Lunna-Wola during the Second World War and the Holocaust

Life under the German occupation and the Lunna-Wola Ghetto

 
 

On June 22, 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. As part of this unprovoked attack, the German warplanes targeted the above-described Soviet military facilities located in the Grodno region. Most Russians warplanes were destroyed on the ground at the airfields and the few others which took off were shot down by the Germans. To avoid the bombing, many Jews of Lunna hid in basements of their houses or those of their Jewish neighbors. About ten Jews were killed in Lunna, including Rebetzin Rasha Mine, Rabbi Rotberg's wife; Chana-Beile, Rabbi Rotberg's daughter and her daughter Gela; Fruma, Rabbi Rotberg's daughter; Israel Lubitz's wife (name currently unknown); and Chaya Galinski, who were hiding at the basement of Yedwab's residence located at Podolna Street. Most wooded houses in the Christian Street, which separated Lunna from Wola, were destroyed by fire as a result of the German artillery attacks. The main battle took place on the banks of the Niemen River. The Soviets, during their rapid retreat, set fire to the wooden bridge over the Niemen River near Lunna.

On Saturday June 28, 1941, Lunna was overrun by the German forces. Some Wehrmacht soldiers who entered Lunna looted Jewish homes and murdered Jews who they suspected, correctly or otherwise, of having connections with the Soviet intelligence service. Motel Murstein and his son Mula (Shmuel) Murstein were among such persons. After the Wehrmacht overran the area, other German military personnel took charge in Lunna. According to Eisenshmidt, following the German take-over, a number of Einsatzkommandos moved into Lunna and became active in Lunna. The German occupiers appointed a local Lunna resident who was German as mayor of Lunna (name currently unknown). Prior to the Soviet occupation, this person had owned fishponds on one of the nearby estates. Another local German resident of Lunna was a mechanic (name currently unknown) who presumably spied for the Germans during the Soviet occupation. In addition, the Germans established a Police Force comprised of approximately 12-15 Poles. The municipal Polish Police Force was responsible for maintaining order and law in Lunna and in the neighboring villages according to the Germans orders. The Chief of Police was a Pole named Michal Orbanowicz. One of the Polish policemen, named Sakowicz, was a son of a Jewish woman who married a Pole and converted to Christianity. According to Eisenshmidt, Michal Orbanowicz treated the Jews not too harshly whereas Sakowicz was very harsh on the Jews. As far as Eisenshmidt knows, Sakowicz moved to Warsaw after the war.

In July 1941, shortly after their arrival in Lunna, the Germans also established a Judenrat (Jewish council). The Germans originally named Rabbi Tuvia Rotberg to act as Chairman. Rabbi Rotberg, however, asked the German mayor, whom he knew, as well as the leaders of the Jewish community, to release him from this duty. Rabbi Rotberg's request was accepted, and the Jewish community proposed that Yaakov Welbel, who had previously served as one of the leaders of the Jewish community during the time of Polish rule, to be Chairman of the Judenrat. Other members of the Judenrat were chosen by Welbel including: Abraham Yedwab, who was fluent in German, and became the liaison with the Germans; Berl Kaplan, who previously owned a restaurant in Lunna, and became the labor coordinator; Zalman Gradowski, who was born in Suwalki, but moved to Lunna before the war and was married to Sarah Zlotoyabko from Lunna, who was made responsible for sanitation; Yudel Novik, originally from Volkovysk and married to a woman from Lunna, who previously owned a grocery and was placed in charge of coordinating food distribution; and Israel Shneor, who came from a family of blacksmiths and became the chief of the Jewish Police Force, which was comprised of 6-8 Jews including Eliyahu Kaplan, son of the teacher Mendel Kaplan. A few weeks later, when the Lunna-Wola Jews were forced into the Ghetto in Wola, the Jewish Police Force was made responsible, pursuant to German orders, for maintaining order inside the Ghetto.

Before the Ghetto was established, the German occupiers used a siren to assemble the Jewish residents in the market-square of Lunna, where they gave their announcements. On the first week of the German occupation, the Germans ordered the Jews to wear a round yellow band on the right arm, just below the armpit. After a month, the yellow band was replaced by a Star of David bearing the inscription "Jude" ("Jew")  and worn on the left side of the chest. On or about the same time, the Germans imposed restrictions on the Jews. Among other things, the Germans suspended all cultural and educational activities. In response to this order, Jews avoided gathering in large groups; they gathered in small groups in private houses for prayers and religious ceremonies. The Germans also imposed a curfew from 7 pm to 6 am, and Jews were prohibited to leave town unless they received a written permit from the local German authorities. All healthy adult men, aged 18 to 60 years old, were required to engage in forced labor, which included: constructing and rebuilding roads, constructing new fortifications, disassembling destroyed Russian warplanes and sending the parts to Germany, and working at the large lumber mill that had been owned by Yablonowski before the Soviet occupation. Other Jews were forced to work for the Belarusians and Polish gentiles who resided in Lunna and in the neighboring villages. This forced labor included agricultural work in the fields of the gentiles, including harvesting, as well as performing home repairs, and various carpentry tasks. In return for such work, the gentiles gave a small amount of money to the German-administered municipality; the Jews themselves received no payment for their labor. Each Jew who was sent to forced labor by the Germans received one kilogram of bread per day - an amount insufficient for the eight hours of intense labor required. Some Belarusian farmers who resided in the neighboring villages and employed Jews provided their employers with additional food products. Jewish handworkers and artisans often worked extra hours, and others sold clothing and tools that they held in their houses in exchange for additional food or money with which they could buy needed food.

In September 1941, on Sukkot Eve, the Germans declared Wola to be the Ghetto for both Lunna and Wola Jews. Jews were forced to leave their houses in Lunna and to move into the houses of the Jews of Wola or into the synagogue and Beth Midrash (study house) in Wola. Before the Lunna Jews were permitted to move into the Wola synagogue, however, the Germans forced several Jews to remove the Torah scrolls and other holy books from the Wola and Lunna synagogues and to set them on fire in the courtyard of the Wola synagogue. The furnished houses of the Jews in Lunna were then immediately occupied by local Christians, some of whom, or their family members, occupy these Jewish houses to this day. The Wola Jews remained in their houses and several Jewish families from Lunna were crammed into each house. The Judenrat decided how to allocate the Lunna Jewish families among the Wola Jewish residences: thus, the families of Yehoshua Eisenshmidt, Yaakov Maizel, Heshl Berachowicz moved into Pluskalowski's house in Wola, whereas the Eliashberg and Kosovsky families moved into Rumsisker's house in Wola. Two Christian families who resided in Wola moved from their houses and occupied more spacious houses in Lunna that belonged to the recently expelled Jews, whereas Yaakov Welbel and his second wife Feigel (previously Kagan), Berl Kaplan, Mordechai Kuperfenig and his wife Rachel (previously Welbel), and Berl Becker moved into these two houses in Wola.

The Lunna Jews were allowed to bring with them into the Ghetto items for personal use, such as beds, linens, cooking utensils and photos. The Eisenshmidt family took with them planks which they had held at their house in Lunna and used them at the underground habitation which they dug at Pluskalowski's courtyard in order to increase the living area. Yehoshua Eisenshmidt, the head of the family, managed to take with him his expensive violin. Some middle class Jews managed clandestinely to take some valuables from their homes in Lunna and hide them in the Wola Ghetto. Eliezer Eisenshmidt helped Fanya Chboynik (his mother's cousin), a wealthy woman who had lived in Bialystok and had moved to Lunna before the German occupation, to dig a hole in the ground at Pluskalowski's courtyard in order to hide her valuables. As far as we know, they were never recovered.
 

A few weeks after forcing the Lunna Jews to move into the Wola Ghetto, the Germans confiscated all other property of the Jews of both Lunna and Wola, including binoculars and bicycles. Pictured on the right is a Grodno district order, dated February 27, 1942, issued by the German authorities describing the confiscation of Jewish property and complaining that the Lunna sub-district had not completed the confiscation on time, as ordered.

 

A German order issued in February
27, 1942. Received from Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

The living conditions in the Wola Ghetto were extremely difficult. The houses and synagogue were overcrowded. The Germans allocated a mere three square meters living space for each of the Ghetto’s inhabitants. Several Jewish families from Lunna were forced to occupy uninsulated houses located at the edge of Wola that had originally been used only during the summer. As it became cold, several families dug underground habitations (Zimlanki) and set up improvised heating stoves inside. Several other Jews, working together, built a wooden second floor in the Wola synagogue in order to increase its living capacity.

The Ghetto was located on either side of the main road that connected Wola with the neighboring villages. Since the Germans did not want to block that road, they surrounded each side of the Ghetto with barbed wire fences. The two parts of the Ghetto were connected by a wooden bridge that was built on top of the road.
 
Jews were strictly prohibited to leave the Ghetto without permission. Those engaged in forced labor were allowed to come and go from the Ghetto. In one instance, two Jewish butchers from Wola, who left the Ghetto for one reason or another, were caught by the Germans, taken back to town and shot by the Germans. The Polish Police Force examined the Ghetto fences each and every day. Whenever they noticed any weak links in the wire fence, they would become suspicious of an attempt by Jews to slip out of the Ghetto, and, according to the German instructions, they would impose a fine of ten marks on the Judenrat for each such "infraction".

A major function of the Judenrat was to ensure a supply of water and food to the Jews in the Ghetto. The division of the Ghetto into two sections created a problem with the water supply since the wells were located in only one of those sections. Jews who lived in the other section therefore had to physically carry water from a long distance. In order to overcome this problem, groups of neighboring families who resided in the second section were organized together and received permission from the Judenrat to dig wells close to their residences, which provided them with water. Other families in the second section dug a hole in the ground; this hole contained drinkable water that had been drained from a nearby swamp. Consequently, all Jews in the Ghetto had an adequate water supply.

After the Ghetto was established, it became harder and harder to get enough food to live on. Gentiles were prohibited from entering the Ghetto and Jews who wanted to buy food from the gentiles were required to do so on their way to work, at their own risk, and had to bring the food back secretly to the Ghetto. The Judenrat also tried to find ways to overcome the scarcity of food. After the Germans confiscated the livestock that had belonged to Jews, the Germans granted the Judenrat's request that ten cows owned by Jews be returned to the Ghetto. The owners of the cows, including the Eisenshmidt family, who owned one cow, had to provide the Judenrat with a certain quota of milk, which was then distributed to children. The cows’ owners fed their cows potato skins collected in the Ghetto. A Jew who brought any of the cows’ owners a basket filled with potato peels would receive from the owner a cup of milk in return. The Judenrat also received an amount of skimmed milk from the town dairy owned by Poles which was located in Lunna near the Catholic Church. The milk fat was used for producing butter for the Germans.

By the summer of 1942, however, the great majority of Jews had less and less means to purchase food, and their food supply was cut down still further. Even so, middle class Jews continued to enjoy better conditions, and had enough food while the poor were left with the scraps. Since there were open areas in Wola, some families grew vegetables and got by better than others. As Mr. Eisenshmidt and some of the gentiles living in Lunna today have noted, despite the hard conditions, there was no overwhelming hunger in the Wola Ghetto, and no one died of starvation.

Another pressing concern of the Jews in the Wola Ghetto as winter approached was the lack of firewood necessary for heating and cooking. The German authorities agreed, however, to sell the Judenrat the roots of trees that had been cut down by Jewish forced laborers in the nearby forests.

In the summer of 1942 the German district authorities set up a Jewish forced labor camp near Brzostowica, located about 50 kilometers south of Lunna, for the purposes of constructing a new road from Bialystok to Volkovysk. About 150 young Jewish men from Lunna and the neighboring towns were forced to leave for this camp. By the fall of 1942, the Germans reduced the size of the camp (for reasons currently unknown), and most of the youth sent to this camp, including Abraham Eisenshmidt (Eliezer's brother) and Eliyahu Replanski from Lunna, were returned to their home towns. The few who remained in the forced labor camp were deported in November 1942, along with Jews from the towns in the vicinity, to a transit camp in Volkovysk, and, to the best of our knowledge, ultimately, to their extermination in Treblinka.

Eisenshmidt witnessed two particularly memorable acts of brutality by the Germans in the Wola Ghetto: (1) There was a Jew from Wola (name currently unknown) who was previously a Communist, who, during the early 1930s, had been imprisoned by the Poles in Grodno and subsequently lost his mind. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, he returned to Lunna. When the German military-governor of Lunna (name currently unknown) saw him in the Ghetto, he ordered the Jewish Police Force to bring him to his office, where he shot and killed him on the spot. (2) There was a flour-mill in Lunna that ran on electricity. One winter day the flour-mill’s pipe, which delivered water to cool the engine, froze. The Germans ordered several people including women and children, despite the freezing weather, to fill buckets of water from the Niemen River, about one kilometer away, and carry them to the mill three times a day for three days until the pipe was repaired.

According to Eisenshmidt, from the time the Wola Ghetto was established, Jews could not send any letters to their relatives at all. Pictured below, however, is such a message. This message - was limited to a maximum of 25 words - contains an undated handwritten message from Aron Friedman to his daughter Libe in Jerusalem. The message appears to have been written on an official German Red Cross form, which bears an official request (dated May 29, 1942) from the German Red Cross to the International Red Cross Central Agency for Prisoners of War in Geneva to forward Mr. Friedman's message to Libe.
 

In his message Aron Friedman indicating that he had received a letter from Libe and that he and his wife were healthy and that Libe's brother Israel was still working at the same place as before ("Israel arbeitet wo vorher"). Mr. Friedman also sent his regards to his brother Aisik. ("Gruesse Aisik") and asked his daughter Libe to write back. The document apparently was received (or forwarded) by Geneva on June 18, 1942, and arrived at the British Red Cross offices in then-Palestine and ultimately arrived in Jerusalem sometime between August 20 to 29, 1942 [date stamp is unclear]. The letter was then delivered to Arie Solomianski, a relative of the family, who at that time picked up mail on behalf of Libe.

 

 

Letter sent by Aron Friedman from Lunna-Wola to his daughter Libe in Eretz Israel (June 1942)
From the collection of Libe Friedman - Ahuva Glick

One can only speculate as to the circumstances regarding the provenance of this letter. Perhaps the German Red Cross visited Grodno and vicinity, including the Wola Ghetto, sometime during 1942 or earlier, and this visit provided an opportunity to send out this short message (the document specifies that the message could contain no more than 25 words). Based on similar documents sent by Jews from other locations in Europe during the war, including Teresienstadt and even Auschwitz, it is possible that the Germans permitted such letters for propaganda purposes and to hide from the rest of the world their inhuman treatment of the Jewish people. Perhaps Mr. Friedman wrote this message at an earlier date - even before the Wola Ghetto was established - and it was only forwarded to Berlin in 1942. Whatever the origins of this message, it is a rare and extremely moving document from this terrible period of the history of the Jews of Lunna-Wola.

Generally the local Christian population in Lunna (consisted of a majority of Poles and a minority of Belarusians) held antipathy against the Jews and were not emotionally affected about the Jews’ suffering in the Ghetto. Indeed, many local gentiles saw the expulsion of the Jews to the Wola Ghetto as an opportunity, and immediately occupied the houses of the Jews. Many gentiles treated the Jews with contempt. Outside of town, many of the poorer Belarusians in the neighboring villages were, if not as contemptuous of the Jews as the gentiles from Lunna itself, indifferent to the plight of the Jews. It must be noted, however, that several gentiles - both in and outside of Lunna - were sympathetic to the Jews. Because there are so few remaining Jewish survivors from the Lunna-Wola Ghetto, we will never know to what extent these persons may have provided some assistance or sympathy, possibly at personal risk, to the Jews. According to Eisenshmidt, some Belarusians who resided in the neighboring villages provided extra food to Jews who were sent to work in their farms. He also recalls a Pole named Bogotzki, who resided in the Christian Street and allowed the Jews who were sent to work in his carpentry shop, to trade and buy food from other Christians, despite the risks this entailed.

The life of the Lunna-Wola Jews in the Wola Ghetto is described in the article "The Destruction of Lune-Wolie" by Etel Berachowicz-Kosowska (in Yiddish, Grodner Aplangen, 1948, no. 2). Please see the page Yevnin & Berachowicz for English translation of the article.