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Rokitno as She Lives in our Memories {Cont.}

[Page 179]

The Old Shul

Yechiel Shohet (Ramat Gan)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The Magen Avraham synagogue was the center of life for the Jews of Rokitno. The synagogue was busy and noisy every day of the year. At daybreak, the doors were opened to the worshippers in the first minyan and subsequent minyans. In the afternoons, they would gather for mincha and maariv. Those who wished to learn sat late at night and studied Mishnah and Gmara with annotations.

The synagogue was also used for discussions and decisions in matters of kashrut and non-kashrut, debates about inheritance and finances, and relations between people. All aspects of the life of the Jews in Rokitno were decided inside the walls of this old and sacred synagogue. The Rabbi officiated at marriages and bar mitzvahs in the synagogue. The members were always served liquor and the famous honey cake prepared by the celebrating family.

The synagogue had a festive aura on Shabbat and holidays, depending on the particular holiday. In the month of Elul, the spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days began. This month announced the beginning of autumn and was the month of shofar blowing. At the end of prayers, the shofar was blown every day. These shofar blowings attracted us, the children. We found many ways of practicing the blowing of the shofar. At night, in the cool nights of Elul, before daybreak, Yankel the sexton passed from house to house, knocked on the windows and called in a hoarse voice: “Jews, get up for selichot!” Mother and father arose from bed, careful not to wake up the children, dressed quietly and rushed to the synagogue for selichot prayers. This was repeated every Elul.

On Rosh Hashana the atmosphere of the approaching day of judgment enveloped everyone. Even Jews who all year did not come to pray, suddenly awoke to tradition and came to the synagogue. During the ten days of repentance, days of prayer and apology, the tension increased as Yom Kippur came closer.

Early in the morning on the eve of Yom Kippur, after a quick shaharit prayer, came the custom of releasing promises between man and G-d and the forgiving of wrongs between people. Jews made peace on this day, to be clean and worthy of a positive judgment.

An unforgettable event etched in my memory was the ceremony of the punishment by lashing -- forty less one. This was an ancient custom for those who repent. I watched with great interest as my father took off his shoes, lay down on a straw mattress and received his lashes willingly and with love.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, representatives of different organization and institutions, JNF and Keren Hayesod, Burial Society, Bikur Holim, etc. appeared in the synagogue. They sat at tables, each one with his cause, to encourage the large audience to donate. At that time people were most generous.

It was time to eat the meal before the fast. Everyone hurried home. A few people remained to prepare the sand boxes for the memorial candles. These were large wax candles that every family prepared and lit in memory of their dear departed ones. At nightfall, the houses emptied and all the Jews streamed to the synagogue for Kol Nidrei.

The synagogue even looked different. An air of mystery hovered everywhere. All the worshippers were filled with awe and fear. The countless memorial candles added to the aura of trepidation.

The spiritual leader of Rokitno, Rabbi Aharon Shames, an aristocratic-looking man, touched our hearts with his Kol Nidrei. His praying was pure and entered our hearts. The synagogue was packed and filled with devotion, sanctity and an outpouring of souls. Everyone identified with the merciful G-d. The town was very quiet, as if the world was frozen.

On Yom Kippur, the town was empty. There was no sign of life on the streets. Everyone was in the synagogue. It was a long and great day of fasting and prayer. It began with the praying of shaharit by R. Betzalel Kokel and continued with the musaf of Rabbi Aharon. He was outstanding in his praying and he touched the hearts of the worshippers. The crowd reached a pinnacle of emotion during “Unetane Tokef” composed with blood and suffering by the saintly and tortured R. Amnon of Magentza. Mincha was led by R. Moshe Lifshitz. Many of the worshippers suffered a weakening of the senses. Neila was led by the Rabbi. The prayers ended with the blowing of the shofar. All wished each other a Gmar Hatima Tova (a good final judgment), went home and blessed the new moon.

Youth Group At The Rear Of The Synagogue
In the background one can see the Hekdesh building
(preparation of bodies for burial)

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The synagogue fulfilled an important place in the history of Jewish education in Rokitno. The first classes of the Tarbut school were founded there. Sounds of the Hebrew language emanated from there throughout Rokitno.

Several small buildings stood in the courtyard of the synagogue. On the right was the sexton's house, the middle building was used for preparing bodies for burial and the bathhouse was on the left.

[Page 181]

Rokitno at the End of the Nineteen Twenties

Rachel Konopiata (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

In 1928 I was sent by the kindergarten teachers center in Warsaw to serve as a kindergarten teacher in Rokitno. The road to my job is etched in my memory. As the train approached Rokitno, the cars emptied and I found myself alone in the car. I felt uneasy. An uncomfortable feeling overcame me and I was transported to an ominous and secretive atmosphere.

Close to Rokitno, the door opened and a Polish gentleman entered the car. I later discovered he was the head of the secret service. Apparently, there was a network of Jewish and Ukrainian Communist youths in the outlying villages. The secret service kept a close eye on these villages.

He began to speak to me and asked me the purpose of my trip. While I was answering, a Jew entered and sat down at the other end of the car. I breathed a sigh of relief since I no longer felt alone. However, my relief was short-lived since immediately a band of Ukrainians burst into the car and began to mock the bearded Jew. To my surprise, the head of the secret service helped the Jew. He arose from his seat, pointed to his insignia and, miraculously, stopped the band of outlaws.

I did not stay long in Rokitno. I taught there for one year only, but it is well etched in my memory as a cultured and lovable place. The Jewish population kept its national outlook. Its ties with Eretz Israel were close. I don't think the Jewish youth was infected by Communism.

The youth of those days could be categorized in two groups. The majority were Zionist and longed to fulfill the dream. As proof of this was the preparatory kibbutz there. Many of the young people were preparing to make aliyah and were not afraid of the difficulties involved. The second group were “golden youth” in the positive sense of the term. They were not empty-headed, G-d forbid. They were cultured, healthy in mind and body, loved books and read Russian literature. They did not aspire to make changes in their lives and did not look up to Zion. They only wished to remain in town and continue to do business.

The Jewish population of Rokitno was not dogmatic. The pious Jew was not radical and was quite tolerant of others. For example, when the Rabbi from Stolin came, they all went to greet him. Even the non-believers donated to his cause. It looked odd to me, but to them it seemed natural and acceptable. They saw nothing wrong in their behavior. When I think back about this event, I am convinced that the Jews of Rokitno were, inadvertendly, the pioneers of the Reform movement. They did not look askance at anyone who ate on Yom Kippur or smoked on Shabbat. I was involved with the community and I write these observations based on my visits to many Jewish homes in Rokitno. The community was progressive, from this point of view, and the youth were imbued with western culture. The secular and the religious were an integral part of their being and the result was a proud Jew who knew how to preserve his national character.

One of the highly respected homes in Rokitno was that of the Geipman family. It was a big and spacious house in the center of town. The rooms were large, as were the hearts of the owners. There was a mother, two sons and a daughter. It was a cultured and hospitable family. The house was always open to visitors.

One of the important locations in those days was the one housing the preparatory kibbutz. The Zionist youth met there for discussions, amusement, ideological debates and other occasions. The young people of Rokitno left home and lived on the kibbutz because it was theirs. They were always interested in all that was happening there. Occasionally, they went together to regional conferences in one of the other preparatory kibbutzim. It was an interesting and important event in the lives of the Zionist youths in Rokitno.

Rokitno was a small town, but it produced good and loyal offspring. They were loyal to their people and to their homeland. My heart aches that so few of them survived.

[Page 183]

A Pioneer Makes Aliyah

Dov Ben Yehoshua (Vorona) (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

In 1929, the Hechalutz headquarters organized a group of movement members who wished to make aliyah. They did not have exit visas from the Polish authorities. This was either because of the draft or for other reasons. This aliyah proceeded in two directions: one group went through Berlin and the other through Vienna. At the border, professional smugglers waited together with members of the movement. They helped our members to cross the border without difficulties.

The aliyah committee of my kibbutz decided that I would leave for Warsaw from the Sarny train station on a Sunday. On Friday, I returned to Rokitno to prepare for my trip. Few knew about it. On Shabbat we received the terrible news about the massacres in Eretz Israel, known as the massacres of 1929. I feared that my trip would be stopped, but the Hechalutz headquarters announced that no changes would take place and that we were still going.

I was afraid that my departure from Rokitno would be revealed and I left home in secret. My father said: “Go son. We will meet at the train station.” I walked the streets of Rokitno with a sad heart. I was homesick. I grew up here and my roots were here. I knew the war years, but I also had happy times in this generous village. The last stand came. It was the end. I would never again see these fields, streets and lanes.

On the way I met Bender, the husband of my niece Rosa. I weighed telling him about my trip. Without thinking, I blurted: “I am going to the train station. I am leaving Rokitno forever”. He blessed me and promised to come to the station.

It was a quick parting. My father shook my hand, kissed me and told me to take care of myself because things were bad in Eretz Israel at this time. He was followed by Bender. He, too, quickly bade me good-bye and left the car. I sat alone and I remembered the poet's words: “No people, no country, no G-d and no person.” My heart rejoiced that I had reached the big moment in my life and I was on my way to my desired homeland. Our people will be rejuvenated. G-d and country will be with me and I will be a free man. However, I was also fearful, not knowing if I will be successful in crossing the border. I had no official documents allowing me to leave the country.

The whistle of the locomotive interrupted my sad thoughts. I calmed down. I reached Warsaw and found there friends from Klesov who were also on their way to Eretz Israel. The plan was for us to go the Czech border where we would join a group of hikers. They had permission to cross the river within a radius of 20 kilometers without being stopped. This was according to a cultural agreement between Poland and Czechoslovakia. It was decided that as soon as we would cross the border we would distance ourselves from the group of hikers. We would then reach the train station and go to the Czech -Austrian border. We would cross it illegally and continue on to Vienna.

In order to ensure success, we broke up into small groups. I left Warsaw with my friend, Alenboim, from Klesov. We were dressed as boy scouts. We purchased the outfits in the flea market in Warsaw. Dressed in these uniforms, we sat on the train, which made its way to Zakopny, a famous resort town.

We spent two weeks in Zakopny. We intermingled with the hikers who were most enthusiastic about nature. Our hearts were not capable of rejoicing with every tree and every clearing. We were worried about how and where we would leave these hikers to reach our destiny.

When we reached the train station, we carefully moved away from the hikers and we remained alone. Only my friend and I were there. We removed from our clothes all signs of the country we had just left and we waited for the Czech train going to Brin. We would be met there by members of Bloy Weiss. Late in the evening, we reached Brin. Our friends were waiting as planned and the next morning we continued to Marish-Austro. When we arrived there, we were disappointed. No one was waiting for us. We decided to go to a local member's house to find out what happened. It turned out that the person who was to meet us fell ill and no one could replace him. After some discussion with our sick friend, we decided to continue on our way. According to his instructions, we were to take a bus to the border. When we got off the bus, we were to enter the forest and after walking for an hour we would reach a shallow river. The river was the border between Czechoslovakia and Austria. After we crossed it, we would be in Austria.

We rode to the Austrian border and we hoped to cross it without any difficulties. The Jews of Marish-Austro accompanied us with love and worry.

We reached the place and entered the forest. We walked an unmarked path. We thought we were lost and that we would never reach our destination. Suddenly, the beautiful river was there. Crystal clear water was quietly flowing, surrounded by greenery and mountains. There was no time to enjoy the scenery. We quickly undressed, put the pile of clothes on our heads and we successfully crossed the river. We got dressed and we found ourselves in Austria.

The plan was for us to reach Graz and to board the Vienna train at 6:00 P.M. We reached Vienna by 10:00 P.M. on a Friday night. We had the address of the Palestine Amt Office, 2 Kertner Street. We rang the bell, but no one answered. We began to worry. Where would we sleep? Who do we go to? What should we do? We had no documents of any kind.

We had no choice but to ask one of the passers-by how to enter the office. In our incoherent German, we made quite an impression. To our surprise, we received a reply, in simple Yiddish, that the office was closed on Shabbat. We need not worry. Help was coming. It turned out that the man was a Zionist and knew about illegal immigration. He brought us to a hotel and arranged a place to sleep.

According to Austrian law, we should have gone to the police station to report that we had smuggled ourselves across the border. We would have been fined and that would have been the end of it. However, our situation was unusual. We had no documents since our friends in Brin took them away from us. They thought that if we would be caught it would be better not to have any documents whatsoever. They promised to send us the documents care of the Palestine Amt Office in Vienna. We waited over a week. We telephoned and were told they had been mailed. We figured that the documents were lost and we decided to report to the police without them. We hoped things would work out.

We came and told them that we had crossed the border and that we had no documents. We were put in central prison for 12 days. A lawyer called Finkelstein was asked to defend us. He succeeded in freeing us. We were given one week to leave Austria.

We managed to organize all the formalities and we obtained a visa. We left Vienna and arrived in Trieste. We boarded a ship on the eve of Rosh Hashana 1929. We had neither cabin nor food. We slept on deck and we ate whatever we had brought with us. The days and nights were warm and we did not suffer from the cold. On Friday, the eve of Shabbat Shuvah - the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - we landed in the port of Jaffa. We were accompanied by a police guard since the country was not calm yet after the massacres of 1929. This is how I immigrated to Eretz Israel.

[Page 185]

The Rioters of Petlura in Our Town

Aharon Lifshitz (Ramat Gan)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

One week before Hanukah in 1918, I accompanied my father to the train. He was going to Zhitomir. When we reached the station, during twilight hours, the stationmaster advised us to return home. He told us to hide there all night since a train full of Petlura's rioters had reached Olevsk. The rioters attacked Jews.

At 10:00P.M. we heard the wheels of the train approaching the station. A few minutes later we were overcome by screams and shouts of the wild mob. My father's sister, Mushka Grinshpan and her husband, Levi, lived across from us. They owned a grocery store. Loud bangs on the door of the Grinshpan's house frightened us. These were Petlura's rioters who came to rob the store. They stole cigarettes and candies and disappeared, shouting wildly and cursing.

The next morning, before dawn, a shot was heard. Carefully and fearfully, we opened the shutter to see what was happening in town. A neighbor came in and told us the terrible news. David Zunder, the owner of the glass factory, had just been dragged out of his house, taken to the train station and killed. We then understood the meaning of the shot we heard. It was the first Jewish casualty. There was great panic in town and all were petrified and terrified.

In spite of the danger, many Jews gathered to pay their last respects to the deceased. When they reached the lodgings of the glass factory workers, armed soldiers appeared and ordered them to disperse. All escaped and abandoned the cart with the body on the street. A little later, a few Jews, among them my father, Moshe Lifshitz and Alter Weisblat, dared approach the cart. They traveled to Osnitzek and buried the deceased properly. The widow, Batya, and her daughter, Rivka, lived in our house until they made aliyah in 1925.

One winter night we heard banging on the door. We were afraid to open, fearing the rioters. However, we heard Yiddish speech, saying: “Moshe, Moshe, open the door!” It was Binyamin Meirson. He entered, accompanied by a commander of Petlura's soldiers and another soldier. They sat at the table and the commander said that he was stationed, with his unit, at the Tomoshgorod train station. The soldiers were hungry and thirsty, but he would not let them abuse the public. However, he could not hold them back much longer. To save the Jews, he asked to be supplied with sugar, flour and other provisions.

To prepare these provisions, it was necessary to call a meeting. In those days, there was a temporary police unit. Two policemen were sent to call the Jews to our house.

There was a Polish worker called Bolik Piskovsky who worked in the glass factory. He was infamous as a thief and a criminal. When he saw the door to our house open, he entered, kissed the commander and asked him: “Why are you asking charity from the Jews? I have resources at my disposal which will scare the Jews into giving you everything they have.” As he spoke, he placed a live grenade, a revolver and a big knife on the table.

He immediately pulled the safety latch and he was ready to detonate. At the last minute, the commander grabbed the drunken Bolik's hand and shouted: “The matter is finished. Get help!” Those remaining in the room were Zvi Gilman and my sister Haya-Sarah. Gilman grabbed the killer, put him on the couch and tied his hands and feet with a towel. The commander was ready to kill him on the spot, but my mother and sister begged him not to do it in the house because it would cause retaliation from the friends of Piskovsky. He was taken away from the house and brought to the commander's car. After that, all the provisions were collected and the town was saved from the rioters.

The terrible ordeal convinced everyone that it was necessary to organize to save lives and belongings. A town committee was elected, headed by a Pole named Gortziongal. He fulfilled his task with loyalty and devotion. When the ruling powers changed, he went to the train station, met with the commander and asked him to direct any requests to the population through him. He never forgot to add: “If you intend to kill a Jew, kill me first.”

[Page 187]

The Hill Behind the Bridge

Shmaryahu Kravi (Korobochka) (Herzliah)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

It is spring. The sun is just emerging from the misty skies and sending its rays to the green fields lying all around. Here and there, puddles glisten as if they were forgotten after the last rain. They reflect the sunrays. The colorful flowers add a special beauty to the greenery. One can see young children collecting flowers to bring home.

In those days, the river overflowed. It meanders and crosses the grass covering the hills. The hills are under a strong steel bridge. The partitions on both sides direct the speeding train going from Sarny to Ostoki. The area shepherds direct the cows of the town residents. Their loud whistles interrupt the quiet of the morning and their shouts wake up the dogs. Their barking is swallowed in the rest of the sounds and completes the excitement of the morning.

Young men and women, dressed in their uniforms of gray shirts and colored ties, begin to appear next to the train tracks. They are organized according to movement unit and level. The big hill on the other side of the bridge was part of the still of the night only a few minutes earlier. Suddenly, it is full of life and youthful happiness. It is Saturday. Hashomer Hatzair of Rokitno has chosen this day to hold its general roundup in the heart of nature. There is no better place than these wide areas among the green trees on the hill.

One by one they arrive. They come in groups, knapsacks on the back and regimental flags in the hand. Their singing and youthful laughter are heard far away. The units stand in pre-arranged groups. The leaders are presented to the commander, Michael Berezovsky, nicknamed Misha. The song “Anu Olim” bursts and fills the air. It can be heard beyond the hill. The festive occasion and the feeling of sanctity fill the entire camp with trepidation.

The presentation has ended. The boys and girls disperse in groups. Each one is in his own special area and every group decides its agenda. It was prepared ahead of time. “The sparrows," one of the groups, organized games. The children skip and jump around their counselor. The cubs and scouts organize scouting activities. The senior group meets away from the others to discuss important matters.

Even the sun does not stay in place. It rises and reaches the center of the sky. Many Polish youngsters, on school vacation, also gather and follow our activities with curiosity. The presentation itself brings a feeling of respect. The title “Jewish Scouts” stops the Polish youngsters from provoking us. They do not dare interrupt the presentation and to fling their usual insults at groups or individuals. They know that this Jewish group will give back more than they got.

Many of the town youngsters were excited about life. They enjoyed the holidays completely. All of them, without exception, found great relief in nature far away from town. Early on, these youngsters had strong ties to nature and to everything in it.

Railroad Track Over The Bridge

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When the official part ends, the youngsters go into separate groups. Some pick flowers to bring home to their parents, to appease them. Some go for a dip in the cool waters of the river. Others go to be alone with their boy or girl friends. They are then called back to join the circle dances in the clearing.

Today, I think back and remember the not so distant past. These were days spent in the movement, learning, playing sports, loving Zion and wishing to become pioneers. I see continuity between these days and the darkest days in our history, when the image of man was kept still alive. The Rokitno youngsters became counselors and leaders in the exile in the Soviet Union. Even there they were not swept up by the filthy stream. They did not forget what they learned in their childhood and they never looked for the easy way out. They always chose to do whatever helped the collective war effort against the Nazi beast.

Hashomer Hatzair Branch In 1935 At One Of Its Activities On The Hill Behind The Bridge

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They were among the first to find a secret way to their homeland. They endangered their lives by crossing borders and bypassing guards, in forests, behind enemy lines, with the partisans. They showed unbelievable courage by taking an active part in defeating the enemy. These youngsters also were involved, day and night, in smuggling the survivors of the Holocaust.

It is not by accident that hundreds of our town folk streamed to the homeland and they were not, as were others, drawn to other developed countries. In the modern “departure from Egypt” there were many young men and women who were nurtured in the Tarbut school and the youth movements. They revived the survivors from Rokitno and brought them to safety.

[Page 190]

Eight Oaks Grew in Our Yard

Hagai Baum (Natanya)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

In memory of David Baum

The trees grew before I was born and before Rokitno became a town. They were not single trees then. The area was full of forests. Rokitno slowly became a town, when it was subdivided and fenced in. Houses were built and the forest was cut down. Trees were left here and there, among them the eight trees in our yard.

There were Jews in Rokitno and the children had to be educated. The parents arranged for a cheder and a Talmud Torah. As Rokitno developed quickly, the Jews thought that this was not enough and decided to found a progressive secular school. This is how the Tarbut school came into being. It did not yet have its own building. The school was housed in several rented locations and the classes were scattered. Several active people dedicated themselves to the collecting of funds needed to construct the school building. The Jews of Rokitno responded positively and with dedication. This was an important project and each one gave according to his ability. The committee assessed those who were wealthier.

Although my father was busy managing his shop, he was a lover of nature. In summer, he worked lovingly in our vegetable garden. There were also eight trees that were cherished by him. It was a beautiful place. All the children in the area enjoyed it too. The bravest among them climbed on the trees and performed acrobatics. The less adventurous stood beneath and admired their friends. They caught the acorns thrown to them. Somehow, they felt togetherness with their antics.

The collection for the school building was announced. One evening, the committee members came to my father for his contribution. He donated four trees for the construction. The trees were transported for storage. I cried bitter tears when they were cut down. I mourned them as one mourns a living person. All the neighborhood children, who spent many hours playing near them, joined me.

We were happy that the trees were not used for heating purposes, but were taken for a noble purpose. There was an announcement in school that one morning all the pupils were to help heap sand before the floors were finished. All the pupils came to help. I remember, when I was still small, that I made plans with my friend Baruch Shuber, to walk together on that day. We arose early and we went to the building to pile sand. We had no tools. We used broken pieces of wood to move the sand. At 8 A.M. most of the other pupils arrived with their teachers and began to work with youthful enthusiasm.

The remaining four trees in our yard served as the foundation for the new Polish elementary school building. Some of the Jewish children in Rokitno attended the school.

[Page 191]

Memories of a Rokitno Communist

Yosef Gendelman (Givatayim)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The Communist party in Rokitno was founded around 1925. It was not a very large party, but it made its presence felt. The main reason for founding the party in our town was the miserable status of the laborers and tradesmen. They worked 10 - 12 hours a day for little pay and no one took up their cause.

We began to organize these workers. We explained to them that their situation was not carved in stone. It could be changed if they would realize it and stand up for their rights. Workers' strikes broke out after these organizing activities. They demanded better pay. The employers did not, of course, remain silent after these activities. Police involvement followed. They tried to suppress the activities of our party.

In 1930, the Polish police in Rokitno executed numerous arrests of members of the Communist party and its followers. I, too, was arrested. We were held for two months by the police in its cellars until the end of the investigation. We were then transferred to a prison in Rovno. We waited for two years until the trial. Seventy people from the area were placed on trial. Very few were released. The judgment was quite severe. We were sentenced to 6 to 12 years.

After the court decision, we were transferred to Shedlitz. We sat in jail for 6 months and then we were moved to Drohovitz. We stayed there in jail for a year.
In that jail we “dared” ask for human rights and political privileges. For this “daring” we were exiled to the fortress of Swiety Krzyz (Holy Cross) near Kelc. It was one of the worst prisons in Poland. It was carved into a mountainside more than 600 years ago. It was first used as a holy mosque. It was then turned into a secular prison for political prisoners. The walls were built with gable stones, over 3 meters thick.

Conditions were very poor. We slept on a stone floor and the cold penetrated every part of the body. At night we were ordered to undress down to our shirts. It was a surefire way to impede our escape. Every night, at 7:00 P.M., there was roll call. The windows were open and we stood barefoot on the cold floor for one whole hour.
I sat in jail for 5 years, from 1934 to 1939. Two other Jewish Communists from Rokitno were with me. In 1939, we were moved eastward out of the prison. We were bound in chains, hungry, sick and weak. It was a convoy of 1500 prisoners. Anyone who complained that walking was difficult was shot on the spot. We walked for ten consecutive days. On the 17th of September 1939, we reached Kovel. The Soviet army had, by then, crossed the border and arrived in Kovel. As it entered the town, the prison doors of Kovel were opened and we were liberated.

I immediately returned to Rokitno. It was already in the hands of the Soviet army. On the strength of my rights as a veteran Communist and a loyalist to Communism, I became a member of the town council. From an economic point of view, as well as a municipal one, we did our best to prevent any wrong to be done to the Jews of Rokitno.

[Page 192]

The Torture Cellar in the Palace

Yosef Segal (Givatayim)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Since it was a border town, the Polish authorities built army barracks in Rokitno. It was in open area, at the end of Poniatovsky Street. The border patrol, consisting of foot soldiers and cavalry, was housed there.

The authorities also founded the infamous Defansiva (secret service). It was a branch of the counter espionage of general headquarters in Warsaw. The Defansiva spied on the Soviets, fought smugglers and Soviet espionage. It was headed by officers from the permanent army units and some white Russian officers who had remained in town after World War I. In the Defansiva were all kinds of questionable types of stoolies who sold themselves for the generous funds paid. The Defansiva was housed in the palace, in the Rosenberg's park, in the shadow of the thick trees across from the train station.

The broken down palace was renovated and refurbished. The offices and interrogation rooms were on the top floor and the cellars were fitted with prisoner cells. They were turned into torture chambers.

All kinds of suspects were brought to the palace. They were interrogated and indictment papers were drawn up. They were then brought to trial in the regional courthouse in Rovno.

The palace was closely guarded inside and outside by soldiers. There was no entry allowed. During interrogations, usually held at night, the prisoners were cruelly tortured to force confessions even from the innocent. Many paid with their lives as a result of these tortures. The bodies were taken out secretly and thrown into one of the lakes near Rokitno. At night, the screams of those interrogated frightened the town residents.

In the thirties, anti-Semitism was surging in Poland and the Polish government was competing with Nazi Germany. The Defansiva in Rokitno decided to show the height of hatred and to “prove” the disloyalty of the Jews to Poland.

One summer night in 1936, before dawn, four Jews from Rokitno were taken out of their beds and thrown into the torture cellars of the Defansiva. Their homes were searched. The four were: Aharon Burd, Moshe Schwartz (Sliep), Moshe Yankel Grinshtat and Betzalel (Zalek) Kaplan. They were all well-known Zionists and honest men.

Rokitno was in turmoil. All worried about their fate and sympathized with their families. The sorrow and grief of the parents and relatives of the prisoners were boundless. The parents stood for days at the fence of the Defansiva to find out the fate of the detainees. They were not successful in finding out any details.

Some time later, the parents received the bloodied underclothing of the detainees. It was proof of their being tortured.

While the detainees were in the cellar, the members of the Defansiva made surprise nightly raids on their homes. They even emptied the water from the ritual bath in Moshe Yankel Grinshtat's yard and searched for evidence in its bottom. The four detainees were thus tortured for six months. They were finally released and exonerated by the prosecution in Rovno. There had been no proof whatsoever.

When the news of their release was heard, the Jews of Rokitno were deliriously happy. All greeted each other with “Mazal Tov." Finally, the false charges were discovered. They were accused of crossing the border to the Soviet Union, to Olevsk and of participating in a Soviet parade there. At the same time, they had pictures taken with Soviet officers and received orders to bomb the barracks in Rokitno. As proof, the Defansiva showed a “photograph” taken in Olevsk.

All the detainees withstood the torture, except for Moshe Yankel Grinshtat. He returned from prison broken in mind and body. The detainees kept silent and did not speak of the tortures they had suffered.

The sudden appearance of the Soviet army on 17.9.1939 was a surprise to the members of the Defansiva. They did not have time to destroy their files. They feared capture by the Soviets and they left Rokitno in haste, fleeing westward. All the files and materials were transferred to the Soviet authorities.

The building then served the Soviets and the Germans when they were in our town - for the same purpose as it served the Poles.

[Page 195]

I Made Aliyah on the Eve of the Holocaust

Sarah Yasmin (Schwartzblat) (Haifa)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

I was a young girl when I saw that the Polish friends, who only yesterday ate and drank at our table and toasted our health, suddenly changed. They showed their anti-Semitism. It was the first warning that difficult days lay ahead.

I always dreamed of making aliyah and the change of atmosphere hastened my decision to do so. These were days when aliyah was limited by the White Paper. I decided, therefore, to join the aliyah group organized in Warsaw by the Revisionists.

I was on my way on February 21, 1939. I went with Syoma Eidelman and Modrik. We left town secretly. Although all was done in secret, many people came to the train station to say good-bye. I was very excited and afraid that I was seeing my dear ones for the last time.

I went to Warsaw. As I was walking through the city, I saw many anti-Semitic attacks and I thought the ground was going to swallow me. From Warsaw we went to Sniatin. We traveled silently all night in a darkened train car. No one spoke. Our only baggage was backpacks, a Hebrew-Polish dictionary and some addresses of our former town people in Eretz Israel. Our passports included visas for San Domingo. We reached Constanza and we boarded a rickety freight ship meant to carry cattle. We hid under the decks so the British would not see that human beings were on board. As luck would have it, the ship had already been in Eretz Israel and had been photographed by the British. The captain refused to set sail. Four days later, another ship, called “Kafu” arrived. It took our 700 people and set sail on the open seas.

When we were in mid-sea, we were permitted to go on deck to get fresh air. The sanitary conditions were very poor. Two weeks later, there was little food and water. Every morning we had to line up to receive our food and water rations. A few days later, there was no fresh water left and we drank seawater.

It took us three weeks. Once we woke up at night, petrified, because we had been flooded. We were ordered to go on deck and to get into the lifeboats. The ship hit a sandbank near Crete and was beginning to sink. We were forced to leave our meager belongings and we went on the island with nothing. The rescue activities continued feverishly. There were doctors among us and they took care of those who fainted from weakness and terror.

We remained on the cold cement of the lighthouse on Crete watching the ship sink in front of our eyes. The immigrants looked awful. Women and children were crying bitterly. Everyone asked: “What is waiting for us?” We stayed two days on the island and the local residents brought us food and water. We waited in fear for what was coming. We signaled SOS for help. Two days later, an immigrant ship called Katina approached the shore. It had been on the seas for 7 weeks and had close to 1000 immigrants from Germany, Austria, the Balkan countries and Poland. It took us in.

The conditions on Kafu had been primitive, but enough to bring us to safety. This new ship had unbearable conditions. We slept under the docks, squashed like sardines. We could move neither arm nor foot. Our daily rations consisted of lice, filth, lack of food and water, futile fights.

Our chances to reach Eretz Israel were dim. Several times we neared the shore, but we were forced to retreat. The British airplanes photographed the ship and followed it. One dark night, we were told to be prepared to disembark. We approached the port of Natanya one cold night in March. The ship docked about 20 meters from shore. Women and children were the first to disembark. Young men from Haganah swam over and put a woman or a child on their backs. We swam in stormy waters. When we reached land, we walked cautiously into a packing house in an orange grove. We waited there till morning, wet and very hungry.

As soon as the women and children managed to reach the shore, a British airplane appeared in the sky. It noticed the ship and forced it, with the men still aboard, to sail back into the sea. The women and children remained on shore while the husbands and fathers sailed to unknown places.

In the morning, representatives of the Jewish Agency came to the orange grove. They distributed buttered rolls and oranges. We were worn out, dirty and hungry and we did not know our fate. Still, we breathed a sigh of relief because we were in our homeland.

What happened to the ship and the men? The ship came close to land several times. It was finally caught by the British and towed to the port of Haifa. All aboard were arrested and placed in Atlit prison. A mass demonstration was organized in Haifa to insist on their release. I, too, joined the demonstration. It was not successful and the Jewish Agency had to use up official certificates of entry for all the immigrants. These certificates were subtracted from the original schedule. All the prisoners were released.

The story of the ship even reached Rokitno. It was reported on the radio that the ship had sunk with all its passengers. Our home was in mourning. However, when they discovered that I was saved, there was much jubilation in our house.

Although the suffering was great and the trip was fraught with danger, I was very sorry that only a few were, in this way, saved from the Holocaust.

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