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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Mielec, Poland: The Shtetl That Became a Nazi Concentration Camp, by Rochelle G. Saidel.  Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2012.  230 pp.  $24.95.

The usual attitude to a new book on the Holocaust is the weary sigh: don’t we already know everything there is to know about the Holocaust, so isn’t this latest effort superfluous? Yet, just recently, Nathan Englander published a new book of short stories, What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, with some stories focusing on the Holocaust. As usual, Englander starts from a unique point of view that startles the reader. Likewise, the most recent film by writer/director Agnieszka Holland, “In Darkness,” explores a totally new Holocaust story in her unique style that has mesmerized audiences worldwide.

Finally, Rochelle G. Saidel has written a book about Mielec, Poland, a small town that has been forgotten up to now in examinations of the Holocaust, even though it was “the first town in the Generalgouvernement from which the entire Jewish population was deported in . . . Operation Reinhard and the Final Solution.” I believe that more short stories, movies, and research monographs will be produced as a new generation explores the history of the Holocaust and uncovers untold stories.

Mielec became a special location for the Nazis because of the nearby aircraft factory which could be used by the Nazis with Jewish slave labor from Mielec. The location of the Polish National Aircraft Company (PZL), which was a special Polish industrial zone before World War II, was used by the Nazis to manufacture the Heinkel aircraft. The brutal labor camp at this site later became an even more brutal concentration camp, run by sadistic commanders from March 1942 to July 1944. Despite all this, Mielec is rarely mentioned in Holocaust treatments.

        Mielec was not immune to the effects of the Nazi invasion before the Aktion “cleansed” the town of all Jews. In fact, about 5,000 Jews from neighboring towns had sought refuge in Mielec. But nothing prepared the population for the Aktion of March 9, 1942, which removed all Jews from the town. Saidel goes into great detail describing the events, the selection of those able-bodied people who would be sent to work in the factory, the ones who would be removed to other towns in the Lublin area, and those who were deemed to be too old or infirm to be useful, who were killed immediately. First-person witness accounts are used to describe the horrific events of that day. Saidel interjects her analysis to correct these accounts, especially when the numbers of people are cited. Saidel has used Yad Vashem archives extensively to corroborate or correct the witness accounts.

        Many former Mielec residents, when they became incapable of work, were sent for extermination to Belzec and Sobibor, but because they were not sent there directly from Mielec, no residents from Mielec are listed as being sent to these extermination camps. Instead, they are listed as having been residents in the places from which they were sent. This is probably the major reason why the Holocaust histories are usually silent about Mielec. As Seidel notes, “In Belzec, where the victims’ places of origin are now named on memorial stones, there is no stone for Mielec. . . . As a result, the Mielec Jewish community has been erased from official memorialization at one of the sites where members of the community, mostly women, were murdered.”

        Horrific accounts are given of the chaotic and inhumane conditions of those who were temporarily lodged in the aircraft facility’s hangar from March 9, 1942 until over a week later when the survivors were packed into trains for other locations—for example, to Pustkow, Miedzyrzec, Podlaski, Dubienka. Even more graphic accounts from first-person narratives give us a picture of how these people survived in these towns or lingered on and died from starvation, disease, or death at the hands of the Nazis. The most compelling depiction is the story told of one family, through letters and reminiscences of various family members.

        The descriptions of the conditions of the labor camp, which became a concentration camp at the factory, are reminiscent of the numerous descriptions of other camps—sadistic guards, kapos, and commanders, barely enough food to survive, grueling work schedules. Again, the first-person testimonies bring all this to life. The most difficult parts of the post-war analyses are Saidel’s grim telling of the few Nazi war crimes trials. Only five trials of Nazis in Mielec took place, including the trials of the three concentration camp commanders. Gotthold Stein was sentenced to death and executed in 1951. Lorenz Landstorfer was sentenced to death in January 1948 and executed in October 1948. Josef Schwammberger escaped from a detention camp in January 1948 and fled to to Argentina, where he lived for almost 40 years. He was finally brought to trial in 1991–1992 and was found guilty in May 1992 of lesser charges. He died in December 2004 in a prison hospital at the age of 92. Saidel offers voluminous documentation of his crimes, yet he was not convicted for his bestial crimes in Mielec. There were also war crimes trials against two Volksdeutsch Gestapo agents.

        Extensive galleries of photos of Mielec as well as exhibits of letters make the data come alive. Saidel makes sure that we never forget that the cleansing of Mielec was about people, most of whom perished. The current 65,000 population of Mielec contains not one Jew. The current Euro Park, on the site of the former Heinkel complex, is surrounded by the mass graves of the Polish Jews murdered there. The Jewish community of Mielec, traced to the sixteenth century, no longer exists.

Joyce Field

West Lafayette, Indiana