piotrkow 1939495

Piotrkow Trybunalski Occupied - September 1939

Piotrkow Trybunalski is located approximately 27 miles south-southeast of Lodz. The pre-war population of Piotrkow consisted of around 50,000 which included approximately 15,000 Jews. On September 5, 1939, the Germans entered Piotrkow, and the killing of Jews began immediately, and the next day they set fire to the Jewish quarter. What did not burn was looted. Jews, especially older people were kidnapped and sent to forced labour camps, where they were tortured and beaten. Other people were taken as hostages and only released after the Jewish community paid 'contributions.'

In early October 1939, a Jewish Council -Judenrat - was appointed and it was headed by a Bundist leader, Zalman Tenenberg. Also the Judenrat was made up by representatives of various Zionist groups, religious factions and members of the Artisans Union. Szymon Warszawski represented all the non-affiliated Jews. In all the various departments, together with the Jewish Police, about 500 people worked in the community services controlled by the Judenrat. The Jewish Police was headed by the lawyer Stanislaw Zilberstein and was responsible for matters of public order, supplies and health. Its function was also to enforce co-operation on those unwilling to work , as requested by the Germans. It was composed of 45 men divided into three groups. The policemen received special hats and armbands.

On October 8, 1939, Oberburgermeister Hans Drechsel ordered the establishment of a ghetto in Piotrkow Trybunalski, which was the first ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Jews were given until October 31, 1939, to move into the designated ghetto area, which according to German sources was located on the axis of Feuchte Gasse and Alte Warschauer Strasse. This was an impoverished and old part of the town, and the borders of the ghetto were marked by signposts bearing the word Ghetto, in gothic script above a white skull and cross-bones on a blue background. The ghetto area was open, there was no fence around it.

On December 1, 1939, Oberburgermeister Hans Drechsel ordered that 1,000 Jews had to report for forced labour every day and that Jews had to wear a yellow armband. He also imposed a curfew inside the ghetto from 3.00 p.m. to 8.00 a.m. In 1940, all the Jews of Piotrkow over the age of 10 were required to wear a white armband on their sleeves with a blue Star of David. Those who failed to comply were severely punished, some people disobeyed this order, despite the danger.

Men born between 1914, and 1923, were registered for forced labour by the Judenrat in March 1940. Then in August 1940, almost 1,000 men and boys, some only 16 years old, were sent to labour camps in the Lublin area to fortify the German -Soviet border. David Perach was among 150 initially sent to the camp at Cieszanow. The conditions were terrible; hard labour from dawn to dusk, whippings and shootings. They were fed the most meagre rations and primitive living conditions made this a living hell. Salomon Gomberg, a gallant man organised the release of the labourers through negotiations and bribes, and the men and boys were released from this hell in January 1941.

The people of the ghetto tried their best to endure their cruel fate with dignity and the most shining example was the clandestine education organisation. The teachers eager to practice their noble profession and the youngsters thirsty for knowledge formed a 'bridge to humanity' by studying and organising cultural activities such as symposia, plays, discussion groups and musical events.

The German official Ronig took over the administration of expropriated Jewish houses outside the ghetto area. The Germans also appointed commissars to administer Jewish firms and stores. Forced labour involved back-breaking work. Street cleaning, repairing the roads, and servicing the various German offices became a nightmare for the Jewish people. Very often the Germans took men, forcing them to perform harsh meaningless work, just to add to their torment. The Judenrat regularly supplied scores of Jewish workers via the Arbeitsamt - Labour Office. They worked for example, draining swampy fields near the villages of Milejow and Witow, digging canals and trenches, removing tons of earth, whilst working up to their knees in water all day long.

Due to a number of resettlement 'aktions' of Jews by the German authorities, the population of the Piotrkow ghetto increased substantially, as refugees arrived from Gniezno, Tuszyn, Lodz, Pabiance and the regions of Plock and Poznan. The ghetto contained 182 run-down buildings in poor condition with 4,178 rooms. With nearly 20,000 Jews forced into the ghetto area, there were roughly 5 people living in each room. As the population of the ghetto increased and the overcrowding intensified, outbreaks of disease reached epidemic proportions. During 1941, a typhus epidemic claimed over 1,000 victims. The newly formed sanitary committee introduced compulsory baths and the disinfection of clothing every three weeks for the inhabitants of each house. They also quarantined those houses affected. The sanitary squad consisted of 60 men, which later became the Sanitary Police.

The Welfare Department of the Judenrat was very active in providing support where needed, including emergency services. They organised medical and dental clinics as well as a pharmacy. Social welfare kitchens were established for the poor, such as the unemployed and those who had lost their businesses.

A number of local companies -such as the Kara and Hortensja Glassworks; the Petrikauer Holzwerke -wood factory- owned by Dietrich and Fischer, also known as the 'Bugaj'; the Ostbahn; Kreisgenossenschaft; and Phoenix - began to employ Jews, whilst young workers were given priority. Those employed in the glassworks learned new crafts, and the work itself was very hard. About 1,100 Jews worked in the Kara and Hortensja factories, as glass breakers and blowers. They also loaded and unloaded soda, coal, bricks, sand, cement, and other materials. At the Kara factory the managers Vogel, Popielowski, Mrozinski, and the many foremen, both German and Polish mistreated the workers at every given opportunity.

A giant glass oven cistern had to be built, and a huge, deep pit was dug for this purpose. The Jews had to remove large amounts of earth from the pit while foremen armed with sticks stood by, beating the workers. This work lasted a whole year, and in 1943, a new smelting pot and other small buildings were ready. The construction work was completed thanks to the blood and sweat of the Jewish workers, who carried all the bricks and stones.

On July 5, 1941, the chairman of the Judenrat, Tennenberg, together with several Bundists on the Jewish Council were arrested, as the Germans suspected that they were co-operating with the Underground. The investigation lasted 10 weeks, and those arrested were brutally tortured to extract information. In September 1941, those arrested were sent to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Shortly afterwards their families received telegrams informing them of the deaths of their loved ones, from various diseases. Szymon Warszawski took over from Tenenberg, as chairman of the Judenrat.

During the winter of 1941 -1942, the Germans ordered the requisition of furs, for the German troops fighting on the Eastern Front, which was another severe blow to the ghetto inmates. All heavy coats as well as furs were requisitioned. Many people became sick as a result of the loss of their winter clothing. At the end of 1941, the Germans issued an order prohibiting Jews from leaving the ghetto. Jews who were caught outside of the ghetto area faced the death penalty. In early March 1942, the German administration in Piotrkow ordered the ghetto to be closed by April 1, 1942, and from that date it was sealed. Jews were not permitted to leave the ghetto, and non-Jews were not allowed to enter the ghetto.

The Germans began preparations for the deportation 'aktions' at the beginning of September 1942, with the creation of the Small Ghetto. The block of houses encompassing Jerozolimska, Garncarska, Zamurowa, and Staro-Warszawska Streets was fenced in with barbed wire. It was rumoured that only 3,000 'productive' Jews would remain for work at the factories owned by the Germans. At this time thousands of Jews were brought into the ghetto from the nearby towns and villages, such as Sulejow, Srocko, Prywatne, Wolborz, Gorzkowice and others. These 'aktions' increased the ghetto population to some 25,000. The tension in the ghetto reached its climax on October 13, 1942, when the horrifying news spread that the deportation  'Aktion'  was scheduled to begin on the following day.

On the night of October 13-14, 1942, the SS and Ukrainian auxiliary forces surrounded and sealed off the ghetto. The 'Aktion' began at dawn. The first group of people was ordered to report to the Deportation Square, which was opposite the Jewish Hospital. The commanders of the operation - headed by SS-Hauptsturmführer  Adolf Feucht, from Radom, an experienced deportation expert - stood in the middle of the square. As soon as the Jews had been lined up in rows, Feucht selected the factory workers, who were sent to their workplaces. The others were sent to the Treblinka death camp. The quota that day was 6,000 people, or enough to fill the 52 cattle cars. Once the quota was filled, all the other Jews were sent back to the ghetto.

During the ensuing dreadful week, the workers from the glass factory, including the Jews who were temporarily housed there, saw the trains departing for Treblinka and witnessed the trembling hands of people groping at the window gratings, and their terrible cries as they were carried off to their deaths. Trains departed on Wednesday, Friday, Monday, and on Wednesday again. In total more than 20,000 Jews were deported. Approximately 1,000 Jews were shot during the deportation 'Aktions,' mainly the old and those too sick to travel.

This experience left deep wounds in the souls of those who witnessed it. On the day of the last transport, October 25, 1942, the Germans realised that several cars would remain empty. The quota of 6,000 had not been met. They rushed the remaining inhabitants of the Small Ghetto to the square, where Feucht once again passed through the ranks and selected the 300 victims he needed. He took the scholars of the Jewish community, its leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and others who belonged to the Jewish Council. Finally, he came to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, who alone among them still kept his traditional dress and beard. The murderer pointed his cane at the Rabbi and shouted, 'The Jews need Rabbis there too.' Dislodged from his position Rabbi Lau , clutching a small Torah scroll, he joined the last transport of Piotrkow's Jews to Treblinka death camp. With their departure the great Jewish community of Piotrkow, was no more.

When the workers from the Bugaj and the glass factories returned, they were housed in the Small Ghetto, in the dwellings of those that had been deported. Meanwhile, the people who had remained hidden in their houses outside the Small Ghetto filtered back in. Those several hundred 'illegals' were of concern to Warszawski and his aides, who feared that the clandestine influx might provoke further deportations. Indeed, soon the Germans began intensive searches, assisted by the Jewish Police. The searches uncovered several hundred Jews, including entire families. They were incarcerated in the Great Synagogue. Here the Germans committed brutal atrocities with satanic pleasure. They carried infants out of the building, smashed their heads, and hurled the bodies into basin heaters over bonfires. The first group of people was sent by horse and carts to nearby Tomaszow Mazowiecki, where the deportations to Treblinka were still continuing.

A month later, the Germans assembled another group of several hundred victims extricated from bunkers, that served as hiding places and a number of 'illegals' from the Small Ghetto, and incarcerated them in the Great Synagogue. On December 20, 1942, several hundred Jews were taken on their final journey to the Rakow Forest, where they dug their own graves, before being mercilessly shot.

Only 2,400 Jews were permitted to remain in the Small Ghetto known as the 'Blok,' because of their work in vital industries; in fact the population exceeded 3,000. Most inhabitants were employed in factories, thanks to which the group was allowed to remain. Others, however, worked in the 'shop' which produced clothing for the Germans, and at the Befehlsstelle, cleaning up the large ghetto and sorting and shipping the 'goods' to the Reich. A small group worked in internal services, the laundry, and in the kitchen; on food supply; at the clinic, and in janitorial work for the Jewish Police. Prior to the December massacre in the Rakow Forest, 160 people were killed in the forest on November 20, 1942.

In February 1943, 250 people were deported to the Hugo Schneider AG (HASAG) ammunition factories in Skarzysko- Kamienna. A month later another 250, mostly women, were sent to the same place, among them the Rabbi of Radoschitz, Admor Itzhakl Finkler and his family. The following month on March 21, 1943, the Germans conducted a massacre, during Purim. They took 10 scholars, doctors and lawyers, claiming they would be exchanged for Germans from Palestine. Doctors Brams and Glatter, attorneys Silberstein and Stein, their families, and others were brought to the Jewish cemetery, ordered to strip naked, and shot without mercy.

In July 1943, it became known that only approximately 1,500 Jews were to remain in Piotrkow, employed in the Kara and Hortensja Glassworks and in the Bugaj Lumberworks. The workers were destined to live within the factories' grounds. About 1,500 excess Jews were sent to the Blizyn Labour Camp. Three truckloads sent to Pionki, Ostrowiec, Swietokrzyski, and Radom completed the fate of the residents of the Small Ghetto. The ghetto in Piotrkow Trybunalski ceased to exist. When the transports left Piotrkow in the second half of July, an official sign reading , 'Petrikau ist Judenrein' (Piotrkow is cleansed of Jews) was posted at the railway station.

The two labour camps that remained within the Piotrkow city were headed by Szymon Warszawski at the Bugaj and Salomon Gomberg at the Kara and Hortensja. On November 26, 1944, the remnants of the Jewish population of Piotrkow were put into cattle wagons to be transported to three destinations. The majority from the glass factories and a smaller part from the Bugaj were sent to the HASAG factories in Czestochowa - the Pelzerei, Warta, Rakow and Czestochowianka factories. The larger part of those from the Bugaj, including about 50 people from the glassworks, were sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany. The women and small children from both places were also sent to Germany, to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.

In January 1945, only two small groups of Jews from Piotrkow were liberated at the Warta and Pelzerei factories in Czestochowa. The rest were sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. From Ravensbruck some women who hailed from Piotrkow were transported to the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Only about half of the people that left Piotrkow in November 1944, survived the atrocious conditions in various German concentration camps and on the death marches. By the end of 1946, approximately 600 Jews had registered with the Jewish Committee in Piotrkow, and only 150 remained in the city by December 1948.  


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

Photographs -Tall Trees Archives  

© Holocaust Historical Society 2017