Following the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939, the Soviet Red Army overran the eastern portion of that country in keeping with the secret protocols attached to the notorious German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, and occupied Buczacz. Soviet Communist rule lasted from September, 1939 to June, 1940, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union.
The Soviet seizure and subsequent annexation of eastern Poland imposed a Bolshevik-style political and economic regime onto Buczacz, as it did to other parts of what was now styled the "Western Ukraine". Although religious life was officially tolerated, houses of worship were subject to heavy taxation. Institutions run by the kehila and local political organizations were terminated. Schools expressing a Zionist orientation were closed down. In their stead an officially sponsored school was set up using Yiddish as its medium of instruction.
Private trade withered under Soviet rule. Private stores were required to sell off their inventories without any possibility of replenishment. Shopkeepers were subject to prohibitive taxation intended to drive them out of business. For a while artisans were still permitted to work independently. After about mid-1940 they began to be pressured to join official cooperatives.
Jewish refugees from the German occupied areas of Poland flooded into Buczacz around this time. Some were transported into the Soviet Union at the end of June, 1940.
At a conference of German officials in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, on 20 January 1942, plans were laid down for the total destruction of European Jewry. This "Final Solution" would be implemented through the enslavement of able-bodied Jews, the separation of men from women, and the mass deportation of Jewish communities to their death. An extermination camp at Chelmno, in German occupied Poland, had been in operation for more than six weeks by the date of the Wannsee Conference. By March three additional killing centres were established, at Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor. Belzec, a small, remote Polish village, was initially the site of a German forced labor camp which later became an extermination camp. A rail spur was constructed to the camp, and on 17 March 1942 the first transport of Jews was brought from Lublin to be put to death at Belzec. In April/May 1942 the original small wooden building with three gas chambers was torn down and replaced with a large stone structure with six larger gas chambers. The Belzec extermination camp operated for approximately nine months, until the winter of 1943. During this period, most of the surviving Jewish population of eastern Galicia was deported to Belzec and killed within hours of arrival. Of the six hundred thousand Jews transported to Belzec to be gassed, there was only a single known survivor.
(Auschwitz, which began as a forced labour camp, commenced the mass killing of Jews on 4 May 1942.)
Following the German attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1942, some Jews had attempted to flee eastward from Buczacz, but were trapped by the mobile German columns. Cut off from the rapidly retreating Soviets, most had to return to Buczacz.
After the Red Army evacuated Buczacz at the end of June, and before the arrival of German forces on 7 July 1941, local Ukrainian vigilantes murdered certain Jewish individuals who had been active in the Soviet administration. Ukrainian policemen attacked Jews in what was in part a militia riot, in part a pogrom, looting property and coercing some Jews into forced labour in the town. The violence in Buczacz was directed by a Ukrainian schoolteacher, doubtless inspired by the militant ethno-nationalism and anti-Semitism of the German-backed Organization for Ukrainian Nationalists of Stepan Bandera. According to their aggressive and angry nationalist ideology, Jews were castigated as protagonists of Communism and as collaborators of Poland and Soviet Russia in the oppression suffered by Ukrainians. Yet, the Ukrainian progrom was merely a prelude to the catastrophe that was soon to unfold. When the German forces arrived, they were followed in their wake by the dreaded "Special Action Groups," the Einsatzgruppen extermination squads.
Four battalion-sized Einsatzgruppen, numbered A through D, were formed by the Nazi SS to accompany the invading combat forces and slaughter Jews, in the first phase of the "Final Solution." Einsatzgruppe D was attached to Eleventh Army assigned to attack the southernmost sector of the Ukrainian front. The commander of this death troop was the notorious SS-Brigadefuhrer [Major-General] (Dr.) Otto Ohlendorf. Like so many of the most vicious SS leaders, he was a displaced intellectual, wellborn and highly educated, a former instructor at the Institute of Applied Economic Science and afterwards a trade economist with the Ministry of Economics. Under Ohlendorf's command, Einsatzgruppe D extermination squads brutally shot, bayoneted, burnt, tortured, clubbed to death or buried alive more than 90,000 Jews in the first six months of the campaign. After the war, in his testimony and affidavit submitted to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, prior to his execution as a war criminal, Otto Ohlendorf described a typical Einsatzgruppe D killing frenzy.
The Einsatz unit would enter a village or town and order the prominent Jewish citizens
to call together all Jews for the purpose of "resettlement." They were requested to hand
over their valuables and shortly before execution to surrender their outer clothing. They
were transported to the place of execution, usually an anti-tank ditch, in trucks - always
only as many as could be executed immediately. In this way it was attempted to keep
the span of time from the moment in which the victims knew what was about to happen
to them until the time of their actual execution as short as possible.
Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, by firing squads in a military manner and the
corpses thrown into the ditch.
Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, by firing squads in a military manner and the corpses thrown into the ditch.
In its sweep across Eastern Galicia Einsatzgruppe D recruited local anti-Semites to help round up, terrorize and murder the Jews of Buczacz and other communities. The turn of Buczacz came on 28 July 1941. All Jewish males aged 18 to 50 were summoned to assemble in the square in front of the municipal court house. Some individuals hid themselves. Among those who assembled, several hundred were dismissed, mainly the artisans. About 350 men, mostly the better educated, were taken to Fedor Hill, about two kilometers southeast of the town, and were murdered by gunfire. Among those killed were several members of the newly appointed Judenrat.
In late July the Germans had sponsored the creation of a Jewish local council, the Judenrat, under the chairmanship of Mendel Reich, former head of the kehila, to handle the affairs of Buczacz Jewry. Other members of the Judenrat included Baruch Kramer, attorney Hecht, Y. Shtern, B. Engelberg, Munish Frankel, Rabbi Chaim Shapira, David Kaner, Kringel, Zeifer, Freund, and Zhelonick. A Jewish police force served under the Judenrat. This first Judenrat leadership reportedly attempted to make conditions for the Jewish community as bearable as possible in these terrible circumstances, by providing what relief it could and by distributing the burdens as equally as was feasible.
As one of its prime responsibilities, from the German perspective, the Judenrat was obliged to recruit Jewish labour for compulsory work projects and also to procure materiel needed by the conquerors. In addition, the Germans imposed a fiscal levy of 2 million roubles on the Jewish community. The organization of compulsory labour by the Judenrat tended to reduce the incidence of random abductions of people.
During July and August refugees began arriving in Buczacz from the Carpathians. At the initiative of the Judenrat, a public kitchen was set up, clothing was distributed, and clothing and housing assigned to the refugees. Within the framework of aid for refugees assistance was also provided to the poor elements of the indigenous Jewish community.
Conditions for Buczacz Jewry worsened drastically during the winter of 1941/42. While it was still possible to for some to obtain food in exchange for valuables, most people suffered from deepening hunger and privation. Many were afflicted by a typhus epidemic. The Germans tightened the economic screws in their unrelenting requirements for furniture, valuables, tea and coffee, which were imposed through the Judenrat. In December 1941 Jews were required to hand over any furs. In the autumn of 1941 Jewish youth were conscripted for work in slave labour camps near Tarnopol, at Borno-Wielki and Kamjuka Stromilova. Groups of young women were sent to the Jagalnitsa camp.
In early 1942 the Germans demanded that the Judenrat draft additional labour for compulsory work camps. The people, aware of the peril and travail of the labour camps, declined to come forward, so that the Judenrat was impelled to deploy the Jewish police to commandeer the resisters.
At that point, Mendel Reich resigned as chairman of the Judenrat, out of an unwillingness to collude in the attack on the Jewish community. He was succeeded by Baruch Kramer. Most Holocaust survivors testify to the very different demeanour of the Judenrat under Kramer. By way of contrast with his predecessor, who tried to ease the situation of the community and protect its viability, to the extent possible, Kramer tended to comply with German demands without reservation and without scruple.
In spring 1942 the Judenrat ran training courses to enhance the labour skills of Jewish workers. This skills training was intended for workers to qualify for labour certificates in German industry. In their desperation, any believed that if Jews could demonstrate their worthiness to German industry, this could minimize, or at least reduce, their vulnerability to deportation to compulsory labour camps.
Despite terrible privation, persecution, suffering, and losses, Buczacz, like most other Jewish communities in Poland, survived the initial onslaught more or less intact. Then, beginning in the spring of 1942, the Nazis embarked on a systematic campaign of mass killing, code named Operation Reinhard, intending to exterminate the Jewish population of pre-war Poland. The ensuing torrent of slaughter, what historian Christopher Browning has termed "the core of the Holocaust," completed the destruction of Buczacz Jewry along with most other Jewish settlements in Galicia and elsewhere in occupied Poland by early 1943. The celebrated historian Raul Hillberg has estimated that more than a quarter of the victims of the Holocaust were killed in the shootings; more than half perished in the six notorious death camps; and the remainder succumbed in the terrible conditions of ghettos, labour and concentration camps, or in death marches.
On 17 October 1942 the Germans launched the first large-scale "Action" in Buczacz. German Order Police and Ukrainian police raided Jewish homes and forcibly apprehended the residents in the town square. Since some Jews hid themselves in cellars and bunkers, a detailed search followed. Since most bunkers were well camouflaged, the Germans began to take apart houses and destroy their foundations in the search for concealed Jews. Many had attempted to flee from the square where the Jews were being assembled for transportation, and some 200 were killed on the spot. Some 1600 people were apprehended during that day, and were brought to the railway station for transportation in sealed freight cars to the Belzec extermination camp.
The Belzec extermination camp had its own rail spur connected to the main rail lines to eastern and western Galicia. Some twenty freight cars laden with deportees could be offloaded at the siding. A sign was mounted above the entrace to the SS compound: "Entrance to the Jewish State." The killing process at Belzec took place almost immediately the trains arrived. A grotesque death orchestra greeted the arrivals. The door to the gas chamber was draped with synagogue curtains bearing the Hebrew incription, "This is the Gateway of the Lord, the Righteous shall enter through it" (Psalm 118:20). Ukrainian and Estonian guards operated the gas chambers, supervised by the German SS.
A young German engineer, Dr Kurt Gerstein, who witnessed the killing at Belzec, provided a full description of the workings of the death camp after surrendering to the Western allies at the end of the war, before commiting suicide. As he described the arrival of Jewish deportees,
"For a number of men there still flickers a lingering hopoe, sufficient to make them
march without resistance to the death chambers. The majority know with certainty what
is to be their fate. The horrible, all-pervading stench reveals the truth. Then they climb
some small steps and behold the reality. Silent mothers hold their babies to their breats,
naked; there are many children of all ages. They hesitate, but nevertheless proceed
toward the death chambers, most of them without a word, pushed by those behind,
chased by the whips of the SS men.
The SS men squeeze people into the chambers. "Fill them up well," orders [Camp
commandant, Christian] Wirth. The naked people stand on each other's feet. About
seven to eight hundred people in an area of about a hundred square meters. The doors
close, the rest of the transport stands waiting, naked... In the winter, too, they stand
waiting, naked. But the diesal engine is not functioning... Fifty minites pass by; seventy
minutes. The people in the death chambers remain standing. Their weeping is heard.
SS Sturbannfuhrer Professor Dr Pfannenstiel, lecturer in hygene at Marburg University,
remarks: "Just like in a synagogue."
The SS men squeeze people into the chambers. "Fill them up well," orders [Camp commandant, Christian] Wirth. The naked people stand on each other's feet. About seven to eight hundred people in an area of about a hundred square meters. The doors close, the rest of the transport stands waiting, naked... In the winter, too, they stand waiting, naked. But the diesal engine is not functioning... Fifty minites pass by; seventy minutes. The people in the death chambers remain standing. Their weeping is heard. SS Sturbannfuhrer Professor Dr Pfannenstiel, lecturer in hygene at Marburg University, remarks: "Just like in a synagogue."
Only after two hours and forty-nine minutes does the diesel finally begin to work. Twenty-five minutes pass by. Many have already died, as can be seen through the small window. Twenty-eight minutes later a few are still alive. After thirty-two minutes all are dead... Jewish workers open the doors on the other side... The dead, having nowhere to fall, stand like pillars of basalt. Even in death, families may be seen standing pressed together, clutching hands. It ismonly with difficulty that the bodies are separated in order to clear the place fpor the next load. The blue corpses, covered with sweat and urine... babies and bodies of children, are thrown out. But there is no time! A couple of workers are busy with the mouths of the dead, opening them with iron pegs; "With gold to the left - without gold to the right", is the order. Others search in the private parts of the bodies for gold and diamonds... Wirth points to a full preserves tin and exclaims, "Lift it up and see how much gold there is." Cited in Martin Gilbert, Final Journey. The Fate of the Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: Mayflower Books, 1979, p 91.
According to Dr Gerstein, old people and invalids were removed separately, so as not to interrupt the flow of people into the gas chamber, and were taken to open pits nearby, and shot.
The remaining Jews of Buczacz had scarcely recovered from the events of October when, on 27 November 1942, they were targetted for another furious "Action." On that day some 2500 Jews were rounded up and sent to their death to Belzec. Many tried to avoid deportation by concealment or by escaping to surrounding villages. However, the Germans had set up guardposts along roads leading to and from the town, and also discovered some of the places of concealment. Segments of the local populace also joined in the hunt and handed over escaping Jews to the Germans. By the time this action ended, some 250 bodies lay in the streets of the town and its environs.
A walled ghetto was put up in Buczacz late in 1942. In addition to the remnants of the local community, Jews from the surrounding towns of Munastchevska Jazlovicz, Fotok Zloti, Korofitz were also incarcerated in the Buczacz ghetto. In excess of ten people were typically squeezed into single rooms. A typhus epidemic took between 20 and 30 lives a day. Being cut off from the outside world exacerbated the deprivation and hunger. Yet, even in these atrocious conditions the community endeavoured to maintain its humanistic values. Thus, ghetto children were organized into educational classes. One of the prominent educators in the Buczacz ghetto was Yosef Halevi, who taught Hebrew language and literature.
Not that the ghetto walls provided any protection from the slaughter. An "Action" on 1-2 February 1943 saw more than 2000 Jews taken from the Buczacz ghetto and shot at killing pits near Fedor Hill.
From then on the Germans began to differentiate between Jews who were deemed useful to German industry, and those considered "incapable of work." Skilled workers were taken to the Podheitzka labour camp in one of the suburbs of Buczacz. Meanwhile, the Jews remaining in the ghetto were targets of an almost continuous "Action" during March and April, 1943, with only brief respites. German forces arrived from neighbouring towns together with Ukrainian police auxiliaries, and were joined in the Action by elements of the local population. Death squads would break into the ghetto to attack blocks of houses, forcibly collecting the residents at the municipal jail. From there the hapless Jews were conveyed to Fedor Hill, where they were murdered at the mass gravesite. Some 400 Jewish young people, who had been selected for deportation to the Biaglanzia labour camp, in the event were also put to death at Fedor Hill. Mass killings during April and May of 1943 took some 3000 Jewish lives.
On 12 May 1943, the Germans ordered the deportation of all remaining Jews from Buczacz, except for those assigned to the Podheitzka labour camp, and a few families left in the ghetto. The others were deported to Chortkow, Tluste or Kopichintza. The deportees abandoned Buczacz on foot with waggons pulling the remnants of their belongings; shortly afterward they shared the fate of the local Jewry at their destinations. By this time the gasing at Belzec had ceased, so that the killing of Jews in eastern Galicia now took place in local cemeteries and woods.
In mid-June, 1943 the last survivors of the Buczacz ghetto were taken to be shot in the Jewish cemetery at the outskirts of the town. Around the same date the labour camp at Podheitzka was demolished, and its slave labour forces likewise put to death at the Jewish cemetery.
In the weeks that followed the Germans and Ukrainians continued to search for hidden bunkers in the ghetto and in surrounding villages. Jews that were found were brought to the cemetery to be killed. By then the ancient Jewish community of Buczacz had been utterly destroyed.
The Holocaust in Buczacz was not unaccompanied by Jewish resistance and revolt against the Nazis. German forces were everywhere triumphant, and heavily armed SS units maintained a fearful presence. The Jewish communities of Eastern Galicia were unarmed, terrorized, isolated from contact with all neighbouring communities, and lacked effective support from either the Polish government-in-exile in London or the retreating Soviets. Indeed, the breakup of Zionist organizations during the Soviet occupation of Eastern Galicia deprived these communities of their most potent self-defence capabilities. Yet, as early as December, 1941, when young Jews were being deported to labour camps, a group of 15 youth organized themselves to flee and hide. When the Germans discovered this effort at organized resistance, their forces tried for nearly half a year to capture the group, without success.
This group of young people became the core of the Jewish resistance in Buczacz. Following the terrible "Action" of October, 1942, they began a search for arms and prepared themselves to break out of the ghetto. Contact was established with other youth elements, especially members of the former Zionist youth movements. The commander of the Buczacz resistance was A. Bazan (Worman), and its other leaders included Sh. Margolit, Zoler, Sh. Evenshtein, Bildner, and S. Silber.
The resistance group maintained illicit contact with the Judenrat, through B. Engelberg, Merengel and Moshe Berger. The Judenrat agreed to provide some funds for the purchase of weapons, although it unknown whether this commitment was actually be carried out. In most communities, the Judenrat preferred not to take part in resistance activities, and sometimes even opposed or foiled activities. Shmuel Spector, "Jewish Resistance in Small Towns of Eastern Poland," in Norman Davies and Antony Polonsky, eds., Jews in Eastern Poland and the USSR, 1939-46 (London: Macmillan, in association with the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, 1991), pp.140-1. It was only where the Judenrat approved and cooperated with underground groups, like in Buczacz, that some semblence of organized resistance be contemplated. The resistance also included in its ranks some of the Jewish policemen, other than those who actively collaborated with the Germans.
The Buczacz resistance maintained a secret radio listening post and spread news information among the community. This helped bolster up people's will to survive. The Buczacz resistance also made contact with the remnants of other Jewish communities in the area, in order to encourage defiance and to explore possibilities of combined operations against the Germans and their supporters. No information is available on the outcome of these efforts.
By February 1943 the resistance had acquired a number of pistols and rifles and a limited supply of ammunition. The Buczacz resistance established contact with two Jewish Partisan units, the forces under the command of Weinzinger and D. Friedlander, operating in the surrounding countryside. The resistance also had contact with the Polish underground in the region, but the promised help from that quarter was not forthcoming.
The Buczacz resistance decided in March, 1943, that should another "Action" occur, it would assemble its modest force in woods near the Fedor Hill and would open fire on the German and Ukrainian killer squads, in order that some Jews might escape.
In the sorry event, the Germans managed to deflect the alertness of the Jews prior to the "Action" of 13 April, so that only one Jewish resistance fighter, Andman, was able to fire at a Ukrainian collaborator, killing him. The others found themselves unable to mount an organized resistance, and therefore prepared a breakout. Once the "Action" subsided, most of the resistance escaped the ghetto and redeployed to the nearby woods. After a while, the difficulties of finding refuge in the woods, the terrible privations of survival, compounded by local peasant hostility and betrayal, prompted some resistance fighters to return to the ghetto.
After the deportation of Buczacz Jews to other places, members of the resistance followed and took up resistance activities in these new localities.
Meanwhile, about 300 Buczacz Jews remained hidden in nearby forests for over nine months. Their resistance persisted, and they took revenge on those of the local population who betrayed fugitive Jews to the Germans. As the front line drew closer, German armoured forces surrounded the forest on 18 January 1944 and embarked on a systematic sweep of the area. All the Jews were found and killed.
Notwithstanding the generally hostile surrounds, there were, to be sure, heroic individuals among the non-Jewish population of Buczacz who risked their lives and those of their families to hide and rescue Jews. After the Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries began the progroms of July, 1941, Manko Swierszczak, a devout Catholic undertaker, was persuaded to provide refuge to some of the survivors in specially dug catacombs in a local cemetary. For nearly three years, until Buczacz was liberated, he regularly brought them food. Despite the suspicions of the Germans who caught and beat him twice, he never gave them away. As was said, it required the cooperation of many to save a single Jew, while the treachery of one could betray all. Manko Swierszczak was subsequently commended by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations."
On 23 March 1944, Buczacz was liberated by Red Army forces of Marshal Ivan Konev's First Ukrainian Front. It was then revealed that some 800 Jews had survived the Nazi Holocaust by hiding in bunkers in the town or in nearby villages. However, the plight of the survivors was not yet over. A German counterattack re-captured Buczacz, and with it most of the remaining Jews. When the town was retaken by the Soviets on 21 July 1944, fewer than 100 survivors were left alive.
During the months that followed another 400 Buczacz Jews who had spent the war years in the Soviet Union were now able to return to the town. However, by the end of 1945 most of the surviving Jewish population finally left Buczacz - which had by then been absorbed into the Ukrainian SSR - for Poland and then on to Israel and other lands.
The City of the Dead was bid farewell. Buczacz Jewry existed no more, its legacy fading with the passage of time. The killing grounds at Fedor Hill and at the Jewish cemetary bear no monument to their Jewish martyrs. Today there is nothing in the town of Buczacz to commemorate its ancient Jewish past, no memorial to the destruction of an Ir va'Em b'Yisrael, a Town and Mother of Israel.