by Ephraim Farber
Translated by Moses Milstein
As soon as Hitler took Sudetenland, we knew war was coming to Poland. Hitler demanded a Polish corridor. Tensions increased daily. We knew that war with Hitler's Germany was inevitable. Poland responded in August 1939 with a partial mobilization.
In these turbulent times, I was doing my military service in the 27th artillery regiment stationed in Ludmir (Wlodzimierz). Every morning we would stroll out of our barracks to the large exercise ground, lustily singing:
Maruska, moja Maruska
Pojdziesz ze mna spac do lozka.
Or other songs in the same genre. These songs were supposed to strengthen the morale and fighting spirit of the Polish soldier.
Officers with braided mustaches curled upward, boots polished to a high sheen, spurs jingling, the vain Honor-these are true pictures of the Polish officer. By contrast, the soldiers were a grey mass, humbled and humiliated. The aim of the mocking words of the officers was to remove the human being from the solder and turn him into a robot blindly carrying out orders.
We were poorly equipped with ancient cannons from the Tsar's era, with artillery drawn by horses, certainly a left over from the Austro-Hungarian empire, and probably used against Napoleon. Horses were groomed three times a day, and cared for like precious jewels. On more than one occasion, an officer could be heard claiming that a horse has greater value than a soldier. We often saw the officers bringing lively girls to entertain at their canteen. The arrogance, the wantonness of the officers made a negative impression on the soldiers.
Anti-Semitic conduct toward Jewish soldiers, from the low to the high ranks, was reflected in the feelings of the Jewish soldier to the military. On maneuvers, Jewish soldiers were yelled at by the NCOs, Moishe Carabine, Vie azoi gehst du, vie azoi shtehst du? They cursed at every opportunity. Jews were the butt of the military lexicon. It was a language of vulgar expressions, especially conceived to break the soldier's spirit. Apart from that, we had to worry about the news coming out of Hitler's Germany.
Mobilized in Poland
At the beginning of August 1939, I was on night watch, when I suddenly noticed a commotion. A pre-mobilization was beginning. The mobilization stores for the reserves who had arrived at night were opened. All the windows in the headquarters building were lit up. When dawn approached and my shift ended, and no one came to bring me food, I left my post.
When I returned to my quarters, I couldn't recognize the place. Piles of straw stacked here and there with reservists sleeping on them. I was astonished: straw scattered everywhere? If, God forbid, an NCO found a smidgen of straw in the barracks, he would wake up the whole battery and parade us to a burying-of-the-straw ceremony singing like lehavdil at a funeral. And now, such a mess.
The regiment left for the train station. Artillery was dragged along with ropes on the platform surface. A large part of the population-Jews and Christians-came out to say good bye to the departing soldiers. Many representatives from welfare organizations came bedecking the soldiers with flowers, handing out cigarettes, chocolate and other sweets, in order to sweeten a bitter fate.
Patriotic speeches were made, accompanied by outbursts of Hit the Schwab! The orchestra played stirring marches. Slogans were painted on the sides of the cars, Wlodzimierz-Berlin, We will repeat Grunwald! The whistle blew, the hymn, Jeszke Polska and The Company were sung. Tears appeared in the eyes of the onlookers-mothers, sisters, brothers. They looked on mutely, maybe seeing their loved ones for the last time. The train slowly pulled away, and along the route, in the little train stations, masses of people gathered carrying slogans like Kill the Schwab. The fervor was boundless.
It began to rain that night, which cooled the ardor of some of the excited followers, and they went home to warm beds. We sat in open platforms. The cold and the wet dug into our bones. It didn't help to cover yourself with your greatcoat.
At first, the sky lightened a little and the clouds blew away. We were approaching Warsaw. At the Danzig train station-again flowers, and passionate shouts from the onlookers. They distributed coffee with Saccharin and we warmed ourselves a little after a night under wet blankets. Then the echelon moved on again going towards Pomerania. We debarked at a small train station past Torun.
We were driven to a forest. We put up tents, and arrayed the canons-Howitzers with wooden wheels, no doubt from Napoleon's time. Then the monotonous life of soldiering in the field began. Everyone was wondering what the morning would bring, thinking about home and friends.
The enemy is not far
The political situation got worse from day to day. In the villages where mostly Volksdeutsche lived, we could feel the hatred towards us. Their small acts of sabotage were carried out with the help of German agents swarming throughout Pomerania.
On a Thursday at the end of August, a mounted messenger arrived from division headquarters ordering us to immediately get ready to leave. Amidst the commotion, we quickly harnessed the horses and the battery moved out.
The road went through forest. The foot soldiers walked along the edges, like a flock of geese, wobbling under their heavy load. Rivers of sweat ran from their faces. Their back packs contained extra shoes, clothing, boot polish kits, and on top, a rolled up blanket, a small spade for trench digging, and a bowl. On their shoulders, a rifle and cartridge belt, a gas mask, and a tin cup. By contrast, all the German infantry's equipment was transported by truck.
We artillery soldiers also had to walk, because our horses sweated with exertion, like people, and had to stop to rest. Our advance continued without a halt, but we failed to appreciate the seriousness of our situation. In the middle of the night, the division commander rode up, and told us the enemy was near, and we should load our rifles. A coldness crept through me.
The people-in a state of panic.
We took our battle positions in an open space near the edge of the woods. It was one of those golden Polish autumn days. A road ran by near our position, and we could hear the cries of children. They were coming from the panicked population, fleeing from shtetlach and villages as the Germans approached. Wagons were full of all their worldly goods: old clocks, buckets, sooty pots, cupboards, chairs. Cows and dogs were tied to the wagons. There were flocks of fowl, herds of pigs. Theses were the first pictures of war we saw.
The bleating of animals, the barking, the lamentations from the women and the cries of the children all mixed together in one heart rending cry for the fate brought on by war. The refugees reported that the Germans were burning villages and murdering people. It was pitiful to look at the children wrapped in all manner of rags, only their red frozen noses sticking out.
I asked myself what the fate of the Jews will be, if this is what is happening to the Polish people.
One morning, when the sun appeared just over the tree tops, and the red reflections dispersed on the horizon, we saw a squadron of Messerschmitts. Loaded with bombs, they were an early morning present for the peaceful, sleepy population. In the distance, flew some other solitary airplanes we could not identify. We began to fire our machine guns and succeeded in downing one airplane. It turned out to be one of ours. On September 1st, at the beginning of the war, they were the only Polish airplanes, and were supposed to protect us from the skies. The Luftwaffe ruled the skies from the early morning on.
The slogans of our rulers turned out to be meaningless and empty. Nie damy ani jednego guzika (We will not surrender even a button) . The polish army was not capable of effectively resisting the German army. We kept on changing our positions. Fear of the unknown crept into our bones-what will our fate be in the coming hours?
However, we did not have to wait long. We saw the first wounded brought in on horse drawn wagons. In the distance, smoke rose from the villages. Flames leapt up to the sky. A little while later, we saw our infantry retreating in disorder, running desperately, leaving their equipment behind.
Our division commander fell. Since there was no one nominated to take his place, we soldiers took the initiative and decided to retreat, because the Germans could capture us at any moment. Panic increased as we came under more fire. I ran without concern for what was happening to our battery. My only salvation was to run, even without knowing where to run to. Villages were burning in the entire region. Dense smoke rose to the sky. Cows and horses ran wild. Bleating and barking intermixed with the bomb blasts carrying death and destruction.
Observer planes followed the bombers and strafed us with machine guns. With my friend Berl Babat, I hid under an old dike. Bullets cut the leaves off the branches. The machine guns of our battery opened fire, with little result. We circled our little tree like frightened rabbits. The Germans were literally flying over our heads, so near we could see them making mocking hand gestures at our helplessness.
In a little while, the infantry retreated in panic. Wagons ran into each other. Everyone's eyes reflected fear, and they ran like poisoned rats. Some of the retreating soldiers told us that they had scouted a small village and had not seen any sign of Germans. They were followed into the village by the 23rd regiment. No sooner had they entered than German tanks, that had been well camouflaged in barns, attacked. It was impossible to mount the slightest resistance. The tanks attacked with massive fire power. Many soldiers fell and many were wounded. The survivors fled in panic.
Alongside the infantry, galloped the cavalry, covered in dust and dirt, equipped only with swords. The horses were soaked with sweat, their muzzles lathered with foam. It was a field of shining lances with colorful pennants affixed. A rabble of people, horses, wagons, field kitchens with unused provisions, all running in confusion.
The fire increased. Shrapnel flew. Our battery was firing at 2 km without cover from the infantry. We ended up being the front line on the field of slaughter. Bullets flew over our heads. Communication with the observation post was lost. Later, we learned the commanders fell at their positions.
We quickly dug fox-holes as defense against the whistling bullets. Not receiving any orders, we decided to retreat. The retreat began in great panic. Firing intensified. The bridges which were intact in the morning were now damaged by German saboteurs who worked throughout Pomerania.
I ran. After a few kms, the road entered a forest, and after running some more, I came out into an open field where there were many officers of different ranks standing about, and near them, soldiers with artillery. They stopped me, because they could tell by my boots I was from the artillery. They gathered together other artillery soldiers and pieces thinking that with this they could stop the German advance. When the firing intensified, these latest saviors gave up their plans.
We started running again. Wandering around in the night, I, by chance, came on some war friends. Especially happy at the meeting were two Jewish soldiers, Berl Babat, from Zamosc, and Berl Blum, from Tomasew-Lubelski. A third was Shmuel Beker, from Hrubieszow. We went over the events of the day, and discussed what we should do further.
We continued with the retreat. The main roads were filled with hopeless, beaten up parts of various formations. Soldiers, horses, and cannons were mixed up. The wounded, who had not received any medical care, groaned with pain. Dead bodies lay by the road, horses with bloated bellies, their legs stretched out to heaven like four shtangen. Masses of flies buzzed around the faces of the dead, and crows picked at the flesh with their black beaks, and cawed with pleasure.
A shudder of apprehension came to all who saw this picture, thinking of their own fate.
My friend, Babat, and I found a hiding place in an abandoned pharmacy near the road. Flashes of fire and bomb blasts carried in from outside.
---Leaving the pharmacy we saw scenes of devastation along the way.
---Terrified and starved we lay on the wet earth.
Small German detachments had been left behind to kill the retreating.
Everyone for himself
In order to free ourselves from this vice, the remainder of our battery decided to send out a scouting party of four riders. I had the fate of being one of them. We rode through a small wood and came out on a paved road. As we approached what must have been a strategic point, a railroad under which a tunnel ran, we came under heavy machine gun fire. We turned around and galloped back. One of us was shot in the hand, and a horse was wounded. Riding back through the fields we were shot at by civilian Germans.
We came back and reported the situation. The officers decided to ditch the cannons in a nearby river so they would not fall into German hands. After doing so, the Christian soldiers removed their hats and crossed themselves as if at a burial. The officers described the hopeless situation to us, and advised everyone to save himself as best he could.
I had inherited a horse from a fallen under-officer, and I decided to ride away to the dense Tuchola forest. When I said good-bye to the battery, I saw tears in my friend, Berl Babat's eyes. Unfortunately, he could not ride a horse, and I had to leave him.
I rode alone on unfamiliar roads. I passed regiment after regiment of hopeless and apathetic soldiers. I came across large quantities of provisions which the military had abandoned: Boxes full of candies, sacks of sugar, coffee, and cigarettes. Tying my horse to a tree, I approached the feast.
At night, I found a suitable place, gathered some branches, and lay down beneath them. My horse began whinnying and I moved further away. Soon after, I heard the calls of a German patrol. They must have heard my horse's whinnies. I wrapped myself deeper in my coat and held my breath.
Deep rooted anti-Semitism.
In the morning, I moved on. I was not used to a saddle and the long riding had rubbed my skin raw, and the wounds bled. When I got to a river, I cleaned the congealed blood and bandaged the wounds. I found some moldy candies on the road, and I cleaned them and shared them with the horse.
I came on a couple of soldiers and chatted with them. They told me that there were large groups of Polish soldiers hiding in the woods. When they found out I was Jewish, they told me that it would go very bad for me if I were to fall into German hands. Nobody likes the Jews, they taunted me. The anti-Semitic hatred of generations was evident in their words. I told them they should worry about themselves-and quickly rode off.
I thought about the hate that surrounds Jews on all sides. If I am so treated by my war comrades, how will the Germans treat me where Jew-hatred is their highest ideal? Dark thoughts worried my mind. How will I be treated by the Germans if, God Forbid, I fall into their hands?
Result of forest living.
Again-spending the night in a new location. Rain fell without end, and I was sopping wet. In the morning the clouds disappeared and the rain stopped. In a moment of hope, I removed my greatcoat and spread it out to dry. I ran back and forth to keep warm. I heard a dog bark, and I quickly remounted my horse and rode off in the opposite direction.
I found an orchard with ripe plums. Some of the trees were torn out of the earth by shrapnel, an indication of the recent battle. I let the horse wander and eat the fallen apples which lay strewn about the orchard. I filled the pouch of the gas mask with plums and ate my fill. Not far away, two dead soldiers lay in a fox hole, and further, a shot-up field kitchen and spilled rotten food. And more horses with swollen bellies picked at by birds of prey and mice. The smell permeated everywhere.
There were potatoes in the field left by the owners who had run out of time to harvest them. I collected a little pile of potatoes and some wood, made a small fire, and roasted them. The horse got a raw potato which he enjoyed very much.
In one of the many nights, I found a half-ruined hut, probably a forest warden's. I decided to spend the night under a roof even though it exposed me to danger.
From day to day, I began to suffer the consequences of forest living. My hair was growing wild. I washed my face with rain water or morning dew. Lice, another war enemy, an unavoidable part of war and forest living, found me.
I resolved to bathe in the river and change my clothes to rid myself of the blood-suckers. I got undressed on a shallow bank, under a bush, and went into the water. It was ice cold and my teeth were chattering and I was seized by shivering when I got out. The lice-filled shirt and underwear, I threw into the river.
A farmer's guest
I was looking for a place where I could be sure of food for myself and my four-legged friend. I rode until the forest ended and I saw smoke snaking to the sky. After riding a few kms, I saw small village houses. White flags were fluttering from the roofs of the Polish houses. German flags were flying from others-the Volksdeutsche.
I came to a house with a white flag, and was greeted by an old farmer who invited me into his house. He shaved my beard which had already grown much. He invited me to dine on a kapusniak with potatoes, and a red borscht to drink. It had been weeks since I had tasted any cooked food.
According to the farmer, I was near Chelmno which is on the Vistula. The whole area was occupied by Germans. Guests such as I show up every day, but the danger is great. The Germans openly stated that they would shoot anyone who hides a Polish soldier. When the farmer's wife saw me she screamed, Ole Boga and crossed herself. Fear shone in her eyes.
The farmer proposed that I spend the night in his barn. I happily accepted. At night, he invited me to dinner and asked that I leave as soon as there was light in the sky. In the morning, he invited me in again for breakfast. He told me that the German army is at the gates of Warsaw. A bitter battle was being waged at Modlin, where the defenders of the fortress displayed true heroism. A small group of Polish soldiers in Westerplatte, on the Baltic Sea, mounted a heroic defense in spite of the shelling from the navy and bombing from the air. The occupied areas are settled by Germans brutally hostile to the population, especially to Jews. New evil decrees issue daily from the Nazis.
I thanked the farmer. He showed me the way to the Vistula, and I took to the road equipped with a food package.
With a friend-in-suffering
I had more forest living to look forward to. I came upon a lost Polish soldier, and we were happy to meet. I shared the bread I got from the farmer. We shared the stories of our adventures, and decided to continue as partners hoping it would help our circumstances.
We gave up on the plan to get to other side of the Vistula. My new friend, Janek, had already unsuccessfully tried several times. We found an abandoned house and agreed to spend the night there. Chickens were wandering around outside and my friend promised me a dinner fit for a king. He found some eggs. There were potatoes in the garden. Janek made a fire and showed his skills in cooking. The roast was delicious. We found a jug of apple juice in the cellar and finished the feast with it.
We decided to spend a few days here to gain some strength for the hard days ahead. Fear of the Germans kept me from sleeping and I envied my friend for his ability to sleep so soundly. Walking around the area in order to learn more about it, we came on a dead soldier, horse carcasses, and destroyed military wagons. We also found some moldy provisions. We sorted through the treasure and took some with us.
Early morning, I was awakened by the sound of shooting that was growing louder by the minute. We quickly saddled the horses and left the house which had served us so well. Returning to it was not an option, as the Germans patrolled the abandoned houses.
To suffer inhumanly would be our fate in the forest, in bad weather, rain and storms. Our skin burned from dirt and dampness.
Riding further, we suddenly heard shooting from a German patrol. We quickly turned and galloped off in the opposite direction. When I looked around, I was, hungry and thirsty, and alone.
With a group of Polish soldiers.
I came to a small house, the dwelling of an old forest warden. He received me courteously and invited me to eat. I washed and shaved. Because of my wounds, I was unable to ride, and I gave the horse to the warden as a gift. After staying with him a few days, I had to leave because of the frequent German patrols in the area.
My goal was to find a place with Jews. As I walked, I came across a larger group of Polish soldiers going in my direction, and carrying a white flag at the front. The group consisted of seventeen soldiers, with one Jew. Because of the Jew, I attached myself to this group. It turned out that the flag carrier was the Jew, Kobziansky. He hailed from Przemyslany, in Podolia, married and the father of two children.
I tried to convince him that we two should detach ourselves from the group because our situation as Jews was more dangerous. But my words did not persuade him. He maintained that being in a larger group was less dangerous. Not having much enthusiasm for traveling alone, I stayed with the group and blindly awaited my fate.
In the meantime it got dark, and we decided to spend the night on the edge of the road under some dense trees. They began to tell jokes about Jews. I thought to myself, they're in deep trouble and they're still swaggering. The tradition of Jew hatred lies deeply imbedded in their bones. Regarding we two Jews, they allowed that we were good Jews. Their problems seem to have been resolved and they were ostensibly very worried about what would happen to us Zhidkes in German captivity. Their hatred was not forgotten even in the impossible situation they were in.
Days went by, gloomy and rainy. When the rain stopped, we prepared for our march. In the front, a louse-filled shirt hung on a stick, served as flag. One day, the sergeants decided to change the flag carrier from Jewish to Christian. The great honor of carrying a lousy shirt as symbol of capitulation to the Germans was due only to a pure Pole and not a Jew, who, in addition had the look of a Communist about him.
With such friends, I wandered around day and night, looking for ways to stay out of German hands. My friend, Kobziansky, held to his position that it was better to stay with the group.
On a sunny day, when the sun was shining, we set off to the unknown. Not far away there was a paved road hidden from us by the trees. Columns of Panzers drove along the road. When it quieted down, we continued our march.
We hid in a small wood and heard the German shout, Halt! The Germans were shouting at entire columns of Polish soldiers carrying white flags, their weapons thrown away, their faces downcast, a sign of surrender. The commanders of the glorious Polish army, whose only concern was that their boots and spurs shone like mirrors, those who hurled the slogan, We will not surrender a button, they along with the Commander-in-Chief, Smigly-Rydz at their head, were long gone beyond Poland's borders.
It was a sad picture-thousands of young Polish soldiers with white flags, surrendering to the hated enemy. After spending the night in a small forest, we set off again at noon. We came out on a broad road and straight into the hands of the Germans. Everyone raised their hands. That which I feared most had happened. I was a captive of the Germans.
Two German soldiers with restraint equipment ordered us, a group of seventeen soldiers to sit down on the ground, and throw away our weapons. From a distance came columns of hundreds of soldiers going to their captivity. The white flags, made from torn sheets, from lousy sweat soaked shirts, fixed to the tips of rifles, fluttered in the autumn wind. This large contingent of Polish soldiers surrendered to two Nazi soldiers whose fear showed in their over-fed fat faces.
The Germans kept 30 meters away from the prisoners, and ordered them to lay their weapons in a pile. Hundreds of rifles, bayonets and hand-grenades created a small mountain of weapons. The prisoners sat on the ground, apathetic, grizzled, dirty.
Fearful in such a large crowd of prisoners, they used soft words with us, handed out cigarettes. Using their field telephones, they called in the field gendarmerie who came in large trucks. They carried out an extensive search. Anything of metal, pocket-knives, spoons, forks, was confiscated so they could not be used as weapons.
They loaded us into the trucks with mad shouts, Los, schneller, Ihre scheiss-bande! Curses and oaths poured from their mouths. After a short time, we came to the market place of a small shetl which was overflowing with trophies from the defeated Polish population. Thousands of cavalry saddles, thousands of boots, crates of coffee, cigarettes, butter, sweets. The city had become a concentration point for plunder taken from the surrounding area.
They put some of us in the second floor of a theater and stuffed others into a church. The whole town was decorated with white flags on the Polish houses. The Nazi flags with the swastika flying on the houses of the Volksdeutsche put fear into everyone.
Humiliated and tortured
A great number of Jews from every corner of Poland were among the prisoners. As a result of the war, many criminals escaped from the bombed-out jails and were captured by the Germans and treated as prisoners-of-war. One of these criminals, who had been sentenced to life-imprisonment for murder, was my bunk mate in the theatre hall where we were quartered.
The Germans, all with faces like fattened pigs, walked around arrogantly, feeling like super men, preparing to take over the world.
One night we were awakened by wild cries. They ordered us to remain lying on the floor and shone flashlights on us. You will all be shot, you damned Polacks! the Germans shouted. It seemed that the prisoners held in the church had disarmed the guards and fled. The Germans fired chaotically into the night. A lot of Poles were killed in their flight. The Germans were afraid that we would also try to run away.
Days went by. Later, the Germans brought a large number of Polish prisoners and concentrated them in the market, under the open sky. They were a pitiful sight-dirty, in tattered uniforms, faces sunken from poor nutrition, bearded after weeks of not shaving. Among them there were many Jews who suffered both from their war comrades and from the Germans. Most of the Poles could not speak German and they were unable to communicate with the Germans. But the word, Jude, they were quick to learn, and they began to identify the Jews. They competed to show their hatred for Jews before the conquerors.
On a rainy day, an agonizing march was begun. They drove us with wild cries, and shot whoever lagged. We suffered humiliation and derision. In the evening, we halted in a desolate forest. Fatigued, we lay down to sleep in the cold and wet.
Eventually, we were brought to a place surrounded by barbed wire, and fenced in under the open sky. We were not the first to be here. The camp was already occupied by thousands of prisoners. A group of four of us Jews got together, among them my friend Berl Babat, and agreed to keep together, and help each other out to the best of our abilities.
One loaf of bread to last for three days was given for four people. Water was more difficult. We were taken to a small river every third day. Thus, the Germans amused themselves with us. It rained for days and nights, and cold winds blew around the sandy hill of our camp. Constant hunger caused fights among the prisoners. People went around with nerves on edge. Hunger led to apathy and madness. Our clothes hung on us like scarecrows from weeks of starvation. Eyes were red from lack of sleep. Can anyone sleep standing up?
At times, the Germans took prisoners for labor. I chose a place near the door where the Germans entered. After many days of watching the door, two armed soldiers and an officer came to select six men for work. The whole camp, thousands of men, flooded the area near the door, like a stormy sea, in order to be one of the lucky ones. The Germans angrily pushed back against the mass of men. I was one of the six, and thousands of eyes glared at us with envy.
They took us to the train station to clean field kitchens which were part of the plunder. When we opened the first oven door, we were assaulted by the stench from the pentsak which had been cooked in the first days of September. We fell on the pentsak like starving jackals. When the officer saw this, he drove us away. He led us to the station platform. Luck was with us. German soldiers had just finished eating, and they gave us the remains from their kits. We ate and ate. We ate for the days we had starved, and for the coming days.
The Germans made a spectacle out of our hungry condition. They kept on bringing us their remains, and shaking with laughter, they said, Look at how the Polish pigs eat like horses! They brought out their cameras. They photographed us from all sides and in all kinds of comical positions.
The officer gave us each two loaves of bread, a coat and a military blanket. Sometimes this happens with Germans. We brought back a little container of soup to camp. We hid the bread and soup under our clothes. We gave the soup to our friends to their great joy. We four kept together, like a small commune. On rainy days, we slept standing up, leaning against each other, our heads covered with greatcoats. I hid the bread for the next day, but very early on it transpired that the bread disappeared.
One day we were led out of the camp. They took us to the train station and stuffed as many as they could into the wagons. They gave us Polish newspapers which contained German propaganda-a picture of Polish prisoners of war standing in front of the open doors of the wagons with smiling faces and a cigar in their mouths, burned down houses in Warsaw, dead Polish soldiers lying on the ground, dead horses, pictures of President Moscicki , Foreign minister Bek, and Marshall Smygli-Ridz, who were accused of daring to resist the unconquerable German army. The logic of a wolf.
The newspaper wrote about the treatment of the prisoners-they lack for nothing-and similar lies.
When the train stopped, we found ourselves on cursed German soil. I felt weak as we walked. I probably had a high fever. I felt drunk and out of touch with reality. My true friends came to my aid, supporting me under the arms. If not for them, I would have suffered the fate of others who failed to keep up and would have been left to die on the road, shot by the Germans.
They led us into half-empty military barracks. I began to feel a little better. I did a stupid thing and came out as a Jew. There were about seventy Jews there. In reality, there should have been ten times as many. Jews made up ten percent of the Polish army. The overall number of Jewish prisoners was 10,000.
Germans, Volksdeutsche, and Poles took part in removing our clothing. The Germans gave the commands, the Volksdeutsche carried them out, but the greatest zeal was shown by our comrades-in-arms, the Poles. We were left with just a shirt and pants and were mocked thereby.
An under-officer, a Volksdeutsche, took charge of us. His first command, to clean out the stable with our bare hands, was accompanied by kicks from his heavy boots and curses and insults from his anti-Semitic vocabulary. An older German from the reserves, amused himself with us and berated us. You Jews wanted this war, therefore you must suffer. You are all going to be shot. But he quickly caught himself and took it back saying, Shooting is too much of a luxury for you. You will be hung.
They crowned us with the title, Jew Company, and made us take our place last in the food line, after thousands of soldiers had received their portions. They separated us form the [Christian] Poles, and housed us in a small barrack. The seventy of us had barely enough room to sit on the floor.
The German soldier chosen to be in charge of us, thought up ways to frighten and mock us. He led us out of the barrack every half hour to muster. We were made to stand in only our shirts in the cold rain and wind. Our suffering gave the sadist much satisfaction. He ordered us to stand on our heads and to laugh. Very few were able to do this. So he ordered us to help the others by holding onto their feet.
He explained to the cook that Jewish beliefs do not permit them to eat pork. So he insisted that a hunk of pork should be placed on everyone's plate. There were frume boys among us, and they declared that eating pork was permissible under these circumstances because it was pikuach nefesh.
We were finally rid of the tormented camp and were transferred-under inhuman conditions-to another camp in Hammerstein. A shudder passes through me today when I think of the waiting, half naked in the cold, at the gate of the camp while the guards concluded their formalities.
In Hammerstein, we were quartered in tents. The straw ceiling protected us from the wind. We felt like we were in the Garden of Eden. When the camp commandant saw how poorly clothed we were, he ordered a distribution of military clothing from their Czech plunder. We were registered, and I received the number 11022. From that moment on, I was Prisoner-of-war 11022.
In spite of the new conditions, we froze. We lay with our military coats over our heads. We warmed ourselves with our own breath captured beneath our coats.
Hungry men are easily provoked, and every night there were fights about suspected thefts. Hunger made us look at everything that could possibly be eaten as food, such as the stinking horse bones that we stole from a vat of liquid where the bones were thrown after the meat had been removed. We would gnaw at the bones to get any remaining bits of meat.
We were led out to work every day. We built barracks for ourselves and for future prisoners that were to come from all the rest of Europe Hitler was planning to conquer. The supervisors were older Germans who had not been mobilized into the Wehrmacht but into labor units. Their behavior to us was correct. There were anti-Hitlerites among them who hated the war and looked on us as its victims. They helped us more than once in spite of the Hitler bible which permitted no humanity especially with respect to Jewish prisoners, who wanted to destroy the Third Reich, and brought on this war with the help of American Jewry.
This was in distinction with the sadists found here who tormented us.
Some of the Polish prisoners were moved to the new barracks. Jew Company were kept in their tents until the end. It wasn't until February that we were moved to a barrack.
Roll call in the night
One frozen night, when all the prisoners in our barracks were sleeping, wild screaming was heard echoing through the cold air. Alles, schnell raus, ihr scheiss-bande! We grabbed coats over our heads and quickly ran out of our tents.
Outside in the snow, we saw German soldiers standing with fixed bayonets. A cold winter moon was reflected in the sharp edges of the bayonets. The officers, flashlights in hand, yelled at us to quickly form columns of four, and began the count.
We trembled with fear and cold. What could this mean? Half the night passed in crackling frost, the Jew Company mustered while the Polish soldiers slept peacefully in barracks. What was this devilish scheme? Various thoughts arose. We knew that Germans were capable of anything. The secret was revealed to us when they ordered us to return to our barracks. We overheard the officers saying, Yes, the prisoner is in the Jewish company, the dog who stole the potatoes.
After ten days, the potato thief was returned to us. He told us that one night, unable to sleep from hunger, he crept out to organize a few potatoes. (What the Germans call theft, is organizing in prisoner argot). Unfortunately, he was captured by a patrol and placed under military arrest in the barracks. German soldiers arrested for minor offences were his cell mates. He received the same punishment as the Germans even though their offence was four times greater. He was given ample food, good meaty soups, cigarettes. He didn't have to get up and go to work every morning. Truly, a paradise. He was ready to stay under arrest until liberation. Instead of a penalty, it was a vacation.
We organize wood for heating
The cold got worse in the evenings. The single iron stove in our barrack could not heat the entire length. The main duty of the guard who walked around our barrack was to guard the wood which was dedicated to building materials. On changing of the guard, the replaced guard would call in a loud voice, Don't let the prisoners steal the building lumber. We, on the other hand, had the opposite task, to organize the wood, because the cold was unendurable. Because of poor nutrition, we felt the cold doubly.
The lumber was located not far from our barrack. The organizing was carried out with several variations. When the guard's back was turned, we quickly grabbed a plank and disappeared into the barrack. Another method was the following: Two prisoners would engage the guard in conversation about the weather, about the war. One remained with the guard ensnaring him in conversation while the other crept away and, on a signal from his friend, grabbed the wood and disappeared.
We haul potatoes
The news that three large trucks filled with potatoes had arrived and men were needed to unload them, spread like lightning through the barracks. Outside, the camp was buzzing like a disturbed beehive. A mass of prisoners fought to unload the potatoes. The Germans understood the intentions of so many volunteers, but it was difficult for them to disperse them. They threw themselves on the trucks like a pack of wolves.
The officers screamed at the soldiers to drive away the Scheiss-gezindl, or the trucks would be removed. They beat at us with their rifle butts and yelled at us until they were hoarse, Get back, Scheiss-bande. My barrack commander, a tall, brown-faced man, recognized me. He yelled at me loudly so the officer would hear, Los wek!, while winking at me to go and get myself some potatoes.
Every month we received 24 Marks in ration cards, which were valid only in camp. This was paid by the building company. We could use them to buy things in the small canteen-shoe laces, polish, shaving things, cigarettes, but no edible products.
I sold the cigarettes I received to our guard for real money. Many others exchanged their rations in similar fashion.
Part of the ration money had to be paid back to the commander as a bribe. Every Sunday he came for his cut in schnapps from our Jewish commandant, Jagoda. In return, we received certain privileges.
He would give us a day's notice before inspections so that we could ready ourselves. We hid the organized potatoes. The clothing we all had, we hid under the bed. As a result, the Jewish company had a good name in the camp administration for not stealing potatoes, or clothing, or wood, and other things.
Slipped on the ice
The cold worsened. Cold, icy winds blew which we felt most on the way to work. Cold and hunger followed us day and night. We thought less about our future than about receiving a bowl of soup from the kitchen. Getting a bowl of warm water that the Germans called soup, awakened my hunger. It wanted more, and was angered when it was denied.
I got an inspiration and broke my plate. I went to the kitchen officer with the shards in my hands, and told him that I slipped on the snow and spilled the soup. He believe me and told the cook, Give this dog another bowl of soup. To me, he said, The plate is the property of the Reich. If you do it again, Schwein, you'll get it up the ass.
I gave up the slipping gambit and thought up another one.
A portion of soup under a cape
I wore a Czech cape tied at the throat with a string. I attached a wire to the inside bent into a hook and hung a mess kit from it so that nothing was visible from the outside. The pots in the kitchen barrack were arranged in a long row and the steam from the pots enveloped half the kitchen due to the cold.
Coming into the kitchen, I went to the first pot and put a portion into my mess kit and quickly hung it on the hook under the cape. Then, I put another portion on my plate.
The ruse worked for me for a long time until the weather changed and the pots weren't as steamy. I used it until a German officer spotted steam coming out of my cape around the collar. He yelled at me, Halt, halt! and a soldier blocked my way. He opened my cape and saw the kit with the soup, and he hit me on the head with the wooden spoon used to stir the pots, and I fell to the ground.
I still remember today how a thousand stars swam before my eyes. How long I lay on the ground, I don't know. A stream of cold water got me back on my feet. The head wounds healed in a few days, but the headaches lasted a long time.
I lost a gravy pit and I began to think of another scheme to still my hungry stomach.
Oats in the pants
One frosty morning, they took us to work in a large grain elevator of oats in Hammerstein. It was a hard journey, the frozen snow breaking like glass under our feet. The snow sparkled like many-colored gems that dazzled our eyes.
The work consisted of shoveling the oats from one pile to another with big wooden spades in order to prevent them from getting moldy. The elevator doors were wide open and the freezing wind came in. We worked fast in order to keep warm. The dust floating in the air penetrated our mouths, ears, and made it hard to breathe. A ration of dust instead of food. The guard ran around knocking one boot against the other to keep warm.
Shoveling the oats was hard work for starving men. The cold and the dust made our eyes burn. And the hours dragged by so slowly-a sho a yohr-as we used to say in our shtetl. So many hours to go until the day ends.
After the guard finished his coffee and lit a cigar, he felt it was time to begin to hurry us.
My best friend Berl Babat (a Zamosc boy) worked with me. He began to describe all the dishes that can be made from oats. We were faced with a problem: How to get the oats to camp. It was impossible to put them into our satchels because we were being constantly watched.
We worked out the following scheme: I unbuttoned my pants and turned my back to the guard. My friend shoveled oats into my pants which I had previously tied around my ankles. Then I did the same to him.
Throughout the course of the work, we slowly filled our bags with oats. We even tried to eat them raw, but they were too spiky and the guard saw this and yelled, Stop this Schweinerei immediately. What are you, horses?
Back at the camp, we busied ourselves with the oats. We heated an old piece of tin and dried the oats on it. Then we ground them with two bricks making a kind of oat kasheh. We boiled them in an old marmalade can. We added some potatoes and it was very tasty. Then we understood why horses like oats so much. Evidently a starving man would like it too, since we also ate moldy bread plucked from the garbage cans.
Unloading coal ore
One morning, the guard came to take us to work. He asked, with a sly smile, for volunteers to unload coal ore at the train station. I was suspicious of his asking for volunteers, and his mysterious smile. I and five others stepped up to volunteer. The guard then said to the others, So you did not want to unload coal. These people, who freely volunteered, will be unloading bread.
We dared not believe his words. We knew that the Germans liked to amuse themselves at our expense. As we approached the station, we saw a freight train sitting on a side-track.
Our curiosity increased with each step. What awaits us in the locked cars-bread or coal?
To our amazement, when the doors were opened, we saw bread. Bread! Cars full of bread. Each one of us was feverishly engaged in figuring out how to organize a few loaves for himself. Before work started, our guard distributed one loaf to each of us, and promised another at the end of the job.
We arranged ourselves in a row: three in the freight car, three on the ramp, and two soldiers in the automobile. We passed the bread from hand to hand. The one who was furthest into the car, took a bite out of each loaf. When the Germans inspected the bread, they thought it was done by mice. Standing near the two soldiers I could hear them talking about it. One held that they were signs of mice teeth, and the other that it was human teeth.
They ordered us to stop unloading and called over an officer to settle the dispute. After long study of the bread, the officer declared that these were not only human teeth marks, but fresh ones as well. He became angry and started to berate us. He ordered us to fall in and gave us a lecture. Why are you sabotaging? This bread is meant for the victorious German soldiers. He sternly warned us that this must not happen again. Nevertheless, he ordered that we be given another loaf each.
No more loaves were bitten into after the strict lecture. After the unloading was complete, he tallied the numbers and said that there were six loaves missing. He addressed the soldiers, The count is exact. The missing bread was obviously stolen by the prisoners. They ordered us to get on a truck open to the elements, and we froze on the way back.
We got to the Hammerstein barracks and unloaded the bread in the stores. German soldiers in the magazine arranged the loaves in rows and counted them. I and a friend decided to organize two more loaves and hide them in the snow. An opportunity like this to acquire bread-the dream of thousands of prisoners-must not be wasted. We buried two loaves in the snow so we could get them at the first opportunity.
The Germans could not believe that there were now two more loaves missing. They recounted and asked us again if we had not stolen them. Understandably, we denied it. They yelled loudly at us. We tried to show them that there was an error made at the station. This enraged them more. They yelled, Silence, you gang of Jews.
My friend and I planned how to get the two loaves. The idea was simple. Every afternoon, two prisoners were taken out under guard to chop wood near the magazines where we had stashed the bread. We told the two about the bread. They told the guard they weren't feeling well and pointed to us as their replacements. The guards agreed.
At the spot, I hid one glove in my bag and claimed that I had lost it. I searched the snow thoroughly in order to find the glove but I did not find the bread.
by A. H.
Translated by Moses Milstein
When the Germans arrested the Judenrat leaders, it became clear to everyone in town that no one would be able to save themselves. Like many others, we prepared a hiding place in a cellar. It could hold twelve people, but there were forty of us.
The Gestapo, with the help of local Poles, were busy dragging new victims out of the hiding places. The streets were overflowing with dead bodies. Other Jewish citizens were taken to the jail, then taken to the cemetery at night, and buried alive.
My father brought us these reports when he stole out one night to get some water some five days after we first holed up here. The reports showed our situation was hopeless.
After the fifth day, around three o'clock, we suddenly heard a commotion. Every one held his breath; mothers covered their little children's mouths so they could not cry. We were certain this was the end. From above, we heard horrible laughter. Then a light shone on us through the cracks in the floor, illuminating everyone. Everyone saw the Angel of Death before him. I will never in my life forget the moment when my father, sitting next to me, clasped me unusually tightly to his breast, and said in the silence: My child, don't scream. At the same moment, we heard the bandits talking, and deciding that there was nobody down below.
For several minutes, we dared not admit to ourselves that we had experienced a miracle. From certain death back to life. But what do we do now? That evening my father said, Enough waiting for death. Now we will try to resist, and maybe we will be lucky, and escape from the bandits' hands, and escape to the forest.
Escape to the forest
Back in quieter times, we had made an agreement with a forest watchman that, at the critical moment, we would try to hide out in the forest. Time was short: we had to decide and go. My mother's opinion was that, Where God leads, we will go. But my father was a very forceful man, and he persuaded us that there was no other option.
We quickly got ready for the road. Packs in hand, and out of the house. The night was as bright as day. We could hear the wild shouts of the SS coming from the shops and restaurants. The streets were smeared with blood and full of dead bodies. My father led and we followed behind. The worst part was passing by the cemetery where the murderers were finishing off their long day's work.
After we had gone a good distance, we suddenly heard the barking of dogs. This made the situation dangerous for us, because the murderers heard, and began shooting with automatic weapons, and shouting, Hent Hauch, Stehen bleiben! It's a miracle we were already so far away from them. Because of the danger, we mustered our strength, and we ran without stopping. We covered two kilometers this way, until we were no longer in danger, and we rested.
We continued a little more calmly to the Kovencziniker (p224??) forest. There the watchman helped us to find a good spot. We were lucky to have escaped from that hell.
The days passed slowly and sadly. For food, we had to get by with what our good clothes could sell for in the village.
Killing Germans, blowing up train tracks
One morning, our hiding place was assaulted by partisans of the AK. They forced everyone out, took them to the valley, and shot them. By chance, I was not there. The evening before, I had gone to the village for provisions. When I got back, I saw the great calamity that had occurred. My first thought was to take my own life. But the only way to do that was to starve to death, and death from hunger comes too slowly.
After a day of terrible experiences, left all alone, I came to the decision that I must continue to live. I went to the village, and with the help of a farmer I knew, I buried the whole family in one grave.
I had often met partisans when I went to the village, so I decided to join them.
At first I found it very difficult, but in time I learned to live with these strangers who became my saviors. The group was small from the beginning: some 40 Russians, and a very small number of Poles and Jews. With great joy, one day, I unexpectedly came across Raizel Berger in the group. We treated each other as sisters, because we had no other family. We supported each other whenever we got together.
Unfortunately, it did not last long. I got an order to cross the river Bug with a group of about 30 partisans. We had to fight our way to the larger Russian division in Pinsk. The conditions were very dangerous, as the farmers used to betray us.
The road was hard. No sooner did we get over the river onto land than we were attacked by Ukrainian nationalists. We lost two partisans. When we got to our destination we were hailed as heroes for making it through.
The partisans in White Russia were well organized. Our task was to ambush and kill Germans, demolish bridges, and train tracks, blow up military trains, and so on.
This lasted until 1944. When the Russian army arrived, we joined them, and together, we retook Pinsk. Later on, the partisans were disbanded. Many men joined the army. Others were given good civilian postings.
Among the scattered ruins
My job was, however, not over. I received an order to transport sick soldiers to the Russian interior. I got everything organized and completed my task, but I fell very sick myself. I spent three months in hospital. When I left, I found myself in a strange city, knowing no one, in broken health. But, after a short time, I got myself organized, and found work, and stayed in Russia for a whole year.
During that time, the Lublin region was liberated, and I decided to go home.
How sad was the day I got home. No sign of living family, not a drop of hope that anyone had survived. Even my brother who I had always [gericht p226??]showed no sign of being alive. The whole shtetl was dead, only the scattered ruins accompanied my tears.
The Poles, who with their own hands added to the fire, tried to console me. But I fled from them, the earth burning beneath my feet.
I came to Lublin, and, finally, met various people from Szczebreszyn: Dora Fleisher, Yehuda Weinstock and my friend Raizel Berger with whom I spent over a year in Lublin.
Still today, my greatest pleasure is to get together with people from my shtetl, Szczebreszyn.
by Zvi Treger (Tal)
Translated by Moses Milstein
When the Russians retreated from our region, many Jews left for the area around the river Bug in order not to fall into the hands of the Nazis. Our whole family left with them. The Red Army retreated beyond the river Bug which had become the new border between the Soviet Union and Germany after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August, 1939.
We went to Wolyn, and after a short time, we were sent to the Ivanov-Vosnesensk area, to a small town, Privolsk, along with the Farber and Greber families. We worked in the textile factories, and our standard of living was typical of the area. No one was dying of hunger.
At first, I and my brothers, Shimon and Yerachmiel, were there alone. Our parents and other family members were in the Veligotsiker forests. With great difficulty we managed to bring them over to us. This was in 1941, when the Germans had attacked the Soviet Union.
Hunger in Uzbekistan
We were all sent to a kolkhoz in Uzbekistan. There, we suffered from hunger. The Uzbeks did as well. We were mobilized into a Torud army, in the Ural mountains, where the conditions were abominable. We worked from dark to dark. Whoever could, ran away.
Many of the conscripted died. My brother, Yerachmiel, zl, died of malaria. The doctors paid no attention to him because he did not display any fever. Whoever was in Russia in those days knows full well that the sick received no help. He had to work like all the others.
Not long after, I received news that my family in Uzbekistan had died of hunger. My mind became so disordered, that I did not react to people around me. The terrible news, the hunger, and the cold led me to expect death myself.
Revenge against the Germans
I managed to regain a little of my strength, and when I returned from the Leningrad area, I decided to enlist in the Red Army. We had heard about the barbaric actions of the Germans toward our Jewish brethren in Poland. I wanted to seek revenge against the murderers. I fought against the Germans as part of the Polish-Soviet army. I took part in the battles around the suburbs of Kolberg, the crossing of the Oder river, and the taking of Berlin. I did not display any particular heroism, but I took revenge wherever I could. I saw it as my holy duty for those murdered, and for the Jewish people.
Back in Poland
After the German surrender we were sent to Chelm to fight against the Polish reactionary groups. Day in and day out, we sanitized the Zamosc and Tomaszew-Lubelski area. We fought major battles against the Ukrainians in Jaroslawiec, Rzeszow. Many Jewish boys fell in battle against the Ukrainians and the Polish AK bandits.
I remember Chelm well, because many Jews from the Soviet side gathered there. They were those who had been hiding in bunkers and in the forests. We Jewish soldiers, even though we were few in number, did everything in our power to protect them from the Polish hooligans. In spite of our efforts, they managed to kill several Jewish families, among them a doctor and his wife.
I met my wife Sima in Chelm and we got married there. She comes from the shtetel, Manevitch, near Kovel. She lived through the war with Jewish partisans bands in the forests.
I met Shebreshiner people for the first time in the war, when I was sent on a mission from Chelm to Lublin. The first ones I met were Yehuda Weinstock and Raizel Berger. From them I learned that Ephraim Farber and Hersh and Leibl Shtil were in Lublin. In the evening, we got together at Yehuda's house and we drank a heartfelt l'chaim both for our survival and for having avenged the murders of our people.
We came to Israel via Italy, where one of our three sons was born. Today, they have all had children of their own. They followed in their father's footsteps and volunteered for the paratroopers. Two of them took part in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
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