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by Dr & Mrs. George Gorin
Typed up by Genia Hollander
…that these dead shall not have died in vain
That this nation, under God, shall have
A new birth of freedom…
(Abraham Lincoln in
This chapter is written mainly for the descendants of the people, the story of whose lives and tragic end make up the contents of this book. To many of the young people who will turn the pages of this Memorial Book and look at the pictures therein, the town of Grayevo will seem a strange and distant place; and yet, these same young people carry part of it in their hearts, characters and personality makeup because Grayevo, its customs, its way of life and spirit, influenced the lives of their parents and their home environment. Indirectly, therefore, there was transmitted something intangible to the young who never saw the town.
No one can deny the law of continuity in history and civilization; and although the Jewish Grayevo was erased physically from this world, its spirit together with the spirit of Jewish life in Poland, remains an indestructible heritage.
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This spiritual heritage will live on and perpetuate itself by enriching Jewish life throughout the world.
Strange and unpredictable were the ways of fate which prompted some of the Grayevo inhabitants to emigrate and flee, while others remained to be cruelly destroyed by the Nazis. It is not wisdom, clairvoyance or superior intelligence that made some people emigrate; neither is it stupidity or backwardness which caused others to remain. As will be seen later in this chapter, life in Grayevo held little promise for young people and, consequently, the latter were making ceaseless efforts to emigrate some succeeded to do so some did not.
The desire to emigrate did not confine itself to young people only; after World War I, it was allpervading. Any one of those here, in the U.S. today, could have remained over there had not the hand of fate guided them or their parents into the free world many years ago and before the catastrophe was in sight.
I. The Old Ways
This is the story of a town a town which lived, created, grew and perished. It is a part of a sad pattern in Jewish history for the past 2000 years; the growth of Jewish communities in some countries and their destruction as a result of political, religious and social upheavals.
It was a typical small town which grew over a period of several hundred years from a small village, with dirt roads
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and unpaved streets into a community of ten thousand people the majority of who were Jews.
Grayevo was located in the NorthCentral part of Poland, at the southern border of East Prussia. This location as a border town was an important factor in its economic and cultural life. Lying on a main highway, it has risen in importance over the neighbouring small towns long before World War I.
In 1795, the Kingdom of Poland was partitioned for the third time and Grayevo became part of Czarist Russia. A railway running through Grayevo was built by the latter and by that time, the town had already a good sized Jewish population although no new Jews were allowed to come in by prohibitive order of the Czar. This order was rescinded later and the Jewish population of the town grew considerably through the influx of Jewish merchants, shipping agents and tradesmen from all over Russia.
The volume of commercial traffic between Russia and Prussia going through Grayevo was considerable, and brought prosperity to its inhabitants. Also, by virtue of the town's position, the people of Grayevo had, it seemed, through those commercial transactions, an easier access to the wider world. They travelled extensively to Prussia, Greater Germany and Russia and that made the Jew of Grayevo more of a man of the world. Those who did not have the good fortune to travel themselves always received firsthand information about the world at large from the businessmen returning home. Some of the information thus conveyed was frequently inaccurate and exaggerated, but it all contributed to giving the people of the small town a dream of a free and bright world outside of Grayevo.
The strategic importance of Grayevo as a border town brought to it a large garrison of Czarist troops which also constituted a source of revenue and increased business to the townspeople. Grayevo had the appearance of a hustling town with many freight trains unloading ware to be trans
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ferred into Russia and many products from Russia going into Prussia. Some of the Jews of Grayevo were an Integral part of this important commercial activity and some even enriched themselves at it. Others profited indirectly by rendering services, selling food, housing transients, etc.
On the whole, the economic situation of the Jews of Grayevo was quite good until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Yet there was a constant stream of emigration from Grayevo to the United States. The reasons for this exodus of people in the last decade of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century were several: The most important one was the pogroms to which the Jews of Russia were subjected from time to time. And, as the immigration to America was unrestricted then and Grayevo had easy access to transportation facilities, many young Jews left for America.
To describe Grayevo of the period before World War I would require a translation of this whole book into English. But, to make the older generation and their background better understood to the readers of this chapter and their children, a few salient features of life in Grayevo ought to be described.
The economic life of Grayevo was partly touched upon before. But it was not all big business as the previous description might lead to believe. The bulk of the Jewish population consisted of small shopkeepers and artisans and they eked out a meagre existence in the midst of prosperous business activities which were being carried on through their town.
The commercial phase of life in Grayevo was predominantly in Jewish hands. They were the business people who supplied the whole population with goods and services.
As in all the towns of old Russia, religion was a dominant factor in the life of the Jews of Grayevo. Religion was also the background of education; it began its influence when an individual was born and carried on his education through
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the old fashioned Kheder under the supervision of old scholars whose function it was to indoctrinate the young generation in the precepts of the Torah and the Talmud. From the grownups, daily visits to the synagogue for prayer were expected and, in general, religion was the important and directing force in all situations of life.
The Jewish community had its own court of justice the Rabbi. He used to settle all litigation among Jews by arbitration. He also had the power to grant divorces and to settle various problems within the family. All this led to a way of life which was isolated from the nonJewish community and explains partly the preservation of customs and traditions and their passing on from generation to generation.
Education confined itself solely to the studies of Jewish learning. It began early in life, at the age of 4, and continued until maturity. Education was directed at menfolk only. Women needed to learn their prayers only. There was little secular education available and every attempt to introduce it was considered an act of heresy. However, Grayevo could not resist the trend of the times and new ideas did infiltrate into the life of the community. Among these new ideas was primarily Zionism. Professor Rawidowicz, a native of Grayevo, describes in this book the beginnings of the Zionist movement in Grayevo and the opposition of the orthodox Jews to it. An attempt was made to discredit Zionism as a movement of heresy and the fight was quite bitter. Likewise, several attempts were made to teach Hebrew as a language for daily use and not just as the Holy Language of the Scriptures.
In the field of Hebrew culture, Grayevo gained renown through several of its outstanding citizens: Mr Abraham Mordecai Piorko was a great Hebrew scholar of the period of Renaissance in Hebrew literature. Mr. Piorko published the first Hebrew periodical for children and also a Talmudistic periodical as well as a brilliant interpretation of the bible.
Another one of Grayevo's outstanding citizens Pro
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Fessor Simon Rawidowicz, is known as a brilliant Hebrew scholar in the field of old as well as modern Hebrew literature. He has written many important volumes of Hebrew learning and is presently editing and writing in the Hebrew field. He has honoured this book with an interesting chapter.
Another personality of whom Grayevo is proud is Mr. Ari Ibn Zaav who has made a reputation for himself in America with his book: Jessica My Daughter. He is also the author of many Hebrew novels which have Grayevo as their background, and which earned him renown as one of Israel's leading novelists. He also has honoured this book with a chapter from a novel yet unpublished.
Mention must also be made of Dr. Zwi Woyslavski, now residing in Jerusalem, where he is known as an eminent literary reviewer, highly respected in Israel and also Dr. Emanuel Olschwanger, an outstanding Hebrew writer, who is also becoming known to the English reader public through his collection of folk tales and anecdotes in the book: Roite Promerantzen.
To make the description of life in Grayevo accurate, one must not confine it to the few outstanding personalities. There were others who stood out, though their names have no renown. Some left their families and embarked on the arduous road of pioneering in Palestine, others espoused the cause of Socialism for which they paid with years of imprisonment, and many others that travelled from one Centre of learning (Yeshiva) to another, living in the most destitute conditions, while trying to acquire mastery in the knowledge of the Talmud.
All the foregone is evidence that Grayevo was a thriving and intellectually alert little town which mirrored in its confines the strife between progress and backwardness in Jewish life everywhere.
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II. During and After World War I
There came the fateful day of August 1914. The news about the declaration of war struck the small town like thunder from the clear sky. Confusion was great; people were running towards rail lines leading away from their border town and towards the larger city of Bialystok.
At first, the Russian armies invaded East Prussia and the bulk of the troops passed through Grayevo. It was a steady stream, day and night for weeks. Then came the Hindenburg victory near the town of Tannenberg where the Russian armies suffered severe losses and retreated. In their wake came the Germans who occupied Grayevo and held it until the end of the war.
The Germans were no strangers to the Jews of Grayevo who had travelled into Germany for numerous reasons. Some used to go there for business purposes, some to consult doctors and many Jews of Grayevo used to spend the greater part of the year at work in Prussia, returning home only twice a year for the Passover and the High Holy holidays.
The Germans, during the period of occupation of the town, imposed various obligations and hardships upon the population. Forced labour and high taxes were some of these obligations, but there was no discrimination between Jews and nonJews; all were oppressed alike and no acts of murder or brutality were committed against the civilian population.
The Jews of Grayevo realized that the economic prosperity of prewar days was gone forever and they were reconciled to just earning a meagre livelihood.
At the end of the war, the Polish Republic came into being and Grayevo became again a border town between Germany and Poland on the latter's side of the border.
And then a strange thing happened. The Poles of
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Grayevo, so terribly oppressed by Czarist Russia over a period of 125 years, embarked upon a course of persecuting the Jews as soon as Poland regained its freedom and independence. Those were years of political instability in the new Polish state, and during this period, the Jews of Grayevo lived in constant danger and fear for their lives and safety.
Then, in 1920, during the SovietPolish War, again a period of troop movements and severe fighting developed around Grayevo. The town was cutoff from the rest of the world and for several months, no one knew what was going to happen. Finally, the Soviet troops retreated and the Poles took over Grayevo, ushering in their rule with reprisals against the Jews whom they accused of sympathy to the Soviets. A few Jews were murdered on the outskirts of the town and the whole Jewish population lived through a very dark period. It was then that a terrible tragedy occurred. Fifteen young Jews were caught by the Poles while attempting to flee Poland. All 15 were murdered and their mass grave remained as evidence of fascist brutality.
The Polish government embarked upon a campaign of economic oppression against the Jews in spite of the fact that it had signed agreements at the Peace Conference in Paris, guaranteeing minority rights, and in spite of the fact that its new constitution guaranteed freedom and quality to all its citizens. The oppressive measures consisted mainly of high taxes designed to ruin Jewish commerce (there was practically no Polish commerce in the small towns and besides subsidies were given to the Poles to enable them to compete with the Jews). Laws also were passed excluding Jews, indirectly from various trades; Government jobs were closed to them practically and admissions to high schools and universities were governed by a rigid quota system.
In view of this situation, the only hope and future for young people was emigration. But, the field of immigration deteriorated considerably after World War I. The
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large mass immigration to the U.S. was put to an end by the passage of the Immigration Law of 1924, restricting considerably immigration from Eastern Europe by the introduction of the Quota System. To the Jews of Poland, it meant cutting off their avenue of escape from a situation which was becoming more and more desperate. Some Jews, realizing the ever increasing oppression, had foresight of impending disaster and liquidated their affairs and immigrated to Palestine. But even that was wrought with difficulties and only a small number were able to leave and rebuild their lives. The majority were trapped in a situation in which they could not carry on and from which they had no means of escaping.
The young Jewish people of Grayevo did not accept this situation without revolt. They did not sink into apathy. On the contrary, they joined movements and organizations in the hope of finding strength and solutions to their problems through collective efforts.
Some joined Socialist organizations which advocated liberation of the masses from oppression and thereby offered hope of solving the Jewish problem. The majority, however, joined the various Zionist Pioneer organizations and prepared themselves for life in Palestine. Animated by the Zionist ideal to rebuild Palestine as a Jewish homeland, they hoped to reconstruct their lives in a free and better world. Vocational training along completely new lines became necessary and training centres which were established for that purpose had many young people from Grayevo among their members. There was also a Zionist scout organization in Grayevo which prepared teenagers for future pioneering. The older generation, though it dreaded the eventual separation from their children, realized that the solution to the problems of the future was to be found for their children in Palestine and they cooperated in these activities.
Religion ceased to play an important role in the lives
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of the young Jews of Grayevo. Many prejudices and restrictions were thrown overboard and though it aroused the anger of the orthodox elders of the town, the young generation did succeed in winning greater freedom and ceased to be hampered by many religious taboos and prohibitions.
Similarly, changes occurred in the field of education. Although the old fashioned religious schools continued to exist, they were modernize, somewhat, but the majority of children and young people attended secular schools in Grayevo or went to nearby larger towns. Grayevo also boasted a number of students at universities throughout the continent of Europe.
The economic situation was deteriorating but their cultural life did not suffer; new ideas penetrated and gave interest, strength and hope to the young people. Extensive reading was popular and, in general, the life and activities of the young centred on the various organizations. The older generation still clung to the synagogue and the various places of prayer. They also realized the need for various community institutions which they established to make life easier: a cooperative bank, an Appliances for the Sick institution and Public Baths.
The public baths were needed because there were no bathtubs or showers in the home. There was no running water it had to be carried from a well in a bucket.
Grayevo had no electricity until after World War I. During the winter months, all windows were locked and nailed and all cracks and crevices were stuffed with cotton and pasted over with paper to keep the cold air from entering. The arrival of spring coinciding with Passover was an occasion for thorough cleaning, airing and general overhauling of the household. It also marked the end of the gloomy winter which was whiled away with card playing, visiting, amateur theatricals by the young people and cultural meetings and lectures.
Like all small towns in Poland, the Jewish Grayevo had
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its social strata according to wealth, education or ancestry. Grayevo had its customary towns' idiot, a few freaks and some eccentric individuals who are well remembered by the older generation.
Despite the lack of comfort and the low standard of living, hygienic measures were maintained; health standards were higher than among the nonJewish population and mortality rates were lower.
The Jews of Grayevo had a certain amount of autonomy in conducting their own purely Jewish affairs. This was accomplished through an official body (kahal), recognized by the government. This body had authority to impose taxes upon the Jews and the moneys thus collected went towards the upkeep of communal institutions.
The disintegration of the Jewish community in Grayevo began as a slow and gradual process during the period following World War I. The Jews lived there in a hostile world and antiSemitic outbreaks increased in intensity and frequency in the late thirties. Life became unbearable, not only because of discriminatory and oppressive policies of the Polish government, but also on account of brutal actions on the part of their Polish neighbours. The Poles imitated the persecution of Jews taking place in Germany at that time and they waited for the opportunity to deal with the Jews cruelly and freely. This fateful day came on September 1, 1939.
III. The Catastrophe
After the Munich Pact in September 1938, the Jews of Grayevo knew that they were being delivered into the hands of Hitler and that dark times were ahead. Yet, undying optimism which always supported them in dark hours of their history, did not allow them to sink into despair. They lived through a whole year on the brink of disaster and hoped that a miracle would save them.
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On September 1, 1939, the hordes of Hitler swept across the border from East Prussia and within hours were in possession of Grayevo. The Jews of the town were panic stricken; they were trapped by the enemy. From their hiding places, they watched with fear the goosestepping Nazi march into Grayevo. They were trapped by the Nazi and by the Poles and there did not seem to be the slightest chance of escaping death.
A reign of terror began immediately. While the Nazi were busy setting up their headquarters and military installations, the antiSemitic Poles went on an orgy of brutality. They dragged Jews from their hiding places and murdered many of them. First they killed those who owned real estate property in order to take over their homes. Then they set upon the intellectuals. Many Polish criminals armed with hatchets and iron bars walked from house to house and did their cruel work in the darkness of the night. Before the Nazi had time to begin their own programme of extermination of the Jews of Grayevo, Soviet troops occupied the town as a result of the RussoGerman pact which gave Grayevo to Soviet Russia. The Jews watched with relief the withdrawal of the Nazi from their town.
The period between September 1939 and June 1941, during which the Jews of Grayevo lived under Soviet rule, was only a breathing spell.
The Soviet regime restored order in Grayevo and brought a measure of security to its Jews. In many instances, the situation of the population at large was much better during that short period than it had ever been under Polish rule. Jews were admitted to places and positions hitherto barred to them. For the first time in many centuries, they were treated with equality and without discrimination because of race. This fair treatment did not apply however to the socalled bourgeois element among the Jews and there began a large scale deportation of Jewish business men, Zionists and all those suspected of opposition to the Soviet regime.
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This deportation of Jews deep into Asiatic Russia oddly enough was responsible later on for the survival of a certain number of Polish Jews and among them, some of the Jews of Grayevo. As the number of the bourgeois element in Grayevo was small, it is obvious that most of the Jewish population remained in their town and enjoyed the short period of relative freedom under the Soviet occupation.
The fateful day finally came at daybreak on June 22nd, 1941. German bombers swooped down on Grayevo and bombed the town indiscriminately. Shortly afterwards, German mechanized units took possession of the town.
This time it was unmistakably clear to the Jews of Grayevo that they were trapped. The Soviet troops retreated in disorder or were captured as a result of the surprise attach by the Nazi. The Poles, who angrily watched the Jews during the period of Soviet occupation, embarked immediately on an unrestrained campaign of murder. They accused the whole Jewish population of collaborating with the Soviets and helped the Germans in the initial stages of their extermination programme. Many Jews were dragged from their houses, shot in front of their families and buried in the streets. Jewish girls were raped by the Poles and the Nazi and were murdered in cold blood afterwards.
A large number of Jews were rounded up and placed under arrest in the synagogue. They were kept there for several days without food or water and were finally murdered. Other Jews were taken to the cemetery, lined up in front of one large grave, dug by fellow Jews, and mowed down into it with machine guns.
The German intentions were to extract first every ounce of energy and every valuable possession from the Jewish population before destroying them. And so they proceeded to order the Jews to organize a governing body the socalled Judenrat whose only function was to receive orders from the Germans and to relay and enforce them upon the Jewish population.
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The remaining Jews of Grayevo were driven from their homes and herded together into a Ghetto in one of the poorest and shabbiest streets of the town. A Jewish militia was organized to keep order inside the Ghetto which was closed upon all sides and guarded day and night be armed Polish guards.
The Ghetto was very crowded. Many families were herded into one room. Privacy and basic comforts of life were done away with. Yet, the Jews did not lose their courage and by a common effort, as if by tacit agreement, carried on even under these horrible conditions. At no time did the Jews of Grayevo lose their dignity in spite of the physical degradation and the total abject living conditions. Those who had some money shared it with others; various activities were organized within the Ghetto. The Judenrat opened up a grocery store, a bakery and a few other establishments through which were distributed the most important and basic necessities of life.
The punitive taxes and forced labour drained the meagre earnings and exhausted the energy of the dwellers of the Ghetto. At times, they used to pool all their resources and valuables so as to meet the exorbitant demands of the Germans. They knew that noncompliance meant death and hoped that they would survive in spite of these horrible conditions. As time went on, the purchasing power of the Ghetto was dwindling rapidly. The sanitation problems were getting increasingly worse.
The young Jews were forced to do hard labour for the Germans who paid them in food rations which were not enough to sustain life.
The policy of the Nazi was to degrade and humiliate the Jews, but in this respect, they seldom succeeded. The Jews of Grayevo never turned against each other; on the contrary, there was a feeling of brotherhood and devotion encompassing all the Jews in the Nazi clutches.
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As the extermination policy of the Germans entered its next stage, the horrible sight of the big death vans rolling through the streets began to appear. The Jews of Grayevo knew what the contents of these vans were and surmised with horror that their turn was approaching.
Soon after the occupation of Grayevo, the Nazi established a large concentration camp (Bogushe) where they held and then exterminated thousands of Russian prisoners. When this task was completed, they then herded into this camp all the Jews from surrounding towns including the Jews of Grayevo.
Living conditions in this camp were horrible beyond description. Sheltered in flimsy tents, exposed to the elements, subsisting on meagre rations and crowded into a small space, the Jews were being ravaged and decimated by hunger and disease.
A few individuals managed to escape into the surrounding woods and join the partisan bands; but the majority of the Jews had not hope left but to wait for the day of their deportation to the death camps. This happened early in 1943 when the Bogushe concentration camp was liquidated and its occupants transported to the Treblinka death camp where they were burned in the Nazi fashioned crematoria.
Grayevo remained a town without Jews. The physical part of the town remained practically intact, but the Jewish Grayevo had perished and disappeared from the face of the earth. Only a handful of refugees out of the whole population survived the D.P. camps and managed to continue their broken lives in the U.S., Israel or elsewhere.
It is to the memory of all those lives and death were described in this chapter that this book is dedicated. Their death is a horrible tragedy but we ought to perhaps find consolation in the fact that this wholesale slaughter awoke the Jews of the rest of the world as well as international conscience to the realization that the Jews must be redeemed
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as a nation in Israel. Let us then remember our martyrs let us keep their memory forever sacred in our hearts and may we all find consolation in the thought that they, by their dying, have given the nation a new birth of freedom and have not, therefore, died in vain.
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by Nachman Rapp (Wroclaw)
While writing these lines, I see before my eyes my brothers and sisters of my birthplace Grayevo, who died under torture and in great pain. I hear their last desire unspoken as they left the horrible world: Tell of our deaths! Let not our memory and the memory of our sorrows be forgotten! Let the memory of our martyrdom remain as a headstone for the few survivors of our city where they may come to weep and recall the tragic loss. And for our people, let it remain as a spark which ignites a great flame of revenge, a constant reminder: Erase the remembrance of Amalek…
Nineteen Thirty Nine
……It happened so suddenly that it was almost impossible to believe; the proGerman reactionary government of Poland began, through its press, to attack Germany, its aggressive appetites, its demands on Poland for the Danzig corridor.
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We read the papers in wonder. Can it be that a war is imminent between two such good friends?
….A patriotic fervour swept the country. The dramatic ensemble of the thirtythird infantry division of Lomzhe came to Grayevo and performed the patriotic play: Poland the Heart of Europe. The play lampooned Hitler, the swastika and his threats of a blitz victory over Poland. I attended this performance with my friend Mottel Yabko (Mottel Laitche). The performance had been sponsored by a citizen's group under the leadership of the District doctor, Sienkiewic. Suddenly, before the curtain rose, the doctor stood up and said to his companion, the thickly bewhiskered German engineer: Come, friend, I can't stand sitting near Jews…
It was impossible to react as it was impossible to react to too many things in prewar Poland: all we could do was leave the theatre immediately.
I present this fact as an illustration of the attitude of the Polish fascists and semifascists even in such a dangerous situation as the threatened German attack.
Within a week, all men eligible for military service, including Jews, were ordered to report in Osowiec.
For the first time since Poland had become an independent state, Jews were allowed to serve in the head border guard at Osowiec. It was felt that since the noose was already on its neck, the reactionary government could trust the Jews to fight the Germans. Among the Jewish youth, antifascist feeling ran high and they joined the army with an enthusiastic anticipation of the coming encounter.
Now there was no longer a loyalty test for recruits. To the contrary, radically inclined workers seemed to be specially chosen for border duty. In the head border guard at Osowiec were included the aforementioned Mottel Yabko, a young worker who had served a sixyear prison term for Communist activity the left PaoleZionist, Mottel Striev, the brothers Aaron and Moishe Krimkiewich, and others.
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War broke out on 1st September. The general mobilization which had been hastily called three days earlier was not completed in Grayevo. On Thursday, the day before war broke out the entire population was at the railroad station. The heartrending cries of the mothers whose sons were leaving for the front mixed with the shouting of those who had not been able to leave earlier and were now in panic. Drunken Polish solders leaped from the cars into the Jews, shouting that the war had come because of the Jews and that now they would get even. Fortunately, there was no longer time to get even on the spot because it was already 6p.m. and that train was the last and was scheduled to leave immediately. At 4a.m. the next morning, the train which had come from Bialystok to Grayevo was captured by the Germans in the station…
Most of the Jews who had managed to escape remained in Bialystok. There they worried about the majority of the Jewish population which had remained in Grayevo. During the two weeks since the outbreak of the war, Grayevo had been cut off by the front line and it was impossible to receive any news from there. Only when the Germans occupied Bialystok did some information arrive about Grayevo. Though no Jew had yet dared to go there, peasants from the neighbourhood related the sorrowful total of two weeks of German rule. All the synagogues had been burned together with a number of Jewish homes.
When the Soviets took over Grayevo, Jews slowly began returning home and learned of killings and of Jews who had been deported to Germany.
Particularly horrible was the case of the woman Elkon a mentally unbalanced person whom the Nazi had dragged into the Bogusha woods. They put out her eyes and left her blind and dying. A peasant had found her and brought her home in this wagon.
Many Jewish young people had been deported. Of these
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I remember only one returned. Chaim Friedman, son of Malke Friedman.
The 15 year old high school student, Abrasha Bykowski was taken by the Nazi and to this day, we know nothing of him. His mother Khaiche, (Helen) Beikowsky now in Wroclaw, still believes that her son is alive and relives every day the pain of a mother who cannot find her lost child.
Brutally, the Germans killed 17 year old David Rapp, son of the baker Isaac Rapp (brother of the author). The German sadists quartered the live body of the young boy with their swords.
An exploding grenade killed the young daughter of Chaim Lazer whose bakery was on the synagogue street. His son Srolke Antchkowski disappeared without a trace.
During this time the nonJewish population of Grayevo took no part in antiSemitic actions. To the contrary, there were cases in which German soldiers set fire to Jewish homes while the Polish neighbours helped quench the flame. In this manner, the newlybuilt home of the tailor Isaac Grobeld was saved as well as that of Yoske Gurovske (Yoske the Spinner).
Among those who disappeared were also Rabbi Yitzkhok, Isaac Grossman and the welltodo owner of a steam mill in Grayevo, Abraham (Avramtche) Eisenstadt. Later it was learned that they had been horribly killed as hostages in Bendin, the home town of the Rabbi.
The war in Poland had stopped. Warsaw had been captured and in the areas of Western Ukraine and Western White Russia, Soviet life began to establish itself. Slowly the Jews began to return to Grayevo which had become part of Western White Russia. In addition, a number of Jewish refugees began to arrive. Jewish Grayevo slowly regained its Jewish appearance.
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Soviet Rule in Grayevo
Autumn ended early that year and a fierce winter set in. A winter such as in 194041 was unprecedented since 1928.
Life was hard in Grayevo during the first weeks of Soviet rule. Organized hoodlums of the former Polish fascist parties roamed the countryside and agitated the peasant to refrain from selling wheat to the Bolsheviks. Several Jewish bakers who also remained in Grayevo under German rule were able to obtain flour somewhere and baked black bread. One of these was the baker Moishe Piniewski who fled to Bialystok before the outbreak of the war. When the Soviets arrived in Grayevo, he baked for himself, obtaining small amounts of wheat from peasant acquaintances.
Slowly life became easier. Several bakeries were nationalized and the City Supply Department began to bake enough bread for the urban and rural population. Consumer goods began to flow into the city so that shortages no longer existed.
At first, it seemed ridiculous: business was going on in the city; bakeries were operating, mills and the electric plant were running, workshops were opened, and all of this without bosses! People smiled and predicted that they would not be able to establish order because it could not be done without a boss. The Jewish youth in Grayevo, however, threw themselves into the work with heart and soul. Mottle Yabko, after returning from the PolishGerman front, threw himself with all his youthful energy into the establishment of order into the life of the city. On cold winter days he would wander through the countryside collecting wheat from the peasants. At night, he would trace down the roaming marauders who did their nefarious work under cover of darkness. When life became stable, a short time later, he became chairman of the State Distributive Trust in Grayevo.
Several State drygoods and knitgood stores were opened. A cooperative store was established in Ettele Mishkowski's
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building in the market place on the corner of Bogusha Street. Jewish salesgirls were almost exclusively employed there. Among them were the sisters Rachel, Sarah, Yehudis Mayek (daughters of Mayek the carpenter), Rivke and Chipeh Marcusfeld and others. The former owners were no working in their own bakeries which the State had nationalized. The manager of the bakeries was for a certain period of time, the former bakery owner, Saul Bronerwein.
Jews were employed in all phases of economic and cultural life in the city and district councils, and in all subordinate institutions. A 60bed hospital was opened in Grayevo. Its supervisor was the Grayevo doctor Wiener.
A Yiddish junior high school was established in the remodelled Talmud Torah on Powiatowy Street near the New Synagogue. Working in this school were some ten teachers, among them: Velvel (Vovak) Silberstein, Dora Wapinska, Shlome Wronsberg (director) and several others from outside Grayevo. Two Jewish teachers, Fromer and Beykowski, were on the staff of the newlyopened Polish school. The Jewish youth of Grayevo saw, for the first time, the many opportunities which Soviet rule offered to young people. They flocked to the high schools and colleges of the country. The abovementioned teachers and many other young people began to study in many fields. Others left for a wide range of short and longterm courses to become useful specialists.
The Yiddish school in Grayevo developed wonderfully. Jewish children who had come from the Polish schools and Talmud Torah startled their teachers and parents with their rapid advance in Yiddish studies. The Junior High School in Grayevo established a dramatic group which was able to present a performance by children never before witnessed in the city. The District Education Administration decided to sponsor the performance of the epic drama: Bar Kochba by Sh. Halkin, with the participation of the pupils of the Jewish School. After a threemonth Course for Stage Directors,
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I was appointed the leader of this group. I immediately began rehearsals for the production.
From the highest balconies in the city, hung huge placards depicting scenes of the heroic Bar Kochba uprising. On the site of the old synagogue burned by the Germans, a beautiful theatre seating 1500 was built. Here the show was staged. The hall was packed with a diverse audience including Soviet officials, party leaders and a large part of the Grayevo garrison which rewarded the children after the performance with gifts and kisses. (Not one of these young performers survived the war. They, together with all the children of Grayevo, were slaughtered by the Nazi beasts).
The Germans had burned all the synagogues, so now a communal prayer house was established in the home of the baker, Moishe Piniewski, where a minyen would gather daily and, of course, on Sabbath and holidays. When the Germans set fire to the large synagogue Yitshok Grobgeld succeeded in saving one Holy Scroll and a number of prayer books which were of great use during this time.
Religious education was also not neglected in this period. Though the building which had housed the old Talmud Torah was no occupied by the Yiddish School, a part of the communal prayerhouse was set aside for Anshel Kotchak, the Hebrew teacher who taught religious subjects to all the Jewish children who attended the Yiddish junior high school in the mornings.
But in the dark of night, the marauders didn't rest. These were the unregenerate homegrown Polish fascists who had been driven underground. Hitler's Germany which had betrayed and attacked Poland was not considered an enemy. They vented all their hate against the Bolsheviks who had established: Jewish Communism. From mouthtomouth, the evil rumour spread: teaching of Polish would soon be forbidden: All Poles would be exiled from Grayevo to hard labour in Siberia and churchgoing would be forbidden. Of course all this agitation had absolutely no basis in fact but
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was maliciously fanned in order to arouse the illiterate masses against the government and to convert them into a weapon in the hands of the feudal lords and reactionaries.
The agitation was, however, doomed to failure. The Polish intelligentsia felt for the first time that it was a vitally useful element in society and was utilized in most State and community positions where it laboured conscientiously. The workers and especially the permanently unemployed, who had previously existed on charity, received jobs which provided them with a livelihood. Only the sons of the large landowners whose estate had been divided among the landless peasants were unable to rest and maintained their old familiar prewar agitation against Jew Communism.
The Soviet government was very well aware of the damage being done by these groups and had undertaken to remove the inimical elements from the border city of Grayevo to points further in the interior. On 19th June, 1941, a number of Jewish families were also sent out from Grayevo. They were the Beykowskis, Yosef Bialostocki and family, Kirshenbaum and family and the nurse, Mania Kaplan. Some were ordered to move to thirty kilometres from Grayevo (Aaron Leizerson and others).
These families regretted deeply the need of leaving their old home. They considered it a tragedy and were very mournful in bidding their friends farewell. Actually, all those who were sent out two or three days before the war, were thereby saved from the Hitlerite murderers and they now consider that that day as the one in which they experienced the greatest miracle of their lives.
In the months of March and April 1941, all men of military age were called up into the Red Army. Of the Jews who went, I remember Chaim Adanstein, Yosel Mayek, Yankel Roimer, Leibel Dorf, Gershon Gringross (a son of Zorach the butcher) and Shamai Marcus. These young men later fought heroically in the war against the Germans and were in various ways decorated for their bravery. Their personal
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accomplishment, however, was that by serving in the Red Army, they did not experience the horror of the Ghetto and are now alive.
A worse fate befell those young people of Grayevo who served in the Polish army in Osowiec (25km from Grayevo). They were the first to fall into the hands of the German beasts and the first to die. Of these, I remember: Yankel Rutski (son of the painter Falk), Gershon Viernik, Moishe Viernik, Benyomen Kureyvowski, Moishe Yitzhok, Tobiashora, Chaim Mendel Levine, Chaim Kurzhondkowski, Leibl Zeligson, Yosel Levitt and the 18year old Chaim Epstein. Some members of the same unit were able to escape and to return home to their parents in Grayevo as was the case for Yakov Shia Kaminski who escaped to die later in the Grayevo Ghetto with his father and mother.
Life was so peaceful and with so strong a feeling of security that it was impossible to believe that a tragedy such as occurred on 22nd June, 1941 could really happen. When, in the early hours before dawn the inhabitants of Grayevo were torn from their sleep by loud explosions and sounds of firing, the first unasked question that came to the lips of the frightened Grayevo Jew was: Can it be possible? Unfortunately it was…
Nazi Occupation in Grayevo
On 22nd June at 4a.m., the Nazi began their invasion of the Soviet Union.
The previous week, I had been in Bialystok. There was nothing in the city that indicated the coming storm. Around Tuesday, a few days before the outbreak of war, I met a number of Grayevo inhabitants in Bialystok and they told me that a number of Jewish families had been sent out.
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Having completed my business in Bialystok, I left for Grayevo at 1a.m. on the morning of 22nd June.
It was 3a.m. when I arrived at the Grayevo station. The City was sunk in quiet predawn sleep. I strolled from the station with my friend Gershon Greengross who had come home on furlough from his detachment in Osowiec. We spoke of the clear blue sky and of the warm predawn and that that day there would be strolling on the beach near the Kosherove Lake and decided we would meet near the lake. We then parted, each to his own home.
My home was on Rutske Street n°24 in Avreml Greenberg's house since our former home on Konopska Street had been burned by the Germans in 1939. The entire family was awakened by my arrival: father, mother and sisters were up. Questions flowed: how is everything in Bialystok, and … why I didn't bring back a girl I was to marry… Everyone chattered until mother made my bed and announced that it was time to call it a day.
Suddenly, we were deafened by a horrible shriek, as if scores of factory whistles had begun wailing. We were stunned and did not understand the meaning of all this. Least of all did we expect an invasion. We knew very well that there existed a nonaggression pact with Germany and we didn't expect the Germans to attack without the formality of some provocation.
But several minutes later, there was no longer doubt. Every few moments another explosion shook the house. We ran down the steps to see what was happening. But as soon as we reached the street, we realized that this was really war and we headed for the Bialystok highway.
Though Grayevo wasn't a large city with barely twelve thousand inhabitants, two artillery companies were stationed there because of the proximity to the German border. Therefore, the war came to Grayevo in a concentrated German attack. In the first moments, the city was wrapped in a sea
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of smoke and flame. All sorts of arms began firing at once deafening the frightened populace. It was, therefore, impossible to think of escaping by fleeing the city. Here is what an eyewitness tells of these first minutes of war:
I ran to the window to see what was happening. A thick column of smoke rose to the sky blocking out the light. Were it not for the constant firing and explosions, one might have thought that the city was not being attacked but merely put to the torch. Not being able to see anything through the window, I went out onto the porch. But as soon as I put my hand outside, I was hit by a piece of shrapnel which tore off these two fingers. I fainted and my wife carried me indoors. (Yosef Kalski, bricklayer Rutske Street).
And in that maze of smoke and noise, the Jewish population of Grayevo lay trapped. Before one could even think of escaping, the roads had been cut off by the advancing German troops.
It immediately became obvious that the entire area had been cut off from Bialystok its centre. The fascist underground placed itself immediately at the service of the Nazi and cut all telephone connections in an area of some thirty odd kilometres. The officials of the Soviet institutions and of the Party tried desperately to establish contact with central headquarters, but to no avail. Some hope was based on the Osowiec fortress. There, we thought, the Germans would be driven back and before the front would be established, we might be able to escape to the rear. But this hope, too, turned to nought. The Germans bypassed Osowiec and slowly encircled it through the Lomzher region.
German military units did not enter Grayevo on the first day of the war. Only the German borderguard occupied the city. They took over the railroad station, the post office and all Soviet institutions. Only by the third day
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24th June did a German military kommandatur arrive, setting up its headquarters on Pilsudskiego Street (formerly Shtutchiner Street).
On the first day of the German borderguard occupation, the soldiers immediately began murdering the Jewish population. An order was issued to the German troops declaring Jewish lives and property open to whatever actions they might decide upon. So that, in the very first day, there were mass rapes of young Jewish girls. The gentle German race excelled in biting its young victims to death while the mothers of the tortured children were forced to stand by and witness these horrors.
Here is what the Polish woman, Helena Nadolna tells of a scene that day.
….My nextdoor neighbour came running into my house screaming that her daughter had just been murdered by a German and that she, the mother, had been forced to stand by and see that no one disturbed him. When the German left, all he said to her was: Nice Mama. When she went into the room she could not believe her eyes. She begged me to come and help save her child's life, but there was no longer any life to save. The girl's flesh was torn, bitten and bruised. Blood foamed from her mouth and breasts. She was dead choked her eyes bulging from her sockets. Her mother wanted to commit suicide. In a few days, she went out of her mind and the Germans killed her. Her name is Henie Shine Bashed, 34 Ruska Street. The same was done to many others whose names I do not know.
A few days later, Wednesday 25th June at 10a.m., all the Jews were driven into the marketplace where the StadtKommandant Geiss read the order of the kommandatur. The order read in part:
The Jewish nation is a criminal nation and as such, it merits the eternal punishment of hard labour
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and enslavement. They may not live freely and among other people because of their impure blood. Sooner or later, all must die. They must obey every German under pain of death. Jews will be designated by yellow stars which they will have to wear on their backs and chests as a sign of their shame.
As usual in German practice, every order was accompanied by direct action. After reading the order, the Jews were driven from the marketplace under a hail of blows and two sisters were arrested on the spot Rachel and Yehudis Mayek. They were led to the Jewish cemetery and executed.
Great fear gripped the Jews in the marketplace after the reading of the order. It was open proof that as of this day, Jewish life is free to any German or Polish hoodlum. From that day on, Jews sat locked in their homes fearing even the light of day. A rumour spread that the Polish underworld was preparing a pogrom. It was said that a delegation of reactionary cutthroats had visited Gestapo commander Opper to determine whether the murder of Jews was punishable by law and that Opper had reassured them that they had nothing to fear. This rumour turned out to be true when the first pogrom by the Polish reactionaries took place two days later.
Sunday 29th June, the first organized pogrom took place in Grayevo. Leaving the church, the incited hoodlums ran to rob and murder the Jews. With previously prepared axes and clubs, they left on their task of splitting Jewish heads. The leaders of the pogrom were: Aloise Stenkowski, a young professional thief, a syphilitic, a son of the noted thief Stenkowski (Konopska Street n°6) and the cutthroats: Green, Mikloszewski, Zegavek and Stanisz. The Jews whom the bandits caught on the street were murdered on the spot. In this manner, Aloise Stenkowski killed Mottel Striev. The photographer Ephraim Vodowski fell at the hands of the murderer Stanisz. This was not enough for the
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pogromists who then brought death and destruction to the Jewish homes.
In the present day, when speaking with Christians of Grayevo about that pogrom, most try to avoid the question entirely. Many say that they helped one Jew or another. It is, therefore, interesting to note the personal testimony of the Christian Zyskowski who lives in the marketplace next to the house where Yosef Bialystotski once lived. In the same house, there lived the hardwaredealer Weinstein and Ukrop's soninlaw, Moishe (whose family name I have not been able to ascertain).
When the pogrom began, these two Jews found themselves in the street and ran home in an effort to save themselves. The narrative is here as taken up by the abovementioned Zyskowski.
When I saw the two zydki (Jews) running down the street, I locked the house door and didn't let them in (!). Terrified, they banged on the door. They found an axe and smashed open the door and ran to their own apartment. Soon the ‘boys’ came and beat up the Jews. Weinstein's legs were broken and the other was merely bruised.
On the other hand, there were many Christians who, despite the bestial atmosphere, retained their moral and human values. Their selfsacrifice in defending Jewish lives and human dignity must be accorded the greatest recognition. In the first place, we must mention with great honour, Henryk Sobolewski a progressive Polish worker and a longtime member of the Polish Communist Party who, on the day of the horrible pogrom, bravely fought with word and deed and prayed for his struggle with his life. He was arrested together with some ten Jews and after being held and tortured for one day in the synagogue, he was taken to the Jewish cemetery and executed.
The second heroic figure is that of the Catholic priest Penza. Tirelessly, he preached daily masses calling the Christian
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population to regain its senses, not to cooperate with the Germans and their antiSemitic provocations. The hooligans, however, held robbery and murder dearer than Christian morality and brotherly love. They reported the Catholic priest to the Germans who unceremoniously shot the gentle priest.
There are rumours that immediately after the pogrom, a Jewish delegation went to the German commander Geiss to ask for protection from the pogromists. We do not know whether this rumour is factual or not. It is a fact, however, that exactly one hour after the pogrom at 3p.m. German police began hunting the pogromists. They caught three: (Miklasevski, Zegarek and Green) and shot them on the spot. This was supposed to have indicated that the Germans sided with the Jews and protected them from the enraged Christian population. But, this was only a wily trick of the German hangmen who, on the one hand organized the pogrom, while on the other, they wanted further to whip up feeling against the defenceless Jews by showing the Christian population that even now the authorities sided with the Jews. This was also intended to convince the Jews later on when the Ghetto was being formed, that it was in their favour to live apart from the Poles.
In order to further hide their real aims, the Germans did not stop at punishing the three murderers. They also took a number of wounded Jews to the hospital where they were treated and as a result of these treatments, Rifke Bialystotski died within three days. Particularly horrible and revealing of the fascist type of provocation, was the case of the wounded Postolsky. He had been savagely beaten by the pogromists and was only half conscious the next morning when the Nazi brought the Polish youth, Lutek Remiszewski to his bedside and demanded that he identify his attacker. In his pain and semiconsciousness, the Jew thought that this was actually the man who had beaten him and despite the tearful protests of the youth, he identified
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him. The young man was a progressive Polish student whom the Germans had purposely implicated. Within a few days, the innocent young man was executed.
That day, the Germans also arrested the Polish teacher Leon Klodetski, the abovementioned progressive worker, Henryk Sobolewski and a number of other progressive Poles who were imprisoned in the synagogue. Klodetski managed to escape while the others were shot the same day.
The Death Chamber in the Synagogue
After a week of systematic attacks on the Jews, the Germans decided that the time for starting the extermination of the Jews in Grayevo was now ripe.
A special SS group was mobilized for the purpose of catching every Jew between the ages of 15 and 45. The prisoners were brought to the theatre which had been the large synagogue before the war. This was not merely a prison where inmates were tortured here, Jews were subjected to inhumanities besides which the tortures of the inquisition seemed no more than child's play.
Jews with broken hands and legs were forced to perform exercises; to leap over tables and chairs, driven by blows from their tormentors. After three days' starvation, they were fed salted herring following which they were deprived of water for three days. The younger and stronger ones were driven under a hail of blows to perform inhumanly hard and totally useless labour. They were forced, for instance, to carry the stone archway to and from the cemetery. After such a day's labour, they were brought back to the synagogue where the nightlong torture began. Between 15 and 20 people died daily.
Before death came, the Germans would throw the dying into the deep cellar of the synagogue, leaving them there to expire. When the cellar was halffilled with corpses, healthy
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people were then thrown in and kept there until the odour of death engulfed and claimed them too.
This is the testimony of the Christian woman, Helena Nadolna who lived opposite the synagogue and was able to see what went on:
The young people and particularly the men were put into the synagogue and tortured for two weeks. Such tortures that even death would be a blessing. They twisted out their arms, tore out their tongues and fingernails. Every morning they received on hundred lashes. When someone fainted, he was thrown into infested water and when he revived, was subjected to new tortures: leaping over various obstacles, tables and chairs. Then they were forced to line up and every tenth man had to leap from the second story window. Those who leapt and remained alive were killed on the spot. The Jews' hands were tied with barbed wire which was then wound around their necks and in that condition were tossed into the cellar to expire. The corpses were removed from the cellar a year later, almost completely decomposed. The workers who were forced to remove the bodies became fatally infected. The corpses were thrown in to a limefilled ditch near the cellar.
On those occasions, when the Germans ordered Jews to leap from the window of the synagogue, the Polish fascists were gathered below and it was they who killed the ones who remained alive. Such was the case with the young lad Velvi Piekarevitch (son of the Stavisker smith, Avrom Shlime). After leaping from the window, the boy ran until he reached the Jewish cemetery. There, the hoodlums caught him and threw him alive into the lime pit near the synagogue.
The prison guards in the synagogue were the Poles Davidowski and Staniesewiski, volunteers from among the Polish reactionaries who served in the militia, Yanek Yankowski,
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a wellknown cutthroat in Grayevo and others. These overseers led the Jews, each morning, to slave labour in various places. Of course, their first responsibility was to beat the Jews with truncheons and iron rods. On returning from the first day's labour, the Jews saw above the door a sign: Internment Camp. It became clear that their imprisonment was not a caprice but that it would be long, if ever, before they returned home.
The women assembled about the theatre (synagogue) with food for their husbands, sons and fathers. For graft, the guards took the food and distributed as they saw fit among the prisoners who later sent out the dishes, keeping the bottles for their own biological needs.
On 10th August, 1941, the German kommandatur issued an order that in the course of some three to five days, all Jews must move to Dolna Street (Bod Street). The Polish residents were ordered to evacuate. The prisoners were permitted to help their families move their belongings. Many were not able to move all their things. A psychosis gripped everyone, driving them to the Ghetto where they thought they might escape the native hoodlums. The men who were temporarily released were then rearrested.
The Polish overseers, Staniszewski and Davidowski and their accomplices were not content with merely torturing the Jews in the synagogue prison. They evolved a plan to gain personal profit. They had heard that there were Communists among the prisoners. They chose some twenty Jews at random and the beast Davidowski shouted at them Cholera! To byli Komunisci! (The devil take you! These were communists!). These 20 Jews were separated behind a barrier and were no longer permitted to leave on the work brigades with the others. For the first two days, the wives of the communists did not know what had happened to their men. The guards continued to take the food but did not distribute it so that the communists starved for two days. When the wives of the communists learned of their fate,
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The overseers profiteering began in earnest. The wives ran to the beast Davidowski and bribed him to release their husbands from the communist cells which meant sure death.
And so the beasts kept alternating their victims; freeing one and placing another among the communists taking the last remaining money from the wives.
At the instigation of Davidowski and Staniszewski, the Gestapo issued an order and one morning, the beasts took out the group of communists and none of the other prisoners knew what had happened to them. The next day it was learned that they had been taken to the Kosheruvka woods and shot.
Among the groups which were periodically taken from the prison and shot were the following individuals:
Silverman, Shloime. Abramski, Yosef. Abramski, Shimen. Greenspan, Lazar. Striev, Mordehe. Buchbinder, Hersh. Bronervein, Saul. Kletski, Chaim Ydel. Barash, Kopel. Segalovitch, Leibl. Segalovitch, Sholom. Cohen, Elia. Sudker, Berl. Stolnitski.
This is a partial list of the Jews who were shot in the woods from 1st25th August.
On August 26th, 1941, the Gestapo ordered the arrest of all women who had worked at government jobs during the Soviet rule and all young girls who had been members of the Komsomol (communist youth organization). Forty Jewish women and girls were taken away that day.
At night, when the captive men returned from work, they were immediately taken to the horse market. There, the Polish reactionary hoodlums took over, forcing old and young alike to leap over ditches. This torture lasted an hour. Then the Gestapo commanded the Jews to form a line and the Polish hoodlums pointed out the communists at random. Among the communists they also included the old shokhet, Moishe Mendl Myshkowski. Of course all
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this had been arranged by the Gestapo. The hoodlums pointed to the shokhet saying: this one is Stalin's comrade…
The Grayevo Poles tell of a horrible experience which befell the young engineer Kirshbaum. The young man was not an inhabitant of Grayevo but came to the city as a refugee from Warsaw at the outbreak of the war. He was physically fit and managed to land safely after leaping from the secondstory window. When he tried to escape, he was caught by the Polish hoodlums who generally stood about enjoying the tortures which the Jews underwent. They threw him into the large ditch near the synagogue. This ditch was actually a large, temporary latrine which the Germans had dug.
After being thrown in, the miserable engineer swam to the side trying to climb the boards which shored up the ditch. The hoodlums stood by, laughing at the attempts of the young man to rescue himself from the filth. When he had almost reached the top, their laughter turned to rage and they attacked him with their spades, splitting his head open. (Eye witness report by the Polish bricklayer, Jan Kalsik, Rudzka Street).
Some eighty men were then taken from the line and separately led back to the theatre under heavy guard. On the morrow, the Gestapo mockingly organized a trial of the eighty men and the forty women. The trial lasted two days. The Polish militiamen signed affidavits asserting that all the accused were communists. The curt sentenced them all to be shot. Upon hearing the verdict, a number of young people leapt from the second story windows to instant death.
The night after the trial, the Gestapo brutally tortured the condemned Jews. Their heads were beaten with bottles and many were fatally wounded. These were dragged to the cellar and murdered and the corpses thrown into the cellars of the burned houses nearby.
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That night was one of the worst for the prisoners. All night the Polish hoodlums and Gestapo men dragged the old people to the cellar to be brutally murdered.
On 29th of August, a group of Jews were put to work on the Ruder Highway. In the evening, the Polish overseers brought the Jews to the cemetery instead of to the theatre and left them standing there. Within several minutes, Gestapo men arrived and ordered the Jews to dig a 60 meter hole. The Jews understood only too well that this was to be the mass grave for 120 Jews their brothers and sisters who had, two days earlier, been sentenced by a high court of drunken hoodlums and bloodthirsty Gestapo agents. The Jews refused to dig this hole. The Gestapo beasts began at once to murderously club the Jews into submission and the Poles made use of the sticks they held in their hands. Anyone who refused to begin digging was immediately shot (as was the case of Zorach Elkon's son and others).
When the mass grave was ready, the Jews were brought back to the theatre. The drunken Gestapo tortured the sentenced Jews all night. Like wild beasts, they threw themselves upon the Jewish women. Proof of this horrible episode can be found in a short letter found by the survivor, Meyer Kletsky, that same day in the synagogue room where the prisoners spent their last minutes. This what Sarah Mayek wrote:
It doesn't suffice from them to merely see us die. They had to rape us in addition. Gestapo men and some Poles did the job. Brother Jews! Take revenge for us and for our shame!…
Thus, the Herren folk brazenly proved its abilities. Marry a Jew and you have shamed your race, to be punished by death but rape and torture of Jewish women can bring only glory!
Meyer Kletsky tells how the 120 Jews finally met their death.
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At ten in the morning (30th August) the men and women who had been sentenced to death for being communists were taken out. Flanking them were Gestapo men and Polish militia volunteers as well as a large segment of the Polish population. All followed the prisoners through the streets with smiles on their lips saying: So there will be some fewer Jews…. All the Jews had to enter the graves on their own. When all stood inside, the machine guns let loose and took from us forever our beloved and dear ones….
On September 1st, 1941 at 10a.m. the Gestapo gathered all the Jews in the horse market. The German StadtKommandant arrived and spoke to the assembled Jews assuring them that now that they were cleansed of their communists they would be able to live peacefully in the Ghetto, would have their own management and their own president.
The Ghetto in Grayevo
The reason for the establishment of ghettoes for the Jews throughout Poland by the Nazi is now selfevident! The Nazi wanted to concentrate the Jewish population in specific areas, cutoff from the world in order to simplify the final criminal objective the complete annihilation of the Jews. At the time of the creation of the ghettoes, however, the German hangmen had so well prepared the groundwork that in many cities, the Jews naively believed that they would find refuge there, being protected from the provocations of the native antiSemites.
This was also true in Grayevo.
On reading the order establishing the Grayevo ghetto, StadtKommandant Geiss simultaneously proposed a Judenrat for the administration of all internal problems and for a
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liaison with the German government. Those proposed were: 1. Sutker Zalman, president; 2. Popovski, secretary; 3. Voyslavski, Yitzhok, member; 4. Tennenbaum, member. The Jews, believing this to be in reality a representative body, added Lazer (Leishke) Grossman to the Judenrat.
The first two orders issued by the Judenrat are in themselves revealing. The first order at the insistence of the Nazi was to immediately clean the theatre (synagogue) where the prisoners had been tortured to death the night before. The Judenrat selected 25 men and women whom they sent with brooms and pails of water to the site of the awful blood bath.
Meyer Kletsky, who was one of the 25 and has remained alive to tell the story, describes the interior of the building:
The walls were completely flecked with blood, as in a slaughter house. We had to wash the blood clean so that no sign of our dearest ones would remain. The room, in which the condemned women spent their last minutes, gave the appearance of a recent pogrom. Torn out strands of hair were strewn about the floor together with ripped items of clothing and papers. We searched among the papers and found a note which Sarah Mayek had left (see above, N.R.). Exhausted after a horrible day's work, we were nevertheless unable to go home to sleep. We gathered in the yard and mourned the remnants of our dearest ones.
The second order which the Judenrat issued that same day was to post a guard around the ghetto for the night to prevent provocation by the native hoodlums of Davidowski's gang.
The guard was composed of young people armed with….sticks and flashlights. It is obvious what little good this guard would have done against organized and pro
bably armed hoodlums. Still, they might serve to spread an alarm.
Several days later, the Judenrat, under German orders, created a labour bureau headed by Yitshok Voyslawski, with Luba Fabilinska as secretary. At the behest of the Germans, this labour bureau supplied Jewish workers for German firms. The workday was from 14hr to 18hr and the wages per day was 1Mark!
Jews were permitted to leave the Ghetto for work without guards but with a pass issued by the German authorities. At the same time, the Judenrat formed a Jewish militia which included/
1. Karbowski, commander (a lawyer from Lomzhe); 2. Meyer Kletski, vicecommander; 3. Khilare, Berl; 4. Neiman Reubin; 5. Gumovitch, Shloime; 6. Zharkowski, Yitzhok; 7. Tevel OzIosher; 8. A soninlaw of Yosel the smith; 9. Marcus, Joseph; 10. Slovatitski, Moishe; 11. Sholomke of the blind.
(There is no accurate evidence as to the conduct of the Jewish militia in relation to the ghetto population. Having been personally far removed from the tragic scene, I do not feel justified in coming to any conclusions, one way or another. I also would not feel justified in repeating all the virtues and good deeds related to me by the eyewitness, Meyer Kletsky, admitted vicecommanded of the militia. While respecting the great pain which the former experienced, he must nevertheless be considered an interested party and therefore not the source, in this case, of objective testimony).
Economically, life was not of the worst in the Ghetto. It can be said that during its existence, there was no starvation there. Of course, the satanic plan of the Nazi murderers had been worked out to the last detail: let the Jews see that they are cared for, that necessities are provided and they will not try to escape. There was, however, more to the plan.
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The Nazi authorities permitted the peasants of the surrounding villages to bring food, peat and wood into the ghetto. The peasants who had come to market on the specified days would drive straight to the ghetto without even stopping at the general market place. On these days, the streets of the ghetto would be choked with wagons as at a fair in the old days, and the Jews would buy out all the produce. This created the following paradox: the Jews, who were walledin the ghetto, completely isolated, had more essential commodities than the Polish population outside. The latter were forced to buy these essentials from the Jews in the Ghetto. Of course, this led to more hatred among the Polish population who compared the Jews to cats, saying: no matter where you throw them, they'll always land on their feet…. Actually, this was a wellplanned manoeuvre of the German propagandists. They were out to convince the Polish population that the zhides take all for themselves and only when they will be wiped out will there be enough food for the Poles.
A group was also appointed by the Judenrat to keep the ghetto clean. Pinyeh Suraski headed the group. Working with him was: Abraham Greenberg, Sholem Zaidenberg, Goldberg, Berl Kletski and Yehudah Greenberg. Everything was kept clean the swamps on the east end of Dolna Street were drained and vegetables planted in all parts of the ghetto. Almost every Jew had stored some supply of potatoes, wood, carrots, beets and other vegetables. The only hope was that if only they would remain in the ghetto, they would somehow manage to live to see the downfall of Haman.
The Judenrat also established a number of workshops for the ghetto's needs. A bakery was opened to supply the population. The bakery, once the property of Joseph Bialystotski, was on Dolna Street. The manager of the ghettobakery was Jacob Shidlow. A foodstore, under the management of Abraham Tenenbaum was also established. A
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shoe workshop was also in operation in the Ghetto producing at low prices for the population.
About two weeks after the creation of the ghetto, the Judenrat suddenly received an order from the German StadtKomandant to pay one million marks into the Magistrate's treasury. This was a terrible blow to the impoverished ghetto. The order threatened that if this sum were not paid, the Jews would be sent out of the ghetto. Fear gripped the ghetto inhabitants. Having no other alternative, they now sold whatever was left to the Polish population, rejoicing that they were willing to buy. The poorer ones sold pillows and all their furniture. The rich Jews bargained closely, but finally paid their share. (Eyewitness account by M. Kletski).
But the hope of survival outweighed the fear of immediate and future dangers. Throughout all these troubles, the ghetto was filled with optimistic faith in the approaching defeat of the enemy.
A very important factor in the economic life of the Grayevo ghetto was the good relations between the nearby communities and the Jews. The peasants eagerly sold their produce to the Jews. For example, a group of Jewish young men (David Bunkovski, Chaim Burakovski and others) would leave the ghetto at night and bring back fish from the nearby town of Tochelova and either distribute or sell it to the Jews in the ghetto. The peasants, who were permitted to bring potatoes and wood into the ghetto twice a week, would hide chickens and even whole calves in their wagons. The ghettoJews were not permitted to keep animals or fowls. Nevertheless, the ghetto always had a number of cows and quite a few chickens. All this was thanks to the help of the peasants from nearby villages.
The eyewitness account by M. Kletski also tells of a Polish woman from Grayevo who would come three times a day to the ghetto and sell or partly distribute food to the Jews in the ghetto. When the Grayevo ghetto was liquidated and the
[English page XLV]
Jews driven to the camp in Bogusha, this same woman came, as before and brought produce. Let us accord due respect to this fine and warmhearted Polish woman.
Under these conditions conditions of hard labour and struggle for a piece of bread, for survival and abiding faith in surviving the enemy and living to see his downfall the Grayevo ghetto existed for a period of one year. The ghetto was allowed to exist until 1st November, 1942 when the German hangmen decided that they could now put an end to the few remaining Jews of our city, after they had fully used them materially, economically and physically.
The Camp in Bogushe
On 11th November, 1942, the Germans evacuated the Jews from the Grayevo Ghetto. The previous night, the ghetto had been surrounded by gestapo men armed with machine guns and who permitted no one to leave. The people who were supposed to report to work at 4a.m. were laconically informed: you've worked enough and were then brutally shoved back into the ghetto. The ghetto immediately became aware that something was afoot. Some tried to escape but the gestapo guards allowed no one to leave until dawn.
When it grew light, the gestapo entered the houses, driving everyone to the square with blows and shouts. When all the Jews had assembled, carrying bundles and children, the gestapo began driving the Jews in the direction of the village Bogushe (border village between Grayevo and East Prussia).
Though it was late fall, that day was very hot and the tired Jews were unable to carry all which they had so hurriedly put together. Everything they were unable to carry they dropped along the highway. The whole length of the road from Grayevo to Bogushe was littered with Jewish poverty.
[English page XLVI]
Under a hail of blows from gunbutts and sticks, with cries and sobs, the pitiful army of Jews arrived at the Bogushe concentration camp.
This camp had previously served as an internment camp for Soviet prisoners of war. The German beasts had tortured to death tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers who, because of the sudden German attack, were unable to escape. The fields around Bogushe were full of huge mass graves of Soviet soldiers, murdered in the Bogushe Death Camp.
The camp consisted of a large fencedin field with barbed wire. Barracks had been built that is, ditches had been dug and covered with makeshift roofs.
The Grayevo Jews arrived at about 11a.m. In the afternoon, Jews were brought into the camp afoot and in wagons from all surrounding cities: Szczucizn, Raygrod, Vonsosh, Radshilovo, Trestena, Augustow, Byalibzberg and villages around Augustow, wherever Jews still remained. It was clear that the Germans had begun the complete liquidation of all ghettos in the towns of the Bialystok region.
The first three to four days, the Jews remained entirely unfed. Everyone ate whatever they had managed to bring with them from the Ghetto. Only on the 5th day did the German authorities, having appointed a commander of the camp, establish 4 kitchens which were to feed over 7,600 interned Jews. The German chosen commander was the former president of the Grayevo Judenrat, Zalman Sutker.
The kitchens produced little more than potato soup. The daily ration per person was half a litre of watery soup and a hundred grams of bread. Jews were so starved that they would besiege the kitchens fight over the potato peelings and gulp them down raw.
A group of Jews were assigned to work on the highway around Prostken. These were considered the luckiest. Outside the ghetto, they were able to buy a piece of bread, paying
[English page XLVII]
in hard cash or gold. The survivor, Kletski, relates the following:
A group of some 20 men worked outside the camp. They had it good because at work, they met with Poles and for gold, watches and other valuables, they received bread which they brought to the camp and sold. The biggest speculators were the Kaminsky family (of Nachtche the butcher). Five or six members of the family participated. During the two months they spent in the camp they had amassed a huge hoard of gold and dollars since a kilo of bread went for a few dollars.
On the basis of this eyewitness account, one is able to clearly picture the life of the Jews in the camp. If a kilo of bread cost a few dollars, it is clear that very few could afford it. Secondly, of the 7,600 internees, only some 20 were able to leave camp so that at best, only an insignificant amount of people benefited from the smuggling.
After the first two weeks, the gestapo permitted 15 persons to return to the Ghetto for the purpose of obtaining the potatoes which the Jews had stored in the cellars. Such groups made three to four trips. Mr. Kletski relates:
Once, I succeeded in getting into one of the groups which went to Grayevo under a guard of three Wehrmacht soldiers. We entered the ghetto. It looked as if another pogrom had struck it houses robbed, streets full of feathers. On the street, one sees various Yiddish books. Poles already occupy the better houses. We enter Pesach the baker's yard and find a torn Holy Scroll. We took a few wagonloads of potatoes from the cellar. There was a baker there whose name I don't remember (this was the baker Ian Sienkiewich N.R.). He sold each of us a sixkilo bread at low prices.)
A very high deathrate existed in the camp because of the horrible starvation and filth. Every night, the dead bodies
[English page XLVIII]
Were collected in a ditch and removed in the morning to the camp cemetery which was the cemetery of the Russian prisoner of war.
Every one of the interned Jews was at the mercy of any one SS guard. In relation to this, it is told of the Grayevo Jew, Shaie Leib Konopko, a casualty of World War I. One morning, a gestapo came into the camp and called the Jew out of the barrack. The invalid, Shaie Leib, realized that his time had come. With tears in this eyes, he bid farewell to his friends, took from his basked the leather gloves which he had always worn due to his rheumatism, gave them to his brotherinlaw, Leibl Sharfstein and said: take them. I don't need gloves anymore. He entered the prepared ditch…and the gestapo extinguished his life with one shot.
A selection mas made in the camp on 15th December. Some 5,000 people were closely packed in separate barracks. They were told that they would be sent to a Silesian labour camp the next day. It is interesting to note that at that time, there was already rumour that the Jews were being sent to crematoria of Treblinka and Maidanek but not one believed the rumour. Therefore, the majority of those selected for labour in Silesia calmly accepted the news of their transfer. The transportation was carried out in the usual German manner: terrible blows and shootings on the spot drove the people out of the barracks to the railway station in Prostken. The roads were soaked by the fall rains and the mass of people were too tired to walk. But the beasts drove them on; those who lagged were immediately shot. The road from Bogushe to Prostken was littered with the dead and dying. The following day, the camp administration ordered the remaining Jews to collect the corpses from the road. 200 bodies were collected and buried in the camp cemetery.
The entire transport of 5,000 Jews, among whom were the camp commander and former president of the Judenrat
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Zalman Zutker and his aide, Lazar Grossman, were taken to Treblinka and destroyed in the crematoria. (To this day, we do not know of a single person who managed to escape from that transport).
Some thousand persons remained in the camp. The German murderers, who had carefully laid their criminal plans, wanted to create the illusion among the remaining ones that they were no longer in any danger. They were placed in the better and larger barracks and were even better fed. M. Kletski tells about one instance in which a number of killed geese and other fowl were brought from the Prostken pasture for the internees. It was intimated that the internees would be allowed to recuperate and then be sent to labour camps. The Germans then designated a Jew from Augustow as camp commander and a week later, ordered him to prepare the Jews for their journey.
On 2nd January, 1943, the Germans ordered the Jews to pack up and prepare to leave the next day. On 3rd January, the last Grayevo Jews left the Bogushe camp forever. In jammed cars, they left the Prostken railway station and rolled on through Bialystok, Warsaw, and Treblinka….
When the train passed Treblinka and did not stop, a ray of home shone among the unfortunate. They did not yet know that there were other death camps besides Treblinka. …. So the Grayevo Jew Jacob Shidlow consoled his brethren: Jews, if we have passed the hell of Treblinka, we shall survive… Unfortunately, this was a false hope.
At midnight, the train arrived at the Birkenau death camp, adjacent to Auschwitz (Oswiencim). As soon as the train stopped, it was attacked by SS men with tommy guns. They drove the prisoners from the carriages. Whoever tried to take anything with him, even a piece of bread, was shot on the spot. Alongside the rails, a selection was made, some 100 young men were taken out and the other 900 men and women were jammed onto trucks and taken down the long road to the crematorium.
[English page I]
That same day, the oven of the Birkenau death factory swallowed forever the last remnants of the Grayevo Jews.
Thus it was
Dead, as though following some horrible flood, Grayevo remained without Jews…. A quiet, thick cloud of recentlyshed Jewish blood seemed to rise from every corner, from every bit of earth. The flat hills around the village of Przekopke, the shallow waters on the Kosherufke brook, the ruins of the houses on Synagogue Street, the murder chamber in the synagogue, the huge cemetery near the Bogush camp all these places contained for eternity the remains of a Jewish community on Polish soil…Sobs shake the earth of Grayevo. The birds in the church garden sing a dreary song. The sun is ashamed to look upon the fresh graves because, when she warms such a grave with their contents, a choked cry rises from the innocently tortured victim who curses the world curses the sun for having shone on the enemy…Then, the shamed sun hides and a thick, damp fog settles over the city like a great shawl of mourning and the city appears then to be sitting shive at the foot of the green mountain… There is no light in Grayevo! So the dark souled creatures crawl from their holes, sniffing; Is everything done? Have we somewhere overlooked someone? Jews and, not finding any, they seek everywhere until….they came to the Bogushe camp….
That which I am about to tell, happened a month after the emptying of the camp in Bogushe, when, on the soil of Grayevo and its environs, there rested not one Jewish foot.
Some of the Polish hoodlums from among the Grayevo's rich store of the underworld went to visit the Bogushe camp. The barracks were empty, partially dismantled by the peasants
[English page II]
for firewood. The hoodlums searched and rummaged. Perhaps they were seeking buried Jewish gold that legendary Jewish treasure which every Jew must have. Suddenly, they struck on something soft or hard. Who knows? But it was suspicious. They quickly began digging at the earth under their feet and were stunned at what they found. Before their eyes, they opened a grave a ditch in which two living corpses lay…The clothes on the two had already rotted away. Only the boots remained whole. One can only guess how these two Jews managed to hide during the liquidation and how they managed to stay alive in the ditch for an entire month. When the treasure hunting hoodlums saw that the two Jews were still alive, their beastly patriotic blood was inflamed. They dragged the two from the ditch, ordered them to remove their boots and to embrace each other so that one bullet penetrated both skulls. The two Jews were: Velvl Videnski and his young wife! (Eyewitness account of the Polish worker, Yankolsky).
Now Grayevo Judenrein can sleep peacefully. No more Jews in Grayevo….
The earth of Grayevo shall not rest for a long, long time. Long very long shall sleep be taken from the eyes of those in Grayevo who helped in the great crime. The pain of the murdered women and children, fathers and sons, shall long disturb their rest. Mortal fear shall grip them by night and black melancholy shall torture them by day for the awful deeds that they have done. The curse which our martyrs cast in the final moments of their being shall pursue them eternally to the end of their days….
Then, the blood of martyrs shall be quieted…
Note: The English spelling of many of the family names contained herein have been approximated by the translators. H.H. M.S.
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