An article presenting testimony of the killing of Jews committed after World War II by their Polish neighbors is a small, yet, for us, highly significant element in the reconstruction of the history of Polish complicity in the Holocaust.
In August 2014, 69 years after the murder of her Jewish neighbors, Helena wrote a letter to the Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH) in Warsaw asking to help her find Janek. He was the sole member of the Wajnberg family to have survived the bloody encounter with the Polish inhabitants of Gniewoszów after the war. Helena wanted to tell him about his parents – how they had died, and what they had been wearing at that moment, who had killed them, and who had buried their bodies in the old run-down Jewish cemetery.
She made numerous attempts to contact various Jewish organizations. She also frequently visited Gniewoszów and talked to the locals. All to no avail. After the war, she moved to a small town in Lower Silesia in order to be as far as possible from those painful memories. Helena agreed to tell us this dreadful story and to publish it in “Chidusz”, hoping this would help establish the truth about what really happened in Gniewoszów, and maybe also finally find Janek.
The Jews who fled neighboring villages after the war spoke about alleged murders committed in 1945 by Polish locals on their fellow Jewish neighbors returning home after having survived the turmoil of the war.
The Genealogy Department at the Jewish Historical Institute has no record of Janek Wajnberg in its archives. However, it has established contact with several other Gniewoszów families, one of which shared information about a murder that was committed there right after the war. A note kept in the archives states that five Jews were killed in Zielona Street on September 13, 1945, while another mentions seven Jews murdered at that location in 1946: Pynia Wajnberg and his wife, Jojne Kirszenbaum’s two sons, Chawa, and the wife and son of Libhaber. Abraham Libhaber managed to escape, and the information about the murders was passed on by his descendants.
Could these two notes actually refer to one single event? Could it also be the same event that Helena witnessed? All the same dates and names appear in her story as well. She talks about Pynia Wajnberg and his wife, she also mentions Chawa and another Jewish woman. There is also Eli, Mrs. Wajnberg’s cousin. Is it possible his mother was Libhaber’s wife? In later recollections, Helena also mentions someone who managed to escape just before the crime was committed – perhaps this was Libhaber himself?
Helena, now 86, has spent her life wanting to bear testimony to the tragedy that unfolded in Gniewoszów. She has been waiting for Janek since 1945, eager to tell him what she saw on that fateful day. Over the years, her story has grown to become an incredibly dense web of digressions. Nevertheless, it presents a coherent picture of that evening, presumably in August, when her neighbors met their tragic end at the hands of the Polish inhabitants of Gniewoszów. We have chosen two main points in Helena’s story: the meeting with Mrs. Wajnberg at the well, and the evening of the murder, leaving the many digressions and comments to the historians. In this testimony, the names of witnesses and perpetrators have been changed, as has the name of the main witness.
On October 30, 2014, Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Anna Azari, the Israeli Ambassador to Poland, and Anita Friedman, of the Koret Foundation, took part in a commemoration event at the old Jewish cemetery in Gniewoszów. Destroyed during the war by the Nazis, the cemetery is now a field of mown grass surrounded by a wall with a gate and an informational plaque. One could expect that this event would mark the closure of a certain stage in reviving the memory of the former inhabitants of Gniewoszów.
Meanwhile, it seems that it was only the beginning of a long and excruciating journey back into the history of this small Mazovian town. The gate leading to the empty field may soon be filled anew with matzevot (headstones) of the victims.
Anita Friedman’s presence at this event was not accidental. Her family also came from Gniewoszów, where they were involved in shoe manufacturing, and also ran different businesses in Radom and Lviv. Upon returning to Gniewoszów after the war to see who survived, who lived in their house, and what had become of their shoe factory, one of their former employees, who was not Jewish, warned the family about the grave danger they were in. He told them of many returning Jews who had been killed by the village inhabitants, and implored them to leave before a similar fate befell them. They heeded the warning, leaving first to Berlin, and then finding their way to the United States of America.
The Massacre of Jews in Gniewoszów – A Testimony
I would go anywhere, I would go to the front too, and I never got injured.
Such was my luck.
During the war, our parents took us from Warsaw to Gniewoszów.
I saw the offensive there. Through the window, from behind a net curtain, in Garbatka.
There was an outbreak of horrible typhus fever after they set up the ghetto.
My mommy died of it in 1942. That’s why I remember.
We arrived at Grandpa’s. There were five rooms there, the house was right next to the Wajnbergs. That’s how we lived. This window and that window on the opposite sides of one narrow street.
I could hear it all, their screams, the shots.
When the Germans set up the Jewish ghetto, the fence ran just across our street.
The Wajnbergs were on the ghetto side of the fence. I don’t need to explain what the ghetto was.
I was 12. I would go anywhere, I was everywhere.
And downstairs at the Wajnbergs there was a post office, with a police station at one entrance from the street, and I can’t remember what was at the other, it’s a pharmacy now. When Janek went there a couple of years ago, it was a pharmacy.
Mrs. Wajnberg owned a fabric shop.
I can’t remember if they lived downstairs or upstairs. I didn’t go there much, and they were always working.
I saw a German cut off beards, together with the flesh. He caught someone on the street. The Jews didn’t go out, they knew Germans were there, so they wouldn’t go out. But it seems someone went out and the German got him, with a bayonet, with that blunt blade, shaved his beard off, along with half of his cheek. There was so much blood that he collapsed.
I saw a lot of incidents.
Germans did round-ups at Jewish and Polish homes. People would say: go see what they’re doing at the market stalls, because there were Jewish stalls at the main square. And so I went to see. I saw Germans coming, with one Jew carrying a plaque which read “I was selling bad meat”. He was covered in blood, and couldn’t walk properly.
They walked him to the end of Gniewoszów, there were some barns there, three or four, next to each other. I saw it from the orchard of my grandfather’s garden, there were large walnut trees. They caught a few Jews, and made them carry sheaves of straw. I stood a bit further uphill, and they were down in the valley. They told some Jews to dig holes, and then told others they had to dig one or two more holes and go inside. They told the one that had been selling the bad meat to go inside. I saw everything.
And the rest, because there were more Jews, were carrying some straw from a barn, and they were setting it on fire in the holes.
I saw them jump out. I was standing and watching all that time.
I can’t remember if I left, or if the Germans chased me away.
The one who had been selling bad meat, he jumped out, burned. Then they began to take the Jewish stalls down. They brought hammers, axes. They caught the Jews. As many as they could, dragged them out of their homes. And there were a lot of them. They told them to take the stalls down, to tear the planks off along with the nails. That’s not all. They told them to beat the one who jumped out of the fire. To beat him up with the planks. If someone didn’t beat the man hard enough, the Germans would beat him instead. And they took him, and he died. His family took him when the Germans were gone.
With nails, with planks.
I was there till the end.
I went to the ghetto to get my hair cut, but not to see anyone in particular.
The Jews were in despair. They were very good to Poles, I want to tell all about it.
Mrs. Wajnberg asked Mommy if she could hide them in our sheds.
Mommy couldn’t. She said to Father and to Grandpa, there are too many people coming over.
I’m afraid to take you in, she said.
My parents must’ve gotten along well with the Wajnbergs. Even when she was in the ghetto, Mrs. Wajnberg would send her maid with fishballs for us.
Then they stopped trying and we didn’t meet them again.
People told me that Jews came to Gniewoszów, that they survived somewhere, came back after the war, came back like we did.
So I go there.
I enter the Wajnbergs’ place. Windows broken, because it was the frontline, everything turned upside down, burned backyards, sheds.
I enter. I meet Mr. Wajnberg on the ground floor, a skeleton, dark skin, bones sticking out.
Mrs. Wajnberg’s bones aren’t sticking out, she’s wearing a shawl, she was wearing it later, when they killed her. A woolen shawl. She looked pretty good.
I remember, he was fixing a pipe. Oh dear, a skeleton. They were setting up some stove, it was the eighth month, no, maybe earlier, I was already visiting them after the eighth of May. I entered the flat.
He said nothing.
Just Mrs. Wajnberg, oh, Helcia, how did you get here, where are you all now.
And I say, and where have you been?
Oh, Helcia, I can’t be telling you everything.
And I ask, Mrs. Wajnberg, what about Janek, Danusia? Oh, Helcia, Janek is alive.
And in the meantime, back during the war, I saw Mrs. Wajnberg two or three times, but it wasn’t that easy, because the town was all empty and everything could be easily heard from the street.
I’ll give you money, bring me something.
And I say, what would you like?
Well, maybe some bread, even old bread will do.
And so I would wrap myself with bread slices. But where she was hiding during the war, I don’t know.
The Wajnbergs were getting water from my Grandpa. He had a well, and they had a pump. Mrs. Wajnberg would come over to get water.
One time I saw her come, saw her leave the house.
Where have you been, she asks.
In Garbatka, not far from here, I say.
And you, where have you been?
Oh, Helcia! Carrots can keep one alive, we already have our carrots counted out.
She must have been with him then.
What will you do now, I ask.
Oh, Helcia, they came to us, I don’t want to use bad words, such bandits, I know you won’t tell anyone, they came and said we must be gone in a few days. We’ll talk later because I have a lot to do now, I have to go to Łódź. I have no time, my husband drove Janek back yesterday, I’m waiting for him today, because we’re going to Łódź.
Janek, three years younger than me, he had crutches, two of them, but I didn’t go near him when he came back to Gniewoszów. They brought him from somewhere. Maybe he didn’t recognize me. He said nothing, I said nothing. I saw him two times or so, before he left.
Oh, Helcia, says Mrs. Wajnberg, Danusia is alive.
She didn’t tell me before that they had left Danusia with the miller.
And look, now this woman doesn’t want to give us our child back, and Januszek said he has to have a sister. So when we go there tomorrow, we’ll have to take legal proceedings.
We’ll get Danusia back.
We’re leaving tomorrow, our friends came over.
Two Jewish women from the other side of town, one of them was Chawa, yes, Chawa, I know where she lived, because I asked some people later, where she lived, I saw her at home in Gniewoszów. I didn’t speak to them, or maybe I did, maybe I wanted to ask them something. They came over with a girl of five, two handsome Jewish women, very handsome, they looked good.
Mrs. Wajnberg was waiting for her husband to go to Łódź with him and her friends.
That’s how it ended.
I was in Gniewoszów for a couple of days then, also not for long, because the point was to make 10 or 20 zloty, to take some things and sell them, or swap them for some potatoes, I wasn’t there for long. My brother came over that day.
I ask him if he knows the Jews are here.
He says he spoke to Eli.
Eli was Mrs. Wajnberg’s brother. He was 20 or 22. He looked well. I sat on the stairs with my brother. He would come and talk to us.
Eli, my brother said, is taking us to Lublin. Helcia, you’ll go to school, and we will work and study.
And so Mrs. Wajnberg left with the water. They took her around seven or eight. That’s when the train used to arrive. We sat on the stairs, me and my brother. We didn’t want to go over there.
No point sitting here, my brother says, they may shoot us, or say that we made some accusations, we better hide.
And I say, what should I be afraid of? I’m not afraid, I say, what can they do to me?
It was dusk already, still bright but dusk, I’m sure of it, because when they were shooting, it was still dusk.
Maniek R., the miller’s brother, is leading these two handsome Jewish women down the road, without the little girl, and I’m sitting on the stairs.
They say, Mr. Marian, what’s going to happen now?
And my brother says, damn it, she is calling him “Mr. Marian,” they went to school together and now he’s going to shoot them.
I heard this Jewish woman say it a couple of times, as he was leading her, he had no weapon, nothing in his hands, he was leading them from the town to the Wajnbergs, and she kept asking him.
Mr. Marian, what’s going to happen now.
Walk, you Jewish bitch! he yelled.
Mr. Marian, what’s going to happen now?
That’s how it ended.
And we sit on the stairs. And my brother, as he saw Marian lead these Jewish women, he must have already known they would shoot them.
Damn it, let’s run, let’s hide. He said. There were some sort of window shutters there, something like hatches. But there was no glass left in the windows, because it was the frontline, just shutters, made of wood.
Or maybe I just can’t remember anymore?
We’re still sitting, nobody’s coming out.
He comes out, but he only comes to the gate, because the gate was there across the yard, and later during the ghetto time I think they set up another gate, so when he was leaving through the gate, we could see him.
My brother says. Damn it, I’m going, let’s go.
Wait, I say, we’ll see what they do to these Jews.
What did they do to them?! He asks. I don’t want to hear, I don’t want to know that, he says.
God forbid, I don’t want to know!
I’m sitting, and the stranger went there, I didn’t know him. I got up and I wanted to walk down that path a little towards them, to see what happened.
I got up, and he says to me.
You, Helcia, keep your mouth shut or you know what happens to you!
He repeated it a couple of times. In the meantime, while he was talking, my brother hid behind the door. We opened the door and shutters a little, my brother didn’t want to go out because one or another of the bandits would come out to the yard every now and again.
It’s just half-closed, so we can hear everything. And can see it all through the gap.
I think they came in two carts; I can’t remember to this day. I’ll just finish about the shooting, how they were killing them, and then I’ll tell about the horses. Two carts arrived. And there must’ve been two horses at each cart.
And so we hear a shot.
We’re sitting on the stairs, and the shots were in their house, inside.
There were no windows because it was the frontline, so you could hear everything.
And then screams: help, help, and a few shots.
My brother. Helka, we’re going, we’re leaving, we’re leaving to the West!
And I say I’m not going anywhere, I say I’m curious what happened in there.
My brother ran away. I think he went to the train station in the night, although the train only left once a day. He was afraid they would suspect him, because he was friends with that bandit’s younger brother and that’s why he knew everything, but he was never mates with Maniek. And there were a lot of them out there.
He told me. Don’t talk about it, maybe before you die, but leave it alone now, what’s the point.
I thought about how to get up without Grandpa noticing, and figured out a way to get to the Wajnbergs. To see what happened there. When they killed them and left, I watched the carts, which way they went. Whether towards Wysokie Koło, or the train station, or the other side. They were from some villages close to Puławy.
I left the house.
Grandpa didn’t know. Next to the entrance to the Wajnbergs’ house, there’s a little brick house. A widow or an old maid, I guess she’d heard everything. It was around five, six a.m. I opened the backyard door, Eli and Pini Wajnberg lay in the hall.
They lay there. I’m standing and I’m looking.
I still remember, as if it was yesterday. There were bumps from the bullets on their heads. They must’ve shot them from behind. Because they had two shots each around their temples. There was still a bump, but the blood inside their skull seemed to have dried already. I’m standing. I walk through the door. Should it be needed, I thought, I will know what happened. Pini Wajnberg came over, he had a new homespun jacket, because they made homespun fabrics in the village and they sewed them, and I remember the thread, that hound’s-tooth pattern, seemed like black thread, checkered stripes, I remember the shoes. The shoe leather will decay, but they’ll figure it out, brown, light brown, laced, new shoes with brass yellow shoestring holes. Eli was wearing brogues, fashionably dressed, three quarter jacket and black trousers. I stood there and looked, I’ll remember, I thought, I’ll remember Pini, how he was dressed. They’ll recognize them by their clothes. The leather will rot, but they’ll figure it out.
I keep looking around.
Through the kitchen, to some other room. There were some other corpses, on the right. I entered. They must’ve moved them after they died. Those two handsome women are on the right along the wall, so I didn’t look much. Pini’s wife, Mrs. Wajnberg, wrapped in her shawl. I couldn’t see blood, must’ve been covered up, she had her hands on her stomach. They must’ve told them to lie on the floor. Because if they hadn’t told them, it would have been harder. And where Pini lay with Eli, you could see he wanted to get up, his leg was bent, so the women they put them down evenly.
I left. I lay down and I didn’t go anywhere.
And my brother told me, don’t get involved or you’ll get one in the head. And I was afraid to tell anyone. Later, here in the West, I told this to many people.
But even today, you were supposed to arrive at noon, and you were two hours late. I was worried that maybe someone overheard something and that maybe they could do something to me.
But then I counted quickly, they would be over a hundred years old.
So they can’t hurt me anymore. ■
» first published in April 2015