Nine Generations

Piotrków Trybunalski: family history

Piotrków Trybunalski — there are multiple alternate spellings of the name in Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish — is a town on the the flat upland plain of central Poland. Although two small rivers flow through it, the area surrounding Piotrków is not very fertile as the soil is quite sandy. The city was founded in the twelfth century.

There must have been some early settlement by Jews, because an edict formally banished them in 1578. Allowed back a century later, Jews returned, and by the turn of the twentieth century, Piotrków had a Jewish majority. Most of the Jacobs (Jankelewicz) and Leber ancestors in this project came from Piotrków and the immediately surrounding towns. With the opening of the Warsaw-Vienna railroad in 1846 Piotrków became more viable economically; its population increased and many additional Jewish families settled there. As it happens, our oldest known Jankelewicz and Leber ancestors were living in and around Piotrków before 1830.On both sides of the family the earliest generations of which I am aware were butchers or merchants in meat. One was a mohel. My great-grandfather, Szmula Janklewicz, was a melamed in a cheder — a teacher in a private Jewish elementary school — according to a document in the Polish State Archives. The city of Łódź, about 25 miles NNW of Piotrków, also on the railway, was a great textile manufacturing center, second only to Manchester in all of Europe. My grandparents' oldest child, my aunt Frances, had been born in Piotrków in 1901. Another child, Zysia, named after his maternal grandfather, was born in Piotrków in 1903 but died 11 months later in Baluty, just outside Łódź. My father was born in Łódź in 1904. When my grandfather emigrated to the United States in 1905 he gave his occupation as "weaver." I believe that the family had moved to Łódź sometime in 1903, perhaps for better economic opportunity. After my grandfather emigrated in 1905, my grandmother and the two small children went back to Piotrków. They then followed him to the United States in 1906. In 1928 my father, Max Jacobs, visited members of the family in Piotrków. In his diary he writes of seeing both his grandfather and Harry Leber's father, Szmul Leber. Others were mentioned, and I am still working to disentangle the relationships. Both Szmul Jankelewicz and Szmul Leber died before the onset of World War II. So far as my father knew, none of the younger members of the family survived the war. Piotrków had the first ghetto in occupied Poland, built as early as October 1939. Approximately 25,000 Jews from Piotrków and the nearby towns and villages were imprisoned there. As with Jews from the much larger Łódź ghetto, most were sent either to the Treblinka or Chelmno extermination camp and killed there.

I am sorry that my father didn't live long enough to learn that Aaron Isaac Jankelewicz, his first cousin, and Aaron's son Adek, did live through the war. Deported to Auschwitz in 1945, the father and son were then sent to the work camp at Ebensee, a satellite of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Aaron died on May 30, 1945, but Adek survived to establish the Jankie family in Australia in 1950 or 1951.

The Jewish community of Piotrków has never been reconstituted. The Great Synagogue (1909), pictured on the right, which was destroyed by the Germans, was restored in the 1960s by the Polish government. Today it is a public library. As for Łódź, about 38,000 Jews settled there in the immediate postwar period, making it Poland's most important Jewish community. Most of this community emigrated to Israel or the United States, for they found themselves confronted with continuing anti-Jewish hostility, repression and political violence. After the "anti-Zionist campaign" of 1968—1970 only a few hundred Jews remained in what had once been a city of a quarter million Jewish inhabitants.