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10. The Wild Action

On 21-22 October 1942 (10-11 Heshvan 5703), Skalat endured the bloody tragedy which the Jews of our town called the “Wild Action,” because of the cruelty and savagery with which the brutes carried out the 'deportation' during those two days.

Precisely at 4:00 AM, five busloads of armed and helmeted SS-men pulled into Skalat. They surrounded the town, and then waited calmly until the break of dawn. Three shots were the signal to start the 'action.' Soon the air was filled with the wild cries and unintelligible bellows of the group-leaders and commanders. The Germans stood in full battle order, arranged in groups, strategically placed as though in a planned military maneuver. They behaved as though the “enemy” responsible for starting World War II and threatening the Third Reich were the Jews of Skalat, including the women and children. “Forward! Let no one escape! If they run then shoot -and shoot - and shoot again!”

All of the soldiers had, earlier, received rations of alcohol, which were provided before every 'action,' as though to assure better results and make the 'work' easier, bolder and wilder. The Ukrainian militia, led by its Kommandant, stood to the side in two long rows, awaiting orders from the Obersturmbannfuhrer, who assigned two or three Ukrainian militiamen to each group of German SS-men. “Listen, fellows, work faithfully for the sake of our Ukraine and for the glory of the Third Reich,” the Kommandant called, leading his men forward.

The shouting and shooting roused the shtetl from sleep. The people quickly realized that disaster had struck. Terror and turmoil reigned. People ran about, lost and terrified. Where does one hide? Where does one run? Most Jews did not have bunkers in their cellars and scurried to seek shelter with neighbors in shared hiding places - but by now it was too late. The Germans were running wild in the streets.

The newcomers had no hiding places at all. Some tried to escape, thinking that perhaps it might be possible to break through the ring, reach the “Aryan” side and hide somewhere in the open fields. They had nothing to lose and everyone could see their plight clearly.

Streets and alleys were filled with German and Ukrainian troops, rifles at the ready. They were strategically waiting at every wall. The continuous sound of shooting, the wild shouts from the Germans, the cries of children, the moans and groans of the wounded - all combined into a terrible cacophony. Other Jews still tried to escape, as the soldiers fired at them ceaselessly. The death toll rose minute by minute. Over one hundred fell in the first moments of the slaughter, and the corpses were left lying in the streets all around the town. Only a few actually succeeded in escaping the siege. As the desperate running came to an end, the shooting quieted down. Now the wild killers set out to grab victims from their homes. Jews hid wherever they could, but the majority, lacking hiding places, and without hope or help, remained in place. They surrendered to their fate.

By now there were almost 150 victims. The bloody prologue completed, the cutthroats turned to their main job. From the Houses of Study and Prayer they dragged the Jews and led them in groups to the shul, where they had already crammed in hundreds of others. They dragged their victims from houses, from attics, from cellars, from under beds, from closets, and from all the other mouse-holes. With curses and shouts, they led them to the collection point under a hail of whip lashes and with the prodding of gun butts. One woman, Tonka Bernhaut, while being driven to the shul, screamed curses at Hitler and his 'Master Race.' The German leading her would not tolerate the vilification. He drew his revolver and shot her, shooting again when she attacked him with her fists.

As the 'action' progressed, Obersturmbannfuhrer Muller made a deal with the leaders of the Judenrat and the Kommandant of the Jewish police, Dr. Josef Brif, to take an active part in the 'action.' He solemnly promised that they and their families would be spared. The Jewish police and some individual Judenrat members quickly turned to their assigned work. Their main task was to help uncover the bunkers

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and other hiding places. In the meantime, they got Muller to agree to release those Judenrat members and their families who had been caught at the start of the 'action.' They were quickly released.

The work proceeded under full steam. By noon the shul was packed with over a thousand victims. Obersturmbannfuhrer Muller and his aide, Leks, were very pleased with their Jewish helpers and did, in fact, spare the relatives of the council-members. The Jewish helpers justified their actions with the view that since all was lost, one must, at the very least, save one's own life and the lives of one's nearest. Neither Nirler nor the Jewish police Kommandant, wearing riding breeches and highly polished boots, shirked at their tasks. Just like the Germans, they ran about in their shirtsleeves, cuffs rolled back, redfaced, sweating and excited wielding riding crops. They ran helter-skelter, along with the manic German and Ukrainian butchers, from house to house, from attic to attic, from cellar to cellar - dragging, tearing, beating and screaming like wild animals in imitation of their experienced masters.

It was characteristic that these Germans, virtuosos of atrocity and brutality, were simultaneously cowards. They even feared children who might put their eyes out in vengeance. If such a German had to search some hole in a cellar or an attic, he would send in a Jew while he stood outside, safe from attack. Some Jews would, indeed, uncover hiding places and drag out their own.

In a relatively short time the Germans managed to dehumanize their victims and some Jews did not escape the brutalization forced on them by the killers. The will to live, no matter how tragic the conditions were, perhaps explains the shroud of iniquity and cruelty which covers the mounds of corpses. “Meyer, Meyer! Do all that you can so that we may live! “ - pleaded the mother-in-law of the infamous Nirler at that time. In this light it was proper to do almost anything to save one's own, even if it meant sending thousands of others to death. And both the mother-in-law and son-in-law did survive.

The 'action' went on. The shul was packed: even the ante-room and the women's balcony. The officers of the 'action' were forced to take out many people to make room for the newly-arrived captives. Under heavy guard, groups of wretched victims were taken to a wet meadow near the railroad station where the soil had always been soggy because of the swamps which once covered the area.

On the first day of the 'action' 2,000 Jews were captured. Conditions in the shul became intolerable. Scores of swaddled children, some in sacks and some wrapped in sheets, lay, scattered, on the stone floor of the ante-room. They whined and cried ceaselessly. Infants screamed for their mothers' breasts. They shivered with cold and nervously tossed about their arms and legs. No one paid attention to them. Their own mothers had left them to God's mercies as they themselves ran to hide. For who would admit a mother and screaming child into a bunker? And how could one run with a child in one's arms? The youngest infants were forgotten in the great madness of the stampede. But the executioners didn't forget them...they shot them on the spot or brought them to the shul in little sacks.

The sanctuary was packed. No one was permitted to leave: not even to attend to bodily needs. Soon the stench became overpowering. None of this prevented the crowd from praying: people murmured prayers, recited Psalms, offered confessions. Motie Perlmuter wailed verses and the congregation repeated them in response. The cries and sobs of hysterical women rose from all sides. Most of the captives no longer had faith in the possibility of rescue. Many were sadly silent, biting their lips. Most of the older children understood what was happening but tried to keep their spirits up. They bore their pain and woe quietly and stoically, with a determination beyond their years. “What could be the sin of such little flowers?” someone in the crowd called out. There was no reply.

The 'action' continued to rage in the town. Then scores of soldiers surrounded the Shul and the last groups captured during the day were brought to the meadow that evening. The quota that had been set by the Tarnopol Gestapo had not yet been filled. Three shots, fired in rapid succession, was the signal for a break, and the SS gang headed off to enjoy themselves at the Judenrat office, where a celebration had been prepared. Liquor, whiskey, wine and eggnog flowed like water. There were roasted and marinated meats, cakes and pastries. Pretty girls were also present. The caterers of the Judenrat busied themselves

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at the richly adorned tables, slavishly dancing attendance on the guests as though they were monarchs. Laughter was heard, music played: the night passed in song, dance and joy. All of this while 2,000 people suffered in the heat of the packed shul and in the cold of the meadow by the railroad.

On the second day, Thursday 22 October, capturing victims became more difficult. Nevertheless the required additional 1,000 victims, plus a surplus, were collected. Scores of bunkers were uncovered that day, some of them sheltering from sixty to seventy people.

Terrible scenes occurred in the meadow near the railroad station, where the victims were gathered. Everyone had to remain in a kneeling position. If someone moved, he was savagely beaten by the Ukrainian Hitlerites. Limbs ached and grew as numb as logs. The weeping of women and children pierced one's ears. Scattered about the very center of the large clearing lay scores of tiny children, pleading and crying. The weather was autumnal: bleak and cold. Night fell abruptly, heavy and dark. Bonfires blazed on all sides of the square, illuminating the terrible scene. The Ukrainians had built the fires for warmth and to keep a closer watch on the Jews. Constant firing into the air was another warning to those considering escape. The wretched victims lay down on the damp earth; hunger, cold and deathly fear coursed through the very blood in their veins.

By morning, many people were frozen and too weak to stand. Part of the crowd was almost naked, having been dragged from bed in their underwear. The people were miserable, staring blankly and hardly recognizable. They had already resigned themselves to their fate. Still, at times, some individuals tried to escape, although they were rarely successful. The Hitlerite guards shot down the escapees, and the toll of the dead and/or seriously wounded grew higher and higher. A few did manage to escape, but most were caught and returned by peasants without a conscience. Bloodied corpses were strewn about. Hundreds of peasant onlookers stood around, ostensibly watching sympathetically, but actually enjoying the Jewish agony.

All of the people in the shul were brought to the meadow in the afternoon of the second day. With the arrival of the last group of captives, at around 7:00 PM, the count stood at over 3,000. This, apparently, was the Gestapo's assigned quota. The full complement of German, Ukrainian and Jewish participants now gathered at the train station for the new task of transporting the victims.

Part of the Judenrat was otherwise engaged in town: making preparation for a farewell banquet for the Tarnopol SS-men. But some of the Jewish police were still busy, trying to effect a last-minute rescue of some of the Judenrat members' families, who had been swept up among the captives. The main intercessions were made on behalf of Dr. Gutman, bookkeeper Moshe Sas of Tarnoruda and Dr. Finkelstein of Podwoloczyska. The Judenrat negotiated the matter with Muller and Leks, the Gestapo representatives. The chief was in a very bad mood and kept cursing and shouting. As far as he was concerned the 'action' was finished. But the members of the Judenrat were determined to save them, regardless of the cost and therefore they kept interceding. “For every Jew I free, bring me 25 others,” Muller demanded, thinking this would make them desist.

“At your command, Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer!” replied a Judenrat member, who promptly turned to the police and gave the appropriate orders. Some of the Jewish police set off through the streets, with renewed energy, to uncover another bunker somewhere and to supply, quickly, the needed number of people. But after half an hour's raging through the town, they were barely able to gather up a total of 25 people. The German, Muller, stared in amazement at his Jewish “assistants.” He dismissed only Dr. Gutman and his family and the bookkeeper, Sas. He would not free any others. He shouted and swore and would not listen to another word. The Ukrainian militiamen drove the newly-captured Jews into the human mass.

The last death negotiation ended the 'action.'

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The system of trading Jews for other Jews was a usual practice for the Judenrat. The councilmen were always ready to do business for large sums. In addition there were always favorites and dignitaries to look after.

A locomotive pulled empty freight-cars up to the station platform and the command was given to load up the victims. The soldiers drove the Jews into the cars. Amid shouts and blows, groups of l00 to 200 were crammed into each of the cars. The dead were also tossed in and included in the count. The cars were sealed and boarded up. In one hour's time, the long train was ready to depart.

At 9:00 PM, the transport moved out, leaving behind a bloody meadow, over which various items of clothing were strewn haphazardly. An army of peasants, with baskets and sacks, quickly attacked these “spoils.” But this scene offended the aesthetic sense of the Germans: “Such bloody swine!” they shouted, and the peasants ran off quickly.

Obersturmbannfuhrer Muller and his aide, Leks, heartily thanked the Ukrainian Kommandant and his men for their devoted collaboration as well as the Jewish police, who stood drawn up in ranks like the strings on an instrument. They, in turn, saluted the departing German guests from Tarnopol, who rapidly climbed aboard their large buses. The Obersturmbannfuhrer, his aide, and the rest of the higher functionaries were seated in their limousines. Leks stuck his head out of the side window, stared coldly at the group of Jewish councilmen, and called out: “Auf Wiedersehn! We should return in four weeks!” He smiled sadistically and suddenly called out: “Come here, Ober Jude.” [47]

Nirler stepped forward, listened to a few words and answered: “At your command, Herr Chef!”[48]

The limousines drove to the Judenrat offices, where the Gestapo-men spent another hour. They had time for a toast, a light supper and to receive attractive gifts before departing.

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11. After the Devil's Dance

The day after the “Wild Action,” the shtetl was a shambles. Houses were ravaged and in ruins. Corpses of murdered Jews lay in the streets in every part of town. Jews, by now experienced in survival, were afraid to leave their hiding places. The first of those who had hidden, did not appear until just before noon. Only a handful from among the 3,000 victims of the 'action' had managed to escape. Those who survived had been hidden in bunkers and other places or had been able to find refuge in the fields and forests outside the ghetto.

Hesitantly, people began to search for others. Wives sought their husbands; brothers their sisters; a mother her child. The small number of survivors were now a group of newly made orphans, widows and other lonely and broken souls. All of the 153 corpses found in the streets had been shot. As they were being buried, the survivors stood about as though frozen. Everyone knew that the catastrophe was not yet over: “We will return in four weeks,” the murderers had said as they left and there was no reason to doubt their word.

In the bunkers of Skalat where the Jews had hidden, events took place that were beyond imagining. People told of seeing mothers suffocate their own children, to prevent them from crying and thus betraying dozens of others hidden there. And, in fact, many hiding places were discovered because of the sobbing of children. Some mothers used sleeping potions such as veronal to quiet their thirsty and starving children. Sometimes it happened that the dose was too strong and the children were silenced forever. There were more than twenty such incidents. People had been jammed into the bunkers like herring in a barrel, without air, without water and without food. When the 'action' was over, they emerged dazed and exhausted. Their loved ones were gone, their houses pillaged, and they found themselves at a loss as to what to do next.

The Judenrat and others who worked with the Germans during the Devil's Dance were still dazed by their experiences and for days were unable to gain their equilibrium. The bloody scenes of the gruesome 'action' continued to play out before their eyes and their deeds gnawed at their consciences. They tried to bury their guilt in a flurry of diversions. Duty called daily business matters needed attention and the Judenrat began to function as before. It was simple reckoning: the fact that the Germans had spared the members of the Judenrat during the 'action' was the clearest indication they intended some kind of Jewish settlement to remain in Skalat and that something would yet be required of them. With these ideas they consoled themselves and others and turned to their work with renewed vigor “for the sake of the community.”

Meanwhile, some of the Jews who had jumped off the train began to filter back. They reported that many people had jumped to escape. The transport guards shot down most of the escapees firing on both sides of the railroad tracks which led toward Lwow. Those who had succeeded in escaping spent the following weeks wandering in the fields and on the roads, in rain and cold. Peasants with no conscience or pity robbed many of them and then turned them over to the Schupo or the Ukrainian militia, from whose hands no one emerged alive. Some fifty of these skotchkes[49] made it back to town.

It was reported that the Skalat transport had stopped in Lwow, where the Germans performed a selection. Two hundred young men and women were sent, as laborers, to the Lwow forced-labor, extermination camp on Janowska Road. All the others were ordered to undress (to keep them from escaping) and taken in sealed boxcars to Belzec, the notorious extermination camp for Galician Jews.

At that time, I myself was in the Lwow Ghetto. By 12 December 1942, when I was dragged to the Janowska Camp, I found two of my townsfolk still there: Mordechai Tennenbaum and Yekele Berger. They told me that all the others from Skalat had perished during the “cleansing” that Wilhaus had

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conducted there. The “cleansings” were carried out via the so-called 'death races' which were marches around the large mustering square. The Jewish inmates were forced to run around the square at top speed. Whoever tripped or fell behind was dragged aside by the SS-men and, in camp terminology, were used as “fuel” for the crematory ovens in Belzec. These selections took place every few weeks. At times the Germans would vary the game by shooting into the running crowd. Scores would drop like flies. For the Germans this was a favorite diversion.

And that was the sum total of the “Wild Action” in Skalat, and its 3,153 victims. But this was not yet the end of the near-Biblical punishment awaiting Skalat.

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12. N.Z.L. (NIZL)

“NIZL” is not a mystical or symbolic designation, although in Ashkenazic Hebrew it means 'rescue.' In our town, the letters were the initials of Nirler, Zimrner, and Lempert, who were the pillars of the Skalat Judenrat. They thought of themselves as the protectors or saviors of the Jews and, indeed, their intimates and friends considered them their 'guardian angels.' It was the general population who began calling the Judenrat “NIZL,” which, for some indicated wishful thinking, for a few hope, but for most irony, disappointment and distrust.

While the Jewish population of Skalat was still in shock from the “Wild Action,” the Kripo[50] wandered among the empty Jewish homes, collecting all the household items, such as furniture clothing and valuables, to be sorted in the huge warehouses that formerly belonged to Bishel & Co., the egg export firm. The Judenrat was required to provide dozens of workers daily to sort these belongings of the deported Jewish families. Furniture overflowed the warehouses and was piled up outdoors, where it was exposed to the elements for a long time.

A few days after the “Wild Action,” on 25 October 1942, the Tarnopol Gestapo ordered the Skalat town commissioner Ellenburg to reduce, immediately, the area of the ghetto and the Judenrat were required to participate in tightening the ring. More than three thousand Jews were compressed into a small area of the town. The Jewish Ordinungsdienst maintained regular patrols around the perimeter of the Jewish section, since crossing the line was punishable by death. Similarly, non-Jews were forbidden to enter the ghetto. Despite these restrictions, village peasants sneaked in to sell their wares at greatly inflated prices. The Judenrat and the Jewish police were exempt from these laws and were permitted to move freely. Some of them even lived outside of the ghetto. The NIZL's work fell into a routine. They were doing business and generally leading an easier life than their brothers in the ghetto. No one in their families had yet perished. During that difficult time, living was far easier for those who could lay claim to privilege and/or authority. Characteristic of this situation was the ditty that children would chant about a Judenrat member, Leibisz Degen, who lived a relatively normal existence with his family, was assured an income and, so far, suffered no hardships. A pious soul and not a mean person, and although a Judenrat member, no victims suffered at his hands. He kept repeating his simple, innocent refrain: “Dear God, as long as it doesn't get worse!” The children would chase after him through the street, chanting in a mixture of Polish and Yiddish: “Leibisz Degen cries loud and far Let things stay at least as they are!” How much tragedy and irony is reflected in that bit of doggerel!

The Skalat Jews were painfully aware of their danger. They felt themselves caught in a prison from which there was no escape. Day and night people were obsessed with one concern: where to find a secure bunker. And, indeed, they spent their nights building new hiding places, new mouse-holes. A few of the better off Jews paid fortunes for arrangements to hide with Christian families in town or in the villages.

Jews lived in constant terror. Fear of new slaughters denied them rest. Crowding, poor sanitation and sewage led to outbreaks of typhus, grippe, diphtheria and other previously rare diseases. The mortality rate kept rising. Rumors about forthcoming 'actions,' abounded. The German town commissioner was alleged to have declared that Skalat must be made as Judenrein as all the neighboring towns and villages and that Jews would not be allowed to live because they had been declared “war criminals”. It was said that only young, Jewish people, capable of work and confined to forced-labor camps, would be permitted to exist.

All of these second-hand reports produced confusion and increased panic. The Judenrats demanded bigger and bigger payments from the Jewish population to cover the communal needs, and especially the bribes for the Germans, the Ukrainians and the Kripo. The NIZL traveled regularly to

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Tarnopol to see what they could learn from their contact man. Each time, though, they returned disappointed and still more confused - not knowing what to do. They had finally become convinced of the Germans' deceitful ways and also realized that there would soon be an end to keeping their own heads above water. At the same time, the Judenrat was required to provide contingents of laborers for the surrounding camps in: Borki- Wielkie, Romanovka, Stupka, Kamionka, etc., under the command of Obersturmbannfuhrer[51] Rebel. By then the camps were filled with thousands of Jews and Russian POWs, who were dying from exhaustion, hunger and thirst, as well as the blows and beatings of the Germans. While there were no crematoria in those camps, the living conditions were not different from those in the more infamous death camps. Here the SS-men brought on death by shooting, hanging and torture. The most one could hope to survive was around three months. The unremitting drain of people resulted in the constant demand for replacements, which the Judenrats were required to supply on schedule.

Again the Jews had to hide to avoid capture for the camps. The NIZL demanded large sums to ransom people and often those ransomed were replaced by the poor. There even were cases when the NIZL captured elderly, well-to-do people as a way to extort money from them. This was how they captured my own sickly 62 year old father for the Kamionka Camp. My mother, who survived, reports:

“I went to Nirler and to Eliezer Schoenberg to get them to release my husband. There I was beaten mercilessly and left lying on the ground for over an hour, bloody and unconscious. Eight days later, through great effort, influence and the payment of 15,000 zlotys, I was able to ransom my husband – exhausted and broken - out of the Kamionka Camp.”

This was the situation in the shtetl before the “Little Action,” which took place twenty days after the “Wild Action.”

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13. The Little Action

Because the 'action' of 9 November 1942 was more limited in scope than the earlier 'action,' claiming only 1, l00 victims, it came to be known as the “Little Action.”

Once again, unbelievable though it may now seem, there had been predictions of a miraculous salvation, over the previous two weeks. Mordechai Melamed, in a dream, saw his grandfather (peace to his soul) dressed in a festive white robe and wearing his talis[52] and tefillin.[53] His grandfather told him to prepare a celebration because on the 29th day of Heshvan, the Jews would be rescued! Salvation was at hand! Mordechai Melamed, a poor man all of his life, sold his last shirt, bought honey cake and liquor, had his wife prepare a Sabbath-kugel[54]and invited all the neighbors to share the bounty and the blessings. He was overjoyed to be the harbinger of the salvation that was to come soon.

But 29 Heshvan 5703 was the day of the “Little Action,” in which Mordechai Melamed and his family were among the victims. At dawn on 9 November 1942 the shtetl was surrounded by troops of the Tarnopol SS-men, under the command of Reinisch. They proceeded with their task in the manner now familiar from the earlier 'action.' Again they were joined in the 'action' by the Ukrainian militia and the Polish-Ukrainian Kripo, as well as the Jewish police. The Judenrat still had enough influence to be able to rescue some relatives and close friends.

The raids lasted until noon when Reinisch realized that the shul, again the collection-point for the victims, was jammed with more than the assigned quota of 1,000 Jews. He selected 100 young and strong looking victims and had them shipped to the Hluboczek Concentration Camp, from which none returned.

The SS troops, their Ukrainian collaborators and the Jewish police stood around the shul, awaiting further orders. At 12:30 five large trucks from the Otto Heil company drew up. The Germans and the Ukrainians lined a path, forming a gauntlet from the door of the synagogue to the trucks, through which Jewish police would lead groups of twenty victims at a time. On their way through this gauntlet, the victims were brutally beaten, especially the aged and the women, who could not climb quickly enough aboard the high tailgates. Such savage beatings were supposed to facilitate the cramming of one hundred people, like sardines, into each truck. Five trucks, fully packed with screaming and sobbing people, soon departed for Tarnopol. Two hours later the empty trucks returned for the remaining victims. At the Tarnopol railway station, all of the captives were ordered to sit in the snow and anyone who stood up or moved was shot. Many among them, shivering from the cold, were only half-dressed or still in their nightclothes.

On that same day, there were 'actions,' in Tarnopol itself, as well as in Zbaraz. Newly-caught victims were constantly being added to the crowd. Some 5,000 people had been brought to the railway station from all those places. Railroad cars were drawn up to load and take the Jews away. The assembly point was surrounded by SS-men, Schupo, Kripo and the Ukrainian auxiliary police -all gathered to herd the collected “cattle,” as they described their Jewish victims. Some “kindhearted” SS-men, who could not stand the sight of tiny children shivering in the cold or huddling on the ground, nor the sound of their crying, would grab the little creatures in one hand and shoot them. They then threw the bleeding corpse aside, like a slaughtered bird.

Soon the loading of the assembled human mass began. Some SS-men drove the crowd into the open freight cars while other SS-men selected able-bodied men from the crowd and held them aside, although many of those selected did not want to part from their families. Tragic scenes occurred: hesitations, tears and mournful farewells. German whips or bullets quickly put an end to such tenderness,

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cutting short their final leave-taking. Some young men left the assembly place of the “lucky ones” at the last moment and joined their families in the freight cars. Of the two hundred people who were picked, half were assigned to the concentration camp in Hluboczek, and the rest to Kazimirowka, near Zborow. Among those selected were a score of Jews from Skalat, in addition to the one hundred youths who had previously been selected in Skalat for the Hluboczek Camp.

The entire trainload, including the Skalat Jews, went directly from Tarnopol to Belzec, the infamous extermination camp. During the trip from Skalat to Tarnopol and then the train ride to Belzec, several dozen Jews managed to leap free, but only a few lived to return to Skalat.

On the day after the “Little Action,” just as after the “Wild Action,” people remained in their hiding places, afraid to come out. Dead bodies were scattered in several places, many of them children who had tried to jump from windows and were shot like birds in flight. The brutalities during this 'action' were much the same as those of the previous 'action,' only the tempo was faster, allowing completion by noon. Again, the members of the Judenrat were not touched. They lived in a separate block, which the Germans bypassed in exchange for substantial bribes. A large group of victims of the “Little Action,” about 25 percent, were children, a significant portion of the adult population having been taken earlier in the “Wild Action.” Most of the young people had already been shipped to the camps around Skalat.

Again the survivors in the shtetl were left dazed: many found themselves alone, having lost their families. These people now preferred to be in the camps where they hoped to survive longer, and began to volunteer for 'deportation'. The Judenrat took advantage of this, demanding high fees for the privilege of going to one camp or another. In addition, there was a rumor that the situation had improved in the Kamionka Camp where the Judenrat was said to have bribed Obersturmbannfuhrer Rebel to ease somewhat the torturing of Jews. They supposedly also negotiated with him to establish a camp in Skalat itself, so that they might remain in town in the event the ghetto was to be fully liquidated.

A German officer, one Hauptsturmfuhrer[55]Bischoff, arrived from Tarnopol to confiscate all the Jewish belongings left after the latest 'action.' Under his direction, Jews were ordered to gather all the furniture and household goods from the empty Jewish dwellings and bring them to the big warehouses, where they were sorted as before. A few days later it was all carried off to Tarnopol.

With great effort, and a large bribe of gold, the Judenrat succeeded in getting Obersturmbannfuhrer Rebel to establish the Skalat Camp (described later). His first orders were to establish within the camp a “demolition squad” in order to raze Jewish homes. The lumber and other building materials were to be gathered and made available to the Gentile population. They were to begin with the old Picynia section in the market square, to be followed by all the other Jewish dwellings which, after the 'actions' and slaughters, now stood empty. Peasants roamed through the Jewish ruins, digging deep into the cellars, in search of legendary Jewish treasures. The City Council obtained official permission from Ellenburg, the German town commissioner, to sell the salvaged building materials, from the demolished Jewish dwellings. The peasants were able to buy these at very low prices, paying from 100 to 200 zlotys per house. After making such a purchase, the peasants would methodically take apart the Jewish houses, carrying the materials back to their villages where they would use them for their own construction projects. The very center of the town was leveled and the appearance of Skalat was changed beyond recognition.

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14. Aryan Papers

When talk began to circulate about the complete liquidation of the ghetto and each day Jewish survival became ever more difficult and hopeless, people began to seek new ways to save themselves. They began to focus their attention on “Aryan Papers.”

If someone had a “good mug,” i.e., a face with non-Semitic features, one could begin to think about trying to pass as an Aryan. Such a possibility was out of the question in a small town where everyone knew everyone else. For that purpose, people traveled to distant cities where, for the most part, they registered as volunteer laborers to Germany. The roles that people were forced to play on the “Aryan” side demanded imagination and ingenuity. Jews were working as German officials and in private institutions. They disguised themselves as priests, beggars, chimney sweeps, city toughs and street cleaners. Women passed primarily as maids and nurses and young girls worked in hospitals, school dormitories and nunneries. Hundreds of nets were constantly being spread by agents, informers or extortionists in efforts to catch these “impostors,” and the number of victims turned over to the Germans by these criminals was very large. Nevertheless, a handful managed to pass the stringent ordeal. Someday these experiences will be remembered by weavers of Gothic tales, retelling their suspenseful stories.

In 1942, a dentist named Dr. Jan Slota settled in Skalat. He practiced there and developed a large circle of patients. Some time later, his wife bore a son. As was the custom, the baptism at the church was a major celebration. Eventually, an informant revealed that Dr. Slota was a Jew. His case was first referred to a medical commission, which confirmed that his documents were all in order. He even had a paper attesting that as a result of a venereal disease, he had been circumcised for medical reasons. This did not suffice, however. The suspect was sent to the Gestapo in Tarnopol for a more thorough investigation. He never returned.

His wife, realizing that they had been unmasked, quickly handed her infant over to a Polish woman, paying her a large sum to hide the child while she herself disappeared. Within a few days, the SS-men arrived from Tarnopol to arrest her. Unable to find her, they sealed the dwelling and, within a week, all the contents of the house were confiscated. The whole town buzzed with the tale of the audacious Jew. It was also resented by the Christian woman who was hiding the child. One day she bundled up the child and took it, herself, to the Security Police. “This is a Jewish child,” she said. “It was left with me by Dr Slota's wife before she ran away.” Security Policeman Paul, appreciating the noble act of the Christian woman, immediately rendered what he deemed a “just decision.” He seized the infant by its feet and swung its head against a tree. This barbaric act was apparently unexpected by the God-fearing woman, who began to withdraw quickly. “Come back!” the German called to her. “Take this away...I'm not an undertaker.”

The mother of the child wandered about for some time in Tarnopol, amid enemies and false friends, barely avoiding starvation. She only held on to the will to live for the sake of her child. When she learned that her child was no longer alive, she decided to end her own life by identifying and turning herself in to the Gestapo. “You killed my husband...you killed my child...now kill me too.” They obliged her.

There was another case in Skalat which caused an uproar. For some time a high German official named Beltzen had lived in town and was the agricultural inspector for the entire region. He had shown great ability in his work, had an outstanding reputation with the authorities, and was in close contact with the higher German civilian, police and military officials. He established a magnificent home and led the life of a prince in the former dwelling of Joel Bauer, one of the nicest Jewish houses in town. He rode to all the farms in a carriage drawn by splendid horses and gave orders to all his subordinates who trembled at his glance.

One day a peasant, who had served with him in the army, recognized Beltzen as a former Polish cavalry officer with the rank of Rotmistrz. Suspicions quickly arose that Beltzen might actually be a Jew,

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and a secret investigation was begun. When the Security Police arrived to take him to Tarnopol, he welcomed them with whiskey and wine, saying that the weather was cold and the trip back would be colder, so fortification was necessary. The Security Police were fortified and somewhat tipsy. Meanwhile Beltzen harnessed the horses, donned an SS-man's uniform, took his eleven year old son, and fled. They searched for him all over, even posted “Wanted” bulletins - but they never caught him. Beltzen (or rather Benzel, which was his real name) at the time of this writing lives in the British Zone of Germany.

The German agricultural land commissioner, Hefner, had on his farm in Nowosiolka. a hired hand and the man's son of about seventeen. The farmhand, who was actually a Jew from the Stanislawow area, passed as a Gentile and worked on the farm for some time as a coachman. His work was quite satisfactory .In fact, he was considered to be an exemplary worker who specialized in raising pigs. One day, the peasants noticed that the driver's feet were too pale. They reasoned that a real peasant's feet weren't that pale, therefore he couldn't be a real peasant. Despite those suspicions, however, the peasants did not inform on him. When the Germans started to unmask “suspect Aryans,” the Jew began to fear discovery of himself and his son. They both disappeared and no one knows to this day what happened to them.

The former Wagner company in Skalat had long employed a young man from Lwow named Rubel, who was in charge of purchasing clover for the entire region. His real name was Polak. He had converted some years before and was married to a Ukrainian woman. When the Ukrainian police came to arrest him, he fled, but then in his panic, climbed up a tree from which the police shot him down.

A young Jew, apparently from the town of Brody, worked as a bookkeeper in the Skalat division of the MTS shop.[56] He went under the name of Nabodny. The Security Police learned that he was a Jew, but he was lucky. When they came to arrest him, he was away on a business trip. The manager, Federovitch, informed him of the danger and so he escaped certain death. Nothing further is known of his fate.

For a while, the major activity in town among the Jews seemed to revolve around securing “Aryan Papers.” Meyer Grinfeld, about whom more will be told later, was very involved in securing such papers. Here is his testimony:

“When the 'actions,' intensified, it became clear that no one would be saved from death. I then began to think about ways to secure “Aryan Papers” for my wife and for others. Recalling that the files in the Town Hall contained the documents of emigres, I planned ways to get at those documents. I tried to establish contact with various officials, but none of them was bold enough for the task.

Time was growing short, so I decided to get to the files myself. Once inside the Town Hall, I located the documents and it occurred to me then and there that I could provide these papers to others, as well. I packed up original birth certificates, passes, citizenship certificates, etc., and I soon had a package weighing some 20 kilos (44 pounds), which I carried to the window, where I had left a ladder leaning against the building. I peeked out of the window and saw that the ladder was gone! Someone must have spotted it and taken it away.

I cannot describe the terror I felt, but I didn't dwell long on dark thoughts. I tried desperately to find an escape. until suddenly I realized that the guard (who lived near the town prefecture) had gone home. I waited half an hour more, then dropped the package out of the first story window and jumped after it. Fortunately I jumped well.

With the help of Yizkhak Bekman, a draftsman and engraver, we copied various official stamps, removed old photos from the documents, replaced them with new ones, and applied the proper stamps. In that way we set up a factory for false papers. During the

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course of three months we created papers for over five hundred Jews. They came from Tarnopol,. Czortkow and even from Lwow. They came from all over eastern Poland. With the large volume of work I found it necessary to return to the Town Hall a few more times. Every document required tax stamps from the town government, for which I paid the town official, Czapkowski, 250 zlotys each. For my part, I accepted from 500 to 1,000 zlotys for a complete set of papers, although in many cases I gave them away free. There were even cases where I bore the travel expenses, too.

A typical story involved a man named Kowlentz, who came from Katowice, had been living in Skalat and wound up in camp. Kowlentz had managed to escape from camp and make his way to Warsaw. I was asked by Monias to make a pre-war Polish identity document for Kowlentz. He didn't ask for any other documents. Kowlentz needed the document when it was decreed in Poland that every Aryan Polish citizen must carry a “Kennkarte” (identity card), which he now had to obtain. When it came to filling out the forms, and lacking a birth certificate, he made up the first names of his parents on the spot: Joseph and Maria (since pre-war Polish identity documents did not list one's parents' first names). He now sent word to me that he needed a birth certificate with the indicated names shown as father and mother. While waiting, he worried about not getting the certificate and feared that I might be dead or at best that there simply wouldn't be a certificate available with the required names. How great, then, was his joy when he received the birth certificate from me and there, in black and white, were the names of his parents –

Father: Joseph. Mother: Maria. What a miracle!”

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15. Sobbing Graves

There was no end to the devastation. The horror-filled days of the now familiar 'actions,' and 'deportations' came one after another, with sporadic intervals between them. Each time people were brutally torn from the shtetl. At first it wasn't even known where the victims were being taken. The remaining number of Jews in our town dwindled steadily and yet, though the constant fear of death remained with them, those still living continued to believe in some miraculous rescue. Throughout that period, Jews tried to retain hope even when all seemed hopeless. They had faith in the inevitability of a miracle! .

After each 'action' was over, some of those who survived insisted that the tragedy had been a sacrifice which only God himself could understand and that now something good would have to happen. The arrival of the Messiah, they believed, is connected with suffering and renewal and that he is to come after days of audacity and injustice on Earth. But he is blessed who is sustained in faith and lives to see that blessed day which will come -which must come! It may seem strange and incredible but, as I have indicated earlier, before every slaughter there were dreams being interpreted and prophecies offered which, based on various signs and hints, foretold the exact day of salvation. Paradoxically, those very days turned out to be the days of the greatest 'actions,' and mass murders. As a result, during that time people used to say to each other: “Wish me anything - except salvation.”

The 'action' of the “Sobbing Graves” about to be recounted also coincided with one of those “days of salvation” that had been predicted for the Jews of our town.

This time it was Berl, the son of Benjamin Wolowycz (the well-known Rabbi and leader of the orthodox Agudat Yisroel party), who had calculated by cabalistic numerology that salvation would come on 2 Nissan 5703. Berl was a dreamy young man of about twenty, who embodied all of the virtues. He was sensitive, a gifted preacher, a master of prayer, of Torah-reading and of shofar-blowing, as well as a profound scholar and a mystic. He was also familiar with the modern sciences, such as mathematics, physics, astronomy and philosophy - a truly outstanding young Jew. During the worst times of the German occupation, when Jews were left moaning and bleeding after each disaster, Berl consoled everyone. Several times he and my father spent hours studying the Torah and the cabala, and every time they found in the Eternal Sources not only consolation but some deeper meanings for our tragic fate.

And now Berl had discovered in the cabala that 2 Nissan would be the great day - the revelation of the Great Secret! Berl's message came as a healing for heavy hearts, a balm on Jewish wounds. The shtetl breathed more easily. Hope filled the sorrowful souls and strengthened their spirits. It was no small thing: Berl the Rabbi's son, that great mystic and student of the Torah, had said it himself! And isn't it time that the One On High should show mercy to His Chosen People? Salvation must come! Incidentally, it was around that time that the Germans were suffering reverses in North Africa and it was also after the battle of Stalingrad. If the Ruler of the Universe were to provide the final push, there would be an end to our suffering! So the Jews waited impatiently, hoping for the coming of the blessed Second day in the month of Nissan. And finally, after much suspense the anticipated spring day arrived: 7 April 1943. The weather was sunny and fair, ideal for the fulfillment of the most beautiful dreams.

Suddenly the air was filled with the sound of gunfire, from afar and nearby. Frightened hearts knew that something terrible was happening. All of the previous slaughters had started in the same way.

On that day the order came down for the final extermination of the remaining Jews. The shtetl was to become Judenrein. Three trucks, jam-packed with SS-men had arrived from Tarnopol. Again they enlisted the aid of the local German garrison and the Ukrainian police. The shtetl was completely surrounded so that no one would escape. The murderers raced fiendishly through the streets and houses, like devils, searching for and dragging out people, pulling them by the hair and shooting at those who ran. Most of the people were too frightened and dazed and did not know where to run. “Come on, hurry or I'll

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shoot you!” the executioners shouted at their victims. After a half-day's rampage, nearly 700 Jews, men, women and children, were jammed into the shul. The building had by now become the usual assembly point during every 'action.' Among the prey was Berl, the Rabbi's son...

Some weeks earlier, the Jews in the camp had been ordered to dig three large pits in a field outside the town. They were told that the pits were to serve as depositories for phosphates to be used during the spring planting. It never occurred to any of the Jews that they were digging their own graves. On the contrary, they regarded the project as proof that they would be employed in the corning season, as they had been the year before. Now, though, in the shul, they understood the purpose of the pits.

The shul was so jammed that it was practically impossible to breathe. Packed as tightly as sardines, they waited in terror. Thoughts of death consumed them. Some recited the Psalms while others chanted confessional prayers. Some sobbed convulsively while others were as silent as stones. The shul was as hot as a furnace, sweat poured from everyone. Mouths were dry and tongues were leaden. “God in Heaven: be merciful!” Berl, the Rabbi's son, elbowed his way through the crowd and mounted the pulpit. Pounding for attention, he began to speak. “My masters, this is our Judgment Day. We are about to go to our death - but let us be strong. To die for the Sanctification of the Name is to attain forgiveness. We must not oppose His Judgment...”

He who had prophesied salvation for that very day now consoled the crowd with Holy Words, but he soon broke down. Choking back his tears, his voice grew weaker sounding like the spent murmur of a shofar - until nothing could be understood.

Sudden wild shouts from the Germans electrified the crowd. At the gate, SS-men began the preparations for the final march. Everyone's heart froze. The crowd grew quiet and in the silence that ensued it seemed that one could hear the approaching steps of the Angel of Death. The Germans renewed their shouting: “Juden raus![57] Juden raus!” People started pushing toward the exit as though to a rescue, because everyone yearned for a breath of air. Blows from gun-butts and blackjacks rained down on the heads of the condemned.

Once outside, the Jews were lined up in rows of five. Seven carts drew up, carrying the deathly ill patients and the staff from the Jewish hospital. The victims were counted. In the vestibule of the shul, there were ten infants lying. The police brought them out to be included in the count. The Gestapo Chief, Herman Muller, said they were not to be counted, they were just to be tossed into the carts among the sick.

Now the column began to move, accompanied by wild shouting. Guarded on all sides by about a hundred Germans and Ukrainians, the procession snaked through the winding, narrow streets of their town, leading to their own Golgotha. Along the way were crowds of bystanders, watching the condemned with glances of questionable pity. Moving as slowly as the very old, barely dragging their feet, the condemned filled with dread, walked mutely in their own funeral procession. Here and there tears fell. The carts loaded with the sick followed in the rear, with the infants sobbing ceaselessly. Shots were fired into the air regularly, warning everyone against attempting to escape.

The column came to a halt before the three open mass pits and the killers began to prepare for the bloody job. The Jews were made to form a square. The infants and the sick were placed to the side, on the ground. The eighteen Jewish policemen were forced to participate in the work, in exchange for a promise that their lives would be spared. .Then came the first command: “Take off all your clothes. Place your clothes in one pile!” The Jewish policemen drove the crowd to undress quickly. Those who resisted were brutally beaten. The ground was soon strewn with torn paper money, ripped up to prevent the bills from falling into the hands of the assassins. The cries of children mingled with the prayer-filled shouts of “Shmah Yisroel!”, as ghastly scenes took place, while the murderers wildly shouted “Faster! Faster'

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Faster!” The mound of clothing grew higher by the minute as men, women and children stood stark naked, shivering in the cold.

Berl, the Rabbi's son, stubbornly refused to undress. A German struck him several times in the head and he fell to the ground, bleeding. He was then kicked in the belly several times. He managed to stammer out a final “Shmah Yisroel!”, groaned and gave up his soul while lying on the pile of bloodied clothes. The Germans kicked the corpse over the edge of the pit from which there soon came the thud of Berl's fallen body. The Rabbi's son had triumphed at the mass graves: he was the first to fall at the hands of the murderers and now lay in his grave dressed in a red shroud. At his breast lay the phylacteries sack from which he never parted.

Janka Margolis, a Jewish beauty, also refused to undress. She was beaten to death but did not yield. The Jewish policeman, Kuba Migden, seeing his wife, child and mother-in-law standing naked and ready for death, voluntarily stood with them although, as a member of the police, he had been promised that he would be spared.

Some individuals, totally naked, fell to their knees before the killers, begging for mercy. Such pleas were answered with kicks to the head. The wealthiest man in Skalat, Joseph Tennenbaum, the landowner of the fields in which the slaughter was about to begin, pushed his way to the senior officer and implored his mercy in exchange for the treasure that he had buried somewhere. He was ready to lead the way to the treasure, when the blow of a gun-butt struck him down dead.

Suddenly the high school teacher, Rozia Pikholtz, began speaking to the naked crowd: “I call on you to maintain your courage: we die today as innocent people...”

“You are not people!” the SS Sturmfuhrer interrupted, dealing her a blow across the face. “Now you can go on speaking, you whore!”

The speaker continued, letting her anger at the German murderers and her pain pour out: “Don't think we are not enjoying vengeance...we know that your end is near. Whole forests of gallows await you!” This was more than the German could bear. A bullet pierced the heart of the naked speaker and her body fell to the ground. The crowd envied her the privilege of so painless a death.

Then came the next command. “Faster! Faster! Finish this off! Shoot them in groups of four!” First, over sixty infants and sick people were tossed alive into the pits, from which their cries arose. Ephraim Szpacirer, a policeman, threw his own two children into the pit and then jumped in after them. Then groups of four were lined up at the pits, one behind the other. Three SS-men fired a single pistol shot at each and, regardless of how the bullets struck, the victims were pushed into the grave -many of them still alive. As more bodies fell, the cries from the graves grew louder .

The bloody work went on for two hours without interruption. They sent for a machine gun to speed up the work, because the murderers were anxious to attend the prepared feast. This new murder weapon was equipped with long belts of bullets, and now groups of ten were placed at the edges of the graves to be cut down by the experienced killers, like ripe sheaves before the reaper's scythe. The machine gun spurted fire while the graves spurted fresh, warm blood. The piles of bodies grew larger in each of the graves. Cries of Shmah Yisroel! hung over them, mixing with the screams of the half-dead.

During this 'action,' the Germans had ordered the entire Judenrat and their families to report to the shul at 1:00 PM. Some members of the Council went into hiding but the rest, particularly the quieter and gentler among them, such as Dr. Izydor Kron, Yosl Loyfer, Nuchym Safir, Leibisz Degen, Yankef Sharf and their families became victims of the 'action.' They were forced to watch the whole slaughter and then to fill the graves and tramp down the bloody mounds of dirt on top of the still-moving people buried below. Finally they and the Jewish police were also lined up for the firing squad. Once again, horrendous scenes took place. Naked people fell at the feet of the Germans, who knew them, and begged for mercy. The Germans responded with derision and murderous beatings. The same machine gun that

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had wiped out the mass of Jews also put an end to the lives of the ghetto officials who had believed, right up to the last minute, that they would be spared.

While the unceasing cries from the graves continued, the Ukrainians filled the third grave with earth. Then the killers fell like locusts upon the clothes: patting every garment, searching and turning out each pocket, looking for “Jewish gold” and other valuables. They finally loaded the clothes into trucks and drove off, leaving a sacrifice of three fresh, heaving graves, that rose and fell like waves. Inside those graves, beneath the mounds of earth, human beings with limbs entangled and not yet dead, were tearing at and biting each other. These victims were being denied their final rest. The graves groaned and sighed. The next day the peasants in the nearby village heard the far-off sounds of human groans and cries. On the third day, passersby again heard the sobbing and were convinced that the sounds came from the humans, not yet fully dead, lying in the poorly covered graves.

A few peasants from the village of Nowosiolka found David Epstein and told him what they had heard and seen at the graves. They had recognized his seventeen year old daughter, whose head had emerged from the earth and was calling for help. People went over there and indeed found David Epstein's daughter alive, as well as two other children who showed signs of life. The children died the next day. The girl, however, survived another week and told what had occurred under the earth: how living people among the corpses had shoved, bitten and clawed at each other. She also described in detail the entire course of the 'action.'

The sobbing graves are to be found approximately three kilometers outside of Skalat, on the right side of the road leading to the village of Nowosiolka. Some one hundred meters beyond the graves there is a row of tall poplars in the middle of a field. From the distance one can also see a dark stripe, the edge of the Hores Forest, approximately two kilometers away.

And though the sobbing graves have been eternally silenced now, this place and thousands of similar places shall cry out to the end of time in their demand to be heard.


Footnotes:

47 Ober Jude - Chief Jew. Return

48 Herr Chef - Sir. Return

49 skotchkes - (Train) leapers (from Polish verb, skakac, to leap). L. Milch Return

50 Kripo - Criminal police, made up of Poles and Ukrainians. Return

51 Obersturmbannfuhrer (Rebel) - In command of all the camps in the Tarnopol region. Return

52 talis, talaysim - Prayer shawl(s). Return

53 tefillin - Phylacteries (used in morning prayers). Return

54 kugel - Pudding. Return

55 Hauptsturmfuhrer (Bischoff) - In charge of confiscating Jewish properties in Tarnopol. Return

56 MITS shop - Mashyno Traktonaya Stantziya - Machine and tractor, maintenance and repair shop (Russian). L. Milch Return

57 “Juden raus!” - “Jews, get out!” Return

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