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[Pages 486-492]

In Dark Days

By Simkhe Haberman

(Son of Yosef and Gitl Stoler. Lived in Zyrardow, at #8 Familyene Street, in Varshavyak's house)

Donated by William Kaufman

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

A few days before the war broke out, the Zyrardover municipal authority issued an appeal for volunteers to dig trenches. The first of the town's Jewish population to respond were the then head of the kehile[1], Binem Ziskind; the moyre-haroye[2], Reb Yehiel Meyer Kremski; the shokhtim[3] Zalmen and Dovid; and many other Hasidic and middle-class Jews. They made up a large brigade, which went out to work according to the designated plan on Pilsudski Allee, and set to their task industriously. A group of Christian louts immediately ran up, and began making fun of the Hasidic Jews. But they were quickly driven off by the Polish residents, who showed great appreciation for what the Jews had accomplished.

Within a few days, we began to feel the impact of the war. In the very first Nazi air attack, the first bomb fell on the house of Frau Gips on May First Street, in which lived the families of Aron Berkovitsh, Simkhe Khmiel, Itsik Lifshits, Kalb, and Shmuel Zakon. A grandchild of the Khmiels was killed. In an instant, all these families were left without a livelihood, and without a roof over their heads. A second bomb hit the gas store, which was owned by a Jew, Herr Doman from Chelm, setting off a big fire.

The news of the rapid advance of the Nazi army set off a great panic among the Jews. Masses of Jews were fleeing the Lodz area for Warsaw, and this greatly affected Zyrardovers, who also began to flee to Warsaw, although no one knew who would be better off – those who stayed, or those who left town. As it later turned out, five young boys were shot on their way to Warsaw: Moyshe Flambaum, Yehiel Tabaksblat, Rubenshtayn, Ber Vargatsh, Hersh Elert.

As soon as the Germans entered the town, life for the Jews got difficult, full of horror and fear. Upon occupying the town, in the middle of battling the Poles, the Germans drove Jewish families into the street and forced them to stand in the middle of the road during the shooting. Several people died as a result: Yosl Krist, Vitl Lifshits (the daughter of the parasol maker who lived at the bleaching fields) and two mentally ill Jews. One of them –Yoshe Goldberg, the milkman's son – was thrown by the Germans into a burning house; the other was Elye Bose,who had stuck out his tongue through the window at the Germans running wild in the streets. He was shot.

Immediately after taking control of the town, the Germans drove all the Jews, their hands on their heads, to the trainyard. There, they searched everyone, taking watches and other valuables, and then ordered them to return to their homes, again with their hands raised. Two hours later, the Germans began, in a frenzied manner, to drive the Jews to the outskirts of town, to two separate locations – the larger group to the factory field near Fabian's stream, and the rest to the area near the new electric plant. The group at the factory field sat there all night – men and women, the elderly and young children, without food, without warm clothing. The night was terribly cold. People sat on the wet ground, writhing with cold and trembling with fear.

The next day the women and children younger than 14 were released and sent home. The remaining men were placed in military formation and forced to march, without stopping, back and forth on the field. Many of the elderly collapsed and fainted. Reb Mendl Miller lay as if dead. A tall German officer looked on through binoculars, and issued instructions to the Nazi soldiers.

In the middle of the lining up and marching, a group of Polish underworld types came over and pointed out the Jews who were better dressed. The Germans ordered these Jews to take off their good coats and shoes, and the Poles took them away.

It was midday. With me were my brother in law, Aron-Shaye Grinberg, my brother Gedalye and my youngest brother Shloyme, who wasn't yet 14. The Germans hadn't released him, not believing that that was his correct age. At a moment when we were marching past the tall German officer, and I was quite close to him, I gathered my courage and told him, in Yiddish, that my brother was not yet 14. He approached, took my brother by the collar, pulled him out of the line, and told him to go home right away.

We marched in this manner in a long line along May First Street. They finally drove us into the big Zyrardover linen factory. How odd: for years no Jewish foot had been permitted to cross the threshold of the factory, and now we had been forced into the forbidden place. It happened to be the night of Rosh Hashona eve. All the Jewish men of the town of Viskit had also been brought here. Our moyre-haroye persuaded the Germans to permit us to say the evening prayers. In the middle of the Shimone Esrei prayer, a German, with a bayonet on his rifle, entered and came up to the moyre-haroye and began poking the rifle into his back, forcing him into a corner and shouting: “You Jews are praying to God to save you from us, because you know we hate you.” And in this way he chased everyone into the corners of the large factory hall.

The next morning, the Jews were again taken outside and forced to do “gymnastics.” Elderly Jews with beards were ordered to lie on their backs and lift their legs into the air and move them as if riding a bicycle. How long could they do this? Completely exhausted, they could barely get up off the ground. Later, the Germans arranged the Jews in a circle, gave them their military belts, and ordered them to run, while each man beat the one next to him, and passed on the belt. If someone didn't hit hard enough, the Nazi would demonstrate on his back how to do it properly.

Two days later, they released and sent home the men over 45. The remaining men were lined up and armed soldiers drove us in a quick march along May First Street to Amshinov Street. It was raining; we got soaked to the skin. On the road we encountered some Jewish women and girls from Amshinov, who had escaped a certain death by hiding in the cemetery, while the Germans totally destroyed and obliterated their town. Marching without a break, we got more and more exhausted, and the Germans more brutal. They hurried us even more, beating us with sticks and with the butts of their rifles.

Upon arriving in Amshinov, we were handed over to another group of soldiers, who had been awaiting us. They again began to drive us over the streets of Amshinov, down a big hill to the road to Rave-Mazavetsk (Rawa Mazowiecka[#]). Night fell, and two reflector lamps illuminated the deep ditches on both sides of the highway, so that no one could hide in the forest or fields, or even think of escaping.

From the farthest streets, we could hear wild shouting from the enraged Germans: “Get up! Run!” The shouting was accompanied by shooting. The hardest part was the road over the high mountain near the village of Bobska (Babsk). All of us were dying of hunger after ceaseless marching. We barely made it to Bobska. There we rested for a few minutes, until the Germans who had brought us there handed us over to new Germans, and again they began to drive us mercilessly, again beating us with sticks over our heads and shoulders until we barely made it alive to Rave-Mazavetsk. There they drove us into a park near the church, which was already filled with Jews from Gritz (Grojec), who had been beaten there.

It rained all night, and we had no choice but to sit on the muddy ground. For those of us whose feet were swollen from marching, to sit – even in the mud – was a respite, a bit of luck. Early the next morning, they began to drive us to Yezif (Jesow). It was a difficult journey, because we were all completely exhausted. We had to walk quickly to avoid being brutally beaten. If someone fell, the others would simply step on him in the intensity of their rush forward. The Germans quickly and simply took care of the fallen man by shooting him. We mixed with Jews from other towns who were also on the forced march. Still, we Zyrardovers tried to stay together, not to lose each other, and to support each other.

Leybush Kon fell, barefoot, his trousers rolled up over his knees, clutching a jacket in his confusion. Tikotsinski, the son in law of Yudl Leder-Soykher (Fridrikh), a refined young man, dressed in traditional Jewish clothing, walked with weird haste, as if totally unaware that half his face was completely black, and his eye was red, and protruding from his face, as a result of a beating. Moyshe Kshonzshenitser was dragging Itshe Mikhlevitsh by one hand. A German was beating Avrom Slupskin with a stick. And all of this is going on as we run quickly along the side of the highway, where the mud is deep, because the middle of the road is occupied by columns of cars carrying soldiers. The rain that had accompanied us almost the entire time also refreshed us, moistening our parched lips.

Suddenly, we were ordered to rest a bit on the wet ground. A couple of minutes later, a peasant woman came out and beckoned to a German, who then came up to me, hit my hand with his rifle, shouted at me, and pointed to my leather and fur jacket, which I had spread out to rest on. This jacket had apparently appealed to the woman, and I would never again be permitted to pick it up from the ground.

Soon, we were ordered to get up and continue marching. For most, this was horribly difficult. As I later learned, several Zyrardovers fell along the way – Dembinski, Grushke, and a tailor whose name I don't remember. In the afternoon, we arrived in the town of Yezif. They took us to the shul. We felt lucky that at least we could sit on a dry wooden floor.

The people in the rear rows soon joined us. Among them was the aforementioned Tikotsinski. He came in, shouting “Praise God, that I am now in a sacred place,” and fell down exhausted. People put cold wet cloths on his head. Sender Baron and many others also fainted. Hersh Shulevitsh (the menaker[4]) was sitting on a bench, exhausted. I asked him something, but he was too weak to answer. He later perished.

The next day, in the evening, they loaded us into trucks. We didn't know where we were being taken. As we left Yezif, the town rabbi and householders tossed bread into the trucks for us. In this way, we drove in the dark night, on unfamiliar roads, thinking dark thoughts, until we arrived in Pabyanits (Pabianice). There they drove us into the large halls of Kindler's factory. From there, we were continually taken out to work. I remember one time, they took Tikontsinski out to work washing cars with a rubber hose. When he returned from work that night, we saw before us an amazing sight. He was completely soaked and trembling with cold. He told us that after he had finished washing the cars, the Germans ”washed” him with the same hose.

They kept taking us out to various work assignments. They gave us nothing to eat, but at work, we could find pieces of bread in the garbage bins where the Germans had thrown them. Painful nights followed these bitter, difficult days. Tired and beaten down, we slept on the ground, curled up and freezing, dying to sleep and unable to do so, because here too we were subject to searches by the German officers in the middle of the night. We pretended to be asleep and not to see them. Often, an officer would shout, pointing to one or another of us, “Hey, you Jew, over there by the wall, come with me.” Those who were taken never came back.

One day, they ordered us all to line up. They picked out 100 men and placed them to the side. The remaining men were sent to Breslau (now Wrotslaw). I, Avrom Slupski, Motl Vaynberg, and several others from Zyrardow, were among the 100 “chosen ones.” Our assignment was to gather up all the broken and abandoned military equipment that remained lying about on the fields around Lodz after the fighting, and to bring it to Pabyanits. The first time we set off for work, they warned us that if one of us escaped, ten others would be shot, so each of us should keep an eye on the others.

Every day we were given a sort of “breakfast.” They sent us out through a narrow iron door, at which stood three Germans. One held a basket with cut-up pieces of bread, each weighing 100 grams. The other two stood on either side of the door, holding sticks. As we came out, instead of handing us our pieces of bread, they threw the bread into the air, and we had to catch it, like trained dogs. As we reached for the bread, the Germans beat us with their sticks on our heads, or wherever else they could reach.

Done with “breakfast,” we were lined up and marched 10 kilometers, dragging cannons. Ten men were assigned to each cannon, two in the front pulling, and eight behind, pushing. This went on for quite a while. When the Jewish women learned where we were, they would wait everyday along the road we had to follow. Not daring to come too close, they would leave bread and other food at a distance, gesturing and pointing to it from afar. We waited until the Germans weren't looking, and would pick it up. I was good at this, and when we later had a break and were sitting down, I shared the food with my work-partner, with whom I pulled the cannon shaft.

One time, during a break, my partner told me that his name was Shtikgold and that he was a well known lawyer in Lodz. Once while we were marching, a woman suddenly came over, dressed in a fine fur coat, accompanied by a Folksdeutsch[5] wearing a swastika. She handed a paper to one of the Germans in charge, and he immediately halted the transport. The woman came up to my partner and they kissed. She had brought him clothing, which he changed into, and they left. The Germans had a discussion among themselves, while pointing at me. I was a bit scared. The next day, it turned out that they had decided to assign me to work in the military kitchen. Every day a German would escort me there, and every evening would return me to the barracks.

One day, they lined everyone up, kept us standing for several hours, then released us and told us to go home. It was already dark when we left the camp, and we were frightened. It was a long way home, and we weren't supposed to be walking at night. There was a danger we would be recaptured, and sent to another camp. At this point, Motl Vaynberg came over to me and told me to call over two other Zyrardovers. He took us to Lodz. We walked more than we rode. He took us to the house of Avrom Ziskind's daughter, Koltshe. There we got humane help for the first time. We washed up, ate well, and got a clean bed to sleep in. It should be mentioned that at that time people weren't supposed to walk around in groups, especially late at night. But we put our trust in Motl. We took a chance and were deeply grateful to him for everything he did.

We stayed overnight, caught our breaths after everything we had been through, and in the morning, after breakfast, we went to the outskirts of town and rented a wagon to Loyvitsh (Lowicz). It took us all day, because we unfortunately had a horse that wouldn't go, and we had to help push the wagon. Some Germans passed us on the road, and the picture we made, pushing the wagon, was for them an “attraction,” an entertainment. Who knows? Perhaps it was because of this that they didn't bother us.

From Loyvitsh we drove to Balimov (Bolimov) and from there to Viskit. In Viskit we went our separate ways. I was the first to arrive in Zyrardow. I went through back roads, over fences, fields and alleys. As soon as people heard that I had returned, women came to my house to inquire about their sons and husbands. Among them was Khanke, Motl Vaynberg's wife, the daughter of Dovid Shoykhet. I told them everything I knew about their loved ones. Motl's wife left, but she quickly came back, very upset, asking me, “Simkhe! Tell me the truth! Motl hasn't arrived home yet. Why?” There was a rumor in town that all of us were dead, because we came back later than others. However, all of our group that traveled together made it home successfully.

There was great fear and anxiety among the town's Jewish population, because there was no news about many people who had been taken to various labor camps. People were watching and waiting for news of them, and when they would return home. This also applied to the men who had fled to Warsaw, and about whom nothing had been heard. Unfortunately, many of them in fact did not return. There were various rumors circulating, that they had been sent beyond Cracow, and other places.

Life in town was in a state of paralysis, and there was hunger. There was no bread to be had and the mood grew more and more depressed. The topic of the day was what had happened to those who were gone. People kept searching, some for a son, some for a father. In the majority of households, someone was missing, someone who was in fact the bread-winner.

It was a very moving scene when Luzer Tabaksblat ran around asking people if they knew anything about his son Yehiel. I was at the home of the Muzesman family (Rimares), where young people used to gather. When we would catch sight, through the window, of Luzer walking by, we would hide in another room. We knew about Yehiel's tragic fate, and no one had the courage to tell his father the dark truth. He came in, asked questions, and then addressed me in particular: “Simkhe,” he begged me. “You must know something about my son. Tell me! Tell me! Everyone runs away from me, no one wants to tell me anything.” I felt as if I had lost my tongue. Like a mute, I just shook my head. “No, I don't know anything.” When he left, everyone who had hidden from him had tears in their eyes.

So it was in many Jewish homes where people waited anxiously for someone to return from their wandering or from forced labor. Those who were home were lined up every day, and dragged off to some kind of work, from which they often did not return. Certain Christian children played a shameful role, taking the Germans around and pointing out where the Jews were living.

In the alcohol factory, several batches of coal were burning. For several days we had to work at throwing the burning coals from one place to another, back and forth, in order to extinguish them. Jewish women were also forced to work. Most of them were assigned to wash floors and clean the households of the German military sections or officers. Others washed the floors in the police school, in the factory halls and offices. They weren't given any rags with which to clean, but were told to take off some article of clothing they were wearing to wash with. Sometimes the purpose of the work assignment was to make fun of the Jews. So Melekh Khilevitsh was once forced to use a household brush to sweep the square near the church.

The Jewish merchants had to hid their goods; the shops were emptied. Many people hid their possessions with acquaintances, with “good” neighbors, Volksdeutschen or Poles. But they never saw them again.

The Germans continuously removed goods from Itsik Ziskind's lumber business, emptying it. Loaded trucks would drive out of the yard, and as they left, with a little smile, they would drop off a “receipt”, a piece of paper. This happened with other lumber suppliers as well. From the rich supplies of wood their owners barely managed to salvage and carry off to their homes a bit of plywood and veneer. Later, this too was taken, or else the owners abandoned it when they moved to the ghetto, or during the expulsion from Zyrardow to the Warsaw ghetto.

The merchandise at Lishka's shoe store and other shops was simply thrown into the street. There was no lack of takers. At the big hardware business on May First Street that belonged to Dora Lifshits and her sons Simkhe and Hershl, Germans were standing with the Pole Matushevski, and they drove away wagons loaded with merchandise into Matushevski's hardware warehouse on the same street. And Jewish teamsters had to carry out this job, unpaid, of transferring Jewish property to the robber.

The bakers had no flour with which to bake, nor were they able to get “on the side” a bit of rye and grind it themselves. In general, the bread was like clay. Even for this kind of bread, people waited in line all night in front of the bakeries. Once, Dovid Nayman got a sack of whole grain flour from somewhere, and started to bake. In the meantime, a large group of people gathered, well into the night. The Germans came, and finding such a large group of people, they brought the entire Nayman family into the courtyard, put them against the wall, and prepared to shoot them. Their cries and wailing reached to heaven. They barely escaped with their lives. From that time on, they stopped baking bread.

The tailors would sew for the peasants in exchange for some potatoes. The shoemakers did the same. No one got money. The butchers, too. They dealt in unkosher meat, because people were also getting meat from the Polish butchers. The Germans permitted themselves everything. They would search Jewish homes for “weapons,” meaning, of course, to find something else.

A German officer brought his boots in for repair by the shoemaker Note Nayberg in Familyene Street. When the officer picked up the boots, he “paid” by kicking the shoemaker with the same boots. In the street you could see announcements about theater, film or other entertainment, bearing the notice, “Forbidden to Jews.” One night the Germans came into the house of Frau Tikotskinski (Yehuda Fridrikh Zeyfzider's daughter) and tore off her clothing. In the morning her neighbors found her, passed out.

Another time, a fresh group of S.S. people arrived in town, early in the morning. They were looking for something to do. On May First Street they saw through a window, Noyekh Naydorf, a butcher, praying in his prayer shawl. They entered his home, dragged him into the street, gave him a match and forced him to set fire to the prayer shawl. But it wouldn't burn. The Christians who had run over, seeing that the shawl wouldn't burn, interpreted this as a sign of God's intervention, and began crossing themselves. The Germans became enraged, tore the shawl into pieces, and stamped on it with their feet.

Bearded Jews would wrap up their faces. Some shaved their beards; others had theirs torn off by the Germans. All the window panes in the shul were smashed. The first day, the Germans had put their horses in the shul. The Peretz Library was closed, and Aron Shaye Grinberg and a Polish employee, Mentsiera, moved over 2000 book into my attic. They were later destroyed, along with the house.

The situation got worse when the Nazis expelled the Jews from Pomer, and some of the homeless Jews came to Zyrardow, just as they were, leaving behind their homes and all their possessions. There were homeless people in every household and in the shtiblekh[6] as well. Hunger grew even greater. The kehile tried to help, by opening a public kitchen, but there was nothing to cook. It was very cold, and there was no fuel for heat. Avromtshe Ziskind (son of Itsik), who had a coal business near the court, still had a little stony coal, but a German saw him weighing out a jug of coal for a woman and beat him up. The sawmill owned by the Jews Rozenovitsh and Glovinski, where there were a couple of thousand meters of boards and logs, was emptied in a matter of hours.

Many thousands of Polish prisoners of war, among them many Jewish soldiers, had been assembled in the new stadium near the “Black Forest.” They were suffering from hunger and cold. Jewish women and girls from Zyrardow cooked buckets of food and brought it to the Jewish soldiers, risking a beating from the Germans for this crime. They persisted, however, and did everything they could, bringing clothing and food.

The last day before I left town, 50 prominent people in the town were arrested. Regrettably, I can't remember their names, except for Dr. Landau. They were taken hostage, and the Germans demanded ransom from the Jewish population.


Footnotes

# Translator's note: Polish place names are in brackets after the Yiddish, in case you want to find the towns on the map return
  1. Kehile – the organized Jewish community return
  2. Moyre-haroye – a learned Jew who adjudicates, judges and decides religious matters; usually a rabbi. return
  3. Shokhtim – pl. of shoykhet – ritual slaughterer return
  4. menaker – one who extracts veins and other parts from an animal carcass, to make it kosher. return
  5. Folksdeutsch – Ethnic German living in another country. return
  6. Shtiblekh – pl. of shtib, a small, informal room used for prayer, especially by Hasidim. return


[Page 575]

How I Found My Home

By Pincus Meppen

Translated by Shulamit Meppen and Friend

Pincus Meppen is a Zyrardower, from Israel. He is a soldier in the Jewish Brigade. He succeeded in traveling to Poland to visit his birthplace Zyrardow.

In a letter to his brother, Sam Meppen, the young soldier described the destruction he found there. We print here a fragment of this letter written in 1945.


On the 20th of November 1945, I returned to Warsaw. I went straight tp Zyrardow. My return to my birthplace where I spent my childhood and my youth made a strong impression on me. At the railway station, I met a Jew and we went together to visit a friend. On the way, I asked him about the Jews. His answer was, “Everybody, from the Zilbersteins to the last Jew in the Ghetto, were all murdered. Everyone, everyone - the Tupmans, the Kzanzenitzers, Kaufmans, the Ziskins – no-one remains.”

I went into B's place. He was overcome with tears. He could not speak. He began to stammer, and couldn't say a word. His face was as if atrophied from fear. A second Jew came in. He was in a concentration camp in Germany. We asked about everybody who perished in Treblinka – those who were burned and those who were tortured to death.

The next morning, I went to the cemetery. Most of the tombstones were destroyed. Only a few remained standing. Our father's tombstone remained in one piece with the inscription:

Reb Yosl Gritzer,
The Gabe of the Hevra Kadisha
The Proud Jew with the Grey Beard

Afterwards we visited a few more of the survivors and once again heard stories of bravery. A Gentile is living in our business. I looked in and saw our furniture and our bed linen. I bit my lips and went away. Rent is paid to the government.

I found out about our family and that the Nazis took them away to the (Warsaw) Ghetto in 1941. They were still seen alive until 1942. After that – probably Treblinka. Perhaps someone hid in the forests in Russia. In the meantime, I have not one name from our family on the list of survivors.

I hope to quickly travel back to Israel and be demobilized.

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