Above, Letter, Kurt Bloch, November 1942. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
Today, Chrzanów is a small town in southern Poland of around forty thousand inhabitants. In 1931, the population was around eighteen thousand (source: 1931 census); by 1939, there were approximately twenty-two thousand people living in Chrzanów. At the outbreak of war, then, it was around half the size it is today in terms of population.
Letter from Kurt Krenau, 28th November 1942 "Krenau lies between the route to Kattowitz in the centre towards Krakau. Before the war it was called Chrzanów and was part of Poland; before the First World War it was part of Austria, Galicia. It is now about 30,000 inhabitants."
Chrzanów / Krenau 2016: a park next to the museum. Photograph, C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained
Refugees to Chrzanów
Chrzanów had long had its own population of mainly Chassidic Jews, but during 1938, according to witness testimony, many more Jews started to arrive in Chrzanów from across Germany – a refugee movement that included Kurt Bloch and his family.
Helen Sendyk’s End of Days (1992), for example, documents the arrival of her great-aunt’s daughter and son-in-law from Berlin. From being comfortably off, living in their own home, they were forced to flee the German capital for their parents’ small home in Poland. They arrived in Chrzanów with their two children, exhausted and with no money. They had only been given a short time in which to pack a few things and everything else had to be left to German looters.
Similar to the fate of many hundreds of thousands of Jews over the coming months and years, Sendyk’s refugee relatives crowded into their parents’ home in Chrzanów, having been stripped of everything they had worked hard for. The children were especially isolated because their mother-tongue was German and they were now living in Poland, in a town that was itself becoming an increasingly violent place for Jews to live.
Reading uncle’s letters, Kurt Bloch and his wife and children, Ruth and Ilse, experienced a similar set of circumstances in being forced out of their home in Myslowitz, to what was soon to become the Jewish ghetto in Chrzanów.
Letter from Else, Gleiwitz, 6th April 1939 Uncle Kurt has received the news that he has to close his workshop. Aunt Frieda says he has aged tremendously as a result of this in a few days – no wonder. Now he has, through a solicitor, written a declaration addressed to the Minster asking whether he can defer the closure for the time being. There is so much uncertainty.
Chrzanów Jewish cemetery, May 2016. Photograph, C Weissenberg, C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright
By the time war broke out (on 1st September 1939, a Sabbath day) a large number of refugees were entering Chrzanów from across Upper Silesia; at the same time, the Polish local government was evacuated, as were many residents. Countless buildings were left empty for a time. On 4th September Chrzanów was occupied by German soldiers after a brief skirmish with Polish forces, and within two months it was annexed as part of the Third Reich territory: Chrzanów became a county town of Kattowitz.
Helen Sendyk recalls her parents’ worries when others were packing up and leaving. They had a young daughter who had been bed-bound for eight years since contracting polio, which was the main reason most of this particular family had to stay where they were. Some, however, tried to leave by train and got as far as the town of Oświęcim, before it was announced that the train would go no further; others fled by car and cart to Kraków; some, including young Helen and her brother and his family, fled on foot.
When Sendyk and her family arrived in Kraków it was bursting with refugees, and there was already a shortage of housing and food. The authorities were concerned about disease outbreaks, while thousands were still trying to enter the city.
In addition, German soldiers had also arrived in Kraków, and Helen’s family decided to return home to be with the rest of the family; they headed out again, away from the chaos and confusion of the big city. On their return journey, they encountered a man who was collapsing, out of breath, who told them he had been on his way home to Chrzanów when he was captured by Germans and taken to a barn. There were other Jews already there, seated on the ground: “With no explanation whatsoever and with no accusation of any sort, the Germans began shooting them … Only two words accompanied each bullet, ‘Jewish swine'” (Sendyk, p. 65).
As soon as the German forces were embedded in Chrzanów their hatred of its Jewish citizens was felt: according to Sendyk they were soon assisted by the local population. Jews were abducted on the street, randomly arrested and forced to perform hard labour. On the way to the synagogue, even before dawn, they were rounded up and sent to dig trenches or clean the streets. Older Jewish men tried to avoid going out: because many were Chassidim they had distinctive beards and these tended to attract German attention: wielding clubs or whips, soldiers attacked men when they saw these beards, and ripped out their facial hair, leaving their faces torn and bleeding.
In another witness testimony, Alter Wiener documents the changes that took place in Chrzanów, from his father’s murder in November 1939 to his own slave labour and eventual deportation to Waldenburg concentration camp: “From the first day of occupation, we were plagued with numerous decrees, issued by an officer of the occupying forces in our town … most decrees were addressed to the Jewish community. This was the beginning of our ghettoization” (Alter Wiener, From a name to a number, p. 31). He charts arbitrary arrests, punishments, and ever-changing curfews: Jews were forbidden at attend school, to travel, to assemble (which included even walking in pairs or stopping to talk to others on the street), to visit playgrounds, parks, cinemas, theatres, to own warm clothes (which were confiscated and sent to German troops serving on the eastern front), a radio, a car or a motorcycle. They were forbidden to shop in non-Jewish stores, which meant that food supplies became very restricted (see also Sendyk, p. 74).
Letter from Else, Sunday, 7th April, 1940 From the 1st March he was made to give up a quarter of his flat, because the forthcoming sale will take place, it is connected to it. Eight days since the sale, they haven’t found any alternative. I don’t know where they found any place to live. Aunt Freida was to have come here today but she is unable to. Uncle has sold many items. Elle misses school very much.
As the first winter passed, some Jews committed suicide, and some froze or starved to death. Few children were born and fewer survived; those that did survive tended to succumb to disease and illnesses such as rickets – a result of the poor, limited diet.
Letter from Else, Saturday, 6th April 1941 Uncle Kurt, unfortunately, was unable to come because he had a very bad attack of influenza; however, he has recovered quite well. Even Ilse, who was 12 on the 11th, was very ill
As elsewhere, Jews in the town of Chrzanów had to wear an armband bearing the Star of David – failure to do so was punishable by death; they had to remove their hats and bow to any passing German, on pain of severe physical punishment if they failed to do so: “There was no other voice except the brutal German’s voice … I felt like the Germans had constantly been sharpening their knives … We dreaded the days to come” (Wiener, p. 32).
In 1940 the German authorities began moving out Polish families from the better houses, which were handed over fully furnished to German officials, soldiers, police and German settlers. People had three hours to move their households, watched over by German troops stationed front and back of the houses: “The desperate chaos continued as a constant stream of people were thrown into the street, women, children, and elderly” (Sendyk, p.79). In the town, any Polish traces were removed, including signs for public buildings and shops; Polish streets were given German names. By 1941 the town of Chrzanów had been renamed Krenau.
Jewish artefacts, Chrzanow museum, May 2016. Photograph, C Weissenberg, C Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright
Around eight thousand Jewish residents were moved into a ghetto area of Krenau – it was not walled off, but Jews were forbidden from leaving. During the day the Jews of Krenau were forced to work as slave labourers; at night, families feared the bang on the door and the shout to open up: Alter Wiener’s brother was taken away in just such an intrusion in June 1941, never to be seen again. Families who did not give up their able-bodied – which included young teenage boys and girls – were collectively punished.
As German troops passed by Krenau on the way ‘to the East,’ the situation was deteriorating further for Jews across the Third Reich territories. In Krenau in January 1942, all remaining items of warm clothing and jewellery were confiscated by the soldiers – any person found with any such items after a given date would be imprisoned and beaten (Wiener, p.35).
Letter from Kurt Bloch, Krenau ghetto, no date Many thanks for your letter and advice. I don’t think I am allowed to accept it, as it is intended for you. It should be yours later. I have left two articles with the baker Hellmann, which are valuable. My sister knows about it but not whether they are still there. If I am not able to collect these at a later date then they belong to my sister or my son, and then you will be reimbursed. And if this action cannot take place then the goods belong to you. The mutual trust which exists between you and my sister can be ascertained from your correspondence, which I managed to read and I have the same trust in you. If you do not receive any communication from me that the goods have been collected, then you will just have to leave them where they are. Please keep this letter safe. You ask whether I will remain here for the time being. Because I am doing important work I hope that we will be spared from the journey which my sister and mother have had to undertake.
In Krenau, meanwhile, in May 1942, seven Jews were publicly hanged on spurious charges – all Jewish residents were ordered to attend the hanging, which was to take place on Krzyska Street: “All Jews of all ages were to present themselves … everyone’s document would be stamped … anyone later found with an unstamped document would be punished by death” (Sendyk, p. 87). A German policeman drove through the area proclaiming, “Today, seven Jewish criminals will be hung; tomorrow one hundred, and after tomorrow, all the Jewish criminals will be annihilated” (Wiener, p.35). The town’s Jews were forced to stand there until dusk, watching the bodies hang.
German soldiers, civilians and their families, as well as some Polish families, had also come to watch the hanging; according to Wiener’s and Sendyk’s testimonies, they were dressed up as if for a festival. For the hours in which the Jewish residents were forced to watch the orchestrated spectacle of death, they did so alongside the apparent delight of laughing German families and their Polish countrymen who had turned out voluntarily.
Daily life must have been unimaginable – family members were gradually being shipped off to this or that labour camp or extermination camp, or shot or maimed or worked to death in the town itself. Food was in short supply and there was no medical access to speak of. Random searches of houses and other properties were commonplace, while families did their best to hide the sick, the elderly, the young. Children were hidden in attics, cellars, or as Sendyk describes, under “rags and sacks” (p. 92); elderly parents were hidden behind false walls, or in wardrobes.
Letter from Kurt Bloch, Krenau, 28th November 1942 "When after having performed strenuous work and eaten warm thin soup and I lie in bed resting, my thoughts are always with my mother and sister ... Everyone has to work and I gather from your writing that you do not have an easy life, but we lack potatoes which would provide the necessary strength, not to speak of fats. The few potatoes we were provided with for the winter are already used. We can only live from day to day."
By summer 1941 two new plants opened in Krenau – a rubber factory making boots and tires for the war effort, and a garment factory supplying uniforms to the German army. Families sent their young daughters and sons to these punishing factories in the hope that the work would keep them safe from the raids, round-ups and selections.
In June 1941 came the German military push into the USSR, which was also to bring about an acceleration of the actions against Jews that were taking place across the Third Reich territories – actions that would become known as the Final Solution. In Krenau the soldiers’ raids on homes went on day and night – no-one knew when the next one would occur or who would be taken when it did. Sendyk recalls a particular day when they were pushed, kicked and beaten to the marketplace, where “multitudes of people stood … distraught, women clutching the little hands of their painfully apprehensive children. Families huddled together … what did the Germans want this time? Was it young for labor in their concentration camps? Was it the old, the sick, the feeble? … The Germans spread chaos with the barbaric beating of those deemed less human than themselves” (p. 125). She goes on to document a selection that almost had herself, her parents and her frail grandmother deported, as they were separated out from the young adults of the family. On this occasion they were rescued, but not on the next, after which she never saw her parents or grandmother again; while the family were being forcibly rounded up for this particular selection, her sister, at home still, bed-ridden with polio, was also taken away:
“On a fast, efficient German train Mama and Papa had already been shipped away: Symche and Surcia Stapler, decent, quiet, deeply religious people who had worked hard and raised a loving family. My precious parents, who had never asked much … were taken away on that summer day in 1942, taken from all that was dear to them … [T]housands of other Jewish mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, and babies from the town of Chrzanów were taken with them. Their only crime was having been born Jewish” (pp. 133–34).
From 1942 onwards around three thousand Jews who had been living in the town were gradually sent to surrounding labour camps. On 18th February 1943 Krenau town was sealed off and the approximately four thousand remaining Jews were forced into the marketplace for transportation and ‘resettlement’.
Krenau was then declared judenfrei.
From numbers to names
We drove past Chrzanów on our journeys from Kraków on our visit to Poland in 2015, but we didn’t have time to stop on that occasion to try and find where uncle Kurt and his family lived during the early 1940s. However, on a return visit in 2016, we did manage to visit Chrzanów, and details about this and our visit to Myslowice may be found on the pages about Kurt, his wife Frieda, and their two daughters Ruth and Ilse.
In terms of our own family, then, while I can’t be sure exactly where my father’s uncle Kurt and his family died, I do know that Kurt was still alive in Chrzanów in late winter 1942, because he was still writing letters to Wilhelmina Hoffmeister, requesting another small sum from the money left for him by his sister Else, when she was deported from Gleiwitz, probably to Auschwitz, in May 1942.
If Kurt and his family survived the winter of 1942 in this hellish place, they would have done so only to have been to be deported a couple of months later to Auschwitz–Birkenau.