- Mielec, Poland: The Shtetl That Became a Nazi Concentration Camp by Rochelle G. Saidel
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.
Likewise, 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 General gouvernement 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. [End Page 108]
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. [End Page 109]
The descriptions of the conditions of...