives or friends are living in Sweden. Nearly 80% of these victims are Jews from Poland. The place of death is noted in most cases (76% of all). Out of the known places of death, 56.5% belong to the six so-called "extermination camps," chiefly Auschwitz (25.1%). J.-C. Pressac has found that 100 trains with Polish Jews were sent to Auschwitz.[23] Such trains usually took 1,000 deportees each, and Pressac speculates that they may have taken up to 1,500 at the most. Let us therefore assume that some 125,000 Polish Jews were deported to Auschwitz. According to Pressac, 49,000 of these were registered in the camp. He assumes that the others were killed, but so far he has not offered any proof that it so happened. Anyway, let us assume that they all died. Since the mortality rate was high among the internees, about half of them may have died as well. Pressac's findings would thus mean that about 100,000 Polish Jews perished in Auschwitz.

Assuming that the deceased Jews listed on the Stockholm monument represent a random sample of Polish Jews, it would follow that about 225,000 Polish Jews perished in the six alleged "death camps" in Poland (56.5/25.1100,000 = 225,000).

It is obvious that a certain percentage of those who did not die from persecution must have died from normal, civilian causes. During the six years of war it would have been about 10% out of 610,000 making 60,000. At the same time birthrates must necessarily have fallen to a very low standard. Let us assume that 20,000 Jewish children were born in Poland during the entire war. Considering the crowding in the ghettos, the small food rations, and the various hardships of war in general, some additional 100,000 may have died from diseases related to these abnormal conditions. Therefore, without assuming any deaths by organized extermination, we find that a total of 400,000 (150,000) Jews may have died in the German parts of old Poland.

There would thus have been a hypothetical number of 470,000 survivors (including new-born babies). After what had happened to them, it seems likely that many of the survivors tried to leave Poland as soon as the war was over and border crossing became a possibility. It also seems likely that a considerable part of the survivors had survived by means of changing their names and appearances from Jewish to Gentile. Suppose that 15% of the survivors (i.e. 70,000) did not consider themselves as Jews any more. And suppose that 80% of those persisting as Jews (320,000) managed to leave Poland before June 1946. That would have left 80,000 resident Polish Jews to report themselves to the authorities in June 1946, which was what happened. Twice as many, 160,000, reported as refugees returning from the East.

Whatever the German policy may have been, it is a well-known fact that hundreds of thousands of internees survived the camps until May 1945. E.g. The Oxford Companion to the Second World War says that an estimated 300,000 Jews (Polish and other) "survived the camps and the death marches [from the camps]."[24] There is nothing telling against the possibility that 150,000 or even 200,000 Polish Jews may have survived the war in German camps.

There remain the 1,840,000 Jews who managed to stay or get outside German controlled territory. These Jews probably also suffered a high mortality rate, especially those who were under Soviet rule - probably the majority. It seems possible that a third or even half of these succumbed before the end of the war. Only a minority of the survivors are likely to have been able to return to Poland after the liberation, considering the many restrictions prevailing in the Soviet Union at that time, as well as a possible lack of information.

A fraction of the Jews under Soviet rule would of course have been overrun by the German Army. If they belonged to any of the categories of party officials, peoples' commissars, civil servants or, irregular combatants, they could have been shot by the Einsatzgruppen, according to the orders given. Soviet civil servants were to be shot only if they were Jewish, but the other categories were blacklisted irrespective of race. It is impossible to estimate the number of persons who met their fate in front of the Einsatzgruppen rifles. Probably only a small fraction of those killed behind the eastern front were Polish Jews.

Thus, there could well have been some 1.4 million survivors compared to the 380,000 of the 'authorized' version. That is to say that there may have been about one million unreported survivors alongside with the 380,000 reported ones.

The most probable total number of victims of the German persecution seems to be of the magnitude of 200,000, give or take. A fraction of these were certainly killed by Germans, but there is no evidence indicating that this was done as a part of an extermination program. About one million Polish Jews probably died in places other than the German concentration camps and firing squad grounds. These deaths are regrettable consequences of the war and of anti-Jewish politics prevailing on both sides of the eastern front, but they cannot really be said to constitute genocide in the proper sense of the term.

Although Polish Jewry suffered enormous losses both in number and in social and personal values, the demographic outcome does not indicate an intentional extermination running into millions. The Polish Jewry was dissolved as an ethnic entity, but this is not what people generally have in mind when the word "genocide" is used. (Ethnoclad would perhaps be a proper term for this crime, from Greek ethnos, people, and Latin cladis, ruin, disaster.)

As far as human losses are concerned the Polish Jews may be compared with the age group of Russian males born between 1909 and 1923, or with the population of Leningrad. These two groups lost about one third of their numbers. As for the ethnic destruction, the fate of the Polish Jewry may be compared with that of the ethnic entities of Germans existing east of Germany's new frontier in 1945. This would certainly share the name of ethnoclad if such a term were applied. A heavy burden of guilt falls on those responsible for all these catastrophes, but at least in the case of the Polish Jews we have no evidence of an intentional large-scale extermination.


[1]Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Quadrangle Books, Chicago 1961 pp. 670, 767.
[2]Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, New York, Holmes and Meier, 1985, pp. 1212, 1220.
[3]Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem 1971.
[4]Y. Gutman (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan, New York 1990.
[5]W. Benz (ed.), Dimension des Völkermords, Oldenbourg, Munich 1991.
[6]Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem 1971, vol. 13, p. 771.
[7]Y. Gutman (ed.), op. cit. (note 4), vol. 3, p. 1174.
[8]Eugene M. Kulischer, The Displacement of Population in Europe. Published by the International Labour Office, Montreal 1943.
[9]W. Benz (ed.), op. cit. (note 5), pp. 462-469.
[10]Arkadiusz Zukowski, "Emigration of Polish Jews to South Africa during the Second Polish Republic 1918-1939," Scandinavian Jewish Studies, vol. 17, no. 1-2, p. 61.
[11]Zygmunt Nissenbaum I was in the Umschlagplatz," Dialectics and Humanism, 1 (1989), p. 129.
[12]Quotet in W. Benz (ed.), op. cit. (note 5), p. 419.
[13]Poliakov & Wulf, Das Dritte Reich und die Juden, Berlin 1955, p. 243-248.
[14]Walter Sanning, Die Auflösung des osteuropäischen Judentums, Grabert, Tübingen 1983, p. 44.
[15]Rudolf Aschenauer (ed.), Ich, Adolf Eichmann, Druffel, Leoni 1980 p. 315.
[16]Y. Gutman (ed.), op. cit. (note 4), p. 1156.
[17]Joseph Wulf, Aus dem Lexikon der Mörder, Gütersloh 1963, p. 25.
[18]International Biographical Dictionary of Central European Emigrés 1933-1945, vol. II, p. 1138.
[19]W. Benz (ed.), op. cit. (note 5), p. 442.
[20]J. Paavolainen, Röd och vit terror. Stockholm 1986, pp. 182f.
[21]Ibid., p. 183.
[22]Uppslagsverket Finland, vol. 2, Helsingfors 1983, p. 132.
[23]J.-C. Pressac, Die Krematorien von Auschwitz, Piper, Munich 1994, pp. 196f.
[24]Oxford 1995, p. 371.

Source: The Revisionist 2(2) (2004), pp. 155-158.

Back to the Table of Contents