MIELEC THROUGH THE HOLOCAUST
Written by Howard Recht
Mielec, located on the east bank of the Vistual River, is a small town in southern Poland located approximately 70 miles east-northeast of Cracow. Prior to WWI, Mielec was part of Austria-Hungary; after the WWI it became part of Poland.
The region in which Mielec is situated was primarily a wooded, agricultural region. Most Jews were poor, and worked as laborers, small businessmen and tradesman and professionals, although there were a few rich landowners. The Polish population lived on the outskirts of town, in small houses complemented by vegetable gardens and trees, with provisions for animals like, cows, pigs and dogs.
For most of Mielecís recent history the Jewish population exceeded the number of Poles.
Constructed around a traditional market square, with two roads branching from each corner, Mielec was also situated on the railroad, with a track running west to Cracow and north to Lublin. Though not distinguished by any grand parks, notable buildings or the like, Mielec nonetheless earned some local fame due to its enthusiastic youth, who developed a well-received theater group, which performed plays by Sholem Aleichem and others. It was also said that the poor and sick were never forgotten in Mielec.
Thursday was market day, the biggest event of the week. In the summer, main street, the Corso, was the Jewish youthís meeting place--and also the place where young romances blossomed. The coziest place was said to be the stranzica--the garden around the firehouse.
Life for Mielecís Jews was serious. Even prior to the Naziís rise to power, there were pogroms, mass anti-Semitic violence, looting of Jewish stores, and breaking of home and storefront windows. The Polish army had a particular reputation for cruel anti-Semitism. More than one Jewish boy cut off a finger to avoid being drafted.
Ironically, "Semitic" was not an accurate racial description of Mielecís Jews. Black, red and blond hair, and facial features of every description, chronicled their past wanderings through Spain, France, Germany and the Ukraine.
Jews had lived in Poland approximately 800 years prior to the Nazi's rise to power in Germany. During the Middle Ages, traditional Jewish practices flourished as a result of the relative seclusion that small-town Mielec provided. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, secular education began to supplement Jewish training. In the period between the two world wars, Mielecís Jews dominated its economy. They were noted for exporting grain, cattle and feathers. Local industries included the making of tiles and stoves, and the operation of brick-kilns, tanneries, and bus companies. Rising economic and social pressures took their toll on Mielecís Jews and their standard of living. The slogan of the government became: "Economic warfare, why not?" By the outbreak of W.W.II, Mielecís Jewish population had decreased to merely 30 percent. Admittance to universities for medical and scientific studies became increasingly more difficult for Mielecís Jewish youth. Increasingly, they sought help in the political parties of the left. Zionism increased, first with the establishment of a Bnei Yenda society, then a Hashomer Hatsair branch, followed by others including General Zionists, Herut, Ahdut Avodah, Akiva, and Mizrahi.
Although modernization had its effect, Mielecís general religious character remained orthodox-conservative. The prayer houses, the Shul and the Bes Midrash were filled. Mielecís principle synagogue was located in a central district near the ritual slaughterhouse and Mikva. An impressive building, the synagogue featured oil paintings by Isaac Fenichel, depicting the zodiac and episodes from the Bible.
Prior to W.W.II, Poland included Mielec in a triangle of land, called the C.O.P., targeted for industrialization. The resulting economic activity brought in more people--mostly non-Jews. Tensions between Poles and Jews increased. A wave of Nationalism swept through the region, venting its emotions on Jews and their places of business.
In 1938, as part of this industrialization and in anticipation of a war with Germany, Poland began to construct an aircraft factory at Cyranka, near Mielec, in what was otherwise a rural area. The factory was hastily raised out of farm ground and forested areas; production of the then state-of-the-art bomber named "Los" (meaning Moose or Elk) commenced within a few months.
On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. Within 5 days, the German forces advanced from the Moravia region of Germany to Cracow. By September 13, 1939, German forces had overrun Mielec--the aircraft factory situated there made it an attractive target. By October 5, 1939, the German conquest of Poland had been accomplished. Sixty thousand Polish soldiers were killed, including 6,000 Jews. Four hundred thousand Polish soldiers were captured, including 61,000 Jews.
The first German soldiers to arrive in Mielec arrived by motorcycle. Soon local authorities were replaced by Germans. Jewish stores were looted; and Jews were conscripted for menial tasks, such as cleaning offices, washing cars and sweeping sidewalks. Later, a Judenrat was instituted, with "official" responsibilities for taxing Jewish reserves of jewelry, furs and money, and for conscripting Jewish laborers. Mielec was to be one of the first Judenfree towns in Poland.
On September 28, 1939, Poland was partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union. However, before the border was secured, 20,000 Jews from the region around Cracow escaped southeastward into Hungary and Rumania. In total, more than 250,000 Jews escaped across the new Soviet border. From among these came the majority of the Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust. Immediately, Nazi Germans began violent persecution of the Jews. On September 13, 1939 (a Wednesday), 35 Jews were killed in Mielec on that day alone. Most of these killings were attacks on Jews at prayer, or random shootings. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, however, the Germans took advantage of the Jews congregating in the Mikva and patronage of the slaughterhouse. Many of Mielecís devout Jews, including rabbi Mendele Horvitz, miscalculated, believing that the Germans would not interfere. The Germans surrounded the Mikva and slaughterhouse, trapping the Jews inside. That night, the Germans set fire to the Mikva, the slaughterhouse, the Bes Midrash, the Shul and the rabbiís house. Any Jews trying to escape were machine gunned, those that remained died in the fire. Many of the 30 to 40 Jews killed that night were travelers from out of town, patronizing the Mikva in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. The Shochet was also killed, but the rabbi miraculously escaped.
In the closing months of 1939, Nazi Germany expelled many Polish Jews living in the region east of the River Vistula, eastward across the River San and the new Soviet border. Many drowned or were shot, others were turned back by the Soviets--the majority did not survive.
By January, 1940, labor camps were set up all over Poland. Twelve camps were noted in and around Cracow, for instance, another 10 near Rzeszow, situated approximately 80 miles east northeast of Cracow. Jewish slave laborers from the camp at Cyranka were used at the aircraft factory. Initially, Jews were seized randomly on the streets to fill the camps; later, organized conscriptions took place under the direction of the Judenrat.
Between May and December, 1940, Jews from Mielec were sent to a forced labor camp at Miedzyrec, Poland, approximately 130 miles north northeast, to build fortifications along the new Soviet Border.
In January 1942, it was reported that 500 Jews were killed in Mielec or deported to their death.
Early on the morning of March 9, 1942, the transportation of Mielecís Jews commenced. That morning, all the remaining Jews were marched at gun point out to the aircraft hangers at Cyranka. The elderly, sick and certain prominent people in the community, including the rabbi, were shot. For the next three days, while Mielecís Jews were deported by train, those remaining at Cyranka were marched around the compound. Any that appeared weak, sick or injured were shot. Those killed during the transportation were buried in a mass grave near the aircraft factory. Altogether, between 700 and 800 of Mielecís Jews died in the transportation.
From Cyranka, a group of perhaps 200 Jewish youth were taken to the Pustkow concentration camp, a particularly brutal camp. Few survived. Those that did were eventually deported to Auschwitz.
A few of Mielecís Jews were held as forced laborers for the Cyranka factory. Some of the rest were transported to camps in the Lublin district, in eastern Poland, including Parchew, Wlodawa, Niedzyrec and Dubienka. Many were later transported to Sabibor, where they were killed.
On December 7, 1941, Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. At about that same time, Chelmno, the first death camp (these were not labor camps, but camps designed to kill all arrivals within a few hours of their arrival) started operations. Between December 8, 1941 and February 28, 1942, for example, more than 13,000 Jews were gassed at Chelmno. Deportations to Belzec, the second death camp, commenced on March 17, 1942. On that day (a Tuesday), 4,500 Jews were deported from Mielec to their death at Belzec.
Between August 1 and August 13, 1942, over 69,000 Jews from the Western Galicia region of Poland were deported to their death at Belzec.
After the transport of Mielecís Jews, a labor camp was established in Mielec. One use of these laborers was to obliterate all traces of earlier mass murders (referred to as "Unit 1005"). The laborers were usually murdered once their work was completed.
By August, 1944, Soviet forces had advanced westward to within 50 miles of Mielec. In response to the Soviet advancements, on August 24, 1944, 3,000 Jews were deported to their deaths from Mielec (possibly to Ravensbruck, Flossenburg, Gusen or Mauthausen). By January 12, 1945, the Soviet forces had advanced westward to just east of Mielec. On January 17, 1945, the remaining Jews in the Mielec slave labor camp were hastily evacuated to other camps (possibly Ravensbruck, Buchenwald or Gross Rosen). Because it was winter, and due to the brutal conditions of the evacuations, many died of starvation or exposure, the remainder were later killed at the destination camps. A few may have escaped in the confusion. By January 23, 1945, Soviet forces had advanced westward, liberating Mielec. On April 30, 1945, Adolph Hitler committed suicide in Berlin; on May 8, 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. More than 6 million Jews had been murdered by the Nazis; only approximately 1.6 million European Jews survived. An estimated 3 million Polish Jews were killed. Approximately 225,000 survived, most because they found refuge in 1939 and 1940 in Soviet Central Asia, some because they managed to hide utilizing false papers.
During the German occupation of Mielec, all of its Jewish buildings, institutions and its cemetery were destroyed. Many of the nicer Jewish homes were also burned. Those that remained were confiscated by Poles. Fearing that with the advancement of Russian forces they would be killed by the Poles, most of Mielecís Jews who remained in hiding in or near Mielec fled the region. After Polandís liberation, the few surviving Mielezer Jews who returned found continued hostility and threat of death by the Poles. Most left. Today, Mielezer Jews are found in America, Israel and Australia. Mielec, on the other hand, has few Jews; perhaps the Naziís plan to create a Judenfree town was ultimately successful.
An aircraft factory, "PZL-Mielec" Aircraft Company Ltd., still exists at Mielec. Employees of the company have erected a monument to the Holocaust victims; it says:
To those employees of the Factory and the inhabitants from the area of both Polish and Jewish nationalities murdered during World War II: A tribute from Mielec's Youth.
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