the tree in the forest:
Where now is
turned its head.
I woke fields
They, in the sun,
Among black-green mountains
In his eyes:
I asked of him: Tell me,
|(From the Yiddish Chaim Chamiel)|
Chaim Chamiel, Jerusalem
The enemy was arrogant and ended all that was dear,
Ruined, destroyed, shattered and slaughtered.
Cities became ruinous heaps,
And the Jewish Diasporas were filled with those who were hung
Oh, dear daughters! For years upon years,
And what did you whisper, heroines, when you died,
Send lightning and thunder! Empty on him the refuse of wrath!
Stop the maw of horror with gaping slander,
To joy, to scorn, to the blood that pours
Revenge God of Vengeance ridiculed groans,
The voice of the blood that shouts, let us recount the heroism;
The heroes of Warsaw and Krakow and all the places
To sanctify the name of your nation, they were stronger than lions,
They subdued abhorrent monsters with their spirit.
Blood stirred, corpses quivered,
Beat the head of the viper with a hammer,
Strike him greatly, grind his bones.
Avenge the innocent lass, thrown on the butcher's block,
The lass was hurled, skull smashed,
Fiery and terrifying
He fled with Mesilat Yesharim [Path of the Just] in his hand,
When the man-eaters went wild on the Night of Atonement;
They came to a small, adamant congregation,
Who entreated You: Because You are All-Forgiving and the Master of Mercy!
They shed tears, knocked on Your gates,
Raised their eyes to heaven, implored You;
Begged for their lives, trembling, fearful,
Because they saw that their arm would not save them,
Their eyes were lit with a mighty flame,
And their hearts and souls sang to the Living God
Machines of hell were sent, the fire of annihilation,
And they gave up their souls in holiness and purity.
Torah parchments were uncovered and burned,
Groan from Your heights, God, like a woman giving birth,
Fill them with dread and they will shudder, curse them, because You are the Lord;
Yehuda Chamiel, Tel Aviv
a. The Holocaust Draws Near
On the evening of 31 August 1939, a lively discussion took place in the nest of the HaShomer HaDati organization about the international situation. As one, we all felt that war was about to break out.
Rumors followed rumors. It was said that the Germans had invaded a few places in Poland and were repulsed. Members of the nest competed among themselves in spreading rumors. Apparently, the hysterical stories about wars in Poland encouraged them to believe that the Poles, supported by the British and the French, would beat the Germans in a few days. And that is the reason that they were building the dam on the River Narew in Ostrolenka, to stop the German invasion of our city by flooding the vicinity with water.
We decided to close the organization's house earlier than usual, because a restless anxiety prevailed everywhere and we did not know what the day would bring.
I closed the hall. The key squeaked in the keyhole. More than usual, we heard the sounds of our footsteps moving away, and they echo in my ears to this day. This evening, I felt, something special was happening which would determine our fate. The place where we had woven most of our dreams was becoming more and more distant with each step. The street lay in surprising darkness before us, as it was already forbidden to use lights in the evenings. It was hard to recognize those passing by.
Here is Mlynarska Street, where I played in my childhood. The street has shrunken in the darkness. Only the clatter of the machines in the flour mill can be heard. Before me is the electric station; the noise of its machines can be heard at a distance at night.
When I got home, I found Father, Mother, my brother, my sisters and neighbors sitting and talking about the war that would begin any moment. Father was very nervous. When he saw me, he fixed his eyes on me and asked: Nu, what? What are they saying in the street? Before I could answer him, we heard someone's voice, calling my father. This was a Gentile who came to call my father (Father had been appointed in-charge of the blackout of our street, called Kilinskiego) to check the blackout of the street. After my father went down, everyone became silent. Some left, leaving behind a heavy groan. Others stayed and sipped tea that Mother served them.
The war broke out on 1 September 1939. I was 17 then. When I woke up in the morning, I saw airplanes in the sky, leaving tails of white smoke behind them. They flew very high, until the sound of their engines could not be heard. The Poles came out of their homes and shouted: Ours! Ours!, but the opposite was true. These were German airplanes, which bombed Warsaw and Polish army lines.
On the same day, a family from Myszyniec came to us, in all their poverty. They settled themselves in any available place they could find in our home. For the children, this was joyous. They got organized immediately and went out to play a war game.
On this Sabbath Eve, we did not go to the synagogue to pray. We all stayed in our homes, gripped by fear. Father said kiddush [sanctifying the Sabbath or a holiday by reciting a blessing over wine] in a broken, trembling voice. The zmirot [Sabbath and holiday songs] had always beautified the table and delighted their listeners, until the people of the city stood outside the windows and listened. This time, it was as if they were swallowed up into space, without exciting the extra soul [granted the Sabbath observer].
On the second day of the war, on Sabbath morning, a rumor spread in the city that the Germans were approaching and were about to bomb the city. Great panic gripped the city's inhabitants. Anyone who had a means of transportation grabbed whatever he could, loaded it up and left, to wander on ways from which many never returned home.
We, too, got a wagon, loaded it with whatever we could, and left. Where are we going? I asked my father. With the flow! was the answer. Mother and the little ones sat in the wagon, and my father and I walked after it, because there was no more room in it.
Along the way, I looked around and saw that everyone was moving: some riding and some walking, with knapsacks on their shoulders. It was hard to recognize the balabatim. Just yesterday, everyone had hung on their words, and now they were walking, helpless, frightened and angry, unable to save even a tenth of their property and honor. Here was Mosze- Natan, the Rebbe of the Chevra Torah, a tall, respectable man, whose white beard reached his sash, his stick in his hand and his prayer shawl under his arm, walking alone and not glancing toward either side, as if afraid of his shadow. I remember him, when he sat at Chevra Torah between afternoon and evening prayers and taught a lesson in Mishnayot in a singsong voice to the city's balabatim. I remember his Kol Nidrei prayer, where every word excited and awoke awe, his face suffused with the radiance of an angel. Now the man was silent; apparently, he had dealings with the Lord of the Universe.
The journey lasted for kilometers. Hundreds of wagons, on each, a family and its tragedy. Children cried. Angry mothers screamed. Night came. Everyone was tired. The little ones fell asleep in their mothers' bosoms, and only the creaking of the wheels on the road could be heard. The city was already behind us. We left behind homes, schools, synagogues, clubhouses, as well as the cemetery, where our relatives and dear friends rested. I shuddered when I thought of this, but I was silent. I was in another world, in which no one had a share, a world of questions and answers. Suddenly, I felt the urge to cry, to hug my father, whose face was so gloomy. He sensed my emotion and asked me: Are you hungry? No, I answered. He did not go on asking, and could not continue because he had to choke out his words. I looked at him and asked, And if I will be hungry, what will I eat? He groaned and said, God takes care of all his creatures, and will also take care of us.
At midnight, we, the townspeople, arrived in Czerwin, a small town on the way to Ostrow- Mazowieck. We spread out all over the town like gypsies, and found places to shelter from the night's cold. Tired, we slept on our bundles in an attic in the home of acquaintances, whom we found by chance.
In the morning, we awoke exhausted and frightened. Now I began to feel the taste of war. No home! No bed! No shelter! People ran around the town, looking for a loaf of bread, which was hard to find. When we found bread, we ate it with appetite, as if it were a delicacy.
Father went to the city and told us to wait for him! Later, he came back with a wagon, loaded some belongings and household goods on it, and sent my mother, my brother and my sisters to the town of Sziadowa, where members of our family lived. I stayed with my father. Together with the Rabbi of our city and his family, we got on another wagon with our belongings and went to Ostrow-Mazowieck.
The Rabbi's face was worried. He talked about the war with my father. I heard him mention the War of Gog and Magog, We do not have the power to determine the order of the world, and if it allows corruption, it will know no bounds! said the Rabbi. Surely, the redemption will come, but who will attain it? he ended with a question.
The wagon traveled slowly. For a moment, my eyes explored fields not yet harvested. Unlike nature's usual way this month, the summer sun warmed us and imbued me with a happy feeling. Suddenly, I felt a kind of certainty in my heart that all this would pass, that it was nothing more than a passing nightmare I wanted to tell my father this, but I did not, out of respect for the Rabbi, as I thought my words would seem foolish in his eyes. The Rabbi's daughter began a conversation with me, and we discussed different subjects, as if we were only on a trip. I did not even realize that we had entered the gates of the city of Ostrow. We went directly to the Rabbi of Ostrow, who referred us to one of the city's balabatim, an ironware merchant named Wissotzky. We settled in at his home. I will never forget this man's kindheartedness. To this day, in my eyes, he is an exemplar of a good-hearted man.
We stayed in the city for a few days and waited for the outcome. We wanted to know how things would turn out, so that we could go home. Unfortunately, the situation worsened, and there was no sense in staying in Ostrow, while my mother and the rest of my family were in Sziadowa. We decided to join Mother. On 5 September 1939, we left Ostrow in a carriage. With us rode a Polish woman, who was petrified to the point of shock. We heard about the German's heavy bombing of
Lomza from her. Many of its townspeople had departed, bereft of everything. Those who had not managed to flee were buried under the collapsed houses. She cried bitterly and said continually, We are lost! We are lost! In a bad frame of mind, we reached Sziadowa. From the distance, we heard heavy bombing: the Germans were bombing railway cars full of ammunition. The family was glad to see us. This time, we decided to remain together to the end.
But fate decreed otherwise. After a few days of heavy bombing, the Germans approached the city. When I heard this, I decided to flee in the direction of Bialystok, from there to the Romanian border and from there to Israel.
I parted from my parents with a heavy heart. This was the first time I had ever done so. I suddenly felt that I had to escape. I equipped myself with a knapsack and a water canteen. I took a few shirts and at daybreak, I left, together with my cousins Szlomo, Szymon and Mendel Zyman.
In order to hide from the Germans, we went through the Czerwoni-Bor Forest. In the forest, we met many escaping soldiers. We saw corpses of people and horses lying everywhere, and heard the croaking of the ravens swooping down over our heads.
In the afternoon, we reached the village of Puchala. We stayed with a farmer woman, who was alone in her house because her husband had been drafted into the army. She was glad to put us up for the night. She cooked potatoes with onions for us. She knew that we were Jews and, therefore, did not serve us pork.
Suddenly, heavy firing on the village began. The farmer woman crossed herself and remained standing near the stove to cook and prepare the food, saying that we, the Jews, were her guarantee that nothing bad would happen to her. After a shell came through the door, passed over our heads and went out the window, she crossed herself again and kneeled before us, saying that now she was convinced that we were angels sent to save her. When we got up to go, she begged us to stay one more night, but according to our calculations, we had to run from there, because if we didn't, who knew what could happen that night. We promised her that nothing bad would happen to her and left, but got stuck at the other end of the village. The farmers advised us not to leave, because the Germans were attacking in the vicinity.
A goodhearted farmer let us in to his granary. We stayed there that night, during which the thunder of the bombing and shelling of the area did not stop. In the morning, we learned that the nearby village of Gac was shelled during the night and that many people were injured or killed, among them Jews who had fled Lomza because of the bombing.
In the morning, we decided to go to the village of Gac to see what had happened there, and to look for a way of escape. When we got there, we saw a village full of wounded and dejected people wandering around like ghosts, not knowing what to do.
When they saw that we were new, they asked us for a slice of bread, because it was hard to find bread in the village. We, who had taken only a little bread from Puchala with us, could not fulfill their demand. Suddenly, among the refugees, we discovered our cousin from Lomza, Szymon Chmiel, with his wife and two sons. They were very hungry. We could not bear their words We are hungry, and when we gave them part of our meager bread, their eyes lit up. I will never forget their shining eyes. Not even one crumb went to waste. When a crumb fell on the floor, it was immediately picked up and eaten.
Meanwhile, a rumor went around that the Germans were surrounding the area and preparing to enter the village at first light. With no other way out, we decided to return to Sziadowa.
We finished eating our last slice of bread and left by the road leading to Lomza. The morning had brought a beautiful summer day. All around was absolute silence.
We walked as though nothing in the world had happened, as though we were there just by chance. We even began telling each other jokes. Suddenly, as if sprouting from the ground, some German soldiers popped up, surrounding us on all sides. They shouted, and we raised our hands above our heads. They searched our gear and when they did not find anything, they ordered us to stand with our hands up, until they got far away. They also ordered us not to go into the forest, but to continue on the road. We thought the danger had passed, and that it was not so terrible with the Germans. Indeed, they had treated us well enough.
After half an hour of walking on the road, we met Germans again. They asked immediately whether we were Jews, and when we answered Yes!, one of them
looked at me and said, What a shame! You don't look like a Jew, because they are dark and you are blond. I did not answer. They searched our clothes and took our money, saying that they were taking us to headquarters, because they suspected us of firing on the German Army. We were brought into a Polish farmer's courtyard, where we found many Jews and Polish soldiers, surrounded by German soldiers. After a thorough investigation, we were cleared of the suspicion of taking part in the shooting at Germans. We were lined up in rows and ordered to go to Lomza.
When we asked what they wanted of us, we were told that they were taking us to Lomza to clean the city's streets, and that we would get money and bread there. As soon as we reached the road, the Germans began to abuse us. We were about five hundred people. To make us walk faster, they pushed us and beat us with their rifle butts. All the way, they goaded us with shouts: Polish pigs! Jewish scum! Right! Left! Fast! Fast! Cursed dogs! Until we got to Lomza, the German soldiers marching on the road sang German songs and mocked us. I felt that things were not right that there would be no work, no money and no bread waiting for us. I remembered the Germans' concentration camps. I became heartsick and quietly told my cousin that I suspected that they would take us to a concentration camp.
I stopped talking when a German approached me and yelled, Shut up, dog, pig! I evaded him, and went on like a good boy. There was no time to think. One had to keep body and soul together. I waited for the moment when we would reach Lomza, when we would escape. But when we arrived and I saw Lomza, burned and plundered, and the German forces surrounding us, my hope of escape was disappointed.
In Lomza, we were put into a German church. They promised to give us food and, indeed, people from the German Red Cross arrived. We stood on line and they began distributing slices of bread to us. We also saw that they were photographing us. When the photographers went away, so did those who distributed bread, and we remained hungry. They began beating us, saying that there was no bread for Jews. We retreated then, and sat on the ground. A few fell asleep for the moment; others looked confused and terror-stricken.
I, too, dozed off. Suddenly, I felt a push. I opened my eyes and saw my cousin pointing toward the door: Look, Jehuda, new ones are coming. And indeed, I saw many Jews and Poles being led toward us. Old Jews, in their sixties and seventies, dragging their feet, breathing heavily. Among the Jews who had arrived, I found my father and my Uncle Icchak. My whole body trembled and sweat covered me. They caught you, too, Father? I screamed and burst out crying. Yes, my son! my father replied. They are taking us for work. They said just for two hours and, meanwhile, they brought us here. My father hugged me and said, It's a good thing I found you. God wanted me to find you. They said that they had killed you and all the others. We were already mourning for you. Thank God, you are still alive. Now I hope that God will not leave us, and that we will yet go home. I calmed down a bit, as I was with my father. Courage returned to me, and I felt that I had to look after my father now.
Candles were lit in the German church where they put us, illuminating the face of Jesus there on the platform, looking at us. Here, I thought, stands the image of the man, before his brothers from whom he had parted and from whom he was descended. In his name, we had been abused for centuries and centuries, our blood spilt like water.
Consuming the ruins of Lomza, bonfires illuminated the darkness of the night and penetrated the church windows. The Germans ordered us to sleep and I fell asleep immediately on my father's knees. I suddenly woke in alarm, hearing shots that the Germans fired at the walls of the church. At first, I thought they were firing at us. After they stopped, however, and began again after about a quarter of an hour, and then stopped again, and then fired again I understood that they were tormenting us, and that they intended to harass us all night and not let us sleep.
At three in the morning, the Germans woke us and ordered us to form rows. As we were tired from moving around during the day and from the long walk, we were slow to carry out the order. Then German soldiers burst in, and began striking all the laggards with their rifle butts. I was pushed outside, together with my father, my uncle and my cousins. In the crowding, many of those who were pushed stumbled and sprawled on their faces on the ground, until a pile of people accumulated. The Germans abused them. Some were killed or wounded.
We somehow managed to get organized and, when we
were finally standing in rows, they ordered us to get moving. I saw Lomza burning. Tongues of flame rose heavenward. Whatever the bombs had not destroyed, the fire finished, with no one to put it out. We walked on shards, on fragments of furniture and household items. The darkness of the night gave the scene the dreadful form of hell. It seemed to me that they were leading us straight into the fire's maw.
The Germans' shouts goaded us to quicken our steps. We crossed the ruined bridge on the way to Piontnica. It was hard to cross. Some fell into the Narew and drowned. Others, who could not cross, stopped. The Germans shot them and they fell into the river.
One old Jew begged the Germans not to shoot him, because he did not have the strength to cross, but the Germans shot him immediately and he fell. There was no opportunity to cry and to resist. We were busy.
Fast! Right-left! scream the Germans. In the face of all this, despair beset me. I raised my eyes to the heavens and shouted, My God! My God! Save us!, but the stars looked at me indifferently. Nevertheless, I recovered for a moment, because it suddenly seemed to me that I heard a voice saying: Yes, we have seen man's distress and his suffering. We have seen how the Jews are beaten and persecuted for no reason; going into exile for no fault of their own, tortured in the cellars of the Inquisition, dismembered and murdered in pogroms. Yet the Jewish People has not been destroyed. It continues to exist and hope. Therefore, be strong, young man, be strong and of good courage! Suddenly, I heard Father's voice whisper to me: You must hold on. We must live. The words of my father, enforcing the voices that echoed in my head, reduced my fear of the future and of the night to some extent. Yes, Father, I answered, I will try!
So the Jews of Ostrolenka and its vicinity went on ceaselessly, dumbfounded, bent and frightened but to where? No one knew. When we reached the stream near Kolno, we rested a bit. We were hungry. We had not eaten for two days. We were thirsty. Many stormed the stream and drank from it, but the Germans did not let them be. They shot at those who drank, and there were casualties again.
While we rested, I began digging in the earth perhaps I would find something to eat. Indeed, I found potatoes, carrots and beets, and we ate them uncooked.
After a quarter of an hour's rest, the Germans began to make us run, while behind us soldiers rode on motorcycles. We had to hurry and run, so as not to be run over. This was a terrible and shocking spectacle. Only the will to live, to survive and see the downfall of the Germans strengthened us to hold on in this situation. We approached the gates of Kolno at a rapid pace. When we entered the city, German soldiers stood on both sides and made sure that no one escaped from the line. They shouted at us in derision: Cursed Jews! Polish pigs! Chamberlains, we will show you how to fight us. We will suck your blood from your bodies. We will shatter your heads with paving stones!
I believed them. But the inhabitants of the city did not. Spontaneously, they came out into the street and began throwing bread, apples and anything else they had at us. I succeeded in catching many apples and bread. I was young and agile then, and could do what the adults could not. We divided the food among family members and other acquaintances.
I remember a Catholic priest, who pushed himself into the rows of captives and distributed bread and fruit among them, without discriminating between religions or races. When the Poles complained that he was also giving food to Jews, he answered that all were the children of God.
After a time, we heard that the Germans had tortured and executed him. Like him, many Jews who could not withstand the hardships of the road were killed.
At 5:30, after an exhausting fourteen-hour walk, we arrived at the Prussian border. In one village, we saw that the Polish Army had invaded it on the first day of the war and had burned part of it. The Germans, however, boasted that they let them in intentionally, and that they had destroyed them to the last man with their machine gun fire.
In the same village, the name of which I have forgotten, they let us rest for about a quarter of an hour. We got only water to drink. Then they pushed us, like animals, into freight cars and closed the doors on us with curses and blows. Poles and Jews were together in the cars.
Inside the car, the Poles demanded that the Jews give them their tobacco; thanks to decent Poles with common sense, a mini-pogrom was prevented in the car. They maintained that we were brothers-in-trouble together and, therefore, we had to be united. A few, who
were very worn out, fell asleep on the floor immediately, while others stood for lack of space, changing over from time to time, in order to rest. I could not fall asleep. Only one question gnawed at my mind: Where were they taking us? From time to time, groans broke from anguished hearts. Everyone tried to delude himself that they were taking us to Germany to work, and that we would stay there until the war ended.
Suddenly, the train stopped and the doors opened.
Out! we heard the screams of the Germans. Fast! Fast! The sign at the station told us that we were in Rastenburg. We began to jump out of the cars. Here, the Gestapo, in all its glory, awaited us, as well as German youths who clapped their hands and shouted Heil, Hitler! several times. Here is the defeated Polish Army! I laughed to myself, I, who have not yet seen sixteen springs, am being exhibited as a soldier in the Polish Army. This is what Hitler, may his name be eradicated, wanted to consider civilian captives as soldiers, in order to boast before his people.
The lights of the city of Rastenburg winked at me, encouraging me to leave everything and enter the city, as if this was the city of Ostrolenka and I was now returning home with my father. But the Germans' shouts dispelled my illusions. I was on German soil, given over to the benevolence of these cursed Germans. The German youths began to sing: Wenn das Yuden blut fun das messer shpritzt (When Jewish blood drips from the knife). My father began to weep. Alas for us! What have we come to! he sobbed, while I looked at these youths, as though from childish innocence and curiosity alone.
Marching in rows, we passed through the city, while on both sides of the streets, crowds of Germans stood, cheering the German Army, until we reached the German Army camp. This was a tall building of a few stories, with halls and rooms for the Army. It was one o'clock at night. Each of us received a piece of bread and some drinking water. Although I could not believe that I had truly been given bread, we were so exhausted that we could not eat, and so we laid down on the stone floor and fell asleep.
At five o'clock in the morning, they woke us. Once again, we were ordered to form rows. We stood in the courtyard for a few hours, exposed to the blows and spiteful actions of the Gestapo. But between blows and shouts, we got slices of bread again, and were warned that this slice would have to last us all day. Among us were Jews with earlocks and kapotas, as well as yeshiva students, who immediately began to derive a kal vachomer [all the more so]. They saw the Finger of God in it for if they [the Germans] warned us, this was a clear sign that they also cared about us.
When we were all standing in rows to the Germans' satisfaction, we moved at their order to the city's streets. We were warned to maintain a uniform pace, so as not to lag behind thus not awakening the enemy's wrath. I looked around me. I saw a pleasant and clean town. The stores were nearly empty of merchandise. I saw signs hanging near the entrances to kindergartens, and on them was written: Entry is forbidden to the Jews to the third generation. People standing in the streets ridiculed us. Again, we arrived at the railway station and they pushed us into the cars. The doors closed on us, and we were squeezed and crowded in, without air to breathe. We traveled all day and all night. People who could not control themselves relieved themselves, and the stench, the crowding and the horror caused many to faint. A few sat and talked about the past. Others wanted to die, rather than continue living like this, but the most painful question was: Where are they taking us? Thirst plagued us.
At five o'clock in the morning, the train stopped. We heard chains clank and the doors opened, revealing faint morning light. Through a thin fog, we saw a small railway station. I did not see its name. A large army camp sprawled near the station. Once again, we were arranged in rows and moved without asking. We crossed a bridge. Above it was a statue of a soldier, throwing a hand grenade. A few German soldiers standing near it screamed Kike! Kike! We moved away from the main road and entered a thicket of dense, tangled bushes. The thought crossed my mind: Perhaps they want to kill us here I expressed this thought aloud. My father tried to silence me, and asked me to wait patiently, but I calmed down only after we came out into an expanse of plowed fields. Noisy tractors plowed the land. A machinist, who sat on a tractor near us, ridiculed us. He had a fat, coarse face, with a potbelly, like a barrel filled with a lot of garbage. We did not pay any attention to him, and walked until we reached a gate on which was the sign Stalag 2, and near it the notation To Königsberg.
Beyond the gate, we saw many captives, Jews and
Poles, citizens and army personnel, who had arrived before us. They sat on the muddy ground, uncaring.
Yes! We were brought to camp Stalag 2 and given food. Incredibly a whole smoked fish, white bread, margarine and black coffee, prepared from beans.
This was cunning on the part of the Germans. The hungry Jews and Poles fell on the food and, after gorging themselves for three days, many of them died. Only the cautious hung on. The Germans promised to put up tents and houses where we would live. They also promised work, they promised the earth, but they did not keep any of their promises. Meanwhile, we slept outside, given up to the heavens' good graces. At night, I hugged my father and he me, and thus we slept until the morning light.
The Germans exacerbated relations between the Jews and the Poles in the camp. Intentionally, they gave food to the Jews first, and the Poles had to wait their turn. The hungry Poles could not stand this, and attacked the Jews while they were getting their food, so that a great struggle took place between us and them.
We did not give in. We defended ourselves with a tight front, leaving no breach in the center. The Ostrolenkans in the camp consolidated around my father and always guarded each other. My father would comfort one of the Benedon sons, who often felt total despair.
I will never forget the third night in the camp. As always, I fell asleep, my father and I hugging each other. Suddenly, I felt something strike my face. I awoke and was amazed: a strong rain was pouring down. There was nowhere to hide. We began to get wet. All the Jews gathered, clinging close together, thereby warming each other. The rain did not stop. We began to shout, but our voices were answered only by the thunder. The rain, lightning and thunder blended into our shouts, and it seemed as if the earth shook beneath us.
A voice passed through the camp: Jews, rebel! As one, we all ran in the direction of the fence. When they saw us breaking out, the German guards aimed their machine guns at us and fired into the air. We retreated. We began to search in the dark for something to give us cover. And then we discovered that the Germans had brought boards. The Poles attacked us and wanted to steal the boards from us. A bitter fight took place in the darkness of the night. Teeth stuck into strange bodies, biting and fighting. A war of despair brought useless sacrifices on both sides.
Finally, dawn came. We were dirty and soaked to the bone. We came out of our hiding place. I began to look for my cousin, who had gone astray during the night's confusion. Mockingly, the Germans asked after our health, and how we had passed the night. Our answer was silence.
With the morning, I saw black bitterness on every face. Everyone sought refuge and counsel. During the day, about sixteen Jews died.
We could glimpse their graves over the fence. Their number increased from day to day, oppressing us more and more all the time. Each of us thought about the end, when his turn would come to die. My father, looking at those fresh graves, burst into tears. He hugged me, sobbing, No, my son! No, my son! You will not die! You will yet succeed in reaching the Land of Israel, you will succeed in fulfilling your life's dream. Do not believe the Gentiles. Only with your strength, only you, the young, will overcome and build. Do not leave your land. Try with all your might to live in it. Yes, Father! I answered. I promise you that if I succeed, I will know what to do, I continued.
Meanwhile, the situation got worse daily. Amid all these troubles, Rosh HaShana arrived. Without holiday or regular prayer books, we recited the prayers and supplications by heart.
Yom Kippur came and, as if in its honor, the Germans put up tents for us to live in. We conducted our prayers without the Germans and Poles bothering us.
It is difficult to describe praying in that camp. Jews, bent and broken, eyes full of puzzlement, stood silently or murmured something in a whisper. When the cantor began Light is sown for the righteous, everyone burst out with a great and terrible broken cry. They fell to the ground and banged their heads against it. My heart became petrified. I could not cry. I stood silently. Like a rebel, I looked at the faces of my father and my family, asking myself: Why, in fact, are we suffering? Why should we ask? Is it easy for Him, for God, to humiliate us completely, so that we will come to him, and ask and supplicate? No!, I said. Not one word! If God wants my prayers, then only silence can express them!
I was silent during all the prayers, while my eyes penetrated a great abyss and, at the same time,
wondered at the way a man must travel. And here was a shocking spectacle: A Jew raised his twelve year old child, also brought here as a captive, and kissed his face and head. He then raised him again and screamed:
God, in the merit of the little children, who have not yet sinned, have mercy on us and save us. Return us to our homes, to the bosom of our families. I began to cry. We all prostrated ourselves on the ground and tore our clothes in mourning for the martyrs who had fallen just a moment before, as well those who had died during prayers. We remained lying down, without strength to get up, and cried bitterly.
Meanwhile, the Germans decreased our food rations, until we reached a state of actual starvation. They also stopped giving us drinking water. Many Jews, who could not stand the trial of thirst, drank the filthy water coming out of the Germans' bathhouse. They were infected with typhus and died.
Lice and all the many other troublesome misfortunes stuck to us. Our suffering grew. It was not unusual to see Jews and Poles standing and delousing themselves whenever they were not working.
One day, I stood and looked over the fence, and saw Jews forming rows. I knew that it was not time for food distribution. I went over and asked them what had happened and where they were going. I learned from them that the Germans had ordered them to get into rows, because they were about to release those who were over fifty years of age or under eighteen. I ran quickly to my father and cousins, and told them about the rumor I had heard. We went to line up immediately. I also discovered that the Poles were forming rows. I had not yet turned around and gotten into a row, when the Poles attacked us. They began to hit us and take our clothes, and anything else they could. Suddenly, I saw some Poles attack a Jew from among my townspeople (who, by the way, is now in Israel, but whose name I do not remember). They stole a gold watch that he kept in his pocket from him. I ran to his aid and began to resist the thieves. When the thieves saw this, they left off the Jew and attacked me. They especially beset my boots. I struggled with them, I bit their ears, but they struck my head with a log until I fell and lost consciousness. When I woke up, I saw my cousin standing near me, shouting,
Come, Jehuda, your father is looking for you. I went over to my father, walking barefoot.
When he saw me, he broke into bitter tears, and screamed, What did they do to you? We both wept, as this was all that remained for us to do. My father wanted to tear up his coat and make it into bandages for my feet, so that I would not catch cold. I did not let him. I laughed and said to him, It's nothing, Father. I will find rags and fix myself up. We still have time to tear the coat. And that is what happened. I somehow got out whole, while others were simply stripped naked and remained, some in their underwear and some only in shirts.
Despair hit us very hard then. All that was left to us was to pray and to cry.
Two days after the Poles' pogrom in the camp, we were fortunate enough to see something that we had not believed possible. When we got our regular supper, we saw many German officers looking at us, to our great amazement. As usual, the Poles stood in a separate line and waited until food was distributed to the Jews. Encouraged by the pogroms of the day before yesterday, and seeing that they were not punished, they thought it right to show the German officers their hatred of the Jews. They attacked us, in order to steal the food we were given. At that moment, the Germans attacked the Poles with drawn swords, striking left and right, and shouting: Polish pigs, how dare you beset your Polish citizens? What kind of a State are you at all, that you live only by robbery and murder?! Meanwhile, German civilians photographed every step of the battle and the chaos. The Jews were not touched. Later, their intention became clear to us. They wanted thus to show the democratic world, who it was protecting in its war against Germany.
On that day, which cost them losses of some killed and wounded, the Poles began to understand who their real enemy was. Since then, friendly relations prevailed between us, and only our common problem freedom rested in our hearts.
Meanwhile, rumors spread that they were about to release us, but this was hard to believe. The rumors, in and of themselves, strengthened and encouraged us. Unfortunately, days passed and with them, victims increased, dying of exhaustion. Stealing bread from each other was a kind of sport, but for those who were starving, the danger of death was an expectation of this
sport. In the middle of the night, we woke to a victim's shouts: Where is my bread? We did not have enough strength to get up, and fell asleep again. The Ostrolenkans guarded each other and, in this way, prevented great troubles.
One day, the Germans announced that anyone from
such and such towns should form rows, because they were about to be sent home. Although Ostrolenka was not on the list of towns, Lomza was, so we got into the row of Lomzans. The most important thing, we thought, is to get out of here! Freedom! Home!
Again, we were put into cattle cars. The doubt still rested in our hearts: perhaps they were transferring us to camps again. Yet the feeling that we were leaving this terrible place satisfied us and we placed our fate in God's hands.
After traveling for 44 hours, the train arrived at the Ostrolenka station. We were tired and hungry. They opened the doors for us, and when we saw that we had really reached our city, we were revitalized. Ordered to stand in rows, we entered the city by the bridge, which was sunken in the water. We passed 3rd
May Square, while Jews, Poles and the German Army stood on both sides. A military band played and we were ordered to walk straight and laugh. Suddenly, I saw my mother and my aunts, as well as my younger brother. They were calling: Efraim! Jehuda! Father! Come! Get out of the row and slip away, for they are leading you to the Russian border. From there you will be transferred to Lomza and they will deliver you to the Russians! Then we understood that Poland was divided in two, and that we must get to the Russian side.
When we passed near the municipal park and the prison, I told my father that it might be worth trying to ask the Germans to leave us in the city. My father told me to try. I spoke to the German sentry and he agreed, on condition that we go straight and not by way of the fields, or they would kill us.
My Uncle Icchak and my cousins got into town easily, but they did not want to let my father in and told him to go back. Therefore, I did not go in either, and we went on a bit further. Suddenly, my Aunt Gitel, of blessed memory, appeared with my sister. They brought tea, bread and cakes. We ate some and entered the city together by way of the fields.
It was hard to believe and get used to the idea that the Germans controlled the city. Jews were taken out to the streets to sweep and clean them. Jews were brought to the jails to clean the toilets in them with bare hands. A broom was put in their hands, they were led to the streets and ordered to sing HaTikva. Ostrolenka's Jews, gripped by fear, tried to hide and stay in their homes. At night, I woke up and saw fire rising from the synagogue. We were afraid to go out. Once again, I didn't care about anything. I wanted to sleep like a human being at least one night. In the morning, we discovered that the Germans had poured gasoline on the walls of the synagogue and had burned the beautiful pictures that adorned it.
On Simchat Torah, the German regime issued an order, that the Jews must leave the city within three to four hours. Whoever would remain would die.
We didn't care. We wanted to get quit of them, and did care about property. The main thing was that we would no longer see the monstrous faces of the Nazi murderers.
We left the city. I will never forget the words of the Deputy Mayor of Ostrolenka to my father, when he came to the road to say goodbye to him. He cried, and this is what he said: Now, Panie [Mr.] Chmiel, I see that we have lost the war and Poland.
The horses lowered their heads, as if they, too, were pondering the downfall of Poland. The whip lashed their backs and Ostrolenka, a city that is a mother in Israel, was behind us.
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