The Almost Forgotten Death Camp
by William Leibner
Pustków (in Polish; Pustkowo in Yiddish) was a village along the Debica-Mielec railway, in the district of Debice, 10 kilometers east of the city of Debica and 37 kilometers west from the provincial capital of Rzeszow or Reishe, Krakow region, Galicia, Poland. The Polish government began a large military industrial project in the area in 1937. A huge military complex including living quarters for the workers and managers began to be erected by the Ligozo company of Katowice, Poland. The project was finished in April 1939 and started producing ammunition and other military hardware for the Polish army.
The Germans entered Pustków on September 8, 1939, and immediately forced the local and nearby Jews to dismantle the existing military industrial machinery that was then sent to Germany. The industrial buildings and the living quarters were converted to military billets for the German army. In 1940 the German S.S decided to create a huge military training base for combat Waffen S.S. units in the area. The work began in 1940 when the inhabitants of 15 villages including Pustków were evicted from their homes that were burned to the ground. A huge labor camp was created in this heavily forested area. Hundreds of young Jews were detained or arrested and sent to Pustków. At first, many of the workers were permitted to return home daily since there was no room for them. The harsh labor conditions, meager food rations and the mistreatment of individuals soon reduced the number of Jews willing to return to Pustków. Yet, the demand for workers increased by the day since it was a huge project. The casualty rate was horrendous since most of the workers were city people not trained in such heavy work. Furthermore, they were not provided with the necessary tools or clothing needed for the job. They worked long hours and were hardly fed. According to Norman Salsitz, an inmate of the Pustków concentration camp, the Germans intended to work the Jewish workers until they dropped dead. The mortality rate was staggering. The name Pustków soon spread throughout western Galicia as a place to be avoided at all costs.
The Pustków project needed more and more workers. The Germans forced the Judenrats in the various cities in the area to provide labor for Pustków.
The place is north of Debica and south of Mielec
Salsitz describes how the workers cut forests, built roads, created drill areas with their bare hands. The guards were brutal and shot Jewish workers on the slightest pretext. Not a day passed without a Jew being killed. Two sadistic guards, named Schmidt and Miller, were really gruesome. Both distinguished themselves in their brutality according to Salsitz. The S.S. constantly demanded more workers and when the Judenrats did not provide the required quota, they would enter the particular ghetto and seize all the Jews who they found. Frequently, even children were tossed into the group that was sent to Pustków. Conditions were so bad that the nearby ghetto of Debice tried to help the situation and sent two emissaries, Immerglick and Bitterkower, to be liaison officials and help the inmates of Pustków concentration camp. The Jewish community of Debica did not have great resources but whatever they could spare they sent to the camp to help the Jewish inmates. They also sent a female doctor weekly to the Pustków camp, which became a hellhole of suffering long before the creation of the death camps of Belzec and Auschwitz. The stream of Jews continued to arrive and they were worked to death. Jews arrived not only from nearby Debice, Ropczyce, Olbusza, Mielec, Rzeszow, Sandz and Tarnow but even from Krakow and Lodz. The Pustków labor camp was now a full-fledged concentration camp with all the trimmings. The huge military base was slowly transformed into a huge training camp for combat troops with all the necessary facilities, including firing ranges, drill areas, warehouses, maintenance shops, medical centers and military quarters for the officer corps. The Germans named the camp Truppenubungsplatz - Heidelager or training troop center - desert camp.
According to Salsitz nobody survived Pustków except those who paid heavy bribes and were released or those that had excellent technical skills that the Germans needed or those who managed to escape. This was easier said than done for the local Polish population was intensely anti-Semitic and would not help Jewish escapees succeed. On the contrary, they would denounce them to the Germans or the Polish police and receive a reward. Furthermore, the escapee had to be familiar with the area and navigate to a Jewish ghetto in the area where he could find refuge. Norman Salsitz was familiar with the area, he escaped Pustków and navigated at night until he reached a Jewish ghetto where he was saved. Others were caught escaping and shot, or died along the roads or at the assembly square where inmates stood for hours or from sheer exhaustion. Those who were not able to work were shot and buried; later they would be cremated inside Pustków. At the height of construction, there were about 12,000-14,000 Jewish workers at Pustków. Most of them died or were shot at the camp. In July 1942 most of the Jewish workers were sent to the Belzec death camp except for 2,000 workers who remained. They too were sent to the Belzec death camp in September 1942. The Jewish camp at Pustków was officially closed except for 215 skilled Jewish workers who remained at the base and were moved to a special Jewish camp. According to Ben Soifer, an inmate of Pustków and author of the book Between Life and Death, these skilled Jewish technicians would remain at the camp until it was evacuated. Most of the Jewish arrivals were never recorded properly. Yet they built the largest S.S. training camp outside Germany where various Waffen S.S. combat units received their military formation. Here were trained many of the foreign S.S. volunteers including Dutchmen, Ukrainians, Frenchmen and Poles.
No Jewish or Polish inscription.
(From the archives of Yad Vashem)
The German builders were not alarmed by the decline or disappearance of Jewish workers since they now received Russian prisoners of war. The latter arrived by train or walked to Pustków. It is estimated that Pustków received about 5,000 Russians in 1941-1942. The Jewish Russian prisoners of war were shot on arrival. The prisoners were kept in their own so called camp and not permitted to mingle with other workers. The Germans made no provisions for their reception and worked them to death. They were forced to sleep on the ground without shelter during the bitter winter of 1942. It did not take long to starve and decimate the Russian prisoners of war. Most of them died by the end of 1942. Most of the inmates who died or were killed at Pustków were cremated at a place called Krolowa Gorka Royal Hill in the Pustków concentration camp. The stench of the cremation was so potent that the German residents in the area complained and the hill was constantly elevated until it reached a height of 10 to 12 meters. The elevation reduced the stench of burning bodies in the immediate vicinity.
The Germans began to hire Polish workers to maintain various services at the base. The force steadily increased in numbers and was rather expensive since the workers were paid wages. But the demand for workers was insatiable. New military industries were established at Pustków, including plants that produced V-1 and V-2 parts for German rockets. The Germans therefore decided to reduce their expenses and established in Pustków a concentration camp for Poles in September 1942. Many prisons in the area were emptied by this action as the inmates were sent to the Pustków concentration camp. Conditions in this camp were similar to those in the other concentration camps and many hundreds of Poles died in the camp. The inmates were well organized and had links with the Polish partisans in the area. Next to the Polish concentration camp was the tiny Jewish concentration camp of 215 inmates of skilled workers. Some of them had volunteered for work at Pustków, especially German Jews. This camp was enlarged in June 1943 with the arrival of 130 Jewish skilled workers from several labor camps, including Huta Komarowska. Then a transport of 120 Jewish artisans arrived from the Szebnie labor camp in November 1943. The Jewish camp now reached a population of 465 people, according to Ben Soifer. The latter describes extensively in his book Between Life and Death the life of Jewish inmates at the Pustków concentration camp. The Pustków Jewish camp provided services to the German families that lived near the camp as well as to the officer corps of the S.S. The camp had a variety of workshops where the Jewish technicians provided needed services or repairs. The camp originally had a few Jewish women but they were sent to the Plaszow camp since Pustków had no facilities for women.
|Pustków concentration camp drawn by inmate. On the left is the small Jewish concentration camp and on the right is the Polish concentration camp.
At the top of the picture is the entrance to the camps; each camp had a separate entrance. The drawing was graciously donated by Mordechai Lustig
The Pustków inmates arrived from many ghettos such as Rzeszow, Tarnow and Krakow. The Jewish camp, with its 465 inmates, consisted of two barracks, according to Yossef Dreilinger, a survivor of the Pustków concentration camp. Each room contained 50 people. There was also an infirmary but no medications. Dr. Shimon Shongut and his male nurse Rabinowitz from Krakow tended to the Jewish sick inmates as best they could, according to Dawid Sharf, another survivor of the Pustków concentration camp. The number of Jewish skilled workers reached its peak at 465. Most of the inmates of the Jewish concentration camp were Polish Jews, but they had little contact with the Polish concentration camp inmates. Both camps were guarded by Ukrainian S.S who hated the Jews and the Poles with the same passion.
The Germans constantly needed skilled replacements at the Pustków concentration camp. Calls went out to various ghettos and labor camps for specialists. One of those who answered the call was Mordechai Lustig, a native of Nowy Sacz or Sandz, who had so far survived many hardships and labor camps. He was a lone survivor of an entire family that was murdered by the Germans while sleeping in their apartment in Nowy Sacz.
in the ghetto of Sandz, 1942
This is a description by Mordechai Lustig of his arrival at the Pustków concentration camp:
In the summer of 1943, I arrived with some Jewish workers from the ghetto of Rzeszow or Reishe, Galicia. We were received by a large group of Jewish workers that numbered about 100 men. All of them were specialists in their fields that consisted of tailors, shoemakers, plumbers, cooks, etc In charge of the group was a man named Foltzi Waldhorn. He was a German Jew. Most of Jewish inmates would survive the war because they were needed and they worked for the high ranking officers of the S.S. in the camp, including the S.S. commandant of the camp, Obersharfuhrer Ernest Kops.
On reaching Pustków, we were given clean beds and two new blankets. We received for breakfast 250 grams of military bread, 10 grams of butter or honey or jam. The group consisted of approximately 100 men and we had to build a new camp as well as a small workshop to produce toys for the S.S. families in Germany. The new camp was approximately a kilometer and a half from our camp. Lunch we received at the place of work where there was a field kitchen. Supper consisted of soup that was distributed in the barracks. Each morning, following the appeal, we dragged parts of old barracks to the new camp that was being built. Here we also poured concrete for the base of the barracks of the new camp.1
One day, at the end of the work day, a roll call was ordered prior to returning to our camp. One person was missing. It soon appeared that an S.S. man named Harki hung a Jewish worker named Berger from the city of Krosno and claimed that he hung himself. We buried him and continued back to the old base. Toward the winter of 1943, we finished the construction of the buildings.
Meanwhile several transports of Jews arrived at the camp, namely a group of Jews from Sziebnia and one from Rymanow. The work force now reached about 300 people. We lived in two barracks. Our camp bordered the Polish work camp. Of course, both camps were individually surrounded with barbed wire, overlooked by watch towers and guarded by Ukrainian S.S men who hated the Jews and the Poles. There was hardly any contact between the Polish and Jewish camps despite the fact that they were all Polish citizens The workers in our camp were divided in work teams and each team had a specific job to perform. It so happened that my small work team was suddenly left without a task to perform. So the kapo or group leader, a German Jew named Munsher, made us parade back and forth on the appeal square of the base until noontime. This went on until they found a job for the group. The work consisted of repairing large bags, mainly wheat bags, etc
Our daily schedule consisted as follows:
6:00 Washing the upper part of the body at the wash basin
6:30 Morning roll call at the appeal place by the commander
7:00 March to work
Every week our S.S. guards used to steal from the Polish work camp two bags of parcels and deliver them to our camp. The Poles received from their families food parcels that were stocked in the office of the Polish labor camp. The Jews of course did not have parcels since their families had disappeared a long time ago. Each barrack received a bag that contained food parcels. The food was distributed evenly between the barrack inmates. Occasionally, there were shows organized within the barrack by Jewish theater artists from Warsaw who were inmates of the barrack. We also had our own large field kitchen where we cooked food for our camp.
The head of the Jewish camp was a German-born Jew named Leopold (Poldi) Waldhorn. The German commander of the Jewish concentration camp was Obersharfuhrer Ruf. As an S.S. man, his conduct toward the Jews was exemplary. Most of his Jewish inmates survived the war. He set the tone in the camp and avoided the brutalities of other camps. With the advance of the Russian Army into Poland, a group of 50 Jewish workers from Pustków was sent to an unknown destination in February 1944. Then In March 1944, another group of Jewish workers was sent to the Plaszow death camp near Krakow. I, Mordechai Lustig, was among them.
According to Moshe Bart, a native of Rymanow, Galicia, and an inmate of Pustków, all Jewish inmates of the Pustków concentration camp were sent in June 1944 to Auschwitz, or more precise to Birkenau. Prior to the departure, the inmates were told that the camp was being relocated for greater security. The S.S. commander of the Jewish camp Obersharfuhrer Ruf was aboard the transport and on arrival in Auschwitz told Mengale that his transport consisted of skilled technicians that could still serve Germany. The oral intervention worked and the transport was given a reprieve, it was sent to the Mathausen concentration camp in Austria. Most of the Jewish inmates of Pustków just walked away from the gas chambers. Their sufferings did not end but they were still alive and relatively much better off than most of the other concentration camp inmates as a result of their stay in Pustków. As the German armies retreated, camps were constantly evacuated and relocated and eventually most of the camps were liberated with the end of the war. The number of survivors from the Pustków Jewish camp was very impressive.
Most of the Polish camp inmates were sent to Auschwitz prior to the liberation of the camp, according to Moshe Oster, an inmate of Pustków. Accrding to Oster, about 2,500 Poles died at the Pustków concentration camp. The Russian army entered Pustków in August 1944.
Many of the Jewish inmates of the Pustków concentration camp survived not only the camp but also the war. The stay in Pustków enabled them to maintain their strength and the commander of the Jewish camp Obersharscharfuhrer Ruf set the example of of behaving in a human way to the inmates. This behavior filtered down to the ranks and contributed to a calmer situation. The results speak for themselves.
Following WW II, some of the Jewish survivors of the Pustków concentration camp organized in Israel an association of former inmates.
The association was active during the 1960s and 1970s. It had an address as well as updated membership files of survivors in Israel and abroad. It sponsored several social events attended by survivors in Israel as well as abroad where pictures were taken and past experiences shared. The association ceased its activities with the passing of many of the members.
Soifer Ben A., Between Life and Death, published in England, 1995 Salsitz, Norman, My Three Home Lands, Syracuse Unversity.
Lustig Mordechai, The Red Roofs, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.
Most of the information was obtained by interviewing former inmates of Pustków concentration camp: Mordechai Lustig, Moshe Oster, Moshe Bart and Josef Dreilinger.
The document was authenticated by Mordechai Lustig.
Mordechai Lustig has also provided a list of former inmates at Pustków who formed an association in Israel. He has also produced a drawing of the camp and provided a map of the place (See above). Attached are spreadsheets that list the members of the Association of Pustków inmates in Israel. The association was located at 35 Ezriel Street, Ramat Gan, Israel. Of course the list is not complete but shows a large number of survivors in comparison to other camps at the time.
YV - Source: Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony
|Last name||First name||Year
|AARON||Mendel||Nowy Sacz||HO, YV|
|BLEIWEIS (SUESMAN)||Salek||SU, AS|
|BLOCH||Emil||1905||Stary Sacz||HO, YV|
|EIGLER (BERGLASS)||David||SU, AS|
|FRANKEL ( FRENKEL)||Marek||SU, AS|
|GELBER||Baranow||HO, MO, cantor|
|GELDTZAHLER||Lezer Schlomo||SU, AS|
|GOTTLIEB||Eliezer Dr.||SU, AS|
|GOTTLIEB||Shlomo||1899||Kamenica Dolna||HO, YV|
|GRASGRUEN||Philip||1915||Nowy Targ||HO, YV|
|HOLLANDER||Mendel 1910||Lwow||HO, YV|
|HORSKI (HOROWICZ)||Leo||SU, AS|
|KRISPOW (KRZYPOW)||Adam||1919||Mielec||SU, AS|
|LUSTIG||Mordechai||Nowy Sacz||SU, AS|
|MARK (MARCHEWKA)||Sam||1908||Mielec||SU, AS|
|PEARLBERGER||Dawid Ch||1912||Bzostek||SU, AS|
|RABINOWITZ||Krakow||SU, MO, camp nurse|
|ROZNER||Pinhas||1900||Nowy Sacz||HO, YV|
|SPIER (SCHMIER)||Leo||SU, AS|
|TEITELBAUM||Tzwi Zeew||SU, AS|
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