Beginnings of the Jewish settlement in Otwock
Founded at the end of the 19th century, Otwock was created thanks to the then trend for summer resorts. As renowned for its relaxation and health resort values spa near Warsaw, it became the favourite place of stay for middle class Jews. Along with the constantly growing number of patients grew the number of permanent Jewish residents of Otwock.
Already in the 1880’s, the Warka rabbi Kalisz Simcha Bunem moved here and built a large Beth Midrash on a part of leased land in the middle of the forest, a school for studying the Holy Book. Hassids started to visit the rabbi, and this is how the Jewish community in Otwock began.
Several Jewish families settled here at the end of the 19th century. The first property owners included the paramedic Jozef Przygoda and the banker Stanislaw Lesser. In 1895, the first “sanatorium for Israelites” was opened in Otwock, which up to the beginning of World War II was administered by the Przygoda family. This enterprise was located in the wooden buildings that are preserved to this day at 5 Warszawska St. Thanks to the development of the spa Otwock started to attract Jews who wanted to invest money here. Part of them founded pension houses and kosher restaurants. This is how, among others, the following were created: the pension house of Lejbusz Gezuntheit; the clinic specializing in internal illnesses and neurology led by the association of doctors Krukowski, Wizel, and Higier, as well as the attractive to Warsaw Hassids’ Gelbfisz pension house. Besides patients and businessmen, Otwock also attracted Jews who fled pogroms from Russia and the Ukraine.
The Vistula Railway tracks which were running through Otwock divided the town into two parts. On the left side was the developing villa Otwock with pension houses and spas. This is where the rich, assimilated Jews resided. The right side was taken by dense building development of small wooden houses gathered around the market square. Here lived mainly orthodox Jews, salesmen, craftsmen, and owners of inexpensive pension houses.
The first brick synagogue was constructed around the year 1890. In 1910, there was another brick prayer house built, as well as a ritual bathhouse. They were located on the square belonging to Moszek Kejzman and Moszek Majer Waks. The Lithuanian Talmudist Jablonski built a small synagogue for the mitnagdim and Lithuanian Jews in the “Roza” villa.
However, these prayer houses were not enough for the numerous believers, even several thousand of them. This is why at the end of the 1920’s two spacious synagogues were constructed in the villa part of Otwock.
In 1927 a synagogue designed by Eugenia Jablonska was erected on the property of Szlama and Chawa Goldberg, foreseen for 650 followers. This was a classical style building, brick, and single-story, covered with a pitched roof with triangular tympans decorated with the stars of David. Next to the synagogue, Goldberg also constructed a prayer house where 10 highly talented students of Lithuanian yeshivas studied. He also created a library with an enormous religious book collection.
A year latera synagogue designed by Marcin Weinfeld was built on the square belonging to Malka Weinberg. It was a modernistic structure, with its look associated with baroque forms, with its scale greatly outgrowing the regional villas. Brisk, two stories, with modest decoration of plaster facades, it was divided into a summer and winter synagogue. The winter part was composed of a small, furnace-heated prayer room opened with three arcades to the adjoining, somewhat larger, summer room. A bevy was located above the “winter” room. These rooms were connected with a small opening in the ceiling, thanks to which the women could listen to the prayers read by men.
The prayer house was also located within the premises of the “Brijus” health resort. The number of private prayer houses kept increasing. According to archive registries there were 20 prayer houses by the end of 1938, 18 of which were active without a permit.
When Otwock acquired city rights in November 1916, the Otwock Jewish commune was officially founded. That was when the Jews of Otwock became independent of the commune of Karczew, which until that point, supervised their religious life. There are no preserved sourced that list the composition of the first communal administration. In March 1918, Icchak Mendel Janowski was chosen to be the rabbi; he conducted the Karczew commune since 1892. Rubin Zejman became the rabbi’s attorney in July of that year.
The communal property included the brick synagogue at 17 Kupiecka St. along with interior equipment; the brick synagogue building along with the ritual bathhouse building at 12 Gorna St.; the three-morg communal cemetery located within the Karczew commune; the wooden poultry slaughterhouse building. The commune, besides supporting the rabbi, ritual butchers, and objects associated with the cult, took part in charity activities. It maintained an eatery, a clinic for the indigent ill, aided the “Centos” shelter, the activity of the Biur Chojlim association, and granted benefits to the poor. The commune’s rabbi headed the Szomrej Szabas Weadas Association of Obeying the Sabbath and Main Religious Rules.
“On Friday evenings, after the meal, Nachum often accompanied his father to the big modern synagogue at Warszawska St. in the upper part of town. Its main part was decorated with brightly shining chandeliers and a richly decorated Holy Ark. The benches were varnished to be dark; the floor was smooth and clean. Two rows of columns at both sides of the hall simultaneously supported the balconies, where the women sat during services. The synagogue was built and maintained by a rich benefactor merchant from St. Petersburg, who following the Bolshevik revolution settled in Otwock. As if that was not enough, in order to maintain the “flame” of the Torah all year long, he brought in a few young scholars from Lithuanian Talmud academies. On Friday evenings, in the smaller chapel, some of them discussed the weekly portion of the Torah. In their Lithuanian Yiddish they repeated the Pentateuch segment and often analysed its meaning in current political and social context.”
Thanks to the microclimate of Otwock, the villa part of the town started to be the host of not only pension houses but also hospitals, which treated tuberculosis and illnesses of the respiratory and nervous systems. The Association of Caring for the Mentally and Neurotically Ill Jews was founded in 1906. In 1908, it founded the “Zofiowka” sanatorium for mentally and neurotically ill Jews, on the premises purchased one year earlier thanks to the jewels offered by Zofia Endelman. First the men’s pavilion was built, then in 1910, the women’s one. Each had 40 places for the ill.
There was a villa of the previous owner of the property at the sanatorium territory, too. It was composed of four rooms and domestic spaces. It was dedicated for more wealthy women, the paying patients of the sanatorium. “Zofiowka” accepted the ill still capable of working. The association paid for most treatments, while the rest were paid for by the commune or the family. There were plans of building another two pavilions for the disturbed mentally ill, however they were stopped by the war. It was not until May of 1926 that a pavilion with 60 beds was opened and a credit taken for construction of a fourth pavilion.
In 1935 “Zofiówka” had already 275 beds. The Jewish Anti-Tuberculosis Association “Brijus – Health” had several health care centres in Otwock: a youth preventorium, the anti-tuberculosis counselling centre “Daw til”, and an emphysema station. At 55 Reymonta St. an anti-tuberculosis sanatorium was built with bedrooms, walking premises, a library, and a synagogue. In 1919, in a private villa, the Association created a second sanatorium “Haszehefes” – “Health Resort”, conducted by dr. Maksymilian Augarten. Refugees from Germany lived here in 1938.
Another sanatorium in Otwock was organized also by the Jewish Association “Marpe” (treatment). In 1907, at the initiative of Abraham Grytzman, a villa at Swiderska St. was purchased, foreseen for a kitchen for the poor and ill. The activity of this half-sanatorium began in 1913, and in 1924, it was transformed into a full anti-tuberculosis sanatorium. In 1908, three doctors: Krukowski, Wizel, and Higier founded an association and constructed a two-story, brick clinic “Martow”. Found there were therapeutic devices for electrification, galvanization, electrical baths, quartz lamps, various hydrotherapy devices, and brine and needle baths. In 1913, a pavilion was attached to the main building, with salons, a dining room, and one or two person rooms. This way, an establishment with 40 beds for wealthy clients was created. Treated here were illnesses of the circulatory system and metabolism, patients with tuberculosis were not accepted.
Active all year long was the elegant, “ideally and comfortably equipped” “health resort for convalescents and people seeking rest” of Abram and Szymon Gorewicz. The building where the “healing-dieting establishment” was located was created in stages between 1906 and 1921. There was a pension house located here at the beginning. Since the start of its existence, the building was subject to successive reconstruction, acquiring its current impressive shape at the beginning of the twenties. During its greatest period it was able to provide accommodation for 80 guests. However, patients with tuberculosis or those bedridden were not accepted here. There was a reading room, parlour, dining room, and a concert hall with a grand piano located here. The building had running water, a pipeline system, and a telephone. The patients were also able to enjoy a park organized with an English style, which was maintained by a hired gardener.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 2000 patients in Otwock during the summer period. In 1927, for the 11 350 permanent residents, there were 16 177 patients, in 1929 there were 14 813 vacationers visiting Otwock. Among them were 11 335 Jews (76,8%).
The Jewish majority of Otwock residents, besides religious autonomy, health care, and education centres, and even its own attachment to the biweekly newspaper “Echo Otwockie”, had a full line of organizations and associations. The strongest were the influences of the Zionist movement. Almost all Zionist parties had their departments; active were many youth groups, as well as the department of the International Zionist Women’s Organization. In 1921, the Zionist Association Kadyma was founded. Its aim was the support of emigration to Palestine as well as cultural-education activity.
There were about 35 Jewish organizations during the thirties. Their nature was charity-health care, cultural-education, professional and political aid. The charity-health care associations were founded in order to support poor members of the commune as they conducted broad social activity. Among them were the Charity Association “Bikur Cholim”, which maintained a clinic for the ill; the Association for Supporting the Ill “Tomchaj Cholim”, which maintained an eatery and a prayer house; the Association of Health Protection (T.O.Z.) – protection centre and a clinic; the Association for Orphan Care by the “Centos” establishment – a clinic, shelter for children, and a school; the Anti-Tuberculosis Association “Marpe” – shelter; the Jewish Anti-Tuberculosis Association “Brijus” Health – sanatorium, sanatorium youth department, health centre “Dawtil”, and the artificial emphysema station; the Association for Mentally and Neurotically Ill Jew Care in Poland maintained the psychiatric establishment “Zofiowka” since 1908; the Association for Supporting Poor Maidens “Hachnuses Kale” supported poor girls in getting married; the Charity Association “Gemilus Chesed”; the Association for Supporting Rabbis of the High Rabbi Modrzycki “Fifert Izrael”; the Association for Care of Poor Jews with Tuberculosis “Chim Szel Tajro”.
The cultural-educational associations ran religious schools: the Association of Supporting and Spreading Religious Talmudic Knowledge “Tomchaj Tmimim”; the Talmud Torah Association; the Jewish Cultural-Educational Association “Tarbut”, which conducted evening courses of Polish, Hebrew and English, lectures, amateur shows, and social meetings in the People’s House; the Jewish Association of Jewish Culture in Otwock; the Association of United Jewish Schools, the Association of Jewish Parents; as well as, active by two Jewish public schools, Associations of Supporting Building of Public Schools.
There were also three sports clubs active in Otwock: the Jewish Worker Sports Club “Hapoel”, the Sports Club “Wulkan”, and the Jewish Sports Club “Nordja”.
Specific professional branches also had their own associations and guilds. The merchants were united by the Association of Jewish Merchants and the Association of Small Jewish Merchants; the craftsmen – the Association of Jewish Craftsmen in Poland, Cooperative Society of Jewish Craftsmen (active in the food industry); the builders – the Guild of Jewish Building Masters in Otwock; property owners – the Association of Sanatorium and Pension House Owners; the teachers – the Association of Jewish School Teachers in Poland.
The March Constitution of Poland guaranteed each citizen the right to preserve his nationality and cultivate his language. It allowed the foundation of schools, educational, charity, and social establishments. It also implemented an obligatory education at the level of elementary schools.
But contrary to international obligations, public schools for Jewish students were available only in Polish. During the interwar period there were four public schools active in Otwock, two each for the Christian and Jewish youth. The first public school was founded in 1905. Most of the students were Christian. The year 1919 saw the opening of Public School no. 2 in Otwock for Jewish children, which was located within property rented from the Borenstein family. Starting with the school year 1931/1932, 40 students were educated in Public School no. 3, located at 19 Moniuszki St. The second school for Jewish children, Public School no. 4, was located at 72 Staszica St. It was composed of 7 classes separated from public school no. 2. In 1937, the students were relocated to a new building. There was School Care activities by the schools, which conducted nourishment of the students, supplied medication, clothing, footwear, as well as schooling articles.
After graduation from the public school, the Polish and Jewish youth could continue their education in the Humanistic Coeducational Gymnasium.
The organization of education was a task of political parties and associations, too. The Jewish Cultural-Education Association “Tarbut” conducted a seven-grade school at 1 Wesola St. Besides Hebrew, the school taught Polish, Polish history and geography. There were also evening classes for adults. They were taught Hebrew and the history of Israel. The school was closed in 1928 due to financial trouble. The 4-year school “Jabne” under the auspices of the Mizrachi party was active from 1929. It taught Judaist subjects (religion and Hebrew) as well as secular. In June 1930, it was composed of 20 boys aged 5 – 12. This school was also closed due to a lack of money. Agudas Isroel headed the school for girls “Bejs Jakow”. It taught religion, general sciences, and Polish. 40 students were a part of it in 1930. Existing for the boys was the 7-department “Jesodej Batara”. Educated there were over 20 boys aged 6 – 12. It was closed in 1930, probably following controls of the Schooling Supervision Commission, which harshly criticized the primitive conditions in which classes were conducted. At 26 Swiderska St. was located “Talmud Tora” (since 1921). The school founded by the commune had religious traits, but also taught Polish and general science. It was participated in by about 100 children. Also of religious traits was “Ahawas Tora”, founded in 1921. There were 24 girls schooled there.
In Otwock, there was also a special school of the Association of Orphan and Abandoned Children Care “Centos”, the 2-class private school “Bejs Ulfen”, and several uncertified heders. The heder at 11 Staszica St. was headed by the Melamed Mendel Hanower. Several boys were schooled in a tight room that was also the home of the teacher. A second heder was located at 17 Lesna St. It was participated in by 40 boys aged 5 – 12. Another one, at Ludna St, was located in the home of Icek Feldman. The authorities closed it down in 1939.
The number of Jewish families grew along with the development of the health resort settlement. They were drawn to Otwock by excellent climate conditions and financial possibilities. Some of them, on the left side of the train tracks to Lublin, founded pension houses, health care centres, and villas. A villa district of rich assimilated Jews was created here, while orthodox Jews inhabited the right side of the tracks. Within the thickly developed wooden house district, there was the market square as well as inexpensive Jewish pension houses. The population was mainly active in trade and crafts.
The City Council election took place on February 25, 1917. According to mandatory election regulations there were 9 councilmen chosen, including 4 Jews. Based on new legal regulations from August 24, 1919, in independent Poland, the City Council was chosen with 24 councilmen. Representatives of the Polish and Jewish communities created a pact. It defined the number of Christian councilmen at 13, and Jewish at 11, despite the fact that the Jewish population was larger. The Mayor was a Christian while his assistant was Jewish. Commissions that had an equal number of members were composed of an equal number of both nationalities; ones with an odd number had an additional Christian. The Jewish City Council members were known and respected doctors, merchants, pension house owners. Along with the Christian councilmen they wisely and effectively governed their town, primarily driven by the interests of the city and its residents.
During this time Otwock was developing at a truly American pace. The Jews decisively dominated in trade and services. In 1917, 85% of the trade establishments were in Jewish hands. In 1939, of the 324 existing stores and workshops, 255 belonged to Jews, which amounted to 80%. They decisively led in the industries of shoemaking, tailoring, hairdressing, photography, watch making, typography, gaiter making, upholstery, saddlery, and hat making. Jews were also the owners of over half of properties within the health resort part of Otwock. According to the list of pension houses from 1939, 70 belonged to Jews, while only 14 to Poles. Jews possessed their own Jewish Credit Fund, which amassed 375 members, including 162 craftsmen, 156 merchants, and 39 representatives of other professions.
“The liveliest day of the week was Friday, when the weekly fair took place. Nachum then gladly accompanied his mother with her Friday morning shopping at the market and market square. The streets surrounding the market were crowded with pedestrians and horse wagons. The dressed in black Jewish merchants and housekeepers with wicker baskets in hand hurried to the market from all directions.
At the market, she began with a visit to one of the baker’s booths filled with freshly baked bread, sweet white bread, and all kinds of pies. After that, she wandered to the butcher and fish salesmen to buy meat and fish for Saturday. She left the market with her son through Karczewska Street, along which stood booths with shoes, gaiters, and clothes. The peasants and their wives stared at the shining polished high-top boots, tried on clothes, and negotiated loudly. Nearby, a robust man turned the gambling wheel, while young men bet their money. Behind them stood a brightly painted merry-go-round, which turned to the rhythm of accordion music”.
“Outside on Kupiecka Street it was joyful and loud. The walkways in front of buildings were occupied by young butchers, with uncovered heads, in white shirts with pulled up sleeves, engaged in loud conversations. From the corner restaurant of Popower came lively sounds from people who feasted with jugs of beer. The corner in front of the restaurant was host to debates of workmen and apprentices, members of youth parties and organizations, engaged in political discussions. Footballers of various clubs, along with their fans, argued over the result of the last game and repeated accomplishments of the teams and their players”.
Otwock was becoming a health resort town more and more popular among the Polish Jewish community, a place of relaxation and residence, a small homeland. At the beginning of the 20th century, during the summer period, Otwock was visited by around 2000 patients. In 1927, there were 11350 permanent residents and 16177 patients. In 1929, Otwock was visited by 14813 vacationers, among them were 11335 Jews (76,8%). At the brink of war, for the 19206 Otwock residents, including 10689 Polish citizens of the Mosaic faith, there were 37713 vacationers.
This was the last such beautiful summer season in Otwock.
September 1, 1939 is the beginning of the tragedy for the Polish and Jewish nation, it is the beginning of the destruction of the Polish Jewry.
The square in front of the store of the building owner had a large water pump, next to which gathered porters and wagoners. Robust Jews, dressed in short cotton jackets, with faces and beards covered in flour mixed with sweat, fed their horses at the well and awaited the unloading of freight trains and delivery of products to stores and pension houses throughout the city.
What were the relations between Poles and Jews in Poland prior to the war? It is hard to unambiguously answer such a question. There were periods of harmonious coexistence, but also moments and events that cast a shadow on that harmony. Shameful were occurrences of anti-Semitic atmosphere. Primarily they were manifested in economical relations. However during the last years before the war, mainly due to extreme right-wing communities that implemented elements of Nazi ideology into our land, an escalation occurred and anti-Semitic atmosphere transformed into anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviours.
However, Otwock – and this can be declared unambiguously – in comparison to the generally poor Polish-Jewish relations was positively distinguished. This difference resulted from the fact that the town was simultaneously a summer resort and a spa. There were not many ignition points, while there was a common interest: the vacationers and patients coming to the city. It is perhaps because of this that there is no knowledge of occurred anti-Semitic events in pre-war Otwock, there are however, many known examples of existence of normal, healthy relations between the town’s Jewish and Christian residents. Here are some of them:
Right after Otwock was granted city rights, when it was necessary to choose authorities, representatives of the Polish and Jewish population made a pact regarding the “distribution of powers” of both ethnic groups. It was settled that the town’s Mayor would be a Christian, but his deputy would be Jewish. In the City Council Christians were granted 13 seats, while Jews only two fewer. Commissions with an even number of members had an even representation of both nationalities, and – an additional Christian. This rule was utilized in all autonomy elections right up to the beginning of the war. Utilized with success, since many relations and concrete evidence in form of many city ventures prove that the cooperation usually was harmonious, and the interests of the city and its inhabitants were the primary driving force for the councilmen.
An excellent example of the good coexistence of Poles and Jews in pre-war Otwock is the legendary person of doctor Wladyslaw Wajdenfeld, a splendid paediatrician, the school doctor of the local gymnasium. This Jewish doctor who worked in Otwock since 1923 was well known and respected among patients. The Polish town residents remember him very fondly. In 1936, doctor Wajdenfeld purchased the property in which in 1915 resided Jozef Pilsudski, the later leader of independent Poland. To celebrate this fact, the doctor presented a part of his property to the City Council at no cost, and a two-meter rock-obelisk was erected there with a low relief of the Marshal’s head and writing carved in stone. The monument’s unveiling ceremonies took place on November 11, 1938 (”The Ice Road” by Stefan Wajdenfeld). The rock-obelisk is still standing on the spot presented by doctor Wladyslaw Wajdenfeld. Each year national festivities take place here.
An event reminding of the closeness of both nations inhabiting Otwock is remembered by Irena Sendler. When her father, doctor Stanislaw Krzyzanowski died in 1917, the Jewish commune sent two representatives who offered financial aid for the education of little Irena. Her mother refused, but was very touched by this beautiful gesture. The Otwock Jews showed doctor Krzyzanowski and his family a lot of heart and gratitude for treating many of them without charge when he was alive. Their children were invited to the Krzyzanowski house, and played with Irena. Thanks to these contacts they learned Polish, while Irena learned Hebrew. (”Mother of the Holocaust Children. The story of Irena Sendler” written by Anna Mieszkowska).
The good relations between Poles and Jews should not be a surprise to someone who knows the history of the Gymnasium, which started its activity in 1919. The initiators acquired support of the City Council, which in 1921 decided to overtake the school’s administration. The school was attended by Polish and Jewish youth. Furthermore, the young representatives of both nationalities and religions attended classes together, often sitting in the same desk. Only the Catholic and Jewish religion classes divided this school community.
The collective school years taught solidarity, tolerance, and closeness, so needed when time came to pass the humanity exam during the years of Nazi occupation. Many Otwock residents passed this exam. Former Jewish residents of Otwock warmly remember Polish supervisors of Public Schools no. 2 and no. 4: Wladyslaw Misniakiewicz and Wladyslaw Szczepanski. Both these schools were foreseen for Jewish children, however, this was not a rule. Poles also worked and studied alongside Jewish teachers and students (”Stepchild on the Vistula” by Simcha Simchovitch).
A symbolic example of proper coexistence of Jews and Poles was the fact that a synagogue stood in front of the Otwock town hall building. With its location, it reminded the Mayor and City council of the coexistence of two cultures – Polish and Jewish – and for the sake of both they should make the best decisions.
The beginning of the war
Already on the first day of the war, the Jewish community of Otwock experienced many losses. The morning bombardment of the city caused the deaths of about 30 people, 70 were injured.
A fire broke out in the Educational-Health Care Centre “Centos” and in the private pension house at Zeromskiego St. There were 180 children in “Centos” at that time, aged 7 to 15. Seven of them were killed on the spot, 32 were severely injured, some of them died later in the hospital.
By the end of the first week of the war, when the first German units were approaching Warsaw, some Jews left Otwock for the eastern Voivodship of Poland. Some of them did this due to fear of the Germans and their ideology; others answered the call of Polish military authorities. The evacuation to the east turned out to be a saving decision for many of them.
From the first days of the German army’s entrance to Otwock the Jewish population was subject to oppression: Jews had their beards cut off, their houses and stores were robbed, they were forced to work in barracks, bow and take off their hat before Germans. On Rosh Hashanah the Jews prayed in their houses or at their neighbours, since they were afraid to go to the synagogue.
In October 1939, the Germans destroyed the Otwock synagogues. The Goldberg synagogue was burnt down, the fire also consumed the Beth Midrash and the library. Urke Nachalnik along with his friend Gerszon Randoninski ran into the burning synagogue and saved some rolls of the Torah.
One week later, the Weinberg synagogue was destroyed in the same way.
November of 1939 saw the implementation of the first regulations that limited rights of the Jewish community. From this moment, within the territory of the General Gouvernment, the Jews had to wear a patch with the Star of David; they had to mark their stores with that same symbol. Also implemented were economical sanctions: from March of 1940, mobile and immobile property was subject to control by the German authorities. Jews were not allowed to use the railway, and from 1940, the suburban rails. One year later they were forbidden to use means of public transportation, including horse and car wagons. July 23, 1940 saw the resolution of the general governor, which dissolved Jewish associations, with exception of those of caring character.
In Otwock, subject to this were the Health Care Association (“TOZ”) and “Centos”. The German oppression continued. Sometimes they rounded Jews up on the street and led to a ramp where they forced them to sing and dance while watched by passengers waiting on the platform. Follwing several hours of such a “show”, they were released and sent home. The head of the local Arbeitsamt, Hugo Dietz, used to pull Jews out of the synagogue during the Sabbath and force them to dig trenches, and clean houses of German officers. They were also rounded up to clean the ruins of buildings in Soplicow and Srodborow. The summer of 1940 saw the first dispatches of Jews from Otwock to mandatory work camps within the Lublin Voivodship. The delivery of workers was taken care of by the (created on December 31 of 1939) Jewish Council (Judenrat der Stadt Otwock), who was the mediator between German authorities and the Jewish population. The Jewish council soon acquired a reputation of overzealous in satisfying orders of the occupier. Stanislaw Nissenszal, one of the survivors, underlines that the Jewish population treated the Council with animosity, later with indifference. The attitude of German and local autonomy governments to the Jewish Council was liberal at first, and from the second half of 1942, until the end of the ghetto’s existence – hostile.
Foundation of the ghetto
During the fall of 1940, the ghetto in Otwock was founded, as ordered by the German authorities. It was the second largest ghetto within the district of Warsaw. About 15 thousand people came through it within almost two years. The beginning of the process was the decree of the Kreishauptmann of Warsaw district of September 26, 1940, ordering the cleansing of Jews from parts of Srodborow and Soplicow. The relocation had to be executed until October 16, 1940.
On November 4 of 1940 the following districts were created: residential and therapeutical, with among others the sanatorium “Brijus” and the hospital “Zofiowka”.
Until December 1, 1940, Jews were allowed to take their equipment to their new homes. Polish enterprises within Jewish districts had to be liquidated until January 1, 1941. Outside of the ghetto there were 391 buildings owned by Jews, of which about 60% were uninhabited, 73 buildings were occupied by the army. The relocation of Jews to the residential and therapeutical district was concluded on November 30, 1940.
The orders of the Warsaw district Kreishauptmann of January 10 and 13 of 1941 ordered the closing of the Jewish residential and therapeutical districts. They were closed on January 15. Jews were only able to leave the ghetto with a pass. Exit from the ghetto was allowed to worker columns going to work under police supervision. The closed access streets, had to be equipped with a board (paid for by the Jews) possessing the following information: “Jewish district. No entry to Germans and Poles”.
Due to occurrences of typhus fever, the Jewish residential district was also closed on May 28, 1941. All passes were terminated. Only policemen and sanitary personnel were able to access the ghetto. For unauthorized entrance to the ghetto there was a fine of 1000 zlotys or arrest up to six weeks. Jews outside of the ghetto were to be shot.
In November of 1940, the Jewish order service was created, the so-called Jewish Police, which was supposed to supervise the relocation of Jews to the Jewish residential and therapeutical districts. It was empowered to use force. The Otwock department was composed of a commanding officer and 30 officers. As commanding officer, appointed was Bernard Kronenberg. The police officers received adequate training. The Jewish Council was authorized to give orders to the police and the commanding officer was responsible for their realization. The Jewish policemen submitted reports and dispatches in the station of the Polish Police, to which they were subject to in relation to organization and discipline. The police was entitled to collect financial penalties. This was aimed to create financial sources for the maintenance of this formation. The salary form was defined by the head of the Judenrat, but only when there was proof of official devotion and ideal conduct. The officers of the Jewish police carried an orange patch with a blue inset at the top and bottom on their right shoulder. The inscription “Ghetto Police of Otwock” (Ghetto Polizei der Stadt Otwock) was present on the patch. The Jewish police station was located at 9 Samorzadowa St.
The ghetto police was divided into the following sections: Patrol, Administration, Bread, Work, as well as Hospital and Sanitary. The Jewish police, much like the Judenrat, was known for serious abuse, among others accepting bribes and escorting residents to Umschlagplatz.
Everyday life in the ghetto
Until the start of the war, Otwock’s population maintained itself from patients and vacationers. At the beginning of the German occupation, the wealthy guests moved out of the sanatoriums and pension houses. Only those who could not return to their residence stayed behind. Only a small part of the Otwock population was employed. Some of the Jewish residents of Otwock, mainly doctors and nursing personnel, still worked in open hospitals and sanatoriums. In this tough situation a way out was to sell belongings to Poles. Those who did not have anything to sell illegally transported food to the Warsaw ghetto. This was mainly done by children between ages of 10 and 13.
The decree of Hans Frank fof October 26, 1939 forbade conduction of ritual slaughter. The Otwock butchers, who were well renowned in religious circles, provided their products to the Warsaw ghetto through thirteen-year-old girls with a non-Semitic appearance. The meat that they smuggled possessed a kosher certificate. The children who smuggled meat helped their families in this way. Also, women took care of acquiring food since they could easier move around streets without suspicion of Jewish identity. The surplus of gathered products was sold. Poles also supplied food products to the ghetto. The food was smuggled to Otwock among others from the regions of Lublin and Siedlce. Until the closing of the Jewish district, its residents maintained trade with Poles.
The deteriorating situation of the Otwock Jews forced the creation of numerous charity organizations. The Otwock Judenrat founded the Social Care Department, which among others took care of assuring medical aid, legal aid, interventions with private persons for supporting the poor, issuing certificates of official payment exemption, organizing clothing collections. The task of the founded Social Care Committee was the coordination of work of the charity institutions of Otwock in July 1940. The following were founded next to the Committee: a special Women’s Committee, the Refugee Committee of Lodz, as well as the Child Care Section. In order to gather resources for conduction of the activity, organized were happenings, prize lotteries, and shows. The assets acquired in this way were dedicated to the activity of foster homes and eateries for the poor, headed among others by the association “Centos”. The wealthier residents of the ghetto organized holiday meals to which everyone had free access. Cared for were also Jewish workers from camps outside of the commune. The closure of the Jewish district significantly worsened the situation of the population. It was left completely without income possibilities. A majority of the residents were ill people that could not count on help from their families, and were deprived of the possibilities of working. They were entirely dependent on support of the Jewish Council. A large part of intellectuals found themselves in extreme poverty. Each day, there were occurrences of deaths by starvation. Illnesses and starvation were intensified by the end of 1941, and decimated the population of the Otwock ghetto.
In October 1939, the Association of Health Care of the Jewish Population “TOZ” reactivated the contract with the Otwock department. Activated were outpatients’ clinics, dentist offices, light therapy. An action of child feeding aid was started. The “TOZ” doctors performed vaccinations for typhoid fever on the population. The Health Care Centre “TOZ” was the only such establishment in Otwock. At 11a Warszawska Street the association-headed Health Department was located. The centre was supervised by dr. Maksymilian Augarten. The finances for its functioning came from donations, payments from protégés, and a special pharmaceutical fund. It maintained the anti-tuberculosis clinic, the childcare station, the anti-scabies and anti-venereal stations, and the general outpatients’ clinic.
Due to the cases of typhus fever, the Jewish Council had to conduct mass disinfections and disinfestations. The increase of typhus fever and dysentery illnesses forced the foundation of an infectious diseases hospital. Until July of 1941, the sparse ill were treated in the city’s worst and overcrowded homes. In July 1941, the German authorities agreed to create a hospital with 80 beds in the building of the sanatorium “Marpe”. The hospital was furnished primitively and provisionally. It lacked the most needed equipment. The Health Care Association also assumed tight cooperation with the sanatorium “Brijus”, whose activity it financially supported. In November 1939, the sanatorium reactivated one of the pavilions. During occupation, the centre’s name was: “Tuberkulosenheilstiitte fur Unbemittelte Lungenkranke “Brijus” – Otwock Health Resort. It was the only Jewish establishment for patients with tuberculosis within all of the General Government. Based on the German directive also reactivated was “Zofiowka”. Following its reactivation, it became the only establishment for mentally and neurotically ill Jews in the G. G. Patients were sent to Otwock from all Polish hospitals. Also, the poor that could not afford treatment were directed here. In order to help the tragic financial situation of “Zofiowka”, there was a relaxation house for wealthy Jews created in pavilion no. 2. Here came patients from the Warsaw ghetto as well as Radom, primarily members of the Jewish Order Service and Jewish Gestapo agents. In December 1941, in order to gain additional finances for the establishment’s activity, the Cafe Variette was opened. The cultural centre of the Otwock ghetto became primarily its treatment part, the establishments of which treated many Jewish intellectuals. Under the leadership of the director of “Centos”, Kalman Lis, a literary group was created. Founded was the Committee of Propagating Jewish Literature, which organized so-called Thursday evenings, during which there were lectures in range of history and literature. Organized were recitation evenings, there were several concerts conducted in Yiddish under the leadership of the “Centosu” counsellor. An amateur actor’s troop of K. Brzeski, a patient of “Zofiowka”, was founded. Children from the Care Centre of Gustawa Kaminska and the Foster Home at 22 Gorna St prepared shows with singing and ballet. In the pension house of Jechiel-Meir Zolberg a heder was active, where boys were taught religious subjects. Older Jews met there in the evenings to study the Talmud. Each day the religious youth studied “Dal Jomi” (a program assuming that all Jews in the world who study the Talmud each day took care of the same fragment). In the summer of 1940, Icchak Menachem Danziger, a rabbi from Aleksandrow, settled in Otwock. He started to conduct ceremonial meals and headed Chasidic meetings. Following the demolition of the synagogue at Kupiecka St, the Jews organized a substitute prayer house in the home of Azril Szulman. Wealthier Jews organized ceremonial Seders to which they invited the poor. During the Pesach in 1942 (April 2 – 9), the Seder was organized in the newly founded Orphan House. Invited were several dozen of citizens from the local ghetto. Following the reading of the Hagada, each child received one egg, one matzo, and one dish with potatoes and eggs. The Committee of Youth gathered the food specifically for this event. In December 1939, implemented was the work obligation for the Jewish population. It included men between 16 to 60 years old.
Liquidation of the ghetto
In July 1942, the leader of the Warsaw district gendarmerie, Lüppschau, arrived to Otwock. He demanded rich presents from Kronenberg, the Ghetto Polizei commanding officer. He also assured that “Otwock is not taken into consideration” in relation to the conducted actions of liquidating ghettos within the General Government. The District Governor Rupprecht ordered the Judenrats in Otwock, Falenica, Legionowo, Wolomin, Janow, and Radzymin to present a list of professionals that possess personal tools (tailors, shoemakers, metal workers, electricians, saddlers) until August 2. Along with their families, they were to be relocated to Warsaw “in order to engage them into the process of work”. When on July 22, the Germans assumed liquidation of ghettos in Warsaw, the illusion was that no such action would take place in Otwock since wagons with clothes were delivered to the laundry, which was being created at Warszawska St. Next to the railway siding, a square for the creation of a carpentry shop was being prepared. Jewish workers cut down trees and fenced in the terrain with barbed wire in order to prevent theft of lumber. It was to this very prepared square that later, the Jewish population of Otwock would be round up.
There was a break in the resettlement of Warsaw Jews between the 19 and 24 of August. During this time, ghettos near Warsaw were liquidated. On August 18, Major Karl Brandt arrived in Otwock along with several officers. He ordered the deconstruction of brick houses within 24 hours and erection of a wall surrounding the ghetto. He dismissed the chairman of the Jewish Council Szymon Gorewicz, replacing him with Bernard Kronenberg. Calel Perechodnik says that a week prior to the ghetto’s liquidation he received a letter from Efroim Rykner, the assistant commanding officer of the Ghetto-Polizei who in January was taken away to Treblinka. In the letter he tried to warn the Otwock Jews. Kronenberg was to refuse, concerned with responsibility for mass evacuations of the ghetto.
At 7 in the morning, a Jewish police assembly was ordered to take part in the relocation action. Some policemen notified their friends, asking them not to spread this message around. However, most of the ghetto’s residents already guessed: some of them left the city and hid in the surroundings of Otwock, others hid in basements. Late in the night the news of the planned action also reached the camp in Karczew. Groups of Otwock Jews abandoned the camp in order to get to the ghetto to find out what is happening with their families. Some sent their families out of the ghetto, prepared hideouts, buried valuables.
The action began on August 19. The first truck filled with Ukrainians crossed the Karczew barrier at 7 in the morning. There were immediate shots. From the direction of Warszawska Street came another truck, followed by limousines of SS dignitaries. The vehicles directed themselves to the square created by a quadrangle of houses in the neighbourhood of B. Joselewicza Street. Through tubas, announced was the order for everyone to leave their homes; otherwise the entire district would be burned down. The Germans ordered everyone to gather at a given place.
Up until noon, 8 thousand Jews were gathered on the small Umschlagplatz. Most came voluntarily. “Meanwhile the Germans are gathering chairs, sitting around, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, eating and laughing. From time to time they fire a shot into the crowd so that no one dares to stand up. To inspire terror they pull some people out of the crowd and hit them with clubs until they die”.
By order of Lüppschau, Jewish policemen were to stay in the ghetto to get it cleaned. Merchandise and furniture was to be gathered in stock houses, anyone hiding was to be kept arrested until arrival of the gendarmerie. The policemen were promised that their children and wives would remain in Otwock. Ultimately, this promise was not kept. One of the Jewish policemen, Abram Willendorf, wanted to ostentatiously throw down the patch and join his wife and child, however, following persuasion of his co-workers he returned the police badges and sat down in the square. The news of his act reached the Warsaw ghetto, where he became a legend.
Leokadia Schmidt recalls: “(…) The Jewish police did not follow in the footsteps of its Warsaw colleagues. When at the first briefing they received guidelines regarding evacuation of the population, all as one threw down their police caps at the feet of their torturers and refused to execute the order. They were all shot”. In reality the behaviour of the Ghetto-Polizei officers was no different than the posture of the Warsaw ones. Kronenberg personally led his father to the square. The number of Jews taken away on that day is estimated by sources to be at 7 to 10 thousand. The loading of 50 wagons took until 10 pm. The transport of Otwock Jews arrived at Treblinka death camp on August 20 or 21.
The action in the therapeutical ghetto had a tragic course. Some of the doctors in “Zofiowka” and ”Brijus” committed suicide, much like some of the rest house residents. On the day of the ghetto’s liquidation, the Ukrainians rounded the personnel and patients of “Brijus” and “Zofiowka” up to the first pavilion in “Zofiowka”. The seriously ill and some of the personnel were shot on the spot. The rest were sent to Treblinka. Around 140 people were killed. The Germans shattered the heads of the children from “Brijus”. Also murdered were children and personnel of the educational centre “Centos”.
During the ghetto’s liquidation, some found shelter with Poles, however, there were many instances of robbery and denunciation. Often, the ghetto residents were unable to recover their goods that were given to the Poles to store. Jewish fortunes were also robbed following the ghetto’s liquidation. Many people sent their children to Poles, who often dropped them off at convents or even gave away to the transport.
Parents dropped their children off at among others the convent of sisters of St. Elizabeth, who conducted the Foster Home “Promyk”, also for Jewish children.
During the ghetto’s liquidation, mothers dropped their children off in the bushes near the convent. Captain Bronislaw Marchlewicz, the commanding officer of the Polish Police in Otwock, took the children and the sisters under his wing. He notified them of revisions that were to take place. On the day of liquidation, he himself along with Rev. Ludwik Wolski and Aleksandra Szpakowska saved the 7-year-old Marysia Ossowiecka. Ludwik Wolski, the priest of the Otwock parish of St. Vincent de Paul, issued fake baptism certificates to Jews during the war. The survived Jews also remember the help of his assistant priest Jan Raczkowski as well as of Jesuit priest Jan Rostworowski.
Following liquidation of the ghetto, Lüppschau gave the Jewish police the order to find all Jews hiding among the Aryans. They were gathered at the Jewish police station, where they awaited arrival of the execution squad from Rembertow. On the day following the liquidation, Germans and Ukrainians searched houses and basements. They pulled Jews out of their hiding with aid of other Jews, originating from Karczew. They assured in Yiddish that the action was concluded and there is no threat.
Each house was also searched by the gendarmerie from Rembertow. Some of the located Jews were killed on the spot, some arrested. The mass executions lasted four weeks. Every few days (usually twice a week), when around 100 people were gathered in the ghetto, ten military policemen arrived, accompanied by the Polish police. Prior to that, workers from Karczew were fetched to prepare trenches, usually near Reymonta Street. Ten Jews had to approach the trench, and then they lay down face first. Following the execution, the workers searched the clothing and threw the bodies into the trench. About 1500 people were buried in collective graves between the streets of Reymonta and Slowackiego. Between August 19 and 30, there were 2250 Jews killed. On July 24 near Swider, there were 500 Otwock Jews executed. The collective graves are in neighbouring forests. Around 300 people were buried on the slope of the dune between the streets Gorna and Staszica. The graves are also near the sanatorium “Marpe”. Individual graves were also found in almost every air-raid shelter. In total, there were about 3000 Jews found and shot.
“There’s a small city called Otwock located a few dozen kilometres from Warsaw. It was famous through all of Poland for its crystal clear air and sanatoriums for patients with lung diseases (…) There were kilometres of pine trees and these resinous terrains were where Jews built their houses, also referred to as villas. Wooden, painted brown, and obligatorily with a veranda, almost all of them looked identically (…) Thousands of families came to Otwock and the neighbouring towns during the summer (…) It is hard to imagine that there are no more Jews there. Only the sand on which we built remains…”
Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1945
Edited by Sebastian Rakowski