Przemysl Train Station 1941
Przemysl is situated on the San River, in the former Lwow district of Eastern Galicia, Poland. Today it is part of Podkarpackie voivodship, before the Second World War approximately 24,000 Jews lived in the city. The Second World War reached Przemysl on 7 September 1939 when the first bombs from German planes struck the city. The bombing on 8 September set fire to the shopping area Pasaz Gansa and many people fled from Przemysl.
The Germans entered Przemysl for the first time on 15 September 1939. Repressions and humiliations, aimed at the Jewish population, started almost immediately. Approximately 20,000 Jews lived in the city at that time, including refugees from Western Poland. The Germans started to arrest members of the Jewish intelligentsia: physicians, lawyers, industrialists and merchants, refugees from the West and Jewish political activists. People were removed from their houses by members of an Einsatzkommando of the Sicherhietspolizei (SIPO), or were seized on the streets. They were then driven together to be shot in the woods surrounding the city and buried in communal graves. The first mass executions of Jews took place between 16 and 19 September, at several places in the city outskirts: Lipowica, Pralkowc, Pikulice, Przekopana and near the Jewish cemetery at Slowackiego Street. According to some estimates as many as 600 Jews were killed during this Aktion. Half of them were refugees from Western Poland, only 102 victims were identified and not all execution sites are known. The German units involved in these killings, which was known as Aktion Tannenberg, were Einsatzkommando 1/1 and 1/3 and soldiers from the 1st Mountain Division and members of the Hitler Jugend also took an active part in rounding-up Jews. Bruno Shatyn, recalled these events: Several days after the arrival of the Germans, I was driving along Mickiewicza Street, one of the main thoroughfares in Przemysl, when I saw a ragged line of people running down the middle of the street, all with their hands clasped behind their necks. I pulled over to one side and stopped my truck. Around a hundred people ran past, and as they did I saw that they were Jews. They were half-naked and crying out as they ran, “Juden sind Shweine!” (Jews are swines) Along the line, revolvers in hand, German soldiers were running, young boys about eighteen years old, dressed in dark uniforms, with swastikas on the sleeves, with light blond hair and rosy faces. When someone fell behind or broke pace, they beat the victims with the butts of their revolvers or with whips, or simply kicked them. Poles gathered on the sidewalks, incredulous, some crossing themselves at this monstrous sight. The faces of the old Jews were contorted with pain, and the young boys were crying, but the Germans ran along the street almost joyfully, drunk with power.As I later found out, the soldiers had fallen on the Jewish section that morning and had driven all the men and boys out of their houses with blows and kicks. They made them do calisthenics for several hours in the street and now they were driving them toward the railway station and on, until they crossed the city limits.
I returned home shaken. Only in the afternoon, when I had calmed down somewhat, did I go out again to return my truck to the power station. Now a new horror met my eyes: distraught, weeping women were running toward the cemetery, for they had heard that all the Jews taken in the morning had been shot in Pikulice, the first village outside the city. I put a load of these wailing women in my truck and headed for Pikulice. Right at the edge of the village, beside a small hill, a swarm of people had gathered. I drove up and stopped. What I saw surpassed all belief: it was a scene out of Dante’s hell. All the men driven through the streets in the morning lay there dead. Some men from the nearby houses told me what had happened. The Jews had been driven up to the side of the hill and ordered to turn around. A truck was already standing there. A canvas had been lifted off a heavy machine gun, and several bursts of fire rang out, sweeping back and forth. Then a few more shots were fired into the few bodies that were still writhing. All was still. The soldiers climbed into the truck and drove away. I went quietly up to the little hill. The corpses were lying on their backs or sides in the most contorted positions, some on top of others, with their arms outstretched, their heads shattered by the bullets. Here were pools of blood; there the earth was rust- coloured with blood; the grass glistened with blood; blood was drying on the corpses. Women with bloodied hands were hunting through the pile of bodies for their fathers, husbands and sons. A sickish sweet smell pervaded the air. I felt something inside me die, as though my heart had turned to stone. I was choking from the smell, from the sight, from the cries filling the air. I saw everything, but I could not grasp what I saw. Before my eyes I had an image of the laughing young Germans, the proud representatives of Hitler’s New Order.
On 22 September 1939 an official communiqué was issued which defined the San River as the demarcation line between the German and Soviet troops. On 26 September the Soviet Red Army entered the city. On 27 September the Germans appointed new authorities in the district of Zasanie. In accordance with the Ribbentrop- Molotov pact the Germans left the part of Przemysl on the east bank of the River San on 28 September 1939. Before their withdrawal the Germans burned down the Old Synagogue, the Klois (Hassidic prayer house), the Tempel Synagogue on Jagiellonska Street and a part of the Jewish quarter.
On 26 September 1939, Jewish inhabitants of Zasanie and villages on the German side of the River San were ordered to move to the Russian occupied section of Przemysl. There was a sudden announcement that the Jews must leave Zasanie within 24 hours. Any Jew found there after that time would be killed immediately. Since the bridge over the River San had been bombed before the Germans arrived, one could get to the Eastern part of the city only via the railway bridge. Later this passage was prohibited for all civilians, especially Jews. The border was set along the River San with the left bank – Zasanie under German control and the right bank under Soviet control. Many families were separated by this border.
Under Soviet rule, in April and May 1940, approximately 7,000 Jews were deported from Soviet occupied Przemysl to the Soviet interior, mostly refugees from Western Poland. The living conditions of the Jewish population deteriorated rapidly. Jewish community institutions, factories and shops ceased to operate, and their assets were nationalised. All raw materials and merchandise were seized by the authorities. Artisans were forced to ‘voluntarily’ enter co-operatives. All privately owned houses were transferred to the city administration. Prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 the Jewish population of Przemysl had been almost impoverished.
At the same time the smaller town area of Zasanie, situated west of the River San, remained in German hands. In this area only a few Jews were left after the division. The 66 people (mostly women, elderly and sick), who remained in Zasanie, were later placed in two buildings on 11/13 Dolinskiego Street. Around the turn of the year 1939/40 the Grenzpolizeikommissariat (GPK- Frontier Police Authority) Przemysl was set up with smaller units of the task force and 10-15 Gestapo members, plus some clerks, drivers and interpreters.
On 27 June 1940 Deutsch-Przemysl was officially established. It included the areas of Zasanie, Ostrow, Kunkowce, Buszkowce, Buszowiczki, Zurawica, Walawa, Przekopana, Polnocna and parts of Ujkowice and Bolestraszyce. In the spring of 1940 a Judenrat was established in Zasanie. This was probably the only Judenrat in occupied Poland which was headed by a woman, Anna Feingold. Once more the Jews were rounded up for forced labour and restrictions were introduced as elsewhere in the Generalgouvernement, including the wearing of the white armband with the Star of David, a curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The Zasanie synagogue was turned into a power plant.
The German attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 resulted in the occupation of Przemysl on 28 June 1941, approximately 16,500 Jews lived in the city. On their own initiative, the Jews established a committee to represent themselves, headed by Dr. Ignatz Duldig. Within a few days the Gestapo arrived and enforced a number of anti-Jewish measures. These restrictions were also extended to Galicia and East-Przemysl, followed by registration of all Jews and the establishment of a Judenrat (Jewish Council) under Duldig. The Nazis immediately began rounding up Jews for forced labour. Jewish high school pupils were forced to clean the streets, load rubbish onto carts and pull them through the streets. Everywhere posters appeared describing the Jews as germs and lice.
In August 1941, Galicia with its capital Lvov was incorporated into the Generalgouvernement and the divided city of Przemysl was administratively reunited under its former name. Jointly with the surrounding municipalities it now formed the ‘Kreishauptmannschaft Przemysl’ (main district) in the district of Krakow. Przemysl was the headquarters of the district chief and thereby became the administrative centre. The district chief was Dr Friedrich Anton Heinisch until the summer of 1942, when he was succeeded by a lawyer Ernst Peter Paul. Their deputy was Dr Herbig.
The following police units were stationed in the town:
The Grenzpolizeikommissariat (GPK), a department of the Security Police and a Kripo department under SS- Untersturmführer Weichelt. The premises of these three departments were separated from each other, but were under the unified command of the Security Police and the SD in Krakow. Furthermore Przemysl became the headquarters of the Gendarmarie (Gendarmerezug Przemysl) under captain Haasler with one platoon commanded by the Gendarmarie District Leader Pferr, as well as that of a police squad under 1st lieutenant Schaller of the Security Police. The Security Police and Gendarmarie which were under the command of the regular police, utilised Polish and Ukrainian helpers. At times members of the German regular police were also stationed in the city and in the summer of 1942, one company of Police Battalion 307 were also stationed in Przemysl.
After the occupation of the entire town in June 1941, the GPK Przemysl department was still housed in a multi-storey private house on the west bank of the San, near the river. In charge of this GPK Przemysl department were, until May 1941, the detective senior secretary Friedrich Preuss, then until autumn 1942, the SS-Untersturmführer Adolf Benthin, who was replaced in turn by SS-Sturmscharführer Rudolf Heinrich Bennewitz (who earlier served in Zakopane as SS-Hauptscharführer). He remained head of the department until early 1944. He was followed by SS-Hauptsturmführer Weichelt, who kept this position until the dissolution of the department in July 1944.
The deputy of the department head under Adolf Benthin, was Walter Stegemann. Within the department three sections existed, the so-called 'general' or 'political' section (III A), the 'resistance' section (III B) and the counter -intelligence section (III C). Since from the summer 1941, the 'political' section had to deal with all political matters, in connection with the Jewish population in Przemysl, it was known as Judenreferat (Jewish Section). The GPK was the competent authority for the surveillance of Jews in Przemysl, whereas the economic administration of the Jews was still in the hands of the district authority (Kreishauptmannschaft). In addition the Jewish section at the GPK under SS-Sturmscharfuhrer Richard Timme, was also responsible for Jewish matters. Due to the haphazard distribution of affairs, members of other sections were also occupied with these tasks.
The conditions of the Jews deteriorated further in July /August 1941, after a civil administration under town commandant Giesselmann was established and the GPK started 'the shadowing of the Jews.' In late autumn 1941, the town quarter of Garbarze was proclaimed as a 'Jewish Residential Area' It was bordered in the west, north and east by the bend of the River San, and in the south by the railway route Lvov - Krakow. The establishment of this Jewish Quarter took until the summer of 1942. Up to this time, Jews were allowed to walk freely through the streets, but with their armbands on. Only the passage to Zsasnie, via the provisional bridge was prohibited for Jews.
In winter, the Jews were forced to hand over their valuables and various household goods. Those who did not comply with the Nazi edicts were beaten and imprisoned. On 26 December 1941, members of the Schutzpolizei along with ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) and Polish 'Blue' Policemen entered Jewish homes and seized furs and other clothing. Schutzpolizei officers started to remove furs and fur collars from the coats of all Jewish men and women, they came across in the streets. They also removed winter boots, mainly from women, which left people barefoot in the street.
In the course of time, Jews were not allowed to shop at the market place, except from dawn until 8 a.m. and in the evening from 6 p.m. onwards. Of course, no food was available at these times from the market. The Germans, including the ethnic Germans entered Jewish houses and removed furniture, pianos, carpets, silverware and china. Jews sold their belongings because they knew otherwise they would be forced to hand over everything without compensation. The German response to any kind of transgression by Jews was extremely severe. For example, for wearing the armband on the right arm instead of the left, or visiting the market during prohibited hours, Jews were beaten brutally and imprisoned for lengthy periods or were sent to the central prison at Rokitnianska Street where they were killed.
From spring 1942, there began consecutive shootings of groups of Jews at the Jewish cemetery at Slowackiego Street. These executions were carried out by Gestapo officials in charge of the Jewish section, and also by members of the GPK. Finally, all Jews were forced to move into the ghetto, from Przemysl itself and the surrounding villages in the Przemysl area, saw Jews pour into the ghetto in large numbers. By the summer of 1942, approximately 5,000 Jews from Bircza, Krzywcza, Nizankowice and Dynow had all been brought to Przemysl.
In the summer of 1942, in Przemysl, as in all the larger towns in the Krakow district, the systematic extermination of the Jews began. The 'evacuations' were supervised SS and Police Leader Julian Scherner, based in Krakow. He was solely responsible to F.W.Kuger, the Head of the SS and Police in the Generalgouvernement. Scherner ordered the GPK to carry out the 'evacuations' in Przemysl. On 3 June 1942, the Germans murdered all the Jewish residents of the Zasanie Ghetto at Dolinskiego Street . 45 people or 60 according to some sources, were taken by trucks to the former Austrian Fort VIII Letownia in the Kunkowce suburb and shot.
Between June and July 1942, more and more rumors spread about anti-Jewish riots in Tarnow and Rzeszow and other places. It was difficult to confirm these rumors, and the Judenrat tried to find out the truth, from the Gestapo. The Gestapo did in fact confirm these rumors and promised to preserve this harsh fate, befalling the Jews of Przemysl, if they behaved well. Asked by the Judenrat, how they could achieve this, they were told by the Gestapo chief Benthin, that if the Judenrat provided him with 1,000 young people for work at the Janowska Camp in the city of Lvov, they would be safe.
So on 18, June 1942, 1,000 young and strong Jewish men were sent to the Janowska, later on a number of this group were deported from Janowska to the Belzec death camp. On this day in Przemysl, the Gestapo shot many of the young men's relatives, who had come to bid them farewell, as well as a number of men, who tried to evade the deportation. Later the Gestapo demanded from the Judenrat a large sum of money for the transportation costs.
The establishment of a sealed ghetto was announced on 14 July 1942, all Jews had only until the following day to enter the ghetto. By the time of the closure of the district on 15 July 1942, 22,000 - 24,000 Jews lived in the ghetto. Members of the Judenrat and their families were allowed to remain in their flats outside the 'residential area' until the first deportation in July / August 1942. On 20 July 1942, the Germans demanded 1,300,000 zloty. They said that this payment would guarantee peace and quiet. The same day, 'the resettlement action' planned for 27 July 1942, was discussed at the Gestapo Headquarters. The participating officers were the county administrator, the municipal administrator, representatives of the Order Police, the Security Police and the head of the Labour Office in Przemysl.
On 23 July 1942, the Gestapo notified the Judenrat that on 27 July 1942, there would be an 'Aktion' which would include most of the ghetto residents. Those who were employed in essential positions and a few others would be given a Gestapo stamp on their work cards, exempting them from resettlement. Duldig only received 5,000 work permits from the Gestapo. On July 24, 1942, the Judenrat collected all work cards and handed them over to the Gestapo. On 26 July 1942, those cards that had been marked with a Gestapo stamp, were returned. The Gestapo and GPK were unable to manage the 'Aktion' without help from other units: the forces used included Gendarmerie, one company of the regular German Police Battalion 307, ethnic German Police, SS-units, civilian workers of several departments, Polish and Ukrainian Police and members of the Polish and Ukrainian Baudienst. These units, as assistants of the Gestapo, took an active part in the round-ups, as well as guarding the Jews. The SS officer in charge of this operation was SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Martin Fellenz, from the SS and Police Leaders office in Krakow.
The 'Aktion' was carried out on three days, 27 July, 31 July and 3 August 1942. Schutzpolizei and Gestapo units, together with their henchmen, surrounded the ghetto.On the first day 6,500 Jews were deported to Belzec. Duldig and his deputy were shot. The elderly, the handicapped, the sick and some children, approximately 2,500 in total, were taken in trucks to the Grochowce Forest and other places on the outskirts of the city. There they were shot and buried in mass graves.
On the second day, another 3,000 Jews were deported to Belzec, to be followed on the final day by another 3,000 Jews. At the end of the 'Aktion' the Jews were forced to hand over a sum of money to the Gestapo, to pay for the transportation costs. The ghetto was reduced in size and the new barbed-wire fences around the ghetto borders had to be paid for by the Jews.
In Przemysl, during the first day of the 'Aktion' an extraordinary rescue took place. Dr Albert Battel, adjutant to the local military commander Major Max Liedtke, responsible for the Jewish workforce requested from the Gestapo that the Jews who worked for the German Army should be excluded from the deportations, whether they had work permits or not. When his request was not granted German Army forces took control of the bridges that connected the two parts of the city and blocked all transports. After calling SS Police Leader Julian Scherner in Krakow, the Gestapo accepted the request. Julian Scherner came to Przemysl on the third day of the 'Aktion' to see for himself that the deportations ran smoothly. For their brave actions both Battel and Liedtke were later named 'Righteous Among the Nations' by Yad Vashem.
In mid- November 1942, the Jews feared that another 'Aktion' was unavoidable. They started building bunkers. When the second 'Aktion' took place on 18 November 1942, more than 8,000 Jews without work permits, were earmarked for deportation. About 1,500 Jewish workers were to be exempt from deportation. However, only about 3,500 people went to the assembly point, whilst the rest of the Jews hid in bunkers. On this day some 500 of the Jews in hiding, were discovered and added to the transport bound for Belzec death camp. After the second 'Aktion' the ghetto was divided into two sections. Section A (with 800 and later 1,300 Jews) was reserved primarily for workers. Section B was for the remaining Jews, primarily non-workers. In February 1943, SS-Unterscharfuhrer Josef Schwammberger, who had earlier liquidated the Rozwadow Ghetto, took over Section A, which was officially declared a labour camp.
There was no massive armed resistance in Przemysl. During mid-April 1943, 12 young men escaped from the ghetto and tried to join the partisans. They were intercepted by a Ukrainian unit not far from the city, and all but one was murdered. The survivor, known only by the surname of Green, was hanged in public shortly thereafter, along with Meir Krebs, who on 10 May 1943, had stabbed a Gestapo man Karl -Friedrich Reisner. The liquidation of Section B began on 2-3 September 1943. During this 'Aktion' - called Aktion Judenrein (cleared of Jews), 3,500 Jews were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. In addition 600 Jews were sent to Szebnie, where eventually they shared the same fate, being sent to Auschwitz via Pustkow Labour Camp.
One week after the start of the final 'Aktion' the commander of the GPK, Bennewitz, said that all the Jews who reported voluntarily could go to a work camp. As a result of that promise, 1,580 Jews gave themselves up. On 11 September 1943, after they had handed over their valuables and undressed, they were shot in the yard of the Judenrat building, in groups of 50. Their corpses were burned during the following days, at the same place. This 'Aktion' was the so-called 'Turnhallen- Aktion (Gymnasium Action) which was carried out in the centre of the city, 200 metres away from the busy Przemysl main railway station.
From September 1943, until April 1944, further deportations to Auschwitz followed. During this entire period the Germans continued to hunt Jews who were in hiding. On 28 October 1943, the SS sent 100 people from the Przemysl ghetto to Szebnie. Between 11 September 1943 and the end of April 1944, 1,000 were discovered in bunkers and murdered by the SS under Schwammberger and the Gestapo. The camp was destroyed at the end of February 1944, which meant in theory that Przemysl was Judenrein (Jew-Free). But in fact there were still some hiding in bunkers in the town and its environs, maybe as many as 120. Between March and June 1944, three or four bunkers sheltering 40-50 Jews were destroyed. The last hiding place was discovered in May 1944, in Tarnawce, near Przemysl, where 27 Jews were shot. The Kurpiel family who had helped the Jews were executed in Lipowica.
In early July 1944, the front was rapidly approaching Przemysl and on 23 July 1944, the town was bombed by Russian aircraft. On 27 July 1944, the Russians captured the town, on the exact anniversary of the first 'Aktion' some two years earlier. Immediately after the liberation of Przemysl, the few Jewish survivors left their hiding places. At first there was some 100 people, but during the next few days, this number rose to a maximum of 250. It is estimated that only 400 Jews from Przemysl survived the Holocaust.
After escaping to Argentina at the end of the Second World War, Josef Schwammberger was extradited to Germany in 1990, where he was put on trial. He was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in prison on 4 December 2004.
Sefer, Przemysl, Tel Aviv, 1964
Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990
Bruno Shatyn, A Private War
Relacje Collection - Jewish Historical Institute Warsaw
Aaron Freiwald and Martin Mendelsohn, The Last Nazi, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 1994
Indictment against Stegmann, Benesch, Brand and Schroder - Hamburg Provincial Court
Photograph - Chris Webb Archive
© Holocaust Historical Society 2016