Piotrków Trybunalski during the Holocaust
Deportations from the Ghetto and the Destruction of the Jewish Community in Piotrków Trybunalski
In the second half of 1941 the ghetto was more stringently isolated and the persecution of the Jews increased. In July of 1941 a number of Judenrat members were arrested, including the chairman, Zalman Tannenberg, together with a number of the ghetto’s administrative staff, and members of the Bund. In September some of them were deported from Piotrków Trybunalski and apparently murdered following the discovery of their underground activities. Following these murders a second Judenrat was appointed, with Dr. Shimon Warschawski appointed as its head.
In April 1942 the ghetto was sealed, its borders narrowed, and the overcrowding intensified. At this time, during the Passover holiday, two young men who had escaped from the death camp of Chełmno arrived in the ghetto; they had been part of a work detail in Chełmno which had been temporarily kept alive. The young men spoke about the mass murder, but most of the ghetto residents disbelieved the news. Polish railway workers sent word of the deportation of the Jews of Lublin, of the massacre at Tarnów and of the Great Deportation of Warsaw, events which took place in the spring and summer of 1942. However, the Germans sent forged greeting cards to the ghetto from Jews who had been deported from various cities and were now supposedly held in forced labor camps in the East. It seems that only as late as August 1942, when they heard of the deportation of the Jews of Radom and Kiełcze, did the Jewish community in Piotrków Trybunalski understand that the same fate awaited them. At the end of September 1942 word was received of the deportation of the Jews of nearby Częstochowa, news which intensified the fears of the community in Piotrków Trybunalski.
In October Jews from the surrounding towns were deported to the Piotrków Trybunalski Ghetto. The Germans allowed them to bring with them large quantities of material possessions, perhaps in order to assuage the fears of the Jews of Piotrków Trybunalski. Despite this maneuver, the Jews did what they could in order to find work places that would protect them from deportation – the Judenrat had learned that the Germans planned on keeping some 3,000 Jewish laborers in the city. Subsequently the Judenrat increased the number of workshops as well as their output, and Jews paid factory owners in order to secure work places for themselves and their family members. Other Jews prepared hiding places within the ghetto territory, and yet others sold their belongings to Polish residents and packed their remaining items, under the assumption that they would indeed be deported to work camps in the East. A small minority attempted to obtain forged identification papers as non-Jews, or to secure hiding places with Polish residents. In meetings of the Judenrat and the heads of the Jewish community, an agreement was reached to avoid any organized resistance, as this would result in the massacre of the entire community. The deportations were to be resisted by attempting to obtain work permits and to secure hiding places.
Jewish youth who belonged to political organizations considered trying to obtain weapons to fight, but they abandoned this aim in light of the position held by the Judenrat members, Rabbi Lau, and the leaders of the political parties. As noted, the latter assumed that resistance would lead to the murder of the entire ghetto, while work permits and hiding places stood the chance of saving thousands of Jews. Attempts at creating contact with the Polish partisans failed. On Yom Kippur, 21 September 1942, Rabbi Lau delivered a farewell sermon.
On the 12th of October 1942, Ukrainian units arrived in the city. The factory directors ordered their workers to take up residence at their work places, together with their families and belongings. On the 15th of October the deportation began. The residents of the ghetto were ordered to gather at the square next to the Franciscan monastery. The sick and disabled were loaded onto carts and driven to the square. Jews assisted in this process, including members of the Jewish Order Police. After the Jews had been concentrated in the deportation square, German policemen conducted a thorough search of the Jewish houses, and shot any Jews found hiding.
The SS performed a selection on the Jews gathered in the square. Jews with work permits were allowed to remain in the ghetto. Of the 25,000 Jews in the ghetto, between 18,000 and 22,000 Jews were deported, in a series of three or four transports. The deportation process lasted for a full week, and the Germans did not allow the Jews to take with them the possessions which they had packed. The Germans included members of the Judenrat in the last transport, along with rabbis and other persons of note. All the deportees were sent to Treblinka, where they were murdered.
After the deportation, only 2,000 to 2,400 Jews holding work permits remained in the city, along with several members of the Judenrat and Jews who had hidden with Poles or in hiding places that they had prepared in advance. Gradually, over a thousand Jews who had survived in hiding emerged from their hiding places and infiltrated the forced labor camp which had been established in a residential block. In this manner the number of Jews living in the ghetto increased to between 3,600 and 4,000. The Jews of the Piotrków Trybunalski forced labor camp worked in factories and workshops, as well as in collecting and sorting the belongings of those Jews who had been deported to their deaths. The camp block was placed under curfew at night, and any Jew who was found outside of the block was shot by the Germans. Many Jews were caught hiding in cellars under the city market; they were murdered on the spot or sent to the ghetto in Tomaszów Mazowiecki, which was in the process of being liquidated. Jews caught in the work block without a work permit were concentrated in Piotrków Trybunalski’s synagogue where they remained for several weeks. In the winter of 1942-1943 these Jews – numbering perhaps a few hundred – were taken to a forest near Raków and shot. The shootings took place on several separate dates. On the 19th of December 1942, the Germans took dozens of Jews from the synagogue, provided them with shovels, and ordered them to dig large ditches. When their labor was complete, the Germans ordered them to strip. The Jews understood they were about to be murdered, and some of them charged the Germans with their shovels, or their bare hands. Some Jews escaped but the majority was apprehended by the Germans, or by local Polish residents, who then turned them over to the German authorities, and murdered.
At the beginning of 1943 some 500 Jews from the work block were sent to the munitions factory in Skarżysko-Kamienna. Following this, some of the Jews who remained in the Piotrków Trybunalski work block were shot, and in July 1943 most of the remaining Jews were deported. Some 1,700 were retained in other camps around the city, and employed in the nearby glass and wood factories. Between 500 and 600 Jews were sent to forced labor camps – they were promised that their wives and children would be housed under good conditions, but in actuality they were shot. Following this deportation, the Germans hung a sign at the Piotrków Trybunalski train station: “Piotrków Trybunalski is Judenrein (free of Jews)”.
Those Jews who remained in the city continued to be active in trade, in political causes, and in smuggling underground literature, newspapers and money to those Jews who were incarcerated in the German camps. They continued to practice traditional Judaism, and maintained contacts with Jews from Piotrków Trybunalski who had been deported to forced labor camps – in part, through the assistance of the PPS (the Polish Socialist Party, or Polska Partia Socjalistyczna). A joint committee, unifying all of the various political factions, was established in the Karo glass factory. The joint committee brought together members from the underground of the forced labor camps of Skarżysko-Kamienna and Blizin, the factory manager Gomberg, the chief of the Jewish Order Police, Joseph Zemel, and Monik Greenberg – all three of whom had been officers in the Polish military.
In November 1944 the camps located near the factory in Piotrków Trybunalski were liquidated. Members of the SS took the Jewish men to the armaments factory in Częstochowa and the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. The Jewish women were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany.
After the end of the war only a small number of Jews returned to Piotrków Trybunalski. In October 1945 some 370 Jews were to be found there. Two years later, there were again Jewish Socialist parties to be found in the city. However, most of the surviving Jews of Piotrków Trybunalski chose to leave Poland. Today, there are no known Jews in the city.