It is late afternoon in a forest outside of Skalat. The Germans are sweeping through the forest, hunting for the small number of Jews who survived the 'actions,' escaped the ghetto, and are now hiding in the forest.
I'm six year's old and running for my life. The Jews are running towards another hiding place in the forest and I know I must not lose sight of them. I'm the link between them and my mother who lags behind, slowed down by the weight of my little brother whom she is carrying. My eyes are darting in every direction as I try to keep up with the group without losing sight of my mother. Gunfire breaks out around us and shots echo ominously through the woods. Panic drives me to run much faster than my short, skinny legs are normally capable of.
Everyone scatters. The woman ahead of me has been shot and falls to the ground. She's dead. Intuitively, I throw myself on the ground and lie motionless holding my breath. I hear screams, more shots, and the cracking of twigs under heavy German boots. Suddenly there is silence, complete and utter silence.
I am terrified to open my eyes or get up. Hours pass and night falls. Not a human sound. is heard anywhere around me. I am all alone. Slowly I get up, whimpering silently. I have long ago learned not to cry. I begin to look for a familiar landmark, but all the trees and bushes look alike. Which direction should I take? Will I find my mother and brother? Is everyone dead?
Cautiously, I move through the woods. Suddenly, a human shape is walking towards me. I stop, frozen in my tracks. I see a woman approaching and I begin to tremble uncontrollably. A sigh of relief. She is one of the women from our bunker. She tries to console me, although she seems as terrified as I am. The Germans have left she says, and assures me that my mother is looking for me and will probably find us by morning. It is too dark to proceed so we hide under bushes huddling together to keep warm. Exhaustion and the reassuring presence of an adult watching over me allow me to drift into sleep.
I awake at dawn. The woman is convinced that our people are looking for us and insists that we stay where we are. I urge her to start walking so as to try and find our way back. I think I would recognize the trail leading to a brook, from which my mother and I fetch water. I would also recognize another trail which we use at night to go into the fields to forage for food.
We begin to move tentatively through the underbrush trying to avoid the clearings. After walking for hours, we come to a path which I think is the one leading to the brook. We are too weak and exhausted to continue. We hide at the edge of the path hoping that sooner or later some of our people will come for water.. It is dusk and another night without food or shelter looms ahead.
Listen! What? Listen carefully! The faint sound of steps on the trail. Steps and whispers. Yes, someone is approaching. They are Jews from our bunker and they lead us back.
In the bunker the atmosphere is full of gloom. Not everyone has made it back. My mother is mourning. She is sure that I was either captured or killed. Yet she clings to a faint hope. She knows that at the age of six I have already acquired the skills of a survivor. Tears of joy, hugs, kisses, and prayers of thanks surround me. For us, another miracle had taken place! The three of us are alive and once again together.
Before World War II, I, Dzidzia Gelbtuch nee' Dlugacz, lived in Skalat with my parents and younger brother. From my immediate family my father, David, and I survived, but my mother, Sarah, and my brother, Benjamin, were killed. When the Germans occupied Skalat, I was subjected to deprivation. suffering and forced labor. I was hunted during the 'actions.' I was beaten and stabbed by German SS men and till today carry on my back the scars of their bayonets.
From the first day when the Germans entered Skalat, I was witness to scenes of terrible brutality and inhumanity. During the pogrom of 6 June 1941, I was hiding in the attic of our house. Through a small. opening I saw Ukrainians pulling, pushing, and kicking helpless Jews, both young and old, while stabbing them with knives. I saw a bearded, dead Jew wrapped in a talis, laying on the ground in the market square. This scene and others, as well as my two escapes from certain death, took place in Skalat a long time ago, but they shall always be part of my terrible memories.
During the 'actions,' Jews were rounded-up for killing. Of those who were caught almost no one returned. Since I was caught in two 'actions,' and came back. it was as if l had returned from the dead not once, but twice. When I jumped off the train and finally reached the Tarnopol Ghetto, the Jews there called me uciekinierka (a fugitive) and looked at me in disbelief.
On 21-22 October 1942 when the Wild Action took place in Skalat, I and my family were still living in our own house. Our house had a deep cellar, which led to a long, narrow tunnel where one could only crawl. It was said that the tunnels ran under the market and extended to the towers. Fear of getting trapped and lost in them, stopped us from hiding there.
When the 'action' had started, about ten people living in our house ran down the cellar where we huddled together in a dark corner. There we stayed for some time until two German soldiers with very powerful flashlights came down into our cellar. With them were two or three policemen, though I don't remember whether they were Ukrainians or Jews. They spotted us immediately and we started to yell Wier arbeiten (we're working), meaning we're willing to work. to which the Germans answered with cruel irony, Wir arbeiten auch (we too are working)!
Then they took us out one by one from the cellar and led us to the marketplace. When we arrived, we saw small groups of terrified Jews standing in different places of the square. I saw a German. drag a crying boy of about four or five, slam him against a wall and then shoot him with his pistol. More Jews were caught. Then we were led to the synagogue where our relatives, friends, and many neighbors were already assembled.
We were being pushed into the synagogue and as I was passing through the vestibule, I spotted an exit door on the left side. Luckily, no one noticed me as I opened the door and entered a small room cluttered with boards and broken benches. Behind the door was a chimney with an opening. I quickly climbed inside and stepped on some debris and protruding stones in the chimney wall. There I stayed the rest of the day and though I could not see the Jews inside the sanctuary, I could hear their terrible screams. Night came, the screams stopped and it became quiet. The victims had all been taken away. Fearing that the synagogue may still be guarded, I remained standing in the chimney during the entire night. In the morning, after the 'action,' I came out and went home. There I found my father who had somehow survived this 'action' as well.
On 9 November 1942, the Little Action took place in Skalat. We were no longer living in our house but with the Wilners, inside the ghetto. The house was not familiar to me and I knew of no hiding place or bunker there. At dawn the SS-men and the Ukrainian policemen surrounded the ghetto and closed off all the roads leading outside. Though I realized that there was little chance to leave the ghetto, I, nevertheless, walked out through the back door of the building, in hope of escaping. Near the Ukrainian
church, a few yards away, I saw a construction site next to the Cooperative store. I ran across and fell into a covered, deep hole excavated for a foundation. On one side of the excavation was a door leading to the cellar of the Cooperative. I opened it, went inside, and stood in the corner of a dark hall. Within twenty minutes the SS-man Muller (whose face, with a few gold teeth in the front of his mouth and whose coat with a fur-covered collar, were familiar to me) stood in front of me holding a lit candle. He ordered me to tell him whether the Ukranian supervisor of the Cooperative provided me with a hiding place. I answered honestly No. He then asked me to show him how I got in. I simply told him that I fell into the hole. He was surprised, but did not question me further. He then handed me over to another SS-man who led me to the synagogue.
When we approached the synagogue, and as in the previous 'action,' I heard horrifying sounds coming out of the inside. The sanctuary was filled with people, wailing and praying. When I entered I was overcome by the stench and lack of air. There I stayed for some time. Suddenly, the doors were opened and the loading onto the trucks was begun. During the loading, the SS-men subjected us to merciless kicking and beatings. With me in the truck was my future brother-in-law and his family. When we reached the out of town area, he tried to escape by jumping off the truck, but he was shot in front of my eyes.
We arrived at the Tarnopol railroad station, where under constant blows to the head with rifle butts, we were forced into cattle cars and packed like herring in a barrel. Then the doors were sealed.
In the train car there were no windows, toilets or water to drink. There was one small opening covered with barbed wire. As in the synagogue, we suffered from lack of air and a terrible stench. Our situation was unbearable and some people attempted to escape.
Mr. Ratzenstein pulled the barbed wire from the opening and a man, whose name I do not remember, was the first to jump. He fell on the railroad track and was killed. I was next in line to jump. Someone pushed me through the opening and I fell near the tracks. Not far away, I saw the crushed body of the man who had jumped before me. A German riding on a motorcycle along the moving train caught me and two more people and led us to a tool shed filled with shovels, pitchforks, and hammers. He ordered us to go inside and then he locked the door.
It was a cold, drizzly fall evening and the ground was frozen. I spent the night in the shed dressed in a thin jacket and one shoe, having lost the other one during my jump.
Dawn arrived. A German came, unlocked the shed and told us laufen, schnell laufen, (run, run fast). I thought he was going to shoot us, but he did not. The three of us ran in different directions. Exhausted, cold and half conscious, I continued to run till I fell into a ditch. A peasant on his way to a flour mill helped me out of the ditch and told me that I was not far from Tarnopol. Jewish road-repair brigades were working on this road and again I started to walk in hope of finding Jews. I walked till I reached Tarnopol. When I reached the ghetto, the Jews there looked at the few escapees in wonder, but with the full awareness that our attempts at saving ourselves were futile.
On Tuesdays, members of the Skalat Jewish Council would come to Tarnopol on 'business.' Mostly, they came to bribe the Gestapo and try desperately to get news for the Jews. Tuesday evening they took me back to Skalat.
On Sunday, July 6, 1941, the day of the pogrom in Skalat, our town was in a state of upheaval. Germans, but mostly Ukrainians and some Poles unleashed a barrage of beatings, torture and killings which dazed us with its suddenness and brutality. When the Germans entered we did not know what to expect, but no one in our town could have ever imagined the slaughter which took place.
Early in the morning on that day, our family, my parents, Fayga and David Sass; my three brothers, Motl, Jacob, and Szajko; my sister, Nechama; and I were at home. When rumors spread that Germans and Ukrainians were looking for Jewish men to be taken to work, panic swept through the neighborhood. My oldest brother, Motl, decided to leave the house and walk over to a Ukrainian acquaintance named Michael Datsky, who lived in a Ukrainian part of town in the direction of the Krzywy village.
Soon thereafter Germans accompanied by Ukrainians began to enter Jewish houses and to drag out all the men that they could find. The Ukrainians, some of them only young boys, pointed out Jewish houses and yelled, Jude! - Jude! Confused and not knowing what was going on, I looked outside. There, I saw a Polish teenager, one named Ryszlewski, walking down the street and pointing at Jewish houses, including ours. I knew Ryszlewski well since his sister was a classmate of mine. Soon after, soldiers entered our house, took my father and my brother Jacob, and led them to the market square.
Seeing what was happening, I ran out and tried to reach the Datsky house in order to warn my brother not to come home. As I walked through the back streets and alleys in order not to attract attention, suddenly I came face to face with three Ukrainians, each holding a huge knife. Though I don't recall their names now, they were all grown men from our town and I knew each one of them. They asked me in Ukrainian Where are you going? Petrified, I stammered out truthfully that I was looking for my brother. One of them asked me then what was my brother's name, and again I answered truthfully Sass.
Oh, they said, then he's already dead. Go behind the bathhouse and you'll find him there. I proceeded to walk towards the bathhouse and when I got there, I saw a sight which I always carry in my memory. Three Jewish men, Berl Sass, my cousin, Moishe Bernstein, in whose house my cousin lived; and Dr. Fried, wearing a gray suit, lay on the ground with their heads cut off. The blood was still oozing from their decapitated bodies. In a state of horror because of the scene in front of me, and realizing that the murderers mistook my cousin for my brother, I quickly turned around and headed for home.
Late in the afternoon my father, whose beard was cruelly cut off, and my brother Jacob returned home. They had managed to run away from the market square during a brief bombardment from a Russian plane which interrupted the pogrom in Skalat. Though they escaped being shot on that day, they were nevertheless, killed later on.
My name is Joseph Kofler. I was born and raised in a shtetl, Medenice, near the town of Drohobycz. I attended high school in Stryj and the Politechnik University in Lwow. This area was in Eastern Poland and was occupied by the Soviets in 1939, and by the Germans in 1941. My family, at that time, consisted of my parents, 4 brothers, 3 sisters, their spouses and children. They lived in Medenice, and the nearby towns of Drohobycz, Boryslaw and Stryj.
They all perished. I am the only survivor. I learned after the war that most of the Jews in that area were rounded up and taken to Belzec, an extermination camp in Eastern Poland.
I was living with my wife, Sima, in Lwow when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. In August 1941 my wife and I made our way on foot and by hitchhiking to the town of Skalat where my wife's family lived. We settled in the ghetto where I worked with a group of Jewish men assigned to forced labor on the highway, breaking up stones for paving. We worked there until the 'actions,' began in August 1942.
At dawn on November 9, 1942, the Skalat Ghetto was surrounded by German SS-men and the Ukrainian police. Early in the morning they started entering Jewish homes and dragging out people. We could hear the shouting of the Germans and the screaming of the victims.
I managed to hide our family in a prepared hiding place in the attic, but I had to stay outside to cover and camouflage the entrance. My intention was to hide in a different place. As I stepped out of the house, however, I was grabbed by a German, who was already holding an acquaintance, Munio Pudles, whom he had caught a few minutes earlier. We were both led to the assembly point at the synagogue.
At the synagogue were assembled many men, women and children who were wailing and screaming. Every few minutes the Germans and Ukrainians were bringing in more victims. At about noon the commanding SS-man stopped the round-up and ordered the transport to begin. Trucks normally used to carry rocks were brought from the Nowosiolka quarry. The people were herded from the synagogue and the Germans, using whips and delivering blows with rifle butts, made us climb the lorries at a fast pace. The Germans forced their victims to squeeze together so more people could be loaded on a truck.
When the loading was completed, but before the trucks started to move, a Judenrat official by the name of Lempert, arrived and asked the SS-man to release an employee of the Judenrat and a friend of Nirler (the head of the Judenrat). The SS-man agreed and called out the name of the woman who was on the truck with her 10 year old son. The German, however, would not release her child and gave the woman one minute to decide whether to leave alone or stay with her son. She decided to get off and her son continued alone with the transport.
The trucks transported us from Skalat to the railroad station in Tarnopol. There, the Germans made us once again leave the trucks at a fast pace, under a hail of severe beatings and with shouts or Judenschwein.
After the unloading, we were ordered to sit on the ground in complete silence along with other Jews from Zbaraz, Trembowla, and Kopyczynce. Round-ups of Jews were carried out in those towns the same day as in Skalat. It was a cold day, the temperature was below freezing and the frozen ground was covered with snow.
People were shivering because they had been driven out of their homes in their night clothes, and therefore unprepared for the cold. The children suffered the most. They were crying and their mothers were wailing. The Germans ordered the crowd to be quiet, but the children continued to cry. One SS-man became so enraged by the noise that he picked up a few screaming children, took them behind a wall and shot them. This subdued the crowd and the other children stopped crying as well.
Towards evening a freight train arrived and the Germans and Ukrainians herded the crowd towards the cattle cars. At the same time they selected able-bodied men for assignment to forced labor camps.
This selection involved separating the men from their families and resulted in tragic scenes and the crying and wailing of women and children. Some men resisted being torn away from their loved ones but the Germans cut the scene short with their usual method of terror, and with the help of whips and rifle butts. The old men, women and children were pushed into the cattle cars, the doors were shut and the victims were dispatched to their destination - the gas chambers.
The men selected for forced labor were assembled in columns and assigned to various camps, Hluboczek, Zbaraz, Zloczow, Zborow and Kazimirowka. I was assigned to Kamizirowka. After the train left the station, our column was ordered to march at a fast pace along the highway towards Zborow, which was about 40 km from Tarnopol. We were guarded by many Ukrainian policemen on foot and by two Germans in a car, driven slowly behind the marching column, with the headlights directed on the marchers. After marching a few hours, trucks arrived to pick us up in order to speed up the transport to the camp.
Around midnight, we arrived at the Zborow camp. There we stayed overnight without food and slept on the floor because all the sleeping bunks were fully occupied. We were awakened before dawn and given breakfast consisting of black water, which was the camp version of coffee, two slices of bread and a stick of margarine. At five o'clock we were marched under Ukrainian guards to Kazimirowka.
Conditions in the Kazimirowka camp were ho1Tendous. We were housed in wooden barracks , which had been converted from a horse barn by installing three tiers of sleeping bunks. In an area which was built for twenty horses, the Germans crowded in 250 inmates. The bunks had only enough room to slide in. One could not sit up. We were packed so tightly that when all the inmates were in place, it was hardly possible to turn around. A hole in the ground behind the barracks served as a latrine. The hole was small and people had to wait in line to use it. At night many inmates were so tired and weak that they were unable to wriggle out of their bunks. This resulted in inmates urinating in their bunks, wetting those who were sleeping below.
The camp grounds were surrounded by a fence of barbed-wire and one watch tower. The Kommandant of the camp was a German named Riesberg, who was assisted by about 15 Ukrainian policemen. We were awakened every day about 4:00 a.m., except on Sunday, and served breakfast which consisted of ersatz (imitation) coffee and two slices of half-baked, black bread. Within 30 minutes after wake-up call we had to attend the line-up. The Kommandant reviewed the column and then we marched to work at a rock quarry a few kilometers away.
A German named Schelhorn was in charge of the quarry. During work the quarry was surrounded by Ukrainian policemen in order to prevent escape attempts.
There was no hospital or clinic. There was a sick room with one doctor who did not have any drugs or instruments. Once, while at work, I was hit with a shovel over the head by a German and I was bleeding heavily. All the doctor could do was wash the wound with water and apply a clean rag torn from an old shirt.
In the shower room, which was open only on Sundays, there were three shower heads. Only a fraction of the camp population was able to use the shower. Most of the inmates were infested with lice, resulting in the spread of typhus and causing the death of many inmates.
A sick inmate was not allowed to stay in the barracks during work hours. He was carried on a stretcher to the quarry and left there all day in the cold. Most of the time the patient died. Otherwise, he was carried back to the barracks and the same procedure was repeated the next day. In order to stay in the barracks a sick inmate had to bribe the Kapo who would hide him during inspection.
This camp was small compared to the notorious concentration camps equipped with gas chambers and crematoria. There were hundreds of similar small camps in Eastern Poland, the names of which are forgotten. They were established to supply slave labor for the local economy and also to hasten the elimination of the sick and weak Jews without having to build expensive killing installations. No bullets were needed to kill inmates except in escape attempts. Since bullets were in short supply and were needed
for the battle front, they were used sparingly. The Jews had to die without them. The bodies were dumped in a nearby ravine and covered with the soil stripped from the rock quarry.
The work at the quarry consisted of breaking up large stones into gravel using heavy sledgehammers. We worked from 5:00 in the morning till about 5:00 in the evening, when it became dark. There was a one hour noon break, when we were given a hot lunch brought from the camp kitchen. The lunch consisted of watery soup and two slices of bread. Sometimes on a Sunday, the Kommandant would present to the camp kitchen a few dogs or cats which he shot during a hunting trip to a nearby village. Inmates were then treated to soup made from this meat.
A few days after our arrival a 14 year old boy was caught at night, trying to escape. The next morning all the inmates were assembled at the line-up to watch the punishment. The 14 year old prisoner was brought to the gallows and his teenage friend was summoned and ordered to place the noose on his friend's neck. When he refused to do so, a German beat him severely with a whip over his face and then shot him. A Ukrainian policeman then placed the noose and the boy was hanged. After that episode there were no other attempts to escape.
The remaining Jews of Skalat who avoided the round-up, came out from their hiding places and tried to go on with their precarious lives in the reduced ghetto.
My wife, who luckily avoided capture, learned after a few weeks that a number of men from Skalat were confined in the Kazimirowka camp, and that I was among them. With me from the town of Skalat were: Gelbtuch, Wilner, Sharf, Sass, Kiwetz and a few others, whose names I do not remember. She managed to make contact with the Judenrat in the town of Zborow, which is located near Kazimirowka. They indicated that it was possible to get an inmate released for a ransom. They were especially interested in jewelry.
As the negotiations were going on concerning a ransom, I contracted typhus and developed a high fever. A friend, David Gelbtuch, bribed the Kapo, who managed to hide me from the Kommandant and shielded me from being carried to the quarry .My wife delivered the ransom and I was released unconscious and with a high fever. I was taken to a so-called hospital in the Zborow Ghetto. It was a small, crowded place where two or sometimes three patients shared a bed. Two doctors and three nurses cared for about two dozen patients. After ten days, without drugs or proper treatment, I miraculously recovered. My wife managed to find transportation and we made our way back to Skalat.
As I found out after the liberation, all of these small camps were liquidated by the Germans in the Spring of 1944 as the Soviet Army was approaching. The following method of liquidation was used. The inmates were assembled inside the barracks, which were surrounded by German and Ukrainian guards with machine guns. The doors were shut, the buildings were then doused with gasoline and set on fire. The inmates were burned alive, and only a few escaped to tell the tragic story.
Among the many joyful memories of my childhood, were the Shabbos visits to my grandmother's house. Everyone in Skalat knew my grandma, Sura Elfenbein. As a child, I never identified myself by my name, Fancia Niessenbaum, instead I would say I am Sura Elfenbein's granddaughter, that was sufficient as an introduction.
Sura Elfenbein was a hotel owner, saloon keeper, restaurateur, and the best cook in town. Molly Picon and a cast of actors stayed at her hotel when they performed in Skalat. Once, even the President of Poland whose name I believe was Moscicki, stayed in her hotel. This was a proud event for grandmother and each time a new guest registered, grandma would leaf through pages of her guest book until she came upon the President's signature.
I had loving grandparents. Grandma was strict, a disciplinarian, and she demanded respect from us, as well as from her children. She often used the word mitzva and one day I learned its meaning. My sister, Rozia, and I were entrusted to deliver food to a poor lady with a large family. When we arrived at her house and I saw the happiness on the woman's face at the sight of the food, I understood the word mitzva. In addition, every Friday and Saturday there was always a stranger eating with the family, and my sister and I would call that person the mitzva guest.
Grandpa Yisrul Elfenbein, on the other hand, was the complete opposite of grandma. I do not recall grandpa working as much in the business as grandmother because he prayed a lot. He was fun to be with. He would let me snuff tobacco from his little silver box and on Shabbos he would dip some sponge cake in the wine and each grandchild would be given a taste of the sweet wine. Grandma scolded grandpa for this, because she feared that we would get tipsy.
Besides my caring grandparents and loving mother Hania Niessenbaum nee' Elfenbein, the most important person in my life, was my father Wiktor Niessenbaum. He was always there to protect me, to console me when I had bad dreams, and to buy me things. Though he threatened to spank me, he never laid a hand on me. To me he was the smartest person, who knew all the answers to my questions. Physically he was strong, with beautiful, big, blue eyes, and a shiny bald head. He was truly a pillar of strength to the entire family.
I used to look forward to Shabbos, which was the best day of the week because my father and grandpa would go to shul, and let me tag along with them. I helped grandpa carry his talis in the velvet bag. I felt very important when I carried grandpa's velvet bag because I knew that the talis in the bag meant a lot to him. Once I dropped it on the floor by accident and grandpa got upset; he picked it up and kissed it.
Life was wonderful in Skalat, especially to a little girl who was surrounded by many aunts and uncles, sister, grandparents, and parents. During my childhood, Skalat was a lively and vibrant town, where moral, ethical and Jewish values were instilled in us.
Unfortunately, all of it ended on a beautiful, sunny Saturday on July 5, 1941. That day, grandpa, papa and I were on our way to the shul, and suddenly our town was invaded by many soldiers in weird black uniforms wearing shiny black boots. Their hats were adorned with silver skull heads, and the same insignia adorned the rings on their hands. On their arms they wore the white sign of the swastika. They entered Skalat riding shiny motorcycles, trucks, and tanks.
The festive and happy mood on the street changed to bewilderment and fear. I heard the words Germans and war many times before, but I had never really known their meaning. Looking at grandpa, my father, and the people around us, I realized that something horrible was about to happen.
All three of us ran quickly to the shul and even before the men started praying, the soldiers in the black uniforms entered the shul and started shouting in German. As soon as they entered, they began to whip the Jews and gathered all the men, among them grandpa and father. There was chaos, fear, and
confusion. I ran quickly to grandma's house to tell her what had happened. Then I sat down in the corner frightened and in a state of shock.
In the late afternoon my father came back without grandpa. He was a changed man and did not look like my strong, handsome father. His Saturday suit was gone, his clothes having been ripped off him, and his whole body was pierced; blood gushing from each hole. His back was marked with red stripes, from whip lashings that he had received. My mother was trying to stop the bleeding, but each time she touched him, he screamed. After a while, he began telling us what had happened.
The Germans had gathered the Jews and made them wash their cars and motorcycles in the marketplace. Some of the captured Jews were shot there and then. One German soldier did not like grandpa's peyes (sidelocks), so he pulled his hair out one by one and then shot him.
A soldier approached my father while he was washing cars, and kept hitting him and piercing him with his bayonet. When my father asked the soldier, in fluent German, why he was torturing him, it was then that the soldier decided to let him go. It was a miracle because most of the men who were caught that day were killed.
This was the first pogrom in Skalat, and the start of the tragedy. As my father was telling us all that had happened to him and the others, he cried like a baby. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry and I never forgot it! That day our roles were reversed. My father sat and cried like a child while I grew up there and then. Saturday outings to the shul never happened again.
These are the remembrances of Lola Margulies, nee' Elfenbein; of how I, my father Arthur my mother, Erna, and my brother, Michael survived the Holocaust; specifically during the years 1942-44 in the town of Skalat. It is above all the story of the superhuman courage, self sacrifice and resourcefulness of one man, my father, to whom this tale is dedicated.
Neither this narrative, nor any account, can do justice in describing the brutality and inhumanity of the systematic extermination of millions of Jews by Hitler and his enthusiastic followers. But my experiences In the town of Skalat may mirror the horrors associated with the liquidation of a ghetto and making a town inhabited by thousands of Jews Judenfrei.
The systematic massacre of Jews confined to the ghetto began with the 'actions.' During these surprise attacks the SS-men would storm into the ghetto in the middle of the night, round up Jews, and drive them like cattle into trucks. The victims would then be delivered to trains heading for concentration camps and extermination. The first of these ' actions' in the fall of 1942 lingers in my memory. It is the memory of a twelve year old crushed by the fear of death that would become a reoccurring nightmarish reality. Helpless, hopeless, overcrowded and undernourished we waited for the massacre. We, other members of my father's family and neighbors, survived the first 'action' and the subsequent ones in a miraculous fashion. This miracle was engineered virtually single-handedly by my self-sacrificing father. To hide us he used a large cellar which had a trap door in the floor of the courtyard. The cellar was not equipped in any way as a hiding place prior to the surprise attack of the first 'action.'
When we were awakened in the middle of the night by the shouts of truckloads of SS-men demanding Juden to fulfill their quota, my father rounded up everyone and rushed us into the cellar. As my mother and I searched in the dim candlelight, our hearts sank as we became aware that my father was not among us and that he undertook to save all of us at the risk of losing his own life. Within minutes of the stormy arrival of the SS-men, my father staged the scenario that succeeded in confusing and outwitting our assassins. He covered up the trap door leading to the cellar with many bulky articles that both masked the entrance and muted the sound which could have emanated from the cellar. Ingeniously, he left numerous bottles of vodka, a remnant of his parents' tavern business, on display in the most conspicuous places in the rooms above the cellar. He then hid himself under the staircase leading to the attic, becoming an obvious target for the Germans and the journey to the death camp.
As we sat almost lifeless in the cellar, we heard the footsteps and voices of the Germans above us. Suddenly, a thirst cry rang out from my three year old cousin, Kamila Nirler, which would have given us away. Worse, since the cellar was not equipped with any beverage, all our desperate attempts to quiet down the frightened and thirsty child failed. Many panicked and insisted that the mother Cover up the child's mouth. Choking the child would have been the sacrifice to save the rest. The desperate mother collected some of her own urine and gave it to the child to drink! Death was staring us in the face and we were sure that all was lost. But my father's miracle worked! In spite of the flimsy and hasty camouflage of the cellar entrance, the child's crying and my father's conspicuous hiding place, the Germans failed to find us. We heard their merry laughter upstairs as they were consuming the vodka which father so generously provided.
Our existence until the town of Skalat became Judenfrei was worse than hell on earth. The repeated assaults, the dread of the nights, lest the 'actions,' catch us unaware, drained us of hope and strength as the inevitability of death drew closer and closer. We endured nevertheless and survived the winter of 1942-43 while father made the cellar into a highly effective hiding place. The worst was still to come, however: the brutal liquidation of the Skalat ghetto and camp. Again, there was only one person
among us who never lost hope and presence of mind, and who devoted all his mental acuity, resourcefulness and energy to the virtually impossible task of saving his family.
Father began to search for a way to save our lives outside of the ghetto. He first focused on saving the women of our family, my mother and me. Father's plan was to find a Polish peasant who would be willing to hide Jews if the reward, such as money or jewelry, was high enough. But I, aged 13, became extremely disturbed by my father's insistence that we split up the family. I pleaded with my father to disclose his secret plan. In what miraculous fashion did he hope to save himself and my 15 year old brother if they did not go into hiding with us, I wondered? If we must perish, we shall die together, I insisted. All in vain! Did I not realize that he was a survivor, he said with a smile. It was all part of his master plan, never disclosed. I knew that my father believed in miracles and above all in God. His deep religious beliefs and the recollection of numerous stories father narrated from the Bible did not make me believe in miracles. Yet they did occur during the Holocaust for a few lucky ones!
There were three ways to try to save ourselves - all measures of desperation, rather than realistically hopeful approaches. Find a Polish peasant, poor enough to hide Jews for money, surely not for any altruistic reasons! Alternatively, acquire forged papers, move to a big city and pass as a Pole. As a last resort, hide in the icy woods without any shelter or food. Father chose the first option for me and my mother.
One evening a Polish peasant appeared with a horse and wagon already carrying some other desperate Jews. He was going to save us all. I went into hysteria. I refused to try to save my life without my father and brother. We all go or we all die, I lament! My father is devastated as the wagon departs without us, and swears no forgiveness for my childish and irresponsible behavior until the next day's news reached us. The angel Pole turned the wagon full of Jews over to the German town police and they were all killed. My mother was convinced that it was a young girl's premonition.
As Hitler's promised Judenfrei approached, another episode of hysteria occurred. I again refused to leave without my father when he arranged for another Polish peasant to take us into hiding. That very evening the German police intercepted and searched the peasant's wagon. Thanks to God and to my hysteria the wagon was empty. My mother claimed I had a special uncanny gift, nothing short of clairvoyance. But why did we consider ourselves so lucky? We were not apprehended the night before, but here we were, just waiting for death or it seemed hopelessly buying time.
My father's two sisters, young and pretty (one, the mother of three year old Kamila, who was given away for adoption and survived), took a fifteen year old niece with them and left for Lvov. Alas, we never saw them again! They perished, as one of many Polish collaborators recognized my younger aunt and denounced them to the Gestapo. The natives rejoiced as they helped in the extermination of the unwanted millions who, they always felt, were outsiders in their country and exploited them. Hitler was a messiah sent to carry out the good deed which they always wanted to do themselves.
Another desperate attempt of a few of my cousins to save their lives occurred during the penultimate 'action' on the town ghetto which was supposed to have rendered the town of Skalat Judenfrei. Three of them ran to the woods. A few months later, on a bitter cold night, one of them, a thirteen year old girl, froze to death.
During the first Skalat camp 'action' my father was recovering from typhoid and could hardly walk. He and all the remaining Jews were taken from the camp to the graves dug outside of town which were prepared for their slaughter. With him was his brother-in-law and sister-in-law. At this time my mother and I were already in hiding. I finally did agree to be taken into a bunker by the peasant with whom I refused to leave the first time. This time my father promised that he and my brother would follow shortly. Why did I believe his story? There was no such arrangement. It turned out that there was no room in the bunker which was dug out thirteen feet underneath a peasant's chicken coop near the end of the woods. This grave for the living could only accommodate eleven people which did not include my
father and brother. Father paid the Wassermans, a family of six, to hide five women from our family: his mother, Sarah Elfenbein, his sister and. her daughter, Anna and Phyllis Nissenbaum, as well as my mother and me. In fact, the peasant never disclosed to my father where our hiding place was. This was the absolute condition that the peasant insisted on. What if my father was caught, tortured and disclosed our whereabouts? The Polish peasant might then get the death penalty for hiding Jews.
One evening the peasant as usual descended to our bunker carrying potato soup and some pieces of bread, the daily diet that got thinner and smaller during the nine months we spent in that grave. He also brought the dreadful news! The remainder of the Jews in the camp were exterminated. They were shot and some were still alive when they were buried in the prepared graves. We shudder, wail and grieve as we realize that our loved ones must have been among the dead! My cousin, whose father was also at the camp, and I are convinced that we are orphans. But miracles do happen. A few days later, the chicken coop door opens unexpectedly and lo and behold my father and brother descend on the ladder. Were they buried alive and rose from the graves? And how did they find us? Here is the story my father narrated. It was a horror story that would be imprinted in the memory of his children, grandchildren and hopefully his great-grandchildren. Father lived to the age of ninety one to describe the miracle.
The Jews were standing in front of the graves waiting to be shot. Suddenly, the voice of the head SS-man resounds loudly: If there are any artisans among you: tailors, barbers and shoemakers, step out of the line and go across the narrow dirt road. My father who was none of the above, but did bake bread in the camp, says I am the camp baker. The SS-man who was busy with other matters, may not have even heard him and did not react. My father, taking advantage of the situation, begins to move away from the grave and tugs on the clothing of his brother-in-law, Wiktor, motioning him to join him. Wiktor is alive, but paralyzed with fear, as though he were a living corpse. He refuses to move and as father goes across the road, Wiktor is shot in front of my father's eyes. Father is then put on a truck with a handful of other Jews whom the Germans needed for a few more weeks until the camp was totally liquidated.
This time, my father did not wait to be shot. Joined by my brother who fled from the camp at the time of the 'action,' they escaped from the camp that very evening and were not apprehended as they headed for the woods. My father said without hesitation that they were going to find me and my mother. But we have no idea where they are, my brother exclaims. Father, as sure as he was that he could rise from the grave had only one answer. I'll find them! Watch me outsmart the Polish peasant! Unwittingly, he gave me a hint or two as to the whereabouts of the hiding place. I know the woods pretty well from the time I used to smuggle vodka when I was about your age. The peasant gave away two hints: the bunker was located in the beginning of the deep part of the woods and there were three farmhouses nearby.
It was late in the evening, July 1943. They entered a poor peasant's little house just skirting the woods. Moments earlier, father disclosed to my brother another piece of disturbing information, namely that the peasant who engineered the hiding place was a clever cousin of the very poor peasant who was hiding us, and that father had never seen the owner of the house which they were seeking.
As they entered the house and begged for bread, father had the strong feeling that this was the peasant who was hiding his family. He did not hesitate: My wife and daughter are here, please let me and my son join them, he pleads. The peasant and his wife strongly deny any knowledge of our whereabouts. But, from their reaction my father becomes convinced that they are not telling the truth. He pleads to be let into the bunker, but to no avail. At this moment by brother reacts instinctively. He falls to his knees at the feet of the peasant's wife who is cleaning the lice out of her eight year old daughter's hair. Imagine, he says with tears in his eyes, that your daughter is separated from you and that the only way her mother could be saved is by joining her. How would you feel if you could not be reunited with your daughter? Filled with pity, the peasant woman breaks into tears and commands her husband. Let them in!
And so we were finally reunited. Within a few hours, however, our joy was transformed into panic as we all began to choke. There was not enough oxygen in the bunker for thirteen people! At the risk of
being apprehended, we spent a few evenings in the barn, while father took charge of enlarging the bunker and making one more small opening to the outside to allow air to enter. Periodically we were threatened if we did not come up with more money or jewelry. Thus starved and frightened, without ever seeing daylight, the thirteen of us spent nine months in our grave. During this time we witnessed my mother's self-sacrifice. She gave away the meager portions of her food to her growing son in fear that he would become a victim of tuberculosis. The forty two year old woman became completely gray and emaciated, a mere ghost of her former self.
Finally we were liberated by the advancing Russian army in March of 1944. Earlier, father had prophesied that if we could survive for nine months we would be saved. Almost to the day, we hear shooting. The peasant insists that these are local partisans fighting with the Germans. He refuses to tell us the truth and let us out, for fear of being shot by the Germans as a Jew rescuer. Father again takes charge. Convinced that this is the advancing front of the Russian army, he declares that we are leaving the bunker immediately. We walked out practically barefooted on the white March snow, amidst the fighting front. Our bunker collapsed shortly after we left. Were it not for my father's speedy decision, we would have been buried alive. We were all emotionally drained and sapped of physical strength but my mother could not walk by herself. As we were carrying her, the liberating Russian soldiers took even more pity on us. Referring to my mother as the sick babushka, an old woman, they left their line of fire and hastily put us on a truck heading towards the Eastern Ukraine in the Soviet Union.
How does one survive such torture and confinement and retain one's sanity? Though we were by far the exception and survived as a family, the psyche of a Holocaust survivor bears a permanent scar. The threshold for suffering steadily declines during life's ordinary trials and tribulations. The nightmares persist and the hysteria manifested during the war lingers on.
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