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[Page 194]

Waiting in Line for Bread

Sara Postawski-Steinhardt

Whenever I walk in the street, I am saddened to see bread thrown by the dumpsters. Compounding my normal distaste for this aberrant phenomenon is the burden of the dark days of the Holocaust. During the first couple of months after the German soldiers entered Wierzbnik we were already starting to feel the shortage of bread and the situation became worse with each passing day. Although a coupon system was instituted to provide us with rationed supplies, the coupons proved to be of little help. Those families that depended on them to get their daily bread were unfortunate indeed. Securing the bread was a road paved with unimaginable suffering and hardships, and by the time we received our meager share, we already suffered much beatings and swearing. According to the “order” established by the German authorities, the distribution of bread took place only in one place, at the Polish grocery store, and one can easily imagine the long lines that stretched from both sides of the entrance to the store, practically across the entire street.

 

Jews were thrown out of line

Since the very act of standing in line was physically challenging, the youths were typically the ones sent, since they were stronger than the old and the infirm. Pressure and distress have worn everyone's nerves thin and the smallest action led to arguments and bitter disputes. There were also individuals who failed to show self-discipline, wedging themselves into line with utter disregard for others. However worse of all were the attacks by Anti-Semites, who would get the Jews kicked out of the line after hours of standing and waiting.

The bread was only distributed once a week, and the quantity distributed never came close to fulfilling our needs. It is no wonder that we were all scared that we might never get our fair share. People would wake up in the small hours of the night, and would go to stand in line in hope that they would reach their desired goal by morning.

Since my family had no sources for bread other than the official distribution, I, the youngest, was forced to wake up early and stand in line for bread. Arriving at 3am I already found a row of people standing, their teeth chattering in the morning cold. I joined the line which grew longer with every passing moment. Time crawled and the distress in my heart made me feel even worse. But I held on to the hope that after bearing the suffering and hardships of this line, my efforts would be repaid and I could bring bread to my family. I was devastated when, a short time before the store opened, several Anti-Semite locals showed up and maliciously started a riot which resulted in the Jews getting kicked out of line. I could do nothing but walk back home empty handed, depressed and filled with bitterness and despair.

 

Ha Lachma Anya

The distress and agonies which accompanied our efforts to get bread have also made us ignore certain minor details that caused their own fair share of trouble and grief. Those in charge of bread distribution purposefully forced the administrative arrangement of the distribution in a way that would abuse the consumers. This precise order of business – where to come in and where to leave – was to be maintained by all and woe unto he who stumbles during these “foot drills”.

We stood in line regardless of the weather, of course, and if it was raining people simply got completely drenched. And anyone who managed to be among the happy ones who got their portion of the bread would have cringed at its look and taste under normal circumstances. It was black as tar, burned and hard on the outside and entirely unbaked on the inside, in other words – actual dough.

 

The Jews are to blame for the war

I sadly recall one of those nightly journeys to the line. I was standing for hours waiting for bread and saw with my own eyes the store open at 8 a.m. and the start of the anticipated distribution of bread. I stand gripped with immense inner tension, thinking of nothing but the big question: will the bread last until it was my turn? My emotions fluttered every time the line before me grew shorter, bringing me closer to the entrance to the store. One moment I was embracing hope and the next I was feeling pessimistic and verging on panic.

Time went by. The time is 9:30; at 10, my sister Rivka comes to check up on me, because this was unusual. Distribution was usually over by 9. However when she saw that I was close to the entrance to store, she not only realized the situation but was also encouraged by my “achievement”, which was nearly realized. I too grew more optimistic upon seeing my sister. We exchanged short hopeful looks and treasured the awaited moment in our hearts. My sister was standing a short distance from the line, because the supervisors ordered no one to come near for fear of disrupting the queue. The rays of the sun rising to the sky are shedding some warmth and brilliance on all of us. Only a few more minutes and a few meters left. There's a woman ahead of me in line, and there I am inside the store! The big moment is upon us! But no, fate is cruel. As if from under the ground an anti-Semite showed up and started raging and swearing at all of us, blaming the Jews for the war. A riot started, the atmosphere soured and all the anti-Semites lifted their heads hoping to make a catch. This intentional havoc resulted in all the Jews being driven out of the line. My hurt and grief were entirely understandable. I was broken and despairing. I cried all day and could not calm down due to my grief and distress.

In time, the distribution process was passed unto Jewish hands and certain locations in the ghetto. As far as the distribution was concerned things became easier, but the new hardships that came upon us that made the previous ones pale by comparison…


[Page 196]

The First Murder

Sara Postawski-Steinhardt

It is only natural for primal deeds to be carved into memory. Such is the case with events and phenomena that delight the human heart, let alone with things imbued with sadness and tears. During the years of the holocaust we knew bloody terrors, suffering and hardships that are unlike anything in human history, not even in the tragic history of the suffering Jewish people. But the first murder committed by the damn Nazis in our town was carved into my soul and I recall it as if it was yesterday.

He was called “Neizl” because of his unique nose, which bent upwards and made his nostrils flare abnormally. But his fame came not from these “anthropological” markings, but from his insatiable murderous, bestial attributes. This archvillain had a habit of wandering the streets of our town neighboring the Jewish ghetto, seeking a victim he could use to quench his blood thirst.

This tale took place during the initial establishment of the ghetto, when the Jews were ordered not to leave it under penalty of death. But at the time, the danger has not yet penetrated the minds of the ghetto's residents, and here and there people tried to leave and fell prey to those who sought to harm them. It was noontime when I went down to the yard and through the fence saw the “Neizl” leading a young Jewish boy through the street near the ghetto. Since the Nazi's sadistic reputation was already common knowledge, I was anxious for the young man, although it was hard to suspect his horrific intents based on the way the two walked and talked. In time we unveiled the cunning of this murderer, who used to lower the victim's guard with sweet talk before carrying out his evil schemes.

Further down the road, I saw them arrive at the police building and go into it. I waited a long time in the yard and saw the Neizl leave the building alone, realizing that the young man was incarcerated within. I followed the Nazi on his prowls through the streets, until finally I lost him. The next day he went hunting again, and managed to satisfy his murderous lust yet again. Three Jewish fellows who walked from the city of Iłża to Starachowice ran into him at the entrance to town and were arrested by him. At first he pretended that they must accompany him merely as a formality, because they were strangers, and the four freely chatted on the way, in an impeccably amiable manner, typical of this executioner. He brought them to the police building and while they were waiting there he brought out the fellow that was locked up the day before and then led the four of them, again without significant protest, through Koliowa Street and toward the forest. I happened to be in the yard again and my eyes caught a vision much like the day before: the Neizl is walking with four Jewish youths in the street outside the ghetto, talking to them in earnest, without arousing their suspicions. When they arrived at the river he had them stand on the bridge and shot the four of them. Following this treacherous murder he went to the ghetto police and ordered the policemen to go pick up the bodies.

Later, we have learned that this Nazi acted in the same brutal manner towards the Poles as well, and they repaid him for it. Eventually, they ambushed and killed him.


[Page 197]

Wierzbnik, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen

Malka Cohen (Leopold)

On the day the war broke out, we had a strange feeling: we have prepared all this time for a prolonged gas war (father even prepared gas masks), and suddenly events were unfolding in a rush. We expected long battles over the munitions factories in the area and we also feared aerial bombardment. That is why we were surprised when the Germans suddenly walked into our town.

We were a family of seven. My sister has wed later on and left the house, but when the situation grew worse, she returned to us with her husband and baby. That night we escaped to Ostrowiec, to my brother-in-law's parents, to consult with them about what we should do and where we should run to.

We owned a grocery store, among the largest in town, and it was hard to accept at first that we must suddenly abandon it all. Therefore it was decided that only the women would escape, while the men stayed behind, to take care of business. We stayed in Ostrowiec for two weeks and when the situation stabilized a bit I returned home to Wierzbnik, to learn what was going on. When I arrived, my world has shattered! My father was gone and so was my brother-in-law, the two of them hiding with other Jews in fear of being beaten up by the Germans, an event that practically became a daily phenomenon. That was my first “opportunity” for contact with the Germans. Apart from its front door, our store also had a “back” entrance, which was a typical feature in stores and allowed us unload cargo without interfering with the course of business. When I entered the area where merchandise was stored, i felt my heart break. The place was a mess; the merchandise was pillaged by the Germans and gentiles in the area, who spent the two weeks on a looting rampage. While I was standing there shocked with grief over this loss, I was surprised by a few Germans who came from behind me and demanded coffee. Their sudden appearance shocked me and I murmured I was merely going to fetch it, but in fact I was planning on escaping them. I ran away and watched them from afar as they continued their theft of our merchandise. We were powerless to resist their brute force. Desperation turned me apathetic. A young Anti-Semite gentile stood outside and signaled to every German car passing him that there is something here to loot… After a while I found out where my father and brother-in-law were hiding and I made efforts to meet them.

As time went by things became worse and worse and the hunger started to bother us more and more. Everything was scarce and rationed. I remember going to stand in line for a piece of bread. All we ever got were tiny rations. For Shabbat we only had herring…

The German looters were insatiable. Merchandise at the store practically ran out, but they continued to searche it mercilessly, sacking and looting anything they could put their hands on. We were all scared. And since at the time we were living together (in the same building) with the Gmina, the Jewish community board, we had many visits from the Germans and perhaps felt their oppression more than any others.

 

The girl with the nuts

With mixed feelings I recall today a very depressing experience, when a young innocent girl was used by the banes as a means of trapping us in wrongdoing so they can later unleash their murderous fury upon us.

Cunning and lies have served the Nazi beasts as sure and tested means of planning their destructive work. Not only was it part of their general policy, it was also carried out in a small-scale in various places. As I already mentioned, the robbing and looting continued for several weeks and most of the stock we had at our big store was stolen.

Nevertheless, we managed to hide some essentials for a rainy day. The Germans, for their part, suspected everything and were eager to bleed us dry. Always demanding more, they heard us say who knows how many times that there is nothing more to give, and so they decided to use a ploy: they sent a young, innocent hungry Jewish girl over and even gave her some money so she would come buy nuts from us.

When she appeared in our store, we were tempted to sell her some nuts, but the Germans followed her and the results were soon to follow. They came immediately, charged us and beat us all brutally.

In 1940 we received a shipment of close to 1,000 Jews from Lodz, who arrived during the night and were distributed among the local Jewish homes. They were followed by a shipment from the town of Płock. The first refugees could find an acceptable place for themselves, but there was no room left for the refugees from Płock and the housing and living conditions were bad.

 

Establishment of the ghetto

From time to time we heard various rumors from other Jewish towns, about cruel pogroms, edicts and oppression. In our town, a curfew was instated from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. and we were all forced to wear the mark of disgrace on our sleeves. Rumors started circulating about a population swap, a change of residence and so on. As time went by, Jews were ordered to live on certain streets. Our family was not forced to move out, however, because we lived in the quarter that was designated as the new ghetto. But the stir and crowdedness that resulted from this order have left their depressing mark on residence conditions and our entire lifestyle.

 

The eviction

By 1942 we no longer had any commodities or merchandise left. We managed, however, to hide some valuables “for dark times”. We had an old Polish acquaintance, a sympathetic and trustworthy man who was a customer of ours for years, and we gave him certain valuables – accessories, Jewels and so on – in return for news and perhaps even some assistance. On the night before the eviction he showed up at our place, but he was too drunk to tell us anything useful about what was going to happen.

The next day, the Germans swarmed every building and drove all the Jews to the center of town, a place called the “Rinek”. We were forced to run as fast as the bikes trailing us… and those who fell suffered a bitter fate. When I met my father at the camp, I learned that my brother-in-law stumbled and fell while running and was shot to death when he couldn't get up quickly enough. His wife, that is, my sister, knew nothing of the disaster and hid with her baby among the gentiles to whom we gave our valuables.

After a while, the Germans and their servants started pressuring and threatening anyone who would hide Jews with a death sentence. This threat was naturally effective, and the family that was hiding my sister grew afraid and refused to hide her any longer, forcing my sister to take her baby and flee to the town of Wolbrom, where she found no assistance either because the situation was similar to that in Wierzbnik. She had no choice left other than returning to Starachowice, where she gave the baby to a missionary house and took up a job at the lumber-mill.

She innocently gave up the baby, hoping to save his life, but reality was tragic. She only managed to visit the child a few times before the disaster struck, and the Germans took all Jewish kids in that place to Szydłowiec and viciously murdered them.

At the camp, I had various small chores in the kitchen. While working, we received from time to time secret packages from the gentile to whom we gave our jewels.

In 1944 we were all sent to Auschwitz, and had to bid farewell to my father and brother, as I was taken with my sister to the women's camp. We entered the camp in despair, certain that we were brought there to be murdered. We walked in silent lines with tears in our eyes, none of us saying anything to the others. We were ordered to take off our clothes and our hair was shaved. Some Jews were walking around, claiming that we weren't being transported to death. We were given a numbered camp uniform and taken to blocks, where we lay on multistoried bunks. The camp followed a regular schedule. At 3 in the morning a reveille, during which we were lined up outside while they read out each person's number. From there we had a long walk to work. It was just hard, pointless physical labor. We also suffered from the cold and damp and sometimes we got wet to the bone and had to carry our wet clothes until they dried.

One day I fell asleep in the cabin and didn't come out. The German block supervisor forcefully dragged me out and I fell and hurt myself badly.

 

The liberation from Bergen-Belsen

The next day we were deported to Bergen-Belsen and taken to a new camp, which was even worse than the last. At first we did not work, but later they gave us small tasks to do. The routine was much the same as in the last camp, but we all had some hope because we sensed that the end of the Germans was near. I prayed only that we will hold on. And that hope became a reality. After a year long stay in Bergen-Belsen, we were liberated by the British, in 15.04.1945.


[Page 200]

On this Day They Shall Mourn

Sarah Brodbeker

I was born in Starachowice and lived there until the day we were driven out. I was still young and remember little from the time before the war, but the tragic events that transpired during the Holocaust were carved deep into my mind and left a scar which cannot be erased upon my soul.

I will never forget the prophetic words of my dear mother, who predicted the terrible calamity that was threatening us. While most of the Jewish public deluded itself that the oncoming storm will somehow pass it by and still failed to grasp the scope of the disaster swiftly approaching, my mother realized the nature of the murderers straight away and understood their intentions. On the day the Germans entered our town, mother said “children, I can hear every family in Israel cry 'Eicha Yashva'”, referring to the Ninth of Ab, the mourning day of the Hebrew prophet who lamented the destruction of our people. And she was right. Her words became a cruel reality. Crying, bereavement and sorrow became our daily bread, and the turbid current expressed itself first as financial demands, “contributions” and ransom payments, then as forced labor abductions, and the noose tightened around our necks from year to year and month to month.

When the persecution started in the form of “contributions”, which many thought to be their price of penance, my mother said “I wish that would be the end of it”, because her intuition told her this was only the beginning… and since she felt that we are going to face countless more hardships and tragedies, she wanted to strengthen us mentally, so we can face this trial. When the Nazis ordered us to wear the mark of disgrace, she told me: “You may be young but you must wear the yellow patch with pride, because it is not a crime to be a good Jew.”

Indeed the events of those dark days cannot be measured by the standards of normal human relations, and during this terrible time I have witnessed with my own eyes such social phenomena that weighed on me and made me ask the important question: what happened to the proud Jewish people?

I received my answer only years later, in the independent State of Israel, where the Jewish people live and fight bravely to defend their homeland and the best of national and humane values.


[Page 201

In the Jaws of Destiny

Menachem Mincberg

Following the events that afflicted our community I ended up in the camp and worked at the top floor of the munitions factory. I usually worked shifts of 8 and sometimes 12 hours, inspecting 152mm shells. First we would inspect the shells lying on the table, and then we would pile them and imprint them with a serial number, indicating that the shells passed our inspection. On the aforementioned night I was working a 12 hour shift. During the evening, policemen arrived from the camp accompanied by the department supervisor, a man named Weinberg, who signaled me in secret so the others won't understand. He made exaggerated hand gestures as he spoke, pretending to point at the piles, while hissing at me the details between his teeth – that the camp was surrounded by Germans and that there was no point for me to go to the residence camp in the factory area. Since I was partnered with another Jewish guy from Bodzentyn named Schechter, I passed the information along to him as well. In the meantime, the policemen ordered us to go down to the courtyard by the guard room, and then left. At that moment, my friend told me “Come with me to the smithy,” because that was where his brother worked and together, the three of us could devise a plan of action.

We did not tarry but went directly to his brother and the three of us decided to run away, at any cost!

We came to this decision because we knew what was about to befall us, in light of the events that have already taken place in our town and those neighboring towns we heard about. We had no detailed plan, but our first priority was escaping the jaws of the Nazi beast. We walked out the front door, since the working conditions allowed us to wander around the factory, and headed directly for the fence. We jumped over it and were outside the factory.

When we crossed the fence, two others ran after us: one was called Meir Geller and the other Eli Zvuliner.

A municipal road stretched a few meters from the fence. We crossed the road and kept walking. It turned out, however, that we crossed it near one of the factory gates, which was well guarded, and while crossing the road we were noticed by a Ukraine policeman who opened fire on us. The cover of darkness was the only thing that hampered his aim and saved us from being shot.

After running a short distance away from the factory we took a short rest, making use of the dense foliage as cover while we recaptured our breath. We slowly recovered our strength and started talking amongst ourselves. We consulted with each other – what next? What should we do? The Schechter brothers said: “We should go to a village 20 kilometers from here, by the town of Bodzentyn, where we have friends, a Polish family, villagers who might be willing to take us in until the storm blows over.” The year was 1944, the Russian-German front line was approaching us and we were hoping that if we could survive this, we might yet be saved.

Instead of wasting time, we decided to continue walking through the night. We had no food but did not feel its lack yet. We crossed the Kamienna River and passed by a populated area, but we did not know the direction to the village. We had no choice but to turn to one of the houses and knock on the window. When they asked who we were, we told them we were partisans. When they opened the door for us, we asked them for directions. It was a woman, and she pointed the way for us. From here on we continued walking along the main road. Suddenly we heard shouts of “Halt!” coming from afar. As soon as we heard them we left the road and headed into the field, and immediately heard the sound of gunfire. We realized we could not continue on our way and so we escaped deep into the forest. Dawn was coming, preventing us from continuing on our way, and so we stayed in the forest all day long and resumed our march when darkness fell. We walked all night, grew hungry and stopped at a farmer's house where we received some bread. The Schechter brothers were already familiar with the area and in the morning we arrived at the village that was our destination. At first, we went into the cemetery, hiding inside one of the open graves. One of the Schechters went to pay their friends a visit and we waited for the results of his reconnaissance. After a brief conversation with the landlady he returned to us and the three of us went to the house and promised the woman that we will pay her for the favor she was doing us after the liberation. We settled in the cowshed's attic, where she arranged a hiding place for us and another Jewish guy who was already staying with her.

The woman treated us well and brought us food and drinks from time to time, but the days grew long and the liberation never came. The woman expected the Russians to arrive within a couple of days, putting matters to rights, but three weeks have passed and the liberation we longed for was yet to come. The woman grew anxious and started hinting that she was unwilling to continue the “game”. The Schechters also consulted with each other and explained that they were willing to go someplace to get money. They left while I stayed with the other guy, but then the landlady came to me and told me outright that she could not hide us there any longer. She added that there was a hole under the barn, which was far from the house, and that if I am interested I can hide there because it would no longer put her at risk. We had no choice but to hide in the hole.

We lay there for a day, then we lay there for a night, and as time passed we grew hungry. We had no money, only a watch. I gave the woman the watch so she could sell it and bring me some food, and she did so; but that food ran out as well. And so I decided to get out and head towards Wierzbnik, where I had gentile acquaintances. A day later I arrived there and visited a gentile named Zhorwitz, who promised to help me. He gave me some money and I went back to the woman who was hiding me earlier.

I went to the bushes, where I was supposed to rendezvous with the other fellow, but I could not find him. I went to the hole and saw that it was filled up. This horrified me. I went to the woman and said that I wanted to talk to her. She was sympathetic but begged us to leave the place, because partisans arrived the night before and murdered the guy and one of the Schechter brothers who came back and was hiding with her. I decided to leave, of course, and she gave me a slice of bread as supply for the road. I did not want to walk by day so I hid inside a bale of straw in the field and after nightfall I left and returned once more to Wierzbnik, to the acquaintance who helped and encouraged me earlier. I overcame many hardships before I managed to make my way to him and he lived up to my expectations.

He had strong ties to the resistance and arranged a false ID for me, but the picture was missing and without it, the ID was worthless. I had no choice but to go to a photographer in town at noon, pretending to be a Christian and asking to have my picture taken. He agreed and took my picture, because he didn't know I was Jewish. After taking my picture he told me to come back two days later, but I saw suspicion in his eyes. I left him money and told him that I will come on time to collect the pictures. This was naturally a deception on my part, to prevent him from reporting me. In truth, I went to another photographer, told him I needed a picture immediately and he made me one on the spot. When I left his business I had to cross the Rinek, where some brats were standing selling newspapers. When they saw me they started shouting “Jude, Jude!” after me.

The reason they were yelling was the two gendarmes who stood nearby. Luckily for me, the two were off duty and unarmed. I panicked, and froze, and then a gentile acquaintance of mine came towards me, pushed me and cried “Run!” I took off running, crossed a railway and took a long winding path back to my acquaintance. He got me the ID and I used it to look for work as a Pole. I moved away from the town and entered a village in the area of Iłża. I entered the house of a farmer and introduced myself as a refugee from Poznan County, looking for work. The farmer hired me because another worker left him the day before and I started to work there. Unfortunately, the old worker came back a few days later and the farmer fired me, giving me the address of a place in Iłża that needed a worker.

I followed his recommendations and went there. It was the time of harvest, when workers are in greater demand than usual, and I was hired as soon as I arrived. I had to do many different chores, such as caring for the horses, the cows and so on. No one knew that I was a Jew, of course. The family I worked for was composed of an elderly couple and a son who used to be a senior county clerk but returned to the village during the war. They were fervent anti-Semites and I often had to listen to their slander of Jews. I remember how the old woman said once, during breakfast: “Mr. Michalski (that was my alias), you live like a Jew, never praying or visiting church. Her words made me uneasy. I feared they were suspecting me. I didn't know whether the old woman based her words on conjectures or was merely guessing, but to be on the safe side I started the very next morning to make the sign of the cross and mutter something. I was working alongside another Christian and was forced to join the walk to church next Sunday. When we came back the old woman beamed with joy and her attitude towards me improved considerably.

 

The tale of the straw sheaf

Christmas was also coming at the time, and we started preparing for the holiday – decorating a tree and so on. But a new calamity almost befell me. One of their old customs was spreading a sheaf of straw on the table, commemorating the birth of Christ on straw… I was therefore sent to fetch the straw, a task that confused me because I did not understand the situation. I was debating whether I should bring a little straw, or a lot, and I was leaning towards bringing plenty of straw, because it would be possible to get rid of some if I turned out to be wrong. The straw was over the cowshed in the attic. As I already mentioned, I thought that I should bring plenty of straw and was about to make a mistake, because we only needed a token amount. But uncertainty made me hide the ladder instead and turn to the neighboring house of a young man I befriended, whom I told: “Look, I don't have a ladder, climb my shoulders and get some straw for the sake of custom.” Luckily he suspected nothing, climbed my shoulders and brought down a little straw, saving me from a major calamity…

 

By the well

This family also owned some horses and from time to time they were ordered to drive senior clerks or Germans to all sorts of places. I have managed to dodge this task a few times, but eventually the circumstances made it impossible for me to avoid, forcing me to serve as a driver for some senior clerks, headed to Wierzbnik of all places… I was naturally terrified that someone might recognize me, and my fears came true. The clerks got off the wagon and went into the office, leaving me with the horses. I went to the nearby well to draw water for them. At that moment, a local who knew me well approached me and started talking to me… but he promised to keep quiet. The clerks came back and we continued on our way to Starachowice. When we passed the Ukrainian guard house, one of the Ukrainian guards named Paschkewitz came out, stopped the wagon and asked where they were going. They answered “To the county headquarters” and he asked for a ride, taking a seat next to me. My heart started beating like a tractor, but he left us before we arrived in town. And fortunately, he did not talk to me.

The clerks left the wagon again and went into the office by the Gestapo, while I stayed with the horses waiting for their return. In the meantime, the friend who got me the ID passed me in the street and waved me hello. I was worried that if I returned his wave I would get caught, and he understood my silence and ignored me.

After all these adventures we safely returned “home”. On the way back I was wondering “How come no one recognized me? There are many gentiles who knew me in the town where I was born and raised and still I was not exposed…” after the war I learned that many recognized me, but kept their mouths shut.

 

Driving SS officers

The place I was living at was near Pakosław mansion, which was awarded during the war to a German “loyalist”. On Christmas, the SS units camped in the area were invited and my landlord was ordered to use his horses and wagons for transporting the Germans. I had the misfortune of driving two SS unit commanders… I went where I was told and waited. A cry in German came out of the house: “Where is the driver?” When I went there, the Gestapo commander came out and told me to go up to his room. He was already dressed but without his shirt on. When I entered, he took out a glass, poured the two of us some vodka then called for the other officer to join us, and the three of us shared a drink… immediately afterwards we went back downstairs and I drove them to the mansion. On the way we were joined by other wagons carrying the rest of the SS squad. “God,” I was thinking, “the devil must be toying with me, sending me to drive an SS squad whose members could kill me thrice each in a second…” There was a hall there and they had a big party. When they were all drunk, the commander came out looking for me and called out “Where is the driver, give him something to eat!” During the whole drive back they acted drunkenly.

Time passed and eventually we started hearing the sound of cannons and exploding shells as the front line came closer, prompting everyone to hide in the cellars. Then the shooting stopped and the Russians conquered the town. When I heard about it, I dared go to the center of town. I stayed with this family for a few days longer, until I learned that the entire area was conquered, and then I headed to Wierzbnik. When I got there I found a few other Jews who managed to survive this hell, a mere 5 or 6 people.


[Page 205]

Diaspora

M. Magen

The battles that followed the outbreak of the German-Poland War 1939 and the unique conditions in town (the presence of munitions factories) made the Jews of Wierzbnik flee to nearby places, while the changes in regime and the conquest of the entire region by the German army made those people who first left the town flow back to Wierzbnik, some of them having no reason to stay away and others accepting the new reality.

But the sudden increase in persecution, oppression, edicts and “spontaneous” murders by German soldiers and their vile assistants, made the people of Wierzbnik ponder and plan their escape from the noose that was tightening around their necks. The problem was that this thought occurred only to a few, farsighted people whose intuition allowed them to sense what was coming or those who had the benefit of experience due to special circumstances (such as visiting other regions, where the Nazis already carried out their evil plans against the Jewish population with the help of the local anti-Semites). Only they knew what the future held and drew their conclusions on time.

As I have mentioned, there were but a few, either individuals or small groups, who drew the far-reaching conclusion, grabbed their traveling staff and left on a difficult road, to seek their escape under God's sky. They traveled a winding path, some of them hiding in town, among the gentiles, in bunkers, attics or cellars. Others went into the nearby forests or crossed the Russian border – where they kept on wandering, the warfront and the soldiers of the enemy at their heels.

But unfortunately, during the first stages of the Nazi occupation the majority of the Jews in Wierzbnik could not fathom that the horror the Germans were plotting is even possible. Like most of the Jewish people in the European countries conquered by the Nazis, the naïve Jews of Wierzbnik could never imagine that, in the 20th century, innocent people – men, women and infants – will be taken and murdered. And when they started realizing what was going on around them to some degree, it was already too late, because in the meantime the possibilities of breaking out of the straights have narrowed down to the point where they were trapped inside.

From that point onward, the only options left were the daring escapes of individuals through the closed perimeter of the ghetto, which was closely guarded, or leaping from the death trains. Both options resulted in endless wandering from place to place and from town to town, until finally they rejoined the great stream of people sent to the camps.

Others were more successful, if they managed to cross the field separating the camp from the forest, wade through the drops of leaden rain showered by the German pursuers and penetrate the depths of the woods.

They have faced additional adventures and dangers down the road as well, encounters with the devil's henchmen in the form of the Vlasovs, or Ukrainians, Lithuanians and other such quislings. Equally dangerous was running into Polish partisans, who also betrayed and murdered Jews by the droves.

Finally came the last stage of the “Diaspora”, which the Germans falsely named “The final solution”; the Jews of Wierzbnik went on their final journey, to the death Diaspora of the camps – Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, Ravensbrück, Bergen-Belsen and others – the final stage of the terrible tragedy. In the following chapters, the lone survivors describe the various directions that “Diaspora” took them in, their nature and their unique circumstances.


[Page 207]

On the Road to Treblinka

Menachem Efrati

The train by which the Germans took the last of the Jews in the ghettos of Radom County to Treblinka left on January 13th 1943 from Szydłowiec.

My daughter Chava (17 years old at the time) and I were among the five thousand Jews crammed into the train's fifty freight cars. After an 8 hour long ride, we jumped off the moving train. The first Pole we met told us that we are in the vicinity of Łuków. From another Pole we learned also that there are still Jews in the ghetto in Łuków. When we heard that, we risked our lives time and again until we managed to infiltrate the closed ghetto and joined the remaining Jews of Łuków and the area.

In Yatkova Street, at the edge of town, stood a group of wooden houses collapsing with age. Their roofs were rotten through, their walls were worn and their windows reflected a terrible anguish. Before, under normal circumstances, they housed two hundred tenants; now, they housed 2,800. The place was so crowded that during the day, the Jewish residents of the ghetto were forced to look for room to breath between the huts and the barbed-wire fence surrounding them. But there were no complaints about the size of the place, because the question on everyone's minds was – what might happen when the Gestapo arrive, and when might they arrive?

Today is 02.05.1943, the time is 4 in the morning and they are already here! That says everything. The cruel implication of these news was instantly clear to all. Our worse fears have come to pass. Treblinka was no longer a secret by then, especially for the Łuków ghetto. First of all, most of the transports headed to Treblinka passed through Łuków, and secondly, the distance is short, a mere 100 kilometers. In addition, we also had “live mail”; Jews who were not put into the gas chambers were ordered to load the clothes of the victims who were already cremated. Some of them managed to hide in the car, under the piles of clothes, and when the train returned with the cargo on its way to Germany, they jumped from the car and sneaked into the Łuków ghetto, hoping to find some shelter.

This led the Dayan Petachyah to instruct us all to say Kaddish for the dead, while other ghettos were still uncertain of the fact. I can never forget the occasion: on Shabbat, a hundred prayers would stand together in low-ceilinged room and all of us, without exception, would say Kaddish, each for families or whole towns.

Treblinka was indeed no secret to us. The Gestapo too knew that the Jews were aware of the situation, and used every means possible to ensure that none of the 2,800 people under siege will escape the trap. A moment later we were all on our feet. A few, mostly old residents of Łuków, have prepared underground “bunkers” and were now hurrying down into them. The rest, however, the majority including my daughter and me, came “out” when ordered.

The ghetto is surrounded by the Gestapo. The assistants of the Einzatsruppen, Latvians and Lithuanians armed to their teeth, receive the order from the SS to enter the ghetto. They concentrate us at the large empty lot in the ghetto and command us to sit on the ground. While we are sitting, nervously waiting for things to come, we hear gunfire all around us – the work of murderers sating their malicious obsession with innocent victims. Those of us sitting on the ground are ordered to rise and line up in ranks of five for the last march.

Escorted by armed guards the Jews of the ghetto are marching through the wide streets of Łuków. The Germans are meticulous to the extreme… they make sure no one strays from his quintet. Those of us marching feel like a single body, carrying itself through its own funeral… marching on its own feet to its grave.

Suddenly I felt curious to see and observe the entire “procession” of Jews walking slowly, heads bowed, as if escorting themselves on their last journey; I look at our “handlers”, I look at the regular German soldiers who are standing on the sidewalks and watching this strange vision curiously, I see the Polish citizens who are standing on the sidewalks by the houses, those houses that many of those marching used to live in…

Suddenly, I recall the annihilation of the ghetto in Szydłowiec, when the voices and the screams mixed with endless gunfire were deafening.

Oh! Not a single shot missed its mark, nearly 600 Jews, men and women, fell before our eyes and were left wallowing in their own blood.

But here the picture is altogether different. Not a single shot sounds. The procession moves “normally”, quietly, like a solemn parade…

The sentries are all dressed in new uniforms. The cuffs brightly colored, decorated with blossoms and flowers. The guns seem more like accessories than killing machines. All is quiet around us. Everyone is looking and thinking quietly. The air is clear and pure.

If only we could soar like eagles… the skies are remarkably clear. Not a single cloud, not even a small one. Is this meant for us, to ease our last way? Or maybe to keep out of the sun's way, so she can also witness what is happening “in broad daylight!”

My train of thought is derailed by the voice of a woman marching next to me. “The gentile maids dressed up to see our plight”. After a long march, we arrived at the train station. The Jewish residents of Łuków, who are familiar with the area, determine that the cars haven't arrived yet. In the meantime, we are ordered to “Sit!”

We sit on the ground and wait. After an hour people start whispering: “The train is coming.” I turn my eyes toward the railroad tracks. The locomotive is making a noisy approach. The chimney is decorated with a birch tree sapling. The “guards” among the locomotive crew are watching us. We look back at them: humans! Sons of mothers, husbands of wives and fathers of sons! Can you believe it?

The cars decorated in greenery pass us by, but behind the grilled portholes we see the desperate eyes of Jews. Again a whisper: “Miedzyrzec, the Miedzyrzec ghetto. The last two ghettos in Poland.”

The cars roll on. The next ones are empty. Their doors are open. They are meant for us… and immediately we are hit by shouts coming all around us, “Rise, march, one by one, 60 in every car.” There aren't many Jews anymore.

I am struck with a new concern. I pray that I am not number 60 and my daughter 61… if they separate the two of us, all my plans are in vain…

My time to board the train draws near. The SS man numbering the prisoners whips my back and spews the number 51 from his murderous maw, giving my daughter the number 52. We are no longer at risk of being separated; the two of us are in the same car.

The train is moving, the wheels are turning rapidly but I am in shock. I do not hear the moaning of the men and I do not see the women tearing their hair and crying bitterly. I do not even feel my daughter clinging to my arm with both her hands. But when the mists of bewilderment cleared they left a single question behind: “What is going on here?”

And suddenly, like an electric shock, I recall the words that I heard when we were sitting on the ground before we boarded the train: Miedzyrzec, the last two ghettos…”

It is all clear to me. This is the Devil's grand finale, the victory of annihilation. Satan is celebrating his victory over the 3 million Jews of Poland, who embodied the accomplishments of 50 generations and are now no more than dust and ashes.

 

Constantly jumping off

Gunfire reminds me that we are on the way to hell. Guns and machineguns spit fire from the roof of every car. It is now clear to me that the silent obedience with which the Jews of Łuków reacted to the commands of the Gestapo was not the result of despair. On the contrary, it seemed that every person was preparing for action. As soon as the train cleared the town, they started jumping off. In some of the cars there were men with tools who easily opened the doors, while the people who had no tools – me among them – had to jump through the portholes, which could be opened with nothing more than bare hands and courage.

The train keeps going and people are jumping even though the Lithuanian guards are raining ceaseless fire. The game is clear: the Jews know where they are being led and the murderers know that we know… hence our daring, which borders on desperation.

We pass the Szydłowiec station, following by Sokołów and Kosów, only 7 kilometers left before the hell mouth and the train is quickly closing down the distance. I am determined not to enter the furnaces of Treblinka no matter what! I have faced hardships so far, and it would seem that I must accompany the last of the ghetto Jews on their last journey to the very gates of Treblinka…
4 kilometers are left, 4 minutes from the furnace. Jewish hands lift me (then my daughter) to the porthole. Saving souls is their last act before they are themselves martyred.

I jumped and fell! The “welcoming” blow I receive from the ground runs through my spine and into my brain and I feel like I shattered into a million pieces. Instinctively I turn my head towards the train – it is still moving while I am sitting here unharmed! I rolled into the ditch by the tracks and pressed hard against the ground… and when the train passed I got up and started running after it. I must meet immediately with my daughter; we agreed that I will run after the train and she will run in the opposite direction. I kept running and every moment seemed like eternity. Suddenly I noticed a figure running towards me; I pick up the pace and yes, it's her… “Chava! Chava!” I cry. “Father! Father!” She answers. Thank God, the two of us are safe and sound. We draw closer, 50 meters, 30 meters, 20 meters… we hold out our hands for a hug, but suddenly hear “Halt!” A Polish gentile is already holding me by the throat and his friend holds my daughter. They are taking us off the tracks and to the side. There are two other “kidnappers” there, holding two Jews and a woman. I understand the situation and realize that we have only moments to act, because if the German gendarmes come it would be too late…

I turned to the kidnappers using short but poignant words. I did not beg them but spoke proudly. I tried to stir their respect for the young girl and the woman who carried out such a heroic act. Real Poles would respect such an accomplishment, I told them, and felt that one of them in particular was persuaded by my words. I turn to the Jews. If any of you have money, give it to me. They do. I add all my money (29 zloty) to theirs and give the money to the peasant who was more impressed by my words than the others.

We start running – where to? About half a kilometer away there is a small copse. “We have to run fast”, I told my daughter, holding her hand. They are busy splitting the loot for now, but it is not enough to satisfy them. They might pursue us. We run as fast as we can and are already halfway to the copse when we hear “Halt!” again. I turn my head back and see one of the “kidnappers”, wearing a white coat, following us. We ignore his repeated orders to “halt”, and continue our dramatic escape. He is naturally faster than us and keeps closing the distance… suddenly he was gone, along with the voices. At first we were amazed, but the volleys of bullets shot at us from German machine guns make our situation crystal clear: the gendarmes from Kosów have arrived. We immediately started crawling and made our winding way to the copse.

Their attack on us continues into the forest, but the generous trees offer us cover and protection. The battle continues until the desired reinforcements arrive… darkness falls and the Germans retreat.

This was the first time during our hard journey from Treblinka to the camp I defected from that we found sanctuary from the human beasts – among the trees of the copse just outside of Treblinka. These trees bore silent witness to the thousands of trains that passed by filled with Jews and came back empty, among them the train bearing the last of the Jews from Łuków and Miedzyrzec, on May 2nd 1943.


[Page 211]

My Journeys Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Rivka Greenberg (Mincberg)

On the day the war broke out, we were all home – my parents, both my brothers, my grandfather on mother's side and myself. We were listening to the radio and heard the Polish government announce that a war broke out. This news report that struck us all dumb said also that the Polish army has fended off the German invasion and was even advancing towards Germany. At first we trusted these news but when we saw the German planes flying over our town and bombing it unhindered, we realized that the announcements made by the Polish government are false, leading to immediate panic and a massive rush of people escaping to the nearby villages.

Our entire family left as well, heading on foot towards Ostrowiec, where we had some relatives, intending to continue east.

On the way we managed to acquire a wagon and the entire family drove on to the village of Adamów, where we paid some gentiles for lodging.

The next day we heard that the Germans were advancing on the village so we continued by wagon to Ostrowiec. By the time we arrived, the Germans were already there and we went to our aunt.

In the meantime we learned that other Jews continued fleeing toward the Wisła River. An extended flight was out of the question since we were accompanied by my elderly grandfather whom we did not wish to leave behind, and so we decided to stay in Ostrowiec until the Germans left.

In the meantime, we heard rumors from nearby towns that the Germans were abusing the Jews, kidnapping them to do hard labor, shaving their beards and so on. In Wierzbnik, however, everything was quiet. We therefore decided, two weeks later, to go back home. A few days later we arrived back home and found that the local gentiles have broken into our apartment and looted it. While we were still shaken by the sight, we were struck by a new disaster. A few days after our return home, the Germans took 20 hostages and demanded a contribution of 20,000 guldens or else the hostages will be executed.

Since my father was known as a Zionist activist, the relatives of the hostages came to him and asked him to negotiate the release of the abductees in return for the contribution with the Germans.

My father went and begged for the lives of the hostages, but the Germans insisted on getting paid. We had no other recourse but to collect the necessary sum, because we naively assumed this will be the end of the calamity. The money was raised quickly and delivered to the authorities, and the hostages were released. But the persecution did not end, it grew worse and worse.

As time passed, they started kidnapping people from their homes to do hard labor, abusing and humiliating them in the process. Once they took a few people, my brother among them, to a place by the train station and ordered them to carry large planks, tree trunks, while sadistically abusing them. They were told to lie on the ground and anyone who got up would be shot. In some cases they murdered a few people and ordered the others to dance.

On New Year, the Jews started organizing holiday prayer meetings. A Minyan was gathered on Koleyova Street, at the home of the Rubinstein family. While the people were communing with God, the Germans came and dragged them outside, beat them up and sent them to work at the train station, still wearing their tallits. Bearded folk had their beards shaved until their faces were bloody and raw. A few managed to hide, but it was only for a short while because the Germans conducted searches and pulled all those who were hiding out, beating them viciously.

Every day brought a new edict, leading to complete chaos. People once again turned to my father, who had contacts among the local authorities, but when he went there, all the clerks, who were former acquaintances of his, pretended they did not know him and even gloated at the fate of the Jews.

Germans were popping out like mushrooms after the rain and it turned out that many of them have been acting as spies for years, planted into the munitions factories in our town.

Since the edicts have grown too heavy for the people to bear, they once again turned to my father, asking him to form some kind of organization that would try and help them. Naturally there was very little they could do since the Germans already had detailed plans, directing the course of our lives towards the goal they have set, using vile trickery and cunning. At first the Jews thought that the war would be over quickly and everything will blow over, but it was a false hope. On the contrary, things became worse with each passing day.

 

Famine and diseases

Time passed and the ghetto was established, the people ordered to move into a specific residence area. The place quickly became crowded, filled with famine and disease. Winter offered its own share of natural disasters, which were felt even more keenly this time. We felt cold to the bone and suffered greatly, because there was no way of getting heating supplies (lumber or coal).

A short while after the establishment of the ghetto a typhoid plague broke out. Two rooms, taken from one of the families, were dedicated to treating the sick, and I worked there as a volunteer nurse. I pitched in despite my lack of experience in this field and together with Mrs. Chava Singer I arranged hot meals (a little porridge and hot soup), cooked by my mother, and served them to the sick that lay in the “isolaterium”, as the place was called. Most of the patients were refugees from Płock who came to us earlier.

Sanitation in this place was terrible; the people lay on bare bunks, while we collected some blankets to cover the patients. Medical aid was scarce; there was no medicine, just aspirin. Risking my own life, I washed the sick, put ice on their brows, deloused them and did everything a child like me could do, while hiding our actions from the Germans whom we feared.

Aside from the diseases, we were also heavily burdened by hunger. Getting what little food we could was a daring operation, involving great risk and low odds of success. The Germans have set up a military camp where our plywood factory used to stand, taking away our livelihood. I had dropped out of school at the time, but a group of children banded together and we continued studying as much as we could.

Fortunately, the Germans required a cheap workforce to operate the munitions factories in town, and so they hired the Jews and paid them a meager wage that somehow allowed us to “keep our heads above the water”.

The summer of 1941 showed the first signs of the Russo-German war, since the military camps were nearby and we could sense them stir, increasing their activity and readying their weapons. This event marked no respite for us, and perhaps made things worse. The German victories on the front lines improved their position, a fact that undermined the Jewish moral.

 

The eviction

During October 1942 the number of shipments of Jewish refugees to our town increased and rumors started circulating about the extermination camps. We felt our end was drawing near but we were helpless to resist since there was no place to run to; the surrounding area was hostile and offered no hope for sanctuary. We all prayed for a miracle, but the miracle never came.

In its stead came the black day. The disaster struck on 27.10.1942, a day that will live in infamy. Early in the morning we could already sense an increased activity around the ghetto. We saw armed Lithuanian soldiers with their steel helmets in front of our house, circling the ghetto. At dawn, we heard earsplitting shouts – “Juden Raus!”[1]

People started leaving their houses and hurrying with their belongings to the Rinek, as ordered. The Polish chief of police, Chamiltzki, came into our home that morning, accompanied by two gendarmes, and ordered father to go to town while we were ordered to leave the house in a hurry. Father went, leaving us behind in hope that he could do something.

We were left alone, with an ill grandfather lying in his bed, and mother decided not to leave the house and stay with him. Through the window we saw our relatives, the Lichtensteins, and as they passed by we asked them “Where to?”

We children wanted to go as well but mother forbid us from leaving grandfather's sickbed, while he only turned his head and cried. I went to him, kissed him and forcefully pulled my mother outside.

From that point on we merged with the stream of our townsfolk. We dragged our feet through the shoving, the threats and the shouts, until we arrived at the Rinek, where we were all ordered to stand in ranks of five.

The Lithuanian policemen, the Polish gendarmes and the SS made sure the lines were straight and orderly. The children held their parents' hands, frightened, and despair and fear were written on the faces of all. Gunfire cut the air in every direction and on both sides of the road we could see corpses lying in the gateways and alleys, and hear moans and gasps.

On our way to the Rinek, we saw Chanoch Biderman leave his house wearing a Tallit and walking alone. When most of the people have already gathered at the Rinek, the men in charge demanded to know who had a certificate and placed them in a separate queue.

The people who had certificates and were placed in that queue were later taken to work at the factory while the others were led to Koleyova Street. Both my brothers were sent to the munitions factory while my mother and I stayed for the time being at the Rinek, with about 60 other people. The Germans debated what to do with us, and then sent us to the factory camp as well.

At first, our entire family was at the Strzelnica camp, but later we were separated. My brother and I were sent to Majowka while my parents remained in Strzelnica.

 

To Auschwitz

On the night before 29.7.1944, the Germans and Ukrainians encircled the camp and people felt something was about to happen. Knowing that they had nothing left to lose, they decided on a desperate act that offered a glimmer of hope. About 200 people broke through the camp fence, trying to escape to the woods, though they didn't know exactly where they would go. But the guards opened fire on them and killed many. Those who managed to escape entered the woods and joined the partisans.

On the next day, the Germans ordered us to leave the camp and enter the railroad cars that stood on the tracks by the factory. We thought we were being taken to Treblinka but the signs we passed along the way – Katowice, Częstochowa – told us we were going in a different direction. After three days of travel, with no food or water, we reached Auschwitz.

Our first impression was terrible. At dawn we were ordered out of the cars, lined up in fives once more and marched to the baths, where they separated the men from the women and ordered us to give them any money or Jewels we had. Fortunately, our shipment was not taken to the incinerators, but sent to the women camp at Birkenau. I saw my little brother wave his hand at me and that was the last I saw of him.

In Auschwitz I worked in the same commando as my mother and we were given all manner of hard tasks, pushing wheelbarrows full of rocks, doing construction work, in the mud, in the cold, under terrible conditions. We were in Auschwitz until January 1945.

On 18.01.1945 I was separated from my mother and sent to Ravensbrück camp while my mother remained in Auschwitz. She was also sent to Ravensbrück later on, and we haven't met since.

From this camp we were sent after 3 weeks to Neustadt-Glewe which was called “Krappirungs Lager”. There were approximately 5,000 women there, only 600 of whom survived. This camp had a single purpose – there was nothing to do there, no work at all, only wait for a horrible death by starvation.

During these dark days I too faced a terrible experience, when I lost a friend who was like a sister to me, Tobcia Tenser, who came down with dysentery and died by my side.

One day we witnessed a rebellion of Russian prisoners. My cell contained 40 women, most of them Russian, and I was the only Jew among them. They brought iron bars with them and hid them in their mattresses. I noticed that they were organizing something and although I didn't understand “what was going on”, I was ordered to keep silent.

They used the bars to loosen up the grille and waited for their chance. When they noticed the German jailors taking off their uniform and the echoes of the front line coming closer, the Russian prisoners burst out and started escaping from the camp. I was left sitting on the floor because I couldn't move. Some male prisoners came later and told me we were free.


  1. Jews, out! Return

 

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