In the Burning Synagogue September 8th 1939, Govorovo. On that Friday when the men were taken away to a certain destination, as the saying went, we returned home from the market place and went down to the cellar. Throughout the night we heard the rhythmic bursts of firing, as by command. Then the firing ceased, as planned, and instead came the loudspeakers that blared out with a blood-curdling voice: Not to come out! Nobody comes out! Whoever shows himself outside will be shot on the spot!
Next morning, Sabbath, new orders from the loudspeakers: To the synagogue! We were given a short time to reach the synagogue and everybody hurried and hustled in panic. On the square in front of the synagogue the executioners were standing and ordered us to throw jewelry, money and other valuables on the blankets they had spread out. Quickly, hurry, throw your things down and pronto! To the synagogue!
I hesitated but I saw how they treated anybody who kept back. They killed them, cutting off fingers with the daggers they held. So I ran and threw my rings down that was all I had with me. At the entrance a very old Jew was sitting with bags full of Hallah (Sabbath bread) handing them out, one to each person. I couldn't take mine, as I was busy taking off my rings I didn't want to have my fingers cut off. I was one of the last because of an accident that happened to me a fateful one.
In front of the synagogue a Nazi got hold of my little boy, Moishele, searched his pockets and found pictures of the King of England which my husband had stuffed in them as a souvenir. The Nazi became furious and tore the pictures to little pieces, which he scattered to the wind. He seized Moishele and shouted: Your cursed Hore Belisha (at the time secretary of the army in Britain, a Jew), Hands up! The child was frightened by the shouting he couldn't understand the words. He hugged my legs with his little hands and sobbed: Mummy, don't let them shoot me! I began to cry and to beseech the German not to kill my little boy. He refused, so I entreated him to kill first me and my baby and then him. Yes, he said gladly, but first that little cur and then you two. He drew his revolver and told me to push Moishele aside. Just then I saw the ring on his finger and said: Now you murder my child, next someone will come and murder yours. It worked. His hand dropped; he inclined his head and asked me in embarrassment: How do you know that I have a son, that I'm married at all? I explained and he sighed: My poor Hans, yea, poor Hans! And then with a hysterical cry he added: So now, you shall all be murdered anyway.
At the appointed hour sharp the doors were closed and a hail of shots fired outside told us what was happening to those who had not managed to squeeze in time. Inside the synagogue thousands of Jews were packed together, old people, women and babies. They had come from Mishnitz, Dlugoshlodlo, Ostrolenka and other townships. The house, which was built for a few hundred people, was now filled with thousands of miserable human beings.
On the way to the synagogue the Germans had shot babies in their mothers' arms. When entering, the mothers put their dead little ones on the ground, to the left of the entrance. One did so, and those ho followed did the same. Some twenty murdered babies were thus lying there, their mothers bending over them, wringing their hands, tearing their hair and their faces and wailing. The sight of these little ones riddled with bullets and of their crying mothers shook the people, who, before, had been as if numb, going as sheep to the slaughter and everybody began to shout with a voice that shook the walls. Many were seized with hysterics and suddenly when the shouting died, a mad kind of laughter was heard. I only remember how giddy I was and how I pressed my baby against my own body until it ached. I didn't react to what was going on around me. I only kept close to the window above me, so that my baby might have fresh air to breathe.
Meanwhile the atmosphere in the crowded house became stifling hot. I looked out of the window and saw clouds of smoke billow and come nearer. It was Grey with a rosy tinge. I awoke from my trauma and told my father: If I'm right there never was a garden here, how come now that there are trees? He looked out. Later on he told me that he thought I must have gone mad and didn't answer. And then suddenly, he shouted: Yiden (Jews), we are aflame! The idea occurred to others too and cries of undress were heard from every corner. It was a horrible thing, a ghoulish sight. In that press hands were raised, elbows moved, shorts were thrown off and within minutes we were a welter of entirely naked human bodies waiting for the flames approaching inexorably.
Another moment and the fire, that was raging all over the town, would consume us too. Red tongues could already be seen from the windows. When the doors had been shut, Nazi stormtroopers in their camouflage dress, with revolvers ready, had been watching the windows telling us with sadistic glee that the town was burning and asking us whether we were warm enough. Now we couldn't see them any more. They had withdrawn a little.
At the window a light breeze was felt. There I stood with the baby in my arms; Moishele, four-and-half years old, clinging to my leg, and next to me my father with my nephew in his arms. I couldn't see my mother, who was standing next to her 103-year-old grandmother. Later I saw her. Great-grandmother had refused to undress, shouting: If I am privileged now to be burnt for my Jewishness, then, at my age, I want to burn wrapped in the scrolls of the holy Tora!
She walked with sure steps to the Tora-shrine and men who had followed her complied with her wish. They took out a scroll and wrapped it round her. Thus shrouded, and unable to move any more they bore her down, and deposited her on the floor. Higher up, the heat had already become unbearable.
That very moment I heard the noise of a motor. I looked out and saw a high-ranking German officer jump out of his car. He approached the window, smiled and then told his men: Throw them out. It's too soon yet! And with a significant gesture towards the throat he added: They'll be slaughtered anyway. But not now not yet! Immediately his subordinates opened the doors.
Then everybody rushed out into the open pushing and tumbling over each other. Thousands had to rush out of that single gate and they trampled underfoot some of those who had been lying on the floor, fainting from the heat. They too were victims of the Holocaust, poor human beings, done to death by their nearest and dearest in their mad rush for life. The flames, that burned the synagogue to the ground, consumed them too.
Somebody was shouting: Now they'll shoot us! Don't run in a straight line, evade the bullets! And mad as they were, people obeyed and began to zig-zag and jump in all directions. I shall never forget the fiendish sight of our people running about thus ridiculously, hitting each other and separating, as if part of a mad dance in Bedlam.
We had forgotten that our great-grandma was left inside, bound up as she had demanded but now we could hear her crying from the burning house: Nesha! Why have you left me? Nesha! Help me!
She was fully conscious and had the will to be rescued and live. She tried to get out by herself but near the door she fell down and was unable to rise. Jacob Pokshivka found her. When he heard her cries, he went back into the fire, lifted her in his arms and carried her out.
Who can count these small feats of heroism? For such they were. Outside we found her with the scrolls she had been wrapped in singed. She was unable to hold her head up. We had rescued her and hadn't. For three weeks we carried her with us on our wanderings. She was badly burned and unconscious. On the 30th September this pure soul breathed her last. We buried her in the Jewish cemetery at Makov.
In spite of all this people ran, overcame the barriers and were saved. They continued to run, often without knowing where. I didn't know the direction. I hadn't been to Govorovo before and had no idea where to turn. In front of me I saw a big flour-mill and there I went maybe I could find a place there, where our family could hide; maybe I could even find a little grain or flour.
A number of people from Rozhan had gathered at the mill. They recognized me and made room for me in the barn, apparently out of consideration for the little children and our grandmother. We lay down to rest, not knowing what the next day would bring. In the morning we went out to find some grain or roots to feed the hungry children. The mill belonged to a Jew but it was empty and swept clean. We scratched the courtyard and every corner between the buildings; we ran about like famished animals but in vain.
A few days later an S.S. man entered the barn and announced that next day the mill would he operated and food would be distributed. Everybody went out into the courtyard, as everybody wanted to be first. I didn't go out but tried to hide. I had recognized the German; it was the same one, who had mistreated my little Moishele - and he recognized me too in spite of the darkness in the barn. He approached me - I was trembling - and he said in a low voice "Before operating the mill we shall open the store and distribute some grain, flour and groats. Have bags ready for yourself and for the kid." I told the miller and he gave me some bags and the next day we got some precious victuals.
And then the German turned up again and wanted to see me. I had the impression that he was at odds with himself. One day he repented of what he had done to the child and the next day he was angry with himself for having been merciful. I didn't want to see him. When people told him I had gone he said he'd wait for me to come back, and he did so. The situation became uneasy; people got nervous and began to shout they'd drag me out of my hideout as there was no other way to get rid of him, and there was no telling what would happen because of the airs I was giving myself.
So I agreed to come out. I bade my mother farewell, leaving Moishele in her care. The baby I took with me. I was sure we'd never come back. My mother cried. I hugged her and my boy and began to weep myself. The German decided to put an end to the scene. Impatiently he stepped between me and my mother and commanded "Straight behind me."
He walked briskly and angrily and I followed him with the baby in my arms. At a distance I could see a windmill and some hovels - a hamlet. The teacher, Henrietta Rosenblatt, peeped out of one of the hovels. She embraced me and wept over our fate. The German scolded her and threatened to shoot. I managed to say to her "Keep away from me. It's dangerous. But I have a wish: look out of the window, so you can tell my family, and my husband if he's still alive, where I have fallen." We embraced and I left. When we were past the hamlet he told me to stop. I stood still. Then he turned round, took out a little package which he had under his tunic and said "That's for the boy, but nobody must know." And therewith he went away. I stayed there in order to nurse my baby. Henrietta Rosenblatt called: "I have no milk for my little daughter and she'll surely die, but yours shall live to pay them back."
Suddenly the German came back. I decided to follow him as I didn't know my way. An undamaged house was standing by the roadside. It was abandoned and in the upper store there was a pharmacy and we went in. There was a clothes closet and he told me to choose whatever I wanted for the boy. I refused, explaining if the Poles came back, they'd say the Jews had robbed them. I had to be careful. There were babies' bottles on one of the shelves and I took two of them with the lids. Just then he saw a ball lying on the ground, picked it up and said: "That's for the boy. Let him play with it." I said "He's not in the mood for playing," but I thanked him and returned to our barn. When my mother saw me alive, she fainted. She had never expected to see me again.
The next day he was back. We felt assured now. He called me out and led me to a lane between the peasants' houses, entered one of them and told the peasant woman to let me have a kilo of tomatoes every day. "And let her also pick the baked apples and pears from the burned trees."
I was never to see him again. Nevertheless I went to see the peasant woman; she told me her name, Zalevska, and declared she was ready to help me of her own accord. I answered: I was afraid to disobey the German that's why I came. But I'll take no more than two tomatoes. Never fear, I shall not tell him if he comes'."
A week later we moved to Makov.
Makov was as yet untouched, but the Jews lived with the presentiment of the disaster that was looming over them and had not yet reached them. That determined their attitude. We were like a living warning of the horrors they would not be spared. There were no hard feelings - on the contrary they behaved like brothers and brought us, each as he was able, blankets and sheets, coats and other garments to cover our nakedness. When we entered the town they made us at home.
For two weeks we stayed at Makov. The Germans were putting carts at the disposal of the Jews and urged them to cross over to the Russian side. They tried to persuade the Jews to organize in-groups for emigration. But the Jews somehow did not respond. They believed that here, where they and their forefathers had been born, they might suffer a little, fear a little, lose property and even their lives - not too many - but in the end, after the nightmare, Jewish life would be resumed as before. Not so in Russia, where religion had been banned for twenty years now. Jews collected money, bribed, paid fines and did whatever could be done with money - and stayed. Others did leave, packed their belongings and began to move, but came back at once. They couldn't bear the hardships of migration, while their families, friends and relations stayed at home, waiting for better days.
One day I heard that my husband, Pessah, was alive. A blacksmith from Rozhan, a man who had neither feelings nor mercy, brought me the message, but would not reveal to me his whereabouts, nor even hint where he had seen him. From his way of talking I guessed that for money he might have told me the secret. Yet I was able to detect a clue: incidentally he mentioned where he had come from and I decided to search for Pessah in that direction.
It was however difficult to obtain a cart and I needed somebody to share the expense. So I waited, but when the Germans demanded their third "contribution" I thought: rather hire a cart and go than hand the money over to them. I went together with the blacksmith. He accompanied me to Ostrov and on the way tried to convince me that I wouldn't find my husband unless he helped me. When he saw that I didn't care for his advice, he left us and vanished. I couldn't bear the expense alone and didn't know what to do. It was fairly obvious that I had to go in the direction of Zambrov, but the road there was in poor condition. Five in the afternoon was the curfew hour and what if we became stranded in the fields, with two little children in the cold of the night?
So I stayed overnight in the slaughterhouse at Ostrov. God knows how my little baby 41/2 month old lived through that night without bedding or cover. At 6 in the morning, before dawn, I went to ask for the road to the Russian zone. No Jew was about. I met only a Pole and he told me.
Suddenly somebody called: "Auntie Mindele" It was my nephew, Juda'le, my brother Meir-Shlomo's son. The first thing I saw was his swollen legs. By him stood his stepmother with her five children. A terrible thought overwhelmed me and I asked: "Juda'le, where's your daddy, my brother?" "Gone, all killed. They shot my father at Pultusk." And then "I want to go with you. I turned to my sister-in-law: "Rivka, take the children and let's go." We found a Jewish driver with two worn-out horses and set out for the Russian border in the direction of Zambrov. In addition to the human freight we took with us old kitchenware, broken pots and rags as a precaution against the Germans. Rumour had it that they let people pass, when they saw such "treasures," while they would rob or even kill those who looked wealthy.
We wended our way slowly. The road was full of miserable migrants, Jews who tried to escape with the remnant of their energies looking for a haven of rest. A light one horse vehicle passed us and everybody made room for it, as if it was Germans, but I recognized Ida and wanted to talk to her - but she warned us not to come near : "Typhoid," she said. I only managed to call after her: "If you meet my husband, tell him I'm coming. Let him stay and wait for us."
A little later the Germans caught up with us. They made us descend, took the driver and his team and left - what could we do? Continue on foot.
It was a toilsome day and dangerous too, but in the end I reached Simova, worn out and half fainting. As it happened, our driver had met Pessah and told him of our arrival and so we met.
It was impossible for us to stay at Zambrov as the little town was swamped with refugees; so we moved to Bialystok and later to the neighbouring town of Ignatievko, where we met more people from Rozhan. The talk was of the great migration into the depth of Russia that lay ahead, the parting, for a long time, from the surroundings that were ours - that had been ours.
It was said that this was a one-way road and that, therefore, one should go back and fetch whatever possible of the possessions we had left behind - as "there" it would be unobtainable. Nearly everybody spoke of taking the risk, going back to the German side, to save what could be saved and then return and continue where fate would lead us.
I worried about my parents and other relations whom we had left at Makov. One day I got up, nursed my baby, dressed as for a journey (we had managed to earn some money and to buy ourselves winter clothes) and told my husband I was going to Makov to rescue my parents without whom I couldn't live. Pessah wondered how I dared to go back to the Germans, what would happen to the children? And above all - another parting. Yet in the end he agreed. So I took some money with me and left. I had planned to join with a number of people from Rozhan but, when everything was ready, they told me they wouldn't take me as a woman: "There were so many obstacles on the way it would be necessary to run, to sleep in hideouts off the road and to move by night: that's no woman's job." I replied: "My errand is a 'good work' (Mitzvah) and as you know God protects those who go on such errands and no harm comes to them." In the end they had to take me and, as it happened, I was a better walker than the men. I passed swamps and rivulets and was able to run and to move easily. We arrived near Makov after a day and a night and hid in a little copse outside the town. From there we ran out singly after intent watching of the German guards. When I entered my parents' house my mother nearly fainted and her first words were "How are the children? Has anything happened?" Next day we hired a cart together with some other refugees. I took my parents and my six year old nephew Itzik'l, son of my brother who couldn't leave Makov. Again we had to move in secret. Again there was danger, but I was adamant in my resolution to escape from that hell end to stay together.
When we reached the village of Shlon near Ostrolenka, some Poles betrayed us. They sent a boy of theirs to fetch the Germans and to deliver us into their hands. In the meanwhile they surrounded us lest we slip off. They were rejoicing at the idea of seeing Jewish blood. The others, refugees from Wlotzlavek and Plotzk, got away and only I and those I had rescued were left as prisoners in their hands. They robbed us, took our garments and handed us over to the Germans, who first of all beat us up and then searched us thoroughly and took whatever they found. I had nothing left but a heavy heart. I had not rescued my parents, had abandoned my children, as a burden, which my husband would have to carry, and which might make it impossible for him to reach safety.
I was terribly downcast and near despair, but then, as always, help came from some unexpected quarter. In all that hubbub and turmoil I observed one Nazi, who didn't touch my parents nor beat me and my nephew. So I approached him in a propitious moment - as it seemed to me, and said "You see, they have taken away everything - what can we do now? Why have they done this to us?" He listened intently and asked who robbed us. I said "Those Polish swine. Go, take, from them what you like and keep it, but help us." Meanwhile my parents had second thoughts. They were tired of their wanderings and couldn't go any more. They wanted to go back to Makov, to die in the midst of Jews and to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The German didn't understand what they were saying, so I explained: "Please, air, take my parents to Makov. The cart I hired is at your disposal, and let me go and for that may God requite you. May you come through this war safe and sound and return home." That blessing apparently did it and he said firmly: "Yes, I'll do that." I had a loaf of bread, which I broke in two, giving my parents one half and so we parted. I had rather not say much about this parting from my parents. To this day it pains me to think of it. It was a moment of terrible tension between doubts and decision, despair and recovery. Where was my duty? With those to whom I must return or to those I did not want to leave behind?
The German was as good as his word. In the letters I still got from them, my parents told me that he had forced the Pole to give up all the stolen property and restored it to them; that he had given him orders to bring them back to Makov and to submit to him a written statement signed by them, confirming the fact - or else he would shoot him.
So they went back to Makov and I remained with Itzik'l and with Hannah Golovinski. They took us both to the "Kommandantur" (Military administration) and had us whitewash and clean the whole building. When we had finished, one of the Germans said: "So they have done their job. Now let's finish them off."
I was entirely listless. I had a feeling as if I had caused my parents' death. During the three weeks I spent with the Germans I wrote to Makov and never got an answer. I regretted the whole operation I had originated and which had led to such disastrous consequences. I didn't care whether they'd murder me or not. But my poor companion broke down. Those were terrible moments, when we thought that our lives were at an end. But here again, the Good German who had helped my parents interfered and said "Why bother with the corpses? Why soil the whole place? Leave them to me. I'll take them out to the forest and there I'll do them in - and nobody will be any the wiser."
Wonderful idea! He took us to the forest, drew his revolver and fired twice in the air - a shot for each of us and then a third for the child, who hugged me in fear. Then he turned to the boy, and whispered in his ear: "Don't be afraid - I'm not going to kill you. In my city of Lodz I worked with Jews all my life and I have nothing against you. What I did was only in order to rescue you." The child was reassured, although he couldn't understand the words. Something in the expression of the man won his confidence The German wanted the matter to be brought to a speedy conclusion, so he went with us and showed us the Russian border which was quite near. He showed us a windmill on the horizon and said that it was already on Russian soil. "But," he warned, "don't go now. Wait until midnight, when they change the guard. Then drop down on the ground, where the slope is and crawl down to safety." With that he went. We knew he really wanted to help us. So we did as he had advised us, although it was by no means easy. The night grew colder and we would have liked to have a roof over our heads. The child was trembling and wanted to cry, but I wouldn't let him. I told him the Russians would hand us back to the Nazis, if they heard him and detected us. He understood this and swallowed his tears in spite of the severe cold that froze the marrow in his bones, as in ours.
At dawn the new guard came and the man who had caught us, ordered us to follow him to the German border, i.e. to hand us back to the Nazis. This we wouldn't do, so he had to bring us to his command post in the village. That was a long stable building where they were investigating those who had been caught, to find out whether they were spies. I refused to go in for fear that they arrest us and we'd never get out. The soldier cursed, but I didn't yield. Meanwhile we approached the stable and I could hear voices within. I could make out that they were investigating. I pinched the child, as now I wanted him to cry and to draw attention away from the soldier. I squeezed his leg and yet he wouldn't cry, remembering what I had told him before. Just then the door opened and someone - a commissar apparently - came out. Now I began to cry. He asked what was the matter; called me in. I told him that the sentinel who caught me suspected me of being German, but that I was a local inhabitant. Meanwhile I showed him the little pump I had taken with me to extract my milk while I was not nursing. He told me to wait. I sat down and immediately heard shouting within: "Magnushever is here. Magnushever's daughter." I gathered that people from Rozhan must be there and entered. I asked him, entreated him to let me go back to my baby son, who would be hungry - to no avail. His answer was: "Wait. I'll be back in two hours." When he left the people burst into hysterical laughter, the laughter of despair. I knew the joke was on me, because of my simplicity. Two hours indeed! He would appear once a week and until that time people might starve, waiting to be investigated. Yet, two hours later a bell rang and he appeared. People thronged to be first in line, but he cleared them away, sat down and called for me, because of the baby. Very soon it came out that he had taken me first because he thought me dangerous. The investigation was awful. He spoke as an all-powerful ruler and he was suspicious. He understood that I was spying for the Nazis. He might send me back to them immediately. He might also kill me on the spot without formalities. He'd find out the truth by himself - that was very easy for him, but I had better confess freely. It would be best for me to confess all my sins and to repent etc. etc. And after each sentence a threat to kill me in cold blood or to send me back to the Nazi border. Whatever I said was in vain. I said I had wanted to see the Polish woman, with whom I had left my baby's clothes. Nothing would impress him until I remembered that I had voted for annexation at Bialystok and it could be proven. He could call Bialystok, Killinsky 21 and find out. The wireless indeed saved me. They checked the voters' list and found my name - I was free.
Now my wish was granted. I was given a cart to Lomza and a certificate. "Spravka" in Russian, to the effect that I had been investigated. This was because I knew that at Mistkova there was another border control and I might get into more trouble. The Spravka proved very useful as, at Mistkova, they stopped me again. At Lomza I stopped at the home of Hannah's parents. When I reached the house I had a fit of hysterics. I was overtired and overwrought from the Investigation. I could understand the man. He only did his job, but to me it was the last straw and I broke down. When I was a little rested they gave me some money and I went on to Bialystok where I found my family beyond despair. Pessah had "heard" that I'd been killed at the border, near Malkin.
Now I also experienced the most painful thing that can happen to a nursing mother. My child absolutely refused his mother's milk. I had become a stranger to him. Pessah, who held him, handed him to me but he protested. In the end he began to smile, made his peace and accepted me again.
After all, we had been separated for three long weeks, and it had been a hard time indeed. So I rescued my child and my brother's child, but not my parents.
The choice of events related may be haphazard but I think they should be sufficient to startle people all over the world and to serve as a warning for the Jews against another possible tragedy. A tragedy which overtook us because we were living in exile among strangers. Jews living in a world of Gentiles should remember this.
When the War Broke Out When the war broke out I lived not in Rozhan, but in Warsaw with my husband and son. We were both working, he as a teacher and I at the W.I.Z.O. center without pay; we were happy with our child who was growing up nicely and made excellent progress at school. The war brought all this to an abrupt end. Our world was shattered and in ruins. We were awestruck, couldn't accustom ourselves to the terrible reality, although for years we had been conscious of the darkness that was casting its shadow before it. And then, all at once, it happened: Alarms, bombing and all clear you could hear people shouting "They're here! They've passed!" As the planes were approaching and dropping their bombs, you had to run for shelter and then come out again. Our apartment was on the fourth floor. At the first attack we took shelter in the basement. Next to it was the basement of the neighbouring house, and there, too, people were hiding. Through the wall we could hear their noises - the same as ours. The all clear was sounded, but we all stayed in the shelter overnight. In both basements there was quiet; people slept. Next morning we heard that 22 people had been killed in the basement next door and we had not been aware of it.
I, too, was running, i. e. the three of us. We tried to find a shelter for the night, for the next day, for another spell of time. We passed under a shower of burning amber and sparks that were flying about. We skipped over burning pieces of wood with danger on our heels until we reached Tvarda Street, where a relation of mine lived. These people were orthodox and in their small one-and-half-room apartment it was the Sabbath. A small bottle with a little wine was on the table and glasses and a Hallah (Sabbath bread) was ready for the Kiddush. It was a long time since I had seen these things. The world was in turmoil - and here they kept the Sabbath - how was that possible?
We had to spend the night with their neighbours - on the floor - and next day we went back to our own apartment, which was left unscathed. Unfortunately the people, people who had been quartered upon us did not suit us, and that made things still more uncomfortable. This was the beginning of our Calvary, but it was nothing compared with what was in store.
Meanwhile, many refugees arrived from the vicinity and they were barefoot, naked and limping. A society named "Zhitaos" was organized, a kind of welfare office instead of the "Joint" that had gone underground.
My husband, Monick Holzman became head of the clothing department. It was a difficult job: he had to persuade people to donate clothes, which, under the circumstances, had become the most important objects of barter for which one hoped to obtain some food to give the children. People were not easily induced to give up their most precious possessions for the sake of others. My husband worked in close contact with Immanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the holocaust in Poland. I remember evening assemblies, when my husband spoke on this thorny question of clothing the naked. Many indeed donated, even necessities. Those were evenings of Jewish solidarity.
As time went on the organization expanded. Cells and house committees were set up that helped with collecting the stuff. Most of these activities fell upon the women, whose circles were busy all the time. I too devoted a great deal of time to them and to this day I remember those days of doing small things with unceasing enthusiasm as one of the finest periods in my life.
One day when I came home, I didn't find my husband. I had sinister foreboding, was bewildered and didn't know where to turn. I began to run about from one friend to the other, to the office, everywhere. They tried to comfort me, but nobody could answer my urgent quest: Where Is Monick? Has anybody seen Monick? Exhausted I returned home and there I got the terrible truth. A Nazi had shot my husband in the street and I was left alone with my son. Meanwhile we were also on the move constantly. We were expelled from one house after the other; when that happened one ran, together, with total strangers, as if we had been friends for years. There was no room for questions or inquiries, there was nothing left, but to run and to arrive together. Where to? Who knows. One day we thus ran together, two women. She asked: "Where are we running?" and became part of one, as it were, in our common plight. All of a sudden - a single shot. I thought I had been hit, turned round to tell her how I felt - and here she was, behind me, sprawling on the ground, with a bullet in her head. I didn't even hear a sound from her and here I was alone again and returned home while death stalked the streets. One cannot remember it all, but some incidents impressed themselves indelibly. We had a neighbour, a rabbi's wife, a pious and delicate woman. Once she went to see her daughter, the only member of her family left alive. She met two Nazi hooligans, tried to escape, but they pursued her, caught her on a staircase, where she had tried to hide, dragged her to the courtyard fainting and killed her on the spot. I saw this scene with my own eyes, when I glimpsed from my window down into the courtyard. My good son made us a bunker in a little closet where, formerly, a housemaid used to sleep. The bunker was hidden behind a moveable cupboard and many were helped by this haven of hope. We hid there in evil moments and as soon as the imminent danger seemed over we hurried out to breathe fresh air. Once we had come out, but had to go back at once as the all-clear had been false and that entailed a double danger: everybody was squeezing into the shelter, but one neighbour had not managed to; maybe wanted to breathe fresh air for another second. We heard a shot and thought they had got him, but he came back later and had this to tell: "I didn't want to live any longer, am not going to hide any more; what I've just seen has destroyed my will to live". From his hiding place he had seen an S.S. man pursue a Jewish girl of, maybe, 18. When he caught up with her, he drew his revolver, but she began to entreat him: don't kill me! I am so young, let me live a little longer! The hooligan looked as if he were impressed and when he sheathed his revolver the girl thought she was saved; but he violated her on the spot and when he had done, he drew his weapon again and shot her before she had come to her senses. Amidst all these horrors, sufferings, grief and death, we tried to help each other. We opened a soup kitchen for the needy in the high-school building of engineer Finkel. It was the initiative of one doctor - whose name I have forgotten. He hoped to feed destitute people, whom pride or any other reason had left helpless. It's there I met the poet Isaak Katznelson during his last days. Katznelson used to lecture on the Bible in Yiddish. He gave his lecture cycle the name: "read between the lines of the Bible" or "flower-beds of the Bible". His lecture about Gideon-Jerubba'al, who kindled hope in the heart of the people and put his trust in a handful of his selected followers, made a deep impression on all his hearers, because of its topical interest. Next to Katznelson sat the Yiddish actor Jacques Levy who, at the time, was switching to Hebrew, and began to write down his impressions and the vicissitudes of his life in Hebrew. That was a most wonderful phenomenon, which Jacques himself can't explain.
During the lecture he was staring at Isaak's mouth and accompanied his words with miens and gestures as if to give a live commentary to the biblical story.
It was Jacques Levy who told me of my husband's death and gave me the details. Maybe, the people of Rozhan would like to know all this, as the teacher Holtzman was, at one time, very active in the cultural life of the town, and very popular too, but I prefer not to go back to these memories, as they are two awful. I will say only this: When Jacques Levy told me of my husband's death, Isaak Katznelson was present. Jacques spoke with great restraint, tried not to hurt me unnecessarily, and yet was deeply shaken. I knew that death was lurking every moment, that the danger was greatest for men, but the way it was done, the protracted agony to the bitter end broke me entirely. Then Issak Katznelson approached me and said: "It was not your husband, who was the target; it is a historic reckoning with our people, with an entire nation and the missiles hit us the individuals. The nation will hold its reckoning with the murderers. The survivors will revenge the victims and your husband, too. We shall wear them down. Your consolation is one with that of all the mourning Jews of Poland!"
About that time the manhunts in the ghettoes, in those death reserves, became more and more frequent.
For the Nazis it was not enough to kill, they wanted to relish the anguish of their victims. The actions were a treat to them, They would spread rumors beforehand, allow the Jews to run for shelter and Jews would, of course, run about like mad in their utter helplessness and in the end, when the victims were frightened out of their wits, they would be murdered.
One day they gathered all the members of the council of the Jewish community, carried them of and liquidated them one after the other. Among those employed at the council was also my only son, dearer to me than my own life. Now it was all over; It is my cruel lot to mourn for my son too; he died and I was left alone, a widow and childless.
It came out that I had been brought to a hiding place. The people received me well and I stayed with them for 2 days. It was obvious that we couldn't hold out long and, together with another woman I went to find some other place. We reached an abandoned poultry slaughterhouse in the passage of Nalevki No 39 corner Kopitzka. The building was burnt out and empty. One Jew who had a lot of money with him was hiding there, so the three of us stayed together. Later on I heard that the Germans had discovered the people at my former hideout and had killed them all. One day our man went out to relieve himself, was caught and we never saw him again. In the end we, too, were found out and caught. We were taken to a concentration point (Umschlagplatz) where Jews had been assembled by the tens of thousands, crowded and squeezed together, while Ukrainians were passing among them, beating right and left as they pleased. When they realized that the Jews were afraid of the blows they felt encouraged and now began to extort bribes of money and other valuables for sparing people.
The Jews were beyond despair. Many died of hunger, others lost their wits because of the horrors. Mothers with babies in their arms were running about sobbing, tearing their hair and asking leave from anybody who would listen to kill their infants for their own good. I have seen mothers choke their children with their hands and at the same time bending over them with kisses, parting from them and trying to tell them that this was the only thing left to a mother to do for her beloved. I have seen a mother, who let go her strangled child, dropped it on the ground and went raving mad, suddenly and without transition. A moment before she had been in her senses and now she began to laugh, tear her clothes, loosen her hair, smiling an idiotic smile at her surroundings.
This Umschlagplatz was the worst of all the horrors I experienced in the ghetto. So much cruelty and suffering was concentrated on such a narrow space. Worst of all was the open cesspool in the middle, where everybody had to go in the open, old and young, men and women - the feelings of shame and decency were entirely blunted - and the stench!
I have seen many horrors I shall never forget. As I grow older the memory weakens, but these things haunt me ever afresh and come to the surface; I am going to relate some of them.
When the two of us were walking away from the slaughterhouse we passed by a place with open doors so that you could look in. In one of the rooms, near the entrance, there stood a cradle with a baby in it, crying with all it's might and main. The table there was set for lunch but people had fled for their lives leaving everything behind. We were very hungry and wanted to have a mouthful, but, when we saw the abandoned child and heard its' cries we couldn't touch anything and went away. Could we do more than the mother?
In the street we met corpses sprawling or contorted, shot or with broken skulls and open bellies - small scale murders before the wholesale extermination.
Awful was what happened to my companion - the last. On the way she remembered her son, who had vanished that very day. When, suddenly, the manhunt began, they had parted, went into hiding separately, hoping to meet again. She knew approximately where he must be. It was a moonlit night. She asked me to accompany her and so we went together to look for him. Before we reached the place my companion saw the form of a boy sprawling on the ground, on his back in the moonlight; it was her son. She left him and went away. The world was empty now for her, so she could go and, as told before, we now reached the Umschlagplatz.
For two days we were kept in this hell. On the third day a train drew up and we were told to board it. Nobody knew the destination, one didn't care.
There I stood and didn't push. I didn't know how to push. I was afraid there would be no room for me to sit and waited. I wanted a place to sit. And what if not? Would I be left at this place of horrors and murder? Everybody was pushing ahead of me and I was nearly left behind. In the end I climbed up, or rather, I was pushed up. When we reached Lublin most people had been choked to death, first of all those who had climbed in first and sat on the floor to rest their legs that were tired from long standing. Those who came later stumbled over them, trampled, fell down and that was the end.
At Majdanek we were housed in wooden huts, men and women apart. We were told that this was a labour camp, that we were the labour force, would be given food to restore our forces, as we were needed for the war effort. Yet, before we received our first bread ration our eyes fairly bulged from their sockets. We never saw the men, we were only women and more women. What would we have to do? What did the men do? Where were they? Nobody knew. Next day they put us to work, but gave us mean and useless tasks to do. Some had to carry faeces in wheelbarrows, empty them and reload and the work had to be done briskly with the accompaniment of oaths and blows. If any were suspected of shirking, she would be beaten to death or shot. One day the Nazis hanged a young and beautiful girl - there were not many of the sort among us - for allegedly having tried to escape. They hanged her in the middle of the square and left her there for several days - as a warning.
Nearly every day there were screenings; the inmates of the huts were picked out to be burnt by some unknown criterion. There was no telling why the one was sent to her death while the other was kept alive to suffer still more. We didn't talk of it amongst us, were reluctant to touch the subject of instant death or waiting for it. Every day there disappeared some friend, someone with whom one had shared work, suffering and - silence; and nobody would talk of it, while generally talk is supported to alleviate a heavy heart. It seems that in these surroundings talking was still more painful, stressed and deepened dejection. Every spoken word might make matters worse. If we were to give expression to what we saw, we'd destroy the last shreds of illusion. And so those near and dear to us disappeared one by one, while we kept silent as if not aware of what it meant for ourselves.
In those days a miracle happened to me and as is the case with miracles you can't explain how and why they occur, and why just now. Yet sometimes there is a concatenation of events which determines a person's fate. Anyhow, a miracle happened to me. There were flowerbeds between the huts (one of the officials seems to have had the idea that our hell should be beautified). One Polish woman engineer was in charge of the task and used to pass between the huts, to measure, plan, stake out and perform the work. One day, as she was passing by, she called me to come and help her measure the flowerbeds. I helped her and apparently must have done a very good job. Maybe I felt that this kind of work could better my chances of survival and I did my best. The gardener was very content and even said that yesterday's help had been negligent and inattentive but that today she really enjoyed it.
Next day she told me to pick 10 women and prepare a piece of ground - I was to be the overseer. I chose 10 workers, who could not continue with other kinds of work, among them 2 old women who no longer cared, stood around all day and wouldn't work. Whatever I told them was of no avail; they refused to lift a finger and we others had to do their share. But it came out very soon, that the Polish woman was one of the just on the earth. She had her companions among the authorities, she knew of impending selections and managed to put us out of harm's way by different means. Sometimes she kept us hidden between two huts and told the commander that she needed us as a "professional team". And so I survived the screenings until we were sent to Birkenau,
I stayed at Majdanek for 9 weeks. At the last screening they took me, too. Later on I learnt, that thereafter Majdanek camp was liquidated. We didn't know where we were being taken. Before the journey we had to pass, naked, between two rows of men. Next we were taken to the bath house, at some distance from the camp, and from there back to a hut for the night. Nobody slept that night as we had heard a rumour that they would use the night to liquidate us. We kept the windows open as a precaution against the gas. All that night there was crying and wailing: "You shall not kill us" again and again until dawn.
There was also a division for men, more shadows then living beings, who walked about frightened and murmuring imprecations. More than death itself they feared the process and they were sure we'd be killed to the last. Among those men there was the husband of one woman in our division, who told us later, that her man had hanged himself that night for fear of the horrible death his wife would have to suffer.
Reminiscences are chasing each other and sometimes you lose the thread and cannot tell them in their chronological order. Here is one episode that goes back a little; when we were taken to the bathhouse in our nakedness, I saw not far from me a cousin of my murdered husband. She was a very young and beautiful woman; all of a sudden, before our eyes could meet, some S. S. women, the worst of brutes, began to beat her until she fell to the ground. I saw her bleeding; she reached the hut with difficulty and I never saw her any more, she must have died from that mistreatment. At the moment I suppressed the event. It was too awful to realize that women could be so cruel and I wouldn't relive what my eyes had seen for fear of despair or of losing my wits. Only at Birkenau I remembered this feat, that exemplified the human tragedy which that accursed man Hitler had brought over us. Nothing more awful that the sight of women beating to death another woman. After centuries of attempts to refine the members of the weaker sex we were now back at the period of the savage female beast, that is more dangerous than the males of the jungle.
Then we were led to the shower-room to remove all the dirt and grime with which we were encrusted. There was a number of showers and we pushed in a disorderly way as everyone wanted to get rid of the accumulated filth of the last days as fast as possible.
After the shower we were given other clothes. I got a black bridal gown of diaphanous lace. When I came out my companions from the hut of Majdanek didn't recognize me. I looked entirely changed with my shaven head and the black dress. Only later on we were given the infamous striped Birkenau clothes, the shirts of those marked for death. We were then made to work. I had to prepare straw mattresses, from bags and straw for myself and my companions. Suddenly we were called to another block, where we were to stay and where, apparently, those fit for work were to be selected and separated from the rest. This separation was, of course, all - important. So we ran over to be eligible for work and for survival. We stood in groups of 5. When it was the turn of my group, the German in charge ordered 2 women, who had been in Majdanek, together with me, to turn to the right. I was about to follow them automatically, as I wanted to stay with them, but the German wrathfully hit me ground with his stick and shouted: "Left I said, and left you go! Understood? " (Verstanden?) So I turned to the left and found myself in the company of young, healthy girls. I had to sort out the effects of those who had been burnt at Birkenau - and I didn't know what I was doing. Naively I thought that it was loot brought in from Jewish homes. I imagined that we were in a labor camp. Our block was kept clean and I thought the same must be true for the others and these were living quarters for workers who were doing useful and necessary jobs. This idea restored my peace of mind a little and after a while I decided to try and do something for the public. I applied to the warden of our block and asked permission to invite the other Jewish women, who were in charge of blocks, so I could give them a talk about the nature of their job and about how they could help the Jews under their authority.
She was a good Jewish woman who listened to me patiently, with a smile on her face. When I had had my say, silence fell. She looked at me with her kind eyes and sized me up. She took in my ridiculous appearance, the oversize striped shirt, the shaven head wrapped in a rag and my torn and far too large shoes. She heaved a deep sigh and said: "It seems that you have not grasped where you are. You haven't understood the nature of this place. Could it be that you are not aware of the incinerators, where the last remnants of the Jews from the concentration camps are being burned? This shall be our end too."
I answered: "I had thought this was a Labor Camp" and she went on: "You must know that nobody will accept your invitation and I can't grant you permission as it is against the rules, and above all: before such an assembly convenes you may all have gone up in smoke." She left me alone and I was under the impression that she was angry with me and she might take it out on me that I was planning to organize her subordinates. My hair roots began to tingle and my head was aching. The terror of death was on me. But a few minutes later she came back and said: "You applied to me not for your own sake. I can see that you really have the good of the public at heart. You haven't asked for better fitting clothes or any other privileges for yourself. I shall do something for you. Follow me!"
We entered the clothes store and she gave me a striped shirt, a new clean kerchief and whole shoes that fitted. When I saw myself in the mirror, I could hardly recognize myself. When I returned to the block, the Gentile women became jealous and showed their hatred openly. One of them said: "That's what it always is: the Jews cling together". One of them promised me bread and margarine ii I would agree to swap clothes with her. But my looks saved me from their vengeance. I didn't look like a "Musulman" and they honoured me. This was still more enhanced when two hours later the block warden appeared with her deputy, a very simple woman from Krakov, and told her: "You see this woman? Always give her some extra soup and bread, if you have any left." Next she turned to me: "That's all I was able to do for you under the circumstances" and then she added another sentence, addressed to nobody in particular: "A woman who cares for others, when she's in need herself, is worthy of all our help."
The days passed; I was working and hardly remembered whose clothes these were and what the place was like. Once a haughty German walked up to the block warden and barked an order: "Draw your block up in parade here. I need twenty women." She did as she was told and he walked between the ranks and picked his twenty women. He chose the young and the strong, Ukrainians and Jewesses, myself among the rest. We thought we were needed for special responsible work, but he first made us form a column and then said: "These twenty I have picked are to be transferred to that well-known block. (It was the one before the cremation.) Tomorrow all the others go to work as usual and these stay here."
It was abundantly clear: this was to be our last day and we could think of nothing else; couldn't sleep. We bit our fingernails, scratched our heads. There were sisters and other relations amongst us, good friends. They hugged and kissed each other and wouldn't let go; tried to stay together as long as possible. I had nobody and sat alone. I remembered how one day I passed by that block and saw women there behind iron bars with yellow faces and bad teeth. I remembered how they had seized the iron bars as if they could shake them loose and get away; and tomorrow our fate would be theirs.
In the morning everybody went to work, while we were left, three in a row, waiting for our last march and for death. So we were left standing for two or three hours while our knees were shaking. Our block warden, a dear Jewish woman, looked as if overnight she had grown twenty years older. She passed by and was ashamed to look us in the face. The despair in her eyes told us that our fate was sealed. She ran to the command post several times to ask what she should do with us and was told to keep us standing. When she asked for the third time, the Germans broke into a horselaugh "It was only a joke. We wanted to amuse ourselves. Take them for your own needs".
A few days later she was taken away and we never saw her any more. We have kept her memory sacred. She was a great woman, a noble soul of the kind that are few and far between. In her stead we got a tiny slip of a woman, thin and emaciated. She reminded you of a viper, winding round and poisonous, and so she was a dangerous snake, bloodthirsty and cruel.
During one of the parades I had to go and relieve myself. When I came back she boxed my ear and told me to stay in the hut, which was tantamount to going to the ovens; and you don't disobey orders. There was a Jewess from Paris, who told me to take my place in the column. I was afraid of more beating from that viper and hesitated. So that Jewess dragged me to her side. The shrew saw me there and thought somebody of higher authority had countermanded her order in her absence. In her poisonous way she hissed at me "I shall find you and pay you as you deserve."
However, she forgot and meanwhile I survived, but life was unbearable. There were epidemics and those in charge treated us as a nation of bearers of infection and that was awful. To prevent the spreading of disease one had to pick the lice and we were told to do this on all occasions. It was like a ceremony but a degrading and humiliating one. They also used to beat us, but the lashes hurt less than the humiliation. Lice picking was done outside. There we had to undress for everybody to see. The clothes were thrown into tubs with some stinking material and then we had to sit down on the ground and pick the lice that swarmed all over the recesses of the body. We collected them by the handful and threw them into the tubs. When we were comparatively clean, we had to walk to the bathhouse, entirely naked, while the males of the master race were looking on and making their remarks. Back from the bath we would fish our clothes out of the stinking liquid and put them on as they were. The disinfective material caused burns and itching to tears. The suffering was really indescribable.
There was also another mode of disinfection: we would undress in the bathhouse and put our clothes in boilers. Before the boiling was done it would be night and until then we had to sit and wait for our freshly disinfected clothes. At the end we had to stand in line to get our garments back. One night I was unlucky and my clothes were last, all the others were already dressed and had run away. I, too, wanted to take my stuff and to get dressed, while the woman in charge was standing there impatiently. She began to beat me up and to curse and revile me. I took it all without a word, fished my clothes out and went away. It was a dark night and here I was alone in this strange and hostile world. The flames from the crematoria could be seen distinctly against the sky. Smoke was whirling up from the chimney and sparks flew about, a sign that today's transport was being consumed. I had seen that transport during the day. They had known where they were being led and went as sheep to the slaughter, who cannot change their lot. As always, when a transport arrived. The block was closed and we regarded the victims through the windows. There were children with faded toys in their hands, little girls with tattered dolls. They looked like grown-ups and only their toys showed that they were still children. I knew only too well what these flames meant, and here I was, alone in the dark with only the sparks flying about. I could see German soldiers strutting about, armed the teeth and dangerous to meet. I walked about for hours on end and I don't know how, in the end I reached my own block.
Another disease was rife at the time: diarrhea, the name of which I never heard either before or later. It was a kind of involuntary loosening of the bowels and the infected person spread his faeces wherever she goes. I got it once by night. I stepped down from my bunk to go out, but the floor was all filthy and people were lying around as if unconscious of the mess. I stepped over them and they pinched my feet - were unable to do more. I approached the fence, beyond it was a camp similar to ours and there I perceived a woman pleading with the guard: "I entreated you to kill me! What does it matter to you if you do so? You'll only do me a favour." She repeated her request again, in Polish and in German. First he refused and when she insisted he fired into the air to drive her off, but she did not run away, and then he did what she had asked for. She slumped down at the fence close to me. I passed by her on my way back. What could I have done? I was so tired and weak that I fell asleep at once. When I awoke in the morning I found two corpses next to me. Both my neighbours had succumbed to the disease and I had not been aware of their dying.
At Bergen-Belsen I had to make cords from rotten rags. A Belgian Nazi tried the cords' strength and when, at the third or fourth attempt, he managed to tear the cord, he hit me in the face with his fist and I dropped to the ground bleeding. This caused considerable commotion.
We stayed in camp until Liberation in April 1945. The most shocking sight I remember was two great heaps of corpses arranged like bales of straw. Apparently they had not been able to burn them and you could see the gaping mouths from which gold dentures had been torn. The camp was freed by British troops under General Glenn Hughes. Life in the camp was organized immediately. Various committees were set up to deal with current affairs, including cultural activities. We had even a theatre of our own. The change in camp was another proof of the unbreakable Jewish spirit that showed its vitality even in the death camps and under all circumstances.
The dead left us a legacy: YOU SHALL LIVE!
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