Zola Apel, Yaacov Bronrot, Yehoshua Grossbard,
Riva Gonska, Noach Zabludowicz, Moishe Fuchs,
Moishe Kolka, Yaacov Rubinstein:
Chaverim from abroad - Binyamin Apel,
Moishe Leser (Detroit), Yosef Mundzak (Paris)
Zola Apel, Yaacov Bronrot, Yehoshua Grossbard,
Association of Ciechanow and the
(Arzi Printers, Ayelet Hashachar 4, Tel-Aviv 34294)
We know that five hundred pages do not complete all the historical happenings of past generations of Ciechanow Jewry. By no means has the full extent of the painful experience and tragic destruction of the thousands of Jews in the shtetl been described. But is it possible to express our mourning and sorrow for those who suffered/perished? And since we know how bottomless is the ocean of blood and tears of the tortured ones, we beg for forgiveness and pardon from the martyrs whose life and murder did not receive the proper reflection in our Yizkor Book.
With deep respect, we, the survivors, the by-chance rescued ones, have done everything possible to bring into the Ciechanow community: historical displays, memoirs, descriptions, biographies, description of the period of destruction ---- written by people from our home town. We have also assembled a large number of photographs that shed light on the communal and spiritual life in the peaceful period between the two world wars and in the period of the destruction. We spared no effort to make this book as large and as beautiful as possible.
In carrying out this most worthy work we were consumed with the great desire to eternally remember the destroyed Ciechanow community; not to allow the flame to be extinguished of our lasting hatred of the German murderers that brought such a catastrophe to our people.
A blessing to the writer and literary critic, A. Wolf Yasni – editor of our Yizkor Book, for his efforts to make this book appear more beautiful and better, and to Moishe Tzinovich for supplying historical material re the establishment and development of the Yiddish community life in Ciechanow.
And finally we want to mention with thanks the editorial committee in Israel who, with their tireless work, each chaver according to his abilities, helped so much to bring this book into existence.
The Jews Of Ciechanow - Their History, Way Of Life, Struggles And The Holocaust They Endured
The descriptive and commemorative passages in this Yizkor Book, written originally in Yiddish, were meant to commemorate in the Holocaust literature the rich spiritual life of the community of Ciechanow, its struggle for a humanitarian Jewish existence in Poland and its eventual tragic end.
The most important legacy of that community is ourselves, the survivors, who set a stake in the Land of Israel. We want our offspring to know what happened to their parents in this community in the Diaspora. And so, this is an abridged Hebrew version of the events described in the book.
In the 19th century, with the general development of the town, the Jewish population increased in numbers as well as in importance so that in the second half of that century, the Jews accounted for the majority of the population of Ciechanow. The first notation regarding the first Rabbi of Ciechanow, the Rabbi Yitzhak Kahane, appears in 1786. This Rabbi had an honorable place amongst the famous Polish Rabbis. Following Rabbi Kahane was Rabbi Laibish Charif Chiniech, who was appointed Head Rabbi in 1820.
The rabbis had great influence in the community and due to this the Jewish community of Ciechanow developed and a series of religious and educational institutions were established which strengthened the spiritual and social life of the Jews.
|Merchants of various guilds||12|
|Soda Factory Owners||3|
|Hay Cutting Machine Owners||10|
|Artisans/Craftsmen - Tailors and related occupations||300|
|Barber-surgeons and doctors||4|
|Print shop owners||1|
|Chicken and Egg Merchants||25|
(According to the newspaper Hatzfira No.204, 1887)
In the above period, Ciechanow numbered 3,500 Jews. Of those, 1,600 (45.7%) were involved in productive work. (At that time, trade too was considered productive work in that it involved building bridges between the village and the city).
In 1887 Jewish Ciechanow had the following institutions: Talmud Torah, Bikur Cholim, Ein Yaakov, Tiferet Bchurim, Ba'alai Malacha, Chevrat Tehilim and Chevrat Kadishah.
In 1889, a Zionist Committee was formed in the town and it included 80 persons.
The spiritual leaders of the Jewish community of Ciechanow in the 19th century were great Torah scholars and Rabbis. The renowned Rabbi Landau, known as Rov Avraham of Ciechanow, was considered one of the great rabbis of Poland. He was known for his sharp wit, steadfastness, as well as his expertise. He was good-hearted and pious and his name went before him for his careful and thought-out words.
The last Rabbi of Ciechanow prior to its destruction was Rov Chaim Mordechai Bronrot, who became Head Rabbi in 1916 in the midst of World War I. Rabbi Bronrot successfully mixed his religious leadership with extensive and fruitful social and public activities. He was active in the Mizrachi movement in Poland and was amongst its founders and was a member of its board. He initiated the establishment of Knesset Rabbanai Mizrachi Polan (The Knesset of Mizrachi Rabbis of Poland).
Rabbi Bronrot did much for the Keren Kayemet l'Yisroel (J.N.F.), the Keren HeChalutz Hamizrach and other Zionist institutions within and outside of Ciechanow, as well as participating in a number of Zionist Congresses.
In 1918, with the withdrawal of Germany from Poland, and the establishment of the Polish government, Rabbi Bronrot and 40 other rabbis had a secret meeting which took a positive stand regarding the Balfour Declaration. They put out an announcement in support of the declaration signed by all the participants at the meeting. This announcement made a great impression on the orthodox and Hasidic elements in Poland.
For years, Rabbi Bronrot was a member of the board of the Agudat HaRabanim in Poland (The Federation of Polish Rabbis). He led his community until 1939, two months before the outbreak of World War II. He was then sent on a mission to England where he remained until 1943, at which time he made his way to Israel. He served as Chief Rabbi of the Beit HaDin of Tel-Aviv-Jaffo until his death.
Until the 19th century there was even a Yeshiva in Ciechanow to which youth came from different areas to study Torah and who lived as dependents of the townsfolk. For financial reasons the Yeshiva was closed. A number of locals continued their studies in the religious higher-learning school (Beit HaMidrash) after completing elementary education (Cheder), and the sound of these students would fill the air of the surrounding streets from early morning to nightfall.
Three religious judges (Dayanim) served in Ciechanow: amongst them Rabbi Yosele, one who would sit and study day and night and whom everyone respected. On Friday evenings Rabbi Yosele would put on the shtreimel (the Hasidic head-wear) and his special clothes, and would go out to the streets to plead, Jews, light candles, close your stores, Shabbat is upon us. His face wore the signs of great concern lest the holiness of the Shabbat be desecrated. Around Rabbi Yosele in his great study would be those who chanted the psalms, and the elders who respected and liked him. When he died, many rabbis from the whole area came to his funeral and eulogized him. The whole town dressed in mourning.
His place was taken by his son, Ephraim, who served until his death by the murderous Germans, who abused him and screamed out: Let us see now how your G-d shall help you. Rabbi Ephraim did not heed them and rather walked his last walk deep in thought as to the holiness of G-d. His wife begged before his execution by the Gestapo that she be allowed to die together with her husband. Her request was granted and both were executed together.
The social life of Ciechanow began with the establishment of the Histadrut Hatzionit and two socialist organizations. Poale Tsion (Workers of Zion) and the Bund, which operated underground. They organized strikes and demanded increased wages to the existing meager ones as well as a shortened work day to the existing 12 hour work day.
Already by 1910 there existed in Ciechanow a developed Jewish social life. The leadership of the community (Franks), chosen by the established taxpayers, ran the religious affairs of the settlement, which numbered about three thousand. They were also in control of the different charity sources. At the same time secular organizations existed. The above-mentioned library, which was annexed to the Society for the Distribution of Education in Petersburg, the capital of Czarist Russia (today called Leningrad), served as the legal branch in Ciechanow as well as the sport organization Maccabee. To those institutions were added at the outbreak of World War I modern Jewish schools instead of the traditional cheder and yeshiva.
In all those institutions and organizations intense ideological differences were expressed between the Zionists, the Bundists and the Poale Tsion movements. The most intense falling-out was within the families themselves, between the secular youth and their Orthodox parents, who considered the actions of their children as Epicurean heresy. At the same time, anti-Semitism was on the rise in Ciechanow. A townsman, Isaac Kesler, described the situation in his memoirs: The Poles set up cooperative stores and called upon the Poles to buy only at these places. They imposed a boycott on Jewish stores. In the park at Girko, a fight broke out between Jews and Poles.
Life in Ciechanow became difficult for most of the Jewish youth. It was difficult with regard to Jewish secular life, not to mention the pressure imposed by the Czarist regime, which disenfranchised the Jews of their basic rights. That, in addition to the terror of the pogroms and the Polish chauvinism, badly hurt the economic base of the Jewish population of Ciechanow. The feeling of having no future weighed heavily upon the Jewish youth.
The youth felt it was not possible to build a future life in such an atmosphere. Most decided to go abroad to various countries. Some went to Eretz Yisroel.
The war changed the Jewish life of Ciechanow drastically. The town, which was close to the German-Russian border, fell to the ravages of war. The Russian soldier had open hatred for the Jews and abused them. Nevertheless, the Jewish population did not hesitate to take in their brethren from the adjacent town of Proshnitz, who had been evacuated from their homes by the Russians.
At the end of summer 1915, the Germans broke through the front of Poland and the Russians evacuated Ciechanow. The town was now under German occupation. Despite their cruelty, it was still a far cry from the German monster yet to come under Hitler. Germany at this time used the pretense of being the savior of Poland and freedom. Therefore, they allowed relative cultural and social freedom beyond anything that had been allowed by the Russians.
Tankhum Makaver gives a description of the German rule of this period. In this book he writes:
The economic situation of the Jews of Ciechanow was very bad. The occupation forces requisitioned everything that came to hand: food, money, merchandise etc. Trade was virtually paralyzed. The Germans levied heavy war taxes on the Jewish population as if the Jews had been fighting them and had won
Nevertheless, at that time a Hebrew kindergarten was established and Jewish youth got involved in cultural and public affairs. An amateur [drama] group was started up which presented performances such as Kreutzer Sonata by Yaacov Gordin and Shema Israel by Osip Dimov and others. Though the Zionist Histadrut did not discontinue its activities during the Czarist era, the Bund and Poale Tsion renewed their activities at this time. In 1917 the Histadrut of Young Zionists joined the other groups and had a wide range of activities including the establishment of their own library, with evening lectures and readings on national and literary subjects.
At that time there were elections for the local administration. The election was over the ideology of the Bund, which stood for a solution to the Jewish problem through the establishment of a democratic rule which would strive for a socialistic society with equal rights for all ethnic groups, and the Zionists who saw the solution in the establishment of a Jewish national home in Israel. The Zionists won by a majority in the local administration. The new leadership re-established the traditional Cheder and Talmud Torah, as well as establishing secular schools, the Linat Tzedek, which attended to the sick, and a public kitchen which gave out some 300 meals a day to the poor of Ciechanow.
At the same time, in 1917, the Zamir Co. was set up in Ciechanow which had a major influence on the Jewish youth. It established a lending library for Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish books and had literary events, readings and performances which drew many people.
In this context, a steep ideological battle was carried on which Yehoshua Grosbard describes in the book as follows: The arguments between members of Zamir brought in its wake a political party/state differentiation. On the one hand were the Zionist youth and the Poale Tsion and on the other, the working youth and the less fortunate who supported the Bund movement.
With the end of World War I, the Jews of Ciechanow once again began to regain their economic standing in independent Poland. The merchants returned to their trade and the storekeepers to the stores - so that the social activity was restored and even widened.
The Zamir Co. became the National Library and the arguments between the Zionists and the non-Zionists became so embittered, to the point where the Zionists left. This establishment then became a purely Bundist one and took on the name Grosser Club (on the name of Grosser, a Bundist leader who died in his youth). Many youth gravitated towards this club, which included a large auditorium with stage, library, reading room, a club room, etc. This group presented the following presentations, amongst others: The Snow by Pshivishovski, The Father by Strindberg, The Thieves by Bimko, Dialogues by Sholem Aleichem, and The Moon Tells by Y.L. Peretz. The group's activities spread to the adjacent towns as well.
The liberation of Poland and the Russian Revolution in Russia brought new life into Jewish Ciechanow. In the town, political and economic strikes and protests were held. The police intervened and carried out searches and arrests. Grosbard, who took an active part in the events, recounts:
The war between the working classes and the upper classes in the Jewish sector became worse on the evening of the elections for the City Council of Ciechanow. We decided not to allow the synagogue to be used for election propaganda purposes. We, as an organized group, arrived there [the synagogue] and didn't allow the speech-makers to speak during the reading of the Torah. At a later date, the police came looking for me in my home and I had to hide in the attic for a week.
The election was a difficult one and the Bund managed to enter two representatives to the City Council Yidel Bronstein and Malink. There was a strike of tailors also at this time and the youth spared no effort in helping the strikers and the election campaign with all the means at their disposal.
The Jewish workers participated in the elections for the Workers' Council in the year 1919. The difficult economic situation in Poland and the consequent terrible unemployment and the effects of the socialist revolution on neighboring Russia, all influenced the election outcome. The election was very tense due to the difference of opinions regarding the form the newly-chosen Council was to take. The arguments amongst the Jewish workers went on night and day while the election was exploited for anti-Semitic propaganda. Amongst the Polish workers the local priest and his allies openly called for pogroms. However, to the credit of the Polish workers, it must be said that they didn't abide by the priest's words and in that year no anti-Semitic incidents were carried out during the election for the Workers' Council.
However, what the workers didn't do in 1919 was done by the Polish soldiers who arrived in Ciechanow due to the war between Poland and Soviet Russia in 1920. Their first move was to enter the Grosser Club, causing a pogrom. They broke the furniture, tore the pictures and the books, hit all those present in the building, and arrested some of those who were hurt so badly that they needed medical attention.
There was still ongoing unemployment in Poland, and the persecutions of the reactionary government which didn't end despite the frequent changes in the government itself, created communist strivings amongst the Jewish youth and workers in Ciechanow which increased to the point where even some Bund members left their party and formed a secret communist organization.
At the same time, the Zionist movement grew and strengthened in all its forms - Poale Tsion- both the rightists and leftists, the Shomeir Hatzair and the Revisionists and their youth groups. Encompassing them all was a network of cultural and educational organizations for the learning of Hebrew and for the research of subjects specific to Eretz Yisroel. There arose committees in Ciechanow devoted to the Keren Kayemet and to the Keren Hayesod, which collected money for settling in Eretz Yisroel. Zionist youth went to Kibbutz Gronov for Hachshara (training) and Zionist businessmen from Ciechanow were among the members of the Committee for Kibbutz Gronov. The religious Jews also formed a political organization of their own Agudat Isroel, whose offshoot were Agudat Israel - Youth and Poale Agudat Israel and developed as well their cultural and educational religious institutions (i.e., Beit Yaakov etc.).
As in other cities, in Ciechanow as well, a social-political match existed between the different political Jewish parties and organizations. Each one strove for power through its professional unions/committees and organizations and in its educational and cultural institutions and in the mutual aid which the Jewish community had established for its very existence. This political struggle reached its peak during the elections for the Polish parliament, the City Council or the Jewish administration. Most of the Jews of Ciechanow were non-political and the rival parties went to great lengths to win over the non-committed.
The socialist structure of the Jewish population of Ciechanow changed little after 1887. Moshe Fuchs gives a description of the socialist way of life in the 1930's prior to World War II.
In Ciechanow, there were very few rich. There were weaving merchants, food retailers and some flour-mill owners and lumberyards. They composed the upper crust of Jewish Ciechanow. Most of the population were craftsmen and peddlers, called in the local lingo, Strogniazis.
Worst of all was the fate of the peddlers, who would go to fairs to make a living. They were on the road all week, in the cold of winter and in the heat of summer, in rain and shine, and would push on to get to their destinations on time. This was their schedule: Sunday searching out benefactors, Monday -- going to Golomin, Tuesday to Preshitz, Wednesday -- to Makow, Thursday to Churzel. Those were the towns around Ciechanow from which the Jews eked out a living, a meager one at best.
The work-trade life cycle continued for many years and wore one down. The peddlers held out due to the old Jewish adage -- G-d will not forsake me from which they got strength and encouragement.
In the late afternoon, the Jews would go to the prayer/study hall in order to 'catch' an afternoon or evening prayer, or to listen to a sermon, or to snooze when the tiredness was too much After the sermon, they would surround Rabbi Yehuda Moshaks and hear from him a tantalizing tale about the wonders of the righteous Reb Avramele.
On the 5th of Adar, the day of the latter's death, the Yeshiva boys would be in a spirited mood. On this day they would complete the tractate, hear tunes by the Rabbis Shlomo Zalman and Ziskind, eat well, drink L'chaim and wish each other with a traditional blessing.
The next morning, the Jews of Ciechanow would receive guests from the nearby towns and even from Warsaw, who would be coming to the grave of the fathers and to the Ohel (monument) of the Tzadik [Hasidic Rabbi]. Amongst those who came was the grandson of Reb Avramele -- the Rabbi of Strikov. They would go to the Ohel, knocking on his door three times with a key and enter in a set order: Rov Strikov and the Hasidim, the representatives of Chevra Kadisha, with Rov Yosele at their head, etc. All day people of all ages would pass through the Ohel. Some would be content with leaving a small request note and some would let out all their hearts' bitterness on the grave of the Tzadik. They would return home with a feeling of relief that the Tzadik would care for their own and others' needs.
On Shabbat and holidays, Jewish Ciechanow would take on a different appearance. Reb Yosele would go out to the streets pleading, Jews, Shabbat is upon us, light Shabbat candles. The Jews would send their shop clients on their way and hurried themselves to the prayer hall or to one of the different Shtiblech. The Jewish streets would quickly fill with the different Shabbat tunes and prayers that the worshippers continued to chant on their way home. From the prayer hall early on Shabbat morning, one could hear the sound of psalms recited by Chevrat Tehilim.
The joy in Ciechanow was complete, especially when the Chazan, Rabbi Lazar Borochovitz from Novidvor, accompanied by his choir of 30 choristers, would arrive. On those Shabbats and holidays the synagogue would be too narrow to contain all those who came to hear the singing. Even the Hasidim would hurry and pray at their shtiblech in order to get to the synagogue, which would fill up to capacity so quickly. The listeners would have true enjoyment from the tunes and sounds of the Chazan and his singers. The Rov would invite the visitors to Kiddush in his house and the Jews of Ciechanow would stand outside savoring the sounds coming from the house.
On Simchat Torah, Chevra Kadisha would have a big feast. On this day the Torah scroll would be brought from the home of Rabbi Israel Itzchak Rimrash to the synagogue. The women would light candles and put them in the windows along the way of the procession. Men and small ones would crowd and dance around the Torah which the Rabbi held, with everyone trying to get close enough to touch and kiss the Torah cover. The excitement, the singing and dancing would increase until arriving at the synagogue, and would continue once inside, with the Chazan doing the rounds and the participants tired and sweaty, continuing to sing and dance. They would forget all their worries and put themselves heart and soul into the celebration of the ending of the reading of the Torah.
On Lag B'Omer the youth of Shomeir Hatzair would march in the streets of Ciechanow to the synagogue with flags in their hands and singing songs. The sound of drums and horns would fill the area and announce the coming of the 'troop'. Yaacov Kahane and Yaacov Misher would give speeches to the crowds about Eretz Yisroel, the homeland of the Jews, and the freedom and happenings there. A similar procession was held by the Shomeir Hatzair on 11 Tamuz, the day of Herzl's death.
Such was the life of the Jews of Ciechanow for more than 300 years. Initially, according to the strict religious laws and in the last decades until the Nazi occupation, a life in which religion and secularism were intermingled. In this long period, the Jewish settlement fought for its existence. Their hard work and economic standing caused jealousy and hate towards the Jews by the Poles. These feelings increased, especially in liberated Poland. Whoever could, emigrated from Poland. The Zionist youth went to Eretz Yisroel; however, most of Jewish Ciechanow stayed in place, and suffered the persecutions of the reactionary government and the hate of the Polish masses. Such was the situation of the Jews of Ciechanow at the outbreak of the Holocaust.
Already in the first months of 1939, before the outbreak of the war, the Jews of Ciechanow felt the increasingly ominous atmosphere. They knew what Hitler's Germany was and there was no doubt in their hearts that no good was to be expected from this regime. Nevertheless, no one could imagine the dimensions of the disaster to befall the Jews and no one expected murder and genocide to be so widespread. The Polish army was more or less prepared for defense against the Germans, and there was hope that the democratic powers would be supportive in the case of a German attack on Poland At the same time, the situation of the Jews of Ciechanow, as of those in the rest of Poland, was a 'dead end. Even if they could and would leave Poland, they had nowhere to go. England, which then had the mandate in Eretz Yisroel, closed its gates in the face of the Jewish refugees. The secret emigration to Israel was of course minimal. There was no choice for the Jews of Ciechanow and the rest of Poland than to sit and wait, helpless, for the bitter end.
On the first of September, a Friday, at the beginning of the German invasion into Poland, Ciechanow was the first to be hit. Amongst the Jews a panic arose, and some fled, particularly to Warsaw. Binyamin Apel recounted:
On the main street leading to the capital, my eyes beheld the cruelest sights of war. The roads were full of refugees, Jews and non-Jews, old and young, and the German planes would soar just above their heads. They would shoot down quiet, unarmed civilians, with no defense or shelter. Thousands of bodies covered the ways.
Already on the fourth day of the war the Germans arrived in Ciechanow. On the same day four local Jews were murdered by them. The occupying forces held on to Ciechanow and quickly their cruelty to the Jews was made evident. They were told by a German officer to leave the town. When they refused, they waited anxiously for the inevitable, which came quickly enough.
The Germans entered the synagogues and desecrated them. They removed the Torahs and rolled them along the sidewalks. Prayer halls became garages for fixing German transport vehicles. The occupying soldiers caught Jews in the road and sent them to all kinds of hard and degrading labor. They were hit or brutalized. Binyamin Apel goes on to detail those days:
The situation got worse and worse. Anyone left with any strength wanted to flee. However, even escaping had its dangers because it was forbidden to leave the town without a license and a listing was made of all the citizens. Despite this, many tried to flee. They would get as far as Austrolanko, cross the border and enter Russia.
No one thought to resist the German acts. First of all because they lacked the means to do so, and secondly, there was no centralized 'think tank.' The Jewish political parties and organizations fell apart when the population began to flee, following the first German shelling. This was followed immediately by the Nazi terror which put an end to any effort at organized resistance.
In the next weeks, the German acts of cruelty, which included confiscating Jewish property, torture and murder, became 'legal.' The Jews were ordered to wear the yellow patch on their sleeve, they had to walk on the sidewalks only in a particular direction, and they were at the mercy of any German who might hit, abuse or even murder them.
The German authority ordered the Jews to stay concentrated in an area of some two roads in the town. This place was the Jewish ghetto, though it was without a wall since all of Ciechanow was in essence a ghetto. Jewish homes outside the two mentioned roads were abolished by Jews themselves under the cruel orders of the Germans. In the ghetto at times five families would share one room.
According to a German order, a Jewish council (Judenrat) was established in the ghetto for the purpose of carrying out any ordinances set by the occupation forces. Beside the council there was also an employment office which supplied the Germans with Jewish labor.
Binyamin Apel describes the situation in the ghetto as follows: The Jewish population would receive their food rations by cards, which would give each person 5 decco of bread per day and 10 decco meat per week. Obviously the meat was not kosher because there were no active Jewish Shochets.
Trade came to a standstill. Artisan and workshop owners could not continue their work without a special license. Poverty took over. People were hungry for bread and sold their furniture and private belongings to the Poles for a bit of food. The Poles got richer through this trade.
The crowded and dirty conditions in the ghetto bred disease. There was hunger and cold and the situation was catastrophic. The Jewish area in Ciechanow in the time of the Germans was like a graveyard of living dead.
Where Jewish homes once stood, new buildings were erected for the Germans. The Poles too were evacuated from Ciechanow, with no resistance on their part, and so the Polish town became a German one with the name Chechno.
The Jews continued to live in the ghetto under the constant threat of death. The Germans worked them as slaves and even the most experienced artisans worked for starvation wages. On December 11th 1941, 1,200 Jews were brought together, men, women and children and were beaten or shot to death. Those that survived were sent off to a new ghetto in Nowe Miasto (Nuestadt).
The expulsion was a planned stage in the German extermination policy. They would centralize the Jews and then transport them from one place to another for no reason other than to 'break' and demoralize them and then send them to work -- in actuality, the death camps. This was the fate of the Jews of Ciechanow. From one expulsion to the next the Germans would increase their murderous activities. They would shoot the evaders of the expulsion or abuse them in the eyes of all who would be ordered to observe. Binyamin Apel recounts in his memoirs the terrible sights:
Chills take hold of me when I remember the horrible event. Children stood and observed the hanging of their fathers, and were forbidden to cry. The hangmen would look into their eyes to make sure there were no tears. The five victims hung from six until nine at night.
In another incident, five Jews were hung for hiding a Torah in a graveyard in order to protect it from harm by the vandals. As if it wasn't enough, prior to the final expulsion of the Jews from Ciechanow, they were threatened and tortured to destroy the gravestones in the graveyard and to plow it over.
On November 6th 1942 the Jewish community of Ciechanow was wiped out. On this bitter day the Germans centralized, through terror and shooting, some 1,800 Jews, and divided them into two camps -- those able to work and those not capable. The elders were killed on the spot and the rest were put into closed train cars. Ciechanow was purified of Jews. The blood-tainted Nazis, or the superior German race had completed its terrible murder and had uprooted its victims from one of the towns of Poland.
The Jews who were expelled from Ciechanow were brought by the Germans to the concentration camps. The stronger ones passed through some other ghettos where the Nazis needed more human labor. They too were eventually sent to concentration camps. Totally overworked and exhausted, many died. Those that survived recount their memories in this book. We will suffice here with the description of the life of the Jews in Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, as in other camps, Jews made every effort to be together with those from their town and to give mutual support. It was a tragic caricature of landsmanschaft through awaiting death in the gas chambers.
The Jews of Ciechanow tried to stay together in order to help each other with a slice of bread or some soup, etc. Not everyone got to live there a long time, because the fate of most who were brought to this terrible camp was to be killed, some by shooting, some by suffocation and some by some other form of torture. Nevertheless, the German businessmen didn't hesitate to exploit the inmates' last source of strength in the factories within the concentration camps. The inmates were under terrible conditions. Besides this, the liquidation machine was in need of services which the victims themselves provided.
Amongst them were a number of Ciechanow Jews who were the strongest and healthiest. Their work gave them hope that, through it, they would be saved from the gas chamber. Their vain hopes did not advance the organization of a resistance. An inmate from Auschwitz, Moshe Kolka, gives here an answer to the question many posed: Why did the many inmates not simply fall upon their German guards, whose numbers were much smaller?
The answer to this tiresome question lies in the precise murder orders [methods] that the Germans organized in Auschwitz searchlights would light every corner at night time; there were shooting towers, the high voltage fences around the camp and the terrible dogs who were trained together to follow the prisoners. All put fear into the whole camp. In addition to that were the mechanical and scientific means available to the camp officers against the inmates. The liquidation machine suppressed the inmates in the camps and wiped out their physical and spiritual selves. The fear of the predator animal as personified in the German human image was rooted in the inmates' senses. As well, the national hate, especially towards the Jews in the form of anti-Semitism which the Germans encouraged, caused demoralization amongst the inmates and weakened their will.
Despite the above, there arose in Auschwitz an underground which prepared to counter the Germans. Jews from Ciechanow were attracted to this movement. These were the ones who had managed to survive selection and extermination. They were for the most part men and women who had worked in the arms factory Union established by German entrepreneurs within the camp. Noah Zabludovich, an inmate from Auschwitz, brings forth his memories of those persons and their role in the resistance organization in Auschwitz.
Only Jews worked in the Union factory -- men and women separately in three shifts. The Germans made sure they had no contact between them. They were inmates in Birkenau. Organizers of the underground movement gave instructions to contact the persons worthy of trust who could be useful in obtaining ammunition and arms. For a short while, I managed to contact a home girl -- Rosa Robota, who worked in the clothes section in Birkenau camp. She organized a group of women who worked in the explosives shop. About twenty women, with great danger to their lives, hid packages full of explosive powder in their bras. Rosa would then get the merchandise from them and pass it on to our people who worked in the Sonderkommando, a special department for passing corpses to the ovens. The Sonderkommando persons would then hide the packages in their carts and put them in a hiding-place close to the ovens. This continued for a year plus. With time, we acquired some ammunition from the Poles with the money and gold which we still had in our possession. It was in this way that we prepared for the resistance in the worst concentration camp set up by the Germans Auschwitz.
In the annals of the brave resistance of Auschwitz against the murderous Germans, Rosa Robota from Ciechanow wrote by her suffering a wonderful chapter of heroism, bravery and moral standing. In the Jewish martyrdom literature the word holy is only used in reference to her, due to her deeds in Auschwitz. Rosa Robota is worthy of being numbered amongst the saints.
She was born in Ciechanow to a family of good standing and had a sister and brother. Rosa completed elementary school with excellence and was attracted to public work through the Hashomeir Hatzair movement from a young age. She was still young when the Germans entered Ciechanow and took her and her sister to do cleaning in the home of the ex-Polish head of Government. Both sisters were badly maltreated in this work. In the meantime, their home was destroyed and their family went to live with relatives in the ghetto, until its destruction in November of 1942 and the deportation of most of its residents to Auschwitzs. Rosa was amongst those sent. In the camp, she went through the awful selection process in which each one's fate was sealed who to slave labor and who to the gas chambers.
Noah Zabludovich, who was in contact with her, tells (in the Ciechanow Community and its Destructio, and Death of Hero Rosa Robota in Yiddish, edited by Moshe Fuchs, Tel-Aviv 1952 by the Committee for the Memory in honor of Rosa Robota; contributors: Yechiel Israeli, Noah Zabludovich and Moshe Kolko; material collected by Noah Zabludovich and Moshe Kolko) with what enthusiasm young Rosa gave herself to the efforts of the underground. Her eyes would light up with revenge when she had the possibility of operating against the enemy. She was well-loved by her friends in the camp and would supply them with bread when hungry. In a short while she was able to organize around her tens of youth like herself who would bring her gunpowder for explosives. Rosa would keep this gunpowder until it was handed over to the Sonderkommando. This important and dangerous task she fulfilled with unusual speed and great care.
In mid-1944, the heads of the underground movement in Auschwitz called for a revolt to include all the camps simultaneously. They hoped for the help of A.K. (Armaia Kraeebo in Polish -- the land army; a military Polish government in London). The uprising was set for the first Sunday of November of 1944. The organizers of the uprising hung great hopes on the Sonderkommando who worked, as said, beside the ovens. About six hundred men were occupied in this most terrible of jobs, knowing full well that the time would come when the Germans would liquidate them as they did the others. Therefore they decided to fight their murderers to the last man.
The Sonderkommando uprising broke out surprisingly and at an unexpected time for the heads of the underground. Moshe Kolko tells of this in his memoirs:
At the same time the rumor was spread about a transport of the men and the Sonderkommando. Hardly a few minutes went by and six hundred kommando workers rose up. Oven number 2 went up in fire and the German kapo, who was known for his cruelty, was thrown into the burning oven. In a face-to-face fight, four S.S. were killed and a number were injured. The area around the ovens turned into a war-zone. The barriers around the area were destroyed and the rioters escaped from there.
All the S.S. in the area were alerted to the camp. The work units stopped work and were returned to their bunkers. A head count was carried out and the S.S. ran around the camp like poisoned mice. It hadn't occurred to them that they may have to defend themselves against the Jews.
Unfortunately, the hoped-for aid was not given to the Sonderkommando by the rest of the inmates in the camp. The Germans got the situation under control, killed all the participants of the uprising except for a few from Ciechanow, and carried out a thorough investigation using terrible torture.
The investigation uncovered, of course, that the explosives which the rioters used came to them from the ammunition plant. Suspicion fell on a number of women who worked in the department for explosive powder. They were arrested and taken to Block 11, where they were badly tortured. Amongst them was Rosa Robota.
The failure of the uprising, together with the torture and killings, put fear into the inmates of Auschwitz. Each one thought that their end was near. A particular depression was upon those few inmates from Ciechanow who had been connected with Rosa Robota and knew of her great suffering and the cruel tortures she was subjected to. Their desire was to meet with her before her death.
With the help of a Jewish kapo, an S.S. guard who watched over Block 11 got drunk and Noah Zabludovich stole inside
I managed to see Rosa for the last time a few days before her death, tells Zabludovich in his memoirs. At night when all the inmates were asleep, during curfew time when any movement was strictly forbidden in the camp, I went to the bunker (Basement) of Block 11 through the passageways and dark rooms. I heard the sighs of those who were convicted and a horrible feeling rose within me. I went down the stairs, led by the kapo, until we got to Rosa's cell. Yaakov (the kapo), opened the door, admitted me into the cell and disappeared. When my eyes got used to the dark I noticed a figure wrapped in shreds on the cold cement floor. The figure turned her head to me. I barely recognized her. On her face were etched endless suffering and pain. After a few minutes of silence, Rosa began to tell of the sadistic means used by the Germans against her in the investigation and said she took full responsibility, without naming any other names.
I tried to comfort her, but she wouldn't hear. I knew what I did and what I can expect. Furthermore, she requested of the friends to continue in their work: It is easier to die, when you know that your work is to be continued, she said. I heard a sound at the door. Yaakov called me to leave. I parted from Rosa. It was the last time I was to see her.
A few days later, the Germans collected all the women who worked at Union in the explosives factory to witness the hanging of four of their friends. Amongst the condemned was Rosa. The women spoke of how quietly, and with bravery and pride, their heroine from Ciechanow walked to the gallows. This was at the end of November 1944.
At the same time there were no more Jews remaining in the Polish town of Ciechanow. The Jewish offspring of those who had established a community in the Polish settlement on the banks of the Ladinia a few hundred years ago were murdered by the Germans in different ways. Only a small number of Ciechanow Jews survived, scattered in different countries, with a sizable number living in Israel, rebuilding a Jewish life in their national homeland.
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