Kalisz - Aktion

winary forest 2005914

Winiary Forest 2005 (Chris Webb Private Archive)

In the western Polish town of Kalisz, the Jewish community was informed by the Germans on October 26, 1941, that in order 'to reduce the danger of epidemics to a minimum,' patients in the Jewish Old People's Home were to be transferred to convalescent homes in another town, at ten in the morning on the following day. The patients were to be washed and dressed in fresh underwear. Nothing else needs to be done for them, 'even bedding was unnecessary as everything had now been prepared.'

Jewish mechanics, returning to their homes in the ghetto later that day from their work at Gestapo headquarters, reported that a large number of strange Gestapo men had arrived with a mysterious large black lorry that was closed on every side and had no ventilation holes at all.

On the morning of October 27, 1941, precisely at ten in the morning, a large black lorry similar to the one described by the mechanics drove up in front of the old people's home. 'Its roof was as high as the first storey,' an eyewitness later recalled, adding that it looked 'like a great black coffin.' With the lorry came two shiny black cars filled with uniformed and unfamiliar Gestapo men.

The eyewitness Dr. Moshe Gross continued:

We had to fetch out those who were called by name, for they were mostly chronic patients and cripples. The Germans ordered us to carry them, seat the patients or stretch them on the benches within the lorry. 'When you come down the steps, be careful nothing happens to the patient!' Take it easy, we're not in a hurry.' Please put the man down here in the corner, till he feels better.' Meanwhile they saw to it that we should fill up the cold lorry. But they would not permit the younger folk to join their departing relatives.

The metal doors were banged to, the heavy bars were dropped in place, the large lorry set off silently but swiftly, followed by the gleaming cars. Next day, October 28, two more trips were made and about one hundred and ten persons were removed. Everything was done swiftly, in order not to spoil the weekend. They must have grown tired of putting on a show and stopped being polite, calming the weepers with their whips and shooting at anybody who looked out of the windows. The only ones who did not feel the general apprehension and bitterness were the lucky insane.

The two last groups left on Monday, 30 October, and included a few hospital patients. The chair of one of the old women was brought back on one of the trips. The Gestapo man who brought it explained, 'She doesn't need it any longer because she has received a new one.' That day the Council of Elders was required to pay the cost of transport at the rate of four Reichsmarks a person, and to arrange all matters connected with the departure of 290 persons at the Economic Office.

In the days that followed, the Jewish community pressed the Germans for news of where the old and sick had been taken. 'At the moment they're in transit camps,' they were told by the Gestapo, 'and from there they will be sent to the permanent convalescent homes. As we don't know in advance who's being sent where, you'll have to be patient for a few days, until everything is in order.'

Repeated enquiries could not locate those who had been deported. Then the Jewish community were informed that 'a few of the old people had died of heart failure, brain fever, or pneumonia.' The rest of the deportees were said to be in a town called Padernice, and were in good health.' But as Dr.Gross later recalled, 'No map showed where Padernice might be, because it did not exist.

Dr Moshe Gross continued:

Little by little we understood that we would never see the dead again, unless we followed in their footsteps. We lived in a state of constant dread, for we could see the sword hanging over our heads and we knew that we would go the same way sooner or later. The Germans were exploiting our working power, but would clearly exterminate us too. The hermetically sealed gas -wagons which were first tried out on our folk were about to commence the great action of 'purifying' Europe of the Jews, which was afterwards perfected in the large extermination camps.

The old people who had been choked by exhaust fumes piped back into the lorry through a specially designed tube, had been taken to the neighbouring forest and buried or burnt. It was rumoured that they had been buried near Winary. 'Nobody knew precisely, Dr. Gross later recalled, 'because the roads had been strictly blocked on that day, but it was clear that the action had taken place near Kalisz, for the lorries returned within three hours.


M.Gilbert, The Holocaust The Jewish Tragedy, published by Collins London 1986

Photograph: Chris Webb Private Archive

Holocaust Historical Society, January 21, 2020.