Sompolno Synagogue - June 2009
Sompolno is located 15 miles northeast of Konin, and on 1 September 1939, when the Germans attacked Poland there were approximately 1,500 Jews living in the town. One week after the outbreak of the Second World War, German troops entered Sompolno and the persecution of Jews started immediately, with random beatings at the hands of German soldiers and local ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche). On the first day of the German occupation Jews over the age of 15 were ordered to assemble in the town square, where a Gestapo officer addressed them proclaiming “Accursed Jews, your days of glory are over!” He also warned those assembled that the punishment for disobedience of any German order would be death. The Gestapo officer told the Jews to run home, which gave the soldiers an excuse to beat them for ‘trying to escape.’
Each day brought new decrees – the synagogue and prayer halls were turned into warehouses. Children were forbidden to go to school and within a short time most Jewish shops were looted and then shut down. Germans and local Polish criminals entered private homes and stole whatever they wanted. Jews huddled in their apartments, in dread and fear. After recovering from the initial shock, many Jews hid whatever was left of their valuables and goods within their houses. The Germans conducted periodic searches, even tearing out the walls to find hidden treasures. The Jewish ‘criminals’ who concealed them were sent to the local Gestapo headquarters, where they were lashed on their bare backs.
The Germans appointed a three-man Jewish Council (Judenrat) to convey their orders and decrees to the Jewish population. From time to time a collective ‘fine’ was imposed on the Jewish community, which the Judenrat was forced to extort from the Jewish residents. Every Jew was required to wear the yellow patch with a Jewish Star on the chest and back .Jews were forbidden to walk on the pavements and were confined to their homes after 8.00 p.m. The Judenrat had to provide a daily quota of 50 people for harsh and filthy forced labour. Some were sent to work in the homes of ethnic Germans or to sweep courtyards, clean toilets, or chop wood. Sometimes Jews were ordered to bring Jewish books to the town square and burn them. On one occasion the Germans organised a ‘party’ at which Jews were forced to spread Torah scrolls on the ground and dance on them.
Sometimes members of the Gestapo from nearby locations came to Sompolno to organise local pogroms. On one such occasion, remembered as ‘Black Wednesday,’ there was a full day of cruelty and abuse. People were dragged out of their homes to ‘entertain’ the local population. One man was forced to run a gauntlet by turning somersaults through the mud. Another was forced to lean out of a window and bark like a dog for over an hour. The Volksdeutsche, who before the war had good relations with the Jews, were among the chief instigators of this abuse.
The Germans may have intended to make life so unbearable that some Jews would break down and commit suicide. However, despite the harsh and cruel nature of the Nazi occupation, there was not a single instance of suicide during the occupation. The death rate among the elderly rose significantly, but the desire to live persisted, and the hopes for a miracle never ceased. There were occasional reports of German military reverses, but at this time most proved unfortunately to be untrue. The Jewish community in Sompolno had virtually no contact with neighbouring towns. Personal possessions were sold to local Volksdeutsche to obtain money to buy food from local farmers, such as potatoes and grain to grind for bread. Jews who engaged in such transactions did so at the risk of severe punishments. Tailors, shoemakers, and other artisans were however, allowed to make and sell their products.
A sealed-off area of settlement did not exist in Sompolno, however, in 1940, most of the Jews were ordered to leave their homes and crowd together, with two or three other families per residence, on specific streets on the edge of the town. The Judenrat oversaw these arrangements, and their decisions could not be appealed against. The movement of Jews was also limited to certain hours of the day, and all the above signified the creation of an open ghetto in Sompolno. The children suffered a harsh fate, their lives blighted by malnutrition, overcrowding, and a lack of education, as the schools were closed. It was dangerous even to take a child for a walk! During the years under the Nazi occupation, there were no reports of births among the Jews of Sompolno. For over 18 months, an underground school operated for children aged between 7 and 11. Three groups of 10 slipped into a private home three times a week for instruction. The classes continued until just before the mass deportation in February 1942. Only one child, the teacher’s daughter, survived the war.
Soon after the start of the occupation, the Germans demanded a population count of the Jewish community, which then numbered approximately 1,200. There were, in addition, a few refugee families, who arrived from the vicinity of Poznan. Five young people are known to have slipped across the border to the Soviet zone of occupation. During 1941, on three occasions, the Germans demanded young men and women for forced labour in Germany. About 150 men and 50 women were sent away, which meant that about 1,000 people remained in Sompolno, at the time of the mass deportation ‘Aktion.’
There were no partial deportations from Sompolno to ghettos in the larger cities, despite the deteriorating conditions, families were able to stay together and maintain a semblance of community. There were occasionally secret Saturday morning Sabbath services. Some people found solace in the quiet study of traditional Jewish texts. For months on end, people slept in their clothes with a small bundle at their side, based on the assumption that they could be removed from their homes at a moment’s notice. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, there was a flickering spark of optimism that this might mean a turn for the better, but the rapid German advance, soon extinguished these faint hopes.
The liquidation of the Jews in the Kolo region stretched out over two months, in which the Jews of Sompolno awaited their fate with dread and uncertainty. The Jewish community sent out spies to find out what had happened to the Jews of the neighbouring towns, which were subjected to deportations by the Germans from the middle of December 1941. There was virtually no place to hide in the areas around the town, but a few Jews managed to find their way to other towns, usually paying Polish locals who was willing to take the risk by taking them in a hay wagon at night to a safer location .
On 1 February 1942, Sompolno was suddenly swarming with German Police. Shortly after midnight, in the early hours of 2 February 1942, the Gestapo and German Police broke into Jewish homes. They ordered the inhabitants to dress quickly and herded them into trucks, which took them to a large wooden garage next to the train station. Over, 1000 people were pushed into this unheated building. A few Jews managed to slip through the dragnet and found shelter with Polish neighbours, but only a handful survived the war.The people herded in the garage by the train station were sent to the Chelmno death camp, where they were murdered in gas vans. Those Jews who were kept behind to clear the vacated Jewish of property and furniture were sent to the Lodz ghetto in June 1942.
The Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945, USHMM, Indiana University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012
Photograph – Chris Webb Archive
© Holocaust Historical Society 2015