Augustow


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Augustow - German Forces Occupy - (Chris Webb Private Archive)


Augustow lies approximately 60 miles north-northeast of Bialystok and 26 miles northeast of Grajewo. Because of its location near the Polish - East Prussian border, the Germans bombed the Augustow train station on September 1, 1939, but only occupied the town for just two hours before handing it over to the Soviet authorities. In September 1940, 2906 lived in Augustow.

On June 22, 1941, the first day of the German invasion of the Soviet Union the Germans once again occupied Augustow. They established a Polish administration and recruited an auxiliary police force. A Jewish survivor from this time, remembered the force as composed of local Poles, who subsequently, all qualified and registered under Nazi racial laws as ethnic Germans.

On June 24, 1941, a Waffen-SS commander arrested 70 workers and guests of an Augustow retreat centre and executed 30 of the captives -15 Jews and 15 Russians. Operational units organised by Regierungsrat Hans- Joachim Bohme, commander of the Tilsit State Police, was responsible for the subsequent June and July 1941, murders of the Jews of Augustow.

On June 27, 1941, an Einsatzkommando, led by SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Wolfgang Ilges from Tilsit, ordered the arrest of more than 100 communists mostly Jewish residents of Augustow. Several days later the Germans arrested a furrier and several other Jews, probably for defying orders to return to their homes. Whether the captives were executed immediately or were held and murdered on July 3, 1941, together with 175 more victims remains unclear. What is known is that on July 3, 1941, an operational unit led by either Ilges or by Waldemar Macholl, the Grenzkommissar of the Sudauen border police and soldiers from the intelligence branch of the 87th Infantry Regiment murdered 300 to 316 people, including ten women in two mass shooting 'Aktions' in the Augustow Forest. Almost all of the victims were Jews.

The largest mass shooting of the Jews in Augustow took place at the same time the ghetto was established. On August 15, 1941, a German unit, most probably from the Tilsit State Police, ordered Jewish men aged between 13 to 60 years old to register for work at a central point in Augustow. Held captive in the synagogue, the 800 to 1,650 men who obeyed the order were executed in small groups of 200 to 300 people in the Szczebrze section of the Augustow Forest, near the village of Klonownica.

Most probably on the day of the round-up the Jewish women in Augustow were confined to a ghetto. This was located on a 12-hectare area between Augustow and the Bystry Canals, the ghetto occupied a former settlement of one-room houses built for the workers of the local sawmill. It contained several streets of company-owned houses, all referred to as Barracks' Street. In the period of the ghetto, the streets were numbered from 1 to 13. They were surrounded by a wire fence, topped in some places by barbed wire. The only gate was on the road leading to Lipsk nad Biebrza. The road is now called Street of the Westerplatte Heroes.

A detailed list in the Polish post-war documentation of the skilled trades practiced by men in the Augustow ghetto suggests that craftsmen may have been released to the ghetto, as had happened several weeks prior in Szczuczyn, and also in Kreis Grajewo. However, Jewish survivor Nusia Janowski maintained the Germans intended the ghetto population to be wholly female. Charles Levine, another survivor, notes that no men were held back from execution. The only men in the ghetto were those that had not registered for labour or had broken the windows of the synagogue and fled.

In August 1941, the Germans consolidated in the ghetto approximately 100 Jews from the other parts of the former Augustow raion, as well as a handful of Jews still resident in Kreis Sudauen. Those transferred to the Augustow ghetto included the Sztabin community, a part of the Lipsk nad Biebrza.community and a smaller number of Jews from Raczki and Dowspuda. The executions and consolidations make it difficult to ascertain the ghetto population in Augustow. Most survivors however, claim 2,000 Jews resided there.

Toyer, the head of the SS in Augustow, and his assistant Klonovsky, who was an ethnic German, were ultimately responsible for the ghetto. It was monitored on a day-to-day basis by the German Gendarmerie and guarded by Polish auxiliaries. Living conditions were poor. Approximately 24 people resided in a single house. Overcrowding gave way to diseases, such as purpura, associated with typhus, and other fever-type epidemics. A hospital and cemetery were established in the ghetto.

The male craftsmen worked as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, watchmakers, and painters. Some men and many more women were conscripted for labour at the saw mil, renamed during the occupation in honour of Hermann Goring. Skilled mechanics and locksmiths worked for the Wehrmacht. Unskilled workers were sent to a labour camp established in Augustow for road repairs or were conscripted for agricultural or harvesting logs. August Bogener, an auxiliary policeman, from January to March 1942, was the supervisor of the Jewish forced labour workers, routinely beat the prisoners with a rubber truncheon, kicked them, and stripped them of any food they were attempting to smuggle into the ghetto.

In June 1942, the Germans reduced the size of the Augustow ghetto population by deporting a large number of young women residents to Grajewo. The women were sent for agricultural labour at Milbo, the estate of the Grajewo Kreis-kommissar, located in Milewo.The Augustow ghetto was liquidated on November 2, 1942. A handful of Christian converts were permitted to remain with their families in Augustow. The Gendarmes locked the sick and elderly, which they deemed unable to travel into the ghetto hospital and set it ablaze. The remaining Jews were expelled to a transit camp located north of Grajewo, in Bogusze village, near the train station in Prostken, East Prussia. Approximately 5,000 to 9,000 Jews from other nearby locations, including Milewo, were expelled to the transit camp that same day.

On December 15th-16th 1942, the Germans deported between 3,000 to 5,000 Jews from Bogusze to the Treblinka death camp. On January 3, 1943, the remaining 2,000 Jews at Bogusze were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. On January 7, 1943, at Birkenau, the Germans selected 296 men and 215 women for labour and the remaining 1,489 people were gassed on arrival.

In August 1943, the Christian converts excluded from the Bogusze deportation were executed. In April 1944, Waldemar Macholl, then head of the Department IVA-3 of the Bialystok Gestapo, organised a Sonderkommando 1005 unit, personally selecting its 43 workers from a group of Jewish male craftsmen and other inmates at the city prison. The unit began its work on May 15th, 1944, in the Augustow Forest. Closely supervised by Obersturmfuhrer Dick, the Jewish prisoners spent almost three weeks exhuming and burning the corpses there, including 3,000 to 5,000 Jewish, Belorussian and Polish civilians, and former Soviet officials, buried in seven mass graves at Szczebrze.

In addition to the handful of survivors from Auschwitz, three Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland are counted as survivors. Assisted by Pawel Kunda, a local physician, they lived outside the ghetto on false identity papers and they remained in Augustow after the liquidation of the ghetto.

After the end of the Second World War in West Germany,Hans -Joachim Bohme received a 15-year prison term for ordering the executions of several thousands of Jews in Augustow. In 1957, Wolfgang Ilges received a 4-year sentence for murdering 100 Augustow Jews. In Poland August Bogener,was sentenced to life in prison during 1947, for using compulsion to exploit Jews for forced labour. In 1954, the sentence was commuted to a 12-year term. Waldemar Macholl was convicted in March 1945, of numerous crimes, including ordering the murder during June and July 1941, of 316 Jews killed in the Augustow Forest.and for ordering the Sonderkommando 1005 unit to destroy the evidence of Nazi crimes in Augustow, and ordering the execution of at least 31 Jews from the unit. He was sentenced to death and executed on October 25, 1949.


Sources

The Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945, USHMM, Indianna University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012.

Photograph: Chris Webb Private Archive


Holocaust Historical Society 15 October 2020