Arcie Nowinski, Argentina
When Hitler, may his name be eradicated, rose to power, the skies darkened over the Jewish people. The corrupt Polish government, instead of repairing its rotten administration, began to imitate Hitler's barbaric measures and adapted to bestial anti-Semitism with the pogrom in Przytyk and other places. The Polish government itself was rife with anti-Semitism, more than enough. The tragic epilogue came in September 1939. When Hitler's army invaded Poland, our city, because of its proximity to the German border, was one of the first cities occupied.
From the first day, the Germans began to implement their satanic program of destruction. They forced the Jews to leave behind everything they had acquired over the years through great effort, and to take up the wanderer's staff. According to news that reached me, most of our townspeople were brought to the city of Slonim, where they were forced to dig pits graves for themselves. They murdered them cruelly. The entire family of the writer of these lines was thus destroyed.
At the crematoria of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek, as well, Ostrolenkans had a respectable share. Here is the authentic testimony of a relative of ours from Lomza, who was saved after the terrible death march. He related that on 10 January 1942, 5,000 Jews were brought to Auschwitz, among them many from Ostrolenka. There he saw my wife's parents and her two sisters, Chajka and Rejzel, who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, the wife of Eli Zusman with her son, Chawa Wajnkranc with her children, and many others. When the sealed freight cars were opened, the Germans called: Is there a painter among you? He responded to the call. Fate apparently wanted him to remain [alive], to give living testimony to the terrible evil.
The Chronicles of an Ostrolenkan Family
Ghetto Vilna Concentration Camps Israel 1939-1948
Ghetto Vilna Concentration Camps Israel 1939-1948
Yitzhak Zohar-Wylozny, Holon
Although the story of our townsman, Icchak Zohar- Wylozny, does not appear in the original Yizkor Book of the Jewish Community in Ostrolenka, we decided to include it in this second edition in Hebrew. To us, this story is especially important. It comprehensively reflects the way of life and history of a common Jewish family, working people, [tracing their lives] in Ostrolenka until 1939, during World War II, in particular during the Holocaust and, finally, the arrival of some of its children on the shores of Israel, their participation in the War of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel.
Ostrolenka is an ancient Polish city, not large, recorded in history, on the shore of the River Narew, 120 kilometers northeast of Warsaw. Around it is a plain, some hills, forests, creeks and many villages. I was born there on 22 January 1922, at Berek Joselewicz Street 34, near the small market. There I spent my childhood and the years of my youth.
Our family: my father, Aron (Arcie), my mother, Rejzel (Rosa), of blessed memory, five brothers (I am the fourth in the row in the picture, and cousin Bluma, who lost her father). My father, Arcie, had an expert artisan's degree in shoemaking and ran a shoemaking workshop. He was licensed to teach apprentices the profession. A workshop in one room, a bedroom in the other, the kitchen and the cellar all this was situated in our little wooden house on Berek Joselewicz Street. This was the floor plan of our house during the day only. At night, the whole house became a bedroom; in every corner, a bed was placed and, often, two slept in one bed. Only one wall, near the oven, was built of fireproof bricks. One had to go down a few steps to the oven, in which Mother baked black bread in large 4-5 kilogram loaves (from rye flour mixed with potatoes, the dough of which my father kneaded with his strong hands), potato pancakes, cakes and challot [bread loaves] for the Sabbath. We bought common dark bread from Jalowicz on Goworowskie Street. Every Monday, we brought fresh milk from Grabowo or other villages in the area (toward the end, by bicycle) and from it, we prepared yogurt, butter and cream. We brought water from the nearby spring, and when we needed a large amount for laundry, my big, strong brother Zalman, did the work. Then, on a small wagon we had put together ourselves for this purpose, we took the laundry to the River Narew about half a kilometer away, to be rinsed and wrung out. The cellar served as a refrigerator in the summer for different foodstuffs, and for storage of a large quantity of potatoes, beets and carrots for the winter. In the courtyard, there was a barn-storehouse,
and in it were wood and coals for heating, and flour. There was always a big barrel full of sauerkraut there. We also raised chickens and ducks, which I, especially, tended. During winter freezes, they resided in the room, near the oven.
More than any of my brothers, when I was still a boy, I helped my mother with housework and my father with shoemaking. As I have said, we were five brothers. The eldest, Mosze Beniamin, who was 27 years old in 1939, sewed shoes in his own workshop on Kilinskaga Street. Meir, 22, and Zalman, 19, also worked with him as sewers. I, Icchak, 17 then, already worked with my father in the workshop as a shoemaker. Chaim, 12, learned at the Yavneh progressive religious school.
Our family a Jewish family of workers, the like of which there were many in Ostrolenka belonged to the middle socio-economic sector. We all worked hard and barely eked out a modest living, which enabled all the children to receive a basic, general, traditionally Jewish education. My father, a shoemaking artisan, employed some workers in his workshop, among them Poles, who studied to achieve a shoemaker's apprentice degree.
Most of our customers were Poles, primarily rurals. In addition, the workshop manufactured and sold its products English-style shoes, offitzkeri officer shoes and others, twice a week in the market, on Tuesdays and Fridays, and at annual fairs in Ostrolenka and communities in the area.
A few words must be dedicated here to our communal life with the Poles in the city of Ostrolenka and its vicinity. I think it can be described as satisfactory and amicable between neighbors. Each side was, in a certain respect, dependent on the other, so that each complemented the other. The Jews, as all kinds of merchants, peddlers and craftsmen, supplied the needs of the Polish public to a great extent, especially the village people in the vicinity, while most of the Poles filled municipal and governmental clerical positions in the police and the army, and also produced foodstuffs. As mentioned, our workshop always employed a number of Polish students and workers. The relationship between us was good, and sometimes even friendly. Often, we bartered our products for foodstuffs, such as potatoes, meat, etc., increasing bartering transactions between manufacturers and customers. Among our workers were Poles from the city and from villages. The city workers went back home for the night, while the rurals ate and boarded with us. Staszek Gronek, who lived in the sandy area near the pig market, worked for us only in the winter. In the summer, he fished and brought us fish for the Sabbath every week. Sometimes it happened that he forgot to do this before a holiday and then, on the eve of the holiday, he would come running to bring us fish. I still remember Kochanek from Koscielna Street, and Kondewicz and Napiorkowski from Lenczysk. Staszek Kosiorek came on the train from Grabowo every day. Others, who did not have transportation links with their villages, lived, ate and boarded with us. In exchange, they brought us grain seeds, potatoes, dairy products, fowls and fruit. As mentioned, relations between us were most friendly. They came to us on the Sabbath to eat gefilte fish. Mother baked cakes for religious and national holidays for them, while Father and one of my brothers joined them at their Christmas feast. It is hard to believe, but it is a fact that most of them spoke to my father in Yiddish, particularly in professional matters. It should also be mentioned that my brother and I spent our vacation times with them in their villages, and helped with work in the fields, and gathering fruit and fishing.
When discussing the family and villages, I would like to add that some of our relatives lived in villages around Ostrolenka. In Mlynarska, on the way to Rozan, lived my Uncle Zalman, my father's brother, with his wife and their six children. He was a shoemaker and also worked his plot of land and was loved by the rurals in the area. Our relatives lived not far from there, in Kolaki and in Sadykrzu-Szlachecki. In Borave, on the way to Goworowo, lived a relative of my mother's, Dawid-Aron Laska and his large family. They engaged in agriculture only and owned a large farm. They dreamed that they would have a similar farm in Palestine. On my mother's side, we had another relative who lived in Laskowce, beyond Wojciechowice. He worked as a shoemaker and a merchant, and also had a small agricultural farm. All of them had good relations with their Polish rural neighbors in the area. My older brother, Zalman, and I often spent our free time with our families in the bosom of nature (as we did with our workers, and even with our customers). We helped them with farm work, and they sometimes came to us.
Our family observed Jewish tradition and my father fostered our sentiments for the Land of Israel. On Sabbaths and holidays, my father went with us to the house of prayer at Pesach Hochberg's on Gomolicka Street. He also participated in group Talmud lessons, was active in charitable institutions, was a member of the community committee and participated in the
tradesmen's amateur dramatic group. Like my brother, I studied first at the heder and later at more progressive schools, like the Culture School or the Yavneh School. I also succeeded in finishing the government Jewish popular school on Lomzynska Street. Influenced by the traditional Zionist atmosphere prevailing at home, when I was a boy of ten, I had already registered for the HaShomer HaTzair Zionist youth organization, which began operating as a scouting organization in the framework of the Polish scouts. Of course, all activity required that our entire class stay together in the bosom of nature, as well as the fitness training required of the scouts. This captivated me greatly. I loved this activity very much. I will always remember the camps, the bonfires, the assemblies and parades in the vicinity of Ostrolenka, especially in the forests of Lazek and around Lomza, Zambrow and Myszyniec. In time, HaShomer HaTzair became a leftist organization. Its primary goals were to strengthen the spirit of the Jewish youth, change its Diaspora way of thinking, and prepare it for emigration to Israel, then Palestine, to participate there in the essential work of an independent state, of the Jewish people and when necessary, to fight for it as well.
I advanced a great deal in HaShomer HaTzair, so much so, that at the age of 15, I was already the leader of a class younger than me 13 year olds, Bnei Midbar [Children of the Desert]. Right before the war, at the age of 17, I became the leader responsible for the entire organization in Ostrolenka. This happened after Jakow Sztejnberg, and after him Shalom Chmiel, went to hachshara. Membership in the organization was conditional on the agreement of anyone between the ages of 18-19 to go to hachshara a period of preparation for emigration to Israel.
These young people worked in agriculture and other physical work there, enabling them to support themselves in the place at the time. My brother, Meir, for example, was released from the HaShomer HaTzair organization because he would not agree to go to hachshara. I would also like to add that, at the convention of the party in Bialystok, Shalom Chmiel (the chief leader then and a known activist living today at Kibbutz HaMaapil in Israel) turned to me with the suggestion (like an order) that I should learn the shoemaking profession from my father, because, as a shoemaker, I would be able to work on a kibbutz in the future. This is what I did, because I considered myself a soldier of the resurrected State of Israel. In that connection while I was very attached to Ostrolenka, the city of my birth, and to its region, to the Poles and the state of Poland my heart belonged to the Jewish people, to the Land of Israel. I believe that every nation has the right to its own state, and so my family thought. To my sorrow, it did not succeed in realizing this. The gates of our ancient homeland were closed to the average common Jew, and my family did not have the capital required to fulfill the dream. Of course, Poland's deep anti-Semitism strengthened my desire to emigrate all the more, because I felt myself a strange body, unwanted in Poland.
In general, the situation of the Jewish population in Poland during the pre-war years continued to get worse. One may get the impression that the policy of its neighboring country and the anti-Semitic-racist movements there, influenced our situation in Poland. Thus, the N.D. (Andaks) party's increasing activity boycotting Jewish stores and tradesmen, posting guards near their doors, their stalls and places where peddlers sold in markets and at fairs. Our stall in the market in Kadzid³a was destroyed, and my father and his worker were beaten severely while they were sitting on their wagon on the way home. But in Ostrolenka, in comparison to other cities, these phenomena were not felt so much. There, this atmosphere did not influence our relations with customers or Polish workers. A statement of a well-known Polish minister proves that anti-Jewish activity was accepted on national levels. He said, It is forbidden to kill, but to boycott why not? And so, we approach the outbreak of World War II, on Thursday, 1 September 1939. The family returned to Ostrolenka after a few days (see the reports of my brother, Zalman). The Germans were not yet there, nor was there a real Polish government, except for an ad hoc civilian police. The rurals, in their desire to exploit the existing situation, broke into our house to steal. I remember well that, in the most fortuitous way, the railway man, Gruszko from Grabowo, appeared in our house. He turned to the rurals and said, Poles, shame on you! We are now all at war. These are our neighbors, who have served us loyally. The rurals were silenced and left the house immediately. The railway man, Gruszko, was our customer and knew my father and often praised his workmanship in making shoes.
As is known, on 4 October 1939, the Germans
expelled the entire Jewish population from Ostrolenka, first, in the direction of Lomza. At the outset, we stopped temporarily at the settlement of Laskowce, where a relative of my mother's lived. Acceding to my mother's request, I went back to Ostrolenka illegally, to persuade my stubborn brother, Mosze, that he must leave the city immediately, together with his family. The errand finally succeeded, after much effort. I took them by side routes along the River Narew and we reached Laskowce safely. This was a very dangerous operation, although I was unaware of the danger involved. I saw the city empty of inhabitants, then and, for the last time, peeked at our dead house. I felt deep pain when I saw what had happened to the place that was so dear to me. Even worse, I did not know if I would ever return to Ostrolenka, the city of my birth.
After a number of weeks passed, we moved to live in Lomza, which had been destroyed. We lived in a damaged house there, near the main road, opposite an army camp. Father began to work as a shoemaker and we helped him. Although we made a living, after a time and despite my leftist education, I arrived at the conclusion that life in the Soviet Union was not suited to us. First, because of its Jewish and Zionist antinationalistic policy, because of its economic policy and, in general, because of the universal chaos. Therefore, I went to Bialystok to look around and contact the underground representatives of our HaShomer HaTzair. Two of my brothers, Meir and Zalman, and I, actually received appropriate orders and were referred to the city of Vilna, which was then annexed by the independent Lithuanian State. Indeed, our goal was to go from there to Israel (Palestine). After lengthy and difficult discussions with our parents and our younger brother, Chaim, we parted with the family's agreement, and went on our way. We reached Lida by train. From there, after contacting our people, we reached the border town of Drzebieniszki on 1 January 1940. From there, a rural guide led us to the Lithuanian side. It was an extremely cold day less than 30°, and because of our relatively light clothing, we had to be on the move continually. After a pleasant meal with some rurals, we left for Vilna, this time on foot, following a sleigh on which we had loaded our knapsacks. In Vilna, we contacted the HaShomer HaTzair Kibbutz Center at 3 Tartaki Street, the former location of the Polish Border Guard headquarters. There, we were warmly received. There was a large dining room, workshops, the party administration and a number of residential rooms. I began to work in shoemaking there and lived at 27 Mickiewicz Street, where the maapilim [illegal immigrants to Israel] kibbutz was located. I also went out to work and even worked in a factory for the manufacture of shoes with wooden heels. We lived a rich social life then. Our group numbered 50 members, boys and girls. Together, we studied and had fun, debated and dreamed about Zion. There, for the first time, I met Abba Kovner, leader of the HaShomer HaTzair branch, and then head of the Jewish partisans in the Vilna region. My two brothers opened an independent workshop for shoe production, and I helped them in the profession in the afternoons. The American Joint also supported us. So, in general, our economic condition and Zionist activities were satisfactory, and our chances of accomplishing our emigration to Israel were quite good.
But suddenly, in July 1940, things changed for the bad. Independent Lithuania ceased to exist and was annexed as a republic by the Communist Soviet Union. For reasons of security, our youth organization was forced to disperse into small groups, with a loose connection between them. For a short time, I worked with a superb professional the Russian shoemaker, Pataf. Meanwhile, the Belarusian border opened, and we could visit our parents in Dereczyn, and our brothers, Mosze and Chaim, in Slonim. It should be noted that the great majority of Ostrolenka's Jews who took Soviet citizenship on themselves were forced to evacuate to places 100 kilometers from the border with the Germans. Thus, Ostrolenka's Jews were spread over all the territories of Belarus. Their primary place of settlement was the city of Slonim.
While we were still in Vilna, we met Ostrolenkans (except for refugees who already lived there) who came from Belarus to purchase various commodities that they were lacking (as was usual in the Soviet Union). My older brother, Meir, who helped them with their purchases, was caught by the authorities and imprisoned in the jail. After many efforts and bribery payments, we managed to have him released from prison. Now, we could visit our parents in Dereczyn, near Slonim. It is impossible to describe our first meeting with them, especially with Mother. We were all excited and happy to the point of tears. Of course, we brought all kinds of goods, everything in small quantities, so that they should not suspect us of trading. It was very dangerous I myself sold leather boots and shoes, as well as coats of high-quality leather, for a high price and left
the money for my parents.
My mother was satisfied because she was able to cook in a big pot again, like in Ostrolenka After a short time, we visited our parents again. We traveled by train to the town of Zelva (Ostrolenkans lived there, too), and from there we went to Dereczyn by carriage.
The Jewish carter suspected us of smuggling and demanded an excessive price. Finally, after Zalman slapped his face, he agreed to take the accepted payment. But that same carter prepared an unpleasant surprise for us. Relying on his testimony, the police arrested us as smugglers and imprisoned us in Wolkowysk. Conditions there were terrible, and our treatment by the jailers was very cruel. They shaved our heads, we did not get enough food, we slept on the floor, without straw mattresses. There, for the first time, I had a taste of a dictatorial regime and of the power of tomorrow. Only because of my mother, who hired an attorney, our trial was hastened and we were freed. And again, joy we met our family, which we planned to move to where we lived. For now, we brought only Father to Vilna.
It should be noted that about 15,000 Jewish refugees, who had fled the occupied territories of Poland, already lived in Vilna. From the day the war broke out, in September 1939, until the entry of the Germans in June 1941, 6,500 refugees succeeded, among them several Ostrolenkans, to go to Palestine, the United States or other countries. The Soviet Union permitted them to pass through its territories.
After a few days, we felt as though we had been suddenly hit by strong, deafening lightning. The Germans attacked us again, this time on 22 June 1941, in the Soviet Union. The city of Vilna was heavily bombed. Panic erupted; no one knew what to do. We decided to flee east, toward Minsk, but in vain. Even before we got 30-40 kilometers from Vilna, German paratroopers had already occupied Minsk. The four of us my father, my brothers, Meir and Zalman, and I returned to Vilna. A large part of the Jewish youth also tried to escape from Vilna, but most of them failed. Quite a few were shot by the Germans along the way. Only about three thousand Jews succeeded in crossing and entering Russian territory.
Before the entry of the Germans, about 57,000 Jews lived in Vilna. The condition of the Jews deteriorated even before the entry of the Germans on 24 June. The voluntary Lithuanian militia abducted Jews in the streets, as if for work from which no one returned. The Germans and the Lithuanian police ordered the Jews to wear a yellow badge on the front and on the back [of their clothes], forbade the Jews to walk on sidewalks and allowed them to shop only during permitted hours and in special stores. The worst were the kidnappings and murders, which continued. During the month of July, Germans from Einsatzkommando 9, supported by Lithuanian volunteers (the Ypatingasis) kidnapped about 5,000 Jewish men from their homes and from the streets, took them to the nearby Ponary forests and murdered all of them there. It was very dangerous to go out. We four continued to live in our room with the Beck Family at 4 Kijovska Street, and continued working at the shoemaking workshop at 13 Wingry Street in the city center. Although the workshop was not far from our room, we were afraid to go out and often slept in the workshop. A Lithuanian a Ypatingasis once came to the workshop and wanted to take us. We convinced him that we were laborers, ready to do all kinds of work for him. He dragged away with him only our friend an engraver who never came back. And so, the Lithuanians the Ypatingasis (the Hapunes) skipped us and for now, we survived Then Kobi Kagan from Vilna visited us, bringing [work] orders for the Germans. In exchange, he brought us food and a permit to work and to walk in the streets.
At the end of September and the beginning of October 1941, the Germans and the Lithuanians carried out a terrible expulsion of the Jewish population, about 8,000 people, from a particular quarter, with the intention of executing them in the Ponary forests. This aktzia [aktion, rounding up people to kill them] was called the Great Provocation, because the Germans staged a shooting of German soldiers, as a pretext for the expulsion. There, in the expulsion quarter, on 6 October, the Germans organized two ghettos, the first of 30,000 people, and the second of approximately 6,000. Again, 6,000 Jews were murdered in the Ponary forests.
One morning, we awoke and heard tumult and noise all over the city. The streets were full of Germans, Gestapo functionaries, Lithuanian police and the Ypatingasis, who expelled [the Jews] with small bundles from their homes, and drove them with blows in the direction of the ghetto, which had just been set up. The four of us were also expelled to the ghetto. There were a few streets where entry was permitted; by chance, we
entered the third and furthest street, Szpitalna. The next day, we discovered that whoever had entered the first streets was taken to the Lukiskes Prison, and later murdered in Ponary. Again, we were miraculously saved
The four of us settled into a partially furnished room. The next day, Kobi Kagan came to us again, offering us work at the German supply base. Of course, we agreed immediately, but it was necessary to move our workshop. So, Inspector Miller came with his friend, a Gestapo officer, and with a truck, on which we loaded all our tools required for work, including machines. The neighbors called the Lithuanian police, but when the police saw the Gestapo officer, they saluted him and left. Finally, when the Germans demanded the payment we had promised them, I raised the floorboards and gave them part of the leather skins we had there. Later, in the workshop, I also prepared boots for the officer. In exchange, he brought us various foodstuffs.
We began working at the German base, which supplied the German Army that was going east. Together with a group of porters, we left the ghetto every morning, escorted to our place of work by soldiers from our base. Thus things continued, as we carried out work with the permission of Base Commander Rizfeld and, in addition, secretly engaged in private work, in order to make a living. At the camp, we received only soup and two loaves of bread a week. I worked as a shoemaker and my brother, Meir, worked as a sewer of shoe parts. Kobi Kagan was the liaison between the Germans and us. My father worked at a shoemakers' workshop in another unit, and my brother, Zalman, guarded our meager property at the ghetto and prepared food for us. Tailors also worked in our workshop six people all together. One evening, after work ended, Inspector Miller appeared with yellow permits. He explained to us that, from now on, new yellow permits, and not the white ones we had until now, were valid. Each of us received one of the yellow permits, called
life certificates, and we returned to the ghetto. In the ghetto, the mood was very bad, because people sensed that those yellow notes conferred temporary permission to stay alive. Every bearer of a yellow permit could add a wife (or husband) and two children, up to age 14.
And then we faced a serious problem, because Father and Zalman did not have these cards. Luckily, my girlfriend from my former kibbutz had a card, and she agreed to register and add my brother, Zalman. Saving my father was possible only if I would give him my card and he would add me to it as his fourteen-yearold son. The next day, we arrived at the gate, near which German S.S. and Gestapo officers stood. They carefully examined those who were leaving and their permits. Suddenly, the gate closed, and the number of people waiting greatly increased. When the gate reopened, the examination was easier because of the press of people, and so I succeeded in going out with my father and getting to my workplace. In the evening, when we returned to the ghetto (also couples with two children), it was empty, because anyone who did not have a yellow card was expelled from the ghetto to Ponary and there they were all murdered.
That night, I slept at the workshop. I was afraid to go back to the ghetto, because I did not have a genuine yellow card. At the workshop, there was no water and no place to sleep; even worse, the Germans did not know I was there. The next morning, Inspector Miller arrived for a routine inspection. When he saw my father, he asked who this old man was. I replied that he was my father, who could help me with the large amount of work that had accumulated. Miller answered, I didn't see anything and left. And so things continued for many days. Nevertheless, I decided to return to the ghetto to wash, eat and meet my girlfriend. Near the gate, I showed the Lithuanians a piece of yellow paper, and this succeeded a few times. But then, a Lithuanian guard discovered that it was not a real card. He arrested me on the spot and put me in jail with a few other Jews who did not have yellow cards. Somehow, Kobi Kagan managed to pass my father's yellow card to me through the bars. When the inspecting German officer asked me why I was in prison, I told him that it was because of my brother's shoes, which, luckily, were with me. I had taken them along to fix in the workshop, as an expert worker on a German base. The officer believed me and released me. Despite the stunned Lithuanian guard, I was released and saved again. It is worth noting that for a crime like this, the punishment was death. I continued to work at the workshop, and Inspector Miller got me a yellow permit.
During that period, when I worked at the German supply base in Vilna, at the rear of the huge German- Soviet front, I met many Germans. They were army personnel of various ranks, most of them from supply and other support units. I must admit that among them were bad and cruel people, but there were also human, innocent and even good ones. I always had the
impression, however, that the moment an order would be received, they would all be ready to act as one and destroy the whole world
As mentioned, in exchange for work, we got soup every day and two loaves of bread a week from the Germans. It was impossible to exist and work hard from this. Therefore, we did additional work for the Germans and, in exchange, we would get foodstuffs. Most of them sought to contact me, as I was recommended by other Germans. Needless to say, all work ordered by high level officials was done without compensation. We were, of course, interested in being associated with them, because they were connected to the food supply and other items in demand. Here are some examples. A junior officer, Alderbaum, who supervised the leather and shoe storehouses, had free access to refrigerated meat, and would bring us bundles of meat and pig fat. I, in exchange, made officers' boots for him and even gave him silk stockings, watches and leather clothes, which he sent to his family. More than once, I heard him say that he did not know that Jews were good craftsmen and that they worked so diligently. The second was called Hopf. In exchange for our work, he supplied us with potatoes in large quantities (from the same sources confiscated for the German Army) on sleighs that returned from the ghetto with refuse. From another German, we received many bottles of vodka, in exchange for our work. I remember that once, a highranking Gestapo officer came into our workshop with a large briefcase in his hand. According to Hopf's recommendation, he came to me (he called me Icek and I trembled with fear), requesting that I make him officers' boots, like Hopf's. I got foodstuffs from him that were very much in demand during this period of general starvation, like sugar, coffee, honey, sausages, rice and bread. Everything went well. I had unpleasant and dangerous contacts, however, with Inspector Wache. From that same Alderbaum whom I have already mentioned, I got leather skins to make boots for the Inspector and his family. When he came to take the order, he suspected that I had put cardboard into them, instead of leather. I explained to him and, somehow, he believed me when I said that my life was in his hands if it turned out that his suspicions had foundation.
After a short time, a soldier from a neighboring unit (a cook) came to us and saw officers' boots on the table. He tried them on and liked them. I asked him to bring an authorization, as well as leather skins. He came again, this time with a sack full of expensive foodstuffs and, of course, he left with the boots. Suddenly, the door opened, and I almost had heart failure Inspector Wache came over to my father and me while the expensive foodstuffs were in our hands. He looked at them carefully and went out, as if nothing had happened I could not understand I needed psychiatric treatment then and again, we were saved.
We also did work for the camp commander, Rizfeld, a calm German of the older generation, and his family. In this case, the initiative was mine, as I approached him in his office. At this opportunity, I succeeded in arranging a place of work for a number of girls my friends from HaShomer HaTzair as housemaids for some of the officers' families.
Once, a unit of transport trucks arrived at our camp and parked near us for a short time. The soldiers and officers had a large number of leather skins and we made all kinds of things for them, with and even without approval. Among them was an officer named Fischer. I befriended him and we even discussed the subject of the Jews. During the conversation, I hinted to him that I would willingly join him on a trip, if he made one, toward the city of Slonim, to visit my brother and my mother in nearby Dereczyn. One day, his unit got an order to move to another camp in a short time, and so we tried with all our might to finish the unit's orders. At the last minute, that same Fischer whom I knew, asked me to make him a pair of high shoes for his mother, for, without them, he would not dare return home. I told him it was impossible, and then Fischer threw in my face,
And if I take you to your mother, will you do it?
Yes, I said. Then Fischer added, while gritting his teeth, You, Jew, who change your words every minute! I explained to him, Our fate is already sealed and no compensation can tempt me, so why should I take the risk of night work without approval? But to see my mother once more in my lifetime then the strength latent in me may give me strength to do the nearly impossible and the very dangerous. Fischer looked at a map and said, We are leaving early tomorrow. To make all this happen, acceding to his request, I asked the officer of the unit to lend us his small car (in exchange for payment, of course). And that is what happened.
I worked all through the night at the workshop, with the windows covered from the inside and, at daybreak, I presented Fischer with the shoes, which he liked very much. Even before this, late at night, he knocked on the door (I was very frightened, of course) and brought me
a full pan of fried meat and potatoes and a small container of real coffee, adding, A man who works needs to eat. The next day, at the end of November 1941, I left in a private car in the direction of Slonim. Fischer and his friend sat in the front, and I, without a yellow badge and with a bent head, sat in the back. (When we met border guards or an army barricade, I made myself as small as possible.) It was a very cold winter and dark. The entire area was covered with snow, which, together with the moon, lighted our way. We passed Lida, which had been destroyed, and arrived in Slonim. I had the address of my older brother, Mosze Beniamin, but it was dark all around and silent, and there was no one to ask. Suddenly, we saw a light flickering in the distance. I went there with Fischer. The watchman of a factory for the manufacture of cigarettes explained and showed us the way to my brother's. He pointed out that half of the Jewish population had already been murdered, among them many Ostrolenkans. Shouting, I banged on the window (I recognized the house from when I had been there before). A Polish woman came out and said that my brother was now in the Jewish quarter. We went back to the watchman and he referred us to an Ostrolenkan, Szlomo Grynberg, a good friend of mine from school. We asked him repeatedly, and he finally agreed to go with us (although there was a curfew), on condition that Fischer would bring us back. I knocked on his door, but my brother did not want to open the door for us.
Brother Mosze, I am your brother Icchak. Don't you know my voice? I said to him, and then he opened the door. We fell into each other's arms. Things looked terrible, the apartment was in complete disarray. In the middle of the room was hand luggage, in the event of evacuation. My brother's face looked very bad and his wife, Necha (née Czapnikiewicz) was in the final weeks of her pregnancy. I tried to consult them as to what I should do, but a dispirited and indifferent person stood before me (he, who was always known as energetic and resourceful). In fact, he himself added that now he was no longer the same Mosze Beniamin. I told him that I had decided to take my mother and my little brother, Chaim, with me to Vilna. I gave him a bundle of dollars and gold (which I had actually saved for Mother) and added, Perhaps this will help you. Heartbroken and in tears, I parted from him forever.
In Slonim, we found my little brother, Chaim, and took him with us to the car while he still slept. On the way, I explained to him the situation that had been created. He led us to Mother, to the town of Dereczyn, about 20 kilometers from Slonim. It was very dark. The synagogue was full of refugees, among them the Michelson Family (see their memoirs in this book). In a den-like corner, lived my mother. Still sleeping, I carried her in my arms to the car, too (with her prepared suitcase, of course). Mother was stunned and could not distinguish between dreaming and waking. On the way, however, when we both calmed down, we were very happy and cried with great joy. The Germans, too, were touched, and Fischer watched me all the time and helped me.
Now another problem arose: how to move my mother to the ghetto without approval and without a certificate. Fischer repeated that, to his regret, it was not in his power to change the general situation, but that he would do everything he could to help us. I dared to suggest a plan of action to him. We would approach the gate of the ghetto before morning, at a place far from the Lithuanian guards. He would kick me hard and, cursing, throw me, my mother, my brother and the bundles in the direction of the Jewish police. There, my brother Zalman awaited us. Everything went as planned. Our joy was boundless. All six of us were here together: my parents and four of the brothers. And then we went to work.
As I have already mentioned, I always tried everywhere to get us essential foodstuffs. Getting them into the ghetto was dangerous and problematic, and not a few people paid with their lives for trying to do so. I had a pair of specially sewn pants for this purpose. In the camp, I tried to be the last to leave, to avoid inspections. Once, when I did this, a German officer called me over to him. He inspected me carefully and found fresh fish carp and other foodstuffs from the army food warehouse tied to my leg. I was imprisoned and sent to an empty, special cell in the infamous Lukiskes Prison. (It later turned out that my father, to my mother's question, replied that I was already considered lost). The next day, I was taken for questioning. Because they wanted to discover the source of the food from me, I was severely beaten. I said that I found a package After a few days, they took me to Gestapo Headquarters on Mickiewicz Street. This time, my situation was nearly intolerable, as two Gestapo men pushed me from one to the other with murderous blows. Stubbornly, I stuck to my first version, because I did not want to turn in Officer Kan and myself. Moreover, as a Jewish prisoner, I got only half a portion
of bread (100-150 grams) and soup a day. Later, I went through a similar Gestapo questioning. Once, after cruel questioning, I especially asked the interrogator to give me a piece of bread and he brought me a few slices (there were some good Germans like him). After two weeks, the Jewish police commander, Dessler, and the ghetto's Gestapo commander, Martin Weiss, came to my cell. Dessler vehemently demanded that I reveal the whole truth. When I stuck to my earlier version, he began hitting me with a stick. Despite this, I did not break. When Dessler hinted at a message from my family, saying that Officer Kan had received a relatively light punishment, I understood his hint and confessed. Later, he told me that I was to be released in the near future and asked what I wanted. Bread, I said. The next day, I received a two-kilogram loaf of bread, which I had to divide among the prisoners. Before Christmas 1942, after three weeks of imprisonment, I was released from jail. I was in critical condition; on my body were already signs of swelling from starvation. With the money returned to me, I bought a two-kilogram loaf of bread in the market and finished it on the way to the ghetto. It is hard to describe the family's joy and excitement when they saw me resurrected.
Many people came to visit me, among them Abba Kovner, the commander of the Jewish underground organization and leader of HaShomer HaTzair. It was said that I was released due to the intervention of the ghetto's orchestra conductor, Durmaszkin. It may also be that relative, general quiet prevailed even before this. Clearly, I did not go back to work on the German base. I began to work in the workshop of a Lithuanian who made shoes with wooden heels. Together with my brother, Zalman, we made a tolerable living. One may get an impression of the condition of the Jewish population in Vilna from what I have described thus far. The period from the beginning of 1942 until the spring of 1943 was fairly quiet. Life in the ghetto was tolerable. In fact, there were no large aktzias and most of the population (about 14,000 people) worked in productive jobs. There was social and cultural activity, and even a Jewish theater. The Judenrat, headed by Jakow Gens (formerly police commander), was guided by the thought and hope that if the Jews worked for the Germans, and were of use to them and cooperated with them, they would have better chances of survival. In reality, however, our condition was tragic throughout the entire period. Since the entry of the Germans in June 1941 and until the end of the year, the Germans, with the Lithuanians, succeeded in murdering 34,000 people, that is, 60% of the entire Jewish population and in just half a year. Before our eyes, a deliberate and planned holocaust, the destruction of our entire nation, took place. We knew we were living on borrowed time.
In the Vilna Ghetto, two underground organizations were established, the F.P.O. (the Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye [the United Partisan Organization]) and a smaller one. In the beginning, the main organization planned an armed rebellion (insurrection) in the ghetto if a large aktzia or acts of extermination by the Germans in particular, took place. In the beginning, the second organization engaged in transferring people to the forests to fight with the partisans (see Zalman's report in the next lines of this book). My group belonged to the F.P.O. Starting in 1942, we underwent military training and drilled using simulated weapons (because we did not have real weapons) iron implements and acids in lantern holders. A few units were formed, each numbering 250 fighters, men and women. We unanimously decided to fight in the event of an aktzia or the extermination of the ghetto. We were prepared to physically resist and protect ourselves, and even more than this, to protect our personal honor and that of our nation. Both my girlfriend, Szprinca Szwarc, and I belonged to the second unit.
When we woke on the morning of 1 September 1943, we saw that the ghetto was surrounded by many German and Estonian soldiers. It was hermetically closed. Without waiting for a signal, we appeared at the agreed-upon place. The entire unit arrived. In the ghetto, the abductions of Jews (this began again in August) to a work camp in Estonia had continued. At the time of a battle, one of our commanders, Jechiel Szejnboim, fell. We gathered in the courtyard at 4 Straszon Street, although we had no firearms and no organized communication with our headquarters. The situation was nebulous. Suddenly, the Germans broke into our courtyard (apparently, some traitor opened the gate for them). In their hands were weapons, aimed at us. They ordered us to assemble in an indicated place. The German Gestapo commander said to us, You are still young. Don't be foolish. Don't endanger your lives. We are only taking you to do work. At the same time, female messengers arrived (women were not abducted for work, but many women later joined their relatives) and passed an order on to us from headquarters, to march toward the Judenrat at 6 Rudnicka Street. We had just started out when, once again, we found
ourselves surrounded by Germans with weapons aimed at us. Instead of left, we turned right, and had to get into army trucks covered with tarpaulins. We thought that this was our end. In absolute despair, I cut the tarpaulin with a knife, and jumped from the truck first and tried to escape. But the Germans caught me and hit my head with a gun, until I lost my sight in one eye. We were surprised to discover that the Germans were not taking us to Ponary, but to the railway station, where we were forcibly thrown into closed freight cars with an opening in the floor. We left under the strict surveillance of armed troops. As it turned out, during August and the beginning of September, approximately 7,000 people, men and women, were evacuated from Ghetto Vilna to concentration and work camps in Estonia and Latvia. From 22-24 September 1943, Ghetto Vilna was completely destroyed. Of 12,000 people, 3,700 were sent north to camps; over 4,000 children, women and old people to the Sobibor death camp. A few thousand others employed by the Germans were murdered at the beginning of July 1944 in the Ponary Forests, ten days before the liberation of the city by the Soviets. At the time of the destruction of the ghetto, a small number of a few hundred Jews, among them my two brothers, Meir and Zalman, succeeded in escaping and joining the partisans working against the Germans. My brothers survived.
From the outset, I must note that in the course of a year and a half, I was in seven concentration (work) camps in Estonia, one in Poland and in Nazi Germany, with all typical characteristics and purposes: to exploit a prisoner to the last drop of his strength under inhuman conditions, in order to finally exterminate him.
We traveled for a few days until we reached Estonia. The first camp was in its breaking-in period, built of barracks in a semi-circle. We slept on a floor covered in crushed straw and received daily starvation rations of 300-400 grams of bread, a piece of margarine, cheese powder and teaspoon of jam, as well as thin soup. We worked from early morning until sundown in anti-tank excavations and trenches, because we were near the Leningrad front. In addition, we were full of lice and could not sleep. There were also musters outside, morning and evening, in all kinds of weather, supplemented by different exercises (removing hats, bowing down and more). For every sin, we received 50 strikes on naked buttocks with a special baton, usually carried out by Commander Panuker. To my regret, the Jewish commander of the camp, Dyler, often helped the Germans, or he hit the prisoners himself, until they lost consciousness.
The arrow shows the camp building (photograph from the 1970s)
Many of us were from the F.P.O. underground organization and HaShomer HaTzair, and we tried to give mutual aid to each other. We were tempted by thoughts of an underground and even contact with the partisans, and perhaps this strengthened us. Yet some others and I, especially when the situation got worse, asked ourselves: How did we get into this situation, which we so wanted to avoid. And even worse who ordered us to leave the courtyard in Vilna and in row formation, yet? For there was a decision to resist, in the event of an aktzia in the ghetto! The tragic death in July 1943 of our underground commander, Icchak Wittenberg, a popular man, loved by us all, pained me. To all these questions, I did not receive answers. After more than a month, I parted from most of my friends, because I was transferred, with a group, to other camps. After a trip of two days in open cars, we arrived, a group of 800 people, at a new camp built of stone in the city of Narva. It was late autumn in cold north Estonia. We were hungry, tired and frozen. At that moment, a boy of about twelve came over to me and asked in Yiddish, What are you doing here? for you were
supposed to be with partisans. It turned out that this was Reuwen, a friend of my younger brother, Chaim, who Mother used to feed in the ghetto. After a few minutes, Reuwen returned, in his hands a large bowl of soup and a piece of bread. Together with my good friend (Mosze Podjazd from Mlawa), we ate everything with appetite. The same thing happened a few more times, and we even got soup coupons from him. After we returned from work in the rain, in the snow, in mud up to our knees, he was a lifesaver. I would like to note that our situation was very bad. It was no wonder, then, that people tried to get work under a roof. The cruel commander exploited these instances to strike those wretched people on their heads, until they fainted and lost consciousness. He did this with great pleasure. Returning from work, for a few kilometers of the way, we carried the older people, who could not walk on their own. They burned these same sick and old people in a large furnace in the cellar of the former factory. I remember one particular incident, at the end of 1943, when Panuker, Schnabel and others, among them drunken officers, came to the camp to celebrate New Year's Eve joyfully. At their command, a muster of all the prisoners was held, the healthy and sick alike. Anyone who could not stand for a long time was laid down on the snow and ice. This horrible spectacle continued quite a long time, so that later on, the Carabkin Family (they worked at the oven) had a great deal of work.
As I have mentioned, we were plagued with lice, which even caused a typhus epidemic. People fell like flies, and again the Carabkin Family worked overtime I, too, became ill. No one paid attention to me. I lay naked under a light blanket in a hallway in the winter. When the Germans also got sick, they carried out a strong disinfestation. All clothes were collected for disinfestation under high heat. Anyone who wanted to get clean clothes back had to go naked to the nearby village's bathhouse, and come to work the next day, as usual. Meanwhile, the number of prisoners decreased, until an entire block in the camp was destroyed.
Miraculously, I recovered, but I knew that I faced danger if I did not continue to work in shoemaking. In the camp, there was a shoemakers' workshop, which did work for the Germans to which I was not accepted. I did not break. I found a hammer, shoelaces, a knife that I sharpened on a stone, and the carpenters brought me nails. In the welding workshop, I asked them to make me an iron shoemaker's last. And so, I began to work and repair shoes at night, to the light of a small lamp near the person in-charge of the block, and this after a day's work. In exchange for my night work, I received thick soup from the one in-charge of the block, as well as bread, potatoes, etc. My condition improved and I did not suffer from starvation any more. The truth is, that even before this, we got potatoes and cabbage (from the field and the rurals' barns) from time to time. We cooked soup in a big pot on a bonfire, which I usually lit. (I had experience that I acquired from my mother, as well as in scout camps near Ostrolenka.) Therefore, the Germans gave me the nickname Feuermeister (fire artist). They sometimes used those bonfires.
Meanwhile, news reached us of the defeat of the Germans. We were witness to the swift rout of the Germans. Although they left behind all the trenches and excavations we prepared for them, the Germans did not forget us. We returned to the camp and left the city of Narva. I even managed to build a sled for myself quickly (according to the Ostrolenkan model) and loaded all my work tools on it. We left by foot. On the way, I transferred everything to an abandoned iron sled (the Germans, too, put their knapsacks on it). Together with others, we dragged the sled along the difficult road, in the bitter cold. After a day, we reached Kivioli. There were two camps there, Number 1 and Number 2. We settled in the second. When I went to work, I met prisoners from the first camp, among them many from the Vilna Ghetto, and most important my younger brother, Chaim. Our meeting was extremely emotional. From him, I heard of the murder of our parents in Ponary, and of the escape to the forests, to the partisans, of my two older brothers (Meir and Zalman) and my girlfriend, Szprinca.
There, in Kivioli, we worked in a factory for the extraction of oil from yellow, bituminous rocks. Conditions there were also very hard. There were two commanders, S.S. Commander Wirke and another. When only one of them was present, the situation was tolerable. But when they were together, each one wanted to prove the extent of his cruelty to the other, and so they beat us mercilessly and tortured us cruelly with all kinds of exercises. Of course, the older and weaker ones among us could not hold out
Stubbornly and unswervingly, I fought to survive. Because I owned work tools, I began fixing shoes in secret at night. One night, Commander Wirke burst into our barrack, shouting, Who here is preventing people from sleeping? I was already prepared to be punished
a flogging, at least but, to my great surprise, he came over and began to take an interest in what I was doing. He asked what I did during the day and left quietly. The next morning, during muster, he called me and told me that from then on, I would work as a shoemaker in the camp. On that very day, he brought me the officer boots of a friend of his, from an air-force unit, to repair. From then on, of course, I was given better food, slept in the workshop and was treated better. Commander Wirke arranged the transfer of my brother, Chaim, to our camp. We were together and he, too, enjoyed better food and treatment, and was sent to do relatively easier work. Things continued thus for a certain period.
At the beginning of the summer of 1944, my brother and I arrived at a new, isolated camp, in the north of Estonia, near the Gulf of Finland. We were only 300 people, men and women. There were four barracks altogether, surrounded by electrified barbed wire, with all the other features of a concentration camp. We all worked in the strip mine. We took out and transported rocks on a small railway, for paving roads and other army installations. The camp commander was none other than that same Panuker we knew from the camp near Narva. Because he had had bitter experience on the subject of lice, he took care that there was a permanent bathhouse at a rural's place in the area. This time, however, hordes of mosquitoes annoyed us, as we were near the ocean. They did not let us sleep or rest after an exhausting day's work. In general, our situation eased a bit, despite the fact that starvation continued to plague us. Meanwhile, summer approached and we got an easier deputy commander, who we nicknamed
Giraffe. (Panuker was more occupied with his personal affairs.) I continued working at shoemaking at night (to the natural light of the polar nights), and therefore received additional food, which I shared with my brother. My situation improved when I decided to work officially as a shoemaker in the camp. This did not continue for a long time, because, meanwhile, the German-Soviet front approached.
We also witnessed the Germans' rapid retreat and saw German soldiers returning wounded from the Leningrad front, with amputated hands and feet. These sights made us joyous and filled our hearts with hope and feelings of revenge. One day, Dr. Bodman came to us from the main headquarters, to carry out a selectionclassification and choose 10% of the weakest, to be taken in trucks. All the rest would be evacuated on foot. I was also intended for transport, because my face looked pale. My pleas, my requests, my declaration that I was healthy and strong, and that I did not want to part from my brother, did not help. When others, too, were not willing to accept his judgment, and demanded that he change it, Dr. Bodman, under heavy pressure, took out a gun and fired in the air as a warning. In this instance, too, my good luck did not disappoint. One of my acquaintances asked me to switch with him, because he did not want to be separated from his older brother and thus I could stay with my brother. I agreed immediately, and arranged things with Giraffe (the man was tall, with a long neck), for whom I repaired shoes.
After muster, all sorts of rumors about the 10% of the prisoners chosen by Dr. Bodman spread. Even the camp's internal Jewish administration, in an effort to calm our mood, finally determined that everyone would leave the camp on foot. After two days, following an order, all of us returned from work in the afternoon. Increased forces of soldiers suddenly arrived at the camp and with shouts and force, threw people on trucks, according to Bodman's list, and drove away with them quickly. That very night, Giraffe told me that if I would have gone with them, I would no longer be alive. At that moment, I understood that my life had been saved again, but at the painful price of another man's life. I had pangs of conscience, but neither of us had known anything this was simply the game of our fates. Late at night, we received additional proof of the elimination and murder when Commander Panuker returned, covered in blood.
After a few days, we arrived at Kivioli by foot, and went from there to Riga by train. From Riga, on the cargo ship Mar de la Plata, we reached Gdansk (Danzig) and from there, by rafts along the length of the Visla, we reached the large and terrible camp in Stutthof, where there was a crematorium. Conditions there were the most frightful, difficult to describe. Not many got out of there alive. Unbearably exhausting work, little food, torture and endless beatings. People simple fell under the yoke. After a month of workdays, they chose 1,000 healthy and strong men from among us, loaded us on open railroad cars and took us north. It was said that we would have to work in mines to extract fuel from rocks for the Baltic Company, which had a similar factory in Kivioli in Estonia. After two days, we arrived in Stuttgart in western Germany.
From the Schonberg railway station, we walked a few kilometers to the Dautmergen concentration (work) camp, surrounded by mountains. It was autumn, and we
were very hungry. On the way, we saw many trees full of fruit. The Germans immediately shot anyone who tried to gather fruit from the ground or pick it from trees. There were many casualties among us then, who we brought with us to the camp. There were already many prisoners in the camp political, criminal and others, from different nations, such as German, Polish, French and Norwegian. From the beginning, I must state that conditions there were most difficult, and that a large number of prisoners did not withstand them. Even at first muster, in the charge of a senior Polish prisoner, Mundak (who reported to the German commanders), we heard curses and terrible forecasts from his mouth:
You, the Jews here will be your end, none of you will leave here alive. In actuality, the senior prisoners ruled the camp. Their conditions were better. They wore high rubber boots and did relatively easier work, for example, in offices and the kitchen, in charge of blocks, etc. Among them were many Poles, French and others who did hard work, like ours. The land in the area was muddy and, in many places, one could sink to one's knees, because water flowed continually from the mountains. Our work was extremely exhausting. We had to prepare concrete and take it in hand barrows through lanes leading, in a high, winding line, to the mountains. We also worked at erecting steel structures. Food was poor and insufficient; there were terrible housing conditions. In the barracks, formerly stables, we lay on triple bunk beds. Lice moved from one to the other without stop. There was no clean water, not for drinking and not for washing. Therefore, we drank from pits into which water flowed from the mountains. We went to the nearby village to wash and, there, after a long wait, we got disinfected clothes (this happened only after the arrival of a more humane commander). To all this must be added many curses and cruel beatings. It is no wonder, then, that people felt bad, and were weak, hungry and exhausted. Many of us could not stand these conditions. Despite everything, we finished building the factory and even began producing fuel.
Like others, I arrived at the camp weak, despairing and, of course, hungry. I thought this would be my last stop. At the very beginning, wandering around near the kitchen, I noticed a prisoner with a big stick in his hand, guarding a pile of potatoes. I approached him, and looked at him. This healthy man turned to me angrily,
Run away from here fast, before you get a blow on the head from me with this stick. Then our glances met, and I addressed him personally: Mr. Wacek Staczulski, will you be able to do what you say? He demanded again that I move away immediately. And I: Mr. Wacek, you must recognize me, too. I have not touched anything. I just want to check whether my brain is still working.
Wacek lowered the stick and asked, Who are you? And I answered him, I am the son of the shoemaker, Arcie, from Ostrolenka. You, Sir, bought from us size 45 'English' boots in our house, on the last night before the expulsion from Ostrolenka. Together with my grandfather, I am the one who brought them from where they were hidden at 1 Czlopicki Street.
Yes, he said, it is I, Wacek, and I also remember you and especially your father. And now, get out of here, but tell me where you are to be found and I will come to you at night. And that is what happened. To my amazement, the in-charge of Block 2, the Pole Bolek, called me to the entrance at night, and there Wacek waited for me, with a big four-liter pitcher of thick soup. From then on, he brought me a pitcher full of soup every night, because he worked in the kitchen. (Pitchers like them are in the museum in Auschwitz, because Hungarian Jews collected goose fat in them for the trip, as they thought they were going to work.) At that time, I thought and, today, looking back, I am certain, that Wacek, at that most critical moment, saved my life, as well as the life of my brother, Chaim, and perhaps the lives of a few more friends, because people fell lifeless from starvation then.
After a time, my condition improved, because I began working as a shoemaker in the camp. And then I could also thank Wacek; I sewed shoes for him and helped him in any way I could.
To understand what that camp was, it should be noted that in March 1945, 23 prisoners were murdered there (one of them was hung) German priests, Soviet officers and others, who had arrived there the month before.
In the final phase of the war, in the [second] half of April 1945, when the Allied forces advanced toward us, an order was given to evacuate all prisoners by foot in a march toward the Dachau concentration camp. Even before, the factories at Dautmergen were bombed from the air and completely destroyed. Our march was difficult and very dangerous, because the German
guards fired on the spot at anyone who deviated from accepted military order. It was no wonder that many casualties were left along the way. After a few days' march, my brother, Chaim, did not feel well. He was very weak. (I was also weak, but less than he.) Therefore, we found a hiding place in the attic of a small house in the town of Symaringen. After a few days there, we were liberated by the French, on 22 April 1945. We were very happy and excited, and very weak. In the beginning, it was hard to believe we were free men again!
After a short time, we arrived at the German- Austrian-Swiss border, and succeeded in crossing into Switzerland. There I was told by the French military rabbi about the partisans from Vilna in the area of Milano (Milan) in Italy. I was told that my two brothers (Meir and Zalman) survived as partisans and had joined the Jewish Nakam Unit led by Abba Kovner (the poet and former leader of the partisans), operating in Germany, particularly against members of the S.S. A group of Nakam members and I settled near the headquarters of the Jewish Brigade (which fought alongside the Allied forces) in Belgium. We operated from there, but in Brigade uniforms.
In 1946, I left Europe and arrived in Israel (then Palestine, under the British Mandate) as a stowaway on a passenger ship, the André Libanne. I disembarked at Haifa, in the guise of a fuel porter. I was accepted by Kibbutz Ein HaChoresh in the center of the country, and there met my three brothers Meir, Zalman and Chaim. It is hard to describe our feelings at this meeting. After a year, I settled in Holon (a Tel Aviv suburb). Here, my brother, Zalman, and I opened a shoemaking workshop. At the same time, I signed up with and worked in the Haganah military organization. In 1948, I was drafted into the Israeli Army as a combat soldier in the 45th Infantry Battalion, Kiryati, in mine activation. I participated in the War of Independence in various operations. By the end of the war, I had achieved the rank of sergeant. Together with my unit, I operated in the area of Jerusalem.
At the end of 1949, I was released from the army and married Ester from Lubartow. I am the father of three sons and the grandfather of seven grandchildren. I operate a small factory which produces orthopedic shoes, made according to three of my own known patents. Our products are sold in Germany and the United States, among other places.
From the outset, I will say that I am not an historian, an expert on nations, a psychologist, a legal prosecutor or a hero. I was a young Ostrolenkan, of the
common folk, a Polish citizen of the faith of Moses, very attached to the city of my birth and my second homeland Poland. But with all my might, in my heart and soul, I was bound to my nation and first homeland the Land of Israel. In fact, I was a simple soldier of my people, ready to fight for its honor and its historical homeland and even to sacrifice my life, if necessary. There were very many people like me at the time of the Holocaust. I did everything possible to survive and stay alive, but I never strayed from the straight and narrow toward activities that deviated from my conscience. I was always ready to fight for my needs, but also and especially for the interests of the Jewish People. Therefore, when I arrived in Israel immediately after the war, I reacted with pain when Israelis repeatedly asked us Why did you go like lambs to the slaughter? Why didn't you fight? Looking at myself and seeing myself as an example, I know that to anyone who looked at the Holocaust from the outside and asked, this is a justifiable question, and not a small one. Anyone who was in that inferno, however, knows that the real answer to that question is very complex and, for those who ask it, hard to comprehend. During the years following the war, with the increasing interest and thought, and
research being conducted in Israel and other countries, this question is not asked in its initial form any more. In general, the tragedy of the Holocaust is evaluated and examined in a completely different light. In any event, I have told the whole truth about what I went through, what I saw and what I thought. My thoughts are based solely on my personal experience.
Already in September 1941, after we were transferred to the Vilna Ghetto and after the first mass murders in the Ponary Forests, we knew that the entire Jewish nation was sentenced to extermination by Nazi Germany. Therefore, we began to undergo and learn combat training, and to prepare for the struggle and resistance. Later, when sad and chilling news reached us of mass murders in various areas of Lithuania and Belarus, and especially of the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto, we were certain that we were sentenced to annihilation in Vilna, too. Therefore, after our armed battle with the Lithuanian police in July 1943, we freed our beloved commander, Icchak Wittenberg, from their hands. Our tragedy reached its peak, however, when he came under the intense pressure of the Judenrat and the ghetto's population. With the F.P.O.'s agreement, he was forced to present himself to the ghetto's police. When he was arrested, he committed suicide. Later, when the Germans began abducting people to Estonia, the situation reached armed resistance again. Another F.P.O. commander, Jechiel Szejnboim, fell in battle. The call of the underground to resistance and general rebellion was not accepted by the Judenrat (under the leadership of Gens). An reaction awoke in the population, afraid that such a rebellion would lead to the total destruction of the ghetto, which numbered more than 20,000 souls. It was under these circumstances that our unit, numbering 250 people, presented itself according to plan, to fight using underground methods, and was evacuated and sent by force to concentration and work camps in Estonia.
This is the big question: Why did they not fight with all their strength in the Vilna Ghetto? The answer to this question is complicated and even more difficult!
1. I thought then and, especially now in Israel, I think that the entire strategy of the F.P.O. and its leadership was incorrect and unrealistic, at least until the last period. Not to mention the fact that, after the tragic death of Wittenberg, a brave and charismatic leader did not arise. The accepted strategy was based on preparation for armed rebellion, and for an armed uprising in the ghetto in the event of a large aktzia against the population. In light of the enclosed, small territory and the constant presence of the police and the army against the wretched, unarmed population, constantly humiliated the chances of the ghetto's warriors were less than zero. Battling and uprising with any chance of success was possible only outside the ghetto, in the partisan units in the forest, and this had to be already planned by the end of 1941. Under the ghetto war plan, we became, in fact, hostages in the hands of the cruel, murderous and devious Germans, because the fate of the entire population was contingent on our every movement and certainly on an armed uprising. It is enough to note that of our 250 members in Unit No. 2, fifteen remained in the ghetto. Of the 1,000 young and healthy people evacuated to the Dautmergen camp, about 100 remained. If, out of those who escaped, organized and fought in the forests, 1,000 survived, that is many more than those in the ghetto.[Page 364]
2. A second and important thing is that the situation in the Vilna Ghetto from the beginning of 1942 until late spring 1943 was relatively stable and organized. With the consent of the Germans, even plays were held in the Yiddish theater. Orchestra concerts were held and a social committee operated. Fourteen thousand people, about two-thirds of the populace, worked and engaged in productive work for the German war effort. All this contributed to calming the situation and strengthening the chances of survival of the members of the Judenrat and the population. For after all, and despite everything that had occurred until then, the Germans were known and recognized as a cultured and progressive nation among the nations of the world. Many, and among them my father, still remembered them in a good light since World War I. It was almost inconceivable that, precisely in the heart of Europe, they had decided to murder our entire nation, as well as other nations.
3. Third, let us return to the other possibility, a guerilla war of the partisans in the forests. We must not forget for even a moment that we did not have any weapons at all, and that, without weapons, it was impossible to join the partisans or even live in the forest. All sorts of robbers and groups of Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Poles and others swarmed there and, first and foremost, searched for Jews with
the intentions of theft and murder. Most important, the area was very hostile and, in the best case, indifferent to our tragedy. So, in fact, we were forced to fight not only Germans.
4. And another thing many of us were bound to our families, our children, our elderly and/or weak parents. How was it possible, in so dangerous a situation, to leave them to their fate and save ourselves? In the most obvious instances, when it was clear that death awaited us, many preferred to share the fate of relatives and families.
5. Fifth, Nazi Germany was then the strongest power in Europe and the world, controlling all of Europe and almost all the world. Following a meticulous and absolute program, it had decided to carry out the genocide of an unarmed, starved and weakened nation, and this without apparent reason. To carry out the plot, it used ingenious and devious means. In addition, and not less important, the murderous work of this power was accepted and supported by masses of helpers, volunteers from among European nations, such as Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others.
Was it possible to expect any other results, in light of the items enumerated here? We must stress the fact that the only concentration camp where an uprising bore fruit was Sobibor, a camp designated solely for Jews. There were other concentration camps for Soviet war prisoners in Mauthausen, Austria, where a rebellion also broke out, ending in total defeat. The Jewish people demonstrated its readiness and ability to fight to the whole world when it was recruited in all the armies that fought against the Germans in World War II and, later, in the War of Independence, for the right of the State of Israel to exist. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising should also be mentioned here, when Jewish fighters sacrificed their lives, first and foremost, to protect their honor and the honor of the entire Jewish people.
If we are talking about me of myself I think, as my brothers do, that we survived primarily due to our profession, shoemaking, which was useful and necessary for the Germans then. (I remember my father's words: This profession will not make you rich, but it will always ensure your daily bread.) To this must be added my ability to decide and act, as well as my natural optimism, which prevented me from breaking down psychologically. In addition, and especially in three instances thanks to fate. As for my youth, health and good physical condition, all these qualities together could not guarantee anyone's life then. And finally, I am unable to explain the favor of fate and other metaphysical forces.
After I came from Dereczyn and Slonim to Vilna, and then to Israel, I often pondered and thought about my behavior then, and even more, of the German, Fischer. That trip could have ended in disaster for all of us. At first, Sergeant Fischer must have thought about the gift for his mother. I, too, thought first about my mother, of seeing her and of the possibility of saving her. That is, we had a special and mutual feeling for our mothers, he a son of a nation of murderers, and I, a son of a nation sentenced to destruction. In addition, he, as a transport unit officer, was surely used to different trips and experiences. His behavior during our trip to Dereczyn and the Slonim Ghetto, however, testified that he was not overly poisoned by anti-Semitism, but that there dwelled in him not a little exalted humane feeling.
I do not have the answer, however, to another question how would Fischer the German have acted in other circumstances?
I will never forget my chance meeting in the concentration camp in Germany with Wacek Staczulski, of blessed memory, a Polish Christian from my city of Ostrolenka, and, especially, his noble actions toward me. This is for three reasons. First, there can be no doubt that he saved my life and that of my brother, Chaim. Second, in the reality of the concentration camp, he demonstrated toward me the great strength latent in our both belonging to the city of our birth, Ostrolenka. Third, performing his noble and most dangerous deeds in such a camp, he risked his life. I will say even more: his noble deeds constitute proof for me, that the shared, common life of the Jews and Poles in Ostrolenka was not completely in vain. It must also be said that, with his deeds, Wacek Staczulski saved the honor of the Polish nation. In that very same camp, another Pole, Mundak, already from the first muster, prophesied extermination and annihilation for the Jewish prisoners.
After the war, I maintained contact with Wacek. We even sent each other pictures and I tried to send him gifts for Christian holidays. In August 1991, at the time of the unveiling of the monument in memory of the Jews of Ostrolenka, I visited his family, but Wacek Staczulski was no longer alive. May his memory be blessed. May he rest in peace in paradise, in that special place for Righteous Gentiles!
As to the fate of our family:
My parents were murdered in the last phase of the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto in September 1943. To this day, the question tortures me: Why did not my father, at least, succeed in escaping and reaching the partisans he was still relatively young, health and strong.
My older brother, Mosze-Beniamin, was killed, together with his wife, Necha, and their baby in the Slonim Ghetto (it may be that he fell with the partisans).
My two brothers, Meir and Zalman (see the following pages) survived among the partisans. They came to Israel and raised families here.
My younger brother, Chaim, who I brought from Dereczyn, and who was with me in the camps until the liberation, lives in the United States. He has raised a family and runs a plumbing concern there.
I must note here that, despite the loss of our parents and my eldest brother's family, our family is unusual, because the remaining four of us stayed alive. Above all, of most of the Jewish families from the Ostrolenka that was on pre-war Polish land there is no remaining trace. At best, only individuals survived the Holocaust. For example, of all our many relatives who lived near the city of Ostrolenka, only one cousin from the village of Mlynarska remained alive. He lives in the United States.
After the war, in 1956, I gave testimony at a trial against Nazi criminals in Germany Eschingen versus the commanders of the Dautmergen concentration camp and their helpers.
Commander Hofmann (who came from Auschwitz) was sentenced to life imprisonment. Hofmann's deputy, named Kruth (who also came from Auschwitz), who was responsible for all the Polish prisoners because he spoke Polish, was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.
The conclusion. I went through all sorts of experiences and vicissitudes of fate. The cycle of my life began in Ostrolenka, the city of my birth, and closed in Israel, the old-new homeland. That is, a Jewish youth from Ostrolenka, who always dreamed of his homeland, Israel, and finally reached it not by a straight road, but by a tortuous road as a tortured Jew, via the Vilna Ghetto, via concentration camps in Estonia, Poland and Germany who even got the chance to fight for the independence of the State of Israel. This fact heals all the suffering and pain of the past, and fills me with pride and peace of mind. The dreams of the days of my childhood and youth have finally been confirmed and fulfilled in the last phase of my life, which clearly and finally determines my identity.
How painful and what a shame it is, that so many young men and women of our dear Jewish nation did not attain this exalted moment, were not able to live in their independent homeland, Israel.
May their memories be blessed!
Fajwel Serok, Bat Yam, Israel
(In memory of my father, Eliezer Dawid Serok, and my brother, Jakow Serok)
At the age of 32, I am attempting to remember things that happened to me between the ages of four to ten, especially events of my early childhood that are engraved in my memory forever.
I remember how my father took me to the heder for the first time at the age of four, and how the angel threw me a candy The heder was near the pig market in the Benedon area. The house was divided into two by a partition of wooden boards. In one part was a grocery store where the Gentiles bought their staples on market days and, in the second part, was the heder. We sat there, a quorum of children, on benches around a long table. A whip in his hand, the Rebbe sat at the head of the table and taught us the alphabet. Sometimes, he left us and helped his wife with her business with the Gentiles in the market. We, the students, repeated meanwhile kamatz alef aw [rote learning of lettervowel combinations]
When the tumult and enthusiasm in the heder increased, he would burst in, waving his whip right and left Later, recess came and, like sparrows, we all went out in the direction of the pig market and the water pipe, and played different games.
Instead of a bell to signal that recess was over, the Rebbe ran around and shouted aloud that we should go back into the heder. But we played hide and seek, and did not want to return to our studies.
Thus ended my first year of schooling in Ostrolenka. After that, I entered Talmud Torah in the first grade, with the teacher Jaloszke. My second teacher was Mendel Brodacz; the third Jechiel, and after him, Lazer Chanoch the Warszawa. Everything happened in the blink of an eye, and then the period of troubles, suffering and torture began.
How good it is to remember my young years in a world that was and is no more, the quiet moments of our past. Tears flow even at the memory of a fragment of our personal lives. Here is the Talmud Torah, with the study hall and the community shtebl, the old, destroyed synagogue and, opposite it, the burial society's ark [coffin], conveying the holiness of a small town that, like a big city, contained a whole world.
World War II broke out. Everything holy to us was defiled in the coarsest and cruelest way possible. When the Germans invaded our city, they ordered all the Jews to leave their homes. I went into the Talmud Torah then, to part from its familiar walls, from the bench I sat on for so many years. I was drawn there, to look at everything for the last time, although I knew I would not find anyone there. Everything was neglected and abandoned. In the street, they were publicly burning Torah scrolls, and Jewish blood flowed They indiscriminately fired at adults and children, whose only guilt was that they belonged to the nation that You have chosen Why is it forbidden for Jews to ask questions? How were the Ten Martyrs [ten rabbis martyred by the Romans during the period of the Second Temple destruction] answered behind the curtain: This is my decree, accept it! If not I will turn the world into chaos. It is forbidden to ask.
When I left the Talmud Torah, a spectacle appeared before me that shook me to the depths of my soul. It was the most appalling moment of my life: the old, wise man I loved my father, of blessed memory stood in the entrance of the community shtebl and a German, may his name be eradicated, cut off his beard. Another German memorialized this event with a movie camera. My father stood like a hero and did not look into the German's eyes, but doubtless, his heart bled at that moment. I stood petrified and dumbfounded near the wall of the Talmud Torah and did not know how to act. Should I go to my father and hug him, or run to my mother and tell her what had happened? God in Heaven, if I could have, I would have strangled the two Germans and ripped them to shreds. Instead, I ran, crying bitterly.
This was just a drop in the vast ocean of our suffering. We were a large, extensive family. I had a grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins. None of them remained alive, not even my brother, Jakow Serok, of blessed memory, a prodigy who had received rabbinical ordination. Like thousands of Ostrolenkans, they were
not buried in a Jewish cemetery according to Jewish tradition.
Where will I find the proper words to express my cry of despair?!
May this Yizkor book perpetuate the [Jewish] Community of Ostrolenka, and may the following simple words, from the depths of my heart, be an eternal monument to our martyrs. Remember always and never forget! Remember and be comforted in the building of our State the State of Israel!
Chaim Drezner, Bnei Brak
Friday, early morning. My head is as heavy as lead, my feet cannot carry my body, which shrivels more and more every day. My eyes are red from sleepless nights, and my constant thought is From where will my help come?
I go to the window looking out on Ostrowa Street, draw the curtain, and try to open it. The sun has not yet risen. Perhaps it also rebels and does not wish to extend its golden rays over a world so sinful.
I have almost forgotten what happened here two days ago, when the bearers of the culture of Europe, the members of the superior race and their whores invaded Jewish homes, broke and smashed closets, drawers and mirrors, and stole clothes and valuables without restraint. Clothes, undergarments, bed linens that Jewish mothers had sewn, embroidered and meticulously safeguarded as a dowry for their daughters all this was defiled and stolen by the impure hands of the Nazi beasts.
I remember a normal Friday in Ostrolenka. Pictures of yesterday rise before me from the sparkling daily life of the city, still quivering. I see Lew's bakery on Ostrowa Street. The window on the second floor is open and there sits the mara d'atra, the Rabbi of the city, Rabbi Icchak Bursztejn, of blessed memory, a Torah scholar and author of important books. Even before morning prayers, he has studied the Debates of Abaye and Rava. Then the beadle, Yonatan, arrives. His beard and moustache have already lost their natural color and are yellowed from frequent tobacco sniffing. He takes the Rabbi's prayer shawl bag and accompanies him to the big study hall.
From the courtyard of Srolke Szron's house and the narrow alley, Reb Irmijahu Grynberg, the Jewish law adjudicator, comes out, also on his way to morning prayers after having already studied the Talmud or the Commentaries. The large study hall resembles, lehavdil! [but different!], a big railway station with trains going in and out, as Jews with big prayer shawl bags stream into it from all parts of the city. Friday is market day and the Jewish people need to make a living. Before they get down to secular business, however, they must commune with the Lord of the Universe. Before one minyan [prayer quorum] finishes, another has already begun.
Not far from here is the yeshiva. The windows are open and young men sit, bent over large Gemara tomes, occupied by the Debates of Abaye and Rava. What takes place in the street does not interest them. The most important thing is to repair the world under God's sovereignty, trust and faith, and to observe eat your bread with salt and place your efforts in Torah.
Here comes old Granowicz, opening his workshop and waiting until Szymon Czapnikiewicz arrives, wearing a short coat and shining boots, with his stick in his hand satisfied, quiet and serene. After an unrestrained Good morning, they go into the store, sit down and converse until the apprentices arrive. Then they get to work with great energy.
Opposite, Szmuelik Markiewicz opens his store. With a corner of his beard in his mouth, he looks with pleasure at the women's coats displayed in his store window, as if they were the latest fashion fresh from Paris. Pinie Gedanken comes from Siwak's house, hurrying to the printers and to the paper store of Jankele Krymkiewicz (Bolshevik), who waits for him at the door and treats him to a fragrant cigarette, which Jankele has made from the finest tobacco. They chat for a few minutes and then Josele Lewkowicz arrives,
straight from the early risers' minyan, with his big prayer shawl bag, and he, too, gets his daily dose. Joska Jabek stands on the opposite pavement, near his shop, and sips his glass of tea with pleasure.
I feel like running to Krawiec's courtyard, to the butchers with their white aprons and their long knives in their hands, ritually preparing meat for the Sabbath. From there, a glance at Skrobacz's house near the bridge, at the fishermen near the bridge, at the live fish flapping in baskets, as if they were trying to jump back into the river. From there, to the pig market, where the Jews have now spread their wares on stalls small sewing notions and cheap fabrics. Like an uncrowned king, Symczele Dublin wanders among the wagons and horses with a straw in his mouth, dressed in a musty smock shiny with dirt, feeling the bags of grains in the farmers' wagons. Where are Paja (Perkal) and her two daughters, standing guard in order to take the empty bags from the farmers almost by force, and fill them with sugar, salt and different grains.
And where is Sara Hinda, dragging pitchers of milk? All week she bears the yoke quietly. Her voice is heard only on Fridays: Women, quickly, give me your pots! Today is Friday and I have to prepare for the Sabbath!
Srolke Szron opens the rear gate of his courtyard and in come the wagons of Jewish carters, loaded with merchandise, slates and coal. If a horse is too lazy to carry a load, the carters themselves lend a shoulder on all four sides, and the wagon moves from its place, almost without the horse's help.
On Ostrowa Street, the Jewish carriage owners stand on their high seats, each on a different corner. Today is Friday, and the Jews are not going to the train, but perhaps there will be a chance trip to Kaczyny?
Motel Jakres sits and his lips whisper something apparently, he has not finished his prayers in the study hall. Icze Meir holds an old evening newspaper in his hand and reads studiously, sitting at his ease in his big carriage with the iron wheels. All the other carriages have already been equipped with rubber wheels, but Icze Meir does not accept the new fashion. He does not drive to the railway station with less than a minyan of passengers.
Later, Jewish children, fresh from a night's sleep and with their knapsacks on their backs, hurry in different directions: some of them to the government school located in the house of Lejbel Sredni, some to the Yavneh School, others to the Talmud Torah in the study hall courtyard. A few of the company are late in arriving, because they were praying in the synagogue and grabbed hold of Mosze Sechtoni, who sang Tzur Yisrael.
Suddenly, Fiszel Goldwaser's truck arrives from Warsaw, loaded with merchandise for the Jewish stores. The broad-shouldered porters, already a little bent from years of carrying loads, are ready to lend their backs to lugging any load.
On the sidewalk near the post office, is Fiszel, with the young, thin bookkeeper, Icchak Dancyger, who does not seem to know how to open his mouth, although on the High Holy Days, his pleasant prayers bring thoughts of repentance. The two of them follow the truck on the sidewalk without exchanging a word, as if they were angry at each other. In the stores near the market square, they wait for customers. The farmers from the villages have not yet sold the merchandise they brought to the city, so they are in no hurry to buy, and Jewish customers do not come on Fridays.
Walking back and forth are Icel Sojka, with his prayer shawl bag under his arm, and Aron Zusman, a Bund representative, who, in his outward appearance and clothing looks like a poretz, but in his soul is a true representative of the workers. Stubbornly and diligently, he fights for the improvement of the workers' condition. Apparently, in the coming days, the city council will deliberate on some Jewish issue, and, despite the differences in their outlooks, they are consulting as to how to protect the Jews.
It is ten o'clock. The train from Warsaw has arrived. Our cultural worker, Jechezkel Kilinski, with the delicate facial features. Under his arm, a bundle of newspapers and notebooks, and around him some of his many children. He also carries around with him thick account books that he inherited from his father, in which are written the debts of those who take newspapers on credit, in the event that perhaps someone will want to pay his debt
What happened? Who could have stopped the lives of the Jews of Ostrolenka on one Friday with such a cruel hand? I hear the heavy steps of hobnailed boots. The sound is familiar to me from somewhere. They are the steps of a modern Haman, who has made it his goal to destroy and to cause all the Jews to perish.
It is twelve o'clock. I look out of the window and see Jews passing along the walls of the houses, like shadows, reading a sad verdict with tear-filled eyes, that the Jews must leave the city within two hours. For
generations they have lived here together grandparents, parents and grandchildren, born and educated in the same city. The gravestones in the cemetery testify that for hundreds of years, Jews lived here and helped build the city. Is there such a force, each of us thinks, that can expel us from our established homes, which we have built with our own hands? Like birds pasting grains of sand one to another, we, too, built our nests. Where is virtue and justice?
Meanwhile, the farmers came with their wagons and horses, and waited with pleasure until the Jews paid them 15 or 20 times more than the regular fee to load the children with the bundles and take them out of the city, which they built with the sweat of their brows. Whoever did not have the amount demanded had to give them everything that was dear and holy in their eyes, an inheritance from a father and a grandfather, in order to leave the city as quickly as possible. These were no longer familiar farmers. The Jews were strangers to them now. A long time ago, it seemed that every Gentile had his Jew, and that he would be ready to give his soul to save him.
How could people created in God's image, who lived for generations with Jews we thought we were engrained in them how could they shed their skins overnight and show them coldness and cruelty?
With wagons loaded with bundles and children, we left the city. Parents walked behind wagons like a living funeral. Tears choked their throats. Many did not restrain themselves, and burst into bitter tears. The children sobbed in one great chorus. Their heartrending cries reached the heart of the heavens. Like a stone torn from the ground, we became one great weeping mass, moving toward an unknown fate. When we left the last street, the desire to turn my head and cast a last look at the place where we were born and educated woke in me. We did not have a chance to visit our parents' graves, to bid farewell to mother and father, and tell them that we had to leave them and did not know whether we would return to visit their graves and shed a tear there.
I think in my heart: where now is the great mourner, for example, Irmijahu (Jeremiah), who will take in the terrible spectacle and perpetuate it in the history of the Jews, so replete with blood and tears?
Night has descended, we are leaving Wojciechowice. Today is Friday, Sabbath Eve! Memories arise: not long ago, on a similar evening, crowds of Jews left the study hall, dressed in Sabbath clothes, happy and joyous. The Sabbath hovered over us and pervaded everything. The sweet song of Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah was heard, and everyone rushed home to the modest, yet festive meals that the mothers had prepared with grace and love. The smells of the food filled the air. Shalom Aleichem Malachei HaSharet [Peace be with you, Ministering Angels].
Now, in place of joy mourning, tears and lamentation. All pray that the angels who accompanied us and protected us on our way home from Sabbath prayers, will accompany us now on our road of pain and save us from extermination, so that we may again establish our homes, so tragically destroyed and annihilated.
Taking the Testimony of Wolf Wisocki, Weiren, 1917
From 1940-1945 in Russia
On Monday, 10 September 1939, I left Wyszkow, where I had hidden in a pit in a farmer's field. An acquaintance of my father's came to me and told me that the Germans found all the Jewish men and had shot them. The Germans were promising to give gifts to anyone who turned in a hidden Jew.
I went though the forest, on winding paths, and on Wednesday, 13 September 1939, I reached Goworowo, where our relatives lived. I went to their home and told them about the great disaster that had occurred in our city. They said to me, True, we are still in our home, but we can sense that danger is drawing near us, too. They also told me that soldiers were going around with Polish women, walking into Jewish homes and giving the women anything they liked in them. There were also incidents where they shot some Jews to death, for no reason whatsoever. One elderly woman was shot in her bed. All the Jews were expelled from neighboring towns. This morning, they had been driven away from bread lines near bakeries and had been given severe beatings.
As expected, the catastrophe was not late in coming.
On Friday, 21 September 1939, at ten o'clock in the
morning, soldiers, assisted by the local Catholic population, drove all the Jews out of their homes and into the market square. They did not let them take anything with them. Two soldiers, with thick clubs in their hands, entered the house where I was staying at the time and beat me, with shouts of Raus! (Out!). The woman ran from the house with her two children. In all the confusion, she forgot to take her six-month-old baby, which remained in its cradle. After a minute, she remembered and turned back to take him, but in vain. They would not let her come back in! Crying and pleas did not help. They threatened that if she came into the house, they would kill one of the children outside. Meanwhile, her six-year-old daughter entered the house by the back door and brought the baby out. Throngs of soldiers and local Catholics stood outside, among them, women. They led us to the synagogue, with blows and abuse. Many military personnel were gathered there, among them high-ranking officers. Some of them ran about with guns in their hands, ready to fire. Others, with sticks and whips, made us run to the synagogue, which was already full, including the women's section and the attic.
At a certain point, they locked the two entry doors and sealed the windows with boards. We screamed loudly, but they continued their work. Army convoys passed near the building. They must certainly have heard our cries of distress, but they did not stop. Jews who were in the attic said that many of them asked the soldiers what was happening. When they were told, they burst out laughing and continued on their way. Suddenly, we saw thick smoke and flames coming out of the other side of the synagogue. We waited for a terrible death. It was clear that they were about to burn us alive. Many tried to break the doors down, but in vain. Suddenly, one door opened. We burst out. While fleeing, we trampled some elderly people. After we were saved from a terrible death, the Nazis told us how it had happened. By chance, a senior military man had passed by in his car, and asked what was happening. When he saw what they were about to do to us, he said, That is too cruel!, and ordered them to open the doors immediately. Each of us wanted to rush home, but they blocked our way. They held us in the street for a few hours and we watched as the synagogue and some nearby houses burned down. Then they drove us (approximately 1,500 people) into an open field outside the city, with threats that they would shot anyone trying to escape. One woman asked, How can we get food here for ourselves and our children? One of the officers answered that we were sentenced to die!
A few brave ones escaped to look for food and even reached their own homes, but found them empty. Gentiles were already living in a few of them.
At night, Gentiles from nearby villages came to us in secret, and brought us bread, milk and a bale of hay to lie on. On the third day, two soldiers came and ordered us to leave, stressing that if a Jew would be found in the city or nearby he would be executed. Some went to Ostrow and Maz, but most turned toward Ostrolenka. We walked in small groups, through fields and forests. We were afraid to walk on the main roads. When we passed through villages, there were farmers who pitied us and gave us slices of bread. Others chased us away, adding that we should thank them for not turning us over to the Nazis, as they had been ordered to do with any Jews they caught.
Toward evening, we reached Ostrolenka. Quietly, we sneaked into the city, but we did not find a single Jew there. We went into one of the empty, ruined houses and stayed there all night. The next morning, we went out into the street. No one bothered us. Gentiles even brought us bread and potatoes, in exchange for suitable payment. We hoped to pass the winter this way. Some even thought of finding work, in order to earn a living.
One day (it was during Succot [a holiday]), we gathered in one of the houses to pray. Suddenly, we heard a cry of distress from the street. We saw Jews being beaten and expelled to the Russian border, four kilometers distant. We wanted to run home to get some food, but all the ways were blocked. Only the road to Russia was open. Outside the city, we met all the Jews. They told us that they had been robbed of everything money, jewels and valuables. We were about 500 people. We crossed the Russian border and breathed with relief.
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