This section of the Grodno Yizkor book deals with the history of the community
from the Nazi invasion until the ghettoization of the community. The time
period covered is from June 23 to November 2, 1941. The Hebrew is quite
difficult, and the sentence structure and choice of words in the original
Hebrew are somewhat awkward. I have done my best to balance the conflicting
needs of a near literal translation with readable English prose, however, I may
have erred on either side of the equation.
Jerrold Landau (May 1999)
DESTRUCTION AND HEROISM
by Dov Rabin
AT THE GATES OF HELL
The Bombardment and Panic
In the darkness of the night of June 23, 1941 an infernal fire from the heavens
suddenly rocked Grodno. Grodno was one of those cities in the Russian zone
which was the first to be the victim of the lightning air raid by the Nazi
warplanes. Wave after wave of air raids stormed down upon Grodno, spreading a
hailstorm of bombs, explosions and fires. The first bombs fell in the area of
the bridge by the Nieman river, near the army barracks. A paralyzing panic
overtook the distraught residents, who at first did not realize the extent of
their tragedy, and had no idea as to how and where to find refuge.
Half of the residential
dwellings in Grodno were destroyed by the fires caused by these raids. In the
suburbs, all of the areas south of Lipova Street were destroyed, including the
old wooden synagogue. In the city itself, everything above the Neiman, from
"Podol" to Batori Square, all the way up to the corner of the Street
of the Fortress "Zamkova", and from the intersection of Mieszczanski
and Bonifraterska Streets ("the New Marketplace") until the water
pumpstower was destroyed.
On the previous day, the
Soviets authorities had arranged a "cleansing", and expelled from the
city all people who were felt by them to be "undesirable
elements". However now, even the men of the armed forces fled the city
for their lives, and left the residents to their fate.
The roads to the east were
filled with groups of Jews fleeing from the enemy, who had destroyed everything
behind their backs. The preying bombers left everything burning behind them,
caught up to the fleeing columns of people, and spread destruction among them
just as they had done in the city. Anyone who remained alive would have no
choice but to retrace his steps, in the midst of the confusion, and to make his
way amongst the strewn corpses and the wounded who were abandoned and left
wallowing in their death throes. Only very few of our people of Grodno were
lucky enough to be able to succeed in their escape to the interior of Russia,
on the other side of the war front, even with whatever would be in store for
Accusation, Duress, and Libel
As soon as Grodno was captured
by the Nazis, the local antisemites began to outwardly express the full measure
of their hatred of their Jewish neighbors, that up until that time they had
kept in their hearts. With public proclamations, the Germans presented
themselves as redeemers who came to "free the Poles from the
Jewish-Masonic yoke". When a severe food shortage began to overtake the
city, and everyone would wait in long lineups in order to obtain a small morsel
of bread those consumed with hatred would push out from the lineup with
force anyone who even resembled a Jew.
Two days after the invasion by
the German troops, all Jews between the ages of sixteen and sixty were
conscripted for hard labor from than time and onward, without any payment in
money or food. Everyone was required to assemble each morning in the courtyard
of the great synagogue, and from there they were sent to their work
assignments. Everyone was required to have a "work certificate",
upon which would be recorded whether and in what manner they fulfilled their
daily work quota.
In the outlying regions, Jewish
wayfarers, including women, were hunted down and conscripted for
"labor". This purpose of this "labor" was generally merely
torture. In the "Royal" caf?, where the German field police set up
office, the Germans would dish out death blows to these conscripts, issue
libels against them, spread them with excreta, dunk them naked into pools of
water and order them "soap" each other with brick shards. All of
this would take place to the rhythm of music, as the Nazi sadists would prod
them on, and take photographs of this "delightful show".
The Jewish women who were
forced to work in backbreaking labor, would be commanded to remove their
clothes, use them to scrub the floor, and then put them back on again, now
covered with the dirt and grime. The onlookers would not be satisfied with
this spectacle until they poured the dirty wash water upon them. On one
occasion, the Jewish women were brought to the vegetable gardens, and ordered
to remove the weeds without crouching or kneeling, but only by stooping over.
As of June 30, the Jews were
forbidden to enter the markets and to walk on the sidewalks. The Jews were
only permitted to walk on the right side of the paved roadways, and they were
permitted to walk only as individuals. They were required to remove their hats
before any uniformed German officer, to tie a white band with a blue Magen
David on their left arms, and to mark their houses with a Magen David. After
some time, a command was issued that the band should be replaced with a yellow
patch in the shape of a Magen David, which would be sewn to the outer garment
on the left side of both the chest and the back.
After about twelve days from
the time that the Germans entered the city, the Jews were required to register,
and their identity cards were stamped with the word "Jew". Radio
receivers were confiscated, and it was forbidden to listen to any broadcast.
Beating of Jews on the street, attacks upon them and their houses, pillage, and
other such acts of terror became daily occurrences.
The Founding of the Judenrat
Approximately two weeks after
the Nazi invasion of Grodno, the army field headquarters ordered a certain
Jewish interpreter, David Brayer, who had previously been the director of the
"Tarbut" Hebrew education system, to set up a Jewish representation
in the city, and to act as the chairman. This "Jewish council", i.e.
"Judenrat", was to consist of ten members at the outset, and was to
be put together within 24 hours.
It is related that there was a
difference of opinion among the various communal leaders whom were invited by
Brayer to decide whether to comply with the command to set up the Judenrat.
Some of them felt that this was simply a ploy on the part of the Nazis to have
the Jewish leadership help them carry out their murderous designs. However,
the majority felt that it was necessary to set up a committee which would lead
the community, and would be able to intervene to blunt the severity of the
decrees. Furthermore, it would be inconceivable not to be in a position to be
able to deal with, immediately and with full effort, those who had been burnt
or orphaned during the raids, the poverty stricken ill people, as well as all
others who were living in misery, whose numbers were increasing rapidly in the
Jewish community of the city.
Brayer managed to set up a
committee that included representatives from all the various streams and
currents within the community, with the exception of the communists. The ten
members of the Judenrat were as follows: David Brayer, who was appointed as
"Head of the Jews" of Grodno; The lawyers Yitzchak Gozansky and
Avraham Zadai; from among the Jewish business leaders and their representatives
in the communal structure, Avraham Lifschitz, the chairman of the Cooperative
Merchant's Bank, and its director Yaakov Efron; the manufacturer Asher
Kosovsky; the economist and expert in financial matters, who was the previous
vice mayor Yehushua Suchovlansky; Tzvi Tarlovski; the Orthodox
communal leader Reb Zeev Wolf Berman; and Dr. Sh. Bik.
The number of members of the
Judenrat later grew to 24. The additional members included: the
"Tarbut" teachers Dr. Tzvi Belkow, Yisrael Landau, Zeev Yekel, and
Yisrael Grob; the industrialist Aharon Jezersky; the physician and Bund
leader Dr. Yehuda Lipnick; the lawyer Y. Fuerstenberg; and after some time
the lithographist Leizer Meilachovitz, who later resigned from his post.
From individual testimony we also note that additional members of the Judenrat
included the lawyer Yehoshua Neubauer, and also Avramovitz, who was a textile
businessman in the suburbs.
In the beginning of July, a branch of the "Gestapo" arrived in
Grodno. (Gestapo is the "Geheime Staatspolizei", i.e. the Nazi State
They ordered the Judenrat to provide them with a list of "respected
Jews" of the city. It was well known that any order of the Nazi
authorities, and of the Gestapo in particular, would be accompanied by a
threat that the non-fulfillment of the order at its set time would result in
the deportation for execution of a certain number of Jews. Furthermore, at
that time, the Jewish communities could not even fathom the demonic events that
were yet to come. Therefore, the requested list was presented to the
Immediately thereafter, the
oppressors arrested 80 members of the intelligentsia and leadership of the
city, and deported them without leaving any trace. Only after some time did it
become known that they were all murdered in cold blood in the neighboring
fortresses. This was the first organized slaughter perpetrated by the Nazi
scum upon the Jews of Grodno. Grodno was not the only community that suffered
in this manner, however no community was aware of what the murderers
perpetrated upon any sister community, since all communities were sealed off
from each other, having being surrounded by the murderous enemy.
Thus were bound and sacrificed
the choicest citizens of Jewish Grodno, may their blood be avenged. Among
them were the youthful Rabbi Reb Tzvi Hirsch the son of Michel David Rozovski;
the lawyers Moshe Glicksfeld and Refael Lobman; from amongst the respected
teachers the historian of Grodno Dr. Chaim Wolitzker, and also Kaminsky
(both were from the Real Gymnasia; Yehoshua Fruchterman and Yosef
Wigdorovitz, and others.
Levy and Extortion
At the beginning of August,
Grodno was annexed to the region of White Russia. An evil monster by the name
of Beker was appointed as the regional governor. He later became the governor
of Minsk, and was responsible for the annihilation of its Jewry. This despot
would instill the fear of death on any member of the Judenrat who came into
contact with him. He immediately imposed a heavy levy of utensils and
clothing upon the Jews, accompanied by severe threats. Later, this levy was
extended to include money as well.
The Judenrat had no choice but
to fulfill this requirement, and to satiate the Nazi lust for extortion. Two
departments were set up for this purpose, one for expropriation of property,
and one for financial matters. The first department was responsible for the
collection from the Jewish homes of furniture, table cloths, sets of serving
utensils, and whatever other objects were desired by the German command. The
first task of the financial division was to collect the ransom money of the
community for the Nazi government. Special one time levies were imposed for
this purpose on anyone who was financially able, and after some time, and
organized taxation system was set up. During the course of several weeks,
approximately 200,000 dollars was extorted from the Jews of Grodno half
of whom already had been burnt to death during the air raids, and the other
half of whom had become impoverished during the time of Soviet rule.
The most important task of the
Judenrat, over and above its obligatory tasks for which it was founded, was to
insure adequate provisions for the Jews of the city, and especially to do what
could be done to relieve the hunger of the many indigents of the community.
The social assistance division was set up, and began to function immediately.
A collection was taken up on behalf of the needy, and the Jewish community
responded generously with an open hand and provided in particular clothing and
shoes. In the attic of the former communal offices on Hodwera Street, where the
Judenrat was now located, a temporary laundry service was set up, and
volunteers would come to wash, fix, and iron sheets and clothing that would be
distributed to the needy. Bread and money was also distributed to them.
At the same time, the Judenrat
set up a registration division, and after some time, a division for supply and
work assignment. Afterward the "Ordnungsdienst" ("Jewish
guard" so to speak) was founded. This was the militia, or Jewish police.
The Expulsion from the Town Center
At the end of September, the
Jews who resided on the main streets Dominikanska and Orzeszkowej, and
residents of "Slobodka" were ordered to vacate their premises
within a matter of hours. Those expelled lost not only their real estate, but
also most of their moveable property, since they were not permitted to move
their belongings or to make any other arrangements.
After some time, Grodno was
transferred from the boundaries of White Russia, and annexed to the eastern
portion of the Third Reich as part of the Bialystok region, at first de jure,
and as of March 1942 de facto.
These Type of Things are not done in the Third Reich
Very quickly thereafter, the
holocaust which the Nazis inflicted on the multitudes of the Jews of Vilna,
replete with all of its atrocities, came upon Grodno as the tidings of Job. News arrived of slaughter in the towns neighboring Grodno, of the
burning of houses of study, and the frightful atrocities perpetrated our
brethren of the House of Israel. However, the vast majority of the Jewish
community of Grodno, and also Bialystock, maintained the false hope that the
evil would not reach them, since in the "Third Reich", if the
residents were "compliant" "such things would not be
At the Threshold of Annihilation
At that time, rumors were
spread that the Jews of Grodno would imminently be confined to a ghetto, and
that a specific area was being set aside for the ghetto. Nevertheless, this
rumor could not yet be verified, and there were different opinions in the
community. Those who had faith claimed: "In the Third Reich, things
would not come to this point", and they thought that most probably, the
enemy simply wished to prevent the Jews from doing business or visiting those
who were not Jewish. They could not imagine that tens of thousands would be
locked up behind a barbed wire fence, and they certainly could not imagine that
this would be a step toward the annihilation of an entire people. On the
other hand, the Jews were already getting tired of the barging in of the Nazis
into their homes, and the other endless atrocities that were perpetrated, and
they thought that if they would be concentrated together and shut off from the
outside perhaps they would be better protected.
Even so, the grinding suspicion
in the heart and the fear of what was to come embittered the lives of the Jews,
and did not grant them any respite. The news from the battlefronts also did
not give any reason for positive hope, since the Nazi soldiers were at the
height of their success, as they stood at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad.
Many began to feverishly
prepare for the days that were coming by stockpiling food, and selling
at a reduced price their furniture and other belongings that would not be
readily transportable at a time of danger. Thus, the neighbors of the Jews
seized the unusual opportunity to profit from the tragedy of the Jews, and to
acquire with mere pennies the fruits of their years of labor. The zealous
farmers would make the rounds in the city, and return to their villages in
great joy, with their wagons overflowing with goods purchased from the homes of
the Jews, which came into their possession for mere near worthless coins.
Christian "friends" would come to their Jewish acquaintances to
request hypocritically that they be allowed to watch over some of their
property "until the time of danger passes". There were also those
who "invited" victims to their homes, threatened to betray them to
the Gestapo as "profiteers", and then took from them the clothes off
their back and their last coat as they chased them away.
Rumors began to circulate in
the community that there would not be one ghetto for the Jews of Grodno, but
rather two ghettos. This news caused great trepidation, particularly among
those who were familiar with the situation in Vilna, and the frightful end of
one of its ghettos. At that time a decree was issued that all Jews who were
working at jobs were required to obtain an "worker's card", that
could be obtained from the government for a hefty price. Everyone regarded
such a card as a certificate of salvation, since it was clear that the Nazi war
machine required workers and professionals, and those who held such a card
would certainly not be first in line on the day of judgement. Everyone who had
any sellable belongings attempted to sell them at any price, and then to hurry
to the Judenrat offices in order to wait in line with the throngs who were
struggling for the opportunity to obtain this card. They would then be
regarded as a glassmaker, baker, electrician, or other such tradesman, and
would then be guaranteed a longer life.
The distribution of these cards
ended on a Friday, and the Sabbath had not yet spread its wings upon Jewish
Grodno, when a frightful proclamation was issued: The Germans requested two
work groups to present themselves on the Sabbath with spades and axes. Some
thought that this was a preparation for a mass slaughter, and others thought
that this was in preparation for the establishment of the ghetto. In the early
hours of the Sabbath of November 1st
1941, signs in large black letters surrounded by a wide red border appeared
all over, announcing the "decree to prepare a Jewish section in
The next day, Sunday November
2, the Jews were ordered to move into two quarters which were set aside for
them. The first, "Ghetto A", was reserved for the workers. Its
center was "Shulhauf", and it included the area surrounding the great
synagogue until Vilna St. on one side, and from the banks of the Gorodnitzanka
River until the northern side of Zamkova Street, and the yards of the houses
whose fronts faced Dominikovska street on the other side. "Ghetto B"
was reserved for the rest of the Jews, those who were "non
productive". Its place was in "Slobodka" from the slope above
the railway track to the highway to Pogulyanka on one side, and from the supply
road to Sdikel to the Christian cemetery on the other side.
The Jews were commanded to move
into the ghettos not earlier than 12 noon, and not later thanl 6 in the
afternoon, from which time it was forbidden to them to leave these areas.
Anyone violating this command would be punished in the most severe fashion.
The work groups went out to
their work, and set up posts two meters high around the ghettos in the areas
set off, and set up barbed wire fences between these posts. Only one gate was
provided for each ghetto.
Entering the Ghetto
During the course of the
Sabbath, some people tried to smuggle their belongings into the ghetto.
However, there was a large network of German and Polish police in all corners
of the city, who would confiscate any items from the Jews who were passing by,
and would dish out death blows in return. The local Christians also
participated in the hunting down of Jews, and they displayed a special
enthusiasm for turning them in to the guards.
That night, the first snowfall
fell upon Grodno. In the morning the snow began to melt, and the ground became
covered with puddles of water, as well as deep, sticky mud. At the set time,
the Jews began to take to the streets in large multitudes and migrate toward
the ghettos, with their packages over their shoulders, in wheelbarrows or in
baby carriages. The use of vehicles of any other means of transportation was
forbidden to them. Most of them did not know to which of the two ghettos they
were supposed to go, and there was a great deal of confusion and aimless
wandering. Everyone tried to get into the ghetto as quickly as possible, so
that they would be able to find some type of shelter for themselves and their
household. Polish and German guards were stationed on the routes to the
ghetto to keep order, so to speak. In reality, this only added to the
confusion and perplexity. They would search the belongings of the Jews who
were moving along in haste, and pillage anything that they wanted. The
"aryan" neighbors also assisted them, so to speak, and took for
themselves anything that they desired.
Prior to entry to the ghetto
there was an "inspection", and the gate to the ghetto was very
narrow. On that rainy day, the multitudes of the people of Israel of Grodno,
15,000 people, from the aged to the suckling child, stood in that place of
suffering in a line that extended the full length of Batori Square and Zamkova
Street, all the way to the entrance to the narrow slaughterhouse lane, which
was "Yatke Gesel". They waited and hoped that they would be
permitted to enter their prison.
This was a frightful scene to
behold, as related by one eyewitness: an entire nation found itself in a state
of confused haste, laden with their remaining "belongings" on their
backs, just as the nation was during the exodus from Egypt, which seemed like a
child's game when compared with this entrance to the ghetto. In the arms of
many of them were children who were wailing, frozen from the cold, and all of
them were pushing and crushing each other to the point of danger. They were
confounded and quivering, and many picked fights with each other due to their
frustration. One would have the idea to return quickly to his house, which he
had just abandoned, in order to take one more item of his belongings, or to
take some sticks for firewood, while his friend would be seized with worry that
he would tarry too long, and would no longer be able to find shelter for
himself and his family.
The evil Nazis, ever greedy for
booty, who were in charge of the "inspection" of the luggage, were
mulling about in a frenzy, spreading chaos and confusion as they were wont to
do, and thereby increasing the panic and suffering. Any item of value which
their hearts desired was "confiscated" and added to their own
belongings. Any other object which they wished to pillage from the Jews was
simply cast into the mud where it was ruined.
A crowd of local Poles, as well
as civilian Germans gathered around, including the "Sisters of
Mercy", daughters of the Teutonic "Master Race", who worked at
the nearby military hospital. They "assisted" in the inspection, so
to speak. They did not skip over one man, they did not recoil from searching
the pockets and even the private parts of any person, and they did not hesitate
to seize anything that their hearts desired, even small and insignificant
Heaps of remnants of the hard
earned belongings of the Jews including footstools, their last pillow,
furniture and couches were piled up in front of everyone just outside of
the barbed wire fence of the ghetto, with nobody to care for them.
Such was the entrance to the
"privileged" ghetto A, which was reserved for those working people
who were able to acquire a "worker's permit". Such was also the
entrance to ghetto B, which was set aside for the remainder of the Jews,
including those professionals who were not fortunate enough to be able to
redeem their imaginary "certificate of salvation".
At six o'clock in the evening
the gates were locked. The Jews of Grodno were now locked in their prison.
|Zamkova Street on the day of entrance into the ghetto. This photo was taken at
the ghetto gate (see arrow) on the corner of "Yatke Gesel". The
building in the center
is the Judenrat headquarters.
||Waiting in line to enter the ghetto.
|On the way to the ghetto. Nazis search the Jews as they enter.
||After the "search". On right, marked by an X is Yehudit Lapin.
||The terminology used here in the Hebrew is taken from the biblical story
of the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Return
||According to the Alkalai Hebrew English Dictionary, "Real
Gymnasia" refers to a secondary school with a natural science specialty. Return
||A reference to the troubles which came upon Job in increasing waves
first the tidings of the loss of his property, then the death of his children,
and finally his own illness. These tribulations are described in the first two
chapters of the biblical Book of Job. Return
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