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Translation of Gródek chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin
Translation of Gródek chapter from
Published by Yad Vashem
Published in Jerusalem
Published in Jerusalem
Bennett B. Cohon
Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem
This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot:
Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume VIII, pages 229-231, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
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(District of Wilejka, Region of Wilno / Vilna)
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Gródek is located approximately 40 kilometers from the district city of Wilejka, where the Berezina River flows into the Neman. It was owned by the Tyszkiewicz noblemen at the end of the 18th century. With the second partition of Poland in 1793, it was annexed to the Russian Empire. During the First World War, Gródek was conquered by the Germans, who occupied it from the autumn of 1915 until the end of 1918. Regional wars took place in the region of Wilno (Vilna) at the end of the war. These wars ended with Polish victory, and the region was officially annexed to independent Poland in 1922.
The Red Army entered Gródek at the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 and imposed Soviet rule. The Nazis conquered Gródek at the end of June 1941. It was liberated by the Soviet Army in the summer of 1944.
Apparently, the first Jews settled in Gródek at the beginning of the 19th century. There were already 496 Jews in 1847, and the population growth continued. Alongside several large-scale wood merchants, there were Jews shop owners, small-scale businessmen, peddlers, tradesman and farmers. Most of the shops of the town were Jewish owned. During the 20th century, several large-scale businessmen who dealt with wood, wheat and flax remained among the Jews, and several others conducted business with leeches for medical usage. The rest of the Jews were small-scale merchants, shop owners and tradesmen. The Jews held small agricultural enterprises in their own yards vegetable gardens, some fruit trees, and some domestic animals and fowl.
The Jews of Gródek were known as pious observers of the commandments. There were several Beis Midrashes of Misnagdim, as well a Chabad Hassidic Shtibel in the town.
Of the rabbis of the town, we know of Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua the son of Rabbi Zeev Wolf; and from 1914, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak the son of Alter Nissan Eskin. At the end of the 18th century, various charitable organizations such as Linat Tzedek [providing lodging for wayfarers or the poor], and Hachnasat Orchim [providing for guests] were founded.
When the First World War broke out, Jews were also drafted into the Czar's army. The local economy had come to a standstill by the eve of the German conquest in the autumn of 1915. The Germans expropriated food and merchandise from the residents, and want and hunger pervaded in the city. Some Jews left Gródek during the war, and some were killed or died. There was no shortage of Jewish orphans in the town after the war.
The Jews rehabilitated their businesses and sources of livelihood after the war with the help of the American JOINT, the Yekopo organization, and overseas relatives. A bathhouse, a branch of the Popular Bank, and a free-loan charitable fund whose loans were designated for small-scale merchants and tradesmen to renovate their equipment were founded with monies from Yekopo. The long-standing Linat Tzedek and Hachnasat Orchim societies renewed their activities after the war. During the 1920s, the Jews of Gródek opened several small businesses and enterprises for processing of flax and hides. During those years, there was still a Jewish physician and pharmacist who owned the only pharmacy in town.
The economic situation of the Jews declined relative to the previous era, especially as a result of government policies, which imposed heavy taxes on the independent segments of society and encouraged the entry of Poles into business through preferential treatment. The tradesmen were also affected by the restrictive decrees of the government, and many became unemployed. Many of the young people who could not find appropriate employment in the shaky economy immigrated abroad or made aliya to the Land of Israel.
According to the census of 1921, the first post-war census, close to 1,000 Jews still remained in the town, but it seems that their numbers declined as time went on. During the 1930s, Rabbi Ben-Zion Gerber served as rabbi of the community. Most of the children of the community attended the Tarbut Hebrew School that opened in Gródek during the 1920s. The Hebrew school maintained a library and hosted a drama club.
During the early 1920s, a chapter of Hechalutz opened in Gródek. Later, chapters of Hashomer Hatzair (1926) and Beitar opened. Many young people went out to Hachshara Kibbutzim, and some made aliya to the Land of Israel. Chapters of Bund and Agudas Yisroel operated in the town alongside the Zionists. In the 1928 elections for the communal council, Agudas Yisroel received six mandates, the Zionists received two, and Bund did not even receive one. The Orthodox in Gródek conducted tireless battles against the Zionists and attempted to prevent the collection of donations for the Zionist funds in the Beis Midrash. At times, things came to a direct confrontation, such as happened during the farewell party in the Beis Midrash for the chalutzim on the eve of their aliya to the Land of Israel.
At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Gródek endured heavy German bombardment. It was conquered by the Germans in June 1941 (according to one testimony, the Soviets left the town only on July 4, and units of the Wehrmacht entered on July 8). On the first day of occupation, the Germans gathered all of the males (including 10 year old children) in the market square, where they separated the Jews from the gentiles. Two Christians who were late in presenting themselves in the square were shot to death. The money and valuables of the Jews were taken, and the food provisions that the Jews had brought for work were distributed to the gentiles. The gentiles were the first to be allowed to return to their homes. The Jews were also freed at the end. The next day, 12 wealthy Jews of the town, identified by Polish collaborators, were summoned to the command, and ordered to bring all of their valuables with them within a quarter of an hour. Two Jews, the Shapira brothers, were taken hostage, and a fine of 500,000 rubles, and a large quantity of textiles and hides was demanded for their freedom. How the ransom situation ended and the fate of the Shapira brothers is not known. After some time, the Germans imposed an additional fine and took 12 hostages. The Jews were left destitute within a few days.
In July 1941, the first anti-Semitic decrees were issued the obligation to wear the yellow patch, the ban of walking on the sidewalks, the ban on coming into contact with gentiles, the obligation of forced labor, and others. After a few days, the Jews were ordered to set up a Judenrat. The last communal head, Efraim Ratzkin, was chosen as head of the Judenrat. The members included Moshe Katz, Nachman Svirsky, Yitzchak Bunimovich, Sh. Zukerman, and Chanan Moskowsky. A Jewish police force was set up alongside the Judenrat. Survivors from Gródek testified that the Jewish policemen avoided collaborative activities with the Gestapo and even endangered their own lives to assist Jews. Many Jews, including women and children, were drafted for forced labor. Their guards and local policemen tormented and tortured them for their own enjoyment. For examples, Jews were hitched to wagons like horses and forced to transport grain from a storehouse at the edge of the town to the flourmill at the other edge.
On March 13, 1942, a ghetto was set up on a side street of Gródek, in which the Jews were first allocated eight small, meager houses. Through bribes, they convinced the German command to add four more houses for them. Approximately 1,500 Jews were forced into these houses with great crowding and frightful hygienic conditions. Fifteen Jews escaped to the forest when the ghetto was set up. In May 1942, 200 youths were sent from the ghetto to the Krasne Work Camp (see entry). In June, in the wake of the murder of the Jews of Radoszkowice (see entry) and other ghettoes, the residents of the Gródek ghetto began to feverishly search for hiding places, or they dug bunkers.
On July 11, 1942, the Gródek Ghetto was surrounded by Gestapo men and the local police. Gendler, and Schmidt, who was the vice governor of the district of Molodeczno, were in charge of the aktion, which was carried out by Byelorussian policemen. The Jews were taken out of the houses with power and force. During the selection, 400 people fit for work were separated and sent to the Krasne Camp. The rest, approximately 900 people, were hauled to large pits that had previously been dug outside the town, shot to death, and buried in the pits. Twenty Jews hid in a bunker during the aktion. Having no choice, they strangled a baby who was with them lest his cries disclose them.
After the aktion, several Jewish tailors and tanners, as well as Dr. Falik and his wife, were returned to the Gródek Ghetto, but they were also murdered by the Gestapo about two months later. When the Germans came to take them, Yaakov Alterman holed himself up in a cellar and refused to come out. He was severely injured by a grenade that the Germans threw into the cellar. He was sent to the hospital, and was taken out to be killed once he recovered.
When the 400 workers from Gródek came to the Krasne Camp, a German soldier tossed a Jewish toddler into the pit, but another soldier rescued the child and gave him to his parents. The Jews worked in ammunition warehouses in the Krasne Camp. Some groups of them prepared to escape. At the end of 1942, dozens of youths escaped to the forest with the assistance of 15 youths of Gródek who had already escaped in March of that year. On the way, they met farmers who were supporters of the partisans, who complained that the Byelorussian police would steal food from them. The youths attacked the policemen, killed six of them, took their weapons and retreated to the forest. The group grew after this action, and they joined partisan groups with the weapons that they had taken. There were approximately 200 Germans and many policemen in Gródek at that time, and the partisan command decided to attack the town. A few partisans, including two from Gródek, fell during that action. After some time, Chanan Alterman, the commander of the Gródek group, infiltrated the Krasne Ghetto and convinced some workers of the
ammunition factory to steal some weapons for them. With the liquidation of the Krasne Ghetto in March 1943, the work camp which contained 4,000 Jews from Gródek and other ghettoes of the area was also liquidated.
The youths of Gródek who had escaped from the Krasne Ghetto and Work Camp later joined the Chapayev Soviet Brigade, which numbered 3,000 fighters, and participated in daring actions. German gendarmes and soldiers searched feverishly for Chanan Alterman and placed a large price on his head. Twenty partisans, including six Jews, were killed during a hunt in the Gródek forest in August 1943. Chanan Alterman excelled in another battle near Gródek at the end of 1943, but he was severely wounded during an action in July 1944. He died a few months later in a hospital in Minsk.
Gródek and its area was liberated in July 13, 1944 by the Soviet Army with the assistance of the Chapayev Brigade, in whose ranks fought Jews from the town.
Yad Vashem Archives: 033/1155, 03/2944, 4602, 4603, 4606-4609, 6404, M9/15, 30, M1/E/722.
Pinkas Yekopo pages 237, 578, 638, 688, 697.
Dos Vort: June 29, 1928; July 27, 1928; June 16, 1933; November 1, 1935; June 16, 1939.
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