by Ephraim Farber
Translated by Moses Milstein
From the beginning of the Nazi occupation until 1941, Belzec (Tomaszew Lubleski area) was a forced labor camp. From 1942-1943, it was an extermination camp. About 800,000 prisoners from Poland and other places, mostly Jews, were killed here. The majority of Shebreshin's Jews perished in Belzec.
The following account is from the time Belzec was a forced labor camp.
In late summer, 1942, when I returned from German detention, the shtetl of Shebreshin was unrecognizable. Germans from all sorts of units were seen in the streets. The gendarmes had occupied the Rathaus building. The Jews who had not left town with the returning Russians were left dependant on the kindness of fate or the Germans.
Older Jews comforted themselves with the belief that the Germans were a cultured people. Some remembered the Germans from the First World War as fine people. In order to console themselves, they forgot that, in the intervening years, drastic changes had occurred in the political arena. In Germany, Hitlerism came to power, and among its political slogans was war against the Jewish people.
Right from the start, various decrees were promulgated, such as capturing people for work, and levying large sums of money from the judenrat. Poverty reigned among Jewish families. Many families were separated. A large number of men had fled to the Russian side. Women and small children had to worry about sustaining themselves. Anti-Jewish laws were carried out with typical German precision. Bearded Jews left in the shtetl wrapped their beards in rags to pretend that they had a toothache in order to protect themselves from the German beasts.
In the short time after my arrival in S., events evolved quickly. Not one day passed without an edict against the Jewish population. The judenrat, willingly or unwillingly, helped the Germans carry out the sentences. Life as a judenrat member was not easy for those who had compassion for their suffering brothers.
Among the judenrat, there were those who were willing to sacrifice themselves for their brethren. But there were also others who believed that they would save themselves and their families by carrying out everything the German murderers ordered. Some members carried out the inhuman orders against their suffering brethren with great zealousness and initiative.
I remember the time when the judenrat, on the orders of the Germans, had to supply 300 young men to be sent to Belzec. The chairman of the judenrat, an honorable Jew, a shomer mitzvoth, met me in the street and asked me to register myself. I told him, I do not obey German orders! He said scornfully, Don't be a choochim. I'll send the Gestapo after you! (I do not want to mention his name, because his relatives live in Israel.)
I was stunned, and couldn't believe what my ears had heard. I thought this was a bad dream. Unfortunately, it was real. Reeling from the shock, I told him, Woe is to you if the Gestapo turns its attention to you. I know, from long experience, what the Gestapo can do!
This was shortly after my return from captivity. The burned shul stood, walls blackened with soot. The old walls, that had absorbed Jewish prayers for hundreds of years stretched to the heavens, the wind blowing through its empty windows. But the heavens were closed to Jewish prayers. The tears of Jewish mothers, whose only sons were taken away to the camps, had no effect. On the contrary, the murderers looked on mockingly. On their belts was engraved in large letters, God is with us.
The shtetl Rav went around with his beard wrapped in order not to antagonize the Germans. On Shabes, Jews gathered in small minions, stealthily, to pray in private houses like their brothers in the time of Torquemada's Inquisition in Spain. The Jewish population was forbidden to leave their houses between 6:00 pm and 7:00 am. Stores were half-openone door was closed, the other partly open. The Gestapo constantly levied more sums on the judenrat, either in cash or in goods. Jewish residents had to present themselves for all kinds of work without payment.
I remember the Germans found an old Polish flag in Groisse Shloime's budke, the kind that used to be displayed during Polish national holidays. The owners had forgotten to hide it. This gave the Germans a pretext to arrest those found in Groise Shloime's budke, along with its owners. After much negotiation on the part of the judenrat, and payment of a large sum of money, the arrested were beaten, then freed.
The Gestapo arrived from Zamosc with Jewish helpers who led them to the homes of wealthy Jews, and demanded their money. The shtetl panicked. Germans captured any Jews who fell into their hands.
I, and other young people, fled and hid in the peat meadows where the Germans could not get us. I knew the swampy meadows from my earliest childhood. We hid under low bushes between the villages of Blonia and Little Broid. After noon, when hunger began to gnaw at us, I and a friend, headed in the direction of the village, Bloina. Arriving there, the farmers ordered us to leave immediately. They had received a warning from the Germans not to hide any Jews, and they themselves were no friends of the Jews either.
We left for the Gorajec hills and hid in a cave. Many Jews were hiding in the caves and hollows. Towards evening, we headed back to town, because after the curfew we could not be seen outdoors. Most of the Poles collaborated with the Germans in persecuting Jews. They quickly learned the word Jude. People were grabbed for work, whether the work was needed or not, in order not to allow them one moment of freedom in their sorrowful lives.
The Germans heaped prohibitions on the Jews in order to break their will and make them passive, a state which takes away the will to rebel. Orders were posted in town for all the inhabitants: Tomorrow, from early morning to night, it is strictly forbidden for anyone to show themselves outside. The reason: The governor-general, Hans Frank, will be passing through our shtetl.
A multitude of homeless Jews, expelled from Pomerania and from fire-ravaged Bilgoraj, became the responsibility of the S. Jews. Yesterday, they were self-sufficient people, and today they wander around among strangers, homeless, no roof over their heads, humiliated. Everything possible is done for them. They are divided among the homes, food is provided for the needy. Some of the expelled families are made up of women and children, the men having been taken away to camps.
Slowly, you become used to the problems. The Nuremberg laws are brought in slowly, but covertly. All the orders against Jews are passed from one Jew to another: Jews cannot engage in trade, can't buy, can't sell, can't apply for open positions, can't leave town. They must wear the yellow star. Even this, we slowly got used to. But we felt that this is not the worst yet. Worse could still befall us, and we were afraid.
The Germans identified Jews not by their passes or documents but simply as, Jude. You are a Jew. This underscored for them that they are free to do what they wish. The Germans amused themselves: they caught a Jew with a beard on shabes, and shouted, Cap off! forcing him to kneel. A soldier went by carrying a box of Kielbasa, and forced him to eat the treif sausage. Officers with cameras stood around and took photographs. They ordered the Jew to carry the box to the market where they have their canteen. The soldier led the way, smiling. Every few steps, he made the Jew put down the box and kneel, and with uncovered head, to pray to the Jewish god.
But this humor was child's play compared to future criminal activities directed against Jews.
Good Jews, we learn how to behave to the Germans. My father's uncle, Zalman Kliski, with whom I was raised for a time, begged me to put on the yellow patch of shame and not be an exception. While in S., I kept it in my bag. I was sickened and humiliated to have to wear the mark of shame. I only put it on in exceptional circumstances.
Another one, who was concerned that I should be in order and register myself at the magistrat, , because it was demanded by the Germans, was a member of the judenrat. This provided them the exact number of the Jewish populationhow many were at their disposalall with German meticulousness. At the end, I decided I could not be an exception and registered myself.
One Saturday morning, I went to the city clerk, Leszczinski, to register. Upon hearing that I had been a Polish soldier, he exhorted me not to register. He praised my father for not having taken part like other zhidkes with the Bolsheviks when they had been in our shtetl for a short time. He said to me, The Germans don't have enough to persecute, they need you? I thanked him for the good suggestions.
Going down the stairs, I encountered the member of the judenrat. He asked me if I had registered. When I answered, yes, with a smile, he understood that I had not. Then Leszczinski called me back and said that I had to register because the judenrat forced his hand. The Germans found loyal servants in the judenrat.
You never knew what could occur to a crazy kommandant or any crazy German. The judenrat received an order to provide 300 young people for transport to Belzec, and they swiftly undertook to carry it out. They were not successful, because most did not want to go, knowing what awaited them.
The assembly point was in front of the rathaus. Early in the morning, I watched the assembly point from the house of my uncle, Moishe Ledereich (Turbiner). The streets were empty. Only the judenrat, the SS, and the assembled Jews sitting on their bags, were seen. The SS counted the assembled Jews. Half of the required number were missing. So they began to beat the judenrat, forcing them to kneel. The curses of the SS echoed through the empty streets.
The SS, led by the judenrat, began to search the houses for the missing Jews. The scene in front of the rathouse was horrible. Jewish mothers wept as the Germans prevented them from approaching their loved ones. The Poles were happy that the zhidkes were abused. The pious ones said, This is punishment for the torments of our beloved Jesus Christ.
I could not stand to see anymore, and I stole out of town. I hid in the swampy meadows where the Germans could not get to me. As I lay hidden, I saw a black mass heading to the train stationour loved ones being led by the Germans to the train station on the way to Belzec.
It made no sense to stay in town any longer. The situation was deteriorating daily. I decided to hit the road. My goal was Tarnograd. Not far from there was the new border between the Germans and the Soviets. My route was through the back roads; the main roads were full of Germans. I spent the night with a Jewish family in Bilgoraj. There were few Jews left there. Most of the town had been burned down.
After traveling all day on foot, I came to Tarnograd in the evening. It gave the impression of being a quiet shtetl. I met a few Shebreshiner there, like Tslal from the butchers. Towards evening, I noticed a large movement of Germans arriving by truck. That got me thinking that they were preparing an aktion.
My premonition was correct. In the middle of the night I was awakened by the sounds of rifle butts beating on the doors, mixed in with wild shoutsAuf!. The old Jew I was spending the night with jumped out of bed and opened the door. SS burst in with shouts and curses. They beat him brutally and led him outside.
I was sleeping on the floor. The SS shone flashlights in my eyes. They asked me how old I was. Thinking quickly, I answered, 14 years. One of the SS said, The schwein is too young. The same thing happened with the son of the house owner. He was really only 13 years old. The SS left the house. I thought I had succeeded in escaping their clutches.
However, I was wrong. Half an hour later, I heard the Germans shouting again. The home owner had told them, in his Tarnograd Yiddish that they could barely understand, about a document he had left at home. The SS, different ones this time, asked me again how old I was. When I told them15 yearsthey unleashed a torrent of blows on me. I heard them screeching, Get dressed immediatelyVerfluchter Jude! In order to avoid more blows, I grabbed my clothes, and left the house as quickly as possible. It was dark outside. On the other side of the door, an SS man hit me in the teeth with the butt of his automatic weapon. Blood poured out of my mouth.
I was placed with a group of other Jews taken from their homes. In the darkness, we could hear the screaming of the Germans and the barking of dogs. From time to time, shots cut through the air.
The Germans concentrated all those captured during the night in a lerer mill outside of town. The mill was encircled by gendarmes and Ukrainian police. It was not possible to escape. Women and children were standing at a distance with bundles of food for their loved ones. They were beaten mercilessly by the Ukrainian guards who kept them from getting near the prisoners. They kept bringing more Jews who had failed to escape. The shtetl was hermetically sealed by the Wehrmacht and the SS.
After the captures had ended, a Gestapo officer appeared. He stood on a slight rise in the courtyard and delivered a harangue in the Nazi style.
You Jews have never worked, you just engage in criminal activity. You are going to Belzec to work. You will be well-paid and well fed. Many of the captured Jews cried out ecstatically, Long live the Herr kommandant. It is sad that a large part of our people so wanted to believe the German lies.
After the lecture, a German commission and the head countyman [kreizman] from Bilgoraj, seated themselves around a table. Everyone had to pass through the so-called commission. They asked our ages. There was no medical exam and no one was let off. The sickest ones, who suffered from all kinds of ailments, were yelled at and told to halten die schnutze.
The Jewish prisoners of Tarnograd were lined up in rows of six, young and old together. The columns marched through town to an unknown fate. Jews who had lived in this small shtetl for generations were leaving without knowing if they would ever return. I marched along with them. The Germans kept shooting into the airout of fear and to bolster their courage. On both sides of the road, stood Poles who greeted their co-citizenssome with curses, others with regret. With tears in their eyes, the relativesmothers, sisters, children, saw their loved ones off on an uncertain journey.
Outside town, Poles from the surrounding villages waited with wagons to take the Jews away to Bilgoraj. The guards split up: For every three wagonloads of prisoners there was one wagon carrying two gendarmes armed with automatic weapons. When the distance from the rear gendarmes increased momentarily, some of the younger people tried to run away. I was seated in a wagon next to the gendarmes, and escape would have met a predictable end.
At the small railway station, Ropi, they loaded us into freight-carsas many as could be stuffed in. We were tightly packed, standing on each others feet. The cars were hermetically sealed. Older people fainted from lack of air. After being unloaded in Zwierzyniec, the Germans ordered us to crawl on all fours. This is how they sated their sadistic hearts with the suffering of others. Debased and broken, we had to sing and dance for the amusement of our guards.
Evening slowly descended on God's world. We were sitting on the ground near the train tracks. The Polish train workers started to make fun of the Zhidkes. This annoyed the Germans and they asked us, Why are the verfluchte Poles so happy? Did they win the war? The Germans believed only they had the right to be happy. Then the Germans ordered us to sing Yesh polska nie zginenla. We sang it paraphrasing. Alia zginontch mushi. Then, the Polish workers drew back ashamed.
A piercing whistle cut through the nighta signal we were about to leave. Woeful moans issued from everyone's heart. Now everyone felt the horrible pain of being torn from home. Pious Jews recited the tefilot haderech and some psalms. The others listened reverently. We asked Him, whose name we are not worthy to mention, to help us. Young Christians stood along the route. They looked at the train windows and passed their hands along their throats. Fear gripped all those who saw.
The train stopped. We all held our breath. Teeth chattered from fear like with the ague [kadoches], and hearts beat faster. The mass of people in the car waited with deadly anxiety for what lay ahead. Shocked and panicked Jews, a doomed people, peered out of the windows, searching for a ray of light in the darkness. Their search and hope was futile. From time to time, the wagons were lit by the lights of the German bandits. It was the middle of the night. The whistles of the departing trains could be heard.
We arrived at Belzec. The wagons were unbolted and we were unloaded with blows. I got ready and jumped out of the car. Thus, I was able to avoid a couple of cracks on the head. This was the welcome the SS provided for the prisoners.
Day is ending. Barbed wire stretches around the camp. Tea is being served in the middle of the yard near the kitchen. Masses of people stand in rows. A deathly silence reigns. Suddenly, a commotion occurs. Stilstand! Caps off!. After a while, comes the command, Caps on! The roll call is over.
Belzec lies on the way to Tomaszew-LubelskiLubycza-Krolewska, on the Warsaw-Lemberg line. Before the First World War, the border between the two great empires of Russia and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy ran through here. The small train station, isolated from any larger centers, slept dreamily amidst pine forests, surrounded by many villages. In 1940, the German Russian border lay about 600 meters from the Belzec train station.
When I arrived, Belzec was a forced labor camp. The work consisted of digging three- meter-deep anti-Panzer ditches the length of the Belzec sector. On the German side, there was a moderately sloped earthen rampart. On the Russian side, a steep wall. To carry out this goal, the Germans brought tens of thousands of Jews from the whole General Government to Belzec. In summer of 1940, this included about 300 Jews from S.
What were the ditches for? Were the murderers preparing to defend themselves? They spread the news that they were reinforcing themselves against the Russians. At this moment, plans for Operation Barbarossathe invasion of Russialay in Hitler's Reichs chancellery. Were the Germans already preparing mass graves for their victims? Later, the purpose of the ditches was revealed. The anti-Panzer ditches served as mass graves for Jews, among them, the Jews of S.
The depot where I was stationed was once an old building now converted into a camp. Tracks went through the middle of the hall. We called the building, Parovozovnie. Three- storied bunks filled the hall. The yard was encircled with barbed wire. There was a large trough of water in the yard. The other half of the camp was on the other side of the roadthe mill. The highway, which ran from Tomaszew-Lubelski to Rava Ruska, cut the camp in two. Most of the Shebreshiner were housed in the mill. In the Parovozovnie, were ShenbreshinerMotele Shochet, David Leb, Baruch Fink the menaker, Tsaler Beitcher, Der Groiser Tsaler, Ephraim Bazhak, and I.
The same day I arrived in Belzec, the sadist and murderer of Lipowa 7 in Lublin, SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Dolp, came riding in on a white horse. The white horse was a gift from the Lublin judenrat. His face was frozen, his gaze fixedlike a statue, immobile. He examined the victims, and pondered how to afflict the unfortunate.
The Jewish community in Lublin had earlier had the misfortune of knowing this beast in human form for his actions in Lipowa 7. Among his good deeds was the shooting of the liberated prisoners of war who, at his command, in the winter of 1940, were driven out of Lublin to Biala Podlaska, their blood marking the route. The majority of the Jewish prisoners were shot at his command.
Under the command of this subhuman beast, the Shebreshiner Jews had to produce, the German word for persecuting the Jews in the camps. His assistants were: Barteczko, SS units, and Volksdeutsche. We called Barteczko, the boxerbuilt like a Colossus, with a big head and a broad face. His two fists were always at the ready to break your teeth. He did not know how to speakhis fists did the talking.
The Volksdeutsche, the sonderdienst, we called the Blacks, because of their black uniforms. They were a mixture of Slavic bandit and German barbarian, and afflicted us sorely. Every piece of Belzec was soaked with the tears and blood of the Jewish prisoners from all over Poland.
Shebreshiner Jews, all the time they were in the camp, kept warm, friendly relations with everyone. We shared our last piece of bread with the hungry.
We would go to work at moon rise, accompanied by blows and curses. We suffered from illness, hunger and lice. At night we slept on hard wooden boards, amid stench and filth, unable to find rest for our work-battered bones. Executions took place in the middle of the night.
There were also 300 Gypsies and their families, during my time in Belzec. The SS would lead the young Gypsies out in the evening, force them to strip naked, and bathe in the trough. Drunken SS carried out an orgiastic spectacle with them by the light of the moon. Wild screams cut through the stillness of the night. Dead tired, shaken by the work day, we could not sleep because of the savage orgies.
A Lubliner Jew went mad from the horrific deeds. The barbed wire, the SS, the whole camp disappeared from his insupportable reality. In his mind, all danger was gone. One day, he headed towards the barbed wire, and was stopped by a bullet.
His dead body was placed in the yard, near the trough, as a warning for would-be escapers. One night, the guard at the entrance brought Hersh Steinberg (Retech), and another youth, to the dead body, ordered them to pick him up by the hands, and dance with him.
It is autumn. We, the slaves, accompanied by shouts and curses, and shots in the air, walk in the rain, our feet sinking into the limestone mud. If anyone stops, he is shot by the SS. On such a rainy day, I was walking in the same row as menaker and Motele Shochet. Obersturmbannfuhrer Dolp rode up on his horse and stopped next to us. He ordered my two friends to step out of the row. Jews must be happy! he said, and ordered them to sing.
They sang a song with a chazunish nign for the murderer. Oy, oy, enemy of Israel, when will we be rid of you. The song echoed through the wet forest. They sang with heart and soul. Their eyes were shut, distancing themselves from the evil which surrounded them.
To everyone's astonishment, the murderer, Dolp, shouted, Jews, well sung! Then he ordered Motele Shochet to sing something by himself. Frightened, Motele was unable to produce a sound. Dolp's eyes reddened. He jerked his horse toward Motele, wanting to crush him under the horse's hooves. He lashed him bloody with the whip, cursed him with zaftige curses, wheeled his horse around, and disappeared.
Gripped by rage, Dolp would take out his whip and beat his own dog. If that failed to quell his rampaging blood, he would go into the forest and beat a tree until he collapsed. He would also quiet his sadistic urges with the following game: He would place bottles of water on a Jewish head and aim his pistol from a distance. What deathly fear the suffering victims endured. More than once, a head was smashed instead of a bottle.
His sadistic pleasures also entailed locking Jews in his cellar and denying them food. Only thanks to his wife, who was sometimes able to smuggle some bread or water to the prisoner, were some able to survive.
I was able, occasionally, to meet Shebrishner imprisoned in the mill. One evening, I helped carry the field kitchen in the porovozavnie to the mill. It was the only way available for us to meet. In the mill, I was able to talk with my townspeopleand there was plenty to talk about. I decided to spend the night with them. When those I came with were getting ready to leave, they noticed they were one man short. The eldest of the group notified the SS immediately. He didn't have to do it, since no one kept a count.
Even if I wanted to, I could not go back. Now a game of life and death ensued. The SS immediately ordered a roll-call. Reflectors lit up the place, and we were ordered to line up by city and shtetl, every group separately. The SS announced through loudspeakers, that if the missing person was not surrendered, ten men of his group would be shot.
I placed myself in the Shebreshiner group: not one person objected. When the SS asked if all was in order, they answered, yes. Our group stood trembling, our nerves on edge. The SS searched and failed to find the culprit. They decreed that everyone must go before the blood-thirsty Obersturmbannfuhrer Dolp.
When it was the turn of our row, lights blinding us, I passed before the commission with forced boldness, my fate hanging on the answer to, Is this the dog? Not him, was the reply. I felt my life was granted to me.
Our camp in Belzec was part of a collection of camps stretching over a huge area. The forest work camps were closed off, encircled by barbed wire and guarded by armed SS. Anyone trying to escape was shot on the spot. In every sector of the camps young Jews worked barely clothed, barefoot, starving, emaciated skeletons.
The horrible events surpassed Auschwitz. On a daily basis, Jews were forced to dig deep, narrow holes and stuff someone in. They forced every prisoner to defecate on the prisoner's head. Whoever refused to participate received 30 lashes with a wooden stick. This went on all day until the prisoner was suffocated in feces, and died.
It is hard to believe the German's sadism. Every Sunday, the SS brought baskets of rotten tomatoes and carrots. Then, one by one, they were brought to the place where the Gypsies were concentrated. One tomato was fought over by hundreds of Gypsy men and women. Fights broke out. The Gypsy women tore at each others hair, the men fought with their fists, the children bit. The screams reached to the heavens. This gave the Germans great satisfaction.
Because of poor nutrition, the majority of the Shebreshiner youth suffered from dysentery. The filthy conditions led to skin infections.
It is autumn. The rain doesn't stop. The forest we pass is covered in fog. Visibility is reduced to short distances. The Soviets are on the other side of the barbed wire. We look at the Russian side as in a dream: there, Jews aren't persecuted. From time to time we hear a shot and a cry, Stoi! Every time I pass near the border, the other side appears to me like a ray of light in the darkness. I waited impatiently for the day when Shebreshiner would be released from the camp. The judenrat had been negotiating with the SS for a while, trying to ransom us.
My plan was to escape over the border when the Shebreshiner were released. The day of realizing my plan arrived. The push came when an SS man overheard me talking to a group of Jews I was working with. He pointed his gun at me, and I thought I was done for. He said to me, Shut up, you pig. If it happens again, I will kill you. I told him, it wouldn't happen again.
I decided to escape. That evening, I got together some bread, sugar, and cigarettes for the journey into foreign territory. I didn't sleep that night. I discussed my latest plans with my brother in sorrow, Berl Singer from Piotrkow Trybunalski.
In the morning, we went to work, waiting for an opportune moment when the SS were looking in another direction. The moment came, and we threw away our spades and began to run. By the time the SS noticed, we were between the dense barbed wire. Injured, our clothes torn, we escaped from Belzec. We fled to the unknown, to the East.
After years of ruin and devastation, Belzec is still again. Occasionally a farmer's plow catches on a shard of our loved ones who perished in the hell of Belzec.
To this day, my blood boils when I hear the name, Belzec. The earth of Belzec has forever swallowed the holy souls of our unforgettable shtetl, along with those of many other cities and shtetlach of our Polish diaspora.
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