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I Saw the Destruction of Our Shtetl (cont.)

I went to see the head of the district. After a long wait in the corridor, I was received by a young German in military uniform. He sat, and I, with my yellow patch front and back, stood. I told him that the local authorities had decided to make Brzezin “Judenrein.” The times were not favorable; it was a severe winter, already there were cases of people being frozen. In the name of the Jewish community, I asked him to permit the order to be carried out in stages, so that we would be able to provide those who left Brzezin with food and some money.

He heard me out without giving me any answer but told me to wait in the corridor again. After ten to fifteen minutes, he called me in and told me that the German authorities had received my request. Jews would have to leave Brzezin by the first of April, 1940 – every two weeks, five hundred people. The Jewish community would carry out the deportation. The Jewish doctor Warhaft would be responsible. The local gendarmes would supervise.

The outcome of my intervention was completely unexpected. Later I met Icek Dymant and Grynszpan, and we traveled home with lighter spirits, but with one question: What do we do now?

 

brz137.jpg -   A Jewish children's school in Brzezin
A Jewish children's school in Brzezin

 

While we were in Lodz, Ikka carried out his first assignment. He pointed out to the Gestapo ten magaziners and other well-to-do people from whom money could be extorted after they were arrested. All were freed after paying up to one thousand marks [German currency].

We returned home with our order that no one had to leave town at once by force. Again we created a small committee that consisted of: Dymant, Jasza Zagon, Grynszpan, Szafman, and me. We consulted together on what to do next. Since the gendarmes allowed us to buy back workers with money and gifts, we decided to deliver a list of five hundred people who had “abandoned” Brzezin. In reality, it was a list of the residents of Court Street who were living with their relatives on another street. The list was backed up with money, and the experiment succeeded. Again, we won a little time.

At the same time, Jasza Zagon got wind of the fact that in Lodz there was a German firm, Schwartz, that distributed work to Jewish tailors and also organized shops for Jewish workers. After long negotiations, work was finally procured for Brzeziny tailors, who worked in their homes and also in shops [German workshops]. The assigned materials were picked up from the firm by the Jewish community. The kehile got paid for the work, and it paid the workers. From the amount that the community got from the Schwartz firm, it took ten percent for its share.

The kehile also provided resources for living. It had its own shops, bakeries, and butcheries. Almost all of the inhabitants worked. From time to time, the Germans would make trouble for the Jews. Still, it was already a little easier.

In May of 1940, the Germans designated a part of Brzezin as the ghetto. Jews were not to be found outside the ghetto. The Gestapo designated Fiszka Ikka as head of the ghetto. He took over the kehile proceeds under the title Judenaltester [Jewish elder]. He created the ghetto police. He designated Sewerin Perlmuter as its commander. A health center was created in the ghetto. Since Jews did not have access to the general health fund, it was decided that every Jew in the ghetto was entitled to free medical care.

I was the only doctor in the ghetto. I took the felczer [medical practitioner] Klajnert and the nurses Tuszynska and Rozenberg to help me, also the midwife Buki. Abramowicz and Fraulein Mizes ran the pharmacy in the ghetto. Since sick Jews were not taken to the hospital outside the ghetto, we had the task of creating a small hospital with twenty-five beds. We got a house at 6 Court Street (Moje [Mojsze?] Dymant's). The women went from house to house collecting beds, linens, dishes, and other necessities. The former schoolteacher Auster (all schools were forbidden in the ghetto) was designated to be in charge.

We all worked competently and until then had no casualties. In the beginning I also got permission from the Germans, in cases of serious surgery, to take the sick person from the ghetto to Lodz. Later this was forbidden. I lost a sick patient who needed to undergo serious abdominal surgery only because I could not take him to Lodz.

Ikka ruled as a dictator in the kehile. He gave out community money without any kind of community control. In times like these, he knew how to provide himself with gold and diamonds – he bought them with community money or extorted them from various people. Any attempt at opposition was suppressed by him and his German helpers. An attempt to forward a message to the German powers that they should select someone else as head of the kehile ended with the arrest of Zagon, Grynszpan, Stark, and Sender. They were tortured in Brzezin and then taken to Lodz. From there they were dragged to the prison in Sieradz After a long time, Grynszpan, Jasza Zagon, and Stark came back to the Brzeziner ghetto. Sender was killed.

That is how ghetto life looked until June 1941. At that time, unofficially, Harov [the town rabbi] Borensztajn, Jakob Sulkowicz and his family, Mordechai Winter, and others returned to the ghetto. According to official reports, no one came back.

In June, 1941, the Germans took one hundred fifty healthy young people to dig peat in the neighborhood of Strykow. Because of the hard labor and hunger, after two months, skeletons returned to the ghetto. One of the group was very viciously beaten until he died from the blows and torture. During his burial, the gabbai [trustee] of the Khevre Kadishe [burial society], Fajbisiak, died of a heart attack at the cemetery – while begging forgiveness of the dead.

During that same period of time, the former kehile chairman, Icek Dymant, also died of a heart attack.

News began to reach the ghetto from people who smuggled themselves in, that all the small ghettos in Warthegau were being liquidated by the Germans. They sent away a portion of the men and women who were able to work, but they took away the sick, the old, and the children, and no one knew what happened to them. There were reports about mass shootings, about burnings, but precise information was not known. We had no contact with the outside world; we were surrounded on all sides by Germans – civilian and military. We had no newspapers and no radios.

In the ghetto the dictator ruled with his police. Maybe he knew something, but he said nothing.

 

brz138.jpg -  From the Brzeziner children’s colony in 1938
From the Brzeziner children’s colony in 1938

 

That is how it stood until 1942. There was less work. In individual homes people were already starving. There were already cases of sickness from hunger. Typhus appeared. The epidemic spread fiercely, yet we did not receive medical supplies from the authorities to give inoculations against the illness.

The Gestapo and other Germans began to appear more often in the ghetto. We felt something in the air, that a change in our situation was coming. We were told to immediately take an exact census of the inhabitants of the ghetto. We were ordered to appear before a medical commission, where we got a stamp on the chest with the mark “A” or “B” – but what that signified, we did not yet know.

At the time of Purim, 1942, ten men and women were hung, and all inhabitants of the ghetto were required to attend. The Germans took photographs. Ikka made a speech that the ten (innocent victims) were hung for sabotaging the demands of the authorities. The kehile supplied the victims – a couple of mentally handicapped, sick people, and two arrested for smuggling. Ikka also exploited his hatred of Stark and arrested him. He was among the candidates to be hung, but at the last moment, he was forced to be a participant, together with the police, as the hangman in the execution.

In April of 1942, I was suddenly called to the kehile. A German from the Gestapo was waiting for me. He said that they knew that there were cases of typhus [spotted fever] in the ghetto, the kind of illness the German hygiene doctors have had little experience handling (“Jews have lice,” they said). I was told to prepare a transport of my patients with typhus, and they would be taken to a special sanatorium. I could also send along my personnel – but if they were not up to the task, the German doctors would take over.

The offer seemed very suspicious to us. We decided to send home all the sick. Only a few on their death beds remained. In the morning a large closed truck arrived. The sick were put inside. They also took a few people who had been arrested. The doors were hermetically sealed, and on the way to Lodz, they were all suffocated by gas fumes from the truck.

The Jewish hospital was in fact liquidated. We had many ill with typhus in private homes.

May 1942 – we already knew that the ghetto in Brzezin would be liquidated; some would be taken to the Lodz ghetto, and a small number would remain in Brzezin.

Ikka created a circle of his helpers – police and others – who believed that they would save themselves if they remained in the ghetto. He proposed that I remain in the ghetto (the king of the ghetto still needed a “leib-arzt” [physician]). I said, however, that I would go together with those who were leaving the ghetto.

We knew that the kehile treasury still had enough money. The camps also had resources to keep people alive. I requested of Ikka that everyone deported from the ghetto receive a few marks and some food. At the beginning, Ikka stated that the dead don't need anything. But after a serious argument, I actually extracted ten marks and bread for everyone deported.

According to a list that was created by the kehile, the old, the weak, the sick, and mothers with children up to ten years of age were assembled in the town square. During the night the mothers were torn away from their children, who were thrown into automobiles and carried out of the ghetto. Actually, later we learned that all the children were gassed in Chelmno, near Kolo.

 

brz139.jpg -   Joseph Szajbowicz addressing a 'Yisker' [memorial] meeting in Paris, France
Joseph Szajbowicz addressing a Yisker [memorial] meeting in Paris, France

 

The 14th of May, 1942, we were again assembled. The Germans made a selection based on age and appearance. Many healthy men were immediately sent off to work in camps. I believe none of them ever came back. The rest were split into various groups. They took us to Galkowek. There we were loaded into railroad cars. At that point, Mojsze Raszewski's son was severely beaten and fell dead. We traveled to Lodz in sealed railroad cars. There, a large part of our group was again deported – from the Lodz ghetto – and every trace of them vanished.

Those left began a new hard life in the Lodz ghetto. Many died of hunger and need, others from illnesses. Rabbi Borensztajn, whom we smuggled into the Lodz ghetto, died in Lodz. Abraham Topolowicz died there, as did the teacher Auster, and many, many others.

And then came the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto in September 1944. Again, the small group of Brzeziner Jews still found in the Lodz ghetto were carried away with the tide. A great number were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz (among them my in-laws, Fiszel Dymant and his wife, and our uncle, Zelig Dymant); others were sent away to various work camps. Only a very small group of them survived all these camps and are now scattered all over the world. Most of them are in our old-new land Medines Isroel [State of Israel].

This is my history. That is how I myself lived through the destruction of our Brzeziner kehile.

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