Thursday, May 31, 2012

Geographic Complexity and "Polish Death Camps"

President Obama posthumously awarded Jan Karski the Medal of Freedom for Karski's work during World War II with warning the world about the Holocaust.  However, in the speech the president mentioned "Polish death camp", grammatically implying the Nazi extermination camps located in Poland were in fact part of a Polish system.  This geographic flub has greatly offended the Polish government which in reply said Obama's statement shows “ignorance" and "incompetence."

The geography of Nazi German death camps in modern-day Poland is complex.  First off, take a look at this map from 20th Century History @ which shows the major concentration and extermination camps of World War II.

The Germans plan was to cleanse the eastern lands of Poles, Slavs, Jews, and others and turn the ethnically cleansed land over to a new, agriculturally-based German colonizing culture.  Modern-day Poland was to be a key part of this bloodland. Many of the death camps were placed inside the modern-boundaries of Poland to help accomplish the goal.

However, the Nazis themselves would not have used the term "Polish camps" or even "camps in Poland" because the Nazis never fully recognized any Polish state's right to existence.  The extermination camps where all west of the Vistula River, placing them within the historic boundaries of the German Empire (meaning these lands were only in a modern Polish state for twenty years). 

From Wikipedia
Further, when the Nazis politically subdivided the conquered eastern lands the camps where in very different sectors as the map from the Jewish Virtual Library shows (the golden outline shows the borders of the Second Polish Republic right before the outbreak of war).

Chelmno and Auschwitz were back in the Greater German Reich proper while Treblinka, Majdanek, and Belzec were in the "General Government", a zone which was to be cleansed and then completely aborsbed back into Nazi Germany proper as well.  Meanwhile other concentration camps such as Koldichevo and Janowska were established in the old Second Polish Republic's lands (given to the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany at the start of the war) which were then politically located in Reichskommissariats Ukraine and Ostland.  These lands were colonies in which long range plans called for eventual inclusion into the Greater German Reich.

Finally, one must remember that while the extermination aka death camps were located to the east of Berlin, the majority concentration camp system was established before the start of World War II and therefore located in Germany itself.  The University of California Santa Barbra has a great map showing the distribution of camps used to house political prisoners and other not-necessarily sentenced to death targets of the Nazi regime.

The camps where very much part of a German system.  In the eastern bloodlands of Nazi-controlled former Soviet lands much of the killings were done by Germans and other Slavic groups together.  However, Poland witnessed very few cases of collaboration.  The camps were in ethnic Polish lands but were politically located in various degrees of Germany and German-occupied land and were run by Germans.  There was nothing Polish about the extermination camp system.


Austin said...

I would be careful using phrases like "Poland witnessed very few cases of collaboration". While it is true that Poland had many cases of gentiles coming to the aid of their Jewish neighbors (over 6,000 Poles have been recognized as Righteous among the Nations) the reality of the polish involvement of the holocaust is more complicated. From cases of outright perpetration and collaboration ( to the more subtle and less definable instances of bystanders (the death camps and the smell of burning bodies was no secret to the local populations) to being victims at the hands of the Nazis themselves, the situation was, as your post is titled, complex. The Israeli War Crimes Commission found that about 7,000 Poles collaborated with the Nazis. So as there was no official collaborating body as in France, hence the consensus that Poland had very few collaborators, there was still significant anti-jewish groups such as those blackmailing Jews (Szmalcownik) in Poland. I appreciate you clearing up the confusion that the term "Polish Death Camps" caused but because the Holocaust was carried out as much inside of the death camps as it was outside, I feel its important to recognize the complex relationship of Poles to the Holocaust.

Catholicgauze said...


Thanks for your input. Something certainly to consider.

t.przechlewski said...


OK "the smell of burning bodies was no secret" but what these poor peasants can do about it? Your analysis is out-of historical context.

For example food was rationing and the rations were extremly low (check Wikipedia for details), so to save somebody `illegal' one have to be rich or the hidden person had to be rich...

Hilberg (which I recommend you to read) on page 84 gives persons per room rates, which were 4.1 in `aryan' Warsaw and 7.2 in ghetto. How much persons per room live in your house??