There were Jewish communities round and about in all directions, and these included the hamlets of Rozdol, Mikolayow, Zurawno, Sokolow, Zydaczow and Bolechow. Not far away lie Drohobycz, Boryslaw and Schodnica, with their oil-wells, from which most of the population of these towns made their living. This population of approximately 40,000 persons consisted in roughly equal proportions of Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians. The Jews were the vital spirit and dominated the entire economic life. They handled manufactures, trade, food supply, clothing, footwear, furniture, building materials, fuel, drapery, haberdashery and the like. Their handicrafts included harness-making, carpentry, tailoring, tinkering, glaziery, house-painting, building, upholstery, furriery, watchmaking, manufacture of oilcloth, gold and silversmith work, and the handling of all other kinds of metals and skilled mechanics. The Jews reigned supreme in all branches of handicrafts. Almost all the shops in town were in Jewish hands. Many Jews in the surrounding villages made their living directly or indirectly by agriculture. Some lived directly from their farms, while others leased vast stretches of land from Polish barons and noblemen who were estate holders, and cultivated them on behalf of the latter. Or else they leased inns in traditional fashion, the leaseholds passing from father to son for generations.
The Stryj Community is of proud lineage. Its Rabbinical seat had been occupied by Geonim - "Cedars of Lebanon, giants of Torah" as the Hebrew puts it, such as:
Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hacohen Heller author of the work "Ketzot Hahoshen" (published Lwów 1787-1795) and "Avney Miluim" (published Lwów 1815-1825).
Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum, called Rabbi Yaakov of Lissa, a great authority in Rabbinical Law in the early nineteenth century, author of ten books in the field of Halacha and Bible commentary. Died 1832.
Rabbi Meshullam igral called Rabbi Meshullam Tismenitzer, a descendant of Rashi, considered as a virtual genius in Rabbinics, author of the works "Igra Ramah", "Teshuvot" (Responsa) and a treatise on Maimonides. Born 1751, died 1801.
Rabbi Ensel Zusmer of the aristocratic and wealthy Halpern family. Rabbi Arych Leibish Ish Hurwitz of Stanislawów, an outstanding personality and one of the leading figures of his generation in the world of Torah, author of the "Harey Besamim". He established the "Or Torah" Yeshiva which was headed by Rabbis Raphael and Abraham Kitaigrodski from Lithuania. Before the First World War the Head of the Rabbinical Court had been the late and great Rabbi Shalom Hacohen Yolles of Moscisk, the son of Rabbi Uri of Sambor, together with Rabbi Shraga Feivel Hertz of Glogow. After that the Rabbinate was occupied by the late Rabbi Eliezer Ladier, the stepson of Rabbi Hurwitz of Stanislawow, while the last Rabbi of all was the martyred Isaiah Asher Yolles may he be avenged, son of Rabbi Shalom Hacohen and brother of the famous and scholarly Rabbi Ephraim Eliezer Hacohen Yolles, Rabbi in Philadelphia may he be granted longevity, who is, happily, still with us. From the school of these rabbis, who established homes for the Torah and raised up an entire generation of scholars and sages, there came forth personalities and writers who have established a very considerable reputation in our literary world. Out of Stryj came the late E. M. Lipschitz, author of the monograph on Rashi and Director of the Mizrachi Teachers Seminary in Jerusalem; Dr. Zvi Diesendruk, the writer, philosopher and teacher at the Hebrew University, who afterwards proceeded to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati; Jonah Gelernter, writer and teacher at the Vienna Hebrew Gymnasium; and, happily, still with us, Dr. Isaac Silberschlag, writer, poet and aesthete, one of the leading Hebrew writers in U.S.A. and head of the Boston Hebrew Teachers College; Dr. Nathan Kudish, teacher and headmaster in Tel Aviv, who is widely known for his essays on education and teaching; Dr. Moshe Steiner, writer, scholar and critic, whose works have been published in Hebrew and English; and other learned scholars who are widely known in the Jewish world. Many tales of the Rabbis of Stryj have become part and parcel of Jewish national folklore, and have been interwoven into Hebrew literature. Here I need only mention the tale of Rabbi Haensel and the poor Sabbath guest which S.J. Agnon incorporated in his tale 'Ve'haya He'akov Le'rnishor' (and the Crooked shall become Straight).
The leaders of the Stryj Community changed with the spirit of the times. In the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before the First World War, the Head of the Community was the Notary Dr. Abraham Wiesenberg, an assimilationist who did not know the Jewish people and its needs. But he was a friend of the District Governor, and that was what counted for the Elections in those days. After the First World War, when the "springtime of the nations" came, his place was taken by Dr. Shlomo Goldberg, a Jew who had been educated and grown up in religious surroundings, and an outstanding Zionist who had been a delegate to the First Zionist Congress in Basle. He was followed y Dr. Zeev Presser, may his blood be venged, who was both intellectual and a practical man. He in turn was followed by Dr. Mordechai Kaufmann, may his blood be avenged, a devoted and popular Zionist. The last communal Head was Dr. Norbert Schiff, may his blood be avenged. The two latter also served as vice-mayors.
The city in which we were born was mall but was full of a rich and colourful life. Even before the First World War the well-to-do people had begun to send their children to foreign Universities on account of the numerous clausus. From then on the intellectual Jewish professionals began to be relatively numerous. The observant Jews belonged to various Hassidic sects, and followed their rebbes of Zydaczów, Czort, Bojan, Belz, Bolechow, Stretin, etc. In the early Zionists period there had been considerable conflict between the young Zionists and the Hassidim. During the period between the two world wars, however, national consciousness had become ripe. The Stryj Community was a rich national fount, a vital and active sector in the Jewish National Front of Eastern Galicia, which contributed amply to the upbuilding of Eretz Israel. At the time the best of the youth organised themselves in Hashomer Hatzair and Hehalutz, imbued as they were with pioneer ideas deriving from Brenner and Gordon. They fulfilled the requirements of self-labour in their own lives and proceeded to Eretz Israel during the Third Aliya of 1919-1923, in order to help shape our Homeland. These young people, who have meanwhile grown old, now constitute an important and active element in Kibbutzim, Kvutzot, and the town and country life of Israel.
Stryj also made a generous contribution to the Fourth Aliya of 1924-1931. Townsfolk can be found in almost every town and village of Israel, where they lent a hand in building up the country. In the days when Sir Herbert Samuel was High Commissioner the road to Sarafend was built with the sweat of Stryj Halutzim.
Even before the First World War the "Safa Berura" (Choice Speech) Hebrew School was founded by my friend the martyred Moshe Wohlmut, one of the outstanding Zionists at the time. After the War it expanded and the Zionist and Hehalutz youth received their Hebrew training there. Here mention should be made of the teachers Zvi Gelerter, Moshe Helfgott, Joseph Shapira, Haim David Korn, all of blessed memory and Jacob Seeman, who is still, happily, with us, now in Paris. These pioneer teachers were imbued with the vision of reviving the Hebrew language, in hostile surroundings, when both Orthodox Jewry and the various left-wing groups were bitterly fighting against us.
Between the two World Wars a technical school was established in Stryj and headed by Dr. Schindler. In it young Jews were given a productive education and learnt mechanics and metal work. The pupils of this school mostly went to Eretz Israel as Halutzim, and constituted a productive and fruitful element in the country.
Even before the First World War the national revival in Eastern Europe led to the establishment in Stryj of the Ivriya Society for popularising the Hebrew Language and Culture. It broke up during the war but was renewed when the latter came to an end and enthusiasm spread following the Balfour Declaration. Those who established it were Naphtali Siegel, Levi Teitler, Icchak Sturmlauf from Czechoslovakia, and Arie Doerfler, now in London. Lectures on various literary subjects were given by both local lectures and persons from elsewhere. The lecturers included : Abba Hushi, Meir Yaari, Dov Stock, (Sadan), Dr. Joseph Schuster (Shilo), Jonah Gelernter, Joshua Tilleman, etc.
In its own time the Ivriya Society was a power house of the spirit of national revival among the nationally-minded younger generation. They employed the enthusiasm which in earlier times had gone into the discussion of Talmudic topics and niceties in order to deal with national and literary problems, books and writers. Those were the days immediately after the First World War, when the Stiebel Publishing House was just commencing its activities. "Hatekufa" was appearing once in three months in Europe, and the monthly "Miklat" in New York. The Hebrew Library of the Ivriya Society was an important factor in the local revival of the Hebrew language and literature. The devoted members and active workers of Ivriya included the martyred Joshua Oberländer, Dr. Moshe Eisenstein, Naphtali Gärtner, the martyred Haim David Korn; and those who are still, happily, with us, Jacob Seeman, Ben-David Schwartz, Dr. Nathan Kudish, Dr. Moshe Steiner, Professor Isaac Nussenblatt and the writer of these lines.
All the national and political schools of thought were to be found represented in the Jewish Community. The various Jewish National Movements were associated in a single 'Arbeitsgemeinschaft" (Working group), in which they were all represented. The young Jewish academicians of Stryj call for special mention. There was ample national spirit in their societies, "Emuna', "Hebronia" and "Kadima". The Merchants' Society "Oseh Tov" (Do Good) was active in economic and professional matters and stood on a firm national ground. Its managers were Dr. Norbert Schiff, Moshe Spiegel and David Seidman, a devoted and diligent Zionist organiser and worker. The craftsmen had their own society, called "Yad Harutzim" (Diligent Hand). It was headed by Abraham Levin, father-in-law of the Hebrew teacher and writer Naphtali Siegel, together with Shalom Schwartz, until the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Jewish Quarter, which was very typical of all towns in Poland, centred on the Great Synagogue, a magnificent building adorned with rare and impressive paintings on Bible themes painted by famous artists. On either side of the Great Synagogue were the two Batei Midrash (houses of study), while facing it was the Talmud Torah building of two stories. Its upkeep was the voluntary concern of Reb Israel Jehuda Nussenblatt, the martyred Reb Eliyahu Seldowicz, my father, Reb Samuel Friedler, and Reb Shlomo Drimer. Near the synagogue was the bath-house under communal supervision which was used by all residents of the town; and also the Jewish Hospital which was looked after, gratis, by the Jewish physicians.
That in miniature was the city of Stryj, on whose soil our heart-whole Hassidic fathers and forefathers lived for generations. They were believers as their own fathers had been. There they worked, studied and fashioned their own modest and self-sustained life. It was a peculiarly Jewish self-sufficiency in faith, custom, garb and language, with its Rabbis and communal officials, householders, intellectuals, merchants, hawkers, shop-keepers, workers, craftsmen, agents and idlers at street corners. They were everyday Jews who made a scanty living, thankful for a dry crust accompanied by tranquillity, faithful to the traditions and sanctities of the Jewish People, who lived in accordance with the Shulhan Aruch and did not deviate from it even by a hair's breadth. Apart from their worries about making a living, the centre of their world was their klois or shtiebel (Hassidic conventicle) and their particular Hassidic wonder-rabbi, the foundation of their universe. In their spiritual world they found compensation for the gray reality. Thence they drew their Hassidic fervor and love of Israel, that fervent devotion for which we so yearn. We followed them, a last generation in bondage and first of redemption. (But "though Redemption will come, yet let me not perceive it" as one of the Talmudic sages said).
On the First day of September 1939, with the outbreak of war between Germany and Poland, a black curtain fell and the fate of European Jewry was sealed; and among them the fate of those who were so clear to us, the Jews of Stryj.
Yet shaken though as we were by the first bombs, we swiftly grew accustomed to them. We knew no quiet by day or by night. No sooner did we try to rest from the horrors of the day then the throbbing in the skies disturbed us once again. We dashed down into cellars which, in our innocence, we thought might save us.
Long columns of wagons, loaded with families of Poles together with all their belongings, moved through the town from Western Galicia towards the east and depressed our spirits still further. Matters became worse when we saw the Polish forces retreating in confusion to the Hungarian frontier. Masses of Polish families, crazed with fear by the bombing, passed through the town in their panic flight, going from the frying pan into the fire. For the Soviet Army had crossed the Polish frontier along the River Zbrucz and was approaching us.
Meanwhile the German army entered the town. Ukrainian peasants from the surrounding villages came in crowds to greet them, dressed in their finest clothes. The riders wore coloured garments. A triumphal arch was set up in Drohobycka street, with the Proclamation, "We shall pave the way of victory for the German soldiers with Jewish skulls." The city was gay and lively, but the Jews hid in attics and lofts and cellars.
Meanwhile it began to be rumoured that Galicia had been divided between the Soviets and the Germans. We lived between hope and fear. On the third day after the German entry army commanders from both sides met on the Bolechow Bridge crossing the river Stryj. They decided that the Germans should withdraw to the River San, and that Stryj should be included in the Soviet Occupation Zone. The joy of the Jews when they saw the Germans leaving the town was beyond description. On the Eve of the Day of Atonement, 1939, Soviet forces entered the city and for the time being we were inscribed for life.
His words proved true. Our joy was only an imaginary one. Under the Soviets. to be sure, we suffered from want as compared to the rich and ample living of prewar Poland; but not as Jews. We suffered together with all the other peoples of Soviet Russia during the emergency; but not more than they did. The Soviets fed us on the doctrines of Marx and Lenin, and ordered us to obey the Stalinist Constitution in accordance with which he who does not work shall not eat.
They did not raise the lowly to the heights but they did bring the proud down to the ground so that rich and poor became indistinguishable. Yet though we lost our work and were left impoverished, they did nothing against our lives. So we were happy in our lot, happy that we had been delivered from the fangs of the lions.
The Front moved west and we seemed to be out of it. We thought that we were fortunate to live in peace under the protective wings of the Soviets, and would find shelter in the shadow of the Red Flag until the days of wrath had passed. There seemed to be reason for this supposition. On the 22nd of August, 1939, Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, the chief purpose of which had been to ensure that Germany would not fight on two fronts. The treaty had ensured Hitler freedom of action in the West and the other parts of Europe and Africa, without any fear of being attacked from the East. Then, economically speaking, we could see with our own eyes that great railway trucks of 50 tons each, loaded with first class wheat, were passing through the Stryj railway station on the way from the Ukraine to Germany: An obvious proof of the friendly relations between Germany and Soviet Russia.
Yet things did not come about as we had supposed. On the 22nd of June 1941 aeroplanes suddenly appeared at a great height. We could not recognise whether they were ours or the enemy's. Bombs began to fall from out of the clear sky. We asked the Soviet officers what it meant. Some silenced us by saying, "These are only maneuvers and there is nothing to be afraid of. You should remember that in Soviet Russia the public is not informed what is going on in diplomacy and politics." The facts came and disproved his words. The Soviet press was as usual full of Victorious achievements in accordance with the Five-Year Plan thanks to Stakhanovist methods, while nothing at all was said about politics. The echo of artillery fire reached our ears from the direction of Drohobycz and Przemysl. German aeroplanes began appearing without a break and dropped bombs. There could no longer be any doubt that this was really war. The Government and party officials made their preparations to leave the city. Railway wagons were placed at the disposal of the families of soldiers and party members, to take them to safe places across the Russian frontier. Yet countless such railway wagons were bombed and completely smashed and destroyed by the German planes as they made their way eastward.
Before leaving the city the Soviet authorities took a parting shot at several residents who were suspected of Zionism, including ordinary residents who were perfectly innocent. They were taken out of their beds at midnight and carried away to Siberia. Those I remember include: Samuel Klein, his son Benjamin and son-in-law Ben Zion Radler, Elijah Seldowicz, Aryeh Schwammer, Haim David Korn, Ben Zion Garfunkel, Levy Opper, etc. An acquaintance of mine in the N.K.V.D. told my wife that my name was also on the list of candidates for Siberia. If I had not hidden with a Polish family I would also have been taken away. Hundreds of Jewish refugees who succeeded in escaping from Western Galicia, and in crossing the river San at the risk of their lives into the Soviet paradise, were all carried off to Siberia.
The bombing grew worse from day to day. Houses became heaps of wood and stone within a moment. Lwów was already in the pincers of the Germans who had encircled it from the north and west. The Germans began to approach. We were abandoned with our bitter pain, forsaken and trembling and waiting for the Angel of Death. All we could do was to pray in silence : "Lord of the Universe, give the Russian soldiers the strength to withstand the German beasts, for our lives depend on it. Do not make an end of us."
But the Gates of Mercy were closed. The Soviet Forces left the town in the direction of Stanislawow. The Poles were indifferent. The Ukrainians went wild with joy as our world grew dark about us.
The armoured units of the Germans came down on the city like a tempest. The earth crumbled away under the tracks of the gigantic steel and iron tanks. They were followed by the S. S. with black skulls and crossbones on their caps; and they brought death with them. Each on his own was a merciless professional murderers a bloodthirsty executioner.
When the Nazis arrived the pits in the courtyard of the Municipal prison were opened. Those pits were full of corpses of slain people, covered with flour and rice. The Russians had not had time before leaving to take with them all the political prisoners who were "enemies of the people". Among them were several Jews, but most of them were Ukrainians belonging to the party of Bandera which aspired to establish an Independent Western Ukraine. They had all been shot and flung into these pits. Now the German murderers were astonished to find that anybody contested the monopoly of killing and murdering with them.
Who had killed these people? The Soviets - meaning the Jews! The eternal scapegoat, symbolizing the red devil in the eyes of the Germans, and the Bourgeoisie and Wall Street in the eyes of the Russians. Military and civil representatives were summoned together with priests, pressmen and photographers, in order to display Soviet-Jewish cruelty to all. Thousands of townsfolk and others came to see the gruesome sight. The first step to poison the air against the Jews, and incite the population against us, had been successful.
Posters were issued to the effect that war was being waged only against the enemy. "The peaceful urban population without distinction of race or creed are our friends. We promise them peace and order. They have only to obey the commands of the Military Command. Signed : General von Brauchitz." Further notices appeared requiring the Jews to bring their telephones and radio sets to the Town Council where they would be given a receipt for them. Those who did not do so would be punished in accordance with the Emergency Regulations. Signed: Haupmann Weide, Military Town Commander.
The German District Officer appointed Oskar Hutterer, the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Eliezer Ladier, chairman, and ordered him to select the members of a Judenrat (Jewish Council). This council bad a double task. It was to maintain contact with the German Command, carry out its orders, and handle all the internal affairs of the Jews themselves, who from that day forward would constitute a separate body entirely cut off from the Aryan population. This Jewish Council was chiefly intended to serve as a bridge for passing on the decrees of the Nazi Command to the Jews. The Council was given authority to collect taxes from the Jews, and establish a Jewish police (Ordnungsdienst) which would be under its orders. These Police were composed of young people belonging to all groups and classes. Among them were fine young men belonging to the national and academic youth, and also those from poverty-stricken groups. The Council was provided with food supplies for the Community. The policemen were promised additional rations, and therefore the young people willingly registered for police duties. There was also the attraction of gleaming buttons on uniforms, and the round cap with the dark yellow linen band round it. They were armed with rubber truncheons. The Jewish Council Building was the House of Reb Jacob Ettinger at the corner of May 3rd and Potockiego Streets. Departments were set up for taxes, housing, furniture and food, with secretaries, telephones, typewriters, storehouses and shops, A complete state apparatus, one might suppose, down to the last details.
The German officers in all kinds of military command offices brought their families with them. The Jewish Council was ordered to provide furniture for their dwellings. The Jewish police set to work with exemplary devotion. From the homes first of rich Jews and then of the well-to-do and average people they took furniture, household utensils, pillows and quilts and linen. Some gave willingly and some unwillingly, but the watchword was : "Better give our goods than our lives." Yet it was a vain slogan. First they gave their property and afterwards their lives as well. For now came the first blow
The Ukrainians denounced ten Jews. Those were people who had spoken badly of Germany under Soviet rule, or who had put pressure on Ukrainian workers in factories where Jews had been appointed foremen. Among them were Ephraim Bucchnbaum, Philip Dunkel, Engineer Schatzker, and the son of Koerner the lawyer. They were executed in the neighbouring village of Duliby. The murderers behaved with a certain amount of consideration in these first cases, and permitted the families of the slain men to bring their bodies to Jewish burial.
The front moved east. Here and there a barber shop or a shop for light refreshments opened. There were no goods because private trading had been forbidden under Soviet rule. A Jewish shop had to be marked by a Shield of David and a notice "Juedisches Geschaeft" (Jewish business). The peasants of the neighbourhood began to bring their crops to the market. The Jews were allowed two hours, from ten to twelve, to buy their food, and woe betide anybody who was caught after that time. He was murderously beaten and flung into prison. During those two hours the Jewish purchasers were received at the market with jeers and curses both by the peasant salesmen and by the crowd, who gnashed their teeth and bitterly cursed the Jews for causing the rise in prices, the war and all the trouble that was coming.
Law and order were supervised by the "Schupo" (Schutzpolizei or civil police), the "Kripo" (Kriegspolizei or wartime police) and the Gestapo. The worst of all the Ukrainian police. Here a few lines must be devoted to our Ukrainian neighbours with their hands steeped in blood, the offspring and descendants of Bogdan Chmelnitzky, that nation whose evil deeds are recorded as an everlasting horror in the history of Polish Jewry. They were the axe in the hands of the Gestapo. Their hatred of the Jews led them to savage murders and the robbery and pillage of all that was Jewish. They murdered and robbed. While the Germans shot from automatic rifles the Ukrainians murdered with their own hands. The Ukrainian peasants slaughtered the village Jews like so many sheep with scythes and sickles. They literally cut them to pieces with knives. We had been living in their midst for hundreds of years, Both sides had benefited from mutual trade and we had never done them any harm. On the contrary, the Jewish tradesman, peddler and innkeeper had provided them with clothing, footwear, food and drink against reasonable payments which were often enough not met. The Ukrainians had destroyed the basis of our livelihood in Eastern Galicia even before the Second World War. They had organised the village peasantry into Cooperative Societies which supplied all their needs, and thus eliminated the Jews from their economic positions. The priests in church preached in favour of the societies, and forbade all contact and business with the Jews. The Polish Government not only did not prohibit it but looked with a favourable eye on this poisonous activity, which diminished Jewish influence in the commercial sphere. Since we were the minority we were always the scapegoat in the political and economic intrigues between the Poles and Ukrainians. Both of them hated us bitterly. Now that the Germans had come the Ukrainians, drunk with joy, regarded them as angels who would deliver them from the Polish-Jewish pressure, and would fulfil their dream of a free and independent Ukraina built on the ruins of the Jews.
The Ukrainian Police was made up of thieves, murderers, drunkards and scoundrels, a rabble from the underworld of this people. These scoundrels, who had always been dressed in rags and with whom no decent person would come into touch in normal times, now received new army uniforms with gleaming buttons, rifles or revolvers. Now they were given a free hand. Municipal affairs were handed over to the Ukrainians. The Mayor was Engineer Bandera, manager of the Ukrainian Cooperative Society.
On the day after the German Occupation a German soldier entered my apartment, accompanied by a Ukrainian ruffian who served him as a guide to Jewish dwellings. I recognised that he was the attendant at the bathhouse, where he was always asleep. I was summoned to work and ordered to fetch a pail, broom and rags. In the street I joined a group of Jews whose numbers rose from house to house. We were led to the town square in order to clean the tanks, collect the debris from the bombed houses and arrange the bricks in equal-sized squares. The work was not in the least boring, for from time to time the German supervisor brought his whip down murderously over our heads and backs, to the joy of Ukrainian idlers and vagabonds who laughed at our distress. I had the impudence to ask the supervisor why he was beating me if I was working as I had been ordered. Before I had finished my question the German hit me over the face to the accompaniment of unrepeatable curses. The blood began flowing down over my face.
Next day the Jewish police hurried me along to work at the railway station. We carried all kinds of screws, wheels and heavy pieces of metal from place to place on our backs. While I was working I met a young Ukrainian, a high railway official who had known me in bygone days. "For hundreds of years", said he, you have been sucking our blood. The Ukrainian peasant sold you the fat poultry and geese while he himself made do with the rye bread the Jews sold. The Jews always lived luxuriously. All the houses in town belonged to them. The town is ours, the house yours. Ukrainian hands built them. We were always your servants, your doorkeepers, your boot polishers, your cesspit cleaners. You wore the handsome expensive clothes, you lived in the finest apartments, you ate our bread and drank our water. Now the time has come to settle your debt. You'll pay with your lives. Now comes your finish, the day we have been hoping for so long."
This pained me far more than the whip the day before. When I took my shirt off at home, the skin had peeled from my shoulders and my back was covered with blisters. Yet these two episodes are not even a single drop out of the sea compared to what happened afterwards.
Every Jew from the age of 16-60 was compelled to work. In the city a vast number of institutions were established, including military stores, military laboratories and private German firms. I shall mention some of them : Heeresverpflegungsdepot (Army Supply Depot), Baudienst (Building Service), H.K.P., Wasserwirtschaft (Water Authority), Karpathen Ohl, Altstoff (Old Clothes), etc., Heeresbarackenwerke (The sawmill of Zelig Borak), A.S.A. Clasfabriken (Classworks - in Neubauer's flour mill). The Ukrainians and Poles traded and made money. We were forbidden to leave the town limits. Every morning we went out in our thousands to work at the above places. In return for our work we received rations of bread and soup. We submitted to this situation humbly, maybe even willingly, for we were still living in our own apartments. This general calm made some innocent ones among us delude themselves with the vain hope that work would save us, since in wartime work is an important factor and the Germans could not permit themselves to kill productive people like us. Who then would work in our places? And on the other hand, they argued, it was impossible that the German nation of poets and philosophers should simple indulge in the mass slaughter of millions of Jews. And what would the world say?
But the bitter reality came and proved otherwise. Death is a dreadful thing, but sevenfold more dreadful was the way that led to it. A few months later the order establishing the Jewish Quarter (Juedisches Wohnviertel) was published and paved the way for the Ghetto. It meant that the Jews were separated from the Aryan population. The Jewish Quarter began from Kilinskiego Street (the Lachowicz Bookshop) to its end at the corner of Iwaszkiewicza-Drohobycka Streets). It continued on the other side along the Stojalowskiego Boulevard, Zamkowa, Rynek, Berka Josselowicze, Kusznierska, Lwówska; Batorego to the Zielona Street. The Jews of the Aryan Quarter were transferred to the Jewish Quarter and crowded into the apartments of the Jews already living there.
It was permissible to enter and leave the Jewish Quarter. Jews with work papers might enter the Aryan Quarter, while Aryans were permitted to enter the Jewish Quarter. And an alternative was promptly provided for those who did not feel comfortable enough in the Jewish Quarter because of overcrowding. At the time the Quarter contained about 12,000 persons. The Jewish Council was ordered to make room for another 11,000 persons who had been expelled from the small towns of the district, which were thus made Judenrein. Beds of two or three levels were made of boards. The overcrowding led to filth and increased diseases.
Before long an additional "amelioration" came which was worse than the first. The Actions began. This was the name given to the systematic extermination carried out in accordance with a definite plan, and with precise German order. On this occasion, for example, orders were given to kill 1000 Jews between the hours of 4-12. If by chance another Jew came along after twelve, the murderers sent him away until the next Action.
This was in November, 1941, at 5 a.m. before dawn. There was a tremendous downpour of rain. The heavens were weeping at our calamity. Squads of German and Ukrainian police came into the Jewish Quarter. Twelve hundred men were taken out of their beds and led away to prison. After three days of beatings and torture the unhappy victims were carried off to the Holobotow forest near Stryj. There they dug themselves a common grave with their own hands, and were all murdered.
Now began the feverish building of bunkers in the houses and courtyards. Jewish intelligence, together with a natural sense of self-preservation, enabled us to invent hiding places which were beyond all human imagination. Blind brick walls were built in cellars, attics, cowsheds, on the ceilings of lavatories, in rubbish bins, in cesspits, in places where the German curs would never dream of searching. The chief difficulty was to hide the entry so that it should remain invisible. For the greater part a few bricks were removed in the corner of the blind wall. We crawled in on all fours through the little hole and afterwards the bricks were cautiously replaced so as not to leave any signs of cement or brick. Sometimes the entries were made through the floors of a room, shop, store or cowshed after the course of bricks or the wooden board was removed from the floor, and replaced from within when those who were concealing themselves had entered. One exceptional invention which required special skill was the entry from under a window. The window-sill was removed. The middle bricks were taken out of the wall leaving space for a thin man. The entry to the bunker was through the hollow in the wall that was under the sill. The last to enter put the sill back in place from the inside precisely where it should be, with the aid of handles specially made underneath for the purpose. This was done with the utmost precaution, so that there should be no sign of the window-sill having been moved. The danger of death was the mother of strange inventions, of which nobody could have dreamed in normal times. Yet the clever inventions of flesh and blood were not always lucky. There were cases when those who had toiled to hide themselves ten feet underground were discovered, while others who hid themselves in an empty upside-down barrel or behind doors succeeded in escaping, until they fell into the hands of the Germans, that is, in the Actions that followed.
In December, 1941, in midwinter, Joseph Goebbels of accursed memory, called on the German people to donate winter garments on a generous scale for the German Forces fighting on the Eastern Front in order to liberate the civilised world from the Communist peril. The Aryan population had the choice of doing so or not; but for the Jews it was an order. Notices were published requiring the Jews to bring their furs to the Town Command Office. In order to make sure that this decree was promptly fulfilled, the German and Ukrainian Police did not wait for the Jews to fetch the furs themselves, but went from house to house to collect them. Their energy repaid them. They collected furs which were worth thousands of dollars. Some were delivered to the Command Office, but most were sold on the black markets of Lwów and Craców and the money received was exchanged for spirits. The drunkenness which then spread among the Aryans, and particularly among the police, is simply indescribable. It expressed their joy at the victories at the Front and at the destruction of the Jews. A Ukrainian looking through a window saw the martyred Moshe Goldfischer hiding his fur in the double back of his cupboard, which was so skillfully made that its existence could not be seen. The Ukrainian denounced his Jewish neighbour who was hanged by the Gestapo.
The full cold of the Polish winter settled down on us. The Jewish Council received orders to transfer unproductive families, idlers, and particularly widows and women whose husbands had been taken to the Soviet army, to forsaken hamlets in the heart of the Carpathians, in the direction of Smorze village. The purpose was obvious. Even in normal years the peasants of that dreadful region lived on dry barley bread. Now in wartime there was no doubt that within a few days these people would all perish of starvation. On a cold winter night about 500 souls were loaded on wagons guarded by Ukrainian police on horseback, and taken up to villages that were to be their graves. A very few of them returned some weeks later, bloated with starvation and wrapped in rags and tatters. Meanwhile the Nazis were preparing public opinion for the idea that Jewish life was worthless. Army cars carried slogans "Death to the Jews". Caricatures were shown in public places displaying fat gross big-paunched Jews from Europe and America sucking the blood and marrow of the Aryan workers and neighbours through pipes, which brought piles of dollars into their pockets. The Nazis now had the sacred task of purifying Europe from the Jewish monster and eradicating this dangerous international microbe. It was not long before the satanic propaganda had its effect. The ground was prepared for murders and Actions. As we marched in ranks to work in the mornings Ukrainians attacked us and beat us without mercy. In the alleys and entry-ways of the town Ukrainian police regularly stripped off the clothes and boots of Jews, and paid for them with murderous blows.
As remarked, thousands of Jews were engaged in hard labour in all kinds of factories, barracks, mills, stores and military institutions. In addition the Jewish Council sent hundreds of those remaining in the Jewish Quarter to engage in public works every day. But the Nazis did not rest satisfied. From time to time German and Ukrainian police came to the Jewish Quarter in order to kidnap Jews for cleaning cesspits and lavatories. And naturally such kidnappings were always accompanied by blows. Deaths due to these thrashings were numerous. Among the victims was my father-in-law, the martyred Hillel Landau, a God-fearing Jew of exceptional qualities who was widely known for his integrity and charity. The Nazi police caught him in the street, beat him and trampled him underfoot. A few days later, he went to his eternal rest on the 26th of Tevet, 5702.
As usual in times of trouble people yearned for miracles. Maybe Soviet Russia would finally strengthen and proceed to the offensive. Jews were forbidden to buy or sell papers. But sometimes we secretly managed to obtain the "Lemberger Zeitun," from a Polish worker while we were working. The news depressed us even more. Despair spread on all sides. At the end of 1941 German submarines sank British warships and aircraft carriers. Italian torpedo-boats were attacking Alexandria in Egypt and wreaking havoc. We reckoned we were already dead. But what was going to happen to Eretz Israel? Our last hope was that we should rid ourselves of the doubt and fear that the Nazis might reach the Land of Israel. Now that far was growing stronger. German aeroplanes had sunk the British battleships "Repulse" and "Prince of Wales". On 12th February, 1942, the German battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen succeeded in passing through the English Channel in spite of the British Blockade, and endangered the eastern shores of England. The political horizon was absolutely black. We had the feeling that in a little while the whole of Europe would lie at the feet of the Nazis. Whence would our aid come? For our peril had increased a hundredfold. The Germans were preparing to slaughter us.
It was in May 1942, before the Shavuot Festival, that the Jewish Quarter was surrounded on every side. Anybody who tried to escape was shot and killed on the spot. This time the murderers found empty apartments. Everybody had taken shelter inside the bunkers. But the walls were smashed with hammers, pick-axes and hand grenades. When the murderers entered the apartment of the Schor family, an aristocratic Hassidic family who had been Turkish citizens for generations, the latter showed them their Turkish passports. The Gestapo murderers tore them up on the spot. 'Turkey will not go to war with us because of a few dirty Jews !" they proclaimed and added the whole family to the transport. The Jewish Hospital was full of patients. They were all shot in their beds.
After the Action the Jewish Quarter looked like a battlefield. In the hour of danger, when people ran in confusion to hide in the Bunkers, many families broke up. Each crawled on his own in to the very closest bunker, for there was no time to choose. After the Action those who were still alive came out of their holes in mourning, bereaved of their dearest ones. Children were orphaned and parents were left bereft. Wives remained without husbands and husbands without wives. At that time a stony indifference resulting from despair and complete hopelessness began to overwhelm the survivors. People wandered gloomily and bowed, without greeting one another. All the civilised politeness of society seemed to have vanished.
After each Action the murderers came to confiscate the property of the victims on behalf of the Nazi institution "Verbreitung das Deuschtums in General Government" (Dissemination of Germanism in the General Government). Stores for Jewish loot were opened in abandoned Jewish homes in Batorego Street. These stores swiftly filled up to the ceiling with the furniture, pillows, quilts, and linen of the victims of the "Uebersiedlung" (resettlement) which was the official name given to the Extermination Operations. The cynicism involved does not call for comment. The furniture of the victims was pillaged. It was given away to the Ukrainians, who came in their thousands with wagons from the villages in order to receive their share of the Jewish inheritance.
As the Jewish population dwindled on account of the Actions the Nazis began to reduce the area of the Jewish Quarter. It started at the House of Adela Katz in the Batorego street and finished at the house of the martyred Abraham Apfelgruen in the Berka Joselowicza Street.
But the Germans did not permit our tears to dry. They had not yet quenched their thirst for the Jewish blood they were shedding like water. The slaughter of the 3rd of September, 1942 came like a sudden blow. The Action lasted for 3 days and in it 8,000 persons met their deaths. This time the Gestapo, Schupo, and Kripo together with the Ukrainian Police assailed us with full military equipment. Having learnt from previous experience they now brought with them all kinds of instruments for breaking down the Bunkers. Goods wagons were stationed at the railway station and the victims were taken to them in groups. It was late summer and hot as a furnace. The victims were flung into the wagons on the heads of those already inside, till they were stuffed chockful. Quite apart from the blazing heat outside, a choking heat could be felt in the waggons. It was caused by a chemical powder which produced choking smoke clouds. The Gestapo had put this powder in the carriages in order to increase the heat and the airlessness. Nobody paid any attention to those who fainted, for each person felt as though he too were about to faint. Those who shrieked for water through the apertures near the wagon roofs met with the laughter of the Nazis who opened the wagon doors and beat them till they bled. Some tore their clothes off themselves, while others voided themselves for very fear and dread. In one of the wagons was the saintly and martyred Rabbi Mechele, grandson of the Hassidic Rebbe of Stretin. He ripped his arba kanfot to little pieces and roared, "Lord of the Universe, I served you all my life with full devotion. Is this the reward of Torah ?" After that he fainted and died choking. The earth did not open its mouth and the world was not destroyed.
In the wagon containing my martyred brother-in-law Shabtai Landau with his wife and child there were a number of brave strong young men who had taken wrenches and various implements for self-defence. From the aperture in the wagon it could be seen that the train was moving towards Lvów. This meant that it would cross the bridge across the River Dniester near Mikolajow. Before the train crossed the bridge it usually slowed down. As soon as the train began to move the young men started to use their wrenches. It was hard to shift the bolts and nuts because they had rusted in with age. But people become unbelievably strong when they are in danger of death. By the time the train began to slow down on the ascent to the bridge the bolts had been removed. The boards of the door, reinforced with iron bars, were broken and the young fellows began to jump out. But Gestapo men were standing between the wagons and promptly began to shoot. My brother in law Shabtai Landau jumped with his children his shoulder and was shot. His wife jumped after him. She was saved with a handful more. Those who succeeded in returning to the town had the skin torn off their bodies when they jumped. But what was the use? They were saved only until the next Action. The train went its way, from which none returned. At Betzec the flesh of the martyrs was ripped from them. Their fat was used for making soap. Yet no matter how the polluted ones try to cleanse themselves their sins stain them forever.
Before we had recovered from this the Nazis planned the last blow against the surviving Jews of the Holy Congregation of Stryj.
People began whispering of the establishment of the Ghetto. I shiver at the memory of the word. The news was received with strange feelings. Some said it was a sign that Stryj was not to be made "Judenrein" for the time being, as had already been done in many cities, nor would we be transferred to a Ghetto somewhere else. The fact that the Ghetto was to be erected made it clear that they did not intend to kill us for the present, since they were establishing a restricted area in order to separate us from the Aryans. And that was all. Maybe deliverance would come meanwhile.
But those who did not wish to delude themselves regarded the establishment of the Ghetto as a final step before complete destruction, in accordance with a prearranged plan for the entire Occupied Zone which had been prepared by Hitler, Himmler and Kaltenbruner. Both groups alike saw that the last Action had been worse than the proceeding ones. In the earlier ones people with labour cards had been released, but in the last no distinction at all had been drawn between workers and idlers.
Experience had also proved that the bunkers were of little service. If by some miracle a bunker was not discovered today, it was almost certain to be laid bare at the next Action. People with money, which in those days meant gold dollars, found hiding places with avaricious Aryan families eager for Jewish gold. "If somebody was out in the dark, he gave his wallet to a gentile" as the Talmud puts it. First the gentile took his wallet and afterwards his life. Some were compelled to leave their hiding places after only a few days because those who concealed them feared that they would be killed themselves. The good gentile rescuers took the money and sent the Jews away, but mostly the Jews were murdered and flung out into the streets. Jewish bodies lay rotting on the banks of the River Stryj. They were a regular sight. The Jewish Council received an order to clear them away. The Jews bore with that impossibly difficult burden called life, life of which they themselves had become weary. They dragged it from one gentile to another till finally they were rid of it.
Large posters consisting of many paragraphs and signed by Hans Frank the Head of the General Gouvernement announced the establishment of the Ghetto in Stryj on the 1st of December, 1942. Ingress and egress were permitted only to Jews with work cards stamped by the Gestapo. Those breaking the law were liable to the death penalty. The Aryans were warned not to approach the Ghetto limits. Selling or giving food or offering Jews any kind of help would be punished by hanging. The Ghetto area consisted of the following streets: Berek Joselowicza, Kugnierska, Krawiecka and Lwówska. It had two main entrances, in the Berka Joselowicza and Lwówska streets. Thick wooden posts were set up on both pavements and across them a long pole was placed as a barrier which was raised when necessary. Policemen watched the gates by day and night. Streets that led to the Aryan quarter were blocked with high wooden fences. And now the rope round our necks was tightened to strangle the last of the Jews. The Ghetto was set up with the definite purpose of being destroyed. Its end was involved in its beginning. Now we were caught like birds in a trap.
Once the Ghetto was established the Jews were divided into two: Those who were working and helping to bring about the Nazi victory, and the idle, weak, aged, women and children. The former wore square patches on which was darned the letter W. meaning "wichtig" (important). This meant that they must be preserved and safeguarded, and that the Getsapo must not do them any harm, while the rest were to remain in the Ghetto and wait for their day to come. Day by day thousands of Jews went out into the Aryan Quarter to all kinds of public works, accompanied by Jewish Police. Sometimes lesser ghettoes were set up near the working places, for those marked with the letter W. There thousands of our finest youth were working. They were entrusted to the Gestapo so as to be "safeguarded" from any trouble that might befall the main Ghetto; in order that the productive workers might be able to work calmly. The Germans said mockingly about them, "These will survive the War". The Jewish workers employed at the Borak sawmill, which was called "Heeresbarrackenwerke", were given the ruins of the barracks opposite Bolechowska Street. The A. S. A. glass factory, the Wasserwirtschaft, the Karpatenöhl, the Altstoff and a number of other German firms placed their Jewish workers in small houses in lwana Franka Street near Bolechowska Street; houses which had been emptied of the Jewish inhabitants, who had already been killed in the Actions. Every morning we were lined up like soldiers and went to work under police guard. This guard was both ridiculous and tragic deceit. In theory the policemen were supposed to protect us, so that the Ukrainians should not beat us on the way to work and the Gestapo should not take us away during an action, but actually the Ukrainians beat us while the Gestapo kidnapped.
Baking and cooking were prohibited in the Ghetto. Shlomo Sauerbrunn's bakery in Lubowska Street was the only one which baked bread on behalf of the Jewish Council from the coarse flour provided by the Nazis for the Ghetto prisoners. From time to time policemen came to the Ghetto to see whether the chimneys were smoking. A German soldier went patrolling with his dog, which was trained to smell the scent of meat.
The cesspits were not cleaned in the ghetto, and it is hard to describe the results. Both electricity and gas were cut off. The water cisterns were stopped up. They left a single pump in the courtyard of Isaac Reich in the Berka Joselowicza Street, and another in Kugnierska Street. People had to get up at five o'clock in the morning and stand in line with their pails, for in case of an Action it was clearly advisable not to enter a bunker without water. People wandered about and lay about lean and starving. Even the healthy looked green and yellow. The bunkers left their mark upon them, as death had cast its shadow over them. All that was left of the wealth of Stryj was a cart and one wizened mare, on which the dead were taken to the cemetery. The burials were handled by the martyred son-in-law of the Dayan Rabbi Saul Lusthaus, and by Mordechai Jungman. Although we were sick of living, conversations in the Ghetto turned chiefly on signs of our end. How many more days would they permit us to live? How many more Actions would there be, and when? If a mere two German policemen were seen approaching it was enough to start the alarm, "They're coming!" That terrible cry passed through the Ghetto like lightning; and whenever it was heard every living soul vanished from the streets and houses, and we all began crawling into the bunkers. Nor were they always wrong with their fears. From time to time little Actions were carried out by the Jewish police under Nazi orders. Why should the Nazis bother to hunt the contemptible Jews if the work could be done by the Jews themselves ? It was so easy to set Jews against Jews. How tragic! How low we had fallen! The kidnappers came to the ghetto to find the bunkers of their fellow Jews and hand them over to be killed. The order of the Gestapo required a certain number of Jews to be handed over, and the police had to supply that number. Sometimes there were thrashings and absolute murder when they found a bunker. Those who were caught were first taken to the Great Synagogue and were kept there under police guard until they were handed over to the Gestapo. The well-to-do who could pay a ransom to the Jewish Council were set free, and others were caught in their place. Trade in livestock of this kind flourished. But before long all alike found themselves facing the same doom.
The Jewish Council imposed a compulsory tax on the population of the Ghetto. Everybody paid whatever was demanded for fear of being caught and taken away at the forthcoming search. The younger people began to feel very bitter with the Council on this account. if they had any sense, we said, they would use this money to buy arms for self-defence at the time of the Actions. We knew perfectly well that we could not defeat the Nazis. But we wanted to kill as many of them as we could before we were killed ourselves. But the Council carried out the orders of the Nazis like abject slaves. The chairman of the Council thought that all the ghettos would be liquidated but that of Stryj would remain.
New faces began to be seen in the ghetto. They were the remains, the vestiges of communities near and far. All alone, without any kith or kin, the poor people wandered about as though they were moonstruck after their own ghettos had been liquidated. Near me, for example, lived Gerngross, the owner of the largest Department Store in Vienna, with his Aryan wife who refused to abandon her husband in his distress. During one of the Actions the poor folk entreated to the Gestapo, "We are Viennese." But their blood mingled with that of our brethren.
One young fellow escaped when the camp in the Janowska Street in Lwów was liquidated. He told me that on the "Piaski" a suburb of Lwów 70,000 Jews have been murdered in a single week. My martyred younger brother Joseph succeeded in escaping to Stryj form Stanislawow. There he had stood in a long row of thousands of Jews at the cemetery, surrounded by S.S. troops and Gestapo men. The pit was very deep and wide. Those who reached the pit had to strip quickly, put their clothes in order on one side and their shoes on the other, separately. The victims walked over a board and young S.S. men about 18 years old shot them with automatic rifles. The victims fell straight into the Pit. Those who were not killed by the bullets were soon choked to death under the press of bodies. The crush was dreadful. Every one wished to be done with his life as soon as possible. The long file moved closer and closer to the board. The people around my brother, and he himself, began to unbutton their clothes and unlace their shoes, to be ready for their turn. To their astonishment the shooting, suddenly ceased. The action was to have been 'finished at five o'clock, and precisely at five it stopped. "Go away, dirty Jews!" shouted the murderers. "See you at the next Action!" Here is a fact which once for all dispels every doubt as to German punctuality and love of order.
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