Six million Poles died in WWII, or 20 % of Poland’s pre-war population. Of the dead, half were Polish Jews, representing 90 percent of Poland’s Jews. For Jewish survivors and family members, the country was a vast Jewish cemetery.
Her cities lay in ruins – 85% of Warsaw was demolished. And as told by Poles, Stalin’s soldiers and tanks sat across the Vistula River from Warsaw, as the Germans destroyed Warsaw. Rather than stopping the destruction, they waited for its finish – then moved in and took over.
Germans had targeted and massacred Poland’s cultural elite. Thus a full third of all academics, scientists and doctors had been killed and over half of all lawyers. A full third of those who had received a higher education were killed.
Politically, Poland was out-maneuvered by both Stalin and the two Western powers – Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. At the highly-secret Yalta conference in February 1945, and again at the Potsdam conference in July 1945, Poland and most of Eastern Europe was ceded to Soviet/Russian influence as a quid pro quo for the West. Nor did Britain believe that Stalin was responsible for the Katyn massacre. It was agreed at Potsdam that Poland would receive war reparations from the Soviet portion – estimated at $350 billion. The Soviet authorities simply stated that since Poland annexed some territories that contained factories – they’d already received the value – and the Soviets kept all reparations – for a total of $950 billion.
To countries in the West, they gained freedom at war’s end. Poland became incorporated into, and subjected to harsh Soviet domination. Re-education began in the schools, rewriting texts in the spirit of Marxism and the history of Russian communism. Even worse, Poles who had fought valiantly for their country against both Nazis and Soviets, were then jailed for a) falsely collaborating with the Nazis, or b) working against the Soviets.
A massive reverse exodus began involving Germans and Poles. About 3.5 million Germans who had moved into Poland either fled or were evicted and chased back to Germany, forced to leave everything behind, just as Germany had treated the Poles in evicting them from their lands. In their place about 2.2 million Poles began flooding back from slave labor and concentration camps in Germany.
Krakow’s population was devastated under Hans Frank. However whereas Warsaw was nearly destroyed, as the seat of the German provisional government, Krakow survived relatively unscathed from bombing. Montelupich Prison where Henry was imprisoned was now used by the Russians to imprison Nazi collaborators. The preservation of Krakow’s buildings and city structure are a key reason that today it is a cultural gem worthy of more and more tourists every year.Editorial – I knew hardly any of Polish history before I began this project. Henry equated the antipathy of Germans and Poles up to World War II to that of Arabs and Israelis – centuries old, deep-seated and the two will never mix. But I daresay Stalin was incredibly brutal, and after more than 40 years of Russian communism, it is little wonder Poles have little tolerance for Russians. Add to that the murder of over 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, and I can’t imagine ever reconciling a deep distrust and hate of anything Russian. It’s wise to know your enemies, and Poland will always be desirable territory to Russia. Today, any sporting event where Poland beats Russia is cause for national celebration.
Sources: Kochanski, The Eagle Unbowed; Zamoyski, The Polish Way; Plokhy, S. M., Yalta, The Price of Peace.