Dębica [dɛmˈbit͡sa] is a town in southeastern Poland with 46,693 inhabitants, as of 2 June 2009. It is the capital of Dębica County. Since 1999 it has been situated in the Podkarpackie Voivodeship; it had previously been in the Tarnów Voivodeship (1975–1998). Dębica belongs to the historic province of Lesser Poland, and for centuries it was part of the Sandomierz Voivodeship.
According to the 2006 data, Dębica’s area is 33.81 square kilometres (13.05 sq mi). Arable land makes 42% of the area of the town, while forests make 19%. Dębica is the seat of the county, and the town covers 4.34% of the county’s area. Dębica lies at the border of two geographical regions of Poland — the Carpathian Piedmont in southern districts of the town, and the Sandomierz Basin in its north, along the Wisłoka river.
One of the oldest documented references to this area dates back to the year 1293. It records a settlement by the name of Dambicha, belonging to the noble Gryfita family. In 1305, the village was raided by the Tatars, who burned a wooden church. The church was rebuilt in 1318, and by 1325, Dębica was the seat of a deanery, located on the outskirts of the mighty Sandomierz Wilderness. The Dębica Deanery consisted of fourteen parishes, among them Przecław, Sędziszów Małopolski, and Strzyżów.
In 1358 King Kazimierz Wielki gave a local nobleman Świętosław Gryfita a permission to found a town, and Dębica received Magdeburg rights, together with a privilege to organize weekly markets on Wednesdays. The town however, was not actually founded until June 10, 1372, when Mikołaj of Lipiny was named its first wójt. Dębica was conveniently located along the main merchant route from Kraków to Lwów, but the newly established town was unable to compete with older urban centers of the area, Pilzno and Ropczyce. In 1446, King Władysław Warneńczyk allowed annual fairs to be organized on Ash Wednesdays, which resulted in quick development of the town. For many years however Dębica was a small place, located in the Pilzno County, Sandomierz Voivodeship, province of Lesser Poland. Lacking a defensive wall that would defend it, it was vulnerable to invasions of the Tatars, Swedes, and Hungarians, who burnt or ransacked the town every few years. As a result of these events, there are few historical monuments in Dębica. One of these is the Saint Jadwiga church, originally from the 14th century, but completely rebuilt in the late 19th century.
In 1474, Dębica, together with other towns of southern Lesser Poland, was ransacked by the Black Army of Hungary. In 1502, a Crimean Tatar raid caused widespread destruction, and as a result of it the town was burned and depopulated. To prevent complete disappearance of Dębica, its owners extempted residents from all taxes for 14 years, also allowing them to collect free timber and firewood in local forests. In 1504, Dębica was extempted from royal taxes by King Aleksander Jagiellończyk. Due to all these privileges, Dębica emerged in the 16th century as a local center of skilled craftsmen. Still, it was much smaller than Pilzno and Ropczyce, also because it remained a private town, whose owners argued with each other. In 1554, most of Dębica burned, together with a wooden parish church of St. Margaret. In the late 16th century, the population of the town was app. 700.
Like almost all Lesser Poland’s towns and cities, Dębica was completely destroyed in the Swedish invasion of Poland, when Swedes and Transilvanians of George II Rakoczi burned and ransacked the town (1655 — 1660). After the invasion, the population of Dębica was reduced to app. 200, with only 30 houses. As a result, the owners of the town allowed first Jews to settle in Dębica. First settlers arrived in 1676–1690. They expanded the town’s population, and had a positive influence on the town’s economy.
In the late 17th century, the so-called New Dębica was established, around the now non-existing St. Barbara church, app. one kilometer (0.62 miles) west of Old Dębica. Both Dębicas had two different mayors, who were governed by one wójt. In the course of the time, the towns merged, and the market square of New Dębica now serves as the center of the town. Dębica was completely destroyed during the Great Northern War, and the destruction was so severe that the town slowly turned into a farming village. In the late 18th century, it belonged to the Radziwiłł family. A battle between Poles and Russians took place here during the Bar Confederation, and in 1772 (see: Partitions of Poland), Dębica was annexed by the Habsburg Empire, as part of Galicia, where it remained until November 1918. Austrian authorities decided that it should no longer be regarded as a town, but rather a village and renamed it Dembitz. This decision marked the decline of the town
Bad times came to an end in the second half of the 19th century, when Austrian government decided to build a main West-East railroad line (see Galician Railway of Archduke Charles Louis), connecting two major urban centres of Galicja — Kraków and Lwów. A railroad station was built in Dębica, and at the end of the 19th century, another, northbound line was constructed, joining Dębica and the town of Sandomierz, which was located on the Austrian-Russian boundary. The town became a rail junction, which was a huge boost for its citizens. In 1900 a high school was opened, and in 1908 students from this school founded one of the oldest sports clubs in Poland, Wisłoka (whose name comes from the River Wisłoka, which flows by the town). Just before World War I, Dębica was again incorporated as a town. The war was a disaster for the town, as it was almost completely destroyed. During several campaigns Dębica was occupied by Russian, Austrian, Hungarian and German troops, which fought in this area for many months in 1914 — 1915. The Russians wanted to get through the Carpathian Range towards Slovakia, Bohemia and Hungary, while the Central Powers managed to stop them at the beginning of 1915. These events had a great impact on the town and hampered its development for many years.
In 1918, after Poland regained independence, Dębica was included in the Kraków Voivodeship (1919-1939), in the county of Ropczyce. The economical situation of the town did not change — there was no industry, very few jobs available and surrounding villages were strongly overpopulated. This started to change in 1936, when Polish government announced creation of Central Industrial Area. It was a huge public works project, aimed at fighting unemployment in this overpopulated part of Poland, as well as creating heavy industry, concentrated on production of armament. Dębica started to develop very fast; so fast, that in 1937 the county’s capital was moved here from Ropczyce. Among several factories built in the town at that time, the most important was Stomil (now called Tire Company Dębica, and belongs to the Goodyear). Other factories were: Wytwórnia Urządzeń Chłodniczych WUCh and Zakłady Tworzyw Sztucznych «Pustków», built from scratch, together with workers’ settlement, in Pustków Osiedle, 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) northeast of Dębica. Some time in 1938 or 1939 works on another rail connection from Dębica to Jasło, via Pilzno were started. the Second World War stopped this construction, and after the war it was not continued.
The occupation of Dębica by Nazi Germany started on September 8, 1939. The Germans created a ghetto for town’s Jewish population, eventually killing most of them either on the spot or in Auschwitz concentration camp. In the forested hills south of the town, strong underground forces operated, with numerous units of the Home Army (AK). It was too dangerous for AK’s officers to stay in Dębica, thus the headquarters of a local underground district (known as Deser) were located at a nearby village of Gumniska, located in the hilly area south of the town. Resistance fighters were very active here, often attacking the main Kraków-Lwów rail line, used by German troops. In early 1944, units of local Armia Krajowa district unsuccessfully tried to blow up a train with Hans Frank, which was passing through the village station at Czarna Tarnowska, some 15 kilometres (9 miles) west of Dębica. As a reprisal, on February 2, 1944, the Germans murdered 50 Poles by rail track in Dębica (also see Otto Schimek).
On the outskirts of Dębica in the village of Pustków near Blizna (and several others), the Germans established a massive military training base in the fall of 1941 for weapon’s testing and new collaborationist military formations including the SS Galizien Division. It is estimated that in the duration of the SS Heidelager training base operation, some 15,000 slave-labor prisoners perished there including 7,500 Jews, 5,000 Soviet POWs, and 2,500 Poles; on top of an estimated 1,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the area during the fighting there. They are buried in the cemetery along the road to Pustków Drips. Originally the cemetery was located inside the ring IV (Dąbrówki), and later the remains of the soldiers were exhumed and moved. In one of the tombs is buried a Russian colonel killed in the fighting.
Implicated in war crimes was the SS-man Alois Kurz (ID 382378) who, from 1940 to 21 April 1941, served in the SS Regiment Westland, then was assigned to a construction battalion for the SS training ground and labor camp serving the SS Truppenubungsplatz Heidelager in Pustków. Also implicated in war crimes was Wilhelm Schitli, Commander of the «Jewish camp» at the SS training area HL-Heidelager from October 1942 to September 1943. For more on Heidelager history see SS-Truppenübungsplatz Heidelager (de).
After the war, in new, Communist Poland, Dębica again became seat of a county, but the town was moved from Kraków to Rzeszów Voivodeship. In 1946, an execution of anti-communist activists took place there (Public execution in Dębica (1946)). War destruction again stopped town’s development, but recovery this time was fast and based on pre-war factories. In 1975, after administrative reform, counties in Poland ceased to exist and were replaced by numerous and small Voivodeships. Dębica again was moved — this time from Rzeszów to the newly created Tarnów Voivodeship. In the late 1970s Dębica gained importance as a centre of food and agriculture production. This was due to creation of Kombinat Rolno-Spozywczy Igloopol, which, under an influential Communist dignitary Edward Brzostowski, developed very fast. Igloopol built a huge factory and a completely new district, with numerous condominiums, located on the northern side of rail line. The company achieved its peak in the late 1980s. After collapse of Communist regime, it was divided into several smaller firms, controlled by former Communist activists.