Dear not-forgotten Uncle and Aunt!
I received your letter and when I realized that I have survived to find my real relatives, I began to weep like a small child. And no matter how hard I tried to continue reading your letter, I could not manage to finish because I was choked with tears. Spasms pulled at my throat and it became impossible for me to read, and I had to delay it for a later time. This happened several times.
I beg you, do not laugh at me or deplore the behavior of an adult man for crying. It is been many years since I have had this pleasure. When one is faced daily every minute of the day eye to eye with the sharp edge of the Nazi knife, then one cannot cry.
My dear ones, you ask me what happened to Aunt Peshe, your sister and her children Ephraimke and Baimish; and Aunt Raizeh and her children? the easiest answer would naturally be: I don't know. Because as soon as we were invaded by the Germans, we were cut off from the whole world and received no news from Bialystok. We were immediately incarcerated in a ghetto, could not go out into the street and sending letters from one city to another one could not even dream about that.
My dear ones, you want to know how I succeeded in saving myself? I wish you had not asked me that and I would be spared from writing about this. But, here it is:
When the war broke out, I was in the military in the Polish Army. After serving over 12 ½ months,
I was released because Poland lost the war. Coming home to Visoke, the entire area was occupied by the Russians. Golde and her husband, and Rivke and her husband, came to us in Visoke at that time. They escaped from Warsaw. The Russians forced them to go deep into Russia. Visoke was at that time considered a border town and people from Warsaw were forbidden from living on the border. The Russians gave me a job at the Kino [movie house]. Life was not too difficult for me.
The sad year of 1941 approached. The Germans entered and all of Visoke was imprisoned in a ghetto on Bod Street. Three families were tossed into one room. Everyone was forced to wear a yellow patch on their lapel and on their back. The greatest pleasure for these bandits was to conduct raids (searches) with the excuse that they needed people to take to work. The routine was generally as follows: You were locked into a dark cellar for three days, no food, merciless beatings or attacks by wild dogs who would tear off chunks of flesh. More than one person died in this manner. Many were shot in the street for no reason. In this way, Bod Street changed into a cemetery. Since one could not leave the ghetto, we buried them right on the spot. Among those who were shot: Henach Garbonick's son and his wife; several people from the Greenwald dispensary; Yeshaya, the bathhouse attendant's son, Yekl, the baker's son and his wife, and many many more who at this moment I find difficult to remember.
On the November 11,1941, at 5:30 in the morning, the Hitleristic bandits ordered all the Jews to be out on the street by 6 A.M. in just one half hour. Those who did not come out would be shot on the spot. With clubs, they began to chase the men and women separately. At that hour, we were separated from our wives, children, sisters, mothers, and friends.
Accompanied by the most ignominious heckling and murderous beatings, we were herded to the train. We were loaded onto freight cars like animals, and in that way we were sent to Streblinka [Treblinka]. What happened en route the lamenting and cries of desperation about one's own fate and the heartbreaking cries from the women and children bemoaning their uncertain destiny certainly split the heavens. The worst, however, were the inhuman cries of the little children demanding their mothers, their little sisters. Many of us went mad.
Late at night, not far from Streblinka [Treblinka] I and three other young men managed to dislodge several boards from our car and when the train slowed down, we jumped from the car, with God's help. The Germans noticed this and opened fire. Two were shot immediately. A bullet hit me in the left part of my behind. With the help of my companion, we managed to disappear into the woods. For two days, we lay in hunger and cold. Added to that was the pain of the open wound. On the third day, we headed toward the countryside. In the day, we hid in the bushes, and at night we knocked at the doors of peasants to ask for food. Some gave, others angrily said: Jew, get away from here!
I dragged myself around this way for 15 days. I lost my friend on the way. He either joined a partisan group or was betrayed by a peasant. I never saw him again. I was able to reach a town not far from Visoke. There I was familiar with a family that I had befriended when I worked for the Germans digging peat for heating purposes.
I knocked on their door in the middle of the night. They recognized me, took me into their house, gave me something to eat, and made a bed for me in the hay in the barn. These gentle people were as much to be pitied as I. Had they been caught hiding a Jew, the entire family could have been shot. Such incidents did occur. But these decent Christians compromised themselves and didn't have the heart to send me into the clutches of the murderers. They dug a pit in the barn, covered it with boards on which the cow stood, for protection. They created an opening through which they could bring me food, and late at night, I was able to go out, wash myself, and get a little fresh air. These noble people even risked getting me medicine from the dispensary to ease the pains from the wound, which was not healing.
In this way, I spent a total of 23 months in the pit until the Germans were defeated and the Russians took over the area.
The first thing that entered my mind was to reach Visoke and perhaps find someone who might have been saved as I was. But Visoke was empty desolate without a living soul. The bandits managed to obliterate a total of 3,500 souls from Visoke. I went into the bet midrash [synagogue], sat there for a few hours, and wept. I walked by the house where we had lived and didn't dare go inside. I just stood outside, observed, and wept. I walked by Aunt Raize's house, near Aunt Esther's house, near Uncle Moishke's house and continued weeping, even now as I write about this, I am weeping. I also did not forget to go by the grave of the120 in the middle of the town. There lie both Visokers and strangers who, just like I, tried to save themselves and met their end there. There lie Choneh Palik with his wife and children. Avrom Anshel's children; the Reifs and many, many more.
I could not remain in Visoke any longer. I did not have the strength to do this. And when I returned to the Polish family in the village and they told me they were leaving the village and moving to Slesia (Silesia) where the Polish government was offering them a farm, I graciously accepted their suggestion that I go along with them and help in their new undertaking.
Dear friend Morris Gevirtz:
I found comfort in your letter and I therefore permit myself to refer to you as friend. I want to ask you not to stop answering me. Only one who has experienced what I went through can understand what a letter such as yours meant for me.
I will not now become involved with the details of my survival during the German occupation. I just want to mention that it was sad enough for those who did survive and then they themselves became aware of (the bottom line the entire picture.
One who was distant from the German borders cannot in their life possibly picture what really happened to our Jews.
It is now more that two years that I was liberated from the pit where I was hidden for 23 months and in that way avoided a German bullet. To this day I cannot forget, and I often think and imagine for the thousandth time, asking the same question: Did this really happen or was it simply a wild nightmare?
More than once I averted death, more than once the soldiers were in the yard of the Polish family that was hiding me. Here I will describe one incident of danger for me and the devotion of the Polish family:
It was during Cheshvan [September-October] when the entire household was digging potatoes in the field. I was, as usual, lying in the pit that had been made for me in the barn, which housed horses, cows and pigs. Before they left for the field, these good people always warned me: We are going to the fields. if someone should call to enter the barn, do not reply. Be careful not to be noticed. One morning when the family was away at the field, a vehicle with eight soldiers drove into the yard. They got out and went to the house. The door was locked. They made their way to the barn where I was hidden. Searching every little place and not finding anything suspicious, they cursed and left. For me, however, these minutes were like a painful eternity. Hearing the German language, I was certain that they came because someone had informed about me. I was sure that this was the end. My heart froze. But I did not panic. I grabbed a handful of hay and blocked the opening, which served as a conduit for getting food from outside as well as an exit and entrance at night for fresh air. I was lucky. The murderers left.
The Polish family working in the field not far from the yard, observed from a distance. They were petrified. They were also sure that someone had informed about me and saw themselves face to face with death because the punishment for hiding Jews was death. Towards evening, when they returned from the field and saw me alive, they couldn't utter a sound. There was just tension in their muscles and tears fell from their eyes. At night, the housewife told me that when she first spotted the Germans driving into the yard, she did not lose control, but she immediately fell to her knees, stretched her arms towards the sky, murmuring, Holy Mother, hide him with your cloak so that these murderers and defilers of God may not spot him.....
I tell you this, friend Gevirtz, to give you some idea how faithful and devoted they were to me and how they managed to save me from sharing the fate of millions of others who did not have such friends.
Currently this Polish family is dirt poor. The Germans took everything from them. I have not forgotten them. I help them with my 10 fingers on their farm. This is actually all I have. And now, friend Gevirtz, a few words about myself, which you requested in your last letter.
I am 35 years old; I have no plans for the future, and why should I plan and hope? since I am the only one left from my entire family. Actually I would like to emigrate. That is to America. There I have family where I can find warmth. Perhaps they might make it possible for me to get back on my feet and begin a new life. As it is, it is so tragic and painful to think about the experience and so horrible to remember those closest and dearest and not even to know where they met their unfortunate end.
As soon as the filthy German boots crossed the Volchiner soil, they imprisoned all the Jews into a confined, narrow little street, and their fate fell into the hands of the infamous Ukrainian, Theodore Maluta. Just one glance at the animalistic features of this human being was enough to cause all blood to freeze in fear. This obese ruffian with his leaden pistol, which never left his hand, inflicted injury on Jewish bodies at every opportunity.
The young men, as well as the young women, were sent to work in Brisk, and they never saw their families or Volchin again.
Those who remained lived in great pain and poverty. This wild Ukrainian managed by various means to extract every groshen [penny] or piece of jewelry. Many Jews paid with their lives when they went out into their gardens to dig up a few potatoes. I still remember the name of one who died when he went out to get a few potatoes. That was Itzl Englender from the bakery. But that was just a preface for the Hitler slaves. On a foggy dawn in the month of Tishrai, trucks arrived at the ghetto and everyone was ordered to take all their things of great value from their homes and get on the trucks. They were told they were being transferred to Visoke. But at the village gates, the trucks were diverted to a side road where large ditches were already dug.
As the trucks turned onto this cemetery route, heartbreaking pictures emerged: Mothers pressed their children to them, kissed them for the last time, covered them with their last tears which were already mixed with blood. These same mothers were then forced to undress themselves and their children, and, naked as they were created by God, they were driven from the trucks by angry dogs and canes, to the ditch. A charge of machine-gun fire drowned out the agonizing screams of the dying people. And with the last words of Shema Yisrael and revenge on their lips, their souls expired.
In one large mass grave at the gate, and by bestial Hitleristic hands, Jewish life in the town of Volchin was wiped out.
Arush Melamed's grandson and his family
In fact, since then the Relief has done very important work: Approximately 40 persons from our shtetlakh did survive the war and they receive food and clothing parcels from us regularly (more on this in other parts of this Journal).
It is very important that the Wisoker and Woltchiner landsleit get acquainted with these leaders and workers as they actually carry the moral and practical weight of the Relief effort. Here are depictions of some of them:
First of all, our chairman, Hyman Gevirtz, a great organizer, full of energy and courage. His community work deserves a chapter on its own. Here we will only summarize: He has put all his capabilities at the service of the Relief. His wife Sarah, who helps him in his work, should also be mentioned.
Another very important leader and worker is Henry Kravitz. He is practical and to the point, both in his suggestions and in his work. Although he is a very busy man, he is nevertheless very devoted to his work at the Relief. When we speak about our brother Kravitz ,we should also mention the work done by his wife. She is in charge of the advertisement and greetings section of our Journal. The Kravitzes [also] make outstanding financial contributions to our Relief organization.
Sheine Seltzer: Shipments of parcels to our surviving brothers and sisters on the other side of the ocean is accomplished under her supervision. She is like a devoted mother who takes care of her children so that they should all be well provided, both in food and in clothing. She reports at every meeting about the parcel shipments that have already reached their recipients and those still in transit.
Ethel Isaacson is a young woman full of life, fervor, and energy. She is in close contact with all the landsleit. She calls them and appeals to them incessantly, asking them to participate in all of the Relief's projects. The success of all of the Relief's enterprises is in part due to Ethel, to her efforts, to her distribution of tickets, and to her obtaining food. Her husband also donates a lot of his time to this important and holy work.
Faigl Shatsky-Yudin is an important leader and activist, intelligent and with many capabilities. Besides finding all kinds of help for the survivors, she is in constant contact with them, encouraging them and giving them hope and assurance so that they can rebuild their lives.
Tzviye Voker [Walker]? is full of energy and although she is active in a series of social and communal organizations, she still feels the need to do important work for our Relief too.
Perl Rosen lives and breathes for her relief work. At every meeting, she reports about her contacts with the Wisoker Branch of the Arbeter Ring. Neither does she forget to appeal to the members to do work for the surviving brothers and sisters on the other side of the ocean. Her husband is also active in this holy work.
Morris Gevirtz is a very respected leader and member. He is the person who takes the minutes of our gatherings; he is a person full of talent, intelligence and capabilities. His minutes will certainly become historical documents. He is active in all areas of relief activity.
Our financial secretary, Samuel Levine, is a person full of intelligence and talent. He does a lot of work for our Relief and surveys the finances of our organization.
Ruth Zabinsky [Sabinsky] was not a member from the start; but once she came to a meeting and saw our work, she immediately joined and has devoted herself to this work with life and soul. She does now very important work for the organization.
Besides the above-mentioned leaders and workers, we must also mention the following brothers and sisters: L. Seltzer, Sam Voker [Walker?], L. Weiner, Elye Gelman, Alter Witchel, [missing first name?] Kolner, and others. They devote a lot of time and energy to the Relief.
All the above-mentioned leaders and workers will carry on with their activities for as long as is needed and until our survivor brothers and sisters are settled and able to independently undertake the reconstruction of their lives.
A very interesting article on this subject, written by our dear brother Khone Kravitz, has regretfully been omitted because of publication deadline constraints.
-1- ...One is permitted to tell the truth about one's father. I am permitted to state that my father, Shmuelkeh Michel, had a great soul. He had an expansive feeling for beauty, impressiveness and a desire for stature... and if I have long forgotten to be thankful for the many things a father does for his child, to this day I am unable to free myself from the impressions and feelings of how each Yom Kippur night looked, and I am especially thankful to my father for those unusual hours during the Yom Kippur nights long ago.
All year, every Sabbath, every holiday, winter, summer, my father prayed in the walled orthodox synagogue where he had his seat near the Eastern Wall. On Yom Kippur night he made an exception; he prayed in the wooden synagogue, which was world-renown for a number of reasons: first it was a certainty that this synagogue was about 500 years old. Second, the unusual height, almost invisible to the naked eye. Third, the painted artwork on the walls and on the ceiling, along with the many inscriptions on the walls silently relating historical events and meaningful memories...
And my father, who was a naturally cheerful person all year and was known for his wittiness, and people were always thankful for his nice stories and his interpretation of world news, became silent and reflective in these awesome, fearful days he did not speak much, but gazed silently into the distance ... however, not wanting to cast his sadness onto the household and to distract himself, my father would, at the meal before the fast, toss in a word or a joke. However, he could only hold out until the benediction which he would begin in a loud voice as if he was trying to drown out that sound, and when he got to King of all the World, who feeds the entire world ... he, the oldest male in the house, broke down into tears, crying while he finished the benediction.
A chill went through everyone. At that moment, I actually saw the way a fish shivered in the water ... as if the entire world is wrapped in fear of the approaching day of judgment, when the tiniest creature to the largest nations in the world, stood in judgment.
And my father silently rose from the table, put on his white linen robe (kittel), over that he put on the Sabbath Tallith (prayer shawl), and covered that with his overcoat. With downcast eyes he said to the mother:
Be well Fradel; pray for a good year.
And the mother, a blissful survivor of worries and illnesses, was dressed up today and ready to present herself for judgment, through her women's prayers and good deeds accumulated merits on behalf of her husband and children, answers in sorrow:
Go in good health Shmuelkeh; pray for a good year for yourself, for your children, for all of us ... that nobody should God forbid be missing. Kissing the mezuzah, the father leaves, accompanied by all 10 children, heading for the synagogue for Kol Nidre.
Suddenly, three sharp blows are heard, as Noah Mordechai Rashkes pounds his iron-strength hands on the bimah [platform] ,which heralds the release of the individual who must join with the community, and all must stand together as a single solid wall under the community representative the long-standing cantor, Reb Moshe Chazanovitch, who understands his mission well and is already at the pulpit, wrapped in his prayer shawl and white kittel, surrounded by a dozen choir boys, lined up by size. His stately appearance is framed by his thick gray beard he stands before the chief Rabbi in the synagogue, prepared to work as it is originally described in the Gemara.
And Rabbi Moshe Chazanovich, the great musician, composer of hundreds of compositions, whose originality surprises the greatest musical critics to the extent that the entire Christian intelligentsia from the diocese to the administration, and aradniks and manafalchicks [?] with their wives and grown children fill the anteroom of the synagogue; everyone is totally imbued with the beauty of his singing and his masterful conducting of the choir, as he quietly, almost humming, begins Kol Nidre v'Asorei, and at the same time directs his well-rehearsed choir, more with his eyes than his hands; he brings out the best from each choirboy.... And the music emerges so convincingly clear, so innocently clean, so naively holy, so soulfully sweet as are the innocent and clear souls of the young choirboys, whose voices sound like a song by angels; and for a moment one forgets the seriousness of the day and wants this to continue forever....
But right after the singing of Kol Nidre, Noah Mordechai Rashkes reappears in full height and again strikes three sharp blows, calling for silence to listen to the rabbi's sermon. The crowd sits erect, prayer shawls are removed from their heads, tear-stained eyes are dried, and the people sit motionless.
The Volchiner rabbi, Reb Chaim Tuvia, who has served for many years but is not so old, only in his late 50s, but long renowned in many places as a sage, as a result of his books which are widespread, his great scholarship and even greater sermon orations begins very quietly, as though speaking to himself, describing in simple language, the seriousness of Yom Kippur and the importance of atonement.
The rabbi proves that by our deeds, not only are we responsible for ourselves and our families, but also all the Jews are responsible for one another, and the fate of animals, cows and birds, even the land, the soil is dependent on our deeds, we are responsible for everybody and everything...
And the rabbi spreads his hands as if he were searching for salvation somewhere and cries out in a lament:
How can we undertake this kind of responsibility when we are so guilty Heaven preserve us! Who are we and what are we that we should decide the fate of all and everyone?! It is a well-known fact that when there is a small fire, it is important to put it out with small instruments, with a small 'fire company.' But when there is a big fire, heaven forbid, large instruments need to be used as well as a large number of firefighters. Gentlemen, in view of our many sins, a great fire is burning, we are submerged in sin and there is nobody to intercede for us. Woe to us!
And the Rabbi wrings his hands, weeps out loud; and his cries mingle with the terrible spasmodic lament from the women's section of the synagogue, making it feel as if the balcony is splitting. And suddenly, the rabbi turns, facing the Holy Ark, and, with all his might, pulls at the curtain covering the scrolls. Hastily, he flings open the Holy Ark, falls with his face on the scrolls, and screams with all his might,
Holy Torah, our Mother, have pity on your children, go and stand before the holy throne, intercede with the father in the sky that he should forgive the sins of your children.... We ourselves are too full of sin, we cannot show our faces for shame, at least ask in the name of little children who have not sinned.... Holy Torah, devoted mother, do not forsake us in this difficult hour...
Purified, the rabbi turns his head to his flock, certain that he has succeeded in his request ... speaks politely and points out to his community that they should not forget that today is a holiday and that it should not be turned into a day of mourning. After all, God is a father and a father forgives...
Rabbi Moshe Chazanovitch continues his singing and the choirboys chant along hour after hour, late into the night. By the time the praying concludes, most of the crowd is drained of tears, exhausted and purified ready to go home for a few hours of sleep.
But soon something occurs which most of the crowd did not expect. From somewhere, Rafaelke Esties appears. He approaches the platform and strikes it, calling attention that he plans to take over the command; and screams out in a lion's voice: Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, and does not stand in the way of the sinner, and does not dwell with evil...
And Rafaelke's voice is so strong and clear that it is impossible to believe that he has just completed four hours of intensive praying. But even more astounding is the very large chorus that responds to him, with the same high spirit and the same enthusiasm and freshness, with the second verse of the Psalm:
For in Torah lies his hope and in His Torah he meditates day and night.
And in this way, one verse responding to another verse, a verse from Rafaelke and a verse from the crowd, all the Psalms are completed. A task lasting two to three hours.
Alter Witchel. Naturally, we will mention our first and very modest Alter Witchel, our treasurer. As I have already said earlier, although he is not a native from Visoke or Volchin still, our landsleit should learn a thing or two from him, let alone from the way in which he fulfills his duty. Always so punctual, always ready and willing to do all he can, always interested in obtaining a donation from people, and the more he gets, the better; and always showing personally that he never lags behind. If we only had a few hundred people like Alter Witchel among us, just imagine what it could do for us: our cash box would be much richer, our unfortunate brethren on the other side of the ocean would get much more help from us, and our committee would find it less difficult to try to awaken our long-dormant landsleit.
Joe Vitzel. He is a landsman through and through. He knows everybody and everybody knows him. He earned his reputation after WWI when he made the working of the Wisoko Relief a success. The Wisoko Relief did very good work in Visoke and was active there until the Hitlerite animals converted everything and everybody into a pile of ashes. As soon as the United Relief got itself started,he did not wait for an invitation or for a committee to come and visit him; he started work immediately.... He is always ready and willing to go or to travel anywhere and whenever it is needed, if he is only sure that he will get a few dollars. For him, relief work is a necessity. He knows how significant it is for those who suffer and really need our help. As a good soldier, he will keep to his post until relief work will not be needed anymore...
Sam Rubin. He helped organize the first Wisoko Relief. He personally assisted the organization with big funding. Personally, he donated generously and we all know how this encouraged the committee. The most that other organizations need are workers, but the most the Relief needs are givers and, the more, the better. To his credit, it should be said that he made many donations. We cannot say that he is active now in our United Relief. This, for different reasons: lack of time, one grows older, one gets tired but, thanks God, he has not tired yet from donating as he has shown us several times, and we hope and wish that he will carry on donating and, the more, the better.
Charlie Karol is considered one of our most devoted landsleit. His record as a relief worker is brilliant. He specially distinguished himself in Passaic, where he lives. In a certain sense, he was the New Jersey President, and all those who helped him with the first Relief know this very well. All can confirm that he delivered invaluable work there. As soon as the Passaic Section, with Charlie Karol at its head, was up and running, results started coming in. We believe in his devotion and in his capabilities, and we are sure he will not disappoint us.
Sydney Seybin has joined us recently, and has been with us for only a short time. He already occupies a fine position. How could such a man hide until now and the landsleit hadn't discoveredhim? I don't know; maybe you do. How goes the saying: better late than never. He became directly a member of the Wysoker Fareyn [Wysoker Association], and he directly became a distinguished and outstanding worker in the Relief. It looks like both sides are happy with the match. May this go on for long years to come.
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