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6. The Judenrat and its Institutions

After the pogrom, the shtetl was in shock. The Jews could not recover after such unspeakable experiences. The Ukrainians became the masters of the town and their vicious behavior continued to terrify the Jews. Each day hundreds of Jews were dragged off to do hard labor and in the process they were beaten and insulted.

Naively, the Ukrainians believed that their time had come. Under the protective wings of “Hitler the Liberator,” young and old strove to join the militia and other administrative offices of the future Ukraine. Once established in their new positions, each tried to outdo the others in patriotism, expressed through hatred of Jews, and by beating and kicking the Jews, their neighbors and former friends. In this way they hoped to gain status in the eyes of their German “liberators.”

A certain Nikolaj Bilyk was chosen from among the local Ukrainian activists to rule over the Jews. By the second week after the pogrom he had authorized the former cattle dealer, Leibisz Degen (to whom he was partial, due to their former business dealings) to form a provisional committee. This temporary body consisted of twelve members. Bilyk would come to the prezes,[28] Leibisz Degen, to demand a designated number of Jews for labor. Toward that end, the required number of workers would assemble early each morning at the marketplace to await their assignments. Jewish men and women swept streets, cleaned toilets and washed floors in various government offices. Some were also assigned to farms in the surrounding villages. A special store was established in the marketplace for Jews to obtain goods.

Four weeks after the pogrom, an order arrived from the German Security Service (SD) in Tarnopol, to establish a Judenrat[29] to serve as the liaison between the Jews and the German authorities. The Ukrainians asked Yankev Perlmuter to undertake the task of establishing the Judenrat in Skalat. Perlmuter refused. And no one else among the professional intelligentsia would accept the honor. After a few days of indecision, Meyer Nirler (a son-in-law of Jisroel Elfenbein) was placed at the head of the Judenrat. The other members were:

Yeshaye Zimrner -in charge of liaison with the regime and of securing provisions;

Dr. Berkowicz -treasurer;

Yosef Laufer -taxes;

Dr. Izydor Kron;

Eliezer Schoenberg;

Aszkenazi (the pharmacist);

Mot ye Parnes;

Jankef Scharf; and

Leibisz Degen.

Others in the town were drafted to fill various positions. Emil Orensztein and Mendyk Neiman worked in the birth registry office; Leon Brust in housing, Dr. Fried, Rosa Pikholc, MA, and Francoz in Social Aid, Doctors Gutman, Halpern-Berkowicz and Feeh in Medical Aid. Dr. Berkowicz and Nuchym Safir conducted the Jewish court. Later a Jewish post office was established under the direction of Moishe Gotlieb. The head of the Jewish police (the so-called order keeping service) was Dr. Josef Brief.

At first it seemed as though it might be possible to live from day to day: after all, the Jews were being allowed to tend to their own affairs. “We have a small Jewish Republic, under the sheltering wing

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of the Germans.” The Jews even dared to jest. No one then could have even imagined that the Judenrat would eventually become a tool for extortion in the hands of the German murderers.

On Saturday, 19 July, orders came from Tarnopol that the Jewish population of Skalat must pay a ransom of 600,000 rubles[30] within five days, i.e., by Thursday the 24th (29 Tammuz). Failure to meet the demand would result in tragic consequences. Jewish affairs in Tarnopol were then under a German named Faulfinger, and it was in his name that, on the same day, representatives of the Judenrat were summoned to the Regional Command Office where they received the harsh terms of the order. The delegation was also instructed to provide, by the same deadline, lodgings for twelve Germans, completely equipped with furniture, pots and pans, linens, etc. Faced with such a daunting assignment, the Judenrat established a large committee to carry out the tasks. Raising such a large sum would not be easy, but the tradition of “rescuing souls” was strong enough to breach the walls of impossibility. The committee began to tax the well-to-do and, in view of the danger, the Jews met their responsibility. The committee worked feverishly, night and day. Nirler, the chairman of the Judenrat, worked selflessly and with tremendous energy. By the appointed day, the required sum, plus a surplus, had been raised and a delegation took the funds to Tarnopol. The surplus remained as a reserve in the treasury. Lodgings for the twelve Germans, equipped as ordered, were also provided.

The main functions of the Judenrat in its early days consisted of:
(1) providing 200-300 workers each day to the German and Ukrainian authorities; (2) provisioning the Jewish population, via a bakery at its disposal; (3) organizing the activities of these newly established administrative functions; and (4) providing “gifts” for the Germans who came almost daily to extort wealth from the Jews. Eventually it became necessary to set up a storehouse for the clothing, furniture and tableware collected by the Judenrat from the Jewish population to be handed over to the Germans on demand.

During the same period, on 16 July (Tammuz 20), an order was issued requiring Jews to wear white armbands marked with the Star of David on their right arms. Members of the Judenrat were to print the word JUDENRAT in large letters on their armbands. The Jewish Ordinungsdienst[31] wore yellow armbands marked with its title. In addition, Jewish houses had to have the Star of David signs, for which the Judenrat paid a high fee. Life in the shtetl somehow became routine and, with minor changes, continued in this way until the beginning of Autumn.

On a certain day, before the High Holy Days, the Judenrat announced that all Jews were to report to the marketplace at 9:00 the next morning. No one seemed to know the reason for the order. Then Nirler came forward and explained to the crowd gathered that there was no need to fear, but that a certain number of Jews would be taken away for labor. Schneider, the German Kommandant[32] of the Skalat Schupo[33] then selected 200 young people and sent them off to Maksymowka for heavy labor on the rail line. Conditions there were terrible, but by the end of the month most had returned, having been ransomed from the Germans for large sums of money.

Simultaneously the Germans had also established a camp for Russian prisoners of war in the nearby village of Borki Wielkie. The inmates there worked extremely hard and had to subsist on a single daily ration of watery soup. The treatment which they received from the Germans was inhuman. The Russian POW's in the camp were exhausted, broken in spirit, and the mortality rate among them increased daily. The Jews would help them as much as possible. Secretly they would toss them pieces of bread and cigarettes. Such actions, when discovered by the Germans, were punishable by beatings and,

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sometimes, by shooting. The unfortunate POWs were starved to death. The Germans filled in their ranks with transports of Jews from Lwow and Stanislawow. The Skalat Jewish labor office had to supply Borki-Wielkie, each day, with 200 Jewish workers who were returned home by train each evening. On 24 December 1941, the Germans executed all of the remaining Russian prisoners and then established a forced labor camp exclusively for Jews. On that day the 200 Jews from Skalat did not return home: they were detained as the core of the new Borki Camp.

The Judenrat in Skalat promptly organized a Women's Committee, whose task it was to bring aid to the Jews in Borki-Wielkie. Every other day the women would bring food there, consisting mainly of bread. During the extremely cold winter of 1942, they also supplied warm clothes, gloves and straw to serve as protective shoe-covers. By early 1942, the camp in Kamionki had been established and filled with Jews from Czortkow, Kopyczince, Trembowle, Mikulince, Chorostkow and Grzymalow. Soon thereafter camps were also established in Stupka and Romanowka. Food packages were also sent to the Jewish inmates there through the connections of the Skalat Judenrat. Because the camps around Skalat devoured so many lives, each city in the Tarnopol area had to supply a monthly quota of men, primarily youths, to replace the decimated ranks.

Skalat had liaison people, who communicated with the Germans. The Judenrats from the surrounding towns, therefore, used these connections for such transactions as the ransoming of people (trading poorer inmates for wealthier ones) and bribing the Germans. Gradually the Skalat Judenrat became the center of trade in human lives and the Judenrat began to sink deeper and deeper into a vile swamp. At the same time, it was trying to be of help to the population. It established a home for the elderly and a soup kitchen for workers. Children received extra food rations: occasionally even portions of milk and cereal. The official ration per person amounted to 100 grams of bread, a few hundred grams of grain and a couple of kilos of potatoes. It was, of course, impossible to survive on those rations. The more affluent Jews purchased additional food on the black market. Some even managed to put aside reserves. The poor, on the other hand, suffered from hunger and deprivation. The main source of food was barter with the village peasants, who traded with the Jews for clothing and other goods. The social aid arm of the Judenrat helped out as much as it could. Financial resources were limited, however, as the collection of various goods and funds were imposed on the population.

As a method of building a steady source of income for itself, the Judenrat established two coffee houses, employing only its own people. These enterprises sold tea, baked goods, cigarettes and delicatessen, bought at high prices through connections with Gentiles. The two gathering places were known in the shtetl as “batyarnyes[34] a name indicating a clientele with little respect for money. They were also the places where almost all the “wheeler-dealers” of the Judenrat would gather to hash over and decide various issues of the moment.

In January of 1942, the Tarnopol SD issued an order to the Jews to turn in all fur coats within three days under pain of death. By the deadline, the warehouses were filled. The best coats were taken by the higher German functionaries and, a few days later, two wagons were loaded with furs for the Winterhilfswerk,[35] earmarked for German troops, fighting deep inside Russia. Some Jews had burned their furs rather than give them to the Germans. Having turned in the fur collars of their winter clothes, the Jews' outer garments were left with “comical collars” of raw buckram. This led to an ordinance that the collars be covered with dark cloth, which is believed to have originated with the Judenrat concerned with the aesthetic appearance of the people.

Nothing unusual occurred in Skalat during February and March of 1942, but in April the Jews were ordered to evacuate the main streets of the town as their homes had been assigned to select

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Ukrainian families. In the course of eight days, scores of Jewish homes were emptied and the expelled Jews moved in with people in the back streets.

The first 'action' occurred in May in Tarnopol. It was the so-called “contingent”[36] of the aged and weak. The victims consisted mostly of people from the hospital, the old-age home, and the forlorn children from the orphanage. The appalling news from Tarnopol brought panic to our shtetl. All sensed disaster to be close at hand.

Harvest time was near. The villages and the rural estates in the area heeded farmhands. The labor office at the Judenrat was assigned a daily quota of five to six hundred Jewish workers who went out to their work places guarded by the Jewish Ordinungsdienst At that time the Jews began to receive authorized work-passes with German and Ukrainian signatures, which were thought by their frightened bearers to be protection against eventual dangers. These Ausweisen[37] were arranged through the Judenrat: Such scraps of working papers were also available, at very high prices, to those who did not work. Pass-fever gripped the entire Jewish population. Anyone possessing a pass believed that it assured his very existence. The passes had some validity for about two weeks. After that they did not prevent anyone from being shipped off to the camp at Borki Wielkie. In July of 1942, the Judenrat was called on to supply a quota of thirty girls to the tobacco plantations at Jagielnice. The young women there worked under horrible conditions. After some time, their parents were able to ransom them. Miraculously for them, it was just a few days before some 400 other girls there were brutally shot.

So life went on in Skalat during the so-called “calm” days from July of 1941 to August of 1942. By contrast to later events, that was, indeed, the “Golden Age” under the German occupation.

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7. The “Live Contingent”

A year had passed since the first pogrom of 6 July 1941, but the wounds of that bloodbath had not healed. During that year, and under difficult conditions, the Judenrat had regulated our lives. After Tisha b'AV[38] the Jews of Skalat noted that the members of the Judenrat seemed particularly dejected. “Fellow Jews,” they said, “things are bad. There is an evil hanging over us, and may God be merciful.” This sad news spread like wildfire among the Jewish inhabitants. As tension increased, the nights became sleepless and the days despondent. What was about to happen? The members of the Judenrat held consultations and racked their brains, looking for a way out of the crisis.

Lacking any other options, it was decided to raise a large fund for the purpose of bribing the Germans and thus to avert the impending peril. The Jews contributed their remaining belongings. Within two days, the officials had gathered two valises filled with gold, silver, cash and other valuables. The Committee chose a delegation, headed by Nirler, which promptly set off for Tarnopol to meet with the Gestapo. How much of the treasure actually was given to the Gestapo is not known, but the delegation returned encouraged and satisfied. Nirler was missing a few teeth and the other delegates were badly bruised as well. This was probably due to their reception by the SS. They believed, however, that they had accomplished something for the common good. “It was worth it. We have saved the town, “ they said. They had conferred with the Germans in Tarnopol and had accomplished much. Even in the future, no evil would befall Skalat, so effective was the gift to the SS and so successful was this delegation.

Hearing such tales of wonders and miracles somewhat helped to calm the nervous populace, which wanted to believe these assurances as true. At the same time the “protectors of the community” still wandered about, distraught. Secret meetings occupied the members of the Judenrat, day in and day out. At first no one else knew the real reason for their uneasiness, but eventually the whole story came out and this is what was revealed: the Germans had intended to carry out an 'action' against the sick and the old. The Judenrat delegation to Tarnopol had arranged to have the matter placed into their own hands. “You need not come to Skalat,” they had pleaded. “We will carry out the 'action' ourselves. Just set the quota for us.” Thus they came to terms with the chief of the Tarnopol Gestapo, Obersturmbannfuhrer[39] Muller, for five hundred souls to be delivered on 31 August 1942.

It was 30 August 1942 (17 Elul 5702). The inhabitants of Skalat, expecting no evil, strolled about the town. At about 5:00 PM, carrying prepared lists and accompanied by Jewish policemen, the “elite” of the town set out in pairs. They visited among the scattered houses and began dragging the aged grandfathers and grandmothers, the elderly parents, the orphans or other children considered to be sickly, plus the so-called “useless” Jews, i.e., the relief cases. Those collected were led to the synagogue, which had been designated as the collection point for these unfortunates. The khapers[40] even tried to deceive their victims, saying: “Come, Jews, have no fear. There's to be a meeting at the shul. It's a matter of state. Or would you rather have the Germans drag you there?”

It was no use crying or protesting -one had to go. Those who refused to go peacefully were taken forcibly by the militia. Those unable to walk were carried. Heart-rending scenes took place at the hospital when the sick were brought out. It is difficult to relate all the fearful scenes that took place. In the end, though, the job was done successfully. All night long the Judenrat members went around seeking searching in holes, in cellars and attics, and leading the aged and the sick to the shul. Very few of the aged succeeded in hiding, because: first, the calamity came unexpectedly; second, hiding was useless since the' catchers' were determined to fill their quotas. If a designated person was found to be

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missing, they took another family member instead. Every 'catcher' was responsible for his quota. They had already learned discipline and order from the Germans.

Those who had not been directly affected by the calamity went about saddened and confused: just what was happening here? A small segment of the Jews thought that if people had to be sent to their deaths, the aged were the better choice since they had, after all, lived out their years! This type of thinking, though wrong and morally untenable, influenced the supporters of the Judenrat, whose members, they believed, were doing their best on behalf of the community. Such a twisted theory could only have arisen from the warped minds of the Judenrat members and their supporters. The overwhelming majority of the populace watched the bloody doings with horror, but they were too weak to resist and powerless to do anything about it.

By 9:00 that evening, when most of the victims had been gathered in the Shul, the building was surrounded with an augmented guard of the Jewish police “to prevent, God forbid!, any escapes” especially during the night when new victims were brought in. After completing their work, the Judenrat members gathered at their headquarters to review the day's activities. Liquor and cake had been prepared and these Jews rejoiced and congratulated each other; believing they had done no small thing: they had rescued the town. Their reasoning was: if not by us, it would have been done by the Germans, and how much more blood of the able-bodied would have been spilled. It is reported that council-member M. Lempert received a cash prize from the Judenrat for being the first to bring in all the people on his list: 100% complete! After the celebration, they telephoned the Gestapo in Tarnopol reporting that the job had been completed and that the Gestapo could come the next day to take over the transport.

All of this is hard to believe, but the surviving witnesses know it and report it, no matter how painful the truth. My mother, who was in the shul that tragic day, in place of her mother, my grandmother, whom she wanted to save, provides this eye-witness account:

“On the tragic day of 31 August (18 Elul), I was able to hide my mother, Eidel Jales, age 87. My mother was a treasure: well-read in the Tzenereneh[41] and other edifying religious books. She had borne three sons and two daughters. Some 40 years earlier, two of the sons had gone to America, and from them she received support until the outbreak of the war. In Skalat and in Tarnopol she had two daughters and a son, whose families included some twenty grandchildren and great-grandchildren. On Sabbath days the old woman was hard-put to decide which child or grandchild she should visit first. Almost every year, one of the American sons would come to do her filial honor.

It was a pleasure to hear her tell stories about the holy saints. She had a phenomenal memory. Despite her advanced age, she did not lack wisdom and cleverness. Generally she kept herself clean and in good health, as though she were thirty years younger. Every morning she would put on her spectacles and say prayers from her huge morning prayer-book, and then cook her breakfast. Later she would go out into the town to find out who might be sick or in need: for the one some preserves, for the other a few zlotys.[42] This she did because she felt people are not immortal and must during their lifetime store up fulfilled commandments and acts of loving kindness. She had long since prepared her burial shroud and a plot in the cemetery near the husband who had died twenty years before. 'Anyhow, if I'm called, I will go,' she used to say. 'It is now more near than far. Meanwhile, how dear to me is the joy I derive from my children!'

That fatal day, we said to Mother: 'Come, Mama. We will hide you. We won't let you go to the hangman's hands!' The old woman trembled like a leaf: she still wanted to

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live, or if she had to die then let it be at least in her own bed. 'My dearest children, don't leave me,' she said and went into the hiding place on unsteady legs.

The Judenrat officials ran about all day like madmen: searching for her everywhere. They were incensed: 'How can it be that the old Jales woman hasn't been crossed off the list yet? Can you imagine the gall of such a conscience-less family, to hide away such a broken old woman? No, they won't get away with it! ' The militia came to me with an ultimatum, demanding: 'Are you turning over your old mother or not?'

'I don't know where she is,' I replied.

Then the policeman began to shout: 'If you won't hand her over, then you must come with us... You will bring harm to all of us! We must have the total number of people - don't you understand?' I did not understand. I felt it was better to go myself than to deliver an aged mother to her death. I cried, screamed, went faint, fought with the gangsters, refusing to go. But it was to no avail: they dragged me off to the shul as a hostage.

The shul was crowded, suffocating. Screams! Sobs! The old people sigh, cough, clamor and faint. All that time in the heat without even a drop of water. A few of the aged and sick, lacking stamina, had already died.

Hersz Siegal stood at the pulpit and recited the Psalms in a tearful voice. Our long-time neighbor and dear friend had been a part-time teacher, a religious instructor as well as a broker. He was a sensitive young man but poor and in tatters all his life. Lately he had become penniless and was supported by communal funds. Therefore he, too, was on the list of the 'useless' and, as such. he, his wife, and his two children had been dragged here.

'Mrs. Weissbrod, what are you doing here?' Hersz Siegal asked me. I told him all about my mother and learned of his troubles in turn. 'What do they want of me? -And why are my wife and children at fault?' These were questions I could not answer. I stood there, perplexed. Still I clung to the hope that within a few hours I would be released from this lions' den and that my mother, too, would be rescued. The members of the Judenrat were, after all, good acquaintances who would not permit such a shameful act as exchanging a daughter's life for a mother's. Meanwhile, Hersz Siegal and I wrote notes to our families and friends: 'Save me!'

Times passes. The hours fly by. Nothing is heard, nothing is seen. Evening approaches. Night comes: no rescuers appear. New victims, however, are brought in regularly. We surround them. asking what is happening in town. Faith in rescue becomes ever weaker, while fear of death begins to assault one's thoughts. What a night the other Jews and I spent there! Nights in hell could certainly not be worse.
Dawn arrived. The red, blue and green panes of the tall Shul windows let in the daylight which revealed both the frightening reality and the dark thoughts of another world.

There were no replies from outside to the notes we had sent. Fearfully we awaited whatever the coming hours would bring. I had lost hope by now, and no longer believed I would be rescued. Meanwhile my old mother had found out what had happened. In her way, she experienced a profound dilemma: how could she possibly permit her own daughter to be lost? She wove together the strands of Fate and Divine Providence. The Master of the Universe must know what He is doing! She did not sleep all night and barely survived until morning to be able to ransom her daughter from the murdering hands.

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'My daughter I have come!' I suddenly heard my mother's voice. 'I, alone, will be the sacrifice for the family. Go home: you are younger than I.' Then she pressed into my hand a gold coin, worth $20.00, and whispered: 'Perhaps you will yet be able to ransom me.'

I did not want to go. Tears choked me as both of us, mother and daughter, stood there: frozen and mute. Moved by that solemn moment, both of us stood motionless, like deeply rooted trees. These tragic last moments together both broke and united our hearts.

'Go, my daughter -go before it is too late,' the heroic 87 year old woman warned. 'But try...perhaps you may yet be able to ransom me.' I can't remember how long we embraced.

A policeman led me outside, barely able to walk. My old mother remained in the shul!”

*****

Promptly at 4:00 PM on Monday, a group of SS, led by Obersturmbannfuhrer Muller, arrived from Tarnopol with eight empty trucks to transport the “live contingent.” The first truck stopped at the gate of the shul!. The “gentlemen” of the Judenrat appeared, servile and obsequious at the feet of the German hangmen.

“How many have you gathered here, you shitty Jews?” Nirler waved his hands about and managed to stammer out a few words. The enraged German replied with a wild shout: “What? So few? Damn you! In one half hour another hundred Jews! Or else we will shoot you down, like dogs!” There were supposed to have been 500 people. At the last minute, though, it turned out that there were only 480. Somehow twenty had disappeared. It was said that Shikale-ganif,[43] a policeman, had permitted that number of people to ransom themselves and had let them out through the back door during the night. If the Judenrat could let people ransom themselves or replace their relatives with strong, young people why not Shikale?

The few Germans and the Jewish police spread out across the town and grabbed anyone they could lay their hands on. The half-hour chase brought in another eighty souls to add to the “live contingent.”

Obersturmbannfuhrer Muller consulted his watch and waved his hand to indicate that there were enough. It was getting late. The doors of the shul were opened wide, disgorging the mass of hardly recognizable people: exhausted from hunger, thirst and heat. Pale, broken, stooped and bent, like living corpses, some pushed forward, some fell in a faint and some held each other's hands.

The militiamen loaded the people onto the trucks as though they were handling freight, packing them in tightly to achieve the fullest load, while the Germans cracked their whips overhead. The old people were carried and loaded with great effort. My great aunt, Fayle Jawer, 96 years old, was among them. She had spent the night in the shul with my grandmother, her sister-in-law. She was lucky. As they were carrying her onto the truck, she breathed her last. Her corpse lay packed in among the living but she suffered no more pain. When all the victims had been loaded aboard the trucks, one of the militiamen asked what should be done with the corpses that had been left in the shul. “Pack them in with the rest of them” came the reply.

“Move out!” the Obersturmbannfuhrer shouted, and the trucks began to move, to the sound of sobs and wailing. The 560 victims were taken to Tarnopol, and then, from there, to an extermination camp.

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*****

Supplement to this chapter:

Abraham Somerstein a former resident of Skalat, provides the following details about the
'action' of 31 August 1942:

  1. The first victim was Efraim Olesker, who was caught on the street. The “heroic” policeman called out joyfully and loudly: “Here's the first fish! “
  2. Many people were freed for large sums. The ransom money was collected by Nirler and Eliezer Schoenberg. When Shikale-ganif saw that rich folks were buying their way out, he was outraged and out of empathy for the impoverished, let out about twenty of the poor people through the back door during the night. Of course, he did not take any ransom.
  3. The close relatives of Judenrat members were exempted.
  4. Shikale-ganif caught Josi Rothstein on the street and beat him brutally, shouting: “Will you give up your mother and father or not?” Rothstein panicked and revealed his parents' hiding place. They were found and dragged off to the shul.
  5. Motie Rosenblat was taken hostage. As he wouldn't reveal, or did not know, his father's whereabouts, he was loaded aboard one of the trucks. He managed to escape by leaping off the train. Another Jew tried to follow his example, but was shot by the Germans as he ran.

Mrs. Munia Bernhaut of Skalat relates:

  1. On the same day, an 'action' took place in Tarnopol. The Skalat victims were taken, along with those from Tarnopol, to the Belzec extermination camp.
  2. The Judenrat detained a separate group of privileged old people at the police headquarters, hoping the Germans would be satisfied with the number held in the shul, allowing the privileged ones to be spared. The Germans, however, ranted that the quota had not been filled and therefore these people were led to the shul. In addition, more victims had to be caught in the streets.
  3. It was said that Muller, the Tarnopol Gestapo Chief, had remarked to the Judenrat, before driving off, “We shall return in six weeks.” If so, that would have been advance warning of the great slaughter that came to be known as the “Wild Action.”

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8. The Underground Community

The shtetl was horror stricken. There was fear that a new catastrophe might arrive at any moment. The population of Skalat had already heard of the Lwow evacuation 'action' and its 50,000 victims as well as the 'actions,' in other cities such as Tarnopol, Mikulince, Trembowle and Czortkow with their own slaughters. Everyone tried to devise a means of rescuing oneself and one's family before the inevitable next 'action.' Everyone made every effort to be as prepared as possible.

In Skalat, as everywhere else, there was mass hysteria to devise hiding places, the so-called “bunkers.” Jews became master-builders and engineers. They racked their brains, night and day. To find ways to make their hiding places inconspicuous and well-camouflaged. A subterranean world began to emerge under floors, in cellars and in gardens. Tunnels were dug and narrow passages, connecting cellars of the attached row houses, spread in every direction. Some of the hiding places were truly marvels of construction, including some that were built to fifteen meters below ground with provisions made for such essentials as air ventilation, water, toilets, brick storage areas, etc. Necessity awakened dormant talents in the art of construction. That sort of “engineer”, however, would also be a craftsman, a brick-layer, and a common laborer. For the most part, these “specialists” built bunkers for the more affluent homeowners at high fees. Sand, lime, bricks, boards and other building materials became scare. Trade in these items grew frantic and prices soared.

A major problem for the Jews building bunkers was the excavated earth, which, more than once, betrayed the fact that there was an underground bunker. Where could the Jews dispose of wagonloads of dirt? The construction took place at night and upon arising in the morning, anyone could tell that a new bunker had been built nearby. To remove the tell-tale signs, people would work unceasingly and during the following nights, carry the earth in baskets or sacks, as far as possible outside the town.

The members of the Judenrat and their families came to realize that they, too, were in great danger. In other cities, many Judenrat members had been hanged for failing to carry out German orders properly. Thus their situation was obviously hopeless and preparations had to be made just in case. Because they had large amounts of money, each built virtual fortresses, equipped with various comforts and with storage rooms like Pithoms and Ramesese, crammed with provisions and beverages.

Skalat was a magnet for frightened Jews, because it was believed to be relatively safe. The stream of refugees from the surrounding towns and villages added to the housing shortage and worsened living conditions. Every house and each apartment was overcrowded and the crowding led to a lack of cleanliness and hygiene. Vermin proliferated. At night the Jews posted guards near their houses to alert them if anything happened in town. Every accidental noise, the barking of a dog, the stumbling of a drunk somewhere, not to mention a shot, sufficed to alarm and rouse an entire household to its feet. The slightest sound assaulted the nerves. People slept fully dressed so as to be ready to run instantly. Many people slept in bunkers, some spent the nights with Gentile friends, and others in fields. So the Jews passed their days in mortal fear.

Fear grew intense when it was learned that the Tarnopol Gestapo had ordered the surrounding towns and villages to become Judenrein.[44] All Jews were to leave their dwellings and move to Skalat. A deadline was set for 15 October 1942. The Jews saw this as an evil omen: a sign that something was about to happen. The Germans, it appeared, were bring the Jews to Skalat for the “Feast Day”[45] - some said, in jest, to make sure that everyone was present for the “slaughter-fair.”

For two weeks, caravans of displaced Jews streamed into Skalat and the roads were clogged with horse-drawn wagons, piled high with domestic goods and belongings. The wagons were followed by

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pedestrians, sweaty, grimy and exhausted. As the deadline approached, the migration reached its high point and the appearance of the caravans grew more awesome. Some 4,000 Jews came to Skalat from Grzymalow, Podwoloczyska and the surrounding villages, all of them long-time dwellers, driven from their homes. The housing shortage and overcrowding became unbearable. People actually lived in the streets. Those who were better off among the newcomers were able to rent quarters from Gentiles, paying huge sums of money. Most found shelter with relatives, or simply with other Jews who wanted to help people in the midst of such turmoil. Twelve to eighteen people were crammed into small dwellings, like herring in a barrel. Hundreds of Jews made living quarters for themselves in the stalls of the bazaar, which had been left empty, robbed and ruined, after the first pogrom. Many also lived in the shuls, in the Houses of Study and small prayer-houses.

The sudden addition of thousands of people changed the appearance of the shtetl beyond recognition. Hunger and poverty reigned. It was impossible to provide for so large a population. Inflation and the black market grew. Diseases spread and the mortality rate escalated. Not a day passed without an increase in the number of deaths. Charitable Jews, among the wealthier, helped significantly. Among many others, we must mention Tennenbaum of blessed memory, who helped the poor with a generous hand and at the risk of his own life. Much is told of his gentleness and of his good deeds. The Hasidic followers of the Rabbi of Kopyczince honored their leader's memory by sending food parcels to his son-in-law in Tarnopol.

However, panic and nightmarish fear continued unabated. Then, in mid-October of 1942, the order was issued to establish the ghetto All the Jews were to be squeezed into the few small streets between the marketplace and the shul.

The Judenrat had its hands full and was unable to deal with the new situation. The members were in constant consultations: mainly about a pending new catastrophe, whose arrival was almost palpable.

“What is to be done?” The question tortured everyone unmercifully. “What is to be done? What can be done?”

[Page 21]

9. “Jews, Do Not Worry”

One day the Judenrat held an urgent meeting. After much discussion and argument two opinions emerged.

Some councilmen, the more decent and conscience-stricken, argued for letting fate take its course: “As God wills, so let it be, but Jews themselves should not participate in the 'actions.' Let all who can, hide; no other course is open to us.” For the record, let us state that there were some councilmen, among them Dr. Izydor Kron, Dr. Berkowicz, and Yankif Sharf, who could not back the shameful actions of the majority and who opposed their colleagues on all vital issues. It must also be said that at the beginning, none of them could have imagined that the Judenrat would become a tool in the hands of the Germans. Once mired in that evil, however, and although fighting with all their might, they were unable to extricate themselves from the vipers' nest. Initially it seemed to everyone that the Judenrat members were not in as great a danger, but now survival became the supreme preoccupation, even for them. Faced with the real possibility of death, survival by any means was a temptation not easily avoided, although it cannot justify the sins that were committed. The so-called “opposition” was determined not to permit a repetition of the methods used by the Judenrat during the “Live Contingent” 'action.' “Not only must we not carry out an 'action,' but we dare not assist the Germans in the slightest way,” they argued. Their position was: hiding and escaping wherever possible is the watchword of this tragic hour.

The other side took quite a different approach. Eliezer Schoenberg and his hangers-on demanded, categorically, that, as had happened in the earlier 'action,' an agreement should be struck with the German authorities allowing the Judenrat to conduct future 'actions,' on its own and to deliver the assigned quota, thereby at least saving themselves, their families, relatives and many other younger and “more useful” people. Therefore, they argued, the Judenrat must make the effort to collect another large sum of money. Councilman Schoenberg gave his assurance that, should the Gestapo agree to a contingent of, say: 2,000 people, he would undertake to supply 1,000. “We have enough people to spare,” he claimed. “We won't need to take any of our local people: the town is full of ragged newcomers, who are sleeping in the bazaar and dying of hunger anyway.”

Following a stormy debate, this proposal was adopted and the majority of the councilmen supported it.

The Judenrat quickly stepped up its activity. Heavy funds were levied against the better-off inhabitants; councilmen went from door to door collecting gold and other valuables. They also called in representatives of the newcomers, demanding that they raise large sums among themselves to rescue the group as a whole. With a view towards lowering the danger, the Jews did not stint. Perhaps it might yet be possible to counteract the evil decree, they thought.

The delegates Nirler, Schoenberg, Zimmer and Lempert went to Tarnopol. There they met first with the Jewish “fixer,” who had connections with the Gestapo. He brought them up-to-date on the current situation. “Things are bad, “ he said. “There's an 'action' scheduled very soon in your town. But if you have the right proposal, try bringing it to Obersturmbannfuhrer Muller; you might be able to accomplish something.”

The delegation met with Muller. Upon hearing their proposal about establishing a sum for the next contingent, which the Jews would assemble through their own efforts, Obersturmbannfuhrer Muller; shouted: “Wha-a-t?” and then began to speak more calmly. “What makes you think, all of a sudden, that something is about to happen in your town? There is nothing currently scheduled for Skalat. Come back in a few weeks and we will talk about it. Now you can go home quite calmly and reassure your people. Why worry for nothing, when all is in the best order? Just don't worry.”

At previous meetings the Council had been used to receiving insults and whip lashings. This time Muller was like a lamb. “Our gift softened his heart,” one of them said, while the others struggled with

[Page 22]

sorrowful thoughts, full of doubt and confusion. Yet all of them wanted to believe in a good omen, regardless of logic. The delegates prepared to return. “What do we tell them at home, in the shtetl?” they asked themselves. “What have we actually accomplished?” Their ears still rang with Muller's words: All is in the best order. Just don't worry. Was that such a bad message for the shtetl? Such words could really calm distraught nerves and spirits!

During the twilight hours, when the delegation was expected back from Tarnopol, hundreds of Jews gathered on the road far out of town, impatiently awaiting the messengers who carried in their hands the fate of the shtetl. Due to particularly good news from the Russian front that day, the crowd was in an optimistic mood. Why always expect the worst, people thought, when the good might also come unexpectedly?

Coincidentally, some girl had dreamed that a group of Jews wearing prayer shawls was at services in the shul, and an old man, standing at the pulpit, blew the shofar[46] and informed the crowd that salvation would arrive on the 11th day of Heshvan - which was the next day! Perhaps salvation might begin today, starting with the good news that the delegation is about to bring.

“Jews, here come the delegates!” The long awaited moment had arrived. The horse drawn wagon came to a stop and hundreds of Jews surrounded the delegates. They listened to the report with bated breath and with joy. Triumphantly, the delegation quoted the very words of the Tarnopol Gestapo Chief: “Don't worry: nothing will happen in the town for the time being.” And to this the messengers added: “Calm down, now, Jews. Drive away your fears. Don't spread panic. As you can see for yourselves, we are doing everything for your sake. In return we ask only for your understanding and cooperation.”

At first, the good news assuaged distraught spirits. As evening came on, however, sobriety returned. Fear of the night brought back the gnawing unease. Guards were posted as before and people slept half-dressed, resting their weary bodies wherever they could. Most by now had become accustomed to such an oppressive life. Some terrified people would creep up to the windows of the councilmen's houses to determine whether they were at home. If so, that was the best sign that the night would probably be peaceful. If things looked really bad, they, the councilmen, would not spend the night in their own homes. Who else would know everything, if not the Judenrat?

Thus the overwhelming majority in Skalat went to bed that night in their own homes and with a feeling of greater security. Besides, it wasn't that simple finding shelter among the Gentiles time after time, or just wandering about all night long. In times of inordinate danger that might have been necessary, but not tonight, when the delegation had brought such good news. Some, however, hid this night too. Better safe than sorry. Self-preservation was the rule!

*****

Obersturmbannfuhrer Muller and his aides apparently understood that this would be the ideal night to conduct the 'action' in Skalat. They had given the delegation such fine-sounding assurances that the Jews there were sure to be passive. An unexpected attack would certainly be successful.

The orders went down: “Everyone must be ready to leave for Skalat at 2:00 AM..”


Footnotes:

28 prezes - Chairman. Return

29 Judenrat(s) -Jewish Council(s) (the main liaison between the Jews in the ghetto and the Germans) Return

30 ruble(s) - Monetary unit of Russian currency. Return

31 Ordinungsdienst - Jewish police (order keeping service). Return

32 Komrnandant - Commander. Return

33 Schupo (Schutzpolizei) - Security police (Germans). Return

34 “batyarnyes” - Derived from the Yiddish word batyar (hooligan) and referring to two coffee houses in Skalat. under the German occupation. L. Milch Return

35 Winterhilfswerk - Campaign to provide warm clothing for German troops inside Russia during the winter of 1941-1942. Return

36 “contingent” - A quota of the aged and sick, rounded-up for extermination in Belzec. L. Milch Return

37 Ausweisen - Work passes. Return

38 Tisha b'Av - Ninth day of the month of Av, traditionally a day of fasting, commemorating the destruction of the Temple. Return

39 Obersturmbannfuhrer (Muller) - Gestapo chief in Tarnopol. Return

40 khapers - Catchers. Return

41 Tzenereneh - “Let's Go and See” book of prayers written in Yiddish and read mostly by women. Return

42 zlotys- Monetary unit of Polish currency. Return

43 ganif - Thief (Shikale) - most adults in Skalat had nicknames based on physical or character traits. L. Milch Return

44 Judenrein - Cleansed of Jews. Return

45 “Feast Day” - Saint Anne's Feast was annually celebrated in Skalat with a big fair. L. Milch Return

46 shofar - Ram's horn: trumpet call used during the High Holidays and special occasions of national emergencies or celebrations. Return

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