Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
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The First Ghetto in Occupied Poland
Piotrkow Trybunalski is a town in central Poland about 26 kilometres south of Lodz, it is one of Poland’s oldest cities.
Piotrkow was part of Russia between 1815 until 1915, before reverting back to Poland in 1919, it was an important industrial centre, principally for the manufacture of textiles, wood and glass products.
Jews had lived in Piotrkow since the early Middle- Ages and by 1939, numbered some 15,000 residents. This was approximately twenty seven percent of the total population.
The thriving Jewish community, both secular and Orthodox, supported three weekly newspapers, as well as a number of religious, cultural and political organisations and institutions.
There were numerous synagogues and prayer houses in the town, with the Great Synagogue considered one of the most beautiful buildings of its kind throughout Poland.
Following the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, more than 1,000 Jews were killed on 4 September in bombing raids on the nearby village of Sulejow, where they had fled before the advancing German army.
After some initial bombing and shelling, Piotrkow was occupied on 5 September 1939, the persecution of the Jewish residents began immediately.
Jewish men were seized in the streets for slave labour, beatings and random killings became commonplace. Although approximately 2,000 Jews had managed to escape from the town to the Soviet-occupied zone during the initial days of the occupation, throughout 1939 and 1940 the population was enlarged by Jews from the neighbouring towns and cities, including Warsaw, Lodz, Belchatow, Kalisz, Gniezno and Plock.
As was commonplace a 24 strong Judenrat was established in the early days of the occupation, headed by Zalmen Tennenbaum, a former Vice-President of the pre-war Jewish Council.
Zalmen Tennenbaum was also appointed President of all Judenrat within Piotrkow county. In October 1939 the German army transferred the administration of the city to the civilian authorities under the command of Oberburgmeister Hans Drexel, who on the 8 October 1939 issued a decree establishing a ghetto for Jews -this was the first ghetto in occupied Poland.
As in other ghettos the living conditions were appalling, 5,000 – 6,000 people had lived in this area before the war, now 28,000 were incarcerated there. Many houses had no electricity, water supply or basic facilities, the ghetto was closed on 28 October 1939. Hanka Ziegler was 9-years old when the Second World War began, her parents and their five children lived in Lodz but moved to Piotrkow in the early days of the war and she recalled:
“We all stayed in one little room, the seven of us. Another fourteen people came to the room at different times. I remember sleeping on a chair with one of my brothers, it was awful. My father got caught foraging for food and was put in prison – I never saw my father again. My brother Zigmund and I were the breadwinners – he was about fourteen.
We collected all the food – he and I started selling bread and potatoes – we didn’t have anything else to sell. And then we started scavenging and begging from non-Jewish people. Being such small children we could get through any hole – we learned how to steal, how to beg. My mother was unable to do anything – she just couldn’t cope. We were very hungry – so we went out of the ghetto – we went backwards and forwards – then the day came when they sealed the ghetto.”
Many of the Jews were employed at the Hortensja Glassworks, which mainly produced jars and bottles, at the Kara factory, which manufactured plate glass, or the Bugaj Wood factory. Another Piotrkow survivor Ben Helfgott recalled:
“Young people suffered – from fifteen onwards, they could not walk in the streets for fear of being taken for forced labour. In mid-1940 200-250 were rounded up and taken to build fortifications on the River Bug. There was no real rule that anyone that went out of the ghetto would be shot. Some would be shot, some would be beaten. Our nights weren’t safe either- the police would knock on the doors at night to round up young people to be taken away for forced labour.”
On 29 November 1939, Drexel presented the Judenrat with a decree signed by Governor Hans Frank stating that a “fine” of 350,000 zlotys had been imposed on the Jewish community of Piotrkow. To ensure payment the Germans seized three hostages, who were beaten so badly that one of them, Leib Dessau died. The “fine” was paid, as was a subsequent demand for more money.
In addition to the money 12,000 eggs, 500 sacks of flour, 300kg of butter and 100 sacks of sugar were all demanded by the Nazi authorities – this kind of naked extortion was typical of what communities had to endure throughout occupied Poland. In July 1940, Jews were taken from Piotrkow to two nearby swamps, where they were forced to dig ditches and canals. They were forced to work naked, standing in water up to their waists. Many died of tuberculosis or pneumonia. Some were only 12 years old.
Between June and July 1941, the Germans uncovered the existence of a Jewish underground movement in the ghetto, eleven members of the Judenrat, which had been cooperating with the underground were arrested, amongst this number was the President Zalmen Tennenbaum.
After more than two months of interrogation and torture, all of those arrested were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp on 13 September 1941. A few days later, the families of those taken to Auschwitz were informed of their deaths “due to illness.” Szymon Warszawski was appointed as the new head of the Judenrat to replace Zalmen Tennenbaum.
Rumours concerning the fate of the Jews of Eastern Europe circulated within the ghetto. Charles Kotkowsky marching daily to the Hortensja Glassworks, was befriended by a guard Waclaw Bordo, who one day in spring 1942 passed to him a copy of the Underground socialist newspaper Robotnik (Worker).
In it Kotkowskiy read of the deportation of the Lublin Jews to an unknown destination and of massacres of Jews at Vilna and Slonim. Soon after Kotkowsky learned of the death camps at Chelmno and Treblinka from other Underground newspapers, and he told everybody he trusted that the ghettos were buried emptied and the Jews gassed. People did not and could not believe it – it was incomprehensible.
Jews from the surrounding villages of Srock, Tuszyn, Wolborz, Przyglow, Sulejow, Rozprza and Kamiensk were transferred to the Piotrkow Ghetto. During the night of 13 October 1942, SS and Ukrainian militia, organised by SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Willy Blum, surrounded the ghetto.
At 2 am on 14 October the “Aktion” began, commanded by an SS- Sturmbannfuhrer Feucht, it was to last for eight days. House by house, the ghetto was cleared – about 1,000 sick or elderly persons were shot on the spot.
The remainder were herded to the assembly point – two columns were formed about 2000 Jews possessing work cards were separated and returned to the ghetto. Those left at the assembly point, numbering some 22,000 people were deported in four transports to Treblinka and gassed on arrival.
Several witnesses survived the selection and described the events, among them Harry Spiro:
“A general curfew was declared, and we knew that the ghetto was going to be deported. An announcement was made that all those who worked in the factories outside the ghetto including Hortensja should leave their homes and meet outside the synagogue. I refused to leave my family, but my mother told me to go. I still refused, and then she physically pushed me out of the house. Her last words to me were “At least let one of our family survive.” “That was the last I ever saw of my mother, father and sister.”
Jehoszua Cygelfarb aka Joshua Segal worked in the Hortensja factory for three years recalled:
“Everyone had to gather in the square. An SS-Officer ordered everybody to stand up, and all those who were working in some capacity were to stand to one side. My brother and I moved to where the officer indicated. An officer moved down the line and selected people to move to the left or right. Fathers and people who had worked cards with Swastika approval went to the right, the rest of the families went to the left.
When he came to my family, he separated my father from my mother and sisters, but my father refused to leave the family and said, “I go with my wife”, and proceeded to go left. After the German officer had finished dividing the people, the soldiers surrounded the group and marched them away to the railway station and loaded them into cattle cars without food or water.
They were told they were going to a labour camp. The train started down the tracks, going past the glass factory where I was working, I heard the train whistle, and knew without looking up what was in that train.
But I did not know that my own family were in the boxcars, and that I would never see them again. I was fifteen years old and my brother was nineteen and we were alone.”
“We are being taken. May God help you, as we cannot do anything more for you. And whatever may happen, look after Jerzyk. He is but a child and has got no one else.” He was distraught. “No parents, no home - no money and a younger brother to look after, what am I going to do.”
“The people were forced into cattle cars, as many as 150 to one car. Before they were driven into these cars they had to abandon all their possessions. The people were packed into these railroad cars like sardines. Many of the children were crushed to death before the train even left.”
Officially there were 2,000 “legal” Jews remaining in Piotrkow, housed in the so-called “small ghetto” on Staro-Warszwska Street. In fact there were a similar number of “illegal” Jews who had hidden during the deportations and had mingled with the “legals”.
The “illegals” led a precarious existence – they were unable to register for legitimate employment, could not obtain ration cards and were constantly seeking shelter. The Germans were aware of their existence, and systematically hunted them down. Those discovered were gathered in the synagogue then sent to Tomaszow Mazowiecki.
From Tomaszow they were deported to the death camp at Treblinka together with the local Jews of Tomaszow itself on 3 November 1942. In Piotrkow any Jews found hiding in the ghetto were killed where they were found.
Having first worked in the Hortensja and Kara factories, Artek Poznanski was employed by the Befehlstelle, a Special Orders Group, mainly utilised for the clearing of the houses in the former ghetto and the sorting of goods and possessions left behind by the deported Jews, he recalled:
"Disposing of the last traces of many thousands of families (who we suspected, though we were not really sure and refused to credit, were no longer alive) was a heartbreaking operation, but the ever-present threat to our lives hardened us against sentimentality. Every day countless books, diaries, photographs, letters and mementoes of a whole community were thrown on bonfires, while we sorted out mountains of bedding, clothing, furniture, utensils, tools and ornaments, and loaded them on lorries for transport to Germany."
On the 19 November 1942, one hundred mostly elderly Jews were taken from the synagogue to the Rakow forest, near Piotrkow and shot. Six days later, assured by the Germans that they were needed for work and would be safe, all “illegals” were ordered to present themselves for registration.
Those who did so were also taken to the synagogue, which was surrounded by Ukrainian guards who proceeded to shoot into the building. The imprisoned Jews, including many children, had no food, no water and no light.
In an act of great self sacrifice, Yeshayahu and Tova Weinstock gave themselves up at the synagogue in order to change places with their children, thus saving the children’s lives at the expense of their own.
Some captives possessing a skilled trade were returned to the ghetto as “legals.” On 19 December, forty two men were taken from the synagogue to the Rakow forest, where they were ordered to dig five burial pits. Most of the men were then shot.
A few escaped to the forest – that night 520 Jews were marched to the burial pits in groups of fifty and were shot there. Among them were Ben Helfgott’s mother, Sara aged thirty –seven and his sister Luisa aged eight. Artek Poznanski wrote:
“In freezing conditions terrorised by bayonets and rifle butts, they were forced to undress, were machine-gunned, and then buried in the trenches. In the confusion of the massacre, six or seven individuals, some wounded, managed to escape. Some time later I met one of them in the Bugaj timberworks, a pale, blue-eyed boy 14 or 15 years old – he told me how, only slightly wounded, he managed to manoeuvre himself on top of a pile of bleeding corpses.
Covered with heaps of leaves and chunks of frozen earth, and barely able to breathe, he remained virtually motionless until nightfall. Then under cover of darkness, he crawled out and dragged himself back to the ghetto. I noticed him mainly because of one unusual feature, his hair was completely white.”
Five months after the mass deportations, on 21 March 1943, a date chosen to coincide with the Jewish festival of Purim, “legal” Jews were told that there was to be an exchange with German citizens living in the settlement of Sarona, in Palestine. Ten university graduates were required for the exchange, but only eight could be found.
They were driven to the Jewish cemetery, where a pit had been dug. There together with the Jewish watchman of the cemetery and his wife, they were shot. At the end of July 1943 the small ghetto was liquidated, 1720 Jews were allowed to remain in Piotrkow – 1,000 in the Bugaj factory and the remainder in the two glassworks.
1,500 other Jews were deported to the forced labour camps at Bilzyn, Pionki and Starachowice. On 24 November 1944, the last Jews of Piotrkow were deported to a number of different concentration camps, such as Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, Ravensbruck and Auschwitz, amongst others.
After a desperate appeal they were released – one of the policemen said, “You can consider yourselves very lucky. We have killed many of your kind. You are the first ones we have left alive.”
Others were not so fortunate – a Jewish woman, Sala Uszerowicz, had sold her father’s apartment in Piotrkow for 600 zlotys, the equivalent to about five US dollars. She was murdered the same day, together with her fiancée, Lajzer Malc, and a friend Rachel Rolnik.
In 1996 Ben Helfgott returned once more to Piotrkow, this time with Sir Martin Gilbert and a party of Holocaust students. At the Hortensja Glass Works they found the register of factory workers from 1940 to 1944. Ben Helfgott’s name was listed, together with his address, date of birth and the description Zyd (Jew) written in red.
Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Editor Israel Gutman, published by Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990.
The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, by Sir Martin Gilbert, published by William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986.
Holocaust Journey – Travelling in Search of the Past, by Sir Martin Gilbert, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1997.
The Boys – Triumph over Adversity, by Sir Martin Gilbert, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1996.
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