Wierzbnik, my town, was once a blooming community and was destroyed completely. The pages are copied to a time of doom and anger in the shadow of the furnaces, to the human skeletons who were shivering from cold and hungry for bread. Many from Wierzbnik have died in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Majdanek and other such places.
Yocheved and some of our friends from Wierzbnik, who miraculously survived, describe life in camp at the beginning:
The camp commander made them run around the courtyard for hours, barefoot over a ground covered with gravel. They were constantly screamed at and hit in the head and stomach with fists, sticks, iron bars and rubber clubs. The superiors in the women's camp were women as well, German whores and criminals.
The extermination camps were surrounded by double electric-wire fences, four meters tall. Every hundred meters stood a guard tower equipped with machine guns and searchlights to scour the darkness. Hounds were guarding the perimeter. Over the gate of the camp was a slogan, spelled in capital letters: Work Sets You Free Newly arrived prisoners would cling to the illusion: perhaps there is a grain of truth to this slogan? But soon they realized that only Death frees you from Auschwitz. The cabins were like stables. There were no windows. The rain leaked in. there were no floors, and the puddles that usually formed turned the ground into mud. The prisoners slept on three-storied bunks. The boards that made up the first floor were placed directly on the bare ground and all three stories amounted to 2 meters in all. Outside stood armed SS soldiers, who welcomed the prisoners with shouts, curses and blows. When the selection started no man who underwent this manner of classification would ever forget the image. The cold, stony figure judged you with a wave of its hand left or right, life or death. The prisoners learned to fall into fives and march stooped, to jump and dance with their hands over their heads or run barefooted around the gravel covered courtyard. Many fell exhausted and the SS troopers would take the weak out of the line and execute them with a shot. They were also taught German songs, and those who didn't sing were punished, made to stand to attention at the plaza from evening to noon the next day, their hands behind their necks. If they fainted, they were doused with cold water and revived with blows. The prisoners at the camp were always hungry. Hunger stabbed them before and after their meals, at every hour, day or night. Every cell in their bodies cried for food. The thought of food was always on their minds, and they secretly went through the trash looking for leftovers. Every person was covered with barely healed wounds. The wounds were numerous and caused by the beatings and from walking long distances wearing wooden clogs. The body suffered regularly from loss of blood, and had no strength left to overcome the wounds. Those who had a fever were sent to the gas chambers. There was no interest in children in the camp. Every infant that arrived with a shipment was sentenced to death on arrival. A friend who arrived as a child told me how he entered into the camp: his transport consisted only of children, who were all sent to the gas. He took an opportunity to escape the lines and when they were ordered to move he hid among the older men. The hardships made the children of the ghettos and the camps mature quickly. Eight year olds seemed like little adults, looking at you with the eyes of a hunted animal. They never had enough to eat, never knew the freedom of a field or the smell of flowers, and never had a taste of free play. They lived their lives crammed between the crowded gray cabins and the barbed-wire fences. They didn't understand what they did wrong. They only knew one thing that they were Jews and a great evil was hounding them. The life of a child was many times harder than that of an adult. The child had to work. His soft body suffered from the cold, the beatings, the filth and especially the hunger.
The fall of the camps into the hands of the Red Army
The train workers informed us that the Red Army was approaching, but our hearts refused to believe. The knowledge spread and hundreds of people went out into the streets. Large quantities of food and clothes were distributed. A hidden storehouse yielded plenty of food after a thousand days of hunger. The attempt to break our hunger was merely an illusion. It only caused a plague of diarrhea and thousands died from overeating. The body could not contain the fats crammed into it. The shriveled digestive organs were unused to strained work and thousands paid with their lives. Nevertheless, those were joyous events: behold, the Germans are fleeing! It was worth suffering to get to this moment. The scouts of the Red Army arrived. The soldiers looked at the twisted human skeletons. And perhaps they understood better than anyone the purpose of this war.
On my father's side (Honigsberg), I am descended from Kelph and my family wasspread among the towns of Poland Radom, Ostrowiec and so on my grandfather Shlomo and his wife Gitl had three sons and a daughter. The name of the daughter was Reizl and the sons Melech, Ber and Yoseph.
I remember little about my mother's side (Dizenhoiz). My mother had a stepmother and a stepbrother named Berl Dizenhoiz, who lived nearby in Wierzbnik. After my parents Reizl and Yoseph were married, they moved the town of Łagüw where they built their house by the river.
Father made sweets and life was peaceful. The children learned at the little Heder a large stove made of clay stood in the corner. The children sat around a rectangular table made of rough wood and the good rabbi taught them the Torah.
It was probably the difficulty of making a living in such a small town like Łagüw that pushed my parents to immigrate to a more dynamic town Wierzbnik where my father made a living as a painter. The Poles in the area were anti-Semite and hostile. The lives of Jews in Polish residence areas were unbearable. It was only natural that we sought a way out, especially since our family was tied emotionally and religiously to Israel. As a result, we considered immigration to Israel.
Our family was young and in full bloom, filled with happiness: three sons and three daughters, aged 6-10, the joy of all who see them. I can never forget the laughter of the eldest daughter, Bilha, her coal black hair, her strict dress. She was a lively girl, unlike the hostile environment she was born into. Her younger sister, Lea, lived up to her name; gentle in body and soul, with dimples in her oft smiling, pale, typically quiet, thoughtful and beautiful. The youngest was 6 when she perished, the joy of her family. She seemed to understand the burden of Jewish existence and grasp her situation. We called her Zerka, or Zerka'le in endearment.
My experience with the Germans at the concentration camp during the war left me unable to let go of the terrible image of my mother and the four young children with her, caught helpless in the jaws of the murderous Germans. We were tricked apart the men to temporary labor camps and the women and children to other camps, after the prolonged period of starvation and humiliation that preceded the eviction. And so, our paths separated forever.
My father, my older brother Moshe and I were taken into a labor camp in Starachowice. My mother, my younger brother Mordechai and my sisters were separated from us. To this day I cannot forget the terrible moment, remembering my brother Mordechai fight for his life, his heart telling him what was coming; how he sought with all his might to join the men my mother knew in her heart where the separation led. Her last words were spoken quietly, in terrible distress: go, my children, perhaps you would be saved. I am not young anymore, I lived long enough. And she turned her head. How little I knew about my mother: a proud, simple and noble woman. She could see her coming death and the destruction of her family.
My father, my brother Moshe and I went through labor and extermination camps, always together, despite the impossible. Striving to survive no matter the odds, and believing that we will meet the rest of our family again
My father was a Hasid, a pleasant man versed in both scholarship and physical labor who carried the heavy burden of his large family all his life and never saw his family prosper.
The noose tightens
When the war started and the aerial bombardment commenced, the Germans did not distinguish between military-industrial sites and civilian residences. The Jews were the first to scatter, unsure where to or why here and not there. The youths traveled east in hope of saving themselves.
The poor lost their meager livelihood. The community fell into disarray. The religious community that met the daily needs of the Jews, did not know how to organize for such an emergency.
And so an organized havoc formed within the small settlement of Wierzbnik. Slowly and thoroughly, the Germans tightened the noose of destruction around the Jewish settlement whether by cutting off livelihood outside it or through abuse, intrigues and deception. They cunningly used the generations old Jewish tenet: Nezah Israel Lo Yeshaker. The war continued on the front lines while on the home front, the Nazi murderers starved the Jews and systematically exterminated them. Rumors spread that the situation was not so bad, that there is hope of finding work and that nothing would jeopardize our physical existence. These rumors found willing ears in the Jewish community, although the future was already fairly clear. And so we missed our chance to save many lives, let alone the chance to form any resistance on a national level during the first stages of extermination.
In our new home, to which we were evicted from our apartment in the Polish quarter, lived two families to a room, a total of 12 people crammed together. The hunger was unbearable. I remember my parents, helpless to feed all those little mouths. They were running through the house as though it was a cage, while the children looked at them silently, hoping for a potato to calm their hunger.
The last Shabbat
When we men (and, as we later found out, quite a few influential women) arrived at the labor camp in Wierzbnik, we were surrounded Ukrainians who lusted for both our blood and money. They ordered: Anyone who has money, Jewels and valuables would put them on the pile, or die. To ensure our understanding, they immediately followed their words with a demonstration. As a hungry boy, I realized that those without means would die. I was thinking about fighting for my continued survival and paid little attention to the immediate threat. I therefore collected whatever means that the others wanted to be rid of at any cost. Later, these means helped us quite a bit.
There seemed to be a certain purpose to this camp: to exterminate as many as possible, as quickly as possible, while providing the munitions factories with as many workers as possible. This explained why we could not become sick, or rather, get well. Work at the weapon factories was hard: we worked 12 hour shifts and had to walk to work and back to camp. Nutrition was inadequate: a puny slice of bread and a bowl of foul soup. Plagues broke out in camp and those who were not strong enough to go to work were doomed. Who can walk to work suffering from typhus and a 40-41c fever? Once, while my father was sick and unconscious, we were told that all those who were strong enough should get out, and the sick will remain in the cabins. We realized the trap. My brother and I dragged our father out. Suddenly, we heard gunfire. We were forced to run between two rows of armed Germans and Ukrainians, who were shooting at the fallen. Those who fell were shot on the spot. Suddenly we realized we were out of the firing range. When the chaos died down, we dragged our father back to his bunk and what did we see? All those left in the cabins were shot in their bunks.
Some attempts were made to escape from the camps, but very few succeeded. Those who escaped the Germans fell into the hands of the Poles. The small Jewish minority found itself surrounded by bloodthirsty, hateful beasts. The constant German propaganda against the Jews fell on fertile, hateful ground. The evictions and murders were carried out without any protest or guilt from the Poles, who never lifted a finger to try and stop the spilling of blood.
The temporary life afforded to the Jews working at the camps was seemingly pointless: the war seemed endless; the border to the lands of freedom was just a dream. The deaths and the killing whittled down the town that used to be Wierzbnik. After a while, we were transferred to a new place and a new reality. Eventually, we learned that we were brought to Birkenau-Auschwitz.
We were mostly surprised by the encounter with Jews from different countries, with strange customs. We realized that we ended up in a harsh place, living in constant abuse and in fear of burning in the furnaces, whose smokestacks towered over the camp. We were well guarded: electric fences and deep trenches, constant headcounts Inside, the organization was in the hands of German prisoners serving their time, while outside the place was run by SS soldiers. When we arrived at the camp there was no room for us. Whole families of Gypsies, women and children, were quickly sent to the incinerators, crying in anguish. Only the smell of burnt flesh lingered over the camp for a long time after they were taken.
Next was a series of selections by the infamous German doctors. While we, who lived through the hardships of Wierzbnik, were already immune to new horrors, we were also too weak to face a strict examination and hope to be found fit to work. This was our chance to use the guile we acquired in the past while fighting for our lives, as opposed to the Jews recently brought in from Hungary and a more normal reality.
As a boy-child slight and pale, I had no hope pf avoiding the incinerators. But we burned with a great will to live, driving us to be uncannily shrewd and resourceful in our attempts to evade the doctor who prescribed our deaths time and again.
After staying at the Birkenau death camp for a few weeks we were transferred on foot to the labor camp Buna. On the way to the new camp we were marched, whether on purpose or not, through a reality that was new to us: incinerators, huge stacks of lumber and the lime pits. It was terrible, but we were disciplined and didn't cry out only offered the occasional prayer to God. When we passed all that we sighed in relief and felt revitalized, because we were going to live, we were going to overcome our haters, our murderers. During the hardships that found us in the different camps, I never saw a man commit suicide.
Buna was run with typical German efficiency. Like the previous camp, the internal regime was in the hands of German convicts and the external one in the hands of the SS with their black, skull-bearing berets. Sanitation, order and the constant selections for the incinerators were a matter of routine. Public executions were part of the routine taking place on the drill ground. What was considered a crime? I have vivid memories of an event we participated in: an alliance bombardment caused mayhem in the kitchens. We were tempted to take some vegetables. The person who got caught was hanged and the entire camp was marched past the gallows as a lesson.
At this time, we felt the front lines approaching us. We concluded that the German progress eastwards was halted and that they were even being pushed back. Airplanes paid daily visits to the factories we worked in, delivering a harsh bombardment. We rooted for them in our hearts. It was the first time we saw the Germans in distress. But we bitterly mourned the fact that those airplanes refused to bomb the incinerators, the camp fences, or the SS barracks, and the camps continued working, undisturbed, until the last moment. We played no part in the strategies of the allies. The Jews apparently had no part in any humane or legal category worth fighting for.
When the eastern front approached, we were evicted from Auschwitz and taken to Buchenwald. We were probably considered useful by Hitler's Reich, but no means were allocated for transporting us. Therefore, we were marched to the border of Germany by day and by night we rested. The winter was harsh: snow storms accompanied us along our way. We were wearing the famous striped uniforms, with no underwear or jackets, only wooden clogs on our feet. By the time we arrived in Buchenwald, countless of us fell from the hunger and the cold. Our German escorts were assisted by German prisoners and criminals, and the latter assaulted the marchers, abusing the fallen to death. Our rest stops during the nights mostly took place in rural areas, around some shed or stable. The strong and the quick claimed a safe area. The weak slept on the snow, under the sky. And so, cowering beside each other and waiting for a new day, we closed our eyes, hungry and tired, and tried to gather our strength and get through this. New hopes fueled the hearts of our people. We had many chances for escape, but only few of them were seized. My father, my brother and I kept in constant touch. Individuals had better odds for survival and hiding in this anti-Semite region than a group such as ours. We were guided by the notion that since we overcame so many hardships to get here together, there was no reason why we couldn't survive this together again, with the end in plain sight.
We made a long stop in Gliwice and new selections took place. This time I was separated from my father, who was weakened by the prolonged journey, the cold and hunger. He was probably doomed for extermination. My world shattered and I didn't know what to do. I thought only about saving him, and I was able to do so by almost killing myself. The only important thing was that we were together again, and we continued our journey to Buchenwald on a coal train, that is, crammed standing into open cars and guarded closely.
This trip was worse than the last. The frost and snow continued to bother us as before but there was no chance to sit, let alone lie down. We received no food for ten days! Death struck mercilessly. The bodies were thrown out, so that eventually we had room to sit.
One of the beautiful things etched into my memory was the sacrifice of the Czechs, whose country we crossed through. People were standing on bridges over the railroad tracks and throwing down food to us under gunfire from our escorts. Women were crying. For the first time in years, we witnessed humanity.
During one of our stops (I later found out that it was in Bratislava) I did something that ensured our continued existence: I sneaked out with a can that we always kept with us toward the train station where the SS officers standing in line received food from a big cauldron. Under the cover of darkness I managed to sneak there unnoticed and to the astonishment of those in line I dipped my can into the hot gruel, filled it up and allowed darkness to swallow me again! In the car, a fight broke out over the food (which offered a little more life).
In Buchenwald we were welcomed by the famous smokestack. Our first question was whether people were being burned here we were glad to hear that only the dead were being burned here. But other horrors took place in this place. People were strung feet up to die in the middle of the living cabin. Their crime getting caught stealing or some such Here we learned for the first time about cannibalism. People ate each other to save their own lives.
When we arrived, we were put through a warm bath and disinfection: they were worried that we would infect their home, Germany, with plagues. After the bath we were taken outside wearing our meager covers, exposed to a harsh snowstorm. We stood like that for hours. Next they put us in a stinking lair filled with four-storied bunks covered in rotting straw. Feeling joy mixed with suspicion of the unknown, we were transported from Buchenwald, this time in hermetically sealed railroad cars each guarded by two armed Germans. During one of the stops along our journey, (the guards told us it was Frankfurt) the train was brought into the open country outside the city, after an alarm sounded. This was the start of an indescribable slaughter carried out by alliance airplanes: the cars were closed and the pilots never knew what they contained. In the cars whose German guards were killed people started breaking open the doors and running out into the open field. The pilots, who presumably realized the nature of the cargo, stopped their attack. The sight was terrible: people who lost their legs and other organs were crawling, trying to get away from this deathtrap. The locals brought first aid, and for the first time we saw the faces of this nation: women and children came bearing drinks, medicine and bandages for the SS while scornfully charging us like shepherd dogs herding cattle, so we will not escape in the commotion. They never even dreamed of offering help to our wounded!
At the end of this journey we were brought to the worst of camps. This place was full of tunnels leading to the factories at the bottom of a mountain. The place, called Langer Stein, was located near Halberstadt. Here, our eyes were drawn not to a smokestack but to something we haven't encountered so far: huge piles were stacked in the middle of this mountainous camp. We soon realized that they were carefully made of frozen human bodies, stored in this manner during the winter. Death was made tangible here at all times. Hundreds fell every day, but new prisoners arrived at the same rate. Work was grueling. Working underground, we haven't seen the sun for months. Hunger was unbearable. Food was provided once a day, at midnight, and consisted of a slice of bread and some foul soup, cooked from the peels of the potatoes eaten by the Germans. We had to subsist on this food while working hard, excavating and carrying rocks, in the dark. As soon as we received our food, the bread robbery would start if you didn't swallow it in time you were robbed. After a couple of days, we could see our end near.
This camp enforced the following routine: wake up at 3 in the morning. Standing for hours in a lineup; then marching out for 14 hours of work without any food; marching back; food distribution at midnight and sleep in doorless, windowless cabins. We slept on a floor dirty with mud and snow. A ghost camp filled with skeletons, shambling and collapsing aimlessly. Then we marched again. The front lines were approaching but they did not leave us alone. There was an onion store in camp, and every person received a few onions. And so we marched, escaped, robbed a food train and got recaptured losing my brother in the process (I met him again after our liberation). My father died a day before our liberation, starving and sick, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Christian cemetery in Sandersleben.
Our liberation was as bitter as the wait for it: countless people died within a few short days. Suddenly we had plenty of food, provided by the American army to the living corpses that were walking around aimlessly. Suddenly they didn't know what to do, where to turn? Their past was irrevocably shattered; their homeland has vilely forsaken them. Their future was unknown. Their minds were equally foggy. Their hearts were hardened like stone, homo homini lupus est six years of killing and brutality turned them apathetic to human emotion, to any standards of behavior among people. Confusion was widespread, joy and sadness mixed in their pained souls.
You could see them fill the railway stations, hoping someone would direct them. For years they have been conditioned not to think, not to make decisions, not to be masters of their own fate. Some returned to their homelands and paid with their lives for clinging to the illusion that they might rebuild their lives there or find any of their dear ones where they once lived
We, recalling our old home, felt the old yearning that was nurtured by our family, the great love for the land of the sun, the date and vine. With all our might we strove there, and indeed, a few months after our liberation, we managed to fulfill our heart's desire, to immigrate to Israel, and assured ourselves that our feet will never again set in those murderous lands.
A tragic and bloody chapter was reserved for the Jewish youth during the terrible Holocaust, twice the share of adults, and I would like to tell the story of the young girls of Wierzbnik from 1941 to the bitter end.
When the German soldiers entered Poland, they started evicting people from many towns, and the flow of refugees flooding into our town increased daily. The women of our town, led by Mrs. Yocheved Cohen, banded together and collected food and clothing for those poor souls.
As great as the plight of the adults was, the plight of the children was tenfold. Therefore all the young girls in town banded together, regardless of their social status or ideals, with a single purpose to help the children a little. A committee was established that included Sheindl Herblum, Rivka Mincberg, Malka Cohen and the author. This group formed under a woman called Kalman-Singer. The operation was called Milk Drop.
Every Friday, the girls on duty would pass among the other members and collect food or money. Every girl gave what she could and even more. I will add that at times, I gave my last slice of bread because I knew how vital the cause was. Such a deed can only be appreciated by someone who knew the conditions we lived in and how hard it was to get a slice of bread
At seven in the morning on Shabbats, the children of the needy refugees on our list would come and receive a cup of coffee and a sandwich. The joy of the children knew no bounds, but there were also tears.
We did not provide the children only with food, but also played and sang to them to make them feel a little better.
From time to time we gathered some of the talented children in town and put on plays to amuse the children. When the children were happy, they showed initiative of their own and some of them proved to be very talented.
Not many knew about this activity, because we did everything on our own, without asking for help or advertising our activities. Our actions were carried out with humility. We used for this purpose the house on 17 Koleyova Street, which served as the kitchen of the Jewish school in the ghetto. We girls gathered there every Shabbat afternoon and the girls on duty reported the events of the morning and offered improvements.
On the last mid-holiday of Sukkoth (1942) we organized a big rally and many of the town's dignitaries were invited because we wanted to expand our activities and provide greater aid for the needy children, especially warm clothes for the winter.
This reminds me of a major rally participated by Simcha Mincberg and Y. Singer, who served as representatives of the public, and the impressive play the children put on during it. The event's organizer was naturally Eva, who explained our organization's situation and spoke of things that were unknown before.
As time went by, the situation improved a little, but sadly, just when things were looking up, it was all destroyed.
I was a member of the committee, and visited every Shabbat morning.
The last Shabbat
I remember the last Shabbat: I gave a little girl a cup of coffee and a sandwich as usual. She drank the coffee and was holding the sandwich in her two little hands when her older sister, who was not among the lucky ones, came towards her holding a slice of bread of her own. The girls were hesitant to bite into the bread while their mother was watching them, with great sadness on her pale, noble face. Her clothes, although ragged, told of better times. The mother looked at the two girls and wiped the tears streaming from her eyes.
I was standing next to Hanna Guterman, who witnessed the moving moment with me, and once the mother realized that the two of us were looking at her, she turned and disappeared. This moved me and I told myself that I had to find out who the woman was and add the older girl to the group next Shabbat. Those were very dark times; each of the rumors spreading was worse than the last and our town was among the last ones still standing.
When I expressed my intention, Hanna answered me with sad eyes: I hope we would still be here next Shabbat.
Our fears came to pass. That very Shabbat noon marked the arrival of Jewish refugees from Wąchock. The usual Shabbat afternoon meeting never took place because we already knew that we were doomed. Those were the last days before our eviction and the events that followed it.
Every year, as I light the memorial candle for all my dear ones who perished, I see in my mind those nice and innocent children, as if it were only yesterday.
When the war broke out and the first bombs fell on our little town, I fled with my husband Beniek Shiezinger, my sons, Meir Avram (Meyish), who was then eight years old, and Alexander (Alush), who was still a baby of two, to Mietelitsk, hoping to avoid the bombing. My mother joined us in our flight.
Once there, we heard constant shooting. As it turned out later, the shooting took place in Drildz (lIza). Many Jews lost their lives in the great massacre that took place there, among them people from Wierzbnik who had gone there in the hope of saving themselves. A short time later German soldiers marched into Mietelitsk and the nightmare began. They grabbed people from the street, including Shiezinger, my former husband, and sent them to an unknown destination for hard labour. The children and I remained alone. Now that the entire area was under German occupation and the situation was tense, there was no point in remaining there. I returned to Wierzbnik with my mother and children.
The children asked many questions. Why had their father been taken away? Where had they sent him? I assured them that he would come home soon. In fact, a few weeks later he did return. I will never forget the moment he came into our apartment, the children ran to him and refused to let go of him. They were afraid that he would be taken away from them again.
At the beginning of the Nazi occupation we thought that only men would be sent to hard labour. We thus sought a way for them to avoid it. My husband Beniek and his two brothers, Hilek and Heniek, and Heniek's wife and child, decided to cross the Russian border illegally, as did many other Jews. But at the last minute my husband felt guilty about leaving me alone with the children and he came back to Wierzbnik. He also thought that we should all try cross the Russian border. Due to my Mother I could not make up my mind to do so. Of my husband's two brothers, only Hilek survived. Today he lives with his wife and three sons in Haifa.
After a while the Germans sent Jewish refugees from other towns and villages to Wierzbnik. The Jewish community undertook a large relief effort and every local family took in the newly arrived refugees. The Wierzbnik Jews shared their homes and whatever else they could with the new arrivals. The Ziskind family from Lodz, a couple with two small children, moved in with us. When the school year began, Jews were prohibited from sending their children to school. However, Jews made every effort to educate their children. Rushke Laks taught my son Meyish to read and write and every day he went to learn Jewish subjects from the son of the former Rabbi Regensberg.
The Fiddle is Lost
When we received the order to leave our house on Starachowice Street, we moved in with the baker lady from Kielc where the Ziskind family had already been living. Of the Ziskind family, only the son Jerzyk, survived. After the war he was brought to Canada by the Canadian Jewish Congress together with other Jewish orphans who had miraculously survived. He grew to be a well-known Professor of Statistics and is now in the United States. He is married and has two small children. Who knows how many brilliant minds were among the million Jewish children who were murdered by Hitler.
We were given 24 hours to leave our house and move in with the baker lady from Kielc. We could only take a few things with us from home. Firstly, we did not have any means of transport. Secondly, there was not enough room in the already crowded house where a few families were already living. My children immediately noticed that among the furniture and belongings we left behind were Meyish's violin and Alush's sled. The very next day Meyish took Alush to our former home to get their valuable possessions. On arrival they were shocked as new occupants were already living there and refused to let them in.
The children went to their old house almost every day with their straightforward and just claim that the new owners return to them their treasured possessions. Each time they returned empty-handed and broken-hearted and unable to understand such cruelty. This was such a great tragedy for them that it was very difficult for me to convince them that going there so often was extremely risky. They tried crying and complaining, in hope that I could help them. However, after seeing it was hopeless, they resigned themselves to their fate. Meyish gave up any hope of getting back his violin. He had been taking lessons from Yakov Vigdorovich for a few years already. Little Alush also understood and was resigned to the idea that he would never again see his little sled, which was not just thrown together with a couple of boards, but made with the finest bent wood.
Seeing my children's pain caused me much heartache. My helplessness caused me so much distress that for a moment I forgot the problems that lay ahead which were becoming more evident and worse with each new day.
Bitter Times Begin
Very quickly and almost overnight, my children were transformed into adults. As they rapidly matured, they lost their childlike naiveté. Meyish in particular began to think and act like a grown-up, assuming responsibility for the whole house. He was suddenly forced to learn what the new realities dictated. Whenever there was something to buy he was one of the first to stand in line. He always hurried home to bring good news about any new item that could be purchased with ration cards. With a satchel in each hand, just like a grown-up, he went to Starachowice to bring home some coals or a few potatoes. Already aware that it was dangerous to look like a Jew, he quickly learned how to look like a non-Jewish child.
Soon we had to move again and leave the house of the baker lady from Kielc. More and more Jews kept arriving from other places. Due to the lack of housing, the Jewish community could no longer help people find a place to live. They had to fend for themselves. After much searching, we finally found a place for ourselves at Rotbard's grandson's, where the entire house consisted of one room with a kitchen. We could already see that bad times awaited us, and we began to think of ways to save the children.
On the way to the Michalow Forest lived a Christian woman called Mazurova to whom we had given many of our belongings with the idea that it might help us. Soon after moving in with Rotbard's grandson, we began sending Meyish to stay overnight at Mazurova's home so he could gradually get used to this arrangement. There were my Mother, brother, and sister Idel, her husband and five children. We were all subjected to the constant shouting of those in charge, Five in a row, including children! The shouts to line up in orderly rows went on for a long time. To this day they reverberate in my ears.
We tried to figure out how we could all remain together. Meyish stood in a row with his Father and myself. Alush was with my Mother and sister Idel with her husband and small children. A passing German foreman recognized Beniek and took him away, saying he needed him for work.
The shouts and cries of the large crowd of people being hit over the head with whips created indescribable panic. In the noise and confusion we lost our places, and I suddenly found myself in a completely different row. When they began to chase us to shtshelnitse*, I thought everyone would be taken there and sent away in boxcars. As it turned out some were taken to shtshelnitse*, while others were sent to mayuvke*. The rest were taken by the murderers to the station and like animals loaded onto boxcars and sent to Treblinka.
A few days later I met up with my husband. We no longer had our children and we did not know what had happened to my Mother and my sister Idel. From that time on we were sick at heart. Beniek soon after contracted typhus and died in the camp. I remained alone, a shadow of my former self, completely broken emotionally and physically.
A Deep Wound
We had given a Christian man the two leather satchels that Meyish had used to supply the house with a few coals and the necessaries of life. He was to make a pair of shoes for each child from one of them and keep the other as payment. The Christian was a good man and kept his word. Yet, by the time he sent the two pairs of shoes to me in the camp, I no longer had any use for them.
Very often in my dreams, I see my two children. I have recurring nightmares where I see them ragged with torn shoes. That incident of receiving the two pairs of children's shoes from the Christian man had embedded itself deep in my subconscious and left a tragic wound that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Never forget and don't forgive the murder-nation! My hand trembles as I pick up a pen to relate something of my memories from that ghastly, horrible period, and what I lived through in the dark years of 1939-1945. There is simply no language, there are no suitable expressions to describe the tragedy that we went through. Even now, from the perspective of decades after those bloody days, when I recall the wild acts of the Nazi murderers, my blood congeals in my veins and my heart bursts with pain and anger, my mind stops thinking and only one wish encompasses me: revenge against the German beasts. Our entire two thousand-year old Diaspora history is permeated with pages of horror and fright, blood and tears, inquisitions and deportations but all this is nothing and pales in comparison to the aggravations and murderous acts of the Hitler-Haman people. Even the poet and writer in his work Inferno was unable to depict such a racehatred, and such means of death as the Herrenvolk developed and transformed to use against the Jews, the highest degree of sadism.
At the age of eighteen I encountered the misfortune, the outbreak of the Hitler war. At the age of twenty I was kidnapped by the Nazi vandals while walking in the street in my hometown of Drilecz, and was torn away from my parents, brothers and sisters, from my dearest and most beloved ones.
Without a why or when, like a dark threatening cloud they fell on the streets, grabbed Jews and threw them into prepared freight cars, not knowing where they were being taken. The fearful panic and fright that prevailed then is indescribable. Jewish property and Jewish life were forfeit.
Yes, thirty years have already gone by since those sad days, and the picture has remained with me the entire time. The echo of that bitter crying, pain and groaning of my near and dear ones, who didn't know where I had disappeared to, and who were so tragically separated from me, constantly resounds in my ears. A chain of wandering and harsh experiences began for me, and I was then taken away to work in the Hasak ammunition factory in Skarżysko.
Sleepless nights and days of horror, pain and fear, of hunger and distress, dragged out thus, but in the depth of my heart glowed the hope, the aspiration, to survive the nightmare and to reconnect myself to my stem, with my dear parents.
Unfortunately, to my regret my hopes were dispersed after liberation, not finding any trace of my beloved and extensive family.
And at the moments of despair and apathy, the two angel-emissaries, Rosenwald and Avraham Frimmerman came to me, and consoled and encouraged me to control myself and renew my life struggle, to build a Jewish home, to restore all the traditional values that were so dear to our parents, who died as innocent martyrs.
May their memory be blessed!
With the outbreak of World War II, nervousness and tension grew, and because of theextensive bombing we all began to run, not knowing where to. My family and I went off to Ostrowiec, and the first victim that we saw fall there was Berele Herzog from Wierzbnik. Near the time of the High Holidays, turning back to Wierzbnik, Haim-Tuvia Tennenbaum, who was a refined Jew with a Jewish heart and one of my best friends, perished on the road. We were very shocked by this occurrence and brought him to be buried in Wierzbnik.
The confused running without a goal created a panic and tragically affected everyone.
Among the Jewish refugees that ran to Dzielce, the teacher of the town, Reb Mendel Tennenbaum, fell a victim to death.
Several days before Yom Kippur, we came back to Wierzbnik and we smelled the fetid atmosphere introduced by the Nazi beasts. On the first evening of Yom Kippur the synagogue was set on fire, and sleepless nights and days of horror and fear began. Nevertheless, there were clandestine minyanim [quorum of ten men required for prayers] for services, among them a minyan in the home of Reb Avraham-Mordechai Rotbart.
Yom Kippur, while we were at services and wearing our prayer shawls, and as usual only socks, the Nazi scum entered, surrounded all the praying people and led them away to the train station, forcing them to unload cars of coal.
Weak from fasting, the Jews carried out the forced labor with the last of their strength, and afterwards they had to smear themselves with dirt and mud, in order to abase themselves even more. My Mendush was among them.
Several days after Yom Kippur the dark days of fear and suffering began. Jews were kidnapped in the streets and were dragged off to hard labor, which was accompanied by humiliation. These occurrences strongly affected and actually paralyzed our entire life, because we could no longer show ourselves in the street.
Then various property owners turned to me for advice on how to control the difficult situation, so that we could move around and slightly ease our hard lives. At the request of the public I undertook an extremely daring step; I sneaked out to the mayor's office by a back way, approached the mayor Sokol, begging him for help, but he informed me that he was powerless and no longer had a say in anything.
I then gathered courage and went in to the German commandant and with a bitter heart explained to him the difficult situation the Jewish population was in because of the kidnapping for forced labor. He agreed to organize Jewish groups that would be allocated to work in various places. He also allocated me a clerk from the municipality, and together we composed a list of the Jewish population, from which I was told to every day allocate a certain number of workers. He promised me that they would no longer grab Jews for work, other than the allocated number. That is how it was; every day a group was sent to work in various places, and the kidnappings stopped. The Jewish population could finally move around freely in the streets and life was a little bit easier. In this way the people who had means also paid the poor people who were willing to go work in their place.
That is how the first winter went by. I, being the initiator of this change, moved freely in the streets and wore an armband with German lettering: Member of the municipal government.
Until a certain day, standing there in the street organizing the work, a German officer went by and seeing the sign on my arm he gave a shout; A Jew member of the municipal government?! He tore the armband off and gave me a few strong blows. I went to the commandant to complain, but he said that he couldn't help me.
Sleepless nights began, and days of horror and fright. The persecutions increased from day to day, and the first edict about the obligation to wear a badge with a Star of David arrived.
The atrocious reality became unbearable and frightful news arrived that created great panic.
On a certain day, we received word to prepare to receive a transport of refugees, Jews from Łódź.
We immediately got organized to await the transport at the train station.
The arrival of the refugees made a shocking impression; the frost was terrible and the Jews broken, physically and mentally exhausted, wearing two yellow badges on their front and on their back.
We immediately tore the yellow badges off them. Some of them were transferred to neighboring towns in the area, and the majority were housed by us. There was a large aid action, and we collected clothing, underwear, bedding and also money for that purpose, because most of them arrived naked and barefoot and frightened and starving. We created a soup kitchen and little hospital for the sick, and saw to medicines, so that the refugees' situation improved.
However, it didn't take long and the edicts and aggravations became constantly harsher and more unbearable. Right from the start, when the German mayor took over he removed all the members of the city council, and also the mayor, and the first edict was to pay a payment of ten thousand zloty within three days, and if not the ultimatum was many people would die.
A short while later a contribution of forty thousand zloty was placed on us, accompanied by severe threats and repressions.
Afterwards came the new order with regard to forced labor by the Jewish population from 14 to 60 years of age. At the same time a transport of homeless Jews from Plock arrived. It is hard to describe the shock that encompassed everyone; such a poor shtetl, with such hard conditions, and added to that another 500 sick, broken men, women and children arrived, after we had just recently taken in 150 homeless people from Łódź.
Nevertheless, despite the great difficulties, individuals or whole families were housed in nearly every home. The soup kitchen was greatly enlarged, and in that way the fate of the poor, sick refugees was eased. But the situation of the people from our town was also not much better, and from day to day life became harder and worse. And then suddenly a specter loomed: in the winter, when it was extremely cold outside, on the Christian Christmas day, a new edict came out, that all Jews had to hand in all their fur and leather clothing.
It is hard to describe the mood introduced by this edict. People had to give away their last possessions, the furs and the warm clothes, even tearing off the children's fur collars.
Within two days two large looted freight vehicles were filled with furs, and we all escorted them like a funeral. In the morning, we first felt the signs. People went around with torn and worn out clothes and young children shivered from cold.
At the same time, the grabbing of people in the streets for work became a daily occurrence, and there were Gestapo men to be seen everywhere and various other policemen and gendarmes, who treated the Jews very brutally, as though they were of no account.
However, one of the gravest edicts was the creation of the ghetto for Jews. It is impossible for the normal mind to conceive how they could take a population of 3,500 local people and an additional 1,000 homeless people and pack them into such a small area of a few narrow streets! People were squeezed together like herrings, but the will to live was so strong, that even in these terrible circumstances we again had to forge the chain of the daily battle for life.
I will recall two important episodes here, which took place before the creation of the ghetto.
On a certain day, an engineer called Hajdukewicz was murdered by the Polish underground resistance. This led to a major action and arrests among the Polish population, and especially among the Jews. Thus the Gestapo arrested 23 distinguished Jews and sent them off to the Radom prison. It is clear that the tension and resentment were very great, not knowing what would happen to them. However, thanks to the tremendous steps and intervention of a few community members, we were able to free all of them and bring them back to the city.
The Second Case
A few days before Rosh Hashana 1940, a Gestapo expedition arrived in the city from Radom, which herded all the Jewish men into a single place, and after severe beatings and humiliations they took out 120 young men and sent them off to work somewhere in the area of Lublin. We learned that this same action was also carried out in other towns in our region. The fear and suffering that the deportation aroused in the Jewish population is impossible to describe, especially in the broken-up families. Then I, together with my friend Yossl Tencer and a few others, decided to make an effort to rescue them. We went off to the Central Bureau in Radom, and after major efforts we received a letter from the powers that be for Lublin. I recall that it was a Friday and we went to see the rabbi of Wąchock, Rabbi Yossele (the father of our Rabbi Rabinowicz), who gave us permission to ride to Lublin on the Sabbath and also gave us his blessing.
We finally arrived in Lublin and met with our people, who were still in the transit camp on the infamous 7 Lipowa St., which had a dreadful reputation.
I remained in Lublin until after Succoth, searching for various ways to rescue our people. I also visited my relative, who was a prominent man of action in Lublin.
And suddenly there was a police raid on Jews at night and among others they took my cousin, me and Yossl Tencer in the middle of the night and threw us unto freight trucks and dragged us off to the camp on 7 Lipowa St. What we went through that night was terrible; it was extremely cold and we had to lie face-down on the bare bricks, until daylight. A selection took place in that camp to send people to various places of work, but thanks to the great efforts made on the outside, my cousin was freed together with me and Yossl Tencer. Being free, we renewed our efforts to liberate our people, until we succeeded and all 120 of them were freed. Walking with them in the street many of them were amazed and filled with wonder at the fact. I would like to take this opportunity to give honorable mention to the distinguished member of the Lublin community Reb David Werber, of blessed memory, who assisted us greatly with the liberation of the 120 men, and saw to it that two freight platforms were specially attached to the train, and we all rode directly back to Wierzbnik. Everyone was extremely happy. Unfortunately, later on these people also didn't escape the bitter fate of all Jews.
I have only recalled these two specific incidents in order to show that also in the most difficult times of fear and torment, of arrests and deportations, thanks to the intervention of several community activists, many of the harsh edicts were overturned, and many times life was made a little easier.
At the end of the summer of 1942, a few weeks before the general liquidation, the Germans set up a labor camp in the ammunition factory, which was called by an abbreviation of Juden Lager [camp for Jews], Julag, and it was supposed to take in 2,500 Jews. At that time the camp consisted of two parts. One was erected in the forest, the so-called Szczelnice-Lager, and the other was called the Majowka Lager.
Then the last days of the community's demise actually drew nearer, even though no one imagined that the liquidation was so close. Everyone looked for a way to save himself, some through finding a place of work, others through hiding, and others handed over young children into Christian hands, in order to rescue them from death. The tension grew from day to day, and on the last Sabbath before the liquidation we still managed to gather a minyan at the home of Yankel Rubinstein, among whom were Henech Biderman, Yankele Mandelzis, Yehiel Lerman, Leibish Rubinstein and others. While I was reading the Torah portion, panic was created with the arrival of the news that all the Jews of Wąchock (700 people) had been brought to Wierzbnik. This served as a sign that the liquidation was advancing.
Even though it was sensed in the air that the repression and annihilation were coming nearer, deep in our hearts a spark of hope still glowed, that it would perhaps be possible by various means to elude or abolish the sentence of annihilation. I recall that one night before the liquidation I still made various efforts in that respect, but unfortunately with no success, because the entire city was already surrounded by the murderous military formations. The bloody day, the 16th of Marheshvan, October 27, 1942, is inscribed in my memory as the fatal date of cruelty and brutality. Early in the morning the shuddering cry resounded All Jews out, and from all sides tormented Jews streamed to the marketplace: men and women, old and young and little children to the assembly point. Within a short time the market place was filled with five thousand Jews, composed of the Wierzbnik population together with homeless Jews from other places.
The entire mass of people stood there surrounded by angels of destruction, with the infamous murderer and leader of the SD, Becker, at their head, holding a revolver cocked to shoot. Dozens of Jewish men and women were shot to death that day by those murderous hands, and their names are remembered and commemorated in this Yizkor Book. The victims of that bloody day were given Jewish burial by our compatriot and friend, Leibish Herblum. After that, the majority of the Jewish population was driven to the train station, from where they were sent on their final journey in an unfamiliar direction. The remaining Jews, who were divided up, were driven off to the large camp in the forest, which was called Szczelnica Camp. While they were pushing the beaten Jews to the new camp, Yosef Rosenberg, the son-in-law of Reb Shmuel Cohen, was shot on the way. The gates of the camp were immediately locked, and the first reception was to hand in all our private, hidden, last valuables, under threat of death. All our clothes, sacks and packs with our last remaining things were immediately collected, and people remained with what they were standing up in.
And under these hard, inhuman conditions, we continued to bear the yoke of work, hunger and torment for another nineteen months until the end of July 1944.
It is impossible to describe all the seven sections of hell that each of us went through in the camps, and only a very small part is related here and there in the Yizkor Book, because every day had its bloody story.
Acts of Aggravation and Horror
Thus on that same Christmas eve, a freight truck arrived in the middle of the night and a shout was heard Eine Minute alles raus! [Everybody out in one minute]. This happened in the Szczelnica camp, and everyone ran madly and wildly to the only gate, and people with a fever of forty degrees, all on a bright moonlit night when the infamous murderer Althoff ordered everyone to run around the camp as fast as possible. Afterwards he shouted out Eine Minute alles schlaft [Everyone asleep in one minute]. That was a Christmas play accompanied by death and humiliation.
The grim life dragged on in this way, filled with despair and fear. Exhausted and starved, the people were pushed to hard physical labor, and afterwards lay in the barracks on the bare boards covered with dirty rags and without the minimal sanitary conditions, not knowing what the morrow would bring.
Understandably, in such circumstances people became weak and there were outbreaks of various diseases, especially a typhus epidemic, which encompassed a large proportion of the people. Suddenly an order was received to construct a bunker and to isolate the women and children with typhus in it.
But the isolation was just an excuse, and it didn't take long until the murderer Althoff showed up in the middle of the night and shot all the sick people in the bunker, and afterwards ordered us to bury them in the forest. But typhus continued to prevail in the camp, and sick people were again isolated in a special bunker. But the will to live was so strong, that despite the terrible conditions and the minimal medical help, some of them nevertheless revived and regained their health.
The second mass murder took place when the vicious Althoff together with Meyer entered the barrack and shot right and left and so horribly murdered all the sick people.
Mass Murder in the Bogaj Forest
So the grim days dragged on in the cold winter, from one mass murder to the next. Only several weeks had passed when the bloodthirsty murderer Althoff again entered the camp with Gestapo men and ordered us to assemble outside, where he selected 120 people and led them away to the Bogaj Forest, where deep graves had already been prepared previously by Jews, who didn't know what they would be used for, and there all 120 Jews were bestially killed. That was the so called Bogaj Action. After that Purim drew near and a small clinic was set up in the camp, where the sick received some medical help, to the degree that it was possible, and the people caught their breath a bit from the terrible actions. When Passover arrived, the mood was calm, and then with the help of my friend Leibish Herblum I undertook to create the opportunity of eating matzos on Passover. A little flour was smuggled in through the people who worked in the factory, and Leibish Herblum, being a craftsman, put together an oven from bricks and other things, and using bottles as rolling pins the women kneaded the dough and prepared the matzos. In this way, in spite of the hard conditions, we were able to eat matzos in the camp, which served as a symbol of redemption, because the entire time was bitter enough.
But the Szczelnica camp was liquidated immediately after Passover and the remaining people were transferred to the Majowka camp. That is how the summer of 1943 began, and we thought that in spite of everything many people would survive and live to experience the victory. But the Hitler beast that searched for different ways and means to destroy all the Jews, to the very last one, thought differently. On a certain day, it was when the uprising of the Jewish fighters was taking place in the Warsaw ghetto, the wild Huns again entered the camp, herded everyone together and again removed a number of people and led them off to Firlej, near Radom, and a day later we learned that they had all been brutally murdered there. Thus the camp was sifted through from time to time, through brutal actions and deceptions, until the leading away to death.
To Prison in Radom
On the night between June 5 and 6, 1944, while in the barrack, more or less a month before the ultimate final liquidation, the infamous camp commandant Schratt came in and said that I was being called to the works guardhouse. From then on what happened to me is to this day a mystery to me and also to all the other people in the camp. I entered the works guardhouse and there encountered two Gestapo men who led me out of the camp gate, shoved me into a vehicle that was waiting outside, and accompanied by the Gestapo men we drove in the direction of the forest. Understandably, at that moment I thought about the worst of all. But after driving for a certain amount of time, I suddenly found myself in the Wierzbnik jail, where I was locked up in a separate cell. This frightened me greatly, and my thoughts became very scattered and hopeless. But very early, when day dawned, a Polish policeman who knew me from before the war whispered through the keyhole that I was being taken away to Radom.
And that is what actually happened. At 7 AM two armed works guards came and took me and chained me to a Polish criminal, to take me off to Radom. Then something happened. At that moment a well-dressed Jewish woman entered the jail, carrying a suitcase. It was Avraham Zukerman's sister (Kosowski). I asked her what she was doing there, and she answered me briefly that while she was in the Heller's sawmill camp, she was told to put on her best clothes and take her things with her, and thanks to the efforts made on her behalf abroad, she was being liberated, with the goal of going to Israel.
Walking thus to the depot, accompanied by the skins, with my free hand I helped her carry the suitcase with her things. When we boarded the train they separated us and I didn't see her again. In Radom I was immediately taken to the headquarters of the SS head of police and placed into a dark cellar prison, where about forty Christian arrestees were already sitting. The conditions were very bad, and we were under constant guard. Right in the morning I was taken into another room, where two higher Gestapo officials began interrogating me and asking various questions, such as how many Jews there were still in the camp, what they did and which Jews thought about running away from the camp. I shrewdly answered them that if anyone thought about running away, they kept it a secret to themselves. In this way I sat with my hands cuffed, and they wrote everything down in the record, and afterwards they took me back to the prison. For three days, from Wednesday to Friday, they hassled me this way with questions, and returned me to the prison, and to this day it is a mystery to me what it meant, and how I remained alive.
I believe that only thanks to Divine Providence was I able to bear all these trials, so that I would survive and be a witness who together with all the Jews saw and suffered the bitter torment until the downfall of the enemy. Otherwise it is impossible to grasp it logically. The terrible impression made by my sudden disappearance from the camp on my sainted wife and children, who remained in the camp, is impossible to describe. After they finished the interrogation, I was again returned to the prison on Warsaw Street, and the infamous cannibal Koch was already waiting for me, and did such terrible and painful things to me, which, because of the respect due to the Yizkor Book, I can't repeat.
The Day of Liberation
I suffered for five weeks in the prison until June 11, 1944, when I was sent off to Gross-Rosen camp. After spending several days there, I heard them asking who among the people was a clerk. I immediately responded and I was taken away to another camp, Fünf Teichen [Five Lakes], where I worked in the factory. I would like to mention the Yom Kippur eve which has become deeply etched in my memory. It was a night when I and an additional group of Jews lay sick and weakened, and quietly murmured the holiday prayers and with broken hearts called out In distress I called out to you, O Lord.
And I also recall a Hanukah evening, when I was in a revier [infirmary] with the rabbi of Sępienko, and we were able to carry out the mitzvah of lighting Hanukah candles in the dark infirmary. This happened just a few weeks before liberation. From then on the Sępienko rabbi, who now lives in Israel, and I became good friends.
I was liberated from the infirmary on January 23, 1945.
Before I relate the rest of my experiences after liberation, I consider it necessary to mention Mrs. Kosowski (née Zukerman), who unfortunately did not live to reach Israel, the country which she dreamed of coming to, and she died in the eternally cursed Auschwitz, where she yet encountered her daughter Rivka, and told her about her sudden meeting with me on the road.
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