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On the Eve of the Holocaust

 

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My Trip to Kovel in 1939[1]

by Dr. Y. Glicksman

Translated by Sara Mages

The journey to Kovel in those days - October 1939 - wasn't the easiest thing to do.

In theory, there was a rail service. But in reality, no one knew when the train would leave. Those who wished to travel - walked slowly to the train station and waited for several hours. Sometimes they waited for a day and sometimes - for an entire day. Rovno's train station - as in other cities that were occupied by the Soviet army - was besieged, day and night, by thousands of people. Masses of people lay on the filthy floor of the train station and shivered with cold.

It was a large population of refugees, most of them Jews, who were uprooted from their homes and wandered from place to place. They, their children and their wives, couldn't find a place to rest in. No one cared for them. The hunger sucked the marrow of their bones and diseases spread

Finally I got to enter the train car. The train drags itself from Rovno to Kovel for 14 hours instead of two hours in normal times. The glass windows are broken, and despite the crowds and the congestion it is bitterly cold in the car. The car isn't lit at night and we're immersed in darkness.

Here our feet are stepping on Kovel's soil. The NKVD (the former G.P.U) seized the most magnificent building in Kovel. It wasn't easy to enter this building, and it was especially difficult to get an audience with the city's officer. Various officials interrogated me for the purpose of my visit.

The next day, at dawn, I reported by the prison's gate with a food parcel for Victor Alter. I saw a long line of mournful sobbing women. These were the wives, sisters, and old mother of Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian prisoners.

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All of them held baskets and packages and waited, in the cold and in the rain, for the time of “delivery.”

I was lucky that I came on “delivery” day. However, the people who stood at the prison's gate told me that there was no assurance in the matter. Sometimes, after many hours of standing in line, they scatter those who wait and don't accept their packages.

At times - so I was told by the waiting women - they do accept the package, but a shortly after the prison guard returns it to inform you that the prisoner was not there.

Then, terrible thoughts start to haunt you: maybe the prisoner is dead? It's being told in the city that night after night corpses are taken out secretly from the prison. However, it's possible, that they “just” took the prisoner to another prison. Or, maybe they sent him to a concentration camp? Who knows? The family will never know.

Very quickly I tasted the flavor of the Soviet prison in Kovel. It was a small empty room in the basement of the NKVD building. It was bitterly cold in this dungeon. For two days I lay on the cold floor in a state of semi-consciousness. I couldn't sleep in the cell because a light bulb, which was lit day and night, was hanging over my head. The light bulb was strong, about 250-300 watt, and blinded my eyes. The bright light stabbed my eyes and caused them great pain. I felt like they placed me next to a spotlight.

The only window in the cell was covered with a thick screen, and a beam of light painfully penetrated inside. Therefore, I wasn't able to distinguish between day and night.

I wasn't given food for two consecutive days, and furthermore, I wasn't even given a drop of water to wet my throat or wash my hands. No one was interested in my fate. No one asked me for my wish. Dead silence reined around.

On the third night, at dawn, an NKVD officer entered the cell and started to scream: Pack your bags! Get dressed fast!

He took me out. It was four o'clock in the morning. At that time the police was very active in Kovel. The streets were still as if life was taken from them. Six soldiers armed with rifles that their bayonets pointed upwards surrounded me.

Finally we arrived to the prison. They put me on the third floor in room number 33. It was a very large room, intended for several dozen prisoners. However, I was in it alone. All the glass windows were broken and the winds raged in the room undisturbed.

To my delight, there were a few crumbled and worn strew mattresses in the room. The lightest touch

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raised plumes of dust. The mattresses were very dirty and full of fleas. I made a “king's bed” from these mattresses.

In spite of that I couldn't undress because the cold was unbearable and ate my bones. Rain and snow blew through the windows.

I must comment that the regime that prevailed in the Soviet prison in Kovel wasn't typical to Soviet prisons in other locations. The regime was much more severe in other Soviet prisons.

 

Translator's Note

  1. During the Soviet occupation many Jewish and Polish socialist's leaders concentrated in Kovel. They fled eastward in the hope that the Soviet authorities will welcome them. In this manner, Victor Alter - the well known leader of the “Bund,” and Miteshislav Mustek - the leader of the Polish railway workers and a member of the Polish Sejm for many years, arrived to Kovel.
    An important consultation of Jewish and Polish socialist's leaders was held in Kovel a few days after the city was occupied by the Soviets. A memorandum, which was written in this meeting, was given to the Soviet mayor. A wave of arrests came in response to the memorandum. Alter was arrested on 26 September, 1939.
    Dr. Y. Glicksman, the brother of Victor Alter, describes his journey to Kovel to visit his brother who was incarcerated in the Soviet prison in Kovel. His words, which are given with a few omissions, were taken from the book “Henrik Ehrlich and Victor Alter,” which was published in 1951 by “Unzer tsayt,” New York. Return


Anusim” on the Eve of the Holocaust

by Yaacov Kobrinski

Translated by Sara Mages

The school year 1940-41 in the “Vocational High School No. 3.” This school replaced the school named after Dr. Klumel, and its language of instruction was Yiddish. We - I, who was given the task to continue as the school's principal, and the teachers: Genia Liar, Ester Pomerantz-Shalita, Baruch Toyeb and Aharon Rosenstein of blessed memory, and may he live long, Yakov Shalita, who lives with us in Israel - were a group of modern “Anusim[1] within the walls of this school. The rest of the teachers were new, “party” members, and despite the fact they were good honest people and were friendly to us - there was an atmosphere of “keep your tongue.” It was better to be quiet about the recent past. Besides that, we were sure that special duties were also given to a number of students from the higher classes and to a number of parents - and this required us to be very careful and caused alienation.

And here, two weeks before Yom Kippur 5702 [1941], the superintendent, Moshe Tabachnik, appeared at our school every day. He was very interested to know, if we properly managed the propaganda that the students should come to school on Yom Kippur (on Saturdays the studies were like in other schools). He also hinted that it will be a test to the teachers' educational skills… I felt, that the students were excited and confused, and waited for an unofficial hint from me. We knew well the feelings of the others without saying a word. Two days before the holy day, I released myself from my administrative duties, and participated in the games during the big break. Between the games and the small talk about this and that, the student received a hint that they should come to school, but they won't be forced to write or eat. My dear holy sheep didn't fail me. The teachers stood the test, and the lessons were designed so there was no need to write. But, there's no rule without exception. Rabbi Moshe Teverski zt”l came to my house a few days before Yom Kippur and asked me with tears: “How is

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it possible that my son, a fifth grade student, will desecrate the sanctity of the day?” And my advice was: “As of today your son is sick with dysentery, and I promise him a certificate of illness from the school's doctor for a week.”

Etched in my memory is the graduation party on Saturday night 14 June, 1941. We sat at a social gathering, the lovely and pleasant - the students of the sixth and seventh grades with their parents, delegates from other classes, and almost every faculty member. There were, of course, also representatives of the authorities who gave routine speeches. A seventh grader blessed in moving words, and handed me the class' gift - an elegant volume of Shalom Aleichem's children stories, which was published in Yiddish by the Soviets in Kiev.

My turn came to speak. In this occasion I didn't want to appear before my acquaintances and friends from the past with routine words. On the other hand, I wasn't allowed to appear before my superiors as “political unconscious.” Therefore, after a few heartfelt words about our life together at school, I said that we need to be grateful to the regime, the person who represents it, and the precious treasure that he had given us - peace! “Put before your eyes what's happening across the border, just 50 kilometres from here, and you'll understand how lucky we are!”

I confess: that at that time my mouth and my heart weren't a hundred percent equal, because I was very worried about the future. What we feared the most, come to us, the dreadful journey eastward of the German soldiers, may their names be blotted, started exactly seven days after this party. Except for half a dozen, or maybe up to ten of those who attended that party - no one survived.

May their souls be bound in the bond of everlasting life.

 

Translator's Note

  1. Anusim - “forced ones” - persons compelled by overwhelming pressure, whether by physical threats, psychological stress, or economic sanctions, to abjure Judaism and adopt a different faith. Return


Jewish Life in Kovel Under The Soviet Rule

by Yehoshua Frankfurt

Translated by Sara Mages

The Soviet occupation brought a big change in the Jewish street in Kovel. It wasn't the character that was known to us from the years before the war. There was an atmosphere of depression. Many Jews were forced to close their stores and their workshops, and sat, almost, idle.

The new regime brought in its wake a total change of values. People moved about gloomy and anxious, wondering and looking forward. They knew that they had to look for new sources of income, but they weren't ready for it in any way, especially, mentally.

However, this wasn't the only change that took place in the Jewish street. It wasn't the economic

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insecurity that burdened the hearts of our brothers in the city. What depressed their spirits the most was the political insecurity and the denial of freedom of speech.

The new regime, and with it the first wave of arrests, quickly made it clear that it was necessary to learn the theory of silence. They had to remove from their talks on current events many topics that were close to their hearts. And the most important thing: they could no longer trust their “closest friends,” because, this time, the words of our prophet: “Those who destroy you and those who lay you waste shall go forth from you…” were fulfilled. There were informers, who, for so called “ideological reasons,” saw themselves as emissaries, and brought words of slander to the attention of the new rulers.

The voice of most of the Jewish community fell silent. The public life, which pulsed in various forms, has been paralyzed. Most of the Jewish youth, who was educated in the national spirit either in the network of Hebrew schools or in the Zionist youth movements, was sentenced to a double decree: On one hand they weren't allowed to speak Hebrew and had to break away from the realization of the Zionist vision, and on the other hand, they had to recognize Yiddish as their national language, and to integrate into a new way of life, which was foreign to their spirit and belief. This youth wandered gloomy and disappointed.

It should be noted, that not everyone accepted the new situation. There were those who met secretly to refresh their Hebrew and talk about forgotten times, and there were also those who weren't satisfied with these secret meetings. They left their homes and fled through unknown roads to Lita and Romania, in order to emigrate from there to Israel.

This was, in general terms, the face of the Jewish street at the end of 1939. At that time, the Soviet authorities decided to include the local population in the elections to the “Supreme Soviet.” The Soviets decided - as it became clear later - to try to pull to their side the most important local people, famous people, that their influence was also known outside their place of residence.

The goal was twofold: First, to prove to the outside world that the residents of “Western Ukraine” saw the Soviets as “liberators” not “invaders.” Second, to show the local residents, that even their former leaders support and cooperate with the new regime. They also had another trend: to show, that the Soviet regime wasn't only based on communists, but also by people who had other views in the past, people, who officially ceased their affiliation with their former political party, and now are called “nonpartisan.”

As fate would have it, the choice in Kovel fell on Asher Frankfurt z”l. For some reasons, the Soviet authorities decided that he was the suitable man for the “Supreme Soviet.”

The story began in the deepest secrecy. One night, some time before the preparations for the elections, a man dressed in the NKVD [1] uniform appeared at Asher Frankfurt's home at midnight, and invited him to join him.

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It's easy to imagine the reaction of Frankfurt and his family members. They stood frightened and alarmed, and asked the “man in uniform” what he had to take for the road. Are they arresting him, does he have a warrant for his arrest or for the entire family, etc…However, they failed to get a hint from him about the purpose of his visit. His only answer was: I was ordered to bring you to a certain place, and that's all. When Frankfurt z”l asked to take a bundle of cloths with him, the “man in uniform” said that they should hurry and there's no need to take anything.

A small elegant Soviet style passenger car, one of the few that appeared in the city at that time, was waiting outside. Later we found out that the car belonged to the secretary of the Communist Party in the region.

The car stopped next to the NKVD building. Frankfurt z”l was brought to a room in which three people sat. Of them, only one was known to him personally. He was the secretary of the local Communist Party. His wife served as a “politruk” [political commissar] in the United Jewish High School.

Frankfurt z“l was surprise that the reception was somewhat warm. The officials' serious “tone” disappeared immediately, and he was invited to sit with a kind smile. They asked for his forgiveness that they troubled him at night. Tell us about yourself - one of them turned to him. “What I should tell you?” asked Frankfurt z”l. They answered: “Tell us the story of your life.” Amazed and full of hesitation Frankfurt started to tell them the story of his life. After the first few sentences, one of the men remarked, that even the “high ranking officials” in Moscow would be proud of his pure Russian. Indeed, this wasn't an exaggerated compliment, since in addition to his religious education he was also educated on the knees of the Russian culture, and he spoke this language during his many years of studies in Kiev and Odessa.

His story lasted for two hours, and before he finished the three men rose to their feet and thanked him for his words. They immediately informed him that he would be invited to another meeting, but he shouldn't tell anyone about this meeting.

The reason for this meeting hadn't been told to him, and when he saw that the meeting was shrouded in secrecy, he realized that he had to be patient, and wait until they reveled its meaning to him.

The elegant car was waiting outside. To Frankfurt's surprise, the “man in uniform” saluted him, opened the car door, and invited him to enter. The family was happy that he was brought back home.

The next day he went to his work as a school principal. At that time the authorities consolidated the two Jewish high schools the city - the Hebrew High School and

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Klara Erlich's high school - into one high school whose teaching language was Yiddish. As stated, Asher Frankfurt z”l was nominated as the principal of the united high school, and Mrs. Klara Erlich was appointed as his deputy. In theory, this was the official management, but in fact, the decisive opinion on fundamental issues was given to the “politruk,” the wife of the secretary of Communist Party in the city. Officially, her role at school was to guide in matters of sports and military training, and she also organized the activities of the Komsonol [2] among the high school students. In fact, the “politruk” acted as the institution's “mistress.” Her attitude to the teachers and the management was the attitude of a master towards his servants. She tried to emphasize her power, loved to explain the basics of the Soviet education, and the primacy of the Soviet educational methods.

The morning after the mysterious meeting, the “politruk” welcomed Frankfurt z”l as before. She didn't give him a clue, even though she knew something. However, there was a high degree of respect in her attitude towards him. Suddenly, she began to listen seriously to his words, to answer with Amen to each word that he had spoken, and consulted with him about the arrangements that she was going to regulate. And lo and behold: previously, she served as a consultant and master - suddenly, she became docile and was willing to take advice and guidance.

Several days later, in the middle of the night, there was another knock on Frankfurt's door. The “man in uniform” appeared, and in a faint voice invited him to come with him. Again, he was brought to the NKVD building. The same “trio” sat and asked him to continue his story. He was asked a few questions, mainly about his past activities. It was difficult for him to distinguish the responses to his answers, because the light in the room was directed at him, while the three men, who sat across the table, were almost immersed in the shade.

Two hours later, they stood up, thanked him for his story, reminded him to maintain the confidentiality of the meeting, and that he would be invited for the third time.

In those days, the attitude of the “politruk” towards the principal improved. It became more dignified and more flattering. She started to show interest in his health, was worried about his comfort, and reacted badly when he was interrupted. She arrived to school early, greeted him with a smile, and left the building only after he left. The tension in Frankfurt's heart increased. In addition to the “trio” other people, who usually didn't present themselves, also attended the next meetings. Their faces weren't familiar to Frankfurt z”l, and made an impression that they were men of power from elsewhere. Frankfurt z”l was forced to retell his life story a number of times. At the end of his words he was asked a several questions, they praised him and parted from him.

In one of these meetings they questioned him at length with two questions: The first -

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why he founded the Hebrew High School, and the second - under what circumstances did he make the agreement with the Ukrainian minority in the region before the elections to the Polish Siejm [3]. There was a hint in it to the well known case in the Polish Jewry about the “Minority Treaty,” which was arranged by Yitzhak Gruenbaum. Its aim, among others, was to increase the number of minority delegates in the Polish Siejm.

Asher Frankfurt z”l conducted the negotiations with the Ukrainians in the Wolyn district. He was known to the Ukrainians as one of the opponents of the Polish regime, and the Polish desire to dominate Wolyn. This point was extremely important for the “trio.” They dwelled upon it many times, and kept on asking him if it was true that he didn't approve the Polish regime in Wolyn. In addition to that, they showed an “understanding” for his answer about the founding of the Hebrew High School. His explanation was that as a national Jew, he saw the need to establish a Hebrew High School which will educate the young generation in the national spirit, train it for his immigration to Israel, and prevent its assimilation. Later also told them, that despite difficulties and obstacles that the Polish authorities set up, he continued to struggle for the existence of the Hebrew High School. He didn't give up even when his school wasn't given state rights, when at the same time, the second high school in the city, that its language of instruction was Polish, received these rights.

Frankfurt's story, on how at one time, before the elections to the Siejm, he was offered to place his candidacy in the B.B.W.R [4] list, the Sanation's [5] list under the leadership of Colonel Koc, the assistant and advisor of Marshal Rydz-Śmigły, in order to attract Jewish votes in favor of the ruling party. He was promised that in addition to providing a place in the Polish Siejm, he will receive rights and recognition for the high school, or the post of the director of the government's high school in the city whose director was Mr. Gura.

However, he had been told explicitly, that if he didn't agree to the proposal, the high school will be closed, or he would be dismissed from his post as director.

In response to his refusal to support the“Sanation,” Frankfurt z”l was suspended from his position as the school's principal for a period of time. He was forced to pass a test in the Polish language at the University of Vilna. He was reconfirmed by the authorities as the school's principal only under the pressure of various public factors.

These words found an attentive ear and were accepted by the Soviet “interviewers.”

One night Asher Frankfurt z”l was called again to the secret meeting, and in the presence of a number people (among them the regional Communist Party secretary, and a representative of the government from Kiev), he was told that it was decided to present his candidacy for the upcoming elections to the “Supreme Soviet,” meaning, as a candidate of the “nonpartisan” who was recommended by the Communist Party.

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He doesn't need to deny his past affiliation with the Zionist organization, but, he should declare in public meetings that he sees the Soviet regime and the Soviet system of government, the right solution for the nations of the Soviet Union, including the Jewish nation. Frankfurt z”l tried to say, that the matter wouldn't be well received because he's known by many as an ardent Zionist. Also, personally, he doesn't find himself worthy and suited for this supreme notable job. The answer to his words was short and sharp: comrade, your candidacy has been approved by Comrade Khrushchev (at that time, Khrushchev served as the secretary of the Communist Party in Ukraine, and was its leader).

The answer blocked the way to all sorts of questions and additional inquiries. To the amazement of those present, Frankfurt z”l asked to give him time to think about his answer. They couldn't understand how a man dares to ponder a decision from high above. He promised to give his answer on the next day.

The next meeting was attended by the “trio” and the representative from Kiev. Again, Frankfurt pleaded before them that the public wouldn't approve it, and besides that, his frail health prevents him from accepting this honorable and responsible role. Their answer was that the matter has been decided and it was impossible to change it. The meetings of the “Supreme Soviet” are being held twice a year, and a special rail car will be made available to transfer him and his family to Moscow for the meetings. Also, he will not have to worry about the school. A special office will be arranged for him in the city, and he will receive representatives from the entire region during a few office hours. He was promised that they'll take care of his needs, and it won't be difficult to fulfill all of his wishes in regards to his duties.

From now, everyone started to treat him with great respect. He was invited to parties with representatives who came from other locations. “Visitors,” accompanied by the local “party” secretary, came to the high school to meet Frankfurt z”l. They treated him with politeness, whereas the local “party” secretary and his wife, the “politruk,” literally worshiped him.

At that time, the Soviet authorities started to hold preliminary meetings in the workplaces to select the candidates for the “Supreme Soviet.” In one day, meetings were held in the railway workers chamber and in the liberal professions (teachers, clerks etc.) chamber. The meeting of the railway workers went well. Frankfurt's candidacy was presented by the chairman (a member of the Communist Party from the outside). He read Frankfurt's biography without mentioning, even in one word, his Zionists activities. He praised Frankfurt's resistance and struggle against the Polish government and his good relation and close ties with the Ukrainian people.

It wasn't the same at the meeting of the intelligentsia. This meeting was turbulent.

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The chairman of the meeting was shocked when panic broke out in the hall when he announced, on behalf of the Communist Party, his support for the candidacy of Frankfurt z”l.

Many of the Jewish and Ukrainian communists in the city participated in this meeting. During the Polish rule, they were political prisoners for many years, and couldn't accept the fact that the Communist Party will present the candidacy of an ardent Zionist to the “Supreme Soviet,” even on the behalf of the “nonpartisan”.

Veteran communists came on the stage - to the chairman's embarrassment - and expressed their vigorous opposition to the proposed candidate. However, there were also those (surely few in number) who immediately understood the situation, and started to praise the candidate and found him fit.

Suddenly, a former political prisoner got up and opened his statement on behalf of his friends, the political prisoners. While he was talking, the chairman emitted the following sentence: “You claim that you appear on behalf of a group of communists, however, we don't know, yet, what kind of communists you are.” It was a meaningful warning.

During his speech, the speaker called in the direction of Frankfurt z”l, who was sitting on the stage next to the chairman, to declare in public whether he completely renounce his Zionist past, and sees a grave mistake in his political views in the past.

Frankfurt interjected and replied immediately, that he doesn't deny his past activities, and he's not willing to see them as a mistake.

Panic rose again in the hall. The chairman, who wasn't ready for such a sequence of events, loudly announced the postponement of the meeting.

Intensive debates started in the government circles. One day, Frankfurt z”l was rushed (this time it was during the day and not at night) to the secretary's office who informed him, that the Communist Party reevaluated the situation, decided to grant his request, and will not present his candidacy to the “Supreme Soviet.” From then on, he could continue to serve as the principal of the Jewish High School.

A heavy stone was lifted from Frankfurt's heart. He remained in his position until the Nazi invasion. It's interesting to note, that with the outbreak of the war with the Germans, the Soviets offered Frankfurt z”l to leave the city in a special train that was intended to evacuate the government institutions in the city and the region.

Frankfurt z”l didn't accept the offer because of his poor health (he suffered from angina pectoris), but he advised everyone he knew to leave the city and not to stay with the Germans.

 

Translator's Notes

  1. NKVD - The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs.Return
  2. Komsonol - the youth division of the Communist Party. Return
  3. Siejm - the lower house of the Polish parliament.Return
  4. B.B.W.R - Bezpartyjny Blok Współpracy z Rzadem - Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government. Return
  5. Sanation - Sanacja in Polish - A Polish political movement. Return

 

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