Pomeranian Crime: Whoever is Polish must disappear

The most common practice was that German neighbors, citizens of pre-war Poland, were pointing out their Polish neighbors they didn’t like, and betraying them. The Selbstschutz was using ruthless interrogation methods. They tortured, raped, shot and killed in other cruel ways.

December, 1939 in Pomerania was terrifying. Those who survived the Pomeranian pogrom were returning to their families. Others were still missing, their families awaiting them with less and less hope. People were still being taken from their homes, caught, driven away, leaving no trace behind. A terrible Christmas was approaching, with no news of loved ones. Most often, those missing were fathers, brothers, grandsons, although women were also disappearing. The message being trumpeted around in every possible way was that Poland no longer existed; that Pomerania had "always" been part of the great German Reich and that it would remain so forever. The war had been won by Germany.

On October 8, 1939, Adolf Hitler issued an official decree unilaterally annexing the western areas of German-occupied Poland to the Third Reich.

On the website of the Museum of World War II we read: "It had tragic consequences for Poles living in the occupied territories. German policy towards the conquered population was marked by exceptional cruelty. Its goal was the Germanization of the occupied areas, which meant the cultural and even physical extermination of the Polish population. The effects of unimaginable terror included arrests, mass displacements and murders. As part of the so-called Intelligenzaktion, the Germans were particularly fierce in searching out and liquidating representatives of the Polish political, economic and intellectual elite."

Saved by a miracle

My grandfather miraculously survived the Pomeranian pogrom. As a teacher and head of a village school on the road to Nakło on the Noteć River, he was selected for liquidation, deported and, as it later turned out, imprisoned in the local jail in Koronowo. It happened shortly after the whole family returned home from a three-week escape from the German invasion. They fled towards Warsaw. In the first weeks of September 1939, hundreds of thousands of refugees traveled along Polish roads, seeking shelter and sanctuary from the German invaders. The family, together with a whole fleet of other Polish families of refugees, set off in horse-drawn carts towards the capital.

After about two weeks, the Polish army finally turned back the wanderers near Sochaczew and told them to return home. Almost immediately after their return, the attackers made their presence felt. They designated a meeting point for teachers. There they were to be provided with information about new laws and regulations. But there was no return from this "meeting". My grandfather was sent to prison in Koronowo (a jail known before the war, for imprisoning political opponents, primarily communists), where he was incarcerated with a group of Polish teachers on the third floor.

"The facility was used as a temporary place of internment for people of Polish origin suspected of having an unfriendly attitude towards local Germans. After thorough examination, some prisoners were released back home, while others were shot in the nearby town of Buszkowo, located north-west of Koronowo," wrote Prof. Włodzimierz Jastrzębski, author of the extensive publication "Terror and Crime" (Interpress, 1974).

My grandfather owed his survival to the fact that, in addition to teaching, he was also an outstanding beekeeper. And the new owners of the nearby estate in Potulice had been looking for someone with such skills in the area when the locals pointed out "our teacher". He returned on the last day of the year, December 31, New Year's Eve 1939.

Wedding rings from Death Valley

In 2024, 85 years will have passed since the events of the fall of 1939. Only recently have they gained their own name -- "Pomeranian Crime".

In 1939, in some 400 towns of Gdańsk Pomerania, at least 30,000 people (some estimate 50,000) were murdered. The total number of victims is impossible to determine because the Germans destroyed the documentation before they left the area at the end of the war, many of the bodies of the murdered having been dug out and burned. The victims were Polish civilians (intelligentsia, clergy, workers, landowners), Jews, disabled people and patients of psychiatric hospitals. They were members of the civilian population, not the military, not members of armed units opposing the occupier.

Will the memory of this horrific crime resonate strongly enough next year? Will it be heard beyong Poland -- in Berlin also, and perhaps throughout Europe? Let's hope so. However, for this to occur, an appropriate political climate has to be created. Let us try to guess whether this will happen.
Members of the Selbstschutz digging graves for Polish victims of Piaśnica murder. Photo: Wikimedia
The criminal actions of the Germans and the sites where mass murders tok place are still being discovered. The most recent discoveries include the Igły fields in "Death Valley" near Chojnice. Research carried out there over a two-year period under the supervision of the IPN [The Institute of National Remembrance] prosecutor has yielded results. Dr. Dawid Kobiałka, the head of the archaeological team, talked about it in an interview given to the website chojnicenaszemiasto.pl.

The site of a mass grave of Poles murdered in the fall of 1939 and in early 1945 (when the traces of the atrocity were covered up in panic) by German formations was found on the very last day of the search.

  "We were verifying the testimony of a witness who claimed that in 1939 he had taken part in digging ditches, which later became execution sites. This was the main place of our research this year [2020]. And on the last day, when everyone was convinced that nothing would come out of it, I decided, together with the prosecutor, that we would check the original ‘Death Valley’, i.e. the fields located close to today's settlement of Igły. The area was actually called ‘Death Valley’ by the local community in the fall of 1939. And just imagine, we had just conducted a long fruitless search but when we arrived there, we immediately found a large concentration of Polish pre-war coins and cartridge cases. After two meters of digging we came across mixed soil, which means that something happened there, and then quickly we saw the first pistol cartridge case, and first human remains. It is impossible to describe how emotional we felt then. We were simply happy," says Dr. Kobiałka.

The IPN says that the exhumation and archaeological research carried out to date in the ‘Valley of Death’, has unearthed the remains of victims, fragments and personal items. Over 4,250 artifacts or artifact elements that belonged to the victims at the time of death were discovered. These included: wedding and signet rings, medallions with the image of the Virgin Mary, crosses, shattered rosary beads, silver pocket and wrist watches, fragments of shoes, all sorts of buttons, glasses, spoons and false teeth. Some items had been destroyed, the result of being exposed to fire. Based on the unearthed wedding rings, it was possible to establish the identities of two of the murdered victims and most likely women whose bodies had been burned.

These types of poignant finds were already familiar to Poles from another cruel crime, that committed by the Soviets -- the Katyn Massacre.

German historian: The reparations issue is still open

Given that we face the arrogance of Germany’s political elite, joint action is necessary, says Dr Karl Heinz Roth, a German historian and physician.

see more
Today, the largest and most infamous sites of the Pomeranian Crime are known: Piaśnica near Wejherowo, Szpęgawsk near Starogard Gdański, Lasy Kaliskie near Kartuzy, Skarszewy, Mniszek near Świecie on the Vistula River, Igły in Chojnice, Rudzki Most near Tuchola, Karolewo and Radzim near Sępólno Krajeńskie, Paterek near Nakło on the Noteć, Tryszczyn and Fordońska ‘Death Valley’ near Bydgoszcz, Barbarka near Toruń, Klamry near Chełmno, Łopatki near Wąbrzeźno and Skrwilno near Rypin.

Neighborhood crime

How did this crime come about? Those most responsible for the Pomeranian Crime are the Germans who were living at that time in the areas of today's Pomeranian and Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeships.

The Treaty of Versailles, provided for the return of Gdańsk Pomerania, which had been part of Prussia for over a century, to Poland. Afterwards, some of the Germans living there left, but those who remained sought to strengthen their position at any cost, creating organizations and parties, among them the Young German Party, which had the biggest membership and was the most influential. The Germans considered the western areas of the Second Polish Republic to be "their" lands and wanted to "de-Polish" them (Entpolnisierung) as quickly as possible. [Once Poland lost the war] genocide was used as the method.

The plan was to completely Germanize Pomerania within five years. This task was undertaken by the governor of the Reich District of Gdańsk-West Prussia, Albert Forster. This criminal, who was caught after the war and finally executed (although you can also read opinions disputing the truth of this), declared in Bydgoszcz on November 27, 1939: "Whoever is Polish must disappear. The most honorable task for us is to do everything to ensure that every manifestation of Polishness is completely destroyed."

Already, at the beginning of September 1939, local Volksdeutsche units began to be established in Gdańsk Pomerania. On the discovery of the burial place in the Igły fields, IPN President, Dr. Karol Nawrocki said that the victims had been murdered in the autumn of 1939 by their own neighbors. "By their German neighbors, operating in the Selbstschutz [ethnic-German self-protection units] and supported by Einsatzgruppen [SS paramilitary death squads]," he emphasized.

Lists were prepared with the names of the Poles who were to be eliminated. People of German origin living in Poland, without German citizenship, helped in drawing them up. Testimonies reveal that in many cases personal scores with Polish neighbors played a large role in the compilation process. This is why some researchers refer to the Pomeranian Massacre of 1939 as a neighborhood crime.

Victims and perpetrators knew each other from pre-war times. Yet what does "neighborhood crime" really mean? Doesn't the term somehow dilute responsibility? Is it misleading? Does it, unnecessarily, make the truth more confusing?

The greatest responsibility for the massacre rests with Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz -- a merger of two local organizations. Selbstschutz, although established throughout occupied Poland, played a special role in Pomerania. It was exterminating the Polish population, with the active support of the Wehrmacht and the SS.

The most common practice was that German neighbors, citizens of pre-war Poland, were pointing out their Polish neighbors whom they didn’t like, and betraying them. The Selbstschutz was using ruthless interrogation methods. They tortured, raped, shot and killed in other cruel ways.
Polish inhabitants of the Free City of Gdańsk arrested in the first days of the war. Photo: Wikimedia
As researchers emphasize: civilians were imprisoned and killed on racial grounds, solely because they were Poles, identifying themselves with Polishness and fighting for it. It was ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. Unpunished genocide. German terror in Pomerania, that included the murder of the sick and people with all kinds of disabilities, preceded by two years the racially motivated extermination policy applied to the Jewish population from 1941 on.

The Mystery of Bloody Sunday in Bydgoszcz

Among the many historians who for several decades have been investigating German crimes in Pomerania during the occupation, the most recognizable is the aforementioned Prof. Włodzimierz Jastrzębowski. In the 1970s, he did not refer to these events as the Pomeranian Crime -- that is a name created only recently. The subtitle he assigned his work "Terror and Crime" is "The extermination of the Polish and Jewish population in the Bydgoszcz region in 1939-1945." It is a shocking read, full of factual details such as the names of victims, witness testimonies, and lists the places of execution. And yet it contains only part of the data, because much had yet to be discovered at that time. However, even then, its publication marked the first time the general outline and nature of the crime had been documented so extensively.

It is from this book that we learn that the first round-ups took place in Bydgoszcz. The book gives plenty of examples of the criminal actions of the Germans from the very beginning of the war.

The book also includes statement that remains puzzling (even today): "The occupation history of Bydgoszcz in the years 1939-1945 is overshadowed by the events that took place on September 3, 1939, called 'Bydgoszcz Bloody Sunday' by Nazi propaganda. "

On that day, in a city still free from Nazi troops, around 10.20 am, the sabotage campaign, prepared with the active participation of the local German minority, began to operate with full force. It was directed against the Polish troops retreating from the so-called Pomeranian corridor and the Polish civilian population of the city. Local Germans and saboteurs, secretly brought to Bydgoszcz from the Reich in the last pre-war days, opened fire with rifles from attics and roofs, from behind fences, and from basements and church towers aiming at the units of the 15th Infantry Division marching through the city's streets.

The outbreak of sabotage resulted in the counteraction of Polish non-linear units, supported by the patriotically minded Polish population of the city. The latter provided invaluable services in identifying the German-owned facilities from which the Polish army was attacked.

Hitler's High-Stakes Gamble: The Road to Conflict and Unintended Alliances

Following the campaign in Poland, Germany had further military campaigns on its agenda, including one against the Soviet Union.

see more
"The fights that broke out on September 3 and partly 4, 1939, in the streets of Bydgoszcz, resulted in human casualties on both sides. All the Polish researchers who to date have dealt with the Nazi occupation in Gdańsk Pomerania agree that the killing of several dozen saboteurs and some German inhabitants of the city who were in solidarity with them (an estimated 150 people) by the counterattacking Poles served the Nazis, on entering Bydgoszcz, as an excuse to take harsh reprisals on the civilian population. For this purpose, Goebbels' propaganda created a myth about the alleged martyrdom of the German minority in Bydgoszcz."

This comes from the opening of one of the chapters of Prof. Jastrzębowski’s publication from 1974.

How it looked from the German side is vividly described by the writer Günter Grass, the German Nobel Prize winner, in his famous autobiographical novel "Peeling the Onion", which was published in 2006.

"As a member of the Hitler Youth, I was a young Nazi. A believer until the very end. I wasn't particularly fanatical, but my eyes were instinctively focused on the flag, which was said to be ‘something greater than death', I followed orders, trained in marching at a steady pace. No doubt marred my faith; nothing unorthodox can relieve me, even the secret distribution of leaflets. No joke about Göring aroused suspicion on me. Anyway, I believed that my homeland was in danger because it was surrounded by enemies.

"Since I was terrified by the scary reports about the 'Bydgoszcz Bloody Sunday' which filled the pages of 'Danziger Vorposten' immediately after the war began and turned all Poles into assassins, all German retaliatory actions seemed justified to me," he wrote.

Or another fragment confirming what was written then in Gdańsk and, of course, in all other German newspapers:

"(...) an adult collector of details, before being horrified once again by the propaganda horrors of multi-column reports that page after page discuss the massacre of September 3rd, the 'Bydgoszcz Bloody Sunday' committed by 'Polish monsters', looks at himself (... )."

That's what it looked like everywhere. "This myth (...) went out into the world, serving in the fall of 1939 not only to justify aggression against Poland, but to an even greater extent to constitute a ‘moral’ justification for the rapes committed on Poles in the first weeks and months of the occupation," wrote Prof. Jastrzębowski.

Włodzimierz Jastrzębowski (at that time with a doctoral degree) reported that in Polish historiography there were two contradictory hypotheses regarding the purpose of causing sabotage in Bydgoszcz. The first was to be a top-down provocation, prepared in consultation with the central authorities of the Third Reich. According to this hypothesis, the provocation assumed the sacrifice of a certain group of local Germans so that we could talk about "Bromberg Blutsonntag" (Bloody Sunday in Bydgoszcz) and use these events in the most terrible propaganda terms.
Polish hostages in the Old Market Square in Bydgoszcz during public executions in the fall of 1939. Photo: Wikimedia
The second hypothesis emphasizes that the German sabotage was associated with supporting the Wehrmacht and was intended to help the Nazis to take over Bydgoszcz quickly.

Jastrzębowski himself changed his mind after many years. This historian, associated with the Casimir the Great University in Bydgoszcz, finally concluded that there was no sabotage, and the confusion in the city was caused by an accident in one of the streets involving a horse-drawn carriage. This, in turn, was to cause panic among residents and crowds of refugees, which then turned into riots, and the mistreatment and murder of German inhabitants of the city by Poles. The change of view was widely reported in the media, and Jastrzębowski was polemicized in many ways.

Another breakthrough was the publication "Bydgoszcz Bloody Sunday. The Death of a Legend" by the German author, historian and journalist Günter Schubert. Contrary to what German historiography had previously claimed, he proved that on September 3, 1939 in Bydgoszcz there was an "uprising" prepared by saboteurs from the Third Reich. Some inhabitants of Bydgoszcz were to join the newcomers from Germany (via Gdańsk) and form sabotage groups of several people. They were deployed in several parts of the city and started firing at the retreating Polish soldiers.

Guilt without punishment

These disputes between Polish and German historiography, disputes about the truth, have been going on for years. But regardless, the Pomeranian Crime, which occurred in the first weeks after the German invasion of Poland and affected thousands of families in Pomerania, is indisputable. The German side must acknowledge its guilt, also in this terrifying ethnic murder. To sum up the guilt, we must also remember that the perpetrators mostly escaped punishment. This is also unacceptable.

The IPN President, Karol Nawrocki, draws attention to statistics. Not only those concerning Chojnice and the "Valley of Death", but also those from the whole of Pomerania. "After 1945, the German state, which was emerging to democracy and prosperity, had all the tools to judge the criminals -- the names of 1,701 perpetrators were established, 258 prosecutorial proceedings were initiated and 233 of them were discontinued. Ten people were sentenced while 30,000 people in 400 towns of Pomerania were murdered. These are brutal and cruel numbers. Why were the criminals never held accountable? " Nawrocki asks.

However, while remembering the guilt, it must be recognized that there are known cases, definitely few, but still there, when Germans saved their neighbors from trouble and helped them survive those most cruel times. Some witnesses also talk about it.

– Grażyna Raszkowska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy

In the article I used, among others:

Information from the IPN;
Włodzimierz Jastrzębowski "Terror and Crime. Extermination of the Polish and Jewish Population in the Bydgoszcz Region in the Years 1939-1945.” Interpress Publishing House, Warsaw 1974;
Information from local media in the Pomeranian and Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeships;
Günter Grasss "Peeling the Onion", 2006.
Main photo: September 1939. Poles arrested by the Germans during the "cleansing action" in Gdynia. Photo: Wikimedia
See more
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Escape from Stalag – Christmas Eve Story 1944
Prisoners sought shelter in a German church... It was a mistake.
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
New Moscow in Somalia
The Russian press called him "the new Columbus".
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Anonymous account by Witold Pilecki
The friend with whom they had escaped from KL Auschwitz was killed on August 5. He died with the words: “for Poland”.
History wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Journalist purge to restore media monopoly
Only “trusted people” were allowed to work; over 100 employees were interned.
History wydanie 1.12.2023 – 8.12.2023
Somosierra and women. Stories from the times of Napoleon
Maria Walewska wrote to Napoleon about the battle. He replied: "You can be proud."