04.04.2022 | Redaktor

03. Mass graves

Jews constituted two-thirds of the pre-war inhabitants of Brzesko. World War II meant the end of the Brzesko Jewish community. The Germans started persecuting Jews immediately after they occupied Brzesko on 5 September 1939. They set fire to the main synagogue, and at the end of September, they imposed on Jews a contribution of 40 000 zlotys. In spring 1941, Germans established ghetto in Brzesko, where by spring 1942 about 6 thousand Jews from Brzesko, other towns and neighbouring villages were gathered. In 1942, Actions began in the city, during which the Germans murdered Jews in the streets and in their apartments. In September 1942, the ghetto was liquidated. Several hundred people were shot in the town and remaining Jews were deported to Bełżec. Testimonies of the few surviving Jews and their Catholic neighbours make it possible to understand at least to some extent what was happening in the town in those years.

“During the occupation, the Germans gathered in the ghetto Jews who had come to their families in Brzesko, Jews who had been brought from villages of the Brzesko poviat, and Jews who had settled and registered in Brzesko before September 1, 1939.

All together there were 4,000 to 5,000 Jews in the ghetto. In 1940-1942, teams of German gendarmes hunted down Jews and organized pogroms. The corpses were transported in a town hall cart to the Jewish cemetery and there, after the bodies had been poured with lime, they were buried in mass graves. From 400 to 500 people were murdered in this way.

Regardless of that, Jews were transported from Brzesko to Tarnów and murdered there in a forest belonging to the Zbylitowska Góra community.

During the liquidation of the Brzesko ghetto in the fall of 1942, many Jews were sent by train from Słotwina to Bełżec.” (From the archive of the Institute of National Remembrance, reference number IPN Kr 1/1276)

Jews at the Brzesko Market square during German occupation. Brzesko-born Holocaust survivor Dov Landau recognized Monderer spouses on this photo. Abraham Monderer had a small shop at the Brzesko Market square where he sold bread, flour, eggs and milk. Photo from the collection of Marek Sukiennik.

From the testimony by Brzesko resident Władysław Myśliński written down in 1967:

“Spring 1941. One of the so called “Jewish actions”, mass shooting of Jews – in the streets, shops, in their own houses and apartments.

There was no ghetto in Brzesko back then. Jewish houses and flats had to be clearly marked with big Stars of David so that Germans would know where to look for Jews. Poles had plaques with the sign ”Aryan” on their houses, and often also pictures of saints so that to confirm that the place belonged to Catholics.

During such Actions it was strictly forbidden to hide anybody in Catholic houses, and especially Jews – the only punishment for not following the orders was death. Jews had to stay in their own flats. These actions had not been foretold – one would suddenly hear the sounds of shots all over the town, and the next moment the dead were everywhere. Jews tried to find some hiding places so that at least that time to escape the deadly meeting with those German murderers.

Germans would burst into the houses with the Star of David and shoot whoever they would see. They pulled out those hiding in the attics, cellars, under the beds and shot them in their heads, chest, bellies. They didn’t wait to make sure that the victim was dead – it seemed that they had always been in a hurry chasing the next victims, leaving behind spattered walls and flats flooded with blood…

Six actions had been carried out in the city before all the Jews were forced to move to the ghetto (it happened in mid-April of 1941 in Brzesko)… They usually lasted for 2-3 hours and initially resulted in about 100 victims, but later – over 500 murdered. After the first actions, the remaining Jews were forced to carry the bodies to their cemetery and bury them in mass graves. They performed this task together with their women and children. They dug large pits at the cemetery, gathered the bodies all over the city and carried them to the cemetery in self-made hand-barrows till late at night.

For Brzesko Jews, this duty was yet another tragic experience beyond their strength. Exhausted by fear, pain, suffering, they struggled  carrying their dead ones along the side streets towards the cemetery. Surviving elderly men, women and children tried to help each other in their devoted efforts to fulfill this painful duty so that to erase the traces of the dishonorable, bestial murder performed on their families.

Actions continued and soon there was no one left to take the corpses to the cemetery and bury them. Then the Germans ordered magistrate and peasant carts to be used for transportation of dead bodies to the cemetery and Fire Brigade had to to bury the murdered. Sometimes there would be Jews who were still alive among the pile of corpses, but the Germans urged to put all of them, without any exception, on the carts, and take to the cemetery – all would be dead when put in deep pits with dozens of other bodies…” (Władysław Myśliński „A jednak tak było”, Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, 1978)

Jews in Brzesko during German occupation. Photo from the collection of Marek Sukiennik.

From the testimony by Felicja Schafler submitted to the Jewish Historical Commission in Kraków, 1945:

“3rd action. The town was surrounded … The elderly and children were taken out of the houses, the young were taken to cars. Out of 3½ thousand inhabitants, there were 600 victims – 200 dead and 400 displaced. Some tried to flee – they were shot on the way. People hid in the crops, the SS fell into the crops with their dogs and caught them. Some Germans were drunk, claimed that they got drunk so that they could murder …. ” (Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute, file No. 301/611)

From the testimony by Mendel Teichtal (born on July 8, 1932) submitted to the Jewish Historical Commission in Kraków, 1945:

“When I returned [to Brzesko], the picture was terrible. Blood, which was everywhere in the streets, was being covered with ash and earth. There were no people in the streets or in the houses, they were still sitting in the bunkers. Then there was this terrible cry, because somebody was murdered in every family.

I met a friend who was terribly crying. He said that there was no one in the Market Square where we lived. He himself was also to be shot, but when the SS men turned away, he managed to escape.

I went to my aunt who lived in the town suburbs, I thought that maybe my mother hid there and fortunately my mother was there together with Tosia. I was so happy. My mom told me what had happened. The car arrived at the kehilla, my mother felt what might happen and ran away along the back streets to her aunt to hide there. But the Catholic hostess would not let them in. Mom hid in the field. There was shooting and screaming in the town. The SS came with the dogs and searched for Jews. My sister was 5 years old and she wanted to cry, mom tied her mouth and head with a handkerchief. Suddenly there was a shot. They shot the boy. Germans searched for a few more minutes, but fortunately there were not many people in this field, so they left, because when they saw that many people were hiding in the field, they set the whole field on fire and then people came out…” (Jewish Historical Institute archive, reference number 301/609 )

Jews in Brzesko during German occupation. Photo from the collection of Marek Sukiennik.
Jews in Brzesko during German occupation. Photo from the collection of Marek Sukiennik.

From the testimony by Leon (Leib) Epstein, son of Izak and Jochweta nee Langer, born in Brzesko on January 19, 1889: 

“In the second half of 1940, I received an order from the Judenrat in Krakow to leave Krakow with my family. I went with my family to Brzesko, because that’s where I came from and I had my parents and siblings there.

Leib (Leon) Epstein together with wife Gittel before the war. Photo from Yad Vashem archives. Epstein

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

Before the war, there were about 2,000 Jews in Brzesko, and 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. It stopped in front of the synagogue, Germans 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 still standing. With the permission of the German authorities, local peasants dismantled the walls and took bricks as building materials.

The main Brzesko synagogue burned in September 1939. Photo from the collection of Marek Sukiennik.

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…

The German gendarmes Lapsch and Kosma, who were constantly stationed in Brzesko and carried out executions of Jews, were the worst for the Jews.

“Paul Stosch, a gendarme from the gendarmerie station in Brzesko, was always photographed with a whip and a wolfhound dog, which always accompanied him” (Jan Burlikowski, “Chronicle of the town of Brzesko”)

On one of Pesach days in1942, the Gestapo from Tarnów came to Brzesko and, with the help of the local gendarmerie, they caught several Jews and shot them on the spot. Among the shot Jews were: Stainlauf, two sons of the carriage driver, dentist Kleinberger, Landau. They also took with them the vice-president of the Judenrat, Uszer Landau, whom they massacred and shot on the way from Brzesko to Tarnów, and then threw him out of the car.

In June 1942, several cars of the Gestapo men from Tarnów arrived, they cut off the town from all sides and ordered the Judenrat to summon all the Jews to the Market Square within five minutes. The Gestapo and the military police chased Jews out of their homes. Some Jews tried to hide, but when discovered, they were shot on the spot.

The Jewish militia was ordered by the Gestapo to accompany them and escort people to the Market Square. In this way, they gathered several hundred people and took them to Tarnów. On the same day there was a deportation in Tarnów. Jews from Brzesko joined the Tarnów transport and were probably deported to Bełżec. They left about 200 dead bodies in Brzesko. After the Gestapo had left, we had to take these corpses to the Jewish cemetery, where we buried them in a mass grave. This action took place on Thursday  in June 1942.

A Jewish boy in Brzesko during German occupation. Photo from the collection of Marek Sukiennik.

A few weeks after this action, by order of the Landrat, all Jews from the surrounding villages had to move to the town and the ghetto was closed. There was a terrible lack of housing in the ghetto. Four families lived in one room. We lived in the ghetto in perpetual fear, because the Germans killed someone every day.

On the second day of Rosh Hashana 1942 – on Sunday afternoon, the Gestapo from Tarnow arrived and the liquidation action began. This operation was led by von Malotky and Nowak, dangerous Gestapo men from Tarnów. During the action, I was hiding outside the town and I did not see it myself. All I could hear was the incessant shooting. The action lasted two days, on Monday and Tuesday.

The Poles told me that the course of the “action” was as follows: the Gestapo men chased Jews to the marketplace, made them kneel until they gathered the entire Jewish population. Then they lined them up in fives and chased them to the Słotwina station, which is located two kilometers outside the town. At the station, the train had been already prepared. Brzesko Jews were loaded on the train and taken somewhere. Nobody returned.

The Jewish militia and the Judenrat, which dealt with the liquidation of the Jewish property, remained in Brzesko. After 4 weeks they were taken to Tarnów and Brzesko became “Judenrein”. (Testimony registered on February 2, 1948 in Katowice; Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute, file No. 3011/3286.)

Majority of Brzesko Jews perished in the Bełżec extermination camp, but about 500 murdered Brzesko Jews are buried in the mass graves in this cemetery. The precise location of all the burial places of Brzesko’s Holocaust victims is not known, but in 2017 and 2018 the two mass graves were officially commemorated, thanks to the efforts of Memory and Dialogue: Common History, a local voluntary association, working in cooperation with the Forgotten Foundation and the Brzesko town council. You can read more about these commemorations here: https://brzesko-briegel.pl/en/2019/08/01/commemoration-of-the-mass-grave-at-the-jewish-cemetery-2017/ and here: https://brzesko-briegel.pl/en/2019/08/02/commemoration-of-the-mass-grave-at-the-brzesko-jewish-cemetery-2018/

Monument on the mass grave at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery.

We are also constantly working on the Book of Remembrance of Jews from Brzesko and vicinity murdered in the Holocaust. At this point it embraces close to 3000 names: https://brzesko-briegel.pl/en/book-of-remembrance/

May the memory of all Holocaust victims be an eternal blessing.

© Anna Brzyska, 2022