On the first day of the German occupation twenty Jews were shot by the Germans due to their denunciation by Poles that they were communists. Grenades were thrown into Jewish homes in order to frighten the Jewish population and, therefore, many of the Zolkiew Jews dispersed: some to Lublin, some to Chelm and some to other places. Later, when it became a little quieter, many of the Jews who ran away returned to Zolkiewke [the town name is spelled in three different ways].
It again became turbulent in 1942. I remember how I came home frightened on a Friday night. I learned from the Judenrat [Jewish council created by the Germans] that Krasnystaw Jews informed the Judenrat that the gentiles in Zolkiewke had seen a great deal of Jewish clothing in Belczec. With tears in my eyes, I told this to my wife and said to her: Ester, light a candle; it is bad, we have to part. We kissed each other with a heavy sobbing.
The entire Shabbos [Sabbath] day passed with trembling and fear. At night on Shabbos the Gestapo entered the [home] of the most respected Jew in the shtetl, Avigdor, and he scaped in a hurry. A gendarme chased after him and shot him. He remained lying in a pool of blood on the road that led to the church.
A few days later, in May 1942, there was a great turmoil. It was four o'clock in the morning. The Gestapo drove the Jews from their houses and Jews were grabbed in the street. They brought everyone to one place. Poles with rifles also helped catch the Jews, searched and rummaged in every corner. There was a great downpour at that time, a storm with thunder and lightening.
One of the boys asked a German where they were being taken and he was shot immediately. A woman of 50, who also asked something of a Gestapo member, was shot, too.
I had prepared a bunker earlier that was located outside the city where huts had been erected in which to live when a fire took place in the shtetl. On the eve of the war, my wife and children and I escaped to the bunker in the middle of the turmoil. My daughter later left for the shtetl to see what was happening. She told us that all of the Jews were standing at the market square, surrounded by S.S. and Gestapo men and by armed Poles. We did not know what to do. I went out to ask a Pole who lived near the huts. He said to me:
Moszek zie niema rady was Wysiediajon. (Moshek, it is bad; I have no advice; you will be deported.)
We left the bunker and went to the marketplace. I said to my wife: What happens to all of the Jews will also happen to us.
We were driven from the marketplace in storms and rain. We dragged ourselves the entire night with sacks on our backs and at around one o'clock in the afternoon we arrived in Krasnystaw. The storm and the rain did not stop. We all wanted to die on the spot; preferably let them shoot us.
From Zolkiewke to Krasnystaw is 28 kilometers. We left many dead on the road. We already knew that they were driving us to Sobibor, which is 90 kilometers from Zolkiewke.
In Krasnystaw we met Jews from other shtetlekh, such as Trabin, Wysoka and Krasnystaw Jews.
We all stood outside for an entire day until the next morning and the rain continued to pour down. Then we were taken to the railroad. Transports already stood there. Germans stood with two pails, loudly ordering us to give up our gold, silver and everything we had before we were allowed into the wagons. Meanwhile, we were photographed.
Six thousand Jews were driven into the transport. The doors of the freight wagon were sealed. There was not a bit of air and many people, mainly children, lost consciousness and died.
We arrived at Sobibor on Thursday at six at night. Sobibor is one kilometer from Wlodawa. This was a small train station of only a few old buildings not far from the Las Kresowy forest. There was a sawmill and not far away a deep, thick forest extended for many miles.
The Gestapo set their dogs on us as soon as we left the train wagons. Each member of the Gestapo was one meter and 80 centimeters [five feet nine inches] tall. They set the dogs on us and they tore pieces of flesh from our bodies.
The camp was right at the station. It was located on a smaller plot. It was enclosed by wire. The women were ordered to go to the right, the men to the left. Men and women and women and children were separated brutally. There was a great uproar and cry to the very heavens. The strong outcry of Shema Yisroel [Hear O Israel the central prayer of Judaism] could truly have split the highest heaven. They also took my wife and children from me by force.
After this work, we were placed in rows and the Gestapo declared: Whoever wants to work should
step out. We did not know which was better and what we needed to do. Eighty men stepped out and I, too, was included. We were taken to another camp.
There was a pit in the second camp where clothing belonging to the Jews who had been shot was burned along with body parts. Under the guard of armed Ukrainians we lay one after the other and we each expected that death would come at any moment. We said goodbye to one another. We lay down on the ground, stretching one head to another and in such a state we lay an entire night and an entire day. We preferred death rather than living like this.
Twenty-four hours later we were taken away to the previous camp that was near the railroad. Of the 6,000 transported I did not meet anyone there. I did not track down my wife and children, my brother, Hershl, and Zawl Hochman. I only found my son, Yisroel, my nephew, Hershl's son Yeshayale and my cousin Matys, Zawl's son. They told us that everyone already had been gassed.
We worked for a time at sorting the clothing of the dead and then we were given various work.
We saw how they were bringing transported Jews. 5,000 to 6,000 Jews were brought in a transport. Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland and from Ukraine were brought to Sobibor. During the winter, transports arrived with frozen children and adults. They would be severely beaten when they left the train.
The frozen ones in the wagons were taken in carts across the shines (rails) to be buried. Later, there were special machines with teeth (lorkes) that threw out the dead bodies from the wagons and scattered them in the fields.
I remember how once a transport arrived of several thousand Jews in striped suits with yarmulkes [skullcaps] on their heads and with bottles at their side. They were all numbered and stamped with Majdanek Camp. We did not know why they had been brought here because if it was to kill them, they could have been gassed at Majdanek. They looked like corpses. Extinguished eyes protruded. They asked us to give them a piece of bread and water. When the Germans gave them a piece of bread, 20-30 people threw themselves on it. They asked us what kind of camp this was. We were afraid to tell them. I recognized several of them; they were from my shtetl of Zolkiewka and from the neighboring shtetlekh.
They waited in the yard for a long time. The Gestapo and Ukrainians came at night and they began to heavily beat them. In the morning, at dawn, we counted 3,000 dead. At 8 o'clock in the morning, they were taken to the gas ovens where they were burned.
I was in the hell of Sobibor for 18 months. There were two barracks in the camp at the very beginning of my arrival. Later the death camp was enlarged, There were
20 barracks erected. The gas chambers were in a separate place. They had a sloping floor and when a door was opened the people slid down. Five hundred men were let in at one time. A member of the Gestapo watched to see if the victims were dead through a small window on the roof. Then they were removed, buried or burned. They were buried during the first half-year. After the German defeat at Stalingrad, they brought a machine and it drew the dead from the earth to be burned.
All of Sobibor was a field of dead people and dogs dragged hands and feet before my eyes.
When they would bring the transports to Sobibor they would sort [the people] into three camps. The first camp was for tailors and shoemakers, carpenters, plumbers, bakers. The second camp was for workers to sort the clothing and items from the dead. Therefore, they had to work naked. The third camp was for those taken to be gassed.
* * *
I worked in the second camp and then I worked as a tailor in the first camp.
When things grew worse on the front and the Red Army was approaching Kiev, a smaller transport arrived in Sobibor. We saw and sensed that our end was near. In great secrecy, we, approximately 100 men, organized to take revenge on our murderers and, perhaps, some of us would succeed in saving our lives.
It was impossible to escape from the camp. There were three walls around the camp with barbed wire. On two high guard booths also stood armed Ukrainians. Two hundred Germans stood on guard around the camp who were organized in three shifts. In the background of the forest stood a division of armed Ukrainians with an S.S. man.
(Photo, caption: Shimeon Yakov Marmeriwtshe Binsztok, Shlomola Binsztok with his wife and children, perished in the gas chambers of Sobibor. Bayla Joba Szmoragd-Binsztok died in Paris in 1936. May their souls by bound in the bond of life.)
The Germans had mines in certain places. It was even difficult for a bird to fly out, even more so for a person.
Therefore, we were ready for everything and the thought of rising up in a rebellion was very developed. We did not know how to do it because we did not yet have any weapons.
A young man from Warsaw worked at sorting the clothing. He hid tin cans of benzene among the clothing and he wanted to ignite the barracks full of clothing and himself at the designated moment of the beginning of the rebellion. He was still young, but he said with determination: It would be better to die kiddush haShem [in the sanctity of God's name as a martyr] than to perish at the Germans' hands, but perhaps as a result you will be saved. We called off the project because we learned that our hypothesis was incorrect that setting fire to the barracks would create chaos among the Germans and Ukrainians and perhaps we would be able to escape during the uproar. We calculated that first they would murder us and then run to put out the fire in the barracks.
Several days passed in hesitation and reflection about how we should begin the uprising against the cruel murderers. We finally came to a decision that we, the professional men, should [be the ones to] begin.
There were 20 Gestapo men in the camp itself who administered the camp internally with the Ukrainian guards. We thought if we succeeded in suddenly attacking and murdering them it would create panic among the Ukrainians and then we could break the wire fences and disappear into the woods. Since recently each S.S. man had been assigning work to the artisans because of the defeat on the Russian front, it we discussed among us whether we should call each of the S.S. men at the same time to be measured or to see the completed work, or to see if something needed to be repaired.
There were separate workshops. There were several workers in each workshop. We would find a solution with one S.S.-man
I led my tailor's table with nine workers. We were entrusted to make the start.
This took place at Sukkous time [at the time of the Feast of the Tabernacles], 1943.
We were sewing a civilian suit for the untersturmfuhrer [second lieutenant] Neumann. I let him know that he should come to be measured for the suit because it already was finished. He came immediately, riding on a horse, tying it to a fence.
When the sadist entered my workshop, I shouted: Achtung [attention]! All of the workers in the workshop stood up. He took off his belt with the revolver, laid it down on the table opposite him and stood erect.
The workshop had three rooms and a kitchen. One room was for sleeping, one room for the hatmaker, where a Jew from Turobin sewed hats for the murderers.
A mirror stood in the room where I did the measuring and in order that he not see what was happening behind him I earlier had moved the mirror a little.
A Russian Jew, who fell into captivity and had been deported to Sobibor was given [the task] of killing Neumann. This Jew was hiding with the hatmaker with a sharp, small hatchet in his jacket. The S.S.-man noticed him when he entered my room and immediately asked: What is this man doing here? I answered: He is here to smooth down the hatmaker's table. When I buttoned the jacket, the Russian attacked Neumann from behind and split his head with the hatchet. He fell immediately and we stabbed him with a sharp knife in order that he not make any noise and we dragged him, dead, into the hatmaker's room, covering him under the bed with rags.
We needed to liquidate the S.S.-man in the kitchen in the same way. However, he did not have time to come.
Other S.S.-men were also liquidated at the same time. The obersturmfuhrer [first lieutenant] Gretschus had slaughtered the above-mentioned Warsaw youth. The S.S.man Beckman had a Warsaw servant. Three concentration camp inmates entered and they stabbed him and his servant with a dagger.
Eighteen S.S.-men and Beckman's servant were killed by our fighting group. Two members of the S.S. remained in the camp.
A group of 30 Jews worked in the forest under the watch of a member of the Gestapo. They came straight to the roll call that took place once a day. Since we already had weapons from the murdered S.S.-men, we immediately shot the member of the S.S.
A commotion began at the guard posts when the Ukrainians heard a shot. However, they did not know what had happened. We began to cry out in Polish: Czerwona Armia w Warszawie [The Red Army is in Warsaw.]. The Ukrainians were confused and attacked us. We entered a second camp where the weapons arsenal was located and [gathered more weapons]. Meanwhile, a Volks-Deutsch [ethnic German], a Pole from Lublin, began shooting at us with a revolver. We shot him. However, shooting at us by the Ukrainians at the guard posts and by the Germans who stood around the camp began immediately. However, the Ukrainians each had only five bullets. They were not given many bullets because they were not trusted by the Germans. They immediately fell silent. The initiative was in our hands. The two S.S.-members hid in the cellar, afraid that we would make an agreement with the Ukrainians.
We began to run to the wire. Several 100 wormed their way out of the death camp, but about 30 Jews fell dead at the wire because there was a great deal of shooting by the Germans. We ran into the forest and divided into groups. I escaped with eight men. I lost my son, Yisroel, from my hands. I
learned after the war that my only son perished with my nephew Yeshayale, Hershl's son.
The fate of the escapees to the forest was difficult. It was worse that we had separated into small groups. The Poles attacked the Jews in the forests. Approximately 40 Jews who had escaped from the Sobibor camp lived to see the full revenge against the Germans. In my group were: Leib Feldhendler, the son of Rabbi Yosele, and Jews from Izbica and Krasnystaw. However, they suddenly disappeared from among us and I never saw them again.
* * *
I remained in the forest only with the above-mentioned Russian Jew. He was named Moshe. He began to ask me to go with him because he was in a strange country and did not know the Polish language.
We wandered together through the forest and steppes. I looked around at night, as we were not far from the train line near the Wieprz River. I could swim across the river, but he could not. We wandered around for two days without food. We tried to find long poles and tie them together with the laces from our shoes so that we could use them to cross the river. But the sun began to rise We left for the side where there was a bridge. He said: With God's help, we will cross the bridge safely. He had left his hat on the Sobibor wire, so he made a hat for himself with his striped scarf that was seen from afar.
We went to the bridge. There was a hill near the bridge, and when we went up on it we saw two German civilians speaking to each other. We ran by them and safely crossed the bridge. This was at Minkhah [after noon prayer] time. We changed direction on the right side of the Wieprz River, went across the cemetery and highway and out on into the fields where we found beets. We snatched some to eat and we took several beets with us.
We ran constantly in great haste until we went out onto the highway from Zolkiewka. We knocked at a peasant's [door] and asked for a piece of bread. However, he did not give us any. A second peasant opened a small window and gave us bread and milk. The Russian Jew paid him for it with a gold chain from a watch.
Night fell again. There was a beautiful full moon. We rested in a woods near the Biala court. However, we heard shooting from a machine gun. I wanted to go in another direction. The Russian Jew advised me that we should go straight with the road. I obeyed him.
Immediately on the road opposite the court, six members of the S.S. sprang out with a shout: Halt, hands high, hands high! We raised our hands and stopped.
They surrounded us and led us into the court From where were we coming? They asked and we
answered that we were Poles and were going to Krasnystaw. The searched us to see if we had any revolvers and they found a few beets and pieces of bread. They found a thimble on me and they laughed.
They understood that we were Jews. They calmly asked us if we wanted alcohol. The Russian Jew jumped in with Russian words, saying that we were traveling from Krasnystaw and going to Gorzkow to work. When they asked: Why are you traveling at night, we answered: We want to arrive at work before dawn. Good, they answered and they deliberated among themselves whether to shoot us in the forest or to send us to the head man in the court for him to decide.
Finally, the entrance to the court was 100 steps away. Four S.S. men remained on the highway and two members of the S.S. led us to the court. I went several steps in front.
There was a barrier to the court in front and a military hut. On the right were bushes, a garden and a few stalls. Approaching the barrier, I sprang into the bushes. The guard shouted, Oh-oh! and began to shoot with his rifle. The two S.S. men also began to shoot at me. However, I ran with great haste. I fell into the swampy marsh where I could sink in.
I barely crawled out from the swamp and went onto the highway. I ran approximately four kilometers until the day was beginning. Outside of the village of Wisniow that was near Gorzkow, I entered a deep valley and I lay under a bush for an entire day. People passed by and did not notice me. At night I approached the village of Poperczyn, where I had a peasant acquaintance. Coming to his house, I saw his son who shouted: Jezu kochany, powiedz mi Moszek skond ty sie wzionl? Dear Jesus, tell me, Moszek, from where have you come?
I told him that I had escaped from the Sobibor death camp, but he should advise me what I could do now and I asked him to let me stay in the barn a day or two. He told me: Crawl in the haystack and I will bring you food. I gave him a string of pearls, brought from the camp.
I was with him for two days. Then he advised me to go the Lublin woods because there were Jewish partisans there and the woods were thick.
Not far away on the road, four kilometers from the above-mentioned village, was a peasant acquaintance of mine, Ganslowski. I went into his attic quietly and snuggled into the straw. It was a hundred steps from the German gendarmerie. At night I went down and woke him. From where have you come, they all asked. They covered the windows and asked me to speak quietly. I asked them if I could stay with them for two weeks. Ganslowski explained that the house was not far from the highway and the gendarmerie was nearby. I drank a glass of tea, said goodbye and left. He asked me to tell him
where I was going. I did not tell him the true direction because I had hidden my things [at his house] before the deportation.
From Ganslowski I left for the village of Gany. I went to a peasant. His dogs attacked me. I knocked on the window and called Panie Stechirzu, otworz! (Mr. Stechirz, open!). He did not know who it was and he came out with his wife and children, undressed. He recognized who I was. They gave me food. He put me to sleep in the house, but I immediately went into the stable attic to sleep better.
In the morning, the peasant consulted with his entire household about what they should do with me. The son-in-law felt they should chase me away, but the old peasant said that Moszek is not a dog and if he has come to me, he is destined to survive. It was decided that they would keep me. They kept me for seven months. I did a little tailoring. During this time various searches took place. However, I was not found.
A month before the liberation, a German requisition division arrived in the village, surrounded the village, searched and rummaged. I was in the attic and I covered myself with chaff. The female peasant came in and searched for me with great difficulty, saying that I should quickly escape because if not they would all be lost. However, I
did not come out from under the chaff and I only came out after the departure of the German requisition division.
The front came closer to the village. It was harvest time; I hid in the fields among the grain. Shooting started, I lay for a time among the rye until the Soviets arrived. Amidst the rye, I heard the Russian language and the peasant's wife came running, telling me the news that I was free.
* * *
I left for my shtetl Zolkiewka. I did not meet any Jews. Everyone looked at me with sorrowful eyes. I found a Polish tailor and went to work for him. With him I earned a pair of pants and a jacket. However, I was not in the shtetl for long. A young gentile entrusted me with a secret that the peasants were contemplating killing me and the priest reproached the peasant in the village of Gany for hiding me.
I reached Lublin. Because of the events in Poland, I left Lublin and went to Austria.
When I traveled to Lublin, I stopped in the court where the S.S. men had kept us at night. There, a young gentile told me how the Russian Jew had been heavily tortured until he was shot. This Russian Jew, Moshe, actually was the one who began the revolt in the Sobibor death camp.
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