World War II Poland: Displaced Children (1939-45)

displaced Polish children World war II
Figure 1.--Many of the German soldiers who launched upon Blitzkrieg and World war II were very proud of their exploits. They brouht their cameras with them and recorded the campaigns. Many compiled scrapbooks of their experiences filled with photographs of themselves and their comrads. One of the subjcts that caught there eye were the children in the conquered territoiries. We thus have many images of Polish children taken by German soldiers. Large numbers of these children would not survive the War. Soviet soldiers were much less likely to photograph their exploits, but many Soviet programs also created large numbers of displaced children who also did not survive the War.

World War II began in Poland with invasions by the NAZIs from the west and Soviets from the east Large numbers pf Polish children were displaced as a result of those invasions and subsequent occupation by two brutal totalitarian regimes. Poland was devestated by World War II. Poland along with Yugoslavia were the two countries most heavily damaged by the War. About a quater of the Polish population perished at the hands of both the NAZIs and Soviets. And children were among the groups most affected. Polish children were caught up in both the fighting and in forced poulation transfer carried out by NAZI and Soviet authorities. There were several resons for this and our information is incomplete. Substantial numbers of Polish children were displaced by the initial NAZI and Soviet occupations. The Germans began deporting Poles from western Poland to the Government General (1939). Ethnic Germans, many from the Baltics, were moved into these provinces. Jewish children along with their parents were interned in ghettos set up in the major cities. In the process there wee also killings. Children left orphaned were mong the most vulnerable. And when the mass killing began, the NAZIs especially targeted children. The Soviet occupation was only somewhat more brutal as far as non-Jewish Poles were concerned (1939-41). The Soviets deported large numbers of Polish families to Central Asia. Large numbers of Poles died in the process. The NAZIs targeted more Polish children in the Lebensborn profram (1939-44). More Polish children were dis placed, first in the NAZI anti-partisan campaigns (1943-44) and subsequently in the fishing as the Red Army reentered Poland (1944-45). The final tragedy was after War when the Soviet Govrnment fircibly removed Poles living east of the new boundary imposed upon Poland.

Invasion (September 1939)

World War II began in Poland with invasions by two brutal totalitarian regimes, the NAZIs from the north, west, and south (September 1) and the German ally, the Soviet Union, from the east (September 17). The Germans introduced a stunned world to Blitzkrieg warfare. The German Wehrmacht largely defeated the Polish Army in a few weeks and closed in on Warsaw. Then the Germans began to destroy the city by artillery and aerial bombardment. The Polish Army attempted to regroup in the east. But when the Soviet Red Army struck, the Polish Army was ordered not to fight the Soviet invaders. From the beginning, the Luftwaffe bombed Warsaw and basically undefended Polish cities. The outgunned Polish air force had noability toi protects its cities abd civilian population. The campaignwas capped by a Gernan victory parade in the devestated Polish capital (September 27). Hitler visited Warsaw to view the destruction and review another military parade (October 5). He met with journalists afterwards and threatened other countries which resisted him in not so veiled terms, using the devestated city as a stark example of what would happened to any country which resisted him. Large numbers pf Polish children were displaced as a result of those invasions and the wide spread distruction. Substantial numbers of Polish children were displaced by the initial NAZI and Soviet occupations. Not only were children dispossed, but several million Polish families were left with out the means of basica survival. Father were lost as the Polish soldiers not killed and badly wounded were interned as POWs. And fatherswere the principal breadwinners. Some children lost mothers as well. The destruction and abolition of the Polish state meant that efforts to care for these children were limited. Tragically this was only the beginning of the Polish tragedy and the plight of an increasing number of displaced children. And all of this began even before the organized actions against the Jews began. Less widely known is the degree to which the Germans targeted the other Polish people as well.

Occupation: German Expulsions

Hitler after the victory in Poland assigned Himmler the task of expelling to the east more than eight million non-Germans (meaning primarily Jews and Poles) from NAZI annexed western Poland. Ethnic Germans were to be moved westward out of the Baltic states that the Soviet Union would occupy in 1940 to replace the expelled Poles. The evicted were limited to fifty kilos of luggage, based on the experience of the Germans expelled from Alsace after World War I. By November 1939 the railway ststem in the affected areas was reserved for the resettlement process. Whole trainloads of these unfortunate people were moved east to the Government General in winter weather with no provision as to caring for them. Large numbers perished of exposure or starvation. NAZI head of the General Government, Hans Frank, publically decalred, "What a pleasure, finally to be able to tackle the Jewish race physically. The more that die, the better." [Rhodes] The SS began these expulsions in October 1939, concentrating on Poles and Jews in the Wartheland and the Danzig corridor. The SS by the end of 1940, the SS had succeeded in expelling 325,000 people without warning and stealing their property. Many elderly people and children died en route or in makeshift transit camps such as those in the towns of Potulice, Smukal, and Torun. Other areas were also cleared, but by 1941 the Germans were beginning to focus more on preparations for the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union and the pase of the expulsions slowed, but did not stop. There were also such actions within the Government general. It was children and the elderly that were most vulnerable in these expulsions and many died. In some cases children were taken from their parents ans screened for the Lebensborn Program. [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum]

NAZI Holocaust

Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe with the exception of the Soviet Union. It was in Poland that mass murder of the Jews began and was perfected. As in all courties, it was the children that were the least likely to survive the Holocaust. Jewish children along with their parents were interned in ghettos set up in the major cities. In the process there were also killings. Children left orphaned were mong the most vulnerable. And when the mass killing began, the NAZIs especially targeted children. The death camps were located in Poland not Germany. And in Poland the Germans found many willing to help them and few Poles intersted in protecting the Jews. Heydrich in September 1939 layed out the NAZI plan for the Jews to SS officers. Einsatzgruppen began killing Polish Jews with the German invasion (September 1939). Most Polish Jews were forced into Ghettos. These ghettos were liuidated by the SS in 1942 following the Wannsee Conference: Lublin (March 1942); ghettos of Eastern and Western Poland (Spring 1942); and the Warsaw Ghetto (July-September 1942).

Occupation: Soviet Expulsions (1939-41)

Most World War II accounts of Poland deal with the German invasion and horific NAZI occupation. In fact, Poland was invaded by two countries in 1939, NAZI GErmany and Soviet Russia. Although England and France decalred war on Germany, they did not declare war on the Soviet Union. For many Poles, the Soviet invasion and occupation was also disatrous as the Soviets had the same goal of wiping out Polish nationality. In fact the Soviets at this stage had more experience in repression than the NAZIs and set about repressing the Polish nation more forecfully at first than the NAZIs. [Davies] The murder on Stalin's orders by the Soviet NKVD of the Polish army officers in the Katyn forest was part of this process. The Soviets, however, did not have the added racial dimension that made the NAZI occupation so deadly. The Soviets sett about moving large numbers of Poles in an effort to Russify areas of eastern Poland. (This area had been a matter of a territorial disputeand war between Russia and Poland following World War I.) Many children were caught up into the mass relocations as the Soviets moved whole families into Central Asia and Siberia. Because of the primitive conditions and lack of preparations, many of those transported perished. There are many tragic accounts. One Polish boy, Stefan Wassilewski, remembers being dragged from his bed in the middle of the night by a Russian soldier, herded onto a crowded refugee train along with his mother and younger brother, and transported thousands of miles across Europe to Kazakhstan. He was separated from him family and never saw them again. [Hicyilmaz] Some of the children somehow made it to Allied occupied Iran where the Polish Government in Exile with Allied assistance were able to care for them. Stalin after the NAZI invasion (June 1941) also allowed Polish soldiers in POW camps the choice of fighting with the Red Army or joining the fight in the West. These men were released to travel to Iran and eventually joined the British 8th Army in the Western Desert campaign.

NAZI Lebensborn Program

They divided Poland woth the Soviet Union which after tghe German success invaded from the east. The SS conducted kidnappings take children children who matched NAZIs racial criteria by force. The occupation of Poland was one of the most brutal in European history. Occupation aithorities, especially the SS, were under no legal or moral constraints as regards their conduct and the execultion of occupation policies. Poles had no recourse. The NAZI set out to eliminate the Polish intelgencia and reduce the rest of the country to a vast population of slave labor. It is estimated that a quarter of the populatopn of Poland perished during the occupation. Thousands of Polish children were transferred to special Lebensborn centers in order to be "Germanized". Most sources estimate over 0.2 million Polish children were kidnapped. They were subjected to a "arische" racial classification using the Arier tables. The most important criterion was the distance between forehead and back of the head. The result determined the child's fate. Himler reasoned that the education process would be relatively easy because the German ideals "would reverberate in the sprit of the children who resemble is racially". With the younger children, the education process was relatively easy. They were sent to Lebensborn homes. The SS nurses there reportedly persuade the children that their parents had abandoned them. The children 6-12 years of age were sent to boarding schools. The older children were more of a problem. The older children who rejected the NAZI education program were often beaten. These children were not returned home. When it was determined that they would not accept Germinization, they were usually transferred to concentration camps. Other children who upon closer examination were not sufficently Aryan were also sent to concentration camps. The children that proved more receptive were adopted by SS and other German families. The non-SS familes were often not aware of where the children had come from and the circustances under which they had been obtained. As with the German Lebensborn children, the SS normally falsified the child's birth and other documents.

NAZI Anti-Partisan Campaign

More Polish children were displacedin the NAZI anti-partisan campaigns (1943-44). Here the NAZI campaign varied. Some German units simpply killed whole villages, including the women and children. In other operations only the men were killed and the women r just the children shipped to concentration camps. Some of the children the Soviets found when they liberated Auschwitz were te suyrvivors of the anti-partisan operations.

Renewed Fighting

More children were displaced in the fighting when the Red Army reentered Poland (1944-45).

Post-War Soviet Population Transfers

The final tragedy was after War when the Soviet Govrnment fircibly removed Poles living east of the new boundary imposed upon Poland.

Post-War Children

We notice large numbers of Polish children in terrible condition in the wake of retreating German forces and after the War. Most of the available images so not describe their experiences during the War. Te Polish economy and many cities were in ruin. Food was in short supply. The children in the worst condition were those displaced by the War, especially those in German camps, both concentrtion camps and work camps. Thisdincluded camps both in Poland and the Reich. Many no longer had parents. Many were starving. Not all of the displaced children were the result of the NAZI occupation. There There were also childen that had survived Soviet deportation (1939-41) and reached the Allied forces in the Middle East through Iran. It is dificult to know just how many displaced Polish children there were after the War in Poland, Germany, ans other countries.

Orphanages

The subject of Polish World War II orphanages is an important one and one which we do not yet have much information. We do not know of any account covering this subject, although there are accounts of indiviual orphanages and menoirs of individuald suring the War. The subject is very complicated because of the many different political regimes that controlled Poland before during and after the War, regimes of extrofinarily different political and social chracter. Pre-warPoland was a republic. We do not know much about orphanages in Poland before the War. We believe that religious communities, especially the Catholics and Jews played a major role in supporting orphanages and other institutioins like sanatoriums and asylums. We have, however, few details. At the onset of the War (September 1939), Poland was occupied by NAZI Germay and the Soviet Union. The NAZIs began Germanizing Western Poland and deporting Poles to the Government General. We do not know how orphanages fared in these circumstances. Jewish orphans along with other Jews were confined in ghettoes. And there are detailed accounts of a Jewish orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. We know very little about orphanages for other Polish children. Of course NAZI attrocities substantially increased the number of displaced and orphaned children. At the same time operating prphanages became very difficult because of food shortages. We doubt if church and civil groups were easily able to obtain food for orphans from NAZI occupation officials. Here we have few details. We also do not know about orphanages in the Soviet sector of occupied Poland. There are reports that Soviet officials made it difficifult for Catholic orphanes to operate by restricting food allocations. They also set up Communist or Russian orphanages where food was more plentiful. There are reports, however, the Polish children were not well treated. And as in the NAZI occupation zone, Soviet attrocities created new orphans and displaced children. The NAZIs occupied the rest of Poland as part of Barbarossa (JUne 1941). We do not know what happwnd to the Russian orphanages and the childfen cared for there. The continued barbaric NAZI occupation created more orphans. The anti-partisan campaign displaced more people, many were detained in concentration camps. Polish children including orphans were also targeted by the SS Lebensborn program. By the end of the War there were an estimated 1 million Polish orphans. These actually were the fortunate children which survived. Both the new Communist Government and the Catholic Church operated orphanages in the immediate aftermath of the War.

Sources

Davies, Norman. Book TV, C-Span 2, October 20, 2004.

Hicyilmaz, Gaye. And The Stars Were Gold (1997).






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Created: 3:21 AM 10/10/2008
Last updated: 7:44 AM 4/24/2010