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Rzeszow / Reichshof - Jews Gathered under guard (Chris Webb -Private Archive)

Rzeszow is located approximately 97 miles east of Krakow. In 1931, there were 11,228 Jews living in Rzeszow out of a total population of 26,902. On the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, there were according to estimates some 14,000 Jews living in the city. The Germans bombarded Rzeszow on September 9, 1939, and the following day on September 10, 1939, occupied the city. As the German forces drew closer, many Jews tried to flee to the east, but most were turned back. The Germans ordered a census, including a special listing of the city's Jews. Many were put to forced labour, such as office and street cleaning and bridge repairs, and other forms of menial labour. During this work the Jews were often beaten and the beards and side locks of the Orthodox Jews were torn off their faces. Within the first month, the interiors of the synagogues were vandalised and their contents desecrated. The apartments of the wealthy Jews were taken over by German officers. The Jewish hospital was turned into a military installation.

At the end of October 1939, a 30-man Jewish Council (Judenrat) headed by the attorney Kleinman, was established. A Jewish police force, commanded by Leon Brezner was also set up. The Judenrat had to raise 'contributions' demanded by the Germans and organise the quota of forced labourers. From December 1, 1939, Jews from the age of 12 and over were ordered to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David. Their movements around the city were restricted and train travel forbidden. A 7.00 p.m. curfew was imposed.

In December 1939, thousands of Jews from Kalisz, Lodz, and Upper Silesia were forcibly resettled to Rzeszow. They were housed in synagogues and an old army barracks. All Jews aged 16 to 55 were examined by physicians to see if they were fit for labour. Those who passed were registered at the Arbeitsamt - Labour Office.

The Germans changed the name of Rzeszow to Reichshof and during 1940, the major disruptions for the Jews was caused by arbitrary house searches, and kidnappings for forced labour. People of means were able to bribe their way out of forced labour, by paying for replacements. The German Stadthauptmann ordered the removal of Jewish businesses from the main streets of the city, which in turn created some all-Jewish streets, although a ghetto was not created at this time.

By 1941, it was evident that the Germans were planning to establish a ghetto. Starting in June 1941, and continuing to the autumn, the Jews were ordered to vacate their homes and move onto the special streets designated for the ghetto. The official announcement of the establishment of the ghetto was published on December 17, 1941. The ghetto area included these streets: Galenzowsky, Wenska, Tannenbaum, Slowacki, Kazimierz, Baldachowka, Szpitalna, Blum and Mickiewicz. There were entrance gates in three streets - Mickewicz,  Galenzowsky, and at the junction of Kazimierz, and Baldachowka. The part of the ghetto lying between Targowica and Lwow Streets was marked out in such a way that only the buildings were in the ghetto but the streets themselves were outside it. To pass from one house to another, people had to make holes in walls, cross over balconies, or go through improvised passages and gangways. By December 1941, all the Jews had moved into the ghetto.

On January 5, 1942, posters were put up around the ghetto, signed by the Kreishauptmann Dr. Heinz Ehaus, prohibiting Germans and other 'Aryans' from entering the ghetto without a special pass. This order followed other measures also affecting the movement of Poles, designed to combat the spread of typhus. On January 10, 1942, the Rzeszow ghetto was sealed. By this time the ghetto had been enclosed by walls and wooden fences, surrounded by barbed wire. Houses along the ghetto perimeter had their windows and doors boarded up. At this time the number of Jews imprisoned in the ghetto stood at 12,500. The only people permitted to leave the ghetto were those being taken for forced labour. Within the ghetto there were workshops for tailoring, shoemaking and upholstery. The Judenrat was ordered to open a medical clinic to replace the Jewish clinic outside the ghetto that was shut down.

In addition to the work noted above, Jewish workers were forced to work at installations belong to the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) in a factory formerly owned by Jews, on nearby farms, and in military camps. Those allowed outside the ghetto for work fared somewhat better than those locked in with no access to food and because of the poor sanitary conditions. Epidemics of dysentery and typhus increased the mortality rate, and bodies piled up in the streets. The Judenrat established a small hospital, which lacked both beds and medicine. The Jewish Social Self-Help (JSS) provided support for 2,500 people, and two public kitchens distributed hundreds of portions of soup on a daily basis. The Judenrat received permission to grow potatoes in a field outside the ghetto. Some of the small ghetto workshops served German clients, which enabled the ghetto inhabitants to acquire supplementary food. In the spring of 1942, a number of forced labourers were transferred to a labour camp in Biesiadka, where they cut down trees.   

The Judenrat established an elementary school, which functioned until the major 'Aktion' of July 1942. The Judenrat also offered vocational training courses to provide more people with 'essential skills' that might keep them alive. There were courses for training electricians, carpenters, nurses, and agricultural workers.

In addition to the Jews from Kalisz and Lodz, other Jews from the vicinity were brought to the Rzeszow ghetto. The overcrowding became severe, this resulted often to more than one family to a room. In January 1942, the inhabitants were ordered to surrender their fur clothing. On April 30, 1942, the Gestapo in Reichshof conducted a 'Kommunisten Aktion' against the Jews of the ghetto. Gestapo operatives arrested a number of Jews as alleged Communists. Those arrested were then tortured in prison before being killed. The Judenrat was instructed to collect the mutilated bodies and arrange for their burial.

In June 1942, Kreishauptmann Dr. Ehaus imposed a massive 'contribution' of 1 million zloty on the Reichshof ghetto, threatening to kill members of the Judenrat if the sum was not paid within one week. The other Jewish Councils in the Kreis (district) also had to deliver smaller sums to the Kreishauptmann personally at this time. According to a survivor from Kolbuszowa, the Judenrat from that town was the only one not to suffer losses at the hands of Dr. Ehaus during that 'Aktion.' It was probably at this time that Kleinman and several other members of the Reichshof Judenrat were executed, but some sources claim that their deaths took place earlier.

On June 25-27, 1942, the overcrowding in the ghetto became intense with the transfer of Jews from Lancut, Tyczyn, Kolbuszowa, Glogow Malopolski, Sedziszow Malopolski, Czudec, Jawornik Polski, Blazowa, Niebylec, and Strzykow to the Reichshof ghetto. Mina Perlberger recalled the scenes as the Jews crowded into Reichshof, 'The wagons, starting to move, were lined up, and it was impossible to see the beginning or the end of the line. It was wagons from all the small towns around Rzeszow, Blazowa, Jawornik, Tyczyn going in one direction - Ghetto. Word soon spread that there was insufficient space to accommodate all the Jews and that people would have to sleep on the streets. '

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 Reichshof -  Crowded Marktplatz (Chris Webb Private Archive)

Once they were all settled into the Reichshof ghetto there were now three families to a room. By early July 1942, the ghetto population had increased to approximately 22,000 people. At that time, the Judenrat was notified by the German authorities that the evacuation of the ghetto would begin in a few days, starting with those that were unfit to work, or in an otherwise weakened condition. Everyone was told to bring a few personal effects, including jewellery, and a two-day supply of food. Placards informed the public that any Pole who hid a Jew would be shot.

The massive expulsion began on July 7, 1942, and was carried out in four stages: July 7-8, July 11, July 14 -15, and July 17-18. At each stage the sector of the ghetto designated for 'resettlement' was surrounded by SS troops, Gestapo and members of the Security Police. The inhabitants were ordered to assemble in the old Jewish cemetery. Jews who lingered in their dwellings for any reason were shot on the spot. The assembled Jews were stripped of their possessions. Essential workers and their families were exempted from expulsion. Patients in the hospital were forcibly removed, although some Jewish doctors slipped poison to some of their patients to spare them for the waiting ordeal. The remaining hospital patients, occupants from the old-age home and others unfit for labour, numbering approximately 1,000 people were taken to the Rodna Forest, which was between Rzeszow and Glogow, and murdered. The majority of the ghetto inhabitants were marched to the train station at Starowina and sent to the Belzec Death Camp, where they were murdered in the gas chambers.  

The 'Aktions' continued throughout the month of July 1942, and the empty apartments were turned over to Poles who had been evicted from their own dwellings to make way for German occupants. During this period, nearly 20,000 Jews were deported and hundreds were shot. At the end of this major 'Aktion', the only Jews left in the ghetto were those with a special stamp on their identification cards.

In Reichshof Dr. Ehaus dedicated a wooden eagle which was inscribed as follows:

'This eagle, the German sign of superiority and dignity, was put up to mark the liberation of the town of Reichshof of all Jews in the month of July 1942. It was put up during the service of Sturmbannfuhrer Dr. Heinz Ehaus, first District Headman and first Station Commander for the NSDAP for the district Reichshof.'

Following the July resettlement 'Aktions' the size of the Reichshof ghetto was reduced to the area between Baldachowka and Kaczmarska Streets. In November 1942, the German authorities designated the Reichshof ghetto as one of the five ghettos in the Distrikt Krakau, in which the remnants of the Jewish population in that area would be concentrated. At this time, only 3,000 Jews remained, and these were mainly essential workers and their families, but also people who had somehow evaded the resettlement 'Aktions' - the so-called 'illegals.'  

The ghetto was divided into two sectors - one to the right of Baldachowka Street and the other to the left. The eastern ghetto was run like a concentration camp. It was surrounded by barbed wire and lit up by searchlights. Each morning the inmates were lined up for roll call. The beds were removed and replaced by wooden shelves, and a barrier separated the men from the women. The western ghetto was called the Schmelz (smelting) ghetto by the Jews and was for the elderly, the children and those enable to work.

In August 1942, women with children were ordered to register for 'light labour.' With a perversity of hope, this was seen as a positive sign; women who had no children, 'borrowed' a child from their neighbours. As they reported for the registration they were surrounded by SS troops and then sent to the Belzec Death Camp where they perished.  

On November 15, 1942, the Gestapo ordered everyone with a labour permit to assemble at the Appellplatz on Baldachowska Street. Many brought their children with them, based on the assumption that their work permits would protect the children as well. As the workers stepped forward and their documents were inspected, their children were detained for placement in a 'children's home.' During this 'Aktion' approximately 1,500 mainly Jewish children were loaded onto trucks and were sent to Belzec Death Camp where they were murdered.

Between December 1942, and June 1943, there were numerous resettlement 'Aktions' that led either to murder or transfer to work camps. Jews continued to work making uniforms for the German army, and dismantling the vacated houses in the ghetto among other tasks. The head of the Judenrat in this period was a Jew named Serog from Teschen in Silesia.

During March 1943, twenty-two Jews from the Ostbahn group were shot as they entered the ghetto from their place of work. In early September 1943, the existence of the two ghettos came to an end. The remaining inhabitants approximately 3,000 people were assembled on Baldachowka Street and some were selected to the forced labour camp at Szebnie and many of the others were deported to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Approximately 150 were held back to clean up the ghetto area and collect the belongings of those Jews who had been deported. After this time approximately 450 Jews remained in Reichshof, in the forced labour camp at the aircraft -engine factory, the Flugmotorenwerk, which remained until the summer of 1944.  

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   Envelope from the Flugmotorenwek Reichshof (Chris Webb Private Archive)


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

G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution, published by Sphere Books Ltd, London 1971

Photographs and Envelope Image - Chris Webb Private Archive

Thanks to Heather Spyrakis and Victor Smart

Holocaust Historical Society 2019