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[Pages I-XIII]

Semiatych - Its Growth and Destruction

The Jews who lived in Semiatych for hundreds of years experienced varying conditions. Like the rest of their brethren in Poland, they knew times of suffering from persecution and oppressive edicts. And then there were spells of comparative calm, when they were able to flourish both economically and spiritually. But Jewish life in Semiatych was never so virile and dynamic as during the last period of Polish independence from 1918-1939.

During this time there were 8,000 Jews in Semiatych. In the first years of Polish autonomy, they had their own community (Kehillah) which conducted all local activities, and they even had their right to levy taxes.

Many of the Jews were occupied in trade, but a large number were craftsmen and some were laborers in the several factories which lay mainly in Jewish hands.

With the rise of the semi-Fascist Piłsudski regime, federal and municipal agencies imposed restrictions on Jewish tradespeople and craftsmen, weakening the economy of the community. Nevertheless the Jews remained, until 1939, the dominating force in local economic life, and also enjoyed great spiritual and social growth. The Jewish-Nationalist and Socialist Parties, which permeated Jewish life throughout Poland, also found a stronghold in Semiatych. All local political organizations conducted feverish activity in practical matters such as helping to build Palestine and organizing professional agencies, as well as in disseminating their ideologies.

A major role in local Jewish cultural life was played by the several modern Jewish schools. The largest of these, the Hebrew School “Kadimah”, subsequently engendered numerous pioneers (Halutzim), many of whom are still living in Israel.

At first, Semiatych, under the terms of the Russo-German Treaty - was occupied by the Soviets. The various Bolshevik edicts affected the Jews more severely than they did the rest of the population, and their spiritual and economic life was promptly extinguished. Later on the Nazis slaughtered all the Jews of the town - as will be recounted further on.

 

Destruction

Semiatych lay in that Polish region which was ceded to Soviet Russia in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty. The extinction of this sacred Jewish community was accomplished in two phases: First the Soviets paralyzed its spiritual and economic existence, and then the Nazis annihilated the Jews themselves.

Semiatych was initially occupied by the Germans ten days after the start of the Polish-German war. They stayed for twelve days, until the Soviets took over the town - and during this brief time the Jews of Semiatych had a foretaste of what would be their fate if the Nazis were to remain the sole rulers.

One of the first administrative steps taken by the Germans was the formation of a representative body of local inhabitants. The Nazis visited Chief Rabbi Gerstein and made him responsible for the community. Then they drafted Zundl Monczer and Yankl Rubins, as well as the town priest and an attorney - and on this group fell the burden of maintaining order. The first meeting of this so called representative committee, which was held in the Synagogue under Nazi surveillance, was quite “dramatic”. The Germans released a monkey to dance on the heads of the civic “representatives”.

The occupation of Semiatych occurred during the High Holy Days. Many Jews were afraid to go to the Synagogue, or generally to show themselves in the street. The Rabbi announced that “Kol Nidre” would not be sung at night, but at two o'clock in the afternoon on the eve of Yom Kippur. In the middle of “Kol Nidre” the Nazis burst into the Synagogue and sang the brutal “Horst Wessel” song. The next day, during Yom Kippur services, Germans filled the Synagogues. A great panic broke out among the worshiping Jews. Many jumped out of the windows. In the “Khay Odom” Synagogue on Drogoczyner Street, Yosl the Turner was shot while trying to escape and remained hanging on the window sill.

After such a tragic prologue at the hands of the Nazis the Jews were overjoyed when the Soviets occupied Semiatych on Succoth. They consoled themselves that now at least they would be sure of their lives. But there began other torments.

Almost all the stores were nationalized. Craftsmen's cooperatives were formed, but not all craftsmen who wanted to join were allowed membership. Craftsmen who were not Cooperative members were permitted to keep their shops, but the exceptionally high taxes forced these privately-owned enterprises to close down one after the other.

The merchant class was regarded by the Soviets as a political enemy of the new regime. Not only did the Soviet authorities confiscate the stores and factories, but they exiled the biggest merchants and manufacturers - mostly Jews - from the town.

Under these completely new conditions all the former Jewish culture workers became inactive. Some of them were sent away, and those who remained endeavored to be noticed as little as possible.

This total upheaval affected not only the economic but the spiritual life of the town. The heroic Kadimah School was immediately transformed into a Jewish-Communist school. The Talmud Torah and the Hebrew Schools were entirely changed. Jewish religious life was conducted under the shadow of fear and terror. Soviet authorities even tried to take over the only large Synagogue. But the Semiatych Jews showed great courage when they were threatened with the loss of their Holy Sanctuary. A delegation visited the city administration to try to intercept the plan to transform the huge Synagogue into a warehouse. Kalman Szwec, one of the delegates, said boldly, “First transform the church into an opera house, and then we will without protest surrender the synagogue for a warehouse”. After a long debate the Jews prevailed.

Despite all oppression and edicts, the Soviets were more humane than the Germans, and with the traditional saying, “From this, too, good will come.” The Jews set about rebuilding their lives as best they could. But this was not destined for long.

Although they reckoned on the possibility of a German-Soviet war, they did not think it was imminent. How suddenly and unexpectedly the war burst upon them can be seen from the following: The night before the German attack on Soviet Russia on June 20, 1941, there was a ball in Semiatych. It was attended, as always in recent days, by the German border patrol from the other side. At about 4 o'clock in the morning, bombs began to fall, signaling the start of the Nazi attack. The electricity in the hall was cut off. Panic-stricken and stumbling over each other in the darkness, everyone ran home.

By morning, the Nazis had occupied the town. There was a rumor that the Soviet general who was responsible for the defeat at the front had sold out to the Germans, and the Soviet defense was very weak.

Local Soviet officials had undoubtedly expected a German attack. Some of the Soviet personnel were evacuated. It is interesting to note that none of the Jewish communist leaders in Semiatych was evacuated by the Soviet authorities.

 

Semiatych Under the Nazis

The first Jewish victim after the second German occupation was Yankl Djum, Moishe's son. He was killed by a bomb. Of the Jews who fled to the surrounding villages on the first day, the Germans caught Jacob Tikocki and both his sons, Leyzer Tikocki and their mother Henye. The Nazis murdered the children in front of their mother, but did not touch her. But Henye Tikocki, demented by grief at the bloodshed of her children, began to scream that she would not leave the spot, and started to throw stones at the assassins; whereupon, the fiends shot her, too.

The escaped Jews could not remain long in the villages. The Germans ordered all inhabitants of Semiatych to return to their former homes, threatening death not only to the refugees, but to those who harbored them. Most of the Jews returned, but a small number took the risk and remained in their hiding-places.

Several days later, the Nazis rounded up all the Semiatych Jews and took them to the factory called “Melba”, situated at the railroad depot, 7 miles from town. Several gentile boys pointed to Yossl Fish and Meirke Snyder, accusing then of being communists. The two Jews were savagely beaten by the Nazis and then hanged, still alive, on the walls. Poles also pointed at Dr. Gelbaum, one of the leading Jewish community workers. He too was taken away and never returned.

The Jews worked at the “Melba” factory for several days. The building was surrounded by barbed wire. On the third day, the Pole Rude ordered all the Jews to form a line. He selected about twenty and they were sent away, as it later turned out, to extermination.

The Jews who remained in “Melba” were returned to Semiatych. There began for them a series of tyrannical edicts, persecution and indescribable suffering without end.

Local Poles helped the Nazis persecute the Jews. On order of the Germans they rounded up Jews in the streets, made them put on their prayer shawls and phylacteries, take the Tehorah-Board, tear down the huge Lenin monument which the Soviets had erected, and bury it in the Jewish cemetery. The captured Jews were beaten without mercy. J. Kohut, director of a school, was forced to eulogize Lenin and shout, “Down with the Soviet Union!” The Jews were driven to the cemetery through the river, and one of them, Moishe Kusedowicz, was drowned. On their return from the cemetery, they were forced to march between two rows of Poles who beat them from both sides.

Several months after the Nazi occupation of Semiatych the mayor summoned the Rabbi and ordered him to organize a Judenrat. The Rabbi invited the following: J. Kohut, J. Rosenzweig, Shimon Cipelwicz, Pesach Steinberg, Leyzer Schuster, Levine, David Noah Grushkin, and Mordekhai Grushkin. They all accepted and elected Rosenzweig as chairman. Neither the chairman nor the members of the Judenrat were chosen by the German authorities. They were selected by the Jews and worked for their benefit. Perhaps this was why the Jews of Semiatych had no complaints against their enforced representatives who were compelled to govern the Jewish community in a time of greatest peril.

The Judenrat had its headquarters in Israel Zuckerman's house. At the first meeting, which was held at the Polish school, the Germans ordered the Jews to surrender all their jewels, gold, and cash on penalty of total annihilation. The command was obeyed but the smarter and more courageous Jews hid their precious belongings.

Rosenzweig, the Judenrat chairman, immediately formed a Jewish police force of 12 members.

One of the first edicts which the Judenrat had to enforce was that all Jews living in Gentile neighborhoods must move to the Jewish Quarter. Jews were allowed in the street only for two hours a day - between one and three o'clock in the afternoon. To be seen at any other time meant death.

The mayor was very active in persecuting and tormenting the Jews. Once he ordered the entire Judenrat, with the exception of the chairman, to clean out the public sewer while every one stood around watching and roaring with laughter.

Another time, he drove all the Jews into the street and gave them bricks and ordered them to throw them at each other. In addition, the Jews were beaten.

Rabbi Gerstein had to undergo a terrible ordeal and thus save a Jewish soul. Hannah Chwilowski once went out into the street after curfew. A German policeman ordered her to stop. She started to run and entered the rabbi's house. She quickly told her story and was hidden. The policeman who followed her demanded that the rabbi give her up. The rabbi replied that he knew nothing about this matter. The German searched the house but couldn't find the woman. He beat the rabbi and threatened to shoot him, but in vain. The rabbi was arrested, and later released on high bail. Later, the rabbi explained to his congregation that according to law, he was forbidden to give up the hidden Jewish woman, because it was almost certain that she would be shot, and a Jew must not surrender another Jew to death.

Subsequently, the Germans began to demand that the Semiatych Judenrat supply them with Jews to work in other districts. The first time they asked for 20 Jews. The Judenrat took the following stand: If a family had three sons, one was taken for the labor selection; if a family had two sons - also one; but if a family had only one son, he was not drafted. When the Judenrat could not supply the required quota, the Nazis seized the rest on the street.

At first, nobody knew the fate of the labor draftees, as the Germans called them, for they were taken far away. However, when they did not return, the meaning of the word “work” became clear, and the Judenrat thereafter refused to conscript men for this purpose.

 

Three Months of Ghetto

From June 21, 1941 until November 12, 1942, the Jews of Semiatych enjoyed freedom during the two hours they were allowed to leave their homes. Later on, they were incarcerated within the ghetto which was surrounded by barbed wire and a special Nazi guard.

The Jews brought with them into the ghetto mainly soft household articles because most of their furniture had been purloined by the Nazis during various “house-raids”. The Jews also brought as much food as they could carry. Not everything arrived in the ghetto because the Germans ransacked the bundles in the wagons and kept whatever caught their eyes.

The Nazis herded into the ghetto, not only all the Jews of Semiatych, but also the Jews of Drogoczyn, Melnik, Nugets and the surrounding villages.

Space in the ghetto was extremely meager. In their dwellings, every person was allotted 1.1 meters, or just a little more than a square yard. The Judenrat tried to protest, but they were ignored. Some of the Jews could not find space in the buildings and were forced to take shelter in barns near the cemetery, or to dig holes underground.

Every resident of the ghetto received a special card. Every day Jews were drafted for labor details for which they were paid a pittance. But the ghetto did not starve, first, because most people had taken along provisions; and secondly, because food was brought in from the outside. For those who did not have enough to eat, the community kitchen supplied free meals.

Bread was supplied from a Jewish bakery outside the ghetto walls. The Judenrat supplied Hershl Plotnicki, who worked in the bakery, with a horse and wagon to deliver bread to the Jews.

On Rosh Hashana, the Jews received permission - for money, of course - to remain in the ghetto. Only a small group went to work outside the walls. Since all the synagogues were outside the ghetto, the Jews worshipped in private houses in groups of ten. Their prayers and lamentations reached the heavens. But the fiends would not even allow the Jews to weep. They rounded up all the men and in the center of the ghetto, where they were mercilessly beaten and their beards cut off. The Nazis forced Shime the barber to cut off the rabbi's beard. Then, the Jews were sent home.

The Semiatych ghetto was of three months duration. During this time, Jews were savagely tortured and many were shot - but all this was child's play compared with the events of Sunday, November 2, 1942, the beginning of the total liquidation of the sacred community of Semiatych.

In the middle of the night, the ghetto was suddenly surrounded by Germans with pointed guns. The Jews had been previously informed by J. Rosenzweig that the situation was desperate. At six o'clock on Sunday morning, they saw Rosenzweig running swiftly. Frightened to death, the Jews questioned him and Rosenzweig replied, “It's bad, my friends. We are finished. Save yourselves if you can.” The grim truth was confirmed by two Germans after they were given money.

A terrible panic broke out in the ghetto. People scurried around as though insane. One asked the other, “What shall we do?” and nobody had an answer even for himself. A deep gloom settled over the ghetto, dominated by one great question: Whence will come our salvation?

Early Sunday morning the Nazis indicated what they planned to do. German police entered the ghetto, seized four Jewish barbers and shot them. Yankl Orliansky was shot in the morning at the ghetto-gate while going to his job in the mayor's office.

On Monday, November 3, the first day after the Nazi encirclement, the Jews realized there was no hope, and some of them fled to the woods. But the Germans were hidden there, and they started shooting. Several hundred Jews were slain by the murderers' bullets. The rest had no choice but to return to the ghetto.

The old Judenrat was no longer in existence. It had different members, and was actually under the leadership of one person, the new chairman - Meyer Shereshevsky.

On the third morning after encirclement, the Jews were rounded up in the center of the ghetto, in rows of eight. Every eighth person was taken out. Children, the old and the ailing were thrown into wagons. Some were shot on the spot.

About 2,400 Jews were selected and marched to the depot. On the way several were shot down. The Jews who were crowded into the trains were told they were being taken to work somewhere in the occupied regions of Soviet Russia. Naturally, they did not believe the Nazis. If anyone still had the slightest doubt of German intentions, it vanished when the train arrived at Czeremcha. It became clear that they were being taken to Treblinka, and they tried to escape. In return for money, the Poles helped several Jews to get away.

All the Jews in the first transport from the Semiatych ghetto were brought to Treblinka, and the next day cremated in the ovens.

Some Jews disobeyed the German command of November 5th to assemble at the gate of the ghetto. They tried to save themselves by hiding in the ghetto.

On Saturday, November 8, 1942, the third day after some of the Jews were transported out of the ghetto, began the final liquidation. Again, the Germans commanded all the Jews to assemble at the ghetto gates. This time, not a single person was left alive in the ghetto. Israel Kravitz and Hershl Laidak were the last to help close the ghetto gates. They travelled in a German automobile to the depot, where the entire community of Semiatych Jews was being taken. Several Jews were shot at the station. The panic among the people was terrible. Their lamentations would have melted a stone. And whoever saw the frightened, pleading eyes of the little children will not forget it till his dying day.

Everyone was herded into freight cars. When those were filled, some of the Jews were permitted to occupy passenger coaches, including ghetto police and members of the Judenrat. One of these, Deitsch's son-in-law of the tile factory, swallowed a poison pill.

The freight cars loaded with Jews stood in the railroad depot all day. At night, when the train began to move, terror mounted. People kept asking each other: “Where are they taking us?” - but deep in their hearts they knew the dreadful truth: to extermination.

In other cars, there was more decisiveness during those tragic hours prior to death. One of the groups decided that if it became certain that the train was going to Treblinka, they would try to escape. When they became sure of their destination, the Semiatych Jews began to jump off the train, although it was moving at high speed. Eleven jumped, and all to safety. As agreed, they waited for each other until they were together again. The eleven were: Abram Wallach, Irving Morer, Israel Kravitz, Hershl Resnick, Rifka Gruskin, Max Gruskin, Kalman Goldwasser, Leyzer Resnick, Mates Tronowski and his wife Sonja, and one other.

J. Kohut, teacher of thousands of children, remained with his students through the final hours, travelling with them in the train. It was awful, and at the same time mystically glorious and reminiscent of eternal Jewish martyrdom to see Kohut and his students together on the way to Treblinka, singing “Hatikva” and other Jewish national songs.

May God wreak vengeance for this bloodshed!

 

Semiatych Jews in Treblinka

When the train with the doomed Semiatych Jews arrived in Treblinka, it was met by Germans with red ribbons, blue ribbons, and huge dogs.

The first to get off the train was Kalman Ribowski holding Rabbi Gerstein under the arm. The rabbi looked up at the sky and whispered: “Hear, O Israel!” (Shema Yisroel). Benye the miller carried his two crippled children in his arms.

The men, women and children were divided into three groups. Everyone had to strip naked although a heavy snow was falling.

The second transport contained 3,200 Jews from Semiatych. Of these, 152 were selected for labor and all the rest were thrown in the crematoriums the same day.

Krashewski, the Oberkapo (chief trustee in charge of a work detachment or particular branch of the concentration camp such as hospital or kitchen) from Polinitz, and Ignaz, former banker from Warsaw, ordered the 152 to stand in rows and empty their pockets of all belongings. Then they were taken to the barracks, where the lamentations were ear-splitting. Towards evening, they were joined by a group of Jews who worked in the coal mines. Coffee was handed out. Then, everyone said the evening prayer and the prayer for the dead.

Nine o'clock marked the beginning of curfew, and nobody was allowed to leave the barracks. At 15 minutes after 9, I. Kravitz walked outside and was immediately shot down. He was the first of the 152 Semiatych Jews to lose his life.

The next day, Monday, November 9, 1942, all the Semiatych Jews were transferred to two other blocks - 104 in one and 47 in the other. Then they were sent out to work pouring sand on the railroad tracks. Their supervisors were SS-Unterschrfuehrer Schwarz, Obergruppenfuehrer Stumpe, the Ukranian Olshanikow and others.

Schwarz, for some reason, took an immediate dislike to Siomele Farber, who always had a smile on his face. He called Siomele over and gave him several blows over the head with a stick. Siomele fell to the ground, bathed in blood. Shepsl Neplotnik and Barbanel the electrician brought him water and comforted him. They pleaded with him to get up and go back to work. But he couldn't stand on his feet. At 12 o'clock, Schwarz returned and gave Siomele another beating. In the evening, when it was time to take the train back to the camp, Siomele still couldn't get up. His friends carried him back to the train and brought him to the barracks. But he was not allowed into the barracks, and remained lying between the wires. Later Olshanski killed him.

The second victim of the 152.

Tuesday, November 10th the labor detail returned to the same place to carry sand. Schwarz beat Barbanel over the head with a stick until he died.

The third victim.

Wednesday morning, November 11, when the prisoners went out for roll-call, they saw numerous corpses lying about. The Semiatych Jews were sent once more to carry sand. That day a German killed Nisske Doliner (the youngest).

The fourth victim.

On Thursday, November 12, Schwarz killed Simkhele Priss at work.

The fifth victim.

The small group of Semiatych Jews in Treblinka realized that if this were to continue every day, they would be slaughtered one by one. Among the first to plan an escape from Treblinka were Meyer Pilchowicz, Lontchik the bookkeeper, Misha Doliner, Isaiah Neplotnik, Shepsl Neplotnik and Kalman Kravitz. They resolved to revolt at the first opportunity and then flee. The plan could not be carried out, because the next day some of the Semiatych Jews were sent to a different place to work - in Malkin.

On Tuesday, November 17, all the Semiatych Jews were sent to work in one place. Now the active planning group prepared the escape and informed the other Semiatych Jews in the labor detail of its scheme. Their only supervisors were five Ukrainians. Everyone was instructed to stay close to the Ukrainians. Yankl Doliner, the former secretary of the Hashomer Hatzair, was the leader of the revolt. Shooting had to be avoided, for the Ukrainian whistles might alarm the German guards. The guards had to be killed quickly with iron bars.

At the last moment, the plan failed because it was revealed to a Jew from another town. Thereafter, the Semiatych Jews kept their schemes to themselves.

On Tuesday, November 24, Semiatych Jews in Treblinka watched in stunned terror the following scene: Chaim Akam, the Betarist removed his coat and screamed: “I refuse to work for the murderers of my mother and father!” Stumpe immediately had him removed for extermination.

The next morning, Manek Blumenfeld stumbled over to barracks 13, moaning: “I'm starving to death! Give me a piece of bread!” and died on the threshold.

On Thursday, November 25, Kalman Kravitz's small brothers were taken to the camp gate and savagely beaten to death with an iron bar.

On Sunday, November 28, Samuel Szewc was taken for the “selection” - which meant death.

On the first candle of Hanukkah the Unterscharfuehrer Weiss and Schwarz became intoxicated and burst into the barracks, shouting: “Roll call!” The prisoners were driven naked out into the snow, where many were shot to death.

The first day of Hanukkah, the prisoners worked again at digging gravel. A small group was sent into the nearby woods to pick branches. It consisted of Meyer Pilchowicz, Lonchik and three Jews from Warsaw. Their supervisor was the Ukrainian Bube. As Meyer Pilkhovitz later recounted, the Ukrainian lay down on the ground and went to sleep. The three Warsaw Jews said: “Let's escape.” Pilchowicz replied: “Who knows how many Jews will be killed in retaliation?” The three insisted: “At least give us a chance to get away.” All five decided on the following plan: The three from Warsaw would escape and an hour later Pilkhovitz and Lonchik would awaken the Ukrainian and tell him what had happened. And so it was. The Ukrainian began to shoot, and the other guards ran up with bloodhounds. The Germans began to thrash the two Jews from Semiatych but the Ukrainian stopped them. When Meyer Pilkhowitz returned to the barracks, Leybl Morer asked, “Why didn't you run away? Haven't enough of us died already?” To this, Meyer replied: “Every man has his own conscience and his understanding. I couldn't live if others would be killed because of me.”

Three days later, while working in the gravel pit, the sentry on top of the hill called Meyer to come up to them. They took away his dark blue coat. One of the Ukrainians said to him: “Give us your gold and we'll spare your life.” Meyer had no gold with him. The guards made him lie down on top of the hill and pushed him down to the valley, and he was killed.

Three days later, while working in the gravel pit, the Ukrainian killed Samuel Priss with a pickaxe before his father's eyes.

About March 22-23, 1943, the Germans ordered all Jews in barracks C to go out to remove the snow. One of the fiends posted himself at the only door with an axe and with dogs, and as the prisoners emerged, he chopped one head after the other.

The days and nights dragged on in the most terrible vale of tears ever conceived by man. Death stalked Treblinka without respite. People fell like flies - from sickness, from bullets, from the axe. Everyone knew that if not today, then tomorrow would be his turn. A majority of the prisoners became so depressed that their will to escape the jaws of death became paralyzed. But there were a few who maintained hope and made plans to save themselves. Among the latter was a group from Semiatych.

Their scheme began to take shape in August 1943, after they had been in Treblinka for nine months. After their failure during the first week they were more cautious in preparing and carrying out their escape.

On a day in August, 13 Treblinka prisoners were at work building roads, supervised by the Kapo, Necheslov Chochko. Nearby, there was a forest. Kalman Kravitz, one of the 13, walked over to Chochko and said quietly: “The forest can save us.” Chochko struck him over the back with a stick, and replied in a whisper: “They know you for your big talk.” Kravitz said: “My life is in your hands.” Chochko thought a while and told him: “We'll talk later.”

The next day at work Chochko said to Kalman: “We can go together, if you swear not to betray me if we get caught.” Kravitz promised. They explained to him that in order to execute an escape, which involves great risks and drastic deeds, they would need underworld elements. He sent Kalman with his plan to Shloymele, a Warsaw thief: Stephan, a Warsaw bandit; Yakob and Motye, a horse-thief from Sokolov, who knew every corner of the region blindfolded. They talked with each of the four separately. At first none of them knew who was behind the plan. The escape-group later included engineer Yalowitz from Grodno, Shmulik from Falenitz, Moniek, altogether 13 men.

One day, Chochko told Ratenfuehrer Weiss that he needed reliable man for his labor detail. Weiss instructed Oberkapo Krachefski to allow Chochko to select his own workers. When Krachefski saw whom Chochko had chosen, he suspected that something was brewing. He sent his son along with the work detail as a spy. The son worked with the 13 men for several weeks. Chochko, who understood Krachefski's motives, gave strict orders to the Jews that while the Kapo's son was working with them they should not utter a word about the escape plan, nor cause the slightest suspicion.

When Krachefski's son left the group - probably his father's suspicions abated - the 13 resumed preparations for their escape. One day when they were collecting rocks in the forest not far from a Polish hut, Chochko asked the Ukrainian who was their only armed guard, “Want a whiskey?”

The Ukrainian perked up: “Sure!”

Shloymele went into the peasant hut and returned with whiskey, bread and salami. According to the plan, engineer Yalowitz was supposed to have put a sleeping pill into the whiskey, kill the guard and flee. But the pill did not dissolve and the bottle was quickly disposed of before the Ukrainian could notice anything.

But the 13 persisted. The next day at work, they again gave the Ukrainian some whiskey and this time the pill dissolved. When the sentry was sound asleep, Stephan beat him over the head with an iron bar until he was dead. They took his rifle; Shmulik put on his clothes, and they all went deep into the woods.

After several days wandering, they came to Karcev. Hunger was tormenting them. They obtained a little food from the peasants by polite words, and the rest by means of tricks and threats.

The main problem now was: How to find the traces of other escapees or hidden prisoners, and how to make contact with partisans? This was a very difficult matter, for several times, peasants had informed the Nazis that Jews were hiding in the district.

The group had to disband. The only native of Semyatitsh - Kalman Kravitz - started out in the direction of his home with the hope that he would find some of his townspeople.

 

In Forests and Bunkers

Although the Semyatitsh ghetto existed only three months - from August 2 to November 2, 1942 - it was immediately clear that death was inevitable. There were numerous attempts at escape, but many of them failed, because there simply was not enough time for the necessary preparations. The ghetto was encircled, very suddenly, on November 2, and its occupants had only one day's prior notice, which was too short a time to accomplish very much.

With the tacit agreement of the Judenrat, efforts were also made to purchase arms. Thus, for example, Shamai Plotnicki went to buy arms from the forest patrol in the village of Gerdchick. He was given a permit from the Judenrat, although the purpose of his journey was clear. His ostensible mission was the purchase of 100 meters of wood, an amount which was allowed to be brought into the ghetto. The arms were not to be used for an open ghetto revolt, but held in readiness until the time when the Jews who could make their escape from the ghetto into the woods would need them.

Between the first and second transports, on November 2-6, 1942, several meetings were called by the representatives of various parties: Hashomer Hatzair, Betar, Bund, and Hehalutz Hatzair. Without preparations, equipment or arms, they could accomplish nothing. However one decision was made: to destroy as much as possible. Motye Wiener shouted: “Burn everything to the ground!” Yankel Orishes' son: “Set fire to everything.” But they did not burn down, nor set fire to anything, because a day or two later they were all on the death-train for Treblinka.

Younger groups also wanted to revolt, mainly by joining the partisans, but they were not organized. The only partisan actions executed by Jews from Semiatych were performed by individuals, not partisan organizations.

Here it must be noted that during this period - the end of 1942 - there was almost no Polish partisan movement in the Semyatitsh district. Naturally, this had its effect on Jewish partisan attempts.

The first to make contact with the general partisans was Hershl Shabbes. He also supplied them with medication which he obtained in town.

During this entire time Hershl Shabbes lived outside the ghetto. He was the leader of the largest group of Semiatych Jews which several times also executed partisan actions, but its chief aim was to remain in hiding and help escaped Jews.

On November 15, 1942, Hershl Shabbes returned to the Russian partisans with whom he had previously been connected. He found a group of twelve Jews from Semiatych. The first command issued by the partisan leader was to find out whether the Jews had gold and money and if so - to return it immediately. Shabbes told this to the Jews, who concealed their gold under a barn. During one partisan raid 12 men were killed, including several Jews from the group.

Several weeks later new Russian partisans arrived in the district. A new leader, an Ukrainian, was elected. His first plan was to shoot down all the Jews in his division. He confided this to Hershl Shabbes, to whom he had taken a liking, and told him to escape. Shabbes immediately told Kalman Ferer who was with him: “You take half the Jews and I'll take the other half and we'll run for it.” Hershl took his sister, Civia and several other Jews and fled.

Subsequently Hershl met Sh. Kravitz. One time Polish (?) partisans captured them both in a peasant's hut and tried to shoot them. The peasants and his sons, who had previously helped the partisans, pointed their rifles at them, saying: “If you don't get out we'll shoot you.” After saving Hershl and Kalman from certain death, the peasant gave them a rifle before they fled to another district.

A number of Semiatych Jews who originally either did not enter the ghetto or later fled from the ghetto or the transports, subsequently met at various times and in various places, most of them with Hershl Shabbes.

When the eleven Semiatych Jews who had leaped from the train bound for Treblinka met later on, they were led by Lazar Resnick, who was well acquainted with the surrounding district. They spent a short time together and then separated. On the way, Irving Morer met two Jews from Semiatych: Shaiah Rothschild and Smulik Milner. A peasant from Malinove helped them, by taking them to potato-holes in the nearby woods where they were able to hide for several days. When the peasant refused to give them further protection, they separated. Rothschild and Milner were caught and shot, but Morer made his way to a place where he met Hershl Shabbes, Sol Kravitz and others.

The peasant who had been hiding Hershl Shabbes and others did not want to be responsible for so many Jews. They had to leave. Hershl Shabbes and Israel Kravitz went in one direction, Morer went in another. They made plans to meet again, in order to form an armed group which would search for other Jews. In six months they were able to reunite. They found two more Jews: Hershl Leib Shmalluk, and Chaim Brzizinski, making them now a group of five. Not far from the village of Krenek they later found twenty Semiatych Jews who were living in the woods, and informed them that neighboring peasants were shielding other Jews. The five went to them and convinced them that they should be better organized, obtain arms, and fight back. They also instructed them how to get money to buy arms. Chaim Marmor, David Solomon and Shie Kales of that group related that a Gentile in Lachowke was in possession of a large fortune which belonged to a Jew. Twelve young men armed with one rifle and sticks painted to look like rifles burst in upon the peasant, demanding that he return at the Jew's money and belongings. They divided this among themselves and the other Jews. They gave the more valuable items to Jan Machkoviak, who exchanged them for another gun. Machkoviak told them that his neighbor owned a great store of weapons, and here they obtained another gun through threats. With the help of Hershl Shmalluk and Chiam Brzizinski, they went to another peasant and got another gun. Now they had four.

With several guns and a larger number of adherents, the group began to plan more intensive activity against the peasants who were informing on or killing Jews.

A warning was issued to the district peasants that revenge would be taken for betraying a Jew to the Germans. And the Semiatych Jews soon proved that they would follow through. They learned that a peasant had caught Velvl Shoshkes, Israel Kravitz's uncle, and chained him to his cart and taken him to the Gestapo where he was shot. Several days later, the peasant was killed by a Semiatych bullet. This was the first act of vengeance, but not the last.

Peasants in the village of Skif slaughtered many Jews who had been hiding in the district. Shloyme Grude from Drogoczyn related that Gedaliah and Chone Kaplan barely escaped with their lives from the peasant who had shielded them for a short time. When warnings to the peasants were ignored, the Semiatych group went to Skif, salvaged fifteen horses and set fire to the village.

In December, 1942, a gentile from Naike captured three Jews, including Motl Blustein, tied them up and brought them to Drogoczyn. The Germans tortured and then shot them. The Semiatych group later murdered the peasant's entire family.

The watchman of the Malinov forest betrayed many Jews who later perished. He was also responsible for the death of eighteen Jews hidden in the forest. He informed on a young Jew who revealed their hiding place after grueling Nazi torment. The Germans then surrounded the forest and annihilated all the Jews who were hiding there.

Hershl Shabbes' group learned about this blood-bath by accident when they arrived in Malinove. An old gentile woman told them: “God has sent you here. It is time to repay the murderer for his deeds.” Shabbes' group went after the forest watchman. He reached for his revolver, but was quickly disarmed and shot.

After that the Shabbes-group wandered around the districts of Bielsko, Brainsk, Drogoczyn, Bielck, Wecoki, Meleichetsh. Here and there, they found a solitary Jew.

At the end of 1943, new troubles began. More and more frequently large groups of Polish partisans began to make their appearance. This was the National Polish Partisan Party - “Armija Krajowa” (“A.K.”) - who attacked and killed Jews in the forests. In the Brzezinski forest there was once a head-on battle between a band of “A.K.” and thirteen members of Hershl Shabbes' group. The next day, it was learned that the Polish partisans had lost more than twenty men, and the Jews not one. Such skirmishes, but on a smaller scale, were frequent.

Plotnicki and Meyer Grushkin once saved themselves by a sheer miracle, from the “A.K.” who attacked them and other Jews in the Yachinovke forest. They accused Meyer Grushkin of killing a gentile and were taking him to be shot. There suddenly appeared an officer of the “A.K.” - a teacher from Worchen, who was looking for Hershl Shabbes. The Jews said they did not know here Shabbes was, and their one desire was to survive the war. A peasant who had driven up with a wagon load of food for the Polish partisans, pleaded for mercy for the Jews and they were released.

Old man Krakowski from Brike was good to the Jews. Many Jews found refuge in his barns and granaries. But his son, Edmund, became friendly with the “A.K.” and with murderers of the Jews. A group of Jews who were hiding in a bunker sent Shloyme Grode to warn old Krakowski about his son. Then Krakowski was visited by a delega-

tion of partisans from Semiatych and Drogoczyn who told him that his son would be shot if he continued to help the “A.K.” capture Jews. From then on old Krakowski watched his son day and night.

The magistrate of Brike informed the Germans that Krakowski was holding back on the milk supply to them and giving it to the Jews. The situation became dangerous. The magistrate was soundly thrashed until he promised to keep quiet.

On May 6, 1944, Israel Morer tapped at a peasant's window in Narik and asked for a drink of water. The peasant went after him with an axe, but Morer escaped. Later, the peasant's house and barn were set afire.

After the liquidation of the Semiatych ghetto, it took a long time until the inhabitants of Semiatych and some from Drogoczyn formed joint groups. Some of the Jews remained in hiding in peasant huts or in the woods until the end of the war.

 

Liberation

In May 1944 the Red Army marched into Semiatych. The handful of rescued Jews from Semiatych, Drogoczyn and neighboring towns returned to Semiatych.

But even after liberation there was no peace for the survivors. Their lives were still imperiled by the “A.K.” who wanted to exterminate them, and many Jews were slain by their bullets. In Drogoczyn the first Jewish victim after liberation was Arie Blustein, and an “A.K.” bomb killed Simche Warshawsky. In Semiatych the miller, Benye Lev was killed by Poles. They put a bomb under Grodzitski's house, and a Jewish girl was wounded in the explosion.

After liberation, Hershl Shabbes and his group returned to Semiatych with their arms, which they surrendered to the commandant, and officially received new equipment.

For fear of attacks by the “A.K.” the surviving Semiatych Jews lived together in large groups. At night they stayed inside, fastening the shutters. But if Polish bands would try to attack Jewish homes, they were prepared to reply to fire with fire.

On April 6, 1945, there was a battle. A band of about 100 “A.K.” attacked the two-story house of Yudl Blumberg, which sheltered 28 Jews. The “A.K.” burst into the first floor, where there were no Jews, and started to go up the stairs. But the Jews opened fire with their one machine gun, operated by Yudl Blumberg, as well as with grenades, rifles and revolvers. The battle lasted all night. In the morning, a signal from the nearby Soviet base frightened off the bandits, and they ran away.

In the New York YIVO Archives, there is a confirmation, written in Yiddish with Latin script, that “Yudl Blumberg distinguished himself in courage, heroism and self-sacrifice during the attack on Semiatych on April 6, 1945.” The document is signed by Dr. Shimon Datner, chairman of the “Committee for the Jews - Bialystok District.”

The few score Jews who survived the holocaust did not remain long in Semiatych. Most of them emigrated to Palestine and other lands.

Once there was a town of Semiatych but it is no more. There remain only memories of this sacred community. The memories live in the hearts of its children, haunted forever by the eternal sorrow of: Yisgadal V'Yiskadash shemey rabo! Magnified and Sanctified be His Great Name.

Translated by Adah B. Fogel

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