By the end of 1944, the lead-colored skies over tortured Europe started to clear and the scales of battle against the Nazi beast tipped more and more in favor of the allies battling the conqueror. The allied armies pressed the armies of fascist Germany in a pincer movement, east and west, liberating towns and villages that suffered for a long time under the heel of the retreating conqueror. The free world slowly started to breath in relief and we could already sense the coming fall of Hitler and hear the footfalls of the freedom to come.
But for the residents of the concentration and labor camps, those events were like a noose tightening around their necks, because we knew that the Germans would do anything to eliminate those who witnessed their horrid crimes
It was as we feared. When the front lines drew closer, the Germans started concentrating prisoners from various areas into central places, making it easier to transport them to safer places. One day they took all the residents of the camp over by the lumber-mill and brought them to our camp.
These actions made us live in despair and fear of the Germans' next move, because we all considered them to be bad omens. But the boldest among us was a girl named Guta (the wife of Leon Weintraub, currently residing in Charleston in the US), who came from the camp by the lumber-mill. Before she could be captured, she assumed that everyone taken into the camp would be killed there and then, and decided to resist this cruel fate with all her might.
Schrott, the German commander, was standing by the gate to the camp, his terrible gaze sweeping over those crossing the gates, expecting nothing unusual. He was merely toying with the vision before him. And while he was feasting his eyes with satisfaction on the events taking place by the gate, Guta turned back and charged him, biting and snatching his gun from its holster. This girl's rare and daring act has stunned everyone around her, and even the German was shocked.
Guta, on the other hand, took advantage of the confusion and under the cover of night's darkness she ran away with the gun. A few moments later the German recovered and started chasing her, but she managed to outmaneuver him and hid under one of the cabins, in the space between the floor and the ground.
Since he could not catch her, the German returned to the camp gate embarrassed, desperate and confused.
Although this event has badly hurt his image, he seemed to have some appreciation for the Jewish girl's courage.
He asked the people around him to find Guta and tell her that she will not be harmed if she returned his gun.
Some were naturally eager to earn his favor, and were willing to do this, and they convinced the girl to return the weapon.
It should be noted that the German kept his word, despite being otherwise known as an unscrupulous murderer.
Our shtetl Wierzbnik was attacked right at the beginning of the war because there were factories and military industries and ammunition works there. Moreover, concealed German spies and agents , who had been planted there in advance, signaled all the details that interested them to the airplanes.
I myself was preparing to go to Brazil and had even already arranged all the necessary papers, but the war destroyed all my plans and I remained at home and together with my mother and brother continued working as a retailer.
As soon as they began to kidnap Jews on the street in order to send them to forced labor, I ran away to Słopiec and I hid there with other acquaintances, because the Germans were not yet there at that time.
In the meantime, after a short time I saw that the Germans were advancing, so that there was no point in being away from home, and I returned to Wierzbnik.
Meanwhile, times had become more difficult and worse and many people came to the decision that there was nothing to be expected from the Germans and that we had to save ourselves by fleeing. People began to cross the border onto the Russian side.
Thinking it over, I and my brother Moshe and Avraham Unger also decided to sneak across to the Russian side, and on a beautiful morning we set out and walked to the train station. We had made many preparations. We hid just a little money in the soles of our shoes, to have for a rainy day. We boarded the train and rode to the city of Przemysł. As we had been previously informed, a certain woman lived there, who engaged in smuggling people to the Russian side, and we went to the address we had received.
Time passed slowly, everyone was absorbed in thinking about the hard times awaiting us in a strange place, away from our own people. A depressing mood prevailed, but nevertheless we were already waiting impatiently for the moment when we would be able to escape from the German hell and save ourselves momentarily from the Nazi danger. And as we were worrying and lost in thought, two Gestapo men suddenly showed up and with revolvers pointed began asking us menacingly whether we had money, jewelry, valuables, etc.
They demanded that we immediately hand over all the above-mentioned items to them, and if they searched us and found something on anyone that he had hidden, they would shoot him on the spot.
Our friend Avraham Unger was frightened to death and told them that he had money in the soles of his shoes. Consequently, the Gestapo man forced him to remove the money with his teeth.
It was a horrifying picture to see, Unger woefully torturing himself with the sadistic idea of the Nazi murderer. His teeth were bleeding and he was sweating profusely until he managed to rip the soles off his shoes and pull the money out from them. However, on the other hand the scene made such a terrible impression on the others, that we no longer dared to say that we had money despite the danger and we kept silent. In this way our money stayed with us.
After they had satisfied themselves with the robbery, the Gestapo men left, and because in the meantime it was already late at night, we didn't wait much longer, but left the house and began walking to the water.
We arrived at about one o'clock at night to the San River, which throughout the years had divided the city into two parts, and this time into two countries, and one could even say two worlds. We were supposed to be taken across to the other side in a boat, and we had paid for that. But it turned out otherwise, because the peasants who were supposed to row us over not only didn't do it, they also took away all the packages from the Jews, robbed all their goods and told us to cross the water on foot.
The river was deep enough, the water sometimes reached our mouth and it was a miracle that we didn't drown. We reached the bank barely alive.
On the Russian Side
We didn't run into any guards there, and after catching our breath after all that we had gone through up to then, we began to move farther away. At first we crawled carefully on all fours and afterwards we permitted ourselves to walk. After we had walked several hundred meters, we suddenly overheard a voice saying in Russian: Stoi! [halt]. We immediately stood still and a pair of Russian soldiers quickly came up to us and brought us to the city of Przemysł.
After a short hearing we were placed in a closed house where almost fifty of us sat in a room. There was a big crush there and a serious lack of food, and we were extremely hungry. Nevertheless, we were lucky that five days later they let us go. Leaving that internment, we thought that we were doing well, but we discovered that we were extremely mistaken. Nothing was better in freedom. Hunger raged without mercy. We also had no decent clothing, even though winter had already arrived. We all shivered, our hands and feet froze from the bitter cold and we suffered greatly.
Back to Wierzbnik
Looking at all those devastating problems, we began to feel regret over running away from home, because we saw that we would not be able to endure the situation there, so that there was nothing to lose. From day to day we were overcome by deep despair. At the end, we decided to turn back towards Wierzbnik.
Going back wasn't so easy, and we had to endure a great deal until we managed to get back to Wierzbnik. But we had apparently gone from the frying pan into the fire. We had just returned, when the Germans began to oppress the Jewish population. They abused people brutally, pursued and badgered innocent victims.
In the meantime we also had to worry about a minimal income, so I traveled to Słopiec to sell something on the black market and earn a few cents.
However, I had no luck and was caught. A certain SS man called Kiel, caught me, beat me severely and took away all my goods. The same criminal also once caught my mother in the street when she was trying to sell a little butter and he beat her severely and took everything away from her.
At the same time my two sisters came to us from Łódź and we cried together.
Oppression at Each Step
Over time I began to work in the Majowka, together with my brother. My work was to be a sanitation worker in the bathhouse, i.e. I worked at disinfecting clothes. What remains in my memory from that time is connected to an episode when we bribed the commandant to agree that during the disinfection they wouldn't shave off the religious Jews' beards.
That was a time when we still had illusions that the situation would change, that conditions would improve, and that whoever worked would be able to survive the hard times. So Jews really worked hard, we tried to do more than we could. There were even many people who worked two shifts, but in reality it was just the opposite.
The situation kept getting worse. They began to oppress us at every step. The Germans placed various contributions and monetary fines on the Jewish population via the Judenrat. Whoever didn't pay, sometimes because he didn't have the money, was taken by the police to the police station. Afterwards he was fired from his job and replaced by someone else who had paid them well, sometimes people from out of town, because there were many refugees in Wierzbnik at that time.
Later on they set up the ghetto. A few streets were designated and it was decreed that Jews could only live in these places. It obviously became very crowded and miserable, several families had to live together and the sanitary conditions were beneath all consideration. We went to live together with the Feigenbaum family and we suffered greatly from crowding.
The ghetto was guarded on all sides by armed guards and anyone who wanted to sneak out was risking his/her life.
Also in this situation of oppression and affliction we thought that we had already reached the highest level of suffering and pain, hoping that it would at sometime come to an end, but the suffering continued and every day brought new edicts and troubles.
It reached the stage that when we discovered that someone had died a natural death, we envied him for not having fallen into the hands of the Nazi hangmen.
Despite everything, we didn't imagine that things could be much worse, and that the situation could deteriorate into such a tragedy, one that common sense couldn't grasp. We couldn't believe that in the twentieth century such a catastrophe as the one the murderous Germans planned and afterwards began to implement, could occur.
The last stage in the realization of their murderous extermination plan had begun, which envisaged the obliteration of the entire people. The sadly infamous deportations began.
To tell the truth, we had already received news, from here and there, that transports packed full with Jews from the neighboring towns had been sent away, and that they wee going somewhere We just didn't want to believe that it was in fact their last journey Even less did we believe that the Jews of Wierzbnik would have to suffer the same fate, because we had military factories and they needed the manpower.
That thought was even reinforced when the Germans kidnapped Jews from neighboring towns and brought them to Wierzbnik for forced labor. Some of the kidnapped Jews afterwards ransomed themselves through the Judenrat, but the whole process highlighted the importance of our city as a work center and it was on that that we built so much
But as was later revealed, these were just illusions. We ourselves lived not far from the train station and we saw the freight trains, which traveled closed and sealed, without doors or windows, and from inside could be heard the pitiful moaning of the innocent victims who had been sentenced to death men women, old people, children and babies, who had barely seen the world.
Reuven Shuali (Lis)
Wierzbnik-Starachowice, a town as beloved as a mother
I shall not stand over your ruins;
Thoroughly were you destroyed by villains;
Only the memory continues beating, like a pulse.
Jews, men, women,
Boys, girls and infants,
Lived in you for 400 years.
Like a raging river;
Workshops, stores, markets,
Merchants, craftsmen, carters,
Rabbis, butchers, teachers,
Lumberjacks and water-drawers,
A Jewish community.
Life offered few pleasures
Many were poor
But your residents were men of faith
Of torah, virtues and prayer.
You were lost during the days of the Holocaust
Like thousands of our nation's communities
In the great Diaspora
I shall make this book your memorial
They come, they come
The accursed Gestapo
Shivers ran across our body
Because they were so cruel to us
We were young and wished to live
Because we were only nineteen, twenty
Our lives have barely began
And the murderers decreed our end
Many quick thoughts in our mind,
How to save our lives and souls
And though our death may come tomorrow or a year from now
I know for certain that I will die
We wished to die as heroes
And so we made our way to the forests
After many adventures, hardships and agonies, I was put to work at the central steam machine at the lumber-mill. This was a fairly routine task, but my mind was restless. The noisy, steady machine stood in contrast to my mind, which worked quietly but frantically. I never accepted this cruel fate thrust upon me. I constantly considered refusing it, resisting, rebelling against the situation to the best of my ability. And now the circumstances gave me something to cling to, room for action. Day after day I stand by the machine, thinking and planning, scheming and plotting. My machine is part of the great war-machine built by the Germans to carry out their plots against people and nations. The blood of millions of victims was necessary to grease their great machine, while my little machine in the lumber-mill needed actual grease to work properly.
Even without seeing its products with my own eyes, I would have known that it was working for the warmongers, because it was clear beyond a doubt. The machine makes crates for munitions, for those deadly weapons that will be used to kill any person who dared to rise against the wild beast, as well as the innocents. I wanted more than anything to silence the beast, to stop it from its vile work, to disable it, if only temporarily. Those were my thoughts as I stood before it, day after day.
It was not a simple matter. I must keep a low profile, because I would be the first suspect, the trail will lead to me! I must not act directly, I had to use trickery, subterfuge but I could not wait any longer, some greater force encouraged me to end things and whispered to me: Do it, as soon as possible!
But in truth, my path lay not in action but rather in inaction, meaning that I had to sit and do nothing. Since I was ordered to grease the machine every day, I now had to refrain from doing so.
One day, I did not pour the grease and waited with baited breath for the results that were certain to come shortly. As a matter of fact, those moments seemed like an eternity to me. Stress and anxiety mingled. I wanted to learn whether my actions would bear any fruit, and I was afraid of getting caught and being punished for my crime.
And then, as I was waiting eagerly for some sign, flames erupted from the machine and towered higher and higher. Confusion and panic broke out all around me, because the people were afraid that the entire lumber-mill would burn down. The fire was constantly spreading further and further.
It is therefore no wonder that everyone took part in the efforts to put out the fire, pouring sand, throwing rags and so on. I too had to pretend to fight the flames, to draw suspicion away from myself.
And although I managed to generally divert the attention of the Germans and their local flunkies away from myself, there was no way for me to escape this unscathed.
Every failure requires a scapegoat, and a defenseless Jew is the easiest person to blame. Although they never imagined the part I played in starting this conflagration, my responsibility for the steam machine was enough of a reason for them to blame these events on my negligence. My punishment was naturally mild, and the matter was settled after I received a beating from the Polish workers and was locked in the dungeon for seven days by the Germans.
But it was easier to bear my punishment this time, because I was satisfied by the results of my actions, which have disabled the entire lumber-mill for several weeks and this was my reward.
Rivka Greenberg (Mincberg)
I was acquainted with Ruszka Liebeskind in Wierzbnik because she organized our Zionist youth movement. She used to come to Wierzbnik often, and that is how I got to know her. I served as secretary and instructor in our branch, and so I was directly in touch with the leaders of the movement, including Heniek Yaffe, Dolek Liebeskind, who later became a renowned partisan warrior in the area of Kraków, and Ruszka, Liebeskind's wife. Since I spoke Hebrew very well, I could talk to Ruszka in the language of the past.
When the war broke out we lost touch, but a year later, around the summer of 1940, I received an unexpected letter and was happy when I recognized the handwriting of Dolek Liebeskind at first glance. The letter has arrived in mysterious ways, which was only expected because it spoke of a youth movement being organized in Warsaw, called ZOB (Jewish fighting organization) and called for Jewish youths everywhere, in every town, to form similar organizations that would fight the plots of the Germans who seek to destroy us.
This letter also told us about the plans of the Germans, and although the conditions in our town were not as bad yet, we put our trust in this new information. When we considered the rebellion mentioned, however, it seemed like a fanciful idea. How, we asked ourselves, could we organize an active resistance against such a powerful force as the German war machine, which conquered nearly all of Europe?
But the letter was so important to me that I kept it safely hidden, fearing it might one day fall into the wrong hands
Later, when the Germans started searching our homes as an excuse for looting furs and other valuables, I hid the letter in a box and buried the box under some dirt in an abandoned stable in our yard.
That was the last contact I had with her, until I arrived in Auschwitz.
When we arrived in Auschwitz we underwent a life and death selection, and then had to assemble in groups of five and wait by Brzezinski for hours, without food, water or knowing what was waiting for us. Suddenly we were approached by some of the veteran prisoners in camp, nicknamed Canada, who were wearing red handkerchiefs. They asked us where our shipment came from. We answered them, and they left. An hour later, another young woman showed up wearing a red handkerchief and a prison uniform, her hair cut short, and I immediately recognized her as Ruszka. She recognized me as well, but never betrayed the fact. Instead, she hissed at me out of the corner of her mouth: Which of the other girls survived? She meant, of course, the youths who were active in the movement she organized in Wierzbnik. I told her that 20 or 30 of the girls she used to know were here. After that she left, but she came back an hour later and brought us a few slices of bread, telling us to distribute them among the girls. She seemed to have contacts in the camp, because she already had news and told us that we were headed to camp A, block 25, which meant that we were going to live, for the time being. She added that once we arrived there, we should talk to a girl called Elsa who was in charge of the block (big cabin). When we arrived there, I passed Ruska's message to her. To disguise her subversive actions, the girl acted in a harsh, even rude manner, but she also did her best to encourage the prisoners, with food and other kinds of help.
On Yom Kippur Eve, we were told that the Nazis are planning a big selection, and she put us into a closed block. Ruszka arrived in the evening and they used some sheets and mattresses to make a table of sorts, with perforated potatoes serving as makeshift candlesticks. We lit memorial candles for Yom Kippur and sang Kol Nidrei together, quietly.
It was a very moving sight, a group of over 1,000 women singing, or more accurately crying, a heartbreaking, collective dirge.
They also sang the famous song Our town is burning by Mordechai Gebirtig, as well as the song of the partisans.
A few weeks later, Ruszka showed up again and secretly brought me a knife, saying that if I found myself in a desperate situation and all was lost, I should shove it into the body of a Nazi or in her own words: Don't walk alive into the crematorium, kill at least one of them.
This was a matter of utmost secrecy, because getting caught with such a weapon was dangerous, and so she never told me who else received a knife, but I'm sure she gave them to other girls as well. I hid the knife in the shoes that I also got from her, and walked in those shoes despite the pain it caused me, keeping the knife in my possession until the day of our liberation. I still have it, to this day. For some reason, this knife gave me confidence, as if it were a real weapon.
Early in the morning, people started whispering that the Gestapo were coming. Run, as quickly as possible, we all thought. The labor camp of the lumber-mill lay by the Kamienna River and Jews from the entire region worked there. Eventually there was a great break out attempt, and those who had the chance tried to flee across the river, chased by the shots of the murderous guards.
The Germans noticed that the Jews were escaping and started giving chase. The river turned red with the blood of victims. Among those fleeing was a brave lad from the town of Płock, called Finkelstein. When he saw that the Germans were gaining and all the escapees were likely to be recaptured, he decided to defy them. He filled a bottle with sand and threw it at the Germans, right in the eyes! The confusion which ensued briefly halted the pursuit, and by the time the Germans have recovered, the rest of the escapees managed to cover some distance. The fellow himself had not escaped, and fell before the murderers. Among those who managed to escape and hide in the forest until the danger passed were Mendel Rybak, G. Rosenwald, Weisberg, the brothers Arie and Israel Rosenberg and their sister Tamar and another guy called Shmuel from the village nearby.
Conditions were harsh in the forest; the A.K. partisans harried the Jews, disarmed them and then murdered them. Rybak and Israel Rosenberg were brutally murdered by the A.K. and their sister Tamar had to see her brother lying at her feet like a butchered bird. She dug his grave with her bare hands and never recovered from the ordeal. The escape attempt generally came to a tragic end. Most of the people were killed and very few survived and are here in Israel with us.
She was a young girl, born to a well-respected family, and only 20 years old. Her parents had a metal shop in Wierzbnik. One sunny spring day, while nature around us was coming to life, the accursed Germans rushed people to the train station, on their last journey. Among these multitudes of men, women and children, walked the girl, Esther Manela, followed by the Gestapo with their guns and clubs. By the time they arrived at the train station, the people were left breathless.
This station was typically filled with expectant people, happy to welcome guests arriving for the holidays or bid farewell to someone who was going to Israel. The people always waited with joy, but this time they stood brokenhearted, holding their breath. Hearts were pounding loudly. Suddenly, there was a long bellow of a horn, the sign that the train was coming, and everyone froze, unable to move or talk. Suddenly, the silence was interrupted and the Gestapo started pushing people into the cars using their guns and clubs. Esther refused to budge. The policemen yelled and ordered her into the car, but she stood tall, unmoving. They started beating her but to no avail. She resisted with all her might, yelling: Kill me, I want to die in our town! In our station! I will not move from here! I do not want to see my loved ones destroyed, shoot me in the head, why would I go far away I want to die here! Verfluchter Jude, yelled a Gestapo officer and added, The bullets are too precious, and we have cheaper means of exterminating you. He started pushing her inside but Esther held on for dear life and refused to go in. finally they had no other choice but to shoot her. Her last words were: I beat you. She fell down on the train tracks. We all watched and cried.
The day of July 19th 1944 did not at first glance seem different from those before it. Everyone got up at the designated time and prepared to go on the second shift at the Arms and Ammunition factory in Starachovitz. The factory's name was changed by order of its new masters to Herman Goering Werke. All of a sudden, something happened which hadn't occurred since the Germans invaded. It was almost too good to be true as work in the factory had stopped and the workers were ordered not to go on the second shift but to remain in the camp.
Although stopping the work was surprising, the reasons for it were quite clear. The Germans were suffering defeats on the front. One after the other and they began to retreat in haste from the towns of Poland and its conquered villages. The Jews imprisoned in the camp wanted to exploit this and to untie the shackles before the retribution came. There was great fear that with time running out as the Germans wanted to get rid of the Jews, in order to erase any traces of their terrible crimes.
That same night many Jews decided to escape. My former neighbour, a lad by the name of Shmuel had prepared himself for the eventuality of an escape by setting aside some pliers. A good effective opportunity to use them arose. He eventually cut the wire fence surrounding the camp and once a gap was made, hundreds of people crowded around it and started pushing to get through to freedom.
However, like Satan in the way, stood the Ukrainian Guards of the camp. Once they saw the huge crowd next to the fence they opened fire and threw grenades at the escaping people. They brought down many fatal casualties. In the end, a small group succeeded in avoiding the shower of lead and had escaped for the time being.
The next day, no one went out to work again and it was now very clear that the Germans intended to move. The amount of traffic on the road grew increasingly and the plan to escape strengthened in urgency while on the other hand a sense of danger intimidated all of us. The vigorous thinking and scheming found us planning things that we would have never considered in the recent past. We even thought of grabbing arms from the Germans and discussed all the trouble that could cause. However, when I approached the Ukrainian Captain of the Guard whose name was Shrott, in order to take his cocked sub-machine gun from his hands, he warned me not to get closer than 4 metres from him or he would shoot me. My attempt did not succeed, although I was not yet in despair. I searched for some substitute in the form of an iron bar or something like it so that I would not give up my life without a fight. This thought of not going to my slaughter willingly but to retaliate against persecutors and killers was always with me. My thoughts were, Let me die with the philistines. All the time and at every step I searched to implement an escape.
In the meantime, the order was to dig deep holes, something, which had only one meaning and our hours were numbered. Therefore, there was no time to delay I had to act immediately. At first, I planned to escape through the fence opening that was torn open the previous evening, but I was forced to abandon that plan. It was too close to the place where the Ukrainian guard stood and a Germany soldier guarded the opening in case prisoners should escape through it again.
I turned around in time without them seeing me and I searched for another spot through which it would be possible to break out. When I got to the rear of the huts, a spark of hope rose in me. It appeared that the hands of G-d were there to help me because precisely during those seconds the Guard on the tower at the corner of the camp was about to change. Therefore, I waited impatiently until the one lot had descended and their replacements ascended so meanwhile, attention would be drawn from me to them and I would be able to vanish.
Finally, the fateful moment arrived. I took my life in my hands, mumbled a prayer quietly to the Lord saying, Master of the world who ruled when no living creature had yet been created...in his hand I entrust my soul...G-d. G-d is with me and I shall not fear.
I turned my head back and forth looking around and waited a while. I noticed a little gap in the fence and bent the wire. I stuck my head through, then my body and I stood before the second fence of planks. I climbed it without being stopped and I was out almost! It appeared that there was another obstacle! A stumbling block, which had to be moved out of the way and a wire fence above the fence of planks. I climbed it without trouble. I ascended up and leapt down. Thank G-d, blessed be He. I passed through the barrier of fire. The way was open to the dangers of the forest and the horrors of persecution and within them the hope of being saved.
The town of Wierzbnik was hit early in the war, because of the factories there, and the secret agents who passed every detail to the Germans. I was planning to go to Brazil and already prepared a passport, but the war disrupted my plans and forced us all my mother, my brother Moshe and myself to stay at home and continues working in retail. When the abductions for forced labor started, I escaped to Słupia and hid with our relatives, since the Germans haven't reached that far yet. The Germans continued their conquests, however, and so I returned to Wierzbnik. Two months later, Jews started escaping for the other side of the border, to the Russian side.
One day, Avraham Unger, my brother Moshe and I all set out. We hid money in our shoes, boarded the train and traveled as far as the town of Przemyl. There was a woman there who smuggled people, and we got her address and paid her a visit. When we arrived, we found three rooms full of people and were told to wait for nightfall. While we were waiting to cross the border, the Gestapo suddenly arrived at midnight. They asked if we had any money or Jewels and threatened that if they found anything hidden, they would kill us. Avraham Unger got scared and said he had money in his shoes. The German forced him to take out the money with his teeth. After witnessing that, we kept quiet and kept our money. The next day, we crossed the river at night and the peasants took all our belongings and forced us to cross the current, which was so deep the water reached almost to our mouths. We crossed the river, reached the bank and crawled until we ran into a Russian patrol that arrested us and led us to Przemyl. Fifty of us were put in a single cell and then released five days later. We were greatly disappointed. Although we escaped from dangers and hardships, we now faced hunger, the lack of clothes and a harsh cold. Despairing, I decided to return to Wierzbnik. The persecution has already started and the Germans were abusing our people. I sought to earn some money for a living and traveled to Słupia to smuggle something, but failed. I was captured by an SS officer called Kizel, who beat me and took everything I had. He also caught my mother selling some butter and beat her up. A while later, two sisters from Lodz came to live with us. Later still I started working at the Majowka factory along with my brother. I was appointed as sanitarian and my job was to sanitize the clothes at the bathhouse. We used the money we earned to bribe the manager so he wouldn't shave the beards of Jews.
We lived in hope that things will change for the better. We didn't expect the extermination. We believed that work would save us, because everyone worked at the factories, some even two shifts. The Germans fined people, and if someone couldn't afford to pay a policeman would come and take him to the police station, replacing the poor workers of Wierzbnik with workers from other places who bribed them. The entire factory was a melting pot of people from various places, such as Vienna, Lublin, Kalisz and Płock, were sent there to do forced labor only to be replaced by others later.
Next came the establishment of the ghetto and we moved in with the Fajgenbaum family. Life was very bitter and the situation was harsh, to the point where we envied those who died of natural causes and thus escaped the clutches of the Germans. Terror reigned at night, the Germans and the Volksdeutsche were looking for people, there was nowhere to hide and so it all continued until the eviction.
As I have already mentioned, we hoped that the people of Wierzbnik could be saved. Although we already heard about the extermination of Jews in other places, we thought it wouldn't happen to us. The Gestapo would go to other towns and kidnap people to do forced labor in Starachowice, and our Judenrat tried to ransom them. People came to us to get work certificates from places that had no factories of their own (from Opatów, Bodzentyn, Słupia, Wąchock, Iłża and elsewhere). A railway crossed our town and we lived next to the station and heard the trains go by, full of people, the sound of their moans coming from the cars. We knew the cars were full of prisoners, because Yaakov Kleiner and I used to read the newspapers published by the resistance, which said that Treblinka swallowed half a million Jews already. We lived next to the Judenrat and we started worrying about getting work certificates, because we already heard about the transports. My brother Yitzhak worked at the furnace in the factory and was able to provide work certificates for his relatives. One night, however, we heard something happening in the street. It was the night of 26.10.1942. I got myself two certificates, one for the Zeork power plant and the other for the lumber-mill. That night, it was no longer possible to leave the ghetto. It was dark and we heard gunshots. The town was surrounded by SS troopers, Polish police and Ukrainians as well as Lithuanian policemen. My brother-in-law, Kopel Maslowicz, a father of four, was still at work at the lumbermill and my brother Yitzhak and his children were at the factory in Starachowice, where they were prevented from returning home. Suddenly, the Germans showed up along with their villainous assistants, broke down doors and ordered everyone to leave town. I told my mother to hide our few remaining dollars, to sew them into her dress, and explained to her that we were merely going someplace else, although I knew what was going on
A little girl, the same age as my sister, came to us with tears in her eyes saying her father never came back home. Their twins were also left behind and we all headed for the Rinek, where we were beaten and shot at. My mother and I were joined there by the brother, Berl Niskier, and his wife Hanna who stood next to my mother. They lined us in fives. Every single member of that murderous machine was drunk. I stood next to my mother when I was approached by Althoff, the German commander, who told me to get out of the line or he would kill me on the spot. I didn't want to move but my mother told me to do it, so there would be someone left to tell the tale.
My brother-in-law Maslowicz, on the other hand, despite being at the factory, ran with his children to the Rinek, found his wife Sheindl and his other children and joined them. I never saw them again. I was among those who were forced to run to Starachowice, while those who refused to run were shot on the spot. They brought us to the firing range, where we sat down with our belongings. That night, they put us in a cabin and I was lying in the bunk above Leibish Kerbel. My brother Yitzhak was also there. After seeing the people lying there, I joined a group of people who were taken to the Stalownia, accompanied by Ukrainians. The lumber-mill was nearby and I escaped from the line and sneaked into the lumber-mill through the fence along with Noah Fryd. The people brought to the lumber-mill registered and so did Fryd and I. The following night I recalled that all my stuff was left at Zeork, across the fence. I crossed the fence and got captured by a Gestapo officer, who brought me into the office where the Polish commander informed him that I wasn't on the list. Since I wasn't on the list they called for Becker to kill us. In the meantime, the people at the lumber-mill heard they were planning to kill me, so they begged Piatek to save me. After a long while he arrived and saw a German soldier guarding me. He told the guard he needed me for work and saved me from certain death.
The sons of Moshe Koznitz
I continued working at the lumber-mill for several months, until the Germans announced the founding of a Jewish State in Szydłowiec. They wanted to send me there, so I hid under the lumber. They found me anyway and sent me to the munitions factory. The manager, a Polish Volksdeutsche called Novak (they were two brothers) was very cruel to me.
In the meantime, three people escaped from camp. This fact was announced in the morning, before we were all lined up. An SS officer called Becker arrived and announced that the relatives of the escapees must stand aside. The leader of the Jews was a man from Płock called Dr. Blum. In addition to the relatives, they were going to kill every tenth man. Dr. Blum stood with us, and Becker went up to the cabin to make sure that no one remained behind. There was a false partition in that cabin, and behind it we hid two children, the sons of Moshe Kopf, and another baby. Their mother worked in camp as a cleaner while the baby was born there and the mother took care of these children. The baby belonged to a man called David. When Becker went up there he found the baby, and asked Dr. Blum why he left the baby upstairs. The latter answered that he cut the cord and then told him to send him to the machine if he can't be a doctor.
In the meantime, they returned every tenth man back to the line after chastising them. I worked double shifts, in the garden and the lumber-mill. Diseases and plagues broke out. Our manager extorted food from us, although he didn't kill people. He had a secretary named Lotz and she told the Gestapo about the sick people in camp. The soldiers came to camp and took four people: the son of Moshe Cukier, Avraham Goldstein, Magister Lublinski and the carpenter Ash. They put them in quarantine and I was among those chosen to carry the sick.
These people have almost recovered when they were told they were going to a hospital. They dressed up and even took some money. On the way we were told not to look back or we would be killed. When we looked back, we saw that there was a man walking behind us carrying shovels. On the way we also realized we weren't headed to a hospital but to a cemetery. When we arrived, we were told to put the men on the ground, and then they shot them all. Among these people was Cukier's father. They told us to cover them and took us back to camp. One of them was buried alive
I continued working there until 1944. Some of my friends (Yaakov Kleiner, his son-inlaw David, Shmuel Yitzhak) and I had contact with the resistance and we learned from them that half a million Jews were killed in Treblinka. We saw there was no way out. We despaired.
Escaping to the forest
The Russians started advancing and when they entered Galicia they captured the gas mines, paralyzing the factories in Starachowice. We realized that the Jews will not remain at the factories and started planning ways to defect and hide. I had no means, but I learned of various ways of escape and we heard that several people escaped from camp. At one time we had to carry munitions crates to the train and saw words inscribed inside the car: We, the last Jews from the ghetto of Vilna, were murdered in Treblinka avenge us. Since the people pushing the wheelbarrows alternated constantly, many have seen the writing.
People continued working at the mill. The Germans promised that no harm would come to us, but we didn't believe them. One day I was working in the garden while the others have already finished their work. Wooden planks were placed overhead to dry. I saw a truck arrive, full of Gestapo troopers armed with bayoneted rifles. I went up to the sushernia and cried to the others that they came to take us. Then I decided to escape. I pulled down a short plank. I jumped over the fence, crossed the water and found other people. We continued running. As soon as we were discovered, they opened fire! We ran through the wheat and found other people: Mendel Rybak, Brodbeker and others. I ran, and when I reached the forest I found four other men: David Kerbel, Shmuel Brodbeker, Yaakov Weisberg and a fifth person whose name I no longer remember. Night was falling and we decided to spend it there. We fell asleep at dawn and when we woke up, we noticed a man. We approached him and asked where we are and he told us. We continued walking, left the forest and found other people. Later, we met a gentile who gave us bread and asked us to leave. We returned to the forest and found the ranger. He gave us directions how to approach the partisans. We found Bolek, the leader of the partisans, who welcomed us and told us not to run around the forest, mentioning a girl he met there. I thought it was my cousin, but I was wrong. The partisan group was small and composed of Poles. Later, we found out that the forest ranger was a snitch but they didn't kill him, threatening instead that if he kept providing information about them, they would burn down his house. Bolek couldn't take us in, because he didn't have weapons for us, so we left. We needed to eat, so we spread out to try and get food from the peasants. Sometimes we got some, and sometimes we didn't. When we met partisans, they told us to line up. I recognized some of them as people who worked at the factory in Starachowice. They demanded money, items and all sorts of things from us. They said they were communists, and that it was wrong for one person to have money and for another not to have any. They said they couldn't take us in because we worked for the Germans. I told them they did too and they slapped me twice and immediately we went to the village again to look for food. In one of the villages, a gristmill was seized by a group of Gestapo troopers. A Jewish girl lived in this village. From time to time, one of us got killed. Once I was with a group of five. We met a man on a bicycle, who said: I have some bread for you, come with me to the gristmill. We knew it was a trap so we escaped back to the forest. That was how we lived. We went to the fields and gathered potatoes. The peasants ambushed us at night and beat us up. Once, we arrived at the village at night and found a lot of partisans, who captured us and took us to their headquarters. The commander told us he couldn't take us in, but gave us grenades for self defense and meat. When we arrived at the forest we stumbled again across the Polish partisans, and one of them killed Rosenberg for his suit. After a while we met another group of Polish partisans who took the rest of our Polish money. I recognized one of them and told him that they took our money, and the commander went, gave us back the money and took in three of us an accountant, a barber and one other. Next we crossed paths with mounted partisans who asked if any of us served in the army. Some people who served in the army followed them, never suspecting a trap. The next day they killed them all.
A Hasid came from camp Majowka, the brother of Hershel Wajzer. He looked like a monk, tall and thin. His only possessions were a pair of tefillin, which he wore devoutly, no matter the circumstances. He spent a long time hiding under straw and eating grain.
How could the trees remain standing?
A few days later he arrived at the forest, but he would not eat any of the food there, which wasn't kosher, save for potatoes. He knew how to calculate the Hebrew calendar and determined when Yom Kippur should fall. He prepared the prayers himself. On the night of Kol Nidrei he led prayer and we stood among the trees and prayed Kol Nidrei, wailing bitterly in a voice that could scare every living thing in the forest. Our cry for mercy could tear a heart of stone. We cried out until we collapsed. I am amazed that the trees remained standing.
A new group of Russian partisans appeared later on, and they taught us how to use rifles. After our training was completed, we followed them. About two weeks later, the Germans besieged us and captured Itche and some guy who was scarred by a grenade that exploded once in his pocket. The partisans escaped and we found the dead chopped to pieces. A few days later, another group of partisans arrived, and we joined them and server under a regiment commander called Pioter.
They didn't give us any weapons, assigning us service duties like pitching tents and so on.
Once, commander Pioter gave a speech and said that we were all equal before assigning the various tasks. The two Goldberg brothers went at night to the village, found two Germans with the mayor, disarmed them and brought them to the forest, where they played around with them for a bit and then shot them. Then we were besieged and the entire partisan group escaped, but the Germans kept up the chase and we split up and regrouped later. One night, they said we were going to cross the front line. I was sick and had trouble walking, and they wanted to leave me behind, but David Kerbel refused to leave me. I tied my shoes to my neck with a rope to keep them from falling apart, but along the way I had to throw them away and walk barefoot. One of the guys, named Moshe, killed himself. We stopped by a village and hid in an attic. We learned that the passage is narrow and many would have to go back. So we split up, because we didn't want to go back. They threatened us that if we came back, they would kill us. On the other hand, they promised that if we stayed in the forest, they would come to save us later.
One of us wanted to leave. He left us some money and took off, and we went into the forest and stayed by the stream, where we were told to wait. We went into the village, stole some leather and tried to trade it for food. After a while, we noticed the Germans laying telephone lines. They didn't see us, so we decided to go back and went the other way around, so they wouldn't find our tracks. We had grenades and decided that if the Germans captured us we would blow ourselves up. We were besieged and some of us were captured and killed. I found myself alone, started walking and found a corpse. I immediately recognized it Itche Greenberg. Then came a commander, gathered all of us and said we were heading for the front line. By that time, Enisman has returned to the forest and said he was coming with us. We started walking and reached the front line on the third night. Then Enisman told me: Let's go back, I have some money, we'll get by, but I refused his offer. On the way we stopped for rest and the first in line remained sitting and died. We all stopped because of him. Then we continued walking. We were told that when we arrive at the front line someone would give the order and we would all shout Ora! and charge. And that was what happened. We crossed the lines, and by the glare of the rockets fired I saw Germans in the trenches. They opened fire on us. We ran. Shells exploded before us. We ran all the way, until we reached the Russian unit.
It was as though the change we yearned for was already in the air. The Germans and their supporters seemed more and more worried. The closer the Russian-German front drew, the more tense they became, while we started having mixed feelings about the matter. The near future seemed to hold both chance and risk: on the one hand, we hoped for release; on the other, we feared that they would seek to eliminate us at the last moment, to cover their tracks.
This was the reason that many decided to beat them to the task and leave before the Germans could carry out their plot. One night, nearly 200 people broke through the fence and started escaping towards the forest. The Germans fired at them and killed many, but some of the escapees have managed to reach the forest.
The next day the Germans ordered us to dig holes. Since there was no reason or cause for such holes to be dug, I realized that their sole purpose was to serve as common graves for the entrapped Jews. I felt that the ground was burning under our feet. Therefore if I was going to escape, the sooner the better.
After brief preparations and a tour of the area, I have chosen several paths and finally snuck unseen, crossed the inner fence and the outer fence and started running towards the forest. It seemed that the Germans did not notice my escape because no shots were heard, and after a brief dash I reached the edge of the forest. Here I ran into a cow herder. I circled around him because I didn't want any contact with anyone out in the open and entered the forest. A few dozen meters later I noticed a German army camp. Instead of continuing in this direction I doubled back the way I came, to get away from the danger I almost ran into.
While I was walking in the forest, I must have swerved from my original track, and finally I reached a clearing, not far from the German camp. A group of people, hard to distinguish from a distance, sat there. They were sitting in a semi-circle, which had me convinced that they are partisans, but when I approached them I noticed that they are Jews, the same Jews that escaped from our camp the night before. Some were wounded from the shots of the Germans who chased them.
I told the Jews about the army camp I ran into in the area and urged them to leave the place as soon as possible, but they refused to listen or leave before it grew dark.
I joined them anyway. I sat next to them and we started talking about the bloody night before. After a short while, while we are talking or listening to each other, we suddenly heard gunshots from the direction of the camp, the sounds amplified by the bullets hitting the trees. We all ducked low to avoid the flight path of the bullets. But when we raised our heads, we saw dozens of Jews running from the camp toward the forest, with the Germans firing on them ceaselessly. The fire grew heavier and people started scattering and running in aimlessly! People panicked and ran away in every direction, unsure what waited for them down the road. I ran as fast as I could as well, and after a while I was seeing fewer and fewer people around me. When I finally stopped, only two remained next to me Arie Lustgarten and Helstoch. They were wearier than I was and couldn't go on, but I begged them not to stop for rest and encouraged them to keep running until we reached someplace safer. They accepted my words and after a short rest we continued running and walking alternately, until we reached the region of the town of Iłża. At night we slept in the forest and in the morning we tried to delve deep into the thick undergrowth that covered us from unwanted eyes.
And so we remained trapped within the forest, unsure what to do next. After a while, we grew desperate for food. Everything we had was gone, and we were faced with the need to get some food at any cost. We knew that we would be putting our lives at risk, but we had no choice and tried to approach the villages near the forest. Our fears came to pass. The villagers not only inhospitable and refused to sell or give us anything, but informed the Germans of our presence in all manner of cunning ways, and then we would be chased and shot at, barely escaping with our lives. Nevertheless, we did not give up and attempted to return to village to get some food from time to time, because in the forest we were doomed to starve.
Sometimes we got lucky, and managed to find something to satisfy our terrible hunger, but more often we failed.
The first encounter with the partisans
Since approaching the village meant risking discovery, we tried to avoid making too much noise. Therefore we refrained from walking in groups and preferred to sneak in ones and twos. One day, as I walked through the forest on the way to the village, a Pole popped out of thin air with a rifle aimed at me and ordered: Hands up!
I was unarmed and so I obeyed him, and led to his partisan camp. Later I learned that it was an A.K. unit.
There were six other Jews in the place we arrived at, lying face down on the ground. My escort pointed at them and told me in Polish to lie on the ground like them. I asked him for permission to speak with their commander first, and after permission was granted I approached him and told him that I wanted to fight with them against the Germans, emphasizing that I am willing to go first into battle. While talking to him I looked this way and that and noticed that were some gentiles from Wierzbnik among the partisans, former classmates of mine. I give them pointed looks, but they pretended not to notice and the commander dismissed me as well. Eventually I was forced to lie down next to the rest of the Jews, face down.
We lay there miserable and affronted for a few hours until we were pulled to our feet and the commander chastised us for our supposed negative actions. The villagers, he said, have been complaining about you, saying that you rob them and steal things from them. I warn you that if I ever hear anything like that again, I will kill you.
We knew that there was no truth to this tale and they were merely looking for excuses to abuse us, so there was no point in arguing with him.
Next they ordered us to run away, and shot at us as we did until we were gone, leaving us unharmed only by God's good grace.
Between a rock and a hard place
A few days after the unpleasant encounter with the A.K. partisans we ran into another partisan group, this time part of the NSZ organization. We naively believed they might treat us better than their predecessors, but we were sorely mistaken.
As it turned out, this organization of so called partisans was noted particularly for its cruel treatment of Jews. Its policy concerning Jews was identical to the acts of the Germans, and like them they murdered Jews whenever they found them.
This time they were going to execute us without qualms, and only a ruse that occurred to me at the last moment saved us from this calamity. I told them that on the way there we noticed a group of Vlasovs (Russian defectors who joined the Germans) from a distance and by my estimate they should be nearby. If they heard shots they were sure to locate them, And then, I added, we would all be doomed. They seemed to believe me, because they quickly fled to their village to get their people and cattle into the forest before dark and left us alone.
To Abraham's grave
Not only were these encounters troubling, the severe disappointment also made us despair. We based all our hopes on the notion that once we escaped the German prison we would join the partisans and fight with them against the common enemy and avenge our murdered brothers, and here we find ourselves at risk of being murdered by the partisans themselves, a fact demonstrating acutely how alone we were, trapped in a malicious and hateful place. We took care not to hit such snags again, but they too made their way in the forest by stealth and so we ran into yet another calamity.
While crossing the road from the forest to a village, we were jumped by two partisans who aimed their rifles at us. They had a wagon hitched to horses and they ordered us to climb in. On the way they started harassing us with anti-Semitic scorn. When we told them we wish to join them and fight the Germans together, they laughed out loud, cutting into our wounded souls like a scalpel through living flesh. Without being asked they sarcastically told us We are taking you to Abraham's grave. Now we started fearing that mockery will not be the end of this, and they had something far more wicked planned. In light of our previous experiences, we were already bitterly familiar with the Polish partisans and we made our minds to escape at any cost.
While driving, we reached a steep slope and the horses were having trouble pulling the wagon. They ordered us off the wagon and had us walk behind it.
But God was with us. After a long journey on even ground, we reached a mountain slope. After we reached the top, we started down a steep incline. The horses started running, and we took advantage of the situation. Instead of following them, we also started running, in another direction, to right, so we quickly gained some distance from them and had a chance to disappear.
I wish I was a dog
Three times we faced death, twice by partisans from the ONR and A.K., and once by common murderous bandits. By God' grace we somehow managed to escape them every time through flight and deception. We didn't know, and neither did the gentiles, how close the front line was. The German presence in the area was at its peak, and given the situation every gentile considered the killing of Jews to be his first commandment. We were hunted for our lives to the point that once, I envied a dog I saw: How lucky you are, you dog! I wish I was a dog like you!
In the meantime, we heard about the murder of Jews who like us escaped no long ago from the camps. My goal was therefore to escape this oppressive place, where death lay in wait for us every step of the way. I wanted to go east, to the front lines, to cross them and get to the soviets. I was familiar with the area, and already close to Poland's border. Days of light, unending rain came upon us. We had no cover or shelter from the endless rain. We had to sleep on the wet ground, and our bodies were sodden. Once the rain stopped my chest and back were so swollen that you couldn't see the bones, but the greatest inconveniences were the swelling in my knees and the wounds on my feet, inside the torn shoes. Our third member, Helstoch, joined four Jews we met in the forest. I continued traveling with Arie until I could go on no further. The hunger of a weak body that suffered from malnutrition for years, the rain and damp and the lice that ate us alive, the effort of running, the fear and the rest of our hardships got to me. My health was so poor that I could no longer walk. I felt my pulse and estimated that my temperature was over 40 degrees high. I was barely conscious, and felt that I was dying.
The noble Yezierski family
And then, like in a dream, I saw the image of a young man standing on a hill before me and addressing us kindly: Dear Jews, beware, the nearby village (some 500 meters from us) is filled with a German soldiers, take heed. When it grows darker, come to us, you can sleep in the barn. Here it is, pointed the man, the first house in this direction. Would you like some bimber? He showed us a bottle of home made vodka, came closer and offered us some. Arie took a sip and brought the bottle to my lips. I couldn't even resist, but I could not drink. I never thought I would sleep under a roof again, and the possibility gave me strength. By evening I could already enter the gentile's yard. We were invited in by the one of the proprietor's many sons, who welcomed us with true affection. They offered us a hearty meal. I will never forget that first evening in years that I sat in a private house without the nightmare of persecution hovering over my head, out of the Germans' direct reach.
The owner of the house himself was happy, proud of the good deed he was able to do, but my condition worried him. His wife realized my condition and started taking care of me. Among other things, she covered my bloated body with horseradish leafs, which warmed my skin until the swelling went down and the fever broke. Over the next few days Arie started working in the field, but I was exhausted. I lay all day and all night in the stable, hidden from the Germans. These good gentiles covered me with their furs, washed my clothes and boiled them, and slowly I came back to myself. Only my wounded feet have not fully healed yet. The older boys loved us.
Once, the gentile sent us both away when they feared that two young men who noticed us in his house might burn down the house and everyone in it. One night, I was separated from Arie. I came back to the gentile and found him there. The gentile sheltered us again, until the Germans started visiting his house often and he asked Arie to explain to me that he could not hide two. But before I left he came, apologized and gave me enough money for the road, and asked me to come back if I was in trouble. One of the boys instructed me how to find a contact of the A.L. partisans, who guided me to the Russian partisans.
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