« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

bia070.jpg

 

[Page 71]

Pejsach Kaplan's Ghetto Diary

(Editor's note: Pejsach Kaplan, the prominent Jewish writer and editor of the Bialystok daily newspaper Unzer Leben, became the official archivist of the Bialystok ghetto. He had the opportunity to observe and record daily events in the ghetto including important facts about the establishment and conduct of the Judenrat. Concerning the notorious 'February Action' in 1943 which marked the beginning of the Bialystok ghetto's liquidation, Kaplan wrote as if with blood the following words: “ How does one describe the destruction of Bialystok as the author of the Book of Lamentations would have adequately done? It is possible for me only to record cut and dried facts, indelibly inscribed in my memory about the recent bleak and bloody days”.

The following are excerpts from Kaplan's diary found after the war in the ruins of the ghetto together with other records of the Judenrat. Shortly after completing the diary in March 1943, Kaplan died, no longer able to withstand the pain and suffering of his times).

On the very first day of the Nazi occupation, the commandant, a general, summoned Rabbi Dr. Gedalja Rozenman and ordered him to form a Judenrat of twelve members. Rabbi Rozenman and other Jewish leaders well understood they had no choice but to comply. Later on, the Judenrat was enlarged to twenty-four councilmen.

Although members of the council made it clear from the beginning that they were required to carry out the orders of the Nazi command, nevertheless, because they had previously been respected personalities in the Jewish community, the Judenrat was held in high esteem. Given the nature of its mission, however, the council was often unavoidably autocratic in carrying out its functions.

Rabbi Rozenman, the Chairman and his Vice-Chairman, Efrajim Barasz, usually started their day in conference with Nazi officials. Thereafter, they would meticulously carry out every order, taking pains to make certain the Jewish community in the ghetto faithfully obeyed the rules. The slightest infraction brought about severe consequences, every rule bearing implicit or explicit threats of grim reprisals if transgressed.

Because of Rabbi Rozenman's advanced age and poor health, he was forced to resign and was succeeded by Vice-Chairman Barasz who continued as Chairman of the Judenrat until March 1943. Others on the Judenrat presidium were: B. Subotnik, finances; J. Goldberg and Liman, administrators and heads of rationing. Barasz was considered by many the dictator of the ghetto. Actually, he was the only one able to carry on a successful liaison between the Nazi and the Jews. He deftly encouraged the Germans to reduce the severity of their requirements and, on the other hand, insisted that the Jews avoid any pretext that could be used by the Nazi to mete out punishment. Barasz possessed unusual energy, stability, stubbornness, supreme punctiliousness and, above all, scrupulous honesty. He consulted his presidium several times a day on important decisions, explaining his policies from time-to-time to the public at the Linas Hatzedek hall.

 

The Nazi and the Judenrat

Relations between the Germans and the Judenrat

 

bia071.jpg
Pejsach Kaplan
Writer, cultural leader, editor of the Bialystoker newspaper Unzer Leben, author of several important works in Hebrew and Yiddish. He died in the Bialystok ghetto in 1943. His diary of life in the ghetto with important documents were subsequently found and published partly in the Bialystoker Stimme in New York.

 

were chaotic, mainly because the German administrative structure was actually a conglomeration of competing power centres; the military, civilian and police authorities. Often the orders issued by these different branches of the regime contradicted one another, sowing confusion among the Jews and the council. This uncertainty was, of course, no mere academic matter. Lives literally hung in the balance and threats were routinely made that half the Judenrat or the whole Judenrat would be shot or, alternatively, several hundred Jewish citizens would be executed. Subsequently, the anarchy lessened when the German civilian ghetto administration provided the Judenrat with an “ironclad guarantee” insisting that it was the sole authority. Despite this helpful development, the number of authority figures and pretenders was astronomical.

Every item the Jews possessed could be requisitioned by the Nazi at a moment's notice. Nothing was exempt. Even things not readily available had to be produced on time, usually in a short space of time, the alternative being punishment or execution. Requests were not

[Page 72]

made. Commands were given on pain of death. The Nazi demanded that their orders be carried out to the letter; no deviation, however minute, was permitted. Since the German authorities frequently changed, their replacements would often impose new standards in the ghetto, sometimes contradicting those of their predecessors. Things that had been satisfactory to one administration became unacceptable to the next. The Judenrat and the Jewish community it represented found themselves in a constant uphill battle to appease the whims of the Nazi masters.

The uninterrupted barrage of ordinances, regulations, requisitions and the like emanating from the German command centre on an hourly basis threatened to inundate the Judenrat. Its function under these conditions was to remain eternally vigilant, anticipating what might come next. At times its members sensed it was best to swallow a bitter bill. At other times, they exercised whatever influence they could to modify an edict. The confiscatory contributions the Nazi demanded from the Jews in the amount of five million roubles, five kilos of gold and three hundred kilos of silver taxed the Judenrat's resourcefulness to the limit. People had to give up their last bit of money to satisfy the quota imposed on the public at large. At the end, when everyone had been cleaned out, the Judenrat was able to bargain the Nazi down two million roubles, thereby fulfilling the requirement.

Thanks to the uncanny diplomatic skills of the Judenrat, the decree to build and move into the ghetto was implemented with a lot less difficulty than had been expected. The council succeeded in negotiating for a larger, more spacious ghetto in a better part of Bialystok. The deadline for moving into the ghetto was extended and the ten million roubles demanded for not cleaning up the abandoned homes were waived. The Judenrat insisted on public calm and patience throughout this horrible ordeal.

 

The Jewish Police in the Ghetto

The Nazi authorities declared that the ghetto was a state within a state and that the Judenrat had unlimited powers if only it fulfilled the orders of the regime. Ostensibly this meant that the Germans had no interest whatsoever in interfering in ghetto affairs, leaving everything to the discretion of the Judenrat. This was, of course, untrue.

The council immediately created its own police force of more than two hundred young, healthy men under the command of Izsak Markus, former fire commissioner. Later, Mojsze Berman was appointed his assistant. The police received special shields for their hats and arm bands to identify them. The ghetto was divided into four police precincts under a unified command. It was indeed difficult for the Judenrat to maintain the unpaid police officers at the highest level of efficiency and, not infrequently, there were police failures. Generally speaking, however, the apparatus worked quite well and if the ghetto did not drown in filth and the people did not trample upon one another in the streets, the credit had to go to the police.

Their main function was to preserve law and order, ensuring free passage and keeping Jewish passers-by away from the Nazi soldiers. In addition, the police were responsible for public sanitation; regulate business activities, assisting the German guards at the gates of the ghetto to prevent smuggling and issuing summonses for forced labour and evacuation.

The Jewish police were, of course, also charged with preventing robberies and arresting perpetrators, detain culprits in a makeshift cell underneath the Judenrat building or in a real prison at another location. Sometimes the police were required to deliver a suspect to the Gestapo outside the ghetto.

Another problem facing the police was that food provisions allotted each Jew was inadequate to sustain life. People were forced to barter, smuggle, speculate and seek additional income. The Jewish police officer could look the other way, if his palms were greased, or he might strictly invoke the law which could be fatal to the violator. This corruption demoralized the population and virtual anarchy prevailed for a while.

The Judenrat did ultimately purge the police force of undesirable elements. At the same time, it exhorted the people to obey the policemen and to treat them with respect. The Judenrat did everything possible to create an effective and honest force, recruiting as many idealistic and honest young men as it could.

To the extent possible, the Judenrat organized a satisfactory criminal justice system, appointing professional judges to preside over trials that were carried out according to law. Punishments were meted out in light of ghetto conditions.

 

Other Judenrat Departments
Finance: - was responsible for collecting the necessary funds to carry out the orders of the Nazi command. It formulated a budget to husband resources and provide a clear outline of expenditures. It imposed taxes upon those with means and controlled revenues generated by work outside the ghetto.

Rationing:- the Judenrat assumed the responsibility of apportioning scarce food rations among the Jewish population. This was a particularly difficult task, upon whose success depended many thousands of lives. The council made herculean efforts to obtain food and distribute it as equitably as possible. Often, some people had to go hungry. But everything humanly possible was done to provide sustenance for the greatest number. The Rationing Department fed not only individuals but supplied the remaining social institutions as well. It also controlled heating supplies.

Labour:- this department had the burden of meeting the slave labour quotas set by the Nazi command.

[Page 73]

 

bia073.jpg
Nevelt Bet Midrash (house of study) in ruins

 

From the outset, these manpower demands were capricious and virtually impossible to fulfil, usually accompanied by an absurd deadline of a couple of hours. The types of work were mostly back-breaking and intolerable. The slave labourers were brutally beaten for the slightest infraction. Frequently, the work hours were interminable and the locations remote and rugged. No complaints or refusals were permitted; no excuses were accepted. This department was one of the most difficult to operate in the ghetto.

Charity:- The Judenrat made major efforts to assist the impoverished. As soon as the council began to organize its funds, it established an old age home for about two hundred elderly people and invalids; two children's homes which took care of infants as well as older youngsters, and kitchens offering hot meals at a pittance. Orthodox Jews took the initiative of forming their own kosher kitchen.

Health and Sanitation: - The Judenrat established a hospital for acutely ill adults and a second facility to accommodate sick children. A third hospital took care of contagious patients. This department was also responsible for sanitation and hygiene throughout the ghetto. The Linas Hatzedek building housed a unit for treating ambulatory patients and staffed by a large number of doctors. Dental and therapy services were provided in the Linas Cholim building. In addition, an obstetrical section was created which, surprisingly, was used a great deal. Each factory had its own doctors and nurses who administered treatment on the spot. The Sanitation Department operated a number of public baths. The Nazi, who crammed the large Jewish population into pigsty conditions, paradoxically required absolute cleanliness so as not to infect the Aryan German race. In this, Bialystok distinguished itself. For example, there was not one case of typhus reported. Any infectious disease that did occur, probably originating outside of the ghetto, was promptly isolated, entire streets in the ghetto quarantined until the contagion was eradicated.

Housing:- this responsibility was difficult for, by definition, the Judenrat had to house thousands of people in a limited number of dwellings. Their first step was to assume jurisdiction over all privately owned homes. No one was permitted to occupy a room without a written order from the Housing Department. Those who did so without authorization were forcibly ejected by the police. Every effort was made to obtain the mutual agreement of people to live together as neighbours. Nevertheless, there was much unhappiness and many disputes broke out. This department also carried out building inspections and supervised the collection of rents.

Economy:- this was the section that gathered the precious possessions of the Jews in response to Nazi extortion demands and as leverage to mitigate the strictness of certain orders. In addition to jewellery and other valuables, all kinds of items were stocked so the Judenrat could respond at once to a German requisition for supplies.

Construction:- Although there was no need to construct new buildings in the ghetto, existing structures required maintenance. This work was supervised by the Construction Department of the Judenrat.

Culture:- One of the most noble of the Judenrat's functions was creating a school system through its Culture Department. Two schools were established, one a secular facility that taught in both Yiddish and Hebrew and the second, a religious school. The secular school was coeducational and accommodated some 1600 pupils in six grades and thirty-nine classes. The religious school taught about five hundred children in two shifts, but segregated boys and girls. These institutions brought a bit of light into the ghetto not permitting the children to run wild and at the same time educating them in the spirit of Judaism. In November 1942, when the Nazi carried out bloody reprisals against the Jews of Greater Bialystok, outside the ghetto itself, its territory was reduced and the two schools were closed. The Culture Department also conducted vocational courses to teach young people trades.

Census and Vital Statistics:- This department was crucial in counting the number of people in the ghetto. Their statistics had a direct effect on the issuance of food permits and rations. The census office was in a small room on the third floor of the Judenrat building under the direction of Dr. M. Bergman. This bureau issued bread ration cards to the people and compiled various lists required by the authorities. Dr. Pilecki, statistician, administered the vital statistics department. S. Rawet directed the Bureau of Records.

Industry:- The largest and most important section of the Judenrat was the Industry Department. They oversaw Jewish productivity which rendered the ghetto prisoners still useful to the Nazi. As long as this usefulness continued, the Jews had a chance to live. The Industry Section created a large number of factories, including a cobbler, a clothes factory, a knitwear

[Page 74]
plant, a felt factory, a belt-manufacturing plant, carpentry, a bedding-goods plant and a wheel-making shop. The department promoted apprenticeships in electronics, brush-making, cardboard and carton manufacturing and factories producing liquor, marmalade and starch. The most important industries directly served the German military and thereby employed thousands of Jews in the ghetto. At first, the means of production were invariably primitive in all sections but, in time, more sophisticated equipment was either obtained or built.

The Ghetto Exhibit:- One of the most fascinating but diabolical aspects of life in the ghetto was the display of products manufactured by its industries. This was meant as a showcase for Nazi visitors to the Bialystok ghetto. One would think from the masterful way in which the exhibit was arranged, as well as by the sheer perfection of the displayed objects, that one was visiting one of the finest museums in a highly civilized city. It was possible almost to forget that this exhibit was situated in the midst of a human sty, surrounded by barbed wire and maintained by force of arms. In any event, the ghetto exhibit was the pride and joy of the Nazi officials as well as of the Jewish population. After the grim events of November 1942, when the ghetto was taken over by the Gestapo, the exhibit was shut down.

The Judenrat also included a secretariat which carried out the clerical functions of the council as well as of the German command and a comptroller's division which h did the accounting and bookkeeping for the Judenrat. There was also a fire brigade and a section that dealt with the cost of electricity, water and soap.

The above is a brief description of the various organs of the Judenrat within the Bialystok ghetto, composed by an observer on the basis of his personal impressions.


The Death of Pejsach Kaplan

(Editor's note: In a letter to the Bialystoker Stimme and written by Refoel Rajzner in the May-June 1946 issue, the author offers the following details about Pejsach Kaplan's death).

On February 5, 1943 when the Nazi began to liquidate the Bialystok ghetto, Pejsach Kaplan was in hiding, virtually suffocating. At night he risked going outside for some fresh air but he caught a cold. On the third day of the bloodbath he found it possible to go to the factory in which his eldest daughter Sonja occupied a responsible position. Kaplan, ill with fever, ran from one window to the other, risking a bullet to the head, to see how the empty streets looked and how the Jews sentenced to death was being led about.

The scenes were horrifying. Groups of thirty to forty people, sometimes reaching one hundred, most of them women, children and the elderly, were taken to the slaughter. The stronger helped the weaker. Many were already half dead, exhausted by hiding for days. Should one dare to fall down and stop on the way, he was immediately shot on the spot. In this way, the Nazi murderers left approximately one thousand dead bodies littering the streets of Bialystok. Pejsach Kaplan, taking all of this in, found it unbearable.

He warned his friends and acquaintances that he would not survive this experience. “Remember”, he said to them, “when the time comes for taking revenge, pay them back what they have earned”. After the slaughter was over, Kaplan was confined to bed, at first rallying and then relapsing. He died cursing Hitler's Germany.

The Judenrat arranged a large and dignified funeral for Kaplan, unprecedented in the ghetto. Plans were made to eulogize him but the SS officers interfered. The many thousands who escorted his body to the cemetery went away broken-hearted that they had lost such a dominant figure in their lives; the man who recorded their daily trials and tribulations. May his memory be a blessing for all of us!

 

bia074.jpg
One of the thousands of starving children in the ghetto

 


[Page 75]

Bialystok Region in Ruins

by Dr. Szymon Datner

(Editor's note: Dr. Szymon Datner, the esteemed educator, researcher and historian, author of a number of important volumes about the Holocaust and devoted the post-war years to recreating in detail much of the gruesome saga of the destruction of East European Jewry. Dr. Datner, who was the first Bialystoker Jew to return to the city in ruins after the war and who became the Chairman of the first Jewish Reconstruction Committee in Bialystok, has earned a prominent place commemorating the glory that once was Bialystok.

Following are excerpts from Dr. Datner's well-researched articles about the Bialystok ghetto, the suffering, resistance and extermination of its Jews).

Although the Nazi set a quota of 12,000 Jews to be deported to Pruzane, the Judenrat in Bialystok produced only between 5000-6000. The reasons were that those not included were still valuable for slave labour; some who had been summoned to the deportation centre never showed up and some on the list somehow managed to obtain papers and employment. The Nazi, thanks to the influence of the Judenrat, did not press the twelve thousand maximum.

It was widely believed that the 5,000 deportees would never reach Pruzane alive but several days after their departure from the Bialystok ghetto, they sent word back that they had indeed arrived in Pruzane and were alive. This brought a wave of relief throughout the ghetto.

Circumstances in Pruzane were even worse than in Bialystok. There, a ghetto was also built and Pruzane's Jews were forced to squeeze into it. The Bialystokers' arrival increased the discomfort and the overcrowding. Nonetheless, the Pruzaner Jews welcome their Bialystoker friends with open arms and with extraordinary grace.

It soon became clear that Pruzane would need financial assistance from Bialystok to accommodate the exiles. An emissary from Pruzane visited the Judenrat in Bialystok each month to raise funds on behalf of its people in Pruzane until the end of November, 1942 when Pruzane, along with other smaller communities was totally destroyed by the Nazi.

The evacuation to Pruzane led to tragic aftermaths. Those who failed to appear for deportation were forced to live underground. Their names were taken off the vital statistics list which meant they were no longer entitled to receive food rations or other assistance from the Judenrat. They were forced to throw themselves on the mercy of family and friends. Those able to find work outside the ghetto managed to survive a while longer.

Another reverberation of the expulsion to Pruzane was that in the spring of 1942, some 1,500 Bialystoker Jews left Pruzane and sneaked back into the Bialystok ghetto. When the Nazi learned of this, they threatened mass reprisals, forcing the Judenrat to warn the evacuees not to return. To some extent, these warnings decreased the incidence of illegal return but did not stop it altogether. On the other hand, the Germans did not continue to press the issue.

What was most important to the ghetto inmates was that their kinfolk did arrive in Pruzane alive and that regarding this matter; at least, the Nazi had not lied to them.

Enslavement before Final Liquidation

The continued existence of the Bialystok ghetto and the Jews within it depended on the extent to which they were perceived as useful to the Third Reich. This was why most of the Jews in the ghetto voluntarily sought work of any type. Certainly the Pruzane evacuation was an additional incentive for people to find employment – to avoid expulsion from the ghetto. Another motivation was to prevent a repetition of the ferocity with which the Nazi had run through the streets of Bialystok prior to August 1941 when the ghetto was constructed, conscripting people for forced labour. If one was already gainfully employed, he could avoid this harsh treatment.

Announcements and orders proclaimed by the Judenrat – as dictated by the Nazi command – clearly reflect how important the availability of slave labour was to the Germans as well as punctuality, discipline and productivity. The following are excerpts from these orders:

Order N°126 – by order of the German authorities, all ghetto men aged eighteen to fifty-five must have a job. We command all men without exception in this age group who are not yet employed to appear at the Judenrat building tomorrow morning, October 16th, at 6:00a.m. We warn anyone who fails to show up that he will suffer severe consequences, including evacuation from Bialystok.

Order N°328 – a reserve brigade of one hundred women is hereby created according to the following conditions: whoever woman must work on a certain day will receive a half-kilo of bread per day and will be paid in cash at the going rate. Women who are not scheduled to work will remain in the reserve pool and will receive a certain sum per day. (These reserve brigades were the Judenrat's answer to the constant need to fill labour quotas. The council's

[Page 76]
worst fear was failure to fulfil a demand for manpower. This would surely mean doom for everyone).

 

bia076.jpg
Loading the Jews in cattle cars at the Poljeser Railroad Station

 

Order N°235 – The German Labour Department announces: it has been established that discipline among the Jewish workers is lax. That is why in all work-places, productivity lists have been instituted recording how many hours the Jews are working per day. It appears that on certain days, people do not show up at all for work or work only part-time. The exact reasons for these violations are unknown. The Labour Department acquiesced in the Gestapo's punishing these shiftless Jews. In the future, anyone found not discharging his work obligations will be turned over to the Gestapo for severe punishment.

Order N°157 A Warning: The Judenrat issues the following warning! report punctually for work! Do not leave your place of work without permission! For leaving work without authorization, the following have received corporal punishment: Mojsze Nowokolski, Josef Lew, Jakow Racki, Mojsze Stupnik, Ben-Cyon Lipnik, Chaim Talinski, Binjomin Halpern and Chajkel Glas. Those who continue violating this order face possible execution. Judenrat. Bialystok. November 18, 1941.

Order N°173 – For lateness and unexcused absences from work, the following received severe forced-labour assignments as a penalty: Josef Korn, Mordechaj Galant, Mojsze Ridak, Aron Bersztejn, Lejb Galant, Hirsz Berezowski, Hilel Furman, Lejb Wajnsztejn, and Fajwel Wajnsztejn. We warn you to fulfil your work obligations. Do not leave your posts. Avoid harsh punishments. Judenrat. Bialystok. December 3, 1941.

Order N°166 – The following received severe corporal punishment for avoiding slave labour: Isroel Kagan, Mojsze Sapirsztein, Krawic, Hirsz Grochowski, Szya Feder, Izchok Melamed (Malmed), Nochum Nowik and Szymon Szwecher. Judenrat. Bialystok, November 25, 1941.

Order N°225 – For lateness at work, the following received corporal punishment and were assigned to the penal brigades: Mates Gniazde, Lejzer Sokolski, Anszel Kaplan, Dowid Bereslowski, Gedalja Klajnsztejn, Hilel Rudeler and Lejzer Macher. We warn: Come to work on time! Do not leave your posts without permission! Protect your lives! Judenrat. Bialystok, February 21, 1942.

Order N°383 – The Labour Department announces that the following were whipped for: (a) leaving the ghetto without authorization: Izchok Note, 10 Chmelna Street; Mordechaj Nisebojm, 12 Smalne; (b): for not reporting for forced labour: Isroel Naszelski, baker, 19 Polna Street; (c) for not showing up at the assigned work-place: Melech Dinersztejn, 12 Neuwelt, construction; Hirsz Nisebojm, 39 Fabryczna; Awrom Palanski, 1 Bialoscaner; Ludwik Cytronenberg, 13 Fabryczna; Gerszon Kantrowec, 19 Chmelna, construction; Izchok Kadysz, 22 Kupiecka, construction; Fiszl Rozenberg, Gedawe Street. For further violations, harsh punishment awaits the perpetrators. These acts can lead to ghetto-wide reprisals. Labour Department, Judenrat, Bialystok, January 18, 1943.

 

On the Eve of 1942

Generally speaking, life in the ghetto at the end of 1941 seemed to stabilize. People had already grown accustomed, more or less, to the chronic misery in which they were forced to live. Jewish men, women and children were able to pass through the ghetto unharmed as long as they wore their yellow badges. The Judenrat was functioning like a well-oiled machine, thanks to the impeccable integrity of its Chairman, Efrajim Barasz.

Two new orders were issued by the Judenrat on December 31, 1941 which stands in stark contrast to one another. Order N°194 concerns registration of children in Jewish schools while Order N°195 imposes confiscatory taxes upon the Jews. In one announcement, the Jewish community expressed the wish to teach its children Torah and secular subjects, entrusting to the next generation the glorification of the human mind and spirit. The Germans, on the other hand, revealed just a small part of their plan to plunder

[Page 77]

the people it had enslaved – the Jews among them treated with unprecedented barbarism. German precision and efficiency dictated that first you extract the life's blood from your victim and afterward eliminate him.

The following order illustrates the extortionate Nazi demands on the Jews:

Judenrat Order N°92 – August-September, 1941: You are required to submit to the regime the following by Wednesday, September 10, 1941 by 6 p.m: 30 tablecloths identical in form and size; 20 curtains with cornices and shades; 10 large rugs; 10 table scarves; 10 lampshades; 10 wall pictures; 10 flat plates; 10 soup bowls; 100 small plates; 100 coffee cups; 100 coffee coasters; 100 plain beer steins; 100 crystal beer steins; 100 dessert dishes; 100 wine cups; 100 liquor glasses; 50 champagne glasses; 50 coffee pots; 15 sugar shakers; 15 milk pitchers; 20 ashtrays; 100 spoons, 100 forks; 100 knives; 100 forks and knives for fish; 50 tea glasses; 5 samovars; 15 meat platters; 15 cake plates and 14 sauce pans.
The German nation, which always pretended to the role of leader of the civilized world, effortlessly sheds its thin mantle of culture, ridding itself if its humanity as though it were an unnecessary burden. The beast removed its mask. It was sure that it would be victorious. This ferocious animal was finally to be conquered but not without the world paying a high price. Jews made the greatest sacrifice – the loss of six million – among them fifty thousand Bialystoker Jews.

 

A Tragic Celebration in the Ghetto

On June 29, 1942, the first anniversary of the Nazi occupation of Bialystok – a celebration was held in the ghetto attended by the members of the Judenrat, directors of the ghetto institutions, factories and a number of other prominent leaders of the past and present. Understandably, there were many who thought they should have been invited and, because they were not, felt slighted.

The “elders of the ghetto” sat at nicely decorated tables and those in positions of responsibility shared their feelings with the others present about the events of the past year as well as their hopes for the future. The main figure at this gathering was, of course, Efrajim Barasz.

Barasz explained why it simply was not possible to skip over this anniversary without taking stock of what had occurred. Addressing the group, he said: “I possess no adequate means of describing what we have endured during the past 365 days. It is hard to believe and I suspect others in the future will be incredulous as to what befell us. Happily, we cannot predict the future for if we had foreseen what would occur this past year, we surely would not have survived the vision itself. Were I to issue a list of our troubles, just mentioning but not describing them, that list undoubtedly would be very long”. Then Barasz proceeded detailing a litany of twenty severe problems, “most tragic and unexpected”. “We have not enjoyed one peaceful day when we did not have to fear that our lives were in danger”. He credited the Judenrat with causing various adverse edicts against the Jews to be rescinded or to be made less severe. He then listed some of the Judenrat's major achievements:

  1. Our ghetto factories, some created from nothing, have won the respect and admiration of our enemies.
  2. The ghetto display demonstrates our achievements and our potential for further progress.
  3. We established schools and vocational training centres.
  4. Our social relief organizations including the hospital continue to serve needy people as they did before the war.
  5. Our vegetable gardens and other activities prove that Jews are useful.
From various remarks made by Barasz and others, it was clear the Judenrat did not enjoy the unanimous approval of Jews in the ghetto. Apparently some felt the Judenrat was too close to the Nazi command and too eager to please it. Barasz insisted, therefore, that the council was doing everything possible to save the Jewish community of Bialystok and that its decisions were taken in an atmosphere of harmony and unity. The meeting ended with Rabbi Dr. Rozenman, the figure-head Chairman of the Judenrat, reciting a blessing for Bialystok and for the Jewish people.

That blessing unfortunately did not come to pass for on the second anniversary of the Nazi occupation, June 29, 1943, neither the Judenrat nor the Bialystok ghetto existed anymore. Not one of the leaders of the Jewish council survived the liquidation of the ghetto.

 

The Bialystok Ghetto in the aftermath of the Annihilation of Surrounding Jewish Communities.

On November 2, 1942, the entire vicinity around Bialystok, containing approximately 150,000 Jews, was evacuated. This meant that these unfortunate people were either murdered in their home communities or sent to the Treblinka death camp for the “final solution”. This unmitigated catastrophe left a pall of terror over the Bialystok ghetto; the Jews wondered when their turn would come.

Moreover, the Nazi command ordered that the ghetto be made smaller – that is, several streets were officially removed from the ghetto boundaries resulting in even less space for a dense population. The over-crowding and the suffering multiplied. Homeless men, women and children were forced to trek through the streets with their sacks on their shoulders, seeking refuge among their families and friends. Everyone assisted; the Judenrat building opened its doors to those that were thrown out in the street.

[Page 78]

Another oppressive development was the order that all gates leading outside the ghetto be locked. For three weeks in November 1942, no one was allowed to enter or leave the ghetto. People who had jobs outside were not permitted to go to them. Moreover, the practice of smuggling food and other necessities inside stopped. This brought intolerable hardship upon a population already close to the limits of its endurance.

The Judenrat, to its credit, created jobs for the newly unemployed, seeing to it that additional work would be available under its own auspices. People struggled to obtain current work cards; their insurance for survival a little while longer. It was feared the Nazi command was considering evacuating the several thousands thrown out of work after the gates to the ghetto were closed. The Judenrat issued desperate orders that everyone must apply for and show up for work. This was the key to salvation.

After the gates were reopened on November 18, people with jobs on the outside were encouraged to return to them. Food started to become more plentiful inside the ghetto. The Jews breathed more easily.

On November 2, the day the provinces were liquidated, the Nazi command levied a fantastic tax of five million roubles on the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto. It was the Judenrat's duty to make certain that everyone paid his share. Announcements were posted every day that (reading between the lines) made it clear that the consequences of not paying these taxes would be death and destruction. At a Judenrat meeting, Berel Subotnik demanded severe penalties – arrest and isolation – for those who refused to pay taxes. Jankl Goldberg stressed that the poor responded while the rich sought to place the burden of taxes on the destitute.

Various theories arose concerning the Nazi's motive in reducing the ghetto area. Some felt the local German command wished to keep the ghetto going for a while longer and, as a quid pro quo for this extension, had to take measures that would seem harsh to their superiors in Berlin. Others, including Barasz, felt that the authorities in Germany planned to settle 5,000 Aryans in Bialystok and needed the place for them. Barasz was convinced that if he and the Judenrat voluntarily surrendered some ghetto territory, it would appease the Nazi. His compromise perhaps delayed the liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto. But he failed to foresee that this action and other steps could not ultimately save the ghetto and its inhabitants. The end was approaching.

 

Bialystok Ghetto is deluged with Jews from the provinces

The mass deportations of Jews from surrounding towns and villages led to many escapes, either at the evacuation depots or on the trains heading toward Treblinka. These escapees sought refuge in a safe place – and the only sanctuary in which they had any confidence was the Bialystok ghetto. Soon, many additional Jews were sneaking through the fence and the population within the ghetto was noticeably expanding.

 

bia078.jpg
Young girls of Bialystok being driven into railroad cars destined for Auschwitz

 

At a meeting of the Judenrat on November 29, this matter was considered. Should the council put a stop to these illegal entries or should they be allowed to continue? The argument for ending the influx was that the Nazi command would view a growing ghetto population as deliberate sabotage and might launch severe reprisals against the Judenrat and the Jews. On the other hand, there was a moral imperative for Jews to save other Jews. Rabbi Rozenman pointed out that throughout Jewish history our people did everything possible to save other Jews and, at the very least, did nothing to harm them in desperate circumstances. The Judenrat took the position that if the ghetto had to be liquidated, and that was the probability, at least Jews should go down helping each other.

 

The Incident of the Wolkowisker Girls

In October, 1942, orders were issued that girls and women from sixteen to fifty must report for slave labour. The specific task was for harvesting potatoes from the fields, so the new requirement to enslave women became known as the “potato edict”. This was a most upsetting development for the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto.

It was known that a similar order had been issued in Warsaw, which was considered the safest ghetto for Jews. The result was that many were sent out of the Warsaw ghetto never to return. Bialystokers felt the “potato edict” was the harbinger of mass evacuations to Treblinka, which by now was understood to be a death camp.

[Page 79]

Parents who failed to send their daughters to work in the fields outside of Bialystok were jailed. Judenrat Order N°336, September 20, 1942, named some parents who were punished: Fejge Calewicz, 33 Fabryczna; Mire Antman, 9 Fabryczna; Rochel Kucharewski, 16 Biala; Itke Lipowski, 21 Kupiecka; Arje Lejb Ogurck, 5 Polna; Szmuel Eplbojm, 11 Neuwelt; Pesze Sibirski, 33 Polna. Nevertheless, mothers and fathers were reluctant to part with their daughters and risked whatever punishment was in store for them. Married women obeyed the new regulations only in small numbers. Most were responsible for their families or were employed inside the ghetto. Consequently, the practical effect of the new rule applied exclusively to young girls.

The Judenrat under Barasz was determined to save the Bialystok ghetto at all costs. It was suspected that in his dealings with the Nazi command, Barasz conveyed his feeling that the provincial towns be sacrificed before Bialystok. The Judenrat, therefore, dispatched a platoon of Jewish policemen to round up about three hundred young girls, loading them on wagons to Wolkowisk to gather potatoes in the fields. When people in the ghetto learned that Jewish police participated in capturing young Jewish girls against their will, they were revolted. That the Judenrat should be an accomplice in this shameful act was, in retrospect, thought by some to have been the forerunner of the even more disgraceful cooperation of the Jewish police with the Nazi in starting the ghetto's liquidation in February 1943.

The parents of these “Wolkowisker girls” were outraged and disconsolate. Other parents who still had their daughters with them used their connections with Christian Polish families outside the ghetto to hide them. The ghetto population was under the impression that a death warrant had already been issued by the Nazi for the entire Bialystok district, including the ghetto. On October 31, the news spread that Bialystok would be saved but the towns surrounding it would be liquidated, including Wolkowisk.

The parents of the three hundred girls sent to Wolkowisk were convinced their daughters had been sent away for extermination together with the other citizens of that town. They and many others organized stormy demonstrations outside the Judenrat building, demanding of Barasz: “Give us back our daughters”. Barasz assured the parents he was doing everything he could to save them. The demonstrations continued night and day with interruption. At last, Barasz's efforts met with success.

In announcement N°367, the Judenrat informed the parents and relatives of the three hundred girls that they would be returned to Bialystok within a few days. On November 27, 1942, the “Wolkowisker girls” reappeared in the ghetto, emaciated, malnourished and extremely frightened. They were saved from among thousands of others in Wolkowisk who were loaded upon trains to the Treblinka gas chambers.

 

Three hangings at the end of 1942

Three executions by hanging were carried out in front of the Judenrat building in the Bialystok ghetto on December 31, 1942, New Year's Eve. Much of the Jewish population was summoned to attend these proceedings as a “deterrent” to further crimes.

The three condemned Jews, Lipa Szczredrowski, Eli Dworski and Jakow Jablonski, who worked in a German cooking-oil factory, were accused of stealing quantities of sunflower seeds. Nazi guards were instructed to be vigilant about smuggling into the ghetto from outside factories. The Judenrat warned the Jews against this illegal practice. Nevertheless, a short time afterward, ten Jews entering the ghetto were caught with contraband. The Gestapo commandant ordered Barasz to place these alleged criminals in the ghetto jail. After a brief trial, three of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death on the gallows. The Judenrat Construction Department was immediately ordered to prepare for the executions. With great difficulty, the scaffold was erected. The three condemned men were placed atop stools, nooses were tightened around their necks and the stools were kicked out from under them.

One of the condemned asked to speak some final words which the Nazi permitted. He shouted: “You murderous beasts – you Germans are a so-called cultured people. You are robbers and animals in human form. You will pay for your crimes. You will lose the war”. The man spat in the direction of his Nazi executioners.

The Nazi greeted the New Year according to their custom by getting drunk and shooting off their pistols and rifles. The Jews, on the other hand, had nothing but gloom in their hearts, suspecting that 1943 would be the last year of their existence.

 

Reverberations of the Armed Revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto

Against the backdrop of mass deportations of Jews in the nearby communities, escalating severity of punishments in the Bialystok ghetto, the liquidation of Jaszynowka and Prusane where 4500 Bialystoker Jews had been sent in the fall of 1941, led the young factory workers in the ghetto to begin preparing for armed resistance.

In February 1943, Bialystok learned of the heroic uprising the in the Warsaw ghetto on January 19, 1943 against the German police. During the bloodbath that ensued, the Jews demonstrated rare courage and self-sacrifice and shattered the myth of Jewish timidity. An underground Polish newspaper declared: “The wondrous bravery of the Warsaw Jews should serve as an example for us Poles”.

Psychologically strengthened and inspired, the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto began armed resistance against the Nazi in February, 1943 and also gave moral support to the Jewish Partisan movement.


[Page 80]

The Archives of Tenenbaum-Tamarof and Mersik

Life in the Bialystok ghetto was chronicled in several languages (Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and German) under the supervision of Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof and Hersz Mersik. Tamarof was one of the leading organizers of the armed resistance in the ghetto.

When World War II erupted, Tamarof and Mersik, then a twenty-six-year-old man, lived in Wilno. Tamarof believed that Wilno had the tragic distinction of being the first city in which the Germans, together with their Fascist Lithuanian countrymen, carried out mass murders against the local Jewish population. From Wilno, additional barbaric “actions”, meaning official German extermination campaigns, spread to other Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe.

Mersik and Tamarof were caught in the thick of the living hell that Wilno had become for its Jewish population. In fact, Mersik miraculously escaped death on three occasions, fleeing in a hail of bullets, sometimes being capture, but managing to elude death. Tamarof leaped over roofs of buildings, cheating the devil.

With the help of a German soldier, Tamarof, Mersik and several others left Wilno for Bialystok which, relatively speaking was still quiescent. In the spring of 1942, Tamarof travelled on to Warsaw. Mersik remained in Bialystok and urged the Judenrat to have all barren land within the ghetto sowed and planted.

Many young people volunteered for these activities. Mersik became the spokesman and ideological mentor for his followers. Later, at the time the surrounding communities were destroyed, Mersik began collecting his documents for the ghetto archive. Tamarof later described Mersik's role as “meeting with the survivors of nearby towns and collecting historical materials about the annihilation of the Jewish communities in the area”.

We can therefore safely establish that the Mersik-Tamarof archive was set up in November-December, 1942, after Tamarof and Mersik were motivated to set up the archive because of the following considerations: - the destruction of Warsaw; the liquidation of the Bialystok provincial towns; the impending catastrophe for the Bialystok ghetto; the personal experiences of the two men and the uncertainty as to whether anyone would survive the Holocaust to tell the world about the crimes of the Nazi. To Tamarof and Mersik, it was essential that future generations find out what had befallen Eastern European Jewry and apply the lessons learned to their own times.

Unfortunately, in the midst of gathering documents describing the ruination of the region around Bialystok, Mersik contracted typhus, apparently from one of the refugees who brought the disease with him into the Bialystok ghetto. On January 28, 1943 at around midnight, Mersik died but not before he left with Tamarof all the information about his archive activities. Three days later, on January 31, a massive funeral was held in tribute to Mersik attended by large crowds within the ghetto. Mersik's death was a horrible blow to Tamarof who, a month later, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, Tamarof found the strength to help prepare for the armed ghetto resistance after which he decided to take his life.

Tamarof also continued collecting materials for the archive, meeting with survivors and encouraging them to write about their nightmarish experiences. He also kept a personal diary. There he described his feelings about the situation in which he and his fellow Jews found themselves.

Tamarof needed a safe place to hide the archive should the ghetto be liquidated. He felt that concealing the archive outside the ghetto in a secure location would ensure its ultimate retrieval.

Two days before the first liquidation campaign in the Bialystok ghetto in February 1943, Tamarof made plans to transfer the archive outside the ghetto into the hands of Bronja Winicka, one of his contacts.

 

The Archive is Retrieved

In August 1944, a year after the ghetto had been liquidated and Bialystok had been liberated from Nazi rule, Bronja Winicka began searching for the archive. Also looking for the documents was Dr. Lejb Blumental who finally dug up the archive in August, 1945 after a map pointing to its hiding place had fallen into his hands.

Evidently, the archive was buried outside the ghetto sometime in April 1943 since the documents do not describe events after that month.

Dr. Blumental, in addition to receiving the map, was informed by his brother that the archive had been hidden in two tin boxes. It took a year to unearth the documents because Blumental was drafted by the Polish army after the liberation. He carried the map with him that entire time.

The archive was uncovered underneath a stable outside the ghetto that belonged to a trustworthy Pole named Filipowski, who helped conceal the records.


[Page 81]

Tragic Messages from the last Jews

by Dr. Szymon Datner

I returned to Bialystok in the early days of August 1944 after a brief bout with typhus. Soon I became a member of the National Reconstruction Council which immediately plunged into the herculean task of rebuilding the Polish and Jewish communities in Bialystok.

In September or October 1944, it was learned that many messages were carved in the walls of the prison in Bialystok both in Polish and in Yiddish apparently by the last remaining Jews in the ghetto. Since these inscriptions might possess historical significance, the reconstruction committee sent a delegation, including myself, to inspect these areas.

We found the graffiti quite legible but heartrending. As the only Jew in the group, it was my task to translate the Yiddish words. All the inscriptions mentioned the names of their authors, the dates on which they met their brutal deaths and the refrain: “Do not forget us. Avenge our death”.

In death chamber 81, three wall inscriptions were carved in Yiddish. Lea Perlsztejn, the only girl in the cell, wrote her name phonetically three times.

The second message was engraved in Yiddish and Polish: “Jechiel Gurwicz was murdered January 23, 1944 because he was a Jew”. (The date appears to be incorrect).

The third inscription belonged to a family.

Death cell 80 had five wall carvings; two in Polish: “Szolem Zinger; Koczkowski brothers; Z.I….Awrom Lew and Sokoli, Purim, 1944. Telman; Dowid; Zgierz; Goldfarb; Zalman and Slonim.

“Izchok Kulkin perished in the Bialystok prison 15.7.44 for the Jewish people. Avenge his death.

“Born at Bielsk-Podlaski, 1921, I was the last Jew in the prison. Enach Gofman. Go to your death with head held high. Farewell to my friends, the Okun and Pozanski brothers. Avenge my death. They tortured me but I revealed nothing. Avenge me”.

“We go to our death calmly; we can fight no longer. Avenge us. Awreml Boczkowski, Bialystok; Kirszenbojm; Kulkin; the Lifces brothers and Meir Prusak, Gordno”.

“Their fate should be worse than what they did to us Jews. The last day of our life. 15.7.44”.

These macabre last words were inscribed during the final days of Nazi rule in Bialystok. On July 27, 1944, the first battalions of the Red Army entered Bialystok together with Partisan forces containing many Jews. The Nazi murdered a few remaining Jews until five minutes before the Russians arrived. The last testaments of their victims, however, remained scribbled on the walls of the prison.

Years later, when I opened my notebook where I had written down the words of these martyrs, the cry for retribution still rang in my ears. How is it possible to avenge the more than 100,000 Jews who perished in the Bialystok region? Can we ever fulfil their last wish? Perhaps the greatest retaliation is that we, their survivors, are here to tell their story.

 

Suicides in the ghetto

Life, in the Jewish tradition, has always been of supreme value. Taking one's own life was looked upon as an act of murder. The family of a suicide was stigmatized for generations afterward. This attitude also prevailed in Jewish Bialystok.

But the apocalyptic events of the Nazi occupation did bring about a small incidence of suicide. The mass incineration of 2,000 Jews in the Great Synagogue, the “Thursday”, “Saturday” and “Sunday massacres”, the construction of the ghetto, the yellow badges, the sadistic jeering, the poverty, the slave labour, continuous fear and insecurity, thousands of human sacrifices, young children suddenly orphaned – all these phenomena broke down some Jews' will to live and severely demoralized the entire community. Some susceptible individuals turned to suicide. But these desperate acts never took place on a large scale in Bialystok.

After November 1942, when it became clear that all Jews in the Bialystok region were destined to be exterminated – the spectre of gas chambers pressing on the minds of Jews in the Bialystok ghetto – some people made their decision: better to die by one's own hand than in a Nazi death camp. On the eve of the February liquidation campaign in 1943, some poisoned themselves while others fashioned gallows. These included: Kagan, the fruiterer whose store was on Lipowa Street; Chaim Grynsztejn, bricklayer who lived on Supraselske Street; Szlojme Jankelew, barber; Dr. Franka Horowicz, instructor at the Hebrew Gymnasium; three orphans killed themselves in a suicide pact at the orphanage on Czestochowski Street. Most of the people I knew, however, albeit shattered and in deep mourning, wanted to continue living.

In August 1943, when the Bialystok ghetto was finally liquidated, more suicides took place, among them Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof, one of the founders of the secret ghetto archive and Doniel Moszkowicz, the communist. Only their Jewishness bound these two very different men to the same fate. In the surgical department of the Jewish Hospital on Fabryczna Street, as the patients were led away to be

[Page 82]

shot, Polja Dlugacz, the good-natured nurse, took her life.

Particularly gruesome was a mass suicide by Bialystoker Jewish women, carried out in a railroad car heading for Treblinka after the ghetto was destroyed on August 16, 1943. As the train neared Treblinka, panic engulfed the women. Sobbing, they pleaded with several women doctors in the train to spare them the agonies of the gas chambers by ending their lives in the train. One of the doctors acceded to these desperate requests by slashing someone's wrist arteries with a razor blade. Other women soon followed this example and slashed their own wrists.

As it turned out, this train never arrived at Treblinka but instead went to Majdanek near Lublin. When the car doors were opened in Lublin, a sea of blood gushed forth. Even the Gestapo officers were taken aback. Some of the women were only barely alive. Berta Sokolska, a survivor, recounted this story to Dr. Tuwja Cytron at the Blyzin concentration camp and he told it to me in April 1946 while he was staying in Bialystok. The Gestapo did not interfere as Jewish slave labourers administered first aid to these unfortunates.

 

The Tragic End of the Jews in the Provinces

Of all the difficulties for the Jews in Bialystok, perhaps the most debilitating was the uncertainty over the future. What would tomorrow bring? Everyone sensed a horrible end for all was approaching quickly and inexorably. Yet, few wished to give up hope. Instead, people clung to whatever glimmer of encouragement that seemed to appear on the horizon.

But each day brought news that sent waves of dis-hearten throughout the ghetto. In the fall of 1942, rumours spread that the Nazi were preparing to annihilate the Jews within the communities around Bialystok. The Bialystok district encompassed scores of towns and villages including Bialystok, Bielsk, Grodno, Grajewo, Wolkowisk, Wiso-Mozowicek, Augustow, Lomza, Sokolka and Pruzane containing some 200,000 Jews. Word also spread that after the Nazi got through with Jews in the provinces; the ghetto in Bialystok would be next.

These unwelcome prospects generated panic as well as a sense of urgency among Jewish inmates in the ghetto. They began feverishly building hiding places so it would be difficult for the Nazi to find them in case the ghetto was attacked. Not everyone, however, had the wherewithal to construct these shelters. Those who did not sought advice from the members of the Judenrat who were unable to offer any useful suggestions.

 

The Horror of Treblinka

Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof established close contact with members of the Judenrat, particularly with its Chairman, Efrajim Barasz. At the end of 1942, when the Jews in the provinces were evacuated, Barasz turned over to Tamarof certain photographs and documents, some of which contained horrifying information. These papers were found in the clothes of provincial Jews that were sent away. The jackets, after proper disinfection, were returned to Bialystok so the textile factories could recycle them. While sorting these garments, the workers found papers written by their former owners. The name “Treblinka” often appeared. And so the ghastly truth which the Nazi had been concealing – what “deportation” really meant – was uncovered.

When Tamarof obtained these materials from Barasz, he was stunned.

The secret finally was revealed that the Jews of the provinces had in fact been evacuated to Treblinka where they would surely be exterminated in its gas chambers and crematoria. The inmates of the Bialystok ghetto realized their own end could not be far off. Tamarof wrote in his diary about the heroism and courage, the stoicism and pride shown by the provincial Jews as they were sent to their deaths. Their bravery will shine in the annals of Jewish history.

* * * *

Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof won an important concession from Chairman Barasz at the end of 1942 – the right to copy the Judenrat archives for the benefit of the resistance leadership within the ghetto. The archives contained minutes of the Judenrat meetings and announcements by the council to the Jews in the ghetto. After the war these records were found and printed in numerous publications. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust documentation centre, also published a large portion of the Bialystok ghetto archives.

 

bia082.jpg


[Page 83]

The “Action” of February 1943

by Refoel Rajzner

At the end of January 1943, rumours spread that Chairman Barasz of the Judenrat had received an order from the Gestapo to put together a list of 12,000 Jews, ostensibly for work assignments. These disturbing reports only increased the tension among the people who already understood that catastrophe was near.

The young people active in self-defence and planning armed resistance feverishly prepared. Certain trustworthy people were clandestinely sent out of the ghetto to obtain more weapons. A large quantity of acid was distributed among the more daring Jewish women to hurl in the faces of the Nazi should they attack. Not much more could be done. Too little time remained.

Many others constructed new hideouts, working surreptitiously night and day to complete them. The more resourceful stocked up on water and electrical power. In fact, some shelters were built with exits leading outside the ghetto and could each accommodate about one hundred people.

It quickly became known that the Judenrat had already compiled the lists of the 12,000 Jews. The first to go would be the elderly, the ill and the mentally unbalanced. After them would be the unemployed. It was unknown who was included in the third group – a secret closely kept by several members of the Judenrat. The atmosphere in the ghetto was as tense as could be, for tragedy lurked at the door.

At the moment it was learned that Judenrat had already selected the 12,000 and was ready to give their names to the Nazi, a well-known Partisan and Judenrat member, Czi Wider, decided to end his life. After leaving notes for the council and his wife, he hanged himself in his own home. His heroic deed was talked about for a long time thereafter with awe and reverence. Wider from then on was considered a martyr of the ghetto.

On February 3, 1943 a Gestapo committee arrived outside the ghetto inspect its walls and fences. All exit permits held by Jews, which had authorized them to work outside, were confiscated on February 4. On the same day the Gestapo took possession of the list of the 12,000.

In isolated instances, a number of leading local members of the Nazi party, including managers of the factories outside the ghetto, confided to their Jewish slaves what awaited them. Some even suggested that Jewish workers remain in the factories where they would be safe as long as the forthcoming slaughter continued. Most of the Jews, however, refused to follow this advice not wanting to leave their families alone during such a difficult time in the ghetto. Only a few accepted the recommendation thereby saving themselves during the “February Action”. On the night of February 4-5, 1943, most of the Jewish inmates of the ghetto could not sleep.

On that night, at 2 a.m., many cars with Nazi soldiers led by the Gestapo commander, Gustav Friedl, entered the ghetto. Friedl stopped at the Judenrat building and ordered the Jewish police to bring Chairman Barasz immediately so that he could observe.

In a few minutes the Nazi surrounded the main streets of the ghetto and launched a barrage of machine gun fire. With the list of the 12,000 in their hands, they broke into the houses of the intended victims but failed to find any of them. The targets had found out there were selected and managed to disappear. When the Nazi discovered they had been foiled, they started an indiscriminate bloodbath. Attacking house after house, they dragged anyone found into the streets. Jews who were unable or unwilling to go with them were shot on the spot.

As soon as the firing began, the 50,000 Jews in the ghetto fled to their hiding places. The rush to hide prevented people from taking anything with them, even drinking water. Valuable possessions were left behind only to be stolen by the Nazi.

 

Izchok Malmed heroically throws acid into the face of a Nazi soldier

When the Nazi attacked the house at 29, Kupiecka Street, rounding up all of its residents into the street, a bold young man, Izchok Malmed whipped out a jar of acid from his pocket, hurled it in the face of a Nazi soldier who was blinded at once. Seeking revenge, the sightless Nazi fired his revolver several times hitting another Nazi soldier and instantly killing him. In the mêlée, Malmed vanished.

Commandant Friedl, after learning what had happened, ordered that one hundred men, women and children living in the area where the incident occurred be rounded up and force-marched to a nearby garden where they were lined up against the wall of an adjacent bet hamidrash and shot by machine guns.

Afterwards, Nazi soldiers captured another group of Jews forcing them to dig a large pit for the bodies of the one hundred martyrs. A thin layer of earth covered them. Some were still alive – their hands groping upward through the earth.

The Nazi, soldier accidently shot by his colleague whom Malmed had blinded, was carried to the Judenrat building and his body placed on Barasz' desk. Friedl then proclaimed to Barsz: “See what your Jewish criminals have done. Now we shall take revenge.

[Page 84]

 

bia084.jpg
The framework of the Great Synagogue in which two thousand Jews were burned by the Nazi. This street became known as “The Street of the Ghetto Heroes”.

 

You shall we what we can do”. Friedl issued an ultimatum for the perpetrator of the crime to surrender within twenty-four hours. Failing this, the entire ghetto would be destroyed with everyone in it.

Barasz knew the Nazi meant what they said. He sent word to Malmed to give himself up and thereby save thousands of Jewish lives. As soon as Malmed heard, he surrendered himself to the Nazi.

Tamarof's diary described in detail Malmed's courage. Asked why he killed the Nazi soldier, he replied: “I hate you. I regret I only killed one. Before my eyes my parents were murdered. Ten thousand Jews in Slonim were liquidated before me. I have no regrets”. Tamarof tried to slip poison to Malmed but failed. Even the police could not get near the prisoner.

The next morning, Izchok Malmed, a hero of the ghetto, was hanged in the square where he had performed his act of courage. Despite the horrible torture to which he had been subjected, Malmed cursed the Nazi murderers. After several minutes of hanging on the gallows, the rope broke and the body fell to earth. Instantaneously, the Nazi riddled Malmed's corpse with bullets and rehanged the body for another forty-eight hours.

As other Nazi soldiers descended upon a building at 10, Kupiecka Street, its residents courageously resisted, attacking the invaders with axes, knives and iron bars. The brave wife of one Mendl Kurjanski threw acid into the faces of the Nazi and prepared immediately to set fire to the building. The German soldiers, after calling out for reinforcements, captured Mrs. Kurjanski and threw her out of a second-floor window. Subsequently, they pushed her child out of the same window. Managing to pick herself up and run, this heroine was shot many times, her bloodied body falling on top of her dead child.

When Commandant Friedl found out about this fresh wave of Jewish resistance, he rushed to the building like a wild tiger, personally shooting in the head those Jews who had fought against his troops. Within several minutes, a mountain of Jewish bodies lay outside n°10, Kupiecka Street. At 8 a.m. on February 5, the slaughter was temporarily halted so the murderers could have their breakfast.

At 10 a.m. the carnage recommenced this time with the assistance of Ukrainians and White Russians who lusted for blood. They forced Jewish police officers and firemen to accompany them during their diabolical acts.

The Jewish police were ordered to seek out Jews in their hideouts. In rare instances, the Jewish police officers did turn in some Jews to the Nazi but, for the most part, they risked their lives by telling the Gestapo they could not find anyone.

The Jewish firemen were ordered to climb onto the roofs to look for concealed Jews and to use axes to tear the roofs apart as well as the walls of the houses. The firemen, however, did not turn over any Jews to the Nazi.

The slaughter lasted an entire day, from 2 a.m. to 17hr p.m. on Friday, February 5. The Gestapo succeeded in rounding up about 3,000 Jews. They were taken to the Judenrat building, by then, the makeshift Nazi headquarters. From the Judenrat, they were led away to the railroad station, forced into trains and sent to Treblinka and Auschwitz.

[Page 83]

In an average bunker, where about twenty to twenty-five people could reasonably hide, some seventy-five jammed in. it was almost impossible to breathe. Arguments erupted. Often the din of bickering drowned out the Nazi footsteps outside. This could end in the shelter being exposed and everyone arrested.

In addition to overcrowding, a second problem arises – crying infants. Although the majority of mothers administered a sleeping potion to their babies, it often happened that a child would awaken and start wailing. Tragically, in order to save the lives of everyone in the hiding place, mothers ended up smothering their children.

People with coughs also posed dangers in the shelters. Many who wished to be admitted to a hideout denied that they coughed. Alternatively, a cougher would threaten to expose the hiding place if he were not allowed to stay there. In one such case, sixty Jews were turned over to the Nazi because a cougher carried out his threat.

For more than a week, Jewish men, women and children were constrained to live in these unbearable conditions.

* * * *

At first, most Jews in the ghetto did not know they could escape death during the “February Action” by reporting to work in their assigned factories. The Gestapo told Barasz that legitimate factory workers were immune from the attack. When this information reached the hideouts, regular workers in the ghetto factories took their wives and children to their places of work. Many who were not workers joined with the regular in virtually tearing down the doors of the factories to seek refuge. Yet, the guards and the Jewish police admitted only those who worked in the factories, sending away their wives and children.

Chairman Barasz incessantly pleaded with the Gestapo to allow the workers' wives and children admission to the factories. The Nazi promised this exemption would be granted although, at first, their pledge went unfulfilled.

The massacre continued for seven days from February 5-12, 1943 except for Sunday when the Nazi soldiers took their day of rest. Trucks of soldiers would arrive inside the ghetto punctually at 7 a.m.; the searching, shootings and evacuations would continue until 147hr. This lent a measure of predictability to the carnage, an advantage for the Jews hiding in their shelters. If the enemy's mode of operation could be anticipated, the Jews could find ways of outwitting the Gestapo. After 17hr when the methodical Nazi called it a day, some women would emerge from the shelters and re-enter their homes where they prepared food for their famished families. Some of the babies went days without a drop of water.

The methodology of murder soon became familiar. At the appointed hour in the morning, a caravan of cars and trucks would enter the ghetto, cordoning off the streets. Entire buildings would be damaged, roofs torn apart, floor uprooted, halls smashed and streets excavated. No stone was left unturned.

On the third day, February 8, Barasz succeeded in obtaining from the Nazi permission for wives and children to be admitted to the factories with their husbands. As a result, buildings that could accommodate three hundred and fifty persons at one time had to let in all 1,000 workers of the three shifts together with their families which totalled about 2,000 people. The walls bulged. It seemed there was no room even for a small pin to be thrown inside.

Barasz managed to obtain exemptions and permits for a number of leading Judenrat figures and others in important positions within the ghetto. They included Mojsze Wisocki, Oszer Irzanowicz, director of the Measurements Department, S. Rawet and Ch. Goldberg.

Particularly poignant was the plight of Pejsach Kaplan, one of the archivists of the Bialystok ghetto. Having earlier caught a severe cold and having spent a few days in an overcrowded shelter, he sought asylum in a clothes factory where his daughter worked. Although weak and debilitated, forced to lie in bed in the factory, his awareness of what was happening to his fellow Jews in the streets made him compulsively run back and forth to the window of the factory to look outside. Kaplan observed hundreds of Jews being rounded up for evacuation to Treblinka. These scenes had a terrible effect on him. Pacing up and back in the long factory hall, he raised his fists crying: “Jews, let us take revenge! I can't stand this! My end is near!” Following these outbursts, Kaplan went back to bed, no longer able to walk to the window. His wife and daughter never left his side. But when he and his family left the factory several days later when the operation ended, Kaplan became critically ill.

Gestapo Commandant Friedl, not satisfied to leave the factories alone, sent his men into these supposedly safe havens to ascertain whether there were people who should not be there. Of course, there were! These unfortunates were either shot on the spot or sent to Treblinka.

On the fourth day, February 9, the Gestapo, unhappy with the quota of Jews captured the previous day, took a new approach. Whenever they uncovered a hiding place they would order the frightened Jews to tell them where other shelters could be found, promising the informers their freedom. Some decided to save their own necks at the expense of their brothers. In most cases, the Gestapo let the betrayers alone. But sometimes those who gave information were shot as the Nazi jeered: “You die as a Jewish traitor”.

Rarely, Nazi soldiers did show some compassion. In one such case, when a shelter was exposed, a woman

[Page 86]

carrying her child was discovered among the inhabitants. In panic, she threw her child into an adjacent well. One of the Gestapo soldiers who saw this horrible scene ordered three Jewish policemen to save the child. One of them, at great risk to himself, descended into the deep well and, with great effort, brought the child to the surface. Afterward, the Nazi soldier did everything possible to save the child's life. While all this was going on, an elderly woman emerged from the shelter and the Nazi wanted to arrest her but the Jewish police told him that the child's mother had already been taken away, her destination was Treblinka. The Gestapo officer agreed that the elderly woman should carry the child to the nearest hospital and take the place of its mother.

* * * *

Abramczyk, an orphan residing at the orphanage at N°7, Czestochower Street, tried to persuade the other orphans to commit suicide because, failing this, they could look forward to a painful death in the gas chambers. Only two other orphans obeyed him – the three having themselves at the entrance to the orphanage. As it turned out, their death saved all the other children in the institution.

Despite the Red Cross emblazoned on the front of the building, the Nazi did not hesitate to enter. But as they beheld the macabre scene – three young children hanging by the neck – the soldiers left the premises with bowed heads, even their ruthless hearts unable to inflict any more damage in this place. Sone one hundred orphans escaped immediate extermination as a result of their three friends' bravery.

The new practice of forcing Jews to become informers against other Jews turned out to be an effective tool. Many more victims were found in their hideouts. Moreover, the increasing number of dead bodies was fast filling the ghetto streets. Barasz was ordered by the Gestapo to clear the streets of this Jewish “litter”. He instructed the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) to recruit several hundred assistants to help bury the dead. This proved an ingenious method for these people to save themselves from imminent execution.

Almost every day, Barasz tried to intervene with the Gestapo to save prominent Jewish leaders such as A.S. Herszberg, the historian of Bialystok; Awrom Tyktin, former head of the Jewish community and his neighbour, Dr. Bejlin. All these efforts were unavailing.

About 6,000 Jews flowed into the factories seeking refuge; the shelters became roomier and slightly more comfortable. It was now possible to take a nap and the women found it easier to re-enter their homes to cook food for their families.

By Friday, February 12, it became apparent that the Gestapo had reached its quota of 12,000 victims and that the “February Action” was coming to an end. On Saturday, February 13, there were no further liquidations or round-ups. People began to walk the streets of the ghetto in larger numbers and with less inhibition. In the hiding places, life had previously been impossible. People had slept alongside dead bodies. Had the carnage continued even one more day, it is doubtful that many who were hiding would have survived. Now people were leaving the bunkers like Noah and his family from the ark after the flood.

The realization that the terror had finally ended brought relief and joy to the survivors. People kissed each other and wept.

The appearance of the streets, however, left everyone in a state of shock. Homes were robbed, their walls torn down and their roofs chopped apart. Some families were wiped out. Dead bodies were strewn about. A significant number of suicides by poison were discovered as well as bodies of dead children smothered by their mothers. In other places, Jews had hanged themselves. The grief, the wailing and the sorrow were indescribable. A collective surge of anger developed when it became known that certain Jews had informed against other Jews.

The Jewish police, who knew the identities of the traitors, arrested three and technically charged them with robbery which was punishable by death under Nazi rule. After the three were beaten, they were hanged; their bodies were left on the gallows for three days so all the Jews could see what happened to informers. People were ashamed that among them could be found such evil.

Throughout the Sunday after the end of the “February Action”, men, women and children ran wild through the streets looking for relatives. Many went to the ghetto cemetery where heaps of corpses were piled up. People recognized some of their relatives in these grim mounds and the tragic scenes that ensued were heart-breaking.

Cantor Czudin (former cantor of Neuwelt Bet Midrash), who in the last few years was the only one to recite memorial prayers at Bagnowke Cemetery, told friends, half-jokingly, that he did not wish to be laid to rest at Bagnowke. He died of a heart attack during the liquidation and was buried at the Zabia cemetery.

The statistics of that week in February 1943 reveal the extent of the Nazi brutality: about 2,000 Jews were shot in the ghetto. Six thousand were sent to Treblinka where virtually no one survived. Several scores of Jews, after enduring the living hell of Auschwitz, did manage to remain alive.

 

The painful aftermath of the February Slaughter

Mordechaj Tenebaum-Tamarof described the feelings of the survivors of the “February Action” as they emerged from their shelters.

“Finally, one begins to comprehend the full gruesomeness of the past few days; scores of madmen are
[Page 87]
Running through the town looking for their kin. They run and fall, get up and fall again. Smothered children are being dragged from the shelters. They began crying during the searches and were suffocated. It seems everyone is carrying belongings. Everywhere there are tears. Police enter the cellars, attics and other places collecting corpses. The residences of the evacuees are sealed. At the cemetery, gigantic heaps of dead bodies are buried in mass graves. Again – loud wailing.

“Today, a snow has fallen covering the bloodstains on the ground. Underneath the whiteness of the snow appears a shiny redness. In the afternoon, it rained. All has been washed away”.

With similar despair, Pejsach Kaplan described the wretched situation he found:
“Monday morning we resumed life as usual waiting a renewed shaking of fists, the murderous rage and the unrelieved terror in the face of imminent death which we see before our eyes. Our souls are tortured by the unanswerable question: How much longer will our lives be prolonged? – for days or for weeks? Optimists believe we will be permitted to live for another month, while the pessimists disagree. People move about like shadows, physically and mentally shattered, their gazes reflecting hope extinguished, moving about automatically through inertia, like lunatics”.
Tamarof recorded a personal indictment against a particular violation of the Nazi that contravened all international conventions: “I refer to the use of 'dumb dumb' bullets. The fact of their usage was established by post-mortem examinations. There are no wounded – only dead as a result of these bullets. A bullet of this type in the head meant an open skull plus pieces of brain extruding from the wounds, faces torn apart beyond recognition”.

Pejsach Kaplan also referred, in his diary, to the appearance of the mortally wounded: “Terrifying was the picture of hands and feet resting upon decapitated heads – bloodied, split open, torn apart like slaughtered calves”.

 

The last chapter of the community
(Editor's note: Refoel Rajzner, who was incarcerated in the Bialystok ghetto until the end, recorded shortly after the war all his experiences before, during and after the ghetto. We offer here excerpts of his descriptions of the final liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto as well as the annihilation of its Jews, borrowed from his book “The Destruction of Bialystoker Jews, 1939-1945”, published in 1948 by the Bialystoker Centre in Australia).
In mid-July, 1943, a rumour circulated that an important Gestapo committee would arrive in the ghetto which was awaited with the greatest apprehension. On that day, practically no one appeared in the streets. Word had it that this committee would be the last – its decision final as to whether the ghetto would live or die. It seemed as though the Nazi had to choose between the two remaining larger ghettoes: Lodz with its more than 80,000 Jews and Bialystok with its 40,000. One of these ghettoes would surely be promptly destroyed by the Nazi murderers. After the visit by the committee, Efrajim Barasz confided in his closest associates that he was not optimistic. This cryptic assessment made it clear that Lodz would be left alone and that Bialystok was slated for liquidation. Some members of the Judenrat, however, still clung to the hope that somehow a final tragedy could be averted.

The resistance forces in the ghetto struggled to complete their last preparations for battle. Workers were instructed to keep the Nazi away from the factories at all costs and when it became clear that the cause was hopeless, they should set fire to them.

For the next four weeks, the Jews in the ghetto were plunged into deep fear and despair, awaiting the tragic outcome. The waiting, which seemed like an eternity, took its toll on the lives of these unfortunate people.

On Saturday, August 14, 1943, a Gestapo committee inspected the fences and the gates around the ghetto. Those people who worked outside returned to the ghetto before dusk, informing their families and friends that many empty railroad cars had arrived at the station and that numerous Ukrainian Gestapo soldiers were fanning out through the city.

Another clue to the impending catastrophe was that the Germans were requesting the return of their broken watches from Jewish jewellers even before they could be repaired, claiming they had to leave right away. The ghetto Jews well understood the import of this since the Nazi had done the same right before the February slaughter. Both the members of the Judenrat and Wehrmacht soldiers attempted to reassure the inhabitants of the ghetto that they had nothing to worry about.

On Sunday, August 15, quiet pervaded the ghetto and some permitted themselves to hope that the Wehrmacht officers were telling the truth. People tried to persuade each other that their fears were exaggerated. Most went to sleep that night, choosing to believe they would awaken to another “normal” day.

Those Jews who lived near the ghetto fence suddenly heard suspicious noises on Sunday morning, August 16, 1943 at 2 a.m. These were the heavy footsteps of Nazi boots. Confusion and panic spread immediately.

[Page 88]

 

bia088.jpg
Conference of representatives of the Hebrew gymnasiums in Bialystok, held in 1939

 

In moments, almost all the 40,000 Jews left in the ghetto found themselves in the streets running to-and-fro in the darkness in a state of virtual madness. Questions were asked: “Is this the end? Is there no more hope? Will the entire ghetto be liquidated or only a portion? No one had answers.

At 3 a.m. on the morning of August 16, several hundred well-armed Nazi moved into the ghetto immediately occupying the factories and the Judenrat building.

At 17hr it was learned that Barasz had been told that all the Jews of Bialystok, together with the machines and the factories would be transferred to Lublin where they would carry on their work. An order was issued that all Jews who lived on Polna, Neuwelt, Czetochower, Bialostoczaner, Okrongle, Szhacheczke, Linas Hatzedek, Czysta, Zytnia, Zamenhof, Kupiecka, Geldowa and nearby streets must report to depots at Jorowcer, Fabryczna, Czepla, Nowogrudska, Chielna and the Judenrat gardens at 9 a.m. for transfer to the railroad station. Those not complying with this deadline would be shot if found in the prohibited areas. It thus became clear to everyone that the entire ghetto was targeted for destruction. Already at 7 a.m. it was impossible to pass through the streets because so many thousands of Jews were painstakingly making their way toward the depots.

The sudden Nazi attack caught the resistance forces inadequately prepared. Moreover, since the Nazi took over the factories right away, the plan to wage the fight from them and later to set them on fire had to be cancelled. Well before 9 a.m. deadline, leaders of the resistance decided it was imperative to let the people know they were not going to Lublin but to Treblinka.

One leader of the resistance made the following announcement to a mass of Jews: “Be aware that you are being taken to Treblinka for gassing and we, to our great misfortune, will share the bitter fate of the entire Jewish people in Europe. The only way out of this hopeless situation is to burn our homes with all of our property in order to deprive our enemy of any benefit. Take weapons in your hands which you will find aplenty and let us try together to escape into the forests where our brothers in the Resistance are hiding”. When he finished his speech, the young people, inspired by his words, grabbed their weapons. It was also decided that in order to facilitate the burning of the fence around the ghetto, it would be necessary to torch all the buildings nearby. Perhaps in this way a small number of Jews would be able to escape.

TELL THE NEW
GENERATIONS
OF THE
HOLOCAUST
AND RESISTANCE

 

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Białystok, Poland     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Project Manager, Binny Lewis
This web page created by Max G. Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2019 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 24 Oct 2016 by MGH