Będzin – "Jerusalem de'Zaglembie"
By Alter Welner
Będzin, in its name in Polish, is in the south-west of the country and was one of the oldest cities in Poland, established some 800 years ago. It was built to the foot of an ancient fortress made of wood that was meant to protect it from invaders and raids from neighboring countries. King Casimir the Great (1333- 1370) fortified it and built a huge stone fortress to replace the wooden one and granted it special rights that enabled the village to become a city.
The city was badly damaged by the many wars that took place in Poland as well as due to the rebellions against the Prussian and Russian invaders in the 19th century. It did grow and flourish, none the less, due to the coal mines and others that were found in the Zaglemie area.
That's how Będzin became an economical and industrial center.
The first Jews came to Będzin in the 13th century and worked in agriculture and micro-trading. The Jewish community was established there in the 14th century thanks to Casimir the Great who granted them special rights that enabled them to settle in the city and other neighboring villages in the area: Olkusz, Wolbrom and others. Będzin became a drawing well for merchants who made economical connections with German Upper Silesia, as documents from that period show.
A cemetery, a place of Torah studies – Beit Midrash – and a synagogue were built in the 15th century. The city belonged with the "Council of Four Lands" (Va'ad Arba' Aratzot) as part of the Kraków - Sandomierz country, where its representatives were present. In 1616 its representative was Shmuel (Smolowicz?). Despite the Council's authority over Jewish issues there were cases when Będzin courageously rebelled against its resolutions where they thought they were unjust.
Jews from Będzin showed Polish patriotism especially during the Kościuszko Uprising (1794) against the Russian conquer. The great Polish hero's sympathy towards Jews was common knowledge and many among his friends were Jews. He asked for volunteers and money donations for his army and Będzin Jews, after Kraków, were the first to respond to his plea. Rabi Natan Majtlis from Będzin organized the propaganda for Jews to enlist into the regiments of Kościuszko's Uprising and many Jews joined in. We have no way of knowing whether the Rabi was the Hassidic Leader or the Rabi but he certainly was a miraculous figure. He was more than a hundred years old when he died and as token of appreciation for his activities in favor of Poland his headstone was engraved with the emblem of the national Eagle. He was buried in the cemetery on Podzamczu Street.
Jews were a majority in the city in the second half of the 19th century holding stores, various businesses among them butcher shops, pubs and bars. The 1920s and 30s were years of prosperity for the city Jews in all social, economical' political and religious areas of life. There were about 30,000 Jews in the city by the end of that period, most of who dealt with commerce, crafts and mainly small industries. Along with the economical prosperity came the building of organizations and economical and commercial institutions, laborers' and merchants' unions. A few parties and movements from all walks of life – Mizrachi and Young Mizrachi (Torah and Work), Agudat Yisrael, General Zionists, Zion's laborers right and left and the Zionist Labor Party "Unification" (HitAchadut), The Bond, the Revisionists and more. Thousands of young people participating in the youth movements were the core of the Jewish underground activity and resistance against the Nazis. The Zionist youth movements and Dror, Gordonia, Hashomer Hatzair, Hashomer Hadati and Hanoar Hazioni especially had preparation farms and Kibuttzim in Będzin and its surrounding area (Sławków), where hundreds of pioneers intending to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael went through a training period to prepare them for working and building in Eretz Yisrael. People from these training groups build and assisted in building settlements and kibbutzim like Kfar Etzion, Tirat Zvi, Tel Yitzhak, Mishmar HaSharon and more.
Będzin Jews were among the first pioneers of the Third Aliya who settled in kibbutzim like Degania , Ein Harod and more. On 12 December 1918 a few pioneers from Będzin came to the Jaffa Harbor, some of them took part in the defense of Tel Hai together with Trumpeldor . They took part in the Tower and Stockade settlements in the late 1930s, like Hanita and others. Zaglembie Jews, including those from Będzin were among the fallen in the Wars of Israel.
Community life in Będzin, between the two World wars, was rich in religious, public and cultural activities. Thousands Hasidim studied and prayed in Sztiblech and Study Colleges. The city had a magnificent Synagogue, which the Germans burnt with the tens of people praying in it as soon as they invaded the city. Thousands of Jewish pupils attended Jewish Elementary Schools, among them a Gymnasium (Secondary school) that was built by the famous Jewish industrialist: Szymon Fṻrstenberg. Jewish school age children also attended The Mizrach School, Yesodi Hatorah (The Basics of Torah) Talmud- Torah of Agudat Yisrael, Tarbut (Culture) and others. Active as well were sports clubs of Hacoach (The Strength) and Maccabbi . There was also a Jewish Press coming out in Będzin, among its most prominent was "Zaglembie Zeitung".
The city was known as a cradle of scholars who were famous throughout Poland and the diaspora like Rabi Issachar Dov Graubard, who wrote the response "Issachar's Word", the Hassidic leader Rabi Awraham Borensztain, who established the Sochaczew Hassidim's Court. He was known for his composition:"The Crown Stones" and "Dew Drops", the Gaon (title given to heads of talmudic academies in Babylon from 6th to 11th centuries) Rabi Zvi (Hirsz) Frumer, Rabi Zvi (Hirsz) Chanoch Levin, father of Rabi Yitzhak-Meir Levin – who was leader of Agugat Yisrael Political party and the first Minister of Welfare in the Israeli Government. (30 January 1893 – 7 August 1971).
In times of Holocaust and Command
Będzin was conquered during the first days of the German invasion of Poland on 4 September 1939. The Jews in the city, similarly to the Jews in the nearby towns, "enjoyed" better conditions than Jews in other Polish counties because the Zaglembie region was annexed to Germany. The first months of the war saw the Jews being burdened by many orders and decrees that included heavy fines of silver and gold, wearing the Yellow Star, limitation to freedom of movement, young Jews being arrested and sent to forced labor camps and the establishment of shops where thousands of Jewish workers were put to work for the benefit of the German war economy.
In May 1942 the situation worsened dramatically and mass annihilation began. The first wave of deportation from Będzin to Auschwitz took Jews who were crippled, sick, old people and heads of large families. From then to July of that year, most of the smaller Jewish communities in the nearby area were wiped out. Considered unproductive by the Germans they were deported to Auschwitz. Young Jews in those communities were sent to forced labor camps and shops in the big cities. The last deportation of "inefficient" Jews took place on 22 June 1942, where the German troopers cruelly handled the deportees. Hundreds were killed in the process itself and thousands, among them many children, were sent to Auschwitz by train. Many jumped from the moving trains trying to free themselves, but they met their death with German machineguns.
In the summer of 1942, Mordechaj Anielewicz (1919 - 8 May 1943) came to Zaglembie from Warsaw and stayed there for two weeks in the course of which and under his influence the first defense group called "To Battle" was established. Additional underground groups were active while confronting the Judenrat (Jewish administrative council in a ghetto), trying various rescue operations and obtaining weapons, all to no avail.
In the beginning of 1943 all Będzin and Sosnowiec Jews left were gathered for the last stage of the "Final Solution" in ghettos in the suburbs of Kamionka and Srodula. They were put in harsh conditions and great. Jews from nearby towns were put there too.
At the end of Shabbat, 31 July 1943, thousand German police officers and soldiers surrounded the two ghettos. The Jews, who had seen deportations before went into hiding in bunkers prepared in advance.
The last blow to the two ghettos landed on 1 August 1943. David Lyor-Lior described the events of that day in his "The City of the Dead":
"At 02:30 in the morning, my neighbor Moshe detected a growing traffic in the Kamionka area. I woke my family up and we went hastily into the bunker, to which the entrance was hidden by a makeshift closet. Air to the bunker was supplied by two thick pipes that led to the garden and were covered by a pile of rocks. We took the little food and water we had. At four a.m. we heard the first shots. Somebody must have tried to break through and escape. While still night the Germans were afraid to enter the ghetto and only at dawn did we hear their "Juden rouse" (Jews out) shouts accompanied by gun shots. With hatchets and metal poles the Germans stormed the houses breaking down doors and windows, women, children and beaten men crying reaching the heavens, combined with the noise of breaking glass and German shootings. The pogrom lasted all day."
That day and those that followed, those hiding in the bunker could hear Germans shout at not finding the entrance to the bunker. What they were left with was to steal everything from the apartments. A few days later, when the people in hiding ran out of food and water, they went up to their flats, where they saw the ruin and destruction left by the Germans. Destruction led them to join their thousands fellow Jews who were so cruelly deported to Auschwitz.
2,000 Będzin Jews and 1,800 Sosnowiec were murdered in the process of deportation. Some of them resisted with arms in hand, some were members of the Jewish underground movement established in Będzin and Sosnowiec at the beginning of the German occupation. They were members from: Dror (Freedom), Gordonia, Hashomer Hatzair, Hashomer Hadati and Hanoar Hazioni.
In anticipation of deportations, bunkers were set up with some weapons. In the Hashomer Hatzair, Dror and Gordonia bunkers plans were more daring and consisted of encircling the ghetto with mines to kill the Germans upon entering the ghettos. But these plans never materialized. There were instances of actual sacrifice when Jews stormed German police officers and soldiers with mere sticks, stones and knives but could not battle the outnumbered and well supplied German forces.
On the fourth day of deportation, two Germans in Będzin approached a bunker window where Dror kibbutz members were hiding. One of the members, Baruch Gaftek, who thought they had been uncovered, opened fire on the approaching soldiers and killed them. The Germans started a siege around the house and shelled it heavily. The members in the bunker retaliated with shots but the Germans fire set the windows and floor of the place on fire. People in the bunker continued their resistance and the Germans had to call firemen who flooded the place with water. Then the Germans ordered the Jewish police officers to pull out their Jewish comrades' bodies from the bunker. Frumka Plotnicka was wavering between life and death with a gun still in her hands, tried to get up and say something but the German trampled her with his boot.
David Lyor-Lior shared that the Germans were afraid to come near the bunkers."It seems the bunkers were costing them many lives. But we did not have weapons other than a few pistols. The Poles did not help us, for which we will never forgive them. Had we had more weapons at the time the resistance would have been far harsher in facing the German bitter enemy. Still, regretfully, we do not have details about resistance and self sacrifice for the dead have taken their bravery and despair with them. "
Annihilating the Kamionka and Srodula ghettos lasted ten days until 10 August, the ninth of Av 1943. Hunting down the last hiding Jews took another two weeks and a half, far beyond the Germans' original plan for the Germans had a difficult time finding the bunkers. They detected new bunkers daily until they found the last one and killed the Jews hiding there.
The Germans left small groups of young Jews to clean the ghettos and gather the many dead who were murdered during the deportation.
On the Ninth of Av, the day Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, the Będzin Jewish community, Jerusalem De Zaglembie ceased to exist.
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