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Post-Holocaust Testimony

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Testimony of Fiszl Kuszner

Testimony of Fiszel Kuszner 1945
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

One of thousands of documents collected by the Historical Commission of the Central Jewish Committee in Poland, Fiszl Kuszner's  testimony represents one of the earliest postwar accounts of the violence suffered by Jewish communities in Poland under German occupation.1 These often raw and emotional narratives describe atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the war. They also point to the lingering hostility facing Jews in Poland after liberation. Jewish survivors continued to live in fear of persecution by Poles, and at least a thousand Polish Jews were murdered in Poland from 1944 to 1946.2

In addition to Kuszner's testimony, the Commission collected during the early postwar period several documents concerning the massacre in Jedwabne, a small town in northeastern Poland not far from Kuszner's home of Trzcianne.3 Witnesses recounted how on one July day in 1941, Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne and nearby villages tortured and killed several hundred of the town's Jews, burning many of them alive in a barn. This was likely the largest pogrom against Jews perpetrated by Poles during World War II. Like Kuszner, Jedwabne's Jews described the destruction of their village in graphic detail. They noted carefully that their assailants had also been their long-time neighbors.4 Some recalled gangs of Poles roaming the villages and murdering Jewish men, women, and children. Many victims had known their killers personally in the years before the war.

These testimonies and other documents compiled by the Committee pressured Polish authorities to examine Poles' participation in some wartime atrocities. The Polish government's so-called August Decree, issued on August 31, 1944, established a legal framework for "the punishment of Fascist-Hitlerite criminals guilty of murder and ill treatment of the civilian population [...] and the punishment of traitors to the Polish Nation." Unfolding over the late 1940s and early 1950s, the subsequent trials demonstrated the difficulty of prosecuting those Poles accused of war crimes. Investigators struggled to recruit witnesses who would testify or identify those responsible. Defendants often shifted the blame onto the deceased or disappeared, and prosecutors hesitated to expose widespread complicity amongst the population. In the case of Jedwabne, the trials yielded few convictions. Even those convicted received lenient sentences or were later acquitted. The court concluded that the Germans bore ultimate responsibility for the murders. Those tried for crimes in Kuszner's Trzcianne were likewise acquitted, and guilt was assigned to Germans and a few deceased Polish policemen.5

Controversy over Poles' complicity in the Holocaust persists. Polish American historian Jan T. Gross's book on Jedwabne, based largely on testimonies filed by the Historical Commission, became the source of major debate on Polish-Jewish relations in postwar Poland after its publication in 2000. While some rejected Neighbors as anti-Polish slander, others saw it as a call to confront a complex, painful past. Government officials offered apologies for the Jedwabne murders, and a special commission was launched to investigate the massacre. One of the commission's key findings—that none of the Polish perpetrators remained alive to stand trial—suggests that justice for the victims, or for survivors like Kuszner, remains elusive.

For more information on Jewish historical organizations' efforts to collect Holocaust documentation in postwar Europe, see Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record! Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). See also the items Moyshe Feygnboym: "Why Historical Commissions?" and A Call for Information on War Criminals in this collection. 

During a 1946 pogrom in Kielce, Poland, Poles murdered at least 42 Jewish men, women, and children who had survived the Holocaust. See Joanna Michlic-Coren, "Polish Jews during and after the Kielce Pogrom: Reports from the Communist Archives" in Polin 13 (2000): 253-67.

 

More detail on the murder and despoliation of Jews in Trzcianne can be found in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, vol. II, Geoffrey P. Megargee and Martin Dean, eds., 970-972.

For more on the massacre in Jedwabne, see Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

 

See Andrezj Żbikowski, "Pogromy i mordy ludności żydowskiej w Łomżynskiem i na Białostocczyźnie latem 1941 roku w świetle relacji ocalałych Żydów i dokumentów sądowych" in Wokół Jedwabnego, eds. P. Machcewicz, K. Persak, (Warsaw: IPN 2002), 211-213.

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            Revenge.

             The history of the Jews in Trzcianne, Poland.
             During the German occupation, as told by Fiszl Kushner,
             who lived in Trzcianne.
             Fiszel Kuszner1

 

          Thursday, June 28th, 1941. In the early hours of the morning, as the sun cast its rays over the tranquil populace, Hitler's army, after violent bombardment, occupied our village, Trzcianne. During all the world wars, no soldier had ever set foot in our village, or the surrounding countryside, and in the entire history of the village there had never been a fire, thanks, so our forefathers told us, to the blessings of the well-known rabbi, Reb Mikhele. And so the Jews of nearby villages decided to move into our village, whose population numbered 3000 Jews. 

The Jews of the village hid in their dark basements, waiting for the blood-thirsty hordes to arrive. Everyone's heart beat faster, instinctively understanding what was in store for them at the hands of the cultured Western Europeans, who had rolled up their sleeves and were ready to fall upon the peaceful inhabitants like savage beasts.

At three in the afternoon, a brief consultation was held in the Priest Mikulski's house, it was ascertained that the entire population of the village was Jewish. They paid no attention to the fact that the village has a five hundred year old history, or that all branches of industry had been developed there, that it was the second most important city in all of Poland in the manufacture and export of brushes, and pig-hair textiles, no clarification or argument was taken into account that the village had every right to continue its existence, to be productive for the good of the population. The village was cruelly swallowed up in the flames. In just fifteen minutes the village was transformed into a mountain of ash, only the chimneys left standing bore witness to the fact that people had once lived there.

The Jewish residents, particularly the youth, were violently beaten. They were made to dig their own graves and forced to crawl in and shoot themselves. People fell like flies on the road, and were unable to receive a proper Jewish burial. The military left behind one solitary nineteen-year-old Nazi. With the help of Polish hooligans he had the remaining Jews gather together in a pit, where the death sentence was carried out by the young Nazi himself with the consent of the neighboring population, on account of the Jewish property which they had hidden in their homes, and which they stood to inherit from our families. The young murderer liked to get some shooting in before breakfast, with his short rifle he murdered fifty Jews. Then the wild tiger gorged himself on innocent blood. Children were torn from their mother's breast and thrown into the pit. One mother, Rokhl Moler, stood wringing her hands, biting her lip, watching the tragic, gruesome tableau, and through gritted teeth screamed that she prefer to join the victims herself. No feelings of mercy were awakened in the young murderer. He satisfied his bloodlust on a daily basis, taking his portion of victims; some were shot, some were thrown alive into the pit, and some were tortured. Women were raped before their parents' eyes. The resounding screams split the sky, reaching up to the seventh heaven. God himself must surely have heard, and yet he remained silent. Of the Jews who were led to the mound to be shot, one called out in a booming voice: "God, how can you be silent and not react to the injustice which is being carried out, the murder of people who have never done anyone any harm, people who three times a day sing your praises?" A second voice cried out: "No! There is no god! There is no mercy, no morality!"

Uncontrollably, hands were raised, and with a hysterical cry addressed the nineteen-year-old butcher: "Let us go to the priest in the church and be baptised! We will destroy Jewish morals and ethics, we will renounce everything, the Jewish face will vanish for good. All we ask of you, murderer, is that you spare our lives!" No, no sentimental religious feelings could convince the young murderer. His short rifle silenced them all.

So it went, without cease they were brought to be shot: the mother Rokhl Gorodetski with her dear, sweet children, the old gray-haired Cantor and ritual slaughterer Itskhok Nal, as a communist. The murderous neighbors joined in with the dance of death. Young people were pulled from the crowd to bury their sisters and brothers who lay in the fields, killed at the hands of the hooligans for the sake of pillage.

On the second day they set to work cleaning up the ruins of the village. People were forced to carry rocks that were beyond human capacity to carry, and when someone refused to carry out the orders, they were tortured to death. The tormented soul that drifted out of the tortured body went to God, asking: "Have we been sentenced  to destruction? Do we not have human hearts and feelings? Are we not the people of knowledge, morals and ethics, whose culture has risen to the highest levels?" The tormented soul received no answer, and finding no peace in heaven, returned to the earth with the cry:

"To fight, to endure as living witnesses before the tribunals of the world, we must tell the world what we have seen of a nation that was once the center of Western-European culture, with its great poets, writers, artists and technicians, which has transformed into a monster. A day will come when the civilized world will demand an explanation, and will demand a reward for our innocent blood!"

Eight days without cease. Without so much as a drop of water, the young murderer carried out the diabolical, murderous, brutish mission of his nation. He had left behind a mound of six hundred Jews, which became a brotherly grave; he had it covered with sand, drowning out the cries of agony, the groaning of the martyrs, which could be heard as far as the grave.

Wherever I go, the echo of innocent blood rings in my ears, with my eyes I see how the earth refuses to soak up the blood that roars like the waves of the sea, and calls out to the whole of the civilized word: a reckoning!"

There is no clarification or justification for all those murders. Our blood will settle, we will lie peacefully in the brotherly grave, only when the act of vengeance has been carried out.

                                                                                                     Fiszl Kuszner 

Trzcianne, May 3, 1945

 

The Attacks on Jews in Trzcianne

Recounted by Fiszl Kuszner and Toybe Gobinet,
April 17, 1945

On the 15th of April, 1945, the Jews of Trzcianne, in this case 13 souls, received information from authoritative sources concerning the presence of a gang which was preparing to murder Jews. Two families, numbering 13 people, quickly packed, boarded two carriages and heading in the direction of Knyszyn. On the road, two kilometres from Knyszyn 3 bandits from the local Polish population pursued on bicycles the Jews who were in the second carriage, opening fire on them with a hail of bullets. 2 people were wounded in the shooting:

The father, Efroyim Zshutkevitsh, 45 years old,
his son, Khayim Zshutkevitsh, 16 years old,
and his daugher, Golde Zshutkevitsh, 9 years old.
These details were relayed by the others present, who had miraculously escaped death.

Witness— (illegible)

      Protocolant—

Chairman of the Jewish Provincial Historical Commision
           M. Turek, M.A.

 

 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw
Source Number 15.084M
Source Number 301/150
Date Created
May 3, 1945
Author / Creator
Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH), Warsaw
Language(s)
Yiddish
Location
Trzcianne, Poland
Jedwabne, Poland
Document Type Report
How to Cite Museum Materials