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Life in the Ghetto

The influx of the Płocker refugees in 1941 almost doubled the Jewish population of Bodzentyn. It is likely that this photo of the open ghetto (showing the lower marketplace, Rynek Dolny in Bodzentyn in 1941) is the only one still existing from those times. (Photographer: Anonymous Wehrmacht soldier.)
© Bodzentyn.net, courtesy of Bagnówka

In the early spring of 1941, Michael Zelon felt that “there was total freedom of movement” in and out of the ghetto. His recollection of the situation, changing for the worse some months later, is probably partly due to the introduction of the death penalty for anyone caught leaving the ghetto. This was decreed in the latter part of 1941 in an attempt to deter smuggling and escape. On 1 November 1941 Dawid writes: “Today notices were put up in Kielce that anyone who goes in and out of the ‘Jewish Quarter’ will face the death-penalty […] These notices were not only put up in Kielce but in all the towns under the ‘Generalgouvernement’.”

A note concerning the sheltering of escaping Jews servings as a reminder that in accordance with paragraph 3 of the decree of October 15, 1941, on the limitation of residence in the General Government Jews leaving the Jewish Quarter without permission will incur the death penalty. According to this decree, those knowingly helping these Jews by providing shelter, supplying food, or selling them foodstuffs are also subject to the death penalty (Częstochowa, Poland September 1942.
© Bodzentyn.net | Wikipedia Commons.

On 11 January 1942, hearing the news that all Jews are to be evacuated from the villages throws the whole Rubinowicz family into turmoil. Dawid writes: “They’re going to evacuate us now in such a sharp winter, and where? Now it’s our turn to suffer. How long, God only knows.”

In the districts of the General Government Jews were required to wear an armband with a Star of David on it. Dawid knew that moving illegally he would need to take off this armband in order not to be quite so easily recognized as a Jewish fugitive. Walking to Bodzentyn on 12 March 1942, the day the family moves into the ghetto, Dawid writes: “I went without an armband on […] I was terribly frightened, O God, if anybody had met us, then… Thank God we arrived safely.”

Outside the ghetto having a fake identification card could help one to avoid arrest, as did changing one’s appearance. Michael Zelon and his father who had started business smuggling leather from Bodzentyn to Szydłowiec understood that with this new order they would not be allowed to leave the town. Their business, however small, was their livelihood and they decided to keep it up: “My father came up with a bike idea, he bought a bicycle, and I went on the bicycle to Szydłowiec, and we hid leather under my shirt. I could go fairly freely because in school [in Płock] as a [lone] Jew we had on our report card ‘religion’ and by mistake they put on my report card ‘Catholic’ […] as a matter of fact [the Germans] stopped me once and I showed the document. They let me go without any problem as a Catholic.”
© Bodzentyn.net | Illustrator: Simon Jannerland.

Quite a few people went into hiding. “My father was the first person to hide [behind a double wall in the attic],” Irene Szachter recalls. “[This happened] because one baker in town was caught with a sack of flour and they asked him where he [had] bought it and he said he bought it from Mr. Szachter, because we had a flour mill. And it was not true because at the time we were not selling flour. My father decided not to get in trouble with the Germans and not to do anything against their rules. They had a rule that we had to supply so much flour to certain bakeries and that’s all we did. And we never sold anything illegally. But this man said that because my father was a prominent citizen and he thought that by saying that he bought it from Mr. Szachter, or from Mr. Szachter’s mill, he [would] not be in trouble. He was in trouble anyway […] they attached him to a wagon that was drawn by horses and they dragged him all over town until he died.” Dawid got to know about this horrific event too. On 15-16 January 1942 he writes perhaps more accurately: “… they’d manacled a Jew and taken him to the local police. […] They’d tied him to their sledge and he’d been forced to run after it. […] While he was tied to the sledge he couldn’t run any more, and they’d dragged him along behind the sledge and then shot him…”

© Bodzentyn.net | Illustrator: Simon Jannerland.

The people of Bodzentyn were struck by fear and the Jews knew that every time the Germans would come some of them would get killed. Eva Sztarkman recalls: “… when they came in every time they killed, we were sitting in the house and shivering, [wondering] to whose house he will go in? Then they came in, in somebody’s house, and they killed a few people and then they left. Or if somebody walked on the street, once I remember a pregnant woman walked on the street, a Jewish woman, they killed her. And they took her body; they buried [it] in front of their house—of her parents’ home. It was very scary and very bad. […] We could not go out from the town, whoever stepped out, they killed.”

In the spring of 1942 and continuing towards the summer, raids and house-to-house searches intensified. Those accused of hiding goods were arrested, those who refused to co-operate with the Germans were shot or sent to Auschwitz, the numerous killings left orphans having to find an extended family or face their destiny alone, and Jews seen outside the ghetto or disobeying curfew laws were shot.

© Bodzentyn.net | Illustrator: Simon Jannerland.

On 10 April 1942 Dawid writes: “If only you could have one quiet day. My nerves are utterly exhausted; whenever I hear of anyone’s distress, I burst tears, my head starts aching and I’m exhausted, as if I’d been doing the hardest possible work. It’s not only me, everyone feels the same.”

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