Warsaw campaign to install plaque reveals incredible WWII story of Jewish boys known as ‘the cigarette sellers of Three Crosses Square’
A campaign is underway to raise money for a memorial plaque dedicated to “the cigarette sellers of Three Crosses Square”.
With the required permits already green lighted by Warsaw City Hall, a fundraising drive with a target of PLN 35,000 has been launched by the capital’s Jewish community.
Operating between 1942 and 1944, the Jewish vendors have been described as “the little heroes of WWII who, through their own survival, defeated the enemy.”
Aged between six and sixteen, the broader term “cigarette sellers of Three Crosses Square” (Pl. Trzech Krzyży) describes a band of about twenty children that escaped near certain death in the Ghetto and were able to survive in the city centre by living off their wits.
By day, this meant scratching money together through the sale of cigarettes and newspapers on Pl. Trzech Krzyży. This was especially dangerous given that their clientele were chiefly German soldiers and Gestapo officers.
Set in the very focal point of Warsaw’s German district, it was here that a tramline intended solely for German use had its terminal. Additionally, German soldiers could be frequently found carousing in what formerly had been the Queen Jadwiga Junior High School, an elegant building that today looks out onto the Sheraton.
Transformed into a so-called Soldatenheim during the war, these state run institutions could be found across the Third Reich and essentially contained hotel-style facilities for visiting soldiers, restaurants, brothels and other such amusements that would have been valued by an occupying force.
Moreover, the YMCA building at ul. Konopnicka 6 found new life as an SS barracks, whilst the building at Wiejska 10 was reborn as an HQ for the local branch of the Gendarmerie.
Thick with German-only cafes and stores, the wider district was also home to a numerous high-ranking security institutions, among them a Gestapo detention centre at Szucha 25. Here, in the basement of what had been the Ministry of Religious Beliefs (and today, the Ministry of Education), the Germans interrogated thousands of prisoners ferried in from Pawiak Prison.
Having already gained significant street smarts by working as child smugglers trafficking food into the Ghetto, the gang was founded by siblings Josek and Tereza Szindler. Fleeing to the Aryan side after deportations to the gas chambers of Treblinka began in 1942, the young brother and sister initially survived by begging.
Meeting Josek Szapiro, another young Jew with a similar story, the trio observed Polish children selling cigarettes to Germans and pooled their resources together to buy a box of cigarettes for individual resale.
Realizing that they would maximize their earnings in the heart of the lion’s den, they chose Pl. Trzech Krzyży as their pitch area – in particular, the area right outside the Institute of the Deaf.
Soon, they were joined by other Ghetto exiles, among them brothers Perec and Zalman Hochman, Szoszana Saksznajder and Ignacy Milchberg (codename Byczek) who would assume a prominent role in the group.
Avoiding suspicion thanks to their Aryan looks and strong Polish language skills, the gang divided up territory and agreed on a flat price so as not to compete with each other. With nowhere to live, nights would often be spent sheltering in stairwells or ruined cellars, though help and refuge also came from Poles such as Zofia Kalota who lived nearby on Widok street.
In October of 1943, the group was introduced to Józef Ziemian, a 21-year-old that, unlike the rest of his family, had also escaped deportation. Already deeply involved in underground activities such as the distribution of subversive pamphlets, Ziemian was able to secure forged Polish identity documents for the children as well as new clothes and accommodation.
However, this was not enough to save Josek Szindler who was last seen in March, 1944, being led away by members of the Gestapo.
Taking an active part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, many of the group lived to see the end of war, despite being held in internment camps after the action was mercilessly quashed.
Ziemian, too, survived, and after emigrating to Israel in 1957 he immortalized the gang in his book The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square.
Awarded a literary prize by the World Jewish Congress, the work remains widely studied in Israeli schools. More recently, the memoirs of Perec Hochman were published posthumously in 2017.
Joining the Home Army’s Sokół battalion, the 13- and 14-year old Hochman brothers distinguished themselves during the Warsaw Uprising, with Zalman sent into a fortified German position inside the Central Bank to propose a ceasefire.
Regardless, up until now their stories have been seldom heard in Poland itself.
Designed by Dr. Antoni Grabowski, a professor at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, it is hoped that the placement of a plaque on the façade of the Institute of the Deaf will finally help redress the balance.
For more information see: https://zrzutka.pl/ggsw98