July 10, 1941 – Jedwabne Massacre of Jews in Poland

On this day in history, a group of some forty Polish residents, recruited by the Germans and by the order of the Polish mayor, rounded up at least 340 Polish Jews, including their own neighbors as well as some forty other Jews from nearby towns who had sought refuge in Jedwabne. The Jews were taken to the town square, attacked, and beaten. Some forty were killed on the square. The others were then taken to a barn, locked in, and burned alive in the presence of eight German gendarmes, who shot those who tried to escape. German photographers took pictures.

The participation of fellow villagers rather than Germans was not revealed until the publication of a book in 2000, Neighbours: The Destruction Of The Jewish Community In Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton), written by Jan Gross, a Polish academic who had emigrated to the United States. Gross estimated the total number of Jews slaughtered at 1,600. In a 2003 study, Dariusz Stola fo the Polish Academy of Sciences, reviews available evidence about the actual number of victims.

An investigation by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) confirmed that the pogrom was committed by Polish inhabitants of the town but they attributed responsibility for the crime to the Germans, who “inspired” it. The IPN added that the majority of Jedwabne residents were “utterly passive,” and did not “participate” in the pogrom.

The IPN reported that a small group of Jews survived the massacre, and were transferred by the Germans to a ghetto in Lomza. The number of Polish Jews compressed in the Lomza Ghetto ranged over time from 10,000 to 18,000. They came from the villages of Jedwabne, Stawiski, Piątnica, Łomża, Wizna, Rotki and others. The Ghetto was liquidated on November 1, 1942, when all inhabitants were shipped out to extermination camps.

Oct. 14, 1943 – Uprising at the Nazi concentration camp of Sobibor

An an estimated 250,000 Jews were murdered in the Sobibor Nazi extermination camp, near the present-day eastern border of Poland.

Sobibor was constructed in the spring of 1942 along the Chelm-Wlodawa railway line, in a wooded, swampy, and thinly populated region. It was small and cramped, with barbed-wire fences and a 50-foot-wide minefield surrounding the area. Before the gas chambers was a road called Himmelfahrsstrasse: “Road to Heaven.”

The camp was run by a small staff of German SS and police officials and a police auxiliary guard unit of between 90 and 120 men, all of whom were either former Soviet prisoners of war of various nationalities or Ukrainian and Polish civilians selected or recruited for this purpose. All members of the guard unit were trained at a special facility of the SS and Police Leader in Lublin, the Trawniki training camp.

After some experimentation, the camp authorities began regular gassing operations in May 1942. When trains arrived at the station, the camp guards ordered the victims out of the trains and ordered them to turn over their valuables. They were then forced to undress and sent into the “showers” which were actually gas chambers. Once the chamber doors were sealed, in an adjacent room guards started an engine which piped in carbon monoxide, killing all those inside.

In the autumn of 1942, the staff, using Jewish forced laborers, began to exhume the mass graves and to burn the bodies on open-air “ovens” made from rail track. The Germans also utilized a machine to crush bone fragments into powder. These efforts aimed at obliterating all traces of mass murder.

In the spring of 1943, after the prisoners received intelligence about the dismantling and liquidation of the Belzec (Poland) killing center, they organized a resistance group and planned an uprising.

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On October 14, 1943, with approximately 600 prisoners left in the camp, the uprising began, with prisoners succeeding in killing nearly a dozen German personnel and guards. Around 300 prisoners succeeded in breaking out of the killing center that day; around 100 were caught in the dragnet that followed and more than half of the remaining survivors did not live to see the end of the war.

After the revolt, the killing center was dismantled and the Jewish prisoners who had not escaped during the uprising were shot.

Source: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

June 10, 1944 – Himmler Orders Liquidation of Lodz Ghetto in German-Occupied Polish Territory

On this day in history, Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the remaining residents of the Lodz Ghetto in German-occupied Polish territory.

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On November 7, 1939, Lodz had been incorporated into the Third Reich and the Nazis changed its name to Litzmannstadt (“Litzmann’s city”) – named after a German general who died while attempting to conquer Lodz in World War I.

The Nazis wanted Jews concentrated in one area in order to facilitate their transfer and eventual elimination. A couple of ghettos had already been established in other parts of Polish territory, but with much smaller Jewish populations. Lodz had a Jewish population estimated at 230,000.

On February 8, 1940, the order to establish the Lodz ghetto was announced. An area of only 4.3 square kilometers was designated and Jews from throughout the city were ordered to move into the sectioned-off area. The Jews were packed tightly within the confines of the ghetto with an average of 3.5 people per room. In April a fence went up surrounding the ghetto and on May 1, 1940, only eight months after the German invasion, the Lodz ghetto was officially sealed.

A German postcard showing the entrance to the Lodz ghetto. The sign reads "Jewish residential area—entry forbidden." Lodz, Poland, 1940-1941. — US Holocaust Memorial Museum

A German postcard showing the entrance to the Lodz ghetto. The sign reads “Jewish residential area—entry forbidden.” Lodz, Poland, 1940-1941.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Nazis decided to have the Jews pay for their own food, security, sewage removal, and all other expenses incurred by their continuing incarceration. They also appointed one Jew responsible for the ghetto administration, 62-year-old Mordekchai Chaim Rumkowski.

Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz Ghetto

Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz Ghetto

With all those people confined to a very small area that had no farmland, food quickly became a problem. Rumkowski believed that if the ghetto became an extremely useful workforce, then the Jews would be needed by the Nazis and thus, the Nazis would make sure that the ghetto received food.

On April 5, 1940, Rumkowski petitioned the Nazi authorities requesting permission for his work plan. The Nazis eventually agreed that they would deliver raw materials, Jews would make the final products, and the Nazis would pay in food, but in an amount and on a schedule they determined.

Rumkowski immediately began setting up factories and all those able and willing to work were found jobs. The food entered the ghetto in bulk and was distributed by Rumkowski’s officials. This consolidated Rumkowski’s power in the ghetto, since everyone’s survival was now dependent on his dispersal of food, of which there was very little.

Jewish children working in the Lodz Ghetto

Jewish children working in the Lodz Ghetto

As ghetto residents continued to starve, they became increasingly suspicious of Rumkowski and his officials, who appeared well nourished and healthy in spite of the rampant disease and hunger throughout the ghetto. When dissenters of the Rumkowski rule voiced their opinions, Rumkowski made speeches labeling them traitors to the cause. Rumkowski believed that these people were a direct threat to his strategy and punished them further. When the Nazis later gave Rumkowski the job of naming residents for deportations, dissidents were the first to go.

Children in the Lodz Ghetto 1941

Children in the Lodz Ghetto 1941

Adding to the tensions were the daily arrivals of additional people. In the fall of 1941, 20,000 Jews from other areas of the Reich and 5,000 Roma (“Gypsies”) were transferred to the Lodz ghetto.

Deportations to death camps began in January, 1942. Rumkowksi and his officials had been ordered in December to compile lists of those slated to go, beginning with 10,000 names. Approximately one thousand people per day left on the trains. These people were taken to the Chelmno death camp and gassed by carbon monoxide in trucks. By January 19, 1942, 10,003 people had been deported. By April 2, another 34,073 had been sent to Chelmno. In September 1942, everyone unable to work was to be deported, including the sick, the elderly, and children.

A destitute girl sits on the curb of a street of the Lodz ghetto sm

On June 10, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the final liquidation of the ghetto. When the Nazis decided to close Chelmno because Soviet troops were getting close, the remaining transports went to Auschwitz.

On August 4, 1944, a last transport of 74,000 Jews from Lodz was sent out from the ghetto on its way to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. A few remaining workers were retained by the Nazis to finish confiscating materials and valuables out of the ghetto, but everyone else had to go, including Rumkowski and his family.

Five months later, on January 19, 1945, the Soviets liberated the Lodz ghetto.

Only 877 Jews remained from the more than 245,000 who were interned in the ghetto since its opening in 1939.

January 18, 1943 – First Open Jewish Resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto

Under the cover of World War II, Nazi Germany had begun a genocidal program to deal with “the Jewish problem.” As a first step, the Nazis herded Jews into geographically small ghettos where starvation and disease could take their toll, thus lessening the workload for the extermination camps. On Yom Kippur, October 12, 1940, the Nazis announced the building of Jewish residential quarters in Warsaw. Close to 400,000 Jews (30% of the Warsaw population) were forced to occupy an area consisting of some ten streets (2.4% of the city’s area). (Warsaw’s pre-war Jewish population in 1939 was 393,950 Jews.) Jews were also deported into the ghetto from other places, and the population of the ghetto reached more than half a million people.

Starving children in the Warsaw ghetto

Starving children in the Warsaw ghetto

Beginning in the summer of 1942, the first mass deportations of Jews from the ghetto to the death camps began. Between July 22 and September 12, 1942, the German authorities deported or murdered around 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. The number of deportees averaged about 5,000-7,000 people daily, and reached a high of 13,000. The German authorities granted only 35,000 Jews permission to remain in the ghetto, while more than 20,000 Jews remained in the ghetto in hiding. For the 55,000-60,000 Jews remaining in the Warsaw ghetto, deportation and death seemed inevitable.

In the summer of 1942, however, several Jewish underground organizations created armed self-defense units. They obtained a small number of weapons from the Polish military underground that October.

When a second wave of deportations to the Treblinka killing center began on January 18, 1943, Jewish fighters armed with pistols infiltrated a column of Jews being forced to the Umschlagplatz (transfer point) and, at a prearranged signal, broke ranks and fought their German escorts. This unexpected Jewish armed resistance caused the Nazis to retreat from the ghetto after four days. Members of the ghetto population began to construct subterranean bunkers and shelters in preparation for the next series of deportations.

Guards peer into a doorway at bodies of Jews killed during the uprising

Guards peer into a doorway at bodies of Jews killed during the uprising

The German forces decided to begin the operation of the total liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto on April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover, with the goal of finishing the job on the next day, in honor of Hitler’s birthday. But when SS and police units entered the ghetto that morning, the streets were deserted. Nearly all of the residents of the ghetto had gone into hiding places or bunkers. The rest, some 750 Jews – ragged, starving and barely armed, began firing at Hitler’s soldiers with smuggled guns, Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. On the fifth day of battle, they issued a proclamation to the Polish population outside the ghetto walls: “Let it be known that every threshold in the ghetto has been and will continue to be a fortress, that we may all perish in this struggle, but we will not surrender.” They did not inflict more than a few hundred German casualties, but diverted over 2,000 German troops for some six weeks, and inspired many other Jews to acts of resistance.

On May 8, 1943, the Germans discovered the main command post in the ghetto, located at Miła 18 Street. (From thence comes the name of Leon Uris’s novel about the uprising, Mila 18.) Most of the leadership and dozens of remaining fighters were killed, while others committed mass suicide by ingesting cyanide. The suppression of the uprising officially ended on May 16, 1943. Approximately 13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto during the uprising. Of the remaining 50,000 residents, most were captured and shipped to concentration and extermination camps, in particular to Treblinka.

Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943. The original German caption reads: "Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs".

Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler from May 1943. The original German caption reads: “Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs”.

Hirsh Glick (1920-1944), a poet and partisan in the Vilna Ghetto, wrote “The Partisan Hymn” when he heard about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It became the battle song of the underground Jewish resistance movement. It was written in Yiddish, and is widely known by its Yiddish title, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol!” An English translation is shown below.

Never say that you are going your last way,
Though lead-filled skies above blot out the blue of day.
The hour for which we long will certainly appear.
The earth shall thunder ‘neath our tread that we are here!

From lands of green palm trees to lands all white with snow,
We are coming with our pain and with our woe,
And where’er a spurt of our blood did drop,
Our courage will again sprout from that spot.

For us the morning sun will radiate the day,
And the enemy and past will fade away,
But should the dawn delay or sunrise wait too long.
Then let all future generations sing this song.

This song was written with our blood and not with lead,
This is no song of free birds flying overhead,
But a people amid crumbling walls did stand,
They stood and sang this song with rifles held in hand.

(Translated by Elliot Palevsky)

Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw ghetto

Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw ghetto