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3 Cheshvan 5760 - October 13, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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The Blitzkrieg Against Poland, 1939
by A. Sofer

September 1, 1939 -- 17 Elul, 5699.

It was 5:45 in the morning. One hour earlier, World War II broke out.

The German intelligence bureau issued the following short message:

"Due to the unceasing aggression against the Third Reich's borders on the part of the Polish government and terrible acts of terror against the one-and-a-half million German minority residents within its borders, the German army invaded Poland. All Germany's requests to stop antagonizing it and threatening its peace were ignored. The Third Reich, therefore, has no alternative but to take up arms to ensure a just and everlasting peace."

This was the announcement. It was signed by Adolph Hitler, Fuhrer.

The New York Times that day reported: "German Army Attacks Poland; Cities Bombed, Port Blockaded; Danzig Is Accepted Into Reich."


In 1938, when the Fuhrer signed the renewal of the 1934 non- aggression pact with Poland, he already had detailed plans to conquer it in his drawer. Even a year prior, the department heads of the German General Staff were preparing operational plans to conquer Poland. They laid them carefully, with typical German precision and thoroughness, and did not omit even the smallest detail.

The target date, as set in the Moscow summit, was August 25, one day after the signing of the nonaggression pact between Germany and Soviet Russia, known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. After signing the agreement with Russia however, Hitler decided to postpone zero hour, hoping that England and France would disregard their own pact with Poland. He believed that the new political reality created in Central Europe through signing the agreement between his proxy and Stalin's foreign minister would influence the world powers' reasoning, and they would leave Poland to its own devices like they had already abandoned Czechoslovakia.

However, two days after the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement was signed, Neville Chamberlain, prime minister of Britain, announced that his country fully intended to honor its protection agreement with Poland, and if Poland were attacked, its army will not stand by idly. Hitler was disappointed. Despite the British announcement, however, he decided to go out to war and set September 1 as the new date.

The Invasion

The invasion of Poland began. Zero hour for the beginning of the blitzkrieg was 4:45 in the morning.

1,300,000 German soldiers, including forty-seven infantry divisions, motorized infantry, artillery corps and nine armored divisions, attacked Poland on four fronts also with 1,500 battle planes. The third German Army burst in from Eastern Prussia and began breaking through Milava's fortresses. The tenth army was given the main mission: to ascend to the capital Warsaw from the west -- a penetrating breakthrough in the Kalish area. Some of the fourth German army broke through the protective lines in the Pomerania area. The fourteenth army gained entry to the border through Slovakia (the Third Reich had taken responsibility for its border's "protection" in 1939) and from there, quickly moved into Silesia and central Galicia.

The Poles were taken by surprise, and the Germans took advantage. Before the government and commanders of the home front and battlefield had a chance to realize what was happening, the German air force had already destroyed two- thirds of the Polish battle planes while they were still on the ground, and the Nazi troops on the border had already penetrated deep into the country's territory. The third army moved quickly in the direction of Brisk and Bialystok, the fourth German army quickly advanced to western Danzig and Gdansk, and the fourteenth army approached Kharkov. After ensuring their complete superiority in the air, the German pilots began bombing roads and highways to disrupt the supply lines of the Polish army and to seal off retreat routes. Poland collapsed.

The German spy service, with agents deep in the leadership of the Polish government and army, instilled a sense of false tranquility in the rulers' hearts. They disseminated distorted opinions and misinformation among the senior officers and succeeded in demoralizing many. For example, they interpreted Hitler's threats as psychological warfare. Even the biggest pessimists had begun to believe that the threat of war had indeed passed.

Polish Preparations

And thus, in spite of the difficult political atmosphere and the black forecast of all other European countries, the Poles remained calm and relaxed. Most of the soldiers were drafted, however, but many left their guard posts at night. On the night before September 1, the Polish commanders went to sleep peacefully in their beds, without leaving any defenses for their fleet of airplanes. When they woke up to the sound of bombardment from the air, it was too late.

The outstanding nationalistic arrogance of the Polish rulers and its senior officers contributed in no small measure to Germany's swift victory. In 1920, when the Bolsheviks invaded Poland, military experts from Britain and France had helped the Polish general staff, but in 1939, it refused to accept any outside guidance. Even more than that, they refused to reveal their protection plans to anyone, even their trusted allies. It was a tragicomedy: the intelligence service in the West received information about the Polish plans only from their agents in Germany, who were kept up-to-date by German agents in Poland.

Poland was unable to withstand the German invasion. It was thrown into a non-strategic situation at the beginning of the war and also had a greatly inferior army to the Nazi one. Germany had many advantages: the number of soldiers, nine armored divisions, elaborate military equipment, a modern air force and sophisticated military tactics. Compared to all this, Poland was very far behind. Only thirty divisions stood, unprepared, to greet the evil from Germany. Poland had only one armored division; the rest were infantry and cavalry. Half of its airplanes were outdated and most of its light and heavy equipment had already been used during World War I.

Even with the wide military disparity, Poland still originally had a small chance of withstanding Germany's attack, if only for a few days, if not for its outdated military tactics of the headquarters that brought the swift defeat. All thirty divisions that Poland allotted for battle were on the western front, and the command headquarters was stationed on the front lines of the battlefield. The home front was completely exposed. The Germans took advantage of this inferior Polish tactic just like they took advantage of the surprise factor.

The German military approach was well-planned. The attack force, made up of tanks and motorized vehicles, burst into many points of the valley along the front; then the infantry came and finished up the work, leaving most of the remnants of the Polish forces on the border disjointed, surrounded or partially surrounded. The Germans' first goal was complete control of the air and means of communication. The Germans achieved this early. Most of the Polish air force was destroyed before it took off for its first battle. The communication lines between the battlefield and home front and the various fighting units were confused or completely cut off by German spies who had been planted in the various media centers.

Antisemitism Avenges the Poles

After their defeat, the Polish nation had mixed feelings about the fact that they lost their birthplace's independence. Even if it was hard for them to come to terms with the fact that the Aryan Germans, who consider Poles an inferior race, will be their ruler with everything that entails, most of the Poles could not hide their glee that the Germans planned to get rid of the Jews, for once and for all. They hoped to inherit the Jewish wealth and seize their property.

Poland had always served as a fertile breeding ground of theoretical and practical antisemitism. During the one thousand years that Jews lived in Poland, not one year passed without an anti-Jewish incident. In the latter years of Poland's independence, the country's rulers, Marshal Josef Pilsudski's heirs, adopted obviously antisemitic policies. The laws of the Oboz Narodovi, the government's nationalistic party, contained a specific paragraph forbidding Jews to join its ranks.

As the winds of antisemitism grew stronger in Germany, they blew eastward. Even though the Polish politicians could not agree with Germany's general racial policy, they openly agreed with the antisemitic part of it and forcefully encouraged it. They even went as far as inviting major Nazi leaders such as Alfred Rosenberg, Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop to lecture in Polish universities and institutes of science. As a result, anti-Jewish Nazi literature gained much popularity in Poland and was imported on a large scale.

Even while Hitler pointed his arrows towards Poland, the official government propaganda poisoned the air with antisemitic poison. The Polish army's periodical, Polska Zibroina, published by the general staff of the Polish army, excelled in antisemitic propaganda. During the last months before the war broke out, when everyone had finally realized that Poland's true enemy was Nazi Germany, the newspaper still claimed that the Jews were the source of all Poland's problems. Even after the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement was signed, when everyone foresaw evil, the Jewish problem still employed the newspaper editors. The front page of the last edition, published on August 29, 1939, contained a horrible caricature expressing the Polish government's official opinion of Jewry. The picture shows Jews hugging Poles while casually sticking a knife in their backs.

The Polish government encouraged the general war against the Jews and actually announced an overall ban on them. Official discrimination was expressed in all areas. Many Jews were fired from government positions, although few authentic Poles filled their places. Most of the replacements were German or Ukrainian minorities, whom it would be hard to rely on to withstand the faithfulness test.

The direct outcome of a deliberately antisemitic government placed the Jews of Poland, on the brink of World War II, in difficult circumstances. There was no lack of organized or spontaneous bodily attacks on Jews in which the police reacted with exaggerated tolerance.

The antisemitic campaign that the Polish government ran rebounded against it very severely. The rulers in Warsaw followed German winds with great diligence. Many groups became close to the Nazis and formed connections with their agents, enabling the German spy system to easily penetrate Poland and to establish themselves in key positions. Poland paid a high price for its quasi-Nazi policies, because many of its citizens lost all motivation to oppose German conquest.

Jewish Soldiers in the Polish Army

Eighty thousand Jews contributed to the protection of Poland. They understood that their lot would be bitter if the Nazi army gained control, and they fought wholeheartedly to protect Poland's independence, the land of their birthplace, the land that renounced them so cruelly.

Independent Poland was actually a country of minorities. About thirty percent of the general population was not Polish. Eleven and a half percent were Ukrainian, ten percent Jewish, and the rest German, Lithuanian, White Russians and others. Nevertheless, almost all Poland's governments, from the time it first gained independence, adopted shortsighted nationalistic policies emphasizing a goal of the general Polanization of the entire country. The fact that almost a third of the Polish army was comprised of minorities challenged the effectiveness of a large part of it. It was clear that they could not rely on the loyalty of the Ukrainian and Lithuanian soldiers, not to mention the Germans; it was hard to believe that these would risk their lives for Poland when faced with a German test.

Only the deprived, hounded Jewish minority remained completely loyal to Poland's defense and was eager to fight against the cruel German invasion. Tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers, who had suffered abuse from the officers and commanders, fought with might and devotion.

Some Polish commanders, however, did change their opinion of the Jews during those stormy days. They realized that they could not depend on anyone in the hour of trial, and therefore they gave their Jewish soldiers highly responsible assignments and relied on them to help purge the nests of spies.

However, there was no lack of officers, even high-ranking ones, who remained faithful to their antisemitic notions in spite of the difficult situation. Even as the army was on the brink of collapse, they favored their antisemitic sentiments over saving the country's independence. They placed soldiers of dubious reliability in key positions and left the devoted Jews on the side. It was thus that Poland went into the crucial battle, and it is no wonder that it fell prey to the wild Nazi beast within a few short days.

Death and Destruction Throughout Poland

After completing its first two missions -- elimination of the Polish air force and serious destruction of the supply and retreat lines of the Polish army -- the Reich's pilots were free to begin their work of killing and destruction.

Their work was easy. The roads were flooded with millions of people who had fled their homes in a panic, and the bombers cut them down by the thousands, strewing the roadsides with temporary graves. Many of the slain were Jews.

Even darkness offered no shelter for the masses of refugees and the homes and factories. The nights were bright, strewn with stars, and Poland's streets were flooded with the light of the moon. Even the absolute darkness that ruled the villages did not benefit them and did not prevent the German bombers from emptying their poisonous load and increasing confusion in the streets of Poland.

The Last Strongholds

The Polish commanders on the front quickly realized their fatal mistake in deploying most of their power along the border. Lacking any means of communication with the headquarters in Warsaw, these commanders decided to take the initiative themselves. Their plan was to retreat from the front line and unite into one force in the center of Poland.

However, it was too late. The roads were sealed and the disjointed Polish army had to fight a lost war under difficult conditions, with one camp severed from the others.

The swift German breakthrough along all battle lines left a substantial amount of Polish troops at their posts. Their retreat routes sealed, they became pockets of serious resistance. The main pockets were in Pomerania, Vastarplata, and the Madlin fortress on the crossroads, Warsaw and Lublin.

A Week Later

Only one week had passed since the war broke out, and the military picture drawn on September 7 proved that the battle was already decided. One third of Polish land was already in German hands. All of Poland's means of communication and air power was destroyed. There was no communication between various Polish troops who fought on the different fronts. The Polish troops near Gdynia and the southern troops were surrounded, all fronts were broken through, the large Polish force that was stationed in Pomerania was surrounded. The citizens' government in Poland fell apart and all supply services were disrupted or completely silenced.

Britain and France declared war but did not send any air force or troops to help the attacked Poles. Soviet Russia drafted some of its soldiers and placed many troops around the eastern border of Poland, a fact that did not bode good and further suppressed the fighting spirit of the Poles.

In spite of their desperate situation however, the arrogant Polish commanders decided to fight to the bitter end. Many officers believed that military help from England and France would soon come. Others planned to open a new war front on the western border with Germany -- something that would force the Germans to bring part of their forces back from Poland and make them into a threat to Britain and France. It soon became clear, however, that all their hopes were in vain. Independent Poland was cruelly liquidated and not one country came to its aid.

Under such circumstances, it was impossible to prevent the capital Warsaw's surrounding.

Poland is No Longer Independent

On September 20, the high commander of the German army, Marshal Walter von Brauchish, publicized a manifesto for German troops who conquered Poland, informing them that the Polish Republic no longer exists.

Warsaw had still not surrendered. The war with the Poles was already decided, the German government completed almost all its missions, and its soldiers ruled the entire western Poland except for a few last pockets of resistance.

Now the Russians stepped into the picture. On September 17, masses of Russian soldiers stormed the eastern border of Poland. The Polish army units who were appointed to stop the Russian army's activities in this area were not able to put up any resistance. This did not prevent the Russians from dealing with the Polish soldiers harshly: most were taken captive, and many officers disappeared and were never heard from again.

The Russians quickly streamed across eastern Poland, and on September 18 they captured Vilna and Levov. The next day, they met the German forces in Brisk as planned.

On September 24 the Russians and Germans began to divide Poland as they had agreed in the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. The Germans gave the Russian army a few cities and the Russians gave the German army some cities that had been under their jurisdiction. The military meeting that marked the liquidation of independent Poland and sealed the border's alignment of power between Germany and Russia took place in Brisk, which had also been given by the Germans to the Russians. German soldiers carrying the swastika stood next to Russian soldiers bearing the hammer and sickle on their chests.

On September 28, after Warsaw had surrendered, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, visited Moscow again. The German and Russian foreign ministers signed an official announcement stating, "Poland no longer exists and its lands were divided between the two world powers who seek peace: Germany and the Soviet Union."

According to the official agreement, Germany received 189,000 square kilometers, which is 48.3 percent of Poland's land. Russia received 200,000 square kilometers, 49.4 percent, Lithuania 2.1 percent of the area, and Slovakia, the client country of Germany, received .2 percent to straighten out its border.

The Battle over Warsaw

Sixty years ago on erev Succos, Warsaw surrendered to the German army which had besieged it for almost three weeks.

The very nature of a war in a city is much harsher and crueler than a battle in an open area. The large concentration of population, tall residential buildings and the electric system cause much heavier losses of life and property, destruction and desolation.

The most famous urban war in the history of World War II was the battle at Stalingrad. According to official estimates, about 850,000 German soldiers were killed in this battle by the time it ended in 1943, as well as an unknown number of civilians and about 750,000 Russian soldiers.

The battle over Warsaw was no less cruel and perhaps even more so. Stalingrad was a martial city during the battles, but out of the two million people in besieged Warsaw, only 150,000 were soldiers on duty. The battle over Stalingrad lasted about ten months. Warsaw's defenders surrendered in about three weeks. In a relatively short amount of time, about 80,000 Poles, mostly citizens and about one third of them, Jewish, lost their lives.

When the Third Reich's army finished conquering the western half of Poland, the northern German commander was free to carry out the most difficult task in the war: the conquest of the capital city, Warsaw.

On September 8, right before Rosh Hashana 5700 (1939), armored divisions of the tenth German army managed to gain passage through a breach in the battlefield of western Poland and arrived on the outskirts of western Warsaw from Kutno. Thus the siege of Warsaw began.

While the tanks and gunners of the tenth army spread from the west to the city and began to open fire, divisions of the third German army advanced. After overpowering the first Polish army in a blood-drenched battle next to the fortress of Mlava, they had an open route to Warsaw.

On September 10, the first tanks of the third army reached the northern entrance of the city. Warsaw was then surrounded on two sides. Amidst heavy bombing, the German forces advanced swiftly from North to East and from West to South. After two days, on September 12, the siege was completed.

The battle on Warsaw began. By Hitler's command, complete battalions of gunners were rushed over, and they opened fire on the city without mercy.

Warsaw was completely blocked by the German army. All entrances to the city were sealed. Temporary blockades blocked the main highways leading out of the city, and pieces of buildings collapsed from the force of the bombing. They even filled the paths between courtyards of houses with sacks of dirt and junk.

The Poles defended their capital. The direct assaults with heavy artillery and high powered tanks were repelled one after another. The standing army, which was largely made up of soldiers who had systematically retreated from the frontline and of volunteer citizens, stubbornly fended off the attack with strength and might. The Germans began to despair of conquering the city in a face to face battle.

Many attempts to break into the city failed. Hitler decided to soften the rebellion with steady artillery bombardment from the battlefield and bombings from the air. When General Adler, the head of the German forces who attacked Poland, testified at the international court in Nurenberg after the German defeat, he said that he had begged Hitler not to destroy Warsaw. In any case, it would fall like a ripe fruit sooner or later, and there was no reason to destroy an entire city. But Hitler did not listen and commanded him to shower the besieged capital with fire and lead; he truly wanted to completely destroy it and turn it into a heap of ruins.

And the German army carried out the Fuhrer's instructions precisely and completely.

Hitler was not satisfied with the good reports from the battlefield. The Soton wanted to see with his own eyes how his soldiers were fulfilling his ambitions. He traveled in his armored train right behind the battle lines and came right up to the frontal posts around the city. There he stood, looking through binoculars, following the progress of the city's destruction with sadistic glee. The monster could not get enough of this blood curdling scene. He stood for hours, gazing at Warsaw drowning in its blood.

Warsaw did not rest for a minute. Day and night, three hundred cannon batteries spewed fire on the Polish capital, which was blockaded on all sides.

The city's defenders lacked strength. All they could offer against the stream of cannon artillery was weak return fire.

The city residents' main suffering, however, was from the unceasing air bombings. Twenty-four hours a day, the Third Reich's air force flew over the besieged city and poured down huge quantities of heavy explosives and incendiary material. The Nazis flew the skies undisturbed, chose the targets they wanted to bomb and went back to their bases. Entire neighborhoods were wiped off the map; small and large houses were turned into piles of stones, broken glass and furniture fragments.

Tens of thousands of residents, many Jews among them, were buried alive under the rubble. The suffering of residents grew steadily worse. The electricity supply system was completely destroyed and then the water supply was cut off. Food supplies dwindled and medical supplies diminished. The painful sighs of the wounded and heart-rending screams of the widows and orphans mingled with the noise of the artillery and the airplanes' hum.

The Germans conducted close to one thousand air attacks during the three weeks of the siege. They wreaked terrible destruction to the large metropolis. Warsaw had about 21,000 residential houses, business buildings and offices on September 1. Half of the city's houses were eradicated or severely ruined. About 2,000 (9.5 percent) were completely destroyed without a trace remaining. About 8,400 (forty percent) houses were partially destroyed; forty percent of them were unable to be used again and there was no possibility of renovation. Only thirty percent of the partially destroyed houses were immediately usable and about thirty percent were able to be fixed.

The direct damage of the property destroyed during the war over Warsaw amounted, according to the newspaper Berliner Barzintzeitung, the sum of a billion, eight hundred fifty million dollars, including destroyed or partially destroyed houses, factories, equipment, machinery, merchandise and other property.

According to the smaller estimate, about 80,000 people, mostly citizens, were killed in the bombings and bombardment. Because there was no way to reach the cemeteries, Warsaw's public parks became cemeteries. Those who could not go out to the park buried their dead next to their houses. Entire families were buried in the courtyard of their homes.

The War Against the Jews

The Germans took special pains to bomb the Jewish neighborhoods. Two hours before Rosh Hashana of 5700 (1939), the German air force landed a heavy strike against the Jewish quarters. Thousands of Jews came to the beis knesses on Rosh Hashana straight from the cemetery. Hundreds of people started saying Kaddish that evening. The Germans repeated their monstrous exercise a number of times during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as well as on the day after Yom Kippur.

Thousand of Jews were killed during these bombings, not as people in a besieged city, but as Jews whom the enemy chose as a target in itself. Thousands of Jews were buried in public parks next to Poles. Their graves were marked with a Mogen Dovid and the graves of the unidentified korbonos were marked with a "pei nun" and no name.

It was a routine scene to see a Jew or Jewess standing wounded, on a pile of stones, crying and mourning his family, his dearest souls, who were buried alive under the rubble. Their house was destroyed, their property gone and with it their entire family. Others stood on the rubble and tried to save the souls buried underneath.

Each day, the bombings increased. Incendiary bombs caused huge fires, which could not be extinguished because of the lack of water. Black clouds of smoke hung over the city and red flames lit up the sky. The besieged city's screams of pain rose to the heavens.

With the battles in Poland's open areas ended and large military pockets eradicated, the Germans sent most of their air force to Warsaw. On September 24 and 25, the German bombers worked nonstop in the skies of Warsaw. Hundreds of Nazi bombers loaded with explosive materials flew over the Jewish neighborhoods and emptied their destructive loads. Most of the houses on the right side of Tovarda street, where thousands of Jews lived under crowded conditions, were completely destroyed.

The dramatic and crucial appeals to London, Paris and the world at large bore no fruit. No one came to help the besieged city.

The Polish Surrender

Poland had no choice but to surrender. After short negotiations, the conditions of surrender were as follows:

1. The Poles would remove the barricades from the roads leading to Warsaw and allow the Germans to enter the city.

2. The army that defended the city must stand in an orderly array in front of the commanders of the German army and go into captivity.

3. The city must be cleared of all corpses to prevent plague.

As the yom tov of Sukkos began, the wounded, bloodstained city of Warsaw got a cease-fire. The cannons were silent. The airplanes and bombers disappeared from the city's skies. A deathly silence reigned. Warsaw's residents were sunk in confusion; only the wailing of the many orphans and widows broke the deep silence. Here and there, heart- rending cries of the wounded were mingled with the noise of the removal of the wreckage.

A screen of blood descended on Poland. On its exposed side, the blood of tens of thousands of Jews who were killed in battle flowed. Behind it, the Germans started to carry out the early stages of what later became the Final Solution for the 3,250,000 Jews of Poland. Most of these Jews gave their lives al kiddush Hashem in the gas chambers and the fires of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek. Many of those who were not sent directly to death, died a slow, cruel death in concentration camps. Masses were murdered by shooting and all kinds of strange deaths in the ghettos, forests and fields throughout Poland.

The beginning of all this took place sixty years ago with the German blitzkrieg.

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