Night scene

A side street in Zolynia Centre, modern day. This was the heart of the Jewish neighborhood.


Return to Zolynia

Many of those who already knew that their families, friends and communities were gone often did not want to stay in Poland. For some survivors, Poland seemed like an enormous graveyard. Others began the journey back to their hometowns. Some saw no other obvious place to go, and others sought out loved ones who might be alive. What they found stunned them and shocked much of the world.

In the last ten years, there has been an explosion in literature and academic exploration of a phenomenon that for forty years was largely absent from official history in Poland, and which is now the subject of study, theory and controversy. What happened is fairly clear. Why it happened is not.

Jews returning to their hometowns in Poland hoped to be allowed to live in peace after the horrors of the concentration camps, bunkers and other calamitous circumstances. Exhuasted, depressed and unable to even describe much of what they had seen in words, they were now met by fierce hostility from neighbors in their former communities. In many cases, non-Jews who, it was now known, had risked everything by hiding Jews were shunned and cursed by those in their neighborhood. The attitude was not universal, for even some who had been Nationalists and openly in favor of restrictions on Jews prior to the war now felt that Jews were no longer an economic or political threat, and showed some sympathy toward human beings in distress. Others openly expressed regret that the Germans had not finished the work of making the country Judenfrei.

The account of a resident of nearby Grodzisko Dolne, speaking to an interviewer in the mid-1980s, may be very telling. Explaining to an interviewer why the surviving Jews in the village left after the war, he said:

Before the war, the Jews dominated all commerce. They derived profit from the Poles, and for this reason they were not liked by the residents.

The peddlers, tailors and butchers of Zolynia who were Jewish likely did not see themselves as dominating anyone, but this was the world view of many of their neighbors. The speaker remembered that a married couple named Rydzik lived at Grodzisko Dolne before the war. The wife was Jewish. They managed to hide her background and survive the occupation, but after the liberation they felt they had to flee. They left Poland.

A Jewish survivor from Lezajsk returned just after the liberation. She had survived the war by posing as a non-Jew. Stopping for tea in a cafe, she overheard the conversation between a group of local residents at the next table, which she described years later:

Apparently, nine Jews returned to Lizhensk and lived together in one house. Some people came at night and threw a bomb into the house. All of them were killed. There was a debate among them. Some said that this was good, for what more do Jews want to find here? Who needs them here? On the other hand, others said that, even though there is no need for them, it was possible to have warned them to leave, and if they would not have left we could have been able to take appropriate measures. Both sides agreed that no crime or travesty was committed here, for if there were still Jews alive, they would now know not to come here again, for we will kill them like mice.

Visiting a former school teacher in Grodzisko, she was warmly greeted by the teacher, his wife and their children. However, she noted, "I was forced to present myself as a non-Jew to his older children, as a distant relative whom they did not know." She soon left and did not return to her home town.

On June 11, 1945, A nine-year-old girl in Rzeszow, 15 miles from Zolynia, was found murdered and mutiliated. Members of the county militia (the police force) spread the word that the girl had been killed and her blood sucked out by weakened Jews, trying to regain their strength. A hostile crowd and the militia began rounding up Jews from apartment buildings all over the city. Jews were beaten and clubbed. Higher authorities intervened and the Jews were released. It was the first of a series of increasing violent and deadly pogroms that were gaining international attention. There were major anti-Jewish riots in Cracow, Sosnowiec and Lubline that summer and fall, and numerous incidents in small towns and villages.

In 1944 and 1945, many Jews had been working to re-establish their communities. Yiddish language elementary schools had opened in dozens of places, and their were even some Yiddish language radio shows. By the fall of 1945, it was understood that isolated country roads and isolated little villages were not safe for Jewish travelers or returning Jews. Some Jews adopted Polish names to hide their identity. There were robberies, beatings and murders. By the end of 1946, at least 500 Jews in Poland were murdered, and some scholars make significantly higher estimates. Threats and violence caused Jews to move out of many towns en masse, as at Kolbuszowa (22 miles west of Zolynia).

The largest riot against Jews broke out at Kielce on July 4, 1946, another pogrom touched off by a blood libel. It ended in the deaths of about 40 Jews, one-fifth of the city's Jewish population at the time. This event cut the bottom out of hope for the restablishment and safety of Polish Jewry. Among many of the world's nations, and among the many Reform Jews and others in the United States who had been unenthusiastic or unsupportive of Zionism, support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine skyrocketed. Towns and cities across Poland emptied of Jews.

And the few dozen Jews in and just outside of Zolynia left, too. Chaskel Kesten, the butcher's son, was one of those who had returned to their communities to find who and what was there. He was killed on the steps of the house in which he lived before the war. No charges were filed.

The She'erit ha-Pletah and the DP Camps

As concentration and labor camps were liberated, the Allied military forces set up hundreds Displaced Persons Camps, mostly in Germany, Austria and Italy. At first, many of the camps were filthy and poorly supplied, but conditions improved when the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration took over a sgnificant role. The idea was to provide immediate help and safety to those who feared returning to their original homes due to potential violence or political persecution, and to plan their return to an appropriate homeland. Hundreds of thousands of Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs Germans and others were in the camps, though different ethnic and religious groups tended to concentrate in certain camps, and there were also some all-Jewish camps. International organizations like the Red Cross and numerous international Jewish aid organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee set up operations in the camps to provide health care and essential supplies, and attempted to register and track survivors. The DP camps attempted to register and track survivors, and over time sophisticated communities developed with newspapers, religious schools and political organizations. The Jews in the DP camps organized themselves into an organization called the She'erit ha-Pletah, Hebrew for "surviving remnant."

In the summer of 1946, there were approximately 240,000 Jews in Poland. After the Kielce pogrom, the Jewish population fell to 90,000 by the spring of 1947. Many Jews had been smuggled out to the DP camps by Zionist organizations like the Berihah ("Escape"). Eventually there were 250,000 Jews in the DP camps. Most wanted to go to Palestine, but the British had severely restricted entry. The Mossad and other groups were able to smuggle 100,000 survivors to Palestine by mid-1948.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 opened the borders there to all Jewish refugees and over 650,000 moved there by 1950, 30,000 of them DPs. Enough former Zholiners were in Israel that a hometown organization was founded, and still existed into the 1980s. The United States Congress adopted special laws allowing increased DP immigration. 80,000 Jewish DPs made it to the United States by 1952, including a few dozen Zholiners, who mainly settled in the New York area. It is likely that a few Zholiners ended up in the United Kingdom, Canada and a number of Latin American countries which accepted large numbers of DPs.

The End of Jewish Zolynia

The Jews who lived in Zolynia in 1939 were no longer there. Zolynia, Lancut, Lezajsk and all the nearby towns and villages had no more Jewish residents.


JDC cards

These are the American Joint Distribution Committee registration cards for Zholiners who survived the war and awaited visas to leave for the United States. Both immigrated in 1949. On the left, Genia Grossman lives in Hamburg and on the right, Wolf Katz is in Munich. The JDC provided many services to refugees and those in the DP camps, including job training programs and financial assistance for relocation and immigration.

Chaskel Kesten

Chaskel Kesten was killed in Zolynia.


More Information

Why there was there overt hostility toward Jews by many Poles after the war? Why was the return of Jews to the small towns and cities so threatening?

Perhaps the strangest aspect of all is the continued anti-Jewish opinion among a significant minority of people in Poland today, a country with few Jews. Surveys show that these attitudes are the most pronounced among the generation that actually lived through the war and witnessed the disappearance of their neighbors.

There are a variety of theories, some economic, some political and some deeply psychological. In 1984, Kazimierz Wyka, the Polish historian and philosopher, wrote about the economic and psychological aspects of the disappearance of Jews from towns and villages:

"To the Germans went the guilt and the crime; to us the keys and the till…The methods by which Germans liquidated the Jews rest on the Germans' conscience. The reaction to these methods rests nevertheless on our conscience."

At a 2008 public debate in Kielce about the postwar anti-Jewish riots there, a Polish economist told a reporter that "nobody is denying the crimes" but of the victims, "a lot of them were Jews, sure, but maybe wearing the uniforms of the NKVD, the Soviet secret security force."

┼╗ydokomuna, a slang term from before the war that means "Judeo-communist" with a connotation more like "Commie Jew." It expresses a pervasive stereotype, unsupported by any objective analysis or set of facts, that Jews introduced communism to Poland, imposed it on the population and dominated the post-war regime.

Prior to the war, the overwhelming majority of Jews were not communists or leftists of any kind, and after the war the overwhelming majority of communists were not Jews. Jan Gross has written, colorfully, "…that Jews were Communist, that Jews were vampires, could not have been the reason they were perceived as a threat by their neighbors—because they were neither."

There were numerous marriages in the DP camps. In 1946, 1947 and 1948, the survivor camps had the world's highest birthrate. .

Not just Jews, but also some ethnic Poles did not feel safe in post-liberation Poland. As the Wehrmacht withdrew toward Germany, the Soviets and their political allies moved to become the dominant political force in the liberated areas of Poland. Members of some Home Army units and other organizations suspected of loyalty to Polish leaders in London were arrested. It would take three years for Polish Communists to solidify their power across the country. The Home Army once had over 300,000 members, including quite a few in the Zolynia area, but now it was labeled a reactionary organization. Former H.A. members felt compelled to hide their wartime underground activities to avoid public humiliation and even possible imprisonment.


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