Four 17-year-old girls from Białystok, participating in a history competition organised by the Stefan-Bathory-Foundation and the Karta Centre under the title "The Most Important Event in the History of my Home Town. Witnesses and Testimonies", decided to reconstruct the history of the Białystok Jewish ghetto from July 1941 to August 1943. They found two contemporary witnesses who helped them in their search for traces and wrote down the reports of their experiences.
History of the Town in the Second World War
During the Second World War, Białystok changed occupation several times. On 15 September 1939 it was occupied by the Germans, but due to the secret Hitler-Stalin Pact and the German-Soviet Boundaries and Friendship Treaty it came under Soviet rule a few days later. When the treaty between the two powers, who had attacked Poland together, was broken and the German-Soviet war began on 22 June 1941, the town came under German occupation again. Later – in July 1944 – it was liberated by the Red Army which subsequently set up an NKVD-regime (NKVD = "People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs").
Each of these events was disastrous for the history of the town and its inhabitants. However, the greatest disaster was the Holocaust. Within a period of two years – from setting up the ghetto to its total destruction, but in actual fact within a few weeks due to so-called operations – 50,000 Jewish men, women and children from Białystok lost their lives.
Although many traces of these events remain in Białystok, the authors of the project - Katarzyna Czyżewska, Marta Jasińska, Anna Korniluk and Urszula Szałatowicz - had to realise with bitterness, that in a town where once fifty percent of the population had been Jews, they could find only two Jewish persons who had been eye witnesses of the disaster.
When we were looking for Białystok Jews who had been witnesses of the Holocaust, we met with great difficulties because we were ... not taken seriously. Finally, a professor at the University of Białystok told us about Jews still living in the town. Unfortunately, there were only two. One of them did not want to speak about the past with anybody. The other person, Szymon Bartnowski, agreed to meet us. Maybe he agreed because he is a representative of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation which looks after the execution sites and the synagogues and tries to make Jewish culture better known in Poland.
Meeting with Szymon Bartnowski
Szymon Bartnowski (see picture no. 1) was in the Białystok ghetto from the beginning, that is from when it was set up in July 1941 to February 1943 when he managed to flee and join the partisans after a couple of failed attempts of a group of young Jewish men and women to put up armed resistance. Shortly afterwards he was admitted to the hospital at Próżany because of typhus. There he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. He was then 16 years old and remained there for three and a half years. He was working as a stove builder – "for normal household stoves, not for crematorium incinerators", as he stressed. When the camp was liberated, he moved to Berlin with the Red Army. He had to go through a lot of hardship until he finally returned to Białystok in 1946.
Mr Bartnowski talked in detail about the history of the Białystok Jews following the German invasion of June 1941. He talked about people being hunted, cruel murders and attempts to put up armed resistance. He also included events that happened after his flight: the dissolution of the ghetto in August 1943 and the armed resistance that took place at the same time (see document no. 1).
Meeting with Jerzy Koszewski
The next interview partner met by the authors was Jerzy Koszewski (see picture no. 2) who had been living on the so-called Aryan side of Białystok, in the vicinity of the ghetto. As a teenager, he had witnessed the drastic scenes going on there several times; he also saw how the ghetto was finally "dissolved". Mr. Koszewski talked about things he had seen himself and which had been deeply engraved in his memory; he described the inferno of the deported Jews in detail (see document no. 2).
It was his proposal to guide the authors through the grounds of the former ghetto and show them the places where the disaster had taken place 50 years ago. Almost every street here was connected to the dreadful events. Mr. Koszewski pointed out the respective commemoration plaques and memorials.
Among those was the memorial for the Jews who were burned alive in the Great Synagogue. Only the roof construction has remained of the Great Synagogue; today it has become a kind of memorial (see picture no. 3,4). The authors also visited the place where ghetto fighter Icchok Malmed died and the place where the building of the Jewish Council had been; they learned where the borders of the ghetto and the main gate had been (see picture no. 5). Mr. Koszewski also showed them the house where the last Jewish rebels had defended themselves. Sometimes he pointed out incorrect inscriptions, rounded figures or incorrect dates on the plaques and memorials.
The authors also followed the path the Jews had been driven along in columns by the Germans when they were deported in August 1943 (see picture no. 6) - this had been their "last walk". They also came to the field where the Jewish inhabitants of Białystok had been camping in the August summer heat for days, waiting for the train to Treblinka. The road they followed has a different name now, and an electrical power station has been built on the field. There are only few witnesses left who – like Mr. Koszewski – cannot forget.