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29. My Own Experiences in the Forest

(A. Weissbrod's Account)

An unknown criminal murdered a Jew in the Ostra-Mogila Forest on the same day that my mother and I arrived there. The dead body lay at the edge of the wood. The peasants had placed it there so that the Jews could bury him themselves. No one, not even the victim's father, gave thought to burying him because we were expecting a raid. About a score of frightened Jews crept out of their bunkers and quickly formed into groups, scattering in every direction throughout the forest.

No one wanted to bother with us, the most recent arrivals. We remained where we were, desperate and helpless. How could we flee, not knowing the forest?

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Meyer Grinfeld and Mrs. Chrein appeared. They, too, had been wandering all night in Bortnik's woods, just as we had, and had barely managed to make it here. Meeting a friend from my youth at such a difficult moment, and under those conditions, was an unexpected and wondrous event for me. We hugged each other, cried and for the moment forgot the sadness and danger hovering over us. “Come with me! I know all the paths and byways!” Grinfeld said.

Together we followed twisting trails for many kilometers and for hours on end moved along thick overgrown paths, leading us to another forest. There we pushed our way into a thicket and rested. Quietly we told each other of our recent experiences and made plans for our dubious future.

Late that evening we returned to the Ostra-Mogila Forest. We met other Jews whose fears of a raid had proved unfounded. The Ukrainian police had examined the deceased and, determining that he was a Jew, merely wrote up a report and continued on their way. We spent the night in the bunker of the Blank family and the next morning all of us took spades and axes to bury the body. The late Autumn morning was foggy and dreary. After completing the work we all stood around the new grave, heads bowed in silence. The wind whistled and trees rustled as if they were reciting the Kaddish prayer. At the edge of the woods, near a path, among tall trees with naked limbs like outstretched arms, was the grave of a young Jew whose suffering was finally over. We covered the mound with yellow leaves that fluttered in the breeze and Bucio Elfenbein, with a penknife, carved into the bark of a tree the initials of the murdered victim: G.B. “Let this be his tombstone,” he said. Then we returned to our dwellings in the forest.

We gathered dried branches. A fire burned between two stones, over which a large kettle of soup was cooking. The Jews in the forest were not pleased to see us. They were afraid because the peasants considered us to be rich. “This can bring on a catastrophe, “ they said. “Make yourselves a bunker in another part of the forest.”

In truth there actually were peasants on our trail. We decided to leave as soon as we could, feeling danger at every turn. That night Grinfeld went off to look for a hiding place with a peasant and, after having spent twelve days in the Ostra-Mogila Forest, we set out on a snowy night.

Late that night we passed the mass graves in the fields outside of Skalat. The mounds were covered with snow and nearby twelve tall poplars stood out against the white background like tombstones stretching ever higher and nearer to Heaven. Our feet on the snow were the first to engrave a bouquet of human footprints: the first steps of mourners at the graves of our fathers. My father had met his death here along with all the other martyrs. I managed to say the first few words of Kaddish but tears choked off the rest. We quickly fled from that blood-soaked place.

With luck, we arrived at the home of our peasant-benefactor. In a lonely cottage in the middle of a field we concluded a deal with our “gracious host” who was a clever peasant - a businessman, and a Ukrainian as well. A meal, some warmth and a bed restored our tired limbs. Grinfeld wanted to leave us, but we would not allow it. Although he was drawn back to the forest, he stayed. All in all, we felt very fortunate in our new hiding place.

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Weeks passed. At night, Grinfeld would sneak out into the forests to check on the condition of the Jews there, but our peasant was not happy about these excursions. He felt they could arouse suspicion and do us all in. At about this time our money ran out and Grinfeld undertook to go to our house in town, now occupied by Gentiles, where we had some money buried. He succeeded in what was surely a heroic act, since by wandering about at night he put himself in mortal danger. Grinfeld could accomplish what no others could. He had great courage. He often dared hair-raising undertakings and his luck always held.

According to the latest reports on life in the forest, many Jews were ill with scabies and the cold and hunger made further survival almost impossible. We felt impelled, therefore, to think of ways to provide practical help to the forest Jews. Grinfeld went to see some Gentiles whom he knew and got them to exchange $110.00 U.S. Dollars for 9,000 zlotys. The money was distributed that same night among the forest Jews in the Hory and Ostra-Mogila woods. “The Polish Committee has sent this to you,” Grinfeld told them.

“If such miracles can happen in these times, it is a sign that we will survive the war!” said Magus Rothstein one of the recipients. Unfortunately, he did not survive. Volksdeutsche shot him. Naively, everyone believed that such a generous act was possible.

Grinfeld returned from the forest with a list of signatures attesting to the receipt of the distributed funds. His act had endowed the forest Jews with a new lease on life. They could hope for a better future: “Just think! A Polish Committee that helps Jews!” We told the same story to our peasant-benefactor, who was moved to tears. He pulled out 250 zlotys from his pocket and said: “Here is my contribution. Enroll me in the Polish Aid Committee - even though I'm Ukrainian.”

We, of course, took advantage of that opportunity to broaden our relief work for the forest Jews. A few days later we obtained medications for the sick and we also gathered some clothes that were taken into the woods late at night. Under our direction and with the help of our peasant, letters were written in the name of the Polish Aid Committee to the Polish bandits Wyszkowski and Benzer, stating that it was not fitting for Poles to commit such shameful acts against Jews. This helped to keep the bandits from re-entering the forests.

We had also prepared a significant quantity of foods - potatoes, oil and grains, which were to be carried by the peasant's horse and left at a pre-determined place in the woods. This project did not come to fruition because suddenly some Volksdeutsche were billeted in the peasant's house and their horses were quartered in the barn under guard around the clock. We clambered hastily up into the attic, where a well hidden hole led to a narrow hiding place between two brick walls. We found ourselves under one roof with the Germans, separated from them only by a wall. Thus, our contact with the forests was severed.

We were joined by another Jew, named Asher Kleiner, also from Skalat, whom the peasant had been hiding in the barn without our knowledge. He had been kept hidden and fed in exchange for his carpentry services.

We passed difficult days between those brick walls and envied the Jews living freely in the forest. For us every minute was fraught with danger because the Germans kept moving about and could come across our hiding place. Our peasant was very nervous as well -and with good reason - but continuous bribes of money helped to soften our benefactor's heart. Even if we had chosen to leave, the constant guard in the barn made it impossible to do so. Thus, there was no alternative but to stay.

The peasant told us that the very soldiers billeted in his home were the ones who were raiding the forests and that they had already captured many Jews. For these heroic deeds the police would reward them with whiskey and sugar. When they held revels, we heard them through the thin wall and those revels would also tell us that more Jewish lives had ended at their hands.

When the Soviet front drew closer, we began to hear loud artillery bombardments and we knew that liberation was near. Our benefactor told us nothing about this, begrudging us a reason for joy, since he, himself, feared the Soviets more than the Germans. One night we listened through the wall as our

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peasant's entire household prayed, and tearfully intoned: “May the Lord have mercy and keep out the Bolsheviks, lest they destroy our cattle and our fields! “ Our prayers, however, were the very opposite.

The next day there were Soviet soldiers under our roof and battle operations had been transferred to our front yard. We found ourselves in the midst of the battle and that night the peasant evicted us from our hiding place. “Go back to the woods! If you don't, we are all lost; the Soviets have retreated and the Germans will soon be back, “ he said.

Under a hail of bullets and by the light of rockets, we managed to crawl out and to reach the woods. The Soviets were there. At their suggestion, almost all of the Jews passed through the front lines to the rear - to the village of Molczanowka, where three Jews died in a German air raid. We later learned that two hours after we left, the cottage in which we had been hidden was hit by a bomb and totally destroyed. As it turned out, the eviction by the peasant saved our lives.

After twelve days of siege and battle, the forest settlement liquidated itself. Skalat was liberated. The tiny remnants returned from the forest -the remaining few from the thousands of the Jewish community of Skalat. They returned: bereaved, exhausted, broken and sick.

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30. Hershke and His Band

During the period when the Jews were hiding in the forest, there were bands of robbers operating in all the areas around Skalat. Not a night passed without some raid on a village. The youngest peasant boys were already engaged in theft and violence and some of their elders led double lives: posing as peaceful citizens by day, and robbing at night. There were frequent attacks and robbery motivated murders of defenseless Jews who wandered the fields in fear of impending 'actions.' What could be expected from the mob when government laws advocated the robbing and killing of Jews?

Then rumors started to spread through the town of Skalat that Jewish robbers were staging nighttime attacks on the villages. In a short time all thefts and criminal attacks were attributed to the Jews. In fact, by that time Jews in the forests were stealing food from peasant storage places in order to stay alive.

On a much grander scale, the exploits of Hershke's band later became legendary as a result of their daring raids which threw a pall over the entire area. Hershke and his people, however, could not be judged as mere common robber bands. There were not the usual depraved traits which led to the formation of this band. The driving force of these people was a reaction to the savage times, and the result of enforced human deprivation. At the brink of the abyss, surrounded by enemies and seeing death before their eyes, with no hope or escape in sight, the forest Jews were forced to become what they became.

We do not know why more Jews didn't escape to the forests and why so many allowed themselves to be slaughtered like sheep. But we do know that the Germans and their deceitful methods managed to dull the senses of many Jews, including their senses of self-defense.

Yet there were also individuals with particularly strong character traits who faced reality with open eyes and, in times of great peril, sought and found different paths. They ran off to the forests! These small groups tried a different way of survival and lived in another world, even though their new situation was also fraught with danger. There, too, one was in constant fear, but living under the sky, surrounded by nature among trees and wild life, gave them a sense of freedom and seemed to straighten their backs and restore their spirit.

Some Jews began to arrive in the forest when the situation in Skalat first seemed hopeless, following the so-called “Little Action” of November 1942. By then the destruction of homes had begun, loved ones had been dragged off and killed, and most of the bunkers in the ghetto had been exposed. Very few had enough money to buy off the greedy peasants, the so called benefactors who, in exchange for gold provided hiding places that were at best doubtful and insecure. The benefactors themselves often delivered the Jews into the hands of the Schupo or Kripo.

The Skalat Judenrat spent great sums of money in order to convince Obersturmbannfuhrer Rebel to establish labor locations in many of the surrounding villages and towns as branches of the Skalat Camp. Groups of twenty to forty Jews, a hundred fifty in all, were accepted into the newly created workplaces in Podwoloczyska, Grzymalow, Tarnoruda, Kaczanowka, Okno, Ostapie and Polupanowka. The Jews there worked as farmhands, in the quarries, or at collecting rags and feathers. They had to live under the guard of the Jewish security forces, for which the Skalat Camp was responsible. They were relatively content with this arrangement. Since it was possible to move about more freely in the villages, fear was not as pervasive as in the town and food supplies were better.

The labor locations at those outposts did not last long, however: the Germans began to liquidate them after three months. Heggner, the Kommandant of the Border Security Guard, reported that the Jews in Kaczanowka were hardly working. Instead they were eating and drinking and buying up all the chickens and other food from the peasants, causing unhappiness among the local Gentile population.

In early March, 1943, a liquidation squad arrived from the Tarnopol SS to “take care” of the Jews. The squad surrounded the segregated dwelling of the Jews at dawn, dragged them out into a field, ordered

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them to strip and to lie face-down on the ground, then shot each of them in the back of his head. Some people in Kaczanowka had, by chance, left the dwelling that day and therefore managed to escape. One girl, Tynka Rosenzweig, was wounded in the head. She saved herself by feigning death.

Leaving the bloody row of fifteen corpses in the field, the assassins quickly drove off to the village of Tarnoruda and, using the same methods, wiped out all thirty Jews in that labor location.

That same day, the administration of the Skalat Camp was ordered to recall the rest of its people from all of the labor locations and to keep them in camp, temporarily. The Okno labor location employed people mostly from Grzymalow, as well as some from the village itself. Henek Weinberg was one of the Skalat people working there. No one there wanted to return to Skalat, since returning to town meant certain death, they said. Two large families, named Birnbaum and Pikholtz, had lived in Okno for many years. They, along with Weinberg, had prepared a bunker in the forest to be available as a hiding place when the time came. The Okno Forest became the area where a famous group of Jews kept the entire district in fear for over a year.

The founder and leader of the band was Hershke Birnbaum. He was a bachelor of about 30, small of stature but with an athlete's strength. He was dark with blue eyes, and had a small black mustache. He looked like a typical peasant. The clothes he wore, his fluency in Ukrainian and the characteristically peasant manners all seemed to be natural to him. A stranger would never have imagined that he was Jewish. He was a blacksmith by trade and though the peasants feared his strength, they also respected and liked him.

He was a capable young man and, though a blacksmith, there was hardly a trade he didn't know: he was also a locksmith, a carpenter, a mechanic and, if need be, a musician, an actor and a wit. He knew by heart all the peasant folk-songs and customs. Seemingly always in good humor and full of fun and laughter, he would often trick the hens at night by crowing long before dawn so that the hens would flap their wings and join in the crowing, in turn causing the peasants to arise hours too early. He was also adept at imitating other birds and beasts.

His intelligence was not acquired but innate. He had a strong sense of direction and an eve for detail. His agility helped him out of many difficult situations. “Hershke won't perish, even in a fire.” If he wants to, he can turn himself into a bird,” the peasants said of him, paraphrasing a folk-saying.

He was a constant counselor to the peasants. On Sundays he would pretend to preach from the Scriptures and the crowd around him would roar with laughter. He always seemed to know what the priest had said in church and he also knew all the secrets of the village organizations. During the German occupation, while three-quarters of the Jews in Galicia were eliminated, the peasants among whom he lived promised that he would be safe from harm

Hershke, however, did not bet his life on their assurances. Back when groups of Jews were laboring on the farms, Hershke Birnbaum, Henek Weinberg, Mates Goldstein, Leibke Seigel and David Schwartz would sneak out of the houses at night and go into the forest where among; the trees and bushes they built a large bunker with a three meter long tunnel. When the order came to return to the Skalat Camp, Hershke dug up his rust-covered weapon, then cleaned and repaired it. He gathered up his family and the rest of the Jews in Okno -twenty-one in all, including four children between the ages of four and twelve - and led them directly to the forest.

*****

Thus began the glorious activities of Hershke and his band. Only four of that whole group were healthy enough to work: the rest consisted of some ailing couples and their children. “My hospital!” Hershke would say. “Look whom I'm taking with me into battle...but never mind: God will help.”

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In the early days there was no money, food supplies were soon exhausted and his people had to eat. Each night, therefore, Hershke would take a gun, and with two companions go to the villages in search of sustenance. Hershke knew every nook of the villages and which peasants had the fullest pantries, which roosts the best chickens and where the honey was stored. Hershke and Leibke showed real virtuosity in carrying out a theft. Once they stole all the bread, still hot and fresh, right out of an oven. They seemed to know by instinct when the dogs were asleep. The peasants saw that the. thefts were continuing unabated but they hadn't the least idea of their origin!

Hershke's work went on steadily, according to plan. Soon he set up an “Intelligence Service” - a group of trustworthy peasants, all good buddies of old, who brought all kinds of news from town including reports of the constant slaughters. Almost every day he would meet the peasants at an appointed time and place to discuss necessary matters. At one time, the “Intelligence Service” warned him to take precautions because in a few days the Forest Administration was going to start clearing the underbrush. On such occasions, great crowds of peasants would spread over the length and breadth of the forest, and the work could go on for several weeks. Hershke's band had to wander the woods from one place to another for three weeks. Every night they returned to the bunker to sleep and at dawn they went to another part of the forest, five or six kilometers away.

Upon their return, the forest Jews found their bunker exposed and plundered. They later learned from the friendly peasants with whom they maintained contact, that it was the people in the brush-clearing project who discovered the Jewish hiding place. According to the peasants, they ran off to Skalat to report their find to the Schupo, who came immediately, in large numbers and with bloodhounds. Fortunately they did not encounter any of the Jews. They took everything they could find in the bunker and then blew it up with a grenade. For good measure they fired a score of rounds into the trees before driving off. From then on the whole district knew that there were Jews hiding in the woods and that all the thefts were their doing.

Legends began to circulate about the Jewish robbers in the forests. It was said of Hershke and his “band of Yids” that their number ran into the hundreds: practically an army, manned to the teeth and led by the invincible Hershke. It was no laughing matter! Fear spread throughout the district and grew into a panic. At night the peasants would deploy a watch of ten men to guard each village. When they went into the forest to chop wood or gather mushrooms and would suddenly meet up with a Jew, they would flee in great fear and return home thanking God for having saved their lives. “Oh, Holy Mother!” they would exclaim, crossing themselves, whenever they recalled the encounter. Their neighbors would listen and relate the story to other neighbors. Out of fear, peasants would no longer go into the forest alone.

The Jews saw danger to themselves in this notoriety. Cautiously they began to move from one place to another - never spending more than a few nights and days in the same spot. They built bunkers in different woods and in dense thickets built lean-tos of boughs and sackcloth. They were forced to change locations almost every week.

The sojourn of the Soviet partisan detachment in the Skalat forests in early July of 1943 left Hershke and his staff with ambivalent feelings. On the one hand they wanted to join the partisans and go off to battle, but, on the other, they could not leave the old people, the women and children, to the mercy of God. Who would feed them?

They rejoiced with the partisans and swapped stories with them. The Red Fighters marveled at how such a band could exist in a forest under these conditions. “Just hang on! It won't be long now before we liberate you!” they reassured the Jews - and then set off on their way.

Hershke realized that things could not go on this way and the partisans' visit inspired him to become even more daring. He began to aspire to a more meaningful purpose to his acts. “After all, we are not a gang of thieves and robbers,” he explained to his comrades. “We are Jews seeking to rescue ourselves from murderers. We must be able to defend ourselves from a German attack. But with what?

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With one gun? We must think about getting arms. We do not rob for the sake of robbing. We won't attack innocent peasants, who themselves are appalled by the bloody German acts and who suffer in their own way. We will take revenge on our enemies: mainly on the Ukrainians who participate in the slaughters. And we must also punish all those who have grown rich on the Jewish disaster.”

Following this discussion among Hershke and his comrades, they determined: 1) to obtain arms at any price; 2) to avoid harming innocent peasants and where possible even to help them; and 3) that every act and every attack be directed toward vengeance against those whose hands were stained with Jewish blood.

Since constant wanderings among the villages were risky, it was also decided that in the future their attacks would be less frequent but on a larger scale, so as to obtain a bigger supply of food. Hershke and his people were now to be known as partisans and fighters. He began to give his peasants new instructions. These devoted peasants, his suppliers, actually worked with him in an exemplary fashion, although their efforts were not completely without profit for them.

On 25 July 1943, at midnight, four partisans marched out of the forest: Hershke with his rifle, Leibke with a realistic looking toy revolver, and Schwartz and Weinberg with wooden “rifles” - heading for a raid.

In the Zielona woods there had worked for years a forest ranger named Zabawczuk. He was a Ukrainian nationalist and a mean Jew-hater. It was widely known that he had participated in the pogroms and slaughters of Jews. He also possessed much booty, stolen from Jewish victims. Hershke knew that Zabawczuk had weapons. At 1:00 AM the group arrived at the cottage, located at the very edge of the woods. Weinberg and Schwartz were posted as guards in the yard while Hershke and Leibke broke into the cottage. In fear, Zabawczuk leaped from his bed shouting “Who's there?!” Hershke put the barrel of the gun to his temple and, in Russian, ordered him to turn over his arms immediately or he would be shot at once. Zabawczuk's two grown sons became hysterical and fell to the floor. His wife also fell down in a faint. When Zabawczuk regained his wits, he categorically denied that he had any weapons: “You can shoot me, but I can't produce what isn't here.”

Neither threats nor blows were of any use. The peasant attempted an escape but drew back when he saw the armed guards outside his window. He was beaten soundly, until be begged for mercy: “Take what you want - but don't kill us!” In the middle of the wrangling, the peasant's wife revived. She quickly went to the cupboard, took out a rifle and, trembling, handed it over to the partisans. “Here you are,” she said. “Take whatever you want, but let us live!”

Then the men set to work. A small barrel of honey, half a hog, whiskey and other provisions were stuffed into sacks and then the partisans headed for home. “If any of you breathe so much as a word about our visit, your lives won't be worth a cent and your house will go up in flames!” Hershke warned the forest ranger and his family before leaving the cottage. The ranger, who knew Hershke quite well from the past, was simply too frightened to tell anyone the details of the attack. He just said that he had been robbed. Two weeks later he and his family moved to a more populated settlement in the village of Pajowka.

The success of that raid and its larger scope encouraged the band and produced a desire for more action. During the month of August, the nearby villages complained of thefts of cows, pigs and other foods. The work went on efficiently, boldly and with agility, while fear among the peasants grew. Delegations of villagers arrived in town daily to implore the Germans to put an end to the Jewish activities, and to the partisans who were roaming the woods. But the Germans, remembering well their defeat at the hands of the partisans, were now in deathly fear of the forest. They put off the peasants with words of advice: “Go into the woods in groups. Spread out and catch them. Bring them here and we will take care of them for good! “

Seeing that their protests were of no avail, the peasants began to send petitions to the District Chief in Tarnopol as well as to Hefner, the agricultural official in Skalat. At first they were promised that

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everything possible would be done - but nothing ever came of it. When the woodsmen were ordered to provide larger quotas of firewood to the military, they categorically refused. “We are afraid,” they pleaded. They agreed to enter the woods only if they were guarded by a strong force of soldiers and Ukrainian police.

*****

When the ghetto and camp in Skalat had been liquidated, the small remnant of surviving Jews wandered alone through the fields and forests. At that same time, Jewish settlements began to be founded in almost all the woods around Skalat. Hershke's band grew to thirty-two people, among whom eight were able-bodied men. Though life was bearable and there was enough to eat and drink, Hershke himself would often become depressed. “There is no end to it and how long can one go on living like this?” the people would ask.

The peasant suppliers brought alarming reports about the German plans to raid the forests. Only one overriding concern gnawed at the Jews, day and night: how to avoid the murderers. The life of constant wandering exhausted the older people and made the women and children barely able to drag themselves about. The group moved whenever it was felt that danger loomed - even if the feeling was baseless.

This was how they lived for a long time and, having no other choice, they got used to the wandering. As soon as darkness approached, the group would head off like a row of ducks, through fields and forests, carrying their belongings on their backs. Leibke was always the leader and guide through the winding paths. Between the flights they carried on successful raids on villages and managed to have enough food and clothing. They succeeded in obtaining weapons during a raid on the village of Kopyczince and the Jews now had at their disposal three rifles, one double-barreled shotgun and a pistol. They even began to dream of obtaining a machine gun and Hershke established military discipline. Sanitation and order were of high priority and everyone had assigned tasks.

These arrangements were hardly normal but they were well suited to the situation in which they lived. Nine men were the fighters, while the rest, the so called 'hospital,' had specific jobs to perform such as cooking, washing clothes, securing water, guard duty, gathering dry wood, etc. When the peasants brought good news heard on the radio, such as bulletins that the Germans were being beaten they would rejoice, hanging on to every word. Once Hershke turned to his band and said: “Why don't we think about getting our own radio so we can know when rescue is close at hand?” No sooner said than done. At the end of August, Hershke and his band did a 'job' in the village of Ostapie at the home of the Jew-hating Ukrainian priest. In addition to many other useful things, they also managed to get a four-tube portable radio. Hershke set it up so that everyone could hear the news of the world - especially communiques from the war fronts. Unfortunately the batteries lasted only two weeks and it was difficult to obtain replacements.

During that period, Hershke's band grew to thirty-eight members. Six Jewish partisans (all of them natives of Wolin), who were among the returning remnants of a partisan army, joined Hershke. Among them were Yeruchem Guz, Sioma Gorzanski, Velvel Waks and David Kleinman. With this added manpower Hershke's band now felt itself to be much stronger and they began to use different tactics in, their raids.

In the month of September they carried out a daring raid on an estate in the village of Turowka. The German manager there, named Johann, was believed to have weapons. The entire fighting group took part in the raid. At the last minute, however, one of the workers on the estate spread the alarm that partisans were approaching so the Ukrainian policeman and the German manager ran off in terror. The raid took place around 9:00 PM. At first the Jews encircled the estate and ripped out the telephone wires.

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Then they took over the farm property as if they were the owners. The farmhands and servants trembled in fear and obeyed all the commands that were boldly delivered in Russian. Meanwhile the Polish cooks and the governess prepared a festive dinner for their 'honored guests.' The so-called partisan band feasted at cloth-covered tables. At about midnight they ordered a horse and wagon to be loaded with a sack of flour, a hog, a crate of eggs, butter, cheese and grain. They also selected the best looking cow and tied her to the heavily laden wagon.

Hershke ordered: “Move out!” - and the whole group set off on its way. As they passed through the village, other peasants presented them with loaves of bread and bottles of whiskey. They praised and thanked God that the village hadn't suffered.

The Ukrainian policeman and the German did not return for two days. The horses were returned, having been set free by the Jews in the forest, since Hershke knew that retaining the horses would interfere with the band's mobility. After the peasants' fears had been somewhat allayed, they suggested that some of the 'partisans' had looked like Jews, so that it became apparent that the raiders were none other than Hershke and his “gang!” Exaggerated reports of the event spread like lightning through all the surrounding villages and the peasants increased their night guards.

A week later the village of Sadzawka was the focus of a new surprise. Hershke had learned that the Ukrainian cooperative there had merchandise and, above all, footwear. Since winter was approaching and feet had to be covered, the footwear was much needed. On 2 October 1943 at 9:00 PM Hershke and his band paid a visit to the mayor of Sadzawka. Using threat they forced him to hand over the keys to the cooperative's treasury. With trembling hands, the mayor turned over all of the cash - more than 10,000 zlotys. Further, he was forced to provide the 'partisans' with carriages and to help them load crates of eggs, sacks of sugar, bundles of shoes and cases of whiskey. These goods had been allocated by the Germans as rewards for those peasants who delivered their grain quotas on time.

When all the wares were loaded, Hershke gave the order to withdraw. He placed the mayor himself on one of the carriages and the entire village saw the 'partisans' departing with their prisoner. Although some of the peasants had weapons, none dared to resist. Their fear of the partisans was so great that they lost their nerve. On such occasions it was usually the Ukrainian police who fled first, abandoning the village. In some cases, the Germans also revealed their cowardice. Throughout the villages the legend persisted that there were thousands of Jewish partisans.

That night the partisans plied the mayor with liquor and food as a reward for his good behavior and then: a few kilometers down the road, they tossed the now dead-drunk mayor off the carriage. The entire village had been buzzing over the event and mourning the mayor as a martyr. But at dawn the still tipsy mayor returned, hard put to decide what story to tell. Later the Germans pulled the mayor to testify, to fill out reports, and, for good measure, gave him a sound beating for his thoughtlessness and cowardice. “If our police ran off with their rifles, what was someone like me to do?” he said in his defense.

The villages in the area continued to demand that the German authorities do something about the partisans. In early October, an entire battalion of German SS and Ukrainian police, accompanied by a few hundred peasants carried out a series of raids in the surrounding forests. Unfortunately, quite a few Jews fell into their hands during the course of these raids. They were Jews who lacked the advantages of Hershke and his band. They were starved and broken, without money or clothes and, above all, unarmed. In the Ostapie Forest alone twelve Jews were caught, women and children among them. Hershke and his, band, however, were not caught; his spy contact brought him regular reports about the planned raids. Everyday he and his people moved to a different spot - fifteen to twenty kilometers away from the danger.

At that time many non-Jewish bands of various types ran rampant through the forests. Some of them had taken on political characteristics, such as the Banderowcy and Bulbowcy, Ukrainian Fascist gangs, while others were merely robbers. The Skalat area was overrun by thugs and in the grip of widespread banditry. The town and village population was demoralized, frightened and helpless, all of which

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undermined the German authorities, who were unable to control the situation. It also hampered their ability to collect the assigned quotas of produce from the rural populace. Rumor and fear were widespread and one hardly dared to approach the forests. When the Germans had to drive through them they did so firing their weapons, to scare off the forest dwellers, and speeding as though fleeing from a great danger.

The successful raids and the general disorder strengthened Hershke's will to obtain more weapons at any price. In addition, he itched to expand his raids. At the end of October 1943, Hershke and his gang attacked the Ukrainian Maslo-Soyuz[82] in the village of Okno and came away with two new pistols and 150 kg. of butter and other foods. They also demolished the meeting halls and took a horse, a wagon and a peasant. As he did before, Hershke got the peasant drunk and sent him home, while the horse returned on his own.

More severe Autumn weather was corning. The rain and wind depressed them and they pondered over their daily misery and sorrows. What could be the outcome of such a life, they wondered. How tiresome this terrible adventure had become for everyone, and how they yearned for a home, for rest and for normal lives.

They were busy preparing for the winter. Deep, wide bunkers were dug in the forest. Some areas were set aside as storehouses for food and clothing. They planned to take a long break in activity over the winter. For the time being there, was enough food to live on, and further raids would be dangerous' “So, enough!” they said. Perhaps Hitler's quick defeat would put an end to this enforced, rotten life. Good news was reaching them from the war fronts. The peasants assured them help was near - just a matter of days.

Hershke's informers (mostly anti-Ukrainian Poles) came one Autumn day and told him that the beekeepers in Ostapie were preparing to go to Skalat to pick up a large quantity of sugar to feed their bees over the winter months. Hershke couldn't pass up an opportunity like that and, with the help of the Poles, worked out a plan for a new raid. One early November night, around 8:00, a peasant arrived in Ostapie with eight sacks of sugar. He began to unload the sacks and to unharness the horses. Suddenly Hershke appeared with eight companions. They surrounded the cottage. The peasant was ordered to reload the sugar and to re-harness the horses. A chest full of belongings was taken from the cottage and loaded onto the wagon.

When the peasant was ordered to climb aboard, he resisted. They were welcome to the sugar, he argued, but he did not want to give them the horses. Hershke's men fired into the air and gave the peasant something to remember them by, thus forcing him to come along. This time, again, the Ukrainian police fled in great panic, leaving the village to the mercy of God. The attackers rode through the village and no one dared to say a word. They sent the peasant back, but kept the horses. They disassembled the wagon and presented its parts as gifts to their peasant helpers.

Once, at mid-day, the Jews were sitting among the trees, eating their meal, while the horses grazed nearby. Suddenly they heard shouts and loud noises, drawing nearer and nearer. The people grew frightened sensing an army advancing through the trees. They saw the peasant of the sugar and the mayor of Ostapie along with many armed Germans and Ukrainians. Hershke kept his wits and, by hand-signals, issued commands. Suddenly they heard the peasant shouting: “I have a feeling my horses are somewhere nearby!” The danger grew that the horses, sensing their master's presence, might begin to neigh. Hershke was ready to do battle, but recognized that the terrain was strategically unsuitable. He therefore avoided an attack, knowing that the outcome would be tragic. They waited, instead, and a near miracle occurred. The enemy did not spot the Jews. They continued deeper into the forest, searching for the horses, while the Jews remained silently where they were. To have survived this close a brush with death appeared to the people .in the woods an incredible miracle and, like a blessing, had brightened their somber lives.

[Page 82]

Hershke's 'hospital' with its women, aged parents and children, breathed a sigh of relief, as they lifted their eyes to Heaven with thanks.

Now they had to move to another part of the forest. Hershke wrote on a piece of paper the words: “A FOOLISH PEASANT HAS MORE LUCK THAN BRAINS,” and signed it “PALIWO.”[83] He then tied the paper to a horse's tail and turned the horses loose to find their master.

There was no end to the wanderings of Hershke's band as the mean-spirited peasants continued to spy on them, hoping to pay them back for their attacks. Winter had arrived. Snows had whitewashed the distant fields and deep woods. Human footprints left evidence of passersby on the roads and they became road-signs to the secret places where the Jews hid.

On the evening of 31 December 1943, peasants led by the Banderowcy set off for the Turkow Forest to find and wipe out the Jews there. “They approached as close as 100 meters,” relates Yeruchem Guz, a former partisan and a member of Hershke's band. “We were ready for them weapons in hand, awaiting the orders of our leader. The peasants opened fire on us from two sides. They fired more than one hundred rounds and the battle cries grew louder, as they were preparing to storm our positions. We had taken up defensive positions, looking for an opening allowing us clear aim before shooting, in accordance with the basic strategic rule that soldiers do not shoot blindly. We lay on the ground, heads partly raised, trigger fingers trembling nervously, and eyes peering sharply forward. We were surrounded, but we waited. Suddenly we saw bullets hitting around us and we began to fire back. We heard nearby cries and threw grenades.

Suddenly the firing ceased. Hershke shouted the command: 'Forward!' - and we crawled ahead on all fours. It became quiet. We waited with baited breath and soon we heard retreating steps. We ran forward. Our victorious 'army' then consisted of twelve men. The remaining 'fighters' of the so-called hospital were in the bunkers, saying prayers. Regrettably, three aged Jews, who were unable to run, fell into the murderers' hands.”

The next day, when Hershke and a small group returned to the bunkers, they caught a group of peasants in the act of robbery. They shot one of them. Hershke and his band then relocated in the Okno Forest, where they had earlier built their bunkers. One day, trusted Poles delivered a machine gun. The members of the band were overjoyed to have it. Hershke overhauled and cleaned the gun, polished it and hung belts of ammunition on it. “Now if even a whole regiment of SS-men move against me, they'll get a taste of my fighting.”

Hershke and his group still had an important job to finish. There was an infamous man in Skalat named Kolcun, who had more than four hundred Jewish lives on his conscience. Hershke wanted to wipe him off the face of the earth and sent spies to track him down every day. One day even Hershke himself, dressed as a beggar, went to town to find him, but he did not succeed. The murderer, realizing that he was being hunted, hid in various villages and later joined other Ukrainian pogrom instigators who fled deep into Germany and eventually settled in the American occupation zone as displaced persons.

Things were going badly for the Germans on the war fronts. Kiev, Berdiczew, Proskurow and Kamienic-Podolski were, by now, back in Soviet hands. The Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators scurried about in fear. They were no longer concerned with the Jews but with their own escape. Joy reigned in the forest. Help was near and Yosele Birnbaum, a former coachman, now twisted and sick, but still a great wit, spent days rehearsing a speech to welcome the Red Am1y when it arrived.

Then it was February of 1944. In the forests one could hear the sounds of artillery and exploding bombs emanating from the advancing forces. The hearts of the forest Jews were stirred with yearnings for freedom and peaceful lives. Finally on 23 March 1944, after a heavy battle, the Soviets arrived and liberated Skalat. The forest-Jews had survived the German occupation.

[Page 83]

All thirty-three surviving Jews returned to Skalat. They did not find any of their family nor their relatives alive but they did find their ruined homes. Some joined the army to continue the battle against the enemy, while others returned to their daily labors. The Jewish band dissolved and none of them remained a bandit. Every one of them wondered at the source of his strength and the courage which had enabled him to endure such an ordeal.

Hershke and his band left behind a legend of those times. Stories about them are told in various versions. The peasants of the Skalat area spoke for a long time of the Jewish bandits who had the nerve to want to live - and still don't believe that they survived.

After the liberation, some of the surviving Jews were conscripted into the Red Army. Others were still sick. A Jewish Kehile[84] was established in Skalat, registering seventy-nine souls. The Soviet administration appointed Fishl Gelbtuch as representative of the Kehile. Since the shul was half-destroyed and defiled, the Jews gathered for prayers at the home of Moishe Gelbtuch. They baked matzos for Passover and, among themselves, collected 6,000 rubles to repair the shul and to fence in the cemetery and the mass graves in the field.

In May of 1944 a Medical-Judicial Commission inspected the mass graves in Skalat. In addition to the representatives of the Soviet regime, the commission included local doctors, judges, priests and representatives of the surviving Jews. All the Jews in Skalat attended the commission hearings. It was determined that there were nine mass graves. Some of the graves were opened and ten corpses were exhumed. The Jews could only identify Getzel Streicher and his wife, Nechame (nee' Hecht). The doctors determined that two of the children had been buried alive as they found no evidence of gunshot wounds. They took photographs. Those present reacted emotionally. All of the participants sobbed.

A few days later, the Jews strung wire fences around posts and planted 450 seedlings around the graves. Every Sunday was devoted to tending the gravesites. Tablets were erected over them reading, in Hebrew, - Here were murdered thousands of our brothers, sons of Israel, may their names be sanctified; who were cut down by the Sword of Hitler, may his name be expunged.

The Jews also cleared and fenced in the devastated cemetery. Ritual burial was accorded the half-burned Torahs which some Jews had collected. The bodies of individual Jews buried in various nearby locations were also given a Jewish ritual burial.

Most of the Jews in town worked. A year passed. The war ended and Eastern Galicia remained part of the Ukraine, under Soviet control. The Soviets announced that prewar Polish citizens wishing to resettle in Polish territory had to register. All the Jewish survivors decided to leave their home town. In July 1945, all of the Jews gathered at the mass graves to bid farewell to the dead. They said Kaddish and the memorial prayers. The entire assembly walked around the graves three times and asked forgiveness from the dead for leaving them.

“No Jew will ever again set foot on this accursed earth,” said Yankif Perlmuter, one of the speakers. Moishe Shechter and Fishl Gelbtuch also spoke. There were tears, and little children threw flowers onto the graves. Then the same sad leave-taking, and asking forgiveness of the departed, was repeated at the cemetery.

Not a single Jew remained in his old home town. They fled to Poland from where they resumed their wanderings across the world.

[Page 84]

Afterword

Thus died a shtetl.

A Jewish settlement was uprooted - one among thousands.

There was once a shtetl, a home; people, hope and faith...And then we suddenly found ourselves in a wilderness: stripped of all values, rejected and pursued. We are still affected by the deathly terror of yesterday and our tomorrow is clouded. There is no foundation on which to build our lives.

The greatest horror of all times emerged on German soil under the mantle of European culture and civilization. This unleashed evil brought on a great destructive force against the noblest achievements of the human spirit with Satanic power. Jews and Jewishness were its main victims. German madmen managed to mobilize a broad circle of international killers, even among the oppressed peoples. Among the Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians, there were significant segments of debased elements who lent a hand to the oppression of those still weaker: the Jews.

The extermination machine functioned according to plan. Millions perished. Shtetls died.

Somewhere the town of Skalat goes on living. New houses are being built, trees grow, gardens flourish. Only one thing is missing - the Jewish community. It will never return. because it was torn up by its roots. And we, the escapees from those corpse-filled towns, will certainly never return.

For us the shtetl has died; Jewish Skalat is no more.

Somewhere in the world, far from one's native town, miraculously rescued survivors wander about in search of a home and a faith. After much wandering we may yet find a home, but faith - faith itself?


Footnotes:

82 Maslo-Soyuz - Butter cooperative (Russian). L. Milch Return

83 PALIWO - Fuel, here indicating danger. J. Kofler. Return

84 Kehile - Community organization. Return

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