10 July 1948, Warsaw. Judge Halina Wereńko, a member of the District Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Warsaw, interviewed the person specified below as a witness, without administering an oath. Having been advised of the criminal liability for making false statements and of the obligation to tell the truth, the witness testified as follows:
|Name and surname||Józef Gitler-Barski|
|Parents’ names||Mojżesz and Lea, née Porter|
|Date of birth||3 March 1898 in Warsaw|
|Education||Department of Law and Political Science|
|Place of residence||Warsaw, Chocimska Street 18|
|Occupation||General Secretary of Joint [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee]|
I was residing in the Warsaw Ghetto from the moment of its establishment until February 1943. Before the war and during German occupation I was the director of the Central Office of the Union of Societies for Care of Orphans and Abandoned Children [Centrala Towarzystw Opieki nad Sierotami i Dziećmi Opuszczonymi – Centos], which formally was part of the Jewish Social Self-Help legalized during German occupation to function like the Central Welfare Council. The other director of the Centos was Dr. Berman. The Jewish Social Self- Help represented our organization before the German authorities.
Our job was to help children and organize boarding houses, after-school care centers, kitchens, day rooms, and clandestine teaching. In buildings which used to serve as Jewish schools we set up kitchens operated by the teaching staff who distributed food and afterwards organized secret lessons. In the ghetto in the second half of 1941, when the number of Jews was the highest, approximately 100,000 out of about 500,000 inhabitants were children. The Centos had 45,000 children registered as remaining under its full- or part-time care. But the number of children who required care was about 80,000. Those who were unsupervised could be seen on the streets – swollen from hunger and wearing ragged clothes. Many children provided for their families. They got through to the Aryan side and begged for food.
In May 1942, through the window of the Centos office at Leszno Street 2, opposite the exit from the ghetto, overlooking the Aryan side by Tłomacka Street and Rymarska Street, I saw a German gendarme, who was guarding the exit, shoot an 11-year-old Jewish boy who tried to sneak back in from the Aryan side through the gate, with a little sack of potatoes. There were many incidents of this kind. In July 1942, after the information about the liquidation of Jews in the Lublin region was issued, I went with Dr. Berman to the head of the Jewish Council, engineer Czerniaków, in order to discuss the fate of the children. At the time, 5,000 children were in orphanages, while 28,000 were in after-school care centers, kitchens, schools and summer play centers. Deportations started on 22 July 1942. Children who stayed with their parents, shared their fate. As for the children under our care, president Czerniaków put us in touch with one of the senior officers of the Jewish Police – attorney Pinkiert – and issued the order not to take children away from care centers, boarding houses, and after-school care centers during deportation action.
In the first days of the deportations, on 22 and 23 July, Dr. Berman and I reported to the Jewish Police Station at Ogrodowa Street every morning and with the help of attorney Pinkiert we made sure that the units of the Jewish Police leaving for work were instructed once more not to take children. But on the very first day of the action we were informed that a group of 80 children were taken from the boarding house at Ogrodowa Street 29, located next to a shelter for refugees. In the Jewish Police Station we were told that refugees were to be deported first, and that the children were taken with them.
We asked president Czerniaków’s wife to inform her husband about the deportation of children. She said that her husband had declared that if it ever came to deportations of children, he wasn’t going to be around for that. On the next day engineer Czerniaków committed suicide. During that time, the Germans became direct supervisors of the deportation action, taking over from the Jewish Police force which supervised it in the first few days. From that point onwards, the institutions for children were no longer under any protection. Not only did the Germans take children and the staff away from such institutions, but with the aid of volunteer units of Ukrainians and Jewish Police Force, they also searched the area, catching children who were hiding.
We didn’t know the situation well and we didn’t know that the Germans were planning to liquidate the whole Ghetto. We tried to save the children even when they were already in the Umschlagplatz [collection point for transports to concentration camps] by paying the guards off. At the beginning of August I freed a group of 80 children from a dormitory at Twarda Street 27 from the Umschlagplatz. The children returned to the dormitory, but successive escorts of groups of children to the Umschlagplatz continued until April 1943, and only a small group was left. People who had been to the Umschlagplatz told me that the Germans murdered the children who were screaming right on the spot in the square.
In August 1942 I saw through the window of a house at Niska Street, corner of Zamenhofa Street, that German soldiers and Ukrainians in the Umschlagplatz yanked small children out of their mothers’ arms and threw them on the pavement, and pushed the mothers into wagons.
After the first stage of the deportations, which lasted from 22 July to 6 September 1942, about 4,000-5,000 out of 100,000 children remained in the ghetto. The Centos office which I re-organized had only 1,800 children under its care. During the selections on 6, 7, and 8 September, children were usually escorted to the Umschlagplatz. Many mothers joined their children, even though they were legible for release on account of having a job. After the selection, in the period when the ghetto effectively functioned as a large labor camp, we tried to put up homeless children in small boarding houses numbering 18-20 children. We treated this action as half-legal.
At the end of September 1942 I was summoned by the head of the Jewish Council, engineer Lichtenbaum, who informed me that due to the fact that the deportation action had been completed, the Germans accepted the Council’s request to release a group of children and their families detained in the Umschlagplatz. They were to be put up in a boarding house.
At that time a group of about 800 Jews, including children who hadn’t been assigned to a transport yet, was kept in the Umschlagplatz. This is how we set up the first legal boarding house after the September action, housing 100-120 children aged up to 18. Engineer Lichtenbaum determined that the boarding house would be located in a building at Dzika Street 3. The Centos group renovated it and put up the children there. The boarding house functioned for two months, then the head of the Jewish Council Lichtenbaum informed me that the Gestapo commissar for Jewish affairs, Brandt, was asking about the children released from the Umschlagplatz and planning to visit the boarding house. At a scheduled time (I don’t remember the exact date, but this was at the end of November or at the beginning of December 1942), commissar Brandt, his assistant Mende (an SS officer as well), and engineer Lichtenbaum came to the boarding house. They inspected the rooms, Brandt chatted politely with the children, asked about the living conditions in the house, and thanked us for keeping the children under our thoughtful care. He also said to me: “You are right in looking after your children, they are your future”. At 6 a.m. of the following day a column of SS vehicles drove up to Dzika Street 3 and all the children from the boarding house were loaded into the vehicles and taken to the Umschlagplatz, where they joined a transport. The staff went together with the children. My wife – the pedagogical director of this institution, who usually came to work at 7.00 – avoided the deportation.
During the action in January 1943, the Germans took all the children from the clandestine and open boarding houses and day rooms. On 19 January at 6 a.m., before I started work, I saw through the window of the hide-out in the attic of a house at Muranowska Street 44 as the Germans were placing children from the boarding house at Zamenhofa Street 56 and other groups in the street. They ordered the adults who had been rounded up for deportation to hold small children in their arms. I saw children wrapped up in covers being carried to the Umschlagplatz for transport. At the end of January there was no Jewish Self-Help and no Centos or any other form of children care. All children were gone. This is when I decided to escape from the ghetto. The so-called Żegota Committee organized my escape and found me an accommodation on the Aryan side. I contacted the Committee through Dr. Adolf Berman, who left the ghetto already in September 1942 and was the Żegota Committee’s secretary. The Committee continued to help me and my family to live on the Aryan side. For a couple of weeks I watched the burning ghetto from the window of a clandestine apartment on the fourth floor at Grajewska Street 2, in the district of Praga.
As for the Jews who held foreign citizenship, I know the following: on 21 July 1942 posters were put up around the ghetto, stating that the Jews who held foreign citizenship were to appear in the police station at Ogrodowa Street in order to register. I walked my colleague from work – Leon Neusztadt, one of the directors of the Joint, and his wife Klara Segałowicz, a famous actress – to this assembly point. I also saw a few prominent Jewish doctors in this group. I kept track of the fate of the group and learnt that it was kept in Pawiak, and after a while some of them were transported to the camp for foreigners in Vittel. Some Jews whose documents of foreign citizenship had been considered false, were transported to Auschwitz. According to another version of events which circulated around, this group was executed in the yard at Pawiak.
I don’t know how many people were in the transport to Vittel or whether any other transports departed to Vittel as well.
I learnt from Dr. Adolf Berman, who visited me in May 1943, that many Jews received documents from abroad – the so-called promesas [promises] of citizenship – mostly from South American countries. The Germans permitted the Jews who were hitherto illegally hiding on the Aryan side to find refuge in the Hotel Royal at Chmielna Street and said that they would be sent abroad in exchange for German citizens. I later learnt from Berman and others – and wrote it down in my notes from Bergen-Belsen – that three groups of Jews were sent from the Hotel Royal to Vittel: in January 1943 – 65 people, in March – 120 people, and in May – 130 people. In June 1943 Dr. Berman informed me that the Jews who belonged to this category were assembling in the Hotel Polski at Długa Street. The number of people who were interested in taking up that offer was growing. Through the agency of the Gestapo men, rich Jews bought promesas issued in the name of the deceased and thus legalized their stay in the hotel. I also found out that the head of the Joint and a member of the underground committee Dawid Guzik was making use of his foreign papers by spending half a day in the Hotel Polski, where he kept in touch with members of the underground organization. Around that time we agreed with Dr. Berman, who couldn’t give me his address due to underground activities, that if my apartment was exposed and I was unable to escape, I was to contact Guzik in the Hotel Polski for help, and get in touch with Dr. Berman.
On 12 July 1943, my landlady informed me that the building administrator told her that she had been exposed for hiding Jews and that Gestapo had received the copy of the denouncement. I had to immediately leave the apartment with my wife and child. With no place to hide, I fulfilled my agreement with Dr. Berman and risked going to the Hotel Polski at Długa Street, where I contacted director Guzik. Director Guzik said that we should wait for Dr. Berman to contact us in the hotel, and that there was no chance of putting me up in another clandestine apartment. He said that due to being threatened by the Germans with collective responsibility, many Poles were making the Jews whom they secretly sheltered leave. Under such circumstances and with no other plan, I stayed with my wife and child in the Hotel Polski. On the next day it was rumored that the Germans were planning to send a transport of Jews from the hotel to a camp in Germany on the same or on the following day. Foreign states were supposed to exchange them for German citizens. I didn’t have any documents which gave me the right to stay in the hotel, but I had no other choice. Even though I used to write to my friends that a trap had been set up in the Hotel Polski, designed to catch out the Jews who were hiding on the Aryan side, I agreed to Guzik’s proposition: he wanted to sign me up for a list of Jews in the hotel who had close relatives in Palestine, for the Germans were supposedly planning to make an exchange with this state. This was the only way to legitimize my stay in the hotel.
So in the Hotel Polski, apart from the group who believed the promises made by the Germans, there were also Jews whose apartments had been exposed and whose Semitic looks made them seek refuge there. There was also a group which left the ghetto canals and stayed in the Hotel Polski in order to find contacts and accommodation.
The day after my arrival in the hotel, on 13 July 1943 the German soldiers surrounded the Hotel Polski and from the list compiled beforehand they called out names of the Jews who appeared on the list of promesas concerning the exchange with Palestine. The total number of people in the transport was about 600. I found myself in a group numbering about 150 people and headed for Palestine. The whole transport was sent to the Warszawa Gańska railway station and loaded into passenger cars with their belongings. “Adam”, Skosowski, and other Gestapo collaborators who organized transports were walking around and collecting signatures on a thank-you note addressed to them. Along with a number of other people I refused to sign.
The transport departed in the afternoon on 13 July. We were escorted by the Germans in uniforms (I didn’t recognize the formation). During the journey we were treated well. We had food. We were allowed – even encouraged – to send postcards to acquaintances in Warsaw. I later learnt that the postcards were delivered to the addressees. Passing through Berlin and Hanover, the transport arrived in Bergen near Zelle. The camp was located far away from the railway siding within the Bergen-Belsen-Zelle triangle. The following transports from Poland arrived in the camp in the same manner as we did – under the pretext of an exchange.
|Transport form Warsaw||7 July 1943||numbering 1226 people|
|Transport from Lwów||7 July 1943||numbering 175 people|
|Transport form Kraków||7 July 1943||numbering 44 people|
|Transport form Bochnia||10 July 1943||numbering 138 people|
|Transport form Warsaw|
|(II transport)||15 July 1943||numbering 598 people|
|Transport form Radom||15 July 1943||numbering 27 people|
|Transport form Warsaw|
|(III transport)||28 July 1943||numbering 62 people|
|Transport form Warsaw|
|(IV transport)||31 July 1943||numbering 64 people|
|Transport form Kraków|
|(II transport)||8 August 1943||numbering 110 people|
|Transport form Warsaw|
|(V transport)||23 September 1943||numbering 43 people|
|Transport form Warsaw|
|(VI transport)||21 October 1943||numbering 46 people|
In total, 2,533 Polish Jews arrived in Bergen-Belsen from Poland in 1943. The numbers above are based on the daily journal which I kept in the camp, and which I have managed to preserve.
Roll-calls and camp schedule were maintained from the beginning of my stay in Bergen camp. We lived in barracks, slept in bunk beds, and received scarce food rations. But at first we were treated like internees. Half a year later, the treatment became more harsh and we were moved to worse barracks. From the mid-1944 to April 1945, the camp system was no different from the systems used by the Germans in other concentration camps. During that time the camp grew bigger due to successive transports of thousands of prisoners of various nationalities. This was the time of hunger, filth, and lice, which brought on contagious diseases. Everyone was treated badly and subjected to beatings and punishments. The first period of this foreign exchange game lasted from July to October 1943.
The day after the last group of Jews from Poland arrived on 24 October 1943, the camp was visited by the first SS delegation from Berlin, headed by senior SS officer Dr. Mess.
The camp command informed us that the delegation will select the first group intended for transport abroad and for exchange. A list families numbering in total 1,850 people was put up. It included 1,200 people with promesas of Paraguayan citizenship and 600 people with promesas of citizenship from other South American countries. They were ordered to assemble with their luggage on the next day in the square, from where they were to depart. On the next day, the group was transported on trucks to a railway station. Many social activists, doctors, and writers were in this group. The artist called Manówna [Mann], who worked for the Gestapo in Warsaw, was there as well. Sometime afterwards a postcard from one of the deportees was delivered to the camp with a stamp of some town in the Dąbrowa Basin. On the basis of the postcard we figured out that its sender escaped once he had realized that instead of abroad, the transport had been headed somewhere in Poland. After I returned to Warsaw I learnt that in the course of interviewing former prisoners of Auschwitz camp, the Jewish Historical Commission in Poland established that a transport of well-dressed people who were yelling that they had departed from Bergen-Belsen arrived in Auschwitz in October 1943. The group resisted while it was being led to the gas chambers. The artist Manówna allegedly slapped a German and shot herself with his revolver. I saw her leaving with the transport from Bergen-Belsen on 21 October 1943. Having made the connection between the abovementioned pieces of information, I am certain that the group which left Bergen-Belsen on 21 October 1943 was killed in the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
Starting with 22 October 1943, Dr. Mess visited the camp every three to four months, heading a group of SS officers, in order to select new groups of Jewish foreigners for exchange. Groups of 600-700 people were being taken away.
As far as I know, they vanished without a trace.
In addition to large numbers of Jews being deported from Bergen, there were five instances of families being transported away separately. Mess’ group took each of these families separately. I learnt that they had been sent to Vittel and used for an exchange with other countries.
I don’t know the names of these people. I might be able to establish some of them.
A group of about 1,200 Hungarian Jews, which had arrived in Bergen for an “exchange” just like us, was indeed transported to Vittel and took part in the exchange. The Jews from this group took a list of people who remained in our camp and kept sending us packages.
I learnt from Dr. Silberschein (currently residing in Geneva), a former Polish MP, head of the Committee to Aid Jews in Switzerland during the war, that neutral states had been conducting negotiations with Germany with regards to the exchange of Jews who held foreign citizenship and were detained in the camps in Germany. The negotiations were not successful.
I don’t know the details concerning the exchange of Jews on those occasions when it in fact occurred.
In the first half of April 1945, when the allied forces were approaching the District of Hanover, the Germans began evacuating the camp, starting with the Jews. At that time Himmler famously ordered that in the camps threatened by the enemy forces Jews be evacuated first, by way of so-called death marches. On the way, those who couldn’t keep up were shot, group executions were carried out at riversides, etc. The Jews who were marching out were divided into groups on the basis of their nationality.
I belonged to the last group numbering a few thousand Jews. There were about 200 Jews from Poland, including about 130 Jews from the Palestinian group, as well as Hungarian, Dutch and other nationals of Jewish descent. On 7 April 1945 we were herded on foot to a railway station in Bergen, located some 10 kilometers from the camp. We were loaded into goods wagons, and evacuated in the direction of Magdeburg. On the night of 12/13 April 1945, having experienced an air raid carried out by the allies, we were left on a train without a locomotive near Magdeburg. The SS men on motorcycles arrived from a nearby town and spoke to the commandant of our escort. As a member of a clandestine committee of the prisoners’ resistance, I was listening in on the conversation, while I was on the lookout next to the wagon. The SS men criticized the commandant of our escort for the fact that he hadn’t exterminated our group yet. They ordered him to escort our group to the nearby Elba river on the next day and exterminate us. The following day, on 13 April 1945, our escort consisting of about ten Germans told us to assemble and prepare for a march. Our military organization assembled into fives in a state of alert. During roll-call, several gendarmes from a nearby village arrived on bikes and brought some spare bikes. After talking to them, our German escort told us to wait on the spot, while they go to the village for an hour. The escort drove away and never came back. The first American soldiers arrived five hours later.
At this point the report was brought to a close and read out.
The list of the transports of the Jews which arrived in the camp in Bergen-Belsen as a result of the “hotel” operation (deportation of Jewish foreigners for the purpose of an alleged exchange with other states)
|Place of departure||Date of arrival||Number of people|
|Transport form Warsaw||on 7 July 1943||1,226|
|Transport from Lwów||on 7 July 1943||175|
|Transport form Kraków||on 7 July 1943||44|
|Transport form Bochnia||on 10 July 1943||138|
Transport form Warsaw
|(II transport)||on 15 July 1943||598|
|Transport form Radom||on 15 July 1943||27|
|Transport form Warsaw|
|(III transport)||on 28 July 1943||62|
|Transport form Warsaw|
|(IV transport)||on 31 July 1943||64|
|Transport form Kraków|
|(II transport)||on 5 August 1943||110|
|Transport form Warsaw|
|(V transport)||on 23 September 1943||43|
|Transport form Warsaw|
|(VI transport)||on 21 October 1943||46|
The total number of Polish citizens who arrived in 19432,533
On the day when the last group arrived from Warsaw (22 October 1943), the following number of people was sent from Bergen-Belsen to Auschwitz: 1,850 people, including 1,200 people with promesas of Paraguayan citizenship and 650 people with promesas of citizenship from other south-American countries.
These numbers pertain to people who travelled through the Hotel Polski in Warsaw. As for Hotel Royal, my notes include data concerning three groups of Jews with foreign citizenship, who were sent from the Hotel Royal to Vittel, namely in January 1943 – 65 people, in March – 120 people, in May – 130 people.
All of the numbers stated above come from my journal which survived the camp and in which I wrote down information about life in the camp every day.
Warsaw, 12 July 1948