The Jews of Poland: A People Who Disappeared

Chapter 1: The Jews of Sanok



In the sleepy town of Sanok rumors abounded. The Germans had come, and they were tormenting and even killing Jews. Refugees brought harrowing stories of threats and harassment. Some told tales of spectacular atrocities. At the ancient city of Przemysl, just fifty miles away, the Nazis had shot 500 Jews!

Could it be true? In Sanok, nestled along the bending San River in the foothills of the mighty Carpathian Mountains, it seemed difficult to believe. For some Germans had arrived here, too, yet all was calm and nothing particularly unsettling had happened. The outset of war and the surprisingly quick collapse of the Polish Army had surely put townsfolk on edge; the night of the Germans’ arrival nearly everyone hid in their cellars. Yet all seemed fair, almost normal in fact, as falling leaves swirled on the streets and the first autumn winds chilled the mountain air.

What could account for the dreadfully persistent rumors? With the collapse of the Polish government, radio transmissions had largely ended. Shortwave broadcasts of the BBC from London told of wartime operations and endless pronouncements in the West. As for Przemysl, perhaps the Jews there had somehow become entangled in military or political intrigues—Przemysl’s Jewish population was known to be highly political. The city itself was a fortress, a bastion of military tradition that had made it the center of relentless fighting in the Great War twenty-five years earlier. Surely the number of dead was greatly exaggerated; surely there was a reasonable explanation yet to come.

Then, just as an air of normalcy lulled the Jews of Sanok, terrible and certain news arrived. In the village of Dynow, thirty miles downriver, 150 Jews had been executed. Sorrow gripped the community, which arranged to receive the dead and bury them with proper rites in Sanok. The German authorities—after taking a bribe—tolerated the large public service, marked by a collective angst. It was September 1939. As they laid their Dynow brethren to rest, little could the Jews of Sanok know that they were on the threshold of annihilation, that the Holocaust—Nazi Germany’s extermination of European Jewry—had begun.

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Sanok, in southern Poland, was a town like countless others at the outset of the Second World War. It stood on the cusp of modernity, though its feet still rested in the modes of an earlier time. Peasants walked to its market, church bells roused the faithful, horse-drawn wooden wagons clanked along its cobblestone streets. Time wasn’t exactly standing still, but it could be hard to calculate. Wrist and pocket watches were still novel—seemingly only common among the town’s prosperous Jews.

Sanok and its environs was a montage of people: Boyks, Lemks, Ruthenians, Poles, Ukrainians and, of course, Jews. Numbering five thousand, Jews comprised nearly half of the town’s population. Many could trace their ancestry back into the sixteenth century, to a decades-long migration from Mediterranean regions into northeastern Europe in search of religious tolerance. Forbidden from owning land, Jews gathered primarily in towns and practiced trades. Many of the most enterprising became merchants. On this count, Sanok was again no exception. Situated in the Carpathian foothills on a trade route between the Polish and Hungarian plains, it was well positioned to enrich its ambitious citizens. Dealing especially in cloth and lumber, Jewish merchants in Sanok acquired wealth—as reflected in three ornate synagogues that dotted the hilltop center of the town. In the mid-nineteenth century Sanok’s Jews helped underwrite a strange new activity: drilling for oil. The world’s first oil well, sunk fifty miles to the west, unwittingly ushered in an age of industrial-grade commodities, though it would be quite some time before the town of Sanok would join it. When the Germans arrived in autumn 1939 the talk of the town was the incredible size of their gasoline-powered vehicles; few residents had ever seen anything like them.

Though economically potent, Sanok’s Jews did not fully dominate the town’s political life: political power was divided between them and the Poles. Poland as a nation had not existed until very recently—established in 1921 in the wake of the Great War. Prior to this Sanok had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in a province called Galicia. When the Austro-Hungarian Army had fought the Russians around Sanok in the Great War, orders had to be issued to troops in fifteen different languages. This ethnic mix helps explain the divisiveness that marred the Polish state. While Poles were invariably excited about the government in Warsaw, others tended to be ambivalent. Some Jews, called Zionists, dreamt instead of their own homeland in Palestine. Other centuries-old inhabitants of the Carpathians—like the Lemks—had little patience for the meddling of a ‘distant’ Polish government. The few Czechs and Slovaks still residing in what had been Galicia felt more allegiance to the equally new nation of Czechoslovakia. They were annoyed when Poland accepted a tract of Czechoslovak land as a gift from Adolf Hitler in 1938.

Many of the peoples of southern Poland felt ambivalent about Warsaw, but most had strong feelings about the government in Moscow. Ukrainians, in particular, despised it. Ukraine had rebelled against bolshevik rule—when the Communists acquired political power in Russia after the 1917 ‘October Revolution’. Poles, too, disliked the Russians, who along with Austro-Hungarians had historically dominated their homeland. Many Jews, however, viewed the new regime in Moscow hopefully. Some of the early bolshevik leadership was Jewish, including its charismatic army commander, Lev Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky. A centuries-old Russian tradition of ostracizing and periodically terrorizing Jews had diminished under the communist or ‘Soviet’ government, which declared Jew-hating ‘counterrevolutionary’.

Sentiment about Russians came to the fore just one week after the Germans had arrived in Sanok, when the Soviet Red Army rolled across Poland’s eastern frontier. This follow-up invasion proved that Soviet Russia’s leader, Josef Stalin, had made a deal with Hitler; beleaguered Poles predictably loathed this Soviet ‘stab in the back’. Jews, however, were less distraught. In some towns Jewish labor organizations even staged welcoming parties, and made arrangements to collaborate with the Soviet army. For Sanok, the invasion had particular significance: the town rested on the line between German and Russian domains in southern Poland—the San River. Many Jews, believing that the Soviets would treat them better, willingly migrated from the German-occupied town to the Soviet side. But after wandering through strange towns with over-packed chests of their belongings, most returned after just a few days to the known environs of Sanok.

For Sanok’s Jews in autumn 1939, a web of ethnic division complicated a dangerous situation. A powerful new overlord, in the form of a Nazi German, had entered the room. Everyone was watching him, but it was imprudent to turn completely away from eyeing one’s neighbors.

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Mazor Malchach was an ambitious man who saw an opportunity. A Ukrainian lawyer, he had dealt with Sanok’s wealthy Jewish merchants in business affairs for many years. Now, with the Germans in town, it seemed that he could quit working for their money and instead just take it. He and an upstart group of Ukrainian locals seized ten of the town’s richest Jews, and demanded a ransom of 50,000 zloty—the Polish currency—in exchange for their safe return. Agonized family members and Jewish leaders conferred and gathered up contributions. With only 26,000 zloty in hand, they sent a prominent Jewish doctor to see Malchach, who sternly warned him that 26,000 was not enough. He would kill a Jew for each 5000-zloty shortfall within twenty-four hours.

Jewish leaders met again. What could they do? They decided to send a delegation of three men to the Nazis. Fearful, the trio cast lots to determine who would speak. But the German army commander received them politely, listened to their predicament, and told them that Mazor and the Ukrainians had no right to require a ransom. A disappointed Malchach soon released his hostages—the Jews having been saved by the Germans.

Treachery was everywhere. A season of killing was likely, once the powers-that-be removed all social constraints. The German army, which had been distant and professional in Sanok, was soon displaced by more insidious Nazis: black-shirted men known as the Schutzstaffel, or “S.S.”. From the start they taunted and harassed Jews in the streets. They humiliated the elders by clipping off their beards—snickering like adolescent schoolboys as they did so. They forced two Jewish leaders to sweep the streets, then made them dance with their brooms as though they were caressing women. At the schoolhouse that served as S.S. headquarters, they had Jews clean dirty toilets with their hands. One man was beaten until he licked soiled toilet seats with his tongue.

Then one night the most terrible of events happened: the synagogues were set aflame, flashes of fire on the hilltop illuminating the night sky. A Jew tried to retrieve the sacred scrolls from one of the buildings, only to be caught by the Nazis and shot—his body tossed back into the flames. Other atrocities followed. Some Nazis locked several large dogs in a cellar for days until they were ravenous with hunger, then fed them badly mauled prisoners. Terror and revulsion consumed the Jews of Sanok.

There were few options for escape. The most obvious was to cross into the Soviet-occupied sector of Poland, just on the other side of the river. Jews gathered in groups and swam across during the night. One woman imprudently tried to take her sewing machine with her—strapped to her back, she began to drown under its weight until a man came to her rescue. Hundreds of marauding Jewish refugees were causing problems for the Soviet commanders. Soon Russian troops patrolled the riverbank with dogs, turning Jews back across the river. In town, repressive policies took hold. Jews had to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David, suffered frequent beatings, faced a plethora of new restrictions such as curfews, and lost control of their shops and to non-Jewish rivals and neighbors. And in the midst of all this some families were now painfully separated—members stuck on the Russian side with others still in Sanok. Past dark loved ones stood on opposite riverbanks shouting to one another and passing news.

Thus the fate of Sanok’s Jews ebbed and flowed into winter and spring. Nazi abuses slowed as various administrators allowed themselves to be bought off with bribes. Sanok even attracted some Jews from other German-occupied towns because of its apparent good-fortune. Not only did German abuses periodically subside, but bribes worked with Russians too; a steady flow of refugees successfully crossed the frontier throughout 1940. The few hundred Sanok Jews who were to survive the Holocaust, in fact, were overwhelmingly those who left their homes, shed their possessions, and migrated deep into the Soviet Union during this period.

The seasons turned, and a year of occupation and sorrow passed by the Jews of Sanok. As the weather warmed and mountain snows melted in spring 1941, the pace of difficulties accelerated. Labor drafts had been levied for many months, but now it was harder to evade them through bribes—even wealthy Jews were clearing brush, quarrying rock, laying roads, and digging trenches. Nor could Poles and other locals access Jewish labor (a mixed blessing—their demands were sometimes worse than those of the Nazis); the Germans monopolized nearly everyone in a frenzy of building and preparation. And there were more and more Germans. Something was afoot.

Artillery was positioned in the hilltop streets of Sanok, and on a bright Sunday morning in June 1941 they rumbled to life. Germany had begun its attack on the Soviet Union. Soviet artillery from across the San blasted the hilltop in response. Jews hid in cellars until the Russian shelling ceased on the following Friday. After six days of deafening artillery fire the center of the town was in ruins.

The German invasion of Russia marked the beginning of the end for Sanok’s Jews, as well as those throughout occupied Poland. Into 1941 the community had remained relatively intact, with leadership vested in a communal council that retained some real authority despite the presence of the abusive Nazis. Many merchants still had functional businesses, though in uneasy partnership with Poles and others, many of whom were conniving to cut them out of their properties as others had already done. Jews had even been able to assemble for worship—though the synagogues were gone—and managed to organize a soup kitchen for the indigent among themselves. But as events in the Nazi-Soviet war unfolded, the plight of the community steadily worsened. An outright restriction on business ownership and barter dealt an economic blow; new limits on assembly and movement made organization much more difficult; labor drafts allowed for no exemptions, taking workers far to the east of Sanok where they toiled at dismantling Soviet defensive works. In December 1941, as Nazi armies faced their first defeat at the doorsteps of Moscow, all Jews were ordered to hand over their winter clothes—not an insignificant sacrifice in the cold mountain climate. Germans followed the decree with a house-to-house search by their Ukrainian sidekicks that turned up lots of uncollected furs and gloves, the penalty for which was a swift train ride to the brutal work camp at Auschwitz. The same fate awaited seventeen Jews caught worshipping on the Sabbath.

In mid-1942 Jews from surrounding towns were driven into Sanok, more than doubling the Jewish population to nearly ten thousand. In early September nearly everyone was taken by long caravans of horse-drawn wagons upriver ten miles to the town of Zaslow, where the Germans had established a labor camp. Most—especially the elderly, weak, women, and children—where quickly shipped off to certain death at another site equipped with gas chambers. Others endured the nightmare that was Zaslow, with monotonous days of work interrupted by frequent ‘selections’, when those deemed too weak or ill were taken to nearby pits and executed. When some prisoners arranged to smuggle guns into the camp and organize resistance, a Jewish lawyer named Szterger tattled on them. Retributions followed. There were no options for those still living, except to work and die.

On January 14, 1943 Polish and Ukrainian police surrounded the camp, its inhabitants prodded like animals onto nearby trains for their own ride to an appointment with death. It had been forty months since Nazis first arrived in the sleepy mountain town of Sanok. When the winter snows of 1943 melted, nearly all of the little town’s Jews were dead.