Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Introduction to the Ghettos of the Holocaust
Biala Podlaska is a town situated 162 km east of Warsaw, 120 km north of Lublin, and 61 km east of Siedlce. In 1931, of the population of 10,697, 6,923 (64.7%) were Jewish. The Jewish community in the town had grown rapidly in the second half of the 19th Century, members owning a nail factory, a tannery, a shoe factory, saw-mills, brick-making furnaces, flour mills, a soap factory, a brewery and various other small factories. However, in common with other towns and shtetls in Poland, there were also many who lived in poverty.
The Jews of Biala Podlaska were typical of the small communities of that time; all were religious to a greater or lesser degree, although some were influenced by the Haskalah (Enlightenment), and Zionist movements.
At the end of 1939, 2,000-3,000 Jews, deported from Suwalki and Serock, arrived in the town, increasing the misery in the already overcrowded Jewish quarter. Although there was not a closed ghetto in Biala Podlaska, because of the numbers crammed into the residential area and the appalling sanitary conditions, there was a typhus epidemic in early 1940, causing many deaths.
At about this time, less than 200 survivors of a death march of Jewish POWs, initially numbering some 880 men, arrived in Biala Podlaska, to be interned in a prisoner-of-war camp there.
Work camps were built by the Germans nearby the factories. Hundreds of Jewish tradesmen were incarcerated in seven of the Judenrat's labour camps situated at the airfield, the train station, the Wineta camp in the Wola district, and elsewhere.
Hundreds of other Jews worked in heavy manual labour paving roads, draining ditches, and constructing sewage facilities, saw mills, and barracks. Many women worked at Duke Potocki's farm “Halas”. On 15 May 1941, the Jewish POW camp was closed down, and the surviving prisoners were transported by sealed train to Konskowola, further west.
During 1940 and 1941, several hundred Jews from Krakow and Mlawa were deported to Biala Podlaska. As a result of the many "resettlements" to the town, the Jewish population of the town had grown to approximately 8,400 in March 1942. On 6 June 1941 an announcement forbade "Aryans" to do business with Jews.
At the end of June 1941 a number of Jews were sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz as punishment for giving bread to Soviet prisoners of war marching through the town. They were among the first Jewish victims to perish in Auschwitz.
On 10 June at 5 a.m. 3,000 Jews, among them the elderly, women, and children were assembled in the synagogue courtyard. Many of the Jews did not report as ordered and fled to the forests. German police led the assembled Jews to the railroad station.
The next day, 11 June 1942, the deportees were herded into freight cars and were deported to the death camp at Sobibor. When the deportees disembarked from the train, believing they had been sent to a labour camp, a letter was handed to the SS from the municipality of Biala Podlaska requesting decent treatment for the arriving Jews. For this act of “insolence” and “impudence”, 200 of the Jews were selected for “special treatment”; all others were immediately gassed.
The “special treatment” consisted of removing luggage from Camp II and loading it onto a train, whilst running a gauntlet of guards who whipped and clubbed the prisoners as they ran. The Jews who had been the subject of this “special treatment” were then also gassed.
One week later, Emanuel Ringelblum spoke in Warsaw to the head of the Jewish Social Relief Organization in Biala Podlaska, who asked angrily:
“This question torments all of us, but there is no answer to it because everyone knows that resistance, particularly if even one single German is killed, may lead to the slaughter of a whole community, or even of many communities. The first who are sent to slaughter are the old, the sick, the children, those who are not able to resist. The strong ones, the workers, are left meanwhile to be, because they are needed for the time being.
The evacuations are carried out in such a way that it is not always and not to everyone clear that a massacre is taking place. So strong is the instinct for life of the workers, of the fortunate owners of work permits, that it overcomes the will to fight, the urge to defend the whole community, with no thought of consequences. And we are left to be led as sheep to a slaughterhouse. This is partly due to the complete spiritual breakdown and disintegration, caused by unheard-of terror which has been inflicted upon the Jews for three years and which comes to a climax in times of such evacuations. The effect of all this taken together is that when a moment for some resistance arrives, we are completely powerless and the enemy does to us whatever he pleases... Not to act, not to lift a hand against Germans, has since then become the quiet, passive heroism of the common Jew…”
On 12 August, German gendarmes and Ukrainian auxiliaries began arresting Jewish men and collected them in a square in the Wola neighbourhood. The Judenrat complained to the German authorities and the workers were released. However after a few days the arrests were renewed. About 400 Jews, including members of the Judenrat were deported to KL Majdanek. 50 Jews remained there. The other 350 men were transferred to work on the railroad at Golab, between Lublin and Pulawy.
In September 1942, 3,000 deportees from the towns of Janow and Konstantynow were transported to Biala Podlaska. The overcrowding in the ghetto became desperate. Glätt, an SD man, took any valuables the Jews still retained and imposed a “fine” of 45,000 zlotys. The Jews sensed that the Germans intended to soon liquidate them. Many attempted to escape to the forests, to dig bunkers, and prepared hiding places for themselves or hid themselves in basements.
The following morning the Jews were driven from their homes, and concentrated in the New Market Square (Rynek).
Jews who resisted deportation were shot on the spot. On the same day, 15 patients and two nurses at the Jewish Hospital were shot by the Gestapo. A number of Jews were removed from the assembly and were sent as slave labourers to the airport at Malaszewicze, near Terespol.
Most of the people who were left in the market square were driven to Miedzyrzec Podlaski in the wagons of peasants from the surrounding area. On the way many were murdered in the Woronica Forest.
On 6 October 1942, the Germans deported about 1,200 workers from the labour camps in the vicinity of Biala Podlaska to Miedzyrzec Podlaski. Only a few managed to escape to the forests. Upon their arrival at the Miedzyrzec train station, the Germans joined most of those who had been deported a few days earlier to the group of workers and brought all of them to the local ghetto, from where they were subsequently deported to the Treblinka death camp.
The fate of the remaining deportees from Biala Podlaska was shared with the rest of the Jews of Miedzyrzec. In July 1943, after several further Aktionen at the end of 1942 and in May 1943, the Miedzyrzec Podlaski Ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants were deported to Treblinka, where they were murdered.
The Germans left a group of 300 Jewish workers in Biala Podlaska to clear the ghetto and to destroy the synagogue and the small prayer houses. In May 1944, the surviving workers were transferred to KL Majdanek.
The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, by Sir Martin Gilbert, published by William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986.
Copyright: SJ, CW, & Carmelo Lisciotto – HEART 2007