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[Page 337]

Destruction and Holocaust

 

Musings
(10th Tevet)

Moshe Monaschwitz

Translated by Selwyn Rose

The radiance of our pure Holy Martyrs is before us in the town of Sokółka – our lives' common source and essence, the continuing thread of our souls.

East and west - day-by-day with the sunrise and its setting we saw in our town the whole world, and we learned to know the strength of nature as being beyond the strength of man, a power which fixes the day and the night, a constant war between light and darkness, a war in which we see the results in the sunset – a red sky at the western edge of town like a sea of blood growing and spreading to the north beyond the cemetery.

Seeing the sunset during our childhood, all the legends and stories of hell, sling-shots, and tortures by evil ones, were resurrected in our imaginations. As we grew older, a connection was made between the imaginations of the upper worlds and between the thoughts of our own world; a connection between my thoughts of sunrise and sunset and light and darkness in our lives; between the war of Nature's forces and between peoples and the blood-shed on earth.

Today if we were stand in the town and look westward – to the road leading to Bialystock – at sunset, with the red light of the dying sun above the mountains, we would think that it was the flames of the crematoria in the extermination camps that, together with the screams of the burned victims, reaching up to heaven and remaining as a permanent memorial to the generations.

North south – the road north - Ulitzki Street, as it was known in Sokółka - and by way of that street we accompanied all the deceased people to their eternal rest. In the light of the sun during the day and the moon by night – or home-made torches in the freezing cold of winter, alongside the open graves with marble or stone tombstones all around – there we mused on our first thoughts – each according to his own age and understanding – on life, the value of life, its coming and departing and on the one who was and is no longer and the time has arrived to grant him the last honor and respect.

Who uttered or prayed of another route to eternal rest, of a route from the south of the town, railroad tracks leading the old and young alike to the gas-chambers at the hands of murderers of mankind?

The railroad tracks at the south of town always attracted the interest of the youngsters for in them we saw the road to the big wide world beyond, to the far-off Promised Land so close to our hearts. There in that station, sons parted from fathers, brothers and sisters who had accompanied those on their way to Zion and a new life, accompanied by blessings and hopes that others will follow and join them, to increase the building-power and recreate the new-old homeland. And that southern part of the town became the road to extinction for hundreds of thousands of our people.

Sokółka our town – we breathed your air from the dawn of our lives, in your broad fields on the way to the river Kuryły or the forests of Szyszki, fields of wheat or lettuce, stream and silence, to see the farmer on his plow in the ripening fields – we made contact with Nature, your horizons broadened our thoughts, raised the imagination and influenced the planning of our aims for society.

And inside the town we were educated, we matured, we learned wisdom and the way of life, from our parents and teachers, but not less from all our experiences of being part of the town – its economic and social structure, its cultural life, public institutions, youth movements and above all – the Zionist activities that existed in her. Where we saw negative aspects we sought the positive, the sparks that we used as light to mark the road to our future lives.

Remembering the town of Sokółka, the cradle of our childhood and the source of our lives, we eulogize our near ones from whom we learned and qualities we inherit.

In remembering our pure martyrs – we remember to honor their memory and we will not deviate from their human principles in our own lives.


[Page 338]

Yizkor

Moshe Monaschwitz

Translated by Selwyn Rose

We remember our brethren, the Children of Israel who were killed, burned, strangled at the hands of the Jews' enemy, may their name be eradicated permanently for eternity from every language.

We remember the upright and innocents of our town – we remember the congregation of Sokółka that fell victim to evil, malice and defilation by man; we will unite our emotions for the Holy Martyrs of our town in the silence of mourning.

We will remember the cradle of our childhood, the warmth of our home and the family from which we suckled and which was the source and beginning of the thread of our souls – we will remember the home in which we learned to stand on our feet and to take our first steps towards life.

We will remember our parents, our teachers, our educators, who cared for us and nurtured within us the national and humanistic values on which we built our lives.

We will remember and not forget you, our town, Sokółka, the sources of Torah and knowledge that are in you and from which we drank thirstily – starting with the old “Heder” in which an angel threw silver coins from the top of the class-room slate in the shape of the Aleph-Bet, the Talmud Torah and Batei-Ha-Midrash from where the voice of the Torah and the chanting of Tanu-Rabbanan could be heard and occasionally the sound of “modern” singing from the “book of nature” bathing in stream and river, the relaxation in the shade of pine trees in the forests, the smell of the plants and the singing of the birds – all transported us to a hidden secret world…while the “Heder M'tukan” and the modern school – all of them held the foundations on which we able to stand firm against the storms of our life.

We will remember and not forget you, Sokółka, for the light and shade that is within you, the events that saddened our souls to the depths of despair and the joys that gladden our hearts. In the framework of our lives we saw the difference between those who were toiling in economic distress and those who were well-established, and as it were without the worries and cares of sustaining themselves. We absorbed within us the spirit and institutes of charity and mutual help and in their image we founded and established national social enterprises towards a correct society.

We will not forget, Sokółka, your courtyards, lanes, streets in which we lived the years of our childhood in games of running and hiding, their different forms and adaptations and before our eyes are the wide areas outside town, covered in grass and fields of grain in which we walked, in pairs or groups, to enjoy being in the bosom of Nature, where we saw “Wild fields and broad freedom”, in a land so near and yet so far, in our renewed Homeland and in our ears we heard the echo of a song blessing the people “From the tops of the mountains the voices split the air, O Lord – Go up!” And we went up – separately and in groups, we parted, in the Diaspora in family parties, in Zionist Federation meetings, in local branches of the youth movements, from training camps and here we met again in Palestine – in the towns, in the Moshavim, in the Kibbutzim, at work in the fields, in the factories, buildings, guard-duty and in the Hagana – and one thought and one aim united us all – to bring our families and relatives and friends here to join us and be reunited and together weave the dream of the exiled people and the vision of the recreated State,

In the dynamics of life, meeting that noble aim, we didn't feel – enough – the approaching storm in Europe, did not believe the shocking news that reached us and touched our hearts, the smell of the poison gas went up our nostrils, the echo and the cry of prayer of the martyrs led to the slaughter deafened our ears and together with them we cried out together: “Hear, O Israel…!”

We will remember and not forget you, Sokółka, about you we will talk and before you we will pour out the bitterness of our hearts for those of our countrymen, your citizens who gave a hand in helping to create the fence of barbed wire to enclose and hold old men, women and babes in crowded conditions of cold and hunger and suffering. Why didn't the earth shake and tremble beneath you in order to destroy the walls of the ghetto and the railtracks that were used to carry the trucks laden with our people to the extermination camps?

Why did you not cast fire and brimstone on the heads of these murderers of Man and extirpate their existence from your midst?

We will not forget our town, whose courtyards were trampled by wild animals of Man who trod in blood not yet congealed, among the dead who had not yet breathed their last, walking with conscienceless stride to plunder and pillage. In the shadow of your roofs in your houses, the haters of Israel sit at ease – they who closed their ears to the shouts and screams of children at the time they were torn apart from their mothers' bosoms, fathers separated from sons, sucklings from their mothers.

Why were the walls not split asunder, Sokółka, from the shouts of Man and the houses not destroyed and the streets not turned to rubble?!

Why was there no storm to uproot every tree, shrub, plant of the field and every living thing – and cleanse the evil and the pillage from the world?!

We will remember and not forget to unite the hearts of the sons of our town with feelings of utter sadness and mourning and may this memorial book which is before us, be used as an everlasting memory of longing, a magnificent icon to our suffering and from it a gleam will illuminate the way from agony and suffering to joy and happiness in the coming recreation of the State of Israel and the unity of our people.


[Page 342]

The German Invasion of Sokółka
(From an eye-witness)

Sonia Miller (Wohlgil)

Translated by Selwyn Rose

A few days before Rosh Hashanah 1939 the thump of the Nazi beast's jack-boots was heard for the first time in the Second World War. We did not yet visualize everything that was about to happen in the near future. We were stunned by the declaration of war and the lightning Blitzkrieg.

Fear gripped all of us in the face of the rapid advance of the despicable Nazis into the environs of our town. Since I was on the threshold of immigration I packed my clothes and the clothes of my parents, (Z”L) and a few of their belongings and we decided to hide them in the cellar of our uncle Arkin (Z”L). We thought, if the town gets bombed and we survive at least we will have clothes to wear; what we could scrape together we took with us. On one of the days of September the Germans invaded Sokółka. It was not yet dawn Sunday morning, a beautiful bright day. All the Jews stayed at home and didn't leave their homes, The Germans immediately gave an order to leave their homes and open the stores and businesses and to welcome the soldiers. That same first day they behaved well. They came into the shops to buy and they strolled around the streets of the town. That night they entered the house of Uncle Arkin (Z”L) and asked him for the key of the cellar, under threat, that if he refused they would shoot him on the spot. Of course he immediately surrendered the key and they took everything that he had. That same night we heard voices and shouts for help and we didn't know that it was our uncle (Z”L) calling for help.

The following morning he came and told us what had happened that night and that they had robbed him of everything. We were very sad for him but happy that he was still alive. But not for long; his fate was sealed like the rest of our brethren. Some short time later they told me that he had died of typhus, after treating the sick in the ghetto. On the second day of the Nazi presence (they were only there 3 days), I walked to the German Headquarters which was in one of the municipal buildings and spoke with the Obersturmführer (1st Lieutenant) and told him what had happened and he promised to investigate.

Later I learned that a Pole, a member of the Falanga (he sold newspapers on Grodno street), had informed on our uncle and his hiding place. The loot was sent by the Germans to their families.


[Page 343]

Sokółka Under the Nazi Yoke

Aleksander Kantorowski

Translated by Selwyn Rose

A. The First Conquest

With the outbreak of the Second World War on Thursday 1st September 1939 they fired rockets and there was confusion. On the radio they announced in three languages that war was imminent, that same night, before war had actually been declared, three airplanes flew scouting missions over Sokółka. The following morning the town heard an order for general mobilization of men, horses and automobiles. The men received uniforms and were sent to army centers in the field. Nobody slept that night but spent their time acquiring and storing food-stuffs. The mobilization was chaotic and unsystematic; the inspectors were unable to control the population. 4-6 days passed and a week after the outbreak of war Germans from Hitler's army arrived at Sokółka and entered the city via Białystok Street, over the bridge on bicycles, tanks automobiles and horses. They examine the town with field-glasses; the Jews began to hide in the cellars and attics. In town and in the surroundings, they came face-to-face with Russians and after a few days they broke into apartments and took people for forced labor; they stole radio receivers and bicycles. 4 days later the Russians came in from the direction of Grodno with tanks and infantry. The Jews of Sokółka were cheered and happy to welcome the Russians the first time. Although this time, they commandeered the bigger apartments for their officers. From the start, almost, they created a Jewish police force. Meyer Sokolowski was in charge of supplies for the Russian camps. They began to build an airfield on the way to Krishnan and brought Russian prisoners to do the work. The shops hadn't opened because the Jews weren't sure what stand the authorities were going to take and they were afraid but after a while they began to open them and the factories and life began to return a little towards normal. A short time later, the Russians took over the government. Sokółka was flooded out with refugees from the German-conquered territories and they were housed in the synagogues and the various charity organizations' relief homes; the congregation of Sokółka did what they could to help but their conditions were hard. The whole time they were in their homes they at least had a bit of food and comfort but as soon as they left that secure place their circumstances became very precarious. The airfield was nearly finished and after a couple of months the Russians strengthened their hold in the town. They began to sequester the leather factories and organized cooperatives for carpentry, shoe making and tailoring.

 

B. The Second German Invasion 1941

One morning we heard airplanes coming; they bombed the airfield on the way to Krishnan. At first it was thought that it was some kind of military exercise of the Russian army but very quickly it became clear from an announcement that this was real war. The Russians became confused and panicky and were unable to retrench and take up a position. They began packing up their equipment and leaving town. The communist youth in town received arms from the Russians army and they began to leave town too. It was a frightened retreat - by car, on foot by truck and wagon; whoever could, did what they could to get out and join the Russian army retreat. The Russian authorities in Sokółka began destroying all their documents. After a day or two, they relieved themselves of their arms, changed their uniforms for civilian ones and mingled with the civilian population in order not to fall prisoner to the Germans. The Polish farmers now came to pillage and steal, breaking into Jewish houses and taking whatever came to hand. Another few days passed and the German army broke into town from the Białystok-Dubrowa direction, on bicycles and tanks and set up a camp next to the Russian church. The Jews of Sokółka again shut up their houses, closing the shutters and hiding in the attics and cellars The Germans entrenched themselves a little and then began to look for arms. They broke into houses, questioned people and asked if there were any communists or armaments in the place. They began to organize a civilian police force.

Botchkowski-Kaschukwitz Boliak was made commandant of the Ghetto, Tchitchiko chief of police in which Poles took part and they began to mobilize men for forced labor, to clean the barracks and the streets – and they began to bother the Jews. The shops were still shut and the factories were not working. In the beginning the Germans sequestered the products in the factories and afterwards commanded that all the furs should be brought as they were needed for the soldiers. When they demanded more workers the Polish police went round the houses looking for Jews for that work.

Edict followed edict. An announcement was published that it was forbidden for Jews to walk on the sidewalks, they were ordered to wear a yellow band on their left arm and a Magen-David on their back. The Jews of Sokółka sold everything they had in order to maintain some semblance of normal life under the intense pressure. In 1941 the Judenrat was formed. At its head was the attorney Friedberg and taking part was Yosef Broide. The office of the “Yiddische Komitat” was in Grossberg's attic. At the same time an order went out that all Jews in Sokółka must congregate in the ghetto – the area of Bad-Gehssel with the entrance at Kondzhinski.

A Jewish police force was formed; the inspector was Paltiel Stein (Palk). The policemen were in civilian clothes except that they had a white band on their sleeve. The ghetto was enclosed by a 3-meter high fence. In Białystok Street there was a gate and a cabin in which sat a German policeman, next to Isaac Arkin's house. The job of the Jewish police was to carry out all the orders the Germans told them to do; forced labor, taxes and the rest of the edicts.

A bakery was installed in the Great Synagogue. Once the Germans and the Poles ordered some Jews for work and they found one in a house, sitting and studying. They caught hold of him and dragged him outside accusing him of being involved in war work and on Sunday morning they brought out all the Jews in Sokółka and Kaschukwitz sat him in a chair and ordered him to cut his beard – but then countermanded the order and demanded that he actually pluck his own beard. The Jew didn't utter a sound. They told him to stand up and turn round and when he had done so Kuschikowitz started to beat him with a stick and didn't stop till the man was dead. After him they brought out Schorr and ordered a few Jews to tie him up and stand him on his feet, and they beat him cruelly. Then they told him to climb the fence but while he was climbing they shot him and he died on the spot. One night, they collected 25 men and marched them in darkness to Kuryły and there they shot them.

Inside the ghetto, it was very cramped and the Germans gave permission to dismantle several houses from outside and re-erect them in the Synagogue courtyard. The synagogue itself became a store-house for produce and a bakery to make bread. The Batei-Hamidrash became living quarters. One day we were told that they were taking all the Jews to Kiełbasy. They brought all the Jews from Janów to Sokółka – and all of them together were transported to Kiełbasy, Friedberg came up with the idea to give the Germans “blood-money” to have the order countermanded but the Judenrat rejected the idea and they immediately began removing the Jews.

In Kiełbasy they were crammed into cabins; Nadler was the commandant of the Gestapo. The food was bad; they collected all articles of value in sacks and passed them on to a Commissar; it was Friedberg's opinion to give a fixed sum but it wasn't given willingly and the money stayed with the Jews, accordingly they were ordered to give the money and everything they had to collect it all in sacks and give it to the Germans – to Rindler. They took Friedberg, his wife and 2 daughters with the grandchildren and told them that if the money wasn't produced within ten minutes they would be shot on the spot. Friedberg had no time to add another word; they shot him, his wife and 2 daughters.

After a few days they began to send transports from Kiełbasy to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Once they collected about 20 men and told them that anyone who left family in the factories in Sokółka could rejoin them as a united family. They managed to stay together a few more weeks in Sokółka. The Germans decided to make Sokółka “Judenrein”, they loaded the Jews onto cattle-wagons and sent them to Birkenau. As soon as they got off the wagons a “selection” began – who will live and - who will die.

In 1945 after the Germans retreated and the Russians captured Sokółka it was a town without Jews. The Poles had broken in to all the houses and wee settled there comfortably. One Jew, who came to look for his family's property was murdered on the way there.

(recorded by Esther Mishkinski)


[Page 346]

The Last Days of Jewish Sokółka

Haya Leah Kaplan*

(Recorded by Tsvi Nafkha-Kowalski August 21st 1946)

Translated by Selwyn Rose

About one week from the outbreak of war, at the beginning of September 1939 – The Germans entered town. They remained 3 days and left. In their place came the Russians – without any military action. During those same days the Poles tried to create disturbances against the Jews, trying to incite them to retaliate and robbing their shops but they didn't succeed – the Russians came and order was restored quickly. The Russians administered the town almost for three years. The large businesses were closed, some of the rich were exiled. Those of the middle-class suffered economically but illegal trading – the black-market – flourished and somehow even the middle-class made a living.

Suddenly on the 22nd June 1941 Germany declared war on Russia and the following day, early Shabbat morning the Germans broke into town. Their first visit was to the new Beit-Ha-Midrash in which Jews were sitting and studying; they were thrown out into the street rudely and aggressively with many threats: “Did you congregate in order to pray for our downfall and defeat, you damned Jews!? Soon we're going to destroy you all!” And indeed, the following morning, Sunday, they began to defile the Scrolls of the Torah in the Beit Ha-Midrash. Only in the Karliner Shtiebel the Hassidim, at great risk to themselves, managed to save and hide 2 scrolls. After a few days the Germans ordered a few notables to prepare a complete list of every Jew in Sokółka. The order was obeyed. The order was given for every Jew to leave his house in a week's time and congregate in the market square – men, women, old, young, babes in arms – even the sick.

Before the frightened assembled community, the following orders were read out:

  1. Jews are forbidden to walk on the sidewalks.
  2. Jews will wear on their left arm a white Magen David.
  3. Jews will obey every order given to them at whatever time fixed by the authorities.

The “parade” in the market square lasted about 4 hours. They dragged one Jew out of the assembled people who had a long full beard and plucked it cruelly causing terrible pain and distress, while they laughed uproariously at the “fun”. At the same time, several hundred Jews were chosen to work. Everyone returned home except those who had been selected. They returned in the evening. The men's work was cleaning rooms of the authorities, clearing weeds from courtyards and some hard work at the railroad station. The women were employed laundering the army's underwear, cleaning toilets and so on…All the workers returned home safely at night.

When the Germans entered Sokółka all the shops closed and work stopped. The bakeries passed to the hands of the Poles and the Jews were forced to buy bread in rationed portions from them. The Jews were forbidden from drinking fresh natural milk and had to buy adulterated milk from the Poles. The Militia was Polish, under the control of the Germans.

After about two weeks about 100 Jews were selected from the work platoons in order to transfer them to work with the horses in the area of Białystok. One of them who didn't know how to look after horses was shot and killed on the spot. Apart from that incident all of them returned home safely. A month later they started snatching Jews on the streets. Under arrest were Avraham Eisen, Grossberg, Benjamin Krugliak*, the town hazzan, Benjamin Tarczyn, Elhanan Koppel and others. They were loaded onto two buses and since then all trace of them was lost. Rumor had it that each and every one of them was shot after they had been kept in prison for about two months. The information of their deaths was substantiated by the fact that the prison authorities refused to continue receiving parcels for them.

Because of information supplied by Poles, 2 women were arrested: Elke Nordwind (née Katzenellenbogen) and Bascha Tarczyn and they were imprisoned in Białystok. They were taken out and executed together with other prisoners. All of them fell in the shooting. Elke also fell and was tossed into a common grave with the others but there was only a thin covering of earth on top of her and she was not seriously hurt. She succeeded in escaping when it was dark and got to the ghetto in Białystok; there she survived until the end came for the Białystok Jews.

The officers and men bullied the Jews at every opportunity and with great cruelty. There were many incidents where an officer or soldier would stub out his cigarette butt on the cheek of his victim, especially the young and pretty girls who worked for them as house-maids. The more brutal and cruel the act was, the more popular it was among the Germans. A Pole informed on a Jew called T. Schorr. The Germans took him and tied him to a telegraph pole of sorts in the middle of the street - soldiers, and civilian Poles took turns in beating him. Jews were also forced to beat him – even family members. The murderers refused to kill him immediately but to torture him slowly and the Jew absorbed blows for three days before falling dead.

When the Germans entered town they created the “Judenrat”; the members were Moshe Broide, Yosef Broide, Yitzhak Friedberg and Gottstein (the son-in-law of Avigdor Goldberg). Using the Judenrat as an instrument, the authorities would get to the entire Jewish community with all its demands. Except for isolated incidents of kidnapping and robbery all the essential acts perpetrated against the Jews were carried out by the Judenrat at the demands of the Germans. After some time the Jews were ordered to deliver bedding, furniture and jewelry to the Germans who had already managed to bring their families to Sokółka to join them and they needed to furnish and decorate their apartments. That process of torture and torment and degradation lasted about 4 months.

On Simhat Torah 1941, which fell on Monday, the order was given to move to the ghetto. Even though the order was terrible, it caused no surprise to the Jews in town; they were already prepared for it because they saw the preparations, the erection of the containing walls for the purpose. There was a difference of opinion among the Jews: there were those who said that after the Jews were enclosed in the ghetto, they would all be burnt, others said the death would come by shooting.

The ghetto shrank to a small narrow area. It began at May 3rd Street and continued westward in the direction of Białystok Street as far as the house of Molly the baker – the street that leads to the bath-house. 3rd May Street - the part going south - was included in the ghetto – the windows of the house had been blocked because they faced outside the ghetto. The entry to the houses was by side-approaches because walking along 3rd May Street and Białystok Street were forbidden approaches. All roads and approaches were blocked by walls that had been built round the ghetto. The first wall of the ghetto was alongside the house of Altear the butcher, and the last one stretched as far as the home of Molly the baker. The ghetto included, therefore, only a small part of the town: the vicinity of the house of Tichoczynski, the synagogues, the Fodal as far as the rail-tracks to the Winkwitz house. The main gate to the Ghetto was built in Warsaw Street next to Shai the carpenter.

That same festival day – the day of our rejoicing our freedom, all the Jews of Sokółka moved into the ghetto. The Germans allowed the Jews to take with them everything they wanted to. (The Germans knew only too well that in any case everything the Jews had would eventually fall into their hands). In many instances the German guards at the gate checked everything and whatever they fancied they took. The overcrowding in the ghetto was appalling; the Germans decided that 2 square meters per person was adequate, so small rooms were sufficient for 16 people and there were those who were happy to enter the ghetto because we would be removed from the eyes of our “good neighbors” who laughed at our calamity. Within the closed walls of the ghetto the vengeful eyes of the Poles could see our degradation but those among us were mistaken if they thought that by closing us within the ghetto there would be a release. The kidnapping of people for work continued. When the highway between Sokółka and Krynki became snow-bound it was the Jews who had to clear the road. And even Jewish women were taken for that work.

In order to maintain order within the ghetto, the Germans created a Jewish militia. The men of the militia suffered much from the regime that governed them and several of them escaped and ran away to the ghetto in Białystok. Both within and without the ghetto, bribery was rife; by its use one could obtain some lightening of the burdens but even then only for a brief time. The Jewish cemetery was not included in the ghetto and was without access. So the Jews created a new cemetery within the walls of the ghetto in the Marcus courtyard, Warsaw Street, and there they buried their dead. When the Germans entered town one of their first orders was to forbid the children to obtain any kind of education or to pray in public. Nevertheless a few children did receive private lessons, although in great secrecy. The same applied to praying in public. The Synagogues and the Batei-Ha-Midrash had become living quarters; otherwise the ghetto would have been inadequate for all who came to it, even under cramped conditions. In any case, the Jews prayed “publicly” but in private rooms and secretly. Here we must mention to their credit the Jewish militiamen who warned everyone praying of the approach of Germans, giving them the opportunity of dispersing quickly and quietly to their homes.

In the ghetto there was also a Jewish doctor and the Talmud Torah became a hospital. Medicines we managed to acquire in the ghetto but only by subterfuge and smuggling. Help for the sick was well organized and they were supplied, illegally, with available medicines; such was the case with eggs, milk and so on. People of financial standing in the ghetto generously paid the taxes levied upon them in order to sustain the hospital and the rest of the public needs. Lack of money did not appear to be a problem because there was nothing to buy with it. The Jews knew before going to the ghetto what was likely to happen so they sold whatever they could to the Christians so that they would have a few coins in their pockets.

One bakery opened up in the ghetto – that of Molly the baker. There, one received 300 grams of bread a day. The bread was rye and from the rye, matzoth were also made when Pessach came round. Meat was also smuggled into the ghetto but the Haredim refused to eat it because its status of Kashrut was suspect. By the way, even while they were outside the ghetto it was forbidden for Jews to buy certain food necessities from Christians in the open market for fear it had been contaminated by contact with the Christians.

And another thing – no one complained in the ghetto about the cramped conditions and no one looked badly at his neighbor. The great tragedy that had befallen on one had touched everyone. If one brought an important item home he would not hoard it for himself but would share it with others. No one wanted to exploit someone else's distress. When a family was caught in a stressful situation with no way out, everyone shared in the misfortune and did their best to help.

Sometimes in the ghetto, the life of an unfortunate or isolated person was harried by the Germans. One day, early in the morning, there was a surprise order for all the Jews to leave their houses. The edict also included the old, women and babes in arms. Under heavy military guard everyone was brought to Warsaw Street. There we were ordered to stand to attention for four straight hours with the Germans blaspheming and abusing the Jews with their best lexicon, beating mercilessly anyone – young or old – whose strength gave out and could no longer stand straight. The Jews were then informed by the Germans that they alone were responsible for the war and that they caused all the bloodshed in the whole world and it is only right that they should be punished – and the only fitting punishment for their crime is that they should all die. In the same speech it was pointed out that neither the Americans nor the British were rushing to help the Jews. After the community had heard these lectures they were allowed to return to their homes.

After a while the Germans changed the format a little and a third time the Jews were made to congregate in the pig market. The community stood to attention as commanded and the Germans abused and blasphemed as was their custom with ferocious anger, whipping and kicking them and screaming curses. The Christian neighbors came in their hundreds to watch and enjoy the spectacle but this time, too, the people were allowed home although many of them with crushed organs,

All the time they were in the ghetto, the Jews had no idea and no information on what was going on outside in the great wide world – but not only in the world – even in the surrounding areas. Very incomplete and superficial information came from people who entered the ghetto from outside or on their return from their work day. But it was impossible to get a good idea of what was happening. The Jews didn't even try to come into contact with the outside world – for example – the Germans were prepared to give permission for someone to accompany a sick person to Białystok but no one wanted to go.

A big anxiety gripped the people at Purim, when the Germans appeared and brought out the town Rabbi – Rabbi Schuster – from his house and took him under heavy guard to the prison in Białystok where they beat him and tortured him cruelly, then murdered him.

Depressed and hounded, the Jews lived their miserable lives in the ghetto for more than a year until the bitter day – the 2nd November. On that day the men of the Gestapo appeared and announced that every single Jew with no exceptions must go home and stay home and that no one should dare to even try to look out of the windows. Everyone was to wait inside their homes until they received an order from the Judenrat – and indeed – the order, when it came was not so bad, it was that the Germans were in need of artisans and competent tradesmen to work outside the ghetto under good conditions and therefore everyone who wanted to volunteer should register their names and those of their families immediately and they would be transported to their new place of work, a place that was not named.

The number of people who registered was not small; the people were naïve and thought they were really being offered work and that an opening to their salvation was at hand. It seemed that they had to remove from the ghetto only the tradesmen who had registered. But in fact it was not quite like that…at 5 o'clock in the morning the order was given that everyone in the ghetto, including women and babies, must go to the ghetto entrance immediately. Frightened, confused and pressured the Jews ran to the place and there the men of the Gestapo were waiting by the gate. They were then given another order – that all the workers in the boot factory will continue to work there and they need not go to the new place of work. (The factory was inside the ghetto limits; it had earlier been the leather factory of Haim Berl Stein). With whips in their hands they began to divide the people – who will go and who will stay. That selection was conducted with the utmost cruelty and took about 4 hours. They separated members of the same family by force and without mercy. Those who were going were loaded onto wagons that had been prepared and were waiting by the gate on May 3rd Street. About 200 people remained in the ghetto and they were joined by another 200 unfortunates from the surrounding villages who were immediately informed, together with the remaining 200 that the new place of work was Kiełbasy about 4 kilometers from Grodno on the way to Suwałk. On that same day the Jews of Janów were transferred to Łososin. On one of the wagons that went was laid a sick man – Moshe Haim Shapira the milkman who had not yet recovered from his previous illness with his lungs, and he died. The Jews dug him a grave alongside the road, but the Germans hurried the work along and the grave was only half dug and the body barely covered with a layer of earth.

There was communication between the remainder of the folk from Sokółka and those who were on their way to Łososin, and something was known about the conditions existing there. When they arrived they were housed in pits dug in the bare ground with a thin head covering. The contamination was appalling as there were no sanitary arrangements whatsoever. The ration of bread was very small. Additional morsels of food were sometimes obtained from the local Jews in Grodno and also left-overs from Sokółka. They were at the camp at Łososin about 6-weeks (in this camp there were also thousands of other Jews from the surrounding area) and after some time they put them all in rail-cars and they moved them out to somewhere – not one of them ever returned. The Jews who remained in the ghetto knew that they would be passing through Sokółka. They gathered along the fences that enclosed the railroad and using small openings were able to look out over the tracks through the cracks and crevices and see how the people of their town were being transported to somewhere and to hear the shouts and cries of the passengers split the air as they passed Sokółka. It made one's hair stand on end. Apparently the miserable travelers also knew they were passing through their town. A few of them threw little notes which were brought to the Jews by young Christians who had picked them up and delivered them for a small payment. One small note was from Shlomka Stein – in it she asked her daughter Bilka, who remained in the ghetto, and also remained alive, just one thing - vengeance. Neither the exiles nor those who remained knew where they were being taken. To Majdanek or to Auschwitz? Neither does anyone know exactly the day of their death. No one survived to tell the tale from that large transport who can tell us. According to estimates they were exterminated at the beginning of January 1943.

After most of the Jews of the ghetto had gone, the Germans reduced even further the living area and erected a special camp that held about 20 houses into which they moved the remainder of the refugees. They stayed in that camp until 18th January 1943. That is to say for more than three months, during which time the work outside the ghetto stopped completely and only the boot factory continued to function. The regime became ever more exacting and harsher than it had already been. People were scared to walk around even in the narrow confines of the Ghetto because of the ever-present threat. On the 18th January the order was given: “Judenrein”, and under a military guard the remainder were taken to the railroad station where they met together with Jews from Krynki and all were loaded onto filthy cattle-trucks. The entire transport went straight to Auschwitz. As they got off the wagons they immediately underwent selection. Most of them were sent to the gas-chambers and were incinerated the same day – 25th January 1943. From among those separated, 33 women alone remained alive at that time. These young women were killed in the following selections that were carried out. Six of them – for all that – remained alive: Mrs. Kaplan and her daughter, Bella Stein, Rahel Maleski, Bracha Friedman, Rebak and one man Yekutiel Goldgleid. The young women, Yenta Adin and Yehudit Lavendig asked the authorities to kill them now – out of turn – because they just didn't have the strength to fight for life any more. Their request was granted.

The same day – 18th January 1943, when the survivors were put into wagons one of the doctors of the hospital managed to get about 25 people out, among them Mrs. Kaplan and her daughter and they were transported by bus to Białystok and put in the ghetto there. The fate of the 23 is unknown but the mother and daughter remained alive in the ghetto in Białystok until the final “Aktzia” which took place on 16th August 1943. (With the entry of the Germans in Białystok about 2000 Jews were crowded into the synagogue and the building set ablaze from every side; all were burned alive, among them Zindl Khinski of Sokółka who was trapped there).

Even after the great “purification” of Białystok there remained a few hundred Jews, who were hounded from place to place. Thus was the fate of Mrs. Kaplan and her daughter – who were later separated and neither knew of the other's whereabouts. After all these wanderings to the prisons in Grodno, Łomża, and Stutthof, near Danzig, she arrived finally at Auschwitz on 18th January 1945. The distance between the camp and the crematorium was about 150 meters. From the camp all that went on could be seen and heard. It is not possible to describe and print the details of the strangulation of victims and all the horrifying events associated with that place

One man from Sokółka – David Yatom – was murdered in Auschwitz by being beaten to death with planks of wood; Shimon Greiver was the last of the people of Sokółka to be burnt in the crematoria and with that, the destruction of the congregation of Sokółka was completed. A community that numbered more than 3000 souls – less than 10 were alive after the Shoah.


[Page 354]

In the Ghetto[1]

Benjamin Kotler

Translated by Selwyn Rose

With the outbreak of war, all the young men of the town were mobilized into the Polish army. The center was in the barracks of Sokółka. We received only rifles. After a week the Germans entered on motorcycles and began to requisition and confiscate all property and the skins in the leather factory. They were in Sokółka a week and after them came the Russians who were in town for a year, until the Germans fell upon the Russians. During the Russian occupation everyone was busy with his work under Russian control. To get bread you had to stand in line. Many Jews from town were sent to Russia. There were those who thought that in Krynki – since there was no train – it would be quieter and many went there but suddenly an airplane came and dropped a bomb and many who were gathered together were killed. After 3 months the Germans collected all the Jews into the ghetto, from Feivel Kramer's house up to the house of Herschel the blacksmith and from there to the railroad.

During the period of the ghetto the Germans took the Jews for forced labor. A Christian from Sokółka named Nitz joined together with the Kommandant of the ghetto in persecuting the Jews. The Jews were ordered to report to the ghetto at a certain hour, they collected a little of the possessions and ran for their lives. The ghetto existed until 1942. After that they transferred nearly everyone to Kiełbasy near Grodno. That was a place where Russian prisoners were kept and there they died under torture. On the walls was scrawled: “Whoever was here never got out alive” and here began the torture of the Jews from Sokółka. Food there was none; frozen potatoes were cooked for soup and that was all the food there was.

From Kiełbasy we were taken to the ghetto in Grodno, where we were installed in the synagogue for a few days and then taken to Auschwitz. On the way, people jumped from the train: Mendel Kotler and others jumped – near the barrier in Sokółka someone jumped and broke his back. The guard phoned the Germans and asked what he should do with the Jew. For some reason the Germans said: “Leave him.” But he walked to the hospital and there he met his brother who had also jumped from the train and been injured. Mendel was sent to Auschwitz and they shot Yitzhak and left him believing him dead. But he managed to bandage himself with a towel and asked a Pole named Gablinski for help; he was given some butter which he rubbed on his wounds and they slowly healed. After five days the Germans came looking for him but the Christian hid him and didn't inform on him to the Germans.

Yitzhak was in the forests with the partisans. He got a rifle from the Christian that he retained until he found the partisans that night. In Grodno he hid in a bunker in the cemetery with his wife and daughter.

 


Footnote:

  1. A collection of testimonies, 10th February 1960 Return


[Page 355]

Sokółka – Without Jews

Nissan Tichoczynski, attorney

(Impressions of a visit to Sokółka in December 1944)

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Summer, 1944, all day the thunder of artillery and on the radio the deep voice of the Jewish reader Yuri Levine is heard: “Moscow announces: Order of the day from the Higher Command of the Red Army”. The heart starts to beat faster. I am all tensed up and listening. Only yesterday they announced the liberation of Grodno. “The ancient Russian city,” in the words of the reader, a bitter smile comes to my lips, what is ancient history to me: a Russian town, Polish or Byelorussian? For me, Grodno is the last stop before my town – Sokółka.

And today the radio announcer is naming them one by one – towns and villages and among them Sokółka. The heart is full and brimming over, the wings of my imagination carry me from distant Kharkov, where I have been for the last year, to Sokółka – my town, to her streets and lanes, the forests of Szyszki and Bucholowa, wrapping round her from the north and east, the river Kuryły meandering up from the south.

I see in my mind's eye the charge of the Russian army and the running German soldiers in panic and again the voice of the reader: “…towns liberated” – Liberated? Really? The towns the houses, the streets. Can it be true? And the people – where are they? I saw with my own eyes what the Germans had done to my brethren, the sons of my people! I saw the mass graves in the vicinity of the tractor factory in Kharkov, the trenches in Babi Yar, in which are buried tens of thousands of Jews, slaughtered at the hands of the Nazis, I passed on foot with the Russian army across the wide Ukrainian steppes, tens of villages and not a single Jew in any one of them: the newspapers and broadcasts are full of descriptions of the German atrocities, of the total annihilation of the Jewish population. But the heart is not sure. Is it possible!? Are there no Jews in Sokółka? Has the town really been emptied of all its Jews?

For half a year I was here and there with the army. The thought that Sokółka was liberated and I had no possibility to get there to see her, gave me no rest – until one day in December 1944 my commanding officer – a good-hearted Armenian, granted my request and gave me a mission that would allow me to make a side-trip to Sokółka.

Thus I started out on a winter night with my back-pack on my shoulders. The train traveled slowly, the stops seeming longer than the journeys, at every station many people getting on and off, others strewn on the floor of the car, soldiers going to the front or returning home injured, war refugees, allies, mourners, starving people, sleepless people – every one with only a small pack of food and a big pack of troubles.

We pass across fields of Byelorussia. Everything destroyed down to the foundations, towns become piles of rubble, still-glowing embers reminding us that here was a city, villages with people in them, people who toiled and suffered, were happy and danced and now they are cemeteries stretching for hundreds of kilometers. Here and there among the rubble a human, doubled up searching for the remains of his house, his happiness gone forever.

My eyes wonder at the dark dismal sight. I wipe the window with my sleeve now and again and look at the scenery. Three years ago I passed this way on my way to Moscow from Sokółka. Everything was green and bursting with life – and now? My heart contracted, does my town look like this as well? In another two days will I stand among the ruins of my home and grope for the rubble of my life which has gone forever?

Getting closer to Vilna I see the first Jews of my journey: partisans from the forests, refugees who managed somehow to get here from far-off Kazakhstan, Toshkent and Karaganda – lonesome travellers whose patience ran out waiting for an official release to return to their homes and see for themselves what the enemy left them.

The rail-cars are jammed with the people, sadness impressed on every face, nevertheless, even in the midst of that medley of people in uniforms all huddled up one suddenly sees a pair of distressed eyes, sadness shouting out loud from deep within them – and the nose – leaving no doubt in one's heart, that is a Jewish nose; you move cautiously closer and whisper slowly: “A Yid?” and his voice answers affirmatively; he also identified me as such – wait! Where have I seen you before? Aren't you by chance the…? You begin to leaf through your memories rushing through the pages of your memory stopping fractionally at each station of your life: No – my mistake, I don't know you but so what? He's the relative of a relative, blood of my blood. Because blood doesn't flow in our veins any more – it has all been spilled.

The train approaches Grodno. I rush to find the address of a friend from university. We met by chance during the war in distant Moscow and since then we have kept in touch by letter. He got here earlier than I did – about two months ago he got to Grodno. The way to his house is long. I pass through the whole town. Everything is strange and foreign. Grodno – a town and metropolis in Israel – without any Jews. I have already crossed the entire city and I haven't seen a single Jew.

And here I sit in my friend's home. He tells me what is happening in town. The owner, a Russian woman who remained at home in Grodno all the years of the conquest, enters the room. She sits down and joins the conversation. Another moment and she is the only one talking while we sit and listen assiduously to every word…The whole story; the total chronicle of the horrifying events, the ghetto, Kiełbasy camp, the death trains to Treblinka and Auschwitz.

In the evening we go to visit a Jewish family that was hidden all the years of the Holocaust in a cellar. There the entire Jewish group from Grodno meets – about 15 people, each one with his own frightening story, every story a long scroll of fire, saturated in blood and tears.

All night long I couldn't sleep and couldn't close my eyes. I counted the hours until the crack of dawn and I could continue my journey. There were 40 kilometers remaining – one hour's journey and I'm home! Home! Fate had the last laugh! Although I was disappointed I wasn't too late. In the morning I was informed that there were border guards near Kuźnica and there was no passage across the border; Grodno is in Russia and Sokółka is in Poland. Three days I ran around seeking advice but was unable to acquire a visa to cross the border into Poland – and to smuggle myself across? – that means running the risk of a bullet or eight years' imprisonment. In the end I decided to enter the “lion's den” - the office of the Military commander of Grodno. I found him in an elated mood. Polished, erect and dressed to military perfection, I stood before him at attention and saluted. I explained that I was on a military mission and to the best of my knowledge, the unit to which I was directed had been moved to the environs of Białystok. “So?” replied the officer, “Go to Białystok.” And how am I to cross the border I asked. The Commander stretched out his hand for my papers turned over my travel warrant and orders and wrote across in large clear letters: “Allowed to cross the border.” – and signed his name. “Is that all?” I asked somewhat timidly, “What about a stamp?” “No need,” he replied – “everyone on the border knows my signature.”

With shaking hands, I took my “documents of redemption” back and with my heart pounding from joy I thanked him, saluted smartly and about-turned. In the corridor my friend waited.

Nevertheless, my joy was diluted with anxiety for what would happen if the border guards refused to honor the pass of the commander and sent me back the way I came? With all my doubts I didn't hesitate a moment, I got to the city approaches leading south to look for a ride.

A few minutes later a military vehicle appeared. All the people looking for rides were military personnel, with me among them. We all got on the truck and – I was on my way to Sokółka. The vehicle moved slowly, my patience wearing very thin. Every minute seems like ten and I keep peeking between the cracks of the truck to catch a glimpse of where we are.

At last we arrived at the border. We all got down from the truck. An Uzbekistani soldier from the border patrol checks my papers and my soldiers' identity card. In a slow drawl and loud voice he reads the Commanders comment “Allow holder to cross the border.” I hold my breath in case he asks me something, investigates, demands, make problems? But he turns to me and says in a serious but pleasant voice – “O.K. – Pass.”

Two paces forward and here I am over the border, in Poland. All the soldiers whose papers had been checked are gathered in a group about 10 meters ahead from the crossing to the Polish side and wait for a ride. The truck passes the border, stops and we all climb back on and we are already traveling on roads belonging to the People's Republic of Poland. The fields covered in white; I look around. These forests of Litwinovka and Sosnosvtza I know.

I recall that here was the Jewish estate of Amiel, - yes, they are the parents of my relative Gittel Amiel, and there over the other side of the road on the right only a few kilometers away is the Neider's estate, the Jewish poet Leib Neider the pure Epicurean-souled, sensitive renowned lyric poet who was plucked from life at such a young age.

Memories crowd into my mind from childhood, when we were all together on the Neider estate, my relations, the Gowinski family from Sokółka; in the summer-camp of “Ha-Shomer Ha-Tza'ir”. Here is Kuźnika, the Jewish village – we pass by tiredly, and here is the little village Kryptophzia* here also we had many a summer camp from “Ha-Shomer Ha-Tza'ir”. Where are the happy days of childhood?

The truck nears Sokółka. Here is the look-out tower on our left. Around it we would gather as Jewish youths on Lag B'Omer. In my memory tents, camps, waving flags, torch parades – all come back to life; I close my eyes and I see myself a child in khaki shorts, a blue neck-tie, marching along with tens and hundreds of friends, to the beat of the drum. Flags waving above, torches illuminating the way and we, sated with happiness and joyful experiences return home…At the approach to town we are met by ruffians, stones and bricks in hand but they wouldn't dare to start with us, sneers in their eyes, but in our eyes also contempt for them. We are proud of our Jewishness and hold our heads high…And now we are approaching the center of town. Our parents, brothers and sisters are waiting for us with impatience. Everyone returns to his home to the bosom of his family.

A swinging of the truck round a corner returns me to reality – where are all my friends of those days? A few of them are in Palestine, most remained in Sokółka. How did the fates treat them? We have arrived. The truck drives down Grodinski Street, an ordinary street with houses still standing, smoke coming out of the chimneys, a few people walking the streets, we approach the town center. I see open shops. The truck stops. I get down from the truck, weak at the knees from sitting. I look round me, where should I go? In which direction should I turn?

People pass by me. There are many like me in town – soldiers in uniforms of the Red Army; the war is still on and the front not so very far away, so nobody took much notice of me but all of a sudden a passer-by glanced at me and immediately his eyes pierced me with another searching look. He stopped in his tracks and paled; our glances crossed three times – Tichoc-zynski!” He shouts in an excited and emotional voice, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, where did you come from? Are you still alive? Not possible!”

People crowd round us, faces I recognize – The Daszut family, the Mudrawitczes*, the Matzkiwiczis*, the Wyzyuks* and the Yarutzes*, a few come close, shake hands, but apart from that keep a distance. Among the surprised cries I notice again and again the word – Zhyd. “Yes they said that there weren't any more Jews in the world,” I hear suddenly. And there are, there are – I reply that in a while all the Jews of Sokółka will return! How I wish I could believe my own words, I think to myself in my heart - but in my heart, perhaps I should tell them that – to these people that stole, inherited and perhaps even murdered.

The crowd dispersed; near me a few stayed behind, among them some old neighbors. They invite me home, to rest, to eat. I'm still standing and hesitating when Bronek Daszut, the barber, drags me to one side and whispers in my ear that it's not a good idea for me to wander around the streets.

On my way here I had already heard about gangs of thugs, men of the Armia Krajowa (People's Army –and underground Polish militant organization with a distinct anti-Semitic nature), that spawned all over the area, attacking Russian soldiers from ambush and falling upon Jews – the remnant refugees, and simply murdered them. These gangs would stop trains, drag out and kill on the spot any Jews, Russian and even Poles loyal to the new government, they found. I knew that so far as I was concerned these thugs had a double “account” – one – I'm a Jew and two – as an active “agent” in forging a Soviet presence here from 1939-1941 although for the moment my curiosity was stronger regarding what had happened to my town of Sokółka than was my concern for my personal security and safety and I decided to wander round town, come what may.

The town was complete – all the houses still standing, just as they were when I left three years ago. One conspicuous change was in the center of town: two rows of shops opposite the Paraslova church had disappeared and a broad plaza had taken their place spreading from Alikam's hotel as far as the Starosta's building, part of it planted as a garden and part as an open paved area of extra-large rectangular paving stones. Białystok Street – as usual – its shops open, although in the opening of the shops were strange faces, most of them Polish – but not locals.

And here I am facing the building of my teen-age girl-friend, Rahel Malski*. The house is occupied, I knock on the door and go in. The people are surprised – what is a Russian soldier doing here – moreover a Jewish one? I speak to them in Polish, explain to them who I am and why I am here. Their panic grows, I calm them because I didn't come to turn them out from the house. Of the owner of the house, they know nothing. The house was outside the ghetto and the owners inside the ghetto. I stand speechless…They look at me with angry eyes, although my thoughts are in another world. I see shadows, dear images of people who walked and talked between these walls. It seemed to me that I could hear the voice of Taibe: “Kumt arein – sezt zich” – “Come in – sit down”. Ruche'leh az ervais oif aveila, sie kumpt gleid zurick.” – And behold I hear the sound of her footsteps tapping across the courtyard. Now she's running, getting closer, I hear her happy laugh. I'll hide behind the door and surprise her and when she comes in, I'll grab her from behind and give her a big hug. But there is no Taibe and no Ruche'leh. Only an angry faced Christian woman staring at me, impatient, grumbling under her breath as if she were saying: “Get out of here, Jew, why are you bothering us with your visit?” But my feet are stuck to the floor; I remain transfixed for – it seemed like – an hour, seeking a remnant, a memory, a shred of something to recall what was…but – I find nothing; everything is strange. The smell of cooking cabbage rises up my nostrils, sour cabbage and frying lard on the range and on the wall looking at me the sad eyes of Jesus – the Jew!

I part from the place. Who knows if I'll ever see it again? Leaving the courtyard I stop one more time. For hours I would stand next to this entrance on clear moonlit nights and delay the parting. But this time I am alone; there is no one here to say: “See you! Bye!” I won't come back here again. Another burnt bridge behind me and I must march forward – because that is life's command.

I walk past the courtyard belonging to Stein – the seminar, a short-cut to the butchers' street. Here is the property of my grandfather Shmuel Tichoczynski's (Z”L) property; the same house, the same long courtyard. I don't go inside; I just take a peek through the wicker fence. Strangers are walking round in there. I recognize a few of them as being locals. Someone spotted me - Mr. Tichoczynski – he comes to me – “All this is your property; what riches, what riches, you must stay here!” A bitter smile crosses my mouth: if I do stay, a kingdom is awaiting me – in the graveyard.

I recall my mother, Oh, how happy I am because she emigrated in time to avoid all this.

The local people milling around me are looking at me in bewilderment. Even the tenants came out, approached me and finding out who I am, invite me inside but I can't cross the threshold. “I didn't come to lay claim to the property,” I call to them – and leave.

I continue on my way. I pass Isaac Alskowski's lane and get to Berman's house, to the room I stayed in before the war, with the Kaplan family. My room is taken, Poles live there. These rooms had already changed hands twice. Who lived here before the war? They don't know. Do they know that Jews lived here? Where are they? Exterminated - obviously. They are surprised to hear that I was the one who lived there.

Anxiety grips them that perhaps I had returned to retake possession of my room. I calm them; no – I haven't returned – only to search, perhaps for some remnant of mine that maybe got left behind, a document, photos…I look all over the house, up into the attic, looking in every corner. Not a thing. The new owners smile: “You won't find a thing, sir. The Jewish ghetto has been “plowed over from end to end”, they dug and groped in the rubble; everything of value was taken – all the rest, burnt, gone.”

And so, there was nothing more to do. I went into Dashuta's house. All my old neighbors are waiting for me. Suddenly the door opens. An old man comes in; he falls upon my neck and kisses me; it's Piotr Jaruczki, the landlord in whose house we lived for many years, since we returned from Russia. The Christian hugs me and cries: even I can no longer control my feelings and tears flow from my eyes. We sit down together and he tells me all that has happened during the years I was away.

Until darkness they sit and tell me and I listen: “Ghetto, forced labor, hunger, shootings, hangings, the exile to Kiełbasy, Treblinka, work-camps and transports to Auschwitz. There is no doubt, not one of them stayed alive: and yet…?

On the other side of the wall lives the Russian commandant of Sokółka; he sleeps here and comes into our room. We admit who we are. He knows more about me that I think. The rumor of my presence has spread all over town. He advises me to stay here all night because there is no safer place in the whole of Sokółka – Outside a sentry is on duty all night long and guards the house and its occupant(s).

The following morning I continued my tour through the town; I went to the neighborhood of the synagogues. The Padół; the great synagogue had become a store-house for farm produce, and placed under guard and was unapproachable. The Padul was burnt. I ramble around the neighborhood, here the “Tarbut” school, there the “Talmud Torah” “Batei-Ha-Midrash” and the Shtiebel. Here, I spent the happiest years of my life; here I first learned the precept of “Love they neighbor”, the people, the distant homeland, the old-new language. I wonder about the “few” who turned vision into reality and immigrated, and the same “many” who remained in the place and were slaughtered at the hands of the enemy.

Every stone, every grain of sand was saturated with memories. Only three years ago, here, was heard the sound of babies, the Rabbi's house, here laughed and played children and now all had fallen silent, silent for eternity. The heart overflows and there is no one with whom to exchange a word. No one is here who will understand. Here you look at the faces around you. They saw – and were silent! Were they only silent? How many of them had a hand in the deed? Who among them gave a glass of milk to a starving baby and how many of them had a hand in the looting? Who among them smuggled a loaf of bread to a starving family and how many of them assisted the Nazis in their murderous slaughter of thousands?

I look them in the eyes and see no sign or sense of guilt. They are alive. Go – open their suitcases and their bundles and you will find the fur coat of your relative, the Shabbat clothes of your friend, the jewelry of your girlfriend! Sodom and Gomorra exploit the destruction: Cannot it be so – that here and there among them were a few righteous ones? Who will show me one who endangered his life to help! In vain I searched Sokółka. Here and there I heard of a country farmer or family that hid a Jewish boy, was discovered and everyone was taken out and executed. Who were these heroes? I didn't know, neither is their burial place known, so I could not pay homage and honor their ashes – only their memory.

It was getting late, I had to return to my unit; the three days in Grodno had not left me much time for Sokółka – perhaps it was just as well, I have nothing to do with this place any more. It time to part from my town Sokółka forever. Nevertheless, I cannot go without parting from my father, who died when I was very young…Only a few memories are left to me from his time, although I felt his absence for many years, day after day hour after hour. I remember my mother eulogizing him every evening. How can I not visit his grave? And so I made my way to the cemetery. I walk past the houses along Ulitzki Street – the road that leads there.

More than once I thought about that street: it's the street of the dead! Here, one day, they will carry my coffin on their shoulders to the end of this street, they will bury me in the ground…and that's it. I would start trembling at the thought. And now – they are all dead – no one accompanied them, no one buried them. Their bones were burnt and the ashes spread over the fields throughout Europe. The wind is blowing. Perhaps it will carry on its wings the dust and ashes from the crematoria of distant Auschwitz to their true home here in Sokółka.

Inside the cemetery I meet Takczuk*, the tall Russian, the notary's clerk. He knows me and accompanies me. Reverently I enter the cemetery. The fence is destroyed, but where are the graves? Mounds of earth are piled up but no tombstones! I pass between the rows in vain looking for the grave of my father, grandfather – I find no sign of them and suddenly – between the bushes and weeds, I see a tombstone. It is leaning on its side. With trembling hands I turn it over and read the name of my uncle – Mordecai Tichoczynski (Z”L).

I ask Takeczuk to explain and he tells me that the Germans took all the tombstones from the Jewish cemetery and paved the city square with them. At that moment I understood that my feet had trodden on the gravestones of my people, my brethren. The ground burned under my feet – I couldn't take any more. I have to get out of here as fast as possible.

I return to my neighbors' house, the Dashuta's and the Lerotzki's. They try to convince me to stay, to sell the property, but I can't hear them. With my pack on my shoulders I hasten to get out of town.

The military vehicle is standing in the city square, I run towards it and manage to jump aboard just as it starts its journey northwards, towards the border.

Tears fall from my eyes, I wave my hand to say farewell to my friends – and to Sokółka, my Sokółka. You will be in my heart forever.

 

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