By Moses EINHORN, M.D. New York
Outbreak of German-Polish War
Soviet Occupation of Wolkovisk
In 1939 when Germany opened her blitzkrieg against Poland, Wolkovisk, as a military base just across the border, was among the first of the towns to suffer attack. Great German bombers appeared in her skies and dropped bombs upon the center of the town. Several Jews were killed. Shortly thereafter in the confusion that reigned an anti-Semitic pogrom broke out. More Jews were killed, but this time it was at the hands of their Polish neighbors. It is not possible to state how far the pogroms would have progressed had not the arrival of the Red Army ended them.
The Soviet regime took immediate and complete possession of the town. It introduced its own economic structure and organized all professions, trades, factories and shops into groups. The highway between Wolkovisk and Russia was kept open. The Jews by degrees adjusted themselves to the new situation, and trade and industry continued.
Some time after the beginning of the Russian occupation a military order was issued, operative throughout the entire region that included Eastern Poland and Lithuania, requiring all who did not desire to accept Russian citizenship to register. Tens of thousands of Jews did so, and among them were a number of residents of Wolkovisk. A second order followed shortly thereafter which declared all who had registered to be aliens and provided for their immediate deportation to Siberia. This seeming misfortune was to save many lives, placing as the order did the Jewish deportees beyond the reach of the Nazis.
During the last months of the year 1944, when Hitler's victories had been turned to crushing defeat and his invincible armies were driven steadily back westward beyond the German border, the press daily reported the freeing of Jewish towns and villages. Word came that Wolkovisk too had been freed, but there was no news of the fate of the ten thousand Jews who had once inhabited it. They seemed to have disappeared entirely. There was no word of my sister Rosa and her family, nor of my sister Paula and her family. I instituted a search, directing inquiries to every corner of the globe that offered any hope of news of the Valley of Lamentation. I communicated with every organization in America that was interested in locating relatives and sent innumerable letters and cables to all lands which offered the slightest hope of yielding information of the fate of the Jews of Wolkovisk. I communicated with the Kehillah of Moscow, with the American Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and with all the relief organizations. All inquiries went for nought [sic]; I could learn nothing.
Finally I decided that I must see my sister Lisa, then residing in Tel Aviv. In Palestine there were many fellow townsmen; I thought perhaps they could help: I could not give up hope. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities in Europe I secured transportation to Palestine on an American army transport plane. The trip took only a few days. To my astonishment, I found that no one in all Palestine had the slightest authentic word of the fate of the Jews of Wolkovisk.
I was in the country but two days when there arrived survivors from Wolkovisk who were to give me some of the information I sought. They were Yosef Kotliarski and Zwi Roitman. Both had miraculously escaped the gas chambers of Auschwitz (Oswiecim). Sheine Lifshitz, a third witness arrived in Palestine some time later.
From Kotliarski came the first authentic report of the slaughter of 3000 Jews in Dretchin, a town not distant from Wolkovisk, on the night of Tisha b'Ab in 1942, and also of the greater slaughter in Slonim, of 9000 Jews, both witnessed by him. Kotliarski, his wife and child, together with fifteen others, succeeded in fleeing from Dretchin to the little village of Zelva, on the western bank of the river of that name which
flows past the outskirts of Wolkovisk. Zelva was situated on what was then the boundary between White Russia and the Great Reich. Kotliarksi found Zelva a smoking ruin and the few surviving Jews hiding in cellars. For the lack of a better hiding place, Kotliarski and his companions took refuge in the village cemetery. They soon realized, however, that the open cemetery offered too many chances of discovery, and consequently decided to make their way to Wolkovisk where Kotliarski's aunt lived. To do so it was necessary to cross the Zelva river. The danger of being caught was very great. It was out of the question to attempt the crossing by day, and at night the Nazis worked the light of a projector up and down the stream at regular intervals. However, the little band decided to risk it. Kotliarski took his child in his arms, and keeping under the bridge, dived below the surface of the water whenever the light was thrown in his direction. The entire party successfully arrived at the edge of Wolkovisk, Friday noon. They waited here until the evening when, mingling with Jewish workmen returning through the fields, they came to the center of the town. Kotliarski was amazed at the peace and quiet that reigned that Friday in Wolkovisk. Nothing was known there of the slaughter in Slonim and Dretchin.
Kotliarski gave out the terrifying details, that in Slonim the nine thousand Jewish inhabitants had been murdered in the fields of Tchaplova. They had been lined up alongside an open trench facing machine guns. The commanding officer, strangely enough, demanded to know who among them wished to utter a last prayer. Out of the line of the Jews of Slonim stepped the shamash, Abraham Moshe, who facing the open mass grave, chanted the El Mole Rachamin and called upon the holy congregation to die in serenity and purity of spirit. He then recited the Kaddish and Zaddik Hadin on behalf of himself and the entire congregation.
Zwi Roitman, the second witness, was not a native of Wolkovisk. He fled from Warsaw in 1939 at the outbreak of the war, made his way to Bialystock, then to Wolkovisk. He was an electrician, a fact which was later to save him from death, the Germans finding his knowledge and skill highly useful. He is quiet and unassuming, but understood well the current of life and events in Wolkovisk and his testimony is in all respects trustworthy.
Sheine Lifshitz, third of the witnesses I saw personally in Palestine, is a native of Wolkovisk, grandchild of Shmuel Chaim Beilkes who dealt in yeast and lived above his shop on the Breite Gass across the street from the Einhorn home in the center of the town. She knew Wolkovisk well and has added many details to the testimony given by Kotliarski and Roitman.
There are now residing in Lodz and other towns in Poland a number of former residents of Wolkovisk, but most of them were not present in Wolkovisk during the eventful period here covered. At the very outset of the war they fled to the interior of Russia, whence they have recently returned to Poland.
Among the few survivors of the tragedy of Wolkovisk and the Gehenna of Maidanek is Ida Masover now residing in Poland, with whom I have corresponded and who has supplied some important details. Ida Masover is the daughter of Herschel Masover who dealt in paper on Kosciusko Street. A fortnight before, on January 14, 1943, when the last group of Jews of Wolkovisk was taken from the bunkers to be transported to the concentration camps and crematoria, she and her friend, Olya Glickfeld, managed to escape from the bunkers and found refuge with Christian friends. While in concealment they developed typhus and their terrified Christian friends forced them to leave.
In the course of my efforts to locate Wolkovisk survivors, I found several in Italy, among them Yitzchak Choper, Chaim Zapolansky and Moshe Vloski. From them I have received letters describing their own experiences, and the development of events in Wolkovisk.
Of particular interest is the report of Yitzchak Choper, printed herein separately. Yitzchak Choper, the son of Leib Choper, when very young resided in the Zamostche quarter of the town. Even as a child he was a favorite throughout Wolkovisk and when his parents bought the Bereshkovski iron works and established themselves in the heart of the town, he felt himself thoroughly at home amid an enlarged circle of friends and comrades. In all Wolkovisk there was no more active communal worker and no more generous contributor to all worthy causes. His knowledge of Wolkovisk was unexcelled.
Valuable also is the testimony of Dr. Isaak Reznick now residing in Rome with whom I also corresponded after my return from Palestine. Dr. Reznick belongs to one of the oldest families of Wolkovisk, is the son of Peshke, daughter of Velvel Lifshitz and a nephew of Hershel Lifshitz. He attended the local schools, graduating from the Hebrew Gymnasium, and studied medicine in Italy. He would visit Wolkovisk every summer and work at the local hospital, and he maintained until the end unbroken intimate relations with his old schoolmates and other friends. During the Russian occupation Dr. Reznick was absent in Kremyanitze practicing his profession. On
November 2, 1942, the Jews of Kremyanitze and Zelva were herded together in freight cars, he among them, and brought to the bunkers of Wolkovisk. In the bunkers, he devoted himself to the sick in the hospital fighting against the spread of typhus. On January 26, 1943, he and Dr. N. Kaplinsky escaped from the bunkers and fled to Kremyanitze where Christian friends concealed them both. He made his way back to Wolkovisk immediately upon the return of the Soviet army. For a short time he resumed his work in the Wolkovisk government hospital. Dr. Reznick's account does not cover certain early events, but he is one of the few of our people who has seen the town since the departure of the Nazis. His report therefore has a special interest to us.
A number of Jews of Wolkovisk have arrived here in the United States from whom I have been able to gather testimony. Among them is Dr. Yitzchak Goldberg. Dr. Goldberg came as child to Wolkovisk in 1918, from his birthplace Ruzhnoy. His father, Yaakov Goldberg, and mother, Chana, were both active in the communal life of Wolkovisk. He was one of the first pupils in the Tarbuth schools established during World War I. He attended the Polish gymnasium, but would return regularly to Wolkovisk during his summer vacation. He studied medicine at first in Vilna but because of the numerus clausus was forced to leave and continued his studies in Prague, later in Italy. Before the outbreak of war he was connected with the government hospital, engaging also in private practice. He was in Wolkovisk during the period of the Russian occupation and throughout the Nazi bombing. A Nazi bomb killed his mother. Two or three days thereafter he took his family to his native town of Ruzhnoy but in the Spring of 1942 moved to Liskove. He and his family were among the Jews of Liskove who on November 2nd were driven out of the town and brought by the Nazis to the bunkers in Wolkovisk. In the bunkers Dr. Goldberg assisted in the care of the many sick. Dr. Goldberg's account is necessarily incomplete in view of the fact that his residence in Wolkovisk was not continuous.
Dr. Marek Kaplan is another arrival in this country. He is a son of Shmuel Kaplan and grandson of Zundel Kaplan of the Neie Gaessel. He is a native of Wolkovisk, attended the local schools, including the gymnasium, and studied medicine in Vilna. At the outbreak of the war he was practicing his profession
in Porzeve. On November 2nd, he and his family were brought by the Nazis with the Porzeve Jews, to the bunkers in Wolkovisk. He is one of the survivors of Auschwitz. His sister Nunya is also a witness, but only to some of the events herein described, having been part of the time with her family in Porzeve. They both now reside in New York.
Among other witnesses whom I have not personally met but whose accounts I have read in the Churban Wolkovisk published in Palestine are Dr. Noach Kaplinsky, Kasriel Lashowitz, Kalman Kushneer a son of the Kachelnik and Eliyahu Kovenski. Kovenski is the famous partisan who lost an arm fighting in the vicinities of Lida and Vilna. In recognition of extraordinary heroism and valuable service, Kovenski received the Lenin Medal and title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest military award of the U.S.S.R. He now resides in Petach Tikvah, Israel.
Dr. Noach Kaplinsky, not a resident of Wolkovisk himself, came to our town during the summer of 1942, remained for six weeks in Wolkovisk, after which he was sent by the local Judenrat (Jewish Council) to serve as a physician in Most. He was brought by the Nazis on November 2nd with the Jews of Most to the bunkers of Wolkovisk. As already stated, he escaped with Dr. Reznick to Kremyanitze. His testimony covers only a limited period but is highly accurate.
Another witness is Moshe Shereshevsky, a grandson of Yisrael Leib Biskofsky who was brought to Wolkovisk as a child of five, attended the local schools and was active in the Maccabee Sport Club and the Zionist youth organization, Hashomer Hatzair. He lived in Wolkovisk through the entire war and Russian and German occupations until his escape from the bunkers, making his way to Bialystock. He was transported by the Nazis to Maidanek and was transferred from camp to camp until he finally reached Auschwitz. He escaped from Auschwitz, concealing himself in the nearby woods, until the arrival of the returning Russian army. After the war he returned to Wolkovisk and saw the town in its utter devastation.
I have attempted to gather the testimony of all these witnesses, to fit it all together to make a coherent, continuous story of the destruction of our Jewish town of Wolkovisk and the slaughter of its inhabitants.
In 1939 when Hitler had already overrun Austria and Czechoslovakia and was preparing to seize Danzig, the Nazis instigated the Polish seizure of Teschen and the surrounding territory assigned to Czechoslovakia after World War I. A partial mobilization was proclaimed by the Polish government and many of the young men of Wolkovisk were drafted. Among them was Aaron Hirsch Botvinski of the cinema family.
Poland undertook to raise an internal war loan and heavy quotas were levied upon the communities within her borders. Every householder, merchant, professional person and artisan was compelled to purchase bonds, or become subject to extremely heavy penalties, such as confinement in a concentration camp. No sooner was the first war loan raised when a second one was proclaimed. All citizens were at the time subjected to heavy taxation.
It is proper to note here that for a number of years Poland had known a measure of prosperity and that the town had been considerably improved, streets widened and paved, old houses torn down and replaced with new ones and many new homes built on vacant land. New industries were established including a large meat canning plant employing several hundred persons. New public buildings and schools were erected. This economic progress in the town made it the more possible to meet the demands of war loans and taxes.
The general atmosphere had its decidedly ugly aspects for the Jewish population of Poland. Anti-Semitism had intensified and manifested itself in political and economic life. Many Gentiles boycotted Jewish shops which were often picketed to prevent the entrance of the more decent and liberal among the Poles. The tobacco and other concessions were withdrawn from the Jews and every possible obstacle placed in the way of Jewish trade and commerce. Notwithstanding these hardships the Jewish community managed to maintain itself and its institutions in a self-respecting manner.
Even with the smell of powder in the air, no one seemed to think war could really be imminent. Life in the town went on in the usual way. The issues of the town newspaper, the Wolkovisker Leben reflects the quiet optimism that prevailed. There are recorded lists of obituaries, births and weddings, reports on communal activities and educational news. The Bund
met regularly and Zionists were active. A meeting of protest against the British White Paper nullifying the Balfour Declaration was held and well attended.
In August the European situation became decidedly more menacing and Poland began its mobilization in earnest. The able-bodied youths were called to the colors and among them were the physicians of Wolkovisk. The Poles had the na´ve idea that defeat of the Germans was to be a very simple matter. War fever was at its height and bitterly intense anti-Semitic propaganda swept the country.
The Polish anti-Semites of Wolkovisk organized a committee headed by the apothecary Timinsky who compiled a list of Jews destined for slaughter. The property of the Jews was to be confiscated. The anti-Semites merely bided their time when their work could be carried on with impunity.
On September 1st 1939, the Nazi-Polish war broke out. Two or three days later planes appeared above Wolkovisk. Bombs were dropped on the railway depot and the culvert, or overpass, on the road near the Pritzische Gass. Mrs. Eliyahu Schlossberg sought shelter under the culvert which was struck by a bomb, killing her immediately. She was the first war victim of Wolkovisk.
Two days later the Nazis were well inside Poland and Wolkovisk was in a tumult. To the town came many Jews and Gentiles from Western Poland. The Jewish townsmen took immediate relief measures and the public buildings, schools and private homes were placed at the disposal of the refugees.
Dr. M. Nemchik who was then serving in the Polish Air Force reports on the first days of the bombing of Poland. On September 13th he received orders to be ready to leave Poland on duty and was given leave to visit his family in Wolkovisk for a single hour. Driving from the city of Lida he saw the ruined towns and flames rising from countless homes and factories. On the roads men, women and children, civilians and soldiers, were milling about wildly in every direction under fire of bombs and guns from German aircraft. He arrived at Wolkovisk on Friday evening and the Sabbath lights were burning in many Jewish homes. His wife was away at the
Health Bureau where she and Rosa Einhorn Pshenitski, in company with others, were working in the local dispensary. His own young daughter he found with Rosa's daughter Dorathe child terrified by the tumult. He gathered his family together and suggested at first they leave Wolkovisk but could not decide upon the wisest course to follow in view of the confused state of affairs, and the fact that his own movements as an officer were in doubt. In any event he assumed, like so many others, that the war would soon be over. He attended a meeting of the leaders of the community and upon their urgent appeal undertook to use such influence as he might have as a Polish officer to secure for the Jews a more equitable distribution of food and medical supplies.
The general anxiety deepened as the German forces neared Warsaw and Bialystock. Trains ceased running and the town was cut off from communication with the rest of the country. On September 14th an exodus of Polish Gentiles began, but soon the Russians closed the Polish borders. The Polish army and local police withdrew altogether leaving the town defenseless and in a state of anarchy. This gave the organized anti-Semites their long-sought opportunity. The pogrom upon the unarmed Jews began at once. The first pogrom victim was the aged Alexander Makov, slain in cold blood by the tall letter carrier Satchevski. The pogromchiks killed young Yosef Galatski, Itche the dancer, a certain cobbler and a number of others. The only Jews capable of self-defense were the firemen led by their commander, M. Chantov, and they did their best to protect the community. The last of the military forces to leave Wolkovisk was a troop of cavalry who made common cause with the pogromchiks. They invaded the Jewish section, robbing houses and committing many acts of violence. The news of the approach of the Soviet forces put a sudden end to the pogrom.
Next morning, when the Soviet forces arrived, the troops had fled and the pogromchiks had either fled with them or returned to their homes in their own section of the city. The Jews breathed more freely. Early that morning old Menaker the cobbler borrowed a gun from the Russians and sought out the pogromchik apothecary Timinski. Menaker discovered Timinski in hiding, and at the point of his gun marched him to Soviet headquarters and delivered him over to the commander.
Timinski was executed the following day. The letter carrier Satchevski fled to the city of Lida, was later recognized by Chasya Kaplan on the streets and reported to the commander in that city. Satchevski was immediately arrested, tried, found guilty and imprisoned. In such manner did the Russians restore order.
At first the Russians paid little attention to the Russian-German border and there was considerable movement of Jews into the Russian zone. The Jewish community of Wolkovisk looked after the refugees passing through, notwithstanding their own economic stress. Every effort was made to keep the refugees supplied with quarters, food, clothing and medical supplies. These refugees came in waves, resting temporarily in Wolkovisk, receiving the care of the Jewish community and then continuing their flight eastward. The community of Wolkovisk took care of as many as 30,000 persons, placing at their disposal, schools, communal buildings, and homes, and sharing their own scanty rations.
A fortnight following the arrival of the Russians, the order was issued that all persons within the Russian zone of Poland not desiring to accept Soviet citizenship register accordingly, and tens of thousands of Jews registered in compliance with the command.
As elsewhere stated, shortly thereafter all who had so registered were transported to Siberia. At the time it was natural to regard their transportation as a great tragedy. No one could possibly foresee the horrible fate awaiting those left behind.
The Soviet administration introduced its own economic changes gradually. They began with the larger shops and industries, which were nationalized, then the smaller shops and factories were turned into cooperatives. Following these changes the professions and crafts were also nationalized. In this manner the Jews became employees of the state. Political and economic anti-Semitism was for the period of Soviet occupation eradicated. The most important change introduced was the sense of security felt by the entire community.
The witnesses agree that the German planes appeared in the skies above Wolkovisk on June 18th, 1941. Dr. Yitzchak Goldberg says that on the evening of the 19th and 20th the lights of the planes illuminated the entire district and then
disappeared. It caused deep concern among many of the people because a week earlier Russian troops accompanied by tanks had been seen making their way to the German border. It seemed ominous.
The following day, June 21st, a Sabbath, there reigned in Wolkovisk an atmosphere of peace despite the deep concern felt for the welfare of friends and relatives on the German side of the border. The usual Saturday night meetings were held and there were the usual gatherings of people in private houses. Sheine Lifshitz was at home with a friend. Zwi Roitman attended the Botwinski cinema which was crowded, because of the presentation of a new Russian film. The Jewish community really had no suspicion of what was about to befall it.
Dr. Goldberg relates that at 5 A.M., asleep in his home, in the Bartnovsky building, he was awakened by the noise of running feet from the upper story. The quarters above him were occupied by a Russian general. Looking out the window he saw a group of Russian officers leaving the house in great haste and entering their cars. The meaning of the incident he could not then understand. The townspeople slept on peacefully.
On the morning following, Sunday, the 22nd of June, there were heard loud explosions in the direction of the suburb of Rosh. People fled from the houses into the streets, terror stricken, not knowing what had happened. There came from the direction of the town of Rosh a line of automobiles filled with Russian officers and engineers, driving eastward. They reported that there had been a sudden air attack upon the airdrome in Rosh by German planes, and that the airdrome and the planes had been utterly destroyed. The Jews did not know what to believe, but at eleven o'clock that morning the voice of Molotov was heard over all radio stations information informing the Russian people that on that Sunday morning Russia had been attacked by Nazi armies and calling upon all Soviet citizens to defend the Fatherland. No longer could there be any doubt that Russia and Germany were at war. The Jewish community, its doctors, nurses, technicians, firemen and all the rest, immediately organized. However, when the Russian troops started to leave, fleeing in the direction of the city of Minsk, a feeling of profound anxiety swept over all the inhabitants.
On Monday June 23rd, Roitman declares, he went quietly
to the factory to work. About eleven o'clock that morning, flames were seen rising from the center of the city. All left their work and hastened to the scene of the fire. Great German planes were seen in the skies above the center of the town. First ordinary bombs were dropped, then incendiary bombs. The buildings in the Synagogue Court caught fire and then flames shot up in every part of the Jewish quarter. Soon Wolkovisk was a mass of flames. Some fled to cellars and were imprisoned by the stones, bricks and burning debris of the houses above them; others fled to the forest and open places, the fields and cemeteries. The attacks lasted five days, during which several hundred Jews lost their lives. The nights were bright with the flames of burning buildings, the days dark with the clouds of smoke. The people fled from house to house and street to street but the bombs kept dropping ceaselessly upon the fleeing people. On Friday the bombing was at its height. Bombs were dropped on the piles of debris under which lay the helpless Jews unable to move.
During the bombing many rescues took place amidst the flames and falling bombs. Men, women and even children pulled aside burning debris to release those imprisoned beneath. Old and young, even the wounded, carried on the work of rescue. On Tuesday, the third day of the bombing, Kasriel Lashovitz relates, he found himself with many others in a large cellar of Feinstein's house. The place was crowded. Suddenly there was a banging on the door of the cellar, and above all the noise was heard the voice of Sheike Levine: Get out, all of you. You will be burnt to death! The house above them was in flames, unknown to those within.
There were many instances of people who did not escape from burning houses; in one cellar the burnt bodies of seventy persons were found. A considerable number of persons were shot down with machine guns, including many children.
For a considerable time the Jews were occupied with the burial of the dead. The Russian officers and engineers who had fled in their automobiles the first day of the attack were later found dead in the fields and upon the road leading to Minsk.
Very little was left of Wolkovisk. Utterly destroyed were the Breite Gass, the Ostroger Gass, the Milner Gass, Cholodowski Gass, much of the Grodno Gass, much of Tatarski Gass, the beginning of the Neie Gaessel, the entire market area with its
three hundred shops, the buildings of the Synagogue Court and the entire area between the Breite Gass and the river, as well as part of the Zamostche area. Destroyed also were the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic churches. Remaining of the Jewish quarter were only the northern end of the Neie Gaessel, part of the Grodno Gass, part of the Tartarski Gass, the Zamostche and Kartchisne, and a small part of the western area toward the village of Rosh. The Christian quarter was very little damaged and the Pritzische Gass remained intact.
All avenues of escape were cut off, for in occupying Wolkovisk the Nazis had adopted their usual pincer tactics. Their armies marched in parallel lines past the town, joining forces well beyond it and encircling the entire district. On June 28th they entered Wolkovisk.
The Jews fled from the burning town to the forests, fields and cemeteries. Finding no means of escape, gradually they returned seeking shelter in what was left of the town, the quarter that included Kartchisne and Zamostche areas, and part of the Neie Gaessel, Tartarski Gass and Cholodowski Gass. In this restricted section they crowded, an entire family occupying a single room, or a barn, which they endeavored to make habitable, or a cellar, or any sort of structure or hole in the ground that promised some small measure of shelter. Some sent their children to neighboring small towns in the hope that there they would find greater safety. No one dared appear on the streets. Food soon became scarce.
The Nazis immediately began to install order, Nazi fashion. First of all, the Jewish prisoners of war were segregated from the Christians and shot. Every Jew met on the street was also shot, among them Israel Zemach. Then the Nazis turned their attention to the surviving civilian Jewish population. They were unable to establish the usual Ghetto, there was so little left of the town. As usual they sought to reassure the inhabitants, a preliminary to collecting as much money as possible and arranging for forced labor. They ordered the formation of a Jewish Council which was given quarters in the Neie Gaessel. Dr. Isaac Weinberg, a leading physician, was made chairman and Noach Fuchs, Vice-Chairman; other members were Dr. Yaakov Sedletzki, Beryl Amstibovski, Nache Shein, Sioma Botwinski, Dotchke Botwinski, Moshe Krapivnick, Mayer Farber, [p 940] Mule Kantor and Israel Pidta. They were aided by Sioma Galin, Clara Nemchik, Israel Gurevitch and P. Chomski.
Dr. Weinberg served as head of the Jewish Council until his arrest by the Nazis. His closest associate was Dr. Yaakov Sedletzki. These men, so different in their personalities, always worked together in perfect harmony, equally devoted to the welfare of their people. Dr. Weinberg had been regarded as an assimilationist and looked like an aristocratic Gentile; Dr. Sedletzki looked the so-called typical Jew and was regarded as a volksmensch, a man of the people, and was much loved by them. Both proved themselves to be men of the highest type, serving their people with high intelligence, courage and devotion.
The first order issued by the Nazis required all Jews to wear the yellow band upon their right arms and the Shield of David front and back, and to paint on the doors of their houses a yellow circle. The second order forbade the Jews from using the trottoirs (sidewalks), limiting them to the middle of the streets. They were further ordered to doff their hats to officers and soldiers alike. They were forbidden to purchase certain articles of food, including meat; and they were required to register for forced labor, beginning with the removal of the stones, bricks and debris of their own homes. When the bricks had been cleaned and gathered together, the Nazis sold them to the Gentiles of the town. Jews who paid five marks were exempted from forced labor. This was evidently a scheme to find out who among the Jews had money, in order to compel them later to surrender such cash as they had in their possession.
Several Nazis, all Storm Troopers, were placed in charge of the town's security. They were obviously chosen from the lowest and most degraded in the ranks of the Nazi army of occupation, former convicts, gunmen, perverts. The severest penalties were inflicted for the most trifling offensesas for instance, walking on the sidewalk. A number of Jews were arrested and shot upon the pretext of having maintained relations with the Bolsheviks.
A Jewish police force was also organized by the Nazis. They selected persons of the lowest order under the leadership of a notorious gangster from Southern Poland. These men tried to serve their own ends. A certain individual named Chiller did much harm catering to the Nazis in the hope that his own life
would be spared and that he would receive special privileges; the others were much like him.
Immediately upon the entrance of the Germans a great number of arrests took place daily. Jews were seized, placed for a short period in the White Prison located on Ostroger Gass and then taken away. At first the Germans pretended that these men were sent westward to labor somewhere in Germany. It was learned however, that they were disposed of without trial, shot within 24 hours of their arrest, their bodies flung in the trench graves a short distance from town, dug by Jewish forced labor. It was only necessary to have a Jew reported by a Polish Gentile as being a Communist, and he was disposed of in this manner. It was obvious that the more prominent members of the community were deliberately chosen. The Germans began by arresting two or three a day, but during the fourth week the German troops surrounded the Jewish houses and seized for slaughter about 200 Jews. Among the 200 every strata of Jewish life was represented. Included among them were Leizer and Anschel Bliacher, advocates; Simcha Berg, contractor; Michael Zon-Mazie of the magistracy; Chaim Chvoynik and his wife Malia; Saul Marcus, leather manufacturer; Dr. Feinberg; Hershel Zuckerman, his wife Judith and their son; Beryl Kaplan (Motele's); Niome Shevachovitz, the son of the blacksmith; Yechezkiel Murstein, merchant, Elka Gamm and Velvel Novick.
These mass arrests were intended to keep the Jewish population in a state of terror. Sheine Lifshitz tells the story of the Novicks, father and son. The Nazis had ordered the arrest of these 200 Jews from a prepared list. On the list was the name of the younger Novick. The father begged the son to let him take his place. The son tore himself from the father's embrace and surrendered himself. He was shot by the Nazis and a few days later the heartbroken father also died. Later it was found to have been altogether a mistake, another person of the same name was wanted.
Another name on the list was that of Elka Gamm. Hearing she was wanted she hid herself in her home. The police questioned her sister-in-law who refused to reveal her whereabouts, despite death threats. Elka heard the threats and surrendered herself.
This mass slaughter filled the hearts of the people with the greatest despondency. They realized their helplessness in the hands of a brutal, ruthless all-powerful enemy.
Shortly thereafter Wolkovisk was incorporated by the Nazi government into East Prussia and thus the town became part of the newly organized Third Reich. Zelva was the border-town beyond which was Ostland, regarded as enemy territory. Apparently because of this fact conditions in Wolkovisk were allowed to improve somewhat for the time being. Reports came in steadily of the terrible suffering of the Jews of neighboring towns in Ostland, but in Wolkovisk the situation in some respects became more quiet, notwithstanding occasional acts of Nazi barbarity. For the ensuing year the entire Jewish population suffered greatly from hunger and gradually the Polish Gentiles acquired most of the property of the Jews, money, furniture, clothes and the like, in exchange for the necessities of life. The Gestapo made fortnightly visits. These were occasions of great dread. Everyone stayed at home hardly daring to breathe, no one knowing what horrors would result from such visits.
New taxes were constantly levied, confiscations took place daily and every sort of humiliation was imposed. The orders of the Gestapo were passed on to the police who obeyed them rigidly. All were kept at forced labor, the lists of tasks assigned were handed over to the Jewish Council, the tasks being of every variety for men and women.
Despite all this, with the help of bribery of the German military and Polish police, a certain freedom of movement was possible, even occasional trips to Bialystock. Hope did not altogether die.
During the summer of 1942, the reports arrived of the pogroms in Slonim, Baranovich, Lida, Dretchin and other towns. In Wolkovisk the situation remained quiet for the time, although a considerable section of the youth understood the danger hanging over the community. Organization for self defense was carried on in secret and contact was made with the Russian partisans, then operating in the nearby forests.
These partisans were Russian soldiers cut off from the main force, and among them were a number of Jews. They were
extremely active, though not numerous, and carried on sabotage behind the German lines. They kept the Nazis in a constant state of nervous tension, even of fear. They were divided into two groups. One group busied itself with the daily work of sabotage and terror, such as shooting down sentries, tearing up railroad tracks and blowing up bridges and grounded planes; the other group occupied itself with the securing of food, clothes, medical supplies and all sorts of useful material. Sarah Rubin and her brother-in-law were the first to make contact with the partisans and were instrumental in organizing Jewish cooperation with them.
One dark, rainy night the electrical technician Roitman was visited by a partisan who urged him to accompany him to a camp situated in the depths of the Zamkover forest for the purpose of repairing a radio outfit with which they maintained contact with the Russian command. Roitman, by no means a timid person, agreed to undertake the task. He was led from one secret post to another until they reached the camp itself. He repaired the radio and begged to be allowed to remain with the partisans, but was persuaded that he could be more useful working in the town, keeping in touch with them through Sarah Rubin. He was led back to Wolkovisk without incident. As foreman of the machine shop, Roitman had access to the technical material. Moreover, it was necessary for him to make frequent trips to the storehouse to select instruments and machine parts required in the factory. He delivered radio parts, oil and such other supplies to Sarah Rubin who saw that they reached the partisans. The activity of the partisans increased.
Among the Poles and White Russian there were a number who were willing to help the Nazis. They served as spies, and a few actually managed to win the confidence of the partisans. A Pole from the town of Rosh offered to guide three Russian officers to the partisan camp and turned them over to the Gestapo who immediately shot them down. This same Pole reported to the Nazis that an electrician from Wolkovisk had repaired the radio apparatus at the camp.
Kasriel Lashovitz reports that at about this time the partisans had blown up an automobile filled with Nazis. A young partisan, a Gentile, was badly hurt. Lashovitz went to Dr. Beryl Welwelski and asked him to treat the wounded youth. Dr. Welwelski sent him to Dr. Weinberg to secure for him what he
considered to be the necessary authority. When approached, Dr. Weinberg said he would send someone else, but actually went himself.
The wounded partisan resting in the Zamkover forest near Wolkovisk was later discovered by the Nazis. It was clear to the Nazis he had been treated and bandaged by a physician. They tried by torture to extract from him the name of the physician but the heroic young partisan died without revealing it. Inasmuch as he was found so near Wolkovisk it was assumed that he must have been cared for by a Jewish physician of that town. This assumption was confirmed by Ukrainian spies in the partisan camp. These spies had plied a partisan sentry with liquor and learned of this incident and also that the radio had been repaired by a Jewish electrician. The spies, however, had been unable to learn the names of the Jews involved.
The Nazis immediately placed every Jewish physician, dentist, engineer and technician in Wolkovisk under arrest. Among the physicians were: Dr. Isaac Weinberg, Chairman of the Jewish Council, Dr. Yaakov Sedletzki, Dr. D. Kantor, Dr. Beryl Welwelski, Dr. David Kaufman, Dr. (Mrs.) Honigstein and Dr. (Mrs.) Galland; and among the dentists were Dr. David Tropp, Dr. Rosa Einhorn Pshenitzki, Dr. Sarah Peisakova, Dr. A . Mant and Shimon Press, dental technician. Among the radio technicians and engineers were Zwi Roitman, Galiatski and Polack. They were all charged with treason against the Reich. These arrests created great excitement and the deepest concern.
Noach Fuchs became Chairman of the Jewish Council. The change in administration was immediately felt. Dr. Weinberg had been absolutely fearless in all negotiations with the Nazis and had conducted himself with the greatest dignity.
The arrested men and women were lodged in the dark and damp bunkers near the barracks. These bunkers will be more fully described later. The physicians were separated from the technicians and the men from the women. Roitman relates that the morning following the arrests he looked through the bars of a narrow window of his bunker and saw the physicians being led out under heavy guard to the washing place. He was able to exchange a few words with Dr. Weinberg. All seemed tired
and as if they had spent a sleepless night, but nevertheless quite cheerful and of unbroken morale.
The physicians were brought out one at a time for examination. The questioning was very severe. Dr. Kantor and Dr. David Kaufman received particularly harsh treatment, Dr. Kantor because of the pride of his bearing and Dr. Kaufman apparently because of his vigorous appearance. To break down the morale of the physicians the rations supplied were very scant and examinations were held daily.
The situation became the more difficult, for the only Jew who had ever made the slightest impression upon the Germans was Dr. Weinberg. Due to the intervention of some Gentiles and the conviction that only a male physician could have treated the wounded partisan, under the difficult conditions prevailing, the women dentists, Dr. Rosa Einhorn Pshenitzki and Dr. Sarah Peisakova were released.
The technicians were subjected to much the same treatment as the physicians, but they revealed nothing. The pressure of their employers, who missed their services, was so great, that they were also released and sent back to their jobs.
The release of the women physicians and all the technicians awakened the hope that all the physicians would be given their freedom. When it was learned however, that upon the order of the German commander four Jewish physicians were brought down from Bialystock, fear again entered the hearts of the Jews. They sensed that something terrible was about to happen. Every effort was made by the Jewish community to bring about the release of the physicians. A delegation consisting of Sonia Botwinski and the sister of Dr. Noach Kaplinski were sent to Bialystock to plead for intervention by the high command. Ephraim Barash, chairman of the Jewish Council in Bialystock, himself a native of Wolkovisk, made every effort to rescue the doomed physicians. The replies to all pleas however, were always the same, that the matter was in the hands of the local commander.
It had evidently been decided by all the physicians that whatever happened, no information was to be given to the Germans; that there must be no cooperation with them. Dr. Kantor desired to offer himself up, but Dr. Weinberg insisted that if anybody did, it must be he and no one else. The stoical behavior and quiet courage of Dr. Tropp was a source of strength to all. There were three weeks of deep anxiety. Daily
the Jews came and offered all the money they could raise as a bribe in the hope of inducing the Germans to relent. On the evening of the 11th of October the Gestapo, having accepted the bribe, gave assurance that on October 13th the physicians would be freed. On the morning of the 12th the wives of the physicians visited them and gave them the good news.
In the evening of that day, the 12th, Nache Shein, a member of the Jewish Council, came to Moshe Movshovsky's house where Kotliarski's aunt, his cousin Moshe Ivenski, and Kotliarski himself resided. He transmitted an order from the Nazis, that the men report next morning at six at the quarters of the Jewish Council in the Neie Gaessel, bringing along spades and other like tools. Arriving punctually, equipped according to orders, at the office of the Council, they met other persons likewise equipped. Awaiting them was an automobile in which they were taken out of town to the burkes, the section near the forest overgrown with thick brush. There stood the chief of the military who indicated with his stick a rectangle on the ground ten meters long and two meters wide. He ordered them to dig a trench along the lines indicated. It was to be finished by ten o'clock. Otherwise, he said, you will be shot down like dogs. Covered with sweat and under strict guard, they finished their task long before ten. They were then ordered to run toward the hills the distance of 100 meters, throw themselves upon the ground and to lie there face downward until further orders.
While this was happening, an automobile under guard of armed Gestapo drove up to the bunkers some distance away. The physicians were ordered to come out and to remove their coats leaving them on the ground and to enter the car. Nearby was a group of Jewish workers, among them Ada the daughter of Dr. Sedletzki. She caught sight of her father about to enter the car, and uttering a heartbreaking cry, ran forward and threw her arms about him, clinging to him with all her strength. They were forcibly parted by the Gestapo. The physicians entered the car which then drove away.
The men who had dug the trench, lay motionless at a distance, their faces pressed against the ground, and could hear the car as it passed in the direction of the prepared trench grave. A couple of minutes elapsed, rifle shots rang out, confused cries were heard, after which there was silence. The men stretched out on the ground had barely time to come to themselves, when
they received an order to return to the trench over which a thin layer of earth had been spread. The clothing showed through and revealed the identity of the men who had been shot. Orders were then given to cover the bodies with fresh earth and to place grass over it in such a manner as to hide all traces of the mass grave. They did as commanded and started to leave when the earth began to heave upward. The Nazis called them back and commanded them to trample down the earth until all was still.
The slaughter of the Jewish physicians, and its manner, produced a profound depression. It became clear what the future held in store for all. Everyone began to consider plans to escape. During the night when it was dark and raining, a number of the Jews built hiding places in or near their dwellings. Some built false walls in their homes or barns, creating hidden chambers. Roitman dug himself an underground bunker over which wild grass grew.
Fania, wife of Dr. David Tropp, arranged with a Gentile woman friend named Polka to take care of her twin boys and actually turned them over to her. But her friend's neighbors protested and threatened to report the matter to the Germans. Fania was compelled to take the children back, and became desperate. Crazed by sorrow and suffering, she decided upon the death of herself and her children. She went to a German policeman and pleaded with him to shoot them all. The policeman replied that without orders from his superior he was unable to comply with her wishes. Then taking her children with her, she proceeded to the court of the ruined synagogue. Here she took a large dose of luminal, sufficient to cause death, and then tried to force like doses upon the children. Frightened by their mother's appearance and behavior the children tore themselves out of her grasp and fled to a neighbor telling her what had happened. German police were summoned. When they arrived they found Fania unconscious. She was removed to one of the rooms in the Talmud Torah and was shot dead as she lay unconscious upon the floor. The children were taken in charge by an aunt. This aunt and the children were later forced to enter the bunkers and shared the fate of their fellow Jews.
The Nazis showed no haste in the total destruction of the Jewish community of Wolkovisk. They bided their time, and
in accord with their traditions, carried on against the Jews a war of nerves, designed to keep the Jews in a state of constant anxiety and fear.
To the very last, the Nazis used every resource to extract from the Jews their possessions and the greatest possible amount of labor. Regularly, every Saturday, they continued to assign the work for the week following. The Jews cherished a faint hope that their labor would make them so useful to the Nazis that their lives would be spared.
The economic situation became unendurable, the need and hunger became more and more intense. The Jews were robbed of almost everything they possessed. Over the surrounding country swept a storm of pogroms and slaughter. It was felt that almost any moment the end would come for the Jews of Wolkovisk. No one knew what the morrow would bring, nor even the next hour. Terror reigned. When night came every one feared to remain at home. In the darkness they hid themselves in cellars, in holes in the ground, taking with them only the immediate necessities of life.
On Saturday October 31st, the Jews were surprised by an order to turn in all the clothes, shoes and the like which they were making for the Germans, whether completed or not, together with all the cloth and leather in their possession. On the following day, Sunday November 1st, when they called for the week's assignment of labor they were informed no work would be required for them the ensuring week. Rumors immediately flew about and as usual the Jews placed a hopeful interpretation upon the new development. It was said by many the Germans must be preparing to retreat; that Wolkovisk would be evacuated.
On Monday morning, November 2nd, Noach Fuchs, the Chairman of the Jewish Council, stood in the middle of the street of the Jewish quarter and informed every one of a new order of the Gestapo. He announced that all the Jews of Wolkovisk, rich and poor, young and old, well and sick, must take with them food for two days and assemble outside the city near the barracks. All houses must be locked and the keys left with the Gestapo. Anyone failing to obey will be immediately shot.
The Jews sought to interpret the new order. It was difficult for them to overcome their almost incurable optimism. They
assumed that it was merely an attempt to segregate them more closely and to make an examination of their premises easier by the troops or police. Two days' provisions could not mean preparation for a long absence. But as the Jews were preparing to obey the order there came over them a realization that something terrible was about to happen. Around the Jewish quarter the Germans stood in a closed ring, and every Jewish dwelling place was guarded. From every house, barn, hole in the ground, Jews came forth, almost every man, woman and child carrying a pack, streaming toward the Breite Gass, joining in a terrible line of march to the barracks on the edge of Zamostche. Some crying aloud, others silently weeping, still others in tense grim silence. Women and children clung to each other, their men folk gently leading them on. The Nazi troopers and Polish guards kept forcing them forward in dreadful procession. On both sides of the streets Poles lined up on the sidewalks, or looked down upon the scene from the windows of their homes, many jeering and laughing. Roitman had gone that morning as usual to the slaughter house where he was employed, only to be ordered back to town. He met the procession, more tragic than the ancient line of exiles on the road from Palestine to Babylon. A number of Jews attempted to break through the cordon of guards, among them Chaim Oser Einhorn, the two brothers Metchik, the wife of the bookseller Weisenberg, the brothers Zolotnitski, and a son of Jacob Weinstein. They were caught and shot.
The procession finally reached the bunkers near the barracks. At the gate of the camp in which were the bunkers, a body of SS troopers awaited the arrival of the marchers. No sooner did the first line reach the gate when the Gestapo fell upon them with sticks driving the women and children to the left and the men to the right. Confusion and panic ensued, the Jews were unable to draw back, for behind them were the police and the great masses of Jews in the procession being driven steadily forward. The men and women at first did not even realize fully what was happening; that members of families were being separated from each other and scattered. All were thrust into bunkers, the men separately, and the women and children by themselves. Once the Jews were inside the bunkers, the Germans immediately locked the doors, smothering the cries of the women and children.
In the dim light of the crowded bunkers mothers hunted
for their children, and the children for their mothers, and then all sought for places upon which to rest their bruised and weary bodies. When night came they found themselves in total darkness. No one slept, and everyone awaited in agony the coming of daylight.
Finally when dawn came they were informed that families could get together. The doors of the bunkers were opened, and men, women, and children rushed out, running to and fro searching for their loved ones, calling out their names. Finally families were reunited and a measure of calm settled upon the camp.
The bunkers, or dugouts, made by the Russian prisoners were trenches dug deep into the ground, with roofs only slightly above the surface. The roofs consisted of boards in which were inserted a few small windows. Light entered only from these windows and the entrance at each end.
The bunkers were three meters deep, with steps leading down, each bunker about 50 meters long and 10 meters wide. A table extended from end to end with benches running along either side. For sleeping purposes narrow shelves lined along the wall in three tiers, so narrow and so close together it was difficult to find a resting place, and almost impossible to turn around. In each bunker were forced approximately 500 persons. There was a single outhouse for each bunker for use by the adults, men and women. A single toilet within each bunker was reserved for the aged, the sick and the very young. The stench was beyond description. The camp was divided into sections, each containing several bunkers, each section surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Encircling the entire camp were barbed wire fences in three parallel lines. Two small wells of water had to suffice for all. It was insufficient for drinking purposes; washing was out of the question.
Kotliarski was one of the Jews who betook themselves to their prepared hiding places when the order came for the Jews to leave their homes. With him were Ivenski, his aunt and his cousin. From within his hiding place Kotliarski could hear the rumble of heavy wagons passing by and the agonized cries of men and women. At the time he was greatly mystified, but later learned that the cries came from the Jews of the surrounding villages who were also being brought to the bunkers. These
villages were Amstibove, Most, Swislotch, Rosh, Porzeve, Liskove, Izabelin, Piesk, Wolp, Zelva, Kremyanitze, Yalovke and others.
The following day the German officials on examining the lists discovered that a number of Jews were missing. They immediately ordered Noach Fuchs to bring them in. Fuchs stood near the houses of the missing persons and in a loud voice called out: Come out of your hiding places. I, Noach Fuchs, speak to you. You will not be able to save yourselves. All houses are surrounded by the Nazis. Kotliarski was at first unwilling to emerge, but was persuaded by his aunt and cousin. Those who refused to leave their homes were discovered later by the Germans and shot. Among them were Mayer Krum, his wife and two children; Motel Smazonowitch; the three Tchapkin brothers, Alter, Israel and Ephraim; Shimon Liss; Beryl the Shamash and a group consisting of Lyov Shkolnick and nine others. There were a number of the old and feeble who either could not or would not leave. They were gathered together by the Germans, brought to the burned ruin of the old Talmud Torah and also shot.
When the Jews were ordered to leave their homes, the doors were locked and the keys handed over to the Gestapo. The Gestapo later opened the houses and their contents were thrown outside. The best things were shipped by special transport to Germany for the German War Fund, the remaining things of value were sold to the Polish population of Wolkovisk which had been long awaiting the opportunity to secure such bargains.
In all, there were placed in the bunkers about 20,000 Jews, thirteen thousand from the surrounding smaller villages and seven thousand from Wolkovisk. To each small village was assigned a separate bunker. The bunkers occupied by the small villages were even more dreadful than those assigned to the Jews of Wolkovisk.
The German commander sent for Noach Fuchs and informed him that the Jews were to remain in the bunkers for six weeks, after which they were to be transported to a labor camp in the interior of Germany.
Gradually the Jews tried to adjust themselves in some manner to their underground life. Families huddled together in
separate little groups. The head of the camp was Noach Fuchs. The four doctors from Bialystock together with Dr. Marek Kaplan of Porzeve, the son of Shmuel Kaplan, and Dr. Eliezer Epstein of Piesk, organized such medical care as was possible under the circumstances. A community kitchen was arranged and Sonia Botwinski and Siome Galin placed in charge. M. Chantoff was placed in charge of a small police force. Notwithstanding all this care and organization, the appearance of all soon became fearful; their faces encrusted with dirt and their bodies covered with vermin. They could barely recognize each other. The daily food ration consisted of 170 grams of bread and one liter of soup. At times even this ration was not forthcoming. The hunger was so great that when raw potatoes were brought many would rush forward to snatch some under the eyes of the guards, risking death. Death in this manner took its toll daily.
There was also organized a Chevra Kadisha to bury the dead. Epstein the hardware merchant acted as chairman, and he was assisted by a son of Rapoport the cloth merchant. Yankel Paltes was in charge of the actual details of burial. Their work was never ending. The dead were buried in the Vataschiner fields, 200 meters beyond the barracks. The corpses were placed in common graves, without monument or marking stone.
The camp was visited regularly by the Gestapo. Their visits were always occasions of dread. Once the Mayor of Wolkovisk came, looked around the camp, and taking in the situation made many promises. He promised to send them the potatoes stored in their own cellars, more and better food, medical supplies and exterminating powder. He also promised an improvement in the water supply. Some vermin exterminating powder did reach them and the water supply was slightly increased, though it never was adequate even for proper washing. Neither the potatoes nor the better food ever was provided. The bread ration was actually reduced and there were days when none at all arrived. Conditions grew worse daily and sickness became more widespread. Under the leadership of Dr. Horn, the doctors did their best but without an adequate supply of food and medicine there was little they could do for their many patients.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Volkovysk, Belarus Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2016 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 8 Feb 2011 by LA