Rabbi Meir Nachum Yingerleyb,
Last Rabbi of Vishnevets
by Edna Yafe
Translated by Sara Mages
|In the presence of the picture of the rabbi of Vishnevets.
Don't look at me like that, Rabbi,
don't look with your wonderful eyes.
Your penetrating glance enters me,
your face reflects your kind heart.
I will not forget, Rabbi, I will not forget
how you crawled on your knees and your beard was made up like a cross.
On your last day,
how they exploited you over there.
Rabbi, light has already come to our nation,
and once more David's capital is whole;
Rabbi, history will never repeat itself,
and so the voice reaches high places.
by Zev Sobol
Translated by Sara Mages
I'm not from Vishnevets. I lived nearby, in a village near Vishnevets. I had a grocery store there and also traded in wheat. I had a very good relationship with the village farmers. There was a sort of social capacity to my life in the village. They came to seek my advice, and they received interest-free loans and my help with their public needs.
My ties with Vishnevets were through my business connections. I traveled there to purchase merchandise for my store, and I had family and religious ties to the town, too.
When the Nazis arrived in our area, my Ukrainian friends volunteered to help the Germans with their work. They collected all Jewish males from the families in Svinyoche, and they also brought Menashe Brimer and his father-in-law to our village from the village of Ostitsek. They took us to the village council room and hit us with murderous blows, with the excuse that we knew where Communist survivors were hiding. When we couldn't tell them, since we didn't know a thing about Communists, they had us stand facing the wall with our arms raised, and they beat us. From behind our backs, they demanded answers. Otherwise, they would kill us.
Our wives came screaming and crying to the council building, begging for our release. The Ukrainians rounded them up and beat them, too.
After a long time, we were released with the promise that they would take care of us. We returned to our homes beaten, ashamed, miserable, and wounded, hoping for a merciful end.
We didn't have any food. Secretly and in great fear, we went to our neighbors, giving them our clothing and valuables in exchange for bread, and that's how we lived for several months.
At the beginning of March 1943, a gentile friend, the council head, came to me and told me that the next morning I would have to leave the village with my family and move to Vishnevets, where a ghetto would be set up for all the Jews. The following day we bought, at full price, a winter wagon, loaded it with food bundles we had purchased in exchange for our clothes, furniture, and bedding, and set off for the Vishnevets ghetto.
When we left the village, our neighbors accompanied us, booing and expressing their exaggerated joy.
Before we could leave home, a mob of old people, women, and children stormed us and robbed us of everything they could put their hands on, in front of my family and me.
I arrived in the town. The ghetto was being planned. I settled in at Yisrael Derbarimdiker's, my brother's in-law. By chance, this house was included in the ghetto that was later established, and I stayed there until the end.
A week later, all the men were taken to set up the ghetto.
For many years, I had lived among gentiles. Suddenly, I was among my beloved and miserable Jewish brothers. In a way, it was something to think about. I walked among them as a newcomer and stranger, but I felt good. We all wore two yellow patches, one on the chest over the heart and the second on the back.
When the ghetto was set up, all the Jews were moved there, and a Jewish Council (Judenrat) was elected. The first order communicated through them was that in a few hours a work siren would be sounded from the big mill, indicating that from that moment on, Jews would not be allowed to leave the ghetto, roam the streets, or be seen outside it.
The world closed in on us.
Before the ghetto was established, the Germans took away more than 200 men. Among them were Dr. Yosef Tsinberg and the town's rabbi, a beloved elderly, gracious Jew. They were taken to Pochayev and murdered on the way.
Before they took them on the road, they rounded up all 200 on the Boulevard. They laid them on the ground face up, with their hands on their backs. The Ukrainians ran on top of their backs like children running over a soft carpet. They danced with their heavy shoes and hit them with their clubs. Among the stretched-out, beaten men was my older brother, Motel Sobol. I saw him suffering, and I couldn't help him.
Before the murderous march, they stood Dr. Tsinberg and the rabbi on the side of the Boulevard. They put Dr. Tsinberg's hat on the rabbi's head, over his eyes, and put the rabbi's hat on the doctor's head and stretched it all the way down to his neck. Then they tied cables around their necks, making them look like giants. A short distance from them stood a Ukrainian playing an accordion, and both of them were forced to dance to the beat of the accordion.
Also among the 200 who were tortured was Barukh Tenenboym, Sender the carriage driver's son. The father stood next to the home of Moshe Tenenboym, who owned a leather store. When he saw his son suffering, he walked over and asked for his son to be returned to him. The German agreed to his request and told him to come back and wait for his son by the wall next to Tenenboym's store. As the old man stood there, full of hope, the German shot him between the eyes and killed him on the spot.
The show was organized by the Ukrainians, but it was directed by their masters, the Germans, from quite a distance.
East of the Boulevard was a tavern and hotel owned by Yisrael Gnip. The Germans sat there by the tavern gate, stretched out on armchairs, and gave orders to the Ukrainians.
After two and a half hours, the men were lifted from the ground. Armed with submachine guns, the Ukrainians surrounded them and began chasing them toward Pochayev.
The rabbi trailed behind the walkers. Two Ukrainians approached him, tied a rope under his arms and around his neck, and then tied the rope to a cart. The horses started running, and the old rabbi fell and was dragged behind the cart. His blood dripped slowly until he died.
When the rabbi's wife realized the rabbi hadn't returned home, she ran from person to person begging for an answer: Where's my husband? Where's the rabbi?
When they tried to comfort her, telling her he had been taken to work and would be back in a few days, she wept and said, What will happen? He didn't take his prayer shawl and phylacteries.
Dr. Tsinberg, who was bleeding, struggled behind the walkers. They pushed him with their rifle butts. He was killed later, along with the others, on the way to Pochayev.
Two weeks before the ghetto was established, when I was still in my village, I traveled to the town every once in a while to bring food to my brother's family and my parents. I spent the night there since I was afraid to travel after dark. One night while I was sleeping in their house in town, we heard the loud noise of sticks banging on metal cans. The drumming was extremely loud, and we didn't know what it meant.
We experienced a frightful night. We didn't sleep. We expected trouble at any moment. In the morning, when we woke up from our short naps, which we took either standing or sitting, we went outside into the street, where we found out that the previous night all the Jews from the Old City had been taken outside the town limits, where they were killed. So that the victim's screams and cries for help wouldn't be heard, they positioned a large number of evil youths on the metal roofs of several buildings and asked them to make noise to drown out the sound of weeping.
That night, the Old City of Vishnevets was completely annihilated. I can't remember the exact date, but the event is engraved deeply on my heart, and my blood is full of its horrors.
They took us out to work every day. They walked us in a tight formation, so tight that we rubbed and pushed against each other. We walked on the road. We weren't allowed to step onto the sidewalk, and when a horse cart passed by, we had to move aside. They walked us the same way a shepherd signals his herd to move fast.
If a Ukrainian policeman happened to walk toward us, we had to greet him from a distance of six meters before he reached us by lowering our heads and taking our hats off-all of us as one, as we were ordered.
Once when we were on our way to work, a Ukrainian policeman ran toward us. Full of rage, he approached one of our escorts, also a policeman, and started yelling at him, Why did you hit my Jew yesterday? When the other one didn't understand, he apologized. Then the angry Ukrainian grabbed a Jew from the line. Everyone in Vishnevets knew him. He was a chicken merchant known by the nickname Kovila. The policeman began hitting him with a rubber club. He hit him until he swelled up and turned blue and his face looked like chopped meat. We couldn't see his eyes anymore. In their place were two cracks sealed with dried blood.
Once when Meir Derbarimdiker was returning from work, he passed by the guards posted by the gate. A Ukrainian policeman by the name of Yakub Ostrovski approached him and said to him, Tell me, my friend, what did you do in the Soviet regime?
Meir told him where he had worked. He had nothing to hide from him. Meanwhile, two policemen hit him with their rubber clubs. They tore and cut his flesh, and his blood spattered around him. His clothes ripped from the force of the blows. They tore his shirt and undershirt until they were stuck to the cuts on his skin and flesh.
His entire body turned into a mass of flesh and blood and rags mixed with human skin and flesh.
When the ghetto opened, Jews we didn't know were brought there. We found out that Jews from Vyshgorodok had joined the Jews from Vishnevets and the surrounding villages. So more than 4,000 people lived in this narrow ghetto.
We crowded into rooms, dozens and dozens of souls in one room.
Filth accumulated, lice multiplied, and hunger increased. There was no way to get food from other places. Women's and children's bodies swelled up from lack of food and were covered with open wounds and bleeding abscesses. Deaths increased from day to day.
Many died of hunger. Every day there were four to six funerals. We became immune to the situation, and our only worry was whether we would be allowed to bury our dead.
We carried our dead to the cemetery. Only a few of us accompanied the pallbearers. A police escort guarded us, following us and supervising the unfortunate ceremony with seven eyes, afraid we would escape.
Funerals endangered our lives, we all knew. Since we didn't have any physical strength, it was very difficult for us to carry the swollen bodies. But we performed the deed with extreme dedication.
Fear of living with the dead, fear of epidemics, and worry about our miserable lives made us forget that we were human beings.
Liquidation of the Ghetto
At the beginning of Elul 1943, about 10 SS men arrived from Kremenets. They gathered a large number of armed Ukrainian policemen from the surrounding area and stationed them in the shade. One SS man stood next to the great master, Mr. Shtayger, the destroyer of Vishnevets Jewry. He stood up and gave a short speech that I heard in full and still can't forget.
He said, Today we're going to liquidate all the Jews in the ghetto. Go knock on each window, open it, and tell the Jews, 'Leave your homes, you traitors, you Jewish Communists.' Beat the Jews who refuse to leave their homes with the butts of your guns. Pay attention: you can strike to kill, but make sure you don't kill them inside the ghetto. Take them outside town, to the designated area, and kill them there.
I still don't understand why he didn't want to exterminate us inside the ghetto.
During the walk from the ghetto, people were beaten to the point of insanity. In some cases, people had hysterical fits while walking in rows next to the others.
They started to pull their hair out and pinch their flesh. Some tore their clothing, with heartrending screams. Yente Klayn tore her clothes, and by the time she arrived at the pit, she was completely naked.
Young women screamed and wept. One stood up, faced them, and gave a terrible, mad speech: Why can't we get married? Why won't we have the chance to satisfy men's wishes? Why don't they let us prove it? Why did they choose to kill us before we'd known our husbands?
A big truck drove around the walkers. The Ukrainians loaded it with the elderly, the blind, the frail, and babies. Those who trailed behind the procession were thrown into the truck: the wounded, the sick, and those whose legs had swelled from hunger.
Piles and piles were thrown into the truck. The Ukrainians riding on top sat on the growing stacks of bodies as if they were bundles of wood or straw.
It's very hard to think about the look of importance on the murderers' faces as they sat on top of innocent people who didn't resist.
I walked next to my wife, holding my Rivkele, who was 21 months old, in my arms. My wife held Henele, who was four and a half. Suddenly, several policemen approached us, extracted our children from our arms, and threw them on the truck as if they were bundles of rags. When they separated us, I wanted to give them a last look to tell them I would love them for eternity. The policeman realized it, and I received a blow from a rifle butt. I was pushed from the place where I was standing and forced to follow the procession.
Yudke Shag was walking with his four-year-old son. The boy pushed himself between his knees, screaming wildly and begging, Father, don't walk, where are we going? Let's go back! Yudke picked him up, held him in his arms, and kept walking. At that moment, a Ukrainian tore him from his arms and threw him on the truck, separating them.
From the beginning, we were marched in groups of two or three hundred. After I slowed down to take a last look at my children, I got pushed, fell into another group, and was separated from my wife. I never saw her again. By chance, my brother was in this group, and I continued walking with him.
As we walked over the bridge between the new and the old cities, German military trucks approached us, and we were forced to clear the road for them. I was pushed to the side.
I felt lightheaded. I tripped and fell into the river. At that moment, I recovered and felt refreshed. I crawled to the side and took cover. Since I didn't hear gunfire and noticed that nobody realized I was missing, I blessed the incident and stayed hidden.
Hiding next to me was a Jewish doctor from Warsaw-a refugee from the Nazis who escaped to Vishnevets after Warsaw was captured by the Nazis. My brother also jumped in after me.
We separated. If they looked for us, they wouldn't find us together.
I stayed hidden until evening. I didn't say a word. I didn't talk to my brother, but from time to time I sent signals to him.
I got up when it was dark, and my brother and the doctor from Warsaw got up with me.
We left, and with great caution we approached Dmitro's house. I had known Dmitro for many years. He lived in Melinovits, and his house was next to the forest. I had given this gentile my cow just before I left for Vishnevets, and in exchange, he had promised to bring food to me in the ghetto. I didn't see him in the ghetto once. Nevertheless, I wanted to believe in our friendship.
I knocked on his window. He came out with his wife. He let us into his house and expressed his great sorrow. Our situation touched his heart, but what could he do when he didn't have the ability to do anything? With a generous hand, they fed us and gave us something to drink. At long last, our friendship hadn't let me down.
They told us to lie down, get some rest, and sleep. They understood that we were tired and exhausted. We fell into a deep sleep. At dawn, this same gentile went out and informed the authorities that Jews were staying with him.
We didn't have enough time to wake up from our deep sleep. Two Ukrainians armed with submachine guns arrived. They kicked us while we were still lying on the ground, screaming and shouting at us. They woke us up and ordered us to move quickly. They took us to the Great Synagogue in town. We had returned to Vishnevets. The town was empty, with no sign of life, but I heard a strange sound in my ears: screaming, groaning, and moaning that were swallowed by the horrible silence.
In the synagogue, we were placed next to two young men whom we didn't know. Talking to them, we found out that they were from Vyshgorodok and lived in our ghetto. They had seen all the horrors: how the people had been divided into groups and murdered in large numbers. They were in the last group, and when their group's turn came, Shtayger approached and asked if there were any craftsmen among them and for shoemakers and tailors to raise their hands. They raised their hands, and by doing so, they survived for a few more days. That was how we found out the fate of the last few from Vishnevets.
At the other end of the synagogue was another group of people, around 70. They were Jews who had been taken from their bunkers. When the ghetto was emptied, they went in search of Jews who were hiding. They took them out of their bunkers with all kinds of temptations and threats, and now they were facing their fate.
We stayed in the synagogue together for a whole day. They shut the doors and windows on us. It was unbearably suffocating inside, and in front of us, the bunker people, who were starving for bread and air, began to die, including our old doctor.
At night we could talk, and we asked the two young men from Vyshgorodok to tell us what had happened. And the two young men from Vyshgorodok told me what they had seen with their own eyes-how Vishnevets Jewry had been destroyed-and here is their story.
All the people were brought to a ravine behind the Old City on the road leading to Zbarazh. The ravine served as a readymade grave, with a capacity that met the Nazis' needs. The ravine had been prepared by Ukrainian farmers. They stood with their tools, clearing the surface of the ravine. They leveled it, removed small mounds, scraped the stones from the sides, and dug the walls. They covered the bottom with the stones and soil they had removed from the walls in order to create a kind of crushed-soil foundation for the victims.
Once the foundation had been prepared, the first group of Jews was led to their burial place.
Two policemen ordered them to take their clothes off and remain in their underwear. They undressed, piled up their clothes on the side, and were then ordered to lie down in a row in the ravine, face down.
When they were all lying face down, the policemen ran over them with their submachine guns in their hands, shooting bullets into the heads of the people who were lying down.
Afterward, they inspected. They walked from person to person and with a handgun killed those who didn't die immediately, using the gun butt or a bullet shot into the center of the skull.
When they were done with one group, they brought the second, and so on.
The Ukrainians walked over the bodies inside the ravine with horrifying skill. They lifted the bodies that were not level and laid them straight. The Germans sat on the walls of the ravine and supervised the work. They gave the orders, and the Ukrainians executed them.
The farmers took over after the Ukrainian policemen were done inspecting and leveling the layer after the last round of shooting. They covered the layer of bodies with soil in order to place another layer on top. They used shovels to do this. They covered it with a thin layer of soil, and the area was ready for another row of bodies. The clothes piled up on the side were given as a gift to the farmers in exchange for their work. Immediately, they collected the victims' clothes and loaded them onto their carts, and while the others were busy with their work of killing and taking care of the bodies, they set off to sell their booty.
That was what the two young men from Vyshgorodok told me, and it is the utmost truth, because while they told us their story, they were very detailed and corrected each other so as not to distort what their eyes had seen.
At night, they forgot about us, and nobody came to check on us. Tired from their experience and the killing, they also wanted to rest. Armed guards stood around the synagogue; they weren't afraid we would escape.
I couldn't rest; the brothers' story simultaneously depressed and energized me. I decided to escape no matter what. And from here.
We felt trapped, but we believed there was an opening in the trap and if there was none, that we could create one.
We looked for a way to escape. We climbed on top of each other's backs to see if there was an opening and thus liberation in the windows above us.
Meanwhile, one of us found a nail, walked over to the iron bars encased in the building's old wooden frame, and started scraping away the rotten wood little by little. The wood was soft. A crack opened around the base of the iron bars, and one fell out of the window frame. Then we bent it upward, tied a belt to it, and climbed down.
I was the first to climb down. I found the Ukrainian guard leaning on his gun and covered with his big coat, snoring and fast asleep. I tore a sleeve from my shirt and, with Hershel Duvid Feldman's brother, shoved the rag down his throat. We removed his gun and killed him with the butt.
He fell over, and his brains spilled out. Then we knew we had an opening to escape. Little by little, we took everyone out and told them to run. We ran separately, each going his own way.
I escaped to Svinyoche, my village; I forgave the village residents for what they had done to me and to the Jews in their village.
I played with the hope that now, after the final liquidation, they might feel sorry for me. I went to the home of Yevdokim Shvedki, my acquaintance and friend for many years. I didn't go into his house or wake him up. I climbed up to the attic.
It was full of straw being stored for the winter, and I found shelter for the night there. My brother probably followed me there. He also arrived at Yevdokim's, and together we climbed up to the attic.
We stayed there for two weeks without anyone knowing we were there. During the day, one of us climbed down to milk the cow. We lived, and we ate. It was warm for both of us inside the packed straw. To my surprise, when I climbed down to milk the cow, I found Yevdokim standing and waiting for me. He probably knew someone was milking his cow. He expressed his anguish, gave me food, and begged me to leave. It was too dangerous, a real crime to hide a Jew. People will know, they'll hate me, they'll tell. He begged and explained for a long time and persuaded me to leave.
I left at dark. We took over another attic. We hid and again used the same method: cow's milk and pig food. No one noticed us for quite a while. But then a bad case of lice infestation broke out. Fat, cruel lice sank deep into our bodies and sucked our bone marrow. It was extremely strange; this was the worst of all blows. We would get down from our beds, find a stone, and use it to scratch. The pain from the wounds was a lot more pleasant than the tickling of the lice. We scratched until we bled. Our clothes stuck to the dried blood on our bodies. They dried out like tarpaulins and caused additional pain, but this pain was much better than the pain of itching.
So we sat in secret until summer arrived. In the summer, we hid in the corn and grass. At night, we quenched our thirst by sucking dew from the leaves, and we satisfied our hunger by eating ground wheat grains.
So 1944 came upon us.
One night we heard a rumor that Russian partisans were roaming the area and that the Germans were getting ready to flee.
My brother couldn't endure our living conditions. The lice depressed him. He longed for a shower, a change of clothes. Our clothes stank and spread the stench of death around our bodies. He didn't want to suffer anymore and decided to join the partisans. I tried to talk him out of it. I talked to his heart, telling him he would live for a while longer and it was a question of just a few more days. I asked him to be patient. I explained to him that things were going our way and that we were on the threshold of salvation.
He couldn't have listened to my advice even if he'd wanted to. The lice infestation had taken over his mind. At night he left. To his horrible luck, a trained German guard dog smelled and caught him. The dog kept hold of him, not letting him move. In the morning, the Germans arrived and killed him.
This happened on the outskirts of Vishnevets, on the Bolonya; gentiles told me about it.
When the Russians entered the village, I walked over to them and gave myself up.
For a month, I stayed with the partisans; they didn't dare enter the town or be seen during the day.
I washed my wounded body. My wounds healed, and I ate until I was full. I blessed those days even though we were still in danger. I had a feeling I was on the way to salvation- this time I would survive.
In 1945, I entered Vishnevets with the Russians, and I stayed there until 1959.
Moshe Goldshub and Tsvi Yuger were with me. Our holy mission was to catch the ones who had killed not only our families but also the survivors and all the Vishnevets Jews. We caught the two killers: Ostrovski and Poslevski. We hit them with murderous blows and tortured them until they gave up on their own lives. Then we handed them to the authorities.
They were tried along with 15 additional killers we found. They were sentenced to 25 years in prison based on our testimony.
When Khrushchev came to power, they enjoyed a full pardon.
by a survivor
Translated by Sara Mages
When the Russians arrived in Vishnevets, they found out that I had once been a businessman. I was arrested, sentenced, and sent to their prison in Berdichev.
After they retreated to the depths of Russia, I escaped from prison and returned to my town and my home on July 14, 1941.
For the two previous weeks, the town had been occupied by the Germans. I knew that. I knew they had entered Vishnevets on July 2, 1941. But I couldn't do anything else. The town and my father's home tugged at my heartstrings. My whole family-my loving wife and my children, the love of my life for eternity-lived in the town.
I thought that someone would be glad to see me, that someone would be happy and hope for different days, but except for my family, no one smiled at me. The town was under a deep depression. The events of the past two weeks had indicated what was to come, and they already had facts on which to base their fears.
A few days after my return, 36 men were taken hostage and locked up in R' Issakher Sofer's cellar. Unluckily for me, 35 of them were murdered the day I returned home.
Those prisoners weren't murdered with the usual tools of murder or in the usual way. It was strange, but the fact is that the way they were murdered added more misery to the whole event.
The Ukrainians received permission and orders from the Germans to kill them. They stormed the cellar, with the two Ostrovskis in the lead. Full of blood lust and the desire to kill, they tore down the entry door and threw heavy rocks and other heavy objects into the narrow room, pushing and shoving the prisoners into a corner and suffocating them little by little.
The men died while watching death approaching them, step by step, centimeter by centimeter, with each stone thrown at them and with no means of escape.
Alter, Makhtsi Ruach's son, was the only prisoner to survive. He was saved in a horrifying and amazing way. He was a small, skinny man. When the prisoners were pushed into the corner, he was covered up by a pile of human bodies twisting in the last moments of their lives and slowly dying in agonizing spasms. Underneath the bodies, he succeeded in digging himself a hole, where he hid his head and survived.
In the evening, the Ukrainians left the murder site only after they had checked and found not a single sound of life coming from the bodies. Only then was Alter able to release himself from the pile of humans. He left his hiding place and found shelter in my house.
He told me what had happened and described the way the murder was carried out and the suffering of the people who died. His story made my hair stand on end, and it will remain in my memory for eternity.
I knew many Ukrainians who participated in this horrifying murder. I knew the Ostrovskis, and I couldn't understand how they could do such a thing and enjoy it.
Later, they didn't surprise me. I saw them day after day, invading and killing, invading and robbing without any control, conscience, or respect. I saw them standing by the Germans' door early in the morning waiting to receive their terrifying orders. Like puppies waiting for scraps from a good meal, they waited for an assignment they'd be happy to carry out.
The interesting thing is that they didn't take money. They didn't believe in it; they didn't believe the current regime would last. They knew things would change and they should enjoy the lunacy. They just took valuables, jewelry, and clothing.
July 23, 1941
Early in the morning, we saw the Ukrainians running wildly. Suddenly, I saw them stop and pick up every person they came across in the Jewish streets. Shouting and laughing, they pulled them violently to one location. In all, they picked up 65 people. Later, they were all led to an unknown location. None of them came back. For many days, we tried to find out their fate and burial place, but all our inquiries came to nothing. Even now, nobody knows their fate.
A week passed without any special incidents. The Ukrainians and their German commanders were somewhat shaken by their own doings; they were frightened and tired.
July 30, 1941
The Ukrainians executed the same operation again, but on a larger scale. This time, they developed a new method for their killing. They collected almost 400 Jews, gathered them on the Boulevard in the center of town, and laid each one facing the ground. Then they walked over their backs with their spiky boots, holding heavy clubs in their hands. When a person raised his head to see what was happening or to see if it was over, a Ukrainian would jump on his back and beat him badly with the club he held. The Jews remained on the ground, wounded and bleeding, for a very long time, waiting for their fate or for the time when the Ukrainian animals would be satisfied with the groans and blood and let them go.
When they had the correct number of people ordered by the Germans, including my oldest brother, R' Yosef Erlikh, the town's rabbi, and others, they were led on foot out of town. Their fate is still unknown.
The Ukrainians kept their superior secrets for many years. Even now there are no witnesses to or hints of where the 400 were murdered or how they disappeared.
After each operation, the number of widows, orphans, and bereaved parents, whose world darkened, increased. Their lives entered a passage where everyone was thirsty to know the fate of their loved ones, who had been taken away from them to an unknown location.
Then the Ukrainian women appeared. Who said farmers were harmless?! They were naked as snakes, and so were their wives. They would approach a woman and talk to her emotionally, with pain, sadness, and understanding, telling her that her loved ones were alive.
They would say that their son or husband was guarding them in the place where they were imprisoned and had sent the following message: Don't worry (meaning that her loved ones were still alive) and had asked her to send clothes and food.
The poor, unfortunate ones swallowed the imaginary good news as if it were really good news, the news their hearts wanted to believe. With tears of happiness and worry in their eyes, they thanked the messengers from the bottom of their hearts and gladly gave the righteous Ukrainian women everything they asked for.
Every day the Ukrainians repeated their ploy, and every day there were enough victims holding onto the thin edge of hope. They took the last piece of bread from their mouths, tore the clothes from their bodies, and sent them to their loved ones far away.
It was not enough that they'd lost their loved ones at the Ukrainian murderers' hands. They also lost what was left of their food and clothing to the wives' false claims, the crazy mothers.
The ploy took its toll. Several days later, the wives and mothers were left without food for their young children, who died of hunger. Their small bellies swelled up from lack of food, and many died. The streets were full of children's bodies, victims of the worthless women's fraud. There is nothing more terrifying than seeing a small, skinny child swollen to twice his size and watching him die.
The tragedy of the Jewish men, who were heads of families, husbands, and masters of their own lives, began with the Russians' arrival. Suddenly, they were unnecessary. The breadwinners, who had been proud of their work and the substance of their labor and only wanted to sustain their families, became useless creatures.
Even during the regime that preceded the Nazi tragedy, the heads of families looked like weak members of society. The framework of their lives came apart, and their families weakened. The social structure cracked, and Jewish conscience crumbled.
Without any intention on the part of the Soviets, the structure of Jewish society in Vishnevets, which was based on family values, was shaken.
But what happened to them during the short Nazi occupation had no relation to past horrors. Husbands became worthless shadows, and fathers stopped being the center of their families. Everyone knew their father was not the one they used to have.
People avoided each other. The depression was way too deep, and the anguish of many deepened the shame and brought pain and helplessness.
As a result, the streets of Vishnevets were empty of people and men.
The physical and emotional torture forced on people and the fear of what was still to come forced proud and honest Vishnevets men to hide.
A few days later, figures moved here and there. Shamed eyelids were raised, glancing and saying hello with their expressions, and then a sigh would escape, which was answered with a sigh and a begging look; maybe the Jewish nation's troubles were coming to an end.
And then a strange thing happened. Jews began to believe that those who had been taken from the town were still alive. They proved it the way Jews analyze a thought: everything is simple. They said something like this: if they'd wanted to kill them, they could have done it right here. What was stopping them? If they took them away from here, they probably needed them somewhere else, so it's a sign that they're working there. Another logical thing is that however you look at it, if they're not alive, it means they're afraid to kill us here. Let's suppose someone is keeping an eye on them. If so, we're immune . And they ended it with a joke. Look, they outnumber us. They're afraid, and they walk around armed with guns. There are just a few of us. We're not afraid, and we're walking without guns. Therefore, we need to hold on. Those who can cope with the situation will shame them, and the most important thing is to be strong.
September 4, 1941
At dawn, Rachel Sendler, the 28-year-old daughter of a minor wheat merchant from the Old City, came to us soaking wet in her underclothes. She had escaped from the Old City through the river. She told us the Ukrainian `police had collected all the Jews at night and taken them somewhere outside town, and no one knew where the town was empty, without a living soul or a sign of life a few had been shot on the threshold of their homes and buried where they were shot she had escaped through the river, the only place she could cross, which was not guarded by Ukrainian police.
In the Old City, there was a tannery owned by Avraham Shimkovits. Duvid Feldman, Avraham's son-in-law, worked there. That same night, the Ukrainians came to him and told him, Go hide, and save your life. Don't tell anyone that all the Jews are going to be caught and taken outside the town tonight. He told me that at first he didn't believe them, but he realized they were telling the truth, knowing that they still needed him since they were short of tanned leather. Nevertheless, he hid in a corner of his tannery, whose main gate faced the hostel belonging to Yone Tsimbler (Zimbel) and his brother Moti. While he was hiding, the reptile Vasye, a Vishnevets resident who lived near the Jewish homes, came armed with a gun and leading Avraham Shimkovits's daughter, the one who was married to Motye Grinberg, Shimon the Soldier's son.
He was leading her as if he were escorting a prisoner on trial. The woman was in the last months of pregnancy and carried a baby in her arms. The baby cried and twisted in her arms out of fear and nervousness. The woman was very tired; she faced Vaske, her neighbor of many days and years, and spoke.
Vasye, she said. Look, Vasinke, look at my condition. I've never harmed you. Have mercy on me and my baby, have mercy, Vasinke.
The reptile didn't answer. He moved back as if he wanted to measure her with his eyes, and with unusual calm, he aimed the gun at the baby's mouth, shot him, and quieted him. The boy convulsed, collapsed, and fell from her arms she passed out and went into labor. When the killer saw the newborn coming into the world, he aimed his gun and killed him the minute he was born him and his mother.
When we heard the news, we wanted to go to the Old City to see the unbelievable sight with our own eyes-to see how a town could be emptied of its residents in such a short time.
We arrived at the Grabliye. It was blocked. The entrance to the town was closed off by a wall of Ukrainian policemen. We returned.
A couple of days later, after the murderers had calmed down from the shock and fear of their own deeds, we returned to the Old City. We found a dead town. The streets were empty, and the homes broken into. Inside the homes, the beds were made, and the pillows and blankets of those who had been taken while they were asleep were stained and sprayed with human blood. Next to one of the homes, we saw a mound covered with fresh soil, and we knew this was a freshly dug grave.
One of the women, whose name I forget-a widow of many years who was known for her modesty and culture-the murderers didn't have the time to bury her in a deep grave. The thin layer of soil that covered her had blown off in the wind. Her face was clearly seen outside her grave, and her eyes stared with a deadly gaze at a world of human insanity.
A town was murdered and buried overnight in the few hours between evening and night. Strenuous work was done here: the slaughter of innocent people in the name of holy idealism.
Shock hit all of us. This was a general massacre. No longer were men being taken and their families left alive. This time, men, women, and children had been killed. The murder was general and final.
All our illusions dissolved. It was clear to us that the murderers' agenda was undoubtedly a final liquidation. No one was watching over them or frightening them.
We went to Dr. Landesberg in Kremenets to seek his opinion and ask his advice. Maybe there was something else we could do. He was very quiet, so to speak, and he answered simply, as if he were analyzing a situation that didn't concern him.
Go home. Our end is near, and there is nothing we can do.
Darkness settled in our souls. All the chambers of our hearts were filled with desperation.
One day, a farmer came to town and stopped his cart in an alley. Two women, one Aba Klinman's wife, saw the gentile and innocently thought that maybe he'd brought something to sell. They approached him with items they wanted to trade, hopeful for a moment that maybe a miracle had happened and their luck had changed. They'd have something to eat. Meanwhile, two Ukrainian policemen passed by, arrested the gentile and the women, and took them to the police station.
We don't know what happened to the gentile, but an hour and a half later, the women left the police station, bleeding and crawling on their stomachs. They were exhausted, beaten, and wounded. They couldn't stand upright. Their elbows were broken. They knelt down and crawled on all fours.
Who can forget such a heartbreaking sight: women beaten so badly by men who were sworn to respect the weaker sex.
Winter came early. The chilly fall brought the fear of winter-maybe because it was dark and cold in our homes, or maybe because it was unusually cold for that season.
We were busy with funerals almost every day. People died of epidemics; typhus ran its deadly course. There was not a home without a sick person. Starvation also claimed many lives.
Escorting the dead was the only occupation for the living; we brought them to their burial place and we left. We had nothing to comfort the mourners with. We all mourned. We felt that taking care of the dead was the center of our activities and the existence of Judaism, Jewish unity, and respect for the Jew.
The Ukrainians escorted us, the coffin bearers, with great joy. For some reason, we felt that by fulfilling our religious duty, we were united and shared the same fate.
From October to March, there were no murders or victims. With that came a reprieve from our fears and the depression that had often struck us.
The brutalities continued. Contributions were forced on us. We had to collect clothing, money, and jewelry for our oppressors. Two or three Germans would suddenly appear, receive our contributions, and leave.
Those breaks put us to sleep. At times we imagined that our suffering was ending. For the fear of God, how can a man, an entire human race, run wild and live only on evil and murder? People who were known to be wise and experienced were suddenly led astray by false idealism and encouraged to follow worthless visions. Enough with God's will.
Resourceful people became useless while waiting for miracles. It was easy for us to think the end of our troubles was coming. Without thinking at all, we couldn't do anything.
Once the Germans came and demanded 100 men for work. They would be sent-they said-first to Kremenets and from there to their place of work, and so on. We knew from the past that they weren't talking about work. Each of us knew the purpose of that transport, but hunger weakened our judgment, and people came and volunteered to work, to be included in the workers quota. Maybe they could live a while longer; maybe they'd be given bread in their place of work.
The 100 got together. The quota left on foot for Kremenets. On the way, an idea crossed our minds. We said, Maybe this is a death trap that we had forgotten about over the winter. Is there is something we can do to save them?
We took the initiative, Yosef Shapiro and I. We approached Veloshin, the Ukrainian police commander, and offered to pay him a lot of money to give the order not to accelerate the walkers' pace and to aim their arrival in Kremenets for after the train had left. We explained to him that if he gave the order, we wouldn't complain about him. For some unknown reason, he agreed to our request.
And the people arrived late for their train.
That one day, and from that one action, they survived.
They all scattered and went to stay with their families in Kremenets, and from there, they returned unharmed to Vishnevets.
Anyone who hasn't seen the happiness of the condemned being returned to the arms of their homes and their town has never seen happiness. There was joy at home and joy in the streets. People danced and blessed each other with the blessing of the One who bestows, frees the fettered, and gives life to the dead. They kissed and hugged. It was a sign and a signal; everything would pass the miracles weren't over we have the right to and we'd live.
March 16, 1943
On that date, which was a Tuesday, the order was given to set up a ghetto. The buildings to be included in the ghetto were marked. According to the order, the ghetto had to be constructed in three days. The Jews were assigned to build the ghetto with their own hands and with materials they had to supply.
To make sure the order would be carried out in full, two hostages were taken: Yakov Markhbeyn and the writer of these lines. Any diversion from the details of the order would jeopardize their lives.
They also wanted to add Avraham Tsimbler to the two of us, but we asked them to release him. We knew he was the only person who could negotiate with the Ukrainians, and the community needed him that day. It was better for him to remain free and save others than to become a person in need of saving.
The Jews were worried about the hostages' fate and desperately tried to obey the orders down to the last detail. The ghetto was built in two days. The residents worked hard, took fences apart, connected sections of walls, and the work was done. Everything was carried out by volunteers, with unity and exceptional organization.
The ghetto encircled a narrow part of the town and the length of one long street. It extended from Alter Layter's house to Beni Mazur's house and from the road leading to Lanovits to the entrance to the Old City.
The fence reached nearly the height of the buildings. In some places the fence was connected to the buildings, and the outside walls were used as part of the fence. To do so, windows and doors had to be sealed with wood. Since we didn't have enough wood, we requested that small spaces be allowed between the boards. For some unknown reason, they agreed to our request, so air and sun could enter the crowded rooms.
Every day, the Judenrat received an order to send 50-70 men to work. People went to work willingly. They didn't get paid for their work, but the fact that they could spend time in the fresh air and the hope that they might be able to provide food for their families bewitched all of them.
People who went out to work smuggled food into the ghetto when they returned. This was forbidden.
The Ukrainian policemen who guarded the ghetto gate searched for hidden food, inspecting and beating with the butts of their guns. Woe to anyone who got caught. At times, people who were beaten suffered broken ribs and permanently collapsed lungs. The Ukrainian sadists' greatest joy was to find eggs in people's bags; they beat the egg white and the yolk together, and the man would be left bleeding with broken, mixed eggs.
After the Jews were transferred to the ghetto, a Judenrat was appointed. Its members included Shlome Ayzenberg, who served as the treasurer, collecting the fines enforced on the Jews; Hershel Margaliot, who drafted people for work according to demand; and Yakov Markhbeyn, who was in charge of the bakery with me. Elected Judenrat leader was Koylenberner, who had come from Lodz and found shelter in Vishnevets after escaping from his birthplace when it was captured by the Germans in 1939. He was a warm Jew who loved Israel and was ready to sacrifice his life to save each Jew in the town. He was the central figure in the town during those tragic days. He was everything to us. Each us was ready to do anything for him, way beyond our ability and willpower.
Koylenberner spoke fluent German and was liked by the Germans. At times it looked to us as if they wouldn't kill him. He was murdered after the ghetto was liquidated.
Avraham Tsimbler was also added to the Judenrat as a negotiator with the Ukrainians.
The Judenrat was not appointed right away. At the beginning, the Jews were ordered to choose their representatives, but no one agreed to this. In the end, candidates were nominated by a group of Jews. When they refused, the Jews begged them to accept the nomination. They were afraid riots would break out in the town if they didn't have a committee to represent them. The list was given to the Germans, who approved the nominations.
When the ghetto had been set up, the Germans knew they had created a prison where a free labor force was concentrated. To benefit from their prisoners, they had to maintain them-sustain them with almost nothing. They gave each of us 140 grams of flour a day. From that, we baked the bread that saved the lives of the ghetto's residents. Later the portion was lowered to 100 grams and, finally, to only 60 grams.
The Ghetto's Population
More than 4,000 people were concentrated in the Vishnevets ghetto. Of them, close to 3,000 were residents of Vishnevets and the surrounding area, and around 1,000 Jews were from Vyshgorodok.
The news of the Vyshgorodok Jews' arrival reached us in the evening. We knew they would arrive early in the morning, after a night of strenuous walking, cold and frozen from the rain of a difficult winter. We stayed up all night and boiled tea, and prepared tea and bread for them. We didn't have anything else.
They arrived early in the morning, tired and frozen, hungry and beaten. We welcomed then with a piece of bread and some tea, and we revived them.
Before the ghetto, there were 4,600 Jewish residents in both parts of Vishnevets. On July 23, 1941, 65 people were murdered; on July 30, 1941, 400 souls; 60-70 died of starvation; and 146 were murdered in the Old City.
Entering and exiting the ghetto was totally forbidden, but we were allowed to walk freely inside it. People didn't move around; they didn't want to see or be seen. Victims of hunger were lying in the streets, swollen-until they died.
Homes were always dark and overcrowded with people. Each was a ball of fear, desperation, and depression.
Some sat on their doorsteps staring at the darkened world and waiting for the worst to come. When the street turned dark, they entered their homes, took their clothes off or not, and went to sleep.
They woke up in the morning without purpose. They were indifferent to their surroundings and completely hopeless; even a spark of light or a glimmer of hope seemed impossible to them. They received no news from the outside. Rumors stopped, and connections ceased. They were cut off, and there was nothing to look for in the street or from its inhabitants. Nothing was there to revive their souls.
Actually, they'd all reached their limits. One more step, and everything would be over, and it was good that the end was near! But the step wasn't taken, and it lasted too long.
The situation was the same for all age groups. Family members, from infants to the elderly, lived together with no separation. The same world united them and wrapped them in a mystery that neither the elderly nor the young could solve. They were equal in their lack of hope and solutions. No cry or laugh, no argument or quarrel. A dead town whose sounds had all died and that no longer existed; a desolate place without color or voice. No prayer or plea. No music or song. Their power was removed. No one needed them to ease their lives, to deceive themselves and live with false hope. Even the deception was missing and was no longer there.
Death in the Ghetto
When May arrived, the sun warmed us, and its light unveiled a terrible picture: people who were useless to themselves and their families lay in the streets. They warmed up in a sun whose rays tried in vain to penetrate their swollen bodies and revive those who were starving to death. And if you passed by someone swollen from hunger and waiting to die and he stretched a hand toward you, it wasn't for help, assistance in getting up, or charity. All he wanted was to say a word of parting: farewell, I'll die tomorrow. And the next day, he'd actually die.
From the windows, I saw children swollen from hunger whose mothers took them out into the generous sun, and they walked toward it, apathetically and without a care, and died in the light of its rays.
Once on a Friday, Idel Kovilis, who sewed patches on clothes, came to me and entered my room to drink tea. He enjoyed the tea but complained about his ailing health, and he said to me, I'm not swollen, but the hunger is showing its signs. I tried to comfort him and said to him, Be strong, my brother. Salvation will come very soon, and you'll have a chance to enjoy this world.
My words didn't reach him, and he said, Even if salvation comes the day after tomorrow, meaning on Sunday, I won't enjoy it.
And indeed, he passed away on Sunday.
I cried very hard when I escorted him to the cemetery. For many days I hadn't cried; the source of my tears had dried up. But now for some reason, their source opened up. In normal times, I wouldn't even know Idel Kovilis had died, and if I knew, I wouldn't pay attention or react to it. Now he was the source of a deep cry. His image, drinking tea and talking about salvation and death, followed me for many hours like an awful sign and a measure of the depth of the tragedy that took revenge on man and could hit him at any time.
It was good that we were allowed to bury our dead in the cemetery; it brought hope back to our souls, and we paid our respects to the person and buried him in the designated location.
Yisrael Feygeles, the town judge, died suddenly of natural causes-old age and fragility-and his death was a source of jealousy among the people, who said, This is how we want to die.
It also added value to his personality when they said, If he died that way, it's a sign that he was a righteous man.
During a strange period of unnatural death, a normal death was something to talk about.
One day I stood by the window looking through a crack and saw a young man around the age of17 returning from work. He left the group, approached the fence, and threw a package over into the ghetto.
A Ukrainian saw it and grabbed the youth-the boy. And the boy didn't realize that he had seen him. I knew the Ukrainian; he was a reptile but not one of the worst. I called him. He came to me, and I said to him, Vaske, what are your intentions?
And he said to me, He's done something that deserves punishment by death.
I asked him to give him a fine. Punish him with money and let him go, strongly warn him, and in this way, he would satisfy his conscience as keeper of the law. But he held on his own and explained to me in a beautiful way:
You have to understand, he doesn't have any money. If I punish him with a fine, he'll have difficulty paying it. Why should I enforce something that will make his life more difficult and cause him trouble with the Germans? It's better for me to kill him. It'll be a lot better for him.
by Sore Kitaykesher (Kirshenboym)
Translated by Sara Mages
(A candle to Yohana Venshitska-Kreshitska)
When the war broke out, I was on my way to Israel. We weren't allowed to cross the Rumanian border. Even though we had passports and legal documents, we weren't given permission to move until things clear up, and the war put an end to everything.
I was ashamed to go back to Vishnevets. I went back to my brothers in Zaloshtsy and stayed there from Rosh Hashanah until Purim. I couldn't help myself; I wanted to see my loved ones-my family and my town.
I went back to Vishnevets on Purim. The Soviet regime had left a strange situation; some people-the worthless and irresponsible ones-were happy with the change. Most people were depressed. My parents and brothers, who were merchants, suddenly found themselves outside worthy society, and we didn't have bread at home. Hearts were heavy; depression ate us alive.
I, who wanted to work, was worthless because I was the daughter of a merchant of worthless origin.
Meanwhile, my father died of depression and hopelessness.
On June 22, 1941, when war broke out between Russia and Germany, I wasn't in Vishnevets. My brothers had left the town, my father was dead, and I couldn't find a place for myself there. I left and traveled to Ternopol, where my brothers worked. I overcame my troubles. I knew I needed to build a life. I ordered furniture for myself. My boyfriend, whom I had dated for a year, wanted to get engaged. I was ready to get married. On June 24, I received a telegram from my future husband telling me we needed to move to my brother's in Zaloshtsy. My sister and I were left alone, and the situation in Vishnevets was what it was; most of the young men had been taken into the Russian army. The town had been deserted to its elderly, who were panic-stricken and without prospects. We didn't have a place or a means of support in the town. Naked and poor, we left on foot for Zaloshtsy.
On the way to Zaloshtsy, the Ukrainians caught us and wanted to kill us, but when we told them we were Hershko's sisters, they let us go, but added, It doesn't matter. The Germans will do it better than we can. Once and for all, we'll cleanse our country of Jewish filth.
We walked 28 kilometers with our bundles on our backs. Our knapsacks were made from sheets we'd taken from home, tied like crosses. The road was full of danger. The Ukrainians swarmed the roads: it was a holiday for them, the holiday of sacrificing Jewish blood, and they celebrated it with great joy. They also celebrated their bloody holiday in Vishnevets. They ridiculed us and laughed at our distress. A woman-our neighbor of many years-who followed us from our home, which we had left forever, said, This is God's punishment because you crucified Jesus. How long will you be a stubborn nation? When will you understand your suffering?
After three months in Zaloshtsy, when the month of Elul arrived, we decided to go to Vishnevets to lay stones on our parents' graves, a Jewish tradition, and to see our two brothers, who were living there with their families.
It was before the establishment of the ghetto. But the Jews were already imprisoned and chained.
A few days before it was established, the Ukrainians went to the Old City and massacred all the Jews. Not a single soul was left there. Only Fride Yakira was left alive, but not for too long. I saw her while visiting my sister-in-law. She was at home with her young son. Both women were alive, and both were widows. On the first night of the German occupation, my brother, my sister-in-law's husband, had been taken by the Ukrainians to an unknown location. We still have no details about his fate. Fride's husband, Shike Grinboym, had been sent to Siberia by the Russians when they first arrived. So their tragedy united them and made them one. They sat depressed and wrapped in an indescribable gloom. Fride's face reflected memories of the overnight massacre in the Old City. She told us, For many days, we felt we were imprisoned in a cage. The freedom to move around had been taken away from us. One evening, she was sitting at home with her child. She heard the strange sound of drumming and gunfire around her, but she didn't pay any attention to it. Suddenly the door burst open, and two Ukrainians she knew entered and informed her, We've come to kill you.
She thought it was a practical joke and started to wonder and beg them, How, Mikhilo, Ivan, how could you kill us? What wrong have we done to you? And more questions of that order.
They were a little embarrassed, but she saw the desire to kill in their eyes and knew they would carry out their mission. She took advantage of the few moments of confusion, broke through the door, and ran away with the baby in her arms.
The night was dark. She ran downhill from her home to the river. She submerged herself in the water with her infant son. The boy cried and fell asleep in her arms. She stayed in the water, letting her son sleep.
Loud screams and heartbreaking shouts reached her ears. The sound of gunfire rose and fell, and murder was carried out around her. She could tell what was happening, minute by minute, and to whom. Doors were broken down, shouts were heard, and then they were silenced. The sound of gunfire silenced the sound of nature.
Shocked and shaken, she stayed in the water for many hours, until it was quiet. Then she understood that the massacre was over. The murderers went to sleep, and the whole town and all of her Jews also fell asleep, for eternity.
I knew that the fate of Vishnevets Jews had been cast. I didn't believe it would affect all of us.
We slept together that night. I woke up in the morning and left for Zaloshtsy to see my brothers and husband. I left my sister-in-law, who was caring for her small children and elderly mother. She didn't dare leave on the long walk with me.
We also left Fride; she saw my sister-in-law as her only family, the only one left.
Many years later, we found out Fride had been saved from the first massacre, but when the ghetto opened, she died with her infant son and my two brothers' sons and widows.
In May 1942, they came to pick up my husband on the pretext that Mikolski, the workers' commander, wanted to see him. A Jewish policeman moved back and whispered in my ear, telling me my husband was going to be sent to a concentration camp. I told my husband. He thought for a moment about how to escape, and then he said to them, If a Ukrainian or German comes and tells me the same thing, I'll go with them. When they turned, I opened the back window; my husband jumped out and ran into the fields.
I escaped, too.
In the evening, I returned home. I didn't see my husband. In the morning, while working in the yard, I heard someone calling my name and asking in German, Are you Mrs. Kirshenboym?
I knew I couldn't escape. I approached him as I'd been ordered. He started to shower me with questions about my husband, his whereabouts, and why I'd helped him escape. He took me to the commander. It was a long walk to the commander's office, more than a kilometer. He didn't pay attention to the fact that I was very weak and had difficulty walking. All the way, he asked me questions, trying to get information about the location of my husband's hiding place. The truth is that I really didn't know. Then he started to beat me. I arrived at the commander's office wounded and in pain. He threw me into the cellar and let me stay in the dark for a short time. Then he came down and continued to torment me for my sin-saving my husband's life. Fortunately, I fainted. I fell and seriously hurt my head. When I came to my senses, they came to take me to the central command office in Zborov.
Upstairs, a coal truck was being unloaded. The truck was covered with soot and coal dust. They put me in the back, and we drove off. The German sat next to the driver. Two other Jews sat in the back with me.
I wanted to escape on the way. They realized it and shouted at me, Mrs. Kirshenboym, we know your intentions, and we'd advise you not to do it. You'd do better to travel with us to Mr. Kraus, and we'll clear up the matter of your husband. You'd be smart to listen to our advice.
So I arrived at the Zborov labor camp.
He handed me over to the commander and explained the extent of my crime.
Kraus, the camp commander, said to me, I'll give you 24 hours. If you don't produce your husband, we'll shoot you like a dog. Yesterday we hanged a Jewish woman who hid her son from us. The same fate is waiting for you.
While I stood there in the commander's office, which also served as the camp office, I saw the people.
My intestines turned inside me from fright, anger, pity, and weakness. Dead, human shadows, transparent bags of bones were walking around. Their empty eyes were wide open, staring from their holes, vacant and indifferent to the world around them.
I knew my husband was in Zborov, working as a leather worker in a tannery, but I couldn't get in touch with him. Somehow, my arrest, and the danger I was in, reached him. He asked the tannery manager to do something. His name was Yenkevits, a gentile with a Jewish heart. He and his mother had done a lot to save Jews. He said to my husband, There's no other choice. You must go; if you do, you'll save her.
My husband took his advice as if it had come from a friend and came to the commander's office. For some reason, they were satisfied and locked him up in the camp. That was his punishment after they found him. They released me. We separated. We divided a loaf of bread, half a loaf for him and half for me.
We told each other we would meet again. But doubt ate at our hearts. We almost didn't believe it.
Yenkevits came to take me to his house and told me, I'll rescue your husband from the camp. We love him. Meanwhile, you can recover here.
The house was like a palace. They were extremely rich. There were a lot of lights and shiny, valuable objects, and I was gloomy, barefoot, dirty, and covered with coal dust from the truck. They put me in a bathroom. A woman came in and washed me with her own hands. She gave me food, calmed me down, and gave me hope. I didn't forget that evening for many years. She was an angel in the form of a woman. Sometime later, I was told she had risked her life to bring baskets of food to the Jews in the camp. Everyone called her mother of the Jews. I still haven't been able to find any information about her. Maybe her name brought her death. This is how the Yenkevits family was.
I returned to my home in Zaloshtsy, and my husband remained in the Zborov camp.
For three months, until the end of August of the same year, I walked to Zborov, a distance of 29 kilometers, to bring him food. Through a secret corner we had agreed on between us, I handed him the food.
We risked our lives the moment I gave him the food. I risked my life each time I walked alone among the bloodthirsty gentiles to revive my depressed husband's soul.
At the end of August, we had found a way to release him. We paid Kraus $350, some fox leather for his wife, and a fine leather collar and trousers for Mr. Kraus, the representative of German culture.
Yenkevits executed the release. When he took my husband out of the camp, he put him on his bicycle and brought him to us, a strenuous, 29-kilometer bicycle ride.
How we can forget Yenkevits, a dear man with a beautiful soul, and not just him and his wife? His sister took part, too. She was a beautiful woman, and numerous times each week she walked to the camp to bring food, risking her life and taking the chance that she might be caught and tortured.
On September 15, 1942, Zaloshtsy's drummer, a gentile by the name of Yanko, walked around announcing that in two weeks Zaloshtsy was to be cleansed of its Jews. All the Jews had to leave and move to Zborov, where a ghetto would be established. All the Jews from the surrounding area had to move to the ghetto and be locked in.
My brother, his family, and my sister decided to go to Zborov. I knew what would be waiting for us. I tried to persuade them not to go, but I didn't succeed. They said, What happens to everyone will also happen to us.
And in Zaloshtsy, the killings continued, and the Jews wanted to run away.
I decided to stay.
We lived with a gentile woman by the name of Yohana Venshitska-Kreshitska, a Polish widow who was married to a Ukrainian and living with her 80-year-old mother. She was poor and hungry for bread. She had one cow on her farm, and her land couldn't support the two of them. She had been forced to work as a cleaning lady at other farms even though she was an aristocrat's daughter. Her brothers were doctors and teachers. They were alive and lived nearby, but she didn't need their help.
She accepted our offer, and in doing so she risked her life. We dug a hole under the stall and put beds and bedding there. We lived in our shelter under the stall for almost two years.
Her home was raided many times, and from time to time we were forced to run and hide separately in a large marsh located outside town. The marsh served as a hay barn for the entire community and the local farmers. I dug tunnels in the piles of hay by tearing the hay. I hid there while my husband looked for someplace else to hide.
This gentile woman supported us constantly. When we left her house-the bunker we were hiding in-she brought hot tea to us at a designated location. Every once in a while, my husband and I went to her house. Four times, we were caught after the neighbors reported us. She bought our release from the Germans with the last of her money. Once she gave them her only cow, the source of her milk, as ransom. Another time she gave them a box containing the last of the food she had in her house. I owe my life, and my husband's life, to this righteous woman, Yohana Venshitska-Kreshitska; I'll remember this spark of radiant humanity for the rest of my life.
Meanwhile, my brother and his family returned to Zaloshtsy, his town. We tried to find a way to see him, but we couldn't. My husband had to find himself a hiding place apart from me. After wandering around, I returned to my benefactor, Yohana. In order not to endanger her life, I didn't let her know I was there. I didn't enter the deserted barn but hid in a bunker I prepared for myself in a pile of garbage outside. Someone suspected I was there and reported me. The Germans came; their leader was a bloodthirsty man. When he arrived at the bunker, he took me out. I was dirty, my hair was uncombed, I was skinny, and I stank.
He said to his men and the group of Ukrainians who were waiting for the killing feast, This is a woman who is fighting for her life. We need to keep her alive. Don't touch or harm her. They left, but I had to run away. The Germans were hunting down the last of the Jews. I came across a cellar; a frightened gentile woman stood there, demanding that I leave immediately. I told her I wasn't leaving.
I asked her to go and see my family. I promised her I would leave if she brought me news. She came back an hour later and told me all of them had died, adding, Get away from me. You have nothing to do with me!
The next day, Mikolski came, following his dog to my hiding place. They didn't find me. I was saved. But I didn't care. I had had enough. I wanted to go to the commander and give myself up. I was tired of my life. The last few weeks had been too difficult. I had failed and reached the end of end of my suffering.
I ran to their office. On the way I ran into Yohana. I hadn't seen her for some days. I said to her, I've lost my husband, and my family is dead, so why should I live?
She calmed me down and said, Your Henik is very skillful. I'm sure he escaped and saved himself. Don't do it. Stay strong, and stay alive for him.
Her words gave me strength.
I saw Henik in January 1944. Both of us had been persecuted up to our necks; we were poor, frozen, and starving. But in our hearts, we had decided to live.
In February 1944, Yohana came and told us that Russian partisans had arrived at the village entrance. We decided to go to them. That same night, the Russians got drunk and passed out. The surviving Germans slaughtered all of them.
The area returned to German anarchy.
We found shelter in a cellar in a building. In the morning, we discovered that a German outpost was stationed there. Our situation was desperate.
We waited for two days. On Saturday, we separated and ran in opposite directions. I went into a Polish woman's house. She thought I was Polish and arranged a job for me as a cook for the village priest. One evening, she told me that a young Jewish man, who wanted to become a Christian, told her he knew that I was Jewish and that I was related to him. She kicked me out, saying, I have a heavy heart for the Jews. All their lives they've used us. Loaned us money at high interest and didn't think about the fate of others.
I begged her. The young man's story was correct. I knew who he was, but I denied it.
At night she changed her mind; her heart felt sorry for me, and she let me stay, but this time she took me to the cellar.
On Friday morning, March 26, 1944, she came down to the cellar and happily informed me, We have visitors. The Russians have arrived.
Immediately, she fell at my feet, begging and asking for forgiveness. She only wanted to know why I had lied to her.
I answered her, I wanted to live.
I went to look for my husband. He had left messages for me in various locations.
On March 27, 1944, we met, this time to wander together in Russia.
I left Poland, the sea of human madness; I left it forever.
by Rachel (Sobol) Fuks (Vyshgorodok)
Translated by Sara Mages
Vishnevets Welcomes Its Brothers
I was 14 years old when they took us to the Vishnevets ghetto.
It was the beginning of January 1941. A fierce snowstorm was blowing outside. Our homes were covered with frost inside and out. Life was frozen, and families were hiding in their homes waiting for the worst to come. We were told that very soon we'd be taken to the Vishnevets ghetto. We spent all day with all our clothes on, freezing in a house that had been without heat for many weeks. That day, Ukrainians decorated with German police badges came knocking on our door, shouting that we were each allowed to take a bundle weighing 20 kilograms with us. They told us to go to the town center and be ready to leave the town for Vishnevets in a few hours.
We arrived in Vishnevets exhausted, hungry, and frozen from the long walk. The people in Vishnevets knew we were coming. They waited for us all night and welcomed us with brotherly warmth, warm soup, and a piece of bread they'd saved from their own mouths. I'll never forget that meeting; it's a shame so few have survived to remember it.
All the houses in the ghetto were occupied, and a large number of families lived in each one. The Judenrat moved the Vishnevetsers to the already overcrowded houses to provide housing for us. We lived like the Vishnevetsers, 10 families per house, with only one bathroom for all of us.
The morning after our arrival in the ghetto, we were told that each day we needed to provide a quota of men for work. There were three men and three women in our family. My 11-year-old sister and I went to work in the men's place. We were informed that men were being tortured, and we wanted to prevent our father and brothers from suffering.
We worked at cleaning the snow that accumulated in the streets after storms. We worked in the fields collecting frozen potatoes and repairing torn and moldy potato sacks. Every once in a while, we brought food with us when we returned home: two or three frozen potatoes and a handful of kernels we'd found here or there.
They searched us at the entrance gate to the ghetto. They beat us up if our smuggled loot was discovered. But the worry that our loved ones would die of hunger was worse than the fear of being beaten. Often we found the bodies of people who had died of starvation lying in the streets, and the substance of our existence centered on the search for food.
Once I saw Chayke Shapiro, the Vyshgorodok ritual slaughterer's daughter, in the ghetto. She walked by me, rubbed against me, and didn't see me. I tried to talk to her, but she didn't respond. Her vacant look and wide-open eyes staring into the distance indicated that she had lost her mind. Why didn't anyone take her home? Why didn't anyone, including the members of her family, take care of her? I'll never know. She ended her life in front of everyone as a madwoman in the ghetto streets.
Zioma Vays, my friend from school, also went crazy. Other people who had lost their minds also wandered in the streets, but I didn't know them.
Of all the many horrors of the ghetto, the one that is carved deepest in my mind is the memory of my friends' insanity. The humiliation and suffering terrified me. God Almighty! Anything but that. I decided I wouldn't go crazy, as if it were up to me, and I also decided I wanted to live, and I felt it really was up to me.
The Liquidation and the Judenrat
One day, the Germans ordered the Jews to give them a certain quota of gold and valuables. If not, a certain number of Jews would be killed. And the quota was found. Everyone gave what was left, just enough to save other Jews from death. The order was repeated over and over until the supply ended, and Jews were taken and never returned.
And so it lasted until the beginning of August 1943.
In August there was a pervasive rumor about an upcoming action. We knew our end was near.
Before the final liquidation, the Germans informed the Judenrat that Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto, go home, and bring their hidden treasures. Some would be given to the authorities, some would be left for them, and those who obeyed the order would stay alive. The more they gave to the Germans, the better their situation would be. Jews left for home, near and far. Each one was escorted by a policeman. The Vyshgorodok Jews went to Vyshgorodok, and policemen escorted them all the way there. The Jews were tempted, left, and brought back their treasures. They didn't survive.
The ghetto was closed for three days after the Jews came back with the last of their treasures. The buildings inside the ghetto were also closed. Those who walked from building to building were shot and killed in the street. We knew what was waiting for us: death lived in each cell of our consciousness. We were frightened.
When the days of the liquidation arrived, we saw the Vishnevets Judenrat in its full, shining tragedy.
Pure-hearted Jews with generous souls gave their lives for the smallest cause, for the fate of the members of their community.
For many years I wondered: from where had they drawn the courage and the spirit to support others when their fate was no different?
I was mature and independent for my age. I saw their dedication and heard the conversations of people older than I. Opinions were united-the messengers who carry the orders are the most tragic ones.
The most distinguished of them was Koylenberner, the head of the Judenrat. He was a refugee from Katovits or Shlonsk. He had escaped from the German border to the Russian border and had been captured here. While the action was going on, he was given the privilege of staying alive. The Germans offered it to him, but he joined the death march with everyone else. He took advantage of their mercy, asking to take the first bullet so he wouldn't witness the death of his beloved flock. They agreed to his request. So it has been told.
The Judenrat members were the first to die. I was later told that one had survived the same way others did: at the mercy of the situation, with the agility and willpower to escape death. There was no other way to survive.
From my life in the ghetto and my terrifying memories, a few horrifying events stand out in my brain. They are registered so deeply that it's difficult for me to return to them.
Few they are, and many were the wounds in my heart when they happened. They shred my frightful soul. They terrify me, and more than that, the horrors storm in me all over again; they grab me and don't let me go. I live in the shadow of new fears, waiting for something horrible to happen, something whose horrors are known to me in their full details, from which that I can't escape.
I'll tell you about a few of them here:
And so it was.
They found the entrance and shouted, Come out peacefully. If you don't, we'll toss hand grenades into your cave, and we'll shred you to pieces in there.
That convinced us.
For some reason, they didn't want to be shredded to pieces and die in the cellar. Even though they knew death was certain, they went out and gave themselves up.
I decided to live no matter what. I dove into the water, holding to a board with the tips of my fingers. Another girl, named Ester Frenkel, stayed with me.
Father collected his family and went out. I stayed with Ester. He wanted us to be together until the end. Suddenly I heard him asking mother, Otye (my nickname) is missing. Where's Otye?
Mother hushed him. Maybe she'll be saved separately from us. Leave her there.
He stopped talking.
Suddenly I head my mother utter a painful cry. Apparently, she was being separated from the rest of her loving family.
We were wet and frozen on a hot August day. For a moment, we forgot what we were waiting for. The knowledge somehow escaped us. Suddenly we heard steps. The murderers had returned. They were afraid to enter the cellar; they just shouted into it: If anyone is hiding there, get out right away. We're going to drop a bomb into it.
We didn't get out. It was quiet. We heard only faint knocking, like the ticking of the hours, and my teeth started to chatter. To quiet myself, I pushed my fist between my teeth and separated them until I punctured holes in my fist and blood started to trickle out.
When we reached the gutter, we found a space wide enough for both of us to sleep in. We also found a bottle of water and a jar of jam. The heavens had prepared them for us.
Every once in a while, we heard the sound of gunfire. We said to each other after each shot, Now they've killed our fathers, now our mothers, and now it's my sister they've killed. Maybe we knew; who knows. It was clear then that they were being shot.
Under cover of darkness, we climbed down. Meanwhile, a group of people walked by. They weren't policemen or killers. They shined their flashlights on the entrances to Jewish homes trying to find valuables, and they discovered us. Immediately, we hid behind the two heavy wardrobes standing there. They lost us even though they'd seen us clearly. They came in, saw the locks on the heavy wardrobes, and said to each other, They're on the roof. We need to kill them. The locks are heavy, which shows that there's treasure behind them. We can't leave witnesses: it's too dangerous. First we should climb on the roof and grab them; we'll open the wardrobes later, but first we must get rid of the Jews.
When they climbed up, we escaped. We wanted to jump through a window. A cornfield was behind it, and the tall cornstalks were a good hiding place. But we were afraid to jump from such a height. In the end, I overcame my fears and jumped. I hid and waited for her to come.
She didn't come out.
I decided to wait and wait. She was the only one left for me. She was the only one who had survived with me, and I . waited.
I had to run. I was afraid the morning light would give me away, and she hadn't come. The fence was high, and the boards were tight against each other. I pushed myself through a narrow opening between two boards and left. It was a miracle. It's difficult for me to believe even now that a human being could pass through such a narrow opening.
I didn't know Vishnevets; I only knew the way from the ghetto to work and back. I ran in that direction and, unfortunately, I arrived at the commissioner's home. Dogs barked in his yard, but no one came out. I crossed the forest and hid in a potato pile. I chewed the dirty potatoes and fell asleep.
Don't do it.
That convinced them. They left me and ordered me to run. I ran. They shot many bullets after me. Running frantically, I fell into a pit. I disappeared, and the shooting stopped. When night came, I climbed out.
I arrived in Chichinits after a whole night of running and was shocked to see a Police sign in front of me. A gentile with a cart approached me and said, You're Jewish. Get out of here. It's dangerous, they'll kill you.
I asked him to show me the way to Verbovits.
An elderly farmer stood in the field cutting wheat. He was shocked when he saw me!
Child, where are you running to?
I told him, to Holanda Honerchuk, who had been our friend for many years. I assumed her family would save me.
He blessed me, wishing me long life, and showed me the way to her house.
This family saved me. The Germans came to their home to confiscate things. They risked their lives and didn't give me up.
They transferred me from family to family and between their friends. Each one fulfilled the commandment of saving a small, persecuted soul. They risked their lives. They lived in fear of sudden raids for many days, knowing they'd be sentenced to death if their great crime were discovered. Nevertheless, they did it.
Thanks to them, I reached the end of the Holocaust and what followed it.
There are more stories about my life away from Vishnevets, but they don't belong in a book.
by Mendel Zinger
Translated by Sara Mages
(From a booklet)
During the intermediate days of Passover, I traveled to the religious youth village to talk to one of the teenagers who had arrived in Israel from Vishnevets in Volin. When I met with the teenagers near the border with Syria just after their arrival in Israel, they pointed out that this teenager had endured a lot of suffering. I looked at his pale face and frightened black eyes, and I decided that it wasn't the right time to talk to him. A few weeks later, the teenager had calmed down, and his face looked better. When I walked through the village with him, I realized he'd adjusted to his new life even with his minimal knowledge of Hebrew. But it was still difficult to talk to him.
The teenager's name was Shaul, and he was 15 years old. His body was well developed, and the marks of the many beatings he had received were still visible on his face. Like all teenage refugees from the Nazi inferno, he was wise for his age, and the details of his terrible memories were carved deep into his mind. He even remembered exact dates by associating them with certain events. For example, this and that happened exactly a month before my father died. This happened about two weeks before they killed this and that. Shaul was quiet by nature but became extremely excited when he brought up memories of his past. It made our conversation more difficult, so every once in a while I found an excuse to stop for a short time.
According to Shaul, around 4,500 Jews, and 500 gentiles, mostly Ukrainians, lived in Vishnevets near Kremenets in the Dubno district.
The Soviet army stayed in Vishnevets for almost two years. This period was not easy on the local Jews. Vishnevets Jews earned their living mostly by trading with local farmers, but under Russian rule, trading had been cut considerably. It was difficult for the Jews to get used to the new conditions, but there were some Jews, mostly the young ones, who could endure physical labor and earn a living.
Not a single Jew was arrested by the Russians. Most of the rich Jews moved to bigger cities in the district. Several kolkhozes were established, but their numbers were few because the Russians were careful not to force them on farmers. Out of goodwill, a small percentage of farmers agreed to the kolkhoz lifestyle.
When the Russians retreated from the advancing Nazi army, they took Jews and Ukrainian men between the ages of 25 to 35 with them in order to draft them into the army. Shaul couldn't estimate the number, but he knew that the Ukrainians escaped and later returned to Vishnevets. The Jews remained with the Russians, except for one Jew who escaped and returned to Vishnevets. Later, he was murdered by the Nazis.
Before they left, the Russians executed three Ukrainian nationalists and one Jew, a German refugee. The Jew was buried in the Jewish cemetery.
The teenager talked quietly about the Russian occupation. He took his time, wanting to remember every detail, holding onto the events as if he were remembering good times.
The Germans Arrive
However a sigh escaped from the depth of his heart. Immediately after the arrival of the German army, riots against the Jews began. Local Ukrainians and farmers who came to Vishnevets instructed the soldiers, and together they stole everything they could put their hands on. Jews who came across Nazis or Ukrainians were beaten and injured. There were no murders.
This situation lasted for almost two weeks. Meanwhile, the German army was probably moving east or encountering heavy battles.
The Ukrainian farmers and locals quickly got closer to the Nazi invaders. Most of the Ukrainians, who served as a militia for the Russian army, joined the Nazis and served an auxiliary police force to aid the German army and the Gestapo. A small number of Ukrainians who refused to serve the Nazis were executed.
The First Murders
After the first two weeks, a Gestapo unit-numbering around 30 men-settled in the area, and murderous attacks began. The first action was to avenge the murder of the four men executed by the Russians before they left. For each one-three Ukrainians and a Jewish a refugee from Germany-they decided to kill 10 Jews. The Ukrainian police abducted the victims, and 40 Jews were murdered in a cellar in a town building.
Later, they started abducting men for forced labor, which always included physical and emotional torture. And men went into hiding. One day, hundreds of Jews were abducted, mostly women and teenagers. They were taken about 5 kilometers outside town to the fields of an estate owned by Romel, a Polish farm owner exiled to Siberia by the Russians. They were ordered to dig a ditch 2 meters wide and 100 meters long and were told they'd be buried in it. The digging was done with heartbreaking wailing and crying.
The Jews were kept under threat of execution by gunfire until late at night, and then they were allowed to go home.
The Slaughter Begins
A few days later, Ukrainian policemen and the Gestapo conducted a house-to-house search and abducted around 300 Jewish men. The women were told they were taking the men to work. The kidnapped group included three Community Council members (Shaul knew the names of two of them: Shike Yakira and Lifshits). They were all brought to the ditch next to Romel's estate, where they were shot to death and buried.
The murderous attacks lasted around four months. Every day, a large number of Jews were abducted, taken outside town, killed, and buried there. The number of murdered Jews had already reached 1,000.
A Break in the Murders-More Looting
The Gestapo unit left the area in the direction of Proskurov. For a time, it was quiet in Vishnevets. Trusted local Ukrainians, who had come to Vishnevets from the Russian sector, told us that all the Jews, down to the last one, had been murdered there. Russians who were married to Jews had also been killed.
During the break in the murders, Gestapo agents frequently visited Vishnevets. Using the threat of murder and with the help of Ukrainian policemen, they extorted silver, gold, merchandise (even pins and needles were demanded), clothes, and furs. One day, three German soldiers walked from home to home with Ukrainian policemen, taking whatever their hearts desired.
One day, they announced that all silver, gold, and jewelry owned by Jews had to be given to the Nazis. A Jew found with those items would immediately be shot.
The Jews accepted the robberies, hoping their looted possessions would serve as ransom.
Establishment of the Ghetto
When Passover arrived (the Jews ate leavened bread during that Passover), a ghetto was set up within the boundaries of the poor neighborhoods next to the Horyn River. Five thousand Jews were moved into the ghetto. These included Jews who had escaped to Vishnevets from the nearby farms or had been evicted from them.
The Jews' transfer to the ghetto gave the Nazis and the Ukrainians another chance to steal furniture and household items from the Jews. They extorted and stole everything they could use.
A Nazi order was organized in the ghetto. A Jewish Council was established, with Avraham Tsimbler, a leather merchant, and Mr. Kolmbren, a refugee from Germany, as leaders. A Jewish police force was elected. They were armed with clubs and served mostly as negotiators and inspectors. At the beginning, every Jew received 15 dekagrams of bread a day, but later only 7 dekagrams of bread and 2.5 dekagrams of barley. The Jews earned their living as forced laborers in agriculture and the orchards. The daily income was enough to purchase 7 dekagrams of bread.
During the first five or six months, 1,500 Jews died of starvation and disease. Most of the victims were poor, since those with financial means could bring valuables into the ghetto and exchange them for food with the Ukrainian policemen guarding the ghetto.
The Jewish Council's duty during those months was mostly to provide Jews for forced labor.
It was always done under the threat of death and with the help of the Jewish police, who used their clubs to chase Jews from their homes to their workplace. In addition, the negotiations of buying and selling jewelry and collecting the money needed as ransom for Jewish souls never stopped. In the end, the Germans came up with demands the Jews couldn't fulfill.
At the head of the operation was a Nazi by the name of Miler, who resided in Kremenets.
One night, the ghetto's Jews were frightened by the sound of gunfire at a short distance. There were different guesses. Some were hoping the partisans were getting closer, but after some time, we found out that the Jews who worked as forced laborers for the Ukrainians had been murdered. Among them were young men and women who had been shepherds. The slaughter site was not far from the ghetto, near Stefanski's farm. The victims were buried the same night in a nearby marsh.
The next day, the killers lay in waiting around the homes in the ghetto. Those who left their homes or looked through the windows were shot. I need to emphasize here that we didn't receive any written or spoken order forbidding us to leave our homes.
The slaughter lasted two days, and the number of victims was around 150.
Under German leadership, the Ukrainian police ordered us to bury the victims. We weren't allowed to bury them in the Jewish cemetery. We were forced to bury them next to the river. (By the way, in Kremenets they didn't allow victims to be brought to the Jewish cemetery. The victims were buried inside the ghetto.)
Day after day, we received reliable news that Jews were being exterminated in several cities in Volin. In Dubno, half the Jewish population had been murdered in the past eight months. Desperation increased day by day. Everyone knew there was no way to escape from this prison. Apathy took over the ghetto, but there were Jews who saw what was coming and looked for ways to escape from the killers' hands.
Renewal of Mass Murder
A new unit of around 15 Gestapo men arrived in Vishnevets. With the group's arrival, the situation in the ghetto immediately worsened.
Almost 1,000 Jews were abducted during the first days of the change in power, including members of the Jewish Council. Only Mr. Kolmbren, a refugee from Germany, wasn't taken. The kidnapped Jews were taken to an unknown location near Kniazshe, and no one ever heard from them again. Local farmers told us that they were all shot to death. Kolmbren was kidnapped by a Ukrainian police force, which cracked his skull and killed him.
The operation lasted close to a month. Jews were kidnapped daily and taken to the synagogue. From there, they were taken by a Ukrainian police force to be killed.
The Ukrainians were helped by Jewish policemen, around 30 of them. Their chief duty was to collect the property of those who had been murdered. In exchange for their work, the Jewish policemen were promised that their lives would be spared. Property that the Ukrainian or German robbers weren't interested in was sold to local farmers, who came to Vishnevets and loaded the Jewish articles on their carts.
Mothers Sacrifice Their Babies
The Jews trapped in the ghetto were trying to find hiding places in their homes, mostly in closed cellars or attics without light or air. Some dug pits under the floors and covered them with wooden planks.
Sometimes they stayed in hiding for many days without food or a drop of water because their killers were waiting for them, day and night, inside or outside their homes. Hiding caused terrible family tragedies and brought mothers to the point of madness.
Sick children died in the arms of mothers who couldn't give them a drop of water. Three-year-old children were trained to be quiet and tolerate their suffering in silence. But little babies cried when they were feeling bad. So that the killers wouldn't discover the hiding place, their mothers suffocated them with their own hands. Most of the time, the mothers lost their minds after doing so.
The Killers at Shaul's Parents' Home
There were 17 people in Shaul's house, and 15 were in hiding. Only Shaul and his brother, who was two years younger than he was, remained. A Gestapo man broke into the house and asked him, Where's the rest of your family? There's no one but us, Shaul answered. My little brother wanted to hide, but I didn't let him. I calmed him down and told him nothing would happen to us. Shaul assumed that the Nazi had seen movement inside the house before he entered and wanted to divert his mind from the thought that people were hiding there.
The Nazi took out his handgun and threatened to kill the two if they didn't tell him where the rest of the family was hiding. When the Nazi realized he couldn't get anything out of the two children, he took them and handed them over to the Ukrainian police.
When the boys arrived at the Ukrainian police station, the commander began slapping their faces and demanding that they tell him the location of the hiding place in their parents' home. It was discovered later that the chief of police had helped them out. When the Nazi commander asked him how many slaps each child had received, he told him he'd given each of them 50 slaps, when he'd slapped them only a few times.
After a short discussion about their fate, it was decided to bring them back to the ghetto.
The number of Jews had decreased so much that the size of the ghetto could be reduced by half. Berstovski and Chinik, both refugees from Germany who worked as mechanics for the Nazis, were chosen as community leaders.
The abductions continued. One day, Shaul's father was also abducted. His mother, who was left alone with three children, was able to hide.
Every morning for the next six days, a roll call was conducted. Everyone was rounded up and counted. Only the sick were allowed to stay home. During those days, Shaul's father and one of his brothers were sick with typhus.
On the fourth day, Shaul's mother and two brothers were included in the roll call. Suddenly, the Jews found themselves surrounded by armed Ukrainian police. The sight terrified the Jews: they felt that something terrible was going to happen to them. When the Gestapo men saw the frightened look on the Jews' faces, they laughed and ridiculed them.
An order was given to remove 32 tradesmen needed for work from the roll call, including the two community leaders, Berstovski and Chinik. Shaul was also included in the group. He assumes that the Germans thought he was a tradesman's apprentice. The rest, around 600 people, were taken to the synagogue. Shaul was separated from his mother and brothers. Everyone saw the approaching danger, but Shaul never thought he wouldn't ever see them again.
For one night, the Vishnevets Jews slept in the synagogue. The following morning, they were taken to a field near Vishnevets. When the Jews who remained in the ghetto woke up in the morning, they heard the sound of gunfire mixed with the terrible sound of men, women, and children screaming and yelling. They now knew that the fate of their brothers, parents and friends, whom they had said goodbye to only yesterday, was cast.
Three of the hundreds of Jews who were murdered were lucky enough to escape, and they returned to the ghetto. They told us about the shocking sight and the physical and emotional torture endured by the hundreds of Jews until they died. The killers were Ukrainians. Only a few Gestapo men, who gave instructions to the Ukrainians, took part in the killing.
In addition to the 32 tradesmen who had been saved from slaughter, close to 100 Jews with typhus remained in the ghetto, including Shaul's father and brother. Shaul also got sick with typhus. His fever was over 40 (he had a thermometer in his pocket), but he wasn't lying in bed. When I asked him how could do that, Shaul answered me, Yes. Now, when I have a little wound on my finger, I suffer and I can't work, but then you didn't feel pain as long as your legs could carry your body.
Three days later, Shaul's father died in his bed next to his 18-year-old son. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery.
About two weeks passed without any special events. And then the kidnappers came to collect the remaining Jews. Shaul and his sick brother went into hiding. His brother climbed into the attic and was separated from Shaul, who hid in another part of the building.
The sick brother fell into the hands of the killers, and Shaul saw them load him onto a cart. The kidnapped people were taken out of the ghetto, never to be seen again.
At midnight, Shaul and another 15-year-old teenager, a relative, escaped from the ghetto. Only 50 Jews remained inside.
Shaul's Wanderings and Adventures
After the teenagers left the ghetto, they entered the home of a Ukrainian whom they both knew, hoping they could stay there for a week. The Ukrainian refused to let them stay. The next day, Shaul separated from his friend and left in the direction of Dubno.
That was the start of a long period of roaming and adventure in Shaul's life.
Around 10 kilometers from Kremenets, he was caught by a Ukrainian policeman. Shaul managed to escape but was later caught by several Ukrainian youths who were helping the police. Twice, he tried to escape but was caught and locked up in a cellar. With the help of an elderly farmer (a kindhearted man), Shaul was let go. The old man announced that the Jewish teenager should be taken back to the ghetto, and he ordered a farmer to take him to back to Vishnevets, but the farmer abandoned him on the way. The teenager tried to find shelter with an old Polish peasant woman in the area, but she chased him away. Shaul returned to the ghetto.
It was impossible to stay in the ghetto. The place was desolate and empty. The next day, he left with another teenager. On the way to Galicia, they crossed the fields where the last hundreds of kidnapped Jews were killed and buried.
The teenagers managed to reach Zbarazh in Galicia, where Shaul's aunt lived. A terrible gloom prevailed in Zbarazh. A killing unit had visited the place the previous day, and the signs of its operation were visible in every corner. Shaul's friend went out to buy something and didn't come back. Shaul felt that danger was near. The next day, he left Zbarazh, severely depressed over the loss of his friend, who had become like a brother to him during their travels together.
Shaul was afraid to waste time and decided to continue on his own. He was extremely happy when he met up with the friend from whom he'd been separated. His friend told him how he'd escaped from the killers who ambushed him. Together, they kept going, but everywhere they went, they came across Ukrainian policemen and Gestapo killing units. They were forced to return to Zbarazh. Shaul's friend decided to stay, but Shaul left him the next day. He decided to go to Hungary after discovering that you could reach Israel from there.
Shaul left in the direction of Ternopol, avoiding the town and stopping only at farms. On the way, he met Jews who advised him not to continue. But the teenager didn't listen to them. In a town in Galicia, he was caught when Jews were abducted in the area, but he managed to survive. In most places where he stopped later, Jews were afraid to give shelter to the wandering boy. On a farm, a young, kindhearted Ukrainian farmer gave him shelter. According to Shaul, he was a Communist.
The teenager asked the farmer for advice on how to proceed. The farmer directed him to Lvov via Chodorov-Stary-Lovechne. He and the farmer parted as friends.
The teenager continued on his way. Near Sokola, he was caught by a Ukrainian policeman who decided to hand him over to the Gestapo, but Shaul escaped. Walking through forests and mountains in the pouring rain, he managed to arrive in Sokola to find that all the Jewish homes had been robbed and deserted. He spent the night in a home, and the next day he met a number of Jews. All of them hardened his heart and advised him to stop, telling him he wouldn't be able to cross the border into Hungary.
Meeting with Another Jewish Teenager Lost in the Forest
As he continued on his way to the Hungarian border, crossing mountains and forests, he met a teenager from Warsaw who was orphaned, abandoned, and lonely like him. The teenager from Warsaw was dressed like a Christian and was an expert in the area. Shaul was happy to meet him, and the two very quickly became friends. They separated after a short time, since the teenager from Warsaw was afraid Shaul's typical Jewish looks would jeopardize his plan to cross the border disguised as a Christian.
Shaul told me that he wasn't angry and that he understood his friend's need to follow his plan to save his own life. Shaul showed me a picture of the teenager from Warsaw, which he was keeping as a great treasure. He mentioned the teenager from Warsaw's good sides and told me he had left him with deep sorrow and great fear.
To the Border!
Shaul had learned a lesson from his friend from Warsaw. He thought of a way to disguise himself, too. He purchased a handmade cloth blanket used by Ukrainians in the mountains, covered himself with it, and disguised himself as a poor Ukrainian teenager. The disguise worked, and he was able to reach Lovechne.
Shaul became very weak from his wanderings. He went into an old peasant woman's home and asked for a place to rest. He received food and a place to sleep. The next day, the old woman instructed him on how to cross the border. Shaul realized that his accent might jeopardize his plan, so he decided to pretend he was mute. The old woman's directions were not enough for Shaul, and he lost his way. By dusk, he saw the Hungarian border markings, crossed the border, and reached the vicinity of Subcarpathian Ruthenia.
For a few days, he worked for a Hungarian farmer, until a priest warned the farmer not to keep the young man. Shaul went on his way and arrived in Munkachivo, where he was unhappy with how he was received by the local Jews. He slept in a cellar belonging to a Jew for one night. The next day, the Jews gave him money for a train ticket to Budapest. He spoke Ukrainian on the train, knowing that no one there would identify his Ukrainian accent.
When he arrived at the train station in Budapest, he walked in the wrong direction and entered an area reserved for soldiers. He was caught and arrested. Shaul claimed he was a Ukrainian boy from a farm near Munkachivo. They took him to a Ukrainian-speaking policeman, who accepted Shaul's story that he had come to Budapest to visit his uncle and ask for his help. They sent Shaul with the policeman so he could help him find his uncle's house, since he didn't have his address on the way, Shaul told the policeman he didn't need his help and could find his way to his uncle's alone. The policeman agreed, and Shaul was left alone in the busy Hungarian capital.
He saw a mezuzah in the doorway of a building and realized it was a Jewish home. He entered and asked for a place to sleep. He was refused and was taken to the Jewish community center. From there, he was taken to a place where he could sleep.
The Jewish community in Budapest didn't take care of him, but transferred him to a refugee labor camp.
He stayed in the camp for about a month.
With all the disappointments Shaul experienced with the Hungarian Jews, all the suffering he endured until he went to the labor camp, and the difficult conditions there, Shaul remembers those days as ones of comfort and relaxation.
The Savior and the Survivor
One day, a Jewish man came to visit the camp. His face and clothes indicated that he was rich. He was interested in Shaul and informed him that he wanted to adopt him as a son so he could leave the camp. Shaul talked about the man with anxiety and joy (he also keeps his picture as a prized souvenir). A few days after the conversation with the unknown Jew, Shaul was released from the camp.
When he arrived at his rescuer's home, Shaul found out that a youth group was being organized for immigration to Israel. He got in touch with them and was added to the group.
Shaul talks about his immigration to Israel, his visit to Tel Aviv, and his life in the village only with tears of joy. His most exciting experience was meeting his friend, the teenager from Warsaw, on the way from Hungary to Israel.
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Updated 26 Mar 2012 by JH