Jews in German-Occupied Lands
After methodically removing the majority of Jews from Germany, the Nazis turned their attention to the Jewish populations of the countries that came under German control during the early months of World War II.
The first was Poland, which fell to the German blitzkrieg in early September 1939. On September 21, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Central Security Office, chaired a meeting in Berlin to address the question of what he called “the Jewish problem in the occupied zone.” While hinting of a far more sinister future plan for the Jews, Heydrich emphasized the need to eliminate all Jews from western Poland and concentrate those who lived in large cities into small, self-contained areas, or ghettos.
The largest ghettos were in Warsaw and Lodz, though ghettos were established in other Polish cities as well. They were small and tightly packed, yet the Nazis insisted on adding still more people from surrounding areas until living conditions became unbearable. (Many Jews not herded into ghettos were sent to labor camps, where they were forced to work under inhuman conditions.) Entire families were forced to live in a single, cramped room. Jews received half the food rations of non-Jewish Poles, a caloric restriction so severe that starvation was inevitable. Forced to wear a Star of David on their arm for easy identification, they were taunted, tortured, and routinely killed by Nazi occupation forces for no reason other than their heritage. German soldiers delighted in such barbaric practices as forcing Polish Jews to collect and burn religious scrolls while dancing around the flames singing, “We rejoice that this shit is burning.” Many Jews refused to participate and were shot for their insolence.
What's most astonishing, with the hindsight of history, is that the German people let all of this happen. Not everyone was as vehemently anti-Semitic as Hitler and his core group of supporters. While the average German man or woman may have privately echoed certain anti-Semitic sentiments with friends and family, most worked with and/or socialized with Jews. They had friends and neighbors who were Jewish and patronized stores and businesses owned by Jews. And yet, very few people stood up and publicly declared that what the Nazis were doing was morally wrong. (Most of those who did were religious leaders, not average citizens.) A mass public dissent might have halted the Nazi campaign against the Jews before it turned into a holocaust, but such a public outcry never occurred, either because the people didn't care or because they were too scared and intimidated by the military to risk their own lives for the sake of others. The power and scope of the German government's military and spy networks during this period in history are breathtaking. Neighbors were led to suspect neighbors, (a practice that kept right on going in East Germany after the war ended). Although many Germans risked their lives to aid Jewish friends and associates, the overwhelming majority simply turned their backs as their Jewish neighbors were led away to an almost certain death. Even though instances of violence against Jews were well known, the existence of death camps was not common knowledge. Had more people known about the “Final Solution,” a public outcry might have been forthcoming.
Between the invasion of Poland and the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, an estimated 30,000 Jews were shot dead by German forces or killed by the starvation and disease that was rampant within the many ghettos and forced labor camps. But the worst was yet to come.