Joel S. Poremba

The Silence of a Holocaust Photograph Shattered by the Eyewitness

Observant Wieliczka Jews forced to sweep the upper city square on September 12, 1939 as
the Germans supervised. This is the square 32 Jewish men were made to sweep the road, then put on lorries, driven to a nearby forest and shot by the Germans. [Photo taken by unnamed Wehrmacht soldier on September 12, 1939]. (Courtesy Tomasz Wisniewski, Ph.D., Wisniewski Coll. www.bagnowka.
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Observant Wieliczka Jews forced to sweep the upper city square on September 12, 1939, as the Germans supervised. From here 32 Jewish men were put on lorries, driven to a nearby forest and shot by the Germans. [Photo taken by unnamed Wehrmacht soldier on September 12, 1939; courtesy of Tomasz Wisniewski, Ph.D., Wisniewski Coll. www.bagnowka. pl; and].

The importance of telling each Holocaust story fully and truthfully cannot be understated. When it comes to the Shoah quite often what the eye sees in a photograph is but a small part of a much larger, different and darker story. On September 12, 1939 the German army, with the SS, a Polish municipal official and Polish neighbors, all engaged in the round-up of thirty-two Jewish men in Wieliczka, Poland. The subject photograph presented here shows the start of that round-up. But what is not conveyed in the photograph taken by the Wehrmacht is what my father, Nathan Poremba, z”l, witnessed: the German strategy to guard against Jewish resistance, acting to slowly gain the complacence and passivity of the very people it targeted and intended to murder, in this case, Jewish Poles.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines a witness as “a person who has knowledge of an event. As the most direct mode of acquiring knowledge of an event is by seeing it, [the] ‘witness’ has acquired the sense of a person who is present at and observes a transaction.”[1]

To explain the value of witness testimony, in a 2008 television series called All Things Considered, Eli Wiesel explained the role and importance of the eye-witness to the Shoah: “[O]ur stories are essential, essential to memory. I believe that the witnesses, especially the survivors [of the Shoah], have the most important role. They can simply say, in the words of the prophet, ‘I was there.’ ”[2] No one else can lay claim to this role but the person who was there, who saw and heard that which was laid before his/her eyes and ears. Nathan witnessed, survived and provided testimony so the world would know what events preceded this snapshot and what the photograph represents.

All one can see in the photograph are the beginning stages of the round-up of Jewish men and little else. To the naked eye the scene betrays one’s security the very moment testimony is offered which takes the viewer beyond what the eye sees. A breakthrough is then made with the aid of the witness. Yes, Jews made to sweep a cobblestone road in the city’s main market square is what you think you see. But the viewer only sees this happening under the threat of and with watchful eyes of the German Wehrmacht and my father’s Polish neighbors. But much more is at play.

For six days prior, Nathan witnessed what the Germans were doing in Wieliczka which provides unseen depth and context to why Jews were sweeping a road on September 12th and the effect it had on them over these six days. What lies behind the picture demonstrates what makes testimony so vital because otherwise the world would have no suspicion what terrible events transpired leading up to the moment the photo was taken and the genocide that was exacted after it was snapped.

Between September 7 and 11, 1939 nine-year old Nathan witnessed what the Germans were doing. His testimony illustrated how the Final Solution functioned in the early goings of the war against the Jews without this policy having yet been reduced to paper. Without knowing what the Final Solution was, Nathan witnessed the grand scheme of deception meant to foster the compliance of Nazi victims through trickery and false promise. None of the Nazi-planned machinations of deception were yet known to the world, let alone the Jewish community of  Wieliczka on September 7, 1939. No one knew of the German strategy bent on fostering compliance and conditioning the Jews to round-ups. No one knew what might occur after a round-up. No one knew yet that they were typically the precursor to a mass genocide event.

Thus, “Jews in Forced Labor” was not what is happening in the photo and it was certainly not something young Nathan came to witness.

The photo was snapped by the German Wehrmacht on September 12th in Wieliczka, Poland on Rynek Górny street. One observes eight Orthodox Jewish Poles being made to sweep a cobblestone center square, and hence the “Jews in Forced Labor” moniker a museum might affix to this photo. This photo was taken minutes or maybe hours before Nathan’s father, Joseph Poremba, z”l, was made to join the group at gunpoint before Wieliczka’s last thirty-two Jewish men were loaded up on trucks, driven to a nearby forest, lined up and murdered by machine gun. This action was almost unheard of in the opening days of the war because few, if any, knew of planned mass killing events in early September 1939.

I assume you, too, see only Jews sweeping a road. But with Nathan’s eye-witness testimony the world obtained the true events that dispel any notion of Jews are standing there forced to merely sweep a road.

On September 7, 1939 Nathan was a nine-year old Jewish boy living in Wieliczka, Poland, a majority-Jewish small city just eight miles southeast of Kraków. The Wehrmacht rolled into Wieliczka on the 7th in personnel carrier trucks and on horseback. The city had already been nicknamed “a town without men” for most Jewish men fled Wieliczka between September 1st and 6th before the Germans arrived on the 7th.[3]

But not all Jewish men ran away to hide upon the enemy’s arrival. Thirty-two refused to flee, one of which was Joseph Poremba. Unbeknownst to the men who remained, from the 7th to the 11th, the Germans secretly worked with a Polish municipal clerk, Pawel Mazurowski, a voluntary accomplice, to create a kill-list of those remaining Jewish men who chose not to leave their families.[4] It would take Mazurowski and the Wehrmacht five days to spy and compile this list of thirty-two Jewish men. But how would the Germans round them up for mass murder without causing a panic or a rebellion?

On September 12th the Germans rounded-up Joseph and thirty-one other Jewish men without an uprising. The Germans were determined to have no resilience on this day which might have the unintended consequence of inspiring the Poles to question their own mortality and to rise up. The Germans could not risk resistance while establishing their dominance and control just twelve days into the war. But what the photograph fails to show is why the Germans met no resistance from the Jews on this day. It is Nathan’s testimony that provides the background to what one cannot see in the photo.

In order for the Germans to avoid a revolt from Jews on September 12th they had to demonstrate that their actions on the 12th (killing day) were no different than the five days that came before. The Germans conditioned Wieliczka’s Jews into thinking the September 12th round-up was just another exercise in public humiliation, abuse and torture.

Over five days from September 7th to 11th Nathan watched the Germans routinely round-up Jewish men and teenage boys and force them to sweep the roads in the market square as seen in the photograph. They forced the Jews to also pick up horse dung with their bare hands and put it in their pockets and into milk buckets (another photograph that survived the war); to push wheelbarrows laden with heavy boulders for transport from one end of Rynek Górny to the other for amusement of the onlookers (yet another photograph that survived the war); and to do all of this while the Germans and Poles shouted humiliation and abuse at the Jews. The Poles came out to watch these events and to mock the targets of the German exercises. For five days Nathan witnessed these actions.[5]

Importantly, Nathan testified that nothing more than humiliation, the cutting of peiyot (and yet another photo that survived) and rough language was foisted on the Jewish men.[6]

But once the secret kill-list was completed on September 12th, the Germans were led around town house-by-house by Nathan’s Polish neighbors to the location of the Jewish men. The Germans proceeded into Nathan’s home and the homes of thirty-one other Jewish men and took the Jews at gunpoint to the market square on Rynek Górny for a sixth consecutive day. From there, the men were loaded up onto trucks and told on this day they were being taken out of town for a different type of labor. Suspecting nothing different was occurring than the five days that came before, no resistance was undertaken by the Jews. The Jewish men were taken two-and-a-half miles away to a nearby forest in Taszyce and where they were murdered. There was no work outside the city, it was all a ploy that appeared to mimic the previous five days.

The German plan at preventing resistance before it might occur was successful as they were able to conceal their murderous plan on September 12th by making that day appear nearly identical to the activities of the previous days. The daily exercises in humiliation, with little more, effectively sowed the seeds of passivity among Wieliczka’s Jewish population. Having believed nothing more would happen to them, the Jews did not resist and the German plan worked. There was no revolt.

Thus, the September 12th photo shown in this article captures only a small part of the story and certainly is not correctly encapsulated by merely describing it as “Jews in Forced Labor”. No, because the photo fails to show the viewer the German deception plan at work, something only a witness can shatter when he breathes life into this specific story. It is Nathan’s eyewitness testimony that fills in the blanks and gives memory to the Jewish martyrs.

So, what is the lesson from Nathan’s testimony as we mark this Kristallnacht anniversary?

In a world that claims Jews did not resist, Nathan’s testimony explains why. The German’s psychological strategy in Wieliczka for five days fostered inaction which allowed their Jewish victims to think no grave harm would come to them because nothing extreme had resulted over the five days prior. It was so early into the war there was simply no knowledge what the Germans had planned. Only later did it became known what the German’s motives were in conducting round-ups, public humiliation and abuse: they were usually a prelude to a mass murder event.

As the last Jew of Wieliczka, Nathan testified and demonstrated to the world what it would not otherwise have not known about this photograph. What the photo fails to show are the effects of and methods the Germans employed to suppress Jewish resistance. But through testimony, one eyewitness can set the record straight in spite of the trauma inflicted on him by revisiting the scene of mass murder and the murder of his own father.

On this Kristallnacht anniversary may we all give thanks to those who bore witness and testified.

[1] Black’s Law Dictionary, 2nd Edition,,Black’s%20Law%20Dictionary%3A%202nd%20Edition,at%20and%20observes%20a%20transaction.

[2] Wiesel, Elie, All Things Considered, (April 7, 2008),

[3] Shmuel Meiri (ed.), The Jewish Community of Wieliczka; A Memorial Book, (Kehilat Wieliczka; Sefer Zikaron), (The Wieliczka Assoc. in Israel, M. Stern Press, 1980), [English version], 37-38;

[4] Meiri, The Jewish Community of Wieliczka, 36; Małgorzata Międzybrodzka, Jews in Wieliczka, Documentary Story, (Żydzi w Wieliczce. Opowieśćdokumentalna) (Wiesław Żyznowski, 2022), [English/Polish version], 335 [ISBN 978-83-950354-2-5]; and, citation to official document ANK, ref. no. 29/1054/O/StPKr138, District Office in Kraków 1945-1950, 33.

[5] Poremba, Joel, My Name is Staszek Surdel, (Sunbury Press, Inc. 2022), 30-40.

[6] Ibid.

About the Author
Joel Poremba is a business attorney with twenty-five years of litigation experience in both state and federal courts. He represents small and medium-sized companies in complex business disputes and handles insurance defense matters. He is graduate of Western State University, College of Law; the University of California, San Diego with a bachelor's degree in political science; and is working on a master's degree in Holocaust Studies at Yeshiva University's Fish Center. He is the son of Holocaust survivor, Nathan Poremba. Stunned after hearing his father give his testimony to the Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive in 1998, it took 21 years and an inspiring trip to Israel for him to finally watch his father’s video testimony.
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