05.06.2023 | Redaktor

Testimony of Leon Epstein: devastation of the old Jewish cemetery

While searching the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute, I found the testimony of Leon (Leib) Epstein, the uncle of the still living Polaniecki brothers. (Polaniecki family, parents and four sons, fled from Brzesko to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the war, thanks to which they managed to survive. After the war, the family emigrated to the USA, where three Polaniecki brothers and descendants of all four of them live now.) Before the war, Brzesko-born Leib Epstein, brother of Freidel Polaniecki née Epstein, lived with his family in Katowice, where he had a wholesale business of paints. In 1930s Leib offered paints needed to restore the Main Brzesko synagogue, which had burnt down during the great 1904 fire. Leib was imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp, but managed to survive the war. His wife, Gitel nee Kafer, and sons Josef (1930) and Gutman (1932) were murdered during the Holocaust.

Testimony of Leon (Leib) Epstein, recorded on November 2, 1948, Jewish Historical institute, Accounts of Jewish survivors, reference number 301/3286:

Epsztajn Leon, born on January 18, 1889 in Brzesko, son of Izak and Jochweta née Langer, resident in Katowice, ul. Słowackiego 23/6, merchant, prisoner of Oświęcim No. 161423.

Gitel (Gusta) Epstein nee Kafer with husband Leib (Leon) Epstein; photo taken in 1934 in the resort town of Szczyrk in Poland. Photo from Yad VaShem database

“In the second half of 1940, I received an order from the Judenrat in Krakow to leave Krakow with my family. This action addressed all the Jews who came to Krakow from various places during the war. Since I lived in Katowice before the war, I was also included in this action. We could go to any city in the general governorate as long as we left Krakow, the Judenrat issued passes.

I went with my family to Brzesko, because that’s where I came from and I had my parents and siblings there.

Gitel Epstein nee Kafer together with sons Gutman (Gutek) and Jozef; all three murdered in the Holocaust. Photo from Yad VaShem database

At that time, Brzesko had about 6,000 inhabitants, including 4,000 Jews.

Before the war, there were about 2,000 Jews in Brzesko, but during the war many refugees came from Silesia, Germany, Austria, Czech, Krakow and other cities. When I came to Brzesko, there was no ghetto yet. Jews could still live outside the city and in various nearby villages. I lived in Okocim – a village near Brzesko. Jews still had their own shops, but only small ones. The larger stores were taken from the Jews by the Germans. Jews continued to run their craft workshops.

There was German military police and a Landrat in Brzesko (the general governorate was divided into counties headed by landrats – A.B.). Landrat’s name was Starz. Brzesko belonged to the Kreis Tarnów.

When I came to Brzesko, the entire Jewish population was already wearing white armbands with David’s shield on their left hand; there was a special curfew for the Jews. The compliance with these regulations was supervised by Polish and German police. My relatives told me that at the beginning of the occupation in 1939, a car with Gestapo men from Tarnów came to Brzesko, who stopped in front of the synagogue, brought grenades into the synagogue and the whole building was set on fire. When I came to Brzesko, only the walls of the synagogue were standing. With the permission of the German authorities, local peasants dismantled the walls and took bricks as building materials.

In 1941, by order of Landrat Starz, the old Jewish cemetery was liquidated. Following the order of the Landrat, the Judenrat had to appoint Jews who had to take the tombstones with their own hands. All the tombstones were taken to the Market Square in Brzesko and were used to pave the alley. The Jews did all this work. The cemetery was turned into Landrat’s private garden. The new cemetery was preserved, and only after all the Jews had been displaced, the valuable monuments were removed by the Germans…”

Later Mr. Epstein describes in his testimony life in the ghetto, the action in June 1942 and the liquidation of the ghetto in September 1942.

The old Jewish cemetery in Brzesko on the 1847 map. Photo from the website szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl
The old jewish cemetery in Brzesko on the 1939 map. Photo from “Chronicles of the town of Brzesko” by Jan Burlikowski
Present-day photo with the area of the old Jewish cemetery marked on it.
Remains of the fence indicate the border of the old Jewish cemetery.
Monument commemorating people buried at the old Jewish cemetery in Brzesko. It was erected in 2018.

This is the first known account on the destiny of the old Jewish cemetery in Brzesko. It is hard to imagine the feelings of people who were step by step stripped of their dignity, forced to desecrate the graves of their ancestors. Two years later Brzesko Jews were murdered in Bełżec. And these tombstones most likely still lie under the surface of the Brzesko Market Square.

© Anna Brzyska, 2023