Tag Archives: Holocaust

Treblinka: Inside Hitler’s Secret Death Camp – Channel 5

Channel 5 broadcast a TV documentary titled Treblinka: Inside Hitler’s Secret Death Camp in the UK on Wednesday 27 November 2013. It is available from the 5 On Demand catch up service until 22:30 UK time on 27 November 2014. I am not certain if there are any geographical restrictions, but I would be surprised if it works outside the UK. Channel 5 documentaries are often subsequently shown globally on the History or Discovery channels.

Channel 5’s website describes the programme as follows:

This revealing documentary follows a team of British archaeologists who have been granted unprecedented access to excavate and investigate one of Hitler’s most notorious extermination camps, 50 years after it was dismantled.

Between 1942 and 1943, the Nazis murdered more than 800,000 people at Treblinka in north east Poland, brutally exploiting many more as slave labour. Today no visible traces of those atrocities remain. The Nazis dismantled the camp in 1943 in an attempt to conceal what had happened there.

In the summer of 2013, British archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls led a team that carried out the first ever comprehensive forensic investigation of the camp’s remains. Her goal was to piece together the grim mechanics of industrialised slaughter that were used there, using a combination of forensic detective work, aerial surveys and, for the first time, archaeological digs.

This film follows Caroline and the team as they get to work at Treblinka, uncovering the location and remains of the camp and detailing its key structures, including the processing rooms, gas chambers and burial pits. Drawing on testimony from one of the last survivors of the camp and newly-discovered documentary sources, the programme provides a new, visceral and compelling narrative of one of the darkest chapters in human history.

Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls is a forensic archaeologist who works with the police on murder and missing persons cases. She has spent six years using the skills that this work has taught her to carry out forensic archaeology on the site of mass murders.

There were two camps at Treblinka. Treblinka 1 was a labour camp that was set up in 1941 for Polish Gentile and Jewish prisoners. About 20,000 died by starvation, torture and execution.

Treblinka 2 was set up in 1942 purely to murder people. A handful of prisoners were used to operate the camp, but most were killed soon after arrival. Almost all the victims were Jewish, but some were Roma, a point that the programme did not mention.

The Germans destroyed the camp in 1943, planting trees on its site. This means that the exact layout of the camp is not known. Survivors and former guards have produced plans, but these have been drawn from memory years after the event, so are not identical.

The use of airborne lidar produces images with the vegetation stripped away, revealing features in the ground that are otherwise hard to spot . These can then be archaeologically investigated to see if they are sites of historic significance.

Lidar revealed a number of depressions that may be unknown mass graves near Treblinka 1. No physical evidence of the gas chambers of Treblinka 2 has ever been discovered, but lidar revealed possible sites.

Investigation of the possible mass graves at Treblinka 1 discovered human bones, including those of children. A survivor, who had been sent there in 1942 when he was 15, recounted the brutality of the guards. On one occasion they chopped up a prisoner with axes whilst he was still alive. The injuries that he would have received were consistent with wounds on one of the bones found.

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, put Odilo Globocnik, an Austrian Nazi who commanded the Police and SS units in Lublin, in charge of  Aktion Reinhard, the murder of the Jews of occupied Poland. Globocnik was ordered to build three death camps at Belzec, Treblinka and  Sobibor, transport the Jews to them, seize their assets and valuables for the Reich and kill them in 18 months.

Colls was keen to find the site of the gas chambers at Treblinka. She visited Majdanek, a German concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, in order to inspect its gas chambers. She wanted to know what types of building materials were used to build it in order to help her know what to look for at Treblinka.

The archaeologists faced an enormous challenge because of the efficiency of the clean up. No buildings and only a small number of witnesses survived. The first account was by Vasily Grossman, who pieced together a number of accounts just after Treblinka was liberated by the Red Army in 1944. He wrote that flames from the grill pits used to burn the corpses of the dead were visible from 30-40km away. Local peasants were forced to scatter the ashes along the road to Treblinka 1.

Fragments of cremated human bones are still present on the surface. Colls took advice from the Chief Rabbi of Israel about the treatment of remains. He advised that bones should be buried, and that excavation should stop if a mass grave is found.

The second commandant of Treblinka was Franz Stangl, another Austrian Nazi. Like many of the personnel at the Aktion Reinhard death camps, he had previously worked in the T4 Euthanasia programme, the murder of mentally and physically disabled people by the Nazi regime. The methods used in it, including using carbon monoxide to gas the victims and the methods of disposing of the corpses were repeated on a much greater scale in Aktion Reinhard.

When Stangl arrived at Treblinka he encountered corpses from 15 to 20 minutes drive away. He attempted to replace a chaotic system with production line efficiency, but it remained savage.

Colls was curious to know how much the victims knew of what awaited them. The problem was that what happened was so far beyond what could be imagined. The Jews arrived at Treblinka exhausted, dehydrated and with no idea of where they were.

She visited Warsaw, where she met a historian and a woman who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto. She was aged six in 1942, when the Germans murdered her father. She and her mother escaped the Ghetto before deportations to Treblinka began in July 1942.

Around 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw in 1939, a third of the city’s population. Deportations from surrounding areas took the Ghetto’s population to over 400,000, who were crammed into a small area. Starvation and disease were rife, with about 83,000 Jews dying between 1940, when the Ghetto was sealed, and July 1942. At least 300,000 more were killed at Treblinka.

There is limited, but clear, eye-witness evidence of the gassing process. Accounts from the war crimes trial of Willi Mentz, an SS NCO, testimony of Pavel Leleko, a Ukrainian Guard, the memoirs of Franciszeck Zabecki, the local station master, and a report by Abraham Krzepicki, one of the few Jews to see the gas chambers and live, were read out. The programme spelt Krzepicki’s name as Zrzepicki, but all other sources spell his name with a K. He escaped and recounted his experiences, but did not survive the war.

Samuel Willenberg, the only person from the 6,000 on his train from Opatow to Treblinka to survive, was interviewed. He met a friend on arrival, who told him what was happening at the camp, and warned him to tell the Germans that he had a trade, so that he might be selected for slave labour.

There were two sets of gas chambers, and the lidar evidence suggested their possible locations. Excavations at the larger one produced sand and stones but no building materials. It appeared that the 1943 cover up had buried it, and that the ground level was now much higher than in 1943.

Colls, however, was convinced by her experience working with the police that was not possible to hide all clues at crime scene this large. Digging then began at the possible site of smaller gas chamber, which was the first to be built. It had also  been buried underneath sand, but not as much sand had been used in this case. Items such as combs, coins, pendants, jewellery and false teeth were found.

Krzepicki wrote that the gas chambers looked like the shower rooms of  a public bath house with white tiles on walls and terracotta ones on the floor. White and terracotta tiles with stars of David on them were found at the suspected site of the second gas chamber, along with bricks and concrete. The Germans are known to have put a Star of David on the outside of the gas chamber as part of their attempt to disguise it as a bath house, so may well have continued this deception inside.

Less than 80 of the 1.6m Jews sent to the Aktion Reinhard camps survived. At the better known Auschwitz a higher proportion of the Jews were selected for slave labour, but almost all died the day they arrived at the Aktion Reinhard ones. The programme ended with the burial of the bones that were found, the first time that the remains of Treblinka victims have had a proper interment. More archaeology work is planned in 2014.

Unfortunately the programme did not put the names of people interviewed on the screen, and I would not like to guess at spelling a Polish name that I have only heard spoken, so I have not been able to name some of the interviewees. The names of now deceased survivors or guards whose recollections were read out were put on-screen, and I recognised Samuel Willenberg from previous TV documentaries on Treblinka.

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Spying on Hitler’s Army – Channel 4

Channel 4, the British TV channel, recently broadcast a drama-documentary titled Spying on Hitler’s Army: The Secret Recordings. It showed how the UK obtained intelligence from German PoWs by secretly recording their conversations. The initial interrogations of prisoners decided which ones could be useful sources of intelligence. They were then sent to one of three stately homes, where they lived in comfortable conditions, not knowing that their conversations were being recorded.

The programme focused on Trent Park, just to the north of London, where the inmates (or guests as the British called them) included seven generals; Wilhelm von Thoma, Ludwig Crüwell, Johannes Bruhn, Heinrich Kittel, Paul von Felbert and Dietrich von Choltitz. They were kept in a relaxed atmosphere, even being allowed day trips to London. Their chief captor, who they believed to be Lord Aberfeldy, a distant relative of the Royal Family, acted more like a host to his host guests.

Aberfeldy was actually Ian Monroe, an officer in MI19, the part of British intelligence responsible for obtaining information from enemy prisoners. He asked encouraged his ‘guests’ to speak by asking them leading questions. Even the grounds of Trent Park were bugged; Monroe made certain that he asked his leading questions when near enough to a microphone for it to pick up the reply.

Many of the people who transcribed and translated the prisoners’ comments were German Jewish refugees who had joined the British Army. One of them, Fritz Lustig, was interviewed in the programme. He gave an interview to BBC Radio’s Witness programme late last year; it is available online, apparently without time or geographical restrictions.

At the end of the war the recordings were destroyed and transcripts of the conversations locked away. The transcripts were declassified a few years ago, and are in now available in the UK National Archives. They were discovered there by chance by Prof. Sönke Neitzel, now of the LSE, when he was researching U-boat crewman. He and several other historians appeared in the programme: Helen Fry, author of The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis, Joshua Levine and Col. Kevin Farrell. It also featured Prof. Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist who commented on how an ordinary person could become a genocidal murderer.

The programme showed reconstructions of conversations between the German PoWs, interspersed with archive footage and comments by the historians. The actors spoke English, but the dialogue was an accurate translation of what the prisoners actually said.

Much of the programme dealt with the conflict between von Thoma, a patriot but an anti-Nazi, and Crüwell, a Nazi. The other main focus was on war crimes. The transcripts showed that the German Army, not just the SS, had participated in the Holocaust. General von Felbert, who had been sentenced to death by Hitler because he allegedly surrendered too easily, was disgusted by war crimes. General Kittel, however, complained to the SS about mass executions of Jews, but only because they were being carried out in public and the location of the mass graves might lead to his troops’ drinking water being contaminated.

The transcripts gave useful military intelligence as well as information on atrocities. Von Thoma told Crüwell of the existence of the V2 rocket and the importance of the Peenemunde research facility, which was subsequently bombed by the RAF.

Not only officers had their conversations recorded. A private called Pffanberger talked about the terrible conditions and high death rate in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He had been an inmate there for seven years because he was suspected of being a communist, until manpower shortages led to him being conscripted into the army.

None of the information used was used in war crimes trials. The British decided that they did not want to give away an intelligence technique that had proved to be very useful in the war, so might be needed again

A very well made and interesting programme, although perhaps not as new a story as the makers seemed to believe, given that Prof. Neitzel’s book on the subject, Soldaten, was published in English early last year and in German in 2011. I did laugh at one point when the German generals, in captivity, berated the other German generals who had just surrendered to the Red Army at Stalingrad.

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Voices from the Ghetto – BBC World Service

The BBC World Service recently broadcast a radio programme called Voices from the Ghetto. It is available to listen to from this link. It is shown as being available for over a year and I do not think that there are any geographic restrictions on listening to radio programmes from the BBC website.

It tells the story of an archive of documents that was buried under the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II by an organisation called Oneg Shabbat (Joy of the Sabbath). The original idea came from Emanuel Ringelblum, a teacher and left wing political activist, who wanted to record what was happening to the 500,000 Jews in the Ghetto.

The OS collected diaries, poems, songs, reports, surveys, posters, paintings, sketches, maps, tram tickets and even sweet wrappings. It was intended to be both a chronicle and a warning.

The programme was narrated by Monica Whitlock and used the OS archive to tell the story of the Ghetto. Modern actors and singers read from its documents and sang songs collected by OS. One of the few survivors of the Ghetto, Janina Davidowicz, described her experiences. She now lives in Britain and writes under the name Janina David.  A previous BBC World Service radio programme in its Witness series gave a longer account of her experiences in the Ghetto.

Ringelblum built up a network of reporters and typists from his political connections and trusted friends. Everything was recorded in triplicate. For security reasons, nobody knew everything; there was what the programme said would now be called an information firewall.

There was believed to be a need to record events as they happened. The hope was to record every facet of Jewish life in the Ghetto. The situation of Warsaw’s Jews was dire from the start, even though nobody could predict how it would end; in 1940-41 most expected to survive the war.

Warsaw was bombed in the first month of the war, September 1939. More civilians were killed in Poland that month than have died in 8 years of war in 21st century Iraq.

Warsaw was called the Paris of the east; a third of its population were Jews. The Germans divided it into three parts; German, Polish and Jewish. Many Poles and Jews therefore had to re-locate. Jews from other parts of Poland were sent to Warsaw, meaning that the already over-crowded Ghetto contained 50% more Jews than had lived in the city before the war.

Disease and starvation were rife in the Ghetto, which survived only thanks to smuggling; you could not exist on the official rations. Children were good smugglers because they could get through small gaps, but were in great danger. Large numbers were shot by the Germans, but the smuggling continued.

Many people tried to survive by selling goods. Some ended up clad only in blankets in the style of Ghandi. Beggars were stripped of their clothes after they died. Janina Davidowicz said that people had to learn to step over the corpses.

There were some telephones in the Ghetto. OS recorded Wladyslaw Szlengel’s poem Telephone, which was about an inhabitant of the Ghetto who had a telephone, but nobody to ring except the Speaking Clock.

The Germans allowed Poles only primary schools and completely banned education for Jews. The penalty for educating Jewish children was death for the teachers, parents and children. Despite this, secret schools were established; there was believed to be a need to educate children for after the war.

There were restaurants, night clubs and orchestras for those who had money. Some events were held at the Femina Theatre; the Femina Cinema in modern Warsaw is on the same site.  Janina Davidowicz related that she attended a charity performance to raise funds for the orphanage run by Janusz Korczak.

OS received reports of the slaughter of Jews elsewhere, which it sent to London and New York via the Polish Underground. Its funds were tiny and it was left with a dilemma. Should it save the most talented? Or buy guns? What was point in collecting pieces of paper if everybody was to die? Some consoled themselves with the thought that the Germans could kill thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands but surely not 500,000?

The Jewish Symphony Orchestra rehearsed Beethoven’s ninth symphony with The Ode to Joy translated to Hebrew. It had no French horns, oboes or bassoons, so used saxophones. There was no paper for scores, so the musicians played from memory. The Germans suspended it in April 1942 because it had played Aryan music, but it continued to rehearse.

OS regarded 26 June 1942 as a great day because the BBC broadcast its reports of the fate of Polish Jewry, showing that its work not had not been in vain.

However, the deportations to the Treblinka death camp began on 22 July. At first people packed bags believing/hoping that they were going to a better life in work camps. OS documents for this period read out in the programme recorded the weather and the numbers deported in a matter of fact manner.

By the end of the deportations on 24 September there had been a depopulation unknown even in plagues. OS recorded that 253,742 Jews had been deported in 46 days. Others had earlier died of disease or starvation or had been killed by the Germans.

Those left in the Ghetto measured their life expectancy in weeks rather than months. Weapons were smuggled in and holes were knocked in walls and cellars, giving the Jews the ability to move between houses without going into the street. The month long Ghetto Uprising ended in mid-May 1943; the Ghetto was then destroyed.

In order to preserve OS’s record, Ringelblum had thousands of documents packed into 10 tin boxes and buried in August 1942. Other caches were buried later. He still looked for writers to record the end of European Jewry. Scraps of notebooks thrown from trains and reports from escapees from Treblinka were gathered and sent to London and New York by the Polish Underground.

Ringelblum, his wife and son were caught and shot in March 1944. Janina Davidowicz was smuggled to out of the Ghetto. Her father died in Majdanek. He was offered the chance to escape but too said he was too weak to do so. He asked one of the escapees to take a message to Janina, which he did after the war.

Most of the menbers of OS died at Treblinka.  There were three survivors; the journalist Rachel Auerbach, Bluma Wasser, a typist, and her husband Hersch, who had jumped from a train to Treblinka.

In 1946 they found 10 grimy metal boxes, containing part of the archive. In 1950 workmen building a housing estate discovered 2 milk churns full of documents. The two finds totalled 35,000 documents and artifacts. The third and largest cache has never been discovered. It is thought to have been buried near where the Chinese Embassy now stands. In 2003 a team dug down into its  garden, but they found only burnt scraps of a diary.

See also:

Kassow, Samuel, Who will Write our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (London: Penguin, 2009. Originally published by Indiana University Press, 2007).

Note that the name of the body that gathered these documents is given as Oneg Shabbat, Oyneg Shabbes, Oyneg Shabes and Oyneg Shabbos by the various sources used in this post. The archive is often now called the Ringelblum Archive. The originals belong to the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has digital copies.

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The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in World War II – Halik Kochanski

On 23 January 2013 I attended a talk given by Dr Halik Kochanski at the National Army Museum in London on her book The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War. It was part of a regular series of talks that are held at the NAM on Thursday lunchtimes.

She argued that this is the first book published since the fall of Communism to cover the full story of Poland in World War II. Previous works have concentrated on Poles in the Battles of Britain and Monte Cassino, the Holocaust and the Warsaw Uprising.

Poland had a population of 32 million in 1939, which was made up of 22 million Poles, 4.5 million Ukrainians, 3 million Jews, 1 million Belarusians, 0.75 million Germans and 0.75 million people described as ‘locals.’ A total of 6 million of them were killed in the war, only 10% in military actions. The dead included 90% of the Jews. Five million of the pre-war population were outside the altered post-war borders of Poland at the end of the war.

Poland was in a hopeless position in 1939, with only 1 million troops to defend itself against a German attack from three sides. The Polish plan was to defend and withdraw slowly, launching a counter-attack once the Western Allies had drawn off the Germans.

This plan failed because of the speed of the German Blitzkrieg and because the British and French did little: they were preparing for a long war.

It is a myth that the Polish cavalry charged tanks. There was an action where Polish cavalry successfully charged German infantry but were then surprised by German armour.

It is also untrue that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the first day. It managed to disperse and continued to fight.

The Poles had few tanks, but the 10th Cavalry (Mechanised) Brigade, the only Polish armoured unit, put up a good fight. Its commander, General Stanislaw Maczek, later commanded the Polish 1st Armoured Division, which fought in Normandy in 1944 and captured the German naval base of Wilhelmshaven in 1945.

The Poles had few forces left in the East to defend when the USSR invaded on 17 September.

The Polish government and high command left the country for Romania and ordered the army to follow. About 85,000 troops escaped to Romania. Most of the government were interned, but 40,000 troops and some politicians escaped to France. 19,000 soldiers made it to Britain in 1939.

Polish military casualties in 1939 were 200,000, a third of them dead and the rest wounded. The Germans took 640,000 prisoners. The officers remained PoWs for the duration of the war, but the other ranks were employed as forced labourers. The Soviets took 240,000 prisoners.

The German policy was to make Poland into an intellectual desert, with a pool of labour that would receive only a very basic education. They killed or imprisoned many intellectuals and priests.

The main difference in the part of Poland occupied by the USSR in 1939 was that education continued, albeit in Belarussian or Ukrainian and with a big political content. They imprisoned 10% of the population, targetting anybody who had been active in the Polish state, whether as a politician or a government employee. They murdered 15,ooo Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere.

A single resistance body, initially called the ZWZ (Union for Armed Struggle in English) and later the AK (Home Army), was established. An underground government of all political parties was set up. Attempts to extend the network to the Soviet occupied area were made but ran into the problem that the NKVD was more efficient than the Gestapo.

The Germans annexed part of Poland, establishing the General-Government in the rest of their occupation zone. Poles were expelled from the annexed territories to the General-Government; Jews went  to the Lodz Ghetto, which was inside the annexed area. The Poles took revenge by expelling Germans from Poland in 1945. Poland then lost the territory taken by the USSR in 1939, but was compensated with parts of eastern Germany.

There was some collaboration with the Germans at a low-level but none at a political level. Some Poles obtained jobs with the local administration as this protected them from being deported for slave labour. Others were conscripted into the German army and deserted as soon as they could in order to join the Allies.

The Soviets deported a million Poles to the east. Victims were selected for political reasons. Both the Soviets and the Germans gave deportees little notice. Poles expelled by the Germans were given little time to pack, and were sometimes expected to leave their homes clean and tidy for their new German occupants.

After the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941 Poland and the USSR signed an agreement. The 1939 territorial changes were annulled and diplomatic relations restored. Poles deported to the USSR were given an amnesty, although they had committed no crimes, and a Polish army was established on Soviet soil.

Poles made their way from labour camps and collective farms to the new Polish army. Most were in poor health, and many died along the way. There was a shortage of officers because many had been murdered by the NKVD. The army was eventually evacuated to Iran, where it was supplied by the British. Many civilians accompanied it; they were sent to various parts of the British Commonwealth or to Mexico.

In 1942 the Germans proposed deporting 30 million Slavs, including 85% of Poles, east. The rest of the Poles would be Germanised. 200,000 blue-eyed, blond children were taken from their families and sent to Germany and Austria. Only about 20% returned home after the war. This great tragedy was overshadowed by the even greater tragedy of the Holocaust.

The first of 400 ghettos was set up in October 1939, and mass shootings began when the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941. These did not reduce the Jewish populations quickly enough, so the death camps were set up. Most Polish Jews died in the four purpose built camps of Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka.

The vast majority of those sent to these camps were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival, with only a small number of Jews being kept temporarily alive in order to provide the slave labour to operate the gas chambers and burn the corpses. Only 110 Jews survived these camps. Auschwitz and Majdanek were combinations of concentration and death camps, where a higher proportion of Jews were initially selected for slave labour rather than immediate death, and not all the inmates were Jews.

The systematic murder of the Polish Jews began in mid 1942 and was largely over by the end of 1943. By then, the only Jews left in Poland were either slave labourers, including the inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto, or in hiding.

It was difficult for Polish Jews to find help in escaping, as 80% of them were unassimilated, and Poland was the only occupied country where the penalty for helping Jews was death. Despite this, Zegota in Poland was the only government sponsored scheme to help Jews in occupied Europe.

It took 100 helpers to save one Jew, whilst one collaborator could betray a 100 Jews. The people named as The Righteous Amongst the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel include over 6,000 Poles, but far more helped Jews. A few Jews collaborated; one of their tactics was to speak Yiddish in public in order to trick Jews into revealing themselves.

Jews resisted, including breaking out into forests and revolts in the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps and the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Polish government-in-exile in London commanded two corps and the AK. The Poles made a major contribution to the war in the air, most famously in the Battle of Britain, where 303 Squadron shot down more enemy aircraft than any other fighter squadron.

The 1 Corps included the afore-mentioned 1st Armoured Division and a parachute brigade. The latter unit was originally earmarked for operations in Poland, but was sent to Arnhem. Its commander, General Stanislaw Sosabowski, was unfairly criticised by General Frederick Browning, the commander of the 1st British Airborne Corps, after the operation failed. Sosabowski was later praised in the memoirs of General Robert Urquhart, commander of the 1st Airborne Division.

The 2 Corps, commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders, was made up of the men who had been captured by the USSR in 1939 and then moved to the Middle East. It fought in Italy, including at Monte Cassino. Most of its members came from the eastern parts of Poland, which were annexed by the USSR in 1945. Few of them returned to Poland after the war.

Poles made a major contribution to Allied intelligence, including the first success in breaking the Enigma code. The Germans knew that an early version of it had been cracked, and tortured four captured Polish code-breakers in order to discover if the current code had been broken. It had, but the Poles insisted, even under torture, that it had not. The Poles also provided intelligence on the German scientific research site at Peenemunde, the V2 rocket and the German plan to invade the USSR in 1941.

Poland broke off diplomatic relations with the USSR after the bodies of the Poles murdered at Katyn were discovered. It had little say in the decision taken by the Big Three of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Stalin wanted eastern Poland, but was prepared to give Poland some German territory in return.

The Soviets formed the 1st Polish Army in 1943 from Polish PoWs who had not moved to the Middle East and Soviet officers. It was commanded by General Zygmunt Berling, a Polish officer who had refused to follow Anders to the Middle East. Its first battle at Lenino took place in October 1943, before Anders’s 2 Corps had been in action in the Middle East.

The AK had 400,000 members. A general uprising, called Operation Tempest, was planned in order to liberate Polish territory ahead of the advancing Red Army. The AK liberated Vilna and Lvov, but its members were conscripted into the Red Army when it arrived.

In 1943 a political body called the ZPP (Union of Polish Patriots) was formed in the USSR. It was dominated by Communists. In July 1944 the PKWN (Polish Committee of National Liberation) was established as a rival administration to the Polish government-in-exile in London. It was based in Lublin from 1 August, so was known as the Lublin Committee.

Also on 1 August, General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski (Bor was his code-name and Komorowski his surname), the leader of the AK, launched the Warsaw Uprising. He thought that the Red Army was about to enter the city.

There were 50,000 members of the AK in Warsaw, but only 10% were armed. The German responded brutally to the uprising; 40,000 civilians were killed in one day. Stalin refused to give support to the AK. Only one US air supply mission was allowed to land on Soviet territory; other Allied air missions suffered heavy casualties and only 50% of the supplies dropped reached the AK.

The 1st Polish Army was ordered not to the cross the Vistula and join in the fighting. It made an attempt to do so in September, which resulted in Berling being removed from command.

Fighting ended on 2 October; most of the AK survivors were treated as PoWs, but the Germans destroyed Warsaw. The Red Army did not enter it until 17 January 1945.

A government recognised by the UK, USSR and USA was formed in 1945; it included representatives of the government-in-exile. Elections in 1947 were rigged, and the government-in-exile continued to exist in London until 1990. A referendum was held in 1946, with three questions. The official results showed majorities in favour of all three. However, in Krakow, where the elections were fair, around 85% supported the recommendation of the main anti-Communist party, the Polish People’s Party, and opposed the first question.

Dr Kochanski concluded by saying that Poland was the only Allied country to lose World War II.

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Prisoner Number A26188 – Henia Bryer: BBC TV

A documentary titled Prisoner Number A26188 – Henia Bryer was shown on BBC1 on Sunday 27 January 2012. It told the story of Henia Bryer, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust and now lives in Cape Town, South Africa. It was made by her niece Lisa Bryer, who was one of the producers of The Last King of Scotland. A26188 was the number tattooed on Henia’s arm in Auschwitz; she refused to have it removed after the war.

Most of the 45 minutes programme consisted of Henia speaking to camera, interspersed with still photographs of the Holocaust. The only archive film was the British one about the liberation of Belsen, which was narrated by Richard Dimbleby. Henia’s husband, two sons and grandson also spoke.

In 1939 Henia lived in Radom in Poland with her parents, an older brother, a younger brother and a sister who was the youngest of the four children. The older brother was physically, but not mentally, disabled as a result of problems with his birth. Henia’s father owned a shoe factory, so the family had a comfortable life before the war.

The Germans entered Radom on 9 September 1939, eight days after they invaded Poland. They immediately installed loudspeakers, which spewed out hate propaganda, leaving nobody with any doubts about their attitude towards the Jews.

The Jews had to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David on them. Some people were puzzled to see Henia wearing one, as she was fair haired and did not conform to the Nazi stereotype of the Jew.

Henia’s family were initially able to survive because her father had a store of gold coins. He was forced to continue working, but was no longer paid.

In 1941 the Radom Ghetto was established, with about 30,000 inhabitants. There were actually two ghettos; Henia and her family lived in the larger of the two, where there were 10 people to a room. Her younger brother was taken away to work in an armament factory. He survived, but never told her about his experiences.

In 1942 20,000 of the people in the Ghetto were shot or sent to death camps.

Henia had a lucky escape when she was suffering from an abscess. There were no dentists, so she was to go to the hospital to have it lanced. It burst on the day that she was due to go, so she stayed at home. Everybody at the hospital was killed that day.

Her older brother was not so lucky. Because of his disability he had to go to the hospital, which he knew meant his death. Henias said that:

He knew exactly what was happening… he took off his winter coat and he gave it to my mother and he said: ‘Give it to someone who will need it. I won’t need it any more’. And she came home with a coat.

In March 1944 the ghetto was closed and the last 300 Jews were loaded onto cattle trucks, with no ventilation, toilets, water or light, and taken to the Majdanek concentration camp. There, they were stripped and given thin, striped uniforms. The women were separated from the men. This was Henia’s first encounter with female SS guards; she commented that they were even crueller than the SS men.

After 6 weeks she was sent to Plaszow, which she said was well portrayed in the film Schindler’s List. Most of its inmates came from Krakow. She was employed as one of a team of 10 women who had to push wagons loaded with stones along rails from a quarry. The camp did not have a crematorium, so the bodies of the victims of hangings, shootings and disease were burnt on a nearby hill, with the ashes flying over the camp.

Henia’s younger sister was taken away with many other children. Loud music was played in the camp as the children were sent to their deaths.

The Jews were allowed to rest on Sundays. The Germans would surround a barrack, and take its inmates away to donate blood to be given to wounded German soldiers. The amount of blood that was taken and the poor diet meant that those forced to donate would not survive long. When Henia’s barracks was chosen there appeared to be no escape. She stayed in her bunk and managed to convince an SS man that she had typhus, so was not taken away.

Her father was beaten to death by a Kapo, one of the prisoners who oversaw other inmates in return for better conditions.

In October 1944 Henia was sent to Auschwitz, where she encountered her mother and her best friend. Like all Jews arriving at Auschwitz, she had to undergo a selection for slave labour of death. It was conducted  by Josef Mengele, who sent her for slave labour.

As at Majdanek, she was stripped and then issued with clothes. In this case, they were civilian ones, but they were too smal for her. Expecting to die because of the intense cold, she started crying. She heard somebody calling her name, but could not see him through her tears. The voice told her to approach a nearby fence. On the other side was one of her father’s former employees. He worked in the part of the camp that sorted out the possessions of the dead, and he provided her with warm clothes that fitted.

Henia met two identical twins from Radom, who were being used for Mengele’s human experiments. she said that they were lucky to be warm in the experimental block, whilst she was cold, hungry and carrying out hard labour. They told her not to envy them.

She was evacuated from Auschwitz just before the Red Army arrived, and took part in a death march. Many prisoners were shot because they could not keep up; their corpses were all along both sides of the road. She ended up at Bergen-Belsen.

Henia had seen people dying and being shot, hanged, punished and tortured, but Belsen was the biggest shock. She had never seen anything like the huge mountain of corpses, which were partly decomposing. She said that ‘even by the standards of Auschwitz, this was the pits.’

She caught typhus at Belsen, where people just sat around waiting to die. 13,000 prisoners, including the only friend that she had in the camp, died even after if was liberated by the British. There were not enough doctors, and many inmates could not cope with the better food that they were now given.

Some survivors from Radom were in Stuttgart, so Henia went there and met her mother. It was difficult to re-build their lives, and they had not psychiatric help. They stayed with an uncle in Paris for two years, before using false passports to go to Palestine in 1947 on a Greek ship.

They found Henia’s brother in Israel. He and she both served in the army. They underwent a healing process in Israel, but had a rule that they did not talk about the camps at home, so Henia does not know how her brother and mother survived. She met Maurice, her South African husband in 1952, and moved first to Bloemfontein and later to Cape Town.

For UK viewers, the programme is available on the I-Player until Saturday 2 February. It was made by an independent production company, which will no doubt have sold it to other countries.

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In Darkness – Holocaust Film

In Darkness is a Polish film, directed by Agnieszka Holland,  which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011. The dialogue is a mixture of Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian. The English subtitles were clear, helped by the background generally being very dark.

The film is set during the Holocaust in World War II. A number of Jews attempt to escape into the sewers of Lvov in Poland (now L’viv in Ukraine) when the Germans liquidate the Ghetto. Some of them are helped by Leopold Socha, a sewer inspector and former petty criminal.  He is excellently played by Robert Wieckiewicz.

In Darkness is very atmospheric, re-creating both the cramped, dark and unhealthy conditions in which the Jews have to live and the initial level of distrust between Socha and the Jews; at first he appears to aid them only because they pay him to do so, whilst some of them distrust Poles and/or look down on him because he is uneducated.  It shows that Socha risked the lives of himself, his wife Wanda and their daughter by helping the Jews, but that Poles were also executed in reprisal for acts of resistance that they had nothing to do with.

The film is based on a book by Robert Marshall called In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust. One of the Jews, Krystyna Chiger, then a small child, wrote a memoir called The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow.

SPOILER ALERT! The links in the next two paragraphs reveal more about the story than some may wish to know before seeing the film.

Socha was helped by Stefan Wroblewski, another sewer worker. Both men and their wives were later recognised by Yad Vashem as being amongst the Righteous of the Nations for their roles in saving Jews during the Holocaust. As with most films about true events, it claims to be ‘based on true events’ and has a degree of fictionalisation and character amalgamation.

This article from the Los Angeles Times is by David Lee Preston; his mother, Halina Wind, was saved by Socha but does not appear in the film. It mentions that Stefan Wroblewski’s fate was not as shown in the film, and that a third sewer worker, Jerzy Kowalow, also helped. There is a character in the film called Kovalov who helps Jews, but he was a factory owner/manager rather than a sewer worker.

A very good film, but one that has a limited release in the UK and, I suspect, the rest of the English-speaking world. There is some sex, nudity and violence, but none of it is gratuitous.

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