The burning of the Great Synagogue of Będzin and of the Jews trapped inside was the first ominous sign of the destruction of Jewish life in Będzin.
In demonstration of Nazi Germany’s intention to ignite mass terror in the early stages of Poland’s occupation, several hundred Jews were rounded-up and forced inside the synagogue in early September 1939. Other buildings in the surrounding Jewish district were also set ablaze. Anyone who attempted to flee the fire was immediately shot by Nazis who lined the streets. Dasha Rittenberg, a survivor of Będzin, who resides today in New York, remembers her cousin being among those murdered in the burning synagogue. Dasha recalls how her cousin’s father died of grief over his son’s death shortly thereafter.
The burning of the Great Synagogue also serves as an example of Polish civilian defiance against Nazism. Stories are remembered that speak of a Polish priest who rescued Jews caught in the midst of the attack. He sheltered them in the nearby church. Some details about this rescue differ in the accounts of both Catholic and Jewish witnesses, but they generally acknowledge the priest, Mieczyslaw Zawadski, as a savior of many Jews on that day.
The exact perpetrators of the arson are difficult to pinpoint due to inadequate records of the event. Most certainly, the Einsatzgruppe (mobile killing unit) under the direction of Udo von Woyrsh was responsible for the burning of the Great Synagogue. Official German records of the Będzin Einsatzgruppe only report about dealing with its aftermath, insisting that the fire was ignited by the Polish Christian community. This is, however, simply an attempt to intensify hostility between the Catholic and Jewish communities in Będzin.