On 8th August 2018, the first exhibition on the so-called “Polenaktion” in Berlin opened at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin. The exhibition tells the stories of the Berlin families who were the first to fall victim to a mass action which bore a resemblance not only to earlier expulsions, but also to forthcoming deportations. It was the first time that Jews, based on their citizenship, were arrested and transported “to the East”, which was at that time the still sovereign state of Poland.
The “Polenaktion” is key to understanding the history of the Shoah. For those who became the victims of this special persecution, it meant, first of all, the separation of families and being rendered almost resourceless. Within hours, salesmen, entrepreneurs and members of almost every trade and occupation became first victims and then refugees, no longer able to sustain themselves.
Zbaszyn, Poland, November 1938: Jewish deportees in line for soup at a mobile kitchen (Yad Vashem archive)
Julius Buck, who was deported to Poland with his father at the age of 15, and left for Britain on a kindertransport from Gdynia organized by the Polish Jewish Refugee Fund, after staying for months in a temporary shelter set up in Cracow, stated this very pointedly when asked about his thoughts at the moment of arrest decades later in an interview with USC Shoah Foundation: “I rightly thought I would never see my mother again.” Meanwhile, Buck was able to work and study in London before joining the British Army; his mother was captured in France in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz.
Zbaszyn, Poland, November 1938: Deportees (Yad Vashem archive)
But the history of the “Polenaktion” is also key to understanding the process of perpetrators’ radicalization and the development of escalating measures of persecution. The perpetrators in this instance were ordinary policemen, who turned up at the homes of Jews with Polish citizenship throughout the entire German Reich on the last weekend of October 1938. They arrested some or all members of each household, kept them in custody for several hours, handed them expulsion orders based on a very newly introduced Ausländerpolizeiverordnung (police regulation on the handling of foreigners), transported them to railway stations, forced them to board the trains and guarded them on the train to the Polish border, where they handed them over to local German police, Gestapo or SS.
Zbaszyn, Poland, November 1938: Gathering Jewish people in the army yard (Yad Vashem archive)
For the first time, German policemen were involved with the deportation of Jews, in a way which was fully visible to the public. They brought desperation to children, women and men. We know of some reports where they acted amenably towards their victims, but there are also many reports of sheer brutality. People lost their lives; elderly men were dragged from their hospital beds; hours after surgery, a mother was torn from her newborn twins. This was not regular police work in 1938, but it was carried out by regular policemen. The ranks of the police were joined by volunteers from the German Red Cross, male and female, who participated in the entire action. In hindsight, therefore, one can state that, with the “Polenaktion”, the German police began to carry out deportations in public, and, in so doing, they encountered little or no resistance.
Dr. Alina Bothe is Saul Kagan Fellow in Advanced Shoah Studies of the Claims Conference. Her second book deals with the persecution of Jews with Polish citizenship in the German Reich between 1938-1942. She is curator of the new exhibition Ausgewiesen! Berlin, 28. Oktober 1938. Die Geschichte der “Polenaktion”, together with students from the Freie Universität Berlin and the Aktives Museum. The exhibition is open until 30 December 2018 in the Centrum Judaicum at Oranienburger Straße in Berlin.