Clara Kramer’s remarkable story of how she survived in hiding in Nazi occupied Poland was not published until 2008. The eastern Polish town of Zolkiew had been occupied by the Germans in 1939 but then handed over to the Russians when Poland was divided. Now the Germans moved in again. The first occupying troops were quite friendly. Then they learnt that the “Gestapo and SS” were arriving – although Clara probably never learnt exactly what unit they were from. The Grand Rabbi from the town’s Jewish community decided to form a welcoming committee at the entrance to the town, in an attempt to enter into some form of dialogue:
We heard that the Grand Rabbi had hardly got a word out before the SS officer shot him. The accompanying members of the Kahala were arrested, including the father of Giza Landau.
The SS officer then drove to the synagogue and ordered his men to strip it of every bit of gold and silver and anything that was valuable. A crowd of Jews gathered in the streets and watched in horror as the crowns on the Torah handles, the Torah covers embroidered with golden thread, the candelabras and the inlay on the pillars were packed into trucks.
The many Hassid and Orthodox tore their clothing in mourning at the desecration. They knew they should have been hiding, but they couldn’t help themselves.
When there was nothing left to steal, the SS ran through the sanctuary pouring petrol on the benches, railings, prayer books, Torahs, the tallith, anything that would burn. The walls inside and out were also drenched with petrol.
When the fire was lit with dozens of torches and the SS machine-gunned the huge windows to feed the flames with more oxygen, the Sobieski Schul erupted. It was a spectacle as the flames raced up the walls and shot out of the windows.
Once everything made of wood and paper had burned, the flames on the walls died out. The paint had been seared off, but the building stood. The SS officer became furious and ordered his men to throw the lamenting Jews on the embers to feed the fire, as if the heat of burning Jewish flesh would be enough to turn brick to ash.
A Wehrmacht officer driving by in his Mercedes reacted in stunned horror. He ordered his men to pull the Jews from the flames. The SS officer was outranked, so a few Jews were saved for who knows how long.
As soon as the Wehrmacht left, the SS tried to burn the synagogue down a second time, but the walls still held firm.