On September 1 st , 1939, many residents of the town, including Jews were drafted into the Polish army. Munio Hochberg, Benny Lifschitz, and Yitzhak Steinwurzel were sons of Mikulince who were called into service who did not return. Trenches were dug in town - in public parks and private gardens - to serve as shelters from air attacks. Many Jewish refugees from Western Poland, fleeing the Nazi monster, flooded our town. The townspeople received them into their homes and tried their best to help them.
During the High Holy Days, a Polish general living in our home said to my parents, “Jews this is your New Year. Please pray for Poland.” We knew things were bad. A few days later conscripts from our town began returning from the front. They were broken, wounded, and verging on collapse. They wore civilian clothing. They hadn’t even been issued uniforms. Horror stories began to spread about the situation in the West. In the final days before Poland’s unconditional surrender to the Germans, high ranking Polish leaders - the president, the prime minister, and cabinet ministers - drove through our town in their flight to Romania. Armored cars drove through rumored to be holding the state treasury. On September 17 th , many planes were seen in the sky over Mikulince. Everyone looked, but no one understood what was happening. That afternoon, we learned that the planes were Soviet planes and that eastern Poland had been occupied by the Red Army of the Soviet Union. Thus, Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union according to the Ribenthrop Molotov Agreement. From that day, we were annexed to the Western Ukrainian Republic. We, as children and young people educated in the Polish national spirit and with Polish as our mother tongue, felt depressed and disappointed. We knew then that Poland had been betrayed. The slogan “not only won’t we give you the dress, we won’t even give you one button on it” (which was written on every picture of Marshall Riz Shmigly, Pilsudsky’s successor) was an empty slogan devoid of any meaning. We were afraid. We remembered our parents’ stories of the Bolsheviks at the end of World War I...stories that were by no means complimentary.
The Jewish population of Mukulince grew during the Soviet occupation. Jews who owned property in Tarnapol were exiled and many of them settled in Mikulince. The Soviets brought hundreds of their own citizens to town - civil servants appointed to government positions, teachers, engineers, agronomists, doctors, nurses, judges, lawyers, policemen, and detectives. There was a housing shortage. The authorities expropriated houses for their own needs. They took over my parents’ house and we moved into my grandfather’s home. Many families crowded into small apartments. There was a food shortage and the black market flourished. Despite the difficult conditions, people slowly adjusted to the new reality. They stood in line days and nights for a ration of sugar and other commodities. We learned that the walls had ears and eyes and that it was dangerous to gather in groups or to talk. As time went on, people found work. Farmers from the vicinity came once more to town with their produce. The town was declared a district town for the whole area and government offices opened - these became an important source of livelihood for many Mikulince residents. The Chitalnia Hall became a town culture club. Plays were put on and movies shown, even from the West. Sports clubs were founded and a weekly town paper was issued. The orphan asylum became a small town hospital, with a dental clinic attached.
The hospital’s director was Dr. Julius Silberman. A Jewish school opened in the courthouse building on the bank of the Seret River. Although the language of instruction at the school was Yiddish, the curriculum did not include Judaic studies - it followed the same curriculum as all state schools. Following is a list of the teachers: Munio Margulies, Pola Margulies, Yisrael Trief, Rozia Bodian-Trief, Ensel Trief, Dr. Mark Druks, Abraham Muskat, Haim Dlugatch, Mina Teller-Katz, Haya Goldhirsh, Mgr. Kahane, Junio Marcus, Bella Morgenstern-Danker (all of blessed memory) and (may they enjoy a long life) Yaakov Nassberg and Aharon Weisshouse. There was one nonJewish teaher, Hriz Savisky, a long time resident of Mikulince, who taught Ukrainian and Russian. The school was known for its high level. It was active in the arts, drama, and music. The school received prizes and letters of commendation.
Life went on quietly, and we got used to things, even though many of us were not happy with the workings of the Soviet Regime. During the years 1939 to 1941, progress came to Mikulince and the town was active and full of life. We did not know what the future had in store for us and we didn’t suspect that our future was so bleak.
1941: The Nazi occupation.
On June 22, the first day of a sunny summer, the first day of summer vacation from school, I was walking innocently through the southeastern part of town. Suddenly, I heard planes overhead. They were flying low. When I lifted my eyes, I saw to my shock that they had swastikas on them. A moment later, there was a loud explosion and thick smoke filled the air not far from where I stood. The Soviet military airfield between Mikulince and Strusov had been bombed. We didn’t know exactly what was going on. At 11 o’clock, we heard Yuri Levyatan, the (Jewish) number one announcer on Radio Moscow - his voice was heard on special occasions. He told the listening audience that an important announcement was about to be made by Foreign Minister Molotov. Molotov then announced, that Nazi Germany abrogated the peace agreement with the Soviet Union and declared war against its former ally. He ended by saying that we will not let them succeed at this and will fight back to defend our country. Russian families then living in town packed their things and returned to Russia. Men were drafted into the army and sent to build fortifications in the Soviet Union. The Jewish residents of the town debated whether to flee eastward or to stay where they were. Rumors of the Nazi atrocities toward Polish Jews had reached us but people didn’t believe that these stories were true. It was unbelievable that such things could happen in the twentieth century. It was unthinkable that the enlightened German people could do such horrible things. However, many of the town’s Jews, particularly young people, set off for the east - with packs on their backs, by foot or by car. The Jews who remained in Mikulince followed events with great anxiety. Russian army units passed through the town day and night. They came on foot, by trucks, and in tanks. Heavy fighting took place near the town. On July 3, the Russians demolished the bridge over the river in retreat, and the town was emptied of soldiers. We knew the Nazi invader was on his way to our gates. On Friday, July 4th, at 5 p.m., the first S.A. men arrived on their motorcycles. The Ukrainian notables received them with bread and salt. The town’s Jews locked themselves in their houses. A short time later, we heard loud knocking on the door of our neighbors, the Zipper family. Their son, Abraham Henoch opened the door. Germans and Ukrainians were waiting for him. They took him to the Ukrainian cemetery and shot him for no reason. He was the town’s first victim. That same night, there was an artillery battle between the retreating Soviet army in nearby villages and the German army, and we went into the shelters. Ukrainians from the vicinity came to Jewish houses and staged a pogrom. They killed the Goldvug family (the parents and their daughter), Mrs. Reich and her son Lonek, Etka Okon Reich and her husband. During that same awful night, Jania Bloom-Karpf died in her prime because of inability to give her medical attention.
On Sunday, July 6th, a large group of Jews were summoned to the riverbank to help remove the remains of the bridge. Only the intervention of a German officer prevented a pogrom. He ordered the Ukrainians to move away, and he released the Jews. The Engineering Corps repaired the bridge and the traffic into town flowed again.
The town was full of German military. Soldiers came to Jewish homes and took what they could, particularly food stuffs. A town council was elected, headed by the Ukrainian Fedewich. The Ukrainians considered themselves the rulers and did whatever they wanted. They harassed the Jews, beat them, looted their property, insulted them, and cut off their beards and side curls. One day, the Ukrainians arrested a few Jews in the orchard alongside the brewery. They ordered the Jews to dig a grave for a horse. The bloodthirsty Ukrainians then buried the Jews in the same pit and threw the horses on top of them. Among those killed were Fruma Hochberg, Mark Fidler, and Mrs. Milch of Podhitze.
My parents’ house, which had been expropriated by the Soviets, was now the Ukrainian militia headquarters. It was a large house with a big courtyard and a flowering garden. Some of the town’s Jews were killed in the cellar of our house. Among those killed were my schoolmates Moshe Flashner and Leib Klein. Moshe was a tall boy with broad shoulders. He wore glasses, was happy, and made others laugh. He used to amuse the class during lessons because, aside from chemistry, no school subjects interested him. His hands were stained by reagents and burned from experiments he conducted. He was the only one in the class who got an A in chemistry. In the other subjects, he managed. Grades were based on the results of final examinations and he could always find a friend to do the job for him. Leibele, as we called him, was a short, thin, pale faced boy with expressive blue eyes. He was quiet and a diligent student. He was among the best pupils in the class. I couldn’t understand what these boys did to deserve such a cruel fate. Their only crime was that they were Jewish and were involved in youth activities in town. My father was taken by the militiamen and given the horrible task of burying their bodies in our garden. This was the same house which had once been warmly welcoming and the same garden in which we had spent so many happy days in the shade of the cherry trees, on the riverbank. Now it was a prison and a cemetery for many Jews. It is not surprising, therefore, that after the liberation, I could not even bring myself to look at the house where I was born and raised. The back rooms of the house were used as a prison for many Jews who were later executed in the nearby woods. Among them were Haya Goldstein and her daughter, Donia; Yosef Fuchs and his son, Yaakov; Velvel Wolfenhaut; Junio Marcus; Yekel Reiner. At the same time, people began to be arrested because the Ukrainians informed that they had been members of the Communist Party. These included Malka Seftel. Hana Vunderlich, Moshe Awerman - they were tortured and killed by the Gestapo in the jail in Tarnapol. These, of course, were false accusations. These people had no connection with Communism. All the above events occurred during the first month of the Nazi occupation. Nobody spoke. Silently and with great pain, we mourned those who died. In our town, everyone knew everyone else.
The authorities put the economic squeeze on the Jews. Jews were required to provide two grams of gold per person as well as money, furs, pillows, sheets, and blankets for army hospitals. We were forced to wear a patch of white cloth with a blue Jewish star. Later they distributed armbands made of cardboard covered with plastic. Each had a Jewish star and an identity number. Anyone found on the street without this tag was liable to the death penalty.
A week before Passover, 1942, Gestapo units raided the town. They went from house to house and expropriated food which had been prepared for the holiday. It happened on a bleak March day, with light rain falling continuously, and dirty water from the rain and melted snow ran through the streets. The Gestapo ordered the Jews to carry the foodstuffs from their homes to the lot near the well, on the town’s main street. They pushed the Jews into the puddles and forced them to drink the dirty water. They were beaten until they bled. It was horrible. Henia Tunis’ husband (from Strosov) was shot dead. The towns’ people did not despair. The next day, the Jews grouped together and again baked matzohs for the holiday to replace the ones that had been expropriated.
Rumors reached us of similar actions in nearby towns. It is interesting that even though we were shut in our houses (nobody wever went out except to draw water or to go to work), we knew what was happening everywhere else, as if a bird has brought us the news. Contact between neighbors was possible through paths we had developed between the courtyards along the streets. Life went on inside the courtyards. Farmers would come secretly to sell their produce. Usually, the sale was on a barter basis; Jews would trade clothing, furniture, and other items for food. However, in 1942, the population began to suffer food shortages. Slowly, the sources dried up and many families reached the verge of starvation. Nobody dreamed of heat in the winter, and tea and coffee were unattainable luxuries. We drank tea from rum extract and coffee made of burnt wheat. The Judenrat organized the baking of bread for the Jewish population. The bread was rationed one kilogram to a person, once a week, of course, at a price. The poor were exempt from payment. In addition, a kitchen was organized in the Kramer-Herman family home to provide food for the needy. There, a thick soup was cooked and distributed to the people who came in daily, pots in hand. The kitchen was run by women volunteers who dedicated themselves to this holy task. I worked in the kitchen together with Nunio Berger, a young man who was one of the righteous among his generation. I knew that he, too, suffered from hunger, but he never agreed to eat until the food was distributed to all others. There were notables in town whose pride did not allow them to reap the benefit of this service. In the wind and the rain, Nunio would bring the soup to their homes.
Young people were taken to work for the Germans. Some worked on farms in the vicinity - in Mishkovitze, Chertoria, and as far as Yagelnica tobacco plantations. Others worked repairing roads. In the spring and summer of 1942, Jews were sent to labor camps in Borki Vielkie and other locations. They were kept there in subhuman conditions. The food was barely enough to keep them alive and they were worked mercilessly. They worked from sunrise to sunset. Many got sick and died, and others were shot because they were no longer useful. Getting out of there alive was virtually impossible.
At the end of 1941, the Nihof Company, a German firm which provided spare parts for heavy military vehicles, opened in town. Jewish young people who knew something about mechanics, plumbing, or welding were hired by that company. They were treated fairly and their wages were satisfactory. Some of the company facilities were on the “targoviza” and the company also used the courtyard of the Rathausfamily home and the lot near the well.
At the beginning of 1942, the big synagogue, the pride of Mikulince’s Jews was destroyed. The beautiful wall paintings done by the artist Jacques were broken and the stones were taken for use in road construction. The same was done with headstones from the Jewish cemetery. Every day brought new trials. Spring and summer 1942 came and the trees blossomed, the fields turned green and the gardens bloomed. For us, however, the reawakening of nature after the winter sleep did not bring hope. It was as if none of this reawakening was happening around us. We stayed shut in our houses and courtyards, not even daring to visit friends in nearby streets. We lived on memories, again and again recounting past times when we would walk through the woods on outings, swim in the river, and walk freely through the town streets. We remembered how children played ball and hide and seek, running, jumping, climbing, their laughter audible for a great distance. All of this was no more.
At sunrise, on Saturday, August 28, 1942, we were awakened by a loud knocking on the door of our home. There were similar knocks at doors throughout the town. A voice ordered in German: “Jews outside!” Barefoot and in night clothes, we left the apartment. We ran through the paths between the fields until we reached Henia Tunis’ home where we hid in the cellar. Henia herself did not want to come into the cellar for fear of being buried alive. Her fate was no better than that of the other townspeople who could not find hiding places that day. There were about twenty of us in the cellar - members of our family and neighbors. We didn’t exactly know what was going on outside but we felt sure something very bad was happening throughout the town. The Germans failed to find the entrance to the cellar and we remained there until evening. We decided to leave because there was no oxygen left and we all felt as if we were about to faint. When we came out, the town was already quiet. Here and there, someone peeked out. About two thirds of the town’s Jews were taken to the railway station that day. They were taken to a concentration camp in cattle cars, and none of them came back. David Zeiler, his wife Hinda and Malka Krenkel were shot in their beds. Mikulince looked like a ghost town, a town after a pogrom. Doors had been forced open, windows broken, bed linens were torn and feathers were all over the place. Furniture was broken and the contents of closets scattered. What the Germans did not do, the Ukrainian looters finished. We stood silent. The pain was too great. If in the past we mourned every person killed and cried for each soul, now we could not even speak. The price the town paid was too high. We were not prepared for it.
After the action, the possessions which had belonged to the families which had been eliminated were brought to the Town Hall and to the Chitalnia Hall. We were taken to work sorting these goods. As the end of the day’s work the Ukrainian militia searched us to make sure we hadn’t taken any valuables for ourselves. It was degrading but there was no point in objecting. What a painful job it was; every item reminded us of relatives, friends, and neighbors.
The first year of Nazi occupation was characterized by economic burdens and work in labor camps. The second year the Nazis began eliminating us physically. At the end of 1942, Mikulnice was declared free of Jews.
We were ordered to move to the ghetto in Tarnopol. The fate of Jews in the surrounding towns was similar to our own. There were rumors of almost daily actions in Tarnopol. The ghetto was very crowded and the Jews who came from the vicinity were sure victims. Therefore, many of our townspeople decided to move to other cities where there were still Jewish communities. A number of families went to Trembowla. Others went to Kopychinze, Kozova, Zbaraz, and Podhaize. The rest went to Tarnopol. We packed our paltry possessions and went on our way. Mikulince was left without its Jews, a town with no soul.
Life Outside Mikulince:
When Mikulince was “free of Jews,” my parents decided to go to Podhaize where they had friends. We rented a horse-drawn wagon and hired a local farmer to drive us. We loaded our belongings into the wagon and left town in the middle of the night. On the way, near the village Ladichin, Ukrainian youths attacked us and robbed the little we had left. Miraculously, we succeeded in running away from them, robbed and beaten. We got to Podhaitze the following afternoon. There was mass confusion there. The ghetto was just being organized and people were bringing their possessions to the ghetto. It was impossible to find housing. We remained outdoors. A few days later we found an apartment which others did not want for two main reasons: 1) It was at the main entrance to the ghetto and the windows looked out on the ghetto walls, and 2) the landlady, a young woman of 24, was on her deathbed with tuberculosis. For lack of choice, we came to live with her; my family - Bracha Gewirz-Kidron, my mother’s parents, my Uncle Professor Hochwald with his wife and daughter, and of course the landlady and her sister. We were all crowded into one room with a kitchenette. In the next room were my Aunt Hana Avermen, her husband, her daughter and her mother-in-law plus Haya Rubin and her daughters (Her husband and sons were killed in the action in Mikulnice). With them was a neighbor boy who had lost his whole family, Alter Spierer. A few days later, Hana Margulies-Balin from Mikulnice, her husband the pharmacist and their 17 year old son arrived in Podhaize. How can you leave Jews homeless? They too, joined us. At night, we would put folding cots one next to the other and we would climb over them to reach the door or any other part of the room. In the morning, after the signs of night were erased, we would scrub the floor, clean and polish everything, air the room, and examine our clothes for lice. Lice were prevalent because of the over crowding of the ghetto and they were the source of the typhoid epidemic which struck most of the ghetto population. Older people died of this disease because of their infirmity and under nourishment. Young people, for the same reason, suffered greatly, and the disease left them with heart murmurs, hearing defects, and other disabilities.
Our apartment was one of the few in the ghetto which this dread disease did not visit.
The ghetto residents prepared bunkers - hiding places for times of trouble. At night, we took turns watching at the window to warn others if the Germans were coming. Already in November, 1942, the first Action took place in the ghetto. Many of the bunkers were exposed by the Germans and a third of the residents were sent to the Extermination Camps. The Gestapo raided the ghetto often. Young people were taken off to Labor Camps. We used to hide Alter Spierer and Bartek Balin.behind the tuberculosis patient - as the blood she spit up would deter people from approaching, so nobody looked there. However, during one of the raids in April, 1943, Alter was outside the house. He was caught and sent to a Labor Camp. Again, we were forced to make “contributions.” We had to pay the cost of the Actions. The Actions became more frequent in the Spring of 1943. Mikulinceans who came to the Podhaitze Ghetto - the town Rabbi and his wife, his sister and her family, Fanca Bomse, Tauba Nassberg, her father and grandmother, and the Milch family were killed that Spring.
Typhus and dysentery took their toll of the ghetto residents. Sources of food dried up. Jews who sold food were killed and farmers no longer came to the ghetto walls to sell their produce. Hunger took its toll and the noose tightened around our necks. People became apathetic. They became jealous of those that had already died, who no longer had to live this nightmare. At the end of the Spring, on Saturday, June 6, 1943, the Action to eliminate the Podhaitze Ghetto began. If until now, the Jews had been taken by train to Extermination Camps, this time they were shot and buried in a field outside of town, in a mass grave which they dug with their own hands. The next day, the Jews who remained, came out of their bunkers. Our landlady, was shot in her bed. The blood of Jews who were shot outside our house flowed into our apartment. The Germans reached new heights in their torture of the Ghetto residents. On June 8 th , two days after the Action, we were ordered to move to the Tarnapol Ghetto. We were provided with horse drawn wagons for the purpose. Once again, we got into the wagons. This time, we had nothing to take with us, and didn’t need anything. Guarded by the Ukrainian militia, we left Podhaitze. Outside the town, we were stopped by the Gestapo. They came out of the wheat fields on both sides of the road, let some wagons pass, and shot at the passengers in others. Among those killed were Haya Rubin and her daughters Sarah, Adela, and Riva. Bertek Balin was shot during the Action and his parents committed suicide in our apartment. A few went into the forests.
After two days of wanderings, we got to Tarnapol. There were only a few left - perhaps twenty or thirty - from all the Jews of Podhaitze and its vicinity. The Tarnapol Ghetto was in the process of being eliminated. When we arrived at the homes of my parents’ friends, the Karpf family, they were in despair. They had decided to commit suicide that night but our arrival ruined their plans. Many committed suicide in the ghetto - some by taking poison, others from gas which was deliberately allowed into the room from the charcoal heater. The next day, my father, my mother, and my sister were sent to a labor camp in Stupki. I was sent to a labor camp in W. Hlubochek where women worked at a number of tasks: laundry, vegetable gardening, and cleaning. The Camp Commandant was Sturmbanfuhrer Pramor, a monster in human form - famous throughout the area. A day never passed without his sick imagination coming up with some new satanic idea. For him, all means were justified in achieving the ultimate end - the elimination of the Jews. One day, at the end of June, I was working in the vegetable garden. Behind the garden was the camp graveyard. Two stretcher bearers came toward me. I lifted my head and to my shock I recognized the corpse of Alter Spierer on the stretcher. I was told Alter had died of typhus. At the same time, Professor Yisrael Hachwald, Yosef Frenkel, and Shlomo Hendler were murdered at the camp. The Germans began to eliminate the labor camps one after another. My parents and sister were killed on July 10, 1943. I knew our camp’s turn would also come. I decided to run away. I did so on Saturday, July 17 th . I was able to do it because I worked in the laundry. The commandant had been replaced by another S.S. man, Tomanek. During one of the roll calls, I was appointed manager of the laundry. In that capacity, I was permitted to go to the storehouse, outside the camp, to bring detergents. That Saturday morning, July 17, I went out as if to go the storehouse, and I didn’t come back. I walked through the village of Hlubochek Wielki, crossed Tarnopol, went through Baresovitza-Wielka, Mishkovitz, and arrived at Chertoria in the evening. Outside the village, a group of people were repairing the road. One of the Ukrainians recognized me. He started telling me that there had been no Jews in the area for a long time and that I shouldn’t be there. I knew he would report me to the police. I had some money and I gave it to him - that money saved me from certain death.
When I got to Mikulince, near the brewery, I heard boys bringing in the cows from pasture. I waited in a wheat field. In a little while, it began to rain steadily, with thunder and lightening. Under cover of darkness and the driving rain, I went into town. I got to the Lopatinsky family house. They welcomed me warmly and I stayed with them for several days. Meanwhile, I learned that an elimination Action was going on at the labor camp in Tarnapol. I knew then that I was the only one left from my family. My Aunt Hana Averman and her family were killed at that camp. Before the camp was eliminated, the Ghetto was eliminated. My grandfather and grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins were among the victims.
There was no good hiding place in the Lopatinsky home and so I decided to leave and go into the forest. They gave me food to last several days in a basket. I left at night and went to the Shimansky Forest. For two nights, I hid near the spring. I thought that if there were Jews in the forest they would come there to draw water. I was not mistaken. On the third night, I met Pesah Fogelbaum, his wife and their two sons, Adzio Schechter, Abraham Levenhaar, Hune Zipper, and a boy from Trembowla. We dug out a bunker in which we slept at night, and during the day we hid in shallow trenches. A few days later, the Germans raided the forest. Hune Zipper was found at the spring. We heard them and scattered in all directions. After the raid, we decided to move to other locations. Some went toward Trembowla; others, including me, went in the direction of Proshova. On the way Adzio Schechter was shot dead. The rest of us managed to escape the murderers.
After wandering and many difficulties, we got to the forest between Vola Mazoviezka (Lapaiovka) and Proshova. How happy I was when I met my Uncle Yitzhak Meistrich there. He had fled from the Sbaraz ghetto after his wife, his daughter, and his son were killed. Together with my uncle were Mane Steinwurzel, his wife Ida, and their five year old son Shalom; Berl Steinwurzel, his wife Haya Rachel with a beautiful baby girl only eight months old, and Kuba Morgenstern. In the forest we met other townspeople who had fled ghettos. Esther Helicher joined us with her sister Hana’s daughter, six year old Rachel, and Lonek and Yanek Kahane.
It was midsummer. We turned day into night and slept among the branches. At night we sneaked into the fields at the edge of the forest and brought back corn, potatoes, celery, and other vegetables. We lit a fire, cooked the vegetables, and boiled water in a food tin. We took turns doing these tasks. Each night, two people went out. Once a week, also in turn, we went to Vola Mazovietska (eight kilometers in one direction) to buy bread from a farmer who lived near the forest. It is hard to describe our arrival in the village - the barking dogs, who sensed us from far away, would announce our arrival.
More than once, we fled for our lives because village boys waited for us in ambush. The thick underbrush was a wonderful hiding place. Germans and Ukrainians were afraid to come into the forest because of the Soviet partisans who operated from nearby forests.
We smoked homemade cigarettes - leaves dried in the sun and rolled in newspaper. We learned to hear without being heard, to see without being seen. And so the summer passed, the days grew shorter, the autumn came. Often we heard the calls of hunters and the barking of their dogs. The snows began. The forest thinned out and the raids by the Germans and the Ukrainians increased. We moved from place to place, and at night we came back to sleep in the bunker. My Uncle Yitzhak was killed by the Ukrainians one night when he went out in search for food. Yanek Kahane suffered a similar fate inside the village Chartoria. Berl Steinwurzel was wounded in the shoulder. From infection and lack of medical treatment, he contracted a high fever and gangrene. His wife, Haya Rachel, carried him to Vola Mazowiecka where she hid with him on a farm. The Germans killed them. Probably, the farmer informed. Back in August, they had left their daughter on the steps of the church at Proshova, with the Minister’s knowledge. He “found” the child and brought her to the orphanage. A couple, both teachers, adopted the child. After the war, they moved away. Efforts to find the child and bring her to Israel were unsuccessful. The adoptive family was not willing to lose her, and relocated from time to time.
During the summer, we lived on the hope that we would be able to stay alive. With the coming of autumn and winter, we lost hope.
Not far from us, in a nearby forest, soldiers murdered Clarah Awerman, Junia Gilson, and her brother, David. The only one who escaped was their brother, Ephraim. Esther Helicher froze to death with Rachel in her arms. Mane Ida and the child went to the Shimansky Forest and were shot there. Kuba Morgenstern hid in the village of Ladichin with the Hrintishin family.
In December, I got to the Ogurek house in Mikulnice where another five Jews from Tarnopol were hiding. We lived in a bunker in the courtyard - a sort of trench dug in the ground near the courtyard fence, supported by the mountain slope. At the entrance to the bunker stood a temporary wooden structure which served as a makeshift toilet. The landlord used to listen to the B.B.C. and every morning he reported to us what they said.
The third winter in Russia was not going in the Germans’ favor. After fortification during the difficult winter months, the big attack by the Soviet Army began to move westward. In February 1944, we could feel the earth trembling with the echoes of artillery shellings kilometers away from us. Again, we began to hope, to believe that perhaps after all, we would remain alive. Perhaps, there would be someone left to tell what happened to our people, our town, and our families.
In February, a unit of the German medical corps moved into the Ogurek house. At great personal risk, Michael Ogurek would bring us food at night. The front came closer to us. We heard the echoes of heavy vehicles which traveled through the town day and night. From time to time, we heard commanders barking loud orders. The Soviet Air Force bombed the retreating army. One of the bombs landed in the stable in the courtyard very close to our bunker. Miraculously, nothing happened to us. Two days before the town’s liberation, the Germans left the house. The bridge over the Seret River was again blown up, this time by the Germans. Echoes of shots were heard from all directions.
On Friday, March 23, 1944, in the evening, Michael opened the bunker and let us out. He pointed northeast and we saw people coming from the forest to the river in the direction of town. “Those are Soviet soldiers,” Michael said. “There are no more Germans in town. Redemption has come.” In our excitement, we couldn’t say a word. The tears in our eyes expressed our relief and our happiness.
However, the suffering of our people was not over yet. The infamous Ukrainian Bandera organized his nationalist compatriots and worked underground against the Soviets and against the Jews who had survived the valley of death. Thus, after the liberation, Enzel Awerman was killed in Skomorohy. We received reports of Jews being murdered in other villages in the vicinity.
Gradually, the survivors emerged from the bunkers and returned to town. Each of us hoped in their heart that someone was left from his or her family. The picture was very sad. There were thirty of us, one percent of the town’s prewar Jewish population. After all we had been through, it was hard to believe. The town was desolate. Jewish homes were wide open, doors torn from hinges, floorboards torn out, cellars and courtyards destroyed. Our lives were not enough for them. They also wanted to inherit what their victims left behind. For us, the town was no longer home. We gave a proper Jewish burial to the few whose place of burial was known to us.
The war in Europe was still raging. There was nothing we could do but wait. Meanwhile, we found jobs. We were impatient because we knew this wasn’t where we were going to live permanently and we didn’t know what the future held in store for us.
The Second World War ended on May 9, 1945. A few months later, a repatriation agreement was signed between Poland and the Soviet Union. Former Polish citizens, ourselves among them, were allowed to return to Poland. In this way, we left the U.S.S.R. When we got to Poland, we had but one ambition. We wanted to leave European soil which had absorbed too much of our people’s blood. Young people organized into Zionist groups of all political persuasions. By every possible and impossible means, they crossed borders illegally and got to port cities such as Hamburg, Marseilles, and Genoa. Helped by the Jewish Agency emissaries from Israel (Palestine), they tried to get there. We crossed the seas in unseaworthy ships and when we reached our destination, the British authorities deported us to camps in Cyprus. Once again, we lived behind barbed wire.
After every destruction comes rebirth. This time, too, after the worst destruction of all, the State of Israel was born. Then, we understood more than ever before how important a homeland is to the Jewish People. If we had had a homeland during the war years, our people would not have been slaughtered. We left the camps in Cyprus and came to Israel. Here we came together, the remnants of our town, Holocaust survivors, and those who came from the Soviet Union. Only a few from our town went to the United States. Each of us built a home here and raised a family. We educated our children in the spirit of the reborn land of Israel, to love their country and their fellow man, toward creativity and usefulness. We are proud to have taken part in the building of the country. Today, 38 years after the war ended, the third generation of survivors is already growing up.
I would be remiss not to mention a few of the righteous Gentiles who helped us in those awful times. We are grateful to them for the fact that we survived the killing. These people risked their lives for us without receiving anything in return. In times, when human dignity is trampled, when the Jew was considered an inferior being with no right to exist, persecuted on all sides with death waiting around every corner every minute, there were a few who were not ensnared in the net of evil and who still considered humanitarianism the supreme value. These people gave us back our lost faith in our fellow human beings. Among them were: Yan Misiewicz, Michael Ogurek, Karol Sygnatovitch, Fila Lopatynska, the Ferenz family, Mania and Julian Hryncyshyn, and others whose names we do not know.
Over the years, I have encountered all kinds of people. They all wanted to know what happened “there” .... what it was like. Most of them asked, “Why didn’t you resist? Why did you go like sheep to slaughter?”
How could we have resisted? Our spirits were broken. We were suffering the pain of our losses and we had no help from those around us. Nobody cried out. The earth didn’t shake and the heavens didn’t roar. The nations of the world were silent and the German beast of prey systematically completed the purification of the superior Aryan race from the Semitic parasite. There were acts of heroism by individuals and by groups, but they were infrequent. I often wonder how I managed to stay alive. I was no smarter or braver than anyone else. I wasn’t a heroine. I simply managed to chart my course by instincts which I never even knew I had.
When they heard strange stories of what happened in those days, some people set themselves up as judges of ghetto and camp inmates. None of us can judge anyone else, and certainly those who weren’t there are not in a position to judge those who were. How can you judge a mother who strangled her three year old son to death because he cried out in a bunker while the Germans were looking for its entrance? How can you judge the son who brought the S.S. to his parents’ bunker because he thought he would be kept alive in return? I could give dozens of examples. I was a witness to them. But were all these people sane and of sound mind? Could each of them think clearly and judge the consequences of his behavior?
Only one thing was clear in those days. Everyone wanted to live and did everything which might help keep them alive. Therefore, we must not judge others. Let the dead rest in peace, and let the living live.
There are days that are set aside for remembering, days that superficially are no different than the thousands of other days which pass as years go by. With the passage of the years, time dulls the memories under ordinary circumstances. Our case, however, is different. The memories of Holocaust survivors do not fade and do not die with time. They are with us as we go about our daily work, and they are with us in our dreams. What I have said in these pages is just a infinitesimal part of what I saw and experienced during the war years. It would take a generation to tell everything, and it would also require superhuman emotional strength.
My purpose in writing this is to join the others of my people, who by putting their memories down on paper, have left a monument to their town and their people who are no more. This is a monument to my parents, Rivka and Ephraim Horowitz and my sister Mancia who were killed in a labor camp, and to my grandmother, Gittel and my grandfather, Haim Meistrich (my mother’s parents), who were murdered in the Tarnopol ghetto - so that future generations will know. More and more, there are those who are trying to distort and blur the past, including “scholars” who claim that the Holocaust was a figment of the Jews’ imagination. The truth must not be blurred or blotted out. Therefore, we have even more of an obligation, we who are left from the six million. We must write and tell our stories, to remind and to warn. Each community should write its story. Ultimately, these books will provide an accurate and complete testimony of an incomprehensible chapter of human life, an unprecedented chapter of Jewish history.
In my post-war wanderings, I have lived in a few major cities in various countries. In comparison to them, Tarnopol was a tiny town. Its total population at that time may have been 40,000, 50,000, or 60,000 – but in comparison to New York or Los Angeles …. A tiny town, indeed. Yet, in comparison to Mikulince, Tarnopol was a large urban center…. We had to leave it because my father was a merchant, and as a well to do merchant, he was considered “unproductive” by the Soviet State …. And was therefore by Soviet law subject to deportation to Siberia as an undesirable. Mikulince was a way station …. A place where people, like my parents, were to be tucked away from the “official Soviet public view…..” for a time, until deportation…..
I can just imagine my parents’ anguish when they had to leave their home in Tarnopol. The memories of a thriving business, or the memory of the Rebbe’s of Burshtyn visit to those spacious rooms on the first floor of our building on Pilsudski Street ….. must have agonized their days and their nights.
I vaguely remember our moving to Mikulince … our belongings on a wagon, drawn by horses … The distance was not more than 20 or 30 kilometers, perhaps even less … but on a wagon drawn by horses, Mikulince was 2/3 of a day’s journey away. It was a long trip – on a road that stretched through villages inhabited by peasants who rarely saw a Jew. One arrived in Mikulince on a crest of a hill … the town lay beneath its winding road … the road led through a bridge to the heart of the town … it then became the main street, flanked by one-story homes. Eventually, the street widened into a broad place, with lawn beds and trees, and then narrowed again into a road that led out of Mikulince to the next town, Trembowla.
The pulse and rhythm of Mikulince was slow in comparison to the urban center that I came from. People walked slowly, chatted excitedly, older women with “babushkahs” on their heads went about their business in measured steps, as if there was time to do their daily chores forever… nothing was far away, everything was clustered within a square block of homes … Everyone knew everyone… everybody was everybody’s neighbor… there was a closeness, a comaraderie, a caring which did not exist in larger towns. The arrival of a new family to Mikulince was news of the day. Little kids came out to look and look over the newcomers. The town’s people had something to talk about until the next event in town occurred ..
There were also feuds over trivia, which in the perspective of a small town looked world shaking. There was coveting, and there were wishes and dreams of success… measured by someone else’s standards. Some people had nicknames, rooted in their personality habits, their gait, their personal appearance… in a way, they were the town’s “heroes.”
My visits to Mikulince were infrequent in those pre-German years. I was a teacher in a village, facing the world on my own. But my homecomings were precious… the worry free days, the sanctity of home and the Sabbath in it, the leisure strolls on main streets, all of these made those times unforgettable.
However, as the world was changing, history was being made before our eyes. Uncertainty was in the air – personal life style had taken a different turn – yet, it was the simplicity of the town, the down-to-earthness of its people, the uncomplicated mode of living that made those years so memorable. And so, people went about their daily lives satisfied with the limited material resources, food was plentiful and hope existed that the war would end and life would take a new turn. So, Mikulince was a quiet town, a friendly town, closely-knit, with a live-let-live philosophy of existence …
Little did we know that that was destined to end… that in the perspective of the events to come, this life was paradise … I remember the day when the German-Russian War broke out… the confusions, the panic, the indecisions where to go and what to do, the rumors coming from the peasants in the surrounding villages threatening Jews with killing once the Germans arrived… people were leaving with the retreating Russians… The Community was dwindling, and my parents, not being “kosher” with the Russians, decided to remain in Mikulince… and left their future to fate. I remember the Ukrainian notices posted on the walls of the buildings… the promises of the Nazis to give the Ukrainians an independent state once the war was over … their rejoicing and their ecstasy … their turning on Jews in fury, threatening “to get even”… Suddenly, there was a silence in the streets, the shutters were bolted, the doors were locked… the Russians were gone with many of the townfolk… the Germans were on their way. Fear and trembling prevailed…
As the night descended upon the abandoned Mikulince, my mother insisted that I spend the night in a local pharmacy, reasoning that a pharmacy would not be touched by the entering troops. I remember the walk I took from home in the center of town to the pharmacy. Normally that would have been a pleasant walk, which would have taken only a few minutes. But that night, that walk lasted an eternity. I saw an SS man coming toward me. I remember how I decided to walk slowly, rather than run to draw his attention or arouse his suspicion toward me. He passed me, gun in hand, said nothing – and I arrived safely at the pharmacy. This was the first Nazi I ever saw. The green of his uniform was different than the green of the Polish soldiers’ uniforms of the green the Russians had used. It had a different hue. Little did I know that our future would be so precarious, that it would bring so much anguish and suffering and tragedy. That night the first victim in Mikulince was one of the Zipper boys. There was a knock on the door – he opened it, was running away and shot.
I remember the labor brigades digging trenches by the brewery, or outside the town on the crest on the hill by the Catholic Church; I remember the news of killings at the brewery, the lootings and the beatings by former Ukrainian peasants, now turned policemen or militia-men.
The betrayals of Jews were a daily occurrence. Rumors of pogroms in other towns were trickling in. We were a scared community, afraid of our shadow. There was no talk of resistance; there was no attempt to do anything that would be in the nature of self-defense. We became worthless; our lives consisted of fear and worry. One day rumors had it that for money one could get a “pass” - and be safe. But that was a ruse. This was a treacherous way of tricking people into remaining in view, so that the SS killing brigades could easily collect them and ship them to death camps.
One night, trucks filled with SS men arrived in Mikulince. We ran for cover in bunkers. We heard the screams and the shootings. Homes were entered forcibly, food and provisions were confiscated, people were rounded up. The Germans did their work with premeditated precision. Everything was laid out by plan. Soldiers were trained in mass murder. But the heavens were mute - and the sun was not shining on us.
I remember the convoys of SS trucks passing through Mikulince, on the way to other towns to do the same brutal work. How shameful that the civilized world said nothing while this terror was going on. It seemed so often no one cared what was happening to Jews.
I remember the dreams and the hopes of our people. People used to say: “When liberation will come, I will do this and this or go to such and such place”… The will to live was amazing. I am so convinced that it was this will to live, that helped people survive this tragic period in their lives. We hung onto life with every ounce of strength. In spite of its pain, life was still worth living … Amazing!
There came a day when Mikulince was declared “Juden Rein.” Those who remained had to move to the ghetto in Tarnopol. Those who ran away were hunted down like dogs… our good-bye to Mikulince was painful. For many it was a native place, and for us who came there after the Russians had occupied this part of Poland, Mikulince was a hospitable place, a warm place, a friendly place, a place we had grown to consider our own. I remember the feelings of sadness inside of me - when I realized that so lovely a town should be doomed to exist without a single Jew living legitimately in it.
But leave it we had to - the choice was not ours to make… As the months moved on and the Tarnopol Ghetto was being liquidated, for us who had lived in Mikulince, there was nowhere else to go but to hide in the environs of Mikulince. There were a few saintly souls around that risked feeding us and even hiding us… Their risk was real… had they been caught harboring Jews, they would have been severely punished… perhaps shot for the “crime” of helping Jews live. There was Jan Misiewicz who saved five Jews, there was Michael Ogorek and his mother, who kept six Jews on their premises. There was Michael’s helper who used to fix the bunker when it collapsed under the weight of moist manure… There were perhaps others - too few to resist the official Nazi policy - and yet, thanks to these brave souls a few of us survived the nightmare.
I remember the night when Russian trucks returned to Mikulince. The Germans ran in retreat, and those of us who survived, came out of their bunkers in search of other remnants of a once loveable Jewish town. We were in rags, emaciated, pale looking. Soviet Jewish soldiers sought us out. Their Jewish consciousness was shining forth. The Russian Revolution could not kill their Jewish feelings. They gave us food; they gave us clothing; they gave us emotional support. It felt good to be treated so humanely. After a period of being worthless as a human being, their efforts to make us comfortable were very much appreciated.
A handful of our people returned to Mikulince from their hiding places and from Russia itself. But the tendency was to leave these blood drenched places and go to the free world. Jews had no future here. And so, when the newly established Polish Government had agreed to exchange citizens with the Soviet Union, whose of us who were Polish Jews began leaving for Poland. We knew that from there it would be easier to reach the free world. I was one of the last ones to leave Mikulince. Once again, I remember sitting on a horse drawn wagon on the way to the Tarnopol railroad station. I was saying goodbye to Mikulince on the way to catch a trainload of “Polish” repatriates bound for the new Poland. I left my brother Janek in the Mikulince Cemetery. He was shot in a village by Mikulince called Chartoryja, caught in a trap set up by a foreman of his labor brigade. How sad was this parting, how tragic this farewell - to a town, to a brother, to memories so filled with life …
Mikulince was one of a myriad of Jewish Shtetlach that were wiped off the face of the earth by Nazi hordes, helped along by their Ukrainian collaborators. With those shtetlach a rich history of our people were wiped out, never to arise again, or for that matter anywhere else in the world …
Much of the Jewish wealth and property was scattered in that region. Much still remains unclaimed, some of it buried somewhere underneath homes and trees and walls … Someday, someone will stumble on some of those buried treasures and will be told… “Jews used to live here back in the 30’s and 40’s of last century…” Will the future do us justice and teach those generations to come that we were good people, G-d fearing, family oriented, compassionate and giving - fallen victims to a terrible fate - or, will those who stumble on those hidden or buried items, think of us as mean hoarders of valuables, unwilling to share G-d’s blessings with others.
Ours, therefore, is the task to record these misdeeds against us - that the world may know, remember and learn. The task is also ours to record the richness of our past, rooted in these tiny shtetlach and acquaint our future generations with the beauty, the simplicity, the naivete, the devotion and commitment of those who gave us life. They had inculcated in us a Jewish Consciousness which no one could tear out or obliterate. Shtetlach like Mikulince make our Jewish Consciousness indelible. In turn, we owe them our love and our praise. For from them sprang our own deep Jewish feelings and our strong Jewish identity and Jewish Consciousness.
On thie 40 th Anniversary of the destruction and liquidation of the Jewish Community of Mikulince, we who have survived the nightmare, pray that their souls ascend the highest of Heavens, where they may rest among the righteous of the world. May our friendly Mikulince have its twin in the Heavens - so that our loved ones might dwell with G-d forever, at His right hand and in His Eternal care. By their martyrdom and untimely deaths, they have earned for themselves Eternity in G-d’s Kingdom. May they live in the world beyond, knowing that we, who were left behind, remember them as a blessing for us and the world.
ZICHRONAM LIBRACHAH – We shall keep them in our hearts with love, as long as we shall live, and through the means of this memorial book, we shall keep them alive beyond our life span for a while longer, as well. They gave us life and we have reciprocated their gift to us, with love eternal.
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