Menschen im polnisch-deutschen Grenzort Zbaszyn / Bentschen im November 1938 während der sog. "Polenaktion"

The Friedel Mayer Collection

A victim of the 'Polenaktion' in 1938

October 28/29, 1938, marked the start of the Polenaktion ("Polish Action"). More than two thousand Jews from Frankfurt were among those targeted by the nationwide deportation campaign, including sixteen-year-old Friedel Mayer.

In late October 1938, the Nazi regime forcibly deported around seventeen thousand Jews from the German Reich across the border to Poland. The largest deportation campaign to date in German history was triggered by a Polish government decree that went into effect on October 29, 1938, and annulled the passports of Polish citizens of Jewish faith who had been living abroad for more than five years. The Nazi authorities took advantage of the new legal situation created by Poland and expelled Jews of Polish origin living in the German Reich.

Mass deportations

The then 16-year-old Friedel Bendkower from Frankfurt was completely surprised by her expulsion, as can be read in this postcard from her estate.
The then 16-year-old Friedel Bendkower from Frankfurt was completely surprised by her expulsion, as can be read in this postcard from her estate.

The deportees were taken completely by surprise by the operation. Most were arrested at night, taken to prison, and immediately deported across the Polish border in group transports. Exemptions applied only to those who could present a valid exit visa for a third country. According to an urgent letter sent by Heinrich Himmler to the Frankfurt police chief, the operation’s explicit aim was to "transport as many Polish Jews as possible, particularly male adults, across the border to Poland before the specified date [October 29, 1938]." To every extent possible, the travel expenses were to be "recovered" from the expellees.

People as pawns of the political powers

The first trains had already crossed the border when the Polish authorities realized that the Third Reich was attempting to rid itself of Jews with Polish passports on a massive scale. They halted the transports at the border stations, but members of the SS and Gestapo violently attempted to drive people onto Polish territory. The deportees were initially abandoned to their fates in the border zone, mostly without food or housing. The responsible parties did not reach an agreement until the Polish government threatened to treat Germans living in Poland with similar harshness. Some of the deportees were now allowed to enter Poland on a permanent basis. The remainder, including two thousand Jews from the city of Frankfurt, managed to return to their home cities and sealed apartments – some in early in early November 1938, others beginning in January 1939. As a rule, they traveled at their own expense.

Herschel Grynszpan

The parents and siblings of seventeen-year-old Herschel Grynszpan from Hanover were also targeted by the Polenaktion. Grynszpan was living illegally in Paris at the time and learned of the criminal expulsions in early November. Outraged, on November 7, 1938, the young émigré made an attempt on the life Ernst vom Rath, a secretary at the German embassy. Ernst vom Rath died of his gunshot wounds two days later, on November 9.

November pogroms

Immediately after news of Ernst vom Rath’s death was released, leading Nazis used the crime as a pretext to launch pogroms against Germany’s Jewish population. They called the attacks "spontaneous acts of public rage." Under no circumstances did the NSDAP want to be seen as the originator or organizer of the centrally coordinated reign of terror. As historian Wolfgang Wippermann has noted, compared to other regions in Germany, the furor in Frankfurt was "especially radical and savage." One possible reason was that both the perpetrator and the victim of the Paris assassination had biographical ties to the city: in 1935, Grynszpan had spent a year studying at a yeshiva, or rabbinical seminary, in Frankfurt’s Ostend district, and Ernst vom Rath had been born in the city.

Interned in Poland

People in the Polish-German border town of Zbaszyn / Bentschen in November 1938 during the so-called "Polenaktion"
People in the Polish-German border town of Zbaszyn / Bentschen in November 1938 during the so-called "Polenaktion"© Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library, London

Most of the Jews who remained in Poland were kept by the Polish authorities in the border town of Zbaszyn (German: Bentschen). There they were housed in the former stables and barracks of a military post. The roughly five thousand people faced catastrophic supply and hygiene conditions, even though Polish-Jewish relief organizations attempted to improve the deportees’ situation and to quickly dissolve the camp in the coming months. The Polish authorities later eased their residence regulations, but many refugees were unable to go into exile before the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Most were deported to concentration or death camps during the German occupation and murdered.

Shoah victims from Frankfurt

We know of around two hundred people who were deported to the east as part of the Polen-Aktion and who were later killed in the Shoah. As the historian Wolf Gruner has pointed out, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt drew on its experiences in October 1938 when planning the mass deportations from the German Reich that started in October 1941.

The Friedel Mayer Collection

Passport issued to Friedel Mayer, née Bendkower, in Frankfurt am Main, 1939
Passport issued to Friedel Mayer, née Bendkower, in Frankfurt am Main, 1939

In 2017, we received as a donation a small collection of items from Friedel Mayer in the United States. Friedel (Frume) was born in 1922 in Frankfurt am Main to Regina and David Bendkower. Her parents had moved to the city just three years earlier. In 1925, her mother opened a uniform company called Hut- und Mützen-Zentrale. She divorced her husband, who managed to escape to America at a relatively early date.

As part of the Polenaktion, Friedel, who was a Polish citizen, was deported from Frankfurt on October 28, 1938. Just sixteen at the time, she wrote a postcard to her father on the train, explaining, "I don’t have anything at all. I’ve been expelled to Poland and am all alone without anything …."

Friedel and her younger brother later managed to escape to the United States. On November 11, 1941, her mother was deported to the Minsk ghetto during the second wave of mass deportations from Frankfurt am Main and murdered there.