by Yossef Shemesh
Edited by Jana Marcus and Yocheved Klausner
On the evening of August 23, 1942, our neighbor Krilo came to our home. He was the new manager of the Olejarnia (Ulinitzia an oil factory powered by horses). Though it was past curfew, he passed the forbidden area, several meters from his house to ours, because my father, who was a laborer at the Olejarnia, had to give him instructions on what had to be done the next day.
That evening did not feel any more tense than the days and nights of past weeksno excessive traffic, or activities of the authorities were noticed. However we did feel that our days were limited, that a cruel fate awaited us. But, our hearts did not wish to bring such thoughts to our lips. We clung to the hope that it would not happen to us. We, the Jews of Ludvipol, were constructing an important road between Ludvipol and Brezena, and as long as the road was not complete, they would still need our labor. That evening I didn't listen to the conversation between my father and Krilo, though I lay near the table. I was bedridden with a throat infection and fever of 39 centigrade. I did not hear Krilo leave the house.
It was 5:00 AM when I was awakened by a loud knock on the window, which I was lying near. Kelman Volman, of the Judenrat, and a military man stood there ordering everyone to go to the ghetto immediately. Alarmed, I got out of bed to wake up my father, and saw Tarark at our door yelling in Ukrainian, All the ‘Jids’ to the ghetto. Screaming and gunfire could be heard from the street. The house and all its residents were startled: The Shulman family, the Wexlers, Ethshteins, Polskis, and our family, including my father, brother, grandpa, grandma, and Aunt Bila and her two year old. Over thirty people all got up at once, crying, sobbing and running from room to room. Father went outside for a moment to check the situation and returned immediately. This was it! The ghetto, and village, were surrounded by soldiers and policemen.
My mother lay in her bed, not caring what was happening outside. All she could fathom was the physical pain penetrating her consciousness. For six months she had lain in bed with a severe illness, with no doctor or medicine.
Blurry from my fever, I slowly got dressed and joined the rest of the scattering residents. Father and the heads of the other families were huddling and whispering, then returning to their families with no counsel and no advice.
In our basement there was a secret hiding place: A double wooden wall with a hidden wicket, which created an elongated compartment of 2.5 meters by 60 centimeters. It was used to hide food that was collected over the daily allowance of 200 grams of bread, some grouts and flour. Father lowered me, my brother Avraham, my cousin Yocha Wexler and Moishale Ethshtein, who was the same age as Avraham, into the compartment. Father quickly turned to leave us, as if for only a brief moment, and did not say goodbye. I looked at him questioninglywhat about you and mother? My father understood my gaze and answered, I will stay near mother and not leave her. You try and save yourselves. He closed the wicket behind him, loaded empty boxes in front of it and went upstairs. The heavy door came down, covered with boxes, barrels and appliances and then… silence.
We were underground, isolated from the worldthe four of us and a loaf of bread that happened to be in the compartment. With this grasp of reality, fear and doubt, my fever went down, the throat pain completely gone and all my senses returned to me. Was this my last goodbye with father? Have we escaped death, and if so, for how long? What was destined for father, mother and the otherswhat about them? And what about my cousin Kopale, the nice rosycheeked boy whose father was murdered in German captivity before they ever met. Was he put to death? Maybe this was all only a nightmare. Yet, the gunshots and screaming we heard from upstairs confirmed the bitter reality. I squeezed between the others and tried to sit down. We were tense and nervous, afraid to move from our spot. We feared that the slightest movement would disclose our location.
By afternoon time we hadn't exchanged a word. Nobody had touched the loaf of bread either. We could determine what time it was by the light penetrating the basement from the ventilation shaft facing the alley. Upstairs, in the house, we could hear the pounding of soldier's boots and the scattered pacing of looters. We heard a sharp scream, followed by several gunshots. A carriage entered the alley and stopped. Several people left the house and then the carriage moved on. I sat motionless, focusing my hearing and following every movement upstairs. I knew the meaning of the gunshots in the house: it was mother being shot in her bed and taken out to the carriage. Yes, mother was taken from us and not a single tear was shed. Unfortunately, this seemed so natural that we weren't even surprised. I couldn't be scared or disturbed even if the murderers were to show up at that moment in the basement and aim their rifles at us. Everything seemed predictable, our fates sealed.
The gunshots increased and came mostly from the ghetto. We had no doubt what was taking place. We heard men yelling and the sound of a mob, women and children, coming from the street. The house above us was filled with them, searching and going through our pantry, moving boxesyet no one tried coming down to the basement…yet. There was much to loot in the house, and going down into a dark basement always carried surprises.
It became dark. The gunshots decreased, but there was still constant traffic. What shall we do? Run away? We couldn't decide a thing, where would we go? And maybe, maybe this isn't the end yet, we know that other villages had massacres, going on a day, two days, three days, and survivors were allowed to live on, in horrible conditions and hunger, but were alive. We thought we might remain here another day or two and see.
Close to midnight the voices from upstairs quieted down, and only single gunshots could be heard from afar. After a day of tension and fear, we calmed down a little and felt hungry for the first time. We had some bread but it could not be eaten without water. In the pantry above the basement there was always a barrel of water, we had to go up and fetch the water, otherwise we would not survive here for long. I opened the wicket and we all came out into the basement, straightened up and stretched our limbs. We feared the basement door was blocked by heavy objects, and that we wouldn't be able to open it. The four of us went up the stairs and strained to lift the door. It gave way as a single crate slid off it. Three of us went upstairs. The water barrel was in its usual spot, and there was a basin nearby. However, once we were up in the house, we did not go to the barrel, but moved through the rooms. The house was unrecognizable. It looked like a scene from out of this world. Pale slivers of moonlight emphasized the chaos inside. Boxes, bins, buttons, pots, chairs, bedding and random rags were scattered across the floor, and on them a layer of white feathers stained with blood. In our rooms stood the empty beds and one torn pillow with its feathery filling spilled out, lying on the floor. Near mother's bed was a puddle of congealed blood and its trail led to the entrance. I hadn't been wrong in my assumption that mother had been murdered in her bed and taken to the carriage waiting in the alley. We did not search anymore. We went back to the pantry and drank some water, filled a pot and went back down to the basement, closing its doors and the wicket behind us. I looked for a comfortable position and tried to fall asleep.
I was awakened by voices. There were people in the house again, mostly women and children. There was heightened traffic in the street and the gunshots were not ceasing, coming from both the ghetto and from the forest (why from the forest we couldn't understand). This went on all day. In the evening we heard familiar heavy footsteps nearby. They were the footsteps of our neighbors Avremchikim Andrey and Krilo. I recognized their footsteps. I heard them almost everyday of my life, and a day did not go by without me seeing these people. Because of the work our family did at the Olejarnia we weren't transferred to the ghetto and were allowed to remain in our home. We thought of these neighbors as our protectors, and they were familiar with our entire house, including the basement. We could hear them pass above us and go into the living rooms. Something heavy was being dragged and scraped across the wooden floor, sending shivers through our bodies. They were dragging one of the heavy closets. Barely an hour passed by and then we heard Andrey above us again, but this time he didn't go into the rooms. Instead he opened the basement doors. My heart stopped beatingthis could be our end, he's coming down! I wasn't wrong. Even in the faint light of the basement I recognized him well. His straight stature, round face and devious, murderous eyes. As he adjusted to the dark he walked inside. He did not prod and search, as a stranger would, but whispered, Yossi, Avraham, where are you? My heart was terrifiedwhat is this? What to do? Maybe his intentions are not bad. Maybe he really wants to save us. The four of us looked at each other and nodded our heads sideways.
Tell me where you are? Andrey whispered again.
He cannot mean any good. He and his brother would take over the Olejarnia when we were gone. They could only want us dead. They were no different than others.
Yossef. Avraham. Answer me, He repeated. We held our breaths. He was aware that we stayed in the house. He must have followed our house members and noticed we were missing. He had to make sure that no one remained from our family who could harass him in the future about the Olejarnia. He didn't find us upstairs and now had come down to the basement.
Andrey stood for a few more minutes and listened in the darkness of the basement. Then he went upstairs, quietly lowered the basement door and left the house. We let out a heavy sighs. Had the danger passed? Maybe for a little while, and maybe…who knows? It was completely dark and no sounds came from the house. Single shots were heard from the ghetto, and more often from the direction of the barracks in the forest. From the street we heard the laughter and singing of drunksindeed it had been a festive day where they had murdered, robbed, and gotten drunka celebration of animals.
A few hours after Andrey left, Yocha needed to use the bathroom. She opened the wicket and walked out into the basement. She had barely stepped out of the opening when footsteps were heard above us again. How did we not hear them entering the house? Yocha ran back in and closed the wicket door. Suddenly the people upstairs lifted the basement door and light came streaming in. A whole group came down, the first person holding a candle. From between the cracks of the boards we saw them one by one: Ukrainian military men in combat gear and only one civiliannone other than Andrey. He was not giving up on finding us and brought policemen to help him look. His intentions were definitely clear.
The basement always had boxes, barrels and sacks that were used to keep food. When father closed the wicket he covered part of the double wall with those boxes, yet when we went out to fetch water we moved them back. Once the policemen came down and began searching, they found the area covered in boxes suspicious, so they cleared them and tossed them right above our double wall. They meticulously searched the surface of the floor, stabbing it with their bayonets, pounding their rifle butts against the walls, and looking between the rocks for an opening. The basement wasn't large and they filled it with their presence. They were so close to us that I could feel their breath. We were petrifiedone centimeter of wooden boards separated us between life and death. It would only take a few bangs of a rifle butt against the wooden wall for our hiding place to be exposed. Then the unbelievable happenedour wall was left untouched! They searched for another 15 minutes, and as their candle was about to burn out they went upstairs and closed the basement door.
Fortune had it that we weren't discovered. But we knew we couldn't stay in this place anymore. They might return here during the day and find us. They also might find us randomly while looking for treasures in the house, and Andrey himself wasn't giving up on finding us. Yocha suggested that we go to an acquaintance of hers in a distant village. She said they were honest people who would not turn us in. But it was hard to decide. Could it be that not all was doomed? Maybe in a day this would all end. We could move to the Olejarnia and hide in the courtyard attic for another day. Moreover, we could escape from that spot more easily, because it bordered the fields and we wouldn't have to pass through the streets.
Silence fell about midnight. From afar we heard the rhythmic marching of guards and gunshots from the barracks in the forest. We went upstairs, closed the basement door behind us and went into the back storeroom facing the vegetable garden that lay between the house and the Olejarnia. We went outside and hid among the potatoes and listened. All was quiet. For the first time in two days we breathed fresh air. The moon was full and its silver light almost made me forget about our situation. It was so nice to stare at the sky and think that all was calm and normalhow I longed for this moment to last forever. But, after about five minutes we crawled the 50 to 60 meters to the Olejarnia, passing through the apple trees and thorn bushes. The empty Jewish homes stood like grey tombstones in the big cemetery of the village, we passing through them like ghosts.
Back at the time when the war broke out, grandfather installed a secret entrance to the Olejarnia. Under the main hall he had dug a short tunnel the width of the wall that was covered with rocks and dirt. Through there, many items were moved from the house and buried in the ground. I had helped once so I knew about the passage. I rolled the rock over and we all crawled inside. Given our last experience, we searched for water, filled up a pot and went up to the attic. We left the ladder in its place, so as not to raise suspicion.
As we had assumed, there was lots of hay there, mostly from the latest harvest. I breathed in a chestful of the fresh and intoxicating scent. We dug ourselves into the hay and immediately fell into a deep sleep. We hadn't slept in fortyeight hours and couldn't stretch out in the basement. But here, it was like a wonderful soft bed.
When I woke up it was already late in the morning, and the sunlight was plentiful. It had been a long time since the roof was repaired and it was full of cracks and gaps. Yocha was also awake, standing by a broken board and peaking outside. I woke up Moshe and Avraham, and each of us found a crack and watched what was happening outside. From the attic you could see a large part of the village and the ghetto. The village was full of German military men and farmers on a market day, but no Jews could be seen. You couldn't see one person wearing the yellow patch. Farmers led harnessed carriages with horses and bulls, furniture and tools; Gentile ladies carried swollen sacks on their backs, as the looting continued; single gunshots could be heard all around. The simple fact that the Olejarnia was unmanned testified to the people's involvement. Our hearts had no doubts now, and the harsh reality stunned uswe have no life here anymore. We would leave this place tonight.
Little Moshe Ethshtein, the bespectacled redhead, had gotten sick. He decided that he would not go with us, but wouldn't stay here until evening either. His family, he claimed, had good acquaintances in Slishtch. There he could find shelter, and it would be easier for him to hide by himself. In this situation, one was better than two. Without his glasses and hat he would look like one of the Gentile boys, so it was better he try to leave during the day and not raise suspicions. Our persistent pleading that he stay with us, that he did not resemble a Gentile, and that he couldn't trust acquaintances, did not help. On the other hand, we couldn't insist too much, as we didn't have a safe way either. We looked outside and when we didn't see anyone nearby Moshe left, walking through the fields. Barely an hour later, based on his estimated walking direction, we heard several gunshots. I do not know what happened, but Moshe did not reach his destination, and we never heard of him again.
Most of the day we napped on the hay while one of us was always awake and looking outside. Shortly before sunset the farmers began returning from the fields. Wagons loaded with hay passed by, and when traffic became busy around us, some Germans showed up next to the Olejarnia. Approaching us was a wagon heavily loaded and neatly tied down, harnessed to a pair of red horses. I recognized our red horses. The wagon stopped near the entrance to the attic. It was Krilo, back from harvesting our fields, and he was now about to load the hay into the attic of the Olejarnia, where we were hiding from him and his kind.
As Krilo entered the attic, Avraham and I managed to get to the other end of the attic, which was loaded with layers of hay, but Yocha managed only to dig herself into a pile near the entrance. Krilo used a pitchfork to spread the hay pile in front of the entrance to prepare a space for the new hay. Not a minute passed by when the pitchfork got caught on her coat and Yocha was discovered! What are you doing here? People! There are ‘Jid's’ here, he yelled. There was no point staying in our hiding spot, as we would be easily discovered, so we leapt towards Krilo.
Krilo, quiet! I begged. You know us, and want to turn us in?
He stopped yelling and turned to me, Give me your gold, show me where it is!
I do not have a thing. I'm begging, I do not know anything about gold.
Krilo started yelling and threatened to kill me if I didn't give him the gold immediately. I pleaded for him to stop screaming, but he lifted the pitchfork and charged at me. He missed, but continued after me. I reached the attic opening and jumped down to the Olejarnia, Avraham and Yocha following me. We reached the back door and found ourselves at the back of the Olejarnia. We didn't look to see if we were being chased. It didn't matter. We dropped between the wall and the bushes and listened for a moment. I rose to look around, and saw that no one was pursuing us. We all jumped up and sprinted the 300 meters to the nearest marsh where the tall reeds grew. We decided to wait there until it got dark. Then we would go to Yocha's Polish acquaintances.
Half an hour later we saw no one nearby and walked out to the field. From afar we could only hear a squeaking wagon moving away from us. We walked for a few minutes and a wagon approached us. My brother and I got down on the ground, and Yocha, who was dressed like a Gentile continued on her way. When the wagon had passed we got up, and caught up with Yocha. Several minutes later another wagon approached us. We both lay under a pile of hay, while Yocha continued walking. That wagon passed, and right away a second one, and a third. When we got up we didn't see Yocha. We ran in the direction she was walking but did not find her. We called and yelled for her, but there was no sound or response. We ran round and round but there was no sign of Yocha. We were completely baffled as to where she could have disappeared too. Where would we go now? Our entire plan was gone. We later learned that Yocha had searched for us, but she thought that we passed her and therefore continued on her way. She had reached her acquaintances, where she spent a few days and from there she moved to the ghetto in Mezhirichi where she met her death in the extermination that was carried out there two weeks after the massacre in Ludvipol.
Avraham and I had to change our plans. We decided to go to Adamovka where we knew some Polish families. For some reason we didn't turn to walk through the fields but walked on the main road, crossing the entire length of the village Slishtch. Like hungry dogs we swooped into a field of cabbage roots. We folded the thick peel with our teeth and ate the insides. Soon we arrived at a stream and stopped to quench our thirst from the day. When we were finished we passed the stream near the bridge, got on the road, making an effort to walk at a regular pace and not look around. The village was lively and merry, dressed in festivity. Groups were standing by the side of the road. Laughter and singing emerged from the courtyards, with the sounds of Balalaika music streaming through the air. We were unnoticed. Not one of them could imagine that a Jew would dare to cross the main road of the village. But it was a wonder that we weren't recognized. Our appearance and attire were so out of the ordinary, screaming that we were Jews. When we reached the edge of the village we felt that someone was following us. We pretended not to notice and picked up our pace. When we exited the village he came over to us and said, I know you. You are Shachna's sons. Be careful, I won't tell anyone, and then he turned left to a trail leading to his single house that stood on the road to Adamovka. We also recognized him. It was near his house that they had built a kitchen for the road pavers from our ghetto.
We went down to the other side of the road, quickly moving away from that spot. Barely an hour later we were at the fields of Adamovka. We chose a bunch of thick bushes and lay down. We weren't familiar with the surroundings. We were very tired but feared falling asleep, as we didn't want to wake up after sunrise.
When the sky became grey I went to see what was going on around us. Up the hill, the village began coming to life. Women went out to milk the cows, a shepherd gathered his herd, and the early birds prepared the wagons for harvest. From the door of one of the homes came a familiar looking woman with a milking bucket, walking over to a dairy barn. When I approached her she was shocked, not knowing where I had poppedup from. She looked at me and then scanned the area to make sure that no one noticed us. I told her whose son I was. Goodness gracious, she whispered, What did they do to you? They killed everyone, no Jew was left alive. I explained that I was with my brother and asked her for some food. She escorted me into the dairy barn and came back a few minutes later with half a loaf of bread, cheese, a few tomatoes and a bottle of water. She advised us to hide deep in the bushes, as many military men come through the village, and only in the evening would she be able to give me another portion of food, if I could sneak to the barn unseen. This was my first conversation with a free person since our death sentence. I was able to hear from this eyewitness what had taken place in the village.
In the evening the Gentile woman warned me again, saying that we must keep away from the village, and great danger hung over her if the authorities found out she was hiding Jews. That night we moved to a nearby Polish village, where we found large bushes in a field and settled down in them. Here, too, we had acquaintances. At the crack of dawn I knocked on one of the house doors. The Gentile knew me and was glad that I survived. He told me that in the past nights some Jews passed by who were going to the woods beyond the Sluch River. That was news to us. Until then we had thought we were the only ones who had survived. The Gentile said that he had been in our village and saw our home raided. He could not hide us in his home, so we stayed hidden in the bushes, careful not to be exposed. Though most of the village people were decent, in times like these you could not trust anyone, and had to be especially cautious of youngsters. I took some food from the Gentile and we went down into the grove of bushes.
We stayed near the village for three or four days. In the evening one of us would go to the Gentile acquaintance and get some food. We were told of more Jews that passed through at night, heading to the woods. In the woods were Russian partisans, and all the survivors were gathering there. We were urged to pass the Sluch River to the woods. Staying where we were was dangerous for us and for our host. Therefore, we decided to go to the woods. We would have to pass 6 kilometers to the passage of the Sluch near the village Viliya, which stood on the other side bordering the forest. We left before dawn, intending to pass the Sluch at sunrise. We walked fast, but did not make it. When we got close to the river the morning fog suddenly cleared and we saw many figures moving in the field. We could not continue on our way. Luckily there were bunches of bushes and we entered the closest one. We were at the edge of a harvested field and the people passing by were not far from us. We could not move from our spot, so we didn't make any noise and prayed for the day to go by quickly. We found two cucumbers that we divided for the entire day, figuring we would leave at nightfall.
The field was full of harvesters. At dusk a boy about the age of 17, left one of the groups with his pants in his hands, looking for a suitable spot. He turned to our bush, came in and stumbled right upon us. He jumped back in shock, as if struck by a snake, and turned to leave. I knew that when he came out of the bush he would gather all the adults and tell them. We had nothing to lose, so I grabbed his arm and I told him who we were and begged that he not tell anyone. I warned him that God would avenge him if we died because of him. I do not know what influenced him more, the fear or the mercy, but he did not tell our secret to anyone. We had no other choice but to trust his integrity, because coming out of the bush in the middle of the day was akin to suicide. We waited until it got dark, and when the last of the harvesters were gone we came out of our hiding place. Within a few minutes we were by the passage to the river. We did not take our shoes or clothes off, crossing the Sluch River as we were. We finally entered the forest, which immediately became our new home and shelter.
Footnotes by Jana Marcus
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