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[Page 277]

The Holocaust

 

Pages about Pain and Death
of the Jewish Settlement in Sokal

by Moshe Maltz

Translated from Yiddish to Hebrew by Tzvi Schussman

Translated from Hebrew to English by Vered Dayan

 

sok277.jpg
Moshe Maltz

 

A. Sokal Under Soviet Rule

On September 1st 1939, Hitler started his onslaught against Poland. German Blitzkrieg on the Polish state began. The attack against the Polish army went on for three weeks, and by the middle of September, the whole of Western Poland was occupied by Hitler's troops. Remains of the Polish armed forces still made efforts to hold on to the front line along the rivers around Warsaw, but on September 17th the Polish government fled to Romania. Poland lay ruined.

At the same time, the Russian army was entering Poland from the east, allegedly in order to protect Soviet interests. Actually, the Stalin-Hitler agreement had said that Poland was to be divided: The western half of the country was given to Hitler's Germany, and the eastern half was given to Soviet Russia.

As a result, Polish Jewry was also cut into two parts: one part fell under Hitler's regime, and the other part under Stalin's. The Bug river became the border between the two parts of the divided Polish state. Sokal was in Soviet hands

***

On Yom Kippur, October 1939, Red Army units came into Sokal, immediately followed by Jewish refugees from the territory occupied by the Germans in western Poland, especially from nearby towns and villages.

The residents of Sokal opened their hearts, took in the homeless, and showing brotherly care gave them shelter in synagogues, schools and homes. It was not a simple matter – Attaining housing, food and money demanded vast and numerous actions, a joint effort on the part of Sokal Jews. Indeed, an aid committee was formed, it collected money, and soon after, a special kitchen was set up in order to supply the refugees with hot meals.

Even more difficult tasks were awaiting the aid committee, since newcomers consisted not only of those Jewish families who voluntarily left their homes - not wanting to live under Nazi regime - but of more hundreds of Jews deported by the Nazi murderers to the east, towards the new Soviet border, to the right bank of the Bug river, where Sokal is located.

On a cold rainy day on November 1939, loud wailings were suddenly heard throughout Sokal, coming from the border, from the train-bridge over the Bug. Sokal Jews who hurried in that direction witnessed a horrible sight: The bridge was full of Jews being hurled by the Gestapo in the direction of Sokal. On the other side of the bridge, very close to the town itself, Soviet guards were also driving the miserable Jews away, back to the hands of their German executioners. This horrific game of pushing the famished and frozen Jews back and forth lasted several hours. These were the remains of 1500 Jews captured by the Germans in Khelm and Hrubieszow, and they had been pushed towards the Soviet border through mud and rocks, without food or water during three nightmarish days. Bitter was the fate of the tired and the weak, who could no longer walk and had no choice but to stop in order to rest: bullets ended their lives. Out of the 1500 Jews of Khelm and Hrubieszow, remained hardly 300 people approaching the bridge. They could hardly stand. At the other end of the bridge stood the Soviet soldiers, blocking the way, not permitting entry.

During that night, in the dark, some of the Jews who still had the strength, jumped off the bridge and swam to the opposite side. They were hoping to end their miseries by getting to a land under Soviet rule. But plunderers among the local farmers had already smelled the smell of spoils. When those few weakened Jews came out of the water and onto the Soviet bank, they were met by robbers, who took away their clothes and threw them back into the dark deep waters of the Bug.

Only a few managed to reach Sokal, and they were in a terrible state, ill and exhausted. The Jewish residents of the town took them in as brothers, gave them shelter and supplied them with nourishment in a time that was a time of need for Sokal Jews as well.

***

Living under Soviet rule was very difficult for Sokal Jews. All administrative positions in town were seized by the underworld, and innocent residents of Sokal were being blackmailed. In addition, the government nationalized Jewish businesses, thus stopping all kinds of commerce, which had been the main means of living for Jewish families in town. Jewish workshops closed down, there was no other way to make a living.

When a few impoverished Jews started selling goods, they were immediately arrested and put to trial. For trying to sell a sack of flour or a piece of leather in order to make a pair of shoes, people were sentenced to eight or ten years of hard labor in remote places of the Soviet Union. Not one of them came back.

And then everybody was obliged to register with the authorities in order to obtain an identity card. Every resident above the age of 14 had to obtain a Soviet identity card. Owners of nationalized businesses and all Zionist and Bundist activists were given cards indicating that the bearer is a “harmful element” not to be trusted and not to be given permission to live close to the border. Those “unreliable political elements” therefore had to leave Sokal and look for a place to live a few hundred kilometers away from this border town.

Refugees from other towns living in Sokal were obliged to register with the local militia, and to declare wheather they wanted to stay in Soviet Russia, to emmigrate to America or to Eretz Yisrael, or to be sent back to their prior places of residence, now occupied by the Germans. Almost all refugees expressed their wish to emmigrate, and only a small percentage agreed to stay under Soviet rule.

As a result, on one pleasant night of May 1940, soldiers from special units of the Soviet Secret Police raided the houses of those who had expressed their wish to emmigrate, and dragged them outside. They were permitted to take only the most necessary belongings and were hauled onto trucks, which then sped through the dark streets to the train station. Cattle waggons were ready for them. It took two or three days until 40 such waggons were filled with refugees, and then the train started. Where was it going? It was well known that the way led to Siberia, to “the white bears”. The refugees who had declared their wish to live in Soviet Russia received identity cards, together with the instruction to move a few kilometers away from Sokal.

 

B. In Nazi Hell

On June 22nd 1941, war erupted between Germany and Russia. German troops crossed the Bug and occupied Sokal. The first German soldiers who entered the town, stopped at Yishaya the waggoner's appartment, claiming that somebody had been shooting at them from there. They instantly dragged three Jews out of the appartment, put them against the wall and shot them to death. Those three innocent murdered Jews were the first victims of German cruelty in Sokal.

Ukranian residents of the town welcomed the Germans with flowers, and hung German and Ukranian flags outside their houses. Silence, infused with alarm and fear, prevailed throughout the Jewish homes. No Jew dared be seen on the streets. The mayor was the Ukranian Chorentsky, and he promptly set up a Ukranian militia. This militia would write pages of blood in the book of Sokal Jewish history.

Ukranians, who passionately hated the Jews, could smell the chance for blood and plunder. On June 30th 1941, Ukranian militia brutally entered Jewish homes, dragging everybody outside, young and old. They were all forcefully shoved to the marketplace, where 400 of them were “selected”, mostly the educated, as well as shopkeepers, workers and physically fit young men. The SS murderers led them all to the other side of town, near the big brick factory, and shot them to death.

At first, the rest of the Jews did not know to where the 400 had been taken. No one had imagined such a terrible fate. Jews let themselves be deceived into thinking their poor brothers had been taken to work: That was the talk around town. Parents of young men who had been taken away, and women whose husbands had also been among the 400, collected money and chose two of the women to go and try to find out what had happened. The two started immediately; They went to Ludmir, to Lutzk and to many other towns in Wolyn. Needless to say, they came back with no answers.

Christian charlatans, arriving in Sokal from different places, spread the false rumor that the Jews who had been taken away were seen in camps, in a place which in truth did not even exist, thus leading women to give them clothes and money, allegedly for their husbands. This outrageous blackmail went on for a long period of time. Those women sold almost all of their belongings, in the hope to see their husbands return. Eventually they found out that the 400 Jews had been executed by the German murderers.

This is how the German occupation of Sokal began. Ukranian gangs of farmers from nearby villages came to town, confiscated shops from their Jewish owners and became loyal servants of the Nazi regime. Insults, curses, and anti-Jewish incitement, were daily phenomena. Windows of the shops robbed from the Jews were filled with anti-Jewish objects, including pictures of Hitler and his accomplices. Ukranian residents of Sokal ordered Jews to act as their servants.

The Germans ordered to set up a Judenrät (Jewish council), consisting of seven members and a chairman, which was to be asissted by officials and a Jewish militia. This body was commanded to carefully execute all orders and decrees concerning the Jews, especially to supply the Germans with Jewish workers, as well as to collect money from the Jews under false pretences – fines, “donations” and plain ransom. In addition, the Judenrät had to make sure that all of the German rulers' desires and whims were fulfilled. They especially coveted the Jews' furs and valuables.

***

The first special order against the Jews said that every person above the age of 10 had to wear a white band with a blue Star of David around his or her right arm. Next came prohibitions: Jewish men were not to grow beards or to wear hats, and all Jews were not to walk on sidewalks or exit the town.

The Judenrät was ordered to supply the town's administration with 100 Jews per day for cleaning the streets. Every morning at 4 o'clock, they were already sweeping. It was a horrible sight – Old Jewish men, worn out, defeated, many of them 0rthodox Jews whose beards were cut off, wearing city-workers' caps. They would sweep endlessly, long broomsticks in hands, sweeping the same streets, back and forth. Christian passersby used to mock them and laugh.

***

On November 1941, the Germans opened an employment bureau in Sokal. It was located in the new pharmacy hall, and manned by Ukranian officials. All Jews aged 14 to 60 were required to register there in order to receive a document with their photo on it. They were then orderd to come once a week to the employment bureau with this document and to present a certification stating that they were employed. All the unemployed would be sent to labor camps.

This stirred terrible panic among the Jews in town. They had to find work at all costs. People looked for Christian acquaintances and begged to be given any kind of work, begged for mercy. Some Christians were “kind” enough to let Jews work as servants in their homes, shops or workshops. Happy were the Jews “lucky” enough to obtain jobs in German institiutions. Jews did the hardest menial work. They would stand in line for hours in front of the employment bureau; hunger, cold or frost did not deter anyone.

Small children could barely stand the agony and suffering. Trouble and distress made them grow old. It was an absolute nightmare to watch those little creatures standing in line patiently, uncompromisingly, enduringly waiting to be lucky enough to get a job. The smug ruling Ukranians sat there and shamelessly laughed at the miserable Jews.

One of the tasks the Judenrät was ordered to carry out was providing the German rulers with pieces of furniture, jewlry and other valuables. For this, the Judenrät obliged the relatively well-off Jews to hand some of their belongings. Those possessions were stored in a special warehouse, so that the appetite of the German murderers could be satisfied at any given moment. The Jews complained, of course. Still, they had no choice but to give the Judenrät everything it demanded. The Judenrät was under the misconception that doing all this would save Jewish lives, and the Jewish residents of Sokal were misled to believe that as well.

The Judenrät also needed money for donations, money for bribe, money for paying Ukranians and Germans in return for sparing Jewish lives, money for the Judenrät itself, for the Jewish militia and for all kinds of corrupt and evil people, Jews and non-Jews, big and small. A special evaluation committee was set up by the Judenrät, and its mission was to assess the value of all Jewish property in Sokal, if such property still existed. When a Jew could not or would not give away the amount of money the committee had decided he should pay, the Jewish militia would come to his home, confiscate valuables and possessions, and take them to the Judenrät warehouse.

I once attended a Judenrät meeting, where the head of the evaluation committee read out a list of items such as fabrics, leather goods, furs and Jewellery the German hangmen were expecting the Judenrät to deliver. People were crying and yelling that they had already given everything, but to no avail – The warehouse had to be full, dense with precious, expensive goods, in order to satisfy the murderers' greed. The Gestapo did not trust the Judenrät – They would sometimes come to the warehouse to examine the items collected for them. The Jew in charge of the warehouse once gave the murderers bath towels they did not like. He was taken to a camp in Janowo and tortured to death.

Although Sokal Jews were forced to deal with such difficult circumstances, they kept believing that by satisfying all German desires, they will survive until the end of the war, in spite of the terror, in spite of the persecutions, in spite of the price they paid in blood each and every day.

***

December 11th 1941, the day The United States of America declared war on Hitler's Germany, was a day of disaster for the Jews of Sokal and for Polish Jewry at large. After Hitler's big speech, in which he had promised the complete annihilation of the Jewish people, persecutions of the Jewish poplulation in Poland, including Sokal, became even more intense.

On Saturday, December 27th 1941, The Judenrät was ordered to collect all fur coats, fur hats and fur gloves belonging to the Jews. It was a harsh winter, and the Jews were to supply warm clothing for the German troops suffering from the cold on the Russian front…. And to make sure “operation fur” would be carried out obidiently, The Gestapo took several distinguished members of the Jewish communitiy hostage. The Jewish militia ran around town all through Saturday, announcing the latest decree. The Jews understood the threat and gave away their furs as quickly as possible. The Judenrät made a list – No Jew could avoid it. On those cold days, Jews had to make do with summer clothing.

Emotionally broken, The Jews of Sokal were looking toward the future with fear. The Germans were also putting more effort into breaking the Jews Physically. Until then, Jews had received a ration of 350 grams of bread per person a day. The German criminal scientists now made a new calculation and decided that for Jews, who are destined to die anyhow, 30 grams a day would be enough. 0ther basic ingredients were also severely cut down. The poorest among the Jews were literally dying of hunger and cold. The number of Jews earning some kind of living was decreasing daily.

In this hopeless situation, as worry and despair took control, there were some genuinely noble people who started organizing aid for their impoverished and hungry brothers. And many were the hungry Jews, who had been well off in the past. A public kitchen was established for their sake. Those who had been merchants and masters now stood in line for some soup. Even some of the Christians were sorry to witness the terrible state of the hungry Jews in town, and they secretly donated Wheat for the public kitchen.

The cold, the hunger, the constant need to save one's life by paying the Gestapo executioners, the Jewish militia and often even informers from within the Jewish community, weakened the Jewish population's stamina, both mentally and physically. Fear and insecurity were becoming stronger. There were foreboding signs of even harder times. Executions of innocent people, systematic oppression for the slightest “sins”, anticipated the Jewish fate under the German regime: the beginning of the complete annihilation of the Jewish population of Sokal.

***

Panic and terror prevailed in Sokal on February 24th 1942, when the German murderers took five Jews, led them outside of town and shot them to death. The mood became even worse when rumors began to spread, saying that all Jewish youths would be taken to camps in the area of Zloczew, where the Germans had set up the most horrible death factories. It was well known that the healthy and strong could last there ten weeks at the most, while the weak could last five weeks.

Unfortunately, the rumors proved to be true. On Friday night, February 27th, the already terrified Jews saw military trucks parked in the square by the new pharmacy. Germans and Ukraninan militia were waiting there. The German executioners demanded that the Judenrät immediately hand over 500 Jews.

The Judenrät, using gifts of the most expensive kinds of fabric, fur and leather, succeeded in convincing the Gestapo to settle for 200 victims. The Judenrät was now forced to find 200 youths to be sent to die in the hands of the German murderers. During the night, the Judenrät sent Jewish and Ukranian militia to nearby Tartakow, where they arrested 50 Jewish youths. Next they swept over nearby villages and took away all the Jewish youths.

When they came back to Sokal with their spoils and it turned out that they still did not have the 200 boys upon which they had agreed, the Judenrät instructed to continue the abduction of Jewish youths in Sokal itself. The Jewish-Ukranian militia acted according to a list given to them by the Judenrät, arrived at Jewish homes, took out youths by force and led them to the Judenrät office. When somebody on the list was not at home, they took the father, the mother or a sibling hostage, and freed them only when the wanted young person presented himself at the Judenrät office.

Fathers of the abducted boys from the nearby villages escorted their sons to Sokal and brought with them bundles of food for the way. When all 200 were gathered, they were hauled onto the trucks, which then left to an unknown destination.

Everybody knew the boys were being taken to a work camp. Jews on the streets, who saw the trucks going by, told later it was appalling to see the Ukranian militia who accompanied the transport, murderously beating the innocent boys with their guns. The boys were ordered to sing, and under the shower of blows started singing “Hatikva” with the special nigun [tune] of the Book of Lamentations, as if they felt it was their last journey.

***

The Judenrät made special efforts to help the deported Jewish boys. They set up a fund out of monthly payments donated by almost all of the Jewish residents of Sokal. Basic necessities were sent to the boys in the camp every two weeks: Bread, sugar and other food products were delivered to them by Dr. Polack, together with gifts for the Ukranian and German commanders who belligerently ruled the camps. Every time Dr. Polack came back from his visits, he would tell the parents that the boys were okay and that they sent their best wishes. When speaking privately to me he would tell horrendous details about the hell the boys were going through.

On March 10th 1942, the Germans were preparing for kidnapping more Jewish boys in Sokal. The Judenrät managed to satisfy the German bandits' appetite with money and valuables, so they went away, without executing their plan.

It is hard to put the parents' fear and worry into words. No one thought the miserable boys would ever be saved, and still their parents grasped at every glimmer of hope and believed every promise of salvation; for this, they were willing to give away everything.

A tragic, terrible swap-deal was being prepared. Dr. Polack met with a person who suggested this diabolical deal. For a large sum of money, this mediator took upon himself to take 40 boys out of the camp, in exchange for other 40 boys that the Judenrät would send to the camp. The parents of the 40 who were already in the camp did not think twice: They managed to collect the necessary amount quickly, and in the dead of night, Ukranian and Jewish Militia dragged 40 other Jewish boys from their homes in Sokal and sent them to the same camp.

The horrible deal was executed. On April 26th, the 40 boys who had been released came back to Sokal. One of them died on the way. Another lost his mind. They all suffered from severe tuberculosis, and they were all starved.

Parents of the newly deported boys, witnessing the dreadful state of the released, launched at the Judenrät, cursing and shouting. The Judenrät was not very impressed with their behaviour, but did speak to them privately. They negotiated a new swap-deal. Now those parents sold their last few possessions in order to collect the ransom money required to pull their children out of hell as soon as possible. After delivering the money to the Judenrät, again Ukranian and Jewish Militia were sent during the night, to drag the necessary number of boys; this time, some 30 were taken away. The next day, the Head of Judenrät himself accompanied the kidnapped boys, together with two Jewish militia and money for bribing the Germans.

This time, the odd deal did not go well: The Germans took the money and the boys. They also arrested the Head of Judenrät with his two men. Only after a few weeks, after the Sokal Gestapo intervened, the three were released. When they came back to Sokal, heartbreaking scenes took place at the Judenrät main office. Some people suspected the Judenrät delegates of stealing the ransom money. All forms of communication with the work camp were terminated. The Jewish boys from Sokal never returned.

***

Life in Sokal became harder each day. People feared the night time, when they could be dragged out from their beds and deported. In addition to insecurity, there were the horrible living conditions to deal with: The cold in unheated homes, lack of food supplies, hunger. When the Lemberg [Lviv] Gestapo Chief would show up in Sokal, indescribable fear took over the Jews. Whenever the Judenrät received word of an expected visit by this hangman, it would demand of the Jews not to be seen on the streets.

Ukranian militia forced hungered and exhausted Jews to work in clearing snow from the streets, beating and punching them as they worked. Bitter was the fate of those too ill or too weak to work. They were doomed to be shot to death by the Ukranians. Once, a Ukranian wanted to practice shooting; he therefore put up a Jew as his target and shot.

At the end of March 1942, news spread throughout Sokal that Jews in Lemberg and Zholkov were being captured by the Germans and taken to an unknown destination. Some of Zholkov Jews sent letters to Sokal, asking whether anybody knew what had happened to their family members. They did not have to wonder for long, since the sad truth became known after a while. The Polish railway workers told the secret, that the Germans had built a gas facility in Belzec and that all Jews were being exterminated in the death-chambers there. According to those reports, between 5 to 10 transports of Jews were arriving in Belzec every day.

Indescribable panic spread throughout Sokal. In addition to hunger, fear for the deported boys and the cold, there was now fear from being deported to Belzec. Life in such circumstances was horrible. Days and nights went by, Here and there a Jew was captured (or even several Jews at a time) and was either sent away to a labor camp or shot on the spot. By now it was a daily routine not new to the Jews.

***

The Gestapo demanded that the Judenrät give them a report about the number of Jewish men, women and children living in Sokal. This order made people forget the tragic deal concerning the Jewish boys. Sad news from other towns left a devatstating impression: news of mass deportations, as well as the destruction and annihilation of Jewish communities. When it became known that an operation against Jewish children in Lemberg had been already going on for two weeks, the level of anxiety reached a new high.

There were no more possibilities for Jews to make a living in Sokal. This, in fact, had been the Germans' aim – to break the Jewish communities, physically and mentally. To this end they had weakened the Jews, drained them of energy, starved them. This is why all Jewish businesses had been closed down. Germans and Ukranians took over the Jewish shops. Meanwhile, the Jews lived off the very last food supplies they had prepared before the war.

Along with the economical breakdown of Sokal Jews, the German murderers put an end to all social and cultural activities in town. All synagogues and philanthropic institutions were also closed down. In exchange, as in every other town in Poland, the Germans gave the Jewish community of Sokal the Judenrät, with its own police and even a special Jewish post office.

Forced labor was one more way to mentally break the Jews and torment them. Every day, the Judenrät was ordered to send 150 Jewish girls to work in straightening the leaves of the plants around town. The girls knelt down and carressed every stalk and every leaf with their bony hands; they were not allowed to stand up. Of course, the intention behind such labor was to torture and humiliate them. The Jewish girls felt very much ashamed when Ukranian girls, who came to Sokal from neighbouring villages, passed by and ridiculed them.

Everything the Jews had owned was no longer theirs. The Germans, together with their Ukranian partners, were looking for new ways to rob Jewish property. A Jewish snitch told the Gestapo that silverware belonging to the Belz Rebbe was hidden somewhere in Sokal. The Gestapo arrested three Jews who were supposed to know where the hiding place was. Even though they pointed at the exact hiding place inside the synagogue, the Germans shot them after taking the silverware.

Another demonstration of German evil and cruelty was what happened to Risha Kindler, the baker. She operated the only bakery in Sokal – which was clandestine and illegal, of course. Risha bribed the Ukranian police, who knew about her activity, with weekly payments. She too fell victim to a snitch. One very early morning, the Gestapo burst into the bakery, took the baker with two girls who worked for her, and sealed the house. After a few days it became known that Risha and the girls had been tortured by the Gestapo.

A shameful and dreadful act of violence was committed by the German executioners on June 1942. Next to the train station, units of the German army had set up a gathering point for cattle on its way to the slaughterhouse. The Sokal Judenrät was ordered to send there 30 Jews every day, to feed the animals. For a full month, 30 Jews went there every morning and came back every evening, exhausted, beaten, bleeding. Until one fine day the German army left the place, together with the animals and the Jews. Families of the 30 men who left that morning for work waited in vain. They did not receive any sign of life. The Jews had probably been shot somewhere along the way.

***

Every Saturday, Jews gathered to pray at the Rabbi's house. It was now the only Minyan in town. On Saturday, August 15th 1942, people said that the Gestapo was arriving at the synagogue street. The news quickly reached every corner in town, and the Jews hid wherever they could.

The Jews stayed in hiding places for an hour. During this period of time, the Gestapo drove their truck to the Rabbi's house, where 31 people had been praying. The Jews, still wrapped in their Tallitot, were dragged outside and taken to the Gestapo office. They were then forced to remain in their underclothes and driven to Tartakow, where they were all shot. According to a Ukranian militia man who witnessed this appalling bloodbath, among the 31 martyrs who so tragically met their Maker, was the Rabbi's youngest son. The Ukranian related that the Rabbi's son was bold enough to tell the German hangmen: “The German pepole will pay for our innocent blood. Your end is near!” The German murderers did not shoot this dear courageous man in order to punish him – they killed him with an axe.

The next day, a Ukranian sheigetz brought several pairs of glasses to Shmuel the watchmaker and asked to sell them, after finding them where the horrendous execution of the 31 martyred men took place.

During The second half of 1942 there were more and more signs that the German hangmen were preparing for a mass slaughter of all the Jews in Sokal. The Gestapo issued an order for all Jewish workers to register at the Judenrät office and hand in their employment certificates to be signed. Even before, Jews had been endlessly looking for work, believing it would defend them ftom persecution, torture and deportation. People paid huge sums of money just to get a job, any job: in Christian factories, at the post office, in the railway company, in the Judenrät. A stamp on the employment certificate meant salvation. They simply believed in the magical power of the stamp, especially since the stamp was first put on certificates of Judenrät workers, post office workers, railway company workers, mill workers and brick factory workers. And of course, also on the certificates of those who paid for a stamp.

Depression prevailed in Jewish homes. Even Christian neighbours foresaw the sad end of Sokal Jewry. They probably knew that such a large operation of stamping work certificates is a sign of deportaion, of mass slaughter. All of a sudden, Christians no longer bought Jewish possessions. They knew the possessions would fall into their hands after the deportation. A christioan came into my house once and simply demanded that I give him some of my furniture. “You are not going to survive anyway,” he said shamelessly.

Those who could not obtain the stamp started thinking about finding a place to hide, in cellars and attics. People started digging and building shelters. Some of the Jews moved to the homes of Christian acquaintances, hoping to live there for the most critical period of time. They brought with them their best possessions and gave them to their hosts. Insecurity and exasperation grew every day. Everybody anxiously waited to see what the next day brings.

***

Unfortunately, all forecasts became reality. The Germans murderers violently launched at Sokal Jews. This was after they had murdered the Jews in neighbouring towns. Jewish children came running from Farotzk, saying that German and Ukranian militia had dragged out all the Jews, young and old, and took them to the woods, where mass graves had already been prepared. They had all been mercilessly shot and thrown into the graves. The same fate awaited the Jews of nearby villages. Only a few boys managed to run away and save themselves from the slaughter. They brought to Sokal the news of what had happened. A similar mass murder had been carried out in Vladimir-Volynsk.

On Wednesday, September 16th 1942, the German executioners set out to do the same to the Jews of Sokal. Wagons, especially prepared to transport human beings to the gas chambers, stood ready at the train station.

Words cannot describe the panic among the Jews as they heard about the wagons. They knew that a large amount of wagons meant a mass murder operation, deportation, annihilation, death. Jews were running about, terrified, looking for shelter. Those with stamped employment certificates felt safer. They took their families with them to the workplace. Judenrät workers, all of them, as well as Jewish militia workers, wrote on the doors of their homes in block letters: “Here lives an employee of the Judenrät”. Those words should have protected the owners against death. Or so they believed.

The night of September 16th-17th 1942 was a nightmare for Sokal Jews. Fear did not let anyone sleep. The next day, Thursday 17th, the murder operation started in our town. Furious Gestapo and wild Ukranian militia in black uniforms, accompanied by Jewish militia, surrounded Sokal, keeping all the Jews in. Anybody who tried to escape was instantly shot to death. In town, German Gestapo helped by Ukranians dragged Jews out of their homes – including the sick, as well as women and children - and gathered all of them in the marketplace, near the local court of justice. They were all forced to kneel down and await the bitter end.

The German killers did not spare even the people with stamped employment certificates. Young and old, fit and unfit for work, everybody was taken away. Some Jews had been promised by German scoundrels – in exchange for large sums of money - that they would not be taken if this kind of roundup of Jews were to take place. The Germans did not keep their word. For instance, Ephraim Windler, the watchmaker, had given the Gestapo man Zemmen a gold ring in exchange for such a promise. He had trusted the German swindler and therefore did not bother to find shelter. When the operation started, the watchmaker and his family were among the first to be taken to the marketplace. Windler noticed his “savior” there and reminded him of his promise. Instead of answering, the loathsome German pulled out his revolver and shot the poor watchmaker. The Gestapo also found Jews hiding in Christian homes. Some of these Christians were the ones who called the Gestapo and delivered the Jews to their hands.

2000 Jews were rounded up in Sokal that bloody Thursday, September 17th 1942. At around 13:00 they were led to the train station, hungered, exhausted, walking through the empty streets of Sokal for the last time. The weak, who stopped walking, were shot. Among the deported was a woman with a baby still suckling on her breast. The German criminals shot the woman. The baby was still alive. It remained lying on the dead mother, suckling…

In the train station, all the Jews were squeezed into the wagons, 80 people in each. The doors and windows were sealed with barbed wire. The Jews squashed inside the wagons were forbidden to ask for water.

However, a few beams of kind light shone through the bleak horizon of cruelty and evil. They were rare and scarce, but they were signs that the roots of humanity had not completely dried up.

Such an exception was The Austrian lieutenant Kroifa, Commander of a labor camp for Jews near Mosty Wielikie, who risked his life while saving Jews whenever he could. Every time the Gestapo rounded up Jews somewhere near his camp, at this critical moment he would intervene and take a number of Jews to work in the camp.

Now he showed up in Sokal like an angel, at the last moment when the transport of Jews about to be deported was already going to leave the train station. He got the Gestapo's permission to take out 50 Jews, claiming he needed them for work. This noble Austrian officer, so rare in his behaviour, took the Jews not to the labor camp but to the Sokal Judenrät office, and instructed them to wait until he called for them. Among those 50 was a family relative of mine, who wanted to express his gratitude to Kroifa by giving him a gold pocket watch as a present. “You keep it, I don't need it,'” said Kroifa and went away. He never called for the 50 Jews he had taken to the Judenrät office. Unfortunately, some Ukranians informed the Gestapo about his merciful ways with the Jews, and he was sent to the front.

In the evening of that same Thursday, the train carrying the captured Jews of Sokal left the station on its way to Belzec. Among the terrified and weakened people on the train there were some young men who knew that no miracle was going to save them from death and that they had nothing to lose. They were determined to do everything in their power to get out of the wagons – it was the only thing on their minds. To be hit by a German bullet seemed to them preferable to submitting themselves to torture. And while the train was in full speed, they burst through the doors, and everybody who still had a little bit of strength, jumped out.

How easy it is to say “jumped out”. They jumped out of the wagons guarded by the Germans, while the train was at full speed. Many of the brave young men were run over by the train; many more were killed by German bullets. A few managed to go back to their homes, some of them crawling, their bones broken.

***

Immediately following this depotration, rumors spread around town, saying that the German thieves were about to set up a ghetto in Sokal. Jewish ghettos already existed in many towns throughout occupied Poland. Jews lived there imprisoned, completely segregated from non-Jews.

Thus, the German killers continued in deceiving the Jewish population: After the Judenrät, the Jewish police, the Jewish post office, the employment certificates and the stamps on those “magical” certificates that gave their bearers the privilege to work for the Germans – After all these came the ghettos, means of gathering all the Jews in one boiling cauldron on a piece of land enclosed by barbed wire, if not by walls, an area guarded by German Gestapo from which all ways led to the death camps, to the gas chambers.

Our Jewish community was no different. The rumors were almost immediately validated. In the autumn of 1942 we learned that the Judenrät and the Gestapo are discussing the location of the ghetto and its borders. In truth, there were no discussions – the Judenrät was simply implementing the Gestapo's instructions and making sure that the Jews transfer to the ghetto as quickly as possible. The Gestapo orders said that the Jews should enclose the defined area with barbed wire. This compound had three gates. All the Jews were ordered to move to the ghetto until October 15th 1942. The Judenrät was allocating appartments: 2 square meters per person. People started looking for special treatment in exchange for bribe, in order to get a better living space.

The German murderers succeeded in deceiving the Jews once again. Not that the Jews had any illusions about their tragic circumstances, but a glimmer of hope persisted in their heart, and they felt that they should hold on, they should overcome the horrible conditions in the ghetto despite the crowded flats, despite the filth, that they should do everything in their power for the slim chance - unfounded as it was – to survive the war.

Jews carried into the ghetto sacks and bundles consisting of houseware. They pushed wheelbarrows with wood and potatoes. Commotion ruled the ghetto, as people were shouting and fighting when settling in the allocated spaces. The Jewish militia was very busy, since it was responsible for maintaining the order throughout the ghetto.

On October 15th the gates to the ghetto – a virtual paddock - were closed. Some 4000 Jews were squeezed into the tight compound. Only four wells were to serve them all. As early as 4:00 in the morning, people stood in line to pump some water. Disteress and poverty grew each day, hunger and illness prevailed. To save themselves from dying of starvation, people tried to smuggle food supplies in various ways, but it was not an easy thing to do.

The state of the sick was the worst – no one took care of them. They lay abandoned – those suffering from typhus, those suffering from tubeculosis – together in one bed. Nobody wanted to admit to being ill. The appalling German treatment of the sick was already well known – shooting.

***

People began whispering, saying that the Germans were preparing yet another murder operation. The rumor raised terrible mayhem: Hide at any cost, use any possibility to find cover. Jews were running around, starting to dig bunkers, working night after night, using the little strength they had left preparing underground shelters.

Panic increased when about 100 girls and boys from the ghetto of Hrubieshov, where similar operations of deportation and murder had already taken place, arrived in Sokal. Those youngsters had jumped off the train wagons making their way to Belzec, and managing by pure luck not to get hit by the German bullets, reached the Sokal ghetto, weak and tormented. They told horrible details about the deportation of Jews from their town.

Unfortunately, their stories proved to be true right away. On October 28th 1942, at six o'clock in the morning, armed SS and Ukranian militia in black uniforms surrounded the Sokal ghetto. A new deporation operation began. Jews started to flee, trying to hide in the shelters they had prepared, in underground bunkers and basements. Germans and Ukranians were running around like mad dogs in the streets of the ghetto, and helped by Jewish militia searched every possible place. They dragged frightened and defenseless Jews out of their hiding places and pushed them to the town square by Kontopper street, and from there to the train station. On that single day, German hangmen gathered about 2000 Jews at the train station. Cattle wagons had already been waiting for them, and around 100 Jews were shoved into each.

The death train went on its way. Some young men, who had already fled the Hhrubieshov slaughter, and who were now caught again in the Sokal ghetto by the Gestapo, were amongst the deportees. They had once avoided the Angel of Death, and now they decided, for the second time, to release themselves from within the locked iron bars, from within the well-guarded train, where people were fainting for lack of air and water.

Before being caught in the Sokal ghetto, they had equipped themselves with the necessary tools to break through the wagons' doors. When the train stopped in Krystynopol, to take more Jews aboard, those courageous young men did not hesitate. They broke through the doors, and anybody who had the strength to jump off, did so. The Germans started to shoot the fleeing people with machine guns; the lethal bullets immediately caught up with the young brave men. Only a few managed to make it to Sokal, in a terrible state, their bodies bleeding.

They told that the Jews aboard the train had understood they were heading towards their final destiny, their death. They gave details about the horrific conditions on the train, about Mendel Melamed and other religious Jews who had brought some wine with them and, strengthened by their faith, toasted L'Haim, looking forward to the salvation of their souls after dying for Kiddush HaShem. The survivors also told about David Schturm, a model of kindness, who had taken some money with him aboard the train and then gave it to those about to jump off.

***

The next day, surviving Jews in town fearfully came out of their hideouts around the ghetto. They kept quiet, hardly believing they were alive. With terrifying silence they looked for their relatives; Loneny children were running around the ghetto streets, heartbreakingly sobbing.

The survivors, confused and helpless, now hurried to the Judenrät office, hoping to hear news about their relatives, fathers, mothers and children; they were telling each other how they miraculeously survived the slaughter of the day before.

My brother and I were among the first to arrive at the Judenrät office. We invistigated after our father, a very ill man, whom the Gestapo had literally dragged out of bed and hauled onto a truck, where other victims were already been lying on their way to the train station. We were convinced that our father could not have sustained the suffering and had died right after being thrown onto the truck. When the Judenrät told us that the dead had already been taken to the cemetery, we ran there and started looking through the bodies which were not yet burried. To our dismay, we did not find him. We saw Sima Schluger lying there dead, shot in the head, and her husband standing and crying next to her body.

***

Following this last slaughter, the ghetto was breathlessly, terribly quiet. Almost all Jews were deported or dead. But the number of Jews immediately grew, when deportees from surrounding towns reached Sokal. Jews who had been hiding in the thick forests of Wohlin throughout the summer of 1942 were coming back.

The German murderers used various means in order to bring Jews out of their shelters. False declarations and rumors, innitiated by the Germans, said that Sokal was to become “a Jewish town”, where all Jews would be given jobs. Those fictitious stories managed to deceive Jews who were living under terrible conditions in bunkers, in the woods, in Christian families' basements, and to bring them out. This way, the number of Jews in the ghetto rose to 5000.

But concern and despair soon took over, when it became clear – From German instructions, from the behaviour of the Gestapo - that the Germans are preparing for a new brutal killing in the ghetto. The German assasins commenced a thorough plundering operation; Jews were forced to surrender all property to the Gestapo.

Nights were terrible. People were shaking with fear of the next day. Everybody knew that deportation meant slaughter, death. Abybody who had the energy and the means started building bunkers and shelters, safer this time.

***

During the morning of November 22nd, unusual news cut through the horrible silence in the ghetto. It said that the Head of the Judenrät had disappearsed, together with his family, leaving only his old mother in the ghetto. Now nobody had a doubt that the end was near; that this time the German killers will complete their extermination mission.

The Gestapo still pretended nothing had happened. It even tried to delude the Jews with false promises, instructing the election of a new Head of Judenrät. Finding a willing candidate to head the body which was nothing but an instrument executing the Gestapo's orders, was difficult. The noble Dr. David Kindler refused to undertake the job, for this very reason. The engineer Schwartz also declined, but the Gestapo forced him to comply.

I too was convinced that the disappearance of the Head of Judenrät was a sign that all Jewish survivors were about to be massacred. I therefore decided to leave the gheto and move to another shelter. Luckily, during the first German murder operation, I met an unusually worthy Christian Polish woman by the name of Francisca Halamajowa, who lived close to the ghetto. We had agreed that when the situation in the ghetto reached a boiling point, she would hide my family and me in her house.

 

sok278.jpg
Francisca Halamajowa

 

On the night of November 27th 1942, I left the ghetto with my family, and passing through dark hidden paths and secret stairways we arrived at our Christian woman's house. She immediately showed us to the stable next to the yard. There, in a small room in the attic, she hid us.

My brother stayed in the ghetto, and we maintained an ongoing connection. I used to get letters he had sent to the Christian woman, and this was how I learned exactly what had happened in the ghetto after our departure. It is only thanks to news I got from my brother that I am able to communicate details about the fate of the Jews in the ghetto, about their suffering and annihilation.

***

The news I got from the ghetto said that things were going from worse to worst. My brother wrote that not a day passed without executions, without shootings. Reeman from the Gestapo spotted Moshe Webern, who had been deported to Belzec, walking down the street. The German asked him only one question: “What are you doing here?” and without waiting for a reply, took out his revolver and shot him there and then. Abusch Wetter's daughter fled with her children from the slaughter in Mosty and wanted to hide in the Sokal ghetto. While she was trying to sneak into the ghetto, the Germans captured her and shot her, together with her children. Epidemic typhus brought on terrible blows: About 30 people died every day of its fatal consequences.

Only a small number of Jews operated the Chevra Kadisha. They had one carriage and a horse at their disposal. A large box, capable of holding five bodies, was laid on the carriage. The horse pulled the carriage containing the dead to the cemetery several times a day, and each time on the way back to the ghetto, the carriage would be filled with grain bought from Christians for a high price and smuggled into the ghetto. This was a way of supplying the Jews with food for a long period of time.

But this way of supplying food was also becoming more difficult, since the German executioners put heavier security along the barbed wire surrounding the ghetto. In general, the regime became more ruthless. People accused of minor transgressions were shot without trial. For example, when the Gestapo learned that a local Polish landowner's wife had sent wood to a Jew in the ghetto, they confiscated the wood, arrested the Jew, beat him to death and then shot him.

My brother also told me about another massacre carried out by Germans for no reason: They kidnapped 16 Jews and took them to the cemetery, where they were forced to dig their own mass grave. They were made to stand in front of it and then shot by a German machine gun, so that their bodies fell directly to the grave. Among the 16 was the Deputy Head of Judenrät. Even the Head of the Ghetto Police was not spared, and he died a horrible death.

***

Some Jews in the ghetto, especially the young, heard about groups of partisans living in the woods in the area, organizing underground activities against the Germans. But they had doubts, whether those partisans were Russians, who would gladly welcome Jewish fighters, or Ukranians (the “Banderas”, called after their leader), who were hostile towards Soviets and Poles alike, and harbored special hatred toward the Jews. The young men decided to find out for sure, and three of them were sent to the woods to discuss the possibility of joining the partisans.

The three came back with good news: The partisans were ready to accept Jewish fighters. Their spirits high and vigorous, hopeful and ready to defend their lives and sacrifice it if necessary, a group of young Jews left the ghetto to fight the ruthless enemy, to avenge the atrocities of the German executioners.

But they were bitterly, brutally disappointed to find out that they had fallen into the hands of one of Bandera's gangs, which misled them in the most ugly manner: They fell victim to cruel, beastly Ukranian Pogromchiks. Only two of the Jews managed to run away and go back to the ghetto. According to them, all of their friends had appallingly lost their lives in the woods, at the hands of the Ukranian bandits.

This was the end of the attempt made by the Jewish youths of Sokal to break out from prison, in order to take part in the heroic resistance led by the partisans in the Wohlin woods.

***

On Monday, May 24th 1943, I received terrible news from my brother: The Germans were planning a general deportation operation. The next day, Tuesday the 25th, Mrs. Halamajowa came up to the attic and informed us that my brother Shmuel and his family, together with Dr. Kindler and his family, will be joining us during the night and will hide with us in the same room. We impatiently waited for my brother and for Dr. Kindler. Leaving the ghetto was not an easy thing to do: Germans and Ukranian Militia were watching the barbed wire.

Only late at night we heard footsteps in front of the stable. Mrs. Halamajowa led my brother's family and Dr. Kindler with his wife and two sons into the stable. She opened the door and pointed to the small attic as their shelter. We helped them up, and our small group grew bigger.

The ghetto was calm throughout Wednesday. The deportation was not carried out. There seemd to have been a false alarm. But we still thought it might be a case of quiet before the storm. On Thursday, right after midnight of May 27th 1943, we heard strange noises coming up from the street, cars driving by. We peeked through the cracked wooden walls and saw convoys of cars filled with armed Germans. Two hours later we already heard heartbreaking cries coming up from the ghetto, people shrieking and lamenting. We concluded that the massacre had begun.

Terrifying silence took over our attic. We felt deep sorrow, pain. All night long we could not sleep, fearing the morning. Our Christian woman came up early in the morning, carrying our food, and she confirmed that a deportation operation was taking place in the ghetto.

All day we heard gunshots, each penetrating out hearts. Horrific shrieks came up from the ghetto, awful wailing of tortured Jews. At the same time we could hear sounds of music and singing: Ukranians of Sokal were celebrating their big achievement: The annihilation of the local Jewish population. They played music and sang to show their joy at the mass murder.

Later we were told by Jews who had miraculously survived this deportation, that some Jews had courageouly showed resistance during the Thursday massacre. All of those heroes had been shot on the spot.

According to reports, the Thursday operation had been characterized by horrendous brutality; the German executioners carried out one of the most murderous massacres. Helped by Ukranian militia, the Gestapo dragged Jews out of the houses, the shelters, the hideouts, threw them onto trucks and took them outside of the town, some 3 kilometers away, where open graves had already been prepared. The miserable Jews were forced to take their clothes off and to put all their possessions into a box which stood near the graves. They were then instructed to stand in front of the graves. A German machine gun put an end to the lives of those martyrs, and they fell into the graves.

In order to cover the open graves, the murderers brought Christian residents of the nearby village of Horbakow. They later told that having covered the graves they noticed the earth rising here and there, probably because the people underneath were still squirming, still dying. The farmers were forced to spill more earth over the graves.

And still, that was not the end of the massacre. On that same Thursday, Germans caught a few hundred Jews in town, and forced them to walk towards the cemetery. On the way, everybody tried to get away, and people were running in every direction, already knowing what awaited them. Not one of those brave Jews survived. They were all shot to death.

***

The rest of the news from the ghetto was also terrible. After that bloody Thursday, no Jew was seen on the streets. If there were Jews who had not been shot, they hid in various places: in basements, in attics, in bunkers, behind double walls. The ghetto seemed dead. No one dared go out. For a few weeks, Germans and Ukranians roamed the ghetto, looking for Jews in hideouts. Whoever fell into their hands was immediately shot.

After the ghetto had been cleared of the tortured and the dead, after Gestapo murderes had assembled all Jewish property they had robbed, placards were hang on the walls in town, announcing Sokal was “Judenrein” – clean of Jews. At the same time, the placards warned that any Christian caught helping Jews to hide would be executed. In addition, it promised a reward of 2000 zloty and 20 bottles of liquer to whoever hands Jews over to the Gestapo. A Ukranian bought the ghetto from the Gestapo – all houses and buildings – dismantled everything, and sold the bricks and the wood to local farmers.

Jews were still living in small hideouts and narrow shelters in farmers' houses near Sokal, afraid of being thrown out by their intimidated benefactors. We had been very lucky to encounter the unusually noble woman, so rare at those times, who treated us kindly, encouraged us and strengthened our will to endure the dreadful circumstances in which we were living.

Days went by in our dark attic, full of fear and distress, and every day seemed as long as a whole year. Worms climbed all over us bodies, torturing us. Our children used to peek outside through the cracks and watch the Christian children playing in the green fields. They used to see the sun gloriously shining and smell the trees in the gardens all around us. But Despite the dark mood, we were determined not to surrender ourselves, not to fall into the killers' hands while we were still alive. Dr. Kindler had brought along not only medicines, but also poison pills, just in case.

On March 1944 we heard airplanes. We heard artillery echoing from a distance. In the beginning of June 1944, Mrs. Halamajowa came up and told us that the Germans had announced the arrival of more troops. One can easily imagine our mood. The very next morning we noticed more tanks, cannons and German soldiers. Not far from our stable they began digging trenches. Other soldiers were affixing telephobe cables on neighbouring rooftops. In our mind's eyes we could already see our tragic end: We thought all of our suffering until that point had been in vain. Our protector, Mrs. Halamajowa, brought us food only in the afternoon. She was very agitated and could hardly speak. Finally she said: “Pray to God, because we are all doomed now.”

Later she gave us a German military newspaper, and there we found an important item of news, saying that on June 6th 1944, a second front had been opened in France – The thing we had been hoping and waiting for since our days in the ghetto. At last, the day had come! But we could not be really happy. At night, when the Christian woman brought us some food, we could not even eat it. We knew that we had only days, perhaps hours, to live.

For three days we lay there dejected, apathetic, accepting our fate. On the third day, late in the afternoon, Mrs. Halamajowa came upstairs with the news that the German soldiers were about to leave. Indeed, within a few days we heard the tanks' engines being started. It was evident that German units were leaving. A ray of hope shone over our hearts. We came to believe that we were to stay alive, to come out of hell, safe and sound.

Our joy was short lived. A few days passed, and the German soldiers were back. Mrs. Halamajowa said that they had been ordered to evacuate civilians from Sokal and the neighbouring towns, since a great battle was expected to take place on the banks of the Bug. We were completely despaired by this news. Where would we go? Of course, we could not stay at Mrs. Halamajowa's attic. She advised us to teach the children a certain Christian prayer, and let them run for their lives. She brought farmers' clothings for our wives.

Suddenly, while we were contemplating our future and looking for a way out of this predicament, we heard a very loud buzz, typical of fighter planes, immediately followed by artillery coming from around the train station. Those were Soviet units, pushing the German army away. There was heavy fighting going on around Sokal. On Sunday, July 16th 1944, we witnessed the German army retreating towards the Zabusz bridge on the Bug.

The next day, Monday, Mrs. Halamajowa came in, bearing the news that Ukranians were fleeing from Sokal. On Wednesday, July 19th at dawn, the last of the German troops retreated, burning the bridge behind them. Sokal and its surroundings were clean of German soldiers.

Now, Mrs. Halamajowa put a ladder next to the small opening in the attic, and one by one we came down from our shelter. We were free. It was the end of our suffering. We eventually came out, after 21 months of hiding.

Even greater was the joy when we noticed 3 more Jews who had been hiding in Mrs. Halamajowa's kitchen. This kind and noble Christian woman saved 15 Jewish souls. We now learned that Mrs. Linsker, with her two daughters, had been hiding in the house next door, owned by her ex-housekeeper. Thanks to Mrs. Francisca Halamajowa, one of the rare Righteous, we stayed alive, a small group of 15 Jews from Sokal.

Now there was only one thing for us to do – go back to the ruins of our town, already “Judenrein”. For the tortured Jewry of Sokal had been annihilated.

 

C. On the Ruins of Jewish Sokal

Miraculously free, we were impatiently counting the minutes, eager to go back home. Meanwhile, the roads were blocked, because German shells were still falling in the area. But Dr. Kindler would not let anything stall him, and he headed towards town together with my brother Shmuel. He was drawn to the hospital, the institution in which he had worked as manager for so many years. He was eager to know what had become of the few Jews who had been hiding there while he had still been in charge. After a short while they both came back, sad and dejected, and told us about the ruins of the ghetto. There was nothing left of the hospital, but naked walls. There was no trace of human beings.

In spite of this depressing news, we decided to go back. Heavy hearted, we started towards our destructed home. The noble Mrs. Halamajowa escorted us part of the way. Through back alleys we quickly reached the gardens next to the church, and from there to our appartment near the post office, where the Germans had set up a communications unit. We took down all the cables and other equipment. We were home again, hard to believe. It all seemed like a dream. The next day, some Christians started ro walk the streets. They were surprised to see us alive. The old Dr. Maziawicz greeted us heartily, happy to meet Dr. Kindler.

Our house was completely empty of all housewares. Together with my brother we began looking for useful ramnants through the ruins of the houses next door. The part of the building where the post office had been located, was not ruined. A storeroom stood next to it, with one wall shattered. We went it, and witnessed a dreadful sight: a Torah scroll, violated, unscrolled, lying on a pile of bricks. A little further away lay another 17 Torah books, in a terrible state. We took some of them to our appartment, and Dr. Kindler took the scroll to his appartment, where we would pray every Saturday.

The house belonging to our closest neighbour, Shlomo Schuman of blessed memory, remained whole. It was now empty; The silence of death now prevailed Shlomo Schuman's tavern. It had always been full of life and joy; Jewish merchants and waggoners used to spend their time there, making noise until the small hours of the night. Now there was only one person guarding the place, old Ritchka, the drunk who had worked for Shlomo Schuman for many years. He sat in the empty tavern, lamenting his employer's demise. He told us that Schuman's son in law and grandchild hid in the attic for five weeks after the last deportation took place, and that he, Ritchka, used to bring them food, until someone informed the Gestapo.

***

Jews came back from the woods, exhausted and weakened. Now we were a group of around 30 Jews who survived German hell. That was the entire Jewish settlement in Sokal.

We felt a little safer than before, and a few of us went to see the area of the ghetto. Ruins were all around us, and naked walls. We could still see antisemitic slogans written on some of them: “Do Not Buy from Jews!” We came to the gate of the ghetto; the barbed wire had been taken down. The booth where Jewish militia stood guard remained whole.

On the street where the synagogue used to be we met devastation. Again, naked walls, and pages from the Scriptures lying around everywhere. Only the Beit-Midrash stood unharmed from the outside, but a sign near the enterance proclaimed: “German Grain Depot”. Inside, an appalling sight: an empty hall, no tables, no benches, no lectern, no Torah arc, only the small stairway leading to it and also the four iron pillars on which the table (“bimah”) had once stood. That was all that had been left of the Beit-Midrash where a large community of earnest Jews used to pray daily. Where were all the friends I used to meet there? Who could not remember the solemn, uplifting atmosphere on that street during the High Holy Days?

There was a well in front of the Beit-Midrash, where Jewish children used to play. It was now drained. The Jewish chilren had been exterminated. We came close to the synagogue. The anteroom was full of compost, for fertilizing the fields. Big scales stood In the midst of it. It was hard to open the door from the anteroom into the synagogue. Again, we witnessed deadful devastation. Only the Torah arc stood there, all alone in the abandoned house of prayer.

We immediately went to the small synagogue. The building itself was unharmed, but inside – a German grain depot. Konatof square had changed beyond recognition. There was no trace of the small wooden houses. The square was full of open pits, dug by Christians from Sokal and the area, who were looking for Jewish “treasures”. The square and nearby streets were nothing but a flat piece of land, with some ruins here and there, piles of bricks and stones, mixed with broken pieces of furniture. We could still see traces of bunkers where Jews had hidden for a long period of time.

***

Eventually we went to the place where 400 Jews had been shot in the early days of the Gestapo rule. The roads had been destroyed by shells and it was very difficult to move forward. Upon arriving at the field we noticed scattered heaps of earth, where lay our dearest Sokal holy martyrs who died for Kiddush HaShem.

We were all deeply shaken, crying bitterly. We stood in the place where they lay burried, our noble Jews who had lived and labored in a community that had existed for hundreds of years and had been so brutally obliterated. We said goodbye to our tortured fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, by saying “El Male Rachamim” and “Kaddish”.

Our heads hanging low, our hearts aching, we went back to the town's ruins. Sad, depressed, we walked again the streets of Sokal, treading the [Jewish] headstones with which the sidewalks were now paved. Jewish holy letters cried out to us, names engraved on the stones – many of them dating hundreds of years ago. It was hard to begin building a new Jewish life on the ruins of our home, a community that not long before had been vibrating with wonderful Jewish spirit, with such vivacity.

***

The High Holy Days were coming, and we managed to get the Ukranian Administration's permission to reopen the synagogue. We bought back Machzorim, Tallitot and even a Shofar from the Christians. On the two days of Rosh HaShana and on Yom Kippur we prayed in the great synagogue, having cleaned it from all the filth and rubbish. After the High Holy Days we no longer prayed there. It was simply frightening to be seen in the destructed street of the synagpgue since it had been emptied of all Jewish life.

On November 1944 the new government of the Peple's Republic of Poland, which resided in Lublin for the time being (Warsaw was still under German rule), signed an agreement with the Soviet government for the repatriation of all Polish citizens living in the territorries occupied by the Soviets. Since Sokal was included within the borders of Soviet Ukraine, all ex-Polish citizens, Christians and Jews alike, were given the right to immigrate to Poland. We, the small group of Jewish Sokal survivors, registered for immigration to Poland.

Before leaving Sokal, my late mother and I fulfilled our holy obligation to lay my sister Chaya Dwora of blessed memory to rest among Jews, according to Jewish tradition. Chaya Dwora had passed away while we were hiding in Mrs. Halamajowa's attic, on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Ellul, the year Tav-Shin-Gimel. We had then burried her in the courtyard, under one of the trees. Now we searched for two days, before locating the exact spot. The funeral took place on March 23rd 1945. For the last time we went to the mass grave, where lay our beloved ones who had been prematurely torn away from us. We walked through the once-Jewish narrow streets, which had been wiped off the face of the earth. There was deadly silence when we stopped with the coffin by the synagogue, by the Beit-Midrash, where one of us eulogized my late sister and said “Kaddish”. In the cemetery we brought my sister chaya Dwora to eternal rest, and in my memoire I then wrote:

“On the fourth day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the year Tav-Shin-Hey, we brought our sister Chaya Dwora to rest in Kever Yisrael. Her grave is located about five meters in front of the headstone of Eliyahu Ze'ev Ben Aharon Meir HaLevy, Eliyahu Wolf Schtrum, who passed away on the twelfth day of the Hebrew month of Adar-Aleph, the year Tav-Resh-Tzadi-Hey”.

Thus we said goodbye to our cemetery, to the graves of the holy martyrs of Sokal.

On Passover 1945 we were still in Sokal. After various efforts, we managed to obtain matzos: We bought wheat and ground it ourselves with a small food grinder that included a stone robbed from a Jewish headstone. Repatriation to Poland began after Passover, and the first group of families left immediately. The second group, including Dr. Kindler's family and my own family among others, left Sokal on May 9th 1945. We were the last Jews of the Jewish community of Sokal, now gone without a trace.

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