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Third Part:

The Holocaust

 

 
Shmuel Kaminski   Nakhman Rapp

 

Together they visited Grayeve in 1947 in order to prepare the report for the Yizker-Bukh.

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History of the Grayeve Ghetto

By Nakhman Rapp (Wroclaw)

Translated by Tina Lunson

A foreword

The history of suffering, torment and murder in the Grayeve ghetto is, in general, in its scope and contents, similar to the history of every ghetto in Poland. But the fate of the Jews in Grayeve ghetto is distinctive from other ghettos, during its existence and during its complete liquidation.

The following two points must be reckoned first as the distinction for Grayeve:

  1. Grayeve was a border town (three kilometers from Eastern Prussia.)
  2. The villages around Grayeve were inhabited by thoroughly hard-fisted peasants who were sharply inclined to anti-Semitism and politically influenced by “S. N.,” the “Stronictwo Narodowe,” an openly fascist party.

Even during the outbreak of the Polish-German war in 1939, when the Jewish population was fleeing in chaos from Grayeve to areas deeper in the interior of the country such as Byalistok [Białystok] and further; the direct danger of living close to a border in uncertain times became clear to the Grayeve Jews. It was already becoming apparent a month before the war that hostilities would take place. Not every Jew wanted to separate from his proprietorship, leaving everything to ruin. Only in the last days, when the government agents started fleeing and removing the archives of the administrative and communal institutions, only then did the Jews gradually begin to leave the town. There

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were many – and this was the majority – who simply would not contemplate such an evacuation. This was the largest part of the town's poor, who barely lived from day- to-day by labor or peddling. For them “moving from their place” would have meant economic ruin, so indeed they stayed in town and were the first to feel the Nazi “order” on their skin. Most of those who evacuated to Byalistok and further had agreed amongst themselves not to return to Grayeve, so there would be no need to flee again under similar circumstances. The decision was confirmed when they sensed the relative calm shown by the people in the towns deeper in the country.

However, in two weeks time came a standstill across most of Polish soil. Except for Varshe [Warsaw] and Westerplatte,[1] which defended themselves bravely against the German enemy until the last minute, there was no fighting in the rest of the land. The Red Army took western Ukraine and western White Russia, on whose borders the Byalistok military command also settled, including the border pass for Grayeve, Shtutzin [Szczuczyn], Raigrod [Rajgród] and other towns up to the old border of eastern Prussia.

The entry of the Red Army into those areas produced joy and security among the Jewish population. The Jewish families of Grayeve who a few weeks before had fled the town in chaos, gradually returned. Every month, every week that the Soviet power was in town, reinforced the conviction that there would not be any war, because… it was enough to look at the heavy weapons, the two-story tall tanks and heavy canon of the Soviet garrison in Grayeve to be sure that the Germans would not be allowed to attack.

Along with peace came the temporary loss of the constant worry about livelihood that always pressed upon the Grayeve Jews. Every Jew without exception got work from the state and they were not paid badly.

That bound the Grayeve Jews even more to their hometown and made them completely forget the earlier danger of living in a border town and neighboring with Germany.

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Therefore the sudden outbreak of war in 1941 found a compact settlement of Jews in Grayeve. Apart from Grayeve itself, refugees had also come from the Polish areas that the Germans had occupied in their ambush in 1939. The new German attack found them completely abandoned by any protector, because the Soviet forces had withdrawn in great panic to the east, and the Jewish population remained in the teeth of the wolf.

That is how Grayeve, because it was a border town, had Hitler's murdering army from the beginning.

Now we come to the second point: The complete and savage liquidation of the Jewish community in Grayeve was carried out with the most active participation of the anti-Semitic neighbors of the town and countryside.

Grayeve and its region are one of the few places in Poland where almost no Jewish lives were protected or saved by their Polish neighbors (except for Dr. Sheytelman[2] and his wife, about whom we will write). Exactly the opposite: of the local Christian population the underworld, those previously active members of the fascist Polish organizations “Nara,” and S. N. and ordinary hooligans took part, and they aided and quickened the work of the German murderer.

Since 1933 – that is since Hitler's coming to power in Germany – a wave of anti-Semitism had begun in the Grayeve area. Already in that first and second year there were organized anti-Jewish attacks, with the quiet consent of the government who generally intervened only after window panes had been broken out of Jewish houses, Jewish businesses had been robbed, and Jewish heads had been split. Every effort to organize the workforce met with extraordinary terror from the Sanacja[3] government. It was as though that government had specially trained the anti-Semitic Valkyries, treating the Jews as enemy number one of their lamentable regime.

True, there were Poles who did not want to make peace with the Hitler politics of murder and predation and who were prepared to actively help the Jews in

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their torment. Those people were gruesomely murdered by the German cutthroats after traitorous denunciations by the fascist Polish underworld.

In our work we will mention some names of Poles of various strata: of the clergy, of laborers and of intellectuals, who literally sacrificed themselves in defending Jewish lives and thus paid with their own lives. May these mentions be a flower on their graves, which have until now remained unknown.[2]

Writing these lines, I see before my eyes my brothers and sisters from my hometown Grayeve, killed in agony and torment and I hear their last wish, before leaving this horrible world:

Tell about our murder! Do not let the memory of us and our suffering be obliterated! Let the mention of our martyrology be, for the few survivors of our town, a gravestone to which they come on keyver-oves [traditional visiting of ancestors' graves], so one may shed a warm tear and mention the tragic past. And for our people may it remain as a point that glows and flares up in a great flame of revenge that will continually awaken and demand its due:

Blot out the memory of Amelek!!!

Wroclaw, April 1948

 

1.

Nineteen Thirty-Nine

It happened so unexpectedly that one could hardly believe it: The German-friendly Sanacja regime had suddenly, through its press, begun pouring pitch and sulfur on Germany, in its aggressive appetite and demands on Poland for the Danzig corridor.

We read the newspapers and barely believed it. Could it be that such a “good life” would result in a war between the two “good friends?”

A “patriotic” action began in the land. To us in Grayeve came the dramatic ensemble of the 33rd Infantry Regiment in Lomzhe. The patriotic presentation “Poland – the Heart of Europe” was mounted. It made fun of Hitler, of the bent cross [swastika] and of his threatening a quick “lightning victory” in Poland. I went to that presentation

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with my friend Motl Yavko (Motl Leytshes). The presentation was organized by a civilian sponsor, headed by the regional doctor Shenkievitsh. Suddenly, right before the presentation, the doctor stood up and said to his companion, the big-whiskered German engineer, “Come, colleague, it's a shame to sit together with Jews.” It was not possible to react, as many other things were not possible to do in pre-war Poland; the only thing we could do was to immediately leave the presentation.

I bring out this fact as an illustration of the relationship of the Polish fascists and half-fascists to Jews, even in such a moment of danger for the country, such as the German aggression.

A week later all the military draftees, including the Jewish ones, received announcements to report to the army, in Sosnovets [Sosnowiec]. It was the first time since Poland had become a state that Jews had received an invitation to serve in the border patrol “Kop” in Osovyets [Osowiec]. We accepted that as long as the knife was at their throats, the Sanacja regime “trusted” the Jews to fight against the Germans. The Jewish youth were burning with hatred for fascist Germany and went into the army charged with a lust for fighting in the nearing clash.

Now they did not make any selection in political propriety when taking recruits into the army. Rather, the radically-minded worker was chosen especially for defending the border pass. The border formation “Kop” in Osovyets took the above-mentioned Motl Yavka (Motl Leytshes), a young worker who had been in prison for six years for communist activity; the left Poalei Tsion and community worker Motl Striev; the brothers Aron and Meyshe Kriskievitsh and others.

The conflict broke out on the first of September. The general mobilization that had been quickly declared three days before, did not appear in Grayeve to have time to be completed. Thursday, the last day before the outbreak of the war, the whole town, Jews and Christians, were at the train station. Heart-rending cries from the mothers, who had accompanied their sons to the front, were mixed with the shouting of the people who had not seen fit to evacuate earlier and

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were now perceiving their last minutes. Drunken, mobilized Poles were jumping back out of the wagons and throwing themselves on Jews, shouting with loud voices that the war was only because of the Jews and that now they would settle accounts with the Jews. Luckily there was no time to “settle accounts” on the spot, because it was already 6 p.m. and that train was the last one and had to depart immediately. At 4 in the morning that train, coming from Byalistok to Grayeve, fell to the Germans in the train station.

Most of the Jews who succeeded in evacuating were left in Byalistok. From there they thought with horror and concern about the majority of the Jewish population of Grayeve who had stayed in the town. In the space of two weeks since the outbreak of the war, Grayeve had been cut off by the front-line and there was no way to reach it. Only two weeks later, when the Germans were in Byalistok, did skimpy news come out of Grayeve. No Jew had proposed to travel to Grayeve, but peasants from near Grayeve related the sad summation of two weeks of German proprietorship in the town: they had burned all the study-houses, the big beautiful shul [synagogue] and sent dozens of Jewish houses up in smoke.

When the Soviet powers took Grayeve, people gradually began to come back to their homes and also learned about Jews killed and about Jews whom the Germans had captured and sent to Germany.

It made everyone tremble to hear of the case of the woman Elkon, a woman not entirely in her right senses, who the Germans dragged off to near Prostken, poked out her eyes and left her blinded in mortal agony in the Bogushe forest, from where a peasant had brought her back to town in his wagon.

The Germans dragged off many Jewish young people deep into the interior, from where I recall only one came back, Khaym Fridman (a son of Feyge Malke Fridman).

The Germans dragged off the fifteen-year-old high school student Abrasha Baykovski and to this day there is still no news of him. The lonely mother Khaytshe (Helene) Baykovski, who now lives in Bresle [Wroclaw], still believes that her

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son is alive somewhere and each day she lives anew the torment of a mother who cannot find her lost child.

The Germans savagely killed the seventeen-year-old boy Dovid Rapp, a son of Itsik Rapp the baker (a brother of the writer of these lines). The German sadists quartered the young man alive with swords.

A young girl ripped to pieces by a grenade, was the daughter of Khaym Leyzer the baker, who had a bakery on Shul Street. His son, Srolke Antshkovski, disappeared without a trace.

There were no recorded acts against Jews during that time on the part of the Christian population of Grayeve. Rather, there were cases when the German soldiers set fire to Jewish houses where the Polish neighbors helped to put out the fire.[2] Thus was saved the newly-built house of the tailor Itsik Grobgeld and the house of Yoske Gurovski (“Yoske the spinner” [of tales or procrastination]).

To those who disappeared and no one knows where, were added the former town rabbi Rov [Rabbi] Itsik Ayzik Grosman and the towns' richest man, the owner of a steam-driven mill in Grayeve, Avrom (Avromtshe) Ayzenshtat. Later it became known that the latter were horribly murdered by the Germans for ransom, in the birthplace of the rov, Bendin [Bêdzin].

The fighting in Poland stopped. Warsaw was conquered and in the territory of western Ukraine and western White Russia Soviet life began to take form. Gradually the evacuated Jews began to come to Grayeve, which was now part of White Russia. Besides them came a certain number of Jewish refugees from the Polish areas occupied by the Germans. Jewish Grayeve began once again to recover its Jewish face.

 

2.

Soviet Rule in Grayeve

That year the autumn ended very early and to our distress, an early and angry winter set in. Such a winter, with such freezing weather as in 1940–1941 had not been recorded since 1928.

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Life was very hard in Grayeve in the first weeks of Soviet rule. Organized noxious gangs of the former fascist Polish parties went around to the villages and agitated among the peasants not to sell grain “to the Bolsheviks.” A few Jewish bakers, who had also remained in Grayeve with the Germans, got a little flour from someplace and baked black bread. The bakers were: Moyshe Pinievski (Moyshe “smokh”), who had fled to Byalistok before the outbreak of the war. After the coming of Soviet rule to Grayeve he baked “for himself,” getting a little grain from peasants he knew.

Gradually life became easier. Several bakeries were nationalized and the “office of town welfare” took on bread baking, enough for the town and rural population. And other essential products began to come into the town, so that we lacked nothing.

From the beginning this seemed very strange to the population: Shops were open in town, bakeries were working, we had the mills, the electric station, workshops opened – and all this without owners. The people smiled and predicted that “they” would not be able to succeed in bringing about any order since without a proprietor no one could make anything. But the Jewish youth of Grayeve threw themselves into the work heart and soul. Motl Yavko, after coming back from Polish-German front, threw himself with all his youthful energy into organizing life in the town. On the cold winter days he rambled around among the villages, collecting grain from the peasants. At night he went out to track down the local gangs that did their destructive work at night. When life had stabilized after a short time, Motl Yavko became chairman of the state trade network “town welfare” in Grayeve.

Several state shops were opened, a haberdashery, knitted fabric, and others. In Etele Mishkovitshe's building in the market square, at the corner of Bogushe Street, was the central cooperative where almost only Jewish women sellers had set up stalls. The sisters Rokhl, Ore and Yehudis Mayek (daughters of Mayek the cabinetmaker) worked there and Rivke and Tshipe Markusfeld and others. The former bakery proprietors were now working in their own bakeries, which the

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state had nationalized. For a time, the manager of the bakeries was the former bakery-owner Shaul Bronervayn.

Jews were employed in every area of economic and cultural life, so too on the town and district councils and in all institutions. A hospital with 60 beds was opened in Grayeve. The administrator of the hospital was the Grayeve doctor, Viner.

In the building of the Talmud-Torah, which was located on Powiatowe Street near the new study-house and after remodeling, a Yiddish not-full middle school was opened. Ten teachers worked there, among them Velvl (Vovak) Zilbershteyn, Dore Vapinska, Shleyme Vrontsberg, (director) and other teachers from outside. The Jewish teachers Fromer and Baykovska worked in the newly opened Polish school.

For the first time the Jewish youth of Grayeve perceived the great opportunities that the Soviet order gave the youth to develop themselves. They enrolled in the middle and high schools of the land. The teacher mentioned and many other youths began to study in various faculties. Others went off to take short and long-term courses to learn a useful specialty.

The Yiddish school in Grayeve developed very nicely. The Jewish children who came from the Polish school and the Talmud-Torah surprised them with their superb Yiddish. A circle for artistic self-realization was created at the state middle school Number Two in Grayeve, which after a short while mounted an exhibition, the likes of which Grayeve had never seen from children. The county division for popular education decided to present the heroic drama “Bar Kokhba”[4] by Sh. Halkin with the children from the Yiddish school. After going through a three-month “course for directors for dramatic self-realization” I was designated the leader of the group. I undertook to present the theater piece. I recall myself the great success that this show was.

From the highest balconies in town hung artistic posters, painted on big panels.

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The posters presented episodes from the heroic Bar Kokhba rebellion. On the site of the great shul, which the Germans had burned, had been built a gorgeous theater with 1500 seats. The presentation was performed in this theater. The hall was overflowing with a diverse audience. There were Soviet state officials, Party leaders and a large number from the Grayeve garrison. The latter, in their great appreciation of the children, gave them gifts and kissed them after the performance. (None of those children artists are alive anymore. They were, along with all the children of Grayeve, horribly murdered by the German killers, may their names be blotted out!)

The religious life of the Jews in Grayeve looked very peculiar during that time. The Germans had burned all the study-houses in the town in 1939. Now, after the coming of Soviet rule, a bit of religious life began to get established. True, for a while at the beginning, every pious Jews prayed by himself at home, in private. Later a minyen [prayer quorum of 10 men] was created at the home of Meyshe Pinievski (“Meyshe smokh”) at Rutske 30 (Shul Street), where people prayed together as a community everyday, to say nothing of Shabes and holidays. When the Germans set fire to the great shul in 1939, the tailor Itsik Grobgeld succeeded in saving one Torah scroll and a small number of holy books such as Talmud volumes and others. And this was of much use in setting up the minyen.

Also in the area of religious education, the ancient Jewish tradition of the Talmud-Torah was not interrupted. True, the building of the former Talmud-Torah had been taken over by the Yiddish school, but a special place was arranged at the minyen where the Hebrew teacher Anshl Kotshak gave holy instruction to all the Jewish children who attended the Yiddish school until afternoon.

But in the darkness of the nights the noxious gangs did not rest. Among the fascists, those driven underground and the not-yet-successful home-grown fascists of the “Narodovke” the earnest enemy of the Polish people, Hitler-Germany, which had treacherously attacked Poland, was as if forgotten. They now released their entire poison on the Bolsheviks, who had brought in the “Judeo-commune.” They relayed from ear to ear the rumors that, ostensibly, people would soon be forbidden to teach the Polish language, that all the Poles

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from Grayeve would be sent to labor camps in Siberia and people would be forbidden to go into the churches. Of course, the entire agitation had no basis at all and was just invented as ill will to incite the dark masses against the rulers and turn them into a tool in the hands of the princes and the reaction.

Yet that dark agitation was not successful. The Polish intelligentsia sensed for the first time in its life, that it was an important and useful element in society. And those intellectuals filled all the state and the communal offices in Grayeve and worked conscientiously. The workers, or really the generally unemployed, who had earlier been for Poland, standing behind the magistrate in Grayeve and waiting for “support,” got work that they could live from and were therefore loyal to the government of workers and peasants. Only the princely sinners, whose great landed estates had been taken and divided up among the landless peasants, only they could not rest and carry out their old, pre-war and well-known agitation against the “Judeo-commune.”

The Soviet powers turned in a report on the noxious gangs and undertook an action to push those hateful elements away from the border town of Grayeve and send them deeper into the country.

On the 19th of June 1941, several Jewish families were sent out of Grayeve. Those sent out were: the family Baykovski, Yoysef Bialastatsky and his family, Kirshenboym and his family, the nurse Manye Kaplan. Some were ordered to reside 30 kilometers from Grayeve (Aron Leyzerson and others).

Those sent away took the fact of having to part from their old homes very badly. They considered it a tragedy and cried hard when they parted from their friends. But all in all those sent away, thanks to the fact that they had been torn away from the claws of the Hitlerists just two or three days before the war, remained alive and they regard the day of their expulsion from Grayeve as the day on which the greatest miracle in their lives took place.

In March and April 1941, those in Grayeve with military duty, including the Jewish ones, went off the serve in the Russian army. Of those who went into the army

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I remember: Khaym Adamshteyn, Yosl Mayek, Yankl Roymer, Gershon Gringros (a son of Zeyrekh the katsov [butcher]) and Shmay Markus. Those young men then bravely fought in the war against the Germans and were particularly distinguished for their bravery. Their greatest distinction however is that thanks to their going off into the army, they did not fall into the ghetto and remained alive until this day.

The Grayeve youth who served in Osovyets (25 kilometers from Grayeve) shared a worse fate. They were among the first to fall into the hands of the German butchers and be killed. Of those murdered in Osovyets I remember: Yankl Rutski (a son of Falk the painter), Gershon Viernik, Meyshe Viernik (Alterke the Katsov's), Benyumin Kureyvovski, Meyshe Itsik Tobiashora, Khaym Mendl Levin, Khaym Kurzshandkovski, Leybl Zeligzon, Yosl Levin, and the 18 year-old Khaym Epshteyn. A few from the same division managed to get away and come home to Grayeve to their parents. Such was the case with Yankev Shaye Kaminski, who “merited” being killed in the Grayeve ghetto along with his mother and father.

Relatively, life was so quiet and hopeful that one could not believe that there could be such calamity as occurred, and when on the 22nd of June 1941 the Grayeve residents were suddenly torn from their sleep by powerful explosions and shooting, the first, unspoken question that lay on the lips of the frightened Grayeve Jews:

Is it possible?

Unfortunately it was possible…

 

3.

The Hitler Occupation in Grayeve

The German attack on the Soviet Union occurred on Sunday June 22 at four in the morning.

I had been in Byalistok for a whole week. In the city there had been nothing of note that would indicate a coming storm. Around Tuesday, a few days before the outbreak of war, I met with some Grayeve Jews in Byalistok and they told me that the Soviets had

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expelled some Jewish families from Grayeve. After taking care of my affairs in Byalistok, I left for Grayeve on the night of between the 21st and 22nd of June, at one in the morning.

It was three o'clock in the morning when I came out of the Grayeve train station. The town was sunken in still, pre-dawn sleep. I walked from the train station with a friend of mine, Gershon Gringros, who was traveling from his military division in Osovyets for a few days leave. We talked about the lightening sky of that warm dawn and how today we could go to the beach by the Kosherova River. We agreed to meet by the river and we parted, each to his home.

My home was already on Shul Street number 24 in the building owned by Avreml Daytsh, because the Germans had burned our house on Konopsko Street in 1939. When I came in everyone woke up, father, mother, and sisters. They asked me what was new in Byalistok and why I had not brought my girlfriend back with me, whom I was shortly going to marry. We chattered on until my mother made a bed for me and said that it was time to call it a night.

Suddenly we were deafened by a terrible shriek, like dozens of factory sirens sounding right by our ears. We stood frozen and did not know what it meant. The last thing we expected was a war attack. We knew well that there was a non-aggression pact with Germany and could not imagine that the German would so suddenly, without a reason, attack Russia.

In a few minutes we came to our right senses. Every little while the air was shaken with a fresh explosion. We ran from the steps to see what was going on in the street. But just in going out of the house we soon saw that it was indeed a war in every detail and we took off running to the Byalistok Highway.

* * *

Although Grayeve was not a large district city – it had barely twelve thousand residents – it still had, because of its border with Germany, two divisions of military artillery stationed there. Therefore the war for Grayeve came with a concentrated assault

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from the German forces. Already in the first minutes of the war Grayeve was enveloped in a sea of smoke and fire. All kinds of weapons were trained on the town and deafened the residents with their detonations.

Here is what an eyewitness related about the first minutes of the war in Grayeve:

“I ran to the window to see what was going on in the street. A thick smoke was rising to the sky and blocked out the light. If not for the frequent shooting and explosions, one might have thought that it was not an assault on the town but that it had simply been set on fire. Unable to see anything through the window, I went out on the stoop to see what was happening. But stretching my hand in the air I soon encountered a rocket, which tore off these two fingers. I carried my wife, who had fainted, back into the house.” (Yozef Kalski, a bricklayer, Rutske Street).

And beneath that same smoke and thunder the Jewish population in Grayeve lay captive and before they could grasp it, the way out was already cut off by the attacking German troops.

Soon it proved to be that the entire Byalistok region had been cut off from its center, Byalistok. The fascist underworld rose up to serve the Germans and cut the telegraph connections every thirty or so kilometers. The officials of the Soviet institutions and of the Party desperately called by telephone for help and clarification, but for naught, they were left to their own fate.

The [presence of the] fort in Osovyets was able to arouse a little hope. From there, it was reckoned, the Germans could be driven back before establishing a front, so people could evacuate deeper into the land. But that hope failed too. It was as though the Germans avoided the fort at Osovyets and gradually, from Lomzhe, surrounded it on all sides.

The German military troops did not come into Grayeve on the first day of the war. Only the German border guards came into Grayeve. They took over the train station, the post office and all the Soviet institutions. Only on the third day, that is the 24th of June, did

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the military establish a command, with quarters on Pilsudskiego Street (Shtutzin Street).

Even on the first day that the German border guards were in Grayeve, they began to murder and violate the Jewish population. A decree was issued to the German troops that Jewish life and property was ownerless and that they could do whatever they wanted with them. Indeed on the first day mass raping of young Jewish women began. The “noble” German race was especially distinguished for biting their young victims to death and the mother of the tortured child had to stand by in horrible mindless torment and look at what they did to her child.”

This is what the Polish woman Helena Nadolna related about an event which she saw with her own eyes:

“…my neighbor from across the street barged in, in terrible desperation, [saying] that a German had killed her daughter and that she herself (the mother) must watch out that no one intruded on him. When the German came out, he simply said to the mother 'Good mother.' What she saw later when she went into the room, she could not believe her own eyes. She called me to help her save her child, but there was no one there to save. The girl's entire body was torn open, bitten and swollen. Her mouth and breasts were smeared with blood. She was already dead, strangled, her eyes bulging out. The mother wanted to take her own life in her despair. A few days later she lost her mind and Germans killed her. Her name was Henie Shayne Bashes, Rutske Street 34. So they did with many others, whose families I don't know.”

In a few days, on Wednesday the 25th of July, at ten o'clock in the morning they drove all the Jews together in the middle of the market square and the town commandant Geis read aloud for them the decree from the high command. Among other things, the decree said:

“The Jewish nation is a criminal nation and as such has earned a hard and eternal punishment of hard labor and imprisonment. They are forbidden to live free and together with other peoples, because they do not have pure blood. Sooner or later they must all die.

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They must be obedient to every German, under penalty of death. The Jews will be distinguished by a yellow star, which they must wear on the shoulder and breast as a sign of their shame.”

As usual in the German manner, each decree was accompanied by a pointed action. After reading the decree for the Jews they drove the Jews out of the market square under a hail of blows, and arrested the two sisters Yehudis and Rokhl Mayek on the spot, took them to the old Jewish cemetery and shot them there.

An anguished fear befell the Jews gathered in the market after listening to the decree. It was an open confirmation that from today on, Jewish life was up for grabs by any German or Polish hooligan. From that day on Jews sat tense in their houses, afraid of the light of day. A rumor spread that the Polish underworld was preparing for an open pogrom on Jews. It was said that a “delegation” of Polish hooligans had presented themselves to the commandant of the Gestapo Opper, with the question of whether there was a punishment for killing a Jew and the commandant had answered that killing a Jew was without punishment. That version proved to be right, when in two days the first pogrom of the Polish underworld against the Jews broke out.

Sunday the 29th of July the first organized pogrom against the Jews of Grayeve broke out. Coming out of church, incited hooligans started robbing and killing the Jews. With specially prepared hatchets and wooden poles they set about splitting Jewish heads. The leaders of the pogrom were Aloizi Sentkovski, a young professional thief, a syphilitic, a son of the well-known Grayeve thief Sentkovski (Konopsko Street number 6) and the knife wielders Grin, Mikloshevski, Zegarek and Stanish. The Jews who the bandits met on the street were killed on the spot, and thus Motl Striev was bestially killed by the cutthroat Aloizi Sentkovski. The photographer Efroym Vodovski fell at the hands of the murderer Stanish. The assassins were not sated with that and went into the Jewish houses, where they brought death and ruin. Today, when I happen to speak with the

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Christians of Grayeve about that pogrom, they take pains to avoid the subject. Mostly each of the Christians says that he helped this or that Jew. So it was interesting to get the testimony from the Grayeve Christian Yoyskovski who lived on the market square, next to the house where Yoysef Bialystocki lived. In the same house lived the ironmonger Vaynshteyn and Ukrop's son-in-law Meyshe (whose family name I have not succeeded in establishing).

When the pogrom began those two Jews were out on the street. They immediately started running home to save themselves. The above-mention Christian continues in these words:

“When I saw those two little Jews running and frightened, I closed the house door and did not let them in (!) They knocked desperately on the door. But they found an ax and broke the door in and came into the house. But soon the peasants arrived and they beat the Jews. They broke Vaynshteyn's legs and the other one they chopped into his chest.”

That Christian in his “innocence” tells about his own “fine action” and therewith gives a clear idea about the relationship of most of the Poles to the Jews in Grayeve in that frightful time.

But there were also good Christians, who showed their moral and human face in that bestial atmosphere. Their self-sacrifice in defending Jewish lives and their humane dignity must be mentioned by us with the greatest appreciation. First of all must be mentioned with reverence the progressive Polish worker Henrik Sobolevski[2] , for years a member of the Polish Communist Party, who on the day of that horrible pogrom on Jews, with word and deeds actively resisted the wild hooligans and for that, paid with his life. The Germans held him and another dozen Jews for a day in the shul, where he was horribly tortured, then taken to the old Jewish cemetery and shot.

The second beautiful spirit was the Catholic priest Penza[2] . He did not tire in his morning masses of calling the Christian population to reason, not to collaborate with the Germans and not to let themselves be drawn in by the Germans' provocations against the Jews. But for the hooligans it seemed as though robbery and murder stood higher than Christian

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morals and human love. They reported the Christian father themselves and delivered him into the hands of the German murderers, who unceremoniously shot the noble clergyman.

There were rumors that right after the pogrom a Jewish delegation set out to the German town commandant Geis and requested help from him against the pogromists. Whether that fact is correct or not, we do not know. But it is correct that soon, in the first hours after the pogrom, at three o'clock in the afternoon, German police set out in a chase after the pogromists, caught three of them (Mikloshevski, Zegaret and Grin) and shot them on the spot. That was to say that the Germans were standing by the Jews and protecting them from the incited Christian population. But this was just a cunning trick by the German hangmen, who on one side organized that pogrom and when it happened, pretended not to know. And from the other side they incited the Christian population against the unprotected Jews, showing the Christians, that now they were also standing up for the Jews. This cunning game was calculated so that later, when the Germans would confine the Jews in a ghetto, the Jews would think it was a favor to them that they got to live apart from the Poles from whom they waited in terror for a similar pogrom every day.

In order to mask their true intent, it did not suffice for the Germans just to catch the three mentioned murderers. They took several wounded Jews away to a hospital where they could be “healed.” From such healing Rivke Bialystocki died three days later. A horrible incident that confirmed the German provocation happened with the wounded Jew Postalski. The pogromists had beaten him so that he was unrecognizable. In the morning, as he laid half-conscious on the hospital bed, the Germans brought to him the young Polish man Lutek Remishevski and demanded from the Jew whether he recognized this young man as his assailant. In his pain and half-conscious state the Jew had the delusion that this young man was indeed the

[Page 193]

one who had beaten him and he said with tears in his voice, “Tell me, what do you have against me? Why did you beat me?” The young man went white as a sheet and stammered, “Pani Postolski, what are you saying to me? Am I capable of such a thing?” But the Germans did not allow him to speak out and took him away. That young man was a progressive Polish semi-intellectual and the Germans specially entangled him in that provocation in order to dig even deeper the abyss of hatred and distrust between the Jewish and Polish populations. In a few days the innocent Lucian Remishevski was shot by the Germans.

On that day the Germans arrested, along with Remishevski, the Polish teacher Leon Klodetski, the already mentioned progressive worker Henrik Sobolevski and other progressive Poles and imprisoned them in the building of the shul. The teacher Klodetski managed through a miracle to run away at the last minute. The others were shot the same day.

The intent of the German sadists was clear: to throw the blame for organizing the pogrom onto the progressive elements of the Polish population, and use the opportunity to make a little pogrom on the communists at the same time.

 

The murder cellar in the shul

After a week of continual attacks on Jews, the Germans saw that the ground was ripe for the rescue of the Jews in Grayeve. Then the German hangmen, with their murderous precision, got down to their plan.

A special division of the S.S. was mobilized to catch and arrest every Jew between the ages of 15 and 45. All the captured were driven into the theater building, where the great shul had stood before the war. That was not just a regular prison where arrestees were tortured. Jews there suffered such afflictions that would make the tortures of the Inquisition seem like child's play.

They invented various tortures for their victims, but each death had to come slowly and with the greatest agony. Jews with broken arms and legs were made to perform various exercises: jump over tables and benches under the blows of the butchers' sticks.

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The shul until the war

 

The shul building.
Before the time of the Soviet regime, a theater. Now a market hall for vegetables, fish and pork. In the cellar of this building, around 200 Jews were tortured under the Nazis

[Page 195]

After three days of starving they were given salted herring to eat, and after that they were given nothing to drink for three days. The younger and stronger ones were driven to do several kinds of inhumanly difficult and completely useless work, under a hail of blows. They ordered them to carry the stone fence from the study-house back and forth. And after such a day of hard labor and exhaustion they brought them back into the shul and tortured them the whole night. Of course, since no one was able to hold out for long, 15 to 20 people died every day from the great suffering.

Before they died the butchers threw their victims into the deep cellar of the shul and let them die there. When the cellar was already half full of corpses, the German gangsters threw in healthy people and held them there until they choked out their last breath in great agony.

Here is what an eyewitness, the Christian Helene Nadolna, relates; she lived across from the shul and could see everything with her own eyes:

“They took the youth and especially the males into the synagogue and tortured them for two weeks. There in the synagogue it was a real hell. Such tortures, it would be better to die rather than suffer so much. They twisted their arms, ripped out their tongues, tore out their nails. They whipped them every day in the morning, 100 lashes each. When one of those tortured fainted, they threw him into water with chlorine and lime, and when he regained consciousness there was another new torture: jumping over various barricades, over benches, tables. After that they stood them all up in rows and each tenth person had to jump through the second-story window. If anyone jumped and lived, the Germans killed him on the spot. They twisted the Jews' hands with barbed wire, and with the same wire they twisted their heads backwards and threw them into the cellar of the shul like that, so that they would die there. The dead bodies of the tortured were only taken out a year later, completely decayed. You could not recognize who anyone was. The workers who were driven together for that work became deathly ill with several diseases. The corpses were thrown into a pit with lime that had been in the cellar.”

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At such a “pageant,” when the Germans made the Jews jump through the window of the shul, the Polish underworld was assembled below so that if someone remained alive and tried to run away, the hooligans killed him on the spot with shovels and pry-bars. So it was with the youth Velvl Piekarevitsh (the son of Stavisk [Stawiski] blacksmith Avrom Shleyme). After the boy jumped through the window he ran to the Jewish cemetery. The hooligans caught him and threw him alive into the full lime pit near the shul.

A horrible incident, told by Grayeve Poles, took place with the young engineer Kirshboym. The engineer was not from Grayeve, but during the outbreak of the war in 1939 he came as a refugee from Warsaw. That physically fit young man was happy to jump from the second story and tried to run away. The Polish underworld, which was standing around and taking pleasure in the Jews' suffering, caught the Jewish engineer and threw him into the big pit near the shul. The pit was a kind of big, provisional garbage pit that the Germans had made near the shul. After they threw him in, the unfortunate engineer swam around and grabbed the boards of the rim with his hands and tried to crawl out of the excrement. The hooligans were standing around and laughing at the “zhyd” [derogatory term for Jewish person] submerged all the while in the filth. When they saw that the young man was crawling out, the hooligans ran to him and with iron shovels split the unfortunate's head into pieces. (Testimony from Polish bricklayer Yan Kalski, Rudzka Street).

The Grayeve youth Mayer Kletski, the survivor of that bloody massacre in the shul, tells about the first night of torture this way:

“…we sat down on the earth with our feet tied together and so the night was passed. The night was very terrible. First, because they would not allow us out to urinate, people suffered a lot. Second, at such a time all kinds of thoughts occur. One says, they will set us on fire, another says something else. In the morning the overseers came in and asked with a smile, “So, little Jews? How did you sleep?”

 

Footnotes
  1. Battle of Westerplatte: 1 September 1939, World War II officially began in Europe when Germany invaded Poland at the depot on the Westerplatte peninsula, north of Dantsik [Gdańsk]. Return
  2. With great respect: we would like to honor the brave Poles who helped Jewish Grayevers despite the risk to their own personal safety. They will be remembered for their acts of kindness, courage and humanity. May their memories be a Blessing and their souls bound in the bond of everlasting life. Return
  3. Sanacja [Polish for sanitation] Regime: a term used to describe the authoritarian regime in Poland during the period 1926 to 1939. Return
  4. The Bar Kokhba revolt: 132-135 C.E. This was marked by a period of hope that turned into violent anguish. The Jews believing a homeland and Holy Temple were in their site, were eventually persecuted and sold into slavery Return

 

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