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Letter by Josef Broniatowski

Letter by Josef Broniatowski
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Upon rising to power in 1933, the Nazi Party immediately began issuing laws restricting the rights of those they identified as “outsiders” or “enemies.”1 As part of the Nazi project to create a new German "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft"), the regime waged an escalating campaign of persecution and intimidation targeting German Jews. By 1938, Nazi authorities aimed to drive Jews out of Germany by entirely excluding them from public life.2

Polish Jews living in Nazi Germany—about 50,000 in 1938—were among the most vulnerable to Nazi anti-Jewish laws.3 Many so-called “Ostjuden” (“Jews from the East”) were permanent residents whose families had lived in Germany for generations.4 Nevertheless, they had long endured discrimination from Germans—and many German Jews—who regarded them as foreign and uncivilized.5 Most Polish Jews in Germany lived in poor, overcrowded city districts, where they struggled under the hardships imposed by Nazi policies. Jews in these communities also found it difficult to emigrate because they lacked German citizenship and connections with German Jewish aid organizations. 

Those Polish Jews who hoped to flee Nazi Germany faced a new obstacle in October of 1938, when the Polish government suspended the passports of all Jews living abroad.6 To prevent so-called “Ostjuden” from remaining permanently in Germany, Nazi police officials decided to deport roughly 18,000 of them to Poland on the night of October 28–29, 1938.7 The letter featured here describes the chaos that ensued after Polish border guards refused to admit the deportees.

Josef Broniatowski wrote this letter to his sons in the United States days after his deportation, explaining how he and thousands of others were rounded up by German police and members of the Nazi SS on the night of October 28.8 Broniatowski’s account relays the fear and confusion that gripped Jewish families in Plauen, Leipzig, and other German cities as police arrested and shoved them into train cars headed for the Polish frontier. Forced to leave behind most of their belongings in Germany, thousands of Jews found themselves trapped in a no-man’s-land between Poland and Germany without food or adequate clothing. Broniatowski describes how the deportees—including children and the elderly—were then robbed, beaten, and terrorized by “Nazi bandits.”

Deportees who still had family in Poland, like Broniatowski, soon took shelter among relatives or friends. But as many as 8,000 of these now “stateless” Polish Jews were forced into a refugee camp established at Zbąszyń on the German-Polish border. Though Jewish relief organizations quickly provided aid to help relieve the awful conditions in the camp, many refugees remained there for months unable to secure visas to the United States or other countries.9 Most were eventually permitted to settle in Poland—but would again fall under Nazi rule after the outbreak of World War II.10

The October 1938 deportations indirectly led to yet another radical and violent escalation of Nazi anti-Jewish policies. After receiving a desperate letter from his family in the Zbąszyń camp, a young Polish Jewish man named Herschel Grzynszpan assassinated a German embassy official in Paris on November 7, 1938.11 Two days later, Nazi Party leaders seized on this murder as a pretext to incite attacks on Jews across Germany in the pogroms of Kristallnacht.

Several different groups became targets of Nazi persecution, including Roma and Sinti, people with disabilties, Communists, and others whose identities or behaviors did not conform to Nazi ideology and racial theories. For more details, see the related collections in Experiencing History, including Targets of Eugenics, Roma and Sinti in Nazi Germany, and Sexuality, Gender, and Nazi Persecution.

Antisemitic policies spurred waves of Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany beginning in 1933, but the escalation of anti-Jewish violence and legislation in 1937–1938 indicated to many Jews in Nazi Germany that life there was untenable. For more primary sources on the topic, see the Experiencing History collection, Exclusion of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Exact figures on the Polish Jewish population of Germany in 1938 are not available. According to the 1933 German census, approximately 56,000 Jews with Polish citizenship lived in Germany. Several thousand are thought to have been expelled or emigrated after 1933, but an additional 20,000 Polish Jews living in Austria fell under Nazi rule after the annexation of Austria in March 1938.

Most Polish Jews living in the Third Reich were denied German citizenship, even though many had deep roots in Germany. Some were veterans of the German Army and had served in World War I. Others were born and educated in Germany and spoke only German. See Tracey Hayes Norrell, For the Honor of Our Fatherland: German Jews on the Eastern Front during the Great War (Lexington Books, 2017). 


Antisemitic propaganda spread by the Nazi regime often centered on grotesque caricatures of "Jews from the East," of whom many were Orthodox in dress and appearance. "Ostjuden" first became a pejorative term for Eastern European Jews during the Weimar Republic. See Alexander Klijmuk, "The Construct Ostjuden in German Anti-Semitic Discourse of 1920–1932," Scripta Judaica Cracoviensia, no. 16 (2018), 97–108.

This decision was sparked by the German annexation of Austria on March 13, 1938, which placed thousands of Polish Jews living in Austria under Nazi rule. Antisemitic forces in the Polish parliament feared that these Jews, alarmed by antisemitic Nazi policies, would try to return to Poland. Polish authorities soon began to issue a series of regulations designed to invalidate the passports of Polish Jews living abroad. For more detailed information on the Polish government's policies and actions regarding Germany and Polish Jews during this period, see Jerzy Tomaszewski, "The Expulsion of Jewish Polish Citizens from Germany on October 28–29, 1938", Acta Poloniae Historica 76 (1997), 97–122. 

For a detailed account of the deportations and their aftermath, see Bonnie M. Harris, "From German Jews to Polish Refugees: Germany’s Polenaktion and the Zbąszyn Deportations of October 1938," Kwartalnik Historii Żydów, 230, no. 231 (2009), 175–205.

 The Experiencing History item Order on "Measures against the Jews" provides more detail on how different branches of the German police were used to terrorize, assault, and deport German Jews in 1938.

The camp initially lacked any food, supplies, or sanitary facilities. Deportees were housed in horse stables and a flour mill. The Red Cross and Jewish organizations in Poland, Germany, and the United States mobilized to provide aid and services, likely preventing a humanitarian disaster. For more details, see Jürgen Matthäus and Mark Roseman, eds., Jewish Responses to Persecution, Volume I, 1933–1938 (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2010), 341–349.

In January 1939, a negotiated settlement between Nazi Germany and Poland allowed the deportees to collect their assets and belongings in Germany and return to Poland. Many were adopted by Polish Jewish communities in the Polish interior. The camp was closed in August 1939, just days before Nazi Germany’s September 1, 1939 invasion of Poland. Many of those housed in the Zbąszyń camp were likely murdered during the Holocaust.

Grynszpan left Hannover, Germany, for France in 1936, where he lived without a visa and therefore was under constant threat of deportation. In October 1938, he read of the deportations of Polish Jews from Germany in French newspapers. He received on November 3 a postcard from his sister describing his family's suffering during the deportations. For more detail on the Nazis' exploitation of the assassination to promote antisemitic violence, see Alan E. Steinweis, "The Trials of Herschel Grynszpan: Anti-Jewish Policy and German Propaganda, 1938–1942," German Studies Review, 31, no. 3 (2008), 471–488.

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[Page 1] 

My dear boys! We sent you a telegram from Kattowitz [Polish: Katowice] to say that the German barbarians had thrown us out and that we ended up in Czenstochau [Polish: Częstochowa], now I want to tell you what happened: on Thursday, October 28, at one o’clock in the morning a regular policeman [German: Schutzmann] rang our bell and told us to open up, when he came into the apartment, he gave us a letter saying we were all being deported out of Germany and that very night had to get into the paddy wagon and go to the police station [German: Polizeihaus]. We took nothing with us, and we found that all of the Polish Jews in Plauen were already there, about 75 souls, old people, and little children aged 1 year, and also Grandpa, Grandma, and Uncle Moritz with his kids and Uncle Markus. We sat in the station the whole night and were then brought to Chemnitz in a bus; there they forced us on a special train where we found all the Jews from Zwickau and Chemnitz, and we couldn’t buy even a glass of water, even though the little ones had been pulled out of bed and hadn’t eaten all night! The train went to Dresden, where two trains with Jews from Leipzig were already waiting, and after a 12-hour trip that was guarded by Nazi bandits, they arrived at Beuthen [in Upper Silesia]

[Page 2]

on the Polish border. Here the worst crimes began since the world war, when the German barbarians went on a murder spree that has no equal: more than 8,000 people, only Jews, people ranging from 80 years old on down to children who were 14 days old were driven out of the cars in the night at eleven o’clock onto an open field, and on both sides there were thousands of SS bandits, and all were forced to march over meadows in the dark of night, after marching for 3 kilometers we heard the pitiful cries of people who were being murdered, we were led to a spot where there is a water-filled ditch four meters wide and up to a meter high, the border between Poland & Germany, people were thrown into the water there so that they would go over to the Polish side. Many people died during this, the bandits stole everything that people had quickly packed into their suitcases. I jumped into the water and Mammi threw Sascha to me and I threw Sascha over the water onto the meadow, then Mammi threw herself on me and I took her across, afterwards Mammi pulled me out of the muck with her bare hands and that’s how it was for everyone, Uncle Moritz got Donald and Achim across and Grandma sprained her leg.

[Page 3]

The Nazi bandits screamed drown the Jewish brood while this was happening. Thousands of Jews ended up on the meadow and marched soaked up to their waists across the fields. As we were getting close to a Polish village, some Polish soldiers came and chased us back to the German border, all the while hitting people and shooting. The Poles said that the German barbarians should take us to the legal border, not the smugglers’ border: and so thousands were pushed back and forth between the borders the whole night, during which many old people and little children died. Early in the morning we were on the German side again and were driven about 8 kilometers to the legal border crossing, where a Pole let us through. There the Jews from Kattowitz already knew what had happened and quickly brought milk and bread to the children and old people and brought them to a shelter, where they could dry their wet clothes. The suffering was terrible, in the village to which they chased us the miners,

[Page 4]

who are Catholics, started crying when they saw all this suffering and misery. The next day we took a special train to Kattowitz and then traveled as far as Czenstochau. We took nothing with us, only the clothes on our backs, everything was left behind in Plauen. We are here at our parents’ place, Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle Moritz, Aunt Loni, Sascha, Achim, and Donald. They are bargaining with the barbarians to let us go back to Plauen to fetch our furniture and clothes. My children, we will never forget this, and the Jewish people will know for eternity what the German culture of thieves [Rauber-Kultur] has done. For the time being write to us at this address: 

Ch. Broniatowski, Częstochowa (Poland) ul. farbyczna 22 

Give this letter to Rabbi Miller to read and also our other friends. You can also let the newspapers know but don’t give our names because there are also German informers around here. We are happy that none of us was hurt because we all could have gotten sick after wandering around all night in wet clothes. Even little Donald had to join this funeral march. We hope that Mr. Kirschmann already sent the tax certificate so that we can get the visa from the American consul in Warsaw as quickly as possible.

I send loving greetings and kisses, Your Papa.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 2000.30
Date Created
November 1938
Author / Creator
Josef Broniatowski
Częstochowa, Poland
Reference Location
Plauen, Germany
Document Type Letter
How to Cite Museum Materials

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