Burning of the Great Synagogue in Będzin based on Witness Accounts
Translated by Tomasz Grząślewicz and Katherine Shadwick
On a slanting square in the centre of Będzin, among the trees, between the medieval castle towering over the town and the busy ul. Kołłątaja, there is a tefillin-shaped memorial. Raised in 1993 to commemorate Będzin Jews murdered during WWII, it stands precisely at the former location of the Great Synagogue burnt by Germans in September 1939.
Tefillin (phylacteries) is a set of two small leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with four verses from the Torah. Worn by adult men during prayer, it is held on their foreheads by a leather strap and fastened to their left arm (right arm for left-handed men).
Eighty years ago, the area near the current day memorial served as the centre for both administrative and religious life of pre-war Będzin. Apart from the Great Synagogue (no. 14 at ul. Bóżnicza, which no longer exists), there was a beth midrash here (Jewish religious study hall), a mikveh (ritual bath house) and a kahal (Jewish community council).
Jews in Będzin
Jews presumably lived in Będzin since 1358, when, during the reign of king Casimir The Great, the settlement received town status. Since the 16th century Jews were allowed to live within the town walls, and, for more than a hundred years, i.e. since 1830s till the start of WWII, the Jewish community comprised the majority or at least half of the town’s population. The first wooden synagogue, built at ul. Targowa 4 (nowadays Berka Joselewicza), was destroyed by a great fire in 1616. The oldest Jewish cemetery has been located at the junction of ul. Zawale and Modrzejowska since the 16th century.
The Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue at ul. Bóżnicza 14 was built in 1881 to replace the wooden one erected between 1851-1856. There was a jail in its underground. The interior of the Synagogue, decorated by famous artists – Maurycy Apfelbaum, Samuel Cygler and Chaim Hauft – was considered the most beautiful in Poland. The Synagogue’s cantor was Herszlik Najman, Jan Kiepura’s uncle (his mother’s brother).
A Roman Catholic Church in a Jewish quarter
The Holy Trinity Church, located near the Synagogue, was a Christian island in the middle of the almost completely Jewish district of the town. At the outbreak of War, Reverend Mieczysław Zawadzki was the rector of the parish, while Father Leon Stasiński was the vicar there. It is their memoirs that recall the events from the beginning of the War, as well as tell the tragic story of the burning of the Synagogue on the 9th of September 1939.
A feeling of sombreness and apprehension, which filled the town the moment the German army entered Bedzin on the 4th of September, emanates from the memoirs of Father Leon: ‘I asked my friend to take a close look. He comes and explains, in detail, the badges, the buttons, the swastikas. The last shadows of hope disappear’. Only a few days after that the vicar was called to the magistrate, where, while being held hostage for over 24 hours, he saw how a German soldier ordered a rabbi to cut his own beard off: ‘The rabbi’s hand shivered. He wanted to cut the tip of his beard, but the soldier was pushing the scissors higher and higher up. Rabbi’s raven black hair fell down to the floor, followed by the sidelocks, and then drops of blood.’
On a Saturday evening on the 9th of September 1939 (although many earlier sources, as well as the memorial, state the 8th of September as the date), Germans set the Synagogue on fire. The building was filled with Jews who gathered inside to pray: ‘Around 8 in the evening I heard some powerful detonations. A few minutes later my housekeeper knocked on the door to my room. Father Mieczysław, the Synagogue is on fire. The Germans are murdering Jews.’ – wrote Rev. Mieczysław Zawadzki in his parish memoirs. The town quarter was surrounded by soldiers shooting those who managed to escape from the burning Synagogue. Because of the great housing density in the area, ‘the presbitery garden, the presbitery itself and its buildings were surrounded by massive blocks of tenement houses which were all on fire. I could see Germans rushing amongst the burning houses. Every moment I could hear terrifying screams, then a shot and a short moment of silence afterwards, only to be followed by screams of more Jews being murdered’. 57 houses were lost in the fire altogether. According to various sources, between 600-800 Jews were killed. The only escape route for the burnt, the shot and the beaten ones led towards St. Trinity’s Church:
‘Lamenting and crying for help, they filled the whole alley, from the vicarage up to the presbytery gate. I did not have to think twice, I ran towards them, calmed them down, and then opened the gates myself and led them up the Castle Hill where they would be safe’.
Cemetery on the Castle Hill
Some of the survivors spent the whole night hiding by gravestones at the Jewish cemetery on the Castle Hill. The cemetery was founded after the cholera epidemic in 1881. We are on our way to visit it: devastated by Germans during the war, it is a picturesque, yet depressing view.
Among the scattered gravestones there are a few double matzevahs („marital” ones). Here, among others, lies Jakub Natan, a legendary rabbi, a Polish patriot, considered to be the prototype of Jankiel from ‘Pan Tadeusz’ (Sir Thaddeus, Polish national epic poem).
One of the surviving Jews was Icchak Turner (resident at ul. Boczna 3), about whom Władysław Śliwoń writes in his book ”Jacob’s Children”: ‘Injured, his hand bleeding, Icek laid until the morning near the church. In the morning Reverend Zawadzki helped him dress the wound and sent him to the hospital at ul. Małachowskiego, where Tadeusz Kosibowicz was the head doctor. Risking his own life, he admitted the boy in the hospital, entering false data in the patient’s file and treated him there for two weeks (…) Icek left the hospital, and in May 1940 doctor Kosibowicz was arrested for helping ”the enemies of the Third Reich” and taken to Dachau concentration camp.’ Similarly to Rev Zawadzki, dr Kosibowicz received (posthumously) a Righteous Among the Nations award.
The Plebańska Street, which constituted an escape route for the Jews from the Synagogue towards the Church, is one of the very few parts of town still surviving in its almost original pre-war shape. A few of the tenement houses have survived here as well, and among them is house number 13, where Miriam Neuman (Małka Moszkowicz) was born and where she grew up, the only Jewess on the whole of ul. Plebańska in Będzin, who survived the War, the German occupation, camps and the holocaust.
When she visited Będzin after many years, in 1999, she fainted after entering her old house, remembering how she and her family used to hide in the basement throughout the night of the 9th of September. ‘In the morning, when everything became quiet, they looked out on the street and were met by a devastating view. Corpses lay everywhere. Herszel, Małka’s brother saw something terrifying at ul. Bóżnicza – ”drowned by the Nazis, in a barrel full of hot tar, there was his school friend he’d spoken to only a day before’.
As Rev. Zawadzki recalls in his memoirs, around noon the day after the fire, he was visited by a German officer, who, with a help of an interpreter, lied to him saying that the Germans needed ‘a grave for 42 people who were shot dead for setting Będzin on fire’. The newly renovated mass grave of the alleged ”firestarters” (both Poles and Jews) is located at the Holy Trinity Cemetery at ul. Podzamcze.
We light a candle there, and proceed to visit the grave of Rev Mieczysław Zawadzki, one of Będzin’s two Righteous Among the Nations.
The unscrupulous, ruthless German soldiers dragged random people out of their homes and gathered them in front of the county building at ul. Sączewskiego, then forced them to sign a document confirming it was them who burnt the town, only to shoot them at the wall.
‘The first victims were Aleksander Szydłowski, 50, and his 19- year old son Janek, who were taken by force from their own flat at ul. Okrzei 8, the night when the Synagogue was on fire (…)
Janek threw his arms around his father and said: ‘Daddy, what is going to happen to mum and Gienia now?’ The bullet hit Janek first.’ SS colonel baron von Hattko, who was responsible for the hideous crime, was soon ‘transferred to the eastern front where he lost his mind as a result of his experiences in Będzin’.
Many years later, Stanisław Wygodzki, a Będzin poet and prose writer who survived the holocaust, wrote:
For they are all alive within me
Neither corpses are they nor blood that dries out –
Each is in me, like a rambler in shadows,
Breathing slowly following an arduous route.
Aleksandra Namysło „Zanim nadeszła zagłada… Położenie ludności żydowskiej w Zagłębiu Dąbrowskim w okresie okupacji niemieckiej”
Ks. Leon Stasiński „Będzin. Pierwsze dni wojny 1939 r.”
Władysław Śliwoń „Dzieci Jakuba”
Praca zbiorowa pod redakcją Bolesława Ciepieli „Żydzi w Zagłębiu Dąbrowskim i okolicy”
The article was inspired by the trip entitled: „Burning of the Great Synagogue in Będzin based on Witness Accounts” of 18 September 2016. It was organised by Brama Cukermana Foundation and the guide was Andrzej Ciepał. Thank you!
Text and photos: Tomasz Grząślewicz
Translation to English: Tomasz Grząślewicz and Katherine Shadwick
Proofreading: Katarzyna Litwinowicz