I was born in 1923 in Chortkov in the southern part of Poland, formerly Austria-Galizia. It was a city (county seat) with a population around 40,000; all surrounded by mountains and suburbs. I had a younger sister, Liza, born in 1925.
My parents came to this city from Russia in 1921, after the Revolution, on the way to America. Some members of the family were already in the USA including my father's parents.
My father had many friends in Chortkov, being it was very close to the Russian border. Therefore, he decided to stay for awhile and rented an apartment in a nice neighborhood near the river.
He got a job as a manager in a flour mill, and by the year 1923, America instituted a quota for immigrants. Although my father had received an affidavit from his brother in New York, he was reluctant to leave for an unknown destination to start life over again. He was a religious person. We lived near a famous and beautiful synagogue, owned by a very famous rabbi of the Chortkov dynasty. My father always attended Friday night, Saturday and all Holiday services. Later, the flour mill was sold and he lost the job. He then became a grain buyer, travelling through towns and villages, yet he always made sure to be home every Friday afternoon to attend services.
My mother came from the city of Kiev, Ukraine, from a family of eight children. Her father was a lawyer, and they all lived in a large house which he owned. During the First World War and The Revolution in 1917-18, they went through many calamities. The house was shelled a few times and her parents and niece were injured, (parents died a little later). They moved to a small town in the vicinity, Yekatherineslav.
Then the children dispersed going in different directions - America, Turkey, and in my mother's case, Poland.
During World War I, my father spent several years in Kiev where he met my mother and they were married. He then brought her back to his home town, Husiatyn, on the Polish border.
My earliest recollection is from when I was five years old. The neighborhood was mixed with Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish people. The overall Jewish population was around 20%, while in our neighborhood it was about 10%. The public school was located very close to our house. It was separated by a large empty field which housed a college later on. I do remember treading through deep snow during the winter days, wearing boots and having snow ball fights with the other children on the way to and from school. The snow ball fights were taken on by all different grades and classes. After regular school hours, I remember walking quite a distance for my Jewish and Hebrew education. By the time I got back home, it was always dark in the winter time.
The neighborhood synagogue that my parents belonged to was part of the Rabbi's palace, where he and his family resided until World War I. When they went to live in Vienna, the palace was completely destroyed during that war, but the synagogue was left intact. The synagogue was built by Italian architects, with big towers on each corner. On the ceilings, religious themes were painted on and carved out. The Ark, inside the synagogue, was in black with gold mahogany.
Almost all the synagogues in the city and throughout Poland were destroyed, but this one is still there today. It was used as a warehouse by the Russians, and as a stable during the German occupation. Some pictures of it are presented in our Memorial Book of Czortkov, and I still have a picture of the Ark in my possession. They had a similar synagogue built in Italy, but the Ark was transferred to Israel in the 1950's.
After the death of Rabbi Moshe Friedman, his two sons took over the dynasty. From the early 1920's till the outbreak of the War, once or twice a year, they used to come for a 2-3 week period during the holiday time. It was a big happening in our city, not only did their followers come to visit from Poland, but many came from Austria, Hungary, Romania, and other places. The Jewish population doubled during that period and local people supplemented their income by renting rooms for meals and lodging. Even the local gentile population looked forward to that event, transporting visitors from the railroad station to the neighborhood in their horse and buggy carriages. Both Rabbis were brought over to Palestine at the outbreak of World War II, and both passed away in the late 40's.
In the public school, I learned the Ukrainian and Polish languages. The older Ukrainian folks did not speak Polish but German which they learned during the Austrian occupation. While in the fifth grade, I was chosen to play the mandolin in the school orchestra. I continued to play with them even after I finished public school in 1936, when my parents sent me to a private business school.
That same year, my mother received papers from her brother and sister in Istanbul, for our family to settle with them. My mother was very happy and looked forward to relocate in a big city. My sister and I also looked forward to moving, but my father was not anxious to go to Turkey and leave his friends and relatives for an unknown Jewish life. However, he traveled to Warsaw which took 24 hours by train, he stayed there for a week and returned home without a visa.
He did not try to pursue it further, because he was reluctant to go to Turkey. He did bring back a pair of Tephilin for my upcoming Bar-Mitzvah and a beautiful little Siddur (prayer book). I was very happy with those beautiful Tephilin, and kept them in a sack with the family pictures from both our home and from my grandparent's home.
I really felt bad when they were stolen from me two weeks before the liberation by people who were working on the same farm with us. They thought we had valuable things in our sack, because we never parted with it.
I had kept few pictures in my wallet including the Affidavit my uncle from New York sent my father in 1923. I still had the Affidavit in Italy, though it was wrinkled and only a little word, Audubon, and a street number were legible.
A fellow, who served in the British Army, wrote a letter for me to the superintendent at that address in New York, and after a long time, they contacted my aunt. She still lived there but the uncle had died in 1942.
At my Bar Mitzvah, I was called to the Torah for the Blessings and Maftir. There was a simple Kiddush and afterward the teacher came to our home, where I had to recite the weekly portion.
During our years in public school my sister and I had gentile friends. There was no distinction, and we used to go to each others homes to play.
The separation, started in the higher grades; calling names and in some instances even beating up, where 6th and 7th graders would beat up a Jewish boy they did not like. Both, the Polish and Ukrainian students, kept a little distance and didn't associate with the Jews. I was on good terms with some of my gentile school mates in public and business schools and also after the Russian occupation in 1939. But when the Germans came in 1941, they looked the other way when they saw me on the street.
While attending business school in 1936, we had to wear uniforms with a shield on our left arm with the number assigned to that school. We learned to speak German as a foreign language which I studied for 3 years until my graduation in June, 1939. My parents had to pay tuition, and it was not always easy to come up with the monthly payments. I still played in my public school band and we frequently travelled to surrounding towns and villages which meant that we had to be excused from classes.
After school hours, I also attended Hebrew school, where I learned the language and the history of the Jewish people. My mother belonged to a Zionist organization, she became active and that encouraged me to be interested in joining Zionist youth groups.
In 1935, I joined the first group, it was a Zionist socialist one, "Hashomer': They opened a club in our neighborhood, where we played chess and ping pong. They also had a library from which I borrow books to take home. On weekends they took us to the outskirts of the city and into the woods where we could familiarize ourselves with nature. We had to walk through Polish and Ukrainian neighborhoods, where kids threw stones at us many times. Later, we were told to throw stones back at them. It was mostly done by youths who were indoctrinated since early childhood to hate Jews. A Jew could be recognized by his looks, his clothing, and his speech. Though most of the Jewish population in the cities wore modern clothes, same as the gentiles', they could be spotted by their pronunciation of the Polish and Ukrainian language.
Later on during the German occupation, Jews who didn't look Jewish, but had Aryan documents, were flushed out and given over to the German Gestapo by their Polish and Ukrainian collaborators, and native children were rewarded for exposing Jews.
While I attended the business school, I joined the "Betar" group, a rightist Zionist group which advocated armed resistance to gain independence for the Jewish people in Palestine. It was there that we learned about the Balfour Declaration, our wanderings in the diaspora for such a long time, and our yearning, throughout that time, to return to Zion. Some people in our city received "Certificates" of permission to leave by themselves and or with families for Palestine. Everyone was envious of them, but to receive that permission, you had to be a long time party member or a person with means. The British Government had a monthly quota of 1500 people world- wide, and by 1939 this was stopped.
We also went to the outskirts of the city on scout training, and were indoctrinated with a fighting spirit. Our group was a social outlet, where friends could play cards and make use of the library which was one of the best in the city. Our group also took part in marching during the Polish National holiday parades in uniforms and with rifles. I still don't know where they procured those arms.
In 1938 we heard the first German anti-Semitic speeches. Since we did not have a radio, my father used to go to a neighbor's house in the evening to listen to the news, and sometimes he would take me along. Hitler's speeches were broadcast through loudspeakers at the City Hall Square, but I was not concerned about it, personally. I did not pay much attention to it, maybe because I was too young to understand its full meaning. Yet, we could see the worried faces on our parents and other elderly people.
That summer a number of Jewish families from Germany were thrown out as Polish citizens because their parents were born in Poland. Some had relatives in our city and some were sent by the Jewish communal authorities to be absorbed in our city. My sister befriended a girl in school who always ate dinners with us. Her father was an opera singer and received a position as a music teacher in one of the schools. During the Russian occupation in 1939, they were sent out to labor camps in Siberia together with other Jewish and Polish families called "undesirables" counter revolutionaries. Some of these people were able to survive there and returned after the War.
During the summer weeks of August 1938, my parents allowed me to travel to the city of Buczacz by myself. I stayed with my uncle and cousins for three weeks. It was an hour ride by train, and I was picked up at the station. One of my school friends, Ellner, was spending time with his family during July and August in the same city, and it turned out to be a very nice vacation for both of us. When I came back home, toward the end of August, I found out there were anti-Semitic disturbances at the beach where I used to go, and some Jews were stabbed. Being it was not a public beach, but belonged to the grain mill, they closed it for bathing. One of my friends, Blank, talked me into going bathing with him towards the end of the day, and we sneaked in.
We bathed behind the waterfall and it was getting dark when we finished. He went out to the shore, and I was following him, when suddenly the current pulled me under and I started to whirl. I was in a fetal position and my mouth and lungs were filling up with water. It seemed like an eternity-my short life flashed before me. Thinking this is the end, when just as suddenly, the current threw me out towards the edge of the falls. My friend was calling for me, not realizing what had happened, when he then saw me thrown out into the shallow water. He pulled me to the shore, turned me around, and tried to get out as much water from my lungs as he could. After a while, I was able to get up and he helped me walk back home. My mother was scared, put me to bed and called the doctor. I was in bed for two weeks and missed the opening of my school year.
After the fall of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the mood of the Polish Government and the population changed completely. They were worried about the German expansion and especially their demand of the port city of Gdansk - (Danzig). They were seriously preparing for war, assigning special areas in the center of Poland, far away from the German or Russian borders, for industrial and military development. We, as the rest of the country, had training in gas warfare and. the use of gas masks during certain school hours. They also tried to instill patriotism and allegiance to the country.
After my graduation from Business school in June, my father took me for an interview to the office of the grain mill where he once worked. The accountant was satisfied with my bookkeeping knowledge and he hired me to start as of the first of September. Again, I spent that summer with my uncle in Buczacz, along with my friend Ellner.
Toward the end of the summer of 1939, the reality of war struck home. The Germans increased their propaganda against the Poles, their territories, and especially against the world-wide Jewish "conspiracy". Through the experiences of the German-Jewish refugees, we had information as to how the Jews were treated; Special laws, concentration camps, and confiscation of properties. No one looked forward to the Germans declaring war on Poland, but they did on September 1, 1939. Immediately, there was a general mobilization of the army. It didn't affect me or my family personally, since I was 16 years old.
Many of our Jewish acquaintances and some doctors and dentists were mobilized. There were nightly blackouts, and everybody had to have their windows covered with dark paper shades and with strips of tape to prevent shattering in case of bombardment. A steady stream of cars and trucks came through our city going towards the Romanian border which was 30 KM away.
The Polish upper classes - their families, government officials and high military personnel were already being evacuated from the Western and Central parts of Poland. Here and there, few rich Jewish families were coming through also from Warsaw, Lvov, Tarnopol, and Chortkov; joining the evacuation path through Romania and from there to England, where later on a Polish Government in Exile was formed in London.
I have strolled the streets most of those days, watching the excitement of the moving traffic. At one time we spotted Stefan Sielansky, a famous comedian and movie actor, stopping in front of a restaurant for a meal. Later we learned that he was Jewish and that he survived the war in the British-Polish Army entertaining troops. Years later, I saw him at a Polish concert in Passaic.
Chortkov city was located 25 KM from the Russian and 30 KM from the Romanian borders, and had two army bases, one of which belonged to the border patrol, K.O.P. The evacuation lasted about two weeks. On Sunday the 17th of September in the morning hours, we saw the Polish police and the fire brigades leaving the city toward the Romanian border with their trucks and engines; we never knew how far they reached.
Rumors began circulating that the Russian Red Army will enter our city. Usually on Sundays, the peasants came in from the suburbs all dressed up in their best to attend services and spend a few hours in the city. This Sunday was no different, the main streets were crowded, and at Noon time we heard artillery shots from the outskirts.
In the early sunny afternoon, the first tanks and trucks rolled in. Most of the city's population, swelled with peasants, came out to the main thorough fare to greet the soldiers; tossing flowers and applauding. There was an upbeat mood among the Jews, they recognized Jewish soldiers and officers in the Red Army, speaking Yiddish and telling of the good life in Russia.
The parade of the Russian army going westward through the city lasted all afternoon. In the early evening hours shots rung out through many streets. We could not understand what was happening; no one ventured out during the few hours of shooting. The next morning we heard that the Polish Youth (nationalistic organization) were sniping at the Russian army.
It was repeated for two subsequent evenings and was well organized. The first evening the Russian soldiers did not know what to do, the sniping came from all directions including from the catholic church. The next evening, the army used artillery shells to knock out the church steeples and tall buildings where the sniping came from.
They also shelled the towers of our synagogue thinking there might be snipers. The Polish population was punished for it soon after.
In our city there were a number of Jewish Communists who had been jailed by the Polish Government, since in Poland it was a crime to belong to a communist party. However, with the arrival of the red army, all the jails were emptied.
When the Jewish Communists came home, they helped to organize a new government system in our city. The Russian authorities appointed a Jewish mayor and he appointed many Jewish and Ukrainian Communists to various top positions at City hall, police, fire, banking, and other institutions.
Within days, the police came at night, with prepared lists, to round up the Polish intelligentsia. government employees, army officers, and nationalists with their families were taken to the railway station. They were being expelled, and sent to Siberia. The same transport also included a few rich Jews who owned large stores, but their families were left behind.
With the reorganization of city life the Russians used the Jews in every aspect of commerce, banking, and reorganization of the villages according to their system. The educated Ukrainians took part in the reorganization, but the Poles had difficulties getting a decent job. They were considered second class citizens which they resented and blamed the Jews for it; now that they were being discriminated like the Jews before.
The territory the Russians occupied was annexed to the U.S.S.R. and was called Western Ukraine.
The Jewish communal and religious organized life was dissolved, and most of the synagogues were closed.
They opened a separate Jewish Gymnasium (high school) where they also taught Hebrew, and my sister enrolled.
Religion in general was looked down upon and the communist atheist propaganda worked full time. With the help of a friend, my father got a job as a supervisor in a grain company, and he managed to bring me into the same company as a bookkeeper.
The authorities started to give out passports to the people from sixteen years up. I went to the police department to fill out my forms. A problem arose when the authorities began to separate the people by classes. Anyone who was in business before, no matter how small and poor, was registered as a businessman including the family. Having a passport like that made it difficult to get a good position. It implied that the person was from a bourgeois class and couldn't be trusted in building a socialist-communist state. Through some acquaintance, my father was able to have his passport registered as a clerk, and mine as student.
Most of my school friends, whose fathers were businessmen like mine, were not so lucky. Their passport read, "son of a businessman" and therefore had a hard time landing a job in their field. Many rich people were glad to get menial jobs - because without a job, you were classified as a parasite.
The Russians brought into the cities their upper echelon, directors and executives, from their own territories. They were put into the nationalized empty homes of those who were sent to Siberia. In our company, a director, an accountant, and a few other top employees came with their families, and in a very short time, the Russians constituted a sizable percentage of our population, replacing the Jews from the most important positions.
Election day was declared for people who had passports to vote for joining Polish territories to the U.S.S.R. I, myself, was very proud to participate in the election process as a sixteen year old Jewish boy. It was a national holiday and the mood was very festive.
Most of the Jewish population voted for joining, the others did not dare to vote otherwise, and that's how they declared the "Western Ukraine".
At that time, the Jewish youth felt they had a better chance of achieving their goals than any time before. I also felt proud of receiving a biweekly salary; it gave me a chance to be a little independent. My parents did not ask for it and I was able to spend it going out with my friends to the movies, theater, and restaurants. Most of the time, my biweekly salary did not last a week.
In a short time, I was able to help a friend of mine, whose passport read "Son of a businessman," get a job at our office, with the consent of the Russian accountant; in addition to two others in one of our branches in the next town. At that time, after the Molotov-Ribbentroph Agreement, our company used to ship grains to Germany. Once, while attending a lecture given by a Russian communist party member on the subject of Germany, I asked him: "How could we,in good conscience, supply our Fascist enemies with grain" His answer was, "were doing it on a very small scale to buy time. "
A few kilometers outside our city, the Red Army had started to build a big airfield and mobilized many peasants from the surrounding villages to haul all kinds of building materials with their horse and buggy vehicles. That project started in the early Spring of 1941 and was going on around the clock-24 hours in two shifts.
In the beginning of May, it was my turn for a three week vacation in a resort area for union members and I was looking forward to going. The week before, I was called into our director's office, but I had no idea for what, He asked me to sit down and started to talk about the political situation, the war looming on the horizon, and about the airfield that was being built outside our city. He also said that every office and company had to supply some volunteers.
He mentioned how difficult it was to spare someone from such a busy office and inasmuch as my vacation was forthcoming, I should volunteer as a patriot. He told me I would be paid for my assignment as well as for my vacation,
Being very disappointed, I accepted it reluctantly, since I knew he wouldn't take "no" for an answer. I reported the following Sunday to the projects office located in the next town about 15 KM away. Transportation was my problem.
I arrived at the office and met the director of the project who was a Russian Jewish military officer. He welcomed me and gave me the assignment of being in charge of receiving all sand deliveries, issuing receipts to the peasants, and keeping daily quota tallies. I was also issued an identification card and the next Monday I reported to the field office at 6:00 A.M. to take over the day shift until 6:00 P.M. I got up at 4:00 A.M., ate breakfast, and then went to the outskirts of the city to hitch a ride on a civilian or military truck. I could never be there on time without a ride.
It was a very large construction project. Hundreds of peasants, civilians, and army personnel were working around the clock, seven days a week. Much of it was being built underground.
I became friendly with the people the office, on the field, and in my perimeter. I met a Russian soldier, who was a demolition engineer expert in charge of an underground section. He was from a National Republic deep in Russia and was assigned a light military truck. We became very friendly, he would take me home after work, and slept in our house. It was a good arrangement and my family liked him too.
After my two weeks were up, I was replaced. In the beginning the Russian soldier was still coming to our home everyday to eat and sleep, and later less frequently.
I was back at my job. I heard that the Russians were building more military airports at different locations in our territory. The global situation looked very pessimistic for the Soviet Union, as I heard constant war rumors about German victories everywhere.
Sunday was my day of rest. I always spent the day at the beach, with my friends playing cards.
Come June 22, 1941, I was at the beach by 9:00 A.M. and by 10 usually there would be a crowd, especially my friends. This day very few appeared. By 10:30 A.M. someone came and said, 'What are you doing here? There is a war." Public loudspeakers in the city were broadcasting war news; Kiev and other cities were bombed at 4:00 A.M.
The German armies had crossed the Russian borders and fierce fighting was going on. I got dressed, went back home and felt pain and fear through my stomach. We knew that the Germans hated the Jews. They had put up ghettos in the western part of Poland, took away Jewish businesses, used the Jewish population for forced labor, and degraded them in any way they could.
The first reports from the Russian radio indicated that the Red army was fighting back-holding their lines and repelling the attacking Germans. The music they played on the radio and all over the loudspeakers in the city was upbeat and patriotic, giving thought that maybe the Germans would not succeed in their attack.
The first few days the Red Army did hold their lines, but later their defenses started to crumble. Again, there was talk in the city about evacuation. Toward the end of the first week of fighting we noticed increased traffic going east through the city-both military and civilian.
During that first week of the War, the life in our city was more or less normal. Everybody went to work, stores were open and the same for all the offices.
Going to work the following Monday, the atmosphere in my office was already quite different. The German armies had broken through various defense lines and were advancing. Our director told us that in case of an evacuation, everyone including their families would be provided with transportation. Within a couple of days, he and his family, as well as other Russian employees in our office, were gone; taking all the available transportation with them (carriages and horses) without informing us about it.
The same was happening throughout the city. Also, the Jewish Communists, directors, and whoever was connected with the police and ruling authorities left with them.
My friend, Wolf, for whom I had arranged a job in our Jagielnica branch, pulled in with a horse and carriage which was at his disposal. He asked me to join him, but our family was not prepared to leave-not knowing where to go. My father's position was in no way connected to the ruling authorities, therefore he decided not to leave. About 90% of the Jewish population decided the same way.
The news from the Front was getting worse by the day. The Germans were bombing Russian cities and the retreating troop convoys, even trains loaded with civilians were being bombed. I told my friend, Wolf, that we were going to stay. He was in a predicament; not knowing if he had enough time to go to the village where his family lived, or escape quickly to the east. That's how we parted.
Later on I found out that he went toward the east and was able to get onto a train. He survived the War by joining the Russian Army for a stretch and then went to Israel. His parents, sister, and grandparents were killed by their Ukrainian neighbors even before the German armies marched in.
During the daytime, I used to be on the main street watching the traffic. There wasn't any more office to go to work in, everything was abandoned. Everyday, the traffic was getting scant and the streets were becoming deserted. On our street, a group of youngsters, who were a little older than I, with knapsacks on their backs were saying "good-bye" to their families and marched off, with their parents permission, on foot toward the road going East. They had no transportation, but figured they would be able to get a ride with other groups on the outskirts of the city. Three days later they came back saying they could not join a group or convoy after walking 30 miles. At the same time those youngsters showed up, a tank pulled up in front of our house and the Russian fellow (his name was Polloch) I befriended working at the airport came up and called for me. We had not heard from him for two weeks. He was elated of being able to procure a tank for himself. He told my parents that everything at the airport, which had been built underground, was destroyed by demolition. He was going back to Russia and wanted to take me with him. My father decided for me to stay behind and I agreed since I was reluctant to leave and go to the unknown. Personally, I had no fear that something would happen to me or to my family with the approaching German armies and that our lives would be in danger. We knew our lives would not be as good as before.
By the first week of July, the nicest part of the summer, the city was like a ghost town. Walking through the deserted streets of our city, here and there I saw a truck or two carrying Russian soldiers and rumbling through on retreat.
During the last three evenings prior to the entry of the Germans, there were artillery duels between the two armies. It came closer and closer and everyone stayed in the basements of their houses. The house shook with each explosion, but we had no idea what and where the "hit" was. Ours was a multi-family house and the gentiles stayed together with us.
The day before the Germans marched in, the shelling was so intense we could not even go up for a drink or bite to eat. Later, we found out that they had dropped bombs in our vicinity to knock out a bridge over the river, which they finally succeeded in doing after hitting a few houses nearby.
Sunday morning, it was all quiet.
At first, we were reluctant to come up, but later realizing there wasn't any more shelling we returned. It was July 6th and our gentile neighbors told us the Germans were in town and advised us not to be on the street.
Within a couple of hours a group of German army officers pulled up on our street, in cars and motorcycles, inquiring where the Jewish people lived. Probably someone pointed out our house and they came to the house and yard, washed themselves up, brought in food to us and our neighbors, and asked us to cook it for them. They were very polite, intelligent officers and were looking for Jews since they could easily converse with us in German and could have difficulties communicating with our gentile neighbors. They shared their food with us, stayed overnight in our house and few adjoining houses, and left early the next morning to catch up with their advancing army into Russia.
The Polish and Ukrainian population came out to the main streets and greeted the Germans just the same way as they greeted the Russians. But the Jews did not dare to leave their homes.
The Ukrainians had a special reason to be happy with the incoming German armies, since they had immediately declared an Independent Ukrainian State, with Lvov as the capitol. They did not lose any time in starting to organize it; they formed their own police force and a special S/S unit within the German Army to fight the Russians.
On the second day, we heard rumors through the Gentile neighbors that Jews were caught in their homes at random, taken to the prison compound, and shot. As it turned out, the Russians did not want to, or could not, evacuate the Ukrainian prisoners, especially the political ones. They were killed. The Ukrainians blamed the Jews who were employed by the Russian police. The people whom the Germans caught had to clean up the place, they were beaten, and then shot.
We were also told that, in the surrounding small villages, the Ukrainians made pogroms on the Jewish homes killing everybody. We and our Jewish neighbors, on the street, did not dare to go outside. In the early afternoon the Ukrainian police knocked on our door. They already had their own uniforms and rifles with bayonets. My sister and I were scared and we ran into the bedroom, without hearing the conversation in the kitchen. After hearing our mother crying, we came out. Mother said she pleaded with them not to take our father, but they insisted and said he would be back. They needed him for work. Our house must have been pointed out to them because they did not know where the Jews lived, since our neighborhood was predominantly gentile. Our mother was distraught and my sister and I had an empty feeling in our stomachs throughout the afternoon and early evening.
Later, we were overjoyed when our father returned. He told us,they took him and a few other Jews from the block to work on something by the river and he was not mistreated. On the 3rd or 4th day after their entering, the German authorities posted proclamations all over the city stating that everyone had to be registered in order to receive coupons for food rations.
The Jewish population had to go to the new organized community center (Judenrat) in the prewar building where it existed until the Russian occupation. They appointed Dr. Ebner as president. He was a Deputy Mayor in our city prior to the outbreak of the War. He was a lawyer by profession and my parents knew him well. They also organized, on German orders, a Jewish police force with their own uniforms. They were not armed and only had authority in the Jewish community. Whoever did not register would not be entitled to receive or buy any food rations.
The news spread quickly and most people registered. Our father went by himself and registered for the whole family, He received coupons good for only one month and later on he reported in person to pick up the coupons every month.
As we found out later, some people did not register; people who were employed with the Russian police and communists who left with the Russians--but somehow did not succeed and had to return back. Of course, they did not dare to register and had to stay in hiding all the time within their families
At the registration, they wanted to know everyone's profession and work, both prewar and during the Russian occupation. I wanted to go out in the city streets, but my mother would not let me go. She told me that German police and S/S officers were walking with dogs and catching young Jews for labor. They even went into Jewish homes at night and took out young girls.
Being that our city was a county seat (kreis in German), a Dr. Gerhard Littschwager was appointed as KreisHauptman, together with other German occupation authorities: The Gendarmerie (police), Sonderdienst (special police) primarily for Jews, Kriminalpolizei (detectives that also included Poles), and Sicherheitspolizei (Gestapo). Anyone from these authorities could walk in at any time of the day or night, to a Jewish house, and take anything he liked without being held responsible.
The first order of the Kreishauptman was for every Jew to wear an arm-band with the Star of David. It was to be in a specified size and color (white and blue) on his, or her left arm; not wearing it would be punishable by death. Some people made their own and others bought it from a tailor or a seamstress.
On August 25th they picked up, at random, 100 Jewish men from their homes and street. They said they were taking them to work in the prison compound, but when they did not return, we found out from the peasants that they had been shot in a suburban forest. My mother arranged with one of our friends, who had a corn field next to their house, to have my father and I sleep among the corn stalks. This field stretched to the river, and we were able to stay there for a few weeks until the weather got cold.
The German authorities demanded from the Judenrat a certain number of young men and women to work every day at different offices and shops. The Judenrat tried to rotate the assignments and I had to report twice weekly. Sometimes I would wind up working at the Gendarmerie grounds in their gardens, at the Sonderdienst offices (cleaning basements or carrying furniture), and even in a brick factory outside the city, doing all kinds of menial jobs.
The subsequent orders of the Kreishauptman were:
A Jew could not walk on the sidewalk of a main street.
Could not go to a park or cinema.
Could not own a store outside the Jewish section.
Could not enter any gentile store, establishment, or office.
Could not associate with, or marry a gentile person.
To disobey these laws and rules would be punishable by death.
With the approaching Holidays, people tried to organize prayers in their houses. All synagogues and little prayer homes were closed during the Russian occupation.
My father organized a prayer service in our apartment, gathering some of the neighbors and conducting it himself. For the two days of Rosh Hashana the service was short, because there wasn't any Torah to read from. But on Yom Kippur, after the service prayers started, the Ukrainian police showed up in the neighborhood, checking into every Jewish house, looking for Jews who were praying.
The moment we heard about it, all men went quickly to the basement - luckily the Ukrainian police did not go down to check.
On October 15th, we found out that the German Sonderdienst police came to about 150 households, during the night, and picked up the head of each family. All men: lawyers, doctors, accountants, and teachers (according to the list supplied from the Judenrat), none was spared. They were taken to the suburban forest and shot into graves which were forcibly prepared by the local peasants.
Most of these people lived in the center of the city and the families affected were devastated. There were a few exceptions - certain doctors, specialists and surgeons were not taken.
Rumors started to circulate, anyone who was not registered to work would be sent away to labor camps. Not long after, a Jewish policeman came to our house with a notice from the Judenrat. It said that I had to report for work the next day, this time I would be sent to a different location. I was required to bring warm clothing to last a few weeks. Of course, many other young boys received the same notice and some families found out that it was for a labor camp, 60 km away, called Kamionka for a nearby village. For not obeying the order, it would be punishable by death.
It was a sad evening in our house-my mother cried while preparing the clothing and sandwiches which I was to take along in a knapsack. She also was debating whether or not to let me go in the morning, or maybe to hide in the cellar which was not much of a hiding place.
My father did not sleep at all that night and came up with a plan for me in the morning. He knew a Ukrainian acquaintance who was a manager and worked with him in the same Russian concern. We used to visit each other's home during that time, and they lived not too far from us. He went to ask if they would take me in for a few days to stay with them. In return, my mother would give his wife a fairly new seal fur coat, which was very expensive to make. We still have a picture of my mother in her fur coat.
The man agreed. He was still employed for the same grain concern, of course it was now under the Ukrainian management. He also promised to take my father and me in as warehouse workers. My father brought me right over there and I was put up in a separate room.
The next day, my mother came with the coat and gave it to his wife. She also said the Jewish police came in the afternoon looking for me and she told them I had left in the morning to report for the assignment. I stayed in their house for a few days and soon after started to work for the concern along with my father. I was a night watchman of a lot that had winterized potatoes near a Ukrainian church, so I would not have to sleep home in case they came looking for me.
My father worked in the warehouse and another man, Sol Heitner, was assigned to work with me as a night watchman. We are still very good friends. His family lived near that lot and the people of the church procured that job for him. The long rows of potatoes were covered with a few layers of dirt and straw in between, so they could withstand freezing.
The local gentile population knew the watchmen were Jews and every night they stole from a different location. Of course, we looked the other way and we tried to sleep in the straw. Early in the morning, I was privileged to bring home some potatoes in my deep pockets.
My father was also able to bring home in his pockets different grains from the warehouse. The grains were ground in a coffee grinder and we used them for ourselves and for sale or exchange. We were both registered with the Ukrainian concern and were spared from being sent to the labor camp.
Every few weeks they would send different groups of unemployed people away to fill the German quota because, labor was very hard in those camps. They worked in stone quarries, people were beaten, mistreated, undernourished, and got sick easily as well as being frostbitten. Many died and had to be replaced. Some people in our city, with means, were able to buy back their family members through the Judenrat and bring them home.
In the center of the city, where most of the Jewish population lived, there were nightly visits by German officers, police, and Gestapo. With uniforms or even dressed as civilians, they entered Jewish homes and took whatever they liked from the valuables. They would beat up men, rape young girls, and ironically even have some polite conversations. They were all kind of deviates and perverts.
On one of those visits, they found a radio and the person it belonged to, Berl Shechter, ran out of the house. The next day the Germans announced if he did not surrender, they would shoot 100 Jews. Everybody tried to find him, but he surrendered himself, was tortured and killed.
My sister, being registered in the Judenrat, was called twice weekly to report for work. Mostly young girls were sent to clean various German offices and living quarters of the officers. They were always marched under the escort of the Jewish police for their own protection and since Jews could not walk on sidewalks or main streets.
In the last days of December 1941, the order came out that Jews must turn in all their fur coats, jackets, muffs, and fur collars to the Judenrat where it would be picked up by the Germans and sent away for the German army on the Russian front. For not obeying the order - it was punishable by death.
There was a very short deadline for turning the items in and many people tried to hide some of the furs; bury them in the ground, or burn them. But it aroused suspicion, if a family did not turn something in. The smoke could be seen coming out of the chimneys of many Jewish homes and the gentile population knew that the Jews were burning furs.
My mother's fur coat was given away already; my father had a long coat with fur lining and a fur collar; and my sister and I had heavy jackets with fur collars, as well as miscellaneous muffs and gloves. We turned in only three collars for a receipt and my father packed the rest of the furs into a waterproof material and buried it in the yard.
Shortly after the deadline passed, the German police searched some Jewish homes at random. In one home, they found furs and shot the whole Schneier family on the spot.
During the winter months 1941-42, people got used to the difficult life with the daily dangers. Young boys and girls would not venture out of their homes, because they were constantly being caught for labor camps.
The elderly people used to go to the Jewish stores for bread rations and to barter something with the peasants in the Jewish sections. The Germans allowed a few Jewish stores to be open - bakeries and crafts shops. There was a weekly Jewish newspaper, in Polish, published in Kracow, beside the German and Ukrainian daily press.
There were many instances of people being shot on the street by the different German authorities, or taken into the prison for one reason or another, or for no reason at all. Also, they were being beaten, or bitten by their dogs.
At one time, I was walking on a side street, separated by alleys from the main street, to visit my sick friend who lived in a nice neighborhood at the city center. I was then spotted by a German policeman walking with a dog and He called to me, "Hey Jude, come over. "
I was afraid to run away because the alley was not too wide and thought he would surely chase his dog after me. I went over to him and he handed me a package to carry. Evidently after he spotted me, he did not feel like carrying it himself. I walked with him to the police buildings and put it in his room and he gave me some German cookies or wafers which was very nice of him. Thanking him, I left and I was careful to watch that I would not be caught again.
Towards the end of winter, there were many rumors that the Germans would force the Jews into ghettos in many cities and towns. By the middle of March, they put up posters announcing the creation of a ghetto in Chortkov with detailed maps and street defining its borders. The deadline would be April 1st, 1942, and whoever is not in there by that date would be punished by death. The order was the same for the gentile population to move out from the ghetto boundaries.
There was a sinking feeling within the Jewish families who lived outside that perimeter, our family was no different. There was not enough time to find a place to live, as there were ten times as many Jewish families trying to move in as gentiles were moving out.
By that time, there were many more Jewish families living in our city. They came from surrounding villages, escaping the Ukrainian Pogroms, in addition to Hungarian Jews from Slovakia with Polish ancestors who were chased over the border to be resettled in Poland. People who knew somebody in the new ghetto section tried to move in with them, so the result was two or three families living in one apartment, sharing the kitchen and bath room.
My father knew a landsman from Husiatyn, Moses Langer, who was a carpenter and owned a house by the riverside. The street was connected to the ghetto with a main street leading across a bridge to the railroad station, and we would only be allowed to cross it to the main ghetto section. He gave us one room with privileges to share the kitchen with his family. This was very nice of him and my father agreed to rent it.
These were two very hectic weeks in the city. All the streets were clogged with carriages loaded with belongings and hand held carts pushed by people who could not afford to hire a peasant with a horse drawn carriage.
We also took all our belongings and, of course, it did not fit into one room. We put most of it in the cellar of the house, thinking that we might be able to sell it to the gentiles. We also had a cat which we left with the neighbors, so not to impose it onto the people we were moving in with. To our surprise, the cat showed up the next day. It had to cross a bridge which was bombed and temporarily repaired and go for a distance of about a mile. My sister and I were very attached to the cat, but our father had to take it back the same day. The cat came again the next morning, and my father had to return it back to the former neighbors and asked them to make sure it would not escape again.
Our family was luckier than most people in the main ghetto, where some of the families had to share a room together. Also, the house we moved into was located on the river bank with paths on our river side, leading by a mountain and out of the city.
The job I had, guarding the potato mounds, was finished as spring was approaching. My father was still with the Ukrainian grain concern, but now they put him in a buckwheat mill which was run by the former Jewish owner as an assistant. They took me in as a worker to run the machines which was a very valuable position. First, if you did not have a steady job, you could be caught on the street or at home and could be sent away to the labor camps. Secondly, we were able to bring home buckwheat in our pockets every day, and you could barter that for different foods and bread.
Many families were not lucky in that respect and suffered for lack of food-the weekly rations lasted for only a day or two. The only drawback there was the dust those machines created while grinding. It was very bad for the lungs and we used to cough very badly. But the work had to be done because the Ukrainian management checked it daily.
Luckily, a few weeks after we moved into the ghetto, the Ukrainians let the few Jewish people go, including the former owner, and took over the mill themselves as ordered by the German authorities. My father and I were transferred to work in the railroad station loading and unloading 100 and 200 lb. sacks of grain from big German trailer trucks into the railroad cars going to Germany. We were also able to bring home grains in our pockets from there too. We had to work six days a week, including Saturdays, without pay and yet we considered ourselves lucky to be a steady worker. Many times when there were many extra trailers, they called the Judenrat to send extra men. The drivers of these trailers were civilian Germans, lucky not to be in the army and sometimes they would give us some of their food and treat us gently.
Defying my parent's pleas, every Sunday I used to venture out from our side of the ghetto to meet with some of my friends who lived in the main ghetto. To get there I had to cross a main street which we were not supposed to cross without a good reason, and if a German or Ukrainian policeman would go by, they certainly would ask.
People in the ghetto were still optimistic hoping for the Allies to open up a second front in Europe, and force some of the German armies away from the Russian front.
Some of the German army were bogged down for a long time in Leningrad and Stalingrad. The only news source we had was the German and Ukrainian press, but since gentile people were allowed to have radios something filtered out to us through that grapevine.
On one particular Sunday, my friends and I were standing on a street corner, bordering the Aryan (gentile) side. Watching the Poles and Ukrainians, dressed in their best, coming out from their churches and pushing their way to the candy and pastry stores, made us feel very deprived. Everyone was reminiscing how good it was to be able to indulge in that. Of course, these stores used to be Jewish owned, but the German authorities gave them over to the Ukrainians and Poles. Though we had money in our pockets, we could not buy pastries in the ghetto
It struck me to offer to go and buy some pastries for everybody. First they tried to talk me out of it. But, their appetite was awakened and each one gave me their money, not knowing how much it would be. I rolled up my arm-band a little bit and pushed the Jewish Star to the inside part of my arm (I did not dare to take it off completely), and walked 2 blocks towards the store. The Ukrainian policemen, guarding the entrances, were busy talking to the Jewish policemen at that time.
The first group of people did not pay much attention to me, but as I was nearing the store they started to make remarks like, What are you doing here" and "What a nerve." The store was crowded and I pushed my w~y through to the counter.The man behind the counter saw that I was a Jew and snapped, 'What do you want, " and the people around him asked him how did I get there, especially on a Sunday. I asked for six or seven pastries. He put them into a bag, I paid him, and walked out. My friends did not believe that I would come back with pastries, but we all enjoyed them. To this day whenever I visit Israel, two of my friends remind me of that dare.
In May, they started to round up young women who reported, as usual, for work at the Judenrat and send them away on trucks. They rounded up about one hundred and fifty girls. When the young women did not come back at the end of the day, their families were hysterical trying to find out what happened to them, expecting the worst. On the second or third day, they were informed that the girls were working on the big farms in the surrounding villages.
In the meantime, there were posters all over the ghetto announcing that every able-bodied man, 16-55 years old, had to report to the German Arbeitsamt (labor office). They had to bring photos and receive identification documents (melde carte). Without document, nobody would be allowed to work, and being caught without this melde-cart would be punished by death. Also, being unemployed meant a certainty to be sent away to a labor camp.Within a week almost everyone had new documents with pictures. All other previous identifications were declared void. People who were employed were to list, on that pink colored document, their spouse and children. The unemployed were issued a melde-cart with different color which was easily identifiable. That caused a lot of worries for those people and their families-they were at the disposition of the Arbeitsamt instead of the Judenrat. New this.
At that time many young people, as well as some older ones, tried to leave the ghetto on Aryan (gentile) documents. Some succeeded, but somehow only few persons managed to survive like that. It was very difficult to pose as an Aryan, especially not having the looks and the right language pronunciation, they were detected easily.
In June, rumors circulated that Jewish people were being evacuated from certain sections of various cities. Some were being sent east to Russia for labor and some just disappeared_no one knowing where to. There wasn't any communication among the ghettos in different cities, so we could not verify those rumors. We were left to either believe or not the gentile grapevine.
In July, posters were again placed all over the ghetto stating that every work place in which Jews were employed had to send them personally to the Gestapo headquarters, located in the prison compound, to register and have their melde-carte stamped by the authorities. Not reporting was punishable by death. They ordered different groups of people, from various places of work, to report on different days. They were assured that everyone was needed on their jobs to work toward the common goal of defeating communism.They also assured that every worker's family would be protected. As it turned out from the start of the registration, approximately half the people who went up there remained in jail. The others returned to their homes with their documents stamped. They were also assured that their jobs, lives, and families were safe.
Our prison compound was very large (Chortkov was a county seat) and with every day the pattern was established that about 50% of workers and tradesmen were kept there and not released back home. That caused a lot of people to worry and question if they should go to register on their assigned days, especially if they didn't have a trade or profession. They worried what would happen to the people left behind.
In the first week of August, it was our turn to go through the grain concern that we worked for, and my mother was frantic. There were about 15 Jews employed there plus my father and his friend Mr. Greenberg, the two former managers during the Russian occupation. But as for me, my mother felt they would certainly keep me in jail and she persuaded my father to go to the Judenrat and see the President, Dr. Ebner, to find out if anything could be done for us. He was told that the Judenrat would be assured 120 positions and they had many more people on their list. Being he knew my father, he put our names on the list also.
My father paid for it with jewelry. My mother was a little relieved knowing we had a better chance working for the Judenrat. That week about 12 people from the grain concern went to register and no one returned, not even Mr. Greenberg who was the most important worker there.
The number of people kept in jail was increasing every day, and we were still apprehensive about going to register with the Judenrat group the next week. Also, there were new rumors that the Germans were liquidating the labor camps which were built before winter, and people were being shot. People were not being sent there and none were returning. Beside, no packages with food and clothing were going there. As it turned out, it was only rumors, but it did materialize later.
The day of our registration, about 300 people were assembled, the largest group. Knowing that only one hundred twenty would return, everyone projected himself as an important worker, even the people who bought !heir way in, like us. We reported to the prison compound and after they closed the gates behind us, I was sorry we went.
It was an awful feeling. I always used to go by the prison gates on the way to our city park with my friends and never wanted to look at the faces of the people behind those jail windows, and now we were inside the yard.
It was a hot August day and they kept us in the yard, not knowing what's next, for a few hours. Later in the afternoon, they started to collect our melde-carte and soon after calling out names.
Our names were in the group of 120. They opened the gate and let us out. One hundred eighty people stayed behind. Our melde-carts were supposed to be stamped, but they were kept with a promise to be delivered to the Judenrat. Coming back to the ghetto entrance, my mother and sister waited for us, as did everyone else's family. Some did not see their loved ones returned. We were considered the lucky ones.
Every morning we reported now to the Judenrat for work. My father knew somebody there and after signing in, they let him go back home. I wound up doing different manual labor assignments every day being taken by truck with German drivers. We did not get Sack our stamped documents yet.
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