by Ahuva Handelsman née Novak
Translated by Esther Snyder
Almost forty years have passed since we left the house where I lived from the age of four, and the simple truth is that not many memories have remained. To my regret, the memories of even those who were closest to me have begun to fade. I sit and try to concentrate and retrieve from my memory what I can write, even just a few lines.
So, I decided to describe the escape from our home at the beginning of the war, because I will never forget this event until the day I die.
In June 1941, the Germans started bombing Raflovka. Of course, there was a great panic. People began to escape without knowing where to go. We hoped that within a week or two, the war would be over and we would be able to return home.
My brother, Hillel and my sister, Yentl went to Sereni. We decided that the rest of the family would leave the house and we would meet later in Sereni. So, the next day we packed just the necessities for a week or two and went to a freight train that was designated for people who wanted to escape in order to save their lives. My mother, zl, suddenly remembered that she wanted to take her manual sewing machine and returned to the house. When she arrived home she saw that the house had been broken into, the chickens screeching and running wild, the cow wandering around and mooing; she thought that even the animals felt a great disaster coming. She came back to the train and decided that she couldn't leave the house. We all went home.
A day later, my father, Dimentin, and, also I think Mottel Maniuk and several other Jews whose names I don't remember, who all worked in Reifotrebsviez, took a horse and wagon to travel to Rokitno in order to hand over the proceeds of the last few days to their supervisors. After I started to cry over the situation, as I mentioned above my brother and sister had already left. Now, my father will leave and the rest of the family will remain at home? My father comforted me and said, Come along with me. I took some pictures and my memory book, which was the most important thing to me at that time and actually the only memento that was to remain. I travelled with my father. The farewell from the rest of the family was difficult. No one imagined in his darkest dreams that this would be our final separation. When we reached Smolarnia, we suddenly heard shouts. It was my brother, Yankele, zl, who had run a long distance from our house to bring my father his winter coat (peltzl).
This scene hasn't left me all my life. My heart almost exploded as if to predict that we would never see each other again. A dark prophesy that was realized. This was the last time we saw each other. What was their destiny? Everyone knows.
by Masha Valspetel née Draitzen
Translated by Esther Snyder
It was, apparently, the end of 1943.
I saw Fania for the first time in the forest, on a winter morning when I was 10-11, a thin, helpless girl.
I was in the forest neglected and dressed in rags. I sat under a tree bundled up, a package of rags. We had fled Haleket another forest, fearing an invasion of Ukrainians and Germans.
I was alone because none of those who fled and continued on their way wanted to take me along. All my requests and pleas didn't help. And then, one cold morning, the unbelievable happened. Someone who looked like an angel wearing warm, pretty clothes like a non-Jew bent over and spoke to me in a soft, gentle voice.
I couldn't believe it. Could it be a dream or was it real. And it was real. Fania asked me about my family and from my replies, she understood that I was left alone. From that moment until today, I am Fania's child.
Fania gathered me in her arms, warmed me up and took me to a non-Jewish family Shtundists who would care for me. [Translator's note: the Shtundists were a small Protestant, evangelical group who often helped and hid Jews. The name comes from the German for hour shtunde as they prayed every hour.] These gentiles believed that Fania was a saint and fulfilled all her requests. From that moment, also I believed that Fania might be an angel. She was so good and pretty.
I stayed with the Shtundist family. I daydreamed and asked when Fania would come. She didn't disappoint. A smiling Fania would appear almost every Sunday.
I wondered what would become of me ! Fania didn't leave time for these thoughts. She came and took me to Raflovka.
It was towards the end of the war. Holocaust, destruction but also thoughts of we remained alive.
In Raflovka, Fania took me to a large house that was a pharmacy. Already there were Yaakov Bass zl, his son David zl and his daughter Rivka. Yaakov treated me as a daughter, and David and Rivka as a sibling.
The house was full of people: Partisans who returned from the forests, officers from the Red Army, people whom Yaakov took in and children who Fania found in the forests. We were one big family of survivors.
The school also began and we studied diligently. But we hadn't yet reached full safety. Wanderings continued. We heard rumors that many Jews were organizing into groups attempting to reach Eretz Yisrael. That was our objective, to flee from the country that had murdered our family and to make aliya to Eretz Yisrael.
Most of us travelled to Poland under false names and passports; everything was for the longed for aim, to go home to Eretz Yisrael. We pretended to be Greeks or Tatarim. We didn't speak a word of Russian.
During this whole time, we were together Fania, myself and the Bass family. When we reached Lublin, we heard about the death camp Maidenik. We travelled on to Bucharest in Romania. It was 1945, towards the end of the World War. In Romania, the children including Rivka and myself, were placed in various orphanages.
Fania, David and Yaakov continued to Italy. Rivka and I were among the happy ones who received certificates and we went to Eretz Yisrael at the end of 1945. Although we went different ways, after two years, also Fania, David and Yaakov arrived.
We had an emotional reunion yet I was happy in my place, as I was already living in Kibbutz Dafna. Since then, the home of Fania and Yaakov Bass, who had married, was again my home and the good, strong bond between us remained to this day. I will always consider Fania as a warm, loving mother and she introduces me as her daughter.
Also, my choice of work as a kindergarten teacher was influenced by Fania, because I wanted to be like her. Even my children feel close to her. They always smile when they meet her.
I can't write about the Bass family without mentioning David, zl, who was killed in the War of Independence. In my eyes and heart, he was like a big brother, always well dressed, tall, smiling, handsome and good-hearted. He would tell me the secrets of his many loves. Everyone loved him and I was so proud that he confided in me. What a pity he died and how painful our relationship ended.
There are so many memories, I could write forever.
by Hannah Vigdorovitz née Breznik
Translated by Esther Snyder
A week before the liquidation of the Jews in the Raflovka ghetto, there was a rumor that pits were being dug for us. Police surrounded the town and only very few succeeded in leaving the ghetto. The rest of the Jews tried to prepare a hiding place for themselves in the ghetto. Many families didn't want to split up and decided that either they all would survive or none at all.
On Friday evening, before the Black Sabbath, my brother Shmaya told us that he prepared a hideout in the cellar. My family my mother Raizl daughter of David Kaufman, my father Moshe and my brothers Shmaya and Ben-Zion entered the hiding place. We were joined by the Konshe Breznik family and Moussia son of Aaron Breznik. Other than a blanket and a pail of water, we were unable to fit in anything else.
We entered a tiny potato storeroom. My brother closed the opening with boards and covered it with dirt. We spent the night in this crowded place.
On Shabbat morning, Zlata Breznik who stayed outside with her sick father, reported to us on what was happening. Towards noon, we heard screams and knocks and then it was quiet.
Near midnight, my brother went out to check if the way was open, because it was clear that we couldn't stay another day in the hideout. Outside, non-Jews wandered around and they thought that my brother was one of the looters and showed him where there was more loot in the houses. When the locals left, he returned to the cellar and told us the way was clear.
We escaped through Frankl's yard, passed the train tracks and walked through the forests to Ojin, where Esther and Rahel Breznik were. At dawn, we reached the Polish village Halli. A shepherd told us that an hour before the head of the village handed over Shaindel Dichter (Weingarten) and her son to the Germans. My father started to walk and we continued to talk to the shepherd. Within a few minutes, my father disappeared. After a short search, because we couldn't shout, we continued walking assuming that he would reach Ojin. We found Esther and Rahel in Ozin and several more Jews joined us. We stayed in the forest near Ojin for five weeks. After some time, the lad Sender Lissak, came and told us that my father was in the forest near Halli; his legs were swollen and he couldn't reach us. We planned that the next day we would go and bring him. But, that same day we heard that the Germans caught the whole group sleeping by the campfire, and among them my father zl, and killed all of them.
During our stay in the Ojin forest, we stole potatoes from the fields and baked them before nightfall so that no one would see the flames or the smoke. That was all we had to eat.
From time to time, we were visited by Jews who were hiding with non-Jews. We were visited twice by Rivka Shnerer, wife of the school principal, and her daughter, the wife of Feibush Portnoy, with her daughter. Later they were murdered.
One night, three armed Ukrainian robbers appeared and wanted to take my brother to help them with their thievery. After many entreaties from my mother and me, we were able to persuade them not to take him.
Before morning, the thieves returned with the booty. They brought us food and one of them came back with a new coat and gave me his old one, which I used all during the first winter.
Another night, my brother went with another three young men, refugees from Poland, to a meeting with the head of the village to hear the news and get some food. They were ambushed and didn't return.
Early the next morning, a Jewish girl who worked as a seamstress in the town, came and told us that we must leave the area immediately, and so we did. We returned several days later to find out what happened to the young men. It was raining that night and we were totally soaked to our bones. At midnight, we entered a forester's abandoned barn and slept there. In the middle of the night, we heard sounds of wagons travelling on the path that crossed the forest and connected the Polish village with the Ukrainian village of Osnitza. We left the barn and fled to the forest. When it was quiet, we made a fire to dry off. My Aunt Esther and I returned to the barn to look for a blanket and scarf that she lost while fleeing. Haim Majluzak took a vessel and went to get water. The vessel broke and he immediately returned to the group. We stood talking at the entrance to the barn when suddenly we heard shots that came from the forest. We started to run. A bullet hit Esther and she was killed.
I kept running past the path. The forest was dense and full of high Paprutz bushes. I stopped and sat down in the bushes. Later, I learned that they searched for another body because they thought I had been killed.
I was left alone in the forest without knowing which way to go. After a few hours, I walked in the daylight to the village of Osnitza. There was a young man there who was connected to the Partisans; my brother had been in touch with him. He was very frightened when he saw me because they had searched for us in the village the night before. He gave me a piece of bread and showed me the way to go, as if that was the direction some of the young men from my group had gone. Of course, it was a lie and I knew it but I walked in that direction from a lack of choice. The earth was muddy and the rain drizzled continuously. I picked some forest plants that grew there. I met shepherds and sat around their campfire. They left and I stayed the night there all alone, covered with a blanket and cried.
Suddenly I heard a noise in the branches of the tree. I didn't go back. I decided to remain, no matter what happened. Then Haim Majlutzk appeared and told me that when the group was on the way to the barn, they heard gunshots and hid behind a tree and saw everything that happened. They were Ukrainian policemen. They killed Moussia Breznik on the spot and wounded Emi Bargel. Afterwards, they took everyone in carts to Raflovka and executed them in public. We were told that they were buried in the park yard.
Haim decided to move to a different area, close to Politz, a Ukrainian village where he had acquaintances.
We walked through the fields after the harvest and the thorns pricked my legs, which were now shoeless. On one leg, I had a serious sore with pus. We reached the Ukrainian village to ask someone to hide us for two-three days until the sore opened. We went into one house and in the entrance, my head touched the oil lamp that was hanging from the ceiling, and the glass broke. There was a commotion, and we escaped as fast as we could. We entered another house and the non-Jew agreed to hide us in his attic. After a few days, the sore opened. The owner came to tell us we must leave, as the people in the village already knew we were there.
At dawn, we left the place and again trod through the fields to the forest. We learned later that while we were still a short distance from the farmer's house, the Germans or police came to the house and severely beat him.
While on the road, we met Yidel Bart and Sonia Finklestein and their son, Penhas Majlotzk. We agreed to find a place to settle in the forest before winter and to build a bodke [shack]. We built a bodke like a doghouse, just a little larger. The opening for entering and leaving was also the opening for the smoke that came from the always burning campfire to disperse.
The forest was situated between the Polish village of Tor and the Ukrainian village of Politz. A friend of my grandfather, David Breznik, lived in Politz. When he heard that I had survived, he asked that I come and he would help me. He gave me a nightshirt that I used as a dress and postuli instead of shoes, and also some food. From time to time, I would visit him to receive potatoes and a loaf of bread.
Around Christmas, the group decided to go to Politz under the assumption that the gentiles were a little good-hearted at this time and might agree to hide us for a week so we could warm up and strengthen ourselves. And that's what happened.
Each one went to his gentile and I went to Felmer. During the day, I stayed in the barn, covered with straw and at night, I slept in the house.
On the third night, when I came to the house, Felmer told me that the Germans had visited him that morning. They were looking for pork in the barn and searched with a pitchfork in the straw where I hid but didn't find me. That means, he said, that it was G-d's way of telling him to let me stay until after Christmas.
The next night things changed. Felmer's son told me there was a rumor the Germans were looking for young people to work in Germany. Therefore, I must leave and the benefactors of the others in the group already knew about it.
The next morning we left. Everything around us was covered with snow. The snow continued to fall without stopping. We couldn't see any paths because the gentiles hadn't walked to work in the forest before the holiday. We walked and walked and went astray. With every step I took, my legs sunk above my knees into the snow. My coat and dress were wet and ice formed at the edges. The ice rubbed the exposed skin of my legs. Finally, I was unable to walk anymore and sat in the snow telling the others to continue without me. They tried to persuade me, unsuccessfully, to continue with them but I couldn't. Suddenly, a Ukrainian boy appeared from nowhere, dressed well (not like the farmers) and asked what was happening. We explained the situation to him and he started walking and told me to follow him and to put my foot into each hole his shoe made in the snow. In this fashion, he led us to our bodke and made a fire for us.
We didn't go to Politz, since the Ukrainians had started killing the Poles. They claimed that the lands belonged to them and every night the Polish residents from all the villages gathered in the central village where there was a civil guard.
A Polish woman from the village of Tor, who came to the village of Virka, met Sara Ems (Burko) zl and told her about me. Sara persuaded the gentile she was staying with, Father Marion (he was called that because he helped the Jews) also to take me in. And Marion agreed.
The Polish woman from Tor came to the forest to take me and bring me to Marion. According to the description of Sara and the Polish woman, I was a skeleton, skin and bones, with no hair on my head, yellow from many months of sitting by the campfire. I hadn't bathed. I looked like a cloth colored black, grey and yellow. They put me in a tub and scrubbed me. They fainted from the smells.
Weba Breznik brought me a skirt, Sara knit me a blouse and a girl from the village, who was thought to be Jewish, sewed me clothes and underwear. Thus, I was dressed except for shoes. After a few weeks, my hair grew, I put some flesh on my bones and began to look like a person. I learned how to knit and started to knit in homes in return for food and a bed to sleep in.
One Shabbat towards evening, while I was staying with a Polish family, everyone dispersed. Only a Polish girl of my age and her friend from the next village remained. The friend told me that a girl from Setpen named Idel was in the village. He told me that the following week he would bring her to meet me. While we were speaking, we heard gunfire and screams. We went outside. The village was burning. Cows, horses and dogs ran wild. We hid in the crops in a nearby field then ran deeper into the fields because there was a danger that they would set fire to the crops. After a few hours, everything was quiet. We left the field and started to run to Halli. There was a large underground shelter there. When we reached the shelter, we saw that hundreds of people were planning to go to Raflovka and from there to Germany. I didn't know what to do. The boy and girl suggested that I join them as if I was a sister of one of them but they first returned to the village to take a cow, horse, etc. Of course, I didn't go with them. I stayed there with no idea what to do. It seems that the head of the village recognized me and approached me. He gave me a note for his friends in a village near Raflovka (I don't remember the name) asking them to let me stay the night with them. He told me that in the morning I should try to meet other Jews and so I did.
In the morning, I met Weba Breznik, Sara Ems (Burko) and Reuven Portnoy. Weba told me to wait at night at the intersection in the forest (Die Fir Vegelach- The Four Roads) and he would come to meet me. Sara and I lay there all night but Weba didn't arrive.
The next day there was no choice but to go to Raflovka. It was in 1943. There were many refugees in the town. We didn't stand out. Sara went to a neighbor who had helped us escape from the ghetto and I wandered around the marketplace. I met two girls and a boy, Jews, and we stayed together. In the market, an old Pole recognized me and said that at the edge of the village, past the Jewish school, a group was forming to go into the forests where the Partisans were in control. We went there and joined the group. They rode in wagons and we ran after them 18 kilometers until we reached the village.
There was a large camp of Jews from Vladimertz in the village where I met a relative, Valla Breznik and his son Moussia. He wasn't too happy to see me fearing that I would become a bother to him. But, we didn't stay there very long. There was an attack of bulbubtzim and the Jews fled from there to the area of Dobjin, which was 35 kilometers from the previous village. In the forest near Dobjin, there were also Poles. There, I met a relative, Lipka and 3 children, from the area of Dombrowitz. I stayed with in her budke. In the next budke, was a Polish family. I knitted for her in return for food.
Meanwhile, I met another relative whom I had never met before they were from the area of Dombrowitz. They were the family of Itzhak Feigelshtein and the family Kurtzman. When we had to leave that place and continue on, they persuaded me to join them. I stayed with them. I don't know the distance to Nigovishtz, but I remember that we walked many days until we reached it. On the way, we stole potatoes from the fields and sometimes we went into the villages to ask for food. I also met Gershon Gruber and Yosef Breznik. Gershon told me that as soon as he would find a permanent place, he would come and get me and so he did.
In Nigovishtz, we found work knitting for a partisan who had many children, boys and girls. We knitted sweaters, skirts, pants, gloves, socks and scarves in return for food.
On Yom Kippur, we were in Nigovishtz. I will never forget the prayer Kol Nidrei chanted by Yitzhak Feigelshtein from Dombrowitz. Everyone cried and even the leaves on the trees trembled from his emotional voice and his prayer.
Meanwhile Gershon Gruber arrived and took me to Simhovitz. There were Partisans there and we got a room. We were a group of 7 people. Yitzhak Meir Zuke, Yosef Breznik, Gershon Gruber, a refugee from Poland, Sara Uzenfeld (the daughter of the shohet from Olizarka) and Polk Birenbaum from Chelm (today the lawyer, Shraga Biran in Jerusalem).
We spent part of the winter there. The Germans began to retreat. There was heavy bombing in the area. We started to return to our area and walked many kilometers in the cold and snow while starving. I must note that the most humane person was Gershon Gruber. He always managed to be the last in order to see that no one was left behind. On the way, we sometimes stayed in a village for a week or two or more. When we stayed a longer time, Sara and I found work knitting and we received wheat in return. We ground the wheat in a hand mill (jurna). Sara baked bread that we brought to the group. Once Yossel Weisman visited us and helped us grind the wheat.
In February-March 1944, Raflovka was liberated and we returned to the town. The Germans kept bombing every night but somehow we survived.
When the Russians liberated Poland, we left Raflovka and went to Poland. We celebrated the end of the war in Lodz. From there we went through Czechia, Romania and Austria until we reached Italy. In the first camp in Mestre, Italy I met Israel soldiers from the British army. The first soldier I spoke with was Zoler from Beer Tuvia.
Since I had family in Israel, Sosel and Michael Weisman and their four sons, I assumed that one of them might be serving in the British army. Therefore, I asked Zoler if perhaps he knew a Weisman in the army. It turned out that he and Yoske Weisman and Ben Zion Weisman were in the same unit. I sent a note to them and within a few days, they found me in the camp in Bologna. I reached Israel at the end of 1945 with the legal immigration. Here I started to re-build my life.
Even until today I can't comprehend why I was the one who survived and not my brother Shmaya who had prepared the hideout and organized the escape.
About that, I never received an answer.
Rachel Fligelman and Haya Meshulam
(Sisters nées Gorbach)
Translation by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
I was born in 1931 and my sister Haya was born two years later. We grew up in our town Rafalovka and were happy and fortunate. These were the most beautiful years of our lives. We grew up in a warm home with our parents and two sisters. The good memories from our short childhood are engraved deep in our hearts.
My father had a flourmill and I remember the long convoys of grain-packed carts waiting to be ground. Our house was adjacent to the mill. It was noisy and lively and full of joy. I remember the Jewish holidays, we celebrated them so fervently. I remember our studies at the Tarbut School. These were quiet and happy times until the enemy came and put an end to everything. Our parents, sisters a big family - were slaughtered. We came out of this hell, two orphaned sisters with no family or support. We wandered endlessly hoping we would survive and not knowing what tomorrow would bring. We had no roof to shelter us, we were hungry, dirty and miserable. It is hard to describe the sufferings of two lonely orphans in the forests of Ukraine. More than once, when hope had run out, I pleaded with my sister to give up and turn ourselves over to the Germans. But it was my little sister who would beg me no. She would yell, I want to live. I didn't go to the Germans on my own out of pity for her for I knew how she would suffer all alone in the world.
After a few years of wandering between the villages and the forests we ran into a good-hearted woman named Batsheva. She took care of us and made sure we had a place to sleep and bread to eat. Of course, we could not stay in one place for a long time. We wandered endlessly until we got to the partisans. They took care of us. We stayed with them until Rafalovka was liberated. We were drawn home hoping to find some survivors from our large family. But to our great despair, no one survived. The house and the mill remained intact. The Russians were working the mill. We met a bunch of Jews who began returning from the surrounding forests to their homes. But we were miserable without our family and support.
We met Simha Brat of blessed memory and his family in Rafalovka. They took care of us for awhile, but not for long. They decided to leave Rafalovka and go to Eretz-Israel. Simha Brat had a big family and he couldn't take us with him. They found a woman named Bella Renyuk who agreed to take care of us. We crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border with her. Zionist parties began organizing the surviving few in Poland and sending them to Eretz-Israel. After a long journey with many stops in various European countries, a battle with the English on the shores of Eretz-Israel, and quarantine in the camps in Cyprus, we finally reached the longed-for shores of Eretz-Israel. We built our homes here and raised children and grandchildren to love Eretz-Israel. He who went through all the torments of the Holocaust truly appreciates his land, his country and his People.
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