Belchatów - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Poland, Volume I

51°22' / 19°23'

Translation of "Belchatów" chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem


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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume I, pages 70 - 77, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

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(page 70)

(District of Piotrkow Trybunalski)

Translated by Cheryl Lipsius

Edited by Jerry Liebowitz

Population Figures

Year Total
1940(?)Approx. 5,500

I.The Jewish Community until 1918
II.Between the Two World Wars
III.The Holocaust

The Jewish Community until 1918

The earliest information about Belchatow is found in the 14th century. Belchatow was in the possession of the nobility. Though it was not included in the cities that Jews were prohibited to dwell in, no Jews settled there due to its poor undeveloped economic state. In fact, in 1764 only 7 Jews lived there. Only during the first half of the 19th century, with the development of the textile industry, did Belchatow's population blossom and grow; also the percentage of Jews rose rapidly. In 1857 the Jews already comprised 73% of the general population.

During this period, the Jewish population was predominantly made up of skilled craftsmen: in 1844, there were 61, of whom 29 were tailors and 6 were weavers. There were 44 merchants/petty-bourgeois in various sectors of the economy. That year there were two small Jewish manufacturers (weaving pieceworkers), two-soap manufacturers, and a miller. In this industry there were 13 hired Jews. This structure did not change over time. However, around the middle of the 19th century, a group of middlemen appeared (19). In 1867 the Jews owned one of the two small wool-weaving businesses, also 11 or 12 of the 13 cotton-weaving businesses. These businesses employed home pieceworkers. By the end of the 19th century there were over 900 Jewish weavers who worked in the cottage industry in Belchatow, and they were a substantial portion of the town's Jews. At the beginning of the 20th century there were no major changes in the Jewish skilled craft structure in Belchatow, though most of the production moved from the home to the modernized factory system. Peretz Freitag was a pioneer in this regard; he employed 200 workers in his factory. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century transportation was an important Jewish source of income, and the Jewish coachmen (horse carriage drivers) had a monopoly.

Regarding the economic status of Belchatow's Jews during the second half of the 19th century, there is clear evidence that most taxpayers to the Kehilla [Jewish community] were from the two lowest economic rungs: of the 83 taxpayers, 42 were counted in the 4th and 5th rungs (in 1844). The 1842 blaze worsened the Belchatow Jews' poverty. Among the 22 fire victims that received municipal assistance were 12 Jews. At the lowest rung were those who worked from home and the salaried workers, whose average weekly salary was 2-3 rubles, and this salary many times was earned only if the entire family worked. Due to the paltry wages, a portion of those working from home took for themselves the remnants and sold them at the weekly market. This situation led to conflicts that expressed themselves in public outcries and weavers' striking during the beginning of the 20th century, and even street fights (1903 or 1904) between the workers and rich Chassidim of Gur [Gora Kalwarya].

Until 1820, Belchatow's Jews belonged to the Kehilla of Piotrkow Trybunalski. In 1821, the local community decided to secede and chose its own leadership. Joining this Kehilla were Jews from over 20 surrounding villages and also Jews from the town of Grocholice. In 1824, the community already had a wooden synagogue, a cemetery, and an alms-house. The synagogue was renovated in 1893; despite this it became more decayed, and in 1897 it had completely collapsed. In its place, a new synagogue made of stone was erected at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the 1820's the small and poor Belchatow community did not have a rabbi. The chazzan [cantor] (also apparently – the shochet [ritual slaughterer]), served as dayan [judge], and his small compensation was 140 zlotys per annum. Beginning in 1827 (or 1828) R.? David Shlomo Weiss served as rabbi (or dayan). After his death (1831), his son R. Mordechai Weiss inherited the position. In 1832 a dayan was chosen, R. Moshe Bressler, who after two years was appointed rabbi. R. Moshe Bressler was a Kotsk Chassid, and Chassidim of other sects did not respect him. In 1840 when his opponents were in charge of the Kehilla, the acrimony and debate accelerated as a result of their relationship. They began to slander each other to the authorities. The rabbi threatened to excommunicate his opponents, and in protest he spent Yom Kippur in nearby Grocholice. In the end, R. Moshe's supporters prevailed. The authorities also supported him and he retained his position. After R. Moshe Bressler's death (circa 1860), until the 1880's Rabbi Kohnstamm of the Gur Chassidim served as rabbi. After his death, a coalition of Alexander Chassidim and the poor inhabitants of Belchatow chose their own rabbi, R. Moshe Eliahu Birenboim, to the chagrin of the Gur Chassidim. After his opponents attacked him relentlessly for a number of years (among the charges leveled against him was that he was a Zionist sympathizer), he left Belchatow and settled in Lodz, where he was at the helm of the Mizrachi movement until he made aliyah [emigration to Israel] (in 1926). In Israel, Rabbi Kook appointed him rabbi of Jedda and thereafter of Pardess Hannah. The Gur Chassidim gained control in 1892-93 and appointed the rabbi of Lukow, R. Shmuel Shlomo Braun. He established a yeshiva in Belchatow and stood at its helm. He was exemplary in his being a religious conservative. During the period of workers' demonstrations and struggles, during the 1905 rebellion, he called his followers to war with the "shamers of Israel," who were fighting the "leaders of Israel, against the Tsar and Jewish tradition." He was let go in 1903 and left Belchatow. At the new election the coalition of Alexander Chassidim and the general population won, and the newly elected rabbi was R. Semach David Tornheim (the grandson of the patriarch of the Wolborz dynasty, R. Issachar Dov Baer). Agudat-Israel [a non-Zionist Orthodox Jewish political movement] was supported by the Gur Chassidim. Other Chassidim supported the Mizrachi [an Orthodox Zionist movement]. In the internal Kehilla debate, R. Semach David supported the Mizrachi.

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, there appeared among the Yeshiva students the first groups of Maskilim [“enlightenment” – a secular movement]. From them emerged, among others: Yoel Lajb Goldstein, prose author; Meir Zusman, a Burski-singer; Shmuel Chaim Kalman, Poalei Zion activist; Zalman Pudlowski, journalist. From this source also arose the first group of Tzeirei -Zion (circa 1914) and a number of self-study groups, who strove for secular knowledge.

During the stormy days of 1904-1905 the first blossoms of Jewish labor unions sprouted, and among them the first illegal Bund cell. The Bund [an anti-Zionist Jewish political organization promoting labor, Jewish nationalism, and Yiddish] organized strikes and demonstrations during the revolt, and its members were hounded during the reactionary period following. In 1908, 23 persons were arrested in Belchatow and were exiled to Siberia. The awakening of Bund activity coincided with the Austrian army's occupation (1914), when this party's activities became legal. That year the Tzeirei-Zion also renewed their activities and established a club and public library.

Between the two World Wars

In 1925 Belchatow, until then considered from an administrative standpoint as an industrial settlement, was declared a city. Notwithstanding the flourishing local industry (in 1938, 1000 workers were employed in automated factories), the Jewish workers tended to still work in weaving and home-hand-made and ready-made clothing. The Jews sold their wares, woven materials or finished clothes, at local and neighboring markets and fairs. With the economic decline and especially after the war and during the Great Depression of 1928-1931, the Jewish community started moving to Lodz and other cities. The emigration movement also grew (particularly to the US). Nevertheless the resurgence of cultural and political life in Belchatow was obvious. The Kehilla was no longer the center of public life; rather the political parties and youth movements (some were established earlier, before or during WWI), even Chassidic groups, carried on their activities in a political manner. In Belchatow, there was the full gamut of Jewish political parties and youth movements, starting with Agudat-Israel [a non-Zionist Orthodox Jewish political movement] and ending with the communists. Among the Zionists, the Mizrachi organization, which was established in 1917, stood out by the fact that it received a plurality of the votes to the Zionist Congress. In the elections to the 20th Zionist Congress, it received 182 out of 282 possible delegates/votes, and in the elections for the 21st Congress, it received 130 out of a possible 292. The Mizrachi established the Yavneh School. Of less influence was the General Zionist organization, which was established at a relatively later time – 1930; however its youth movement, Hanoar-Hatzioni (established in 1931), was one of the larger organizations in Belchatow (about 100 members), and it had its own library and sports club. During the 1930's the influence of the leftist Zionist party, Poalei Zion [Workers of Zion]-Right and Hitachdut, rose in Belchatow and was the second largest group in the elections for the 21st Congress (81 mandates). Leftist Poalei Zion and its youth movement ran a library and, for a time, also a school. They established a co-operative store that operated for only a short time. Smaller influence was exerted by the Revisionists (also Betar and Brit-Hachayyal that were established in the early 1930's) in Belchatow. On the other hand, the Betar sports organization was well organized.

The Agudat-Israel branch in Belchatow was established in 1918. The Agudah was not organizationally active on a regular basis; rather its members and activists increased their activities during the periods preceding elections to the Kehilla, the municipality or the Sejm (the parliament). Similarly, the Agudah activists fought for the important Kehilla posts like the rabbinate and similar positions. In 1919, Agudat-Israel established a Talmud Torah (school), with some tens of students also studying secular subjects. The school received partial support from the Kehilla. There was a recognized influence in Belchatow from a branch of Agudat-Israel, Poalei Agudat-Israel (they were at first known as Tzeirei Emunei Israel), who established their organization in 1920 from the orthodox youth groups of "Tifereth Bachurim" and "Tevunah". This cell/branch of this organization in Belchatow was one of the relatively largest (in 1938 – with about 250 members) of all the cells/branches of Poalei Agudat-Israel in Poland. Their members in Belchatow belonged to trade unions, joined in strikes, ran independent slates in municipal elections, belonged to the health cooperatives (Kupat-Cholim/Kranke-kasse), and were a respected rival to the Bund, the communists, and the Zionist Left for influence among the Jewish workers' groups and home-workers. Poalei Agudah had their own clubs and library, and in 1929 they established a girls school – Horev – with 150 students, with the language of instruction being Yiddish. In 1924, the B'not Agudat-Israel was organized, and they established the Beth Ya'akov School. The school had a drama club and a public library.

The Bund expanded its activities during the inter-war years and in 1927 established in Belchatow the "Tzukunft" [“Future”] youth organization and the "SKIF" [Sotsyalistisher Kinder Farband – Socialist Children's Union] children's organization. Its influence was apparent in the trade unions. The Bund was especially active in organizing strikes (among them, the well-known 1932 strike that lasted 6 months). In the cultural realm, the Bund was very active within the framework of the "Kultur-lige" [culture league] organization (that was established during WWI), ran a club, a drama club, and the largest library in Belchatow. Under the Bund's auspices, between the two wars, the Z.Y.S.A School was established in Belchatow; also, the larger sports unions/groups in Belchatow – "Morgenstern" [“morning star”]. Occasionally, (especially during election season), the Bund published in Belchatow the newspaper "Der Belchatower Veker" [“The Belchatow Awake”].

In Belchatow, there were about 10 active Jewish communist cells/branches (approximately 60 members). Their members came from previous members of the Poalei Zion-Left and from members of the Combund. Under the influence of the Jewish members of the KPP – Komunistyczna Partia Polski [Polish Communist Party] – a cell/branch of hand-workers was established alongside the general union of textile workers, almost all of its members being Jews.

In the early years following WWI, there was a relatively high level of participation of Jewish parties in the city council. After the 1925 elections, the Jews succeeded in receiving 13 out of the 24 mandates, and two of the triumvirates managing the city were Jews. In the 1927 elections, there were already only 7 Jewish council members: 2 – Bund, 1 – Zionist, 2 merchants, and 2 workers.

The Kehilla was presided over by the religious parties and the orthodox representatives. In the 1924 elections for the Kehilla council, the mandates were divided as follows: Agudat-Israel – 5, national religious bloc (Mizrachi) - 1, Alexander Chassidim – 1, Radomsk Chassidim – 1, Ba'alei Batim [affluent] – 1, nationalist workers – 1, non-affiliated workers – 1. In the subsequent election, Agudat-Israel (Gur Chassidim) received the overwhelming majority. The victory was assisted by the district government, who invalidated a number of lists.

During the inter-war years R. Semach David Tornheim continued with the rabbinate. His opponents from Agudat-Israel and from the Gur Chassidic groups maintained their own dayan and shochet [Ritual Slaughterer]. After R. Tornheim 's death (1938), R. Shmuel Yehoshua Horowicz of the Gur Chassidim was elected rabbi. He was Belchatow's last rabbi until and including the German occupation and forever.

The Holocaust

During the battles, in September 1939, parts of Belchatow's Jewish community fled. However, many did not succeed in getting very far, and after a short period they returned after the Germans occupied the city (seemingly on September 9, 1939). Many Jewish dwellings, stores, and factories went up in smoke as a result of the shelling. Not only this, but, when the Jews fled the city, the local inhabitants plundered their possessions.

The Nazis began to hound the Jews as soon as they entered the town. First, they commanded the Jews to gather and bury all of the corpses from the whole area, and to perform all forms of hard work. Under the guise of searching for arms, the Germans and the Volk-Germans [ethnic Germans living outside of Germany] plundered Jewish possessions. Jews wrapped in tallitot [prayer shawls] were ordered to parade through the city, to dance, to sing, to proclaim slogans as: "We Jews are war criminals, and now Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses our Teacher] help us". Jews wrapped in tallitot were carried through the city's streets on ladders, and thereafter the ladders with the Jews on them were flung to the ground. They were placed in water, pushed to jump from roofs, beaten until blood oozed. The persecutions increased especially during the High Holy Days. Jews, who prayed quietly in their homes, were dragged out and made to work loathsome jobs. The synagogues, including the Torah scrolls, were burnt. The Jews were forced to bring to the new marketplace the Torah scrolls and holy books that were found in the house-to-house searches, and they were thrown into the bonfire that burned for a number of days. The Nazis forced Rabbi Y. Horowicz to throw his books into the bonfire and watch their destruction. The Jews were forced to dance around the bonfire, to sing, to trample Torah scrolls. Field kitchens were brought to the market, and elderly Jews were forced to eat the non-kosher soldiers' food [rations]. The Germans shaved their beards with bayonets, and ordered the Jews to hold hot coals in their hands. The Nazis photographed these spectacles, and portions of the Polish and Volk-German population watched with contentment. However, some elderly Volk-Germans objected to the desecration of holy objects of the Jews, especially the first mayor of occupied Belchatow, the priest, father Gerhardt, an avowed pre-war national-socialist [Nazi] and founder of the town's Nazi party.

In the year of the occupation, the official census of Jews in Belchatow was 5,000 - 5,500; however in fact their numbers reached 6,000. The population composition was not stable due to movements in and out of the town, since it was nestled between the General Government [the German administrative district during the occupation of Poland west of Lodz] and Warthegau [the German administrative district during the occupation of Poland in which Lodz was situated]. The movements were especially strong during 1939 and the early part of 1940. Before the Ghetto's establishment, during the first three months of the occupation, 1,000 Jews left the town, most of them escaping to the larger cities (Lodz, Piotrkow Trybunalski), believing that their lives there would be safer and easier. A portion of the population – especially the youth – escaped to the Soviet sector. Many pre-war activists went into hiding fearing persecution. There were other groups (e.g. smugglers) who preferred not to be seen. Paradoxically, during this period, nearly 1,000 refugees and people who were burnt out of their homes [homeless] arrived in town. They started to stream in, already during the first days of the war, from the neighboring border areas that were heavily shelled. Among them, in 1939 and early 1940, 150 Jews arrived from Szczercow, and approximately 440 from Widawa, and also Jews from Wielun. Thereafter Jews arrived from larger cities, like Lodz and Pabianice, believing that in a smaller place they would be able to wait out the war with minor discomforts. The stream of refugees stopped with the establishment of Ghettos in the aforementioned cities. In March 1940 some Belchatow Jews again left the city primarily going to Piotrkow, since Belchatow was annexed to the Reich (Warthegau). These refugees were hoping to find an easier regime in the General Government. It should be noted that portions of the Polish population of Belchatow also left then. Corresponding to this, many Germans from the Baltic countries and Wolyn [the Volhynia region of Ukraine] arrived in Belchatow, and they were given the best of Jewish homes and stores. The exchange of Jewish population was helped along by the exile of young Jews to labor camps and the concentration of Jews near Belchatow.

The Belchatow ghetto was not fenced or closed. The traditionally Jewish section of Belchatow, where 90% of the Jewish population resided, encompassed the streets Pabianicka, Stary Rynek ["old market square"], Ewangelicka, Piotrkowska, and the built-up area behind the synagogue. The authorities prohibited the Jews to enter a number of "Aryan" streets, and to other streets they were permitted to enter only during certain hours. In the Jewish neighborhood, German police, demanding ransom or kidnapping for forced labor, could always accost Jews. The Jewish neighborhood's density was very high, because many houses were burned, and the better homes and all therein were given by the authorities to the settling Germans. For the Jews banished from these houses, congregate living was established. It also happened that Jews were ordered to empty their apartments to make way for Polish residents. These evictions from dwellings continued throughout the occupation, with different levels of severity. A sharp rise in the density and the worsening of housing conditions in the Jewish quarter occurred in the fall of 1941, when the authorities concentrated all of the Jews who remained in the Belchatow area, specifically from the villages and hamlets of Kleszczow, Wodzierady, Przyrownica, Dobrzelow, Belchatowek, Chabielice, and from the towns Grocholice and Szczercow. They were brought to Belchatow in wagons, and they were permitted to take along their belongings even food and heating-fuel.

The sanitary conditions in the severely overcrowded quarter were very serious. Many courtyard wells were damaged, and Jews were forced to bring water from far away. With the shortage of heating fuel, the bathhouse did not operate. The city pharmacy was open only one hour for the Jews. The quarter did not have a hospital. A population of approximately 6,000 was served by two physicians, Dr. Basier and Dr. Tifenberg, who came from Warsaw, since the pre-war Jewish doctors left Belchatow. In 1942 with the typhus outbreak, the mayor permitted the Judenrat to bring in another doctor: Dr. Hart from Wlodzimierzow.

Thanks to the fact that the ghetto was not fenced-in, workers continued to work secretly in the service of "Aryan" customers. In fact, all the work in the city continued to be in Jewish hands. Much of the population supported themselves by smuggling and illegal commerce, local and inter-city, and even between the General Government and Warthegau. The Jews that were brought to Belchatow maintained active contact with the villages and purchased food. The farmers themselves brought food to the Jewish quarter. Even the Jews who worked for German workplaces outside of the quarter smuggled food when they returned. In the empty plot behind the synagogue, there was always commerce conducted: the Jews sold their remaining possessions in exchange for food from Christians and Jewish smugglers. At times, the German police attacked them, beat up and dispersed the buyers and sellers; however right thereafter the commerce continued. Groups of rich smugglers established themselves, and they competed, fought, and informed on one another. The Jewish merchants and workers paid dearly to the German police, to the Jewish smugglers, and to extortionists. The German authorities fought this commerce, and at times Jews were hurt. The shochet Lajbish Melot was arrested for secretly slaughtering cattle; he was nevertheless freed and he continued to slaughter. A number of cases against groups of smugglers were adjudicated in the special court that was established in Lodz. In July 1941, based on the testimony of a Jewish detective, six Jews from Belchatow, who wanted to cross General Government border, were arrested in the fields of Dobrzelow. They were apprehended with 497 meters of cloth, linens and sheets, 8 bundles of cotton thread, 22 cases of cigarettes, and 16 cases of 50-gram tobacco. The aforementioned court sentenced them to 1½ years of hard labor (read: death). Afterwards in Belchatow Yosel Machabanski and his son were arrested for smuggling sausages. They attempted to flee and were shot. Moshe Zygmontowicz was arrested for the sale of chickens; he was beaten and he died in captivity. Notwithstanding these capital punishments, the prohibited commercial activity continued.

Many Jews worked for the Germans. At the former Dzielowski's knitting factory, the Germans confiscated all the machinery and in its place made a large sewing shop. They furnished it with Jewish sewing machines and furniture. In December 1940, 182 Jews worked in this plant. The number of workers reached to about 650-700, a substantial number were not tailors but rather "protected ones". The plant's technical director was Shlomo Jakobowicz, and at its helm stood the former mayor of Grocholice, who was laid-off, a local Volk-German. As the head of the plant, he knew how to beat workers until they lost consciousness. The sewing plant primarily produced for the army. The worker's salary was very low; it was not paid on time but was at the whim of the authorities. Until January 1942, there were no set prices, no accounting, and workers received only haphazard advances. At the end of 1941 or the beginning of 1942, under the control of Itche Winter, an experienced carpenter with good and wide German contacts, the very influential "King of the Ghetto," a plant under the auspices of the authorities was made operational. The Germans also co-opted him to the Judenrat. With the opening of this plant, the mayor informed the Judenrat that he only wanted to see the experienced craftsmen, carpenters and varnishers, with no "shirkers". Winter the expert would assemble the requisite crew. In Belchatow there were also sewing and shoe plants operating, with 50 workers, and also a plant for goods made of straw. All of these plants employed more than 1,000 workers. The mayor permitted a small number of craftsmen to work in their own plants, specifically tailors. The Judenrat requested 64 craftsman permits, but the authorities initially only approved 32. As time passed, the number of permits rose to 47. The city authorities gave private customers permits to give out work to craftsmen, and they took the pay according to the accounting of the Jewish workman. The town took half of the amount for themselves and gave the remainder to the Judenrat, which took between 10% and 20% for the needs of the Kehilla. However, as stated earlier, most of the craftsmen worked in secret, as extra work in addition to their official jobs, or solely in secret. Official duties were also given to Jewish accountants, who administered the accounts of German and Polish factories.

Under these conditions, the Jews of Belchatow still experienced (until about mid-1941) social-political activities, a weakened form of pre-war activities. The Bund, the communists, Poalei Agudat-Israel, and Beit Ya'akov groups organized assemblies, and, at times – in cooperation with each other. At these assembles mutual aid was discussed, opening underground schools, critique of the Judenrat and apparently joint demonstrations. Until mid-1941, the Bund, communist, Poalei Agudat-Israel (offering courses) and Cheder schools operated in secret. Also, small lending libraries operated in secret. After the first forced labor Aktion, all of these activities ceased. Immediately the schools ceased – due to parents' fears of sending their children out of their homes.

Jewish misery was increased by the incessant deportation to hard manual labor. Every police station and every German office demanded labor-forces from the Judenrat. The mayor demanded that Jewish workers be provided to clean streets, and especially – winter snow removal. Jewish work crews were sent to surrounding settlements, and the settlement authorities paid the Jewish wages to the Belchatow city coffers. It is conjectured that the Judenrat received a portion of these wages and set aside a small portion for the workers. The wage established by the authorities was 40-80 pfenig per hour, which was paid only to those Jews the Germans deemed energetic, while those deemed lazy had to work for free.

In August 1941 the deportations to labor camps commenced. In the announcement of August 19, 1941, Belchatow's mayor ordered that all Jews ages 18-45 were to assemble at the former Klug factory yard, except for the regular sewing plant workers. Also, Jewish doctors were required to gather. Approximately 2000 men assembled in the yard. Jewish and German police guarded the fence and gate. Present were German officials and German doctors, the Judenrat chairman Ehrlich and his advisors Altman, Winter and Dr. Basier. The German doctors examined the men, freed some and gave them appropriate certificates. The Jews they found to be healthy to send remained in the yard the entire night, after the Germans left. Heated negotiations were conducted between the Judenrat and the German authorities, and a number of wealthy Jews bought their freedom with bribes. On August 21, 1941 in the morning, 250 men were sent to the camps in the Poznan region. Three weeks later, the Jews were again called to assemble. However this time they all knew that they would be deported and only a few assembled, and the German police filled their quota by kidnapping. This time also, the wealthy Jews redeemed themselves with money. In these two Aktions, between 450-700 men were sent to camps. With the absence of breadwinners, their families were in dire straits. The Judenrat paid a paltry welfare, based on the account of the men at the camps, however in reality the Judenrat never received these funds from the authorities. When the difficult conditions of the camps became known, families endeavored to send packages to their loved ones, with the authorities' permission. Very few Jews returned from the camps. According to the testimony of some, some of these lucky ones were released for high ransoms paid by their families. According to another version, a Judenrat representative carrying ransom went to the camps where Belchatow Jews were imprisoned, but he was unable to obtain their freedom.

The Belchatow Judenrat's goings-on were tumultuous. The continuous interference of the German authorities with regards to the Judenrat's composition, the number of members, caused the constant substitution of persons, imprisonment, and even the death of a number of the Judenrat chairmen. The source of this interference – as was the source also in other settlements for example in Pabianice – was jealousy and conflict in the Jewish community, between groups and cliques, and, understandably, also informing to the German authorities as a result of these relationships. The opponents and the jealous ones besmirched the Judenrat members, that since they could not attain any standing in the pre-war Kehilla, now they were making careers. They also accused them of laziness, passivity, corruption, and gaining wealth at the expense of the community, by tattling to the Nazis and by cooperating with them to the detriment of the Jews. The Germans appointed the first Judenrat in September or October 1939. Most of its members were members of the Activist-committee that was spontaneously formed after the German invasion, in order to take responsibility for the pressing Jewish matters. Afterwards the Germans ordered them, or permitted them, to co-opt individuals on an as-needed basis according to their discretion. And in fact individuals from all sectors of the community were co-opted. The opponents to these activists argued, that in this manner the Judenrat members create the illusion of community-wide representation, but in reality they wanted to maintain their total domination. The members of this Judenrat were: Michael Jakobowicz (according to another version: Yakover) – chairman; Szmuel Jakobowicz – deputy chairman; Yaakov Ehrlich – Secretary; Issachar Przybylski, Binim Hendeles, Melech Gelster – members. Around this Judenrat, almost immediately, a web of malcontents was formed by those who grumbled about their lack of appointment. Mizrachi activists Shalom Feder and Mendel Lipman started a campaign against the Judenrat, and they did not hesitate to enlist the help of Belchatow's mayor; the Judenrat's present composition was supported by the German police (according to its adversaries). In fact, on October 19, 1940, the mayor appointed a new Judenrat, and included in it five of the previous members and five new ones. Michael and Shmuel Jakobowicz and Ehrlich were let go, and added were Feder (apparently as chairman) and Lipman and also Shemayah Grinberg. After a month, Shmuel Jakobowicz was arrested and charged with contact with smugglers and with political ties to persons already in the hands of the Gestapo. In his letter to the Gestapo in Lodz, the mayor pointed out that already before the war Shmuel Jakobowicz was sentenced to six months arrest for forging documents and work permits. These facts were in all honesty brought to his attention by his Jewish opponents. It seems that Szmuel Jakobowicz also exposed, apparently, certain specifics affecting the new members of the Judenrat, since about two days after their appointment the mayor warned Jakobowicz about "besmirching them". Sometime later, the two Mizrachi activists Feder and Lipman (together with another Jew Yechiel Marczak) were arrested on charges of belonging to Zionist organization and being involved in underground political activity. They were brought to the Gestapo in Lodz, but they were freed, but in Feder's place as chairman of the Judenrat the attorney, Yitzhak Bogdanski was appointed. There were murmurs against him also, and in the summer of 1941, apparently, a demonstration was conducted against the Judenrat with the participation of a couple of hundred men. The Bund, the communists, and the Poalei Agudat-Israel jointly organized this demonstration. On July 2, 1941, Belchatow's mayor informed the chairman of the Judenrat that he wanted a total reorganization of the Judenrat, since to date it was functioning badly. Bogdanski was removed, and a new composition of the Judenrat was setup: Y. Ehrlich (the secretary of the first Judenrat) – chairman; his advisors: Itche Winter, Nager, and Peretz Altman and Burski. The mayor established specific duties to the other members of the Judenrat: Shlomo Hersz Tupolowicz, the employment division; Binim Hendeles – provisions; Mendel Lipman – bread distribution; David Pakentrager – food; Moshe Pakentrager – milk distribution; Beryl Zuchowski – finance. In their appointment letter, the mayor emphasized that all appointees are responsible to the chairman of the Judenrat and to him – to the mayor. After two months, in September 1941, there was a new change in government: Ehrlich was dismissed, and Bogdanski returned as chairman. Altman and Winter continued to serve. Other members: Moshe Klug – economic division; Meir Feder – treasury division; Abraham Weintraub – food supply; Yankel Machabanski – welfare; Mendel Spierstejn – employment division; Shlomo Szmulewicz – responsible for the sewing factory. It seems that other changes occurred, since at the public hanging on Purim 1942 the Judenrat chairman was Shlomo Hersz Tupolowicz. According to one version he was dismissed after the hanging, or he resigned, and in his place again reigned Bogdanski. After Bogdanski's abortive escape (Pesach 1942) and his deportation to the Radogoszcz concentration camp, Tupolowicz returned to reign.

It should be noted, that the authorities intervened even as to the number of members the Judenrat had. In his letter of April 2, 1940 to the head of the region, Belchatow's mayor said it was known that its composition of 12 members, as it was initially established, was considered too broad for the German police, and they had set the number at three. The mayor was upset at this change, and wanted to add to the number of Judenrat members, because the responsibilities would be too much for three persons. So, the Judenrat appointed on October 19, 1940 counted ten members. It should be noted that the stormy history of the Belchatow Judenrat was not only entangled due to the internal squabbles in the Jewish community, but also due to the bickering among the local Germans. Initially (1939-1940), as stated, the priest Gerhardt was mayor of Belchatow. In government circles, he was accused of "Jew loving". In the fall of 1940, he was accused of giving Belchatow's Jews too much freedom, by overlooking contacts between Jews and Germans, and in the development of open smuggling. Among the accusations was that he asked the Jewish sewing plant's manager to employ some Jews he was shielding. Gerhardt was dismissed; and beginning in 1941 reigning as Belchatow's mayor was the German Trahner, a citizen of the Reich. The governor of the Lask district, in his letter of February 1, 1941, ordered him to "educate" Gerhardt. It was incumbent upon him to influence the priest to act with the proper hate, as is appropriate for a German, and especially for someone who held such a high post. In his response to the head of the region – on February 5, 1941 – Trahner informed that the priest was given the appropriate lesson.

The Judenrat was required to take care of the refugees that came from the surrounding villages, and they were housed in the Bet Knesset [synagogue] and Bet Hamidrash [study hall]. The Judenrat established three public kitchens for the poor and for the plant workers, which distributed approximately 1,200 free meals daily. A distribution warehouse was established where the populace received their meager official portions (250-300 grams per soul per day), and a heating fuel warehouse (the authorities only distributed heating fuel to institutions). The Judenrat took 2,000 marks per month for administrative purposes, and 2,000 marks for welfare. The Judenrat's income was from levies on the sale of necessities, taxes on private laborers, and parts of the meager salaries of the Jews working for the authorities (at plants and temporary manual labor). The Jewish administration employed 50 workers, however a sizable portion worked without wages.

A Jewish police force was established in Belchatow. In February 1941, mayor Trahner informed the Judenrat that he was amazed and distressed by the fact that the Jewish police (called “ordnungsdienst”) were found, and no one knows why, on the city's main streets and watched over the order without permission or orders from the German authorities, and wore on their sleeves special signs that were not obtained from the German authorities. The mayor determined that the Jewish police's sole task was to watch the Jewish factory, the confectionery, but the city's order was the responsibility of the German police. In fact, the Jewish police's headquarters was near this plant; however, in fact, its responsibilities were broader than what the mayor determined, just like their duties were in other Jewish settlements. About 30 men served in the Jewish police, and they did not receive Belchatow's Jews' consideration. The pre-war Left argued that the police were underworld persons and licentious petty bourgeois that obtained their positions by bribing the Judenrat. There were members of the proletariat among the Jewish police. The public accused them of Jewish persecution, of accepting smugglers' bribes, of taking ransom from persons that were freed from being sent to work, of aiding the Germans during the destruction of the settlement, of capturing hidden Jews and sending them to their deaths. Some say that, in the Poznan camps, some of these Jewish Police served as Kapos.

In the plan for the destruction of various groups of Belchatow's Jewish population (at first those who were deemed ineligible for physical labor, or who were not officially employed), the local authorities debated many months before its actualization. The district attorney of the Lask district wrote on August 1, 1941 to Belchatow's mayor, that the governor of the Lodz district ordered him to "admit the sick and weak Jews (disabled, mentally ill, lazy, paralyzed, etc.) for treatment at special institutions”. Therefore, they had to enter them in a detailed list, and to note their names and addresses. On the basis of this letter, Belchatow's mayor ordered the Judenrat on August 3, 1941 in a letter, to prepare such a list. For the destruction plan, the mayor wrote a letter to the governor of the Lask district on January 8, 1942. In the letter it was stated that, in the attached list of Belchatow's Jews, there were 3,425 "sick and unemployed". The list highlighted with a blue symbol the craftsmen and other plant workers, and by a red symbol the men and women who were unemployed, including the elderly. The Jews that were not marked with a color, numbering 1,597, were ill "that may be sent immediately". The children under the age of eight were not color-marked, wrote the mayor, because it would: “reveal to the Jews more than there is a need to reveal". However, by the autumn of 1941 and early 1942, Belchatow's Jews had still not yet been sent for destruction.

In the beginning of 1942, an obvious worsening of relations between the authorities and the Jews started, and similarly their living-conditions [worsened]. In order to better separate the Jews from the "Aryans," the authorities began to banish Jews from houses where most of the inhabitants were Poles and Germans, and Aryans from houses where most of the inhabitants were Jews. The sewing factory's orders from the Germans were steadily declining. By January 1942, the sewing factory employed only 200 Jews and was no longer sewing for the army, only for civilian needs. Nazi murders were on the rise. In the beginning of 1942, Aharon Pinchas Bornsztejn, a teacher and member of the pre-war city council, was shot. In February, outside the Jewish quarter, Yechezkel Zevizhinski was shot. The smugglers were punished, especially brutally. On Purim (March 18, 1942), a public hanging of 10 Jews took place by the order of the Gestapo, with the official reason given: in order that the smugglers should see and fear. The "sacrificial offerings" were chosen from among 16 Jews arrested, ostensibly, for smuggling (families succeeded in ransoming 6 of them). They were hanged in the courtyard that was owned at the time by Yankel Ber Lieberman. All the Jews were brought to the courtyard near the synagogue, were lined-up in fives, and were brought to the hanging place. The German policemen, with readied machine guns at hand, surrounded the masses of people. Among the German officials was Richter, from the Lodz Gestapo. Also many Germans and Poles came to see the spectacle. At ten o'clock German and Jewish police brought the condemned, handcuffed. The following condemned names are known for sure: Moshe Wolfowicz, Mendel Feller, Moshe Aaron Taub, Yechezkel Szapiro, Yerahmiel Boim, Lajbish Michael Landau. Added thereto was the former chairman of the Judenrat, Ehrlich. There is no unified version regarding some of the names, Lajbish Feldman, Eliezer Ravich of Lodz, Weiss, Lajzerowicz, and Peltzman. It is told that with unique valor, Wolfowicz called on all of the condemned to keep their honor, and to the gathered Jews – not to despair, but to seek revenge. The mayor required the chairman of the Judenrat, Topolowicz, to read the verdict, and in it indictments for: prohibited businesses, smuggling, price gouging, meaning sabotaging and hurting the German war economy. With Richter's order, the chairs were pulled away from the feet of the condemned by the Jew Abraham Alter Goldberg (nicknamed: the merciful). By the order of the authorities, the corpses were left hanging until nightfall.

After the public hanging, the terror did not stop in the Jewish quarter. The house searches continued, the beatings and murders (especially murders of smugglers), the kidnappings, and the deportations. The men watched themselves and hid; they did not sleep in their homes, due to information about different and incorrect kidnappings. One time the Germans attempted to seduce the men to come, on the pretext of signing new work documents, but also those Jews came who were sure they would not be deported. Another time the German police threatened to besiege Belchatow, but they broke through secretly during the night, into apartments in the Jewish quarters. This siege started on Erev Pesach [Passover] and continued for three days. With the assistance of the Jewish police, the Germans succeeded in locating and deporting approximately 400 Jews. According to one version, these were elderly, young children, and handicapped who were sent to destruction. According to another version, the kidnapped were taken to labor camps.

Immediately after Pesach (April 1942), the Germans placed a three-day total curfew on the Jews. German police surrounded the town. The Jews assumed that this was in anticipation of deportation, and prepared packages for the road. Only the sewing factory workers thought that they would remain. After three days, the curfew was lifted, and the deportation did not happen. On the first day of this action, Bogdanski (the chairman of the Judenrat after Ehrlich was hung and Topolowicz was dismissed) attempted to flee with his family to Piotrkow, with the aid of a bribed German driver, but the driver brought them to the police station. The Judenrat saved them from immediate death. But they were sent to the Radogoszcz camp, and there the entire family was murdered. Topolowicz was again appointed chairman of the Judenrat.

In the beginning of June 1942 there was again a hostage-taking on the labor force. As was done previously, all men were ordered to assemble at the Klug factory courtyard, but no one showed up and most hid. The Germans searched in houses, caught a number of men, and in the process killed some of them, and thereafter they brought 20 Jewesses to the German work department as hostages. Here they were ordered to disrobe to the nude; they were beaten with sticks and truncheons. On June 13, 1942, 115 Jews were taken from Belchatow to the Lodz Ghetto. Among them were also elderly and sick, and it seems they were taken to fill a quota. It is possible that, in addition to this deportation to the Lodz Ghetto, the Germans also sent more Jews from Belchatow to labor camps.

The final destruction of the Jewish settlement in Belchatow started on August 11, 1942. A short time before, the last chairman of the Judenrat, Topolowicz, was arrested and shot. The action started with the encirclement of the town by German police, in order that those Jews living in the town's outskirts should not be able to escape to the fields. In fact, there were a number of attempted escapes; some fugitives were shot and a few succeeded to escape, primarily to Piotrkow. The Jews who lived on the town's outskirts were roused from their beds during the night and brought partially naked to the synagogue courtyard. Early in the morning, they were joined by the Jewish quarter's populace, and somewhat later by the Jewish workers, primarily from the workshops. By German orders, the entire Jewish police force was mobilized. They were ordered to gather to Zlow street all of the elderly, children, and sick, and from there they were transported by wagon to the Chelmno death camp. Biebow, the head of the German administration in Lodz, conducted a selection with the assistance of the Gestapo. Those with work-cards and private workshop permits were placed to the side. On that same day (August 11), 852 men were transported in wagons to the Lodz Ghetto. These were men in their prime, with a few women among them. They arrived in the Lodz Ghetto without any packages. In the synagogue courtyard a group of 150-200 strong men were also separated from the multitude and were sent to cleanup and put into order the deserted Jewish quarter. The other Jews were crushed into the synagogue and were confined there for three days, without food and water. Thereafter they were transported by wagon to Chelmno for total destruction. To these deportees were added also hidden Jews, who were uncovered in the interim. During these three days, those Jews that were chosen to clean up the quarter and to gather the Jewish possessions returned to the synagogue, and there they were strip-searched and their bags were searched. This work was done by Jewish policemen that were sent from the Lodz Ghetto. This work continued for a number of days, and thereafter these men were deported; some of them, numbering 79, arrived on August 15, 1942 at the Lodz Ghetto. It is not known what happened to the other Jews – if they were sent to labor camps or annihilated. Of the Jews of Belchatow who were brought to the Lodz Ghetto, some were sent from there to labor, and some found themselves working in the ghetto's workshops.

Of Belchatow's Jewish inhabitants at the war's outbreak, approximately 400 survived the war, and among them are included individuals who were saved on the "Aryan" side. Most of the hidden ones perished (were either handed over to the Germans or were killed). In the area around Rodomsko, a Pole wielding a shoemaker's hammer killed two young girls from Belchatow, Witenberg and Zuchowska. After the war, Jews did not return to settle in Belchatow. During the years 1945-1946 the walls of the synagogue were still whole, but the interior was destroyed, and even the windowpanes were ripped out. After the obliteration of the Jewish settlement, the synagogue was turned into a straw and food warehouse. In 1944, a sport hall was set-up for the Germans. The cemetery was destroyed, and tombstones were uprooted: some streets and roads were paved with them, and some small bridges were also built from them.

Among the Jews that worked with the partisans during the occupation and in underground movements, one must mention Josef Reich, a member of the fighting organization in Stolpce and a partisan in the Posporski Battalion that operated in that area. A small group of Belchatow Jews had already escaped in 1939 to Bialystok, and after the outbreak of the German-Soviet Union war to Suprasl. With the elimination of that town's Jews, they escaped to partisan battalions in the forests of Bialystok, and were known as the "Suprasl Group". In the passing days, they joined the "Purwes" Partisan battalion. Active in this group were Hinda, Chaim and Moshe Kon and also Leib Pudlowski. Hinda Kon performed many heroic acts, and after the war received high Polish honor. Chaim Kon organized, among others activities, the exit of Jews from the Bialystok Ghetto to the forest. Afterwards he escaped from the train that was taking him to Treblinka. He fell battling the Germans during the Bialystok Ghetto uprising (August 1943).


IYUSH: JM 1209/4 (PH 10a-2-8);03/3178
AZM: S.26-1208
AP Lodz: Anteriora PRG 2496, 2497;PRG 38,62,66,79; PRG (WA) 6819,6821,7165;SGL 6760,7690
Belchatow,Yizkor-Book, Buenos Aires, 1951; The Remembrance Book about the Radomsko Community, Tel Aviv, 1967, VII 300; Piotrkow, Treblinka and the surrounding area, Tel Aviv 1965, VII 192,202., 913-915.

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Contact person for this translation Roni Seibel Liebowitz
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Updated 8 Oct 2012 by LA