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This section of the Grodno Yizkor book deals with the history of the community from the Nazi invasion until the ghettoization of the community. The time period covered is from June 23 to November 2, 1941. The Hebrew is quite difficult, and the sentence structure and choice of words in the original Hebrew are somewhat awkward. I have done my best to balance the conflicting needs of a near literal translation with readable English prose, however, I may have erred on either side of the equation.

Jerrold Landau (May 1999)


by Dov Rabin


The Bombardment and Panic

In the darkness of the night of June 23, 1941 an infernal fire from the heavens suddenly rocked Grodno. Grodno was one of those cities in the Russian zone which was the first to be the victim of the lightning air raid by the Nazi warplanes. Wave after wave of air raids stormed down upon Grodno, spreading a hailstorm of bombs, explosions and fires. The first bombs fell in the area of the bridge by the Nieman river, near the army barracks. A paralyzing panic overtook the distraught residents, who at first did not realize the extent of their tragedy, and had no idea as to how and where to find refuge.

Half of the residential dwellings in Grodno were destroyed by the fires caused by these raids. In the suburbs, all of the areas south of Lipova Street were destroyed, including the old wooden synagogue. In the city itself, everything above the Neman, from "Podol" to Batori Square, all the way up to the corner of the Street of the Fortress "Zamkova", and from the intersection of Mieszczanski and Bonifraterska Streets ("the New Marketplace") until the water pumpstower was destroyed.

On the previous day, the Soviets authorities had arranged a "cleansing", and expelled from the city all people who were felt by them to be "undesirable elements". However now, even the men of the armed forces fled the city for their lives, and left the residents to their fate.

The roads to the east were filled with groups of Jews fleeing from the enemy, who had destroyed everything behind their backs. The preying bombers left everything burning behind them, caught up to the fleeing columns of people, and spread destruction among them just as they had done in the city. Anyone who remained alive would have no choice but to retrace his steps, in the midst of the confusion, and to make his way amongst the strewn corpses and the wounded who were abandoned and left wallowing in their death throes. Only very few of our people of Grodno were lucky enough to be able to succeed in their escape to the interior of Russia, on the other side of the war front, even with whatever would be in store for them there.

Accusation, Duress, and Libel

As soon as Grodno was captured by the Nazis, the local antisemites began to outwardly express the full measure of their hatred of their Jewish neighbors, that up until that time they had kept in their hearts. With public proclamations, the Germans presented themselves as redeemers who came to "free the Poles from the Jewish-Masonic yoke". When a severe food shortage began to overtake the city, and everyone would wait in long lineups in order to obtain a small morsel of bread – those consumed with hatred would push out from the lineup with force anyone who even resembled a Jew.

Two days after the invasion by the German troops, all Jews between the ages of sixteen and sixty were conscripted for hard labor from than time and onward, without any payment in money or food. Everyone was required to assemble each morning in the courtyard of the great synagogue, and from there they were sent to their work assignments. Everyone was required to have a "work certificate", upon which would be recorded whether and in what manner they fulfilled their daily work quota.

In the outlying regions, Jewish wayfarers, including women, were hunted down and conscripted for "labor". This purpose of this "labor" was generally merely torture. In the "Royal" caf?, where the German field police set up office, the Germans would dish out death blows to these conscripts, issue libels against them, spread them with excreta, dunk them naked into pools of water and order them "soap" each other with brick shards. All of this would take place to the rhythm of music, as the Nazi sadists would prod them on, and take photographs of this "delightful show".

The Jewish women who were forced to work in backbreaking labor, would be commanded to remove their clothes, use them to scrub the floor, and then put them back on again, now covered with the dirt and grime. The onlookers would not be satisfied with this spectacle until they poured the dirty wash water upon them. On one occasion, the Jewish women were brought to the vegetable gardens, and ordered to remove the weeds without crouching or kneeling, but only by stooping over.


As of June 30, the Jews were forbidden to enter the markets and to walk on the sidewalks. The Jews were only permitted to walk on the right side of the paved roadways, and they were permitted to walk only as individuals. They were required to remove their hats before any uniformed German officer, to tie a white band with a blue Magen David on their left arms, and to mark their houses with a Magen David. After some time, a command was issued that the band should be replaced with a yellow patch in the shape of a Magen David, which would be sewn to the outer garment on the left side of both the chest and the back.

After about twelve days from the time that the Germans entered the city, the Jews were required to register, and their identity cards were stamped with the word "Jew". Radio receivers were confiscated, and it was forbidden to listen to any broadcast. Beating of Jews on the street, attacks upon them and their houses, pillage, and other such acts of terror became daily occurrences.

The Founding of the “Judenrat”

Approximately two weeks after the Nazi invasion of Grodno, the army field headquarters ordered a certain Jewish interpreter, David Brayer, who had previously been the director of the "Tarbut" Hebrew education system, to set up a Jewish representation in the city, and to act as the chairman. This "Jewish council", i.e. "Judenrat", was to consist of ten members at the outset, and was to be put together within 24 hours.

It is related that there was a difference of opinion among the various communal leaders whom were invited by Brayer to decide whether to comply with the command to set up the Judenrat. Some of them felt that this was simply a ploy on the part of the Nazis to have the Jewish leadership help them carry out their murderous designs. However, the majority felt that it was necessary to set up a committee which would lead the community, and would be able to intervene to blunt the severity of the decrees. Furthermore, it would be inconceivable not to be in a position to be able to deal with, immediately and with full effort, those who had been burnt or orphaned during the raids, the poverty stricken ill people, as well as all others who were living in misery, whose numbers were increasing rapidly in the Jewish community of the city.

Brayer managed to set up a committee that included representatives from all the various streams and currents within the community, with the exception of the communists. The ten members of the Judenrat were as follows: David Brayer, who was appointed as "Head of the Jews" of Grodno; The lawyers Yitzchak Gozansky and Avraham Zadai; from among the Jewish business leaders and their representatives in the communal structure, Avraham Lifschitz, the chairman of the Cooperative Merchant's Bank, and its director Yaakov Efron; the manufacturer Asher Kosovsky; the economist and expert in financial matters, who was the previous vice mayor – Yehushua Suchovlansky; Tzvi Tarlovski; the Orthodox communal leader Reb Zeev Wolf Berman; and Dr. Sh. Bik.

The number of members of the Judenrat later grew to 24. The additional members included: the "Tarbut" teachers Dr. Tzvi Belkow, Yisrael Landau, Zeev Yekel, and Yisrael Grob; the industrialist Aharon Jezersky; the physician and Bund leader Dr. Yehuda Lipnick; the lawyer Y. Fuerstenberg; and after some time – the lithographist Leizer Meilachovitz, who later resigned from his post. From individual testimony we also note that additional members of the Judenrat included the lawyer Yehoshua Neubauer, and also Avramovitz, who was a textile businessman in the suburbs.


In the beginning of July, a branch of the "Gestapo" arrived in Grodno. (Gestapo is the "Geheime Staatspolizei", i.e. the Nazi State Secret Police.) They ordered the Judenrat to provide them with a list of "respected Jews" of the city. It was well known that any order of the Nazi authorities, and of the Gestapo in particular, would be accompanied by a threat that the non-fulfillment of the order at its set time would result in the deportation for execution of a certain number of Jews. Furthermore, at that time, the Jewish communities could not even fathom the demonic events that were yet to come. Therefore, the requested list was presented to the authorities.

Immediately thereafter, the oppressors arrested 80 members of the intelligentsia and leadership of the city, and deported them without leaving any trace. Only after some time did it become known that they were all murdered in cold blood in the neighboring fortresses. This was the first organized slaughter perpetrated by the Nazi scum upon the Jews of Grodno. Grodno was not the only community that suffered in this manner, however no community was aware of what the murderers perpetrated upon any sister community, since all communities were sealed off from each other, having being surrounded by the murderous enemy.

Thus were bound and sacrificed [1] the choicest citizens of Jewish Grodno, may their blood be avenged. Among them were the youthful Rabbi Reb Tzvi Hirsch the son of Michel David Rozovski; the lawyers Moshe Glicksfeld and Refael Lobman; from amongst the respected teachers – the historian of Grodno Dr. Chaim Wolitzker, and also Kaminsky (both were from the Real Gymnasia[2]; Yehoshua Fruchterman and Yosef Wigdorovitz, and others.

“Levy” and Extortion

At the beginning of August, Grodno was annexed to the region of White Russia. An evil monster by the name of Beker was appointed as the regional governor. He later became the governor of Minsk, and was responsible for the annihilation of its Jewry. This despot would instill the fear of death on any member of the Judenrat who came into contact with him. He immediately imposed a heavy levy of utensils and clothing upon the Jews, accompanied by severe threats. Later, this levy was extended to include money as well.

The Judenrat had no choice but to fulfill this requirement, and to satiate the Nazi lust for extortion. Two departments were set up for this purpose, one for expropriation of property, and one for financial matters. The first department was responsible for the collection from the Jewish homes of furniture, table cloths, sets of serving utensils, and whatever other objects were desired by the German command. The first task of the financial division was to collect the ransom money of the community for the Nazi government. Special one time levies were imposed for this purpose on anyone who was financially able, and after some time, and organized taxation system was set up. During the course of several weeks, approximately 200,000 dollars was extorted from the Jews of Grodno – half of whom already had been burnt to death during the air raids, and the other half of whom had become impoverished during the time of Soviet rule.

Mutual Assistance

The most important task of the Judenrat, over and above its obligatory tasks for which it was founded, was to insure adequate provisions for the Jews of the city, and especially to do what could be done to relieve the hunger of the many indigents of the community. The social assistance division was set up, and began to function immediately. A collection was taken up on behalf of the needy, and the Jewish community responded generously with an open hand and provided in particular clothing and shoes. In the attic of the former communal offices on Hodwera Street, where the Judenrat was now located, a temporary laundry service was set up, and volunteers would come to wash, fix, and iron sheets and clothing that would be distributed to the needy. Bread and money was also distributed to them.

At the same time, the Judenrat set up a registration division, and after some time, a division for supply and work assignment. Afterward the "Ordnungsdienst" ("Jewish guard" so to speak) was founded. This was the militia, or Jewish police.

The Expulsion from the Town Center

At the end of September, the Jews who resided on the main streets – Dominikanska and Orzeszkowej, and the residents of "Slobodka" – were ordered to vacate their premises within a matter of hours. Those expelled lost not only their real estate, but also most of their moveable property, since they were not permitted to move their belongings or to make any other arrangements.

After some time, Grodno was transferred from the boundaries of White Russia, and annexed to the eastern portion of the Third Reich as part of the Bialystok region, at first de jure, and as of March 1942 de facto.

“These Type of Things are not done in the Third Reich”

Very quickly thereafter, the holocaust which the Nazis inflicted on the multitudes of the Jews of Vilna, replete with all of its atrocities, came upon Grodno as the tidings of Job[3]. News arrived of slaughter in the towns neighboring Grodno, of the burning of houses of study, and the frightful atrocities perpetrated our brethren of the House of Israel. However, the vast majority of the Jewish community of Grodno, and also Bialystock, maintained the false hope that the evil would not reach them, since in the "Third Reich", if the residents were "compliant" – "such things would not be done".

At the Threshold of Annihilation

At that time, rumors were spread that the Jews of Grodno would imminently be confined to a ghetto, and that a specific area was being set aside for the ghetto. Nevertheless, this rumor could not yet be verified, and there were different opinions in the community. Those who had faith claimed: "In the Third Reich, things would not come to this point", and they thought that most probably, the enemy simply wished to prevent the Jews from doing business or visiting those who were not Jewish. They could not imagine that tens of thousands would be locked up behind a barbed wire fence, and they certainly could not imagine that this would be a step toward the annihilation of an entire people. On the other hand, the Jews were already getting tired of the barging in of the Nazis into their homes, and the other endless atrocities that were perpetrated, and they thought that if they would be concentrated together and shut off from the outside – perhaps they would be better protected.

Even so, the grinding suspicion in the heart and the fear of what was to come embittered the lives of the Jews, and did not grant them any respite. The news from the battlefronts also did not give any reason for positive hope, since the Nazi soldiers were at the height of their success, as they stood at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad.

Many began to feverishly prepare for the days that were coming – by stockpiling food, and selling at a reduced price their furniture and other belongings that would not be readily transportable at a time of danger. Thus, the neighbors of the Jews seized the unusual opportunity to profit from the tragedy of the Jews, and to acquire with mere pennies the fruits of their years of labor. The zealous farmers would make the rounds in the city, and return to their villages in great joy, with their wagons overflowing with goods purchased from the homes of the Jews, which came into their possession for mere near worthless coins. Christian "friends" would come to their Jewish acquaintances to request hypocritically that they be allowed to watch over some of their property "until the time of danger passes". There were also those who "invited" victims to their homes, threatened to betray them to the Gestapo as "profiteers", and then took from them the clothes off their back and their last coat as they chased them away.

Rumors began to circulate in the community that there would not be one ghetto for the Jews of Grodno, but rather two ghettos. This news caused great trepidation, particularly among those who were familiar with the situation in Vilna, and the frightful end of one of its ghettos. At that time a decree was issued that all Jews who were working at jobs were required to obtain an "worker's card", that could be obtained from the government for a hefty price. Everyone regarded such a card as a certificate of salvation, since it was clear that the Nazi war machine required workers and professionals, and those who held such a card would certainly not be first in line on the day of judgement. Everyone who had any sellable belongings attempted to sell them at any price, and then to hurry to the Judenrat offices in order to wait in line with the throngs who were struggling for the opportunity to obtain this card. They would then be regarded as a glassmaker, baker, electrician, or other such tradesman, and would then be guaranteed a longer life.

The distribution of these cards ended on a Friday, and the Sabbath had not yet spread its wings upon Jewish Grodno, when a frightful proclamation was issued: The Germans requested two work groups to present themselves on the Sabbath with spades and axes. Some thought that this was a preparation for a mass slaughter, and others thought that this was in preparation for the establishment of the ghetto. In the early hours of the Sabbath of November 1st 1941, signs in large black letters surrounded by a wide red border appeared all over, announcing the "decree to prepare a Jewish section in Grodno".

The next day, Sunday November 2, the Jews were ordered to move into two quarters which were set aside for them. The first, "Ghetto A", was reserved for the workers. Its center was "Shulhauf", and it included the area surrounding the great synagogue until Vilna St. on one side, and from the banks of the Gorodnitzanka River until the northern side of Zamkova Street, and the yards of the houses whose fronts faced Dominikovska street on the other side. "Ghetto B" was reserved for the rest of the Jews, those who were "non productive". Its place was in "Slobodka" from the slope above the railway track to the highway to Pogulyanka on one side, and from the supply road to Sdikel to the Christian cemetery on the other side.

The Jews were commanded to move into the ghettos not earlier than 12 noon, and not later thanl 6 in the afternoon, from which time it was forbidden to them to leave these areas. Anyone violating this command would be punished in the most severe fashion.

The work groups went out to their work, and set up posts two meters high around the ghettos in the areas set off, and set up barbed wire fences between these posts. Only one gate was provided for each ghetto.

Entering the Ghetto

During the course of the Sabbath, some people tried to smuggle their belongings into the ghetto. However, there was a large network of German and Polish police in all corners of the city, who would confiscate any items from the Jews who were passing by, and would dish out death blows in return. The local Christians also participated in the hunting down of Jews, and they displayed a special enthusiasm for turning them in to the guards.

That night, the first snowfall fell upon Grodno. In the morning the snow began to melt, and the ground became covered with puddles of water, as well as deep, sticky mud. At the set time, the Jews began to take to the streets in large multitudes and migrate toward the ghettos, with their packages over their shoulders, in wheelbarrows or in baby carriages. The use of vehicles of any other means of transportation was forbidden to them. Most of them did not know to which of the two ghettos they were supposed to go, and there was a great deal of confusion and aimless wandering. Everyone tried to get into the ghetto as quickly as possible, so that they would be able to find some type of shelter for themselves and their household. Polish and German guards were stationed on the routes to the ghetto to keep order, so to speak. In reality, this only added to the confusion and perplexity. They would search the belongings of the Jews who were moving along in haste, and pillage anything that they wanted. The "aryan" neighbors also assisted them, so to speak, and took for themselves anything that they desired.

Prior to entry to the ghetto there was an "inspection", and the gate to the ghetto was very narrow. On that rainy day, the multitudes of the people of Israel of Grodno, 15,000 people, from the aged to the suckling child, stood in that place of suffering in a line that extended the full length of Batori Square and Zamkova Street, all the way to the entrance to the narrow slaughterhouse lane, which was "Yatke Gesel". They waited and hoped that they would be permitted to enter their prison.

This was a frightful scene to behold, as related by one eyewitness: an entire nation found itself in a state of confused haste, laden with their remaining "belongings" on their backs, just as the nation was during the exodus from Egypt, which seemed like a child's game when compared with this entrance to the ghetto. In the arms of many of them were children who were wailing, frozen from the cold, and all of them were pushing and crushing each other to the point of danger. They were confounded and quivering, and many picked fights with each other due to their frustration. One would have the idea to return quickly to his house, which he had just abandoned, in order to take one more item of his belongings, or to take some sticks for firewood, while his friend would be seized with worry that he would tarry too long, and would no longer be able to find shelter for himself and his family.

The evil Nazis, ever greedy for booty, who were in charge of the "inspection" of the luggage, were mulling about in a frenzy, spreading chaos and confusion as they were wont to do, and thereby increasing the panic and suffering. Any item of value which their hearts desired was "confiscated" and added to their own belongings. Any other object which they wished to pillage from the Jews was simply cast into the mud where it was ruined.

A crowd of local Poles, as well as civilian Germans gathered around, including the "Sisters of Mercy", daughters of the Teutonic "Master Race", who worked at the nearby military hospital. They "assisted" in the inspection, so to speak. They did not skip over one man, they did not recoil from searching the pockets and even the private parts of any person, and they did not hesitate to seize anything that their hearts desired, even small and insignificant items.

Heaps of remnants of the hard earned belongings of the Jews – including footstools, their last pillow, furniture and couches – were piled up in front of everyone just outside of the barbed wire fence of the ghetto, with nobody to care for them.

Such was the entrance to the "privileged" ghetto A, which was reserved for those working people who were able to acquire a "worker's permit". Such was also the entrance to ghetto B, which was set aside for the remainder of the Jews, including those professionals who were not fortunate enough to be able to redeem their imaginary "certificate of salvation".

At six o'clock in the evening the gates were locked. The Jews of Grodno were now locked in their prison.

[Page 527/528]

Zamkova Street on the day of entrance into the ghetto. This photo was taken at the ghetto gate (see arrow) on the corner of "Yatke Gesel". The building in the center
is the Judenrat headquarters.
Click here to enlarge the picture -- gro527As.jpb [3 KB] Waiting in line to enter the ghetto. Click here to enlarge the picture -- gro527Bs.jpb [3 KB]
[Page 529/530]
On the way to the ghetto. Nazis search the Jews as they enter. Click here to enlarge the picture -- gro529As.jpg [3 KB] After the "search". On right, marked by an X is Yehudit Lapin. Click here to enlarge the picture -- gro529s.jpg [3 KB]

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[1] The terminology used here in the Hebrew is taken from the biblical story of the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Return
[2] According to the Alkalai Hebrew English Dictionary, "Real Gymnasia" refers to a secondary school with a natural science specialty. Return
[3] A reference to the troubles which came upon Job in increasing waves – first the tidings of the loss of his property, then the death of his children, and finally his own illness. These tribulations are described in the first two chapters of the biblical Book of Job. Return

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