Avrohom Spilke, of blessed memory
Translated by Pamela Russ
a) By the Germans
Four days before Rosh Hashono, year 5700 (1939), on Shabbos night, the German military entered our city, and very soon German soldiers were seen in the streets. Jews remained inside their homes, closed and locked up. No one went near any windows for fear of being noticed by the soldiers. All the curtains of the windows were let down until the floor. A dead silence reigned in the homes. The heavy stomping of the horses was heard along with the commotion of the soldiers in the streets. The sun was shining as usual, sending her rays to the earth. The monotonous silence did not last long. Before we had a chance to acknowledge or observe the uninvited guest, rumours reached our ears and we saw how the Germans smashed open doors and windows from stores and homes, and began to rampage, steal, and destroy whatever they found. That same day, they removed all the residents from their homes and hiding places, regardless of religion or origin, young and old, women and children, and took them all to the large marketplace. Soldiers with machine guns surrounded us. The cries and screams went until the seventh heaven. We thought we would be slaughtered like sheep. The danger was in front of our eyes. Parents and children, neighbors and acquaintances all embraced and kissed, saying goodbye to one another.
Suddenly, a commander got up and gave a signal that we should be quiet, and he began speaking to us: A terrible (undignified) thing has happened in your city. One of our soldiers has died among you and because of that crime you are now all commanded to be shot, but I'll do you all a favor: women and children will be let go, but men and boys will be detained in a concentration camp for a few days. [Page 283]
They turned the large shul into a camp. We went through terrible things there, and one cannot even relate some of it. They didn't allow us to take care of our basic needs. We stood in line for several hours, we were given a small piece of bread as food and a little water, we slept on the floor and our bones were crushed from lying on the earth for so long. Dampness was everywhere; our clothing tore and became dirty from the mud and dust. Hands and faces were not washed. The water that we received could not quench our thirst. Our lips were dried out. This former shul now became a hell for us. From time to time, a German jumped in with a whip and whipped us murderously until we fell into an unconscious state.
Once, some German doctors came in and ordered that whoever was sick or handicapped should allow himself to be examined, and whoever would be found to be sick would be immediately released. Understandably, there were those among us who were sick. The doctors ordered that they be examined in a separate room. We did not know that there were other murderers there with batons and bayonets who were beating everyone mercilessly. Whoever ran, they would beat because he was running too quickly. Whoever went slowly was beaten because he was too slow. When we heard the screams and cries of the victims, we didn't want to go have ourselves examined. Then, they forced even those who were healthy to be examined; these were then beaten. They herded us into a small, narrow room where you couldn't even stand. We stood crushed and pressed together like one lump, sweat was pouring off our bodies. Our legs were trembling from standing so long, but no one dared open his mouth or move so that the same viciousness should not be repeated. That's how we stood for several hours, stuck to the ground in fear and trembling.
On the eve of Rosh Hashono, in the afternoon, the Germans took 50 men for work behind the town. When we arrived there, we were ordered to run around in a circle for two hours. Then we were told to dig up ditches with our hands and to fill .
|The Nazis torture the captured Jews|
them with rocks. This had to be done quickly and efficiently, and whoever did not rush when he worked was beaten without mercy. After that, we were ordered again to dig a deep ditch and to put some people inside and cover them with rocks and earth up to their necks. That's how these victims remained for over an hour and then we were told to drag them out by holding onto their hands. When this was not possible, they helped pull these men out with their bayonets, and that's how they wounded the victims. After all that work, we were ordered to sing. We sang the Rosh Hashono melodies. Then they took us back. When we arrived at the shul's courtyard, they had us line up in a long row and cut off the beard and sidelocks from several young men. When we arrived at the camp, we collapsed to the ground in exhaustion and were completely depleted from the terrible work.
That's how one week passed. The elderly and the children were let go and the younger ones remained in the camp. They told us that we were going to work in their country. Before we were sent off, we were set up in two rows and several of us were elected as supervisors over the others, and if one person would
try to run away while we were in the middle of the way, ten men would be shot to death. We understood what was waiting for us, but we couldn't help ourselves. With moaning and crying and an ocean of tears, on the second day of Rosh Hashono, 5700 (1939), we were taken on a distant, unfamiliar route.
On the way, my energies began to get weaker. The sun overhead burned, and it seemed that the sun, the earth, and the Germans were allies in having us killed. The gardens and fields were in full bloom.
Would we see our beloved ones alive ever again? This question accompanied us the entire way. On the way, an event happened: someone from our camp ran away. And before anything could happen, he jumped into the Narew River and swam to the other side. We brought him back because we were afraid of the consequences.
When we were just behind the town of Pultusk, a troop of Germans with batons came toward us. They chased us until the courtyard of a camp in Pultusk. We stayed there for an hour and had to listen to insults, then they told us to climb up into an attic. Whoever didn't climb up the ladder quickly, was murderously beaten. Many fell to the ground covered in blood in an unconscious state. At night we went to lie down in the attic that was not yet finished being built. There were limestone, cement, bricks, sand, and stones strewn everywhere.
In middle of the night there was a tumult. They brought us another group of barefoot, naked people who were crying and moaning, and we cried along with them. That's how the night passed. The following morning, the Germans came with soldiers that were prisoners, and they began to rip off our clothing and tear off our shoes. Whoever put up any resistance was horrifically beaten.
After a few days of hunger and torture, the Germans ordered us to begin to make our way to the city of Czekhanow a distance of about 40 kilometers. From there they promised us we would go to Germany by train. That day was Tzom Gedaliah (the Fast of Gedaliah; a fast day on the day following Rosh Hashono), 5700 (1939) and was
for me and the others a blazing hell. Until midday, the sun burned strongly, so that even the shirt on the body was too much. After that, there was a terrific rain and hail storm, and so we splashed in water up to our knees. That day, we were judged to overcome the arba misos bais din (four forms of death as decreed by the Jewish courts in Talmudic times mentioned in the Yom Kippur prayers: stoning, burning, beheading, strangulation) depression and destruction. I will remember this day forever, because that day my eyes ran with blood. The Germans ordered us to run (to race) the entire 42 kilometers while they rode on bicycles. They didn't let us rest; we were not allowed to drink water; there was not even a discussion of any bread; and even the running they told us to do was sometimes in fields or through ditches and again on the highways, and so on, while all the time they were jabbing everyone with their bayonets. Whoever fell while running or resisted something was immediately shot and cleared off the road.
I wanted to rest for one minute and tie up the laces of my shoes at the same moment I heard shooting coming from my direction, and soon they pushed me into a ditch. Suddenly, I hear one German say to another: He's still alive. Let's finish him off. Soon I hear another shot, but to my good fortune, I regained my senses, stretched out my legs, dropped my arms, shut my eyes, stopped breathing, and pretended to be dead. When they saw that I was dead, they left me in the field. I was abandoned, beaten and wounded, in a pool of blood. I wanted to get up, but couldn't. I saw how young, non-Jewish children were trying to figure me out. When I asked them for a little water, they disappeared. And that's how I remained, lying there in pain for a half hour. Later, someone approached me with a bottle of water, looked around to see if anyone was watching. He gave me some water to drink and then hurried away. Nighttime was approaching. I was seized by terror. They would bury me here like a dead horse, and my name would be forgotten forever. That's when I got up, with my last energies, and crossed the highway to the other side where there was a little house. When I got there, I collapsed, having no strength. A peasant came over to me
and told me to go into his house he would go first, and I should follow. In order to save myself, I crawled on all fours. In front of his house, the man's wife was standing with tears in her eyes, and in a tearful voice, she said to me: I would gladly take you into my house, and I have great pity on you. My children are crying, they know what happened to you. But what can we do? The Germans said that if they will find anyone hiding Jews in their homes, they will be dealt with exactly as with the Jews. She gave me a sweet tea with syrup and a small piece of cheese, and then told me to leave. Without having a choice, I dragged myself back to that first place. There were two empty rooms there, I was afraid to go into the first one. So, I went into the second room, but there it was full of water and mud all over the floor. Feeling faint, I stretched out on the ground to rest my broken bones. Now I started to feel my wounds. Blood was flowing and I didn't have anything with which to stop it. I groaned and cried, but who could help me at this time? That's how I lay all night, in great pain, and thought about my bitter fate. Before daybreak, I heard talking in the other room. One was saying to the other: Go and see what happened there. The second person responded: I'm scared. You go. Suddenly the door opened and someone appeared. A deathly fear grabbed me. Soon he asked me what happened. I told him of my terrible tragedies, and he shook his head to show that he felt sorry for me. I asked him how is it that he is here. He told me that he lives in a village near the city of Czekhanow, and because of the shootings, he and his family ran away to save themselves. And now he is going back home. You couldn't move around at night, so because of that, he and his family had come in here to spend the night. He heard my groaning and tossing all night, but because it was dark, he was afraid to come into the room to me. I begged him to take me with him until the city of Czekhanow, but he didn't want to and soon left.
I was alone again, abandoned from all. My pains
worsened, the blood that was running from my wounds congealed, and I became horribly cold. My strength began to completely give way. I could not figure out from where I would get any help. I hardly crawled to the door to have a quick look at what was going on outside. I suddenly saw how a few Germans on bicycles are standing in that place where I had fallen, and they were asking each other where I could have gone and who could have taken me. I was seized by a cold sweat. I was terrified that, God forbid, they would come back and look for me, so I crawled back to my place and hid crunched up in a corner, anything so that they shouldn't detect me. My lips quietly whispered a prayer to God that I should be saved again from their hands.
These were my thoughts, when a door opened and someone came in with a bottle of tea mixed with honey and gave me some to drink, then asked me how I was feeling. Some other people came in after him, and they spoke quietly to one another about what they should do with me. There were children outside who were standing by the window and were thinking about me as well. One said to the other: He won't live. I thought they were right, but I was very pained by their talk. How could I die in such a worthless place. My heart began to pound from fear of this very thought. Soon, one of these people approached me, and told me that I should go ahead to the nearby village and they will follow me. I got up and left. In the village, they brought me some warm water and soap. I washed off the blood. They poured a disinfectant over my wounds and wrapped them with rags. I received some milk and lay down on the straw against the warm sun. After a few minutes of lying like that, they told me to go back to the first place. I begged them to have some mercy on me, but the fact was that the Germans had said that no one was permitted to hide any Jews.
Without any hope of being able to stay here, I had to go back to the first place. As I was making my way across the field, deep in my thoughts, a peasant approaches me (one who was working in the fields with horses, and near him was his wife and a farmhand): Foolish man, he says. Where are you going? There the Germans will pack you up and make
an end to your years. If you've remained alive, now you'll be giving yourself over into their hands. Go hide yourself in the field, behind the wheat barn, and after that I'll see where to hide you. I went to hide there and then he came to me and gave me some milk to drink, and found me a better place to hide, and then I lay there and fell asleep for a few hours. When I awoke, I see two people standing in front of me and saying they are going to tell the Germans about me, that I am hiding here. They put the question to me as to why I had remained a Jew. I should have converted and put an end to my Jewishness, and that way I would not have these terrible difficulties. Their words burned into me and pierced through me. I wanted to respond to them, but I was frightened. All I asked what that they shouldn't tell anyone that I was hiding here. When they left, I watched them until they disappeared from my sight. I was terribly afraid that they would reveal the secret about my hiding there. With nightfall, two boys woke me up, gave me some milk to drink, poured the disinfectant on my wounds, rebandaged them, and told me to follow them. They were holding my hands and they led me to the field. In the middle of the way, they said: We are going to hide you in a stable and we'll put out a rumor in the village that you ran away somehow, and whoever calls out to you, don't answer. They told me their names and said that when they will call their own names I should answer, and they will bring me food and drink. We came to a place, they opened the door, put up a ladder and I climbed up high. The ladder was removed and the door was shut.
When I went to sleep, I suddenly heard footsteps approaching, and this happened often. I lived in tremendous fear. My brain almost exploded from so much thinking and worrying. At dawn, someone brought some food and a little honey. I told him where I came from and what terrible things had happened to me. His eyes had tears as he felt compassion for me, Then he took my hand and said: Don't be afraid, don't worry. I will treat you as a father to a son
I will give you food and drink, you will lack for nothing. When you will be feeling better, I will take you home. He told me that in the field there were many bodies of murdered people -- from those who had been with me. I couldn't tolerate this and began to cry terribly, for joy that I was saved, but on the other hand I cried for the young people who were still alive yesterday, young and fresh, and now they lay dead, strewn across the field.
Three times a day, this peasant came to the stable to bring me food. He comforted me and spoke to me. Once, this peasant came to me during the day and said: You need to know that it is terrible. The Germans are coming to this village and want to spend the night in the stables. They've already looked through some of them and even this one in which you are sleeping. It might be that they'll use this one for sleeping. What should I do with you? There is no place to hide you. This is a small village and the neighbors will soon find out that you are here in the village. It might even be that they'll give you up. So, what should we do? He thought for a while, then smiled with joy. I found a place, he said. Behind the stable there is a lot of straw. I'll make a deep cellar for you there, let you in, and give you enough food for two days, then close you in very well so that no one will suspect anything. But be careful not to cough even once. You'll stay there until they leave. At dawn, he came and called out with joy: Come out, don't be afraid. They just left. I returned to my resting place.
A day before Yom Kippur eve, lying there and thinking about my fate and whispering a prayer to God that He should not forget me and should send me some help, I suddenly hear a voice calling my name, telling me to come down. I don't answer. Once again, one of these people swears that We are four Jews and we know you well. We are from the city of Pultusk. Don't be afraid. I was sure these were Germans. But I had no way out, and so I went down. In fact, there were actually four Jews and they said to me briefly that since tomorrow was Yom Kippur and they would be going home, they would wait for me here and I should prepare to go with them to Pultusk. They would give me a signal if they will say Moshiach (Messiah)
then I should go down immediately.
They left and I returned back up to my place. Soon the peasant came to me and described what had happened: These Jews have an orchard in another village, and there they found out that a Jew had been wounded on the road and that he was hiding in a village behind a wheat barn and that he disappeared in an unknown manner. This news did not let them rest and they began asking around until they came to this village. I was standing with some other farmers, when a few of these Jews came up to us and asked if we knew anything about a young Jew that was wounded here. I understood that they meant you. I gave them a signal that they should be quiet. That's how it was. Afterwards, I told them where you were.
The farmer left and I remained alone, thinking about the salvation that would come. I couldn't fall asleep. The night passed that way. I was in the same position as the prisoner who doesn't believe and is surprised by his release. At dawn, the farmer came to me, and with tears in his eyes and a choked voice, said to me: I saved you from a certain death, protected you from terrible things, you had a safe place with me, and now you're going home to your parents. Will you remember me for good things? Will you write me a letter about how the trip went and what your parents say about me? And with a laugh, How much will you pay me for this? I swore to him that I would not forget him my entire life. He thanked me for that and gave me his address. I ate and drank. Then we said goodbye to each other with great sincerity. He embraced me and kissed me and cried terribly. I thanked him greatly, and he quietly left. Later, his wife and son came and said goodbye to me as well and wished me a safe trip to my parents. They gave me milk for the way. After these goodbyes, the four arrived. I went up onto the wagon, and the farmer and his wife and children were standing at a distance and watched as I left.
As I was leaving the village, some of the farmers recognized me and asked how I came here. We were now on the way to Pultusk.
On the way, there were troops of Germans, but they didn't pay any attention to me. I was still terrified. We knew their actions well and the wounds were still too fresh to be forgotten. One German, an infantryman, blocked the four men and told them to stop. The driver was just about to hold up the horses when that same minute a large truck went between the German and the wagon, so that the German was forced to move to the side of the highway. The driver used that minute to whip the horses and we quickly left that place. The German began to shout that we should not move, but the driver did his job and rode onwards. That's how I was saved from another tragedy that could have happened.
I arrived in Pultusk safely. It was Yom Kippur eve. Everyone wanted to know what had happened to me, and nothing else. One woman had pity on me and took me into her home. Later, after lunch, I went out into the street to find out what was new, and someone who once was in Serock recognized me and pleaded with me to come to his home. I didn't let him go on for too long, and soon I went with him. I ate the evening meal there and then went to Kol Nidrei (Yom Kippur eve prayer). The cantor sang with a broken heart and a hoarse voice, and everyone was taken with fear and with trembling because of the Germans who were roaming the streets. I imagined that I was hiding in secret cellars of the Marranos in old time Spain. We did not go pray the next day because were afraid of being caught and taken to work. I prayed at home with heartfelt, deep sincerity. I remembered the little shul from the last year. Before Kol Nidrei, my father and mother would wish me, my brothers, and my sisters everything good and now I have to be with strangers and eat at a stranger's table. I prayed that it be an end to the year of curses, and the beginning of a year with blessings. That's how the holy day passed, with intense prayers. On Sunday morning, a doctor checked me, gave me an injection, bandaged my wounds, and told me that I should stay in bed for three days.
As I was leaving the doctor, I meet a driver from our town. He
wanted to take me home with him to Serock. I told him to give my parents regards and that my sister should come to see me. My sister did come and hardly recognized me. She asked me what happened and how it all happened. I told her everything and she wanted me to go home with her, but the doctor had told me to stay in bed for three days and on the third day to go see him again. I wrote a few words to my parents and gave the note to my sister. She promised that she would come back again the next day and take me back home with her. But to my great misfortune, something different happened. Instead of going home, I was chased out of each house in Pultusk and sent out of town, and now I had to find a different route.
The evacuation happened on Tuesday, one day before Sukos eve, year 5700. After 12 o'clock noon, when I was preparing to go to the doctor, I see that everyone in the house is sobbing. I ask what happened, and they tell me that all the Jews from the city are being forcefully evacuated into one place, and soon I saw a few armed Germans had gathered in that same place where I was and they had asked all the residents to leave their homes and take nothing with them. I went along with all the other Jews to this place where the Germans had ordered everyone to go. On the way I saw different groups, young and old mixed, walking and crying. When I arrived at the designated place, I saw that it was not possible to live through the screams and crying that ripped through everyone. We stood like that for a few hours. After that there was a vicious interrogation. Some were interrogated three times, then whatever they found was taken away, and then they were told to go to Russia. One Jewish young man, from rage, shouted: There have never been such barbarians! For these words, the Germans threw him into the water. This young man was able to swim and he actually swam to another place. The Germans accompanied us with gunshots that fell like hail until a kilometer into the way.
I survived the first evacuation. For me, there was now no goal, I was escorted with pain, troubles, exhaustion, and hunger. I wandered from village to village, from city to city, spent nights
in fields, ate raw beets, roasted potatoes, and sometimes I fasted four or five days and filled my stomach with water anything, so at least my soul would survive. My strength became less and less, my feet could hardly move. I was afraid that on the way I would faint from hunger and thirst. In one place, I stayed for a few days, slept in a stable, and ate roasted potatoes and drank water. One evening, a peasant woman, in a place we used to rest, said to me that the Jews better leave this village because the Germans were coming here. The Jews pretended not to hear. Then this peasant woman began throwing all the Jews out of her house, so that we were forced to get back onto the road. I and a few other families then tried to settle in another village, but soon we heard how they had tortured many Jews in a nearby town. A troop of Germans had gone in there and taken all the men who were there and ordered them to do work labor under the lashes of a whip, and then the orders came to continue running, then to lie face down on the ground and dig face into the sand. To anyone who raised his head to catch some air, the Germans pushed their feet into this person's head and forced the face to go down into the sand. This news made us panic terribly, and out of fear we immediately left the village. I took hold of my staff (walking stick), and once again trudged forward with this group of Jews until we arrived in a little town, Dlugosedlo, where there was a summer house. When I entered the town, I saw a tumult of people that were on the street. When I asked about this commotion, they answered that these were refugees who were chased out of a town and who wanted to rest up here. I hid in this town for a few days, and after that the Germans gathered up all the Jews into the marketplace and one of them said to those gathered there: Be informed that those who just came here must leave this town immediately and the residents must leave within two hours and can take along some things, but only within those two hours. After that, no things!
There arose cries and moans, and people began to move from their places with bundles on their backs. The people where I had stayed were good friends of mine, and piled on my back a big bundle with blankets and clothing.
I continued going until the evening, when I reached
the city of Ostrawenka. I stayed overnight in that city and the next day I crossed over the Russian border without any interference except for the fact that the German guard interrogated me. When I saw the first Russian soldier I wanted to recite a blessing over him (make a bracha), but when I went a little further on and the road was split into many directions, and to Zambrow as well, the patrol didn't permit me to use the highway and told me to go in the sand for about 20 kilometers and that would take me to a small town. All this time, there was no food.
I arrived in this small town in the evening, but no one took me in to sleep. Everyone closed their door and I had to sleep in the Bais Medrash. The following day, I was examined by the city doctor. He rebandaged me and said that the wound was healing. After that, I continued moving on. I dragged myself until I arrived to the train. I spent the entire night at the train station. The following day the train arrived. I could barely climb up onto the train a sea of people was pushing to get on. Everyone wanted to get to Bialystok as soon as possible. In the middle of the way, the train had to stop a few kilometers ahead of some water. Some rushed to get to the water to have space in a small boat that went back and forth between shores and then they would catch the other train that was a few kilometers on the other side of the water. Hardly alive any more, I barely managed to get onto the train. I was very thirsty but there was no way I could help myself. Someone sitting near me had a bottle of water and I asked for a drink but didn't receive one. I arrived in Bialystok in the evening.
b) By the Russians
I wandered the streets with the bundles that my friends from Dlugosedlo had given me. In the middle of the street, I was stopped and they asked me to get into a car. There were already many people in the car. I was very happy. The car went behind the city. The Russian soldiers showed us where to go and they said they would bring us food. We waited
for an hour, then two, and more, but we saw no food nor heard anything about it. We were so disappointed, and each took a little hay, put it on the floor, and went to sleep. The following morning we went into the city to look for food. I left my bundles behind where I had slept and asked someone to keep an eye on them. The city was filled with many refugees, those who had been expelled from many different cities. At the community center, there were all kinds of lineups: one for food, one for housing, and one for medical attention. I lined up for the doctor and for food. I went into the community center and they told me that there were no more coupons for food, only some to see the doctor. Since I wanted to see the doctor, I said that I was sick, but that meanwhile I was very hungry. I had already been fasting for several days. I have no more energy to survive. They felt sorry for me and gave me a coupon for lunch in the community kitchen. I went to stand in line for lunch. I stood for four hours, just barely arriving at the small window for lunch. While receiving a small cup of soup and a small piece of bread, the narrow space and terrible pushing caused the soup to spill and I was left with an empty cup in hand. I ate the small piece of bread, and filled myself with cold water in order to quench my thirst.
I went outside to see what was new and I met my friends that had come from the camps. We were overjoyed. They couldn't believe that I was alive. I asked them about my brother, but they didn't know anything about him. After that, we spent the night in a bais medrash, and there saw very sad scenes: people were searching for shirts, for clothing. One Jew was standing almost completely naked and was searching. I couldn't find a clean place. My friends from Serock found me another place a different bais medrash. There I had as much tea as I wanted and a lot of bread enough even for the next day. We pushed the benches together and went to sleep.
In the morning, I went back to the first place. The first snow had fallen. The streets were covered with a white blanket. I went with joy because I now had a comfortable
place to rest myself. I took my bundles and went back into the city. That same day, I found my future brother-in-law who had also been evacuated from his city of Ruzhyn. He had come with materials that he had saved from there, so that next to me, he was a wealthy man. We could not stay together. There were tens of thousands of refugees that had come to Bialystok. That was everyone's fate. They too, as I, had to stay in the batei midrashim (plural of House of Study [bais medrash]) and sleep on the ground. My brother-in-law opened a little store and made a lot of money, such that I already was able to have a good breakfast, lunch, and supper, to my satisfaction. Many military personnel were customers, so that everyone was able to make nice money. The military personnel, and even the higher ranks, bought everything in the streets that they saw: manufactured goods, fancier goods, fruit, foods, and mostly watches. They bought everything without bargaining. For many, this was the first time seeing many of these things. The military personnel were generally polite. They greeted everyone sincerely, regardless of belief. They spoke to everyone about all kinds of things. Business grew and became very popular. Some people became wealthy. Many made good lives for themselves. One could go anywhere, in or out, without being afraid of anyone. One thought that the issue of neediness was resolved. Prices of everything rose. One had to line up for everything: from bread to a needle. There was no other way to get anything. That's how normal life went. People stopped thinking about their future only one thought held everyone: trade, money, business, and nothing else.
I thought differently about life and also about the setting I was in. My earlier dreams were spinning again. Sleeping on the floor of the bais medrash did not still my pains and sufferings. I did not stop missing my parents, brothers, and sisters. There was no thought of staying here. Many times I cried terribly, separated and locked away, barefoot and naked as I was. Everything was expensive and hard to get. The beddings that I had carried on my back .
someone had stolen from me on the road. Not knowing the fate of those dear ones I had left back home did not let me rest. One night, my thoughts began to rage within me, from early evening until late at night: to leave or to stay? yes or no? to go home or to stay in a strange place? Finally I decided that I had to go home. The border was very securely guarded but fear of it did not hold me back. So that very night, at 2AM, I took my walking stick and went on my way. En route, I met some Polish soldiers. I spoke with them, and they agreed to take me with them on their way. Like that, we went together until we arrived at a village. There, a peasant convinced the soldiers that they should not take me with them any further. So, I continued on my own. On the way, I met a young non-Jewish man who had a bundle on his back. I had a talk with him and he told me that he too was crossing the border and if I wanted to cross the border with him, I would have to pay. I agreed and went along with him. The same non-Jew told me that he lived close to the border on the other side, and that I would be able to spend the night there. Near the border, there was water that one had to cross. But when we got near the water, the patrol guard told us to stop. At that moment, the non-Jew jumped into the water and I was left alone. I tried to do the same, but I couldn't. Meanwhile, the patrol guard came closer and I became frightened and jumped halfway into the water. The non-Jew gave me a yank so that I came out safely on the other side of the water. The soldier began screaming that we should turn back, but we began to run with all our strength until we came close to the non-Jew's home.
I entered the house hardly alive and hardly dead. I received food there and paid dearly for that as well, and also for sleeping on the ground that was covered in straw. I was afraid that someone would recognize that I was a Jew, so I went to another peasant and asked that he shave me and paid a lot of money for that because he threatened to tell the Germans that I was a Jew. The following day
I paid the non-Jew who had crossed the border with me double what we had arranged because he also threatened me.
I paid another peasant to take me further on the way, but after one kilometer he threw me off the wagon. I dragged myself on foot from village to village. In the evening (when it was dark, you weren't allowed to move around), I arrived in another village and asked each peasant to allow me to spend the night and said that I would pay for it, but no one would allow me to stay and they each said that soon I would arrive at a Jewish village. It was nighttime, and I was once again seized by fear of the Germans. I was warned that I should not show myself outside at night. I began to run with all my strength and decided to spend the night in a field in an abandoned stable that I had noticed. But because of the terrible cold and fierce winds I continued on my way. I was in a terrible situation, when just at that time, a wagon passed on the road. I quickly ran over and asked the peasant where he was going. The peasant answers me that he is going to the village where I want to go. It was not easy to convince him to let me go with him. On the way, he asked me for tobacco, and I just happened to have some. It was as if I had revived him from the dead, because you couldn't get tobacco even for money.
When we arrived at the village where I had wanted to go, it was already dark. When we entered a house, there were several people we recognized. They welcomed me warmly, brought me bread and tea, and asked me where I had come from and what was new there. I described a small part of what had happened to me, and then they made a bed for me on the floor. In that house, some people I did not know were spending the night, and there really was no bed for me. I thought about how I would continue on my way in this terrible wind. At dawn I went on my way. When I came near the water that was near our city, I had to pay a lot of money to be taken across by boat and then I went into the city. Each house and tree was familiar to me. I had thought that I would not see any of this during my lifetime, so now everything looked newborn. When I entered our terribly missed and much dreamed- about city, I began to sob terribly. I
was not recognizable by anyone. When I went into my house, they thought I was a poor man coming for a piece of bread. At that moment, I cried out: Don't you know who I am? I was all ragged and torn up so much so, that it was difficult to recognize me. My parents and my sister were kissing me and crying when they realized that they were looking at me before their eyes. I described to them my difficulties, and then went directly to sleep. The news of my return went through the town like lightning. All my friends and acquaintances came to see how I was. Everyone was interested to hear what was happening on the other side of the border where most of their dear ones were situated.
I spent the entire day in the house with people I knew, but in the evening it was uncomfortable for me because until five o'clock one could go in the streets, but afterwards my friends were unable to come see me. No electricity was permitted to burn at night, so I went to sleep very early. My large and rich library, which I had compiled with great care, had been completely burned. In my library I had: Shas (Mishna) with Talmudic commentaries, a selection of old and new Hebrew literature, hundreds of Yiddish books, and books in Polish. In my small bais hamikdosh (temple), there was a special section of philosophy, psychology, and social sciences. Scores of youths drank from this well and all this was burned in Hitler's bonfires.
In this depressed atmosphere, I spent several weeks. I thought that this house would be a place of refuge, of rest and contentment. But this didn't last long. One morning, a day before the eve of Channuka (1939), there was a banging at the door and everyone was told to leave the house. We were ordered to go to the marketplace. The Germans forbade us from taking anything along. When we arrived there, we saw all the residents from the city, young and old, women with tiny children in their arms, the sick and the frail, those crippled in the feet or hands, and people who needed to be supported. When the Germans appeared in this place with their wild murder, everyone began pushing to hide behind the other.
People were looking for their children, parents, one for his mother, one for his father, a sister and a brother. The cries, wails, and screams went directly to heaven. It was dark outside, cold all around, we were standing naked and barefoot for a few hours until the Germans cleaned the Jews out from all the houses and hiding places and brought them to this place.
We were beaten, broken, and bloodied by these murderers, and stood like this until daylight. After that, we were ordered to turn around and move from this place. We moved and cried. Everyone looked back to catch a final glimpse of the city that he had to leave. All the goods and possessions that people had collected over generations, all that had to stay. The shul, the bais medrash, the holy books, and other things were left without ownership. On the way, the only thing that was heard were moans and groans that tore through people's hearts. Without food, without drink, we trudged all day. In the evening, when the sun was already setting, we arrived in the city of Nazielsk. There, the Germans that were directing us on the way searched us and took our money. After that, bands of armed Germans with sticks and truncheons came and beat us mercilessly and told us to run quickly. Whoever fell, they befell like wild animals. We ran like that until we arrived in the city near the shul. At the shul, the Germans set themselves into two long rows, and everyone was beaten that way. Blood ran. With split noses, broken bones, bloodshot eyes, broken hands and feet, cries and groans, the crowd was chased into the Nazielsk shul. That same evening, near the shul, many were buried alive. The people who buried them heard the others' cries for help and mercy. They cried continuously. After that, the Germans called out: Whoever has cigarettes, gold rings, or suitcases, should give them here those who resist will be shot. Out of fear, people gave away everything. After that, we lay down on the ground in the shul, one near the other, to pass the night. Everyone was drained from the whole day.
The following morning, they ordered us to leave the shul, and again they put us three in a row and told us to move on. They kept back about forty men to clean the shul and also the streets. Then we had to do all kinds of exercises and rub our fingers on the walls for a few hours, and then we were told to run for a few minutes until the train about six kilometers. When we arrived to the train, they set us out in one long row and searched everyone. Everyone was ordered to strip naked, and the women had to wash the men with the water from the puddles. Women were searched naked also in front of everyone's eyes. Girls and women were raped and beaten. Whatever they found was taken away, and the person who had the possession was murderously beaten. That was the last step of their barbarism. The Germans spared no one: men, women, boys, girls, and even small children. Here they had the opportunity to take the last few pennies and the last bit of blood that anyone had.
After these tortures, they ordered us to go into the wagons of the trains. They locked them, and took us for three days and three nights without water and without bread. Many times they stopped between deserts and we thought that they would push us out into the sand. We had no bathrooms. People suffered from this terribly. We had no bread to eat. The worst thing was that we had no water. We almost died of thirst. When it rained, we licked the drops and the dew from the windows to still the thirst, but this did not help. When the Germans caught us in this thieving act, they beat us murderously. We thought we would die on the way until we would get to Biale. We were locked in the train all night. We screamed for water until the non-Jews from nearby secretly brought us water, taking one zloty for a glass of water.
The following morning, at ten o'clock, the Germans took us into the city. There, the resident Jews brought us bread and water, and took each of us into their homes and gave us food and rest. They treated us with courtesy, and comforted us
saying we would get back to our home. In the meantime, we had found a place of refuge. From there, many people spread out into the surrounding areas, some stayed in that place, some went to Warsaw. We also went to Warsaw. We went through a lot on the way. When the Germans found a Jew on the train, they beat him, threw him off the train, and took away everything. We fortunately found a car on the train that had only non-Jews and we hid behind them so that no one could identify us. Suddenly, some Germans came on board and immediately recognized the Jews (they thought I was a non-Jew), the Germans beat them terribly.
After riding all night, we arrived in Warsaw and found other people from our town. During this time, there was an institution established that took care of these poor refugees and provided them with food and sleeping accommodations, and also some clothing. When I saw this, I thought: God of Israel shall not deceive, and Israel is never left as a widower. There will come a better tomorrow.
Rivka Mendzelewski (May), Cholon
Translated by Pamela Russ
a) By the Germans
A few weeks before the war, I was in an orchard in Moskowice between Serock and Wyskow. Thursday, ten days before the war, my partner Zalman Khainewer received an order to present himself to the Polish army. We left the orchard with all the fruit, and seven days before the outbreak of the war, on Shabbos, we returned home to Serock.
There were groups gathered in the streets. On Tuesday, September 5, 1939, in the middle of the day, bombs began to fall. The first were by the trenches, the second by Yakov Granjewicz, and the third by Yakov Rosenberg in a bunker where 70 people were hiding; the fourth by Aron Leyb Zilbershtayn, the butcher; the fifth by Kuzhnicki in the oil factory; and the sixth and seventh fell by Motel Mendzelewski.
After this bombing, everyone went to hide in their houses. When it quietened down, we went to dig up Yakov Rosenberg's cellar. Among the victims were: Yakov Rosenberg, Henya and Estusha, Moishe Pshikarski with his wife and two children, Esther Pjenicer with her son Pesakh, Shmuel Kanarek, Khaitche Swarc with her husband and two children, and a grandchild of Taperek, and many other Jews from the surrounding towns. On Tuesday evening, we gathered up all the bodies and buried them all, in a common grave, I think.
Wednesday and Thursday we hid among trees. On Shabbos at about four in the afternoon, we saw Germans ride by on motorcycles from the area of Warsaw going to Pultusk. At night, from Shabbos to Sunday, they entered Serock.
Sunday morning, September 10, 1939, the Germans began to destroy Jewish stores and throw the merchandise into the streets. My fruit, that was in the cellar of Yakov Arye the carpenter, was also thrown out by the Germans. When I went over to just have a look, a German accused me of having said that the Germans are worse than the gypsies
so I immediately received a smack and then he added that if he would have a gun in his hand he would have shot me dead.
That same Sunday, around ten or eleven in the morning, they herded all the Jews into the marketplace: men, women, children, and the elderly. Among us were also some Polaks. We were all gathered together, then someone came on a motorcar and ordered that the women and children be released and the men herded together into the small shul. (There were horses in the large shul.) They set up a large fence around the shul. The men received food that was prepared by the women. They remained there until the eve of Rosh Hashona.
Three days later, they released from the shul the men who were forty-five years and older and young boys age fifteen and under, and after that, on the second day of Rosh Hashona, year 5700, the detainees still in the shul were sent off to Pultusk. They were there for one day. On the way from Pultusk to Chekhanow, the Germans acted murderously. Whoever couldn't walk, they shot. Where the transport stopped, I don't know. My husband was freed in Pultusk because of a bad leg.
We remained in Serock until the last evacuation. During that time, we found some hard work cleaning the palace of Radziwill (Yitzkhok Konjer also worked there). Within two months payments were given only a few times. On the eve of Sukos, they herded the Jews out of Pultusk across the Narew River, and then allowed them to go wherever they wished.
The mayor was a volksdeutch (of German ethnicity rather than of citizenship). On Monday, December 4, 1939, Menakhem Kronenberg was summoned to the police station where he was told that no one should be afraid to open their stores and that they would have to have signs in German and Polish. That was on Monday. That same day, at 2am, they began the vicious expulsion. We were sleeping and we heard banging on the shutters, and a Jew was screaming: Motel! (That was my father-in-law, where I was living.) Get dressed, they're chasing us out! And soon we heard banging and yelling: Jew dogs! Get out!
I, my husband, and my daughter of several months, my father-in-law and mother-in-law and their children, all went out to the marketplace. Already
the entire town was gathered there. The screams were heard until the Heavens, children lost parents and the reverse. Everyone carried a bundle on their backs. When they were chasing the Jews out of their homes, the Germans and the volksdeutchen (while laughing) beat us murderously. They placed us four in a row and then we left to Nazielsk.
On the Nazielsk highway, there was a Polak on his way to the mill of Moishe Rosenberg with a wagonload of grain to be ground. A German military man approached the Polak and threw the grain on the ground and told me and the child to get on the wagon with our bundle. Also, Esther, the daughter of Itche Meyer Soljazh, and her two children, boarded the wagon and we went to Nazielsk.
Those who couldn't walk were beaten. The volksdeutchen also beat those with whom they had dealt with before Moishe Pjenik was beaten very badly.
An hour before we were forced out, my neighbor (Zlata Motte Ber's grandchild) gave birth to a child. They chased her out regardless, and on the way she hemorrhaged.
We arrived in Nazielsk on Tuesday evening. The weather was fine. In Nazielsk they shot the old man Goodes, Mendel the butcher, and Zakharia the tailor's daughter-in-law (Feigele Wenger). They were buried in one grave.
When they were forced into the shul, they were beaten. The Germans put down a basket and everyone had to put their keys there.
In the Nazielsk shul, everyone also had to give away anything of value. Wednesday morning we were chased out of the shul, several tall men were selected: all the Zilbershtayn butcher brothers Moishe, Shiya, Nekhemiah, and Hershel Mak. In the hallway of the shul, they had to scrape the walls with their nails and while they were doing so, they were being beaten over their heads until they were bloodied, and they had to sing Hatikva and other songs. The Germans themselves brought rags with cold water to put on the Jews' heads.
When we left the shul to go to the trains, I also went in a wagon and the men went on foot a distance of six kilometers. Before that, about 30 men were taken out of the rows. Among them were: my husband, Yakov Leyb Fefer (Khana Perl's husband), Feige Bresler's husband .
Yosef Doren. They were taken out to clean the shul. They beat Yosef Doren (Yosef the butcher) very badly, shot him through his head, then took him to the doctor. They cleaned the shul with their hands. After that, we went to the train. When I arrived there, there was already a full car and they left.
In front of the train there was a lot of mud. As we were going into the cars, we were searched and beaten terribly. Whenever they found money on someone, that person was beaten on that part of his body where it was found.
Yakov Leviner was forced to bathe in the mud. Khaim Hersh Kleinman (the Hebrew teacher and son of Yisroel Yitzkhok the glazier) was beaten very badly.
When we had to go into a car in a second train, the thirty men who were forced to clean the shul arrived, and we were not permitted to look at them nor were they permitted to look at us. Before we went into the wagon cars we again were searched and beaten. In this wagon car were also: Mottel Mendzelewski and his wife and two daughters, me and my own child, Pesakh Kanjer and his wife, Yitzkhok Kanjer's wife (Khantze Khmilirz') and their child, Eliyahu the ritual slaughterer (shokhet) with his wife and mother-in-law, Liftche Kuzhnicki and the son Shlomo Dovid Kuzhnicki and the daughter-in-law Feigel from Ostrolenka, and a couple from Pultusk with their four children. It was a regular passenger car. As soon as we went in, they covered the windows and locked the doors. This entire time I knew nothing about my parents. During the search, they beat Dvoira (a grandchild of the Kovaleks), so much that she lost her mind. They also mercilessly beat Itchele Pshikarski (the small Itchele).
Wednesday before noon, we left Nazielsk. One train went to the left, and one to the right. We arrived in Praga on Thursday night. At the station, Polaks threw bread to us and water. After that, we went to Siedlice, and also passed through Malkin. After going for a while, we stayed in one place until dawn. When it got light, we saw that on the other side there was the other train that had left before us, and we were positioned one opposite the other. We saw how families were torn apart. Pshikarski's daughter Soroh was in one wagon, and her child of six months was in the other.
They brought her the child. This was in Biale-Podlask. On Friday, some Polaks brought us food to buy. The first train stayed in Biale-Podlask and my train went to Lukow. When we arrived there Friday late afternoon, the Jews in Lukow welcomed us warmly. There I met my husband and my parents and my sister Malka. They came over to me. Shabbos morning, I met Meyer Blekher's wife and children.
When we got off the train, my husband's brother Hershel Mendzelewski from Legionnowa, met us there with food. In Lukow heard that Khaim Shlomo the shokhet was close to death. On Shabbos night (Saturday night), I, my husband, his parents, and my parents left by train to Warsaw. On the way, we met Dovid Rosenberg and Borukh Yosef Melnik, the father. We arrived in Warsaw on Sunday afternoon. I stayed with my child in Warsaw, along with my father-in-law and mother-in-law. My parents left for Legionnowa to my sister Dina. I worked in Warsaw, and after a few weeks, Malya and her child Khana, and I and my child Rokhel left for Bialystok.
In order to travel free on the trains you needed a special permit that cost a lot of money.
I went to Wolomyn to my parents to say goodbye and thanks to their help, I was able to get for a nice sum of money the much coveted travel permit. On the way from Wolomyn to Warsaw, I witnessed horrific scenes: Jews were murderously beaten, they were thrown out of rushing trains, and so on.
After a short time of being in Warsaw, we that is I, my husband Yakov and daughter Khana, my sister-in-law Malya and her child decided to go to Bialysotk via Siedlice. This was at the end of the month of February, 1940, in a terrible frost. We left Warsaw by train and arrived in Siedlice. There in the train station Polish hooligans beat us up, and a Jewish woman had pity on us and took us all into her house
In Siedlice, a Jewish woman gave us the address of a Polak
who would take us across the river into the Soviet zone.
In the evening, we left Siedlice and spent the night at this Polak's house, and the next morning we left for another village near the Bug River. At this Polak's house where we were, the border guard came in but didn't bother us. We crossed the Bug that night, in forty degree frost.
We continued to wander from one village to another, and we were also robbed on the way. An honest peasant drove us in a car. Finally, we arrived in Siemiatycze at a Jewish family, from where they took us to the train station that would take us to Bialystok. My brother-in-law, Yehuda Mendzelewski, was already in Bialystok earlier on. I lived there at the family Perlman on Kupiecka 19. I also met Golda Leviner, Yenta Spilke, the Nowogrodskis, Yisroel Wolinski, Fishel Sterdiner, Khaya'le Zakharek with her son and daughter, and Yitzkhok Wolinski. Once, when I was standing in my row, I heard that a woman from Serock was in the hospital and that they were planning to remove her leg. I left to go to the hospital and there I met Mindel Rosental (Labzhak's daughter). They actually had removed all the frostbitten toes from both legs. This tragedy happened to her as she was going across the border the same night we were. There were other Serocker in Bialystok.
We were there from February until the end of June 1940. Then suddenly, they started to send all of us refugees off. For that they told us all to get Russian papers we also registered to get Russian papers, but then we registered to go back to Poland and thankfully, because of that, we remained alive, since they sent us away from Bialystok on the echelons (trains) with all our bundles. We rode for several days with this train. The Russians gave us food. We bought food at each station, and quick help also accompanied us. Khava Barab and Eliezer Eikhenbaum were also with us.
The train brought us to a village where they sat us all on a type of boat and took us to another village near Wologda-Uz'le. Afterward .
we went to the village Wokoti where barracks were prepared one house for a few families. There was a bakery there and a general kitchen (mess hall). All you saw were trees and sky, it was very cold, and we had stove heaters. My daughter very soon got the measles. The men soon began the work of chopping trees. Bread was given according to a normal amount 800 grams a day. In the early times of work, they wore nets on their faces because of the flies.
I worked cleaning private rooms, then I worked at sharpening the axes and saws, and finally by cutting meter length wood. For the children they made a daycare and a school. There was also a laboratory. We were in this place for fourteen months until September 1941.
We couldn't go around freely, only within the district of the camp. We received mail from Warsaw, Wolomyn, and Ukraine. Faige Khaynower sent me several packages with money and needles for sewing.
In September 1941, they told us we were free. We selected an area from the map far from Moscow and Ukraine, and we went through the White Sea. (Thanks to Shikorski's arrangements, all the Polish citizens were freed.) We received food on the way, but the conditions were very difficult. We were taken to Kubisov, and from there to the Urals to the city Omsk. We worked there in a large electric station. There, were also: Yakov and Yehuda's family, and Yakov's sister, and Reb Eliyahu Aharon Rosental (the teacher) and the entire large family. The men organized themselves for work in the factory. Whatever one had, one sold. We suffered with hunger for three months after that I settled myself into a very good place, in a mess hall kitchen (dining room) where there were 5,000 people (I started as a cleaner). I moved up to the highest position to the key holder for the store, and portioned out the food. No one in my family was hungry any more. Yakov's sister worked in a bakery, Malya worked in a house, and so it wasn't so bad any more.
In 1943, I became very sick, and lay for half a year in the military hospital where they saved me. After I recovered .
I went back to work. Not far from our lodging, there was a center for all the Polaks, run by the Polish liberation committee, under the direction of Wanda Wasilewska. Our children studied in the Polish schools. There we also received products and clothing from America. We also got Polish newspapers such as: New Horizons and a Jewish newspaper The Star from Kubisov.
Correspondence with Poland was practically completely cut off. Occasionally we received letters from Simkha Grinboim, Avrohom and Feivel Pshikorski. I wrote a letter at the end of the war May 1945 to the magistrate of Biale-Podlask, inquiring about my dear ones. They replied that those living were: Golda Belison, Yitzkhok Kanjar, and a few Serock Jews.
At the beginning of 1946, we were given an order to prepare ourselves to return to Poland within the new Polish repatriation. The Russians paid us for our work and we began to prepare for our travels. We bought clothing, baked cakes, etc.
At the beginning of the month of March, 1946, we boarded good wagons and travelled for a month to Poland. As we arrived in Przemysl, and the NKVD (the secret police for the Soviet Union) said goodbye to us, took away our working booklets, and exchanged our Russian money to Polish money.
From Przemysl onward began a terrible and bitter route. We transferred over to another train that had wide rails and where there were many Polaks who were taken over from east Galicia to Lower Silesia in the new part of Poland. Civilian Polaks taunted us, cursed us, and shot at us. All the Jews grouped together into three special wagons that were headed only to Warsaw. In my wagon there was: me and my entire family, and also the families of my brother-in-law Yehuda and his sister-in-law Khaya.
Our train arrived in Warsaw at night at the end of the month of April, 1946, to the train station with the name Towarowe and we remained in the wagons for ten days. The day after we arrived, we received food from the Red Cross. We were actually of the first ones to return from Russia.
My brother-in-law Yehuda and I left for Praga to the General Jewish Committee, to find out about our dear ones and friends. The Committee immediately sent us food, sweets for the children, and a nurse to examine us. Everyone was happy, most importantly, with our little children.
Right after that, the Jewish Committee got us a place to live in the barracks of the former Hakhshara-place of the Hekhalutz in Grokhow (near Warsaw). We left the wagons and went to our new place, and we were there for the month of July, 1946.
The news of the huge destruction shook up all of us I was very depressed and cried terribly for all my dear ones.
Every day we went to Praga and at the Jewish Committee on Targowa Street we met the few remaining others. Once, my husband and I met Gitele Rosenberg (today in Silesia), who gave me the first greetings from my brother Yeshayohu Mai, who was in the hell of Auschwitz and who is today in Munich. This news (of my brother) brought a new life to my soul; I began to breathe more freely.
We were very encouraged (felt revived) when one day in the Jewish Committee we met the soldier from the Jewish brigade, Henikh Warshawski (Khanokh Werdi). We soon went to Grokhow and there he told us about those few remaining ones from our town who were now all over Poland, and also commiserated about our painful lives.
At the end of July, 1946, we left Poland via Czechoslovakia and came to a refugee camp Bad-Ebensee (Austria). There I gave birth to my son and received the first letter from my brother Yeshayohu.
In Ebensee the situation was terrible, and after three months we arrived at the DP camp Ansbakh, Germany (American zone), where we were for two years. At the beginning of 1949, we left Germany, and went to Israel via France on the ship Negba (southwards). Here began a new chapter of our lives.
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