Hitler's mass murders of Jews are well known.  What is far less well known is the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed by Polish Christians during World War II.    This is part of a long heritage of anti-Semitism in Christianity and a particularly ugly program of Jewish persecution by the Imperial Russian government in its later years.   This even involved open discussion of mass murder.  The current Polish government has tried to ban public discussion of this reality but the truth cannot be suppressed.

See also:   Polish Anti-Semitism    Russian Anti-Semitism   Medieval Christian Totalitarianism and Anti-Semitism

Few countries suffered more at the hands of Nazism than Poland.  However, the legacy of the war has helped many forget that Poland shared one very ugly similarity to Nazi Germany, official antisemitism.  It must be made very clear that such policies in no way can be compared to the terrible crimes committed against the Jews by Hitler.  However, it cannot be forgotten that interwar Poland had a very sorry record in terms of its treatment of its own Jewish minority.

Poland between the world wars was a state created by the victorious Allied Powers in 1919 from parts of the defunct German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires.  The new Polish Republic included within its borders a number of ethnic minority groups, among which were Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, and roughly three million Jews.  Polish authorities agreed to protect the civil rights of these non-Polish minorities by signing the so-called "Little Treaty of Versailles" (also known as The Minorities Treaty) on June 28, 1919.  The historical record shows, however, that the "protection" offered by Polish authorities was very uneven, particularly after the death of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the first Polish president, in 1935.

After 1935, Polish antisemitic political parties put increasing pressure on the government to pass legislation that would place restrictions on the social mobility of Polish Jews.  These parties had been inspired by the example that the Nazis set in Germany with the passage of the Nuremberg Race Laws.


The first example of this legislation was a bill enacted into law on January 1, 1937.  This bill placed limits on the practice of the kosher slaughtering of cattle by Orthodox Jews.  This bill, historian Emanuel Melzer points out, allowed the Polish government "to regulate the supply of cattle to kosher slaughterers, and jurisdictions in which Jews numbered less than three percent of the total population were to be permitted to outlaw kosher slaughtering altogether."[1]  This blatantly discriminatory bill struck directly at the heart of the religious practice of Poland's large number of Orthodox Jews.  It also had a devastating effect on the economic well being of tens of thousands of Jewish butchers, their families, and their suppliers.


From 1935 to 1939, the antisemitic feeling in Poland grew in intensity.  The impact of this development was to influence the adoption of measures by Polish professional organizations that excluded Jews.  Here are only a few examples[2]:

In August 1936, the Polish government ordered that all shops include the name of the owner on their business sign.  This order was tantamount to specifically marking Jewish-owned businesses.  Attacks on Jewish businesses surged after the marking order went into effect.

In May 1937, the membership of the Polish Medical Association adopted a paragraph into their professional charter excluding Jews from the medical profession.

Also in May 1937, the Polish Bar Association adopted a similar measure.  This was followed by official state action in May 1938 restricting the ability of Jewish lawyers to attain licenses to practice law.

In January 1938, the General Assembly of Journalists in the city of Wilno added a provision to its by-laws stating that anyone Jewish could not belong to their organization.

In April 1938, the Bank Polski, the Polish state's largest financial institution, adopted a provision excluding Jews.


The legislative actions of the Polish government described above were part of a broad program intended to reduce the number of Jews in Poland.  Indirect action, however, such as the banning of slaughtering practices and other anti Jewish legal provisions, represented the "benevolent" side of a far more nefarious policy of actively forcing Jewish emigration.  This policy of forced Jewish emigration was also linked to larger Polish "imperial" dreams.

Beginning in 1935, the Polish government initiated a policy to elevate Poland to an international position on par with the world's other great powers.  This policy, which was directed by Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck, had two dimensions to it.  The first was for Poland to establish a colonial presence in Africa.  The second was to use some of the African territory Poland hoped to acquire as a place to forcibly relocate its over three million Jews.  The territory Beck and others had in mind was the island of Madagascar.

The notion of creating a "Jewish colony" in Madagascar had its roots in the writings of the racist and antisemitic thinker Paul de Lagarde.  Lagarde had written in 1885 that Europe's Jews should be resettled on Madagascar.[5]  He chose Madagascar because it was an island.  As an antisemite, Lagarde believed that the only way to curb Jewish influence in the world was to isolate Jews geographically.

Five decades would pass before a European government seriously considered implementing Lagarde's proposed solution to the "Jewish problem".  In that time, Lagarde's proposal had become widely known in Europe, thanks largely to organizations like the Antisemitic Congress, which met in Vienna in 1921.  Polish antisemites were thus familiar with Lagarde's ideas and by the mid-1930s they had long desired to investigate the feasibility of a Jewish colony on Madagascar.  There was a problem, however.  Poland held no colonies in Africa and Madagascar was under French control.  The Polish government therefore campaigned in Britain and France and in the League of Nations for its right to ten-percent of former German colonial holdings in Africa.  The Poles claimed that as a successor state that had once belonged to the German Empire, they had a right to these territories.[6] Not surprisingly, Polish claims found little sympathy in either Britain or France, or among the member states of the League.

Their colonial ambitions thwarted, Polish officials turned to another strategy.  They decided to use the idea of creating a Jewish colony on Madagascar as a way of "opening the door" to further colonial acquisitions.[7]  The basis of Poland's hopes lay in comments that French Colonial Minister Marius Moutet had made in January 1937 concerning the possibility of sending France's Jews to many different locations  around the world, all of which were French colonial holdings, including the island of Madagascar.[8]

Within weeks of hearing Moutet's comments, the Polish government initiated negotiations with the French to explore the possibility of sending Polish Jews to Madagascar.  The French responded positively to the Poles and on 5 May 1937 a joint Polish-French Commission under the direction of Mieczyslaw B. Lepecki left Marseilles for Madagascar.  During the weeks that the Lepecki Commission was in Madagascar, it studied several regions on the island to determine how many people could viably live there.  The commission then returned to Europe and in October 1937 Lepecki published a 250 page report detailing his findings.[9]  Lepecki's report concluded that the Madagascar solution was not feasible.  Not only would the cost of transporting Jewish families be exorbitant (some 30,000 francs per family!), Lepecki concluded that the island could only support between 40,000 and 60,000 Polish-Jewish refugees.  Polish Jewry alone comprised over three million people.  Sending 60,000 Jews to Madagascar, therefore, would not solve the "Jewish problem" in Poland and it would bankrupt the state treasury.

The Polish "Madagascar Plan" was thus scrapped.  Following Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939, the SS revived the idea of sending Jews to Madagascar.  However, the impracticality of these plans due to the war brought them to a rapid end.  The Nazis instead implemented their own "final solution" to the Jewish problem and liquidated most of European Jewry in death camps they located in occupied Poland.


The infamous "Kristallnacht," "Crystal Night," or the "Night of Broken Glass" was a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938. It was carried out by SA paramilitary forces and German citizens.

However, the origins of Kristallnacht begin much earlier. It began with a campaign against the Jews organized by Poland. On March 12th, 1938, Austria was annexed to Germany. Poland feared that the 20,000 Austrian Jews with Polish citizenship would flee back into Poland. Thus, on March 31st of 1938, Poland passed a law that gave them the right to revoke the nationality of any citizen that had been living abroad for more than five years. Then on October 6th, Poland passed another law stating that all Polish passports would require a special note made by the Polish authorities after October 31st. The German government warned that they would expel their Polish-Jews if these policies were not reversed, but Poland would not change policy.

As a result, the German government presided over what was called the "Polenaktion", more than 12,000 Polish-born Jews were expelled from Germany on October 28th, 1938, on Hitler's orders. The deportees were taken from their homes to railway stations and were put on trains to the Polish border. Poland accepted 4,000 of the deportees, but barred the remaining 8,000 from entry (even though they tried to enter before Poland's deadline of October 31st). These 8,000 Poles were sent back over the river into Germany. This resulted in a stalemate where these 8,000 refugees were stuck between borders without food or shelter in the pouring rain. Conditions were so bad that some actually tried to escape back into Germany and were shot.

Among those expelled was the family of Sendel and Riva Grynszpan, Polish Jews who had emigrated to Germany in 1911 and settled in Hanover, Germany. Their son, Herschel, was living in Paris with an uncle. Herschel received a postcard from his family from the Polish border, describing the family's expulsion. He received the postcard on November 3rd, 1938. The Monday morning of November 7th, 1938, he purchased a revolver and a box of bullets. Then he went to the German embassy and asked to see an embassy official. He was taken to the office of Ernst vom Rath, and Herschel fired five bullets into the man's chest. Ironically, Ernst vom Rath was a man who expressed anti-Nazi sympathies based on the Nazi treatment of the Jews.

Ernst vom Rath died from his wounds on November 9th, 1938.

When word of the man's death reached Hitler, Hitler was celebrating the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch with an assembly of high-level officials in the Nazi Party. After intense discussions, Hitler left the assembly abruptly without giving his usual address. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels delivered the speech, in his place, and said that "the Führer has decided that... demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered." The chief party judge Walter Buch later stated that the message was clear; with these words Goebbels had commanded the party leaders to organize a pogrom.

Mobs of German citizens attacked their Jewish neighbors. 91 Jewish people were murdered. 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps. Jewish homes, hospitals, synagogues and schools were ransacked.

We can't say that Poland directly caused Kristallnacht all by itself, because this was something that happened in Germany under the watch of German authorities. What can be said, however, is that Poland's refusal to accept the return of its Polish-Jewish citizens was definitely an instigating factor.


The Poles are often called the first victim of World War II. But before they were invaded by Germany in 1939, it is forgotten that they assisted Hitler in invading Czechoslovakia in 1938. On September 29th, France, Britain, Germany, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement. It allowed Hitler to have the Sudetenland in exchange for him agreeing to "guarantee" Czechoslovakia's borders, but only after Poland and Hungary had taken their shares. So Poland took its piece of Czechoslovakia first. But Poland did not enjoy its spoils from Czechoslovakia very long. Less than a year later they got invaded and divided by Hitler and Stalin.


While Poland is praised for rescuing the largest number of Jews during World War II, historical research has found that a very large number of Jews were killed by their own Polish neighbors. Up to 225,000.

The discussion of how Jews were treated in Poland during the Interwar and World War II period is controversial. There is a tremendous sense of national pride in Poland today over the fact that so many poles rescued their Jewish neighbors from the Germans. The citizens of Poland have the world's highest count of individuals for saving Jews from extermination during the holocaust. These citizens are recognized by Yad Vashem (Israel's official memorial to the holocaust) as Righteous Among the Nations (Yad Vashem Statistics). While this is certainly a great honor, it must be remembered that Poland had the majority of Europe's Jews during the time (Ushmm).Three and half million Jews lived in Poland before World War II. The number of Polish Jews kept in hiding by non-Jewish Poles was around 450,000.

For decades, the Polish government has avoided any discussion of Polish anti-Semitism, blaming all the atrocities on the Germans. However, evidence has come to light that shows that the actions of Poles toward their Jewish neighbors may have been worse than previously thought.

A turning point came with the publication of a book, “Neighbors,” in 2000 by Polish-American sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross, which explored the murder of Jedwabne’s Jews by their Polish neighbors and resulted in widespread soul-searching and official state apologies.

Jedwabne is probably one of the most infamous examples of Polish atrocities against their Jewish neighbors. Jedwabne was a small village a few hours to the northeast of Warsaw, where several hundred Jews were herded into a barn and burned alive by a mob. (Poland in the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom)

Another Polish historian, Barbara Engelking, has sparked further controversy by presenting evidence about Polish villagers’ widespread killing of Jews fleeing Nazis during World War II.

Engelking, the founder and director of the Polish Center of Holocaust Research in Warsaw, said her decade-long research relied on diaries, documents and court files that gave voice not only to survivors but also victims. Engelking has stated that there were far less who aided Jews than those who betrayed them and that climate made the actions of the few all the more noble. In her book, “Such a Beautiful Sunny Day,” Engelking details dozens of cases of everyday Poles raping Jewish women and bludgeoning Jews to death with axes, shovels and rocks. The book, which came out in Polish, takes its title from the last words of a Jew pleading with peasants to spare his life before he was beaten and shot to death. (CBS News).

“The responsibility for the extermination of Jews in Europe is borne by Nazi Germany,” Engelking writes. “Polish peasants were volunteers in the sphere of murdering Jews.” (CBS News).

The noted Israeli Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, said the significance of Engelking’s findings was the enormity of the cruelty toward Jews. “It is something that we assumed but she proves,” he said. He said there were parallels to the way Jews were treated by the local population in other European countries like Lithuania, Bulgaria and Greece. But the large scope of the genocide in Poland — half of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust were Polish — made Engelking’s findings most pertinent. (CBS News).

Havi Dreifuss, a Tel Aviv University scholar and director of Yad Vashem’s center for research on the Holocaust in Poland, said Engelking’s research has shed new light on the last phase of the Holocaust, after Jews were packed into ghettos and sent to extermination camps, and how even those who had managed to survive still faced the wrath of their compatriots. She said estimates range between 160,000-250,000 Jews who escaped and sought help from fellow Poles. She said only about 10-20 percent of those survived, with the rest rejected, informed upon or killed by the rural Poles themselves. So this means that up to 225,000 Jews may have been killed by their fellow Poles, and not the Germans. (CBS News).

In the book, Poland in the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom, one Jewish survivor recounts his own experience:

Caught between the Germans and the Poles as if in a nutcracker, it followed that sooner or later, we would all be crushed .... Our group that once numbered 125 was now reduced to six. Most had been killed, not by our sworn enemies, the Germans, but by the treacherous Poles, among whom we had lived for centuries .... Clearly, the AK [the Polish home army] was intent on completing what the Germans had started.

Such accounts certainly do not discount the heroism of the Poles who did rescue their Jewish neighbors. But this information is important to research in order to get the complete picture of anti-Semitism in Poland before and during World War II.


On February 6th, 2018, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a controversial new bill. The law, proposed by the country's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) makes it illegal to accuse the nation of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust. It also bans terms like "Polish death camps" in relation to Auschwitz and other similar camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Violations will be punished by a fine or a jail sentence of up to three years.

This legislation is a dangerous attempt to rewrite history, especially considering the gruesome events that occured in Poland, both at the hands of the Nazis, and the Poles themselves. A nation cannot recover and move forward from their past if they are forbidden from having an open and honest debate.

Poland’s new Holocaust law is just the latest attempt to officially redefine its history (The Washington Post, 2-3-18)

Yes, some Poles were Nazi collaborators. The Polish Parliament is trying to legislate that away (The Washington Post, 2-2-18)






Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust (by Jeffrey S. Kopstein and Jason Wittenberg)

Neighbors (by Jan Gross)     

Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland | Kindle Edition (by Jan Gabrowski)     

Poland in the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom (by Brian Porter)

Books by Engelking

Such a Beautiful Sunny Day

Holocaust and Memory   

The Warsaw Ghetto


Online Reading:

Jewish Virtual Library: The Attitudes of Poles Towards the Jews


Antisemitism in Imperial Russia

Much of the roots of anti-Semitism in Poland go back to Imperial Russia's presence in Poland. In the Middle Ages, the kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania were more accepting of Jews than their Western neighbors. As a result, a large number of Jews flocked to these kingdoms. But when the Russian Tsars pushed westward, conquering territory from Poland, Estonia and Lithuania, the Tsars began to turn their attention toward the Jews, who they considered the enemies of Christ. Many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or killed. Persecution against the Polish Jews continued into the 19th century, where Russian authorities periodically encouraged pogroms against the Jews.

[1] Emanuel Melzer, No Way Out: The Politics of Polish Jewry, 1935-1939 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1965), p. 90

[2] These examples taken from Melzer, No Way Out, pp. 90ff; Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919-1939 (New York: Mouton Publishers, 1983), Chapters 19 and 30; Harry M. Rabinowicz, The Legacy of Polish Jewry: A History of Polish Jews in the Inter-War Years, 1919-1939 (New York: T. Yoseloff, 1965), pp. 179-194; Jerzy Tomaszewski, "The Civil Rights of Jews in Poland, 1918-1939," in Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 8 (London: Littmann, 1994), pp. 115-127; Anthony Read and David Fisher, Kristallnacht: The Nazi Night of Terror (New York: Times Books, 1989), p. 43.

[3] Melzer, No Way Out, p. 91

[4] See Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1939 (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) and/or Michael Wildt (Hg.), Die Judenpolitik des SD 1935 bis 1938: Eine Dokumentation (München: Oldenbourg, 1995) for more detailed information on this subject.

[5] Paul de Lagarde, "Über die nächsten Pflichten deutscher Politik," reprinted in Schriften für Deutschland (Stuttgart: Kroener, 1933).

[6] Archives Diplomatiques/Ministères des Affaires Etrangeres, K-Afrique 91, 45-48.

[7] Magnus Brechtken, "Madagaskar für die Juden": antisemitische Idee und politische Praxis, 1885-1945 (München: Oldenbourg, 1997), p. 288.

[8] Ibid.

[9] "Raport Dyr. Mieczyslaw Lepeckiego z Podrozy na Madagaskar" (Warszawa, 1937).  A version of this report from 1938 is available at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  Call number D285.8.B4 L4