The Second World War began on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, the country with Europe’s largest Jewish population. Polish Jews were immediately subjected to persecution and violence which surpassed anything which had happened in the previous six years in Germany. Shimon Huberband, a young rabbi, described what happened in the city of Piotrków Trybunalski on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur (23 September 1939).

Suddenly, the whole Jewish quarter was surrounded by a large number of soldiers... They seized children as well as grey old men. Needless to say, they beat everyone with brutal blows, leaving them bloodied and maimed...

Gestapo men lined the pathways... They stood lined up in two rows, and the Jews were required to pass by them. And, of course, as they passed down the aisle, they were beaten so badly that it was a veritable miracle that these Jews remained alive... Everyone wearing a beard had his beard ripped out.

They weren’t sheared off, or cut with a knife or bayonet, they were literally ripped out...After the attack, the fiends took everyone out to the yard and escorted them to the railway depot. There they ordered the Jews to unload a train of thirty cars full of petrol.

Tired, drained, and famished after having fasted for more than thirty-six hours and after having been beaten so brutally, they had to begin work. Many of them fell to the ground due to fainting. The Jews were not dismissed from work until 1:00 P.M. the next day.

Just over two weeks later, on 8 October, Piotrków became the first city where the creation of a ghetto was ordered. In the following weeks, Polish Jews were marked by special badges and ordered to undertake forced labour. Thousands were murdered in the autumn of 1939. These developments marked the crossing of an important threshold on the path to mass murder.

Photo: German police and SS men cutting the beard and sidelocks of a Jewish man, Poland, 1939; Yad Vashem

Testimony: Shimon Huberband, Kiddush Hashem: Jewish Religious and Cultural Life in Poland during the Holocaust, ed. Jeffrey S. Gurock & Robert S. Hirt (Ktav Publishing, 1987)