Its History * Development * Destruction
Volume II, Tel Aviv 1984
and "Goyim" Together
By Moshe Peles (Poltusker)
I was born to my mother, Sarah Itah ne'e Yonish, and my father, Shalom Hersh Poltusker. We were three brothers; Shaul the eldest, Abraham - the middle brother, and I, the youngest.
My father prayed in the new Beit Midrash. I too prayed there before my Bar Mitzvah. The Beit Midrash was for progressive members of our village who prayed there on Shabbat. I do not know if people prayed there during the week. Those who prayed in the Beit Midrash appeared to be religious even though they were from the upper middle class.
My brother and I were born in the neighboring village of Ciechanow. We had returned to Mlawa when I was six months old.
Mlawa was a very Zionist city. There was a Hebrew secondary school and an elementary school called "Yavneh". The students of these schools spoke only Hebrew when they gathered in the evenings.
The lessons, other than Bible and Gemarra, were taught in Polish. Yiddish was not used. During the breaks, however, we conversed amongst ourselves in Yiddish.
In his yard, my grandfather had a "shtibel". He was a Hasid and later became a Zionist. He used to say, "I am my own Hasid". He had many friends with whom he prayed on Shabbat. Each Shabbat they met in a different home to say "kiddush" and "m'lave-malka". A big celebration was always held on "Simchat Torah". In the progressive Mizrachi school boys and girls studied together. In the "Talmud Torah" school only boys were allowed to study.
The conflicts between "Agudat Israel" and the Gur Hassids often erupted in fights during Shabbat.
The "Shtiblach" and Batei Midrash
There were benches and a few tables in the new Beit Midrash. The old Beit Midrash was divided into two sections.
In one section there were benches, and in the other section study tables, where those who did not have permanent seats could stand. In the Great Synagogue all who attended enjoyed the prayers of a good cantor. Although the rabbi prayed there, the synagogue was 2/3 empty on Shabbat. Only on the holidays was it full. On the other hand, the Batei Midrash and Shtiblach were always full.
I was influenced by the Mizrachi school to join the Bnei Akiva Youth Movement. Both boys and girls were members in this movement. My brothers were members of the "Shomer Hatsair" movement. They avoided discord at home by keeping the Shabbat My eldest brother was head of a group but would wait until the end of the Shabbat meal before attending his meetings. In school there were conflicts between members of the different movements.
Even before the war economic discrimination against Jewish merchants was felt. Even now I remember a man who encouraged others not to buy from the Jews. (His name was Turowski). My parents wanted desperately to make aliya and join my brother Shaul who had moved to Israel in 1935. Anti-Semitism was not yet rife at that time and we questioned his decision to leave. However, family ties in the shtetl were very strong and if one family member made aliya, the rest of the family usually followed. So it was not only economic difficulties and Anti-Semitism that impelled the Jews to leave. My middle brother had also made was very much in favor of aliya, but my father1 although a Zionist, was not active in the movement.
My brothers had chosen to join the Shomer Hatsair movement even though our father was religious. (At that time, Shomer Hatsair did not have an anti-religious ideology). I eventually followed them. Out of respect for my father I always left the house with a yarmulke on my head, but removed it later on.
The Secondary School System
My brothers attended the Hebrew secondary school where the emphasis was not on religion. At the "Talmud Torah" school, emphasis was placed on the study of the Gemarra and "Tosafot", although Polish and arithmetic were also mandatory. Bible study was not even considered. At the elementary school, Judaism was not taught at all. It was a free government school where the language of instruction was Polish. Those who wished to study Judaism had to attend "Talmud Torah" in the evenings. Parents who did not want their children to study Judaism sent their children to the Polish secondary school. A Yiddish school did not exist.
There was also a financial consideration in this decision. At the "Talmud Torah" there was a tuition fee. The government elementary school for Jews, where subjects were taught in Polish, was free. The curriculum was determined by the government, with the exception of religious instruction. The teachers were Jewish.
The Hebrew secondary school, which was partially supported by the community, was situated in a non-Jewish area. On one side of the school stood the District Court and in the park stood the Local Court. The school was located behind the park.
Those who completed the secondary school received a diploma and were allowed to enter the university. Students attended secondary school for 6 years. They wore uniforms of blue-striped hats and pants for the first four years and red-striped hats and pants during the last two years. At "Yavneh" the students also wore uniforms. Children of the more well-to-do families studied at the secondary school. Those with lesser means usually learned a trade by serving as apprentices to artisans. There was a commercial Christian secondary school which very few Jews attended. Certificates of matriculation were awarded upon completion of this school. A Polish Teacher's Seminary and a general secondary school also existed. At the seminary, the acceptance of Jews was frowned upon by teachers and students alike.
Anti-Semitism was on the rise. There were days when I would not go to the public park for fear of being beaten by Polish youth gangs. Conflicts sometimes erupted among the various youth groups. Anti-Semitism grew before the onset of the war. We organized groups in order to protect ourselves and fought back when provoked. Many aspired to make aliya at this time.
Mlawa was very close to the German border. The day. The war broke out; we knew the German army was stationed some 50-60 kilometers to the west. Pomran, which was also close to the German border, was populated mainly by Germans. The day the war broke out, 90% of the people left Pomran after the Germans bombed the town. Among the dead was a Jew named Zilberberg. One bomb fell and destroyed a house in the middle of the town. The people gathered their belongings and decided to leave.
My parents left a few days before this incident, sensing that the war was about to erupt. The danger of war was in the air. The army began to move back and forth. The day the war broke out, I walked 40 kilometers to the city of Ciechanow where relatives lived. I stayed there one day. Upon hearing rumors that the Germans were advancing, I too, moved on. The streets were full of people, walking and pulling wagons. The Jewish community disintegrated as the people scattered. Very few remained behind. After the Germans conquered the city, the people began to return. But there were now restrictions and fear of the Germans. Most of the youth ran off to Warsaw, where there was a large concentration of Jews, or fled to the Russian front. There were no cars or wagons - just people walking. "Goyim" also left. The rich among them had left earlier, taking their possessions with them. The others remained until the end.
I ran away to Ciechanow on Friday, the day the war broke out. I spent one night there and then traveled to relatives in Raciaz the next day. The Germans did not catch up with me. I stayed in Raciaz two or three days and then returned to Mlawa, which was only 14 kilometers from the border. The Poles shouted: "We will not give them even one inch!". We believed that if the Germans conquered Mlawa, they would occupy the town for a short time, and then leave.
Those who had fled to Warsaw were forced to remain there since the city was under siege. Those who sought refuge in neighboring towns returned. Some had fled to Russia and became aware of what awaited the Jews at the hands of the Germans. Dachau was already in existence before the Second World War started. It was clear that the Germans of 1939 were not the Germans of 1914. But those who remembered 1914 were not in any hurry. They recalled the fair treatment of Jews by the Germans at that time. It was mostly the youth who fled.
Prodded by the Germans, the community immediately began to reorganize after the occupation. The Germans demanded workers and began to pluck passersby from the streets. In order to stop this practice, community representatives volunteered to gather the workers for the Germans.
The Germans summoned the rabbi and the shamash to the old Beit Midrash and demanded that the community choose representatives. This was the beginning of the "Judenrat". The heads of the committee were Zegla, Perlmutter, and Charka. Davidson was the head of the police, Ksheslow was the head of the "Judenrat". He and Shlomo Teek were in charge of filling the work quotas. Ksheslow determined who went where, and although the details are unclear, it was known that he sometimes took money bribes from the Jews. I remember being beaten by him once. Shlomo Teek handled the work quotas and Guttman dealt with the police.
Establishment of the Ghetto
People were needed for work daily and it was up to the committee to deliver the required number to the Germans. Until 1940, the Jews lived in their own homes. At the beginning of 1940 Jews began to be thrown out of their homes, only to resettle in neighboring villages. The areas from which they were expelled were to be used for the establishment of Jewish ghettos. One day the "Judenrat" announced that part of the population of Mlawa and the surrounding towns would have to leave their homes. Early one morning the Germans went from house to house waking the people, ordered them to get dressed, and gathered them in the yard of the Polish secondary school. About 3,000 were released and placed in the ghetto. The others, I among them, were brought to Dzialdowo. I left with the first transport. We stayed there for 11 days under inhuman conditions. We slept in shacks, in our clothing, one on top of the other. Food was eaten without utensils, from a hat or a sock. Bread was thrown in the air to be caught by the strong among us. The weak persons received no bread. From Dzialdowo we were loaded onto railroad cars and brought to the General Gouvernement, which was Polish territory. My parents and I were in Miedzyrzec. There too, conditions were terrible. We were left in the hands of the community and slept in the synagogue or in the Beit Midrash. Because my parents had some money, they were able to rent a room in the town. I don't remember whether or not my father worked there. My parents were anxious to return home because their relatives had remained behind in the ghetto.
I went back to Mlawa after two weeks and my parents soon followed. We could not return to our house since it was already occupied by another family.
A month later the ghetto was enclosed by walls, but left unguarded. It was possible to leave and enter. People still went out from the ghetto to work in service-related jobs such as street cleaning. I worked paving streets and constructing barracks, as I had done before the establishment of the ghetto. There were those who earned 11/2 marks by going out to work for others.
Certain groups worked in steady jobs. They were chosen by the Judenrat arbitrarily and worked outside the city, returning home once a week or once every two weeks. The Germans were not interested in who was doing the actual work as long as their work quotas were filled.
Jews who had fled and then returned were regarded as illegals. The Germans compiled an accurate list of those who had remained and issued identity papers to them. Those who returned were not given papers. When large numbers of people started drifting back, the Germans discovered this and decided to gather all the Jews in order to interrogate them. I believe that the head of the Judenrat at the time was Perlmutter. The Judenrat secretly distributed papers to many of the "illegals" so that during the interrogation only about 60 Jews were arrested (although many more had returned). They were immediately released. The situation reverted to what it had been: work 2 to 3 times a week. Those who succeeded in avoiding the work did so.
I would not say that the work was unusual. It consisted of service jobs, office work, street cleaning and serving in German homes. Those who worked in German homes received food.
In the ghetto the Jews continued to pray. Torah books existed although the synagogue had been burned down. They prayed on the Sabbaths. The work committee tried not to send the pious to work on the Sabbath. It was forbidden to pray, but nevertheless the minyans gathered. On the holidays, the people gathered to pray and even erected booths on Succot. Organized schools did not exist but students met in rooms, where they were taught Torah and other subjects.
The Mlawa ghetto was well organized. There was food and clothing. The "Judenrat" was the contact between the ghetto and the outside world and was also responsible for supplying the needs of the ghetto population. There was a time when coal was allowed to be brought into the ghetto at certain hours and people hurried to buy it.
The Germans could have starved the ghetto. They asked for volunteers to join the police force. People joined in the hope of saving themselves. There were some who thought it might be a good way to help all the others.
The Horror of the Ghetto
I will return to the institutions within the ghetto. The "Judenrat" received an order to deliver 100 people to the Germans. They chose 50 young people and 50 old ones. The old people dug the pit and the young ones were shot. I wanted to run away but it was impossible. Still I decided to try, as there was nothing to lose. The moment the German guard turned his back in the yard, I ran. There were bars on the windows and Jewish ghetto guards. In the adjoining yard, there was a large carpentry shop that worked for the Germans. The shop was owned by a friend of mine and I knew that if I could reach it, there was a chance that I would survive. A policeman named Purman who now lives in Israel was on guard. He was married to the daughter of my uncle's brother. He saw me attempting to escape and looked the other way. Jewish policemen searched for me later, particularly Haskel Alter, who used to live in Israel. I hid until the end of the "action". I lived in the same yard as Haskel Alter. He, too, knew what I went through. Our fathers were good friends. I stayed there for over a week, and after a few days they stopped looking for me. It was possible that they knew where I was hidden but were unable to do anything about it since father was on good terms with the police chief. Feiglein told father that the Germans were planning to destroy the ghetto and to move the people to camps where they would work and receive food and clothing.
There was a transport that they brought in from Ciechanow. We gave them shelter at the flour mill in our ghetto. From there they were sent to Treblinka. A total of five transports left the ghetto. Eliezer Perlmutter was the liaison between the Jews and the Germans. He was a smart and courageous Jew.
The Jews of Ciechanow were very bad off since Gestapo headquarters were located there.
Except in rare cases, "a Jew remains a Jew." How does one place value on a Jewish soul? It is well known that without smuggling we would not have been able to exist. The Jewish policemen tried not to "see" and perhaps indirectly gained by this action. They stood near the gate and put their own lives in danger if they turned a blind eye to those smuggling things into the ghetto. Goods were slipped through holes in the walls and fences late at night. There were "goyim" who made large profits selling things to the Jews through these cracks in the walls surrounding the ghetto. The craftsmen worked for the Germans. There were carpenters and shoemakers who were able to lead somewhat normal lives by trading their services. They did not suffer from fear that they would be sent out to work, nor from lack of necessities at home.
Guttman cooperated with the Germans and gossip had it that he had abandoned his own wife. I knew this family well. Before the war, I went to school with one of the sons, the one who was later hung. We lived in the same neighborhood, our homes facing one another. Guttman was unemployed most of the time, and his wife supported the family by making hats. He was a butcher by trade but did not own a butcher shop. In the ghetto they lived well. Guttman was feared almost like the Gestapo. After his son was hanged, he became a monster, even delivering his wife into the hands of the Germans. He had another son and daughter who were later deported to extermination camps. His son ran the only cafeteria in the ghetto. Guttman knew he would not be able to save his son, and the moment he knew that his son's time was up he no longer cared for anything.
There were births in the ghetto but very few weddings. A special permit was issued during funerals that allowed 10 men to leave the ghetto.
-Why did these people not commit suicide? Why not "Tamut Nafshi im Plishtim"? (Let me die with the Philistines.) Where there were pockets of resistance, there were always outside influences. I, too, had crossed the border into Russian territory and then returned. But with the establishment of the ghetto, it became difficult to leave. Only those who could prove themselves "goyim" were able to exist outside the ghetto. As I have said, one day 100 people were arrested, I among them. Fifty were killed. The ones who were left alive were forced to dig a trench for the bodies while Germans carrying machine guns stood on guard. If anyone had uttered a sound, all would have been shot down. Should they have revolted? Perhaps yes, but it is human nature to hope: This one has died, perhaps I will live! Here stood the beast that slaughtered all of Europe and nevertheless each man continued to think as an individual.
Every transport was directed to Auschwitz. There the people went through a "selection" according to age. A certain number of those under 20 went to school. We arrived in darkness. The buildings were tall, the streets poorly lit. We were led by one man, dressed in black, who was also an internee. Suddenly we saw people walking around in pyjamas - another world. They brought us into a yard where many people were wandering about, and ordered us to empty our pockets and relinquish any parcels. When they told me we were going to shower, I had an unpleasant feeling. We still had not heard anything; it was just a feeling in my heart. We really did shower. We were shaved and dressed in pyjamas. Looking at one another we burst out laughing at our strange appearances. Leaving the showers, we were handed strange, unmatching clothing. Hats were also distributed and there were those who wound up with hats that hardly fit on their heads. The next day we gradually began to understand what was happening in the camps.
At the beginning, there were "transports" to a construction school called "Moyer Shuleh". 170 people from Mlawa and Ciechanow attended. The school was located in a work camp. We worked at constructing buildings and slept in the alleyways, warmed only by fires we made. The beginning is always difficult until one becomes accustomed to the conditions. In the summertime, things were easier.
A mother who sees her child drowning will jump into the water to save him even if she does not know how to swim. In this case, the people knew what awaited them. They arrived at the Auschwitz train station where they were separated into groups: old people, parents, parents with babies, youngsters, and those able to work. Didn't they comprehend the purpose of this grouping? More or less they did. But there were those who said, "I am going with my parents" and others who felt that if there was a shadow of hope, it lay in avoiding the "selections". I, for example: would pinch my cheeks in order to appear healthier. Everyone thought that in a month or so things would ease up. There were rumors of victories on the Russian front and people escaped to the forests near the Russian border. Mlawa was very hard pressed. On one side was German territory, Prussia to the north and east, and to the south, the river, which was difficult to cross. The surrounding population was very hostile to the Jews. We heard of no Jews who found refuge with these "goyim".
There were cases where families were brought to a concentration camp together. For instance, two brothers of the Rosenberg family were sent to the same camp. They received identical rations and worked at the same jobs, yet the older brother became ill and died. Inside the camp, factories were built and most jobs were related to the war effort. If an internee became weak and was unable to work, he was killed. There was no need for an unproductive worker.
Once, a group of people ("muselman") designated for the crematorium, were taken and loaded onto trucks. One S.S. officer traveled with one or two hundred people, but they were unable to overpower him because of the guards that were all around. Some, however, did break away, most to be caught and returned to the camp, where they were publicly hung. In order to keep the people calm, they were told that they were being taken to a health resort and would be returned to camp.
I worked in a 10-story building that was supposed to be a power station, whose basement served as a bomb shelter. But there were clear instructions: all workers were to run to the fields during an air raid. Most probably, the feeling was that if the pilots spotted prisoners in the fields, they would not bomb the site. An alarm was sounded at the first sign of airplanes approaching.
There was a young man named Avraham London who used to buy potatoes in the other block. The blocks were two stories high. On the bottom floor he would buy potatoes in their skins and carry them in a cloth bag tied to his trousers. One day he was caught by a German who beat him severely, breaking London's ribs. This was in 1942. (The treatment of political prisoners was totally different. Besides Jews, there were also Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Belgian and French prisoners.) The prisoner in charge of us was a sadist. Every week he would take us down to the yard naked, to wash in the cold, and would suddenly check to see if our feet and nails were clean. If someone did something to his disliking, he saw to it that his food ration was decreased. He was known to order everyone back to the block in the middle of work in order to conduct a search. It was forbidden to carry knives and handkerchiefs. He would confiscate everything so that there would be no trading. It was forbidden to sleep in socks. Still, very few of those who arrived with me became ill. Later, another transport arrived from Mlawa. They were treated brutally. Food was withheld for any infraction and passed to us in the other half of the block. The block was divided into two long rooms with beds lining each side. Most of those from the second transport suffered from dysentery. We had already become accustomed to the food.
At that time I broke both legs after falling from a height of 8 meters. The day the camp was evacuated, I was left in the hospital. I lay there untreated as all the prisoners left the camp, leaving only the sick ones behind. They were planning to exterminate us. We were left a double portion of bread, which I gave to a man who had helped me in the hospital. He carried me on his shoulder& when I needed to use the toilet. One doctor, who had probably volunteered to do so, remained with us. He was not a surgeon. One night the Russians bombed the compound, setting off a fire in the hospital barracks. I crawled on all fours to the door where I was hoisted onto someone's shoulders. Both of us fell and were injured. After the fire was extinguished, we returned to the hospital. There was no food, no water, and no heat. The Germans brought a loaf of bread to each of us. About 50 of us remained and we were ordered not to leave the camp. Outside the gate there were S.S. living quarters and some people entered to search for food. Caught by the S.S., they were warned that anyone attempting to leave the camp would be shot. The Germans were frightened because the Russians had surrounded the camp. On the tenth day, the Russians arrived. They were unable to do much for me since there was no electricity and no X-ray machine. They transferred all the patients to Auschwitz by wagon. There was a doctor from Vilna or Grodno whose name was Gordon. The patients there told us that the Germans had lined them up outside, and as they prepared to shoot them, a messenger arrived and they all fled.
For three months my wounds went untreated. Here, in Israel, I underwent an operation.
Testimony Against a Nazi Criminal
During the Second World War, the Polish Jewish Community was annihilated. The Nazi oppressor did not spare the Jewish community of Mlawa. What happened is related in detail in the Mlawa memorial book. I will only point out two Nazi butchers from the Mlawa ghetto: Foss and Policat. Two devils who cast terror on the ghetto, killing, hanging, and whipping.
The refugees who survived the concentration camps have still not forgotten what they went through in the Mlawa ghetto at the hands of these two hangmen.
A branch of the Israeli police was established to investigate Nazi war criminals. They questioned survivors of the ghettos and presented all the material to the German government in order to initiate legal proceedings against Nazis who were still alive. Thus, former citizens of Mlawa and the surrounding towns of Szrensk, Raciaz, Zuromin, Strzegowo and Rypin were summoned to this branch in order to relate what they knew of Nazi war criminals who were in the Mlawa ghetto. I also testified.
I had more than a little to tell, particularly where Foss and Policat were concerned, although we had no idea if they were alive or dead. Shortly thereafter, some of us who had been in the Mlawa ghetto were invited by the Germans to testify against the Nazi Policat. I will briefly describe this criminal. He was born on June 3, 1907, in Minserburg, East Prussia. He was commander of the gendarmes assigned to the Mlawa vicinity, who terrorized the Jews, among the rest, by ordering his dog to attack on command.
People were invited from the United States, Australia, Germany and Israel to testify against him. From Israel were invited Hendel Avraham, Pesach Sheiman, Zelig Avraham, and myself, and also Ben Zion Bogen of Strzegow. Yosef Haussman of Szrensk and Mordechai Purman of Rypin.
From the United States came Leibel Kozheni, Harry (Hersh) Forma and Reuven Soldanar of Szrensk; from Australia: Elimelech (Melech) Aduna. We were all survivors of the extermination camps.
I was one of the four who traveled from Israel to Germany.
Ben Zion Bogen, Mordechai Purman, and Zelig Avraham were unable to travel due to ill health, and had to testify in Israel.
I, too, was anxious about making the trip to Germany. I did not know if I could bear recollecting all the atrocities of the past and then perhaps see the butcher go free or receive a sentence of one or two years. However, the obligation I felt towards those who had not survived tipped the scale, and I decided to appear at the trial in Germany. The trial was to take place in the city of Irnsberg in the state of Westphalia near the Ruhr region where Policat had taken up residence. There he had served as chief of police, hoping that the hand of justice would not catch up with him. Had he not been recognized he could have lived out the rest of his life in this quiet hideaway.
But fate played against him. By chance, he was recognized by a German "goy" named Brecht who was the chauffeur of Funk, a member of the Mlawa City Council. He reported Policat's whereabouts to the branch of the German government that dealt with Nazi war criminals. In order to obtain positive identification, an eyewitness to the murder of a young Jewish girl by Policat in the Strzegowo ghetto was sent to Irnsberg. On the basis of his testimony the case against Policat was opened. My friends Avraham Hendel, and Pesach Sheiman were the first to leave for Germany on the 12th of May 1971. Avraham Haussman and I were invited to testify on the 18th of May, 1971.
On May 14th, 1971 we left for Germany, arriving first in Frankfurt where Moshe David Frenkel resides. As he had also testified against Policat, we were anxious to learn some details of the trial. What the judges were like and how the population reacted to the trial. Unfortunately, neither Frenkel nor the other Mlawans residing in Frankfurt were able to meet us. I would like to mention here the gesture of Yaacov Zilberstein from the city of Rypin, who lived in the Mlawa ghetto and suffered with us in the concentration camps during the war. He traveled more than 200 kilometers by car in order to greet us at the Frankfurt airport, brought us to our hotel, and stayed there with us for two days until we left for the trial. I will add that Yaacov Zilberstein is willing to offer financial help to any Mlawans in need.
We left Frankfurt on May 16th, traveled by plane to Dusseldorf and from there to Irnsberg by train. On the way we were aided by the Christian-Israeli Friendship Organization. In Irnsberg all the Mlawans were staying at the same hotel: Forma, Kozheni, Aduna, Haussman, Soldaner and myself. Sheiman and Hendel had testified a few days earlier and had already left. As the time for my testimony neared, my mental state was awful. I could not sleep or eat in anticipation of the face-to-face encounter with the Nazi devil, Policat.
I appeared in court on May 18th at 9 o'clock in the morning. My friends who were scheduled to testify the next day accompanied me. As I waited in the corridor of the court to be called in, a man whom I instantly recognized as the murderer Policat, appeared. I collapsed on the spot. I received first aid and recovered after about a half hour. Although the judges wanted to postpone my testimony, I insisted on testifying on condition that I would not have to look at this Nazi, and that my testimony would be given in Hebrew. My request was granted. I would like to mention that the people of Irnsberg were very sympathetic towards us and hostile to the Nazi.
My testimony lasted two hours as I repeated what I had related to the Nazi war criminal investigators, adding details that suddenly came to me in the course of my testimony. The others testified that day and the next.
I remained in contact with members of the Christian Israeli Organization after my return to Israel. From them I received clippings from the German newspapers related to the trial. On June 23rd, 1971, the Nazi Policat was sentenced to life imprisonment with the right to appeal.
It did not make any difference to those who were killed. For those of us who survived and traveled to Germany to testify, however, at least we helped bring the criminal to his punishment.
Last Updated January 23rd, 2002