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[Page 18]

Two Survivors Recall the Holocaust

On January 26, 1982 I had the good fortune to meet two of the last survivors of the Holocaust period in Dubrowa. Four others had escaped just before the final German invasion and had lived as partisans in the forests or in Russia. Sonia Grabinsky Letkowitz was the only survivor of the few who had remained in Dubrowa during the German occupation of 1941-1942 and miraculously escaped the Treblinka death camp. Eliezer Kuszes was taken out of Dubrowa by the Russians as they evacuated during the Blitzkrieg of June 21, 1941.

The Grabinsky and Kuszes families were affluent merchants before the war. In 1941 Sonia was nineteen and lived with her parents and sister, already having studied for 4 years in Grodno. Eliezer was forty and worked in his family's business which exported wheat and grain and imported sugar, vodka, and textiles. After the war they each worked their way by circuitous routes to Israel where they now live within a mile of each other near Tel Aviv. In 1980 Sonia was brought to the United States to serve as a witness against a former Ukrainian guard at Treblinka known as “Ivan the Terrible” who was on trial in Cleveland. In 1982 she will retire after 27 years working at a branch of Yad Vashem.

 

dab018.jpg
Hava Lametowsky, a relative of Sonia Grabinsky, at the family cemetery plot in Dubrowa, c. 1932.

 

The following is their account of the events of 1939-1944 extracted from interviews in which my Israeli cousins translated from Hebrew:

The war broke out on September I, 1939. Initially, about 10 German soldiers occupied the town but within two weeks the area was turned over to their then allies, the Russians. At first no Russian troops

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were stationed in Dubrowa and two pogroms by the Polish villagers were narrowly averted. When it was learned that a mob was approaching the town with sacks and knives, Eliezer, his brother Yisrael (who participated later in the Bialystok ghetto revolt) and a few town youths, who had served in the Polish army and had pistols, organized them- selves. Eliezer knew some of the hoodlums and called to them by name. He told them that they had been good neighbors and should be helping the Jews and not robbing them. The villagers were convinced and left the town, but the next day another group approached and this time were dissuaded by Dubrowa's priest who had been appealed to by Rabbi Katz and the town elders. Realizing their peril, a group of communist youths rode their bicycles 30 kilometers to the east and implored the Russian Commissar for help. He dispatched a few tanks to the town to maintain order.

The Russian occupation lasted about two years during which major changes were imposed on the economic, social and political life of the Jews although without violence. The Zionist-oriented Tarbut school was closed but the older Jews were permitted to pray as before. Merchandise from the local stores was expropriated and food distribution centers established. The local communist organization was assigned responsibility for the town's economic life but most of these men were uneducated. As a result, the party members who knew Eliezer Kuszes to have been friendly in previous trade relations, told him “you're not one of us but we need you to manage the stores. If not, we'll send you to Siberia.” Eliezer consented and apparently the Russians were satisfied with his management. In his new capacity Eliezer was able to intervene and save many Jews from the secret police.

On June 21, 1941, while at work Eliezer heard what sounded like an approaching storm. He went outside and on discovering that the town was being shelled, took shelter in the basement. This was the start of the German Blitzkrieg but the Russians were instructed not to return the fife. They had provided Eliezer with a truck and now in panic insisted that he accompany them as they fled to Bialystok. Eliezer was unable to contact his family and was never to see them again. With the invasion underway there was chaos on the roads. Many Jews were running to the west but were advised by the Russians to turn around. When they arrived in Bialystok it too was being bombed and was filled with smoke. The Russians were instructed to withdraw to Minsk still under orders not to fire upon the approaching enemy.

A few days before the German invasion, the Grabinskys and another Jewish family, the Skibelskys, along with several gentile families were deported by train to Siberia, accused of being capitalists (the Grabinskys were in the lumber business). The train was stopped by heavy German bombing near the border at Stolpze. A German pincer movement quickly captured the area and after several days the party was permitted to return to Dubrowa, the two Jewish families on foot. Sonia went ahead, anxious to see what had befallen the town and her grandparents. Alone, she walked about 300 kilometers, sleeping in

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fields and taking refuge in farm houses. She arrived back in Dubrowa about a week after the Germans had left. Apparently when the German army reached Dubrowa they had found the body of a slain German officer. Their revenge was swift, burning down the entire town. Only two small stone houses on the edge of town and a partially destroyed church were still standing. In the, next days a few of the former residents began to return. Sonia's grandparents had gone to Suchovola but there the Jews were herded into the city square surrounded by Ger. man soldiers, some were thrown into the river to drown; and the others divested of all their belongings before being permitted to return to Dubrowa. About 300 Jews lived under desperate conditions in Dubrowa until May, 1942. They found refuge wherever they could in huts or in storage basements but were starving, frozen and forced to do hard labor by the town's five German policemen and civil guard. In May 1942 it was announced that the older Jews must go to the Suchovola ghetto leaving about 200 of the younger ones behind in Dubrowa. These were placed in a single building which had been built by the Russians and remained there until November 1942. The Germans provided some food prepared in large cauldrons but although the Jewish population was forced to continue heavy labor, there still was no extreme cruelty in Dubrowa during this period.

All this ended however, in November 1942 with the beginning of the “Final Solution” initiated by the SS. The Jewish population was forced to run most of the 28 kilometers to Grodno where they were placed in the Kelbashin camp previously used for Russian prisoners of war. The Jews knew that they were being taken to their death but were unable to escape, any who stopped being immediately shot. The Bialystok district contained over 400,000 Jews who were concentrated in 5 such assembly camps. The Jews of Dubrowa remained there for nearly 6 weeks' before the final trip to Treblinka. Treblinka was one of the camps specially designed by the Nazi death technicians” for mass extermination. The train ride was a nightmare with between 5,000 and 6,000 people packed into cattle cars, hundreds dying every day of the transit. On arrival at Treblinka there was calculated tumult and confusion and families were separated. The people were prepared immediately for extermination and were told to remove their clothes. Suddenly, for an unknown reason, Sonia and one other girl were instructed by a German officer to follow him, were given new clothes and separated from the others who were taken directly to the gas chambers. She had been selected to work in the laundry provided for Treblinka's several hundred Ukrainian guards. Twenty-five girls lived in one small barracks room for the next nine months.

Then, on August 2nd, 1943, a courageous group of prisoners turned on their executioners, killed them and burned the camp with about 600 escaping into the surrounding forest. Most were soon recaptured but Sonia was among the few who ran out of the camp and was able to hide and evade the German search parties for one year until the camp

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was liberated by the Russian army on August 9th, 1944. She often was surrounded and almost discovered, but would lie on the earth covered with leaves, her heart pounding so loud that she thought it would be heard. After the war it was estimated that only about 40 people survived out of over 800,000 brought to Treblinka.

Just after the liberation, Sonia returned to Treblinka where she was interviewed by Russian journalists. Her story and photograph were published in the “Red Star,” the official Soviet army newspaper. Soon afterwards Sonia was found freezing and in rags by a Russian soldier and brought to headquarters because she looked “suspicious.” There she was interrogated by a high officer who happened to be Jewish. He recognized her name from the shocking newspaper story and arranged to have her returned to Dubrowa by train. When Sonia asked “How can I thank you?,” he replied, “Just be a good citizen of Russia.”

On returning to Dubrowa Sonia found that a Polish man was building a house on the site of her family's prior residence. She was taken in by a friendly Polish family and stayed for the winter of 1944. The other Polish families, however, were not sympathetic and did not return items that had been given them for safekeeping by her parents. In the spring Sonia made her way to the west and eventually arrived in Israel in 1946.

Eliezer Kuszes remained in Russia throughout the war and was unable to return to Dubrowa until 1946. When he arrived he found that everything had been burned, the cemetery destroyed and plowed over, and that virtually no stone was left on another. A Christian neighbor advised him that if he wanted to survive he should flee immediately since a 23-year-old Jewish youth, David Weinstein, who had survived the war as a partisan was killed by the Polish natives when he had returned to town. Eliezer remained only a few hours in Dubrowa. Later he was able to escape along with two of his sister's small children who now also are living in Israel.


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Aftermath

The precise number of Jews killed in Dubrowa is uncertain. One post- ~ war catalog of destroyed Jewish communities estimated (based on the last prewar census) that 1,500 Jews from Dubrowa were killed during the Holocaust. Later, the survivors in Israel recalled the names of 232 families but acknowledged that their memory was imperfect. These names were registered at Yad Vashem.. Polish sources estimated that only 500 Poles from Dubrowa survived the war. A Nazi source listed over 43,000 Jews from the Grodno district, half from the neighboring towns, who were sent to the death camps.

It has been estimated that over 90 percent of Poland's prewar population of 3 million Jews were liquidated. Although the postwar population temporarily was swelled by an influx of repatriated Russian Jews, soon officially sanctioned pogroms made it clear that there was no future for the Jews in Poland. In 1980 only about 5,000 Jews remained in the country, mostly located in Warsaw. The city of Bialystok, which had numbered about 47,000 Jews in 1895 and 20,000 just before World War II, by the end of the war had only about 1,000 left in its entire province. Personal accounts of Jewish visitors indicated that this number dwindled to 15 elderly survivors in 1970 and none in 1975.

A former resident visited Dubrowa in 1960 and found few surviving relics except the telephone poles. The synagogue had been leveled and the remains of the Bais Midrash converted to a gasoline station. The town had lost its city rights in 1950 but the community of Poles began to clear its ruins and to rebuild so that city rights were restored in 1964. In 1956 governmental reorganization created the county of Dabrowa Bialystocka with Dabrowa as the county seat. The region slowly revived as an agricultural center, the town's population in 1961 being listed as 1,600 in a county of 37,000. Anew railroad line was built in 1964 and the town center rebuilt with a park surrounded by new government buildings. A number of social, health and cultural institutions also had been developed.

An article in a communist magazine published in 1967 extolled the wisdom and benevolence of the agricultural trade cooperatives in

 

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General view of postwar Dubrowa, c. 1960 (now Dabrowa Bialystocka)

 

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Dabrowa. It darkly noted, however, that the town had its “detractors” and that the horse fairs which for many years had been held each Tuesday and were the source of the town's local reputation now were declining in popularity. The country's youth were no longer interested in the kind of commercial exchange that traditionally had been provided at the fairs that were in danger of being discontinued. Events of the next decade were to prove that Poland's agriculture shared in the catastrophic general economic decline.

Today, roads no longer cross the Russian border and the town is cut off from Grodno, its former neighbor. Inquiries to various Polish agencies have failed to elicit any more specific information, but it is a foregone conclusion that no Jews still live in the area.

 

dab023.gif
1980 map of Poland shows no roads crossing the Russian border to Grodno.

 

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