It was a fun, high energy tour all the way through the Stare Miasto of Warsaw. Then our guide dropped her smile and leveled with us in a deeper voice, “I’d be lying to you if this tour was just happy the whole time. We will change our pace now and talk about a more recent time – World War II.”
She stopped us infront of a boundary marker, “this is the boundary of what was once the Jewish Ghetto. It looks great now, but 70 years ago, if you were Jewish you would be forced on that side of the road and not be allowed to come into contact with anyone else.”
This requires a bit of a backstory. Germany post World War I was a country suffering great economic hardship. It was part if the Axis Powers under Kaiser Wilhelm and had lost the war to the alliance nations of Britian, France and Russia. The penalties placed on the Germans and other losing Axis Powers was punitive. The politicians in Berlin were unable to solve the day to day problems of the people and the voters were willing to try out someone else. The party that captured the imagination was the Nazi party which preached Pan-Germanism, extreme nationalism and rabid anti-sementism.
In 1930 the Nazi party came from no where to become the second largest party and main opposition in the German Reichstag. The Great Depressions caused lives to worsen and in the election in 1932 the Nazi party overtook its main under the charismatic leadership of Hitler was the largest party in the German Reichstag and in 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. That same year, the upper and lower house of the German Parliamnet passed an enabling act that essentially made Hitler all powerful. It allowed the German cabinet the power to enact laws without any involvement of the Reichstag. The president died in 1934 and Hitler used the powers of the enabling act to merge the officer of Chancellor and President, making himself Fueher.
Hitler had taken power in a suffering Germany on a nationalistic message and by focusing minds and demonising a small Jewish minority – they were the reason for Germany’s problem, they were behind it all. With the enabling act and completet control of the country as well as paramilitary backing from his Nazi party had a military arm as well as a political arm and he used his military might to crush political dissent. Off came the free press, out came the discriminatory laws. Jews were made to wear the Star of David on their arms to identify them. Jews were prevent3ed from working and were sacked from their jobs with those positions given to real Germans instead. Many Jews fled this Germany.
The craziest thing about Hitler’s early days as Furher was that Germany’s economy did improve on a macroeconomic level. Unemployment fell from 5.7 million to 400,000 (although some commentators have said that this was due to tricks than actual improvement in the economy). But the improvement was a by way to war, the economic strategy was not centre on trade and growth, it was about building a war machine that would strengthen the economy through military conquests. Hitler was not satisfied with Germany then he wanted to restore German greatness. He wanted to restablish the borders of the Holy Roman Empire that was led from the German lands.
Next door to Germany was the recently independent Poland, and the capital of Warsaw. Which was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe (and by extension then, the world). In a city of around 1.2 million people, a third were Jewish. Ultra orthodox Jews with yamulkas walked the streets with the most fashionable socialites of the time burshing past them in this Paris of the East. Synagogues were easily found around the city.
A chill tingles down my spine as I write this, knowing that the people in the video above would mostly be dead a short while after the clips in this video were taken.
You can imagine that this city was viewed with disgust by some mad eyes in Berlin. This was the whore of Europe and had to be cleansed. Poland was also the closest target for a resurgent Nazi Germany to attack. To strengthen the desire of Germans to fight the Poles, leading dailies all over Germany were reporting exaggerted and false claims of ethnic cleansing of ethnic Germans in Poland. Poland was the first of the German Generalplan Ost – increasing living space of ethnic Germans by taking over and getting rid off non ethnic Germans so that the Teutonic peoples could live there. And so it was that the first shots of World War II were fired in Gdansk Germany lifting the veil on a new theatre of War. This was the Battle of Poland.
Hitler did not go in alone, he did a deal with Stalin to carve Poland between them. Tearing the newly independent Central European country apart again.
Invasion of Poland (Source)
Throughout the Battle of Poland, the British and French looked on, afraid to get involved, the painful scars from World War I still fresh in their heads.
Weak with an obsolete military the Polish forces were unable to ever win except to put up a fight and try to slow the enemy and hope for support from France and Britain). Unfortunately that support never came.
Barely a few months from when the Germans began their war, they were at the gates of Warsaw. The people put up resistance but the seige lasted only 20 days and on 28 September 1939, soliders of the Third Reich marched triumphant into Warsaw the prize of Poland.
Within a few days, the people were divided to be rules. People most supportive of the Reich and its ideas who were themselves ethnic Germans were given citizenship and were highest up the totem pole. The classifications carried on down with the most undesirable “vermin” being the Jews (more undesirable than ethnic Poles even). These people at the lowest end were used as forced labour to keep the war machine humming. The Jews had to be kept in their place and prevented from running around, and so came the establishment of the tragic Jewish Ghetto.
The Jews were kept apart from the populace and had to stay within the small confines of the walled city. More Jews were bussed in from other parts of Poland and squeezed in. More than 400,000 people were squeezed into a space barely 3.3 squared km. All in 3.5 million Jews were rounded up all around Poland and put in concentration camps.
The scheme was however not sustainable. Jews needed to pay the SS for food supplies and were not able to make money, the money would eventually run out. They became seen as a problem and in a conference in 1942 indepth discussion were made to solve the Jewish Question. Plans were outlined for the extermination (or liquidation as it was called) of the Jewish people. This was known as Operation Reinhard or The Holocaust. All in 3 million Polish Jews and 2.5 million ethnic Poles were killed in the Holocaust in Poland. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto was to be sent to Treblinka at a rate of 6000 a day. More than 300,000 were already sent, there were less than 100,000 left.
The few young Jewish people in the Ghetto in Warsaw knew their fate. They would either work to death, or be put in gas chambers and gased to death. Two young groups one of the left and right wing of the political spectrum organised themselves and work with the Polish Home Army outside the Ghetto to purchase and smuggle arms into the Ghetto. But the force was small with barely a 1000 people and not enough arms to win anything (the Germans had a daily average of 2000 well armed soldiers).
These 1000 young people together with the others fought and lasted for one month, they had to use a guerilla tactics to fight the Germans.
The objective was to fight and die with dignity as human beings, then to die with a whimper like animals.
The uprising ended on 16th May 1943 with the destruction of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw.
Great Synagogue Warsaw (Source)
To commemorate the resistance fighters, every year on the anniversary of the uprising (19 April 1943) Poles wear a yellow lapel in the shape of a dandelion that opens up into a flowery Star of David in a sign of solidarity.
The Nazis put down one rebellion, the first in German-occupied Poland, Warsaw would be the only city to rebel against Hitler. Not once, but twice and the Nazi would not be able to rest easy because a second even larger and fiercer resistance would happen the next year in Warsaw. In that battle, the Poles would drive the Germans back only to be stabbed in the back by Stalin.
ON THE MAP
Post-Script: The internet is a scary place. In writing this post I ventured into videos about Adolf Hitler to find clips that would tell stories and ideas about the man. What chilled my blood was the comments section on these videos. There were comments about how Hitler was the last great white man, a visionary or someone who knew the truth etc. I have refrained therefore from putting those videos and chose documentaries instead. I do not wish to glorify racisim, antisemitism and sick nationalists in anyway. It causes me to shake my head in despair that there are sad individuals so filled with hate who still wish for the “glorious” days of Nazism.