We were seven friends, and were the first ones in Sokoly to be drafted, immediately after Rosh HaShana, 1940: (1) Mendel Lev, the son of Bashke's Leibel; (2) David Yehudel [Yehuda] Schweitznik, the son of Tova Devorah, the hatmaker; (3) Zalman Goldberg, the son of Yisrael, the blacksmith; (4) Shmuelka Charney, the son of Avrahamke, the rope maker; (5) Sheika Charney, the son of Zussel, the tailor; (6) Mendel Schwartz from Kubelin; and (7) I, Moshe, the son of Yankel [Yaakov], the blacksmith.
Forever engraved in my memory is how our parents accompanied us to the train station in Lapy. The tears flowed like water.
We arrived in the Russian city of Chernigov, and then the hell began for us. We were immediately sent to the first front line. From our seven friends, only two remained alive: Mendel Schwartz and myself. Our other five friends fell in battle against Hitler. The Germans advanced and galloped forward on the Russian front.
I was in the company of my Polish acquaintance, Wladek Ruszkowski from Jablonowo, and the two of us decided to run away from our unit that was withdrawing from the front, and penetrate the German line so as to return to Sokoly. On the way, we heard about the murderous deeds of the occupiers.
My companion, Wladek, promised to give me shelter, but I was not convinced by his words and I understood that I was entering the lion's den of my own free will. Without hesitating, I turned back the way I had come and lost myself in the crowds of people walking in the footsteps of the withdrawing Red Army. I wandered for a certain time until I was arrested and sent to the faraway Russian city of Chelyabinsk, on the Ural River. There, I worked at hard labor and burned with fever until I was very weak and was unable to walk any more.
Once, I heard a shout from the political agent officer: Come out to me, Surasky!
I am ill, I answered.
The officer gave an order to send me to the doctor, and if the doctor would not acknowledge that I had any illness, I should be sent back to him immediately. The meaning was, that if the doctor did not acknowledge what I said about my illness, I would be shot in the head.
It happened that the doctor was a Jew from Krakow, and the soldier that brought me to the doctor was a goy. I hinted to the doctor, in Yiddish, that my life was suspended in his hands he understood the hint very well and meanwhile gave me an exemption from work for three days. Thus, I was rescued from death.
I considered my unfortunate situation, and I had no choice but to flee from the work camp. I escaped and arrived at the city of Ufa. I found out that in this city there was a Polish representative, and I went to his office. There, I was lucky to see a Polish captain whom I knew from Sokoly, the son-in-law of Grabowski, the blacksmith. I told him who I am and he helped me a lot. At the beginning, he sent me to a Polish committee in Tashkent. Since I am a Jew, they refused to accept me into the Polish Army of General Andres. Then, I received a permit from the Captain that allowed me to travel anywhere I wished. I chose to travel to the Altai region [Siberia], where I worked in a kolkhoz [collective agricultural settlement] as a blacksmith.
In the middle of 1943, I received an invitation to join the Polish Army of Wanda Wasilewska. I wanted to take revenge on the murderers of my family and my people. I yearned to participate in the battles and to be among the first at every dangerous place. I was seriously injured in the battle near the city of Lanino [near Smolensk], and I lay in the hospital for four months. After some time, I was drafted into the Kosciuszko First [Infantry] Division, near Lublin. We advanced and reached Warsaw.
|Photo - Zalman Goldberg and David Yehuda Schweitznik|
When we were in the city of Rembertow, near Warsaw, I could not rest without seeing the town of my birth Sokoly. The road there at that time was dangerous, because the soldiers of the anti-Semitic Polish A.K. [Armia Krayuwa] underground were spread out over all of the roads and they attacked anyone that they suspected of being Jewish.
I endangered my life and I didn't think about anything else, other than to once again see my town, the place where I was born. When I reached Sokoly, I met a weak, pale boy next to the road. He stood next to Mordechai Surasky's house. This was Yankele, the son of Chaim Tuvia, the blacksmith. He recognized me immediately and told me that nobody from my family had remained alive.
Accompanied by the boy, I went into Berel Sheikes' house, where the survivors from the family of Chaim Tuvia Litvak were living. I saw the destruction of our town with my own eyes, and I immediately returned to my [army] unit. My desire to take revenge upon the murderers of my parents, my brothers and sisters, grew more and more.
In 1946, I was released from the Polish Army, and remained in Poland for a short while longer. I knew that the survivors of our nation had no future in Poland, and I decided to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael.
On my way to the [Promised] Land, I stayed in Austria. There, I was married, and my wife and I sailed on one of the illegal immigrant ships [to British Mandate Palestine]. We had to struggle for another complete year [before being allowed into Palestine], because we were sent to Cyprus. There, my oldest son was born.
In 1947, we reached the Land of Israel. This was at the beginning of the War of Independence. I was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, and served in the famous Givati Brigade during the entire War [of Independence].
|Photo - Surasky Family in Kfar Aviv|
|Photo - Moshe Surasky's Son's Family|
Mottel and Pesha Shafran, Bubcha's parents, had lost six children, and Bubchale was the seventh. Her poor parents were left with the youngest of their children. They took care of her as if she were the apple of their eyes and poured a wealth of love and attention upon her.
When the War broke out between Russia and Germany, Bubcha was a young woman in her twenties. She was beautiful. She had a tall figure, blond hair and soft, dreamy blue eyes. Her parents were no longer young. They were frail and weak.
The night of the elimination of the Jews from Sokoly, the Shafran family, like most of the residents of the town, succeeded in fleeing to the surrounding forests. The approaching winter began to show its signs. The harsh cold penetrated deep into their bones, and then the Jews who were hiding in the forests needed the help of the farmers, residents of the villages.
During the first days of their flight, the Poles gave some help to the Jews, but over time, they related to the poor unfortunates in accordance with the weather conditions. Outside, the cold grew stronger and their attitude [toward the Jews] also grew colder, until finally, they did not allow a Jew to cross their thresholds.
During that period, the Shafran family was located in a pit in the Kowalew Szczyzna Forest. Their situation was already at its worst. One of Mottel's feet was frozen by the cold, and hunger afflicted them terribly. Not having any choice, the family went toward a village, in the hope of obtaining a bit of cooked food and perhaps resting for a number of hours in one of the houses so as to warm themselves.
When they reached the village, it was already getting dark. Lights shone from the huts and happy voices could be heard from inside them. There, within, people were sitting who were content and replete. The cold outside did not worry them. What did the cold matter, if they were sitting snugly in their warm houses and a filling evening meal awaited them on the stove?
Bubcha left her parents near a tree and went into one of the huts. When she opened the door, she smelled the good smell of fried fat. She tried her luck, and said, Please, give me something to eat, because I am hungry.
Quickly, get out of my house! thundered the housewife's answer. Don't you know that it is forbidden for Jews to enter a Polish house?
Bubcha received a similar welcome at the rest of the houses in the village. She returned to her parents, who waited for her near the tree. When they heard their daughter's story, they were seized by disappointment and discouragement. Nobody would allow them to enter. All of the doors were locked to them.
What should they do now? They had no other way to go, than to return to the pit in the forest and be buried there alive.
Thick snow was falling. Three images, perhaps people, perhaps shadows, stood with their hands turned aside and occasionally stamped their feet in order to warm themselves. With tottering knees, they returned to the forest. And here, a single light is shining from the bottom of the hill.
Bubcha awakened from her apathy. I didn't go yet to this house I will try my luck again here. Her parents remained near the fence and she went inside. The last chance to be rescued.
Allow me to warm myself under your roof, mumbled the girl.
To her great amazement, she heard the answer, Please, warm yourself as much as you wish.
But, added Bubcha, I am not alone. My parents are standing frozen next to the fence.
The housewife opened the door and invited the parents inside. Seasoned potatoes and steamy cabbage soup quieted the hunger of the three of them. Their eyes became bright and their faces shone. They remained there to sleep, hidden in a pile of straw and covered with blankets.
The next day, they did not drive them away.
Very quickly, Bubcha became friendly with the members of the family and began to help them with the housework. She peeled potatoes, washed the dishes, cooked food for the pigs and fed them. She looked like one of the family, in an apron and with a white scarf on her head.
Once, the housewife remarked, You don't look like a Jew at all. You can easily stay with us. Nobody will recognize you.
The housewife, Szliwiewska, was a widow. Her only son, Staczek, managed the small farm. In the same house, in the other room, lived her married daughter with her husband and two children.
Staczek was accustomed to invite his close friends (from nearby villages) to his house for a drink from time to time, on winter Sunday evenings. On one of these evenings, Bubcha was also present. He trusted his friends and did not refrain from introducing the Jewish guest.
The young men drank smugon (home-made whiskey) and ate. They were in high spirits and began to sing. Happy with drink, they asked Bubcha to sing a song for them. At first, she refused, but when she encountered Staczek's pleading look, she hesitated for a moment and began to sing the Polish song The Wanderer:
|Czy wloczega jest cos najgorszego,||Will they deny the wanderer the right to live,|
|Czy wloczega niema prawa zyc?||Will his fate be only beatings and threats?|
|Czy wloczega tylko jest do tego,||Will he be abandoned every day to derision and trampling|
|By go wysmiewac, szturchac i bic?||And will his fate be to be preyed upon and torn apart?|
|Walesam sie jak opetany pies!||I will wander like a dog without a home!|
When she came to these last words, her voice caught and she was unable to continue. Tears choked her throat and she burst into tears. The entire party remained silent in their places. Not one of them tried to comfort her. Slowly and quietly, the friends slipped out of the room.
Days passed. Bubcha became accustomed to the Szliwiewski farmers' home. Her pleasant ways and her diligence earned her the family's sympathy. Her parents were in a hiding place inside the house. They also brought benefit to the household. Pesha plucked goose feathers and Mottel, who was a watchmaker by profession, repaired the family's clocks.
Meanwhile, rumors reached them that it was still quiet in the Bialystok ghetto, and the remainder of Sokoly's Jews had gathered there. The Shafran's hearts beat faster at hearing this news: there is still a corner of the district where Jews are living. Come what may, they must get there. If they still had a bit of time to live, they wanted to be together with their brothers the Children of Israel.
The desire to be found among Jews grew. Bubcha informed Staczek of their decision to move to the Bialystok ghetto, and then a dramatic disagreement began between them. He wanted to convince her that to live in the Bialystok ghetto meant death. Maybe it will be delayed, he said, but in the end it will come.
Stay with us, he said, we can arrange it so that strangers will not know that you are here. I will dig a bunker for your parents in the forest, and every day we will bring them food. On the other hand, you can easily remain in the house. You look like one of us and speak excellent Polish. You can change the place where you live from time to time. I have good friends in the area and they will help you. I also hope to get you a Polish identification card. Don't go to the ghetto.
|Photo - Bubcha Shafran|
Staczek, answered Bubcha, remember that by doing this you are endangering your life and the lives of your family. If they will catch us with you, the Germans will kill you, and it would be a pity for such good people as you are to be destroyed. We are Jews and our fate is sealed. And why should our fate be better than that of the rest of our brothers and sisters, the Jews?
Bubcha, you have a chance to remain alive. Don't go to the ghetto. There, death is certain. Stay here. I want you to live. You are still so young, and beautiful.
Bubcha was at a loss. Staczek was right.
In the ghetto, death is certain. And in this house? She looked at Staczek's wide, good face. Yes, she thought, he will save me, but only me. My parents will be abandoned. They will not have the strength to go on, in the forest. If I will remain alive, it will only be thanks to Staczek. If so, my life will belong to him, his private property, he will have every right to it.
What is your decision? Staczek stopped her thoughts. Bubcha took his hand in hers, and pressed it to her heart. Staczek, Bubcha mumbled through her tears, you are so good to me, too good. But understand me, I am a Jew and that is what I want to remain.
Staczek, surprised, got up from the bench.
But I am not asking you for anything. I only want that the flames of the furnace in Treblinka will not lick at your body. I want you to live, Bubcha.
That same night, Staczek harnessed his wagon and brought the Shafran family to Bialystok. When they reached the suburbs of the city, they got down from the wagon and secretly parted from Staczek. When he squeezed Bubcha's hand, he whispered, Remember, my house will always be open to you.
On August 16, 1943, the date of the extermination of the Bialystok ghetto, half an hour before the German officers burst into the ghetto, I saw Bubcha with her parents. Somebody suggested a place for her in a bunker. She refused. She did not want to leave her parents alone. She walked together with them all through her life, and she did not want to leave them alone on their last journey.
Then, she turned to me and said, Rachel, if you succeed in being rescued from this hell, go to Staczek and give him my last greetings. He will help you.
Upon hearing her words, I had an idea: Come, Bubchale, I said, together we will look for a way to be saved.
No, my dear, was her answer, even if you find me a way to be saved, I will not be able to continue my life as a Jew. It is better for me to end it the way I am. If so, I will go with them all, as a Jew. These were Bubcha's last words.
We parted, and I never saw her again.
A few more than thirty Christian families, and a few Jewish families, lived in the village of Pietkowo, near Sokoly.
When the German officers entered the village of Pietkowo, they ordered all of the residents of the village to gather, and proclaimed the following orders to the assembly:
It is forbidden for a Jew to own a horse or a cow; it is forbidden for a Jew to walk on the sidewalk, but he must walk in the middle of the street; a Jew must wear a badge of shame, a yellow rag, on his clothing; a Jew is forbidden to deal in trade. When the residents [of the village] were sent to work, they sent the Jews to clean the toilets and empty the refuse from the cowsheds. The Germans appointed a village head, who lined up all of the Jews in the village in one row and checked to make sure that they were bearing the badge of shame on their clothing. He warned them that if a Jew would be found without the badge, he would be shot on the spot.In the village of Pietkowo, there were a flour mill operated by a stream of water, and a factory for making charcoal and tar. A German manager was appointed over all of the estates of the landlords of the region, but Polish civil appointees served on the local committee. The local manager of the estate and the bookkeeper were both good friends of mine. As an experienced professional, the local managers chose me to manage the flour mill and the tar factory, and they set my wages at 750 German marks per month. After some time, the German general manager found out that I am a Jew and he cut my monthly salary in half, even though the local citizens praised me as being an experienced professional.
Once, the general manager's wife informed her Jewish workers that the next day they were going to send all of the Jews out of the village. My daughter went to ask advice of the Christian bookkeeper, and he advised that we leave the books and the keys on the table. I, my wife Yocheved and our two daughters, Golda and Chaya, decided that night to flee to the city of Bransk.
The next morning, the Jews remaining in the village were transported to the vicinity of Bransk and killed. All of the members of my family and I were in a bunker in Bransk. After some time, we received news from the Bialystok ghetto that the next day they were going to take all of the Jews from Bransk and bring them to Bialystok via Bielsk [Podlaski]. That day, the Jews were expelled from 56 towns.
My family and I decided to flee to the village of Lukowce, to a Christian friend. The Christian friend advised me to divide my family and hide each of them separately. I bought an identity card for my wife, appropriate to her age, and sent her with my Christian friend to a second Christian acquaintance in a safe location. On the way, my wife asked the Christian messenger to take her somewhere else, where it appeared to her to be safer for her. There, she met others: two young Christian men who murdered her and took all of her possessions, dollars, gold and jewelry.
I searched for a safe place for my daughters, in the village of Liza Stara. I paid [a Polish man] 1,000 German marks per month for a hiding place for my two daughters and myself. He gave a room with a special entrance for my daughters, and for me he prepared a hole in his barn with an entrance from the garden. In the hole it was always dark, even in the daytime an actual living grave. My daughters were in their tiny room for eight months and nobody knew who they were.
Once, when the housewife was baking bread, my daughters came in to roast some potatoes in the hot oven. Then a neighbor woman came in and saw my daughters. After that, they had to come to my hole in the barn, and I was together with them for 14 months. When our farmer was drunk, he would brag that he could kill all of us and nobody would ever know. But, since he was not the One who gave us life, he also would not take it away from us. His wife complained that she actually had no benefit from renting the bunker to us, because her husband drank excessively and wasted all of the money he received [on drink]. I asked him to share the profits with his wife, because she was likely to chatter and reveal our hiding place. The drunkard ignored my advice, saying that his wife would not dare to do such a thing, because she was afraid of him.
Sometimes I would go to Christian friends, even priests who were among my friends, and [from them] I received bread and other food. Without this, we would have died of hunger. Death lay in wait for us and hovered before our eyes.
To our great joy, nobody knew about our existence, not even the farmer's family, such as his mother, his son and his sister.
At that time, the Germans were about to leave the region and they burned the houses of the village. The farmer asked us to leave his farm and we did. Here and there, there still were some Germans. On our way, we saw a dugout and we went inside it. There was a pig lying there. By chance, a German passed by and saw us. My daughter asked him to allow her to go to the nearby wood, because there was a bag there with bread. The German answered that the front line passes through here and it is forbidden for a citizen to be here. Apparently, the German didn't know that we were Jews and he went to bring us the bread.
Our ears were deafened by the thunder of the shells. After midnight, we got up and tried to get farther away, to the fields. We had only gone a few meters and were immediately stopped by a German, who brought us to an officer. The officer asked if we were Poles.
My daughter answered, Yes!
And then he reprimanded us and sent us back, with a warning that they would shoot us, like it happened last night to a woman and a girl. My daughter asked him where we should go. He advised us to hide in the forest, because according to his estimation, the Russians would soon arrive.
The situation continued for an entire week. Before the Russians came, we were able to hide in the piles of grain in the fields. But the Germans set them on fire before they left. With difficulty, we escaped to the forest. There were dugouts there, where we sat for two days. We were very hungry and went out to look for food. We met one Pole, who told us that the Germans had chased the Russians at the front, a distance of four kilometers, and at the moment there were no Germans at all in the village. Thus, we entered the village and stood next to one of the farms. Suddenly, a German appeared and stopped us, along with a number of young men and women. He only warned everyone to flee, because the front was approaching.
My daughters and I were very happy, and we thought that we had already been saved from danger, but one of the young women pointed us out to the German and said we are Jews. He stood us aside, under the supervision of a Pole, and went to get his rifle. By chance, the Pole was an honest man and he advised us to flee, if we were able to do so! My daughter said to me that she did not have the strength to run. I shouted at her and comforted her, Maybe Hashem will help, and we will be saved. I ran and the German fired a round of shots after me. I succeeded in reaching the wood and disappeared out of the range of his sight. He approached my daughter and asked her again, if she really is a Jew, and stood her with her face to the wall. She heard the bullets being loaded into the rifle.
A miracle occurred. A man passed by with a pack on his back. The German thought he was a Russian and ordered him to stand with his face to the wall. The man argued that he is a Pole, and took out his identity card. He added that he knew how to speak German.
If that is so, said the German, it is a sign that you are a spy!
My daughter exploited the soldier's interest in the citizen and escaped into a field, where she hid among the flax that was in the fields at that season. She remained there for two days. Meanwhile, the Russians arrived and she was saved from certain death.
After I fled from the German, I came across a ditch full of water. Without thinking, I jumped in, and afterwards I got out of there with difficulty. Soaking wet, I entered a field of wheat. Around me it was getting dark. Not far away, stood artillery guns, Germans at their sides. The thunder of the shells was accompanied by shouts and orders. I crawled on all four, as far away from them as possible.
In the morning, I joined a group of Poles who were passing by in the direction of the burnt-down village. The last house in the village remained whole, and behind it was an orchard of plum trees. I found a pile of straw and lay down on it to rest.
I didn't even have time to close my eyes before the Germans passed by in front of me. Thank G-d, they didn't see me! I could no longer stay in that location and I continued to advance. Two soldiers appeared in front of me and took me to their headquarters. There, they asked my identity and what was I doing there? I said I was looking for my cow, which had run away. I told them that my name is Plonski and that I am a Pole. My words convinced them and they released me.
Later, I found out that these were Russians. I returned to them and among them I saw a Jewish soldier. I told him that I am also a Jew. The Jewish soldier went into the house and from there, he brought me some bread and a pitcher of milk.
When it became known in the headquarters that I am a Jew, they asked me why I had deceived them, saying that I am a Pole? I told them some of the horrors that had happened to my family, and they immediately became very friendly to me. I was given food and a good drink, and was able to rest on an excellent mattress.
After all that, I went to look for my daughter, whom I had last seen under the German's control. I didn't believe that I would meet her alive. To my great joy, after looking in the nearby village, I found both of my daughters, the younger one, and the older one, who had worked there in the kitchen during the time of the Germans, and nobody knew she was a Jew. Who can describe our happiness? We hugged each other and cried.
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