Date of Award

Summer 8-2021

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Anne Kelly Knowles

Second Committee Member

Mark J. McLaughlin

Third Committee Member

Mary T. Freeman


During the German occupation of Poland in World War II, thousands of Jews escaped city or ghetto life by seeking refuge within rural villages or fleeing to the forests. Numerous factors shaped individual survivor experiences within these spaces. In particular, gender, age or familial status, environmental factors like weather conditions or terrain, as well as personal politics and language or technical skills, all molded how one could act or was forced to react in these spaces. This study emphasizes the unique two-way relationships between experience and three kinds of environments found in the Białystok District: the city of Białystok, small villages in the surrounding countryside, and Białowieża Forest. Each space transformed through time, and many Jews often passed through one or more of these spaces between 1939 and 1945. Upon German occupation of the city, violence and ghettoization firmly delineated “Aryan” and Jewish Białystok. Białystok and the ghetto created within it exhibited fundamentally different uses of urban space. The ghetto necessitated new interactions within a confined urban space while also demonstrating remarkable continuity in Jewish life. In the countryside, the Germans rapidly altered the ethnic makeup of rural communities in the first months of the invasion of the Soviet Union, murdering and pillaging on their way to remake occupied eastern Europe according to their vision. Especially in rural spaces, movement, displacement, and concealment were the norm for surviving Jews. The Germans likewise attempted to clear the rugged terrains of eastern Poland, as in Białowieża Forest, though this effort failed to alter the landscape as totally as in the city or countryside. The forests provided protection from German occupation, while also intensifying the violence experienced during the later years of the war. They simultaneously presented better living conditions for those forced to work within them, a destination for those seeking freedom from oppression, and physical duress. Forest spaces also created steeper learning curves for escaped urbanites and made that escape more difficult to accomplish. Thus, environments came to define much of the Jewish experience during German occupation of Poland in World War II.