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[Page 332]

Active resistance

 

During the time of the Nazi conquest, individuals and groups among the people of Wierzbnik have taken part in the active resistance against the cruel enemy, joining whatever armies and fighting organizations that would take them in, for many have refused to do so.

Many of these attempts have met with failure and some even resulted in casualties.

The Jews of Wierzbnik joined the partisan units based in the nearby forests, as well as the ranks of the Soviet and Polish armies and fought alongside them against the common enemy.

We have room only for a few of their stories, each the tale of an active warrior in one of the three branches of resistance mentioned above, whose actions and sacrifices represent those of many other Jews from Wierzbnik-Starachowice, their comrades-in-arms who risked their lives and fought for their oppressed people.


[Page 333]

In the Woods of Wierzbnik (With the Partisans)

David Sali

After many wanderings, I arrived together with my younger brother in Mansera to work there. My sister reached this place some time before. I did all kinds of manual odd jobs there.

On the 24th of June 1944, the Gestapo arrived and encircled the Camp on three sides with the “Gmina” flowing on the other flank. Their purpose was to supervise the transfer to the bigger Camp in Starachowice, and from there to the railway sidings with the ultimate destination, Auschwitz.

The Germans came in the afternoon, whilst I was working with the second shift. When we heard of their arrival, their intentions were clear to us and it didn't take much time for us to decide on the spot, to try and flee to the woods.

The windows of one side of the factory, where we worked, looked over the river. We broke the windowpanes and jumped into the river. The noise of the break and excitement of a few groups of people aroused the Germans, who started firing at us with rifles and machineguns. We crossed the river at all possible speed and in this attempt many of us were hit by the German's bullets.

All this happened so quickly that I did not even have the time to say goodbye to my sister.

Having crossed the river, we ran to the woods and divided up into smaller groups and individuals as not to present an easy mark for our pursuers.

On our way we had to cross the busy urban road leading to Ostrowiec and Skavzysko. We passed this highway without any mishaps and finally arrived in the adjoining forest.

Everyone ran his own way and when I arrived in the forest I found myself alone. After half an hour or so I met two friends from our town, Meir Sternkrantz and Moshe Pinchevsky, who had also fled at the same opportunity. Meanwhile, the sun had set and a deep darkness cam over the forest. We were still wet from the river crossing and we suffered from the cold. Because of the darkness amidst strange surroundings, we stopped marching and “encamped” on the spot. The whole night we spent beneath the trees and talked about the happenings of the past and especially about what was awaiting us and how to go on. Needless to say, we didn't sleep a wink the whole night but we had made our first decision. We were to make our way further into the depth of the forest because we were too near its outer edge and all the dangers that ensued.

We continued another few miles and stopped at a densely wooded spot, which provided better cover against any unwanted peeping eyes.

At this time we were still under the deep impression and excitement of the recent events and didn't miss not having food. After two days of not tasting any food and taking into consideration the physical effort of our forced marching, hunger began to harry us more and more. We came to the conclusion that we had to provide ourselves with this important item, food, were we to continue this way. Whilst this was on our minds, we noticed through the trees the peasants carrying vegetables and milk products (cheese, butter, etc.) were on their way to town. We decided to approach them and ask for some food. To our pleasant surprise, they gave us some, although not from goodwill but from fear, taking us as Partisans.

These same peasants, returning from the market, told the Partisans who were quartered in their village of their meeting with Jewish Partisans who had so-called robbed them on the way. The Partisans, who had apparently taken upon themselves the “protection” of the peasants, were angered and began looking for us.

Having stilled our hunger, we were once more on the march deeper into the forest. On the way we met a small group of Jews, who had fled from our Camp and from other places. Altogether we numbered already 48 men.

Since our ranks grew, our self-confidence increased somewhat and we fixed our encampment in a certain spot in the forest. Without any tools or material at our disposal, we obviously were unable to put up tents or any other structures for that matter. We simply encamped on the spot as we were whilst patrols were sent out in different directions to discover any Partisans.

Within our enlarged group, discussions started as to our immediate goal but soon it became clear that we could not rely on ourselves since we were not self-sufficient. Our only possibility was to join on of the Partisan's units, which was not unfriendly to us. This will explain the reconnoitering parties and probing towards the end.

At night some men were sent to an adjoining village, Ratkowice, to get some food. I was chosen together with my friend Pinchevsky, to be the leaders of these expeditions to the village. One of these excursions I remember especially well. At dusk we both set out and carefully made our way to the house of the village chief who lived with a Jewish woman as his wife. Without the villagers knowing her real identity and with her help, we gathered the necessary food products. The village chief realized that we were Jewish but chose to ignore this because he himself was living with a Jewish woman.

One day, armed members of the A.K. encircled our group, and warned us not to go near the village anymore and not to demand food from the villagers. They threatened that they would kill us if we did not comply.

We asked them, “Where will we get our food supplies to stay alive? After all, we want to join the Partisans.”

Their response was, “Do come and join us.” Most of us declined this invitation, because we were wary of the A.K. people and questioned their real intentions and did not feel at ease with them. In spite of the majority's decisions, six men joined the A.K. and went with them.

Four days later we found their bodies, all six of them murdered in cold blood, not far from the village.

Shortly after this episode, another group of Polish Partisans, who were associated with the P.P.S party, wearing the party's initials on their armbands, stopped nearby.

We went out to meet them and expressed out wish to join their ranks. Their reaction was to order us to undress, it was futile to resist since they were armed and we had no weapons. Then they searched our clothes and took all the money they found. After the search and robbery they simply marched off, explaining that they were only a pioneer company and that the bulk of the unit with the commanders would shortly appear and that we should apply to them.

In fact, the next day the whole Partisans unit appeared. Again, we repeated our request before the commanders. They listened patiently and heard the story of the robbery that was perpetrated by their men the day before. They took full particulars from each of us what was stolen, promised to look into the matter and to return us the stolen money.

Yet, they rejected our pleas to join them and had the stupid and bad-hearted excuse of asking us, “Why didn't you flee the Germans a few years earlier?” Then off they went…

Amongst the commanders we recognized a few who were from our town. One of them I knew personally well since he was imprisoned before the war, as a Communist together with my cousin. I used this “kinship” to urge him to use his influence at least to see to it that the stolen money be returned to us.

Our money was returned to us in full a few days later. Looking back, I cannot help but draw the conclusion that in spite of their correctness about the return of the stolen money, their refusal to admit us to their ranks stemmed out of deep-rooted “principles” by being Anti-Semites, they did not want any Jews amongst them.

Shortly afterwards we met another big Partisan unit and once more we tried our luck. After some negotiations, one of the officers-in-charge announced that in principle they agreed to accept us, on condition that we proved ourselves in deed as well as in words. “Procure yourselves arms and we will accept you as a group within our ranks.”

He advised us how and where to put our hands on German weapons, upon which we decided to take up the challenge for lack of another choice.

The unit was stationed in the forest some distance away from us. After they had left us, we drew up plans and decided upon a course of action as told hereafter.

 

The Acquisition of Arms

According to the information we had, the Germans used to come down to a village once a week in order to collect tax, which they gathered in food, meat, chickens, etc. Usually five men arrived with a cart, and our plan was to overcome the German who was left in charge of the cart, steal his rifle and then to deal with the rest.

At noon, the following day, five men Pinchevsky, Mats the cobbler, may his blood be revenged, another two men whose names I don't remember and myself marched down to the village. Nearing the place we watched and waited the German's arrival. From afar we saw four soldiers going to the first farmhouse, it was them that we ran unseen to the remaining guard and tackled him from behind. He was taken completely by surprise, which left him aghast, and he didn't utter one word. Two of us remained to guard him, whilst the rest ran up to the house.

Newly armed with the German's rifle, one of us took up position near the window and the other two entered the house. The one outside the window ordered the Germans to put up their hands, which they did without resistance and our men collected their weapons.

With our precious charge, a revolver and four rifles, we made off at all speed to the forest. We returned to our group, whose joy knew no bounds, and we were feted like heroes.

After the excitement had subsided we decided to send a delegated and present our newly acquired arms to the headquarters of the Partisans.

They were impressed by our achievement and the commander announced his decision on the spot that he was ready to receive our group within their ranks. On hearing those words, we hurried off to the rest of our group to announce to them the good tidings. Next morning, we moved to a new encampment nest to the Partisans.

Our group consisted, at the time, of 37 men and 3 girls, one of them I remember was Tamara Weisblum, and may her blood be revenged.

The swearing-in ceremony was held at a general parade and the commander stressed in his welcoming address the ultimate command not to leave any arms on the battlefield. “Rather return without your head than without your weapon…”

All of us were equipped with arms; some of us got rifles whilst the rest received sub-machine guns of Russian make.

The man who negotiated with us and was responsible for our initiation into the Partisans was no other than Mitchlev Motzar, who today is the deputy Prime Minister of Poland.

We were all integrated within the different platoons of the unit. I was posted as runner at headquarters. From then on we were part and parcel of the Partisans, and we took part in all their activities and operations.

 

The First Encounter

In an adjoining village to the forest was an informer, who used to keep us posted on the German's movements. One day we were warned that the Germans intended to make a comb-out of the forest. Usually they avoided the forest and when they did venture into the forest they used Mongolian P.O.W. for that purpose.

I was sent together with my friend Pinchevsky to try to substantiate this information. It was in the early evening when we arrived at the outskirts of the forest and a deafening noise of chains reached our ears. We advanced about 100 meters when suddenly we heard the Germans command “HALT”.

Darkness had set in already; we stopped in our steps and looked around to find out where the voice came from. About 200 meters in front of us there was the silhouette of a tent where the guard was. Instinctively, we threw two hand grenades in that direction to cover our withdrawal. We certainly needed no further confirmation, since the facts spoke for themselves.

The explosion of the grenades invited a volley of fire from the village. The bullets shrieked around us and found their mark in the trees. We reported back to headquarters, where preparations were being made for the forthcoming encounter.

The fighting tactics in a forest are different altogether. Trenches are not dug and only the big trees provide the ample camouflage and cover against bullets. We prepared to meet the German onslaught.

The night passed relatively quiet, although from afar we could hear the German's movements. We had posted lookouts near the outskirts of the forest. Next day hoards of Mongolians under German command reached the outer ring of the forest, marching upright and shouting battle cries.

The Partisans outmaneuvered the Germans, attacked them from the rear and broke through their lines. Battling their way through, they succeeded in getting to another part of the forest where the Germans encamped. We suffered casualties, dead and wounded.

Two days before this battle, one of our friends was injured. We got medical help to him, who could do little to help him but dress his wounds. He could not be moved. With the enemy approaching we decided to hide him in the forest. I was told to stay close to him, thereupon I climbed a high tree and settled under its crest and remained in observation there the whole time. I had a few hand grenades and a rifle, and had made up my mind that if worst came to worst, I would throw the grenades at the Germans and put an end to my life. Fortunately, the Mongolians passed by me without discovering my presence, although they did find our wounded friend and loaded him on a cart. I was unable to come to his help since the overwhelming enemy numbers. Shortly afterwards we found his body and buried him. He had been shot through the head.

After the Germans had gone, I climbed down the tree and started looking for the unit. On the way I met other members who had dispersed during the fighting, together we walked until we finally found the new encampment.

The Germans continued these comb-outs on and off every few weeks.

Besides these defensive actions, there were planned operations by our unit. Our unit was a mixed crowd, there were Poles, Jews and escaped Russian P.O.W. from German prison camps who had joined us. Amongst them were many minorities: Tartars, Gruzinim, Azbedjanim and white Russians. We had radio contact with the Partisan command in Kiev.

From time to time planes appeared overhead, usually at night, and parachuted arms and men. The parachutists constituted a unit of their own and they operated apart, without anyone sharing their secrets. I approached this unit once and got friendly with them; imagine my surprise to hear some of them talking Yiddish. It appeared that there were some Jews amongst them, a fact that strengthened our morale.

One day a unit was detailed to blow up an ammunition train on its way to the front.

For this operation the unit was made up of Poles, Russians and one Jew, Israel Rosenberg. The action was a success, all of them returned without any casualties, but the Jew was missing. We learned later that he was murdered by the Poles, his “brother-inarms” who had participated in the operation with him.

The whole story came to light when his body was found in the forest, some time after the action. The Poles had reported that he had been killed in action, but we had serious doubts about the truth of this statement. We knew them [Poles] as they were, rabid Anti-Semites, and decided to bring the matter to the attention of the commander, Motzar, who ordered an immediate inquiry.

Two of the Poles were found guilty of the murder and were sentenced to death and executed the 7th of November, Revolution Day. Together with them, a number of spies and provocateurs that had been planted by the Germans within our ranks, went to the firing squad.

The blowing up of trains and railways were frequent actions that Jews participated actively.

 

Provision of Food

At some distance there was a big farm estate that belonged to a Polish landowner and which the Germans had confiscated. The Partisans used to “pay them a visit” from time to time to get food supplies for the whole unit. Since the Germans guarded the place, these excursions always entailed bitter fighting.

 

A Story About a Cow

During the German comb-out we were obliged to leave our encampment and leave behind our food provisions in wooden cases, which we couldn't take with us. The Germans carted them away. When I returned to the place I saw a cow attached to a tree. I reported this to my unit commander who detailed a few men to go with me to guide them to the place, and to examine whether it was a trap or not.

There were six Tartars who did not want to go out of laziness and fright. On the way they told me, “If there won't be a cow, then you too won't be…”

I began to fear that the cow wouldn't be there anymore, perhaps someone had forestalled us because we were a few miles marching distance away. When we finally got there, tents had been put up and we saw two Mongolians in German uniforms with rifles, but there was no sign of the cow.

We lay down on the ground, “my” Tartars pointed their arms in the direction of the Mongolians and ordered me to go in towards them whilst they covered me. I had no alternative, the odds were one against six, and so I started out.

Meanwhile, the Mongolians had observed me and gave sign that they had no intention of fighting. When I got to them they told me that they were deserters who had deserted the Germans during the comb-out and wanted to join the Partisans. We took them with us to our headquarters. But “my” Tartars kept on bothering me and asking, “Where is the cow?”

I was confused and didn't know what to answer, when to my great surprise help came from an unexpected quarter. Hearing the question about the cow, the two Mongolians confirmed that they too had seen the cow and that a farmer from the village had taken her away half an hour earlier.

On our return journey to the unit, the Tartars led us a different route. When we arrived on the open space where arms and ammunition were usually parachuted, they told me to go in front. I noticed they had lowered their rifles from their shoulder straps, which aroused an immediate suspicion within me. I had a feeling they intended to kill me. It was then that I took advantage of the fact that there were many water shoals on the way and started to jump as if to avoid the water. I was running in my underpants and suddenly started to flee as fast as I could, assuming that I would be out of range already before they could point their rifles.

I didn't have to wait long before the first shots rang out; my forebodings had come true. I ran on into the deepness of the forest and had escaped from my fate at their hands. The distance to the unit being still considerable, I decided to spend the night in hiding. Next day, I made it to the vicinity of the unit, where I met a Jewish friend of mind who was on his way to fetch water. I told him of my adventure and asked him to bring me food and clothes and also to report the whole story to the commander. He sent for me, and it became evident that the Tartars had forestalled me with their version and had reported that the story about the cow was pure invention on my part and that I had fled.

The commander heard me out and upon my accusation ordered an inquiry.

Once more the two Mongolians saved the day for me, as they had done so earlier. The Tartars got their due punishment of continuous guard duty for a whole week.

 

The Day of Liberation

We were now in winter 1944, the Germans were in full withdrawal from the main front and our region filled with large German troop units that had retreated. The time had passed when small units could be of any use and the front line was rapidly coming nearer. In these circumstances, we were told to cross the lines and go over to the Russians. The front was about 60 miles away, near Sandomir. We marched the whole night through and before dawn we had neared the lines. In every village on the way we picked up a local guide who led us through the German concentrations. We heard the explosions of shells and small arms fire.

We marched in Indian file, Pinchevsky and I went up the rear. It was our duty to cut the German communication wires.

The whole area was covered in a deep layer of snow and had apparently one line, when suddenly we found ourselves before barbed wire guarding the trenches.

The order was given to storm the trenches and we opened fire. The Germans replied in kind and we continued fighting until we had crossed their lines. We were now in no-man's land.

The Germans opened up mortar fire. We suffered many casualties whilst crossing the lines and now from this infernal fire.

We were left without officers or guides, nor did we have a compass so we didn't know in which direction to run. Firing continued with rockets falling on all sides. We were afraid that the Russians, perhaps in the immediate vicinity, would suddenly open up fire against us not knowing our identity. Therefore we kept on shouting the whole time in Russian, “We are Partisans” in the hope that our voices be heard and to avoid the danger of being caught in crossfire.

It appears that we had crossed the first Russian lines without having been observed, nor had we observed them for that matter. In the meantime, dawn began to appear and we found ourselves again in an empty space, uninhabited so to speak. Once more we were in a quandary which way to turn. All was quiet, no longer did we hear any shooting and we continued marching towards a forest without knowing what fate had in store for us there. We were tired, exhausted and in despair.

We had already reached the forest when we noticed a sign posted to a tree in Russian, “Injured to the Hospital” and underneath was an arrow pointing the way. Needless to say, we took that turn and came upon a concentration of gun emplacements and tanks that abounded there.

Here, for the first time we met Russian soldiers and our meeting was overwhelming. We conversed together and they took us to their headquarters. We recuperated there for some time from all our troubles and looked over our ranks. We had suffered heavy casualties. From 320 men who started out to the front, only 68 survived. The rest was killed with five Jews amongst them.

Here ends the accounts of the Partisan activities by the Jews of the Wierzbnik region.


[Page 341]

Fighting the Nazi Conqueror

Yaacov Snir

When the War between Germany and Poland broke out, I took my Mother and sisters to Ostrowiec, where my uncle lived. By the time I returned to Wierzbnik for my grandmother and a few necessary items, the Germans have captured Ostrowiec and I was forced to change direction and head for Ilza. When we got there, the Polish authorities sent word for all the young men to travel to the other side of the Wisla River, where the main defense against the German invaders will be staged.

 

Hitting the Road

During those horrible days, a newspaper article my Father once read to us kept coming to back haunt my mind. In the article, Hitler claimed among other things that should a war break, all Jews would perish from the face of the earth. The meaning of that announcement was clear to me and I was determined to flee the danger of coming face to face with the Nazi threat. Therefore, I had a constant urge to leave places that were about to be invaded, both during the Germany-Poland War and during the Russo-German War of 1941.

Innocent as we were, we went to great lengths trying to cross the Wisla and join the Resistance. When we got there, we were faced only with disappointment. There was no line of defense, neither an Army nor any kind of fighting force and not even someone to talk to. I continued on my way toward Lublin, and got caught in a Luftwaffe bombardment. I survived through sheer luck. I realized that the place was far from secure and decided to leave the city for the time being. At that point, I ran into other people from Wierzbnik for the first time since I left my home. Among them were the Freemerman brothers, Zeev Killman, and others. We found ourselves bicycles and rode them toward the new USSR/Germany border, along the Bug River where our bicycles were confiscated which forced us to proceed on foot to the nearest town of Vladimir-Volinsky. Here we parted ways and each of us went his own way. It wasn't long before I met other former residents of Wierzbnik, such as the lawyer Shtramer' s family, who asked me to join them.

I traveled with the Shtramers to Lutzk, accompanied by the sounds of German bombardment and the waning Polish Resistance. There were abundant rumors about a treaty between Russia and Germany, which later became known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty. According to the rumors, the Russian were to return to pre-World War I borders and that meant our town of Wierzbnik would be in Russian territory. Embracing that rumor we waited for ten days and then decided to take the initiative and return home. We got on a train bound to the Wierzbnik region, but stopped short when the news declared the new official border was the Bug River.

Those were the days when world order came apart and entire states fell under an almighty German-Nazi conqueror. The roads were full of refugees, tattered Army units and chaos and despair reigned supreme. My Father was in the Polish Army by then, and from time to time I received word from people who met him. Looking for him brought me to Kovel in Volin, where I met to my surprise a group of Wierzbnik youths such as the Goldgrub brothers, Wilenchik, Nudelman, and others. My search for my Father was not going well and I had to decide what to do next. As a young man I was interested in agriculture and in preparations for immigrating to Israel, I wanted to apply at the Agricultural School of Baron Hirsh Foundation near Kolomeya. That did not work out.

Therefore, I decided to apply at the Agriculture School in Slobodka-Leshna, and after a harsh journey I enrolled at the school. Despite being a fugitive, I succeeded this time. We lived in boarding-school conditions. In December 1939, I met my brother Abraham, who fled Wierzbnik and crossed the Russo-German border. He knew my whereabouts from letters and food packages I sent home with as much money as I could get by working at the Food Conservatory and as a farmer.

 

Rumors of a Pogrom by the Ukrainians

After the Russo-German War broke out in June 1941, the Soviet teachers and the entire school management left suddenly at night. The students were left behind and everything crumbled. The local students returned home, and the others were left dumbfounded. Rumors spread about a pogrom about to take place, and we spontaneously formed a Resistance. We barricaded one of the halls, armed ourselves with rocks and clubs, and set watches. The Ukrainian attackers seemed to lose interest as they learned of our preparations, and after a few days the whole affair was forgotten and the Jewish pupils, boys and girls alike, were sent home. A day before the German Army came with cannon blasts and exploding shells echoing all around, I left the school along with two friends and we headed east toward the old border on the river Zbruch. We suffered aerial bombardments and machinegun fire from the German airplanes the entire journey. We crossed the Russian border toward Kaminitz-Podolsky. Food was not easy to come by and most of the time we went hungry, finding only scraps of this and that left in the fields to settle our hunger. For a short time we joined a Russian unit on a retreat and walked 40 kilometers a day. We mostly walked after dark and after several days we reached Kirovograd. When we were close to the city, something spectacular happened. As the nightly bombardment was commencing, the whole city lit up despite the blackout making the Germans' job a whole lot easier. German agents also infiltrated important places and signaled airplanes with colorful flares and rockets.

 

A Burning Mosaic

As we left the city we saw a wonderful vision. The city was burning with all the colors of the rainbow. Several factories that contained the various kindling that burned with colorful flames such as fuel reserves, wood stoves, spirit factories, and gas reserves each burned a different color. It was quite a spectacular show for such a horrible and deadly event. We left in a hurry, walking all night and reaching the city of Vinniza. We didn't have a place to stay, and had to sleep outdoors at public parks and other such places. We also had no food but there were refugee help centers, which supplied food for the needy.

I decided to join the Red Army and after a short inquiry was sent to Uman. When I got there I faced repeated rejections, based on the fact that they did not want to recruit people from the Ukrainian provinces conquered in 1939. I found out that they were looking for volunteers and people who would stay in the captured territories and perform acts of sabotage against the enemy (the organized Partisan movement was still unknown in those days). I was rejected for similar reasons. A rumor spread that the German forces were advancing toward us, and the rumors were further substantiated when the authorities gave the Military orders to open its stores and supply food and clothing to the population. Many left the city, making haste, and I was caught in the crowd heading east.

We walked day and night, 128 long kilometers of harsh terrain. We were exhausted and without food or water. I don't remember the exact route we took, but I remember passing Piervomaysk, then entering a small woodland area to rest a while. We were certain that 150 kilometers left us far enough from the advancing German forces. As we sat down we heard the echoes of the German bombardment and the Russian Retaliation and knew that we were mistaken as the front lines were catching up to us. We sat in that clearing feeling trapped, explosions on all sides of us. We gathered our strength and began marching east, hoping to avoid capture.

Near the village of Virzovka we ran across railroad tracks. My schoolmate Israel Verthime (from Rava-Ruska) and I decided to stay and wait for the train because we figured that the race between the walking refugees and the mobile German Army would be a futile one. We managed to board a train delivering coal to Dnierpropetrowsk, where life was still untouched by the war except for food rationing and recruiting for both the Army and various arms factories. We stayed there for three days until the German bombardment began. Then we tried crossing the Dnieper River by train. This required a special license given only to high-class citizens, but we snuck aboard the train and hid under the benches. When the conductor discovered us, we presented our Agriculture student cards. We didn't think the student cards would save us because they were quite meaningless during the War, but luckily the conductor's son was an Agriculture student as well. He spared us. We got to Kharkov, and later learned that our train was last to pass the river Dnieper before Russian demolition squads destroyed the bridge. We got off the train in Kharkov and went to a refugee center, which was opened to help the refugees from western regions of Russia. We received food coupons and a place to sleep in a public building. A few days later we turned to the Ministry of Agriculture. Our school was branched to the Ministry and we got assigned to an Agriculture school 100 kilometers west of the city. We began studying there, again in boarding school conditions.

 

Venomous Jewish Hatred

The school was filled with a strong Anti-Semitic atmosphere. The other students did not know we were Jews and thought we were Poles, but all their talks and conversations were full of scorn and mockery of Jews. Ironically enough, the Anti-Semites did not know that the schoolmaster, whose name was Fania Naumovna, was Jewish. They were so full of hatred. The students went to Kharkov and worked hard digging anti-tank trenches because they heard that Jews were working there and wanted to make fun of them. Upon their return, they spent days and nights telling about the behavior of the Jews they met and mocking them.

We didn't study much because the German's advance accelerated and we had to join the refugees moving east, this time in a more organized fashion. We traveled in a freight wagon with other students and personnel who chose to leave.

 

Short on Money

The harvest was good that year. The storerooms were full of grain and students were sent out to sell the grain before the German Army arrived. My friend Israel Verthime and I collected an amount of 30,000 rubles for the grain. When we arrived to deposit the money at the school's office it had already closed and the teller we consulted told us to just, “Leave the bag in the corner”. We did as she said. While we were now on our way we had no money to buy food with. We told the schoolmaster about the 30,000 rubles we collected and left at the school office. She was shocked at the amount and gave us some money to buy food.

We traveled for a month, passing through the mountains and valleys, towns and cities, crossing republics until we reached the foot of the Ural Mountains at the border between Europe and Asia. We arrived at the Autonomic Republic of Bashkiria, populated mostly by Muslims, Bashkir and Tatars. We got off there and were assigned to continue our studies at the Agricultural School of Belibey. The rough Russian winter was coming. The season was late autumn and everything was covered with rime and the temperature was dropping below 25 degrees Celsius. Unaccustomed to the cold, bereft of proper clothing and given poor food we suffered and were forced to resort to ploys that would get us more food. The locals who dressed in furs used to mock us and claim that we were cold because we were not used to the weather.

I soon spoke fluent Russian and was able to mingle with the locals and thus get us adequate conditions in order to survive. Anti-Semitism was uncommon here since few Jews ever lived in this place before. After two months, we heard that a volunteer ski-squad was being assembled and destined to strike behind enemy lines. Since we wanted to start fighting the Germans, my friend Israel Verthime and I went to sign up. We were rejected, allegedly because we weren't members of the Komsomol (despite the fact that other applicants, also not members of the Komsomol, were accepted). We were deeply disappointed.

 

To Officer Artillery School

Meanwhile, a Ukrainian officer who worked in the Mobilization office heard we came from Ukraine and seemed interested in helping us. He scoffed at the ski-squad idea and instead advised us to go to an Officer Artillery school. After some consideration we were on our way to the Military Officer School in Ural. We studied there for a year. After graduating I was sent to further my education at an Artillery Officers' Reserve camp.

It was there that I met a Russian Captain named Milstein who surprised me with his knowledge of the Hebrew language. I was resting when he came over and started speaking Hebrew to me. I was confused and wasn't sure what to do. I wanted desperately to answer him, but feared it was a trap of the Russian secret police. I decided to play it safe and told him I didn't understand him. He said he spoke Hebrew, “ancient Jewish”, as he called it, which he had learned from his grandfather, an enthusiastic Zionist who also taught him Torah and Gmara as well as “Palestinography”. His surprising confession convinced me of his sincerity but I was still afraid. Was this a provocation? I'll never know the answer, but it was a revelation of Russia's great Jewish heritage, which produced the foundations for Zionism.

After six weeks at the reserve camp I was assigned to an Artillery unit. The conditions in the new camp were harsh and the limitations on food and clothing being so strict that people were actually looking forward to being sent to the front lines. After a short regrouping, we were sent to fight near Kharkov at the Ukrainian front. It was during the time shortly after the German's great defeat in Stalingrad from which they could not recover and retreated.

They retreated over a long distance, stopping briefly then moving once more. Yet, they didn't pose much resistance because they lacked the time to form a stable and organized line of defense. The process repeated itself all the way to the Dnieper River. We traveled by foot and by vehicle, moving day and night and pausing only to crush any resistance, which we encountered.

There were places, especially near towns and cities, which the Germans used for their natural defensive potential. Bitter battles were waged there and sometimes degenerating into street brawls. I specifically remember the conquest of Poltava that was won through the clever strategy of sending cavalry to the rear of the German forces. The successful battle and the conquest of the city opened the way for the continued advance of our forces toward the Dnieper River. When we got there, the natural obstacles used by the Germans to form a well-fortified defense line stopped us short.

 

Crossing the Dnieper River

The night before the attack that was supposed to allow us to cross the river, we turned on the headlights of all vehicles and exposed all the areas down to the river. From my high perch, I saw a scene that had a tremendous psychological effect over the enemy. During the night, small teams crossed the river and although they were discovered and came under fire, they managed to form a bridgehead allowing infantry, artillery and armored vehicles to cross over. The bridgehead expanded and we broke through the German line that very day. We proceeded toward the border between Russia and Poland passing on our way small settlements, towns and cities like Kremenchug, Zhitomir and Berdichev, which had a mostly Jewish population, but not a single Jew was left in any of those places. The gentiles told us about the tragedy that befell the Jewish population. The road was lined with razed settlements and only the chimneys left standing were proof they were once full villages and towns as the Germans employed a “scorched earth” retreat tactic.

 

The Korsun-Cherkasy Pocket

Our front lines had marched far ahead while at our rear large numbers of German soldiers, approximately 60,000, remained surrounded. The German High Command moved two armored divisions out of France to rescue these forces. The German troops broke through the Russian lines but stopped short about 5 kilometers from their trapped comrades because they were afraid of getting caught themselves. The small Lishanka River separated them and they called for the captives to make a break toward them. When they received the transmission, the Germans tried to storm the blockade. Tide after tide of wounded and exhausted soldiers started moving. We opened fire and they suffered many casualties but kept coming at us. We received orders to cross the river and dig in on the other side. On our way to the bridge we were ambushed and those who didn't make it to a nearby trench lost their lives. When we crossed the river we came upon stranded tanks. A General began searching for drivers, while the rest of us manned the machine guns. When the Germans appeared we opened fire and killed nearly all of them. Those who tried to cross the river further downstream were met with ambush and were killed. German casualties of the Korsun-Cherkasy Pocket, also nicknamed “Little Stalingrad” were very high. Nearly 18,000 killed, 3,000 wounded and thousands more captured. The commanders of this operation were Marshals Zhukow and Konev.

 

Warmed by Burning Deutsche Marks

On February 16, 1944 the morning following the battle it was very cold. We were staying in a deep ravine hiding from the frozen winds. During the battle we captured the treasury vehicle full of Deutsche Marks, which we burned to warm ourselves. The Russian units continued to advance south towards Romania, while inflicting heavy losses on the Nazi army.

In Romania, I participated in battles to free Bessarabia after crossing the River Prut. We stopped for protection in the city of Yassi. It was then that the Red Army High Command issued orders to send all the Polish-speaking soldiers to Moscow to be reassigned to the Polish army units being formed. I traveled to Moscow to the Artillery Army personnel management. At the personnel management, I met a clerk who helped send me back to a Russian unit because I did not wish to serve in the Polish army that was highly Anti-Semitic.

So, I was sent to a Russian unit that was forming in Belarus. Following the liberation of the city Baranovich we advanced north-west and at the border crossing of Poland-Lithuania-Eastern Prussia. We stumbled across a powerful German defense force that took advantage of the deep ravines near the cities of Eidkunen and Vilkovishki and entrenched themselves. The strong fire opened on our forces stopped the progress of our units and the High Command decided on defensive entrenchment.

 

Meeting General Chernikhovsky

Days drifted by until we received a visit from the Frontline Commander (a rank which during those days was second only to the High Commander of the Army and the Chief of Staff) General Armai Chernikhovsky. I had special interest in him, for he was not only Jewish but also one whose name inspired connotations in every Jewish heart. I awaited his arrival and prepared my soldiers for the important visit When he entered my bunker, I gave him a short review of the situation then he asked me a few questions about the state of my men and their morale and in a more personal tone, about my origins. He was an impressive man of great stature that inspired awe beyond his rank (there were at the time four or five Frontline Commanders such as Zhukow, Konev, Rokosovsky and Bharmian, who later on were all promoted to Marshals). I was thrilled to be in the presence of this man, a Jew who reached the peek of Military office. I don't know whether the other Commanders of the Red Army, whom I didn't get to meet personally, made a habit of visiting frontline outposts. Yet, General Chernikhovsky, after his brief stay at my bunker, walked straight to the front line where he checked the conditions of the soldiers and battled himself.

 

He Perished Shortly After His Visit

His visit left a mark in all who met him. Shortly afterwards, with the visit's memory still fresh in our minds, he died in an accident.

It turned out his visit wasn't merely for show but a probe before the great attack, which was set into motion with massive artillery fire and infantry assault. The enemy line was breached and we pushed forward with all our might. The enemy made a fast retreat and our forces were having a hard time catching up.

Everything had to be done with haste and with a dazzling speed; based on the fact that the faster one moves the harder it is for the enemy to regroup. So, speed would save casualties or in military terms, “the more sweat, the less blood”. The only negative result was that our rush caused a traffic jam near a town. The Germans had abandoned six barreled mortars not far away, so you couldn't miss them when you came down the road. Some soldiers, including my own, took interest in those horrible weapons. For some reason, I can't recall why, I didn't let my soldiers near the things. Later that day, General Chernikhovsky and his entourage passed by that field and took interest in the mortars. The first person to touch the weapon set off a big blast, killing them all. The mortars were booby-trapped and General Chernikhovsky was among the fallen in that fatal accident. His death made me feel very sad and downcast.

 

The Battle Over Kenigsberg

This time our progress was much slower as the Germans had a large concentration of troops in that area and every step of the way bought with it blood. The enemy saw they were losing men without being able to maintain the defense line, and decided to surrender the region and rescue the fighting force via sea. But the closer they got to the shore, the more they were pushed into a narrow land strip. We opened fire with all our weapons at the Germans trying to board the escape barges that were supposed to bring them to safety. My artillery crew played a substantial part in “softening” the enemy there and with its complete annihilation opened the road to the great city of Kenigsberg (whose named was later changed to Kaliningrad).

From that point on, our advance was hindered only by minor problems until we reached the city, where we stopped to refresh ourselves before the upcoming grand assault. After a while the artillery started “softening” the enemy and the charge started at the first few blocks. There was substantial resistance and we suffered many casualties. Massive fire was opened on us and we had to fight for every house and yard. In those close-quarters situations, the artillery was made useless, as it had to make its winding way out into the open.

It was then that I was separated from my unit and found myself a target for German snipers hiding up in the high stories of buildings. I glanced up and saw a German aiming his rifle at me from the window of a house across the street. I realized that whoever pulled the trigger first would win, so I aimed and fired. I saw the gun fall out of the window, but other snipers took aim at me. A German soldier suddenly appeared and tried to lob a grenade toward me. I shot him and he fell on his grenade, absorbing the blast. I was like an acrobat, jumping here and there to avoid being hit. I felt alone in battle, fighting to keep myself out of danger's clutches every step of the way. I clung to the building wall, moving forward and saved by pure miracle from a rifle shot. A new miracle every minute, no, every second! I reached the corner of the building and flung myself around it, hoping for salvation but the fire was every bit as intense there as well. I heard footsteps behind me and then saw a German soldier running toward me. I realized he had cover and started running away. I ran along walls and between houses until I saw a crevice in the wall. I squeezed myself into it and as the German passed by, I shot him with the last of my ammunition. I kept maneuvering toward our forces but all the twists and turns left me out in the open, with a wall blocking my path. I couldn't go over it because it would have exposed me to the marksmen, so I turned back and crossed the street with a sudden leap. There I was protected from most of the fire and able to advance safely until I reached my unit, exhausted but alive.

I arrived just as our forces were preparing to storm the center of town. Massive artillery “softening” began, followed by infantry charges. The German's resistance wavered and after being pushed out of some key positions they abandoned the city and headed out to sea.

The German High Command meant to rescue the forces by sea, much like the allies did at Dunkirk at the start of the war. But before they could evacuate their men, we surrounded them and pushed them towards the ocean. Unable to organize their evacuation in time, our artillery wreaked havoc and killed many. They were called to surrender but refused and so their fates were sealed.

The Germans suffered a great defeat there. By doing my duty of fighting the evil will of the Nazi enemy, I felt more satisfaction than a common soldier would.

 

The Battle of Berlin

After two days of fighting in the streets, the city was purged and our forces continued their march west. My tattered unit was sent to the rear to recuperate and fill in the missing ranks, a process that normally took a month, but in those days with the end of the Nazi beast seeming to draw near we were back on the front lines within a few days. This time we went south to Kotbus, a city on the road to the beast's lair, Germany's capital of Berlin. Indeed, we traveled quickly by foot and by vehicle and reached the city's entrance. You could feel the preparations for the final battle all around. Both sides gathered massive forces and every kind of weapon. It is not my place to describe this historical battle, but I have a drop of it to call my own in that vast sea of battles.

The major attack began at night, with thousands of Russian projectors blinding the enemy while artillery and aerial bombardment pounded at them.

 

Two Against Four

The main charge came at dawn. After breaching enemy lines our forces flowed into the city, while the Germans were in shambles. There was chaos at the point of resistance. Retreating German infantry occasionally mixed with the fleeing civilian population. Waves of refugees were pouring into the maelstrom of blood and lead. Men, most of them elderly, women and children were in the midst with all with their packages, a sight that can only be explained by a common phenomenon of the horrors of the war.

Our cannons were stationed near a big building and we started firing at points of resistance. The war split into two parts: one above ground was the fires of battle, the shots, guns and cannons and the other one below ground where a population was in hiding while waiting for the battle to end.

Under those circumstances, some contact was made between local citizens and the conquering Army. A German civilian came to tell us, for his own unknown reasons, about German officers hiding in his apartment nearby. Full of confidence forged in the heat of battle, I told my driver to come with me and we went to the apartment. The door was locked and chained and my demands to open it were not met. I ordered my driver to fetch a crowbar and we broke through the meager fortifications. A gunshot was heard inside, and only once we entered did we solve that mystery. One of the five men in the room had taken his own life. They were dressed like civilians, but wore military boots. When I cried, “hands up” one tried to flee through the nearby kitchen door and another tried to reach for his pocket. I opened fire and so did my driver and they fell. The four “civilians” turned out to be S.D. Officers and we found a large weapon cache hidden in the sofa.

Such cases of Army-Guerrilla warriors increased. When one day, the communication line between the heavy artillery units and the scouting teams went dead. I sent two men to repair it. When they did not come back, I sent others who reported on their return that the first two were ambushed by Germans and tortured before being killed. It was amazing how the Germans, even on the verge of doom, refused to give up their lust for blood and cruelty. It was like the elders said, “evil men will not repent even at the very gates of hell.”

When the city finally fell, on May 2, 1945 and the war was almost over, our unit climbed the stairs to the Reichstag where we took a triumphant group photo.


[Page 350]

In the Ranks of the Polish Army

Moshe (Michael) Samet

Two days before the German invasion I have fled to the neighboring town, Iłża. The newspapers and the rumors gave me a clear picture of the plans the Nazis had for us Jews, and I was determined to get out of Wierzbnik before their arrival and avoid any contact with them. I have heard that the Nazis abuse and humiliate Jews, and those who refused to accept these horrors and showed resistance have all met with the same fate: murder! As a man of dignity, I knew I could not survive under such conditions and concluded that I had to disappear, quickly and at any cost. I had an acquaintance In Iłża, a wealthy Jew who bought the two of us bicycles, which we used to leave town. After a few hours of pedaling we stopped for a short rest, and two Polish soldiers in uniform approached us and confiscated our bicycles. This daylight robbery has forced us to continue on foot.

When we arrived at the town of Sarna, we stumbled into a heavy German bombardment. People panicked and sought refuge and in the confusion I was separated from my friend, who I never saw again. A while later I met a Jewish girl in the street. She realized I was a refugee and invited me to her home. Her parents were very courteous and allowed me to stay with them until the danger has passed. I wanted to repay them with what little money I had, but they would not hear of it.

In the meantime there were unexpected developments on the front line and we heard rumors about the Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty and the unopposed advance of the German army eastward toward Rokitno and from there to the town of Robno. The situation in town roughly mirrored the weather. It was the mid-autumn and already possible to hear the footsteps of winter drawing closer. The Polish army suffered a complete defeat and what was left of the regular forces crossed the border to Romania. The large army storehouses were full of food and uniforms, and after the units have left, the rear guard distributed these uniforms on demand. I too have arrived there and received military garbs. Since I was still young, the uniform was too big for me.

To my surprise, I stumbled upon a group of people from Wierzbnik who used to serve in the Polish army and were now like sheep without their shepherd. Among them were: Vigdorovich, Taichman and Moshe Shiner. The latter I knew well, because I was friends with his two sons, Avraham and Yaakov, and the three of us belonged to the Beitar movement in Wierzbnik. This group numbered a total of eight people, and after a brief discussion we decided to go home. I joined them and became the youngest member of the group.

We headed out on foot, because we had no private means of transport and public services were completely paralyzed. We intended to head for the new border between Russia and Germany, cross it and take the shortest route home.

Along the way, we were fortunate enough to get rides from random vehicles that were headed in our direction. After walking and riding for three days, we reached the town of ZamoϾ, which lay on the border between the two countries. We managed to hire a carter to smuggle us across the border, and he did just that.

After the excitement of crossing the border, we decided on a short rest. We were relieved to have this experience behind us. After a short while, we got up and continued marching. A few miles down the road we met four German soldiers, who were walking in the opposite direction. They stopped us and asked: “Where are you going?”

They seemed to be one of the patrols in charge of securing the area. We told them we were headed home and they let us go. We walked another four or five kilometers before we stumbled into another German patrol, but this time we weren't as lucky. Instead of letting us go, they seemed to consider us “a catch”, and without further ado they marched us back to Zamoœæ, where they stopped by a church and took us inside.

The church was full of people, perhaps 2,000 in all, and all of them captives from the defeated Polish army – soldiers and officers of every rank – including quite a few Jews. Assessing the situation, I realized that we were considered prisoners of war. This seemed like an mistake to me, because I was far too young to serve in the army and was only wearing a military uniform by coincidence.

I tried explaining the situation to anyone who would listen, but no person of rank would listen to me despite my desperate pleas. I offered documents that would prove my age, but they wouldn't even look at them. Therefore, I had to stay at this church with the Polish prisoners of war, even though I was never a soldier.

Conditions in that place were very harsh. The only food we received during the day was one loaf of bread for every four people, and a bit of coffee, and people were rarely allowed to step away and relieve themselves.

Things continued this way for three weeks, and then freight trucks have arrived to take away all the Polish soldiers, leaving behind only the Jews and the sick, who had to march by foot. This march was particularly hard for the sick, but the Germans terrorized anyone who showed signs of resistance and we were forced to continue marching, escorted by armed guards and watchdogs.

The atmosphere during our stay at the “prisoner church” and the march that followed it made it clear to me that the future held even greater dangers, and I started thinking about escaping.

I discussed the matter with Mr. Shiner but he opposed to the idea, worrying that I might get hurt or die.

I was swayed by his personality and public standing and postponed any escape plans for the time being. After a day's walk we were brought to a rural settlement and crammed together into a stable. This place was by no means fit for so many people, and grew more and more crowded by the moment until there was no air left to breathe. People were begging for a little air, cried out and pleaded with the Nazi guards, but the guards reacted to the contrary. They threatened to kill us all if we did not shut up immediately…

We already had enough contact with the Nazi army and its heralds to take their threats seriously. People hushed and accepted their terrible suffering despite the tight situation, with a silence that “cried” to the heavens.

The brutality of the German guards tested our endurance; the prisoners were not even allowed to leave the stable to relieve themselves, resulting in things that I am prevented from describing. The captives were tortured in this manner for another day and then we were all taken to the Wisła river and shipped across it on barges, near the town of Ostrowiec, about 28 kilometers from Wierzbnik. We were put in a temporary detention camp prepared for us and rumors quickly spread that we would be transferred to Germany from there.

 

Escape from the detention camp

This place was supposed to hold us for an extended period of time, and therefore it was run in the same way as a prison, which meant specific visiting hours.

People from Wierzbnik started arriving looking for relatives, and among them was Pola Shiner, accompanied by a man I didn't know. They brought me news from home, which slightly cheered me up.

I was facing a hard decision. I was constantly worried about the fact that I was too young to serve in the army. I was afraid that my “crime” would be exposed, and imagined that the punishment I would receive from the Germans would be harsh. On the other hand, the fact that my random capture was never recorded or documented gave me hope of escaping under the proper circumstances. This situation seemed like a chance to carry out my plans. It occurred to me that I could get rid of the military uniform, mingle with the visitors and go back with them to Wierzbnik.

I told Mr. Shiner about my plan and he approved of it, giving me his blessing and some money “just in case”. When visiting hours were over, the Germans started urging people to finish their visits and leave the place. People hugged and kissed while the Germans screamed, resulting in mayhem that afforded me the chance to quickly take off my uniform, and stay wearing only the civilian clothes under them. I followed the example of the other visitors, hugged my acquaintances and waited for the policemen to urge me out. The moment came and I left the place, nervously holding the arms of Pola Shiner and the man who came with her.

 

Going to Donbas

We walked back to our town, Wierzbnik, and went our separate ways at the suburbs, each of us heading home. While I was walking, meeting acquaintances along the way, I heard news that people were being abducted off the streets to do forced labor. The youths, who were likely candidates for these abductions, went into hiding and I immediately entered the house next to me. The place turned out to be a cobbler's workshop and realizing that I was still wearing combat boots, I exchanged them for normal shoes so they would not betray my recent adventures, to the joy of the old cobbler. I stayed there for a long while, waiting for the danger to pass, and then went out to the street again, but after taking a few steps I realized that the danger was not gone yet. I saw a barbershop and entered it, asking for a haircut. Several people were inside, talking about a prisoner who escaped from the camp in the neighboring town…

I listened to them and realized that they were talking about me. As it turned out, the Germans were fanatic about order, and although I wasn't processed properly and my presence wasn't documented, the Germans knew the total number of prisoners and discovered my escape the first time they took count again.

In time, I learned that they have conducted an endless number of censuses and lineups to determine whether this was the result of an escape or a miscount.

After getting my hair cut, I went back into the street and had the misfortune of bumping occasionally into Germans in uniform on my way home. Some of them stopped me and inquired about my business, but I managed to escape those situations unharmed. There was no way of escaping them completely unscathed, however, and one incident deeply shocked me. In one of the streets, I saw Germans stop people and inquire about Nachum More, a known madman; they wanted to know whether he was truly insane or merely trying to fool them. The people they asked were afraid that the Germans might take offense at his behavior, leading to inevitable retribution. They innocently replied that the person in question was indeed mentally ill. The Germans faced him against the wall and shot him.

Finally I arrived home, and after a few natural moments of excitement I realized the scope of the disaster and the depressing situation of the Jews. The lives of Jews became very hard, and the oppression and abuse kept escalating. With my own eyes I saw them grab the butcher who lived in our street, a God-fearing bearded man, and shave him using a sword. Another time they grabbed a gentile who looked like a Jew and beat him soundly. And to top those acts, they continued abducting people to do forced labor occasionally, myself included.

The situation urged me to escape to the Russian side. Encouraged by my earlier success, I pleaded with my close friends Yoseph Wilenczyk and Yitzhak Kerbel to escape. One day we left, headed for the train station. We got ourselves Polish student caps and thus disguised we boarded the train and traveled all the way to the town of Przemyœl, where a river crossed between Germany and Russia.

We found Jews in this town who directed us to professional smugglers who took us over to the Russian side that very night.

We faced no obstacles this time and continued walking until we encountered a Russian border patrol. They stopped us for interrogation and then ordered us to return to the German side. We refused to go back, no matter what! They seemed familiar with this phenomenon and didn't press the matter, convinced that even the harshest punishment won't convince us to return to the Germans. They brought us to a refugee camp, where we found people who took care of us. As a matter of fact, we were free to do as we pleased and so we decided to go to the city of Lvov. We made a living doing odd jobs, and finally decided to travel to Donbas, to work in the coal mines.

After a few months in Donbas I traveled to the southern districts of Russia, where I joined the Polish Army, under the command of General Berling.

Part of the army later crossed into Iran, led by General Anders (eventually reaching Israel) while the rest stayed behind and participated in the war against the Nazi conqueror. I was among those warriors, and after receiving basic training I earned the rank of officer and even took part in the battles near Lenino. At the end of the war, I was discharged from the army.


[Page 355]

He Died on the Way to Freedom

Hania Kuper (Reichzeig)

The ghastly fate of my family already began in our native city – Krakow, from which we were driven out by the Nazi murderers. We then came to Wierzbnik and shared the difficult wartime conditions with the local Jews. We had to begin everything anew. My father began to work as a postman, but not for long, because the long murderous arm of the devilish German powers reached us there as well.

In 1942, the general annihilation of the Jews of Wierzbnik began through “Aussiedlung“ [deportation] to the death camps, and my parents also met their horrifying death in that blood campaign.

At that time I was in the Starachowice camp with my brother Israel. He was younger than I and I felt that from then on I was responsible for him and I did everything that I could to keep him alive. I gave him my last piece of bread, everything that I possibly could, so that we would make it through the day together, because I hoped that we would one day live to see liberation, and that we would yet be able to live like normal people. That gave me the strength and the energy to keep myself going with the last of my strength, to hang on by the nails to every sign of life, just to survive and live through the dreadful nightmare.

However, my brother had a different point of view; he didn't believe that the Germans would leave anyone alive. He understood that the death sentence was for everyone, for the entire Jewish people. Because of that he maintained that we mustn't passively await death, but should do something to escape from the enemy's murderous hands. When a small group of people who had decided to cut through the barbed wire of the labor camp and run away to the partisans in order to join their ranks came together, he threw off the bridle of enslavement together with them.

With complete audacity and readiness he threw himself at the barbed wire with the other Wierzbnik Jews, in order to break through a way to freedom, but unfortunately, his way was obstructed by Satan. The murderous bullet of a Ukrainian gendarme reduced the last gleam of hope to nothing.

May his eternal memory be blessed.


[Page 356]

Shmuel Dov Faigenbaum Fell in the Line of Duty

Zvi Faigenbaum

A quiet, humble person, Shmuel-Dov was not very prominent among his friends in Agudath Israel Youths. An educated, kind and mild-mannered man, he spoke calmly, worked hard and conducted himself with dignity.

Shmuel, (as he was commonly known), was born in 1908 to a family of Hasidic merchants. Even as a child, his life was filed with hardships. World War I broke out when he was only six years old, bringing its share of misery and hardships. When the war entered its second year, and our town was caught between the two fronts, it was stormed in the middle of the night by Russian troopers, who forced all the Jews to leave in the dark and abandon their property to the looters.

We spent two months as refugees in the county town of Radom, until it was conquered by the German army. Then we learned that half our town was burned down. Our apartment and store both turned to ashes. And that was how Shmuel spent his childhood.

His father, Moshe Baruch, who was a kind Yeshiva student, fell prey to the hardships and cruelties of the war; he caught a cold and his illness lasted for three years before he finally passed away, leaving behind six orphans, 12 years old Shmuel among them.

His mother, Esther (daughter of David Yehoshua and his famous righteous wife Rivka Zisl), kept her wits about her even after becoming a widow. A capable woman, she put her trust in God, tried her hand in trade, provided for her young children and raised them according to Jewish custom. Shmuel served as her right hand and helped her run the store, and when he came of age he married Ms. Chava, daughter of Yehoshua Morgenstern from the nearby town of Wąchock. A year later she gave birth to a cute baby boy who was named Moshe, after the father. They earned enough for a living and were content with their lot. Everything was going well until… World War II broke out.

Shmuel was 31 years old when he was drafted into the Polish army. He went and never came back. It is common knowledge that the Polish army was unable to hold off the invading German army. The ranks fell apart and a panicked retreat started. More and more soldiers came back home every day, but Shmuel wasn't among them. Each of the returnees passed word of friends who were on their way home. But anyone who asked about Shmuel met with silence. His wife Chava, her son in her arms, visited the returnees hoping for news, but they all maintained their silence.

Time passed. In the morning one would say, “O that it were evening!” and in the evening one would say, “O that it were morning!” Suddenly, I saw people whispering! I told them: “Tell us what you know, it is unwise to hide something like this. The wife…the son…”

A few moments of thunderous silence passed before they told me to go see Jermiahu.

Jermiahu Waigman lived in Piłsudskiego Street, in the home of Avraham Radkowizer. “Go to him. Say that. He will tell you”.

I called the father of my sister-in-law, Yehoshua Morgenstern, and suggested that the two of us should go and ask for a clear, specific testimony.

The road was very dangerous. A battalion of soldiers set up camp in the spacious courtyard of the old lumber-mill. We entered the apartment. Jermiahu welcomed us quietly, and seemed to be expecting us. He gestured with his left arm at a couple of chairs for us to sit in. He left his right arm at the hospital in Lodz. And this was his tale:

“We were in the same battalion. During all our travels and retreats, we watched out for each other and kept in touch. On Tuesday, September 5th, we were in the same trench on the front line. It was by the town of Lusk, not far from Lodz. The Germans started bombarding the trenches. A shell fell into our dig and we were both wounded. We started bandaging the wounds when suddenly the Germans showed up over the trench. They could see we were wounded and their commander pointed at Shmuel and said 'This is a Jew, kill him!' He was shot and killed on the spot. Before he passed away, he said to me: 'Tell Chava and my Moshe that I was thinking about them during my final moments.'

Members of the Red Cross arrived two hours later and mistaking me for a 'Pole' they took me to the hospital in Lodz. Now I am back, but with only one arm.

Though Shmuel fell on the front lines of the battle against the Nazi beast, he was murdered by the villains in a most foul way, while wounded, merely because he was a Jew.”

When we heard the terrible news we all cried bitterly over the man who was taken in his prime.

We headed back. After finishing our straw-cutting quota, we finally arrived at the house, where everyone was waiting to learn: what, how, where, when. Everyone was crying. A mother lost her precious son; Chava was a young widow, and Moshe, an orphan… the father who loved him so much will never come back… I could not cry yet, because I was petrified with shock.

I signaled for his mother to come home with me. We went home in silence, surrounded by an air of anguish. No refreshments were served. We remained standing. I said: “We know where it happened, near Lusk, if we hurry we might be able to find out where he was buried and give him a proper Jewish burial.” Someone had to go there. There was no doubt that the Jews of Lusk would help if they could. But who will go? The men won't come back alive, Chava, his wife was in no state to leave Moshe, she was not strong enough and the trip itself was dangerous for a young woman…

“I am going immediately, tomorrow morning,” said the mother decisively and without fear. It was only then that I started crying as well, loudly.

We all cried together – my mother, the sister-in-law, the relatives, the neighbors who gathered to hear about Shmuel and myself – over our precious, noble Shmuel Dov who was gone…

“They saw he was wounded and killed him because he was a Jew.”

His mother carried out her role faithfully. She arrived in Lusk, asked and inquired but learned nothing. She returned as empty handed as she went. We never learned the location of his grave. But we knew he would not come back. We knew he was the sole victim… because we never imagined, couldn't imagine, that he was only the first victim among the many who followed… we didn't know that three years later he would be joined by his mother, Chava and Moshe, as they burned among the other martyrs of Wierzbnik, among the six million martyrs, who were sentenced to death “because they were Jews”.


[Page 359]

Hela Sacrificed Her Life

Tzipora Snir (Faiga Lustman)

I had a friend in my hometown, named Hela. She was a pretty girl, clever and gentle and devoted to her family, and she worked hard at home taking care of her three brothers, the youngest of whom was still a baby.

After the war broke out and our town was conquered by the Nazis, she shared the same cruel fate as her people: oppression, abuse and annihilation. I still carry with me a horrible event from those fateful days, one that was carved into my memory and which I can see as though it were yesterday:

During the great action we were all gathered at the Rinek, where they carried out the selection – who would work and live, and who would die in the incinerators.

16 years old Hela was standing in the row next to mine, beside her little sister and younger brother and holding her baby brother in her arms. The German commanding the selection marked her among the able – which meant she would live. He tried to pull her out of the line, but Hela would not budge. Lithuanian soldiers approached her and tried to drag her forcefully out of the line and even tried to convince her with words, knowing that this young girl would be part of the “work force” that serves them. They urged her to leave her spot and join the living. The townsmen around her told her to leave the baby and be saved, but Hela would not budge.

In light of her disobedience, she was approached by a cruel, homely Lithuanian soldier: his round face, his pink cheeks, and his brutal actions all indicated a person unfit to be called a man, having lost his humanity. He stopped next to her and forcefully and maliciously struck her face with the barrel of his rifle. The rifle cracked her jaw and slashed her chin in two. Then he told her again to leave the baby and join those who could work.

Hela stood there, bleeding, with Luba, her brother and the baby in her arms, bathed in her blood. She never shed a single tear. Her ruined face never flinched. She was decisive, stubborn and courageous. And she went with the rest of them, refusing to leave her brothers and save her own skin.

I survived the war and saw far more terrible scenes, people becoming beasts, suffocating, burning, murdered. But during this entire hard journey, I was accompanied by the image of Hela at the marketplace, during the action. The image of the girl who sacrificed herself. And this girl gave me the strength to keep fighting, hoping that there some noble human ideals worth fighting for still existed. It was the heroic sacrifice of a vivacious, youthful and vigorous life for beloved brothers.

 

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