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by Abraham Levite
In trying to recreate the life of the shtetl before the 2nd World War one easily reverts to nostalgia and tens to present the harsh and bitter reality of the time as an era of pastoral tranquility. This tendency increases as we perceive those days through the prism of the Holocaust which ended it all. In the light of the final cataclysm those years could seem idyllic, though nothing was farther from the actual reality.
Hatred of the Jews was deeply rooted in Poland. The independence achieved by that country at the end of the 1st World War was accompanied by a wave of pogroms and looting. The orgiastic bestiality of General Heller's gangs of soldiers the Hellertshiks is notorious to this very day.
After some years of relative calm under General Pilsudski, anti-Semitism again raised its head with ever-increasing brutality. These facts are, admittedly, well-known, but it is necessary to restate them, if only in the light of the facts mentioned above. The 30's were years of economic crises and general unrest in the whole of Europe and nothing was easier than for the detractors of Israel to divert the general discontent in the Jews' direction. Ironically enough, the states that had been granted independence after the Versaille Treaty, including Poland, had signed the Geneva Convention regarding the protection of national minorities. It was soon realized, however, that this commitment need not be taken seriously, and in 1934 it was rescinded by Poland.
There was a noteworthy exception in this context: A band of hooligans in Roumania calling themselves The Iron Guard was on the rampage against the Jews. An anti-semitic government was formed, headed by Goga and including the famous Jew-baiter Prof. Cuza.
European Jewry was deeply shaken by this development and, as a result of pressure brought to bear by the Western powers; this infamous government was brought down within a month. The Polish anti-semites were thus forced to restrain themselves somewhat, but not for long
Meanwhile trouble began to come from another direction the Nazi monster was casting a dark shadow over the whole of Europe. His success and the capitulation of the Western powers highlighted the helplessness of the Jews and their total lack of influence in the world. Their oppressors' confidence grew and with it their activities, in emulation of the Nazis who aided and abetted them. First and foremost among the Polish anti-semites was the National Democratic Party, Endecks for short.
Jews were attacked by hoodlums in the streets and hounded everywhere. The universities officially declared a numerous clausus for Jews and their numbers were reduced to a minimum. The select few accepted at the institutions of higher learning were taken care of by their Polish colleagues who persecuted them in the attempt to make them leave. Laboratories and libraries were closed to them. During the lectures they were forced to stand in corners, frequently beaten with clubs and iron rods, and thrown out of the halls through the windows. The police who could not be said to have too much sympathy for the victims were not permitted to enter the extra-territorial campuses. It was government policy to wage economic war against the Jews and to limit their activities. Skladkovsky, at that time Prime Minister, put it thus: An economic campaign against the Jews why not? ('ovsham') but injustice no! The first part of this declaration was sedulously executed with all the means at his disposal. Their livelihoods, which had never been ample in the past, with so many economic sectors prohibited to them, were now seriously endangered. Numerous Jewish youths were faced with unemployment or the lack of any means of subsistence. When Hitler decided to annex the Sudeten from democratic Czechoslovakia, his pretest being that it was heavily populated by Germans, anti-semitism became rife. In order to exert pressure on the Western powers of France and England, the Germans cunningly enlisted the support of the Polish and Hungarian governments. As minute parts of Czechoslovakia bordering these countries were populated by inhabitants of Polish and Hungarian descent, these countries joined in the Ger-
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man ultimatum, demanding their share of these territories of Czechoslovakia, a country about to be torn to pieces.
The Polish government, comprising short-sighted politicians of little stature, did not realize the trap prepared for them by the Germans. They organized spontaneous demonstrations of hysterical patriotism, enlisting their armies, together with their allies, Germany and Hungary, to threaten the neighbouring state and force it to accept their demands.
The Jews were not hoodwinked by this demagoguery and had their reservations about the stupidity of the Polish leaders who, for a mess of pottage, if that, were ready to join their greatest and most dangerous enemy, helping him to wipe out a state that was their natural ally.
The Jews' sympathy for democratic Czechoslovakia on the one hand, and their opposition to an alliance with Hitler on the other, exposed, them to the danger of pogroms and the accusation of treason, with all that it entailed.
The friendship and mutual interests of Germany and Poland came to a speedy end. England and France gave in much more quickly than had been feared; Hitler was appeased by the Munich Agreement and Czechoslovakia was abandoned. Not content with Sudetenland, the Nazis hardly waited to take the whole of Czechoslovakia. Then they directed a massive attack against their new victim their erstwhile ally Poland. The demand was for Danzig and the Corridor (the Polish one to the sea). The gigantic Nazi propaganda machine was put into high gear. The press and radio unleashed a campaign of unrestrained incitement against Poland, using the now familiar methods. The threats increased daily in their aggression. The bewildered Polish government lost control. At first they tried to maintain a low profile, ignoring provocations in order to give the Germans no reason for attacking them, then seeing how futile this was, they began enlisting the army in an attempt to prepare the nation for the approaching struggle of whose nature they had not the slightest idea. The tension increased daily and the whole country was beset by gloom. The very air was saturated with fear. The frail hope that the enemy would be restrained by the firm support given Poland by the Western powers was quickly proved unfounded, and the specter of war was at the gates. August, 1939, the Russo-German alliance created by the infamous Ribbentrop Molotov agreement came as a shock to the whole world. Germany had managed to safeguard its rear and would no longer hesitate to fall on its prey.
I have already described the plight of the Jews prior to the newly threatened war. Young men and women in their thousands, members of the Zionist movements who had completed their training in the Hachsharot (training camps), in the hope of getting entrance certificates to Erez Israel wee row stranded, doomed to remain where they were. The British in their brutal cynicism closed the gates of the country to them. The Zionist clubs formerly hives of social and cultural activities were now emptied of all content. The youth was sunk in despair and frustration and the framework began to disintegrate.
With the approaching menace of the Nazis the danger became more palpable as the beast began to close in. The young Jews desperately sought the slightest opening for escape from the flames that were about to consume them, but all the nations of the world closed their doors in their faces. The cells of the condemned wee irrevocably shut and the victims betrayed to the hangman.
On Friday, September 1, 1939, the citizens of Poland were awakened by the terrible news that the 2nd World War had begun.
The boardings were covered with notices containing the President's speech, calling the nation to enlist and fight the invaders. Other notices declared a state of war and the duty of the civilian population to organize a civil defense against air raids.
This was the last anyone ever heard of the central government.
Nothing was known as yet of the enormous German war machine, nor was anyone aware of the pitiful weakness of the Polish army, its meager, old-fashioned equipment and the miserable level of its officers. It was generally hoped that the army would hold its own until the Western powers could fulfill their promise to come to Poland's aid and beat the Germans.
Night. The shtetl's streets are empty; darkness has taken over, guarded by pairs of Civil Defense inspectors walking in pairs. The inhabitants have been warned against poison gas attacks but, lacking gas masks, they were advised to cover their noses with a wet rag dipped in sodium bicarbonate. At the sound of a motor there would be hysterical outcries: A plane! A plane! Many people imagining they could smell gas and dipping their clothes in order to block their nostrils according to regulations
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Nothing was known of the developments at the front. The major sources of information, the newspapers, which in normal times arrived one day late from Warsaw, had stopped coming to the shtetl, for the Germans had paralyzed all traffic on the first day of the war with their massive bombardments. The only radio sets available to the Jewish public wee to be found in Beit Yehuda, the Zionist club, and in the one named after Peretz. Those who went to listen to the broadcasts returned bewildered by the shilly-shallying of the official information. As to the sensational news of astonishing victories announced by the Germans these were hard to believe and considered propaganda. Rumors were rife and confusion reigned everywhere.
The Jewish intelligentsia, public figures and leaders of the community, managed to get information from various foreign stations, so that they realized the danger long before the general public. Luckily, they were the first to escape from the shtetl, for they were marked to be the first victims.
It is a known fact that directly after the Germans entered the shtetl, a Nazi officer, working for the Siemens company, arrived, looking for the Chairman of the Community, Dr. Seelenfreund, may he rest in peace, who had once represented the municipality against Siemens when that company got the contract of providing the village with electricity a few years before the war. Simens had an account to settle with him as the lawyer representing the Municipality.
In lieu of newspapers and the radio the village Mayor would appear in front of the Gemeine (the Town Hall) to read out the official bulletins to the crowd of citizens gathered there, communiqués which had been written by persons unknown and had arrived from no one knew where about the consolidation of the front line, repulsion of enemy attacks, the courageous stance of the defense forces, etc., etc.
On Sunday, the third day of the war, we learnt that England and France, considered by everybody to be prodigious military powers, had declared war on Germany. The news caused enormous enthusiasm, the hope that the Germans' end was imminent. But the joy was short-lived. Early next day the shtetl watched in astonishment as hundreds of young men in civilian clothes, rucksacks on their backs, passed through its streets on their way eastwards.
None of them knew where the east began or what they would do once they had reached it. They were obeying an order issued by the authorities at the outbreak of the war, when it was still thought that something could be saved. By the time they carried out these orders these had become meaningless.
It transpired that there had been an emergency plan to transfer reservist to sectors far from the front, there to draft them. This program, which was suited to the conditions under which it had been planned, was no longer feasible. On the very first day of the war, the Luftwaffe had bombed all the important railway lines, thus halting all traffic effectively. Efficiently and thoroughly all emergency storage depots, airfields and military camps were destroyed. Telephone and telegraph communications were cut. Recruiting stations and reserves headquarters' were abandoned, their staff joining those who tried to escape. The government, having lost all control, had fled. Those who knew the facts realized the dimensions of the catastrophe, but who did know?
People believed that over there, in the secure east, they would be recruited to fight the enemy. Adult Jews, too, overcome by the fear of the invader, joined the reservists in the hope of reaching a territory where they would be safe from the Nazi conquerors. Women and children were left at home, on the assumption that they would certainly not be harmed by the Germans. The seemingly military plan of transferring young men with a view to their enlistment became a massive, mindless rush to escape.
The exodus began in small trickles, to be joined by additional marchers at every stop. Soon it turned into an ever widening stream, overflowing further areas until it had become a devastating flood, carrying along anyone in its way. A whole country was emptied of its fear-stricken population as it fled from a murderous, cruel invader whose declared purpose as their annihilation. The fields bordering the road were filled with tired men who sat down for a moment to unburden themselves from their rucksacks, take off their shoes and rest a moment before going on. Hundreds crowded around every creek to wash their swollen, callused feet.
The locals stood open-mouthed on the pavements by the roadside, watching the never ending procession of marchers which went on incessantly by day and by night. Amazed, they fearfully watched these followers of a fata morgana disappear beyond the horizon, as if swallowed up by a pit that had opened up under their feet. Those who had joined the procession continued on their way without knowing what
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had happened to those who had gone before them. All was by now lost, but the procession went on out of inertia, as in the tale of the soldier whose head had been cut off but whose body continued to march. Those left behind were aware of the absurdity, doing all they could to hold on to their homes until the moment when they, too, were drawn into the maelstrom and disappeared into the ever-swelling tide.
The first to leave the shtetl did so on a Wednesday, the sixth day of the war. On Thursday the numbers of those leaving increased. On Friday morning, while more groups were making preparations to leave, the Mayor read out several calming telegrams reporting an improvement of the situation, consolidation at the front and so on. For a brief moment he brought some wisps of hope into the hearts of the bewildered people. These hopes evaporated in the afternoon like soap bubbles, and those who had remained became panicky. For myself, I was pulled along by one of the last groups and, armed with rucksacks; we walked in the direction of Birtsch, some 50 kms. away, which we covered over the Sabbath, arriving at the village in the evening with no idea what we were looking for or where to turn. Continuing on the morrow, we ready Dobromyl where my good friend Ephraim Glicksman, may the Lord avenge him, lived. Totally exhausted I walked to his house and was surprised to find him there with his family. Ephraim told me that he and his brother-in-law had already been packed and about to go when they thought better of it. After further consideration they reached the conclusion that everything was lost, people were rushing around in circles and it was preferable to stay at home, where one might hide, as the enemy would reach every place in any case. He suggested that I stay with him and wait for developments. We did not have to wait long. After two days the Germans were in Dobromyl.
On Thursday, 14 September, the first day of Rosh Hashana, we were sitting in the house behind locked gates when we heard someone beating the door with rifle-butts and kicking it with their boots. Some German soldiers had arrived to take the men out to sweep the streets of the shtetl, beating them in the process. That evening we returned safe and sound, but it was only the beginning. I decided to return home as quickly as possible and, together with some others, rented a cart from one of the farmers, planning to go to Sanok through Ostrick and Linsk. As we passed through the center of Ostrick we saw that the festivities had begun there. The Germans and Ukrainians were stopping the carts full of men going back, to throw out the Jews and have some fun with them: pull out their beards and beat them mercilessly. I just managed to jump off the cart, circumvent the scene of the fun and cross to the other side of the Rink through a side street. There, at one of the outlets from the village, I found the carter waiting to see the fate of his passengers. Within an hour they all managed somehow to return, bruised and beaten, and by some miracle we reached our homes. In Ostrick the pandemonium, created by the Ukrainians and supervised by the Germans, increased, and those who passed there on their way back after us found themselves in a veritable inferno. Very few managed to dodge the rioters, hundreds of Jews were badly hurt and some tens were brutally murdered. Ostrick was not an isolated case. On Rosh Hashana the Germans kidnapped some 200 Jews in Dinov, among them many refugees who had become stranded there, and killed them in the forest close by. Two men from our town were there: Ben-Zion Trachman, the former Chairman of the Community, and Nota Vilner, may God avenge them. It was only later that we learned of the pogroms and murders in other places in the vicinity in Dubeck and Przemysl. The Jews were now being exposed to a new kind of persecution, murderous and bloody.
It must be noted that what we had regarded as the disadvantages of our shtetl in normal times its being out of the way, lacking a railroad, an industry, etc., now, in time of war, were revealed as distinct advantages. First of all it was not considered worth bombing. During the invasion, when the German army was thrusting its way forward, it bypassed us, saving us much trouble. Then later, during the occupation and until the organized genocide, things were much easier there than in the more central places where military headquarters and the Gestapo were housed. Aside from beatings, general brutality, people being forced to do unnecessary jobs, confiscation of property, closing down of shops and similar annoyances, people somehow managed to bear up until they were submerged by the final catastrophe.
In the meantime most of the marchers had managed to return home. Those who were the last to leave had not gone far and were first to return,
It soon transpired that those who had gone first, leaving the shtetl with the first wave of escapees, had gained by doing so. There were astonishing ru-
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mors that aroused enormous excitement. In accordance with a secret agreement with their Nazi allies, the Russian forces had entered eastern Poland, which had a Ukrainian minority and a Ruthenian majority, encountering no opposition as, at this stage, the Polish army was non-existent. Russian broadcasting stations began transmitting bulletins about the victories of the glorious Red Army which was advancing in West Ukraine, i.e., Eastern Galicia, to be greeted with boundless enthusiasm by the local inhabitants, impatient for their freedom. As the Ukrainians had in no way expected such liberators, and the Poles regarded the Russians as perfidious invaders, thrusting a knife into their back while they were being forced back by the Nazi enemy it was only the Jews who were in urgent need of someone who would free them from the murderers, and they took the declaration of liberation as being meant for them alone.
It was taken for granted that the Jewish refugees from Eastern Poland who had been caught in Soviet-occupied territories remained there and did not return to their homes in the German zone like the Polish refugees. Those who had come back in mid-flight, have no knowledge of the future, repented their haste and began to follow the news of the Red Army's advances avidly. Within a few days it was established that it had halted near the San River, some 20 kms. before Brzozow. The Jewish youths, faced with the need to escape for the second time, were now more careful in their planning. All ties with their surroundings were by now cut off and the roads were infested with Germans. After having advanced with a far greater momentum than their allies the clumsy Russian units, the German forces were now on their way back from the East, evacuating those territories which, according to the agreement, belonged to the Russians. They were already at the gates of Lwow, after having taken Stryj, Sambor, Przemyzl and their environs on their way. By the time they had made arrangements to leave the shtetl, more rumors arrived, no one knew from what source: the Russians were advancing westward. Preparations to go to the border were stopped in order to avoid unnecessary danger. Everybody was waiting for further developments. In the vacuum created by a total lack of information and the atmosphere of tension and strain, any rumors, even the most absurd ones, spread like fire, made the more credible when they arrived from different directions, and creating confusion in the minds of the hapless people.
According to one wild rumor, the Russians were about to reach Gorelitz, a town lying farther west than Brzozow. Why Gorelitz, of all places? Because during the First World War, when the Tzar's armies broke through the Austrian lines, they had reached Gorelitz. Another similar assumption was that the Russians would take the whole region of Lwow, which also included Brzozow.
The major source of information regarding the approach of the Russians was the other bank of the San which, being still free and presumably well-informed, was considered reliable. Most of the rumors were rooted in conversations conducted in broken Polish and Russian with the Soviet soldiers, who had been carefully instructed before entering Poland. Unlike their wont in Russia, they were willing to talk, reciprocating in a friendly way to the affection showered upon them by the Jews and telling them about the happiness and plenty in Russia. At home, they stressed, everybody is equal there is no difference between one man and another. This was music after the Nazi nightmare everyone had undergone.
The enchanted audience, hungrily swallowed these propaganda stories, tried to influence the soldiers to continue their march towards the neighbouring shtetls where they were eagerly awaited. The latter, eager to please, promised to do so as soon as they could, an undertaking that was accepted literally by their innocent interlocutors: Surely this is not just idle talk on their part. In the army they naturally know what is going to happen. The message was sent that the Russians were advancing westwards. These frivolous, irresponsible fabrications of the Russians assumed life-or-death significance for many people west of the border. Who can say how many innocent lives were lost because those who believed them put off their escape, only to find that the border was closed to them, thus losing the last chance of survival.
During the first few weeks it was relatively easy to cross the San to the Russian side. German atrocities in the shtetl caused some tens of people to escape to Sanok in order to cross the border, always bringing with them reports of new forms of persecution and inhumanity. By German order a Judenrat Jewish Council was established in Sanok, headed by Leib Werner (of the local Werner family). With the consent of the German administration and some officers who had been bribed, some groups of Jews
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were daily transferred in organized fashion to the other side of the river. There was also an escape route by means of farmers living on the river's bank. These men were familiar with the locality and glad of the opportunity to make an easy penny.
My cousin, Feige Honig (today Roth, in Holon), managed to get in touch with such a farmer in one of the villages near Sanok, whose house was right on the bank of the San and part of whose family lived across the river. The man had a boat by means of which Feige transferred all the household goods to her sister's family in Sanok, for they had made the crossing empty-handed. Then Feige returned to the shtetl, packaged her belongings, took her sister Reizel and suggested that I join them.
The farmer brought his cart to Brzozow to take us away, and we reached his house in safety. That night he stood watch at his darkened window, following the movements of the German guards marching in pairs along the length of the river. At about 2 a.m. when he saw them returning to the camp, we ran down with our things to the shore and jumped into the boat. Quickly he rowed across the river, in the direction of the Russians. As the boat approached the shore we heard someone shouting Halt! in Russian. The farmer managed to let us get off, throwing our possessions after us and rowed away quickly. The Russians opened fire but missed us. They took us to their headquarters in an abandoned military camp in Ulkhovitz where we were interrogated about the purpose of our arrival and released. We then went immediately to Linsk, where we had some relatives.
Some days later my sister Frieda, God rest her soul, who was then just seventeen, arrived. She told us that the parents and the whole family had urged her to leave the shtetl immediately. It appears that Frieda had had a few narrow escapes from the assassins with whom she had several confrontations. The girl simply did not realize what she was up against. She probably assumed that these were the same confrontations she had been subjected to with Polish hooligans who were wont to rudely badger Jewish girls, make fund of them and threaten them. But in most cases they were satisfied with verbal violence and usually backed off if the girls faced up to them boldly, giving back as good as they got. These Polish hoodlums may be credited with the fact that they became apt pupils of their Nazi teachers and, after the war, murdered Jewish men, women and children unhesitatingly wherever they could find them.
Luckily for Frieda she had come up against regular German soldiers, not the professional assassins of the S.S. who were to appear later on.
It was in the Rink that she first faced the German killers. An old Jew was leaving his house with a pail to fetch some water from the well. This was done by turning an enormous iron wheel, something quite difficult to do, particularly as the well had been neglected because of the war. The Rink was deserted when suddenly two German soldiers appeared. On seeing the Jew at the well they approached him, poured out the water and, after ordering him to refill it, poured it out again. As the game continued, the old man, at the end of his tether, continued to strain at the wheel, the sweat pouring down his face, the paid being no sooner filled than it was emptied again.
Frieda went up to them, saying that she wanted to take the old man's place. Without waiting for their consent she signaled to him to go away and began turning the wheel. They fell upon her, cursing and threatening with their fists. In the ensuing confusion the Jew got away, the affair blew over, the Germans left and Frieda remained unharmed.
Her second confrontation with the Germans occurred when one of them came to confiscate Aunt Sara Gittel Honig's shop. As was their way, the German began by screaming invectives at our frightened aunt. Frieda, who was present, asked him why he didn't just take the shop, without reviling and threatening a sick old woman.
The blackguard instinctively reached for his gun, but, hesitating for a second, slapped her face and left it at that.
After these happenings our parents decided that she would not be able to adapt herself to prevailing conditions, and it was too risky to expect her to be always so lucky.
The escapes continued, but at a lesser momentum. New and unexpected difficulties developed. The Russians, letting no one cross their lines, began to fire on the refugees, forcing them to return to their own side. Several Jews were killed while try8ing to cross the river. In Linsk some youths saw Pessel Teich's husband, Reb Leibish Langsam, may God avenge him, led away at gun point by Soviet guards, covered with wounds and bleeding. Specially trained watch-dogs, brought from Soviet Russia for the purpose and presumably proletarian minded, with the correct Lenist-Stalinistic approach, had caught him near the
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border after he had managed to escape from the Nazi inferno. One can but guess his subsequent fate.
The policy of the Russians was at first confused. Confronted with an increasing flow of refugees they were unsure as to how to deal with them. Initially the local forces were left to do the job and each officer behaved as he thought fit. Their position was also complicated by the fact that they were strangers in unfamiliar territory, shunned by the native villagers who refused to accept the new borderline cutting through their fields. The border guards could not get the situation under control. The refugees who first crossed the river were just taken to the Olkhovitz camp for interrogation and then released. Those who followed them were detained in the camp, their treatment becoming harsher from day to day. As the camp was not too well-guarded at first, a few managed to escape. They put as much distance as they could between themselves and the border, mixing with the population which was continually moving around. The rest, many of them from our village, were arrested and taken to Lwow under a heavy guard where they were imprisoned in the large Brigitki Prison. Of these only a few managed to pass through the close net of Russian bureaucracy and, strange as it may seem, were released. Tens of thousands of others were sent into Russia, their treatment becoming progressively worse. The farther they got into the country the deeper they began sinking into the murky quagmire of the NKVD machinery. Border patrols were reinforced ad latecomers attempting to escape found all the ways closed to them.
Those refugees who remained free, realizing that their funds had lost their value and were dangerously low, began organizing themselves for a long stay: on their guard, they tried to familiarize themselves with the new conditions. Most of them collected in Lwow, the largest city within the Russian occupied zone. They numbered more than the local inhabitants. Hundreds of thousands of people were stranded without work or livelihood. The Arbeitsamt which tried to go on finding jobs for this multitude wee closed down by order of the government for they were leftovers from the capitalistic regime and there was no need for them in Russia. Not less serious was the problem of living quarters in the severe winter of 1940. Part of the refugees lived with relatives whose homes themselves left much to be desired. Some slept in synagogues, cellars and shops which had been vacated. One of the buildings which housed some tens of refugees, among them a few from our shtetl, was the synagogue of the Rabbi of Boyan (the Bianer Rabbi), may God avenge him, which adjoined his private apartment in Kazimizovka Street. After freezing for hours in line for handouts they would come here to warm themselves and sleep on the tables and benches.
For myself, I found a corner to sleep in at the house of my friend, Nota Tzvik, grandson of Reb Koppel Tzvik, may God avenge them. Nota's father, Itzik Mendel, may he rest in peace, died young, and his mother, my God avenge her, a clever and resolute woman, managed the business and brought up the children. Under the Soviets, her apartment became a small hotel and a highly kosher restaurant for observant refugees of means from Western Galicia. Among her boarders were her brother-in-law Kalman Tzvik and the boy Eliezer Goldfisher, son of her sister-in-law Feige, may God avenge them.
Much of my time was spent in the house of Etka (Feingold) and her husband Ha'im Elster, may God avenge them, who always made me feel warmly welcome. Among those living in Lwow from our village and whose home I visited, let me mention Anda and Lolla Riller, may God avenge them; Mendel Leufer, his wife Shprintze and their children: Yoseck and Feige. They later returned to Brzozow and were killed there. There, too, was Gershon (Ganeck) Wilner, Zissale Schertz's brother and his wife Manke, may God avenge them, from Yatschmir, near out shtetl.. Gershon Wilner was a dental practitioner who had spent some years in South America and was an Argentinean citizen.
During the Eichmann trial it was mentioned by the prosecution that the Argentinean government had tried to save Gershon Wilner and the German foreign office had asked Himmler not to send him to a concentration camp in view of their special relations with the Argentine. But Eichmann was not prepared to let go of a single Jew. Cynically he relied that the Jew had died of weakness of the myocardium, in spite of the plentiful medication given him to counteract it (see The Government's Legal Adviser vs. Eichmann, p. 51).
From the meager information appearing in the Soviet press regarding the war in far Western Europe it was possible to deduce that, aside from naval confrontations and surveillance flights there were no acts of belligerence and no one was about to attempt to deprive Germany of the Polish tidbit it had swallowed.
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The Soviets, who were getting organized and establishing themselves according to their principles, were not prepared to stand for tens of thousands of inhabitants without fixed addresses over whom no control could be exerted. In the summer of 1940 they began handing out Soviet passports which the refugees could easily get by giving an address no one bothered to verify. Some of the refugees availed themselves of this opportunity to become regular citizens in order to settle down. But the great majority was wary of becoming Soviet citizens, fearing that when the war was over t hey would not be permitted to leave the Soviet Union. They therefore elected to remain without any citizenship, hoping that the international institutions would take them under their wing.
No one, of course, could tell when the war would end, but everybody was certain that the Nazi machine, for all its power, would be annihilated and, with the coming of peace, all could be reunited with their families.
Meanwhile the war continued for much longer than had been expected, with no end in sight. The Germans went from victory to victory and after the occupation of Norway came the unbelievable fall of France, a development which put finis to our hopes and reduced us all to despair.
In Lwow a Refugees' committee was established of which very little was known or the extent of its authority. One thing, though, was clear it acted with the approval of the government. The Committee began by registering those people who declared that they regarded themselves as refugees and who intended to return to their homes within the German occupation. They were all Jews, for the Poles returned immediately and without ado.
There were a few, family men who had left a wife and children and couldn't stand being cut off completely from their dear ones, who seriously considered the possibility of returning to German territory in order to suffer together with their families till the war was over. In their opinion the Germans had reached the limits of all possible oppression and interdicts imposed on the Jews and these, for all their difficulty, could be lived with until the liberation. Total annihilation was something as yet unconceived of. The great majority of the refugees regarded this registration as purely formal and was interested only in its negative aspect that of not remaining on the Russian side forever. This was the only way to refuse Soviet citizenship. They were convinced that the Germans would not permit the return of Jews to their borders and, even if they did, one could always back out of it, having gained some time meanwhile, during which some other solution might be found.
With hindsight it is possible that ultimately these people had unknowingly made the right decision in refusing to accept Soviet citizenship. As a result of their refusal they were taken to Siberia and other far-away places in Russia where a few of them, the strong ones, held their own under appalling conditions and survived. Those who remained in their places later fell into Nazi hands.
The Refugees' Committee, comprising some naïve members (and no doubt a few collaborators) registered names and addresses and published communiqués on the notice boards reporting the progress of negotiations with the German authorities etc. Having put my name down to return I was careful not to be seen near the Committee offices, for fear that the militia would suddenly surround the area and arrest everyone found there.
It is hard to say whether the Russians actually contacted the Germans regarding their readiness to permit the return of Jewish refugees, and were refused, or whether they did not even think of it, and just misled the refugees and, having their names and addresses prepared some solution of their own to the problem.
At the end of June 1940, thousands of trucks arrived from Russian, carrying NKVD agents, and spread out throughout the occupied villages. That night, using the addresses in their hand, they hunted down all the refugees who did not possess a passport. Going from house to house in every town and village the NKVD agents found the refugees, loaded them onto the trucks and transported them to Russia. There some were transferred to trains, some, later on, to ships, and after journeys that went on for days, even weeks, were brought to Siberia and other god-forsaken places. The fact that they lacked the camps to absorb so many men and women did not daunt the Russians. The refugees were sent into the dense forests, armed with axes, picks and saws and ordered to cut down the trees and build their camps. The more fortunate ones were put in camps which had already been built by former prisoners in the above system. For myself, I succeeded in evading the round-up and remained in Lwow.
Things were difficult for those who remained be-
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hind. Every house had its porter whose responsibility it was to see to it that no stranger who was not registered as a permanent tenant would be found there. Every night after 9 p.m., the porter would go from one apartment to the other, searching to make sure that there were none. I was found in a friend's room and the militia was called immediately. They took me to the Brigitky Commissariat. After being roundly cursed and subjected to some hair-raising anti-semitic epithets I was released with a warning that next time I would stay put
That night I stayed outside. The house was locked to me. I went to the railway station. The station, whose ticket-window faced outside, Russian fashion, was locked. In the morning Me'ir Bank, who was in a similar plight, and I, decided to go together to the police and give ourselves up as refugees who had no place to go. To our disappointment we were dismissed. They said that if they wanted us they would know where to find us.
Finally, the few who remained after the general round-up were given second-class passports, indicating a non-loyal element. The Jews called these passports mit a blits trappen with a drop of blood, a reference to an egg tainted by a speck of blood which it was forbidden to eat. These passports turned us into legitimate prey for the authorities we had to leave the regional towns, stay a 100 kms. away from the border and be subjected to all kinds of limitations. A limited area was allocated to these refugees, some tens of square kilometers in the Tarnopol vicinity found suitable for the purpose and including some small shtetls and villages, in which we were permitted to stay.
Within a short time some tens of thousands of refugees arrived at this small area, carrying their meager belongings, destitute and sunk in despair. No institution was responsible for them; there was no roof over their heads or any means of making a living.
These people who arrived in their helpless masses, strangers knowing no one, were received by the Jewish inhabitants of the limited area with great warmth and brotherly love.
Under the Russian regime no communal or philanthropic organization was permitted. Help was extended from the heart, spontaneously. The Jews went from house to house, putting in as many refugees as possible and more. The living conditions of the local Jews, it must be remembered, were never of the best, yet every refugee found himself with a roof over his head and, where necessary, was supplied with his basic needs.
From my native shtetl, Moshe Schertz and his sister Sheindel, Michael Schertz, may God avenge him and Me'ir Bank, long may he live and I reached the village of Kozowa, near Berezan, in the Tarnopol Region. Among the kindly inhabitants we found a warm home with the Isserliss and Leber families. We also became good friends with the Ruhatiner, Shitz, Markovitz, Blumenreich, Rozmarin, Schmutz and other families good people who, like the rest of the village, went to great trouble for us and for other refugees in the village, giving their help and support. When one remembers the sincere generosity and the bitter fate of those wonderful Jews, it is enough to break one's heart.
Ben-Zion Shochat, may God avenge him, was among the most active in solving the refugees' problems. This wonderful man never rested until every one of them had found some shelter. His own apartment of two small rooms and kitchen was made to house some ten people. He and his wife gave up their beds and went to sleep on mattresses in the kitchen. He also put the same number of refugees in the home of his son, a newly-wedded youth whose apartment was just as modest as his own.
One day Ben-Zion was approached by some of his son's tenants who asked him to find them another place of shelter. Reb Ben-Zion asked them fearfully if his son had been treating them badly. The refugees denied this vehemently the very opposite was true. The young man and his bride were devoted to them, doing everything in their power to make things easier. But, after all, he was only a first-yearnik, just married, and they didn't like to get in the couple's way
Ah! replied Reb Ben-Zion with a sigh of relief You mean it isn't convenient for my son? I don't mind that at all. He isn't a refugee, God forbid, and why should I worry about him? If he uncomfortable let him find himself a new apartment. The main thing is that you're taken care of That's the kind of Jews we had! May this story be a candle lit in memoriam for his holy spirit.
The Jewish refugees had spent almost a year in such places when suddenly, on June 22, 1941, everyone was aghast the news that Nazi Germany had attacked its great friend and ally Russia.
Within a few hours the Hitlerites had broken through the front lines. The Soviet defense disinteg-
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rated rapidly and their soldiers began escaping eastwards, with the German armoured divisions giving chase, surrounding them, imprisoning whole divisions and destroying them.
The pictures made familiar by the Polish occupation were now repeated. Very few succeeded in rejoining their Russian families which were evacuated. A fraction of the escapees managed to reach safety in Russia. Others were stranded on the roads and caught to each his destiny.
Within a few days there were German soldiers in Kozova. For the second time we were in the assassins' hands but now they could not be evaded.
Busy at the front, the murderers neglected the remote shtetls at first, but this respite was not to last. Soon the familiar interdicts and brutalities began to descend upon the heads of the Jewish communities at Kozova all the local Jews were collected, together with about 600 refugees, and taken to an unknown destination, to be shot to death.
In Eastern Galicia the Germans were given organized assistance by the Ukrainians who, besides being traditional Jew-haters and experienced perpetrators of pogroms, now found further grounds for taking revenge on the Jews who had shown themselves loyal to the hated Soviets.
Not only did the Soviets change the nature of the regime in the occupied areas, they also replaced all the government institutions, turning Eastern Galicia from a former Polish province into an integrated part of the Soviet Ukraine. Ukrainian was declared to be the official state language an act which boosted the inhabitants' sense of having now become the masters of the land instead of its oppressed subjects.
Thousands of Ukrainians were appointed to the most important positions where they were absorbed into the various political and governmental systems. They administered the occupied area and were considered faithful communists whose loyalty was beyond reproach.
With the German invasion they changed their tune immediately and were foremost among those collaborating with the Nazis in the guise of true Ukrainian patriots to whom communism was anathema.
The Jews, on the other hand, whose role in the Soviet government had been insignificant because of their questionable socialist pedigree, suffered economically. Their businesses were confiscated and, in their search for a livelihood, they were restricted to the simple jobs of clerks or the organization of various workers' and artisans' groups and cooperatives. The local citizens unhesitatingly pointed at them as being responsible for all the actions and misdeeds of the Soviet Union.
The persecutions began, people were kidnapped and forced to hard labor all the indignities we had hoped would never be repeated. After several months of suffering and tribulation we began planning the return home, to our families. Having contacted them, we succeeded, with the help of friends, in obtaining a permit to go back home. A group from our shtetl rented a truck and, covered by a tarpaulin, set out on our journey. We drove for almost twenty four hours and fortunately met no German or Ukrainian guards. Had we come up against them, the permit would have been of no avail. We reached Sanok in the afternoon and slept there. On the morrow Ziselle Schwartz, may God avenge her, mother of Moshe and Sheindel, arrived to take us back in a rented cart, armed with all the necessary permits which had been obtained by means of the Judenrat.
The return to the shtetl was an indescribable shock to us all. We saw a ghost town, tense and frightened people with sickly faces and deadened eyes. Their clothes were ragged and, with the white strip bearing the Magen David on their sleeves they walked the streets like prisoners in the prison courtyard (we still knew nothing of concentration camps). Though no guards were to be seen we could sense the machine guns aimed at them.
The women's faces were invisible. The kerchiefs covering their heads were lowered to the eyes and their chins wee tucked down into their collars. Not so the men. Having been forced to cut off their bears, their chins were visible and naked, their wrinkled faces showing the full extent of their shame and degradation. Everyone walked in a shuffling manner, dragging along hesitatingly, as if on a rickety bridge which might break down at any moment. Trying to hug the walls of the houses they instinctively quickened their pace upon nearing their destination, being careful, at the same time, not to seem to be on the run, for this would draw the attention of the murderers whose breath could be felt on their backs and who were ready to attack them at any moment like voracious dogs. Their eyes seemed to be straining in the dark no sun shone for them and they would disappear into their homes with a deceptive
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feeling of relief, knowing well that their haven had been broken into and could give them no protection from their killers.
It is hard to describe my homecoming. Mother was trembling and couldn't utter a sound. Father hugged me, mumbling the Sheheianu and mentioning the name and title of God. My brothers and sisters clasped me in tears. As for myself, when I saw Father's contorted face, his bear shaven off, I collapsed. Our house was sunk in mourning, as on Tish'a be'Av. Of course it was good to be reunited, but their only hope that one of us might have saved himself was no gone.
After a few days of rest at home it was time to be registered with the authorities and become a productive worker for them. The registration was carried out by means of the Judenrat whose members wee Moshe Knebelbart, Yoske Fass, Hanna Schertz and Mdm. Radolnick (whose family had arrived during the war). The secretary was Sarah Biber.
The Judenrat in the shtetl made every effort to ease our suffering and persisted in its efforts right up to the end. With all they had, they bribed the brutes, paying ransom for every Jew caught in a crime, when every such crime was punishable by death. And the brutes and assassins wee many. First came the staff of Gestapo Headquarters at Krosna and Yaslo to which the shtetl belonged, who made constant friendly visits and who were supplied by the Judenrat with boots of unobtainable fine leather, coffee, bread, excellent toilet soup and alcoholic beverages, all of pre-war quality. In some cases they were also given jewelry and gold watches.
Then came the local gendarmerie, made up of Folks-Deutsche Polish collaborators from Western Poland, a region which had always had a German population and whose Poles knew a little German, or even Yiddish. This betrayal of their people gave the scum the privilege of joining the Herren-folk which had become depleted in the long drawn-out war and needed new blood. Furthermore, besides the bandits mentioned above, the Judenrat also had to bribe the Arbeits Amt the Labor Bureau which was very powerful and could pressure and even torture the Jews. Then there were sundry officers who happened to come by, visiting the shtetls regularly, going berserk and robbing anything they could lay their hands on. The Polish police, too, insisted on receiving their share.
Dealing with these beasts of prey wasn't easy for the Judenrat, for they sometimes appeared drunk as swine, brandishing a loaded gun in the faces of the Jews, and nothing was easier than for them to shoot and kill a few Jews just for the fun of it. It was a wonder the Judenrat managed to survive while walking this tightrope.
It is a fact that during our long absence from home there had been just one victim Henick Kornfeld, may God avenge him, Avremeleh Kornfeld's youngest son. The youth had been considered a leftist and his name seems to have appeared on a list at the Polish Investigation Department which had maintained a surveillance of leftist sympathizers in Poland before the war. It is also possible that some policeman had informed on him. Doubly branded a Jew and a leftist the man was doomed. Henick was deported to Auschwitz Camp (this was the first we heard of it) and after several weeks an official report arrived that he had died of pneumonia. This was a well-know Nazi ploy at the time when the killings were still on an individual basis.
I would like to mention one of those who had escaped to Russia and returned home with a horrifying tale of what he had suffered there. This was Mendel Scheinbach, may God avenge him, son of David Scheinbach of blessed memory. He had been caught by the Russians in 1939, while crossing the San River but, being a minor (15 years old) had not been deported to Siberia but left in the Brigitki Prison in Lwow.
When the Germans were at the gates of Lwow the NKVD, prior to its retreat, took all the prisoners, some 300 in number, into the courtyard and executed them all with automatic fire. The corpses, sunk in a river of blood, were left lying there.
Two men who fell down and were covered by the corpses of the dead survived. One of them was Mendel. It should be noted that those who opposed the regime or political criminals, according to the Soviet terminology, were not held in the Lwow prison but had long ago been banished to Siberia. The prison was therefore inhabited by former low-grade government officials: Zionist activists arrested with the coming of the Russians, refugees caught without residence permits, street peddlers, etc.
With the entry of the U.S., into the war, the Nazis considered themselves free to ignore all consideration of any neutral power, and the Jews became free game. Prohibitions and interdicts came in quick progression. It was prohibited to leave the boundaries of the Jewish
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side streets, to practice ritual slaughter of fowl and cattle; to buy or grow meat; to buy milk, bake bread or purchase flour outside of the rations handed out by the government. The fact that the bread ration for the whole family sufficed for one meal only will give some idea of what we received.
Jews were forbidden to travel by train, even if they had a transit permit. In order to simplify the procedure with transgressors against this law, they were all awarded the self-same punishment death!
The synagogues were turned into storage houses and Jews were prohibited to pray. No Jew, of course, stopped his tefillin ritual. Prayers were said before morning, as early as possible, and the tefillin were wrapped around the arm so lightly that they left no mark.
Jewish children were not accepted at school and the hadarim were closed. At first the Judenrat organized lessons for Jewish children, but in a semi-official way. These lessons were given by Chaika Zeiler, may God avenge her. The erstwhile Hebrew teacher, Eliezer teacher, Glickel Braff's husband, who had returned to Brzozow from Germany before the war, also collected children, teaching them Hebrew and Judaism in the Untern Barg. All this stopped with the intensification of oppression and the Jewish children were left without instruction. The little ones were taught some reading and writing, a Torah verse or two and the like.
The children walked with bowed heads, like fading flowers well did they sense what was in store for them. My cousin, Esther Kreitstein and her husband Hershl Pincus had two Avremeleh aged four and Yossele aged six. Two lovely, handsome boys. It was heartbreaking to think of their fate and there was no chance of saving them. On Saturday Yossele was sent to me by Hershl, his father, to examine him in Torah, which he taught him himself. The child was learning Genesis, the Noah portion dealing with the Flood. He remembered everything by heart. How far have you got, Yossele? I asked him. To 'leha-khayot' zu bleiben leben (Two of each will come unto you, so that they shall live) he replied, and I was choked with tears.
You know, Yossele, I'm older than you, but I, too, have got just as far as 'lehakhayot' to survive
I know answered the child, smiling sadly. But all I meant was a verse in the torah. What had the child already learnt in his Breshit (Genesis)? It was not lehakhayot that he had reached but what came after vayigva (and they died) and vayimakh (and God wiped out). The fearful Flood swept him away, together with all the children of Israel who had fallen into the cursed hands of the beast.
In January 1942 a new interdict was declared: the Jews must hand in any piece of fur in their possession. The German thugs were freezing on the Russian front and the chore of supplying them with warm clothing fell, of course, on the Jewish population. It went without saying that anyone who disobeyed was to be put to death. Old ladies shivering with the cold were forced to doff their sheepskin coats and bring them to the police station. The shtreimlachs, which had disappeared with the arrival of the Germans, were burnt or buried in secret to avoid giving them to the evil-doers for their amusement.
I was arrested at that time, in company with a number of other Jews. Some of the young men who were on the wanted list learnt of it in time and succeeded in getting into hiding. The whole affair was some private enterprise of the local gendarmerie to liquidate some Jews. The members of the Judenrat, upon being informed of this incident by the victims' families, began exploiting all their connections with the Cosnow Gestapo, which they had been bribing and enriching all the time. In the meantime, as I was sitting in my cell, another Jew was brought in from one of the adjoining villages, caught for leaving his neighbourhood. I can see him now, pacing the cell and worrying about what would happen to him. As he feared the worst I tried to comfort him, for I really and truly believed we would all be released. And indeed, after enormous efforts, all the prisoners were freed but for one village Jew whom the Judenrat knew nothing about. Just at that time the young son of the Tzaddik, Michael tag, returned from the east bank of the San and was arrested immediately upon his arrival. On the morrow the two of them, Michael tag and the village Jew, were both shot to death in the forest by the murderous gendarmes. The noose tied round the Jews' necks was becoming tighter and tighter. The day of annihilation was approaching and the local killers were too bloodthirsty to wait. They were lusting for victims.
My father, may God avenge him, used to go every day before dawn to Stara Wiez, in the environs of the shtetl, to bring the milk which he sold for a living. One day he returned extremely late, pale and shaken. When he had calmed down he told us the following:
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As usual he had left home early and in the distant darkness discerned two figures that he recognized as Jews by the white bank on their sleeves. At first he thought he'd wait till they approached to wish them a good morning but, fearing he would be late, decided to go on. On his way back he saw a crowd. There were two bodies of Jews lying on the ground, murdered, with two gendarmes standing guard. Hanna Schertz of the Judenrat had also been called to take care of the corpses. The victims were Yossele Mann, who, like my father, was on his way to Stara Wiez, and Moshe, son of Yehoshua Kuflick, whose house stood right on the road. The moment he had opened the door to cross the threshold he was shot down by the assassins. The Jews whom Father had intended to wish a good morning were Nazi police wearing white bands on their sleeves so as to appear to be Jews from a distance, thus trapping their victims. When Father returned, the killers fell upon him with drawn guns, but, with sublime courage, Hanna Schertz placed himself between them and my father, begging them to spare him and whispering all kinds of promises. Somehow he succeeded in saving Father, thus giving him a few more months to live together with us.
The final step in the liquidation of the shtetl was the interdict that all the Jews of the adjacent villages should leave their homes and come to Brzozow. The victims were being concentrated in one place to make their destruction easier. Leaving all their possessions behind, the miserable Jews arrived with sacks on their backs, to be taken in by their brothers and share their inescapable fate.
On July, 1942 some tens of young Jews were sent to work in the oil works at Grabovnitza and the log mill at Biashlisk. Some camps had been prepared for them there. Saddened by having been forced from their homes, their anxiety increased when they were brought back two or three days later. Everybody sensed that the catastrophe was approaching. At the end of July all the young men of working age were ordered to appear on Sunday, August 2, 1942 at eight o'clock, their rucksacks to be packed with personal belongings and two loaves of bread. Old men, women and children were exempt.
On Sunday at the hour indicated, all the young men gathered in the Rink, standing in rows with the Judenrat beside them, the latter having come to accompany them to the waiting trucks.
I had no time to say goodbye to my mother, may God avenge her.
Let me make a digression here to mention something of the tradition in our family. Some generations ago we had a grandmother called Taube Babeh Taube who lived with her husband in Yatshmire where they had a large farm, a kind of estate. This grandmother was known for her good deeds and used to bring cartfuls of food for the poor of the shtetl. One year there was a severe drought and the harvests were extremely poor. Grandmother, instead of cutting down on her charity, doubled the amount. Her husband, seeing that she was ruining them, called her to account before the Tzadik, Reb Hirsch of Rimanov (this happened in the 30's or 40's of the former century). The Rabbi asked Babeh Taube why she was so adamant, giving charity beyond her real ability to do so. Her reply was Icgh sehe wie der ribenu shel oilem khapt khap ich euch (I see how the Lord grabs, so I grab too, as much as I can ). Upon hearing this, the Tzadik determined that she was a highly righteous woman. Before her death Babeh Taube commanded her children that should any of her descendants find him in trouble they should come to her grave and she would try to help him. Her grave was in the old cemetery in the forest, unused for many years and wholly neglected. My mother was the only one of the family who knew the place of the grave and used to go there whenever anyone in the family was in trouble. That Sunday morning Mother arose while it was still dark and, using winding paths and byways, went to the forest to visit Babeh Taube's grave and pray for her children. Did she manage to return home safely? This is something I shall never know.
I took leave of my father and sisters. The separation from the parents and the family were heartbreaking, and all the homes echoed with the sounds of weeping to rent the very heavens, though it seems they failed to penetrate them
Everybody knew that this time the separation was forever, though they did think that it was those who were departing who were doomed to suffer. We stood in rows, taking in lovingly for the last time the houses and streets of the shtetl which we had passed daily and in which we had grown up and spent our childhood. All around us, on the thresholds of the houses, stood parents, wives, boys and girls, tearing their hair at the sight of their sons, husbands and brothers about to be taken to an unknown desti-
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nation, one which boded nothing but evil. We marched in the direction of the Regional Offices where the devils were waiting to hurry us on with their clubs. Loss! Loss! Get onto the trucks! At the last moment they let the craftsmen out, sending them home.
No one can tell whether the act of letting the craftsmen remain was meant as a diversion, making people believe that those who remained would go on living as usual, or whether this was part of some plan of the military or other powers to utilize the useful elements a plan which was not to materialize. My young brother, Tzvi, may God avenge him, stood beside me, his rucksack on his back. Suddenly he turned aside, approached one of the policemen and convinced him that he was actually an artisan (had learnt carpentry). The latter let him go. Throwing me his loaves of bread, he returned home. I was glad that he had saved himself. The trucks turned in the direction of Yashnitza. Four young men managed to jump off the trucks on the way and got away: Shlomo Weber, son of Reb Yosseleh Weber, Avraham Zaltz, Wolf Leufer and Avraham Wolker. Most of us envied them, for they were returning home, and we admired their courage, but the rest did not follow their example, both for fear of being caught and because of the fatalistic feeling that nothing could now do any good.
We reached the Ivonich railway station (a health resort near Rimanov) where we were loaded like cattle on some trucks that were waiting for us. It was a hot summer's day and some 150 men were pushed and beaten into a hermetically sealed car accompanied by an armed guard. There was no time to think of what awaited us; we had worse problems to contend with: the closeness, the heat and lack of air were unbearable. Everybody stood open-mouthed to get a drop of air. We did not believe that we would survive this. There were a few who became hysterical and lost control, but the majority remained rational, guarding the tiny spark of hope that in spite of everything we would survive this hell. The evening found us at Prokochim, near Krakow, a camp of huts whose roofs were as yet uncovered. Our packs under our heads we lay on the ground. That night it rained heavily and we were drenched to our skins. No one slept a wink. At 4 o'clock a light was lit and we were called to form rows and prepare for work. After some water was handed out we were led to the building site. A new railway line was being laid by the Joseph Klugg firm from Regensburg and it was supplied by slaves who did the work gratis. The digging was done by bulldozers which loaded the earth onto trolleys moving along the lines. Our job was to overturn he loaded trolleys, straighten out the underlay, raise the lines every time, moving them forward, then pour out the underlay once more, repeating this ad nausea. The work was supervised by German engineers and technicians and the overseers were Poles. As for us, we had no idea of what we were doing. Scared and confused as we were, we tried to understand exactly what we were supposed to be doing, but were given no chance to do so. Picks, shovels and rakes were beaten upon our heads. The satanic minions rushed around with fearful screams and our feeling was that the sole purpose of the job was to destroy us. We were still new to the science of German camps and were unable to differentiate between a labor and an annihilation camp, between a deadly beating and a beating to death.
There was one young man there whom I remember for his kindness one called Ezra (his surname escapes me) from Beitsch, one of three brothers who had come there before us and had a fortnight's tenure in the place. He came up to work beside me and when the overseers were at some distance showed me what to do and how to do it. He gave me moral support, explaining that with some effort I could do the work. I had to be on the alert, see what was to be done etc.
The first day's work somehow came to an end. Exhausted, beaten and bruised we returned to the camp. The evening was spent with thoughts of home and we sat down to write postcards and letters something still possible at that time. The quicker ones among us even got an answer, though, except for seeing each other's handwriting, no one could say anything of what was actually happening.
After spending two days at the camp Moshe Feigenboim, may God avenge him, decided to break through the German and Polish guards and try to make it home on foot, by begging for lifts and by cart. Having left a wife and a baby born some weeks ago, he could not stay away. He took off the sleeve band identifying him as a Jew and set out. No one knows if he succeeded ad managed to see his dear ones, joining them on their final journey. Some days later he was followed by Bunick Zeiler, may God avenge him. A week later Bunick reappeared
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in the camp with the terrible tidings that all the Jews of the shtetl had been liquidated. According to his report he had managed to reach the gates of the shtetl on Wednesday or Thursday, thee to be told by his gentile acquaintances that as early as Monday, August 10, 1942 all the oldsters, the ailing and the children had been led to the forest where a large pit had been prepared, thee to be shot dead. The younger ones were taken eastwards, to the Belzitz concentration camp.
In her book Six Hundred Years of Brzozow, the Polish writer Zophia Weitschik described the shtetl's ultimate destruction.
On June 24 the Jews began leaving the villages for the urban centres. On August 8 a large pit, whose purpose was terrifyingly clear to all, was dug. The Jews were all commanded to collect in the Stadium. Some managed to hide some of their possessions with the Poles, others took their leave of us, mentioning the efforts they had made for Germany and how they had fought for it during the First World War. One Jew (Shlomo Zissel Adler the translator) said: In 1917 I spilt my blood for the Germans on the Italian front where I lost my leg. Today I am crippled. I am 43 years old and already an old man, unable to move without crutches. This is terrible. The German people will be made to pay for this shameful thing, killing the innocents without pity, with a smile!
He then burst into tears.
The night between the 9th and 10th of August was one of general terror and anguish difficult to describe. Weak and terrified, praying and weeping beside their flickering candles, the people looked like ghosts. This was Doomsday, the day when the hearts of Jewish mothers were torn in twain at the sight of their innocent children who did not realize what was about to happen. In the morning, loaded with their snow-white bundles and with hair that had turned white overnight, they stood wordless to be counted in the stadium old men, women and children, the sick and the crippled. Fatalistically they submitted to their fate. Another reason for their passivity was the fact that the stronger men and youths who could have put up some opposition, perhaps, in those horrible moments, had been sent away to work in the concentration camps.
Meanwhile the S.S. murderers, eager for the kill, divided the crowd into groups according to sex and age, after which they loaded them on trucks to be taken away some to the forest and some in the direction of Stara-Wiez. Standing on boards placed over the pit, the oldsters were shot in the back or stuck with bayonets. The children were assassinated with iron bars. The bodies of the wounded quivered in the quickly filled pit till finally the earth covered them all, giving eternal release from the terror, the suffering and the hunger which had been their lot. The assassins, about 30 in number, returned to the village, covered in blood, to celebrate their victory. No one who had witnessed the massacre, unparalleled in human history, could describe the horrible deed. Let this be a constant reminder of the appalling slaughter which took place in the 20th century at the hands of the degenerate henchmen of a mad tyrant.
We knew nothing, of course, of these details, yet, in spite of our inability to imagine the horrible events, we were well aware of the terrible tragedy that had overtaken our families.
No words can describe the atmosphere at the camp that evening. We had all been orphaned, our loved ones killed, our homes destroyed. Here we were, in the hands of merciless killers who were preparing a similar end for us. Would it not be better to put an end to such a hopeless, meaningless existence?
Like a herd encircled by slavering beasts of prey we huddled together, without a word of comfort for each other. Later on we lay down on the boards for a night that had no end. Each one of us tried to rationalize the tragedy, but it was useless to do so. From every corner rose the sound of weeping and
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groaning until finally the releasing shout of Get up! was heard. The Excruciating labor helped the days go by, but despair and frustration were our lot at night.
Ha'im Bank, at that time in the Przemysl ghetto, wrote to his brother who was with us at Plashov that a Polish acquaintance of his, a railway worker, had brought him a postcard thrown down from a rail car passing through the station. It was written by their younger sister, Saltshe and said: Yosek (another brother) and I are together with Mother and our aunt. With us are also some people from Rimanov and other places besides Brzozow. They are presumably taking us 'eastwards' (they were taken to the Belzits concentration camp). We don't know how long the journey will take. Don't worry. As soon as we reach our destination we will write to you. It was signed Your sister Saltshe.
It appears that they had been taken away before the general liquidation and were still deluding themselves.
We were no longer under any illusion. Well did we know the ultimate target of the deportation.
One day I had an accident at work: I sprained my left arm and couldn't move my hand. The overseers said I was pretending, trying to avoid work, and treated me, in accordance with this diagnosis, to an inhuman beating. After much suffering I was sent to a hospital at t he Krakow Ghetto.
After all the actions it had undergone, the Krakow Ghetto had by now dwindled to just a few thousands. It was located in the Podgorzs district and divided into two sections: A and B. Section A contained all the productive, useful elements while the other ghetto housed those of undefined professions, remnants left over from the actions which the ghetto had been subjected to every few months or weeks. Some of the most famous doctors of the country were to be found in this so called hospital in the ghetto, working as nurses or orderlies. My arm was reset and seven days' sick leave recommended.
Before concluding the story of the Prokochim and Plashov camps I would like to mention a certain young man from our town a true repentant who constantly suffered pangs of conscience for his deeds. His name was Yankel Wolfman. A few years before the war he had gone to Eretz Israel as a pioneer, only to return home after a short stay, saying that conditions there were too harsh for him. Now he was haunted by that irresponsible, frivolous behavior and articulated his deep feeling of repentance by justifying all his present suffering. In our conversations he comforted me, encouraging me to fight. You're still young, you will overcome all this and live to reach Erez Israel, unlike myself. I don't deserve it for I was there and came back. He regarded such self-flagellation as the only way to redeem himself from his sin. May God avenge him.
Summer passed, to be followed by a rainy autumn and then winter with its frosts and snows. There were no portents of change discernible. How long could we hold out? How much time was allotted to us to live? In February of 1943 some news finally reached us of significant changes at the front the German defeat at Stalingrad. We heard nothing of Rommel's defeat in Africa, nor would we have been aware of its importance. We could not celebrate, for the degenerates, making us a butt for their fury, picked out some victims and shot them to death inside the camp in revenge for their defeat. Some of these wretches were discarded by the overseers as unsatisfactory workers and the rest were chosen by the murderers. Two of my townsmen were among the victims of the Stalingrad Front: Shamai Zelig and Itchaleh Goldfinger (grandson of Koppel Tzvik), may God avenge them.
From Stalingrad to Plashov it was still a long way to go and we had little to hope for. Some young men stole into Ghetto B, which was relatively easy to reach from our camp. There life was supposed to go on as usual. The first ones were followed by others and all found food and shelter. I, too, went to the ghetto, for I saw no difference between it and the camp equal destruction awaited us in both places. I worked in a restaurant and ate well. There were about 20 of my townsmen in the ghetto and we kept in touch with one another.
The rest of my townsmen remained in the camp, believing that as laborers their chances were better. The turn of the Krakow Ghetto came in March 1943. Two days before the action the Germans surrounded both ghettos. Ghetto A was transferred to the Yerozolimska Camp, as were the inhabitants of Plashov Prokochim. Ghetto B was closed down. Then the action began. Gendarmes and S.S. soldiers as well as the Gestapo entered the ghetto, going from house to house to verify that everybody had left. The old and the sick were put on one side. Gestapo Officer Gett commanded the whole operation. Tall
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and thin, wearing glasses and with the face of a priest or a monk, one would be hard-pressed to believe that behind this face of an intellectual was hidden a mass murderer.
This Gett, by the way, was caught by the Polish authorities after the war and condemned to death by hanging. Small comfort for his victims, yet it is just as well that he was not tried by his own people, so notorious for their merciful hearts. They would certainly have released him for reasons of health (the poor man was so pale), just as they exonerated tens of thousands of other assassins like him.
There is one unforgettable, almost surrealistic scene from the ghetto action: a crazy old woman is brutally dragged from her home. Not understanding what is happening she argues with the police who are pushing her along, explaining that she must return home or the milk she had left on the fire would run over .The beasts were amused, repeating the story to each other and arousing roars of laughter. The poor wretch eyed them with bewilderment, not grasping what was so funny
This case, to which we were witness, was, perhaps because of its very triviality, like the spark of a match in the darkness, suddenly lightening up the area and showing things in their right perspective. It was a reflection of the hellish reality of our existence, a palpable example of our desperate situation. We were incapable of perceiving the actual reality and our senses, brutalized by our sufferings, could no longer react normally.
I found myself thinking back about all that we had gone through from the moment of our expulsion from the rest of human-kind, to be cast down into this infernal pit. It came to me that perhaps this miserable woman was the only sane creature in the world of diabolical insanity surrounding us.
In these moments which appeared to us to be our last, our townsmen tried to be together. We were all obsessed with the same idea though we had avoided the fate of our dear ones at the time, it had caught up with us.
I don't know what happened to the aged and the sick, and there were hardly any children. All we heard were a few shots. We were taken away while they remained. Perhaps they were not executed outright. It would have been superfluous to do so with the sophisticated machinery of Auschwitz so close.
We were loaded on trucks with guards armed by submachine guns. Each truck was followed by a soldier on a motorcycle carrying a machine gun.
Someone jumped from one of the trucks and ran into the fields. A few rounds were aimed at him and it seems that he was shot. The killers jumped from the escorting cars to catch him. As we drove on, we too, considered the possibility of jumping, only to reach the conclusion that even if we survived the fall from a moving vehicle and were not shot down and managed to hide in the field there was nowhere to go and no one would help us. We were not attracted by such a form of suicide and hoped that this choice would also be given us in the future.
Road signs and arrows pointing out the distance from Auschwitz began to appear by the roadside. We realized where we were going.
On our arrival we were thrown into the maelstrom: shrieks, blows.
We went through the selection of Mengele and his henchmen, and Berl Schnitzler was set apart, though we were not aware of the significance of this at the time. Entering the Birkenau Camp we went through the shock of confronting the annihilation equipment face to face. We now realized the full horror of the disaster.
The sight of the smoking furnaces struck us like a bolt of lightning paralyzed our senses and drove us mad.
Now that the iron gates were firmly locked behind us we were caught firmly between the jaws of the dragon which no longer had needed to resort to camouflage.
The writer Diner K. Katzetnik who appeared in the Eichmann trial, began to explain the Auschwitz Planet to the judges. He tried to reconstruct in his mind all he had been through, fell in a faint and was taken out of the hall on a stretcher. I shall not try to bring back the memories of that inferno, for I am not sure that this can be done without destroying one's spirit. Just a few, succinct facts will have to suffice.
Every time we reached a new low, thinking that this was the worst that could happen to us, we would learn that there were some lower, narrower steps down, worse than those that preceded them, and the pit of suffering and anguish was bottomless.
We were pushed into a gigantic shed, there to be met by prisoners who came to take care of us in their striped clothes and their queer Purim hats (an inverted Purim with Haman celebrating his victory
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over us). They truly appeared to be creatures from another planet.
The attention we received was accompanied by shrieks and threats: get undressed, fold your clothes, give your money, jewels, valuables. Anyone leaving anything for himself will be shot on the spot! Then in a whisper: You will get clothes like ours and go out to work. Having put on the clothes thrown in our direction we were given the cosmetic treatment: a haircut and a shave of all bodily hair. Our arms were tattooed with our numbers by a special needle. We received a new identity: no name, no family, just a number. I repeated the number 108200 to myself this was how we were called to muster, to work I would henceforth be addressed by this number. (108000 was the Krakow ghetto series each transport had its own series). After the treatment we were herded into wooden sheds that had once served as stables. That evening, when we left the block for the camp area we encountered pale, desiccated human beings wandering around, hunting for edible remnants, not too proud to pick up any waste or garbage in their chronic hunger. Even if they had the opportunity to fill their belly to full capacity they still remained hungry, for all their bodily reserves had been burnt up.
There were tens of them wandering around; spoon in pocket, swooping down like bees on an empty can of soup which had not been returned to the kitchen, in the attempt to scrape out the leavings coagulated on its sticky inside.
Near each block were the musulmen leaning against the wall, debilitated. As their legs could no longer support them they were carried out by the Stuben-dienst, the House-service, there to fade away until they finally died. At the next muster they would still be there, their corpses complementing the necessary number.
Two official languages dominated Auschwitz Polish and German. There were only a few German prisoners and they constituted the elite. Though they had sinned they were still preferred over others, being herrenfolk, and were given the best jobs. They were the Block Leaders, the Kapos, the secretaries etc. They were followed by the Poles who, because of their great numbers in the camp, enjoyed all sorts of extra privileges which, though small, were of great significance in the conditions prevailing at the camp.
We were followed at Auschwitz by the Jews of Greece, mostly from Saloniki, who were tattooed with the numbers in the 109000 series. These poor wretches never knew when they were being called by number in Polish or German so that, in addition to the usual indignities suffered by all the prisoners, they were beaten for refusing to answer when summoned.
Not understanding their language it was hard for us, too, to establish contact with them. But we learnt from those who spoke Hebrew that the tentacles of the Nazi octopus in occupied Europe had penetrated every corner containing a Jewish community. Using their well-known methods of misinformation, threats, murderous terror, isolation and segregation of the victims, they did their work systematically and efficiently.
We spent two weeks at the so-call Birkenau quarantine, a period which I do not intend to describe. Thence the prisoners were sent to a transport.
The S.S. units, besides murdering and robbing their victims of their property and sending it by the carload to Germany, were also quick to fill their own pockets, guzzling like pigs and avoiding duty at the front. In order to provide jobs for as many of their friends as possible they saw to it that many construction and arms' plants were opened in the vicinity of the camps. The Jewish slaves were rented out to work there for a certain payment. The whole area of the outlying camps constituted branches of Auschwitz and was kept under guard by hundreds of armed sentries and trained dogs. The area was dominated by high sentry towers and well-camouflaged trenches dug in the ground equipped with manned machine guns. All this, as well as day and night patrols, prevented any attempt to escape. The labor of the victims could be exploited right up to their very last day. Nourished on hunger rations, the prisoners doing hard labor were pushed to the utmost of their ability until they broke down and became musulmen, when they were returned to their owners at the central Auschwitz camp to be liquidated.
We were sent on a detail to one of the coal mines in the vicinity of the Yavishovitz Camp. All the townsmen of our shtetl went together. We actually rushed to this transport to escape the nightmare called Birkenau, where the air of the giant incinerators was breathed day and night. We did our best to stick together.
In the mines we worked in shifts at a depth of
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some hundreds of meters underground.
Every professional Polish miner was given a helper or two from among the prisoners who worked beside him and tried to assist him. Speaking to the miner was forbidden, unless the subject was work. All contact with him was avoided nor were we to accept anything from him. The work was of two kinds: regular maintenance and mining. The job of maintenance consisted of cleaning the paths and keeping the approaches to the mining places open. The ceiling had to be supported by blocks and wooden boards, to prevent stones from falling on the heads of the workers. New roads were also dug out to transport the coal, rails laid down for carriers etc.
As this work, by its very nature, could not be controlled or estimated, the maintenance miners did not over-exert themselves, nor did their Jewish helpers work harder than they could. On the other hand, those assigned to the coal miners were pressured beyond their meager powers. Every miner had his coal quota to be completed with the assistance of his Jewish helper, and the former would belabor the hungry prisoner who worked with him to achieve that quota. The miners were given extra rations to enable them to do the hard work, but the prisoners, whose rations were minimal, did not survive more than two or three months of it.
Luckily for me I was assigned to a maintenance miner.
It often happened that after a night shift in the dark mine, as we marched, heavily guarded, back to the camp just as the sun was rising, we would meet with a group, still half asleep, that had risen betimes. Casting a quick glance at us they would hurry past. What could have been their thoughts at such a moment? Our own thoughts and feelings were indescribable.
On both sides of the road we saw budding trees with nesting birds flying over their tops and green meadows spreading in all directions The powerful scent of the flowing plants confused the senses and for a moment I imagined myself leaving the line, going up to the moist grass, still covered with dew and stretching out full length on it to enjoy the perfume of the field. Harsh shrieks of Links! Links! (Left! Left!) jerked me back into reality. Would I ever again be able to enjoy the pure, free air undisturbed?
Another brand of torture, no less difficult than the above, was the smell of fresh-baked bread from a bakery near our route to the mine. It reawakened our hunger to torment us even more, for all we did to ignore it during the nerve-wracking march.
When I told the miner with whom I was working that there was a bakery by the roadside, I was astonished to learn from him that it was actually situated some kilometers from our route. Suddenly I understood what made the wolves smell the sheep from afar it was hunger that so sharpened their sense of smell.
Though the air in the mine was close and thick, it was freer, for our guards did not go down with us. Our real troubles began after work. The camp Kapos were criminals German prisoners, real sadists with a free hand given by their masters, the S.S., who knew they could be depended on when it came to torturing the Jewish prisoners. The first victim among our townsmen was Yoshe Saltz, may God avenge him, upon whom a scrap of the Nazi newspaper, Der Krakower Zeitung was found during a surprise inspection and which had been brought from the mine. He was taken to headquarters at the entry to the camp and was never seen again.
The second victim was Munya Fiderer, may God avenge him. Just before morning, at the end of the night shift, as we went up from the mine and mustered for the count, it was discovered that he had not come up. We don't know the reason for his tardiness, but when he was brought, bruised and beaten, to join the convoy returning to camp, we knew he was doomed. He was put at the end of the line and beaten all along the way. His screams could be heard in the distance but when the camp came in sight they were silenced.
In December, 1943, I had an accident and broke my right foot. I knew this was the end. Before I was sent to my rightful owners in Auschwitz I said good-bye to my friends. I was taken to the Kranken-bau, the camp hospital, whose staff was composed solely of prisoners, and a Polish professor from Krakow, a surgeon, took care of me. After putting my leg in plaster I was promised that, given the slightest chance, I would recover within a few weeks. There were complications. After several days the swelling lessened and the leg, free inside the plaster, moved around so that the fracture did not knit up as it was supposed to. The pain was terrible, but I'll skip the personal details, which were a saga on their own.
Every week a selection took place and those who were not recovering as they should were taken away.
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A large part of the victims comprised Jewish youths who were used as guinea pigs for different methods of castration in experiments carried out by the Nazi monsters. Most of those operated on ended up with gangrene, their wounds did not heal and the result was inevitable. Other victims were those exhausted by the transports, discarded by their masters in the mines and factories. Having become too weak to work they were regarded as expendable.
One day one of our group of townsmen appeared beside me at the hospital Woltzman, the son-in-law of Avraham Me'ir Menner, whom I had known as a tall and husky youth. He had worked at coal mining, become a musulman and been returned to Auschwitz for what was called recuperation. The man dragged along, finished. After telling him what his chances were at that hospital, I managed to convince him to leave as quickly as possible and return to work. For myself, I have no choice, I told him. I am a cripple and must accept my lot, but you are a whole man. Make an effort and fight!
Most of the jobs at Auschwitz were in maintenance and the services, and were not as back-breaking as that in the mines. He listened to what I said and tried to work for a few days, but broke down. In the next selection he joined the cavalcade of the doomed.
Let me mention other victims from among our townsmen who died in the camp: Yissachar Bayliss, Reuben Schertz, Moshe Schertz and Reuben Eisen, my God avenge them.
Each man to his fate. To survive in Auschwitz a man needed his daily quota of miracles, in the manner of a deep-sea diver who needs air to breathe, without which he cannot live a single moment. Those who are no longer with us also recounted the daily, even hourly miracles without which they would have been lost. Then would come the moment when the balloon of miracles would be emptied and that was the end. Others, whom fate continued to supply with some, were saved. It would take too long to recount the quirks of fate which saved me during my illness. After endless vicissitudes I left the hospital with a painful, swollen leg and managed in ways too complicated to tell to get a sitting job. I sat on a large pile of stones which I hammered into little pieces, thus sparing my leg and letting it heal slowly.
One Sunday after the muster, as we dispersed to our blocks, I met Hanina Henig, a townsman and the son of Ber Henig who had left the shtetl in the early thirties for Paris. Hanina had come to the camp in 1942 with his brother Pinchas who died there of typhoid fever. Hanina held out till the end of the war, was released but died of exhaustion. Many of those released suffered a similar fate for even after the serpent's head was crushed its poison continued to work on its victims, sending them to their death.
The camp's population was a conglomerate of different nations and kinds of people. Every prisoner was marked, beside his number, with a specially colored triangle designating his particular crime. The criminals, all of whom were Germans (other nationalities were liquidated immediately) had a green triangle. The political, a group to which all the Poles belonged, wore red. The gypsies, for whom the Germans planned a similar fate to that of the Jews wore black triangles.
Besides the red triangle the Jews wore another inverted one of yellow, the two triangles forming a Magen David.
One's length of tenure at the camp was a source of respect and prestige. As the prisoners saw it, a person capable of holding out for a long time under camp conditions was highly worthy of respect.
The tenure could be determined by the number. All those numbering up to 100,000 belonged to the elite. Only a few thousands of them had survived. Of the lower categories such as 30,000, for example, there was now only a handful. The privileged few were given the easier jobs and, where possible, more food. The prisoners themselves were responsible for the work assignments made in accordance with the general directions of the camp management.
There was a prominent group of Russian prisoners in the camp, probably those who had tried to escape from the prisoner camps and had been found individually after they had gone into hiding. These men were wild and uncontrollable. Organized in gangs they engaged in stealing, robbing the other prisoners of their bread ration and shoes. Their behavior a direct function of the Germans' treatment, was the very opposite of those Russians captured during the great debacle at the beginning of the war. It was these first victims who absorbed all the crushing brutality of the Nazis and after being starved for several days they were destroyed en masse. The Jews were forced to buy them in mass graves. None of these prisoners protested against their fate or put up any opposition.
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After the reversal at the front, when the Russian army began to fight courageously, beating the Germans back, their treatment was radically charged. Hundreds of thousands of Germans were now in Russian hands and served as hostages. Te few Russians imprisoned by the Germans were thus encouraged to try and rebel. This development is highly significant for it contains at least a partial answer to the oft-asked question as to why the Jews put up no resistance against their torturers.
In the summer of 1944 enormous transports of Jews began arriving from Hungary, sent there by the devils spawn Eichmann who made himself responsible for their annihilation. They were accompanied by the remnants of the Lodz ghetto.
The meeting with the Hungarian Jews, who had lived till then in freedom, more or less, was shocking. Another branch of European Jewry had been decimated. The end of the war was approaching but the Jews would not live to see it. The newcomers were often hurt by the harsh treatment shown them by the camp's veterans and their terse and brutal way of speaking something they were unused to. They were still thinking in terms of human behavior which the camp's veterans regarded as naïve and divorced from harsh reality.
In my longing for human converse I made friends with many of them.
The women transported from Hungary were put in separate camps. It was particularly painful to see the girls being humiliated, although we had become accustomed to seeing the men thus abused. Most of the girls were sent to work in camps inside Germany, in war production factories managed, for their great part, by German women, the men having been taken to shore up the ever-widening cracks at the front.
In mid-January the fighting approached the gates of Auschwitz. On the 11th of that month the Russians initiated an extensive attack near the Wisla and within a few days the tension of the camp guards became palpable. Many groups were not sent to work and the S.S. began preparations for the camp's evacuation. Many of the prisoners were considering whether they should leave or perhaps try and hide in the confusion, thus evading the transport. One thing everybody was sure of: The killers would not permit anyone to fall into the hands of the approaching Russians, so that only a few decided to risk it.
The stores were opened, food and clothing handed out for the journey and prisoners forced into a hurried departure. The sick were left in the meantime but had no illusions as to their fate. It later transpired that almost all those left behind were saved the Nazis were too late in implementing their plan to blow up the camp with its inhabitants. The Russians advance much faster than expected and the Nazis fled to save their skins.
In giant convoys we left on foot with armed guards on every side to prevent any attempts to escape. Our expectations that the Russians would catch up with us or at least bomb us from the air or with mortars, so that we could exploit the ensuing panic to get away, were disappointed. For three days we marched in the snow with almost no respite. People fell asleep while walking, to be caught by their friends before they fell down. Anyone unable to go on was shot out of hand. The roadside was strewn with corpses. When we reached Gleiwicz we were loaded onto trucks and taken to Gross-rosen, near Breslau. The camp was too small for so many prisoners. We were given no food and had no place to lie down. Several days later a train arrived to take us into Germany. The cold in the open cars was insupportable and many froze to death. I felt as though I was a sieve through which the wind was blowing. The train brought us to Weimar, Goethe's hometown near the Buchenwald concentration camp. (Buchenwald is more characteristic of the German people than Goethe). Upon arriving at the railway station we were treated to a splendid sight: 200 American bombers appeared in the clear skies, shining like silver birds in the sunlight. Flying low they released their long-shaped projectiles which exploded with ear-splitting bangs, causing havoc and destruction in the whole area.
In their panic our guards leaped from the trains to look for cover. We went out into the open fields, enjoying their predicament and the retribution rained upon them from heaven which was but a tithe of what they really deserved.
After the bombardment we were quickly collected by our guards, taken to Buchenwald and thence to some adjacent building sites. With a few other hundreds of men I was sent to Berge am Alster to dig tunnels inside the mountains for the war industry which actually no longer existed. During February and March things reached such a nadir that even though we all knew we were witnessing the death throes of a vanquished Germany we were convinced
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that the Nazi beast would still manage to put an end to us as it was dying.
Our food rations dwindled to almost nothing and the accumulated suffering coupled with starvation wreaked havoc among the detainees who were crowded into the new camps which emerged everywhere (the existing camps, for all their great number, were already inhabited and two crowded for new prisoners).
It was not just the adult and the weak that didn't make it. The young and strong too were daily losing weight and strength, so that each day they felt as if it were their last.
In mid April the American army began to approach. Not knowing what to do with us, the German guards began shunting us from place to place. I now decided it was time to escape. After a day's marching we progressed some kilometers and in the evening were brought to sleep in a farmer's barn in, a village in Saxony. In the morning, during the preparations for the journey, it appeared that some of the exhausted prisoners had reached the end of their tether and were unable to go on. There was no more shooting not one of the guards was prepared to accept the responsibility for it with the Americans upon their heels.
I hid in a haystack where I found other deserters like myself. The convoy left the village and went on its way and within a few hours the Americans began bombing. When I left the barn its owner saw me and ran for the police. There were none in the village by that time. He cornered a soldier, left over from one of the disintegrating units who were trying to make it on his own. My life was in his hands. As I moved off with him a girl came running to tell him that there were many dogs like us wandering in the vicinity. He promised to take care of it.
I was in a state of shock. During my stay in the camps I had become thick-skinned and was indifferent to all the linguistic pearls hurled at me by the Nazis. But now, perhaps because I had sensed the smell of freedom, it was no longer so. How could a common village girl, not serving in an extermination unit, at a moment when the downfall of the monster regime was an imminent fact, be so lacking in any human feeling upon seeing these exhausted, frightened people that, instead of giving them a slice of bread she could call them pariah dogs? When she left the soldier turned to me: I know you are expecting the Americans. I, too, am sick of the whole business. Go find yourself a hiding place; it's just a matter of days.
I put some distance between the village and myself, went down an incline and reached a small creek. Standing beside the water I took off my filthy shirt and after many months looked at my emaciated body. Skin and dry bones but this body was my own and there was no one threatening me with a scythe from behind. I could care for it, refresh myself and bathe as much as I wanted. I wasn't sure it was not a dream. There was no enemy in the vicinity. The Germans had not brought me here. I had simply come of my own free will. Was I now free to move around as I felt inclined? There was no time to dawdle on speculations. It was true our captors had disappeared, but the danger was omni-present and in the prevailing atmosphere of evil and hatred life was still uncertain.
That evening we met in a field near the village. Seven of us could still walk but there were six more that were ill. We realized that to remain in no-man's land spelt danger of immediate extinction, so soon before salvation. We therefore decided to go in the direction of the American lines. Among the deserters there was also a German Kapo, a communist whose home was not far away. This man had managed to get a transit pass from the village mayor, officially signed and confirming that we were former prisoners legally released by the authorities and on our way home.
I would like to point out that in the course of our many journeys on foot, made under the pressure of the thug's boot when we dragged ourselves forward, teeth clenched with effort, no man offered to support his marching neighbour or give him a shoulder to lean on. It was each man for himself. A man, who is being swept away by a maelstrom, fighting the turbulent waters with his remaining strength, does not give a helping hand to one drowning beside him. It was obvious that you didn't have the strength to support anyone and that if you did he would only drag you down with him in his fall. It was the survival instinct that dominated the need to hold out to the very limit of your powers.
The moment the nightmare abated our humane feelings were reawakened. Though we were all in urgent need of aid we knew that there was no question of abandoning our sick, immobile companions.
At dawn we quit the place. From one of the out-
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lying farms we requisitioned a farm cart and piled the sick, which we didn't even know, onto it. Harnessing ourselves into the shafts like horses we set out on our way.
It was an unforgettable scene.
Marching, starving skeletons, broken men-shadows covered in rags and harnessed to a car loaded with their companions in misfortune whose swollen legs refused to carry them exerting themselves to the limits of their waning strength they were drawing the cart uphill. Their faces covered with sweat they were weeping as they climbed.
Very slowly the rays of the spring sunshine dispersed the heavy fogs in which their senses had been suffocated.
So they marched towards their past, the ruined shards of their former lives beginning to emerge and beckon them before their tear-filled eyes.
(Translated by Herzlia Dobkin)
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