The policy which the Germans pursued in occupied Poland involved the extermination of the country’s intellectual elites. Among those targeted by the occupiers were scientists, lawyers, doctors, high ranking officials, social activists, scouts, priests and artists – “the leading elements of the Polish nation”. Oskar Tadeusz Stuhr testified before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland. His testimony concerned the Nazi persecution of the Kraków intelligentsia.
The Germans realized that the occupation of Poland would be a difficult task, and undertook repressive measures against the country’s elites in order to make it easier. It was anticipated that otherwise, because of their skills, talents and high social standing, the elites would play a key role in organizing resistance against the invader.
A list of those who were to be arrested, exterminated or detained in concentration camps had been drawn up already before the war – Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen (Special Prosecution Book – Poland). Initially containing 61,000 names, it was systematically expanded during the occupation. Although the Germans had not worked out a detailed plan of how to treat the local population, the general principles adhered to in the elaboration of the occupation policy were clear, and in particular that territories conquered by the Third Reich were to become a source of cheap and unqualified labor.
The first mass killings took place already in September 1939, and were carried out by special SS and police units. Known as Einsatzgruppen, these detachments operated in the rear of the German Army. After their dissolution, which took place towards the end of November 1939, the task was taken over by the standing police force.
The operation carried out in the lands incorporated into the Third Reich and targeting members of the Polish elites was called Intelligenzaktion – the “Intelligentsia Action”. In its execution, regular SS and police units were joined by the paramilitary Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz detachments. The latter, which were made up of members of Poland’s German minority, distinguished themselves by their extreme cruelty. They also had a hand in drawing up the proscription list mentioned above. Although from a formal point of view the action in question was carried out between September 1939 and April 1940, Polish elites were murdered and persecuted throughout the occupation. It is estimated that Intelligenzaktion took the lives of about 100,000 people.
Despite an enormous number of victims, the German policy of terror failed to suppress the Polish resistance, as was evidenced by the reaction of the Nazi security functionaries who attended the meeting of the General Government Defense Council held in March 1940. Alarmed by the activity of the Polish Undrground, the German officials decided to carry out another “pacification operation”. The AB-Aktion (Außerordentliche Befriedungsaktion) was designed to crush the resistance of the intelligentsia, the Church and the politically active Polish elements. It took the lives of about 3,500 teachers, priests and social activists, and some 3,000 other people whom the Germans labeled as “criminals”. It remains unnknown how many of those categorized as criminals actually committed any crimes. Officially, the AB-Aktion lasted from the end of May 1940 to 24 July 1940.
A Kraków lawyer and the President of the “Korona” Sports Club, Oskar Tadeusz Stuhr was among the people blacklisted by the Germans. It is to his commitment and determination that we owe our knowledge of the background details of the victimization of the Kraków intelligentsia. During his detention in German camps, he kept notes of the camp conditions and recorded the identities of his co-prisoners. On 18 June 1945, he testified during Rudolf Hess’ trial which was held before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland.
“Towards the end of October 1939, following the establishment of the German administration in what was later to become the General Government, and especially after the installment of the bloodthirsty German police known as the Gestapo, the Nazi authorities embarked on a policy intended to obliterate the Polish people – with particular emphasis on the Polish intelligentsia and members of organizations known for their impact on Polish society. The repressive measures against the Polish elites began with a lecture at the Jagiellonian University on 6 November 1939. In a deceitful manner, a large audience comprised of people of culture and science was brought in to listen to a lecture. Leading Polish academics, including Dr. Stanisław Kutrzeba, the President of the Academy of Learning, fell into a trap set by the Gestapo. Initially detained in the Montelupich prison, they were then sent to various concentration camps in Germany: Oranienburg – Sachsenhausen – Dachau – Gusen Mathausen”.
The action targeting University professors, of which Oskar Stuhr gave an account, was carried out by Einsatzgruppe I and resulted in the arrest of 183 people. At the end of November, most of the detainees were sent to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. In February 1940, 101 professors were set free. However, the hard conditions of imprisonment caused 13 of them to die while still in the camp or soon after their release (the group included Stanisław Estreicher, the former rector of the Jagiellonian University). The rest was sent to Dachau. Except for Dr. Wiktor Ormicki, murdered in Mathausen-Gusen, and Joachim Metellman, who was murdered in Buchenwald, they were gradually released.
Apart from Auschwitz, the camp in Mathausen, and especially its branch established in Gusen, became the main extermination site of the Polish intelligentsia. The construction of the latter began in December 1939. Polish prisoners, who were tasked with building it, were informed that they were working on a Vernichtungslager für die polnische Intelligenz (a camp for the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia). The facility was completed on 25 May 1940. Throughout its existence, that is until April 1945, 77,000 people passed through its gates, including 34,000 Poles, 5,800 Spaniards and 16,600 Soviets, Jews and representatives of other nations. However, it must be pointed out that initially only members of the Polish intelligentsia were imprisoned in the camp, and in particular those whom the Germans had arrested during the Intelligenzaktion and the A-B Aktion.
Apart from large-scale operations, the Germans also resorted to some ad hoc arrests and executions. The campaign against Kraków’s academic cadres, later referred to as the Sonderaktion Krakau, marked the beginning of the persecution of the city’s intelligentsia.
“This bloody inauguration, so painful for the whole cultural world, was followed by the arrests and persecution of those who enjoyed a pre-eminent position in Kraków society and were in charge of the city’s cultural life, often fulfilling roles that were far removed from politics. The arrests swept up teachers, high school professors, priests and people involved in the education of children. Arrested on 6 November 1939 and then deported to Germany, Dr. Stanisław Klimecki, the Deputy Mayor, was among the first victims of the Nazi policy of terror. After his release from the camp in Oranienburg in 1942, he was arrested for a third time and died a martyr’s death in mid-December 1942”.
By attacking people responsible for the education of youth, the Germans aimed to undermine the intellectual and moral fibre of Polish society as a whole.
Another wave of arrests hit lawyers and social activists, Oskar Stuhr among them.
“On 9 and 10 November 1939, the citizens of Kraków witnessed mass arrests which, truth be told, they knew had been coming. I was also detained. (…) As the car turned into Montelupich Street, I realized that the Germans were driving around the city to arrest previously selected individuals and lock them up in the Montelupich military prison. I noticed a great number of notable personages, such as MP Dr. Stanisław Rymar, director Henryk Mianowski, many priests (especially from the Society of Jesus). As we were being led into our cell, we saw that it already contained a multitude of prisoners, mostly high school teachers whom the Germans had arrested the previous day (on 9 November 1939) at their workplaces”.
The captives included the painter Henryk Policht, the Mayor of Kraków, Karol Rolle, and the Vice-President of the Western Union, Henryk Dudek. The latter organization was particularly hated by the Germans. In the inter-war period its members had fought the German separatist movement in the western parts of Poland, making especial efforts to preserve and foster the Polish national consciousness. Most members of the Western Union had been put on the proscription list.
About one hundred arrestees were transferred from Montelupich prison to Bochnia. They were the first prisoners of the camp set up in the grounds of the former prison in Nowy Wiśnicz. They were soon joined by other members of the Polish elites, among them participants of the Silesian Uprisings.
Those imprisoned in Wiśnicz included Professor Jan Pietrzycki, a poet and a literary historian (he was tortured by the guards with exceptional bestiality, and died in 1944); Marian Morawski, a Jesuit and a doctor of Christian philosophy; Stanisław Mróz, an editor at the Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny, arrested in May for his involvement in publishing the clandestine Dziennik Krakowski newspaper, and tortured to death in Auschwitz; and Jan Krauze, the President of the Mining Academy.
The living conditions were very hard. The extreme damp and cold caused many inmates to develop illnesses, while some suffered frostbite on their ears and hands. They were also subject to harassment by the Germans and, which was especially shocking, by the Polish citizens who had declared themselves to be Germans.
“The way we were treated by the guards grew worse whenever Selbstschutz units were sent in to reinforce the prison staff. Wearing black uniforms, the Selbstschutz were renegades, the later Volksdeutschers and Reichsdeutschers. Devoid of faith and honor, these former Poles – siding treacherously with the enemy – made for weak soldiers. While we, elderly and serious men, suffered great humiliation at having to salute these snotnoses by taking off our prison hats when we found ourselves three steps behind or three steps in front of one of them”.
Of particular note was the Germans’ attitude towards the Catholic Church and its priests. Since the Catholic faith constituted a significant element of Polish national identity, the Church and its representatives fell victim to particularly cruel forms of persecution.
“In mid-June 1940, we were herded into the prison church, which looked much like the church of the Pauline Fathers in Kraków. The Germans instructed us to demolish its interior. Some three days earlier they had ordered the removal of its floor tiles – this command was carried out mainly by the engineers who had arrived from Mościce. All of us, priests included, were ordered to throw out the confessionals and tear down the crosses. Maschner and Mader called the tune, shouting obscenities against Christ (…). They also made a straw dummy, dressed it in chasubles, and burned it. All this was accompanied by the mocking laughter of the heartless Selbstschutzes”.
On 24 June 1940, a number of prisoners – including Oskar Stuhr – were taken to Auschwitz, having first been marched nine kilometers to the railway station in Bochnia. In the camp, priests also received “special treatment”.
“Savagely tormented by the SS men, priests suffered the greatest humiliation. The Germans made them perform the most difficult and arduous tasks. They were, among other things, made to drag a heavy roller used for compacting earth in the roll-call square”.
The new arrivals to Auschwitz were eagerly awaited by German criminal prisoners, who had been brought in from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in May. The latter were designated to serve as camp capos and, as such, were entrusted with the task of supervising Polish prisoners and ensuring the efficiency of their work.
“We, the Wiśnicz prisoners, built the first concentration camp in Wiśnicz in the former General Government. After the training we were given in Nowy Wiśnicz, the Germans harnessed us to the task of expanding the newly established mammoth concentration camp in Auschwitz. We were expected to utilize the training we had received for handling the countless transports of prisoners that were to be brought to Auschwitz in the future. Our task was to develop the facility into an extermination camp. (…) Initially, we were put to work dismantling the redundant buildings, leveling the ground for a roll-call square, and constructing the first crematorium and kitchen sheds”.
Arrested in the first months of the war, members of the Polish intellectual elites from Kraków, Tarnów and Jasło were the first victims of Auschwitz. They were soon joined by political prisoners from Warsaw.
Starvation-level rations and work beyond the limits of human endurance were not the only forms of harassment applied against prisoners. Additional penalties would be meted out for the pettiest of offences. People were punished for failing to take off their hats to Germans, for carrying out orders without due alacrity, or for simply working too slow.
“One of the severest punishments – tantamount in fact to the death penalty – consisted in administering 25 or 50 blows to the buttocks with beech sticks. Very few people survived it, while the bodies of those who did would turn into a dark rotten lump. For a few days after, you could see these skeletons crawling to the well with the last ounce of their strength and cleaning their dirty wounds. They usually died by the fence. The post was also a horrible punishment; prisoners came from under the post black and half dead”.
Thanks to the efforts undertaken by his family, Oskar Stuhr was released from the camp. He was required to present himself at the Gestapo headquarters in Kraków until the end of the war. Unfortunately, most of his comrades were not so lucky.