Auschwitz prayer book 311.
(photo credit: Yad Vashem)
Lately the small Polish community of Mielec has received attention in the press
and the publishing world. The survivors of this community today are few and far
between, but one, living in Jerusalem, has very vivid memories of the place she
The Geminder family had an established presence in this
shtetl in the 19th century. Great-grandmother Blime’s son, Haim, had a horse and
wagon with which he traveled to the neighboring villages, collecting and filling
orders from the peasants. This proved to be profitable, for eventually he
amassed enough money to build a two-story stone house.
His wife, Mindel,
ran a thriving general store located on the first floor while the family lived
in an apartment on the second floor.
Haim and Mindel had three children,
Feige, Sheindl and Yedidya; Feige ran the store with her mother. With the
approach of World War I, Mindel was anxious to keep her only son from being
drafted, and so sent him to Holland. While there, Yedidya agreed to a match with
Helene, one of eight orphaned sisters whose family fled to Germany from
The couple settled in Halle (Germany) and had two girls, Lore and
However, their ties to Mielec had not been severed. Once or twice
each year they went “home” and visited the Mielec relatives.
In 1938, the
family was deported to Poland, returning home to Mielec.
What was there
to be found in this shtetl? Mielec was by no means cut off from the outside
world because it was on a train route to and from Cracow. As a result,
newspapers, in particular Yiddish newspapers, were available. The “periodical
library” was the beit midrash, where the men vied to read the latest news. There
was also a very gifted amateur theater in the community along with a flourishing
Yiddish culture and activities of Zionist organizations.
A week after the
war began (September 1, 1939), on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Germans arrived.
They burned down the mikve (ritual bath) and the butcher’s premises, both filled
with Jews, and promptly left. The Geminders heard the screams and shooting from
their home. In the morning after the pogrom, they saw the burial society
carrying the murdered victims to be buried in a mass grave.
arrived a few months later, rounding up men for labor camps. This community of
4,000 to 5,000 Jews doubled in size as refugees from Cracow and elsewhere
arrived. By this time, Jewish schools were outlawed although clandestine home
classes were held by a student expelled from the university in
Aunt Feige’s husband, Reuven, was a member of the Judenrat; he
was convinced that deportation could be prevented by bribery. Helene had a
typewriter (and knew German) which enabled her to earn money preparing petitions
for travel permits. As soon as her typewriter was confiscated, she correctly
predicted the deportations on the following day.
On March 9, 1942, the
Jews were driven out of their homes and rounded up in the marketplace; the old
and feeble were shot on the equivalent of a death march. The survivors waited in
a hangar in the aircraft factory without food or water and were herded into
cattle cars a few days later.
Some were then marched to Sosnowice,
waiting for the Sobibor death camp to be ready. Meanwhile, Helene contacted a
Polish woman who ferried the family to Feige and Reuven, who were in Radomisl
Wielki. All of them were deported again in the summer, and marched to Debica
until the final deportation and the establishment of a labor camp.
family successfully hid behind a false wall in an attic; when they emerged,
Helene discovered that because of her typing skills, her name appeared on a
special list. She would become one of Oskar Schindler’s typists, managing to get
Lore’s name onto “the” list as well.
Irene fled, digging a hole under a
fence, returning to Mielec. No one there would hide her, but she miraculously
located a Polish family that, after fleeing the Germans, had been their
neighbors in Mielec (but had since moved). These temporary residents of her home
town saved Irene by hiding her on top of their chicken coop until the end of the
Hence her story can be told. (See Irene Eber, The Choice: Poland
1939- 1945. Schocken, 2004) The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean
at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She
has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish