(A CHAPTER OF A DIARY)) 23.~.19-13 "When the Germans push us out of here, your report certainly~ wind surprise Hitlerite Germany! What is the use of beginning a work which wind never come to an end?" Scornful and sarcastic remarks like these repeatedly were voiced by my two bunker-fellows since this morning when our protector brought me this copy-book and a pencil.
Why in the world did this pessimists and alarmists hide in this bunker, when they were convinced that sooner or later we would be detected? These poor fellows, shipwrecked like me consider as proper madness to put to writing my former and anticipated experiences.
Did my escape occur only a month ago? Then, also at noon, breathless and bathed in perspiration, I pressed myself into a gap beneath the roof. Outside were dying away the voices of the last women-inmates of the camp being brought to the lorry which would carry them to their death.
Miraculously I once again escaped a certain end of my life ! So it seems to, me a marvel that I am sitting here pressed inconceivably close to my fellow- sufferers in our low pit, Lit by an unsteady flickering light of a tiny kerosene lamp and hardly able to breathe since the air supply is very scant. How quiet it is: no roll-call and no yells of commanding voices.? We speak very little and in whisper, because the goat-stable under our bunker lies is situated near the village road. Here and there steps of a passerby are heard, a dog barks close by; the goat scratches with its legs and bleats loudly. How fortunate and enviable is the goat that it is free to go about outside, while we are dwelling like moles beneath the surface of the earth !
Am I thankless again? Did I even dare to think about the safety of a bunker while I was hiding in the gap beneath the roof in the camp ? The final annihilation of the camp by no means came as a surprise to any of us. Ever since early in may when the hitherto relative quietness turned into a mood of panic which usually precedes every "Action" of extermination, and the "lord" over our life and death, Thomanek, more and more dropped his pretensions of being a "good" manager , all of us knew that our days were numbered. More frequently and with more vigor, people were punished for slight offenses, thrown into the cellar and beaten by Thomanek in public. Then, one morning he shot three persons entirely groundless and convicted two others to fifty blows with a stick. Several days later he ordered a nightly roll-call of the camp. Under terrible threats the rest of their money and valuables (which they had managed to conceal in their clothes) was snatched away from these panic-stricken people. Deadly fear and the helpless despair of the camp-inmates increased their torments day by day. Workers employed outside were able to leave the camp at least for a few hours and were lucky to escape the horrors for a short time. Several of them never returned. They managed somehow to "vanish" The nights were an endless nightmare. Almost nobody dared to undress. One rolled himself sleeplessly on the hard plank-bed, all senses extremely tense; was not a shot fired? Were not steps approaching? Instantly one started up with terrible heartbeats and ran to the window... no, nothing ! not yet !
At the first dawn of the morning of June 23rd. I was lying on my camp-bed in an unquiet slumber, after a sleepless night. All of a sudden a girl of our bedroom, who was standing near the window, burst out in a choking voice a cry of panic. In a second I was fully awake and rushed to the window. Yes, that's that ! Our waiting was at an end and presumably our lives too ! German gendarmes in steel helmets and Ukrainian policemen surrounded the camp. I turned round and fixed my gaze on the consumptive panic-stricken pallid faces of my companions in my room. None of us could utter a word. But before we were able to form a clear thought, the order-servicemen rushed through the camp rooms and drove everyone into the courtyard. The Jewish camp-leader, Wolf, who had awaited us, ordered a roll-call. He ordered the men to turn to the right and the women to the left. Then he numbered us in military fashion. Soon, Thomanek appeared surrounded by his gang of hangmen , his broad and tall figure overtopping all the others. Like a beast sneaking to its prey, he approached the people who wire doomed to death. His head was bent a little forward, the plump, face red like a crayfish and in his sparkling eyes lust for murder. He stopped a few paces in front of his victims and stood, his: legs spread wide and both hands resting on his sides examining the miserable creatures for a few minutes without uttering a word, while they all stared at him in silence dumb-founded with horror, as if they were hypnotized.
Then suddenly he screamed with his grating voice: "Lie down whoever raises his head will be shot" Obediently and without resistance almost 500 people fell down and prostrated themselves in the dust. It was a pitiful sight, yet could they have done otherwise ? Would resistance against this gang of murderers, armed from head to foot, be of any use Thomanek called out some people and ordered them to turn aside and wait there. In every "Action" a minimal percentage of Jews were left alive. Their duty was to restore order when the massacre was over, to clean, repair and pack the personal effects of the executed. The "fortunate", who by the call of Thomanek had been granted life again, jumped up and with blissful bright faces, hurried to leave the lines as quickly as possible. Hardly one of them even glanced at the remaining inmates, although some had relatives and friends among them.
While Thomanek was making the selection, some of those prostrated ventured to raise their heads and began to beg for their lives. Involuntarily, I raised my head also and glanced at the dreaded man. I did not do so in order to pray for his mercy, because that act would be entirely senseless. Neither did I feel suddenly awakened courage, or a contempt of death. The continuous panic of the past weeks and the naked fear of death of tile last hours increased and reached the limit of the bearable. At that moment I felt nothing any more. Almost by my side was Iying a man, the camp barber, who had raised his head: "Mr. camp, manager, surely you know me, let me live!" he implored. Thomanek lifted his automatic rifle, leveled it and aimed in my direction. It seemed that he was aiming at me. For a fleeting instant it occurred to me that it would be better to be shot here, so that an end might come to the agonies, and I asked myself whether the bullet would cause pain, and at once the shot was fired. Without knowing what had happened, I looked at my blood stained right hand and my blood spattered frock. As I raised myself a bit in order to look for my wound, I saw the barber Iying crooked in a pool of blood. It was his blood that spattered my hand and frock. Thomanek shot several other people. One man whose lung was hit suffered terrible agonies: he was groaning and coughing up blood.
Only later when the sorting out was finished. and the men were driven to the big gate on the other side of the camp, a German gendarme released the man from the suffering by shooting him in the head. The horrible dying of the man and the other gruesome sights made no impression on me any more. I was as if stupefied and obeyed apathetically the Germans' orders, when the women were led to the rear entrance of the camp, and were ordered to sit down in front of the bath-house.
Thomanek with his constables followed the men. Shortly after- words we heard a lorry driving up to the front, the Germans' howling orders, a confusion of voices and the crack of rifle shots.
The process of death for the men had begun ! Forty to fifty men were brought on to the lorry, which drove them to the place of execution out of town, where mass graves were ready to receive them . Mass graves which in a few hours time, we too would Sink into. I tried to imagine that soon I should he dead, but I was unable to form a clear thought. My head was as if hollowed, I was sitting on the ground among the women without seeing anybody. My hands were mechanically playing with dry soil, rubbing hard little clods, pushing round stones, without knowing what they were doing. I do not know how long I was absentmindedly dozing, yet one hour certainly passed. But a sudden stir among the women brought me back to reality. A young order-serviceman approached one of the gendarme watching over us, probably to ask for something. At first, the German hesitated a little, but finally he said: "As far as I'm concerned, bring them the water". The youth, a lad, hardly 16 years of age, during the last year had lost his parents and his sisters. His twin-sister hitherto had managed to survive extermination.. She was now sitting among us, the doomed to die. When Thomanek was sorting out the people, the lad despairingly. asked him to release his sister. Thomanek refused even to listen to him and finally shouted at him at the top of his voice, so that the lad made off quickly. Apparently he now wanted to part from his beloved sister. As a pretext to do so, he brought a large bucket full of water and put it in the middle of the place where the women were sitting. Then, he sat down near his sister and started in a low voice to talk her into something. The young girl did not even pay attention to him. She remained sitting motionless near the bath-house, her head leaning upon the wall and her eyes closed. Although I was sitting only a few paces apart and the despairing lad, in his efforts to persuade his sister to something, spoke more and more loudly, in my state of stupor I hardly took notice of what he was saving. Yet some words which he had repeated several times penetrated into my subconsciousness and caused even a slight astonishment : what could he mean by this:' He said something like: "The little house" and later: "The door was left ajar''. But I forgot it all again as the girl suddenly started up and wildly shouted at her brother: "Leave me alone and go away !" Then, she ran to the other side, sat down near her girl-friend, sobbing and embracing her. The poor lad grasped his head with his hands and ran away without turning round to catch a last glimpse of her. Some of the women raised their heads and followed him with their glances, but most of them took no notice of the incident and persisted in silent, resigned despair. No word was to be heard aloud, no cries, nor weeping, sometimes only suppressed painful groaning. Just like me, the others too seemed resigned to their unavertible, gruesome fate. and sank more and more deeply into an apathy, which the events of the external environment could not penetrate any more.
In all probability, if my state of hypnotic trance had lasted to the bitter end, I would have been dragged weak and helpless onto the lorry,. But all at once an event, unimportant in itself, definitely tore me out of my resignation and brought me back to reality. The waiting for death continued for several hours, the sun half risen fairly high in the sky, the air grew hot and the shade lessened. At last I heard no more the noise of the lorry, when it arrived or left. Suddenly the siren howled, an air-raid alarm was sounded, the first since long ago, when the Germans, in their triumphant drive, penetrated deep into Russia and almost reached the gates of Moscow.'The prolonged fragmentary howling penetrated like a sound of a fanfare into my consciousness. The mist of stupefaction disappeared and with relentless clarity I realized my terrible condition. The guards surrounding us gazed at one another incredulously and mockingly grinning looked upward to the radiant clear sky of June, and contemptuously shrugged their shoulders. The siren stopped howling and suddenly a low deep, buzz was heard, which became gradually stronger the nearer it came. The flak (the anti-aircraft fired) began to bark anti tiny clouds detonated high above in the air a tiny movable point could be observed; it was buzzing slowly and clear air. Then I saw the plane. It flew so high that only penetratingly, but soon disappeared front my field of sight. The Germans and the Ukrainians observed it too. Some of them voiced contemptuous remarks, which were supposed to be witty, and aroused outbursts of Iaughter.
A wild anger and a hot desire for revenge awoke in me with such violence that it became red before my eyes, and every sense of fear vanished. I tried to imagine what the future would be like: I felt sure that it would be different from what it was now. Not one plane would appear in the sky but hundreds of them, and our oppressors would soon cease from laughing. When the siren sounded the alarm, they would no more be joking, but like hunted hares would rather hasten to reach the dugout. with a feeling of hatred I glanced at the well-fed self-complacent faces. Yet, I should not live to see the triumph -- how these people of the master-race took to flight.
At the same moment an idea flashed into my mind that, properly, nothing could happen to me any more. I was irrevocably condemned to death, so if I tried to save my life and were caught, nothing could happen to me any more, so that an attempted escape was worth trying at any rate ! I looked around attentively.
The women were sitting on the ground singly or in groups, leaning against the wall of the bathhouse; now and then one of them stood up in order to sit down elsewhere. Some of them eased nature between the bath-house and the barbed-wire; every sense of shame had died out. At last my searching look fell on the dilapidated little house, which was situated in front of the bath-house, where some of the order-servicemen had been accommodated. I racked my brains in a feverish effort to find a way of rescue. As I was observing the little house, the words which the young order-serviceman had whispered to his sister came back to my mind. "The little house !" Did he mean this one ? probably, yes, as there was no other one close-by. was the door really open ? It seemed to be closed, but as I observed it intensively for a few minutes I saw that it was being slightly moved by the wind to and fro. It had been left ajar. I had no idea what it looked like inside the house, but that was of no importance any more. my mind was made up: I must get into the house at any cost; the rest, I thought to myself, would have to be solved later. First of all I looked round for the young girl, who with an air of complete indifference was sitting near her girl-friend. Even the air-alarm did not tear her out of her state of torpidity. I concentrated all my attention upon the house.
To the left of the door there was a window, in front of which a sleepy German gendarme was sitting on a case turned upside down. On the other side, two Ukrainian policemen were standing and conversing in a low voice. Slowly and carefully I began to approach the house, by rising and sitting down after every few steps, repeating this maneuver at short intervals. In a short time, which in my trembling impatience seemed to be a whole eternity, I reached at last the hotly-desired aim -- the door left ajar -- and cowered close to it on the ground. In the same moment I was hit on the back with the butt of a rifle, and one of the Ukrainians shouted that I should instantly get away from there. Dejected, but not discouraged, i went away and sat down among a large group of women. After a short while I ventured to shoot a glance at the Ukrainian. I was afraid that I had aroused his suspicions and he would keep an eye on me. He stood no more in front of the house, but went away with his colleague and was speaking to with a German. He paid no attention to me.
So I began anew with my sneaking maneuver, but this time I was more careful and slower than before. Before I ventured to advance one step, I carefully looked around to see if one of the guards were watching me. This time getting there took longer, but finally I again reached very close to the house, a distance of only a few paces before the door. There I sat down, because I lacked the courage to advance for fear of being driven away again. True, except for the German Gendarme, who was still sitting on his case struggling to over- come sleepiness, none of the guards was nearby. But my first unfortunate attempt proved that nothing escaped their attention.
A long while passed and I was unable to pluck up the courage to reach a decision. Finally, it was Thomanek himself, who unawares, by his appearance alone, prompted me to act without delay.
The lorry of death drove up in front of the rear entrance of the camp. The gate in the barbed-wire fence few open, and our executioners were approaching in a dashing marching-tempo, led by the beaming murderous Thomanek. At the top of his voice he shouted at a number of miserable trembling women: "Na maids, now it is your turn !" As he was approaching, all the guards stood at attention and saluted him respectfully, their eyes fixed on him.
At the same second I prostrated flat on the ground. my fingertips touching the door. with a swift jerk forward I opened slightly the door and with lightning speed I pushed myself through the narrow gap and shut noiselessly the door behind me. I was within ! For the moment I remained lying motionless on the concrete floor, my senses utterly tense, breathlessly listening to what was going on outside. Did any-body notice my disappearance, would our persecutors come to take me back: Outside rose a tumult of wild crying, the begging voices of women, desperate cries,bawling commands, and cracking beatings. The pitiless bestial torturers were forcing the first miserable women onto the lorry !
My terrible throbbing heart slowly calmed down, and I began to think over my situation.To remain lying on the floor was impossible, because any moment someone could open the door and detect me. The house contained a little room, in which there stood several camp plank-beds, and a little kitchen. I tried to lie on one of the plank-beds and hide myself under a coarse blanket, but I instantly understood that it was no hiding-place. In front of the window, with his back standing to me, was the fat gendarme who had been sitting before on the case. Thomanek was standing in front of him talking and looking over his head straight into the house. So it seemed to me at any rate. I left the bed and returned, crawling on all fours, to the kitchen. In one of the walls there was a great hole through which I instantly pushed myself. Now I found myself in a narrow room which had, surely, served its former inhabitants as a hiding-place, when the house had been , part of the Ghetto. probably, they had partitioned off, by means of a thin wall of tiles, a narrow part of the kitchen, and had masked the hole with a board or a cupboard. There was nothing I could put before the hole; I was at a loss and started looking round in the narrow room. On the ground stood a watering can, half filled with water, and in a corner there were gardening tools. The room was almost dark, only a faint filtering light came from the roof. As I looked upwards, I saw that on the one side, between the rafters and the ceiling of the kitchen, there was a narrow gap, which was closed on the other side by a wall of tiles. Though the house was low, nevertheless, the gap was too high for me to reach.
However, fear of death makes one very pliable. I no longer remember how I managed apelike to climb up the smooth wall and wind myself into the gap which was hardly half a meter high. Long thick nails protruding out of the rafters, tore the flesh of my back, but neither the burning pain, nor the bleeding wounds prevented me from creeping deeper into the narrow space. As I felt that some tiles under me had loosened, I scratched them with my fingernails and arranged them again, turning and winding like a snake while doing so.
I can hardly describe those breathless minutes. I remember that I was working feverishly and that like a hollow-hammer, my heart was beating the time. At last, I finished and was lying motionless and breathlessly in my really wonderful hiding-place. My body was dripping with perspiration, my mouth, eyes and nose were full of dust and cobwebs. I was pressed tight between the tiles and the rafters so that I was hardly able to move. The midday sun, which penetrated through the holes in the roof, burnt relentlessly and my hiding-place became stiflingly hot. Should I be able to endure for hours in these unnatural conditions, in the almost airless space:' In addition to everything else, I suffered from an unbearable thirst, as I had had nothing in my mouth since last night. I did not know how much time passed since my adventurous flight into the house. Outside continued the sinister tragic noise: the lorry had not yet left. Suddenly, I heard a low, an almost imperceptible stir in the house; someone entered stealthily and crept also into the little bunker beneath me. Then I was able to gather from the excited whispering that there were two women. They were rustling with something and pushing an object, probably to trying to cover the hole in the wall. I was lying' completely motionless and hardly dare to breathe. Unfortunately, what I was afraid of had come ! Someone shouted outside: "Here they hid themselves these damned girls !" The door flew open with a crack, pieces of furniture were overthrown, heavy steps stamped round and the miserable women were already detected. Accompanied with curses.. they were pulled out,and in spite of their imploring entreaties -- terribly beaten.
My heart stopped throbbing, when I saw the bunker lighted with an electric torch. Did I put the tiles properly; could they have seen my shoes? The light of the torch disappeared, the heavy steps withdrew, again nobody in the house, and I was saved ! Soon afterwards the lorry had driven away with its crying and shouting "load" and I sank in an unquiet sleep, of deepest exhaustion and strained nerves. Maybe, it was no sleep at all but a swoon.
The occurrences of the last hours surpassed the endurance of man ! Twice more the lorry came to fetch its sinister freight. Shaken with horror. I had twice more to listen to how my companions were callously dragged to their death.
In the meantime my limbs became stiff and numb. the tongue lay dry and hard in the mouth. the lips were swollen and split, and I was hardly able to move them. It became a little bit earlier as the sun gradually went down and the day turned cooler. Again, this time it was the last lorry which had driven away, and now it became horribly still in the court yard. All was over!
More than four hundred innocent people were entirely groundlessly brutally murdered. But the earth did not open up to devour the bestial thoughtless murderers. No! The sun too continued to shine unconcerned; a goat was bleating gaily in the Aryan quarter, and people were heard laughing.
My hands delved into the dust of the roof and an unalterable rage shocked me. I wanted to cry but did not. I wanted to curse but it turned out to be a thanksgiving for my salvation! How wretched indeed is man ! How cowardly he is and paltry..
Time seemed to stand still. Would this horrible day never come to an end? A deathly silence prevailed in the Camp. Were the amnestied murdered too? Or were they transferred to another camp?
At last it grew dark and I prepared to leave my hiding-place. The most difficult problem was the removal or the tiles. Because of Iying for hours motionless, all my limbs had become numb. Slowly and laboriously I managed to descend to the wall-bunker. There I rushed to the watering-can and drank greedily of the stale lukewarm water. What an easement to be able to cool the dusty dry mouth and the dry throat! Shorty afterward I Ieft the house which had saved me, it being no easy decision to go out into uncertainty.
The moon shone brightly as I was warily crawling in the shadow of the building, approaching the house of the women. My exaggerated caution was entirely superfluous Not a single German was in the camp or even close by. .Thomanek celebrated together with his faithful staff the great triumph of the extermination.The order- servicemen had enough troubles of their own and did not care at all to keep guard.
In fact, who was to be guarded? The few miserable despairing remainders, who filled with grief had hidden themselves in the darkest corners ? When after long tiresome seeking and wandering in gloomy empty rooms. I at last found a few women, my unexpected appearance aroused deadly fear among them. In their. over strained state, they took me to be a ghost and I was at pains to quiet them. After I had told them the story of my wonderful escape I was at last able to stretch myself on one of tile camp plank-beds.
The immediate danger of death was over ! I had survived another "Action" of extermination ! But was I really safe ?
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Chortkov, Ukraine Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2016 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 22 Jan 2002 by LA