How an Act of Revenge Freed Nearly 600 Jews in WWII

The remaining Jews, who were now "free," were urged to flee. About 600 people were left unguarded, frightened, near the forest. What did they do?

The memorial ceremony for the Zamosc Jewish community last evening at the Tel Aviv Museum brought to light the history and culture of the town - alongside its destruction and annihilation. A central part of the evening was dedicated to Yiddish author and playwright Isaac Leib Peretz, who was from Zamosc, but died in 1915, well before the Holocaust.

The most surprising and tragic story of the evening only touched Zamosc indirectly: It was about the forced-labor camp in Janiszow, a town in the Lublin area, like Zamosc.

On Nov. 6, 1942 at about 6 P.M., as the 600 prisoners at the labor camp in Janiszow were almost falling asleep, 18 partisans, most of them Jewish, suddenly broke into the camp calling out in Yiddish: "Jews, save yourselves!"

The leader was Yehoshua Pintel, a former prisoner at the camp who had escaped and returned to save his comrades and take revenge.

The story of the Janiszow camp was told by Dr. David Silberklang of Yad Vashem, whose family was also from Zamosc. Silberklang is the editor of Yad Vashem Studies, the institute for Holocaust research's scholarly journal and also a lecturer in Jewish history at Hebrew University, and he published much of this story in the journal.

The commandant of Janiszow was Peter Ignor, a Pole of German extraction, who was known for being vicious to Jews, robbing them of their property and belongings. After killing the German guards, the partisans forced Ignor to turn over weapons, gold and other valuables. After two hours in the camp they took with them only 15 Jewish prisoners, following orders from their commanders in the Polish-Communist underground.

The remaining Jews, who were now "free," were urged to flee. About 600 people were left unguarded, frightened, near the forest. What did they do?

The local Jews who knew the area tried to flee at night to Polish friends. Others had no idea where to go, tried to hide in the forest or even in other forced-labor camps. Many remained in Janiszow, and a few even sent a delegation to the nearest police station. At night a number of prisoners even returned, and about 160 Jews were left in the camp.

The next morning SS troops surrounded the camp with help from local forces and in the afternoon forced the prisoners to march toward Annopol. Fifty were shot on the way and the rest were sent off to another labor camp.

Almost all the Jews who fled the camp, including the partisans themselves and the Jews they took with them, were killed within a few months. The German police, SS and local polices hunted them down.

Leibl Muzykant fled from Janiszow and hid in the woods in a bunker with 30 others. One night he was sent out on an errand and when he returned he found everyone else dead, naked and cut up in pieces. He assumed they had been murdered by local Poles based on the violent nature of the murders. Not knowing what to do or where to go, he turned himself in at the forced-labor camp of Budzyn.

Muzykant survived, said Silberklang, not because he fled to the forests with the partisans but because he lived out the war working in a camp. Silberklang quoted another survivor who said that two other Janiszow escapees who made it to Budzyn said about the Jews in the camp: "In their eyes we were free and they were imprisoned."

The Janiszow attack in 1942 preceded two more famous revolts: The Treblinka uprising in August 1943, and the one in the Sobibor death camp in October 1943. Treblinka shut down only a few weeks after the revolt and Sobibor was dismantled completely after the uprising.