Translated by Yona Landau
The effect upon the Jew's economy was felt by forbidding dealing in many areas of commerce, mainly with the monopolies that needed a special franchise. My father had a franchise for a store for tobacco and alcohol. The decree established that only a Pole was allowed to sell, and my father's franchise was cancelled with a warning of a half of a year to close the business. This hurt my father deeply as he was many years in the field and was very involved with what was going on in this area. He held a franchise for many years. He tried in many ways to convince the government in Stepan, in the district, and the King, by traveling to meet them and making many requests. But it did not help. My father even presented a notarized statement, certified by the court, with Polish witnesses, who claimed that in the years 1917-18, he helped the Poles and hid a group of their soldiers when the Communists suddenly entered their town. But this did not help, and his franchise was taken from him, and given to a Pole. My father was forced to deal with other areas of commerce, like a grocery store, but without much luck. After that he had a store for bicycles and building materials in partnership with Benny Bastus, the only store of its kind in Stepan. After a short time of success in this area, the war began. The children received a nice bicycle that my oldest brother, Shaul zl learned to ride. I even learned how to ride it.
We stood there for hours, and suddenly there appeared a high officer accompanied by a Pole from Stepan, the son of Roman Hakolbasnik. He was the one who sorted out the guilty and the innocent. Because he knew us well, he said we were innocent, as he decided for most of the Jews, except a few young Jews. We fled when we still could, and we hid in a Polish store, and stayed there until the army left the town. The few Ukrainians and Jews that were not freed were chained and led outside of the city to be brought to trial for rebellion and treason. Their end was of course death.
Immediately after the evacuation of the army, the distinguished people of the town met: Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. They thought how to save those who were taken who really had no part in the uprising. Then it was decided to send a delegation of Polish teachers and at their head the Catholic priest, in search of the army that had retreated, in order to convince the generals. The army that retreated moved quickly. The Catholic priest had a car, but there was a serious problem of gasoline. Therefore, they turned to my father, who had a store for building materials and gasoline. Of course, my father gave them the gasoline needed and they were on their way. This delegation was successful in releasing all the Jewish boys and even the Ukrainians. A number of Ukrainians were tortured and killed by shooting. This left a very heavy feeling upon the people of the town. A few days later, there was a large funeral in the town, in which most of the people of the town took part in. When the Soviets entered, the Ukrainians took revenge on the son of Roman Hakolbasnik and informed on him and expelled him and his family, including his father, his mother, his brother, and his sisters to Siberia. This was in spite of the fact that many had much sympathy for him as he saved many from death.
The Entrance of the Red Army into Stepan Within a day or two after the Polish Army left the town, after the conflict with the rebelling Ukrainians, a rumor spread in the morning that the Bolsheviks were coming. We, the children, pushed our way to the head of a large group of Ukrainians and Jews toward the bridge to see the Bolsheviks. We had heard about their appearance from our parents, about their clothing and behavior during WWI. And shortly we saw them approaching on their tanks (something we did not see with the Polish Army). They were not at all poor people. But their clothes -- boots, hats, and ranks -- did not shine or compare to the clothes of the Polish soldiers and officers.
A delegation of the honorable people of the town walked toward them and received them with bread and salt, as was the custom of the place. The crowd received them with cheers and clapping of hands. They were very pleasant and smiled to the crowd, and they were happy to explain about their rifles and their ranks. After the tanks, there were rows of walking soldiers and some of them were in trucks. In the cavalry, there were horsemen of all types in their national clothing upon short horses, and there were also Cossacks in their national clothing. In the Red Army, there were soldiers of many nationalities -- Tartars, Cossacks, Uzbekistans, and others.
Our parents and the elderly were a bit afraid of the behavior of these soldiers, as they remembered their wild and undisciplined behavior during WWI. But things did not seem that way in the present reality, as the discipline was perfect.
Some of the officers lived in Jewish houses. A Cossack officer with the rank of captain lived in my grandfather's house. They taught us Russian, and taught us Russian songs. They tried to refill what was missing -- sugar, biscuits, and treats, even though it was clear that the lifestyle that we were used to during the Polish Regime before 1939 would not return.
We heard from them of the cancellation of private commerce, about the basic Russian rule -- He who does not work does not eat, and about cooperatives. We began imagining to ourselves a first picture of what life would be like under the Bolshevik regime -- the Soviets.
Several days after the entrance of the Army, people of the civilian regime came and began to organize the town. The small-Soviet was formed. This was the town council whose real leaders were the craftsmen -- the proletarians amongst the Jews. A militia was formed which was headed by a Soviet police officer. An office of education and culture, an office of transportation, and other offices were formed.
The merchants and storekeepers amongst the Jews of the town understood that they could not exist under the Soviet regime. They began to eliminate the stocks of goods in order to assure their existence -- by trading with the non-Jews who gave them produce, potatoes, oils, milk, etc.
The regime did not look nicely upon these commercial deals and began to threaten and make arrests in certain cases. I remember at a later stage the bitter impression made by the arrest of the widow Sarah. She lived amongst the non-Jews. She was arrested for a long period of time for selling matches and salt. A rumor spread in the town that the rich Jews were being expelled to Siberia. It was always spoken of the possibility that the police could appear suddenly and expel people without any early notice. I remember that my parents, amongst the people of the town, also were very afraid. But as much as I remember, Jews from our town were not sent to Siberia. Another Jew was tried and sentenced because he was suspicious of looting as he tried to take for himself things at the time that he was dismantling the products of the rich estate owners amongst the farmers. He was sent to jail. Minkil, the Jew, thought that these were the times of the Communists from the period of WWI, and he did not realize that times had changed.
In our town, a cooperative store was opened, where they rationed the basic products for everyone: fish, salt, sugar, kerosene, and matches. There was the problem of standing in long lines for many hours in order to get the allocation. In addition, every Jew tried to privately organize for himself products like wheat flour for baking bread, potatoes, meat, milk, and other agricultural products, in order to complete the necessary portion of food for his family's existence. Of course, under the given circumstances, the Jews had to cut expenses and to adjust to a different standard of living than they were used to under the Polish regime. But they did not suffer from starvation. My father, for example, bought a cow for milking, and this definitely improved our situation, even though it added work for all the members of the family to take care of her, to feed her, to cushion the barn with straw, to be friendly to her, and to milk her. My mother gave milk products to neighbors who were not as fortunate as we were. My father, who knew Russian and was learned, suggested himself as an accountant for the department of transportation. He became a government clerk with all the rights and obligations. This improved our situation as we received a monthly salary for existence, and there were several easier conditions for acquiring food products. We, the children, began going to a public elementary school, and within a short time, we knew the Russian language, with the help of our parents who already knew the language very well.
The preaching of equal rights with no difference of religion, race, or occupation, showed its results. In school, the non-Jews did not stop hating the Jews. But they did not even try to call us Yid, but Yori. This was not because they liked us, but because religion lessons were stopped in the school for the Jews, the Ukrainians, and the Poles. On the other hand, there began lessons on Communism and on their great leader.
We organized political youth groups. There were organized groups for shooting at targets, learning defense against gases and bombings, and there were appropriate awards for those who finished the courses. We felt that as far as studies and advancement in studies, we had many opportunities. We had to make efforts, without our parents investing. Therefore, we were happy, studied, and studied more, according to the command of Lenin. We were very happy, and our parents were already planning our college studies in the future. My parents wanted me to be a doctor.
It seems that the spiritual suppression during the period of the Soviet regime contributed in negative due to the fact that the same Zionist united youth of the past who had self esteem and the readiness to defend itself in the past, refrained from doing so in an organized manner when the pogroms and the destruction took place by the Ukrainian and German enemy.
Rumors reached the town that the Russian Army fell and that there was treason along the whole front. The German agents and of course the nationalistic Ukrainians began to spread rumors of German parachutes near the town. It is possible that here were several parachutes of agents and spies.
The war began showing its signs in the limited allowance of necessary basic products like kerosene, soap, salt, and sugar. The lines by the cooperatives became longer and the allowances became less and less. Everyone tried to get products from every source. The black market began to flourish. The government began to draft men to the army. I remember how young men, Jews and non-Jews from the town went to an area before the courthouse accompanied by their close family: women, mothers, and children. The good-byes were filled with crying and kissing. The scene caused an oppressive feeling. We, a group of Jewish youth, accompanied the draftees up to the bridge on their way to Milinsk. We remember the sad expressions of saying good-bye between those who accompanied and those leaving.
As days past, we felt the existence of the war more and more. The war department in the town organized the youth and men who were not drafted to help in preparing wheat fields outside of the town to become an airport or landing area. My older brother, Shaul, was amongst the workers. I accompanied him out of curiosity.
On one of the days of the war, enemy airplanes appeared in the skies of our town. There was even a case that a Soviet plane was shot down in the skies of the town. The next day, the anonymous pilot was buried, wrapped in what remained of his parachute. During the burial ceremony, one felt that the Ukrainians were happy, but the Jews were very sorry and sad.
No more than ten days passed, and rows of defeated soldiers of the Red Army retreated through our town. The sight of the retreating soldiers was quite pathetic. They were tired, worn out, hungry, and battered. We, the Jews, tried to help them as much as we could. Our Ukrainian neighbors did not do the same.
I remember that in one case, one of the senior officers called an obligatory meeting in the center of town, and in his speech, he made clear that indeed the Red Army retreated, but the retreat was temporary and only for tactical reasons. He also made it clear, that it is known to the Red Army, who the Soviet enemies were amongst the civilian population who collaborated with enemy agents and placed knives in the back of the retreating Red Army. He added that the traitors should pay for their actions when the Soviet forces return to the area.
The panic and fear amongst the Jews of the town became greater. I remember very well discussions between my father zl and neighbors who would meet in the evening in our apartment or in front of the house. The possibility of fleeing to Russia with the retreating army and with the civilian Russian officials who were in the town came up. My father had a personal acquaintance with them. We got a clear invitation from the head of the department of war, who was a high Jewish officer, to join him and his family in order to flee to Russia. He promised to help us get started there. But the doubts were many, and there were opinions for and against. The major consideration was if it was possible to leave an orderly house and property and to go with minimal things to another country. Was it so dangerous to stay in the town that it was necessary to flee? As we know, under the German regime, the Jews somehow lived as Jews. The decrees and the pogroms would pass in the end. That was an assumption. It was not possible that the Germans could destroy millions, since first, they must develop methods and means that one could not even imagine to exist in reality. Secondly, would the world be quiet when they see these extreme steps? In addition to these claims, we were influenced by the claims of the Jewish refugees who fled in 1939 from Poland when the Germans conquered it. These people claimed that after they lived under the conquering German regime and lived a little under the Soviet regime, that fleeing and leaving ones home is not worthwhile and it is better to take the chance and not to separate oneself from ones nest, ones home, ones town.
The Jews of Stepan did not catch the greatness of the danger. There were those who said he that meant to flee would flee anyways. But if salvation would come, why should we flee? There were those who said they did not want to die on foreign land, but in their home. But they were not granted this wish.
In the end, to our despair, the claims for staying won out. There began rumors that the Germany Army was approaching the town. From day to day, the numbers of retreating Red soldiers grew. The lack of order in the retreat was felt. It was clear that the Red Army received contradicting orders from time to time. There were rumors that the Red Army entrenched itself in the forests near the bridge, and dug trenches and stored hidden ammunition and artillery shells. Our Ukrainian neighbors began to walk around with their heads raised, and some of them, especially the farmers, began to appear and organize themselves in the town for places for robbery and pogroms. The feeling of insecurity grew, especially at sunset time, in the evenings, and at night. In the evening, we would shut ourselves in our houses under lock and key, with much fear and apprehension.
Two days before the final evacuation of the Red Army, the Germans began bombing the lines of the retreating soldiers. There were no arrangements for sirens at that time. I remember that we began to run outside of the town during the bombings and artillery against airplanes. We fled in the morning and returned before it became dark. We discovered that in our area, there was much destroyed. A large number of Jewish houses on the main street and a small street nearby received direct hits and this caused a large amount of human losses amongst the Jews of the town. Amongst the many, the entire Alter Tsiviis Bass family was killed. The next day, there was an enormous explosion in the town and the wooden bridge on the Horyn River was blown up. The retreating Red Army lit several places on fire. This brought the news to us that the Soviet regime had come to an end. We were cut off from the outside world and were under the control of the German Army and our Ukrainian neighbors.
The Ukrainians received the German conqueror with happiness and joy. The nationalists amongst them were happy because of their hate for the Soviets and their hope to receive independence from the Germans. The farmers, the simple people, were happy because it was now a time of lawlessness and they could rob the Jews and do pogroms without any interference. The Jews of the town hid in their homes, and trembled with fear thinking of what was to be.
We, the children, despite the dangers and fears, dared to go out to the Main Street and see the victorious German Army. They looked different than the retreating Red Army, and not just the color of their uniforms and their ranks. They were more orderly and polished in their appearance. Convoys moved ahead on wagons with Belgian horses. Some of them moved forward on motorcycles and others on bicycles. I do not think that there were many automobiles, and this was because of the difficult dirt roads leading to our town. The army took positions in different places in the town. Platoons set up artillery, not far from one another, against airplanes. We, the children, walked around freely amongst the wagons and artillery without being bothered by the German soldiers.
The next day the town was filled with farmers that robbed the Jewish houses. In addition, these abominable creatures showed the German soldiers that one could take things from the Jewish houses that were of value to the army: material, produce, and bicycles. The farmers brought the Germans to our house and they went up to our attic and found our hiding place for bicycles. They confiscated the bicycles and their parts. German officers appeared and requested to stay in our house. We very happily gave them a large room to stay in as we thought they would protect us from the Ukrainian looters and rioters. When the farmers learned that German officers were staying in our house, they did not attempt to get close to our house. The German officers, who found out very quickly that we were Jews, said that they were sorry that the attitude of the regime toward the Jews was not good and that we would suffer in the future. They tried to help us. They gave our father cigarettes and a couple of other necessities. Several days later the soldiers and officers left us in order to advance to the front.
After them, the engineering corps came and began reconstructing the bridge on the Horyn River. The Germans even began in organizing the local government and formed a local Ukrainian militia, which was headed by one of the locals of the town, Shasha Kromenf. Their uniforms were granite blue. But since there were not enough uniforms for all of them, they went into the Jewish homes and confiscated from their closets any clothes with the same color of the uniforms so they could sew uniforms and hats. They also came to our house and took my school uniform and my brother Shaul's uniform, which were made of granite blue.
It was made public that all men up to age fifty must go to work in reconstructing the bridge. Therefore, my father and several other Jews of the town worked in carrying heavy logs of wood to the area where the bridge was being constructed. Several Germans in uniform who had working under them Ukrainian guards supervised the work. I remember how some of the Jews during their work were hit and pushed along. I remember how Yosef Wachs (who later was the head of the Judenratt) was hit when he failed to carry a log of wood.
We, the Jews, were cut off from the outside world. We were not allowed to travel outside of our town, and we did not know what was going on in other Jewish communities. The non-Jews told us that the Germans continued to make progress and win along the whole front. They also told us that Jews in nearby cities and towns were kidnapped and were taken to work camps. All the rumors made us more depressed. A decree was made that every Jew must put on his sleeve a white band with a blue Star of David embroidered on it so the person could be identified. The Jews were only to walk in the middle of the street, and not on the sidewalks. The Jews were only allowed to go out on the streets during the day. In the evening and the night, there was a curfew for the Jews of the town. As time passed, the band with the blue Star of David was switched with a yellow patch on the chest and the back. It was forbidden to pray in public and in synagogues.
In this situation, the Jews of the town had to be concerned with their existence. Jews with workshops did work for Ukrainians and in return for their work they received basic necessities for their existence. Others traded their clothes and valuable articles for products like flour, potatoes, butter, milk, etc. Their standard of living went down extremely.
Into each room, at least two families were placed to live, and this also included the kitchens. The crowding was horrible, and the result was that the hygienic conditions were run down, filth and dirt everywhere. At the beginning, there were not enough bathrooms. As time went on, they dug holes that were covered with boards and were used as public bathrooms. The Jews who were professionals were given the right to live in a group of houses by the fence of the ghetto. The Germans along with the Ukrainians began organizing the local government of the Jews: the Judenratt and police. Yosef Wachs was chosen to be the head of the Judenratt. He was tall and was well built. When he walked on the street, his head was upright, and it seemed that he loathed the whole world. This Jew was harnessed to aid the Germans. He was placed in the house at the opening of the ghetto, the house of Lazar Hazlazanik. He picked for himself a group of strong boys of the town, who would be policemen, and they began to rule the Jews of the ghetto. Of course, he looked out for his friends and relatives, and placed them as if they were professionals so they could live in houses on the border of the ghetto. Some of them were appointed to jobs in the ghetto, for instance administration the kitchen. One thing for sure, the head of the Judenratt carried out the orders of the Germans meticulously and very severely. The Jews carried the burden of the German decrees that were carried out by Yosef Wachs and his people.
The methods were varied. First, messengers of the Judenratt were sent along with the Jewish police. They were usually simple people who used force. There were threats and surprise searches in private homes. In certain cases, they would place the head of the family, the father or mother, in jail in the ghetto. The jail was situated in one of the upper rooms of the women's section in the synagogue. If this pressure did not help, since some of the Jews thought they should keep some of the valuables belonging to themselves to use in exchange for food products in the future or for redeeming a member of the family in the future, the Judenratt sent the head of the family to the Ukrainian police for torturing by harsh beating and for solitary confinement, in order to get from him what was needed, as gold, furs, or precious stones.
I remember being a witness to a case when the head of the Judenratt himself slapped the face of a women who claimed that she was unjustly arrested and that she was not able to add anything to what she had already given. Also something happened to my mother. When my mother was asked to give up her expensive fur, after they had taken from us all of our other furs in the house, my mother successfully smuggled her expensive fur to a trustworthy non-Jew. This was in order to assure that we would have something of value in a time of need. My mother paid for her actions. She went through a series of interrogations and torture, stage by stage, first by the Judenratt and the Jewish police, and later by the Ukrainian police and their solitary confinement.
I remember very well, after not being able to sleep, that I woke up at dawn when my mother was arrested and taken to solitary confinement by the Ukrainian police. I jumped over the ghetto wall and ran to the Ukrainian police without any authorization. I stood before the entrance of the Ukrainian police station and whined like a baby. Just then the head of the Ukrainian Police, Sasha Kromenf, walked by and turned his head in my direction. He apparently recognized me from the days when he was a friend of my father from the good old days and would come to my father's tobacco shop. I was almost frozen because it was very cold outside and I was dressed very lightly. Sasha asked me what I was doing here, and how did I leave the ghetto without a permit. He said that I deserve a whipping and could go to jail. I answered that I was aware of this and that I did not care if I received punishment. I asked that my mother be released from jail and confinement since she was sick and would not be able to hold up. Sasha looked at me again, and told the police officer to take me back to the ghetto, and that I should not try to come to the police again because then I would be whipped and taken to solitary confinement. The policeman pulled me out of there, kicked me, and told me to run quickly back to the ghetto. I ran back to the ghetto and after a few hours my mother was released. She was exhausted, tortured, and wretched. I do not know if it was because of me or incidentally that my mother was released, but my sister and I were very happy to be with our beloved mother again.
In addition, the Judenratt and its workers dealt with filling the requests of the government with regard to street cleaning of the town, and work in the ghetto itself. When the Jews where taken from their homes and expelled to the direction of Shkoolna Street, the street of the ghetto, and the nearby streets, it was not clearly decided which families would live in which apartments or houses. Families chose their apartment through their previous acquaintance with the people who owned the apartment, or because they liked a certain apartment, or because there was no other place left and they chose the apartments that were still vacant. The people who lived in the apartments before on Shkoolna Street had to give in to the new reality, to crowd into one room of the apartment or even a half of a room, and to allow the refugees to get settled.
Into our two room apartment with a kitchen, two families moved in, in addition to our family. In the bedroom, my mother, my sister, and I lived, along with the wife and daughter of Berl Yolkazon. In the dining room, the family of Ben-Zion Yolkazon lived, his wife, his two daughters, and his son. The husband slept in the kitchen. The house was very crowded. My mother who was a very orderly housewife had to get used to it being disorderly as a result of it being very crowded. At the beginning, she would respond when there were damages done to our utensils and furniture that were caused by the other families. But slowly, we got used to the new grey reality, and new worries cancelled out those petty worries that we had at the beginning. The problem of food started. The stock that we had slowly decreased, and my mother, who was generous, let the needy people in our house use our food, like pickled cucumbers from the barrel and potatoes in the basement.
The authorities separated men from ages eighteen to fifty from their families. There was a fence between the camp of the men and the ghetto and passage was forbidden. The work camp of the men was situated at the continuation of Shkoolna Street. The men were housed in groups of houses. They did forced labor within the work camp and outside of it. From there, certain candidates were taken to the Kostopol work camp. In the camp, those who were craftsmen, barbers, tailors, or shoemakers gave service to the men. The men's food was rationed, like all the members of the ghetto, a small portion of bread and a light portion of soup. Most of the men were exhausted and suffered from malnutrition, filth, lice, hard work, being hit, and disgrace. A man who tried to leave the work camp in the evening to visit his family was heavily punished if he was caught by the Ukrainian police or by the Jewish police. In the cold winter months, means for heating were lacking and it was very cold in the rooms. After the residents of the ghetto and the camp finished taking apart buildings near the houses, like barns, storerooms, and stables, that were made of wooden boards, to get material for heating they had to steal in the night outside of the ghetto to take apart abandoned wooden structures for heating material. In one of these cases, there was a very tragic incident. One of the residents of the camp, Hone, the son of Hazlazanik, went out of the ghetto to organize wood. He was shot by a Ukrainian policeman even though he recognized him.
I remember very well an incident when policemen came to check how my father's health was in order to send him back to the labor camp. His response was that he fainted continuously and when I stood by his bed, he seemed like he was dead. I remember that after continuous care by one of the policemen, he barely gained consciousness. His situation convinced them that he was not a candidate for the labor camp, and they left him alone. But after a few days, they turned to my oldest brother, Shaul Shilik, who should be sent instead of my father to the forced labor camp. Shilik's physical condition was not much better than my father, and my brother was not very independent. This scared us. We tried to convince the authorities not to send him, but in the end he was sent to the forced labor camp. I remember very well his parting from us, especially from my dear mother. My mother cried along with all of us. She then bundled up his bundles, putting in several necessary food products from what was left in the house, and Shilik was taken from us.
In one case, I remember a remark of my past teacher, Baruch Krizer, the son of the shochet Levi zl. who was a Jewish policeman in the male camp. He was different than most of the policemen in that he would be very polite, and would only make remarks about order and hygiene. As far as I remember, he would never scream or scold. His comment was: We are compared to feces in the public toilet and that will also be our end. He said this very near the time of the final destruction.
I remember that a young fellow succeeded in entering Stepan, as it was forbidden for Jews to travel from one town to another. Perhaps he was sent by a partisan organization or a Zionist organization, with the purpose of organizing the Jews to flee or to rebel. He brought news of the organization and joining of young men from ghettos of different towns to the partisans. He told of the acts of killing of groups of Jews in the Volyn ghetto.
The fellow's activity in the Stepan ghetto did not last too long as in a few days he was arrested by the Jewish police by order of the Judenratt and he disappeared. There were rumors that he was turned over to the Ukrainian police and was forced to leave the town after being threatened by the Judenratt and the police that he would be turned over to the Ukrainians or the Germans.
I remember, a little before the ghetto was destroyed, most of the youths who were shepherds for the non-Jews would come home to sleep every night as they were afraid of what was to happen. I also was a shepherd for a non-Jew. I recall a story that shows how abandoned we were by the non-Jews.
One day my flock moved onto the land of one non-Jew. Before I could even move the flock from his land, the head of the land appeared. Without even asking if I did this on purpose or if the flock moved onto his land by mistake, he hit me with a heavy wood pole, until I lost the feeling of my senses. My friend who worked with me brought me to the non-Jew that I worked for, and he placed wet bandages on my whole body. The non-Jew said if I wasn't a Jew, he would hit his neighbor for his inhumane actions toward me.
In the ghetto, there were two young judges. There were differences of opinion between the two families of the judges. But in the ghetto, the two judges had a lot in common, and tried to encourage the residents of the ghetto that the darkness would end soon and the dawn would break. Because of the bad nutrition and living conditions, they tried to make certain laws easier on the people. I remember that they allowed the Jews to make matzot from rye flour and to eat legumes on Pesach.
I approached the building of the Judenratt and I heard screaming and threats in Ukrainian from the window of the building. Perhaps these were last attempts to blackmail money and jewelry from the head of the Judenratt, his clerks and family before being exiled. (There were rumors amongst the non-Jews that they were killed by shooting near the police building of Stepan). I was tired and scared and I returned home. I lied close to my mother and my younger sister and somehow fell asleep. But before dawn, we heard voices in German -- Jews get out of your houses. I looked out of the window and I saw three German soldiers with helmets and bayoneted rifles in their hands. They marched on the streets and hurried the Jews to get out of their houses.
Within a couple of minutes, I could see from the window a group of Jews with their wives and their children, taking their belongings with them on their backs, and walking toward the gate of the ghetto. From time to time, they would fight and the crowd would turn into a very scared group of people, or into innocent sheep led to slaughter. I remember how Yitzhak Vitznodel, the butcher, walked, being dressed in his dressy black suit, with his family after him. My mother, my sister, and myself, being very scared, jumped off our beds, without taking anything, barefoot, and in minimal dress, left our house in order to look for shelter. My mother suggested that we hide in a small basement at the opening of our house, until this would pass. I was against this as I thought that the next morning they would continue their search and we would be found. My mother listened to my advice and we climbed the fence to the outside of the ghetto. Near the ghetto lived a Polish non-Jew, Henger Yank. We jumped into his garden, and hid amongst the thick corn stalks. Suddenly we heard screaming from the attic of the Pole, that we should leave immediately, or he will call the police. Because of fear, we all got stomach aches and diarrhea. We had to leave the Pole's garden, and we turned to the main highway on the street May 3rd. When we got to the street, we discovered a convoy of carts harnessed to horses. On most of the carts, Jewish families sat, ready to be transported. The carts were facing the direction of the market, in the direction of Kostopol. On the opposite side of the street, many armed Ukrainian policemen stood in order to prevent people from fleeing from the carts, and to prevent any possibility or fleeing from the town.
As we were so desperate to find father, we turned to a bath house on the river banks. In order to get out of the ghetto, we had to go through water up to our knees which was filthy, full of sharp stones, and broken glass. We chose to jump over the fence of the ghetto in the area of the second corner of the bath house. In this area, the fence was high, and only with joint efforts were we able to cross the fence, helping each other, and get out of the ghetto. The minute the noise was heard when we fell to the ground after jumping the fence, there were shots heard from a policeman on a nearby hill by the fence. We heard the noise of the bullets, but we were able to crawl from the fence without being hurt. We ran very quickly along the river, toward the town Korost.
When we arrived at the house of Herschel that was situated between the houses of the Ukrainian judges, on the banks of the river, we heard again shooting and voices stop in Ukrainian. We lied under the pillars of the house and then we continued running along the length of the river. While we were running, we shook from cold and fear.
The surroundings looked very hostile, even though in the early hours before dawn, we saw groups of Ukrainians standing at the openings of their houses, in their yards, and in front of the stores. It was clear that most of these Ukrainians were waiting impatiently for morning in order to get from the commander the spoils -- the Jewish belongings that were abandoned. We got close to the house of our faithful non-Jew, Kozma. He was the person that we gave our most valuable possessions to be kept until this period of time passes. He came in our direction and said he did not want us to come into his courtyard. He suggested that we hid amongst the graves in the Jewish cemetery near his house. His reasoning was that there many other Jews hiding there.
My mother almost agreed to this, as she was tired and scared and thought that this hiding place would lessen our fears and stomach aches and our diarrhea. But my instincts told me to flee immediately outside of the town, in the direction of the villages and forests. I was afraid that we would be caught in the morning by the non-Jews in the area, and even by our friend, Kozma. My mother listened to me and we continued to flee in the direction of Korost. When the sun rose, we were already in the fields of a village. We came to one of the hay bins. We hid ourselves in the hay and fell asleep. We suddenly awakened because we were hungry. It was sunrise.. Because of the great hope and yearnings to see father, it seemed that from far away father was approaching, but very quickly we understood the bitter reality. We decided to approach a village house to ask for a place to sleep and a little bit of food. We had luck and the farmer we turned to gave us bread, potatoes, and milk. We ate well and the farmer allowed us to stay that night in his threshing floor, and gave us some food for the journey. But he told us we must leave at dawn, so that no one would know that we were there. If it became known, he would be in trouble.
As we were walking in the forest, we heard a cart getting closer to us. We walked all the time on the side of the road, between the trees, and we hid behind the thick trees in order to see who was coming near us. My mother saw that it was the non-Jew who we knew from Stepan. My mother turned to him to ask him what the distance was from here to Sarny. The non-Jew, who knew us, told us not to get near Sarny, because all the Jews of Sarny were taken yesterday to be slaughtered, and that we had no chance of finding one of our relatives alive. He said we might even fall into the hands of the Germans or the Ukrainians. He suggested that we flee into the depths of the forest, and not to get near the villages, as much as possible.
This made it clear to us that we would not find in Sarny any of our relatives alive, who we thought we could use to lean on and to hide with them. We had a very difficult problem: the struggle of existence of a widow and her two children who were in a hostile and strange surrounding, being persecuted, with no home, and no manner of existence. We were barefoot and wearing thin clothing and the winter was approaching. In the end, it would be cold and it would snow.
After we got over the bad news, we returned to the area of the villages of Korost and Kritashileski. We turned to the non-Jews of the villages, mostly those who lived in isolated houses near the forests. The truth is we never knew to which house to turn to, and how they would receive us, who would help, and who would inform the authorities about us, and who would even turn us in to the Ukrainian police. There were times when they threw us out without shame with cursing, and even by inciting their dogs against us. Thus, with no choice, we had to return to the forest, hit, ashamed, hungry, and scared. We developed a method for trying to get food. Two of us would stay in the forest, and one would go to one of the isolated houses near the forest. If he was received in a decent manner, he would give the other two a sign and they would join him. But if he was not received in a decent manner, he would flee as fast as he could, disappointed and desperate.
One time my mother turned to one of the isolated houses for a little food and rags to cover our bodies from the cold fall nights and mornings. In this case, she was received very badly, with cursing and inciting of their dogs. This was how most of the Ukrainian acted toward us. She returned to us crying and exhausted. The three of us cuddled up amongst the thick bushes in the forest for the night's sleep, hungry and despaired.
Therefore, we settled down, and enjoyed the king's food that we were served. After we ate and covered ourselves with hay, we fell asleep. That day passed after a warm sleep in the hay and with full stomachs, and we felt good from the nice treatment we received from the farmer and his wife, amongst the cruel sea of hatred and estrangement. We prayed that this would last for many days.
The next day, at dawn, the farmer awakened us and gave us food. He explained in a frightened and sad voice that we must quickly escape to the thickness of the forest as he heard from his neighbors that tomorrow the Ukrainian police are coming to the area to look for Jews who have escaped. We ran quickly to the forest, as the morning cold bothered us, and we tried to go into the thickness of the forest. But because we did not know the area, instead of going into the forest, we came to another group of houses near the forest.
Toward evening, a farmer found us, and began inquiring where we were from and what we were doing, and if we have gold or silver. After hearing our story, he was convinced that we were indeed poor and lacking all. He told us that this morning two Jewish youths were caught by the Ukrainian police and were taken to Stepan. They were the two youths we had met. He suggested we move away from the area in order that we won't get caught.
We went deep into the forest, and found for ourselves a hidden place to sleep for the night. We lit a campfire, baked the potatoes, and ate them. Thus one more night passed. The next day, at dawn, we continued on our way, in order to move away from this village because we were afraid of that non-Jew. This village was a Polish village, called Only. Without knowing where we were going, toward evening, we got close to a Polish village, called Peni, which was near the city Sarny. We entered an area of swamps with small islands with bamboo, and we settled ourselves on one of the islands.
Afterwards, I entered one of the houses and asked for food, and they gave me food. This poor farmer told me that we were not far from the city Sarny, and told me we should stay away from the city for our own safety. That night we slept amongst the bamboo and ate our meal. The next morning, at dawn, we left the area after a difficult night of mosquitoes and cold. We went deeper into the forest. The morning was cold, and we had to walk on puddles of frozen water barefoot.
We continued, not knowing where we were going. That same non-Jew suggested that we go in a certain direction that would lead us to the village, Kerchon, two days away. He said there were Jews hiding there, and only with their help, would we successfully pass the difficult winter in the conditions of the forest.
At dawn, we awakened, and turned toward the forest, toward the direction of the village, Only, where we came from. We knew the general direction, but we were far from knowing the surroundings or the way. We went deeper into the forest looking for berries, but we didn't find even one berry. To our surprise, we did not get near any village. With no choice, we continued on our way, tired, hungry, and scared. We tried to change our direction, and try to listen to the dogs barking or another sign of life. We had no luck that day. We were tired. Therefore, we settled down for the night, and decided that we would try again tomorrow.
It turned out that the Jew was Rabbi Yaacov from Kritshilsk near Stepan and his grandson. They were also refugees that had succeeded in escaping. Rabbi Yaacov, who was a man with a black beard, asked if we had come about food today. We answered negatively, and told him all that had happened to us and where we were headed for. We invited him to join us. First, he answered Thank G-d that we kept the fast of Yom Kippur because today is Yom Kippur, and he saw this as the intervention of G-d. He took out bread and onions and divided it amongst all of us, and asked us to eat because this is our meal to end the day of judgment. He continued: Who will give that we will be redeemed this year so that we will be able to avenge the blood of our relatives who have been destroyed. We ate and drank from a jug of water that Rabbi Yaacov had. Rabbi Yaacov directed us how to get out of the center of the forest and to get to houses and to go in the correct direction leading to the direction of Only-Kerchon. He said good-by to us and said that he was planning to stay in this area and get aid from one of the non-Jews in order to survive the winter. It was very important to save the life of his six year old grandson. Mother thanked him and we began to walk in the direction that he pointed us in.
The house was warm, and the woman and her three daughters, ages twelve, ten, and six, were eating dinner by the table. I was invited to sit down with them, and eat with them. But I asked them for a bit of food and matches, in telling them that my mother and my little sister are waiting for me in the forest. The woman pressured me to tell who we were and what we were doing in the forest. In hesitation, but being sure that I could trust this woman, I told her our story. The woman expressed her feelings again by crossing herself. She told me to call my mother and sister from the forest and that we could sleep on the threshing floor tonight, but she said we must leave a dawn as she was afraid what might happen to her. I ran as fast as I could to the forest, by the signs I left myself in order not to loose my way. I met my mother and sister and invited them to come, telling them the story on the way.
We entered the courtyard and knocked on the door. The non-Jewess opened the door and let us in while crying as she saw what a poor situation we were in. She sat us on a bench in the corner of the kitchen and gave us a plate of potatoes, with another plate of milk with bread and onions. She apologized to us that she had no salt. We ate what she gave us, and gained some strength back from the fast day, the cold, and the hardships that we had gone through. Then she gave us warm milk. My mother thanked the non-Jewess and kissed her hands. Then my mother asked her if we could stay in her threshing floor for a couple of days.
After much hesitation, the woman was convinced by my mother and the woman agreed that we stay there for three days, on the condition that we do not leave the threshing floor during the day, and she will bring us food and drinks. In the evening, we could enter her house to get warm and to drink something warm.
She gave us food and led us to the threshing floor. In one of the corners of the threshing floor, we settled in on a stack of hay, and we fell asleep. We slept well as the threshing floor and the hay was like king's bedding as opposed to what we had gone through the past weeks -- fear, cold, hunger, and sleeping under the stars. Our mother began to thank G-d that had not totally forgotten us and hoped that she would again be able to convince the non-Jewess to let us stay with her for the winter. If we will go through the war and be freed, we could compensate her with our belongings which were with non-Jews.
During the day, we lay in the hay and from time to time we ate from the food the non-Jewess gave us. We were alert all the time to hear voices or if someone was coming near the threshing floor. Our first day passed. When it was dark, the non-Jewess invited us into her house. She gave us warm milk and a warm dinner. She again gave us food for the next day, and mother suggested to her to let us stay on the threshing floor for the whole winter. Mother said she would sew for her and wash clothes for her during the day and evening.
The women was not convinced and explained to mother that this was not possible, because in the end the people from the nearby village would visit her and they would discover us, especially her brother-in-law who lived in the nearby village and was a policeman for the Germans in Sarny. Along with all her good will and understanding for our situation, she was not willing to take the chance and place herself and her daughters in danger. She requested that we leave in five days. But the women promised that she would give us warm clothes for the journey. We thanked her and went out to the threshing floor for the night. This time we didn't fall asleep so quickly as we were afraid that the brother-in -law who was a policeman would discover us. At dawn, we awakened and listened for every noise of voices of men or a cart approaching. We planned how to escape from the side door, if someone would enter through the main entrance. Thus the second day went by. The fact that she had no salt bothered us, and caused us to be have nausea, because during the day we only ate sweet potatoes.
At dark, we entered her house, and she gave us a warm drink and warm food and gave us some clothes, old shoes, and rags to wrap our legs with. We returned to the threshing floor for the night. We got settled in the hay, but mother suggested that she go out for a walk to she where the houses were that she saw as lights from the crack in the wall of the threshing floor. She had two reasons for doing this: 1) to get some salt, matches, and some clothes, and 2) to collect some information about the brother-in-law who was a policeman, what he was like, and how dangerous he was. If it turned out that there was indeed a brother-in-law policeman and that he was dangerous and could drop by for a visit, we must escape tonight and turn toward Kerchon.
We were left in the threshing floor. We cuddled up in the hay, and tried to fall asleep. Our mother went on her way. I could not fall asleep because I wanted to see my mother return from her dangerous night trip in a strange area. It seemed a long time until mother returned. She finally returned with salt, matches, bread, onions, and some clothes. My mother learned from the non-Jews in the nearby village that indeed there was a brother-in-law policeman and that he made money from the possessions of the Jews that he robbed in Sarny. They also told her that he came to visit his sister-in-law at least once a week.
When we heard this, we decided to leave the next day. We fell asleep and another night passed. With dawn, we struggled with the idea if we should say good-by to the non-Jewess or leave without saying good-by. We decided to say good-by to her and to thank her for being so good to us. But we were scared that the brother-in-law would appear or someone else.
My mother began to say a thanksgiving prayer that we were saved, and we listened carefully to all that was going on in the courtyard. That day of tribulations passed. In the evening, the woman invited us into her house for a warm drink and gave us uncooked potatoes, matches, onions, and bread. We agreed that at dawn we would leave.
We returned to the threshing floor and fell asleep. At dawn, we awakened, took our packages, and turned to the forest in the direction of Only. From there, we had to get to the train tracks that lead from Sarny to Rovno. Our plan was to walk by the train tracks and get to Kerchon. Before we left, the women directed us according to signs so we would not get lost.
It was the afternoon hours and we sat down for a short rest and to eat. We went into the forest to look for forest berries and cranberries. We collected berries and ate them as we were also very thirsty. When we finished resting, we continued on our way in order to find the train tracks. We got closer and closer to it. We suddenly found ourselves by the tracks and saw a sign -- Nimovitz Train Station. As we hurried to get into the forest, we heard a car coming near on the train tracks. We moved even quicker. We turned our heads around. We saw it was a train car with two Germans on it armed with a machinegun. They even shot a few bursts of bullets into the forest. Perhaps they were just shots in order to scare us, or that they saw us fleeing into the forest. The shots scared us, we lied on the floor, and did not move until there was quiet. They we quickly got up, looked around, and continued on our way, looking for a place to sleep for the night. Since we were in a pine grove, we collected dry branches, and lit a small fire to warm ourselves and to bake potatoes. Thus we spent the night in the middle of the way to Kerchon, by the campfire. The next day we woke up at dawn, collected our bundles, and continued on our way along the train tracks, hiding amongst the trees.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Stepan, Ukraine Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2016 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 28 May 2006 by LA