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[Page 240]

Only Graves Remain

Moshe Weintraub

The years since 1939, when I left my home, have flown by. I will never forget the day when the Nazis marched into our shtetl. My parents, my brothers and sisters, and also all our friends and family were frightened and confused, because we knew that the Jews would suffer the most.

A few weeks after the Germans entered our town, they immediately demanded that Jews go to work for them and I was among the first of those who were selected for this. This happened just as I was discussing with Bina Markowicz, my girlfriend, that we should flee from the Germans. We arranged to meet in the market, and there to make a plan of where to run. However, we didn't manage to do so, because while we were meeting, German soldiers arrived and took us for work. Bina was dragged away with other girls and they took me to work in a bakery, where they ordered me to load baskets of bread onto trucks.

I wasn't a big hero, and the baskets of bread weighed more than I, so once when I picked up a basket of bread, I tripped and spilled the loaves of bread onto the street. When the Nazi who kept guard over me saw what had happened, he first beat me and then took his bayonet and slashed my left hand, in which I was still holding the empty basket. My blood was flowing and my heart was filled with hatred for these murderers. When the bleeding didn't stop, he took me to the Starachowice hospital, where they bandaged me and told me to go home. I was terribly afraid. Before I reached home on Drilzer St., I again encountered a couple of Nazis who were guarding the street, and they beat me some more and told me to run away quickly, shooting at me over my head, so that I would be even more frightened.

When I barely entered the house, half dead with fear and the loss of blood, I found my parents and my sister Leah also very frightened, because they feared whether they would ever see me again alive in their lives.

My brother Yossl had gone out a few days previously to buy some bread, and they really never did see him again; my brother Shlomo was taken into the army when the war broke out; my brother Mendel went with his wife. Her father and family fled to Lipsk, but they encountered their tragic fate there. When the German thugs set fire to the house and shot into it, they also killed my brother. Some of the family managed to save themselves and they fled into the forests, but when my brother Mendel tried to jump out the window, the Germans shot him.

 

Off to Russia

Afterwards the peasants of Lipsk took over the half-burnt house. I could no longer bear it, seeing that there was no longer any hope for us Jews under the Nazis. I decided to save myself from the Germans by escaping.

I went to Lvov and smuggled myself across the border to the Russian side. In Lvov I encountered many people from Wierzbnik and we suffered greatly – having nothing to eat nor anywhere to sleep. Therefore I registered to go deep into Russia and work at manual labor. There I encountered Shlomo, the melamed's [teacher of young children] son, and Nahum, the miller's son. It was in winter, and we had no warm clothing, even though the cold in Russia was extreme, and could not be borne. We worked outdoors, quarrying stones, like prisoners.

Shlomo and Nahum fled back to Wierbznik, because I had received a letter from my parents saying that they had returned home, and that the situation was bearable. My brother Yossl was alive and working for the Germans; my brother Shlomo was alive and living in Radlice with his wife. I received hope that I would see my family again, and enlisted in the newly-founded army of Polish units that were in Russia.

After all my trials and tribulations, hunger and suffering, when the war ended I returned to Poland and the Poles told me that I should not go back because no one remained alive and I would find only graves and no Jews, and that the Poles would kill me, because they would think that I had come back for my inheritance…

More than once I have cried over the bitter fate that my parents, together with millions of Jews, suffered throughout their entire lives in Poland, living in constant fear of the Poles, struggling to eke out an existence, and added to this they also had to be burned by the Germans in their crematoria, for no reason whatsoever…


[Page 242]

Where No Birds Fly

Abe Zukerman

My family was a large one, like many other families in Wierzbnik, but out of seven children I alone survived. My Mother, may she rest in peace, was born in Radom and I remember nothing whatsoever about her because she died when I was too young to understand what was happening to her. Alone and with small children, my Father, may he rest in peace, married Hadassah, the daughter of Yechiel-Meir Bluestein from Slupia. My Father had a dry goods store and actively participated in Jewish life along with all the other Wierzbnik merchants.

For some time he was also a Municipal Councilor. I remember that my Father used to go to the Town Hall near our house to testify on behalf of Jews. Who does not recall how Polish citizens required that Jews be vouched for at every step. There was no way to avoid it, no such thing as giving excuses such as not having time. Such were the Jews of Wierzbnik, always ready to do a favour for one another. I remember well the nearby gmiles-khosodim, the Free Loan Society. There was no need to go there and beg like a pauper. A child could be sent to fetch what was needed, without signatures, without guarantors. When the time came to repay the loan, again it sufficed to send a child.

Unfortunately, I cannot write much more about the good qualities of the Jews of Wierzbnik, because I lived in that town for only a short time. Returning on all the holidays, I would witness incidents that clearly reflected the colourful life of the Jewish population of Wierzbnik, with its various organizations and activities.

In 1937-1938, I served in the Polish Army in Warsaw, and there I encountered the tremendous hatred of the Polish Anti-Semites. The Polish scoundrels, who later became the loyal helpers of the Nazis, despised the Jewish soldiers. Well-versed in Jew-hatred, they felt quite comfortable with the murders perpetrated by Hitler.

In 1939, when the war broke out, I had to report to Pzemysl to be mobilized. The rest of the members of my family had already prepared to go to smaller towns and villages in the belief that they would avoid the bombing. They abandoned all their possessions in order to save their lives. I went to the train accompanied by some relatives and friends. Because I was being sent to the front, I wondered if I would ever come back home again. Not for one second did I imagine that the opposite could happen, that I would return home and find no one left... it was beyond anything we could have imagined at the time.

To my great sorrow, that is what happened. All of my relatives and the entire Jewish population of Wierzbnik shared in the fate of the six million murdered victims. Yes, such a terrible bloodbath is beyond reason, and no human mind will ever comprehend it.

Sent to Archangelsk on the train to Pzemysl, I met a few Wierzbnikers: Hershel Goldberg, Pinchas Kris, and Milman. At the time when Stalin and Hitler had divided Poland between them, I found myself in Lemberg, and from there “Stalinist Saviours” sent me to a camp in Archangelsk. It was far away beyond, “the hills of darkness” where there was not the slightest trace of a human footstep to be found and no sign of human civilization.

There in the virgin forests, under the constant surveillance of the N.K.V.D. with their trained dogs and rifles at the ready, I quickly became an expert woodsman to the extent that I knew how to escape a falling tree. It often happened that out of ignorance, people ran in the wrong direction and were crushed by falling trees.

Working from early morning until late at night in the deep, dense forests, and enduring so many hardships, I imagined that if I survived and returned home, I would have much to tell about the harsh conditions of my wrongful exile. Even in Siberia, aside from fear, the surroundings were cultivated and not as incomprehensibly primitive and uncivilized as in Archangelsk. Apart from forests I saw nothing, not even a bird. In these faraway forests in the middle of nowhere, we who were able-bodied did the work not only of machines, but also of horses and oxen. Besides the daily physical toll of hard work, hunger and cold, at night, lying on bare boards we anguished over the question “why”.

Not knowing that worse could exist, that the devil could be even more terrible and take on more gruesome forms, we were constantly tormented by thoughts about justice that broke our spirit, and undermined our general health more than the heavy physical work. If we heard someone preaching equal rights, we understood it to be the propaganda of the “Russian paradise”, that in reality it was the opposite! Where was the truth? Thinking about this cost us many hours of badly needed sleep, but we could reach no conclusions.

On my return to Poland, when I crossed the former Russian-Polish border and discovered the Holocaust, there was no point in relating my experiences. I soon realized that pain and suffering had no limits, and that everything I had endured had been child's play compared to the torture and humiliation my relatives must have suffered up to the final moments of their lives.

 

No One Survived…

It was hard for me to grasp the horror. Like an eye getting used to the darkness, I reacted slowly when I met people who had survived Hitler's inferno and learned that only a negligible number of the great Polish Jewry had survived. I thought that the few who had managed to escape must be talented and capable people, among them my brother (Moniek) Mordechai-Pesach, may he rest in peace. It did not take long, however, before I realized how very naive I was. My illusions quickly evaporated. Hitler's Angel of Death did not care about a person's fine qualities, was not afraid of the righteous, had not spared the sick or the innocent children. The fact that a few remnants of European Jewry had survived, that some Jews had managed to escape the clutches of the sadistic murderers was sheer luck and not a result of decency or cleverness. The specially trained murderers were extremely talented. My fervent hope that someone from my family had survived turned out to be an empty dream, sheer fantasy. I am utterly incapable of expressing in words how devastating it was for me to make this discovery and come to terms with the fact that not a single member of my entire family had survived. They had all perished. Even my sister Gitshe, may she rest in peace, who had been on a visit to Poland from Palestine, was also destined never to return. I was now certain that I could no longer remain on Polish soil. The tragic disappearance of all who were dear to me convinced me that the strong ties that bound me to my place of birth had been severed. I decided to leave Poland forever.


[Page 244]

Father, I am Going to the Crematorium

Pinchas Helstein

During our time in the vale of tears, while our lives were in the balance, we went through such suffering and hardships that can scarcely be described in words. A single drop of the ocean of blood and tears that drowned our lives would be enough to send a shiver through your bones.

And although walking through the valley of the shadow of death, threatened every step of the way by oblivion, has almost became second nature to us, there were moments that could darken days and years and were carved into memory forever.

After the Death March, the remnants of the large host that started out on this path of agony arrived in Buchenwald. Here the demonic dance started anew, as if the hell we have been through never happened and we had to begin anew. And according to Nazi customs, the daily routine starts with a “selection”. Considering our condition after the deadly journey and the standards of the SS doctors, we were all fit for death, but the Nazis love order beyond anything else, and the extermination process must take place according to the “rules” they have established for this “game”. And so a selection would take place and determine the fate – who will live and who will die – of the exhausted, the starved and those barely standing on their feet, all according to the standards of the executioners. For a long time, I managed to share the fate of my son. Being together was the only flicker of hope during our bitter ordeal and it gave us the willpower to overcome the pain and hardships of this road. And then, not long ago, we were separated and since then I have been trying to keep an eye on him. I followed my son directly and indirectly, anxious for his fate, and now that which I dreaded came to be.

When I heard the dreadful news about the selection I ran out of the cabin, to make sure that my son was not swallowed by this dreadful whirlpool leading to the abyss. For some reason I thought that I could save him from this edict. But my heart whispered once more that the footsteps of the angel of death are echoing closer. Like a gale I jumped from my bunk and rushed immediately outside, frantically making my way to the selection yard. My way was paved with obstacles, and those who broke the rules were sentenced to death, because there is no other punishment in the death camps. And in the meantime, the devil has already completed his work. The lines were already drawn, who will go back to the cabin and who will head to the crematorium. I was right, the place and the circumstances were telling me that my son was in danger and my skin was prickling, I felt my mind slipping, the nightmare raising beads of sweat on my forehead. The lines start moving, the column heading back breaking up while the other continues marching. I look for my son among those returning and I do not see him. It is twilight and I can't see well, but straining with all my might, I notice him and he sees me and damn my eyes! The column draws away and I am stunned by the sight, while my son's voice echoes from afar “Father! I am headed to the crematorium!”

That was the most horrible moment in my entire life.

Quickly I ran to the camp's doctor and offered him the remainder of my money to save my child's life. He probably would have angrily refused me but at my heels came one of his townsmen, whose relative was doomed by the selection as well, and begged for his life. I know not how they were related but the executioner in the white robe consented and went and erased two names, that of the man's relative and that of my son. Unfortunately, by the time my son was saved miraculously from the Holocaust, the terrible years already took their toll on him. His health deteriorated and after his liberation he fell ill and passed away, despite our best efforts.
We will always remember him with endless love.


[Page 246]

From Wierzbnik to Mauthausen

Zvi Unger (Heshek)

On the day the war broke out, German airplanes appeared in the skies of our town and we recognized them, but I was a child and knew nothing of war at the time. I ran to watch the anti-aircraft cannons that were mounted by the steel factory and immediately there was an alarm followed by cannon fire. Some bombs fell by the factory later. It seemed the Germans had no intention of heavily damaging the industry, since they were certain they would inherit it. I ran home and found everyone debating what we must do. Finally it was decided that we should defect to the village of Waœniów, located 30 kilometers from Wierzbnik, because we had relatives there.

When we arrived at the village we found the place calm, and our relatives welcomed us and shared their home with us, even rented a room for us because they were a large family of 13 people. Other refugees, from our town and other places, have also been arriving there.

 

“Vive le France”

After staying there for three days, the Germans came into the village and a bizarre event took place. The villagers thought for some reason that those were the French, and sympathizing with France they welcomed the German soldiers warmly, with flowers and cheers of “vive le France”. At some point a German motorcycle from the front unit stopped and the rider shouted loudly “Vorwärts!”

I grew scared and told our relatives that the soldiers that came to the village are German. When they heard that, the streets were quickly cleared of people and everyone shut themselves in their houses. In light of this situation, my brother decided to leave and head towards the Russian border, because he felt the danger was drawing near, and he left the place with a group of friends from Wierzbnik. When they arrived in Ostrowiec they found more Germans there, decided there was no point to continue, and returned to us.

My father and my sister Polcia decided to go back to Wierzbnik and learn what was going on there, while the rest of the family stayed in the village for the time being. Two weeks later, my father came from Wierzbnik to take us all home and so we did.

Upon our return, we found the courtyard (it was a large courtyard named “Mysliborski” after my aunt's family, which owned the entire row of houses on this street) full of Germans, who set up camp there while residing at the town courthouse. The conquering regime issued a curfew between 8 at night and 6 in the morning, but since the courtyard was big you could go from house to house through it. As time went by, the Germans forbade that kind of thing as well. The situation grew difficult because we couldn't get any water and had to plead with the Germans from time to time to allow us to get some water. Sometimes they agreed, but mostly they refused. Going to the toilet posed a considerable problem, because although you could store water, you still needed to use the toilet from time to time… and that posed some major complications. As a boy, I managed to endear myself to some of the soldiers and their affection allowed me to help people. Among other things, they allowed people to come pray at our house. We already knew that it would be impossible to pray at the synagogue on the New Year of 1941, because the Germans have forbidden it, and so a Torah Scroll was brought to our house and a Minyan was organized, with the permission of a German sergeant and at the cost of a few small favors.

During those days, a cousin from Yugoslavia called Shmuel Unger was staying with us. He was a cantor, and led prayer during the high holidays.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, people were praying at our house again and the German who authorized the prayers came in during Kol Nidrei and asked that we pray quietly because it was very dangerous. We did not understand what he meant, but the next day the great synagogue was burned down. The thing I remember most from those days as a boy was the heartrending prayer that sounded, in anguish and heartbreak.

 

A change of lifestyle

The conquest regime started to affect every aspect of our lives, especially work and livelihood. The limitations and edicts forced many to change their profession. People started using up their savings, sold property to the gentiles, traded in the black market and risked their lives going to the villages and selling valuables for food. But when the Germans started abducting people to do hard labor, mostly demeaning, unnecessary tasks, it became impossible to get anything from the villages. A famine started and grew worse with every passing month.

People tried at first to avoid the abductions to work at the factories, but the hunger forced them to turn to those very workplaces, since they were the only sources of food to sustain the body.

 

The Jewish council

After a while, we learned that the Germans have appointed a council composed of town dignitaries and known public activists, and ordered it to assign people for the different workplaces such as the Czerwonka iron mine and others. This council had trouble securing the necessary quota, because people refused to obey them; and so the Germans sent a squad to attack the council and everyone they found was beaten senseless, among them my relative Romek Singer, who was beaten until his head was bleeding and then ordered to show them where other Jews live. The Germans didn't even allow him to bandage his head and clean off the blood. As a boy, I ran to him with a bowl of water and a rag and when the Germans entered a particular house, I used the opportunity to wipe his face and head.

We were then forced to show them every Jewish house. We were so afraid that we even led them to our home. They gathered a large group of Jews from those houses and threatened that anyone who refused to work will look like Singer. Our lives became a little more organized then; institutes such as the employment office were established, and the Germans considered them a way of extorting money. From this point on, Jews were sent to work at the various factories. Every man aged 17-45 had to be registered with the employment office, which would direct people to their various jobs.

In April 1940 the Gestapo and their leader, Becker, showed up for the first time. They conducted a search for traitors based on false information, but found nothing.

 

The establishment of the ghetto

A while later came the order that all Jews must live in places and houses specifically designated for them. The zones that were allotted us were one street in the Rinek, as well as Krotka, Niska, Visoka and Radishveska Streets. These streets were all adjoined and made it easy to enclose the Jewish residents within a specific area.

Our family moved to Krotka Street, at the corner of the Rinek, where we had a fairly good apartment because we traded our old one with some gentiles. Seven of us lived in that apartment.

One day, I believe it was on Shabbat, I went down to the street and saw a car full of Gestapo, Commander Becker among them, pull over by our house. They approached me and asked: “Jew?” The Jews were already supposed to wear the mark of disgrace at the time, but as a young boy I was not obligated to do so. I answered that I do not understand. One of them spoke Czech and asked me in Polish if I was a Jew and I answered I wasn't. He continued asking if I lived there and I said I did. He continued: “Where do the Jews live?” I showed him a house where Christians lived, hoping to buy myself some time to warn the Jews about the situation. I tried to escape them but failed. In the meantime, a Christian girl came down and they asked her if I was a Jew and she said I was. Becker lifted his stick and hit me over the head. I started running, and since I feared pursuit I escaped to the Rinek and hid in a yard. My head started swelling but I managed to reach my relative, Gucia Singer, who lived at the Rinek and she bandaged my head. In the meanwhile, the Gestapo found themselves a prostitute and stayed with her.

As the danger grew, some people organized an escape attempt and headed east. Some of them managed to leave the war behind and survived. Our own situation became worse and worse, especially in the field of housing, as refugees flowed into town from other places and the Germans started evicting people. One morning in 1942, the Germans broke into Jewish houses early in the morning and drove the people toward the Rinek. Our family was also among those evicted. We had factory worker certificates and we thought they granted us some privileges, but we were disappointed. When we arrived, no one knew what would happen to us. We thought that we would be taken somewhere to work. The Germans were selecting people for work regardless of the certificates. My brother was missing and only my father, my mother and my sister were with me. I was a child at the time, but when the Germans examined me and asked for my age, I innocently gave myself a few more years and said I was 18. One of them wanted to put me among the evicted and the other mentioned that I was rosy-cheeked and could still work. Later I found out that only my father and my sister Pola were chosen for work, while my mother and my other sisters – Lutka and Ruszka – were put with the group of the people who would be evicted and later sent to Treblinka.

From there we were marched to Strzelnica, which was a fenced labor camp surrounded by sentries. When we arrived in this camp they confiscated everything we had, left us bare and naked and assigned us cabins. There were three-storied bunks in those cabins, which were very crowded and dirty. We worked at the munitions factory for 12 hours a day and the only food we received was a slice of bread and a spoonful of soup. The regime in camp was very strict, and every escape attempt resulted in death. Even during our march to the camp a German was running among our ranks threatening: “Anyone who takes a step out of line would be shot on the spot.” To make good on the threats, they fired into the crowd and killed some people, among them a man named Rosenberg who was walking in the row before me. After a short while, a typhoid plague broke out, resulting in its own casualties. My sister was among the first to fall ill and I stole some flour from the kitchen in order to get her some food, but I was caught with the flour and taken to the guard room where I received a beating, some 70 lashes. After the beating I was ill myself and they suspected I was down with typhus. Plague victims were assigned a special cabin, number 5. I didn't want to go there because I knew I didn't have typhus, but some of the other patients refused to go unless I did as well.

 

Saved from certain death

The man in charge of camp police was a hard and brutal man, but he showed me some kindness, perhaps because I was a friend of his son, and kept me from going to the typhus patient cabin. The horror took place the very next day, when the Gestapo went into the cabin and shot all the patients. After a while, they carried out an “action” in the camp and took some of the people away, among them the sick and the feeble. The beating I received made me weak enough to be part of that group. At some point one of the Germans winked at me, signaling for me to approach him. I approached him, trembling, and when he asked why I was shivering like that I said that I was cold. He ordered to dress me up and I returned to my place in line. Then I was ordered to run, and those who couldn't keep up were taken away. Suddenly, someone in front of me tripped and I fell on top of him. A German ordered me to leave the place and get in a car. I did as he ordered, got in the car and then right out the other side, then hid in a potato warehouse for about an hour and a half. After they loaded all the sick people into the freight cars, including my cousin, Efraim, they drove them to the Bug River and murdered them to a man. I went back to camp and continued my arduous life. In 1943, the camp in Strzelnica was abandoned and everyone was moved to a different camp, Majowka, a barren and rocky place. The regime at the new camp was the same as before.

Another selection was carried out and some people were sent to Firlej, an area near Radom, where they were murdered. We stayed in camp Majowka until 1944, when the camp was abandoned and the people were transferred to the camp of an actual factory. It was here that people started organizing an escape attempt. Two such attempts were made, the first of them at night: a group of people broke through a wooden fence and crossed it but were discovered by the Germans, who lobbed grenades at them, killing some of them. Others succeeded in escaping, and we never learned their fate. The next day, the Germans confiscated our shoes and conducted a lineup. A short while later, another escape attempt was made. Some of the people managed to escape despite being discovered by the Germans, while others were killed. The day after the second escape we were loaded on cars and taken about 1,500 kilometers away, to Auschwitz. On the way to Auschwitz, my brother tried to escape from the car; the window was broken and he and several others threw themselves out, but the Germans noticed and killed them.

Another selection was carried out in Auschwitz, to determine who will work and who will go to the gas chambers. My father was taken to work and I was sent to my demise by Dr. Mengele.

I stood in line that day, and when I realized where I was being taken I managed to run and hide in a toilet. I heard a rumor that they were looking for craftsmen and I was already desperate enough to take a risk. A German in civilian clothing was standing there and I introduced myself to him as a mechanical locksmith, but he answered me sarcastically that there were no mechanical locksmiths in Poland… “How old are you?” he asked. I said I was 20. When he heard that, he took me. This act saved my life, because they would have taken me to the crematorium otherwise. I was taken to the town of Œwiętochłowice by Katowice and conditions there were pretty good. We worked at a cannon factory. We stayed there until January 1945. Then we were transferred to Mauthausen and our conditions deteriorated again.

In March 1945 we were taken again to Gensenkirchen in Austria. This was strictly a death camp, with nothing to do and nothing to eat – dying was the only option. People died there like flies, we had to split a single loaf of bread among 14 people. There were people who didn't even get their share… And that was where we stayed until the Americans came and freed us.


[Page 251]

A Gruesome Reality

Yaffa Barkai – Rosenwald

I was eleven years old when the dark nightmare of the horrific bloody days spread like a specter and covered the bright horizon of my childhood and clouded over the present and future of my beloved family; my father, mother and younger brother Mordchele.

I was too young then and I understood little, but seeing the worry and fear of my beloved parents, hearing the terrible news of Jews being grabbed for slave labor, and other troublesome edicts, I understood that we were living in bitter times.

The situation grew worse from day to day; it wasn't enough that we remained without any income, without businesses that had been robbed, and without all our possessions, but our lives themselves became forfeit. And thus we quickly had to leave our home and move into the crowded ghetto.

I recall that in those difficult days we received news from my mother's sister, Sara Goldfarb from Zwoleń, that their house had been burnt down, and despite all the difficulties, my beloved, blessed father managed to send them pillows and bedding. Sharing the last bit was deeply rooted in our family.

But the Nazis weren't satisfied with limiting the Jews' rights and utterly humiliating them, but their devilish plans thought up an “Endlösung“ [final solution] to the Jewish question and they were bloodthirsty and demanded the annihilation of the Jews. So in my most blooming years, I was torn from the possibility of enjoying peace and education, development and freedom. My eyes saw only pain and horror, and all my education and knowledge consisted of drawing from the strength and endurance of family sources, which were permeated with so much love for humanity.

I suffered greatly until I was rescued from that hell and I am simply not capable of gathering my thoughts without describing the ghastly reality of despair, apathy and danger, until the downfall of our foe. And as the prophet Ezekiel says (16:6) “And when I passed by you and saw you struggling in your own blood, I said to you in your blood, 'Live!' Yes, I said to you in your blood, 'Live!'“ – From this blood you must find the strength and energy to rebuild a new life, and give it new content.

Thus we plant and re-forge the chain of our beloved parents in our own homeland, so that such a catastrophe can never recur, so that we will never again be helpless and unprotected. This is our revenge on all our enemies in the whole world.


[Page 252]

Sorrowful Reunions Tragic Encounters

Esther Zukerman-Zilberman

Very soon after the outbreak of war in 1939, when the German murderers had completely taken over our town Vierzbnek, we could already foresee the tragedy that would befall the Jewish people.

As the situation became increasingly intolerable, people found various ways to escape. If they could not save their entire family, then perhaps they could save a child. Whoever had Christian acquaintances they considered trustworthy, gave these Christians all their possessions, hoping for the best, in the way a drowning person grasps at straws...In his youth, before leaving Poland for Paris, my brother, Pintshe Zilberman, had a good relationship with the Christian Kshishznovski. He was known in Vierzbenek as a person with liberal views, a man with a secular outlook in contrast to the majority of Polish Anti-Semites. To this Christian, my brother Pintshe and sister-in-law Manya (née Shift) entrusted the life of their child, believing in the conscience of their good Christian friend but at the same time hoping for a great miracle.

The Christian sent their child to his sister somewhere in Galicia, where there would be less suspicion, and the risk of hiding a Jewish child would be much smaller. As for himself and his wife, my brother had an agreement with another Christian who lived on the road to Mikhalov by the name of Mazuranov, that they could hide with him if the necessity arose. They paid him well for this. This was the same place that my late husband Beniek and I had chosen to hide our two innocent children, for which the Christian received a large sum.

 

Polish Betrayal

On the terrible day of the round-up, amid the heart-rending screams and the horrendous confusion, my brother and sister-in-law were separated. Unable to find his wife in the dreadful commotion, my brother ran to Masurov and hid in the attic, thinking that this wife would also make her way there. He waited for her in vain. He never saw his wife again, because she was immediately rounded up and sent away on her last journey.

After a few days of sitting in the attic, the Christian's wife told my brother to leave, choosing to forgo the large sum of money she had received. During these critical moments she revealed the treachery of the Christians, even though she had been paid well.

Sitting in the cramped attic, my brother Pintshe heard how this couple turned away my child Meyishi (Meyer), sending him to his fate. It is easy to imagine my brother Pintshe's tremendous grief and heartbreak lying in his hiding place, unable to protest the inhumanity, treachery and brutal treatment of the child by these heartless Christians. Under the cover of darkness, my brother made his way to Kshishznovski.

I knew nothing about all this, and had no idea where my brother was. To find out where he had disappeared to, despite the danger, I began to make inquiries among certain Christians, but alas without results. I also went to Kshishznovski to see if I could get any information there. I risked my life to do this because I had to sneak away from the commando taking us to conduct forced labour and then later sneak back into the same group as it was returning to the camp. With bitter tears, I begged Kshishznovski to tell me if he knew anything about my brother Pintshe. I appealed to his conscience, telling him that I was the only one left of my entire family, and that now my only hope and consolation was that my brother Pintshe was still among the living. I also explained to him that I was no longer safe, and that something could happen to me at any moment. Every day Jews in the camps were being shot and murdered for no reason. I kept begging for his pity. I let him know that all our possessions had been distributed among various Christians, and if my brother Pintche was still alive, he could help himself to these things. I also let him know that what we had given away to Polish “friends” was worth a lot of money. I still hoped and believed that if he knew anything, he would help me. We had enjoyed friendly relations with him for so many years and my brother Pintche had been a close childhood friend of his.

 

A “Warm” Christian

Only when I was about to leave, did my deep despair and many supplications move him, but only to the extent that he uttered these few words, “Don't worry about your brother Pintshe, he is in a good place, he has a place to eat and sleep in a clean and warm house.”

The Christian emphasized the word “warm”, because it was a bitterly cold winter. Other than these few words he would say nothing. But I recognized that even these few words had cost him great effort. Moved by my suffering and desperation, he did not want to let me leave with nothing and he wanted to reassure me. Hearing these few words, I left the house partly consoled, thinking that perhaps it was really true. I felt a spark of humanity in his words.

A few months later my brother Pintshe suddenly appeared in the camp by sneaking in with work commando. Only then did I discover that when I had been at Kshishznovski's house, he had been in the same room hiding under the table and had heard everything I had said. Hearing my sad report, he was choked with tears but could not call out and reveal his presence because it had to remain an absolute secret, even to his own sister. My bitter situation broke him mentally and physically, so that he fainted under the table and did not even hear me leave. My brother also told me that after I left, once he had regained consciousness, Kshishznovski told him that he could not have behaved otherwise. Even though Kshishznovski sympathized with our sorrowful situation, he was afraid that I might confide in someone else and something would be said that could endanger both my brother and himself.

My brother Pintche was miserable once in the camp. He was hounded on all sides because he had not registered himself and was there illegally. This was especially dangerous at roll call. The count had to be accurate, no fewer and no more. If someone were missing, a relative of the missing person was held responsible and threatened with being shot. It was also a problem if the number was too high. Therefore my brother was constantly persecuted.

On the other hand, not informing them of his presence had a positive side. My brother could go in and out of the camp whenever the opportunity presented itself, and thus he could move around freely. Sometimes this “freedom” became the object of envy by those who without logic considered it unfair - why he could come and go, as he wanted and why was he able to return to the world of so-called freedom. One time my brother came into the camp sick with typhus. This was especially dangerous because in addition to the disease itself, if one of the two big murderers, Shrot or Becker, ever were to come in and ask who was lying there, he would be shot on the spot. I am referring to the two-blood??thirsty Nazi murderers. The two cold-blooded sadists, who are now on the prisoners' dock in Germany for their important role in the torture of our people, have the gall to deny all their horrific crimes. However, my brother was saved from the murderer's clutches and they never noticed him.

 

Just Like Hell

As soon as he felt better, he left the camp. For a long time I did not know where he was. At the same time I also got out of the camp, but I was plagued by guilt that someone else would be held responsible. At that time two cousins of mine were with me in the camp - Tobche Wolfovich (now lives in Canada) and her sister Rochel Lipman (now lives in Israel). When I came back, Feygele Rabinowicz was very disappointed because she was supposed to follow me to the same place. She had wanted to cry out: “Don't you see what is happening? They are transporting us from here!” In the camp it looked just like hell. People were falling as though they had been poisoned. Everyone was so upset. There was a foreboding about tomorrow.

Although no one knew exactly what awaited us, we still felt that the earth was burning under our feet... but we did not know why. Suddenly it became very quiet and camp life returned to so-called “normal”. The rumour that we were about to be deported evaporated.

Again I wanted to establish contact with my brother Pintche, who was somewhere in hiding. One day I overheard Sarah Steinhart (Pastavsky - now in Israel) telling a Ukrainian guard to let her out and she would bring him back something. Hearing this, I ran over and left the camp with her. She had also distributed many possessions among several Poles.

This was in the evening after work. We arranged to meet in a certain place when we were ready to go back, and whoever got there first would wait for the other. We parted, each going to a specific Polish friend to take back some of our belongings. Sarah Steinhart was done sooner. Not finding me in the agreed spot, she set out to find me. It did not take long before we found each other. Telling each other about the “miracles” that happened to us, Sarah asked me if I had seen my brother Pintche. I said, no, that everywhere I went I asked about him, but no one had anything to tell me about him. Then I noticed that Sarah suspected that I was not telling her the truth. 1 could even see that she resented the fact that had it not been for her, I would not have had this chance. However, when I reassured her that I was not hiding anything from her, that I really had no idea where my brother Pintche was, she grabbed me by the arm and said: “Come, I will show you where your brother is.” She explained that while she was looking for me, she remembered that I was at Kshishznovski's. Passing by there by coincidence she noticed my brother Pintche from a distance. With my heart pounding, I went back there with her.

As we approached the Christian's house, I froze and simply could not move. We noticed a curtain on a cellar door slowly opening and out crawled my brother very carefully. Shocked and upset, I stood there until he had crawled out completely. I hardly recognized him. He had a frightened face with long whiskers like some Poles used to wear. His appearance reflected the sad and difficult conditions he was struggling with day in and day out. His face and frightened eyes revealed the anxiety and insecurity of his life. We all quickly went into the cellar so that no one would see us. I was still bewildered, unaware of what was happening. I had just been at this house where I was told that no one knew anything about my brother, and now suddenly we were standing face to face. At that moment I stood and wondered whether this was reality or a dream. When I regained my senses, and had calmed down a little, my brother explained that the Christian must not know that we had discovered this hiding place, or he would make my brother leave the cellar immediately.

We could not stay with him very long because we did not want to return to the camp late at night. However, I did arrange with my brother that, if possible, I would come to him the following day. Indeed the next morning, when I went with the commando to work, I broke away from the line and went straight to my brother in the cellar, where we spent the entire day together because I knew when the people in the commando were supposed to go back to the camp. It is hard for me to describe the time we spent together. We had to be silent and keep to ourselves the tremendous pain of our dark fate, not daring to allow ourselves even the smallest sigh.

After a few hours I had to leave the cellar. We parted with tears in our eyes but could not allow ourselves the luxury of crying together. We exchanged glances filled with pain and sorrow and a large question mark. Neither of us knew what would happen next.

 

In the Hands of the Furious Murderers

Although we could not cry, our parting was so tragic that I cannot describe it in words. A short time after I visited my brother, the Christian received an order to vacate his house. The Nazis requisitioned his house. Forced from his cellar hideout, my brother returned to the camp and this time the camp council registered him. He was then so badly beaten by the Nazi murderer Shrot, that my brother became very sick. As soon as he had recovered somewhat and could walk again, my brother left the camp. When the Nazi murderers and their helpers were informed about this, they immediately arrested me. The scoundrel Shrot beat me and set his dog on me who tore everything off me. He tortured me to find out where my brother went. He wanted to extract from me my brother's hiding place. If not he threatened I would be shot. I keep on shouting that I did not have the slightest idea. I summoned all my strength to survive this ordeal. Despite the dreadful torture at the hands of the infuriated murderer I did not break down. By a miracle I escaped certain death. I never set eyes on my brother Pintche again, and did not know what became of him. I never again had the opportunity to make contact with him because soon afterward we were sent to Auschwitz.

After the war I was in Vierzbenek and saw Kshishznovski who told me that when the Germans requisitioned his house, Pintche came out of the cellar and went to Vanatsie where a few so-called “good” Poles lived. Kshishznovski saw him there once and then lost contact with him. He also knew that my brother left there to go to Mietelitsk. Kshishznovski even advised me not to go around asking questions, reminding me of the slaughter by Polish Anti-Semites, the faithful servants of the Nazis. Kshishznovski also advised me to go to a larger city, and the sooner the better.

I did not follow his advice, but went to make inquiries in Vanatsie. In one house I recognized many household items that had belonged to my brother and sister-in-law Manya. But no one had anything to tell me about the disappearance of my brother. On the way to Vanatsie, I noticed Russian soldiers in the distance. As we came closer, I suddenly froze in my tracks and could not believe my eyes. One of the soldiers turned out to be my cousin Jacob Sheiner, who had run away to Russia, fought with the Red Army, and now lives in Israel.

Mindel Binstock (now lives in Toronto, Canada) told me that while she was hiding in the house of the Christian Plasse, she once heard the voice of my brother Pintche begging to be let in, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. It seems that he fell into the hands of Polish murderers. His constant vigilance, his daring courage and speed had saved him from the clutches of the Nazis but were not enough to help him escape the cunning Polish Anti-Semites. Whenever a few Poles with a spark of humanity and morality wanted to help him, there always were many more Polish murderers, servants of the Nazis, who were constantly persecuting him until he finally succumbed to their bestiality. His bones lie in an unknown grave.

Sorrow will remain forever in the hearts of his family, his brother Antshl, his son Claude, and his sister who wrote these lines.

 

Wierzbnik's Lament - anonymous

When I take my pen in hand to chronicle that gruesome period, I am overcome with trembling and horror. I can't find the words to express and describe that sad and tragic time. The extent of the tragedy is too great to possibly describe the terrible suffering that individuals endured in that vale of tears. Perhaps with time a general picture of the disaster will be produced, which will grow into a monumental work that will transmit the terrible limitations of humanity and its culture.

Among the hundreds of cities and towns in Poland, in our shtetl Wierzbnik the Jewish population was also composed of small shopkeepers, merchants, craftsmen, etc. The majority of Jews were religious, believers, who used to go to public prayers every day in the “shtiblech“ [small one room prayer halls of the Hassidim] and the synagogue. Jews with beards and ear locks, dressed in long capotes, with round Jewish caps on their heads. The youth, on the other hand, were mainly modern and wore European clothes. There were also some young people that were religious and studied in the study area of the synagogue. The specific melody of the Gemara [part of the Talmud] could be heard from afar and resounded all day long until late in the evening.

Everything went along in this way until 1939, which will be recorded as the year in which the commercial situation of the Jewish population reached its culmination.

The anti-Semitic economic battle against the Jews was waged in every way and with all possible means. Because of these circumstances, the Jewish youth were early on burdened with earning a living, in order to provide themselves with a basis for future existence. But disregarding the worries of earning a living, the Jewish youth in Wierzbnik were not behindhand with their nationalistic education and aspirations. This all found expression in the active Zionist activity, and the main thing – in the collections for the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod [United Israel Appeal].

 

A Sad Date

The date of September 1, 1939 will remain a dramatic event in general human history, but for Jews it will remain in their memories forever as a ghastly specter that causes every Jewish heart to quiver. After the horrible facts, we first realized the terrible calamity later on. We Jews saw what a weak political sense we had, what our political orientation was. We were sunk in a hoo-ha of daily life, in trade and business. We served the “golden calf” and other idols, and we didn't want to see the reality, and that is truly why we didn't foresee the sad future.

It was Friday, September 1, 1939: the whole shtetl was encompassed with trembling, some sort of weird nervousness pervaded everyone. The tension grew, mixed with fear and terror. People absentmindedly ran to each other, running in fear, not knowing where to. The events weren't long in coming. Everything occurred like split lightning. The heavens and the earth all spewed fire; panic and pandemonium ensued. What could we do?

In the evening the terror became even greater. The artillery, bombs and shells cut through the air and our hearts became heavy and our souls were filled with gloom. As though purposely to upset us, the dawn irritated us with its bright sunlight, but the birds sang sorrowfully, as though they were mourning the fate of our doomed shtetl. Movement in the shtetl became feverish; each person looked at the others with questioning looks; what's happening?

We very quickly discovered that the Polish army was not withstanding the push of the attacking German army, and it was quickly withdrawing. The cut off army increased the panic and the nervousness and tension grew. Everyone wanted to run. People took their things; the psychosis of running encompassed the entire shtetl and people ran around in a frenzy, not knowing where to, without a specific goal. The confused running around presented a sad picture. Frightened men, women and children ran without a goal. Several days later everyone realized that the running was senseless. The German beast, which was motorized, caught up with everyone and sowed destruction and death at every step. However, it didn't take long, and the blood-soaked days set a terrible fear into motion. Everyone remained at home. Men didn't show their faces in the street at all, and at night we didn't undress to go to bed. Large groups of families gathered together.

 

How Do We Avenge Ourselves

The sleepless nights and days dragged out in this way, filled with horror and fear. Everyone sat at home, not daring to stick their heads out, and outside a glorious sun shone. The world was filled with light, but for the Jews it was dark and bitter. Many Poles sprung up from below the ground, who immediately collaborated with the Germans. The enemy began to abase the Jews, transforming them into animals, taking away their human worth, and the Poles laughed, enjoying the Jewish pain.

When you reflect on the wild acts of the Nazi murderers, the blood congeals in your veins, your heart bursts from anger and you are encompassed with only one desire, how do you take revenge.

Our entire two thousand-year old history of martyrdom, in which every page is full of horror and fright, blood and tears, pales in comparison to what the Hitler-cannibals did and thought of. World history contains stories about wild Huns, grim Tatars, Roman emperors, Torquemada inquisitions, but what the Herrenvolk evinced in the twentieth century, exceeds everything…

Calculated and planned, with a variety of tricks and deceptions, they broke up Jewish life in all its aspects: spiritually, physically and in morally, accompanied by distress and aggravation, hunger and cold, naked and barefoot with savage beatings and inhuman conditions, through defilement and sadism, which increased from day to day.

That is how the Wierzbnik Jews suffered along with all the Jews in other places and cities, until 1942, which brought with it the atrocious total destruction of the entire Jewish community. Life became more and more precarious, murdering Jews became a “normal” daily occurrence. Everything was confiscated and taken away; the murders took on a mass character; the ghettos become filled with fear and it felt as though dark clouds were approaching.

 

Extermination

The deportations of the time were characterized by absolute annihilation and extermination. Terrible news about fire and blood traveled all over Poland, and everyone was seized with the fear that the mass-murder was coming closer and closer.

Jewish possessions were robbed and plundered – they took away houses, money, jewelry, furniture, linens, all valuables collected by the Germans and their collaborators; even the hair of the Jewish mothers and daughters, the beards and ear locks of the religious men were collected. The Christian Poles helped the Nazi murderers destroy the Jews; they uncovered the tracks of every hiding place and bunker, even though they themselves were an object of German hatred. Thus the desolation and pain of the Jewish population multiplied. Death and fear prevailed everywhere.

The darkness in the Jewish hearts had no limits; everyone was engulfed with fear, and the air was saturated with bloody tears, groans and desperation.

The bloody drama was so great that it was almost impossible to grasp. Yes, writers, musicians and composers, masters of the language of the soul, creators and thinkers of human culture – Schiller, Goethe, Hegel, Kant. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – look how low your people has fallen! They went beyond the cannibals, the barbarians and the wild Huns.

You created models of the highest poetry, heavenly sounds of music and singing, that heal hearts and souls, and the beasts created compositions of blood, tears, pain, distress and suffering. Their culture is Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka and Majdanek! Their poetic creation is the Horst-Wessel song (“When Jewish blood spurts from the knife”). In one fell swoop they burned up all the cultural values and achievements of hundreds of years!

That is how the new martyrdom history of the Jewish people ended, who with all their strength clung to the existence of something that didn't exist. When we recall all this, our soul weeps within us and an eternal sorrow remains in our hearts, which will never leave us.

We will always remember our shtetl; our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, our dearest ones, who were destroyed because they were Jews, will always remain in our memory.

I remember you my shtetl Wierzbnik, I see the traces of that former life, which was extinguished from the Jewish entity that reverberated in you.

The laughter of the Jewish children is no longer heard, the Gemara melody that was carried from the synagogue and the shtiblech has been silenced; you no longer hear the voices of the people at prayer in the synagogues and shtiblech; everything has disappeared forever! The song of hope and longing of the former Jewish youth – the Hatikvah, the song of Zion and redemption, has been torn off – take comfort my shtetl. All those who survived will always carry your memory in their hearts. You were also a victim together with us all. You also donated your share to the bitter total of six million Jews.

Yes, the little band of survivors is the most tragic generation in the Jewish history of martyrdom. They drank from the bitter cup of tears until the end, and on their shoulders they bore the entire horror of the destruction and annihilation. But at the same time, they belong to the luckiest generation, which dreamt and yearned for redemption and freedom, and who always directed their aspirations and hopes to the rebirth and reconstruction of the Jewish people in its historical old-new land.

They are witnesses of the destruction and extermination but also living witnesses of the “revival of the dead”. The enemy did not succeed in annihilating us and from the ruins of Europe emerged a free people and a free country – the State of Israel.


[Page 261]

Memorial Candle

M. K.

I stand silent before the inscribed tombstone, the monument for our town, Wierzbnik, which was destroyed and no longer exists. There is pain in my heart, my eyes tear and I have no words for it. Human lips cannot express the agony and sorrow.

My hands trembling with awe, I light a memorial candle for my birthplace in foreign lands, the fountain of love, a source of vibrant life that was destroyed and silenced forever.

In memory of our dear, devoted parents, who were cruelly tortured in the unholy land and perished as martyrs.

In memory of our brothers and sisters, the holy, pure, innocent, honest and kind people who faced all those horrors, who were murdered together, proud trees that were cut down and uprooted in the vale of tears.

We will lovingly carry their holy memory in our aching hearts and will never forget them.

May these words serve as a perpetual light and the tears of a bereaved nation over unknown graves.

Yitgadal Veyitkadash…


[Page 262]

Bar Mitzvah in the Forest

Malka Weisbloom

“Where are you running to?” shouted the girl to her brother, who was running toward the forest.

“It is better to die,” answered the brother.

“What would a child like him do alone in the forest?” thought the sister, and started running after him. During their fateful run they heard the murderers chasing after them. Theirs was a supreme effort. After a dramatic and dangerous chase, they managed to reach the forest and after the murderers were gone they felt the terrible weariness and their wounded feet while the forest sheltered them.

They fell exhausted, and the quiet forest sang them a lullaby that put them to sleep for hours.

Then came days of suffering, hunger, fear and cold. Winter came and covered the forest with white fur. The brother and sister dug a bunker in the ground and sat there for many days. From time to time, they would separate to find food and then rejoin each other. Suddenly they heard motion among the branches! “Could it be the murderers?” they thought.

But a few anxious seconds later, it turned out to be some animal passing by, disrupting the tranquility of the forest. Soon it was quiet again. Hanukkah was approaching, and they had to celebrate the brother's birthday. Tamar got a candle and divided it into 4 pieces, because her brother was born on the fourth day of Hanukkah. She lit four candles and the two sat in their light and reminisced.


[Page 263]

We were Ten Brothers

Pinchas Hochmitz

Many used to hum the popular Jewish tune “We were ten brothers”, its humorous nature in sharp contrast with its tragic content, as only one brother of the ten survived their numerous adventures. Only one…

But while content and form were distinct in the song, our tale is unequivocally sorrowful and dark. It begins in sadness and ends in bitterness: after being evicted from the labor camp in Wierzbnik, only a few of our relatives remained with us and it was only natural that we kept close to each other. Our entire great family was down to three: Shlomo Weisbloom, his sister Esther (in Israel) and I. Two harsh days after we were all loaded on the dreadfully crowded freight cars we arrived at the camp in Auschwitz. We did not know the significance of our new situation yet, but it was clear to all of us that this did not bode well. Therefore, we strove with all our might to stay as close as we could to our brothers, relatives, friends, acquaintances and townsmen. I no longer had any close relatives like parents, brothers or sisters, and after they separated the men and women there were others of our town who found themselves in a similar situation. Ten of us, townsmen of Wierzbnik all, decided to make ourselves relatives by going under the same name, Weisbloom. We did it to be classified under the same letter, allowing us to stay under one roof. We carried out our decision and it turned out to be the right one; for a time, we remained as a group.

 

Arriving in Birkenau

Reality has changed so drastically when we arrived in Auschwitz that at first I felt as though we have landed on a different planet.

We arrived early in the morning, and through the mists of dawn we saw before us fields fenced with two lines of barbed-wire and upwards hooked pickets. On the other side of the fences wandered skinny people wearing striped “uniforms” which looked like pajamas, marching this way and that to a military beat and a marching band, while screams in every tongue sounded from all directions. It all mixed into an unnatural nightmare and for a moment I felt as though we found ourselves in some kind of huge insane asylum. But the screaming and the orders brought us back down to the gloomy reality in which we found ourselves, and we had no time to think because we were lined up and ordered to forward march.

We crossed the camps, barbed-wire fences on both our sides. After a short march we arrived at a building used as a bathhouse and dubbed by the prisoners in camp a “sauna.” When we were ordered to go into the bathhouse, many panicked and refused to approach the door. Our fear was heightened by the signs on the wall, which said: “To the wash”, because when we were still at the labor camps we heard about the extermination of Jews in the camps and the various means of trickery and subterfuge used, and upon seeing those signs we recognized them from the stories we heard. Nevertheless, members the commandos called “Canada” approached us and started soothing and convincing us. As proof, the people in the front rows were led to the other end of the sauna, where the exit was, and were shown the people that were coming out at the end of the wash. After seeing that, we started entering the building, although our doubts were not completely erased, because we were filled with fear and suspicion. Inside, we were ordered to undress and leave all valuables behind. A few prisoners who served as barbers showed up and started shaving every hairy place on our bodies. They were using old, rusty tools and carried out their work in a hasty and rough manner that left stings and pain. This activity took place in a kind of “waiting room” and after the “haircut” we were ushered in groups into the bathhouse itself, where they barely sprayed us with a bit of turbid water before hurrying us into another room. At the exit stood two prisoners holding paint brushes with Lysol, which they spread over the bodies of the people as they left. The liquid was very pungent and burned our eyes for a long time, since we had no way of washing it off. Instead of returning our clothes, we were taken to a pile of prisoner uniforms and handed the striped “pajamas”. Unfortunately, we received mismatched clothes; a tall man would receive short pants and vice versa…

 

Settling scores

While we were receiving our prisoner uniforms and dressing up, the people from the Canada commando came to us and asked us who were our leaders or policemen in the ghetto. At first we didn't understand the reason for their interest but we soon learned that they were eager to “settle scores” with people who cooperated with the Nazis, although they were doing the same vile thing here. Somehow they found someone who pointed out our townsman Langelban, who served as a kapo, and one of the Canada people asking the questions approached him. He was a tall, large man whose appearance was frightening under these circumstances. In a hypocritical, cunning manner he announced loudly: “I heard that my uncle Langelban was among you, where is he?” The man he was talking about brightened up when he heard that, thinking that he found a family member, but when he approached the big man the latter started beating him up and refused to stop until he sated his twisted urges. This event, added on top of everything we have seen and suffered thus far, brought our morale even lower.

After we got dressed we were led again to an encampment of cabins fenced with barbed-wire, which was known as the “gypsy camp”.

 

The ten Weisbloom brothers

Here we were ordered to stand in single file and the registration process began, taking on a unique air as it turned us from people with human form and characteristics, with first and last names, into mechanical creatures whose sole feature was a number. The entire process took the form of a ceremony: every person was forced to pass by a registration desk, where the clerks wrote down necessary facts before handing him over to a tattooist who used a special needle and ink to carve a prisoner's personal number into his left arm. This number bore a great significance, as we learned later on: it made it easier for the supervisors to track the prisoners and made it harder for prisoners to escape from camp. In time, the identification number also gained a unique “value”, allowing people to estimate the seniority of the prisoner, which sometimes granted certain advantages.

For me, however, the personal number had a special significance, saving me from certain death.

While standing in line waiting for the numeration process to take place, ten of us from Wierzbnik decided to give Weisbloom as our surname, hoping to receive similar numbers. Naively we assumed that it would allow us to stay close to each other for the time being. From this point on, it became a routine: each of us approached the table, but when my turn came I did something that mattered later on. After I was tattooed with the number 19866A, I stepped aside, turned my back and tried rubbing the letters with my finger to see if we could ever be rid of this number once we left this place. As fortune would have it, I started with the last numeral, “6”, and when I succeeded I stopped. Nevertheless, rubbing the number changed it a little, enough for a cursory glance to mistake it for “0” and require a closer examination to identify it as “6”. I myself never noticed this fact except under unique circumstances, which I will describe below.

 

Staying in quarantine

At the end of the tattooing process we were transferred to the quarantine cabins. We started feeling the pressure of life in hell in full. The various supervisors would scream us awake at 4 in the morning and we had to quickly get off our bunks – covered with mattresses that were nothing more than sacks filled with some straw – And after every group of prisoners shared a bowl of foul, runny soup we were ordered to line up in the courtyard. Standing there during the cold dawn was a nightmare in its own right. The report had to match the Nazi records and if someone failed to report because he was ill, or because he died and no one realized it, we had to stand there until the loss was found.

After the “apple” came the next stage of torment: military foot drill. We were taught to march in ranks of five and keep our hands at our thighs to make sure we moved as a unit. They literally beat this exercise into us with fists, clubs and sticks. They also devised a drill of taking off one's hat as a show of respect to officers, which also had to be carried out in uniform military fashion. This torture, taking off our hats and putting them back on repeatedly, continued until we carried out the drill to the satisfaction of the Nazis. Anyone who carried it out sloppily received a beating on the spot and was watched in the future.

Another part of the abuse was “sports”. The prisoners were forced to run barefooted over a gravel covered lot or jump with their hands up and perform other such exhausting tricks.

Another “apple” was conducted at noon, and after we were given our noon soup we were made once more to carry out certain sports exercises while singing German songs. Sometimes they would punish people by making them stand holding their hands up and anyone found to lower even a single arm, was beaten up mercilessly.

During our two weeks in quarantine, we never left or did any work and every day was a reflection of the last, with its routine of torture, suffering and hardships.

 

At the Gypsy Camp

After two weeks we were moved from quarantine to the Gypsy Camp. The transfer itself was a gloomy, sad event. With our own eyes we saw the cabins evicted of their previous residents, the gypsies, who were taken for extermination at the gas chambers in the incinerators' area. The smell of charred flesh and the licks of flame seen at night left no doubts concerning the final fate of people in this place, and the fact we have taken their place emphasized what the future held in store for us.

We were put in cabins lined by three-storied wooden bunks, with a 1.5 meter wide passage between them. There were no windows in the cabin because it has originally served, we were told, as a stable. Only up, by the roof, could we see a bulge with some ports. There was no floor to the cabin either, merely damp, pitted earth; when the rain got in, it formed muddy puddles. The blocks were surrounded with boggy mud, and wading through it on the wooden clogs we were given was a hard and exhausting business. We suffered a severe shortage of drinking water; there were many people and only a few faucets that were always crowded. SS soldiers would show up at times, and when they saw the prisoners crowding around the water faucet they used the chance to beat them brutally.

 

Going to work

From this camp they started taking us to work, which divided into two general kinds: there were groups who worked outside in factories, construction, paving roads, draining swamps, dismantling airplanes, digging trenches and so on. Others worked inside the camp, in the kitchens, warehouses, laundry and so on.

My ten “brothers” and I, along with a few others from Wierzbnik, worked outside the camp, dismantling airplanes. A unit assigned with a specific task was called a “commando” and divided into groups of 100 prisoners or less.

Every morning we would stand for half an hour in the dark after the reveille, while they assembled a commando that would go to work. We would head for the gate in ranks of five and stop there for inspection. They counted the ranks on every side, and everything had to match the Nazi records. While we were crossing the gate, the marching band would play marching tunes and the prisoners were ordered to march to the beat and take off their hats until they reached the other side of the gate. On foggy days, the commando was detained at the gate until the fog has cleared so no one will take advantage of it and try to escape. The work day was 12 hours long and if you add that to the time required to march to the workplace and back, then during the summer we worked from dawn to dusk. Work was hard and strictly supervised; we had a single, short lunch break during the entire day, when we were served a bowl of thin soup. Each group had a secretary, a “Schreiber”, who would show up at the workplace every half an hour, and a “Vorarbeiter” who was in charge of ten people had to sign for all those present. If someone went missing, he had to inform the kapo about it immediately.

As aforesaid, the working conditions were very harsh but we were comforted by the fact that for the first time, we had the chance to hamper the Nazis. Tasked with the dismantling of airplanes that were damaged during the battles, we made sure that those parts we found would be entirely beyond repair. Had this kind of sabotage been discovered, the results would have been unquestionable… therefore, we were very careful and each of us did the best he could, without any organization or common enterprise. Each of us felt and knew what he had to do and that encouraged us and gave our suffering some meaning.

 

Famine

We were always hungry, because we only received a minimal amount of food and our work offered no chances for more food. Food was constantly on our minds because we never ate enough, and hunger chased away other considerations. Our distress was twofold; not only did we suffer constant hunger, but the lack of even minimal nutrition was slowly destroying our physical ability to face these hardships and led to certain demise.

In theory, we were supposed to receive 350 grams of bread a day by order of the camp command, but in practice we only received 250 grams of bread and some jam or a piece of cheese, because some of the food was usually stolen by “machers”, who were called “prominents” at the camp. The thefts and robbery of prisoners' food was carried out with the knowledge and approval of the SS, and anyone who dared to complain would become a victim himself. The bread was distributed among us upon our return from work, when hunger was at its peak, and most people would swallow it immediately and go hungry until the next distribution. Hunger also caused all sorts of diseases and as time went by there were more and more people, some of them from Wierzbnik, whose body could not survive this trial of hunger and hardship. They became “Muzelmans”, candidates for extermination in the next selection.

 

The saving number

A selection was conducted in camp from time to time, the worst of the nightmares that haunted us on a regular basis. This disaster would strike unexpectedly, like a bolt from the blue. Between selections we heard rumors about the date for the next selection, and so we lived under terrible stress. At some point, the order “Blockshpre” would be heard all of a sudden, and everyone would head for the selection, where the Muzelmans were the first in line to be disqualified.

We have faced several selections since I first arrived in Birkenau, but I was lucky enough to survive them. But during the event I am about to describe, my luck abandoned me and I was put to the test of life and death. Unfortunately for me, a long time of hard work and constant hunger left me completely exhausted, a certain candidate for doom. And indeed, as I passed by the beast sentencing the prisoners, he unerringly pointed at me over to the side of the condemned. I tried to object, I pleaded with the angel of death claiming that I was strong enough and could work for a long time, I even showed him my meager muscles, but to no avail. The “secretary” demanded that I raise my arm so he could see the number and as I lifted it, and I “helped” him by reading out the wrong number… I have realized I could do this earlier, while receiving a bonus for my hard work in the form of a cigarette pack. After I received my reward, they wrote my number
Wrong. I used this opportunity to get back in line and receive another pack of cigarettes – this time using my true number. Now that moment flashed through my mind and had a critical impact on my future. Our elders said that a person can determine his whole future in an hour, while I bought my whole life in a second, or perhaps a fraction of a second.

As custom dictated, this registration was followed by an execution that night. And indeed, a freight cat stopped before our cabin that night, while we were lying on our bunks, and the block supervisor walked in, accompanied by SS soldiers, and read the numbers of the prisoners sentenced to death during the selection. A prisoner whose number was read had to take his blanket and get in the car. When it was my turn, I stayed put, because they read the aforementioned wrong number. They repeated the number twice and thrice and when no response came one of them announced “there will be one less today”. I heard his words as if coming from a long way off, because I was extremely anxious. When they left, I couldn't believe that I was still inside the cabin; I felt my body and suddenly burst out laughing and crying alternately. My uncle, Shlomo Weisbloom, held me and put his hand over my mouth, ending my loud outburst, and that was the end of it.

 

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