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Death penalty for Poles hiding Jews introduced 80 years ago

On October 15, 1941, in several Polish territories occupied by the Germans, a law introducing capital punishment for Jews leaving the ghetto area and Poles hiding them came into force. The ordinance was to strengthen German terror against Jews; it was also the first step to the later legislation introducing capital punishment for the Poles helping Jews in any way, the historian, Professor Bogdan Musiał told the Polish Press Agency PAP.

According to the ordinance signed by Governor-General Hans Frank 80 years ago, German special courts were to impose the death penalty on all Jews who “without authorisation leave the district assigned to them” and “persons who deliberately provide such Jews a hiding place”. The same punishment was to threaten the “instigators and helpers” of such people.

Professor Musiał pointed out that the penalties for leaving the ghetto, such as imprisonment or a fine that had already been introduced by the occupier earlier, did not deter Jews who knew that if they stayed in the closed district, they would die of starvation sooner or later.

He went on, saying that the theoretical provision of the necessity of a special court sentence in the case of Jews fleeing the ghetto was almost immediately replaced by more or less official instructions for the German police and gendarmerie allowing these formations to kill all Jews detained outside the ghetto on the spot.

In the beginning, only hiding Jews was subject to the death penalty. When the mass escapes from ghettos began, and the Poles resolved to help more Jews, the Germans decided that the law should also be tightened against them. The most important document was the decree dated October 28, 1942, according to which the death penalty was imposed on all Poles who helped Jews in any way or did not inform the authorities about incidents of providing them shelter.

“Such strict law against people helping Jews was in force only in the General Governorate for the Occupied Polish Region; such regulations were not present in the German-occupied countries of Western Europe,” Professor Musiał recalled.

Bogdan Musiał deals with the history of the 20th century. He lives in Germany and has worked both for Polish and German universities and scientific institutions. Professor Musiał is the author of the book “Who will help the Jew?” which presents the fate of the Jewish population in German-occupied Poland and contains numerous source documents.

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