Popular legend has it that King Casimir the Great (1310 - 1370) met and maintained close contacts with a Jewish woman called Esterka. The meetings were also to be held in Radom. To commemorate this legend, one of the houses in Town Hall Square (Rynek) is called Esterka's House. Only that the building itself was created long after the death of Casimir the Great. So when did Jews really settle in Radom?
In 1567, one of the streets was called Żydowska (Jewish) Street. This demonstrates the constant presence of Jews in Radom since at least the mid-sixteenth century, especially that a dozen or so years later the name of the street became commonplace. At the beginning of the 18th century, there must have been more Jews in the city; the local bourgeoisie considered Jews an unwelcome competition for their commercial interests and in 1724 king Augustus II granted them a privilege of "de non tolerandis Judaeis", which prohibited Jews from earning money within the city walls.
In 1746 the Jews were ordered to move out of the city; they settled just outside the city walls, in an area that was no longer supervised by town councillors but by a royal representative called starosta. Over time, today's Wałowa Street and the surrounding area - became known as the Jewish quarter. It was here that the synagogue was built in the middle of the 19th century, and the entire district, after the destruction of Radom's defensive walls, was already an integral part of the city. Over time, Jews resided also in other parts of the city, but Wałowa Street was always the center of Jewish life, especially for orthodox Jews.
By the middle of the 19th century Jews had made a significant impact on the local economy; they ran both small shops and large factories. Thanks to the support of wealthy Jewish families, a Jewish hospital was built as well as and an orphanage for the elderly and orphans. In newly independent Poland (1918) numerous Jewish social, cultural, political and sports organizations were created as well as Jewish press and education. Jews were also members of the City Council. In 1938 almost 30 percent out of 85,000 inhabitants of the city were Jewish.
"Jews lived among the Poles, but there was also a Jewish district in the city, whose heart was Wałowa Street. There were (...) a few shtiebels and a mikveh - a public bath (...). Wałowa and neighbouring streets were lined with Jewish shops - kosher kitchens, bakeries, bookshops, clothing and headgear stores. Before Pesah, my father always took me to Wałowa to get me a new cap. I wore a Jewish hat - it was black, had a small cloth peak and looked a little like a baseball cap. In Wałowa there was also the largest and best Jewish delicatessen, where you could buy appetizers, treats and various beers (...).
”In Wałowa, I was at home; I was fascinated by its vitality, the variety of shops, the hustle and bustle of the crowd ... During the Sabbath and Holidays, Wałowa was very different from the rest of the city. (...) The shops were closed, and the festively dressed people quietly headed for the synagogue. At noon, when they were having dinner, the streets were empty. Wałowa complied with the Sabbath and respected the holidays.” (Ben-Zion Gold, remembering Wałowa Street before 1939.)
The persecution of Jews began immediately after the occupation of Radom by the Germans. Jews were deprived of public rights, property, and in April 1941 ghettos were created: large in downtown, around Walowa Street, and small in Glinice. Being outside the ghetto became an offence punishable by death. Over 30,000 Jews from Radom and its environs were crowded into closed-ff quarters, where conditions were very bad; there was hardly any food and diseases spread quickly.
Typical of those days in the ghetto is the song “The Forgotten Man”, a parody on a Polish tango that was popular in the ghetto at the time. The Polish words of the parody were written by a lucky survivor, Renia Sanitsky-Greenberg:
All you face is pain and woe. No one's here your case to take, And like a candle you sink low.
On Walowa you chase about, Frantic to make some dough. Afraid to speak out loud That you were, once, in the front row.
You were rich, had friends galore, Handsome, high-class! Now they see you no more, Forgot you, oh, what a mess!
Need a room, poor man? In the morgue is room aplenty. Want a pass, you damn? Will do, only for dollars twenty.
Can't afford? Hungry, broke? Don't give up, stay sane! For strange is fate's stroke, The sun will shine again!
When it seemed impossible for the situation to get worse, August 1942 came. On the night of 4 August, the ghetto in Glinice was destroyed, between 16-18 August – the one in the city center.
The witnesses reported on how ‘on Sunday, electricians came to the ghetto to install powerful searchlights on street corners. At midnight all the lamps were lit up and the usually dark streets of the ghetto became as bright as daylight. The entire ghetto was hermetically sealed by Polish and German police units, " The liquidation of the large ghetto began at night on 17 August. ‘For three nights and two days men, women and children were systematically rounded up, block after block, building after building, and mercilessly herded into freight-cars. Complete units of battle-ready SS troops, Gestapo, gendarmes, Ukrainian detachments in SS uniforms, roamed through the streets of the Ghetto, killing anyone who would not keep up with the others.’
Many people were killed on the spot; the old, the sick and children stood no chance. Most Radomers were sent to the extermination camp in Treblinka. Going there, until the last moment they believed that it was just, as the Germans made them believe, resettlement. The Book of Radom; The Story of a Jewish Community in Poland Destroyed by the Nazis tells us that ‘only one person survived this train journey and returned to Radom: Nathan Berkowitz.’ Here is his story:
”I was among the thousands taken out of the Ghetto for deportation. We were marched to the trains accompanied by flying bullets and blows of rifle butts. At the Maryvil railroad siding there were more S.S. men and Ukrainian guards than deportees. Before we approached the car, we were ordered to leave our bundles and take off our coats and shoes. To enter the freight cars we had to pass a gantlet of club-wielding, vicious S.S. men and then over a gangplank, a board slimy with blood. By now one was happy to be in the train, past the inferno. I saw many wounded women with infants in their arms, who fell off the boards and were shot. I saw an S.S. beast who made it a sport to smash with his club milk bottles held by infants or their mothers.
We were two hundred in a car, squeezed so tightly that we could hardly breathe. The air inside was foul and unbearable. After 24 hours traveling only twenty were still alive, mostly those standing near the small barred windows. The following night I finally succeeded in removing the bars and, with the help of my friends, I squeezed through the opening and jumped from the moving train.”
”I ran into the woods, searching frantically for water. In the ensuing hours I thought I was losing my mind from pain and thirst. I finally encountered a farmer who gave me water and bread. I arrived in the nearest village and there I found a group of Jews. They told me about the Treblinka camp, eight kilometers away. They had worked on the construction of barracks and a gas-chamber in the camp, but escaped and were now hiding in the woods. They had seen the train-loads of Jews arriving from Radom and other cities. All deportees found alive in the cars were gassed and cremated.”
“I decided to try and get back to Radom to join my family and deliver the information on Treblinka.” (…) “I had my hair bleached and, disguised as a farmer, I arrived in Radom. By then the Ghetto had been liquidated. A few thousand remaining Jews were confined to one city block and a sign over the single heavily guarded gate read: 'Zwangs-Arbeits-Lager' (Forced Labour Camp). No one in Radom believed my story about the destination of the deportation trains, not even my own father. I gave a detailed report to the head of the Jewish Council, but he called me a liar and chased me out of his office.”
Those few who survived the liquidation of the large ghetto (3,500 – 4,000 people) were used as labour force in the arms and tobacco factory. They were first kept in Szwarlikowska, then in Szkolna Street, in the camp subordinate to Majdanek. In the summer of 1944, when the eastern front was approaching, the Radom prisoners were sent to Auschwitz and then to other camps. At the end of the war only a few of the survivors decided to settle in Radom again. At their initiative in 1950 at the site of the former synagogue a monument to ‘the Jews of Radom, the victims of the Nazi crimes’ was unveiled. In communist Poland this monument in Podwalna Street was the only reminder of several centuries of the Jewish presence in Radom. The memory of the hometown of the city was cultivated all over the world and in Israel by Jews from Radom. "Radom was, in fact, a jewel in the crown of Polish Jewry ..." (The Book of Radom; The Story of a Jewish Community in Poland Destroyed by the Nazis)
After the fall of communism in 1989, Chaim Kincler, born in Radom and living in Israel, the head of "Beit Radom", the association of former Radomers, began his efforts to save traces of former Jewish community. Thanks to the support of the province authorities, the area of the former destroyed Jewish cemetery in Towarowa Street was fenced.The rescued tombstones were placed there and ano hel was built. In 1992, Radomers from all over the world came to town. For the next few years more matzevot were found and it was then that Kincler came up with the idea of creating a lapidarium in the cemetry. The monument was created thanks to the financial support of Israeli prison service, the City of Radom, and prisoners from the Radom prison, who worked at the site. The ceremonial unveiling of the Lapidarium took place at the end of 2010 in the presence of Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich. In November 2011 Chaim Kincler, the last president of "Beit Radom", a Polish patriot, was honoured by the President of Radom for his work for the city and its inhabitants and received the Bene Merenti Civitas Radomiensis medal.
The book of Radom. The Story of a Jewish Community in Poland Destroyed by the Nazis, Edited and Compiled by Alfred Lipson, New York, USA, 1963; Ben- Zion Gold, Cisza przed burzą. Życie polskich Żydów przed Holocaustem, Kraków –Budapeszt 2011; Sebastian Piątkowski, Dni życia, dni śmierci. Ludność żydowska w Radomiu w latach 1918 – 1950, Warszawa 2006; B. Gotfryd, Anton the Dove Fancier and Other Tales of the Holocaust,USA 1990.
1. Esterka’s House (next to Gąska’s House), present view, photo M. Kucewicz
2. The conception of medieval Radom by A. Pinno
3. Segments of the old city walls and Cracow Gate, photo M. Kucewicz
4. Remains of the castle, photo M. Kucewicz
5. The Town Hall, built in the 19th century, photo M. Kucewicz
6. Nineteenth-century tenement blocks in the city centre, photo M. Kucewicz
7. One of the former tanneries. Nineteenth-century Radom was the tanning centre. Jews were engaged with this industry, too. photo M. Kucewicz
8. In the Second Polish Republic (1918- 1939) there were many Jewish sports clubs in Radom, Polona archive
9. On public holidays in the synagogue in Radom there were prayers for the prosperity of Poland, Polona archive
10. The School of Paweł (Pinkas) Giser gained universal recognition and respect from citizens of Radom, Polona archive
11. Wałowa Street was the centre of the Jewish community life, photo private archive
12. Small Jewish shops were waiting for their customers from dawn to dusk. It was only Sabbath that made Wałowa Street silent, private archive. Butcher shops occupied a large part of Wałowa Street, photo private archive
13. Kosher butcher shops occupied a large part of Wałowa Street was, photo private archive
14. The lapidarium on the Jewish cemetery in Radom, photo M. Kucewicz
15. Tel Aviv 2010, the seat of „Beit Radom”: Chaim Kincler (in the middle) receives the Bene Merenti Civitas Radomiensis Medal from the Mayor of Radom – Andrzej Kosztowniak, on the left the ambassador of Poland to Israel – Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, photo R. Metzger
16. The grave of Chaim Kincler on the cemetery in Tel Aviv, photo R. Metzger