The Jewish community of the city of Kleczew came into existence in the sixteenth century. It remained large and strong throughout the next four hundred years, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it constituted 40-60% of the total population. The German army entered Kleczew on September 15, 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II. The communities of Kleczew and the vicinity were among the first Jewish collectives in Europe to be totally destroyed. The events presented in this book reveal that the organization of deportations and the methods of mass murder conducted in this district, by Kommando Lange, served as a model that would be applied later in the death camps during the mass extermination of Polish and European Jewry. If so, it was in the woods near Kleczew that the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” began.
About the Author
Anetta Głowacka-Penczyńska has been working at the University of Bydgoszcz since 1998 and defended her PhD dissertation in 2006. Since 2007, she is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural History, Institute of History and International Relations at the Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz.
Tomasz Kawski was born in 1969 in Włocławek, Poland. He studied law at Mikołaj Kopernik University in Toruń and social science and history at Kazimierz Wielki University (UKW) in Bydgoszcz, receiving a PhD in history in 2001. Since 1994, he works as a Researcher in the Institute of History and International Relationships (IHiSM) at UKW in Bydgoszcz.
Witold W. Mędykowski, born in Lublin, is a historian and political scientist, and a senior specialist at the Yad Vashem Archives. He is a graduate of the University of Life Sciences in Lublin and Tel Aviv University. He received his PhD in political science at the Institute of Political Studies Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw and his PhD in Jewish studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published numerous articles and books on the Holocaust, Polish-Jewish relations and ethnic conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe.
Tuvia Horev (PhD, MPH, DMD) has served in high-ranking positions in the Israeli healthcare system, as well as in research institutes and academia. His latest executive position was as Senior Deputy Director General for Strategic and Economic Planning in the Ministry of Health. Since November 2014, he has been an Associate Professor in the Department of Health Systems Management at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. As a descendant of a family that lived in Kleczew, Poland for generations, Professor Horev’s contribution to the current project has been given out of a personal commitment to promote historical research on Jewish life in Eastern Greater Poland.
Read an Excerpt
As the son of a woman born in Kleczew to a family that had lived there for generations, I could not help but imbibe the reality of Kleczew with my mother’s milk. My family had never been nostalgic for Kleczew, and certainly I had never heard any stories about how things had been back there. My grandparents had immigrated to pre-state Israel with their two daughters in July 1939, less than sixty days before the Germans invaded Poland. In doing so, they had left much of their family behind. Nearly all of these relatives perished very shortly afterward, in the Holocaust.
Born in Israel as a member of a new generation that had never smelled the stench of exile and experienced its horrors, I understood nothing about the immensity of the trauma that nestled deep in my grandparents’ hearts. I never even felt the needI admit this in shameto ask them what they felt or to ask them to share their memories with me, confide in me, or just tell me who those relatives back there had been.
A few years ago, however, I came across an excerpt of the testimony of a Polish veterinarian, Dr. Mieczysław Sękiewicz. Sękiewicz had testified to a Polish judicial committee on October 27, 1945, and again in 1968, to researchers from a regional committee in Poznań for the investigation of Nazi crimes, about a ghastly crime that had taken place in the Wygoda forest: the massacre of thousands of Jews who had been taken there from several communities in Konin sub-district and the Warthegau (the section of Poland that Nazi Germany had annexed) including Kleczew. As I read Sękiewicz’s account, I realized that this events occurred very close to Kleczew. From that moment on, I felt it my duty to ensure that the memory of the Kleczew’s community, to which I trace my ancestry (I was named after Tobiasz Rachwalski, born in Kleczew), would not end with that horror. To honor this pledge, I decided to facilitate a historical study that would explore the development of the Jewish community of Kleczew in order to seek lessons that might help to prevent such atrocities in the future.
Before beginning the study, I approached the cultural attaché at the Polish Embassy in Israel for assistance in locating appropriate and skillful researchers in Poland. The attaché and his staff responded in a most useful way, by putting me in touch with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which in turn was very helpful in finding Polish researchers and liaising with them. An agreement with two researchers in Poland (Anetta Głowacka-Pęnczyńska and Tomasz Kawski) was signed first. Dr. Witold Mędykowski of Israel joined the team later. Dr. Mędykowski contributed much to the development of the research, chiefly in matters relating to the Holocaust era and the final shaping of the manuscript. I fervently thank these researchers for their professionalism and the enormous investment they made in gathering the material, analyzing it, and placing it in writing. I am also very grateful to the Polish Embassy in Israel and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw for their assistance.
The research team systematically collected findings from many archives in various countries, retraced the history of the Kleczew community from its inception to its extinction, and analyzed the findings thoroughly in view of historical events that unfolded concurrently in Poland and in Europe at large.
At the time I began the project, I could not have guessed one of its revelations: that was evidently in Kleczew district and, more generally, in the Warthegau that the model later applied in the mass murder of Polish and European Jewry evolved.
Given the background of the research initiative, it was decided that in addition to the historic research, which lies at the core of the study, the book would also contribute to the commemoration of the Jewish communities that had existed in this district by presenting, in specific appendices, relevant documentation; tables listing the names of Jewish families that had lived in Kleczew at various times; and events from Kleczew community life, including information that would reveal in detail the histories of several Jewish families from Kleczew. Examples are the survival story of a person who survived the extermination campaign through a last-minute escape from Kleczew to the East (Kroner); and a detailed history of at least one family (the Rachwalskis) as a representative of Jewish families from Kleczew and their fates. The Rachwalskis’ travails included the last-minute escape of Pessia Rachwalski and her children from Poland via Gdynia, by ship, on August 24, 1939, seven days before the German invasion of Poland, to join the head of the family, Majer, who had emigrated earlier from Kleczew to the United States.
It is impossible, of course, to pack all the information gathered about life in Kleczew into one book. As the manuscript was being edited, we had to make difficult decisions regarding what would give readers the broadest possible picture without inundating them with material irrelevant to the main topics of concern. We hope these decisions will be accepted with understanding.
I conclude by praising my father, Ze’ev Horev (Horzewski), who died as the book was being edited, and my mother Frumamay she be graced with long lifewho was born in Kleczew, daughter of the late Foigel (née Rachwalski from Kleczew) and Yitzhak Abba Traube (born in Kalisz) for their encouragement and warmth. Fruma is probably the last Jew alive who was born in Kleczew.
Last but not least, I offer loving gratitude to my dear onesmy wife, Mazal, and my children, Boaz, Ehud, and Einavfor their love, support, and encouragement.
Karmei Yosef, Israel
Kleczew is a small locality in Eastern Greater Poland, in Greater Poland Province (Wielkopolska), Konin County. At present, it is known as the headquarters of Konin Lignite Mine S.A., the biggest indus¬trial enterprise in the province. Kleczew’s industrial history, however, is quite recent. For centuries, the town was a local administrative, trade, and service center for the surrounding agricultural region. Until World War II, it remained multi-religious and multi-ethnic. The Jewish community was one of the groups that considerably influenced Kleczew’s develop¬ment. The present current study elaborates on their role.
The literature on the Jews of Kleczew is relatively scanty, especially in regard to the old Polish period and the partitions era. The informa¬tion that can be found about its earliest history is provided by Zenon Guldon and Jacek Wijaczka. Information on the later period, often inexact, comes mainly from publications of an encyclopedic nature. Tomasz Kawski and Monika Opioła provide works based on twentieth-century sources.
Literature on Jewish communities elsewhere in Eastern Greater Poland is also relatively scarce in comparison with that on other regions. Separate monographs, in addition to community records and memorial books, were published about several Jewish communities such as those in Kalisz and Błaszki. Some localities, such as Izbica Kujawska, are described in several worthy but exiguous works. The authors of these works, much like those who wrote about Kleczew, concentrate mainly on the twentieth century. Dzieje Kleczewa proved to be a valuable source of information about Kleczew itself.
The information gaps were filled in by archival research. For the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, we examined: the Kleczew town books; the Konin county books; the Kalisz county books; and the records of the Royal Treasury, found in the Central Archive of Historical Records and the State Archive of Poznań. (An example of a draft register page from cities and towns in Greater Poland in 1579 is presented as Document 1 in Annex 1.) Information about the nineteenth and twentieth centu¬ries was harvested mainly from the Kleczew town books for 1807–1950, which are kept in the Konin Division of the State Archive in Poznań. The following archival sources were also consulted, although with fewer results: the Central Denomination Authorities of the Kingdom of Poland (Main Archive of Old Records in Warsaw); Records of the Emperor’s Civil Administration in Konin 1915–1918; and Registry Records of the Syna¬gogue District in Kleczew 1808–1905. For the interwar period (1918–1939), the most significant were documents produced by the county and town or state administration authorities and local administration authorities (Kleczew town records 1807–1950, County Local Adminis-tration Office in Słupca 1918–1933, County Local Administration Office in Konin 1918–1939, County Police Station in Słupca 1918-1932), found in the Konin Archive. The province administration records were also of some help. Chief among them were the documentations from the Provin¬cial Office in Łódź 1918-1939 and the Provincial Office in Poznań 1919-1939, deposited with the Łódź and Poznań branches of the State Archives. As for the World War II era, the main sources of information were found in the archive of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, especially the archival sources: the American [Jewish] Joint Distribution Committee; the so-called Ringelblum Archive and Reports; and the Yad Vashem Archives. The Main Archive of Old Records in Warsaw (AGAD) was a valuable source as well. For the post-1945 period, the Central Committee of Polish Jews submitted some interesting information.
The Martyrs’ Museum in Żabikowo, the National Digital Archive in Warsaw, the Federal Archives in Germany, and the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem provided valuable photographs. The last-mentioned was a partic¬ularly useful source in many aspects of the research, including as it does written testimonies of survivors and the video collection of the Spielberg Foundation.
The structure of this study is chronological and topical. The first section acquaints the reader with the development of the Jewish community in Kleczew from the old Polish period (fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries), through the partition and foreign occupation period in Poland (late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries) and the interwar period (1918–1939). The second describes the situation of Jews in occupied Kleczew and the Reichsgau Wartheland, often referred to as the Warthegau, during the first period of the occupation. Part three describes the beginning of organized mass extermination. It depicts a process that might be considered the “pilot program” for the orga¬nized mass extermination of Jews which took place in several sites in the Reichsgau Wartheland, including in the surroundings of Kleczew. It follows this depiction with a description of the establishment and opera¬tion of the first extermination camp in Chełmno on the Ner. This section of the book illustrates the tragic fate of Jewish Kleczew specifically, as well as the Jewish communities of other localities of the Warthegau in general, during World War II. Part four concludes the study, focusing on the postwar period. It includes, among other things, rare informa¬tion about the few Jews who showed up in Kleczew and its vicinity after World War II and the traces of the material culture that the original Jewish inhabitants left behind.
All of the chapters of this book set the data within a wider context than that of Kleczew itself, the context of Greater Poland in the pre-partition period and Eastern Greater Poland after 1815. The shaping of the latter region was influenced by the partitioning of Greater Poland between Prussia (Germany) and Russia in 1815, with the eastern part of the region falling under the sway of the Russian Empire. The results of this division remain visible.
Although the Holocaust period was very short in world history, its tragic consequences brought about the annihilation of the Jewish commu¬nity of Kleczew and most of its counterparts in the Poznań area, Poland at large, and all of central Eastern Europe. Therefore, the chapter dealing with the Holocaust is the largest in this book, copious enough to present many personal stories and an inside view of what happened to the Jews of Kleczew and its vicinity.
Although this book is the outcome of extensive historical research, it also gives special attention to the commemoration of the Jewish community of Kleczew. It includes copious data and extensive tables in the annexes in which names, occupations, and other details illustrate the everyday lives of the Jews of Kleczew and honor their memory. The names are spelled as they appear in each source. To be true to the sources, we did not try to correct or standardize spellings even when we knew that different sources were making varied references to the same person.
The destruction of Jewish Kleczew and other communities in the area (Golina, Słupca, Wilczyn, etc.) marked the beginning of the systematic mass murder of Jews on Polish soil, only a few months after it commenced in Soviet-annexed territory at the hands of special death squads (Einsatzgruppen). The executions of Jews deported from Kleczew to a collective village ghetto in Zagórów in the Kazimierz Biskupi forests in autumn 1941 also marked the beginning of a pilot mass-murder oper¬ation performed by Kommando Lange, the unit that had established and activated the death center in Chełmno only a few weeks later. Chełmno, as we know, served as an experimental center and a place where some death-camp commanders came to learn how to better and faster kill thousands of Jews every day. Thus, in a very early stage after the German invasion, the small and distant Jewish community of Kleczew found itself in the eye of the storm of hatred and destruction that would annihilate most of European Jewry. The tragic story of this community, as well as other communities in the area, may be considered the first milestone in what would evolve into the mass murder of Jews in the occupied Polish lands by Nazi Germany: a central part of the Final Solution.