Piotrkow Trybunalski - The Ancestral Shtetl
by Leonard Markowitz
Piotrkow Trybunalski (named Petrokov, in Russian and Petrikau, in German) is located in central Poland at 54º24´N/19º 41´E about 16 miles south of the city of Lodz. In 1487, a law was passed in Piotrkow, which severely restricted the commercial activities of Jewish residents. At that time, the city was where the High Tribunal issued legislation governing all of Poland, hence the name, Piotrkow Trybunalski. Jews were expelled from the city following a blood libel in 1590. King Jan Sobieski III, hero of the Battle of Vienna, granted Jews the right to again settle and trade in Piotrkow in 1679.
A Chevra Kaddisha (burial society) and a Bikkur Holim (society for visiting and aiding the sick) were organized in the 1720s during the tenure of Eliakim Getz, the first Rabbi of Piotrkow. In 1744, Emil Fishel led a successful Jewish defense against an attack by a mob. The Jewish community of 800 people was then compelled to leave the city and settle in the suburbs (Nowa Wies). A large synagogue was built there in 1781.
After the second partition of Poland in 1793, Piotrkow was ceded to Prussia. By 1827, there were 2,133 Jews in Piotrkow (45% of the total population). A small industrial revolution occurred in the region after the Warsaw-Vienna railway opened. Jews founded weaving mills and a growing Jewish proletariat was employed in the timber, textile and service industries in and around Piotrkow. In 1861, Jews obtained elective rights on the Municipal Council. In the 1880s, there were 30 chedarim (Jewish elementary schools), a Talmud Torah (Jewish middle school), two Bet Hei Midrash (small buildings for Jewish adult study) and a private, secular school. By 1917, the Jewish population of the city had grown to 14,890.
When Poland re-emerged as a nation after WWI, the Jewish population decreased somewhat. In 1921, there were 11,630 Jews in Piotrkow (28% of the total population). However, the Jewish community continued to thrive. Jews comprised 21% of the Municipal Council. On the eve of the Holocaust, there were 18,000 Jews in the city, which was one-third of the total population.
When the Germans and the Russians invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, about 2,000 Jews escaped from Piotrkow and attempted to find refuge in the larger towns in the Soviet-occupied zone. On October 28 of that year, the Germans established a ghetto in Piotrkow, which was the first one in Poland. The Jewish population of the ghetto swelled because of the many transferees from the surrounding villages.
During the week ending October 22, 1942, some 22,000 Jews of the Piotrkow ghetto were deported to the death camp at Treblinka. About 4,000 Jews remained, half being workers in the labor camps assigned to factories supporting the German army. The other 2,000, hiding within the ghetto, were eventually found and executed in the forests surrounding Piotrkow. Several attempts were made in the ghetto to organize resistance. Between 1942 and 1944, about 500 Jews escaped from the ghetto. They found refuge in the surrounding forests and joined Jewish partisans who were fighting the Germans. Many of these partisans had escaped from the labor camp attached to the Karo glassworks. They continued to harass the Germans until the end of WWII. The labor camps in the area were liquidated in November 1944 and the survivors were deported to Ravensbruck and Buchenwald concentration camps and to arms factories in Czechoslovakia.
Currently, the 19th century Great Synagogue (Duza) on Ulica Wojska Polskiego has been turned into a library. Only the iron Stars of David, adorning the lamp holders, indicate the original purpose of the building. Another smaller synagogue, built in 1781, has been turned into a children’s library.