As told by Symcha Lazar
Translated from Yiddish by Zygmunt Elton
[Melbourne Australia, 2000]
The following pages will inform the reader about the great catastrophe that had befallen the Jewish people in the years 1939-1945.
The author, Symcha Lazar, was born in Suchowola and lived there as many other Jews did in other towns and villages of Poland at the outbreak of World War II. He survived the Holocaust and later recorded his experiences; all he had lived through, had heard, and had seen.
Reading Symcha Lazar's descriptions we realize the enormity of that disaster. This intelligent young man represents the hundreds of thousands young people perished during the Holocaust. Beyond the material losses a whole national culture has been wiped out. That loss is inestimable.
We, the small community of Suchovolans in Mexico have collected the written pages in the form of a letter to a friend, Mulye Drichanski, and prepared it for printing to preserve the memory of Suchowola for future generation as a small contribution to the history of the martyrdom of the Jewish people, a small monument on the mass grave of our dearest and most beloved Suchowola.
Our shtetl was situated on the road from Bialystok to Grodno. Around Suchowola were the shtetls of: Sokolki, Knishin, Yashinevka, Karitschin, Dombrova, Janova, Goniodz, Osovyetz, Novydvor and other small settlements.
Suchowola actually consist of two words; Sucho-Dry, Volye a stretch of land. The shtetl was surrounded by the Janova forest, leading to Janova.
The population of Suchowola consisted of 3000 souls of which 2000 were Jews.
The Jews were mostly engaged in commerce and trade. Many were self employed shoemakers, carpenters, tailors and saddlers. The Jewish artisans used to travel during the week to small villages to offer their services to the peasants and return home for the Shabbat. The Jewish traders would supply grain and cereals as well as fruit and vegetables to Bialystok and Grodno by railway or through Jewish carters.
From Grodno one would arrive through the Arouper Woods, and then one would follow through School St. to the town market. From Bialystok the road led through the Long Village and the forest.
The market was situated in the centre of the shtetl. There was also the Catholic Church surrounded by trees, the police station and the fire brigade. Around the market place were Jewish owned small stores and shops. The main street was divided into two parts: aroup (lower) and aroyf (upper). School St. was in the lower part of the street.
On School St. stood the very old (some hundreds of years old) Synagogue a large timber building in the style of many other synagogues in the surrounding townships. Suchowola was proud of its architecture and its antiquity.
Also in School St. were the old and new yeshivas (houses of study) as well as the brick one, two rooms for the Psalm and Torah Societies (Chevras), the library containing books in many languages but mostly Yiddish and Hebrew works.
The older generation frequented the synagogues and the houses of study where discussions and everyday quarrels and reconciliations took place; the Jews were attached to their shtetl and were concerned with the well-being of the community. Homes and businesses were transferred from one generation to the next, trade was handed down from fathers to sons and families would save on their food in order to give the youngsters an opportunity to study the Torah or attend secular schools.
The young people of Suchowola would meet in the library. In short our Suchowola was a dear little shtetl. So there is no wonder that now and again while remembering the old home and shtetl where one was born, brought up, and learnt about the wide world that one experiences a deep heartfelt pain and distress. We, hundreds upon hundreds of Suchovolans all over the world would like to use the writing of Symcha Lazar to erect a monument to our shtetl which earned a place in the great pantheon of Jewish settlements in East Europe.
We will not take up too much space with Suchowola before the Shoah. Rather we
would like to devote this publication to the eye-witness description of the
destruction of our home town. We include in this publication a number of
photographs collected from Suchovolans as a memento of the former Suchowola.
The history of Suchowola will have to be written once again.
by Symcha Lazar
|The Author Symcha Lazar|
In my letters I will attempt to shed more light on the life of a shtetl before
the introduction of the ghetto, the life in the ghetto, the life in the
Kielbasin concentration camp near Grodno; the complete liquidation
of the ghetto as well as the roads that led to Auschwitz, and from there
to the crematoria.
In the first days of the German occupation the army behaved quite civilly. The soldiers visited Jewish shops, buying all kind of goods; chocolate, soap, shoe polish and sweets paying for the lot in paper vouchers.
The soldiers were astonished that there were so many Jews! Everywhere only Jews! That's how the townships in Poland really were. It appeared all were Jews and every thing belonged to the Jews.
The orderly atmosphere did not last for long. Within a few days a military district command arrived in Suchowola who immediately started to conscript a small number of Jews for work. Then the Gestapo and the S.S. troops arrived. They usually appeared in the wake of the military and soon started their murderous activities.
In Suchowola they appeared at the end of June 1941. The Gestapo has enlisted a number of young Poles who, they were sure, would actively help to organise pogroms and the murder of Jews. The Germans supplied these Poles with sticks and iron bars an entrusted them with the task of herding together the entire Jewish population in the Market Square, opposite the Catholic Church. When all the Jews were assembled the murderous work started in the following manner: the Poles pushed themselves through the crowded Jews selecting particular individuals for beating up. They did that until the victims dropped dead. The wounded in the head with broken limbs and hands would wander in the streets as after a terrible battle, exhausted, falling there and then, until their last breath has left their bodies. That was how the body of the merchant Yacov Pitluk was found in front of the house of Ahron Hirsch Titkin. The bodies of Shachne Marin, Seidel Furye, Ezrah Strinkovsky, Shachne Kusay, Leizer Borovik, Berl Leizer Levin, Israel Grodzensky, two Jews from Dombrova, one Jew from Janova and someone by the name of Marinberg, were found in another place. The Poles attacked and burgled Jewish homes and properties. Having satiated their greed, they herded together around one hundred Jews in the Jewish school building and murderously had beaten them up. Without exception all of them were profusely bleeding. Our most respected rabbi Zvi Kalir was one of those victims. They were kept there the whole day without food or drinks under unbearable conditions, causing the prisoners to prefer death to the inhuman suffering they endured. Towards the evening, the murderers ordered some of the prisoners to remove the dead and the rest were let free.
The dead were collected in one place, close to the House of Simcha Levin near the Jewish cemetery (except one, Israel Grodzensky who was buried in the centre of the Market Square). There the Germans ordered to dig a large grave where all the dead were buried fully clothed. The victims were thrown into the grave one upon another as if they were piles of rocks. Having filled the grave to the hilt, the Germans ordered the grave to be covered with earth. The body of Israel Grodzensky was buried in the centre of Market Square by the order of the Germans and a wooden plaque was attached with the following inscription A Jew was shot and buried here for resisting German authority.
The murderers then dragged out of the brick study house about 120 people and had them cruelly beaten. They ordered the owner of the water mill, close to the township, the Polish miller Stelmak, to close the water-dams so as to raise the level of the river. When the victims were well beaten and bleeding, they were chased down the St. towards the river, while the Polish and German murderers repeatedly delivered more blows to their already weakened bodies. While all this was happening, Germans standing on the bridge, across the river, were photographing the scenery of the pogrom. Armed Germans watching the spectacle were ready to shoot any one who would try to resist. The Jews were then chased across the river to the other side toward the Jewish cemetery. The martyred Jews thought they were being chased into the woods to be shot. But that was not to happen. The murderers were preparing something far crueler. They would not let the Jews off with a relatively easy death, like being shot. The Jews were herded into the house of Leybl Franzkovsky that was at the edge of the woods not far from the Jewish cemetery. There they locked all doors and boarded all windows. They spread then dry timber around the house and doused it with petrol and set it on fire.
The Polish hooligans surrounded the burning house armed with iron hatchets and axes watching that no one should escape. The entire house was wrapped in flames while the cries of terror and the screams of the burning Jews echoed in the nearby woods.
Some of the Jews imprisoned in the burning house attempted to escape the inferno. They used some remaining furniture to break the windows and the boards and engulfed in flames jumped out of the burning house and ran wherever they could. They were met there by the Polish hooligans who tried to finish their job.
Many escapees had to recover from their painful wound for many weeks. Some of the imprisoned were completely incinerated. Among them were the 75 years old Yakov Cybuli and the 60 years old Cymbal nicknamed good shabbes. Among those who were again beaten up was the already mentioned Rabbi Zvi Kalir who was forced to kneel beside the Church with a bucket on his head, to the everlasting ignominy of the Polish murderers.
The bandits forced the Jews to collect all Torah scrolls from the synagogue and the houses of learning, all the Hebrew and Yiddish books in which the history of Jewish life was recorded, and throw all of it into a big heap in front of the old Suchowola synagogue, opposite the houses of Yosl Lishes and Yitzhak Zazdry. The bandits set it all on fire, ordering the Jews to stir the fire so it would thoroughly consume all the writings. The air was filled with smoke and flames carried the thoughts and ideas of the writings right up to heavens. And God, our only God, was silently watching the destruction of the Jews and all that was Jewish. The old synagogue was standing there, as if embarrassed for the violence caused her, emptied of all the scrolls and books; the Torah Ark shattered, the beautiful wood carvings completely destroyed, the brass menorah broken up, rolling all over the floor.
Having concluded the sacred work for Hitler and the fatherland, the Gestapo left Suchowola most probably to pay similar visits to other Jewish shtetls. The place returned to the authority of the district commandant whose task was to get the Jews into groups for their daily work for the Germans. The grave of Israel Grodzensky with its inscription A Jew shot for the resistance to the German Authority caused a lot of trouble for the shtetl. Passing military and civil visitors would stop to read the inscription and be provoked by it.
The military commander conscripted between 250 and 300 Jews every day to the work of cleaning the streets, chopping wood, carrying water and so on. The work was supervised by Poles who would not miss any opportunity to beat the Jews. In the court yard of the Polish school there were twelve Jewish boys about 14-16 years old, employed by the Germans who tormented them constantly. One day the 14 year old son of Melech Shklar, Yitzhak, was viciously beaten up. Not being able to endure the pain inflicted upon him, he took advantage of the supervisor being engaged inside the building, and escaped from the yard. As soon as the Germans found out about the escape they threatened to kill the remaining boys unless Yitzhak returned immediately. The parents of the other boys went to see Yitzhak's mother demanding her boy returned to work and saves the lives of the remaining eleven boys. She found herself in a terrible dilemma. She tried to pacify the mothers who were threatened with the loss of their children. But they were unforgiving; they wanted to save their own children. In the end Mrs. Shklar had to find her son and, with heart rending cries, surrender him to the Germans who shot him in cold blood. So died a young heroic and innocent boy on the 19th of July 1941.
The boy's mother could not stop crying and mourned her beloved son for months. She had sacrificed her son because she could not have on her conscience the possible death of the other eleven boys. She returned home completely shattered, broken hearted. He was buried in the Polish schoolyard.
Sometime later a Polish Police Force was established consisting of all the
hooligans who had organised the first pogrom, which was headed by the most
vicious of them all, Scheinke. Other collaborators were, the brothers Borowski,
Mitche Rydzewski, Franciszkiewicz, Kulakowski, Tolkowski, Schkudler,
Kasprowicz, Waszkiewicz, Henryk, Zenyuk, Brezowski and many others. This
company of police organised all kind of entertainment in particular they
derived great joy from beating innocent Jews. On the 23rd of July 1941, they
herded together about 80 children and forced them to march in a mock funeral of
the Soviets leader Joseph Stalin carrying the portrait of Stalin and singing
various songs, whilst the escorting police beat them mercilessly. None was
saved; viciously striking the boys and girls, they were led through the streets
down to the river. Here they ordered the dam to be locked to raise the level of
the river. The plan was to drown the children in the river and to be witnessed
and photographed by the Germans.
At the time there was already in existence a Jewish Representative Body whose responsibility was to watch that all orders issued by the authorities were promptly and thoroughly executed. At the time when the 80 children were threatened to be drowned in the river, the members of the council went out to collect all kind of produce like butter, eggs, and so on, and brought it to the Germans. They succeeded to have an order issued to stop the hooligans in completing their miserable plot. This brought great joy to the people. The children returned home, albeit beaten up and bleeding, but alive.
Stalin's funeral marked the end of the second bloody Shabbat. More trouble followed. The Germans continued to conscript Jews for work in maintaining the city streets clean as well as for deliveries of water and timber for the use of the authorities. The temporary Jewish Representative Body established contact with the commandant and by bribing him with all kind of goods, extracted from him a permission to bury the dead Jews and to remove the troublesome inscription that caused so much pain and worries. We were allowed to exhume the bodies of Israel Grodzenski and Itzchak Shklar as well as the bodies, or whatever was left of the burned alive Jews, and bury them in the Jewish cemetery.
In the evening of Sunday the 27th of July a group of Jews met in the house of Gedaliah Shwartz in Janover St. to carry out that sacred task. Among them were Moshe Futiel, Glikson, Shmuel Levin, Leizer Marinberg, Shmuel Daban, Chaim-Shnuel Symchowicz, Naftali Pieszczanski, Wolf Wajner, Alter Gritz, Laybl Charlop and myself.
We prepared a cart, a number of picks and shovels, but there was no horse to pull the cart, and went to the Market Square. The streets were deserted as it was forbidden to be outside after 7 p.m. People were behind locked doors and there was an eerie stillness in the air. As we approached our destination, we were stopped by a burly German soldier. Glikson and I approached the German and told him about our task. He knew all about it and allowed us to get on with our work.
As we exhumed the bodies of the relatives of our group, there was crying and weeping and we were in danger of our lives, as the German threatened to shoot if the noise had attracted someone's attention. The relatives of the dead could not release the pent-up feelings. They bit their tongues and swallowed their tears.
The warm summer breeze rustled the tall trees around the Church as if sharing the pain of the mourners. We quickly retrieved the dead, wrapped them in sheets and laid them on the cart. We covered the empty hole and smoothed out the surface of the square. The cortege then moved towards the cemetery. The men pushed and pulled all the way, stopping in front of the old synagogue to honour the dead as well as the hundreds years old synagogue. The shadows of the dark night followed us all the way to the river, only the rattling of the cartwheels disturbed the otherwise still night. The rustle of the water in the river reminded us of the tragedy that took place here only a few days earlier. We saw the drowning youths and heard their desperate cries for help, while the Polish murderers with iron bars in their hands were killing our brothers and sisters.
Having crossed the bridge and left the township, the cortege was getting closer to the cemetery. It seemed as if the tall trees were asking us about the commotion in the stillness of the night: What is going on? Whose funeral is it in the middle of the night? Why do people push that cart? A spasmodic weeping of the mourners was the answer.
We were trying hard to stem the outpour of grief. We are afraid to alert somebody. We were getting closer to the house of Leybl Franckowski. Here engulfed in flames, our dearly beloved children, brothers and sisters fought for their lives. Here the burnt-out shell of the house and its naked chimney stood out as a monument to their extinguished lives. We were reminded of the horrible scenes: the burning people jumping from the windows, as if in a mortal dance, reflected in the shadows of the flames. Who would imagine these terrible scenes? Who would believe that so much Jewish blood was shed? How long would the Almighty watch our pain and keep silent?
The road became darker as if being covered with black carpets. On one side the forest, on the other the cemetery. We approach the gate and open it silently. We are on a narrow path. On both sides between the trees and high grass the old gravestones looking at us as if asking with amazement? What are all these Jews doing here in the middle of the night while all the dead are lying silently in their graves? What has happened? We cannot answer their queries. Our common language is silence.
We are pushing the cart forwards when suddenly we hear the sound of an approaching car on the road from Grodno. The car's light beams cut through the cemetery's trees. We lower our bodies so the car would not notice us. The car speeds through and we start to dig the grave for our brothers and sisters. The spades are handed over from one digger to another as all of us want to contribute in the burial of the first victims from our shtetl. We finished digging and take the dead slowly down into the grave to their eternal rest The families and relatives find it difficult to part from the dead; they cry and weep until the last spadeful of earth covers the grave.
Next morning we exhume the bodies resting under the house of Simcha Lewin. We advised the relatives that they can attend the burial on the condition of complete silence. Being close to the highway where many military vehicles travel could cause a lot of trouble, if detected.
Having concluded that operation, we went to the house of Leybl Franckowski to gather the remnants of the fire victims and brought them also to eternal rest together with the partly burnt scrolls and holy books. It is hard to describe the heart rending scenes of those who attended.
The next day the local authorities collected people for work. Every day there
were more beaten Jews. In February 1942 the following Jews were herded together
at the police station and given 25 lashes each: Israel Marinberg, Alter Maly
(the shochet), Shlome Rabinowicz, Yakov Ezri Francuz. The following Polish
policemen participated in the lashing: Klimowicz, Brzezowski Junior, Szainke, a
Polkover hooligan, Benasz and Kiszlyuks from the Long village.
One day the local authorities declared a ban on free movement of Jews. A ghetto was to be established. Immediately they started to realize the plans. It was stated that without a ghetto our lives would be endangered. Suddenly they are concerned with our well-being
The authorities allotted Janover St. for the ghetto. All Jewish residents had to resettle within the confines of the street. We worked it out that this was quite impossible because there was not enough water in the street. Whoever remembers the well opposite the house of Shainke Gopersztajn knows that this was the one and only source of water; thirst would have driven us to destruction. After petitioning the commandant we were promised the ghetto to be extended to include the area between the house of Moshe Futials and the house of Bezalel Szwarc. We were greatly relieved.
The authorities engaged Jewish workers to dig holes for the barbed wire fence which would define the boundaries of the ghetto.
The Germans declared that we are fortunate to have a ghetto. No Poles would be allowed in, and even Germans will need special permission to visit us. Without a ghetto we are defenceless; we could be attacked, robbed and be beaten anytime. This way we are safe
Once the fences were erected the Germans ordered the whole Jewish population to take everything they possible can, and move into the ghetto. There will be no return to fetch more things as the left property will be confiscated. The Jews started to pack their miserable belongings which they had to carry themselves into the ghetto as there was no transport to assist them. The procession of Jews carrying their wretched belongings on their backs, or the more fortunate ones, pushing old prams laden with goods, was a picture of hopelessness and despair.
Broken and defenseless they trudged along the road to the ghetto; some carrying tables, some chairs, some with bundles on their backs. The rest of their belongings were left unattended in their old homes. The Polish police were all the time active beating up the poor people with sticks and iron bars while wrestling away property that appeared to have some value.
Once all the Jewish population was behind the barbed wires, the problem was how to accommodate them all in that confined space; 4-5 families had to be squeezed into one house. There was hardly enough space to rest ones head. The other facilities were grossly inadequate. How does one prepare a meal in one kitchen for four or five families at a time?
Very often the Judenrat had to intervene to rearrange the families in the houses; the wealthier with their equals and the poor with the poor. It all created bad feelings among the people. However, after a while it all settled down and people suffered together in a more friendly way. Some furniture was removed to make more living space. In the end each person was allocated about one and a half meter square.
One trouble settled, another one appeared. One Sunday morning, the township awoke to the loud blaring of the fire fighters sirens. The population got out of bed; there was a fire in Kasprowicz St., in the town. It turned out that the Poles in Kasprowicz St. had set fire to Moshe Farbsztajn's house and blamed it on the Jews. According to the rumours the Poles spread, the Jews were taking revenge for being locked up in the ghetto, in resentment of the Germans' take over of their old homes. This dreadful libel caused a fearful panic among the Jews we thought we would all be murdered.
At the time the Pole Milkowski, a tailor by trade, and a well known anti-Semite was Mayor of Suchowola. The Polish police immediately arrested the owner of the house and murderously beat him up. They also arrested his sister Mirka, who was beaten by the police commandant, a hooligan from Wolkowo village. He was well assisted by policemen Szluk, Klimowicz and others. The air was full of pogrom rumours.
The police forced the Jews to help the firefighters, at the same time did not miss any opportunity to beat them some more.
The Jewish committee decided to seek intervention by the Mayor Mikelski. As it happened the Mayor was a friend of mine. I went to see him and attempted to convince him that the accusation was groundless. I also added that no one in his right mind would destroy his own property; the war sooner or later will finish and people would want to reclaim their properties.
My arguments accompanied by a $ 25 bill convinced the mayor. The whole incident was soon dismissed by the commandant assisted by the Polish prosecutor, Motaiskail (having received a $ 25 bribe), and Farbsztajn was released from custody. The whole community uttered a sigh of relief.
The military command left Suchowola and was replaced by a permanent authority. First the gendarmerie appeared followed by the civilian administrators for the city and district. The chief of the gendarmerie by the name of Meister Weiss pretended on his first visit to be quite a gentleman. Soon he demanded a number of favours threatening harsh treatment. Naturally he received what he wanted. Soon after his arrival, the administration head, Hans Urban, selected a number of Poles to work in his administration. Then he ordered the Jewish population to elect without delay, a representative body (Judenrat), consisting of 12 people. The following were the members of the Judenrat:
Leizer Simcha, Yeshayahu Glikson, Naftali Pieszczanski, Leizer Marinberg, Wolf Weiner, Tanchum Berl Suraski, Meyer Kramer, Moshe Futial, Alter Polak, David Jerusalimski, Israel Marinberg and Mendel Treszczanski. He further ordered the Chairman and his deputy to meet him the next day at 2 pm.
My deputy, Yeshayahu Glikson, and myself as chairman arrived at the appointed hour at the office of Mr. Urban. The reception had a terrible effect on us. During the meeting Mr. Urban removed his gun from the pocket and placed it on the table. He then presented us with a list of goods that must be delivered within the next two hours: furniture, linen, cutlery, bedding and anything else that would help to set up living quarters for Mr. Urban. Having finished reading the list, he picked up his gun, put it back into his pocket and screamed at us to get out. We did not utter a word and hurriedly left. The scene weighed heavily upon us. We realized he was not human more of a beast.
The other members of the Judenrat waited impatiently in the courtyard of Gedaliye Szwarc. We informed them what was demanded of us. The assembled people were dumbfounded and worried as the time given us to deliver the goods was very short. However we started straight away to collect the necessary items. Each one of us had a task to find whatever he could. Things started to accumulate and within two hours we managed to get everything that was demanded.
The gendarmerie, the post office clerks, the landowners and the lieutenant put their demands in later. Everything has to be done to the satisfaction of the extortionists as our lives depended on their goodwill. The penalty of death hung over the heads of many Jews who did not execute the orders properly.
The commandant soon installed a new order. He used to inspect the houses we lived in the ghetto, and if not satisfied he ordered them to be destroyed.
Everyday about 300 Jews were called to work at set jobs. They were assembled in the morning and led to work under the supervision of Poles, headed by the anti-Semite Jozef Karny. Among the supervisors armed with sticks and bars were well known bandits; Ostrowski, Walachowicz and others. At the finish of the day's work the Jews were assembled again and counted, to prevent escapes. After the roll-call they were escorted back into the ghetto. There at the gate everybody man or female were searched for food or anything else by the Polish police.
Many Jewish homes were destroyed. The Old Synagogue with the surrounding yeshivas (houses of study) were leveled to the ground. The brick synagogue was transformed into a grain store; the entry was smashed and the steps to the female part of the synagogue were removed.
The attention of the authorities then turned to the ghetto. The fences of the temporary ghetto were removed and a new ghetto was established in Church St., the worst quarter in the city; unmade roads, tiny, badly built old houses, the streets covered with sand and mud. Only a few houses at the beginning of the St. were habitable, the rest were ruins.
We tried to negotiate with the commissar to obtain a few more houses at any price. We befriended the commandant of the German engineering troops, Hauptman Foelk, who at the time were restoring burnt down factories. With his assistance, we tried to influence the authorities to enlarge the size of the ghetto. Hauptman Foelk was an accessible man, who secretly conceded that not all the Wehrmacht supported Hitler. We succeeded to extend the borders of the ghetto to include half of School St. from Mordechai Moshe's brick house to Meyer Kramer's and Saidke Chashinski' homes. Naturally everybody was well rewarded including the Hauptman, the town commandant and the chief of the gendarmerie.
The town commandant kept his promises. Although a great drunkard, he managed to stay sober. He confidentially told us that more Jews from the outlaying districts would join us in the ghetto. The people of Dombrowa which was burnt down and have no ghetto of their own as well the people of Novydvor in the vicinity of Grodno; this was on the order of the Landrat (district administrator) of Sokolka. He also disclosed to us that all the planned works would have to be concluded within two weeks, by the 15th of March 1942. A two meter high fence topped with barbed wire will be built so that none will be able to climb over. There will be two gates; one in School St. which will be permanently closed, and the other in Church St. The Polish police will guard the entries. Watch towers will be built on the corners above the fence to ensure there would be no traffic in goods or food with the outside world. It was a devilish plan to starve the inmates to death. These words remained deeply carved in my mind.
At the end of February we started building the ghetto, although the ground was
still frozen and hard as rock. The work proceeded under the worst winter
conditions; using picks and axes to break the frozen earth, they dug holes to
erect the fences. While working many Jews were murderously beaten. The
gendarmerie and their leader, Meister Weiss, supervised the works. By the 15th
of March 1942 the fences were erected with barbed wire on top, and a two meter
sign reading; ATTENTION! RESTRICTED AREA, ENTRANCE STRICTLY
The time arrived to move into the ghetto. The Germans allowed one day for the transfer. Meanwhile, the Germans confiscated Jewish property, cattle, and horses, Jews should not drink milk nor should they drive carts. The Jews had to push the carts themselves to transfer some of their belongings to the ghetto. The confiscated property was shared by the Polish population.
The winter was still in full swing. The cold was immense and the sadness in broken Jewish hearts was even greater. Many Jews concealed some of the goods with friendly farmers or buried in the gardens, hoping to recover them after the war was over.
More problems emerged with the arrival into the ghetto. Apart from the lack of
living space there were hardly any means to survive. How will we manage?
Business people were left without businesses, trades people and artisans lost
their workshops, forgeries and ironworks were left outside the ghetto. The
tailors could not bring their sewing machines into the ghetto. Jewish life was
literally broken up; materially and spiritually. The surrounding farmers could
not enter the ghetto. Life in the ghetto became more critical from day to day.
This was how the Landrat of Sokolka imagined Jewish life to be. The Landrat
personally attended the transfer into the ghetto. He also led the gendarmerie
and the Polish hooligans in bestial attacks on the ghetto inmates, while taking
photographs of the proceedings the entire time
How to exist? was the next problem to solve. How to survive in the ghetto? We were looking for solutions with great effort. The first thing to do was to abolish the taxes usually paid to the community by the inhabitants. The committee attempted to cover the substantial outgoings with the income from various enterprises run by the committee, as we will see later. With great effort a bakery was established to supply bread to the whole population in the ghetto. A primitive factory was set up to produce pottery. The raw materials we found in the ghetto.
We managed to set up a dentist's clinic in the ghetto. We also obtained a permit to do the same outside the ghetto for the gentile population.
We were allowed to establish workshops for different trades. Tools and materials were collected for a forgery where all the smiths worked together. Similarly we set up co-operatives for tailors, hatters, carpenters and other trades. Soon we discovered that we produced more than people needed in the ghetto. We had to look for customers outside the ghetto. It took a while to obtain permission to sell our goods to the general public. We were allowed to go outside the ghetto into the surrounding villages and solicit orders for our products. On set days three times a week our tradespeople would go out, meet the villagers and secure orders to be delivered at a later date. The prices for the goods were set by the German authority. We could now breathe easier; life in the ghetto began to settle down. Trading facilitated contact with the world outside and became a source of income for the community. Out of that income wages were paid to the traders once a week, on Sunday. A percentage was retained to cover expenses.
The carpenters used to go into the villages to work for the farmers in return were allowed to bring into the ghetto some potatoes. The drawback was that they could not stay overnight in the village. Walking and returning from the village every day was very tiring. The police checked daily their work permits.
Suddenly new troubles developed. This was perhaps one of the most dangerous problems we had to confront. As a result of the cramped living space, the closeness of people in the ghetto and poor hygienic conditions, typhoid began to spread among the ghetto inhabitants. We were caught between the hammer and the anvil. On one hand we were afraid to inform the authorities about our misfortune and on other we were threatened with the death penalty for concealing an epidemic disease. We were afraid that the authorities would close the ghetto which would have meant committing suicide, death by starvation. We decided to do nothing, whatever the result.
Fighting the epidemic was very difficult; many young people perished. We had only one medical practitioner, a Dr. Lew from Bialystok, the son in law of the textile manufacturer Fishl Kuplinski. Once he was approached by the authorities ordering him to do away with ten mentally impaired people in the ghetto under the threat of death. He declined. The Judenrat had to interfere and a substantial sum of money was found to bribe the people involved thereby saving the life of the condemned as well as the life of Dr. Lew.
With great efforts we managed to obtain the services of two other doctors; Dr. Chacki from Bialystok and Dr. Epstein from Grodno. We set up a clinic with the appropriate personnel and also a pharmacy managed by Miss Shapiro from Nowydwor. Manufacturing our own medication prevented the Polish pharmacists outside the ghetto from knowing the extent of the typhoid inside the ghetto.
Straining all our resources we managed to arrest the spread of the epidemic and finally eradicate it. We set up a public bath in the store of Hershl Sokolski and introduced obligatory bathing for the inmates of the ghetto.
Having hardly overcome the epidemic, new trouble descended upon us. On a bright day a group of people arrived in the ghetto. They were the Jews of Dombrowa, the town that disappeared in flames shortly before. We had to find quarters for the unfortunates and feed them at once. It is hard to describe the scene of these unlucky refugees. They were hungry, naked and dirty. Some of them were sick and exhausted. Once upon a time they were citizens of Dombrowa.
Their arrival posed a lot of new problems. We faced these problems as we did before in our hours of need. We did everything possible to relieve their pain and their needs. We found accommodation, clothing and bedding. Everyone contributed whatever he could: a major part obtained help from the Judenrat. A public kitchen was set up which distributed food to 500 souls. The financial worries grew from day to day. We had to find new sources of income to meet the enormous expenses. We had no assistance from anywhere. The larger ghettos could not help and support from abroad was not forthcoming. We had to find help within the confines of the ghetto. We conceived the idea of setting up an oil factory. With the help of the town commandant we succeeded, although not without personal gains accruing to him. At an accessible price we managed to ration one hundred gram of oil per person, per week. This meagre portion of fat literally saved a lot of people from sure death. We stopped preparing food with nothing. The commandant allowed us also to buy from the state dairy the skim milk which would usually be fed to pigs. We brought the milk in barrels to the ghetto and sold it at 9 pfennig per litre. The commandant got a two pfennig cut for each litre sold. We had no choice; any opportunity had to be exploited in order to stay alive. On warm days the milk would curdle, so we would use it to make low fat cheese. We also opened milk shops under the supervision of an experienced man, Alter Juskie's son. It was his task to deliver the barrels with milk into the ghetto. At the entry to the ghetto the Polish guards checked the barrels with long sticks for smuggled goods; butter or meat, concealed on the bottom of the barrels.
The leader of the guards was a young upstart who continuously used to torment us. Every day he searched the Jewish workers who returned from their work outside the ghetto regardless whether male or female for food which people tried to smuggle into the ghetto for their starving children. Woe to those who were caught. Many were punished, for concealing a small piece of bread, with 25 lashes.
The young murderous thug was a scourge for all of us and to remove him from the position of the head of the Polish police required a lot of cunning and bribes for the town commandant. Szkudler, the shoemakers son was appointed as new leader, who was not much better. He stayed in this position for a little while and then was recalled to make way for a certain Borowski, a vocal anti-Semite, a former member of the Polish Anti-Semitic party NARA. We struggled against them as against wolves. Their actions caused a lot of pain for the Jews in the ghetto.
The Sokolka Landrat sent one day a specially trained Ghetto Commissar to manage the affairs of the ghetto as well as the Polish police. This was a German from Piyanitse who was not very clever. He set up his living quarter on the second storey of the building which housed the local school in order to have a constant clear view of the ghetto. He furnished his apartment with stolen Jewish goods, bedding and utensils. From this commanding view he exercised his power. Often, being drunk he would visit the ghetto to check for cleanliness or just to harass the people while at the same time he would beat them up.
The Commissar personally checked the people leaving for work and their return to the ghetto. These were dark and bitter days of suffering. Again we looked for means to alleviate the situation through bribes. We befriended him and his wife and sent them gifts. Life became somehow easier; again we could smuggle food into the ghetto. We sighed with relief. We were getting used to our fate, to the acts of murder committed against us.
Suddenly we learned about a new order. The German road building companies demanded from the Landrats to supply people to build the planned roads. There was no point for the Jews to idle in the ghettos. They should be tormented by any means in particular by starvation and hard labor. The 200 grams of bread they received should be earned by blood and sweat. We were ordered to supply 100 workers to build the road from Janova to Sokolka. The Judenrat had a painful task to fulfill. We declared that we were unable to supply the demanded number and the authorities will have to select themselves form the ghetto inmates. We could not bear the responsibility with regards to the parents of the selected. How could we judge who was fit for the work? Which mother could agree to let their children being sent to slave labor under the supervision of Polish hooligans who were worse than the Germans?
We did not fulfill that order. Soon after the rejection, a platoon of gendarmerie headed by the Commissar arrived in the ghetto. The ghetto was emptied of all his inhabitants and assembled in the large square opposite the school. Tens of Jews were murderously beaten. Until they selected the 100 men and women, blood was flowing everywhere. We learned a painful lesson for rejecting the authority's orders. Among the selected there were sometimes two siblings from one family and even parents and children. People protested to the Judenrat and demanded the Judenrat to make the selection. This way the selection would be more equitable and we save ourselves unnecessary blood letting. A register of people would be established from which the Judenrat could call when demands were made by the authorities. At the same time a relief committee was set up, whose task was to provide food and cloth for the needy workers.
We hardly got over that confrontation with the authorities, when we were hit again with a new demand for a hundred more workers for another sector of the same road.
It is hard to describe the heart rending scenes of mothers saying good-byes to their departing children selected for the road works. The thought of handing over their children to the Polish murderers rendered them desperate. The Judenrat was besieged by parents asking for mercy and free their children from their unbearable fate. Regretfully we had to deliver the hundred workers on time.
There was another order for an additional hundred workers for the notorious penal-camp of the road building firm, Kirchhof. This company was building roads around Bialystok using convicted criminals which also included Germans. The work was hard and dirty and was supervised by German troops armed with heavy weapons. We did everything possible to ease the fate of the condemned; we sent them food, clothing and some money. We managed to exchange some of the exhausted workers, after one month of hard work, for others. This was not an easy task. We had to save a lot of money to pay off the guards for their connivance.
The Schwepper und Buchla Company also demanded a hundred men for work in the forests. Gradually we were deprived of the best and dearest we possessed; they were tortured, starved and beaten. The only thing we could do was to send food and clothing and bribe the overseers to have mercy upon the condemned, and not beat them.
Often we managed to free some of the workers, but we could not free them all.
Suddenly we received information that the inhabitants of the neighbouring town, Novydvor, would be sent to us the following week. We immediately sent a foot messenger in secret, to warn the people in Novydvor about the forthcoming edict and to prepare for the worst. The Jews of Novydvor were not sure whether the news our messenger delivered was true. Some had doubts but others started to pack things and get ready for the order to arrive.
The Novydvor Judenrat attempted to convince the town residents that Suchowola usually knew what was going on.
As we predicted, on the appointed day, the Jews of Novydvor were served with an order to prepare for departure to the Suchowola ghetto.
The panic in Novydvor was indescribable. Within two hours the Jews had to leave their homes. As a result of our forewarning some had time to prepare and pack things they could take with them. Others had to leave everything behind for the Germans and the Poles.
At their arrival to the Suchowola ghetto they were met by the murderous Landrat (district administrator) who had come down from Sokolka accompanied by police and some German women, who had came to see the 'theatre show'. When the Jews approached the gates of the ghetto, at a given sign the Germans started to beat the Jews, young and old, women and children. The Germans grabbed the bundles from the hands of the Jews and threw them all over the St.. More blood of innocent people was shed. The German women stood and watched and laughed, amused by the bloody event. They snapped photographs of the fateful scenes, of the barbaric treatment of innocent women and children. These were snapshots of their victory over defenseless people.
The arrival of the Novydvor Jews created a number of problems. There was not enough living space; there was only 0.8 metre of living space to one person. The food shortage was acute and other expenses had greatly increased. Nevertheless, we did not give up our struggle for existence. We introduced new methods of food supply. We obtained permission to buy larger quantities of potatoes, and other vegetables on the market. The Jews were permitted to do their shopping once a week, on a Thursday market day, between 2-4 p.m., after the gentile residents had already cleared the market.
Some weeks passed and the new arrivals became part of our community and shared our unenviable fate.
Every day our laborers left for the hard labor of demolishing Jewish houses, road-building and digging in the town streets. As the inhabitants of the ghetto increased in numbers so did mortality among the population. It was forbidden to remove the corpses from the ghetto. There was no choice but to set up a small cemetery in the garden of Zudke Tzirkes, the tailor, where we brought the dead to their eternal rest. The burial lots were very small and close to each other for lack of space.
The great Jewish cemetery with thousand of headstones under which our fathers and great fathers found their eternal sleep, the cemetery which housed the graves of our rabbis and scholars and simple devoted Jews, was completely devastated. The deliberate destruction of the town cemetery desecrated the memory of our leaders, the memory of Jews whose whole life was spent in the study and prayer-houses, the Jews who filled and overfilled these houses during the high holidays, those Jews who prayed and wept in their prayers for a better life for all their brethren. The Nazi murderers have left no trace of all those Jews. The graves were leveled, covered with soil and ploughed over. The headstones were broken up and used for paving. The Germans also removed the stone-fence so that no one would ever know of the existence of that great cemetery.
At that time the ghetto endured the visits of various Nazi commissions. The Nazi leaders used to come and observe the life in the ghetto, how we settled under these difficult conditions. Usually we were advised beforehand of the forthcoming visit of any VIP and we had to present an acceptable picture of the place. The Commissar would also threaten repercussions if thing were not to his satisfaction. The commission would usually visit the Judenrat hospital, the bakery, the smithy, the tailor's workshop, the dental clinic, the communal bath, the clay factory, the cemetery, the pharmacy, the dairy, the kitchen for the poor and all other ghetto set-ups. They also attentively observed the little gardens cultivated around the living quarters. After such a visit the commissar expressed his satisfaction with the results. The visitors were surprised with the achievements in the ghetto and wondered at the ability and creativity of the inmates. It seemed to them to be a model ghetto.
From time to time the commissar would visit the ghetto whilst drunk.
He would start with the Jewish police, beating up the young people without mercy. Then he would proceed on his bloody march gun in hand shooting at anything, indiscriminately. At those times the ghetto appeared deserted. No one dared to go out into the street. Those who were hit by stray bullets would be bleeding incessantly. The shooting frenzy increased particularly when he approached my house. I would then appear in the doorway. I was strangely lucky with him. He respected me. But I did not know why? Could be he valued my bravery. Many times I would be able to redirect his bullet spraying outbursts and divert the threat he posed to many Jews. He also held the Polish police in low regard. Leaving the ghetto about 2 a.m. he would slap the face of some policemen.
A terrible event, in which the life of a young man, Itzchak Polak, was destroyed, has shocked the ghetto. It happened during the delivery of firewood for the bakery. Itzchak Polak wanted to see whether the carts carrying the goods was arriving and went closer to the border of the ghetto. He stretched his head out beyond the fence. He was spotted by the Polish policeman, Zygmunt Zienyuk (the son of the postman Antoni), who fired his rifle without warning, hitting Polak in the heart, leaving four little children without a father. The outrage of the ghetto was augmented by the fact that the policeman was a Suchowola resident well known to everybody. The body of the victim was immediately taken away to the morgue at the Jewish hospital.
The Judenrat decided to conduct a funeral demonstration for the deceased. The start of the funeral was set for the next day. All ghetto enterprises were closed for the day. People assembled in the street, young and old. No one stayed behind. The deceased was carried all the way to the cemetery. The mourners wept spasmodically. There was not a dry eye around. Our respected rabbi Zvi Kalir delivered a eulogy at the open grave causing another outburst of rage and grief. He also bewailed the Jewish misery and defenselessness. His eulogy was followed by one by Moshe Futial in the name of the Judenrat. The cantor from Dombrowa sung a prayer for the dead and read the psalms of David. We advised the commissar about our arrangement to which he had no objection.
The German gendarmerie led by their commander, Hans Hurban, the ghetto commissar and all the German and Polish employees assembled outside the ghetto. They watched the grandiose funeral of the murdered Jew. After the ceremony the people left the cemetery and broken hearted returned to their skimpy abodes.
The next morning, the commissar expressed his feelings about the funeral being conducted with great honour and respect for the deceased that not everybody deserves. Would he, he added, die with honour and be accorded a similar funeral as the Jew, Itzchak Polak? The commissar's homage was a kind of consolation for us.
The murderous policeman was as usual at his post as if nothing happened. There
was no punishment for killing a Jew. On the contrary the more Jews were
killed the greater the respect for the policeman.
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