Soldiers of the Einsatzgruppenn in rural Poland, 1939..


The German Invasion

At just past 5 a.m. on the morning of September 1, 1939, explosions could be heard throughout Zolynia. It was a Friday, and the Second World War had begun. German aircraft were dropping bombs, mostly near the railroad lines. There was another air raid in the afternoon. Zolynia was not hit directly, but some of the nearby villages were. Over the next week, as the German Army moved further and further into Poland, the raids would be more frequent, and then came occassional airbursts from artillery. Zolynia was not seriously damaged in the invasion, but there were deaths and destruction at farms, factories and homes nearby, including Dabrowki, part of the Zolynia Kahal. German airplanes did buzz and make some straifing runs at civilians on the ground at Zolynia. The bridges and railroad line at Lezajsk, nine miles away on the banks of the San River, were heavily bombed.

The Polish Army of the Carpathian moved into the area around Zolynia, hoping to make a stand near Lancut, but fell back as the Germans advanced. A steady stream of civilians moved through the area, particularly terrified Jewish civilians from Krakow and other cities and towns to the west. The Germans left no doubt about how Jews would be treated. Many of the trucks and rail cars that transported many soldiers to the front lines were decorated with anti-Jewish slogans and cartoon figures. Early in the morning of September 10, the German Army was moving through Zolynia.

Many civilians packed belongings into suitcases and by wagon and by foot headed across the San River to the east, hoping that the Polish Army would make a stand and hold back the Germans there. Instead, they found themselves trapped between two armies; on September 17, the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east and the country was split between the Nazi and Communist regimes. Near Zolynia, the new border would run generally along or just to the east of the San River. Some Polish Army troops would hold out until early October, but Poland was again partitioned between neighboring superpowers.

Abuses Begin Immediately

On September 13, the first day of the Rosh Hashanah high holiday, the communal baths and synagogue of Mielec, a town 40 miles (65 km) west of Zolynia, were burned down with 55 Jewish residents inside the buildings. On September 14, Germans burned one of the synagogues in Lezajsk, and also burned the Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious books in the town's market square. The Lancut synagogue was also set on fire, but was extinguished before major damage was done (some accounts say that Count Potocki asked military commanders to have the fire put out). Jews throughout the region were being commandeered to scrub military barracks, clear rubble, clean trucks and tanks and move heavy equipment. Jewish shops were stripped of goods.

In the first two months of the German occupation of Poland, over 5,000 Jewish civilians were killed. However, Jews were not the only people singled out for attacks. As the Wehrmacht Heer (the German Regular Army) moved across Poland, it was followed closely by special military Einsatzgruppen ("Special Action Groups"). The Einstazgruppen were specially trained killing units, technically part of the Gestapo, the German State Police. During the invasion of Poland their total strength was about 2,700 men. Their primary goal in 1939 was to arrest or kill anyone perceived as a political threat to the new regime, and to confiscate weapons and generally subdue the population. They were specifically charged with the use of terror and demonstrations of power against Jewish populations. In the first two weeks of the invasion, the Einsatzgruppen made more than 10,000 arrests, including many teachers, professors, priests and those considered to be in the Polish upper classes (priests and teachers from around Lancut County were arrested within weeks of the invasion). In September and October of 1939, the Einsatzgruppen were responsible for more than 16,000 murders and the burning of hundreds of towns and villages. Many of the most shocking actions against Jews and attributed by witnesses to German soldiers were actually the work of the Einsatzgruppen.

From the start of the invasion, the Wehrmacht Heer began executing hundreds of people each week for armed resistance, sabatoge and spying, but did not have a specific policy of killing Jews. Some German officers saw indiscriminate killing of Jews as a threat to discipline and troop morale, and as a waste of resources. Early in the war, some Heer soldiers involved in murdering Jews were actually brought up on charges and given light sentences, though a general amnesty was soon declared in these cases. Over time, many officers learned that it was futile and possibly dangerous to their careers to interfere or restrict violence against civilians.

The Fall Expulsions From Nearby Towns

Unlike German policy in some other countries, there were never any plans to civilize or "Germanize" the Polish population; Nazi racial theory considered Poles and all Slavic people to be Untermenschen (subhuman) and only slighly above Jews in value. Instead, the longterm plans were to clear the population for German settlement, a process that would begin even before the military situation and the border with the Soviet Union was finalized. Within days of the arrival of the regular German Army came occupation officials and German police officers to take full control of the local scene. In the third week of September, a series of expulsion orders were issued in towns around Zolynia. Jews were ordered to pack up what they could carry and begin heading east, toward the San River and the Russian zone of occupation. On September 22, the Jews of Lancut were given until 4 p.m. the next day to leave. Jews were ordered to leave Lezajsk, Przeworsk and numerous other towns and villages. Zolynia was not adjacent to a major river or railroad line or otherwise strategically located. No formal expulsion order was issued for Zolynia, though some did leave. Posted on one of the bridges across the San River was posted a sign that read, "Nach Palestina" ("To Palestine"). Thousands were brought to the river where there was no bridge and forced to swim across. Mothers held small children above their as drowned corpses floated down the river.

Many Jews did not cross the river, but found shelter with relatives and friends in smaller villages, or lived in the forests and roadsides, waiting to see what would happen. Others, including some from Zolynia, stayed on the Soviet side of the border, trying to find new places to live as best they could. In 1940 and 1941, the Soviets expelled hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who had come from German-occupied Poland to work camps in Central Asia or Siberia. Despite often brutal conditions, the survival rate of Jews in these camps would significantly higher than those in German-occupied Poland. By late 1939, the Germans and the Soviets closed and fortified the borders and refugees stopped moving between the zones.

Throughout the autumn of 1939, thousands of Jews from the Lancut area began wandering back into their villages and towns. They usually returned to find their possessions gone, and sometimes Jews driven from communities further west in their house. The local authorities knew of the returning Jews but took no action and were apparently satisfied with the confiscation of so many personal possessions. German policy had also changed because it was realized that the loss of all Jewish craftsmen and laborers could hamper the provisioning of locally-based troops; the Soviets had also expressed displeasure with the arrival of so many refugees in their new territory. By early 1940, an agreement between the Germans and Soviets was reached and it was announced that Jews who had crossed into Soviet-controlled territory could now cross back to the Western sector to live in their home towns under German rule. Some did. For the time being policy would be, in Adolph Hitler's words, to "fence them in somewhere, where they can perish as they deserve."


German troops moving through the market square at Lezajsk. This location is just over 8 miles (13 km) northwest of the market square at Zolynia.

San River

Bridge on the San River, just past Lezajsk, northeast of Zolynia. The sign says that this is the frontier of the Generalgouvernement. Across the river is Soviet territory.


More Information

At least ten percent of those serving in the Polish Army fighting Nazi Germany were Jewish, Over 100,000 Jews were soldiers and officers during the German invasion, and about 20,000 Jews served in the Polish Free Army, formed in England and the Soviet Union. The Polish Free Army fought in Italy, Normandy and the Eastern Front.

Unlike others, Jewish soldiers from the Polish and Soviet Armies who were taken prisoner by the Germans were usually sent to concentration camps and, as the war went on, to extermination camps.

As soon as the borders between the German and Soviet occupied areas was made clear, thousands of Jews headed for the Narev, Bug and San Rivers to get out of the German occupation zone. Many Jews in the towns and villages along these rivers had no family or connections on the Soviet side and decided that the best course was to stick it out with the Germans. Many of those who stayed, including some Jews in Zolynia, gave temporary shelter and transportation in wagons and carts to fleeing Jews from across Poland.

Count Alfred Potocki's younger brother, Jerzy, became Poland's Ambassador to the United States in 1936. Here is how Time Magazine, America's leading weekly publication, described him in its issue of August 28, 1939, the last issue before the outbreak of the world war:

Member of one of the few great Polish landowning families that fought for Polish independence, blond, fox-hunting Count Potocki had been so completely tagged as Washington's leading diplomatic socialite that his grim warning surprised reporters. Said Count Potocki: "Herr von Ribbentrop created Europe's crisis by persuading Fuhrer Hitler that Britain would not fight, ignoring Britain's realization since Munich that surrender would not mean peace."


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