My home: Mielec, Poland

The survivors of Mielec are few and far between, but one has very vivid memories of the place she called home.

February 3, 2012 18:00
3 minute read.
IRENE HAYA WEISS wrote this prayer book in camp

Auschwitz prayer book 311. (photo credit: Yad Vashem)


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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 called home.

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 Russia.

The couple settled in Halle (Germany) and had two girls, Lore and Irene.

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.

The Gestapo 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 Cracow.

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.

This 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 war.

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 women.

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