The bullet was fired by a Gestapo officer during the liquidation of the Ghetto and is now kept in the National Library of Israel.
The Krakow Ghetto, May 31, 1942 – the day before the roundup
The Jewish police force was ordered to round up all residents who had not received an official stamp from the SS to remain in the Ghetto. This stamp ultimately determined who lived and who died. Anyone unfortunate enough not to receive one simply awaited his fate. The police knocked on the doors of each house and arrested anyone who could not produce a stamp.
The next morning, people gathered in the main square. It was filled with men and women, young and old, all laden with packages. The sun was beating down, scorching and oppressive. Two cars of Gestapo officers entered the gates of the square. One of the cars drove up to the headquarters of the Jewish police while the other stopped in the square. The Gestapo men carried their revolvers. The streets around the square quickly emptied.
“One of the Gestapo men aimed his gun down Jozefinska Street. Jewish policemen called back and forth to one another. Suddenly, a bullet was fired …one …two…three. The first to be hit was Dr. Michael Weichart, the chairman of the ‘Jewish Self-Help Organization.’ The shooter was Sturmsharfuhrer Wilhelm Kunde, the spokesman for the SS and Gestapo on Jewish affairs. He held the title of Kriminal-Sekretär in the criminal police department (the Kripo). His bullet struck one of Dr. Weichart’s limbs.”
This is how Tadeusz Pankiewicz describes the events that preceded the shooting of Dr. Weichert, who was also a playwright and director, in his book, The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy.
Weichert was wounded by the Gestapo officer’s bullet, but he was not killed. He later removed the bullet from his limb and kept it for his entire life. For him, it served as a memory of that day in the Ghetto when his life was spared.
Back in the square, the Jews were requested to board trolley carts. They did so with the belief that the carts were taking them away from the Ghetto but it was only a charade. It turned out that they were asked to board the carts only for the purpose of being photographed in them. Once the photos were taken, the Jews were forced to depart the Ghetto on foot, leaving the majority of their heavy baggage behind. The group began walking along the railroad tracks to Plaszow.
That night the Gestapo raided each residence in the Ghetto, inspecting papers and catching Jews in the street. Apparently, not enough people reported for the roundup. Throughout the next day, those without a stamp who decided to remain in the Ghetto were forcibly rounded up. This roundup was far more aggressive and cruel.
Who was Michael Weichert?
Michael Weichert (1890-1967) was born in the town of Podhajce in Eastern Galicia. He headed the JSS (Juedische Soziale Selbsthilfe), the Jewish Self-Help Organization that was established in Warsaw in September 1939 to help Jews in the Ghettos. The organization operated throughout the Generalgouvernement (the term for German-occupied Poland during the war).
Weichert, a jurist by education, was a man of extraordinary talents, high intelligence, and great organizational ability. Before the war, he was one of the prominent figures in Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. He was a man of the theater who founded and ran an experimental Yiddish theater in Warsaw. He worked with the “Vilna Troupe,” which put on “The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky even before the Moscow Theater.
Despite the fame he garnered in the world of theater, Weichert was unable to make a living from his art and worked concurrently as a lawyer. He advised several Jewish charities and cultural organizations supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and helped them navigate the laws and restrictions imposed by the Polish regime in the years preceding the war.
Through these connections, Weichert came to head the Jewish Self-Help Organization during the war. As part of his work in the organization, he organized food, medicine and clothing donations for Jews through organizations like the Joint and the Red Cross. He arranged for the distribution of these vital necessities and often interacted with the authorities, intervening on behalf of those who had no other voice.
“No one knew how to speak to the Germans like him. Almost no one understood their mentality and way of thinking,” says Pankiewicz in his book.
Indeed, Weichert often helped Ghetto residents obtain life-saving documents and mediated between them and Polish trustees who agreed to hold money or belongings that were temporarily entrusted to them for safekeeping by the Ghetto residents. These actions were strictly prohibited and to be involved in this meant nothing short of endangering one’s life.
His ties with Poles and Germans during the war, and the very fact that he headed a welfare organization that operated under the authority of the Nazis led to post-war accusations against Weichert.
Weichert claimed that he had not collaborated with the Germans and that all he had done was strive to ease the situation of the Jewish population. Two separate courts dealing with the matter reached opposite conclusions.
There were those who argued that the reason that Weichert was shot in the Ghetto prior to the roundup was to divert suspicion that he had collaborated with the Nazi authorities. In Weichert’s eyes, however, it is possible that the bullet he kept all these years was not only a reminder of the day his life was miraculously saved, but also conclusive proof that he was not a collaborator.
After the verdict, Weichert never returned to public service in the Jewish community in Poland. The man who worked in the Jewish theater before the war and contributed greatly to cultural life in the Ghettos, returned to the field he loved best and dedicated his life to researching and documenting Yiddish theater.
Weichert immigrated to Israel in 1958. He donated his archive, a collection of documentation and material of immeasurable value on the history of theater, folklore and Jewish theater during the Nazi occupation, to the National Library of Israel. Included in this collection was the bullet retrieved from Weichert’s body on that fateful day in May of 1942. Weichert passed away in 1967.
Thank you to Dr. Gil Weissblei of the Archive Department for his assistance in the research for this article.