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“That was the start of everything“

Leo and Sabina Adler with their children Norbert, Fedor und Rita in Zbąszyn, 1939; photo: Berger family
Leo and Sabina Adler with their children Norbert, Fedor und Rita in Zbąszyn, 1939; photo: Berger family

On the eve of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, the Berlin historian Alina Bothe held a fact-filled lecture for some 70 guests on the so-called “Polenaktion” from October 1938. In this first mass deportation, 16,000 to 17,000 Jews of Polish nationality were forcibly transported out of the German Reich into the Polish border region within 48 hours.

Alina Bothe explained the starting situation of why, in the years between 1880 and 1914, more and more Eastern European Jews were leaving their home countries to escape persecution and coming to Berlin. Using five different family stories as examples, the researcher first portrayed the integration of these families and then their later fate: The parents managed small businesses. Their children had names like Heinz, Max, or Rita and spoke German. Alina Bothe characterized 1938 as the year in which the discrimination by the Nazis turned into persecution, and physical violence towards Jews became the norm. The so-called “Polenaktion” took place in the context of this emerging excessive violence. Rita Adler, whose father and brother were among those deported, said later about those fateful days: “That was the start of everything”.

From Berlin into no man’s land

In Berlin the deportation was initially focused on older boys and grown men. They were arrested, gathered up, herded into trains heading towards the Polish border and forcibly taken across the border into no man’s land. Those deported often had to hold out there for days on end, only to then be placed in improvised refugee camps for longer periods of time. In the months following the “Polenaktion”, the National Socialists also deported the wives and children who had stayed behind in Berlin. Only very few families managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Poland, many were later murdered in the killing actions and extermination camps of the Nazi Regime. Sources show that the Nazi murderers evaluated the 1938 procedure very precisely, Alina Bothe explained. From 1941 on they used the experience and information gathered from the “Polenaktion” for the mass deportations to the concentration camps and extermination camps that followed.  

ITS Documents provide insight into the paths of persecution

Because there had been little systematic research on the events from 27-29 October 1938, Prof. Dr. Gertrud Pickhan, together with Alina Bothe, initiated a research and exhibit project at the Free University Berlin. “The documents in the ITS Archive are an important source of information for working through stories of persecution,” says Bothe. “Examining individual fates enables conclusions about the entire deportation process.” The Berlin historian sees the value of this information in dialogue with the documents from other archives, in order to reconstruct both the persecution as well as the life paths of the survivors. Research on the “Polenaktion” in Berlin is a first step, other cities and regional areas will follow. As part of the project Alina Bothe made a number of research visits to the ITS with students from the FU Berlin; more visits are being planned. “I enjoy coming to Bad Arolsen to make use of the excellent research conditions found here” Alina Bothe said.

Lecture series planned

At the end of the lecture, Floriane Hohenberg, ITS Director, and Henning Borggräfe, provisional Head of the Research and Education Branch, pointed out that this was the first in a series of lecture events: „We would like to invite researchers using our archive to present their projects and results to the interested public.”