Poitrkow-Trybunalski played a significant part in the story of the Boys, despite the fact that Jewish life in the city was totally destroyed during the Holocaust.
Over 30 of the Boys were born in Piotrkow and many more were interned in the ghetto after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.
Piotrkow is situated in an industrial area of Poland in the Lodz Voivodeship. Many of the Boys came from this area survived because the factories, mills and brickyards were vital to the German war effort. They were run by German companies and used forced and slave labour.
The vast majority of the Boys worked as slave labourers, and thus evaded deportation to the extermination camps, where many of their relatives were murdered. This shared experience bonded the group together.
It was two of the older brothers of the Boys, who were born in Piotrkow, who arrived in the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia in the final weeks of World War Two, brought the young teenage orphans into one unit that would be cared for together. They became part of the first group of the Boys.
Jews had lived in Piotrkow, one of Poland’s oldest cities, since the early 16th century. In 1939, Jews, numbering about 15,000 people, made up 27% of Piotrkow’s population.
As Piotrkow industrialised in the 19th century, it was Jewish families who established the city’s first factories and most of the city’s shops. Piotrkow was at this point part of the Russian Empire. The city became part of Poland after the First World War.
Piotrkow was a centre for timber, textiles and glass manufacturing. In 1928, 65% of the registered traders and craftsmen were Jewish. Commercial life in Piotrkow was badly affected by the 1930s depression and many Jewish families lived in extreme poverty
Piotrkow was a major hub of the Jewish printing industry, which produced a wide range of publications that included Yiddish newspapers, secular and rabbinic literature.
The city was a centre for Talmudic study and produced many notable rabbis but the Jewish community was diverse and included Orthodox families as well as assimilated secular Jews.
During the interwar period Piotrkow was home to branches of all the Jewish political parties represented in Poland: the religious Agudat Yisrael, the various Zionist factions, and the socialist Bund.
Toward the beginning of the Second World War, antisemitic attacks became frequent.
LIFE IN THE GHETTO
The Germans army arrived in Piotrkow on 5 September 1939. Persecution of the Jews began immediately. A month later a ghetto was established, the first in occupied Poland.
The ghetto had a population of around 10,000 people but the numbers soon began to swell as Jews from the surrounding area arrived in Piotrkow. This included a number of the Boys. The brothers Jonah Fuks and Chaim Fuks were among those imprisoned in the ghetto who did not actually live in the city.
Eventually, almost 25,000 people were confined to the ghetto. The refugees were virtually destitute.
Conditions in the ghetto were dire and many of the Boys remembered that they sneaked out of the ghetto, which was not fenced, to find food. Jewish men were seized in the streets for slave labour, beatings and random killings became commonplace.
The Judenrat, the Jewish council, that was placed in charge of the daily running of the ghetto by the Germans, organised for men and teenage boys to work in the city’s factories, which provided a tiny source of income for their families.
As news of deportations and mass killings began to reach the city, the Judenrat learned that the Germans planned to keep slave labourers in the city and set out to increase the number of workshops.
On 14 October the ghetto was surrounded by SS and Ukrainian militia and in the days that followed approximately 22,000 people were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp, where they were murdered. There are only 67 known survivors of Treblinka, where there was no selection made on arrival and prisoners were sent directly to the gas chamber.
Some of the Boys witnessed the selection in the market square but others heard the departure of the trains while at work in the factories.
Artek Poznanski, who was not yet fifteen and his brother Jerzy Poznanski, aged twelve, both worked at the Hortensia glass factory and heard the trains leaving. On returning to the two and a half streets that now comprised the ghetto, Artek was handed a note hastily scribbled by their mother, it read:
“We are being taken. May God help you, as we cannot do anything more for you. And whatever may happen, look after Jerzyk. He is but a child and has got no one else.”
Having first worked in the Hortensja and Kara factories, Poznanski was ordered by the SS to clear the houses in the former ghetto and sort the possessions left behind by the deported Jews.
In November 1942, those Jews who had hidden in the ghetto and did not have work permits were rounded up and held in the synagogue. Among them were a number of the Boys.
When the manager of the Hostensia glass factory discovered that this was the reason some of his work force had not arrived for work the Boys were immediately released as key workers.
The Jews remained in the synagogue for some days before they were shot in a nearby forest. Among them were Benek Helfgott and Mala Helfgott’s mother, Sara, aged thirty-seven and their little sister Luisa, aged eight.
The 2,400 Jews who remained alive were now all confined in forced labour camps, among them many members of the Boys.
South central Poland had been a centre of the armaments industry since the area had been part of the Russian empire. Many of the Boys from Piotrkow were taken to munitions camps, notably one at Skarzysko-Kamienna, which was run by the German company HASAG.
There the members of the Boys became highly skilled workers and although they were treated with abject cruelty, they played an important part of the German war machine. One thousand five hundred other Jews were deported to the forced labour camps at Bilzyn, Pionki and Starachowice.
Those Jews who remained in Piotrkow worked in Hortensia glass factory, which produced jars and bottles, the Kara factory that produced glass plate, and the Bugaj timber yards.
In November 1944, the Jewish workers at the glass factories and a smaller part from the Bugaj were sent to the HASAG factories in Czestochowa. The larger part of those from the Bugaj, including about 50 people from the glassworks, were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, among them were many members of the Boys.
The women and small children from both factories were also sent to Germany, to the Ravensbruck concentration camp and those who survived were liberated in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Among them was Mala Helfgott, also one of the Boys.
Piotrkow was liberated by the Soviet Forces on 16 January 1945. Less than 2,000 of the Jews who had been in the ghetto survived.
Some returned to Piotrkow, among them Benek Helfgott. He was arrested and Polish policeman threatened to shoot him before letting him go.
Only about half of the people that left Piotrkow in November 1944, survived the atrocious conditions in various German concentration camps and on the death marches.
Most of the surviving Jews of Piotrkow chose to leave Poland. Today, there are no known Jews in the city.
MODERN DAY PIOTRKOW
The traces of the Jewish community of Piotrkow-Trybunalski include two preserved synagogue buildings.
One of them was the Great Synagogue built at the end of the 18th century; it is one of the best preserved synagogues in the region. It is now home to the town library. The other synagogue, the so-called Small Synagogue, also dating back to the 18th century, is the children’s library.