POLENAKTION! October,1938. The Story of the expellees from Germany

On 26 October 1938 Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich main security office, announced that all Polish Jews would be immediately expelled from Germany. It was a response to the deprivation of citizenship law passed by the Polish Sejm on 31 March 1938. Two days later about 17,000 Jewish citizens of Poland found themselves on border stations. Majority of them (about 8,000) had been moved to Zbąszyń, where a temporary refugee camp was established in the former military barracks.

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Landesarchiv Berlin, project: eot Berlin


On 31 March 1938, the Polish Sejm, expecting mass returns of Polish Jews living in Germany to their homeland, passed the deprivation of citizenship law. According to the bill, Polish citizens who have spent at least 5 years abroad continuously after the establishing of the Polish State, could have lost their citizenship. In mid-October 1938, the Interior Minister issued a regulation which obliged every Polish citizen staying abroad to register their passport at their nearest consulate and to obtain a control note confirming the validity of the document. Passport without the note didn’t allow to cross the Polish border after 29 October 1938.

On 26 October 1938 Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich main security office, announced that all Polish Jews would be immediately expelled from Germany. They were given a deportation order and were carried to the Polish border at their own cost, in sealed trains. They were allowed to take only 10 marks and some clothing with them. Entire families, single men and women, children and youth without adult guardians were all deported alike. The procedure was conducted in big cities as well as in small villages. Feliks Chiczewski, Polish consul in Leipzig, reacted to the deportations by opening the Consulate General and providing shelter for more than 1,300 people.

On 28 October, about 17,000 Jewish citizens of Poland found themselves on border stations of Zbąszyń, Bytom, near Chojnice and Wschowa. Several thousand of them had the status of stateless persons and remained in camps established between groups of Polish and German military. Majority of them (about 8,000) had been moved to Neu Bentschen (today Zbąszynek), from where they had been led through the border to the Polish town of Zbąszyń, located on the Berlin-Warsaw train line and inhabited by about 5,400 people. A temporary refugee camp was established in the former military barracks.

The aid

Many people, woken up in the middle of the night, had found themselves in Zbąszyń in slippers and pyjamas. [1]  Many of them had no money, clothing, basic goods with them; many were on the verge of a mental breakdown. Only a week before, they had houses and jobs, now they had found themselves in a state of suspension, penniless (Kassow). In the first days, some of the deported people manages to go to their families in Poland. Later, the authorities had closes the city – leaving Zbąszyń required permission from the authorities, money to buy a ticket and certainty where to go. [2]

Jewish aid organizations such as JOINT as well as the Polish Red Cross quickly organized help. In early November, the General Committee To Aid Refugees From Germany was established. It was directed by Dr Mojżesz Schorr, a rabbi from Warsaw. The organization coordinated many local committees. In Warsaw, Bund and class labour unions had founded the Workers’ Aid Committee. Press was publishing announcements calling to collect food, clothing, blankets and money for the deported. In Warsaw and Kraków, shelter for more than 4,500 people was organized; smaller communities were accepting people too, sometimes several hundred at once. Additionally, 3,5 million zlotys (700,000 dollars) was collected. Joint became responsible for organizing aid, adding an extra 20% of the sum to the financial resource. [3] Polish intellectuals, such as Professor Tadeusz Kotarbiński, Zofia Nałkowska, Jerzy Andrzejewski, Maria Kuncewiczowa, Józef Czapski and others, have also contributed to the aid, which was met with aggressive attacks from anti-Semitic press. [4]

Ringelblum wrote: Łódź, Warszawa, Będzin, Katowice, Bielsko-Biała, Kalisz and other cities have responded for Giterman’s plea. They have collected bedding, blankets, clothes, money etc. Giterman established a whole movement to help refugees from Germany. During his several weeks of stay in Zbąszyń, Giterman managed to spread his spirit of sacrifice. Thousands of poor souls have been saved from death from famine thanks to him; „Joint” helped thousands move abroad. [5]

The deported people were living in old military stables, a school, a mill, old shooting range, sports hall by the local stadium. Wealthier refugees were renting rooms from the Zbąszyń locals. In the city, a Jewish hospital, school, kitchens, post office, clothing storage and immigration office were established, as well as a choir and a sports club, which was playing football matches against the local team. Woodwork and sewing courses were organized. A special office helped search for families, and a child care department took care of children, especially those deported without their parents.

Emanuel Ringelblum

Emanuel Ringelblum went to Zbąszyń at the order of Icchak Giterman, in order to coordinate help on behalf of JOINT for five weeks. Activists of this organization were working 18 hours a day, saving people from famine, and helping them travel abroad. This work revealed Ringelblum’s talent for management and solving problems. He was encouraging the refugees to write accounts of the deportation, which he considered an „unprecedented event in the Jewish history”, and to speak Yiddish (he even invited Noe Nachbusz, a Warsaw actor who was playing in Yiddish). His Zbąszyń experience was later applied in work for the Jewish Social Self-Help in the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as for the Oneg Shabbat group.

Ringelblum was trying to create decent living conditions for the refugees, without harming their dignity. He didn’t treat them like beggars waiting for alms, but encouraged them to take responsibilities at the camp. In his summary, he wrote that nearly all of 420 employees of various camp departments were refugees. He wrote to Mahler that it is important that there is no differentiation between „givers” and „takers” in Zbąszyń, that relationships between people are good, unaffected by patronizing philanthropy. [6]

The end of the action and its repercussions

On the back of Polish-German negotiations on 24 January 1939, an agreement was signed, allowing family representatives to temporarily come to Germany in order to regulate their personal issues and business. Within several weeks, they had to sell their property and carry belongings over the border. In practice, receiving a permission to do so was complicated and required facing many bureaucratic challenges, so only 3632 people had received the permissions eventually. They were selling their property at low prices and lost most of their belongings.

As time went on, the number of escapes from the refugee camp kept rising, as did the number of permissions to move into Poland. By late November, there were about 4,000 people in Zbąszyń. Travels on a larger scale began in late Spring 1939. The refugee camp was disbanded in late August 1939.

On 7 November, 17-year old Herschel Grynszpan killed an employee of the German embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, as an act of revenge for sending his family to Zbąszyń. It was used as an excuse for the Kristallnacht – pogrom of the Jews in Germany and Austria, which took place at night, on 9/10 November 1938.


POLENAKTION! / October,1938. The Story of the expellees from Germany – an exhibition

The exhibition presented at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute recalls the events from October 1938. The history of Polenaktion is seen there through the lens of biographies of individual victims. The leading motif of the exhibition are stories of six Jewish families from Berlin. The exhibition consists of three parts in chronological order: „Life in Berlin before 1938”, „Deportations in October 1938”, „The history of persecution and rescue”.

The exhibition was developed by the History Department of the East European Institute of the Freie Universität Berlin and the Aktives Museum in Berlin, as a part of commemorative events of the Polenaktion in 2018.

The exhibition was presented at the Stiftung Neue Synagoge Berlin – Centrum Judaicum between 8 July 2018 and 28 February 2019. Over 40.000 guests visited the exhibition.

Sponsors of the exhibition:

  • Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa

  • Friede Springer Stiftung
  • Sanddorf-Stiftung

The exhibition received financial support from the resources of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, as a part of commemorative events of the 75th anniversary of Emanuel Ringelblum’s death.




[1] Podziemne Archiwum Getta Warszawy, Pisma Emanuela Ringelbluma z bunkra, tom 29A, s. 155 – 156.

[2] Jerzy Tomaszewski, Preludium Zagłady. Wygnanie Żydów polskich z Niemiec w 1938 r., Wyd. Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 1998, s. 201.

[3] Samuel D. Kassow, Kto napisze naszą historię?, s. 195.

[4] Jerzy Tomaszewski, Preludium Zagłady, op.cit., s. 221.

[5] Podziemne Archiwum Getta Warszawy, Pisma Emanuela Ringelbluma z bunkra, op. cit., s. 155 – 156.

[6] Michał Rudawski, Mój obcy kraj?, Warszawa 1996, s. 57.


Jerzy Tomaszewski, Preludium Zagłady. Wygnanie Żydów polskich z Niemiec w 1938 r., Wyd. Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 1998.

Do zobaczenia za rok w Jerozolimie. Deportacje polskich Żydów w 1938 roku z Niemiec do Zbąszynia, red. Izabela Skórzyńska, Wojciech Olejniczak, Fundacja TRES, Zbąszyń – Poznań 2012.

Agnieszka Hreczuk, Zbąszyń, preludium do zagłady. 17 tys. Żydów trafiło z Niemiec do Polski, Wyborcza.pl, 26 listopada 2018, http://wyborcza.pl/alehistoria/7,121681,24198753,zbaszyn-preludium-do-zaglady-17-tys-zydow-trafilo-z...

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