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[Pages 158-187]

At the Height of the Decay

Chaim Yehuda Goldberg (Melbourne)

Chaim Yehuda Goldberg
Chaim Yehuda Goldberg

The year 1939 will be forever engraved upon the history of the Jewish nation. On the third of September, the Germans invaded our town, Sokoly, and immediately threw their terror over the residents. They were armed and armored from head to toe.

The first evening after they came, they set fire to the houses on Tiktin and Lomza Streets, and all of them were burned down to the foundations. That night, the Germans went from house to house, robbing as they went.

They brought a group of Jews to a suburb of the town, near the Bialystok road. There, the Jews mumbled the Vidui [prayer of confession], thinking that the hour of their death had come. Those who tried to escape were shot while running away. Among these victims were: Alter Novak, Alter Slodky, Kalman Yankel, the two sons of Baruch the Shamash, 17-year-old Riva, and a 15-year-old youth. Immediately, more victims were added.

I lay in a field far from the town and looked at the flames and clouds of smoke above the town. The shouts of the Germans mixed with the echoes of the hand grenades exploding within the burning houses and the flames were reaching toward the heavens. That night, I thought the end of the world had arrived.

That Rosh Hashana, the Jews did not go to pray in the Beit Midrash, but they organized prayers in private homes, and whispered the prayers so that the Germans would not hear them.

Jews were driven out of their homes and the Germans ordered them to equip themselves with spades, hoes, and other tools. In the old marketplace, the evicted ones were divided into groups and organized for jobs, such as: cleaning all of the roads of dirt and garbage; unloading and loading of cargoes on military vehicles, oil drums, crops, and many other things, as well as the washing and rinsing of vehicles.

They broke into the shops and warehouses, and stole everything. They didn't find any merchandise in the shoe store owned by Itzele, son of Yisrael Chaim, so they stood him next to his shop and threatened him with a pistol, so that he should reveal where he had hidden his merchandise. Trembling with fear, Itzele pointed out a dugout in his barn, which was covered with firewood. The Germans loaded two full crates of leather and ready-made shoes.

In various places, the Germans grabbed young girls and raped them in broad daylight. Many girls wore old, threadbare dresses belonging to their mothers, so as to appear old and ugly.

Two Germans went up on the roof of the synagogue and tried to take apart the magen David [star of David] that was there. When they saw that they were not able to do so, they destroyed it as much as they could and went down from the roof, cursing as they went.

There were Germans who requested from everyone they met to hand over everything they had in their pockets.

We also met some good Germans, who claimed that they hated the War, and who related decently and generously to the Jews. They showed us pictures of their families. One of them told us that he had participated in the Spanish Civil War. They added that the Germans would soon retreat from our area and that the Russians would come in their stead. We were very amazed at hearing what they said. It was hard for us to believe that such a thing would really happen. And indeed, the night after Yom Kippur we saw how the last Germans disappeared and it became as quiet as after a wedding. The quiet did not last very long.

After the divisions of Germans withdrew, convoys of the Polish army, who had hidden in the forests for a number of weeks, began to gather in the town. They arrived in farmers' wagons and filled the entire market square.

Immediately a rumor spread that the goyim were planning to conduct a pogrom among the Jews. Everyone hid in his house. Mothers began to worry about the fate of their children. Thus, three days of tension passed in a mood of panic and fear of the evil hands of our oppressors.

On the eve of Sukkot, at noon, good news spread through the town. Hardly any time had passed, and immediately a Soviet soldier, riding a white horse, appeared in the market square. He occasionally would slow down and ask something of passers-by; he turned around and disappeared.

The Jews were still afraid to put their heads out of their hiding places. After an hour, they saw, through the cracks in the doors, that a truck had stopped in the marketplace, and in it were soldiers of the Red Army, armed with rifles.

Poles whom we knew to be wastrels and irresponsible members of the underworld surrounded the Russians. No time had passed, and already these Poles wore white ribbons on their arms. They apparently had become police and law observing. That same evening, the soldiers of the Red Army marched through all of the streets and on all of the roads. They came from the Bialystok road and moved in the direction of Lomza – Garjewo – Malkina, where the border was set between the Germans and the Russians.

The houses of the Jews of Sokoly became crowded and narrow. The two main streets, as mentioned above, had been burnt down. Wysokie-Mazowieckie, fifteen kilometers from Sokoly, was completely burnt down, from one end to the other. Most of the wounded and burnt people from there came to Sokoly. Our Jews had to crowd together more and more, in spite of the previous crowding, and to give up their comfort.

The Russians grabbed places for themselves in the length and breadth of the town, in private homes and public buildings. The new and old synagogues became hospitals. Every house and storeroom had to always be prepared to house officers. The crowding in Sokoly grew and grew from day to day. Private businesses were closed down because of the heavy taxes that the Soviets imposed on their owners. Craftsmen were forced to organize themselves in cartels. The economic situation became worse from day to day and it was difficult to make a living. Those who were professionals also could not support themselves and their families on their daily salaries.

One fine morning, a rumor spread in the town that on Friday night, people had been taken out of their beds and sent to Siberia. A new fear seized the Jews of our town. Among those who were imprisoned were Gedalia Slodky and Leibel Zilberstein and their families, and Alter Novak's wife.

The skies above the population darkened. On Sundays, there no longer were soccer competitions between the towns, as had been customary. Suddenly, all of the political parties and movements disappeared. The youths were forced to register for the “Komsomol,” and were no longer to be found in the houses of prayer. Also on Sabbaths and holidays, the study halls were half empty. Turbulent public arguments stopped completely. Everyone reminded everyone else of the saying of Chazal: “He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from trouble.”

In the public schools, during the regular learning hours, the Soviet teachers conducted a propaganda campaign against religion. More than once, children came home from their school with tears in their eyes. They complained to their parents that the teachers were defaming the holy Torah and the commandments, the forefathers, the Sabbath and the holidays. In the spring of 1941, only the elderly and young girls remained in our town, because all of the youths had been drafted into the army and were sent to serve in cities far away in Russia, or on the borders with Germany, where they worked on fortifications.

I also was drafted into the army and was sent to the labor battalions, to Osowiecz-Grajewo. All that month, we learned military science. Since they had not yet found us a permanent location, we were sent every day, after exhausting and difficult marches, most of the time wet from the rain and freezing with cold, to villages, to the homes of poor farmers. We lay on the hard floors, without a bit of straw to put under our bodies, and without any blankets to cover ourselves.

Photo - Sokoly Soccer Team, 1938

Many of us began to cough and itch. After a month, they transferred us into huts. The wind blew in from every direction and the rain unmercifully wet the hard bedding. We did not have enough time to lie down and rest, because the summer nights are short and the days are long. We worked until a late hour of the night and went out to work at dawn.

The huts were in the village of Rybaki, five kilometers from the place where we worked, and therefore every day we had to travel on foot both ways. When we began to work in our area, there still were green fields of crops, and the potato plants were blooming. After working three months, it was impossible to recognize, or to believe, that previously, there had been fruitful fields here.

The area of the field, five kilometers long and five wide, was dug up on all sides. Trees were uprooted, wells were stopped up, water pipes were removed, and in their place the field was paved and prepared to serve as an airstrip.

We were four battalions of workers. The battalion who would arrive at work first would take all of the tools that were in the storerooms. Those who came after them could not find anything to work with. Generally, they lacked working tools, and most of the time the battalions quarreled over them.

The food was scantily distributed. There wasn't enough bread. Men fainted from general weakness in the middle of their work.

On Sunday, June 22, 1941, towards morning, they woke us up. We were accustomed to surprises, even on Sundays, but this time they accompanied the wake-up call with shouts, and this raised a special suspicion within us. Our officer, with his eyeglasses on his nose, lifted his head towards the sky and looked tensely at the aircraft that were noisily flying overhead. Finally, he blurted out that “these planes are ours!” … “Our” planes did their job and dropped bomb after bomb. “These are our maneuvers,” added the officer. Immediately after that, we were ordered to move and to withdraw, at a laborious and exhausting crawl, until we reached the Osowiecz fort. Even here, we were in danger from the unceasing bombardment. We miraculously got out of there alive.

For two days we dug shelters, beneath the [overhead] flight of German planes. At night, they took us, via side roads, in the direction of Bialystok. Near Bialystok, we became confused and mixed up in chaos. Our officers disappeared and the groups dispersed in every direction. Only a few of us remained, alone and frightened, who didn't understand what was happening and didn't know what to do or where to go.

I didn't know if Germans or Russians were in Sokoly. My feet took me to the road leading home. On the way, I met two Polish boys. “Where are you going?” I asked them. “To Jezewo village,” they answered. We decided to walk together. It was impossible to proceed along the road, because of the bombing, which had not stopped. The road was covered with pieces of Soviet vehicles and wounded soldiers lay on both sides, rolling in their blood and crying for help.

The boys I was walking with knew the paths very well, and we passed through woods and fields of crops. At one place, three armed Russians leaped out to meet us and ordered us to lift up our hands. They questioned us who we were, and where we were from. Finally, they advised us how to go and to be careful not to fall into the hands of the Germans. The boys turned in the direction of Jezewo and I continued on my way in the direction of Sokoly.

Suddenly, I saw in front of me the wide, deep Narew River, which closed off my path.

Talking with passers-by, I found out that not far from that place there lived a Polish fisherman named Karpecz, who was able to take me across the river in a boat. I was surprised to hear from him that only last night, he had taken the last of the Russians across the river, and he thought that the Germans were already there. He was not prepared to endanger himself with another trip across. “Do you hear,” added the fisherman, “how the shots of the Germans are whistling in the air?” My decision to cross the Narew was firm. When he saw this, the fisherman explained to me how to do so and exactly where, so as to reach the cover of tall plants. Behind the plants, there curved a path that the Russians had paved only a day or two ago.

Even so, I measured the man and I saw his pity for me. Again, he doesn't advise me to take such a dangerous step. He drew his finger across his throat, as if to say, I will understand that this is what the Germans do to Jews. I was not deterred, in spite of the danger. I jumped into the river and swam with one hand, holding my clothes with the other. I succeeded in reaching the bushes on the other side of the river, facing the village of Waniewo.

Wet and tired, I entered the first farmhouse in the village. The farmer's family welcomed me with angry faces. After a short, restrained silence, one of them said that an hour ago a German patrol had passed through the place. They only showed me the way to Sokoly and warned me to take care not to meet up with the Germans.

On Thursday, I reached Sokoly, which was full of Germans. The Jews hid in their houses. Young Poles took the Germans from house to house and helped them take out Jews for forced labor.

I was very hungry, and remembered that I had gone for four days without any food. Both of my feet were covered with sores and callouses. I was still lying in bed and I had nothing to satisfy my hunger.

Worried about the entire situation and the events of the past few days in particular, I heard crying and wailing nearby, and I immediately understood that the Germans had come to our street and were dragging out frightened men to work, shoving and beating them. Immediately, the door of our house burst open and a cruel voice gave the order to go outside, shouting “Alles heraus! (Everybody out).”

The German and his Polish helper pushed and kicked us from behind, and brought us to the public school, where the German headquarters was located. They commanded us to stand next to the wall and take off our hats. We were about thirty men. An officer sat next to a table and questioned each of us in turn. Who are you and where from? What did you do for the Soviets? And other personal questions. He passed his terrible glance over every one of us. Meanwhile, a rumor spread in the town that they were going to shoot us all.

Parents and family members knocked at the doors of the priest and the mayor, Manikowski, and begged them to try to cancel the evil decree. But the priest and Manikowski were not willing to listen nor to answer their requests and pleas.

Meanwhile, they brought four Russians to us. One farmer, named Laszecz, from Wypychy, stood opposite us and loudly called out, “These are four Russians who were prowling on your street, and you were brought here because of them. Now they are in our hands and we don't need you any more. Thank G-d that you have been saved.”

But they did not free us so easily. We were first forced to clean all the rooms of the school and sweep them with our clothes. After all of the cleaning was done, we were freed.

Every day the Germans would kidnap Jews from the streets and the houses to work at jobs they invented, and tortured them. Among other things, they would pull out beards. In the best case, they cut them off with scissors, to the great enjoyment and laughter of the Poles. At night, the Christians would point out to the Germans the Jewish houses where young girls could be found, and they dragged them from their beds. Crying and begging did not help to rescue them from the claws of the barbarians. During the first days of the Germans' entry into Sokoly, the Poles conducted a parade of thanks, expressing their happiness to the Germans and presenting them with bouquets of flowers.

The brown-shirted officers expressed mutual thanks to the Poles by gathering prominent Jews, with the Rabbi at their head, into the courtyard of the church. There, they conducted an exhibition for the Poles. Under a flood of whiplashes, they forced the Rabbi and the other notables to strip to their underwear and cut off each other's beards with scissors. They ripped off half of the Rabbi's beard and beat his body with a rubber whip until the blood flowed. For a long time after that, the Rabbi had to bandage his chin and head, because of the wounds and disgrace they had caused him.

We were driven out to work every day by Germans and Poles alike. When we worked on the Bialystok road, we witnessed the transport of thousands of Russians, prisoners of war.

At the beginning, the Germans ordered every Jew to wear a white ribbon on his arm, and later, to sew a badge of shame in the form of two yellow patches, on the chest and back of their clothing.

One of the Germans was appointed the supervisor of the court of the landowner in Ros. He would invent various excuses so as to be brutal to the Jews. If someone would greet him by removing his hat, the murderer would jump out of his carriage onto the Jew, beat and whip him until the blood flowed, for daring to greet him. When a Jew would pass in front of his carriage without removing his hat, again the sadist would jump out and cruelly beat the Jew, who had the nerve to pass by and not greet him.

Every morning, we hurried and ran to the marketplace. There, they divided us into groups and sent us to various jobs. For a time, I was joined to a group that was sent into the forests to work at chopping down trees. Another group was sent to gather auto parts and motors that had been damaged and left at the sides of the roads by the Soviets. Once, they brought us to work in a truck that was attached to a tow. We traveled on the Mazowieckie road. On one of the sharp curves, the vehicle, including the tow and the towed, overturned, and twenty of our men were seriously injured. One of them, Nachum ben Yudel Feivel, whose nickname was “Trotsky,” was crushed to death.

One of the army officers in Sokoly was the German, Wagner. He loved to enjoy life, and he did not abhor taking a bribe from the Jews. I did not hear that he caused any special problems for the Jews. With the distancing of the warfront eastward, he disappeared from our horizon.

During that period, a German was appointed as the mayor of Sokoly, a citizen of Poland (a volksdeutch), who we called Marshlek [the “Zekankan”]. He had lived among us for two years, since the Soviet occupation in 1939. We knew him as a poor, homeless beggar. He lived with his wife and sons in a poor hut in the Kruczewa Forest. He would go from door to door among the farmers, from village to village, and gather donations. His appearance aroused pity. He had a long beard and was dressed in threadbare clothes.

When the Germans came to our area, Marshlek proved himself to be an important person. He was appointed mayor of our town. In surrender, they fulfilled everything he said and provided him with all he requested. What could not be obtained in Sokoly, they brought to him from Bialystok. He, his wife, and his family were dressed like royalty.

During Marshlek's regime, many troubles were deflected from our Jews, such as when the Poles denounced 17 young Jews as being active Communists, and they were arrested and put in prison. Everyone thought they would be shot. With the help of Marshlek and at his initiative, the youngsters were freed. Of course, the matter cost a lot of money, but it is regarded a privilege to redeem someone from death in exchange for giving the Germans money.

Nevertheless, the fear did not leave us from one day to the next. On the contrary, it grew and grew from day to day. At night, we would say “when will it be morning,” and in the morning, “when will it be night”… .

The Germans would go from house to house and take anything that they wanted from the Jews, not skipping over useful household utensils. The Germans stole everything from young couples who had recently been married and were relatively well organized, even pillows and blankets, and the poor souls had to lie on the hard floor.

At that time, the worst ones of them all were two Germans who took over the management of the train station. They kidnapped Jews and tortured them, and everyone who safely got out of their hands had to say the Gomel blessing.

Bad news came from Bialystok. The Germans had kidnapped hundreds of Jews, put them in the Grand Synagogue, and burned it down with them inside. In other towns around Bialystok, the Germans closed up hundreds of Jews in warehouses and barns, and set them on fire with them inside. The Germans murdered all of the Jews in the town of Rutki, leaving only the craftsmen that they needed.

In Tiktin, the Germans “advised” the Jews to equip themselves with small packages of personal essentials, and told them that they were taking them to the Bialystok ghetto. But they brought them outside the town to the Lupuchowo Forest, where they shot and killed them and threw them into deep pits that they had previously prepared for that purpose. Many were buried alive alongside the bodies of the murdered victims. Goyim told that, for a long time after they had covered the pits with dirt, they heard the death-throes of those who had been buried alive under the earth.

Nissel Lapchansky from Sokoly, who had fled to Bialystok from the distress [caused by] the Germans, committed suicide.

Groups of Jews were transported from Bialystok to Porozhny, where they were killed. Wealthier Jews paid the Judenrat significant sums and redeemed themselves temporarily from labor and from the transports. Many of the Jews from Bialystok came to Sokoly for shelter “until the anger would pass” in their city, and because they did not have the resources to redeem themselves from the Judenrat.

Our town also waited in line for destruction.

The Home for the Elderly in Bialystok

During the month of September, 1939, at the beginning of the Soviet occupation, they eliminated the Jewish home for the elderly in Bialystok. The old people were moved to the palace of the Mazury landowner, about eight kilometers from Sokoly. The landowner had fled abroad and his palace stood empty. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1941, the elderly men and women arrived in Sokoly, hungry and exhausted. They went from door to door, asking for food. They took shelter in the Batei Midrash, and their situation was very bad. Later on, a kitchen was organized for them by the Jews of Sokoly, and hot meals were prepared for the poor souls; at least they were saved the embarrassment of begging in their old age.

One day, members of the Gestapo came to Sokoly from Lomza and saw the elderly people in the Beit Midrash. Immediately, a rumor spread in the town that the old people were going to be sent back to their home in Bialystok. A few of the old people, who still had their strength, came to ask the Rabbi and the members of the Judenrat whether it was true that they were going to send them home to Bialystok…if the matter, G-d forbid, was not true, it would be better to hide themselves…

The next day, the elderly were taken in farmers' wagons, apparently, as they had been told, to Bialystok. But how terrible the truth was! They were taken to the new cemetery in Sokoly and there they were shot, to the very last one. They were thrown into a wide, deep pit that had been prepared previously by the Judenrat. The Christian miller, Krinsky, whose house bordered the cemetery, told us the next day that his sleep had been disturbed by the noise of the shooting and the cries of despair that went up to the heavens. A few of the old people tried to run away from the pit, and they were shot near his house. The next day, Krinsky saw wide pools of the victims' blood. According to what he said, he couldn't sleep for many nights after that, and he couldn't forget the horror of the terrible murder.

One Day From Among Those Days

Sunday, November 1, 1942

November 1, 1942, was a clear day and the winter sun spread its rays over our town. This was a Sunday, and we were freed from forced labor. There were some who walked to the nearby villages to the homes of the farmers, for the purpose of buying some food. Others were busy finishing jobs that had been ordered from them by the farmers, such as boots at the shoemaker's, clothing at the tailor's, and other jobs, in exchange for food.

I helped my father at the job that the Germans had given him to do for the Kruczewa farm, even on Sunday, the apparent day of rest. While I was working, my friends called me to come to them outside, and they whispered a secret in my ear, that they were collecting money in order to purchase weapons. After I gave them 200 marks, I and four other friends joined into a group of five. Up to then, a number of groups of five had been organized, but each group did not know about the existence of the others, for reasons of caution. Because we were busy with forced labor six days a week, the members of our group of five decided to meet the next Sunday in the Idczki Forest, one kilometer away from the town, in order to prepare a safe hiding place for the weapons.

We found out that there was a reasonable possibility of obtaining the desired number of weapons, but for that we had to raise considerable amounts of money. How, and where, to get the money? This is the problem!…

One o'clock in the afternoon. The farmers came out of the church after the prayers and dispersed, each man to his village. A short time later, here, the farmers were running and hurrying back to town, one to his tailor to take the fabrics he had given him to be sewn, and one to the tailor to take shoes from him, or boots.

By the way, they secretly told us, the Amstkomissar is going from village to village in his car and ordering them to have 600 wagons harnessed to horses ready for him, at six o'clock tomorrow morning, in our town – Sokoly.

Even though the Amstkomissar did not even hint at the purpose for which he needed the wagons, the farmers estimated, with their simple intelligence, that they were going to expel the Jews from Sokoly. Therefore, the farmers now came running in panic in order to rescue their merchandise in time from the Jews, who were going to be destroyed.

My sister Leah came running, calling and wailing, “Abba, Abba, why are you continuing to work? Don't you see the commotion and the discouragement that has taken over our town? Jews are packing their possessions from their homes and are trying to hide them anywhere they can. Woe to us!”

Our father remained standing at the machine and his hands were trembling. I immediately left work and quickly ran to my brother Avrahamel in order to consult with him about what we should do.

I met Avrahamel among a group of carpenters who were working in the Amstkomissar's courtyard. Chaim Yehoshua Olsha was among them, and he was talking to them:

“People chased after me, asking, what should we do? Should we disperse and run away from the town?! I don't know what they are going to do to us, do you think that the Amstkomissar tells me everything? He promised me that he was only going to Bialystok; his assistant, Paszecztowski, says the same thing.

“The farmers, in comparison, contend that the accursed one is going in his car around the villages and ordering empty wagons for tomorrow morning. I cannot cause panic and tell you that our brothers, the children of Israel, should spread out and flee; on the other hand, G-d forbid I should advise you to remain in Sokoly and wait for what will happen tomorrow … it is best if each one will act according to his own judgment and calculations.”

And he added, “Last night a letter arrived from the Bialystok Judenrat, saying that the expulsion was still delayed and it is possible to estimate that the Germans will begin eliminating the Jews from the smaller surrounding towns.”

We dispersed. The hour of twilight was approaching. On our way, we met Jews with bundles on their backs. They were quietly and mysteriously slipping away through the alleyways, in the direction of leaving the town.

We envied them, that they had already decided [what to do] and had managed to pack up their movables. I moved our household possessions into the attic, where Itzele, the son of Yisrael Chaim lived. I estimated that this was a safe place and that robbers would not dare to go up there at night and touch our property under the noses of the police. I also thought that the Germans would not think of going up there to search, because who was safer than Itzele ben Yisrael Chaim, who polished the shoes of the gendarmes and was like one of their family?! He was exempted from wearing the badge of shame, and they moved him to our house at his request, after they removed our family from our house – for his benefit.

Outside, it became dark. In the alley, next to the back door of Itzele's house, people were gathering, among them the Rabbi of the town and Reb Moshe Lipa Shulmeister. They were waiting impatiently for Itzele to come out with an answer from the gendarmerie with regard to the 600 wagons that had been ordered.

Itzele came back and informed us that the officer's laundress had disappeared and that Czepkin also wasn't there. But one of the lower-ranked officers told him that the wagons were intended to bring trees from the forest and that the Jews could go to sleep quietly and they shouldn't worry.

But the answer did not merge with the tension dominating our minds. It was already late. I ran to my brother Avrahamel. We prepared food for the road and took a saw, an axe and a short digger with us. In the darkness, we made our way out of the town, I, my brother Avrahamel and Velvel, the son of Motka.

So that no one would see us, we walked through the fields. From a distance, we heard the whistle of the train and the echo of its wheels. We lay down on the plowed ground until the unlit train passed by. In the middle of the night, we reached the village of Idczki “C” and went up into the barn belonging to our acquaintance, the farmer Wladek. The barn stood open, as was the local custom. We dug deep into a pile of hay. The sharp smell of the hay did not allow us to think about how tired we were and what was happening around us. We immediately fell into a deep, sound sleep.

Monday, November 2, 1942

I don't know how to estimate how many hours we slept that night. Loud, periodic shooting awakened us. We opened our eyes to the lines of light that penetrated through the cracks in the [walls of the] barn. We went down to the door. The shots continued at full strength, apparently not far from us. In light of the danger, we decided to get far away from the place, as fast as possible. We walked, tensely and almost holding our breaths. On the way we heard the rattle of wheels. There was no doubt that these were the wagons of the farmers, hurrying to Sokoly.

When we came to the depths of the forest, we met two Christians. We asked them, what was the news from town? They didn't answer the questions, but pointed in the direction where we could meet other Jews who had fled from Sokoly.

I saw the penetrating look of the two men at our boots, and the hint was sufficient….

Zeev Motkes (Velvel) gave them the benefit of the doubt, saying that those men sold to him and that they were residents of the village Niewiesky. A few minutes later, we met up with Elia, the son of Yeshayahu Langlieb, his wife and their two children, and Chaim Surasky. He told us that he was still sick from the beatings he had received a few months ago from a cruel German near the train station. With no other choice, he had laid all night on the wet ground and doubted whether he would have enough strength to get to the village of Jablonowo, to the house of an acquaintance with whom he had deposited many of his possessions in fear of what was coming.

We continued on our way, looking behind us at Chaim Surasky, who was leaning on his cane and making an effort to proceed. In the forest, we met dozens of men and women with children in their arms. The children were crying from hunger and cold, and their mothers were crying about their bitter fate.

Among those walking, we saw Matel Lapchansky, with her infant in her arms. Two years ago, she had married Hershel, the son of Yaakov Meir. She was begging her husband not to leave her and the baby in such difficult and fateful moments. Further on, we saw the wife of Feivel Lev, the fireman, who was crying over her two sons, Yeshayahu and Baruch, who had disappeared from her sight and she didn't know where they were…

It was hard for us to bear the enormity of the pain of the mothers who were nursing their infants, and we decided to infiltrate the village Idczki “A” for the purpose of getting some milk, and at the same time, to hear news of what was happening in Sokoly. We estimated that we wouldn't find out a lot, because the village residents did not go to town to pray in the church even though it was a Christian holiday, and German patrols were lurking on all of the paths and did not allow anyone to enter or leave the town.

We still had no explanation for the shooting that had echoed throughout the morning hours. The day was pleasant. The evening spread over the forest, accompanied with dampness. We did not succeed in reaching Idczki as we had wanted to do, and understandably, our wish to bring milk for the infants did not succeed.

We parted from the Jews with the silence of mourners, and continued to another village – Niwiski, in order to try to find a place to sleep. We reached the village and passed through its entire length, and we were surprised to find that there wasn't a single resident who was willing to give us permission to cross the threshold of his farm, even though most of them were well acquainted with Velvel.

Finally, we tried the strategy of thrusting a small packet of tobacco into the hands of one farmer. This worked! He took us to his barn, and we immediately disappeared into the fragrant straw.

Before we managed to fall asleep, the door of the barn opened with a squeak. The farmer got us up with a deafening shout, “Quickly, quickly, Jews, escape from my farm, the Germans are in the village!”

In a flash, we jumped up out of the warm straw and ran into a field. All around, it was pitch dark; we were unfamiliar with the way and in what direction we should go. We stopped and looked toward the village, that stood in a deathly silence. It immediately occurred to us that the farmer had deceived us. As we walked, we came across a barn standing alone in a field, but it was closed and locked on all sides.

In the dark, our feet bumped into a man's body.

“Who is this here?” we asked, in Yiddish.

Immediately we recognized the voice; it was that of Hoperstein [the crop merchant]. Next to him, his wife lay bent and curled up, with her three-year-old daughter in her arms. They were not asleep, and were trembling from the cold.

“I wonder, Mr. Hoperstein, why you haven't yet succeeded in finding shelter with your many acquaintances, the farmers. Didn't you manage a business as a crop merchant for many years?”

“They should burn them all, from the first to the last, “ answered Hoperstein. “They won't allow a Jew to cross the threshold of their houses. I am waiting for the morning so as to return to Sokoly and take part in the fate of the Jews who remain there, because I have no more strength to bear the suffering.”

We were seized by trembling at hearing the discouragement of the man, who preferred to be a victim in the teeth of the Nazis, rather than to die of hunger and cold in the open field. We sat next to them on the wet ground, leaned our heads against the wall of the barn, and tried to fall asleep. But the strong, cold wind prevented us from falling asleep. Suddenly, we heard shouting voices coming from a distance away through the mist of the night. The blood froze in our veins. We were afraid to remain in the place, which was too close to our town, and we quickly went away.

Before dawn, we arrived at the village Ciemno. Velvel Motkes went into the house of a farmer, one of his acquaintances and friends, and begged him to allow the three of us to stay in his barn until evening. The answer was a very emphatic no…

On the other side of the village, we came to a small wood, where we met up with some Jews from our town. The young woman, Mala Rivczes and her 14-year-old daughter wept when they told us what happened to them that night. How gangs of Polish and Russian robbers fell upon them and robbed them of everything, including their clothing and shoes. Other people, who were walking together with them as a group, also shared this fate. They pointed at Chena Kashevitch and Issur Ludawitz, who stood there barefoot.

The explanation for the cries that night, that had shocked us in the field next to the barn, became clear to us, without a doubt.

Tuesday, November 3, 1942

Zeev Motkes (Velvel) brought us to the “Piszczaty Colonies,” to the house of a [Polish farmer] friend and acquaintance – Pawel. The farmer Pawel measured us with an indifferent, cold look. In a mirror hung on the wall, we saw our unshaven faces. For three days, we had not washed ourselves or shaved. Pawel allowed us to shave and bathe, and we hoped to quiet our hunger a bit, which bothered us greatly. When Pawel saw us looking at the loaf of bread on the table, he quickly grabbed it and hid it from us. The farmer answered negatively to Zeev's request to let us rest a bit in the barn. Not having any choice, we went out of the house and dragged our feet in the direction of the large forest that faced us.

We saw two men running in panic in a field. Our hearts told us that these were Jews, and we immediately ran to meet them. Maybe we would find out something about [what was happening in] the town. When we came close to them, we saw two images as pale as plaster, with drops of sweat running off their faces. They looked more dead than alive.

We recognized the two butchers from Sokoly: Shmuelke Fleer and Eliya Weinkrantz. Both of them told us that in the Jamiolki Forest the Germans guarding the bridge had captured thirty Jews, and that they had been among them. The murderers stood their victims against the wall and shot them, and only they, Shmuelke and Eliya, were miraculously able to escape. As soon as they finished telling us their shocking story, they immediately continued to run.

We didn't know what to do. Should we go to the forest, where the butchers had fled, or should we go in the direction from which they had come? Zeev decided that nevertheless he would go in the direction of the forest. We passed by two huts. Jews from our town came out, among them: the two sons of Berel Leibel, Hirschel Zilberstein and Zeidke Kaplan. We envied them, that they had found good farmers who were keeping them on their farm. These Jews looked at us with curiosity, thinking that we had just come now from Sokoly. We didn't dare to go deep into the forest, lest we go the wrong way. At the edge of the forest we found a hill tangled with branches, and we chose that place to rest.

Our tired eyes were closed, but our tense nerves did not allow our bodies to rest. At some distance from us, we saw an old farmer gathering dry leaves that had fallen from the trees of the forest. We began a light conversation with him. He introduced himself: Szikorski. It appeared that he understood our mood, and he explained to us that his house was behind the hill. He looked at us, hesitated, and innocently added, “If you want to sleep at my place, you can go there in that direction.” He pointed with his hand.

The same evening, we left the forest in order to go again to the house of Zeev's “friend” Pawel. Two angry wolf dogs burst out of the house to meet us, ready to tear us to pieces.

We thought this was nothing but a ruse on the part of the farmer to frighten us from coming to his house. We withdrew, at the same time throwing stones at the dogs to protect ourselves. We felt that our feet were sinking into the soft dirt of the plowed field. In spite of the barking of the dogs, we neared Pawel's house. Behind the windowpane, a lit candle flickered. The farmer allowed us to come in for a moment, but refused our request to shelter us under his roof and give us a slice of bread to revive us. He told us that the Germans had put up a severe warning in the village “that if a Jew will be found in the house of a Christian, they will be killed by a 150-man firing squad.” We begged Pawel to let us sleep in the barn, only for one night. We tried to convince him and speak to his heart and his Christian conscience. We explained to him that he shouldn't be afraid. Even if they reveal us, he could deny that he knew we existed, and that we had entered his barn without his knowledge. But the farmer was stubborn and didn't want to listen to us. He simply pushed us outside and showed us the direction to another village.

After a brief consideration, we decided to proceed in a direction opposite to the one that Pawel showed us. We tried to enter one farmer's house, and what a big, nice surprise we had when we opened the door and found the farmer Szikorski, who had been gathering leaves that afternoon in the forest.

“You aren't the only Jews in my house,” said the righteous Szikorski. “Look and you will see that Jews like you are sitting in every corner.” Our rescuer immediately brought us to his barn.

His generosity and readiness to sacrifice his life for the sake of Jews who were being pursued to the bitter end, reached deep into our hearts. The simple farmer, Szikorski, one of the righteous of the nations, taught us – the conscience of the Polish people. In the terrible days of the evil regime and the rioting of the spirits of hell, a star shone out in the darkness. That is how we thought of our benefactor, and we immediately fell into a deep sleep.

Wednesday, November 4, 1942

Towards morning, when everything was still covered with a layer of dew, we crept stealthily across from the settlement at the edge of the forest, where the two sons of Berel Leibel were found. What happened to the boys later is unknown to me until this very day, but the farmer promised to take care of them and watch over them until the end of the War. The father of the boys, added the farmer, wasn't so lucky. The Germans found him in the attic, curled up among blankets and pillows and trembling with fear, and he went the way of all the Jews of Sokoly – to destruction. The farmer looked fondly at the boys, the oldest of which was 14 and the younger 11, and hugged them to his body.

We bought a bit of food from the farmer and returned to the forest. The forests in the area had the names Ciemno and Piszczaty. There, we met several people from Sokoly, and we started to prepare a comparatively deep and wide dugout for ourselves, that would serve us as cover during the day and night, and would provide enough room for all of us.

We had just tried to push the spade into the ground, and a few Poles appeared before us, who apparently had ambushed us previously. We left that meeting with great losses, and got out of there while we were still alive. We found out that even in the great Ciemno Forest, there was no place for us Jews.

We moved to a small wood of about 200 white birch trees. The place was appropriate for us; we could see the surroundings from there while we were properly hidden from sight. In case someone would come nearby, we would be able to see him at a distance and prepare to defend ourselves.

After only a few moments, we saw that a Polish lad was nearing the wood. He came to us and suggested that we buy bread and milk from him. During the transaction, he asked us if we would be there also tomorrow.

At that time we were not sufficiently experienced to suspect the boy and his intention to do us harm. We thanked him for his kind deed, for feeding us.

That entire day, we heard periodic shooting, but because it echoed in the forest, we were unable to determine the direction where the shots originated. From a distance, we could see people running away in the fields. It was possible to presume that they were from our town. With every shot that flew through the air, they would lie down and fold themselves up on the ground, the way they bowed and knelt on Yom Kippur, wanting to escape from the bullets flying [through the air] and whistling in their ears. It can be assumed that each one of them thought that he was the one at whom they were shooting.

When evening fell, we crawled back toward Szikorski's house for the night's sleep. Not far from his house, bullets were aimed at us. Both of us marched on, and we came to the house of the farmer who was taking care of Berel Leibel's sons. Without asking, we went up into the barn. There, we found some Jews from our town, but they had no news to tell us.

This time, we heard a shot nearby. Immediately, a man with a drawn pistol in his hand climbed up into our barn. He demanded that we give him everything we had with us, and lit our faces with an electric flashlight. He threatened to kill all of us if we refused. From within the piles of straw, we begged the robber to believe us, that we didn't have any possessions with us, that we had fled, with the fear of death, from the Germans, and that we hadn't had time to take anything with us. Hirsch Berel Shapira whispered to my brother Avrahamel to give the robber his watch as a bribe for our souls, but all three of us intended to jump on the evil one, Zeev and I with pocket knives and my brother Avrahamel with a steel chisel that he always had with him.

The attacker apparently sensed the sudden initiative we had taken and preferred to run away before he would be wounded by us. We could no longer close our eyes, and before dawn, we silently disappeared from the place.

Thursday, November 5, 1942

On our new journey, we met Shlomo Yaskolka and other people who were escaping. The butcher Shapira's wife told us that she had been staying in a farmer's house and had fallen asleep in contentment, when suddenly the owner of the house began making noise after midnight and began to scream that the Germans had arrived! … In the confusion, he had forcefully removed a gold watch from her arm.

While we were talking, we saw that between the branches of the trees a tall fellow was bursting forward to meet us. He was squinting and intended to shoot us, or simply to scare us. He was a worker in the flour mill in nearby Pazochy. At that time, he preferred to rob Jews, and mainly attacked women, looking for jewelry. He disappeared from our eyes they way he had come. We thought that he ran to call the Germans.

More Jews from Sokoly came to the forest of white trees, among them two youngsters from the town Rutki. On their way, they joined Hershel Zilberstein. They told us about a number of people who had succeeded in escaping from the valley of murder in Rutki. They themselves worked in the quarry on the Jezewo road.

Last Monday, they came as usual to work and immediately saw that mass murder was being done to the Jewish workers. They didn't have words to describe the great miracle that happened to them during those moments and how their feet carried them like an arrow from a bow, far from the quarry.

Zeidke Ratchekovsky told us how Rosachatsky's daughter was robbed by the demons. She worked as a secretary to the Judenrat and had a large amount of public funds in her possession.

A villager approached us, with an axe under his arm. He looked suspicious. He passed by us and climbed up a tree, in order to trim off twigs for making brooms. We came near him and helped gather the twigs, in order to warm ourselves a bit. When the pile [of twigs] was high, he climbed down from the tree and hurried away.

Not half an hour had passed, and we found ourselves surrounded by five young Christians. Their faces were aflame and their eyes were murderous. Four of them pulled out long knives. One of them, who had a grenade in his hand, ordered us, in the Russian language, to line up in a row. With his other hand, he took our watches off our arms and in addition, requested ten marks from each of us. We thought that with this, we would be rid of them, but they weren't satisfied and asked us to take off our boots. I looked around, and saw that the knives were aimed at me.

In a flash, I felt as if I had sprouted wings. I fled from the danger threatening me and started to run fast – like a deer. After some time, I stumbled and fell to the ground, helpless. My brother Avrahamel, who had also succeeded in fleeing from the robbers, stood next to me, without giving them his boots.

“You have to say the Birchat Hagomel,” said Avrahamel. “A murderer was chasing you with a drawn knife in his hand and it was a miracle that he didn't catch you!”

These were “partisans.” The meaning of the matter was that we had no hope of joining a partisan unit. This was their character! … All of them, all of them, were against us! Why and why?!

And again it happened: A Russian ran to meet us and blocked our path. He was short, and on his face were signs of smallpox; his eyes were small and half closed. In one hand, he held a grenade, in the other, he stroked a bottle of whiskey. His walk was unsteady, and he gave the impression of an ugly spider. From a distance, he saw a young girl, and tried to run after her, but she succeeded in getting far away from him in time.

It appeared to us that it was impossible to remain in the area of the Piszczati Forest. Gangs of Poles and Russians threatened us everywhere, both during the day and at night.

We wondered if it was worthwhile to return to the area around our town, Sokoly. Was it possible that the gangs of robbers would not endanger themselves by their evil plotting in the vicinity of the Germans? …In any case, we gathered our strength and decided to look for shelter in the nearby village. To our bad luck, again and again robbers followed in our footsteps. We ran with the last of our strength, and they followed us. We reached the village Kuleszka, me, my brother and a young woman from Trestin, who was barefoot and carried one shoe in her hand, while the other shoe had been lost while she ran.

We were lucky to meet up with a farmer who knew us well. He set up a ladder to his barn and told us to go up and lie down there quietly. While he held the ladder, he ran his fingers over the vamps of our boots. He whispered to the young woman to come and lie with him, but she begged him to leave her alone, with the excuse that she was menstruating.

After midnight, they woke us. The owner of the house stood before us, with a spirit lamp in his hand. He held out, toward us, a pot full of egg barley with milk, and spoons. We didn't know how to express our thanks to him.

With the dawn, we quietly left the barn. After leaving the village, we met up with our people who had parted from us at the time of the robbery in the forest. Their faces were not the same as yesterday or the day before. All of them were barefoot and tattered, wrapped in rags instead of yesterday's good clothes. Their heads were lowered to the ground, as if they were embarrassed by themselves. They tried to tell us what had happened to them after the robbery, but they hadn't had time to pronounce a sentence, and again we heard voices and orders in the forest, like yesterday.

I and my brother, our boots still on our feet, fled with our lives. The throat was dry with thirst and our feet were stumbling, but they carried us to the first storage of straw in the village. We lay down on a stone, behind the storage. The farmer saw us and immediately came to drive us away. We asked him for a sip of water, and continued to drag ourselves on.

We passed the village night watchman and asked him for directions to the road to Sokoly. “What?” blurted the watchman. “You are intending to go of your own free will to the Germans? They will shoot you immediately! They will do to you the same as they did to all of your Jews!” He pointed at a spot of grey in the distance, and added, “In front of you is the village Niwiski! There, you will find your brother Jews.”

Friday, November 6, 1942

At the edge of the forest, near the village of Niwiski, we met Jewish families, men, women and infants in their arms. A Christian farmer gathered tree branches and made a shelter from them for the women and their children, to protect them a bit from the cold and rain. In exchange, they gave him 10 marks.

In addition, the farmer brought a pail full of hot food from his house, and from it he passed out a plate to each person, for one mark. The farmer's brother came to help him. Both of them were very active. They collected the money and tried to satisfy their “customers.”

The two brothers also suggested places to sleep, in exchange for a special payment. They rented a potato cellar from somebody in the village, where they brought their Jewish guests; they took care to provide a layer of straw. The brothers had a business sense and they enjoyed profitable transactions. They profited from the Jews and the owner of the cellar, and appeared as being kind to those who were persecuted during these mad days and the horrors of the War. The story of the two brothers is especially peculiar, and their relation to the Jews is surprising, on the background of the threatening attitude of almost all the rest of the farmers. The twenty Jews who at present enjoyed their protection had previously gone from house to house asking for shelter and bread, but they were answered with definite refusals, and were even cruelly driven out. The clothing of the Jews was torn and worn, since they had already been robbed by Polish and Russian gangs.

My brother and I decided to go to the place where our cousin, Moshe Maik, was staying. He had found shelter with a Christian, one of his good friends.

On the way, we met two families from Sokoly: Rosachatsky, his wife and two children, and the baker from Wysockie, Alter Radzilovsky and his family. They told us that they had left Sokoly only that day. They had been hiding all this time in the attic of the baker's house, and through the cracks they saw what was happening nearby.

The day after the Germans entered Sokoly, they took all of the Jews that they found out of their houses and brought them to the marketplace, where the wagons waited, hitched up to horses. In every wagon, they put three Jews. In the first wagon, they put the Rabbi; the last wagon was loaded with bread, and in [that wagon] sat Leibel Okune, a member of the Judenrat. While the Jews waited in the market to be expelled, the Amstkomissar ran crazily here and there, angrily running wild with a pistol in his hand. According to his estimation, he was supposed to send more Jews out of Sokoly, for which purpose he had ordered many vehicles, and here, to his great dismay, only about 300 Jews had been gathered and he had to free 500 wagons that were unnecessary.

Benyaminka Rachelsky, an intelligent youth whose legs were crippled, abhorred what the murderers were doing, and he jumped up and attacked the Amstkomissar with his clenched fists. The Amstkomissar shot Rachelsky and killed him on the spot. Many Jews were shot that day when they tried to escape from death, among them Eli, the carpenter's grandson, Hershel Shavietznik, and the Jewish pharmacist.

Continuing on our way, we met the oldest son of Chaim Leibel the shoemaker – Shmuelke Karp. Crying, Karp told us that all week he had been running around in Sokoly and that he laid in a garbage can among empty barrels and broken crates. At night he would sneak into the empty houses to find something to eat. The Germans conducted searches in the abandoned houses and Karp was in danger every minute. He decided to get out of town last night when they changed the guard, and here he was before us, powerless.

Not far from the Jamiolki Forest, we crossed the train tracks that led in the direction of the city of Lomza. From a distance, we saw a German walking along the length of the bridge. With extra caution, we avoided every point of danger, and in a zig-zagging way, we finally arrived at the house where we were supposed to find our cousin, Moshe Maik. We heard the barking of a dog, and the owner of the house came out and asked us what we wanted. We answered that we wanted to see our relative, Maik, who was here.

The man took us into the yard and showed us a place between the piles of straw in the barn.

After only a few minutes, we heard a voice in the Russian language. Somebody asked the farmer whether he had seen two Jews. “No!” answered the owner of the house, and the voice was quiet.

I do not remember how long we laid in the barn, but I well remember that we did not feel any need to eat or drink. All we wanted was to sleep, to rest and rest.

Toward evening, the farmer called us. We came down from our bed and followed the owner of the house outside. It was already dark. We entered a potato cellar, and there, to our surprise, were Michael Maik and his son, Moshe, with the Plut brothers. We hugged and kissed each other in the gloom of the cellar; we could easily distinguish between each of them according to their voices. That entire night, we sat on the potatoes and consulted each other regarding our fate and what we should do in the future. Before dawn, we went out in the direction of the Idczki Forest and the village of Niwiski, where Jewish families were gathered.

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