Refugees at an entrance to a stable set up as an emergency shelter, Zbąszyń, Poland, ca. 1938. (YIVO)

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Zbąszyń

Town 70 kilometers west of Poznań, on the Polish–German border of 1919–1939; population (1938) 5,400, including 360 Germans and 52 Jews. From November 1938 to August 1939 Zbąszyń housed a transit camp for Jews expelled from Germany during the so-called Polenaktion (27–29 October 1938).


The Polenaktion was a continuation of expropriating and expelling Jews from Germany after 1933. It was in direct response to the Polish citizenship law of 31 March 1938, legislation that threatened to revoke the passports of Polish citizens living abroad, and the subsequent decree of 6 October requiring passports to be revalidated by the end of that month. The Polish government adopted these laws largely out of fear that some 60,000–100,000 Polish Jews then living in Germany would seek to return to Poland to escape Nazi persecution, adding to already heavy pressures on the Polish economy and society.


The German government, wishing that as many Jews as possible would leave the country, demanded annulment of the new Polish laws. On 27 October, police, SS, and SA units arrested about 17,000 Jews with Polish citizenship. These Jews were transported to the Polish border on 29 October—about 8,000–9,000 to Zbąszyń, 5,000–6,000 to Bytom, and the rest to Chojnice and Gdynia. The deportees were driven by armed German guards with dogs on a cold and rainy night. Many had to cross the border on foot; some died and others were later hospitalized.


Actor Noach Nachbush, of the Relief Committee for Jewish Refugees Expelled from Germany, entertaining refugee children, Zbąszyń, Poland, ca. 1938. (YIVO)

Polish guards, taken by surprise, stopped the deportees from crossing the border. Eventually those expelled to Bytom were allowed to enter the country and were helped by Jewish rescue committees. Those who crossed the border into Zbąszyń were detained by the local Polish police; only about 3,000 of them managed to enter Poland before the police received the detention order. Residents of the town and the local authorities offered initial assistance; the next day, members of the Central Jewish Rescue Committee and the Joint Distribution Committee (including Emanuel Ringelblum) arrived on the scene, where a camp was established in deserted barracks, stables, and a flour mill. Conditions in the camp were appalling; only a few refugees found rooms in private houses.


The Polish authorities believed that detaining the exiles would pressure Germany to take them back. On 24 January 1939, however, the negotiations ended in Germany’s favor. Poland agreed to admit the deportees’ families; they would be allowed to liquidate their businesses in Germany, but they were required to deposit the money realized in blocked accounts that were never paid. The last exiles left Zbąszyń a day before Germany attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. The Polish Jews who remained in Germany were arrested in November; all were probably killed.


Among the exiles in Zbąszyń was the Grynszpan family, whose son Herszel was living in France. In revenge for the treatment of his relatives, Herszel shot a German diplomat in Paris. The Nazi government used his act as a pretext for the Kristallnacht pogrom.

Suggested Reading

Sybil Milton, “The Expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany, October 1938 to July 1939: A Documentation,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 29 (1984): 169–199; Gertrud Pickhan, “‘Niemandsland’: Die Briefe der Greta Schiffmann und das Schicksal einer jüdischen Familie, ausgewiesen aus Dortmund im Oktober 1938,” Beiträge zur Geschichte Dortmunds und der Grafschaft Mark 91 (2000): 161–209; Jerzy Tomaszewski, Auftakt zur Vernichtung: Die Vertreibung polnischer Juden aus Deutschland im Jahre 1938 (Osnabrück, Ger., 2002).

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