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Reading Chapters

 

Experiences in a Work Camp in Ukraine

by Yehuda Schwartz

For the elevation of the souls of the martyrs of the work camp of Halmeu who perished in the frost, through torture and starvation, in the fields of Ukraine.

 

I. In the Work Camp in Ukraine

Gomel (Homel) was our first stop on Ukrainian soil. From there we continued on foot. After we passed Stary Oskol[1], we endured an unusually cruel search by the Hungarian gendarmes, who confiscated all valuables in our possession.

Along the way, they sent us with wagons bringing weapons to the front. From six to eight people were placed on each wagon. Our job was to secure this important cargo that was destined for the battlefield. At first, this was not too heavy for us, but after the horses got tired and some of them died from overexertion, we were given the task of pushing the wagons from behind. Then, out of mercy for the horses, the command was issued to harness the Jews in their place. The soldiers accompanying us grabbed their prods, prodded us, beat us with whips, and also shot at the people dragging the heavy wagons.

In this manner, the first victims from among us fell. The heavy transport of several thousand tons of weapons was transported through the blood and power of the Jews in the labor camps. The danger grew, and a significant number of people were killed at that time. As we passed in this manner through the forests of Minsk, a long forest of several dozen kilometers, we were attacked by partisans. Only through a miracle was a small number saved. We drew energy and support on our difficult journey through the study of chapters of Bible from the small book that I had with me the entire time, just as I had my tefillin with me. More than once, my comrade and partner reached the point of zero energy and lost consciousness. I succeeded in arousing him from his faint and reviving him with the book of the Bible that was in my hands, instilling in him faith and hope for a speedy redemption.

After the living quarters of the camp were set up in the former Kolkhoz[2] of Mikhaylovka, the best of us were sent to clear the minefields near the front. Almost all of them were killed, and the remaining ones were punished during the roll call, where every tenth person was taken to be shot or hung with his hands tied backwards on a tree until he lost

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consciousness.

In the forests of Pinsk, we continued chopping trees and transporting them to pave the roads in the endless sand fields of Ukraine. We had to perform this work with great speed due to the increasing demand for weapons and tanks at the Russian-German front, where the war was at its height at that time.

*****

One night, I was summoned to the camp commander in order to express my professional opinion on the drum that the deputy showed me. To my surprise, I saw a drum made out of parchment of Torah scrolls on both sides, and since the script had not been erased, he thought that it was an ancient script with value for a museum.

When the front broke up near the Don, Hitler's troops and vehicles began a disorderly retreat, and the Jewish labor camps were also forced to retreat. Along the way, we passed through the village of Rusy, which was devoid of people. We were hungry, and we searched through the houses to find food. To my great surprise, I found there a parchment fragment of a Torah scroll with the section of the travels of the Jewish people through the desert[3]. I took it with fear and trepidation as a portent and a keepsake. I saw in it the symbol of the ark of covenant – as is written, “And when the ark traveled, Moses said, Arise G-d, and scatter your enemies, and let those that hate you flee from before you[4].” The content of the sheet reminded me of my tortuous travels, for the acronym of the ‘These are the travels of the Children of Israel”[5] hint to the four exiles: Edom, Media, Babylonia, Greece – and this exile feels sevenfold more difficult upon our flesh, for we have not only witnessed the degradation of the people of G-d, but we have also seen the Torah at a lowly level. It happened more than once that despite the hunger that afflicted me, I could not accept the food that was offered to me, for it seemed to me that it may have been cooked using the parchment of a Torah scroll, and I said in my heart, “Woe to the eyes that have seen thus…”

*****

We reached a crossroads during our retreat. The sign said Mezerich, and I saw before the eyes of my spirit Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezerich[6], the student and successor of the holy Baal Shem Tov, and the leader of his Hassidim. This was a city with vibrant Jewish life when it was a Hassidic center, and the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Hassidim were turned toward it. Now, at the entrance to the city there was a frightening drawing – a knife and a lamb, upon which the phrase “Like sheep brought to the slaughter” was inscribed in large print.

We entered a fenced off, empty area. One of my friends stumbled on a rock and fell to the ground. It was clear that this rock was a monument… So and so the gentile – a resident of the

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small house next to the church – told us in clear Yiddish that we were standing in the Jewish cemetery of Mezerich. He told us that after all the Jews, about 3,000 in number, were liquidated, they were buried in pits that they had dug for themselves, as he pointed to two hills near the cemetery. All of the gravestones were removed to pave the roads of the city.

After the story of this tragic event, a debate arose among ourselves whether to recite kaddish.

We remained in the town for several days. I visited a Jewish home and before me was a terrifying scene. There were still holy books, including the Talmud, on the bookshelf. In the middle of the room, inside a pile of refuse, there were torn and dirty pages from a poetry book of Bialik. I saw them with my eyes and also read “In the City of Murder” and “On the Slaughter”… I saw before me the tragic strand of our nation, dragged out over the ground of Poland for many generations, from the time of the Decrees of Tach and Tat during the days of Chmielnicki[7], through the pogroms in Kishinev, until Hitler may his name be blotted out.

Here, as I search for the morning light after the sun set, and I found the poem “On the Bird” by Bialik, which foreshadows comforts and tells “wonderful things from a far off land” for those strangling in exile…

 

II. I met Partisans and Ordinary Jews

After a retreat from the front for about two months, we hoped that the endless wanderings accompanied by difficult tribulations had already come to their end when we reached the city – its name I forget – where the railway line was located and in which we set up our residence.

Since the hunger afflicted us greatly, we did not pay attention to the danger involved in leaving the area, and we visited the houses of the residents, where we were greeted politely, for it was Christmas and the atmosphere was particularly calm.

I was invited along with my friend to lunch in one house. During the conversation, we showed our hosts photos of our family and our house, and told them about our bitter fate as Hungarian Jews who had been deported to forced labor camps in Ukraine. The whispering between themselves aroused suspicion in us. After the meal, we were called into a typical room of pious Catholics, with pictures

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of Christian saints on the walls, and a large cross over the bed. In the room, the woman could no longer control herself, and she burst out crying. She continued to tell us, with tears in her eyes, that she and her husband had fled from Warsaw and found refuge here with their former maid. She said, “Imagine for yourselves that my husband had to pray in this room every day next to the icons, enwrapped in his tallis and tefillin.” Of course, we promised to keep her secret in our hearts. When we left, she gave us a generous portion of food for the way.

In the evening, we reviewed the events of the day. Someone brought us a Kiddush cup with the word Shabbat engraved upon it. Someone brought us a tallis with a silver adornment, and one of our friends told us that she was going to meet up with a Jewess the next day. This aroused great curiosity in us, to once again see and speak face to face with a Jew.

The Jew in charge of the unit, Ladislaw Skali from Kolozsvár (Cluj) asked me to accompany him on this meeting in order to overcome the language difficulties, for he knew that the Jews of Hungary were not fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish.

When we reached there, we found a Jewish girl about 20 years old in a room filled with Ukrainians and Poles, who immediately left the place. The girl made an unforgettable impression upon us with her sense of humor, with her special Jewish charm, and the gold chain with an image of Moses and the tables of the covenant on her neck.

She said, “In general, I am in the company of my husband.” She took the automatic revolver into her hands and touched it with wonderful diligence. From her words it was clear that she was a partisan in the unit that was active in the area, and she maintained communication with the Ukrainians and Poles who collaborated with them.

From her interesting story, the terrible story of Polish Jewry unfolded before our eyes, with all of her horrifying tragedies that led the girl to conduct an independent battle and afflicted her with the hatred of the murderers of our nation.

The content of the story, etched firmly in my memory, was approximately as follows. After the Jews of my[8] town were rounded up, I fulfilled the request of my mother and joined the 200 Jews who hid in a cellar after they found out about the decision to liquidate the Jews of the ghetto. One Sunday morning, they murdered all the residents of the ghetto by shooting. As they stood them by the wall of death, we used all of our energy to restrain ourselves, maintain our self control, and not break out and thereby expose our hiding place. Furthermore, I was assigned the task in the cellar to quiet a baby and to stifle its mouth with rags when it started to cry in the middle of the night. None of this helped, for two days later in the morning, we were surprised to hear the echoes of the loud sounds of the boots of the Germans. They discovered us.

The door of the cellar was opened with shouts, “Accursed Jews – Jews out!” All of the people who had been hiding were lined up next to the wall and shot with automatic rifles.

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The girl Batya continued on – with the tumult that overtook me, I put my hand upon my heart and miraculously, no bullet hit me. However, I fainted and fell down out of fear. Since I got dirty from the blood of the victims who fell upon me and covered me, they thought that I too was dead. However, I awoke from my faint after about an hour or two, and the S.S. commander was no longer there. I removed my dress that had been stained by their blood, and toward evening, I crawled to the farm of a Polish farmer who had been a friend of my parents. I found refuge there for about two weeks.

Once, I was sent with two loaves of bread to the house of another farmer in the grove atop the hill. Along the way, I met two partisans disguised as dogs who stopped nearby, and asked me many questions. From my answers, they immediately determined that I was not a Pole. I admitted to them that I was a Jewess, and that I had escaped from the ghetto in the town. The partisans dressed up in dog skins as a camouflage. Through their influence, I joined a partisan unit in the forest. I was accepted as a member in the partisan units only after I overcame an attack of two of them who challenged me to a shooting match as a test.

As the girl related, there were Hebrew schools in the town, and Bialik had visited there. Batya spoke to us in clear Hebrew. From her, we heard the song, ‘The town is burning”[9] in Hebrew for the first time. The echoes of this song, dealing with the bitter fate of Polish Jewry, accompanied me from that time, and still ring in my ears: Brothers, save us, it is burning – Heaven forbid the time is approaching – for the flames will become constant – they will murder us all here…

The contact between us was not severed even after that. As we lined up to continue forward on our journey, I received warm gloves from her, accompanied by a letter in Hebrew requesting that I join the partisan unit with several other of my friends. After some vacillation, I destroyed the letter and marched in accordance with the command, along the endless journey on the road in Poland. The reason for this was that I had been greatly disappointed by the partisans. About a half a year earlier, we had been put up in a school in the town where the partisan activity was so strong that the guard who was appointed over us for security was afraid to remain with us at night.

One night, about 20 partisans surprised us. The only benefit that they caused us was that the set the photo of Hitler on the wall on fire with the torches in their hands. Immediately after, however, they took all the cigarettes that we had, and they also confiscated our blankets. The pleas of the partisan girl who took our side did not help. She suffered blows and kicks from them. This made them odious in our eyes, despite the fact that we held them in esteem on the other hand.

 

III. Jewish Forced Laborers – in Retreat

This was in the midst of the winter in Russia. We received an order to be

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ready for a journey. Due to the danger and great urgency, the battalion commander was among the first to set out, leaving us to our own devices, for with the breakup of the Russian front in Stalingrad they had no restraint, and Hitler's soldiers were forced to retreat in the quickest fashion possible. This later turned into a disorderly flight.

The main road was at the sole disposal of the defeated Nazi army for the purposes of retreat, whereas the rest of the soldiers, including the Jewish labor camps, were forced to retreat along a tortuous route through the difficult areas of the Pripyat marshes, where Napoleon had suffered his great defeat in his day.

We also set out in haste by foot without stopping day and night. Many of our friends who did not succeed in stepping and jumping properly sunk and drowned in the marshes. Later, the harsh winter continued the work of liquidation. We walked in this manner for over a month, without a roof over our heads or even a small rest even at night, for the houses of the villages along our route had previously been bombed by the Russians. If anyone was so brazen as to search for a refuge from the cold and wind among the ruins – the mines put an end to his life.

Usually, we slept at night by digging pits, which served as a refuge from the strong, cold, howling winds. We took turns in lighting bonfires next to our frozen feet, and for the most part, snowflakes served as our blanket.

The sides of the roads were strewn with the graves of our dear Jewish brethren who died of hunger, or who rested upon the snow from the weariness of the journey, fell asleep for a bit, froze from the cold, and met their deaths on the spot. Some of us also gathered our strength, opened up the carcasses of the dead horses, and saved ourselves from death by hunger with the horsemeat.

This journey without food weakened us to the point where most of the members of the camp took ill with typhus and dysentery. Despite suffering from fevers of greater than 40 degrees, we were forced to continue along the route to the gathering place of the ill in Dorshitz. The 6,000 ill people were hospitalized in a barn of a former kolkhoz that served as a makeshift hospital. The sick people lay on the ground that was covered with a bit of straw. The physicians, including Dr. Ladislau Donash of Kolozsvár cared for them without the needed medical means and with minimal food. The bodies of the sick people were filled with holes. The lice consumed them ravenously as they were still alive. The groans of the dying and the moans of the ill people shook us up.

Due to a shortage of space, we did not remain there, but rather continued on our journey until Bondarovka, where a new infirmary for the ill people of the camp was set up with conditions that were not much better.

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It was decided to liquidate the hospital in Dorshitz along with its sick people. In the evening, the hospital was surrounded by armed gendarmes and soldiers, who poured large quantities of kerosene on the building and ignited it. Those sick people who still had enough strength to jump through the windows that were engulfed with flames were shot on the spot.

As was told to me by one of the survivors, Yehuda Kahane, Halmeu natives who had been drafted to labor camp 108/60 in Tisza-lök and were burnt alive in the middle of the night of April 29, 1943 included: Shiku (Yeshua) Mandel, Elia Salomon, Bumi Kopli, Yosef Jeremias, Moshe Steinberger, and Imara Glick.

The following people survived miraculously by jumping out the windows: The lawyer Dr. Hershkovitz, Yosef Mermelstein (both live in Beer Sheva), Elimelech Weiss (lives in Bnei Brak), and Yehuda Kahane (lives in Jerusalem).

The typhus epidemic felled many victims in Bondarovka as well, and only a minimal percentage succeeded in escaping from the vale of killing and returned home at the end of the war – but not to the bosom of their families, for their families had met a death no less cruel in the crematoria and gas chambers of Auschwitz.

 

IV. The Story of a Survivor

The retreat of the Jewish labor camps from the territory of Ukraine and Poland ended, and we were returned to Hungary. There too, the Red Army continued its pursuit of the defeated Nazi Army, and was already at its tail.

When we arrived at a village before Kecskemét, we were greeted by a delegation from the village, headed by the priest, bearing white flags, thinking that we were Russians. The main road in the direction of Budapest was full of soldiers and civilians seeking refuge in the capital city. Therefore, we were not given permission to enter the city, and we were forced to stay over on a small farm several kilometers in front of it.

My friend Dr. Izak and I made an agreement to put an end to our wanderings and to go in the opposite direction – in the direction from which the Russians were coming – in order to fall captive to them, which seemed to us to be a better choice. We took advantage of the darkness of night, and each of us set out on our journey separately. After I succeeded in crawling across the main street, I walked all night, and arrived at a farm on top of a hill right when a fierce battle broke out. I hid among the wheat stalks.

The sounds of the battle quieted after about two hours, and one of the farmers agreed to give me shelter in the barn in the yard of his house until the wrath would pass. The next day, a battalion of German soldiers arrived in that yard, and set up an anti-aircraft cannon. The farmer, who

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did not know German, asked me to serve as his translator. To my good fortune, they did not suspect me. That same day, a fierce air battle took place over the capture of the city of Kecskemét at the foot of the hill, and the Russians retreated.

In the meantime, an order was issued to comb the area and cleanse it of foreign elements. The residents were required to turn over suspicious individuals to the government, and anyone not fulfilling the edict was to be put to death. Having no choice, I was forced to leave the place. As I ascended the path leading to the city, I was captured and searched with hands raised by a sergeant of the Hungarian gendarmes, who hauled me to the courthouse, pointing his gun at me the entire time. A debate broke out among the judges about whether to stand me against the wall and carry out the death sentence on the spot, or to take me to the military court – since by all opinions, I belonged to a military unit. At the end, they brought me to a military prison where army deserters were housed, including those who broke camp during the battles as well as those who aroused suspicion.

To my surprise, in the room to which I was brought I found my friend Dr. Izak, who, had been captured like me. In accordance with the request of the sergeant, we presented ourselves as experienced butchers. They brought us two other expert butchers as helpers, and we set up the provisional kitchen of the prison, in which there were 600 prisoners. In the meantime, we had as much food as we needed.

After five days, whose nights passed with the harsh torture that the meted out to all the prisoners as punishment, we were placed in rows. The head of the military court passed through the rows and issued his verdict on the spot after hearing the details of the crime from his secretary. The army defectors who exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothing out of fear of the approaching Red Army were sentenced to death. They were placed against the wall and shot on the spot.

When he reached us, the documents of my friend Dr. Izak demonstrated that he suffered from a heart condition and was unable to continue along the way at the pace required by the brigade. I claimed that I could not leave him alone in such a difficult health situation. The judge not only accepted our words, but also turned to those present and said, “These people I am able to understand… they had no choice – therefore I pardon them. They did not commit treason against their homeland, and did not let down their guard.”

We were the first ones in the new labor brigade who were sent urgently to Budapest. Since we were already surrounded on all sides by the Red Army, they were unable to transfer us outside the borders of the country to send us to the death camps. We were brought to the Budapest Ghetto, where we remained until we were liberated by the Russians.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. I am not sure of the location referred to here, as Stary Oskol is in Russia proper, nowhere near the area under discussion. There are several locations called Oskol in Ukraine. Return
  2. A kolkhoz is a Soviet collective farm. Return
  3. Numbers 33. Return
  4. Numbers 10:35. Return
  5. Numbers 33:1. Return
  6. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dov_Ber_of_Mezeritch Return
  7. The term for the attacks on the Jews perpetrated during the years 5408-5409 (1648-1649) during the Chmielnicki uprising. Return
  8. The narrative here switches to the voice of the girl. Return
  9. The famous song “Undser Shtetl Brennt”, written after the Przytyk Pogrom in 1936. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Przytyk_pogrom . The translator of this current Yizkor Book of Halmeu has also served as the translator of the Przytyk Yizkor Book: http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Przytyk/Przytyk.html#TOC157 . A version of the song can be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVxImQiKmKI Return


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Conclusion

by Yehuda Schwartz

With holy awe, I approach the publication of this book, which will serve as a monument to the holy communities of Halmeu, Turcz and the district, which were annihilated during the Nazi Holocaust. Even before I began this holy task, I asked myself whether I would succeed even in a modest degree to present something of the history of the community, which we have hidden since that time in the clouds of the dark days. However, now that more than 20 years have passed since the era of the Holocaust, and forgetfulness is increasing, I girded myself to publish a portion of it in order to show our children and the younger generation the activities, way of life, and holiness of our righteous ancestors – how they set up a fine and blessed community, how they purified its holy atmosphere, and how they covered up any breaches so that it would be a holy camp.

The publication of this Yizkor Book comes with an appeal to the survivors of the town in any place that they may be: Recall the days of yore, consider the years from generation to generation[1] to preserve the legacy of the fathers. Set your lot within the chain of the observers of Torah and commandments, and let the names of your fathers be summoned within you for renown and glory.

We must not forget the sounds of Torah that ring in our ears even now; the synagogues, study halls and Talmud Torah cheders in which children and grandchildren were educated to occupy themselves with Torah and commandments. We also must not forget the leaders of the generation, the rabbis and gaonim who were bound to the people with bonds of love, as their memory is awakened and renewed.

The handful of people who returned as brands plucked from the fire[2], from the vale of murder, decided with the flame of their initiative and energy to set up a memorial to the community by bringing forth memories of the community in which their rabbis watered them from the wellsprings of the holy Torah and pure faith.

Among the activists, I hereby note the chairman of the committee Mr. Menachem Carmi, Mr. Chaim Tzvi Ben Asher, and Rabbi Moshe Braun. I express my heartfelt thanks to Reb Moshe Avraham Greenfeld of Haifa who guided me and reviewed with me the section on “Personalities and Characters from the Community,” pointing out the necessary amendments to prevent errors. I also thank those who encouraged me in the publication of the book. Among others, these include the leadership of the Organization of Natives and Halmeu, Turcz and the District; Reb Pinchas Schwartz, Reb David Meir Appel, and Mrs. Lea Weiss for photos and articles; and finally, to the engineer Simcha Vida. To all of them, I extend thanks and blessings.

In this Yizkor Book, we wished to give expression to the life of the community, in families, in society, in religion and education, in order to present some idea of the spiritual and physical life that pulsated in that community and imbued it with its unique hue. This community earned a unique place among the rest of the Transylvanian communities on account of its rabbis and builders who spread its name, as well as on account of the special way of life that it forged for itself.

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Due to financial and technical reasons, we regret that we cannot provide a list of all those names who would have been appropriate to mention. We beg their forgiveness.

Let this book serve as a modest monument of testimony to an important Jewish city whose values were imparted to us, and whose demise instills us with the duty to remember and remind ourselves and future generations.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Deuteronomy 32:7. Return
  2. Zechariah 3:2. Return

 

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