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23. The Passover Seder in Camp

It happened after the Pre-Passover 'action' in 1943. All the clothes of the victims had been brought to camp for sorting, baling and transporting to Germany. The camp Jews experienced terrible moments in the course of this work. Often someone would recognize his child's dress, or the clothes of a brother, father or dear friend. Although their emotions had long since been dulled, a bloodied garment could have a shocking effect on the strained nerves of an inmate. Who could say whether tomorrow or the next day, some other Jew would be sorting his blood-soaked clothes?

Often American dollars or gold coins would be found sewn into the seams of the clothes. The overseers would watch everyone's hands and the ordinary inmate would wonder: “Whom will these enrich? Obviously some officials. But couldn't we better use the gold to rescue ourselves?” A piece of jewelry would fall from a garment to the floor, it would shine for a moment and then the glow would be darkened by the thoughts of one's own perdition.

A certain part of the camp population sought solace in religion. Hassidic young men, such as Asher Geter, Mechel Klein, Nisan Messing and others, would organize prayer sessions. Marking the yahrtzeit[67] and saying the Kaddish prayer were the most moving expressions in this sorrowful existence. The daring to be pious under those conditions gave hope to the discouraged and brought dreams of liberation to their souls if not to their bodies. For some, faith and prayer could sometimes cancel out decrees.

It was the first night of Passover. The inmates returned from work, tired to the point of exhaustion. They remembered the Festival of Spring and Freedom. Nature is waking up to life: the skies turning blue, the earth green; first born sons are dying, slaves are becoming free people. The brutal overseers are assailed by various plagues. Pharaohs drown. And homes of the past awake in memories.

They remember a table covered in white, candles flicker in silver candlesticks, the Pesach[68] table is prepared, the cups of wine in place. At the head of the table a seat is pillowed for the Master of the Seder[69] to eat reclined, as a king. Joy shines all about, encircling wife, children, and friends. Remembering this, eyes start to glisten.

Someone suddenly said: “Jews, let's prepare a Seder. Isn't this the first Seder night? The Kommandants are carrying on over there - we can take care that they don't catch us. We'll have the Seder! “Lookouts were posted at the gate and on the staircase. If anyone were to appear, an agreed-upon signal would be given and everyone would pretend to be asleep on their cots.

The secret quickly spread from ear to ear and soon the very air was filled with it. A table is born. From out of the table grow two burning candles. A bit of matzo lies as a reminder, a tin plate on the table bears haroset[70] and maror.[71] Three Jews sit on a bench and prepare to repeat the wondrous tale of bondage and freedom. “Today we are still slaves, but next year we shall be free men!” The walls are draped with dark shadows that move surreptitiously with the flames of the flickering candles. Rows of heads look down from the double-decked cots, their frightened glances turn in anticipation to the pale light from the Seder table. Hearts tremble, uplifted in ecstasy a shiver rises from the depths of the sleeping shelves, from the corners, from under the table, from beneath the beds, from all of the crowded surroundings. The room is filled with a mass of human heads, resembling frightened ghosts. They want to hear the reading of the Haggadah.[72]

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The familiar melodies rise: Avodim Hoyino (we were slaves)...times gone by...once there was a conspiracy in B'nai Brak... quiet!...quieter!.. They will hear us! The singing grows softer and softer, the ears, sharpened by fear, bend to the melody but it is hard to catch the living words...quieter! Still more quiet lest we be heard. The path to the heart is open, and the melody is felt even if not heard. From here it is but a short step to the tear ducts. Soon everyone is crying. The very air is transformed into a lake of tears. Everyone remembers the past, yesterday, today...

From the table one can barely hear the intoned words: Blood...Frogs...Lice... - and all about one feels the impact of the plagues. Were there camps in Egypt?

The great mystery of faith, though mixed with pain, descends over everyone's spirit and proffers a measure of solace.

Asher Getter chants the Hallel (hymn of praise). When the four cups have been filled with tears, Nisan Messing ends with the allegorical song, Chad Gadyo (I had a little Kid).
Thus the camp inmates celebrated the night of the first Seder.

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24. The Ghostly Promenade

Observing the tragic conditions of the remaining handful of Jews in the ghetto, crammed into thirty huts and, fearing new 'actions,' spending nights in bunkers or in open fields, the camp Jews felt that for the time being their lives were safer than those of their brothers in the ghetto. The camp Jews had been spared during the recent 'actions,' and it was said. that in the future the Jews in the camp would be permitted to live. Many unfortunates in the ghetto wished to be accepted into the camp.

Since the ten Jewish policemen had arrived from Tarnopol, the panic in town had reached a point of desperation. One knew that the days of his life were numbered. Truthfully speaking, the Shavuot 'action' had extinguished the last spark of Jewish hope and illusion. The shtetl had been declared Judenrein. Then, too, the camp had been spared. Now, however, the last Jews who had managed to hide and to escape the liquidation 'action' came there begging for admission. Except for a few who succeeded in gaining admission, the camp, with its 400 Jewish inmates, remained a barred enclave. It was one of the few remaining legal Jewish settlements in the area.

By then the ghetto had been destroyed and leveled. Nevertheless a few scores of Jews remained, hidden still in undiscovered underground bunkers. One by one, driven by hunger and thirst, they were forced to leave those hiding places and to find shelter elsewhere. During the night, moving like shadows, these cast-out souls wandered the backroads and streets. At the very edge of the abyss they still sought some way to stay alive. Many fell into the hands of unscrupulous peasants, who first robbed them and then turned them over to the police - to death.

Some of these wanderers slipped into the courtyard of the camp and hid in the piles of furniture and other household goods that had been brought there from the Jewish homes. With almost acrobatic skills they made nests there in crannies, and in the nooks of closets, twisted and huddled together. Some used pocket knives or their own fingernails to scratch out mole-like lairs. These people clung to life with the last remnants of their strength. Their limbs cramped, hungry and dirty, they lay there all day wretchedly, still and afraid to move. But late at night, when all the camp was wrapped in sleep, they would crawl out of their hiding places and soundlessly, on tiptoe, make their way to the garbage dump in the courtyard in order to find some potato peelings or other kitchen waste. These were the provisions that sustained them.

Such was the ghostly promenade that stole through the camp courtyard night after night without anyone's knowledge. At times, rain would wash their skeletal bodies: refreshing them, waking them and cooling their fevered brows, while their parched tongues licked at the raindrops as though they were wine. Although their clothes were rotted and revealed their ribs, and although they were almost devoured by lice, yet they longed to survive: to live!

When the camp Jews discovered the colony of living corpses in their courtyard, they considered themselves luckier despite their own disaster. Some would sneak out of their barracks during the night and, in great secrecy, hand the unfortunates bits of bread and potatoes. This fraternal aid of the camp Jews eased the lives of their rejected brothers.

Who knows how long this “idyllic life” might have continued had the camp administrators not learned of it. “This is impossible!” they shouted, “What will Rebel say if he learns of it? All of the camp Jews will suffer!”

The leadership decided to put an end to the entire affair. One moonlit night, at about 1:00 AM, Nirler, Kommandant Rus and Shikale-ganif appeared in the courtyard, rolled up their sleeves and began to remove the piles of furniture and other junk from the yard. Soon they were dragging out, one after another the living beings, who hardly resembled people by now: emaciated, with dark, sunken eyes, they stood, terrified, trembling on shaky twig-like legs. Although to the camp leaders these were familiar people from their own town, it was difficult to recognize them; their faces were pale, their clothes in tatters, as though they had in fact been found in the garbage. Their shoulders twitched with itching, and they gave off a

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nauseating odor. Amid the noisy and constant banging and scraping of moving furniture, this group of some fifty unfortunate souls stood, awaiting further developments. The scene, lit by the moon, was a ghastly horror, as though anticipating a dance of skeletons.

“If you want permission to remain in camp, you must hand over your money, gold, rings, watches and any other valuables. If you don't have them you must leave,” announced one of the three pursuers, holding out his hat and indicating with a slight move of his hand where the valuables were to be deposited.

“Oh, dearest Jews, here you are -just let us live!” the Jews responded and each of them gave whatever he had. Those who had nothing were placed to one side.

“Though you have nothing - you will be included as well,” one of the three leaders said magnanimously.

The round-up lasted more than two hours. Dawn was about to break and the group of stragglers was allowed to remain alone and unguarded. There was no fear that any of them might escape - for where would they go? Nor did any of them have the strength to run, but now they could breathe fresh air and the hope of being permitted to remain in camp gave them a new strength. They held their aching limbs, rigidly, as though in a trance. Their movements did not appear voluntary but convulsive, as dying people do moments before death.

“But why haven't they admitted us into the camp,” someone asked. “We've paid, after all.”

“Because we're lice-ridden,” someone else replied. “In the morning, when the camp Jews will be gone to work, we will have the chance to wash and they will give us clean clothes and food.” Food...a logical observation, everyone agreed - if one could manage to survive until morning.

In the morning, the Schupo arrived and led all the unfortunates away. They were taken to the cemetery and shot - putting an end to their suffering and to their lives.

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25. The First Camp-Action

Every event in and around the camp left its mark on the inmates. The camp began to take on the appearance of an insane asylum. Word was spread about the annihilations of all the camps in the surrounding area: Kamionka where there were firing squads, Borki-Wielkie where twelve hundred Jews were burned to death, and Podwolczyska which was wiped out. The feeling grew that the time was nearing for the Skalat Camp as well.

Almost every day, SS-men came on inspection tours. They did not display the beastly savagery of the past. On the contrary, they continually assured everyone that here in Skalat nothing would occur. To emphasize the importance of the Jewish enterprise, they placed large orders for work with the workshops: another sign that these Jews were indispensable. As in the past, the Germans would carouse at parties especially arranged for them. They would get drunk, laugh and play cards.

In time such revelries became orgies, assuming wild and sadistic forms. On a particular night, the drunken Obersturmbannfuhrer Rebel commanded all the girls in the camp to appear naked in the assembly hall. Neither pleading nor additional bribes could dissuade him. The girls came, driven by shouts and shooting. The hall was bright and rowdy. The band was playing. Suddenly Rebel stood in the center of the hall and ordered the girls to pass in review, one by one, in a measured tread. He beat them with his whip, shouting wildly: “Bad! Do it again!” The girls were forced to repeat the promenade, in the measured tread, under a hail of whiplashes. Laughter and shouts from the revelers and moaning and sobs from the tortured girls blended with the sounds of music.

Meanwhile, the camp management, understanding the impending danger, bent every effort to establish close contact with whichever Germans they could, in order to secure accurate and swift information about their situation. They succeeded in finding one such person in the Schupo member, Marold, whose main motive was, of course, the huge bribes which he received.

On 29 June 1943 this informant came to the camp and whispered a message to Nirler: “The sentence has come down! The liquidation 'action' will take place early tomorrow morning. You have time to save yourselves,” the German said.

Nirler quickly warned everyone: “Hide yourselves wherever you can!” Everyone was shattered by the news. How and where is one to escape? Nirler, Rus and other authorities went off with their families during the night, going outside of town or to villages and well paid for sanctuaries which they had long since arranged for themselves. Many of the inmates, mainly younger people, ran off during the night in various directions. They had no alternative. They ran without planned destinations, wherever their feet carried them. Some 140 people remained in place: the older women and the majority of the 'Shit Brigade' as well as a few lone children, of whom no one took any notice during the general panic. Some of them were ready for whatever might happen so long as it put an end to their torture. Others were dull and apathetic. A small group continued to believe in miracles or that no person should oppose the will of God. However the main reasons for most of those staying behind was the lack of financial resources and having no place to go.

The warning from the Schupo member proved accurate. On 30 June 1943 (27 Sivan 5703), armed SS-men from Tarnopol, along with the local Schupo, Kripo and the Ukrainian police surrounded the Skalat Camp. All remaining inmates were quickly taken to the field outside of town, where the graves of the victims of the previous 'actions,' were located, and, standing beside prepared pits, they were all shot down. Occasionally peasants brought in newly captured Jews who had been wandering .in the fields, those who had fled the camp the night before, and these Jews, too, were made to stand in front of the machine guns. The total number of victims slaughtered that day is estimated at two hundred (200).

The victims were buried by the Ukrainian Construction Battalions.

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Groups of camp escapees wandered the fields, desperate and starving. Seeing neither a goal nor a way out, some headed off into the woods. Most, however, applied to the Otto Heil firm in the nearby village of Nowosiolka, about the possibility of being re-employed. The reply was unclear because the firm had to consult higher authority. The Otto Heil Company sent a representative to Tarnopol who returned that same day with the “good news” that those who had managed to remain alive could organize themselves in a new locked camp in Skalat.

The next day a truck arrived loaded with foodstuff for a limited period of time. Groups of Jews began to return and a young man named Fogel took over the running of the newly-formed camp. When the former camp administrators learned of this, they left their hiding places and returned to resume their previous “positions.” Some two hundred surviving Jews gathered together. The former camp procedures were re-established and the inmates returned to their work in the quarries. The Germans also sent out Jewish labor brigades to other places, since by now they were the only source of Jewish labor.

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26. The Partisans

A few days after the first camp 'action,' a large group of the surviving Jews was back at work in the quarry at Nowosiolka, near the woods, some two kilometers from Skalat.

It was just about noon when the inmates were permitted to rest from their labor. Suddenly some shepherds ran up and, with bated breath, related the news that Soviet partisans had arrived, that they were now in the woods and had said that before the day was over, they would enter the town. None of the Jews dared to believe the story. From where? How? But the constant sound of gunfire told them that something unexpected was about to happen. By this time no one feared gunfire or exploding bombs: on the contrary, they lightened the spirits and evoked a kind of vengeful glee. By all means! May they thrash the enemy all day and all night, they felt.

Soon squadrons of airplanes appeared in the sky, some flying quite low. Seeing groups of people in the quarry, the planes loosed salvoes of bullets upon the Jews, who, desperate and frightened, tried to run across the fields. They crawled in among the stalks and waited in suspense for the danger to pass.

Meanwhile the news spread like wildfire through the town and neighboring villages. The German and Ukrainian police ran about like poisoned rats, not knowing what to do. The Germans finally managed to organize some groups to offer resistance to the encroaching enemy. Telephone messages went out to the surrounding villages ordering all members of the Ukrainian police to report at once, in full battle gear. Full battle readiness was also ordered for the Schupo, the Kripo and all other armed forces. Some of the officials and higher ranking members of the German institutions fled into hiding.

At about 5:00 PM. the lead patrol of Soviet partisans appeared in the village of Nowosiolka. The German and Ukrainian defending forces were massed behind the woods near Nowosiolka and, by 7:00 PM, the attack began on the village which the Soviet partisans soon captured, almost without a struggle. At the woods, a battle developed where the Germans attempted to encircle the much stronger Soviet forces. They were unsuccessful and, after a thirty minute battle, the partisans had wiped out almost three quarters of the German and Ukrainian fighters. A small remnant barely managed to escape with their lives.

Then the partisans, led by the famous General Kolpak, surrounded the abandoned town of Skalat and occupied it. On the battlefield lay some one hundred dead, about sixty of them Ukrainians and the remainder Germans. The Jews in the Skalat Camp were joyful: the Soviet partisans had assumed power and many Jews believed that salvation had truly arrived. Naively, they believed that the Jews of the camp would join the partisans. It did not turn out that way.

The partisans worked all night long in the town. They dynamited the four small bridges leading to the outskirts, blew up the police and military buildings and generally destroyed everything that related to the Germans. The camp Jews were overjoyed with the partisans and spent the night leading them to the enemy institutions. They freed all the prisoners in the jail and blew up the cells. They confiscated all the stored goods and foodstuffs from the Ukrainian cooperative association warehouse. During this time, the local population remained in hiding. When the partisans prepared to leave, almost all of the Jews asked that they be allowed to accompany them, but the partisans refused, explaining that they needed healthy people to be soldiers, not broken camp inmates who could barely drag their feet. The next day, however, when the Soviet partisans left the shtetl, they were followed by about thirty of the healthier camp Jews, who, under no circumstances, intended to remain behind and await inevitable death. The partisan soldiers drove them off with sticks, but they continued to run alongside. After much effort and exertion, a few days later they were eventually given weapons and included among the partisan ranks.

The majority of those young people from Skalat perished in the great battle that took place in the Carpathian Mountains. Those who survived that struggle were Mechel Glanz, Nadzio Weinsaft, Buzio Eisenstark, Motek Brik, Bucio Elfenbein and one girl: Hinda Kornweitz. All later joined the Polish Army, which was organized in Russia and participated in battles against the Germans. Among the Jewish heroes

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from Skalat, who died in those battles, were Sholem Schechter, Yankif Hecht, Moishe Axelrod, Yeshua Katz (and his twelve year old son), Dr. Hadassah Mendelewicz, Yisroel Brik, Avram Rosenzweig, Kuperszmit, along with many others who brought glory to the Jewish People. Honor to their memory!

*****
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Eyewitness report of the Ex-Partisan from Skalat, Bucio Elfenbein:

“During the last months of the Skalat Camp, a resistance movement began to grow, to which my brother and I belonged. Our primary aim was to obtain arms and to use them against the enemy in the course of the next 'action.'

Short meetings would take place in the camp courtyard, amid the scattered heaps of furniture which had been brought from the ghetto. Arms had to be purchased and we demanded the necessary funds from everyone, but first of all from our rich 'camp comrades': Zimrner, Lempert, Nirler, etc., - it was to no avail. The 'gentlemen' refused us.

And then, suddenly, the partisans of General Kolpak appeared! What euphoria filled the handful of camp Jews who had been under a death sentence! Moreover, what joy we felt watching the Germans and Ukrainians in their terrified retreat. However, quickly realizing that this was not yet liberation, we experienced bitter disappointment.

The leadership of the partisan brigades, which Mechel Glanz and I contacted, acted purely out of military considerations and would not hear about taking along several hundred people, including women and children. They only allowed thirty people to accompany them, including four women. Mechel and I were both assigned to the Third Company of the Third Battalion. The other Jews were assigned to other battalions (of which there were four).

I remember clearly the first test under fire I underwent, on the day after we left Skalat. It was in the area of Krecilow, where our Third Company was assigned to pin down the Germans who, after their defeat in Skalat, had concentrated quite a large force near the highway. We proceeded in a long line from the partisan camp to the site of our assignment. I marched with special pride since, for the first time, I had an opportunity to take part in a real battle and would finally be able to take vengeance for the murder of my mother and for all our suffering! At our leave-taking, my comrades and those who knew me from Skalat could see the joy of battle-readiness on my face! At that point I could think of nothing else.

The battle ended in a great rout of the Germans and our partisans had almost a clear road all the way to the Dniester River (approx. 22 km away). We did engage in several skirmishes along the way. Between the Dniester crossing and the Carpathians we were in major battles. The Germans sent tanks against us and strafed us daily from airplanes. Hunger and exertion had weakened me to the point of exhaustion. Loss of blood from a wound in my wrist weakened me still further. But I did not lose hope and managed to climb to the highest peaks of the Carpathians.

And there is another episode of those days I cannot forget. Our brigade was located in the hilly region between Delatyn and Mikuliczyn. We were seated in a field, engrossed in a radio communique being read by the aide to the company leader and we heard the news that Mussolini had been driven from power. (I didn't know the date, since by then I had lost all sense of time.) Indescribable joy! We all believed that the war was finally at an end! I searched for Mechel Glanz, hoping to share the overwhelming news, but could not find him.

I was called to headquarters and learned that I had guard duty that night. My post was on a hilly forest path. It was a beautiful clear, moonlit night. I came to a post that once held a directional sign. By the light of the moon I made out the Hebrew letters carved into the wood: the first and last names of the chalutzim[73] from Lodz, Warsaw, Lwow, etc. They had been here in 1938 for pre-emigration training. Below one family name and the date, they had carved: L'shana haba'a b'Yerushalayim.[74] I wondered: were their dreams realized? Were any of them alive?

Only six of our thirty Skalat partisans survived. Some were wounded, as, for example, Hinda Kornweitz who was hurt in the leg. The others perished in battles and bombardments.”

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27. The Last Act of the Tragedy

Skalat remained ungoverned for three days after the partisans departed. Understandably, the Jews expected severe reprisals. When the Germans did return, the local Gentile population informed them about the Jewish behavior and that many Jews had left with the partisans. The Germans, on their part, did little about this information at first: they wanted to avoid alarming the camp Jews and to keep them firmly in their grasp .

Such tactics had always served to deceive the Jews before, enabling the Germans, subsequently, to send the Jews to their deaths. In fact, many Jews emerged from hiding and returned to the camp after learning that all was quiet there. By this time there were some one hundred fifty Jews in the camp, working in the quarries outside of Skalat.

The shtetl was officially considered Judenrein. During this period, there were many incidents in which peasants who had been sheltering Jews murdered them themselves or turned them over to the police. Lonek Kleiner and Beryl Pikholz were among those who met their deaths that way. They were bound with barbed wire and then stabbed to death. When old clothes were brought to the camp for sorting and shipment, the inmates could tell at once how many more Jews had been murdered. Often they even recognized the clothes which belonged to friends and relatives.

The administration of the camp no longer indulged in orgies or other weird behavior. People faced life in the re-established camp with ever increasing doubt and concern. They faced the next day's survival with the special awareness of a Jew. They lived with the constant sense of the executioner's presence and in a state of stupor. Their minds were dulled as if under an anesthetic, inhibiting the drive toward self- preservation. If someone did manage to focus, somehow, on the future it was only under the sway of morbid or mystical ponderings, which at that time shaped the imagination. Thoughts of family would weave in and out.

There, in the mass graves outside of the town, lay buried parents, children, the closest relatives and friends. In what way is one better than the rest? Even if rescue were managed - although that was impossible to believe because there were no miracles -what would life be like then? People are no more than beasts: all is destruction. Life is a vale of tears. The world is drowning in blood and fire. And what good things can be expected from anyone? God, the World to Come and Death - these are eternal. Perhaps self sacrifice and sacred death is really the highest achievement one can attain. Why, then, separate oneself from the whole?

But this does not last long. While these gruesome thoughts raced through the mind, suddenly, with a jolt, one would awaken to the prosaic matters: to life at the moment and to the feeling of hunger and pain. One is instantly sobered by the body's demands and the stomach's need for food. The work was oppressive. Days dragged on and the nights were passed in sleepless fear.

The area where the Jews of Skalat still were was called a camp, but everyone knew it was really a lion's den: a trap leading eventually to death. The Schupo remained in constant contact with the camp. Noting the chronic unrest among the inmates, some of the Security Police tried to calm and console them: demonstrating ostensible understanding and sympathy for the tragic plight of the Jews.

One evening in late July of 1943, the Schupo Kommandant, Schneider, came into the camp in a very good mood. He showed interest in every detail of camp life and spoke with the Jews in an “Oh, so friendly” and jolly manner. It almost seemed that a change for the better was about to occur. He even cheered the crowd somewhat by telling hearty jokes and the Jews did try to forget their sorrows for the moment.

Seeing Schneider's open-heartedness and good mood, some Jews dared to ask him about various things, but mostly about what concerned them most: what were the prospects for the Skalat Camp and what would become of the tiny remnant of the Jews? Schneider stared in disbelief at the Jews and their

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fears. “Nothing will happen to you,” he declared. In his great enthusiasm, Nirler presented him with his own gold fountain pen, and Schneider responded with his sacred word of honor that the Jews could remain calm. He guaranteed that there would be no 'actions,' in the Skalat Camp for a few months at the very least. The Jews must just work faithfully and, most important, keep themselves clean. After such assurances, the camp Jews went to sleep with a degree of calmness.

At about 11 :00 PM. when the camp was wrapped in slumber, they were all awakened. The Night Watch reported that someone was approaching. For some time now, almost all of them had slept in their clothes out of constant fear and now, in one minute, the entire camp was on its feet -fearfully awaiting what was to transpire. Suddenly the Schupo-member Marold appeared at the entrance breathing heavily. Hurriedly he said: “Run quickly -there's danger!” and then quickly disappeared.

The German Marold apparently had his own personal score to settle with the SS-men and was determined to see their murderous efforts fail. In addition, as noted before, he had been well bribed by the Jews and had promised to warn them in the event of danger.

The Jews began to run in panic, not knowing where to go. Soon most of them, including Nirler and Rus, had vanished somewhere in the darkness of the night. This time, again, there remained behind the old people of the “Shit Brigade,” some women and children, and those bereft of all will to live: some sixty to seventy people in all.

At dawn on 28 July 1943 (25 Tammuz 5703), a group of SS-men arrived from Tarnopol. Obersturmbannfuhrer Rebel was among them, of course. They surrounded the camp building and then dragged all of the Jews they found to the field: to that same mass grave of the previous slaughters. There, with a machine gun, they shot down every one of them.

While the Ukrainian Construction Battalion was burying the bodies, peasants brought them a group of twenty more Jews whom they had caught in the fields. These, too, were shot on the spot and buried in the same grave as the others. It is said that when the captives were led through the town, they were savagely beaten by the village peasants and street toughs who stuck feathers in them and spat in their faces, while bystanders laughed loudly in amusement. It was the closing act in the bloody drama of the Skalat Camp. This final mass murder put an end to Jewish life in Skalat. The town was now truly Judenrein.

Some individual Jews remained hidden with peasants in the surrounding villages. Their situation, however, grew worse from day to day and the toll of victims among them grew steadily. Mordechai Parnes, one of the most honorable members of the former Judenrat, had lost his entire family. He was hiding in Mantiawa. It seems that the peasant there ordered him out and, since he could find no other place to hide, he decided to put an end to his life. In October of 1943 he turned himself in to the Schupo and asked to be shot. The gentleman obliged him. At about the same time, Shimen Chassid also reported to the Schupo. He had been intercepted by peasants, who tried to dissuade him from turning himself in. They even fed him. But he had no alternative, because there was no possibility for him to survive.

The last Jews escaping from Skalat now turned to the nearby forests. They were turning toward life.

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28. In the Forests

The Tarnopol Gestapo announced officially on 30 July 1943 that all of the Tarnopol region had been cleared of Jews. “However,” the announcement continued, “since there are still some Jewish individuals hiding in the forests or sheltering with irresponsible private persons, such persons are warned that if a Jew were found hiding with an Aryan, the Aryan's entire family would be shot and his property confiscated.”

The posters also declared that there would be a reward for every Jew turned over to the police dead or alive - in the form of one liter of whiskey, one kilogram of sugar and three hundred zlotys in cash.

As long as the fields had not been harvested, many Jews were able to hide among the stalks. Whole armies of unscrupulous peasants spent their days and nights searching the fields for wandering Jews, robbing them first then killing them. If the victims did not have any money, they were promptly turned over to the police or to the village elder, who paid the announced reward per head. Not a day went by without one or more captured Jews being delivered to be shot on the spot or at the cemetery. There were Jew-catching experts who had dozens of Jewish lives on their conscience. In addition, the Kripo, tipped off by informers, would often drag scores of Jewish victims from their paid-for sanctuaries among the peasants. In many places, dead bodies were found: discarded to avoid suspicion of the identities of the robbers and murderers. At that time, there were some three hundred Jews alive around Skalat, most of whom found shelter in the forests.

The forest hiding places had been prepared earlier. The first people went there back in October of 1942. These were: the Crakow tailor, Froszgang, his four-year-old son, and the Wasserman family. Very few people joined them during that winter. But following the Pre-Passover “Sobbing Graves Action,” a score of Jews joined the group. After the Judenrein, or “Shavuot Action,” the number of Jews in the forest reached one hundred. The total grew to two hundred fifty after the liquidation of the camps in and around Skalat. People began to spread out into the adjoining forests of Ostra-Mogila, Chmieliska, Okno, Malinik, Hory, Krecilow, etc. In view of the constant movement from one place to another, it is difficult to cite accurate numbers of people in each forest, but the overall total is accurate.

Approximately 32 Jews lived in the Ostra-Mogila Forest. At the edge of the wood was a tiny village with thirteen huts. As soon as night fell, one of the peasants who was trusted would signal with a light to indicate that no Germans were around and then the Jews would sneak into the village to obtain food, returning quickly to their hiding places in the forest. The people in this village were friendly to the Jews and provided them with whatever they could. When the Germans or the Ukrainian police arrived, the villagers would promptly alert the Jews who would withdraw to another part of the forest. Nevertheless, there were three incidents of robbery/murders there, carried out by unknown criminals. Twenty-nine Jews survived in Ostra-Mogila.

Fifty-two Jews lived in the Chmieliska Forest where various raids took forty-two lives, and four died there of hunger and cold. Only six people emerged alive.

In the Malinik Forest, out of forty people eleven remained alive. Twenty-four were murdered in raids and five died of hunger and cold.

The largest Jewish group was in the Hory Forest. Of the original seventy-five, fifty survived. Starvation and cold took nine lives and the Germans murdered nineteen people.

Fourteen people lived in the Krecilow Forest. A raid by the Bulbowcy[75] resulted in three Jewish fatalities including among them Zimmer”. One of the former leaders of the Skalat Judenrat.

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The Okno Forest sheltered primarily the famous group of Hershke's band, described in the following chapter. Two of Hershke's people died of natural causes and three were killed by the Banderowcy[76]. Thirty-three remained alive.

*****

Following is a description by engineer Joseph Kofler of his life in the forest between 3 June 1943 and 23 March 1944.

“We, a group of five, fled Skalat on the night of 2 June 1943. In addition to myself, the group included my wife Ida, Henek Weinberg, David Landesman, and his sister. We made it to the forest known as Hory near the hamlet where a family by the name of Krupa lived. We remained there until the end of July. We were able to purchase our food in that hamlet. As long as the Skalat Camp existed, we could return to town at night, from time to time, entering the camp where we would spend the following day, taking care of various matters and also buying food. At night we would return to the forest.

In the beginning we lived under the open skies. For reasons of security we did not want to dig any hiding places, and almost every other day we would change locations since frequent walking in the same area would trample the grass leaving a clear clue as to our whereabouts for passing peasants. Of this, we were terrified. Originally, in addition to us, there were about fifteen other Jews in the forest. More people arrived after the liquidation of the ghetto and still more after the first camp 'action.'

Following the passage of the Soviet partisan brigade, at the beginning of July 1943, the Skalat Schupo, with the help of five hundred peasants from the surrounding villages, organized raids in the woods. They also used this occasion to find the bodies of the Germans who had fallen in recent battles with the partisans. During these raids they caught three Jews who had been hiding in the woods. But thanks to the intervention of Kommandant Fishbacher, those three Jews were not killed but turned over to the Skalat Camp (which was then still in existence). The three were two escapees from the Kamionka Camp and Blumenstein, from Skalat. Fortunately none of our group was caught because we were in a different part of the forest where they were not searching.

Following the “Second Camp Action” in Skalat (28 July 1943), when the forest became populated by escapees from the camp, we were forced to seek new places to hide. We had to do so because the influx of more people made it evident throughout the area that there were many Jews hiding in the forest, which we feared could lead to new raids. In addition, the supply of food became even more critical, as the nearby hamlet consisted of no more than four households and could not sustain more than a score of people.

At the suggestion of a peasant by the name of Wyszkowski, we moved to the Ostapie Forest, near the small town of Ostra-Mogila. By then our group had grown to eleven people. We encountered two larger groups of Jews in various locations in the new forest. One was the so-called Hershke's group, from Grzymalow, which consisted of more than twenty people who had been living in the woods for several months. Another group, the so-called Elfenbein group, had only been in the forest for one day. These were Jews who had fled the night before the liquidation of the Skalat Camp.

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At first life in the woods was not bad. We were able to breathe more freely after our tragic experiences in town. We bought our food in the village and because the forest was rarely visited, very few knew of our presence and we felt relatively secure there.

After about a month, the decimated remnants of a Soviet partisan brigade from the Carpathians began coming through the forest on their way back to the Soviet front. They spent some days in our woods, resting up, and we met one such group of five men. To obtain provisions, our group joined them and, together with Hershke's group, we undertook an attack on the Turowka estate. Our group came away from there with many provisions. We even captured a live cow, which we slaughtered in the forest. We had enough to eat for two days in a row.

After the attack on the estate, the Germans staged a raid on the partisans and the Jews. A peasant pointed out our location and though we scattered, they managed to capture one of our comrades: Dolko Tennenbaum.
The partisans left us after the raid and we moved to the neighboring woods near the village of Okno. We spent more than a month there, alongside Hershke's group. Then one day in September 1943, the Germans staged another raid in that forest. Several victims fell into their hands.

We became convinced that Hershke's actions were antagonizing the peasants of the area, so we returned to the Ostra-Mogila woods. In early October we dug underground bunkers deep in the forest. But soon thereafter we experienced great panic: in mid-November some peasants murdered and robbed our comrade, Blank. We buried him in the forest and his father said Kaddish for him. Munio Rosenzweig, son of Solomon Leib Rosenzweig, was similarly murdered a month later.

In December, we moved to the Malinik woods under the impression that there it would be less dangerous. We remained there until the beginning of January 1944. When the German retreat from the Eastern front drew closer to us, we returned again to the Ostra-Mogila Forest and remained there until our liberation on 23 March 1944.”

*****

Another Jew from Skalat, Yankif Perlmuter, tells the following about his experiences in the forest.

“During the night before the total liquidation of the Skalat Camp, four of us sat together, waiting for news about the fate of the camp: Mordechai Nusen Ginzberg, Gritz, Megus Rothstein and myself. Around 10:30 PM we were told by the Jewish police and by the Schupo Kommandant, Schneider, that all would be calm that night. We all went to sleep. My fourteen year old son undressed. I, however, slept in my clothes out of fear of any unexpected events. At about 1:00 AM, I was roused from sleep by an instinctive indescribable terror. What had happened? None of my bunk-mates were in bed. Looking through a glass door I saw some camp Jews wandering about with lighted candles and I could tell that they were gripped by fear. They told me that all of the police and camp leaders had left the camp. I quickly awakened my son and helped him to dress.

Upon entering the courtyard we met many despairing Jews who did not know what to do next. In panic, some decided to head into town and try to hide among the ruins or perhaps under the Bath house. Others thought about escaping into the fields.

People darted off in groups but no one wanted to include me in his group because I was suffering from a wounded leg. My son and I wandered about the courtyard until 3:30 in the morning. Then, consigning our lives into the hands of God, we left the camp and

[Page 68]

turned down the street. Directly across from Benjamin Brik's little house we came face-to-face with a German, gun on his shoulder and helmet on his head. It was a miracle! In great fear, heart pounding, I somehow felt a Higher Power had turned me back toward the camp.

At the barbed-wire fence of the courtyard, we suddenly met with two groups of camp Jews who were debating which way to go. 'We are surrounded by Germans and we are lost!' I told them.

In resignation and overcome by indifference, one group chose to remain in camp, saying “There is nowhere to go.”

The other group climbed quickly over the wire and disappeared into the dark. My son and I did the same. We headed in the direction of the peasants' huts and gardens. Around fifty or sixty people remained behind in camp: older men, women with children, and the exhausted, who had resigned from life.
As we dragged ourselves among the gardens, we heard constant gunfire which confirmed that the slaughter had begun. We wandered around the rest of that night and hid among the stalks the next day. We straggled in the dreary dawn across gardens and fields, wet with rain and cold. We managed to drag ourselves to the village of Polupanowka. Thirsty and hungry, we found a peasant who gave us food and drink. But fearing for his own life, he would not agree to keep us hidden. He showed us, however, the path into the forest, where we met two other brothers in woe: Itamat and Yisroel Werber, from Chmieliska.

During the, first ten days there, we were joined by ten more Jews. The Werber brothers, together with my son and myself quickly moved to another part of the forest. There we met three girls and two orphaned children. A few days later we saw two large dogs running past us. We became alarmed because this meant that there were Germans nearby on a hunting expedition. We could hardly wait until nightfall when we could alert the other Jews in the forest.

We decided to leave this dangerous part of the woods and to move several kilometers deeper into the forest. By then there were nineteen of us. We were able to make tents out of boughs in the new location, but we had great difficulty in obtaining food. During the nights, some of us would sneak into the villages to buy foodstuffs from peasants whom we knew. The nearest stream was a long way off. After two weeks, a shepherd discovered us. Although he promised that he would never reveal the secret to anyone, we decided, nevertheless, to move to the other side of the forest: closer to the village of Chmieliska. There we met a group of eleven fugitive Jews. Now our group amounted to thirty people.

We spent a couple of weeks in that place. Autumn was approaching. The weather grew cold, the rains came down and we started, therefore, to build a bunker. During this time, there were raids taking place against Jews hidden in Chmieliska. We learned that many had been caught and that the Germans were planning an attack on the forest encampment so we abandoned the uncompleted bunker and moved again to another location, in the Malinik woods.

There we met another twelve Jews. As it was the eve of Yom Kippur,[77] we preceded the fast with roasted potatoes, and Moishe Leib Hecht recited the Kol-Nidre[78]

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prayer from memory .The next morning, Tune Schwartz prayed and we joined in the sorrowful chants.

Fall came. We built lean-tos with boughs. Despairing, wet, cold and in fear, we managed to live there until the end of November, 1943. One morning, the peasant Ziemba, carrying a gun, stopped my son who was on his way to obtain water. He questioned him about how many Jews were in the forest and whether we were armed. Ziemba then commanded that the Jews bring him all their gold and other valuables within a half hour or he would call out for many more of his armed buddies and they would slaughter all of us. My son came running, breathless, and told us what had happened. We ran off quickly to another part of the forest.

Ziemba waited the half hour and became impatient. He then started to search the forest and came upon the tents of other Jews. He happened to find Rysia Katz whom he robbed of her entire fortune, which amounted to a handful of zlotys. All the other Jews scattered.
When he came searching for us in other parts of the woods, he was met by a well known ex-boxer from Lodz named Schwartz, who, after a brief struggle, managed to take the bandit's gun and cap.

We realized that we could not remain together any longer, and therefore decided to split into smaller groups and travel separately to other forests. My group went to the Hory Forest, some four kilometers away. It was a very difficult journey. A blizzard was howling and for some hours we lay, covered with snow, not knowing the way. Starved and half frozen we finally arrived at our destination before dawn. We began to dig a bunker for eighteen people. Meyer Grinfeld was very helpful - just as he was generally helpful to other Jews in the woods. He was the contact man among all the forest Jews.

Before we managed to finish the bunker, we were attacked by three Polish peasants, whom we knew: Krupa, Benzer and Wyszkowski. Claiming that they were searching for arms, their real intention was to rob us. They beat us, destroyed our bunker and iron cookstove and committed foul deeds, such as rape. After that incident, the peasants never returned. We later learned that they had received warning letters from some sort of “Polish Committee” which appealed to their sense of national identity and urged them not to besmirch the honor of the Polish People.

We became accustomed to the hardships of forest life and finished digging the bunker, which measured 3 meters in width and 1.7 meters in length. Everyone had an assigned place to sleep.

I formed a collective among our people in the bunker and divided the work among us. There were separate groups for cooking, chopping firewood, securing food and managing the money. We washed our clothes in the snow but we were tormented by lice. During our free time, we would tell each other stories. At times we obtained newspapers from the village and would read every word intently. Sometimes we would sing Yiddish folk songs or nigunim.[79] We marked death anniversaries and on calm days we would gather a minyan[80] for prayer. All of us said the Kaddish prayer, since there was no one among us who had not lost family members. We had debates and consoled ourselves with good news and hopes for our future liberation.

[Page 70]

Every couple of days a new terror would rise among us. It was said that January was the month for hunting in the woods, during which time ferocious dogs would come upon our tracks. Although compassionate peasants warned us of raids which the Ukrainians and Germans were planning, there were always reasons to be deprived of rest and sleep.

Some forty to fifty Skalat Jews lived in the same forest under conditions similar to ours. From time to time, small groups would separate and wander off to other forests. The constant threat of death tormented our minds. During the night we stumbled about like shadows, seeking greater protection and security. Some groups would leave but, after wandering about and not finding a hiding place, would return to the place which they had left. One group of seven people even went back to the town where they carved out a hiding place in a boulder outside the shtetl. During such wanderings, a German bullet took the life of the son of Weistaub, the surveyor.

Around the middle of February 1944, almost all of the people who had wandered off and survived had returned. We lived calmly for a couple of weeks before the resumption of the attacks, now by the Volksdeutsche[81] who were rewarded for each Jew they turned in. Those days were very dangerous for us and we suffered two special losses: Leib from Tarnopol and Magus Rothstein (grandson of David Rothstein) of Skalat. One day, the forest rang with shots and we were surrounded. We scattered in chaos throughout its length and breadth. Those who survived, as though by miracle, once again sought new hiding places: some went off to other forests and others hid with peasants.

Seven of us, who had nowhere to go, remained behind. After some hesitation, we decided to go to the Malinik Forest although there had been many victims there in a recent attack. We found a bunker that had been abandoned and wrecked, and we spent some time there under the most difficult conditions. We suffered because we had no fire and therefore we were freezing. By this time, we also had nothing to eat and were on the verge of starvation. We managed to stay alive by eating snow and frozen sugar beets left behind by the murdered Jews. A couple of days later we encountered a group of seven Jews in another destroyed bunker.

On the thirteenth day, we had a visit from two Germans elegantly dressed in civilian clothes. Standing at the edge of the ruin, they called on us to emerge from the bunker. Some of us crept out, hoping that we might get a piece of bread. The Germans saw before them living corpses: barefoot, in tatters, swollen and sick. They said that they would return. Each of us interpreted the encounter differently. By now we were indifferent to life. But the Germans did not return.

Our collapsed bunker had two sections. One of them was occupied by Froszgang (the first settler in the woods) and his son. A hunchbacked young man from Grzymalow named Schwartz, and two boys from Skalat (grandsons of Pesach Yosif, the sexton) were also there. All of them were swollen, sick, and covered with lice. It was frightening to look at them.

It was impossible to obtain food because of the severe cold and drifting snow. Some tried to go foraging but quickly returned. Considering how hopeless it was to remain there, we decided to return to our exposed bunker in the Hory Forest. 'It is better to die by the sword than by hunger,' I said in Hebrew as we set out.

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A few kilometers along our way we came upon a large forest tire. Hundreds of trees were burning. We warmed ourselves at the flames and were also able to heat water from melting snow. Appeasing our hunger and thirst with hot water, we rested before continuing on. Only nine of us returned because the other five did not survive the trip. They died a few days later of starvation and exposure.
We spent another three weeks in our old bunker in the Hory Forest. The Soviet forces were advancing towards us and we heard cannonades. German 'Tiger Tanks' rolled around, shelling our woods - but the Soviets were the victors. When the Soviet soldiers learned of our presence, they sent us a doctor and evacuated us to the rear. Ephraim Liblich died unexpectedly during that evacuation.

Our tiny group of survivors from the forests gathered together in the ruins of Skalat. Eventually we all fled from our former home to rebuild our lives elsewhere. In Skalat we left our graves.”


Footnotes:

67 yahrtzeit - Anniversary of the death of a family member. Return

68 Pesach - Passover. Return

69 Seder - Ritual meal and service of Passover. Return

70 haroset - Mixture of fruit, nuts and wine, symbolizing mortar (used during the Passover meal).Return

71 maror - Bitter herbs symbolizing the bitterness of Jewish slavery in Egypt (used during the Passover meal).Return

72 Haggadah - The story of the Exodus, read during the Passover Seder. Return

73 chalutzim - Zionist pioneers. Return

74 l'shana haba'a b'Yerushalayim - Next year may we meet in Jerusalem. Return

75 Bulbowcy - Members of a Ukrainian Fascist gang. Return

76 Banderowcy - Members of another Ukrainian Fascist gang. Return

77 Yom Kippur - Day of Atonement, holiest day in the Jewish calendar, devoted to fasting and prayer. Return

78 Kol Nidre - A prayer sung on the eve of the Day of Atonement Return

79 nigunim - Cantorial melodies (Hebrew). Return

80 minyan - Ten men (a quorum required for praying). Return

81 Volksdeutsche - Polish born Germans. Return

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