The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Last-Modified: 1996/06/20

"The Germans, without precise orders about the methods by
which to achieve their ends, took their own initiative (as
they so often were to do during the Holocaust) in devising a
new course of action. The main synagogue of Bialystok was a
towering symbol of Jewish life. An impressive squarish stone
structure crowned with a dome, it was the largest synagogue in
Poland. Casting about for a way to dispose of the mass of
assembled Jews under the shadow of this looming testament to
the life of the Jewish enemy, the Germans adopted a plan to
destroy both simultaneously -- the Jews as well as their
spiritual and symbolic home -- which was a natuaral conclusion
for their anti-semitically inflamed minds. <31> The burning of
synagogues, especially during Kristallnacht, had already
become a motif of German anti-Jewish action, and, once
established, it was available to be drawn upon anew as a guide
to action. Transubstantiating a house of worship into a
charnel house was an ironic beginning to the campaign that
these men knew was supposed to end with Jewry's extinction.

The men of Police Battalion 309's First amd Third Companies
drove their victims into the synagogue, the less complaint
Jews receiving from the Germans liberal blows of
encouragement. The Germans packed the large synagogue full.
The fearful Jews began to chant and pray loudly. After spreading
gasoline around the building, the Germans set it ablaze; one
of the men tossed an explosive through a window, to ignite the
holocaust. The Jews' prayers turned into screams. A battalion
member later described the scene that he witnessed: "I saw...
smoke, that came out of the synagogue and heard there how the
incarcerated people cried loudly for help. I was about 70
meters' distance from the synagogue. I could see the building
and observed that people tried to escape through the windows.
One shot at them. Circling the synagogue stood the police
members who were apparently supposed to cordon it off, in
order to ensure that no one emerged."<32> Between 100 and 150
men of the battalion surrounded the burning synagogue. They
collectively ensured that none of the appointed Jews escaped
the inferno. They watched as over seven hundred people died
this hideous and painful death, listening to screams of agony.
Most of the victims were men, though some women and children
were among them.<33> Not surprisingly, some of the Jews within
spared themselves the fiery death by hanging themselves or
severing their arteries. At least six Jews came running out of
the synagogue, their clothes and bodies aflame. The Germans
shot each one down, only to watch these human torches burn
themselves out.<34>" (Goldhagen, 189-190)


<31> For the spontaneity of the Germans' burning of the
     synagogue, see E.M., Buchs, pp. 1814r-1815
<32> H.S., Buchs, p. 1764
<33> The court estimates the number to have been at least
     seven hundred (Judgement, Buchs, p. 57). The Indictment puts
it at a minimum of eight hundred (Buchs, p. 113). Jewish
sources place the number at around two thousand. A survivor
estimates that 90 percent of the victims were men and 10
percent were women and children. See J.S., Buchs, p. 1830;
also, see I.A., Buchs, p.1835
<34> Judgement, Buchs, p. 56-58. The Germans forced at least
     two Jews, a man and a woman, into the building after it was
already ablaze.

                         Work Cited

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler's Willing Executioners. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996

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