by Chaim Krystal
Translated by Avi (Abraham) Stavsky
At the end of September, 1939, the German conquest of Poland was complete. The vicious campaign against the Jewish population, and especially against [Jewish] men, caused a large scale exodus towards Poland's eastern frontier to Russia.
This also included us three brothers and a brother-in-law, Dawid Piwniczni of blessed memory, escaped to Russia. We were saturated in mental tension and anxiety about the fate of our families left behind in Poland. We couldn't reconcile our behavior even to ourselves and were sorely troubled by our conscience. How could we, the men, run and escape and leave behind our parents and children to their fates? We therefore returned, I and my brother Abram, through the Polish-Russian border, where the specter of death waited on both sides. Through circuitous ways and detours and considerable effort, we finally reached our town of Dąbrowa-Górnicza. We explained to our parents and siblings the reason for our return: our desire to keep the family united. We told them about the freedom that Jews enjoyed [over there] and that our intention was to get all of us there and to be able to help one another.
I convinced my sister through rationality, that for the sake of her child and to keep the family together, she should join us. My mother and the two children would hearken to whatever our father agreed with. But our father would not be convinced by anything. He said to us: In Russia, they won't let an orthodox Jew live his life. My father was prepared for any kind of suffering but not to contravene worship of the Creator. We are not so young [any more] he said, and the Germans won't be so terrible to elderly people. But who could have ever envisioned the murderous actions of the Nazis?
Our parting was ghastly. There is no imagining the pain and anguish as we separated for ever. Until the day I die I will never forget the separation from members of my family, who were so dear to us.
We started out, my sister, her 4 year old daughter, my brother Abram and myself. After a day of hitchhiking in wagons and by foot, we reached the border, a remote area near the town of Przemyśl. Train travel was forbidden to Jews.
At the frontier we were set upon by Ukrainian robbers. They stole everything from us and left us almost naked. It was a miracle we remained alive. We crossed the San River. It was just our luck that it rained very hard and we were soaked to our skins. Yet it was safer and easier to cross the border in the rain.
After a few hours' walking through the mud, we came to Przemyśl, in Russia. We spent the night on the sidewalk near the train station; inside was no room. It was filled to capacity with refugees, Jewish and Christian. A Jewish woman had pity on my sister and brought her child inside.
The next day we went to Lemberg [L'viv / Lwów]. The meeting with my brother-in-law, Dawid and my brother Szmul was emotional and we rejoiced at being together again.
However, unfortunately we were not fated to remain happy for long. My sister's conscience really began to bother her with respect to our parents. How could she do something as to think only about herself? She was always [especially] close and devoted to our parents, and now that the situation was so bad, she was far from them. She could simply not accept this [fact] and said it was her duty to return and bring the whole family. All our entreaties fell on deaf ears and it was only by physical force that we stopped her from leaving and we were determined not to return there again.
The winter was hard and border crossings became impossible and dangerous. We heard of many instances of death by shootings but we had no choice, as we had promised our sister she could return.
On 1 March 1940, we left Lemberg for Przemyśl, with the idea of crossing over into Poland. The border divided the city of Przemyśl. We scouted the border area seeking a means of crossing over. The San River was half frozen, the streets were snow-bound and the winter was really bitter. We noticed an abandoned building. It had served in the past as a slaughterhouse and was some meters from the San River.
We stole ourselves into the empty building, found an observation spot and
waited for the right moment. We exploited a moment when a border guard lit a
cigarette and when his eye was turned, we jumped down to the river. We crouched
very close, so as not to be seen, but because of this, fell into the water and
got soaked to our bones. When we exited from the water, we rolled in the snow
in order to camouflage ourselves in white and thus be less visible. However we
must have created some disturbance as suddenly they opened fire on us. We
buried ourselves in the snow and did not move for about half an hour. When the
firing ceased, we slowly began to make our way from the border towards a light
which appeared about 2 or 3 kilometers distant.
We arrived there frozen as if we were blocks of ice. Through all the danger we somehow managed to persevere, but because of the cold we had no strength left. We approached the house with but one prayer on our lips: that the inhabitants would have pity on us and let us in. Though it may sound strange [now], we had lost all faith in mankind. I cautiously approached the door. When it opened, a scrawny woman appeared. Her face went all pale when she looked at us, as she cried: Dear God Holy Mother! and let us in.
She didn't ask us any questions. She realized who we were, refugees from across the border. She added wood to her stove. The warmth from the stove restored us both physically and mentally. She also gave us clothes to change into and something hot to drink. We certainly reaped motivation from the kind behavior of this Christian woman. She also told us how hard it was these days to cross the border, and that daily people who attempted to cross were killed. After a day we parted from the woman offering our profuse thanks and continued on our way.
We didn't want to endanger ourselves by riding the trains, so we walked. After several days, we reached the city of Kielce. Under these very difficult conditions, we couldn't imagine a way that we could achieve our final goal: to get to our parents and bring them to Russia.
A sign on the side of the road, in German, read: Do not travel to Raków, a small town near Kielce about 40 kilometers from there. To travel to Raków [in any case] wasn't easy: in the spring there was mud; in summer sand; in the fall again mud; and only in winter, with snow on the ground, was getting there on skis somewhat easier.
My brother and I settled in this town. To make a living, we smuggled bread and food to the town of Kielce. This business was lethal danger to Jews. We wrote from Raków to Dąbrowa about the place we found. We couldn't write everything [of course], and my parents weren't able to understand exactly what was going on. Where was my sister and her child? My father, an elderly Jew, risked his life and traveled from Dąbrowa to Raków. In doing so, he passed the border at Wolbrom. He mostly walked there and did this to find out what had happened to his children. Our father stayed with us in Raków and sometime later it was decided I would go to Dąbrowa for our mother.
We arrived on Rosh Hashanah Eve of 1940 after my wandering for more than a year. Deep sorrow and great despondency seized hold of me as I thought about previous High Holydays before the Nazi conquest. There were several shitbelach [small synagogues] and bate midrash [study halls] in Dąbrowa as well as a large, fine synagogue. Jews wore their customary outfits, some in silk caftans, some with shtremelach [fur hats] and dressed in snow-white caftans. With great trepidation, they entered the houses of prayer. And on Simchat Torah, they joy they had and how much fun it was to see Jews drunk. A Jew would get drunk in order to show his joy to his Creator.
Destruction and sorrow was our destined portion. The prayer houses and synagogues were pillaged and vandalized. (The great synagogue was turned into a stable for horses). Jews now prayed in secret minyanim [ten male worshippers required for public prayer] and mostly at home. And the prayers no longer sounded as they once did. Now bitter tears and lamenting, these are what filled the prayers. The same formula stood for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Simchat Torah.
We received a summons to appear at the Judenrat and report for work at a labor camp in Germany. I did not want to go to a work camp. I had come expressly to help my mother, whose entire family was now missing from her. But the Judenrat had persuasive means: they held my mother hostage, and so I was forced to join up. The day after Simchat Torah I was sent off to the work camp.
This was the first transport, which included about 150 men from Dąbrowa, me included. The Judenrat assured us good working conditions [and] payment for our labor, free time once a month and that we would not be imprisoned in a camp. However those who believed these lies were soon to learn the bitter truth.
After several hours riding in a train, we came to a siding the location of which I still don't know to this day. We were greeted by S.A. men shouting and cursing us. We walked on foot sixteen kilometers to Kleinmangsdorf. The camp was surrounded with barbed wire.
Beatings and screams were part of our daily fare. The spiritual mortification and our being cut off from the outside caused us to grow closer fraternally. I became better acquainted with people I had known previously. We formed a kind of collective, the members of which were: Janek Rozenberg, Motek Plawes, Ajzyk Przerowicz, Szymon Rozenblum and myself. From Kleinmangsdorf we were sent to Eichtal, from Eichtal to Etmond and from Etmond to Freiwaldau. At the end only three of us were left: Ajzyk, Szymon and myself.
At the beginning of 1943, the first news reached us about the liquidation of
Jews in [the] extermination camps. Contact with home also ceased, and as we
began to consider our own fates, we came to the realization that only one real
way existed for us to survive, a very difficult way escape from the
camp. [So] the question became: how and when? We planned a course of action. We
began to search and inspect every place which might be used as a hideaway.
We decided to collect anything which could be have some future use for us while we were still cut off from the [outside] world: a lighter, materials for lighting, benzene and other things. For the clothing we sold to the Germans we received bread, which we put away as dried husks. By the time of our escape, we had 18 loaves of one kilogram each.
After much searching, we found a spot where we could build our secret place. It was where we worked, in the saw-mill. We spent a frantic half hour of intensive labor to secret a chamber beneath our barrack. Digging under our shack was very hard work. We employed everything we could find: wood, metal, etc. We scattered the earth under the barrack. Digging was done in the morning, at breakfast, for about 15 minutes. Szymon and I dug, one actually digging while the other kept guard. We developed two signals the first signal said don't exit and the second meant o.k. to exit. And thus we were able to finish this secret place.
In the meanwhile, we were transferred to another location, but still within the same village.
On 31 October 1943, we heard rumors that they were getting ready to destroy the camp and evacuate us to Auschwitz. This was on Shabbat. We didn't go out to work that day. We were dumbfounded as to the possibilities that could happen with the change in our situation. We all asked ourselves: what will happen? What could we do? To all those who asked me, I had the same answer: we must escape as soon as we can. I would try myself.
The Germans had a course of action. If anyone should try to escape, the people sleeping immediately next to him on his right or left would be taken to execution. Or they would line us all up and kill every tenth person in the line. Now that we knew that this time we all faced death, we decided to put our plan into operation.
We revealed our plan to Jakob Zygrajch with the understanding that he would join us. We told him about all the difficulties we had in arranging our special hideout. We replied that what we came up with was not feasible for success, and that what ever would be the fate of some of Israel would be that of all Israel and refused to join.
On Saturday night, at midnight, we took our bold and fateful step and escaped!
We reached our place of sanctuary safely and felt ourselves free. We were cut off from the world. Daylight no longer existed for us. Various forms of life visited us and shared our fate, yet didn't reveal our position: rats, frogs and lizards.
As I said, we had dug our hideout under the barrack. It was two meters long, a meter wide and about a meter and sixty centimeters deep. It was in the garage of the saw-mill. There was a shed for machinery and a stove that heated the place. The area was called Freiwaldau, in the Siegen (?) district of Germany.
We had prepared ourselves for the conditions of this place. Two of us sat or lay on one side, and another on the other side. There was no possibility of standing, as we had dug a chamber to the depth of sixty centimeters in order to store food, which left only one meter for habitation.
A week after our escape, I emerged at midnight to scour for food. This was our
first exit [out of the hideout]. I searched everywhere, in the cow pastures,
barns and in the pig pens but did not find anything.
Apparently by midnight the animals had consumed everything. I could not return empty handed. Going back I spotted a hayloft and an attic. I pondered for a moment and decided to check the hayloft. My hands went to work I did not light any lights and by feeling I found a small quantity of wheat. I had no bag in which to carry it. I didn't have much time to think about it. I lowered my pants , tied the edges together and filled my pants with the wheat. I returned to our hideaway, happy in my success that I had found something.
Szymon had divided our food according to his plan for an allotted amount of time. The daily ration for each of us was as follows: three teaspoons of wheat, a portion of red beetroot and one of bread crusts. The hope was that if we found an additional source of food we could increase our rations. After another few days, Szymon ventured out to see what he could find in the way of food. He emerged at midnight but this time he carried a sack. After some two hours he returned with considerable loot: half a sack full of radishes. The earth was hard, but with efforts of his fingers, he had managed to scrape out this treasure. In our hideout we also had eating implements, a water container and a container for our bodily waste.
The radical transfer from hot food to food which was raw and cold had its effect. After a month, on Saturday night at exactly 8 in the evening, Szymon was seized with severe stomach pains. We had no medical facilities. We knew that hot water would be of benefit to him, and we decided to change tactics. Until now we'd only emerge at midnight and in the darkness. Now we decided to go into the machine shop in order to boil some water for him. The machinery room had two entrances; one was locked from within, the other from without. There was one more possibility: to enter by means of a small window right under the roof. I climbed and managed to squeeze in. I opened the door that had been locked from inside and Ajzyk and Szymon came in. Szymon lay next to the stove while I heated a can of water.
Szymon drank a quantity and began to feel better. We also drank some hot water. I can't describe the taste of that water. We felt that this was [literally] the water of life. It restored our spirits. For more than a month we had been without fresh water.
We boiled a few red beets and got ready to leave. Suddenly we were face to face with the saw-mill driver, Max Bayer. When he saw us he got scared, as there were three of us. He recognized us and stammered, What? You're still here? Why are you still alive? Ajzyk approached him and said, Mr. Bayer, we have some valuable things. How can you help us?. He avoided answering us and said he had no time, that he must go now and that his wife will be looking for him. Szymon turned to him and said, Mr. Bayer, we're leaving now. In the next few days we'll be heading for Czechoslovakia. You won't betray us! [will you?]. (Bayer had been a friend of Szymon before as Szymon had worked with him.). Bayer responded: I haven't seen you! and left.
Of course we didn't believe for one minute he could be trusted and chased after him. We wanted to know if he'd head for the camp office and call for the police. However he apparently wanted to consider his advice and went home. (It later became apparent that he informed the police or told them something, as they prepared a dragnet for us).
We returned to our bunker. Szymon felt better and after what we had experienced, we were of one mind not to venture forth again for awhile. But the surface of things was different now and after a week, Szymon had a repeated attack of his malady, but this time worse than before, accompanied by high fever. Again it happened on a Saturday night, at nine thirty p.m. I could find no peace, and was very worried about our being caught if we crept out again. But we have no [other] way of helping him except with hot water. And my seeing how he was suffering convinced me that saving a life takes precedence over everything.
We crept into the machine shop, this time without Ajzyk. We tried working the
same remedy but there was no benefit. The passing moments were an eternity for
me and I told Szymon we had to leave. Szymon groaned heavily and say he just
could not. He wasn't a complainer and you never heard from him, I can't
do it, but this time I saw that things were really bad [for him]. I
boiled more water for him and he drank without stopping. I thought I'd let him
rest for awhile longer and looked out the window. I observed through the
darkness that snow was falling. This was bad news for us in snow, our
tracks could easily be followed. Out of nervousness, I went into the next room,
which was the machinery room. On the wall was a large clock. I wanted to know
the time and flicked the cigarette lighter (it had no benzene but the flint
provided sparks). It was 10:37. I told Szymon, we've got to get out of
here. It's snowing!
I thought if we went while it was still snowing, the falling snow would cover our tracks. Syzmon got down from where he was resting near the stove and looked out the window. Chaim, three men are walking towards us! he said. In one second I ran to the door and shut it. At the same time, we heard banging on the door and shouting: Open! Open or we'll shoot.
That was the voice of Polizeimeister [police officer] Port. The bastard was well-known to the Jews as a merciless terror. He had a face of a murderer, and it was fearful just to look at him; now we were in his clutches. We tried to keep as brave as face as possible, as we thought otherwise we're really dead. I tiptoed in the darkness to the smallest window under the ceiling, the only possible place to escape from. I called quietly to Szymon to follow me, but in the darkness he didn't know how to reach the window and bumped into the machinery.
They broke the window and came in shooting. I looked around and managed to abscond outside. I was successful in returning to our hiding place. Snow fell without stopping.
I told Ajzyk what had happened to us, and that Szymon was taken prisoner by that murderer. I couldn't say more than that. Ajzyk grabbed his head into his hands and cried, Szymon, Szymon! and kept repeating his name again and again.
Between the barrack and our hideout was a space of some centimeters. I tried looking out in the direction of the machine shop. After awhile I saw the light of a flashlight slowly approaching in the direction of the barrack and [then] I heard shrill cries of a police whistle. The flashlight shined back in the direction of the machine shop and I knew something had happened. It was later I learned that Szymon had escaped from the murderers.
I heard footsteps approaching the barrack. They stopped just outside. I realized that this was the guard keeper of the barrack and that my footprints in the snow had been discovered. I sealed up the bunker hermetically. I thought about what we had gone through and the efforts we expended in trying to escape the Nazi persecutors, and now it was at an end.
I was sure that in a matter of hours our fate would be sealed, either for life or death. I had prepared razors, razor blades, benzene and kerosene. I didn't think about suicide but I knew one thing: they'd never take us alive! Never! I decided I would end it all at the last second, when we would be discovered and had no chance of escape.
Thoughts of death and doubt went through our minds, and thus long hours passed. At eight the next morning, many people entered the barrack. They came in and stood above our hideaway. We heard them speak but didn't know about what. I had no doubt that they would destroy the barrack. A German boy of about 15 named Brosch, with whom I had worked once, searched with a long wooden pole under the barrack. He banged on the floor and in the earth and kept saying, no, no, no (nein, nein, nein). Meaning there was no sign of life under the floor!
We were in an advanced state of preparation and great tension for about two hours, until they left the barrack. The guard, though, remained behind. Thus passed a day expectantly. At 6 the next morning I heard noise from under the barrack, and had the feeling it was Szymon. I extended a hand and with all my strength, pulled him inside. He wanted only one thing something warm to wear. I covered him with everything we had and he fell asleep sitting up, and slept deeply. I looked at him full of wonder that he returned and was with us again. I reflected and thought about the [terrible] times in which we lived, about all kinds of persecutions. I thought about the Inquisitions and pogroms that happened to our people over time. I couldn't think of a way to classify our own times, the terror of the German people or the anger of our God of mercy and compassion. I couldn't grasp it, couldn't understand it
Again I heard footsteps approaching. I woke Szymon, afraid that [otherwise] he might awake up suddenly and let out a sound that would reveal us. He woke up and when he heard the outside noises realized the danger. I thought for a minute: were they just waiting for Szymon to collapse and then they'd arrest us all? How was it possible to believe that Szymon had gotten away from the murderers?? For 36 hours he had fought them off not only the police but with the whole village after him - where there was security at every street corner. He, sick as he was and in summer clothing, didn't surrender to them. We heard they brought a dog to sniff out under the barrack, and [yet] they still didn't find us.
I can only call it a miracle.
We lived in that bunker condition for more than 14 months, with many real problems: water; toilet facilities that were quite impossible; danger without end and without letup; yet this is not the place to go into details. We resolved to remain alive in that hell in order to tell the world what the Nazis did to us, cursed be their name.
by Tehila Lipszyc (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Avi (Abraham) Stavsky
I knew to where I returned
I knew the way quite well
Six long years I was not here
[and] within my heart resided the pain
Early in the morning did I arrive
I expected to see no one I knew:
none of them were left
[and] I feared to ask [about] particulars.
Within a quarter of an hour one reaches the city
I wished the way would take me hours
It was an autumn morning, a morning of heavy rain
A morning like this was well known to me
I arrived and it was all as though I had left [but] yesterday
The same stairs lead to the city
To the right, the nunnery, and in the middle a narrow path
And chestnut trees on the left.
From the church tower toll the bells
So well known to me from the dawn of my youth.
As usual during the middle of the day
As usual at this hour so simple.
Here the houses of my neighbors
And my house ?
Gone! Swallowed by the earth.
I sought to raise my home of my memory
But it's now covered by a garden.
There was a well standing where I played
When I was but a young girl.
The house! It stood here! [next to the well].
And next to it, the entrance
The houses are gone! And these are not missing
[for] All the houses are gone:
Here was my grandfather's house and other Jewish houses
Vanished, erased all of them!
In my imagination I had seen sad ruins
I could not imagine otherwise
But I found a garden green, with beds and beds
Arranged neatly for beauty
Treacherous flowers I hated them!
In my eyes covering up the lost [past]
Neat beds! Orderly beds!
Which were there to cover the ruins.
And there I stood [transfixed] near the well
Did moments pass or were they hours?
The street woke up, doors opened
And near me stood the neighbors
Without waiting to greet them
Who [seemed to] emit a uniform ignorance:
They are gone, they are gone
I saw you from the window
And their eyes would further say
They are gone, no one is there, their eyes revealed
We saw everything but remained silent
They are gone, no one is there, their eyes said
We too, we too murdered;
More they did not say, more I did not ask
I knew it all in advance
I wanted to see the city wherein I grew up
I knew: my brother I would not meet
I saw eyes with hidden secrets
We helped in the slaughter!
I saw fearful, startled eyes
That wanted to close and forget.
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