The situation of the Jewish community in Poland was not very easy from the very beginning of Poland's independence in 1918. Two possibilities faced the Polish rulers: to develop and industrialize the country so as to drag it out of its backwardness by transferring its lands from the land owners to the peasants and thereby improving the situation of the working class, or to leave the country in its economic weakness and to accuse, the three and a half million persons of the Jewish community as the source and reason for the evil and suffering of the Polish people. The rulers of Poland chose the second of the two possibilities. They nurtured the hatred of the Polish people for the Jews. Anti-Semitism in all of its forms was the daily occurrence for the Jews of Poland.
It became especially conspicuous in the period during the treaty of friendship between Hitler and Pilsudski and his successors. Economic boycotts and even bloody riots became every day events. There were such riots in Pshitik, Brisk in Lithuania, and in Minsk-Mazowieki and other towns and villages. All this was the result of the inspiration given by the Germans to the Jew haters in Poland. The latter carried out their mission faithfully.
In our town Radzyn too, in the days before the outbreak of the war, gangs of pickets from the N.D. Fascist Phalanges lined up on the sidewalks opposite the Jewish stores and workshops and shouted wildly at the top of their lungs Poles, buy only from Poles! Boycott the Jews! Jews, get out of Poland! The Jews became frightened when even the best and most intelligent Poles were swept up in this current of Jew hatred.
The situation changed in the beginning of 1939 with the election of Hitler and his demand for the western territories of Poland. Then it became clear to everyone that a bloody storm was approaching. However the storm of Jew hatred abated. It became clear to everyone that the bullet and the bomb would not differentiate between nation and race but spread death and destruction equally over everyone. Then it became the desire of the entire population to stand up with all their might against the storm and to prevail against it. However it was too late, since the mistakes of the leadership had determined that the fate of the nation was enslavement, and that of the Jews living there was extinction.
Life in the town, even in the last months before the beginning of the storm, moved along its usual path. People worked hard as they always did, despite a feeling of depression, but they still hoped that the war would not break out. Hitler would not dare to attack Poland with its thirty five million inhabitants. They believed in the strength of the Polish Army and could not imagine the power of the Nazi Army. There was general complacency.
The weather was fine, the fields and the gardens were in full bloom promising a plentiful harvest. Their intoxicating odors reached all the way to the city streets in the evenings. The young people hiked on foot and on their bicycles on the roads surrounding Radzyn. The people wanted to believe that all would be well. The months of May, June, and July passed and harvest time arrived. From morning until sunset, wagons piled high with golden sheaves of wheat and other grains passed through the town. The ears of corn were bursting with grains. Then came the second cutting of hay. In the orchards the branches of the trees hung low from the weight of fruit.
On Saturday we spent many hours in town in the magnificent palace garden. We walked around between the rows of lilies looking at the sparkling waters of the lake. On the bank stood a small boat that some mischievous children were trying to untie from its moorings and sail to the opposite end of the lake.
The palace stood in all its glory, with its windows wide open. From the right wing, the clatter of a typewriter in the regional offices could be heard. From the central annex, which housed the post office, the voice of the telephone operator at the switchboard could be heard saying Hello! Hello! This is Radzyn! Radzyn speaking!
In the afternoon hours the Jews, who had finished eating, preferred a stroll in the nobleman Shlobovski's garden, which was public property rather than the traditional nap under covers. Mothers came with their children in baby carriages to enjoy a rest in the fresh air and a friendly chat. Everything was natural, traditional and wrapped in pleasure and tranquility and no one expected the storm that was brewing over our heads.
However, the seriousness of the situation was well known among the ruling circles and they initiated defensive actions nationwide. The government propaganda began working full steam to arouse patriotic feelings of the population. >From the pages of the newspapers and from the walls of the buildings a famous motto shone forth: We must be ready, strong and united.
In Radzyn, as in all of Poland, money was collected for national defense funds. Jews contributed generously believing innocently that the arms and planes that will be obtained through these funds will help them in time of need. Courses in first aid and especially anti- aircraft and anti-gas were organized. Everyone, both Jews and non Jews, participated in these courses. This was something new. In the same course there sat Jews with beards, ear locks and wearing capotes (traditional long black coats) and next to them 'shikses', young Polish girls. As was mentioned before, the danger threatened everyone equally.
July passed and the month of August arrived. The political-diplomatic activities in the European capitals, as well as in Warsaw, reached a feverish pitch. We thought that something serious was about to happen.
One morning, just after the arrival of the newspapers, groups of people could be seen gathering in the streets, peering at the papers, and standing there to read them as if they were looking to find an answer and a solution to the question that was bothering them and keeping sleep from their eyes. Will war break out?
When I went out early in the morning on Thursday the 30th of August, I saw large signs that read Partial mobilization of reserves. The city became panic stricken.
A few hours later men began streaming toward the railroad station to report to their army units. Sighs, crying, and farewell kisses echoed through the streets. None of the conscripts knew if or when they would ever return home. The war became a reality.
The next day Radio Warsaw broadcast a call and orders for a general mobilization, and on Friday the 1st of September, the Germans crossed the borders and invaded Poland.
We were located some 400 kilometers from the western border of the country, and we felt almost nothing during the first three days of the war. However on the fourth day, early in the morning, a warning siren sounded and everyone scrambled to find cover from an air raid.
However, it turned out the Germans had more important targets to bomb than the town of Radzyn itself. These were the airplane factories in Lublin and Biala Podlaska, the railroad junction at Siedlce, Lukow etc. They would fly over, flight after flight, in their black bombers, like birds of prey high in the skies of Radzyn, without dropping any of their deadly cargo on us for the time being. The quiet that had reigned in the town disappeared suddenly and forever.
Terrible news reached us about the weakness and defeats suffered by the Polish Army and the strength of the invaders. We found out that there was already a serious a shortage of heavy weapons and air power and also a lack of organization and a general laxity. The roads and paths were filled with army units fleeing in panic eastward from the West. Together with the army, hundreds of thousands of refugees, among them government officials and ordinary citizens, fled from the western areas. Vehicles loaded with the movable equipment from important scientific institutions and from the universities of Posen and Krakow arrived. The flood of soldiers and refugees grew from hour to hour. The roads were too narrow to accommodate such traffic advancing in four columns or more. The refugees, tired, hungry and thirsty filled the city streets and vacant lots. The supply of food for the city began to run out, and there were very serious problems of distribution. There was no bread.
The Germans had already penetrated deeply into Poland, besieged Warsaw and incessantly bombarded the most important centers of the county. They bombed the roads surrounding Radzyn daily. The movement of the army, the evacuees and the refugees stopped completely during the daylight hours for fear of the German planes. Everyone hid out in the forests and grain fields and filled the villages and estates that lined the roads. Panic broke out. There was complete disorientation and disorder. When night fell, the roads were again filled with thousands walking and riding eastward in an unending stream. The town was completely blacked out. The refugees wandered around in the town like shadows in their search for food and lodging. Tired and hungry, they would fall asleep usually on the sidewalks and near the buildings that were already filled with refugees/guests who had reached Radzyn before them.
On the 7th of September the Central Command in Warsaw ordered all men to leave the area of Warsaw and to go eastward. Masses of ex-Radzyner, who had been living in Warsaw, came back to Radzyn. They told about the horrors that the Germans had perpetrated on the whole population and especially on the Jews.
The Polish radio was silent. The newspapers had not reached us since the second day after the war broke out. We learned what the Germans were doing and what lay in store for us only from the Jewish refugees. However there were some Jews who thought to themselves, &147;surely the devil cannot be as black as they paint him.
On Friday the 8th of September there were frequent alarms that came almost one right after the other. We hid out during most of the day in the fields and gardens that surrounded the city. The German planes flew over our heads with frightening and ear splitting noise. When they spied any army unit they rained down a shower of machine gun fire on it. There were no real bombings that day. They came on the following day.
It was a beautiful day; the sky was clear and the air pure. It was one of those lovely early autumn days for which Poland is famous .We hid out in the fields and gardens surrounding the city for most of the day. German planes flew over us deafeningly. Already in the early morning, a number of planes appeared in the sky, swooping down low in the suburbs where most of the granaries belonging to the Radzyn farmers were located, and set them on fire. The wooden buildings that were full of grain and straw went up in flames. Despite the great danger involved, many people ran to the fire to try to save whatever was possible with the voluntary fire brigade leading the way. A crowd gathered there which was just what the murderous pilots were waiting for. Suddenly they returned, flew low and began firing on those trying to extinguish the flames. We scattered in all directions and hid under any cover that we could find in the vicinity. The result: more than ten dead and many more wounded, both Jews and Poles. Among the Jewish victims was the veteran fire fighter Shmuel Kimmel.
Some of the German bombers seemed to have chosen Radzyn as their target for this Saturday to do whatever they wished. We lay down in the fields and the grass so that the murderers would not see us from up high. Everyone feared for his life and in his mind was the thought Will I live until the evening or will I be hit by a bomb? Suddenly we heard the humming of the motor of an approaching bomber and the dreadful and deafening shriek of the bomb exploding on the earth. When the plane flew away a bit, we raised our heads slightly so as to see from which direction the flames and clouds of dust were coming from the target that had been hit.
There was no effective anti- aircraft protection in the important centers of the country and of course not in Radzyn. The city was completely neglected so the German pilot-murderers could do whatever they wanted. Every once in a while you could hear the rattling of a lone machine gun but that was like the buzzing of a fly against the roar of a lion. That was the balance of power in all parts of the country. The planes finally left the city skies at sundown and we left our hiding places. The results of that day's bombardment were terrible, many were killed, and many houses were destroyed especially in the vicinity of the palace which was the pilots' main target. The telephone poles and lines were destroyed, and the town was left completely without any communication with the surrounding area. Many of those who had sought shelter in the garden by the castle, were killed .Many others who were killed were just enjoying a stroll in the gardens and did not have time to run away. Most of those killed were youths; among them were Boruch Blumen, Daniel Sodberg, the two Saltzman sisters, as well as some others.
Almost all of the population left the city on that Saturday evening. People tried to find hiding places in the surrounding villages especially in those located in forests and far from roads. My family chose the village of Ulshabnitzeh which was located in the forest on the Shlubovski estate. I said almost all of the population. There was however a small portion that did not leave the town during all those difficult days. They were mostly the older citizens who refused to leave their homes. They did not want to go out into the country, even if only for a few days. There were two reasons for this. They were religious people who believed that one could not escape from fate or death. The others were people who were bound to the town of their birth and who argued that: Here we were born, here we lived, here we raised our sons and here we will die if so it is willed. Every attempt on our part to convince them to leave with us the younger people was futile. They refused to go with us some weeks later when we fled eastward away from the Nazi conquerors.
Even the remote village of Ulshebnitze was already filled with Polish refugees from the west who had tired of wandering. The peasants received us with a smile, sold us food and arranged places for lodging. A number of army units were stationed in the nearby forest. During the day, we wandered idly about the town. At night we would go on foot to Radzyn to see and find out what went on there. On Sunday and Monday (10th and 11th of September) nothing special happened in the town. The houses were closed and locked. Even more refugees filled the streets. In their search for food they broke into most of the food stores and restaurants, but these were already empty. At one o'clock in the morning they broke into the cellar of a wine and liquor store and found a treasure. The bottles passed from hand to hand everyone wanting to take an intoxicating swig. Most of the bottles were broken even before the corks were removed and the pungent smell of alcohol filled the street.
When we came to the village before dawn on the Tuesday night (12.9), we were told that during the day there had been a heavy bombardment. Many houses were destroyed; most of them new ones that had been built recently in place of those that were burnt in the great fire 1929. The fire from this bombardment spread and no one even tried to extinguish it. We stood by baffled and apathetic. Together with us stood the famous reporter Shlomo Tzuker who worked on the editorial board of the Yiddish newspaper Haint (Today) in Warsaw. He was born in our town and had arrived as a refugee. Between us we whispered: What will be? What should we do? Tzuker stood there dumfounded just mumbling: Night over the face of Europe.
We returned to the village just before sunrise. The date was Wednesday the 13th of September. At noon a German plane suddenly appeared in the sky over the village and began firing its machine gun. We fled to the fields and jumped into a deep pit. The sound of a strange explosion reached our ears, and at the same time flames arose from the straw roofs of the houses. The fire spread with the speed of lightning through the whole town.
All the possessions of these hard working peasants, in which they had invested many years of hard labor, all the produce that was in the silos and some of the domestic animals were destroyed in half an hour! We wandered around the site of the fire helpless and confused. The fire had also destroyed the few possessions that we had taken with us to the village. That same night we returned 'home'. All over the horizon we saw fires from every direction both near and far. It was as if the whole country was burning.
Rosh Hashanah arrived. Almost no prayers took place. The Germans were already present in the vicinity. Although Warsaw was still defending itself, the fate of the whole country was to surrender.
Part of the Jewish youth had left earlier. My friends and I were preparing to go eastward to Russia when we found out that the Red Army had crossed the Russo-Polish border and was nearing us. There was no limit to our joy.
On the evening of Kol Nidre we sat and listened to the radio and got news that filled our hearts with endless joy. The German broadcasting station announced that the district of Lublin, up to the eastern banks of the Vistla River, was to be under Red Army rule.
Joy and gladness reigned over us. We were happy that we would not have to leave our homes and flee. That the Red Army was coming to us meant freedom not only for the Jews who lived east of the Visla, but since it was due to reach the eastern suburbs of Warsaw, for the Jews of the entire west of Poland. This was because it gave them the opportunity to move eastward and escape from the claws of the Nazis. The Russians had already reached Biala Podalska, Mezritsh and Sedlice. One unit had even reached Radzyn.
In those days something happened that caused additional Jewish casualties even though the actual fighting had stopped. A lone unit of the Polish Air Force that had not managed to flee was stationed on the estate of the Prince Chetvarshinski, a noted Jew hater. On one Saturday they went into the town and began firing in all directions, killing and wounding Jews
We waited in eager anticipation for the Russians to enter the town that was lacking any sort of governing authority in the last days of the Polish rule. To our great disappointment an agreement was signed giving the Lublin district over to the Germans. The Russian army began retreating eastward to the Bug River. Widespread depression took hold of the town. We prepared to leave and move eastward.
The last battle between the Germans and units of the Polish army took place in those days in the vicinity of Radzyn. The commander of the Polish army at the time, General Wilhelm Orlich-Rickman, dug in with his troops between Radzyn and Kotsk. He fought with blind stubbornness and refused to surrender. Did he really believe that there was a chance for any sort of success or was it just his heroism? For a number of days, the roaring of cannons still reached us, but the general's power grew weaker and weaker. His soldiers fled dressed as peasants and the general himself was taken captive. Warsaw, too, surrendered and the Germans ruled all of Poland.
The first German unit reached Radzyn in the beginning of October. It was composed of armored forces, motorcycle troops and the 81st Infantry Battalion. The roar of the motors deafened the town. Proud and polished, the Germans filled the town and cast fear and trembling over the Jews. They established their headquarters in the most magnificent building in the town, that of the Jewish Bank. There they flew their flag with the swastika on it that looked, from a distance, like the claws of a bird of prey.
The Jews tried not to go outside if there was no urgent reason to do so. The Germans began to search the houses and play all sorts of tricks on their inhabitants. The Jews were taken immediately to different hard and repulsive work and absorbed many blows. The goods that the Germans found in the stores, cellars and houses, they distributed among the non-Jews free of charge. After some time these regular army troops were replaced by the Gestapo. The Gestapo, terror, violence and fear reigned over everything.
A group of my friends I and left the town of my birth a few days after the Germans arrived. I cannot describe the terrible feeling I felt on leaving my dear homeland when we sat down in the wagon and headed eastward. We left behind us Poland under the rule of the night.
With the help of a boat belonging to a peasant, we managed to cross the Bug and we started walking. We stopped when we reached a Russian Border Police unit. We greeted them. They returned the greeting and asked, Where are you from and where are you going? We answered, &147;We are Jewish refugees and are fleeing from the Germans to the Soviet Union. The soldiers looked at us seriously and questioned us some more. They demanded to know what was in our bags, where we want to settle, etc. In the end they became less serious and broad smile spread over their faces and they said: Go, go in peace. The road is open to you. This was what they said at that time to the thousands of Polish Jews.
Meanwhile night fell. We did not know the way and we were tense and tired, so we decided to spend the night in the fields and to continue on to Brisk in the morning. We lay down under a tree in the field and slowly dozed off, depressed by the fact that our relatives remained behind in the bloody land
We stayed in Brisk for a few weeks. The authorities opened an office there to arrange for the refugees who wished to, to find all sorts of work in Russia itself. A friend and I signed up. One day we boarded a long train, and together with hundreds of other Polish Jews, left Brisk and traveled to the northeast.
Up until June of 1941 there was a postal connection between us and our relatives in Radzyn. These letters contained a very few lines and were written in Polish. However anyone who could read between the lines understood how terrible the conditions were under which our bothers and sisters lived under the Nazi's. For hours at a time I would hold these envelopes and post cards in my hands turning them over from one side to another. I read them a second and a third time, looking again and again at the postmark as if this dumb paper, that came from afar, was a living part of the relatives who had remained there. Would I ever see them alive again?
Only seven long years later, years filled with unending longing and suffering, did we return to Radzyn. I jumped down from the wagon and ran to the house in which I had lived with my parents and grandparents. I could not find it. The house had completely disappeared! The whole lot was covered by an onion patch.
I looked around and started walking, hoping that I would find someone. In the end I found a few Jews, returned refugees like myself, who were also wandering around the city like orphans. The Jewish Quarter, which included Szkolna, Kozia and Kashiwa Streets as well as two market places, was completely destroyed .There was hardly a sign that there were once buildings here and that not long ago such intensive life had throbbed. The Great Synagogue, the Bais Hamedrash (Seminary) and the wonderful Rabbi's Courtyard, all were destroyed. Even the castle was burnt.
Most of the non-Jewish Polish residents of Radzyn survived. Even the anti-Nazi political activists, whom the Germans had arrested and sent off to Auschwitz, returned home when the Nazi rule collapsed. Although they had seen how the crematoriums had swallowed daily tens of thousands of Jews, how a whole people, including the young and old, were destroyed, they themselves had returned home. Just the Jews had disappeared from the face of the earth. I wandered confused through the streets of the town, and could not believe what I saw, but it was so. I stood for hours on the sidewalk in front of my grandfather Gad Levenstein's house. Maybe this is just a bad dream? No this is the terrible reality. There were no Jews in Radzyn! Polish Jewry had disappeared.
These were the days in the month of May that are warmed by the sun, when the lilacs bloomed and the fragrant acacia sprouted. Every morning the Radzyn farmers took their herds out to pasture and returned in the evening at sunset raising clouds of dust over the roads. Life moved along in its normal course. On Sunday thousands of worshippers crowded the Catholic Church and its surrounding courtyard. The delightful sound of its organ bursts out from the church and filled the surroundings with beautiful chords. The audience joined in. That was the way it had also been years ago. Now only the voice of the Jews had been silenced forever!
[Pages 221 - 226]
The entire summer of 1939,without knowing exactly why, everyone had a premonition that something unusual was about to happen. It was rumored that Hitler would declare war on Poland despite the 'good relations' that existed at that time between those two countries.
Sad to say, that premonition was fulfilled. On that Friday morning of the first of September 1939, the sad tidings traveled lightning fast through the whole shtetl. It was immediately reported that that within a few hours the German Army had penetrated deeply into Polish territory. Outbursts of crying were heard from all corners and everyone ran in the direction of the People's Bank to the bus station where all reservists were getting ready to leave for active duty. There were heartbreaking scenes of men parting from their wives and children .The war had become a fact.
In the first week of the war our shtetl remained quiet although everyone lived with great foreboding. We all understood that no good could come from Hitlerism. On Friday, the eighth day of the war, a German plane flew over the shtetl followed by a Polish plane that downed the German one. We immediately understood that the German revenge would be vicious.
Early on Saturday morning I, together with all the other children in my family, was sent by wagon to a neighboring village. Our parents promised us that if Radzyn was bombarded they would come to us. No sooner had we crossed the threshold of the peasant's house in that village than we heard the sound of bombs falling on our shtetl Radzyn. I will never forget that cruel Saturday. The peasant's house shook even though the village was far from our shtetl. We then all ran out of the house and into the forest. There too, the exploding bombs shook us up.
We could hardly wait for night to come and for the bombardment to subside so that we could go back to the shtetl. We were overcome by shock when we reached it. There were giant craters in the streets and no people to be seen. Everything was going up in flames and there was no one around to douse them. The whole place was deserted. For quite some time we ran around until we found our parents. We found out that the Germans had bombed our shtetl all day, and that there were many casualties. It was interesting that this mass bombardment had an immediate effect on the survivors. From the very beginning, we understood that these casualties would somehow get a proper Jewish burial but what was unclear was how we would end our days. We could not imagine then that 'the cultured murderers' would develop techniques which would send millions of people to the crematoria.
The days following the bloody Sabbath where very quiet, too quiet. The streets were literally dead. Rarely did one see a soul running through the streets to get to his home.
Suddenly rumors began to circulate that it was not the Germans who would occupy Radzyn, but it would be the Red Army which would occupy the whole eastern part of Poland up to Warsaw (The Vistula River) Suddenly there was a feeling of relief and an increase in traffic It was reported that the Russians had already reached Mezeritch. After a short wait, a Russian Intelligence unit arrived in Radzyn and began distributing arms to the local Communists both Jews and Christians. They armed the county commander and carried out a number of 'activities'. The town came to life.
However this did not last more than a few hours. Another Russian unit appeared and announced that the Russian Army would not reach Radzyn as the border was being moved back to Brisk. Anyone who wanted to join them there is invited to do so. The Russians provided special trains, on which there was enough room to take an unlimited quantity of baggage, for transportation to Mezerich.
Naturally the first to leave were those who had some part in the few hours of 'Red Rule'. Again the streets became deserted, and fear crept over everyone. Shots were heard and there was a new Jewish victim. The anti-Semitic Endecja (The Peoples Nationalist Party) went on a rampage.
When these disturbances died down, the Jews began to think of what to do. Should they flee or should they remain in their place? Most of the young people decided to flee to Brisk, not only the pro Communists or Bundists (Jewish Socialists), but everyone who felt that he had strength left. Married middle aged people also fled. Their wives helped them by deciding to stay behind with the children since they thought the Germans would have pity on them.
The black day arrived. The German Army arrived in town accompanied by a band. The citizens were called on to welcome the military with enthusiasm. With broken hearts, we left the house and went out to the street. The band played happy marches and our hearts were heavy.
The next morning there is a temporary Polish police force that went from house to house ordering that the shops be opened. Willy- nilly, they were opened. Little by little, people appeared in the streets and life began to return to normal. The Germans appeared in the shops and said that there is no reason to be afraid of them. In a few days they are leaving for their permanent position and will be replaced by the SS personnel who are 'very different'.
In a couple of days the Regular Army units left and were replaced by the SS hooligans. Immediately they showed off what they were capable of. First, they went into the synagogue and took out the Torah scrolls and unrolled them like rugs all over adjoining streets, Kotlarska, Shkolneh, Kazshe and others. They ripped up other holy books and spread them over the streets. Then they drove the people out of their houses to witness all of this. Can one imagine the terrible pain?
The next morning they led out the Radzyner Rabbi Reb Shloimele zl together with the other prominent Jews and honored them by forcing them to chop wood. Azshe Abman turned to the SS man who was directing this spectacle saying that he would like to substitute for the Rabbi. The answer he got from the German was such a beating that he was forced to stay in bed for a long time.
On another occasion they grabbed Jews and dragged them to the banks of the river near the soap factory and drove them into the water with their clothes on. When they came out of the water, dripping wet, they were harnessed to a wagon and forced to pull it through the streets of Radzyn. The visors of their caps had to be turned backward and their faces smeared with mud. During this brutal performance, on that rain soaked autumn day, many Jews were tortured and one, Manish Pshenitzeh, was tortured to death.
The next morning, the SS rounded up older bearded Jews, among them, my grandfather Hershel Freter (Shtein), and ordered them to bring water to their headquarters so they could wash up. After they finished cleaning up they poured the dirty water was onto the water carriers. Then they shaved off half of their beards not forgetting, at the same time, to cut off half of their faces.
My grandfather returning home half-dead did not speak. Each one of us stood in his corner choked with tears. In the end my grandfather spoke up: No children, the situation is terrible. We must run away. You children are young .Go and save yourselves.
Until that moment the whole family had remained in its place. No one had the courage to speak up and say that he wanted to run away and leave the older members of the family. Grandfather, having said what he had said caused an upheaval. My father, the oldest son, (the whole family lived together with my grandfather) asked, who is leaving?
After few days of qualms and anguish, I packed my meager bag and left my home.
With great fear we reached the house of a peasant in a village near the Bug River. Our plan was to cross over the river to the Russian side. After another sleepless night we found ourselves, on the next morning, on the Russian side.
We start walking in the direction of Brisk. On the way we were stopped by a Russian patrol which took us to their commander. After questioning us, they announced that they were sending us back to the Germans. We begin to cry, declaring that we would not go back not even if they shot us. After some negotiation they brought us some food and also tickets for Brisk.
That evening we arrived in Brisk by train. The impression that the town made on us is hard to describe. In one moment we had left hell, and in another, entered a bright happy city. One could move about freely with head raised and death did not lurk on every step.
We went to the Radzyner 'hostel' in Brisk in Hirshbein's Restaurant. That is the place where, all who like myself had fled Radzyn, and had not left on the first transports to work in Russia, met.
An old Razdzyner acquaintance of mine invited me to stay with him. However I did not want to desert those who had suffered the same fate that I had, and refused the invitation.
We left for Russia, and arrived at our place of work on a holiday, November 17th, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The whole city was celebrating. We were invited to a very nice restaurant and served the finest dishes. This very polite reception we received was like a balm after the persecution we had experienced in our shtetl. The next morning they gave us housing and arranged for us to work. The work was 'black labor' to which we were not accustomed. In the beginning it was a bit difficult, but little by little we got used to it and it went well. Later we learned Russian which was very useful to us the whole time we were in Russia.
My great ambition was to go back home. Who could have foreseen that when my dream came true, six years later, there would not be one single soul that had survived?
People looked to the sky and waited for the appearance of the British and French planes. The German bombers did not appear during the first week. When they did appear in the skies above the town, some of the inhabitants still joked about them. However, after nine days they stopped making fun of them and most fled to the nearby villages believing innocently that the enemies' bombs would not reach them.
I do not know whether to call the number of casualties in the first bombardment large or small. The whole concept of massive casualties changed in my mind during the five years of suffering. Then, on that Saturday of the ninth of September, there was a tragedy that no one could predict. I remember that I ran as if crazy between the trees in the municipal garden and near the pond and ran into a man muttering and wailing. He was wailing over the smashed bones of his brother Avramke Sudberg. Everyone hid behind the trees. For many months they had taught us in courses on self defense against bombing that The women and children should hide under the trees in the city and especially under those in the municipal garden. The men should stand in the attics and watch and if a bomb fell to seize it, throw it into the street, and cover it with sand.
Wonderful advice!!! But the bombs did not wait for anyone, they just exploded. Fires burned in all the surrounding neighborhoods. I especially remember that which went off in a neighborhood called Marainke and another in Landzinak. Following their instructions, the municipal militiamen ran to help the different neighborhoods. Then, a shower of bullets rained down accompanied by a hail of destructive bombs. Among the fire fighters and their helpers who were killed was Shmuel Kimmel, an official of the Bund and a member of the municipal council, and one of the Blumen brothers, Boruch. A few others people were killed whose names I cannot recall.
That night the townspeople spread out into the neighboring villages but after a night or two they returned to find violence plunder and destruction in their homes and especially in their shops. Tremendous destruction was caused by the German bombers but seven fold greater was that caused by the retreating Polish army and Polish 'guests' who emptied out the Jewish homes.
On the morning of second day of Succoth, a small convoy of Red Army troops halted near the road that leads from Visnitz to Kotzk, about two kilometers from the town, but no Red Army soldier entered the town. There they stopped and talked for some time to some of the residents who had come to welcome them. Koshitzki, a teacher in one of the Polish schools, who had on that day organized a Red Militia of Poles and Jews, delivered a passionate speech. In that militia there were people from the underworld as well as people from the suburbs who were known Communists. I remember how Pinkus and some of his friends got keys to the city hall, to the electric works, etc. In one of the buildings Comrade Yoel hastily drew a Red Flag and put up a number of slogans. However we did not get a chance enjoy these scenes for very long. Suddenly panic broke out and the sound of shooting was heard coming from the other end of the street.
The firing and the panic continued on for about half an hour. I looked down the street from the attic of my house. Companies of Polish soldiers ran down the street with machine guns in their hands, firing into the houses. After close to an hour, everything became silent. When we went out into to the street it became clear to us that there were two Jewish casualties. One was a young man of sixteen, Daniel Sudberg the son of Chanina and a relative of the Daniel Sudberg who had been killed on the day of the bombardment. I do not remember the name of the woman who was wounded. Among the dead there were also Poles who were members of the Red Militia.
Two days later, at noon, we listened to the radio broadcast from Germany that announced the signing of the agreement between Ribbentrop and Moscow in which the Red Army would retreat to the Bug River.
This was an unbearable blow. People did not believe it, nor did they believe it when they heard the same thing on Radio Moscow. Innocently they sent a protest to the local headquarters in Mezritsh asking; can this be possible? The answer that came back was; When the Red Army puts it feet on territory, it never leaves it again. But after one week the Red Army quickly withdrew from Siedlce, Mezritsh, and Biala and retreated all the way to Brisk.
At the same time a division of the Polish Army under the command of General Kalbers was encamped near Radzyn. It dug in between the towns of Parchew and Kotzk, and fought the Germans. It's attacks were successful. The Poles advanced, drove the Germans back and took prisoners. However this situation did not last very long. The Germans attacked and the surrounded Polish Army that had begun to retreat to the road to Kotzk.
That evening, we learned that the Polish residents of the city had hung pictures of The Holy Mother near their houses. That was a sign that Kalber's troops had decided to take revenge on the Jews and the Red Militias. A deadly fear descended on the city. Many groups of young people left for Mezritsh on that night to join the Red Army in its retreat to over the Bug River. In the city itself, popular militias of a hundred people or more were organized that stood ready to defend lives and property. I do not know how things would have developed without these popular militias. It is a fact that the Polish underworld was set and ready to rob and destroy. On that same night there was a battle between the Poles and the Germans. The Poles retreated hastily through the villages in the direction of DemblinRiki. For a few additional days the rear guard units of the Polish army still controlled the town, and only at the end of October the German army entered the town.
Despite all this, relative quiet reigned for a few weeks and commerce picked up. Grocery stores and markets selling pork and bakeries sprung up supported by the German customers. They would enter the stores and restaurants buy something and strike up a conversation. To the ordinary German soldier, it did not matter that this was a Jewish owned restaurant. When the storekeepers were ordered to post a sign saying Jewish Shop many of the soldiers advised us to take down that rubbish.
However, the situation began to change when the S.S. arrived. They began showing off their bravery. First they broke into the Beth Midrash (seminary) and the synagogue on one cold wet day and paved the courtyard with Torah Scrolls in the mud. They grabbed a few old Jews and tore off their beards, abused them and ordered them to dance on the Torah Scrolls respectfully. On the 3rd of December, a number of wagons arrived from the nearby town of Levertov filled with Jews sitting on their belongings who told us that all the Jews had been driven out of the town. We became very frightened. At the same time Landrat von Pinkerfeld was appointed regional commander for Radzyn and Levertov. If he did that there, the same fate awaited us. That same night a decree arrived ordering that, within a week, Radzyn must become Yudenrein (devoid of Jews). It is not easy to describe the panic that ensued. People ran helplessly from place to place. It turned out that the order had been handed to Dovid Lichtenstein and he was made responsible for its being carried out. People started lobbying him to intercede and to get the order cancelled. After two days, a terrible stench of favoritism and money rose from the whole affair. Certain craftsmen and their families were allowed to remain. People were willing to pay money to be allowed to remain, and there was a possibility that most Jews would be allowed to do so. But why did that not happen? For you to understand this, I must explain another matter.
I was in the long line that left Radzyn, on foot and in wagons, on the 8th of December 1939 heading in the direction of Slovatich. That same night, the first snow of the winter fell and did not melt until the beginning of April. At the entrance to the town stood German gendarmes who usually confiscated all of the refugees' belongings but sometimes left them everything, all depending on their mood. Where did we get the horses and wagons? The local peasants smelled a good deal. We paid up to 1000 Zlotys and sometimes even more for the trip. That amount, at the beginning of the war, was a huge sum. That was the way that many families, including that of Rabbi Fine, left for Slovatich. Others scattered among the other towns and villages in the vicinity. Three hundred families remained in Radzyn.
It is worth describing the life of our Radzyner in that remote town, Slovatich, where the mud reached up to our knees. Its low ramshackle buildings and its Jews looked like something out of the stories of Mendele Mocher Sforim. However, the Jews knew how to get rich in a few short weeks, since the town was located at the easiest and most important crossing point over the Bug River. When we got there in the evening, we were housed in the synagogue. There was no one who pitied us or invited even one family to their home. I was shocked by the attitude of these people. Aren't they Jews, or do they only think about making a profit? I don't know how things would have worked out. No committee was set up and everyone worked on his own and paid heavy sums for housing. Those who could not afford to, continued living in the synagogue for many days.
On the same day that we arrived, the Border Police arrived and closed the border. From now on you had to sneak through the border thus endangering your life. The paths for smuggling contraband were well known to the local inhabitants. The water in the river froze, and the ice formed a bridge of some 150 meters. On the other side Russian Border Police were stationed. A number of strange events took place. There were people whom the Germans kidnapped, fed, and led back to the middle of the river, so that they could go back to the Russians from there. When the Russians got their hands on them, they locked them up for days, starved them and sent them back to the Germans while firing in the air so that the Germans would notice. It happened that a Jew, who had been detained by a Jewish border guard (a Russian soldier), started speaking to him in Yiddish. The guard listened to everything and with a nod of his head expressed his agreement, and at the end added that he was sorry that the Soviets had assigned him to duty on that day, but the Jew had to be returned to Germany.
At that time there was a fundamental change in the direction of stealing across the border. The people who fled because of the cold and filthy living conditions there, began to return. There were also traders in contraband who smuggled in goods and brought back a lot of money. Among the returnees, were a lot of people from our town. I still remember the evening when my father and I were ready to depart. After a prolonged inner struggle we reached the conclusion that there was no basis for waiting. Although the local municipal committee had sent off telegrams to Stalin and Kaganovitch about the condition of the Jewish refugees in Slovatich, no one deceived themselves about the results. Therefore, we were ready to start out on the road to Russia. Our guide also sat at home waiting. At sundown a Jew with a thin unshaven face came in to us and asked for a place to sleep. He was an acquaintance of ours who had just recently returned from Russia and started to tell us all the horrible stories. He had lived in Brisk in a dark cave and made lots of money a couple of times but in the end fell into a trap. Fortunately, they took only his goods and released him. In Brisk he said, there is hunger, life is not life and everyone wants to go back. We did not go out that night !!!
On the night of the 14 of June 1940, the Germans decided to destroy the bases used by the smugglers .On that one night, forty five innocent Jews were killed or imprisoned, among them two from Radzyn, Mordechai Naiman (Kokosh the Barber) and his daughter's husband. Many families decided to return to Radzyn. Others decided to go to Mezritsh, among them my family. From then on I spent my war years in Mezritsh .
In the spring of 1940 most of the families returned to our town, Radzyn. Understandably, there were no Jews living there on the main streets anymore. Everyone settled in the Jewish quarter that included Kalon, Kroiah, Shkolna and Kashiva Streets. There was no closed ghetto during that whole year and even up to the fall of 1941 the Jews were permitted to walk around in any of the streets and even to go outside the town. They were permitted to go to small villages and trade, as much as was permitted, in such confiscated goods as fats, eggs and butter. People did not go hungry. The Yudenrat stood at the head of the Jewish community. We will discuss that in a separate chapter.
The problem of Jewish workers in Radzyn arose with the arrival of the Germans. The Germans would grab anyone who passed by, to do a day's or a few hours of work and then release them. Sometime, during the day, they would beat them. However, in some cases it happened that they were fed well and sent home. This situation caused a feeling of permanent insecurity. However, this changed for the better when obligatory labor for all the men and for whole families was proclaimed that required of them to give a day or two of labor (sharvak) every week. They would work in army neighborhoods chopping wood, cleaning the yards, sweeping the city streets and in the winter clearing the snow. Of course, they were not paid for this work but it happened that eventually a permanent job developed. Certain people preferred to pay the sharvak tax that was between two and five zlotys. The Yudenrat paid this money to permanent workers who survived on this money. The labor contractors preferred permanent workers. The latter enjoyed many possibilities, a work place convenient for trade (on the roads near the coal mines), the possibility of trading with the German soldiers, etc. In this way those who were not craftsmen and did not have jewelry or other goods left over from before the war, managed.
The situation of the craftsmen was very different. They 'flourished' in the early years. Expert shoemakers, a small number of building workers and metal workers all found permanent and lucrative employment from the German soldiers and their officers. They also did very well from the Gestapo personnel, sometimes even reaching to the point of luxurious living. The third class consisted of those who had goods, jewelry and assets from before the war. Then there were people who risked their lives and went out to the surrounding towns and villages and sold manufactured goods or shoes, ready made clothing, bedding, etc. They brought back with them oils, flour, etc. and sold them in Radzyn and this was the way they lived.
There were two small, semi-legal stores that existed for some time. One carried groceries together with other small, everyday necessities and was owned by a number of pre-war shop owners. The other was the restaurant belonging to Rav Beryl-Nachman-Laizer's that was located in the Hassidic Bible Readers Hut located near the Beth Midrash (Seminary). The 'famous' craftsmen were Mr. Yissachar Kashmacher the tailor and Tzelke the shoemaker as well a few other shoe makers and tailors whose names I cannot remember. Oh yes, the leather stitchers Moshe Edelman, Flatzman and some others, the builder Moishe Rothstein, the glazier Shue Glazer, and a number of smiths. The attitude of the authorities to the Jews was that of Yekes (Germanicly correct). They related to every one individually and to the Jews among them according to the orders that they received from their superiors. Although every German officer, soldier, or Gestapo agent had his own 'informer' or a number of them with whom he maintained a good relationship, this did not help those Jews when an order came down ordering the agent to do otherwise. There were many cases of abuse during work hours. The response was an appeal by a member of the Yudenrat to the commander of the Gestapo. This was helpful, sometimes. This was the situation and these were the relations for about two and a half years until the summer of 1942 when the Holocaust and destruction of Polish Jewry began. Before I begin to relate the story of the Holocaust in Radzyn, I would like to tell you about some interesting events that took place in the town.
Its leader was a very old man of seventy, Dovid Fishl's (Lichtenstein). Who did not know this man, who was the president of the community for many years? Who did not know this bitter and unfriendly man? It seems to me that in the years before the war, when I was still a child, they really hated him in the town. Maybe this was because of his being very rich, the owner of much property, the town millionaire. Maybe he was hated by the petit bourgeoisie, the small shop keepers, the artisans and the workers because he ruled the community forcefully for many years. It was a fact that he was not friendly and few people came in and went out from his home (if there were any at all). Already in November of 1939 he was summoned by the commander of the Gestapo and ordered to find a contribution of thirty thousand gold coins. He himself gave ten thousand out of his own pocket and organized contributions for the rest of the sum. In that way he saved ten people who were being held as hostages until the money came in.
After the expulsion, he was ordered to organize the Yudenrat. He gathered together the best people in the town who were known before the war as public leaders and Zionists. These included Simcha Goldwasser a Zionist activist and the manager of the Jewish Municipal Bank; Yaakov Blechowitz, the principle of the Tarbut Hebrew School, and a Zionist activist, Shimon Kleinboim; and Mr. Eliyahu Shineman, a well known Zionist activist who had been chairman of the Jewish community a few years before the war. If I am not mistaken, there were also the gentlemen Chaim Yitzchak Gellerman a Zionist activist and the representative of local branch of the Jewish National Fund; Moshe Appeloig a local merchant known for his pleasant temperament and his cleverness and the sons of Dovid Lichtenstein, Sender and Shimon Lichtenstein. Only Avraham Blumen, the former Revisionist (radical right wing Zionist party) leader, of whom it was said that he entered the Yudenrat by 'divine will', was usually referred to unflatteringly.
All of these members fulfilled their duties devotedly and with great concern. Especially active was Dovid Lichtenstein who interceded with the authorities and helped solve many unpleasant situations. Strangely enough this old man was liked everywhere that he appeared. I heard someone tell that the commander of the local Gestapo, a high ranking officer, called him 'the old Jewish Prince'.
Mr. Shimon Kleinboim, who was active in Joint Distribution Committee, arranged for help for the Jews in the neighboring towns of Lubartow and Lukow. The activities of 'The Joint' in that period makes interesting reading but, unfortunately, I do not have any information about its activities and about those of Mr. Kleinboim in our town.
The above mentioned Avraham Blumen, who was for a time the director of the labor office of the Yudenrat and its vice chairman, was very active, but not always in a positive way. I know of many cases where he acted with contempt and superiority toward the needy. However, there were also many cases where he acted in the public interest by his lobbying. I witnessed with my own eyes his attitude to the ordinary people. It was said about him: 'I am Avraham BlumenStay away from me. This is the place for me to relate something that happened to my father and to me that throws light on the attitude of the 'other kind 'of Yudenrat activists.
My father and I were in Mezritsh. In July of 1940 all the men there were ordered to report for forced labor in the half open camps, to work at regulating the flow of the Kazashne River that flows from Lukow through Mezritsh and Biala Podlaska to Brisk. The camps were spread out in a number of places in the villages along the banks of the river and in Biala itself. We therefore fled to Radzyn, and since we had work certificates from there, we tried to find work through the labor office belonging to the local Yudenrat. From here we could be sure that they would not look for us to work in Mezritsh. At any rate it was self evident that as refugees who were now living in a neighboring town this little help would be forthcoming from the Radzyn Yudenrat. However Avraham Blumen demanded money, a lot of money, which would go into his own pocket, for making such an arrangement. After that my farther appealed to Dovid Lichtenstein and other officials, but they sided with Avraham Blumen. With resentment, we paid a small sum to the Yudenrat.
I do not want to make a comparison between the Yudenrat in Radzyn and that of Mezritsh. In the latter, too, there were people who were devoted to serving the public good. However those were very few and very weak. The members of the Jewish Police were both greedy and demanded respect. First and foremost they worried about their own good. They were responsible for carrying out orders for work assignments, accompanying people to their designated place of work, and later to seeing that they did not walk on forbidden streets. They were also responsible for supervising the sanitary conditions together with the sanitation committee of the Yudenrat and especially the supervision of the compulsory labor.
If my memory serves me correctly the following were members of the Radzyn Jewish Police: The commander was Avraham Blumen. The others were Yisroel Meltzer who hade been active in the Hechalutz Movement, (An organization for training young Jews to be pioneers in Palestine) before the war, Yitzchak Wolf, Beryl Lichtenstein, an active member of Hechalutz, Zelig Blumen and a few others. Most of these people fulfilled their duties with devotion and responsibility, while their being in the police gave them the possibility to live comfortably and enjoy many luxuries.
Here a very interesting incident took place. Whereas in other cities this action was carried out on the initiative of the Gestapo, here in Radzyn the members of the Yudenrat got the order saying that an order had come down to include five victims in every place where this 'golden action' took place. I don't know how these five elderly victims were chosen to be a 'human contribution'. Neither do I remember their names, with the exception of one, Rotenberg the husband of Malkah (called 'Cossack'). One of the actions carried out by the Germans were house to house searches. Two or three Gestapo members were enough to turn the house upside down. It must be admitted that in most cases they knew where to search as the result of information garnered from informers. Who were these informers who collaborated with the Germans?
When I met the survivors after the last deportation and liquidation from Radzyn in Mezritsh, many of them told me that the Germans had a number of 'loyal Jews' only one of whom operated in the open. However, before I begin describe him and his deeds, I would like to say a few words about collaborators and informants as I saw them in another place. First, most of the informers came from the underworld and were notorious even before the war. Among them the Nazis found their most loyal allies. This was true in Mezritsh and Warsaw as well as in all the cities and towns all over Poland .In most cases these people had a fair amount of control over the community and influence with the Yudenrat either as leading members or as 'officers' in the Jewish police force. However this was not the case in Radzyn. That same fellow called Bar Yoel, despite the fact that he was 'respected' by the Germans, had no influence on and also no connection to the appointed Jewish community institutions. Anyone who did not know him before the war and did not see him during the war years, could not imagine what the Germans were capable of doing to a person, promoting one of the worst people to be a commander who could determine life or death. I do not know the names of other informers although there were others, no doubt.
There were also a number of women, especially girls, who had close relationships with the Gestapo. There is one case that I know very well because I heard it directly from one of the girls. (Permit me not to mention her name.) Back in the summer of 1940, Mr. Turkeltoib's house was searched. This girl's family also lived in that house and she happened to be present during the search. They found gold and jewels and they began to beat the occupants while continuing to search. At that time the girl began to sing a beautiful German song. She sang and whistled very beautifully. The leader of the search started listening, honored her with a smile and entered into a conversation with her. As a result, they took the jewels but left the people alone. From that moment a relationship developed between the sixteen year old girl and the Gestapo officers. They would visit her in her home, and spend time with her there. She, however, did much for the good of the community. Many punishments, imprisonments and fines were cancelled at her request.
I met her in the winter of 1943 in Mezritsh. She had been one of my best friends before the war, so she confided in me revealing all of her secrets I felt that what she told me was true. She told me about cases of cancellation of jail sentences etc. as the result of her efforts. Others verified what she had told me.
At sunrise on Monday, the Gestapo together with the Shufu (Uniformed Security Police) gathered together all the Jews of Radzyn on the lot between the synagogue and the beth midrash (seminary). The whole operation was carried out under the command of the officers of the Yuden Farnichtungskollege (Extermination of Jews Group.), special units with special powers against which even the highest ranking officers of the Wermacht, the S.S. the Shufu, and even the Gestapo could not appeal. These were units that got their powers directly from Hitler. I was a witness when documents signed by Goering, or his highest ranking colleagues were retuned despite the fact that they were sent to the officer in charge by the colonel of the Security Police.
However, there was room for negotiation, a sort of 'Jew trading' between the local headquarters and the commanders of the operation. The extermination order allowed that a minimum number of 'necessary' Jews remain in place without their families. It seems that in Radzyn the lobbying and influence of the local commanders was very strong and they succeeded in leaving four hundred Jews behind, legally. The first of those put aside were members of the Yudenrat and Jewish police. After them came skilled craftsmen chosen from a list, together some one hundred persons. After long negotiations they managed to add a number of close and even some not so close relatives of 'important' people. Altogether this added up to the above mentioned number. All the rest
I was not there during the 'selection' as I was living in Mezritsh. On that very day I was working on Count Pototzki's farm which was located on the road that led from Mezritsh to Radzyn. A Polish fellow called me and the two of us went up onto a roof near the road. The entire convoy of the Jews from Radzyn passed before me. I was shocked. They traveled in wagons accompanied by a small number of Polish policemen. Almost all of them were in wagons loaded with all their belongings and driven by Polish peasants.
Two days before that, I left my house in Mezritsh to go to work and did not return home to sleep there. In Mezritsh we knew that on Tuesday the third 'annihilation march' would take place. My sister and mother were already hidden out in a place that had saved us on two such previous occasions. I believed that this would be true again this time, even though it would not be the last such event. I gathered up my courage, put on a metchyovke -Polish hat, and went down into the town. I saw them herding the Jews into the ghetto which had no guards on the inside. They were free inside the barbed wire fence and even outside there were only guards by two gates. Through a hole in the fence I entered the ghetto and went up to the hiding place and told my mother about the transport that had arrived from Radzyn. We went outside and brought Moshe Appeloig's family into the house. Pesseh Appeloig and her daughter ate lunch washed up and combed their hair. From the conversation we learned about the pace of the operations and that there would be no additional extermination operations. We also found out that Fisher, the commander of the Gestapo, had solemnly promised that there would not be any further exterminations there, and that the ghetto in Mezritsh, one of the twelve in the principality, would continue to exist, and anyone who reached it should feel fortunate. They believed that he was not lying
We asked her to go hide with us, but she refused. If there will really be such an operation and they find her in a hiding place she preferred to die on the spot. She must have seen similar cases with her own eyes in Radzyn. She would not hide!
We went outside and tried to convince people to look for a hiding place, but not all of them listened to us. However, many did hide. About an hour later, I returned to my place of work. That night firing and yelling was heard frequently from the direction of the ghetto. I understood what was happening. I lay in the attic. Since the place was a farm owned by Christians and under German supervision, I was sure they would never come there. I looked outside through the cracks. The road led to the train station where during the morning hours, some two thousand people were loaded onto freight cars.
S.S. Sergeant Fritz Hehen, Commissar in charge of the Mezritsh ghetto for the Radzyn Gestapo, was the most tyrannical of them all. Interestingly, this wolf was quietist on his home grounds. The Jews of Radzyn feared him, but he never did them any harm, yet he did murder many Jews in Mezritsh and Lukow. These two towns were especially detested by him for some reason. In Mezritsh he even killed Poles. At the time of the transport from Radzyn to Mezritsh on Monday, he suddenly appeared in a car at the half way point, stopped two wagons, and killed their passengers with his own two hands. I found this out from one of the Jewish policeman a few days after the destruction of Mezritsh. They were summoned to the Radzyn road and took back with them two wagons loaded with some seventy corpses who had been murdered by him.
That week Fritz Hehen did not appear in Mezritsh. When he did appear after a number of days, one of the stars on his epaulets was missing. It was told that he had been reprimanded and demoted for the killings, by his commander Fisher. That was a result of the vigorous intervention by Dovid Fishel's (Lichtenstein). After a short time, Hehen was transferred to another district, and when he appeared again on a visit to Mezritsh he told one of his police colleagues there that the 'old bastard' from Radzyn had really 'fixed' him, but that he knew how to get even with him.
If a stranger had come to the town at that time and looked around him, everything would have seemed fine and as if nothing had happened. To the usual worries about finding work and making a living, a new ugly phenomenon appeared that could possibly be partially understood under the circumstances: the search for the fortunes and properties of those who had been deported or annihilated. After the annihilation of the Jews came the annihilation of the Jewish fortunes. Those who were left behind were forced to work collecting up the possessions from the houses, sorting them out and bringing them to the Nazis. Maybe it was understandable that some of these people who had endangered their lives collecting up the property thought instead of giving it to the Germans I will take it for myself. Others, again, were looking for a way to provide themselves with long term sources of income.
In the beginning of November, new rumors began to circulate among the few remaining survivors. Someone brought an item that had appeared in a German newspaper saying that the Jews who survived after the annihilation campaign of the summer and fall months of 1942 would be sent to twelve ghettoes, one of them Mezritsh. It was known a long time before that the final evacuation of the ghetto would take place on the 20th of December, but the inhabitants would not be liquidated only transferred.
Loaded with bags, bundles, suitcases and all their household belongings, the Jews from Radzyn arrived in Mezritsh. In their honor the ghetto had been enlarged. Three lanes had been added in the Shmultzubizneh the Jewish neighborhood of poor, ramshackle houses.
The crowding then reached its peak. I did not visit all the homes of all of my townspeople, but I would like to describe a one room apartment belonging to one of the town's 'respected' citizens, one of those who would have managed well on the outside. Five families, more than twenty persons, lived in one spacious room: Mr. Shimon Goldwasser and his family, Mr. Mottel Vinapple and his family, the four Fletzman sisters, Mr.Yaakov Blechovitz and his family and for some time, Israel Seltzer and his wife. I knew this house because I had visited it often and a dismal picture of life under those circumstances became engraved in my memory. These people had means and were not poor or hungry for bread.
I saw a room in which thirty persons lived. Maybe this large number itself was not so frightening, but the sanitary conditions were so appalling that it is hard to describe them here. The condition of the streets and yards were such that had never been seen before. There were piles of excrement and filth, rags, windows that had been torn out to be used by important people, scenes that when I recall them, I am still shocked. I never saw such horrible scenes even in the worst times in the concentration camps. Is it no wonder then that in the winter of 1942-43 two thousand five hundred out of the four thousand inhabitants came down with typhus-fever. One day I found ten sick people in the same yard that I described above! But life again went back to normal and no one died of hunger. People found work paving the roads and engaging in a little illegal trading which was very dangerous.
Alongside the Yudenrat in Mezritsh, another Yudenrat, dealing with the Radzyn refugees, was established. Arrangements were made for buying bread without a ration card and even as many potatoes as you wanted, something that, I think did not exist in the rest of Poland. In that same period, very broad social services were introduced. To this day I do not know where the necessary means came from. These social services included medical care, the free distribution of potatoes and financial support. At the head of the Yudenrat were Shimon Kleinboim and Yaakov Blechovitz. They and their assistants stood out for their understanding and their readiness to help, something very rare are in the Mezritsh Yudenrat during the whole period of its existence. May these people be remembered always for their willingness to serve the public without making any personal profit.
Since I have mentioned Mr. Yaakov Blechovitz, I would like to dwell on some other cases that will provide us with an answer to one of the most biting questions always asked of me here in Israel: Why did the Jews not flee to the forests, to the Partisans, to Polish friends, to hide? Today the answer is very clear. We knew very well the attitude of the Poles toward the Jews. Here are some typical cases. After the first big liquidation Avramke Sudberg and his wife went to Polish 'friends' in the country. After staying there for a number of weeks and paying a lot of money, they disappeared. Later it turned out that they had been murdered in the forest by their Polish hosts. The police wanted to notify the Gestapo about the case. Dovid Lichtenstein advised them not to publicize the case at least among the Germans. His argument was that the information should be kept from those circles so that they not become aware that Jews were fleeing to the country to hide out. The second case: Yaakov Blechovitz and his family did not join the four hundred Jews who left Radzyn. They thought that Mezritsh would only be a way-station in the new march to extermination in Treblinka. Three weeks later, on Christmas Eve, their tracks disappeared. Later I saw them silently enter through the gate of the ghetto. I stood there and could not believe my eyes! Could these be the same people that I had always known? Now they had rags wrapped around their heads and their clothes were tattered. The faces of the dead were more attractive. Through a conversation with their son Aaron, I learned the following appalling details. They had gone to a far-away village to Polish friends. They left all their possessions there and paid them a sizable sum. This time the friend was a real friend. He did not hand them over to the Nazis nor did he kill them. He was just worried about their living in a room in his house lest some undesirable person might see them there, so he put them up in the silo. There they set up their beds, there they got their meals, one during the day and one at night. From there they did not see the light of day or sunshine for two continuous weeks. The only information that reached them there, and which they could not be sure that it was true, was that the that all the Radzyn refugees living in Mezritsh were living a comfortable life, and some even say that it is the most privileged ghetto. They felt that they would not be able to survive for long under these circumstances and one day their friend led them back to Mezritsh. It was during the time of the battle for Stalingrad and the Jews felt a spark of hope in their hearts when the Russians began advancing rapidly. Suddenly they halted for weeks or months near Karkov, near Izium and darkness and depression again descended on us.
As I have already mentioned, Yaakov Blechowitz was one of the heads of the Radzyn Yudenrat in Mezritsh. A number of Radzyner decided to open a restaurant in Mezritsh (a few already existed) so as to make a living. They were: Eliezer Weisman, Chaya Blechovitz (the wife of Yaakov Blechovitz) and her sister-in-law Hentziah Wolf. What was the justification for this restaurant in this small poor ghetto? Its justification was the good meals that it prepared for the people from the ghetto aristocracy such as the members of the Jewish Police, members of the Yudenrat and for the rich, whose only concern was finding a comfortable place for playing cards while enjoying a good meal. In Mezritsh there was no shortage of people, who had accumulated wealth and property, and who ate tasty foods, such as eggs, chickens and other things that the ordinary Jews had seen only two years before and whose taste they had forgotten. These were smuggled in by road laborers who risked their lives when they went to towns and villages on the 'Aryan' side to trade. I, too, was among them even though I do not look at all like a 'Sheigetz.' (Yiddish expression for a non- Jewish young man). A German did not look closely and could not recognize one. The biggest problem was getting out and coming back into the ghetto in the dark of night. The second problem was that I and the others were closely watched by the Jewish police from Mezritsh. You had to pay them a special 'tax'. They usually confiscated my goods when they caught me. The restaurant to which I brought my goods did very well because the prices were very high. I often brought lots of smuggled butter and chickens and often even tasted their good dishes.
At that time word began to reach us about the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto. We felt that it was the revolt before the before the final liquidation. We could not follow all the developments. The survivors of that uprising found us in the Mydanek concentration camp.
At four o'clock in the morning of the 1st of May 1942 the ghetto was surrounded by S.S. Judenfarnichtungs Troopen (S.S. Special troops for Liquidating Jews). They celebrated the First of May over the bodies of hundreds of victims. On the next morning they found me and my family in the attic that had not failed us many times in the past. This time they found it. This indicated to us that they had searched very thoroughly. On the empty lot on which they collected us, we found out that on the previous day some two thousand persons had been sent to Treblinka and that we were destined to be sent to Mydanek. Everyone sat down on the filthy square as bullets sliced through the air as if on a battlefield. The victims covered the whole area. Not far from me lay the bodies of many of my dear friends. I recognized my friend Aaron and his father and mother. Chana Berman, a girl from Radzyn, yelled to me when she recognized me from a distance: Oh Shia Shia, they have killed my Yankele right in front of my own eyes. They continued bringing people from all the corners of the ghetto.
After two days of traveling squeezed into in a closed car for hauling cement, and without a drop of water, we arrived at Mydanek together with two hundred other suffocating people including my father who, as long as he could, dragged along after me and my mother. My mother and I felt good as did my younger eleven year old brother. Only my father
In the selection process in Mydanek my father was placed with the sick and weak and I, as a young man ,was placed among those able to work, my brother among the too young to do so, and my mother, as a young women capable of working, was ordered to leave my brother. She refused and was beaten, left, and never returned. My father too did not return. Only I remained, an orphan, together with some two hundred and seventy men and about the same number of women. That is all that was left from a transport of a thousand two hundred souls. The rest, may their memories be holy unto eternity.
I met very few of my townspeople while I was in the four German camps: Majdanek, Birkenau (Auschwitz), Boneh and Buchenwald.
In Majdanek I once hauled five of my townspeople to their final resting place, after they had been beaten to death for stopping to rest and putting down their stretcher loaded with clay for a minute. I worked together with Moishe Klinkeh and Velvel Turkeltaub and a number of others in Birkenau, where I was sent for forced labor. Together with them, I took Moishe Klinkeh to the hospital from which he never returned. Velvel Turkeltaub passed away while working next to me. I, with three others, carried him on my back to the camp. Shaul Blumenfeld and his son Leibush who, for some time were better off (the son wrote poems and read them out loud in front of the Kapos (prisoners who were assigned to do guard duty inside the camp) and got an additional two liters of soup for himself and his father), were taken in the selektzia of the 15th of August to the crematorium. One day when I worked in the women's camp I saw Felitzia Hirshbein a young women in good shape, well dressed, and good looking. It turned out that she worked in a good workplace .That was the most important thing. I met the two sisters Freideh and Leah Berman who worked in the oil press. They looked well and were well dressed. I also saw the attractive Chantziah Sudberg who was sixteen years old at the time.
My condition, too, improved for many months, and I did not suffer hunger nor did I lack clothing. I had opportunities to help others and did so. But after that, I again became almost critically ill and felt very weak after an attack of typhus smallpox. But I was lucky and recovered. It was not only luck that saved me but also the constant striving to improve my conditions and to survive no matter what.
I met Yosef Schupak in the Boneh concentration camp where he was working as an electrician and did not suffer any deprivations. I met him at a time when I was suffering hunger, and he often shared his bread and his soup with me. Among the ten thousand Jews in the camp there was only one more from Radzyn, Avram'ke Shuchmacher the son of Yaakov Shuchmacher, the teacher and newspaper vendor, who worked supposedly as a metal worker. Although his situation was not perfect, he did not suffer hunger. When I, too, became a metal worker, my situation again improved considerably.
A few days before the liberation from Buchenwald I met Shalom Kashemacher, a young man the son of Sheindel Bartek, and Eliyahu Kupitz the fifteen year old son of Roisia Kupitz whose father now lives in Israel. The two of them disappeared from sight during the last days of suffering.
After the liberation I was the only one from my town left from all of the nearby camps, the only survivor.
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