The German Invasion of Poland and the Beginning of World War II
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded and quickly conquered western Poland, beginning World War II. Before the invasion began, Nazi leaders, attentive to popular sentiment against war, initiated a propaganda campaign to paint Poland as the aggressor. On August 31, SS men wearing Polish military uniforms mounted a phony attack on a German radio tower at the border; Hitler then declared on radio that German forces would enter Poland in response to Polish “incursions.”
The speed and ferocity of Germany’s land and air assault shocked ill-prepared Polish citizens and poorly matched military forces. Amidst great destruction of lives and property, refugees streamed eastward. Many of them were stunned once more as Soviet forces entered eastern Poland on September 17. (The two invading states partitioned Poland and eastern Europe under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.)
Few people were as prescient as Warsaw Jewish educator Chaim Kaplan who wrote in his diary that the war would be a battle for “civilization” against Nazi “barbarism.” In fall 1939, Nazi terror began. German security police—with the assistance of many ethnic Germans living inside Poland who welcomed the invasion—began imprisoning and executing thousands of well-educated citizens to eliminate potential resistance leaders.
While at first many Polish Catholics and Jews united against a common enemy during the invasion and worked side by side digging anti-tank ditches, Nazi policy over the next months aimed to deepen ethnic divisions. Having already pitted neighbor against neighbor by relying on ethnic German collaborators, the occupiers would later isolate Jews further by forcing them to wear identifying armbands before ghettoizing them. Tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, both men and women, were separated from their families and transported as forced laborers to work in factories and family farms inside the Reich. Nazi-occupied Poland was a major site of the killing that took place during the Holocaust.
The Museum’s Collections
The Museum’s collections include many items that tell us about the swift and immediate impact that the invasion had on Polish citizens, Jews and Christians alike. Diaries written at the time and oral histories recorded decades later highlight the fear and uncertainty that people felt during the days leading up to and immediately after the invasion, as well as the persecution they experienced in its wake. Films and photographs document the devastation the invasion wrought on Polish cities and citizens, and everyday objects illustrate the experiences of the individuals to whom they belonged during this period.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is constantly adding to its collection of original documents, photographs, and artifacts relating to the events of the Holocaust and the experiences of individuals whose lives were directly impacted by those events, including survivors, rescuers, and liberators. If you or your family members have such materials and would be interested in speaking with our curators about a possible artifact donation, please fill out the online form, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call 202.488.2649, or print and mail this form (PDF). Read more about common donations and questions from donors.