This sad Purim came about at the end of the winter, 1943, in the so-called Little Ghetto, a stunted remnant of what had once been the flourishing Jewish community of Piotrkow.
After the mass evacuation of Jews from Piotrkow in October, 1942, only 2,000 Jews had been left in Piotrkow. This number included refugees from the immediate environs and also from other cities and towns of Nazi-occupied Poland. They were crammed into a Procrustean bed south of Staro-Warszawska, once the Jewish Street par excellence. It was ringed by a thicket of barbed wire that turned the area allotted to Piotrkow's remaining Jews into a convenient cage within which the murderers could gun down their victims any time they chose.
The streets on the other side of the barbed wire, formerly part of the larger Ghetto, were lined with houses where Jews had once lived but which were now deserted shells. With their doors agape and their window frames having had their glass panes knocked out, they looked like so many skeletons with toothless mouths and empty eye sockets. They spread an atmosphere of stark terror with their graveyard stillness, a silence broken only from time to time by the sounds of the Nazis knocking down walls and tearing open floors in search of hidden treasures which the deported Jews had supposedly left behind.
It was in this still atmosphere, heavy with constant dread, that the Jews tried to muddle through life. The intention of the authorities was to keep their frightened victims in a permanent state of suspense. Every day brought a new regulation, but so disguised that the Jews would not be able to suspect its intent. Thus, it often happened that a shipment of food would arrive just before a partial evacuation, or on the eve of a mass execution.
This is the way things happened on that tragic Purim which I am to describe. Only the pale sun, hiding behind the Ghetto houses, shed a feeble light which infiltrated the frozen roofs as if seeking to melt the winter ice upon them. But its light could not warm the human shadows in the Ghetto Prison; their bodies were too stiff, their souls too congealed for that.
To whom would it have occurred that this day was Purim, the merriest of Jewish holidays? Perhaps there were some who managed to keep track of time; those who kept their Judaism with self-sacrificing devotion even under the most inhuman conditions, or those exceptional individuals who stole a glance in the underground newspapers smuggled into the Ghetto by some Polish and Jewish workers. Among the contrabandists who managed to sneak this literature into the Ghetto at the risk of their lives was our friend, the young Zionist activist Feivel Steinberg of blessed memory, whose own optimism helped cheer many who were on the verge of despair.
When, on that bleak winter day, a truck bearing armed policemen pulled up in the front of the house at 12 Jerozolimska Street, the headquarters of the Ghetto Committee, no one suspected that this would be the start of an orgy of murder. On the contrary, there appeared a faint glimmer of hope, whose feeble glow briefly diminished the gloom of the Ghetto. There were whispered rumors that Jews from various Ghettos in Poland were about to be exchanged for German citizens living in Palestine, in Sharona, a colony founded by the Knights of Templar. This fortune had come to Jacob Kurz, Rosenthal, and several others;they had been permitted to leave the Ghetto of Piotrkow and had arrived safely in Palestine.
The Nazis saw to it that this rumor would spread widely through the Ghetto. They stressed that for the time being, the privilege of repatriation to Palestine in exchange for German citizens would be limited to ten Jews in all: each one would have to show proof that he had graduated from an institution of higher learning.
On Purim afternoon in 1943, the Ghetto was more alive than it had been in many a day. There was unusual activity, particularly in the courtyard of the so-called Jewish Committee, at Reder's house, which had been designated as the assembly point for the privileged few who, it was said, were eligible for repatriation to Palestine.
The first ones to arrive at the assembly point were Stanislaw Silberstein and his white-haired wife. As a wealthy, assimilated lawyer and the son of Wilhelm Silberstein, a former president of Piotrkow's Jewish community, he had been a highly esteemed personage before the war, as well as in the circles of the Polish intelligentsia. As it turned out, Stanislaw knew better than the others what the true intentions of the Germans might be, as his prompt reaction to the news that the Germans were about to exchange Jews for Germans was to pull out a vial of poison. He asked them to look out for his only daughter.
The next privileged individual to report was Dr. Maurycy Brams. With him were his wife, his dark-haired daughter and his sister-in-law (a member of the Kagan family). This humble but most efficient and devoted communal leader, whose gaunt, ascetic features were brightened by shining, gentle eyes, had been helping his needy fellow Jews to the point of self-sacrifice, particularly since the outbreak of the war. Unlike Silberstein, Brams was in high spirits. He was certain that he was about to be sent to a country where he would not only be freed and independent himself, but be in the position to help the Jews who remained in the Ghetto.
The mood of Szymek Stein was entirely different. This brilliant young Jewish lawyer, bubbling over with life and wit, had been educated at the Jewish Gymnasium and was an active Zionist. As soon as he arrived at the assembly point, he had a premonition of what the Germans were really planning to do, and tried to escape too late, unfortunately.
Also among the privileged few was the psychiatrist Leon Glatter. Altogether, ten individuals had been selected for the exchange.
As the repatriates were shepherded into the waiting truck, the mood in the Ghetto street grew tense. The lucky few were followed by curious, searching glances from those who had to remain behind.
The truck with the repatriates drove off in the direction of Sulejowska Street. Supposedly, they would be taken to Radom, the chief city of the district to which Piotrkow belonged during the Nazi occupation. There, they would join a large transport of privileged people from other Ghettos and set out together on the journey to freedom.
The next morning dawned dark and somber in the Ghetto. The Jews were suddenly confronted with the incredible reports of blood-curdling scenes in the Jewish cemetery. People in the know told gruesome details about the fate that had befallen the privileged individuals. In order to made a proper production of it, the Nazi hangmen had imitated the account in the Book of Esther of the execution of the ten sons of Haman except that, to the ten Jewish victims, they had added an eleventh  one.
All the Nazi bigwigs of the Piotrkow district had gathered at the mass grave, which was surrounded by gendarmes, policemen, and army officers with machine guns at the ready. They drank, made merry and even read an obscene parody of the Book of Esther before killing the repatriates.
Polish policemen who had been present at the cemetery later recalled the horrible scenes they had witnessed with their own eyes: how Dr. Brams had collapsed when he saw his beautiful daughter dragged to the mass grave, and how Szymek Stein had appealed to the conscience of the Nazi police chief not to take the lives of innocent human beings. But the hearts of the Germans had remained cold to his pleas. All the Nazi officer said was, We carry out our order, and this with a cynical, satanic sneer.
In order to avert any suspicions the Jews might have had, the Germans drove them all over the city until nightfall. Only under cover of pitch darkness did they finally take them quickly to the cemetery, where even the optimists in the group lost the last of their illusions.
The tears for the Martyrs of the Purim massacre had not yet dried when there came a new wave of mass executions. Dozens of young, vibrant Jews were gunned down, including some who later were found to be carrying forged Aryan passports.
And so the sufferings of the Jews were prolonged like a thick, blood-soaked chain, day in and day out, leaving no breathing spell in which to contemplate what had happened that day, or even the hour before, in the words of our Sages, The latest sorrows cause the earlier ones to be forgotten (Ber.13).
To this day we are wading through a vast sea of tears over the horrible deaths and unspeakable sufferings of millions of victims our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands and children, and other loved ones -- whose final resting place we do not know and for whom no adequate dirges have been composed. To that deluge of tears let us add still more for the ten Martyrs of Piotrkow.
|Piotrkow, November 3, 1988. Jakub Rener from Paris (right) and a representative of the
Christian Pax society lay a wreath on the grave of Dr. Maurycy Brams and the
Purim Massacre Martyrs. Rener attend the extensive ceremonies marking the tragic
46th anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto of Piotrkow
Irving Cymberknopf Toronto
It was my destiny to be born on January 2, 1925, in the town of Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland.
It was also my destiny to lose both parents in September 1942. They died within one month of each other. I was 17 years old.
Today, close to 50 years later, I cannot understand how I survived the deep emotional pain of that period of my life.
It happened to all of us who were born as Jews in Poland during that period. However, I can only speak about the effect the experience had on me.
I was an only child. The love I received during the first years of my life had a lasting effect. I was very close to my parents. Since they were murdered, in 1942, I have not forgotten them for an instant. The pain of my memories is constant and unforgettable.
It took 50 years before I was able to even try to write down the manner in which my beloved parents died. I had to do something. And if not now, when? I didn't want the tragic story of how each of my parents died to be forgotten not by my children, and not by their children. I want their stories to be recorded for their heroism and for the strength of their beliefs, but mostly because they deserve to be respected as human beings.
My mother was a very devoted person. She believed that everything that happens is G-d's will. My father was also observant. But he believed in individual strength and in the ability of each person to shape his own destiny. Each in their own way struggled for life and against death.
In 1941, my mother, in her wisdom, bribed someone to obtain a position for me in the local glass factory, called Hortensia, believing that one who worked would survive. At that time, the so-called Final Solution for Jews had already begun in other cities. We did not believe what we heard. We considered it in our interest to remain in the city. The ghetto was established with its barbed wire. The limited space was cramped with people. In our 2-room apartment lived 12 people. Before, there had been three.
As the liquidation of Jews in our city progressed, my parents and the immediate family started to dig a bunker, a simple hole in the ground, thinking that once the liquidation (Aussiedlung) was over, they would re-enter the population which was working in the glass factory and in the other places, such as the one which was called Bugaj. After the deportation, the Ghetto was greatly reduced in size. The working population that remained was about 2,500 people out of a population of approximately 30,000 Jews. When it was time for our people to be deported to other places (in fact, the people in our city were taken to Treblinka), my parents and four other families, including their children (a total of 10 people), went into hiding in the bunker (2 Rushniks, 2 Cymberknops, 2 Rimers and 4 Lichtensteins).
Approximately 28,000 people were taken from the ghetto. There were many bunkers where people were hiding. When these people started to come out they found themselves outside the ghetto boundaries and they had to smuggle themselves back into the ghetto. The ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire and every few meters there stood Ukrainian and Lithuanian guards. One had to be extremely fortunate just to be able to make it to the ghetto.
In this respect my father was brave. Perhaps this was due to the fact that he had been in the Polish army in 1920, when Poland became independent. He was the one who smuggled himself and the other 9 people back to the ghetto. I remember how I trembled when he ventured out through the barbed wire again and again to a distance of about a thousand meters, avoiding the murderers, to bring back my mother, my aunts and 6 children. All were gathered in this small apartment that belonged to my uncle Janckel. At that point I was so happy to have my parents and the rest of my family together. My father pressed me close to his body, my mother kissed me without stopping. We were together for only one day, for the next day the Jewish police started to look for people who had left the bunkers, and for that matter anyone they could find. My parents went into hiding in this small apartment. The Jewish police came in, found my mother and father and took them both to the Synagogue, where there were a few hundred Jews from the bunkers and hideouts. The Germans brought Poles with horses and wagons to transport the Jews gathered in the synagogue to a nearby city called Tomaszow, where the liquidation had not yet been carried out.
Instead of going with the people, my mother hid herself in the attic of the synagogue. My father was outside, in one of the wagons. He was waiting to see my mother come out of the synagogue. As he did not see her coming out, he knew she had succeeded in remaining hidden. This is how he told it to me, and he also told me how he had decided to escape. He took the whip which was used by the Polish driver for the horses and walked away as though he were a Polish driver. He looked like a Pole. This helped. He went in one of the empty houses outside the ghetto, waited until night and then smuggled himself back to the ghetto.
When my father came into the room, I was in bed and totally speechless. The happiness I felt in my heart to see my father alive was limitless. It was dark and it was light, it was death and it was life, it was disaster and it was joy. We hugged and held each other close all night.
Two days later, the Jewish police started a new search. My father hid himself. I was working legally and did not feel the need to hide. When I came back from work, three policemen were waiting for me. One was my teacher, one a neighbor and the third a friend of my father's from childhood. They took me to the synagogue, where a few hundred people were already gathered. What was to become of us was unknown. I was sure that this was the end. For three days without food and water except for the snow I could gather through the window at night, I kept myself and others alive. I still can't believe how I survived those days.
|From the Jewish cemetery in Piotrkow to Har Menuchoth in Jerusalem
Irving Cymberknopf exhumes again the remains of his mother Bina in 1977. (She was
killed in 1942 during the deportations to Treblinka and buried in the Wolborski Forest.
In 1945, Irving brought her remains to the Jewish cemetery and put her to rest
according to Jewish custom.)
On the third day, in the late afternoon, a Gestapo officer came in and started calling names. He called approximately 20 names, mine among them. A total of 562 people men, women and children were in the synagogue. I started to walk out of the synagogue. In front of the synagogue, a Gestapo officer stood with white gloves and a revolver in his hand. Beside him lay a dead body. That moment is imprinted in my mind forever. It was the first time I had witnessed death so close to me.
We lined up to be counted. A group of people came towards us. They were also lined up. Among the people in this group stood my beloved father. I do not know until this day how I could remain standing just across from him and not run to him as I wanted to do. I cannot forgive myself to this day for not having done so. He was going to the synagogue and I was coming out.
My father, I found out later, had turned himself in to the Jewish policemen. He had traded his life for mine. He went in and I went out. He went to meet death and I survived.
After one week in the synagogue, 42 young, capable men, including my father, were taken out and marched to a nearby forest, known as the Rakow Forest. They were ordered to dig ditches, and as they finished digging the holes, they were ordered to take their clothes off. At that moment, my father attacked a guard and tried to escape. However, he never made it. During the fight, eight people were able to save themselves and come back to the ghetto. It was through one of these eight survivors that I learned how my father died. My father was a hero.
Now, for the story of my mother's death.
At the last minute, a Jewish policeman discovered her hiding in the attic of the synagogue. She was the last to be taken out of the synagogue. My father never saw this. She went with the transport to Tomaszow. On the way, she didn't see my father and was told he had run away. So she, too, ran away from that transport and managed to stay in a farmer's house for two weeks. Since our business dealt with farmers' supplies, she had not difficulty in finding a place. Our relations with them had been very good in the past.
At this point, I would like to mention that, after my father returned from his escape, we found out that she had been discovered by a Jewish policeman on the second day. This was told by another policeman who had been present at the terrible occasion of her death. I cry to this day. My heart cries. My soul cries.
After being at the farmer's for two weeks, she decided to return to the ghetto. On the way, she was caught and taken to the forest called Wolbosherwald, and beaten brutally. Finally she broke out into hysterical laughter. Then she was shot. So, a farmer who was an eyewitness told me.
In 1945, after the war, I returned to Piotrkow and visited this farmer. With his help, after a day's searching in the forest, we found her body. I knew the remains were those of my mother. I recognized her by her clothes and by the Star of David she had on her. My mother was a great woman, a great believer. She said: If this is G-d's will, then let it be so. Very few people could say that, very few indeed. Yet she also struggled to survive. She had a good nature and her actions were filled with love and kindness.
I brought her remains to the Jewish cemetery and buried her according to Jewish custom. I erected a tombstone. In 1976 I went to Poland for the purpose of exhuming and bringing her remains to Israel in order to bury her there. I was unsuccessful.
In 1977 I went to Poland again and, with the help of the Dutch Ambassador, I was able to bring her to Israel in 1978. She is now at rest on Har Menucha in Jerusalem.
My mother left me with the strength not to abandon my faith, and my father left me with the conviction that one has to strive to find strength within oneself and with it one can maintain control over one's life even in the most dire of circumstances.
There is yet another story to be told.
When I returned to Piotrkow, I found the sack that my mother had buried, in my presence, close to her mother's grave in our town's Jewish cemetery. It contained some jewelry, our silver candlesticks and a silver kiddush cup. These items were our most valuable goods.
After the war, upon my return to Piotrkow, I retrieved that sack. Although most of its contents have been lost or stolen since, I was able to hold on to a gold chain, which I presented, together with its history, with great pride and pleasure to my daughter Bina on her wedding day. It is priceless to me because it is one of the few tangible things left from my youth from the time when I basked in my parents' love and devotion. To be able to pass it on to my beloved daughter brought some comfort to my scarred neshomeh.
|Exhumation of the Rakow Kedoshim just after the war. From the Rakow Forest to
Kewer Achim at the cemetery in Piotrkow
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