I feed on the conflagration, I feed on the disaster as six million dead run after me and drag the stones out of the bridge, and count the drops of tears in the River Bug.
Bricks, bricks, bloodstained bricks. Here is a cap, there is the wheel of pram, here is a sleeve, there is a shoelace. Home, my home, you are an orphan exactly like me.
City, my city, my burnt city, your wounds and ruins are poured over with the years. The orchard - the garden where my baby carriage stood is now a ruin. The earth, the earth is now my only relative.
I lift a fistful of earth in my hands see how many eyes peer out at me. Every grain - a grandfather, every stone - a generation. The earth is my relative for over 10,000 years.
I stride over the ruins and seek out the memories of my home, my street, and the remaining tree. There my grandfather would sit under the broad branches in the old Bereza. There in Bereza it stands with a split trunk and broken branches - the bark peels off like an old tablecloth. Bereza, Bereza, you are now my father!
Bereza, Bereza, I want to play for you, a flight of my heart which I cannot quieten. The songs of the birds that rise and will not be silenced that disturb the quiet...
Yankel the Klezmer (musician) gave his fiddle to me and swore that I should play as long as l live. I lost my heart, my doomed sister. I am left alone, now I am the entire orchestra.
I will stand over the ruins and play and play until my heart turns to stone, until every one of the fallen will rise from their graves, and I will greet every Jewish victim of the Holocaust that occurred in our time.
I will stand over the ruins and tear at the strings of the violin until a stream of water will fill the thirsty wells. I shall play and play about conquest and belief until my city will rise up from the ruins to heaven.
The first victims were the Jews. The first German orders were antiJewish: Jews were not allowed to move house, and were forbidden from seeking employment without special permission. The Jewish population then numbered 40,000 and the leadership of the community was in the hands of several capable and talented people that the Germans immediately dealt with (executed). Hunger and fear of the coming terrors filled the city.
In the streets Nazi soldiers checked every passer by who they suspected were Jews. Despite this I risked it and went to the home of a friend of mine a Polish engineer whom I had helped in the past. He received me in a very friendly manner and found work for me at the railway station, as the Brest stationmaster was an acquaintance of his. I went to work for him as a Pole with the name of Kalevitch. My job was to paint signs. My supervisor was a German soldier who was not happy with my work - my letters did not come out to his satisfaction. I was forced to teach myself in the evenings and my work improved daily. My fear and dread did not lessen I was still without a passport.
Arising one morning at 6 a.m. for work, I immediately realized that I had fallen into an Aktion - a round up of civilians. The Germans were checking every passer by and every Jew was pushed into covered trucks. Several times the Germans pushed me towards a truck, but with great effort and wildly thumping heart I managed to extricate myself.
My family lived in the home of a Ukrainian who was a rabid anti-semite and an opponent of the Russians. Because of my good behavior during the Russian occupation I had not denounced anyone to the Russians I found favor with him and he hid my family and me. When the Germans went from house to house searching for Jews, he risked his own life when he assured them that there were no Jews in his house.
The German soldier for whom I worked showed more trust in me every day wanting to please me, he called me over to point out to me how the Jews were being tortured in front of my eyes the most terrible scenes appeared. On the station platform there were about 200 elderly Jews who were being forced to dance horas and various wedding dances. They were surrounded by German soldiers and Polish railway workers who murderously beat them with wooden clubs and iron bars. The wounded fell then and there whoever still showed signs of life was beaten to death with an iron bar by a Polish railway worker to quieten them forever. The remaining Jews had to drag the bodies to the Jewish cemetery. Everyone was eager to perform this task to escape the ghastly terrible dance. The old Jews with bodies on their shoulders had to run quickly stones and iron bars were thrown at them. The cemetery was close by on the road another 2 Jews were murdered.
This Aktion' of catching, torturing and murdering Jews lasted 3 days. During this time over 9,000 Jews of varying ages disappeared from the city.
The Brest Jewish community was forced to establish a fund to raise money for clothing for 200 Germans - later they demanded 5 million zlotys. The collectors also came to my place, my wife opened the wardrobes and begged them to take whatever they liked later I also gave them 1200 zlotys.
Each day the Nazis thought up new provocations at this time an edict was issued that Jews had to wear a white armband on the left arm with a 12-centimeter blue Star of David. Later one had to wear it on the left chest.
On the 13th October 1941, the borders of the Brest Ghetto were established. It was decreed that all Jewish residents of the city would have to move into the designated streets. During my work at the railway station I met a Polish building engineer from Warsaw who was carrying out building works for the Germans. I proposed that he obtain a work permit to employ Jews, he agreed, and I was one of his first workers. Later he employed my father who was a glazier, and I managed to obtain employment for other relatives.
In the ghetto the hunger and terror was overwhelming. The ghetto chief was a Major Rade, he demanded a contibution of 10 million dollars, to be paid within 3 days.
Yom Kippur arrived and despite the prohibition of public assemblies, the Jews of Brest did not desist from praying together. Rabbi Simcha Zelig and his son organized a prayer meeting in the tightly packed synagogue on the corner of Kosciusko and Pietrowski streets. The beds were taken out and packed into the courtyard of this building - responsible people posted on all sides to stand as sentries, and it was just as it was when the Marranos (secret Jews) choked on their tears on Yom Kippur in Spain long ago.
The deputy chief of police, who was also Procurator of Jewish affairs, excelled himself in carrying out the most murderous deeds, and was much hated by the Jewish population. At 10 p.m. a Jewish policeman came to him and notified him that they had caught a Jewish partisan who was conducting communist propaganda in the ghetto. They had beaten him and thrown him into the Jewish prison and did not know what further to do with him... the police deputy chief jumped up in vicious joy and immediately went to the prison which was situated in the basement of Grynberg's house. The policeman opened the door of the cellar and entered first, the deputy chief followed, immediately the door was locked from the inside by a second Jewish policeman, at the same time the first policeman threw himself upon him and cut the German's throat with a knife. These 2 policemen vanished the next day it is not known whether they survived or not. The corpse of the Procurator was found 2 days later the entire population lived in great fear the specter of bloody revenge hung over the ghetto.
On the same day the community decided to send some expensive 'gifts' to Major Rade. Four beautiful girls who had some idea of the importance of their mission delivered these gifts. They spent that whole night with the Germans and when they appeared on the streets the next day, every Jew looked upon them as Biblical heroines, who sacrificed themselves for the greater good of the community of Israel. None of these girls survived the war.
I continued to go to work every day with my father and brother in law. We would return laden with food and coal for heating. One day when crossing through the barbed wire I was caught by a Pole that knew me and worked for the German police. He beat me severely. The second time the German police thrashed me.
On the burnt out place between Ksziwa and Jagiellonska they began to erect barracks containing workbenches for no apparent reason. A German called Guss displayed brutal cruelty to the Jewish laborers. He was hated by the Brest Jews as much as Major Rade the police chief was. When the Germans demanded 900 men, everyone was too frightened to report to them. Then Guss gave up the men who worked for him to the Germans. Of the 900, only 12 returned, even my own father, who was amongst the returnees, would never discuss what had happened to the others.
In any event, my father decided that we had to begin building a secret hiding place. For an entire week the men of our family worked at building and finishing this ingenious hiding place.
At the beginning of 1942 cells of young Zionists and communists were collecting money to buy arms and send young men into the forest. One frosty evening a printer from Lublin called Arieh Schoenwald came to see me on a mission. When the Germans had invaded Brest he had left the Jewish quarters and come to see at the home of the Ukrainian. Now, he showed me that he had managed to collect money to transfer men from the ghetto into the forests. He told me how 3 young Jews, disguised as peasants were recognized by a Polish policeman on Kobryner St. With the assistance of a German gendarme he tried to stop them. The Jews shot the Pole and the German on the spot making it look like they had shot each other.
Arieh used all his powers that no suspicion should fall on any Jew. After some days, the police dismissed several Poles and no one ever knew what happened to them
The day of the major Aktion, the liquidation of the Brest Ghetto arrived. From our hiding place I saw how the Ukrainian police with howls of triumph and pleasure stormed the houses of the ghetto. Besides being armed with guns the bandits also had axes and bayonets. The streets filled with the cries of children and the frantic calls of their mothers. I heard the German commandant order that they be taken to Krutke St. The Germans knew that many Jews were hiding in the cellars and bunkers and specially built hiding places. I saw them come to a barn that adjoined my own hiding place they found a young man who was not a native of Brest hidden under the straw. He was dragged out by the Germans and told go to the yard they shot him in the head as he ran. In the cellar where my wife and 10-month baby were hidden, the water supply ran out in the second day. The cellar was tightly packed with people; mothers nursed their babies at the breast all day long so that they would not cry. After a falling out with my brother in law I was left alone in my secret attic hiding place through the grille I saw how the bandits came ever closer they closed in on the cellar, demanding that everyone come out. I saw my wife and tens of others emerge, broken and bewildered.
In the days and nights that followed I was alone and regretted that I had not accompanied them suddenly, late after midnight, I heard a stifled groan. No one answered my whispered call. After a long search in the neighboring barns and cellars I found one of my neighbors, Yakov Barkin. The 70-year-old man was completely swollen and unable to move. He was delirious and I brought him water.
We spent several days and nights in his hiding place, alone and isolated from the outside world, not knowing what to do. No Jews were to be seen in the ghetto. Polish workers came - supposedly to load up the belongings of the vanished people for the Germans. At the same time they picked 'bones' for themselves. I was lying hidden quite close to them and I could hear their conversations, all of which concerned one subject how to become rich. One told the other that his son Stephan had found a hiding place of Jews at Friedman's house on Dluga St. He assured them that he would not report them for the 20 gold zlotys reward. It was not half an hour before he received his reward the German police arrived and plucked out at least 60 well-dressed people probably aristocrats. Stephan later regretted not demanding more money. My heart ached with pain I knew these people that lived in Friedman's house.
The second man jeered, What would you say to the following? Last night I was with a friend (ransacking) a Jewish house on Kosciusko St. The house was clean and orderly. At the table sat a man, on the floor near him lay a woman, another woman lay on the bed. At first we were frightened but then we realized that they were dead - they had poisoned themselves. This awful scene was of dead Jews.
I listened to these terrible conversations and saw their jeering faces, my fists clenched as I prayed for revenge against them. At night I told Yakov Barkin, we agreed that this must have been Dr. Begun's house.
The next morning I prepared placards written in German and Polish. The Polish placards were a warning to those that helped the Hitlerites to destroy the Poles:
Poles, Ukrainians, and White Russians
Do not suppose that you will not receive your just rewards for divulging the hidden Jews to the Germans. After the Germans exterminate the ghetto, they will turn on you. Don't be stupid dogs that lick their masters. Whoever assists the Germans is a senseless dog. Do you want to remain idiotic senseless dogs forever?
Signed: The Fighting Democratic Party
In German I wrote:
German citizens. People of culture. Why are you so blindly carrying out the executioners' orders? Don't you know how much revenge there will be against you? Today you are the executioners, tomorrow you will be hung. Did the Jews eat your bread? Don't you have wives and children? Must you unwillingly follow your leaders and commit such criminal atrocities? Remember that you were once good honest children yourselves, and that the children that you murder are innocent of any sin. Remember also that justice does exist in the world.
Signed: The German Communist Party.
I stuck 12 such posters in various locations that night. I hung 2 near my hiding place so that I could observe the reactions of the reader.
At 7 a.m. 3 Poles passed by. They stopped to read. It was obvious that they could not read well. One of them said: what is this? When he saw the German signature he said: these are Communist posters. They called on a passer-by, a German with coarse pig like features who quickly read both signs. He became pensive for a moment, then straightened up and went on his way. I saw that the words had made an impression on him and wondered what he would do if he found in my hiding place?
In the meantime a Gestapo agent and a Polish policeman arrived who tore it down and stomped on it after reading it. On the other hand the Gestapo agent stood stock still in front of the German poster. Not a muscle twitched in his face. Then he motioned to the Pole and they both left. I saw how many passers-by read my proclamation, but at the same time I knew that they would have murdered me if they had discovered me.
No Jews remained but there was much activity in the ghetto. They dragged suitcases filled with feather bedding, furniture and possessions out of the buildings. They stripped all the room and searched the cellars. Suddenly there was a noise from old Barkin. I saw a Ukrainian outside and inside there was another Ukrainian screaming at the old man to come out. The old man pointed to his swollen legs and said in a broken voice that he could not move. The outside Ukrainian shouted to the other: What are you playing at? Finish him off! But find out from him where the money is and where other Jews are hiding. I heard several shots. From the cellar emerged a gentile, a male of medium height with a red face not a word passed between them as they nonchalantly walked along as if nothing had happened.
My head was bursting. I lay there paralysed only my heart beat stronger with the desire for revenge. I considered how to eliminate several of these bandits. My brain formed a plan and I waited for the next day impatiently. Very early in the morning I left my secret hiding place in the attic. I took a heavy iron bar and stood waiting for a solitary passer-by. The iron bar would only be effective with a lone person, as another would quickly discern where it came from. The desire to live was as strong as ever - I had to survive. A policeman went past I hit him on the head but missed and hit his shoulder. He fell down screaming; I don't know what happened next as I quickly fled back to my hiding place. Every day more workers came into the ghetto to strip it of every valuable. I saw tens of men at my father's house the curiosity burnt in me. Without thinking of the consequences I left my hiding place and sought a convenient observation post where I could see what was happening in the courtyard of my father's home. If someone had accidentally opened the cellar door I would not have had time to escape. In such situations a man thinks of the most extraordinary things that could save him. I imagined that I would spot a familiar friendly face. A Gestapo man stood in the yard and directed the Polish workers who dragged everything out of the rooms. More police and civilians arrived. I heard the German order them to immediately kill any Jew if they were to come across one
In this instance I felt no nervousness. I felt great peace. In no way did I want to be caught. From marks that I made on the walls I knew that it was Friday but did not know the date or month. I very much wanted to know how long I had being lying hidden.
There had already been some snow falling for several days and at nights when I foraged for food and water I had to walk backward for the last 20 meters so no one would see where my footprints came from. The days became more difficult and my food was running out. My loneliness grew and I began to think of running away from there.
At 6 o'clock in the evening I shaved myself in the dark, which was very difficult. My beard was already 3 weeks old. I washed myself and packed my suitcase. I had various items in the cellar a suit, good underwear. I found my overcoat my legs shook as I tried to hold back the tears that came to my eyes. My shirt became drenched with my tears this brought me back to the reality that I must not give in and break down. I knew that I must remain strong and calm for my escape.
I remembered that my wife had hidden 10 dollars amongst the clothing after searching for some time I found it. At that time I regretted that she had not taken it herself perhaps it would have been useful to her. Immediately another thought came into my mind about death wasn't it better that it came sooner? Was it worthwhile to struggle for life that is just a terrible waiting for death? I saw in these discarded objects how much effort people had made, and in order to rid myself of these sad thoughts, I began to dig a hole and put into this hole 2 barrels full of their expensive articles and belongings. I covered the hole with soil. Then I washed myself. I took the suitcase and a travel bag and went out into the street.
It was a Saturday evening the 3rd or 4th of November 1942. The snow was falling but immediately melted turning the ground into sticky mush. It was odd, once I would have avoided going out in such bad weather. Now everything seemed large, broad and beautiful. I felt the blood pulse through my veins, and my heart beat faster. I stopped and felt the snow fall on my face, taking pleasure from its whiteness. I considered how to safely move out of the ghetto.
I remembered that the parents of my sister's husband, the Rimland family, lived on Pietrowski St. not far from where we lived. They had made a good hiding place under the floor of their shop. Perhaps they were still alive there was not a living soul about as I went forwards I heard Ukrainian voices from afar. The further I went the more my fear disappeared and my steps became more assured. Here was the house of which I knew every entrance well. I noticed that the rubbish bin that had covered the 50-centimeter trapdoor in the floor had been moved and that the hole to the hiding place was open. I summoned courage and went down into the hole and softly called out knowing that there would not be an answer
Soon it would be 7 p.m when the curfew began and movement was forbidden even for the Poles. I had to get out through the gate in the distance I saw the two white shadows of the ghetto police - about 25 to 30 meters apart, who guarded the entrance to the ghetto. I used the distance between them to sneak from yard to yard. At Fuchsman's house I waited several minutes as the policemen went further into the distance and then quietly walked out into Dabrowska St. I pretended to be drunk and came face to face with a Gestapo man - singing a Polish song and making a stupid drunken face I went right up to him - he kicked me and sternly reminded me about the curfew. I pretended that I did not understand and continued to sing loudly as I continued along Dabrowska St. I realized that I actually did not know where to go or to whom to turn for help. As it happened I knew many Poles but wouldn't they be too frightened to take me in with all my things? I entered the yard of Greenstein's house at the corner of Dabrowska and Sienkiewicza - my father's watchman lived there. I silently entered the building. The watchman's wife saw me and crossed herself. She did not ask me to sit down and told me that the Germans had caught everyone who had escaped from the ghetto. If they found a Pole hiding a Jew, he would also be arrested. The Germans often came to search for Jews and she begged me to leave immediately.
I asked her for a little water and if she would permit me to leave my suitcases containing my clothing with her. At first she was afraid that I was carrying communist literature, but when I opened the suitcases and showed her the clothes, she agreed. When I departed she begged me not to betray her to anyone if I was caught.
Again I stood lost and not knowing to whom to turn or where to go. I looked around at the courtyard I knew so well several months ago Skorbnik had lived there he was the head of the Jewish Kehilla, at that time I had been there almost every day. There was an open closet there I threw myself on a bundle of straw in the closet and fell into a deep sleep.
When I awoke it was 5 a.m. and not yet light. I had to wait until daylight. Suddenly I heard steps and the closet door opened to reveal my uncle's neighbor Petrovski, a building engineer. When he calmed himself from the shock of seeing me there, he invited me to his home. Everyone was still asleep. He boiled some milk for me on the electric stove that really warmed me from the bitter cold of the night.
I did not get much information from him, but his humane behaviour strengthened me. He was a much more distant acquaintance than those that I hoped to get more warmth and help from. I asked him if he could get me some work away from Brest. He politely refused and advised me to try some private contractors who needed laborers. The most important thing was not to lose hope and despair.
The first visit I made after this was to the engineer Tadeusz Brzezinski. I had worked for him until the Aktion (the liquidation of the ghetto) and he owed me a lot of money for services and materials that I had delivered to him. His office was on the corner of Zygmuntowska and Ksziwa streets. Before the establishment of the ghetto this building had been Shlomevitch's bakery. Now it stood empty, the dwelling above the engineer's office deserted. Unobserved by anyone, I entered the building, removed the shutters from the door and observed all that went on from my hiding place. Soon the engineer arrived with his assistant technician. I understood from their loud discussion that they were returning after a night of celebration and drunken revelry. I did not wait for too long and approached them it was all the same to me I didn't care if they would hand me over to the Gestapo. The assistant who opened the door called out holy Jesus when he saw me. I motioned with my head for him to be silent and asked if I could come in so that the other employees would not see me. I tried to look confident and show faith in the coming German demise. They listened earnestly to me and the engineer asked me what I intended to do next. I assured him that I had not come for what he owed me I was only interested in obtaining work. They asked me to come back in three days time, and would not hear of my suggestion that I hide in their bathroom for the three days.
Again, as I sat in the deserted rooms of the upper storey, I felt severe hunger and for a moment regretted that I had not requested food, but when I remembered their ugly mugs I was happy that a hungry Jew had not demeaned himself by begging them for food. Every corner of the house became familiar to me I continually walked around to in order not to stiffen up from the cold. In a corner I found a mouse bitten piece of dried up bread. I threw myself on it like a wolf and remembered the long forgotten words told to all children when they did not want to eat a piece of bread with butter: remember that in times of war, one does not even get a dry piece of bread.
When evening came I went out into the street. I went to the offices of the Ukrainian Building Enterprises and told the engineer there that I wanted to travel to the Crimea for work. He immediately agreed, on the condition that I bring a release document from my last employer. Outside there was a gay atmosphere, the shops were busy, around the Adria cinema children were throwing snowballs and their laughter resounded over the whole street. I entered a shop and bought myself a glass of soda water with 2 cookies. Whilst eating I observed the people and their faces to see whether someone would recognize a Jew when they saw me. Nobody even looked at me it did not occur to them that 3 weeks after the liquidation of the ghetto - a Jew would dare to stroll around the streets of Brest.
The curfew hour was approaching; I decided to walk to the house of my uncle's servant. In the courtyard, all was quiet - the shutters were closed. I stood at the door for a few minutes and listened carefully for sounds from the neighbours before I knocked on the door.
The woman reception overwhelmed me. She threw herself at me with a cry as if she had found a very dear and close friend. I quietened her - she quickly drew all the curtains shut and began to tell me that she had seen with her own eyes how they had taken my family away to the railway station in the direction of the fortress. But she did not know what had happened to them.
To stay there with her was not a possibility. She was afraid of her neighbors, and would only allow me to stay there for one night. She made me something to eat; the warmth of her home penetrated my entire body. She made up a bed for me I tried to say something about being more careful, that I should sleep under the bed. Yet I willingly lay on the warm soft white bedding.
In the morning this Christian woman her name was Marisha Popievska, arose whilst it was still dark outside and lit a fire in her stove. She brewed coffee for me and again I had a decent breakfast and tasted being alive. She also prepared some food for me to take with me on the road a flask of coffee and pieces of bread that she put into my jacket.
Thanking her with all my heart, I went out into the street. It was 5.30 a.m. and still dark. But by the time I arrived back at the engineer's office building, it was already light and I could have been spotted by someone my brain worked feverishly as I tried to recall a Polish acquaintance who lived nearby.
Suddenly I remembered the mistress of Engineer Heydul who had lived for the last six months in the neighboring street near the railway station. The last time I had visited her I brought her an expensive piece of fabric. She had boasted that her apartment was very small it could only hold 4 people. I cautiously moved through the courtyard of her building to the cellar from where I could see everything that occurred in the courtyard from a window. At 10 a.m. the woman stepped out and locked her door behind her, from that it was evident that she lived alone. I decided to wait for her return. At 6 p.m. she returned. I waited in the damp cellar and then knocked on her door. She politely asked me to enter, and asked after me family. I told her that I was the only one left, and this simple woman cried bitter tears and said that if she had taken my little daughter away with her she would still be alive. She permitted me to spend the night there and gave me a good meal. That night I slept not thinking of any danger.
The next day, Tueday, there were knocks at the door the woman paled and I hid behind the bathroom door. With a trembling voice she asked who it is. The engineer entered she was delighted to see him and immediately came to the bathroom and called me, taking me to see him. He sadly smiled as he shook my hand. I could not get any news about the fate of the Jews out of him, or what was happening in the outside world. He stayed for several hours. Upon leaving he whispered quietly to her at the door. She told me later that he had told her to get rid of me as soon as possible. Because it was already late, she decided to let me stay another night in the cellar under her staircase. I knew that my pleadings would not be of any use. This night was difficult and cold the coat that she gave me to cover myself with did not warm me. It was still dark when I walked back to Zygmuntowska St. On the way I stopped at an acquaintance with whom I had worked for the Russians. His name was Jan Sztarnetzki, he was a communist sympathizer. He ran a locksmithing business and lived comfortably.
I knocked at his door and his wife would not let me enter. With a pleading voice she asked me to leave for the sake of her children. On Zygmuntowska St there was not a soul to be seen. The engineer's house was still sunk in sleep. I waited in my hiding place and then knocked on the door. His assistant opened the door and I immediately noticed a change from 3 days earlier. Now the engineer was angry he said that by my coming there I was endangering not only him, but also all other Polish families. I immediately understood why he had put off speaking to me for 3 days clearly he thought that I would have been caught in the street during those 3 days. Pretending that I did not understand his meaning, I told him that I had the greatest confidence in him, and as he could not help me, then at least he should repay his debt to me. He immediately told his assistant to pay me off and went into another room, without wishing me farewell.
Carefully, like a cat I returned to Shlomevitch's empty house. I went out into the streets in the evening, ate in a restaurant and walked along Dabrowska St to Engineer Shibulski's office. He received me cordially, and asked me for my papers, when I replied that I did not have any, he asked me what assurance did he have that I was not a Jew?
From behind him someone remarked that one could see immediately that I was a Jew. The engineer said that this didn't interest him just to bring him a document from my previous workplace, and I would get work with him straight away.
I quickly left and promised to bring the document tomorrow. I returned to the empty house on Zygmuntowska St. That night was longer and more drawn out than usual it was freezing cold. I ran back and forth, did exercises, but there was no way that I could get warm. In the morning a laborer arrived just behind the door where I lay frozen. He opened the door to relieve himself - when he spotted me he got a shock, but realized who I was and smiled. I proposed that he sell me a Polish document. He did not think for too long and gave me a piece of paper that stated in German that the construction company of Engineer Brzezinski employed the Pole Zenon Cholevitch of Warsaw. We agreed on a price. Then he told me that there were many Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and that it would be worthwhile for me to travel to Warsaw.
Several days later I saw Stephen Vaschuk, a driver, in the courtyard of the engineer's office. He had been a good friend of mine and was happy to see me. He also advised me to travel to Warsaw, because it was impossible to get through to the partisans to the east of Brest without a guide to contact them. That evening I went to the railway station. The way to the station teemed with spies and denouncers, who scanned and checked the faces of all the passers by. I had to walk through Unij Lubelskie St. with several detours. I entered the booth of a railway guard. A rather obtuse and dense youth was inside. It was not difficult to befriend him. I told him that I was traveling to Warsaw on business and that I would bring him useful things back from there. Suddenly steps sounded from a distance he pointed to a bunker in which I should hide. The steps neared my hiding place and I heard voices in German. They lingered at the same place for quite a while one even shone his electric torch in to the bunker to light it up, but I was pressed to the wall and he miraculously did not see me.
After waiting for over an hour a transport train loaded with tar arrived which stopped and then continued on to Terespol. I got into an empty wagon leaving the guard with a packet of cigarettes and a little money as well as the promise of a fine present when I returned. The night was very cold with a nasty wind that raged throught the fields and the wagon I was in. I wished that I had gone on the passenger train directly to Warsaw. The train dragged along slowly. It was already after midnight and we still had not crossed the bridge over the Bug River. Arriving at Terespol, I found out that there was no train to Warsaw and that I should have to travel on to Malchevitch, 3 kilometers down the road, where a train would leave for Warsaw at 3 a.m.
I walked 2 kilometers along the railway tracks and was stopped several times by the Gestapo. Instead of answering them, I would scream out in Polish: Stephan, hand me the lamp. Thanks to this response I arrived at the railway station. At the station there were many people and I breathed a little bit more freely. Suddenly, a young man greeted me. His name was Alex Kerner; he was a Volksdeutche (a Pole of German ethnic background). He had once worked with me at Engineer Brzezinski's. He was a good young man and had a weakness for drink. However, I was careful and pretended to be a carefree traveler who was traveling to Warsaw on business. He believed what I said and gave me his father's address with an assurance that his father would help me with my purchases.
I tried to talk to him for as long as possible in order not to draw attention to myself. He told me that whilst traveling to Warsaw 4 weeks ago, he was accompanied by a doctor from Kobryn who promised him 200 dollars and gave him 50 dollars for introductions to his Polish acquaintances for accommodation in Warsaw. The next day when he returned for the rest of his money, he was told that the doctor had gone out for a walk and never returned, leaving his belongings there. It was then that Kerner said: I decided that I would not help save any more Jews, even for a million. What about me? I jokingly asked. His reply was that if you were a Jew you would not be moving around so freely. Those cruel words rang like music to my ears. They gave me the courage and confidence to succeed in saving myself from falling into their hands.
We drank a glass of brandy and wished each other a speedy return and to see each other again in Brest. The train going to Brest arrived, I helped him get on board, then he turned and whispered to me that 4 weeks ago he had traveled to Warsaw and had seen how a bank teller had denounced a Jew to the Germans and that I should take care.
That meant that he knew what I was and that my rejoicing had been in vain. Once again, I was all alone and the Warsaw train would arrive in 2 hours time. The ticket window would only open 30 minutes before the train was due. How would I go up and buy a ticket?
I raised my collar and sat in a corner and pretended to doze but from the corner of my eye I observed the people. My eye caught sight of an elegantly dressed man but his face showed barely concealed anxiety and worries. He gave the appearance of almost being in a trance but I observed his knees trembling.
The ticket window opened and the ticket seller carefully eyed all the people in the queue. If he did not like someone's face he would demand their documents. If this happens to me, I'm lost, I thought. I decided to handle it by being brazen and insolent.
I turned the large hand of my watch to ten to four o'clock., and began to agitate the crowd against the ticket seller, saying that we would miss the train because of him as it only stopped there for 2 minutes. The people in the queue became impatient and began to curse the ticket seller and urge him to hurry up. Now he did not search their faces so slowly, but he gave them all an angry glare. When it was my turn, he gave me a piercing look into my very depths. I repaid him with the same glare and added angrily that: you don't care if people miss the train, a decent Pole would not do that. He felt that all the people were on my side and gave me my ticket.
On the platform I again noticed the elegantly dressed man saying goodbye to a woman. Coming closer to them and under the pale light of the lantern I recognized him it was Dr. Kavaleriski, a Brest nerve specialist (neurologist). When the German gendarmes had brought him into the ghetto, it had caused a sensation because no one had known that he was a Jew before this. His wife had betrayed him to the Germans as being of Jewish origin after an argument. His priest attested that he was a true Christian but to no avail he had to live with the other Jews of Brest in the ghetto. He did not work and received support from the Catholic Church.
At that moment I envied him, he was not alone as the woman warmly farewelled him. The thought crossed my mind to wink at him, to let him know that I recognized him, but my instinct told me not to I sidestepped him and entered another carriage.
The closer we got to Warsaw, the greater the activity. We were surrounded by outside movement and life, multicolored humanity but nowhere was there a trace of a Jew to be seen.
the City Gardens, and Hotel Victoria (center)
Father, where is your dust? Where do your bones rest now? Ask every wind in the world, bowing with tears. Every stone, every path, every tree and flower winks at me. The whisper of the world follows me under every sky.
You have gone and are not anymore. The secrets of your life spread in silence and in storm. Sown over a domain, somewhere at a grave only a lonely branch stands.
My father, my teacher, I see in you everything around me. In my heart there always is a light that does not flare up high and proud, but lies softly as a joyous small light until tomorrow when it will shine.
You proud Jew, faithful to your people and to your city. Your heart always pulled towards Zion, and redemption. What did you think when your home crumbled, when mankind and the world was hidden in darkness?
You have gone away, but your inheritance presses on me, and the way is difficult and forlorn. Only those who knew him would never pull back until the storm has passed and the path through the forest leads to victory.
When news of this reached the nearest German garrison, punitive expeditions were sent out from 4 directions from Brest, Kowel, Malorita and Kobryn. The partisans put up barricades at the village of Lysechowska. The battles began the next day at 6 a.m. The partisans had surrounded the village with burning coals and set fire to many houses and trees. When the Germans surrounded the village they we repulsed by the heavy firing from the partisans. They called for support from the air force, and Messershmidt planes bombarded the partisan positions from the air. The partisans still battled to repel the German push, but eventually the Germans were victorious and the majority of the partisans fell in this battle.
Amongst the survivors was a Brest Jewess, Hannah Ginsburg. For 2 hours she stood and held back a group of S.S men with her machine gun. Suddenly the firing stopped the Germans thought that she had fallen. When they approached her at that instant she threw a grenade that killed the whole group of Germans.
I do not know where this heroic partisan is today, but I feel great pride and awe when I am reminded of this Jewish heroine.
Especially outstanding amongst them was a heroic woman Genia Eichenbaum, who was born in Poltusk. She operated in several areas blowing up railway tracks. In 1942 she took part in the destruction of the Brest Baranovitch line, and the Brest-Pinsk, Horodetz and Drohicyn lines. Thanks to her efforts there were no less than 13 derailments of trains full of German soldiers and their explosives.
Similarly distinguished was the partisan Zerach Kormien, who led the Kartovski partisans (a Brest group). As well as his activities in other areas, he derailed 13 trains on the Brest Pinsk line between Febuary and June 1943. He blew up the Drohocyn Antopol line, the Brest Moscow line. At Bluden station they detonated a train of 25 wagons that were laden with guns and explosives. On the 23rd Febuary 1944 Kormien blew up another 4 German trains at Orenzhik station on the Brest Moscow line.
He was decorated with the Red Star and the Order of Lenin, first and second-class.
The underground leadership provided the following description of Kormien: The fighting character of the partisan Zerach Kormien, the son of Avraham Kormien of the Brest Kartovski Group. Zerach Kormien was a member of this group from 28th June 1942 until the 10th June 1944. During this period he distinguished himself with his bravery.
As commander of the extermination group, he exploded and destroyed 22 enemy trains, participated more than ten times in battles, destroyed more than four and a half kilometers of telegraph and telephone wires, 3 military vehicles on the Brest Pinsk road, and was very active in the detonation of railway tracks. He accomplished a great amount to the development, training and arming of the Kartovski and Stashures partisan groups. Due to his assistance the Stashures group received 18 machine guns, 10 vehicles, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. He was much loved and respected amongst the partisans.
Signed and stamped by A Leshzhov.
Brest and District Committee Commissar 1943.
Amongst the partisans who distinguished themselves was Nathan Licker who destroyed 31 railway wagons, he was also awarded the Order of Lenin and made a hero of the U.S.S.R. He lives in Brest today.
From the book by M.Kahanovitch: 'The struggle of the Jewish Partisans in Eastern Europe'.
Shlomo was mobilized into the Polish army in 1939, where he was promoted to sergeant. In 1940 he was imprisoned in a prison camp near Berlin. From there he escaped and returned to Zamosc in Poland and smuggled himself into the Zamosc ghetto. He was recognized as a stranger by the Jewish ghetto police who handed him over to the Germans. They sent him to Lublin. From there together with other Polish prisoners they were sent to Majdanek, and forced to work on constructing this death camp they were the original builders and the camp was so not closely guarded at this stage. He escaped and returned to Zamosc, where he fled into the forest together with several other youths, the majority of who were Russian. Wanting to get arms, they stole a cart loaded with heavy wooden poles from a peasant and placed it across the road, removing a wheel so that it looked like it had broken down. Eventually a German car with 5 Gestapo men arrived, and being unable to pass, had to get out of their car and help the peasants unload the heavy poles, so that they could move the cart. At that moment the peasants ambushed them, taking their revolvers and automatic weapons. They then began their lives in the forest. Their group attracted about 100 men - they were commanded by a Russian youth called Bogdan. At this time there were no partisan groups set up to fight the Germans yet in this area. This group was set up to defend their own lives. During the day they hid in the forest, at night they foraged through the villages for food from the local peasants. On a certain day they were betrayed by Polish peasants to the Germans, and all were caught. Only 3 men managed to escape, and Kandlik was amongst them, but they had to flee this part of the forest. He again returned to Zamosc it was Passover 1942, but as the ghetto was being liquidated at this time, he decided to return to Brest.
German soldiers guarded all the roads with the assistance of Polish collaborators. Despite this Kandlik reached the Mukhavets river, which he crossed swimming with one hand in the air with his bundle of clothing - he fell into the hands of a Ukrainian guard, and barely managed to extricate himself and get into the Brest ghetto.
He got through the fence at Szpitalna St. and saw a terrible sight. People were coming from work with their heads bent; they were wearing two yellow patches, one on the front and one on the back. His 'beautiful clothes' without patches evoked suspicion from the passers by who side stepped him with fear. He was forced to hide himself until evening. It was already quite dark when he went to search for his parents whom he found living in another house as their previous home was not in the ghetto area. They told him that several days after the Germans occupied Brest; they had taken away 5000 men for work. Amongst them was 'our' Simcha Barchasman, the son in law of Josef Winograd. The remaining inhabitants deluded themselves that these 5000 would return home after they finished their work. In reality, they had all been murdered. The remaining population lived in extremely congested conditions. He found our Bracha and Baruch in a house; they did not survive together with the 20,000 other Briskers. Unlike other ghettos such as Vilna and Lodz, the members of the Judenrat (Jewish council) behaved honorably they did not betray their fellow Jews as in other ghettos. They requested contributions and this was collected honestly and decently.
Shlomo had witnessed the liquidation and had heard about Aktions in various other cities. He understood that the same fate would befall Brest. He called on his friends and appealed to them to escape from the ghetto into the forest. But the youths would not hear of it. Adunski's wife worked in for the authorities in the administration office of the ghetto. Adunski was one of the 5000 that were taken and murdered. She used her position to save Jews. Shlomo's plan was to prepare false papers, leave with a group of youths and organize themselves in the forest. No one would listen to him they all believed that the ghetto was under a good commandant and that nothing bad would happen to them.
The same mentality prevailed with the Jews in other ghettos. Everywhere they were convinced that it would be different and better in their own town. On the night of the 15th Oct 1942, Shlomo was awoken from sleep, there was heavy shooting from all sides in the ghetto it was clear that the ghetto was surrounded and that the liquidation had begun. There was panic as everyone tried to save some of their meager belongings. They still did not believe that death was imminent. Shlomo decided to flee he packed his travel bag and ran into the street. The ghetto was surrounded by flames, the sounds of machine gun fire mixed with the cries and screams of 1000s of people. Shlomo ran in the direction of Shiroka St., he got into the canal (drain) that ran along the length of the street. He hid there for a long time, before continuing on to Kobrynska St. and then to Zygmuntowska. A veterinarian doctor who once had promised Mrs. Adunski that he would be prepared to hide her if necessary lived on Zygmuntowska. At that time she had told Shlomo of this, and that he was able to obtain Aryan papers for her. Shlomo went to the vet's house but did not dare knock on the door, as it was already late at night. He stood in a closet in the courtyard until morning. When the vet left his home alone, Shlomo approached him and mentioned Mrs. Adunski.The vet took him into his home where he and his wife showed him much kindness and concern. Shlomo became hysterical as a result and cried for two hours. When he had calmed himself, he prepared for his journey. Leaving the vet's house he stopped at the corner of Jagiellonska and Zygmuntowska streets, where he witnessed 1000s of Jews being led away to their deaths. They were pushed into train wagons that stood on railway tracks that extended from the banks of the river. The wagons contained lime and many Brest Jews suffocated during the journey, the remainder was taken to Bronnaya Gora, which lies between Kartusz Bereza and Kossovo. There they were stood at the edge of pits that had been dug and shot into the pits with machine guns.
Many Jews were murdered in the ghetto itself. This is evidenced by the eyewitness testimony by the Katsaf sisters and the Golumbovitch brothers who survived. Boza Tennebaum gave me this account and I relate it here to you:
The Hitlerites took a large number of people and separated them men on one side, women and children on the other. Gestapo men with automatic machine guns surrounded this mass of people and began firing after an initial order to fire. There was great panic and several people managed to flee, among them the Golumbovitch brothers. The second liquidation in the Brest ghetto was in the coutyard of Ratners building at 128 Dluga St. There they collected 4000 Jews and lined them up in rows. The Jews had to dig a long and deep grave themselves. After they finished digging, they were ordered to undress. The Jews obeyed this order without any resistance. Only the children cried out: Mama, it's so very cold. Their mothers quietened them by saying that they would not be cold for long .
At first they shot the first row. Many were wounded and still alive. The second row was ordered to push those in front who had not fallen into the grave. This happened with each row. When the grave was filled and covered, cries were heard from those buried but still alive. This was witnessed by the two Katsaf sisters who were hidden in a stable under a pile of rubbish. I'm not certain if these 2 mass shootings occurred in those final days of the Brest ghetto according to eyewitnesses it was in this period before October 1942. In all events the final liquidation of the Brest ghetto took place on the 15th Oct 1942.
Thus ended the existence of 20,000 Jews of Brest.
I return to the experiences of Shlomo Kandlik. Seeing the masses of people being led into the train carriages evoked in him the desire to look around the ghetto for the last time, but a hidden force prevented him from doing so. He came to Kosciusko St. and observed the final Aktion through the fence. At that moment an S.S. officer arrived accompanied by a Polish youth who recognized Shlomo and denounced him to the German. But Shlomo succeeded in merging into a crowd of Poles who were leaning on the fence and observing the ghastly scene with pleasure.
Shlomo went in the direction of the Mukhavets River. On entering the river, he swam until he reached Terespol. Going through the town in the daytime was extremely dangerous. He hid in a ditch until dark it was already dark when he left the ditch past the hour of the police curfew. Shlomo had to crawl very carefully to the railway station. From there he traveled to Warsaw, he did not know why, but it became clear to him on arrival that he had made a great mistake. He did not know where to go, to stay with the Poles would be to hand himself over to the Angel of Death. He decided to volunteer as a Pole for labor in Germany. He was sent to Vienna. There he met a Pole with whom he had served in the Polish army. He was the only one who knew Shlomo's 'terrible' secret. He used it to blackmail Shlomo for his own purposes on a certain day, the worst happened. Shlomo from a window saw his Polish 'friend' approach accompanied by 2 Gestapo men. They were already on the stairs when Shlomo jumped out of the window and escaped. He got on a public bus and traveled through the streets of Vienna, seeking for a Jew that he could trust. After several hours, he found a man at a bus stop wearing the badge with Jude on his coat. Shlomo followed this man into a side street, went up to him and begged him for help.
This Jew only gave him an address of the Jewish community center and left. Shlomo was overjoyed he had already reached the steps of this building when he met a girl to whom he told all. She quickly led him away, saying that he was lucky not to have gone inside; they would have reported him to the Gestapo. This girl brought him food and gave him the address of an editor of a Viennese newspaper editor who would help him. This editor did help; he made a plan for Shlomo to escape to Switzerland and gave him the necessary papers and money. At the border Shlomo was stopped and held down by his throat by 3 St. Bernard dogs. Immediately the Gestapo arrested him and took him back to Vienna.
On the 2nd March 1943, Shlomo Kandlik was transported to Auschwitz. Also there his luck still stayed with him. At the last moment he was ordered out of the line designated for the gas chambers. What saved him was his evidence about the escape route to Switzerland - the Gestapo was convinced that they were dealing with a highly placed political personality, and placed him under special guard and organized a special investigation.
In this manner, Shlomo was again saved from death and remained in Auschwitz until the evacuation of the camp on 19th January 1945, when the Russian army launched it's offensive on Krakow. In the same camp Shlomo found Sima Shiltezki, who had been in Pruzhany when the war broke out. But when the camp was evacuated Shlomo never saw him again.
The evacuation. This was a long march (death march) of tens of thousands of people in a westerly direction. The S.S. guards hurried the Jews along, prodding them with their bayonets. During this march, Shlomo succeeded in escaping. He fell into a ditch and stayed there until nightfall. At night he began walking east towards the direction of the battlefront. He came to a village in hid himself in a Polish peasant's barn. On the tenth day, barely alive, he felt dogs tugging at him and a Russian voice called out: here is a spy. It was quickly established who he was as the Russian soldier was a Jew. In a pure Yiddish he told him that he was free and could go wherever he wanted. Shlomo went to Lublin and from there to Eretz Israel.
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