Miraculously we reached Horodenka with no problems. In the darkness of the night we marched from the train station to our home. It was a very pleasant evening. There was a very nice wind that seemed to say: Hilda, you're home again in the place of your mother's warm home. This is the same Horodenka, the same familiar streets in which you walked once singing and chatting with your friends. I thought, You may be very lucky, maybe that terrible hand did not reach and hurt our town. I hoped that my reaching Horodenka with no problem was an omen that nothing had happened to the town.
The omen wasn't true. As I walked home I tried to think about the ways in which I could enter the house without scaring my mother. When I last saw her she was so helpless and so small that she looked like a little child. That was the reason I came home. I realized that this time we would change our roles and that she would need me as her protector. I was sure that the last days of the war made her weak and left her even more helpless than before.
While I was walking home I started to doubt that I'd find my mother in the place I'd seen her last. In the past few months so many things had happened that everything seemed endless and hopeless. So many losses, so much humiliation, so many tragedies the misery in each of our lives was enough to fill the lives of hundreds of people in regular times. Thinking that way, I felt myself getting older by the minute and I was getting more and more tired. Then I stopped thinking about the danger that was lurking around me as I walked in the middle of the night on forbidden roads, breathing air I was forbidden to breathe. I only thought about the fact that I was still alive against the will of the enemy, almost against my own will.
What had started out as a nice evening when I arrived now became a nightmare. We started noticing other shadows moving in the dark some of them pushing, some of them being pushed towards an unknown destiny. Those who were pushed did not resist. They were led like sheep to a slaughter. They did not scream. They did not lift their hands to protect themselves. They were stunned. And only every now and then my ear would hear a moan, a sign, or a cry.
We realized what was happening: everyone was getting ready for the action and there was nowhere we could retreat or hide. We had to keep walking, so we did. And while we were marching we could see the shadows of the people disappearing into the night the night that may have been for some of them, their last night on earth the night of destruction. But for us, that night was a friend. It hid us from the enemies in the area so we could go on.
As I continued walking I was getting anxious and thinking: how did we dare to do what we did in the last 16 hours? To go 200 kilometers by train, to walk for an hour in a town full of enemies without being noticed? To go through the action without being caught? But we continued on. And then finally I reached my home, the home where I'd left my mother when I saw her last. My heart was beating strongly. I knocked on the door but the voice that answered me was not my mother's voice. She wasn't there anymore. She never again would need my help and protection. Without my knowing, she had gone with the others who were taken away. I was struck by my misery and by my sadness. I sat on the doorstep, covering my face and my eyes, without even crying tears or moaning. She was the third of my family that I lost and the last one. Each one went to a place from which there is no return; and each one took a part of my life with them when they went.
Translated by Dalya Yohai From August 1939 on, I lived with my family in Holland. In September 1939, World War II started and Horodenka became part of Soviet Russia. We had more and more difficulties maintaining contact with our relatives there especially after Holland fell into German hands. The postcards we exchanged had to go through double censorship: Russian and German. They became shorter and shorter, exchanging only short greetings and some news. After the occupation of Holland by the Germans, our relatives worried about us more, because we were under Hitler's shadow. In September 1940, my mother-in-law, Chana Shtreyt died. She was lucky to die in her bed surrounded by family.
There was terrible news about the Horodenka Jews, and letters, written in codes (i.e. with words having double meanings) started to arrive in February 1942.
From a letter on February 1, 1942, written in German and sent under the alias: Asher Schleimazel (Asher the fool), my brother-in-law Asher Shtreyt wrote: Bronye, Hershele, and David (his wife and two kids) are in Heaven. The family of murderers took them on vacation. My wife couldn't understand the message and asked him to explain again: On March 6, 1942, he answered, I am surprised you didn't understand: Bronye, Hersch and David are dead in Gan Eden with thousands of other Jews. Only half still remains.
The letter from February 1, also had news about the birth of a daughter, Chana, to my sister-in-law, Feyge. On April 18, he writes again: This week we had again a visit from Mr. Shochet [murderer]. It happened that uncle Chaim [life] didn't leave us except for little Chana [she was murdered in her crib]. Then he told us about the ghetto in town and then added: I almost went into Mr. Murderer's hands, but managed to get away. I can't give you more details now because of my mood. I hope Uncle Chaim doesn't leave me, although Mr. Fear is still with us. All our brothers went to our dear mother except for some. Aba, Feyge, Shmuel and Metale are doing well. I hope to hear from you, if not, remember, our revenge will come!
From my brother Barukh I got a card on April 15, also sent under another name, Yishmach Moshe Greenshotof. He wrote: Twice we were very close to visiting our mother [she died in 1912] and came back. Maybe there will be another opportunity. And we don't know if we will be back. Gitl and Beynsh Halpern also moved . All these cards went through German censors, but did arrive.
From Asher, on May 5, 1942: I came back from work and found your card of April 17th. I guess you got the information about what is going on here. I still am in shock. I can't explain what's going on in our hearts. Even Job or Dante were unable to come up with this kind of situation. Let's hope that this will be the end of it. Feyge, Shmuel and the girl are all well. Only little Chana fell victim and went to Bronye and the children [were murdered]. God knows were I get the strength to live
After May 1942, the cards were full of complaints about the terrible hunger and included requests for food. Asher wrote on May 14, The suffering is more than possible to bear. If the Germans come to kill us, we are ready, since it is better to die from a gun than from hunger. I want already to go to my dear Bronye and the children. There is no point in staying here to do the work.
In Holland, we had difficult times too. After May 1st, we had to wear the yellow start and we couldn't go out after 8 o'clock. We could shop only between four and five in the afternoon. However, even when we couldn't get anything because the market was closed, we still made a big effort to send food to Horodenka. In a card from June 29, we got a confirmation from Asher that they had received our parcel. They said it helped a lot and to send more, if possible.
In a card dated August 5, Asher wrote, It's been a long time. I don't have the patience. We are expecting Mr. Yeshua [G-d] to come and visit. Mr. Pachad [fear] is still here and the mashchitim [murderers] still come from time to time. We can get food since it's harvest time, but we don't have money and everybody's starving. Every night I see Bronye and the children in my dreams and I feel better. I am healthy to go to work daily. In my spare time, I write my memories. I see your brother Barukh everyday at work. I hope I can soon tell you about the destruction and of our friends who took [murdered] Bronya and the children.
On August 2, I sent a card to Horodenka to Asher's address, but it was returned in September with a note: Unknown left. This was at the time when all the Jews from town were forced into the ghetto.p> In a card dated August 9, my brother Baruch wrote: Aunt Gittel [ghetto] lives on the street of the big synagogue. We live in a shared apartment and we have to pay rent. Before Passover, I went to the village [he had worked as a farmer in the village] and was able to get some food. What's next, I don't know. We are afraid that we are going to join our uncle Yenkel [who was murdered]. Who knows when I will be able to answer you again..
Then another card came from Asher dated September 12, just before Rosh-Hashana. In our quarters, we had a nice shochita [killing]. At this time our family is with Uncle Chaim [life], but it looks like the place will be with achenu [our brothers]. I will go to Volochisk [Romania] or Potochek, so I don't have to part from Uncle Chaim. Feyge and the family went to Kolomyja and dear Chaim is still with them. Almost all of our dear brothers went to Bronye and the children. HaShochet [the k iller] was going crazy here. Dear Hersh Leif [our cousin Mendel Prifer] and his oldest daughter went there. My memories, I will leave here. When the War is over and you survive, you'll have a taste of the sweet revenge on the enemy. Greetings from those who survived.
Then we got a card from Baruch and his wife, dated October 2, 1942. They wrote from the village of Ozeryony. They ran away to this village hoping that it would continue to be quiet, as it was in an area across the Dniester River. My brother wrote: We got your card from August 24. Some days after that Mr. Pachad [fear] came to visit Horodenka and stayed five days. Many from our family and friends went with him, including our cousin Hersh-Leif and his oldest daughter. We came here empty-handed and we feel weak from hunger and in exile.
The information about my brother's move to the other side of the river, I also got from Asher. He wrote: Try to avoid the storm, and if you are called, don't go. He didn't know that we already got a letter to go to Westerbrok, where they were organizing the Jews from Holland. Every week they would send two to three trains from there to Auschwitz to the gas chambers. After the war we learned that my sister-in-law Shlomo's older daughter was sent to Auschwitz from Nice in the southern part of France, even though this area was not under Nazi rule.
Asher's card dated October 14 had terrible news about our family. Asher wrote: I didn't go to Kolomyja for the last five days, but today I learned that there was a shochita [killing] there and Aba, Feyge, Shmuel and the girl left the place, probably forever. Maybe this is for the best. It looks like the whole area of Stanislav County is going to be emptied of Jews. I don't know how long I will stay with dear Chaim, but it looks like not much longer. When I get to the other side of the river, I will write more. Write, too! Be courageous. We are ready for anything! If I don't find another solution, I might go to Bronya and the children.
We received two more cards, both from Horodenka one from October 21, the other from the 29th. Asher told us that he got a card from Shmuel, Feyge's husband, from the work camp in Lvov. He said that he was separated from his family and probably they were not alive anymore. Asher himself was one of the last remaining Hordenkan Jews sent to Kolomyja. But he managed to run away. He didn't know if he should go to Romania or Buchach. We got a card from him from Buchach dated December 2. He wrote: Your card from November 6, that was sent to Horodenka, came to me only now. I've been here three weeks and already have had six opportunities to reunite with Bronye and the children. Your idea about them being still alive is very strange. [I had written to him, to comfort him, that maybe they had not been killed.] A week ago there was a shochita here. Two thousand went to Bronye. I have no strength to describe my latest experiences. Please try to go someplace where you won't get Bronye's illness. From Shmuel, I don't have any information, although I sent him money twice. Maybe he went to Bronya and the kids. I'm staying here with my brother-in-law and hope to get work in the village. Then we will solve the problem of food and there might be more of a chance that dear Chaim is staying with me.
My brother Barukh wrote to me from Tluste twice, December 20, 1942 and January 24, 1943. This was the last card that I got from him. He wrote: We got the card dated January 4, 1943 and we are very happy to hear that you are healthy. We are changing our address, not voluntarily, our zsures [ones giving us trouble], are changing it. Our town is free of Jews and even Hersh-Leib's sons are not alive anymore. From all of them, only Mendele, is alive and is with me. Hersh-Leib also left. I want to let you know that we had a little daughter and she is three months old. I didn't think I would be able to write you this card. Thank God for that, I hope God will bring us a good new year and you will be able to respond.
Asher Shtreyt wrote us two cards, on December 25 and January 21, from Botchach. In the last one he wrote: Can you imagine my joy. I came back from my work, sorting rags, in the village, and I found your card from December 17, 1942. My whole life depends on Tony [his sister] and your words. 'Be strong,' comforted me. I don't know long I'll be with dear Chaim, but I am sure you will stay with him, if only for revenge. There were two weddings here, but I wasn't able to go. From Aba, Feyge and Shmuel, there is no news. My brothers are saying that there is hope and we'll be saved soon. I wish it so. Your brother and his wife are still in Tluste. He packed his stuff to join Bronya, but at the last minute, they let them come back from death.
On the 25 of January, Asher wrote again from Buchach this time, not in German, but in Ukrainian. He said: I am writing to you from the village where I work as a collector of old wood. In town, the atmosphere is tense and every minute I expect to join Bronye, my dear Bronye. I am trying to stay away from town.
The last card was dated February 12, 1943. He wrote: I got your card of the 12th of January, 1943. I was really lucky to be able to get it. Our people are not allowed to work out of town, except for some people with the number 25. This fact is telling me the end is near, because it is impossible to live in town even one hour. A week ago two thousand people went to Bronye. Who knows if I can write to you again. God help us, so we can see each other. Here and in Lvov we have the same situation as in Horodenka. It is very difficult to stay with Chaim.
My brother-in-law, Yehoshua Sthreyt told me that Asher died in combat as a partisan.
From his writings we felt the spirit of a courageous man who didn't want to succumb to his destiny. A year and a half after his family died, he still wanted to fight for his life.
Now that I'm writing these words, it feels as though there is nothing new in them. After the Eichmann trial, the whole world knew what happened.
In Western Europe, they didn't have their brutal methods of people digging their own graves and being buried in them. There they did their awful deeds under the pretense of a work camp. And the Jews couldn't fathom that it was possible to be so barbaric; they went like sheep to be killed. Unfortunately, the ghetto Warsaw Jews saw the truth too late.
[Pages 338 & 391]
Translated by Dalya Yohai In my article about the period of the Holocaust in our town, I mentioned the soup kitchen that was established for the Jewish refugees that came from Hungary and stopped in our town. Tuvya Korn and a group of young people from the Zionist Youth movement created this soup kitchen. The first Yudenrat approved it. The same group took upon itself to take care of the Jewish orphans that were thrown out of the public orphanage. It is important to know more about this story and to emphasize the devotion and dedication of the group and also to praise the work or a great supporter, Yisrael Kugler.
It was at the beginning of the Holocaust period, at the time of the Hungarian occupation, before the German occupation. Hungary decided to get rid of her Jewish citizens, claiming that they were not authentic Hungarians. The Jews started walking or driving through the former Russian territory. They were allowed in the towns they passed through to ask to for food and clothes from the local Jewish population. Our town responded to them generously; but as the situation in town became worse, we didn't have any more resources to help with.
Then our friend, Tuvya Korn proposed to a youth group in town to open a soup kitchen which would supply one hot meal a day for the refugees. The group consisted of Nina Auerbach, Clara Hartenstien, Berl Hoffman, Nusia Wacher, Savka Friedman, Sara Frankel, Savka Avidor, Munyo Kugler, Yosef Koch, Shlomo Korn, Yosef Reys, Zvi Reys, Munyo Shecter and myself. It was clear that we would volunteer, but the money to buy the equipment and supply the food would have to come from the community. First, it was important to find a place to house the project.
At that time there was already a Yudenrat that represented the Jewish community to the authorities. When the proposal came up, it was positively received. Yisrael Kugler was the one who really was excited about the idea and gave it a lot of support. We solved the problem of a space with the help of Motye Sobel who gave up one of the rooms in his apartment for the project. When he saw that the room was too small he gave us the whole apartment and went to live with his neighbor Asher Shechner. But even the apartment became too small and the entire operation moved to the Kvetshar home near the Polish gymnasium. Finally we got permission to use the home of Michal Kimel. In this house, with its two stories, we could operate properly.
The other problem was trying to get the food. Mr. Kugler did a lot to get the food from the villagers, although this was already very dangerous. He was already 60 years old, but would still go with his friends every day to one of the villages to get fresh produce. He also was very supportive of our Zionist fervor and accepted the idea that we would speak only Hebrew in the kitchen. He also supported speaking Hebrew in the orphanage that opened on the second floor of the house. We had for a short period of time more than 12 children, as all orphans had been kicked out of the public orphanage.
The first Action ended all this activity. The first morning of the Action all the children were taken from the orphanage by the Germans; Tuvya Korn was with them. He was warned about the danger and people suggested that he hide. But he couldn't leave the children and went with them to his death.
Israel Kugler lost his wife and daughter in the Action and was terribly lonely. At that time we didn't believe that our destiny would be like those in Michalcze. Kugler invited some of the Zionist youth and gave them his will. He gave all his assets to the Zionist Fund, hoping the world order would return to what it was. There was great innocence in giving his estate away like that but such was his attitude and his devotion to the Zionist cause.
Let his words be a marker and memorial to my young friends the volunteers and to Israel Kugler himself.
Translated by Harvey Buchalter Horodenka was the place of my birth and the place where I was raised. Here I worked and lived until the outbreak of the Second World War. Perhaps this explains why my feelings toward it run so deep and why I believe there is no spot better or more beautiful anywhere on Earth. We had a far-flung family in both Horodenka and in other towns, where we would often visit relatives. But I most recall the happiness that being in my town brought me. Who can put into words the hominess and the joy of celebrating the holidays and Shabbos? We had a wonderful and wholesome youth, filled with study and activities. We each had a goal in life. Life became better as each day passed. As the leaves turned green, in my eyes, it was like living in a garden. That is what life was like right before the War.
Ten days before war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union, on July 1, 1941, we left town. After a strenuous journey, we made it into the interior of the Soviet Union. We came back to Horodenka in November 1945. But what did we find there? Walking from the train station past the sugar factory on the Goyishe Gass (the non-Jewish streets) we saw no signs of our family. But as soon as we approached the still-intact Nikoleskas Church (as we used to call it) and the street that used to contain row upon row of Jewish houses, we saw flat land. Everything had been razed to the ground. The Ukrainians took apart the Jewish houses to the foundations in search of valuables. Then they dug up the empty lots to plant potatoes and other crops. Only a few of the Jewish homes remained on the main street. The few Jews who had survived the Nazi occupation and the few who had returned from the Soviet Union took over two houses. They all lived together, making ends meet with small-time trading while waiting to be repatriated to Poland. On one Sunday I stood on the threshold and watched as the goyim streamed into the church. None had any feeling for me; they regarded me with wonderment as an alien from another planet. But when my eyes left the masses of Ukrainians, I felt the predominating deathly stillness and my heart could feel the emptiness of Jewish life. Words fail me. For someone who remembers each little by-way and path, it was devastating.
Horodenka, which was alive, as were its surrounding villages and towns, was now reduced to a sad spot on the map, no better than the most insignificant hamlet. No former [Jewish] resident took up life anew; only a few Jews from the Soviet Union lived there. This is the ultimate end of our town of Horodenka.
As soon as I reached the suburbs near Toliki, I saw the dark and depressing reality. All I saw were the skeletons of the Jewish houses that were destroyed. And everywhere that I looked, I did not see one Jewish face. I felt my hope disappearing minute by minute. I walked on and on and I saw that in all the streets there wasn't one Jewish home left unharmed.
I reached the crossroads of Kolomea, Syniatyn, and Horodenka. It took me a long time to recognize the house of Giter the grain merchant. Everything was destroyed. I went on and got to the marketplace. Even here, everything was dead and empty like an old cemetery. I couldn't see one Jewish face. I couldn't hear one Jewish voice. And this was the place where most of the Jews used to gather; the place that was alive with the Jewish language of our unforgettable parents, brothers, and sisters. Everything now was dead and silent. The whole town seemed to have been erased from under the skies. I was totally shocked by the misery of this town and the destruction of my family. My feet were walking but I didn't know where they were going. I found myself standing before the big synagogue that was the joy of the town. All that remained were walls; no door, no windows. I walked inside and my eyes saw bits and pieces of clothing, dirty and soiled with blood. I looked through them to see if I could find something familiar, but I found nothing. Not one remnant of the life that was so vivid was left. All I could see in front of my eyes were all the martyrs who died here from hunger, torture, loneliness and misery.
I left the synagogue and went to where the stores used to be but even there, there was nothing. Nothing was left for me to do but go to the grave of my father but even that wasn't easy. Those murderers and robbers didn't even treat the dead with respect. They had desecrated the graves, breaking the tombstones and uprooting them to use as tiles for the pavement. I wandered in the cemetery, looking for my father's tombstone, feeling my strength leaving me. I was fortunate. His particular tombstone was still there. I stood in front of it complaining and crying bitterly.
With what was left of my strength, and hardly seeing where I was going, I left the cemetery and went back into the town. I reached the house that was supported by two columns. That was the house where the Histadrut Poale Zion (the Union of the Laborers of Zion) met. Of all the clubs in the youth organizations, it was the strongest and most active. It had a large number of members who were always lecturing and discussing with anyone who would listen their theory for developing Palestine.
All I could do was remember dear friends like Itzi Shekhter, the Liser brothers, and others who died so tragically and whom I will never see again. While I was walking like this throughout the town, a Russian soldier approached me and asked me who I was looking for. If you are looking for Jews, he said, you can find them in this house. And he showed me the house of Shmuel Frishling, the watchmaker. I entered the house and I found a very few Jews from Horodenka. From them I learned the whole story of the destruction of the town. Crying and accompanied by the cries of the people I'd left behind, I left the town and went back to my regiment in the army.
Translated by Harvey Buchalter
It lasted three endless months:
Songs from the fields no longer came
When I escaped the Nazi sword
And buried myself deep in the earth.
I exist and I breathe, I eat and drink
I go outside sometimes, even sing
But the thought comes back with horror and fear
How can I sing, when everything is gone?
I feel it's all put-on, all contrived
My chatting, my speaking, my laughing
The pain lays buried, deep in my heart
I will never take pleasure again in this life.
I ask myself, without end, in sorrow
Why was my own fate not joined with theirs?
Perhaps my destiny was otherwise chosen
To remain, while others perish.
Each one ran frantically off
A wife without her man, an older child
The earth was aflame under their feet
Fear and dread impelled each step they took.
Each searched for his hole in the ground
On streets, on corners, under the enemy's stern face
I became one alone, unwilling
Even today, I know not their fate.
Now anguish engulfs me
I sit, not seeing the world's beauty
Its grandness, the majesty unequaled
I am closed off, I have no doors, no windows.
When I look beyond it, I shudder
They would have murdered me, for being a Jew
Our lives become filthy, unworthy to live
They hunt us down, wherever we may be.
They are criminals without peer
Who judge us as sinners
They await our final day
They are fearless in their pursuit.
Their voices boom from the heights
If we see them, how dare we shoot?
The dreaded commands, which conceal annihilation
Commands to exterminate, from the mouths of murderers.
And so I will live, with patience, I'll live
Until liberation comes, I'll do what I'm able
In misery, alongside my friends
Who are my new brothers and sisters.
Moldy, stinking corners our resting places
Insects and snakes crawl helter-skelter about
And if one should dare bite us
Blood would erupt from our wounds.
The color from our faces is gone
Our flesh, our skin gnawed and scabbed over
All of our strength has been drained
If only our God would take us from this.
We exist with nothing but hunger and fear
I contemplate death as a choice
I see despair winning the battle with hope
But I will not forfeit my thin claim to life.
And in these desperate and hopeless minutes
As despair, like hail, rains down upon us
Hope lifts me up, gives me courage, and says
Be brave, my child. Wait just wait.
Bullets have missed you countless times
Grief has poured from your heart, like blood
Death has searched for you in the cellars, the markets
But you cheated death in his quest.
My body is cold, my limbs feel like ice
Frightening images tore through the forests
When death came to claim my son and me
His voice still comes back, like the howl of the wind.
Like a scarf, his voice covers my ears
My son, better if you had never been born
Mother, save me I want to live
But how can I save you? The murderers are here.
I hold him close to my heart, in dread and fear
His tears seem to choke out his cries
My soul should have fled my body just then
At that moment when they pushed us into the grave.
Just then, I heard guns being shot
And we plunged, together, into the pit
And my son a bullet found him!
Another one flew past. It was not meant for me!
And as the moment's sorrow came to pass
I saw what had become of my poor son
My eyes became swollen with tears
And I fell and curled myself up into a ball.
How sweet the moment soon became
I heard nothing, I saw not a thing
But then I awoke from my deathly sleep
To witness the horrendous truth.
All around me lay the dead, I knew them all
They lay in pools of blood, a mockery of life
I myself was soaking in their blood
Sensing my own death was but moments away.
I summoned death to come right now
I pressed my child's hands to my lips
The bullets had swept and skimmed past my head
They didn't touch me; I was still alive!
And twilight, then evening arrived
And with it came the murderers
And I, still stained by the blood of my son
Was touched with the desire to remain alive.
And so how can I tell you what that moment was like?
I cannot; it remains locked within me forever
I imagined myself as a murderous beast
I saw my own heart splitting in two.
I made my way from my dead child
Searching an opening, and a way out
The desire to live was a tug-of-war for my being
But I had already enough of death.
I did not wail, nor did I ponder the scene
Instead, I made a staircase of fallen bodies
Allowing me to climb out of the ground
Stepping with my feet upon the dead.
I saved myself from that grave in the earth
Even though the murderers still lurked about
My pain and my anguish covers me always
My heart breaks with grief and despair.
Yet hope's voice still cries in my soul
She tells me to wait, so that my day of reckoning will come
For our beloved, for neighbors and friends
The enemy's blameless victims.
Horrendous fate became our punishment
Bullets went through us, as lambs to the slaughter
Survival was left for the very few
Deprived of our freedom, exiled from our homes.
So, God, we need your compassion, your help
Have not the corpses been enough for you?
From far or from wide, redemption must come
So that we may exit this bunker as free human beings.
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