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[Page 20]

Chapter Two:

My Stay on the German Side
(September 1939-March 1940)

 

The Germans' entrance to the city:

In August 1939, there was a feeling in Szczuczyn that a war would break out. On September 1, 1939, in the morning, a rumor spread that the Germans were getting closer to Szczuczyn, which was a distance of only 3km from the border between Germany and Poland. Panic seized the Jewish residents, who feared the Germans and the anti-Semitic Poles in the region. The shops and the gates to the houses were locked. Some of the Jews decided to flee to the bigger cities in the region, Bialystok and Lomza. I, and my younger brother Srulik, decided to escape. Mother prepared a small bag of food and a few items for each of us. When we were about to say goodbye to her, she burst into a bitter cry. I couldn't see her in her suffering, and decided to stay in Szczuczyn and share my fate with the rest of my family and my townspeople. Later it turned out, that many of those who escaped were shot on the roads by German aircraft. On Thursday, September 7, in the morning hours, the Germans entered our city from different directions. On the next day, Friday, Jews were seized in the streets and taken to forced labor work in the city. On the evening of the same Friday, the Germans hung posters in the streets. According to them, all the men, Jews and Poles, aged 15-50, must appear at the market square for registration on Saturday until 11 in the morning.

On Saturday morning, people started to gather in the market square. The Germans placed a table with chairs to make us think that they only plan to conduct a registration. My father, my younger brother and I arrived to the place. After everyone had gathered, additional German guards suddenly appeared. They surrounded us and took us to the square where the office of the Polish border police was located. The Germans conducted a search on each one of us as they beat us indiscriminately. Then, they arranged us in rows, and ordered those who were under the age of 16 to get out of the row. My brother Srulik, who just turned 16, was wearing short and looked younger than his age. I advised him to get out of the row. He left, and was released. Later, I often wondered what would have happen if my brother had accompanied me on my way. I thought to myself that maybe it might have been more difficult for the two us, because it's easier to take risks and survive when you're alone.

Next, they led us to the building of the old synagogue at the edge of the city. We were kept there for the night, and our hearts were filled with fear that the Germans were going to bomb the building of the synagogue and burn us inside it. The next morning, the Germans allowed our family members to come and bring us food. My mother and sister came and brought food for my father and me. The Germans told our family members that they could also come to visit in midday, and so it was. The Germans told them that they could also come in the evening, but immediately after they left, in the afternoon, the Germans began to deport us in the direction of Germany. For that reason I wasn't able to say goodbye to my family. At that time I didn't believe that I would never see them again.

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On the same day, in the afternoon they expelled us across the border by foot, a distance of about 3km inside the German territory. From there we continued to the city of Biala, which was an additional 17km inside the German territory. We were ordered to run, and those, who didn't run fast enough, were shot by the Germans. Opposite us the German Army streamed into Poland and raised a lot of dust, noise and bustle. The local German residents, who passed us, attacked us with curses and shouts. They shouted that the Jews caused the war, and it was necessary to slaughter us all. One of them spat in my father's face.

We arrived to Biala and slept that night under the stars. The Germans forbade us to rise from our place.

The next morning the Germans conducted a roll call and called to those, who were over the age of 50, to get out of the line. My father had a beard and looked older than his age. I advised him to leave the line, and so he did. He was released together with other people and returned to Szczuczyn. I also didn't have the opportunity to part from him properly.

That same morning we boarded rail cars and traveled dozens of kilometers in a northerly direction to the city of Rasternburg where we had to change trains. In the city of Rasternburg we had to walk through the main streets. The Germans put the mentally ill and the poor at the beginning of the line, to show the local residents that we were a wretched population, The German residents, who passed next to us, demonstrated boundless joy to our misfortune. Many came out of their shops with cries of joy.

In Rasternburg we climbed on a train and traveled to a place called Klein Dexen Stablak, a distance of about 30km from Königsberg. It was an empty space that gradually became a camp. Poles and Jews, from various occupied cities in the region like Łomża, Stawiski, Knyszyn, Ostrowiec, Ostrolenka and more, were concentrated there.

When we arrived to Klein Dexen Stablak, the German soldiers forced us to dig pits and told us that they would be our graves. Some of us fainted from hunger and thirst. Others asked for a drink, and then, the German soldiers pointed to the cows in the field and told them to drink their urine. It's often said that the soldiers of the German Army were less brutal than the German S.S., but in my experience, they were as bad.

In the evening, which happens to be the evening of Rosh Hashanah, we got some coffee and a piece of bread, which under those circumstances seemed to us like wine and the best cake. They housed the Poles in canvas tents which were erected in the camp, while were left to wait in the field, on the wet ground. German guards, who were armed with machine guns, stood around us. We suffered from hunger and cold. Later, all of us were transferred to a big tent. In the tent we prayed the evening prayer of Rosh Hashanah with great emotion. Lipa-Chaim, the son of Rabbi Yossele, served as a cantor and sang the prayers with great emotion.

On the next day, the Germans shaved our heads and disinfected our clothes. In each item of clothing that we had the Germans cut a large triangle - in the right knee of the trouser leg and the back of the coat - and sewed in their place a piece of red fabric, to identify us as prisoners.

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In time, additional canvas tents were added to the camp, and we moved to live in them. More than 100 men lived in each tent. The tents were arranged in rows, according to the following order:

In the first row of tents were Germans who were called “Volksdeutsche,” meaning, Germans who served in the Polish army and lived the areas that belonged to Germany before the war. They received the best treatment in the camp, and always got their food ration first. The second row of tents housed non-Jewish Polish soldiers who were captured by the Germans. Polish citizens, who were captured by the Germans, were housed in the next row. In the next row were Jewish soldiers who fought in the Polish army. We, the Jewish Polish residents, were housed in the last row of tents. The attitude towards us was the worst. When we stood in line for food, the Gentiles always received the food before us, even if they came after us. The soup that they got was always thicker than ours. We got the soup only after water has been added to it, and it lost its thickness.

The food that we received was very meager: In the morning we received a liquid, which was called coffee, but it contained mostly turbid water. At noon, we received a thin soup, and in the evening we received a loaf of bread weighing one kilogram and a little jam for five people. We cut the bread into five parts, and measured each piece with a straw to get five equal pieces. Later, we divided the pieces among us. Every morsel of bread had a great value in our eyes. The inhabitants of each tent had to send five representatives to get the food fall the residents of the tent. Although I was among the youngest in my tent, the residents of the tent chose me to be one of the recipients of the food, because they believed that I wouldn't take the food for myself. One day, on the Sabbath, when I went to get the food, I suddenly heard a gunshot. We found out that the Polish Gentiles attacked our tent and a fight broke out. The Germans heard the fight, and immediately, without finding out what was happening, fired into the tent and one of the young men, the brother of my friend Ari Briz, was killed.

One day, at the beginning of October, when we were in the same camp, the Germans announced that they were organizing a group to work in Memel (Klaipëda), or in other villages near the Baltic Sea, and called for those who were interested to sign up to work there. I decided to sign up immediately. I thought to myself that I wouldn't mind working hard as long as I would get food. I stood in line, and suddenly, a young man pushed in and stood in front of me. I told him that I was in line in front of him, but he refused to give up my place. I didn't have the strength to fight him. Exactly after he registered, the Germans closed the list. Later it turned out, that the group didn't return from the place to which it was sent. In retrospect, it occurred to me that maybe it was Eliyahu HaNavi [Elijah the Prophet] who was sent to stand in line in front of me, and thanks to him my life was saved.


[Page 23]

Echenstein Camp:

Meanwhile, while we were in the camps in Germany, on 9 Septembers, 1939, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was implemented, and Poland was divided between the Russians and the Germans. Some of the cities in the area, including my city Szczuczyn, were transferred into the hands of the Russians, and the other parts were given to the Germans.

On October 27, the Germans announced that they collect the young people under the age of 18, and the sick, to return them to their place of residence in Poland. Even though I was almost 19, I said that I was under the age of 18. We didn't have identity cards and they couldn't check it. The Germans put me in a group that they debated what to do with. We stood and waited until the officers arrived and decided to also put us on the train. All that day we traveled by train with the windows closed. There was joy in our hearts, because we believed that we were finally returning to our homes.

In the evening we reached a city named Dzialdowo, and the Germans conducted a registration of people. A few days later, all the people who lived in the territories, which were transferred to the Germans, were released. The residents of the territories that were occupied by the Russians, me included, weren't released. On Friday, December 1, we were ordered to board the train. Although there were very few guards in this train, none of us thought of escaping because we sincerely believed that we were on our way back home. That evening, we found out that we made a bitter mistake. We got off the train and the Germans welcomed us with beating and shouts. We understood that we were in Germany. The Germans chased us for a number of kilometers in a pouring rain to a camp called Echenstein. In the darkness we heard cries of pain and disappointed from all directions.

We stayed in Echenstein for five weeks. We lived in barracks made of plywood (cardboard like material). There were about 400 Jews in each barrack. There, we were suffered a lot from the cold, hunger, diseases and filth. Onc the German officers brought their wives to show them lice.

Every morning we had to leave the barracks early, before sunrise, in order to get breakfast. We had to wait a long time, until the rest of the prisoners received their food ration, and then we received our food ration. There were many prisoners, who were sick and wanted to stay in the barrack and die peacefully to spare themselves this suffering, but their please were to no avail. The Germans forced everyone to leave, and stabbed those who weren't fast enough with their bayonets. My glasses broke during my time at the Echenstein camp. It happened when I tried to protect my friend who quarreled with his Jewish friend. Since then, for long years, I remained without glasses and didn't see well. The matter, of course, didn't improve my mood.


[Page 24]

The shooting in Sobibor:

On September 1, 1940, the Germans put us again on a train, Jews and Poles in separate cars. The crowding in the cars was terrible, and there was no food or water in them. We traveled south through various stations, Danzing [Gedansk], Bydgoszcz, Poznan, Lodz, Warsaw and Lublin. On Saturday evening, representatives of the Red Cross arrived to the train station in Lublin and distributed food and drink to the Poles. Later, all the Poles who were with uswere released, but we remained in the train which continued on its way. Some tried to escape from the train in the various stations, but the Germans shot them. There were about 650 Jews in the cars, from them, 50 died in the cars from starvation and weakness.

On December 1,1940, on Friday evening, we arrived to the city of Chelm. The men of the S.S. welcomed us there. We understood that something very bad was waiting for us. On the next day, Saturday, we traveled by train to Sobibor Forest. When we arrived to the forest the Germans ordered us to leave the train, take out the dead, and organize in rows of five people. Immediately after we started to take out the dead, the Germans started to shoot at us. The panic was great. All around me people were shot and fell to the ground. With my last strength I ran into the thick of the forest. I ran in the deep snow. When I fell I heard bullets whizzing over my head. Miraculously I was not killed. I continued to run as the frozen tree branches were stabbing me all over. After I left the range of fire, I continued to wander in the forest for several hours until I returned to the same place where we got off the train. The train was no longer there. A terrible sight appeared before my eyes - hundreds of people, including people from my city, lay dead on the ground, in the snow and in the ice. Their bodies froze in various shapes, and the sight, which will never fade from my memory, was the most horrible.

I left the place and kept running until I arrived to the village of Sobibor together with other survivors. When I reached the village, I entered the home of one of the farmers and asked for something to eat. He was a very poor farmer and he told me that he had nothing to give me, but at that time he cooked a pot of potatoes with the skins and the dirt for the pigs. To the great amazement of that farmer, I walked to the pot and ate the potatoes as they were, with all the dirt. Another farmer in the same village gave me clothes to replace the ones that I had, because I was afraid that if I stay with the clothes, which were embedded with a red triangle, I would be identified by the Germans.

I decided, together with other survivors, to try to cross the border to the Russian zone through the Bug River, which constituted the border between Germany and Russia. We divided ourselves into groups of two and three, so the Germans will not spot us, and started to walk in the forests and in the fields that were covered with deep snow. After several hours of walking I suddenly saw a flickering light from a great distance. We moved in the direction of the light until we reached a village called Rzlobek. In the village we met other survivors from the shooting in Sobibor. The local farmers offered us food and a place to sleep. The farmer, who took me to his home, offered me a place to sleep on a bench near the stove and gave me rice to eat. Since I haven't eaten for a long time, I couldn't resist and jumped on the food. In retrospect, I realized that such an attack is extremely dangerous, and can even cause death. Fortunately, the Christians, who hosted me, left to celebrate on that night because it was the evening of one of the Christian holidays. Immediately after they left I threw up all the food that I ate, and that eased my situation. Since the floor was clean and polished for the holiday, I didn't want to soil it, so, I vomited on myself and on my clothes. I was ashamed that my hosts will see it, so I got up early in the morning and left.

On the same day I continued to walk in the direction of the border together with two other guys. We walked slowly and heavily in the deep snow. Our progress was very slow. As we were walking, a sleigh with two men inside it suddenly approached us.

[Page 25]

They asked us if we were among the prisoners that the Germans shot at. I hesitated before I answered because I was afraid that they were sent by the Germans to catch us. They saw our fear and reassured us that we shouldn't worry about them. It turned out that they were Jews from the nearby city of Włodawa. Immediately after they learned about the shooting in Sobibor, they organized groups of people to go out to look for survivors to help them, and also to bring the dead for burial in the Jewish cemetery. We climbed together with them on the sled and traveled to Włodawa.

Other Jews, who survived the shooting in Sobibor, tried to cross the Bug River in order to reach the Russian zone, but the Russians didn't allow them to cross the border and many froze to death in the Bug River.


My stay in Włodawa:

The Jews of the city of Włodawa greeted us with joy because they were able to save us. Their joy was mixed with sadness because of the difficult circumstances that brought us to them. And indeed, we came to them in a very critical condition. We were very thin, unshaven and stooped after our four and a half months in the camp. We looked like Muselmann[1], and people who saw us wrung their hands with compassion. A neighbor, who lived across my house in Szczuczyn, saw me in my condition, but he didn't recognize me.

I was housed in one of the two Hassidim “Stebllach,” which were used as makeshift hospitals. There were about 40 patients in them. Most of them suffered from frostbites in different parts of their bodies, such as feet, arms, ears, nose or face. In many cases, it was necessary to cut off the frozen limbs without anesthesia, and the cries of the wounded were horrible.

Immediately upon my arrival, I was checked by a doctor named Dr. Springer. The next day, they took us to the city's bath house, burnt the soiled clothes that we wore, and gave us new clothes. Dr. Springer and the merciful orderlies, Berger and Himelfarb, took care of the patients. The wives and the daughters of the city helped as much as they could. People like, Mrs. Tzigel, David, Ephraim and others, brought us good food. A man named Moshale' Zigerman came to us every evening with a samovar of tea and bread. By doing so, he endangered his life because it was forbidden to walk in the streets at night.

Overall, I lay in that shtiebel for about six weeks. After six weeks I moved to the home of one of the local families. We received food from the kitchen which was designed for the refugees who arrived from Vienna and Kalisz. Other survivors, who arrived in relatively good condition, were housed in Beit HaMidrash of David Bigman.

Meanwhile, the people of Włodawa continued to search for more survivors, and at the same time buried the bodies that were brought from the forest. A total of 473 Jews, victims of the shooting in Soibor, were buried in Włodawa. Most of them were people from my city. The residents of Włodawa, who believed that the world will continue to act as usual, identified the bodies before they were buried in order not to leave Nashim Agunot[2]. The men of the city work very hard because

[Page 26]

the ground was frozen to a great depth and it was difficult to dig in it. A number of survivors offered their help, but the men of the city refused claiming that they were still too weak to work, and that the food is guaranteed to them if they'll work or not.

Meanwhile, the situation worsened. From time to time the Germans, who stayed in the place, forced the Jews to work for them in various jobs. After spending about 10 weeks there, an order came from the Germans that all the young people should report for forced labor. We realized that the Germans might send us back to the camps, or worst than that. I decided, together with several other young men, to try to cross the border through the Bug River in order to return home to Szczuczyn. We consulted with the rabbi of Ruzyn, and he supported our decision. Other Sobibor survivors decided to stay in Włodawa since it was difficult for them to walk and from other reasons. Some of them married the local girls. To my great sorrow, many of those who helped us and also many of my friends who remained in Włodawa, were killed by the Germans at the death camp in Sobibor. I will never forget the generous help that the residents of Włodawa have given us.


Footnotes

  1. Muselmann - meaning Muslim in German - was a derogatory term used among inmates of Nazi concentration camps, to refer to those suffering from a combination of starvation and exhaustion and who were resigned to their impending death. return
  2. Isha Agunah (pl. Nashim Agunot) - a woman whose husband has deserted her or has disappeared and who may not remarry until she gives proof of his death or obtains a bill of divorce. return

 

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