As is well known, war brings pain and suffering to civilians, who become innocent victims. It uproots people from their homes and sometimes even scatters them great distances. The main reason for this mass movement is that people wish to escape from the front lines where the greatest danger lies. Whenever a war is fought between two nations, the civilian populations of these warring countries are affected. This war, however, in addition to being a war involving many nations, was also a war between the civilized world and Nazism. And for the Jews, there was an additional war, the war between Nazism and Judaism. This war was carried out without any mercy. The plan of the Nazis, may their memory and name be erased forever, was a cruel and vicious plan, the total annihilation of all Jews.
When the war broke out, no one could have fathomed that this would be a war directed especially against the Jews. However, even on the first day of the war, because of the immense hatred of the Germans towards Jews, there were already suspicions of a policy of exterminating Jews. Masses of Jews started running away from the front line areas, which couldn't be held [by the Polish army]. They ran away from the big cities and wandered to the smaller cities, towns, and farms. But the murderous German bombs were aimed to kill these refugees who were traveling on the roads at that time. One could see an endless mass of people trying to run away men, women, and children. There was a large percentage of Jews among the refugees. The naive among them thought that maybe, in spite of everything, the Polish army would manage to hold back the German advance. They thought that in the meantime they would be able to go on with their lives, even if they did not go back home. The most important thing was to avoid living under the German occupation. However, after a while, it became apparent that their attempt to escape was futile, because the murderous Germans managed to go in and take control everywhere before any refugees even arrived. When the refugees arrived at their destination, they would find that the German army had already invaded that place. The only change experienced by the people running away was that from now on they were refugees without any possessions, without a home or a livelihood and they were tired, exhausted, and broken from their arduous journeys. Many of the Jewish refugees who arrived in Działoszyce had at one time or another lived here but had left in search of a better livelihood. But now, in these troubled times, they returned to their town to be with their families. Some of them had an aunt, an uncle, or some other distant relative here. And some of them didn't know anyone in this town, but when they realized the futility of their continuous wandering, they also remained here.
In the beginning, the situation didn't look so bleak. All of the refugees had brought some cash along with them, and, very slowly, they started to establish themselves in the town. Some of them lived in attics, some in rented rooms, and some with a relative or acquaintance. It was well known that even in normal times, Działoszyce was not a wealthy town. The poverty here had always been felt but even more so now in time of war. If we were able to help the local poor during normal times, there was now the added burden of thousands upon thousands of refugees who had arrived in the town. Most of them were extremely poor, and we could not close our eyes to this major dilemma. It was apparent that we were not talking about the level of assistance that was customary in Działoszyce. Most of the [poor] Jews in Działoszyce used to be embarrassed by their poverty. When neighbors would become aware that so and so needed support, two prominent ladies would go out and collect funds for this purpose. Or else some influential persons would make an announcement to the members in the synagogue between the Mincha and Ma'ariv [morning and evening] prayers that contributions were needed for a poor person. Money was collected 50 or 100 złoty, and this assistance would be given as an anonymous gift. It was clear to all involved that we cared for one another and that it was now necessary to give aid from a community fund for the needy. However, in the present situation, we were not concerned about embarrassment or anonymous gifts. Now, it was a question of life. It simply became an absolute obligation to give aid to the needy who were starving for bread. The usual one-time aid in the form of collections for money, food, or clothing was not sufficient. The type of aid that used to be provided could only help for the moment, but what about tomorrow? What are we to do with children crying from hunger when there is no bread? Could we remain bystanders and not do anything in the face of this situation? The Judenrat [Jewish council appointed by the Germans] and the leaders of the community were busy enough with their own matters, with pondering over decisions in the face of very serious and difficult problems for the Jews of Działoszyce. One decree followed another decree; payments and contributions were levied for the benefit of the Germans. The community representatives were busy trying to see what could be done, either with the SS or the Gestapo, to ease or cancel them. In light of the foregoing, the leaders had no time to deal with the poverty issue. This responsibility was thus taken over by the activists of the Zionist youth movement, and the writer of these lines was among them.
In the women's section of the synagogue, which was still free of refugees, we established this communal kitchen. From money that was collected in the town, we bought a 150-liter [40 gallon] kettle. Under the supervision of Mrs. Gertler, who had volunteered to accept the position of kitchen manager, we started cooking and distributing free meals to the needy. The meals we provided were hot and nutritious and included two slices of bread. A small part of the hall of the women's section was combined with the kitchen, and in the rest of the section, we placed tables and benches to enable the people to eat.
It seems that we ourselves didn't even begin to comprehend the great amount of starvation that existed in the town. Our purchased kettle, which indeed had a very large capacity, was in a very short time insufficient to fill all of our needs. We were very quickly forced to purchase a second one, and, after a while, even a third. From the two to three hundred meals that we first thought would be enough for the needy, we had to increase to preparing more than one thousand hot meals daily. Prominent and honored heads of households, who at one time were known for their wealth, would gather a few hours prior to the opening of the kitchen in order to be among the first to receive the food. In many instances, this was the one and only meal they had for the day. The people were left bereft of anything and everything and starving for a piece of bread.
This work was not easy at all; our expenses grew, and the contributions that we were able to collect from the local residents were only enough to cover a very small part of our expenditures. We were compelled to turn to the Judenrat and seek their help. I would like to emphasize that in spite of the many troubles that befell this unfortunate group, the person who headed it, Mr. Moszek Josek Kruk, zl, tried very hard to help us. The argument always revolved around the extent of the assistance. In view of our escalating needs, we always requested much more funding than was granted for our kitchen. Interfacing with the authorities fell upon Szlama Kaczka and Josek Szulimowicz, zl, and this wasn't very easy to accomplish. Day after day and week after week, we were compelled to request a lot of money from an administrative authority that had to deal with very difficult problems and was in constant conflict with the German decrees and extortions. In spite of everything, we still succeeded in maintaining this kitchen and even expanded our activities. With effort, we even established a children's aid center. About 50 children, orphaned by both mother and father, roamed the town without any care or supervision, and we decided to meet their needs as much as possible. We organized a group of girls, headed by Lola Brandys, Rajsfeld, G. Gertler, and others, who took upon themselves the responsibility to care for these poor orphaned children. In the very same hall of the women's section, near the synagogue, these children would gather every morning where they received food and even some food for the soul, in spite of this being forbidden and the dangers that were involved. How much sacrifice and toil this involved! And how much additional work did these girls invest in order to entertain these orphans and produce a smile on their sad faces. All of the volunteers, without exception, sacrificed a great deal in order for this establishment called the communal kitchen to succeed. With the help of the community, we received a legitimate budget of food products from the local authorities. In the end, it wasn't a small kitchen any longer. In view of the great pressures caused by the poverty and starvation in the town, we established an enterprise that during those times of war and hunger was the only one of its kind in the town that really helped save people from starving to death. And, if in Działoszyce during 194041, until the time of the deportations, Jews didn't perish from starvation, it was only thanks to the sacrifices of those few people mentioned, who had given up their days and nights and worked tirelessly and endlessly while endangering their lives just so that they could obtain another few sacks of oats and potatoes. They wandered at night on forbidden roads and paths and worried where to get food so there would be something to put on the stoves the next day. It is very difficult to write this when I remember that from all of that selfless group, the only ones remaining alive and may they be blessed with long life are Alter Frydman, Moszek Rozenek, Szmul Wdowiński, and the writer of these lines. And the rest are gone. Where are you, Mrs. Salomea Gertler, zl? A noble woman with a refined soul, the mother of this group. It was not as if she herself didn't have plenty of worries on her mind. You put all of your worries aside and, first and foremost, you worried about others. Day in and day out, you prepared the menu, you created something from nothing, and in addition to this, you helped Mrs. Hupert with the cooking itself. The main thing in your eyes was that there shouldn't be any starving people in Działoszyce. Where are you, my companion and childhood friend, Josek Szulimowicz, zl? You always liked quiet work, you were the treasurer of this enterprise, you worked with dedication that is difficult to describe, you worked very much for the common purpose. You were full of resourceful ideas, imagination, and creativity, and all this with the goal to amass more funds for this purpose. You did all of this without anger or frustration. You said, All that was resolved must be acted upon! And this indeed happened. Your theme was: As long as we ourselves have something to eat, we cannot allow anybody else to walk around hungry among us.
Where are you all? You, Szlama and Chaim Kaczka, zl? Szlama, the manager of the kitchen, the life of the party in the group, the one who worried about every detail, and the one who knew all the starving souls in town. And his brother, Chaim, zl, the quiet one, the loyal and devoted worker, the one who spoke slowly and weighed every word. However, when it came to do work, you were always the first one.
Where are you, Moszek Kamelgart, zl? My beautiful friend with the sunny disposition who got excited with every new venture and the one who found ways to implement them. In great danger you traveled to Częstochowa together with Alter Frydman, mainly to bring a loaded truck with matse for Pesakh, in 1941, for the poor of the town.
Where are you, Motel Rozenek, zl? You always looked for the most difficult jobs and completed them. You ran a race to see who would finish first, and you won the race.
Where are you all, the youth of Działoszyce? The golden youth, the educated youth of the Zionist movements, the future of the nation? You drank the cups of grief, sadness, and sorrow of our nation till the end.
May their memories be blessed forever.
During the first days of World War II between the New Moon and the tenth day of the month on a certain day after the midday meal, several German soldiers came into town. They demanded a place to spend the night. The Hebrew teacher Landau went immediately to Nuchem Laskier, the treasurer of the newly formed committee to help the needy. He and Szulim Majerczyk took the Germans to Chaiml Chaba's restaurant. They ordered food for them, and, to humor them even more, they ordered some strong liquor for them as well. And then they showed them where they could spend the night in the new, not yet finished school.
During the night, one of the soldiers went out into the street carrying a firearm. This was after it had rained, and it was quite dark. Since he had drunk a lot, he slipped, and as he fell, his gun went off and hit him under the arm. But not wanting his commander to know what had happened, he said that he had been shot at from a distance of 12 meters and, of course, he was believed. The soldiers left at dawn. A few hours later, hundreds of vehicles came and surrounded the town on all sides. No one realized that this was related to what had happened the night before.
As I stood in my store, a messenger from the town hall came in holding a list in his hand on which the names of all the previous members of the town council had been recorded, I among them. We were all ordered to come immediately to the town hall. I tried to explain to the messenger that I believed an error had been made and that instead of the names of the present council, he had a list of previous members who had left office when the war broke out. He insisted, however, and said that everyone but three persons were already there. On the way there, he picked up two additional Christian members [of the town council]. Arriving at the town hall, they led us under a strong guard to the school where the event involving the soldier had taken place the day before.
At the school, a German officer asked our guard, Was für Leute sind diese? [What kind of people are these?] He answered, Sie sind Geiseln [They are hostages]. Then he asked, Sind auch Juden dabei [Are there Jews here also]? To the answer Ja [Yes], he asked where the Jewish cemetery was and added, Sofort die alle niederlegen [They should all lie down immediately]. At that point another officer arrived, and he led us into the school. We were just two Jews, the writer of these lines and Szmul Lewkowicz, along with seven Christians. The officer admonished us for having done such a thing, saying that because of it we were being arrested as hostages and that at this time there would be a search in the whole town for weapons. If they found weapons, we would all be shot and they would set the town on fire.
The current mayor of the town, KsiąŻek, stood up then and declared in Polish that he was the current mayor and that he also happened to be mayor during the occupation in the year 1914 and that the conduct of all the inhabitants of the town, and his own especially, had been one of loyalty toward the occupiers. And he assured them that all the inhabitants of our town were clear of any suspicion.
It can be understood that his words did not particularly impress the German
officers. We sat there the whole day between life and death. The military then
got into their automobiles and left without saying a word. When we saw that we
had been left alone, we all went home. I never imagined that this was just the
beginning of our troubles. The real sorrow and pain came later.
Tuesday, Elul 19, 5702 [September 1, 1942]. The town of Działoszyce is greatly distressed. The tragic happenings in Proszowice, Brzesko, Skała, and Słomniki, which occurred on Friday and Shabes, have shaken everyone. It is true that the entire community was assembled in Słomniki. We are waiting for a miracle. Different opinions are being voiced. Some say that there has been foreign intervention and they will not be sent away. Meanwhile, they are being guarded with tighter security. Everyone is thinking how to save themselves from the danger that is so close, almost upon them. Many take the risk and escape.
Already for the second time, some wagons with bread are being sent to Słomniki. Clothing is also being gathered. Monies are being collected for their redemption. We go to the cemetery for the third time. It is already the third day of a public fast. Today we will sound the ram's horn at the cemetery, and, it is being said, a wedding canopy will be set up for poor orphans. The oyel [structure over a grave] of Reb Joskele is full of kvitlekh [notes of supplication]. All the graves are besieged. We pour out our bitter hearts. Women, children, the elderly, and even the sick have come. The paralyzed rabbi was brought by his two grandchildren. He speaks words that tear at the heart. They glow like hot coals. He prays at the grave of his father.
Tata [father], for this you left me to fill your place for over 40 years so that in my old age I should see this dark tragedy that has befallen my congregation? Tata, I beg you, go to Grandfather Reb Mordchele StryŻower so that he and his holy brother, Reb Majerl Apter, should bang on the gates of mercy that have been hammered shut. My only father, for what are you waiting? Don't say that Jews have sinned. Repentance can always help.(Turning to the townspeople) Will you all say that you will repent?
A thousand-headed crowd answers, Yes, Rabbi! We will repent.
I won't leave you, Tata. I have a place next to you, a grave that was prepared right after you passed away.The rabbi fell in a faint.
What pleasure have I had in my life? Berko, my fine son, who lies next to you, departed this world in his youth and in his best years. That was during World War I. That was a punishment for me and my family. And now in my old age why should I see my congregation being destroyed? How a community of Jews is slaughtered. And my second son, the Skalbmierzer rabbi who died recently, is he a minor sacrifice? What additional sacrifice is still being demanded of me?
Jews, I will be the sacrifice, to expiate the sins of the entire town of Działoszyce. I will be the sacrificial sin offering for you. I will…also…
When the rabbi revived, he sounded the ram's horn, and the crown gradually left the cemetery.
It felt lighter, as if a stone had been removed from my heart.
On the way, however, we heard the bitter news that in Słomniki, it was all over. The Jews were loaded onto wagons and sent away.
A black cloud descended upon the town of Działoszyce.
The wheel of history has been turned back; before one's eyes an original picture is revealed, an Exodus in a new edition. They walk in haste, carrying walking sticks in their hands and bundles on their backs. Sadly, they walk in the wrong direction. Their fortunes, which they acquired through generations of hard work, both physically and with their hearts, they leave to their neighbors, our neighbors, the new Egypt, taking only the scars with them…
One by one, even before the appointed deadline, the people, in a rush, faces frightened, in long rows, crowd into the Działoszyce market square. One's mind works quickly, many different thoughts fly into it, hopes flare every second. God will help, no doubt.
Here and there, a child starts crying, demanding food. Somewhere on the ground, an old woman murmurs a prayer: Merciful Creator, make a miracle happen, take pity on the innocent babies. The town rabbi leans on the market lamppost. He is the grandson of Rabbi Kalmus of Neustadt [Nowy Korczyn], fourth generation of the holy luminary, a son-in-law of the most renowned Kamarner [rebbe from Kamarna], the great saint who sat for so many years in his little bes hamedresh, devoting himself to prayer with great simplicity, and who without magic kept weaving the chain of his saintly genealogy. The murderers tore him away from his open Psalter. Thus he stands, finishing in a sea of tears the Psalms he left unsaid in the Psalter. The only baggage he brought was his tfilen and his talis [phylacteries and prayer shawl]. The tfilen, which he inherited from his famous grandfather, the pious Jew, he had to have them with him. He believed that by tradition they would keep all evil away. He was sorry he could not take with him the five books of the Torah, each one of which had a noble pedigree. How can it be allowed that such holiness should fall into such impure hands? Perhaps God be praised will help, and the merits of my ancestors will protect us. It can't be helped. We shall return, pray, give thanks to the Creator of the World for the favors He will have bestowed on us. Do we then have merits of our own? Is it at all possible that in this, our hour of need, when the mind is not in any condition to welcome such large concepts and arrive at the status of the passionate divine service of my great ancestors? Of course, I am not in the category of the righteous one commands, and God obeys, so therefore we must wait for pure kindness as in the times when we stood by the sea. But where can one find a Moshe Rabeinu [Moses Our Teacher], someone who can be a leader? All the great holy men of our day, it is said, are no longer here. However, it is said that the righteous are even greater in their death then in their lifetimes. Let them therefore arouse mercy for us up above.
On one side stands the rebetsn [rabbi's wife]. Her charities and good deeds have no limits. She ran her whole house with a very generous hand, which she had inherited from the regal house that was kept by her great father, the Kamarner rebbe. She accepted everything as her duty, whether a meal had to be sent and what is the name of that poor porter who can no longer stand on his feet in his old age? He is lying there and cannot move. Who will remember him? He could starve to death. So she remembered, every day, sending hot meals to him at the same time being very careful that no one should find out. Because proclaiming one's charity, as she learned from her grandfather, Reb Ajzykl Kamarner, removes the spirit from the good deed. And then the solicitor of funds for the yeshiva has surely not had any breakfast, and it is nine o'clock already. Not waiting for anyone, she prepared food for him. And I just saw an acquaintance today; go, Jancze, call him. The Jew, a simple guest, has no idea what this means. The rebetsn herself and not in the kitchen, God forbid, but inside the house serves him, and what a festive meal! As he leaves, she puts a a certain amount of money and a package in his bag. Outside, he sees that it is a shirt. With a quick eye she had noticed that he wore a torn shirt. She, a weak and overworked woman, takes the time to collect money in town for an ailing person or just the plain needy. She thinks nothing of spending the night with a sick woman or of cleansing and preparing the body of a dead woman which no one wants to go near. At home things are very difficult. There is no income. She sells, without her husband's knowledge, the valuable possessions, the clothes that she had brought with her from her wealthy childhood home. One must not skimp on charity. At marriage celebrations, she is the leader in the rabbinical court. The eldest son, Josek, son-in-law of the Przecławer [rabbi from Przecław], grandson of the Ropczycer [from Ropczyce], is himself already a rabbi. Her son-in-law, Dinale's husband, Lajbuś, a scholar, is considered a blessing by everyone. The greetings she received from the land of Israel about what a Jewish and rabbinical home they have and their two wonderful children fill her heart with joy. Izraelke, the son-in-law of the Kinsker [from Końskie], is himself a rabbi; Ajzyk, the son-in-law of the Pokrzywnicer [from Pokrzywnica] is in Łódź. During the brief time he has lived there, he has become very popular; he is a mohel [performs circumcisions] in a clinic and a community activist. The rest of the children, unmarried yet, God keep us from complaining, are good-hearted and delicate souls
Alas, the bitter war that suddenly broke out, and because of the need to earn a living, the children had to slowly move away. It's a small matter, and with God's help, it will end. There will be marriages, and again there will be holy children.
She, the rebetsn, stands now but is not idle. She approaches the weak, gives them something, a few tidbits for other people. And the pills she has with her for her bad heart. Now she picks up the crying children, now she comforts the people.
Her sister, the widow of the Radzymin rabbi who, wanting to escape the hell in Warsaw, came here with her eldest son and daughter stands wringing her hands, thinking did she have to come all the way from Warsaw? Wouldn't it have been better to have stayed there in the cemetery lying on her husband's and her son Mendel's graves Mendel, the son-in-law of the Alexander [from Alexandrów] rabbi, who was taken away by typhus?
Altela [the elderly one] has lost the children of Izraelke [her grandchildren]
as well as Ajzyk's youngest daughter, whose mother was deported from
Tarnów together with her father, the rabbi of Pokrzywnica.
But nothing helped. They could not escape the evil decree.
In 1945, when I was liberated from the concentration camps, I returned to my
town of Działoszyce. My first stop was at the oyel of my holy grandfather,
Rabbi Josek Frajman, ztsl [of blessed righteous memory]. With a broken
heart, I realized that the tomb had been destroyed. The vicious and merciless
Germans had no mercy even on the cemetery and had desecrated the resting places
of the holy deceased.
My father, zl, took me along with him to bid our farewells to the rabbi
of our town, Rabbi Staszewski. When we arrived, Rabbi Staszewski interrupted
his prayers and told us, You ought to do everything to save your lives.
As far as I am concerned, I have already put on my kitl, talis, and tfilen
[robe, prayer shawl, and phylacteries]; I am already too old to escape my fate.
I will return my soul here, in this place, to my Creator.
One night in 1945, they attacked our dwelling place, turned off the electricity,
and very cruelly murdered some of us. Among the murdered were Chaim Jurysta,
Szmul Piekarz, zl, and others. That same night, we were again
forced to escape our town. This time I left my hometown of Działoszyce
forever. In the hands of the gentiles was left all that we possessed, and in my
heart, the memories.
When we arrived, we were ushered into a large hall, and there we saw him. There immediately appeared in my mind's eye the scenario of this monumental vicious criminal, Amon Goeth. He would hold a bottle of cognac in one hand, and in the other, a gun, and this was how he would shoot totally innocent people. This is how this Nazi murderer conducted himself. His breakfast consisted not only of food but also of murdered people. How many innocent martyred Jews had he shot in this manner from his window?
Now he looked taller and thinner. My cousin, Chaim Szulimowicz, couldn't
contain himself, pushed away his guards, and beat him. We requested a death
sentence on the spot, but we were given to understand that the Polish
authorities had requested his extradition in order to sentence him in Poland
for the crimes he had committed. He was extradited to Poland in conjunction
with our having served as witnesses.
My brother went over to him and said, Leopold, do you recognize me? Weren't you the commander of Brynica? Upon hearing this, he tried to escape. We grabbed him and prevented his escaping into a train car.
At that moment, he started screaming, The Jews are attacking me! A group of Germans rushed to his aid. To our good fortune, there was a representative of the American police force present who evidently was a Jew. Leopold was arrested on the spot. They found a tattoo of a cross on his underarm.They jailed him, and we served as witnesses. Aba Balicki, zl, also served as a witness against him.
Again, the Polish authorities requested that he be delivered into their hands.
We got word that he was hanged another criminal who got the punishment
My grandfather and great-grandfather were both born in Działoszyce. My great-grandfather's father, Icek Josek Jutrzenka, was one of those who built the town's first synagogue in 1864. His son, Ezriel, was a prominent member of the community, a synagogue official, and a scholar. He built many houses in the town. Great-grandfather Ezriel had three sons. Grandfather Mendel, the oldest and most observant, had a dry goods store as well as a seltzer factory, which was managed by his wife, Witla, who also ran a school with 30 students. They had seven children who lived up to the phrase good with God and good with people. Their eldest son, Chaim Chaskiel, was a shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], devoted to study and prayer. Their second son was my father, Szmul, who was dedicated to community needs, Torah study, fulfilling the commandments, and doing good deeds. My father was one of the founders of the talmed-toyre [Jewish elementary school] and Beit Yaakov school [for girls] and organized yeshivas for young men who wanted to pursue advanced studies of the Talmud, etc. Typically, there were many guests at his table every day of the week and especially on Shabes and holidays. His wife, my mother, Fajga, would serve the guests first, then the children; she would eat whatever was left, never complaining, making do with little. The third son, Icze [Icek], was a very special young man, who gave charity in secret and set aside ten percent of his monthly earnings for the poor. Gitel, the only daughter, was an enlightened young woman who knew languages, among them French, which she taught. Jankiel, the next son, was an ardent Zionist who argued endlessly about Zionist ideology but wasn't able to fulfill his ideal and live in Eretz Yisroel. To his great sorrow, he was childless. Young Abram was observant, good-natured and sensitive, accepted everything with love and was uncomplaining. David emigrated to the United States in 1905 and lives in Philadelphia.
Only I remain from this entire extended family. I married a woman named Chaja, daughter of Reb Alter Frajnd, the ritual slaughterer from Skalbmierz, who bore me a daughter. The week the talk about deportations began, my wife, Chaja, and I decided to flee, rather than be led like cattle to the slaughter, as was the intent of the Germans. We had to deal with the problem of our young daughter, who was almost one year old. It was impossible to take her with us, as we were not escaping to any specific place. We had, in fact, decided to try to survive in the countryside, in the woods. There was no way we could take the child along. We negotiated with the Christian midwife in Skalbmierz, promising her a considerable sum if she would take the child and care for her until the crisis was over. She agreed.
The day before the deportation, on a Tuesday, I was uneasy because I had left my mother and sister at home in Działoszyce without discussing with them what they should do. So on that very day, I went to Działoszyce to bid them farewell. When I approached the town, I heard cries and screams. As I moved closer, I realized that the sounds were coming from the cemetery. I ran right home. At 20 Rynek [Market Square], actually the home of Szmul Szental, I found my younger sister, Witla. I asked where I could find my mother, my older sister, Ester, and her husband, Moszek. Witla said, They're all at the cemetery, at the ancestral graves, praying for the bitter decree to be canceled. They all now believe that the end is near.
I ran to the cemetery, where I found my mother and sister. My mother was
standing near the fresh grave of my father, who had died so recently that there
was no stone to mark the spot. When I arrived, I pointed out my father's grave
to her. She prostrated herself and cried out, Szmul! You are lucky, your
son knows where you are buried and can find the spot. No one will know where to
look for my grave.
Standing there in the cemetery, I saw a mass of men, women, and children in the hundreds, maybe thousands. I saw and heard a man I had known for years crying and declaring:
Holy Jews! We must all turn our thoughts to penitence! It's not enough to repent in our hearts; everyone must declare his sins out loud, and the Lord above will forgive and cancel the evil decree. Let every person confess his sins, and they will be forgiven. Our sages have said that God on Yom Kippur does not forgive the sins of one person against another. We must ask each other for forgiveness. We may have caused harm by our actions or thoughts. Let us repent, and God will forgive us and find us worthy.The general confession of sins began. The dayan [religious judge] led the prayers, calling out the verses, and the crowd responded: Al het shehatanu lefanecha [For the sins we have committed ]. All hearts, all souls were as one, no longer praying for mere personal salvation, as though their physical being was suspended for the moment. Their souls, purged and sanctified, clung to God in heaven.
At the conclusion of the prayer, the dayan spoke:
Hear me, my sons and daughters! Our sages, of blessed memory, taught us that even when a sword is at your throat, one must not despair of mercy! God's mercy is abundant. If the decree cannot be reversed, let us ask mercy for our souls, that we be privileged to sanctify His Blessed Name and fulfill the verse: In their life and in their death they were not parted.At that moment I remembered that I had to go back to my wife and child. I took leave of my mother and sister and headed toward Skalbmierz. I met two German policemen on the road. They asked, Why all the shouts and cries from the cemetery? I told them, The Jews are praying to God. One of the Germans retorted: Yes! Let them pray to God today, but tomorrow we'll be the ones to 'help' them.
In the morning I got up early and went to the midwife. I repeated my offer, promising her a considerable sum if she would care for the child. She agreed. Then, at eight o'clock in the morning, I went back home and said to my wife, Take Golda'le and bring her to the midwife. My mother-in-law, Cylka, intervened and absolutely refused to leave the child with the aforementioned midwife. Meanwhile, time was passing. We knew that at 11 am the Gestapo would come and close off the town, that Jews would not be allowed to come or go. Having no alternative, at the last moment, I went to my landlord, Witek Niewiadomski, and said to him, Listen, my wife and I have decided to flee before the Gestapo arrives. I'll leave everything I own with you if you will keep our child until the storm passes. I am sure you will do whatever you can to care for her. He accepted my proposal. We shook hands. I went back to my room, took my wife's coat, put it on her, and said, Let's go; we can leave the child with Niewiadomski. My wife agreed immediately, but my mother-in-law began to cry because she was being left behind. I said to Cylka, Come with us. Because we had to leave quickly, the three of us set out together to take the child to Niewiadomski. Once again, my mother-in-law refused to let us leave the child. As it was late, we hurried out of town and walked toward Działoszyce. We came to a crossroads and arrived at the first town, Skalbmierz. It was dangerous to be in the fields with the child, so I said to my mother-in-law, You know all the local farmers. Go to the nearest one and leave the child with him. The first farmer she approached agreed to keep the child along with her mother. My wife, Chaja, having no alternative, stayed with the farmer. My mother-in-law and I continued to flee.
Suddenly, in the distance, I saw a car approaching. We ran faster, over the top of the hill, with the thought that even if the car came our way, we would not be noticed. When we were on the other side, we lay down on the ground, exhausted by our frantic run. We saw that the vehicle had stopped at the spot where we had been when we ran up the hill. We were unaware, at that point, that our friends, members of my wife's family, Moszek Platkiewicz and his wife, Rywka, were running behind us. They had not yet reached the top of the hill. The Germans got out of the car, ordered them to strip, took their money, and shot them on the spot. We stood by, witnesses to this cold-blooded murder by the Gestapo, may their name be erased.
After a few minutes, the Gestapo men climbed back into the car and drove to town. When my mother-in-law saw the Germans murdering her good friends, she said, I don't want them to kill me like that. She turned around and ran back toward home. My wife, Chaja, looking out the window of the farmer's house, saw her mother headed for home and left the farmer's house with the baby. They went back to Skalbmierz.
Alone in the field, I hid among the potato plants. Lying there, I watched as
the Germans led the Jews of Skalbmierz, my wife, child, and mother-in-law among
them, to Działoszyce. From there they were taken to Miechów and
then to the death camp, Bełżec, which was the end of their life on
I remained in the field for a week. On Friday, around noon, after I had been there two days, a man appeared who seemed to own the property. He promised that his wife would bring me food, that I need not be afraid. And, in fact, after half an hour, his wife brought me cooked potatoes. When I finished eating, she asked for the watch that was in my pocket. I had no choice but to give it to her.
I was, for some reason, afraid to stay there, and, in the middle of the night, I moved to a spot about a kilometer away where there was a haystack in which I could dig a hole and hide. The next day I could hear the local gentiles searching the fields for Jews. Somehow, they didn't notice me.
This was my routine: At night I ventured out to look for something to eat, and
I spent the day in hiding. I would find carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes and was
able to hold out for a week. Because of this diet, to which I was unaccustomed,
I had diarrhea and couldn't remain in the fields. I got up in the morning and
went to Działoszyce. At the outskirts of the town, I met a farmer who told
me that a few Jews had gathered in Szmul Szental's courtyard. I made my way
there and joined them.
My parents had lived in the house that belonged to Szental. This is where I had grown up, so I knew it well. From the window of our apartment, I could see what was going on in the street. Our store was also in that building. In short, this is where we gathered, a few hundred Jews, on that Eve of Rosh Hashanah. Mendel Szental had constructed some large, solid storage sheds in this yard, which the Germans had used to keep Jewish prisoners.
We set up one of these storage sheds for prayer. On Rosh Hashanah we entered the synagogue to pray. I led the prayer services. In normal times it was not my role to lead the prayers. But we had neither a sidur [regular prayer book] nor a makhzor [holiday prayer book], and I was the only one who knew the prayers by heart. I called out each verse, and the congregation responded. We spent several days in the courtyard. The gendarmes appeared regularly and announced that we were about to be led away to the places to which our parents had already been taken.
We were not allowed to leave the yard except to clean the streets, and we remained there until the eve of Yom Kippur, at which point those who were in charge informed us that we would be able to return home the next day. This information was at once heartening and disheartening, as 90 percent of our families were already gone. We nonetheless returned to our homes. I returned to Skalbmierz, where I went to the Judenrat to ask for the keys to my house. I met two of my brothers-in-law, Mordechai and Jankiel Frajnd, who had returned from Kazimierz, and we opened the house together. But my wife, child, and mother-in-law were no longer there. The house was completely empty. The brothers-in-law said, Let's go to Lejzor Kac's. All those who returned are gathered there. So, with our dwindling strength, we went there. From the distance, we heard sounds of singing and laughter. We didn't understand what this meant. We went in and were shocked. The entire Judenrat, along with the Ordnungsdienst [Jewish police], were eating, drinking, carrying on, men and women together, like at a wedding celebration. I couldn't stand this shameful scene and left immediately, returning to my home in Działoszyce. In Działoszyce, I got the keys to my [parents'] house, but the commissar in charge of our store was there. Without receiving permission from the authorities, he left the house as soon as he saw me. Meanwhile, I saw that my mother and sister had not returned. After several days in the house, I was joined by my brother-in-law, Moszek Jutrzenka. I was glad to have his company, and we spent a few more days in the house. Then, suddenly, we got the news that the Germans were planning to deport all the remaining Jews.
We decided, Moszek Jutrzenka and I, to flee once again. This time we went toward Pińczów. On the way, we asked a farmer for refuge. He offered to hide us in his barn. We spent a few days there. One day we heard that all those who had remained in Działoszyce were already on the way to extermination. It was the beginning of November 1942. The farmer we were staying with was poor and had no way to feed us, though we paid him good money.
At this point, my brother-in-law, Moszek, heard that the Pińczów rabbi was now in Wodzisław. Being one of his admirers, without giving the matter much thought, he left and headed for Wodzisław. A few days later, I learned that the Germans had seized the rabbi, along with hundreds of his followers, and murdered all of them.
I left the farmer, crushed and dejected, hoping to find a better hiding place. I went to another farmer, Nowak, and asked if he would give me shelter in return for ample payment. He agreed instantly, providing me with half a room in his house. He set two conditions:
1) I must eat whatever he had to offer, andI accepted the two conditions and was with him for a week. I had good food and a place to sleep, also not bad. Once, on Sunday morning, the farmer appeared, unexpectedly, and saw me wrapped in a talis and tfilen. He was very angry and said he was reneging on his offer and was unwilling to keep me any longer. I told him that I had left a large sum of money in a secret place in Skalbmierz and would give it all to him if he would let me stay in his house. He agreed to go to Skalbmierz with me to get the money.
2) I must not let it be known that I was Jewish.
That evening I left Niewiadomski 's house and went to Kruszeński's store. He was the mayor at the time. Before leaving town I had left 4,000 złoty with him, which I asked him to return. He received me graciously and returned the money. I headed toward Wodzisław. The journey was difficult. All sorts of people attached themselves to me, girls and boys, who threatened to turn me over to the German police unless I gave them money. I claimed I had none, and they tried to take the clothing that was in my bag. I fought them off, shouting: I have nothing to lose; if the Germans come, you will be hung, too, since Poles were also not allowed to rob and steal. They finally left me alone, and I managed to reach Wodzisław. There were many Jews there. Among those I knew were Mania Skrzypek and her nephew, who had no place to go. They had been hidden by a local gentile who threw them out. The boy, a six- to seven-year-old, was the main problem. No one wanted to take him in.
Meanwhile, I learned that on a certain day the Germans were going to liquidate
the remaining Jews who had gathered in the town. I decided to leave and head
for Kraków. On the way I met three other Jews from Działoszyce:
Motel Rozenek, Abram Polak's son, and Zalman Frajfeld, who was in
Działoszyce during the war. We agreed to travel together. The trip was one
of endless pain and suffering. Wherever we went, the Poles robbed us. We moved
through fields, avoiding the main road. When we were about 2030
kilometers from Kraków, a horse and cart came down the road carrying a
Polish police official from Kazimierz. He saw us, fired a shot into the air,
and ordered us to approach. Having no choice, we did as we were told. He asked
where we were going. We told him we were going to Kraków. He said,
Do you know that Jews are not allowed on the roads, under penalty of
death? We answered, What do you mean to do with us? We know all the
decrees. His driver got down from the cart and told us that the
commandant wanted money. We balked at the size of the sum he was demanding,
declaring that we didn't have that much money. We finally reached an agreement
and paid him 500 złoty. After receiving the money, the commandant said to
us, If you take this road to Kraków, you'll run into German
gendarmes. Stay on the road to Kazimierz. And so we continued to make our
way to the Kraków ghetto. The ghetto entrance was guarded by an
Ordnungsdienst [Jewish police] patrol; we were allowed to enter. It was
A few minutes later another member of the Ordnungsdienst stopped and arrested us as illegals and took us to the place where non-residents were being detained. We were questioned where were we from, why did we choose to come here? A few hundred people were being held. After a day in a Judenrat prison, we were taken to a building at 17 Krakowska Street in the ghetto. We received orders to go to Płaszów, where we would be working on the construction of a camp.
The next day, we were each given a slice of bread and taken to Płaszów. Our first task was to tear down the fence surrounding the cemetery. We were also ordered to uproot the gravestones so they could be used to pave roads. I remember one typical event. Hercyk, Jurysta, Jakubowicz, and I were dismantling a barbed wire fence. Suddenly, we heard a shot that hit Hercyk's hand. We turned and saw Pilarzik, an SS man, a few meters away. We knew he had fired the shot but we didn't react. Otherwise, this Pilarzik would have killed us. We continued to work, even Hercyk, despite his injury, and returned home in the evening.
Before leaving Płaszów to go back to the ghetto, there was a head count; there were 99 of us. This number was reported to Pilarzik, who was in charge.
At the entrance to the cemetery stood a small structure. We were on the way back to the ghetto when a few people, who had been inside this structure, came out and fell into line with us. Pilarzik rode by on his motorcycle and took note of this. He ordered another count. There were now 106 of us. He then ordered those who had arrived after the first count to step out of line. Needless to say, no one stepped out, since the latecomers had been buying bread from the gentiles to take back to the ghetto. Pilarzik ordered everyone back to Płaszów, where we were lined up against the wall of the building used for ritual purification of the dead. He returned ten minutes later with a machinegun in his hand. Seeing this, we understood that we were all lost. I took out a knife I had hidden in my pack, intending to attack Pilarzik, but the people around me prevented me from carrying out my plan. I saw that I was lost, so I tried to lie down, as close as possible to the ground with all the others piled on top of me. After a few seconds, Pilarzik began to shoot, killing 14. Then he took 20 more people out of the line to bury the dead. These 20 were handed over to the Ukrainians, who killed them, one by one. Those who survived this ghastly slaughter returned to the ghetto.
Back at the ghetto, the situation was miserable. There was no food, there were no warm clothes. After a day like this, we didn't want to go back to Płaszów. I made a plan. The next day I left the Arbeitsblock [workers' quarters] and went from house to house asking for food and clothing. The room I lived in accommodated 40 people. I collected half a sack of potatoes, shoes, jackets, and pants. I offered everyone cooked potatoes along with the other food I had acquired and distributed the clothing to the most needy. The following morning, I cooked soup, which I served to everyone. At 6 am we were ready to go back to work in Płaszów. One person was expected to stay behind and clean our quarters. The men I lived with chose Jutrzenka (me) to stay since he provides for us. And so it was. This continued throughout November and December 1942.
At the beginning of January 1943, we were all transferred to Płaszów. I didn't want to continue to clean rooms and decided to work as a glazier. I made an effort to get a diamond with which to cut glass and was the only glazier in Płaszów. I remember that there was once a roll call of all the Barackenbau residents in Płaszów. The Jewish police force requested that in the daily roll call of the Barackenbau residents, each person respond to a previously agreed upon invented name. At the appointed time, the Schutzhauptlagerführer [SS chief camp commander] Müller, the SS man, began to call out the names of those present, but of course they did not exist. He was very angry at the Jewish police, pulled them out of the yard, removed their police hats, and shot them on the spot, because they had given him fictitious names of people who had received work permits and were idly roaming the streets of the ghetto. It was clear that the Jewish policemen had been paid for manipulating the names of these permit holders.
After awhile, on March 13, 1943, the Germans liquidated the Kraków ghetto and transferred its inhabitants to Płaszów. In Płaszów, Arbeitsgemeinschaften [workers' groups] of tailors, shoemakers, glaziers, etc. were set up. I was one of the glaziers, but not on the master level. I remember that once, the Gestapo in Kraków called for various tradesmen to be sent to them. Three glaziers were sent, myself among them. When we arrived at the Gestapo building, they gave us couches and armchairs to repair. We said that we were glaziers, not upholsterers. They answered, We were told you know all the trades, so we expect you to do the repairs. We were frightened and did what was required.
One day some Jewish policemen entered our workshop and asked, Which of
you have relatives in Płaszów? Everyone was afraid to
respond. Only I dared to say that I had no family there. My name was recorded.
About two weeks later, I was called in by the police and told to collect my
belongings and report to the Emailwarenfabrik (the enamel goods factory) on
Zabłocie Street in
Kraków that was managed by Mr. [Oscar] Schindler. I was, of course, happy
to be leaving Płaszów, which was a virtual slaughterhouse. Every
day people were killed, and severe punishment was meted out for every minor
transgression. People were tortured, beaten, hung. So I was envied because I
That same day, 80 people left Płaszów for Zabłocie, where we were welcomed. Most of those who came from Płaszów had relatives in Zabłocie. We felt as though we were moving from darkness to great light, from slavery to freedom. The person in charge of us there was named Rajch, and Mr. Schindler welcomed us warmly, too. I was given a special room in which to work and was comfortable there.
In June 1943, I went to Mr. Schindler and said to him, I have two brothers-in-law in Płaszów, skilled tradesmen. I would like to ask that you have them transferred to you. I told him their names: the brothers Motel Frajnd and Jankiel Frajnd. He made a note of this, and two weeks later, about 100 men arrived from Płaszów, and they were in the group. I welcomed them with bread and potatoes. We remained together for about a year. One of them worked with me as a glazier, and the other was employed in a different workshop. I remember one event. As Passover approached, those who were observant made an effort to obtain matse. My work gave me access to a large oven, and I was able to buy flour from gentiles who worked in the pots and pans factory. My brother-in-law Motel and I baked several hundred matse, which we distributed to all of the Jews. There was a fellow with us in Zabłocie, Abram Bankier, who once owned a factory he took on all the expenses involved in baking the matse. Just before Shavuos, Schindler made a big party for his Gestapo men to mark the production of a million grenades in the factory he was overseeing. He chose ten people to arrange the event.
On the night of the celebration, his men were in high spirits and somewhat drunk. Two of them got up from their places at the table and declared, Let's have some fun! They took out their pistols, intending to kill some little Yids. Schindler, with his sharp eye, took note of this, turned to them and said, Meine Herren! (Gentlemen), I won't have such vile behavior here. They were taken aback and muttered, We only meant to amuse ourselves with some Jewish blood. Schindler called out in a louder voice, No way! I have a letter from Himmler! Hearing the name Himmler, they returned the pistols to their holsters. These words from Schindler prevented the spilling of Jewish blood.
In June 1944, there was a rumor that the Germans were about to liquidate our
camp. We immediately organized to plan an escape. However, for various reasons,
this was not what happened. At the end of June, we received an order that 1200
people were to leave for Mauthausen immediately. My two brothers-in-law and I
were in this group.
The trip to Mauthausen was horrendous. We left Płaszów and made our way to the train on foot with the Gestapo beating us mercilessly. When we reached the train, 40 of us were crowded into a wagon meant for horses that could hold 30 people in an upright position. After herding us into this wagon, two Gestapo men arrived with whips and beat us brutally until we fell on top of one another. Then they shoved an additional 40 people onto the train. They continued to beat us and managed to push in more bodies until, finally, there were 140 of us. Then they closed the doors. It is hard to imagine what went on inside. Those who were lying down were unable to get up. It was impossible to even move a limb. We were in this train wagon for three days without food or water, without a breath of air, and without the possibility of relieving ourselves. There were those who lost their minds; others died standing up. At last, the train arrived at a station in Austria. Those who were still alive and able to breathe began to scream. We asked to be killed rather than be left to die a slow death. Those in charge of the train were apparently overcome by shame, and one of the Gestapo men asked what was going on. We told him that there were many dead on the train and others who were barely alive, that in those crowded conditions it was as if the flesh of the living was in a cooking pot on a high flame. They deigned to open the doors and ordered everyone out. Those who could, got out of the car. The dead were left inside. Then we were told that anyone who went back into the car would get food. I, and a few others, went back in. They did, in fact, give us bread and water. We counted the occupants of the train. Out of the 140, there were only 30 left who were alive and breathing. We continued on our way until we reached Mauthausen.
In Mauthausen, we were led off the train. The dead were buried, and the rest of
us were taken to the showers. After we washed up, they took our clothes,
leaving us naked. They checked our entire bodies, including our mouths, to be
sure no one was hiding money or gold. Then they gave us camp uniforms and led
us to empty bunks where we were given hot soup. Several hundred people were
crowded into one space. We had to sleep in this condition, too. By day we were
forced to stand naked in the sun. Scores of people fainted every day; there
were incidents of sunstroke. No medical help was offered. I remember one
particular incident. At night we were forbidden to leave the bunk. One night I
woke up, not knowing the hour, and needed to relieve myself. I decided to go
outside. I knew this was a dangerous move, because people were sleeping on top
of each other and there was simply no way to get out without stepping on
someone. It was dark. When I began to move, there were shouts all around:
Why are you stepping on me? After a difficult struggle, I managed
to extricate myself from the mass of bodies and made my way to the outhouse.
Before I had a chance to lower my pants, I was approached by the guard, a
Spaniard with a heavy cane, who hit me in the head so hard that I bled. When I
left the outhouse, I was covered with blood from head to toe and had no way of
cleaning up. In addition, I was not totally conscious and couldn't find my way
back. I roamed around for a while in this state. Luckily, one of the workers
found me, cleaned up the blood, and led me back to my place.
In Mauthausen clothes were distributed only to those who were going out to work. On the first day about 200 people were sent to the quarry, which was situated in a deep valley in the bowels of the earth. We had to go down 180 steps. A Kapo, who was stationed at the bottom, ordered each one of us to take a stone weighing about 20 kg and carry it up. As soon as the first person, stone in hand, reached the top step, another Kapo kicked him. He fell on the man behind him, who fell on the next in line and so on, so that we all rolled downward, our stones in hand. After such a day's work, at least 20% of us were killed. This is what it was like in Mauthausen. After two weeks, some people were selected and sent to work in factories. At this point, I was separated from my brother-in-law. I was sent to Sankt Valentin, and he was sent to Melk, both in Austria.
I arrived in Sankt Valentin in July 1944. We were given clothes and taken to huts in which the beds were arranged one on top of the other in four levels. We were each given our own spot. The next day we went to work in a large factory five kilometers from the camp that produced Tiger tanks. This factory, known as Nibelungenwerke, consisted of 11 huge buildings, each with 10001200 workers. The workers were a varied mixture, from many different nations: Yugoslavs, Germans, Italians, Poles, Czechs, and others. Those in charge were all German. Every one of us was assigned a particular task. I, for example, worked with a whetting machine. I had five such machines and was in charge of sharpening blades and other equipment. My superior was an older man, a German from Austria. The factory work was done in two shifts: the first one from 6 am to 6 pm, and the second from 6 pm to 6 am. A total of about 25,000 workers were employed in this factory, which produced 11 Tiger tanks a day. There were 2,000 inmates in our camp, about 500 of them Jewish. The Jews lived in one area, non-Jews in another. The food was more or less adequate, but discipline within the camp was very strict. For any minor infraction, there were beatings. The Blockältester (block elder) was a German called Fritz, and the Stubenältester [room elder] was a Volksdeutscher called Paweł.
At one point, a man from Kraków approached me. He said he had 100 dollars and wanted me to offer the German, Fritz, the dollars in exchange for food. I took this up with Fritz, who agreed to accept the money and, in return, he promised to provide the fellow from Kraków with an entire loaf of bread and a bowl of soup every day, and, on alternate days, some sausage. I, as the intermediary, would also receive a daily bowl of soup. This arrangement was to last for a month. When the month was up, I asked the fellow to give the German another 100 dollars, but he refused. The Blockältester demanded to know the name of the Jew with the dollars. I was, of course, afraid to disclose his name, as Fritz was likely to kill him because he had refused to hand over the money. Those in charge decided to take me out to the courtyard where they beat me harshly, demanding that I reveal the name. I remained silent and didn't disclose anything, though they continued to beat me until my body was swollen from their blows. When they saw that it was no use, they decided to hang me in the bathtub. I realized I was likely to lose my life and told them that the man lived in Block 5. They went right to Block 5, but, fortunately for him, the fellow was at work and, for the time being, they merely searched his possessions. They checked his mattress and, to their delight, found the treasure. After this, they released me.
The work in Sankt Valentin continued from July 1944 to February 1945. There was a unit of the Bombenkommando [bomb squad] in the camp whose task it was to dismantle the bombs directed at us by day by the American forces, and by night by the Russians. Only Germans and Volksdeutsche belonged to this unit. They received all sorts of privileges permission to leave the camp, cigarettes, and better rations. One bright day, they went out, as usual, to deal with unexploded bombs. There was a sudden explosion, and the entire group was killed. The German authorities had to organize a new unit on the spot. This time, they were ordered by the Gestapo to recruit only Jews. They began to look for healthy, sturdy Jews. I had returned from a night's work and was asleep when the search began. They came to my block, woke me up, and announced that I was now a member of the Bombenkommando. I was to begin work immediately. Having no alternative, I set out with 15 Jews, escorted by a Wehrmacht guard, who instructed us in the work.
When I was in Sankt Valentin, there were usually two raids a day. At about 12
noon, American planes bombed the camp, and at 12 midnight, it was the turn of
the Russian aircraft. In a whole year of bombardment, neither the factory nor
the camp was hit. All of the bombs fell in the fields. It was our task to
dismantle them. We walked around, and when we spotted a small mound of earth,
we had to clear away the dirt carefully and dig until the bomb was uncovered.
First, we cleared the surrounding area. Then, one of the Wehrmacht teams
arrived and removed the detonator, at which point there was no longer any
danger. I must note that on several occasions the Wehrmacht soldier explained
to us why the bomb had not exploded. He said that a piece of cotton had been
placed alongside the fuse to prevent an explosion. He pointed out that this was
no doubt an act of sabotage by the factory workers. We continued in this job
for about a month.
One day, we returned from work at about six o'clock in the evening, expecting to get supper, as usual. But there was no one in the kitchen to provide the meal. It turned out that the chief cook had fled. The Schutzhauptlagerführer [SS chief camp commander], an SS man, who was informed immediately, ordered the assistant to be brought in but he, too, had disappeared. Returning to his office, he found the door open; his pistol was missing, as were several packs of cigarettes. He ordered a lineup of all the inmates. When we were all assembled, he discovered that the Lagerältester [camp elder] was also gone, along with one of the Russians. The camp commander was enraged and began to shout and threaten that he would kill us all if they didn't return. The camp clerk, a racially pure Aryan, a prisoner who was a member of royalty, turned to him and said, I warned you many times not to put too much trust in the filthy Poles. This clerk killed someone every day if he was displeased with that person's attire.
After a few days, the Lagerältester and the Russian were both found. The commandant gave the Lagerältester several sound slaps and said to the Russian, Take a rope and hang yourself in the bathtub! The next day, two Volksdeutsche led him to the tub, where they hung him from a rope.
For a reason I no longer remember, I was sent back to work in the factory. The managers claimed that they were unable to find anyone to do my job. A few days later, in March 1945, at exactly 12 noon, an alarm sounded in the camp. All the workers ran to the shelter. A few minutes later, the alarm was canceled, and we left the shelter. We were given lunch, all the while watching an aircraft that circled around the factory, leaving purple signs in the sky above every industrial building five wheels were printed in each corner and a single wheel in the center. When we finished eating, the aircraft vanished, and we returned to work. A quarter of an hour later, there was another prolonged alert, and we returned to the shelter. We stayed there about three quarters of an hour until the all clear signal was given. When we emerged, we were shocked by what we saw. The entire factory was in ruins. Not a single building remained intact. Fires raged everywhere. We returned to the camp only to be greeted by the same scene everything was bombed out, not a single structure was spared. We learned that this was the work of the American Air Force, which was determined to destroy both the factory and the camp.
Here I would like to mention those inmates of this camp who were from Działoszyce. If my memory is not deceiving me, the following individuals were there: Moszek Rodal, Poldek Gertler, Moszek Klingberg, Szlama Dąbrowski, Abram Kac, Zalman Grześ, Chaim Klajner, who now lives in the United States, and I, the writer of these lines.
As I had always engaged in trading, this was an occupation I pursued in the camp as well. Thus, for example, I exchanged, among other things, bread for sausage. Moszek Rodal once approached me and asked me to exchange some sausage for bread. Though he was very weak, he didn't want to eat unkosher food. I told him that he very much needed the sausage, that it would strengthen him. But he persisted. He would not agree to eat the sausage, though I tried hard to convince him. A few days after the conversation, he was beaten by the Blockältester. He stumbled, fell, and never got up again. We buried him in the camp.
Zalman Grześ and Poldek Gertler met a similar fate. They were beaten brutally by their superiors. Too weak to withstand this treatment, they died in Sankt Valentin and were buried there. Chaim Klajner took sick and was sent to Mauthausen. He was liberated by the Americans and went on to the United States.
Now, back to our factory. After the Americans destroyed the entire operation
along with the camp we lived in, from July 1944 on, we had no place to sleep.
Work was also interrupted as everything had been destroyed. We wandered around
the camp, idle for several days. One day, the SS ordered us to empty all the
storehouses and distribute food and blankets to everyone. We each received
several loaves of bread, clothing, and blankets. Then there was a roll call,
and we were informed that we had to leave the place and go to Ebensee [subcamp
The trip to Ebensee was not particularly difficult. At the end of March 1945, we were put in freight cars, and, in a civilized manner, taken to the village of Ebensee. This was not a work place but a giant camp accommodating 20,000 people. At Ebensee everyone was given 40 grams of bread a day and, at lunch, half a liter of foul water known as soup. Of course, with such nourishment, many died of starvation. Ebensee is located in Austria. The camp was situated in a wooded grove and surrounded by an electric fence. Its crematorium operated night and day but wasn't able to burn all the bodies. Bodies and body parts from other regions were sent to the ovens in this camp. A shipment of 4,000 people arrived every week, and as the population of the camp remained steady, at about 20,000, the number of weekly dead must have been 4,000.
I met Chaim Skrzypek, a brother-in-law of my Uncle Jankiel, in Ebensee. He was naked as on the day he was born. I offered him bread, and he rejected it; he no longer needed anything. I also found my-brother-in law, Motel Frajnd, and asked him about his brother, Jankiel. He told me that Jankiel had fallen into a pit at Melk from which he never came out alive.
At Ebensee, 2,000 people went to work every day as slave labor. We assembled at 4 am, and at 6 am, we headed toward Attnang-Puchheim. There was a large train station there that had been blown up along with the village. People from our camp were engaged in cleaning up the ruins and in repairing the train tracks. Since almost no food was provided in Ebensee, I decided to join that work force. I got up at 4 am and went to the assembly point. At exactly 6 am, we set out on foot to Attnang-Puchheim. I was to work on track repair. The work was arduous. Our supervisor, an Austrian, circulated among the workers and beat them with his whip to get them to work faster. We were hungry and looked in every corner and hole for a morsel of food. One day, when our shift was over, as we were getting ready to go back to the camp at Ebensee, a Polish fellow from Warsaw by the name of Dąbrowski, whom I had me at Sankt Valentin, came over to me and told me to lick his hand, which had some grains of sugar on it. I did this gladly because sugar is a source of energy and strength. I understood from this that he was working in a place that had a supply of sugar. We got back to the camp at midnight, and I decided to work at Attnang-Puchheim again and to stay close to this Polish fellow Dąbrowski, who knew where there was sugar. Before leaving for work, I put on two long-sleeved shirts and a coat with many pockets. When I arrived at the assembly point, I stood next to Dąbrowski. About 2,000 of us set out. When we were assigned to the various workstations, I was included in the Zuckerkommando [sugar commando], along with Dąbrowski. We arrived at the spot and found a bombed-out train, each car filled with sacks of sugar. We were ordered to collect the sacks and bring them to a particular place. The SS men were guarding us. We were ordered not to allow anyone to touch the sugar. We, however, were allowed to eat as much as we could. All day long we gorged ourselves on sugar. We finished our shift and, in the evening, returned to Ebensee. All the people who had worked the previous day, as well, had brought along packs which they filled with sugar. I, myself, filled my pockets, as well as the sleeves of the shirts I was wearing. At the gate, all the members of the Zuckerkommando were ordered to step out of the line. They were inspected, and their packs of sugar were confiscated. Only I, who had no pack, was allowed through without being inspected. I was the happiest person. I gave the farmer who slept next to me a plate full of sugar. Then I also gave my brother-in-law, Motel, the sugar that was in one sleeve. In addition, I bartered some sugar for cigarettes. When I went to sleep, I put my treasure under my head. My friend who slept beside me couldn't control himself and stole my pants while I was asleep. He ate the sugar that was in the pockets and threw the pants in the latrine. In the morning, I woke up and discovered that I had no pants to wear. Then I learned that my closest friend had stolen them. I had already given him a plate full of sugar, but still he could not restrain himself and did what he did. Since I had more sugar, I was able to trade it for a pair of pants. From that day on, I no longer went to work, as everyone felt that the day of liberation was near.
On Thursday, May 3, 1945, there was a rumor that in the afternoon there would be a roll call of the entire camp and that the Lagerführer [camp commander] would order us to go into a vast underground shelter where we would stay until Sunday. The move to the shelter was undertaken to protect us, as the Americans were planning to bomb the entire camp. One of the SS men secretly informed the Lagerführer that the SS had placed explosives in the shelter, which they planned to detonate as soon as we were inside. After some deliberation, those in charge of the work force decided that as soon as we received the order to go down to the shelter, we would all rise up as one and declare that we did not want to be killed, come what may.
And this is what happened. That afternoon, there was a roll call of the entire camp. The Schutzhauptlagerführer made a speech and explained that as the war was about to end, the Americans were planning to bomb the camp, and he was, therefore, proposing that we all go to the underground shelter and wait there for the danger to pass. Then the strangest thing happened for the first time in the history of the camps we didn't comply. We all cried out, We won't do it! Immediately thereafter, the Lagerführer and his Ukrainian assistant left the camp. It was as if they were fleeing. The camp guards, who were SS men, disappeared somewhat later and were replaced by armed civilians.
On Shabes, at 10 am, the first American tank arrived at Ebensee. As it crashed
through the gate, all the guards vanished. Those inmates who still had some
strength welcomed the tank and the soldiers with great elation, kissing the
tank in their excitement. It is hard to describe the great joy that prevailed
at that moment in Block 4, where I lived. The Blockältester and the
Stubenältester were playing cards. It was almost lunchtime. All of a
sudden, an inmate appeared, a fellow from Yugoslavia, and asked the
Stubenältester, Paweł who, earlier, in Sankt Valentin had hung
the Russian officer to come outside with him, He, of course, refused. We
all got up and pushed him out. The Yugoslav beat him on the head, and he fell
in a pool of blood. Thus began the punishment of those still in the camp whose
record was not clean.
I and several other Jews went to the American soldiers stationed in the camp and informed them that the underground shelter was mined and that it was essential that it be checked out carefully lest it explode and cause unnecessary deaths. They brought in an expert who checked out the shelter with appropriate caution. He found a quantity of explosives near the entrance that, if it had been set off, could have destroyed an entire city. And, indeed, this was the intention of the SS, even in their final moment, as they were retreating. The mine expert dismissed his crew and gradually neutralized the danger. The soldiers tied the Lagerführer to a tank and led him through the camp as a spectacle to make them listen, take note, and perpetrate no further evil. We were also granted permission to beat him. Still, despite the joy that prevailed, I didn't forget that many people were lying in the bunks too exhausted to celebrate. As I still had some strength, I decided to leave camp and find food for these unfortunates. I headed for the closest village, seized a chicken from one of the farmyards, slaughtered it, and cooked soup, adding some potatoes to the dish. I served this to the sick and infirm, and they revived. Among them was Benjamin Goldberg from Miechów, who now lives in Haifa, and Szlama Dąbrowski, who died shortly thereafter in Ebensee, as well as several other friends whose names I don't remember. They all ate the soup, thanked me, and said I had restored their soul with this deed. The next day, the Americans brought a supply of food, mostly in cans. The starving crowd snatched the food and ingested such large quantities that many of them were sick. It is worth noting that, as a result, in the first week after liberation, about 3,000 people died at Ebensee. They were buried in the camp without being identified, their deaths unrecorded.
After a few days, I left the camp and went to Linz, Austria, with my brother-in-law,
Motel. In Linz we learned about the Bricha,
headed by a woman named Pesia Szereszewska who
was arranging for transportation to Italy. We joined this group. The trip to
Italy was long and difficult as there were no trains. Thousands of people
crowded the railway stations. But, thanks to the [Jewish] Brigade from Eretz
Yisroel [Palestine], which was in charge, trains were arranged to transport us.
Actually, in the eyes of the British, the entire operation was illegal. At
the time, the British were not allowing Jewish immigration to Palestine,
especially from among survivors of the camps. When we were finally en
route, two Italians entered our car. We were afraid they would report to the
British that the entire train was occupied by Jews heading for Palestine.
When the train reached the station, soldiers from the Brigade came
aboard and announced, in Italian, that the passengers on this train were
tuberculosis patients being transported to a sanitarium in Italy, that this
disease was highly contagious, and it was therefore dangerous to remain in that
car. Hearing this, the Italians left immediately.
We arrived in Modena, where the Brigade soldiers had arranged for us to stay until our date of departure. In the meanwhile, the British officer who governed the area learned our true destination. He met with Pesia Szereszewska, who was in charge of the camp, and tried to convince her to send us all back to our countries of origin. She, of course, would not agree. Then he turned directly to us and argued that it would be better if we would return to our homes. When he realized he would not succeed in persuading us, he announced that he would not hesitate to use force. At this point, Mrs. Szereszewska turned to him, weeping and tearful, addressing herself to his heart and conscience which seemed to move him.
As a result, the British provided us with a train and permission to travel to Rome. We arrived in Rome and were assigned to Cinecittà a camp for refugees and displaced persons. From Rome we were transferred to Santa Maria di Bagni, where UNRRA [United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration] provided us with food and clothing.
Here we were organized into several sections one group was going to Israel, another would join family in the United States, and a third group was going back to Poland to search for surviving family members. My brother-in-law, Motel, was among the latter group. I set out for Norway, where I had an Uncle Benjamin, my mother's brother. I met my present wife, Miriam, there like me an ember plucked from the fire. She, too, is a survivor from Piotrków. We were married in Oslo.
After our marriage, we decided to go to Israel. In June 1949, we left Norway. At first, we settled in Givat Shaul, near Jerusalem. But, after awhile, the Jewish Agency disbanded the settlement. When I began to work at the Ministry of Welfare in Jerusalem, we became city dwellers. We now live in Ramat Gan. We have, thank God, a son and a daughter. The boy is named Shmuel for my father, of blessed memory; the girl is named for my mother, of blessed memory, Feige-Zipporah.
Thus do we carry on the tradition of our family, whose origins are in
Działoszyce, in a new life here in our holy and ideal land.
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