Warka, Poland

Warka is one of the oldest towns in Poland. Its name was first mentioned in 13th-century records when it began as a trading center. The origin of its name is obscure. I could have been derived from the Polish word warowac meaning "to guard", reflecting the early medieval function of guarding the access to the whole area adjacent to the Pilica estuary. Another hypothesis is that the name stems from one of the most widespread occupations of the local population: beer brewing--warzyc in Polish.

The most famous citizen of Warka was Casimir Pulaski who was born there on March 4, 1747. In 1768, he joined a confederation of Polish gentry organized to defend the country from encroachment by the three great superpowers of the day: Russia, Austro-Hungary and Prussia. He fought numerous battles in Poland, some more successful than others. In 1771, he was part of a plot to kidnap the Polish king Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski which failed. He fled Poland to Germany and France and then to the United States.

His very first contacts with the American troops revealed to him their weakness and lack of professional training. He sent a letter to commander-in-chief George Washington expressing his desire to serve under his command in the war for independence from England. He was made a brigadier general and commander of the cavalry by Congress. He fought in the battles of Brandywine Creek (Pennsylvania), Germantown (Pennsylvania) and Haddonfield (New Jersey), Little Egg Harbor (New Jersey) and Charleston (South Carolina). On October 9, 1779, he took part in a cavalry charge against Fort Spring Hill in Savannah, Georgia, and was mortally wounded. He was taken aboard a ship and died two days later and was buried at sea. A museum in his honor exists in Warka. It contains pictures and artifacts from his Polish and American exploits. 

The Wooden Synagogue of Warka

Interior pictures

Warka Today

Franciszkanska Street showing shops on right side once owned by Jews. Entrance to the town hall
Warka manufactures cheap beer and wine. The "Warka" sign over the restaurant is for the beer. Entrance to the Urzad Stanu Cywilnego (Civil Registration Office)
Graffitti covers the symbolic masoleum commemorating Rabbbi Yitzhak Kalish of Warka, a well-known Hassidic rabbi. The rabbi, who died in 1848, is buried somewhere at the cemetery. The cemetery is on the banks of the Pilica river. Not a single tombstone remains at the site of the Jewish cemetery; all were destroyed during the Holcoaust.
Gary Mokotoff in the church conservatory in Warka examining civil registration (birth, marriage and death) records from the 1820s.


 Warka and the Holocaust

"They" came into town on Friday night, September 8, 1939. The next morning, they began to round up people to work at clearing the highway between Wurka and Ger. The roundups continued daily. Jews were seized to clear the highway and the streets, to carry water, and to cook for the army. While at work, they were tortured and beaten terribly.

A few days later, there began a series of searches in Jewish homes, during which they robbed Jews of everything they could. A local woman of German origin was appointed as mayor, and another
Volksdeutsche, Weitknecht, was named chief of police. Both of them were "home-grown goyim," who knew the whole Jewish population very well, and used their knowledge to persecute the Jews.

First came the cutting of beards. When a bearded Jew was found, he was battered about murderously, and then his beard was cut off. The whole Jewish community was soon left beardless. Weitknecht, who was intimately acquainted with the entire Jewish population, had a list of twenty men who were in hiding to save their beards from being cut off. He began a campaign to find these Jews and remove their beards. One by one, he found all of them. Weitknecht initiated a special hunt for Meylekh Kamlot, a Jew with a long, white patriarchal beard. Although Kamlot made every effort to remain in hiding, he failed, and Weitknecht ultimately caught him.

When he did, he took a rope and tied it to Kamlot's beard, and in that manner led him across town. Weitknecht ran, and Kamlot being unable to run so quickly, was clearly in agonizing pain and screamed bitterly. Weitknecht was besides himself with laughter in reaction to the Jews cries. Finally, Weitknecht dragged him by the beard to the city hall, beat him up, and then took him to a barber shop, where Kamlot's beard was shaved off. To add insult to injury, Kamlot was forced to pay a considerable sum of money for the job.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5700, September 13, 1939, the Jewish population of Wurka shuddered at the dreadful news which arrived from the nearly village of Cencylowka. Due to libelous accusations, a number of Poles and thirteen Jews were imprisoned in a stable, including the eighty-year-old Nisnboym, his three sons, Haim, Dovid Yankev, and Shmuel, his two grandsons, Moyshe Oyer, and six others. The stable was then shelled with fire-bombs, and all of them were burned alive.

Yankev Nisnboyrn and Moyshe Oyer attempted to escape and were shot on the road. They were fortunate enough to receive Jewish burials. The eleven other Jews did not even have such a privilege. A heap of ashes was all that remained of the Jews and Gentiles in the stable.

A few weeks later, a tribute of six thousand zlotys was exacted from the Jewish population. At first, the sum was merely five thousand zlotys, and was ostensibly due to the fact that the
Judenrat had not supplied sufficient Jewish workers. But when the Jews were an hour late in paying the sum of five thousand zlotys, Mayor Kosmal raised the tribute by one thousand zlotys.

On Saturday, December 23, 1939, the mayor announced to the representatives of the Jewish council that since there was a recent custom in Germany to burn a living being during the Christmas Eve procession, we here in Wurka would burn a live Jew during this year's festivities. She intimated, however, that for a certain amount of money, she would be willing to have a paper Jew burned instead of a live Jew.

The heads of the
kehilah proceeded with hue and cry to the home of the local rabbi, who was a great communal leader and a lover of all Jews. The rabbi summoned the wealthiest Jews in town, pleaded and beseeched them to donate money to save a Jewish life. They immediately collected six thousand zlotys, which was the arnount demanded. The heads of the kehilah took the money to the mayor, who promised that no living Jew would be burned.

The night of December 24 arrived. When the church bells began to ring, the Jews' hearts began to beat louder. Who could tell what would happen in times like these? A huge fire blazed in the marketplace near the municipality, as at an
auto-da-fe. There began a procession of military music; firemen were brought in. They dragged in a young, sturdy, stocky-looking Jew, who was wearing a velvet cap and yarmulka on his head. He had a black beard and earlocks, and was dressed in a handsome new coat, with fine polished boots. The young Jew was dragged to the fire; he struggled slightly without saying a word. Finally, as the crowd's enthusiasm reached its peak, the Jew was thrown into the fire. The young man barely managed to wring his hands; by then the flames had devoured him entirely.

As it later turned out, this was not a living Jew. It was only a stuffed mannequin, in which special springs had been installed to make it seem as if it were resisting while it was dragged to the fire.

Immediately after Succos (October) 1939, in the middle of the night, people suddenly noticed that the synagogue and
beys medresh were on fire. Jews began to stream toward the shul from all directions in order to put out the fire, but the entire Jewish quarter was encircled by a cordon of soldiers, who opened fire at the oncoming Jews. The Jews were therefore forced to return to their homes. The fire began to spread from the shul to nearby houses. Jews attempted to escape from their homes, but they were immediately met by a hail of bullets. Only thanks to some miracle were there no fatalities from the shooting.

The rabbi, Yanovisky, and his son attempted to sneak out of their home located near the synagogue with two Torah scrolls. They were shot dead. All the Jewish houses near the synagogue caught fire. Jews ran from their homes to the courtyards to protect themselves against the flames and the bullets. There would certainly have been many fatalities, but miraculously, the fire began to spread to the Christian quarter, and as soon as that happened, the soldiers began to chase the Jews to work at extinguishing the fire. Thus many Jews were saved from certain death.

The synagogue,
beys medresh, and mikveh were completely destroyed, including all the Hebrew books and internal fixtures.

Immediately upon "their" entry into town, kosher ritual slaughter was completely banned, but it nonetheless continued illegally. The
mikveh was forcibly closed, and this was a difficult blow for the Jewish population, which had no place to wash, to bathe, or to perform ritual immersions. Then the mikveh burned down along with the synagogue and beys medresh.

Wednesday, New Year's Eve 1941, the whole town was suddenly surrounded by soldiers and Volksdeutsche. A Volksdeutscher was dispatched to every Jewish home, who made a careful search of the household, and collected all of the Jews' belongings in one place. The next day, officers came, wrote down the possessions of every Jew, and informed them that they were responsible for nothing being missing. A few days later, the Jews were robbed of everything they owned. They took from a single Jew named Mod Kozen fourteen wagonfuls of merchandise, textiles, and woolen garments.

Later on there was word of an expulsion of Jews. But the military police, who lived off the house-searches and acquired all their needs from the Jews, even furniture and garments, reassured the Jews that they would not be expelled.

Eight days before the event, the
Judenrat received definite news of the imminent expulsion. It consequently rented the truck belonging to the Aryan Zubelski Company, and agreed to pay one thousand zlotys for each trip it made to Warsaw. Needless to say, every time the truck was about to leave for Warsaw, all hell broke loose in town. Everyone had something they wanted to save. The military police took advantage of the situation to beat Jews brutally and to steal whatever they could.

On Sunday, February 20, 1941, the Jewish quarter was surrounded by a considerable number of military policemen from nearby towns. They gave orders for all Jews to gather in front of the municipality. Each was permitted to come with no more than twenty-five kilograms of baggage. The assembled Jewish population--men, women, and children--were beaten up badly in front of the municipality building. Then the order was given: march in the direction of the railroad depot!

They began walking at a normal pace; then the military policemen began to drive them faster and faster. The elderly, the weak, and the infirm who lagged behind were severely beaten by the military policemen with clubs and the butt-ends of their guns. At first, only the weak, elderly, and infirm threw away their packages, but they were soon followed by the healthy ones, who needed to make the running easier. By the time the Jews reached the railroad depot a few kilometers outside of town, the greater number of them did not have the baggage with them. They were chased into closed freight cars and sent off to Warsaw.

In Warsaw, all their remaining packages were seized, and the owners were ordered to come for them a few days later. When Jews appeared a few days later, they were ordered to state precisely how many kilograms and decagrams their packages weighed, and how many kilograms they contained of each item. Of course, only a few were able to do so. Thus, even those few possessions which they had managed to save from the lion's mouth, after all those hardships and catastrophes, were lost.

During the synagogue fire, the house of the famous Wurker Rebbe, in which he had lived and preached, was also burned down. The Rebbe, Reb Yitskhok was a great lover of fellow Jews; a great defender of and intercessor for the Jewish people. He was also known as one of the three signatories of the twenty statutes composed to combat the cholera of 1838.

From Kiddush HaShem by Rabbi Shimon Huberbrand (Ktav, 1987)


Other sites of interest:
Virtual Warka
Warka Beer
More on Warka Beer
Warka Shtetl Coop Project

Webmaster: Gary Mokotoff