Gliwice


Gliwice is a city of 210,000 inhabitants in a region of southern Poland known as Upper Silesia, and it is in the country’s industrial heartland. Located less than 100km north of the Czech border, this area has been under prolonged Austrian and Prussian rule and, generally speaking, under German influence – so much so that, in a 1921 plebiscite, its residents voted to become German citizens. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, however, the city was incorporated into Poland, its German residents were deported, and it was resettled with ethnic Poles that had in turn been kicked out of eastern territories taken over by the Soviet Union. (For additional information on Gliwice, please check out the city’s English language website, http://en.um.gliwice.pl/.)

The city played a role in the annals of World War II. On August 31, 1939, a group of German soldiers dressed up as Polish soldiers took over the city’s radio station, an incident that gave the Third Reich the excuse needed to invade Poland the next day and thereby start what turned out to be World War II. The station’s 100-meter wooden tower, built in 1935, still stands today (see picture). During the war years, the city’s industry was transformed in order to support the German war effort, and its factories were supplied by slave labor from Auschwitz. (For a survivor’s description of life as a slave laborer based in Gleiwitz, please see http://migs.concordia.ca/memoirs/zilversmit/Zilversmit.htm.)

In January 1945, as Soviet forces approached the Auschwitz area, the camp was evacuated and some 60,000 prisoners were forced to march west, in the direction of Gleiwitz – a march during which more than 15,000 died from cold and starvation. The survivors were put into freight trains in nearby Wodzislaw and were sent to other concentration camps, mainly in Germany. The Nobel prize-winning author Elie Wiesel was one of those who passed through Gleiwitz during a death march that took him (when he was a teenager) and his father from a labor camp in nearby Monowitz to Buchenwald, as described in his book Night. (His father did not survive Buchenwald, but he did.)

Arthur Kochmann, for whom I was named, was born in Gleiwitz on December 24, 1864, the fifth of seven sons of Jonas Kochmann (1819-1892) and one of eleven children from two marriages. Jonas was my great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side; his eldest son, Ludwig Kochmann (1851-1923), and his wife, Meta Wolffenberg, gave birth to my grandfather Walter Kochmann (1861-1956) and to another son named Hans Kochmann (1885-1951). (View the Kochmann and Wertheim family trees.) It was thanks to Hans’s son Max Kochmann (1921-2001) and his wife Hilde Kohn, who managed to emigrate to England in 1939, that we were able to learn a great deal about Arthur. We are also very grateful to Andrzej Folwarczny, President of the Gliwice-based Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, who served as our guide to the city’s landmarks and who dug up all the material he could on Arthur Kochmann from city records. (For additional information on the Forum and its work to foster understanding between contemporary Poles and Jews, and to bring to light the contribution made by the lost Jewish communities of Poland generally and of Gliwice, in particular, please see www.dialog.org.pl.)

We learned that Arthur Kochmann was a prominent attorney and community leader in Gleiwitz, and was called a Justizrat, the title for a lawyer who is not a functionary of the government. Typical of the socially integrated (some would say assimilated) German Jews of the time, he was well known outside the Jewish community for his work as a political activist and leader. He was a member of the City Council for three decades and an unsalaried consultant to the Council for a quarter century. In 1919, he became a delegate of the Deutschen Demokratischen Partei and represented his district in the Prussian parliament. During the 1921 referendum in Upper Silesia on whether the region should accept Polish or German rule, he was an outspoken defender of allegiance to Germany. In the event, the residents of Gleiwitz voted to go Germany’s way while most of the surrounding communities voted to join Poland. Because of his outspoken stand on this divisive issue, he was briefly taken into custody by the Polish authorities and then forced to leave the referendum territory, whereupon he went to reside in Berlin for several years, where he had relatives. It was in Berlin that my mother met him when she was a child.

In the late 1920s, Arthur Kochmann was able to return to Gleiwitz, where he was the recipient of the highest honors that a city community would bestow. He was declared an Honorary Citizen by a City Council act dated February 23, 1928, and became the president of the Council. With the same energy and responsibility he dedicated himself to the Jewish community, serving as its long-time – and, as it would turn out, last – president. He was a delegate to meetings of the federation of Jewish communities of Prussia, and later the official community representative of the province of Upper Silesia. According to one description of Arthur, “his outside appearance, stately behavior and the dignity that emanated from him made him a personality that was impressive and demanded respect. One could say that in this industrial city everybody knew him, and that until 1933 he was appreciated by all residents, Christian and Jewish alike.”

Everything started to change for Arthur, however, after officially encouraged anti-Semitism began to spread in 1933 (following the Nazi party’s electoral victory in March of that year) and especially after the discriminatory Nuremberg laws were instituted in 1935, depriving Jews of German citizenship and of most human rights. During our visit to Gleiwitz, we obtained a copy of a City Council ledger showing that he was struck off the list of Honorary Citizens – and that the title was bestowed, instead, on none other than Adolf Hitler (on September 25, 1933). As the years passed and Jews were increasingly ostracized, he was eventually expelled from the society of lawyers (in 1938). His synagogue was burned down, as were hundreds of other houses of worship throughout the German territories on the infamous Kristallnacht (or “Night of the Broken Glass,” November 9-10, 1938).

The Jews of Gleiwitz started to be rounded up for deportation to Auschwitz in 1941, but Arthur, who was then the head of the community, was spared. The apparent reason is that his daughter Susanna, his only living relative – he was a widower, and his son Hans, who suffered from depression, had committed suicide – had married an Italian military officer and diplomat surnamed Renzetti, and thus Arthur was deemed to be “protected.” In 1943, Mr. Renzetti was transferred from Berlin to Stockholm, and Arthur, who was by then wheelchair-bound, was reportedly offered the chance to escape Gleiwitz and go live with his daughter in Sweden. He refused, however, preferring to stay in the city he loved so much – a city that had turned its back on him – even if it meant that he would be the only Jew living there. Having learned that Arthur’s son-in-law was no longer posted to Berlin, the Gestapo finally came for him in December 1943, on or about his 79th birthday, and had him carried away to surely immediate death in Auschwitz. Arthur Kochmann was thus the last Jew from Gleiwitz, and perhaps the last from Upper Silesia, to be officially deported.

 

Arthur Kochmann


Arthur Kochmann’s Gliwice (Gleiwitz)

Leftovers of the Jewish Community

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