After 123 years of foreign rule by the Russian Empire, the Hapsburg Monarchy and Prussia/Germany, Poland was reconstituted as an independent, multi-ethnic republic in November 1918. Helped by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and occupied the Western regions of her territory. On 17 September, Soviet troops followed suit and marched into the Eastern parts of Poland, which were annexed to the Byelorussian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics. The Vilnius (Wilno) area, on the other hand, became part of still-sovereign Lithuania. Germany split her newly conquered territories into areas that were incorporated into the Reich („eingegliederte Gebiete“), and the German administered General Government in central Poland. Meanwhile, the Polish government, which had first been evacuated to Romania and France, set itself up in London and organised an underground representation within occupied Poland, thus keeping in touch with resistance organisations within the country. When Germany turned on its Soviet ally and attacked the USSR in June 1941, Eastern Poland (most of which is today part of Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine) fell under German occupation as well; the District of Galicia was attached to the General Government in August 1941. Nazi occupation in Poland was ended by the Soviet Army, first east of the Vistula River in the summer of 1944, then in the rest of the country in early 1945.
On the eve of the Second World War, the Polish Republic had an estimated total population of 35 million inhabitants. Some 3,500,000 of them were Jews. Within weeks of the invasion, about two million Polish Jews came under German occupation. Individual murders by German soldiers were not uncommon during the early days of the war and discrimination against the Jewish population in general began immediately. Jewish property was confiscated, synagogues were demolished or devastated. Jews were forced to wear badges or armbands identifying them as Jews and gradually confined in ghettos throughout the country. In the Warsaw ghetto alone, almost half a million people were confined by early 1941, and dying en masse from the horrible living conditions there. In western Poland, which had been annexed immediately to the German Reich, and the western part of the Warsaw region, the Jewish population was expelled further east or transferred into larger ghettos (mostly to the ones in Warsaw and Łódź).
In June 1941, the mass extermination of Jews began in Eastern Poland. From December 1941, Jews were systematically murdered in the parts of Poland which had been under German occupation since 1939. The first extermination centre was established in Chełmno (Kulmhof), north of Łódź. Its victims were not only Polish Jews from the regions annexed to the Reich, but also German, Austrian and Czech Jews previously deported to the Łódź ghetto. Within the framework of the so-called Operation Reinhardt, the German authorities installed extermination centres (Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka), aimed at the extermination of the whole Jewish population of the General Government. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in spring 1943 was crushed by the Germans and the ghetto itself destroyed. Some Jews were also sent to the Lublin-Majdanek and Auschwitz concentration camps, where most of them were equally murdered. Jews from other European countries were also deported to these camps to be killed. While Operation Reinhardt ended in 1943, mass murder did not. The gas chambers in the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau operated until 1944. The inhabitants of ghettos which had so far been spared found their end here: Jews from the Białystok and the Zagłębie regions were killed in 1943, those from Łódź in 1944. At the same time, Jews were brought to Auschwitz from various countries occupied or dominated by Germany, e.g. from Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Hungary and the Netherlands. They were submitted to selection: the able-bodied were sent to the concentration camps, the others (including the children) were murdered on the spot. The last Jewish victims of Nazi mass murder in Poland were the concentration camp inmates, who died from exhaustion or were shot during the evacuation of the camps (the so-called Death Marches, for instance from Auschwitz and Stutthof). Soviet Army troops were the first to approach a major Nazi camp in Poland at Majdanek in July 1944 and to overrun the previously dismantled death camp sites of Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. In January 1945, they liberated Auschwitz. About 3 million Jews from within the pre-war borders of Poland did not survive the war (two thirds of whom in the territory of today's Poland). About 13% of the Polish Jewish pre-war population survived the war, mostly as refugees or deportees in the unoccupied parts of the Soviet Union.
The network of Polish state archives functions under the Head Office of State Archives, or Naczelna Dyrekcja Archiwów Państwowych (NDAP). In addition to this network, there is the Institute of National Remembrance, or Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (IPN), which was created in 1998 as a successor organisation to the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes (Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich).
Outside of the state archival and IPN networks, there is a wide range of archival institutions which hold Holocaust-relevant collections. There is the Jewish Historical Institute (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, ŻIH) in Warsaw, but also the network of church archives throughout Poland, and various archives of central administrative institutions. Finally, there are a number of state museums which were created in former German concentration camps which hold, to a certain extent, archival material relevant for Holocaust research on Poland. A couple of private institutions are also likely to hold Holocaust-relevant sources.
EHRI Research (Summary)
In Poland, EHRI has identified the SEZAM and ZoSIA databases as the most easily accessible archival research tools which are available online (http://baza.archiwa.gov.pl/sezam/sezam.php?l=en; http://szukajwarchiwach.pl/ ). They cover the material of all the Polish state archives, as well as material stored by some other institutions such as EHRI-partner Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute.
However, other institutions are not covered via this system and Holocaust-researchers benefit greatly from guidance in the vast holdings that are described in the above named databases via consulting the following specialised guide: Alina Skibińska, Guide to the Sources on the Holocaust in Occupied Poland (Translated and expanded edition of the original Polish Źródła do badań nad zagładą Żydów na okupowanych ziemiach polskich by Alina Skibińska, Warsaw, 2007), European Holocaust Research Infrastructure, 2014, http://training.ehri-project.eu/sites/default/files/portal_assets/skibinska_guide.pdf.
Beyond Alina Skibińska’s publication, EHRI has identified a number of helpful archival guides on Poland. A full list is available in extensive report.
EHRI Research (Extensive)
A. EHRI approach to Poland: Pre-existing research, available archival guides, expert support
In the case of Poland, EHRI could rely on, or had to grapple with, vast pre-existing research on the Holocaust. Research on this topic has been conducted for decades now by historians – not only in Poland, Germany, the United States and Israel, but also in a number of other countries. This means that EHRI cannot give a full and up-to-date account of the available literature here. However, a reference to the 16 volume series “Die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden durch das nationalsozialistische Deutschland 1933-1945”, which is published by EHRI-partner Institute for Contemporary History Munich-Berlin (Institut für Zeitgeschichte München-Berlin, IfZ), especially volumes 4 and 9 (already published), and volume 10, which is still in preparation as of this writing, is appropriate. All volumes contain introductions based on international research literature. Furthermore, the Jewish History Quarterly (Kwartalnik Historii Żydów), which is published by the Warsaw-based Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute (Żydowski Institut Historyczny im. Emanuela Ringelbluma, ŻIH) and the periodical Zagłada Żydów are probably the most reliable references regarding current Holocaust research on Poland.·
EHRI could rely on the following archival guides:
- [1998-2011] Jóźwik, Marek (eds.), Relacje z czasów zagłady - inwentarz / Holocaust survivors testimonies catalogue, Archiwum ŻIH - INB, zespół 301 (Warsaw, Instytut Naukowo-Badawczy, 1998-2011),
-  Bednarek, Jerzy & Rafał Leśkiewicz (eds.), Informator o zasobie archiwalnym Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej (stan na dzień 31 grudnia 2008 roku) (Warszawa: IPN, 2009),
-  Shapiro, Robert Moses and Epsztein, Tadeusz, The Warsaw Ghetto Oyneg Shabes-Ringelblum Archive, catalog and guide, Bloomington, IN (Indiana Univ. Press) 2009 [Engl. version of 1st ed. 2011 Epsztein, Tadeusz],
-  Czajka, Michał, Inwentarz zbioru pamiętników (Archiwum ŻIH, zespół 302) – Memoirs Collection Catalogue (Jewish Historical Institute Archives, Record Group 302), Warszawa: Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, 2007,
-  Woszczyński, Bolesław & Violetta Urbaniak (eds.), Żródła archiwalne do dziejów Żydów w Polsce (Warszawa, 2001),
-  Biernat, Andrzej (ed.), Archiwa państwowe w Polsce. Przewodnik po zasobach (Warszawa: Wydawn. DiG, 1998),
-  Budziarek, Marek (ed.), Lodzer Judaica in Archiven und Museen. Aufsätze und Berichte aus Lódź, Jerusalem, Washington und Frankfurt am Main (Łódź, Muzeum Historii Miasta Lodzi, 1996), and
-  Druga wojna światowa 1939-1945. Informator o materiałach źródłowych przechowywanych w archiwach PRL (Warszawa, 1972). (printed for internal use)
With EHRI’s help, the most comprehensive guide was updated and translated from Polish into English: Alina Skibińska, Guide to the Sources on the Holocaust in Occupied Poland (Translated and expanded edition of the original Polish Źródła do badań nad zagładą Żydów na okupowanych ziemiach polskich by Alina Skibińska, Warsaw, 2007), European Holocaust Research Infrastructure, 2014, http://training.ehri-project.eu/sites/default/files/portal_assets/skibinska_guide.pdf.
Furthermore, EHRI could work on Poland with team experts such as Dieter Pohl, who has published widely in the field and Giles Bennett from the Munich-based Centre for Holocaust-Studies at the Institute of Contemporary History. EHRI also co-operated with an expert from Poland, Michał Czajka from the Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH), who contributed to the Institute’s "Holocaust Survivors Testimonies Catalogue" (Relacje z czasów zagłady) and conducted most of EHRI’s on-site identification and description work.
B. Characteristics of Poland’s archival situation and specific challenges
Until around 1990, the Polish state archival system imitated Soviet structures, which involved strong tendencies towards centralisation and almost complete inaccessibility. The network of Polish state archives opened up only after the crumbling of the Soviet bloc and the fall of communism in Poland. Since then, the network of state archives functions under the Head Office of State Archives (Naczelna Dyrekcja Archiwów Państwowych, NDAP).
In addition to the NDAP network, there is the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN) which was created in 1998 as a successor organisation to the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes (Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich). As the name suggests, it stores mainly documents on Nazi Crimes transferred from state archives, but also increasingly state security service files from the post-war period.
Outside of the state archival and IPN networks, there is a wide range of archival institutions which hold Holocaust-relevant collections. There is, of course, the Jewish Historical Institute (Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, ŻIH) in Warsaw, which deserves a special mention as a key institution for Holocaust research on Poland and beyond, but also the network of church archives throughout Poland, and various archives of central administrative institutions, such as the Central Statistical Office (Główny Urząd Statystyczny, GUS). The Archive of the Polish Red Cross also deserves to be mentioned. Finally, there are a number of state museums which were created in former German concentration camps (most importantly in Auschwitz, but also Majdanek) which hold, to a certain extent, archival material relevant for Holocaust research on Poland. A number of private institutions are also likely to hold Holocaust-relevant sources; important private research centres are “Karta” in Warsaw and Brama Grodzka in Lublin.
C. EHRI identification and description results on Poland
C.I. In Poland
EHRI identified over 100 archival institutions in Poland which hold or may hold Holocaust-relevant collections. At this point, it appears that a number of state archives which exist in all the major cities and in some regional centres throughout the country hold the most extensive Holocaust-relevant collections. The Central Archives of Modern Records (Archiwum Akt Nowych, AAN) in Warsaw and the local state archives hold essential collections concerning the German occupation in Poland, sources produced by the Polish resistance movement, but also documents created in the numerous ghettos in occupied Poland. In this regard, the State Archive in Łódź deserves a special mention, as it holds the archive of the Łódź ghetto. The Warsaw-based Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH) stores the underground archive of the Warsaw ghetto (Ringelblum Archive), a key collection to Holocaust research in Poland. The ŻIH’s collections of testimonies and memoirs which were written and recorded after the war cover all of occupied Poland, including its former eastern territories (today Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine), and even Germany, as former inmates of German camps and forced labourers in Germany left their testimonies at the Institute as well. In terms of the sheer quantity of sources, the collections described by EHRI in the state archives of Bydgoszcz, Lublin, Łódź, Poznań and Warsaw appear to be the most significant ones at this point. Obviously, the somewhat smaller archival holdings identified elsewhere in Poland archives are not necessarily less important.
The collection descriptions in EHRI have been added from the archives’ databases (in Polish), combined with the English information in the Skibińska guide.
C. II. In other countries
The research guide Alina Skibińska, Guide to the Sources on the Holocaust in Occupied Poland (Translated and expanded edition of the original Polish Źródła do badań nad zagładą Żydów na okupowanych ziemiach polskich by Alina Skibińska, Warsaw, 2007), European Holocaust Research Infrastructure, 2014, http://training.ehri-project.eu/sites/default/files/portal_assets/skibinska_guide.pdf includes information on sources on Poland held at repositories in Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States. EHRI has yet to determine further archival institutions and collections outside of Poland relevant to Holocaust research on Poland.