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[Page 480]

Before the Storm

by Zvi Arpa

Translated with Endnotes by Alex Weingarten

 

Introduction

The blood freezes in my veins, and my lips tremble as I sit down to write these chapters.

Again I see those terrible years of the Holocaust, those terrifying and depressing war years that I will remember forever. They appear to me as if they were still alive, all the dear friends whom I lived with, worked with, and together with them hoped and aspired for better lives… Everything sank into that pit of forgetfulness, everything very cruelly stopped. My soul rebels; it is difficult to put those terrible days on paper.

But a holy obligation commands the hand to write, and to declare everything cherished that was lost, so I sit and fulfill my duty. I made an oath to be carried out anywhere I would find myself, on the day that I was freed from the camps.

I cannot put everything on paper. The Holocaust is too big to bear description. What I will recount in the following chapters is a drop in the sea of suffering and the torment in general, and that of our townspeople in particular, who were among its first victims in Poland.

Even before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Jews of Sierpc started to feel the winds of Nazism that came from Hitler's Germany. The Poles were greatly influenced by Hitler's ideology and prepared themselves for it. Long before the German conquest, they sharpened their swords on the Jewish communities, including that of Sierpc, to destroy them and eliminate them and their property.

The beginning came from the Sejm[1] where the Minister of the Interior Skladkowski said “Bojkotowac owszem” meaning that a commercial boycott by the Gentiles of stores and workshops was permitted. This meant not to buy in Jewish stores or give work to Jewish artisans. This caused a large drop in the income of Polish Jews. I remember that in November 1938, groups of Poles from the OZN[2] Party stood in front of every Jewish store in Sierpc and wouldn't let Gentile customers enter to buy goods. They moved around in pairs near every store and handed out fliers to passersby. These contained slanders, curses, and pictures: how a Jew sits at home, feasting on fish and meat and all sorts of good foods; on the other side was a picture showing the poverty of the Gentiles. Beneath the pictures, a caption: how the Jews suck our blood. Or another picture: a Jew is standing next to some food and scratching his beard so that lice will fall into the food, which is to be sold to Gentiles. Whatever was not in the flyers, the picketen[3] would add verbally. The police did not interfere in any of these provocations, because this was the official policy of the Polish government. They would stand in shifts twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday, the market days in Sierpc.

In January 1939, the Jews of Sierpc woke up in the morning to find all the signs on their stores and workshops covered with tar. This was the work of the picketen who came from Plotzk and Rypin to help the local hooligans spread their anti-Semitic propaganda in our town. They were not satisfied with their day's work on Friday, but stayed till Saturday night. They lay in wait near the synagogue and beit midrash[4] to finish the job. The worshippers, smelling what awaited them outside, decided to remain inside their places of worship until they left.

Two Jews managed to sneak into the new beit midrash where Rabbi Goldschlak was praying to inform him of what was happening outside: Poles carrying clubs and knives were waiting near every Jewish place of worship.

The Rabbi left the beit midrash through a back door and went home and contacted the Staroste[5] by phone to inform him of the situation. The Staroste promised to send police to the houses of worship to safeguard the Jews so that no harm would come to them. The police came, but could not control the situation. That evening, a number of Jews were injured by these hooligans.

This rabble ruled in Sierpc for few months before the outbreak of the war. It was simply too dangerous for Jews to go outside in the evenings. The organizers of these incidents were from the Polish intelligentsia: Dr. Malewitz, Witschalkowski, and others. They decided to intensify the economic boycott, continue the terror in the streets against the Jews, to provoke a loud propaganda campaign, and destroy the Jews of Sierpc economically, physically, and spiritually.

The Jewish community of Sierpc was depressed and in despair because of the situation in town, more than any other group in Sierpc. Because there was a hooligan network in Sierpc: the hub of the organization was the new political party called OZN that was organized following the venomous anti-Semitic speech in the Sejm by the interior minister, Skladkowski. The community sent a delegation to Warsaw to meet with Jewish representatives in the Sejm. These individuals would contact the Polish authorities who would try to improve our situation, to protect us, and stop the stream of hatred in our town. But nothing came of this. All Polish lips repeated the same words: “Hitler is coming to destroy you.” Every Gentile in Sierpc had already decided which Jewish property he would plunder when the German army entered Sierpc; which store and which apartment would be his…

The Jews of Sierpc stood up to this with conscience, spirit, and religion. They maintained their brotherly mutual aid, helped the poor willingly and sincerely. They founded the beneficial fund that supported the needy, the artisans, the small merchants that needed interest free loans; to maintain the other banks like Bank Ludowi, Bank Kopitzki, Bank Kreditowi, that sustained all the Jews in Sierpc without exception. The Jews also contributed to all types of funds, such as Keren Kayemet, Keren Yesod, Keren Hayishuv, and in addition – many yeshivas.

Boys' education was of a very high level. Religious Jews invested mighty efforts in the Heder Beit Yosef and Beit Yaakov to bring up the younger generation in the spirit of the Torah and tradition.

An impressive building was erected by the Zionist party in Sierpc for the Tarbuth School, where the students received both a nationalistic and traditional education. The schools were the pride of Sierpc Jewry. The sounds of the Torah never ceased in the new and old beit midrash, and the houses of the Gur and Alexander Hasidim.

The public guest house (hachnasat orchim) that was built with pennies collected from the town residents was a talmud torah during the day, where poor children whose parents could not afford to pay tuition could learn. This heder was supported by the Sierpc community.

The political parties[6] were active: Agudat Israel, Poalei Agudat Israel, Tzeirei Agudat Israel, Mizrachi, the Zionist Party, Poalei Tzion, Bund, Hashomer Haleumi, and Hashomer Hatzair The youth of Sierpc spent its evenings and its spare time in the party headquarters that had well stocked libraries, athletic equipment, and so forth.

I remember that during the Passover before the war, a Polish army battalion came to our town. They stayed for a few months and there were disturbances initiated by the soldiers. The Jewish community persevered in its efforts to have the authorities intercede, but without success. The Gentiles were saturated with wild anti-Semitism.

And then came the day of the destruction of the community of Sierpc. On Friday, September 1, 1939, the war between Poland and Germany broke out. This is a terrible date for the Jews of Poland, including those of Sierpc.

The next day, Saturday, the first refugees from Mlawa and Żuromin arrived. They were fleeing the Germans that had penetrated into Polish territory. These towns were bombed by the German Air force. The fugitives came for shelter in Sierpc, but before they had a chance to settle down, the German planes reached our town as well. The municipal hospital on Plotzki Street was bombed, and four patients were hurt. This was on Monday, September 4, 1939. That same day, an edict was issued by the Staroste: the youth must leave town and go towards Drobin or Warsaw, because the German army is approaching.

The fear and despair are difficult to describe, or the separation of the sons from their parents. Where? For how long? What will happen to those left behind? What will the Germans do to our parents and dear ones, with their cruel system of governing that is about to take over the town in a few hours? Everyone felt that whatever would happen to their dear ones would happen to them too. The streets were full of confused Jews, seeking advice from one another. No one could decide what to do, and time was short and the danger was coming closer.

In the end, many young people left the town. Few were left. These were people who did not have the strength to wander the roads, and said: “Whatever will be, will be,” because in any case they would collapse by the roadside. There was no transportation, and they were not capable of moving on foot. My parents, of blessed memory, also remained. How great was the pain, as if we were separated forever. The community of Sierpc was wrapped in wailing and tears.

I left the house accompanied by my parents, with tears streaming down their faces. As I walked down the stairs, I could still hear the blessing of my father, of blessed memory: “Come back safely!”

Those leaving town walked toward Plotzki Street carrying small packages, their gear for the trip. I met David Bergson on Alter Park Street. He had decided not to leave town because there was no point to this flight. In any case, the whole country would be overrun by the Germans in a short time. In spite of this, we left the town, without knowing where to go. We went with thousands of Jew from other towns. During the day the roads were bombed, and at night there was nowhere to sleep. Most of the people from Sierpc remained in the town of Gostynin because they could not walk any further. Some continued in the direction of Warsaw.

In the meantime, between the retreats of the Poles and the German occupation, Sierpc was without any authorities whatsoever. A few citizens, Gentiles and Jews, got together, among them David Bergson and Berish Poznanski, to try and bring some order to the town. There was a shortage of small coins, and they printed notes signed by the town governors, David Bergson and Berish Poznanski. The stores, bakeries and workshops operated according to their instructions, and the town functioned well until the Hitlerist occupier came.

*

After about a week of wandering, we arrived at the outskirts of Warsaw. We traveled together, and as best I remember the names, we were: the brothers Natan, Shmuel, Wolf, Tatz, Yehudah and Moshe Pukacz, the attorney Toch, a Jew who settled in Sierpc together with his family before the war. (It is fitting that we mention his name. He should be remembered as an exemplary man: he was kind hearted and a philanthropist, an expert at his profession, who brought honor to the Jews of Sierpc among the Gentiles because of his talent and wisdom.) I came with all of them to Warsaw. When we entered the city, we were caught by the Polish Guard for labor duty: to dig ditches and break up the roads so that enemy tanks would not pass. We were tired and weary from our journey, but worked for the Polish military for twenty-four hours without rest or food. What we did receive were many heavy blows from the Polish soldiers who guarded us constantly, using their shovels and hoes. They let out all their frustration with their situation on us. We accepted our condition silently, for what could we say or do? To whom could we complain or ask for consideration?

In Warsaw, our contact with our relatives was cut off entirely. We did not hear or know what happened there. We worried and feared the worst, in spite of the fact that we had our own problems in Warsaw – bombing and conflagrations day and night – because Warsaw became the second Madrid[7] in the annals of war.

We did not leave the shelters during all those days, except when we moved from one shelter to another when the previous one had been bombed and destroyed entirely. It was a miracle that we stayed alive. All passageways between streets were barricaded, because the Poles planned to fight from house to house. We were in the Jewish quarter, and we saw how Jewish property was lost. Large stores full of consumer goods on Nalewki, Franciszkańska, and Jensha Streets went up in smoke from the bombs dropped by German aircraft. We ran from place to place looking for shelter. We were without electricity or water. But in Warsaw you could get candies, pickles, and preserves that were strewn in the streets because a large factory for pickles and preserves had been bombed. The acting president, Stazhinowski, promised victory, and comforted the citizens of Warsaw by saying that England was coming to the rescue. But in the third week of the bombing, Warsaw surrendered, in a state of ruin and without any resources. This was on the eve of Sukkoth. On the first day of the holiday, the German army already marched through the streets of Warsaw. With their entry, they started to destroy and kill Jews and loot their property. Jews were thrown into the ditches full of mud, injured and covered with blood. The Germans were helped by Polish soldiers and civilians. On Bonifraterska Street, the Germans distributed warm soup to the starved citizens, who waited in a queue thousands of people long. The German soldiers walked along the line, searching for Jews. Every Jew who was discovered was removed from the line and badly beaten. Jews walking in the streets were arrested and made to do hard labor.

On Nalewki Street I saw two Germans holding a Jew with a long beard. They brought a young woman who was passing by, and forced them to kiss. The Germans photographed them in the act.

When we Sierpcer saw what was going on in Warsaw, we could only imagine the state of affairs in Sierpc. In spite of this, we decided to return to our town, even if the roads were still dangerous, especially for Jews. We left Warsaw.

After two days of wandering, we were captured by Germans and sent to a labor camp. Our task was to make order out of the Polish weapons that had become German booty. After a few days we were let go, and continued on our way to Sierpc. We passed through Plotzk and spoke to the local Jews, and they told us what had happened in our town. About the synagogue that had been burned, and about 40 young men who had been sent to an unknown destination. We were overcome with fear and trembling. We hired a horse and carriage and rode home, each one of us with his own thoughts and terrible suspicions.

 

In Sierpc

The streets were empty. Everyone was confined to his own house. The streets where the Jews lived: Warshawska, Alter Mark, Neier Mark, looked like graveyards. Only we, the guests, dared disturb the quiet with our footsteps in the city streets. Each of us went to his own house. I entered mine and found my dear parents, my brother, and my sisters. I began to weep out of joy and sadness. I almost did not recognize my father when I saw him, without a beard, wearing a hat and crying bitterly. My mother, her eyes full of tears because of the family's desperate fate, rejoiced at seeing me alive. She never expected to see me again.

The Nazis rampaged in the town, every day grabbing people for labor, young and old, weak and strong, sick and healthy. This was simply to harass them, for the work was without any purpose, loathsome labor, such as: cleaning toilets without any cleaning tools, or emptying cesspools. My father told me what had happened to the Jews of Sierpc during this brief time. On Kol Nidre night the Jews were taken to the Staroste building on Plotzki Street for labor. The Germans knew that this was the holiest night for the Jews and purposely wanted to humiliate and degrade them. While they worked, the Germans had a “performance” of Jews with beards. They cruelly pulled at the beards with scissors, and beat those who couldn't run with full pails of filthy water. He choked with tears when he talked about the synagogue:

There was martial law: going outside was forbidden after four in the afternoon. At ten o'clock at night, we see flames coming from the direction of the synagogue. We hear an order in German: “Jews, get out of your houses and put out the fire in your synagogue!” The voices reached all the Jewish sections. Everybody left his house with full buckets to save their dear and holy place, or at least to remove the Torahs from the tabernacle. Jews came running from all directions. They knew that this was the work of the Nazis. But maybe they will succeed in putting out the fire? But the Nazis did not call the Jews from their homes to douse the flames, but to cause panic and chaos among them. German soldiers surrounded the conflagration. When the Jews approached with water to put out the fire, they were beaten. The murderers yelled, “Why did you come here? Go home!” When the Jews turned to go home, they shouted, “Who told you to go home? Go put out the fire.” Warshawska Street was full of Gestapo men, who came to see the show. They constantly fired shots into the air. That evening, there was one young victim, 20 years old. It was Pinchas Walcman, the son of the painter. When he was running, carrying buckets to put out the flames, he was shot by a Nazi. He was wounded and bleeding when he fell at the boots of the German murderer pleading for his life and to be allowed to live. The murderer's response was another bullet. He was a quiet boy, a fellow student in the Heder Yesodai HaTorah, a fellow member of Pirchei Agudat Israel and Tzeirei Agudat Israel, and he studied for two years in the Lubavitch Yeshiva. Lately he had been studying Torah day and night with the group led by Avraham Liebson of blessed memory, who spent their days in the Gur prayer house and were called the ten loafers, staying all the time in the Gur prayer house occupied with the Torah and the commandments. Let him be remembered forever by the townspeople of Sierpc.

The fire spread to the nearby houses, and the Jews there removed their belongings. No Jew slept that night. It was a terrible vigil.

One day – I'm continuing my father's story – the Germans went into Jewish houses and removed 40 boys between the ages of 16 and 20, kept them under arrest for a few days and then sent them to someplace unknown.

I also saw our other neighbors. Danielka the cantor and Kadetzki, without their beards. It was difficult to recognize them. The German commander would issue new edicts from time to time. Among them was an edict with eight clauses:

  1. Jews are forbidden to walk on the pavement, only in the middle of the street.
  2. A Jew, upon seeing a German, must remove his hat.
  3. Every Jew must sew a yellow patch of material, 3 x 5 centimeters in size, on which the word “JUDE” is written.
  4. Every Jew must submit a detailed report about his property: his money, his jewelry, his inventory, etc.
  5. The Jews are forbidden to use electricity.
  6. The Jewish community must pay 50,000 Zloty ransom.
  7. In addition to the general 50,000 Zloty payment many families will receive notification to make individual payments.
  8. The Jews must send 80 people every day for labor.
As for the first clause, how humiliated we were walking in the middle of the street. The Gentiles mocked us, and considered us beasts. Who walked in the middle of the street – horses, dogs, animals…

For the second, if a German passed on the pavement and the Jew didn't notice and take off his hat, or if he did take off his hat, in both cases he would be beaten. In the first case, the German would say “Why didn't you take off your hat?” In the second case the German would say, “What am I, your friend, that you doff your hat to me?”

Clause c): the piece of material could be obtained from the Jewish Community Center. The municipality supplied them at 10 pennies apiece. This was inspected by the Volksdeutsch.[8] Everyone above the age of 16 had to wear one.

Clause d): the Jews worked diligently: they tried to present detailed and accurate reports on all their properties, such as consumer goods and stores; they measured each piece of material to the last centimeter; they weighed every bit of food and made an exact count of every button. This was done out of fear that a German inspector would come and find an erroneous report, and they would be killed. But in the end, the Germans took everything without any inspection.

Because of Clause e), every Jewish house was dark. All the windows were covered with thick blankets, so that no sign of light could be seen outside. Inside, only a candle would be lit, because Jews were forbidden to use electricity, and there was no kerosene available.

As for Clause f), the Jewish community received a letter from the Landrat[9] that the Jews of Sierpc must collectively pay a ransom of 50,000 Zlotys. The community elders started collecting this amount. Everyone gave what he could, and within two days the amount was available. Nachum Tatz and Shmuel Zeinvil Dormbus went to pay the ransom. The clerks at the Landrat accepted receipt of the money in their way: kicking and shoving them out the door.

The community received reminders about Clause g) a few days after paying the above sum to the Landrat. That day, they had to pay huge individual ransoms. Each reminder had the exact amount, and the minimum was 200 Zlotys, with many reaching 1000 Zlotys. For the most part, they had no money at home, and could not pay on the stated date. Only a few managed to pay, so as not to fall into the hands of the accursed oppressors. The arrests began that evening; all those who didn't pay the required sums were put in jail. The jail was full of men from the Gestapo, experts at extorting money, who threatened everyone with hanging or the firing squad. It became like a market place: they asked everyone, “How much can you pay? No more than that?” In between blows, they would squeeze out the last penny. But there were Jews who did not have any money to give, and they remained in jail at night. Among them was Berish Poznanski. He was especially cruelly tortured; the Germans forced him to dig a pit in front of his house as deep as he was tall. When he finished digging, they threw him in there and filled it with dirt up to his neck, so that only his head was visible. They beat him so badly that it was impossible to distinguish between his face and the dirt. He was half dead when they took him out and released him.

Why did the Germans select Berish Poznanski in particular? Because he had signed the notes for the small coins that had been issued a few days before the German conquest.

As for Clause h), the stated number of workers who should show up for work, according to the agreement with the Gestapo, was 80. In spite of this, the Volksdeutsch went from house to house to get people for that labor, and also for other tasks, to load firewood, chop trees, clean rooms, and bring water, so that no one would get any rest. They would go through Jewish houses every day, opening closets and removing clothes, bedding, anything of value, also good furniture. They said that all this was for the Germans and their families who had come to live in Sierpc.

To them we were like animals, and they could do anything they wanted to us. Not only did they not expect any punishment for acts of cruelty against Jews, but the opposite: when they had a get-together, whoever could show that he had done something exceptionally bad to a Jew, which delighted the rest of them, would be promoted.

It is impossible to describe the suffering of the Jews of Sierpc. It was frightening to go outside to buy a loaf of bread or other provisions.

On market days, when the Gentiles would gather with their carts on Warshawska Street, or in Neier Mark, the Jews would try to sneak in between the carts and quickly buy potatoes, carrots, and other groceries that the peasants would bring to town for sale. But woe to the Jew who was caught performing such a “crime.”

The Jews lived under these conditions for six weeks, without any income, in fear of torture, doing humiliating labor, among frightening rumors of what was happening in the nearby towns. We heard the story about Lipno. All the Jews there were removed from their homes and put into a large empty lot. The Germans told them that they were going on a long journey, to take their money and jewelry, to put on their best clothes (holiday apparel). Because they would not be returning, it would not be worthwhile leaving these things at home.

The Jews of Lipno listened and did as they were told. They went home and took out everything valuable, packed what they could, put on their best clothes, took their money and jewels with them, and went back to the same empty lot. But as soon as they were all ready for the journey, the Germans issued their order: to take off their clothes, shoes, boots, and furs, and put them all in one pile, and to put the money and jewelry into the box that had been placed in the lot. Whoever would not do that would be killed on the spot. Of course no one wanted to take any chances, and everyone obeyed. When they were all left in their underwear, they were sent home. This was in the winter, November, 1939.

Something similar happened in the town of Drobin. Jews who were walking in the street in nice clothes or shoes would have them removed by the Germans and would have to return home barefoot and in their underwear.

The Jews of Sierpc heard these rumors which, along with the conditions in town that became worse every day, reinforced the wish to run away, to find a sanctuary. But where? The youth started to consider the towns of Bialystok and Grodno, which the Russian army had taken over from the Poles[10]. These towns were the closest to the Polish border, and at that time it was possible to cross the border, since peace and amity reigned between Germany and Russia then.

But it was forbidden to be on a train without a special permit, especially for Jews. This permit could be obtained only at the Landrat (Staroste). And the permit was only for travel to some town just inside the Russian-German border. After that, it was necessary to sneak across the border. In spite of the difficulties in getting such permits, there were some that managed to do it. Tens of young men and women packed their belongings in back packs, parted from their families, and started on their way. I also had a permit like that, but I didn't manage to use it. Apparently, Fate wanted me to be with my family and my townsmen on the day of deportation. Not many managed to get away, since the idea of finding sanctuary first occurred to people just a few days before the deportation.

We had heard about deportation, but we could not imagine it happening to us. Nobody believed in such a possibility. How could you, in the middle of winter, eject people, children, babies from their houses? Old people, women, invalids? Would a cultured German nation perform such an act? And what would the rest of the nations of the world say? Would the whole world remain silent? And not one nation would react to such an action? The Jews of Sierpc went to sleep on Tuesday evening, the last night before the deportation, with these thoughts on their minds.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 8, 1939, at six o'clock, the Volksdeutsch came, and woke us up with their loud screaming and yelling. “Every Jew must go outside to Alter Mark Street, and assemble near the Magistrat[11]. Everyone, without exception, dressed or not.” When we asked where they were taking us, they answered, “To the land that you love, to the Land of Israel. The train is waiting for you. Hurry up before you miss this great opportunity!”

I can hear the crying and the wailing of the children and babies to this day, as they were awakened abruptly by their parents to take part in this procession. My ears are still full of the groans of the sick and elderly… The streets were full of Jews walking in the direction of Alter Mark. Many were in pajamas, because they hadn't had a chance to get dressed. There were those who had managed to get dressed, but wore old or torn clothes because they thought that the Germans were doing to us what they had done in the town of Lipno.

Torn and worn out, we left our houses for that place. We were arranged in rows of five according to families. At the head of the procession were the Poles of the Fire Department band, who were ready with their instruments. The parade started off to the railway station, accompanied by the band music: children, women, old people, and youths. Naked and destitute, depressed, broken, torn and worn, without a penny in their pockets, with dark faces and downcast eyes – because the Gentiles, our neighbors, accompanied us, laughing all the way, until the railway station. We were considered lambs going to the slaughter. If at that moment the earth had opened up and swallowed us all, we would have been grateful.

Those were our last steps in the streets of Sierpc. We abandoned our homes, our work, our places of worship, our schools. A few days before the deportation, many had deposited all their assets and belongings with Gentiles. They thought that this way they would be more secure, because the Germans never plundered anything from the Gentiles. They would hold onto it until the wrath had passed, that is until after the war or until German policies changed. So that at this moment of our departure from Sierpc, the Gentiles doubly rejoiced: first, that the Jews were being ejected from their homes; and second, because of the deposits that they would be able to hold onto forever.

*

We approached the train station. The band stopped at the entrance to the waiting-room, and did not stop playing until the last Jew had entered the railroad cars. These were freight cars. The doors closed, and we started to move.

The freight cars were tightly packed. We were over 100 people in cars that had standing room for 50, crowded like fish in a barrel of herring. People and children had to defecate in the cars, because the doors were closed, with seals on them. I cannot describe what we went through in these cars. We passed the towns of Racionz, Plonsk, and reached Punihovk, seven kilometers before Nowy Dwor. It was already 2:30 in the afternoon. We left the railway cars hungry and weary. Once again, they arranged us in rows of five, and we started on foot. We crossed a temporary bridge over the Narew River, and we thought that the Germans had brought us there to drown us. Because why should they bring us here if not for that purpose? We crossed the bridge in the dark. The Volksdeutsch searched our pockets and said that whoever would not give them all their cash and jewelry would be killed on the spot.

We walked the seven kilometers to Nowy Dwor because the train could not reach this village, since the railroad tracks had been destroyed by the bombings. We got to the village after dark, and the German guards left us. We were free for the night.

We spread out in the town to look for Jewish houses, because everyone was still at home. We were not chased out of there. The Jews took us in as brothers in misery. They did for us above and beyond what was necessary. They gave their beds and bed sheets to our children. They kept the tea boiling all night, and took the Sierpcer into their houses. They heated their stoves to make us warm and brought bread to all of us. But many remained sitting on the floors…and others in the cold or in the stairwells, because there was not enough room for all of us in their apartments. No one slept that night. Everyone was preoccupied with his own thoughts, what to do without a roof over one's head, without clothes, and without any money? Little children, babies, invalids, old people, what will become of them? --- The Germans had said specifically at the train station in Sierpc that whoever returned would be shot or hanged, and none of us dared to think about going back. That whole night I sat on the floor in the room together with my parents and thought about how to get out of this situation. In the end I decided to go back to Sierpc, enter our house, and take out whatever I could. My parents tried to convince me that I was endangering myself, but I insisted and explained to my father that in any case we were lost. Maybe I could, in spite of everything, save something from the house: clothing, winter garments, or a blanket, so that we would not freeze. When my father saw that he could not change my mind, he agreed, and said, “Son! I have one request of you. Do not forget to take my prayer shawl and phylacteries. They were all my life to me, and they will remain all my life until the day I die. Otherwise, I would never agree that you should return to Sierpc, and because of them you will be protected on your way and will be safe from the murderers. When you get to our house – the first items to take are my prayer shawl and phylacteries.” Those were my father's words before I left him in Nowy Dwor on Thursday morning, November 9, 1939, as I parted from my parents for the second time, not knowing if we would ever see each other again.

I passed through the Jewish quarter and I saw the poverty and hardship of the Jews of Sierpc, sitting in courtyards, freezing, crying and moaning. The mothers held their children very close in order to warm them. The men were looking around helplessly. And I was walking nervously back towards Sierpc; I didn't want to think about what was to come. I had no other option. All of the Rozynek family was walking with me, and they were: Leib Rozynek, his wife and his daughters, Sara of blessed memory, and Miriam, today my wife, may she live a long life. They agreed with me and we walked together until we reached a German guard post near the bridge over the Narew River. We passed with difficulty after we managed to bribe them. Because this was the border. The area up until the Narew, on the Sierpc side, belonged to the Reich, and from the other side up to Warsaw it was part of the Generalgouvernement[12]. If we succeeded in crossing this border, we became residents of the Reich. There were some other towns that still had Jews, such as Neustadt, Nasielsk, Plonsk, Mlawa, and Ciechanów, and where it was possible to find places to stay and somehow manage to get along. The cost of living was less here than in the Generalgouvernement.

We came to Neustadt. The daughter of the Rozynek family of blessed memory, Tzirel, lived there. The parents stayed with their daughter, and Sarah, Miriam, and I went on and arrived in Sierpc on a horse cart. On the way, we heard that Sierpcer who were in Nowy Dwor had been sent to Warsaw.

We got to Sierpc through Vloki Street. There was no one to be seen on Warshawska and Vloki Streets. The Jewish quarter was completely empty. The houses were empty and the doors locked as we had locked them when we left. Every lock had a German seal on it.

Two or three gendarmes patrolled the streets to make sure that no one entered the houses. The Jewish property already belonged to the Nazi state.

Without too much hesitation we removed the seals with swastikas on them and entered our houses. I started to stuff everything I could find into sacks. I fulfilled my father's request the moment I started my labors. I took the prayer shawl and phylacteries, and did not think of the possible danger, because in any case I had nothing to lose. We were the first to take this step. While I was packing, the landlady, a Gentile, Kashtaln, came in and told me that the Gestapo was coming. My wife Miriam also saw that the Gestapo was coming towards our house through the window in her house, and ran to tell me. I quickly left our apartment and hid in the attic, and Miriam locked me in there from the outside. She had just managed to leave, and the Gestapo men came, searched the house, saw that the seal was missing, put on a new seal, and left.

I managed to take out three sacks full of clothes and other items, and sent them with a Gentile woman acquaintance to Warsaw, to my parents who were staying with my brother Aaron, who had been living in Warsaw since before the war. This was a great salvation for my parents: they had something to sell so that they could buy food.

After my great “crime,” “stealing” from our own home, the three of us discussed what to do next, and how we could stay, in spite of everything, in our town. We decided that Sarah Rozynek would go to the Landrat, to try and get a permit for her father and his family to return to Sierpc as a professional, since they had a buckwheat mill. This was an essential resource, since buckwheat flour was necessary for the butchers to make sausages. They asked her many questions about how she had returned to Sierpc and gave her many beatings, but in the end she got a permit from the Landrat: the Rozynek family could come back to Sierpc to work in the mill, on the condition that they not leave their home, so they would not be seen wandering around town. Otherwise, they would come to a bitter end. Leib Rozynek and his family returned to Sierpc and did their work there for a few weeks without leaving their house, because a) It was forbidden for them to go out and b) There was no one to go and visit. There was no other Jew in town. All you could see on Warshawska Street were two Gestapo guards walking around. The new beit midrash was closed. The Torah scrolls and other holy books were strewn about, on the floor. The curtain of the Holy Ark was ripped: total ruin had befallen the new beit midrash! Yehoshua Goldman no longer sat there studying the daily Talmud page. Avraham Wluka no longer stood there praying the Shmone Esrei [Eighteen Benedictions] longer than any other worshipper. (That was Avraham Wluka's custom.) And Avraham Wluka no longer studied the Ein Yaakov[13] every day between the afternoon and evening prayers with a minyan[14] of worshippers, who would sit on the wooden benches near the stove in winter.

So we sat in the house and looked out at the empty building and remembered old times, and our hearts shrank; the sanctity, the radiance, the magnificence, lost forever. Everything destroyed.

We decided that there was no place for Jews anymore in this town, and we left for Neustadt, to the Rozynek daughter Tzirel, who had lived there since before the war.

During the time that we stayed in Sierpc, a few families returned from the deportation. They had no other choice even if they were risking their lives. Slowly their number climbed to about 150 souls. The Germans knew about this, but pretended not to care. Because they needed servants and artisans.

In this way, the returnees managed to stay in their houses, worked at all sorts of odd tasks and simple labors, and stayed legally in the town – they received identity cards up to a certain date. But any more Jews who would arrive after that date were liable for the death penalty. The Germans conducted a census, and found that there were 150 Jewish souls. Thus the Jews lived in the town; they were only allowed to live in the Ghetto, which was defined as the area between the Great Walled House (Kamnitza) and the houses of Tcharnobrodna, Dentus, Zhitalni, and a few other houses which were on the street of the Tcharnobrodna house on the way to the Lankes. The Jews went to work every day, swept the streets, worked at gardening, and at all sorts of menial tasks. There was a yellow Star of David with “Jew” written on it on the front and back of their clothes. Theirs was a difficult situation since they didn't earn much from their work, but existed by selling items such as their clothes, and so forth. Food was not expensive, so they were able to get along somehow. A “Judenrat,” a committee of Sierpc Jews was set up to represent the Jews. There was also someone that was responsible to the German authorities to ensure that no more Jews would come to town. The members of the committee were: Mendel Lis and Yaakov Pukacz. These Jews could help their families that were in Warsaw, where there was great famine. They sent them food packages by mail, and with all sorts of opportunities that arose. But the Jews of Sierpc did not remain in the town for very long. In 1942 the Jews of Sierpc were banished by the Nazis to the town of Stezhgovo (where there was an enclosed and very crowded ghetto; my brother Avraham Chayim of blessed memory and his family were also among those expelled to Stezhgovo.)

 

The Sierpcers in Warsaw

The refugees from Sierpc arrived in Warsaw on November 9, 1939, two days after the deportation from Sierpc, by rail from Nowy Dwor. The journey was under German supervision on a special train for the Jews of Sierpc that left Nowy Dwor guarded by the Volksdeutsch. When they arrived at the train station in Warsaw, the Germans told them that they were free, and could go anywhere they wanted, but not to return to Sierpc. The few refugees that had relatives or acquaintances in Warsaw moved in with them that very same day. The majority stayed on the streets of Warsaw, outdoors, in the bitter cold of that winter. Thanks to the Joint[15] which was active in Warsaw at the time, the Sierpc refugees were housed in batei midrash, schools, warehouses, and the like. Conditions were very bad. There were no beds or minimal furniture. But at least they were not outdoors in the snow that covered their clothes and the dampness that permeated their flesh. Their worry now was: Where could you lie down? What could you cover yourself with at night? Where to find some warm food for the hungry children? Within two days, the Joint set up a communal kitchen and prepared hot soup for all the Sierpc refugees. Every person received coupons for meals and bread. A committee of three Sierpcers was appointed by the Joint and they received some old clothes and warm bedding to distribute to the neediest. And who didn't need these things at this time? All those in Warsaw were equal in wealth and condition. All were in the same despairing and gloomy circumstances. It goes without saying that the food rations of the Joint were not enough. Also the little clothing that they received was not enough to keep the hungry and sleepless warm. The famine spread among the refugees from Sierpc, and everyone asked, “From where will our salvation come?” Everyone tried very hard to recall if they had friends or acquaintances in Warsaw who could help them. A few found some, and managed. The rest remained in their place. We called this place punkt – the spot. As best as I can remember, remaining in these spots were Meir Zashutke and his family, Binyamin Sobol and his wife Sarah, Shaul Grappa and his family, Avraham Groda and his family, and others. Binyamin and Sarah Sobol became confused because of the hunger. They wandered the streets and begged. Binyamin would tell everyone: “Whoever will lend me one Zloty, I will pay him back one dollar after the war.”

It was impossible to recognize these people anymore. They had changed terribly. Who doesn't remember Binyamin Sobol, a Jew who always contributed generously and willingly to anyone who asked him, and to all kinds of institutions and funds without thought of politics? Even before the fund raisers arrived, Binyamin already had his hand in his pocket, ready to take out a coin, and his wife Sarah always kept an open house for the poor. The needy would be found every day, sitting at her table and dining. How many poor brides she married off! She used her own money to have wedding feasts for them, and sewed the bridal clothes, and arranged a place for them to live after the wedding, with kitchen utensils and other necessities.

Reb Yossel Shochet[16] Eisenstat, was also in Warsaw with his daughter Coca, his son-in-law, and his grandson. They lived with his brother David Eisenstat, the dirigant – conductor – at the great Synagogue Tlumaczka. It is good that they had a place to rest. But where could a Jew like that earn some money? There was no need for ritual slaughtering. I saw him often on the streets of Warsaw, depressed, despairing, and hungry. He told me that he prayed as a cantor and received a pittance. Sometime later, Shmuel Yitzhak Tac told me that Yossel Shochet went to pray on Rosh Hashanah carrying his prayer shawl and collapsed and died on Mornovska Street.

Reb Yossel Shochet was a Jew who was liked by everyone. He was a learned scholar and an excellent prayer leader. He had a sweet and pleasant voice. When he was praying in front of the Holy Ark in the old beit midrash, his voice could be heard in all of Warshawska Street (the Jewish Street). During the High Holy Days, the old beit midrash was very crowded, because many people came to hear Rev Yossel pray with his choir – his two sons, Ezriel and Leibush, Henich Lopatka, Aaron Kanenbrand, and others.

I also saw Nahum Tatz of blessed memory and his family in Warsaw. His son Henich lost his life when a building on Graniczna Street collapsed. The building had been destroyed by bombs, and Henich, who could not find any other place to stay, found some shelter there. But one day the walls buckled and Henich was buried beneath the ruins. He was a young man, and he used to sit day and night in the prayer house of the Gur Hasidim studying Torah for its own sake. He died a few days after the refugees from Sierpc came to Warsaw.

His son Yaakov did not remain in Warsaw. He walked in the direction of Russia, and crossed the German-Russian border. The rest of his family went to the town of Grójec, where his son Ezra lived.

The second victim was Eli Moshe Tzcernobroda, the son of Henich. A typhus epidemic broke out soon after he arrived in Warsaw. The disease spread because of the crowding, bad hygienic conditions, and poor nutrition. Eli Moshe was a religious youth, twenty-five years old. He came down with typhus, and died after a few days. (His sisters Libe and Fraidel were with him, together with their husbands.)

The typhus epidemic spread through the Jewish quarter in general and, in particular, among the Sierpc townspeople, who lived under the worst conditions. Yehoshua Goldman and Meir Zashutke died at that time. Yehoshua Goldman died in his apartment in Warsaw on 42 Mornovska Street. He was already feeling very bad at the time of the deportation from Sierpc. I can remember that I saw him getting on the train in the Sierpc station with his face covered by a bandana to hide the beard that he had managed to save from the savage Nazi barbers who would pull out the hair of the beards of our townspeople. Leibl Kremzh also died. Reb Leibl used to spend long days in the old beit midrash, winter and summer, studying Torah.

Death took away Meir Zashutke who lived in the synagogue on Mila Street together with his family and his son Yosef. The cold and hunger vanquished him as well,

The Sierpc community in Warsaw was shrinking from day to day. Every day we heard about a new victim. Old and young, weak and strong, all were equal. It was difficult to recognize people, some of whom were swollen from hunger. Their clothes were torn because the good clothes had been sold to buy a little bread or a bowl of thin warm soup that was sold in the streets of the Jewish quarter of Warsaw. Among the unfortunate were the rabbi of Sierpc, Yehoshua Heshel David Goldschlak and his family. They arrived in Warsaw from Lodz, where they had stayed with their son Eliyahu. When the Germans closed the Lodz Ghetto, they managed to flee to Warsaw. There was a rumor that the tabbi's wife had lost her mind because on the way from Lodz the Germans had searched their clothes and taken everything, not even leaving them a loaf of bread. The rabbi worked for the Joint; he was the representative of the Sierpc refugees and did a great deal for his townsmen. He would rush every day to various institutions trying to improve the conditions of the refugees. He took off the clothes of office that he had worn in Sierpc and visited almost every place where there were Sierpcers to comfort them. He also visited my father a few times to console him. He said, “In a little while the war will be over, and we will be rid of these hateful Germans.”

The Rabbi was well known in Warsaw as an important and honored personage. When my father died in 1941 on the first day of Tammuz, the Rabbi came and said that he would try to get the Hevra Kadisha[17] to provide a separate grave for him. They were burying 50 to 100 corpses together in the cemetery on Ganesha Street. They would place them one on top of the other and close the grave immediately, to prevent epidemics. The Rabbi said that Reb Kalman deserved his own grave because of his piety and complete faith all his life. And the Rabbi succeeded in finding a separate grave for my father of blessed memory.

The young men were afraid to walk in the streets because the Germans would take them and send them to work camps. I was caught one day by a Gestapo man while walking on Mila Street near Nalewki Street. I felt a sudden kick from behind, and when I turned around, I saw a German murderer with a dog. He ordered me to climb onto the truck that had stopped nearby. The dog started to leap at me, and I, as if carried by the wind, jumped onto the vehicle. Tens of victims who had been captured before me were sitting there. The truck was moving and I was full of worries – how would my family know where I was and what happened to me? Like a miracle from heaven, I saw the daughter of the attorney Tzadok Bluman passing by. I managed to shout to her, “Blumanova! Shirkowska 4, Maishkania 25.” She heard my address and informed my parents where I was being taken. Because it was well known in Warsaw that whoever was caught in the truck with the dog would be brought to the Palanti Gestapo camp. This camp would release only those who became sick.

There were a few hundred young Jews in this camp. We did not do any productive work there, and it brought no benefits to the Germans. It was there only to harass and occupy young Jews. For half the day we cleaned the disgustingly filthy toilets in the camp. We would go down to the pit in our clothes and shoes and take out the feces with our hands. One would hand it to the next… A chain of people stood there for half a day doing this work. For the second half of the day, a few Gestapo men would come to look for victims they could beat. They looked for sick people to release, but before releasing them they would give them a horrendous thrashing. Here I found Ephraim Zilberberg. He had come to Sierpc from Warsaw in 1929 and had married the daughter of Hirsh Moshe Kanenbrand of blessed memory. He was a very learned Jew and for the ten years that he lived in Sierpc, he would sit in the old beit midrash studying Torah. On Saturdays before the afternoon prayer, he would study Pirkei Avot[18] or a midrash[19]. On Saturdays he would quiz pupils from Yesodai HaTorah on the Bible and Rashi[20] and Gemara[21]. He was loved by the people of Sierpc. One Saturday evening in the camp, I saw a group of people in the courtyard of the camp, and in the center was a man whose face was covered with a handkerchief to hide his beard, holding a cup of tea and saying the Havdala[22] benediction. I came closer, and I recognized him: Ephraim Zilberberg, who had seriously endangered himself by this act. I went up to him and asked him why he imperiled himself in this way. He answered that he didn't care! They could do with him what they wanted, in any case we were lost, and whatever was needed to live – let it be.

We were this way for six weeks, with a feeling that at least we were with one townsman in this time of troubles. Our relatives did not know anything about us. They would go from place to place trying to find out where we were, and what had happened to us. They had heard that I was in Palanti, but there was no way they could get there.

One day the Germans brought 25 bearded Yeshiva students. They had taken them out in the middle of their studies. For the whole day, they did that revolting work: cleaning the toilets.

But the boys bravely accepted their bitter fate. They sang as they worked, in spite of the fact that half their clothes were covered with feces, and their hands were filthy up to their upper arms. They lived on dry bread and water, but would not give in to the conditions in the camp. They were joyful and happy, and their behavior comforted us a little.

*

We were jailed for six weeks in that camp, until we became sick and were released. The situation in Warsaw became worse every day, and the cost of living rose. A kilo loaf of black bread cost eight Zloty (the price during normal times had been twenty pennies). A kilogram of potatoes was four to six Zloty (usually four pennies). A kilogram of coal was a Zloty (usually five pennies). All the other food prices had increased a hundred fold, and people could not afford them because they did not earn any money. There was not enough cash, even at the lower prices, to buy foodstuffs. The ghetto was extremely crowded. There were a million Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. People would fall in the streets like flies. Dead bodies would be lying on the sidewalk, covered with sheets of paper because the carts carrying the corpses could not manage to collect them. There were people whose job it was to roam the streets and cover the dead bodies. It was difficult to identify many of the dead because there were refugees from many towns who had no relatives. Nobody searched for them or asked after them. They were buried without names and without count, 40 to 100 in a grave, and covered with lime.

There was a lot of food for sale in the streets, but it was very expensive. How did the food get to the ghetto? In all sorts of ways. The Jews who left the ghetto to work outside (under guard) would leave with all sorts of items for sale. The Gentiles who would come to their workplace would bring food for barter. Or Jews would leave the ghetto, bribe the guard at the gate, buy food, pack it in bags or suitcases, get on the trolley, and when it passed through the ghetto would jump off because it was forbidden for passengers to get off in the ghetto. The policeman and conductor were bribed. The policeman always stood at the exit to prevent any Jew from going into the ghetto, but if a Jew with packages had to get off, the policeman would move aside and look the other way. The conductor also slowed the trolley at this moment. This was how commerce was carried on all the time that the ghetto existed. It's not surprising that the goods were very expensive, since many people had to profit on each item that was brought into the ghetto. There were other ways of sneaking food into the ghetto. Like over the roofs of houses that bordered Gentile houses. Or through the cellars of houses that were near Gentile houses. They dug tunnels which were wide enough to even allow passage of carts. Whoever had a cellar like this was assured an income and food as well. Or Jews would leave the ghetto and arrange with Gentiles that at a certain time, on a certain street, to toss some bags of food from a trolley passing through the ghetto. Their fees would be paid ahead of time, and the Jews would wait for the trolley at the designated time and place. However, many times the Germans would confiscate these goods.

There were many temporary kitchens in the streets, where soup, tea, and coffee would be boiled. A few pennies would be enough to buy a bowl of soup or tea, but most people didn't even have a few pennies. My father, of blessed memory, never bought from these kitchens, because he didn't think they were kosher. People ridiculed him, saying that in these times there was no point in keeping kosher. But he insisted on it; it was preferable that he die of hunger rather than defile his body with food whose kashrut was in doubt. My mother, of blessed memory, did the same.

The Germans did not prevent the Jews from listening to news of the world. They hung loudspeakers on lampposts and broadcast the news in German a few times a day – about their victories. The loudspeakers were also used to announce new edicts and laws.

Everything in the ghetto was run by Jewish policemen, in accordance with the German orders to the head of the Jewish police. The second authority was the Polish police. Near every gate there were three policemen: one Jew, one Pole, and one German. At many places there were just a Jew and a Pole. The height of the brick wall of the ghetto was three meters. There was a gate at those places where the trolley went through. But there were places where the whole width of the street was blocked by a fence with broken glass and all kinds of obstacles strewn along the top of the wall, which made it impassable. Many Gentiles wandered around on the other side of the wall and made a living out of catching Jews who left the ghetto: they would hold them and say, “Either pay me a ransom or I will take you to the gendarmes.” The Poles were responsible for the death of three million Jews in Poland. They caused us much more harm than the Germans. All the ovens and crematoriums were built in their country. Only the Poles agreed to this.

The Poles, from the smallest to the biggest, from the intellectual to the simple peasant, from the politically right to the left, brought destruction to the Jews. Young Polish men, who could recognize who was a Jew better than the Germans, would shout, “That's a Jew.” Jews that escaped the ghetto and looked for shelter would be caught by boys and turned over to the Germans. There were those that wanted to escape the ghetto in order to save their lives, but they hesitated and stayed in the ghetto because of the fear that they would be caught by the Gentiles and turned over to the Gestapo. I left the ghetto in 1941 with my wife, and sensed this very well. As soon as we managed to go through the gate at four in the morning, there were many Gentiles around us. But the dark and the cold hampered them in recognizing us as Jews. They chased us until the train station (Gdańska), but we were not wearing the blue and white ribbon, and we managed to evade them, to our good fortune. The Sierpcer Yehezkel Stari took us out of the ghetto. He would take Jews from the ghetto to small towns: Plonsk, Nowy Dwor, and Mlawa. He would cross the Narew River twice a week with people. He knew the roads, and how to bribe the policemen at the gates of the ghetto. He took people out of Warsaw over a long period of time, and on the way back he would bring groceries, meat, and butter. In the end, he was captured by the Germans. I heard that a Pole informed on him. He was arrested and sent to a concentration camp,

*

It took about two years to set up the camps and crematoriums for the mass destruction of the Jews.

The Germans even laid railway tracks to these places, which until then had been forests. They paved roads for automobiles, so they would have easy access to the places of destruction. And I want to emphasize again that the Poles were complicit in every way in this mass destruction in their country and their houses. Many Poles stole money from the Jews, robbed them of everything and killed them. They slaughtered them with knives and murdered them with axes. Polish houses were decorated with carpets and filled with furniture that belonged to Jews; many wore their clothes.

I will mention one fact here out of many:
At Auschwitz we started to organize an underground before the revolt. Because the camp had prisoners from all nations, we had to have an underground meeting of Russians, Poles, and Jews. I remember that the Poles were against having the Jews participate in this meeting, and didn't come to it. The Russians said that in this sort of camp you could not discriminate because of religion and race, and insisted that the Jews participate. The Poles couldn't rid themselves of their hatred of the Jews even in the death camp. (I could fill a book about how the Poles treated the Jews in the concentration camps.) That is why so few were left out of a population of three and a half million. The Jews were flushed out of holes and cracks and all sorts of hiding places where the Germans wouldn't have thought of looking. But the Poles collaborated with the murderers.

*

Jews from all over Poland were forced to construct the death camps, without knowing why they were doing it. The Jewish laborers were held in enclosed camps near their work place. They would go to work every day, and no one thought that the quarters they were building would be places of annihilation, that they themselves would be put inside the electrified fences they were erecting, and never leave.

The Jewish laborers did not have much time for thought. They were busy working at a fast pace from morning till evening. There was little food, and punishment was harsh, the discipline of concentration camps. No one thought, in those two years, that the Germans would implement the mass extermination that they did. We presumed that they would disperse the Jews to all the conquered countries. We would be forced to do hard labor, locked up in concentration camps, tortured, separated from our families, and so forth. But no one could imagine what actually happened. And I, who passed through all the gates of hell, until today sometimes think it must have been a horrible nightmare, and not the terrible reality.

*

During this period, the Germans set up ghettos in a few towns in Poland in the vicinity of Sierpc, such as (Mlawa) Strzegowo, Plonsk, Ciechanów, Nowy Dwor, and Neustadt. All these towns belonged to the German Reich, including Lodz, Warsaw, Piotrków, and Czestochowa. In other towns where there were Jewish communities, they were wiped out and the Jews deported to these towns, where there were ghettos. The Germans did this to make their secret plan easier, and so that the Jews would be living under such conditions that they would be depressed and broken in body and spirit, so that there l would be no rebellion during the “operation.” Not a hair would be mussed on any German when the victims would be taken to the crematoriums. Their leaders did not have to be brave or seasoned and experienced fighters. They just had to wear S.S. or Gestapo uniforms, even without weapons, as the Jewish hordes were hastened to the railway cars. The main thing was to put an end to these lives, lives of fear and panic, starvation, humiliation, and depression.

The Sierpcer Jews in Warsaw became fewer every day. The last Jews of Sierpc that remained until the expulsion of the Jews from Warsaw were the family of Mendel Lipchitz of blessed memory, the son of Yehonatan Lipchitz of blessed memory and his family, and his sister-in-law, Sarah Rozynek of blessed memory. About two thousand Sierpc Jews, of blessed memory, lost their lives in the Warsaw Ghetto between November 9, 1939 and the end of 1942.

Now something about the ghettos in the vicinity of Sierpc:
On September 1, 1942, the Jews who remained in Sierpc were expelled to the Strzegowo Ghetto. The ghetto was very small, with few residences, but with many people, about 3,000 souls. There were no sources of income. Sanitary conditions were bad, and the crowding was great, and a typhus epidemic raged. Every house had a patient. The Jews had no medicines; the Angel of Death cut people down left and right, victims on top of each other. The Sierpcers, who lived under worse conditions than the Strzegowons, fell like flies. These were the remnants of the Sierpcers, who stayed put after the general deportation in November, 1939. They did forced labor every day, without receiving any compensation. Their living conditions were terrible. They had no income, and were despondent and depressed. No complete family was left. They were all scattered and isolated, without any contact among them. They were despised by Gentile neighbors, living in fear of tomorrow, of the future, in a state of shock from news of the other ghettos about the state of Jews there, hanged and killed by the Nazis. But you could not compare their conditions to those here in the Strzegowo Ghetto, where they didn't have a place to rest their heads, without a penny to buy a slice of bread, and nowhere to heat a little water for their children. If it was difficult for them in Sierpc before the expulsion, it was now far worse. Despair in the full sense of the word.

I will mention here Avraham Wluka of blessed memory, his daughter Sheine Rivkah and her husband Moshe Kadecka of blessed memory, who were also in the Strzegowo Ghetto. Avraham Wluka, who was known affectionately in Sierpc as Reb Avrahmel, was liked by all the Jews of Sierpc. He was a very wise Jew, and many would come to consult with him, both Jews and Gentiles. He was a learned man, studied Torah by himself and with others in the new beit midrash, where he was a treasurer and a prayer leader during the High Holy Days and holidays. He was the standard bearer of the new beit midrash, a philanthropist, and he gave encouragement to all those who came to him with aching hearts. Many of the townspeople who came to pour their hearts out to Reb Avrahmel left comforted after talking to him. He was a religious Jew, enlightened, modest and moderate, with very many good qualities, and good-hearted. I never saw him become annoyed or angry. When the Nazis burned down the great synagogue in town, they grabbed Reb Avrahmel and told him to sign a detailed statement, that he had set fire to the synagogue with his own hands. They destroyed him by doing this, mortally wounding him, with no chance of recovery. The Nazis deliberately chose him to sign such a declaration. From then on, it was impossible to recognize him. He would walk around despondent and apathetic. He who all his life had rejoiced in the joy of his townsmen, and who sympathized with all their troubles, saw their suffering in the Strzegowo Ghetto and wanted to help, but could do nothing since he and his family were living under the same conditions. Those were the last years of Reb Avrahmel. May his memory be blessed forever.

Avraham Chayim, my oldest brother, was also in the Strzegowo Ghetto with his family. His wife died of typhus and left four small children. Eli Leib, a small child and the son of my sister Sarah, also died of typhus.

There were new edicts every day in the Strzegowo Ghetto. One day they took 20 young Jews and imprisoned them (there was a jail in the ghetto), and held them without food until they themselves asked to be put to death. After a few days, they gathered all the Jews in an empty lot, prepared gallows for the twenty youths, and the whole community was forced to be present at their hanging. Among them were five from Sierpc, and these were: Toviah Zhitalni, Ephraim Yosef Lelonek, Leib Grosman, Yehezkel Fasa, and M. Lipski.

There were also a few Sierpc Jews in the town of Mlawa, but living under conditions slightly better than those in the Strzegowo Ghetto. This town also had a ghetto, and here too they hanged Jews in the presence of all the ghetto residents. There was gunfire into the assembled onlookers, and they had to wear a patch on their clothes, a yellow Star of David on the back and on the chest, and do hard labor every day. In addition to the Jews of Mlawa, there were also Jews from many other towns that had been expelled from their dwellings and found shelter with relatives and acquaintances in this ghetto.

In comparison with other ghettos, conditions here were good. The chairman of the Judenrat was Ramek, and he knew very well how to bribe the Landrat and all the German institutions in town. The Jews lived in the ghetto, but it was tolerable. The ghetto had Jews from Sierpc, Lipno, Rypin, Racionz, Dobrzyń, and other towns. Wolf Visroza, Yitzhak Meir Rusak, the daughters of Mendel Gurfinkel, Motil Garbarczik, Zalman Beria (Friedman), the daughter of Reb Naftali Liebson, and Shmuel Wluka and his family, the son of Reb Avrahmel. He worked as a clerk in the Judenrat. His job was arbeitsdienst – he would take care of allocating the labor. People wanted a day's labor, because they would be paid for it. He helped many Sierpcers to find work.

I met Fogel, the son-in-law of Naftali Liebson, in February, 1941. He told me that the wife of Yitzchak Meir Sendrowicz left the Warsaw Ghetto on her way to Plonsk and froze to death between Legionowo and Jablonna. He obtained a travel permit from the Landrat to go there and arrange the burial of his aunt in a Jewish grave.

A short time later, Fogel was sent to a concentration camp, to Auschwitz, because he became engaged in public affairs. He sent a letter to America and wrote about what was happening in Poland in general and in the towns in the region. The letter was intercepted by the Germans and for this he was sent to Auschwitz. His wife, the daughter of Naftali Liebson, received a box of ashes a few days later, together with the clothes of her husband of blessed memory.

I heard of something that happened in Plonsk in October, 1939. A Gestapo officer, who always rode on horseback, once entered the synagogue on his horse, took out his pistol, and fired into the Holy Ark, and said, “Here I am, shooting your God!” Immediately after this, he went out to the Plonsk-Neustadt Road. A German army truck struck him head-on and killed him.

*

The Plonsk Ghetto was fenced in: in some places with wooden slats and in others with barbed wire. It was forbidden to leave the ghetto, but in spite of this people came and went, and everyone was more or less able to make a living. The ghetto had a Jewish administration including police, a court, a jail, a hospital, and Jewish doctors. The aforementioned Ramek was called der Judenkenig[23]. All the small towns such as Neustadt, Sochocin, Nowy Dwor, that had ghettos belonged to Plonsk, to der Judenkenig. Ramek had an armband on his right sleeve that said Judenälteste[24]. As far as I know, he treated the Jews humanely.

There were Sierpcers in Neustadt – Nowe Miasto – before there was a ghetto there. The names of the Sierpcer that were in Neustadt: Popowski and his family, Hersh Asch and his sister, Yaakov Grosman, Leib Rozynek and his wife, my wife and I. We left the town every day to do forced labor, without any pay. But food stuffs were cheap. All the Sierpcers in all the towns I have mentioned were illegals, without identity cards from those places, because we were all already assigned to the city of Warsaw, to the Generalgouvernement, where we had been deported. All the residents of the above towns had German documents with fingerprints, and we, the Sierpcers, were there like uninvited guests. The Germans knew very well that there were illegals in these towns, but they waited patiently and prepared the following operation: one morning in May 1941, at six in the morning, they took all the Jews out of their homes, in all the towns. All those without identification cards stood on one side, and all those with identification cards on the other. Murderous blows rained down on everyone; practically no one missed getting his “portion.” Horse carts of farmers from neighboring villages were waiting outside of town, conscripted for this purpose, to take the illegal Jews to an unknown place, and again deported. But this time it was even worse than the first deportation. All the Sierpcers in these places that I have mentioned were among the deportees. My wife and I managed to evade this deportation. We had heard that the deportees had been assembled in a lot outside of Plonsk that was enclosed by a barbed wire fence. Entry was through a gate, and at the entrance stood two Gestapo men with big clubs who hit everyone who entered in the head. Blood flowed, and there were puddles of blood in the lot. The prisoners remained that way, in the open, for two days, without food and water, and no one was allowed to approach them. Many died from the murderous blows they received, covered in blood, without any medical help.

On the third day they took all the prisoners to the Modlin Fortresses, which are near Nasielsk. There were about 3,000 of them. The guards were Volksdeutsch and they did whatever they wanted with the Jews. They searched everyone, removed watches, rings, and so forth. During the day, they went through the rooms, singled out young women and ordered them to sleep on a certain side of the room so that they would be able to take them out at night without searching for them (it was dark at night). At midnight, the Volksdeutsch entered and took them to hill of the fortresses, and raped them. After that, they shot and killed them. This went on every night. Their excuse was that the girls wanted to escape from the camp, so they had to shoot them…

The prisoners lived that way for a few days, without food or drink. It was very hot, and they slept on the floors, crowded together, next to each other. They were all filthy. They couldn't even wash their faces because there was no water, until a typhus epidemic broke out, and people fell like flies. The guards wouldn't let them lie down. Everyone had to get up at six in the morning, and lying down was forbidden during the day, so our brethren walked around with high fever like drunkards. There was no one to take care of them; they were isolated from the whole world. No one could get to this camp. Even Judenälteste Ramek did not know where the wretched souls were.

Only a few days later did we learn that all the deportees were in the Modlin Fortresses, and their situation was awful. A few of us gathered in the town of Neustadt and decided that three men would travel there with food for our brothers. I and two others received a travel permit from the burgermeister[25], and hired a horse and carriage. We took about one hundred loaves of bread, and went to see if we could succeed in distributing them to the hungry for the first time, after a fast of six days. We were not allowed to enter the camp, and were stopped just outside of it. The first to recognize me was Wolf Grappa, and he yelled, “Arpa, give bread, I'm starving to death!” The rest of the people there, when they heard the name Arpa, even if they didn't know me, shouted as if in one voice, “Arpa, give bread!” They all rushed to the gate, shouting, yelling, an inhuman wailing: “Bread, bread, we are dying of hunger and thirst.”

The three of us stood there as if glued to the ground. We didn't know what to do. And we said to one another, is this reality, or are we dreaming a nightmare?

We went to the gate to distribute the bread, but this was impossible. One was pushing the other. A whirlpool of people, the guards hitting them on the head with their rifles, blood flowing like water. We very much regretted having caused this situation. But the Germans, who enjoyed seeing panic and quarrels among the prisoners, took the loaves of bread from us, and said, “We will distribute the bread.” And what did they do? They threw the bread into the crowd. Anyone who succeeded in catching a loaf was jumped upon by a mob, and everyone pinched a piece off the loaf. That was how the distribution ended. After that, we were ordered to get out of there.

We went home to Neustadt and called an emergency meeting of some of the townspeople, and we decided to bring a few hundred more loaves of bread the next day. These would be wrapped in paper with a name on each package, and we would call people by name to the gate, so that everyone could come and receive a package. And if the bread was already inside the camp, the people would share it among themselves. We did this, and succeeded in getting a few hundred loaves of bread into the camp.

On the third day, we collected about thirty barrels in the town. Every Jewish home boiled some dry potatoes. A few families cooked cherry soup. They brought the dishes at the appointed time, and put them into the barrels. We hired carts and horses, and brought them to the camp. This time there was more order to the food distribution, also because they weren't as hungry. We did this for a few days, and there wasn't a need to bring more food, just tea, because the people were sick, and they couldn't eat. So we brought more tea in the same barrels.

As I mentioned above, there was a wakeup call at six in the morning, and no lying on the floor during the day. Everybody had to walk around. Whoever lay down and couldn't get up was shot. Many were killed in this way. My brother-in-law, Lemel Zashutke was also shot there. The situation became worse from day to day. Everyone was sick with typhus. About a thousand people died in two weeks. There was no one to turn to. When we spoke to the Burgermeister, he would send a note to the Landrat, and the Landrat would send it to the commandant of the Gestapo. Everyone answered that they didn't know of any such camp, and it wasn't his business. This was how the people stayed there for six weeks!

We were in constant contact with der Judenkenig Ramek, and looked for ways to get the people out of their troubles. We also contacted the Judenälteste of the town of Mlawa. His name was Perlmutter, and he had some influence with the Landrat of his town.

First we managed to get one Jew out of the camp. His name was Melech from the town of Nowy Dwor. He helped the Germans and informed on Jews who had silver or gold. He also helped the Germans to select young women, and so forth. We took him out of the camp, brought him to the Plonsk Ghetto, and locked him in the jail. He came to a bitter end. Every Jew would go into the jail, and hit him with a rock, until he begged to be killed. When Gestapo men came to visit him, Melech told them that if the Gestapo rescued him from the Jews, he would tell them many secrets about the Jews. But they ignored him, because they had been bribed. In the end they injected him with a fatal injection, and buried him standing up with his head down and feet up.

He was the only Jew in these ghettos that acted that way.

After six weeks, the people who were still alive in this camp were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. They numbered 1,200 out of the original 3,000 souls. There were many Sierpcers among them. Some had died in that place and the rest were stuck in the hell of the Warsaw Ghetto. That was in the summer of 1941. But not all remained in the Warsaw Ghetto, but returned to the towns from which they had been expelled, where they had family or friends. Hungry people do not think of the consequences of acting illegally. The hunger overcomes the fear, and even a death sentence does not deter. But they succeeded this time. The Germans did not carry out any more searches in the above towns. Apparently, the plan for mass extermination was already complete in the German government offices, and they pretended not to see or know anything. In general, many restrictions were eased, such as: providing more food rations; if a Jew was caught outside the Ghetto, he would be turned over to the Jewish police, and so forth. But we never forgot that we were inside the vise of Nazi rule.

That was what life was like in these ghettos until September, 1942, and we thought it would stay that way until the end of the World War. But one day we started to feel as if there were a fire burning beneath us. We heard rumors that the Germans were taking ten thousand people a day out of the Warsaw Ghetto, putting them on trains, and sending them to an unknown destination.

There were a million Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto from various towns. Their terrible living conditions were already well known. One day, the head of the Jewish community in Warsaw, Czerniaków, was summoned to the Governor-General Franco, who was based in Krakow. It was said that the two knew each other, having studied together at schools of higher learning for a few years before the war. Franco, an S.S. man, demanded that Engineer Czerniaków bring ten thousand people from the ghetto every day to a gathering place near the railway station to Gdansk, zum Umschlagplatz[26], and they were not to take much baggage, up to a maximum of ten kilograms. Engineer Czerniaków asked, “Where are you taking them?” The answer was “To workplaces.” But he understood what their purpose was from the answer. Czerniaków answered that he could not agree to this on his own, because there were other community leaders. He would go back to Warsaw, arrange a meeting and tell them of the order he was given. When he came back to Warsaw, he met with all the community leaders and told them why he had been summoned to Governor-General Franco. He also gave them his opinion that he had no doubt that the Germans were starting a mass slaughter of the Jews of Warsaw, and that he would never agree to hand over even one Jew to the Germans. After he finished, he asked for a glass of water, swallowed some poison pills, and died on the spot. He chose death over sending Jews to the gas chambers or other places of extermination.

But the Germans were not frightened or influenced very much by the suicide of the head of the community. They gave an order to the Jewish police in the ghetto to bring the above number of Jews to the above mentioned location, and the operation started to be carried out by the Jewish police. Without being forced to, people started to arrive at the Umschlagplatz early in the morning because the loudspeakers in the streets announced that every passenger would receive a kilogram of bread, jam, and half a kilogram of sugar. How delighted these people were upon hearing that they would receive such a generous ration! These miserable people ran to that train station, and didn't care what would happen to them after they filled their stomachs with that meal. Every day, tens of thousands of people, swollen with hunger, who didn't believe that they would ever again hold a loaf of bread, would come to that station. There were also Sierpcers in this multitude. I don't remember their names, except for Mendel Lipchitz and his family, my sister-in-law Sarah Rozynek, and my sisters Chayah and Esther Sarah Zashutke of blessed memory. (Bronka Mlawa and her husband Pepper are now in the Land of Israel.)

The trains went in all directions: to Treblinka, Majdanek, and more. The passengers forgot all their fears of being transported to their death; they were being taken to work places because they had just received food so that they would have the strength to work. In this way the Germans succeeded in removing the Jews from Warsaw without one casualty during the operation. On the one hand, the people were too weak for any resistance; on the other hand, people who were capable of reacting were influenced by the food provisions that they received. In the end, perhaps the will to live remains because there is a one percent chance of remaining alive. This is what brought the masses to the incinerators. And this is how the story of the Sierpc Jews in Warsaw ended.

The Warsaw Ghetto was empty, and in the meantime the Jews in the other ghettos had to be kept busy so they wouldn't have time to think about the Jews of Warsaw. And so the expulsions started. All the Jews in Drobin were deported to the Neustadt Ghetto. A few hundred from Ciechanów were also sent to Neustadt. At the same time, Sierpc Jews were deported to the Stezhgovo Ghetto. The following families came to the Neustadt Ghetto from Ciechanów: the Cantor Daniel Scheikes, his wife and two daughters, Chayaleh and Miriam, and the son of Yechiel Meir Bergson, Chayim, of blessed memory. Their absorption into the Neustadt Ghetto was very difficult. The stairwells were occupied by refugees. I took the Sierpcers in in spite of the fact that I was living in a tiny place with four other families. The crowding was terrible. The number of people in the Neustadt Ghetto reached 3,500. The place was fit for 100 families at the most. Sanitary conditions were very bad, and the result was immediate. A typhus epidemic broke out in the Neustadt Ghetto. There was no house without a sick person. A few of the people in town came together, and we decided to put up some sort of hospital. There was a public room that was not very big that was used by the refugees, who slept on the floor. We found room for them in attics, fixed the roofs, built brick ovens, and housed them in the attics. We also provided beds for the sick. In the small towns in Poland, there were wooden fences between the houses. We took down those that were in the ghetto, and made beds out of the boards. We went from house to house collecting blankets, pillows, and sheets, and we improvised a hospital, that could at least take the sick that were living in the stairwells, I was one of the organizers of this hospital, and I was its head until I too came down with typhus.

Conditions in the hospital were as they were in the ghetto: four people in one bed. Once a week, the doctor from the Plonsk Ghetto, Dr. Bar, came with a nurse from that hospital. The nurse taught me how to make injections, and I injected the patients according to the instructions I received from the doctor. The Cantor Scheikes was seriously ill with typhus. We sent him to the hospital in Plonsk and he died there. His wife and his daughter Miriam also died in Plonsk.

Our situation in the Neustadt Ghetto became worse every day. We received a lot of bad news. On the evening of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a Jew approached the fence of the Ghetto and asked to enter, because he had a lot to tell us. The Jewish police let him come in for a few hours, something that was usually strictly forbidden. This Jew, whose name was Gurfinkel, from the town of Ciechanów, told us that he had been among the transport[27] of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. He was picked together with a few hundred men to work packing the clothes of those who had been burned in the crematoriums. He had managed to escape in a railway car, by hiding among the packages of clothes. He saw with his own eyes how Jews went into the incinerators, and only their clothes were taken out. We broke into a cold sweat when we heard this. Now everything was clear; we had no more doubts. We would also be facing the same situation, in a very short time. But we were being choked – what could we do? We also read in the German newspaper Völkischer Beobachter that Hitler had said: “The Jews are laughing at me, that I will lose the war. Well, many Jews are not laughing anymore! And those that are still laughing – very shortly their smiles will be wiped from their faces. And if in Europe, in the lands that I have conquered, in 1943 there will still be a living Jew – bring him to me, and I will give him all the honors. I will bow to him, and take off my hat to him…” In other words, in 1943, there would be no Jews left in the countries under German occupation. This was the Germans' complete plan. This was why they wiped out all the small ghettos and concentrated the Jews in a few places, so that it would be easier to send them to the extermination camps. The Jews of Ghetto Neustadt panicked after this. We started wailing, trying to get advice from each other like wild people. The religious Jews gathered in the prayer house, read the Psalms, said the Selichot[28], blew the shofar, fasted, went to the cemetery and measured its length and width, vowed to give charity to the poor and warm clothing to orphans – perhaps the fury would pass. The town elders decided to convene a “Heavenly Court.”[29] There was an empty lot in the middle of the ghetto, and everyone gathered there, from young to old, women and children. In the middle of the congregation sat a lesser Sanhedrin[30], 23 wise men and town elders. Among them was Yehoshua Popowski of blessed memory, the son-in-law of the teacher of religion in Sierpc. Yehoshua Popowski was the defense attorney in this trial, and opposing him was a prosecutor. The first to speak was the defense attorney. His questions to the heavenly court were as follows: “Why have you become so fed up with us so as to bring the complete extinction of your children, the nation of Israel? Even if we have sinned so much, why are the babes and small children who haven't sinned to blame? For three years we have been wandering from place to place. Our bodies have been scalded like raw materials for a smith. We do not look like human beings anymore. Our families are scattered all over the earth. There is not one good tiding for our future. We are all paupers, and in any case we are considered dead.” Thus he spilled out his guts and cried, and everyone cried with him: “Enough! Lord of the world! Save us in our time of trouble, take us out of the lion's mouth, because he plans to tear us to pieces soon.”

And this is how the prosecutor started. “There are desecrators of the Sabbath among us, people who eat forbidden foods, are stingy with charity, the orphans do not have warm clothes on freezing days,” and so forth. After these speeches, the Sanhedrin issued a verdict: “From this moment, candles must be lit in the prayer house, and Psalms must be said day and night, without stopping for a moment. On the next Sabbath, no flame is to be lit by any Jew, and keepers of the Sabbath will go from house to house to make certain of this. The rations of meat that we receive from the Germans are to be accepted, but the butcher will not sell it, and it will be buried in the ghetto. An extensive campaign will be carried out in the ghetto to collect clothes, shoes, boots, and underwear for orphans, and then we will certainly be redeemed and saved from the cruel ones. The evil edicts will become benign decrees that rescue and comfort us and we will be granted the defeat of the German nation.”

The meeting of the Sanhedrin ended, and we started to carry out the verdict that was imposed on us. We did not spare anything, Sabbath was Sabbath, we did not eat non-kosher food, gave to charity, clothed the orphans, and so forth; the keepers of the Sabbath went to visit in the houses. We truly fully repented, according to all the laws and commandments that we are ordered to keep. But the gates of heaven were closed to us, and our prayers were not answered. We shed our tears for nothing; our eyes became weak from anger, but to no avail. The chanting of Psalms by our children was not heard on high. A command was issued by the Germans on the first of November, 1942 to deliver all the Jews of the ghetto who were not capable of working, unproduktive, to the burgermeister. This command was issued simultaneously in all the ghettos. These people were allowed to take with them a small package of not more than five kilograms. This included men and women. Twenty men from the Ghetto would be hanged if one person remained in the Ghetto belonging to the group that was incapable of working. This transport had to be ready within twelve hours of the time of issuance of the command. The people had to be brought to the burgermeister's office, and handed over to him.

The edict spread immediately throughout the whole Neustadt Ghetto. The old people started to hide in cellars, attics, behind false walls, in all sorts of hiding places. A terrible panic descended on the ghetto. Today they were taking the old people and tomorrow they would take all of us. A spirit of revolt was felt; perhaps now was the time to say the word, “No!” and “Whatever happens will happen. After all, you only die once. In any case, we are lost. We will shut the gate of the ghetto! We will not let one German enter, and whatever they want to do to us somewhere, let them do it here, in the ghetto. How can we send our beloved parents to their certain death with our own hands? Even if we remain alive, what point will there be to living after we committed such offenses to our relatives and dear ones?”

People wandered here and there in the ghetto, harboring these ideas. There were discussions at every corner. The Judenrat also held a meeting, and decided to send two of its people, who knew the burgermeister well – maybe the edict could be cancelled. “Shlomke” Friedman, the chairman of the Judenrat, and the burgermeister's tailor, Chayim Kotcholak, went. They brought with them a gold pocket watch with a long gold chain, to bribe the burgermeister. He greeted them civilly, and explained the command that he had received from the Landrat (Staroste). But if in addition to the watch, they would add a fur coat for his wife (a lynx coat), he would be satisfied with just fifty-five old people, and he would send a report to the Landrat that this was the number of unproduktive that were found in the Neustadt Ghetto. The rest were strong young people capable of working. And that is how it was. The Judenrat handed over 55 men and women to the burgermeister'. The daughter of Yekel David Bornstein and her husband were among them. She had not been chosen to go with this transport, because she was young. But her husband was older and was chosen as a scapegoat, so she went along, saying that whatever would happen to her husband would happen to her as well. She did not want to be separated from her husband. I remember standing near the exit gate, and seeing them go through. He was holding his prayer shawl and phylacteries. He turned towards the ghetto and said, “If only we could be the last atonement for all the Jews of the ghetto. Maybe the Germans will be satisfied with us, and will not annihilate all the Jews. Whoever said enough, then enough to all our troubles?” The wailing and shouting of those escorting them tore at the fabric of the heavens.

We heard later that these people were brought to the Auschwitz camp, together with a large transport of Jews who were like them from all the other ghettos, and they were suffocated in the gas chambers.

We knew that our end was approaching. Another day or two, and it would be our turn. But the will to live had its hold on us. I know this from bitter experience over the years that I spent in ghettos and concentration camps. The flame of life and the will to live burn in everyone's heart. This flame is stronger than anything, and overcomes all distresses and tortures, both physical and spiritual. I want to state here what my thoughts were: “Maybe in spite of everything we will stay alive, when we will work and be productive? We have already reconciled ourselves to our fate, to be exiled someplace and do all sorts of hard labor, but we will live! And a living person still has hope. There could be a change in the German people, or other changes.” But our conjectures and imagination were useless. The die was cast on the fourteenth of November, 1942. all Jews, without exception, had to be ready at four in the morning, with luggage of not more than ten kilograms. To arrange themselves in groups of ten, according to their choice; there would be a cart for every 10 people. There was a mobilization of all the peasants in the vicinity of the town. They all had to show up at four in the morning on November 14 with a cart and two horses. To be ready near the ghettos. The decree was issued a few days before that date.

On the 10th of November, the Germans surrounded the ghettos day and night with a heavy guard of Volksdeutsch. There was an order not to approach the fences. There were instances in all the ghettos where Volksdeutsch fired into the ghettos and killed people. They were allowed to do anything. Who would say anything to them?

For three years, we only heard, “You are dogs.” (“Ier drekishe Juden. Ier zoy zoy zoy vek. Ferfluchte hunt.”) And similar phrases.

What could we do? Sit patiently and wait. There was nowhere to escape to, and it was also impossible after the German guards had surrounded the ghetto. The Jews inside the ghettos made ready for their trip. It was forbidden to take more than 10 kilograms. Whoever had any money or jewelry left found hiding places for it.

The bakeries received flour without limit for baking bread day and night, to sell as much as they wanted to their customers. The grocers received jams, sugar and other foodstuffs, to supply their customers with as much as they wanted, and the Jews bought a lot. Everyone said, “If we live, we will need it all. And if we die, what's the use of money?”

The 14th of November was a long vigil, a sleepless night in all the ghettos. Groups gathered in the streets. Each group of ten sat with their packages and waited for the opening of the gate, listening for the order to board the cart! Outside of the ghetto there were already hundreds of carts with horses. There was a lot of noise both inside and outside the ghetto. At four in the morning the burgermeister of Neustadt came with some Gestapo men and gendarmes and gave the order to leave the ghetto without making any noise. If there was any weeping or yelling, they would fire into the crowd. Nobody was to make a sound! And that is how it was. The groups went quietly, boarded the carts, and sat down holding their packages. One more glance at the ghetto houses, a last look. The peasant pulled on the reins, and the cart moved. The first question to the peasant was, “Where have you been ordered to go?” He shrugged his shoulders, “I don't know.”

The column of hundreds of carts covered the whole road from Neustadt to Plonsk. The residents of all the ghettos were assembled in Plonsk, for moving to towns that had railway stations. The Jews of Neustadt, among them many Sierpcers, were placed in the Plonsk Ghetto. This was on Friday morning.

There were many living places available in Plonsk after the Germans had removed the unproduktive, that is, the old people, a few days earlier. The new refugees that came on Friday from Neustadt were put in there. They opened their luggage and prepared themselves for the holy Sabbath, the day of rest. We said to ourselves, “They won't take us out on a Saturday!” The women prepared the Sabbath candles, the men got ready to go to some place of prayer to greet the Sabbath. We accepted the situation for what it was. When the Sabbath comes, rest comes, and maybe we will stay here until the end…

But that Friday night, the ghetto police spread out in all directions, went into every house, and ejected all the people of Neustadt together with their packages to specific gathering places. Some were sent to the synagogue, some to other places that were meant to be concentration points for those who were leaving by train on Sabbath morning.

Again on the road, and this would be the last trip… But to our great misfortune, this was not just the last trip. This was a trip accompanied by cruel demons, murderers, bloodsuckers, wild animals who only had human shapes.

And again we sat on our packages, because there was no place to lie down because of the overcrowding. We sat and waited all day and all night, until five in the morning. And then we heard announcements: Everyone to go outside and arrange themselves in groups of five. We did not see even one German. Everything was taken care of by Jewish policemen from the ghetto. Everyone got into his place and we started our procession to the railway station. My wife and I managed to hide, and we didn't leave with this transport. We were of the opinion that we wouldn't miss anything if we left with a later transport.

The train with the people from Neustadt left. No one knew in which direction it was heading and where they were taking the wretched victims… There was a group of Gestapo people waiting near the train, and they accepted delivery of three thousand souls. It was not their first transport. These were Gestapo personnel who were specifically assigned to the places of extermination, because not all Germans were allowed entry to such places.

These transports went from the above towns every day. The people of the Stezhgovo Ghetto were brought to Mlawa, and from there to the Auschwitz extermination camp.

Each transport carried 3,000 souls. It took the train two days to get to its destination. The trip took such a long time not because of the great distance, but to confuse the people, who wouldn't know where they were headed, and also to weaken them and torture them with the horrible crowding and asphyxiation. Every railroad car had room for 30 to 40 people, but 150 were pushed inside. The travelers stood next to each other for the whole time. When a man has been in such conditions for two days, when he gets off he begs to be taken to wherever they want, even if it means suffocation and immolation. The people who arrived were not human anymore; they had lost the will to live.

I have to note that the Sierpcers did not have the “luck” of dying an easy death. In 1942, the modern crematoriums had not yet been built at Auschwitz. The gas chambers were primitive, as I will describe below.

Two sheds, each 30 meters long, were situated in a grove, among the trees. They were separated by about 20 meters. One shed was for disrobing and had a sign on it – auskleidungsraum. Men, women and children, all together, entered this shed and received an order to quickly take their clothes off. The Nazis hit them on the head as soon as they entered. The people became confused and disrobed hurriedly and waited for a new order. It was November and cold outside, and they were told to leave this shed and go to the other shed. The Gestapo men sent attack dogs into the shed to chase the miserable people into the second shed. The dogs bit the naked people terribly. The screams could be heard in the heavens. The women who held their babes in their arms embraced them with eternal love until their final moments. They all parted from each other with kisses, with weeping and confessions.

When everyone had entered the empty shed, which then became completely full, the door was shut. There was a small hatch in the middle of the shed. An S.S. man poured a canister of Zyklon B gas into it, and closed it. He himself wore a gas mask. Within half an hour the people inside had suffocated – poisoned by the deadly gas.

Then the sonderkommandos[31] started their work: opened the shed door to let air in, took the corpses out and put them into a trolley (lorca in German), and brought them to a deep ditch, where they burned them. After that, the sonderkommando men cleaned the ditch, the sheds, and the plot, to make everything ready for the next transport…

Among these transports were all the refugees of Sierpc from the following ghettos: Stezhgovo, Neustadt, Ciechanów, Mlawa, Plonsk, etc.

The trains would arrive at twilight, so that the people would not be able to determine where they were. The train would stop not far from the incinerators. Two S.S. men stood next to the train, along with some men from the kommando[32], who were called Kanada Kommando[33], each one with his own function. At the sound of the order “Out of the cars,” everyone gets out. Everyone holds on to his own package and makes sure he is not parted from his family. Everyone is outside, and a new command comes from the S.S. men: “Put all the bundles in one pile.” Then the Kanada men started their work: to gather all the packages and valuables. Then came the order: “Men separately and women separately.” It was not easy to separate families. But the S.S. men were ready for this too. They used clubs to beat women, children, and babies. The screaming and weeping was awful. When the two groups had been separated, a group of men and a group of women, an army doctor with the rank of Sturmbannführer came. He carried an order from the Political Department of the Auschwitz camp, with the sentence: how many people to send to the work camp, that is, how many will be left alive, with the rest to go to the gas chambers.

The doctor approached the women's group. Every woman was marched in front of him, and he asked them their age and profession, very gently and politely. He did the same with the men's group.

The two groups were divided into four groups, young people separately, and adults and children separately. A young man or woman who was accompanied by a child was sent to the group of adults and old people.

Some S.S. men stood next to the doctor, to separate the people according to the doctor's orders – one to the left and one to the right. Many did not want to be parted; like the son or daughter that did not want to be separated from their parents, in spite of the fact that the doctor had told them, “Right!” In most cases, the doctor did not interfere, and said, “”Go with your father,” or “Go with your mother.” When the doctor saw that he had the number of people that were in the order, he said, “I'm finished; I already have 250 men and 50 women. The rest – get on the trucks. You are going to work camps. The work there is easier because you are adults, children and old people. You will be able to correspond with your relatives, get a special diet, and be well taken care of.”

But we knew very well that the two groups who were being taken in cars were being brought to the nearby gas chambers. The S.S. men piled the people into the cars using blows, slaps, and kicks. As each car became full, it drove off and returned within ten minutes, then filled up again. Shouting erupted from the cars: “Take revenge for us on these murderers. We are going to die, to be burned in the gas chambers. Avenge us!” There were two groups left in the empty field: 250 men, and 50 women.

We reached the men's camp at eleven at night. We saw a flame and a large column of smoke not far away. When we asked the veteran inmates what was the smoke and fire that we saw, they answered, “Your parents, children, and wives have just been burned.” It was difficult to believe, but we didn't have much time for thought. Our supervisors, the bockältester[34] and the stubenälteste[35], told us to hand over all valuables, money and so forth. In any case we wouldn't need them anymore, and they pointed in the direction of the incinerators, so that we could see the smoke and fire. We realized that all this was not a nightmare. It was the frightful truth. Everyone emptied their pockets of all they had: money, watches, valuables, and gave it to the bockältester. We used our legs to dig holes and we hid money in the ground, as much as we could, since there was no floor in the shed. We ripped up paper money, and threw it away.

The Aufnahmeschreiber[36], along with twenty inmates, came at two o'clock at night. These were the special kommandos for registering new transports. They prepared cards for everyone. There were some Jews among them. Two of them tattoed a number on the left hand of every inmate who came to Auschwitz. This was very painful, but no one thought of his own pain because we were in such despair that we didn't care what they did to us.

 

I Will Now Describe the Stezhgovo Transport

We know that most of the Sierpcers who were in the Stezhgovo Ghetto ended up in Auschwitz. Not one woman was sent to a work camp from this transport. All the women went directly to the crematorium. That was the order of the political department in Auschwitz. Two hundred fifty men were chosen for the work camp; that is, to live. Of this number, one hundred men were stood to one side. This was when they were still near the train, before they entered the camp.

No one knew why he had been chosen, and where he was going. These 100 men were picked to work in the incinerators, and there were 20 Sierpcers among them. Of course, they did not know why they had been separated from the rest of the 250 men selected from the transport, and for what kind of work they had been chosen. They were given showers, received haircuts, clothed in camp uniforms, and taken by S.S. men who formed a strong guard, to a shed surrounded by barbed wire inside the Birkenau camp[37]. It was a camp inside a camp. They were isolated from everyone else, because they carried out all the tasks inside the crematoriums. That same night they went out to do their work, after having received instructions on what to do.

When they entered the shed with the corpses that had been suffocated by the gas, they felt sick. They fainted, ran outside, wept and screamed. Here were their wives, children, parents, and relatives lying in front of them choked by gas. Only a few hours ago they had been together in the train. But they were not given time to think. The S.S. men beat them, and they were forced to remove their own flesh and blood from the shed, to a deep and wide ditch, where a fire was burning. They worked all night, until all the corpses had been burned.

The people who did this work, who were called sonderkommando, did not have any way of changing their job. They were forbidden to talk with other inmates in the camp. They were always locked inside their shed. If they went somewhere else in the camp, like the showers or the kitchen to get their food rations, there were always S.S. guards with them to make sure that they weren't in contact with other prisoners and talk about their work. The Germans thought that no one knew what was happening in the camp, in spite of the fact that the crematoriums were nearby, and we saw the flames and the smoke. If one of the sonderkommando became sick, they didn't send him to the hospital together with other prisoners, but gave him a fatal injection…

In spite of this I was able to come into contact with them, spoke to them, and they told me everything. I especially saw the Sierpcers almost every day. (I will mention their names later.)

They received special food, because they worked hard in three shifts. Twelve hundred people worked in these kommando units in the years 1942-43. Every shift consisted of four hundred men. The transports came day and night, without any respites, and the sonderkommando were not unemployed… There were also professional people among the sonderkommando, such as dentists, barbers, and goldsmiths. Every professional man had his job: the barbers cut off the hair; the dentists pulled out gold teeth; the goldsmiths melted and cast the gold teeth. All this was done after the people had been suffocated by gas. They weren't burned until after these professional people had done their work. They even found a use for the hair. After all these activities the bodies were burned by the “firemen.” This kommando consisted only of Jews. They knew that they didn't have much time because they would be exterminated in some manner. But they still thought that maybe there might be a miracle. The war would end, or there would be some other change. So they kept on with their work. They were also in the chamber where the people took their clothes off before going into the death-chamber and kept order there. They also watched the victims to make sure that all went into the gas chamber. Everything was done according to the orders of their superiors, the S.S. men.

The gas was poured into the chamber by the camp doctor, a German who was a high ranking officer (Lager-Arzt), whom I have mentioned earlier.

The sonderkommando were more or less free during the time that they were working. The S.S. men did not pay attention to them. They wore good clothes and good shoes; they got food from the transports, took what they wanted, and nobody stopped them. They helped their friends in the camp. There were always many inmates standing around their shed, and they would throw food, clothes, underwear and shoes to them. Of course if a prisoner was caught committing this kind of transgression, he came to a bitter end, but for a hungry and naked person there is no fence, no door, or fear of any punishment. If they were caught on one side of the shed, they were beaten, and then went to the other side, until they had achieved their goal. When the sonderkommando men went to the showers, many prisoners waited for them on the road inside the camp, and the sonderkommando men would throw whatever they had to them. They knew that their friends or just plain hungry people were waiting for them. So in spite of the fact that they were under strict S.S. guard, they took things with them. They were usually not punished, because their work was punishment enough for anyone.

When I met with them, they complained to me and said, “It has become our horrible fate to carry out this tragic work; there is no more left to live for.”

That is how they worked for ten months, until the transports became fewer, and there was not enough work for all the men of the sonderkommando. Then they chose 100 of them for a different line of work, paving roads. Almost all the Sierpcers who had been in the sonderkommando were transferred to this job. They were happy to be free of working in the crematoriums, despite the worsening of their conditions in terms of food and so forth. But these 100 men were still isolated from the other prisoners, as if only they knew what was being done to the Jews, and all the other inmates in the camp were completely ignorant.

It is worthwhile mentioning some details about the Sierpcers who were employed in this work. For instance, Moshe Grossman, the son-in-law of Henich Tcharnobrodna. On the eve of Passover, 1943, he brought me a small piece of matzo that he had baked in the oven of the crematorium. He had found a little flour in some clothes from one of the transports, and wanted me to have the honor of eating matzo.

He told me that they say Kadish[38] when the bodies are being burned, outside of the watchful eye of the S.S.

Yaakov Pukacz also had this job. He came down with typhus in February, 1943. As I have mentioned, they didn't take the men of the sonderkommando to the hospital. They took him in a car of the “Red Cross” and he never came back. They undoubtedly finished him with a fatal injection, as they did to the rest of the sonderkommando who became sick.

*

These hundred men did not work for very long at paving roads. The policy of the Germans was not to leave any man of the sonderkommando alive.

In January 1944 they were told that they were being sent to work in the crematorium in Majdanek. There were 17 Sierpcers among them, and these are their names:

  1. Moshe Grosman
  2. Israel Meir Bornstein
  3. Yaakov Bukat
  4. Pinchas Schwartz
  5. Beno Schwartz
  6. Zeidman
  7. Chayim Bergson
  8. Pesach Skornik
  9. Elia Grosman
  10. Henich Brodacz
  11. Ben-Zion Mai
  12. Hirsch Lazer Sakowicz
  13. Zalman Lelonek
  14. Chayim Lanczner
  15. Yosef Nemczewko
  16. Meir Konskowolski
  17. Elkana Kasazh
Before they left the camp, they took a shower and received clothes for the trip. I had the opportunity to say goodbye to them because I worked in the showers (entlassungskemer) and it was my shift that night. Our kapo[39] received an order from the Lagerführer[40] to give them the following clothes: a short summer coat, pants, and wooden shoes. This is what they had to wear in the January weather of Europe.

It is no wonder that they understood that they were sending them outside of the camp to be exterminated. There were those that understood this from the clothes they received, which would prevent them from escaping. In spite of the fact that I could have been severely punished, including death, I gave these Sierpcers sweaters, underwear, socks, and hats, and they hid them beneath their coats. I was certain that none of them would inform on me in case of an inspection.

They left on the train at three in the morning. According to reports I received, they went to Majdanek near Lublin, to a place that is called Auschwitz Number 2. There they cunningly sent them into the gas chambers. The few Sierpcers who were in the sonderkommando in the Auschwitz Birkenau camp continued their work in the crematoriums until the rebellion in the Birkenau camp, which I will describe below.

Until March 1943, all the extermination activities were carried out in Brzezinka (Birkenau), as I have described above. At the end of that month, the construction of four large, modern buildings was completed, and all these activities were transferred to these structures; that is, suffocation by gas, incineration – everything was done inside the building. We couldn't see anything from the outside. Two of the buildings were very large, and the other two were slightly smaller.

This is how the building looked from the outside: it was a two story building, about 30 meters long, with five or six steps at the entrance. There were a few windows on the second floor, and the roof had fifteen chimneys. The wall of the lower floor had three small windows that faced the death chamber, which jutted out from the exterior of the building. A poured concrete roof that covered the basement where the people were suffocated protruded from the ground. There were four openings on the roof, each 50 x 50 centimeters which were used to pour the poison (gas) into the columns made of a steel mesh that went down to floor level. These columns were also square, and the same size as the outside openings. There was a large yard of about 1000 square meters around the building, with a fence of concrete columns and barbed wire. The fence was electrified at a high voltage. There was a large sign on the entrance gate that said zum baderaum in German, meaning “to the showers.” There was a guard tower manned by the S.S. every 30 meters just outside the fence. A gravel road led to the crematorium.

A description of the inside of the building: the transports would enter the building, and go through a small corridor to the cellar. As they went downstairs, they saw arrows and signs, “to the disrobing rooms, to the showers” (Auskleidunsraum, baderaum). First they went into the disrobing room. Inside there were benches along the entire length of the room. The walls had hooks with numbers on them. Everyone went into this room together, men and women. When the room was full, an S.S. man stood at the entrance and ordered, “Take off your clothes!” Everyone took his clothes, made a package of them, hung them on a hook, and was supposed to remember the number where he had hung his clothes.

Next to this room was the death chamber (gas kamer). The entrance was a wide, thick and heavy door which could be hermetically shut with iron rods. In the middle of the room were four square columns of steel mesh, 50 x 50 centimeters. The distance between the columns was about 4 meters.

There were shower heads in the ceiling, like in a regular shower room. All this was in the cellar. There was a long marble table in the first room of the ground floor, with two water faucets at the side. The table was used for “scientific” experiments on live people (Jews). They would remove their blood and send it to the German blood bank. They also amputated live organs and sent them to German hospitals. They cut off ears, breasts, noses, cheeks, without anesthetics, and the people would die on the spot.

Not far from this room there was a big, long hall with 15 ovens along its length. The oven doors were the width of 4 people. There was a small stairwell near each oven. The fire stoker (der heirtzer) who made sure that the flame was not extinguished sat there. The fire was fed by coal. The other side of the oven was flush with the floor, with an opening through which the bodies were put in. There was no floor, but three concrete pillars, 20 centimeters apart, and the flames came from downstairs between the pillars, so that the bodies were burned. They were not really burned, but sort of melted from the great heat. Inside the oven there were metal rails and a cart shaped like a stretcher that went inside with four corpses. The incineration lasted for 20 minutes. A calculation will show that it took 20 minutes to incinerate 60 corpses. Each oven was fed with 2 men and 2 women. Because the flesh of the women had more fat, the bodies melted more quickly.

The bodies were taken by an elevator from the gas chamber in the cellar to the ovens on the first floor. There was a procedure for taking a corpse from the gas chamber to the elevator: they would tie a belt to a hand of the corpse, and drag it on the floor after pouring some water on the floor to make it slide more easily. About twenty corpses at a time were loaded onto the elevator.

All this took place in the two crematorium buildings, Building No. 1 and Building No. 2. The other two crematorium buildings were more primitive and smaller. They were used only for transports of fewer people, of about a hundred.

All these tasks were performed by the Jewish sonderkommando. But as I mentioned earlier, the sonder men did not live long. They knew this and talked about it every day. They made themselves ready, as best they could, by collecting ammunition, hand grenades, and explosives. Not in great quantities, because this was impossible. There was endless surveillance of everyone in Auschwitz by the S.S.. There were searches every day at the entrance gate and when returning from work. The pockets and the whole body were searched.

But in spite of this the men succeeded in organizing, in gathering some things for the day when they would have to defend themselves. They agreed among themselves that if they sensed something suspicious, such as the Germans wanting to send them somewhere else – not to go! To actively resist! They knew this from experience. They decided that if they heard gunfire from any crematorium, this would be a sign that the rebellion had started, and for all the crematorium workers to proceed with their plan.

The day came. On a summer day in 1944, the sonder men in Crematorium Number 3 received an order from the S.S. man who was their superior to leave the building and line up in the yard. When they asked him why, he told them that they wanted to send 200 people to work somewhere else. Everything was clear. They decided to resist. They burned the straw mats they slept on, and threw rocks at the S.S. men. Crematorium Number 3 went up in flames, but the sonder men didn't leave; they wanted to be immolated inside. The S.S. men fired into the building, and a reinforcement of S.S. men arrived within a few minutes that succeeded in putting out the fire. The sonder men who survived were caught, stripped of their clothes, and made to lie on the ground naked with their faces down.

The sonder men in the other buildings, who saw that Crematorium Number 3 was burning and heard shots from that direction, went into action. They captured their kapo, a German inmate, and put him inside an oven. The S.S. men became frightened and hid. The sonder men hurried out of the building, took the ammunition and grenades out of their hiding places, cut the electrified barbed wire fence and ran, shouting the signal to the other prisoners: “Freedom! (Wolnosc) Escape together with us.” But they managed to run only a few tens of meters, when they were already being chased by the S.S., who had come with many men and dogs and were firing at them with machine guns. None of the sonder men managed to do much. From what I heard, 5 Germans were killed in this action, and 450 sonderkommando were killed. None of the resisters remained alive; among them was one Sierpcer, Avraham Wilk.

All prisoners who were working outside the camp were rushed back. The 200 people from the sonder that the Germans wanted to send someplace were sent not far from Birkenau and were shot. That same day, before nightfall, the Lagerführer assembled the sonder men, and warned them that this incident was not to be repeated. If it was – he would exterminate them on the spot.

I was on the night shift then, so I slept during the day. But the S.S. men woke us up and assembled the whole camp in one place, under guard. We were certain that they would shoot us right there, because there were machine guns aimed at us from all directions.

That is how that rebellion in Birkenau ended.

*

The transports came without end in 1943; from Greece, France, Belgium, Holland and Poland. They also brought the last transport from Warsaw. These were Jews who were American citizens. In Warsaw they had lived outside the Ghetto, did not have to wear an armband, and they had all the privileges of American citizens.

One day the Germans gathered them in one place in Warsaw, and told them that they were being sent home, to America. But instead of home, they were brought to the death camp Auschwitz and straight to the crematorium, without picking one man or woman for labor, as was customary with the transports. There were about 1,000 people in this transport: men, women, children, and old people. They arrived at Crematorium Number 1, went down the cellar, and were put into the disrobing room.

An S.S. man called Shillinger stood at the entrance. He was a cruel sadist, more so than anyone else in the camp. He received all the transports that came to Auschwitz, and brought the people to the crematoriums. He was also responsible for the destruction of the transport. During the day, he visited all the camps, and would find all sorts of infractions: this one was not working hard enough, that one was eating on the job, etc. He would kick, slap, and hit people with a stick. He would ride around on a motorcycle all day, hitting and yelling, until his end came. From a Jewish woman who was an American citizen, part of the latest transport.

He stood at the entrance of the disrobing room and gave the order for everyone to take their clothes off. A young woman approached him and said, “Sir, how can we get undressed, men and women together, in the same room?” But he slapped her face and kicked her a few times, drew his pistol, and shouted, “Whoever does not get undressed will be killed on the spot!” Everyone started taking their clothes off, the young woman as well, but she threw her brassiere in his face and said to him, “Here's a gift for your wife!” He became very angry. This was the first time that anyone had dared do something like that to him. He went inside the room a few meters, and slapped the woman until she fell to the floor. The woman's husband went behind Shillinger and hit him on the hand that was holding the pistol, which dropped out of his hand and fell near where the woman was lying. She took advantage of this and shot him a number of times. He managed to shout “Help!” and died. The prisoners saw that Shillinger was dead and started to demolish everything inside. They broke the doors and destroyed the columns of steel mesh, and ran out of the crematorium room. This was the first time that a transport had rebelled. But no one in this transport was left alive. They were all transferred to Crematorium Number 2 and suffocated there.

I heard that the woman and her husband were theater actors from New York.

In order to avenge the death of Shillinger, 1,500 people were taken the next day from the work camp and put to death. They were all healthy and capable of doing hard labor, but were taken to the gas chambers and suffocated. They all knew what was going on in the camp. Everyone saw the mass extermination. The Germans hid almost nothing from the camp inmates, because they were considered as good as dead. “No one will leave this place alive,” as the camp commander (Lagerführer) put it.

We could not do anything. There was a very heavy guard in the camp, and nobody dared to resist. Not only the Jews, who were the weakest prisoners, but also the rest: Poles, Russians, Frenchmen, and others. All went along the path of suffering and extermination. Many tried to escape, but they were all caught.

A young Jewish woman tried to escape in 1944. She was fluent in a number of languages, so she worked as a translator for the S.S. She was from Poland, and had lived in Belgium. Her name was Mala.

Since she was always with S.S. women, she managed to get a female S.S. uniform. She put on the S.S. uniform and simply walked out of the gate. But after a few days she was captured in the city of Krakow and brought back to Auschwitz. She said she would not go to the crematorium alive, and committed suicide by slitting her wrists with a razor blade as she was marched there.

There were other escape attempts, but I cannot remember any that succeeded. The camp was surrounded by a few rings of guard posts. Even if someone managed to penetrate some of the rings, he would be caught at the last one.

And the prisoners in the camp underwent much suffering in the event of an escape. We would be assembled in a formation and stood many hours in the cold, after a day of work, without food, sometimes until midnight.

There were also times when they deliberately announced that two or three prisoners were missing in the camp, so that we would stand in formation for many hours. But it was all a put-on. Nobody had escaped,

There were no attempts of escape from the women's camp during all those years, except for the instance above.

We talked about partisans that were operating in the vicinity of the camp, but we never felt their presence, nor did they do anything for the camp inmates.

Whenever someone was caught trying to escape from the camp, he was hanged in the center of the camp, in front of all the prisoners. Before the hanging, the Lagerführer read the sentence, and then it was carried out by a hangman, an inmate specializing in this task.

Usually the hangings took place on Sunday, because then we worked only until twelve noon, and it was more public. The victim would be left hanging there until twilight.

There was another punishment for attempted escape: the culprit was shot, and the body was placed upright near the gate so that it could be seen by prisoners returning from work. The victims stood erect (and dead) with two spades under their armpits.

There were a few punishment methods in the camp, such as: isolation, a narrow room with no possibility of turning around. There was also hanging by the ankles with the head down for 15 minutes. Most died on the spot. There was a room full of water up to a half meter in height. There was also a table with a hole in it for inserting the head and receiving lashes, in accordance with the verdict of the Lagerführer. Once I received a punishment of 45 lashes. This is what happened:

On the third day that I was in Birkenau (Auschwitz), I found out that my eldest brother Avraham Chayim and his son Mordechai were in the camp. I looked for them and found them. They were difficult to recognize because they did not look like human beings. They had come from Stezhgovo Ghetto and were freezing, without clothing, tired from working, and injured from the blows they received while working. My brother told me that he had seen my wife Miriam in the women's camp, since he worked there. I was overjoyed to hear this, since I did not know what happened to her after we were separated from each other at the railway station when we arrived at the camp.

The next morning, when my brother went to work, I gave him half my ration of bread for my wife. How did he give her the bread? When he passed the road of the women's camp and they saw each other, he threw the bread into a ditch and she picked it up, because it was forbidden to talk to a woman in the camp. I did this for a few days.

A week later I recognized my wife, who was about fifty meters away, on the road that separated the two camps. I called out, “Miriam.” At that moment an S.S. man noticed me, arrested me, and took me to the S.S. rooms (block-führer-stuba). I received 45 lashes, and my torturers wanted to know who I was talking to, so she could also receive her helping of lashes. I said I didn't know her. I saw her on the train, but I didn't know who she was. They gave me a notification report (maldung). Whoever received a maldung (judgment) was placed with the straf kommando (s.k.). A Jew would not live for more than two days with this kommando. The kapos killed them with work. But to my good fortune, the S.S. man who recorded my number came down with typhus the next day, and the piece of paper disappeared from his pocket. Apparently, my time had not yet come.

A German kapo (an inmate) in the kommando s.k. killed a young Sierpcer, Moshe Dobroszklanka, the son of Binem Dobroszklanka. This happened in February 1943 when he went through the gate to work. They searched his clothes and found that he was wearing two shirts. They recorded his number, and in the evening, during the assembly, they took him to the kommando s.k. They killed him with overwork in two days.

He stood next to me when he was called from the assembly, because we were in the same block.

What is s.k.? The letters stand for straf kommando, meaning punishment unit. They worked and did everything while running. Their food rations were half of those of the other camp prisoners. Since the other inmates did not receive enough food, it was even worse for the s.k. people. In addition, the kapos in the kommando were German criminals who were brought from jails in Germany. They had spent half their lives in prisons in Germany and Austria. The more people they killed, the more food rations were left for them.

One day at eleven in the morning, as I worked in the entlassungskemer[41], they brought the clothes of the dead from the above unit to be disinfected. A kapo told me that until now, that is, until eleven o'clock, there were already 65 dead. They would be finished when the number reached 100 for the day. There were always about 400 prisoners in the s.k. who were sent there for all kinds of violations.

I managed to evade this “charming” kommando a few times.

 

“Selection” in the Camp

“Selection”[42] took place once a month in both the men's and women's camps. All the inmates went out to work and only Jews were left in the camp. The camp doctor (Lager-Arzt) examined all of us while we were naked. A camp clerk stood next to the doctor.

If the doctor said to the clerk, “Number!” this meant that the clerk would write down the number and this prisoner would be sent to the crematorium. If he didn't say anything – that was good, the prisoner stayed in the camp. He examined by looking at the bodily appearance. If there was a bit more flesh on the body, it was good; if not, he would say, “This is a Muselman[43]. He's not capable of working.” And if there was a sore or wound on the body, it could be contagious, and the number was also noted.

The examination of a few thousand people took him two hours, at the most..

Before evening, during the assembly, all the people whose numbers were written down during the “selection” were called and gathered in one shed. These were destined for the crematorium.

When they were brought there, they refused to take their clothes off, and the S.S. men had to make an effort to get them into the gas chamber. What did they do? They were all shouting, “I'm healthy, strong, and capable of working, why am I being sent to the crematorium?” So the S.S. men said, “That's right, you really are healthy, stand on the sideline.” They assembled about 50 prisoners in this way, and told them, “You are going back to the camp, to work, but first you have to help us in getting all the others into the gas chamber.” The deception worked. These 50 prisoners did the work. In a few minutes they were all inside. It was not difficult to manage just the 50 prisoners. The S.S. men used their clubs and hit them all so hard that they ran into the gas chamber.

A victim from Sierpc, Yehezkel Frankel, son of Nahum Frankel, was chosen in a “selection” in February 1944. He had a number of sores on his body but the Sierpcers of the sonderkommando asked their supervisor, an S.S. man, to send him back to the camp, and he was sent back. But his sores didn't heal, and there was a “selection” the following month, and this time Yehezkel was taken to the crematorium. Not always could the sonder men influence the S.S.

There were a few Sierpcer women in Birkenau who were sent to the crematoriums because they had scabies: Mania Lipka, the daughter of Aaron Lipka, the wife of Fibush Kirsch, and Lily Eichald.

We managed to arrange some relatively light work for Rivkah Sosnowska, a job in which she would never have to undergo “selection.” We knew that if she had to go through “selection,” the doctor would immediately choose her, because one of her hands was paralyzed. We were able to hide her for half a year, and took care of her as much as we could. But one day she slipped and broke her leg. They took her to the hospital and from there to the crematorium.

We tried to take care of all the Sierpcer women as much as we could, so they wouldn't go hungry, have easy work, clothes, and so forth. We were already veteran inmates, with “good” jobs. I worked as a disinfector. Kaufman Kasiarz also had a “good” job, working in the sewage, so that we could help, but we could not save someone from death. We accepted our fate. We knew that there was nothing that would help us. From here, from Auschwitz, we would never leave. Everyone according to his fate and in his time.

*

Once, a transport left Auschwitz for a different work camp. I shoved my way into this transport because I also wanted to go to another place so that I wouldn't see the extermination of the Jews from up close. But a S.S. man saw me, pulled me out, and beat me, and said, “Stupid Jew! I want to save you from death, and you thrust yourself into the arms of the Angel of Death!”

Two weeks later, they brought this whole transport back to Auschwitz, straight to the crematorium. The Germans asserted that they had found a contagious disease there, and they had to burn everyone.

Once I underwent a “selection”: the doctor examined me for five minutes, which was unusual, and said that I had fever. I was very frightened. Then he said, “Alright, go to work. I'll see you next time.”

At the end of 1944, a movie theater was arranged for the prisoners. Once a week we could watch films from the Russian front, but only German victories. Attendance at the movie was compulsory. There was also a bordello in Auschwitz for the Christians. There were only Christian girls in it. Jews were forbidden to enter because of the “racial purity” laws…

When the Red Cross came from Geneva to visit the camp, they showed them the movie theater and the bordello, so what more could the prisoners want? They had everything, more than they would have outside the camp during wartime. They would take them for a visit to the hospital. But before that they would decorate the rooms, put white sheets on the beds with wool blankets and white pillows. Doctors and nurses in white coats would wander around among the patients. The patients received good food on those days: diet, white bread, milk, and all sorts of good food.

The general camp kitchen also cooked better food when the international delegation visited: there would be meat with noodles, a double ration of bread, sausage, margarine, jam, and more.

They also showed them the crematorium buildings, but told the committee that they were used only for those who died in the camps. First, there was no place to bury the bodies, and second, it was more hygienic to burn them in time of war to prevent epidemics. The committee members left the camp satisfied with what they had seen, and reported accordingly to the Red Cross in Geneva. They didn't talk to the prisoners, and didn't hear of what was going on inside the camp. They did not see how millions of Jews were slaughtered. The committee also declared that there was no need to send food parcels to the prisoners, because the Germans provided good food for these concentration camps. They themselves went into the kitchen and tasted the food. This was how the Germans fooled the world, and everyone believed them. And the furnaces burned day and night…

When they brought the Hungarian Jews, about three-quarters of a million Jews within two months, they burned thirty thousand Jews in twenty-for hours. This went on every day, and they did it in great haste, and we didn't know why. It was said in the camp that after the Hungarian Jews, they would have to bring Rumanian Jews. We knew that they were bringing Hungarians, because they looked for people who knew Hungarian. After that, they asked for people who could speak Rumanian. And Italian Jews also came.

At the end of 1943, they brought Czech Jews from Theresienstadt. The Germans put them in a special camp, and families were kept together. They didn't cut their hair, they didn't get special clothes, and they didn't take their money and jewelry from them. They received good food, and did not go out to work. This camp was called “The Family Camp from Czechoslovakia.” They gave them postcards so that they could write that they were being treated well. They were photographed many times as they wandered idly about the camp. They had an athletic field where they played, and they did whatever they wanted. They gave special food to the children; the sick received a special diet, double rations, etc.

One day they were all sent to the crematorium. It was the same for Gypsies, who were brought from all countries. The Germans treated them the same way that they had treated the Czech Jews and then took them to the crematoriums.

In the months of June and July of 1944, they brought the last Jews from Poland. They came from the city of Lodz, and from Płaszów, which is near Krakow.

There were also Sierpcers in the transport from Lodz: Yehoshua Ostaszewer and his wife Tovah Yeshaievitz, with a child. Tovah and the child went to the crematorium, but Yehoshua Ostaszewer was chosen to work in the camp. I met him because he came to wash and have his hair cut, and he found out that his family, who came with him, was no longer alive. I made sure that he was dressed well enough for work, and that he had everything he needed. (Yehoshua Ostaszewer is now in the United States.)

I worked in the shower room.

This was a huge building, and all the camp inmates came there once or twice a week, where they showered and their clothes underwent disinfection from lice. Everyone had his hair cut and all the hair from his body was shaved with a shaving machine or a razor. After that they went into the showers.

At the entrance to the shower room there was a small tub filled with Lysol. Everyone had to dip their feet in the Lysol, and then to shower.

At the shower exit, everyone was smeared with a liquid which was made from a gas (Zyklon) that was used for suffocating people in the crematoriums. Then they went into another room to dry out and get dressed.

The workers at the above two sides of the shower were forbidden to have contact with the bathers during work hours, so that the lice would not spread. Following the drying out room there was a big chamber – for getting dressed.

It was the same for new transports that came from outside. Those who had been picked to live went into this building, but the procedure was different. When they entered the big room on the “unclean side” they underwent a search by the S.S. and prisoners who were called Fils-Kommando. There was a closed box with a small opening in the middle of the room, where people would put the money and valuables that they had brought with them. Then the number was tattooed on their arm. Then they went through the process described above. When the large number of transports came from Hungary and Lodz, all this work was done by men, that is, hair cutting and showering of the women as well, in spite of the fact that women barbers worked in the women's showers. Sometimes the men and women barbers worked together. All the workers here were Jews.

This building also had a special kommando unit that worked at sorting clothes. They sorted the clothes and distributed them to the new transport arrivals that went through the showers. This kommando was called “dressing room.” They were also Jews.

There was another method of disinfecting the people and clothes. Three large tubs were placed on the road in the middle of the camp. Each tub contained 2,000 liters of water. The inmates from the same block came together, took their clothes off in the street, and put their clothes inside a tub, which was full of a liquid made from Zyklon gas. The clothes would remain in this liquid for about a quarter of an hour, after which they would be taken out. The people who did this work were called entlassungs-kommando, and worked while wearing gas masks. I also worked in this kommando. The sheds, mattresses, and blankets were also sprayed with the same liquid.

The prisoners would put on the wet clothes, in spite of the fact that it was winter. Many people caught cold and came down with pneumonia. The also wore the wet clothes to work. But what did the Germans care? Cleanliness – that was the main thing! The women could not hold on. The crowding in the blocks was very great; they were starving for food while working at the same tasks as the men. Therefore the women's quarters were less clean than the men's. Also the “selections” were more frequent in the women/s camp than in the men's camp. They also went willingly to the crematoriums. They asked to be gassed; they couldn't take the torture. Their kapos were mainly German women, prostitutes who were brought to the concentration camp so they wouldn't be free. The prostitutes were bockä ltester and kapos, and had various jobs in the hospital, kitchen, and so forth.

*

The situation in Auschwitz improved a little at the end of 1944. The kapos received instructions not to beat prisoners while working. The food was better and so were the clothes. We did not stand in formation for extended periods of time. We felt a marked change. We also heard that people would no longer be suffocated by gas and wouldn't be burned in the crematoriums.

The crematoriums were supposed to be used only for people who died in the camp. But despite all this, they still kept bringing transports and suffocating more hundreds of thousands of Jews. In this sense, we saw no change, regardless of the announcements and promises.

When they brought Jews from Lodz, the Reichsführer Himmler visited the camp. He went into the crematorium, put on gloves, and put a body into an oven, and said, “Here, with my own hands, I am burning a Jew.” One of the sonderkommando, who had heard Himmler himself say this, told this to me.

The Reichsführer Himmler visited our camp as well, and entered the sauna building. I was then on the night shift, spreading Covarex, a disinfectant, on people. And suddenly I heard the command to stand to attention.

First a tall fat man entered, dressed in civilian clothes; then came the camp commander, Kramer, who was well known, and more high ranking officers from the S.S. The first man approached me, and asked me in a gentle voice, “What do you do here?”

I answered, “Disinfection! Decontamination of the body after shaving.” “What are you?” “A Jew,” I answered. “What?” he said in wonder, “How long have you been here in the camp, sir?” “Twenty-two months,” I answered him. “What? Such a long time and you are still alive?” I answered him simply, “Yes, I'm still alive.”

I didn't know who he was, and I didn't care.

He wandered around the whole building, curious about everything, and asked the prisoners a few times if they were all Jews. After they all left, the S.S. man responsible for our kommando came to me and laughed. I asked him what was so funny. He told me, “Do you know who you were talking to? That was the Reichsführer Himmler!”

*

It should be noted that all the Sierpcers in Auschwitz were devoted to each other, heart and soul. No Sierpcer ever informed to the German authorities. The Sierpcer went through many trials during the war years.

The names of the Sierpcer who stayed alive in Auschwitz:

  1. David Sochaczewski
  2. Meir Tajtelbaum
  3. Isaac Tajtelbaum
  4. Kaufman Kasiarz
  5. Yosef Rajchold
  6. Avraham Robota
  7. Meir Tuchendler
  8. Meir Nemlich
  9. Chayim Yorish
  10. Shimon Roemer
  11. Leib Yorish
  12. Chayim Berkowitz
  13. Yaakov Juzelewski
  14.             Gongola
  15. Binem Mai
  16. Yehoshua Ostaszewer
  17. Zvi Arpa
  18. Miriam Arpa
  19. Bronka Mlawa
  20. Bina Gorna
  21. Lutka Friedlander
  22. Frieda Juzelewska
  23.             Przygoda
  24. Yaakov Sakowicz
They are all now in different countries. The majority settled in Israel. They go on with their daily lives, but I am sure that none of us forgot for a moment what we went through.

We haven't forgotten, and we will never forget! We will remember!

We will remember forever what the German Amalek[44] did to us. We will tell the story of what we went through. We will follow the commandment, “And you shall tell your children,” and the appeal of our dear ones of blessed memory, before they died, “Take revenge on the Germans!”

*

As the Russian army neared Krakow, 55 kilometers from Auschwitz, the Germans began preparing us for the road: to distance us from the front, to concentrate all the camps in Germany and Austria. Not to hand us over alive to the Russians or other foreign armies.

We received an order on January 17, 1945, an announcement that we were leaving the camp. They didn't stop us from putting on clothes that were intended to be sent to Germany (the good clothes). On the contrary, they were apparently interested that we wear as much as possible, because they didn't have any transportation. Everything was already cut off.

We went on the road. About a quarter of a million prisoners, from all the camps in the vicinity of Auschwitz, men and women. We walked for about a week. Some arrived at the Mauthausen camp in Austria, some in Gross-Rosen and in other camps. Most of the women went to Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbruck in Germany. Thousand were killed along the way by the S.S. on the pretext that they were trying to escape, and many died of exhaustion.

I got to Mauthausen together with Shimon Roemer, a Sierpcer. We were there for about a week. After that they sent us to the camp at Melk about 80 kilometers from Vienna. We worked very hard, and the cold affected us badly. We didn't have any clothes because they took what we brought with us at Mauthausen during the antlauzung.[45]

We were in the Melk camp for three months. They didn't bring transports here for suffocation. There was only one small crematorium for burning the dead bodies. Many died of the beatings they received at work, and many did not last very long under the harsh conditions. The Lagerführer was an evil man, like all the S.S. men. We despaired of life, and had only one question, “Till when?” There were no women in this camp, and I had not heard about my wife since we left Auschwitz. There were rumors that all the women were exterminated on the way.

I managed to get work in the kitchen in this camp, peeling potatoes. I was overjoyed that I could stay inside the building, and not have to work outside. I could also help our townsman, Shimon Roemer. I brought him a few uncooked potatoes every day, which was strictly forbidden.

This small incident can testify to the cruelty and evil of the S.S. men. A Russian prisoner sneaked into the kitchen in the middle of the day, with a 10 liter pail. He managed to dip the pail into the large cauldron, and take it out full of soup (noodles and potatoes). To his misfortune, he was caught near the door by the S.S. man who was in charge of the kitchen.

He didn't do anything to him. He just said, “Sit there and eat everything you took.” The prisoner started eating and finished three or four liters, but the S.S. man wouldn't leave him alone. He was forced to finish everything. The prisoner was contorted with pain, and the S.S. man stood above him with a pistol in his hand and yelled, “Either you finish, or I finish you.”

The Russian collapsed. They took him to the hospital, and a few hours later he was dead.

*

The Melk camp was near the city, and I, together with other prisoners, went to town a few times under S.S. guard to get provisions from the storehouses. The pain we felt in our hearts! A great longing for freedom hit us. We saw people walking freely in the town, and we – already in prison for many years. We were always in pain, without hope and without purpose.

At the beginning of April, 1945, the allied armies of Americans, English and Russians started massive attacks in the air and on land against the German army.

We could see flights of about 70 American aircraft bombing German troop concentrations, railway stations, and other strategic targets about 5 or 6 times a day. We started to feel that the end was coming near.

The S.S. men walked around with their heads bowed low. They were getting bad news from home, about bombings and about family problems.

An order came on April 15 to leave the camp. We crossed the Danube in motorboats and came to Salzburg. From there we walked to a new camp called Ebensee. On the way from Salzburg to Ebensee we crossed the Alps, which were covered with snow. We managed to gorge ourselves on the snow. But many were shot by our guards when they stuck out their hands to take this blessed manna. But the hunger and thirst were so strong that we didn't pay attention to the shots. Whoever was killed – was killed, and the rest continued to extend their hands and grab the snow to replenish our broken souls.

We started new jobs in Ebensee under new conditions, different than those in all the other camps. We all had swollen bodies.

The clothing was a short jacket, pants without underwear, and wooden shoes without socks. In general, it was the most unusual camp of all those we passed through. Inmates were walking around with a bone or a piece of charcoal in their hand. They would suck at this, and then drink a lot of water, of which there was no shortage in camp.

When we asked, “What are you sucking on?” They answered, “This is our food until we die!” We didn't have to ask much more. That same day we felt it ourselves.

We were 18,000 men, 5,000 of them Jews, in 29 wooden sheds. Of these, one was used as a kitchen, three for washing, and three for bathrooms. One shed housed 1,200 people. The beds were one on top of another in bunks. The beds were 60 centimeters wide. Four prisoners slept in one bed,

If someone wanted to turn around, he would have to waken his bedmates, and the four of them would turn around together.

We slept like pickled fish in a barrel.

When we had to go to the toilet, we would do it in a bucket in our shed because the doors were shut all night from seven in the evening to three in the morning. Then we were awakened by water being poured onto our beds. We tried to wake up before this, and were immediately herded into the yard.

There was a very cold rain outside. It rains every day in the Alps during April, and our clothes were suitable for summertime in Asia.

The prisoners would bring the tea from the kitchen. Once I also went to bring tea, and I saw a prisoner hanging, with a sign on him, “He stole one potato.” We brought the tea to the courtyard of our shed. Our supervisors would distribute the tea in two liter bowls, one bowl for every four people.

We would stand in the courtyard for about three hours, and each one would rub the back of the next person, in order to warm up a little. Our clothes were wet, because at six in the morning we went to the main courtyard, where we would be sent for work outside.

We worked at removing the iron rails from the railway stations that had been bombed by the Americans, and other very hard labor. We would travel every day for thirty kilometers in freight cars. To our good fortune, we could warm up a little bit inside, and we managed to nap a little on the way, which took about an hour. By the sides of the road, we could see the great changes in the war situation. There were German families on the roads, carrying parcels and luggage, running to and fro without any order, dirty and unshaven. We also saw soldiers, disorganized, handicapped, riding in carts with horses. Like it was on the first days when the war broke out in 1939, in the vicinity of our Sierpc.

The S.S. men who were guarding us started to confess to us and to justify themselves: “Why are we to blame? It's all him, the Führer! He gave the orders! Look, we don't have anything to eat either. We just got one sandwich today, and it's supposed to last the whole day.”

But they were talking to dead people, not to living ones. Instead of working, every one of us looked for a little grass. To revive the soul. Under the grass we would find live worms. That was our food: grass and worms. Once we found the hide of a cow stored in salt inside a ruined barn. We cut it up and shared it. Everyone received a tiny piece, and we sucked on it all day…

At three in the afternoon we would return to the camp and go to the market in the camp. What was the market? You could buy tiny pieces of meat from corpses. There were inmates who managed to sneak into the morgue and cut pieces of flesh from the bodies – if they had any flesh left on them. Because knives were forbidden in the camp, they sharpened spoon handles, and these served as knives.

The pieces of meat would be traded for the bread ration that was handed out the previous night. Also for the cigarette that each one of us got once a week.

The trade went on until it became known to the S.S. and they shot some of those who sneaked into the morgue. And so the commerce in meat was ended…

The situation became worse. The inmates walked around like shadows on the accursed earth. Each inmate weighed about 40 kilograms. At six in the evening we received our rations: 100 grams of bread that was like plaster.. But not everyone even managed to get that. Every day there were a lot of rations missing. And if I managed to get my hands on the ration, often I would feel a strong blow on my arm, usually from a Russian prisoner, and the bread fell, and was stolen from me.

We also received half a liter of soup. The soup was very thin, water boiled with the peels of potatoes that were cooked for the S.S. men. And who was the lucky man who found a peel in his portion? Usually there was not enough soup, especially for the Jews; because the other prisoners would stand in line twice or three times and the barrel quickly became empty, and we would go back with empty bowls.

I and a friend of mine, Bezalel Jakubowicz from Zakroczym in Poland, decided to commit suicide, instead of dying of blows or starvation. But apparently, the Angel of Death didn't want us…

One morning, the bockältester, a German inmate and a very malicious man, came in and told us: “Today, you will get your bread ration in the morning. The ration will be 250 grams. From today, the soup will be thick, so much so that you can stick your spoon into it, and it will not fall over…”

“Today you won't go out to work, and if you do go out, you won't be beaten anymore,”

We didn't know what was happening. A new transport arrived within an hour, and on it were 150 Jews. I looked at them and recognized them. In 1943 they were in Auschwitz, and now they arrived from Germany. They had worked there for about a year and a half, printing all sorts of money, foreign currency like dollars, pounds sterling and identification cards used for espionage. They were specialists at this kind of work, and they lived in a camp with underground barracks; that was where they worked and lived.

The S.S. men that had brought them to Ebensee had received an order to liquidate them in the forest, but their officer abandoned his troops in the middle of the way, and the order was not carried out. A surprising event.

At eight in the morning we heard shouting:
“Everyone to the main assembly point.” We thought that they were going to transfer us again to another camp. But the camp commander got up on a chair so that everyone could see and hear him, and said: “Honorable sirs! I am asking for translators, because I have to tell you something important.” The translators went up to him – a Spaniard, a Polish man, a Russian, and a Frenchman and the camp commander began his speech.

Because the American Army had already arrived in town, and certainly intended to shell the Ebensee Camp, he advised us to go into the tunnels that had been dug under the Alps. There we would be safe from the American shells, and we would stay alive.

As if automatically, there were cries from all sides.

 

“We're not going!!!”

The first ones to yell this were German inmates, kapos and bockältester. It turns out that on the previous day they had seen S.S. men digging in the ground in the tunnels, and planting explosives and mines there. That was meant for us. To put us in there and exterminate us in the last hour before freedom. But the murderers did not succeed in accomplishing their satanic plan.

After an hour, the explosions started inside the tunnels and went on for about twelve hours.

This was the first time that prisoners dared oppose the S.S. men, and the first time in six years that we heard the word “Sirs!” from the S.S. men. The phrases we always heard were “Dogs,” “Filth,” and similar words.

That same day, in the afternoon, two American tanks broke through the camp gate. The tanks were manned by black soldiers. They threw candy bars, biscuits, and food to us, and shouted, “You are free! The barbed wire fences have been torn down! Go out to freedom!”

We could not believe our eyes. It was like a dream. The blood froze in our veins. But we recovered quickly, grabbed the weapons that the S.S. men had tossed away, and we shot those who were running away. The revenge started with the kapos and bockältester. We paid back anyone we could catch.

But not all those who were freed stayed alive. Many died after they started to eat too enthusiastically after the extended starvation. Because the Americans had brought fatty nourishments and others types of foodstuffs that harmed the unlucky people. The cemetery at Ebensee became fully occupied after a few days…

General Eisenhower, today[46] the President of the United States, came to the camp the day after the liberation. When he saw the prisoners, and the piles of corpses in the courtyard, his eyes filled with tears. He issued an order that all the German men in the town of Ebensee had to come to the camp and take care of the corpses. And the Mayor would be responsible that everything be done correctly.

Within half an hour, all the German men from the town were in the camp and started to look after the dead. They started to justify themselves, that they never knew about this camp. They had heard that there were workers in the camp, who received wages and food…The bastards! They immediately tried to pretend that they were innocent…

The problem was that the Americans wouldn't let us take our revenge out on them. They even punished us for any act of revenge that we took out on the Germans. We would walk around town, and we turned over any S.S. man that we recognized from the camp to the American Military Police.

I rested for two weeks to gain a little strength and went off to search for my wife and my relatives; maybe someone was left alive. I went through Austria and Germany. I looked through lists of survivors but, to my great anguish, I could find neither relatives, acquaintances, nor townspeople.

After three months of wandering, I came to Sierpc, and there I found my wife. At the outbreak of the Holocaust, we agreed if something unusual happened, and we stayed alive, we would meet in Sierpc, and that is what happened.

There were four Jews in Sierpc then. When I was walking down a street, I met a Gentile who recognized me and was surprised that I was still alive. He asked me, “You're still alive? This jolly group will never be lost.” He was simply sick at heart that he saw another Jew left alive.

We could not stay in Sierpc. I saw Warshawska Street paved over with headstones from the cemetery. As long as I was far away from the town, I did not feel the pain of the great calamity that we had undergone. Everything was lost. No parents, no brothers or sisters, no acquaintances or neighbors or friends. All we saw were empty lots where there once were Jewish houses. The Gentiles had taken over the stores, standing there and selling things, as if it all were theirs; as if there had never been a Jewish community here…

We stayed in the town for four days. From there we returned to West Germany, which was under American occupation, and then we came to Palestine in 1946. We have put down roots in Israel, but we will never be able to forget what we went through in those terrible years of the war, what the German Amalek did to us. May it be cursed forever!

[Facing Page 512]

 

sie512a.jpg
sie512c.jpg
[Notice – ]
Pinchas Walcman (“Pinia the Painter”)
Murdered when he Rushed to Save the Synagogue from the Conflagration
Rivkah Tatz (Ika Richter)
Active in the Underground Resistance Who Aided Children and Adults in France

 

sie512b.jpg
Attorney Yehoshua Podskoc
Active in the Underground Resistance
Who aided children in the Warsaw Ghetto

 

sie512d.jpg
sie512e.jpg
Hanna Kaufman
Murdered While Bringing Weapons into the Warsaw Ghetto
Isser Czeslak
(Asher Ben-Mordecai)
Fell in Battle in the War of Independence in Northern Israel

 

[Facing Page 513]

 

sie513a.jpg
A Partisan – Drawing by Avraham Meiron (Marantz)

 

sie513b.jpg
A Group of Illegal Immigrants from the Sierpc Survivors in Cyprus[47]

Right to Left:
First Row: Zvi Lehrer, -- --, -- --, Filinger
Standing: Birnbaum, Binem Mai, -- --, -- --, David Frank, the wife of S.L., Shlomo Lewinsky

 


Translator's Footnotes

The list of translator's endnotes (inside of square [] brackets to indicate that they are not part of the original text.:

  1. [Polish Parliament] Return
  2. [Obóz Zjednoczenia Narodowego (Camp of National Unity) – a Polish right-wing Anti-Semitic party.] Return
  3. [So called “inspectors” who enforced the boycott.] Return
  4. [A house of study and worship] Return
  5. [The chief administrator of the county] Return
  6. [See “Institutions and Activists” (page 61) in this Yizkor Book.] Return
  7. [Madrid had been the first city ever to undergo sustained aerial bombardment, by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War.] Return
  8. [Ethnic Germans living in Poland who formed an armed militia at the beginning of the German occupation.] Return
  9. [The German district occupation authority.] Return
  10. [Under the terms of a non-aggression treaty signed between the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany shortly before the war (The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact), Poland was divided between the two countries.] Return
  11. [Town hall] Return
  12. [The “General Government” was what the Germans called those sections of Poland that were not annexed to the German Reich, but under German occupation.] Return
  13. [A book of legends and sayings of the ancient wise men.] Return
  14. [The minimum number of 10 men required for a Jewish prayer service.] Return
  15. [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] Return
  16. [A man who was a ritual slaughterer of kosher meat] Return
  17. [Burial Society] Return
  18. [“Chapters of the Fathers” - a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period.] Return
  19. [Homiletic stories told by Jewish rabbinical sages to explain passages in the Bible] Return
  20. [The acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, an 11th century sage who wrote an extensive commentary on the Talmud and Bible.] Return
  21. [The parts of the Talmud that are the rabbinical commentaries on the earlier sections of the Talmud which are called Mishna.] Return
  22. [The ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath day.] Return
  23. [The king of the Jews] Return
  24. [Leader of the Jews] Return
  25. [Head of the town council] Return
  26. [The departure point for the camps in the Warsaw Ghetto] Return
  27. [The term “transport” is used throughout this chapter by the author as a noun referring to groups of Jews who were sent together to camps by the Germans; it was the accepted term in Yiddish and Hebrew. The office responsible for getting the Jews from one place to another was the German Ministry of Transport.] Return
  28. [Penitential poems and prayers usually said before the High Holidays.] Return
  29. [A Jewish concept of a supreme rabbinical court that can influence the decisions of the heavenly court presided over by God himself.] Return
  30. [A court convened in ancient Israel to determine religious laws and edicts. The reference here is to the judges. The lesser Sanhedrin had 23 Judges, and there was such a court in every town in ancient Israel] Return
  31. [The Jewish units in the death camps that were forced to do the work of disposing of the corpses.] Return
  32. [The German term for a military type unit; it was the basic unit of organization for slave laborers in the camps.] Return
  33. [This was a unit that collected the belongings of the victims and took them to a warehouse facility for sorting and shipping back to Germany.] Return
  34. [Block leader – a prisoner] Return
  35. [Room leader – a prisoner] Return
  36. [The Political Unit for the Registration of Arrivals] Return
  37. [Birkenau was the death camp inside of Auschwitz.] Return
  38. [The Jewish prayer for the dead.] Return
  39. [A work supervisor who was a prisoner.] Return
  40. [Chief S.S. officer in the camp.] Return
  41. [Delousing room] Return
  42. [The term used in the original Hebrew text is selektsia, which is obviously not originally a Hebrew word, but comes from English or German. In Hebrew, it is used almost exclusively to denote the process by which individual Jews were chosen by the Germans to live or die. In the English translation here, “selection” always appears inside double quotation marks.] Return
  43. [The word means Muslim in Yiddish and German, but was used in the camps as a derogatory term for those who looked like living skeletons.] Return
  44. [The Amalekites were the chief ancient nemesis of the Hebrew tribes, known in the Bible for their viciousness, ruthlessness, and tyranny.] Return
  45. [Delousing] Return
  46. [This Yizkor book was published in 1960.] Return
  47. [After World War II and prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, the British government forbade Jewish emigration to Palestine. Jews who were captured on ships trying to run the British blockade were interned in camps in Cyprus.] Return

 

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