Tarnow is located approximately 56 miles east of Krakow. At the outbreak of the Second World War, about 25,000 Jews, representing 45 percent of the city’s population, resided in the city. At that time, Tarnów had the fourth largest Jewish community in Galicia.
German armed forces occupied the city on 7 September 1939, and Ernst Kundt became the first district chief. The headquarters of the Gestapo, Police and Special Forces were all located Tarnow, as it was the center of the district. Immediately following the German occupation of the city, the harassment of the Jews began.
The events of the fall of 1939 proved tragic for the Tarnow Jewish community members and were the impetus for many to flee to the Soviet occupation zone immediately:
September 1939: Between 9-11 September, the Germans burnt down all of the synagogues (including the Old Synagogue built in the 1600’s, left picture) and prayer houses in Tarnow.
October 1939: By an order issued on 20 October 1939, all Jews of Tarnow had to wear a Star of David on their clothes.
November 1939: Jewish bank accounts were frozen. On 12 November 1939, the Germans ordered all Jews businesses to display a painted white Star of David on their doors (right picture).
November 1939: The Germans appointed a Jewish Council (Judenrat). The Judenrat was entrusted with preparing lists of Jews for forced labor.
Jews between 14-60 years had to enlist for forced labor. They were assembled and sent out to work in groups (left photo). Jewish schools and institutions were closed.
In January 1940, Jews were prohibited from using the main streets.
In April 1940, Jews were forbidden to enter public parks, and a curfew was imposed on the Jews, who could remain outside until only 9:00 p.m.
In June 1940, the Jews were prohibited from performing the ritual slaughter of animals.
On 13 June 1940, the Germans arrested 753 men in Tarnow, among them 5 prominent Jews. The next day they were marched to the train station and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. This marked the first transport to Auschwitz.
On 7 August 1940, the more prosperous Jews who lived on Krakowska and Walowa Streets received an order to move out of their houses and move to the eastern part of the city – Grabowka, which was inhabited mostly by poorer Jews. This was the first step towards the creation of a Tarnow ghetto, but it was not completed until early 1942.
On 16 October 1941, the Germans created a Jewish Police force consisting of approximately 300 policemen. The Jewish Police were responsible for overseeing the Jewish community and enforcing the German orders.
The completion of the Tarnow Ghetto took place by February 1942. The Germans established an open ghetto that encompassed the following area: left side of Lwowska Street, Pod Debem Square; Nowa, Folwarczna, Szpitalna, Polna, and Jasna Streets. There were four entrances to the ghetto: two at Magdeburg Platz, the third at Pod Debem Square and the fourth at Folwarczna Street, near the Judenrat building.
Until 1942, the Jews had managed to live as normally as they could in such circumstances. They were still able to bury the dead at the Jewish cemetery. In the beginning of 1942, all Jews had to register with the German authorities. Many Jews were receiving social help, four community kitchens distributed around 7,000 meals per day.
During the first ‘Aktion’ of 11-18 June 1942, which was directed by Wilhelm Rommelmann, German and Ukrainian auxiliary units murdered around 6,000 Jews, mainly the sick, the elderly and 800 children in the Buczyna Forest at Zbylitowska Gora outside of Tarnow. They also deported approximately 11,500 to the Belzec death camp and shot 3,000 Jews at the Jewish cemetery in Tarnow. Following this ‘Aktion’, the ghetto was considerably reduced in size.
On 19 June 1942, Stadthauptmann Gustav Hackbarth announced the creation of a closed ghetto for the remaining Jews in Tarnow. According to the decree, 20,000 Jews had to move into the ghetto within 48 hours.
The area was sealed off with barbed wire and a sign was erected (left picture courtesy of Yad Vashem). There were four guarded gates to enter the ghetto. Polish Police guarded the ghetto externally, and Jewish Police guarded it on the inside. The ghetto was administered by a vicious SS commander named Hermann Blache.
The Jews were prohibited from leaving the ghetto on pain of death. Jews had to perform forced labor both inside and outside the ghetto. Food was scarce, but some people managed to smuggle food in on their return from work details outside of the ghetto. There was an orphanage, four community kitchens, and a branch of the Jewish self-help organization. There was also a Jewish hospital set up.
After the ghetto was established, the number of Jews increased to 40,000, swelled by the arrival of Jews from ghettos in nearby towns. Work details were escorted outside the ghetto by the Germans or Polish Police. The workers received little payment, and those who did not work received no official help.
On 10 September 1942, another registration of the Jewish population took place. Those without a stamp on their identification card (indicating they were not fit to work) were targeted during the next Aktion. During the second ‘Aktion’ on 12 September 1942, which was orchestrated by Rommelmann, the ghetto was surrounded by German and Polish units.
Jews were ordered to assemble at the Magdeburg Square. A selection was made for deportation. On 13 September 1942, 3,500 Jews were deported to the Belzec death camp.
The third ‘Aktion’ took place on 15 November 1942. On the day of the ‘Aktion’ the Germans rounded up 2,500 Jews, whom they sent to the Belzec death camp. By November 1942, all the smaller ghettos in the areas around Tarnow had been liquidated. Their prisoners were transferred to the remaining larger ghettos, including Tarnow, in which approximately 12,000 Jews were now concentrated.
Amon Göth arrived in Tarnow to liquidate the ghetto. On 2 September 1943, German and Ukrainian SS units surrounded the ghetto and removed the internal fence which divided the two ghettos. The Jews were ordered to assemble on Magdeburg Square. They were notified that they were being sent to the Plaszow camp in Krakow. The final round-up and deportation ‘Aktion’ was conducted on 2-3 September 1943, during which Amon Göth displayed inhuman cruelty towards the Jews. The majority of the Jews, numbering about 8,000, were sent to Auschwitz, while 3,000 were sent to the Plaszow forced labor camp.
A group of some 300 young and strong Jews were selected to remain behind to clean out the ghetto. They lived in two buildings at 13 and 14 Szpitalna Street. As the work was progressing, 150 Jews who were no longer needed were taken to Szebnie. The last transport consisting of the remaining 150 Jews from Tarnow, were sent to Plaszow.
In late 1943, Tarnow was declared “free of Jews” (judenrein), thus ending a long and illustrious history of Jewish life in Tarnow.
Content adapted from the Holocaust Historic Society with permission from Chris Webb, founder.