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[Page 876]

The Last Days of Dr. Yitzhak Shifer[1]

by I. Likhterman

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

I arrived at the Majdenek [concentration camp] at Lublin on May 10, 1943, with the last transport of Jews sent out from the Warsaw ghetto. There were five fields at Majdenek, of which four were designated for men and one for women. I was assigned to the second field, 20th barracks, where I stayed for four weeks. Later I was sent to the third field, 6th barracks. I was assigned to the kitchen to peel potatoes and the block supervisor was told to bring me to the kitchen in the morning, before the [work] commands were formed.

The next morning, at around 6 am, I was already in a large hall where about 300 people were all busy peeling potatoes. There were 100 Poles, who were kept entirely separate from the Jews. There were Jews from all segments of society: doctors, lawyers, manufacturers, merchants from the Nalewlsi Street[2], even cantors and rabbis. As I entered the hall, I saw in a corner near the wall the great Jewish historian, former deputy to the sjem [Polish, legislature ], Dr. Yitzhak Shifer. Astonished, I stopped and saw this great personage hunched over, a knife in his hands with which he was peeling potatoes.

I wondered how he had managed to avoid the selektions,[3] where old people were picked out for the gas chamber. I came over, greeted him and asked if I could sit next to him. He pointed to the hall supervisor, a former Polish porutshnik [Pol.,lieutenant], who was the only person who could grant my request. When I asked the porutshnik for permission to sit next to Dr. Shifer he hit me on the back with a big stick so hard I was unable to move. This was the kind of welcome I received right at the beginning of my career.

[Page 877]

Don't think it was so easy to get assigned to the job of potato peeling at Majdenek. To obtain this position people would pay with gold teeth, gold coins and various valuables. Because I wanted so much to sit next to Dr. Shifer I appealed to the head of the kitchen. Thanks to his intervention and efforts, my request was granted. By the next day, I was seated next to Dr. Shifer and started to talk with him. He warned me to be careful, because the porutshnik mustn't know that we were talking on the job. Without exception, anyone who was caught talking would receive ten whip lashes on his bottom.

You had to work quickly and efficiently to meet the quota. Everyone had to peel six troughs of potatoes in three days and those who failed to do so were taken away and sent to punishment detail. But despite all these rules I decided to converse with him a little. I remember how he told me, “Dear friend, I won't be able to keep going much longer. I have gone through a lot here. Once they beat me so badly at work, they had to carry me back to the camp. This is how it happened:”

“While we were doing road work, an S.S. man came over to check if the numbers of the camp inmates were properly displayed. Unfortunately I was the first to be checked. My crime was that my number was dangling a bit and wasn't held firmly against my neck. For that I was beaten with a rubber truncheon so hard that I fell down and was unable to move. The S.S. man stood over me, screaming at me to get up, and kept beating me until I stood. But I was unable to stay on my feet. Then they raised me up into the air, put my head in a barrel of water and held me there several minutes, then ordered me again to stand up. Gathering my last bit of strength, I stood up and fainted, and lay there until noon. Only then did they carry me to the barracks.”

He showed me his legs, which were horribly swollen and varicosed. I asked him why he didn't go to the doctor or even the hospital. He replied that no one comes back from there. After several days, Dr. Shifer's condition got so much worse that he could no longer walk. I took on as my obligation and task, before I went to work, to go to the 11th barracks where Dr. Shifer slept, and together with his son in law, carry him to his work place. We carried him like this for four weeks. Then one day, as we sat at our work, we suddenly heard an order that everyone, without exception, had to leave the hall

[Page 878]

and go to the appel–plats,[4] where the whole camp would undergo a medical inspection.

We immediately understood what awaited us. After such sudden appels, many people were sent to the crematorium. Frightened and upset, I ran with Dr. Shifer's son in law from one superior to another, so they could advise us what to do. We decided to hide Dr. Shifer, because that was the only way we could we save his life for the time being. And that's what happened. We went out to the assembly place and Dr. Shifer was hidden.

The inspection lasted several hours, conducted by a military–medical commission of the S.S. The end result was that 300 Jews were sent to the ovens. (Other nationalities did not undergo such selektions.) These victims were sent to the 19th block, the so–called “gomel” block. The word gomel means a person so exhausted he is unfit for work. Such people remained in the 19th block until there were enough for a larger transport. Then, they were all sent to the gas chambers, and from there to the crematorium to be burnt.

Such selektions were conducted every few weeks and turned into a death sentence for many people. When we returned from the appel, we saw Dr. Shifer already sitting at his usual place, peeling potatoes. When he saw us he wept for joy. We assured him that everything had gone well, that the commission was a good one, because out of 6,000 people, they only picked out 300. But Dr. Shifer could not calm down because he knew what awaited him. He said, “If not today, it will be another time. I won't be able to avoid it because I am an old man with swollen legs.”

Sad, hungry, and dejected, we went back to peeling potatoes and carrying the sick doctor back and forth, until a certain day in July of 1943, when this great Jewish historian gave up his soul. He died a natural death, unable to withstand the work and the beatings. But he didn't die as a “gomel”, a person found unfit to work, but as a sick, exhausted and dejected prisoner, an inmate of the extermination camp Majdenek Lubelski [of Lublin].

Footnotes

  1. [Footnote in the original:] Translated from Polish and reprinted from “Documents and Materials,” Vol.I , Camps, adapted by Judge L. Blumental, Lodz, 1946, pp.167-170, Witness Testimony Number 85. Return
  2. Nalevkes: Yiddish name for Nalewlsi Street, the main Jewish commercial street in Warsaw. Return
  3. From the German selektion: selection of inmates for execution or forced labour. Return
  4. From the German appellplatz: the center or square where appel or roll-call took place in the camps. Appel was used not only for roll call and inspection, but also to humiliate, intimidate and punish. Return


[Page 879]

The Jewish Hospital During the Nazi Occupation

by Dr. Bernard Tesse (New York)

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

On September 6, 1939, the Nazi barbarians invaded Tarnow and occupied the town. This was the culmination of the panic, fear and desperation that had engulfed the entire Jewish population, who already knew exactly how the Germans had treated the Jews in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Entire Jewish families as well as individuals chose to flee east, opting for a life of wandering rather than remain under the Germans. Nevertheless a significant number of Jews stayed in town. It is hard to understand why they remained in the occupied town, but one reason is certain: it was a product of that eternal Jewish optimism: “It won't be so bad, people exaggerate.…”

Among the Jews who left there were a large number of doctors. Those who remained were concentrated in the Jewish hospital, which began to operate under the conditions imposed by the occupation. A number of the remaining doctors decided to devote themselves entirely to hospital work; the others did it only part–time.

The hospital director was and remained Dr. Evgeniush Shifer, a brilliant surgeon, outstanding diagnostician, and a good Jew, whose entire being was devoted to helping people.

In addition to him, Dr. Lustig and I also worked in the hospital. The others, as mentioned, worked part–time, dedicating much effort and energy and making a valuable contribution. Among these was the wise elder [Nestor] of Tarnow medicine, Dr. Tortshin Bloch. Always ready to serve, with his vast experience and medical knowledge he responded to every call, at any time, day or night, wherever his assistance was required.

At first the hospital did not suffer from the shortage of medicines because it had ample stores remaining from before the war. But when these reserves

[Page 880]

began to run out there was no possible way to replace them by official means. We struggled hard to obtain the needed supplies and although the Jewish council [Judenrat] tried to help, they accomplished little. Willingly or not, we had to rely on ourselves, and, as with everything at that time, had to do it on the black market, at very high prices. The hospital administration decided that the patients who were able to afford it should pay as much as necessary to assure the existence of the hospital. In many cases, a rich Jewish patient had to pay for ten poor ones.

It must be emphasized that the Jewish hospital attracted many young volunteers, fervently committed to serving their ailing brothers and sisters. Young girls worked as nurses and aides, often for sixteen to eighteen hours a day, exposing themselves to the danger of infection with Fleck typhus or intestinal typhus, which raged in the over–crowded Jewish quarters. Nothing could stop them from providing care to the unfortunate patients. I won't list the names of these, our devoted daughters, because I must rely on my memory and to omit any one of them would be a grievous wrong to each of them. The Jewish survivors of Tarnow will remember and render the greatest honor to the shining memory of these unknown heroines.

The same applies to the young Jewish boys –laboratory workers, orderlies and attendants –who devoted all their energy to

[Page 881]

keeping the hospital going. Without the help of these individuals there would have been no medical services in Tarnow at the most difficult time for the Jewish population. Who knows if we could have continued with our medical work even for a week without these young volunteers.

In 1940 there was a spate of persecutions of the hospital. Instigated by the director of the general hospital, a Ukrainian, the German authorities ordered that our upper floor be vacated, leaving us only the ground floor. Initially they had wanted to take the entire building, but by generously bribing the above–mentioned director of the general hospital, we managed to hold on to the ground floor, which was very important, since it held the X–ray machine, the operating room, and the bandaging room.

In order to accommodate the constant influx of patients, we gradually began to expand into the old–age home located near the hospital. Every day, one of the Ukrainian authorities from the general hospital would visit and conduct a search in order to confiscate a surgical or other instrument. They had an insatiable appetite for stealing Jewish property.

[Page 882]

In 1941 we were evicted entirely from the Jewish hospital building and forced to move into the old–age home. Anyone who remembers that building can just imagine the conditions in which we had to work. With great difficulty we set up a primitive operating room and a maternity ward, adapting to our changed circumstances and expanding needs. At that time, Tarnow held not only Jews who lived in the town and in the entire surrounding area, but we also had to care for sick Jews from the work camps near Rozvadov and even from Sanz. Despite these terrible conditions, all the patients received medical and supportive help, and accordingly, the mortality rate was relatively low. The outpatient clinic and pharmacy were open all day and hundreds of patients received free medical care.

After the third deportation, when they created Ghettos A and B, the hospital was evicted from the old age home and moved to a house on Synagogue [Shul] Street, opposite the Mikvah [ritual bath]. When we were expelled, we weren't allowed to take with us any instruments or medicines, and we had to start over from scratch. Two Tarnow Jews, Y.Shveber and Shmulik Vaytz, came to our aid, exploiting their contacts outside the ghetto to provide us with the most essential things to continue serving the sick.

This primitive hospital did not last long. When the ghetto was liquidated, the S.S. shot all the patients and demolished the hospital. For the few remaining Jews we set up an outpatient clinic at the bus stop square, which lasted until the final liquidation, when all of the Jews were shot in the town itself or sent to death camps in Plaszow.

The Jewish hospital in Tarnow carried out its mission during this tragic era. No sick Jew was refused medical care. Hundreds of illnesses were cured, including infectious diseases. The hospital was not only a medical center but also a refuge for tens of Jews during the deportations. Every evening, the hospital staff gathered together and one of the young attendants, Kh.Organd who listened to Radio London, gave us the latest political news and news from the fronts. We gave each other mutual support and tried to sustain optimism in order to keep up our strength and continue in our important work.

For the entire period our work was hard and dangerous. Surgeries were performed to the accompaniment of

[Page 883]

the clattering of the machine guns the Germans used to murder Jews at the nearby cemetery, where thousands of our brothers and sisters were killed.

I wanted, with these recollections, to duly honor the hospital staff, who sacrificed their young lives for the community, helping their sick brothers and sisters.

 

tar1_880.jpg
Dr. Bernard Tesse and his wife Esther and their child
(During the war each one lived in a different German concentration camp, and only after the war did they reunite in Tarnow. They live today in New York)

 

tar1_881.jpg
Doctors and nurse of the Jewish hospital in Tarnow during the German occupation.

 

[Page 884]

Reflections

by Rokhl Postrang[1]

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

In plain, unadorned language I want to describe my pain, which is only a fraction of the general pain and suffering our brothers and sisters endured during the Nazi occupation. I managed to survive the storm of war. Thanks to what? Was it strength, weakness, or luck? Can one even speak of luck after what happened to us?

I could not remain in the place where I had so deeply loved those who I will never see again, those who died in such a horrible manner. For me, every stone there is a grave, and the whole town a cemetery. I left Tarnow, but my memories don't want to leave me. The night, which brings rest and sleep to others, becomes hell for me. Ghostly images pass before my eyes, congealing the blood in my veins.

I see the emaciated faces of the old people, the frightened eyes of the children, the helpless mothers wringing their hands in desperation. The Germans marked us with armbands. A brother was unable to help his brother, a sister her sister, a mother her child. We were no more guilty than anyone else. Why then did we have to bear the entire blame?

They took from us the dearest, incinerated the most holy, robbed us of the best and the most beautiful. They carried out our extermination to the end, constantly issuing new decrees to make our already bitter lives even more bitter.

There came the time of the ghetto. They shut us up in a cramped area, surrounded by a tall fence, guarded by German and Polish patrols. The ghetto

[Page 885]

was turned into living hell. Every room held several families. There wasn't space for everyone so they broke up furniture and burnt it so that each person could have a place to stretch out his tired limbs at night. Only then did we understand how little we needed to survive.

We looked at each other in painful silence, our vision as foggy as our thoughts, and tried to make sense of all of this. Life was no longer so precious; we waited for death to come soon.

Then came the first deportation. Everyone tried to hide. The attics and cellars were filled to overflowing. People tore up the floorboards to make a hiding place. We believed and convinced ourselves that these were the Germans' last hours; that they were being beaten at the front and that because of that, they wanted to take their revenge on us.

The ones who didn't hide had to report to the assembly place. There they lined us up again and counted us. To complete the spectacle, they had us march in military formation, our right hands raised, painfully holding up our Jewish identity cards. When we were all marching, they set their dogs on us, dogs who often displayed more compassion than their masters.

With one flick of a finger, it was decided who would live and who would die. That's how we were separated, men and women, brothers and sisters. Saddest of all were the little children clinging to their mothers' dresses, as if they sensed the horror of the moment, or the people who walked around among their peers, as if taking a last look at this world.

Young mothers pushed away their young children, so as to be able to pose as single able-bodied women qualified to work. An interesting response then arose among the single young men, who claimed the rejected children, and went together with them to their martyrdom.

I will never be able to forget the picture of the Tarnow market square on a summer day, where they drove thousands of Jews on their way to annihilation. The sun beat down mercilessly with its hot rays, as if helping the enemy to make our last minutes of life even harder.

Right at the entrance to the market place, lay a whole cluster of small children, wrapped in pillows, one on top of the other. You could hear their stifled cried. A bit further off stood the old people, who had been forced to put on tallis and tefillin [prayer shawls and phylacteries]. So that the murderers wouldn't be bored they ordered the old people to dance, mercilessly beating them as they did so. Opposite the old people they lined up the young people and shot in the head those who were taller and stuck out over

[Page 886]

the others. The people who had fainted at the sight of such shocking images were thrown into trucks and driven away, never to return.

My whole family perished in this manner. I lost everyone. I saw them all as they marched past, only a few meters away, on their final journey. I ran over to them, wanting to hug and embrace these people so dear to me. But I was brutally pushed away and beaten. At that moment, all of the condemned felt near and dear to me.

We, the small handful of survivors, are we even capable of living, or of smiling?

We stand at the crossroads. How can we find our away in the labyrinth of roads and ways?

Paris, 1948

Footnote

  1. [Footnote in the orginal:] Died in Paris in 1952; survived the Nazi occupation in Tarnow. Return


[Page 887]

My Town – A Cemetery

by Dr. David Aykhenholts

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Did you know that our town, Tarnow, was barely damaged during the Second World War? The houses, factories and workshops built by Poles and Jews over the course of generations still stand. The long streets stretch out as they did before, beginning at Krakovske [Krakowska Street], passing over Walowa Street [Valove] up to the Pilsner Gate and Lwowska Street [Lvovske]. The old stone and brick buildings stand fast: the old Town Hall [Ratusz], of which Tarnow was so proud; a whole array of churches with their tall, pointy towers; and all the elementary schools and gymnasiums [academic high schools] with which our childhood memories are bound up.

All that is missing are the almost thirty thousand Jews, Tarnow Jews, the once strong, active and proud community which worked hard and persistently and created spiritual and material riches. Also missing are: the New Synagogue with its cupola, which could be seen for miles; the Old Synagogue [Shul]; the Devorah Menker Synagogue [Dvore Menker Shul]; the Beit Midrash [besmedresh: house of study, also used for worship] and minyanim [sing. minyan–small prayer group]. All of these were destroyed in the first weeks of the war by German bombs, just as they turned into ash the whole part of the town where the ghetto was located.

The factory buildings stand, like eyes that have been poked out, on empty, burnt–out lots, gravestones for the poked–out Jewish community.

If your road takes you to the fish market, you will immediately see an odd gravestone, which is a remnant of the Old Synagogue. This is the bimah [platform from which the Torah is read] which to this day stands supported by four pillars, and proved stronger than the flames. The Germans did not inflict further damage on it, even though they were often on this ground. The remaining bimah is overgrown with grass like an old, venerable tombstone.

In a photograph obtained from German sources you can see how the brown–shirted bandits drove aged Jews from the old age home to the cemetery to kill them there. Among the gravestones one can also see the tragic figures of the condemned, shuffling along like shadows, breathing their last breaths.

[Page 888]

Yes, the bloodthirsty German beasts left us as a legacy this document of their horrific brutality.

If you walk the streets of Tarnow you become increasingly certain that during the terrible war, it was actually only Jewish Tarnow that suffered and was burnt and totally destroyed. And just like other big and small towns in Poland, Tarnow appears to us as a cemetery, a heap of stone, a mountain of ruins.

tar1_888.jpg
The bimah of the destroyed Old Synagogue
in Tarnow overgrown with grass

 

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