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[Pages 16-20]

On the Holocaust

 

Between Regimes in Shumsk

Related by Feivke Weisman

Translated by Rachel Karni

Edited by Lynne Tolman

 

 

NOTE: Feivke “Shraga” Weisman, the author of this article, was the son of Hillel Weisman and Sara (Szterenberg) Weisman. His parents, his wife, Rachel “Koka” (Dikshtein) Weisman, and his 1-year-old son Moshe were killed in Shumsk in the massacre in August 1942. His sister Leya and brother Mordechai, his aunt Malia with her child, and his aunt and uncle Sara (Weisman) Zeiger and Yisroel Zeiger, with their three children, all perished in the war.

After the Second World War, Feivke “Shraga” Weisman immigrated to Israel and married Tzippora (Roichman) Weisman, whose diary about her immigration from Shumsk to Palestine in 1934 appears in the Shumsk Yizkor Book, pages 419-439. Shraga and Tzippora were active in the Organization of Shumskers in Israel. He passed away in 1987. Shraga's sister, Manya (Weisman) Engelberg, immigrated from Shumsk to Palestine in the 1930s and was a member of Kibbutz Ruchama. She passed away in 2006.

 

When the Soviets entered Shumsk at the end of 19391 I was accepted as the chief bookkeeper of the M.S.T. (the Municipal Company for Supplies) under whose management were the grocery shops and bakeries. Among these bakeries was that of Motel Segal who was allowed to remain on as the manager and work there – after we explained to the “regime” that he had been a proletarian his entire life.

In one of the shops located in the building belonging to Nosson Finkelstejn, Shulik Kremer (Sheiki's2) was the manager. We used the same “principle” in telling the “regime” about him. If we hadn't done this he would have been accused of being an employer and would have been exiled to Siberia.

Life in our town continued almost without disturbance, in the old patterns of life.

At the head of the above mentioned company stood Yoske Mednik with Leib Landau as the cashier3. The office was in Nachum Katz's house.

In 1940 a meeting of all the stockholders was held and it was suggested by one of the party members to fire Mednik and Leib Landau because they were not suited for their jobs, while I, by chance, was allowed to retain my position.

And so I continued on until June 22, 1941, the day war broke out between Germany and Russia. Within two days people began to pack their belongings and the odor of exodus was everywhere.

The 25th of June 1941 was a Thursday. I remember what occurred as if it were today. We saw that the government bank and other institutions were transferring their documents to wagons standing near them, planning to leave. This was an omen for all of us. We understood our predicament.

The confusion was pervasive. Ordinary citizens and young people began to leave town, all in the direction of Chudik, on the former Polish-Russian border which for some reason had remained closed even in the short period of Soviet rule, and through which there had been no passage to the original Soviet area.

Hundreds went. It was a unique and shocking spectacle. Shumskers were there as well as other Jews who had found a refuge in Shumsk from the terrors of the Nazis which had started in other places in 1939. These unfortunate people had hoped to find a lengthier resting place in our town. In contrast to other towns, the exodus of all these people from Shumsk was not organized by the Soviet authorities. When the latter were asked to explain the troubling events they replied in a seemingly calm fashion as if to give the impression that they believed that things would work themselves out within two weeks. But we felt that they were deeply troubled and were not to be relied on.

Our feeling was that if we succeeded in getting to the original Soviet area the Nazis would not reach us.

 


Layze Finkelstein's house4

 

Since we were officials of the regime Shmuel Berger, who was the vice-chairman of the Municipal Company for Supplies, arranged that we would get a wagon to ease our difficulties.

On the wagon there was my sister Leitzi, Hertzi Milman, Leizer Landau, Berger, Berger's wife and son and some others.

We were under the impression that we were the first and only people to be leaving this way, but when we left the boundaries of Shumsk the road was already jammed with people. Very large numbers of Jews had picked up and left Shumsk, motivated by their instinct.

Near Serge the Ukrainians stood and openly jeered both the Jews and the Bolsheviks. Their day had come and they blessed the moment that they were getting rid of both at the same time.

Under the burning sun we reached the border at Chudik, exhausted. And here an amazing thing happened: The Soviet border guards did not allow us to cross the border. Those Soviets who had been in Shumsk gave us permission to cross the border, hinting encouragingly about our deeds, but their comrades turned us back. It was shocking. We remembered the scorn of the Ukrainians and were in trepidation that we would remain in their terrible trap.

After our heart-rending cries the commander of the border guards acceded to our request, went to his command post and returned with an order allowing us to continue into the Soviet area.

After we crossed the border we separated, each group going in a different direction. Our wagon went in the direction of Ostrog. When we reached the village of Plugno, about twenty kilometers from Ostrog, we heard the roar of cannons and a rumor that the Germans had already landed there. We knew that there was some basis to this rumor and so we changed our route and went in the direction of Lachovets.

On Friday, toward evening, after two days of travel, some on foot, walking behind the heavily loaded wagon, we reached Lachovets. The Jews there welcomed us warmly, with deep brotherly love. Even today this meeting of Jews is unforgettable. These Jews, who had been cut off from Judaism5, were thirsty to be with other Jews. We saw it clearly in their eyes. In the town I found my aunt and I stayed with her, together with my sister and Herzl Millman.

One Shabbat we heard a rumor that the Germans had been pushed back and that the Jews could now return to the towns in which they had lived.

We were happy to get this information and on that same Shabbat we returned home to Shumsk. Toward evening we arrived in the bosom of the town Shumsk that was so dear to us.

We returned as if nothing had happened. I immediately arranged for an inventory in our office and shops, and planned to continue as usual.

We worked quietly. But it was a heavy quiet, full of tension and uncertainty.

Monday morning the members of the Bolshevik party began to requisition large numbers of wagons, without giving any explanation to the residents of the town. Again we imagined ourselves wandering and returning, moving aimlessly.

A terrible depression and confusion hit us all. Opinions were divided. There were those who warned us of a fate like that of those refugees who had come to Shumsk. The sources of wisdom dried up. Confusion turned into fear.

People stopped speaking. From young to old we went out into the streets. Jews wanted to be together. We feared the fate of being separated. Even today the memory of that day accompanies me. It was a day like the eve of Yom Kippur, but falling on us at the wrong time of year. It was a day of judgment, accompanied by an unclear feeling of sin which burdened each heart and soul.

My distress was compounded. My wife's family – her brother Yosef, their mother Sara, my wife Koka and our child – were visiting then in Vozrodek, at their brother's home, and I was cut off from them and didn't know what to do and in what way I would meet them again. Would it be in Shumsk, if I remained, or in some other place if I decided to move?

My father felt my distress and tried to persuade me to remain. He didn't believe the rumors, didn't want to believe them. For him it was sufficient that no gunshots were heard to believe that “Things like that won't happen here.”

My mother begged me to remain and would not permit my sister to go with me. I somehow knew that I had to leave and not remain in Shumsk. I had worked for the Soviets, the Germans were at war with them and I was a Soviet. On the other hand I wanted to help my parents, to remain with them. What should I do?

My distress was great. I left my parents' home, going in the direction of my apartment, in the house of Grisha Akerman6. I would go to the Akermans. We could speak, converse, weigh the issue.

On my way there Yoske Mednik met me and said, “What about you? Are you still hesitating? We will be the first to be killed because we were Soviet officials.”

That was decisive.

I went into my room and took a suit and a backpack. I closed the room. I gave my sister-in-law, Fanya, the money that was in my pocket and the key to the apartment and asked her to take care of Koka and the child when they returned, and I left.

I went out, walking in the direction of the gemina (the city hall) where I saw a long convoy of wagons with Soviet officials who were preparing for the evacuation, and among them the wagon of the Municipal Company for Supplies, which Zalman Berger was driving. I too got on.

I sat there and rode with all the others.

I did not take leave of my parents.

Towards morning we reached Yampol. We thought that we would be able to rest in this Soviet town but there too they were preparing for evacuation.

People and cattle, goats and soldiers, officials and horses, everyone pulled and rode, alternating being on a wagon or beside it. The convoy got larger and larger and the evacuation continued slowly.

After a long, exhausting and depressing ride we reached Staro-Konstantinov.

The roads were packed with people and cattle, with no possibility of overtaking. A journey of four hours from Shumsk to Staro-Konstantinov took almost five times as long.

We stayed at the home of Etel Berensztejn, the daughter of Kovke7. She welcomed us into her home warmly, like a sister or relative would. We were ten or twelve people. Here we thought we would rest for a few days and then move on. We would see. The night was pleasant and calming. A deep night's sleep made us forgot everything.

In the morning we woke up to the sound of the roar of cannons, which came from the direction of Sheptovka. Near Etel's home was a base of the NKVD8. The officials were standing there and burning documents. We felt that something was happening and we hurried, going in the direction of the train station, to join the evacuation. I don't remember how we parted from our devoted hosts. We took our leave and went.

On the road we saw a Red Army unit that was retreating in panic from L'vov. At their head was a Jewish major. He told us of the terrible things that had befallen them and from him we learned that the danger was twofold, both from the Germans and from the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians viewed this as a historic moment to cleanse their country of Jews and other enemies, and they were firing together with the Germans on both the Jews and the Soviets.

For some reason on the way to the train station I wanted to return to Shumsk. I was deluged by longing for my wife, my adorable child, my unfortunate parents … and for my home. But Leib Landau persuaded me to go on, and in the end I did so. Longings for Shumsk and for my family hit me many times, and it could be that if I had had the opportunity I would have stayed with them. I stayed with Etel Berensztejn a few hours, tarrying on purpose. Maybe something would happen and I would return.

In the end, on July 3, 1941, I joined those who went to get on a train. I found other Shumskers in the station. We waited a long time for a train.

We got on a train and started to ride, not knowing where the train would take us.

The next morning the train was bombed. We left the carriages to find shelter in a field. When we returned to the train I couldn't find my friends.

The trip to Dunbas9 and to inner Russia was one of terrible suffering, a bombed-out train, friends who were killed, loneliness and death. I was swung on a pendulum between the danger of being killed to the difficulty of remaining alive, alone and friendless in the depths of a foreign place. But we continued.

On July 17, 1941, we reached Northern Kavkaz10. We were a group of some forty Jews who by chance united ourselves among the great confusion. They brought us to a kolkhoz11, and strangely, these same Soviets who are now, and for the past ten years have been, planning to annihilate us Jews received us then with open hearts12. They fed us, gave us something to drink, arranged for us to have a comfortable place to live and cared for us until the end of the year.

This is strange today but I feel it is necessary to state this. It is pleasant to remember the good things they did and the good people among them.

At the end of the year we were drafted into the Civil Guard, as helpers for the Red Army. And so we remained in Russia until the end of the war.

*

The course of my life until my immigration to Israel was one of pain, travail, hunger, shortage, loneliness. But these are personal experiences and I do not see them as belonging here. And so I will conclude this chapter on my memories of Shumsk and its inhabitants with the beginnings of the Holocaust. I have always felt I would return to my roots in Shumsk, a town which is dear to me, and to my brothers of this town who are no more.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Shumsk had been a part of Poland, very close to the eastern border of Poland with the Soviet Union, from 1920 until the enactment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 23, 1939. This pact was a non-aggression treaty in which Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics each pledged neutrality if the other were attacked by a third party. In addition, the treaty included a secret protocol dividing Northern and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, anticipating potential “territorial and political rearrangements” of these countries. After the pact was signed, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded their respective sides of Poland, dividing most of Poland between them. The Soviet invasion and annexation of eastern Poland, in which Shumsk is located, began on September 17, 1939. With this annexation Shumsk fell under the rule of the Soviet Union and the Communist economic system was introduced and enforced. Less than two years later, on June 22, 1941, the Germans broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and attacked the Soviet Union. Shumsk then fell under the rule of Nazi Germany. Return
  2. Shulik Kremer (Sheiki's): The translator believes the author wrote the wrong surname and was actually referring to Shaul Kremien, who owned a grocery store in Shumsk along with his brother Chaim. Shulik is a nickname for Shaul. The Krejmer family in Shumsk did not include a Shaul or Shulik, and the Krejmers dealt in horses and leather, not groceries. Return
  3. Both Yosef “Yoske” Mednik and Leib Landau survived the Second World War, Mednik settling in the United States and Landau in Israel. Yosef Mednik's experiences during the war are in the Yiddish section of this Yizkor Book, on pages 358-364. Return
  4. This photo in the Yizkor Book has no caption. The caption “Layze Finkelstein's house” comes from the same picture in the program/journal of a Shumsker Relief Society banquet held in March 1946 at Garfein's restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. The men in the picture are Pesach Bat, right, who lived in the one-story house on the right, which belonged to the Bat family; and Tuviya “Tevel” Wilsker, who lived with his immediate family in an apartment in the two-story house. The two-story house was built and owned by the Lazar Finkelstein family. It was the only two-story house in town, and its apartments were occupied by three families: the Wilskers; Nosson Finkelstein and his mother; and Mendel Mondrer, principal of the Tarbut school in Shumsk and the teacher of Polish, and his family. Pesach Bat passed away before World War II. Pesach Bat's son, Shlomo, immigrated to Palestine in 1934 or 1935 and Hebraicized his name to Bahat. Return
  5. Having been part of the Soviet Union since 1920, the Jews here had no contact with Jews outside their country, and most aspects of Jewish life had been forbidden Return
  6. Grisha Akerman was owner of a drugstore in Shumsk. Grisha's wife, Fanya, was the sister of Koka, the author's wife Return
  7. Etel (Berensztejn) Sheinshtein was a daughter of Kovka Berensztejn, a well-to-do and highly respected Jew in Shumsk. According to oral communication with one of Etel's descendants, Etel had been living in the Soviet Union , in Staro-Konstantinov, for many years before World War II broke out. Etel, her husband, Arno Sheinshtein and their younger daughter, then 20 years old, were killed in Staro-Konstantinov during the war. Their son, who was a physician, immigrated to Israel with his wife, his daughter and her family in 1993. Etel's large home, which was destroyed in the war, was where the many Shumskers stayed. Return
  8. NKVD – the Soviet secret police under Communist party leader Joseph Stalin. The letters stand for the official name given in 1932, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Return
  9. Dunbas is a heavily industrialized area in the eastern Ukraine. Return
  10. Kavkaz: Hebrew name for the general area of Caucasia, where many European Jews, including people from Shumsk, succeeded in surviving the war, the climate being much more temperate than Siberia, to which many were exiled. Return

  11. Kolchoz: A collective farm, of a type established in the Soviet Union. Return

  12. This article was written in 1967, just after the Six-Day War, when it became clear that the Soviet Union had been heavily arming and training the Syrian and Egyptian armies for a war against Israel for some time Return

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