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David Silberklang, Gates of Tears: The Holocaust in the Lublin District

Filed under: Anti-Semitism
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 27, Numbers 1–2

David Silberklang, Gates of Tears: The Holocaust in the Lublin District, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2013, 497 pp.

On June 24 1939, Benjamin Hirsch Bilgoraj, age 54, the brother of my maternal grandfather, received American immigration quota number 34556 from the American Consul in Warsaw. His wife Hencia, 45, and their daughters Lucia, 17, and Fela, 15, received successive numbers 34577–34559. Tragically, he and his family never reached American shores and their relatives in New York who were eagerly awaiting them. On September 1, 1939, the two girls were in eastern Galicia, spending their summer holidays in Czortków and Skala nad Zbruczem with their aged grandparents, their uncles, aunts and many cousins. The conquest and division [the fourth partition] of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union separated the parents from their daughters: the former were in German-occupied Poland and the latter, in the Soviet zone. In December 1940, Uncle Benjamin, and Aunt Hencia were deported from their home at ulica Łobzowska 47 in Kraków — a building vividly described in the autobiographical novel of the late Israeli writer, Miriam Akavia.1

According to German documents, Benjamin was deportee no. 159, aboard Transport No. 3, and was sent first to Lublin and then to the Piaski Ghetto — a distance of some 30 kilometers. Other than a few postcards and letters that arrived before the United States entered World War II, and several faded photographs of a serious-looking, bespectacled man, almost no trace of him remains and we have no precise details of the circumstances of his death.2 After his departure for Lublin, it was as if he were dispatched to an unknown Sheol from which he would never return.

A dumping ground for Jews from other parts of Poland and several cities beyond, such as Vienna, Stettin and Ostrava Moravská, the Piaski Ghetto was a place of appalling misery and cruelty. With the exception of experts in the history of the Holocaust in Poland, few have ever heard of it or of other towns and camps in the Lublin District that served as way stations for Jews. Even Bełżec, where some 500,000 Jews, mainly from Galicia and the Lublin District, were murdered, is little known among the general public.

Lublin and its environs were immortalized in the writings of the great Yiddish novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and his brother, Israel Joshua, who grew up in the town of Biłgoraj, from which my grandfather and his family derived their unusual name. The city of Lublin, of course, was especially well known throughout the Jewish world as a “Jewish Oxford.” It was the beating heart of Polish Jewish spirituality, a picturesque place of piety, pilpul and poverty.3 It also had been seat of the Vaad Arba Aratsot (the Council of the Four Lands), the unique institution of Jewish self-government that existed from 1580–1764. In 1930, the great yeshiva, “Chakhmei Lublin” (The Sages of Lublin), established by Rabbi Meir Shapira, was opened with great fanfare. During the German occupation, Lublin was designated as the administrative nerve center of Operation Reinhardt, the diabolical plan to murder every Jew in the Generalgouvernment.4 Chilling evidence of the lethal “success” of that operation may be gleaned from the 1943 Bedaekers Generalgouvernment, in which readers were informed that in 1862 the city was 57 percent Jewish, but was presently Judenfrei.5

Given both the large number of Jews in Lublin and the surrounding area prior to the Shoah (250–300,000 Jews of whom 40,000 lived in the city of Lublin) and the extent of the genocide that took place there, the relative paucity of works on the subject is noteworthy, especially when compared with the impressive literature about other major locations in Poland, such as Warsaw. On November 3, 1943, the last surviving Jews in the Lublin District were killed in Aktion Erntefest, one of the bloodiest massacres in history. On that day, 43,000 Jews were slaughtered in three separate locations.6 Operation Reinhardt came to an end.

* * *

American-born Israeli scholar, David Silberklang set out to fill the lacuna. Silberklang is the editor of Yad Vashem Studies, a leading scholarly journal that appears in both English and Hebrew. He is Senior Historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, and the Series Editor of The Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project. The fact that Silberklang acknowledges the guidance of three outstanding scholars of the Shoah—Yehuda Bauer, Omer Bartov and David Engel in putting together his book suggests that it is authoritative.

The evocative title of his book comes from a poignant letter by Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Talmud, who stated that “only the Gates of Tears have not been locked before us…” When someone prays with eyes full of tears, those prayers are said to pass straight through them. According to Jewish tradition, the Gates of Tears are never closed, even in times of utter hopelessness and despair. The concept of theodicy (divine justice) has been expressed in many documents penned during the Shoah and Rabbi Talmud relates that in October 1942, High Holiday services had been held in Majdan Tatarski with secular Jews in attendance. The rabbi lamented: “It is difficult for me, I cannot accept under any circumstances the notion that we are all guilty, all sinners to such an extent that a deluge of blood and fire and belching smoke should wash us away in wrathful waters…” (354).

Unlike other scholars who have written about the Lublin District, notably Bogdan Musial,7, Dieter Pohl8 and Christopher Browning,9 Silberklang cites extensively Yiddish and Hebrew-language sources, both published and unpublished. His predecessors paid only scant attention to this treasure trove. In addition to these materials, many of which are housed in Yad Vashem and other archives in Israel, Silberklang also uses documents in the State Archives in Lublin, especially those on the Jewish communities and Judenräte in Lublin, Biskupice and Zamość. Silberklang’s prodigious bibliography attests to his meticulous scholarship. Moreover, it constitutes a valuable tool for future researchers in the field. Among the works cited, for example, are those by the late Polish historian, Robert Kuwałek, whose assistance and friendship Silberklang gratefully acknowledges. Kuwałek was perhaps the greatest authority both on Bełżec and Lublin Jewry. His passing at the age of 47, on a visit to Lviv in June 2014, was a profound loss to our discipline.10

In his masterfully written introduction, Silberklang observes:

A number of places and individuals have come to represent the Holocaust and the major axes of “The Final Solution” both in the historiography on the period and in the popular mind. Among the places, Auschwitz-Birkenau stands out. The associations conjured up by the word “Auschwitz” are an encapsulation of the entire event… Of course, Auschwitz-Birkenau was not the only camp whose murderous credentials could help turn it into a symbol of the evil it embodied. It could be argued, for example, that Bełżec… was perhaps the place most representative of the totality and finality of the Nazi plans for Jews. In fact, Bełżec was the only one of the death camps in which the assigned tasks were actually completed and therefore was shut down by the Nazis. This in itself symbolizes what the Nazis had intended for the “Final Solution.” However, relatively little is known about the camp, which ceased operations and was dismantled nearly two years prior to the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. (16 –17)

On the sadism of the perpetrators and the inability of the victims to understand what lay in store for them, he notes:

Early in the research I came upon two documents that shed some light [on the face of the Holocaust in the Lublin District—LW]. On the human face of the perpetrators, one Jewish doctor observed after the war: “These people found pleasure in tormenting their little victims [the children] in the most bestial manner and worked out special methods to prolong a single murder for hours.” On the Jews’ struggle to grasp what the Germans planned for them and then to act on it, one Jew who escaped his town’s deportation but did not survive commented: “…an expulsion is like a funeral procession—when a funeral procession passes by, heaven forbid, everyone thinks it is not for him. That’s how it was with us.”11

Between the pleasure these very human murderers derived from torturing their child victims and the Jews’ difficulty in understanding that they were condemned and the futility of their responses lies the face of the Holocaust in the Lublin District. (32 –33)

Silberklang’s book is divided into nine chapters which are subdivided into thematic subchapters. These treat issues such as “The Structure of the Lublin District;” “Forced Population Movements: The First Year;” “Forced Labor—The Bridge to Death;” “Resettlements and Ghettos, 1940–1941;” “Organizing the Deportations;” and “Working for their Lives: The Last Jews in the Lublin District, 1942 –1944.”

In Chapter Three, Silberklang discusses the so-called Nisko-Lublin Plan, which is generally presented in the literature as little more than a footnote to subsequent events. However, this massive act of “demographic engineering,” (a continental, wartime version of the Madagascar idea), designed to settle Jews in a wretched reservation in order to make room for ethnic Germans, caused extraordinary deprivation, and also adversely affected tens of thousands of Poles. According to Silberklang, this plan, based on Nazi ideology and economic policy “reflects the evolving Nazi efforts to define a distinct Jewish policy for Poland, and, ultimately, for Europe.” (83) By the time the plan was abandoned in April 1940, nearly 100,000 Jews had been deported to the region. They, too, would share the terrible fate that awaited the indigenous Jews.

In drawing attention to the widespread tendency to view the history of Polish Jewry during the Shoah through the prism of the story of the Jews of Warsaw and, to a lesser extent, Łódź, Silberklang writes:

In both popular and much of scholarly literature on the Holocaust, the dominant picture of Nazi policy toward Jews in Poland and Jewish life under the Germans has been that of the two largest ghettos—Warsaw and Łódź. These two ghettos have often come to represent Jewish life everywhere in Poland and Eastern Europe under the Nazis…

However this paradigm does not tell the full story—not even as a generalization. Whereas most Polish Jews may have been forced into ghettos by the end of 1941 (exact statistical research has yet to be done), it is not clear that a ghetto was created for most communities. Similarly, there was a wide range of physical conditions forced upon the Jews both within ghettos and outside them. In the Lublin District, most Jews and most communities had not experienced full-fledged ghettoization by the end of 1941, and in most communities conditions did not approach those of Warsaw and Łódź, which had produced such enormously high death rates. In fact, the term ghetto seems to fit only a very small number of communities, perhaps four, in the Lublin District in the first half of 1941… and collectively, these four places housed barely 20 percent of the district’s Jews. A few additional ghettos were established later in 1941 and 1942, as part of the process of murdering the Jews, but earlier ghettos were generally not part of the anti-Jewish policies here (158–159).

Following in the footsteps of Raul Hilberg and Musial, Silberklang describes how decentralized was the process of the establishment and operation of ghettos in Occupied Poland – at least in the initial stages. Some scholars found it difficult to accept the idea that German policy could be so haphazard, but Silberklang conclusively demonstrates this was indeed the case.

Silberklang also devotes ample space to the complex bureaucratic structure designed to annihilate the Jews and provides readers with the diagrams essential for understanding the division of labor and administration that characterized Operation Reinhardt. Odilo Globocnik, who had formerly served as Gauleiter of Vienna, played a central role in this process. In fact, he was personally beholden to Himmler. The SS chieftain intervened in order to rescue his sadistic and venal Austrian friend whose career had been ruined as a result of a foreign currency scam. The author provides similar profiles of other perpetrators as well. Many, like Globocnik, came from Austria and participated in a “conspiracy of graft and greed.” (432) Describing how this affected Jewish slave laborers, Silberklang concludes: “So we can say that labor could help a Jew survive. On the other hand, if Jews survived it was a result of luck or the whims of their murders or would-be rescuers. Jewish life hung by a thread in the most precarious form of existence imaginable. Their fate was determined by forces completely beyond their control.” (434)

According to Silberklang, Nazi officials who served in the area for extended periods often had regular contact with individual Jews. However, they did not recoil from engaging in horrifying acts of brutality against their “sub-human” acquaintances. Silberklang notes the case of Estonian-born SS-Untersturmführer, Dr. Harry Sturm, who sent a bouquet of flowers to Shamai Grajer on the occasion of his wedding in April 1942, and later, shot the groom, his young bride and their baby (439).

Unfortunately, Silberklang omits the story of the Betar “idyll” in what is loosely referred to as “Hrubieszow.” In much of the historical literature on the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW), this even is depicted as one of the most important episodes leading up to the creation of the Revisionist underground in the Warsaw Ghetto.12 The author discusses the two Zylberberg brothers, Zvi and Moshe (pre-war Betarim), in the context of their unsavory role in the Judenrat apparatus of the Lublin Ghetto. However, he does not deal with their escape to Warsaw. Upon their arrival, the Zylberbergs delivered the unbelievable news that the Jews of Lublin were no longer alive.13 These omissions, however, do not detract from the generally exemplary quality of this formidable book which is the work of an accomplished practioner of the historian’s craft.

Silberklang also takes pains to understand and explain the search for mythical heroism that permeates much of the literature on the Holocaust.

…much of the historiography on Jewish responses to the Holocaust seems to be… based upon idealized images of Jews then and afterward. Nearly seventy years since the end of World War II, the Jews’ reactions to the Holocaust often continue to be looked at (at least popularly) in mythic terms through the prism of “martyrs and heroes.” That is, there were those who were killed, and there were those heroes who resisted before death (or survival).

The search for a mythical heroism has at times been so overpowering that Jewish activities during the Holocaust have been examined largely from that vantage point—the extent to which Jews’ activities in their efforts to survive were dangerous and heroic… Most Jews, it may be assumed, did all they could to survive… But could all Jews have been heroes? What can such a perspective say about all the people who lived and died as ordinary mortals and not as heroes on pedestals? Yehuda Bauer has aptly cautioned against creating a nostalgic or “overdrawn” picture of resistance or amidah. (23–24)

In his conclusion, after his detailed presentation of the fate of the Jews of the Lublin District, Silberklang notes:

Jewish powerlessness has been cited above as a major factor in determining the fate of the Jews in the Lublin District. The same could be said for the Jews in the Holocaust in general. Indeed, that is the significance of the role played by the Jews’ neighbors. Without any power of their own and without any help from others, the Jews collectively could do little to affect their fate. To say that they were powerless to affect their fate substantially is not to say that they were passive or that their actions had no meaning. In general Jews constantly sought ways to help themselves, and many, including a large number of Jewish leaders, were always looking for ways to help others, and ultimately to survive. But as has been shown, neither rational analysis of their situation in an effort to deduce the best way to survive, nor intuition or a gut sense of their circumstances at any given time could provide the basis for any analysis or instinct in a subsequent situation. The Germans created a confusing and consistently unpredictable frame of reference, which in essence meant that the Jews had no frame of reference at all. The Germans held all the power, the Jews none. (446–447)

Silberklang’s observations clearly transcend the story of the hapless Jews of the Lublin District slated for destruction, along with their brethren across the great swath of territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea, home to most of European Jewry. His incisive and analytical book is an outstanding contribution to the rapidly expanding literature on the destruction of local Jewish communities and regional centers. Beyond its importance as a chronicle of the end of Jewish life in places to which many of us trace our roots, Silberklang enables his readers to fathom the wider fate of Jews at the hands of modern-day Amalekites and their rapacious local accomplices — though their savagery and relentless bloodlust exceeded any evil portrayed in the Scriptures. Neither my Uncle Benjamin nor any of the other Jews caught in their clutches could possibly have imagined the agonizing end that awaited them. Sadly, the Gates of Tears were bolted shut.

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1 Miriam Akavia, Karmi Sheli (My Vineyard) (Tel Aviv, 1984) (Hebrew).

2 Neither his wife nor his daughters survived the Holocaust. Benjamin’s brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces also perished.

3 See: Laurence Weinbaum, “Oxford Yehudit” (The Jewish Oxford), Daf Hodshi Moreshet Yisrael (Monthly Bulletin of Jewish Heritage) (May, 2008), 17-20 (Hebrew), on the occasion of the restoration of the building of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva in 2007.

4 For an impressionistic description of the Jewish character of the city and the surrounding area in modern times, with emphasis on the Shoah, see: Martin Gilbert, Holocaust Journey: Travelling in Search of the Past (London, 1997), Chapters 8,9 and 10.

5 Baedekers Generalgouvernment (Leipzig, 1943), 129 (German).

6 For more information, see: Wojciech Lenarczyk and Dariusz Libionka, eds., Erntefest – Zapomniany epizod Zagłady: 3-4 listopada 1943 (Lublin, 2009) (Polish).

7 Bogdan Musial, “Deutsche Zivilverwaltung und Judenverfolgung im Generalgouvernement, Fallstudie zum Distrikt Lublin, 1939-1944” Quellen und Studien, XI:10 (1999) (German).

8 Dieter Pohl, Von der “Judenpolitik” zum Judenmord: der Distrikt Lublin des Generalgouvernements, 1934-1944 (Frankfurt, 1993) (German).

9 Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1992).

10 For example, see: Robert, Kuwałek, Obóz zagłady w Bełżcu, (Lublin, 2010) (Polish), to date the most authoritative work on the subject.

11 This motif appears in other contemporaneous accounts but nowhere as poignantly as in Calel Perechodnik’s diary. See: Spowiedź (Warsaw, 2011) (Polish).

12 See: Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum , “A New Look at the Betar ‘Idyll’ in Hrubieszów,” Yad Vashem Studies, XXXVII (2009), 85-108. This article appears in Silberklang’s bibliography.

13 David Wdowinski, And We are not Saved (New York, 1963), p. 54.