Wegrow is located alongside the Liwiec River, approximately 44 miles east-northeast of Warsaw. By 1 September 1939, there were 9,200 Jews living among the 92,226 residents of the Wegrow district. The Jews were concentrated mainly in the town of Wegrow, comprising two thirds of the town’s 11,000 inhabitants. Upon occupying Wegrow on 10 September 1939, German soldiers engaged in anti-Semitic attacks against the Jews in the town. During the first week of occupation they arrested and then executed a number of the town’s wealthiest Jews. The German military administration also closed the town’s synagogues. On Yom Kippur, which fell on 23 September 1939, the Germans discovered a private prayer service and dragged the men to the market square, where they ordered them to sing and dance and on this occasion they murdered Rabbi Jaakov Mendel Morgernsten by bayoneting him in the stomach.
On 28 November 1939, the county’s new Kreishauptmann Landrat Friedrich Schultz, ordered the Jews of Wegrow to establish a Jewish Council (Judenrat). The chairman of the Judenrat was Mordechai Zajman, and Shmuel Halberstadt served as vice president. The Judenrat also established a Jewish Police force of 10 to 15 men headed by Noach Kochman. Medical services were placed under the direction of Dr. Melchoir. By mid-October 1939, a German Gendarmerie post of 10 -15 men, commanded by Oberleutnant Muller, patrolled Wegrow, and a military detachment under the direction of Commandant Scherle, was also stationed in Wegrow. In the first months of the Second World War, 390 Jews arrived in Wegrow, most of them fleeing from larger cities. By August 1940, the Germans had deported an additional 1,000 Jews to Wegrow, from Piotrkow, Aleksandrow Lodzki, Kalisz and Pultusk. By September 1940, there were about 8,500 Jews living in Wegrow. By the end of December 1941, the Germans had ordered to Wegrow another 255 Jews, including those from the villages of Ruchna, Jaczew, Jarnice, and Wyszkow. Among those deported from Wyszkow included its rabbi, who took over the functions of the murdered Jaakov Morgernstern.
Jews from the town of Grochow Szlachecki were also deported to Wegrow during this time, the new arrivals were mainly destitute with many of them begging for food. The Judenrat extended food assistance to the deportees, who comprised nearly half of the town’s 2,500 most impoverished Jews by August 1940. The Judenrat’s Housing Authority also ordered Jews from Wegrow who lived in homes with more than one room to surrender remaining rooms to the refugees, with some living in attics. The Jews in Wegrow also faced increasingly more organised round-ups for forced labour. In 1939 and 1940, patrols of German soldiers and police conscripted hundreds of Jewish men to work at various army barracks. Tasks included gardening, cleaning the latrines. By the end of 1940, the Judenrat’s labour office (Arbeitsamt) was assigning men to specific tasks. During 1940 and 1941, some 250 Jews from Wegrow worked at a freight terminal near Sokolow Podlaski, unloading sacks of wheat. Other Jews worked near the village of Liw on the Liwiec River, about 5 miles from Wegrow, repairing bridges destroyed in the German onslaught in September 1939. Several hundred other Jews were sent to a forced labour camp near Mordy to drain marshland. In September 1941, a large number of Jews were forced to work on a similar project in Leki and others worked in agriculture. By late 1941, part of Wegrow’s Jews forced labour quota was for craftsmen to work at the Treblinka forced labour camp. From the spring of 1942, Jews from Wegrow also formed part of the labour force used to construct the Treblinka death camp. Hoping to head off deportations, forced labour quotas and the creation of a closed ghetto in Wegrow, the Judenrat organised internal taxes to raise money for payments and gifts to the German authorities. The Judenrat was able to negotiate smaller labour quotas by bribing German officials with diamonds, gold, fur coats and leather boots. When German demands for labour increased at the end of 1940, the Judenrat imposed higher taxes to pay for larger bribes. In the first half of 1941, the Germans threatened to deport the Jews from Wegrow to the Warsaw ghetto, if a large demand for payment was not met. A second large payment was made in the early summer of 1942, to avert the creation of a closed ghetto in Wegrow.
Ernst Gramss was appointed Kreishauptmann of Sokolow Podlaski on 10 June 1940, and he intended to establish a closed ghetto in Wegrow. In a report dated 1 February 1941, he stated that Wegrow was one of six concentration points for Jews in the Kreis and he promised to close these ghettos as soon as weather permitted. Gramss never implemented this plan fully. In Wegrow as well as Stoczek Wegrowski and Lochow, the ghettos remained open. Many eyewitnesses in Wegrow have claimed that the Germans nonetheless had created a Jewish quarter, as those deported were housed in the southern part of the town, where Jews had predominantly lived before the Second World War. But many Polish Christians continued to live in this neighbourhood. Some Jews continued to reside outside the Jewish quarter. Until Yom Kippur in 1942, Jews were allowed free movement about the town, except for a few streets that housed German administrative and residential buildings. From February 1941, the Germans forbade Jews from leaving Wegrow’s town boundaries.
The February 1941 prohibition on Jewish movement beyond Wegrow brought a drastic deterioration in Jewish living conditions. Most Jewish business owners could not sustain their livelihoods by the end of 1941. Some business owners travelled illicitly to the Warsaw ghetto for merchandise to stock their stores. A far larger number of business owners were forced to close their businesses, which were in some cases, expropriated by local Poles. Under these conditions poverty became widespread, as unemployment affected virtually all those not employed by official institutions established for the Judenrat. A significant number of Jews were now on the edge of starvation, due to the restrictions on Jewish movement and the refusal of Gramss’s administration to make winter food rations available to Jews and Poles. The majority of the Jews of Wegrow sought charity assistance in September 1941. The Judenrat, which opened its community kitchen to feed the destitute, could provide meals for only 1,200 people. In early 1941, and again later that year, typhus epidemics ravaged the Jewish community. To secure money to pay bribes and to meet forced labour quotas, the Judenrat resorted from mid-1941 to draconian measures. The Jewish Police arrested several families to extort money from them, and by July 1942, it even raided the homes of Jews behind on their taxes, conscripting able-bodied men for forced labour.
Although the Wegrow ghetto remained open, the Jewish inhabitants realised by the summer of 1942, that they would not be excluded from deportations to the Treblinka death camp. Suspicions about the camp heightened in July 1942, after forced labourers from Wegrow working there, did not return to their homes. In the same month, the wives of German military and police officials in Wegrow told the Jews who worked for them, to hide their valuables. Then, on 24 August 1942, posters were hung up in Wegrow signed by Gramss, restricting access to Jewish neighbourhoods only to registered residents and cancelling all travel passes held by Jews. The majority of the town’s Jews realised that the orders issued by Gramss, signalled their impending doom. Many Jews constructed hiding places in their homes, whilst some arranged shelter with local farmers, usually in exchange for advance payment. Fearing the Germans would send them to their deaths on Yom Kippur, private services were begun early. The services of morning prayer and an additional service recited on festive days, took place on Sunday, 20 September 1942, on the evening of Yom Kippur. Weeping interrupted the cantor at one such service during the liturgical poem. The Germans liquidated the Jewish quarter of Wegrow at dawn on Yom Kippur, Monday 21 September 1942. SS units aided by Ukrainian SS, German Gendarmes, and Polish (Blue) Police surrounded the town. Then they went from house to house, ordering the Jews – approximately 9,000 people – to the town square. Those who refused or were too old or infirm to comply with this order were shot in their homes.
According to some accounts, the Germans murdered approximately 600 Jews in the first two hours of the ‘Aktion.’ Significant numbers of Jews perished by shooting in Wegrow, whilst some 100 to 200 Jews were selected to form a labour force to deal with the possessions left behind by those deported. In the late afternoon, the remainder of those assembled, some 5,000 people were marched nearly 11 miles to the railway station in Sokolow Podlaski. Along the way the Germans shot those who failed to keep pace with the marching column. A large group of young Jews – reacting to a pre-arranged signal- fled en masse into the woods. Although an unknown number of them were shot and killed, some survived. The column on arrival at the railway station in Sokolow Podlaski were herded into cattle wagons and sent to the Treblinka death camp. In Wegrow, the Germans intensified the hunt for Jews in hiding; they initially asked members of the Polish volunteer Fire Department to help them locate Jews in hiding. Members of the Fire Department soon surpassed the Germans engaged in this task. Local members of the Polish (Blue) Police also participated at the outset in executions of Wegrow’s Jews. The German police came to rely heavily on both forces to search for and execute Jews in hiding. Jews thus extricated from their hiding places by the members of the Fire Department were usually marched to the Jewish cemetery by one German Gendarme and six armed members of the Polish (Blue) Police, with the firemen providing further reinforcement. Once the Jews were murdered their bodies were buried by Polish workers. As payment, the Poles received the clothing that had belonged to the Jews. Members of the Fire Department and those that buried the Jews, became known as ‘Dentists’ as they extracted gold teeth from the mouths of Jews murdered at the Jewish cemetery. After locking up members of the Jewish labour force for several weeks in an armoury, the Germans organised an enclosed ghetto in Wegrow during the second week of November 1942. This was located on the corner of the main market square and Gdansk Street. The ghetto was policed by German Gendarmes. Those who lived there, included some who had survived the ‘Aktion’ on Yom Kippur, by hiding, were ordered to repair former Jewish homes and business premises, to prepare them for transfer to local Polish residents. There were between 150 – 300 residents; German patrols executed during the day, any Jews they found evading work. At night, they confined most of the ghetto’s inhabitants to the basement of a large building on the corner of the square. The ghetto was administered by a Judenrat, which remained briefly under the stewardship of Mordechai Zajman. Approximately another 100 Jews were allowed to remain outside the ghetto, as they were registered as workers necessary for the German war effort. Another 100 to 200 Jews refused to register with the Germans preferring to remain in hiding.
On the night of 26-27 April 1943, the Germans surrounded the ghetto and the homes of Jews allowed to reside outside the ghetto. That night they shot the majority of the town’s surviving Jews, whilst the hunt for those in hiding continued to 10 June 1943, when the Germans executed approximately 10 Jews. In March 1944, a unit from Sonderkommando 1005, the force charged with obliterating traces of the mass killings in the east, arrived in Wegrow. In April 1944, the officers in charge of this Sonderkommando forced a tightly guarded group of Jewish prisoners, probably from Lodz, to exhume the remains of the Jews executed in the Jewish cemetery and burn the bodies.
No more than 100 of Wegrow’s Jews are thought to have survived the war. Some did so, by making their way to Mordy to join a forced labour camp, at which Jews continued to work. Most of the remainder of Wegrow’s Jews depended on the assistance of local Poles. Several young children were taken into the homes of Polish families. These included Gitel Przepiorka, a three year old when her mother turned her over to the Kowalczyks in the summer of 1942; Zofia Shenberg, an abandoned infant discovered by Marianna Ruszkowska in Wegrow on Yom Kippur 1942; Lusia Fabiarz found by Pelagia Vogelgesang on 1 May 1943; and 10-year old Sara Nortman who survived the ghetto’s liquidation by living with the Buczynski family.
Other Polish residents of Wegrow extended assistance to the adult Jews of Wegrow, some in exchange for payments. Zbigniew Bucholc, a Pole employed at Wegrow’s labour office arranged for false documents for members of the Friedman family, which enabled them to travel as Poles to Lwow. Similar papers enabled Ella Picot and her niece Halusha Gross, to walk off the market square during the deportation ‘Aktion’ during Yom Kippur in 1942. The Potocki’s in Wegrow, the Czyzewski’s in Pienki, the Toefels in Jarnice and the Korczak and Bujalski families in Zajac all extended shelter at some time to 10 members of the Bielowski family, enabling them to survive the war. Wegrow’s Jewish community was never re-built after the war, the vast majority of Wegrow’s Jews who returned to the town emigrated quickly to other countries, such as Israel, England, Canada and the United States of America.
Sources:The Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945, USHMM, Indiana University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012
Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor Treblinka, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1987
Photograph – Chris Webb Archive
© Holocaust Historical Society 2015