by Menachem Duhl
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
The Outbreak of the GermanPolish War: The Reverberation in Jezierna
Hitler's Germany attacked Poland on the first of September 1939. Everyone believed that Poland was strong enough to not let itself be conquered and that the world would not allow this to happen, that Hitler would not swallow Poland. If the world helped, let Hitler rack his brains.
The Jezierna Jews, in particular the synagoguepoliticians, maintained that Jezierna was far from the German border and close to the Russian one; one did not have to be afraid. The Germans would not come here. They listened particularly to the veterans of the First World War; their opinion was authoritative. However, automobiles full of people immediately began traveling through Jezierna. They were citizens who had escaped from western Poland, among them Jews. They said that the Germans had bombed their places of residence. The Polish Army was routed and was in retreat. Only individual military units were staging a resistance and they were waiting for aid from the western nations.
Civilian officials, small military units, individual officers, soldiers and citizens all ran. A fear fell on the Jezierna Jews, who had been almost calm until now. They also were engulfed by an atmosphere of panic. Many automobiles stopped at the Jezierna marketplace. They were immediately surrounded by a cluster of Jews. They asked various questions, they wanted to learn from them what was happening, hoping to hear joyful news. But what could people who were escaping in panic to save themselves say? Here and there a Jew would stutter something and draw back at once. There was great fear. Almost everyone would exaggerate, although they did not want to spread panic. There was no shortage of stories and exaggerations then. It was said that the French would send help and would march into Germany… English airplanes would arrive in Poland… The Poles have recaptured Danzig, and many other preposterous rumors…
Then two automobiles full of people arrived at the marketplace; a captain, women and children were in each automobile. They came from Jaroslaw; they would surely know something it was said and they began to be questioned. They had escaped with their military automobiles driving their families to eastern Poland, bringing them to a safe place where the war definitely would not reach; they were traveling to Tostobaby, a village in the Podhajce [Pidhaytsi] district, which was inhabited by real Polish peasants. After securing their families, they would return to the war.
There was heavy movement on the main street; it was impossible to go through. Civilians, military men everyone traveled in the direction of Zalischyky in order to reach Romania.
Now it also was clear in Jezierna that the Germans would arrive there in about a day or two. People began to buy whatever they could in the shops: food, textile goods, leather, and merchants hid some goods in order to have things to sell later or even to trade, if it was necessary. The older people still remembered how things were with food during the First World War in Ukraine and with the Petlurawices. [followers of Symon Petlura, commander in the Ukrainian People's Republic, who carried out numerous pogroms against the Jews] The tax office received an order to pay each state official their salary six months in advance; the Jezierna officials traveled to Zborow to receive their money and wanting to make sure of its value, they immediately spent it all. In general, they did not think of the danger; they only wanted to take care of their needs against hunger and want…
That is what Jezierna looked like during the first week of the war. At that time, when there was panic in the western Polish cities and shtetlekh [towns], offices were closed and it was difficult to get food, (whoever had not bought bread from the bakery at dawn, did not have anything to eat for the entire day), there was paradise in Jezierna: bread and food were in abundance; for money one could have whatever the heart desired.
Jezierna Under Soviet Rule (19391941)
On the 17th of September 1939 the Red Army marched into Jezierna; the shtetlele became part of the Soviet Ukraine. The Ukrainians went around full of joy, everyone in holiday clothing. With song and dance they welcomed the Red Army and pelted them with flowers. The Soviet's slogans were that they had come to redeem their Ukrainian brothers from the Polish yoke. Even Kuzmin, the former Polish senator, and other rich Ukrainians celebrated and prepared to take over power. However, they immediately cooled off a little; the Soviets openly said that was not the meaning of the quote… They came to redeem the wretched, the poor peasants, and not the rich, the ‘kulaks’ [rich farmers].
The Poles were again dejected particularly those who belonged to the government circles, to B.B. [Bezbartijny Blok nonparty block, Jozef Pilsudski's party], to Strzelec [paramilitary organization Riflemen] and the Owszem Poles [those taking part in an economic boycott of Jewish businesses]. The Jews, they were disoriented: the fear of the Germans was so great that they welcomed the entry of the Red Army with joy. In addition to this, the antiSemites in Poland everywhere would always shout at meetings that the Jews were communists and the communists were all Jews; if true, of what do they have to be afraid? Killing, as the Germans do, they will not do, and if they do not kill, they would get by.
By then, there already were a large number of Jews in Jezierna. Refugees from western Poland had come here, in addition to the residents. A week after the army's march through, a party secretary arrived and began to organize the administration and the community council. The new people in power in Jezierna were almost all Ukrainians, employees, workers, artisans and small farmers. The Ukrainians considered themselves to be like the ruling Nazis; they incited against the Poles as their former oppressors and here and there also against the Jews, that is, only against the rich Jews, the ‘bourgeois’. This they could still do.
The estate was parceled out immediately. Here a Jew was still the owner, and [they also divided] the fields of the rich farmers, the ‘kulaks ’. They simultaneously also parceled out the fields that belonged to Jews themselves, with the claim that the Jews did not personally cultivate them, but employed nonJews to do so. And although in Jezierna, Jews did work their lands themselves, this did not help, and as they possessed many fields, they were considered as ‘kulaks’. They also liquidated the Jewish shops and thus the Jews completely lost their income. However, when they opened cooperatives for trade, craft and industry, the former owners of the small shops received work as sellers in the state factories; the artisans in their cooperatives. The owners of the larger shops and wholesalers, that is, the ‘speculators’, could only go to more difficult physical work.
Jews who were workers, artisans, had a good social status (satzpakazshenya) they received responsible positions and state posts. On one hand, Jews obtained state posts, many of whom had not been able to obtain them in Poland. On the other hand, however, this eradicated private trade and also destroyed the livelihood of many Jews…
The change in the regime brought with it social and economic changes to the shtetl. The regime strengthened from week to week, from month to month and there was progress in the sovietization. The regime began to carry out a ‘cleansing’. Former political activists, judges, prosecutors, policemen, property owners and landholders (pamyeshtshykes) and also Polish colonists (they called them enemies of the Ukrainian people) were deported to Siberia; to the white bear [polar region of Russia], bili nidshzvidi [unnoticed people picked up by the police and forgotten], as they called it.
Almost all of the deported were Poles and also among them a few Jews. A number of Jews in this category hid and remained in Jezierna. This deportation, and particularly the manner of deportation, created a frightful impression. Winter, at night, in a deep frost, they were taken out of their beds, loaded onto wagons, taken to the train station in Zborow and there they were loaded into cattle cars; this was how they were taken to Siberia (it meant that they made the shtetlekh clean. The counterrevolutionaries and enemies of the regime were taken away). They traveled this way for weeks under guard in these small wagons. Many of them died en route, particularly the old and weak.
Jezierna really was a small shtetele; however, in addition to the small shops here, there were also large merchants, a Jewish property owner, Jewish farmers, a mill owner and also an intelligentsia. Like Jews generally in Poland, they also did not receive any state posts or municipal positions there; they were a national minority that was treated differently than the other two ethnic groups. The Jews played a certain role economically and agriculturally despite the extermination policies on the part of the Owszemnikes [followers of the economic boycott] in both ethnic groups.
The new regime changed the situation. All of the ethnic groups were officially equal, excluding the nonproductive elements. Jews actually felt like equal citizens; some of them were endowed with responsible positions and government posts. They took part animatedly in cultural life. There were Jewish teachers in the schools, as well as directors and inspectors. A Jew could be found in almost all of the offices. This was only one side of the coin.
There was another picture, as I already have mentioned. The liquidation of the Jewish shops led to a situation in which Jews remained without income. In addition, the newly organized shops did not have any goods; there was a shortage of some products. They would stand in line for hours for bread and other articles; sugar, soap in general, were difficult to obtain. The same with manufactured goods, leather, shoes and clothing. The formerly great merchants lived in fear. They sold clothing, shoes and household articles and bought food. Bartering spread. Former state officials and former rich merchants stood in the market and sold alte zakhn [usually old clothes or household goods]. There was great fear of arrest and exile to Siberia. The regime gave the feeling that there was hope, that the war would quickly end and everything would return to the way it was (the merchant would again be a merchant, the official an official, the owner, an owner and the artisan, an artisan). However, before the arrival of salvation the GermanSoviet war broke out.
The GermanSoviet War
On the 22nd of June 1941, the news that the war between HitlerGermany and the Soviet Union had broken out, fell on the Jews like thunder. The Ukrainians again walked around joyfully; they hoped that Hitler would create an independent Ukraine for them in eastern Galicia and with that bring about their dream of 1918.
A retreat, a stampede, a panic began. The civilian administration and their wives and children, the military everyone ran. They wanted to be quickly ‘on the other side’. This also had an influence on the Jews. From towns and villages, Jews in small numbers also fled with the Red Army. Only a few Jews from Jezierna escaped with the Soviets, the majority remained on the spot. Leave their families, their homes, the shtetl where their father lived and run to where? It was not a simple problem.
The Germans entered Jezierna and the great tragedy began. We have no historical source; therefore, we make use of the testimony of the survivors. The era of extermination, the experiences, persecutions and martyrology of the Jezierna Jews we will describe only in short strokes; exact descriptions will be given in the memories of others, individual survivors.
The path of the EinsatzGrupnS.S. [Einsatzgruppen Schutzstaffel paramilitary death squads], beginning in Przemysl, was marked with Jewish blood and tears along the entire march route. Pogroms, the dead in the streets that was the picture. And the neighbors, the other residents of the cities and shtetlekh, the gentiles in Jezierna too watched the Jewish tragedy with pleasure.
Right after the ‘prologue’ the first pogrom in Jezierna the Germans began to organize the administration: a Ukrainian and Polish Aid Committee and a Judenrat [Jewish council]. The names show that the committee had one role and the Judenrat another. Cynics would call the Judenrat Judenfarrat [Jewish betrayal], as a symbol of the roll of the council members. There was a local Judenrat in Jezierna and a county Judenrat in Zborow.
The organization of the Judenrat was the same everywhere: 1) the Chairman was responsible for all of the Jews; 2) the head of LaborSupply had to provide workers at every request by the regime; 3) Welfare and Social Aid; 4) the Procurement department had to provide things of value, gold, money, at the request of the rulers, that is, every German and VolksDeutsch [ethnic Germans]; 5) Postal department a postal branch for Jews; 6) Liaison the only one who had contact with the Jewish camps; 7) Metrical department that managed the documentation of the Jewish population, supplied certificates of identity for those who perished and those who survived; thus, the rulers knew, at any given time, how many Jews were still alive. 8) Absence papers; 9) Ordnungsdienst [ghetto police] Jewish militia; 10) Leichendienst khevra kadisha [burial society]. In addition to this, there were eilboten couriers, a sanitary committee, J.S.S. Jewish social selfhelp. The lumpensammler, that is, the rag collectors occupied a respected place; they were men of aristocratic birth; they had the right to move freely and go into the gentile area.
The Jezierna Judenrat would receive instructions from the Zborow county Judenrat and in them it was emphasized that there must be order! There must be a hierarchy! At the organization of the Judenrats no one will say: What concern for people?! Hygiene, self help, protection, their own postal system, shops with food and even … a burial society!
Jezierna was not an exception. All antiJewish decrees and laws were also applied here. Here too, every Jew had to wear an armband with a MogenDovid [Jewish star], was compelled to do forced labor, was not permitted to travel by train, to walk on the sidewalk, to buy products from nonJews, was not allowed to leave home from evening to sunrise. There was a threat of the death penalty for each transgression of the directives. The nonJewish population was threatened with severe punishment, including the death penalty, for helping Jews and for having contact with them.
The Judenrat in Jezierna
When the Germans organized the Judenrat, no one knew what kind of role they had set for it. It was thought that it would be like the former kehilla [organized Jewish community]. Therefore, there were candidates, even members of the clergy who wanted to be on the Judenrat. A merchant became a speaker, the owner of a leather shop became a postmaster, a shoykhet [ritual slaughterer] a policeman, a student a police commandant (also coachman) and so on.
The Chairman of the Judenrat was named Lander. Originally from Kozlow, he married a Jezierna woman, had owned a fabric shop. As he had been an Austrian corporal during the First World War, he was a most acceptable candidate. The Contact Man was Nunya Paket, also an acceptable candidate. The provisions expert was Nuske Paket. There also was a postal chief, a metrical [vital records] expert, a labor and deployment expert, a finance expert, a storeroom man and members with roles and without roles.
The role of the man in charge of the storeroom was to gather the clothing of the murdered, to sort them after an aktzia [action, usually a deportation] the best was given to the Germans and to transfer the worn out [clothing] to the local administrative official to sell to the peasants. The ordnungdienst [Jewish ghetto police] with the former student Wechsler as commandant was the implementation organ of the Judenrat. They did not have any weapons but whips, with which they would 'encourage' the campJews as well as the locals.
The khevra kadisha [burial society] and the khevra nosay hamita [society of pallbearers] had their hands full with work and particularly after every aktzia. The two who served on the Judenrat were: Judge Tseimer and engineer Steinberg. As I have already noted, the Judenrat was responsible to the regime for the deeds of every Jew, for every crime, transgressions against the edicts (buying bread from a peasant was considered a crime). It also was the only representative of the Jews before the rulers. They alone were in contact with the chairman or the contact man; any other Jew did not have access. The Judenrat had to supply jewelry, gold, diamonds, money, coffee, vouchers, expensive men's and women's furs for each request. This, the Judenrat extracted from the Jews.
Every demand was accompanied by a threat that if they did not provide a contribution in a timely manner, they would be shot. Except for certain individuals, the Judenrat council members in Jezierna as well as the ordnungdienst men participated in the aktzias, seizing Jews and deporting them to Belzec. The members of the Judenrat in Jezierna also considered themselves better than the other Jews, a sort of ‘ruling class’. They had access to the chief of the camp; the chief knew them; they would meet with other Germans, which a simple Jew would not be able to do; they spoke to the rulers without fear. Other Jews would escape and hide from the chief or from other Germans. However, a Gestapoman or S.S.man would often enter the Judenrat office and demand something and they immediately shrank, quickly complying with the demand and, as a thank you, they often received a few blows; this would even happen to the Chairman.
The Hitler regime demoralized the people. A Jew who was known as a respectable person changed. A religious official could sacrifice his family just to remain alive himself… The strong desire to remain alive led a person to act inhumanly without regard for others.
The Methods of Liquidation
The liquidation methods were the same everywhere: forced labor, deportations, imprisonment and labor camps, murder and gassing in the gas chambers. According to statistics, approximately 20,000 Jews were annihilated in Jezierna. The murderers systematically liquidated the shtetl. Heavy physical labor 1214 hours daily without food typhus and other serious illnesses decreased the number of Jews. When the Jews of Jezierna were expelled to Zborow in July 1942, there were only about 1,000 Jews. I will yet write about the methods.
I already have stressed that an order arrived to drive out the Jews, confine them in a ghetto to be able to liquidate them more quickly. The murderers hurried; they had no time. The Judenrat in Jezierna spread the news that Chief Diga would intervene so that the decree would be rescinded, but it would cost 100,000 zlotes. This amount was quickly brought. The gold was taken, but the Jews were driven out. Our family too paid 5,000 zlotes, which were lost. In addition to the Jews in the labor camp of which Diga was the chief, 50 men and 50 women remained in two separate camps. They had paid very well for this.
From that time on the fate of the Jezierna Jews was bound to the fate of the Zborower Jews.
The Jezierna Jews in Zborow
The Jezierna Jews were housed five to six families in a room in Zborow. That came to about two square meters per person. Illnesses broke out in such density; people fell like flies. In addition, there were aktzias and hard physical labor; this all led to the final liquidation. Diga liquidated the Jews in the camps and from the two separate camps in Jezierna a few months later. Thus, Jezierna became Judenrein [clean of Jews].
The Labor Camp in Jezierna
Forced labor was one of the means of exterminating the Jews. However, it was easier to accomplish with the Jews who were imprisoned in the camps. The conditions created in the camps led more quickly to their objective. Slaughtering of the camp inmates, the heavy punishments, beatings, hunger, being shot for every trifle, all of this quickly brought the liquidation of the camp Jews. The camp was large in scope: the Jews from Borszczow [Borschiv], Czortkow [Chortkiv], Zaleszczyk [Zalischyky], Jagielnica [Yahil'nytsya], Monasterzyska [Monastyrys'ka], Podhajce [Pidhaitsi] as well as from the Jezierna area would be brought here. There were thousands of refugees in the cities and shtetlekh then. Jezierna was widely known.
The camp was a unit unto itself. It had security officers, a cook, a khevra kadisha [burial society], an attic and a cellar and a post for a gallows outside. Diga would place several people in the cellar, others in the attic and they died there. He would hang some on the post and he would place some outside during the winter, naked in the frost, until they froze. And if one had particular merit, he beat him with a whip until he died.
Two groups in Jezierna made use of Jewish workers: the streetbuilding group, Organizacion Tod [death organization] and the railroadbuilding group, whose leader in Jezierna was Engineer Jankowski, a Pole.
Dozens of Jews would die each day doing physically difficult work in the street and with the railroad, almost without food. Every day local Jews, that is noncamp Jews, also would go to work along with the camp Jews. The distribution of this work was done by the Judenrat. Every worker had an arbetausweis [labor identity card], but there was a separate labor identity card for Jews.
Diga, the camp chief, had a good income; he would receive gifts, money from the Judenrat, ransom money from rich Jews, who found themselves in the camp. He would arrange sprees, drinking and orgies. He left the shtetl after the liquidation of the camps in Jezierna.
The Inquisition, the pogroms and pogromists are wellknown in our history. The times changed; the murderers also changed and with them also the methods and the terminology. New words (terms, concepts) were created: Final Solution of the Jewish Question, Aktzionen [deportations], gas chambers. However, the results remained the same.
Typhus, cholera, all sorts of other illnesses, heavy physical labor all of this gave the khevra kadisha a great deal to do. However, the statistics show that the liquidation took place slowly. Jews fell like flies, but there still were many Jews and the murderers would hold aktzias from time to time without explanation: grab Jews on the street and simply shoot them. But there must be order! Therefore, before each aktzia, the murderers would inform the county Judenrat in Zborow as to what kind of consignment they needed, that is, according to the plan, how many Jews they intended to shoot to death, with a pretext that they were taking only those who had become a burden to society the sick, the old, those incapable of work and small children. Then, the chairman or a delegate from the regional Judenrat would go with them, giving official notice to the local Judenrat, demanding that the members of the Judenrat and the ordnungdienst help them. Everyone immediately went out to grab Jews. What happened further is known. When they reached their consignment, they left the shtetl. After the aktzia, the murderers told them to pay for the bullets they had used and also for the trouble they took during the aktzia. Whoever could, and had a place, would hide either in a bunker or with a welcoming gentile, if they wanted to take him in, or ran away to the forest or into a field. There he would wait out the slaughter, not always succeeding. Each unfortunate one who fell into their hands would be shot on the spot or taken to a collection point, lead to the cemetery, where a mass grave had been prepared, stood naked in a row, each one shot with a bullet in the back, given a kick on the backside and thrown into the pit, not looking if someone was still alive or not. Thus, they often threw into the grave people who still were alive.
At the first aktzias, they would carry out selections before the shooting: healthy Jews capable of working, artisans and those protected by the Judenrat were freed. There were no selections at the later aktzias. Everyone who came into their hands was murdered. Here in Jezierna as in other cities and shtetlekh, during the executions, local women would gather at the cemetery to watch as the naked Jews were shot. As I have mentioned, the khevra kadisha would gather the dead in the streets, take them to the cemetery, bury them in a communal grave and then one of them would say Kaddish [prayer for the dead].
The warehousekeeper of the Judenrat would fill the warehouse with the clothing of those murdered. When the murderers fulfilled their consignment, they would stop the aktzia and inform the central [office] by telegraph. There were places where the Judenrat had specific work. It had a complete list of candidates for each aktzia. This truly was precise work. I do not know if the Jezierna Judenrat was completely precise [in their work]. I think not. In addition to this form of aktzia, there was another form. Murderers would come to the shtetl and grab Jews according to a designated consignment with the help of the local Jewish organizations There must be order! and they were sent to Belzec to be annihilated in the gas chambers there. The Jews caught in Jezierna would be taken to Zborow by auto. There was a collection point there for those grabbed throughout the area. At the train station they were crowded into waiting freight cars and sent to Belzec. Many of the deportees died on the way. There also were those who jumped from the trains in the middle of the ride and were either killed by the guard who shot at them or murdered by the Ukrainians. Chaim Steiger jumped out of the vehicle on the way to Zborow and although the policemen shot at him, he successfully escaped and returned to Jezierna. A truly courageous act! However, he perished in a later aktzia.
The final liquidation included all of the remaining Jews, even those who were in the camps. There were places where the Jews carried out a resistance. There also was an attempt at resistance against the murderers in Jezierna during the liquidation of the men's camp. The murderers entered the camp and dragged the Jews from it. They were taken to the cemetery and shot there. No one said Kaddish for them. Jewish Jezierna ceased to exist.
In JuneJuly 1944 Jezierna became an important strategic position, during the great advance of the Soviet Army and during the retreat of the defeated German Army. Difficult battles took place here; the civilian population was evacuated and many Jezierna Poles went to Berezan to the Polish Aid Committee and did not know that Klinger's soninlaw had confirmed that they were Poles who had been expelled from Jezierna.
The group of surviving Jews from the former Jezierna spread to the four corners of the world; several settled in Israel.
(Eikhah) [Book of Lamentations]
All her people are sighing [as] they search for bread; they gave away their treasures for food to revive the soul. [Book of Lamentations 1:11]
My eyes are spent with tears, my innards burn; my heart is poured out in grief over the destruction of the daughter of my people, while infants and sucklings faint in the streets of the city. [Book of Lamentations 2:11]
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