Polish Jews in World War II

Jews in Polish Cities

     The Jewish population made up about one-third of the population of cities in central Poland. They made up about 50%, and in some cases even 70% of the population of smaller towns, especially in Eastern Poland. Their domain included commerce, the crafts, industry and professions such as medicine and legal practice. In Warsaw, over 60% of all physicians were Jewish. Jews contributed not only to the development of housing in the cities, but also to municipal services thanks to their various public buildings (community buildings and organizational seats), cultural facilities (schools and theaters), religious buildings (temples, synagogues, and cemeteries), and communal buildings (hospitals, orphanages, and social care homes). These mementos of Jewish life were almost totally obliterated during World War II by the Nazi barbarism rampant in most cities. The largest proportion of that which survived may be seen in Warsaw and Cracow. Few such souvenirs have been preserved in such favorite health spas as Ciechocinek, Busko-Zdroj (still boasting an old synagogue), and Krynica.


      About 380,000 Jews lived in Warsaw in 1939; they made up one third of the city's population. Warsaw was the hub of the vibrant political, social, and cultural life of Polish Jews. The Great Synagogue on Tlomackie was blown up in May of 1943 by the Nazis as a gesture of "victory" over the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The beautiful, round synagogue located in Warsaw's Prague District was also devastated and ultimately demolished during the nineteen-fifties The only synagogue to have survived wartime calamities was the one founded in 1902 by a wealthy Warsaw merchant, Zalman Nozyk, and his wife, for the sum of 250,000 rubles; today it is known as the Nozyk Synagogue Devastated during the occupation, this building was renovated after the war, and subsequently reconstructed between 1977 and 1983 thanks to financial aid from the State. Services are held there on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays; once each month recordings of synagogue and Chassidic music from many Polish centers may be heard there.

Warsaw's Cemeteries

      The oldest Jewish cemetery in Warsaw was the Brodno Jewish Cemetery It was founded in 1799 by Szmul Zbytkower. The war is responsible for the complete devastation of this cemetery. Renovation renovation of what was left were undertaken there in 1985 thanks to the efforts of the Nissenbaum Family Foundation. The cemetery has been fenced off and a main gate has been erected in the form of two twenty-six foot pylons faced with black granite sculptured in bas-relief depicting symbolic scenes of Jewish martyrology. The construction of a mausoleum and monument, a house of prayer, and information and meeting center are also planned. The Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery is the largest one in Warsaw and is still in use. This cemetery dates from the beginning of the 19th century. Many beautiful, richly ornamented, gravestones display lions, deer, plant life, and trees. The graves of members of priestly or Kohanin families present hands folded in a gesture of blessing,. Those belonging to Levite families depict hands carrying a jug of water. A hand inserting a coin into an alms box is the mark of a philanthropist, while a hand holding a book designates a scholar. Several eminent politicians are buried at this cemetery S. Mendelson and F. Perl, so too are rabbis Meisels and Abraham Perlmutter. Scholars S. Dickstein, Szymon Askenazy, Majer Balaban (Director of the Warsaw Rabbinical College during the 19th century), Antoni Eisenbaum and Jakub Tugenhold. Writers have their gravestones and mausoleums here as well including I. L. Perec, S. An-ski, Dinezon, and C. Z. Slonimski. The creator of Esperanto, Dr. Ludwik Zamenhof, is buried here, as are the famous Polish paremiologist Samuel Adalberg, the well known publisher Samuel Orgelbrand, and people with such famous names as the Natansons, Epsteins, Toeplitzes, Wawelbergs, Rotwands, etc. The grave of Szmul Zbytkower was moved here from the Br—dno Cemetery. A monument commemorating Dr. Janusz Korczak was erected a few years ago. This cemetery also has a section with the graves of Jewish officers and enlisted men - soldiers of the Polish Army - who lost their lives in the defense of Warsaw in 1939, as well as a mass grave for 300 victims of the Nazis. The gravestones of those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto, including Adam Czerniakow, the president of the Jewish community (Judenrat), and his wife who died after the war, are also to be found in this cemetery; there are also the mass graves of those who died of starvation, disease or were killed.

The Warsaw Ghetto

       In mid-1940 Warsaw Jews, and those deported from many places throughout Western Europe, found themselves enclosed behind the walls of the ghetto. Its population reached one half of a million people who vegetated under terrible conditions suffering from hunger and disease. Mass deportations to the death camp in Treblinka were initiated during the summer of 1942. The first sign of armed resistance flared up in January of 1943 (around 60,000 people still lived in the Ghetto at the time) when the Nazis began their annihilation of the Ghetto; it forced the enemy into retreat and a temporary abandonment of their aim. Another attempt at extermination commenced on April 19th of the same year and resulted in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization, under the command of Mordechaj Anielewicz, together with those of the Jewish Military Union, had a well developed network of bunkers and fortifications. Over 2,000 heavily armed soldiers of the Wehrmacht and SS assailed the fighters. The Polish Underground actively supported the Ghetto Uprising; it supplied arms and organized military actions. On May 8th, after an admirable defense, the bunker at Mila 18 Street fell, and the staff of the Jewish Combat Organization, together with their commander all gave up their lives. The uprising fell by mid-May, but sporadic fighting continued well into the middle of July. A portion of those insurgents who survived were evacuated by the Polish Resistance to the "Arian" side via sewers. The figures quoted in General Stroop's report speak of 56,065 captured Jews of which 7,000 were summarily executed while the remainder were deported to Treblinka. Nazis put the figure of fighters killed in action at 5,565. The Polish underground press estimated enemy loses at 400 killed and 1,000 wounded. The waves caused by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising were felt in other ghettos - Bialystok, Czestochowa, Bedzin, and Cracow - where similar actions, though smaller in scale, were triggered off.

Places of Remembrance in Warsaw

      The site of the bunker on Mila Street,where the chief staff of the Jewish Combat Organization committed suicide (in order not to fall into enemy hands) together with M. Anielewicz (whose name is borne by one of the surrounding streets) is marked by a commemorative stone slab engraved in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

       The Memorial of the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto is located on a square which was once the site of one the main bunkers of the Jewish Combat Organization. This monument is the work of Natan Rappaport; it is made of the bronze and granite (labradorite) ordered by Hitler from Sweden in 1942 for a monument "honoring the victory of Germany." The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial was unveiled on April 19th, 1948 - the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw ghetto Uprising. The Germans deported 300,000 Jews to Treblinka during the summer of 1942; their journey began from a ramp, known as Umschlag-platz, on Stawki Street. A commemorative Gateway-Monument was unveiled at the spot where Jews were loaded onto the railroad cars on the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The names of 400 Jews are etched on it. This gate is intended as the kernel of a mausoleum, monument, and museum devoted to the memory of this tragic place. Another spot which remembers murdered Jews is in the nearby town of Anin. There, on Poprzeczna Street, the Nazis shot 45 Jews in July of 1942.


      The city of Lodz was one of the largest Jewish centers at the outbreak of World War II. Several large textile mills were in the hands of Jewish families. The I. K. Poznanski plant, for example, was one of the largest in Europe. Not far from the plant was a palace with magnificently furnished interiors graced by the paintings of the famous painter S. Hirszenberg. The Historical Museum of the City of Lodz is presently housed in this building.

      About 33% of Lodz's population was Jewish during the period between the two World Wars (202,497 in 1931); of these, 870 survived the war. Lodz was an important center of culture. The city is the birthplace of famous composer Aleksander Tansman and the world renown pianist Artur Rubinstein and the great poet Julian Tuwim.

The Cracow Ghetto

      The Ghetto in Cracow existed until March 13th, 1943. It was where the Jewish Combat Organization operated, eliminating informers and organizing resistance. There is a commemorative plaque located on the building which housed the headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organization honoring the Heroes of the Ghetto. Of the 68,000 Jews closed up in the Cracow Ghetto, few survived. Those that have, did so thanks only to the help of Poles. Most were murdered in the camps of Plaszow near Cracow, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau (Oswiecim).

Lubin - Majdanek

      LUBLIN - MAJDANEK Lublin boasted the world's largest Talmudic school, Jeshybot. The building has survived; it now houses the Medical Academy (the Collegium Maius). A monument commemorating the 300,000 Jews murdered in the province was unveiled in 1962. There is also a Jewish cemetery in Lublin with graves of famous rabbis dating from the beginning of the 16th century. Almost two miles [3 km] from the city center is the Majdanek death camp, second only to those in Treblinka and Oswiecim. Here, tens of thousands of people were shot, gassed with Zyclon B, and incinerated; most were Jews. The tragic history of this camp is presented in a museum there. Another death camp in the same province, Belzec, has a monument commemorating the half million Jews murdered there. The Nazis eradicated all traces of their crimes here. The same is true of the camp in Sobibor, where 250,000 Jews from many countries were killed; this camp also has a monument. Jews from Poland and other countries were also exterminated in many other camps. Any trip through Polish towns will turn up many monuments and plaques in memory of Jewish martyrology. Over three million Jews died in the Nazi death camps on Polish soil. Tens of thousands were saved by their fellow citizens - Poles who risked their lives in order to give them shelter. It should be borne in mind that Poland was the only country where death at the hands of the Nazis was the punishment for aiding Jews.

Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau

      The Nazis located the largest extermination camp, designated exclusively for the murdering of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, the ghettos of other cities, as well as for thousands of Jews from nine other European nations, a few dozen miles outside of Warsaw at Treblinka. People were unloaded onto specially designed ramps, poisoned using Zyclon or exhaust fumes, and burned in piles or pits because the through-put of the crematories was insufficient. Clothes, valuables, women's hair, etc. was shipped to Germany. This extermination was not documented. Fellow prisoners - Jews - were forced to service the gas chambers, and assist in the cremation of the bodies and their robbing. An armed rebellion of prisoners flared up on August 2nd, 1943; several members of the SS lost their lives. Of the several hundred escaped Jews, only a few rescued themselves. About 800,000 Jews lost their lives in Treblinka; about 10% of this number were citizens of countries other than Poland. The Nazis then concealed evidence of their crimes: they destroyed almost all of the gas chambers, plowed the earth, and demolished the barracks. A monument, mausoleum, and symbolic cemetery containing 17,000 stones now stands on the site of the camp.

      Auschwitz is considered to have been the largest factory of death in the history of humanity. Many millions of people lost their lives there, this number includes Jews from all over Europe. The site of this camp now houses the Oswiecim State Museum, which displays exhibits and documents concerning Nazi crimes. Block No. 27 is devoted to the martyrology of Jews and the millions murdered here. A monument has been raised on the site of the "auxiliary" camp, Brzezinka [Birkenau].