Holocaust and Memorialization

Tomaszow's Jews during the Holocaust era

The invasion of the German army to Poland on September of 1939 was received with great concern and worries in Tomaszow Lubelski, although none foresaw that in six days the war will knock on their door.

On Thursday the 6th of Spetember, 1939, German bomber jets burst out over the skies of town and dropped bombs upon its homes. The Jewish neighborhoods were badly damaged, a big fire broke out, and many homes burned down, including the big synagogue and Beit Hamidrash. Over a hundred were killed.

German forces entered town on the 13th of September, 1939, chasing after Polish army units who were still fighting in the area. Part of the fighting took place in the town itself, and many of its buildings were demolished or burned. Few days later, the Germans overpowered these last pockets of resistance, took control of the area, and began organizing a new order in town. They soon bestowed bad decrees upon the town's Jewry, limiting their movements, and enlisting them to forced labor. They looted shops and businesses of Jews, and began their slaughter. Six Jews were taken to the nearby forest, and there they were shot to death. Few days later, on Yom Kippur, the 20th of September 1939, the Germans retreated from the town, and the Red Army replaced them. Their treatment of Jews was better.

But the wheel of fortune continued turning and a week later, on the 27th of September, Red Army representatives had announced that they are going to retreat and move eastbound near the Bog River, the correct border line agreed upon by the Soviets and the Germans.

The Soviet representatives added that whoever is interested in leaving and moving east with them, to a Soviet controlled area, is permitted to do so. Indeed, many Jews decided to leave town and go east.

One of the main reasons many Jews decided to leave town and move east was the brutal treatment they received from the Germans. One of the most severe examples of this brutality is described in Yehoshua Biderman's story in the Yizkor book of Tomaszow. Yehoshua tells how few Germans led a group of Jews (that included Yehoshua, his father and grandfather) from Tomaszow, through the town of Narol, to the vicinity of Yaroslav, without food or water, abusing and humiliating them. The group was released few days later and returned to Tomaszow, and there they told the community leaders the hell they have gone through. The severe testimony convinced the leadership to call upon people to leave town with the Soviets. The Belz Rabbi, who was staying in Sokal at that time, had also recommended fleeing from the Germans.

Half of its Jewish residents remained in town, and they looked forward with great concern. And indeed, persecution and torture of Jews continued when the Germans returned.

On December of 1939, the Germans gathered a group of physically and mentally handicapped Jews, locked them in a shelter, filled it with water until the shelter was flooded and they drowned.

The remaining Jews immediately realized they are caught in a death trap and their chance of escape and survival are minimal. Not long after, extremely severe events fell upon the remaining Tomaszow community. The Germans prohibited Kosher Shechita (slaughtering), but the Shochet (butcher) Baruch Horovitz continued to perform the Mitzvah and when caught by the Germans, they cut off his fingers so he will not be able to continue the Shechita.

The Germans forbade assembling, not even for prayer. They closed all synagogues that survived the fires. Nonetheless, Jews had gathered for prayer at Rabbi Nachum Shemesh's. They were soon caught, Rabbi Shemesh was immediately murdered, but prayer meetings continued at the home of Shlomo Ekst, and there they prayed until the extermination of the last Jews of Tomaszow. Torah study also continued secretely, taught by Meir Kelerman and David Oifen.

The Ghetto in Tomaszow

On November of 1939, the Germans decided to open a ghetto in Tomaszow. They placed it on the north corner of the market, old and new, bordering with the old and new Zamoiski Street. Hans Filler was appointed commander of the ghetto. The ghetto was not surrounded by a barbed wire fence. All remaining Jews were brought in, and they were joined by Jewish refugees who had escaped from central and western Poland, and who were pushed in. The number of Jews in the ghetto, including the refugees, was about six thousand.

The next decree the Germans dropped was a "contribution", a one-time tax of a huge amount. The Jewish council (Judenrat) was barely able to collect the sum the Germans demanded. The commander of the local gendarmerie (police), who was appointed by the Germans, was Berger, a man whose cruelty and daily massacres of Jews were known all over the area.

Not long after, Jews were recruited to work in the forests, road constructing, and various works needed at the many army camps the Germans had built in the area (in preparation for an offensive of the Soviet Union). Some of the people were sent to work near Zamosc and the village of Belzec.

The German invasion to the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941, worsened the situation of the Jews of Tomaszow. Germans increased searches in Jewish homes in order to trace Jews who, in their opinion, infiltrated back from Soviet controlled areas until the invasion (there were, in reality, such instances).

Near the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, the Germans gathered labour groups of Jews of tomaszow and the area and sent them to the town of Belzec, to break the ground and build a camp. Later, in the spring of 1942, it became clear that it was the Belzec death camp, when news of the extermination of Jews had reached town.

On one of these days, the S.S commander of Tomaszow had approached the head of the Judenrat, Yehoshua Fischelson, and demanded a preparation of a list of 300 Jews for a shipment of workers. This was the second time in which the officer demanded a list of Jews. Few days later, the S.S commander came to Fischelson's home and the latter replied that he did not prepare the list, that he is not ready to assist in sending Jews for extermination in Belzec, and that he is ready to hand his wife, his son and himself. The officer pulled out his gun and shot Fischelson at his door. Fischelson was replaced by Abba Bergerboim as head of the Judenrat.

Roundups (aktzia) of Jews

The first roundup took place on March of 1942. The German commander instructed all Jews to present themselves in the main square in the morning. They were told that they will be sent to a work camp. In the morning, the Germans, with the help of others, surrounded the ghetto and began taking Jews out of their homes, leading them to the square. They operated this way for several hours at the end in which they led them to the town of Sczczanow (Tchshanow- 30 km. south of Tomaszow), as a coverage for the final destination, and from there to the camp of Belzec, for annihilation.

The second and main roundup happened on May of 1942, on the second day of Shavuot. The Germans and their helpers made precise searches in Jewish dwellings and streets. Screaming and panic of the Jewish families was awful, but nothing stopped the murderers from gathering all the Jews, except the few needed for essential tasks. All Jews gathered were sent to be annihilated in Belzec.

Very few Jews remained in Tomaszow after this Aktzia. As mentioned, some of them were employed in works the Germans declared essential, and few who managed to hide from the Aktzia. These few Jews lived on a borrowed time, since they knew that their extermination by the Germans is only a matter of time.

The third and final Aktzia happened on October 1942, during the high holidays. In this Aktzia, all remaining Jews in tomaszow were gathered. Most of them were send to die in Belzec, with the exception of few professionals who were sent to Zamosc where they were put to work in places essential to the Germans.

After this Aktzia, Tomaszow remained "Judenrein" (clean of Jews).

It is important to state that in Tomaszow most Poles did not help Jews to hide or escape from the Germans in any other way. There were Poles who even handed hiding Jews over to the Germans. Known are tragic cases, such as those of Channa Heller and her children and Shlomo Akst and his children who were handed over to the Germans only two days before their withdrawal and the Red Army's entrance to Tomaszow.

Righteous Among Nations in Tomaszow and the area

But there were also those who saved Jews in Tomaszow and the area, some of them have been recognized as Righteous Among Nations. We are familiar with some of them:

* Tchakhonski family- hid Shlomo Goren Gozhichenski in Tomaszow for almost two years.

* Stefaniuk family- hid Rivka Dichterman in the village of Navrosc, near Laszczow, for one year.

* Basily Khmilawski- hid Clara Riger of Tomaszow in the village of Skazcisko under the cover of the name Yaroslava Khmilawska, pretending to be his sister.

* Koron & Bayak families- hid Yaakov Hirsch Griner (Father Gregor Pawlowski) in their village for many months.

* Elizabeta Wazhna- hid Channa Schpizeizen (nee Weisler) in the village of Rogozno, near Tomaszow, for almost two years.

Underground in Tomaszow

Jewish underground groups rose during the holocaust period in 18 ghettoes, one of them was in the Tomaszow ghetto.

Following the first and second roundups, some youngsters managed to escape into the forests, but most were caught by Poles who handed them over to the Germans.

A small group of escapees was not caught, and it was successfully able to organize for resistance operation. Members of this group had obtained some weapons and established a fighting unit in the forest. The unit was led by Mendel Heller (killed in one of the battles), Shimon Goldstein and Meir Kalmacher. They were murdered by the Poles.

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