Eighty years ago, on 1 September 1939, German troops crossed the Polish frontier and ignited a conflagration that claimed the lives of tens of millions of innocents.
This descent into the jaws of destruction has been impregnated on our collective memory by the imagery of gleeful Nazis raising the border post in order to enter the free city of Danzig and reclaim it for the Reich.
Around 1,200 mainly elderly Jews remained in Danzig. By early 1941 they had all been sent to concentration camps.
Throughout the centuries, the port — Danzig to the Germans, Gdansk to the Poles — had been fought over. It is the point at which the Vistula, a crucial trading waterway, issues into the Baltic Sea. Until 1793, Gdansk was ruled by Poland and after the Napoleonic wars integrated into Prussia as Danzig. It was, however, lost to Germany after its defeat in the First World War — it became instead a “free city”, but allowed Poland access to the sea.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland was not unexpected.
In a speech at the end of April 1939, Hitler had accused “Jewish parasites” of “plundering the nation ruthlessly” and Judeo-Bolshevism of exploiting the misery of the unemployed.
He also demanded the return of Danzig and a route through “the Polish corridor” to the city amidst a renunciation of the non-aggression pact between Germany and Poland.
Unlike other countries, the Poles had been persuaded neither by the “reasonableness” of Hitler’s proposals nor by his threats. They remained stubborn and suspicious — and wished to preserve a neutral status between their aggressive neighbours, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
This episode was the latest in a series of Nazi moves designed to nullify the cost of defeat in 1918. Ordinary Germans saw Hitler’s machinations as a means to reverse the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty and to reunite Germans with the Reich.
In March 1939 German troops, however, marched into the rump of Czechoslovakia — a non-German people had become enslaved. The Munich Agreement has not brought peace in our time, but capitulation.
Danzig was a step too far for the Allies: it was clear Hitler wanted more than the restoration of German national pride. Britain and France declared war two days later.
After the upheavals of the First World War, Danzig had become a temporary location for stateless and persecuted Jews, seeking a better life elsewhere. Many were encamped in a special transit facility on the city’s outskirts where they were helped by Danzig’s Jewish community. In the 1920s, some 60,000 homeless Jews passed through.
The Nazi virus, infecting Weimar Germany, however, was soon exported to Danzig’s German citizens. Hitler had encouraged his local representative in Danzig, Albert Forster, to replicate Nazi persecution of the Jews.
In July 1932, the local Nazis had organised a big demonstration, featuring both anti-Jewish and anti-Polish caricatures. In May 1933, the Nazis won power in Danzig through a democratic election. Forster repeatedly challenged the control of the League of Nations over Danzig and proceeded rapidly with the Nazification of the city.
One tactic used by the Nazis was to create a split between the acculturated German-Jewish leadership and the traditional “ostjuden” from Poland. Although there were undeniable differences of understanding Jewishness, they resisted the entreaties of the local Nazis to denounce each other. Even so, by 1937, 3000 Jews had left. Emigration had become the rule and not the exception.
In October 1937, the local Nazis announced that they could not guarantee the rights of foreign-born Jews. A year later, Kristallnacht resulted in the burning down of two synagogues and the desecration of two others.
The local community was forced to sell the main synagogues in Danzig and Zopot and many other communal possessions at knock-down prices to facilitate emigration. On 2 January 1939, laws excluding Jews from economic life and the professions came into force in Danzig.
Deportations began shortly afterwards. Jews were taken into quiet streets near the Vistula in the dead of the night. The British Consul occasionally managed to be present to bear witness — and on one occasion, two British journalists were arrested when they turned up to report on the evictions.
Jewish organisations were closed down — the Zionist Federation, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen, the Union of Liberal Jews. When the Jewish school in Danzig was forcibly closed, 69 children were brought to Britain — they began to learn English at Hampstead synagogue.
The first departure of Jews from Danzig took place on 3 March 1939. They were taken to Marienburg in East Prussia, placed on a German train which travelled across Europe to Constantza on the Black Sea and finally deposited on ships, bound for new destinations. When the train reached Bucharest on 5 March, local Romanian Jews rushed to bring food to the starving passengers. They were held back by the local police.
Others were not so fortunate. Forty Jews were imprisoned in a labour camp at Güttland near Danzig, building dykes for the Nazis. They were segregated from other prisoners.
The remaining Jews of Danzig understood that the Nazi sword of Damocles hanging over their heads could fall at a moment’s notice. As the outbreak of war became inevitable, there was a frantic rush to rescue those left behind.
The JC at the time ran a column entitled ‘Refugee Advertisements’ — publishing pleas from mainly German Jews. One read: “My parents in Danzig seek post together as cook-housework-gardener; own fare; no English; strong and healthy.”
Albert Forster had been informed by Hitler of the impending invasion. In the early hours of 1 September 1939, the battleship, the Schleswig-Holstein, in Danzig’s harbour, fired on a Polish munitions depot. German troops and local Nazis advanced on the Polish post office, but were met by strong resistance which took hours to overcome.
The following day, the Nazis established the first concentration camp outside German borders at Stutthof, 30 miles from Danzig. It was also the last camp to be liberated by the Allies, on 9 May 1945. Over 60,000 died there in the intervening period — half of them Jews.
Danzig remained under Nazi control for the duration of the war. In March 1945, the Red Army fought, raped and pillaged its way into Danzig, burned down its churches — and German Danzig became Polish Gdansk once more.
Yet the Jewish history of the city did not end in 1945.
Six trials took place in Poland between 1946 and 1953 in which over 2,000 SS men and women were indicted. The commander of Stutthof, Johann Pauls, a native of Danzig, was hanged on 4 July 1946, together with six SS women and five Polish kapos.
Even today, countless decades later, Stutthof guards are being discovered, arrested and tried. The Münster district court trial of 94-year-old Johann Rehbogen, accused of being an accessory to murder at the camp, was abandoned in March of this year following a deterioration in the accused’s physical state.
The court’s charges stated that SS members had killed “an unknown number — probably several hundred – Jewish prisoners from August until the end of 1944, both in the gas chamber and in the carriages of the Kleinbahn, which led into the camp”. It also stated that SS doctors had killed more than 140 prisoners — from 1944 onwards, predominantly Jewish women and children — by injecting petrol and phenol directly into the hearts of the victims.
The seizure of Danzig in 1939 signalled the beginning of the struggle against Nazism. In 1980, the strike in the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk signalled the birth of Solidarity and the death-knell of Communism.
Danzig/Gdansk therefore symbolises the fight against totalitarianism and dictatorship in the 20th century. History is for all, but for Jews it is memory that matters. “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.”