For a thousand years, Poland was home to a vibrant Jewish population. Generations of families lived, worked, and worshiped in towns all over the country. In fact, it had about 10-13% of the total Jewish population in the world prior to World War II. However, just as the history of Poland itself is filled with turmoil, the Jews who called this nation home also have a long story of resilience through generations of persecution.
Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and began the radical transformation of Europe. His plan? To have a perfect Aryan race by removing all Jews from society as well as other undesirables such as the mentally ill, handicapped, Gypsies, and other “inferior” races.
World War II in Europe was a political and economic trauma for the Jews. But more so than that, it was a spiritual devastation – a destruction to which Jews refer today as the Shoah. Of the 11 million European civilians who died during the Second World War, 6 million people died simply because they were Jewish.
The context of Poland is important as is the relationship that Jews and Poles have shared over their long history, which at times has been strained and embittered. The Nazi Final Solution only worked to exacerbate the difficulty in their relations even further. Common belief is that the Nazi regime chose Poland for the setting of the Final Solution because of Polish anti-Semitism; however, that is not the case. The Nazis chose Poland strategically “as their gigantic laboratory for mass murder” simply for the reason that Poland was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe (Zimmerman, 2003, p. 3).
Through ghettos, labor camps, mass killings, concentration and death camps, 3 million Jews were killed in Poland by the end of World War II. The Polish nation recovered from the war and has reintegrated into Europe; however, it has not been the same for Jews in Poland. For all intents and purposes, Jewish culture was lost, destroyed, and nearly eliminated from the country completely, leaving behind only dim shadows of the past in the memories of the Polish people.