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[Pages 302-314]

The Ruins of My Town

A Visit to Destroyed Stepan

by J. Peri

Translated by Yona Landau

One day, I decided to travel to my town, Stepan, even though I knew that none of my family remained alive. I stuck close to a convoy of the Red Army, and with their protection, I arrived safely. Firstly, I turned to our street, the street of the synagogues.

The synagogues remained in their positions, but were empty. The doors and the windows were broken open and uprooted. The main synagogue was used for a warehouse for grains that were collected as tax for the government. Our house and the big barn by it were no longer in existence. I found an empty lot, and I could barely imagine where our house stood. Several other houses were dismantled, and there were some other empty lots.

Ukrainians lived in the several houses that remained. They were our neighbors in the past, and they acted as if this was their property always.

The feeling was as if life stopped in the town, and bereavement and orphanhood was everywhere.

I tried to talk to the Ukrainian neighbors, and other acquaintances from the town, and to try to get them to talk about the way things happened that the Jews of the town were taken in carts from Stepan to pits to be killed near the village of Karchovela, about ten kilometers from Kostopol.

Most of the Ukrainians that I turned to evaded the subject and didn't answer my questions. Most of them claimed that they were closed in their houses at the time, and they didn't know details except that the ghettos and the town were emptied of Jews, and that they were killed by the Germans.

In one case, I ran into a Ukrainian who was known as a friend of the Jews in the period even before the war. He was liberally minded, and was always willing to help. He described the following to me -- which he said he partially saw himself and partially heard from others:

The Germans with the aid of their Ukrainian collaborators organized three hundred carts harnessed to horses. The convoy was organized into a single file along the 3rd of May Street, in which they were turned in the direction of Kostopol. On that same day -- the eleventh of Elul, August 1942 -- the Jews were put on the carts at dawn, and led to a forest near the village Karchovela, near Kostopol. Thus two thousand Jews were led on their last way, surrounded by a large chain of Ukrainian policemen under the German command: girls, boys, mothers with babies in their arms, old men, old women, and cripples. During the trip, girls, boys, and men tried to escape from the carts. Many were shot with no mercy, some succeeded in slipping away to the forest, but most of them were discovered later on by the Ukrainian police.

Most were cuddled in the carts, some crying, some praying aloud, some silent, but their faces showed fear and terror with no bounds. These people did not try to escape as they saw the wild reactions of the Germans and the Ukrainian policemen, who killed with no restrictions when someone as much as tried to get off the cart.

A number of pits were dug and prepared ahead of time that turned to brothers' graves for the innocent victims.

The heavens, the earth, and the trees of the forest were mute to the total destruction of the Jews of Stepan and its surroundings by several brutal soldiers of Hitler and the Ukrainian collaborators.

According to stories of eye witnesses who escaped from the pits themselves, the Jews were made to run naked to the pits, being hit and pushed constantly, and forced to lie down with their heads in the ground. The murderers shot them in the pits. Many were buried alive.

It happened that about two months after this huge killing, their blood bubbled from the earth that covered these pits. Workers from among the Ukrainian farmers were drafted and forced to open these pits in order to spill extinguishing lime on those murdered, in order to prevent the spreading of plagues from the bad smell that came from the pits. Those farmers saw something too horrible to describe: babies, little children, elderly men and women, men, women, youths at a time of development and blossoming -- all lying on each other. The bodies were whole, and one could still identify each person. There was no sign of being shot by bullets on most of the bodies. This proved that most were buried alive.

A few days after the big killing, three hundred Jews of the town were caught, those who hid in basements, attics, or suburbs of the town. They were all shot dead. They were buried in a pit in a brothers' grave in the forest.

Thus the Ukrainian summarized his sad story: “When I walked about the town after the murder, I relived that horrible act. It seemed to me that life had stopped in the town, the silence of death prevailed over everything.”

The question is asked: how did this horrible event take place and people were destroyed alive after working and living their lives in their poor and modest homes? Will a day come when the Creator will bring before Him all those who murdered in cold blood innocent people, and tried to cover their bodies with sand in order to quiet and cover up the tracks of their malicious crime that will never be forgotten?

In the period of time that I was in my destroyed town, I met several youths who had a story that was similar to mine. There was also Frieda Maggid and her two children, and also the sisters from Korost, Leah, Sonia, and Devorke, and their brother Moshe. I stayed with them. Sonia was active, and she helped me get police accompaniment, and to go to a non-Jewish acquaintance in order to look in her belongings that she was given to hold. The non-Jewish woman claimed that she didn't have anything belonging to us, and she barely opened the door of her house. Of course, after the threats from the police officer, she came around, and took out a suitcase of objects and clothes that were familiar to me. I received some of them and the police took the rest.

I did this again, and I even got something. It became known to me that a non-Jewish acquaintance had some of our valuable articles, like my mother's expensive fur. I went to this man's house, but I met there only an old grandmother who told me that the non-Jew, his wife, and their son died of typhus. She didn't know what happened to the oldest son or what happened to the daughter.

I turned to a non-Jewish acquaintance who worked with the police, and he inquired and found where the daughter was. He knew that the oldest son was hiding in the forest with the Bandrovechim. That non-Jew took me to the house of the aunt of the daughter, Nadia.

As I approached the house, I put myself in danger, despite the non-Jew's warnings who claimed that he could not deviate from his way and be held up. I entered the house and I recognized Nadia's aunt. She gave me a warm meal, but she claimed that she didn't have any of our belongings, and that she didn't know where Nadia was. I began to threaten her that I would blow up her house, holding my hand in my pocket as if I was holding a grenade. In reality, it was a shoe brush. In the end, she softened up and took Nadia out of a closet. Nadia began to cry and claimed that she had nothing. After some additional threats, and after I claimed that the area was surrounded by army, she softened up and took me to her hiding place. From there, she took out my mother's fur, two expensive bed covers, and some clothes. I barely was able to take it all on my back. I hurried to catch up with the police convoy, but looked back all the time to be sure that the Bandrovechim were not chasing after me. There was such danger as they were in this area.

Again I organized the group of clothes and other items and joined a Red Army convoy on its way to Milinsk. In the meantime, there were several attacks of the Bandrovechim on Red Army units, and they also attacked several Jewish youths who served as volunteer policemen trying to search for the Bandrovechim. The heart ached for these victims amongst us after all they had gone through and for what they tried to do -- to avenge the non-Jews who abused and butchered their relatives.

I arrived in Milinsk and my sister was happy to see me alive and along with me a collection of clothes and valuable articles. It was possible for us to sell them and raise our standard of living, and to dress in a more human manner.

My sister started to go to an elementary school. In the morning, she studied with her Jewish friends, and in the afternoon, she took care of the home. Youths would come to us and we would host them as family members. My sister would even wash their clothes.

One day, four non-Jews from Stepan entered our apartment. It seemed that they were on their way to join the draft of the army. Of course, I recognized all of them. They requested to stay with us that night. I agreed, but amongst the four, I recognized immediately one who hit me very hard when I was a shepherd when we were in the ghetto. At first, I thought to avenge him, but quickly I changed my mind. I settled for reminding the rest of the non-Jews about this situation, and I quoted the well known verse from Jesus: “You throw on me, and I give you bread.” The non-Jew blushed and began to explain that he hit me not because I was a Jew, but because I was a shepherd who didn't watch over his sheep and my cows went on his cultivated field. Along with this, he apologized and was very sorry, and admitted that his actions were very stupid. Thus this case ended.

Since we weren't far from the front, at night we had to flee from our houses to the outside in order to find cover from the night air attacks of the Germans on the railroad tracks and on the railroad convoys that led equipment and draftees to the front.

On one of my visits to Sarny, I wasn't successful in getting a ride on the train to Milinsk. I had to look for a place to sleep for the night. The city near the railroad station was destroyed, bombed firstly by the Russians and now by the Germans, because it was the most major train intersection close to the front. I went farther away from the railroad station to the suburbs of the city, and I found a place to sleep for the night in one of the houses. It was a scary night. From the early hours of the evening until the morning, the bombings and the anti-aircraft artillery didn't stop. We found a communal shelter -- a large basement of a destroyed house. Around us, bombs fell very close by. By morning, the bombing had stopped. I went quickly to the train station that also had been hit by bombs and its tracks were hit. But the Red Army along with large groups of railroad workers improvised and fixed the major track which allowed the flow of trains to the front. I succeeded to get on one of the trains and to get to Milinsk safely.

This was another time in which I was saved from death.

One of the high ranking Jewish officers of the Red Army arranged for a group of youths from Stepan and Milinsk to study in a technical school in Russia, I think in Kiev or even farther away. They organized themselves, each with his belongings in his hands. After saying their goodbyes, they were on their way with letters of recommendation. After a little while, the youths returned. They ran into all kinds of criminals who stole their belongings, and in some cases, took off their shoes while they were asleep. When they finally got to the school in Kiev, they were accepted and given standard clothing, but the conditions of the school were very bad. Most of the students of the school were professional criminals. As most of the youths were orphans and were lacking experience in life, they became victims of theft, abuse, and threats to be hit. When they saw the situation that they were in, they organized and one night they caught a train back to Milinsk and returned home.

 

The Yearning for Zion and its Fulfilment

When we were still in Milinsk, I heard that there were a few Jewish survivors in Brazna. One day I decided to travel to Brazna. I got to the train station in Mokion, on the way to Kostopol, and from there, I got on a very slow train to Brazna, and I arrived at Brazna. Here I met the Tzukermans that were still alive, Eliezar z”l, his wife, and their one son. Another son served in the Red Army, and also Zalman Tzukerman, his son, and a woman who ran the house, called Moshka. They received me nicely, and here it became clear to us that nobody from our close relatives remained alive. They reminded us that we have an uncle by the name of Efraim in America.

One day Zalman took me for a visit to one of the non-Jews in order to look for money and articles that my Uncle Yankel z”l, my mother's brother, entrusted with him. But the trip was in vain. The non-Jew claimed that he didn't have anything, and we returned empty handed.

Immediately when the youths from Kiev came, we began to organize to make Aliyah to Israel. We heard from Jews who we met in our trips to Rovno, Sarny, and Kostopol that there was a way to flee through Hungary and Rumania. Several youths got on a train that led them to Lemberg. From rumors, we knew that they indeed were successful in getting to Israel, but in a very difficult manner with many dangers. There were signs of an easier way.

Since we were Polish citizens until September 1939, we had the right to sign up to travel to Poland in the framework of the trading of populations between the Ukraine and Poland. We signed up in Rovno with the right of going over to Poland. But we had to wait our turn.

In the meanwhile, we were busy making arrangements for our trip with the clear hope that we might get to Poland. We heard there was in Poland an organization of immigration towards Palestine. We knew that we had a cousin in Tel Aviv by the name of Genia, who had been in Israel since before the war. We prepared a supply of food for the road, toast, and we packed our bundles that were with us, and we said goodbye to Bluma, our neighbor, who remained the only Jewess in Milinsk. She was waiting for her husband, Avraham Hakerchoni, who served in Russia in the Red Army. Even though he was an invalid, he did not get out of the army. Bluma and her little son, Perchik, waited with expectation and with impatience. Now she had to stay and wait.

One clear morning, we got on a train, and we arrived in Kostopol. Here there was organized a long train including Jews and Poles from Brazna, Kostopol, and the nearby area. The convoy was moved by a locomotive that led us in the direction of Lvov--Lemberg.

It took a couple of days because the track line was full of army convoys that moved to the front and from it, and we were of secondary priority. It became known to us at one of the stations on the way from soldiers and residents that the war with the Germans was over. The Russians conquered Berlin, and the Germans signed a surrender pact. This made us very happy, but we were also very sad because all of our relatives and friends didn't reach this moment of the fall of the German murderers.

We continued to move forward, and after a superficial border check, the train passed the Poland-Russia border near the city of Feshmishel. We continued to move forward on the land of Poland. Here representatives of the Red Cross and the Polish Repatriation Committee received us. They gave us food and some monetary aid, and we finally arrived at our final station -- the city of Bitom in Shelazia. The city was rather destroyed, the residents were German. Many of the residents left the city when it came under Polish control. We were given a place to live.

 

A Visit to Defeated Germany

Amongst the Jews there was a rumor that it was possible to acquire used clothing in good shape at a good price from the Germans. Therefore, we went out to do business. We would buy clothing in the bargain market in Bitom, and when we wore clothes of the Red Army, we would get on the trains to Karkov. Here we would sell our merchandise in the market and make money. In Karkov, we would stay with groups of Jews in a house on Strodom Street. We continued doing this business activity. It kept us busy, but I began to worry about the future of my sister and me.

I heard from the senior clerks on the Jewish committee in Karkov that there was a possibility that my sister could be in a children's institution in Zakopna, where she would receive education, clothing, and good living conditions. I was very happy and I traveled to Bitom. I took my sister with me. Several other orphan girls from the tailor's family and other families joined her, and I brought them to Zakopna. Here I saw a wonderful institution run by Helena Kichler. My sister fit in quickly and felt very good there. I, wearing my Red Army uniform, would visit her from time to time.

One time a group of friends got organized and decided to travel to conquered Germany for business. There was a widespread rumor that one could acquire expensive articles in exchange for pig oil. We bought an amount of pig oil and got on the train to Lodge. Here I met my cousin, Moshe Frishkolnik and his friends who joined us on our way to Gadansk on the Baltic Sea. We were able to move freely in Gadansk as we were dressed in Red Army uniforms. We were able to equip ourselves with expensive clothes in exchange for pig oil. After this adventure, when we could see the Germans humiliated and poor, we had a feeling of revenge. We returned to Karkov, sold the merchandise, and continued with our usual business: Karkov-Katovitz-Bitom.

 

Waves of Anti-Semitism in Poland after the War

In the meantime, anti-Semitism increased in Poland, and there was danger to the Jewish children in Zakopna. Therefore, we moved them to Karkov. My sister was put in a group of youths -- the Union of Zionist Youth -- with the purpose of preparing them for Aliyah to Israel.

Once we were caught by the Russians -- N.K.W.D. -- when we had large amounts of money and clothes that we acquired in Katovitz-Bitom. They arrested my friends and me, and held us in custody for several days. After interrogation and threats, they confiscated a large amount of the money and clothes, and threatened to send us to Siberia if we continue to travel on the trains. We saw that our business activity had come to an end. I decided to join my sister's group along with my friend Michael Fetshnik.

The anti-Semitic tension increased, and one night, there were rumors that a pogrom would break out against the few Jews left in Karkov -- refugees of the German sword. Several youths were placed on guard duty near Jewish concentrations in the city and organized self-defense. My friends and I, wearing Red Army uniforms, thought we could help in defending the community when there would be the need. When we heard the next day that the pogrom began, we went out to the streets to see if we could defend the Jews who were attacked. We ran into several efforts to attack Jews on the street. We got involved while speaking Russian. We threatened that we would immediately bring the Russian commander, and thus we were successful in the driving away the rioters.

 

Joining the Zionist Youth Group of “L'matara”

We were received to the kibbutz with open arms. The counselor, Yanka, interviewed me, and when she heard that I studied in the “Tarbut” School before the war, and she began to speak to me in Hebrew. I understood every word, but I couldn't speak. When she saw that I was embarrassed, she explained to me that it will come back. She was confident that after a few days of reading, hearing, and study, I will be able to speak well. And thus it was. After a week, I was among the few who spoke fluent Hebrew, and I was able to teach beginners.

The group of the kibbutz was very pleasant. We all were orphans about the same age. The counselor, Yanka, even though she was a bit tough, tried to educate us and make up for everything we were lacking, basic manners, elementary knowledge with regard to manners and general education. We took care of the house, cooking, washing clothes, and other services. We received aid from the Jewish Committee and the political party. Some of us worked for Jews and made money for all of us. The atmosphere was very pleasant.

A group of graduates who finished the training before us left Karkov on their way to Eretz Yisrael. We were next. We trained ourselves for what was to come. We prepared appropriate clothing, back-packs, learned Hebrew, Zionism, and general knowledge. I was active in teaching Hebrew to those my age who were beginners. There was good cooperation among everyone. My sister was very well liked. It was our turn to make Aliyah.

 

The Beginning of Immigration to Israel

After traveling on the train, we arrived at the border point between Poland and Czechoslovakia. We passed the border as Greeks returning from the camps in Germany, but that only seemed likely, perhaps, to the simple policemen, because their commanders knew who we really were. In Czechoslovakia, we stayed in Prague. We visited in the city, and visited the Jewish archeology. We also visited the modern washing house -- there they washed clothes and dried them at the same time that we showered. This was very important and necessary for us. That reminded me of the taste of Paradise when I bathed in a warm bath in the bathhouse in Karkov, shortly after arriving there. This was my first bath since I took a bath in my home before the destruction.

After staying in a transition camp in Prague, we crossed the border within the framework of Aliyah Bet, and we took the train to Lifheim in Western Germany. There the people of the Jewish Agency, the Brigade, the representatives of UNRA, and the Joint received us. We received better food and were able to go the school.

 

The Agricultural Training in Germany

After a short time, we were moved as a group to Rithofen, nearby Ording. This was an agricultural farm of an SS German, and we stayed there for training. The son of the German, Stanger, and his workers were with us on the farm. They were excellent agricultural counselors, and they taught us how to carry out every stage of the work done on the farm. The work on the farm included cultivating the fields of vegetables and fruit, working in the big barn, running motorized equipment, and working in the chicken coop and the pig pen. The young Stanger was meticulous about work with himself and his workers. They guided us and watched over us to see that we carry out the work well and in an orderly manner. He personally gave us all sorts of jobs in the thorough manner that was characteristic of Germans.

In general, it can be said that we took the training seriously and learned a lot. I think it educated me to love work and to do it in a good manner. We learned how to run the farm, to prevent waste, and to appreciate order and cleanliness.

My sister squinted as a result of a childhood disease. After she went through several tests, it was decided to operate. She underwent the eye operation in Ontaburg. She was in the hospital for several weeks after the operation and felt very lonely, especially because her eyes were covered after the operation. I tried to visit her often with friends from the group. After a month, she returned healthy to the group, and she was encouraged when she looked in the mirror and saw her eyes were like those of all girls.

After a period of nine months, we received a thorough agricultural education and learned to love work. We also learned general subjects, Hebrew, and Zionism, and we felt trained to make Aliyah. I think our good education was as a result of the efforts of our counselor Olek, who took the place of Yanka. Most listened to Olek and he affected us in a positive way.

 

The Illegal Immigration

After preparing our back-packs and clothing, we were on our way. We arrived by train to Lipheim and from there to a hall. In the hall, there was a convoy of illegal olim, mostly youth, under the auspices of the emissaries of the illegal immigration. They were dressed in U.S. Army and U.N.R.A. uniforms, and put us on American army trucks covered with canvas. Thus we traveled toward the German-Italian border, in the disguise of an army supply truck.

 

Passing Over the Snowy Alps -- Stealing Over the Italian Border

We were taken off the trucks and explained that we must pass over the snowy Alps and cross over the Italian border by foot. We were divided into groups of mixed boys and girls. At the head of every group was an activist of the Aliyah Bet, who was familiar and knew well which passageways in the Alps were good for crossing by foot and with the possibility of infiltrating the border without being caught by the border guards.

When we got off the trucks, it became dark. The goal was to cross the border at night, and by dawn to be on the other side of the border, then get on a train to Milano, where a meeting was set with the representatives at the train station. The marching and climbing on the mountains with each person with his back-pack on his back, was not easy. The weak amongst us, especially the girls, had difficulty and some even stumbled. But everyone helped each other, extended hands to help and took the back-packs of the weak. Thus we continued slowly during the night until we found ourselves on the other side of the border at dawn.

 

Living in Italy

At the meeting point, it became clear that one group had been caught by the police and returned after a short interrogation. Of course the group did not despair and the next night, they crossed the border at a different point and this time they were successful. After two days, we all met again in Milano in Scola-Kadorna. There we were given a basement for living and learning quarters. We were there for several weeks. We got our food from the cooperative kitchen of the Joint. We spent our free time with the group learning Hebrew, hearing lectures, taking walks in the city, visiting the zoo and the opera. I was a Hebrew teacher for the beginners. I learned English with the help of one of the girls.

Later we moved to a fancy house near Rome. We were there for several weeks in much better living and food conditions. We continued doing the same thing, and after a few weeks, we were moved to Bari, which was an illegal immigration camp near the beach. The local Italians thought it was an asylum for those who survived the German quarantine camps. We continued our preparations and at night got onto the illegal immigration boats with the help of rubber boats.

 

Sailing to Israel

We, the boys, helped to get the people on the rubber boats as people were placed in the water up to their waists and held a tight rope. The boat was relatively far away from the shore. After several days, it was our turn, and we got on the illegal immigration boat, “Moledet”.

 

The Aliyah and Being Expelled to Cyprus

After tribulations and the forceful resistance to the English, we arrived in Haifa. There we were taken off of the boat by force and taken to the expulsion boat to Cyprus. We were nine months in a closed and guarded camp in Cyprus. We developed activities, studies, exercise, training in self-defense, sport, etc.

In December 1947, we made Aliyah with the youth Aliyah within the framework of the monthly quota of the English. We were several days in Atlit, a closed camp guarded by the Arab Legion.

In Palestine, the riots began, and we were moved to Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak. Here we worked half a day in different agricultural and service work, and half a day we completed our school studies. At night, we guarded the kibbutz, and even guarded on towers in the area of Tel Mond, on the border of the Arab Triangle.

Within the framework of the Haganah, we secretly underwent training in the use of weapons, placing grenades, night ambushes, and Morse code. One of the boys by the name of Mordecai Kam z”l fell when he acted as a signaler in the defense positions in the area of Tel Mond, and he was buried in the cemetery on the hill of Tel Yitzhak.

The War of Independence continued. I was drafted in the I.D.F. in August 1948. My sister traveled to Jerusalem and took part in a course for children's care by WIZO. She lived in Beit Wizo in Jerusalem and I would visit her often.

In 1950, my sister, Sara (Sosel) married and raised a family. Her family name today is Kaplan, and she lives in Rishon L'tzion.

In 1951, I married my wife, Helina (the daughter of Shlomo and Rachel Richman), from the city Seminovitz near Katovitz in Poland. I raised a family and lived in Ramat Gan. My wife, Helina z”l, who was also a survivor of the Holocaust, and made Aliyah illegally with me within the framework of the Zionist youth movement.

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