The Forests and Fields of Zolynia
Not All Went
Not all of Zolynia's Jews went to Pelkinie as ordered.
They did not know about Belzec, but it's clear that some Jews in Zolynia had some notion that the deportations were dangerous. There had been shootings during other roundups, and any situation in which Jews were surrounded by armed Germans was potentially lethal. When the final deportation order was issued at the beginning of August 1942, some families were split about whether they should comply or risk the extreme danger of hiding, trying to survive virtually outside of civilization.
Characteristics that had helped the Jewish community maintain their identity for centuries, and maintain their dignity under the dehumanizing German occupation, dictated some courses. Many would simply would not leave their families, and would do anything they could to keep their loved ones close. The very religious in particular were likely to remain with the community, to stay among Jews and fulfill daily prayers. Some, due to age or disability, had little choice but to remain near others.
The Germans did everything they could to assure deported Jews that they were going to somewhere safe and comfortable. There are accounts of the Germans giving explicit details about accomodations and even the furniture that would be found there. In one town west of the San River, the Gestapo commander announced to the assembled Jewish community, "You are being resettled to the East where you will be working for the Wehrmacht. You will be working hard, but you will be left in peace. You have to follow orders. This is a large scale operation, and we have to maintain order. Anyone that resists will be shot on the spot." After the speech the mood of the victims improved.
The victims, desperately wanted to believe the German officer. How easily one can fool people under stress. Nobody can visualize his own death. In cooperation with the executioners they see their only hope of survival.
Some may have been warned not to go under any circumstances. At the village of Markowa, 10 miles due south of Zolynia, the Riesenbach family was warned by two Polish police officers to leave immediately, before a scheduled roundup the next day. According to Joseph Riesenbach, one of the sons:
"We immediately left our home and ran into the fields to hide. We left everything we owned behind with only the clothes we wore.…For two months we hid in the fields and lived off the land. We ate whatever we could find in the ground, such as carrots, potatoes, turnips.…During the day we lay in corn and potato fields. At night my mother went out looking for safe hiding place. She appealed to several families a who knew us, but none was willing to take us in."
Soon, the mother did find a local family, the Bars, who took the family in and bravely hid them in their farmhouse for two years, until the Germans were gone.
Considering the well-known risk of execution, and the obvious hardship of living outdoors or in some hidden location, it is surprising how many Jews did not comply, did not allow themselves to be placed in the hands of the Gestapo, and hid themselves in the fields, forests and in houses in Zolynia. Being found meant death, both for the discovered Jews and for the person hiding them.
In three separate executions between March and June 1943, 15 Jews were shot in the Zolynia's Jewish cemetery. In September 1943, 26 Jews were found in the forests just outside of Zolynia and shot. In December 1943, a bunker in rural Zolynia Dolne was discovered and 18 Jews hiding there were executed. It is estimated that at least 79 Jews were found and executed in and around Zolynia during the occupation. Within a few miles of Zolynia, inside the Zholin Kehilla, local chronicles note that 17 Jews were found and executed in Rakszawa between August 1942 and May 1943, and 12 Jews were found and killed in the forest just outside of Brzoza Stadnicka.
Heroes in Zolynia
There is no doubt that there were some heroes among the non-Jewish population of Zolynia, throughout the occupation. We will likely never the details of all acts of braveness or kindness.
Herz Meilich Ruemler secreted his wife and two children out of Zolynia at the time of the deportation to Pelkinie in 1942. They were taken in by Jakub Tokarz, a farmer at Biedaczow, who risked himself and his wife and six children by hiding the Ruemlers in his barn. A neighbor informed the authorities about the hidden Jews, who were captured and shot by gendarmes. Tokarz was arrested and shot in Lezajsk.
Josef Fraczek, a spinning room manager at a cotton mill in Rakszawa, arranged with six co-workers (the last names of four were Dolega, Marciniak, Bartkowski and Panek) to hide two Jewish co-workers (Stefan Silberstein and Henryk Feber, foremen at the mill) and their families. They also hid a teenager from the little neighborhood of Potok, just southwest of Zolynia Centre (his name was Rafael Goldberg, son of a pre-war mill operator). Fraczek and his crew hid the total of seven Jews in the space that housed the ropes and belts that drove the mill steam engine, between the ceiling and the tin roof, about 36 feet (12 meters) above the main floor. For two years, food and other materials were lifted up to those in the space, despite numerous searches by the suspicious police. All seven survived until the Germans were driven out by the Soviets, although one person died of heart failure at the moment of liberation.
Jan Niecpon of Zolynia sheltered a Jewish woman he knew from Bialobrzegi. They were both shot by the local gendarmes in May 1944.
A few miles to the east, the mayor of Grodzisko Dolne (Lower Grodzisko), Stanislaw Baj, hid a Jewish couple named Fingerhut in his home, under the name of Konicz. They survived to the end of the war. His neighbor, Stanislaw Dec, was found hiding a Jew during a raid and shot.
Not everyone was a hero, or could be expected to be a hero. There were enormous pressures on non-Jews to turn away a Jewish neighbor, perhaps a total stranger, suddenly appearing and asking for assistance that could bring the death penalty. Pressure came not just from the Germans, but sometimes from neighbors who feared serious transgressions could bring German reprisals against the entire neighborhood. The non-Jewish residents of Zolynia were mostly and understandably concerned about their own survival and the survival of their families. The reactions to what was happening to Jews were as different as people are different, but it would diminish the brave efforts and kind gestures of helpers if it was not also recognized that in this time of danger, sometimes neighbors turned on neighbors. In some of the very cases above, neighbors informed on neighbors. This was greatly encouraged by the Germans, who offered bounties and prizes for information leading to the capture of Jews hiding in the village or in the forests.
The going rate for such information varied from district to district; a reward of one kilogram of bacon and one kilogram of sugar for each Jew turned in was the typical rate in parts of former Galicia. After three or four years of the brutal German occupation, this was the recognized value of a human life.
For the Jews trying to survive in the forests, there were also bandits to contend with, and the szmalcownictwo, blackmailers who threatened to turn in Jews and the people who hid them (the Polish Underground condemned this widespread practice as collaboration. A handful of blackmailers were caught and executed). Jews in the forests, desperate, sometimes resorted to stealing food products from farmers and isolated homes, and there were confrontations, sometimes involving gunfire. "The forests around Lizhensk [Lezajsk] covered vast areas and were very deep. Nevertheless, often a murdered Jew was found there…" wrote one survivor about his experiences in the forests.
Jewish Armed Resistance around Zolynia
There were other Jews in the forests adjacent to Zolynia. Some of the thousands of Jews in the Krakow District of the General-Government purchased or stole some weapons and organized themselves into small groups of partisans, armed guerilla-style fighters.
In July 1942, days before the expulsion of Zolynia's Jews to Pelkinie, a unit of Krakow's division of the Jewish Fighting Organization was being formed in Rzeszow. It is known that this group had members armed with guns and knives in the woods and hilly areas to the north of the city by October.
By November 1942, the Iskra unit, made up mostly of Jews from Rzeszow, was in the forests, and taking orders from the People's Army. In December 1942, Iskra siezed a watermill at Pogwizdow, about four miles (seven km) west of Zolynia, confiscated cash to support the group and destroyed the gears of the mill. Moving several miles northwest to Stykow, the group disarmed a "Blue Police" unit that had been pursuing them and took the weapons. In December 1942, the Iskra unit was destroyed in a firefight with the Germans near Rzeszow.
Franciszek Kotula, a school teacher in Rzeszow, noted in his diary entry dated December 31, 1942 that "It is a matter of fact that Jewish detachments came into being. They even gained weapons from somewhere." Over eight months, Kotula makes other references to these "Jewish gangs" in the forests between Rzeszow and Zolynia, and their occassional conflicts with local peasants and Germans.
There were at least seventeen Jewish partisan groups in the Krakow District forests, and very possibly more than that. All but two would be virtually destroyed by mid-1944.
After the war, the Polish Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland estimated that within the borders of the post-war Rzeszow Province, at least 9,800 Jews had been shot after being found hiding in villages and surrounding forests. The killings took place in and around 378 villages (until 1957, Rzeszow Province was approximately the same size and position in southeastern Poland as today's Podkarpackie Province). At the start of the German occupation, this area had 113,000 Jewish residents in 52 separate communities; as of July 1945, the Polish government estimated that 757 Jews were living in this area (more would return from concentration camps, the Soviet Union and other locations). No more than 757 out of approximately 9,800 escapees had returned, giving an idea of immense odds against survival.
As awareness of the true implications of the deportations became suspected, revolts and resistance by Jews became common, even in several of the extermination camps.
The Germans never stopped hunting for hiding Jews in the villages and sweeping the forests. These activities continued literally right up to the day the German Army retreated before the attacking Soviet Red Army in the summer of 1944.