"Zawiercie" - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume VII

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Translation of "Zawiercie" chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem


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Ruth Wilnai


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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume VII, pages 192-196, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

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(Subdistrict of Zawiercie, Kielce District)

Translated by Ruth Wilnai with the assistance of Sigal Tzoore and Tola Minkoff

Table of Contents

I.The Jewish Community Until World War II
II.The Years of WWII

[Page 192]

I. The Jewish Community Until World War II

Population Figures

192129,500 6,095
Sep 1939 About 7,000

In the 12th century, Zawiercie was a small village in Poland. One of the first owners of the village and its surrounding area was the nobleman Otto from Pilica(1). In the 18th century there were two adjacent villages named Zawiercie. In 1795, when Poland was divided for the third time, both villages were considered within the borders of Russia. As time went by, the 2 villages united, and in the year 1827, there were 66 houses and 418 residents in the united Zawiercie village.

In 1847, a railroad was laid down between Warsaw, Poland and Vienna, Austria. The railroad connection enabled the commercial development between Poland, Germany and Austria. The fact that Zawiercie was located less than one kilometer from the railroad triggered the rapid development of the region. Twenty-five years later, there were coal and iron ore mines in Zawiercie and an industry was developed around the mines in the town. The first industry, a glass factory, started around 1870. Immediately other industries followed; a large cotton spinnery, large weaving mill, iron mining, cast iron, brick manufacturing, sawmill, chemical laboratories, steam and water flour mills, machining, etc. The flourishing economics accelerated the local population growth.

However, despite the economical and population growth, the village streets remained narrow and crowded, and the municipal status of Zawiercie remained as a village – a big village with the flavor of a big town.

Most people made a living as working in the local mines and industry. From 1887 to 1894, the population had almost doubled to about 10,000.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a local labor movement sprouted. In 1905, the days of the first Russian revolution, the workers in Zawiercie went on strike many times. The Kazaks suppressed the strikes with an iron fist and arrested the leaders of the social democratic workers movement.

The German occupied Zawiercie during WWI, and the village remained under German control for about three years. The German occupation paralyzed the industry and as a result unemployment in Zawiercie was high. In addition to financial distress, a typhoid plague broke out and killed many people.

At the end of the World War I, Zawiercie became part of independent Poland. During this time, most of the industry had awakened. In 1926, Zawiercie achieved the status of a town. However, during the strong economical crisis of the late 1920's, many of the industrial plants were closed and Zawiercie got the nickname “the city of the unemployed.”

Zawiercie was among one of the first cities taken by the Nazis in September 1939. The German Reich annexed the city and inflicted severe pain and suffering upon the local population.

[Page 193]

There is not much information about the beginning of the Jewish settlement in Zawiercie. In the second half of the 17th century the last Polish king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, granted the Jews the privilege of settling as farm workers in several villages around the town Pilica(1) and one of those villages was Zawiercie. Not until near the end of the 19th century, was a Jewish community established in Zawiercie. In 1881 the Jews built a synagogue and a Beit Midrash (House of Study), but in many other respects the community in Zawiercie was still at this time dependent on the community in the adjacent Kromolow(2), even though the community in Kromolow was smaller than that of Zawiercie. In Kromolow, there was a Rabbi, a ritual slaughterer and a Jewish cemetery. There was only a Jewish judge in Zawiercie, Rabbi Israel Leib Gancwajch, who came from Kromolow, even though no one in Zawiercie asked him to come. Rabbi Israel Leib Gancwajch operated a leather shop for his living.

Zawiercie Jews played an important role in the local economy and were engaged in diverse occupations, mainly small businesses like shop keeping, peddling and various crafts. Among the Jewish artisans, were tailors, milliners, locksmiths, carpenters, blacksmiths, cobblers, and others. They took part in the diverse industries that were growing in Zawiercie: a cast-iron foundry, glass factory, fabric weaving and knitting. The Germans took the initiative to start these industries and the Jews worked together with them. The most important enterprises in the town were the fabric weaving and knitting industries. The Ginzburg brothers founded these industries around 1870. In 1880, the Ginzburg brothers expanded the foundries and turned them into a shareholder company. About 3000 employees worked there. The Jews who worked in the foundry had jobs mainly as managers, engineers and clerks. However there were also many Jews among the manual workers in the foundry. At the same time A. Bornstein founded a printing house that had an important place in the development of the cultural life of the Jews in Zawiercie.

Not until the beginning of the 20th century, did the Jews found a “Kehila” (community) center, a second synagogue, an additional Beit Midrash (House of Study) and also acquired land for a Jewish cemetery. They invited a Rabbi and a shochet (ritual slaughterer) to their community and founded several charitable funds. One of these funds was “Linat Ha Tzedek” (Hostel like institution).

When Rabbi Israel Leib Gancwajch passed away, his son Rabbi Avraham Gancwajch, who considered himself his father's heir, became involved in a dispute with the “Gvir” – the wealthy man- Rabbi Moshe Leib Herzberg. The dispute was about who would inherit Rabbi Israel Leib Gancwajch's status in the community. Rabbi Moshe Leib Herzberg elected Rabbi Menachem Mendel Haim Landau to be the next community Rabbi. Rabbi Mendel was pro Zionist. He was an important author with revolutionary ideas. Some of his famous books were “Mekitz Nirdamim”, “Ateret Zkenim”, “Meir Einay Chachamim”. Subsequently, Rabbi Avraham Gancwajch became a Hasidic Admor and Rabbi Mendel left Zawiercie. The dispute between the two did not end there. Later Rabbi Shlomo Elimelech, who was the son of the Admor of Kromolow(2), became the community Rabbi in spite the strong opposition of a group of people who wanted to elect Rabbi Tzvi Arei Frumer from Kozieglowy(3). Rabbi Shlomo Elimelech was murdered in the Holocaust.

Zawiercie also had a Yeshiva headed by Rabbi Shmuel Aharon Pardes. Rabbi Pardes was the “Pardes” proceedings editor.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the influence of the assimilated Jews, even though they were a minority, prevailed in the Jewish community life. Among the assimilated Jews were the brothers Ginzburg, the managers of Ginsburg's company shareholders, wholesale traders and liberal professionals like pharmacists, physicians, lawyers and a few teachers. The assimilated Jews considered themselves Polish patriots who believed in the Jewish faith. At the end of the 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th century, they founded a charitable organization named Dubrowczynoszecz. In 1890 during the election for the community's institutions there was a fierce struggle between Orthodox Jews and assimilated Jews.

A short time before WWI, there was a rumor in Zawiercie about a blood libel. A 6-year-old Christian boy disappeared from his home. The townspeople spread the rumor that a local Jew in his shop murdered the child for the purpose of a religious ritual. The town's farmers stormed the shop and the Jewish community's homes. They broke windows and doors and attacked every Jew who happened to be in their way. The people in the Jewish community feared for their lives. After a short time, the police told the incited citizens that they found the child alive and well.

After WWI several new economical organizations were founded in Zawiercie, among them traders` organization, a craftsmen's organization and a professional union. In 1925 two banks were established in Zawiercie, “The Trader Bank”, and the Jewish “Folks Bank”. In 1930 a “Benevolence Fund” was established for giving small no-interest loans to the needy. During the 1930s when the economical condition of Jews in Poland deteriorated, and the anti Jewish boycott worsened, the “Benevolence Fund” served as an economical relief for many Jewish people.

In winter of 1934 the Jewish small businessmen rose against the anti-Jewish boycott imposed by the anti-Semite party, the National Democratic Party also known as “Endecja”. The struggle against the high tax that the government imposed on the Jews also took place, and brought much poverty and misery to the Jewish people. In the summer of 1939 most of the Jews in Zawiercie needed help from the “Benevolence Fund”. Zawiercie Jews who immigrated to the United States of America each donated $150 to the fund. The American Jewish Distribution Committee donated a similar sum and thus the fund could play a central role in supporting Zawiercie Jews.

[Page 194]

Anti-Semite manifestations were part of Jewish life in Zawiercie even before WWII. In 1902 following the pogrom in Czestochowa(4), the Jews in Zawiercie were also afraid for their lives. A few years later they were exposed to a blood libel as mentioned above, and only by a miracle, did no one lose his life during this hard time. However, on June 6, 1919, there was a pogrom in Zawiercie. During the dissolution of a demonstration of the unemployed population, the mob was unrestrained. The majority of Zawiercie's Jews were hurt during this pogrom; two Jews were killed, many were wounded and many lost their possessions. In March 1921 a trial of the rioters was held in the regional law court of Sosnowiec (5). The court sentenced some civilians among the pogrom perpetrators to a 6 to 10 month prison term. The military authorities handled the cases of those rioters who were soldiers. In 1921 there was another pogrom in Zawiercie; and the perpetrators of this pogrom were soldiers under the command of the anti-Semite Polish general, Haler. Outlaws from Silesia and Poznan took part in this pogrom as well. First, the rioters attacked Jews who waited in the train station and then the pogrom spread all over town. One Jew was killed, many were wounded, and there was much destruction and looting of property.

Zawiercie Jews had a growing interest in the Zionist movement after Balfur's declaration on November 2, 1917. In April 1918, before the end of WWI, Zawiercie's Jewish organization “Youth of Zion” (Tzeirei Zion) raised money for victims of the war in Israel. They raised 457 marks. In the same year, the “Youth of Zion” organization also founded a local branch of the “Hachalutz” organization. Two other organizations founded branches in Zawiercie: “Hamizrachi” and “Tzeirei Hamizrachi”. The organization “Tzeirei Zion” was the parent of the youth movement “Hashomer”, later known as the “Hashomer Hatzair”. The latter was also active in Zawiercie. In the 1920s the influence of the Zionist Halutzim youth movement (the pioneers that came to Israel) and the Zionist parties became stronger. The Zionists took over the leadership from “Agudat Israel” leaders (Parnasim) who were leading the community since 1916. Agudat Israel also had its own youth organization. Toward the end of WWI, the industry workers and craftsmen initiated another Jewish Socialist organization, “The Fareynnikte” (The United).

In March 1924 during the community committee election, the “Mizrachi” register received four mandates and each of the other registers, the “Zionists”, the “Landlords and Partisans”, the “Hasidim and Partisans” and the “Agudat Israel”, received two mandates each. The Zionist representative was elected to community chairperson. In 1926 when Zawiercie became a town, A. Bornstein, the community chair, became the first chair of Zawiercie. The representatives of the town committee included a Jew, a Polish member of the PPS party the (Polish Socialist party), and a member of “Endecja”, the National Democratic Party. However in the same year, the electoral region map was redrawn in a way that increased the number of Polish voters. In the May 1939 elections for town committee, the government party OZN (national unity party) won 14 mandates, PPS received 12 mandates, Endecja received 2 mandates, and the Jews received only 4 mandates.

At the same time there were also political changes in the Jewish community. The results of the 1929 elections to the 17th Zionist Congress reflect the change of power in the Zionist camp. The “It Is Time to build” (Et Livnot) party got 202 mandates, the “Mizrachi” 119 mandates, the “Hitachdut” (The Union) 35 mandates, the “Al Hamishmar” 25 mandates, the “Revisionists” 25, and “Poalei Zion Left” got 4 mandates. The total number of eligible voters in Zawiercie was 410. During the elections to the 19th Zionist Congress in 1935, there was a change of power among the parties. The “Mizrachi” party got 204 mandates, the “Zionists Klaliym” got 200 mandates, the “Eretz Israel Haovedet” got 174 mandates and the “Medina Party” got 9 mandates. This time the total number of eligible voters was 587.

During these years “Agudat Israel” and its youth organization intensified their activity in Zawiercie, but they did not receive the results they expected. In contrast, the number of members in the Halutzim organization increased during the 1930s; especially the number of members in “Hashomer Hatzair” and “Halutz”. Graduates of these organizations were trained in special pioneer camps to prepare themselves for immigration to Israel. During this time two more Zionist Youth groups started to operate in Zawiercie “The Zionists Youth” and “Beitar”. The organization “Koach Union” founded a sports club in the town. Members of the club participated in tournaments with other sports clubs, Jewish and non-Jewish.

The economical crisis reached its peak in the summer of 1939. Many Jews in Zawiercie thought that Zionism would resolve their financial distress, and they became Zionists. This was the reason for the increase in fund-raising activity for Zionism in the middle of an economic crisis. Another explanation for the change toward Zionism in Zawiercie was the increase in Anti-Semite incitement.

At the end of the 19th century most of Zawiercie's Jewish children studied in the traditional Heder (religious grade school for boys) and in Talmud Torah (religious school). In 1910 the yeshiva “Migdal Oz” was founded in Zawiercie. After WWI the organization “Hamizrachi” opened in Zawiercie “Heder Metukan” (Improved Heder). In 1928 the Hebrew school of the network “Tarbut” (culture) was started, and in 1932 a Hebrew kindergarten was started. Most children from non-Zionist homes studied during the 1930s in public schools where there was no tuition. Jewish youth from assimilated families studied in the Polish gymnasium in Sosnowitz and they were active in the non-Jewish youth organization “Kultura” (`culture` or `Tarbut` in Hebrew).

During these years there were active cultural lives in Zawiercie. In Zawiercie, there was a large Jewish library and there were musical classes with local pianists and violinists. In July 1937 there was an outstanding event in Zawiercie; the Polish historian Tadeusz Zadretzki lectured in the town hall before a Jewish and Polish crowd. The theme of the lecture was “If people knew the Talmud”, and it made a great impression on the crowd.

[Page 195]

II. The Years of WWII

When the Germans invaded Poland at the beginning of September 1939, many Jewish people from Zawiercie, mainly young people, fled to places in eastern Poland. On September 4, 1939 the German army entered Zawiercie. Many of the refugees, especially those who did not go far enough, returned to their homes in Zawiercie. The Jewish population at this time in Zawiercie was about 7000. On September 27, eve of the Succoth holiday, the Germans demanded that the Jewish population of Zawiercie pay them a ransom of 300,000 Zloty and threatened to punish the entire Jewish community if the Germans did not get their money in time. Despite the difficulty of raising such a large amount of money, the community transferred the money to the Germans on time. In the first days of the German occupation, the Germans started to abduct Jewish people for forced labor. They also abused the Jews, cutting their beards and side locks, and beat them.

At the beginning of 1940 the Germans confiscated Jewish businesses, factories and banks as well as stores and artisan shops. At first most of the businesses were transferred to local trustees from the “FolksDuetch” (local people of German origin).

In April 1940 the Germans brought 600 refugees who were expelled from (Tashin) Silesia to Zawiercie. Soon after that, the Jews in Zawiercie were forced to leave their homes in the better part of town and move to a few streets in the slums of the town. In June 1940 the Germans established the open Ghetto in Zawiercie. The Germans established the Judenrat in the Jewish community and ordered the Judenrat to send young Jewish people and whole families from the (Tashin) Silesia refugees to forced labor camps in Silesia. In November 1940 the Germans told the Judenrat to enlist another group of Jewish men in order to send them to labor camps far from Zawiercie. This decree caused much suffering for low-income families since their main breadwinners were taken, and they could not raise ransom money to release them. The winter of 1941 was especially difficult. In addition to the rough weather there were many other hardships: crowded population and bad sanitary conditions. Men from the community were transported to labor camps, plagues, and epidemics started to spread in the Ghetto as a result of the bad conditions. In winter of 1941 the Germans forced the community to give them all the fur clothing they owned and threatened to persecute those who would not obey. After the Germans took the furs, they forced the Jews to give away their jewelry, their high boots and other winter clothing. Later they forced the Jews to give away their desks and typewriters.

With the start of the Barbarosa Operation (the invasion of the USSR), on July 22, 1941 the Germans arrested a group of Polish youth, among whom were seven Jews, and accused them of left wing activities. (In reality, few left-wing activists remained in Zawiercie. Most escaped Zawiercie at the beginning of the invasion. Moreover, one of the Jews arrested was a member of the right-wing Beitar.) All the arrested men were murdered.

At the end of 1941 the Germans locked the open Ghetto in Zawiercie with barbed wire, a gate and guards. Strict German gendarmes and Polish police surrounded the camp.

Y. Buchner, who was a Zionist activist before, was the Judenrat head until 1942. Buchner did not obey the orders he received from the head of the Zaglombie Judenrat, Moshe Marin, who was appointed to the role by the Germans. Moshe Marin ordered Buchner to give the Germans a register of sick Jews. Buchner refused the order, and Moshe Marin informed the Gestapo officer about the incident and emphasized Buchner's Zionist past and former anti-Hitler speeches. The Germans arrested Buchner and his family, and transported them to Auschwitz. M. Widman, a member of the community board and former member of the Zawiercie town committee, replaced Buchner and became the head of the Judenrat in Zawiercie. Widman was popular among the community members as a communal worker of the Zionist religious party “Hamizrachi”. Before the war he used to entertain Polish Ministers and delegates from the Senate and from the Sajm. The Admor from Gur and the Admor from Radzimyn were also his guests. Widman was a member of “Lovers of Zion” (Hovevei Zion), and visited Israel in his youth. When he was young, he studied in the “Migdal Oz” Yeshiva in Zawiercie, and when he got older, he established the Cooperative Jewish bank in Zawiercie, and served in Public duties like the chair of the local market committee and chairperson of the trade and labor union. He was also the delegate to the 19th Zionist Congress in 1935 and a delegate to the world committee of the “Mizrachi” in Antwerp.

In August 1942 (according to another source it was in May 1942) the Germans performed their first “Akzia” in the Zawiercie Ghetto. Members of the SS, members of the Gestapo and gendarmes with the help of Polish police officers expelled 2000 Jewish people from their homes. They rounded the Jews up in the center of the town, then led them to the train station, and transported them in over-crowded freight cars to Auschwitz.

Some time after the first “Akzia” two German air force officers arrived at the Zawiercie Ghetto, Gerbrecht and Teicher. Their goal was to establish a factory in Zawiercie to manufacture air force uniforms. The Judenrat members were happy to cooperate with them, hoping that this indispensable work for the Germans would promise life for the Jews remaining in Zawiercie. The uniform factory was established in a short time. At the beginning of 1943, 2500 Jewish men and women worked in this factory.

In the meantime, the Jewish persecution worsened, especially after the German crushed the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1943. Almost every day the Germans transported Jews to labor camps. Many were murdered randomly by brute force. The Germans searched the Jewish homes continuously for weapons.

[Page 196]

In August 1943 the Germans performed their second “Akzia”. The two German air force officers tried to save the Jewish workers, claiming that their work was vital. In the end the Germans agreed to postpone the expulsion of 500 Jews, those most vital to the uniform factory. Again this time the SS members, the Gestapo members and German Gendarmes arrived at Zawiercie and with the help of Polish police, expelled the Jews from their homes, searched hiding places and chased everyone out to midtown square. There in midtown square, when most of the Jews were rounded up, the Germans shot the Judenrat people in front of the people who had gathered there. The Jews of the Zawiercie Ghetto, the locals and the refugees from other places (about 6000 to 7000 people,) were led to the train station and deported to Auschwitz. Immediately after this “Akzia”, Zawiercie was declared “Judenrein”, clear from Jews, even though there were still about 500 Jews, who were the uniform factory's workers. The two German air force officers, Gerbrecht and Teicher, protected these Jewish workers as much as they could. After the big “Akzia” of August 1943, the Polish workers were set, daily, to replace the Jewish workers, but the Polish workers lowered the factory yield. As a result, the factory managers strongly demanded that the 500 Jewish workers be kept alive. However, in October 1943 the factory workers were also deported to the Auschwitz death camp. When the Jewish workers were rounded up, the official manager, Gerbrect, came in and secretly separated seven of the Jewish workers from the others and led them to a secret place, although they objected and wanted to remain with their brothers. These seven Jews survived to see the Red Army free Zawiercie on January 20, 1945.

At the end of 1942, the Jewish underground of young members of the “Hashomer Hatzair” started to operate in Zawiercie. Berl Szwartz was the group leader. Mardechai Anilewitz, the commander of the Ghetto Warsaw uprising, visited the underground in Zawiercie. The underground members twice succeeded to help Jewish families cross illegally to the other side of the border by giving them false documents and by helping them escape. They did not succeed with the third group. The third group was captured and murdered while preparing for their escape.

A German resident of Zawiercie, named Plawa, saved several other Jewish people. When the Germans occupied Zawiercie, Plawa joined the Nazi party, while secretly helping the Jewish underground in different ways. One was to provide false documents. He was lucky that his Nazis friends did not discover his activities. At the end of the war, only a few Zawiercie Jews survived: a few individuals fled to Russia, seven Jewish workers were saved by Gerbercht, several people were saved by Plawa, two groups of people were saved by the underground and a few other survived the camps.

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