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Zamosc Rathaus during the occupation

Zamosc is both the name of a province in eastern Poland and its most principal town. The province was divided into four districts, Zamosc, Tomaszow Lubelski, Hrubieszow and Bilgoraj, which before the Second World War contained a total of 510,000 inhabitants, of whom 340,00 were Poles, 110,000 Ukrainians and 60, 000 Jews. The Jews mainly resided in the towns of the district, forming 51% of the urban population. In some towns they represented more than two-thirds of the population.

The Jewish community of Zamosc was founded in 1588 by Sephardi Jews who had arrived in the town from Lvov. But within 50 years they were outnumbered by Ashkenazi Jews. Zamosc was a centre of the Jewish Enlightenment Movement (Haskalah). Famous residents were the writer I.L. Peretz, Ludwik Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto and Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary socialist. In 1939, out of a total population of 28,873, some 12,531 were Jewish.

The German army captured Zamosc on 14 September 1939. Twelve days later the Germans evacuated the town, in accordance with the Ribbentrop -Molotov Pact, and were replaced by soldiers of the Red Army, who in turn withdrew one week later to the new border in eastern Poland. Extraordinarily, for the next seven days, no one occupied the town, until on 7 October 1939, the Germans returned.

Jews were immediately rounded up for forced labour and their property looted. In early December 1939, the Gestapo ordered the formation of a Judenrat, with 12 members. Its first chairman was Ben-Zion Lubliner, who was subsequently replaced in January 1940, by Mieczylaw Garfinkel, who was a well-known lawyer in Zamosc, before the war and who came from an assimilated family.

The Judenrat was ordered to take a census of Jews in the town and to collect the first in a series of ‘fines.’ About one month after its establishment, the number of members of the Judenrat was doubled. Many Jews had fled to the Soviet Union when the Red Army had departed. According to the most recent research, about 7,000 – 8,000 Jews left Zamosc at that time. Warthegau, and eventually from other countries to Zamosc, to occupy vacated Jewish property. In 1940, when the first official register of the population was organised (the so-called ‘Judenrat List’), there were 4,000 Jews residing in the town, who were originally from Zamosc and 1,000 Jewish refugees who had been resettled there. They had come from Wloclawek, Lodz and Kolo, places that had been incorporated into the Warthegau, or they had escaped from small towns destroyed in 1939, such as Janow Lubelski, Bilgoraj and Frampol.

In late 1939 or early 1940, the first restrictive edicts were introduced. Jews were prohibited from using vehicles and from leaving the town. They were also ordered to wear a white armband bearing a yellow Star of David. In June 1940, the Judenrat was instructed to register all Jewish males between the ages of 14 and 60 for labour details. Groups of workers were sent to various labour camps in the locality and in the Lublin district: Wysokie, Bialobrzegi, Janowce (where in the former agriculture school Jewish prisoners had to build an SS barracks), and "Kawaler", which was the remnant of the former Russian fortress in Zamosc. A group were also sent to Belzec for work on the "Otto Line", a series of anti-tank ditches and artillery dugouts being constructed close to the demarcation line between German- and Soviet-occupied Poland. A large labour camp was established at Izbica in 1941, and 1,500 - 2,000 Jews from Zamosc and the region were incarcerated there 1941, prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Bauleitung der Luftwaffe began to build airfields at Mokre and Labunie, near Zamosc. Jewish work camps were also established in these villages. A group of Jews from the ghetto worked in these camps, which survived the liquidation of the ghetto itself. The number of Jewish workers there was enlarged in 1942. Several dozens of the Czech Jews deported to Zamosc and Izbica were sent to the camp in Labunie, which was finally liquidated in 1943 when all of the workers were executed.

In early April 1941, the Jews were ordered to move to an impoverished quarter in the New Town, the poorest district in Zamosc. In the main, before the war only Orthodox and destitute Jews had lived there. Many houses in what was to become the ghetto had been destroyed in the early days of the war, and those that remained were extremely dilapidated. The conditions of life were very primitive. In 1941 when the Zamosc Jews had to move into New Town, many houses there were empty. It was from this part of the town that most of the Jews had escaped to the Soviet Union. The deadline for moving was 1 May 1941. The Judenrat conducted a census immediately after the establishment of the ghetto and discovered that it contained 7,000 Jews. The ghetto was not "closed", but exit from it by Jews was only permitted at certain times. Poles, on the other hand, were allowed access to the ghetto, which helped to ameliorate the usual drastic shortages of food and other essentials common to all ghettos. Until June 1941 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union, there was even a functioning post office in the ghetto. 

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Zamosc -German Troops in Main Square

 At the end of March and in early April 1942, rumours began to circulate in the ghetto concerning mass deportations from ghettos in the Lublin area to the extermination camp at Belzec. Garfinkel received a telephone call from members of the Lublin Judenrat, advising him of the deportations. After contacting the Jewish communities of Tomaszow Lubelski and Belzec itself, he was given to understand that 10,000–12,000 Jews were arriving daily at the Belzec camp, a strongly guarded compound located on a special railway spur and surrounded by barbed wire. Jews were being killed there in a "puzzling manner". Garfinkel did not believe the reports, even when he received confirmation of gassings at Belzec from two or three Jewish witnesses who had escaped from the camp.

On 11 April 1942, deportations from Zamosc began. Around noon of that day, the ghetto was surrounded by police and SS. In command of the deportation was Bruno Meiers, head of the Gestapo in Zamosc, although the actual chief of operations was one of his assistants, an SS-officer named Gotthard Schubert. The Jews were assembled in the market square, where they were forced to wait without food or water until 9 p.m. Scores of Jews who were discovered hiding in the ghetto, as well as elderly and sick people, were shot in their houses or in the streets. 3,000 Jews were marched to the train station and boarded 30 wagons destined for Belzec. Behind them they left the several hundred bodies of those who had been shot. An eyewitness to the day's events, David Mekler, recalled:

On 11 April 1942, the SS, SD and mounted police fell like a pack of savages on the Zamosc Jewish quarter. It was a complete surprise. The brutes on horseback in particular created a panic; they raced through the streets shouting insults, slashing out on all sides with their whips. Our community then numbered 10,000 people. In a twinkling, without even realizing what was happening, a crowd of 3,000 men, women and children, picked up haphazardly in the streets and in the houses, were driven to the station and deported to an unknown destination. The spectacle, which the ghetto presented after the attack, literally drove the survivors mad. Bodies everywhere, in the streets, in the courtyards, inside the houses; babies thrown from the third or fourth floor lay crushed on the pavements. The Jews themselves had to pick up and bury the dead. Moshe FrankJews stood on the square and kept hold of the bundles that each one had taken with him from his home. We stood on this square until the evening. It was only in the evening that the Germans harried us to the cattle cars of death. They forced us to the wagons us with great terror. There were shots, crying children and mothers, screams all along the way. Whoever couldn't walk, whom ever left the crowd, whoever turned a child's head, was shot and tragically killed. At last we were on the ramp where the cattle cars waited for us. They pushed the Jews towards the train and then came the moment when I had to enter the wagon. The Gestapo man pushed me towards the cattle car. I did not think very long. Instead of boarding the train, I shoved myself under the cattle car and crawled under some sheet metal by the railway line, where I waited until all of the Jews were in the train. Later I crawled in the direction of the street and escaped to New Town. On the way I saw body after the body. The whole street was covered in Jewish bodies: one still held his bundle, a second had abandoned his, a third was wounded in the breast, a fourth in the head. I walked to New Town and in the streets everything resembled the aftermath of the Jewish Flood.

The 13-year old son of a council functionary, Lejb Wolszteejn, had been among the deportees. On reaching Belzec, he had managed to hide in a latrine pit. He had witnessed the entire killing operation, but eventually managed to leave the pit and escape from the camp. The youth made his way back to Zamosc. The next day he reported what he had seen to Garfinkel. His account was not believed, it seemed unlikely that so many people had been murdered and not sent to work in the East as the Germans had claimed. During this Aktion, about 300 people were killed in the ghetto and on the way to the ramp. Among those killed was the sister of I.L.Peretz, Hessa Goldstein, who was shot at her home.

Moshe Shklarek, was deported to the Sobibor death camp from Zamosc on 17 April 1942, together with 2,500 other Jews. 2,100 deportees arrived in Zamosc from the "Protectorate" in the spring 1942 and were soon joined by German Jews from Dortmund and Westphalia. Among the Jews from Dortmund was Alwin Lippmann, together with his wife and daughter. During WW1 he had been a famous German pilot and a personal friend of Hermann Göring. Shortly after his arrival, Lippmann was appointed to the position of commandant of the Jewish police in Zamosc. On 17 May 1942, the "Old People's Action" began in Zamosc. The Judenrat issued a proclamation on the walls of houses, stating that every elderly Jew had to present themselves at the appointed place, together with their clothing and food for three days. In accordance with the list that had been drawn up, "they will be resettled". Families tried to rescue their own parents and grandparents and many people built hiding places in their homes. At this time the Jewish police rounded up the old people, who were gathered in the "Judenrat prison". Garfinkel refused to release"if the old people are not resettled, we will all be resettled." Over the next 10 days, elderly Jewish residents were rounded up and sent to Belzec. After this "action" there were 4,700 – 4,800 Jews left in Zamosc, among them about 1,000 from Czechoslovakia and Germany. 

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Zamosc - Judenrat Building 2004

In the spring of 1942, the first mass executions of members of the Jewish intelligentsia, accused of making contact with Communists, took place at the Rotunda in Zamosc. There were to be many further executions at the Rotunda. Among the victims were Jewish prisoners from the work camps in Zamosc and many Poles from a number of pacified villages. On 11 August 1942 the deportations resumed. SS officers from the Headquarters of Aktion Reinhardt  in Lublin supervised this 'Akttion.'  As with the earlier "aktionen ", all Jews were supposed to gather in the market square in the New Town, but many people who were aware that "resettlement" meant transport to Belzec tried to hide. Göth had ordered that 2,000 people should be gathered for the transport, but only 250 assembled in the market square, so the SS men rounded up the next 100 people from the work camps and included some of the members of the Judenrat and their families. This was the first time members of the Judenrat were not exempted from the "action". On this occasion, Garfinkel "negotiated" the cessation of the "action" with Göth. Judenrat: 30,000 zlotys, 1 kg of coffee and 1 kg of tea, all presented in an elegant suitcase. The people arrested during this "action" were deported to Lublin concentration camp. As with the earlier Aktions many people were killed on the spot. Among them were the advocate Julian Goldstein and his wife and daughter. Goldstein who was the nephew of I.L.Peretz, and who was also a member of the Judenrat, refused to go on the transport. He asked one of the most brutal SS men in Zamosc, Hans Pienkowski, who also commanded a work camp in Janowice, to execute him and his family on the market square. Pienkowski personally killed them all. The deportations continued on into early September 1942.

 The liquidation of the ghetto began on 16 October 1942. An estimated 4,000 Jews were assembled on the market square, 300 were selected to sort the possessions of the deportees. The rest were marched 21 kilometres to Izbica, which at that time served as one of the main transit ghettos for Jews coming from the Reich and other places, as well as a collection point for Polish Jews from Krasnystaw and other places in the vicinity. Many deportees from Zamosc were shot en-route to Izbica. It was impossible to find shelter in Izbica itself, and they were held in the open, without food or water. Jekutiel Cwilich, a survivor from Zamosc, described the situation in Izbica: The Jews arrived in Izbica at night. There were already many other Jews there, including some from Czechoslovakia and from other small towns near Izbica. There were many people sitting on their suitcases. Izbica looked like a big railway station, with everybody awaiting the train. In batches they were sent to Belzec and Sobibor.

Rudolf Reder, one of the few survivors of Belzec, witnessed the arrival of a train from Zamosc on 15 November 1942. He described the torture and murder of one of the Jews who was supposed to be the head of the Judenrat. What Reder witnessed and described in his memoirs, was in fact the murder of Azriel Szeps, the Vice-President of the Judenrat in Zamosc Azriel Szeps was beaten by the fat Gestapo man Schwarz and the brutal guard Schmidt. It was Schmidt who shot Szeps in the head and kicked his body into a mass grave.

All the members of the Judenrat, with the exception of Garfinkel, who somehow survived the war, and lived in London, it was not 15 November 1942, but the 2 November 1942, when the members of the Zamosc Judenrat and their families, were deported to Belzec in the same transport. The remainder of the Jews deported to Izbica from Zamosc, were killed during a mass execution, also in November 1942, at the Jewish cemetery.

In Zamosc itself, the Nazis murdered the rest of the Jews during March 1943. Most the labour camps around Zamosc were dismantled in May 1943 and the slave labourers numbering about 1,000 in total were sent to the Lublin Concentration Camp. Among them was Mordechaj Sztrygler, who survived his incarceration in the Lublin Concentration Camp, and after the war, described what happened to the Jews of Zamosc.

The Jews were not the only victims of the Nazi policy of genocide in the Zamosc area. Following the decimation of the Jewish population on 12 November 1942, the Zamosc area was declared 'The First Resettlement Area' of the Generalgouvernement. In a brutal example of massive demographic change, the Germans evacuated 300 villages, uprooting 110,000 Polish peasants to make room for SS men and Volksdeutsche to settle in the vacated areas. Approximately 10,000 perished during this course of 'ethnic cleansing.' Those evacuated by force were sent to camps in Zamosc Zwierzyniec, or Warsaw. A number of transports were sent to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Lublin.

More than 30,000 children were taken away from their parents. Some of the children died en-route or were murdered at Auschwitz, by phenol injections or in the gas chambers,  whilst others who were deemed to possess suitable racial characteristics, under a process called 'Eindeutschung' were screened for adoption by members of the Nazi Party and SS. Some children were already selected according to racial characteristics in the Zamosc transit camp. The children chosen were not only told that there parents had died, but were brainwashed with stories designed to make them reject their Polish heritage. They were given German names and indoctrinated with concepts intended to make them proud of their new racial identity. An entire group of these children , approximately 4,500 in total, were sent to Lebensborn centres.

More than 50,000 Poles were deported to the Reich for forced labour from the Zamosc region, during 1942 and 1943 and some of the local population decided to resist, because the Germans destroyed many villages and carried out mass executions. Even the German authorities recognised the upsurge of Polish resistance movements, and called this resistance the 'Zamosc Uprising.'

According to SS plans for Zamosc, Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader for the Lublin district suggested to Heinrich Himmler, that the town be re-named 'Himmlerstadt' but Himmler rejected this proposal, because Adolf Hitler, had not had a town named after him. Instead the Germans changed the name to 'Pflugstadt' as Pflug means Plough in German.

After the Second World War had ended approximately 300 Jews returned to Zamosc, most of them from the Soviet Union, but they were not made to feel welcome. At least 2 of them were murdered by Polish anti-Semites. Most of the Jews rapidly left the town.


R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003

I. Gutman, ed Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990P. Padfield, Heinrich Himmler - Reichsführer-SS, Macmillan Publishers Limited, London, 1991

M. Gilbert, The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986

M. Gilbert, Holocaust Journey, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London,1997

M. Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust, William Morrow and Company, Inc, New York, 1993

Justiz und NS-Verbrechen,

Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute: M. Garfinkel: Monography of the Zamosc town.

A.Kopciowski, Zydzi w Zamosciu 1918-1942 (Jews in Zamosc 1918-1942), unpublished PhD

Everlasting Name. Zamosc Ghetto Population List – 1940, ed. E. Bar-Zeev, Tel Aviv 2001.

F. Moshe, Testimony Zamosc-Izbica, in Zycie i zaglada Zydow polskich 1939-1945. Relacje swiadkow (Life and Annihilation of the Polish Jews 1939-1945. Witness Testimonies. Oficyna Naukowa, Warszawa 2003

State Archive in Lublin, Collection of Zamosc Judenrat

Archives of the Majdanek State Museum: Mordechaj Sztrygler Memoirs

Photographs – Chris Webb Archive

Thanks to Robert Kuwalek and Pawel Wasenczuk

 © Holocaust Historical Society December 24, 2021