Zwierzyniec - Soldier by road sign
Zwierzyniec is located about 58 miles south-southeast of Lublin and in August 1939, some 2,050 Jews lived in Zwierzyniec and the neighbouring village Rudka. On 18 September 1939, a Wehrmacht unit occupied Zwierzyniec for less than a day before moving on to attack Polish Army forces near Tomaszow Lubelski. Shortly thereafter, Soviet forces occupied Zwierzyniec as part of the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact. When a border renegotiation took place on 28 September 1939, Zwierzyniec returned to the German sphere of control, as many as half the Jewish population of Zwierzyniec and Rudka joined the 5 October 1939, regional Soviet military evacuation behind the River Bug. A few days later the Germans re-occupied Zwierzyniec.
In early 1940, Zwierzyniec was attached to Kreis Bilgoraj, which was under the control of Kreishauptmann Werner Ansel, who held this post from October 1939 until March 1942. In April 1942, Hans Augustin, previously the Kreishauptmann of Chelm, succeeded Werner Ansel. In Zwierzyniec itself, the Germans appointed a local Polish administration, led by Jozef Paszkowski, the pre-war mayor. In practice, a trustee or manager (Treuhander) appointed by the Governor of the Lublin District oversaw the Zamoyski properties and exercised day –to-day authority. In December 1941, Ernst Streit, the first Treuhander of the holdings, was arrested. Walther Bunsch replaced him. Deprived of almost all his properties, Zamoyski soon organised and chaired what the Germans, in January 1940, officially recognised as the Polish Welfare Councils for Zamosc, then from February 1940, for Bilgoraj.
The Germans transformed Zwierzyniec into a retreat for high-ranking military officers and for visiting Nazi elite. The hunting lodge was designated an officer’s club. Some buildings on the estate were used for a German hospital and medical clinic. From January 1940, Nazi leaders, including the Generalgouverneur, Reichsminister Dr. Hans Frank, arrived to hunt the rare pheasants and other birds at the preserve. The prominent officials and military personnel living and visiting the estate probably were responsible for the creation of the Jewish ghetto in Zwierzyniec. The Zwierzyniec ghetto may have been the only officially recognised ghetto in the Kreis Bilgoraj before April 1942, the date by which the Jewish Social Self Help (JSS) organisation expected its local branches to return a questionnaire on ghettos. Zwierzyniec was the only JSS branch in the Kreis known to have responded positively on the questionnaire. In September 1941, Kreishauptmann Ansel nonetheless excluded Zwierzyniec from a list of ghettos he was required to submit to the Lublin district authorities. Ansel, in fact, claimed no ghettos existed in Kreis Bilgoraj. He maintained that only in Bilgoraj itself was Jewish residence limited to several streets. Because the list was prepared in response to a Reich Interior Department inquiry about available space for incoming Jews Ansel may have excluded Zwierzyniec, to prevent Jews from the Reich being settled there.
Unfortunately, neither physician Leopold Reidler nor Mordecai Erbesfeld, the leaders of the Zwierzyniec JSS provided a date for the establishment of a ghetto on the questionnaire. The first known reference to the ghetto in JSS records comes from July 1941. The ghetto may have been established during what was described as a pogrom by Zygmunt Klukowski, a diarist, when an SS unit on 1 June 1941 against the Jews in neighbouring Rudka. On that day the SS killed three Jews, beat many more, and destroyed or confiscated all the possessions of the Jews in Rudka. Unfortunately Klukowski did not record whether the Rudka Jews were evicted to the newly established ghetto in Zwierzyniec. Erbesfeld described the Zwierzyniec ghetto as an unfenced, open ghetto. He did not provide its exact location; he only noted that the ghetto occupied a pre-war Jewish neighbourhood. More contemporary research state that the Jews lived mainly in the central part of the town, known locally as ‘Little Palestine.’ This is where the Jewish house of prayer was situated. The financial records of the JSS, for March, suggested the mikvah was located within the ghetto boundaries. In July 1941, the ghetto population stood at 544, including refugees. Among the refugees were Jews who had been forcibly deported from Kalisz, Katowice, Lodz and Poznan, as well as Jews who had settled from other places like Lublin and Warsaw, of their own free will.
Little is known about the Jewish Council (Judenrat), Reidler described the members of the Judenrat as belonging to the pre-war Zwierzyniec elite, all merchants,’ known neither for their charity nor moral virtue’. In response to a mid-March 1942 mandate from the county medical director, the JSS established a sanitation force to maintain hygiene standards.
On 26 July 1941, JSS officials in a telegram reported a fire, the previous night, which had destroyed part of the ghetto and appealed to charity leaders in Krakow for immediate assistance for 80 to 200 people left homeless after 15 homes burned down. The fire makes it difficult to ascertain the number of residences included in the ghetto. Erbesfeld on the questionnaire described the ghetto consisting of 20 homes (60 rooms), making it likely that 35 residences initially were designated for the ghetto. Though 6 people on average lived in each available room, Reidler only reported 10 cases of typhus in 1941, and none in the first quarter of 1942. The Zwierzyniec ghetto residents were conscripted for labour at the sawmill and lumber yard on the former Zamoyski estate. Other Jews repaired and expanded the roads leading from Zwierzyniec to Bilgoraj and to Szczebrzeszyn. Tombstones from the Jewish cemetery were used on these projects. The road construction crews worked for the Organisation Todt (OT), which in the spring of 1940, established a camp in the Zamoyski forest. The Jewish road construction crews eventually were housed in two of six barracks erected at the camp. In June 1941, approximately 280 ghetto residents were interned at labour camps established in barracks at the lumber yard and sawmill. Also some were incarcerated in the Organisation Todt camp, and at several camps the Luftwaffe established on former Zamoyski properties, in order to build airfield bases and a flight training school. Another 16 Jews worked as craftsmen, mainly at four workshops established in the ghetto for painting, carpentry, tailoring and shoemaking. Each workshop employed no more than 4 people. From the spring of 1942, several small groups of Jews, usually two or three, were arrested and executed at the Jewish cemetery or at a mass grave located in the Borek woods. By mid-May 1942, the ghetto population had decreased by 172 people. On 9 August 1942, some 500 Jews were deported from Bilgoraj, via the Zwierzyniec railway station to the Belzec death camp. Stanislaw Bohdanowicz, a local Polish –Christian, recalled that the Germans also ordered that the Jews of Zwierzyniec, should also be deported that day. However, the Judenrat staved off a total expulsion by offering a bribe of gold, although some 52 Jews from Zwierzyniec were added to the numbers expelled from Bilgoraj. On 21 October 1942, Security Police stationed in Bilgoraj, SS and SS Trawnikimanner liquidated the ghetto. Approximately 1,000 Jews were deported that day, after assembling in the town’s square. Many Jews were killed attempting to avoid deportation, whilst another 100 were shot during the march to Szczebrzeszyn. Upon arrival, at around 9 p.m. the survivors were incarcerated in the buildings of the Alwa factory, along with most of the remaining Jews in Szczebrzeszyn. At noon, on 22 October 1942, the Jews were marched to the railway station, forced onto cattle cars and transported to the Belzec death camp, where they were murdered in the gas chambers. It is believed that all the Jews from Zwierzyniec perished during the Holocaust.
Sources:The Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945, USHMM, Indiana University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012
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
R.Kuwalek, From Lublin to Belzec, AD Rem, Lublin, 2006
Photograph - Tall Trees Archive, UK
© Holocaust Historical Society 2016