The Soviet Prelude
On 17 September 1939 the Soviet Union attacked eastern Poland in keeping with the secret protocols attached to the infamous German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Advancing swiftly, with virtually no resistance, the Red Army occupied Kuty late that night. The ensuing Soviet Communist regime was to remain in place until June, 1940, when Germany and its Axis allies invaded.
The Soviet takeover and subsequent annexation of Eastern Galicia (then styled "Western Ukraine") led to the imposition of a Bolshevik-style political and economic regime onto Kuty. A provisional municipal council was appointed, consisting mainly of Jewish Communists. Young Jews, the radical elements, were also prominent in the local militia that was set up. These Jewish Communists were disposed to serve their Soviet masters well, and some were inclined to use their newly acquired power to take revenge for decades of anti-Communist repression. In early 1940, a group of volunteers departed for labour service in the Donbas region of the USSR, but returned after several weeks greatly disappointed as a result of the conditions of work and poor standard of living.
The new administration set up a Yiddish-language public school in Kuty, based on the Soviet curriculum. Yet, as the Soviet authorities accelerated their Ukrainization policies intended, apparently, to expedite absorption of the region into the Ukrainian SSR, many Kitever Jews felt increasingly disaffected and disenchanted with the Communist regime.
Jewish communal and political organizations, and in particular Zionist activities, were banned by the Soviet administration. The Zionist-supported public libraries were transferred over to municipal control. In the course of doing so, all books were carefully vetted. Most were found to be politically incorrect, and were burnt. In spring, 1941, several Kuty Jewish Communists were arrested on charges of Trotskyism. As well, numbers of Jews were detained for so-called "economic crimes."
In keeping with Soviet economic policies, the Communists nationalized the flour mills, the tanneries, and certain of the artisan workshops. Former owners were subject to strict regulatory controls limiting their mobility and occupational choices. Private wholesale trade was prohibited, and retail trade withered. Shopkeepers were unable to replace inventory and were anyway overwhelmed by excessive taxation. Artisans were pressured into cooperatives. The private sector economy of Kitever Jewry was effectively eliminated.
When war broke out on 22 June 1941, only a few Jews from Kuty were able to escape with the retreating Red Army. On 1 August Kuty was occupied by Rumanian and Hungarian forces, allies of Germany. The Rumanian soldiery were brutal in their treatment of the Jewish population. Prominent individuals were arrested and held hostage for a substantial ransom. While the conduct of the Hungarians was rather more tranquil, they too were culpable of seizing Jews indiscriminately for compulsory labour service. However, the Rumanian presence was short-lived, and the town remained under Hungarian military occupation until the end of August, 1941.
At the end of July, Jewish refugees from the Carpathians were brought to Kuty, and were taken into the care of the local community.
The Nazi Terror
The Germans seized control of Kuty in September, 1941. They levied a substantial financial contribution on the Jewish community, confiscated Jewish property, and intensified the requisitioning of workers for forced labour. Strict limitations were imposed on personal movement, and Jews were required to wear a white ribbon displaying a blue Magen David.
As in other towns, the Germans demanded the setting up of a Judenrat (Jewish administrative council) to administer Jewish affairs in Kuty. In doing so, the Kuty Judenrat was made subordinate administratively to the Judenrat at nearby Kolomyja, the regional centre. The first chairman to be appointed to the Kuty Judenrat was Menashe Mendel. The Kuty Judenrat did what it could to distribute the burdens imposed on the community as equitably as circumstances permitted.
In October, 1941 the Kolomyja Judenrat, under its chairman M. Horowitz, attempted to exact a substantial financial levy through its Kuty tributary. Menashe Mendel refused to fulfil this request, on the ground that the Kuty community already paid their share of the contribution. As a consequence, he was dismissed from office and replaced by a more pliant Zigmund Tilinger. Under Tilinger's chairmanship the Kuty Judenrat remained generally compliant and subservient to commands from Horowitz and from the Germans.
The winter of 1941-42, was extremely harsh. The people of Kuty suffered from severe cold and terrible food shortages. A typhus epidemic spread virulently, and many Jews died of disease and deprivation. Some would steal into the countryside at night in order to find food, at the risk of being shot by hostile peasants or handed over to the Germans. The peasant plight was desperate in itself, for there was little enough food to supply hungry, marauding townspeople as well as peasant needs. In order to alleviate the worsening hunger in the town, the Kuty Judenrat opened a public soup kitchen which distributed some watery broth to many hundreds of people.
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 extermination camps were being prepared, 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.)
By spring, 1942, word had begun to arrive in Kuty regarding the massacre of Jews in the surrounding area, and indeed the destruction of entire communities. Kuty Jews began to prepare themselves for the worst, readying places of concealment in the town and in the nearby forests. Individuals and small groups tried to flee to comparative safety across Czeremosz to Rumania, but very few succeeded. Most were caught en route by hostile Ukrainian peasants.
On the whole the surrounding Ukrainian population was extremely antagonistic to the Jews. Traditional animosities were considerably exacerbated and transformed by Stepan Bandera's German-backed Organization for Ukrainian Nationalists into a militant and angry ethno-nationalism, which castigated Jews as protagonists of Communism and as collaborators of Poland and Soviet Russia in the oppression suffered by their people. To be sure, these undercurrents of anti-Semitic hatred were sometimes overtaken by individual deeds of heroic righteousness. Thus, in a notable display of personal courage and selflessness, one Ukrainian Catholic priest, S. Maniogivitch, provided assistance to Jews and supplied them with food, even hiding several from the Nazis. A few Polish villagers also sheltered Jews from Kuty at great personal risk. As was said, it required the cooperation of many to save a single Jew, while the treachery of one could betray all.
Deportation and Extermination
As the Germans advanced across the densely Jewish populated areas of eastern Galicia, there followed in their wake the dreaded the SS Einsatzgruppen mobile extermination squads. These "Special Action Groups" were assigned to slaughter Jews in the first phase of the "Final Solution." Einsatzgruppe D, one of four battalion-size "Special Action Groups," operated in the southernmost sector of the Ukrainian front, which included Kuty. The commander of this extermination squad was the notorious SS-Brigadeführer [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 killer detachments 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 Germany's surrender Otto Ohlendorf was tried before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in the infamous Einsatzgruppen Case, and was convicted and executed as a war criminal).
Despite terrible privation, persecution, suffering, and losses, Kuty, 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 most Jewish settlements in Galicia and elsewhere in occupied Poland by early 1943, including Kuty. 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.
A squad of Einsatzgruppen D ("Einsatzkommandos") and Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei) arrived in Kuty on the last day of the Passover festival, 10 April 1942, in a convoy of trucks from Kolomyja. Even as the trucks entered the town, the killing squads opened fire on Jews gathering by the roadside. The Germans were shortly joined by Ukrainian police auxiliaries, who together raided Jewish homes. Entire residential blocks were set aflame in order to uncover any hiding places. Jews trying to break out from concealed bunkers were thrown back into the fires. Numerous others were shot dead in the streets. Some 950 Jews were killed. The dead were later buried in the town cemetery, though many bodies still remained under the burnt-out buildings.
On 24 April those Jews lacking certificates describing them as essential workers in Kuty were ordered deported to the ghetto at Kolomyja. Terrorized for their future, a number of Jews committed suicide. In the event, many of the 500 deportees died or were shot en route to the Kolomyja ghetto.
The end of the Kuty Jewish community came on 8 September 1942. On that date more than 800 Jews from Kuty, together with deportees from eight other communities, were taken to Kolomyja. From there they were transported by rail to Belzec extermination camp to be gassed. The horrendous details of this final deportation were reported by the captain of Reserve Police Battalion 133 of Police Regiment 24, the detachment that carried out the "catastrophic" transport, to the Commanding officer of the German Order Police Ordnungspolizei for the Galicia District in Lemberg (Polish: Lwow; Ukrainian: Lviv):
On September 8 and 10, actions in Kuty, Kosov, Horodenka, Zaplatov and Sniatyn were carried out. Some 1,500 Jews had to be driven on foot marches 50 kilometers from Kuty or 35 kilometers from Kosov to Kolomyja, where they were kept overnight in the courtyard of the Security Police prison with other Jews brought together from the region.
In the actions in the area around Kolomyja on September 8 and 10, some 400 Jews had to be eliminated by shooting for the well-known reasons. In the great roundup of Jews to be resettled by September 10 in Kolomyja, the Security Police loaded all Jews into the 30 available train cars... Given the great heat prevailing on those days and the strain on the Jews from the long foot marches or from waiting for days without being given any provisions worth noting, the excessively great overloading of most of the cars with 180 to 200 Jews was catastrophic in a way that had tremendously adverse effects on the transport.
As the train left Kolomyja on schedule at 8:50 p.m., the guard took up their stations... Throughout the entire trip the policemen had to remain in the cabooses, in order to be able to counter the scape attempts of the Jews. Shortly into the journey the Jews attempted to break through the sides and even through the ceilings of certain train cars. They were partially successful.. As the train entered Stanislawow, the train station workers and the station guards were present to carry out the necessary repairs and in addition to take over guarding the train.
... When the train subsequently resumed its journey, it was discovered at the next stop some stations later that once again large holes had been broken by the Jews in some of the train cars and that for the most part the barbed wire fastened on the outside of the ventilation windows had been torn off. In one train car the Jews had even been working with hammer and saw... During the further journey, at every station stop, help was needed to nail up the train, because otherwise the rest of the trip would not have been at all possible... After a brief halt at the Lemberg [Lwow/Lviv] train station, the train continued to the suburban station of Klaporov, where nine train cars marked with the letter "L" and destined for the [Janowska] labour camp were turned over to SS-Obersturmführer Schulze and unloaded...
With the change in engine in Lemberg, such an old engine was hooked up that further travel was possible only with continuous interruptions. The slow journey was time and again used by the strongest Jews to press themselves through the holes they had forced open and to seek their safety in flight, because in jumping from the slow-moving train they were scarcely injured. Despite the repeated requests to the engineer to go faster, this was not possible, so that the frequent stops on open stretches became increasingly unpleasant.
Shortly beyond Lemberg the commando had already shot off the ammunition they had with them... so that for the rest of the journey they had to resort to stones while the train was moving and to fixed bayonets when the train was stopped.
The ever great panic spreading among the Jews due to the great heat, overloading of the train cars, and stink of dead bodies - when unloading the train cars some 2,000 Jews were found dead in the train - made the transport almost unworkable. At 6:45 p.m. [11 September] the transport arrived in Belzec, and around 7:30 p.m. was turned over ...to the SS-Obersturbanführer and head of the camp there. Until the unloading of the transport around 10 p.m.... the escort commando was used to guard the train cars parked outside the camp. Because of the special circumstances described, the number of Jews who escape from this transport cannot be specified. Nonetheless, it can be assumed that at least two-thirds of the escaping Jews were shot or rendered harmless in some other way.
[cited in Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, 1992)]
The total number of Jews transported from Kuty and other towns around Kolomyja during those fateful September days amounted to 8,205. Fully a quarter of the deportees died on the train to Belzec from suffocation, heat prostration, exhaustion, or were killed trying to escape. Already during the initial round-up, those Jews considered too old, frail or sick to embark on the forced march to the Kolomyja railhead were shot.
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."
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."
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.
Most of the Kuty deportees went to Belzec, however a group of young Jews in the transport was diverted to the infamous Janowska slave labour camp near Lwow. Janowska was so savage and brutal that virtually no-one survived for any length of time. (On 19 November 1943 the SS proceeded to liquidate the Janowska slave labour camp, in face of resistance from Jewish inmates led by Leon Weliczker; all survivors were murdered.)
After these deportations only 18 skilled Jewish workers were left in Kuty. Two months later they too were killed.
Searches for concealed Jews continued long afterwards. For the first time in its lengthy history, the town of Kuty became - in the frightful Nazi phrase - "Judenrein."
Kuty was liberated on 2 April 1944 by units of the Red Army's First Ukrainian Army under Marshal Ivan Konev. A minuscule number of Jewish survivors subsequently abandoned the town. Jewish life in Kuty was never to be restored.
Today Kuty has no monument to its Jewish past, and there stands no memorial to the destruction of an Ir va'Em b'Yisrael, a Town and Mother of Israel.
< These things I do remember All the ages long >
From the Yom Kippur liturgy
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