Sokołów Podlaski

Sokolow Podlaskie - German barracks 541

Sokolow Podlaski - German Barracks

Sokolow Podlaski is located 63 miles east-northeast of Warsaw and on the eve of the Second World War the town was home to approximately 6,000 Jews. During the early German onslaught the German military bombardments inflicted significant damage on the town, particularly in the area where Jews lived. On 7 September 1939, the German Luftwaffe bombed Dluga Street, killing seven or eight people and they also attacked the centre of the town, killing a number of Jews and Poles who lived on Maly Rynek, Rogowski and Piekna Streets. The Germans retreated from the town in the third week of September 1939, in accordance with the Molotov –Ribbentrop pact and the Red Army briefly occupied Sokolow Podlaski on 27 September 1939. This was short lived and a new agreement between the Nazis and the Soviets soon returned Sokolow Podlaski under the control of the Germans. Approximately 1,000 of the Jews in the town went with the Soviet forces across the River Bug, which was the new frontier. Throughout 1940, Jews continued to cross the River Bug illegally, to escape German brutality.

 The German military returned to Sokolow Podlaski on 11 October 1939 and immediately embarked on a series of anti-Semitic attacks. German soldiers harassed Jews on the streets, cutting off their beards with knives. When groups of Polish youths also beat up several Jews, the Germans arrested the offenders and sentenced them to six months in jail. German soldiers conducted numerous seizures of property in Jewish stores in November 1939, forcing many stores to close down. German soldiers also arbitrarily conscripted Jews for forced labour. The German civil administration took over the control of the town from the military forces and Landrat Friedrich Schultz was appointed Kreishauptmann for Kreis Sokolow on 11 November 1939. A week later, he ordered Sokolow’s mayor to arrest 15 prominent Jews and demanded the Jewish community to pay a ransom of 15,000 zloty. After succeeding Friedrich Schultz on 10 June 1940, the new Kreishauptmann, Reichslandwirtschaftsrat, Ernst Gramss, ordered officials to dismantle the town’s largest Jewish cemetery.

 At the end of November 1939, the town’s mayor ordered the creation of a Jewish Council (Judenrat) and its first chairman Chaim Jakob Szpadel, died soon after being appointed. Nachum Lewin then became the Judenrat’s chairman. The Judenrat’s labour office was headed by Icko Szlachme and Kalman Rosen. The Judenrat also created a Jewish Police force composed of approximately 30 officers and its commander was Josel Rozenswaig who was succeeded later by Schwartzbard. The Jewish Police also established a jail for Jews in the Bet Midrash, mainly to incarcerate those who did not pay the dues demanded by the Judenrat. With the formation of the Judenrat, the Germans demanded a series of payments from the Jewish community of Sokolow Podlaski. These included contributions of 80,000 zloty in December 1939 and another payment of 100,000 during January 1940. To secure money for these payments the Judenrat ordered that men pay monthly dues, ranging from 700 zloty up to 1,200 zloty.

 From mid-1940, the Germans undertook a series of measures that gradually established an open ghetto in Sokolow Podlaski. In the autumn of 1940, in order to create a separate neighbourhood for German officials, Gramss ordered the expulsion of Jews from pre-war Christian neighbourhoods. Jews who lived and worked there were moved onto two streets surrounding the main synagogue, in the centre of town, which was where most Jews had lived before the start of the Second World War. The order initiated the period of the so-called ‘open ghetto.’ Jews were still allowed to move freely about the town, but they could not live or operate stores in Sokolow Podlaski’s Christian neighbourhoods, although Christians who lived in the Jewish neighbourhood were not expelled from it.

In the last days of July 1941, or on 1 August 1941, the Germans created a closed ghetto in Sokolow Podlaski. Because the town’s pre-war Jewish neighbourhood contained Dluga Street, a major northwest –to-southeast thoroughfare connecting the town’s two main non-Jewish neighbourhoods, German plans might have called originally for the expulsion of the Jews from a large part of the pre-war Jewish neighbourhood and their concentration in only one of the neighbourhoods divided by the street. Negotiations between the Judenrat and the German officials and another round of bribes forestalled these German plans.  Instead to make Dluga Street accessible to non-Jewish traffic, the Germans created two ghettos in Sokolow Podlaski, one of which ran east of Dluga Street and the other west of the same street to the Cetynia River. The houses on both sides of Dluga Street were enclosed behind barbed-wire. Jews who resided in houses there were ordered to brick over windows and doors facing that street. In both ghettos, roads that formerly intersected with Dluga Street were blocked off by a 3-metre –high brick walls, topped with shards of broken glass.

 The first ghetto, located on a large part of the western side of the pre-war Jewish neighbourhood, formed a rough diamond-like shape territorially. Its extreme eastern edge was bounded by Dluga Street and one side of Siedlecka Street. Its western edge was at the intersection of Boznicza Street and the eastern side of Winnice Street. This ghetto contained five additional streets:  Niecala,Nowa, Prozna, Szkolna, Szeroka Streets. The entrance to the first ghetto was on Boznicza Street. The town’s second, or eastern ghetto included the following streets: Dluga, Szewski, Rynek, a part of Wilczynski, Krotka, Piekna, and Przechodnia Streets. It also included Maly Rynek Street. The entrance to this second ghetto was at the intersection of Szewski Rynek and Wilczynski Streets. This ghetto was surrounded mostly by barbed-wire, with a wooden fence erected around its southernmost tip. Residents could cross between the two ghettos through a passageway in the Bet Midrash, which also housed the ghetto’s jail. Jews could only leave the two ghettos with special permission. A few Poles who continued to live in the ghetto were issued special passes. Otherwise, Poles also were forbidden from entering the ghetto. Under the control of Dr. Hermann, from the Kreishauptmann’s office, the ghetto was heavily guarded. Barriers were erected in front of the entrances to both ghettos. Polish (Blue) Police and German Gendarmes guarded the exterior of the ghetto’s gates. Jewish Police members guarded the ghetto internally, including the passage between the two ghettos.

 By September 1941, 5,080 Jews were confined to the ghettos; these numbers included 684 Jews who had settled in Sokolow Podlaski by 29 December 1939 and an additional 915 Jews who had arrived there before 1 June 1940. The majority of these new arrivals had been forcibly expelled by the Germans from Kalisz, Pultusk, Kaluszyn and Aleksandrow Lodzki. In November 1941, the Germans also began ordering 316 Jews from villages and agricultural settlements located east and south of Sokolow Podlaski, including from Kudelczyn, Korczew, Repki, Wyrozeby, and Kowiesy to move to the ghetto, by 15 December 1941. The Judenrat faced great difficulties in finding homes for all these refugees and by September 1941, rooms in the ghetto housed an average of six people. As the ghetto was established around the Jewish neighbourhood, most Jewish businesses continued to operate, with only a handful, including a bakery, being forced to close pre-existing facilities and re-open in the ghetto. Children were sent to illicit schools, some with classes in Hebrew, others in Polish.  

Forced labour became more structured with the closing of the ghettos, with 600 ghetto residents leaving the ghetto every day for work. They worked mainly at a number of Luftwaffe facilities. Another 200 Jews were employed at these facilities also lived there. In the summer and autumn of 1941, town officials also conscripted 50 Jewish workers to construct walkways in the town using headstones from the Jewish cemetery on Boznicza Street. Another team of conscripts worked to level the Jewish cemetery. From the autumn of 1941, an increasing number of ghetto inhabitants were assigned to water irrigation work at two forced labour camps near Korczew, the first located in Szczeglacin and the second in Bartkow Nowy. At first the workers reported only for month-long stints, receiving 10 zloty per day for their families. A supplementary bread ration was also paid for by the Judenrat from fees paid by people who wanted to be exempt from forced labour.The closure of the ghetto nonetheless provoked unemployment, particularly among the craftsmen. Two hundred tailors and 400 shoemakers lost their former Polish clientele. In September 1941, these craftsmen sought permission to establish co-operative workshops in the ghetto to fill orders from German firms and the Luftwaffe. However, the authorities in Warsaw denied their request and as a consequence no workshops were ever established in the ghetto.

 Draconian food distribution and rationing policies pursued by Kreishauptmann Gramss provoked hunger within weeks of the ghetto closure. Because Gramss had restricted deliveries of vegetables to the ghetto to 10 cartloads daily, the Judenrat could not supply ghetto residents with their full rations. Equally disconcerting was the refusal by Gramss to make available winter food rations to either Jews or Poles during September 1941. Nor were the Judenrat’s charity institutions able to respond to the crisis. Unable to afford to purchase food at market prices, the Judenrat’s community kitchens were unable to operate. Charity assistance to orphans and children continued, but with only orphans being fed daily. Gramss did agree in late September 1941, to allow the Judenrat to bring 30 carts of vegetables each day into the ghetto and also authorised the release of food to Jewish charity organisations. But these measures were too little, too late. Large parts of the food promised to the ghetto remained in the authority’s hands and in the Judenrat’s storehouses, as the onset of winter made roads impassable, which prevented deliveries being made into the ghetto.  

 As these policies continued to provoke hunger, a typhus epidemic struck during the autumn and winter of 1941, this caused scores of Jews to leave the ghetto illicitly in search of food. A few Poles threw food items over the ghetto fence. Others agreed to receive packages sent by Jewish family members living abroad. Far more frequently store owners and traders tried to barter light industrial goods for food to stock their stores in the ghetto. They relied on bribes and payments to Jewish, Polish and German policemen – to get out and back into the ghetto safely. Unable to afford bribes, Jewish craftsmen took more risks when engaging in barter, as the penalty for leaving the ghetto was death. In the autumn of 1941, for example, German Gendarme Edward Poppe, shot a Jewish shoemaker for being outside the ghetto.

 The Judenrat’s inability to provide basic social services, its increasing corruption, and its insistence on filling forced labour quotas made it appear increasingly complicit to many ghetto residents. In the spring of 1942, Jews called up for work in the Szczeglacin labour camp discovered that the Judenrat had cut supplemental bread rations to 200 grams and had opened a special store only for Judenrat employees. Feeling betrayed, the conscripts assigned to the labour camp refused to assemble. The Jewish Police went from house to house, beating those participating in the protest. Earlier, in December 1941, the Judenrat had assigned 15 young workers to labour duties at the Treblinka labour camp, which was located just 21 miles north of Sokolow Podlaski. About half of them perished in the camp, and when some of the survivors returned home, they returned as invalids, caused by frostbite, it seemed unthinkable that the Judenrat would continue to draft workers for labour assignments there. Then in early spring 1942, Jews from Sokolow Podlaski were sent to construct the death camp at Treblinka, which was only one and a half kilometres from the labour camp. The workers sent there did not return home.   

By the summer of 1942, the Jews living in the Sokolow Podlaski ghetto fearing mass deportations began formulating strategies to avoid their expulsion to the Treblinka death camp. A number of them started building hiding places in their homes, whilst others paid the Judenrat premiums to secure agricultural work or voluntarily signed up for work at the Szczeglacin labour camp, believing it was safer there, than remaining in the ghetto. On 24 August 1942, posters appeared in the ghetto, signed by Gramss, limiting entry there to registered residents and voiding all travel passes for Jews Some of the ghetto residents opted to remain at the estates where they were working, whilst other Jews placed their children with Polish Christians.

The liquidation of the Jews in Sokolow Podlaski began early on 22 September 1942, when German police and security forces, including Ukrainian SS volunteers and Polish (Blue) Police surrounded the ghetto. As elsewhere in the Kreis Sokolow, the round-ups were brutal and murderous. Many of the residents, approximately 2,000 of the 6,000 Jewish population did not assemble at the market square, but opted instead to hide. In the searches that followed, between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews found hiding, were shot and killed. The Germans selected approximately 120 Jews from those at the square to stay behind and sort the possessions of those that had been deported. Thus, the remainder of the Jews 5,800 were marched to the railway station and deported to the Treblinka death camp, where they were murdered in the gas chambers.

 The Germans exterminated the surviving remnants of Sokolow Podlaski’s Jewish community over the next two months. Four days after the ghetto’s liquidation, German officers rounded up the Jews who worked and lived at the town’s military facilities, with only those who worked at the military hospital escaping death. That same evening on 26 September 1942, the Germans shot Nachum Lewin, the Judenrat chairman and three other Judenrat members.  

 The Germans liquidated the two forced labour camps in Szczeglacin and at Bartkow Nowy on 22 October 1942. The Jews who worked there were shot and buried in a mass grave. Those Jews who worked at the Sokolow Podlaski military hospital were shot and killed on 7 November 1942. Just before the end of November 1942, the Germans ordered the Jews, employed on clearing up the ghetto were shot and killed. A few surviving members of the Judenrat and the Jewish Police are thought to have been sent to the Treblinka labour camp. The last remaining groups of Jewish forced labourers were murdered in March 1943. A year later in March 1944, a Sonderkommando 1005 unit, exhumed the bodies of the Jews murdered in Sokolow Podlaski during the liquidation of the ghetto. They were transported to Wegrow and burned there in a makeshift crematorium.

 Not more than 50 of the ghetto’s residents are thought to have survived the ghetto’s liquidation. Two of them, Reuwen Rozenberg and Anszel Fabiarz joined the partisans operating in the forests outside of Sokolow Podlaski. Hersh Biderman , his young son, and two sisters were hidden by the Jaworski family, who were pre-war friends of Hersh Biderman. The Pietraszko family, who were overseers of the Czekanow estate in Jablonna Lacka civil parish, hid 16 Jews from the Sokolow Podlaski ghetto, many of whom had been employed on agricultural work, during the ghetto’s liquidation. Shaindla Lender, Golda Hochberg, and Perl Morgenstern, who had survived the liquidation of the  Szczeglacin forced labour camp, secured Polish papers from Kazimierz Milobedzki. The Jewish community was not rebuilt in Sokolow Podlaski, survivors left Poland for other countries following anti-Semitic measures, including the deaths of 10 Jews in nearby Kosow Lacki. 


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

Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka – The Aktion Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1987

W. Chrostowski, Extermination Camp Treblinka, Vallentine Mitchell, London 2004

Photograph - Chris Webb Archive

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