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  • Lis Riveros

Opposing the Occupation of the Mind

The Underground University and its Stealth for Survival in German-Occupied Poland, 1939-1945

Lis Riveros is a fourth-year Honours History undergraduate at McGill University, specializing in early-modern British social history and Eastern Canadian religious colonialism.


A home in Radom where teaching took place. State Archives of Poland in Radom.

In 1939, the Polish government, thoroughly alarmed by German military moves, issued an order for a general mobilization to begin on August 31, thus reigniting the fight for Polish Independence which had been thought won following World War I. Indeed, a variety of strategies for coping with occupation and foreign domination had been established in Poland during the nineteenth century, with Poles ‘prov[ing] their ability to endure and their capability to resist.’[1] A fervent quality of this tradition of perseverance thus emerged from a mixture of idealism and historicizing: Poland’s longstanding commitment to the ideal of freedom was to be both unconditional, paved by earlier struggles for liberation, and understood as a selfless effort undertaken on behalf of all mankind.[2] Heroic interpretations of Polish martyrdom and sacrifice amidst partitions of their nation inspired a conviction that a key facet of the Polish national character is a unique propensity for desperate actions in the defence of freedom.

We may hypothesize, then, that when facing this threat of a loss of the Polish Republic familiar to them, Polish students recalled the past struggles for national independence of their parents and grandparents, and opted for a courageous course of action: a desperate defence of the values of democracy through a resistance movement—one which grew to such a degree that it was justifiably deemed the ‘Underground University.’

Heroic interpretations of Polish martyrdom and sacrifice amidst partitions of their nation inspired a conviction that a key facet of the Polish national character is a unique propensity for desperate actions in the defence of freedom.

German aggressive policies, shaped directly by Nazi popularization of nationalism and pseudo-scientific theories, asserted a rationalizing narrative explaining the occupation of Poland and the eventual resulting five-and-a-half-year carnage. One of the most notable articulations of German racial nationalism, the conceptual threads behind such an explosion of violence in western Poland, was the intersection of two popularized goals within the Nazi ideology: that of Volksgemeinschaft—an ethnonational community—and of Lebensraum—further living space for German settlement.[3] By making race the centrepiece of colonizing justifications, the Nazis rejected the possibility that ‘non-German’ colonial subjects could assimilate; instead, Poland was to emerge as a ‘training ground’ (Exerzierplatz) for the Nazi New Order.[4] Here, then, was the crux of the ‘Polish Problem’: how to transform an independent nation, with its own language and cultural traditions and a demonstrated history of political, social, and military opposition to foreign rule, into a country of submissive servants.[5] Rather than systematic extermination, the Nazis planned to subjugate the Poles through targeted ethnocide of their intellectual leaders, encompassing Polish ‘priests, teachers, doctors, dentists, veterinary surgeons, officers, executives, businessmen, landowners, writers, journalists, plus all persons who have received a higher or secondary education,’[6] as these were the key individuals in Polish society. As late as October 1939, the Germans had indicated a possibility that the University of Krakow was to be reopened. Exemplifying the egregiousness of Poland’s targeted ethnocide, the intelligentsia based there ultimately faced a fate at the hands of meticulously crafted German deceptions. At a meeting on 19 October, the academic senate planned for commencement ceremonies to be held on 4 November in anticipation of the University's reopening, which was to take on 6 November. On 6 November 1939, after the lecture hall at the Colegium Novum had been filled by some two-hundred representatives of Krakow’s academic elite, the Gestapo surrounded the university, and all were arrested and transported to the barracks of the 20th German Infantry on Mazowiecka Street. Those remaining in custody were transported to the concentration camp Sachsenhausen on the outskirts of Berlin.[7]

Polish education emerged as a key battleground for the attack on Polish national identity and its alterity to ‘German-ity’. Perhaps no text better illustrates the vitriol spewed towards Polish education than the memorandum The Question of the Treatment of the Population of the Former Polish Territories from the Racial and Political Point of View. Published in November 1939 by Dr E Westzel and Dr G Hecht for the National Socialist German Workers' Party Office for Racial and Political Affairs, the memorandum echoed a standard Nazi sentiment:

‘German is the only official language in all institutions and also before the court of law…Universities and other schools of higher learning have always been centres of Polish chauvinistic education and therefore in principle they ought to be closed. Only elementary schools will be allowed…The instruction of important subjects from the national point of view, such as: geography, history of literature, as well as gymnastics, is to be excluded. . .’[8]

Underground efforts for Polish education quickly began at the secondary school level: study groups consisting of a dozen or so pupils met in private homes with considerable assistance from the Secret Teachers' Organisation (Tajna Organizacja Nauczycielstwa, TON), formed in Warsaw in the autumn 1939 and lead by several known academicians: Zygmunt Nowicki, Kazimierz Maj, and Czeslaw Wycec.[9] As the war waged on, the underground Commission for Public Enlightenment was founded in Warsaw in late 1939 as an initiative of the Service for the Victory of Poland—Sluzba Zwyciestwu Polski (SZP), later to become the Home Army (AK). Within the SZP, a Committee for Public Education (Komisja Oswiecenia Publicznego), aimed at coordinating its activities with those of the TON, resulted in the formation of the Department of Education and Culture within the Government Delegacy in early 1941, with all educational matters, including post-secondary education, falling under its control.[10]

The ominous future of an occupied Poland reaffirmed democratic and patriotic political and intellectual movements among students. What was of special significance in this context—finding the best mode of Polish self-determination—was the gradual decline of totalitarian thought. Democracy as a positive value was propagated by the Democratic Party (stronnictwo Demokratyczne), the Union for the Restoration of the Polish Republic (Związek Odbudowy rzeczypospolitej), and the Peasant Freedom Organization (Chłopska Organizacja Wolności).[11] Maintaining that war had an ideological character that constituted a struggle between fascism and the forces of democracy, the University championed the need to mould a new democratic intelligentsia. Crediting its dissemination to the AK, democratic thoughts were spread from the Bureau of Information and Propaganda. Thanks to its weekly publication, the Information Bulletin, whose circulation was the largest among all underground press, the democrats’ ideas were widely propagated in the University.[12] Accepting parliamentary democracy as the ideal political system for post-war Poland, students concurred in recognizing the sovereign locus of the state; they endorsed nationwide elections of state officials and a tripartite division of power to preserve balance; and they acknowledged the typical catalogue of citizens’ democratic rights.[13]

Upwardly mobile children of the lower classes also acquired, through education, the cultural patterns of the old intelligentsia—their style of life, their ideas of honour, democracy, and patriotism, and their emotional attitudes towards work, leisure, business, and money.

In the mid-1940s, the University of Warsaw, establishing its Department of Polish Studies under the direction of Professor Julian Krzyzanowski and a division of history under Dr. Tadeusz Manteufel, evolved to become the largest clandestine teaching institution in 1944.[14] Warsaw's underground education was conducted by the University of Warsaw, the Warsaw Polytechnic University (Politechnika Warszawska), the Free Polish University (Wolna Wszechnica Polska), the Head School of Rural Economics (Szkoła Główna Gospodarstwa Wiejskiego), the Main School of Commerce (Szkoła Główna Handlowa), and the Polish Conservatory of Music. About five-hundred teachers instructed four-thousand students enrolled in medical pharmacy classes. In legal studies, while less extensive, about six-hundred students attended the secret law school in Warsaw. Attendance at the universities was free or, as in the case of the medical school, the its cost was minimal.[15]

Clandestine instruction was possible only in small secret study groups or with individual pupils in church buildings, ‘recesses of forests, underground headquarters of partisan groups,’ and private homes.[16] Such class instruction taking place in the homes of professors and peers operated as such:

‘The underground classes of about five students each were held in private flats and people would filter in singly at fifteen-minute intervals. The class would thus assemble over a period of about an hour, starting at 8 AM. The teacher would arrive last, and having given his or her lecture, would depart to hold a class elsewhere. Another one would come half an hour later and so on.’[17]

The primary goal of the University was not resisting the Nazi occupation but rather preventing social atomization—creating the institutional support under which social solidarity could flourish. Upwardly mobile children of the lower classes also acquired, through education, the cultural patterns of the old intelligentsia—their style of life, their ideas of honour, democracy, and patriotism, and their emotional attitudes towards work, leisure, business, and money. To this end, social activities attached to universities, such as theatre and art clubs, became the centre of activity for young Poles. As one witness later recalled:

‘I remember during the war, right away at the very beginning I was pulled into secret colloquiums in these small groups of eight or nine people. Immediately the history of Poland, the future of Poland…Later, that became very common among the youth, and in this house, in this room such meetings of young people took place: discussions and lectures on various very interesting themes. First, the late Professor Bogdan Sucholdolski directed our attention to Catholic social philosophy of the French school of personalism.’[18]

Despite the German occupation authority’s barring of public performance, underground recitals occurred and became a matter ‘about culture, about cultural life, about keeping it alive.’[19]Such events were avenues for personal development, creative expression, and the exploration of intellectual curiosity. The impact on morale for both participants and audience members, though difficult to measure, cannot be denied. Of course, these productions were an important source of entertainment that brought people together, reaffirming their knowledge that their culture had value and that they, as individuals and as a people, were capable of artistic and intellectual achievement.[20]

Underground presses were another facet of this student resistance, leading to many episodes of ingenuity and heroism. Recalled by Jan Karski, ‘never before the war did I understand what tremendous influence poetry may have upon a people fighting for an ideal.’[21] Reprinted across publications of the AK and recited in schools was an altered version of the Lord’s Prayer, being made into a lament for Poland:

‘Our Father who art in Heaven, look upon the martyred land of Poland.

Hallowed be Thy name in the day of our incessant despair, in these days of our powerless silence.

Thy kingdom come, we pray every morning, repeating steadfastly: Thy kingdom come throughout Poland, and may in liberty and sunshine Thy Word of Peace and Love be fulfilled.

And lead us not into temptation . . . Lead us not into temptation but let traitors and spies among us perish…Let Poles recognize each other anywhere and at any hour. Let our mouths be silent while the torturer crushes our bones.

But deliver us from evil . . . Deliver us from the evil one, from the foe of our Polish land…

Amen. Let us again be the hosts on our own soil. Let us rest our hearts with the calm of the sea and the beauty of our mountains…Let us establish justice in a righteous Poland:

Amen. Give us freedom, Oh, Lord! Amen.’[22]

Teaching poetry and prayers in the University reflected a peculiar characteristic of underground education as an institution—as education exerted pressure to ‘separate the insider from the [German] outsider and to erect symbolic boundaries between them,’ a demand for Polish democracy was instilled in all facets of communications.[23] Experiences of unity and solidarity went far beyond vague and abstract feelings. Education in heroism, based on Poland's history of struggle, popular literature of the times, and familial histories, motivated many individuals to join the underground in a manner of ‘impartiality, loyalty, and goodwill.’[24] Despite the risks, the relationship between pupils and teachers was based on mutual confidence, respect, and honest work. A student at Warsaw University named Stanislaw Likiernik recalled quite fondly:

‘Under the circumstances, our teacher acquired entirely new personae. Enclosed with groups of just five of us in small private rooms, they seemed to have become human. We discovered that our professors were well-educated and exceedingly well-informed men who could talk with great eloquence, even passion, about Darwin, Lamarc, etc. The process of learning for us became a kind of patriotic duty; forbidden, and so an act of defiance. We were gaining an education not so much for ourselves as against the Germans.’[25]

The intellectual and creative visions of professors and peers were far-reaching and unwavering, and they held fast to their faith in the future greatness of Poland. They saw education as the key to moulding their country's destiny, and worked tirelessly to ensure that future generations of students would have access to the knowledge and resources they needed to make a difference. By retaining the liberal values towards education cultivated by Polish thought leaders, by emphasizing Polish creative action beyond that of general arts education, and by harnessing the clandestine classroom as a vessel for underground activity, visions of a free Poland and its reconstruction remained throughout total persecution. The story of the wartime educational underground in Poland is one of struggle and disappointment, of discouragement and controversy, but also of resilience and perseverance despite the odds. Whether through their activism, their intellectual pursuits, or their commitment to their fellow citizens - these resistants’ efforts to oppose the occupation of the Polish mind embodied the true spirit of democracy, thus leaving an enduring legacy for generations to come.


[1] Jan Tomasz Gross, Polish Society Under German Occupation: The Generalgouvernement, 1939-1944 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 3. [2] Janusz Gumkowski and Kazimierz Leszczynski, Poland Under Nazi Occupation (Warsaw: Polonia Publishing House, 1961), 12. [3] Gerhard Wolf and Wayne Yung, Ideology and the Rationality of Domination: Nazi Germanization Policies in Poland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020), 1. [4] Ibid, 1. [5] Erica L. Tucker, Remembering Occupied Warsaw: Polish Narratives of World War II (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), 73. [6] Ibid, 92. [7] Adam Redzik, "Polish Universities During the Second World War" (Master's Thesis, Polish-Ukrainian University in Lublin, 2004), 4. [8] Josef Krasuski, "Education as Resistance: The Polish Experience of Schooling During the War," in Education and the Second World War: Studies in Schooling and Social Change, ed. Roy Lowe (London and Washington: The Falmer Press, 1992), 129. [9] Krasuski, "Education as Resistance: The Polish Experience of Schooling During the War," 132. [10] Ibid, 133. [11] Andrzej Friszke, "Polish Democratic Thought at Home, 1939-45," in The Origins of Modern Polish Democracy, ed. M. B. B. Biskupski, James S. Pula, Piotr J. Wrobel (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009), 168. [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid. [14] Redzik, "Polish Universities During the Second World War," 12. [15] Richard Lucas, Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986), 105. [16] Marek Edelman, The Ghetto Fights: Warsaw, 1943, trans. Bernard Clarke (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 72. [17] Likiernik Stanislaw, By the Devil's Luck: A Tale of Heroic Resistance in Wartime Warsaw, (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 2001), 36. [18] Tucker, Remembering Occupied Warsaw: Polish Narratives of World War II, 122. [19] Ibid, 138. [20] Ibid, 124. [21] Jan Karski, Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World (London: Penguin Books Limited, 2011), 271. [22] Ibid. [23] Gross, Polish Society Under German Occupation: The Generalgouvernement, 1939-1944, 170. [24] Karski, Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World, 245. [25] Stanislaw, By the Devil's Luck, 52.

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