[Page 59 - English]
Should I luckily survive the war I shall devote much time to writing a detailed history of our Ghetto in Oshmana.
The contents of this copy-book are but a condensed abridgement for I had to omit many events and impressions. Once it entered my mind to write all this, I did it very hastily, fearing that death might surprise me in the middle of my work. If I die, which is very probable, and this copy-book will fall into the hands of honest people, I request them very much to send it to Moshe Golubok.
Before I die I am sending you my greetings. Thinking about you, Hinda Daul.
Hinda Daul did not survive the war. Her copy-book, how- ever, remained as a shattering document of great historical value. This is an abridgement of the original diary written by Hinda Daul, who was a teacher in Oshmana.
May God avenge her blood.
On June 25, 1941, the Germans entered the town. The Jews lived at that time in the midst of the Christian population; therefore the Polish youth took over the role of Cicerones guiding the German soldiers to the Jewish houses. The soldiers filled their pockets with various loot, and the Polish guides usually took the radio sets. Also all the bicycles were taken. The troops passing through the town took the carts and horses which belonged to the Jews.
A Jewish Town Council was formed to serve as intermediary between the authorities and the Jewish population. The rabbi was ordered to coopt seven other members beside himself. Then the Germans drew up a list of items which than council had to supply: kitchen utensils, toilet soap and leather for two pairs of high boots. The order was delivered and the German commandant took 10 Marks out of his pocket, and gave them to the Rabbi saying: The German authorities do not take anything without paying. But the next delivery did not satisfy him, and he Rabbi was paid off with a kick. Everyday the council was told what to supply on the following day and where to send the Jewish workers,, who worked mainly in buildings requisitioned by the Army.
Three weeks after the arrival of the Germans, soldiers and policemen entered Jewish houses and rounded up all the young men they could lay their hands on. The men were driven to one place where they had to run a gauntlet of Poles. If any Pole bore a grudge against the Jew, he pointed out the Jew and accused him of being a Bolshevik. Thus were settled many accounts, mostly of a petty, personal nature. In reality, people who could have been accused of pro-Bolshevik sympathies had left the town much earlier. This selection was accompanied by whistling, laughing, pushing and tormenting. Finally, when the ceremoney ended, several hundred men were taken under guard to the synagogue building. In the morning they were driven in trucks in the direction of Lida. Then their traces disappeared.
Many anti-Jewish accusations were reaching the authorities. Some of them were ridiculous, like the complaint of a parent that his son was given bad marks in class by a Jewish teacher. As a result of this there were many arrests. The arrested men disappeared too.
On July 25th the council was ordered to bring a list of all the Jewish males between the ages of 17 and 65. On the following day, an S.S. battalion, together with local police- men, rounded up all the Jewish males and brought them to the city square 700 men were taken to the vicinity of Bartel, murdered, and buried in three mass-graves. The peasants told later how the 700 were divided into three groups. One group dug the grave for the other one. -The third one was covered by the S.S. men themselves. We were told that the murderers maltreated the victims, ordered them to sing, to crawl on their bellies and beat them up.
The authorities did everything to deny the information brought by the peasants. They ordered the same people who told us about the massacre to tell stories how the men were transported to labor-camps. Many women. waited for a long time for the return of their husbands. A few peasants coaxed money out of them, purporting to bring a message from the husband who, so they claimed, loaned money from them: they also expressed willingness to take clothes for the Jew, who was allegedly hiding in a distant place. When the authorities were asked about the mass-graves near Bartel, they claimed that Bolshevik war prisoners were killed there. Many people believed in the purposely spread rumors.
In the spring, however, as a result of rains, some corpses were uncovered. A few courageous Jews decided to put an end to the fog of doubts. They sneaked out of the Ghetto, reached the site of the executions, started to dig in the ground till they found the body of an Oshmana boy.
In the meantime the Jews were ordered to wear a yellow badge on the chest and in the back; they were forbidden to leave the town and to have any dealings with the Christian population. The Poles ceased to greet their Jewish acquaintances in the street. Many Jews were beaten up.
A Jew who was sitting in his garden was suddenly stabbed by a Christian with whom he had never had any quarrel. The man simply had a knife in his hand, he saw a Jew - and that was all. There was none to complain to.
The town of widows and orphans remained in a state of lawlessness.
A Polish village-teacher by the name of Skrzat (Skshat) was put in charge of establishing order in the town. A decent and progressive man, he nevertheless blamed the Jews for the deportation of his family to Central Asia by the Soviets; a fire of vengeance was burning inside him. He was responsible for supplying the Jewish workers to the German authorities. At that time a number of Jewish men who had escaped the round-up were still hiding. He needed someone to take care of the problem of Jewish manpower. I volunteered for the task.
Rumors were spreading about the planned establish- ment of the Ghetto. Skrzat denied them, then affirmed them, but claimed that most belongings would not be taken away during the transfer. Finally the Ghetto became an accomplished fact, but the transfer was, in contrary to previous fears, quite orderly and everything could be taken there. The Poles and Skrzat volunteered to take many things for safekeeping until the times changed.
A new Ghetto council was set up. Its first function was to collect a contribution of 200 thousand roubles to fill the empty treasury of the municipality. Since most of the money had been in the hands of the executed men, only 64 thousand roubles could be collected.
In the meantime there was no German garrison in town and Skrzat was the real ruler of Oshmana. He signed the permits of those Jews who worked outside the Ghetto. The Ghetto was out of bounds for non-Jews. Skrzat took bribes for every favor and became rich in a short time. Also his aides, the policemen and their families, prospered at the expense of the Jews.
The Polish and White Russian population again established contact with the Jews, Barter-trade flourished. An internal Jewish administration was established in the Ghetto.
In November, 1941 a German unit installed itself in Oshmana.
A military command was set up. The commandant's name was Mokker. He turned out to be a wild, bloodthirsty beast, bellowing at every opportunity. The burden of furnish- ing his flat and the quarters of his assistants fell, of course, upon the Ghetto. With the approach of the cold winter weather, they were also supplied with warm clothes.
I remember a few incidents in connection with Mokker's Ptrule.
Once a messenger came running from the Kommand- antur. Mokker demanded that the Jewish Council should appear at his office at a certain hour. There were only a few minutes left until the fixed hour. The members of the Council ran as fast as they could to the Command building, but naturally came too late. Besides not all the members were present; only those came who were at the Council's office when the messenger arrived. Therefore Mokker roared terrifying threats at the Council's members who did not appear on time, and imposed a fine on them. If they did not bring him the sum within twenty minutes the amount would be doubled. After this introduction he got to the point - the usual list of deliveries - and finally roared Raus (out), chasing out the men as if they were dogs.
Once he accused the Jews of spreading Communist leaflets and threatened them with killing 25 persons if the culprits were not found. It turned out that children had been playing in the street with rose-colored sheets torn out of a paper block. Mokker's cook had to be bribed with a watch so that he might convince his boss it was only a misunderstanding.
One night two Germans from an air-force unit stationed in town carried out a robbery in the Ghetto. The cook, who became our protector, advised us to notify Mokker. The Commandant mumbled something about an investigation and agreed to the cook's proposal that a direct telephone line be installed between his office and the council, so that we might call him in an emergency. At that moment it seemed that the man was not so bad.
On the following day, Mokker, accompanied by a number of air-force men, entered the Council's rooms. The naive among us believed that the air-men were brought to help in the identification of the robbers.
But this was not so. Mokker showed us the photographs of several members of the Soviet Red Cross. Among them were two Jewish women from Oshmana. He demanded that they appear before him without delay. One of them came, the other one had not been in town since the beginning of the war. He asked if she left any relatives. Yes, her mother. Let her come, he said. She came. When asked if she had any more children in Oshmana she replied she had a daughter. O.K., said Mokker, let her come instead of her sister. When she arrived, Mokker led them outside towards an empty lot next to the Tarbut school buildings where the airmen were waiting. On the way he caught the sight of a young girl who did not wear the yellow badge. He ordered her to come too, and the three women were lined up at the wall.
After a while shots were heard. The airmen left immediately thereafter, leaving three corpses behind them.
The telephone which connected us with Mokker was a source of terror. When it rang nobody wanted to lift up the receiver, so great was the fear of this man. They were afraid of his bellowing, they dreaded lest they might not understand his orders and be punished as a result of this.
Two additional orders were issued at this time. The Jews had to deliver all the cows in their possession; they were also forbidden to walk on the sidewalks. After entreaties he allowed us to keep ten cows for the sick and the children. Then he ordered the Ghetto to provide grave-diggers with spades for various executions.
For a certain period the victims were mostly Gypsies. One of our Council members witnessed such an execution. Since that time we knew that in the course of mass-shootings many people were buried alive. When the grave-diggers were covering the pit, a Gypsy seized a grave-digger's leg, got up and ran towards the forest. He was shot in the back. When his dead body was brought back to the pit, another Gypsy got up and called: Wait! Shoot again! He was afraid to be buried alive. A pistol shot put an end to his life.
In 1942 Mokker was replaced by a new military governor, Weiss. Mokker brought him to the Ghetto and presented to him all the members of the Jewish Council (Judenrat). He slapped the face of one of the members, and ordered the others to run. Then he gave us another large order and said he would come and pick it up from his new post. That was the end of Mokker's activity in Oshmana.
Before Weiss took over his new post we had undertaken certain precautions. With the help of the interpreter, we got hold of the old population register and prepared a new one for the use of the new commandant. The new list included two hundred refugees who had escaped to Oshmana from various Lithuanian towns where massacres had taken place.
Then remained the problem of identity cards. Skrzat, with the help of a bribe, provided them with identity cards issued by the Oshmana municipality. Also Weiss demanded to be kept informed about every Jew who entered the town. That was a daily occurrence because the stream of refugees did not stop. They received living quarters and work but it was impossible to register them. This would have brought an immediate danger to everybody but the people did not understand it. They used to come to the Judenrat demanding to be registered and issued with identity cards. Why did you register others and not us? - they asked. The poor accused us of receiving bribes, the wealthier offered gold. But it was impossible to tell everybody the whole story of the population register.
You don't want to register my brother? I'll manage myself, said one man who felt he had been wronged.
He approached the German for whom he was working, gave him a gold watch and the German promised to arrange the registration procedure for his brother. What the German talked about with Weiss was unknown to us, but the result of the conversation was that grave-diggers were sent to the cemetery. Weiss was the opposite of Mokker. Quiet, reserved, soft-voiced, he always returned the greeting and did not chase us away like dogs. But he was extremely persevering in everything. Whenever he demanded anything, it was known that he would remember every detail. All our permits were thoroughly examined. He prolonged the validity of the permit for going to the doctor outside the Ghetto but invalidated the permit for going to the pharmacy. Apart from that there was little personal contact between us. Most of the time he was absent. His chief assistant was a German with a placid face, but he was nicknamed by his companions The Berlin Brute, and was mainly interested in the supplies reaching the Ghetto. In the streets, he would stop Jews carrying bundles, take them to his office and beat them up. Then he would take away from them the permits to buy in the market place. During Weiss's stay in town we hardly went there.
Once on a Friday evening, he discovered half a bag of potatoes in a cart, returning to the Ghetto from the Command where it had brought a piece of furniture. He followed the cart to the Ghetto gate, then called the members of the Council to come; when they arrived he lined them up in a row and began slapping their faces from the first to the last and back. Us, the two female members of the Council, he treated in a gentlemanly manner. We were told to stand by the side. Since it was dark he directed the light of his electric lamp at the face of the man he was about to slap. Then he slapped and roared. Finally he kicked the Council man who had accompanied the cart, told everybody to scram and shot in the direction of the fleeing men.
Weiss had a highly developed esthetic taste. He wanted to receive his mistress, a Polish teacher, in pleasant surroundings, so he ordered us to furnish his apartment. Again were needed furniture, carpets, armchairs, beds, sheets, buckets, pots, etc. for himself and for his soldiers. But his rule over the Ghetto did not last long. The civil administration fell within the jurisdiction of the gendarmerie. Weiss remained the military governor of Oshmana.
A new period of blood-shed ensued. At that time also Skrzat was dismissed from his post and all the posts occupied till then by Poles were given to White Russians. At first the things did not look too bad. The new authority even thanked us for the furnishing of their premises. Every week permission was granted to go to the market-place. After a fortnight the head of the gendarmerie went on leave and upon his return his attitude had changed completely. We wondered why, but we could find no answer. Perhaps because he found his family bombed-out and blamed the Jews for it. Nobody really knows. At any rate the torments began. They began with a systematic taking away of everything from the Ghetto, and all the textiles and leather, were confiscated. If a piece of leather was found its owner had to pay with his life. Then came the turn of every metal object, clocks and watches, hay, straw, paint, oils and blankets. Before leaving the town the gendarmerie unit decided to take all the furniture, but managed to confiscate only a part of it. The Jewish policemen themselves carried out the searches and- transfered the goods to the Germans. The searches were very thorough because it was not worth while to endanger the lives of people because of rags and rubbish. On top of it there came gigantic delivery orders of objects that had already been confiscated. When asked how can we provide all these items, they allowed us to buy them outside the Ghetto.
And so went by the winter months of 1941-42. They were full of horrors, but when Krause, the head of the gendarmerie, was about to leave the town, we were ready to implore him to stay in Oshmana. We received with panic, the news that the Lithuanians were coming, and that our region was attached to Lithuania. By that time almost all the Jews in Lithuania had been killed, except those in the large ghettoes of Vilna, Kovno and Shavle. The women besieged the Judenrat. Save us! Go to them! Ask them to take us with them, ask for mercy! Give them everything in our possession. Let them allow us to go to White Russia! All we want is to remain alive.
Also the Judenrat from Olshan, headed by the local rabbi, arrived in Oshmana. We sat together and discussed the problem. A delegation was sent to the gendarmerie. The problem was also discussed with the regional governor's delegate. As a result of these efforts a few hundred Jews from Olshan left for Volozhin, and 130 people from Oshmana went to Molodechno, outside the region attached to Lithuania.
This is the story of the Molodechno affair. All the Jews in Molodechno had been murdered and the German units remained there without craftsmen and cheap labor. The Regional governor decided to establish a new ghetto there and sent Jews from adjoining towns, also from Oshmana, to Molodechno.
Three days later the German gendarmerie units left the town. They took with them a number of qualified workers, two tailors, a shoemaker, a locksmith, a coachman, and their families. We said to ourselves: Well, nothing is going to happen to them, under the protection of the gendarmerie, but those people disappeared.
The Oshmana region was incorporated into Lithuania. The people went around pale and frightened. The women, who came back into the Ghetto from road-sweeping, told about the Lithuanian they met and described his frightening appearance. The Lithuanian police took over and in the same evening two policemen beat up a member of the Judenrat. We were waiting for the Doomsday but, quite unexpectedly, the situation improved very considerably. This was due to the new head of the gendarmerie and the sergeant. They were only interested in what they could obtain from the Ghetto but did not interfere in its internal affairs. Their needs were great indeed, - particularly as far as furniture and household goods were concerned, be- cause the previous garrison had taken away everything when it left. Then they needed clothes and shoes for themselves and for their children. They often went on leave and had to bring souvenirs for their relatives. They took, but also wanted to give back in return. This reciprocity took many forms. For instance, if a Christian youth, as it was customary in Krause's days, denounced a Jewess who carried a milk bottle in the streets, and brought her to the Police station, the gendarms treated the fellow to a portion of blows with a rubber-baton instead of punishing the woman. If the sergeant witnessed barter-trade near the Ghetto's fence, he turned his eyes away from the scene. Under their influence everybody changed - the commander of the air force unit, the Lithuanian policemen and the S.S. officer. The Jews moved freely in town and traded in goods.
A new financial contribution was imposed upon us by the District Governor. Our, local Germans helped us to get away with a smaller sum than demanded.
So passed by the spring and summer months of 1942. Nothing unusual occurred in town, but we did not live in peace. Within a distance of a few scores of miles terrible things were taking place. A wave of massacres engulfed White Russia. Individual survivors who succeeded in coming to us told us the details. We heard how the S.S. units en- circled the ghettoes at night, how they murdered and how the corpses, together with people still alive, were burned, how they forced mothers to throw their children on fire and how people were whipped and beaten up before being shot.
Oshmana lies on the route leading from Vilna to White Russia. Whenever an S.S-. unit stopped in town we lived in fear of death, not knowing whether they just came for a night's rest or to carry out an extermination action. People began preparing hiding places for themselves, did not undress at night, planned escapes and to a smaller extent, acts of revenge. Every slight incident upset us.
The atmosphere was tense and tragic. The optimists consoled themselves, by saying that in Lithuania, the Jewish problem had been solved and therefore no danger was to be expected from that direction. At the end of summer 1942, the peasants brought contradictory messages from the Li- thuanian towns. Something was happening there though the true nature of the happenings remained unclear. Some of the news turned to be an exaggeration but one feature was obvious. The Jews will be deported from the ghettoes. This theme wound itself through every account. We did not succeed in sending messengers to ascertain the facts; there- fore the panic was great. At the same time Jews were being moved from smaller ghettoes to larger ones, and workers were mobilized for labor-camps supervised by the so called Todt Organization. This action reached us, too. Stabsleiter Simons visited the Ghetto and demanded 80 male and 200 female workers. We sat all night to prepare the lists. We took care not to take the last son in order not to deprive the family of its breadwinner. But on the following day a message reached us by phone to double the demanded quota. A warning accompanied the demand: If there will be workers there will be a ghetto, if not, there will be no ghetto.
Then we included in the list all the unattached persons without any selection. We only took care not to take mothers away from the children. Still we did not complete the lists. Ten persons were still missing. In the morning, when Stabsleiter Simons arrived, it turned out that the number of missing was larger - 34 persons. Some of them had fled during the preceding night. The German repeated his threats. Someone shouted that a machine gun was placed outside the Ghetto gate. Panic ensued, people left the ranks and hid in the houses. A White-Russian police unit was ordered to chase everybody out of the houses and to line them up in the street. Then Simons chose the missing number of persons without any consideration if they were mothers or sick. The transport left the Ghetto; Simons gave a promise, however, that they would not go up to Heaven. Those were the words he used. In fact, they were sent to a labor camp, where conditions were relatively good.
Jews from other ghettoes, Olshan, Smorgon and Krawo were suddenly transferred to Oshmana. Simons suggested that the families of the men who were taken from the ghetto a year earlier in an unknown direction be concentrated in separate blocks of houses. Then a logical explanation followed. Since the Ghetto absorbed so many newcomers it would be desirable to lighten the burden.
However, the events took a different turn. The Jewish police from Vilna was charged with carrying out the action. It happened on a November day in 1942. At noon over 10 Jewish policemen arrived from Vilna in an automobile. They were headed by the Jewish police chief, Dessler; a German official by the name of Weiss, from the Regional Governor's office accompanied them. Upon arrival he held a short conference with the Jewish council. He announced briefly that the children, the wives and the mothers of the men who had disappeared a year ago would be sent to a labor-camp in Miedniki Krolewskie, 16 miles away from Oshmana. The execution of the action, he continued, would be left in Dessler's hands. The council was warned against any attempt of resistance, sabotage or subversion. Then Weiss left.
The Ghetto was in the throes of panic. The people did not know the contents of the conversation but they felt the impending catastrophe.
In order to quieten the spirits - or to camouflage the real purpose of their coming - the policemen announced that a general census would be carried out. Everybody had to appear to receive an identity card. Those who did not ap- pear would lose the right of stay in the Ghetto of Oshmana. The registration began at noon time, continued during the night and on the following day. The place was packed with frightened people; order was kept with the help of rubber- batons. In the meantime Weiss arrived with the dictator of Vilna Ghetto, Gens. Gens and Dessler negotiated with the German and bargained for human lives. In exchange for the material for a suit he agreed to lower the number. After he had left the Judenrat knew that the Moloch would be satisfied with an offering of 600-700 human lives. They also knew that old men and sick people could be offered instead of the younger ones.
In the evening hours Dessler instructed the council how the action would be carried out. At dawn, the guards at the gate and along the fence would be reinforced. Only the labor-groups that work all day outside the Ghetto would be permitted to leave. Special attention should be given to prevent the old people from leaving the Ghetto. At 8 o'clock the entire population would be called upon to assemble near the offices of the council. The local Jewish police under the supervision of the Vilna policemen, would guard the population. All the assembled would be led under escort to the synagogue. Only those who were to stay in the Ghetto would be allowed to enter. Those sentenced to death would be escorted to one of the ruined houses near the fence. Then the synagogue would be locked and the policemen would carry out a thorough search in the houses. The sick would be taken out on stretchers, and the hiding dragged out of their hiding places. Finally 150 horse-carts would arrive with Lithuanian policemen. The victims would be loaded on them and taken to Ogliovo, the site of the execution, 6 or 7 kilometres away from the town. Only after the carts have left would the people, locked up in the synagogue, be allowed to reenter the Ghetto. At 4 p.m. the Ghetto must return to normal life.
Everything happened according to plan. At the entrance to the synagogue one Jew made a sign with his hand, or lifted his rubber baton, and pushed another Jew aside - to the cemetery. And the victim, pale with fear and terror,, did not utter a curse because everybody understood that if this had been done by non-Jews it would have been much more cruel. The same Jewish policemen who pushed aside a Jewess, ran after the carts and lifted her down in his arms when he learned that she had left children. However many orphans remained. It was impossible to save all the ,mothers. The operation had to be concluded fast, because the Lithuanian policemen arrived with the horse-carts early. In the presence of strangers everything had to appear differently.
The blood tax was paid. About 400 people had to die - among them many who were healthy and strong. They were led outside the Ghetto and locked up in a granary. Terrible cries and sobs were heard from there. Then they were led out in groups from the granary to the edge of a large pit which had been prepared earlier. Before shooting the victims, the Lithuanians ordered them to undress. In the evening the drunken henchmen entered the Ghetto singing. They returned the shovels they had borrowed earlier. The shovels were blood-stained.
It is psychologically a well-known truth that the desire to live strengthens after blood-letting. This applied to us too. The Ghetto began to reconstruct itself. Vilna, which had taken upon herself the terrible mission of acting as henchmen, felt it was their duty to help us overcome the shock.
Within a short period the Ghetto stood again on its feet and could be compared to a small, well organized community. Thanks to its productivity something like prosperity was reached. The council moved its office from the old two rooms to the former school building. The activity was divided among several departments, labor, the registration technical, supply, etc. A clinic and a small hospital in good working order were opened. There were also opened a boarding house for exhausted workers from the labor camps, a school, a library, a club and a bath-house. The Ghetto was proud of its workshops which even delivered goods for the provincial governor. Thanks to all this and to the regular supply of foodstuffs, there were no hungry people in the Ghetto. The better life lasted for five months.
After the November massacre we were told by the representatives of the authorities: Till the spring you can sit quietly. The spring came and with it an official announcement that the Ghetto in Oshmana will be liquidated. At that time many people from Oshmana were in various labor-camps. According to the liquidation plan their families were to join them. Also those who had relatives in the Vilna Ghetto were to join them.
Nevertheless, there remained a hard core of people who had nowhere to go. They were to be moved to Kovno or Ponevesh.
Also this time the carrying out of the action was entrusted to the Jewish police from Vilna. The initiated knew that the action would not be concluded without blood- shed. But nobody had the slightest idea where and how it would happen. The Jewish Council was urged to send first of all the widows of the Bartel massacre to the camps, in order to avoid a repetition of last November's slaughter.
The first transports were well organized and arrived safely in the labor-camps and in Vilna. This diminished the fear of a new bloody trap.
The date of the departure of the last transport from the Ghetto was changed twice. Finally it was fixed for April 28, 1943, and its destination was Kovno. 713 persons went in horse-carts to the Solo railway-station, where they were joined by Jews from other ghettoes and labor-camps. They traveled to Vilna, and from there to Kovno. But they did not reach their destination. The transport was directed to Ponar Extermination Camp - and their fate was the same as that of the entire Lithuanian Jewry. There were very few survivors who escaped and told blood-curdling details of the slaughter. The belongings of the victims remained in the railway cars. The Gestapo took the lion's share. The rest was sent to the Ghetto. On the parcels were marked names - the names of our acquaintances.
[Page 74 - English, Page 402 - Hebrew]
Published by Hakibutz Haartzi
The maintenance of links with the town and cooperation with the underground forces, which began to organize themselves within it, required extraordinary caution and a thorough knowledge of the art of conspiracy. It was necessary to secure continuous liaison between the town and the ghetto. This task was imposed on Lisa Magon (Lisa is calling). She had been active in Hashomer Hatzair before the formation of the F.F.O.; she stayed outside the ghetto and, in the course of time, carried out important missions for the organization. Shortly before that, she returned from the little town of Oshmana; she had been sent there after the Command had learned about the liquidation action to be carried out in that place. She passed the news, and organized the escape of the youth from the ghetto to the adjoining forests.
In order to fulfil her new task, Lisa needed safe documents. The authorities in the town began issuing new identity cards; the documents in Lisa's possession were valid no longer. Therefore she decided to acquire a new identity card which would enable her to move freely and to carry out her activity. She went to the police-station for that purpose but was arrested there; it may be guessed that she was denounced by an informer. She was taken to Lukishki prison and, after savage tortures and interrogations, sent to the Ponar extermination camp. All the attempts of the Organization to free her were unsuccessful.
A few days before her execution, arrived the last message from her: Dear father. It is clear to me what my situation and chances are, but it is hard for me to get used to the idea that I'll be taken to Ponar. I am quiet, I know what I'm giving my life for. It is clear to me that every- thing is being done to free me, but all is lost now. I am thinking and worrying about Adek (Bielostock. Ed. note). Convey my greetings to all the friends. I shake your hands. Be strong and of good courage. Your Lisa.
Thirty days after her death, Baruch Goldstein filched a machine-gun from a German bunker and smuggled it into the Ghetto. The automatic weapon was named Lisa.
Members of Hashomer Hatzair collected eighteen thousand roubles to buy arms to honor her name.
In the Organization's Regulations, published a few days later, appeared the following sentence: The mobilization order of the United Partisan Organization is the code signal Lisa is Calling. Upon hearing this password each Organization member must appear in the destined place and be ready for struggle and self-defense.
In the Vilna Region
During the last months of 1942 and in the first half of 1943 life in the Ghetto took its normal course. Gens, head of the Ghetto, was nominated as official plenipotentiary of the ghettoes in Lithuania and White Russia. Special rights were granted to the Vilna Ghetto, as the Central Ghetto in which the laws were fixed for the entire Vilnerland; that was the name given to the territory included within the jurisdiction of the Ghetto of Vilna.
In little towns adjacent to Vilna, there were still Jews in ghettoes. All of them had passed through extermination actions and massacres, but then quiet and tranquility reigned in them for a while. Policemen, officials and experts arrived from Vilna, to organize the smaller ghettoes according to the example of the Central Ghetto and to establish in them similar laws, procedures and order.
The Jews of Vilna Ghetto were satisfied with their status; they felt more secure. Indeed, the Ghetto continued to develop, there were no unemployed, its economic value increased daily. Gens and Dessler were on excellent terms with the authorities. The Jews believed that those two could achieve everything. The Jewish Police which left for the provincial ghettoes received permission from the Germans to wear uniforms - a sign of appreciation on their part and of satisfaction with the Ghetto in general, and the activities of the police in particular.
The Police arrived also in Oshmana, together with the Ghetto Administration and the Labor Department, to establish a forced labor system. According to rumors which spread in Vilna, the Gestapo Chief, Weiss, said that there were too many unemployed in that Ghetto, which numbered four thousand inhabitants. An agreement was reached between Weiss and Dessier, the Jewish Police Chief, to remove four hundred, mostly older people, from the Ghetto. The Jewish Police from Vilna carried out the action with their own hands. Police Officer, Natan Ring, distinguished himself with cruel behaviour, but many policemen were convinced that they succeeded in saving the Ghetto. It may be added that Lisa Magon, which had been mentioned earlier, was in Oshmana during this action.
The Vilna Ghetto learned about the action only after the policemen had returned; then Gens convoked a special meeting, to which he invited well known public figures in addition to the representatives of the police and the administration. His concluding words at the gathering were: As I had said, I take upon myself the entire responsibility for the things that were done. I do not want any arguments. Nobody has the right to argue about my actions in the past and in the future. I called you together in order to explain to you why a Jew dips his hands in blood. And in the future, when we, the policemen, will have to go - we shall go!
Soon afterwards, at the beginning of April 1943, a deportation order was issued in the Vilna Ghetto; it concerned the remaining Jews from the neighbouring towns who fled to Vilna Ghetto after the liquidation of the ghettoes. in their towns. Those people did not have, throughout their stay in the Ghetto, equal rights with those of the legal inhabitants; their identity cards were also different.
The Jews from Michatishki, Svir, Oshmana, from labor- camps in the vicinity of Vilna, and others were told to move to the Ghetto of Kovno (Kaunas) where a shortage of man- power was felt. There were people in the Ghetto, among them former residents of Kovno, who registered voluntarily for the trip, out of the hope that the conditions in Kovno would be considerably better from those in Vilna. In the train were herded thousands of Jews; the majority were inhabitants of the Ghetto of Swienciany. On the railway cars hung signs: To Kovno.
A few days earlier, a group of Jewish policemen from Vilna arrived at Swienciany. Immediately upon their arrival they announced that the Swienciany Ghetto would be liquidated and its inhabitants transfered to Kovno. They showed the travel documents on which Kovno was marked as the end-station of the trip. Each policeman had such a document and they tried to convince and to promise the people that this was indeed the destination of he train - not an extermination camp; they added that no harm would be done to them. The policemen turned particularly to the youth and persuaded them not to leave for the forests and not to endanger the safety of the whole community; they were aware of the existence on the spot of an active, under- ground organization.
This propaganda campaign lasted for a few days. Words of persuasion and inducement were repeated over and over again. Finally arrived Gens himself and vouched personally for the safety of the Jews. The people began to believe, packed their belongings, loaded them on carts and went to the railway-station at New Swienciany. However, a certain number of armed young people succeeded in leaving for the forest. A goods-train with signs To Kovno on the cars was waiting at the railway station. The Jews boarded the train. The Jewish Police kept the order and aided the older people. The windows were barred by barbed wire. When the cars were filled they were closed on the outside with iron wire and sealed with a leaden seal. The train remained on the spot until midnight.
Shlomo Yechilehick from Vidz, who traveled on this train, related his story and the story of the trip which lasted for him only one night. I was standing in the station, watching people enter the train; suddenly I decided not to enter together with them but to wait. When I saw how the railway cars were being locked, doubts arose in my mind and I began to be afraid of what was going to happen. My friend, Tuvya Bilk, was standing next to me. We decided to enter last. Since we had both been working in this railway station, we knew the place well. We hid ourselves and waited. At dusk we left the hiding place, crawled to the train, and began knocking on the cars and called on the people to get out. We told them that they were shut up. Their reply was: 'We'll go to Kovno, and then we'll see'. The police noticed us. We managed to evade them, then returned to the train and banged on the outside of the railway-cars. We called our names, for we had many acquaintances among the people in the train. After we had cut the wire in one of the windows, several people got out. They were the Figit brothers from Vidz and their parents, Baruch Ulman from Braslav and Israel Wolfson from Swienciany. The rest did not move deciding to stay. We knew that there were many young people in the train, and succeeded in opening another window, and one man got outside. Suddenly policemen ap- peared on the spot. They caught the people who had escaped from the train and arrested them. Bilk and I succeeded to escape. We looked out after the arrested men and saw how the policemen took them into an empty railway car. A short while later we approached that car and opened its door. At the same moment policemen surrounded us. We escaped once again. They shot in our direction. We decided to get aboard. There was no other alternative. We had no arms and it was impossible to go to the woods without weapons, especially after we had received information on the bad situation of the partisans after the big hunt carried out against them. As the train moved, we were clutching the car-chimney.
The last four cars were going to Vilna. Those who traveled in them had relatives there, but in reality the majority were wealthier people who thanks to the bribe given to the policemen, were put into those four cars. We knew that when the train arrived in Vilna those cars would be left there, and we intended to make use of it. However, the tiredness, the anxiety and the lack of sleep, were strong enough to make us fall asleep during the journey.
When I opened my eyes, a Polish railway worker with a look of surprise in his eyes, was standing next to me. He asked us who we were and what we were doing there. We replied that we, were Jews traveling from Swienciany. The man said that the train would be leaving soon for the Ponar Extermination camp. We jumped down and started to crawl underneath the cars. We knocked on them and passed to the people inside the information we had received from the Pole. We heard weeping and crying.
The train was standing in the Vilna railway station. I knew well the place and also its vicinity. We decided to escape from there and to find out what was going on in the Ghetto.
We had hardly made a few steps when we bumped into a Jewish policeman. He shouted and threatened us. We learned from him, however, that those who were released were being transfered to the Vilna Ghetto. He led us to the police-car. Gens, surrounded by Jewish policemen, was sitting at a table. When he noticed us he burst out shouting how dared we to travel on the outside of the locked car. We requested him to take us to Vilna. We told him that we knew every- thing. At this moment he looked confused and very depressed, an old broken man. Next to him stood Dessler, quiet and indifferent. Gens ordered the policeman Davidovsky to escort us to the Ghetto. When we were on the bridge stretching over the railway tracks, we still had time to see the Jewish policemen hurriedly leaving the train in the direction of the ramp, and S,.S. men, armed to their teeth, replacing them. The train moved and we remained the only witnesses of the last journey of the Jews from Swienciany, Vidz, Braslav, Svir, Michalishki, Oshmana and other localities - the survivors of earlier massacres.
One of the policemen, who escorted the victims out of the Ghetto, Itshack Tubin, recounts: On the day of the action I was ordered to assemble the people in a room where the registration took place. Those were mostly old people, considered by the Germans as unfit for living. Afterwards arrived carts, and the people were put on them by our policemen. Then I entered the Beth-Hamidrash and told those who were assembled there that it had been very hard for us to carry out this task, but it would have been worse had it been done by the Lithuanians.
At four o'clock I went with the carts. A woman, who was traveling with me, said: I am 57 years old and this is the end of my life. It is not so terrible. We, the Jews living in the shadow of the Germans are all doomed. I have already lived the years of my life, but some go sooner and others go later.
Several days elapsed, and after the fellows had learned the art of economic sabotage, Mishka and his group, number- ing ten persons, left the town. The leader of the group was Natan Ring, formerly a police officer in the Ghetto. The man was on the staff of the Yehiel underground organisation, but to the Ghetto inhabitants he was known because of his numerous wicked deeds, and particularly his leading role in the Oshmana action.
Kovner rebuked Stankovich and claimed that if the aim is to convict Ring, then such of his actions, like uncovering the hiding places of the Jews and delivering them to the Gestapo as well as his criminal actions during the Oshmana operation, are sufficient for this purpose. There were witnesses of those actions and there was no need to add to them fictitious deeds. Stankovich's reaction was quite angry. He said a N.K.V.D. officer, has the right to convict a man if he was an agent of the enemy. We must prove this and you, a Jewish commander, who knows the crimes of that fellow Ring, are not willing to aid us in giving us this simple proof. But Kovner remained adamant in his view that a man should be condemned for his real crimes.
The Stalingrad Massacre
The period of relative stability in the Ghetto of Kovno, came to an end at the beginning of 1943. It was ushered by a wave of murders perpetrated by the Germans at that time. In the Ghetto's history those murders were significantly called The Stalingrad Action. On the day when national mourning was proclaimed in Germany, after the defeat on the Stalingrad front, the S.S. men in Kaunas and the Lithuanian police who guarded the gates to the Ghetto, received instructions to arrest a few scores of Jews on various pretexts. The pretexts were: walking in the streets without a yellow badge, contact with the Lithuanian population, speculation in food products in the Ghetto, etc. About fifty Jews and their families were arrested. On the following day, February 4th, the arrested were transferred to the Ninth Fort, the well-known site of executions, and cruelly put to death by the Gestapo. At the beginning of March, 1943, information reached the Ghetto of extermination actions in the vicinity of Vilna, as a result of which the Jewish ghettoes in Oshmana, Sinorgon, Olshan and other localities were completely liquidated.
The fighters dispersed among various Russian units and distinguished themselves. Jacob Grinstein was active as a saboteur along the railway-lines Lida-Molodechno and Oshmana-Smorgon, and later appointed commander of a demolition squad. In Ponomarenko's unit and in other Russian squads were a number of Jewish fighters.
[Page 82 - English, Page 369 - Yiddish]
Sonia Druzgenitsky (Hedera)
In 1941 broke out the German-Soviet war. Three weeks afterwards the Germans took away my husband, and I remained alone with three small children. Every day we were getting ready to move to the Ghetto. Before the Jewish New Year we were forced to enter the Ghetto. There we suffered very much. The Judenrat (the Jewish Council appointed by the Germans) took away from us the jewelry to give it to the Germans as ransom. In 1942 the Ghetto was liquidated and we were transfered to Vileyka. There we spent six months. Everyday there were roll-calls. During the last rollcall we were taken away from the Vileyka camp, naked and barefooted. Without even a little water for the children, we were herded onto trucks and taken to the railway-station. The children began to weep and to cry that we were going to be executed at the Poner camp. I consoled them by saying that we were all together. In the railway-station we were brutally pushed into railway cars. The train brought us to Estonia. Our first camp was called Varvara. Every minute we were facing death. For a short period we were together with the children, but later on we were not allowed to go to their barrack. I used to sneak across the fence and would often be beaten up for this. My little boy was at that time only three years old and completely barefooted. At that period arrived a transport of Jews from Vilna. They were robbed of their belongings which were heaped up in a big pile. Another woman and I made up our mind to reach that pile of clothes and take something for our naked and barefooted children. But a Dutchman, assistant of the camp commander, noticed us. He drove us into the bath-house; there stood a special table used for flogging. We were beaten up with sticks so strongly that for weeks we were unable to sit down; nevertheless we had to go to work.
In 1943 the children were murdered. While the mothers were at work, the children were taken to Eroda camp. There they were kept in cellars in cold and hunger. After a few weeks they were taken away and disappeared forever.
When I was told that the children were at Eroda Camp I requested to be allowed to stay with them. When I finally got there I met my oldest boy. Then we were sent to Stutthof concentration camp. The hunger was so great that I used to mix a bit of clover with water for myself and my child. When we arrived at Stutthof we were immediately sent to the delousing chamber and all our belongings were taken away from us. I was separated from my child and for weeks I did not see him. One day walking near the barbed wire I saw Leybele Lapidus, a boy who was together with my son. I asked him if he saw my David. He replied: If you send me my ma I'll send you your Dudek. I ran as fast as I could to find her. It was not easy to find Leybele's mother among thousands of women, but I succeeded at last and brought her with me to the barbed wire. When I got close to the wire I saw two boys standing - but none of them looked like my David. It turned out that their clothes had been exchanged, and the children looked worn out and emaciated. When I told Leybele that I could not see my David, my child spoke: Mame, that's me, your Dudek. A Russian Kapo who noticed us as we were talking lifted up her stick to hit me. I began to cry and begged her to let me exchange a few words with my child whom I had not seen for two weeks. My crying and begging must have softened her callous heart and she allowed me to talk to him for a while. I told him to try and get from the kitchen a potato or a carrot to quiet the hunger. He answered-. I won't go there, mother, I'm afraid.
I told him to come to the barbed wire on the following day, so I could give him my bread-ration. In the morning I ran to the barbed wire and saw him attending a roll-call. I called him but he made a sign with his little head that he could not come. Nevertheless I threw him the piece of bread across the wire-fence. The child ran towards the bread, got hold of it and returned to his place. From the distance he sent me kisses with his little hand as a sign of gratitude.
That was the last time I saw my child. On the following night they were all taken away - forever.
[Page 84 - English, Page 369 - Yiddish]
Aaron Borowsky (New York)
I remember the day very vividly, the day which became crystalized in my mind, never to be forgotten - that famous day, early in January 1946, when the Postman delivered an envelope bearing a Tel Aviv postage stamp.
The envelope contained a list of 296 Oshmaner, who by the grace of God survived the Nazi massacre and who, at that time, were scattered throughout Europe. The same envelope contained a letter written by the Olei Oshmana Organization in Eretz Israel and was signed by the following members of the board: Dov lzkowich, Hosea Soltz, Reuben Soloducho and Luba Chodosh. These signers turned to me asking that I take the initiative in organizing a campaign for funds. An emergency existed, it required immediate attention - there was no time to waste.
I read the list of survivors and found many familiar names. The thought struck my mind, 1, too, could have been one of them.
After having made several contacts, I learned that the Oshmaner Brothers, a society of Oshmaner landsleit formed some fifty years earlier had, during the First World War, organized a branch known as the United Oshmaner Relief, but because of the prevailing conditions in the intervening years, had become inactive. I then persuaded several of the members to call an emergency meeting and as a result the group was reorganized and revitalized. Plans were formulated and within a short time the rescue campaign became a reality.
At later date some of the Oshmaner women met at the home of Harry and Sonia Lerner and they formed their own organization under the name of The Oshmaner Sisters. Selma Borowsky was elected President, Sarah Kupansky, Treasurer and Masa Kramer, Secretary. With the passage of time they assumed a very active part and became part and parcel of the melting pot called Oshmaner Landsleit.
The rest of the story now belongs to history.
Over $20,000 was raised between these two groups. To the Oshmaner Sisters fell the task of supplying survivors in the Camps with the necessities of life: parcels of clothing, drugs, tobacco, parcels of food, and much, much, more. They corresponded with many of them informing them that we, the Oshmaner in America, had not forgotten them, that they were not to fear the present, nor were they to worry about the future.
In addition, we transmitted a substantial sum of money to the Israel Committee, so that they could lend assistance to the Oshmaner Aliyah the so called illegal immigration to Palestine.
Most of the Oshmaner in America have performed their duties with pride, with dignity, with devotion. They have fulfilled an obligation to their fellow brothers and sisters across the sea and, equally important, have discharged an obligation to themselves, with honorable deeds.
Yes, I, Too, Could Have Been One of Them.
[Page 86 - English, Page 444 - Yiddish]
Sumulevich (New York)
A talk with Murray-Moshe Becker (This is a summary of an article which appeared in the Forward)
Until the outbreak of the Second World War, Oshmana had close economic and cultural ties with Vilna. The whole area belonged to Poland. Now, Oshmana is in the Soviet Union, in the Republic of Byelorusya (White Russia); the capital of White Russia is Minsk.
Already in 1960, Murray Becker flew to Moscow where he tried to receive permission to visit Oshmana, his home town. But the authorities refused. He tried again in 1961, but met with no success. After his return to New York somebody advised him to fly again to Moscow and from there to Vilna. In Vilna, which is only 50 miles away from Oshmana, he would surely get permission to visit his home town. The Jew from New York flew in 1962 to Moscow and from there to Vilna; but in Vilna he was once more refused the permission. Thus he was unable to fulfil the promise he had given to his mother. In the meantime his mother Hava, and his father Velvel, passed away.
In 1965 Murray Becker went on a business trip to Israel, where he is a frequent visitor. There someone gave him an advise to fly from Moscow to Minsk where he could perhaps obtain the desired permit.
I followed the advice, recounts Mr. Becker, When I got to Minsk I was told that when I came there the next time I would be given every possibility to visit my native town.
Recently Mr. Becker visited Oshmana which he had left as a young boy in 1923. He owes it in a large measure to Anatol Lisovsky, General Manager of the Intourist (Soviet Travel and Tourist Agency) branch in Minsk. Lisov- sky received the Jew from New York friendly and warmly. I-le asked him why so few American Jews come to Minsk and the neighbouring towns. We shall enable them to visit their old home-towns, to meet their relatives and friends. Let them come, said Lisovsky.
After a lapse of 44 years Moshe Becker returned to Oshmana. The 3-hour trip by car from Minsk seemed to him long like eternity. By the way, he was the first Jew from America and the whole free world to visit Oshmana.
On the way, told Mr. Becker, I saw the same fields and forests, the same peasant huts and trees as in the distant past when I was a little child. I felt as if I were dreaming. I was thinking about my old friends and what would Oshmana's streets look like. When the car entered the town, my heart was pounding so fast that I was afraid it would burst. Murray Becker walked in the streets and lanes of his hometown and recognized almost everything from the past. Among the same old trees, he saw the house where he was born; now it is a girls' school.
And there was the house where Harry (Henoch) Susskind, the well known New York caterer, was born. And the house of the Golub family, and the hill where the kids went sleigh riding.
While walking in the streets, Moshe was reminded on every step of the people who had once lived there, of Elhanan, the teacher, Kalman the locksmith, and others. So many Jews had once populated the Vilna Street, the Olshan Street. The same old wooden houses remained - but the Jews are there no longer. And there is the river winding itself through the town, where Moshe used to go bathing with other Jewish boys. He met one of them, Vule Lerner, who works as a driver in Oshmana. And when he stopped near the market place to buy ice-cream, he recognised the saleswoman. She had once been the pretty Sonka Miasnyk. Oshmana, Mr. Becker carried on, was once an almost purely Jewish town. Now there are only 25 Jewish families among the 25 thousand inhabitants, and most of the Jews are not natives of the town. They all have work. A few are pensioners.
There is no trace of a Jewish life, however. A big bakery is located in the old synagogue building; but the Orthodox and the Catholic church are ruined too. All the stores which were once Jewish are now used as living quarters or state stores. The old Jewish bathhouse is intact and serves all the inhabitants.
The Jews know one another and get together after working hours. They evoke the past and talk a lot about the years of the Hitlerite occupation.
A story was told about a certain Dr. Leger, a German who lived in Oshmana before the war. When the Germans came, he gave them the lists of local Jews who were soon arrested and shot near the slaughter house. Other Jews were deported to Vilna and other places - and put to death.
The only remnant of old Jewish Oshmana is the ancient cemetery. The majority of tombstones caved in, however. On many of them it is difficult to decipher the names, obliterated by rains, winds and the sun. Some of the tombs are quite well preserved, particularly that of the well-known wealthy Yehuda Leyb Strugach who died in 1908.
His son, Abraham Strugach, was shot by the Nazis in the same cemetery. The murderers dragged him there, barefooted in the winter frost.
Mr. Becker discovered also a new tombstone with Hebrew letters. it was erected over the grave of Moshe Bar Tuvya Shatzman, who was born in 1898 and died in 1960.
It seems that the Jews are allowed to erect tombstones in the old cemetery. Mr. Becker also found the graves and tombstones of his two sisters who died a long time ago. Thus he was able to fulfil the promise he had given to his mother to visit the graves and to photograph them.
In Murray Becker's view, the townsmen of Oshmana, should help preserving the Jewish cemetery in their old home-town. A proper fence should be erected and the tomb- stones kept in order. Let there at least be a Jewish cemetery in our town, he said at the end of our conversation.
Nothing else is left. Let the cemetery remain as a memorial to the once existing Jewish Community.
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