Abbreviated Translation from Yiddish to English by Harold Black
Part 1: On Sunday, June 22, 1941, German bombers flew overhead. The Russian troops were disorganized. They got into their vehicles to go to Russia. The bombers dropped bombs on the Osowiec fort. They flew low and machine gunned groups of people in the city.
That night, the City Council mobilized all citizens who had military training, but most of them had left with the Red Army. A few stayed behind to be of help to the panicked population.
On Monday, the 23rd of June, artillery shells fell near the Bober River. Shooting was heard all over and the people started to leave the city and go to the surrounding villages. At night, the sound of shooting became stronger, especially the sound of machine guns.
Tuesday became quieter. The Red Army was further from town. The Poles entered the town to loot. They stole clothing, food and sugar from the cooperative and ran like hungry wolves. A small band of the Red Army showed up and shot at a group of looters. Some were killed; the rest got away with their loot. Doors and windows at the co-ops were smashed in; goods were strewn all about. It looked like a pogrom had hit the area. Later, smoke came into the city. The Fort was burning. The Red Army left entirely and things quieted down. Jews came back a few at a time, afraid the Poles would take everything the Jews had left behind.
Few Jews turned up on the streets. Sometimes they stole their way through back streets to find a decent Christian who would give them a loaf of bread or some potatoes. No Jews dared show up at the market.
By Friday, German troops showed up at the market. They were on their way to the front. The Poles gave them water and asked them to rest. They told them to go out and beat the Russians.
By Saturday night, the town was quiet again and the Poles were back in charge. The Poles decided to confront the Jews. The Council ordered the police to bring all the Jews who might be Communists to the courthouse. There they beat them up and sent them home.
On Sunday, the police were ordered to bring in all Jews who were on a list. They were the same Jews the police had pulled in the day before as Communists and included Yankel-Elihu, the old gabbai from the House of Learning, Abraham the glazier with the gray beard, and Henny the cantor. In all, they gathered 30 so-called Communists. The police beat them up and sent all but a few home. The younger people were able to walk, but the oldsters had to be carried home.
By order of the Council all Jews had to show up at the courthouse three times a day or receive a bullet in the head. The badly wounded from the beating were allowed to be carried in. Every Jew was then selected to do hard labor. As fear grew, a few Jews ran away to nearby towns where they were not known. Others went to the Bialystok ghetto even though life there was also terrible.
Groups of young Jewish men were sent to clean up ruins and to break up stones along the highway. They were under the watch of police armed with blackjacks. They would, as the saying goes, go for a walk on Jewish heads. This went on until black Friday.
On Friday, July 3, the Council ordered that, by ten that morning, all Jews must go to the market area. By a quarter to ten, they started to group themselves in the street at the edge of the market. Nobody could understand what was happening. Some of the Poles told them that a German officer wanted to give them a speech.
Within a half an hour, all the Jews were standing in the street. Those who did not come of their own free will were dragged in by the police. The question arose whether all of the Jews were now there. The police began looking in every nook and cranny. If a Polish child saw a Jewish child, he would immediately point him out to the police.
Finally, the German officers arrived. They separated the Jewish men from the Jewish women. The men were ordered to get into rows. An officer asked all barbers to come forward. There were two of them and they both came forward. They were ordered to cut off the beards of the adults and the ear-locks of the young people. They did as they were told as quickly as possible.
A large group of Poles stood ready with clubs and blackjacks and were overcome with joy at what was happening. The Gestapo officer asked the Poles to pick out the Communists from the two rows and to place them in a separate row.
The mayor said, Why do we have to pick from them? All Jews are Communists. One is no better than another. They should all be driven into the river and drowned. I don't know of any way to make a selection.
The Poles looked at the Gestapo officer, but he didn't change the order, so they went to work. They took out their collective hate as they made the selection. The Gestapo officer beat the third row unmercifully. They especially took it out on those Jews who had been dragged out of hiding by the police. Clubs flew over their heads. Their cries rang out over the market. The size of the third row continued to grow. The unofficial Communists were sent out for labor, to work on the roads under watchful eyes. As for the official ones, the Gestapo told the Poles, Do what you want with them.
As for the women, the Poles put pictures of Stalin and Lenin in their hands. They made them hold the pictures over their heads and sing Soviet songs. This was a great day for the Poles.
The beaten official Communists were beaten further on the orders of the police chief as they were marched to the House of Learning. Some tried to run away, but were caught and brought back. They were forced into the House of Learning. Poles brought straw with the intention of burning down the building with the Jews inside. But the Poles who lived nearby asked the Mayor not to burn down the building because their houses would also catch fire. The Jews were driven out of the building and into the yard where their hands were bound with wire. They were also bound to one another and were forced to march back to the market. The old Jews looked up to heaven, looking for the Jewish God. The younger ones said goodbye to the trees and flowers they were sure they would not see again. They were put into the cellar of Motke Kliap where they were locked in. A watch was set to make sure they would not escape.
More and more Poles gathered outside. Some amused themselves by throwing stones against the door. Every time a stone hit the door they would break out in laughter. The Jews were afraid that the barn would be set on fire. A few finally fell asleep. They were awakened by three shots and wondered which three Jews had been killed. They felt among themselves that shooting was the easy way out, but the Poles didn't comply. They threw more rocks against the door.
The night finally passed. They could see the grayness of dawn through the cracks in the barn. Everybody stood up wondering what would happen. Then they heard the sound of the nails being removed and the door opened. They began to feel hopeful and started talking to each other. They could see some of their women coming with something to eat. The women asked permission of the watchman to feed their men and children. Little by little, the women came from all ends of the city with pots of food for their jailed relatives.
At noon, some Christians arrived and asked for Jews to work for them. Jews rushed to the side of these Christians. They would like to work in freedom away from the dark and crowded barn. But the Christians take only those Jews who are known to them. The rest go back to building the road. At least there is some fresh air, even though the work is under the hot sun, the work drives away the loneliness and fear. But if a Jew displeases any overseer, he gets struck across the back. Some of the Jews pray.
The women showed up with food. They wore yellow patches on their breasts. A shudder went through everyone when they saw these shameful symbols. Someone said, The world has regressed 600 years. They asked what happened to the Jews locked up in Motkele's cellar. They were told, by the women, that they were still there but three were taken away last night. Many women had offered the Mayor all their possessions to free the men. They had tried to talk to the priest, but they could not get to him. The men were crying out to be saved. They wanted to go to work. Many of them finally did and they were wearing yellow patches.
When night came, the overseers told them the work was ended. They were marched back to the barn.
On the previous Saturday, the men in the barn found out that eleven Jews had been taken out of the cellar. Their hands had been tied together. They were tied to one another and taken to who knows where. The wives of the eleven had started to weep and they were sent home by the police. Those wives that didn't leave right away were beaten. The wives ran to Poles they knew to find out what had happened to the eleven. They were told they were alive and had been sent away to work. Some were quieted by this answer. Others did not believe it.
Women collected goods to try to ransom their men from the cellar. On Sunday morning some of the men were freed and taken to the barn. They were greeted as if they had come back from the dead.
In the meantime a new tumult developed in the town. The Poles had proclaimed that in the wheat fields around Goniondz there were Jews hiding who had shot a Polish woman. There was a rush to find the hidden murderers. Jewish women became too frightened to even take the back streets. The men were taken from work and returned to the barn. Police went house to house and collected even the young children who up until then had been free. Everything looked bleak.
The mayor showed up that night at the barn. He said that Jews had shot a Polish girl who had been working in the fields. She had been wounded in the hand. Up to now, the murderers had not been found. He threatened that if the Jewish community would not give up the murderers, the Poles would burn down the barn with everyone in it. The mayor left and the watchman nailed the door shut. The people inside shuddered. A fine libel they have put on us. Tonight we will all burn. The rabbi said prayers and others followed him. Nobody slept that night.
The men in the barn couldn't eat their breakfast. Many of them cried. Breakfast time ended and they had to go to work. They were joined by some of the men who had been bought out of the cellar by the wives.
Monday night the Poles wanted to have some fun. A band of them, mostly policemen, broke into the barn and began picking people. They were looking for new candidates for the cellar, because the number there had gotten smaller. They took away children from their fathers and separated brothers. Crying did not help. They selected the younger ones and took them to the cellar. The community bought more people out of the cellar until only 17 were left. They vanished the same as the original eleven.
The Jews stayed another week in the barn, until the Mayor announced they were free. They were allowed to go home, but they still had to come to work every day to wherever they were sent by the Jewish representatives. The mayor had chosen three of the richer merchants as the representatives to the Polish council. Everybody was happy to go home.
The Judenrat told the Jews a ghetto was being formed and that they would all be locked in the ghetto. It was determined that certain sums would be needed for a payoff to the Germans. The Judenrat sent out the women to collect the money and gold. The rich gave gold coins and gold watches. The poor gave jewelry, rings and chains, which had been handed down generation to generation. Seven hundred and fifty grams of gold were collected.
On the 20th, the women came for another gold collection. They wanted mostly American dollars and quickly. Afterward, the German commander said they were leaving town and then no one was left in charge. The Jews shuddered because that meant the Poles would be in charge.
The Poles were happy. They threw stones against the doors. They had gotten drunk on shnapps found buried in Rudski's cellar. It got quiet at night and the Jews went to sleep. Then, at one in the morning, there was a woman's voice crying out, Fire, Help.
Bands of Poles had started to roam the streets with clubs in their hands. They collected Jews in a wagon and threw some bodies into it. The wagon, with eight live persons and a number of dead began to move. The Poles beat the people in the wagon. At the market, a huge band of them surrounded the wagon. They chased one man and tied him up. They beat him without letup. They walked away with Jewish goods on their shoulders
The bodies were placed in a cart. One Jew ran for blocks to escape the murderers. He knocked on the door of a Christian friend, but the door was not opened. They caught and tied his hands behind his back with telephone wire, put rags in his mouth and killed him with clubs. One woman had barbed wire tied around her neck and she was hung from a balcony until she died. . Her son was beaten to death with an iron beam. They also killed her brother. The bodies were thrown on the cart. The Reigrodski family was placed alive on the same cart. The oldest son jumped off and escaped, but in a half an hour someone came and told the Poles he was hiding in her garden. He was immediately captured. All on the cart were taken near the Polish cemetery and killed. One person was buried while still alive.
Everybody waited with great hope to hear from these fifteen women. The Commander intervened by telephoning the military police. They answered that they would arrive Tuesday morning and get everything in order. The Commander asked them to obtain a list of the perpetrators. This was good news for the Jews in town, but they still had to live through another bad night. The young people decided to organize and make a stand against the murderers, but they dropped the plan because they had no arms. Instead they formed small groups with axes and sledge hammers. They would chop the head off the first bandit to show up and then fight on as long as possible.
The old people left their homes and went into hiding. The night, however, passed quietly. In the morning four military officers with machine-guns showed up on motorcycles. They went looking for the murderers. In addition to finding seven of them, they did vigorous searches with good results. In addition to finding goods robbed from Jews, they found stolen Soviet uniforms and hidden war material.
According to the rules, the perpetrators could be shot. The seven murderers were put in chains and taken to Osowiec (the fort). This was the first ray of hope in the Jewish community. It was the Poles' turn to become frightened. The bandits among them hid themselves.
The City Council members went to Osowiec to intervene on the behalf of the seven. They said it was allowed to kill Jews and, therefore, their acts were not illegal. The Commander said, We will get rid of the Jews without you. The seven Poles are arrested not for murdering Jews, but for stealing their goods. For this they deserve the death punishment. Hearing this the members of the Council became more upset. They kept trying until one of the seven was freed. The other six were shot. The Jews felt more secure, until a new German commander came into town three days later.
The Judenrat, in addition to the yellow patch, had to wear a blue patch on the left arm. On it was inscribed the word, Judenrat.
Even though things were quiet, the remaining murderers walked the streets in freedom and the military didn't do a thing to them. They felt more sure of themselves and started to arm themselves with clubs. They lay in the sun while they badgered Jews.
The ghetto question came up again. The Councilmen went out to the old market and decided it had room enough for nearly 2,000 Jewish persons, 6 to a small room. The Judenrat tried to abort the plan, but most of the people had already used up their resources to pay off for previous actions. With great difficulty, however, a sum was raised that was divided among the city fathers. This payoff was successful and work was stopped on the fencing of the ghetto.
A few quiet days passed until the city fathers became hungry again, for too long a period had passed without Jewish victims. They made a list of fifteen men and asked the police to bring them in. Four policemen took them to Osowiec and denounced them as Communists. That started the action against Jews again, including a few women, older men and some young people. Poles began to chase them. One of them ran toward the old market. The police shot at him, but missed. He managed to disappear.
The Jews didn't know why they were picked on. One was accused of urging the Russians to remove the cross from the market. A Jewish woman was accused of telling a Polish woman during the time of Russian occupation Your anti-Semitic time has passed. The city fathers encouraged Poles to come to them with such stories. They indicated that the accused people were Communists and that the Germans should shoot them.
The German commander wasn't ready to see the city fathers. When a colonel arrived, the police ran up to him with a smile on their faces because now they felt that everything would be taken care of. The Colonel asked, Who are these people? The reply was, They are Communists.
The colonel screwed up his face and said, Why do you bother me with tales like this? Old people like these Communists? Let them go home and don't bring them here again. The policemen stood there shamefacedly and didn't know how to pass this on to the Jews. But the Jews had heard every word. They kissed each other for joy. The Poles, however, returned downcast.
The Poles didn't remain downcast and the Jews didn't rejoice very long, for the Council cooked up another plan which they carried out in three days.
Those Jews on the list, who happened to have money, ran to the Polish authorities to buy themselves out of the assignment. Only two men succeeded in buying their way out. A group of the remaining sixteen decided to hide. This did not work out because Christians they knew were afraid to take them in. Only five succeeded in their attempt to hide. The police vainly tried to find them. The Jews which remained worked hard all day and part of the night. After work, they were herded into Tserala's cellar and kept locked up for two weeks. Attempts to buy their freedom failed. At the end of the two-week period, two taxi loads of German gendarmes showed up at the market.
The Jews in the town were in a panic. Men ran away to hide outside of town. Women stole through the back streets to ask the Judenrat what was happening.
The gendarmes went to the home of Mayor Bolonowski, where they stayed a half-hour. Afterwards they searched the town until they found the eleven Jews in Tserala's cellar. The Commandant asked who are these people? Bolonowski replied that they were Jewish Communists.
One young man, Samuel Herschfeld, went to the oldest gendarme and said, These bandits took away our gold and our dollars, and afterwards they locked us up for no reason. The rich who still have money, they left alone, but not us, the poor Jews. These bandits have already killed 60 innocent Jews. They have taken advantage of there being no German authority in the town. They want to kill us a few at a time. Free us from their murderous hands. Samuel broke out crying and was followed by the others. Bolonowski with his head down, his face pale, did not say a word.
Go home. You are free, the Commandant said.
The Jews, surprised at their sudden freedom, raised their hats to honor the gendarmes.
The gendarmes returned to Bolonowski's home where they searched for Jewish gold and dollars, but Bolonowski had arranged that nothing would be found at his house. The gendarmes stepped into their taxis and left town.
The Commander immediately called the leader of the Judenrat and gave him a list of house goods, including furniture, bedding, and cookware. The Judenrat got together the items on the list in twenty-four hours. In an intimate moment, the gendarmes said, If the Jews are good to us, we will be good to them.
The Jews did everything they could to keep the gendarmes happy and were liked by the Commandant, who became acting chief of the town, turning Bolonowski into a figurehead. The Polish town fathers also lost their power. The Jews felt freer. Some even went out into the rural areas to work for the peasants. The peasants started coming into town to do business with the Jewish shopkeepers. Contact was resumed between the Jews in town and the peasants of the villages, thus helping Jews to earn a livelihood.
But men still went to forced labor every day in selected places and no Jew could remove the yellow patches or go for a stroll in the town-square. Work began once more on public works in the town. A sapper's unit from Osowiec was sent out to oversee the work. It was headed by a man called Franz and he was in charge of thirty Jewish workers sent to him by the Judenrat. There were also a few Polish workers in the unit. They had the easy jobs, such as driving vehicles, locksmithing and wood inspection.
The work was very heavy, and a new group of Jews would come in every three days as replacements. Franz, who was a sadist, would beat the workers unmercifully. He made men work beyond their capacity. For example, he would not allow more than three men to carry one large block of wood on their shoulders. When he called a single Jew to lift a large block, and the Jew couldn't move it from its place, Franz would let his baton stroll over his shoulders, back and legs until he lifted it. Franz would stand there every day, even under torrential rains, with a rubber hat on his head and his baton in his hand, and hit his workers until they rolled a log uphill, running. When he was very angry, he would say, Because of you Jews, my comrades are rotting in the fields. But mostly he hated rich Jews. If one of the workers wore a pair of pants without patches or holes, he would call him near, take him into a small room and torture him. But when he saw bread and butter in Jew's hands during lunch, he would say, Ach, butter you're eating! He would then curse at him.
No one needed to be envious of Jews, for at 9 PM, after 14 hours of work, he would yell out, All Jews here. When they formed two rows in front of him, he would yell out three times, God punishes England and the cursed Jews. After that, with their remaining strength, the Jews ran down the hill as fast as they could. There were always, however, one or two older Jews who did not have the strength to run. Franz would scream at these laggards to come to him. Can't you run, cursed Jews? he would say. The older Jew would then crawl down as fast as he could, barely making it into town.
The name Franz brought terror to Jewish hearts. Many Jews would rather be dead than to work for him.
When he arrived two days later, the Commissar immediately called the chairman of the Judenrat and ordered him to put together a list of valuable items in the town. The Jews did everything to please him in the matter.
Three weeks after freeing the Jews from the cellar, an answer came from the Bialystok Gestapo to the City Council and the gendarmes ordered the eleven to jail by midday September 12, 1941. On that date the Gestapo would pick them up. This news was kept secret from the Jews. The Polish police came at night accompanied by the gendarmes and took the eleven from their beds and put them back into the cellar they'd been in. In the morning, a German truck, driven by Gestapo soldiers, drove directly to the office of the gendarmes. They asked the Polish police and the gendarmes to bring the eleven communist Jews to the truck.
While they were being led through the streets, one Jew managed to escape. Several policemen chased him and shot at him, but he got away. When the report of the incident was given to the Gestapo, the Commandant immediately ordered that five more Jews be captured to replace the one that got away. When the police asked which five Jews, they were told, Take the first five you find.
The police picked up their quota of five Jews from the homes surrounding the market. The five who were picked up were told they were being rounded up for a work detail, so they went peacefully. When the Jews finally realized what was happening, it was too late. Among the five picked up were the leader of the Judenrat and its secretary. By the time their wives ran out to find their men, it was too late. The women wept and cried out and were brought home half dead.
The Jewish community found out that the fifteen were taken to Kniesin and jailed there. The wives of the five went there in order to plead that their men were not Communists and had nothing to do with the detainees from the cellar. In order to make their trip possible, the Judenrat had to raise a great deal of money to get permission from the Commissar to allow the women to travel there without a passport. The women felt certain that their men would be freed, but it turned out otherwise. The Gestapo asked for a quantity of gold to let the five go. They were given a maximum of two days to collect it. Without waiting the two days, the Gestapo placed all the prisoners on a truck and took them to Bialystok. They freed a fifteen-year old. The other fourteen vanished without a trace.
After that life went on as before. The power of the Commissar and the gendarmes increased, while the power of the Judenrat waned. After two weeks in the city, the Commissar removed the power of the Polish City Council and took all the power for himself. He hung the Hitler flag over his office and Goniondz was ruled under Hitler's civil laws, the same as all the surrounding towns. The number of crafts Jews could work in was established.
The Commissar called on the Judenrat whenever he needed something from the Jewish community, or over questions of work assignments. According to the Judenrat, the Commissar was not a bad man, just forgetful. He kept forgetting what the Jewish community had given him. Often the Judenrat had to go to other towns to buy articles for him which were unavailable in Goniondz. For this purpose, they would receive a travel card. It was otherwise forbidden for Jews to travel. The money for these purchases came from Jews with means. In addition, the Judenrat had to buy new clothes for the gendarmes and their families back in Germany. They sucked the blood of the Jewish people in Goniondz without stop.
The Jewish population of Goniondz consisted of three classes. The first were the rich who were merchants before the War and also of manufacturers of such items as leather goods and shoes. They didn't have to work for a living. Most of them had hidden their goods in bunkers or among peasants they knew in the villages. From time-to-time, they would sell off a bit of goods, which were high-priced then, and buy food and other necessities. They could have existed like this for years.
The second class, consisting of craftsmen, didn't have things so bad either. Their ten fingers were enough to earn a living. The peasants paid well for their work because the supply of craftsmen was limited. The tailors came out best, for the peasants had a lot of cloth materials after robbing Russian supplies during the retreat of the Red Army. Because they paid a fixed sum to the Judenrat, the craftsmen did not have to do forced labor. This exemption did not apply to their children.
The third class consisted of poor people, who had even been poor pre-war. They had it much worse than anyone else. These were the small merchants who had run grocery stores. At one time they had had a small amount of goods, but now it was eaten up or sold during the first few months of the War. They were, therefore, part of the squeezed Jews. They did business with the peasants and bartered their Sabbath clothes, furniture which they had received as wedding gifts, tools, underwear, and finally bedding. Since a money economy didn't exist for the peasants, a barter system was instituted. All transactions were underground, because there were huge penalties if one was caught.
In the beginning, the poor families had something to exchange for flour and potatoes for the winter. Even a drayman would receive enough for two wagon wheels to get a whole winter's supply of potatoes. By spring, they would have nothing left with which to barter, so many went to work in the fields, helping the peasants work the land in exchange for food for their families. Those who could not do this kind of work, old people, ritual slaughterers, the rabbi, etc. became dependent on the rich class which willingly helped them. In this way no one suffered from hunger.
In the summer of 1942, fresh work opened at Osowiec. One hundred and fifty Jews, men and women between the ages of sixteen and fifty, were employed there on a daily basis. They made clothes for the soldiers, especially trousers. A group of Jews worked at sorting abandoned Russian munitions, bombs, artillery shells, and grenades. The largest number worked at the train station, loading and unloading the trains, which came from German factories. The materials were transferred to the soldiers at the front.
Some of the bodies could still be recognized, some only by their clothing. The woman, Biali, was dressed only in a nightgown. The barbed wire by which she'd been hung was still around her throat, and her right leg was broken. Yosel Gabrinski lay there with his hands tied behind his back, his mouth filled with rags and wires. All the rest had open wounds on their heads and bodies.
The young men laid the bodies on stretchers and carried them to the Jewish cemetery. They had to tear the bodies away from their relatives. The cries of pain increased in intensity and split the heavens. One word was heard from everyone, Revenge, Jews...all of you who live through the war should avenge their innocent blood. Another called out, Jews, swear all of you by the open graves of your brothers that you will take revenge on these bandits.
Afterward, the Jews looked for the bodies of the cellar prisoners and for the four others who had been picked up. They looked in the wheat fields and found the seventeen bodies. The tragedy grew bigger as women recognized their men, their parents, and their children. The cries grew louder, for they had been murdered in a terrible way. Some had nails driven into their heads and into their hearts. Others had heads that had been split by an ax. One had his tongue cut out and many had broken arms and legs. Eight men had their arms bound behind them with barbed wire. Others had deep wounds in their heads or necks. After looking for a long time they found the five men who had been shot because of the blood libels of the Poles who claim they had found them hidden in a wheat field.
The time they had been granted permission to travel was not enough to bury the dead in a cemetery. They were reburied where they were found. At six in the evening the mourners returned home.
Relations between the Judenrat, the Commissar, and the gendarmes improved to the point that the resident's didn't feel the rule of Hitler in the town. From time-to-time, because of slander by the Poles, the Commissar would get angry with the Judenrat, but the Judenrat would quiet him down with a nice present.
The large group of Jewish craftsmen working at Osowiec gave the Jews some leverage with the Commissar and with the Commander at the fort. There was a feeling that even if something happened because of the Gestapo in other towns, nothing would happen to the Jews here.
The work at Osowiec never slowed down. Even more work came in because as fall and winter came near, the need for articles for the front line troops increased. The work, therefore, took on a quicker tempo. The number of trains coming and going from the Osowiec station increased. Trainloads of military went to and came back from the front. The soldiers on the trains, when they saw Jews working at the station, would cry out, Damned Jews! These remarks didn't create hopes for a better tomorrow. So the Jews would make themselves feel better with false information, such as, The Russians have marched into Kiev, Minsk and Vilno. But the truth soon came out when someone stole a German newspaper. It said, The German legions have marched into Kavkaz and have obtained a victory. The Jewish readers of that paper shuddered and felt very disappointed.
Once in a while, the Jews at the Fort would hold conversations with Russian prisoners, but they could get no information from them. The Jews were skeptical about any news they received from the Germans, or did not want to believe what they well knew was happening. In a word, they were like cats in a sack.
The Jewish workers became good friends with the Russian prisoners. They not only brought food for themselves in their packs, but also for the Russians. Two young men would place the food in several large rucksacks and place them at predetermined places. These hiding places would be changed daily. The danger was not only that the Germans might find out, but that the Polish workers would find something to tattle about.
But, just the same, one Sunday morning the Commissar ordered all Jews from Dolistover Street to leave their homes in three hours. Confusion reigned. Every Jew from the affected street ran to borrow carts from peasants in order to carry their belongings. Jews from other streets took in their things and shared their houses with them. Three days later, the Commissar ordered the Judenrat to make Jews vacate their homes on Church Street. With great difficulty, the Judenrat talked him out of it.
Several days went by without any rulings. Little-by-little, Jews began to believe that things had gotten better. The belief became greater when the Commissar passed out a ration of potatoes for the winter at a low government price. He had ordered that the peasants set aside potatoes for the military warehouses. When these became full, the Jews were allowed to take their share. It didn't take long, however, to remove the optimism. The Commissar ordered the Judenrat to make and set aside two hundred fur coats. The Commissar made available a wagon and a Polish driver to transport the coats. The president of the Judenrat agreed to carry out the order.
Around three in the afternoon, the wagon loaded with the Jewish made fur coats stood in front of the Commissar's house. The member of the Judenrat, who had been in charge of the coat collection, reported that the Commissar's request had been complied with. The Commissar greeted him and went out to the wagon to inspect the coats. The Polish driver said, Herr Commissar, the Jews have hidden the good furs, and they have given you the worst rags. Hearing this, the Commissar slapped the face of the Judenrat representative and ordered, If in three hours you don't bring me two hundred good fur coats, then you will have to send all Jewish men out into the street.
There was a bruhaha in the town. Jews ran to the nearby villages where they had hidden their goods and brought out the best coats they had. After that the storm died down.
On Saturday, October 30, 1942, at a weekly meeting of the village leaders from towns near Goniondz, the Commissar ordered that by the 3d of November, by seven in the morning, each of the villages should make available two hundred fur coats with high collars. The furs had to be laid out in a row in front of his office. The villagers wondered about the order. When one of them asked the Commissar why he needed so many furs, the Commissar answered, To bring young trees from Grayve. When the Jewish community heard the reason, they were dumbfounded. The Judenrat sent its president to get more information. When he came back, the president said that the Commissar had assured him that the two hundred furs had nothing to do with the Jews.
It became light at seven in the morning. Several of the workers asked a Polish policemen what was happening. With a smile, the policeman said, I don't know. Then he hummed a tango and danced to it. At 8:30 the workers were ordered to return as quickly as possible to their towns. Anybody who tried to get away would be shot.
As the matter became clear to everyone, the young women in the group started to cry. The two policemen accompanied the people going back. The gendarme, armed with a machine gun, brought up the rear. As they approached the village of Guzi, they could see Jews fleeing on the road to Trestine. Two Polish policemen chased them on motorcycles and opened fire until they caught them and brought them back to Guzi. Unending gunfire could be heard from Goniondz. Gestapo men with machine guns encircled the city, closing off all avenues of escape. As the group of workers marched toward the city, they saw Gestapo men holding a group of Jews who had tried to run away. This group was added to the workers and marched into the city.
On the faces of the arriving Jews were written the wounds of the town. They were so full of fear they could hardly talk. They received only one answer to any questions they asked. This is not good. A shudder went through the workers. Fathers held on to their children, brothers held a brother or a sister. They held on to each other's hands. Each one wanted to be near to a close one for the last minute before death and to die together.
The Poles stood at the edges of the streets and looked on with happiness as Jews were led to the slaughter. The Jewish workers, as they came near the old market, could see groups of Jews, young and old, running, trying to escape the town. In the fields where young, green wheat plants grew, Gestapo men ran and shot without end. Those who had tried to run away turned and came back.
A Jewish woman ran out of her house and into the row of workers. She tried to take her son away from the group. The gendarme ordered her to immediately return to her home. With his revolver cocked against her breast, she went back crying. The whole group of workers, men, women, and children, began to cry.
At the front of the former court building, Bolonowski, Kempo and their followers laughed at the Jews marching to the old market.
At the market, 200 carts were parked whose use was already clear. Gestapo automobiles stood in the middle of the market.
A pale faced Gestapo officer with long, black side-whiskers and angry eyes shoved to the front of the group. Seeing him even at a distance made the women shake. The group was told to stand in two rows. When this was done, several lower ranking Gestapo officers drew near. One of them, holding a paper in his hands, said, You are all being transported to work. Each of you is to go home for half an hour and put on working clothes. Bring along a change of underwear, two sheets and pillowcases, a spoon, a fork, and a knife. Once you have these items, come back into the street.
Hearing this, the workers breathed easier. With renewed hope they ran to their homes to carry out the Gestapo orders. I, my brother Zalman, and sister Kayle found our house locked. We tore the lock off and went inside. After a short discussion, we decided not to go back into the street, but to hide in the hideaway our father had built in the attic. We wanted to wait until things became clearer. We brought up from the rest of the house food, water, bedding, and other needed items. We closed the masked door of the small room and hid there. We dug a small hole in the roof from which we could see what was happening on the street.
Jews were collecting themselves into an ever-expanding group. They stood in a long row starting on Dolistover Street, near the waiting carts. Their packs lay on the ground near their family groups. Gestapo police milled in the streets and shouted at every Jew leaving his house, Out, out, faster, faster, damned Jews. Wherever they found a Jew who was late, they beat him and chased him out of the house. The Poles energetically helped the Gestapo look for hidden Jews. When several young Poles happened to find a young Jewish boy hidden in a cellar, they immediately informed the Polish police who shot him on the spot. From time-to-time, they dragged hidden Jews into the street to join the Jewish rows.
The shooting in the town continued. At twelve in the afternoon, when they found no more Jews, the Gestapo began to fill the carts. In a half-hour, all the Jews in line were in the carts. The Gestapo spread out among the carts to watch the transport. The Gestapo leader gave the order and the heavily laden carts began to move.
It was frightening how, in a few moments, they wiped out a community of several thousand Jews from their birthplace in which had lived their grandfathers and great grandfathers for hundreds of years. Most of the Jews would be seeing their homes for the last time. Old Jews raised their hands to Heaven, looking for salvation, but no miracles happened.
Poles stood along the route with happy faces. Slowly, the last of the carts reached Church Street. The whole community vanished and was wiped out forever from its ancient home.
Groups of Poles, ranging in age from six years olds to fifty-year-old men and women, ran about like wild beasts. They looked in every street and alley, in every yard, in every house and barn, and in every attic and cellar. Even in our house and in our attic we heard the noise of these guests. It felt as if they would soon find us. We lay in our hiding place, not breathing, not moving a muscle. We were paralyzed with fear, feeling that this was the last moment of our lives. But when they didn't find us, they stole all our belongings and went out to continue the chase.
Little-by-little, we came to ourselves. One of us looked through the observation hole in the roof. He saw them leading captured Jews to the Gestapo truck. In two hours, the Poles rooted out more Jews. Among them was my grandfather. The Gestapo officer ordered them to get into the truck. The truck left in the same direction as the carts which had left earlier. The Gestapo taxi also left. The chase after the Jews continued, however.
The young Polish boys never tired of the sport. They did it with such energy that their parents got great pleasure from watching them.
Little-by-little, day turned into night. There were fewer Poles and the market area grew quieter. But a policeman still found two hidden Jews. They were first taken to the Commissar's office, then they were brought out onto Church Street where we could no longer see them.
We heard a group of Poles speaking near our house. One of them said with great happiness, Janek is efficient. He captured two brothers in the bath house. A second one said, What more do you want? Even the blind Shenko, with his one eye, found Shmuel Pensik and his little boy. Firlus, the policeman, just took them to the Jewish cemetery to be shot. A third one said, Why crow about catching Jews? A whole bunch of them managed to escape. The first one replied, Don't worry, we will catch them all.
They began to count the Jews they had not seen on the carts. The number went up to thirty. A pessimistic one said, Thirty we know about. But how many more there really were, we do not know.
They tried to make each other feel better by reminding themselves that many Jews who tried to escape were wounded. They said that the President of the Judenrat, Pinkevich, had been shot in the hand and in the back. He had been laid bloody on the cart. They recalled that a number of women they knew had been wounded while trying to get away. Finally their talk died down and they left.
A deadly silence fell on the town. The Jewish houses around the market were in mourning for their owners. Somewhere in a Jewish barn a goose honked to be fed. We heard the sad meowing of a cat. Everything was crying over the destruction of Goniondz.
Next day the Polish police went to each home and nailed the doors and windows shut. Around six in the evening, when it became dark, groups of Poles, with clubs in their hands, were detailed to keep watch near each Jewish home. Our plan, which had been to sneak out at night from our hiding place and to run away, was frustrated. We remained living in fear and waiting for an opportune moment to escape.
The first night after the destruction was frightful. We could hear them leading away Jews they had found. We recognized them by their cries. We heard the heart-rending cry of a Jewish woman and it shook us to our souls. The sound of shooting tore the quietness of night and tore us apart because we knew that every shot cost the life of a Jew. Our faces flamed, our hearts hammered, but we had to be still. We didn't want to be heard by the watchmen who stood near and snooped around like bloody hounds.
The policeman, Gogol, led Menashe the blacksmith, hitting him murderously with the butt of his gun on the head, back and legs. He took him into the Commissar's office and afterwards into the cellar where all the detainees were kept. In a few minutes, the second policeman, Firlus, led, with his gun pointing at a five year old boy, Sholem Rosenthal, to the cellar. When the policeman came out of the cellar, he was met by a group of Polish children who asked him to follow them. Firlus returned in ten minutes, leading three new Jews, two of them women. He took them to the German gendarmes and turned them in. A short time later he came out with only the women, and he locked them in the cellar. In the three days after the Jews had been led away in carts, the Poles had managed to round up thirty Jews.
On the fourth day, a Friday, the Police led the Jews out of the cellar and lined them up in a row in front of the Commissar's office, where Polish carts awaited them. The Jews waited a long time until the Commissar came out. He slapped several in the face and told all of them to get into the carts. They were taken away in the same direction as the others.
After this the Poles found one more Jew. Others gave themselves up when none of the peasants they knew would take them in. The Commissar wasted no time. He ordered the police to take them to the Jewish cemetery and shoot them. This was the way many Jews were killed in the first few weeks of the Holocaust.
The Polish people could now go about robbing the Jewish homes of all belongings. They did this at night because they were supposed to be the watchmen of the Jewish belongings, and it was officially forbidden to loot. According to the law, it could lead to death.
The Poles celebrated on the first Sunday after the removal of the Jews. They dressed in holiday clothes, some of which were freshly looted, and strolled through the market. Their happy talk and laughter could be heard far away. They gathered in groups and told each other stories of their great happiness at the turn of events. A neighbor invited guests for drinks to celebrate. We heard him say, Let us drink in honor of having lived long enough to see Goniondz clear of all Jews. The cries and songs of these hooligans tore at our nerves. The party went on until late into the night.
At first he didn't want to let us in, fearing that he would be shot. After we told him that we had good clothing and other things in our rucksacks and that we would pay him well, he relented and let us into his house. We gave him a new shirt and two silver spoons and begged him to let us stay just for the day. We told him that just as soon as it became dark, we would leave. He agreed.
From him, we learned that the Goniondz Jews had all been sent to a camp in Bogushe, which was near the Prussian border. On the same day they took out dozens of Bialystok and Grodno communities. The only communities they had left were in Yashinovke, the Bialystok and Grodno ghettos.
The peasant advised us to give ourselves up, because no one would let us into their homes. The commissioner had given the order that any Pole who hid a Jew would be shot along with his family, and his house would be burned. We told him we would wander as long as fate would allow.
After staying a frightening day at the peasant's home locked in a closet, we went out into the night. Everywhere we went, the doors were locked. None of the peasants we knew would let us in. They even set the dogs on us to make us hurry away from their yards.
We decided to risk it, and went through fields and woods toward Yashinovke. There we found our father along with twenty-six other Goniondz Jews. My father told us that the day of the action, he had escaped through the lines of the Gestapo. My mother, who had tried to escape next, was caught and returned to the town. She was the only member of our family that ended up in Bogushe.
Five hundred fleeing Jews from surrounding towns had gathered in Yashinovke. We stayed there for three months until one beautiful winter morning, January 25, 1943, the Gestapo carried out the same action as they had done in Goniondz. A small group of Jews managed to escape. Others escaped from the sleds which were taking them to the Kniesin railroad station where a special train to Treblinka awaited them. A larger group managed to jump out of the small windows of trucks carrying them to the slaughter.
Everyone on that long trip was accompanied by a fear of death, a struggle for existence, and a mighty heartrending cry of pain of the half-dead Jews pressed together in the black wagons. In the last hours came the cry, Jews take revenge for the innocent blood.
In this action, each member of our family managed to save himself in different ways. My brother Zalman ran away from an armed Gestapo guard who ran after him, shooting. Through a miracle he managed to get away and hide until nightfall in the barn of the town priest. I was able to escape in the evening, from the sleds loaded with Jews on the way to the train station, where the train waited to take them to Treblinka. My father jumped out of the window of a truck on its way to the train station. My sister, no longer able to take the conditions in the packed truck, decided to commit suicide by jumping out the window while it was moving. She fell on a rock and lay unconscious in the snow of a frosty winter night. A young man who had jumped out after her had carried her away to a peasant he knew and left her there. She woke up and was surprised to find where she was. The wife of the peasant told her what had happened, gave her something to eat, and told her to go. She covered her battered face with a muffler and walked in the direction of Goniondz.
At night, she stopped at a peasant woman's house whom she knew and found me there. We continued on and ran into my father and my brother at another peasant home. But the same old problem arose. It was impossible to find a place to stay. My father wandered night after night until he was lucky enough to find a peasant willing to hide us in exchange for all our goods, which we had managed to hide away. We were hidden in the attic of his stall for nine months. More than once our lives hung by a thread, especially when the gendarmes went through the peasant's house, went into the stall to look at his cows while we were hidden just above their heads. After that, the peasant told us to go. Again death looked at us from all sides. We wandered for a long time in the woods and in the fields. Once a peasant saw us in the fields and ran to the village to squeal on us. But by the time the residents came to catch us, we were already gone.
In this way, we wandered days and nights in hunger and in cold, in dark forests and swamps where people were not likely to come. My father looked every night for a place for us to stay. His first approach to any Pole was frightening and risky, not knowing how he would react. It is hard to describe how we felt at seeing our father take such risks. But nothing held him back, not even his age, for at fifty-two, he was still sprightly. He went to all sorts of places where he risked death. When I or my brother wanted to exchange places with him, he wouldn't permit it. He said, You are young yet. You still have to live. If something happens, better it should happen to me.
We spent twenty months wandering around like this. Toward the end of that time my father felt sick and told us, Children, who knows if I have gotten cancer? He suffered so much that he no longer loved life, but he did not stop his heroic attempts to save us. He died on May 2, 1945 of cancer in a Bialystok hospital after an operation.
In addition to frightful hunger, filth reigned in the camp, leading to a high death rate. Every night the corpses were laid out in a hole, and in the morning were taken to the cemetery in the camp. This cemetery had been previously used by the Russian Army. From time to time, there were selections in the camp. A large group was separated out and told they were being sent to work. They were sent out in the morning, but nobody returned. This spread the alarm among the Jews of Bogushe that they were being sent out to Treblinka and Maidenek, and that they were being burned in crematoria.
On December 22, 1942, at five in the morning, the Gestapo entered the camp and ordered all Jews to leave the barracks and to go into the camp. When about half had carried out the order, the remainder were told to stay put. The gathered Jews were ordered to form four long lines and to march to a spot near the fence. It was very dark and the people in the group could not recognize each other. All they could hear was the sound of marching feet and the unending shooting of automatic weapons. Later, when the Gestapo opened the camp gates and led the Jews away to the train station, there was a frightening sight. A group of seventy Jews had been shot and were lying in puddles of blood frozen to the cold earth. Some of them still lived, but were wrestling with death. They couldn't stand the frightful pain and they asked the Gestapo to kill them. The Gestapo did them the favor.
In the morning, when the Gestapo sent out a group of Jews to pick up the bodies, they found that the Gestapo had not only shot Jews who had been marching in camp, but also along the whole way to the train station. There were more than fifty bodies outside the camp, frozen to the earth with their own blood. That same day, the train took the Jews to Treblinka. The group that stayed behind were sent out with the second train which took three thousand Jews on January 3, 1943.
Avrahamke, the Glazier - Raver (?)
Bialy Hilka - Chaya Tsirel's son
Bzhezhinsky - A family from Botka (1935)
Barsky, Noach - Khatskel-Mendel Burkass' son-in-law
Green, Moshe - Moshe, the Rutkovsker [from Rutkovsk]
Hirshfeld, Shmuel - The son of Sholom Rachel-Leah's
Zimnokh, Betsalel - Alter, the dry goods store owner's son, Itshe Berls
Khazan, Henya - Henya Pesha's, the baker
Khativa, Simkha - The estate lessee
Yevreysky, Shimon - Shimon, the army tailor
Levin, Yisrael - Alter Yehudah's, the son of the butcher
Luria, Sonia - The midwife, Rachel Luria's daughter-in-law.
Lifshitz, Shmuel - Son-in-law of Pesha, the Presser
Luria, Khaya Rachel - One of the Marantz family
Tikotsky, Leibel - Leibel Betsalel's (the butcher)
Mikhnovsky, Alter - A baker, Isaac Aviezer's son-in-law
Nievodovsky, Zalman - Son of Eli-Hershel
Feldman, Meilech - His mother, Zissel, was Mosheke Piekarsky's daughter
Finkevitch, Hirsh - Moshe Mendel's son-in-law
Friedman, Nissan - Nissel, the Butcher
Pletinovitch - A family from Yedvobna that moved to Goniondz in 1931
Tsereleh - Gittel Abba's
Kliap, Motke - Motke Gershons
Kliap, Hershel and Yekhezkel - His sons
Kobrinsky, Asher - A son of Bertchuks Poliak
Kobrinsky, Yosef - Son of Chaim Poliak
Koppelman, Chaim - Chaim Dinkes
Kravitz, Menashe - Son of Reizel, the lady blacksmith (!)
Rubin, Yankel - Yankel Eliyahu's (the blacksmith)
Reigrodsky, Wolf - Khaya Tsirel's son-in-law
Rubin brothers - (Puls [?]), their father was Hershel Velvel Zodchak
Rosenthal, Sholom - His father was Khatskel-Itshe Frantsoizel's
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