Autumn 1943 - Summer 1944
Translated by Selwyn Rose
The sound of shooting from the camp lessened and faded. Complete and utter darkness fell upon the world and we were swallowed up by the night and the forest. A sense of security enfolded me. I stopped to rest for a while with a few others. Within minutes we were joined by more, until we numbered about twenty-something. We looked unbelievingly at each other. We couldn't get a word out of our mouths after that mad dash into the forest. Those who had planned so well to bring warm clothes had thrown them off in the rush for freedom and were now dressed only in shirts and were feeling the chill night air. I hadn't thrown anything away. While running, I had taken my coat off but had continued to drag it along the ground behind me.
People were searching for members of their family or their friends from whom they had become separated in the turmoil of the escape, asking Have you seen so-and-so?In our group there were people from several countries and a few of the Russian prisoners-of-war. We had three rifles and a pistol. My rifle was taken from me and given to someone who could use it better, together with some ammunition which I had in my pockets. There was no time to rest. We had to get as far away from the camp as possible while we had the cover of darkness.
Some of the people who claimed that it wasn't a very good idea for us to continue as a large group, took themselves off into the forest on their own. At the same time others who had appeared, joined us.
We walked single-file with our armed men in the lead. We found that walking in the forest at night was hard work - difficult and full of stumbling-blocks, but we managed nevertheless to get ahead quite quickly. Once or twice I had the frightening feeling that I had lost the rest of the group and that I was alone. I tried to keep up with the leaders of the group as much as possible. We stopped once or twice during the night. On one occasion we heard distant firing, on another a dog barking. Our supposed experts argued among them-selves as to which way to go - the right or the left. We were caught in a natural forest, with tall undergrowth, the ground muddy with puddles here and there. Walking was very difficult. When it was finally decided to call a halt and rest up during the day-light hours, a deep sleep fell upon me almost immediately.
I awoke to the sound of an aircraft flying around, just above the tree-tops. I started to sit up but one of the men shouted at me:
Lie down and don't move; they're looking for us!
The aircraft roared over us a few times as it searched for a few minutes and then eventually moved off, and everyone stood up to ease and stretch their cramped muscles. I continued to lay. I was still completely bemused by the dream that I had dreamed only a few minutes previously.
I want to tell you about a dream I just had, I said and they all looked at me blankly. I dreamed that everyone had escaped from the camp and that I was the only one who was left there. I thought to myself, 'How can it be that everyone escaped and I've been left here on my own?' I stood on the parade-ground, surrounded by all the Germans, with Wagner at their head. They began interrogating me and asked me where everyone had gone and I said I didn't know. Wagner threatened to kill me and I thought - I've got to get away from here. I broke through the cordon surrounding me and ran towards the fence with the Germans shouting after me: 'Halt! Halt!' and shooting at me the whole time. I reached the fence and began climbing up, getting entangled with the barbed-wire. The more I struggled to release myself the more entangled I became until I completely enmeshed and couldn't get free at all. The Germans began running towards me...and luckily the noise of the aircraft woke me up - otherwise they would have caught me for sure!
Everyone burst out laughing, and I continued lying there, looking at the trees, listening to the chirping of the birds, smelling the scent of the forest.
I'm free. There is no barbed-wire fence round me. No Appel in the mornings. I won't see Wagner any more, nor Frenschel, nor Gomerski, nor Bollender and his dog Bari. I won't see any more 'transports'- men women and children walking to the gas-chambers. Eighteen indescribably long months of Sobibor are behind me. I'm at peace with myself and right now I don't want to think of the future.
For a long time we all just sat there telling each other our stories of the escape - his own personal saga of the revolt; each one saw it from a different standpoint; each one knew something slightly different from everyone else and all the pieces came together to form one composite whole.
Very quickly hunger began to make itself felt and became troublesome. Since the weak soup of yesterday's lunch none of us had eaten a thing. There were one or two people who had prepared something for themselves. In one pocket I had a bag of gold coins and in another some ammunition. Those of us
*We heard later that the whole German garrison in the area had been called out. Its men and those of several Ukrainian units had come looking for us helped by light spotter-aircraft. Their success was limited: a few people who had failed to lie low and hide during the day and some others who had been turned in by Polish farmers. Partisans were operating in the area and the Germans were hesitant of penetrating deeply into the forest for fear of running into them.
who had brought some bread shared with the rest and it helped a little to kill the hunger - but not the thirst.
At that point a lengthy discussion began on the question of what we should do and where we should go. No one knew exactly where we were. While in the camp we had heard that there were various partisan groups in the forests and we wanted to get to them - but how could we find them? The Russians said we should find the River Bug and cross it into Russia. I froze in fear because I didn't know how to swim and there were a few more in a similar situation who further suggested that it would be better for us to get to areas where there were people they knew among the farmers; where we could get food and perhaps hide. Not only that - the Germans were surely guarding the banks of the river very carefully against such an obvious ploy. In the end it was decided to continue walking in the direction we had started in order to get as far away as possible from the camp and to look for farms where we may be able to get some food.
With nightfall, hungry and thirsty, we renewed our journey until we reached the edge of the forest where we saw across the fields lights winking in the distance. To our ears came the barking of dogs. Apparently we had come across a small village of sorts and the natural desire arose to approach one of the houses and try to get some food, or even to find the local well and drink and drink until we could drink no more. But after discussing the situation we decided that the village was too far away and perhaps too dangerous - who knew, perhaps the Germans were waiting for us there? We returned to the woods and continued to walk in their shelter. Hunger troubled us but the thirst was worse. Our throats dried up and all we could do was swallow our saliva. At last we came to a place where there was some stagnant water and throwing ourselves flat on the ground we began to drink it, occasionally spitting out an insect or to which inadvertently got drawn into our mouths together with some weeds and other vegetation. I felt that I would explode from the amount I had drunk but I still kept on drinking until I felt as if I had drunk a barrel-full.
At midnight we came to a junction of sorts in the forest, and there, on a small bridge stretched across a dry streambed, was a signpost saying 'Sobibor Forest - 5 Km to Station'.
We were utterly dumbfounded. We were sure that we had left the camp at least thirty- or forty-kilometres behind us and here we were - only five kilometres away from the camp - with not very many hours of darkness ahead of us to find a hiding-place again. We began to retrace our footsteps, quickly, and without knowing where to go. When dawn came we 'camped' in a place that didn't seem all that safe and all that day we were tense and fearful of being discovered. With nightfall we again renewed our march, hungry, thirsty and depressed, now with only one aim - to get some food as quickly as possible, otherwise we would have no strength to continue.
After a short walk of about an hour, perhaps even less, we came back to exactly the same junction, with the same bridge and signpost. We were helpless. It was beyond our understanding how such a thing could have happened and we walked again - this time in the opposite direction - and yet again we came to the same place as if the victims of some evil spell or other. After careful thought we realised that the paths in the forest curved away from the straight line we were supposedly trying to walk and thus brought us cont-inually back to our starting point.
This time we were much more careful and insistent on our direction and which way we went and this time we came to another part of the forest, where, from its edges, we could see a few houses dotted here and there. Four of our armed men approached one of them. The farmer refused at first to open the door, but after being threatened by one of the men that they would break the door down, did as he was told. He gave them two large loaves of bread, a slab of butter and an onion. After two days without food we ate and ate and ate the tasty farm bread with the butter and onion and drank water which the men had brought from the well in milk urnsh they had found in the farm-yard. The men asked the farmer where we were, and when we discovered that we had put some distance between us and Sobibor, we cheered up quite a bit and continued walking with renewed vigour.
The following evening our armed men again approached a farm-house and obtained food by force of arms. When they returned from their mission they said that the farmer had warned them not to go in a certain direction because there was a German camp there; We continued in another direction. We were walking in single file, in open country when all of a sudden we heard shouts of Halt! Halt!and immediately afterwards shots were fired at us. One of the men shouted Down!and we all flung ourselves to the earth. Our own rifles answered with a few rounds and then our leader shouted again Run!
From a nearby German camp a siren wailed and warning shouts were heard in German. We all started running. I ran as quickly as I could and in a minute or two found myself alone. I was scared. I sank to the ground and through the trees saw my comrades running at quite some distance from me. Heavy shooting came from the direction of the camp and flares lit the night sky but none of my friends was hit. Apparently the Germans thought we were partisans and, as usual, perhaps a little afraid, but in any case didn't chase after us. There's no way of knowing whether the farmer deliberately misled us or if our men misunderstood his directions.
Since our escape we had been on the run for four days without knowing where we were going and without the faintest sign of hope that we would achieve our object of meeting up with, and joining the partisans. The farmers that we asked replied that they didn't know anything about the partisans but they probably didn't want to tell us. Or perhaps there really weren't partisans in the area? How much longer could we run around aimlessly through the forests, from place to place, without being discovered?
Thus we all arrived at the simple conclusion that we would have to cross the Bug because on the other side - said the Russians - there were surely partisans. According to them, there were several narrow, fordable spots along the river where the swimmers could easily help the others across.
Around noon our look-out reported that he could see a man in civilian clothes walking in the forest carrying a rifle. After a short discussion, it was decided to approach him and find out who he was. And, in truth, how were we going to find the partisans if we didn't ask? Two armed men took up positions under cover while two others, also armed approached him and shouted:
The man immediately surrendered, identified himself as a Polish partisan and that he was happy to meet us. According to him, his unit would be delighted to have us join them. Our joy was great. Everyone shook hands with him and he said:
You're must all be very hungry. Wait here, I'll go and bring some food, together with our commander and then we'll take you back to our camp.
The man took himself off while we happily awaited his return - we had achieved our object! We waited impatiently for the man to rejoin us and take us to his group but an hour passed and then another hour and no one appeared. Doubts crept in. Perhaps he had lied and would never return? When we were already despairing of seeing him again, our look-out reported that the partisans were coming. We breathed a sigh of relief. A group of about ten men, dressed in a mixture of civilian and military clothes, armed with a mixture of all sorts of strange weapons, machine-guns, and bayonettes, approached us. We greeted them with happy shouts. They brought us food and a big bottle of vodka. An elderly man, dressed in a Polish military hat, apparently a little drunk, introduced himself as the commander. He said he could guess that we were hungry and that we should eat first and we'd talk later. Somebody began to cut the bread. Then the man asked:
What arms have you got?
Our men hurriedly brought the three rifles and the pistol and the man said,
O.K! give them to us and we'll give you others in their place.
Before we had time to think or react the Poles had taken our few arms. The man immediately gave some kind of sign or order to his men and stepping back a few paces they all opened fire on us. I jumped up and ran wildly until all my strength had gone and then sank to the ground. After a few minutes I heard the sound of running and looking up saw two of my group.
The three of us broke out crying. We hoped that others had managed to escape the cruel murder. We lay still and listened to every rustle around us but saw no one from our group. Only three of us had survived. One of them was from the Russian P.O.W's, named Semen aged twenty-something, big limbed and twice as broad as me. He moved heavily, like a bear on two feet and typified, in my eyes, the Russian soldier. He was unemotional, as if nothing in the world mattered to him. In the revolt he had killed one of the Germans. During the actual escape he had found it difficult to run and had discarded a long coat and a shorter one from underneath and was now clad only in a thin shirt. The second was Avraham, eighteen-years-old - my senior by two years - with a real baby-face, and apple-red cheeks, tubby and short but still half a head taller than me. He had arrived at the camp a few months after me, had worked at all the different jobs and for a long time in the Bahnhof Kommando.
Night fell. The three of us sat together somewhat introspectively, without saying a word. What was there to say? The blow that had fallen upon us so suddenly and from such an unexpected quarter both hurt and enraged us. After the success of the revolt and the escape from the camp, after tasting victory and the happiness of being free, in the forest, to fall into such a stupid trap - our friends murdered by Polish killers. Were these really the partisans that we so much wanted to join? What's the point of we three remaining alive without arms, without knowing where we were and what we were supposed to do from here on? My old wish to die, which had long since faded to be replaced by the determination to hang on, returned to take root. There was no point in struggling - our fate seemed sealed.
The first to arouse himself from the state of despondency and to start thinking somewhat constructively was Semen. He said in his poor Yiddish:
We have to think what to do. We can't stay here in this forest because those murderers will catch us in the morning. We have to get as far away from here as we possibly can.
The three of us began striding through the forest, staying as close together as we could. I had lost all confidence. From time to time I was startled by the sound of a bird suddenly flying above my head, or the sound of a rabbit or other animal rustling through the undergrowth ahead of us. Again and again it seemed to me that behind every tree someone was waiting in ambush to waylay us and fall upon us. After an hour's walk we came to open country. Walking on the ploughed land was difficult. We constantly stumbled on the clods of earth. Nevertheless I felt a certain relief from the fear which had bothered me in the depths of the forest.
We passed not far from a village. We saw the lights twinkling, heard dogs barking and men's voices; I could also hear the voices of children singing. I remembered my own childhood, when we were on holiday. I used to sit on the threshold of the house, looking into the darkness listening to all the night sounds. Now I was myself in the mysterious dark, looking jealously from without at a world into which I could not step.
Walking through the fields exhausted us. We sat down to rest. Our eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. The silhouettes of the houses could be clearly seen and we could sense, somehow, the evening life of the village. Hungry, we wanted to approach one of the houses to ask for some food but hesitated out of fear that we may fall foul of those same murderers here, in this very village. We knew that we had to get as far away as possible and continued walking. We crossed ploughed and barren fields. Neither the voices of men nor the sounds of domestic animals could be heard; their place was taken by the croaking of frogs and the chirruping of crickets. From afar came the sound of a car moving down a road and, in my head, the sound of the fusillade of bullets which, only a short time before, had sown death and disaster among our group.
After walking for some hours we began to worry that we wouldn't find a forest to hide in during the daylight hours and we would be without cover when dawn broke. We began walking more quickly until we were almost running. Suddenly the darkness seemed to increase until it was so thick we felt we could almost touch it. We knew that dawn was not far off when, to our great good fortune, in the middle of our blind run for life, we found ourselves in a forest which seemed to have sprung out of the earth like a mushroom after the rain. We were swallowed up within its welcoming shelter.
We awoke to the full light of day, snuggled together against the cold and covered by my coat, the only one we had. I lay still for a few minutes and looked around me. Complete peace. Above my head majestic conifers richly decorated with cones; in my nostrils the pungent scent of pine trees. It was impossible not to take pleasure in all these feelings which also reinstilled some of the confidence lost in the previous day's experiences in the forest. Hunger troubled us more and more. We felt a general lassitude and weakness. For two whole days and a night we had eaten nothing. I turned my pockets inside out for the umpteenth time hoping to find a few crumbs of bread, but only found in one pocket my bag of gold coins and in the other a carton of bullets. Why on earth I was still carrying them I don't know but something prevented me from throwing them away. Avraham said he didn't like this forest very much because there weren't very many trees - we could be seen from quite a long way. He was quite perturbed about the thing and Semen and I tried to calm him. We two were quite relaxed about our situation in that respect. Semen said that whatever happened - that evening we were going up to the first house we saw, even if Hitler himself lived there, or we would die from hunger. I agreed with him but Avraham said that if we enter a house we'll get caught for sure.
We got up and wandered around the forest here and there in the hope of finding something that looked edible. We tried chewing various plants and wild fruits but found them so bitter as to be somewhat frightening, and we had no water to wash our mouths out. Eventually we arrived at a place where there were rags and broken utensils strewn around here and there. The undergrowth was flattened and it was clear that someone had remained there for a time. We looked around us but could see no living creature. We searched among the garbage to see if anything edible remained or gave a clue as to who had been here. We lifted up and examined every scrap of paper and thus I discovered some pages of a prayer-book. There could be no doubt about the identity of the people. Jews had been here! Where were they now? What had happened to them? At a distance of a few hundred metres we again found signs of the presence of people, they too were probably Jews.
The persistent hunger gave us no rest. We became weaker and weaker until we were half asleep. We knew that if we didn't find food quickly we wouldn't have the strength to go on and we would die of hunger where we were. In that condition I fell into a deep sleep which lasted about an hour. When Semen said that it was time to move the sunlight was still streaming through the trees. Avraham said What? walk in daylight? That's crazy! But Semen explained to him:
We'll walk carefully until we get towards the edge of the forest. We'll find a house and when it gets dark, we'll go and ask for some food. Early in the evenings the houses are still open; later at night they'll refuse to open their doors.
The thought that in a while we might be able to eat something spurred us on. We strode forward energetically. The sun sank slowly towards the horizon. Occasionally we stopped to listen for signs of life around us. Suddenly we heard the sound of a man talking to his horse. We walked in the direction of the sound, which became clearer and clearer and then before us appeared a beautiful, tranquil valley with small farmers' huts spread here and there. We lay down surveying the area with our eyes and chose a hut closest to the forest. There, we decided to go when it became dark.
Time seemed to stand still - since the creation of the world there had never been such a long twighlight between sunset and darkness as there was on that day. We saw farmers returning from the fields and a youth leading cows back to the barn from the pastures. Completely lacking in the patience to wait for darkness, we got up and began to walk in the direction of the house while it was still possible to see figures moving around at a distance of some tens of metres.
When we got to the house we found a large-limbed, middle-aged woman in the yard. She paled when she caught sight of us. She looked at us fearfully, as if we were monsters, and asked:
What do you want?
We want food, I replied. We'll pay you.
The woman, apparently, didn't listen to everything I said, but cut me short, saying:
You're the ones who escaped from Sobibor....Dear God, the Germans are looking for you everywhere. Get away from here, quickly! She measured us from head to toe and seemed to relax, saying:
Clear off, or I'll.... without completing the sentence.
Give us something to eat and we'll go, said Avraham, and Semen - who didn't know Polish, added - Da!
The woman said, Wait a moment. and disappeared round the back of the house. After a minute or two, three men appeared - two adults and a youth, carrying pitch-forks and an axe. As soon as we came into their line of sight, they began cursing us and threatening to kill us if we didn't clear off immediately. We started to retreat. The three of them continued to advance towards us until we had no alternative but to break into a run. The farmers ran after us for about forty metres and then stood and watched us as we got farther away from them. Semen cursed the Poles and told us of what had happened a few days previously when two of his armed friends had asked for food and how the farmer and his wife, into whose house they had gone, brought them bread and butter and even blessed them.
If I'd had a gun I'd have killed every one of them, he said, referring to our recent 'hosts'.
After we had calmed down a little, we decided to ask for food at another house and approached one at the other end of the village. The house was small and close by was a stable and a threshing-area. No one was to be seen outside, but light from a candle or a lamp was shining through the window. We knocked on the door.
Who's there? a woman's voice asked.
People - like you! I answered.
Silence. After a moment, a man's voice asked a second time:
I didn't know what to answer and finally said:
We want to buy food!
We've nothing to sell, clear off, the man's voice answered.
We're hungry; we haven't eaten for two days. We've got gold and we'll pay you whatever you ask....
Clear off. We haven't got any food and we don't open the door at night for anyone. If you don't clear off, I'll call the Germans the man shouted in an angry voice.
We felt that we wanted to smash the door down or break the windows in order to get in but we had neither the physical nor mental strength to do so. We took ourselves back to the forest. On the way, we searched the ground for about an hour, for anything which might be edible, and even though we knew that at that season there was nothing ripening for harvest, we did find a number of potatoes in a ploughed field and we ate a few of them.
Until then we had been careful not to remain more than a day in the same area because it was extremely dangerous to do so. This time we were so desperate that again we didn't care too much about what happened to us. So we went back to the same forest where we had been all day and didn't even bother to penetrate deeply into its shelter. We lay down hopelessly. After a while, Avraham woke up when he heard voices and woke us up. We listened and heard the voices of people working in the fields.
They'll catch us here, Avraham said tensely. We shouldn't have stayed here. Let's get out of here, quickly.
But we felt too weak to get up and walk. This was the third day that we hadn't eaten anything except the few rotten potatoes we had found on the ground the previous night. The hunger attacked us in waves and I could understand the people who had been coming to Sobibor, telling of escaping from the ghettos, or jumping from the moving transports and trying to exist in the forests, in the end only having to return to the ghetto and arriving at Sobibor, discovering from their own experience that there was nowhere for Jews - anywhere. They were hunted and persecuted, not only by the Germans, but also by the Poles and Ukrainians. It became clear to us, also, in the few days since our escape from Sobibor, that we had no place in this world. We despaired so much, indeed, that the three of us came to the general conclusion that we'd be better off committing suicide - we'd hang ourselves on three trees and have done with it. We had, after all, achieved our main object - revenge upon the Germans. We had seen them lying dead with our own eyes, their corpses ripped like wild animals. We had escaped from the camp and tasted freedom. Now, we could die peacefully.
Nevertheless and in spite of everything, we wanted to live. Instead of escaping into the depths of the forest, we were drawn towards the voices of the people working in the fields. We went down towards the valley, near the edge of the forest. There we saw a farmer slowly leading his horse along the furrows and ploughing his field. Suddenly my heart leaped: I saw a sack lying at the foot of a tree. The three of us stole closer and found in the sack a large loaf of home-made farm bread, which the farmers bake themselves - it must have weighed a few kilograms - a large slice of cheese and next to the sack a jug of milk. We remained still for a moment, hypnotized. We couldn't believe our eyes. It was a real miracle - Manna sent from heaven. Everyone tore off a piece of the bread - the bread was fresh and tasted like paradise - we drank cold milk from the jug, and only then did we awaken to our danger. We snatched the sack and ran for our lives. Suddenly, we were imbued with superhuman strength. We ran quickly. Several times we wanted to stop and sit down and eat but we continued running in order to get as far away as possible from the scene of the crime and until we felt we had really gone far enough and wouldn't be discovered.
We ate the bread and cheese without a word passing between us. We could have finished it all, there and then, but decided to save half the booty for the following day. After we had satisfied our hunger the will to live surged back. The sack we had found was like a sign to us that we can carry on, we can survive in the forest. Even though we knew, deep inside ourselves, that a miracle like that - finding a sack of food - wasn't going to happen more than once, we interpreted it as proof that we must never give up hope.
That same evening,we didn't go looking for food from the farmers. The next day we ate the rest of the bread - and the bread which had been so big, gradually got smaller and smaller until it was no more, and left us steeped in sadness. During the following days, we again began searching for food among the farmers and again met with refusals. We continued to roam from place to place. Here and there, in the forest, we found signs that Jewish people had been about. One day we were caught by some Polish wood-choppers who threatened us with their axes. I gave them a few gold coins and they left us in peace.
One night we were walking in open country and by dawn hadn't found any cover to hide up in during the day. Day was already breaking and we were still running through open fields until we came, by chance, upon a small copse. When we got into the copse we immediately discovered that we were very close to a village. Early in the morning, we saw farmers close by us, and young lads taking cattle out to pasture, and we, terrified that we would be discovered, lay close to the ground all day long without raising our heads. We became hungry and the day seemed endless. From our hide-away, at a distance of about three-hundred metres, stood a small cabin in the field, and we decided that with darkness we would go there and ask for food. Towards evening the farmers and their herds returned to the village from the fields. At twilight we got up and went towards the cabin. As we got closer we heard the farmer working in the barn. We crept in and saw an elderly farmer preparing food for his animals. When I saw a pile of turnips in front of me I picked one up and began to take a bite out of it. The farmer saw me and said:
Don't eat that, son. That's for the cattle, not for people.
We told the farmer that we wanted something to eat and that afterwards we'd clear off. The old man looked at us and without asking us who we were or where we came from, said:
Don't worry. You won't go out of my house hungry.
He called his wife and said to her:
Mother! Prepare lots of food for supper. We've got three guests and they're very hungry.
The farmer finished feeding his only cow and told us to wait in the barn until we were called. You understand, he said, we have to be very careful these days.
From our place in the barn we saw someone ride into the farm-yard on a horse. The farmer went to meet him and they exchanged a few words together. It was the farmer's son, returning from work in the fields. An hour later the farmer came out of the house and walked here and there looking and listening. Satisfied, he approached our hiding-place and invited us into the cabin. It was old and small; one room which was used as living-room, bed-room and kitchen. The roof was thatched. By the light of the oil-lamp standing on the table and weakly illuminating the room, we could see the poverty of the home but to me it seemed as if we had entered a palace. A homely pleasant warmth wrapped round me and the smell of good cooking wafted into my nostrils. Without formalities we sat at the table and the woman served bowls of steaming soup - milk soup with potatoes, pieces of dough and onions. The room filled with vapours. Suddenly I felt very hot, a cold sweat covered my body and the room began to sway. I wanted to control the terrible feeling, but found myself outside in the cool air, with my face bathed in sweat. Next to me stood Avraham, Semen and the old farmer, who I heard saying: He's O.K. now.
Semen grinned at me and said:
Now you find time to faint? Just when they start to give us food? Come on, get up. The food's waiting for us on the table.
The bowls were big and full but we finished them easily and the woman filled them again, saying:
Eat, eat, There's plenty.
It was so pleasant in the cabin. There was no desire to go out into the cold night and continue wandering around. We continued to sit round the table and told our hosts about Sobibor, of the revolt and the experiences we had endured since the escape. The farmer listened intently, sat and pondered a few minutes and said:
The war will finish shortly. The Germans are being beaten and are retreating. We've got to hang on until the end. I'll hide you. We'll build a bunker in the barn where you can hide during the day. There, I'll bring you food. What we eat - you'll eat!
After all that had happened to us in the preceeding days, it was hard to believe that there were also people like these, who were prepared to help us and endanger themselves. It seemed to me that a miracle was taking place before my eyes and that the farmer was no less than an angel sent from heaven. Suddenly someone knocked on the door. The three of us hid. One of the neighbours had come to say that the Germans were coming to the village tomorrow to collect the 'contigent'- a tax that they levied on the farmers. The farmer looked embarrassed and apologised that in the face of the arrival of the Germans he wouldn't be able to hide us after all.
We got up to go but the old man told us to wait a while because he had no bread in the house to give us and he wanted to send his wife to bring some from a neighbour. He sent the son as well. The woman returned with two large loaves in her arms and the son came in carrying bottles of milk. The old man put the things in a sack and handed it to us. We parted from the woman, and the son who hadn't said a word all evening and went out into the night. The farmer asked us where we thought of going. Not knowing ourselves, we said:
To some large forest or other, so that the same thing doesn't happen like yesterday when we found ourselves with nowhere to hide at day-break.
The man walked with us quite a long way, as if it was hard for him to leave us, in spite of the fact that we asked him to return home. At last we approached the forest. As we began to separate from him I took out of my pocket several gold coins to give him but he refused to accept them.
I don't know if I'll live another day, I told him, while you're having a hard time making ends meet. The money can help you.
I don't need a thing, he replied. This is how I've lived all my life and this is how I'll continue - and that gold may save your life! May God preserve me from taking money from you.
I wanted so much to give this man something. I begged him to take just one coin but he steadfastly refused. He hugged each one of us for a long time before releasing us. We kissed. He cried until his face was completely wet and I cried with him - for many days afterwards I could still feel the stubbly bristles of his beard on my cheek from his last lingering hug when we finally parted.
The contact with the old farmer encouraged us no end and luck stayed with us for the next few days. We managed to get food, usually at a high price. Once, when a house-wife refused to give us food, we showed her a gold coin and she brought us some bread and meat and even offered us a hot meal in exchange for another coin. We agreed to her offer, of course, but she asked us to return at midnight and wait until she signalled us with a candle from the window before approaching. She seemed afraid, and between ourselves a difference of opinion broke out as to whether it was advisable to return to that house. Avraham said it was quite definitely a trap, that was the only reason for inviting us back at midnight - so that murderers would come and catch us. But we didn't want to give up the chance of a hot meal so easily, so instead of returning to the forest, we stayed in the vicinity of the house. We kept a look-out all day long on the house and satisfied ourselves that no one came to it all day long; only the woman went out a few times to draw water and take fire-wood into the house. Time dragged endlessly and to our pleasure the woman signalled us to approach long before midnight. We entered the house and again I was enveloped in the warmth of a home and the smell of cooking. Together with the feeling of happiness we soon forgot all the safety precautions we had promised ourselves to take. The table was laid. The woman was alone, and now, by the light of the lamp, it was possible to see that she was in her thirties, with an attractive face. Semen said to me:
I hope that you're not going to faint today....! and the two of us burst out laughing.
The woman asked us if we wanted to drink something strong with our meal saying us that she had a bottle of very good vodka but.. it will cost another gold coin. Semen was quick to react with Da! Da! and the bottle appeared. The vodka had its effect on all of us and the meal was pleasant and jolly.
Semen insisted that the house-wife should drink with us and after she had done so she, too, became a little bit jolly. Semen got up and said a few words in Russian, approached the woman and kissed her. Under the influence of the vodka I also found the courage to get up with the same purpose in mind. My legs rocked under me, my head began to spin and, staggering on my feet, I went up to the woman and kissed her on the cheek. The woman returned me the kiss and I was filled with happiness. Afterwards Avraham kissed her as well. It was good; time passed quickly. Eventually the woman reminded us that it was very late and we had to leave the house. Unwillingly and with heavy legs, we went out into the night. On parting the woman said we could come every night whenever we wanted to and she would prepare meals for us.
As we were leaving her I felt the desire to kiss her again rising within me and to feel again the sweetness of her lips but my courage had already deserted me - the chill of the autumn night air soon drained my head of the last effects of the vodka and I had returned to reality.
But on the way back to the forest we all continued to laugh gaily.
One day we passed by a lonely house that appeared to be deserted. When we approached it we were greeted by an elderly couple who invited us in for a meal. Our hosts, who seemed, in our opinion, somewhat poverty-stricken, didn't appear to be farmers. Their speech was clear and educated and their clothes the clothes of city-dwellers. It quickly transpired that they were Polish refugees from Poznan. We remained in their company until a late hour. The man taught us to find our way at night by showing us the north star and how to identify the Great and Little Bears and also to know which direction was north while hidden in the depths of the forest, by the moss which grew only on the north side of tree trunks where the sun never shone directly.
Grateful, we parted from the wonderful couple, good people in all senses of the word, who had stretched out a helping hand, generously, and at considerable risk to themselves. They were, however, together with others like them, in a very small minority of a few individuals against the, literally, scores - if not hundreds and thousands who behaved towards us with open hostility; and not that they were just unwilling to offer assistance but would actually chase us and try to kill us. With the general population so very hostile, the kindness of those special few was even more conspicuous and gallant and it was they who gave us the strength and will to continue and struggle for survival and not to lose the basic faith that Man had been created in the image of God.
Every night, for about three weeks after the escape from Sobibor, we wandered from place to place, from one hiding place in this forest to another hiding place in that forest, without having a definite aim or destination. Through this experience we learned to survive in the special circumstances in which we found ourselves.
For some time now I had stopped being afraid of the forest, from its sounds and the rustlings of its natural inhabitants. So much so, that in every new forest that we came to I felt at home, as if the forest belonged to me and entry to it for others was forbidden.
The forest has a uniqueness all its own - once you become accustomed to it, it gives you a feeling of security and freedom. Always, in the wink of an eye, you can lose yourself behind and between the trees and hide in the depths of the undergrowtht. There you are protected from the outside world.
Three of us had survived from a group of escapees which originally numbered over twenty people, perhaps even the only ones from the hundreds who succeeded in the original escape from Sobibor - perhaps we are even the last three - and only Jews in Poland. The Germans, at any rate, could not become resigned to us, Sobibor revolutionaries, continuing to exist. At every place we immediately heard the warning from people: The Germans are searching everywhere for you! Run quickly! Had the whole German army really been commanded to hunt us down and kill us, even now, with the heavy defeats and losses they are suffering and with their constant retreat? Was it really so important to the Germans to kill us? They certainly wouldn't want any survivors from Sobibor alive to tell the tale of extermination that had been going on there. And that was precisely why we had to survive. Whatever happens.
The three of us came to terms with our own survival. The chances of finding other survivors like us, from Sobibor, seemed almost nil. Now, it was up to us to exist in the forest, like every other animal whose natural home it was, and only thus would we survive. Our moods changed together with the state of our hunger - when we managed to find sustenance and ate well, we were optimistic; when we were hungry our spirits fell accordingly and we became depressed and filled with despair.
Another blow fell upon us from the skies. Cold, autumn rains began to fall and we had no shelter from them in the forest. For a time we could shelter beneath the trees and get some small protection from the branches then all of a sudden the leaves would shed all the water that had accumulated on their surface and down it would come on top of us and we would get drenched in a moment, shivering with cold. We would try to huddle together as much as possible for warmth and cover ourselves with the one coat that we had but it was not sufficient. When one of us tugged a little to cover himself the other two were exposed. The rain also kept us more or less confined to one place; walking in the forest became extremely difficult because the low-hanging branches obscured our view ahead and in open country, in the fields, walking was out of the question since our clothes simply became water-logged and too heavy to drag around and our boots sank into the mud so much that we would actually become stuck to the spot and they would get pulled from our feet when we tried to release ourselves.
And winter itself had not yet arrived. What we would do when the snows started, when the temperatures plummeted beneath zero? We preferred at the moment not to think of it.
But when the rain stopped and the sun shone through the clouds warming us and drying our clothes, smiles again lit up our faces. The forest was strikingly beautiful after the rain. Its strong smell was intoxicating and the singing of the birds lightened the heart.
One evening, as usual, we left the forest in search of food. Walking in the muddy fields was very hard and progress slow. We didn't find any farmers' houses, where we thought we might try our luck in getting food. After a few hours walking, exhausted and sweating, we came to a forest and took cover in it. As we lay down with empty stomachs, to try to sleep, we heard the barking of dogs. Avraham jumped up and said that we had to get out of this forest; we had to continue walking and look for another place to hide. Both Semen and I were 'dead' and didn't want to move. Moreover, the sound of a dog barking awakened within us the hope that the following evening we may find a house in the area where we could get some food.
In the morning we walked around, getting to know the area and while we were still making our way slowly and calmly around, - 'looking the place over', so to speak - the forest was not much different from any other - Semen noticed a jug hanging on one of the trees. We went to have a look at what was inside and discovered it to be full of peas, soaking in water. We stood there dumbly - the jug was clean, the peas and the water fresh; somebody, it seems, left them there with the intention of cooking them the following day - are they still around or have they left the area? There were no signs of life anywhere in the vicinity, so we took the jug with us - today we would dine on cooked peas! We continued on our way through the forest with a strange feeling - who, for all that, had hung the jug and peas on the tree? Almost immediately we began to find a row of bottles filled with water, stuck into the ground. We were still standing and wondering at our new discovery and what it was for, when there was a strange rustling of branches and, as if from under the ground at our feet there peeped a short fellow, axe in hand who shouted at us:
His face was pale and serious and the axe held raised threateningly towards us, but he suddenly let out in Yiddish:
Are you Jews?
Yes! the three of us answered as one.
The chap's pale face split into a wide smile:
Don't be afraid. You're among Jews here!
For a moment we were absolutely motionless and dumb, unable to believe that the person standing facing us, waving an axe in our face was Jewish. While we were thus standing another one appeared between the trees, this one with a typical Gentile face - sleek blond hair, blue eyes, broad-shouldered and dressed in farmer's clothes. He welcomed us with open arms saying in Yiddish:
Shalom aleichem, Jews!
The two of them hugged us and kissed us and then led us a short distance between the trees. Suddenly we came upon a group of people sitting around and even before we had managed to get a good look at their faces there were hysterical shouts of Bereleh! Bereleh! Avraham!
We fell on each others' necks, hugging and crying - they were all from Sobibor! Ya'acov the gardener was there, Haim the jeweller, another two Jews from Poland and two from Holland. We must have looked a disaster it seems, because the next words out of their mouths were: Give them something to eat and drink. One of them poured tea into mugs for us and another offered sliced bread saying:
We know you're very hungry, but in a while we'll all eat. In the meantime have this just to keep you going.
That hot, morning tea in the forest was like the finest vintage wine to me. While drinking it the feeling crept through me that I'd arrived home and in the twinkling of an eye all our troubles were ended, over and done with.....
'Broad-shoulders' took the jug of peas from us, poured them into a bucket, added some other ingredients and placed it on the camp-fire. The smell of cooking spread through the forest and mixed with the smell of the pines after the rain.
Where have you been up until now? We were asked. Its almost a month since the revolt at Sobibor!
The three of us told our story in detail and while I was speaking, I felt as if I was conversing with my family. The group which we had found, had been in this forest about a fortnight. They too had experienced many adventures. In the beginning they had been quite a big group, afterwards they had split up - most of them turning east with the intention of crossing the Bug into Russia. Four of them went in the direction of Chelm under the guidance of Ya'acov the gardener, who knew the area. There they hoped to find a hiding-place in one of the villages among the farmers in return for money of which they had plenty. On the way they found two Dutch Jews who joined them, and the two brothers, Jurziek and Mannik Syrtchuk, who had been in that forest for more than a year.
The brothers explained to them how hard it was and even dangerous to hide among the farmers - the whole of their family had hidden in a village with farmers. Another farmer had informed on them and the Germans came and took them. Only two remained - Jurziek and Mannik. Their parents had been the owners of a butcher's shop in Chelm. Mannik, the senior of the two, had lived and been educated with members of the family in Warsaw, where he had studied at good schools and excelled as a student. When war broke out, he returned home in order to be with his immediate family during the difficult times ahead. Later, he tried to convince his parents to escape eastwards, to Russia, but his father absolutely refused to consider going ..to a country of heretics. Mannik escaped to Russia but became quickly disappointed with the Soviet régime and after a year returned to Chelm. His younger brother Jurziek had been his father's helper in the shop since childhood and used to go with him to the local villages buying poultry. When he grew up, he used to go alone, learning their way of life and making many friends among them. More than once he would return from his rounds to the villages alone, at night, so he learned how to defend and protect himself from attackers - man and animal. When the Germans entered Chelm and the situation of the Jews steadily worsened, Jurziek was the only supporter of his family, since his clearly non-Jewish appearance allowed him to continue travelling around the villages without hindrance, buying poultry.
In the summer of 1942 when the Germans conducted their first 'Aktzia' in Chelm, whose victims were sent to Sobibor, the Syrtchuks managed to find a hiding place. Later, Jurziek decided to hide his family with farmers because his instincts told him that something unpleasant was happening to the Jews being loaded onto the trains. Thanks to his many good contacts and the promise of a reasonable payment he managed to hide his family, while he and his brother Mannik went out to work each day on the farms, returning in the evening with food for the family. One night, they returned carrying food and found nobody there - in the morning the Germans had come and taken them all. According to the information that the brothers managed to get, as a result of one of the farmers informing on them.
Jurziek, who felt guilty about the whole thing because he had not been successsful in protecting his family, was stricken with remorse and despair and saw no purpose in remaining alive. Thanks only to Mannik he rallied. One evening, when the two brothers went to visit one of the farmers, they fell foul of a German patrol. When they heard the order: Halt! Halt! Jurziek whispered to his brother:
You run to the right, I'll go left - if one of us gets caught, maybe the other will manage to get away!
The Germans opened fire. Yurkak jumped aside and flattened himself, crawled away some distance and then ran. Mannik ran in the opposite direction but upright. The Germans spotted him, opened fire and he was hit in the thigh, falling down. When the Germans found him lying there wounded, they asked him who he was, he told them he was a farmer's son from a distant village. When they asked him why he hadn't stopped when ordered he didn't have a good answer ready so they took him to the nearby village and put him under guard for interrogation the following morning. The guards, who knew their prisoner was injured, didn't expect him to escape. Mannik knew that the following morning would be his undoing, made a supreme effort, jumped from the window and crawled for hours until he reached the safety of a nearby forest.
Jurziek, who couldn't imagine to himself that the Germans had hit Mannik and injured him, went to the furthest edge of the forest, where the two brothers usually met each other by arrangement. When he saw that his brother didn't arrive after quite a long time, Jurziek began to worry more and more and eventually came to the conclusion that Mannik had been caught by the Germans. Suddenly, in the total silence surounding him, he heard the sound of groaning. Walking in the direction of the sound, he found, a short distance away, his brother lying on the ground, wounded. Mannik, who was usually rather pessimistic in his outlook, told his brother that it was a pity to waste the effort trying to save him - he was going to die, anyway. Jurziek refused to accept this. When he examined the wound in the darkness, he found that the bullet had gone into the thigh making a small hole and out the other side making a big one. He picked his brother up and carried him to a good hiding place, placed a make-shift fence of light branches round him as some kind of protection, and set out to walk to Chelm, some fifteen kilometres away. He got there about dawn and, although Chelm was now Judenrein, he walked openly to the centre of town without taking any precautionary measures, until he found a pharmacy. When he got inside, he drew a knife from under his coat and putting its point up against the belly of the pharmacist said:
Give me everything I need to treat and heal a bullet-wound - but a lot, enough to last long enough to heal. If you don't, I'll stick the knife in you.
The terrified pharmacist made a parcel of spring-water, creams, cotton-wool and the rest of the things and Jurziek made off, out of the town, as quickly as he could. He got safely to the forest where he found his brother fighting off a wild boar, which had been attracted by the scent of the blood coming from the wound. He drove the animal off and began treating his brother according to the instructions given him by the pharmacist. Mannik, who had lost a lot of blood, was very weak and Jurziek went every evening to the farmers looking for chickens, eggs and milk products to feed his brother and get him back to health. Thus, deep in the forest, completely without any help, Jurziek managed to nurse his brother back to health and then swore never to leave him again - the fate of the one would be the fate of the other.
The feeling of being among Jews again was heady: it was like a dream listening to people speaking Yiddish again, to see the secure expression spread over their faces, to sit together as a group of comrades round a camp fire in the forest. After all, we hadn't hoped to meet Jews in the forest; we didn't know what to hope for. Maybe we had just stopped thinking altogether. We were living by instinct alone - the life of wild animals.
We had the tasty and nourishing soup which Jurziek had prepared, and in spite of it being very hot swallowed it quickly, to the wonder of our comrades who couldn't take their eyes off us. Jurziek insisted that we eat as much as we wanted - Eat, children. There's plenty! he kept repeating. Afterwards he brought a bottle of something strong and declared: We have to drink 'Le-Haim', in honour of our three guests! I took a sip from the strong, smelly stuff and felt as if I'd just received a tremendous blow. My head began to spin, my tongue refused to obey me and only with difficulty did I manage to speak a few words.
The kid's drunk already.... I heard someone say.
I lay down on my back, looking up at the tree-tops, but the forest refused to stand still; it moved up and down at different speeds and it seemed to me as if I stood on the brink of a precipice, ready to fall down, that I was held rooted by the ground, the trees, the people sitting round me - all moving hither and thither, ceaselessly and without me being able to control them. In the end I just gave up fighting the strange feeling and began to enjoy it, feeling myself as if being swung in a cradle. All of a sudden a picture came into my mind from my distant childhood: I was very small, it was in the summer, at holiday-site near Warsaw called Mechalin. We stayed there in a rented house, some family friends and us. The women and children stayed there together all the summer, while the men-folk spent the weekdays in Warsaw, joining us on the week-ends. The houses we stayed in were in the forest, and on Saturdays, after we returned from the synagogue, someone suggested that we take all the tables and chairs outside and sit together in the shade of the trees. Everyone girded up their loins and got busy - the men carried the tables, we, the children, the chairs and the women brought the food each had prepared. Everyone was excited. Wine flowed, everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves to an extent that surprised me. Now, hidden in the swaying forest, I pictured clearly that same table with everyone sitting round it: my father sitting at its head, my mother flushed with the joy of living, serving food....suddenly the picture changed: I'm working in the forest at Sobibor, close to the fence of Compound Three. I see the mound of the sand hill, at the foot of which were the burial pits filled with men's bodies. I hear the Germans shouting and Bari, the dog, barking, I hear the terrible shrieks of the workers as he bites them - and a stream of tears flowed from my eyes down my cheeks without me being able to do anything to stop them. Thus, crying to myself, I fell asleep.
Jurziek and Mannik had built for themselves a bunker in the forest, in which they could spend the winter. It was larger than they needed for themselves because they had intended it for their uncle and his wife and sons, who were hiding in a farmer's house in one of the nearby villages, or for Jews who may happen along into the forest. The bunker was carefully built - the earth was dispersed far from the site by the two brothers and the entrance so carefully camouflaged, that even standing on top of the structure it was difficult to appreciate what was underneath. When the first group arrived in the forest from Sobibor, the two brothers evacuated the bunker in order to let the escapees stay there. They themselves slept outside. In the evenings, Jurziek and his brother went to buy food for the whole group - the Sobibor people had money and Haim the jeweller had a lot of gold. Jurziek usually went alone and sometimes Mannik accompanied him; only rarely did he take one of the group with him to help carry the sacks of food from the villages. He said that people who were unused to the forest were startled by every hopping bird and jumping suirrel, and complained that they didn't know how to behave when they got to the village and it was better if he went alone to get the food.
It was November. Jurziek said that we could expect heavy rains, storms and even snow every day. Because of this we would have to build another bunker immediately and far enough away from the first so that accidental discovery of the one woudn't lead to the discovery of the second. I felt dizzy at the thought of such a thing happening.
We went out with Jurziek to look for a suitable place to built the second bunker. We had no idea what was meant by the idea - 'a suitable place' but Jurziek knew: it must be inconspicuous but high so that water didn't drain into it, not too easily approached but not too close to paths. Jurziek moved from place to place, with us tagging along behind, until he found what he was looking for, and when he asked our opinion, we all agreed with him. In the short time we had all been together with him Jurziek had won our complete confidence and was the natural and accepted leader of us all. We agreed to everything he said. That same day, towards evening we began digging, the major part of which was cutting the many roots of the trees with an axe. The turned earth, we carried far away in sacks before disposing of it. That evening, Jurziek and Mannik walked to the village and came back in the morning with a supply of tarred paper used for sealing roofs. The following day we worked all day long under Jurziek's guidance, who already had the experience gained from the first bunker, and by evening it was all ready, roofed and well-camouflaged. The approach was alongside a tree and was invisible two metres away. There was room enough inside for eight people to sleep, four to each side - with our heads towards the walls, our feet meeting in the middle. If necessary an extra person could sleep in the space between the two rows of feet, down the centre.
Semen, Avraham, Jurziek, Mannik and myself went inside. It was very damp with a strong earthy smell of tree roots and we hadn't yet smoothed the walls and floor over so it was all still very bumpy. But it got warm quite quickly and a wonderful feeling of 'home' crept over me.
Ferocious winds swayed the trees of the forest and an endless deafening noise, like a torrential water-fall echoed all around. The birds disappeared. The squirrels hid away in their nests in the trees. Heavy clouds covered the skies and by noon it was already dark. The wind carried with it a fine rain which was almost invisible but sufficient to wet the trees and change their colour. The fine mist of rain gradually became large drops and getting stronger and stronger soon became a downpour. Thunder shook the forest and flashes of lightning changed the forest to a place of enchantment. Everyone rushed into the bunker except for me. I delayed seeking shelter from minute to minute. I stood spellbound, looking at the wonder of nature in the raw. Drenched through and shivering with cold I eventually went down into the bunker to the laughter of all. Inside it was warm and pleasant. Protected from the rain and cold, we complimented ourselves that we had managed to finish building it the previous day. For a moment I even wondered if the meeting with Jurziek and Mannik, who directed the building of the bunker before the rains started, wasn't yet another miracle from heaven, but the thought of God reminded me of Sobibor and erased the belief in miracles.
In Sobibor, after much thought and internal deliberation, I had come to the conclusion that God didn't exist. I had thought that my argument with myself on that topic had concluded, but time and time again events occurred which forced me to confront yet again my thoughts on the existence and belief in God, because all the good things that I could recall were connected with religion and my loved ones believed in God with such a simple faith that I was hard put to it to turn traitor to their beliefs.
For two days it rained non-stop. Our stores of food became depleted. We couldn't cook. But within the bunker it was warm and pleasant. Everyone lay in his place and we told each other about ourselves and our families. When Mottel returned from captivity and told us about his adventures I was jealous that he had so many experiences to talk about while in my life nothing had happened at all. If someone from my family was sitting here now - my mother, my sister, my brother - I would tell them everything without leaving out a thing. But where were they all? What had happened to them? Here, in the bunker, I learned from my comrades that the Jews of Warsaw had been taken to Treblinka extermination camp, and that in April of that same year, a revolt had broken out in the ghetto in which the last of the Jews had fought and died. What had been the fate of my mother and little brother Yankeleh - were they taken to Treblinka, or did they die first of starvation? And what about my sister? Dorka certainly was among the fighters, but who knows? My brother Mottel?
While I was still in Sobibor somebody told me that Mottel had escaped to the forest and joined the partisans. Who knows, perhaps he was alive somewhere in the forests? All the time I was in Sobibor, I never worried about the fate of my family. Not that I didn't think about them - they were always in my mind's eye and I wanted very much to know what was happening to them - but all the time I was face to face with death and everyone around me was being destroyed; we were victims of the same fate. When a transport arrived from Turobin, and I was told that my family thought me dead and had mourned me, I felt my brother's pain because I knew he loved me and felt himself responsible for my safety. And perhaps news of my 'death' had even reached my mother in Warsaw? I could imagine her suffering and the suffering of the other members of my family, the feelings of guilt that my mother must have had that she smuggled me out of the ghetto. Now, I am sitting in the bunker, looking at Jurziek and Mannik, who had been living in the forest over a year, hearing about the fall of the Germans and their constant retreat, a renewed spark of hope flashed within me, after a lengthy period of resigned despair, that perhaps, after all, I would remain alive - and in my heart awoke renewed concern for my loved ones.
If the war ends and I remain alive - who else from my family will be alive? Surely I won't be the only survivor? But the more I thought about it the more I decided that the chances of someone else surviving, apart from me, were slight indeed, even nil. I wasn't able to come to terms with the thought, and time after time I imagined one or other of my dear ones whom I chose to save - once my sister, another time my brother - and the shame and embarrassment I felt that I was seemingly deciding who would live and who would die. I was jealous of Jurziek and Mannik who had both survived, two brothers tied with the closeness like two limbs on one body. And in the meantime the war still continues on and who knows how long it will yet last; how long must we hide like animals from a hunter, without any certainty that one of us will survive.
Jurziek had many connections in all the villages. He knew every farmer and his qualities. He also knew Jews who were hiding among the farmers, especially his uncle, aunt and their children, and another uncle - the only one left alive after the Germans had murdered his wife and children. Jurziek worried about their welfare, went to visit them and checked their condition. He told us about three Jews from Czechoslovakia, highly qualified professionals who had been employed in the camps by the Germans until the Gestapo had found out about them and demanded them. They heard about it and managed to escape in time and they had been hiding now for six-months with a farmer. This farmer had told Jurziek that for his part, he would continue to give them a hiding place but his wife was afraid of the Germans and wouldn't leave him alone with her worrying and that he would have to send them away. The three told Jurziek that the real reason was that their money had all been used up. So Jurziek asked the farmer to keep them a few more days and gave him some money to buy food for them. Now that the bunker was ready, he was going to bring them all to join us.
When Jurziek brought them to us, their physical condition was very poor: they had been living cooped up in a cellar for six-months with no sight of daylight, coming out only at night time for a little exercise. The three of them were older than we - something over thirty. The youngest of them - Karichona - had an athlete's body, his rugged face was seemingly the face of a labourer from the days of his youth. He was, in fact an engineer and there was nothing that he couldn't do. He came from a non-religious Zionist home and knew very little of Jewish customs. The second Czech, called Schnabel was about forty, round-bodied and heavy, his face closed and always sad-looking. He was the son of a Christian land-owner, who had married a Jewish women, who had then herself become a Christian. Their home had been a Christian home in all respects and he had been born and raised as a Christian and knew nothing of Judaism. The Germans discovered that he was the son of a Jewish mother and together with other Jews, he and his family were sent to Poland. Because he was a civil engineer he was sent o work on a German camp, while his whole family was sent to Sobibor. The third in the group was Solomon, a carpenter. He was tall and thin, with spectacles, not religious himself he had been brought up in a religious home and knew Yiddish. It was a little easier to communicate with him.
It was a little tense during their first few days: they felt themselves to be strangers within the group and they didn't speak very much. But the intensive life-style, living one on top of the other, with no let-up, quickly knocked down the barriers and we slowly found a common language.
In the bunker, now full of people, it was so hot that it was necessary to strip off, and together with the heat and the dirt the lice quickly multiplied. We tried to combat the problem by stripping off and killing them one by one but quickly tired of the struggle. The lice were stronger than we and multiplied at an alarming rate. There was nothing to do but accept the plague.
The supply of food for fourteen souls involved quite a few difficulties and expence. Jurziek explained the problem and asked all of us how much we had. We knew the Czechs had no money. Semen had told me a long while since that he hadn't thought to provide himself with money while at Sobibor. I said that I had some gold coins and wanted to give them to Jurziek on the spot, but he told me to hang on to them; when he needed something he'd ask me.
All he wanted to now at that time was what everyone had.
I've also got some ammunition, I told him.
For some reason I always tied together in my mind the gold coins with the bullets, probably because I always carried one in one pocket and the other in a second.
Look after those, as well, he said. Perhaps we'll need them one day.
I'd always had a feeling that Avraham also had some money but he had never told me. Now, when Jurziek asked him if he had anything he replied with a vague affirmative. We were not short of money and under normal conditions we could have maintained ourselves with what we had for a long time, except that we didn't know for how long and under what circumstances we would have to remain in the forests. We also wanted to buy some weapons which were a very expensive commodity.
Our contact with the people in the other bunker was almost nil. We would meet them only at night, and by chance. Jurziek, who felt responsible for the large group of people, would say that he wasn't afraid of the Germans - they would never find us in the forest - he was more afraid of some Pole or other, who was sure to inform on us if he saw us in the forest He was even more afraid of gangs of Poles who were always out hunting Jews in order to kill them and rob them of whatever they had.
Jurziek forbade us to go out during the day. He had highly developed instincts and on more than one occasion had sensed that danger was app-roaching. He sometimes walked with great caution and kept us very close to himself. He believed in dreams, and every time he had a disturbing dream he would not leave us in peace. One day he woke up and told us that he had had a really bad dream and because of this he made us leave the bunker and lie all day long in the rain, to keep our eyes open and listen carefully.....only in the evening did we return to the bunker. We made a bit of fun of his dreams and feelings but we did everything that he told us to do - no one ever argued with him. He was for us - 'everything'. We were dependant upon him like little children on their mother and were terrified of losing him. We all admired him for his bravery and for the dangers which he undertook for our sakes. With time we discovered that in most cases he had been justified in taking special precautions. There was something about him that was beyond our under-standing, as if he were blessed with a heightened sense of foresight.
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