In the 19th century, Bełchatów was a private property of the Kaczkowski family. It was one of the 246 towns where Jews could settle without any limitations. The town's owners believed that Jewish inhabitants would positively influence the local economy. In order to develop Bełchatów's industry and trade sectors, the Kaczkowski family invited a group of wealthy Jews to live in the town and provided them with construction sites, a cemetery, and a prayer house[1.1].
In 1809, 11% of the town's population was Jewish. Just 11 years later, in 1820, this percentage rose to 45% and in 1864, Jews constituted 80% of the town's population. At first, their only occupation was trade. During the times of the Duchy of Warsaw, however, Jews were prompted to work in the production sector. The first Jewish cloth manufacturers were employed in Leon Kaczkowski's workshop[1.2]. Some Jews of Bełchatów worked as merchants, while others owned yarn warehouses. The biggest warehouses were owned by Jews named Birnbaum and Warszawski[1.3].
Jews also worked in their own weaving mills. In 1867, 13 out of the 16 small weaving workshops in Bełchatów were owned by Jewish people. In total, they employed 95 workers. Another Jewish-owned business operating in Bełchatów at the time was the cloth workshop owned by Mendel Tusk and Lajzer Warszawski (who also ran a steam sawmill). Chaim Tusk, meanwhile, was the proprietor of a big cloth shop and a cloth production plant. In 1899, his business employed between 35 and 70 workers, depending largely on the season.
In the years directly preceding the Second World War, a number of new factories were opened in Bełchatów. Among these factories were a plant owned by Zysla Działowska, which used power-looms and employed 32 workers, and Daniel Baran's weaving plant, which had 31 power-looms and 31 employees. Among other Jewish factory owners were: Daniel Frej, the Epsztajn brothers, Rozencwajg & Co., and Szaul Berger. The cloth factory owned by Perec Frajtag, with approximately 200 employees, was one of the biggest businesses operating in Bełchatów at the time[1.4].
Cottage industry started to develop in Bełchatów independently from the factory system. In the interwar period, among the businessmen operating in the town were: Moszek and Jakub Kluga, and Abram Godsztajn[1.5].
At the same time, Jews constituted the majority of Bełchatów's poorest inhabitants. This stemmed mainly from the fact that, in total, over 80% of the town's population was Jewish.
Up until 1820, the Jewish community of Bełchatów was managed by the Jewish Community Co-operative in PiotrkówTrybunalski. Apart from Bełchatów itself, the Co-operative of PiotrkówTrybunalski also comprised several other smaller towns and villages, for example Grocholice. In 1824, the Jewish Religious Community of Bełchatów owned a cemetery and a synagogue. Even though some attempts were made to renovate the decrepit synagogue building, it eventually completely fell into ruin (in 1897). At the beginning of the 20th century, a new, brick synagogue was built[1.1.4].
Some of the most notable rabbis of Bełchatów who worked between the 19th and the 20th centuries were: Mosze Bressler, Mosze Birenboim, SzmulSzlomo Braun, and Semach Dawid Tornheim. The last rabbi of Bełchatów was Szmuel Jehoszua Horowicz, who originated from the Hasidic dynasty of Ger (Góra Kalwaria).
A number of Jewish political parties were active in Bełchatów at the time: Agudat Israel, the Bund, the Mizrachi, Poale Zion and Hitachdut. Thanks to the political activity of Jews living in Bełchatów, many of the community's representatives were chosen to serve in the local municipal government. In 1925, Jews won 13 out of 24 seats. Two years later, in 1927, seven Jewish politicians were elected to the Municipal Council: two Bund members, one Zionist, two representatives of merchants, and two representatives of workers[1.6].
In September 1939, once the German forces entered Bełchatów, the Jewish population of the town started to be terrorized by their occupiers. Jews were forced to run errands for German soldiers and young Jewish girls were brutally raped[1.7]. Wachtmeister Miller ordered a group of Jews to strip down and collect animal feces, using their hats and pockets, from the streets of Bełchatów. The new deputy mayor, Otto Frey, was the mastermind behind the pillages of Jewish households. German women living in Bełchatów and the local Volksdeutsche were assigned Jewish houses that they could legally loot. At the same time, from the moment Bełchatów was taken by the German army, Jews were banned from any trade or craft-related activities[1.8].
Few Jews managed to leave Bełchatów before the Germans reached the town. Perec Frajtag and Zalma Pudłowski migrated to the USA. Some Jews, mostly young people, fled to the area controlled by the Red Army[1.9].
During the German occupation, the Jewish Council of Elders was presided over by Abraham Ehrlich, who was a clerk in the Jewish Bank. The situation for the Jewish people in Bełchatów became worse when a man named Tralmer became the mayor. He started to collect taxes that had not been payed by factory owners before the outbreak of the Second World War. He made the Council of Elders responsible for paying the debt. He also made significant changes to the composition of the Council of Elders. He removed the following members: Szmul and Machel Jakubowicz, Abraham Ahrlich, Jojna Lieberman, and Binem Hendeles. Moreover, the Council had to meet various new requirements. In 1940, it was made responsible for providing the 131th Police Battalion with mattresses. In 1941, they had to donate furniture to the Hitler Youth.
Germans burned down the synagogue and all of the holy scriptures kept inside. Jews were forced to watch and, at times, made to participate in setting fire to various religious objects[1.10].
On 1 March 1941, a Jewish ghetto was created in Bełchatów. It was located between the following streets: Fabryczna, Pabianicka, Sienkiewicza (formerly called Ogrodowa), and Narutowicza Square[1.11]. The inhabitants of the ghetto were not allowed to walk outdoors after specific hours and they could only use one side of the street. There was no wall built around the ghetto, however, which allowed various groups of Jews and Poles to smuggle food and other goods into the ghetto. The area was severely overcrowded, especially in 1941, when refugees from the villages and towns surrounding Bełchatów arrived in the ghetto. Among them were the inhabitants of villages such as Kleszczów, Wodzierady, Przyrownica, Dobrzelów, Bełchatówek, Chabielica. People from bigger towns, for example Grocholice, Szczerców, Widawa, and Zelów also arrived at that time. Additionally, some of the houses in the ghetto were destroyed during the September Campaign. Seeing that a number of wells were demolished, access to potable water was severely limited[1.12]. Due to poor sanitary conditions in the ghetto, an epidemic of typhus soon broke out amongst the Jews. Only three doctors were assigned to work in the ghetto; two of them, Dr. Basier and Dr. Tifenberg, were from Warsaw, while the third, Dr. Hart, came from Włodzimierz. All of them were brought to Bełchatów because the doctors who had been working there before the war, fled from the town in the first days of WWII[1.13].
In 1940, some Jews were employed in the sewing workshop which was established in the factory owned by the Frejtag brothers. Others obtained a permit to keep their own home workshops. According to the data from 13 December 1940, 182 Jews worked in sewing workshops, 50 on road construction sites, and 35 worked elsewhere. It was very important for Jews to find employment, since those who worked were paid and given food rations, which were later distributed among all members of the Jewish community.
Even though some Jews were able to find work, the living conditions in the ghetto were constantly deteriorating. Eventually, the Judenrat opened three soup kitchens for the poorest of the inhabitants. In total, the Judenrat distributed over 1200 meals every day[1.1.9]. The President of the Judenrat, Ehrlich, sent an official petition to the authorities, asking for bigger coal rations for the soup kitchens. As a consequence of his request, he was removed from his position and hanged.
In August 1941, Dr. Miller, an official of the German occupational authorities, wrote to all divisions under his supervision and asked them to provide him with addresses of all the disabled and mentally ill inhabitants of Bełchatów. The German mayor of the town, Tramler, responded with a list of 18 people, which included a number of people who were healthy, but considered “inconvenient,” such as Szymon Goldberg, Sura Krzepicka, Szlama Warszawski, Izrael Przybylski, Chaskiel Baum, Estera Szmulewicz, and Beniamin Klug.
On 20 August 1941, all Jews, except for those working in the sewing workshop, were brought to the courtyard of the Klug factory. The aim was to select the strongest people and send them to a labour camp. 250 men were immediately transferred to Poznań and some 450 were sent there three weeks later. Due to this, the number of Jewish inhabitants of Bełchatów decreased to about 5,000. Due to abysmal working conditions in the camp, very few of those men returned to Bełchatów[1.1.6].
In the first half of 1942, Tramler opened a sewing and leather-stitching workshop, which produced clothes and felt shoes for German soldiers fighting on the Eastern Front. The Germans arrested 16 Jews and planned to hang 10 of them. The Council of Elders started to negotiate with them and managed to save Szmul Jakubowicz, Berl Rubensztajn, Majer Czechowski, Flakowicz, Szlejm Szmulewicz and Mojsze Klug by paying 15,000 marks, 16 kg of silver, and 1 kg of gold[1.14]. On 18 March 1942, the rest of the arrested were hanged: Rachmit Baum (a weaver), Jankiel Ehrlich (an accountant), Mendel Feld (an industrialist), Idel Lajzerowicz (a butcher), Lajbuś Landau (a weaver), Lajbo Pelcman (a butcher), Chaim Sapiro (an industrialist), Mosze Taube (a fisherman), and Mosze Wolfowicz (a butcher)[1.15].
Eventually, the Germans decided to liquidate the ghetto. Bogdański, the president of the Judenrat after Ehrlich, was sent to the Radogoszcz prison. He was succeeded by Tobolewicz, who was the last president of the Judenrat in the Bełchatów Ghetto. On 11 August 1942, numerous sewing machines, which had been operated by 852 workers, were transported out of the ghetto. 79 machines were sent to the Łódź Ghetto on 15 August. In the following days, the entire Jewish population was transported in trucks to the extermination camp in Chełmno (Ger. Kulmhof). It took three days to reach the camp, during which the victims were not given anything to eat or drink. Between 150 and 200 people remained in the ghetto and were forced to help Germans collect any valuable objects. About 400 people who had been part of the Bełchatów community before the war survived the horrors of WWII[1.16].
- Belchatow, in: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Volume I (Poland). Pinkas Hakehillot Polin, Jerusalem 1976, pp. 70–77.
Bełchatów, in: The Encyclopedia of Jewish life before and during the Holocaust, red. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, vol. I, New York 2001, pp. 102–103.
- Bełchatów, in: The YadVashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust, red. G. Miron, Sh. Shulani, vol. I, Jerusalem 2009, pp. 31–34.
Feinkind M., Dzieje Żydów w Piotrkowie i okolicy od najdawniejszych czasów do chwili obecnej, Piotrków 1930.
Zawilski A., Bełchatów i jego historyczne awanse, Łódź 1967.
- [1.1] Feinkind M., DziejeŻydów w Piotrkowie i okolicy od najdawniejszych czasów do chwili obecnej, Piotrków 1930, p. 84.
- [1.2] Zawilski A., Bełchatów i jego historyczne awanse, Łódź 1967, p. 110.
- [1.3] Zawilski A., Bełchatów i jego historyczne awanse, Łódź 1967, p. 111.
- [1.4] Belchatów, in: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Volume I (Poland). Pinkas Hakehillot Polin, Jerusalem 1976, pp. 70–77.
- [1.5] Baranowski W., Katalog zabytków budownictwa przemysłowego w Polsce, vol. IV, z. 5: powiaty Bełchatów i Łask - województwo łódzkie, Wrocław – Gdańsk 1972, pp. 11–13.
- [1.1.4] Belchatów, in: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Volume I (Poland). Pinkas Hakehillot Polin, Jerusalem 1976, pp. 70–77.
- [1.6] Belkhatow, in: The Encyclopedia of Jewish life before and during the Holocaust, red. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, vol. I, New York 2001, pp. 102–103.
- [1.7] Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego, Relacja Ch. Marczaka, nr 84. [Za:] Zawilski A., Bełchatów i jego historyczne awanse, Łódź 1967, p. 240.
- [1.8] Bełchatów, in: The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust, red. G. Miron, Sh. Shulani, vol. I, Jerusalem 2009, pp. 31–34.
- [1.9] Bełchatów, in: The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust, red. G. Miron, Sh. Shulani, vol. I, Jerusalem 2009, pp. 31–34.
- [1.10] Bełchatów, in: The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust, red. G. Miron, Sh. Shulani, vol. I, Jerusalem 2009, pp. 31–34.
- [1.11] Obozy hitlerowskie na ziemiach polskich 1939–1945. Informator encyklopedyczny, ed. Cz. Pilichowski, Warszawa 1979, p. 9.
- [1.12] Belchatów, in: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Volume I (Poland). Pinkas hakehillot polin, Jerusalem 1976, pp. 70–77.
- [1.13] Bełchatów, in: The YadVashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust, red. G. Miron, Sh. Shulani, vol. I, Jerusalem 2009, pp. 31–34.
- [1.1.9] Bełchatów, in: The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust, red. G. Miron, Sh. Shulani, vol. I, Jerusalem 2009, pp. 31–34.
- [1.1.6] Belkhatow, in: The Encyclopedia of Jewish life before and during the Holocaust, red. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, vol. I, New York 2001, pp. 102–103.
- [1.14] Zawilski A., Bełchatów i jego historyczne awanse, Łódź 1967, p. 251.
- [1.15] Belchatów, in: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Volume I (Poland). Pinkas hakehilot polin, Jerusalem 1976, pp. 70–77.
- [1.16] Bełchatów, in: The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust, ed. G. Miron, Sh. Shulani, vol. I, Jerusalem 2009, pp. 31–34.