The Jewish Cemetery of Tomaszow Mazowiecki

Here Lies Hidden...
A Polish Town and its Jewish Cemetery

Tomaszow Mazowiecki is one of the youngest cities in Poland. it was granted the status of "city" only in 1830. The origin of the city was as the home for various ethnic groups. The founder of Tomaszow was Duke Antoni Ostrowski, a pioneer and an industrial entrepreneur, as well as a business reformer. He invited German weaving craftsmen as well as Jewish weavers and businessmen to his weaving plants in Tomaszow. At the end of the 19th century lived in Tomaszow 7,748 Jews, 5,505 German Protestants and 5480 Catholics. At the beginning of the 20th century this balance changed as a result of the emigration of farmers due to the creation of jobs following upon the rise of industrialization. At this time, the minority Polish catholic population became the majority, and the Jews and Protestants - the minority.- It must be remembered that the Jews, who lived under the Czarist rule in Congress Poland were a national minority possessing limited rights.

With the establishment of an independent Poland after the end of the First World War, conditions were radically altered. Poles found themselves living in their own state, and the Jews and Germans became Polish citizens enjoying autonomous cultural privileges which were granted to them by virtue of the agreement establishing the state. This resulted in many disputes and quarrels between the two World Wars.

In the First World War Germany conquered the region, plundered the factories, and the economy was paralyzed. following the war restoration of the textile industry was hampered by difficulties in marketing because of loss of the Russian markets. Despite the efforts of the Jewish and German industrialists, Tomaszow remained between the two World Wars, one of the three Polish cities with the highest unemployment rate in the state. In 1930 the population was comprised of 27% Jews, 9% Germans and 63% Poles.

How did the inhabitants live under such difficult conditions? what were the relations among them? the Jewish writer Zusman Segalowicz, who visited the city in July 1936, expressed his impressions as follows: "...an original city, indeed, in which chimneys of the factories are surrounded by green trees". he went on to say that the relations among the three nations living in the city appeared to be more sociable and friendly than in other places ("Tomaszow". Ilustrowany Miesiecznik, July 1936). As opposed to this, in a different article, another Jewish writer of Tomaszow wrote that the anti-Semitic poisonous incitement was slowly attacking the inhabitants of the city.

Tomaszow, which witnessed a great deal of perversity throughout its history, much suffering and little prosperity, lost its cultural uniqueness forever during the second World war as a result of the destructive Nazi occupation policy. The terror regime imposed by the nazis brought about great suffering and loss to the Polish population. Nearly all the Jewish population was destroyed in Treblinka. The German inhabitants fled to the West in January 1940. Those who did not escape in time left later on, usually after having been imprisoned in the camps, and settled in Germany. Only a small number of Jews survived the death camps. Some of them were freed from various camps in Germany, others escaped to the USSR and survived, while still others survived by adopting a false identity in Poland, Riga, or in other places. If they returned to the city after the war, it was for a short while only. For many, atmosphere of hate towards them' especially after the pogrom in Kielce in July 1946, and they too left. Jews from Tomaszow can be found today in israel, the U.S.A, Australia, Canada, France and other places.

What can a historian' whose object is to study the relations among people in Poland between the two World wars, find today in a city like Tomaszow, which previously had a mixed population? Do any meaningful tracks remain today of the inhabitants who lived there at that time, and who are no longer there' inhabitants who influenced the development and history of the city? At first glance' one can find very few tracks' indeed. On closer examination' however' one can identify buildings and places' which are proof of the existence of Jews and German Protestants here in the past.

One can still find here private homes that previously belonged to Jewish and German industrialists who resided next to each other close to the old factories with the tall chimneys. similarly' the German school "Mikolj-Rej=Volksschule" still stands in Tkacka Street opposite the Jewish bath house and Mikvah used today as market place. Also, remains of the Jewish high school can still be seen in Pilsudski Street.

Clear evidence of Protestants; life here are the two Evangelical churches: the smaller and older church is in Kosciuszko Platz and the larger one, a brown brick edifice built in 1903, which serves as a church for the small Polish Evangelical community, is located in Antoniego street and called Erloser Kirche. The tombstones of the evangelical church bear names of important local personalities.

Nothing remains of the great synagogue of Tomaszow, which was built in the years 1864-1878 and in which rabbi Samuel Halevi, a Mizrakhi leader and member
of the Polish Sejm between 1928-1936 lectured. it was burnt down in October 1939 together with two other synagogues, which were situated in Warszawska and Jerosolimska streets, by Nazis of German extraction. Today there is no plaque or
memorial in Tomaszow to commemorate the destroyed synagogues. the only visible sign of once viable Jewish community in Tomaszow is to be found in the run-down Jewish cemetery situated far from the center of the city close to the catholic and Protestant cemeteries.

the city's Hevra Kadisha played an important role in the life of the community as it did in all Jewish communities. Tomaszow, as well as other cities in the mid-19th century, witnessed disputes between the reformists and the ultra-orthodox trends with regard to proper burial rituals. On 22.8.1878 the Jewish newspaper in the Polish language Israelita carried an article about the merchant David Helpern who served as the community leader for many years and was instrumental in purchasing a litter for transportation of all the deceased, who were until then carried by wagons. he also built the wall surrounding the cemetery (which is still in existence today) and set the standards for burials.

The Jewish papers of Tomaszow, in the period between the two World wars, contained articles about the funeral services of well-known Jewish personalities, which were held during that period. Non-Jews also participated in those funeral services which were long, drawn-out affairs, including a procession from the city to the Jewish cemetery. We have evidence to the fact that non-Jews gave eulogies at the funeral of the Zionist Aaron Lichtenstein in 1928 and that of Abraham jakubowicz, a member of the Jewish Bund, in 1933.

The Nazi occupation forced the Jews of Tomaszow to move to the ghetto, in December, 1940, and to live under terribly cramped conditions. The ghetto was shut down in December 1941. in that year the Jewish cemetery was filled by a great many graves of adults and children who were killed, mercilessly, by the police for escaping the ghetto in an attempt to find food. their bodies were collected by members of the Jewish police and piled atop wagons which left blood stains on the road to the cemetery. Relatives were not permitted to join the funeral processions, and no religious ceremony was held. the wagons were emptied into anonymous mass graves, together with the bodies of victims of Typhoid Fever and victims of torture. At a later period the Nazis issued orders to use tombstones for street paving.

after the war, some Jews attempted to erect memorials to their relatives who died here or in Treblinka, but part of the memorials were destroyed a short time after having been erected. The few Jews who returned to resettle in Tomaszow after the war were buried there. This, however, was not to be their final resting place. This was the case of Dr. Fabian Warszawsky, whose remains were transferred to Warsaw in 1963. The history of the Jewish cemetery is also, in part, a history of the people
of Tomaszow.

In February, 1993 I inquired of a Tomaszowian member of the Evangelical community about the Jewish cemetery. he located the site on the city's map and noted the dereliction of the place. When I asked him if something could be done to remedy the situation, he asked "By whom?" To this I had no answer.

In May of that year I searched for this sad place, whose tombstones represent the only evidence of a once thriving Jewish community in this city. The tombstones appeared to have been ravaged by time and the elements, but in this case is it not much too soon? A historically documented reconstruction of a destroyed world cannot revive the victims. Is it not incumbent, however, upon the future generations to at least make an effort to recognize that which was destroyed?

My continuing investigations about life in Tomaszow before the Second World War brought me, in April 1994, to Tel Aviv, where I met and interviewed eight former residents of Tomaszow. One of them was Benjamin Yaari, chairman of the organization of Tomaszowians in Israel. To my great surprise, Mr. Yaari revealed to me in a letter in September, 1994 that he had recently visited Tomaszow, his birthplace and the city where he spent his childhood and youth. When he visited the city's devastated cemetery, he decided, there and then' to commemorate the Jewish cemetery as well as the Jewish community of Tomaszow. I offered my help without further procrastination. Mr. Yaari's project was realized in August 1995. He arrived in Tomaszow from israel together with his uncle, Mr. Shlomo Birenstock, and I came from Berlin. Together with four other residents of Tomaszow we established an extraordinary work team. While we worked in the cemetery, also called "House of Life" in Hebrew, the Jewish inhabitants of Tomaszow came to life as Benjamin and his uncle discovered grave stones and spontaneously recounted stories about the people whose names were engraved on the stones.

While working on the project, Benjamin; his uncle and I resided at the home of my friend Urszula Trocha, who, with the aid of her organizational skills, as well as her good will, helped us to solve everyday problems connected with our work and, in addition, "spoiled" us, to the best of her abilities, after hours. We felt ourselves sheltered, even at the most difficult moments of memory and pain. Something which I dared not dream about during my first visit to the city as a stranger suddenly materialized, as Germans, jews and Poles met and talked together again in Tomaszow in an atmosphere of trust and brotherhood.

Dr. Beate Kosmala


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