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[Page 249]

In the Years of Destruction

 

[Page 279]

Gostynin Jews in the Shadow of the Gallows

by Shimon Rumer

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

gos279.jpg
Shimon Rumer

 

When the Germans entered Poland, the immediately began to exterminate the Jews. Their demonic plan was calculated with hatred towards the Jews. The Polaks excelled at this hatred. They knew very well that with the local Polish population they would have no difficulties in carrying out their monster plan, because in the course of twenty years of their renewed independence the Polaks themselves were interested in getting rid of their Jewish neighbors. The Polaks made the Jews' lives miserable. The Germans took away the Jews' lives.

At the very beginning of their barbaric occupation the Germans sought to demoralize the Jewish masses and their leaders. All their anti-Jewish laws struck at the heart of Jewish life. They set up new leaders of the Jewish communities, the so-called “Judenrat,” who obediently and punitively carried out all that their German bosses ordered them to do. First they applied new taxes  one higher than the next, and the new community heads pumped out monies from the poor and rich, amassing the required sums. The Judenrat went to great lengths to carry out the orders of the Germans. Many times, in these leadership positions, there were people who had never before worked in any fashion in social or community activities. Now, in this dreadful time, they …

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… diligently undertook to help out the Nazi murderers, and using these circumstances they reaped personal good from these great tragedies. Often, these persons were murderous towards their brothers and did things that even the Germans themselves would not have done. They hoped that their extraordinary devotion would save them personally.

The Judenrat received an order from the Germans each time to gather up contingencies of Jews that were designated for specific work. They fulfilled these quotas until the very last individual. In this way, the Jews were transformed into slaves. They were chased to work, not paid for the work, beaten, and very abused at work as well.

The Germans confiscated the Jewish businesses, not permitting Jews to carry on their work. Their warehouses were closed  that's how they Jews were left without any means to sustain themselves. They were morally and physically broken, but the Judenrat  who actively helped the Germans, threw these Jews into the ghetto. They gathered up families and put them into inhumanly cramped conditions that were completely surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by German or Polish police. In the ghetto itself, the Judenrat was given the right to have its own Jewish police that tormented the Jews even more. That's how the Jewish population was left without rights, impoverished, and entirely torn apart from the rest of the world.

However, this was not yet enough for the murderers. The organized labor camps where men and women were sent. These people worked under frightful conditions of hunger, cold, inhumanity, and terror for bare life. Despite all this, everyone's will to live was tremendous. Nobody wanted to voluntarily give up hope that in the end Hitler would get his dues and the sun would shine again for everyone and for …

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… each individual. Jews worked in every situation  labored, and looked to survive, to make it to the end of the war. Heavy clouds of worry, fear, and danger spread everywhere, yet with that all, there was still that spark of hope that we would survive.

Because the Germans set up death camps, of those who didn't end up there, none knew of them for a long time.

With all of this, all that was said until now, is only a broad description of what happened  of what the Germans did to the Jews of Poland. And every detail of this also befell the Jews from my own beloved town: Gostynin.

***

I came to Janikowo with a transport of Jews from Gostynin. This was a camp not far from Posen. In German, this place was called Amsee. The majority of the population there sustained itself with work in the city's sugar factory. The camp director was from the Gestapo, by the name of Malinowski. In the camp there were many Jews from Gostynin, Gombyn, and a small number from Lodz.

The oldest people in the camp were: Avrohom Belfer, Sender Ring, and my unforgettable father Yechiel Hersh Rumer. I worked in the camp doing all kinds of illegal tasks, and at the same time as a barber and a medical orderly. There were 505 people in the camp. The suffered terribly, labored mercilessly, and the hygiene was horrific. There was very little help for the sick and wounded. The Germans permitted the orderly to help the sick and wounded only after many hours of their suffering, after the invalid was practically consumed by insects and doused in dirt. Every day people were injured at work. Every day the German torturers and their assistants beat their Jewish slaves on their sides and cut off complete limbs. The sick couldn't…

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… expect immediate help, and even when the help did come, it was seriously limited. There was practically no medicine available.

The camp supervisor was surrounded by assistants that carried out the most brutal acts on innocent people. The main assistant was most vicious and cruel  his name was Alphonse Hillel. He was a non-Jew from the Posen area, an anti-Semite who couldn't even look at a Jew.

Among these assistants, was unfortunately also a Jew from Lodz, who with his flattery towards the Germans and animal behavior towards his brothers, worked himself up in the camp and reaped all kinds of privileges. Kalman Dovid was his name. That's how he was called, and he was the terror of the entire camp. Many innocent Jews died by his filthy hands.

One of the finest people in the camp was Volf Zilber, born in Brisk-Kujawski. He was a young man. He was the son-in-law of the well-known Zionist activist Herman Levi from Wloclowek. He, along with his father-in-law and his family, came to Gostynin when the war broke out where they hoped to live through the war because their hometown was absorbed into the Third Reich right at the beginning of the war, and Jews there were treated in the most horrific manner. Volf Zilber was an educated person and refined too. In the camp, he had the job of camp recorder. He put himself out for everyone and tried to make each person's situation better. Understandably, there was precious little he could do. The evil of the Germans dominated everywhere.

There was a very heavy discipline in the camp. The provisions were very meagre  so much so that there was nothing for the living and nothing for the dying. There was surely nothing for those people who used their physical strength for every day, physically taxing labor. The sadism of the German camp staff was infinite.

***

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I will relate one of the thousands of incidents that took place:

This happened on a Sabbath afternoon. The biggest surprises were saved for the eve of the rest day, Sunday. The exhausted and starved Jews had returned to the camp from work. As they entered, they heard a scream from Kalman Dovid, may his name be erased. We immediately understood that something again had happened. It wasn't long when we saw that they were taking out Avrohom Belfer from the barracks. It was difficult to recognize him. He was as pale as the walls, his body was trembling and his face showed an indescribable pain. Soon, Malinowski brought out the familiar benches that were used for corporal punishments in the camp, in front of everyone's eyes. Kalman Dovid positioned himself with his stick in his hand, and exclaimed: “This Jew committed a crime. He tried to smuggle bread into the camp. Therefore, he deserves to be beaten.” He continued by instructing each of us to pass by and beat the guilty one. The beatings were done with a rubber stick, with wire woven through it. Each of us had to approach and beat him. Malinowski was not satisfied with the way the beatings were going, so he took of his black uniform, rolled up his shirt sleeves, and showed us all how we had to do the beatings. Kalman Dovid followed. Avrohom Belfer was beaten so terribly, that he fell unconscious across the bench. Kalman Dovid poured a bucket of water over him to revive him, and then he was dragged, bloodied and soaked, into the barracks. Everyone else dispersed.

I, the orderly, had to bring help to this tragic victim. Menashe Wajsbard and Wajnrajch, Jews from Gostynin, who worked in the laundry, helped out with piece of old but clean clothes that I used to stop the bleeding. Only the exceptional …

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… patience and the outstanding will to live gave Belfer the superhuman capacity to live through these agonies. He lay in the barracks for many long weeks and wasn't able to go to work.

One morning, when a rumor spread through the camp that the Gestapo was going to evacuate all the sick, and probably be murdered, Belfer picked himself up off the bed and decided to go to work with us. That's how he was saved. According to my memory, I can also say that Sender Ring, Avrohom Lopski, Yosef Stajnman, Dzhiganski, and Laski were also saved this way.

***

Once again, it's the Sabbath afternoon. The exhausted and starved slaves had returned from their daily work. Suddenly, a terrible shouting was heard from the murderous camp supervisor Malinowski: “Everyone stay in your places outside!”

The order was clear.

“Tomorrow, no one will be going to work. The camp is going to be cleaned. Visitors will be coming. Tomorrow we will show you what will happen to those who will try to escape from the camp.”

We were already used to the brutal behavior of the Germans. Every word of theirs was inciteful, every wink was dangerous, and every movement a game with a Jewish life. Because of that, we didn't place any unusual significance on the words of this devil. Nevertheless, his words did not allow us to remain at ease. We went into the filthy barracks and everyone crawled into his cot. Suddenly Volf Zilber bursts in and informs us of a tragic piece of information: Eight Jews wanted to escape from the camp, but the German bandits caught them. Who knows what the Germans are preparing for us for the next day.

A shudder went through us. We did not yet know who the eight Jews were. The German murderers had isolated them in a separate barrack. Not one of us closed an eye that entire night.

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From our hard cots we heard moaning, and here and there, we heard a whispering prayer.

Sunday morning, as soon as the sun appeared, we heard the fearful voice of the night guard, and in one wink everyone got up.

***

Soon, Alfonse Hillel appeared, tall, good-looking, broad-boned, and well-fed, with thick blond hair on his head, a murderous person, a Jew devourer. Next to him was his wolf-dog, with its tongue foaming and hanging out. Everyone was trembling. Not only into one person had the sharp teeth of this dog already sunk its teeth. With his coarse voice, he informed us that today the camp has to sparkle with cleanliness. Gestapo officers were coming, and they very much loved cleanliness and precision. He completed his words with the usual: “We will destroy you!”

A very strained mood reigned over the camp. The people were already depressed and starved, and fear was already no novelty. There was a veil of despair everywhere, but the words of the murderer did not make any new impression. People were already used to this.

Outside, there was the loud noise of cars. Quietly we approached the windows and saw how two large cars had stopped in front of the camp building. Gestapo men got out of the first car, dressed in their black uniforms of evil men, with white arm bands, decorated with swastikas. Wildly, these men got out of the car, each carrying a rubber truncheon or a sharpened stick in his hand. They had weapons in their holsters. From the second car, five people got out, dressed in civilian clothing, with coarse, fat, raw-looking faces. Later we found out that these were Ukrainian assistants. Each of them had the appearance of a murderer.

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These five men went to work immediately. They threw down their coats (probably stolen from their Jewish victims), and they unloaded pieces of wood and boards from the car, and amused themselves with harsh laughter, pushing one another and calling out all kinds of things.

They did not allow us to think too long about what was going on. Soon, the camp supervisor appeared, surrounded by his attendants, and ordered us to go out of the barracks and stand five in a row.

All the camp slaves went into this format of the letter “ches,” and in that manner, it was possible to see everything and everyone. In the middle of the camp courtyard, there was already a scaffold set up  actually from the beams that were just brought  and from the top beam, there were five thick ropes hanging. We all understood that these were for a hanging. But who was going to be hanged here and for what crimes? One of the Gestapo men tore into the silence. He went to stand on the base of the scaffold, and then he said with curt, abrupt, and brutal sentences. This type of talk can also kill people  without revolvers and without hangings. They robbed us of the little worth and dignity we Jews still had. He said, among other things: “You Jews wanted this war! So now you have a war. You will all be murdered before this war is over. Whoever tries to tax the discipline of a German camp, whoever tries to run away from here, will pay with his life on this scaffold!”

He hardly finished his terrifying words, when the five Ukrainian henchmen marched out five men with hands tied into the courtyard. It was hard to recognize them. They had been murderously beaten. Their faces were like a ruined mass of flesh. The Ukrainians dragged these men to the scaffold and placed the ropes around their necks. We strained to recognize the victims. One of them was Dovid, the son of Zerach Wilner, and …

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… two cousins of Boruch and Berel Najman. There were two other Jews that were from Gombyn who were also hanged. The tragic execution took place.

Soon, the Ukrainians brought two more victims. Three of those who were hanging were taken down in order to make place for the three new victims. Among these three were two Jews form Gombyn and a son of Berel Najman, Mendel Meyer. Mendel Meyer's father was with us in the camp, he was Dovid Najman, as well as a cousin Boruch's Najman's son.

The nooses were tossed down. Mendel Meyer Najman tossed his head in the ropes, and with one final glance, took in the entire court with all his camp brothers who were watching the tragic events. His quiet look was so very expressive  but we could do nothing to help. Every desire within us was suffocated. All our capacity had atrophied. Mendel Meyer glanced at the ground where his brother and cousin were laying dead. With his last energies, he shouted out in Polish: “Long live freedom!” He could not get out the last line. The rope broke his neck.

The Gestapo hangman did not understand what his victim had shouted, so the hooligan from Posen, Alfonse Hillel, laughingly translated it for him. With might and rage, the Gestapo devil took an axe into his hand and split open his victim's head. “Now you are free,” he called out and spit onto the ground.

Another Hitlerist went to play around in the shadow of the scaffold, and asked for someone of the interned who would be interested in saying a prayer for the dead ones. There was one Jew who volunteered. He was from Lodz. His name was Schneur. He dragged his swollen feet and emaciated body, And then presented himself. The echo of his voice haunts me to this very day. His voice took on a metallic sound, but the camp carried the prayer far: …

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… “God Who is full of mercy, Who dwells on high…” (first line of the Yizkor memorial prayer).

The Gestapo men did not allow Schneur to complete his prayer. Irritated by the silence, they ordered their slaves to run around the scaffold and around the dead men.

This was a macabre death dance. People fell, were beaten, tripped over each other. Those who miraculously survived that horrific death dance, will remember forever that “shtube #8” where 35 people lay but could not die …


[Page 289]

In Fear and in Pain

by Yitzhak Krajcer (Israel)

Translated by Pamela Russ

 

I am the only one of my family that has survived. The family Krajcer lived in Gostynin on Kutno Street opposite the Russian church. We were three brothers – I, the oldest, and the younger two brothers, Michel and Yehoshua. We studied in the government public school and were chaverim [members “friends”] in the Hechalutz Hatzair [the Young Pioneers]. Before the outbreak of the bloody war, we had a calm, quiet life. My father, Eliezer ben Aron, was a merchant. My mother, Golde, originally from Zychlin, was a quiet woman, devoted to her home, and we studied and then spent our free time in the Hechalutz movement.

In one sudden moment, there was an upheaval. When the Nazis marched into Gostynin, a tumult and terrible fear awoke among the Jews. We were terrified by the slightest rustle. They began to snatch Jews from the streets for work. Those who were locked in the church withered from the beatings they were given by the Nazis. After that, the Jews were no longer permitted to live on all the streets – until the time that they were closed into a locked ghetto. We went over to live in the house of Yehoshua Motil, near the river. Along with us, lived the family of our grandfather Aron.

From day to day the situation in the ghetto became increasingly worse. The crowdedness, the lack of means and lack of food was pressing on everyone. The cruelties of the Nazis became more gruesome every day. The Kreisleiter [Nazi Party county leader] and his huge dog set themselves brutally on the Jews. I myself received his beatings because I did not remove my hat for him.

Those who survived remember the garden in the ghetto that the youth worked in. There was great danger, and in our …

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… naiveté, we brought the flowers and grass in order, as well as the benches and the playground, where they chased the ball.

Every day, the forced community-elected people mobilized Jews for public works and brought forth contingencies for the Germans. It didn't even occur to anyone to think about the liquidation of the ghetto. Across the streets of the ghetto, you could see groups of children busy with their games. The adults, however, were busy looking for ways to get more food products; they whole-heartedly believed that anyone who has the means to survive these difficult times will live to the end of the war.

There were rumors in the ghetto that there was a hunger in the other ghettos. By us, for a lot of money, you were still able to get marginal supplies of food. So we got as much as possible, so as not to …

 

gos290.jpg
Gostynin Jews go to work on Kutno Street, 1941. The sidewalk was forbidden to the Jews.

 

… pass out from hunger. Of course there were those in the ghetto who were hungry, but no one died of hunger…

Jews were snatched for work and then transported to labor camps in Inowroclaw and later to Emzej. I was also in this transport. There were other young children with me. I decided to escape. I quickly jumped through the window and ran to Zychlin to my grandfather. After a few days, I returned to Gostynin.

But the Germans did not stop, and once again snatched up Jews for work. They took my father, my uncle Itche, and me. This time they guarded us closely in the church, and we considered ourselves doomed. Trucks arrived and people began to get on. My Uncle Itche went up onto the truck – but he was able to jump down, and he disappeared. My father also went up, and when it came to my turn, I went over to the German Wiland, and begged him to let my father go – and I would gladly go in his place. He didn't want to hear and told me to get up onto the truck. I resisted, so he beat me badly with his whip. I was stubborn, and held on to myself, and he beat me again, until he finally let my father go. Beaten, I then went up onto the truck.

A German who held a loaded gun in his hand came along with us. He said he would shoot anyone who tried to escape. I sat down at the other end of the truck. We passed Kowalska Street. In front of the ghetto walls stood the relatives of those who had been taken away, with parcels in their hands. We heard cries and screams. I saw my mother. At that moment, I decided to run away and return home. When we passed Rolnyk, I jumped down off the truck and, unnoticed by the German, began to run through the field, and I reached the ghetto wall. When I got closer to our …

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… yard, I heard wailing. It seemed that they also took Sender Ring with his son and several others.

Once, at the ghetto wall I noticed Jews whom I did not know. It became clear that they were from Zdunska Wola. From them we learned about the horror of Chelmno. A Jew ran away from there and told them the gruesome truth about that death factory.

We felt that the same bitter fate awaited our little town. From the labor camp Emzej several people escaped and were hiding in the Gostynin ghetto. In the middle of the night, the Gestapo did a manhunt – probably because of some information from the ghetto – and they captured the people and sent them back to camp. The letters from the camps were very tragic.

In a short time, they began to snatch up girls for work. Among them was my cousin Dvoira Trojanowski. Once, when we were sitting shiva [seven day mourning period] for my grandfather Aron, may he rest in peace, the Nazis tore into the ghetto and began to snatch up people for work. Almost half naked, I ran out of the house – and the Germans after me. Running with me were our neighbors Kova Pinczewski and Salek Gliksberg. In an enclosed court, we began to climb across roofs and hid all night. The Germans also looked for us on the roofs, but did not find us.

That night, the Germans went with lists from house to house and beat murderously whoever they found. The screams from all sides assaulted us. That's when they took my father, and my uncles Itche and Moishe. They beat them. My mother also received beatings. My uncles ran from the transport, but my father I never saw again. At the beginning we received letters from him, but they later stopped coming.

They stopped forcing people to get onto the transports. To the camp in Konin, we already went …

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… on our own, particularly when the members of the Judenrat and their relatives were also in the transport.

The ghetto was almost empty of people. My brothers and a large number of people from my big family were also gone. The letters that came from Konin were horrendous. I remember a letter from my brother Michel in which he begged us to send him a few slices of bread…

The rest of the family came to live in our house. The days ran with fear for the remaining people in the ghetto. We felt that our end was near. Polaks would appear outside and buy up all kinds of valuable things practically for free. There were no longer any young people in the ghetto. If someone was there, then he was in hiding. That's how I and my Uncle Itche lay in a hiding place.

But we knew that this could not go on for long. So my uncle and I went on the road and came to Strzegowa. My mother stayed back home along with my little brother. It was bitterly difficult to part from them. Even my little brother intuitively felt that we were seeing each other for the last time…

Life in the Strzegowa ghetto was very difficult. We also met people from Gostynin there. There was nowhere to live. There was a terrible lacking. We were very beaten down because of the rumor that reached us, that the Gostynin ghetto was to be liquidated. Yehuda Shatan was there to get his sister out. When he came back to Strzegowa, he told us that the Nazis had carried out a mass murder of Jews and that full trucks of Jews were transported to Chelmno.

We learned that the two brothers Glas had escaped from Konin. The older one was shot by the Germans in Dobrzyn, and the younger one came to Strzegowa. Here they were also snatching up people for work – and I was also among those captured.

To my good fortune, I worked …

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… for a Polak, producing peat. Others worked in a sugar factory. After work, this Polak took us back to the ghetto. We knew that our turn would come for Strzegowa as well.

One day, the Germans attacked the ghetto and shot many people. There was chaos and a lot of running. Not all ran, however. My Uncle Itche and I decided to go back on the road, but where to? – No one knew. Pesach Kwint, who also wanted to go, changed his mind in the last minute. He gave us money and a golden necklace. Izbicki also gave us money and a gold ring. They knew we were left without a groshen [penny]. I will never forget the expression on their faces, and their words: “Do not forget us, and if we do not survive to avenge this, then tell everyone what happened to us and our families.”

In the dark of night, we searched for a place where we could sneak out of the ghetto; we should leave while it was dark. Itche went first – I followed him. Suddenly, we saw about 50 Germans marching. We managed to evade them and then ran across the fields. We stayed for a few days with a Polak not far from Dobrzyn. He knew we were Jews. He offered to send me to Germany as a Polak to work. I agreed. My uncle said goodbye to me and left in the direction of Gostynin. Soon it became apparent that I could not go to Germany. The Polak tried all kinds of other means for me, but without success. I decided to try my own luck. I left in the direction of Warsaw. Maybe I would still find Jews there. But it was a very dangerous and difficult way, and one had to get past a border. I was lucky to cross the Narew River with the help of smugglers. They thought I was a Polish young boy. Together with them, I got onto a train for Warsaw.

In the wagons of the train, the Christians sang, laughed, and told anecdotes …

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… at the expense of the Jews. I had to laugh along with them. Oh, how heavy my heart was then!

When we arrived in Warsaw, I left to go in the direction of the ghetto. I saw high walls. The streets were guarded by Polish and German policemen. Every bit of time, they demanded papers from anyone who went by. I was lucky: Not once was I asked to identify myself. After a few days in Warsaw, without money and without papers, I saw that I wouldn't be able to get into the ghetto. Upset, I started to think of ways to get back to Gostynin. Maybe I would also find my Uncle Itche there, maybe he was hiding by Christians.

When I arrived by train to Lowicz, I heard that a transport of Polish workers was going to Germany. I also heard that they were looking for substitutes for those who did not want to go. They were also prepared to pay. I located a Polak that was looking for someone to replace his son. Of course, I agreed. We left to the employment office and got me papers in his son's name – and I went to the transport camp.

The Germans took us to Germany. In that transport I saw a Polak from Gostynin, Wladek Molkawski. My heart was gripped with fear that he would recognize me. In the passing train stations in Germany, I noticed Jews who working were wearing yellow Jewish stars on their clothing.

At the end of 1942, I arrived to work in “Porta Westp.” [Westphalia] in Germany. After working for a few weeks on the railway, we were sent to “Minden Westp.” I worked in that train station for the rest of the years of the war. I lived through very difficult times there, afraid that Heaven forbid neither the Germans nor the Polaks should discover that I was Jewish. Not once did they ask me why I did not receive any mail from anywhere as they used to … Often I would moan heavily in my sleep …

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… and my camp friends would ask me about it, what had happened to me … It seems that it didn't occur to them that I was Jewish. I befriended one of them and they helped me. Who knows how they would have reacted had they found out I was a Jew. They would talk about Jews very often. At those times, I became silent, looking for an excuse to leave …

About the Warsaw ghetto uprising I learned in the letters that the imprisoned Polaks received from their homes. How bitter was my situation! I couldn't even cry about the fate of my fighting brothers! Just by chance, I recognized a Gostynin letter carrier, but he did not recognize me. Probably, I was not recognizable. We spoke of Christian holidays, of church, of the priest … He did not recognize me, even though he would often come to us and bring us the mail.

That's how I lived a disguised life until the Allied military forces found us between Hanover and Dusseldorf. The first Jew I met – an English soldier, came from Tarnow. He spoke Polish to me. I had almost forgotten the Yiddish language. The Polaks standing around crossed themselves. They did not believe their eyes. There was a Jew among them the entire time…

After the war, when I came to Israel, my compatriots [landsleit] who miraculously survived, told me that my Uncle Itche was hiding in Gostynin by a Polak, and shortly before the Russian army marched in, the German murderers killed him.

***

That's how a young Jewish boy saved himself. The most frightening fantasy could not have contrived such a horrific story. That's how individuals were saved – in anguish and in pain. But millions died in blood and in tragedy.

 

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