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[Page 219]

The Campaign of Annihilation
and Destruction in Podhajce

by Shoshana Haber

Translated by Jerrold Landau

I was an alumna of the Hashomer Hatzair chapter in our city. I studied sewing, and I was 16 years old when the Nazi persecution of the Jews began. As a seamstress, I received a special permit from the Germans as a “useful Jew”, like other Jewish tradesmen who worked for the Germans. The workplace was located outside the ghetto and called the “work camp”. People were transferred there in the company of a German guard.

At first, the work camp was located in the large house of the Bursztyner Rebbe. However, after some time, a “selection” was conducted, for it became clear that among the workers with “certificates of importance” there were also people without specific trades. The camp shrunk and was transferred to Dr. Heller's house on Pilsudski Street (formerly “The Street of the Vehicle”). Later, further aktions and selections took place. Once again the camp was shrunk and was transferred to the home of the Weinless family in the center of the city, which was well fenced in. The camp remained there until its liquidation, after the time when the Nazis had declared the city as Judenrein. We went to work with a Magen David badge on our sleeves. Girls were forced to cut their hair. I had long, beautiful plaits of hair, and I did not cut them off, but rather covered them with a kerchief. This enabled me to leave the ghetto on numerous occasions without the Magen David badge in order to obtain food during the times of great hunger in the ghetto, or a bit of milk for the children during the plagues of typhus and illnesses that plagued the ghetto.

At times I fled from the ghetto with my long hair, when news arrived from neighboring towns about an impending aktion. I hid with Christians whom I knew from before the war. My father worked for many years as an expert and supervisor in the forests of the region, and he often had helped those people with whom I found refuge. I often gave over to these “good” people the rest of my money or other possessions that I still had from home in return for the hiding place, or I had to sew something for them or weave a sheet. After I finished my work they hastened to send me out, without concern for the danger that lurked around.

I remember that once during the large aktion that took place slightly before the “cleansing of the city from Jews”, the Gestapo men entered the work camp in the Weinless house and shot them all next to their work machines. I lay on the floor as a corpse. Since I had a wound from before, the murderers thought that I had already received a bullet, and apparently did not want to waste another bullet on a Jewess. Thus I was saved by a veritable miracle.

My father was murdered already at the beginning of the occupation in 1941, before the ghetto was established. The Germans searched the Jewish houses to take people to work camps outside of Podhajce, and my father, who was already quite old (older than sixty) and sickly, lay in a bed, and was not able to rise from it. The Germans shot him in bed and killed him. Numerous similar deeds of murder were perpetrated that day. A fenced in ghetto was established a short time later, on two side streets that join the main street, all of whose houses belonged to Jews.

For all the days of my life, I will never forget the frightful scene at the time of the transfer of the residents from their houses to the cramped ghetto. Everyone, including the elderly, women and children, took all kinds of belongings in their hands, on their backs and on their heads. The Germans and their Ukrainian assistants stood at the side and laughed. A number of those being transferred received death blows because they lagged behind in the transfer of their property. The local Christian population and farmers from nearby villages gathered to purchase goods or to pilfer without payment. The worst part was at the end of the transfer, at nightfall, when the Germans realized that there were too many Jews, and the place was not large enough for them on the two streets that were designated for the ghetto. (This was due to the fact there were Jews from outside of Podhajce in the city, who came there from the neighboring towns and villages. Even before the command of the Germans, Jews had already gathered in the city to find refuge from the Ukrainians, who began to murder the Jews already at the beginning of the war). Then they began to shoot at anyone they wanted to as they were entering the ghetto. Several hundred Jews were murdered that day.

My mother was murdered in the large aktion in 1942. Then, the Germans snatched several hundred Jews, brought them to the train station and loaded them on train cars that were practically hermetically sealed, without provision of water and with no place to attend to one's bodily needs, crowded like fish in a pot, without air, and sent them to the furnaces of Belzec. During the journey, some people succeeded in cutting some sort of opening and jumping from the trains, to return to the ghetto in Podhajce. The Germans removed my mother along with approximately fifty other people from the bunker that was set up in the Kitner house in the center of the city. That day, several dozen other people were murdered on the spot – the ill, children, or people who attempted to flee. Not all of those who were loaded upon the train reached Belzec. Many suffocated along the way.

Those who were murdered during the aktions lay scattered in the houses or the streets. Only on the second day following the murder were the victims gathered up in their clothes upon wagons and buried together.

I had another brother who was 21 years old. He was taken to the Russian army in 1941, and when they fled eastward, they took him along with

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other youths of his age. He disappeared in Russia. I approached the Red Cross organization and directly to Moscow many times, however to this day I no nothing about him.

The first aktion that took place on Yom Kippur (most of the aktions took place on Sabbaths or festivals) left an unforgettable impression upon me. Many Jews were murdered then. The slaughter was perpetrated by the Germans along with their Ukrainian assistants. Most of the Jews had gathered in the Great Synagogue to worship, and they did not succeed in fleeing. I fled along with my mother to the fields outside the city, and thus was I saved during three aktions, almost miraculously. We almost always suspected an impending aktion, whether through rumors that arrived from the surroundings or other definitive signs. However, we did not always believe it. Those who believed it hastened to flee into the fields and forests, or they entered bunkers that had been previously prepared.

I will never forget the final aktion that took place in 1943, the result of which rendered Podhajce Judenrein. The men were murdered on the spot next to three large pits that were dug outside the city in Holendri. Several hundred men were buried in each one. I hid under the roof in an old, abandoned house, and I was again saved by a miracle. Very few Jews remained alive after this aktion: well connected ones or ones that had been gathered from their hiding places. The Germans took them to cover the communal graves with earth. I was among them. This was a difficult and frightful task. As the large graves were being covered, the earth raised itself again and again. An outstretched limb would be raised, a clod of earth was exposed with a stream of blood that began to seethe literally like boiling water – for most of the victims were naked, men, women and children together, and many of them had barely been shot. At times, a stream of blood began to flow from the pit. Surrounding the place of murder were torn money bills that had been ripped to pieces at the last minute so that they would not fall whole into the hands of the murderers.

Two or three days later, the Germans gathered up the survivors, several dozen Jews who remained alive, and transported them under false pretext to a work camp near Tarnopol under heavy guard of Gestapo men and Ukrainians. Along the way, a distance of several kilometers outside the city in the direction of Tarnopol, next to a small village called Zahajce, they shot them all. I was not among this remnant, for I fled with a Jewish friend from Stanislawow to a field, and from there we went to a small village called Rigailicha, where my friend had an acquaintance named Kranciglowa. We remained there until the liberation of the region by the Russian army. I should point out that this farmer and his friends in this village were not Christian Catholics, but rather members of a small sect whose members believed in the New and Old Testaments together. They were called Subbotniks or Badacze Pisma Swietego (Researchers of the Holy Book). The host farmer advised us often to join their faith. They helped many other Jews as well.

I was freed from the cruel and frightful tribulations in the years 1944-1945, when I found out that very few Jews had survived. I fled from the inimical surroundings, and I made great efforts to burn my bridges behind me, as I fled from the land of darkness and the shadow of death, whose Polish and Ukrainian populations behaved like wild wolves. I went to begin a new life in the State of Israel. I found a fellow native of my city who wished to marry me. I have two successful daughters and my own home. However, my health is frail. The terrible sights that I witnessed do not leave my memory. Everything is etched in my mind as a memorial book, and I often see terrifying visions of murder and death during my sleep. I must use tranquilizers to calm me. I often ask myself from where I drew this great and powerful energy through which I was saved from a cruel death many times? I answered to those who approached me from Yad Vashem, not with great desire, for the task of bringing to the fore these terrifying events that I had endured is very difficult for me. I knew this would cause me again numerous sleepless nights. Only the idea of perpetuating the memory of all of the suffering that was caused to us by the 20th century Amalekites, and to inscribe these memories in the memorial book to our town of Podhajce enchanted me. I thereby fulfil the words of the scriptures, “Remember what Amalek did unto you”.


How I was Saved

by Shoshana Drori (nee Rotstein)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

It was July 1942. Only my brother Pinchas and I remained alive from our entire family. My father of blessed memory was sent to a concentration camp in Kamenetz Podolsk and never returned from there. My mother of blessed memory and my two sisters Susia and Matti (Matilda) were sent to the Belzec death camp. My brother and I lived in the ghetto with Yisrael Waltoch, who had mercy upon us and took us into his home.

The state of those who survived was desperate. We knew that we stood on the threshold of destruction, and all of us had only one thought, how to save our lives.

Since my friend Buzio Nass worked at that time in the work office of the Germans, I told him my plan: to arrive in Germany in the disguise of a Christian. During that time, the Germans enlisted young Christians and sent them to Germany to work in factories for the war effort. They would enlist volunteers for this, and if there were no

[Page 221]

volunteers, they would capture young people on the street, in the churches, or in the movie theaters and send them to work even against their will.

Since I did not look Jewish, I asked my friend Buzio Nass to attempt to “capture” me as well and send me to Germany. Buzio discussed this with his supervisor, a Volksdeutsche by origin, who promised to help actualize this plan in return for a specific sum of money that would come at the appropriate time.

Several months passed, and there was no progress in the actualization of this plan. One bright day, my friend Buzio Nass was killed. One of the German directors of the work office shot him for “sport” and killed him. After his death, I saw no chance of actualizing this plan, and I almost despaired of it.

One day, this Volksdeutsche who promised Buzio at that time to assist in my escape happened to pass through the ghetto by chance. I jumped outside and presented myself before him as the girl about whom Buzio had spoken. Out of feelings of friendship for Buzio and anguish about what would happen to me, he agreed to assist me. There, we set the date and time of the actualization of this plan.

Now I had an urgent problem – to find an appropriate friend who would go out with me on the journey, for I did not want to go on such a long and dangerous journey alone. At the time, I thought that I would take Bluma Stein along with me. She was my neighbor and good friend, and also a friend of Buzio Nass. However, in the interim, Bluma Stein had died of typhus, and her entire family of six had also died in various manners. I looked around me, and my eyes fell upon a friend by the name of Rivka Bin, who was appropriate according to my judgement, since she also did not look Jewish.

The designated day arrived, and late in the evening of that day in the winter of 1942, I and my friend Rivka went out secretly from the ghetto. We had only a small bundle in our hands that contained a piece of bread, soap, and a comb. I will never forget the anguish that I caused to my brother when I left him alone in the ghetto forlorn and abandoned, given over to hunger and hard work. “Can you really leave him?”, I asked myself. My grandmother Perel “the baker”, her daughter Rivcha and her husband Moshe and their three year old child lived nearby. They did not believe at all that I would leave the ghetto, and I myself only barely believed this…

We passed through the gate of the ghetto with the assistance of Melech Kessler, who literally endangered his life on our behalf. As soon as we had left the ghetto, we were captured on the street by a Ukrainian guard who wished to turn us in to the German police. However, his human conscience was aroused, and he gave in to our pleas. He uttered a curse from his mouth and freed us. We went to Davidzinski to sleep that night. According to the plan, the following day he would join us to a work group that was to set out by train to Lvov, and from there to Germany.

The next evening, we walked to the train station accompanied by Davidzinski's twelve year old son. The journey was difficult. We trudged through deep snow. We were hungry, frozen from the cold, and our hearts were full of fear. To our good fortune, the officials did not stop us at the train station, even though many of them recognized us. To this day, I do not know how this transpired, that they allowed us to travel without disturbing us. The hunger afflicted us greatly. We befriended a Polish girl on the journey who had pity on us and assisted us a little.

The holdover in the central transit camp in Lvov was particularly difficult. Every day, girls who were exposed as Jews were discovered and taken out to be murdered by the Gestapo. The girls from our region suspected us as well. Firstly, we were not dressed like them. We wore coats without fur, and the fur covering was missing from the collar. This fact was enough to arouse suspicion about us, for it was known that the Jews were commanded to give over every piece of fur that they owned to the Germans. In addition, we were full of fear, tension and anxiety, which was undoubtedly recognizable in our eyes and the appearance of our faces.

After remaining for two weeks in the transit camp, we finally left the city of Lvov, which was once an important Jewish center, both from an economic and cultural perspective. Our family had a particular connection with Lvov. My grandfather Yeshayahu had died in Lvov in 1936 after a difficult illness and was buried there. When things were normal, my mother would visit Lvov annually on the yahrzeit.

The trip from Lvov to Germany was long and exhausting. We traveled in closed wagons in the company of girls who were mainly from the lowest social class (the educated and well-off girls found ways to avoid being sent for forced labor). Most of them were properly equipped for a long journey, and we had to invent an appropriate story to explain our situation.

We arrived in Germany on December 22, 1942, two days before Christmas. We were put up in the city of Essen in the Ruhr valley, which was an important manufacturing region. We were employed in an aeronautics factory. Our situation was very difficult there as well. The work was hard, the food was scanty, and we had problems in getting accustomed to the customs of the Christians so as not to arouse suspicion about ourselves. There were also other problems, such as the issue of correspondence with relatives. We constructed a detailed biography about ourselves that answered all questions, but we had to be very careful not to confuse it with contradictions. Even there we heard on occasion stories about Jewesses who were exposed and sent to Auschwitz. These stories filled us with fear and trepidation. Close to our camp there was a camp of Polish prisoners of war, who were occupied in building a bridge over the Ruhr River. The issue of relations with the prisoners was also not easy.

Thus did we live and work until the beginning of 1945. With the approach of the Allied Army, there were ever stronger bombardments. It is easy to understand

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that we were very happy at the scenes of ruin and destruction that were caused by the bombardments. However, on the other hand, our source of existence was in great danger. The Germans did not permit us to enter the shelters, and we were forced to remain outside, open to the danger of attack. There was also the suspicion that the Germans would liquidate us before their surrender to the Allied Army.

To our good fortune, these suspicions did not come true. In April, 1945, we were liberated by the Allied Army, which conquered all of Germany. I cannot describe the feelings of joy that filled our hearts after so many years of suffering and danger. After a few months, we joined a camp of Jewish refugees, and in 1947, we made aliya as Maapilim (illegal immigrants).

*

This, in great brevity, is the story of our survival. In this story, of course I skipped over many details that have no place in this memorial book.


Thoughts of a Native of the Land

Translated by Jerrold Landau

I was born in the Land eighteen years ago. I only know about the town of Podhajce from the stories of my father, Avraham Yosef Kressel. Nevertheless, the life of the Jews of that city has always interested me. I have often sat and listened with great interest to the stories of my father about life in the city before its destruction, and about the destruction that he saw when he returned there in 1945, after his liberation from his service in the Soviet Army.

The city was located on a relatively small area, but the scenery of the surrounding area was variegated and wondrously beautiful. The vast majority of the Jewish residents were working people, shopkeepers and craftsmen who earned their livelihoods with difficulty. No small number of them lived in literal poverty, and their prime worry was how to save a few coins to purchase challa and fish for the Sabbath. Nevertheless, most of them were satisfied with their lot, and knew how to enjoy the Sabbath rest and to joyously celebrate the Jewish festivals – each of which had its own character and theme that was forged throughout many generations.

One of the residents of Podhajce who was satisfied with his lot was my father. The entire family lived in a small house that stood at the edge of the city. The parents, children, and even married children with their children lived together. Despite the material poverty, light and warmth pervaded in the house, that shone from the souls of the people who lived therein.

The Second World War, which broke out in 1939, put an end to the tranquil life of Podhajce Jewry. The city was conquered by the Russians, who imposed new regulations which to a large degree shook up the life of the Jews in the city. They drafted many people to the Soviet Army. My father, who was married and the father of a child, was forced to enlist in the army.

This was the summer of 1941. A short time after he was drafted to the Russian Army, Soviet Russia was attacked by the Germans, and the entire region was conquered by the German army. When my father returned to Podhajce after four years, the city was completely ruined and destroyed. Of its thousands of Jewish residents, only a small handful of several dozen people remained. They were emaciated from hunger, lacking everything, and had almost lost their human form after the trials and tribulations that they had endured. My father was also in a pitiful state, to the point where nobody recognized him when he returned to Podhajce.

Thus did he stand in the street, alone and forlorn. Then an acquaintance came to greet him, wearing nice clothes and shiny boot, but he also did not recognize him, and continued on his way without stopping.

“Leibish”, my father called to the passer-by.

The tall man stopped, looked at my father, but still did not recognize him.

“Who are you?”, he asked in Yiddish.

“I am Avraham Yosef”, answered my father.

Only then did a smile of joy appear on the man's face. He hastened to bring my father to the nearby house where several Jewish families who had survived the destruction lived. These also could not recognize my father, until Leibish explained to them who the guest was. Only then did their faces brighten, as they expressed their joy that he had survived and remained alive.

My father remained in his destroyed native city for three months. After three months, he cast his final glance at the city in which all of his relatives, friends, and family members had been cruelly murdered. He left it forever, with the hope of arriving in the Land of Israel and beginning a new life in the Land of his fathers.

I certainly know that there are thousands of people in Israel who endured the era of suffering and tribulation during the Second World War, and myriads of boys and girls in the Land were not fortunate to see their parents' parents – grandfather and grandmother – but were only able to hear about their lives in the Diaspora and about their bitter end at the hands of the murderers. I feel that all of these must, as I do, take great interest in the life that was cut off by the cruel hand, and forge the connection between themselves and the natives of this city, so that it can continue to exist for many more years.

Herzliya, January 18, 1967

Rachel the daughter of Avraham Kressel


[Page 223]

Podhajce after its Destruction

by Dr. Baruch Milch

{This article is equivalent with the English article, on page 11 of the English section.}

 

pod223.jpg
Dr. Baruch Milch
in the Tluste Ghetto

 


[Page 224]

 

pod224a.jpg
German identity card of the physician Dr. Milch in Tluste, 1942

 

pod224b.jpg
Polish identity card of Dr. Milch with the false name Jan Zielinski, from 1945

 

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