Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Introduction to the Ghettos of the Holocaust
Piaski is 21 kilometers from Lublin, with its characteristic sandstone architecture. Along ul. Lubelska Piaski’s main thoroughfare, there are quite a few well preserved buildings built before the Second World War with front doors that once led to ground floor shops.
Piaski acquired the status of a town already in the sixteenth century and was recognised as one of the most dynamic centres of Calvinism in the Lublin Region with a Protestant church built in the second half of the eighteenth century.
The first Jews settled in Piaski as early as the seventeenth century – their brick synagogue built in 1785 towered over the wooden houses of the town. Piaski was a typical shtetl inhabited mostly by Jews with a strong sense of religion and traditional values.
In 1921 the towns population was 3974 people of whom 2674 were Jews, approximately 67% of the total population. Before the outbreak of the Second World War there were some 4,000 Jews there. In addition to the synagogue, a few houses of prayer, two cemeteries, Piaski boasted a Tarbut primary school (a Zionist network of Hebrew- language educational institutions and two Jewish public libraries.
The majority of Jews resided along ul. Lubelska and earned their living as tradesmen and craftsmen. In September 1939 Piaski was captured for a while by the Soviet Army marking the farthest point east of Lublin under their occupation. Some of the Jews decided to collaborate with the Soviet authorities.
Soon after the Soviets withdrew as part of the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact, and the Germans entered the town. Piaski was the first town in Poland where the Nazis established a ghetto in the spring of 1940, initially the ghetto was accessible to outsiders and its borders were delineated on a relatively small area in the eastern part of the town divided by the main thoroughfare – ul. Lubelska.
A small Jewish ghetto was located on the other side of ul. Lubelska – in the autumn of 1940 the ghetto was fenced off and closed. The only water well for the Jewish population was available in the other part of town. For this purpose, the gates of the two Jewish quarters were only open for two hours during the daytime.
Apart from the Polish inhabitants of Piaski, there were over 560 German Jews relocated from Szczecin and a larger group of Jews displaced from Krakow.
Jews from other countries were transported to Piaski in the spring of 1942, and the local ghetto became one of the transition points in the Lublin Region.
On 20 March 1942 a train left the Rhineland for the Piaski ghetto. At Piaski, as at Izbica, new deportees were held only until a further deportation train arrived – sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few weeks.
The train of 20 March 1942 included several Jews from Worms, among them Herta Mansbacher, the fifty-seven year old teacher who had so courageously sought to prevent the burning down of the synagogue in Worms in November 1938.
Among those with whom she was deported were sixteen Jews who had been wounded and decorated in the First World War – three of these German army veterans were Julius Neumann, Manuel Katz and Hermann Mayer.
From the ghetto at Piaski, Hermann Mayer was allowed to send a postcard, its message read:
“We hope and pray with unswerving faith in God that, in time, the Almighty will rectify all things”
There were two transports to the Belzec death camp from Piaski. The first one was at the end of March 1942 probably on the 26 March 1942, where 3,400 Jews from Piaski itself, Biskupice, Trawniki and Szczecin.
This transport went to Belzec, via Trawniki and the deported Jews were forced to spend in the night in the former sugar factory.
Many of them died in the factory because of a lack of fresh air, and their bodies were also deported with the living to Belzec death camp. The second transport to the Belzec death camp from Piaski was sent on the 11 April 1942, this consisted of about 2,000 Jews. The next transport from Piaski was sent to the Sobibor death camp on the 22 July 1942.
In order to accommodate the ever-growing numbers of foreign Jews – Czechs and Germans, at the end of March and at the beginning of April 1943 the Nazis transported over 3,000 locals to the death camp in Belzec.
At the same time some 6,000 foreign Jews were deported to the Piaski ghetto still inhabited by a large number of Polish Jews. This fact worsened the living conditions and food supplies, many deportees died of hunger and disease.
Those who survived these dreadful conditions were murdered in the death camp at Sobibor , where they were transported during July and November 1942.
In November 1942 about 1,000 Jews were shot to death at the local Jewish cemetery, those who remained alive were transported to the labour camp in Trawniki at the beginning of 1943.
The Jewish cemetery in ul. Partyzantow behind the primary school building remains largely untouched with a single headstone and a few tombstones lying around. The mass grave is not marked at all.
In the 1990’s representatives of German organisations from Augsburg erected a memorial stone and a commemorative plaque in honour of Polish and German Jews who died in Piaski.
From Lublin to Belzec by Robert Kuwalek – published by AD REM 2006.
The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy by Sir Martin Gilbert – published by Collins London 1986.
Documents and photographs from the State Archive in Lublin and The Holocaust Historical Society
Copyright: Robert Kuwalek & CW H.E.A.R.T 2007