THE GERMAN OCCUPATION - 1
From the Beginning of the Occupation Until the Establishment of the Ghettos (June 23, 1941—October 31, 1941)
The Fall of the City. On the night of June 22/23, 1941, the German army reached the outskirts of Grodno and the Soviet forces retreated in panic, taking with them only their own people and local residents who had worked in the administrative apparatus.
The German advance was accompanied by heavy aerial bombard-ment of the city and the surrounding towns. Before dawn the Germans launched a massive barrage against the army depots at the edge of the city. The bombing from the air continued relentlessly throughout the day, the planes making repeated sorties. Incendiary bombs sparked a huge fire on both banks of the Nieman. Much of the suburb across the Nieman went up in flames, including the ancient synagogue. The Jewish hospital sustained heavy damage.
The terrified Jews, watching the Russians flee, made for the cellars and shelters (and some were wounded or killed by the bombs that fell near the cellars). Many Jews, particularly young people, fled wildly, without any specific destination, on foot, by bicycle, or in wagons. The roads were littered with bodies and abandoned weapons. Some managed to board vehicles or to join groups that formed during the course of the evacuation; but few succeeded in reaching Russia. The Germans were usually ahead of them and forced them to return to Grodno.
Two months later soldiers from the Spanish Legion who participated in the combat against the Soviet Union passed through Grodno on their way to the frontier. They were appalled at the spectacle of ruin and devastation in every part of Grodno. According to one description, one-third of the city lay in ruins, and in the “Across the River” residential suburb not a house remained intact. In total contrast to the Germans, the Spaniards showed compassion for the Jews during their short stay in Grodno.
The German Administrative Machinery in the Bialystok District and the Grodno Subdistrict. On July 17, 1941, by a special order, the Bialystok district was annexed to eastern Prussia as a separate administrative unit, called “Generalbezirk Bialystok.” At first Grodno was not included in this district but remained part of the “Generalkommissariat Byelorussia.” Then, on September 18, 1941, it was attached to the Bialystok district, even though the annexation did not become official until March 1942.
About two months after the city’s capture, members of the Byelorussian National Committee informed on the Polish mayor, Zawicki, alleging that he was collaborating with the Communists and the Jews. He was thereupon replaced with a German mayor, Georg Stein, who also served as “Municipal Commissar” (Stadtkommissar). Stein frequently ignored his direct superior, von Ploetz, and consulted directly with the governor (Oberpresident) of the Bialystok district.
In addition to the civilian system, a security apparatus was responsible for dealing with terror against the population. The German police in the Bialystok district was composed of the Order Police (Ordnungspolizei), the City Police (Schutzpolizei or Schupo), the gendarmerie and the security units – the Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei or Sipo) and the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst or SD). Units of the police and the Security Service arrived in Grodno in July 1941. A district headquarters of the SD, the Gestapo, and the Criminal Police (Kriminalpolizei or Kripo) was established around April 1942, headed by Dr. Wilhelm Altenloh. When Grodno was attached to the Bialystok district, a Gestapo deputy office (“Nebenstelle”) was set up there, initially headed by Kriminalsekretaer Gross, and, from December 1941, by Heinz Errelis. The office was raised to independent level (“Aussenstelle”) after the Security Service established a headquarters (KDS) in Bialystok. Errelis had thirteen men under his command, including his deputy, Schott; Gross, who was in charge of Jewish affairs; Kurt Wiese, who would afterward become the commandant of Ghetto One; Otto Streblow, commandant of Ghetto Two; Karl Rinzler, commandant of the Kielbasin concentration camp; Niestroj; three interpreters, two drivers, and two stenographers.
Creation of the Judenrat. At the end of June 1941, two German officers ordered lawyer Izaak Gozhanski to establish a Jewish representative body. However, Gozhanski was evasive, claiming his German was not good enough. Instead he recommended David Brawer, who, since 1939, was the headmaster of the local Tarbut school. Brawer, too, saw the appointment as a horrendous disaster, but was given no choice. He was summoned to the military commander and ordered to form a Judenrat of ten people within twenty-four hours and to lead it as “head of the Jewish population in the city of Grodno” (“Obman der Juedische Bevoelkerung der Stadt Grodno”). Brawer asked all the Jewish organizations and parties (as they had existed until September 1939) to appoint representatives. On June 28, 1941, they already met.
It was a turbulent session. Some of those present argued against establishing a Jewish representation for fear that this would only facilitate the persecutions; others argued that the serious situation of the Jews in the city called for the immediate creation of a representative body that would work both to moderate the German decrees and to relieve the physical distress of the population. Many had been left destitute by the great fire that had heralded the occupation, and the number of sick and needy had increased greatly. It was imperative to provide them with clothing, footwear, food and medical services.
The advocates of representation won out, and at the meeting it was decided to establish a Judenrat. Even though officially its function was limited to carrying out the occupier’s orders, in practice the Judenrat executed a wide range of functions, including those that in the past had been the responsibility of extra-communal elements. Thus, by the time the Jews were incarcerated in the ghettos, the Judenrat was already dealing with a broad array of community affairs. First to be activated were the departments for medical aid and relief and the labor department, which tried to introduce order into the forced-labor mobilizations and put an end to the spate of kidnappings (see below).
By September 7, 1941, the Judenrat had more than doubled in size, to twenty-four members, as is evident from the list that Brawer had to submit to the German Civil Administration when the Jews were placed under its authority. The list included individuals from various strata of the Jewish population who had been active in the community before September 1939, and it specified their roles and functions. One of the names on the list was that of the lawyer Izaak Gozhanski.
Decrees, Kidnappings, Murders. With the occupation the Jews were immediately placed outside the law. Their lives and security were of no consequence or concern. Jewish youngsters disappeared without a trace from the streets; a similar fate befell hospitalized adults and children, the elderly in old-age homes, and members of the Jewish intelligentsia. An Einsatzgruppen (the German execution units) report of July 13, 1941, includes a survey of operations executed by the Einsatz-kommando in which ninety-six Jews were put to death in Grodno and Lida. The true number was probably far higher; according to one source,9 the Germans combed the town with lists in hand and arrested hundreds of members of the educated and intellectual stratum. At least 100 were shot.
9 Felix Zandman, Never the Last Journey, New York, 1995, p. 40.
On June 30, 1941, an order issued in Grodno made it mandatory for Jews to wear an identifying badge. At first this was a white armband with a blue Star of David; a month later the armband was replaced by two large yellow patches worn on the left side of the chest and on the left of the back. Children were exempt from this decree. Anyone caught without the patches was severely punished, not only risking arrest but having to endure a savage beating that left the victim ailing for weeks or even months.