There was a new style of clothing in the villages around Skalat: the black-striped women's skirts sewn from stolen talaysim. The peasant market, however, suffered a shortage in parchment torn from the Scrolls of the Law, which shoemakers had long since learned to convert into lining and padding for boots and shoes. On the other hand, the market square and the streets among the Jewish ruins were littered with heaps of books and pages ripped from Talmuds and prayer books: free for the taking. Earlier, when there had been Jews working for Malecki in the Raw Material Collection Brigade which gathered large quantities of Jewish books for sale as scrap paper: they even had some exchange value -eight groschen a kilo. But that trade ended after the last slaughter, when there were no Jews left to work at it. The books and torn pages were then used merely for packing materials in local stores, and as toilet paper.
Every Gentile knew by now that the Jews were to be totally exterminated -that no remnant of Judaism would be allowed to survive. It was, therefore, acceptable to destroy Jewish buildings and wipe out Jewish cemeteries. The local population seemed to take to that task with sadistic and vengeful joy. The elimination of the living having almost been accomplished, it was now the turn of the dead.
Gravestones, with their holy letters, torn from cemeteries now appeared as paving stones, scattered over stretches of sidewalks and roads. The anguished cry of the stones fell on deaf ears while the dead in the unmarked graves yearned for their memorials. The peasants stopped their graveyard expeditions only after a fatal accident when a tombstone fell on a grave-robber, killing him instantly. Frightened, they believed that the tombstones were rebelling when being dishonored. They feared that the stony strength and weight of the gravestones would inflict black and blue marks and painful wounds. They believed that the dead were taking vengeance.
Fantastic stories were told about the terrible and wondrous events at the Jewish cemetery. Some told of hearing groans and quiet sobbing coming from the graves while others claimed to have seen blood coming from them. A wall made of stolen tombstones had been set-up around the Town Hall. One morning, several of the stones were found lying on the street. The story quickly spread that corpses came out at night to reclaim their tombstones and, indeed, the wall around the Town Hall did appear to be shrinking steadily. Then the peasants stopped stealing tombstones from the Jewish cemetery.
While this brought peace to the dead, the living Jews felt powerless against the constant danger which they faced. Living in the crowded ghetto like chickens in a coop, they awaited their inevitable deaths. The unsatiated local rabble stared mercilessly across the ghetto at some nine hundred Jews who still drew breath there. In wonder, they shook their heads and said: Can you believe it? They're slaughtered and slaughtered and still they're here! But you can smell the Angel of Death over there.
After each 'action,' the shtetl took on the look of a village fair. Some peasants came to determine the remaining number of living Jews, while others came simply to steal whatever they could from the emptied and not yet demolished homes. In the Pre-Passover 'action' (April of 1943), many murdered Jews created unintended beneficiaries among the hundreds who had undertaken to hide Jewish possessions. Every Jewish death instantly enriched a local helper.
In those final bloody days, when the last of the last were about to be exterminated, the remaining Jews of Skalat were crowded into thirty small houses. The passageways of streets and alleys were boarded up. The handful of remaining exhausted Jews lived in the most awful congestion and filth, above ground as well as below in bunkers. Every day and every hour of every day the Jews in the shtetl lived in mortal fear, anticipating the inevitable liquidation of the ghetto and their deaths.
The population consisted almost entirely of women and children, widows and orphans of previous 'actions.' A small number of surviving men could be found in the Skalat Camp and in the other camps in the area. In fact, the town of Skalat was to have been declared Judenfrei following the mass murder during the Sobbing Graves 'action' in April of 1943. However, since a sufficiently large number had managed to hide, an order came from Tarnopol permitting the surviving Jews to return to the ghetto. Again they were told that they would be permitted to live there peacefully. Most importantly, they were to maintain their strength and sanitation, as they would still be needed as laborers. To encourage them further to believe that they would not be killed, the Tarnopol Gestapo sent down ten Jewish policemen, led by one Aba Tennenbaum, assigned to maintain Law and Order and, at the same time, to serve as tools in the execution of the Germans' plans.
The Jewish police from Tarnopol exerted themselves to instill calm and to persuade the people that as long as they were around there would be no new slaughters. This time, however, no one believed them. Every evening, an exodus would begin. As night came on, people sought out lodgings among the Gentiles or crept stealthily into barns and stables to spend the night. At dawn, learning that all was quiet in the town; they would return to the ghetto, only to roam again the next night. Frequently, during those wanderings, the Jews would be robbed and beaten, and the women raped by street toughs and merciless peasant youths.
The ghetto was emptied of many people every night. Those who remained would gasp for breath all night in their underground hideaways, barely surviving until morning, when they would learn that no , 'action' was taking place that day. Then God's creatures would slip back into the ghetto from the fields and other 'secret places' on the other side: their will to live unabated, though their expected life-span was not much longer than a butterfly's. The police searched the empty houses during the nights, taking whatever they liked of the furnishings, and also taking the opportunity to locate and note down suspected hiding places or bunkers.
Generally, the Jewish police from Tarnopol behaved abominably. In addition to maintaining close relations with the officials of the local camp and with the Germans, they engaged in drunken revelry, robbery and rape.
Thus the last of the Skalat Jews lived out the final days of their lives. There is a story from those days of a certain town idiot named Yosele, who had somehow managed to escape the various 'actions.' One day he was seen standing in the empty street sobbing piteously. Why are you crying, Yosele? he was asked. No one throws stones at me. No one chases me. Nobody calls me names, he moaned. Yosele, the idiot, yearned for the 'good old days' when there were Jews alive, when Jewish children would chase him through the streets - their taunts echoing and the stones flying.
The lives of those miraculously missed during the previous 'actions,' still flickered. But the question remained: how were they to be rescued from the sentence of death?
By May 1943 it was clear that there would be no rescue. The Germans were proceeding with their extermination plans and not a single Jew would be left alive.
In Skalat, the 'actions,' and pogrom so far had claimed about 6,500 victims, and in the surrounding camps of Borki-Wielkie, Podwolczyska, Romanowka, Stupka and Kamionka several thousand more people suffered behind the barbed wire, plagued by hunger and disease. Even the most determined optimists had lost hope of remaining alive. Life was now reckoned to be a matter of days not weeks. The previous month's 'action,' the tragedy of the so-called Sobbing Graves, which had been intended as the final extermination of the local Jews so that the town could be declared Judenrein, had not gone entirely according to the German plans. Approximately a thousand Jews had managed to avoid capture. The inventiveness of the Jews in the art of bunker construction had reached a level which made it virtually impossible to discover all the Jewish hideaways and mouse-holes. People strove with their final energies to rescue themselves and stay alive.
The Germans now tried to spread rumors that nothing further would occur. The Red Cross was said to have intervened on behalf of the Jews. America was reported to be exchanging German war prisoners for Jews. Other similar tales were told to create confusion. The real intention of the Germans was to collect and hold together the Jewish remnant so that they could be completely liquidated in the near future. As noted previously, the Germans pretended that they were lightening the Jewish load. You may live peacefully in your ghetto; we will provide bread and work - just be sure you stay clean and don't get sick so that you can't work... they would explain to the Jews in a deceitfully friendly tone.
At the same time, a group of brave young people, led by Mechel Glanz, began to prepare for armed resistance against the new 'action.' Glanz had come from Kopyczince, a strong, dedicated and wise young man of about 26, whose eyes sparkled with bravery and determination. He was soon joined by other young people, including Lonek Pudles, 30, a student of philosophy who had recently come from the Kamionka Camp, Sholem Schechter, 23, Meyer Grinfeld, 35, Bucio Elfenbein, 22, Henek Weinberg, 21, a veterinary student, (the last four from Skalat) and many others. They all attended secret meetings to lay plans for resistance to the next 'action.' The small group was to have been the core of a broader fighting organization of young people.
In the early days of their activity, Bucio Elfenbein managed to obtain twelve grenades with which the young enthusiasts were as overjoyed as children with new toys. True, the grenades lacked firing pins, but it didn't matter: they began a search for an experienced mechanic to join in their efforts. Mechel Glanz managed to come up with a sum of money to cover the preliminary expenses. Henek Weinberg had established contact with some Gentiles as possible sources for weapons. Meyer Grinfeld was assigned the task of establishing contact with the remnants of the Judenrat, who were still in possession of some communal funds, in order to obtain financial aid. At the outset, the councilmen promised not only funds but active participation. However, nothing ever came of it. Those who had worked for two years in the Judenrat could not fathom the lofty idea of resistance. Such people had long since lost their sense of daring, self-respect and honor. How could they now be expected to collaborate in or support an act which, though it could end in death, would be of a great moral achievement? The Judenrat members, as expected, did nothing to help in the daring enterprise. On the contrary, they considered it foolhardy: Your work is doomed to fail before you begin. With whose help do you plan to wage war? With women? With a few broken Jews?
The brave young people were not discouraged by such talk and continued their work in secret. They now owned some arms which lifted their morale. Meyer Grinfeld had established contact with a few small groups of Jews who had escaped from the ghetto and now lived in the forest. Henek Weinberg had contact with a certain Dymkowski, regarding help from the Poles. However it was soon apparent that
Dymkowski was a charlatan and a con-man who merely wanted to cheat them out of their money. Further dealings with him would have certainly led to betrayal and only in the last moment were they able to shake free of him. They continued their search for a non-Jewish underground movement with which they could join to plan a common approach to resistance. It turned out, however, that no such movement was to be found in the Tarnopol area. The Gentiles were not condemned to death, lived under relatively normal conditions and therefore had many opportunities for sabotage. Instead, they fearfully and abjectly danced to the tune of the German oppressors and endured their persecutions.
Considering the hopeless status of the surviving remnants of the Jews, the mere thought of armed resistance provided solace. Though it would certainly end in death, their suffering would yet make some sense. Such an act, however, required at least a minimum amount of military training, and therefore the resistance group worked feverishly preparing whatever was possible. Unfortunately, the Kripo learned of the resistance preparations and it is quite possible that this led the Germans to hasten their plans for the final extermination in Skalat, which took place on 9 June 1943. The carefully woven dream of active resistance was suddenly torn asunder. Being unprepared, with only a pair of pistols and twelve grenades without firing pins, there could be no possibility of armed resistance. Some days before the liquidation 'action' someone had informed on Lonek Pudles, the escapee from the Kamionka Camp. He was arrested and returned there, where he died in the liquidation of the camp. Thus an important member was missing at the time the resistance might have occurred.
The tragic day of the Shavuot Action (to be described in the next chapter) actually led to the liquidation of the ghetto and to the complete extermination of the Jewish community of Skalat. Small remnants escaped to the woods or hid with peasants, who were well paid.
After the town was declared Judenrein, only the Skalat Camp remained in existence where some four hundred people worked at the time. Now the idea of resistance took root there, where several young people were working toward that aim. A few weeks later, when the Soviet partisans invaded the town, these people found the ideal opportunity to join up with them. Almost all of the Jews in camp were eager to join the partisans, but the latter refused to take all of them along.
After much effort only a chosen few were allowed to join the partisan force, which proceeded through the Polish forests. Some former initiators of the resistance plan - such as Mechel Glanz, Shechter, Elfenbein, Katz, Miss Hinda Kornweiz, and a few others - had the good fortune to find themselves among the ranks of the heroic fighters under the command of the famous Soviet General, Kolpak.
But more about this in a later chapter.
The decisive final 'action' was in progress. The Judenfrei Action occurred during the holiday of Shavuot 9 June 1943 (6 Sivan 5703).
The Germans already knew that the Jews would leave the ghetto at night and return in the early morning when they saw that all was calm. This time, therefore, the Tarnopol SS-men arrived at 9:00 AM and caught all the Jews in the ghetto. The catastrophe arrived unexpectedly. The German wiliness was completely successful and gave them a big advantage. Participating in the 'action' in addition to the SS-men, the Schupo, Kripo and the Ukrainian militia, were the Jewish policemen from Tarnopol who even assisted in exposing the bunkers. With great brutality, the bloody job was completed at a rapid pace. By noon some six hundred Jews were assembled in the marketplace. From there they were quickly led to the field, the site of the mass graves of the Pre-Passover 'action.' There they were forced to undress and then were mowed down by machine gun. From those assembled, the SS-man, Leks, had selected more than twenty younger people and had them transported to the Skalat Camp, along with the clothes of the dead victims. As the Germans drove away from the execution site they sang and shouted: Long live the town without Jews!
Now the shtetl was completely emptied of Jews. The village peasants descended on the abandoned houses to steal the last domestic items. The Jews who had managed to hide at the last moment, in bunkers or in the fields, were rounded up by the peasants and all of these, some 120 in number, were handed over to the Schupo. Since this took place during the Christian celebration of Pentecost, the captives were jailed until after the holiday, then they were taken to the same mass grave site and slaughtered like the earlier victims.
After this final Jewish extermination, Skalat was officially declared to be Judenrein. Thereafter, if a Jew was caught, the Schupo shot him on the spot. There were many such cases. Reward posters offered a liter of liquor and 300 zlotys for each Jew turned in, dead or alive. Hardly a day went by without some merciless person collecting the prize.
A few days after the liquidation of the ghetto, the Germans also liquidated all the camps surrounding Skalat. Only the Skalat Camp itself was permitted to exist for another couple of weeks.
Yankif Perlmutter, a former prisoner in the Skalat Camp, who witnessed the liquidation of the ghetto Jews and who buried the victims, provides the following testimony:
The Judenrat knew the exact time of the planned 'action,' therefore they and their families went into hiding. At about 9:00 AM the Tarnopol SS-men, Ukrainians, Schupo and Kripo surrounded the ghetto. Almost all of the Jews were exposed. The SS-men leaped out of two buses and opened fire. Jews began to dash about in panic, but many were killed. Among the first to die was Aaron Friedman.
I was then a prisoner in the Skalat Camp to which Hermann Muller came and ordered a squad of people to dig a pit in the field. They chose 21 men, myself among them. Frightened, we were marched off by Muller. All along the way he kept repeating the words: 'Do not fear: nothing will happen to you if you work well.'
At the field he indicated a spot, an area ten meters long by five meters wide, and told us to dig a hole three meters deep. Then he left us. He returned a half hour later with Hefner, with whom he was conversing intimately. He called out to us, holding his watch, 'You must be finished in two hours!'
At noon he drove off toward the town. The Germans remaining with us beat us unrelentingly as we worked. Later some fifteen more Jews were brought from town to help
in the digging - my brother Mendl among them. The Germans beat the new recruits even more severely. If someone's work didn't please them they would shout: 'Lie down, you!' Then there would be a shot and that person would not rise again.
Muller returned from the town and, seeing that we were not yet finished, grew very angry but granted us one more hour. Soaked in sweat, we worked with all the strength we had left, while the soldiers shouted wildly and subjected us to brutal torture.
From afar we saw the Jews being led from the town. When the column was thirty meters away, we were ordered out of the pit. The next moments were filled with the terror of impending death. At the last minute, I gave to one of the, captured Jews, Magus Rothstein, a yellow armband, (camp prisoners who were not yet marked for death wore such armbands) and he quickly joined the group of camp Jews. Earlier my brother had been beaten by the Germans and now refused the yellow band. He thus remained among the doomed ghetto Jews. There was no time for discussions and persuasions, and I was unable to rescue my brother.
The leaders of the slaughter appeared: Muller and Leks, together with many soldiers in SS uniforms, the Ukrainian militia and all the local German civilian officials. We were led about fifteen meters away, ordered to lie face down on the ground, and told not to move under pain of death. None of us expected to leave there alive.
We heard children crying and women shrieking. The Jews were being brutally beaten as they were forced to undress. We felt rather than saw each group as it was led to the edge of the pit, then heard the firing and the sound of the Germans cheering and singing the Horst Wessel Song. We heard the sound of laughter and the clinking of glasses as the murderers drank toasts. Cheers were repeated after each round of shots. Terrible shrieks could be heard from the mass grave and we clearly knew that living bodies were still thrashing about.
After finishing their work, which lasted two hours, the murderers ordered us to stand up. Approaching the grave, we saw a terrible scene. We were ordered to layout in rows the chaotically-scattered bodies, many of whom were still alive. The SS-men drove off, leaving only the local police, such as Schneider, Marold, Paul, etc., to supervise our work. We pointed out people who were still alive and gasping for breath. In each instance the Germans administered a coup de grace, by firing into the grave.
Before we covered the grave, some sixty additional bodies were brought from town. They were tossed into the grave in their clothes. We buried our brothers and stamped down the mound of earth that was soaked in blood. 'Neatly, elegantly done,' the security policemen proclaimed - 'but the pyramid must be symmetrical!'
While the Germans busied themselves searching the clothing of the dead, I said the Kaddish prayer. Some among us took clothes for ourselves from the pile. I recognized my brother Mendl's clothes.
'Calm down, Jews,' the Germans reassured us, 'the same thing will happen to you soon enough!'
We loaded the clothes onto cars and rode back to camp.
Following the Little Action of November, 1942, the Judenrat realized that it stood on shaky ground. Its members saw that the German murder machine was following a calculated plan. You will be the last was the familiar message to those Jews who proved themselves useful in their efforts on behalf of the German extermination project. Sooner or later, it was felt, no one would emerge from the cutthroats' hands.
As ghettos everywhere were being liquidated and cities and towns were being declared Judenrein, there was only one place where one could hope to hold on to life a little longer: a concentration or labor camp. This, at least, was the recommendation of the German friends to their trusted co-workers. For that reason the Judenrat leaders commenced an intensive campaign for the establishment of a camp in Skalat.
In the existing camps around Skalat, such as Borki-Wielkie, Romanowka, Kamionka and Stopki, conditions were unbearable. There, back-breaking work, starvation and death were daily occurrences. The Judenrat members strove unceasingly to gain approval for a camp in Skalat, where conditions might be bearable and where they, the leaders, would be rescued when the ghetto was finally liquidated. They bribed German officials from the Otto Heil Co. to intervene in the matter. Obersturmbannfuhrer Rebel, then in command of all the camps around Skalat, gave his approval in exchange for a fortune in cash. At a designated time, the Skalat Camp was established as a branch of the Kamionka Camp under Rebel's direction. The Judenrat, still officially in office, used all of its influence to carry out the plan as quickly as possible. They called public meetings where Judenrat members delivered speeches about the 'vital need , for the enterprise which would allegedly rescue many Jewish lives from the German death sentence. The Jewish populace regarded the matter skeptically, seeing it merely as a precursor to new evil edicts, new troubles.
Only a handful reported voluntarily to the new Skalat Camp, so the Judenrat reverted to its old methods of force. The Jewish police were ordered to seize those whom the Judenrat had selected for the camp. On the first day they were able to collect approximately seventy younger men. Older people were collected on the following day. People tried to hide in various places and many Jews who wanted to avoid imprisonment in the Skalat Camp sought employment in the surrounding villages, but the Judenrat sent its minions there as well. Relatives and/or close friends of the Judenrat leadership were spared actual imprisonment in the camp: their names were merely carried on the camp's roster, while they continued to live at home. There were others who still had enough funds to buy their way out or to be replaced by poorer Jews. Young Jewish people tried to hide to avoid the widespread nets of the catchers. They were not always successful since the leadership kept count and knew everyone who would not submit to them.
The former camp inmate Nissen Klein of Mikulince provides the following testimony:
I was present when Nirler said to one of his police people: 'Eisenstark and Feinstein must be turned in, dead or alive, otherwise bring in their families.'[Page 48]
The policeman drags in Eisenstark's mother and sister. The two women are pale and frightened. Nirler stands, holding his riding crop, staring sharply at them, and asks the mother quietly, but with a tone of command: 'Where have you hidden your son?'
'I don't know,' the old woman replies in a tremulous voice. 'How should I know?'
'Will you turn in your hidden son or not?' She doesn't answer. Nirler approaches her and delivers a resounding slap on the face. The old woman cries out and her eyes redden with tears. Nirler asks again, more forcefully: 'Will you turn in your son or not?'
The mother chokes back her tears but cannot speak. The savage punches her and the old woman falls to the floor in a faint. Now he begins to shout ferociously: 'Will you turn in your son?!'
He shakes his victim until she revives, stands up and begins to sob: 'Where can I find him? Even if I knew where he was...'
The enraged Nirler assaults her again with his fists and his feet, using the riding crop with sadistic savagery, beating his victim to the floor again. The old woman gathered all her strength, stood up and began to scream: 'You inhuman murderer! You outcast! You're worse than the Germans! You suck the blood from us!...Wait: your living flesh will fall from your bones someday!'
At this, Nirler's savagery reached its peak. She had besmirched his honor. He fell upon her like a wild beast and beat her until she lost consciousness. Bystanders who saw this event trembled with rage: their blood boiling. But no one dared to speak out, fearing the brute - the lord over life and death.
His anger subsided, Nirler calms down somewhat. In the controlled voice of command he calls out: 'Friedlander, come here! Cut off this woman's hair and put her in jail.'
The policeman-cum-barber came in quickly, lifted the unconscious woman onto a chair and carried out the order.
The same procedure was performed on the sister of the fugitive Eisenstark, and both women were put into the cellar, which served as the camp jail. The women were tormented for three days. When it finally became apparent that they really did not know the whereabouts of their son and brother, they were released, bruised and with their heads shaved bare.
The Skalat Camp was opened on 11 November 1942. Within a month it held over three hundred inmates, including about fifty lonely women, most of whom were from outside Skalat: the severed branches of destroyed families. The camp building was the distillery, which included many storage depots and offices. Work scheduling and the establishment of camp routine and discipline went forward at full speed.
Several workshops were set up, all laboring exclusively for the Germans. The Obersturmbannfuhrer had assigned a certain Jew, Heniek Zukerman, formerly the Kommandant of the Kamionka Camp, to organize the Skalat installation. He was considered a specialist in camp matters and was ordered to set up the Skalat Camp on the model of Kamionka. This talented fellow, based on his previous experiences, was able to establish a truly 'model camp' with a regime that could bear comparison to other camps in the area. To begin, he separated the camp Jews into sections and brigades. Those who were stronger and healthier were assigned to hard labor in the quarry at Nowosiolka, to be used for the benefit of the Otto Heil firm. Some were assigned to other physically demanding jobs. The weakest were assigned to a separate group, which he called the Shit Brigade. This brigade was made up of the so called Kalibrakli - people broken in body and spirit. They were mostly occupied by such maintenance tasks as carrying water, chopping wood, sweeping, hauling garbage, cleaning privies and peeling potatoes in the kitchen. The women worked in the laundry and in the kitchen.
The actual work during the twelve-hour day was not as awful and unbearable as the camp discipline and the attitudes of the officials. All inmates were awakened at 4:00 AM for daily roll-call.
Regardless of rain, cold or frost, all brigades were required to line up and wait for the camp-elder, Zukerman, to emerge in pajamas, carrying his riding crop, to receive the reports of the brigade and group leaders. Achtung!Achtung! Hats off -went the daily refrain in what was called the Apel Platz, accompanied by daily scenes of violence against the camp Jews.
Here the orders were given and the slave-workers were sorted for work. Then from here the various labor brigades marched off to their assigned workstations. Although the camp was directed by Jews themselves, all went in a similar fashion as in other concentration camps: conducted with the precision and savagery prevalent in concentration camps.
One specific case at a typical roll-call will serve to show the cruelty with which the camp leaders treated their own brothers. One day the camp leader, Zukerman, chose some of the stronger inmates for the heavy labor at the quarry. Among them was Saul Friedman, the shoemaker, a man of about 56. He asked to be excused because of his age and weakness, begging to be assigned, instead, to the 'Shit Brigade.' What audacity! Zukerman shouted in Polish, the official language of the camp, and began to hit the man mercilessly until he fell to the ground in a pool of blood. After the beating, Shol-the-cobbler was truly incapable of heavy labor and was detailed, as a cripple, to peeling potatoes in the kitchen.
Zukerman soon chose as his assistant Bumek Rus, a former law student, and previously a member of the Grzimalow Judenrat, whose behavior filled with terror all the Jews who came into contact with him. A month after Zukerman had successfully established the camp, he was ordered by the central camp authorities in Kamionka to organize a similar labor camp in Podwoloczyska, and Rus took over command of the Skalat Camp. Obersturmbannfuhrer Rebel, or his aide, Sharfuhrer Maler, would come by every few days to make sure that all was in order. They would conduct careful examinations of the inmates, creating mortal fear among them, and providing them with random beatings for no apparent reason. The Germans would shout insults and curse wildly, while issuing commands which the Jewish Kommandants would accept servilely, intoning the obedient compliance: Befehl Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer!
Camp visits by Germans were usually the occasion for a lavish reception where pastries and beverages were served and where eggnog and wine flowed like water. The Skalat Schupo rarely ever missed these celebrations. Often they would go on until late at night, ending with female entertainment provided by the camp management. The Germans would leave, carrying away expensive gifts, cheered in spirit and with favorable opinions of their loyal servants.
The severe (1942) winter weather made life in the camp very difficult, though close contact was maintained with the broken-up families remaining in the ghetto. At that time a relative or friend would help the inmates with some food or warm garments as they passed through the town on their way to work. Soon, however, things became much worse.
Life in the Skalat Camp was moving towards extermination. As in all concentration camps, after several weeks people were hardly recognizable: spiritually broken and physically exhausted, with no will or reason to live. The fetid camp atmosphere eroded one's humanity and people's behavior at times was wild, almost beastly. After their awful experiences: the 'actions,' the slaughters, the ghetto and the constant fear of death, they were now forced to wear the camp clothes with numbers and yellow badges, while being fed a diet almost totally devoid of nutrition, and to have a decent meal was the dream of every camp Jew. To avoid a beating was to experience a miracle. The camp inmates were in a constant struggle between opposing forces: fear and hope, apathy and strength, powerlessness and a desire for vengeance. They also experienced profound pessimism and a strong desire to survive. All of these contrasts commingled and affected their emotional balance. Often, this inner turmoil resulted in fatalistic approaches toward vital matters, indifference toward one's surroundings and obliviousness toward their common fate. Thoughts and concerns about the future did not go beyond the next day. Further plans were beyond the realm of possibility. The mere thought of what would happen after tomorrow was terrifying. Yet, such evil visions were driven off with all the strength at their command.
At the same time, there was a noteworthy phenomenon among the Jews under German rule, both in general and particularly within the concentration camps, where, despite all their bodily and mental suffering, some sick people actually recovered suddenly. What secret power might have blown the breath of life back into those shriveled limbs? Would it have been possible, under normal circumstances, for bodies and souls to withstand such trials? Typhus victims with raging fevers were known to work and survive. Badly clothed and shod, Jews managed to live through floods and bitter cold. Perhaps someday science will be able to explain the puzzle of this biological anomaly.
Inmates in the camps were not regarded as human. The camp population was considered a sort of imprisoned band of criminal slaves who had been condemned to death. For the sake of a few extra weeks or months of life, they would give up their humanity. The camp people were considered creatures without feelings, without will and without reason. Anyone who wished could beat and belittle them, while they were forbidden even to react. They were forced to endure both spiritual and physical pain with superhuman patience. Camp people regarded their own personal tragedies coldly: their pain had hardened them and left them with obdurate hearts. They could witness bloody and horrible scenes while chewing their bread. They learned of the deaths of close relatives and friends thinking resignedly the same fate awaits me, too -sooner or later. Their tear ducts had long since dried up.
In the camps, the population was separated into two groups: the oppressors and the oppressed. The first included the camp leaders, the brigade leaders and other oppressors. In other camps, membership in that 'upper stratum' was the privilege of the Gentiles: either of the SS-men or of Gentile inmates. In the case of the Skalat Camp, the conditions were different. All of the authorities here were Jewish. The SS-men, as indicated, only came to check up every few days. That was sufficient, however, to last until the next visit.
The authorities of the Skalat Camp earned their infamy by the brutality toward their own brothers. Here, most of the people in the upper stratum came from the corrupt Judenrat, which the German machine had converted into an institution of demoralization and betrayal. Within the framework of a locked labor camp, they had a fruitful ground for their vile and beastly acts. They became appropriate tools in the hands of the Germans for the execution of their plans and wishes. Robbery, extortion and womanizing made up their days. Usually drunk, or exhausted by their carousing, as well as tense, unruly and violent, they brandished whips over the heads and backs of fellow Jews, while berating and cursing them. The clothing of the camp official gave him the appearance of an underworld dandy or pimp: grey-green riding breeches, shiny black new-looking boots, a brown leather jacket with a stiff collar, like that of a boulevardier,
smelling of eau de cologne, with a cigarette between his lips. The camp people trembled in fear before such 'big shots. 'In their after-hours, they ate and drank the best available. They would stay up to all hours, often until dawn, playing cards and drinking. Money had lost all value to them. They used bank notes to light their cigarettes and the amounts they wagered were staggering. They obtained sexual favors from the women and girls in the camp, who were terrorized into acceding to the slightest whim of these rulers. All the authorities lived in the camp building, together with the inmates, and it was under the same roof that the orgies and festivities took place.
The administrators and oppressors of the camp were a specific type of person. If everything was lost, then one should savor that which life yet had to offer. Trapped in a diabolic snare, one could live befitting the devil; beyond the corpses, beyond the abyss of sin and crime, beyond filth and self-loathing. They eked out the last bit of life, even at the cost of other lives. A few Jews will have the right to remain alive under Hitler and I intend to be one of them, Kommandant Rus would say - and he did survive.
After the Sobbing Graves 'action,' the entire Judenrat fell apart. The main leaders, Nirler, Zimmer, Lempert and Schoenberg, had managed to escape along with their families. All of them were now in the camp, from which they continued to direct the lives of the last remnants of the hopeless Jews who still wandered among the ruins of the ghetto. This handful of Jews knew quite well that the end was near and inevitable. It seemed to them that now the danger of death would be less in the camp, therefore everyone strived to get into the camp. This privilege came at a high price. The camp management explained that the money was needed to bribe the Gestapo. Actually, most of the money disappeared into the deep pockets of the camp officials. The corrupt life of the camp gentry grew ever more expensive. Those Jews who had no money were not accepted into the camp. It was ironic that while previously people had to pay to be saved from the camp, now they had to pay to be admitted.
In this way, the camp population grew by a few dozen, including women and children. These dealings for places in the 'Life Saving Skalat Camp' went on until the final liquidation of the ghetto. With the liquidation of the ghetto, there was no longer a Judenrat .
Nirler, having lost his kingdom now became the 'prime minister' to the camp-leader, Rus. Now it was Nirler who, every morning at 5:00, would call the roll of the inmates. He too, like his superior, was dressed in pajamas and carried a riding crop. In so brief a time, he managed to create around himself an aura of fear and 'respect.' All who entered the camp office had to stand and take off their caps If some newcomer failed to follow this custom, even if out of ignorance, he was brutally beaten and confined for several days. Other former leaders of the ghetto (Zimmer, Lempert, Schoenberg, Dr. Brif, etc. ) gained infamy by their evil acts. They took charge of the work details and, following the German example, lorded over everyone. Decency and justice simply did not exist for them, even with reference to former friends and acquaintances. The Jewish ghetto police, which had been transferred to the service of the camp authorities, also wrote a bloody page in the painful history of the Skalat Camp.
There were, however, exceptions. As reported earlier, the policeman Shikale-ganif, known in town as a depraved petty thief, when confronted with situations involving life and death showed more humanity and decency in carrying out his orders than the proclaimed intellectua1s with diplomas to their credit Shikale-ganif felt the need to give alms to the poor. His thief's conscience would at times awaken as he was carrying out some injustice. He was known to have let dozens of poor people escape certain death by letting them out through a back door, while others of the 'intelligentsia' accepted money to trade the lives of the poor for the rich. The morality of someone like Rus, the camp-leader, or Lempert and others of that ilk, was buried in a far deeper swamp.
In other cases, the common woe cemented a sort of solidarity of spirit among ordinary camp inmates. They huddled together during free time, sharing stories, consoling each other with reports of 'good news' and visualizing images of the future after this is all over.
Often, people would share bits of bread while they debated how to accommodate the latest decrees. Jews also conducted trade among themselves and with the world outside, mostly in the form of barter. There was an urgent need to trade, to earn something which could facilitate the path to survival. Widespread commerce was conducted behind the backs of the camp authorities, especially in regard to obtaining bread. In the beginning, the surplus from such transactions was earmarked for the camp Jews in Kamionka. This secret operation was led by Nissen Klein of Mikulince, who weekly sent bread to the brothers in the nearby Kamionka extermination camp, where things were much worse.
The work brigades, arranged m military forms, would march out early each morning. While passing through the town, especially near the Schupo building, they were required to sing marching songs. In content the songs were mostly crude and amateur. The lowbrows among the inmates would think up dirty lyrics to fit familiar tunes, and their naturalistic language renders them unfit for recording here. The singing was intended to prove to the world that life in the camp made people hale and hearty. The Germans seemed to find a sadistic pleasure in hearing their victims sing.
As is known, orchestras played in all of the large camps, accompanying the work brigades as they marched out through the gates. It was to the sounds of recorded music, blaring from loudspeakers, that millions created in His image met their end in so many extermination camps. In Skalat, as in all other camps, songs were created that depicted camp life in all its sorrow. Typical is the following song, which was written in the Kamionka Camp by an unknown author. The song was sung on various occasions by the inmates of the Skalat Camp.
In nineteen hundred and forty-two,
A new decree to us came through,
Each father his son and daughter must lead,
Like a butcher with cattle, the slaughter feed,
Oh, what can we do and what can we say?
We are caught in the trap the Nazis lay.
Oh, comrades and brothers, in camp we are caught:
How dark our world and our lives are naught.
Friday, oh Friday: on Sabbath eves,
Each Jew sits and each Jew grieves:
With nothing to drink and nothing to eat
A slap in the face is all he receives!
Oh, what can we do and what can we say?.. etc.
On Sabbath, on Sabbath, on the Sabbath at dawn
Get out and get working until you're worn!
I want so much to see my home town
But the work order as yet has not come down.
Oh, what can we do and what can we say? ..etc.
Comrade, oh comrade, dear brother of mine,
One mother bore both of us in a distant time.
Today they still call you by your true name
But me they call Scarecrow!, to my shame.
Oh, what can we do and what can we say? ..etc.
The song, in its simplicity, powerfully reflects the daily life in the camp. The tragedy of the camp people is reflected in both a serious and ironic form. One camp Jew envies another; so alike are they that it could be said that' one mother bore them both. 'Yet, one of them is still healthy enough to work and be regarded as human, hence called by his real name - while the other, ill and exhausted, is considered one of the kalibraki. The administrators are unconcerned whether a person has food or drink, but their supply of beatings is never exhausted. The camp Jew often yearns to see his town, to meet familiar people and perhaps to snatch an extra bit of bread, but the work-column, confined and under guard, has not yet been ordered to march to the workplace.
So sang the camp Jew in Kamionka, and so he sang, too, in Skalat. With a song on his lips he marched through the streets - while silently enduring brutality and pain.
58 groschen - Pennies, from Polish grosz. Return
59 Judenfrei - Free of Jews. Return
60 Shavuot - The Feast of Weeks, a Jewish holiday - celebrated seven after Passover. Return
61 Horst Wessel Song - A Nazi song. Return
62 The following four chapters describes the origins and functioning of the Skalat Camp and, therefore, go back in time when the camp and the ghetto co-existed. L. Milch Return
63 Kalibraki -The Shit Brigade in the Skalat Camp (the crippled, aged and sick). Return
64 Achtung! - Attention! Return
65 Apel Platz - Roll call square. Return
66 Befehl - Command (at your command). Return
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