Autumn 1941 - Spring 1942
Translated by Selwyn Rose
Turobin resembled dozens of similar Jewish villages dotted over the countryside in the vicinity of Lublin. These villages were devoid of government institutions: post offices, police stations, hospitals and clinics. No road entered them and the railways by-passed them. People who had never left the confines of the villages, had no idea what electricity and gas were, had never seen a train or car - nor had they ever listened to a radio. A few individuals received newspapers - and that only after a delay of some days. All these villages belonged to the administrative district of Krasnystaw. Turobin lay on a plain that spread between the villages.
In the centre of the town was a very large market-square and all round, single-storied, wooden houses. In the whole village there were only two double-storied houses: one of them, also built of wood, had a large balcony. There was a public-house on the ground floor and on the upper floor a hostel. The other double-storied house was brick-built and belonged to the local land owner.
From the market-square, nameless streets ran in all directions and houses, themselves numberless, lay sprawled everywhere in a disorganized fashion. The houses were without piped water - neither was there any sewage installation. There were no inside toilets and the villagers were obliged to attend to their needs in out-houses. Those who lived close to the well, would draw water themselves and carry it home in buckets. The rest had to buy water at the cost of a few pence from the water carrier, who would wander round the village with a large water container on a cart. The waste water would be thrown on the streets.
Life had been going on in this fashion for hundreds of years, because progress simply didn't find its way to these backwaters.
Turobin numbered only a few hundred families, most of whom were Jews. Apart from the owner of the inn, all the Polish residents lived on the periphery of the village. Most of the Jews were orthodox, some of them followers of the Rabbi of Pruszkow and others of another Rabbi. The remainder were just God-fearing Jews. Among the Jews were artisans, who supplied not only the needs of the town but also those of the surrounding villages. The majority of them, however, were engaged in simple trading of one sort or another. A few of them were successful and wealthy though most of them were poor and struggling. The least change which occurred in the fortunes of the surrounding farmers, be it fluctuations in the yields of the farms, or sickness that perhaps spread among the cows, would be immediately felt by and directly affect the welfare of the village folk in the small town.
My family, the Freibergs, had many branches and was widely dispersed throughout the whole area of Lublin and beyond. Most of them stayed in the family home in Warsaw and later in Lodz, whenever there was an opportunity to be in these towns. I got the impression, when I was a child, that there was hardly a town or village in the whole of Poland which was without its Freiberg. I knew only a few of them personally. At one time, my great-grandfather, his children and grandchildren - a large family - had lived in Turobin but between the First and Second World Wars quite a few of the family members had left the town.
My grandfather and my uncle Feivel moved to Lodz. My father stayed in Lodz after being released from the army. One of my father's cousins emigrated to Palestine and another to Argentina. Three of my father's cousins - girls - drowned at the same time in a river accident. The family shrank. Only two aunts, Sarah and Rachel and an uncle - Michael - remained in Turobin. One summer, long ago, we spent a couple of months of our holiday there, our first visit since my father married. We stayed at my grandparents' house, who, at that time, still lived in Turobin. I remembered both good and bad things about the town. I loved the open spaces round about, the beautiful scenery and my uncle Feivel, who used to take me on trips to the villages in the area and also to the meetings of his group, Beitar. The children of my own age, however, even those of my own family, bothered me a lot. In the beginning, it was fine: I became one of them, played games with them and taught them new ones which they didn't know. Later, they began to make fun of me - at the way I spoke, the way I dressed. They used to call after me with all sorts of unpleasant names.
Three events occurred during that first visit, which made a special impression on me.
The first was the marriage of the landowner's daughter.
Some few weeks before the date fixed for the wedding, the villagers were already engaged in organizing the affair - the merchants began purchasing and storing food and drink of the finest quality, the tailors were busy stitching dresses for the women and caftans for the men, the shoemakers worked day and night to make sure that their orders were finished in time for the wedding-day. Many people tried to exploit the coming event to their own advantage, especially so since the groom came from another town and that consequently there would be many guests from there. Rumours and gossip were rife and daily found ready listeners and were eagerly bandied about - How many guests would be coming? How many important dignitaries would attend? How many chickens and geese would have to be slaughtered for the feast? What will the bride wear? What dowry is her father going to donate?
On the day of the wedding the village wore a festive air. People arose early, cleaned their doorsteps and the approaches to the houses, shined their boots and shoes, wore their finest clothes and in all things made themselves ready to celebrate a day full of events. The landowner hired all the wagon-drivers to drive the guests from their homes and the musicians, who, rumour had it, had come from Lublin, welcomed each cart load of guests with music. The first wagons began to arrive in the morning. There were guests who stayed overnight in the father's large house and others who were dispersed in other houses in the village. By evening the village was bursting with the number of guests who strolled around or stood in the market place talking with the locals. Gaiety and laughter were everywhere.
In the evening everyone hurried to the landowner's house. My mother hesitated to go, saying that she wasn't really known and therefore had no right to intrude herself. My aunts, whom I had never seen looking so beautiful, would have none of this and insisted on her joining them and she took me with her. Our whole family was there. Carbide and paraffin lamps, but mostly candles, lit the house.
The guests sat at laden tables, the musicians played; a sermon was delivered in which the bride and groom were exhorted to lead a moral life. The speaker interspersed his lecture with sad songs which caused many women present to be overcome with emotion. The marriage ceremony under the canopy was conducted with seriousness and, when the groom trod on the traditional glass and broke it under his foot, great cries of Mazal Tov! rang out from every throat.
During the supper, the local comedian climbed on one of the tables and began to entertain the audience. He congratulated the bride and groom, together with their families, friends and important guests, peppering his remarks the whole time with jokes and lightly barbed witticisms which harmed no one but amused everyone. He skillfully took each letter of the names of those he congratulated and using the letters, concocted further blessings and symbols into assurances of a long, happy and charmed life, to the pleasure of the audience and my amazement. At the end of the meal, he displayed before the guests all the gifts that had been received by the happy couple, identifying each donor with a joke and graceful remark and everyone waited with bated breath to discover who had given what. The singing and dancing which followed continued well into the night. I returned from the occasion completely enchanted.
The second incident which made a deep impression on me during the stay in Turobin occurred quite suddenly, like thunder out of a clear blue sky.
One morning - a nice summer day - three girls, my father's cousins, went to the river to swim as was their custom during the hot summer days. My mother, who would normally have gone with them, decided for some reason not to accompany them. There, in that quiet stream, one of the girls was suddenly caught in a current or whirlpool and began to call for help. One sister immediately hurried to her assistance and caught her by the hand but she too was swept up by the current. The third cousin tried to save the other two and all three of them perished together. A friend, who was watching from the banks of the stream ran to get help. The best swimmers and divers raced to the scene but were much too late to achieve anything other than drag the three bodies from the water. A heavy sadness descended on the village. Within a few minutes all the shops closed and the peddlars and merchants disappeared from the market-place. Even the local farmers, who had come in from the surrounding areas to sell their produce, packed their goods and returned home. The market-place emptied of people and the villagers congregated before the house of uncle Aaron who had so tragically lost his daughters. The menfolk recited Psalms and the women cried tearfully.
The sight of an entire village in mourning was very moving. Everyone attended the funeral while I, and the others of my age remained in the now empty village. The suddenness and scale of the family tragedy shook me: young girls, whom only that morning I had seen laughing together, within a few short hours, were no more and were being buried. Even more scary was the thought that only by pure chance had my own mother chosen not to go with them.
The third significant event of that visit was the annual Fair. The Fair was such a central 'happening' in the life of the village that it was possible to divide the year into two periods - 'before the Fair' and 'after the Fair'. Weeks beforehand the villagers were concerned with the event and its preparation. Manufacturers were busy night and day preparing a large supply of goods; traders made sure that their warehouses were full; shopkeepers filled their windows and shops with a multitude of items not normally seen during the year. Everyone prayed for a successful Fair - that is to say, a profitable one!
The market-place completely changed its appearance. Stalls sprang up everywhere. Part of the area was cordoned off for livestock and even a circus appeared and was erected there. The day before the Fair was a day of much preparation in my grandfather's house, for relations came from the surrounding villages and stayed with us overnight. My grandparents prepared all the goods that they wanted to place on the stall which they owned in the market. In the evening the house filled with people and we, the children, were sent to sleep in the attic because of the lack of space. When I got up in the morning the house was very quiet. I found only my mother when I went downstairs.
When I left the house I was stunned by what I saw - the world was teeming with so many people and barrows, and stalls! When did they arrive? It must surely have been during the night that they continued to arrive and gradually fill the market place. Yet still they came, people and barrows, from every street and lane. My mother cautioned me not to stray far from home for fear that I got lost in the throng. The market-place looked like a decorated exhibition of colourful goods. The noises of chicks, hens, pigs, cows and horses all mingled together with the shriek of whistles and the blare of hooters being sold for a few pennies to satisfy the whims of small children. Caftaned Jews, farmers, women and children all mingled together in one vast surge of humanity, a happy, chattering, laughing, jostling, bargaining throng - and I in the midst of them as in a richly embroidered dream. I spent the whole day just wandering around between the stalls and barrows of the farmers, enjoying looking at the chicks peeping out of their boxes and baskets, being close to the horses, examining from close range the little farm children, with their round heads, flaxen hair, apple cheeks and slightly frightened blue-eyes. For them, too, it was their first trip from the peaceful countryside to the big city. While I, a boy from Warsaw, the largest city in the land, who every day saw spread before him the last word in modernization, used to trams and trains and crowded streets, shop-windows stuffed with every kind of eye-catching article, wandered around this little village wide-eyed and wondering at the sights displayed before me.
The variegated, colourful picture of the village Fair was etched enduringly on my memory.
The wagon entered the market-place - the same market-place that I remembered from my first visit to Turobin. Nothing had changed. It was one o'clock in the afternoon and only a few people were to be seen in the big square. The wagon came to a halt not far from my aunt Rachel's house, where my brother was staying. I was undecided about what to do; I knew that both my aunts, the sisters Rachel and Sarah had been on bad terms with each other for many years. Perhaps matters hadn't changed?
My mother had told me to go first to the home of aunt Sarah, where I would be staying and only afterwards to seek out my brother but I was so close to my brother and I so much wanted to see him! My aunt Sarah's house was quite some way off at the other side of the square and even though I knew that there I was supposed to go, my legs carried me to the house where my brother was to be found.......
The shop doors were open; I stood hesitantly on the threshold for a moment and then entered. My aunt Rachel, was standing in the shop and I recognized her immediately. It seemed to me that she was even wearing the same dress and shoes that I knew from my first visit. She seemed not to recognize me, gazing at me in some perplexity.
I've come from Warsaw..... I began.
Her expression underwent a sudden change and a shout escaped her:
Bereleh! Mottel, come quickly, your brother Bereleh's here from Warsaw!
My brother came in. We fell into each other's arms and only with the greatest of difficulty was I able to restrain myself from bursting into tears. It was such a wonderful feeling, seeing my brother again after so many months. Mottel had put on some weight and was more relaxed, feeling himself completely at home. After a few minutes I, too, felt that I belonged there. I felt good. I could easily have remained there, with my brother but my mother's orders held me to obedience and, getting up from my seat I explained the necessity of complying with my mother's wishes and going to my aunt Sarah's house.
A silence fell as if I had said something out of place.
You can stay here with us, said my aunt. we have plenty of room for you, thank God and you won't want for anything.
I thanked her again repeating that I had to do what my mother said and go and stay with my aunt Sarah.
As you wish. She said. Remember, though, that if for any reason things don't work out, there will always be a place for you here.
When my brother and I went out into the market-place, we were stopped by people who asked him who I was and where I came from. I, myself, was not spoken to and my brother answered their questions briefly. I was relieved that I was not the one that had to do all the talking and explaining, for it was clear that he was already one of them, while I was the stranger.
It was so good walking along with my brother; good to feel that, once again I had a brother, a friend and a protector - and more important than anything else, I was not alone. How long had I been alone, for all that? It had only been two days and yet it seemed such a long time! When we reached my aunt's house, my brother astonished me by saying that he wouldn't come in with me. When I managed to ask why, he explained that somehow he had been dragged into the argument between the two families. It made me very sad; because of their problems why should we two have to be separated?
My brother read my thoughts and said:
Never mind. Tomorrow morning we'll meet in the market and go for a walk together. We'll have plenty of time to talk about everything.
I knocked on aunt Sarah's door somewhat saddened. It was my uncle who opened the door. He examined me with a glance and called to his wife:
Sarah, come here! I think we've got a guest, and while my aunt was approaching asked me, Aren't you Moisheh's son?
Yes, I answered and my uncle broke into a strange laughter.
You see? I said he'd come and here he is!
Yes, you always know everything, my aunt said, sweeping me into her arms and giving me a kiss. Then she helped me off with my coat and sitting me next to her began to ask me about the family. Her manner helped to reduce some of the tension I had felt when I entered the house but every time my glance crossed that of my uncle's or I heard his voice I felt a strange sort of disquiet creeping over me.
During supper my uncle questioned me closely on what was happening in Warsaw and about myself: What do I know? What have I learned? He ask me many different and even strange questions, as if he wanted to know everything in one go. I felt as though he received everything I said suspiciously, with disbelief and the feeling left me very unsure of myself. My replies became shorter and shorter, even incomplete. My aunt tried to save me from her husband's inquisitorial manner and asked him to let me eat in peace and quiet; that I had still to recover from a long, tense and exhausting journey but he protested:
Am I stopping him from eating? I can see he's eating very well indeed! He laughed.
My aunt's two children, aged seven and five, bothered me a lot - as if they were in league with their father. Fortunately, everyone went to sleep immediately after supper. Then an argument began in the next room between my aunt and uncle; I couldn't really hear the words but I was fairly certain that they were talking about me and the following day I understood that they were arguing about where I should sleep - my aunt wanted me to sleep on the settee in the living-room, while my uncle thought I should sleep in the attic. That same evening my aunt won and I did indeed sleep in the living room. Thereafter, however, my uncle had his way and my aunt was forced to prepare me a place in the attic.
I wasn't really used to going to bed so early - almost as soon as it got dark - but now I was quite pleased to go up to my room and be alone. I didn't want to go to sleep; this was the first opportunity I'd had to take stock of myself and of what had happened to me in the last two days. I found it a bit difficult to get my thoughts organized. The welcome that I had received in my uncle's house was enough to cause me concern regarding the future. I relived every detail of my parting from my home: sitting with my mother waiting until the smuggler was ready to come and lead me out of the ghetto; the walk through the night along the dark streets of Warsaw; outside the ghetto; the difficult hours at the central railway station; the journey to Lublin in the train; getting arrested by the policeman - and then running away from him......it seemed to me, looking back, that none of this had happened to me - it had all happened to somebody else and I had just been an onlooker.....had it really happened to me or was it just a dream? I was quite proud of myself. If only I could tell it all to my mother! Well, tomorrow I'll tell my brother; we'll see what he says about it all.
The following morning I woke up out of vague sort of dream in which I was being chased. I am in a field and all around me are more fields and forests. I don't know what I'm doing there and I'm hurrying to get home......the scene changes and I'm in a big city which is unknown to me, the people all around are also unknown and strange, trams are coming and going unceasingly. I jump on one of the trams while it's moving, I travel through strange, unknown, narrow streets - so narrow that the tram almost touches the walls of the houses on either side; I'm looking for something familiar and I don't know where to get off, the tram stops and all the people get off and, because I have no alternative, I get off too. Suddenly, I see that I'm at the tram terminal close to our house in Warsaw. I run quickly home, open the door and go in to find that the place is empty. I go into the kitchen and there too it's deserted. In the centre of the room, on a chair is a bowl and in the bowl a big pile of fried meat-balls. The delicious smell fills the room, as if they had just left the pan, and arouses my appetite. I feel a terrible hunger, I eat one; it's very spicy, there's a lot of garlic in it, as I like it, I eat another one and another one........other things happened in the dream but they have fled my memory.
My aunt welcomed me warmly in the morning and said that I had slept for a long time - from exhaustion, I suppose. She added that my uncle had got up very early and gone about his business to the neighbouring villages. She went on to make it clear that I had nothing to be afraid of and that I could feel myself perfectly free. Indeed her company was pleasant and I enjoyed sitting with her and having breakfast, accompanied the whole time by the dream about the meat-balls..........
The following day, when I left the house, Mottel was already waiting for me. We made haste to get out of town before being stopped by people. We marched along a path between fields of stubble. A pleasant sun gradually climbed higher and a light breeze blew. I gazed at the scenery, enjoying the broad plain, the planted fields close by and further afield hills, rising in the distance, here and there, like waves on the sea - the same beautiful world that it had always been, a world that I had not seen for two long years and had almost forgotten existed. My brother and I, just the two of us alone, here in this wide expanse. Into my mind flashed memories of the Warsaw ghetto: the thronged streets; the dead sprawled on the pavements; the children scrabbling through the waste-bins in our courtyard looking for something edible; the hunger; the depressed atmosphere in our house; the shrivelled worried face of my mother. From here, this broad, serene plain, I saw the scenes so clearly in my mind's eye, sharp and painful. I related my dream about the meat-balls to my brother. He started to laugh and I found myself joining in. We were both laughing so much that we were almost crying. Later I told Mottel everything that had been happening in the ghetto in detail and he listened, pale-faced and intent, to every word. When I told him about my escape from the ghetto and my adventures on the way, he praised me so much that I blushed. He asked me how I had been received at aunt Sarah's house and how I felt there.
Fine, I answered, Aunt Sarah made me feel very welcome. I lied. I didn't want to worry him. Since he had returned from captivity we had become somewhat distant and had not managed to find each other again. Now, in Turobin, I felt that we were closer than ever before.
My uncle returned from work in a rage, cursing farmers, traders and Jews, all in one breath. Now and again he turned his gaze on me making me feel that somehow I was the cause of all his problems. I felt myself very unwanted in the house. As night fell, my aunt suggested to me that I go and sleep in the attic. Her face and voice were witnesses to her feelings of guilt and her inability to change the situation. As it happened I was satisfied with the arrangement because I preferred to be alone and I would see less of my uncle.
Time and again I was startled by the flapping of wings as a bird settled in its nest under the eaves, or the rustling of a rodent gnawing away at something; but I loved to wake up in the morning and see the sunbeams shining through the lattices into the room and to smell the scent of the straw - but above all, to know that I was alone.
I tried not to be a 'charity case' to my aunt and gave as much assistance as I could around the house 'to pay' for my keep. I wasn't very good at chopping wood. My uncle couldn't bear the way I handled the axe. He very often took the axe from my hand, waved it above his head and brought it down with a mighty blow on the log of wood splitting it into separate slices in one go, saying at the same time: I see they raise weaklings in Warsaw!
There was nothing that I did that pleased him. At every turn he found something to carp about: he examined me in the Torah asking the most difficult questions and when I couldn't answer would say:
I thought that in Warsaw they taught you better than that.
He told me to teach his children Torah, reading and writing Polish and arithmetic. I made efforts to teach them but they refused to learn.
They were so stubborn that it was necessary to be very strict with them and this I was unable to be. Only after some time did I manage to gain their confidence and trust and my cousins began to learn something but by then it was too late and my uncle's patience was exhausted - he was waiting for quick results and accused me of not trying hard enough to teach them.
An unpleasant atmosphere reigned throughout the house. My aunt and uncle argued a lot and I wasn't used to it. Only much later was I to learn that my uncle had a terrible name in the town as a bad-hearted person and unprecedented miser. Indeed, in my uncle's house - he who was considered among the wealthiest of the local people - I felt hungry all day long. At meal-times my uncle would slice the bread and actually dole it out to those sitting round the table, at which times he would gaze at me calculatingly and decide what was the size of the slice most suitable for me!
No wonder that day by day I missed my home more and more. My thoughts wandered unceasingly to Warsaw, my mother, my little brother, my sister, my grandfather - even the courtyard at Number One Pszebieg Street. I began to plan how I could get back home, to the ghetto.
My brother worked in my uncle's business but nevertheless we managed to meet nearly every day - and these were bright spots in the day. We would find ourselves somewhere out of town, sit down and chatter about lots of things, bringing up memories of our home before the war. Mottel mimicked every member of our family and told me about the lives of people in different towns and villages, to the great amusement of us both. For a long time I withheld telling him about my unhappiness at my aunt's home; I'd lie to him and tell him that everything was fine because I didn't want to worry him, especially so since we were really on different sides of the fence - in the houses of two quarreling aunts - and I couldn't betray my aunt Sarah and claim that I wasn't happy; it could even get back to Rachel's ears and make matters worse.
Even so, my brother sensed that all was not well and tried to help me. It seemed to me that he had been told - I don't know how - that I was always hungry. My aunt Rachel's house where my brother was staying, was a house overflowing with good things and when I visited there they offered me delicious cakes and things that had just that moment come out of the oven. The aromas would only increase my appetite but I used to swallow my saliva and refuse to eat. When I allowed myself to be persuaded to take something it was always a small quantity so that they wouldn't think that I was hungry. Nevertheless, when we met and went for walks, my brother always brought with him some cake and fruit and some kind of sweet. He would eat only to show me that he too was eating, though in fact he was bringing everything for me, in order to make me feel better.
In vain. I felt worse! My homesickness didn't improve either.
To all appearances the town lived its life in a calm serenity, dissociated from the outside world. So-much-so that one could imagine that Turobin and her sister-villages in the surrounding countryside had disappeared from the eyes and minds of the Germans - but it was not so.
The German Command Centre, located in the administrative capital of Krasnystaw, maintained strict control over all the villages and had organized a Judenrat in each and every one of them. The Germans forced the Jews of the villages to pay large sums of money in gold and substantial quantities of goods of various kinds, and in a deliberate show of strength they would imprison Jewish notables. The Jews of the village would argue among themselves about who would pay how much - but the Germans' instructions were carried out in full. The Germans also demanded that the Jews perform various local works which the Judenrat in all the villages distributed among the residents.
Every Jewish resident was required to fulfill his work quota, but the rich Jews never went out to work: they hired poor Jews to do their work for them.
One day, my uncle said to me that I had to go and do night-work in the village synagogue, which the Germans had converted into a barn, where they had stored all the produce that they had confiscated from the local farmers. The work was filling sacks with grain and loading them onto wagons. There were two shifts - days and nights. My aunt, who usually gave in to my uncle's decisions, objected angrily saying that she wouldn't allow a weak child like me going to do such heavy labour.
My uncle became totally enraged and shouted at her:
Don't interfere. These are hard times. What do you want - that I should go to work all night on my own?
As soon as there was a break in the argument, I told both of them that I wanted to go to work. Both of them immediately calmed down. Before I went to work on my first shift, my aunt prepared me a good meal and this time I ate my fill.
Judging by appearances, the synagogue had already been requisitioned for some time; it looked completely neglected: all the window-panes had been broken and the windows covered with planks. Only the eastern wall, where the Holy Ark was situated, gave evidence of the original purpose of the building. The hall was full of grain. Along the eastern wall was a two-metre high pile of wheat. I walked in just as the shifts were changing over. People were coming and going and I stood at the side watching. A Polish controller and a Jew from the Judenrat were in charge of the work and everyone crowded round them.
Somebody asked me: What are you doing here, son?
I've come to work, I replied.
Who are you? The man asked.
I came with my uncle Mendel.
The skin-trader? He asked.
Yes. I replied.
Aha! You're the one who came from Warsaw, the man said confidently. Your uncle can afford to hire someone to work for him. He's not likely to come to work himself, when he can send a child instead....Go and register with the Pole.
There were about twenty people there, most of them adults, some of them in their twenties. I was then fourteen-and-a-half, but because I was small and thin I looked only about eleven or twelve. Because of this the men took pity on me and wouldn't let me do any of the really hard work. I usually held the sacks open while one filled them and others tied the mouths and dragged them to the door where they were to be loaded on carts which would come in the morning. They gave me tea during the breaks and on the whole I didn't feel too bad.
Towards morning, I saw the men secretly tying the bottoms of their long underpants and filling them with wheat. Externally nothing could be seen. I did the same - I tied the bottoms of my pants and filled them with wheat up to my hips. The weight of it all made walking very difficult and to tell the truth, I don't know why I did it - perhaps only to prove to myself that I can do the same that everybody else does?
It began to get light as I was walking home. The village was still deep in slumber and the houses somehow seemed prettier in the purplish-grey light of the early dawn. Thick black smoke was already beginning to spiral upwards from the chimneys of some of the houses. The crowing of cocks came from all directions. Exhausted from lack of sleep and a hard night's work, I could barely drag my legs along, the weight of the wheat in my pants making every step even more difficult. I was filled with fear at the thought of spilling all the contraband. At the same time I was very satisfied with myself: I had stood the test - I could do things and act independently.
My aunt and uncle were already awake when I entered the house.
They looked me up and down and I asked for a sack to empty the wheat into. They looked at me in wonderment. My aunt came with a sack and laying on the floor, I undid the knots in my pants, emptying all the wheat out.
They both burst out laughing.
Wonderful! Shouted my uncle, for the first time a word of praise coming out of his mouth for me. You see, Sarah! You see! We'll make a man of Bereleh, yet, he continued, victoriously, as if his decision to send me to work had been justified.
One day a cart stopped outside our door and a woman with three children got down. The woman came into the house and burst into tears.
She was my uncle's sister, a widow living in one of the nearby villages, where she had a small farm. She told us that for some time the local farmers had been threatening to kill her if she didn't leave the village. She had ignored the threats, but last night they had set her barn on fire and warned her that if she didn't leave they would come back the following day and burn the house down, together with her and her children inside it. In the morning, she had put her children, goods and chattels in the cart, left behind whatever she couldn't manage - and here she was.
The woman was terribly bossy and her influence was felt everywhere. She even dominated her own brother Mendel, who grated his teeth at the sound of her voice. The atmosphere in the house became intolerable for me. The worst part was that the woman and her children settled down in the attic, robbing me of what little privacy I had. Now autumn was here and the cold already penetrated the attic through all the cracks and crannies - what would it be like in the winter? Certainly we couldn't stay where we were in the attic; we would all have to sleep together in the living-room....
During one of my visits to my uncle Michael's home, I told them about the changed situation in Sarah and Mendel's house. Uncle Michael suggested that I go and stay with them. His house was small and rather poor, with only one, not very big room containing a wide bed which took up half the space. In this one room slept my uncle, his wife Esther and their daughter, Miraleh. The furniture was a collection of all different items, acquired at different times, each piece different from every other. No two chairs matched and none of them matched the table it served. The room also contained a dresser, a chest of sorts and a variety of boxes. It was totally beyond my understanding to figure out where, in that house, it was possible to find a place for me to sleep. My aunt was a sick woman, her face often contorted with the pains she suffered. The daughter was a girl of about my age, shy and not at all outgoing. Since my coming to the village, I had hardly exchanged a single word with her.
My uncle Michael was a strange man, known throughout the family as 'the failure'. Since I had no alternative - there was just no place for me at my aunt Sarah's house - I moved, somewhat unwillingly, to my uncle Michael's house to sleep. My aunt offered me a 'bed' on the chest which stood near to their bed. It was quite small but even though I was not very big I had to sleep with my legs doubled up. Every evening I went there to sleep and every morning I returned to my aunt Sarah's house.
Having got used to my aunt Sarah's house, her bad-hearted, miserly husband Mendel, her difficult children whose friendship I had at last won, I had now to get to know my uncle Michael's family and get used to it. The peculiar Michael lived a lonely life and forced the same loneliness upon his wife and daughter. No one came to the house to visit and those who lived in it never went out. My uncle was devoted to his family and would willingly have laid down his life for their sakes, but at the same time he ruled them with a rod of iron and little pity - so much so, that even though he welcomed me with a pleasant attitude and was always ready to help me, I never ceased to be afraid of his perpetually laughing face, or his sparkling eyes which, in a moment, and for little reason, flashed with fiery rage. Tension always reigned in that house.
With time, a firm bond of friendship developed between aunt Esther, her daughter Miraleh and myself. It was a bond which could only develop out of shared suffering. My uncle had no part in the relationship which had been woven between the two females in his family and myself. When he was out of the house, a calm and serene atmosphere pervaded the home which disappeared the moment he returned. More and more, I felt the love of aunt Esther and Miraleh reaching out to me - it was if both of them were competing in their worry over me; they would wash and repair my few clothes and more than once bring me a glass of milk and some cakes at night; at night, too, I would feel the woman come and cover me with the blankets. Her love for me affected me deeply and served to remind me of my mother. It also increased enormously my homesickness.
Without realizing it, without knowing exactly when, the ties between Miraleh and myself became stronger. Suddenly, I discovered that behind the ugly clothes and broken shoes lay a gentle pretty young girl with tender eyes. I also realized that she wasn't always quiet and shy; she could also be happy and even sing. I loved to look at her hair on Fridays, after she had washed it and brushed it back behind her head, gleaming in the lamp- and candle-light and at her large face, smooth and shining like marble. In the evenings, before going to sleep, we would sit outside on the doorstep chatting. Actually, I would do the talking and she the listening; I would tell her about my past - I even told her things that I hadn't intended or wanted to tell her - and she would listen attentively. She was very sensitive and more than once I saw tears in her eyes. She herself spoke little. It was good to tell her about myself - and she was a good listener, absorbing every word and storing it deep inside her. I knew that she would never tell a soul what I had told her. Sometimes we would sit very close together, even touching, and maybe I would feel her through my clothing; if by chance our hands touched, I would feel a shudder run through my body. It was so pleasant to sit with Miraleh, even without saying a word.
She agreed with and justified everything I said objecting to one thing only - my intention to return home, to Warsaw. I never for one moment became resigned to my stay in Turobin. My thoughts forever dwelling on my return home. I hadn't the least idea how I was going to do it but deep down inside, I knew that do it, I would. Once I mentioned to my brother my intention of returning to Warsaw. He became very concerned and spent over an hour trying to convince me to forget the idea as being impossible and that.....I should get the idea out of my head. We never spoke about it again but my longing for home never lessened. On the contrary, with time it became stronger and took on a dream-like form, sweet and painful at the same time, accompanying me everywhere.
On the evening I told Miraleh of my intention of returning to Warsaw, expecting her to agree with me - as usual - but she retorted:
They'll kill you on the way there, and burst into tears. I was stunned by the intensity of her reaction. I tried to calm her down, but she refused to listen to me and continued to cry. That same night, I was unable to fall asleep. Miraleh's words took on a real significance in my conscious: the Germans could really kill me, they could shoot me down like some kind of stray or mad dog.
That same night, I also suddenly realized for the first time how important I was to Miraleh: I understood that she loved me.
The village, unwalled and accessible from all sides with no German guard, was, in spite of that, quite closed off from the outside world. Few were the villagers who went from place to place. A kind of mysterious fear stopped the people from leaving their houses.
The information getting through to the village was minimal. There was no newspaper and no radio. The only source of news that we had of events were rumours that managed to seep through from the nearby villages and these told us of a rapid German advance into the heart of Russia which had already carried them to the gates of Moscow and Leningrad. There were other rumours which found their way through: like the one about the massive slaughter of Jews that the Germans were carrying out wherever they were to be found. It wasn't hard to believe the truth of these rumours, although everyone supposed that they were a bit exaggerated. Now and again, we heard stories about a sudden German raid on a Jewish village, where the Jews were all killed. These stories terrified us. They drove many people to build underground hideaways where they could hide with their families, in the event of the village being attacked, until the storm passed.
Information concerning events in Warsaw was sparse. Letters that arrived from our mother in Warsaw assured us that all was well and that we shouldn't worry; but I knew what it had been like when I left them and I could imagine to myself terrible things going on, until the next letter came putting my mind at ease for a while.
Eventually, I reached the conclusion that no one was going to help me get back to Warsaw, and for as long as I didn't get any money together, I'd never be able to go.
One day, I happened to be passing the Polish inn. The man was unloading crates of drinks from a dray and I asked him if I could help. I helped him to unload the crates and carry them inside. When we had finished, he put his hand in his pocket and, taking out a coin, gave it to me. I felt the taste of wages; the feeling of having earned the money and that it was mine. The hope took root that I could find more work and even save enough money to get me to Warsaw! Time and again, in optimistic flights of fancy, I saw myself with enough money for all my needs, returning to Warsaw, stealing in to the Ghetto bringing armfuls of things home and giving the rest of the money to my mother.
When I pondered on it, it became clear to me that there was no chance of me finding work in Turobin - and even if I did earn some money, I should certainly be forced to give it to my uncle. My first job was to get to Lublin, a big city with many Jews. There in Lublin, I would find work, and from there I could go to Warsaw.
I found a new friend - Leibel was his name. He was the son of my father's cousin. His parents had four sons spread all over the world - Yerechmiel in Palestine, where he had gone as a pioneer, Yekutiel in Argentina, (he and his wife I remembered from when they had stayed with us in Warsaw, just before going abroad), and Avraham who had escaped to Russia at the outbreak of war. Leibel's two sisters were the girls who had drowned in the river accident.
Now there remained in their big house only the two parents and the young son, Leibel. I loved to visit that house - it was so full of warmth, and even though Leibel was older than I by two years we got on well and spent a lot of time together. A warm bond of friendship was woven between us. He and his parents suggested several times that I move in with them, and there's no doubt that it was a good idea. In that house I could sleep in Leibel's room, on a bed of my own - and not doubled up on a wooden box. At the same time, I had become attached to my uncle Michael's family and my heart told me that it wouldn't be fair to leave them just because I'd found a better place to live. Not only that, it was nice to be near Miraleh, to sit with her in the evenings before going to bed and to hear the sound of her breathing from the next bed.
One day, around noon, while I was wandering aimlessly around the market square, I suddenly heard the sound of shots and shouting and saw all the people running. I also began to run - to my aunt Sarah's house, hearing all the time the continuing sound of shooting. On the way, I saw an open German truck parked in front of one of the buildings opposite. There was no one in it. Outside the door of my aunt's house a big fat woman was lying face down, her head surrounded with a pool of blood. The door of the house had been forced. I jumped over the body of the woman and went into the house. There was no one there. I didn't know what I should do. I knew that in my uncle's bedroom, was an opening leading to an underground hiding-place. I went into the room.
I could only hear the beating of my heart. I didn't dare to shout: Open the door, let me in, as well! so I went quickly up to the attic, where I lay down shaking all over, my heart beating frantically. After a while I heard people talking in German outside the house.
I crawled to the edge of the attic, where I could see outside through a chink. I could just see the house opposite. The Germans were bringing people to the truck, forcing them on with shouts and blows and going back for more. When they had finished collecting all the people, they stood around the truck, talking among themselves. One of them approached the house and, opening the door, tossed a hand-grenade inside, shut the door and returned to the truck.
The grenade exploded and immediately afterwards I heard the sound of shouts and crying. The German returned to the house and threw another grenade inside and again shouts and cries. The German exchanged a few words with his comrades and they all burst out laughing. He prepared a string of grenades, all fixed together, and tossed the whole thing into the house. All the Germans quickly ran from the front of the house. An enormous explosion shook the place. For a moment I thought that the house I was in was going to collapse. The door of the house opposite was blown completely off and fell on its side. Grey smoke, smelling of burnt gunpowder, spurted out of the house. Silence came down. The Germans exchanged a few words among themselves, laughed, got on the truck and drove away.
I continued lying there, up in the attic, for at least an hour, close to the crack through which I could see what was happening outside.
All around - a dead silence. After a while people began to gather in front of the house and their cries gradually increased to a terrible wailing of all the villagers until late into the night. People looked for their missing among the pile of bodies and parts of bodies, calling their names and hoping that they may yet be alive.
It seemed to me that I heard my name being called: Bereleh, Bereleh, - or perhaps they were calling Perla, Perla, - or even Miraleh? I went downstairs. All the family was in the house. They took one look at me and in one voice cried: Bereleh!
Have you been here all the time? asked my uncle.
My brother burst into the house - before the shooting had started, I had been with him and he was worried about me - and the two of us fell into each others' arms and thus we stayed, holding each other, for what must have been an hour. Later, my brother accompanied me to uncle Michael's home. The smell of burnt gunpowder still hung in the air.
Cries and shouts kept us company all the way home; neither of us spoke a word, we just held each other tightly by the hand.
When I entered the house, Miraleh fell on me, so nearly choking me with the force of her hug that I actually had to push her off me. I felt her tears wet on my cheek where she kissed me. At that moment, something happened to me: tears burst from my eyes like water from a spring and there was nothing I could do to stop them. They mingled with Miraleh's tears and thus we stood, the two of us, crying together inconsolably. Afterwards, I sat and told her everything that my eyes had seen in detail. The picture of the German tossing the hand-grenade into the house, the thunder of the explosion and the stink of the powder haunted me all night long until daylight. Only then did I fall into a deep sleep, waking up very late. Miraleh and my aunt were sitting and crying in the corner; my uncle was striding up and down the room like a caged animal, red faced and with flashing eyes. I supposed everyone was upset about yesterday's tragedy.
Then my uncle stopped pacing the floor, turned to me and said:
Bereleh, I want you to leave the house and go and look for somewhere else to sleep.
When my uncle got excited, his speech became distorted and difficult to understand; so it was now, and the words came out of his mouth only half finished. I was dumbfounded. I couldn't understand what had brought him to this decision. I looked from Miraleh to my aunt and back again but they refused to meet my gaze. Their eyes were fixed on the floor. My uncle continued talking and matters became clearer. He found all sorts of excuses - the house was too small, there was no place to hide in the event of a sudden search. I walked out of the house without a word but once outside I became very angry at myself for not having been quick-witted enough to find answers to the man's words.
I didn't even say Good-bye.
The next morning, while people were getting ready to bury their dead, an announcement was passed from mouth to mouth: no one but the immediate family was to go to the cemetery, lest the concentration of so many of the town's Jews in one place should provide an easy target for the Germans. No one left their homes except for the most pressing reason. Everyone mourned alone. Carts loaded with the corpses made their way out of town to the burial grounds.
Together with the pain suffered, the villagers were in a state of shock. Until now, they had only heard about the cruelty of the Germans. Now they had felt the cruel hand of the Germans on their bodies in a sense of helplessness, not knowing what to expect next. There was no one to turn to; no one to whom they could complain. All that was left was to pray for God's mercy.
I wandered round the market square not knowing where to go. I felt myself degraded and guilty without knowing for what crime. I felt ashamed to tell my brother that I had been thrown out of my uncle's house and yet for all that I found myself walking towards his home. My brother was shocked to hear that, of all days, after a day of tragedy like that of yesterday, my uncle had seen fit to send me out of the house.
Later on, he calmed me down, telling me that after my uncle's display of timidity it was possible to expect anything from anyone. Then he began to ask me how I got on with the rest of the family, especially with Miraleh. The questions embarrassed me and I suddenly realized why my uncle had sent me away from the house.
We walked to the house of my father's uncle, Aaron, my friend Leibel's father. I didn't tell them why, but expressed the wish to stay with them; I only said that winter was getting closer and the conditions in my uncle's house would not be very good in winter-time. They welcomed me gladly and I moved into the same room with Leibel, sleeping on a proper bed with a proper mattress, able at last to stretch my legs.
Winter's fierce winds came, as wild as a devil's dance; everything not fixed down was simply blown away. Next came the torrential rain and turned the village into a sea of mud. Then came the frost and snow to cover the village in a white mantle. The little houses seemed even lower in the ground because of the deep snow piled up round them and the village became completely isolated from the outside world. Only on days when the frost lessened a little, did wagons and sleds make their way into the village, laden with produce that the farmers brought to sell. The farmers were in a hurry to sell their goods, buy their own supplies and get home before nightfall because the winter days were short. Activity in the village was minimal - less even than in previous years. People were neither going to business nor were they working; in place of this they spent much time praying and studying, either at home or in the prayer hall - perhaps God will hear their prayers and come to their aid. As in previous years, people got ready for the winter. Food and other necessities were not lacking; only a sense of security. Deep in their hearts people felt very disturbed and unsettled since the slaughter by the Germans in the village and rumours of the murder of Jews in territories captured from the Russians in Eastern Poland, only increased the concern.
The winter completely isolated us. We received no information on events in the surrounding area and no information on what was happening in Warsaw. My thoughts dwelt on my loved ones there, but the dreams I had of returning there seemed less and less realistic and more and more like an illusion never to be grasped. Nevertheless, the desire to return to Warsaw never left me; I believed with all my heart that I would yet return home, to the Ghetto.
When I was a small child and used to visit Turobin, the local kids would never accept me as one of them. Now, as well, I didn't succeed in forming friendly relationships with them. I could only sense some kind of inexplicable hatred coming at me, perhaps arising out of jealousy and feelings of inferiority that the village children had towards the town boy, while all the time I felt inferior to them because in my eyes they seemed so much more mature, physically stronger and more knowledgeable about life. In truth, I didn't like their vulgarity and roughness very much. The exception was Leibel, my room-mate, with whom from the first I felt a mutual bond of trust and understanding developing.
We became firm friends, in heart and soul. The atmosphere in his home was pleasant too. I felt completely at home and the long winter evenings passed in an enjoyable way, such as I had not experienced for a long time. We always had something to talk about and Leibel even knew how to inspire our lives with a little gaiety; once again a smile began to appear on my face.
In our little room, where we slept, we related to each other every detail of our lives; we mused our thoughts out loud; asked questions to which we had no answers. When I told Leibel about the conditions in the Warsaw ghetto, about how people were dying of starvation there, about the children lying in the streets and dying, he asked how it could possibly be that God should see all that and not do anything; or perhaps it meant that there just wasn't any God?
I was stunned by the doubt of God's existence inherent in Leibel's words, although similar thoughts had sprung up in my own mind but had been quickly suppressed. Hearing the same doubts expressed out loud by my friend caused me pain and fear, as if Leibel had touched at the very foundations of existence and his enquiry was likely to cause some kind of total collapse.
We didn't continue with the topic but the question of God's existence still occupied me in spite of my attempts to eradicate it from my thoughts.
The thought that I may have caused some kind of anguish to Miraleh and my aunt troubled me all winter, although I couldn't, for the life of think what it was that I might have done. So I looked for some way of speaking with Miraleh and explaining to her, that if indeed I had done something wrong to her and her mother, it was completely without intent, and to ask their pardon. Or perhaps that was just an excuse: perhaps I wanted only to see to Miraleh again and to feel her close to me, to touch her and to be in her company? I roamed again and again through the market place and, as if by chance, I would pass in front of her house, hoping and praying that she would suddenly appear in front of me.
All my hopes were in vain and she never appeared. Then, one day, as I left Leibel's house, I saw her standing near by. I was completely and utterly surprised to see her and asked:
What are you doing here?
I've been waiting for you. she replied and looked as if she was going to burst out crying. I held her by the hand and led her away from the vicinity of the house. I was afraid that we would be seen together.
Her hands were as cold as ice and her face red from the frost, but the look from her soft warm eyes flooded my whole body. I felt a tremendous desire to hug her and kiss her but somehow I managed to restrain myself. I told her that I had been looking for her for ages in order to tell her that I was sorry to have caused her and her mother any distress and asked to be forgiven. Miraleh burst out laughing. Silly! she said. You ask to be pardoned? If anyone needs to ask forgiveness, it is we. We treated you very unkindly!
Later on she added: That same day, when the Germans had finished killing everybody, we learned that it had been in Rabbi Welwale's house, which was facing the home of aunt Sarah. I was terrified by the thought that something may have happened to you and told my father that I was going to find out how you were. My father told me that under no circumstances was I to leave the house and I - stupid that I am - told him that I would go and tried to leave the house. That made him lose his temper completely. He caught hold of me and slapped me saying that he never wanted to see you again and that he was going to throw you out of the house. My mother tried to put things right but he lost his temper with her, as well. It's all my fault, she said and burst out crying.
I hugged her and kissed her on the forehead and eyes. I told her she wasn't guilty of anything and explained to her how good it was for me in this house, and that Leibel and I were good friends. We parted from each other feeling much better.
Winter came to an end. The snow turned black and slowly disappeared from the scene while the village again sank into the mud. Later the warm sunny days came and dried the mud. The village awoke to life.
The wounds of the slaughter which had taken place slowly healed a little - life had to go on! My uncle Mendel bought and sold skins; my aunt haggled over the prices of the butter and eggs that the farm women brought to sell; my brother went with my uncle to the villages round about, where they bought whatever there was to be had and filled up the larder; children played outside; movement within the village increased; wagons came and went, coming into the village and leaving it.
As communications with the outside world became possible, we began to get some information, none of it good: the continued persecution of the Jews; of the deportations to the ghettos; on the concentration camp Majdanek, which had been built near Lublin. In a letter which my mother wrote from Warsaw, she said that they were all well and that we shouldn't worry about them, but it was shorter than her usual letter and there was something about the way in which it was written that aroused our concern. Motel and I read it over and over again without saying a word to each other.
After two years in the ghetto, I had entirely forgotten what spring was really like. Here, in Turobin I experienced it again in all its beauty and its charm, as never before. In the many walks that I had with my brother, or with my friend Leibel, outside the confines of the village, I saw how Nature took on her new look; I smelled the perfume of the damp earth warming in the sunshine, the thousands of buds bursting into life, the crops, the fields turning green, as if before my eyes. I was swamped with the scent of blossoms. I was enchanted with the wonders of nature, but at the same time assailed by sadness.
One day I saw a gathering of people outside the prayer hall and, on drawing closer heard them arguing and shouting. Apparently a stranger had come bearing news that Jews were being sent to a place called Belzec where they were killed and buried in mass graves. The villagers of Turobin found it hard to believe the Jew's story and cross-examined him endlessly. The man was unable to prove the truth of his story; only to say that it was true and from a reliable source. The locals couldn't accept his story and insisted that he was lying, that such a thing couldn't happen and he was nothing more than a scare-monger, and with that they sent him shamefacedly on his way. For a long time the Jews stood there, still arguing the point and proving to themselves that it was impossible to believe such a groundless story. Even after the Germans had murdered Jews here in our village, even after information came, day after day of horrifying deeds committed by the Germans, it was still difficult to accept that the Germans had actually built a special place in order to kill Jews according to some monstrous plan. It just couldn't be true...............
The pleasant days of May arrived. The life of the village carried on normally. It was possible to think that the Germans had really left us to ourselves. Only the information which arrived from outside troubled the spirit. Everyone spoke about 'something' that might happen to us all, some kind of threat which hovered over all of us, without being able to define exactly what the 'something' was, or what threat lay hidden. The story brought by the Jew about Belzec, in spite of the doubts of its authenticity, came to haunt the brain. In almost every house a hiding place had been prepared in which to conceal oneself, should the need arise. There were those who had prepared hiding places among the local farmers, whom they knew, in the surrounding villages.
The room in which Leibel and I slept had no windows and every evening the door was hidden by a cupboard. Leibel also told me, that if there was a sudden emergency, he would escape to one of the villages where he had friends, and that he would take me with him. My brother also told me that if something happened he would escape to one of the villages with our uncle's family.
One day in May, early in the morning, Aunt Malka moved the cupboard which hid the door to our room, came in and, pale-faced, told us that in the night the Germans had surrounded the village and the members of the Judenrat were going from house to house ordering all the Jews to meet in the market place, taking with them supplies for the journey and parcels containing whatever one person could carry. Uncle Aaron stood as one petrified and uttered not a sound. We got dressed quickly. I stole a glance out of the window which looked out onto the market place. Families, with their children, carrying belongings in their arms, were marching towards the market-place, hurried on by shouting German soldiers.
I'm not going to the market place, said Leibel. I'm off to the village; I've got friends there - and you're coming with me, he added, turning to me.
He was very decisive and I could only agree to his bidding. Then a neighbour came in and told us that the Judenrat were walking round with lists and that not everyone had to report. According to what she had been told the people were being taken to Lublin where a ghetto had been established for all the Jews.
The moment of decision had come for me. Leibel was a good friend whom I knew I could trust. On the other hand if we were really being taken to Lublin then I would be that much closer to home, Warsaw. Lublin is a big city in which I was sure to find some kind of work and save enough for a journey......and suddenly I had another thought: perhaps we will not be taken to Lublin but to the Warsaw ghetto? The Germans had already transported many Jews to the Warsaw ghetto from the surrounding small towns and villages.......
No, I said to Leibel. You escape to the village, I'm going to the market place.
Why? He shouted and continued trying to convince me that I should go with him but I wouldn't listen to him.
I suddenly remembered that I wanted to see my brother. I parted from the family and went outside. The house and shop where Mottel was staying were situated on the other side of the market place and there was no way for me to cross the square because it was surrounded by Germans. Hundreds of people were already gathered there. Shouts, the crying of children and shots could be heard from within the mob. I ran behind the houses, hiding now and again from German patrols, and eventually arrived at my aunt Rachel's house. The door was open I went inside. There was no one there. I went from room to room, opening the door that led to the shop - empty, not a soul. On the dining-room table the remains of some food; apparently the results of an interrupted meal and a hurried departure. I knew there was a hiding place in the house but I didn't know where it was. I called out the names of the family, listening for a reply from somewhere but none came. Tears choked my throat. I wanted so much to see my brother; I was so sure that he was hiding and wouldn't go to the square - and here I was - alone again.
All of a sudden I realized that I wasn't carrying a thing in my hands. My few clothes were at my aunt Sarah's house. Again I ran through the lanes between the houses, but when I got there I found the door locked, the shutters closed. I called the names of the family and again no reply. On the door was a notice of some kind, smothered in official stamps; I didn't bother to read what was written.
Now I had nothing, no good clothes, no shoes, not even photographs of the family I loved so much. At that moment I felt a most terrible loneliness. I burst out crying and for some time was unable to control it. When I managed to recover myself I walked to the market place............
The moving tide of humanity increased, among them the elderly, cripples supported by their families, babies wrapped in blankets. Confusion reigned in the square. People ran here and there, mothers searching for their children, children for their parents. In one of the corners a group was gathered: the men of the Judenrat were reading out the names of the people who were permitted to return to their homes. People pushed and shoved, pleaded and shouted and cursed the men of the Judenrat.
I wandered around searching for my brother amid the throng, running from one side of the square to the other, in spite of the fact that I was sure he was not there; he was surely safely hidden in the family hiding place, or in one of the farmer's houses in the surrounding countryside. No doubt my uncle's family cared for him as they would a son. I so wanted to see him, if only for a minute, to exchange a few words with him, to hear him say something good or cheering. But not only Mottel did I not see: I couldn't find a single one of the entire family. I was so concentrated in my search for my brother that I was completely unaware of what was taking place around me - as if I was not a part of it all. I looked for Miraleh, as well. I needed her desperately as being the only soul in our whole, large family in the village with whom I felt totally at ease - a kindred soul. To her I could tell practically everything; she felt my pain, my joy. I needed her to look into my eyes with her own dark, understanding ones - and again I wouldn't be alone.
In the end I despaired of finding anyone and gave up. I gave up the search realizing that I wasn't going to find them, my mind empty of everything, only my eyes following what was going on. Most of the people were poor, sick and crippled. A few had been brought on hand-carts, a few in their beds. It seemed that the rich and their families had been permitted to stay.
Some of the SS wandered around checking the people carefully, shooting the sick. The people standing close by were petrified by shock and unable to move. Close to me sat an old, crippled Jew in a wheel-chair, paralysed in his lower limbs. He must have been about sixty years old, well-dressed, his beard trimmed and with a nice hat on his head. He sat on his own looking round with sad eyes. Our glances met occasionally. A fat German, about thirty years of age, approached him, looked at him and with a smile on his face drew his pistol. He flicked the man's hat off his head with the barrel of the pistol and placing the muzzle against the man's head asked him if he wanted to live, laughed out loud and pulled the trigger. Only a 'click' was heard. The German again laughed and repeated his little game, pulling the trigger a few times. Tears filled the old man's eyes and ran down his face. At last a bullet discharged, split the man's head open and blood gushed all over the man's face and body. I was standing no more than two metres away from the old man's chair. I stood rooted to the spot without reacting, petrified like a statue, all of my senses blunted, appalled by, and refusing to believe I had seen. The picture before me was etched so deeply into my memory that today, forty-five years later, I remember every line, every detail of the old man's face, every shade of expression that moved over his face as he sat those last few seconds of his life away, even the shudder that passed through his body with each click of the hammer.......I stood like someone one paralysed next to the dead Jew sitting in his wheel-chair - perhaps for minutes, perhaps for hours; unseeing, unhearing. Thousands of pictures flashed across my mind, each replacing the other. How is it that I am standing here, all alone among these crowds of strange people, with Germans walking around calmly shooting them? Perhaps it's better that I'm alone; I don't want to see anyone. I don't care what happens. A total passiveness swamped my whole being. Suddenly, a rising tumult moved through the crowd. Everyone got up and looked to see what was happening. Across the way, hundreds of Jews were arriving on foot from the neighbouring village of Wysokie, accompanied by German guards riding motor-cycles. Orders were immediately given to the assembled mass of people: On your feet! March! Come on, get moving! Schnell!
Confusion reigned; from every side shouting and crying. The whole crowd began to move. Standing next to the table of the Judenrat, some of the Jews were trying to convince the members at the last moment, to let them stay behind, but the Germans prodded them into moving and the market place rapidly emptied. The Germans promised to provide carts for the old and sick and they were permitted to wait behind. Then some Germans walked casually among them and shot all of them.
We left the town, families walking closely together in groups, afraid of losing touch with each other. Each one with his bundle of belongings in his hand. Germans on motor-cycles rode up and down the line, all the time, making a deafening noise. As we got further and further away from the village, people became more and more quiet, even among themselves they spoke hardly above a whisper. Only the crying of a child would be heard breaking the almost total silence.
The day was a typical spring day, such as one could experience only while in the actual bosom of Nature. The skies changed constantly: one moment bright and sunny then dull and cloudy, the colours of the fields changing in tune to the heavens. Farmers, working in the fields, stopped to watch the strange procession go by. Women and children standing outside their houses threw wondering glances at us. Children who ran into the road were chased back by their parents. Among the people who watched our convoy pass on its way were some who were arguing, or laughing, or crossing themselves. Some of the villages which we passed were on the actual roadside and here we came face-to-face with the farmers. Most of them mocked us and threw curses at us, but there were also those whose faces showed sadness and pity.
My eyes met the eyes of a young woman, who began to cry. I turned my head away from her, afraid that I, too, should start to cry.
After walking for a few hours, some of the people began to tire and started to throw away some of the belongings that they were carrying, in order to lighten their burden. The old and weak, who didn't have the strength to go on, sat by the roadside, and from behind us we occasionally heard the sound of shooting. People made every effort to help and support their near ones and dear ones who were too weak to go on, marching silently, to no one knew where, without asking why, like a decree from heaven against which one must not wonder or question. The good May sun, heart-warming, this time turned cruel, beating down upon us mercilessly. More and more people, weakened and tired, dropped out and sat by the roadside. The shooting from behind us increased............
The Germans ordered us to sit down. People opened their bundles and sharing their food among their children, began eating quietly. Those who were without food wandered around seeking a crust of bread from among the crowd. I was very hungry, not having eaten since the previous evening but felt too ashamed to ask for food like a beggar; no one offered me anything, either, although one or two asked me where my parents were. After a while we were ordered to our feet and continued walking. As I stood up, I saw Miraleh about a hundred metres away from me. I forced a path for myself through the crowd and as I got closer I saw my uncle Michael, walking erect, a large sack on his back. He was a strong man, used to travelling. Aunt Esther was walking bent over, dragging her feet along and looking as if she might collapse at any moment. Miraleh walked behind them wearing a winter coat, black stockings and an old satchel slung over her back. When she saw me, a smile spread over her face and her mouth opened wide for a few seconds, as if she wanted to say many things at once and didn't know where to begin. I wanted to tell her that I had been looking for her, that I had been thinking about her and that I love her. In the end she spoke first:
Haven't you got anything with you? Have you eaten today?
Without waiting for a reply, she drew a handful of biscuits from her pocket and gave them to me. I ate them like a starving man. I greeted my uncle and aunt, and my uncle said:
It's good that you found us; we must try to keep together.
I was glad that he was no longer angry at me, and asked him if he had seen anyone else from the family.
They aren't here, he replied bitterly. They're rich; they'll manage to arrange something for themselves.
Miraleh and I walked along together. I told her everything that had happened to me since the morning, and as I unburdened myself I began to feel a little easier; the march became more pleasant, as if we were out on a stroll together, without being aware of our surroundings.
In the meantime we had been approaching the village of Zolkiewka, where we were joined by more Jews. The convoy grew. Miraleh asked me where they were taking us, as if I were expected to know the answer.
I don't know, I replied, but I heard that they are taking us to Lublin. From there it will be easier for me to get home - to Warsaw.
The reminder that I wanted to go back to the Warsaw ghetto saddened her and she became silent. There was nothing more I wanted to say, either. Suddenly it came to me that all my plans to return to the Warsaw ghetto were silly, for I had no way of realizing them. But I believed in my ability to manage - somehow - in the new place they were taking us to and I was pleased that I had become independent of my uncles and aunts in the village.
On the way, we passed alongside a large forest and, suddenly, one of the men broke away and escaped into the woods, followed by some others. The Germans fired after them, but as far as we could see, the men managed to get away. The Germans were too few, really, to control such a large convoy of people. Anyone who really wanted to escape could do so. But to where?
When we arrived at the local administrative town of Krasnystaw, it was already evening. We were all led to a large square alongside the railway track. People were confused from exhaustion and searched here and there for water, for a place to relieve themselves, to sit, to eat, to rest and to sleep. People lost contact with their families in the dark and confusion and it took a long time until they somehow managed to organize themselves under the open sky.
We also found a place for ourselves and my uncle shared out a slice of bread to each of us.
Suddenly there was a surge of movement and people began running. I joined in to find out what it was all about. In the centre of the square, there was a pushing and shoving as everyone tried to get to the centre of the commotion. There in the centre of the square, the Jewish community of Krasnystaw had brought bread and coffee and were distributing it to everyone. I found my way back and related what I had seen. I didn't feel the need for coffee or bread but I wanted to do something for the family and prove that I could be useful. I asked for a pan and said that I would bring some coffee and bread. I ran back to the centre.
In the few minutes that I been away, the crowd striving to get something had grown enormously into a solid mass. From every side came shouts. I knew that I had to bring something for the family. Using all my strength I forced a way through the crowd and in a moment found myself pushed hither and thither, without being able to do a thing. With all my strength, I managed to extricate myself from the mob and again found myself on the fringe of the crowd but I didn't dare to return empty-handed; I had to prove to them that I knew also to give and not just take. I ran round the outside of the crowd looking for some kind of an opening that I could perhaps exploit in the pushing mass of humanity.
In the meantime, a group of organizers with strong muscles were trying to restore some kind of order, hitting some of the people on the head with sticks. The people who had been pushing themselves forward were now pushing themselves backwards, in order to avoid the blows, the whole group swaying backwards and forwards. I exploited the opportunity and dashed forward between people's legs and found myself up against the table where they were distributing the coffee and bread. I received half a loaf of bread and coffee was poured into the pan.
The way back was easier. All of a sudden I felt tremendously strong and full of daring. I quickly found myself outside the throng but not much remained of the coffee. I felt myself something of a victor, but when I got back I found all the family asleep. I was so angry at them. After all it was for their sakes that I had gone to all that struggle. I had waited in anticipation for their reactions, for a few words of praise; but the effort had been wasted - it had all been in vain.
I looked around me. Most of the people were lying on the ground in groups, under the open sky, asleep. Snores and groans arose from every side. It seemed like ages since I had gone to bring the coffee. My anger had passed and been replaced by pity for all these poor people who had suddenly been plucked from their homes, from their beds, and now forced to lie on the ground, after a long day of suffering, and sleep from pure exhaustion. I looked at the people spread upon the ground. Only yesterday they all had houses, and beds, clothes and cupboards, wardrobes, cookers and kitchen utensils - all acquired with the passage of many years. Suddenly, for no reason, Germans came and threw them out of their homes, from their property, leading them to know one knew where - or for that matter, why - committing open murder in front of everyone, without fear or awe of man or heaven.
All day long the picture of the old man in his wheel-chair was before my eyes, with the tears streaming down his face. For as long as I could remember, ever since I was a little boy, I had been taught to be proud that I was a Jew. I loved everything connected with Judaism, our way of life, our Sabbaths and festivals, the family-life and the home; I spun dreams of the future, each one more beautiful than its predecessor; the world seemed like a Paradise on earth - but what had happened to us, the Jews? And what had happened to me? Mortal blows rained down upon me one after the other. When my father had been killed, it had seemed to me impossible that I could live without him, that there was no worse condition than the one I found myself in. Then came the turn of the ghetto in Warsaw - the cold and the hunger, then the escape from the ghetto and the separation from all my loved ones - my mother, my sister Devorah, my brother Yankeleh; now I had even lost my brother Mottel and my friend Leibel. I was alone, on my own among a multitude of strangers. And where were we going? According to a rumour I heard on the way, they were taking us to the Ukraine - further away still from Warsaw. From there it would certainly be infinitely more difficult to get back home. I only wanted one thing - to be with my mother, with Devorah, with little Yankeleh, and with that, I remembered our home in Lodz, before the war with all the family round the table.
Miraleh slept quietly. It seemed to me as if she smiled in her sleep as if she were enjoying a pleasant dream. Her cheeks gleamed in the night and to my eyes she seemed more beautiful than I had ever known her to be. A strong urge to bend over and kiss her rose up inside me but I lay down some distance from her, absorbed in my thoughts.
The whistle of a steam-engine, manuvering on the nearby track, woke me at dawn, while the early morning mists were still clearing. I was frozen stiff with the cold. In the early light I could see the mass of people lying all over the area, one side of which was bounded by fenced buildings and the other by the railway lines. Because of the intense cold, people were lying as close as possible to each other to share the warmth of their bodies. Here and there a few people were standing up, looking for somewhere to relieve themselves and to wash - facilities of that nature for so many people were not available. The men took out their prayer-shawls and phylacteries and begin reciting the morning prayers. Since at the last minute I had found myself leaving home empty-handed, I had neither my prayer-shawl and phylacteries, nor a prayer book, so I stood and prayed without words - I didn't know what to pray about in any case; all of a sudden I had the thought that God wasn't listening to me, in the same way as he wasn't listening to anyone else. He had abandoned us. Otherwise, how was it possible for Him to allow us to suffer so? A despairing thought came to me:
Perhaps God supported the Germans and not us?
In the meantime a platoon of black-uniformed soldiers, armed with rifles and fixed bayonets, and led by a German officer, approached.
The platoon stopped not far from us and after performing a few drill exercises, dispersed along the length of the railway track. We learned that they were Ukrainians serving in the SS. Later on a group of SS officers arrived. The locomotive, which had been shunting up and down the whole time, pushing, pulling and arranging wagons, had put together a long train of cattle wagons, which now stretched the length of track at the edge of the square. The Germans ran up and down the length of the train and we understood that the train was intended for us. Everyone arranged their bundles and were ready to go; people were impatient to move, if only to get to some final, fixed destination where they would stay.
Suddenly orders were given:
On your feet! Get on the train! Quickly! Quickly!
The Germans and Ukrainians hurried us up with shouts and blows.
The wagons were quite high, without steps and it was difficult to climb up. Although we all helped each other quite a few injured themselves in the struggle and the Germans forced more and more people into the already overcrowded wagons. I walked together with my uncle aunt and Miraleh to one of the wagons, climbed up quickly with my uncle and we turned to help my aunt and Miraleh to get up. In a few minutes we were all together, glad to be on the train. But the wagon quickly filled up, the Germans forcing more and more people in, until the pressure grew and with it the fear and the shouting until, at last, the heavy door was slammed shut on us and darkness fell. There was only a small window opening in one corner, high up near the roof. It was hot and stifling in the wagon and a terrible stink spread through the atmosphere. I began to get nauseous and wanted to vomit.
Time seemed to stand still. We all stood jammed together. I stood pressed unwillingly against Miraleh, ashamed to look into her eyes and ashamed that were forced into such a position. I could find no word to say to her.
A woman near me fainted. Somebody shouted:
Somebody's fainted here! Move back a bit and give her some air.
Everyone made the effort to move a little so as to make a little space for her but in vain. There was nowhere to move to. Suddenly we all felt a tremendous jolt, that threw us all of balance, to one end of the wagon, like a pile of rags, and immediately afterwards in the opposite direction, where a small space had been left. The train began to move. A little fresh air forced its way into the wagon through the small window and people thanked God that they could breath a bit.
The big question that was in everyone's mind was: where to? The men who were standing in the corner next to the little window occasionally helped one of their number to climb up and get a glimpse of the outside to try to identify where we were and in which direction we were travelling. After many attempts and arguments he claimed unequivocally and with satisfaction:
Thank God! We're not going to Lublin. We're travelling in exactly the opposite direction. It looks as if we're going to the Ukraine! I had especially wanted to go to Lublin because I had cherished the hope that from there I could get to Warsaw, but now I understood why it was good that we were not going there, because at Lublin they had put up a concentration camp called Majdanek and people were saying that there, the most terrible things were happening........
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
The Last of the Freibergs Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2017 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 18 Dec 2007 by LA