(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1942, three anonymous Jewish residents of the Bialystok Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland were hung in the public square across the street from the Judenrat (Jewish Council) building. The three worked at the ghetto’s oil factory, and had been caught smuggling sunflower seeds.
The residents of the ghetto paid little attention to the execution, accepting it with resignation. It was hardly remarked on.
But this event was yet another small indication of dire events looming in the near future. Compared to those in other Nazi ghettos, such as those at Warsaw and Lodz, the Bialystok Jews had it pretty good. The ghetto, noted Sara Bender in her 2008 book The Jews of Bialystok During World War II and the Holocaust, was “organized, industrious, and even prosperous. Unlike other ghettos, it never experienced starvation or abject poverty.”
And it was seen as relatively safe. This day’s sort of vicious, arbitrary executions for minor rule infractions, which were so common elsewhere, were not at all frequent in Bialystok. Neither were the mass deportations that had by late 1942 decimated almost all the other ghettos.
Well, Bialystok’s turn was coming.
Unbeknownst to the Bialystokers, just as the sunflower seed smugglers were meeting their end, the powers that be in Berlin were debating the future of the ghetto. The Nazis in immediate charge of the ghetto wanted to keep it, and had logical reasons for doing so: namely, that it was a center of great industry, producing all kinds of goods for the German Army at almost no cost.
Killing off tens of thousands of hardworking slaves during wartime makes about as much sense as hanging three people over sunflower seeds, but this is what Berlin decided to do.
In early- to mid-February 1943, there was a surprise Aktion in the ghetto: 2,000 were killed and a further 10,000 deported to the Treblinka Extermination Camp. About 30,000 remained.
Once it was over, most of the surviving Bialystokers breathed a sigh of relief and hoped against hope that the worst was over — while a small underground group quietly organized an uprising for when the time came.
The rebellion, however, never really had time to get off the ground. When the final deportation occurred in August 1943, almost everyone went quietly in shock to their deaths. A cell of less than 100 fighters put up a few days’ struggle, enough to earn a footnote in history, before the last of the ghetto blew away with the ashes.