by Emilia Wanatowicz and Stanisław Wanatowicz
Mielec, February 2002
We can assume that the first connections of Jews with the Mielec powiat date back to the 14th century. At that time, Pełka, the illegitimate son of Kazimierz Wielki and Esther, a Jew from Opoczno, became the owner of Rzochów. It is worth mentioning that although Esther’s sons were brought up in the Catholic faith, and the daughters in their mother’s faith, according to Israeli customs, all children born of a Jewish mother, regardless of the father’s nationality, are Jews.
In 1573, a Jewish couple, Israel and Barbara, already lived in Mielec. For a long time, the Mielec commune did not have independence, but it was the so-called the kehilla of the Opatów kehilla. A rabbi resided in Opatów, and the dead had to be transported to the local Jewish cemetery. In 1662, a census of the population of the Kingdom of Poland was carried out for tax purposes. It covered all men over the age of 10, except for the elderly and beggars. There were 491 such citizens in Mielec, including 20 Jews. At the same time, 12 Israelites were recorded in Rzochów, out of 215 all inhabitants of the town.
The fall of towns in the first half of the 18th century as a result of wars, fires and epidemics made the Jewish element in Mielec more and more desired by the town owners. When a certain Israel Mendel, having married the daughter of a local root farmer, showed a desire to settle in Mielec, Zbigniew Jerzy Ossoliński released him with his wife and children from the pot tax “as long as they could build themselves up”.
The more and more numerous and wealthier Jewish community in Mielec emphasized its independence from the Opatów kehilla more and more. The construction of a synagogue was the seal of the emancipation process. For this purpose, the Jews of Mielec borrowed in 1715 from Fr. Sebastian Głębocki – pastor of St. Mateusz – for the amount of PLN 300.
The eighteenth century was the time when various Jewish prophets and “messiahs” appeared, especially on the frontiers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These speeches were initiated in Turkey by Saba Taj Cwi, who in 1666 proclaimed himself the Messiah, but eventually converted to Islam. The fate of Jacob Leibowitz Rank from Korolówka was similar. The latter, in turn, ended his activity by being baptized in Lviv. There were also others: Joel Balsam from Chełm, Juda Chasid from Siedlce, Moses from Wodzisław, Moses from Ulanów and many, many others who, although they persevered in their faith to the end, never gained so many disciples from Sabataj and Rank. It was Israel Baal Shem Tov, who in 1736 began to travel around the towns and villages of Podolia, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind and drove dybyks away, created the foundations of the movement called Hasidism. Israel preached that God should be praised primarily through outward joy and dancing. The mainstay of the world was to be tzaddiks, righteous men – miracle workers who ensured the connection between the creator and the people. From then on, Hasidism, the center of which until 1942 was Poland, became the most popular movement among Jews. The most famous figures of the Hasidic movement associated with Mi Decek were David Magid HaCohen from Radomyśl and the rabbi of Mielec Jacob Ropszycer (Yaakov Yekl b’Naftali Zvi Horowitz Rubin). The latter was the son of one of the most famous tzaddiks – Naftali from Ropczyce, and his descendants, who took the surname Horowitz, traditionally held the functions of rabbis in Mielec. Jacob Ropszycer even received the nickname “Little Baal-Shem-Tov” from his contemporaries.
In 1720, there was an Orthodox religious school in Mielec, i.e. a cheder, managed by a spinster. In 1799 Beila – David Królik’s widow – founded a new brick school. At the same time, she allocated 100 florins for the maintenance of the new school, and 5 florins for the old school. At the end of the nineteenth century, a wealthy ‘Jewish philanthropist – Moses Hirsch – founded in Mielec at today’s ul. Mickiewicza 37, school booths for Jewish children (one of 35 in Galicia). However, due to the lack of interest in the new school, it was soon leased to the town hall for a girls’ school.
In 1799, as many as 1008 Jews lived in Mielec, of which they constituted 34% of the total population, in Radomyśl there were 347 (29%), Przecław 61 (6%), and in Rzochów in 1807 – 44 (9%).
Over the centuries, the relations between the Polish bourgeoisie and the Jews were generally good. The inhabitants of Mielec and the Jews defended the town during the uprising in 1846. The Christian and Jewish community jointly financed the hospital of the Pinkas Krantz foundation. The allowances for the poorest Catholics and Jews were divided equally. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the common funds were used to regulate the Wisłoka River and set up a city park. Even the parish priest of St. Mateusz took Hebrew lessons from a local rabbi in the 1920s. An interesting example of friendship between the representatives of these two nations is described by Władysław Szafer in “Memoirs of a Naturalist”. Well, when in September 1914 richer Jewish families left the city before the so-called “And the Russian invasion”, the merchant Leser Salpeter put at the disposal of the Schaffer family the last vehicle he had captured, which was to take him to Dębica, from where he could still evacuate to the west. The horses returned for Salpeter, but Mielec was already occupied by the Cossacks. Salpeter, who, like Schaffer, belonged to the Civic Committee of Piłsudski’s Legions, was immediately arrested and deported deep into Russia, from where he did not return until 1918.
One of the most serious disputes was the wearing of skullcaps by Jewish boys. The poviat doctor, under the guise of taking care of hygiene, ordered the headgear to be removed and the sidelocks cut off, which led to a sharp conflict in the city. Another crisis was caused by the order issued by the rabbi of Mielec to boycott Christian doctors by the Jewish population. The boycott, however, was not very strictly followed by the Jews, who approached the best physician in the city, Apolinary Frank – a Catholic.
The peasants’ attitude towards Jews was much worse, starting from the mid-nineteenth century. The leaders of the Peasants’ Party had a large share in it: the ex-Jesuit, Fr. Stojałowski and the Potoczków brothers. Anti-Jewish riots started by peasants coming to the market. They took place for the first time in Mielec in 1872. In 1895, the municipal police turned out to be too small to stop the crowds plundering the shops, and it was necessary to bring in an army unit. The most numerous anti-Jewish riots took place in the years 1918-1919 in the so-called Republic of Tarnobrzeg. On November 4, 1918, the rural population in Mielec attacked Jewish shops. The military garrison stationed in the city did not intervene. The crowd was pacified only by a unit of 50 soldiers called from Dębica. One of the city policemen was killed during the intervention. Three days later, riots broke out again, during which 18 stores in the Market Square were destroyed. These events forced the former mayor of Pawlikowski to resign from his office.
In the interwar period, the religious community in Mielec was chaired by Chaim Friedman, an orthodox man. The intelligentsia included mainly doctors (Solomon Kaufman, Oscar Donner, Emil Chortkover and Obrowitz) and lawyers (Eisenberg, Salpeter, Tafler, Fink, Neustein, Atlas). The youth were grouped around various Jewish political organizations. The progressive ones congregated in Hashomer Hatzair and Beitar, and the pious ones in B’nei Akiba. The “Makkabi” sports club, managed by youth named Zaiden and Mechlowitz, played the role of a cultural center. There, performances and social meetings were organized. Football matches took place at ul. Wolności (at the current location of Hala Targowa) where they played matches with other Jewish and Christian clubs.
In September 1939, the German army entered Mielec on the eve of the Jewish New Year. On that day, many pious Jews prayed in the synagogue, others took a ritual bath, and still others waited with poultry in the line to the kosher butcher. The Germans chased up to 50-70 people from the synagogue, bolted the windows and doors and started shooting at the prisoners. Then they poured gasoline over the synagogue, two houses of prayer and a slaughterhouse and set fire to it. Only 1 person survived the slaughterhouse.
The first crime of genocide on such a large scale was widely publicized throughout the country. Emanuel Ringelblum in the Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto wrote: “Mielec: On the eve of Rosh Hashanah [the Germans] entered the slaughterhouse, burned the kosher butchers, raped the women, and then set them on fire.” The Jewish community in Mielec was overcome with terror. For the next 10 days, no one dared to go out on the street. September 23 was Yom Kippur (Judgment Day). Candles were lit in Jewish houses, but soon they were put out, as the Germans, noticing the lights, burst into flats, beat the men and took them to public works. In the following days, pious Jews caught in the streets of Mielec had their beards cut, often with a piece of their body. That is why some of them stopped going out into the street, others tied their faces with rags under the guise of toothache.
In November, the Germans announced the first list of hostages in Mielec: the merchant Isaac Freiberg, the watchmaker Fishel Tulper and Isaac Zuckerbrot, the owner of a flour mill. Pursuant to the order of the head of the Main Reich Security Office of November 28, 1939, the creation of Judenrats began in the occupied territories. A Jewish lawyer named Fink became the chairman of the 12-member Judenrat in Mielec, along with a merchant named Reuven Kurtz, a shoemaker named Kaplan, a man named Freiberg, and another Jewish lawyer Tafler.
In Radomyśl Wielki, the Judenrat was established only on January 25, 1940. Initially, there was a shortage of people willing to work there. Finally, the management board was completed, including: Jeremiah Leibowitz – chairman, Anshel Tenenbaum, Meilech Amsterdam, Berish Aisland and Meilech Gross.
The extermination of the Jews of Mielec came unexpectedly. In the first weeks of 1942, at the Reich Main Security Office, a decision was made on the final solution and the Jewish question (“Endlösung”). As a result of this action, only Jews fit for work, grouped in closed camps, were to remain alive. The rest of the population was sentenced to death. The first town in the General Government free of Jews (“Judenfrei”) was to become Mielec. Until the last days before the deportation, the Jewish community did not expect the tragedy that struck them on March 9, 1942. A few days before the planned operation, the Germans spread a rumor about the imminent deportation. However, it was promised to leave the community alone, in return for making a large contribution. In this way, the Germans tried out the later method of extracting valuables hidden by Jews.
On March 8, the Judenrat paid the collected ransom, but nevertheless many Jews, sensing the threat, prepared hiding places in their own homes, tried to find shelter with Christians they knew, or left the city. On March 9, in the early morning hours, Mielec was surrounded by SS troops. Residents of Jewish ethnicity were given half an hour to pack the most necessary items and leave their apartments.
All the displaced persons were driven towards the Rynek, where the preliminary selection took place. Young, hard-working men were sent to the camp in Pustków. About eighty of them were transported to the premises of Heinkel’s plant in Cyranka, where, together with a group of 170 Jews who came from Wielopole, they formed the nucleus of a labor camp created here. The seriously ill and visibly disabled were shot on the spot or selected from the marching columns directed to the airport. They were then imprisoned in a barrack in Berdechów and shot at night on a sandy hill in Borek. In total, on the first day of extermination, the Nazis murdered at least 300 people. The remaining Jews were gathered in hangars at the airport, where they stayed without food supplies for 4 days. In the city, for the benefit of the Christian population, the authorities posted advertisements signed by Kreishauptmann Schluter, informing that the Jewish population had to leave their homes due to lack of space and the threat of death for an attempted robbery of Jewish property.
From March 13, the Jews who had been imprisoned in the hangars were directed by trains to Bełz, Biała Podlaska, Dubienka, Krasnystaw, Międzyrzecz, Parczew and Włodawa. The removal operation lasted about 5 days.
After the deportations of the Jews from Mielec and Radomyśl Wielki, four labor camps located in Biesiadka, Dębiaki, Cyranka and Mielec became the only “legal” place of stay of Jews in the Mielec powiat. The largest of them was the Mielec camp, which could accommodate up to 3,000 prisoners at a time. It was built in February or March 1942. It was located on the premises of the “Heinkel” aviation plant, where the Germans surrounded the 1 hectare area with barbed wire and built several wooden barracks.
The number of Jews from Mielec who managed to survive the war in labor and concentration camps can be estimated at about 100 people. An even smaller number (30-40 Jews) survived in hiding. A few Jews hid in Chorzelów, Chrząstów, Pień, Zdziarc, and also in the regions of Połaniec. At least one person was hiding for a long time in Mielec, and two Jewish women survived in other cities thanks to “Aryan papers”.
Liberation from Nazi occupation did not always mean the end of persecution for Jews. Many of them still died at the hands of blackmailers, who were afraid of punishment, or Christians whom they had entrusted with their deposits before deportations. In Mielec, in August 1944, a woman named Brenner was murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Many of the survivors returned to Mielec after the cessation of hostilities. The most extensive list compiled by the Jewish Community had 183 names. On August 15, 1945, the number of Jews in Mielec decreased to 106. Certain merit in this was borne by a man named Feuer who, using his connections with the UB, offered unknown Jewish women who declared themselves the only heirs of the deceased owners of tenement houses, and then sold the houses to Catholics before their real owners returned.
According to the records kept by the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, in 1946 there were still 25 Jews living in Mielec, and two years later their number dropped to 20 Jews from Radomyśl who returned to their homes stayed in the city for a few days at the most, and then moved to larger Jewish communities.