Kolomea is a city located on the Prut River, and during the war was part of the Generalgouvernement, but is now part of Western Ukraine. During the 1920’s approximately 14,500 Jews lived in Kolomea, and this number represented about half the town’s population. The Jewish inhabitants earned their living from commerce and industry, working in the hotel industry and taverns. Many of the Jews were poor or unemployed and required the help of the community’s welfare organisations. Various Zionist parties, such as Agudath Israel and the Bund were active in the city, and their youth movements and Zionist pioneering training facilities flourished as well. Associations of artisans, merchants, and trade unions helped the town’s Jewish population to cope with economic hardships. A variety of Jewish newspapers and publications were published in Kolomea. A large number of Jewish schools were established in the town, including a high school for girls. The town also boasted of numerous sports and social clubs.
During the second half of September 1939, Kolomea was occupied by the Soviet Red Army and the activities of the Jewish political parties and the majority of the Jewish community’s institutions were shut down. Most of the private industry and commerce were nationalised. Initially, many Jews who worked in municipal institutions, some were replaced by local Russians or Ukrainians. During this period, a number of Jewish refugees arrived in Kolomea. Those refugees who refused to take up Soviet citizenship were transported in late June 1940, to the Soviet hinterland. Kolomea served as a centre of Underground activities for the Zionist youth movements, whose members attempted to cross the border into Rumania, on their way to Palestine. On 30 June 1941, the Soviets withdrew from Kolomea, accompanied by several hundred young Jews. Two days later, the town was occupied by the Hungarians, who were allies of the Germans. Under the new regime, Jewish inhabitants were ordered to wear a Star-of-David armband and their freedom of movement was curtailed. Jews were seized for forced labour, and in late July 1941, some 2,000 stateless Jews arrived in Kolomea, from Hungary. On 24 July 1941, the Hungarian army command intervened at the last moment, to prevent the murder of 250 deportees by a mobile unit of the German security police. The Jewish community leaders of Kolomea established a special committee to take care of the refugees, who were housed in the synagogue, various public institutions and in private homes. Public soup kitchens were set up for them, as was an orphanage. In early August 1941, Kolomea was handed over to the Germans, and at once the Kreishauptmann Klaus Volkmann ordered that a Judenrat be established, which was made up of veteran public activists and was led by Mordechai Horowitz, who was an industrialist. The Jewish Councils (Judenrate) of various smaller communities in the area, were subordinate to the Kolomea Judenrat. The Judenrat was ordered to supply the Germans with forced labourers and assist the Germans in the confiscation of Jewish property and valuables. The Judenrat was also ordered to draw up lists on a regular basis, and these lists served as the basis for the distribution of ration cards, recruitment for forced labour, and eventually for deportations. A few Jews refused to register, and the Judenrat attempted to hide the exact number of Jews in the city. The Judenrat was also in charge of distributing the food rations, and operated the public soup kitchens. The Jews had to resort to selling their possessions and valuables for food, in order to stay alive. The Jewish Order Service, which numbered some 60 –strong, increased by the summer of 1942, to about 160 members. At its head was Mendel Green, a refugee from Stanislawow. At first, the aim was to recruit young people from the various youth movements into the Jewish Order Service. However, some dubious elements entered its ranks, and some Jewish Order Service members, were accused of using their position to extort money for their own personal gain, and subsequently during the mass deportations of handing Jews over to the Germans. On 22-23 September 1941, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Germans arrested about 1,200 Jews, some were shot and killed but the rest were released. A few weeks later on 11 October 1941, doctors, lawyers, rabbis and Jewish community activists were arrested. The Judenrat was ordered, but firmly refused to help locate Jews in hiding, whose names were on the prepared lists. The following day, on 12 October 1941, German police units under the command of SS- Obersturm Peter Leideritz and Herbert Hartel arrived in Kolomea and with the assistance of Ukrainian forces launched a manhunt for Jews in their homes, streets and synagogues. Approximately 1,200 Jews, mostly women, children and the elderly, were taken to a forest near the village of Szperowce and shot and buried in mass graves. In each of further mass murder ‘Aktions’ carried out in Kolomea on 6 November 1941, 23 December 1941, and 24 January 1942, hundreds of Jews, predominantly members of the intelligentsia, were murdered. A number of the victims were Jewish deportees from Hungary, who had arrived in Kolomea during July 1941. During the winter of 1941/42, many of Kolomea’s Jews perished from hunger or from typhus, in spite of the efforts of the small Jewish hospital which held twenty-five beds and employed seven doctors. Klaus Volkmann ordered the establishment of a ghetto for the approximately 16,000 Jews that now lived in Kolomea. The area allocated for the ghetto, which had previously contained a population of about 2,000 was divided into three closed quarters, separated from one another and from the outside world by a barbed-wire fence and boarded up with planks. The Jewish inhabitants were forbidden to leave the ghetto or to pass from one quarter to another without a special permit and an escort of either Ukrainian or Jewish policemen. About one week after the establishment of the ghetto, on 3 -4 April 1942, members of the German Security Police (SIPO) under the command of Peter Leideritz carried out a large-scale ‘Aktion’ in the Kolomea ghetto and approximately 5,000 Jews were deported to the Belzec death camp and murdered there in its gas chambers, while several hundred who were ill or refused to be deported were murdered in the ghetto by shooting, or were burnt alive when some buildings were set on fire by the Germans. On the orders of Klaus Volkmann, about 5,000 Jews from the nearby small towns of Jablonow, Peczenizyn, Kuty, Zablotow, Obertyn, and Gwozdziec were transferred into the ghetto of Kolomea. On 7 September 1942, another mass deportation ‘Aktion’ took place in Kolomea, under the instructions of Peter Leideritz, and under the direct command of Albert Westermann. About 300 Jews were murdered on the spot, among them many children. Following a selection, approximately 7,000 Jews were deported to the Belzec death camp. Between 7 -9 September 1942, the Germans began to systematically liquidate all of the Jewish communities adjacent to Kolomea, such as Sniatyn, Horodenka , Jablonow, Kosow, Kuty , Pistyn, Roznow and Zablotow and some 4,500 Jews were sent to the Belzec death camp. These Jews were first sent to the Kolomea ghetto and then sent to Belzec in cattle cars. Some Jews were murdered en route, several hundred Jews managed to escape from the ghetto on the eve of the deportation ‘Aktion’, in an effort to cross the border into Rumania, but many of these were caught and handed over to the Germans for execution.
On 11 October 1942, the Germans carried out another major ‘Aktion’ in Kolomea and some 4,000 Jews were deported to Belzec, whilst approximately 100 Jews were murdered on the spot. After this ‘Aktion’, the size of the ghetto was reduced and a group of Jewish labourers were made to clean up the area and collect and sort the belongings left behind by the deportees. Efforts to obtain jobs and work permits were stepped up, and large bribes were paid in order to provide exemption from deportation. The number of Jews holding official work permits in the ghetto at this point reached about 1,500, but in fact several thousand ‘illegal’ Jews lived in the ghetto. Attempts to organise and train groups of young people for resistance were not successful, but a number of individuals joined the few partisan groups that were active in the area. In a final effort to save the Jews of Kolomea, the Judenrat chairman Mordechai Horowitz attempted to convince the Germans to declare the ghetto a labour camp, but this proposal failed. During late October 1942, Horowitz committed suicide together with his sister Miriam. On 4 November 1942, the Germans murdered the Jewish labour group assigned to clean up the ghetto, and then the Germans and Ukrainians set the ghetto on fire. Many of the inhabitants perished in the flames, or were shot to death, while trying to escape.
Two days later, on 6 November 1942, another 1,000 Jews were murdered in the village of Szperowce and seven days later on 13 November 1942, most of the Jewish Order Service policemen, and the surviving members of the Judenrat, were executed as well. On 20 January 1943, the Germans concentrated the remaining Jews in a number of buildings among the ruins of the Kolomea ghetto and tried through various promises to lure additional Jews to the site. Some 2,000 Jews found their way to Kolomea, owing to the lack of food in the forests, or difficulties in finding shelter, outside of the ghetto. On 1 -2 February 1943, most of these Jews were murdered in the Szperowce forest, and all of the few dozen Jewish professionals and doctors who still lived in Kolomea, were shot to death in the Jewish cemetery in early March 1943.
Sources:The Yad Vashem Encylopiedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust Volume 1, Yad Vashem, 2009.
Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka – The Aktion Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1987
R. O’Neil, Belzec – Stepping Stones to Genocide, Jewish Gen 2008.
Photograph - Yad Vashem, Israel
© Holocaust Historical Society 2014