The Zbaszyn Tragedy: A Town Without Piety

Posted By Ann Rabinowitz

Jews in Nurenberg Being Transported to Zbaszyn
© Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / H. Grossberger

In the run up to World War II, there were numerous incidents of negative actions towards Jews by the German Nazis. One of these, called the “Polenaktion”, involved the deportation of Polish Jews to the town of Zbaszyn (now Bentschen) which was located on the German/Polish border not far from the larger town of Nowy Dvor, Poland.

To get a feel for what happened during this deplorable deportation which took place on October 28, 1938, an example can be utilized of the Jews from a small town in what is now Bukaczowce, Ukraine. Here, a number of families were taken along with 17,000 others from their homes and dumped at the border on Polish authorities who did not want them either.

The link for the story of these Bukaczowce Jewish residents can be found on the JewishGen ShtetLinks site by clicking here.

The scene in Zbaszyn was horrific and Emanuel Ringelblum, later the Warsaw Ghetto chronicler of the Oneg Shabes Archives, went there with several other social workers to ease the conditions and set up social organizations to help the refugees.

Emanuel Ringelblum

What follows is a letter he wrote to his friend, fellow Polish Jewish historian, Raphael Mahler, regarding what had taken place during his stay in the camp:

Srodborow, December 6, 1938

Dear Raphael,

I am on holiday in Srodborow. I worked in Zbaszyn for five weeks. Apart from Ginzberg, I am among the few who managed to hold out there for a long time. Almost all the others broke down after a more or less short time.

I have neither the strength nor the patience to describe for you everything that happened in Zbaszyn. Anyway, I think there has never been so ferocious, so pitiless a deportation of any Jewish Community as this German deportation. I saw one woman who was taken from her home in Germany while she was still in her pajamas (this woman is now half-demented).

I saw a woman of over 50 who was taken from her house paralyzed; afterwards she was carried all the way to the border in an armchair by young Jewish men. (She is in hospital until this day.) I saw a man suffering from sleeping sickness who was carried across the border on a stretcher, a cruelty not to be matched in all history.

In the course of those five weeks we (originally Giterman, Ginzberg and I, and after ten days I and Ginzberg, that is), set up a whole township with departments for supplies, hospitalization, carpentry workshops, tailors, shoemakers, books, a legal section, a migration department and an independent post office (with 53 employees), a welfare office, a court of arbitration, an organizing committee, open and secret control services, a cleaning service, and a complex sanitation service, etc. In addition to 10-15 people from Poland, almost 500 refugees from Germany are employed in the sections I listed above.

The most important thing is that this is not a situation where some give and some receive. The refugees look on us as brothers who have hurried to help them at a time of distress and tragedy. Almost all the responsible jobs are carried out by refugees. The warmest and most friendly relations exist between us and the refugees. It is not the moldering spirit of philanthropy, which might so easily have infiltrated into the work. For that reason all those in need of our aid enjoy receiving it. Nobody’s human feelings are hurt. Every complaint of bad treatment is investigated, and more than one "philanthropist" has been sent away from here.

We have begun on cultural activities. The first thing we introduced was the speaking of Yiddish. It has become quite the fashion in the camp. We have organized classes in Polish, attended by about 200 persons, and other classes. There are several reading rooms, a library; the religious groups have set up a Talmud Torah [religious school]. There are concerts, and a choir is active.
...Zbaszyn has become a symbol for the defenselessness of the Jews of Poland.

Jews were humiliated to the level of lepers, to citizens of the third class, and as a result we are all visited by terrible tragedy. Zbaszyn was a heavy moral blow against the Jewish population of Poland. And it is for this reason that all the threads lead from the Jewish masses to Zbaszyn and to the Jews who suffer there.

Please accept my warmest good wishes and kisses from,

R. Mahler, "Mikhtavei E. Ringelblum mi-Zbaszyn ve’al Zbaszyn" ("Letters of E. Ringelblum from and about Zbaszyn"), Yalkut Moreshet, No. 2 (1964), pp. 24-25.

Additional testimony regarding the conditions in Zbaszyn can be found as follows:
An unfortunate result of the Zbaszyn story is that the family of seventeen year old Hirsch Grynszpan wrote to him about their situation in Zbaszyn. Hirsch, who was living then in Paris, proceeded to the German Embassy in Paris where he supposedly dispatched a Third Secretary of the legation, Ernst vom Rath, on November 7, 1938.

Despite the fact that it is somewhat unclear as to whether this was a political act or a personal one implied by a supposed relationship between Hirsch and Ernst, this dramatic incident was used by Hitler as an excuse to promote the excesses of Kristallnacht which began a few days later.

Thus began the Holocaust and the many incidents that made up its entirety. For more information on these incidents, visit the sites of the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem as well as other Holocaust sites in your locality.

In addition, JewishGen’s Yizkor Book site and the individual shtetlink sites have information which is about specific shtetls and families.


  1. A month ago, on Sukkot, I had the privilege of meeting a 1st cousin of my father I recently discovered.

    He was one of 50 children saved by a Kindertransport from Zbaszyn. His mother and younger sister ultimately perished in the Shoah.

    The Zbaszyn Kindertransport story was reported in the 15 Feb 1939 Evening Standard: "Children Tell of Three Months' Ordeal in Border No-man's-land" and includes a photo of their landing.

  2. Dear Ittai:

    What a great reunion that must have been. Is there a link to the story you refer to in the London Evening Standard?


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