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[Page 249]

In the Years of Destruction

 

[Page 279]

Gostynin Jews in the Shadow of the Gallows

by Shimon Rumer

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

gos279.jpg
Shimon Rumer

 

When the Germans entered Poland, the immediately began to exterminate the Jews. Their demonic plan was calculated with hatred towards the Jews. The Polaks excelled at this hatred. They knew very well that with the local Polish population they would have no difficulties in carrying out their monster plan, because in the course of twenty years of their renewed independence the Polaks themselves were interested in getting rid of their Jewish neighbors. The Polaks made the Jews' lives miserable. The Germans took away the Jews' lives.

At the very beginning of their barbaric occupation the Germans sought to demoralize the Jewish masses and their leaders. All their anti-Jewish laws struck at the heart of Jewish life. They set up new leaders of the Jewish communities, the so-called “Judenrat,” who obediently and punitively carried out all that their German bosses ordered them to do. First they applied new taxes  one higher than the next, and the new community heads pumped out monies from the poor and rich, amassing the required sums. The Judenrat went to great lengths to carry out the orders of the Germans. Many times, in these leadership positions, there were people who had never before worked in any fashion in social or community activities. Now, in this dreadful time, they …

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… diligently undertook to help out the Nazi murderers, and using these circumstances they reaped personal good from these great tragedies. Often, these persons were murderous towards their brothers and did things that even the Germans themselves would not have done. They hoped that their extraordinary devotion would save them personally.

The Judenrat received an order from the Germans each time to gather up contingencies of Jews that were designated for specific work. They fulfilled these quotas until the very last individual. In this way, the Jews were transformed into slaves. They were chased to work, not paid for the work, beaten, and very abused at work as well.

The Germans confiscated the Jewish businesses, not permitting Jews to carry on their work. Their warehouses were closed  that's how they Jews were left without any means to sustain themselves. They were morally and physically broken, but the Judenrat  who actively helped the Germans, threw these Jews into the ghetto. They gathered up families and put them into inhumanly cramped conditions that were completely surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by German or Polish police. In the ghetto itself, the Judenrat was given the right to have its own Jewish police that tormented the Jews even more. That's how the Jewish population was left without rights, impoverished, and entirely torn apart from the rest of the world.

However, this was not yet enough for the murderers. The organized labor camps where men and women were sent. These people worked under frightful conditions of hunger, cold, inhumanity, and terror for bare life. Despite all this, everyone's will to live was tremendous. Nobody wanted to voluntarily give up hope that in the end Hitler would get his dues and the sun would shine again for everyone and for …

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… each individual. Jews worked in every situation  labored, and looked to survive, to make it to the end of the war. Heavy clouds of worry, fear, and danger spread everywhere, yet with that all, there was still that spark of hope that we would survive.

Because the Germans set up death camps, of those who didn't end up there, none knew of them for a long time.

With all of this, all that was said until now, is only a broad description of what happened  of what the Germans did to the Jews of Poland. And every detail of this also befell the Jews from my own beloved town: Gostynin.

***

I came to Janikowo with a transport of Jews from Gostynin. This was a camp not far from Posen. In German, this place was called Amsee. The majority of the population there sustained itself with work in the city's sugar factory. The camp director was from the Gestapo, by the name of Malinowski. In the camp there were many Jews from Gostynin, Gombyn, and a small number from Lodz.

The oldest people in the camp were: Avrohom Belfer, Sender Ring, and my unforgettable father Yechiel Hersh Rumer. I worked in the camp doing all kinds of illegal tasks, and at the same time as a barber and a medical orderly. There were 505 people in the camp. The suffered terribly, labored mercilessly, and the hygiene was horrific. There was very little help for the sick and wounded. The Germans permitted the orderly to help the sick and wounded only after many hours of their suffering, after the invalid was practically consumed by insects and doused in dirt. Every day people were injured at work. Every day the German torturers and their assistants beat their Jewish slaves on their sides and cut off complete limbs. The sick couldn't…

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… expect immediate help, and even when the help did come, it was seriously limited. There was practically no medicine available.

The camp supervisor was surrounded by assistants that carried out the most brutal acts on innocent people. The main assistant was most vicious and cruel  his name was Alphonse Hillel. He was a non-Jew from the Posen area, an anti-Semite who couldn't even look at a Jew.

Among these assistants, was unfortunately also a Jew from Lodz, who with his flattery towards the Germans and animal behavior towards his brothers, worked himself up in the camp and reaped all kinds of privileges. Kalman Dovid was his name. That's how he was called, and he was the terror of the entire camp. Many innocent Jews died by his filthy hands.

One of the finest people in the camp was Volf Zilber, born in Brisk-Kujawski. He was a young man. He was the son-in-law of the well-known Zionist activist Herman Levi from Wloclowek. He, along with his father-in-law and his family, came to Gostynin when the war broke out where they hoped to live through the war because their hometown was absorbed into the Third Reich right at the beginning of the war, and Jews there were treated in the most horrific manner. Volf Zilber was an educated person and refined too. In the camp, he had the job of camp recorder. He put himself out for everyone and tried to make each person's situation better. Understandably, there was precious little he could do. The evil of the Germans dominated everywhere.

There was a very heavy discipline in the camp. The provisions were very meagre  so much so that there was nothing for the living and nothing for the dying. There was surely nothing for those people who used their physical strength for every day, physically taxing labor. The sadism of the German camp staff was infinite.

***

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I will relate one of the thousands of incidents that took place:

This happened on a Sabbath afternoon. The biggest surprises were saved for the eve of the rest day, Sunday. The exhausted and starved Jews had returned to the camp from work. As they entered, they heard a scream from Kalman Dovid, may his name be erased. We immediately understood that something again had happened. It wasn't long when we saw that they were taking out Avrohom Belfer from the barracks. It was difficult to recognize him. He was as pale as the walls, his body was trembling and his face showed an indescribable pain. Soon, Malinowski brought out the familiar benches that were used for corporal punishments in the camp, in front of everyone's eyes. Kalman Dovid positioned himself with his stick in his hand, and exclaimed: “This Jew committed a crime. He tried to smuggle bread into the camp. Therefore, he deserves to be beaten.” He continued by instructing each of us to pass by and beat the guilty one. The beatings were done with a rubber stick, with wire woven through it. Each of us had to approach and beat him. Malinowski was not satisfied with the way the beatings were going, so he took of his black uniform, rolled up his shirt sleeves, and showed us all how we had to do the beatings. Kalman Dovid followed. Avrohom Belfer was beaten so terribly, that he fell unconscious across the bench. Kalman Dovid poured a bucket of water over him to revive him, and then he was dragged, bloodied and soaked, into the barracks. Everyone else dispersed.

I, the orderly, had to bring help to this tragic victim. Menashe Wajsbard and Wajnrajch, Jews from Gostynin, who worked in the laundry, helped out with piece of old but clean clothes that I used to stop the bleeding. Only the exceptional …

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… patience and the outstanding will to live gave Belfer the superhuman capacity to live through these agonies. He lay in the barracks for many long weeks and wasn't able to go to work.

One morning, when a rumor spread through the camp that the Gestapo was going to evacuate all the sick, and probably be murdered, Belfer picked himself up off the bed and decided to go to work with us. That's how he was saved. According to my memory, I can also say that Sender Ring, Avrohom Lopski, Yosef Stajnman, Dzhiganski, and Laski were also saved this way.

***

Once again, it's the Sabbath afternoon. The exhausted and starved slaves had returned from their daily work. Suddenly, a terrible shouting was heard from the murderous camp supervisor Malinowski: “Everyone stay in your places outside!”

The order was clear.

“Tomorrow, no one will be going to work. The camp is going to be cleaned. Visitors will be coming. Tomorrow we will show you what will happen to those who will try to escape from the camp.”

We were already used to the brutal behavior of the Germans. Every word of theirs was inciteful, every wink was dangerous, and every movement a game with a Jewish life. Because of that, we didn't place any unusual significance on the words of this devil. Nevertheless, his words did not allow us to remain at ease. We went into the filthy barracks and everyone crawled into his cot. Suddenly Volf Zilber bursts in and informs us of a tragic piece of information: Eight Jews wanted to escape from the camp, but the German bandits caught them. Who knows what the Germans are preparing for us for the next day.

A shudder went through us. We did not yet know who the eight Jews were. The German murderers had isolated them in a separate barrack. Not one of us closed an eye that entire night.

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From our hard cots we heard moaning, and here and there, we heard a whispering prayer.

Sunday morning, as soon as the sun appeared, we heard the fearful voice of the night guard, and in one wink everyone got up.

***

Soon, Alfonse Hillel appeared, tall, good-looking, broad-boned, and well-fed, with thick blond hair on his head, a murderous person, a Jew devourer. Next to him was his wolf-dog, with its tongue foaming and hanging out. Everyone was trembling. Not only into one person had the sharp teeth of this dog already sunk its teeth. With his coarse voice, he informed us that today the camp has to sparkle with cleanliness. Gestapo officers were coming, and they very much loved cleanliness and precision. He completed his words with the usual: “We will destroy you!”

A very strained mood reigned over the camp. The people were already depressed and starved, and fear was already no novelty. There was a veil of despair everywhere, but the words of the murderer did not make any new impression. People were already used to this.

Outside, there was the loud noise of cars. Quietly we approached the windows and saw how two large cars had stopped in front of the camp building. Gestapo men got out of the first car, dressed in their black uniforms of evil men, with white arm bands, decorated with swastikas. Wildly, these men got out of the car, each carrying a rubber truncheon or a sharpened stick in his hand. They had weapons in their holsters. From the second car, five people got out, dressed in civilian clothing, with coarse, fat, raw-looking faces. Later we found out that these were Ukrainian assistants. Each of them had the appearance of a murderer.

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These five men went to work immediately. They threw down their coats (probably stolen from their Jewish victims), and they unloaded pieces of wood and boards from the car, and amused themselves with harsh laughter, pushing one another and calling out all kinds of things.

They did not allow us to think too long about what was going on. Soon, the camp supervisor appeared, surrounded by his attendants, and ordered us to go out of the barracks and stand five in a row.

All the camp slaves went into this format of the letter “ches,” and in that manner, it was possible to see everything and everyone. In the middle of the camp courtyard, there was already a scaffold set up  actually from the beams that were just brought  and from the top beam, there were five thick ropes hanging. We all understood that these were for a hanging. But who was going to be hanged here and for what crimes? One of the Gestapo men tore into the silence. He went to stand on the base of the scaffold, and then he said with curt, abrupt, and brutal sentences. This type of talk can also kill people  without revolvers and without hangings. They robbed us of the little worth and dignity we Jews still had. He said, among other things: “You Jews wanted this war! So now you have a war. You will all be murdered before this war is over. Whoever tries to tax the discipline of a German camp, whoever tries to run away from here, will pay with his life on this scaffold!”

He hardly finished his terrifying words, when the five Ukrainian henchmen marched out five men with hands tied into the courtyard. It was hard to recognize them. They had been murderously beaten. Their faces were like a ruined mass of flesh. The Ukrainians dragged these men to the scaffold and placed the ropes around their necks. We strained to recognize the victims. One of them was Dovid, the son of Zerach Wilner, and …

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… two cousins of Boruch and Berel Najman. There were two other Jews that were from Gombyn who were also hanged. The tragic execution took place.

Soon, the Ukrainians brought two more victims. Three of those who were hanging were taken down in order to make place for the three new victims. Among these three were two Jews form Gombyn and a son of Berel Najman, Mendel Meyer. Mendel Meyer's father was with us in the camp, he was Dovid Najman, as well as a cousin Boruch's Najman's son.

The nooses were tossed down. Mendel Meyer Najman tossed his head in the ropes, and with one final glance, took in the entire court with all his camp brothers who were watching the tragic events. His quiet look was so very expressive  but we could do nothing to help. Every desire within us was suffocated. All our capacity had atrophied. Mendel Meyer glanced at the ground where his brother and cousin were laying dead. With his last energies, he shouted out in Polish: “Long live freedom!” He could not get out the last line. The rope broke his neck.

The Gestapo hangman did not understand what his victim had shouted, so the hooligan from Posen, Alfonse Hillel, laughingly translated it for him. With might and rage, the Gestapo devil took an axe into his hand and split open his victim's head. “Now you are free,” he called out and spit onto the ground.

Another Hitlerist went to play around in the shadow of the scaffold, and asked for someone of the interned who would be interested in saying a prayer for the dead ones. There was one Jew who volunteered. He was from Lodz. His name was Schneur. He dragged his swollen feet and emaciated body, And then presented himself. The echo of his voice haunts me to this very day. His voice took on a metallic sound, but the camp carried the prayer far: …

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… “God Who is full of mercy, Who dwells on high…” (first line of the Yizkor memorial prayer).

The Gestapo men did not allow Schneur to complete his prayer. Irritated by the silence, they ordered their slaves to run around the scaffold and around the dead men.

This was a macabre death dance. People fell, were beaten, tripped over each other. Those who miraculously survived that horrific death dance, will remember forever that “shtube #8” where 35 people lay but could not die …

 

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