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“Polen­aktion” (“Polish Action,” 1938)

In late October of 1938, the Nazi regime ordered the arrest of around 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship who were living in the German Reich. The Jews were then expelled and transported violently to the Polish border. This forced expulsion, designated the Polenaktion (“Polish Action”) in German, was the first mass deportation of Jews from the German Reich.

It traced its origins to the spring of 1938, when the German Reich annexed Austria. The Polish government feared that this would cause an enormous number of Jews with Polish citizenship to return from Austria to Poland in the hopes of escaping anti-Semitic persecution. The Polish Parliament therefore passed a law making it possible to denationalize Polish citizens who had been living abroad for more than five years uninterrupted. On 9 October 1938, the Polish government decreed that passports issued abroad would henceforth only be valid with a special stamp from the Polish consulate.

In turn, the German government viewed the Polish government’s step as a threat to its own plans to expel foreign Jews. The Nazi regime had already targeted Jews of Eastern European origin, who were pejoratively labeled Ostjuden (“Eastern Jews”), for special hostility. On 26 October, the German government gave Poland an ultimatum: if it did not rescind its order, Germany would deport the Polish citizens from Germany before the new regulation took effect. The following day, the Reich Security Main Office disseminated a circular to all State Police offices in the country, instructing them to “immediately round up all Polish Jews in possession of valid passports...into protective custody and to transport them en masse without delay to the Polish border.”

The roundups were carried out throughout the Reich on 28 and 29 October 1938. Around 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship were arrested in their homes and initially detained in prisons and transit camps. The measure was implemented with regional differences across the states of the German Reich; in some places, entire families were taken; in others, only male members of the household were. The arrests came at a complete surprise to those affected. They were only permitted to take along a few meager possessions. The Reich Rail then transported them in special guarded trains to the German/Polish border. Most were deposited in the border town of Neu-Bentschen/Zbąszyń, while others were taken to Konitz (Pomerania) or Beuthen (Upper Silesia).

Yellowed machine-printed sheet with some handwritten additions and stamps

This deportation notice was issued by the Police President of Berlin and contains the request to Meilech Wolkenfeld (1893-1954) to leave Reich territory within 24 hours. The letter was presented to him in Berlin on October 28, 1938, after which he was immediately arrested and deported to the Polish border along with many others; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2013/263/14, gift of Jack Wolkenfeld. Further information on this document can be found in our online collections (in German)

The first group of trains was able to cross the border undisturbed, given that the Polish border guards were completely unprepared. Later, events proceeded at a slower pace, as German police and guards drove the expelled Jews on foot across the fields of the no-man’s-land at the frontier.

Conditions in Zbąszyń were catastrophic, especially in the first days and weeks. Gradually, a reception camp was established with emergency accommodation, where more than 8,000 people were forced to stay, some of them for months on end. They received support from Jewish aid organizations such as the American Joint Distribution Committee.

Among the expelled Jews were the Grynszpan family from Hanover, who sent a message to their son Herschel in Paris. In protest against the Polenaktion, the seventeen-year-old Herschel assassinated a diplomat at the German embassy in Paris, which the Nazis used as a pretext for the November Pogroms.

The Nazi regime did allow some expelled Jews to return temporarily to Germany to sell their property and arrange their emigration abroad. The Polish authorities permitted others to travel onward into the interior of Poland if they had relatives there. After the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, these Jews were once again under German rule; very few of this group survived the Shoah.

Washed-out black and white photo of a group of 14 men and women in coats. They stand on a snow-covered surface in front of a fence and were photographed from above. Almost everyone looks into the camera, some smile.

Erwin Zimet and other teachers in the camp Zbaszyn, Zbaszyn (Poland) approx. November 1938 - March 1939; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2004/140/190, gift of Lilli Gehr Zimet.

Further information about this photo can be found in our online collections (in German)

The Museum’s collections include documents, photographs, and artifacts that testify to the Polenaktion, including Polish passports marked “invalid,” deportation orders, postcards and letters sent from Zbąszyń, and photographs of the reception camp.

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