Demise of the Elbing Synagogue and Jewish Community

Johannes OE Woelk

November 9-10, 1938 – “Kristallnacht”

Elbing, Germany (today Elbląg, Poland)

On the night of 9 to 10 November 1938 in the presence of the Mayor (Johannes O. H. Woelk), of Elbing, Germany officials of the Gestapo, the SS, the Elbing Fire Brigade, set fire to the Elbing synagogue and Jewish community house. Jewish men were arrested, beaten and robbed of their property. Windows were broken in all the Jewish shops in the city.

Pre-1940 Synagogue in Elbing
Synagogue location in Elbing

At two o’clock in the morning, Elbing was steeped in a damp darkness and fog. Lantern light barely broke through the darkness. A large portion of the city was awake. Dressed in long military coats, people marched down the foggy street towards the synagogue. There was only one synagogue in the city.

But the marchers were not members of the Jewish community going for night time prayers; rather, it was their tormentors. At the head of the march was the Mayor of Elbing, Johannes O.H. Woelk.

In addition to municipal officials and city councilmen were the Gestapo, the SS (Schutzstaffel) and SA (Strumabteilung) men. Hob nailed boots rang on the stone pavement, waking the crows sleeping in nearby trees. Vagrants, young people, and children lined the street. Perhaps the children did not understand what was happening around them, because, incredibly, they appeared to enjoy the spectacle.

The night march was lit by torches and accompanied by beating drums, choral cheers, and loud applause. During the previous week, there had been no end to the marches and rallies, many of them ending up in riots, shoving matches, and stonings. The pogroms against the Jews had begun in earnest.

Gauleiter Erich Koch
Gauleiter and Obergruppenführer Erich Koch

Elbing’s Jewish Community had never been very large and early on it seemed, that because it was located in a quiet area away from the political center of Elbing, there would be no “race” riots. Unfortunately, when Erich Koch ascended to the position of Gauleiter and Obergruppenführer of East Prussia (Ostpreußen) in 1938 in Königsberg, that all changed.  Tensions and anti-Semitic sentiments arrived in Elbing and spread like wildfire throughout the non-Jewish community.

Old Jewish Cemetery Elbing
Old Jewish Cemetery Elbing

As early as  5 April 1933, the local Elbing newspaper reported the disbarring of Jewish lawyers in Elbing. The City Council decided, at about that time, to “aryanize” the names of streets, factories, shops across the city. Step by step the city administration had begun to erase all traces of Judaism from the city. However, they had not gone so far as to destroy the Jewish cemetery (at the intersection of Brest and Browarna) nor had they destroyed the synagogue. On November 9, 1938 that time had come.

Elbing’s professional firefighters traveled down Adolf Hitler Straße (re-named in honor of the Führer Adolf Hitler, today known as: May 1 Street) from the Square of Frederick William (today known as: Slavic Square). But there was no smoke. The police chief reported a man wearing a military uniform, Mayor Woelk, standing in readiness; he was awaiting the Fire Brigade to set the synagogue ablaze. Firefighters surrounded the synagogue with their fire fighting equipment at the ready. Shortly after 3 a.m. the synagogue exploded in flames. Firefighters poured water onto neighboring buildings in order to confine the blaze to the synagogue. The Mayor (Woelk), the police presidium, and several Gestapo official SS men stood by the fire. The synagogue building burned alone. (Note: Valuable items had been taken from the Congregation earlier and confiscated.)

Initially there was an eerie silence; but shortly, the silence was interrupted by local militants with shouts honoring Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP (Nazis).

Seeing a huge blaze across the skyline, awakened and alarmed people across the city. People who were already on the streets began to throw stones at a store, one of the last Jewish shops in the city. No one intervened. Youths began looting, plundering the store – they even pulled the shocked, frightened owner out of his apartment. The mob shouted insults and pushed the owner around. Still, the police did not intervene. This further encouraged the crowd to destroy and plunder the remaining “nearby” Jewish establishments/ stores. Everywhere were the sounds of breaking windows, frightened angry people, and the sight of broken glass.

Such was the night of 9 to 10 November 1938 – “Kristallnacht”. According to reports, all but two Jewish males in Elbing between the ages of 15 and 70 were arrested. The poorer were ultimately taken to concentration camps; the more wealthy were allowed to buy their way out and emigrate.  Following 10, November 1938, no Jew was “allowed” to resettle in any German land.

The city ambiguously accepted this night.

Jewish Family eviction from their home on Wilhelm Straße in Elbing
Jewish Family eviction from their home on Wilhelm Straße in Elbing

Elbing, despite the memory of poverty and misery of the Weimar years, had not wanted to blame their plight solely on Jewish bankers. More, they feared another war. But the presence of Elbing Mayor Woelk that night along with the support of major political and military reserves during the arson of the synagogue, turned the tide.

The last Jew left Elbing in 1939; of the synagogue, no trace remains.  The Jewish cemetery was largely destroyed during the Nazi era.  The last remaining grave stones of that cemetery were removed in the late 1960s. In 2001, a small monument was placed at the site of the Jewish cemetery surrounded by greenery.

Monument to pre-WW2 Jewish Community in Elbing
Monument to pre-WW2 Jewish Community in Elbing

The monument reads: “In memory of the Jews of Elbing. The old Jewish cemetery 1812-1945.”

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, no Jews returned to their former home.

The dream of the Nazis were sadly realized in Elbing (Elbląg); they had completely annihilated Elbing Jews, their culture, traditions, and even their past ….


Notes & Credits:

The first Jews came to Elbing and settled in 1783. From the very beginning, it was hard for the Jews of Elbing; they were never truly welcomed or integrated into the community. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars Elbing’s Jewish population was approximately 70 souls. They already had built a community including a synagogue, school, and cemetery. With time, the Prussian law became more liberal, and over time many Jews changed their faith and assimilated themselves into the larger population.Many of the remaining Elbing Jews belonged to the more affluent layers of the bourgeoisie, represented the professions, were factory owners, shopkeepers, bankers. The most famous in the community was co-owner of Germany’s largest cigar factory – Loeser (Löser), or Loewenthal (Löwenthal) brothers, owners of the largest “trading house” located on the banks of the Elbing River. This Blog Posting is sourced “largely from” my translations & interpretations of the following articles and papers:

I have additionally augmented the materials with various photos (and materials) I found on the web while conducting Shoah research for a client.

Elbing Jewish Community Image Library