In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Holocaust in Poland

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Collected Studies
  • Biographies
  • Polish Jews under Soviet Rule
  • German Occupation Policy and the Jews
  • Mass Killings
  • The Holocaust in Contemporary Polish Public Life

Jewish Studies The Holocaust in Poland
David Engel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0064


The phrase “Holocaust in Poland” is generally taken to refer to the set of individual or group decisions, actions, and processes that catalyzed or contributed to the deaths of nearly three million of the approximately 3.5 million Jewish citizens of the Second Polish Republic between the years 1939 and 1945. By extension it is also employed to refer to a similar set of decisions, actions, and processes that contributed to the survival of the remainder. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the government of Poland has protested use of the phrase, objecting to what it considers the implication that Poles were primarily responsible for the Jewish deaths. In 2018 the government enacted a law proscribing the phrase “Polish death camps” and providing penalties for any statement ascribing responsibility for the outcome of the Holocaust to the “Polish nation.” It has preferred to speak of the “Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland.” Indeed, the primary killers of Jews were German citizens acting on behalf of the Nazi regime, which occupied approximately half of the territory of the Polish state in September 1939 and the remaining half (which had been occupied by the Soviet Union, also beginning in September 1939) in June 1941. However, scholars have generally included under the rubric the situation of Jews in the territories under Soviet occupation as well as that of several hundred thousand Jews who fled or were deported to the Soviet interior between 1939 and 1941. They have also considered the relations between Poles and Jews under both German and Soviet occupation as a factor that bore upon both death and survival. A minority of scholars apply the term “Holocaust” additionally to the deaths of some two million Polish non-Jews at German hands. Most, however, have identified an essential difference between Nazi policy toward Jews, which sought the death of every Jewish man, woman, and child within reach, and the regime’s policy toward non-Jewish Poles, which aimed at the elimination of leadership strata in order to reduce the Polish population to the status of a helot workforce. The listings in this article consider the term in the narrower sense with emphasis on the treatment and fate of Polish Jews.

General Overviews

To date there is no single-volume or multivolume comprehensive history of the Holocaust in Poland. Such a history is currently under preparation by Yad Vashem, the Israeli state Holocaust memorial agency, to be written by an international team of six scholars. Meanwhile, Gutman 1990 provides the best and most accessible brief outline available. Polonsky 2012 incorporates newer material about the Holocaust into a broad narrative of the history of 20th-century Polish and Soviet Jewry. Snyder 2010 treats the Holocaust as part of the general history of the ethnically mixed regions between Germany and the Soviet Union, all of whose inhabitants suffered murderous violence between 1933 and 1945. Snyder 2015 places the Holocaust in Poland within a broad theory concerning the origins and implementation of the Final Solution across Europe. Shpizman 1942 is included as an example of how the situation of Jews in German-occupied Poland was perceived by contemporaries before the existence of a Nazi mass murder program was known.

  • Gutman, Israel. “Poland.” In Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vol. 3–4. Edited by Israel Gutman, 1143–1176. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

    Narrative survey. The two-volume set, of which this article is part, presented the state of the field in Holocaust studies during the 1980s, before access to sources in the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries was available. No similar reference work has superseded it. Entries concerning Poland are listed in the index, Volume 4, pp. 1872–1873.

  • Polonsky, Antony. The Jews in Poland and Russia. Vol. 3, 1914 to 2008. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvv4180c

    Synthetic history written by a leading historian, suitable for general readers and undergraduates as well as scholars. The Holocaust is treated in Part 2 (pp. 359–587).

  • Shpizman, L. Di yidn in natsi-poyln. New York: Yidisher Kemfer, 1942.

    The first book-length effort to describe and analyze the situation of Polish Jewry under Nazi occupation, assembled before news of systematic mass killing had reached the West.

  • Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

    Broad synthesis of research literature in German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian. Places encounters between the Third Reich and Jews on Polish territories in the context of murderous policies pursued by the German and Soviet regimes in the border regions between the two countries between the early 1930s and the end of World War II.

  • Snyder, Timothy. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York: Tim Duggan, 2015.

    Argues that Nazi conquest turned areas beyond Germany’s borders, including Poland, into areas of anarchy and that the destruction of effective mechanisms of government made mass killing of Jews possible.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.