The city of Grodno is located 80 km northeast of Bialystok
. It was the second
largest city in the Bialystok
district, an area approximately the size of Belgium,
and on the eve WW2 had a
population of approximately 50,000, of whom 42%, or 21,159 were Jewish.
A part of Poland between 1921 and 1939
, and from 1944 to 1991
included in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Byelorussia, the city is today situated in the Republic of Belarus.
district, of which Grodno became part, experienced a turbulent
history. As a border
region between Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and Ukrainians, it was often subject to military attack.
, it was conquered by German troops. These troops later withdrew
and the region was occupied
by the Soviet Union, only for German troops to reoccupy it immediately following the commencement
of hostilities between Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941
. On the night of
22-23 June 1941
the city fell to the German army. At first Grodno was not included in the
district but remained part of the Generalkommissariat Weissrussland
. Then, on
18 September 1941
, it was
attached to the Bialystok
deputy office (Nebenstelle
) was set up in Grodno, initially headed by
, and, from
by Heinz Errelis
had thirteen men under his command, including his deputy,
, who was in charge of
Jewish affairs; Kurt Wiese
, who would afterward become the commandant
of Ghetto I; Otto Strebelow
, commandant of Ghetto II and
, commandant of the Kielbasin
|Ghetto Street #1
|Ghetto Street #2
At the end of June 1941
was created with an initial
membership of ten people, and headed by David Brawer
the headmaster of a local school. With the occupation the Jews lost any civil rights. Their lives and security were of
no consequence to the occupiers. In common with other areas occupied by Germany, severe restrictions and prohibitions
were placed upon the Jews of Grodno, including registration, the stamping of Jude
on their identity cards and
from 30 June 1941
, the wearing of an identifying badge. At first this was a white
armband with a blue Star of David;
a month later the armband was replaced by two large yellow patches worn on the left side of the chest and on the
left of the back. Children were exempt from this decree. Although forced labour was introduced immediately after
the occupation, this was largely on an improvised basis. However, on 15 October 1941
the first official order was
promulgated for the entire district regarding forced labour; it specified the ages of those who were obligated to work -
males aged fourteen to sixty and women aged fourteen to fifty-five.
|Arrival at the Ghetto #1
|Arrival at the Ghetto #2
In November 1941
, shortly after Grodno was annexed to the
district, the city’s Jews were transferred to two
ghettos about 2 km apart from each other. As was usual with the establishment of ghettos, the Jews were concentrated
in areas where sanitation, water and electricity, roads, etc. were completely inadequate for the occupants’ needs. The
first ghetto (Ghetto I) was established in the city’s ancient, central section. Some 15,000 Jews were crammed into
an area of less than half a square km. The second ghetto (Ghetto II) was created in the
suburb, a part of the
city which was broader and more open, with fewer houses. Some 10,000 Jews were incarcerated in this ghetto, which was
larger in size than the main ghetto but more dilapidated. Generally Jews were sent to one ghetto or the other based on
their work; the first ghetto was intended for "productive" workers, the second for the "unproductive".
The relative quiet that characterized the first year of the ghettos enabled the Judenrat
to ease the Jews’
plight by creating a very large bureaucratic apparatus, which in itself became a source of livelihood for
many ghetto occupants. Judenrat
considered the supply of food
to the ghetto to be one of the Judenrat
’s major functions. As was usually the case, the affluent enjoyed better
conditions and the poor made do with the scraps; but the fact remains that in Grodno, in contrast to other
ghettos in Poland, no one died of starvation.
The occupants of the Grodno ghetto, like their brethren in many other ghettos across Poland, adopted the slogan,
"salvation through work". In other words, nearly everyone believed that as long as the Germans considered the
ghetto occupants to be productive elements who were useful to their economy, they would let them live.
Factories were therefore created to produce items for the German war economy and to supply the personal needs
of army and Gestapo
personnel stationed in Grodno.
|Arrival from Rzeszow
|Arrival from Suchowola
In late 1942
, exactly one year after Grodno’s Jews had been herded into the
ghettos, the Germans began making
preparations for transporting them to the death camps. In the winter of 1942/1943
when the transports ceased
elsewhere in Poland (in the Generalgouvernement
and in the Warthegau
), it was the turn of the Jews in
district. There were about 130,000 Jews in 116 localities,
including 35,000 in nineteen locales
in the Grodno sub district. The officials responsible for the transports in the Grodno sub district were
, the chief of the Gestapo
in the city, and his deputy,
. Transit camps, or as the
Germans called them Sammellager
, which were actually stations on the way to deportation to the death
camps, were set up at various sites in the Bialystok
district. The sites of the
transit camps were chosen
for their proximity to Jewish places of residence. In the case of Grodno, a transit camp was set up at
. From the transit camps the Jews were transported to
. Jews from
sub district, in the southern part of the district,
were sent directly to nearby Treblinka
without passing through a transit camp. The horrific conditions in the transit camps - overcrowding,
inhuman living quarters, nonexistent sanitation, serious food shortages, bitter cold, and unspeakable filth -
inevitably led to illness and epidemics. The mortality rate was high. Inmates were also subjected to all
manners of harassments, beatings, abuse, and even outright murder by the staff and guards.
On 2 November 1942
, the Ghettos I and II in Grodno were completely sealed off.
In the morning the workers from
Ghetto II were held up at the gate and suddenly the commandants of the two ghettos,
and Otto Strebelow
(Ghetto II), appeared and began shooting at the workers
indiscriminately. 12 Jews
were killed, forty were wounded, and the others fled wildly in panic. It was the first time that Grodno’s
Jews had experienced sudden mass murder, perpetrated without warning. In the evening, the news spread through
the city that the Jews from the neighbouring towns had been transported to the
camp. The sealing of the
two ghettos was accompanied by show-hangings and acts of group murder. Punitive executions were not only meted
out for trying to escape. The fate of anyone caught smuggling food into the ghetto was also sealed.
Shooting of Jews who were found carrying bread or other food became routine.
About two weeks after the Jews in the neighbouring towns were taken to Kielbasin
the Germans began liquidating
Ghetto II. First, however, they transferred those with useful professions from Ghetto II to Ghetto I. The first
deportation from Ghetto II took place on 15 November 1942
. The Jews were
told that they were being sent
to work, and, according to the testimony of Grodno survivors who reached Bialystok
, the Judenrat
the other Jews in the ghetto believed this tale. Therefore, very few tried to hide. The deportees reached
on 18 November
, and before they
were murdered they were given prepared postcards on which a
sentence in German was printed: "Being treated well, we are working and everything is fine". They were
ordered to sign the postcards and address them to their relatives in Grodno. The first deportation was
followed by a brief lull in Ghetto II. But a few days later, on 21 November
everyone still in the ghetto
was deported to Auschwitz
. There is some uncertainty regarding the precise
number of deportees, but it is
probable that at least 4,000 inhabitants of the ghetto - those remaining in Ghetto II after the transfer
of a similar number of Jews to Ghetto I - perished in Auschwitz
as a result
of these "actions".
The deportations from Ghetto I began at the end of November 1942
following the opening of the Kielbasin
transit camp; they followed a different pattern from previous "actions" in the region’s ghettos and in
Ghetto II at Grodno. All told, about 4,000 Jews from Ghetto I were sent to Kielbasin
in two transports. Later they were deported from Kielbasin
The first Aktion
in Ghetto I (the third in Grodno) took place in late November 1942
In the dead of night,
men, women, and children were removed from their apartments and concentrated in the Great Synagogue.
Toward morning Wiese
arrived, ordered the Jews out of the synagogue, and began to march them to Kielbasin
all the while beating them.
At the front of the column marched a respected Jew, Skibelski
The Germans forced him to wear a clown’s hat, dance and play the fiddle.
, formerly the farm of a Polish squire, lay 5 km from Grodno,
on the road to Kuznica
Germans converted it into a camp for Soviet POWs. The camp covered 1 square km, and a double barbed-wire
fence surrounded it, with a guard tower at every corner. By the autumn of 1942
there were no further POWs
in the camp. It then became a concentration camp for Jews from Grodno and from the surrounding towns.
It has been estimated that at least 35,000 men, women and children were deported to
from Grodno and
the surrounding area. Survivors of Kielbasin
remember its commandant, a
Rumanian-born German named Karl Rinzler
who could speak Yiddish mixed with German, for his extraordinary brutality. Almost always inebriated,
he would take inmates from their huts and shoot them publicly for his amusement. In the morning, upon
entering the camp, he called over every Jew he encountered (especially women) and with a heavy rubber
club that had a small metal ball attached to its end, beat them until the club was drenched in blood.
inmates lived in a sort of barracks, "Ziemlankas", as the camp’s
inhabitants called them,
50-100 m long, 6-8 m wide, and about 2 m high (the floor was half a meter deep under
the ground). They were the products of the Soviet prisoners' labour during the camp’s previous incarnation.
There were six blocks of these barracks, which were separated from one another by barbed-wire fences.
A block consisted of fourteen barracks, each of which held at least 250 or 300 inmates (about 500,
according to Errelis
). Towns populated these barracks: each town was allotted
one or more barracks on the basis of its Jewish population.
The floor in these Ziemlankas was plain earth padded at the bottom with branches and covered with straw.
On entering one had to step down five or six steps. Inside there were double shelves/bunks, which served
for sleeping. Those in the bottom row could sit but not stand up. Those on top had the roof immediately
above them and had to crawl in order to lie down. The boards were dirty, and water leaked in from the roof.
Men, women, and children lived together in each Ziemlanka, and also shared the toilet - an open pit, for men
and women together. The overcrowding, the bitter cold, the rain that leaked in, and the filth and lice turned these
accommodations into death traps. The camp had running water, but Jews were forbidden to go near the taps.
It was not uncommon for inmates to be flogged to death for stealing water. Hunger was a permanent fixture
. Food rations consisted of soup with a few unpeeled potatoes or scraps
of rotten cauliflower
cooked in water and 100-150 grams of bread per person - though even that miserly bread portion was not
distributed every day. The hunger, overcrowding, dirt, and lice resulted in lethal epidemics that claimed
many victims - seventy a day, on the average. The ill were transferred to separate Ziemlankas and treated
by Jewish physicians and nurses who were also incarcerated at Kielbasin
was only a transit camp. A week after the first Jews were imprisoned
there, the transports
began. The order to begin the transports was issued by the Reich
Main Security Office (RSHA
to Wilhelm Altenloh
, head of the Gestapo
who relayed it, first by telephone and then in writing, to Errelis
and to the
’s external station at Grodno. The police and personnel of
and the SD
read out the names of the towns; their former inhabitants were then concentrated in the
centre of the camp and made to march to the train station at Lososna
. The elderly
and infirm that were
unable to keep up with the march were shot on the spot. At the station the Jews were packed into freight
cars for their final journey. In December 1942
, a severe shortage of railway
wagons forced the Germans to
suspend temporarily transports to Auschwitz
district ghettos and from Kielbasin
however, they stepped up the transports to Treblinka
, which was relatively close.
Towards the end of the month,
the Germans decided to liquidate the camp. The last of the Jews there, 2,000-3,000, from
, and Grodno (as well as those who had avoided the earlier
transports by hiding) were made to walk back
to Ghetto I in Grodno. Again a Jew playing a fiddle was placed at the head of the column. Some
inmates had managed to escape from the camp during its brief existence.
The respite in the deportations from the Bialystok
district lasted about a month,
from mid-December 1942 until mid-January 1943
. But on
18 January 1943
, deportation notices began to be issued. That evening the
ghetto’s gates were sealed for five days (until 22 January
), and the Jews were not
allowed out. The
manhunt began. More than 10,000 people were rounded up and herded into the Great Synagogue. The deportees
were marched to the train station at Lososna
; only the elderly, the sick,
and the children were transported
there by wagon or truck. Guards were present in large numbers, shooting those who could not keep up. At
the train station the deportees were shoved and pushed on top of each other into cattle cars; the doors
were closed and sealed; and they set off on their final journey. During the January 1943
, 11,650 Jews were deported from Grodno to Auschwitz-Birkenau
Of these, 9,851 were murdered as soon as they arrived at the extermination camp, while 1,799 (1,096 men
and 703 women) were selected for forced labour.
Following the "Action of the Ten Thousand", approximately 5,000 Jews remained in the ghetto, about half of
them "illegals" without papers. On 11 February 1943
, the Judenrat
announced that the Jews were being sent
"to new places of work". Two days later, on 13 February
, a few hundred Jews
were taken to work outside
the ghetto. Shortly after their departure, the ghetto was closed and a new Aktion
, and their cohorts
appeared at the ghetto gates, where hundreds of Jews were assembled in
the hope that they would be taken to work. Shooting into the crowd began. The Jews were then made to line
up and marched to the synagogue. Some managed to flee, others were shot in the attempt. The members of the
and its clerks, led by Brawer
, were also herded into the synagogue.
At around dusk Brawer
was called outside, where
shot him after discovering that two "Farbindungsmen" (liaison-men)
of the Judenrat
, had fled from the ghetto.
A few youngsters tried to break down the doors and windows in the synagogue and escape. Some Jews hid
inside the synagogue itself. At 10 p.m. the manhunt was called off, and during the night the detainees
were made to march to the Lososna
train station. On the way there were more
escape attempts. Some were shot to death, but a few dozen did succeed in getting away. The transport left
at 5:40 a.m. and reached Treblinka
at ten minutes past noon. Two days later the manhunt resumed.
On the final day of the Aktion
, on 16 February 1943
, Jewish policemen
went through the streets announcing that anyone caught
outside would be shot, but that no harm would come to those who assembled at the synagogue. This time,
though, scepticism prevailed and no one came forward. That afternoon the Germans released 200 Jews who
were already massed in the synagogue and declared the Aktion
over. Jews emerged from their hiding
places and were greeted by the sight of bodies in the streets.
In the February Aktion
more than 4,000 Jews were sent to
in two transports - 2,500 in the first
and 1,600 in the second - of whom 150 were selected for forced labour. After the two mass "actions", more
than 1,000 Jews still remained in Ghetto I. There was a chronic shortage of food; at the same time,
anyone caught smuggling in food faced certain death.
On 11 March 1943
, tension in the ghetto rose to a fever pitch. The next day
everyone was ordered
into the synagogue. This time, though, the Jews did not believe Wiese
assurances that they were being moved to Bialystok
. Most were certain that
their destination was Treblinka
Nevertheless, they remained quiet, careful not to antagonise their captors. The assembled Jews, 1,148 people,
were force-marched from the synagogue to the train station and crammed into freight cars, about 110 to each car.
When the train arrived at Bialystok
, the railway cars were opened. The Jews
were marched to the ghetto; only now did
they believe that their destination was the Bialystok
ghetto and not an
On 13 March 1943
, posters were put up on the city’s streets announcing
that Grodno was judenrein
. On 14 July 1944
, the Red Army liberated Grodno.
Some forty to fifty Jews who had been in hiding in the city and its environs emerged. By the
end of 1995
, some 1,000 Jews remained in Grodno (out of a population
of more than 250,000). Of them only five were former Grodno residents who survived the Holocaust,
returned to their native town, and chose to remain.
Given the circumstances, there was a high level of resistance in the Bialystok
district. Groups of partisans, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were active throughout the region. But one desperate
act of resistance by Jews from Grodno is particularly noteworthy.
One evening in the second week of December 1942
, a transport of about 2,000 Jews
was brought to
and included people
from Grodno and the surrounding area. When the transport
entered the camp, most of the prisoners had already been locked in their barracks. The deportees were
brought to the transport yard and were ordered to undress and go to the "baths" / "showers". Some
obeyed the order and were taken through the "tube" to the gas chambers. Amongst the last who remained in
the transport yard and who had not yet undressed were a few dozen youths. They quickly realised the
truth about where they were and the purpose Treblinka
served. Some of them
began calling out not to listen to the Germans and not to undress. A great riot broke out.
The Germans opened fire on the crowd. Suddenly there was an explosion. One of the young Jews had hidden
a grenade and had thrown it in the direction of the shooting. Dozens of youths who were still in the
transport yard began beating the Ukrainians and Germans with their fists and tried to break through
the fences and escape. Other people from the transport joined them, and many dispersed throughout the
various sections of the camp. Some succeeded in breaking through into the living barracks of the Jewish
prisoners and sought cover. The Germans and Ukrainians recaptured them and returned them to the
extermination area. The rest of the escapees were also caught throughout the camp. Dozens were shot
on the spot as they resisted capture. At the entrance to the gas chambers the people continued to resist
and absolutely refused to enter. The Germans and Ukrainians shot into the corridor where the victims
had gathered. Many were killed and the rest finally forcibly pushed into the gas chambers. The Germans
had learned a valuable lesson from this mass resistance incident, for subsequent transports to
were not received after dark.
Of the four major war criminals who were involved in the annihilation of the Jews of Grodno and its surroundings -
Heinz Errelis, Kurt Wiese, Otto Streblow, and Karl Rinzler
- the first two
were brought to trial. Errelis
’s deputy, Schott
killed himself after the war. Streblow
was apparently killed in action, and
, the sadistic commandant of Kielbasin
camp, disappeared. In 1966-1967
, Germany, together with
and other Gestapo
personnel who had been active in the
area. The court acquitted Errelis
of charges of direct involvement in murder for lack of evidence. He was found guilty only of complicity in the
murder of the Jews of Grodno in Ghetto I and of the Jews in the Bialystok
ghetto, to which he was posted following the liquidation of the Grodno ghettos.
The sentences were handed down in April 1967
received six and a half years in prison and was deprived of German citizenship for five years.
was convicted of murder and complicity in murder and received
seven consecutive life terms.
, the two were also tried in Cologne
together with other war criminals who had been active in Grodno.
Edited from Lost Jewish Worlds: The Communities of Grodno, Lida, Olkieniki, Vishay, published by Yad Vashem.
Sir Martin Gilbert: Atlas of The Holocaust
Yitzhak Arad: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka
Judgement in the Cologne trial of Wiese and Errelis.
© ARC 2005