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THE HOLOCAUST

[Page 259]

I Call Upon Mourning

Rabbi Yehudah ben Kolonimus

Translated by Rabbi Avrohom Marmorstein

I call upon mourning and elegy,
May my eyes pour forth tears,
And let them roll down night and day without being silenced.
I will surely cry with ashes I will adorn,
I will join with for my dirge seeking out every man whose soul is bitter,
Do not grant silence or relief (from these tears).
Let your eyes fill with tears and wail,
And let our hands lose their grip as tragedy has gripped us,
Clap your hands in aggravation,
Wail from heartache as old and full-of-days speak,
Make many cries and groans, with screams of pain,
Make your outcry more and stronger,
And dress in sackcloth over this tragedy.


[Page 260]

The Destruction Of Rokitno

Baruch Shehori (Schwartzblat) (Haifa)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

A. The Beginning of the Suffering

When the Soviets left Rokitno, our suffering increased. Our daily fare consisted of beatings, robberies and lootings. Everyone closed themselves in their houses under lock and key. They peeked through the shutters in fear of seeing what was going on outside. The Biblical curse was upon us: “In the morning you will wish for night and at night you will wish for morning.”

Some of the town leaders met to seek counsel. Should they ask the Germans in Sarny to come and establish order so they would not fall into the hands of thieves and criminals?

A despicable non-Jew, a half-German called Ratzlav, came to us. He earned his living from shoemaking and from fishing. He was always drunk on the streets. He offered to go to Sarny to invite the Germans to come. We had to provide food, money, clothing and a wagon for a few travelers.

Our people went out to prepare what he demanded. A few hours later the wagon was packed and ready. Ratzlav was well-dressed and had two Poles with him. The wagon was filled with food. Ratzlav took out a bottle, half-emptied it and shouted: “I will return from Sarny a big man. You will see! Deutschland uber alles!” He climbed on the wagon and was on his way.

The group of Jews that remained on the street watched the departing wagon with sinking hearts. “God help us if this fellow will be pleading our cause”. A discussion ensued. Some maintained that we should crawl on our stomachs, if necessary, and escape this hell. Others thought that we should wait patiently for redemption. They soon dispersed because it was dangerous to be seen in groups.

Three days later, Ratzlav arrogantly returned. He wore a khaki hat with a large iron cross. He brought back a sack full of posters and announcements, 6 guns and grenades. An hour later, we saw the posters. The first was decorated with an eagle and an iron cross. Written in large letters in Ukrainian and German was: “At the will of the Fuhrer, Eric Koch has become governor of western Ukraine. His office is in Rovno and he is in charge of all matters.” Next to the poster there was a manifesto written in Ukrainian by Eric Koch thanking the Ukrainian population for helping to free the country from the Jewish Communists and from the corrupt Jewish government headed by their “Shabbes goy” – Stalin. The Jews are well-known to him and are advised to obey all orders. Next to the manifesto a large drawing was hung showing three NKVD men disguised as Jews running away from the approaching Germans. Below was the heading: “Run away, the murderers will not return”.

Two hours later two young armed Ukrainians appeared on the street. They were hanging posters which said: “I, Ratzlav, have been appointed chief of the police of Rokitno. The population is ordered to hand in all ammunition in its possession. I expect 3 Jews to appear in my office at 5:00 A.M.” “Heil Hitler!” It was signed – Ratzlav. His signature was illegible as he could neither read nor write.

Several of the town leaders met in the Rabbi's home to make decisions. No one wished to go to Ratzlav as all were afraid. After a short discussion, 3 Jews were chosen: pharmacist Noach Soltzman, Aharon Slutzki and Mendel Schwartzblat.

Ratzlav was situated in a large house, but the delegation was ordered to wait outside. There, 20 police officers were busy moving furniture. Ratzlav sat comfortably on a couch, red-faced from liquor and he began to speak in a mixture of Polish and German interspersed with Russian swearwords.

“You Jews know well that I have been appointed as chief of police, not only of Rokitno, but also of the entire area. When we conquer Kiev I will be promoted. Who knows how high I can reach? Since I am in charge of you, you must obey me like loyal dogs. First you must furnish 4 rooms with the best furniture as well as provide linens and dishes. Daily, you must provide food and drink for 10 people. Of course, Vodka must also be brought. Since you burned the town, you must remove all the ruins. Therefore, all able-bodied Jews must present themselves tomorrow at the police to be placed. They will not be paid for their work, since Jewish labor has no value. Tomorrow morning you must send 4 women to clean this house. This will be done on a daily basis. I now require a pack of excellent cigarettes and a gold wristwatch.

As to the Germans, I have arranged for 200 of them to come here in two days. We will have a fancy party for them in the palace. Tomorrow, the big rooms must be cleaned and 200 plates, other utensils and a lot of food must be provided.”

One of the delegates took out of his briefcase a pack of excellent cigarettes and a bottle of Vodka and placed them on the table. Ratzlav's eyes lit up. He opened a drawer to look for a glass. When he could not find one, he uncorked the bottle and began to drink. When he had finished about half of the bottle he raised his hand and screamed: “Why are you silent? You dogs! You must reply Heil Hitler! When you see me on the street, you and all the other kikes, you must remove your hats and greet me.” When he finished screaming a bout of giggling overtook him and his head fell on the table. The Jews stood up embarrassed and heartsick.

“Yes. I have something here – a paper for the kikes!” he said when he had stopped laughing. “Here, look among these papers because I am a little drunk and I can't read.” The paper was immediately found. It was a letter from a lieutenant informing the Jews that they must form a Judenrat consisting of 5 representatives. They would have the responsibility in all Jewish matters in town and in the area around it. The Judenrat is to appear in Sarny in front of the commander to receive further orders.

The delegation left the room. Only Soltzman stayed and told Ratzlav that he will be kind to the Jews he would want for nothing. “Well done!”- was the reply.

When the delegation left, the Jews were told to meet in the synagogue. Several tens of Jews met and were given a report on the situation. The rabbi and the shohet spoke. They emphasized that unity would save us and bring us redemption.

B. The Germans Enter Town

We began to work. Every morning we went out in groups to jobs. The main location was the demolished glass factory. We quickly removed the piles of heavy stones left after the bombing of the factory. Some Poles served as foremen and treated the workers cruelly.

I belonged to a group of 14 people that worked on repairing the railroad tracks. We had to take apart the bombed tracks and to replace them with new ones. We also had to make them narrower to adapt to the German trains. We worked on a section between Osnitzek and the bridge outside town. The work was back-breaking. We did everything with our hands since there were no tools. We piled the old tracks on a platform and pushed it several hundred meters along the tracks to the repair shop. Our supervisor was an angry and mean Pole. He used 6 workers, instead of 10, to raise large pieces of track. It was very difficult, but we got used to it. Our bodies strained, but we hoped that all our problems would only amount to hard labor. There was a benefit to working since those who worked hard received half a loaf of black bread each day. This was a great thing at the time. Nothing was available in the stores and we were not rationed any food.

On our return from work we would run into the large poster board, which contained new orders every day. The Jews were not permitted to leave town. Anyone who tried would be shot. Jews were not allowed to do any business with non-Jews. We could not buy any food and we were sentenced to starvation.

The first Germans arrived. There were only 10 and not 200 as Ratzlav had announced. The Jews stayed indoors and peeked out. There was a parade to welcome the Germans. The Ukrainian police officers, dressed in clothes supplied by the Judenrat, were followed by the Germans arranged in pairs. They wore summer clothes- shirts with sleeves rolled up, short pants and a belt filled with guns and grenades. Flashlights hung from a button and compasses were on their wrists. They wore steel helmets and had backpacks.

They marched proudly in goose steps, their heads raised and their faces fierce. Onlookers were filled with fear. They were followed by a crowd of young Poles and Ukrainians. They passed through the main street and went towards the palace. They were well received there. The sounds of the glass factory workers' band were heard till late at night as well as screams and shouts of the drunken Germans and their friends.

“Let us hope all will be well”, whispered the Jews in their homes. However, their hopes were quickly shattered. At night, when the party was over, the Germans, accompanied by some Poles, went on a rampage. They divided themselves into two groups. The Poles led them to two Jewish homes where they raped the women at gunpoint.

On the following day, Shabbat, no Jews dared leave their homes. They were afraid. At 9:00 A.M. we saw two police officers escorting Alter Pik to the police station now located in Levik Grinshpan's house. With our hearts beating we waited for what would follow. Twenty minutes later we heard three shots, one after the other. It was clear to us that Alter Pik was gone. He was killed without a trial.

The Germans left town a few days later and returned to Sarny. Ratzlav continued his cruel deeds.

C. The Judenrat and Its Mandate

The Judenrat was organized by the town residents in order to look after urgent matters and to avoid rampages. It actually began its work with the first arrangement to send the thief Ratzlav to Sarny to plead on our behalf. Later, it took care of the needs of the police.

The Judenrat was an administrative unit that centralized all Jewish matters. To outsiders it functioned as an official institution with influence on the Germans. There was the possibility of obtaining some easing of restrictions – perhaps even to save a Jewish life. It became a “valley of tears” where many hungry, depressed, suffering Jews would shed their tears. It was also a meeting place for Jews who came to hear news. There were those who invented happy items. However, after they read the only newspaper, “The Voice of Sarny”, they found out the opposite.

The German army was advancing and taking revenge on the Jews. The Poles, who tended to wander in the fall to other locations to buy food, spread rumors. They said that there were massacres in Koritz, Ludvopol and Kostopol and that anyone still alive was imprisoned. The Judenrat tried to cast doubt on those rumors since the Poles wanted to befriend us and get clothes and food from us at a cheaper price. Unfortunately, the rumors proved to be true eventually. Refugees from David-Horodok came to Sarny and reported that the local police gathered all the Jews on the bridge and threw the children into the river. Refugees from other villages, where local farmers had gone berserk, arrived in Stolin.

The German Police soon arrived. It was headed by officer Sokolovsky who spoke Polish and was probably a Folksdeutch (German-Pole). They looked more or less human. No one seemed cruel. Sokolovsky was short and skinny and his first name was Henkel, but he was nicknamed Tiny.

As soon as he arrived, Sokolovsky invited the Judenrat to a meeting. He informed the Jews that if they obeyed all instructions no ill would come to them. His only request was the Jews must prepare a location where they would come to him daily to receive orders and requests which must be fulfilled. He also asked that three young women would come to clean and work in the kitchen and two young men would shine boots, groom the horses, clean their stalls and do other chores. He then presented a list of household and kitchen needs and linens to be supplied within a few days.

The staff of five was at the disposal of the five police officers who represented the German government in town and in its surrounding area. The police officers were satisfied with the efforts of the Judenrat and they did not exhibit any special signs of animosity. The Jewish population was calmed by this. It also increased their trust in the Judenrat. The fact that the Ukrainian police was no longer in charge also helped. The Germans disarmed the Ukrainians and gave them sticks instead of guns. When a Jew was caught doing business with the Poles or the farmers, they did not have the authority to punish him. They had to bring him to the German police. The Judenrat was then able to free him by bribery.

However, the imagined peace and quiet that we enjoyed did not last long. In mid September 1941, three new evil orders were given to the community:

        1. Every Jewish home was to be marked with a Jewish blue star. It was an omen for what was to come. There was fear of riots and the Jewish homes were marked so the non-Jewish ones would not be attacked.

        2. The Judenrat was ordered to provide to the Ukrainian police 50 pairs of boots and 50 black suits. The materials had to be provided and the craftsmen were gathered to make the boots and suits. All was ready in two weeks.

        3. The Regional Office of Agriculture was to be given 12 cows. No one wanted to give up his cow since it was needed to feed the household. It was decided to collect 12 000 rubles. Anyone who gave up his cow was compensated 1000 rubles. This is how the order was filled.

During the High Holidays we received bad news. In Rovno, 18,000 Jews were exterminated in one day. Hearts were heavy with worry and people seemed like dark shadows who were even afraid to talk about the news.

On the eve of Yom Kippur another order was given. All the Jews had to wear a yellow star- a round piece of yellow cloth, 5cm in diameter- one over the heart and one on the shoulder. I silently cut the circles for the family and my mother sewed them on the clothes, her tears streaming.

At Kol Nidrei everyone came to the synagogue wearing the yellow star. The atmosphere was tense. The synagogue was lit with small candles. The praying tore our hearts. Everyone prayed in a loud voice full of pleas and sighs. The prayers expressed deep sorrow and fear for the lives of our families. Never before had we prayed like this. During Shema Koleinu, heart-rending sounds came out of the synagogue.

Yom Kippur was spent in prayer. After the reading of the Torah the Rabbi gave a speech. The shohet Rev Issachar Trigun connected our difficult times to other periods when our leaders were killed in the name of G-d. Their belief in G-d remained strong. He called on the worshippers to have faith so that we would all be redeemed. Loud sobbing came from the women's section and from the entire synagogue during Unetaneh Tokef. They did not know it would be their last prayer.

Horrible Meetings during Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

After services on Shemini Atzeret the chairman of the Judenrat came to the podium and announced that a new order was given and he hoped we would overcome it. He demanded that all men would gather at 3:00 P.M. in the synagogue for consultation. Our minds were full of doubt. Everyone tried to guess what was coming. At the appointed hour the synagogue was full. The chairman announced that the community was being assessed, one time only, 30 rubles per person. Pure gold was to constitute 10% of the total. If we could not collect the amount we would be in danger of being killed. Since among us there were refugees who had no means and there were Jews who had been robbed and had nothing left, it was up to those of means to look after the others. On a preliminary basis there were two suggestions: to prepare an accurate list of the Jewish population to help with the assessment and to choose a committee who would send emissaries to the surrounding villages to collect money. For this purpose wagons were prepared. They would be accompanied by the Ukrainian police who would look after their safety.

The Rabbi came to the podium. He showed that in the times of Moses, a similar procedure took place. The people of Israel were assessed one shekel per person. Unity is essential for the continuity of the Jewish people. “Jews are responsible for one another.” Truthfully, our town is poor and low in assets, but if we do not succeed, our existence will be in great danger. Therefore, he calls on the Jews of the community to think carefully and to fulfill the requirements so that we all will be redeemed.

A member of the Judenrat, Avraham Binder, followed him. He was an intelligent and thinking man. This is what he said: “Jews! Your chairman, Mr. Slutzki, has already told you some details about this task and what we must do now. Time is short and the coming moments are full of danger. We must begin immediately. The latest events that occurred in our area proved that wealth has no value. The greatest wealth is life itself. I propose to choose a committee of 3 people and to hand them money and valuable objects immediately.”

The proposal was accepted. To accomplish it the following were chosen: the Rabbi, shohet Trigun, and the pharmacist Noach Soltzman. In addition, a committee of five was chosen to do a proper census of the population. The committee quickly began its work in the streets. They soon returned to the Judenrat with an exact list of all the Jews. The Judenrat, located in the home of Betzalel Kokel, received the cash. Gold and other valuable objects were brought to the Rabbi's house. The women arrived with small packages wrapped in kerchiefs. They brought gold rings, necklaces, bracelets, watches, brooches- all pure gold. They were all placed in a large box.

As I stood near the Rabbi's house I was flooded with thoughts and memories. When I was still a child there was another collection of gold. However, that project had to do with a happy occasion for the Jews. There was a parade in town and, young and old, we marched in the street with a blue and white flag towards the synagogue. It was filled with people. On the Eastern wall a banner announced – in large letters- “A new light will illuminate Zion and we will all bask in its beams”. It was a party inaugurating the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Emotional speeches were made. Everyone was dressed in holiday clothes. When the event was finished, we greeted each other with “Happy holiday”. A few hours later the collection of gold began. Couple after couple went to the Rabbi's house to donate items of gold for the university. They were happy to donate for such a great cause.

Now everyone was still marching, but the picture was different: sad-faced, bent people came and went. The groups were not dense. They were reluctant to visit the Rabbi. On the next morning it was discovered that the wealthier Jews did not even appear. They waited for the end, to see how much they needed to add.

All the Jews were called for morning services at the synagogue. Nahum Katzenelson, a member of the Judenrat, went up to the podium. He reported bitterly that a large portion of the population did not heed the call and did not participate. It was as if their hearts were made of stone and they did not feel part of the terrible fate that awaited us. He demanded that the Rabbi excommunicate those who refused. Rabbi Shames went next to the podium and, in a hoarse and shaky voice, said: “Jews, our brothers. It is not so easy to excommunicate Jews. The law allows us to do it only in exceptional cases. How can I excommunicate people who have already been punished by G-d? These are people full of suffering and problems.” He then quoted verses from the Midrash and the Torah which described the suffering the people of Israel had gone through for many generations. The crowd stood still. Sobs were heard from the women's section.

Still, the Rabbi ordered that the “bed” covered in black be brought in and placed on the podium. Candles were put into candlesticks and placed near the “bed”. The candles were lit and the Rabbi announced: “I decree that everyone in the audience vow by a handshake that they have given everything. If not, I will be forced to use the “bed” and the black candles to cast a spell from G-d on those who refuse.”

The synagogue was quiet. All turned their heads towards the Rabbi, to see what was happening. A man came up to the podium and said that the committee will call on those who had not yet appeared and that we should continue with morning prayers.

“It is Simchat Torah today! Woe to us and to these holidays! We allow the Rabbi, the shohet, the pharmacist and all those who still must appear to perform their tasks and to miss prayers. Let us hope that we can overcome the excommunication and to come out of this whole.”

The shohet, Rev. Issachar Trigun, came up to the podium and said: “Dear brothers, woe to us that we have reached the moment where our holiday becomes a time for mourning. Instead of rejoicing with our Torah we cry for our martyrs and for ourselves. Who will cry for us? At this moment, when life and death are in our hands, we do not want to “choose life”. We close our fists and we do not see the sword over our heads. Our town is in flames. Save it! Has G-d turned his back on us? No! He is testing us to see if we can withstand the situation. G-d tested Abraham our father and ordered him to kill his beloved son. At the last minute the angel appeared and stopped him from slaughtering his son.

My dear brothers! We are facing black candles and we ask G-d for mercy. We ask him to forgive us our sins. We must know what to ask so that we do not fail by saying the wrong words. We are sinners and we are obstinate. I warn you. When you come to give a handshake in front of the “bed” and the candles, you must not use the wrong words. Do a proper soul searching and be truthful. I am confident that we will defeat Satan. We will manage to forger all our problems and we will be redeemed. Amen! May it be so!”

The committee left the synagogue. The noise grew louder. Screams were heard. The women cried. Some women broke through to the podium shouting: “Jews, save our children! Don't let them kill us!”

Two hours later the committee returned. It was very quiet. Soltzman came up to the podium and announced: “We failed! We did not succeed in fulfilling our task. The worst will now come. Let the audience be excommunicated. Jews, this is the Day of Atonement!” He pointed eastward and the shofar was blown near the ark. A shudder went through those present.

“Jews, you can still change your minds at the last minute. It is not too late!” shouted Avraham Binder. “Open your hearts and your wallets and let us not allow the curse to come upon us. Our community has never before been tested in this way. Give us whatever you have and we will be redeemed.”

The community was split in two. Some were for and others were against the excommunication. Those against yelled: “Stop! Do not excommunicate. You will be punished by G-d!” The synagogue was in turmoil. Finally, the money was collected in full.

All heaved a sigh of relief. The ark was opened and the Torah scrolls were taken out for Hakafot. The next day, the Judenrat took the money to Sarny, to the governor.

D. The Atrocities in Vitkovich and the Cruelty of Ditch

In October 1941 the railroad was repaired. It was very difficult work. We had to remove the broken tracks and to bring in tracks from far away. All this was done without proper tools. The Polish overseer kept at us constantly with curses and screams. We worked hard. At night we received our “pay” – half a loaf of black bread. This was a dire necessity in those days.

When we repaired the tracks connecting the bridge in town to the bridge in the village of Osnitzek, our work was finished. We them began to work in the yard of the glass factory. There we removed the ruins and we rebuilt the factory. We worked with the Poles and it was a nightmare. We were constantly badgered and denounced, but we had to keep silent.

One day, a horrible rumor was heard. A ghetto was to be formed where all the Jews would be enclosed. It was clear that the Germans were planning in this way to steal, with ease, the belongings of the Jews. It was not permitted to transfer belongings to the planned ghetto. Necessary items were packed and we waited for what was to come next. Finally, the order was given. The Jews had to give an inventory of all farm animals, wagons, harnesses and farming tools. It was a rainy Friday. Everyone brought their cows or horses to the collecting station in the yard of the abattoir. I stood in line for many hours until my turn came. I registered and brought my cow in to the yard. I removed the rope from its horns and I left. She smelled the wet earth, turned her head to me and mooed as if to say good-bye. I was saddened to see the poor creature that was now to be locked up.

In those days terrible events occurred in Vitkovich. About 40- 50 Jews had lived there for many years. They were well established in the village. They owned stores and large farms. However, evil reached even this village. The farers, their good neighbors, who used to spend time in the Jewish homes, began to ravage and steal. It happened that Soviet partisans infiltrated the village and killed some of its residents because they were Nazi sympathizers. They only stayed for a short time and quickly returned to the forests. A rumor spread that the local Jews had organized the attack. Some even testified that local Jews were among the partisans. The Jews immediately understood that they had to leave. They rented wagons and left for Rokitno during the night. Several hours later, when the convoy came out of the forest and into the plain, they were attacked by their murderous neighbors with axes and other utensils. They were cold-blooded and did not listen to the pleading of the women and children. It was a terrible massacre. The bodies were thrown into a ditch. Only two families managed to escape and safely reached town.

This event cast fear in the hearts of all the Jews in the villages. They ran away and came to Rokitno.

In November 1941, the news came that a whole S.S. division was on its way. The residents immediately began to prepare food, bed linens and other items the murderers would require. Luckily, only 30 killers arrived. They came to assist in the collection of taxes from the non-Jews. They were headed by a short man, Captain Ditch. He was dressed in a khaki uniform. He was the cruelest German we had ever met. The first time he passed Jews on the street, he hit them for walking on the sidewalk instead of in the middle of the road, as required.

When he came to the Judenrat, everyone stood up. He cast an angry look at those present and immediately went to the office of the chairman, Mr. Slutzki. We soon heard shouts and screams coming from the room. He demanded that all his office equipment, which included more than 100 items, be prepared within 4 hours. Four hours later exactly, Ditch reappeared. He entered the chairman's office screaming: “Alle heraus!” (Everyone out). He then evicted all the members of the Judenrat and remained alone with Slutzki. We heard his terrifying screams and then a countdown: One! Two! Three! – to 25. Fragmented sighs emanated from the room. Suddenly, the door flew open and Ditch, sweaty and wild-eyed quickly exited the room and slammed the door. We rushed inside and found Slutzki on the couch, half-naked, his back covered in bleeding welts. His jacket was on the floor and he looked lifeless. We threw water on him and he recovered slightly. In a weak voice he told us how Ditch attacked him, tore off his jacket and slammed him on the couch. He then lifted his shirt, took off his wide belt. Pistol in hand he whipped him with the belt. Slutzki lost consciousness on the 11th hit and could not remember anything else. After some medical attention, Slutzki was taken home. He recuperated a few weeks later.

The month of November was full of fear and trepidation. The 30 SS men in town were destructive. We had to supply them with 30 pairs of boots, clothes and top-notch tobacco daily. The committee did not have these items. Therefore, a delegation went to Sarny and from there to Dombrovitza to buy leather and tobacco. A new order was given forbidding the Jews from any gatherings, including prayers services. The two synagogues in town were closed. A week before the order was given when the Jews were praying in the synagogue, Ditch suddenly broke in screaming. He took out his pistol and shot in the air. Panic ensued and people jumped out of windows. Ditch, pleased with the results, left. Public praying stopped.

Soon an order was issued to provide craftsmen only with licenses, to close individual workshops and to organize workers in craft guilds. A great rush on licenses followed since everyone believed this would save lives. Indeed, after the slaughter in Rovno, many Jewish craftsmen were spared. The craft guild was located in the old synagogue. It consisted mainly of tailors and shoemakers. There was more work every day since all orders were filled according to instructions of the Germans and the Ukrainian police. They were paid a symbolic salary of 60 kopeks per hour. The work day was 10 hours long. Each craftsman earned 6 rubles per day- a measly sum. However, they lived in the hope that work would spare them from death.

E. The Atrocities of the 15 and the Hardships in the Ghetto

In the winter of 1942 heavy fines were imposed on the town Jews. However, the most frightening decree was the mobilization of 15 expert craftsmen who were to be sent to an unknown location. Our experience was that when someone was sent away, it meant death. However, this decree was puzzling: why were craftsmen chosen? We believed that craftsmen were spared from death because of their licenses. If so, why were they chosen?

The Judenrat stayed up late struggling with the list. After much self-torture, 15 people were selected. They were all sick or crippled. It was felt that the Germans would eliminate them since they were helpless. The next day their wives came to the Judenrat and begged with tears and screams to release their husbands. The men lifted their shirts to show their scars and wounds and begged for mercy.

The Judenrat stood helpless in front of the angry women who attacked them with their nails. One woman told her friends to tear their clothing and to sit shiva. They sat on the floor and heart-rending screams could be heard. The crying and screaming attracted the attention of a policeman who came to the street. When he saw the grieving women he asked what was wrong. The women, thinking the policeman would help them, got up. Each woman wanted to present her own case. The noise was deafening and the policeman did not understand anything. “Quiet!” shouted the policeman and pointed his pistol. The women immediately fled and shouted: “Help. They are shooting!” A great panic followed. Everyone ran away from the street and hid at home. The policeman was pleased with himself.

However, the shouting and crying did not help. The men had to present themselves. The parting from wives and children was frightening. There were heart-wrenching scenes which cannot be described. They knew this was the last parting. It was forever. All present cried. Only 3 of them returned. They told about the slaughter in Rovno.

In April, I was busy at work because the Germans decided to enclose the Jews in the ghetto. They demanded that the Judenrat prepare 3 maps of the town. They chose me as the cartographer and I had to draw these maps. I spent day and night bent over my papers drawing the maps. I was required to mark the non-Jewish homes in one color and the Jewish ones in a different color. In the second half of April a detailed map of the ghetto streets was read. The Judenrat began to assign lodgings. There were some bitter fights. Each person wanted to choose his neighbors. We were assigned 25 square meters per person. In reality, we did not even enjoy this much space and the crowding was terrible.

On May 1, the Jews of Rokitno were enclosed in a narrow and suffocating ghetto. Eight souls shared one small room. The heat was unbearable. To make life even more difficult, we were forbidden from going out for fresh air. We were isolated from the outside world and from supplies. We could not even think of buying food. Hungry people ate grass from the fields bordering the ghetto. They picked leaves from wildflowers and boiled them to quiet their hunger pangs. Those who had some seeds of grain, ground them secretly in a mill that was hidden underground in the ghetto. The entrance was camouflaged with a large crate used as a table. The crate was moved to allow descent into a dark low-ceilinged cellar. A small petrol light was lit and with their last strength people managed to turn the wheel. The flour was thick as groats. Each piece of grain was worth as much as a diamond and all were careful not to drop any on the floor.

Whenever a policeman appeared on the street, everyone shivered. They immediately stomped their feet as a warning. It became deathly quiet in the cellar. We had to spend many hours crowded in the dank airless cellar breathing the vapor from petrol lamp until the all-clear signal was given. We could then continue our grinding. The flour was mixed with millet, spelt, potatoes and “lebede” (grass leaves). It was quite tasty and flavorful. Our only food for many months was a thin soup made with groats and water and a piece of bread. Many people did not even have this much and they were swollen with hunger. The lebede was our main food. We made cutlets, biscuits and other dishes from it. We did not have tobacco. Everything was smoked: cherry tree leaves, ground raspberry stones, ivy leaves, shells and nettles. It was rolled in paper and lit.

The situation of the Judenrat worsened daily and with it that of the Jews. The Germans became crueler in their demands and they slowly revealed their true purpose – extermination.

Life in the Enclosed Quarter

The enclosed quarter was not a real ghetto because no walls or barbed wire fences were built. It was enough that an order was given forbidding the Jews from leaving the street. It was as if they were locked inside a house. Since the main street of Rokitno was not large enough to contain all the Jews, a small ghetto was organized in the new town. There were about 10 houses around the market square. One of them was used by the Germans from the Economic Department. Behind the ghetto, near the railroad tracks, was a camp of a German army with reserves mainly from Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They were rebuilding bombed bridges.

There were about 50 houses on the main street. Some were occupied by Polish squatters. The Ukrainian militia remained in its building. The windows opened to the street and provided a view of all that was happening there. At the end of the street, the regional police occupied Grinshpan's house.

The ghetto was overcrowded. Each room was occupied by at least one family. It was forbidden to leave the ghetto or to go from the main ghetto to the small ghetto without permission from the Judenrat. Two Jewish policemen stood at the beginning of the street and watched the traffic. Every day, those who worked for the Germans lined up at the square near the militia building. They were then sent to the workplaces.

The guild in the synagogue, where the tailors, shoemakers and other craftsmen were concentrated, was supervised by the Department of Labor. They were forbidden from doing any work for Jews. They either served the Germans and the militia or did work ordered by the Judenrat. They were not paid for their work. Their only salary was the hope that they would remain alive because of their skills. The Judenrat did compensate them for any work done for them.

The Jews were not even permitted to linger on the street and to enter into any discussions among themselves. It was prohibited to bring any food into the quarter. Once a week, the weekly bread was distributed – 40 grams per person per day and groats or millet – 400 grams per person per week. Kenig, the police officer, would sometimes do searches in the streets. He entered houses where smoke was rising from the chimney, to make certain they were not cooking meat or boiling milk. One day, four Jews were caught with bottles of milk given to them by their Polish neighbors. Immediately, a large fine was imposed on the Judenrat.

The economic hardship increased. In addition to the constant fear of the future and the difficult work, which was becoming worse every day, hunger depressed everyone. Many people wandered around dizzy and weak, their bodies swollen. In the evenings and at night, people sneaked out of the houses, went to the fences and exchanged clothes for food – bread or flour or some butter and cheese. The food was then well hidden.

There was no contact with the outside world. No newspapers arrived and radio did not exist. We were afraid to speak to the Poles and to discuss politics. Sometimes, the members of the Judenrat traveled to Sarny, on orders from the governor, to deal with various decrees. They would then bring back some news. None was good news. It was during the time when the Germans continued to advance in Eastern Europe and were approaching Georgia and Stalingrad. Their aim was to reach and conquer oil supplies and to separate the Russian army from important supply centers.

While we were in the ghetto, some partisan groups began activities in the forests. Their nucleus was Russian soldiers who were either “accidentally” separated from their units or who remained behind to harm the enemy. They were joined by Russian youths who feared that the Germans would massacre them. At first, the situation of the partisans was bad. They needed guns and detonating materials. Their purpose was to attract more fighters to the forest and to dispense information in different ways. Even those few made life difficult for the Germans. It was enough to destroy a small bridge on the railroad or part of a track to frighten the Germans in town. At first, there were only 5 police officers supervising an area 40 kilometers in diameter. After some sabotage activities by the partisans more German troops came to guard the tracks. They built shacks near every bridge, surrounded the area with a barbed wire fence and even put in land mines. In important locations, like the railroad station, they built watchtowers. Only when I came back from the partisans, did I realize how much the Germans feared them.
The activities of the partisans in the area greatly distressed the Germans. Many more German soldiers arrived in town. They erected cannon positions at the town entrance and at the bridge on the small river.

The fear inside the ghetto also grew. We prayed that the nights would be quiet and that the partisans would not attack. We knew that each one of these attacks would bring retaliations on us. The Germans became more and more nervous and cruel. They began to suspect the Jews of assisting the partisans. Every bit of news about any activity made us shiver. A few days before the last massacre the partisans attacked a train in the Osnitzek station and 20 Germans were killed. Soon strange characteristics were noticed in the local Germans.

The Bitter End of Rokitno

On August 25, 1942, the strict order was given that all Jews, including the sick, were to present themselves on the following day, a Wednesday, in the market square for roll call. We were suspicious because the police officers and the Germans spent the day collecting all the goods in the various workshops. Also, additional police officers from the surrounding areas arrived in town. Some people thought of running away, but the Judenrat tried to calm us by saying that the purpose of the roll call was to verify whether Jews escaped to join the partisans during the previous attack. If one of us were to escape it would be proof that we were guilty. The entire community would be punished because of a few escapees. The next day, August 26, 1942, 13 Elul 5742, at 9:00 A.M, the entire Jewish community – 1631 people – stood in the market square and waited for the verdict. The chief of police stood with a bandaged hand. Next to him were several Germans. The roll call was done quickly and, to our surprise, we were not ordered to go home. Instead, we were told to stand in two lines – men in one, women and children in the other. We were 6 people abreast. Our hearts were beating and we were scared.

The head of the Judenrat came to me and asked me to go to the chief of police to ask him what was going on. As I moved from my place the women began screaming. Mindel Eisenberg's voice was heard shouting: “Jews! Save yourselves!” I immediately saw a large group of policemen and Germans coming from everywhere, their guns cocked. The chief moved back two steps from me and drew his gun in his left hand and, swearing, shot twice.

Before I was able to lower my head I heard shots from hundreds of automatic guns. People began to run crazed trying to escape the bullets. Terrible screams, groans, “Shema Israel” and non-stop shooting were heard. The market square was drenched in Jewish blood. Blood was streaming from all directions. If not for the beating sun, the blood would have become an angry stormy river. The market square was covered with broken bodies of men, women and young children.

Many Jews were caught and put into train cars waiting at the station. The next day, they were slaughtered in Sarny together with other Jews from Sarny and other villages. 10,000 Jews were murdered in 3 hours. 300 Jews were killed in the market square and 700 others managed to escape into the forests.

This is how the Jewish community of Rokitno was terminated.


[Page 275]

Lamentation On The Destruction

Natan Gendelman (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

In memory of my dear mother and sister
and all my family who were slaughtered
in Sarny and in memory of my father,
killed by soldiers in Berezov.

The twenty-second day of June nineteen forty-one
Will not be erased from my memory.
Early in the morning, it was announced on the radio
That the enemy had suddenly infiltrated.

The residents of Rokitno were in a quandary.
Should they hide? Should they run? That was the question.
Run eastward, my brothers,
Leave your homes, remove yourselves from danger.

It was all in vain - only some took walking stick and backpack
And went east in any which way.
The rest did not budge. They remained attached to the place, believing
Help would come from above. My heart was full of fear
For those who stayed home.
Their misery and suffering would know no end.

That day I cannot forget how I said good-bye to my parents.
I gave my sister and my dear ones those last kisses.
How they cried bitterly.
Their pain was obvious with every word.

I hear my mother's voice that night and I absorb her words
“My son! Who knows if we will ever meet again?
Go in peace. I will pray for you. Perhaps redemption will come
And you will be saved from this burning inferno.”

This is how I left town. This is how the convoy disappeared
My family's moans remain in my heart forever.
Man, how bitter is the destiny of those who remain.
Angels of peace, stay and protect them from harm.
My heart is open and aware of all that happens at home
To all my town folk who are waiting to be caught.

The enemy approached the town and waved its sword
It spread its black wings over its prey.
Dark shadows covered the road
Everything is hidden. There is no one on the street
All passers-by are cowering in darkened entrances.

From time to time you hear dogs barking
Suddenly you hear the sound of boots marching.
“The Germans are in Rokitno” - one Jew tells another
New orders come every minute. Reside in a separate area,
Ghetto, yellow stars, life without hope,
Tasks for the town elders, shots, killings.

Rosh Hashana, 1941, do you remember?
This is the old synagogue - it is surrounded.
The S.S. is all around it, drunk and wild,
Killers holding guns, bayonets,
In harsh voice they shout “Juden Raus!”
Doors are rammed and thresholds shake.

Who will dare open the gates? Everyone is praying
They are pouring out their bitter hearts to heaven
They cry over their fate, the difficult times,
Such wickedness was never seen before. These evil men
Intend to exterminate us - “Pour your wrath” on them.

In a secluded corner stands Reb Shimon, covered in a talit, his eyes tearful,
His brow is furrowed, his hair white, his hands raised upwards,
He begs for the safety of his son, who ran away with the Bolsheviks,
To his family, standing near him, - “Give them life, send redemption to your people, the people of Israel”.

Then is heard the shaky voice of the prayer leader:
“On Rosh Hashana it is written and on the fast day of Yom Kippur it is decided,
Who will be killed by noise, or by epidemic or by choking or by stoning”.

Months of anguish have passed and there is no end to the suffering
It is a life of an abused prisoner, broken in mourning,
As all are immersed in sorrow and suffering, an order thunders
All must present themselves in market square, all to be counted.

This terrible news is immediately spread everywhere
At daybreak the miserable souls leave their homes
Young and old, women with babies in their arms,
Some latecomers arrive from the ghetto streets
Followed by police marching with rubber sticks
Whipping their backs and the rest of the villains
Are rushing to discover those in hiding.
They remember the sick who are in their beds
And they quickly condemn them to death.

This is how the ghetto was emptied of its Jews
They gathered in the square, so miserable.
They never imagined they would be slaughtered.
They ask each other, what did we do,
What are they planning for us?

The S.S. counts, separates and divides
The first shots hit some tens of people.
There are dead bodies lying in piles.
They lie in pools of blood, their souls have not yet left.
How terrible is this place!

In the morning the enemy will shove the unfortunate ones into cattle cars
The train will move. Where to? For what?
The ditches of Sarny are waiting for them, where thousands are shot
Deep ditches, dug by our brothers by force

You scan with your eyes a large field and you see
The first ditch has not been dug and the last one not yet filled.
The barrage is starting
The bullets are fired in rapid succession.

Thousands of bodies fall off the edge
Into the ditch, limbs and bodies covered in blood,
Horrible screams for help and “Shema Israel” are
Called by the unfortunate and reach the skies.

Moans of pain are swallowed by the laughter of Satan
He is crazed. There is no law nor judge
Ukrainian soil, in its breadth and length,
Absorbs the blood of martyrs and saints.

The news of the destruction is quickly disseminated
It hits my heart like a dart, I shout and scream
I grind my teeth and seek a path
To the animals' cave - to Berlin - to annihilate it.

Our pure blood is pouring in Europe
And will never be absorbed by the earth.
We will never be quiet and calm
We will seek revenge from door to door.

You may be alive, but you are in a trance.
Will you not awaken and feel the heat?
Are your ears blocked? Do you not hear the bitter crying?
Answer me, will you avenge the martyrs?

My son, only yesterday your father was slaughtered in front of your eyes.
Are you not agitated, do you not roar like a lion?
Will you blow the shofar to alert the hearts?
Will you march erect to the land of the beasts?

The liberation army is approaching, its star is beckoning
These are your comrades in misery. Wake up! Volunteer!
We are all remnants ready to join
Together we will put an end to darkness.

I run like a dog from yard to yard
I grab any bone thrown my way, but I am awake
I bark, I bark to penetrate the hearts of the remnants
Our hour of revenge is here, my brothers!

We avenge the tears of fathers,
The cries of children and humble mothers.
My slaughtered brothers, hanging from trees.
We avenged your suffering and endless torment.

Silently, I look into the clear eyes of my friends.
I remember how we sat in school together
We hiked to the bridge together, the river water underneath rippling,
We breathed the odor of the wheat fields, we forged friendships in the woods
Mysteries of the night were sweet, the stars were shining
Suddenly, a storm of destruction came
It uprooted the trees and pulled you all down.

You struggled hard for your lives, you did not offer your necks for slaughter,
You did not go out like sheep to be slaughtered, but defended yourselves properly.
You joined the partisans in the forests and you showed your courage.
As ghetto fighters you defended the honor of man and nation.
In the Red Army you fought for freedom like lions.
You received strength from the defenders of Moscow and the fighters of Stalingrad
Are you really gone, does no one know your names?

How bitter is your legacy. Let us hope your memory
Will be valued by history. You will be memorialized as heroes
Who were born in the twenties and fell in the forties.

Somewhere in the forests of Volyn I quietly look around
I search for you day and night, I find a grave in the grass,
I approach you, you are so many. I look inside.
I see only your tender bones, lifeless,
I stand trembling at the grave of my brothers and I honor them.

I cannot believe that they are silent forever. There are times
When the silence speaks for them at night
Their lips whisper: Remember the day of atrocities
Remember to avenge, to save mankind!
I remember them forever and I will fulfill their last wish
I sit alone on the roadway,
I listen to the distant wind
Which disappears, but leaves an echo of their last request.
This is how I stand on the land of destruction.

Oh Poland, the land of my youth,
You gave us young people full of life
There we studied and played, we swam in your rivers
We enjoyed your gardens and we forged friendships in your forests.
We were raised in your midst and we were creative. We established communities
So many writers and poets emerged from among us.

My good brothers lived there, from them I received
My strength to bear the heavy load on my shoulders
To suffer and to wander, from village to town
Like a ship on the seas thrown by the waves.
A storm came, heavy clouds obscured the light.
A chapter in our life has ended and will never return.

I returned to you and I did not recognize you, the land of destruction.
You must know that I did not come to cry over you.
I am a Jew and I have only one question for you
Where are my dear brothers? I ask you in vain.

Oh, brother! If you wish to know, go to the ditches of destruction
Look in and tremble. You will get the correct reply.
Sound is choking in my throat, my eyes are full of tears,
My fists are banging and demanding
Judgment for the bloodbath, the innocent blood
That was shed everywhere and was absorbed by you. Do you know why?
The witnesses are the mass graves in Majdanek, Treblinka
The big death machine in Auschwitz.
You can see mass graves scattered in thick forests.
They faced the barbaric enemy in terrible times.

Your soil is completely covered in ashes
Of father, mother and the People of the Book
The dust of the martyrs will not cover the sins of the murderers
Look, blood stains are appearing on your soil
They protrude and show evidence of the destruction of millions
Of our brothers performed by the followers of Hitler.
Your trees, fruit trees, were used as gallows
By the executioners who hung bodies on them.

It will still be told of the Jews of Poland, of the large Jewish population,
That their way of life has ended forever.

And you, son of Rokitno,
From the depth of my heart I send this poem to the sound of bitter cries
If no one listens, it will drown in heavy waters
You must promise to remember our dear ones and to never forget the Holocaust
Tell this to your children, from one generation to another, to always remember.

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