Friday, October 17, 2014

World War One in Eastern Europe: The German Occupation in Bransk, Poland.

The Main Street of Bransk, 1907  source: The Kresy Siberia Virtual Museum

World War One in Northern Poland was similar to the war in Galicia in several ways.   In the first month of the war, August 1914, Austrian ruled Galicia was invaded by Russia, and quick military victories led to two-year occupation.  The Russians were eager to claim lands that they considered part of Russia, and worked hard to “Russify” the people they conquered.  Click here to read about the Russian Occupation in Galicia 

Northern Poland also was occupied by a foreign power, Germany. Victories in the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, in August 1914, enabled the Germans to occupy Northern Poland, which had been ruled by Russia for almost 200 years. During the almost three year occupation, the Germans were interested in using the people for their own economic gain. 

Bransk is located about 160 km NE of Warsaw.   It is just above the square labeled Treblinka.

Bransk is in northern Poland, located about 150 km northeast of Warsaw. When World War One began, it was ruled by Russia. It is southeast of Szczuczyn, the home of my husband’s ancestors. At the beginning of World War One, The population of Bransk was about 4300, 51% Jewish.

When World War One began in August 1914, the first event that involved the people of Bransk was mobilization notices that came from the Russian authorities.  Next, the Russian army came through on their way to invade German ruled Prussia.  Mixes with the regular Russian Army soldiers, were Cossacks on horseback and Jewish soldiers, easily identified by their beards.  The Bransk Jewish community set up a Kosher kitchen to meet the dietary needs of the Jewish soldiers.  The Russians also warned the Jews against “betraying them to the Germans.”  In Bransk, on the subject of which side to support, the Jews were divided, some supported the Russians, others the Germans.  

Rabbi Szkop

The German army quickly defeated the Russians, and took over the Russian ruled areas of Poland. Russian Cossack soldiers planned to burn Bransk as they retreated.  Rabbi Szkop, an important Jewish leader in the town, collected money to give to the Cossacks, so they would leave the village unharmed.  He even bribed their leader by giving him his gold watch.

Russian Cossacks, 1915.

In September 1915, Bransk was taken over by the Germans, who occupied the town for over three years.  Their occupation was hard on the people and many were forced to work for the Germans as laborers.  People who couldn’t work up to German expectations were beaten.  The Germans appointed “communal representatives” who helped them to chose people for forced labor.  The poorest people were chosen first, then men and finally women.

Polish civilians fleeing the Advancing German Army in Russian Poland. Source: Imperial War Museum

The Germans requisitioned bread and food supplies from the merchants, and then sold the bread back to the villagers, many of them were sickened by it.  Disease came to the town in the form of scarlet fever and typhoid.  Many people hid their illness from the Germans, since there were rumors that when the Germans hospitalized people, they were poisoned.  Food shortages led to smuggling, and protests and the belief that the richest people received favorable treatment from the Germans.

In 1917, The Russian Revolution and the chaos that came with it, forced the Russians give up their war effort. As a result, the Germans relaxed their rule in Poland.  The forced labor stopped, political parties returned and books reappeared.  On November 11, 1918, World War ended with an armistice.  The Germans packed up and left an impoverished Bransk.

Source: Hoffman, Eva,  Shtetl, The Life and Death of A Small Town and The World of Polish Jews. Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1997