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The Days of the Holocaust

 

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Days of turmoil

by Shlomo Weissberg

Translated by Sara Mages

 

In 1940, when the Red Army entered our city, people who were known as “leftist” and a “mob” that dragged behind them, left to greet them. They climbed on the tanks, embraced and kissed the soldiers, and offered their services. They led the commanders to the homes of the rich and to the shops to stock up on booty. Public institutions, such as the savings and loan fund and the schools, were confiscated with their help and advice. They also tried to turn the Great Synagogue into a “communal hall,” but they were unable to do so because of the united opposition of the Jewish residents.

The members of the Bershṭein family were among the first that their property, their houses and everything inside them, was confiscated. They also didn't shy away from their tableware and clothes. The heads of the families were arrested and sent to prison where they met their death. For unknown reasons, only Lioba Bershṭein wasn't arrested. He wandered like a shadow in the streets, wondering and waiting for his fate.

One morning we were called for a mass meeting in the fire brigade's square. All the townspeople went there, and here's Lioba standing next to me depressed and white as chalk. The speakers are praising the new regime and remind us that we should be thankful for the redemption and rejoice that we've left slavery for freedom. Everyone is applauding, I look at Lioba and he's cheering enthusiastically, more than anyone else.

Yosef Rosenblatt was among those who have foreseen the future, and made an effort to acquire special privileges from the next regime. To do so he helped and supported the communist movement during the days of the Romanians by paying membership fees to this movement. However, when it came time for repayment, he was among the first who were sent to a desolated place with his family.

A few days after the arrival of the Soviets a son was born to Feivel Schneider's daughter. She was the first to sanctify the name of the communists when she announced that she wouldn't circumcise her son. All the insistent pleading of her relatives and the mohel, Leibish the ritual slaughterer, who offered to pay for the circumcision didn't help. She stood firm in her opinion and didn't give permission to arrange the ceremony which was contrary to her “Ani Ma'amin” [credo].

Yisrael Gruzman was immediately accepted to work as chief accountant (there was a shortage of such professionals), but together with it he was invited frequently by the NKVD for nightly investigations. He refrained from telling his family what he was accused of and what they demand from him. He became sad, depressed and introspective until

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one morning when it was published that Gruzman was found hanging in his home. Later we learned that they demanded that he will work for them and give them the names of the people who opposed the new regime.

With the confiscation of the brandy distillery Isaac B.R.G was removed from his post as manager, and the position was given to the women who washed the floors in the office. Every day the woman, who was illiterate, brought Isaac to the office in a carriage so he could show her how to manage the factory. Shortly after, he felt that the ground was burning under his feet because he and Moshe Wieseltier were called to the NKVD for questioning. They were asked to give an account on their Zionist activities, but they denied that they were involved in Zionist activities, and said that they only gave financial assistance to poor people who wanted to immigrate to Israel. When I met them I expressed my displeasure that they desecrated the honor of the movement, and told them that if the NKVD would call me for questioning I'll confess and tell them the truth. Thanks to my brother-in-law, Dr. Grufenmar, who was involved with the rulers and their Jewish followers, I haven't been called for questioning on this matter. I was only fired from my job after they learned about my past “sins.”

A dairy factory was established at the home of Karl the shoemaker. The director, who was one of the party's leaders, decided that he needed a special room for his office. He called Shalom Guzman, who lived next door, and asked to rent him a room in his house. Guzman explained to him that he has a family of nine and there's barely enough space for him and his small children in the two rooms that he has. Yet, he said in a trembling voice, “for the government's sake I'm willing to sacrifice one of my rooms.” Before long, the director invited him for the second time and demanded that he would also give him the second room on the grounds that the family interferes with his work. Guzman cried and begged, told him about his situation, how he and his family were left without an income. His family is hungry for bread, and he has no money to pay rent somewhere else. The director's anger rose and he started to shout: “That means that you're against the Soviet regime!!” When the fateful night arrived, he and his family were deported to Siberia.

At a late hour on that awful night, about 70 members of the NKVD, who were brought from the environment, scattered across the city. Accompanied by their Jewish followers they knocked on the doors of those whose names appeared on the list and ordered them to get ready to leave within a few minutes. About eighty people, entire families, were loaded on wagons and sent to the train station, and from there… In many cases families were separated and sent to different locations.

Here's a partial list of the exiles (according to my memory):

Yosef Kaufmann (Yosil Feikis) and his family;
Yisrael Kaufmann and his family;
Mordechai Pen and his family;
Chaim Kirshner and his family;
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Mashke Katz and his family;
Shelom Guzman and his family;
Yosef Rosenblatt and his family;
Yitzchak Fuks and his family;
H.Y, Guberman and his family;
Davud Keub Ledrshinder and his family;
Michel Morgenstern;
Frida Halperin and her son'
Lioni Zilber's wife.
Before that, several people like Dr. Trachenbaum, the Bershṭein families and others were arrested and deported. Those were the “bourgeois, “enemies of the people.” They were uprooted and sent to hard labor in Siberia where they found their death. Only a few of them survived.

Only the next morning the city's residents learned what happened that night. The shock and disbelief were terrible. There was a general fear of what might come. We were convinced that this is just the beginning and the rest will come.

Yasha, a remnant of the Bershṭein family, was on the deportation list but by chance he didn't sleep at home on that night. When he returned home in the morning, he found it empty and his wife and small son were missing. He immediately pursued the convoy and caught up with it in Ocniþa. He asked them to let him join his family, but his request wasn't granted under the claim that he should have been in the place during the imprisonment… He returned to Briceni depressed and lonely.

It's clear that these events have raised the absolute question: What to do to be saved? This fact will serve as an example to the mood that prevailed in the city and attacked people like me: among those, who escaped to Chernovtsy, was also my son Zizi z”l who was an activist in “Hashomer Hatzair” movement. It wasn't long before the news came to us that he continues with his clandestine Zionist work. This work was extremely dangerous and several of his friends were caught and disappeared… It's impossible to describe the shock that took over my family. They ordered me to write him immediately and demanded, as an order from his father and mother, to stop his dangerous work and move elsewhere or back home where he would be under the supervision of his family. Enraged and agitated I went to write him, but I didn't write him to stop his activities. I only asked him to be careful and also reminded him what is told about Rabbi Akivah: when he was executed his flesh was combed with iron combs and he accepted his sufferings with love. His students said to him: - Rabbi, to such extent? He said to them, “All my life I was worried about the verse, “with all your soul” even if they take away your soul. And I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfill this command? And now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not?” The answer from my son wasn't late coming: father, I was impressed by your words but I will continue to follow the path that I've chosen to the end. In Chernovtsy he managed to survive the heavy arm of the Soviet regime, but he wasn't able to survive the Kirilovitch Ghetto where he died a martyr's death.


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In the days of the Holocaust

by Shlomo Weissberg

Translated by Sara Mages

Once upon a time there was a city in a remote region of Northern Bessarabia and its name was Briceni. It was flourishing settlement which counted about ten thousand Jews, the majority of them honest and good. They struck roots there for many generations, lived a vibrant and self-sufficient life, built and established social institutions of education, health, economic and religion until the bitter and impetuous day had arrived and they were brutally annihilated. The city was destroyed over several days, the toil of many generations was destroyed and robbed, and the desolated city was emptied from its Jewish residents who were expelled without knowing where and why.

When we come to write on the tombstone of our city the course of events that led to its destruction and the annihilation of her sons, and also the situation and the reasons that accelerated this destruction, we must distinguish between the dates and the process: if the Holocaust started on 22 July 1941, the date in which squads of Romanian soldiers entered with a clear purpose: to kill, lose and destroy, the depletion and destruction process started a year earlier. The Red Army entered our city in June 1940. Immediately after, the army began, with the help of its local followers, to confiscate the property, shops and houses, of many Jews. Indeed, among them were several rich people, but the vast majority were members of the middle class who lost their meager possessions. The few, who managed to save something, became destitute during the year of the Soviet regime and were left without a source of livelihood (we felt the saddening results of this year later in Transnistria, when there were more victims of famine than victims of the sword, and those who brought money or valuables had a slim chance to stay alive).

The arrests, deportations to Siberia, and escape to other cities didn't leave active people who engage in public affairs. In time of trouble we lacked people who were able to respond to what was happening. And I will say here to those who ask: - the Bessarabian Jewry, which was blessed with Zionists and well-known public activists who also didn't flinch from clandestine activities, with its vibrant youth movements, how could it walk like sheep to the slaughter and fulfill the orders of deportation and extermination without trying to respond in any form of organized resistance? The answer is: its active forces were destroyed and annihilated beforehand, and a depressed and broken crowd remained.

For that reason, that terrible day, the day of 22 July 1941, found us in a state of depression and impoverishment. The Russians had left the day before and many of our townspeople followed them without knowing what their fate would be in the unknown road.

And what the hail had left the locust consumed. Upon their arrival the Romanians gave freedom to the black troops, in the city and the environment, to rob and murder. Masses of peasants were summoned, and they rioted and looted. The first day ended with the murder of dozens of Jews. Under the threat of death the authorities forbade us to leave our homes, a matter which caused suffering and hunger. Thus, our life was in great danger in the days before the expulsion.

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Within a few days the Romanians assembled the Jews, who were expelled from Sokyriany, Lipcani and the surrounding villages, in our city.

The first to be deported were the Jews of Lipcani. On Friday, 25 July, in a pouring rain, they were gathered in the city center, and under the blows of unruly soldiers they were forced to walk, in the rain and in the mud, to Yedintsy [Edinet]. On the way many of them fell and died. Two days later, the same fate have fallen on the Jews of Sokyriany, and then came the turn of the Jews of Briceni and the surrounding area. On 28 July, at two o'clock in the morning, we were awakened with the terrible command that by eight, we, men, women and children, need to concentrate in the fire brigade's square and be ready to set off. Since we lived in the illusion, based on the promises of the local authorities that they wouldn't deport us, we didn't have the time to get ready and stock up on food. And thus, in a morning of a clear summer day, but a day of darkness and gloom for us, we left our beloved city within the tears and sobs of women, elderly and children who barely dragged themselves after the camp, and within the laughter and glee of many of our neighbors.

The first victim fell close to our city, beside Trivisivitz Forest. David'l, son of Rabbi Shalom, collapsed under the heavy weight of a big sack of books that he was carrying. Stunned, we left the first victim where he fell, and continued with our slow march. Despite the blows that the soldiers rained down on us we weren't able to walk faster because of those who straggled and fell. We arrived to Sokyriany at dusk. We hoped that they would let us rest there a little, but, woe to us, with whips and blows they urged us to walk in the direction of the Dniester River. When we left the city we were attacked by a gang of Gentile boys who forcefully pulled our meager belongings from our hands and shoulders. Only late at night, when our strength ran out and our tormentors became tired, we fell helplessly in the field and rested for a few hours. In the morning we continued on our way to the Dniester's river bank and crossed the temporary bridge to the village of Kozolov. They didn't allow us to stop in the village to get some food or water to drink. They gathered us in a plowed field and forced us to dig pits. They placed posts inside them, surrounded the area with barbed-wire and forbade us to leave the place.

That day a heavy rain, which also continued the next day, came down on us. Our clothes got wet, the chill froze the body and the plowed field turned into deep mud which stuck to the wet body. Those, who dared to cross the fence to find a little water to drink or take a bundle of dry straw from the nearby piles, were shot on the spot. The meager food, which some of us had, was destroyed. In this terrible condition we stood or sat, day and night, on the wet bundles. Shouts and wails are heard from all corners of the camp. The weak died and remained in place. The emotions became dull and no one is interested in what is happening around him or near him. And thus, within a day or two, there has been an unmatched change: instead of the chosen people - here are dirty creatures that wallow in mud and muck, and they are unable to respond to what is happening around them.

Only on the third day, when the skies cleared, the survival instinct awoke.

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We collected between us money and gold jewelry and were able to bribe the Romanian officer. He ordered us to organize companies, up to a thousand people in each company, and transfer them from the place of calamity to the nearby villages. When we parted we left in the field many people, old and respected, who perished there,

Under the leadership of Dr. Grufenmacher our group left early in the morning in the direction of a certain village. We got there early evening. Under the officer's command the head of the village took us to the kolkhoz's shed which was filthy and full of mud. We spent the night there crowded and in torture. In the morning we spread out in the village to look for food, some by barter - a piece of bread in exchange for a garment or an object, and some by begging…

Before we were able to rest and wash off the mud that we were immersed in, two German officers lunged on us like demons. With shouts and blows they drove us out of the village and ordered us to walk to Mogilev. Again, we walked for two days through villages and towns. We passed the town of Irshava on the eve of Tisha B'Av (it's worth noting the attitude of the residents, the Ukrainian peasants: the elderly among them, those from the Czar's period, expressed signs of sympathy, but not in a tangible way, because the Germans ordered them not to help us even with a glass of water, and not to come in contact with us. While the young people who were born and educated in the communist system, assisted the murderers and participated in the extermination actions).

We arrived to Mogilev on August 4. There, we found many of our townspeople who came from other villages. We were ordered to stand in the town's center and wait for an order. We stood all day in the heat of the burning sun without food, and waited for our bitter fate. Only at a late hour in the evening the Germans lined us in a military order, forced us to jog to the Dniester's river bank, and shot those who trailed behind. We were transferred back to Bessarabia and in Ataki we were delivered again to the hands of the Romanians.

The Romanians kept us in a field, under the open sky, next to the Dniester River. There, we met the Jews of Khotyn who were expelled at that time from their city.

Suddenly, it was announced in the camp that it's possible to return to Briceni. Indeed, it was as if we were given the freedom to do as we please because the guards were gone. We set off in the hope: maybe?… As we left we encountered the soldiers who directed our steps to Sokyriany, and everything repeated itself - beatings and oppression, a distance of a day's walk lasted three days, an overnight stay in a pouring rain under the open sky, until we arrived to Sokyriany.

There, they concentrated us in a ghetto of several side streets which were surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Our desperate situation was eased because we were able to contact the Jews of Chernivtsi and receive material help from them. We set up a committee for mutual aid, and in comparison to our previous situation it seemed that our situation has improved. The starvation and sickness, which were brought by our wanderings and the ravages of the roads, have caused havoc among us. There wasn't a day without a few dead, and there were days in which dozens have died.

We also started to get used to life of idleness with a prayer in our heart: if it can only last until the end of the war.

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The will and the desire to live have increased in us because we lived in the hope that we will be able to see the destruction of our enemies. The optimists among us, like Moshe Perel and Avraham Vatenmacher, predicted in the camp that that salvation is near, and the heart was drawn to believe. However, this relative rest only lasted for about two months, until the day when the knowledge that we must leave again for the Ukraine have struck us like a thunder.

God, Lord of the universe, we cried in our tents, from where can we gather the strength to wander again in the roads when we are so tired and weak? And the days are autumn days, the days of Sukkot. They take people from their homes and drive them out in small groups towards the Dniester River and on the way they execute the old and the weak. Large pits for their burial were prepared in advance.

I was among the last to leave on the third intermediate day of Sukkot. Again, we walked for two days in terrible roads, heavy rain, frost and cold nights until we crossed the Dniester River. After we spent the night in an abandoned house in Mogilev we continued for several more days, in the rain and in the mud, through the towns of Ozarintsy and Luchinets. There, we found several people from our city who were in the groups that left before us. We tried to join them, but the soldiers' whip and rifle butt wouldn't let us stay. We walked for three more days through many villages until we arrived to Kopaygorod [Ukraine].

On the way I fell helplessly several times, and only with my son's help I was able to drag myself. I felt that my strength was running out and my end is approaching. In Kopaygorod we were allowed to sleep at the homes of Ukrainian Jews who didn't manage to escape to Russia (it's necessary to note that the Jews of Luchinets also met us on the road with bread and hot soup). I, and several others, decided to connect with these Jews and stay in their town. Those who managed to hide from the eyes of the soldiers remained there, and those who lost their way and remained alive joined us. Many of our townspeople, who got stuck in the surrounding villages, also walked in this direction. In this town, a place that we hoped to finally find some rest for our failing legs, the true hell called “Transnistria,” began. When the deportees of Khotyn and Bukovina joined us we became a community of 5000 to 6000 exiles. The Romanian occupation forces started to arrange us in two to three narrow streets. At the lower part of this small town we crowded together with the Jewish residents, a number of families in one room.

Our people filled all the storerooms, shops and cellars to capacity. The cold winter has come with all its might. There's no firewood. The hunger is nagging and forcing us to leave the ghetto despite the dire warning that whoever left the ghetto would be shot. Every day they also take the hungry and the sick to forced labor without a food ration (also, and especially, with the help of the oppressors from among our people who were chosen for this job). Infectious diseases, mainly typhus, spread at an alarming speed and kill many. The dead carts pass every morning and those, who fell and died, are taken from the houses. Throughout the day piles of skin covered skeletons are being thrown into the carts, and we, who are still alive, wonder when our turn will come…

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When I remember it all, I can't understand how we were able to stand it and from where, we, the few survivors, drew the strength to stay alive.

At the end of the summer the German officer, who was appointed on us, found that too many Jews remained alive and that we live in relatively good conditions. He ordered to expel us from the city to the nearby forest with a clear goal: to eliminate us. They gathered us in a section of the forest which was surrounded by barbed wire. All the sources of obtaining food were completely blocked, and without a shelter from the rain and the chill of the night the number of victims has reached hundreds. We felt that our end is approaching. Despite the excellent guarding of the Ukrainian volunteers, who murdered left and right, a mass escape, especially of the young who still had some strength, started from the forest to ghettos in other cities (my son, who fled to Kirilovitch, was also killed in this way). The murderer commander, who came to the camp every morning, also killed many with his pistol.

The escapees, who managed to reach Mogilev, summoned our brothers who were there (they had a secret contact with the Jews of Bucharest), and a little help of food have reached us. The hateful commander, who received a gift of a bribe, allowed the survivors to return to the city. A short time later he was replaced by a Romanian commander.

Only in the winter of 1942/43, after the Germans defeat near Moscow, the cruel treatment of the Romanian authorities has changed a little. The few survivors, together with the Jews of Mogilev and Chernivtsi, managed to contact Bucharest - and a little help in the form of clothes and money started to arrive from there. The distribution was done by people who called themselves the “community.” It was composed of violent people who had close ties to the government and received bribes from it. We continued to live under intolerable conditions for two more years, and hoped that the day of redemption and retribution will come. Indeed, this day has come, but it didn't find people who were able to rejoice in it, only shadows, human skeletons.

In March 1944 we received the liberating forces with open arms. We took out the last piece of bread from between our teeth and gave it to them (because they also arrived hungry and weary). But they didn't pamper us at all. The very next day the soldiers broke the windows of a Jewish home. There was also no shortage of insults and derogatory names because we were in the rear and not in the front…

The immediate mobilization of all the young people among us was announced. I was a member of the delegation which turned to the battalion commander with a request of mercy. We described before him everything that had happened to us and asked him to let us go back to our city. We told him that we're unable to do so without the help of the young people, and when we get there they will join the army. Our pleas were to no avail, and all the people of military age were taken and sent right away to the front.

We were forced to remain in our place of exile for two more months and only in May 1944, after many hardships and difficulties, we managed to reach our city.

And here: instead of a city - a desolated wilderness. Wherever you turn you see ruined and burnt houses and a constant pain attacks you. We were close to ten thousand when we left, and about a thousand survivors, fragments of families, returned.

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We sat on the rubble and cried: “Is this the city?”… And indeed, a short time later the escape began, some fled to Chernivtsi, some to another city, and some across the border.


Memories from the deportation

by Yakov Akerman

Translated by Sara Mages

 

… I remember the death of David Rabinowitch, son of the rabbi R' Shalom. When he left the city he took with him two heavy sacks full of sacred books and he didn't want, under any circumstances, to leave them on the road. In addition, he was dressed in two or three overcoats despite the great heat. In this manner he carried the heavy load with his remaining strength. He begged to help him carry the sacks, but no one listened to him because everyone was loaded with his own bundles. He managed to cross the bridge over the Dniester River, but in a distance of few hundred meters from it, on the ascent to the village of Kozlov, he collapsed and died. My father was the first to honor him and brought him to burial. His grave was dug in the place where he fell.

After we sat for several days, cramped and crowded, in a plowed field near the village as a in a torrential rain came down on us, the camp of thousands was divided into small groups and each group was sent to one of the nearby villages. My group remained in the place and was sent to reside in the village's school. Before we managed to remove our clothes to dry them, four small cars with Germans entered the schoolyard. It was the regional headquarters which included a high-ranking commander and a Ukrainian interpreter. They immediately gave an order to expel all the Jews from the place. The Ukrainian civil militia, which was armed with sticks, came and took us to a large meadow outside the village. Jews from the nearby villages were also collected there, and we became a large camp that also included the Jews of Briceni, Lipcani and Sokyriany. This large camp was moved in the direction of Mogilev and was led like sheep to the slaughter by a few militia men who were only armed with sticks.

After we passed some distance, the entire transport stopped. The German commander and the interpreter, who were accompanied by a soldiers armed with automatic weapons, caught up with us. The commander entered between the lines and told me to follow him. My mother begged him not to take me from her, but the interpreter told her that if I'll refuse to obey the commander's order they would open fire on the entire camp. With a heavy heart I separated from my family and walked with the Germans. Old and sick people, who didn't have the strength to walk with the camp, were scattered on the road. Among them was Breina, the sister of Dr. Gleizer who was carried in the arms of her daughter because she was paralyzed in both legs. The commander ordered the daughter to catch up with the camp and told her that he would take care of her mother… I was given the task to bring her and also the others who lagged behind to a shed next to the village's school, without food, drink and a place to lie on.

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The next morning all the people were removed from the shed. They were loaded on wagons, taken out of the village and shot there. The sound of the gunfire was heard in the village. A young Ukrainian, who served as a guide to the Germans, told us that all the Jews were exterminated. The work, which I assigned to me, was to polish the shoes of the headquarters' men twice a day, and clean their rooms.

I was there for twelve days, and then I fled. I arrived to Mogilev but my family had disappeared. For two months I wandered from camp to camp, between the Dniester and the Bug, and I even found myself in Pechora which is known by the name the “death camp.” I was there for about ten days and managed to escape. I wandered many kilometers, by difficult routes, until I found my two brothers and my sister, who thought that I was among the dead, near Berșad. My parents were no longer alive. My father was taken to Skozinitz Forest and murdered there together with many other Jews, and my mother froze to death in the difficult winter of 1941-42.


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What I went through

by Donia Sapir-Furman

Translated by Sara Mages

 

A shudder passes through my entire body when I take a pen in my hand to raise the memories of what had happened to me from the day I was expelled from our city until I returned to it.

On 21 July heavy clouds covered our city. By word of mouth it was reported that we're about to be deported. The heart didn't want to believe it, but on 22 July, when we saw that the Jews of the neighboring cities, Sokyriany and Lipḳani were concentrated in our city, we knew that our fate was also sealed. The next day the farmers from the surrounding area, who were given freedom of activity, came to rob us to their heart's content. The robbery lasted three days. I escaped and hid at the home of a Christian acquaintance. When I returned, I found a total destruction in the house, only broken dishes remained.

On 28 July the entire Jewish population was ordered to gather in the firefighters square, the place that was used for market days and fairs. Our wanderings began at that hour. We were expelled to Sokyriany where we slept outdoors. At 5 o'clock in the morning they moved us across the border to Kozlov [Ukraine], and a torrential rain started to fall on the way. We lay outside, in the rain and in the mud, without food and water, and our guards stole what little we have left. On the fourth day, when the sky cleared a little, they took us again on the road with shouts, beatings and abuse. We weren't allowed to walk on the paved roads, only on the roadside and in the ditches. We were ordered to climb mountains and the policemen stood at the bottom and shot at us to their pleasure. Many fell and rolled down like stones.

When we reached the bridge they didn't let us cross it. We were chased into the water and those, who weren't able to cross it by swimming, sank and drowned. It was very hot but the policemen, who stood next to each well, didn't allow us to draw water to quench our thirst. Young children died from thirst in our arms, and we were unable to help them.

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We walked the entire day, from 5 in the morning to 8 in the evening - and then they put us a pigpen for the night. We lay in the mud, in the pigs' filth, in pungent stench, but we were happy that finally our bodies and our stiff legs were given a little rest. In the morning, when we were awakened, we walked by the bodies of those who had died at night…

Thus they chased us for several days until we crossed the Bataki Bridge and arrived to Mogilev-Podolski. As soon as we arrived they lined us in a large plot and removed all the old people from the rows. They said that they were sending them to a hospital… The young people were caught by the Germans and sent to work. Among them was also my son z”l. The next day he returned and told us that they dug a large pit in which all the old people were buried alive. My son buried his grandfather with his own hands….

They kept in Mogilev for three days - and we were sent back to Bessarabia. When we crossed the bridge for the second time many of us jumped into the Dniester's water and met their deaths there.

Again, we wandered for days until we arrived to Vertiujeni in Bessarabia. There, they established a ghetto for us, surrounded it with a barbed-wire fence and didn't let anyone to approach us. There was a great shortage of food and water. Epidemics broke out and people fell like flies. Corpses were placed on ladders and brought for burial - about two hundred a day. It was very crowded. A number of families crowded into a narrow room. In the room with me were Aharon Steinhoiz and his family, Shalom Kilemnik, his wife, her sister and her children.

We spent six weeks in Vertiujeni, days of sufferings and torture above human virtue - and suddenly, we were informed that they're going to take us back home. We believed - and we were happy…

However, it was only a dirty joke to provoke us and our feelings. In the morning they lined us in rows and counted ten-ten, some to the right and some to the left, those - to the Ukraine and those in the direction of the Bug River from which no one returned. Our group, which left for the Ukraine, also received a punishment.

After two days of walking we arrived to Suroka Forest. On the side of the forest we saw piles of bodies. We were stunned and didn't understand the meaning of it. Suddenly, we were given freedom. The villagers were allowed to approach us and sell us a few food items. We exchanged a suit for a loaf of bread, and a shirt for a little water… Immediately after, we were surrounded by policemen who held long whips in their hands. They took from among us all the young strong men, including my husband Moshe son of Pinchas Sapir, and our son Nisan z”l. They lined them in a row and told them that they were taking them to work. Our heart predicted trouble because we understood the meaning of this “work.” I asked to be taken with them, but I was severely beaten and dragged back to the forest.

In this fashion the men were taken from 3-4 groups, and the rest were allowed to continue to walk, and this time without a beating.

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We also received a little food. Again we arrived to Mogilev-Podolski. From there, some were sent back to the camp in Vertiujeni and some to Ukraine. My sister-in-law and I were sent to Lesniza Kolhoz in Ukraine. There, they put us in a large pen that was open on all sides, without windows and doors. We entered and found several dead bodies which froze in the snow. A sentry guarded the pen so no one would be able to leave it. “This is the end!” - I thought. I decided to escape from there - at any cost. I had nothing left to lose in life. I told my sister-in-law that I was going to try to crawl down the mountain and if she'll not hear shots she would come after me with her son, and that's how we fled.

We knocked on many doors in the village, but no one took us into his home. It was very cold outside and lots of snow. Eventually we arrived to a house and the farmer, the homeowner, had mercy on us. He let us into his home, immediately sat us next to the hot stove and also ordered his wife to cook potato soup for us which we ate very greedily. The farmer took us to the barn, scattered straw for us, gave us blankets and kept us there for three days. Then, he told us that he could no longer take the risk and keep us in his house because the neighbors saw us and danger awaited him and also us. The next morning, when it was still dark, we have to leave for the Jewish camp in Berșad, a distance of 12 kilometers. He showed us the road and separated from us with tears in his eyes. “May God protect you!” - he said, and disappeared into the darkness.

We walked - did we have another choice? A policeman, who stood on the bridge at the entrance to Berșad, didn't let us enter the city but he relented after I gave him two gold earrings and my wedding ring.

The day after I arrived to Berșad I fell ill with typhus and lay six weeks without any medical help - and yet, I remained alive. When I recovered from my illness I had no clothes or shoes. I had to rip a shirt to rags and used them to wrap my feet, and so I walked for three years, until 1944.

When I saw the first Russian soldier I decided to return home immediately, and was one of the first who have done that. When I arrived there a great fear had fallen on me. I was afraid to enter the city. Everything was deserted, the street was covered with grass, many houses were destroyed…

I found my father's house intact, but it was occupied by local Christians. I entered to sit with the robbers of my property. A few days later more Jews returned, but I could no longer sit in a place where I was once happy and returned to it so miserable. I left for Chernovtsy, from there to Romania, and from Romania I arrived to Israel in the illegal immigration.


[Page 164]

Back Home

by Sh. Weisberg

Translated by Pamela Russ

Donated by Roberta Jaffer

In the almost three years that we were in the hell of Transnistria, not for one day did the gnawing yearning of the hometown Bricheni cease, [the hometown] from which we were so gruesomely torn asunder by our bloody enemy.

When we were liberated, the earth beneath us actually burned with our desire to return home. But the Russian authorities did not permit the return immediately, with the excuse that the roads were overrun with military, and there was no security on the roads. But we could not withstand the wait; so even with the danger to our lives, we broke through all the deterrents and returned home…

But where Bricheni? How Bricheni? Pieces of former streets, burned down houses. In the actual center where there used to be Szwartzman's and Szpizel's shops – now a large place covered in coal and burned pieces of steel. From the few remaining houses, dark holes were gaping at us in terror – holes that were once doors and windows, reminding us that we were in this world. At least sit down on the ground and weep for the destruction…

And the welcome from the neighbors? Angry and disappointed; they didn't even think that we would return. And primarily, they feared justice and reckoning, in case they would have to return all that was stolen. And truthfully, some began to return the things that Jews who had remained alive gave to them on the day of evacuation. But it didn't take long for them to figure out that their fear was for nought. Because in situations where items were identified and then for which we went to the authorities, they sided with great respect with the thieves; and when these kinds of issues came before the courts, the judge always decided that [the thieves] were entitled to the ownerless things, and it all belonged to them.

Within several weeks, a thousand surviving Bricheni Jews came together (according to the list that I saw by Moshe Kornblum, secretary of the city administration), about ten percent of the former Jewish population in Bricheni. Those who had returned, together with the Bukowiner Jews, about 3,000 who had returned from Transnistria and for an entire year were confined, not having permission to return to their homes, filled up the houses that remained standing but were devastated (the better houses, which the Romanians took as their own institutions, were also now taken over by government institutions and their employers.) Soon, a rush began, a quarrelling over a table, a chair, a broken bed, that the Christians had left behind in the looted houses.

[Page 165]

Wherever possible, they boarded up doors and windows, and squeezed entire families into one room; they dragged boards from fences, and assembled some sort of bedding. This was all done without fear of the new government that was very involved with the activities of the returnees. I and Buzhi Rojter almost paid with our freedom for a bed that we took from an abandoned house, when an NKVD [Russian: People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, law enforcement agency of the Soviet Union] commandant told us that he had left this bed for himself.

After the so–called organizing, there began a search [for means] to earn some money, to sustain life. And now winter was approaching, the houses were absolutely not suited. Some of the local residents offered to take on government jobs or work in labor cooperatives. Although the salaries could not cover even thirty percent of the needs of the poor, nonetheless – a shield of armor against poverty. It was more difficult for those who could find no work – especially for the Bukowiner, since they didn't hire any foreigners. As a result, illegal business began. At night they bribed whoever they could, and merchants would go to Dniester, also to Czernowycz, and bring merchandise that was needed, and the peasants themselves needed them. Everyone well knew what was going on, and there were times when they “fell in” [were caught], but there was no choice…

We lived through difficult moments, when, because of their specific situation, the Bukowiner involvement in the black market was particularly outstanding. They also created lively social activities: they organized their own elections, amassed help for the needy. Reports about their activity began to fly to the higher ups. It didn't take too long, and just on Rosh Hashanah an order was given by the commandant of the NKVD from Chisinau [Kishinew], that they [the illegal merchants] be assembled and sent off to Siberia. It's understandable what terror and chaos this decree created, but they did not lose themselves; they collected a large sum of money, valuable things, ran off to Chisinau and bemoaned their tragedy.

In this very struggle for existence, in fear of the government, for that morning several of us did not forget about our spiritual needs, as much as it was possible to do. We found the Houses of Study [Batei Medrash] in the city ruined, but the actual big shul [synagogue], of which the Romanians had made a grain warehouse, remained almost as usual, but in shameful condition. We had to chase out the pigs that were rummaging for bits of grain that they had found in the holes of the broken floor. With the help of the Bukowiner Jews, among whom were a Rav and a schochet [ritual slaughterer], the Holy Ark [where the Torah scrolls are kept] was repaired, and doors were made.

[Page 166]

And in passing, the Bricheni priest should also be mentioned for good things, that on the day of the evacuation, he went to the shul, removed the Torah scrolls, and took them to his home. He left together with the Romanians, and we found the scrolls in the attic, and collected a few religious books that were strewn about the abandoned houses. This is how a little bit of Jewish life concentrated itself in the shul. Daily, especially on Shabbath and on Yom Tov [Jewish holidays], there were religious services and traditional religious customs.

I wanted to be in shul with Jews on Shabbath and Yom Tov, but what could I do since I was tethered to my workplace and was afraid of a terrible punishment. I felt the worst pangs on Yom Kippur when I was especially under the watch of my director. At the time of Yizkor [memorial prayer for the deceased], I asked permission to go do some business at the bank in the street, and not thinking about the dangers, I went directly to shul. In pain, full of anguish of everything around, I couldn't withstand it, forgot where I was, and right after Yizkor I went up to the balemer [platform in shul that holds the table upon which the Torah is placed for readings], and cried for those who died, bemoaned our situation, pounded my chest with the “al chet” [confession of sins, special prayer recited on Yom Kippur, during which one pounds on the chest over the heart with the right hand], that we were not careful, that we did not obey our leaders, and for not praying at the right times. In a quick glance, I noticed the frightened looks of the congregants, and after that the great concern from those close to me, who asked: “What did you do?” But I was pleased that among the congregants, there was no one who would inform on me…

These spiritual and moral pains and the constant fear of strange and personal sin, ending my life in prison or in deportation, expedited my decision to finish faster, take the chance, and run away to whichever place I could.

That was just about how the thoughts were of the majority of the returnees. And at the first opportunity, when the Bukowiner received permission to return to their homes, many Brichener, also of those who already lived in Czernowycz, using any means and methods possible, went along with them.

When the Bukowiner left, we who remained felt empty – how hollow our lives were, how great was the destruction. The few elderly people who were able to come to shul, did not have anyone to lead the prayers for them, nor anyone who could read from the Torah scrolls. Chaim Shmuel Shuster argued that before an entire community of Jews will sin, he alone will take the sin upon himself. He took out his shoemaker's knife, and became …

[Page 167]

… the schochet [ritual slaughterer]. There was no one to take care of community issues because everyone was preoccupied with earning money for that small piece of bread, and was tired of getting up at night to stand in line for that sticky bread, depressed with fear, not knowing what tomorrow would bring.

That's how the new Bricheni looked in the year 1945, when I left it. My heart was ripped apart, looking at those miserable ones who could not move from their spot. When they started to whisper that I was going to leave, Moshe Trachtenbroit said to me: “With your leaving, the last Jew who knows some Jewish words [about Jewish life] and reminds us that we are Jews, is leaving as well.”

With tearful eyes, with deep pain in my heart, I said my quiet “be well,” to my dear town; on a rainy evening I left Bricheni forever, a place where I spent my most beautiful and best years.

After my departure, the story of the renewed Jewish life in Bricheni flowed in a tragic direction, as it was foreseen.

According to the narrations of Dena – Moshe Karlon's wife – who left Bricheni in 1956, Jews left the city at a quick pace. Whoever had even the smallest opportunity ran to Czernowycz, with the hope – from there to go farther… Few remained, those who did not have even the most minimal physical or material opportunities to move from their place; beaten, poor people, without any outlooks or hopes; as if intentionally staying behind to watch the oncoming destruction of the city.

Who are they? Workmen, several government workers – the rest, old, broken people. What ties them together as Jews? Coming to a minyan [ten men as quorum for prayers] once in a while. Hirsh Stelmach, who lived in a place that was called “the Ninth Municipality,” said that they should pray in his house on Yom Kippur. They waited until lunchtime when those workers were let out: some sneaked in quietly, completing the minyan and they said Yizkor [memorial prayer for the deceased]. If someone had a son that was born, and he wanted to have him circumcised, they would bring a mohel [the rabbi who performs the circumcision] from Jedinecz, and the circumcision took place discreetly, out of fear.

Particularly moving, was her story about the destruction of the large shul down to the ground. The beautiful shul whose very soul is bound up in the memory of each Bricheni Jew, that even in the years of the world's demons …

[Page 168]

… was respected by the Nazis, was gruesomely destroyed after the so–called liberation.

When they brought Christian workers to perform the devastation, they categorically refused. Efraim Zalcman's (the cantor) son–in–law took the holy mission upon himself. He brought workers from far away. When the bulldozer bit into the thick walls of the shul, the noise, like a long thunder, was heard across the entire city. Jews cried quietly for the destruction …

bri168.jpg
Planting in the forest of the martyrs of Bessarabia beside the sign for the community of Bricheni

Standing from left to right: N.D. Richter, Z. Rabinowycz, Sh. Choresh, Mrs. A. Richter, Tz. Braunstajn, Mrs. R. Rabinowycz, Z. Szneider, M. Amitz, Ben Zion Rabinowycz

 

… and Christians ran from all over to watch the evil wonder. Afterwards, they said that when the walls were torn down, they heard cries and moans coming from the shul.

The only silent witness of Jewish Bricheni, that holy place, became ownerless. It stands without a fence and without a guard, and every day, becomes more and more shattered.

[Page 169]

Gardens in the forest of the martyrs of Bessarabia, may they rest in peace:
 
Kishinew grove: Harav Yehuda Leyb Tzirelson, of blessed memory
Shlomo Berliand, of blessed memory
Isser Rabinowycz, of blessed memory
The children of Kishinew, of blessed memory
Workers for the Keren Kayemet of Israel in Bessarabia, of blessed memory
Akerman grove: Yakov Berger, of blessed memory
Khutyn grove: Yosef Apelboim, of blessed memory
Izak Barag, of blessed memory
Bricheni grove: The community activists for Zionism in Bricheni, of blessed memory
The children of Bricheni, in memory of Roza Choves–Choresh, of blessed memory

 

bri169.jpg
Sign in the forest of the martyrs of Bessarabia that marks the gravesite
where two gardens were planted in the Bricheni grove

1. In the name of the Zionist community activists in Bricheni who died at the hands of the accursed Nazis
2. In the name of the children of Bricheni (in memory of Roza Chuves–Choresh)

 

And the few Jews who from time to time shuffle through the frozen streets are the living graves of the former Jewish Bricheni.

 

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