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History

History of Poland

The History of Poland dates far back and in the medieval and early modern period Poland was one of the largest countries in Europe its territory spread all the way up to the Baltic’s.

During the 18th century there were three new powers in the region and they were Austria, Prussia and Russia. Unfortunately, between 1772 and 1795 Austria, Prussia and Russia signed three partition treaties, which saw Poland losing all its territory and being carved up between the three countries. This saw Poland lose all its land for 123 years and you couldn’t find it on a map. Between 1807 and 1831 a small area around Warsaw briefly enjoyed a form of independence as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and Congress Poland, but later became a province of Russia.

Poland acquired independence in 1918 after World War I and held it until the country was once again torn apart by its powerful neighbors, Germany and the Soviet Union, after the 1939 Anti-Aggression Pact between the two. On September 1st Germany attacked Gdansk’s harbor Westerplatte at 5:39am and on September 17th the Soviets attacked from the eastern part of Poland. Prior commitments by Britain to defend Polish sovereignty led the former to declare war on Germany and initiate World War II.

The Germans drove the USSR out of Poland in 1941 and the Polish were subject to cruel and inhuman treatment by the Germans. Millions of Poles perished during World War II and Oswiecim (Auschwitz) / Birkenau was found at the end of the war. If you would like to read more information on the history of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) / Birkenau please see our section below. Also, it wasn’t discovered till 1989 because of Communism that the Soviets also had a concentration camp and it was located in a forest region of the Ukraine (Ostaszkow). It is believed that this is where the Soviets sent most high ranking Polish officers to die.

After the war till the countries independence from its Soviet rulers in 1990 the country was controlled by two different communist parties, which were the Soviet-backed Polish Workers’ Party and the Polish United Workers’ Party, PZPR. In 1988, following the near-collapse of the economy, the PZPR government resigned, which led the way for new elections in 1989. In those elections Tadeusz Mazowiecki become the first non-communist Prime Minister of a Warsaw Pact country, which was huge news in the Eastern Bloc countries.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall the Eastern Bloc countries saw a new hope and uncertainty. Poland’s economy grew slowly and in the elections of 1997 change was the theme. The government that was elected that year the new government adopted a program that included priorities of accelerating privatization and rapid integration with the EU and NATO. Poland joined the EU in 2004 along with nine other countries and has seen a small growth in the country, but many of the young people have decided to leave the country to seek a better life in the UK and other parts of Europe. Poland and Ukraine will be the site of the European Football Championships in 2012 and that will be the time when all of Europe can see what this country has to offer. 

 

 


OSWIECIM (AUSCHWITZ) / BIRKENAU



For five long years the name Auschwitz aroused fear among the populations of the Nazi – occupied territories. It was established in 1940 for the Polish political prisoners.  Originally it was to be an instrument of terror and extermination of Poles.  As time passed, the Nazis began to deport to the camp people from all over Europe, mainly Jews – citizens of various countries.  Soviet prisoners – of –war, Gypsies, Czechs, Yugoslavs, French-men, Austrians, Germans, and others were also among the prisoners of AuschwitzPolish political prisoners were being deported here till the camp ceased to exist.

After the defeat of the September Campaign of 1939, when Polish soldiers had attempted to repel the German invasion, the town of Oswiecim and the surrounding areas were incorporated within the Third Reich. At the same its name was changed to Auschwitz.

By the end of 1939, at the SS and Police Headquarters in Wroclaw (Breslau), the idea of setting up a concentration camp had already been proposed. The official justification for this plan was based on the overcrowding of the existing prisons in Silesia, and on the necessity of conducting further waves of mass arrests among the Polish inhabitants both of Silesia and the rest of German – occupied Poland.

Several special committees were convened, whose task it was to consider the most favorable location for such a camp. The ultimate choice fell upon the deserted pre-war Polish barracks in Oswiecim.  Situated some distance away from the built up area of the town, they could quite easily be expanded and isolated from the outside world.  Another factor not without significance was the convenient position of Oswiecim – an important railway junction – within the existing communications network.

The order to proceed with plans to find a camp was given in April 1940, and Rudolf Hoss was appointed its first commandant.  On June 14, 1940, the Gestapo dispatched the first political prisoners to KL Auschwitz – 728 Poles from Tarnow. Initially the camp comprised 20 buildings: 14 at ground level and 6 with an upper floor.  During the period from 1941 – 1942 an extra storey was added to all ground-floor buildings and 8 new blocks were constructed, using the prisoners as the work force.  Altogether the camp now contained 28 one-storey buildings (excluding kitchens, storehouses etc.). The number of prisoners reached a record number of 20,000 people in 1942. They were accommodated in the blocks, where even the cellars and lofts were utilized for the purpose.

As the number of inmates increased, the area covered by the camp also grew, until it was transformed into a gigantic and horrific factory of death.  The monstrosity in Oswiecim – KL Auschwitz I – became the parent or “Stammlager” to a whole generation of new camps.  In 1941 the construction of a second camp, later called Auschwitz II – Birkenau, was commenced in the village of Brzezinka 3 kilometers away; and in 1942 the camp in Monowice near Oswiecim – KL Auschwitz III – was established on a territory of the German chemical plant IG – Farbenindustrie.  Furthermore, during the years 1942 – 1944, about 40 smaller branches of the Auschwitz complex came into being; these fell under the jurisdiction of KL Auschwitz III and were situated mainly in the vicinity of steelworks, mines and factories, where prisoners were exploited as cheap labor.

Above the main gate at Auschwitz –through which the prisoners passed each day on their way to work (returning 12 hours or more each day) – there is a cynical inscription: “Arbeit macht frei” (Work brings freedom). Most of the Jews condemned to extinction in KL Auschwitz arrived convinced that they had been deported for “resettlement” in Eastern Europe. In particular Jews from Greece and Hungary were deceived in this way: the Nazis sold them non-existent plot of land, farms, and shops or offered them work for fictitious factories.  For this reason the deportees always brought there most valuable possessions with them.
   
The distance between place of arrest and KL Auschwitz was sometimes as much as 2,400 km (1,500 miles).  The journey was usually made in sealed goods wagons.  No food was provided.  Crowded together like cattle, deportees often traveled for 7 or even 10 days before reaching their final destination.  Therefore, not surprisingly, when the bolts were drawn on arrival at the camp it was frequently the case that some of the victims – above all old people and children – were already dead, while the rest were in a state of extreme exhaustion. The trains uploaded at the goods station in Auschwitz, while from 1944 a special ramp built at Birkenau was used.  Here officers and doctors of the SS immediately examined the new arrivals, allocating those capable of work to the camp.  Those considered unsuitable were taken straight to the gas chambers.  According to the statement of Rudolph Hoss, around 70-75% of the totals were summarily gassed in this way.

On liberating the camp in Oswiecim the Soviet Army discovered approx. 7,000 kg (7 tons) of hair, packed tightly into bags, the camp warehouses.  These were the remains which the camp authorities had not yet managed to sell and send to factories inside the Reich.  Analyses conducted by the Institute of Forensic Research in Cracow revealed that the hair contained traces of hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid), the basic poisonous component of the compounds known as cyclones.  The products for which German firms used human hair included tailor’s lining (haircloth). Gold fillings were removed from the teeth of the corpses and melted into ingots, which were then sent to the SS health and Sanitation Head Office.  Human ashes were used as fertilizer, and for filling in nearby ponds and river beds.

Children were also sent to Auschwitz together with adults.  They were first of all Jews, Gypsies but also Poles and Russians. They were treated in the same way as adults.  Majority of them died in gas chambers soon after the arrival to the camp.  The selected few were sent to the camp where they found the same conditions and restrictions as adults.  Some children, like for instance twins, served as objects of criminal experiments. 

The living conditions, although they varied to some extent during the different stages of the camp’s existence, were always unbearable.  The first train-loads of prisoners slept on straw scattered over the concrete floors; later straw mattresses were introduced.  In a dormitory which was barely adequate for 40-50 persons, an average of 200 prisoners would be housed.  The living quarters weren’t improved to any appreciable extent by the installation of three-tier bunks, made out of boards.  Each level was occupied by two prisoners.  The only covers were pieces of dirty, threadbare blankets.

It has been very difficult to determine precisely exactly how many people died at Auschwitz and Birkenau, as the majority were killed on arrival without identification.  For many years this problem has been debated by historians from various countries.  They give different numbers, most often to 1.5 million victims.  The search for additional documentation is under way to find a more precise number. The urn containing a handful of human ashes, gathered from the territory of Birkenau, commemorates the dead.

I want to thank the State Museum in Oswiecim for the information given above.  The camps in Oswiecim (KL Auschwitz I) and in Brzezinka (KL Auschwitz II – Birkenau) are now maintained as museums open to the public. 
   
If you do go visit the State Museum of Oswiecim please be respectful and remember that tens of thousands of people have died there. Oswiecim (Auschwitz) is located west of the city and trains leave 11 times a day (19 zl, 1hr) from Krakow. I would like to thank the museum for the following information, as it has given us the correct information they would like us to read.

 

 

 
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