Everyone ran to his radios to hear the latest news. Before long the radio announced that Hitler Germany had declared war against Russia. We also found out that the bombs had been thrown by German planes on the nearby Woronowa estate. The estate was engulfed in flames; and four people were burned to death. This was the first signal, which foretokened Jewish extermination, decline and annihilation, the dark omen of our bitter fate.
Almost immediately, there appeared, as though they had sprung up from underground, hordes of saboteurs and fifth columnists. Bands of Hitler spies tore down telephone wires and dismantled the railroad tracks. The train was forced to interrupt its journey for several hours. The commissars of the Soviet Regional Committee sent agents all over our district to mobilize the peasants' horses and wagons for the bank, savings and loan association, hospital and other institutions. We are forced to admit that unfortunately our leaders promptly lost their heads, as a result of the chaos and sabotage of the enemy.
The cool, self-possessed chief of the Soviet Regional Comm. called together the heads of all the agencies, stressed the seriousness of the situation, and called for endurance, obstinacy, and sacrifice, in the hope that victory would be assured in our time, and our noble goals would be achieved. Motorcyclists, bicyclists, riders of all kinds were mobilized. Assignments were handed out to patrol the various neighborhoods of the town, unmask spies, render first aid in an emergency, or during a bombing or other fatal kinds of explosions; inhabitants were given instructions about blackout, curfew, etc. We listened with breaking hearts and anguished souls. We went from house to house giving instructions to every householder and neighbor to prepare spades, axes, picks, boxes of sand; in general to obey the authorities and be ready for any crisis. The storm was approaching.
In the evening we watched the retreating Red Army troops, several battalions of cavalry and regiments of foot soldiers. From time to time we heard the command: "Right! Left! Halt!" This military caravan looked very meager in the dark night. Our Polish neighbors rubbed their hands with glee, winked at each other; and it was obvious that their joy knew no bounds. For us, the retreating Russian military was a tragedy. But we bit our lips and kept silent.
The next morning we went to work as usual to our offices, workshops and various agencies. All those born between 1898-1922 were mobilized and ordered to leave immediately with the nearest military garrison. The recruits were promptly paid a month's wages. Several dozen German planes circled over our town. They did not throw bombs but leaflets with Stalin's photograph, and a proclamation in four languages: Polish, Lithuanian, Russian and White Russian: "Citizens! Poles, Lithuanians, White Russians: Here you see the Jew Stalin, who together with his Jewish advisors and assistants has set himself the goal of destroying the whole world and plunging all noble mankind into a blood bath. Eighty million people are languishing in Soviet prisons. The Jews and their brother Stalin want to destroy everything so that they can rule the world. Citizens, help us rebuild the ruins of the world. Help us in our battle against the enemy: Jews, communists and parasites. Join the ranks of the German Nazis! Only Hitlerism can bring joy to the world! Beat up Jews, massacre the communists, death to the sheenie-communists! Unite under the Hitler flag. Strengthen its ranks, join its army. Help tear out by the roots Jew-communism!"
(signed) German Headquarters
Adolph Hitler, Fuehrer
Berlin, June 20, 1941.
"Read this circular and pass it on to your neighbor."
This and similar vitriolic circulars, but in Russian, were distributed among the Russian soldiers, urging them to surrender voluntarily to the Nazis, in other words, to go willingly into bondage and not fight for "Jew-communism." They should join the ranks of the German army, where they were guaranteed happiness, freedom and a utopian future. "The 'Heavenly Apostle," Hitler was sent by God Himself to bring peace and order to the world. The goal of Hitlerism is to exterminate Jew-communism..."Many other nations have joined the Nazi ranks to destroy bloodthirsty Stalin and his Jewish satellites." And again the same: "Kill the Jews! Every bullet, every wound suffered by a Jew, helps annihilate Jew-cmmunism with God's blessing. God is with us!"
The Gentiles pounced on these hate-filled leaflets with both hands. It didn't take much astuteness for a Jew to realize what the Hitler occupation foreboded for Jewry. We knew that the Nazis and their satraps the Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians and White Russians were sowing death and annihilation. We knew we must prepare ourselves in advance to deal with this cataclysm. But, to our great grief, we did not have enough time and we had absolutely no defense.
Not only Jews in the provinces, but Jews everywhere. had not prepared secret bunkers in the forests, got hold of ammunition, did not lay in a supply of canned and dried foods; in general, we laid little stress on the importance of hardening ourselves and our families to endure hunger, filth, cold, death, dread, so as always to be able to fight back, face the enemy and answer death with death. On the whole we did not help ourselves, and had no choice but to surrender to the executioner.
Life in our town was gradually ebbing away. Its pulse grew weaker and weaker. We continued to work in our offices, but the tempo was now different: we were all under great strain, worked at a nervous pace, did not enjoy what we were doing, were almost apathetic.
The German troops are stationed about 15 kilometers from our town. The radio is constantly broadcasting horrendously bloodthirsty orations by Nazi propagandists in White Russian, Polish and Lithuanian. These speeches are the same old bestial Nazi slogans, all about Jews, Jews...calling for their death over and over again. The radio also broadcast dramatized weeping, moaning, calls for help, heartrending sobbing by women and children, who were supposedly being tortured by the Soviets. In a trembling, tearful voice, the German speaker announced that we were hearing the sobbing of little children and women whom the Soviet Red Army was tossing into the Bug River. There was an endless variety of such supposedly realistic "scenes" and false accusations by the refined Nazis. We did not want to face the reality, the thought that the Nazi army was really not far from us. But very soon, to be exact at 4 in the afternoon on Monday, June 23rd, the bloodthirsty Nazi troops marched into our town.
In all the offices, agencies and workshops the work was going on at a feverish pace. From all sides the motorized German units began to stream in, with great clamor, tumult and hubbub. The Russians fled in confusion, leaving behind open documents and unfinished projects. Women with children in their arms abandoned their dwellings and ran into the fields and meadows, without knowing where they were going. During their entry, the Germans at one end of the town, near the boulevards, attacked a truck carrying 15 men, - Jews and Russians - and shot them all down. The victims are buried in a mass grave under the boulevard. The German fiends also murdered three men in the market, without rhyme or reason. By the river they shot two Russian officials who did not understand German. In the street where the bathhouse was located, they killed two Soviet soldiers. All these murders took place in the first half- hour of the Nazi occupation. Everywhere [WAS] death, destruction, murder. The blood froze in our veins seeing our Rabbi, Jacob OSELWIK and his entire family, together with the family of Zalmen LEVINE, beaten, their arms in the air, surrounded by twenty armed German guards. The Nazi bloodthirsty beasts falsely accused the rabbi and Zalmen LEVINE that a shot had been fired from their house. Not finding the person who had fired the shot, they took both families to German headquarters to be executed. But the commandant freed them all because of lack of evidence; the Nazis in the meantime cut off the rabbi's beard. The identical accusation was leveled against the two families of the dentist Mrs. TEIF-SHEPETINSKI and Shloyme PUZIREISKI. The elderly, 60 year-old German commandant also set them free.
Outlandish decrees were issued every day; wild rumors and cruel warnings -- all aimed at the Jews. We were ordered to wear yellow patches, measuring 15 cm in diameter. All children 8 years old and over must wear the yellow patch. Jews were not allowed to walk on the sidewalk. Curfew started at 7 in the evening. A Jew was forbidden to eat meat, butter, eggs, honey, fat, milk, [or[ sugar. Only black bread, potatoes and water. A Jew was forbidden to greet and be greeted by a Gentile. When encountering a German or a policeman a Jew must take off his hat and walk, and maintain a distance of between 10-20 meters away from the German or policeman. A Jew is forbidden to own a horse, a cow, a sheep, [or] a hen. A Jew is forbidden to possess more than 300 Russian rubles, or the cost of a hen. A Jew is forbidden to appear in the street on a day of rest, such as Sunday; and never in the evening. A Jew is forbidden to live under the same roof with a Christian. A Jew must hang a yellow Star of David outside his house. It must be noted at this point that the Gentiles, without receiving orders, spontaneously hung large crucifixes outside their homes. The penalty for disobeying any of the above laws was death.
The Jews tried to comfort themselves with various fantastic dreams and unfounded rumors, which passed from one to another. It was impossible, in fact highly dangerous to make contact with other Jewish communities. We began to believe in omens, lay our hopes on magic, miracles, etc. as we will see in later chapters.
The town peasants assembled their relatives from all the outlying villages and the entire region and took to their traditional "mitzvah:" robbing. They looted some of the government stores, also the mills, bakeries, and then the offices. They dragged out furniture, tables, chairs, [and] bookcases. Tore down the doors, pulled out the windows and took everything away. They seized the tools and equipment from the workshops; even the unfinished work. "This is the end of your Jewish rule!" the peasants yelled, cynically and bitterly. "You are no longer our bosses. You drank our blood for a long time, and now we are taking revenge!"
Several days after the Germans occupied the town, all Jews were herded into the market place. It must be mentioned that the chief "drivers" who rounded up the Jews were recruited from the town's young Gentiles and a few older ones, whose grandfathers had drawn their livelihood from Jews for many generations. The 500 Jews were lined up in four rows, surrounded by a huge cordon of German and Lithuanian troops with machine guns. The Nazi elder delivered a speech to the terrified Jews. It was the usual anti-Semitic harangue, that Jews were the enemies of the Germans, out to destroy Hitler and the German Reich. Therefore, the Jews must be dealt with accordingly. The murderous Nazis and the Lithuanian fiends pounced like wild beasts on the innocent Jews, young and old and began to beat them with sticks and clubs, until all the Jews dropped to the ground, some of them unconscious.
The older Jews recited the Confession before Dying. Some chanted the Psalms. Others whispered "Shma Yisroel." (Hear, O Israel). Zorach, David and Esther, the three children of Samuel CHELUBSKY, were singled out from the Jews, murderously beaten, and left lying semiconscious. After that Isaiah OLKENITSKI and Isaac WOLPIANSKI were taken out of the crowd. One of them lost an eye, the other flogged until he bled, and the Jews were told that these selected young people would be taken to court and put on trial because they were communists and enemies of Nazi Germany. The Jews in the market place were tortured for two hours. Then they were allowed to pass through a cordon of German and Lithuanian floggers and sent home.
The response and behavior of an old Gentile who lived in the town was typical. He was a born flunky and hanger-on of Jews, who used to sweep various Jewish charitable and religious institutions. He said: "If I had known that they wouldn't all be shot, I wouldn't have helped drive them to the marketplace. Now I'll be ashamed to show my face before them." The few Jews who were detained, who were almost comatose, their faces torn and bloody, were transported to Lida, where no trace of them was ever found. There was a rumor that the third day after they were brought to Lida, they were brutally tortured and then murdered.
One day a group of Jews was recruited to ransack all the offices and
institutions and collect the books, documents and all written records. A huge
bonfire was kindled in the marketplace, and they were tossed in and destroyed.
The fire burned for two days. Among the books that were lost forever was the
valuable library, that could never be replaced. And now there began for us a
life of pain, anguish, days of horror and nights of unbelievable terror, and
Jewish women washed floors, heated the ovens, even dug sand, cut wood and other dirty work. One of our rare satisfactions was burying the Nazis who had been killed in battle. In a single day there were 32 such corpses, whom we buried on the Woronowa estate near the palace. My partner in this "job" was Mendl LEVINE from Giranon. We pretended that we were in mourning over the dead. Mendl was especially convincing in this act. In our hearts, of course, we intoned the prayer: "Thy will be done; justice has been done. May not a trace of them remain." We had to walk 10 kilometers to work and we toiled 12 hours a day, loading heavy logs. We suffered dreadfully, no hopes for the future.
Day and night Nazi troops marched through our town; motorized divisions heavy and light artillery, cavalry, motorcycles, an endless stream armed to the teeth. They were all rushing toward Moscow. Several times, the hypocritical Nazis spread the rumor that Stalin had capitulated, and that the German army was already couldn't help but feel depressed and bitter. One needed to withstand our ordeal and keep one's sanity. In fact, go off the deep end and became apathetic and melancholy. Where did we go from here? What would happen to our wives and children? Were the organized resistance groups in the forests? tormented by hopelessness. Are we really lost? Is there no solution for us? That was the time when Shloyme from Pivoyne (near Lida), the son-in-law of Elias Meyerovitch, hanged himself, in deep despair, in the attic of Br. Grodzentchik. He left a brief note: "There is no point to this aimless existence. My death is my protest...." During the first days of the occupation, we tried to tell only the men would be the victims of Hitler's hatred. The women would be left alone. Our wives prepared knapsacks for us, with other necessities, and....where do we go? Some of our younger people, and a few older ones, risked their lives to reach the interior of Russia. Only a handful got away. The rest returned, more despondent than before, and totally exhausted. We had to surrender to destiny. There was no other way. We went not to think or feel, comforting ourselves with foolish, unfounded rumors. We were happy just to get through the day.
The Germans issued an edict forbidding Jews to live under the same roof with Christians, and ordering Jews to hang a yellow Mogen David outside their homes. The Christian homes demonstratively hung out crucifixes. The situation continued to worsen. During the first days of occupation I worked for several days transporting soil, the most difficult of all jobs. I was bathed in sweat. I stood over a deep pit, shoveling sand into wagons, which stood in a long row. We were ordered to work faster and faster. We had no time to wipe the sweat from our brows. A large area of roadway had to be repaired. I had no inkling of the dreadful event that awaited me the next day.
The next morning, when I was getting ready to go to work, German SS and police broke into the house. They asked for character references and personal documents. I told them. A heavy rubber whip lashed across my face. I tried to find out what I was being accused of, and got another, more vicious lash. Together with eight more Jewish young men I was driven into the city prison, near police headquarters.
The young gendarmes greeted us with jeers and whistles, and rained blows all over our faces and bodies. "Jews, communists, criminals, Bolsheviks, you are kaput!" They shouted, and pointing to the ground, they added: "We'll send all you Jews to your Lenin."
They started to push us, pinch us, beat us. Then they ordered us into another, smaller prison cell, and beckoning to me, the first one, they threw me down on the cot and began beating me with a rubber hose over the head and body. They counted fifty lashes, until I lost consciousness and remained lying on the cot without any sign of life. They repeated the procedure with the other eight men. They revived us with cold water and then drove us outside, where soldiers were waiting to shoot us. We stumbled out, with no sensation in our limbs. Some of our faces were black and blue, swollen and bleeding. Our bodies were dripping blood. My whole body seemed to be on the verge of collapse, I could hardly stay on my feet. We did not even know where we were. The young gentile gendarmes, the despots, poured water over us, threw wood and mud at us. We remained indifferent. Our physical pain and moral humiliation destroyed our sense of life, our hopes. We walked with bowed heads to the "execution" and looked Death in the eye. The Germans gave orders to the firing squad. They lined us up against the wall. Suddenly a messenger came from the commandant to send us back to prison.
Once again this made no impression on us. We had no psychological reaction to our dark, futile lives and still more senseless, foolish death. With insults and jeers they herded us back to prison. We lowered our bleeding, bruised bodies onto the narrow, filthy cots and lay in a stupor, not even thinking, as the hours crept on, waiting, waiting... I will never forget the moving prayers of the young Aaron LEFKOWITCH. Tears ran down my face. Unable to move my bruised body or turn my head, I finally dozed. I could hear the German guards who kept an eye on us, looking through the bars of our cell and counting us. How delighted they were to hear our groans! Aaron LEFKOWITCH's prayer made me forget my suffering. His monotonous, whispering voice soothed me, comforted and encouraged me, gave me strength in my half-dead state. I was filled with the spirit of the Divine and God-inspired fortitude. I remembered our forefathers, who had gone to a martyr-death for their faith. I remembered our saintly, unresisting people in the days of Haman, Titus, Torquemada, Bogdan Chmelnicki and others, all those who had fought to defend Jewish honor, and fell in battle. From generation to generation our enemies rise up to destroy us, and God rescues us. Lying there, my arms folded and my face battered and bloody, I muttered to myself: "God will have mercy and forgive us our sins. He will hold back his anger and his bitterness and will not destroy us. God will help us when we ask Him." I kept repeating this prayer, two times, three times, four times, until I fell asleep.
I was awakened by the characteristic German ruckus behind the bars, ranting and raving at us: "Damn you all! You won't come out of this alive! Damn Jews, Bolsheviks, Communists! Donnervetter!" At moments the thought occurred to me that perhaps it would have been better if they had shot us. Perhaps we should be sorry we were still alive. Who knows how many of us won't be lucky enough to have our prayers for death unanswered. All night the reinforced prison guard did not rest. The sentries constantly peered at us through the bars with searchlights, counting us. Every time they looked in they shouted and threatened us, roaring like wild animals: "Damned Jews, Jew-communists, Bolsheviks! We'll destroy you! We'll wipe you off the face of the earth!"
We prisoners were isolated from the world. We were not given a morsel of food. Finally, after two days of intercession by influential persons, we were set free. I must tell about my "crime." During the time when I was working on the land loading earth, a policeman came to my home and ordered me to another assignment. We explained to him, that the army forbids changing jobs until the first one is completed. He agreed. But he forgot to cross my name off the list of those assigned to the second job. I was registered as a deserter, which during war time, and in an occupied country, is punishable by death. After much effort, we succeeded in explaining the error to the commandant. The Angel of Death did not strike.
The eight men who were in prison with me were:
Aaron LEFKOWITCH, son of Leib EZEKIELThe last one survived and lives in Israel.
Aaron EISHISHKI, son of Isaac EISHISHKI
Leib TROTSKY, son of Isaac TROTSKY
Saul PUPKO, son of Pinchas PUPKO
Leib PUPKO, son of Yudl PUPKO
Aaron DUBLANSKY, son of Samuel DUBLINSKI (the mute)
Leib FINKELSTEIN, son of Sheime FINKELSTEIN
Jews took off their wedding rings, gave away their grandmothers' long, golden chains that they had inherited. They were more than eager to get the "certificate" from the inferior German or Polish boss. They worked from eight to ten hours a day, without pay. As a matter of fact, the "work permits" had no value at all. They were not a guarantee to receive special privileges, or to be released in case of an "Action." It was merely a sly German trick to throw sand in the eyes of the unfortunate Jews as a temporary consolation. Naturally, the Jews who could not afford large bribes or gifts and be "in good standing" did not get the jobs.
It must be noted that during the Hitler occupation Jews had no income. They had to make do with the produce of their own gardens, such as potatoes, onions, cucumbers, cabbage, peas, carrots, beets; and the grain from their fields such as corn, wheat, barley, oats. The bloodsucking Hitler army demanded vast sums of taxes on grain from the Jews, and as a result food was in short supply. Our clever mothers, sisters, etc. made various combinations, invented ersatz dishes. For instance: ersatz marmalade consisted of a colorful mixture of grated, cooked red beets mixed with cooked potatoes, sweetened with saccharine water. Mashed cooked potatoes mixed with onions and vinegar was our "chopped herring." Other such clever imitation foods filled Jewish bellies, during those trying times. It was almost impossible to get meat, fat, eggs, butter. Besides, any Jew who was found to possess these "luxury foods" was put to death. Despite their own misery, the Jews, compassion and mercy in their hearts, did not allow their brethren to go hungry, especially in the small towns. They helped each other as much as they could to avoid starvation.
Nevertheless, the situation of the poor people was catastrophic. These impoverished Jews were fair game for every Gentile youngster, hoodlum and thug. They were driven to do the most backbreaking work: sawing wood, chopping down trees, loading logs, digging the earth, hauling rocks, carrying water, sweeping the synagogue, etc. It was considered a privilege to have a work permit during these, the early days of the occupation. It as heartbreaking to see elderly Jews with patriarchal beards digging a canal on the Sabbath, sawing wood in the market place, supervised by underworld Gentiles or drunken peasants. Jews suffered, were silent, obeyed, and waited for a miracle. The miracle did not come. The ruffian-police, Polish and White Russian, together with the Nazi authorities, decided to demonstrate Jewish degradation and moral breakdown on a market day, when all the peasant men and women come to town. The Gentile police ordered the entire Jewish population, aged fourteen to sixty-five, to assemble in the market place the following morning to work, bringing equipment to clean up the grass. Those who did not show up, would be put to death.
All the Jews assembled in the market place around the church. They brought along spoons, knives, spades, saws and axes. The triumphant Germans and the police gave the signal for the Jews to begin. With bowed heads they went over the grass inch by inch, picking up stone by stone, pebble by pebble and in order not to be flogged, they worked with the greatest care and perseverance. Sadly enough, the peasants, who had lived side by side with the Jews, watched with arrogance and scorn as their old friends the Itskes and the Yankls toiled at their demeaning work.
Just on that day, was the funeral of Joseph SHEVACH, the eminent Torah Reader in the synagogue, who had died that morning. His death was premature, but at least from natural causes. The funeral procession passed through the market place where we toiled. That was an unforgettable scene. The coffin was carried by four men in total silence, without anyone following behind, without the usual weeping. Oh, with what envious glances we followed the fortunate corpse Joseph SHEVACH, who had died a normal death, who had a normal funeral, and was on his way to his eternal rest. How much anguish and misery still awaited us until we, too....and where will we end up....Who knows where our bones will lie? We whispered after the corpse: "Justice will prepare a road for you." Other Jews muttered: "Angels will protect you in all your doings."
A policeman with a bullwhip struck a Jew over the head and shoulders who had paused for a moment. The peasants stood around watching, some with curiosity, some with enjoyment, as the poor Jew was drenched with blood. We couldn't help the unfortunate Jew, and we didn't are interrupt our work for a single moment, because a threatening eye was watching our every move. Even Zalman Leib PAIKOWSKI could do nothing to help his father, Mordecai. With great zeal we continued to pick up the stones, and clean up an area where dogs and filthy peasants left their foot marks. Our hearts felt as though they would burst with pain, seeing the following respected, elderly Jews sitting and cleaning the grass: the old butcher Note Eliahu KAPLAN; the Torah scholar Nahum KUZNIETZ; the charitable Joshua PLOTNICK; the communal leader Nehemiah SHAPIRO; the Rams Horn Blower Joseph HMERKOWICZ; the householder Benjamin LEVINE and his four sons; the old scholar Feivl PUPKO and his two sons; the cantor and leader of the Yom Kippur Service Moshe DANISHEVSKI, son-in-law of Isaac OLKENITSKI; the respected Isaac MOLTCHADSKI and other pious Jews. When we finished, the priest favored us with a special honor. We were driven at full speed to the stone fence around the church. There, under the priest's command, we spread the stones from the marketplace around the church wall. "Jew-boys," warned the priest, "don't dare damage the church fence by hitting it with a rock. Work honestly..you know what's waiting for you. Your fathers are dead already...." We finished our work in the market place and like mourners, walked back through the gardens behind the houses to rejoin our families.
All enterprises, factories, plants, artisans, workshops had to be supplied with the necessary raw material, equipment and tools, fuel, heat and all supplies required to see that the intensive work proceeded smoothly. All enterprises had to be provided with workers every single day, besides those who were driven to do menial work such as sawing timber in the forest, sweeping the streets, cleaning out the garbage cans and keeping the synagogue clean. Very often several automobiles roared into town, filled with Gestapo men, who demanded that within three hours the Judenrat provide them with the following: 150 thousand Russian rubles in cash, leather for twenty pairs of boots, ten yards of the best cloth for men's suits, three gold watches--men's or women's. For not executing this command at the appointed time, 100 Jews would immediately be transported from Woronowa, (Aussiedlung or Resettlement. A ruse used by Germans to deport ghetto population to annihilation camps). Aussiedlung meant death -- always. The turmoil and panic were indescribable.
There were always a large number of Jews who came to the rescue of the community in times of peril. Like redeeming angels, they were able to supply the asked for leather, fabrics and other materials. Often even a gold watch. In all cases, after much bargaining and threats on both sides the required goods and taxes were surrendered. The Germans were not always fussy about the quality of the goods. They were interested mainly in quantity. This kind of situation was repeated month after month. Every time our efficient and experienced Judenrat emerged unharmed from the crisis. Judiciously they levied equitable taxes in proportion to people's ability to pay, putting it aside for an emergency--when harsh demands had to be met. They bought up leather, cloth, gold pieces, to allay the insatiable appetite of the German "Satan."
The following members of the Judenrat were outstanding because of their tactful, efficient accomplishments: Hirsh KOPELMAN, the President; Feive ITSKOWICZ, brother of the Secretary of the American Relief Org. of Woronow Landsleit; Councilman WOLL, son-in-law of Rachmiel STEKATCHIK; Jacob KAMENIECKI, the heroic man who drove our young people to go to the forest, exhorting them: "This apple tree, these pillows ,and this furniture will bring about our ruin...Cut down the trees, burn the furniture, destroy everything so that you can be free and escape the barbaric hand and vicious claws of the fiends, and even go out and fight them." He did not live long. Six months after the Nazi occupation, he contracted pneumonia and died. He died decently, not from a Nazi bullet. The other members of the Judenrat were Isaac EISHISHKI, son of Solomon Joseph EISHISHKI; Berl LEVINE and Jacob KAMIANSKI, the second son-in-law of the old butcher HIRSH.
Although they were basically helpless, it was imperative that their authority and esteem should not suffer in the eyes of the Jewish community. Even more urgent was the fact that their effort should not fail, for this would be life threatening to us. For this reason we always treated our mentors with understanding and justice, thus giving them an opportunity to deal with dangerous situations to the best of their ability, which required all their logic and tact.
When the Spanish troops marched through Woronowa we enjoyed an all too brief breathing spell. There suddenly poured into our town, dressed in German military uniforms, a flood of motorized tanks, divisions, mainly artillery, cavalry and infantry. A black mass of soldiers. As is known, at the beginning of the war Fascist Spain sent military aid to Hitler, amounting to twenty-five divisions of Spanish troops. They were led by their own commandants, and besides being equipped with Hitler's uniforms and ammunition, the impression was that they were fighting an independent war against the Soviet Union. Their kindness to us is unforgettable. They treated the Jews of our town with exceptional love and humaneness. They could not understand why the Hitler authorities were forcing us to wear yellow patches on our chests and shoulders.
A few weeks before the Spaniards marched through our town, the Nazis had issued a decree that all Jews from the age of eight and up must wear yellow patches on chest and shoulders, measuring 15 cm. across. At that time Jews had worn white armbands with a yellow Mogen David on their right arms. Nor could the Spaniards understand the other cruel anti-Semitic edicts (?) -- that a Jew was forbidden to walk on the sidewalk, to eat meat or fat; not live under the same roof with a Christian; not be greeted by him or greet him; take off his hat before the worthless, dirty policeman or fiendish Nazi, when he was twenty meters away. The Spaniards were astounded by the outlandish, sadistic laws that every Jewish house must be marked by a big yellow Mogen David, Star of David, and that a Jew is forbidden to appear in the street on holidays, Sundays, and evenings. The honest, naive Spaniards took it upon themselves to rip off yellow patches from the clothing of many Jews.
While the Spaniards were in our town, the Gentile police avoided encounters with Jews. One Gentile supervisor and guard, who pushed a Jew at work, was flogged by a Spanish officer, beaten on the face and shoulders, his rifle taken) away, his name taken and told to report that night to the Spanish commandant. The police guard naturally did not appear, and vanished from Woronowa. The Spaniards addressed the Jews as "friend" or "brother" and confided to us that the Nazis would have no joy from them. They could not stand to see our suffering and the cruel tricks the Nazis played on us. During their six-day occupation, they flooded the entire region, that at times it seemed to us as if a section of Spain had been torn and attached itself to our town....They were a great consolation during the bitter days of our suffering. They brought life and joy into our dreary lives with their singing and playing. Their monotonous, remarkable melodies, similar to our Jewish folk songs, pierced our hearts and enabled us to forget our troubles, if only for a moment.
Who knows, perhaps these Spanish soldiers were really our brethren, descended from the Marranos of ancient Spain? Perhaps we had the same great great grandfathers? They had typical Jewish features, characteristic Jewish modesty and fiery temperament. They visited many Jewish homes, bringing meat, butter, eggs and bread. For a long time we could not forget their kindness and sincerity. The Spaniards could not tolerate our cool summer nights and mornings. They shivered from cold and some of them got sick. It was evident from their reluctant Nazi "patriotism" and lack of cooperation with our enemy that the Germans could expect little help from them. On the contrary, they would only hasten the Nazi defeat. And so it was. The so-called "partners" of Hitler were sent to Moscow.
Several weeks after they arrived on the outskirts of Moscow we learned from a secret source that the entire Spanish garrison had surrendered to the Russians and were their prisoners. That was the last time Hitler asked Franco Spain for military aid. We asked the Spanish general, who bore the Hebrew name of "Shofo" if it was possible to extend their stay in our town. The noble general laughed and replied: "My dear children, Hitler, in order to win his blitzkrieg, has recruited the services of dozens of nations, and you want me to go against him?" We realized that our request had been senseless and absurd. But a drowning man always grasps at a straw. The Spanish army was like a shining light in our dreary days and a consolation during our bleak sad nights, a bright oasis in an island of tears. Then, they left; and once again there swept over us long days and nights of isolation, pain, suffering, death and annihilation.
There were frequent orgies and carousing at night, when the drunken police of the neighboring towns, together with the Woronow police--thugs sought entertainment at the expense of the Jews. They would surround a Jewish house, discharge a volley of ear-splitting gun-fire into the attic, roof, chimney and walls, and with loud shouts demand that the terrorized Jew open the door. The moment he did, he was struck by a rain of heavy blows. When the householders inquired why they were being attacked, they were told: "Because we saw a light shining through the window." Jews would cover the windows with blankets and sheets, whatever they could find. Often they would not even light a fire at all. "How come?" sobbed a member of the family. "We've been asleep for a long time and didn't light any fires."
"Come with us to the S.S." was the answer. "You'll explain it to them." Now, it became clear what the gluttons and drunkards had in mind in the first place. It took a generous sum to ransom the family. At least twenty Jewish homes were usually "inspected" and blackmailed in a single night--a form of robbery. All was chaos. Besides the beatings we suffered in our homes, we were thrashed at work.
We still remember in every detail the incident of the logs. The Germans warned us that if we didn't load ten wagons of logs in eight hours, we would be shot. In view of the fact that we had walked ten kilometers to work, and that there were only fifteen men in the work crew, plus our exhaustion, we knew we were in no condition to complete the assignment. Our lives were in danger. Then we struck on a plan. We hired several Gentiles, paid them, and with their help we completed the task by a hair's breadth. The Gentile police and underworld figures, selected a number of Jewish homes, and convinced the Nazis to "visit" these in the middle of the night for the purpose of robbing them.
In the middle of the night the band of hoodlums would surround a Jewish house, terrorize the family by shooting into the windows, and then, with a wild uproar, break in, firing shots. In this manner they could seize anything valuable that fell into their hands. In most cases they drove up to the house with wagons. They stole furs, clothing, cloth, leather goods, linens, etc. The Jews were warned that if they reported the incident to the authorities they would be shot. They were 100% sure that the Jews would keep silent. "That'll be the end of you Jews - kaput!" they threatened.
"Anyway, why do you Jews need butter, linens, clothing? Our Fuehrer has told us that we would rule the world, and everyone would work for our benefit and serve us." "As for you Jews, the Fuehrer said you must all be exterminated, because you will make us lose the war." During these forays we offered no resistance. We let the thugs take whatever they wanted. The sooner our night visitors left, the better. They added: "Our wise Propaganda Minister Goebbels says that whoever kills Jews will be rewarded with a bonus. You Jews..are cutting our throats;" shouted the Nazi blackguard, pointing to his throat. We breathed a sigh of relief when the "night birds" left our home.
In order to scare Jews, several dozen Germans would surround a house and fire into the roof, attic, chimney. Usually in the middle of the night, shouting "Hurrah!" while the bullets flew. It was their idea of amusement. But there were many victims. The family would lie down on the floor until the cannonade was over. Very often the Gentile police would burst into a Jewish home on the pretext of searching for ammunition or communists, and flog the householders without mercy. Beating was not enough for the bandits. They shattered windows, broke the furniture, ripped out the doors, and inflicted any damage they could think of. Frequent guests in our town were the Polish pro-Hitler "diplomats" who would drive the Jews into the market place and lecture them: "Jews, it is a bad time for you! If you don't want to be wiped out, become devoted servants of Hitlerism, which will save the world! Obey the rules. Do what you are told, give away whatever is demanded of you. Obey all our officials. If not, you and your families will all be shot." They would lecture for an hour; then our helpless Jews would be passed through two rows of soldiers with truncheons. Old and young, the weak and the sick, were beaten. Nobody was spared. The whole area was spattered with innocent Jewish blood.
All these dreams, fantasies, rumors were engendered by the tension and agitation under Hitler occupation: despair and gloom: the fading of hope. By that time we had received the terrible news about the total destruction and annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry in the provinces: about the neighboring towns of Eishishok, Olkenik, Meretz, Oran, Rashin, Leibishok, Turgel, Small Oletchnik, which were regarded as Lithuanian towns, had been totally obliterated. This news was brought to us by special messenger--a Gentile. With tears in his eyes the messenger described the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi fiends together with their Lithuanian helpers, saying: "Save yourselves, Jews. You are next in line. I saw with my own eyes the terrible massacre in Eishishok of seven thousand Jewish men, women, children and infants from the neighboring regions. They were tossed into three deep pits that were four meters deep, one hundred meters long and five meters wide. Some had been shot, some were alive. A mass of Lithuanians, together with the Germans, pushed the victims into the mass graves.... Where is your Jewish God? Why is he silent? How does he allow the murder of innocent people and babies? What sins have you committed?"
We did not believe the Gentile. But then a Jew who had escaped the massacre convinced us of the truth.
We were informed that eighty percent of the Jews in the Wilno ghetto had been transported to "Ponar" (place of death) on the pretext that they were being taken to work.
Many Jewish families made their way to Woronowa from Wilno and the outlying towns. We welcomed them with open arms and tried to supply them with all they needed. All these refugees who were seeking asylum had to possess registration permits, stating that they were "aliens;" giving their former place of residence. Otherwise they would not be granted legal rights to live in Woronowa.
This law was handed down by the cunning Nazis so that they could identify them and shoot them.
Among the Wilno refugees were many professionals: teachers, professors, physicians, engineers, lawyers, merchants, etc. It cost a fortune for a Jewish family to reach our town from Lithuanian regions, where the gradual liquidation of Jews was taking place. The German "refined" authorities assured us that the edict of extermination does not apply to White Russian towns, including Woronowa, which was considered a part of White Russia. Before that time, no formal massacres had occurred in these territories.
More than five hundred Lithuanian people were added to the population of our town., We shared our last morsels of food with them.
November 6th, 1941. Our town was surrounded by SS, Gestapo, Gentile police, peasants, who volunteered for the "good deed." They were all armed to the teeth and let go a barrage of gunfire which struck panic in our hearts."This is it," said the pessimists. "They're going to button us up." The phrase "button us up" meant death. Hordes of hoodlums broke into Jewish homes in order to verify documents. We did not have exact information about the encirclement. Not as yet. We did see groups of men, women and children, former inhabitants of Wilno and the provinces, being driven somewhere. The killers managed to shoot down three Jews, who became confused and ran in different directions.
My family began to run through the fields, without stopping to think where they were going. My twelve-year-old son Eliezer was in bed at the time, with a temperature of over 40C. But he got out of bed and ran with the crowd, his fever forgotten. Most of us found hiding places in attics, cellars and synagogues. The police shot at every fleeing Jew. It was a miracle that the untrained police and "auxiliary force" did not kill hundreds of Jews, but fortunately their aim was bad. The terrorized Jews ran in all directions, not knowing which way to turn. We noticed that whole groups of Jews were being herded into the movie house. There were wild rumors that today the so-called "aliens" from Wilno and environs would be massacred; and a few days later the Jews from Woronowa would suffer the same fate. Our gloom and despair were indescribable.
Together with my brother-in-law Reuben, of blessed memory, I worked in the munitions factory, about 600 kilometers from town. We could clearly see the chaotic situation. We saw the drunken thugs running about, red-faced, uncontrolled SS and Gestapo, their rifles pointed ready to shoot. And they did shoot--but aimlessly. We could smell the odor of gunpowder. We saw many Jews we knew running across the fields. "What shall we do?" we asked each other. "Where shall we go? How can we save the family?"
We decided to make our way to the house of a peasant that we knew, and pay any price to get help to our families, at least be able to save some of them. We ran on the back roads, through fields and forests, until we reached the peasant's house. A few days ago, this same peasant had taken away a wagonful of our belongings, as a "deposit," assuring us that he was prepared, at any time, in case of emergency, to give food and shelter to our families, for as long as it would be necessary. Naively, we believed him.
We ripped off our yellow patches, and were overjoyed that we had safely reached the home of a "friend." His property consisted of many houses, barns, lawns, orchards, etc. My brother-in-law and I were half-dead from exhaustion. Out peasant "friend" inquired after our families, and we could not control ourselves and told him everything that was happening in Woronowa. We begged him to go to our home and if possible rescue some of our family members. We offered him a large bribe. Our "friend" shrugged his shoulders, scratched his head, stuck his hands into the sleeves of his fur jacket, and vanished.
We remained in the barn, where he had told us to go. Then the peasant's wife came into the barn. She was distraught and on the verge of hysterics. She was so angry that she forgot our names, and without even greeting us, she burst out: "Have pity, "Zhidkes," (sheenies), go back, go into the forest. What do you want from me? Did you know that in Lida three Christian families were hanged for letting Jews come into the house? Get out of here--don't bring tragedy into my home..."
"Dear lady," we tried to appeal to her corrupt conscience, "we don't want to stay here too long. We just want...your husband....to find out....about our families....We will pay well." Tears of resentment and pain filled our eyes. We felt as if we were choking. "Please, Missus, let us stay until the evening, until we find out about our families." "In any event," we continued, "if our families are....no...more...God forbid....we will....in the forest....from the first....tree..."
"No," insisted the evil woman, "I want you to go to the Devil right now...Get out of my barn this minute...if not I'll tell my mean daughter-in-law that you are here, and she will tell the authorities." She burst into angry tears. "I'll give you some bread and go to the forest."
"We're not afraid that you will report us. Maybe we have nothing to lose. Thanks for the offer of bread, we aren't hungry. All we want is that your husband...." Just as they were kind and friendly when they took away our possessions, they were now cruel and vicious. My brother-in-law and I decided to remain in the barn at all costs, until the evening, despite their threats and warnings. We crept into a corner, crawled under a haystack until we were invisible, and remained motionless. The peasant and his wife and their neighbors searched the barn for a long time, and could not find us until we called out to them. The peasant's wife told us her husband was going to Woronowa to the mill, and while there would visit our family. We gave him a letter and waited with pounding hearts and shattered nerves for his return. It was night when he returned. He told us that the police raid in Woronowa was aimed only at the "alien" Lithuanian Jews from Wilno and environs. Woronow Jews were not detained and were all safely at home. The Wilno Jews and other Lithuanian residents were driven into the big movie house. There they were kept in a state of imprisonment, surrounded by an armed security force. They were assured that after eight days they would be set free. He was afraid to go to our house, but had talked to a Jewish neighbor of ours. Many Lithuanian Jews, eager to return home, voluntarily presented themselves at the movie house. Naturally, they were tossed into the "death-house", and were now waiting with the other Jews for inevitable death. Our peasant warned us not to remain on his premises any longer and to go back home. My brother-in-law tried to appeal to them: "The roads are dangerous...we must cross the railroad tracks which is heavily guarded...and a Jew at night.... He begged them to let us remain in the barn overnight. I didn't agree and wanted to leave the barn this minute. So we left.
We passed Gentiles' homes, where harmonicas were playing and peasant girls and young men were dancing. "Fortunate people," I thought. "How lucky they are. We are being annihilated and they are singing and dancing....Two different worlds....One is dark, bleak, hopeless, the other is bright, shining, hopeful....Dear God is this really our end? Where is Your justice, where is Your mercy and kindness?"
"Stop muttering," whispered my brother-in-law. "Better keep your eyes open. Look what's coming toward us in the dark."
Sure enough, we saw silhouettes approaching, with rifles slung over their shoulders.
"Hurry," I whispered. "Come into the grain field until they pass."
In the field there was a large area of uncut, unharvested grain, where we could hide unseen.
Three armed German soldiers passed by close to us, evidently on their way to the Polish "party." They didn't see us. We crossed the train tracks at some distance from the town, making a detour to the right, among tall shrubs, where it was safer. With bated breath and tense nerves, and gloomy thoughts, we approached Woronowa. Deadly, terror-filled silence hovered over the Jewish homes. Not a gleam of light, not a whisper, not a movement. We were filled with dread at this bleak, dismal appearance of our native town. "Who knows if our family is safe," whispered my brother-in-law. "Maybe the goy lied to us."
"Don't even say it" I replied in anger, not letting him continue. "Let's go see our friend, the Gentile P.S." Nevertheless, I must admit that the grim sight of our dark, town, filled me with dejection and foreboding. We confided in our Gentile friend from time to time in the past. We trusted him, and he had helped us--for a large sum of money. He was a frequent messenger for us, making contact with Jews in nearby cities and towns, and bringing back information. This was the Gentile who had brought us the sad news about the massacre in the neighboring town of Eishishok. We paid him well, and he was always at our disposal.
It was a distance of three kilometers to the Gentile peasant's hut, but in order to be safe we took back roads, through lawns and meadows. When we reached his hut his family was still awake. There we found Bostomsky family of Wilno and other Lithuanian Jews, also my neighbor Tsodek KOVENSKY, my nephew Eliezer LEVINE. They confirmed what we already knew, that they had fled under a hail of gunfire. We made ourselves comfortable, warmed up, and lay down to rest until morning. When it grew light, we sent a messenger to our family. He returned, soon, that all was quiet now in Woronowa, and we can return there. When I crossed the threshold of my home, we all burst into tears. "At least I can see my beloved relatives once more," I wept.
Two hundred eighty-eight men, women and children were imprisoned in movie theater. The moment they were driven inside, their fate was sealed. A horrible death awaited them. The sly refined" Nazi beasts tricked them in various ways: ordered them to organize a Judenrat, maintain discipline and order. At the same time, they circled the entire movie theatre with heavy barbed-wired and placed a cordon of police and SS around the area. Every day the victims were horribly tormented, under the pretext of searching for ammunition. The women and girls were ordered to strip naked so that they could be "searched." When a woman resisted, she was beaten unmercifully, and in many cases shot to death. Five men were shot for trying to relieve themselves outside.
One day the fiends decided to search for money. They mobilized the entire SS and the Gestapo, and discharged gas bombs, in order to daze the already half-dead Jews. The beat their prisoners with knouts, clubs and dog-whips. Jewish blood ran like water. Our Jewish brethren were helpless, their lives were worthless.
The Nazis had an established system: they would thrash their victim, revive him, beat him again, revive him again and so on. For whole days and night, without pause, they tormented the Lithuanian Jews, who began to pray for the release that death would bring. They were stripped of all their belongings, down to the last. Our Woronow Jews did everything possible to help, at the risk of their own lives. Every day they brought food and water. Nazi fiends tore off their clothes: the men down to their underwear, the women to their last dress. Their shoes were taken. And then, on the Sabbath, November 14, 1941, the end came.
Six huge trucks drove up, with sixty-five German and Lithuanian henchmen. With the aid of our town's ruffians, they drove the Jews from the movie theatre to their death-march. It was a scene of grisly horror. Incomprehensible and hideous. An eerie death-demonstration. Our young people were ordered to bring pick-axes and spades to bury the Lithuanian Jews. The Jewish gravediggers walked behind the Jewish prisoners as they were driven out of the movie theatre. A demented bloodthirsty spectacle. The prisoners were beaten as they stumbled toward the burial ground, which was not far from the movie. Men, women, and children--and their brethren, carrying spades, behind them.
The Wilno and other Lithuanian Jews were told to stretch out on the ground, face down, in rows of twenty. The Lithuanian savages walked along the rows, shooting the Jews in the head. The weak and frail Jews had been shot on the way. Women covered their children with their bodies. But the bullet of the drunken savages found its way to the body of the innocent child.
Masses of peasants and peasant women passed by. When they saw the horrendous scene they knelt, crossed themselves, and whispered prayers. But this did not stop them from begging for the belongings of the unfortunates, going to the movie house and foraging for anything that they could find.
It didn't take long. All was silent. The German and Lithuanian killers, together with the police, left the field of death and went to the railroad. Suddenly we heard groaning and feeble cries for help, as though from deep in the earth. As we passed by the rows of blood-drenched corpses, we saw that some of them were still convulsing, and we heard the faint voice of a woman: "Jews, save me and my child. We are both alive. We're not dead."
Old Moshe WILENTCHIK covered them with his coat and we told them to lie quietly until the evening. Another Jew whom the bullet had missed, called out to us from among the dead. We warned him not to move until the murderers had gone. We decided not to dig the graves until the evening, and leave the martyrs on the open field until morning. We thought we might find a few more victims who only appeared to be dead, but we were wrong. Besides the woman and her child, and the man, whom the bullets had missed, a girl from Wilno stood up and went along the railroad tracks to the neighboring estate of Woronowka, thinking it was the Jewish town of Woronowa. How mistaken she was! The peasants, together with the Germans and Lithuanians, who were stationed on the estate, tore off her silk dress and underwear and beat her to death with stick, and clubs. The next day a peasant from that estate brought her dead body in a cart to the mass grave, where we buried her. We could not finish preparing the graves that day, and with the permission of the Gestapo left it for the day after. After their "job" was done, the Lithuanian henchmen celebrated by drinking liquor, singing anti-Semitic songs. Then they left our town.
In the evening Chaim DUBLIANSKY, the son of the Mute, put on a
blouse and went to the place where the martyrs were lying to bring back the
woman, her child, and the Jew. They returned safely, but all three were weak
from loss of blood and more dead than alive. They were tenderly cared for,
revived, and brought back to life. The woman's both legs were frostbitten. The
next morning a large group of Jews dug the mass graves--two large graves--and
buried the dead. I cannot forget the sight of the mothers clasping their
children in their arms. The children clinging to their still-breathing mothers.
...Some children with crushed skulls. Several dignified old Jews with gray
beards, their eyes open and staring. Among them: Lithuanian rabbis, professor
TSEML from Wilno, the brother of the famous American sculptor; TREGER and his
sister; the BASTOMSKY family; the merchant ILINTOWITCH and family; Liuba PIK,
ZHABINSKY family; IDELSON; KAGAN; Mrs. GAVENDE and her two sisters. Of blessed
(Professor TSEML is mentioned twice in the sentence: once as the sculptor's brother; and once later on. I included only the first time)
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