It began on the day the mobilization of the reserves was announced, one week before the outbreak of World War Two. We suddenly realized we were in grave danger.
Avraham Zaks (Romek), the son of Yehudah and Manya Zaks, was about twenty at the time, and his girlfriend, Luisa, a Jewish refugee from Germany, had told him exactly what awaited us Jews. He did not hesitate for a moment and decided to enlist in the army and fight the enemy of Poles and Jews.
His parents did not object. He rushed over to the draft office, where a long line of men of all ages was waiting, but was sent home and told to wait until he was called. There were many Jews with a secondary education who had the right to serve as junior officers, but they were all sent home.
Romek was disappointed and disheartened; he found no peace in his nerve-wracking inaction.
We were glued to the radio day and night, awaiting a miracle. But a miracle did not occur, and the inevitable happened: war was declared. That night; Friday, September 1st, no one slept. The house was full of guests, relatives, and refugees from Czestochowa who hoped to find refuge from the Nazi occupier.
Romek, pale and nervous, entered his parents' bedroom, and kissed his mother goodbye as if he knew he would not see her again. Which is exactly what happened.. .
The next day, on the Sabbath, everyone in town was scurrying about, peering at the bright blue sky where silvery airplanes were buzzing. Everyone was wondering what those maneuvers meant when a deafening thunder shook the house. As the people huddled around the radio we realized that a bomb had hit our house. A terrible wail was heard in the next room.
We ran into the room and saw a blood-chilling sight. Romek was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. His body was still warm, but he was lifeless.
Someone brought him water and tried to revive him, but the hand holding the glass stopped in mid-air as the person's eyes met the eyes of a doctor who happened by. Romek's soul had departed from his body through the hole in the chest where, a few seconds earlier, his warm heart had been beating.
This is how the terrible war began in Piotrkow. For Yudl Zaks and his wife, Romek's death was also the end.
The burial took place beneath a shower of explosions, during the occupation of the town by the Germans. The expulsion from the house, the methodical robbery of the business, the transfer to the small ghetto and to Treblinka . those were the next stages of death, a prolonged process of dying.
Romek's mother, known for her strong character and intelligence, did not recover from her son's death and could not forgive herself for not sending him to the land of Israel after the departure of her first-born son. The father, a good-hearted and happy man, was destroyed by a heart ailment.
I alone have survived to tell the story of the destruction of this family. After I escaped from the murderers at the end of the war, I immigrated to Israel to join my older brother Aharon.
Editor's Note: Another young man was killed by the same bomb. At the time, he was in the Bernardynski Garden, just across the street from Romek's.balcony. His name was Abraham Wajnrot.
Eliezer Lolek, the son of Joseph Epstein, while a student of the gimnazjum, belonged to the P.W., which was the military preparatory division. When the war broke out, his position was to guard the water station, located far down on Bujnowska Street.
On the second day of the war, while the Germans were bombing the city, some bombs landed on the freight station as well as the water station, where Lolek fell at his post.
We only learned about his death on Sunday night. All the fallen victims were transferred to the Catholic cemetery. The sight of the dead was horrible. Lolek's father, after searching for a long time, could not locate his body. Only on Monday was he found under the rubble of the destroyed building on Buynovska Street. The president at that time said that he would receive a military funeral, as befitted one who gave his life for the Fatherland. His father refused the offer, but asked instead if they would relinquish the body to be buried in the Jewish cemetery. All the father's efforts were futile, but his appeal to the Ray, Rebbi Moshe Chaim Lau ztsl brought the desired results. The Rav immediately sent for Schwartz, the wagoner, and he, together with the father of the fallen soldier, under threat of German airplanes overhead, brought the victim to the Jewish cemetery, where, late that night, he was given a proper Jewish burial dressed in his military uniform.
During the hot summer days of the month of Av, 1940, the Judenrat sent requests to several hundred young people to meet at the gathering place near the Kehila and to bring with them eating utensils, two sets of underwear, work clothes and other small necessities.
150 youths, I among them, lined up one Friday at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. From there we marched, under the strict security of German policemen, to the freight station, where they packed us like animals into freight cars. Only at about 8 P.M. that evening did the train finally begin to move. The resounding strains of Hatikvah suddenly broke out in all the cars of the transport. Courageously and proudly the youths sang the Jewish national anthem as it had never in their lives been sung. So we travelled along, or, to state more accurately, we dragged along for three days and three nights, until we arrived in Belzec (in 1941 that camp was converted into a death camp for Jews of Galicia and Lublin).
The following day we Piotrkower were transferred to Cieszanow. We walked the 30 kilometers.
The Obersturmfuhrer Dolf, may his name be blotted out, was truly an animal, and not one of us escaped his bestial beatings.
The camp was located in an area that had been bombed, across from the large Bet Haknesset. There were more than 5,000 Jews in the camp: from Warsaw, Siedlce, Czestochowa and other cities. We had to rise at 5 A.M. The first shift worked from 6 to 12 and the second shift, from 12 to 6. The work consisted of digging trenches near the Russian border.
We marched to work lined up in rows. In addition, we were made to sing for the entire time that we marched, and the SS men who accompanied us on the left and right kept beating us and also shooting into our ranks. The camp leader was a man called Glinatzky. and his assistant was named Goldbloom, but he surely brought no honor to the Jewish people.
Each time we were admonished that if one of us were to dare to escape to the Russians, five of us would be shot. One fine morning, a Piotrkower named Kaczka crossed the Russian line; an alarm was sounded and a tumult ensued. The head count indicated that one of the group was indeed missing. They took us aside and an SS officer, riding on a white horse, ordered five of our group to be shot. A group of 1920-year-old friends did not break. But the younger ones, such as the Kozlowski brothers, Diamant and others were crying hysterically. That day, in fact, I was the group leader.
Tsvi Bladi (now residing in America), Avrom Eisen (now living in Israel) and I approached the officer and asked him to take the three of us and let it suffice. It appeared that the officer was surprised by the way we reacted. He scrutinized us from our heads to our feet and announced: You are brave Jews. Why don't you all return to camp. We went back singing so loudly that the heavens seemed to split. Later the writer of these lines received 50 zlotys as an award from the Kehila in Piotrkow.
The day following the above-mentioned occurrence was a sad one because, at the order of Dolf, Blumsztajn, the first victim among our Piotrkower, was shot.
We worked in Cieszanow until Sukkoth, after which we were transferred to Dzikow Nowy, Dzikow Stary, where we remained until January 1941. Then we were freed to return to Piotrkow.
Editors Note: The conditions in these places were dreadful. Hard labor from dawn to dusk whippings and shootings. The most meager food rations and lack of elementary, sanitary facilities completed the scenario of living hell.
The gallant man who helped free the boys was Solomon Gomberg, emissary from Piotrkow. Due to his bravery, eloquence and initiative, he somehow was successful in obtaining the release of our young men and bringing them home to Piotrkow.
The sirens wailed, the bombers skimmed the rooftops, and in the streets people were running, bending their heads in panic.
When the smoke settled, the youngsters of Piotrkow suddenly discovered that the joyful event of the first day of school did not exist anymore. The bloody banner with a fierce black eagle clutching the swastika was fluttering over every school building in town now occupied by German soldiers.
In addition to the atrocities and bestialities inflicted by the Nazis, the young generation faced a strange dilemma. There was nothing to do other than hide from the oppressors, to play cards and gamble. Demoralization spread slowly. Former students were involved in the black market and smuggling, and smoked cigarettes. Education, essential for the young, leading to wider horizons and molding characters, was desperately needed.
It seemed that no one cared. Soon, however, the teachers of Piotrkow started an immense campaign of useful action. They were eager to continue practicing their noble profession and to be productive again. And, most of the youngsters were thirsty for knowledge and eager to learn.
My recollection of the illegal classes begins with my mother introducing me to a petite, lovely woman. Magister Hela Rosenbaum was a lyceum teacher from Warsaw. She rented one of our rooms and, in exchange, I became her student.
My curriculum was that of the second year of high school. Soon we were a group of eight students. The studies were based on the 1938/39 educational program.
The rooftop room was small but spotless, with a curved ceiling and a narrow windowa typical attic. A large table stood in the middle of the room; the small blackboard hung against the teacher's bed, always ready to be removed and hidden in case of a raid. In this tiny room, Hela Rosenbaum opened to us the wide and wonderful world of knowledge. She made us feel equal to all the youngster who were free. She placed us on the same level as the outside world.
She taught every subject: Literature and History; Latin and Mathematics; Physics and Hebrew. We all felt that such learning added something important to our understanding, to our capacity for growth and, above all, to our sense of freedom and dignity.
It took six months to absorb a full school year's program. Homework became an immense pleasure. In class, everyone felt privileged to respond to questions. This was really great and true education.
Hela Rosenbaum soon joined forces with two other teachers: Mgr. Eugenia Rosenzweig, a former pedagogue of the Jewish Gimnasjum in Piotrkow, and Mme. Eichner from Warsaw. They soon started full-scale education for several classes. Each one of the teachers taught the subjects that she had taught before the war. An average class of approximately ten pupils went to the teachers' homes on a rotating basis. For example, on Monday to Mgr. Rosenbaum for Algebra, Geometry, Hebrew, and Latin; on Tuesday to Mgr. Rosenzweig for Polish Literature, German, and Social Studies; on Wednesday to Mme. Eichner for History, Physics, Chemistry, and so on.
Rozycka-Rozenzweig and Hela Rosenbaum.
(from the bottom) Fredek Erlich (now in France),
Julek Miller (now somewhere in Australia),
Rutka Horowicz-Kriger (now in Israel), Heniek Hendel
(now in Israel), and Lolek Altman. They all wear armbands.
Who remembers the names of the others? . . .
(Mrs. Rozycka, now retired, lives in Jerusalem.
She worked for 20 years in Yad Vashem.)
The teachers worked all day and succeeded in serving five or six different classes during this time. They also taught students on a public school level the younger kids who also needed schooling. Their tuition was modest. Some students that could not afford the tuition were taught gratis.
This was the ghetto. Conspiracy was essential. Every false move invited serious consequences. We were told to enter the teaching places one by one, to carry our notebooks under our clothes. Textbooks were scarce and therefore, cherished and shared. We had to be careful not to say anything to anybody connected with the Germans. Sometimes, we had to stop in the middle of a class session and disperse rapidly when the SS was raiding the block.
But the feeling of friendship among the students and the relations between the students and the teachers were rewarding indeed. We felt gratitude for their devotion and their guidance. They taught us how to read. They told us what to read. And when, on our way to school, we passed other youngsters walking aimlessly through the streets or hurrying to play cards or billiards, we experienced a sense of productivity and usefulness.
|Little boys in the ghetto|
There were other teachers engaged in underground education in Piotrkow: Natalie Stern, Miriam Bialowas, Ala Englard, Stefek Rosenbauam, Rachell Makowska, Ela Sztybel, Eva Kurtz, Sara Szepska, Mme. Bornstein, Renia Zaks and many others.
In 1940, during one of the breathing spells in the ghetto when the Nazis weren't pushing so hard, the teachers, with the help of Zalman Tenenberg, the first chairman of the Judenrat (deported later to Auschwitz for illegal activities), organized a Kiermasz (bazaar). The artistic evening took place at the Joseph Hertz auditorium and the proceeds were designated for Winterhelp. The event was one of the brightest spots in our burdened lives. The auditorium was decorated as during the good old school days before the war. The artistic part was unforgettable. I still remember my fellow students: Ada Makowska reciting Bialik in Hebrew; Szymek Librach reciting Piotr Plaksin and Dancing Socrates of Tuwim; Edzia Orbach doing a sketch. A dramatization of Antski's Day and Night with songs and dances was also presented. Ala Braun did pantomime. Zosia and Jakubek Bomstein played the piano. The people were thrilled and the true value of education suddenly emerged. Alas! This was the only major artistic event in the ghetto. Awful times zeroed in closely and inevitably upon the community.
In 1942 the older boys faced forced labor. I went to work at the Hortensia glass factory. My world of studies collapsed. Hela Rosenbaum, the teacher, attempted to teach me after working hours. This attempt, however, proved futile. It was impossible, after ten hours of hard work, to study seriously. Until this day, I fondly cherish the memory of a dedicated educator and wonderful human being, who ended her life in Treblinka.
A few of my fellow students survived. This is not the place to recall the many moving stories of courage, human valor, and mortal struggle. Sometimes, however, I do recall some of the names of those who did not survive. A piercing memory of awfully nice kids: Hania, Brams, Stefka Brandwein, Olek Goldberg, Halinka Najkron, Helka Danielewicz, Hanka Horowicz, Adas Zylberminc, Ziuta Sladowska, Moniek Tarko, Chawka Kon, Sewka Janowska, Lalek Russ, Eva Litmanowicz, Niusia Rosental . . .
The following words of Thornton Wilder suddenly become very significant: This is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning. . .
As I see it, underground education during the era of German tyranny was one of the nicer chapters in the history of the Holocaust. There is the fascinating truth about the uprisings. There are the poems and stories of the ghetto, which are important historical documents. There are also records written by lost men and women, and awful indictment cast at humanity. But at least, in chapters such as the above, one finds a ray of hope which, like a lonely star, shines over the somber wilderness of the Nazi jungle.
The speaker of Radio Moskva was greeting the new year of 1941 when Zelmek Horowicz wrote this letter from Poniewiez, in the Vilno area, to his sister Ceska Warzager in Palestine. There, she, her husband Motek and brother Salek experienced their dream of Chalutziuth.
Zelmek, a young lad and a Hashomer Hatzair himself, fled the Nazis, as other young people did, he found himself with his Hachsharah in the Vilno area, at this time under the Lithuanian regime.
Zelmek's letter reflects thus the present problems and future dangers ahead for the Jewish people. He writes about the bad news from the Piotrkow Ghetto. He writes about family and friends from Piotrkow who were sent to Siberia, who landed in Warsaw, the Ukraine or France.
The article by Jerry Bengal (on page 210) provides the background of groups of young Shomrim who tried to reach the promised land. Almost all of them were later murdered by the Nazis.
This group of Shomrim in Poniewiez was the flower of the youth. Among them were individuals such as Mordchai Anielewicz, Tosia Altman, Joseph Kaplan and Arieh Wilner all in the leadership of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Mordchai and some of the others were sent to Warsaw by the Behazith group from Poniewiez.
The letter is an interesting study of a turbulent time. It expresses the feeling of the concerns of an intelligent young man caught in the trap of history.
|Zelmek Horowicz and Szlamek Zauer,
Panevezys (Poniewiez), 1940
At the start of the war, September 1939, we were in Radom in kibbutz Hachshara Behazit. There were six Piotrkower. By the third day of the war, we had been walking under German bombs and machine guns, without food or water, toward Lublin, Kovel and then to Rovno. This was quite an experience. When the Russian occupant came to the Western Ukraine, we received instructions to proceed to Vilno and with the hope for future Aliah and escape to freedom.
In Bialystok, we met Mordchai Anielewicz and his group from Warsaw; then together we traveled to Vilno.
Meanwhile, the Lithuanians got the Vilno region from the Russians in exchange for military bases.
At that time, a Rikuz of 1000 Shomrim was created in Vilno, organized by the kibbutzim and led by the Hanhaga. There, contact with our people in Palestine was established. The American Joint was also starting to help. Some Chalutzim managed to make Aliah. Some members of Bund were successful in reaching the shores of America.
I remember the heated discussions in the Rikuz regarding the young generation in the Polish Ghettoes, and especially the Ghetto of Warsaw. It was then resolved that Shomer Hatzair, as a youth organization, was obligated to send leaders into the Ghettoes and not to abandon the children and youngsters to despair. As a result, Mordchai Anielewicz, Tosia Altman, Joseph Kaplan and others were sent through various borders back to Poland.
Later, they were all leaders of the resistance, with Mordchai as the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
In 1940, kibbutz Bechazit was forced by Lithuanians to leave Vilno and to go to Panevezys, deep in Lithuania. There a new kibbutz Hachshara was built based on our principles of work, Hebrew culture and Zionistic ideas.
The enclosed photo was taken in Panevezys (Poniewiez). The following Chalutzim from Piotrkow are, from left: Szymek Wegliszewski, Zelmek Horowicz, Zlata Rosenblum, Shlomo Rubin, Jerry Wegliszewski-Bengall and Szlamek Zauer.
Standing from the left: Szymek Wegliszewski,
Zelmek Horowicz, Zlata Rosenbaum, Szlomo Rubin,
Jerry Wegliszewski-Bengall (the only survivor), and Szlamek Zauer
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