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[Pages 475-485]

Witness to Destruction

by Yakov Buchman

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Is there a place any nearer and dearer to a person than his hometown, the place where he spent the years of his childhood and youth? Our hometown is a part of our life, of our soul. Is it any wonder then, that I constantly see before me the town of Staszów, with its beloved Jewish community, where I lived out the loveliest dreams of youth, had so many friends and comrades and was surrounded by my entire family – parents, wife and child. And where I later suffered through the tragic days of war, witnessing the entire horrifying destruction and the atrocities carried out by the Nazis. Each day I witnessed the annihilation of so many dear homes, the merciless extinction of so many lives, until Jewish Staszów was totally destroyed.

I constantly envisage the thousands of Staszów Jews, the great majority of whom supported themselves by working in the leather industry and by manufacturing whips. With the exception of a few very wealthy Jews, they were mostly very poor people, laboring hard to earn a living. And yet there were Jews who lived with faith in the old Jewish God and would flock to the besmedroshim. Others sought to solve the problem of poverty by ending the unjust social world order, organizing the Jewish revolutionary parties.

To this day, I am amazed by the exuberant energy of the Jews of Staszów, who were active in political parties and cultural institutions. It is enormously difficult to think of the bustling, active life of this community of 5000, who were exterminated in such a horrible way by such murderous hands.

Now I will relate some of my impressions of those horrible days of destruction. I will recall experiences and the names of martyrs – friends and relatives, near and dear. May I be excused for beginning this story with the destruction of my own home, my child and my wife, who was known in the town as Comrade Esther (born Goldflus), and who played quite a significant role during the tragic days of the Hitler occupation.

As soon as the Nazis invaded Poland, and the persecutions began, large numbers of people, especially Jewish youth, began to run away to Russia. I felt the danger that loomed over our home, not only because we were Jews, but also and especially because I was a member of the town council, representing the Left Poalei Zion [Labor Zionist] movement. So I began to try to persuade my wife to flee to Russia with our little Lillia. But my wife refused, maintaining that we mustn't abandon the battlefield, because in Russia we would be considered deserters.

The Germans continued to march forward into the battlefields. The mood continued to worsen, and the economic condition of the Jews continued to deteriorate. I was forced to work for a German firm [Omler] that was constructing a big highway through Kielce, Staszów and Sandomierz. 90% of the work was done by forced labor by Jews from the surrounding towns.

The Germans wielded their sticks and shovels over our exhausted bodies. Every stone was soaked in our tears. Everything around us grew dark. Then Esther would appear, carrying a bit of food, and reviving us with a bit of renewed hope: “Hold on, comrades. The most important thing is not to give up! Whoever passes this difficult test will soon see the tanks of the Red Army, approaching on this highway you have built.” This turned out to be true, but she did not live to see it, and only a few of us did.

Each day brought darker news of the extermination of Jews in various cities and towns. The danger grew greater and came close. They began to drive the Jews from surrounding towns into Staszów's ghetto, and it became more and more crowded. Everyone sensed what this signified.

Esther understood the task that had been thrust upon her by the events, and although she was ill, she went out into the streets of the ghetto, encouraging the despairing and apathetic with her ardent words, rekindling the light in their eyes. And when she was too sick to go out into the streets, people came to see her at home. So my home became a place of consolation for anguished people, regardless of their social class.

Every one knew that Esther had her hand on the pulse of political developments. Even our little daughter, Lillia, in her childish way, helped her mother in her work. When people came in from the street with their sorrows, the four-year old would welcome them with calming words that she had heard from her ill mother, and often she would sing them a revolutionary song.

Rumors circulated that Esther was in contact with the Polish underground movement, and there was some truth to them. She had sought a way to establish such contact, but at the same time, she didn't want to sacrifice time she needed to organize the masses, so that they would be ready when the time came. With great effort, and with the help of Chaim Frydman and Velke Erlichman, she managed to get a leader of the Polish underground organization to visit our home.

We conferred with him for a long time and informed him that the Jewish masses were ready to fight against our common enemy. They were waiting only to be called upon. In addition, there was a group of Jewish socialists who were ready to join their fighting ranks. But at that point, there came a great disappointment: “There is no place in our organization for Jews,” he declared. It is hard to describe what I, my wife, and our close friends felt at this answer.

Just before driving out the Jews from our town, the German firm Omler confined 250 Jews in their labor camp. The camp was guarded by the Jewish police, and thanks to them I was able to return home each evening after work to my wife and child, whom I would soon lose and never see again.

Among the events of the time, I learned of an incident involving a Jewish policeman, Emanuel Ginzburg. He found my wife lying sick in bed, and nevertheless ordered her to leave the house because the building would be used for the Jewish police as soon as the Jews left town. My wife scolded him, in terms he wasn't used to hearing, and he threatened to throw her and the bed out the window. Infuriated, she drew on her last bit of strength to get out of bed, and show him to the door, saying, “Get out, with your shiny hat. You are a blot on the history of our Jewish martyrdom.” When I remarked that they wouldn't change their minds, my wife answered, “Leave it to me. It's not going to happen. They'll have to carry out our things over my dead body.” My wife left the apartment, along with all the other Jews, when they were expelled from the town.

I saw my wife and my little Lilienka for the last time on the evening of November 7, 1942. By that point, it was dangerous to leave the [Omler] camp in the evening. But I and my wife's cousin, Avrom Rzezak of Warsaw, had decided to join my family in the deportation, so we went home.

In our home had gathered comrades of the Poalei Zion from surrounding towns, as well as people from the town, students from the cultural circle that my wife had once led. It seems that it was easier for them to spend this last painful night under the spiritual protection of Comrade Esther. They felt even better when we arrived. The dark room became even darker from the smoke of cigarettes, which the nervous comrades smoked continuously. My little Lilienke (the family called her Chanele), with childish swiftness sprang into my arms, embracing me with her soft, tender hands, kissing me continuously, as if she knew it would be the last time. I had a strong desire to cry, but had to suppress my tears so as not to frighten the child.

My wife confided from her sickbed, “Comrades, I believe that on our way a miracle can still happen. We must stick together and be ready to act.” She refused to agree to let me and Avrom go with them. She thought that I and her cousin, shovels in our hands, would be able to survive the war. Because of her firm belief that our work would permit us to survive, and because there must remain witnesses to our martyrdom, we had to return to the camp that night. I do not have the words to describe our parting. I stood outside the door for a long time, in order to hear my child's crying, but I didn't hear any. It seems she reacted as her mother had taught her: “When tears threaten to fall, bite your lip.”

No one in the camp slept that night. At the camp gate, we heard the sad news brought to us from town by the Jewish police. The murderers had arrived, accompanied by many Ukrainian volunteers in black uniforms. They were drinking in the Christian taverns, and would soon be drunk, carousing among the helpless, trembling Jews. The day hadn't even dawned and already one could hear the orders of the Jewish police: “Jews, out into the market place! Whoever delays will be shot.”

We in the camp also received an order to get ready, and lined up on the mustering place, ready to march off. Shultz, the S.S. man in charge of the Jewish extermination effort in Radom district, appeared, glancing about him like a thirsty animal. Noticing a group of Jewish women kitchen workers from the camp, he attacked them, beating them about their heads with a stick. When the Jewish policeman Zederbaum explained that the women worked in the kitchen, he screamed, “Jews have no right to live.” From his words it became strangely clear to me where my wife and child would be taken, along with all the other Jews.

At that moment, the S.S. man noticed on the policeman's hat, the insignia of the German firm, Omler, so he beat him as well, stating that he was besmirching the honor of the German firm. To him, we and our work enjoyed no special privileges and he ordered us to march directly to the assembly point for all Jews.

Leaving the camp, I felt relieved of my moral suffering. I walked along, believing that very soon I would meet up with my wife and child, and provide them with the assurance that their former protector was once again near them. We hadn't yet reached the designated place when the money-sucker, Engineer Golick, ran up, panting, to the S.S. man Shultz and showed him an order from higher authorities, according to which he had obtained the right to continue to keep the Jews in his camp. “It doesn't make any difference, I just loan them out and deliver them to you on demand. They're cheap goods, that we can use in the meantime to accomplish our war objectives.” The engineer had in mind his own life, since without Jews the whole project would have been paralyzed and he would have been forced to fight at the front.

No one felt any satisfaction in returning to the camp. Most of us felt bitter. We weren't forced to work that day. Like caged animals we looked out over the emptied Jewish streets of the town, which in their many hundreds of years of history had never before experienced such funereal silence. But the quiet did not last long. The march from the assembly point began, and the hysterical cries of mothers and children reached the camp. Soon those cries were muffled by machine gun and rifle fire, which lasted a long time.

A little later that same day, the German monsters, who remained behind especially to finish off the job, entered the Jewish homes and killed in their beds the trembling victims who had been too sick to join the march.

A horrifying scene played out before our eyes across from the camp. Four people had remained in the house of my in-laws: two old women – Dvore Hercyk and Reyzl Tenenwurcel, the young boy Akerman, and Mrs. Tenenwurcel's infant grandchild, a few weeks old. Two gendarmes arrived, one over sixty and the other a young man. The young man entered the house and carried out the execution of the three adults, but he brought out the infant alive, saying he couldn't kill it. At this, the older gendarme said with a sarcastic laugh: “Give it to me and I'll show you how to kill a Jewish child.” He held it up by its feet in his left hand, and shot it with his right hand.

In the evening, they gathered up 360 Jews who had been shot and buried them in a mass grave in the cemetery. Among them were my 75-year-old father and my 78-year-old mother. I had said goodbye to them the day before. My father told me that he intended to go to the cemetery, and sit there in his talis [prayer shawl] and tfilin [phylacteries] until he died, so that he would at least be buried in a Jewish cemetery. With a heavy heart, I talked him out of this plan. Could I, after all, advise my father to go to his death alone?

Eight hundred Jews remained [in Staszów] and were put to work in a German sewing factory. Five weeks later they were sent to Poniatowa, near Lublin, and were killed there at the beginning of November, 1943. Among them were my sister Adele and brother in law, Shloyme Kuman, and their two children, Zoshe and Avrom.

The last news I had of my wife and child I received from Pani Dambrowska, who had managed to escape during the night of November 8-9, when the transported Jews slept overnight in a damp meadow, where they continued to be shot at by their black-clothed guards. My wife displayed remarkable bravery at the assembly point before the march out. One of the Polish police who helped to keep order noticed that she was moving about too much among the assembled Jews. So he hit her several times with his rifle, and she fell. But she managed to get up and even delivered a few bitter words: “You besmirch the honor of your fatherland,” and then cried, “History will avenge itself on you.”

On the cold autumn day when the tormented Jews made their march under a hail of bullets, 750 people fell dead within the first 10 kilometers. They were buried by the peasants in the nearby village Niziny. The Jews had to march 35 kilometers to the train station in Szczucin, and one can easily imagine how many more died on the way. Even more tragic was the fate of those who reached Szczucin, where they found waiting for them the lime-washed railroad cars that would bring them to their final destination.

The next day, November 9, we [of the Omler camp] were again taken to work over the streets where yesterday's destruction had occurred. The puddles of blood, with a thin coating of ice, crackled under our feet. It was painful to raise our heads and meet the gazes of the Christians who looked on from all sides; they seemed to be full of pity.

Every day, the German murderers, helped by Polish firemen, uncovered bunkers and walled-up cellars where Jews were hiding. As we were working on the cobblestones in the market place, we observed the horrifying scenes when the hidden Jews were brought there in groups. They were ordered to set down their packs in a heap, take off their outer clothing, and lay down in a second heap. Then they were taken, half naked, to the cemetery, where they were shot.

It is hard for me to think of, and even harder to describe, how the town appeared after the deportation, and what I went through as we were taken to work through the streets, which seemed more and more tragic from day to day. First, the emptiness alone: Every abandoned, silent house told of Jewish friends, relatives and our own households, now empty and in ruin. All the houses stood open, many with doors and windows ripped off, resembling a mouth without teeth. From the open doors and windows, from which once came the singing of Jewish girls and workmen, now emerged feathers from torn bedding, which our grandmothers had once sewn by the light of kerosene lanterns. The feathers swept through the streets and wound up far away, telling of incomparable destruction.

The streets were empty, and a silence reigned as in a cemetery. Now and then, a black cat would jump out of a window, and seeing our group, would get scared and disappear into one of the abandoned houses. A little later, they started to sell off the houses at pitiful prices to the Polish peasants, who dismantled them and took the parts back to their villages, while the newly bared earth would be sowed and cultivated by Christian neighbors.

One day, I watched as they took apart the roof of the house in which I had lived. I saw, under the dismantled roof, the little attic space and the specially painted wall behind which I had hidden for several months. A day later, I could already see the walls of my room, on which still hung photographs of my family. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the ruins of my house, and I felt as if the pictures were calling to me and crying for me to help, to rescue them from death.

Earlier, before the deportation, many of us [in the Omler camp] would drop in to our homes, to our wives and children. But that had ended. No more house, no more home, no more family.

We were now tormented day and night, twenty-four hours a day; during the day, by heavy labor, and at night it was even harder, more terrible. During the day, we were driven mercilessly. They kept raising the production quotas. We had to pave colossal mountains of stone, ever more quickly. We were driven without pause, and always accompanied by curses: “By thunder!” “Gypsy gang!” “God-damned Jews”, and of course, “You wanted war.”

But this was nothing compared to what we had to endure in the camp itself from the drunken S.S. men and German police. They would make fun of us, and just to amuse themselves, would wake us up in the middle of the night and drive us outside for roll-call, during which horrifying scenes played out. There stands out in my memory a freezing night in January, 1943, when the ground was covered by half a meter of snow. We were awakened in the middle of the night, given five minutes to get dressed, and anyone who didn't appear outside in five minutes would be shot. We weren't allowed to put on our shoes. And we stood for two hours barefoot and half-naked in the freezing cold. That night they shot two Jews: Meyer Pomerancblum and Frydman.

It should also be noted that the German engineers who supervised the work would also extract from us, working through the Jewish office personnel, money and gold items as “gifts” in payment for protecting the existence of the camp in the town itself, and not sending us off to other camps, about which we had heard terrible things.

There was another very important reason to fear the closing of our camp. Many of us had with us money, or had hidden money and merchandise with Christian acquaintances, and were thus able, in the course of crossing the town on the way to work, to obtain provisions and not have to rely solely on camp rations. But if the camp were liquidated, we would have lost all this and there would have ensued great want and hunger. So we were invested in keeping the camp where it was, making the forced “gifts” to our engineers, the S.S. men Göttschall and Golick.

Tormented by day with the most arduous labor and insults, and tormented at night by mockery, blows, and horrible roll-calls, we were also forbidden to possess any photos of our loved ones, of parents, wife or child. This sadistic rule was designed to torture us even further, and any violation, even having a photo of a child, could result in death by shooting. You can imagine what occurred when each of us was forced to part with his photos. Only a few of us refused to give in. I for one could not bear to part with pictures of my loved ones – my dead parents, my deported wife and child – no matter what. I can't describe the hell of fear I had to endure in order to rescue these few photos, all that remained of my former life, which was so brutally destroyed.

The manner in which our souls were tormented can be illustrated by one example. One day, they brought us the tombstones from the Staszów Jewish cemetery and forced us to use them to pave the market place, with their inscriptions facing up. Our enemies did not spare even the dead.

Under these circumstances, it is understandable that we frequently discussed our hopes that our work in the camp would enable us to stay alive. There were some among us who allowed themselves the illusion that, despite our dire situation, we workers would be spared. Once, we obtained a German newspaper, with a speech by Goebbels, in which he spoke of the total elimination of the Jews. This had a terrible effect on us, and destroyed the illusion of being able to survive through working.

As a result of this disappointment, some of us ran away from the worksite to join the “illegals” who had hidden in the forests near Staszów, many of whom were being supported by the food that we workers were providing. We would collect money among ourselves, procure a sack of potatoes, some bread, and when we rode the trucks to work, we would throw them down at previously agreed-upon locations, where the clandestines lay waiting in hiding.

These illegals suffered a tragic fate. The Germans would dress in civilian clothing and set out on a hunt across the fields, every day shooting more Jews. Often they would leave the dead lying there, and would lie in wait in the bushes, so they could shoot the friends of the deceased when they came to retrieve the body. That was how the former town council member of the Left Poaliei Tsion was killed.

Here, I must make an important digression, to reveal the kinds of sly tricks the Germans could devise, and at what cost to Jewish lives:

At the beginning of 1942, when the Hitler regime began the deportations, which consisted of murder and devastation, one of the first towns to be wiped out was Mielec, in Galicia, not far from Staszów, on the other side of the Vistula. It was March, 1942. Several people managed to escape and arrived in Staszów. At the beginning of April, when two of the richest Jews from Mielec happened to be in the street, a car drove by carrying Gestapo from Tarnów. They grabbed both Jews and took them to the Wiśniowska Forest, ten kilometers from Staszów, to a house where there were Polish underground fighters. The Gestapo were afraid to approach, so they dressed the Jews in German uniforms, in order to assess the strength of the resisters.

When the unfortunate Jews approached the house, they were met by heavy gunfire and were killed. The Germans then threw grenades at the house, destroying it and everyone inside. After that, when the Gestapo entered the town, the Jewish community was ordered to provide twenty Jewish workers to clean up the ruins, which included a radio station. When they had finished their task, the Gestapo made merry at their expense, greatly tormenting them. They placed a brick on the head of the worker Berish Baum and practiced shooting at it in a contest of skill.

Some people were forced to hold in their hands a match, which became the target of the shooters. That same evening, they shot a Jewish refugee from Warsaw whom they encountered on the street.

After the house of the Polish resisters had been cleaned out, the Germans entered a restaurant and stuffed themselves with food. They forced some Jews to stand outside the door, threw out their chewed-up bones, and forced the Jews to pick them up and chew them. Yes, that was the cultured and exalted German race!

Once, as we were starting work, we noticed an “illegal” Jew hiding behind a bush, beckoning for one of us to approach. He told us how in recent nights Polish bandits had carried out a huge massacre, killing many Jews in their bunkers, including entire families. Their corpses had remained unburied for several days, since everyone was afraid to bury them.

One day, when it was pouring rain, the “illegals” Heniek Beker and Mordkhe Goldflus came to us and asked us to accompany them to bury the corpses, which had been lying all this time in the pouring rain. No one among us dared to leave work. Knowing how dangerous it was, we tried to talk them out of burying the corpses. Suddenly Heniek Beker stood up and said to Mordkhe, “I must bury them with my own hands, and when I fall, I will fall on my comrades and my blood will mix with theirs, united in holiness.” And they left.

We were unable to rest until we saw him the next day, coming back alive from the forest. He was unrecognizable. The strong, athletic Heniek Beker was a broken man, crying like a child. “Yes,” he said, “I fulfilled my duty. I buried my comrades, but who will take mercy on me, who will bury me?”

At the end of 1943, Heniek Beker fell at the hands of Polish bandits who buried him, no one knows where.

When relating the Germans' treatment of Jews it isn't possible to refrain from using words such as “murderer”, “criminal”, “beasts”, and so forth. Everyone who writes about the Germans and relates their memories uses these terms, and so do I. Still, there lies deep in one's soul the feeling that those lucky enough never to have been in their hands will never understand how deeply the German nation sank into horror and inhumanity, and how words such as murderer give only a pathetic idea of German brutality and bestiality.

So I will end my brief memoirs with an episode which occurred in the spring of 1943, and which is engraved in my mind for as long as I live. I have no doubt that anyone reading the following lines will feel deeply the entire horror of which the cultured, highly developed German people-- with their music, thinkers and philosophers – was capable.

Four or five kilometers from Staszów lay the village Rytwiany, where there were many enterprises run by Count Radziwiłł, and where about ten Jewish families lived. Of course, as soon as the Germans occupied Rytwiany, the Jews were subjected to all kinds of persecution and were ultimately forced into the ghetto in Staszów.

But one single Jewish child remained in Rytwiany, a seventeen or eighteen-year-old girl, a daughter of the Lewkowicz family. It turned out that the German commander of Rytwiany, who needed a maid for his wife and children, had noticed the young Lewkowicz girl, who was beautifully built, lovely, tall and healthy, and who looked twenty-five, not seventeen or eighteen. And even though she was Jewish, he took her into his household , since she was a slave who didn't cost him a penny, worked as hard as she could, and would scrape and bow to her masters, doing anything possible to avoid being killed.

Her German masters were so happy with their Jewish slave that on the day the Rytwiany Jews were deported and sent to the ghetto in Staszów, she remained behind. The commander got permission from his superior. But higher-ups rejected his request and ordered the Jewish girl to be sent immediately to the ghetto, to share the fate the “higher race” had determined for the local Jews.

In the face of this denial of his request, the commander had no choice but to follow orders. But he wanted to do a favor for his colleague, the commander of Staszów, to whom he had highly praised the abilities of his Jewish maid. The Staszów commander, who also had his family with him, including very young children, took her to work for him and quickly came to appreciate her qualities. Her new bosses were very happy with her, and she especially endeared herself to the German children, who couldn't do without her. Every day, the Jewish girl took the children out in their strollers, and even though she did this in the town where Jews weren't allowed, she was guarded by an armed soldier, who walked behind her.

Then came the deportation, and the liquidation of the ghetto. Anyone found hidden in their homes or in bunkers was shot, and Staszów became free of Jews. All that remained was our camp and the one and only Jewish girl, Lewkowicz, the commander's maid. Every day we would see her walking with the commander's children, the armed German soldier following behind them.

Then the Jewish girl was given a new task: her “refined” employers of the “higher race” loved everything that was delicate and beautiful. When spring came and the first flowers appeared, and she visited the town garden with the German children, she also had to cut flowers, which she would bring home and put in vases.

One spring day in 1943, when the gentle sun warmed us and awakened the hope of living to survive our torment, the young Lewkowicz girl went as usual with the German children to the town garden, and as always behind her walked the armed German soldier, who all the time kept step with the Jewish girl. Could the poor girl have possibly imagined that this would be her last walk? That she was walking toward an encounter with death, who was following her step by step?

It was a day like any other. Her masters' attitude toward her was no different than yesterday, or the day before yesterday. She goes for a walk with the children and she is guarded by the German soldier who is there to see that no harm comes to her. Could she have imagined that the soldier had in his pocket the order to end her young life?

During the deportation of the Jews, the commander, just like his colleague in Rytwiany, had appealed to higher authorities to let him keep his “useful” Jewish maid, and after several months there came the denial of his request. “There are no useful Jews.” The denial was simultaneously a death sentence, because having previously avoided deportation along with all the other Jews in the ghetto, she now came under the law declaring her an “illegal Jew” who must be killed on sight. So the poor Jewish girl was allowed to take the German children on a walk in the garden, like every day. And when the victim bent over as usual to cut the flowers for her masters, the soldier took the rifle from his shoulder and shot her until all his bullets were gone. The poor Jewish girl fell dead as her hands convulsively clutched the freshly cut flowers. Thus, on a splendid sunny day in the spring of 1943, the eighteen-year-old Lewkowicz girl was killed.

There is nothing more that needs to be said.

Photo caption p.477: Forced labor under the supervision of the A.D. [Conjecture: A.D. could be an abbreviation for Arbeiter-Dienst, i.e. Labor Police]


[Pages 486-488]

A Seder Night in Auschwitz

by Sabina Ajdelsberg–Wiszlitcka, New York

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

It was in 1944, when things were already going badly for the Nazis, when they had already suffered great defeats both on the battlefields and at the hands of the growing underground forces. But they still wouldn't give up their evil efforts to eradicate the Jews. On the contrary; they tried with feverish speed to wipe out, wherever their evil regime extended, the tiny remnant of Jews who still survived.

I was in one of the 60 blocks of the women's camp Birkenau –Block #9 – together with a thousand other women, who had arrived in a transport from Łódź Ghetto. It was a long, narrow, half–dark structure, hastily thrown together from boards. At the front was a wide gate, with a few glass panes at the top, which looked out upon the surrounding electrified wires. Just opposite the gate was a wide entrance way to the Appel–Platz [where people lined up for roll–call].

In the middle of the block, from one gate to the other, stretched a brick wall, a meter tall and two meters wide, which we called the execution wall, because all punishments were carried out there. If that wall could have spoken, it would have had many tales to tell. When one of us had somehow committed an offense – crying too loudly, or cursing to oneself – she had to kneel there for hours, holding up in her hands two heavy bricks. With their heads hanging down, resting on their chests, the victims looked like penitents who had committed some terrible crime.

On both sides of the execution wall, half–naked, barefoot famished female skeletons crowded against each other on the ground, which was covered with spoiled, filthy straw. Their only clothing was an old torn dress, worn over bare skin, through which one could see parts of their bodies that ought to have been covered. As if for spite, a short woman was given a long dress that trailed behind her and impeded her walking, while a tall woman received a very short dress from which her naked knees poked out.

On their shaved heads, on many women as smooth as their arms, the hair was starting to grow back, wild and stiff as the strings of a violin, giving them a savage and inhuman appearance.

Under their eyes were blue little swellings caused by hunger. Instead of cheeks, they had sunken depressions, where the bones protruded. Many had swollen bellies, but their arms and legs were skeletal. Others had swollen limbs, but torsos shrunken to the size of a five–year–old child's, so that it was hard to believe that the swollen limbs belonged to such a small body. At first glance, it was impossible to determine their age or gender.

The air was heavy and stifling. A funereal silence reigned over the whole block. From time to time one could hear a deep, stifled moan. It was twilight, between day and night. By chance, we had learned that tonight was the night of the first Seder.

Somewhere off in a corner, the hysterical weeping of a heartbroken mother broke the silence; this very day, at a “selektsie” [selection of inmates to be killed], she had been robbed of her last daughter.

I sat quietly, my head resting on my knees, as if trying to forget, if only for a while the sad reality. My eyes were half closed, as various thoughts and images from the near and distant past flew by. I thought about the fate of my only child, Ruth Presman, who I had been forced to leave behind in the ghetto of Tomaszów Mazowiecki.

And then I began to fantasize. I see a seder night in my old home, when I was still young. On the table, covered with a snow–white tablecloth there lies my father's shmure–matzo[1] sack, lettered in gold, “Chag Shel Pesach” [holiday of Passover]. The holiday carafe, filled with raisin wine, stands amidst the Pesach goblets, and the cup of the prophet Elijah gleams majestically.

At the other end of the table stand the old–fashioned brass candlesticks which belonged to grandfather, Rov Nosele, and are passed from generation to generation. A solemn holiday atmosphere reigns. In addition to the kerosene lamps, the chandelier hanging from the ceiling is burning so bright, the room is as bright as a great hall.

Wearing his white holiday robe, Father half reclines on the special cushioned chair for Pesach, and gazes expansively at his six children, who are sitting very respectfully around the table, dressed from head to toe in new clothing.

Mother is wearing a white lace–bedecked cap, which completely covers her hair. She covers her face with her thin, work–worn hands and piously and modestly recites the blessing over the candles.

I sit and recite from the Haggadah, word by word: “Let all who are needy come and celebrate.” My youngest brother, Notele, asks the Four Questions, and Father in a trembling voice answers,“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

With childish curiosity, I gaze at Elijah's cup, which is still full; not a drop has been touched. I look closely and it seems to me that I see tears, not wine; yes, these are the tears, mixed with blood, that the execution wall has been unable to absorb. Suddenly, my father motions to me to open the door, and I hear him cry in anger and protest, ”Pour out your anger over the goyim!”

***

“It's a selektsie! A selektsie! “ Suddenly you could hear fearful voices and a great panic broke out.

“Everyone out!” came the gravelly voice of Dr. Mengele. The “Angel of Death”, as we called him, was back.

“Rivkele, hold on tight to my arm,” a woman cried out in panic.

“Here's a seder for you! Who knows if we'll live to see the second seder.”'

“Gitl, where are you, come here, let's at least stay together.”

“God, protect my child from the Angel of Death.”

“Mommy, cover your leg with a piece of rag, so the Angel of Death doesn't see your weeping wounds,” a girl begged her mother.

A huge mass of female skeletons rushed about and panicked, cursing, fighting, eyes bulging in fear, falling on each other until they were driven out the rear door of the block by the “shtuboris”, the so– called demon women, wielding long bars.

***

It's a cold spring night. A bitter, cutting wind blows from the Auschwitz mountains and whistles frightfully. On the other side of the wire an armed soldier walks around grumbling angrily to himself. Every step of his heavy, tall military boots resounds in the quietness of the night, and the sound reverberates in our frazzled nerves like a song of fear.

Tired and faint, we stood outside in front of the block, five in a row, clinging to one another, waiting for hours to hear our fate.

***

That's how we “celebrated” the first Seder night in 1944, in the “women's paradise” of Birkenau, which was part of the large extermination camp, Auschwitz.

 

Footnote
  1. Shmure-matzo: matzo prepared with extra stringency, the wheat being observed from the wheat–field onward to be sure it has no contact with moisture until the moment of baking. Used for the first matzo of the Seder by strictly observant Jews. return


[Pages 489-490]

Poems

by Yizhak Kozuchowicz, Or-Yehuda

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

A Letter to My Father

I received your last letter,
here in cold Sverdlovsk.
My heart is weeping, my soul is ripped apart.
I cannot console you. I have no way to help.

You write that things grow worse from day to day.
In town, the Jews grow ever fewer;
they are looted and murdered;
each day another Jew is slaughtered.

You can no longer withstand the constant plunder.
The brutes who rummage through your home
steal your last bit of bread.
But you've eaten every last bit, to ward off death.

What can I do, from behind a closed-off border.
Is there any way to help such troubles as yours?
Do not regret that you've given everything away.
Soon things will change – that is the way of fate.

Take courage, dear father.
Rip off your yellow star.
Run away, or you'll be caught.
Run to the forest, where the wild creatures are.

Run away! You'll do better among wild beasts than with men.
They'll sit with you, let you eat and bless your food.
Take everyone with you. Run away like the fox.
And if you want to survive, take a rifle with you.

I know it's hard to forsake your home,
but heed the danger, run away.
Even if you lived in a palace or mansion,
you should run and take your family with you.

And when you have reached the woods,
reattach your yellow star,
and wear it with pride and honor,
the star of David.

 

Is This My Home?

My head down, my eyes full of tears,
I stand at the edge of my town.
I stand before you, bent over and alone.

Is this my town?
Am I the only one left of my great tribe,
that once nurtured and caressed us,
like a loving nursemaid?

I break out in a cold sweat.
The skies mourn in fear.
I stand and murmur an embarrassed prayer.
Everything looks strange and pale and cold.

I stand before a mass grave
and shudder.
My people are buried here.
I fall to the ground in despair.

I still see the flaming fire,
the smoke still stifles my breath.
I still hear the sighs and laments
emerging from the earth.

I feel that I walk among shadows,
that spirits are floating around me,
still seeking purification,
even there, in the land of the dead.

 

Tell Me, World

I don't want to mourn you,
I don't want to preach
nor to reproach you.
I just want to ask you:

Tell me, world –
It's your son who is asking,
who is entitled to ask,
a son, who's returning from battle, from fire,
who treasures freedom as much as you.

Tell me, world –
after all, I'm your child –
after such suffering and shame,
where shall I make my home?

Tell me, world –
Here my foe pulled me up from my roots,
buried my people.
Is your conscience not moved?

Tell me, world –
I wait for your answer.
You have such riches at your disposal,
why can't you provide for my people?

 

Majdanek

Dante, you should be ashamed of your Inferno,
and you, God, of your Hell.
Look, do you see Majdanek,
its chimneys are smoking still.

Do you see, Dante –they've caught the executioners,
with their boxes of soap and hair,
their mountains of children's shoes,
that reveal the entire truth.

In the crematoria of Majdanek
there is now a museum,
where everyone can see
the shame and the suffering.

Did you ever see this, Dante, in your time:
To force people to stand at the edge of a cliff,
then shoot them with cannons
and grind them up with tanks?

Such things didn't happen in your Inferno:
children ripped from their mothers' breasts,
being torn in two,
as soon as they were born.

In your time, Dante,
did they violate daughters
and force their fathers to look on,
like watchmen?

Did you ever see the terrible
demon-dance of burning bodies?

The world is already starting to forget;
it wants to cover up its sins.
But the rivers of blood still rush
past, calling out, demanding, awaking.

The earth heaves from the corpses
the graves are still moving
Glowing ashes still glitter
on the paved road of suffering.

Where, Dante, is the power
to crush the world, to smash it,
with its executioners and crematoria
and the chimneys of Majdanek?


[Page 491]

Cursed

by Chaim Wagner, Sao Paolo

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

May you be cursed,
cannibals of the 20th century,
for the murder of our mothers and fathers,
sisters and brothers, and innocent children.
Wherever you are, wherever your bones lie,
may their laments go with you.
For having spilled innocent blood,
may you never find any rest.
May you be cursed,
destroyers of culture, of the world,
with your wives and children
forever, for generations,
for the suffering and torment of our kith and kin.
May you feel our pains and woes
that stay with us wherever we go.
May you be cursed,
castrators, hair-pullers, skin-flayers,
makers of soap from human remains.
May you be destroyed,
along with your “sanitary” civilization,
with your inventors of the machinery of gas ovens.
May everything you looted and plundered
turn to ash and dust.
May the world never forget
the executioners' terrifying crimes.
May our children's children learn of the Holocaust
that occurred in our lives.
No mercy, no forgiveness
shall be allowed for the executioners
of the past.


Revenge

by Yakov Szternlicht, Sao Paolo

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Men, women, children, the old
march together through the streets, to the fire,
all going to the sacrificial altar,
like herded sheep,
these people of Staszów.

My town flickers with a hellish fire.
The houses are burning, with all that is dear.
The dead and the dying mingle together,
grandfathers, fathers, and children in flames.

The young escape to the Golejów Forest,
refusing to stretch out their necks for the slaughter.
They'll fight to their deaths to defeat the foe.
Death to the Nazis –that is their goal.

We swear, by the memories of those holy souls,
to wreak revenge on their murderers,
and to carry out their last wish and testament:
no more blood, no more war.

 

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