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[Page 202]

Memories from the Days of the Holocaust

by Reuven Yemenik

Translated by Sara Mages

When the Holocaust, which destroyed thousands of Jewish communities and most of the Jewish population, descended on the magnificent European Jewry, in that black period I lived in the city of Sompolno near Kolo. The Germans entered the city on the morning of Rosh Hashanah 5700. In the early morning hours we prayed in private homes and guards stood outside during the blowing of the Shofar for fear that the Germans would notice us. All the private prayer houses were filled to capacity. Everyone, men, women and a lot of youth, felt the fear of judgment of that day and knew what those damn Nazis were capable of doing. Everyone prayed in tears and emotions and felt the meaning of the requests - “Zochreinu L'chaim” [“Remember us for Life”], “Unetaneh tokef[1] Mi Yichye” [“Who shall Live”], etc. On the first day, and also on the second, the prayers were held without interruption because the Germans were still busy with their arrangements and their organization in the city. After the prayer we went home separately so as not to attract the attention of the Germans and the Polish informers. The Jewish stores were open by the order of the temporary German governor.

On the Saturday after Rosh Hashanah the Germans started to catch Jews in the streets and also from their homes for forced labor. They brought them to the courtyard of City Hall and sorted them for various jobs in the city and outside it. It is important to know that then, at the beginning, before the establishment of Jewish committee and a Judenrat, absolute lawlessness prevailed in this area. Those who were captured went to work, and those who managed to hide remained at home until a Jewish Committee was organized under the leadership of Mr. Plotzki the owner of the flour mill. Later he became the head of the Judenrat and the mediator between the Gestapo and the Jews. The organizer of the work was a Jew named Vart. The Jewish Committee, who had a special building for its operation, prepared lists workers. Those, whose names appeared on the list, were notified the day before that they had to report for work in the courtyard of the Jewish Committee building. From there each person was sent to work in the city for the “Volksdeutsche” [ethnic Germans] or outside the city in excavation, cleaning the roads and more, and woe to the man who didn't report on that day. He was brutally beaten by the Gestapo and was forced to work for a long time even if his name wasn't included in the list. Here I have to describe the fifth day, the day before Yom Kippur Eve which, at that time, fell on the Sabbath. On this day, in the afternoon, the Gestapo announced that all the Jewish men must gather in the market square in front of the City Hall and those, who wouldn't appear, will be shot. The fear was great because no one knew what these murderers plotted to do. At the fixed hour, hundreds of men, young and old, gathered in the designated area. No one was missing. The Germans searched all the homes but couldn't find anyone. A high ranking Gestapo officer stood on the tall steps of the municipality building and next to him stood many “Volksdeutsche” and the new German mayor. Various papers were scattered on the table. The Gestapo officer held a whip in his hand and S.S. men, who held machine guns in their hands, surrounded the Jews. We were sure that that they will be given an order to kill all the Jews, but silence prevailed and the Gestapo officer started to address the Jews: “Your dignity has ended, from today you will work with shovels and pitchforks,

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those who own a store or a business must liquidate it within a short period of time, and all of you will work for us the Germans. Damned Jews! Up to now you've cheated us and sucked our blood and bone marrow.” Now he poured a heap of scorn, insults and curses on the Jews who stood quietly in their disgrace without uttering a word. A member of his entourage, a “Volksdeutsche,” pointed at a Jew by the name of Gershon Czerniak hy”d. He was a highly respected rich Jew who owned an iron shop in the market. The Nazi told the officer that this Jew cursed Hitler's name. The officer consulted with the new mayor and asked for his opinion. The latter replied that he knew Czerniak and that he was a decent and honest man. Then the Gestapo officer said that he respects the mayor's opinion, and if not - he would have ordered to kill the Jew on the spot and ordered the Jews to scatter and run to their homes… The Poles, who stood around the market, laughed about what had happened to the Jews and accompanied them shouting, swearing and cursing. The Jews were saved this time. The Germans broke into the homes and with brutal beating looted everything in sight - furniture, household items, blankets, clothes, furs and everything of value. From the shops they've looted fabrics, shoes, foodstuffs, tobacco, tea and rice, and left the Jews naked and destitute. They moved the Jews to small crowded apartments and gave their apartments to the “Volksdeutsche.” They also took the business, shops and warehouses from the Jews and gave them to the Germans. The suffering reached its peak, there was nothing to live on and the Jews starved. There were constant searches and Jews were abducted for work day and night. In the winter of 1940 the Jews worked in cleaning the railway near the city of Konin. We worked for two days, day and night, without food or drink. We only ate what we had brought with us. The Jews sold the property that they had managed to hide to their Polish neighbors - jewelry, clothing or merchandise from the stores that the Germans closed or seized. The Jewish Committee organized small food rations of milk and sugar for the Jewish families. There wasn't a designated ghetto but the number of apartments was reduced and the crowding and the density were great. The transports to labor camps in Germany began in the summer of 1941. The first transport of several hundred young and old men to a labor camp in Germany took place in the month of Tamuz 5701- August 1941. Everyone gathered in the courtyard of the Jewish Committee and the Jews, whose names appeared on the list, were sent accompanied by policemen and “Volksdeutsche” to the train station in the city of Sompolno. Women and children stood around the train station's fence and their heart-rending cries accompanied their loved ones who were sent to the labor camp. The transport left for the nearby city of Kolo where they slept on the Great Synagogue's floor. From there they we were sent to Posen [Poznań] and to other camps. The second transport, that I was in, left on 9 Av 5701 [22 August 1941] and took the same route as the first. On the next day, at dusk, we arrived to Zbąszyń camp near the old border of Poland and Germany where the German Jews, who were expelled from Germany in 1938, were being held by the Germans. We were there for a day and met part of of the first transport from Sompolno. On the next day the Germans carried out a selection - some stayed in Zbąszyń and some were sent to the labor camp in Buchwarder-Forest near Posen. There, we met a large group of Jews who arrived at the beginning of the summer from Lodz. They held the various jobs in the camp like: the deputy of the camp's leader,

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the heads of the barracks, the kitchen managers and the cooks, the leaders of the work outside the camp, the distributers of the work in the camp, clinic, in the barrack of those who peeled potato and more. The Jews, who arrived from Sompoln, also received a number of jobs because the camp's population has grown and the number of meals increased. The situation of the veteran Jews, who came from Lodz, had improved because the newcomers from Sompolno and other cities in the Kolo district like: Kłodawa, Dambia [Dąbie] received food parcels from home. The Jews from Lodz didn't receive food parcels because of the great famine in the ghetto. Most of the time we didn't eat the food from the camp's kitchen, and the Jews from Lodz received more food from the kitchen and also a portion from our food parcels. Most of the work was done outside the camp in the construction of the Reichsautobahn [the German motorway] which was called R.A.B. in short. The Germans wanted to build a fast road, a wide road with a boulevard in the middle, from the city of Danzig [Gdańsk] through Posen [Poznań] to Berlin. The Jews leveled the ground which passed through forests, fields, lakes, rivers, villages and cities. We worked from dawn to dusk with wheelbarrows and wagons. We uprooted trees and rocks, worked in the sand and in the earth, in the swamps and in the water. It was a hard work under the supervision of the evil German foremen, under blows, insults, curses and shouts. The Jews returned to the camp in the evening tired and exhausted and received a meager food ration of thin soup of potatoes and carrots, and a piece of bread with or without margarine. They got up at four in the morning for black coffee and a little bread, and left for work at five under the supervision of the foremen. It was a labor camp without the S.S. only elderly Germans maintained the order at work and in the camp, but the camp was surrounded by barbed wire. The commander of the camp was a German named Stupengel who wasn't mean or cruel. Unlike in other camps he didn't beat or cursed and was better than the others, but there were two cruel German foremen there. The first was Resel who was cruel and sadistic. Almost every day a Jew, who was beaten and tortured by him during the hard work, was brought back to the camp. The second was Novek. He didn't hit but he forced the Jews to work fast and didn't let them rest for even one minute. Working for him was like the hard work in Egypt. The Jews worked without rest and ran with wheelbarrows full of dirt, sand and stones. On the first day I worked for the cruel Nazi Resel, but when I saw the brutal blows that he had inflicted on the Jews I moved to work for Novek without anyone noticing it. Before sunrise, when it was still dark outside, I joined those who worked for Novek and was saved from his cruel blows. A few weeks later I became ill at work, and under the recommendation of the camp's doctor I moved to the potato peelers barrack where I worked under the supervision of a Jew named Kroshinsky from Sompolno. On Chanukah of the same year, 5702 -1942, the Germans brought two Jews from a nearby camp - an adult named Yakov Friedman from Zichlin and a teenager named Neta Piaskowsky from the city of Bełchatów. The Germans accused them that they walked out of the camp to ask for food, and hung them in front all the people in the camp.

In 5702, before the holiday of Passover, they transferred us to Küstrin camp about sixty kilometers from Berlin. There, we worked in a factory that manufactured cardboard, paper, oils and turpentine. The first shift worked from six in the morning to six in the evening, and the second shift from six in the evening to six in the morning. Relatively, it was an easier work than the work in the previous camp. On Passover, of that year I received a package and a letter from

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my parents. It was the last letter because on 7 Iyar 5702-24 April 1942, they were taken by the Germans to the Christian Church and from there to Chełmno extermination camp. Then, the Germans liquidated the remaining Jews in the city of Przedecz. May the Lord avenge their blood. On 16 Shevat 5702, I received the last letter from Sompolno. They wrote me that everyone was taken to the big movie theatre near the train station, and from there they were sent for extermination in Chełmno. From Küstrin-Neustadt we were transferred to Fosstenbürg near the Oder River where we worked outside the camp until August 1943.

On Passover 5703-1943, after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Germans decided to liquidate all the open camps and transfer the Jews to camps that were surrounded by an electric fence and were under the strict observation of the S.S. We were transferred from Fursstenberg camp through the Liibbenau camp to Auschwitz where everyone received a tattooed number on his arm. I received the number 142047 with the Jewish mark, which was half a Star of David, below the number. In Auschwitz I was in the Krentin Block from August to the end of September 1942. I was transferred to Birkenau where the crematoriums and the gas chambers were located. From Birkenau I was transferred back to Auschwitz and from there I was sent to Jaworzno camp (here, I have write a lot about my life in these camps, but, this isn't the place for it). In Jaworznom most of the prisoners worked in the coal mine. The rest, about six thousand Jewish, Russian, and Polish prisoners worked in the construction of a huge power plant which was supposed to serve the entire district of Silesia, but the Germans didn't finish the construction of this plant. On 15 January 1945, when the Russians got closer the city of Krakow and to Auschwitz, and Auschwitz was also bombed, the Germans liquidated the camp, took most of the prisoners with them and retreated to Germany. Only those who managed to hide and the sick remained. After a long walk through impassable roads, forests and fields we arrived to the city of Beuthen and from there to Blechhammer. We stayed there for three days and then we were sent to Gross-Rosen - a terrible camp with all the cruelty of the Nazis. We walked under the strict observance of the S.S. who shot those who lagged a little, and the entire road was littered with the bodies of Jewish prisoners. On March 1945, we were transferred from Gross-Rosen to Buchenwald concentration camp. From there I was sent to Berga an der Elster labor camp to work in the quarry. I was there for about two weeks. After I became seriously ill I was sent back to Buchenwald together with other patients. On Wednesday, 28 Nisan 5705, 11 April 1945, American soldiers captured the camp and I was liberated on that day. After the liberation we were transferred to the city of Landsberg. A year later I moved, together with several hundred Jews to Italy, and from there I sailed on the illegal immigrant ship “Kaf Gimel Yordei Ha'Sira”[2] to Eretz Yisrael. The British caught us in the middle of the sea and transferred us to a detention camp in Cyprus. After six months in Cyprus I was transferred to the detention camp in Atlit and later to Kiryat Shmuel near Haifa. After I was released from there I built, with God's help, a new home and a new life in Israel.

Translator's footnotes

  1. The piyyut, or sacred poem, “Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom” (“Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day”), is recited on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur.   Return
  2. Kaf Gimel Yordei Ha'Sira” - the “23 Who Went Down at Sea.” The ship was named in honor of the 23 members of the “Haganah” whose launch disappeared at sea during a mission to Tripoli, Lebanon, in the service of the British Army against the Vichy French Forces. Return


 

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Shabbat in Town

by Moshe Bilevski

Translated by Sara Mages

Dedicated to the memory of
My father Mendel Wolf Bilevski z”l
My mother Chane Sara z”l
My sister Breina z”l
My sister Balzia z”l
My brother Leibel z”l
Who perished in the Holocaust, hy”d

In general, it's possible to say that Przedecz was a city of workers and small trades who worked hard all week for their livelihood.

When Friday afternoon arrived it was possible to feel the change in the atmosphere. The Sabbath Queen is approaching!

Each family prepared its own challot and baked them in the bakery. Families, that their income was limited, ate what they ate during the week and tried, for the honor of the Sabbath, to prepare food that will bring a spiritual atmosphere to their home. Obviously, there were families who lived off comfortably and were able to afford large expensive fish, and there were families who could barely afford sardines at a cheap price, but still, they were fish for the Sabbath.

It's Friday afternoon, the housewife, with the help of her older daughters, is still busy with the last preparations. The men go to immerse in the mikveh.

The last hour before the beginning of the Sabbath is approaching, and the cholent is taken from most of the Jewish homes to the bakery. And here is Itche Kawalski, the town's Shanash [beadle], and with a wooden hammer in his hand he knocks on the doorposts of the houses to speed up those who are late with their final preparations for the Sabbath.

A tremble passes through those who haven't yet finished, fast, or, God Forbid. I will desecrate the Sabbath.

And now the Shanash is calling - “Light the candles!” He stands on his tiptoes at every crossroad so it would also be possible to see and hear in the high heaven how a Jewish community is welcoming the Sabbath, and it's also a sign that all the preparations have reached their end.

The appearance of the town has changed and peace and moderation reigned in all.

The housewife is wearing her Sabbath dress and her head is covered with a scarf. She lights the Sabbath candles and blesses them with great deliberation. Now, the men and the boys are leaving the house dressed in their Sabbath clothes, some in the direction of the synagogue, some to Beit HaMidrash and some to “Hevrat Tehillim” [Psalms society], for the Kabbalat Shabbat [welcoming the Shabbat] prayer. The streets come to new life, to life of serenity and gentleness. With darkness the Sabbath candles shine through the windows. Oh! These Sabbath candles, how much magic

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and how much soul were in them. A sea of teas was shed by our mothers of blessed memory when they lit the candles. They prayed for the welfare of the home, for livelihood with dignity and the health of all the family members.

It happened, that during the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer in Beit HaMidrash one of the latecomers whispered to someone that the light was still on at the barbershop. Immediately, a number of worshipers rushed to the barbershop to punish the desecrators of the Sabbath, buy by the time they arrived it was already dark in the shop and the worshipers returned to Beit HaMidrash.

The prayer ended. At times, Reb Itche the Shanash appeared and with a hand clap on the bimah announced that the eruv[1] is faulty and it's forbidden to take an object from place to place, or, that there are guests in town and it's necessary to invite them for a meal. When the eruv was faulty the children had to bring the Tallit or the Siddur to the synagogue, and also bring the cholent from the bakery. In addition, a single guest wasn't left without a Sabbath meal. The worshipers returned home. After the blessing of “Gut Shabbes” [good Shabbat] they start with the prayer - “Shalom aleichem malachi ha-shalom” [peace upon you the angels of peace], the same angels who accompany every Jew on his way from the synagogue. At the end, the Sabbath prayer, which praised the housewife, wasn't forgotten - “A woman of valor who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value.”

The additional soul, which entered to dwell in every Jewish home on the Sabbath, is noticeable. The table is covered with a white tablecloth and on it are the candlesticks with the flickering Sabbath candles, the two challot that are covered with a special napkin, a wine bottle and the Kiddush Cup which was inherited from a father or a grandfather. All these factors created a festive atmosphere at the house. After the Kiddush the family atmosphere was also felt at the table and during the meal, because for a large part of the townspeople it was the first meal during the week that the whole family sat together and delighted the meal with Sabbath songs.

At the end of the meal, and after Birkat Hamazon, the youth finds himself in meetings of the various associations. Some in “Tzeirei Zion” which conducted an extensive activity among the youth, some in “Betar” or in the Jewish library, and some walk together around the town.

They get up on Sabbath morning and the father reads Shnayim mikra ve-echad targum[2], and revives his heart with a cup of hot tea. And now they hear the voice of the Shanash calling - Enter the Synagogue! The little children want to sleep a little longer, but the eruv is faulty and they have to bring the Tallit to the synagogue. There were also a number of early risers who came early to Beit HaMidrash. Some study a chapter from the Talmud and some read a chapter from Ein Yaakov[3]. At any rate, the voice of the Torah is sounded most of the hours of the day.

Until 1925 there was still a place of prayer for the Ger Hassidim in a rented apartment in the yard of Reb Yeshayahu Zelinki's house, but for financial reasons they were forced to close it. There was no shortage of problems in the Parshiot [Torah passages] “ Bechukotai” [“By my decrees”] and “Ki Thavo” [“When you enter”], and during the reading of the Tochacha [verses of rebuke] they honored one of the wandering poor who agreed to be called to the Torah for a financial compensation. But, if he didn't agree, the Baal Koreh[4] blessed the Parasha and read it to himself quietly. In 1928 the Baal Koreh was Reb Chezkel (Yechezkel) Mordechai Lenchitzki. The worshipers gathered in Beit HaMidrash for a prayer, but he was missing. They started with the Shacharit [morning] prayer, maybe he was late and will arrive by the time of the Torah reading, but the boy was missing. Someone whispered that one of his sons locked him

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in his home to prevent him from reading the Tochacha, and to avoid all kinds of misfortunes which were caused by it. After the delay in the reading of the Torah they found someone who was willing to be called to the Torah for a fair monetary compensation. In addition, he was also given a cart of firewood which was promised to him by my father, Reb Mendel Wolf Bilevski, who was the Gabbai of Beit HaMidrash, and Reb Itche Weiden z”l. Since then, Reb Aharon David Yechimovitz was honored with the reading of the Torah.

Occasionally, the rabbi delayed the reading of the Torah. As we know, the delay of the reading on the Sabbath was a very important way to solve unique and important community issues. When the rabbi, who usually prayed in the synagogue, appeared in Beit HaMidrash for the Sabbath prayer, we knew that something important was at stake. And indeed, after the Shacharit [morning] prayer the rabbi climbed on the bimah and informed the worshipers that he was forced to delay the reading of the Torah because there was a deficit in the education budget, or another important matter such as Hachnasat Kallah [helping a poor bride], and demanded the participation of the worshipers to cover these expenses. Reb Neta Wesrzog stood up and, as it was his custom in such cases, and promised to cover the deficit. The entire congregation joined him and promised to help to the best of their ability. Then, it was allowed to continue with the reading of the Torah and the prayer service.

In the winter, Orbienski, the blind cemetery keeper and the town's “Shabbes Goy” [Sabbath Gentile] passed from house to house on the Sabbath and turned on the heaters that warmed the houses on the Sabbath. On his back he carried a sack and in it he kept the slices of challah that he received from the Jews for his trouble. On the next day he received his payment in cash.

In the afternoon the youth gathered again for activities in the various Zionists organizations. The adults used the time for a short nap because - “It is a joy to rest on a Sabbath.”

A large crowd came to Beit HaMidrash for the Minha [afternoon] prayer.

In “Hevrat Tehillim,” where most of the craftsmen prayed, chapters of Tehillim were read before the Minha prayer. The cantor, who passed before the Holly Ark, was Mr. Michael Hersh Neumark who had a unique tune for the Minha prayer.

All the town's scholars came to the traditional third meal at the rabbi's house. The rabbi uttered the words of the Torah and the ritual slaughterers, R' Shmuel Yamnik and R' Eliyahu Wlter z”l, conducted the singing during the meal. The Sabbath ended with the Maariv [evening] prayer, the lighting of the Havdalah candle and the blessing of “A Gut Voch!” [a good week], and life began to ferment again for a week of new worries

When we came home from Beit HaMidrash after the Maariv prayer, we found our mother z”l on the doorstep whispering the prayer - the plea that is recited at the conclusion of the Sabbath and before the Havdalah blessing.

“God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, protect your beloved people Israel from all hurt, in your love. As the beloved holy Sabbath goes away, that the week, and the month, and the year, should come to us with perfect faith, with faith in the sages, with love and attachment to good friends, to attachment to the blessed Creator, with belief in your thirteen principles of faith, and in the ultimate redemption, may it be soon, and the Resurrection of the dead, and in the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, may he rest in peace.” Amen!

Translator's footnotes

  1. Eruv - a perimeter usually strung on the utility poles (often rope) that combines separate pieces of property into one large parcel. It enables the Jews to observe the traditional Shabbat rules and allowing them to carry children and belongings anywhere inside the perimeter. Return
  2. Shnayim mikra ve-echad targum - “Twice the Torah and once translation” is the Jewish practice of reading the weekly Torah portion in a prescribed manner. In addition to hearing the Torah portion read in the synagogue, a person should read it himself twice during that week together with the translation. Return
  3. Ein Yaakov - a compilation of all the Aggadic (lore) material in the Talmud together with the commentaries. Return
  4. Baal Koreh - master of the reading - is the person who reads the Torah from the scroll in the synagogue. Return

 

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