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[Pages 505-511]

In the Ghetto and in the Forest

by Iser Last

Translated by Sharon Lynn Klein

 

Beginning in 1940 an order was sent by the SS to the Lukow Judenrat that all Jews aged 16 to 60 had to report for forced labor. If not, they would be shot along with their families.

The Judenrat appealed to the Jewish population, which along with the crowds from neighboring places now numbered 28,000 people, regarding the consequences of the German order not to flee.

 

One day came an order that all Jews should be at the market square at 6am. The order was carried out with the help of the Jewish Police. At 9am armed SS appeared in the market. All professionals – carpenters, locksmiths, etc – were ordered to separate. We were divided into two groups and put into two camps.

I traveled with others in overcrowded railway cars to Miedzyrzec and from there to Rogoźnica, 7 kilometers from Miedzyrzec. We were put in cattle stalls. The area was a German stronghold.

The next morning a fat German gave a speech to the crowds in which he explained that he had worked for 5 years in a Jewish concentration camp in Germany. If we do not perform the required work or someone tries to escape, then every last person will be shot.

The next day, the SS appointed as our leader Tsukerman, son of Nachem Tsukerman the deceased iron merchant. They divided us into two groups. We had to work from 6:30 until noon time and from 1:00 to 7:30 in the evening. We worked on a channel to connect the Bug with the Visla. Some of this work had already been done by Polish criminals. While working, we were guarded by Nazis and young SS with machine guns. Small deviations from the work, even scratching one's shoulder, could get someone shot. Those who were shot were Akiva the butcher's son, Leibel grandson of Tentser, and Yosef Becker, son of Kon the butcher shop owner.

The majority of the workers in the camp were from around Lukow. My brother Leybl and I, along with our children, were assigned to work with the Polish engineers so, therefore, we found ourselves not in camp but at another work location. We mainly worked with tools. Each day they took 30 Jews to work. Many times, when the group would arrive at work, the leader Tsukerman would quietly say to me, “Iser, we have 10 who are sick” or “We have in the group 5 devout Jews and a Hasidic rabbi.” Whenever we had the chance we would try to make their work easier because resting was not an option. And so we kept watch over them.

The camp was liquidated during the winter of 1941. The Germans have probably worked out a plan to finish off the Jews. After the liquidation of the camp, I returned to my home in Zalesie.

The number of Jews was increasing and the Germans issued orders for them to work. Every gentile in the village had the right to request Jewish workers from the labor office. From other Polish cities and towns came 42 Jewish boys and girls. I found out from the gentiles I know that they may legally employ these boys and girls. This was the situation until Pesach 1942.

On the morning after Pesach, we heard that Ryki was “Judenrein” – that all of the Jews were gone. They were sent to Treblinka but at that time we did not know about Treblinka and other death camps.

Kopel the baker paid a Lukow train worker to find out where the Jews of Ryki were taken a few days earlier. The train worker said that the Jews were taken to a death camp. Thus we discovered that the Jews of various cities and towns were not carried “off to work” as reported in the Minsk newspaper and as we had earlier believed but, were in fact, sent to Treblinka and other death camps.

The Jews of Lukow had been lucky, more or less. The Jews celebrated the Simchat Torah even though they had bad premonitions. After 6 nights the destruction squads came to Lukow, a beastly force to wipe out the Jews. An aktion was conducted by a branch of the SS. Next they went to Radzyn but the Gestapo had already removed all of the Jews there. 3 days later they returned to Lukow and surrounded the city. German SS, Ukrainians and Latvians were posted all around the border.

From every direction one could hear the murderers' gunfire, in the houses, in the street. There was terrible chaos. Over a loud speaker it was ordered in Yiddish that all Jews had to report to a designated place. Everyone had to be there by 11am. In the panic of the gunfire, Jews grabbed their children and ran to the designated place. Many were shot because they were not in market square on time.

In the market square the Jews were ordered to lie face down so they could not look their murderers in the eyes. Meanwhile, non-Jews, police, SS, Ukrainians spread throughout the town. They went into houses and searched the floors, walls, ovens. If they found a Jew hiding, they shot them on the spot.

During the night the Jews in the market square were ordered to stand. Older people were led off to the side and shot. Other Jews were taken across the fields and led to the train station which was lit by reflective lamps.

After terrible beatings, the Jews were transported by railway cars to their final destination where they were machine gunned from the roof of the railway cars.

*

Here is the story of my brother-in-law Beniamin Gastman.

In the garden he prepared two bunkers. Gastman, his wife and son, along with several others, hid in one bunker while his daughter hid in the second bunker. He divided the family intentionally so if one bunker was found, someone from the family would survive.

On the day of the aktion, Beniamin left his bunker to see if the second bunker was secure. When he saw that the second bunker had been discovered and his daughter was gone he ran to the train station to see if he could save her. A Lukower Gestapo who was drunk told him that the trains were sent to Germany.

At the train station, Beniamin found many people sitting on the ground near ramps, guarded by SS. He saw his daughter and asked the SS guard if he could take her, to save her. He decided that he would save his daughter from the railway car. Beniamin brought with him a tool used to cut iron. As soon as the train began to move he began cutting 2 openings in the car window. First to come through the opening was his daughter. She was so happy to be alive. He no longer leapt with joy though. He had broken his leg and was wounded by a bullet. As they left, many other young people also made their way out of the railway car.

Beniamin crawled on his stomach to a Polish cabin. A well-known farmer lived there and he let them stay. Early in the morning, the farmer was arrested by the Gestapo. They charged him with operating a school where some Jews worked sorting items that were left after other the Jews surrendered. Among them was Amil Gastman, Beniamin's nephew. When he saw his uncle in the farmer's cart, he gave the farmer all the money that he had in order to save his uncle but the SS soldier shot Beniamin and ordered the farmer to take him to the Jewish cemetery.

Beniamin's wife, my sister Sura, along with her children, including the daughter who jumped from the railway car, remained hidden until the last aktion in May 1943. During the aktion they were discovered in the bunker on Kanalave Street and were taken to the city hall where they were killed with many other Jews.

*

After the first aktion, notice was issued that all who had been hiding in bunkers should come to city hall where they will be “pardoned”. A ghetto will be formed again for all except Jewish workers. Many of the Jews didn't have much energy after being in hiding and lying around but they decided to go the city hall to confirm what was happening. There they saw the person who issues the pardons. 30 Jews were exempted and sent back to the ghetto. When the others who had hidden in the bunkers and other places were captured, they were brought to city hall. Thus 640 Jews were again in the hands of the murderers. Guarded by the SS with no chance to slip away they were taken to where large graves had been dug. Everyone was ordered to undress and then they were shot. Among those killed were my brother and his family.

I told my daughter what had happened. She hid as a Pole in Malcanow, as a Christian girl. The gentiles had seen too many Jews killed and decided it was time to save some. My daughter found a place among these gentiles after telling them what had been happening.

The other survivors in my family managed to escape into the forest. The peasants in the village were told that they would receive 3 kilograms of sugar for each Jew they captured. Many gentiles went into the woods hunting for Jews. They found our shelter in the forest and reported it to the Lukow Gestapo. They were held for several days without food and drink and then they were shot.

Among my family members were 2 daughters and 2 sons, a daughter of my brother, and 3 sons of another brother. On that unfortunate evening I was away searching for food. The next evening when I returned, I immediately realized the tragedy. A Pole had warned me that something terrible had happened. I ran around desperately, not knowing where to go. Meanwhile, I found 2 of my brother's children and together we mourned our loss.

We built a bunker in a field and stayed there until the evening before Purim 1943. Once at night we went to a local Pole to ask for bread. He suggested that we go back to the ghetto because our shelter was located in a field that would be plowed soon and it would be discovered.

On May 2 we went out looking for food and stopped at the old bunker where we still had some clothing. When we climbed down into the bunker we were surprised to see my son Tzvi and my brother's son. We were overwhelmed with joy. We were nevertheless certain that some of the other children had been killed during the aktion at city hall. We heard that they tried to run from the murderers' bullets. I was very proud when my son said, “Father, we will fight with all of our power to survive.”

In 1943, on the evening of Purim, we all (my brother Leybl and his 9 year-old daughter Yosefa, my brother's sons, and my son and I) went back to the Lukow ghetto. There we were reminded of Pesach…they had succeeded in making Lukow “Judenrein”. So we went back to the forest.

It was a constant battle against fear for our lives with the threat of death around every corner.

On July 9, 1944 came unexpected aid. The night before we were going searching for food, we found out that tomorrow we would be liberated. The Russians were all around Lukow and Siedlce, while the Germans were still holding Brisk.

Now liberated, we returned to Lukow but neither the Jews nor the Poles knew what was happening. The city was destroyed. We were fearful that the Germans would return to Lukow so we left the city, following the Russians. We were hiding in a field near Radzyn when we found out that the Germans had finally been driven off. We returned to Lukow and found some Jewish families there.

Our small, ragged group of Jews gathered in the empty house of Gutsze Ryback. The ground was burning beneath our feet…there were Jews buried all around us. After a while we found 2 dead bodies: a son of Joshua Prater and another Jew from Adamow. They were killed just beyond the gate.

After the creation of the Jewish State, many young Jewish people were drafted into the Israeli Army to defend the liberation. My son Tzvi joined the army and was killed in Jerusalem, in the defense of Mount Zion.

 

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