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[Page 244]

A Girl in the Storm

by Ester Roter (Shein) of Jerusalem[1]

{Photo page 244: Uncaptioned. Ester Roter.}

Only now, at the beginning of 1947, will I try to write down the events that happened to me before I arrived in the Land. These days were difficult, and therefore they are etched so deeply in my memory. It seems to me that these things occurred only yesterday or the day before, despite the fact that about five years have passed since then. My happy days of childhood before the outbreak of the war, when I was with my parents and dear family, today seem to be as a pleasant, sweet dream that passed and is no longer. Perhaps it was never a reality… All those days seem to me as from behind a thick, unreal veil…

 

Prior to the Outbreak of the War

The vacation days were coming to their end, and with that, the anticipation of beginning of school. I had completed grade one in a fine fashion. In that grade, we only learned Yiddish, and we were to start learning Russian in grade two. There were already new books in Yiddish and Russian at home. They were beautiful and merry with their colored pictures. At time, I would approach them, and peer at them, as if to say: In another few days, we will start… A certain fear came over me as I was waiting for that happy, longed-for day when I would finally be able to put these books into my schoolbag and go to school with them. I cannot explain this feeling that I already felt already then, of fear that I would not succeed in this, and that fate was bringing difficult, terrible days for me.

 

And the War Broke Out

The war broke out on June 22, 1941. The city was bombarded at dawn. Echoes of the bombardment woke my parents. They jumped up and went outside. An astonishing site was revealed before their eyes: The Red Army was seen leaving the city in haste. It seemed that this was already the end of the retreating Red Army, and that it was already too late for my parents and

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others like them to leave the city along with the army. Had they known the full situation before, they might have accompanied the retreating army.

I continued to sleep, and the bombardment did not awaken me. I got up, as usual, with the warm June sun rays. It was only after I got up that I found out about the bombardment of the city and the hasty retreat of the Red Army. I got dressed quickly. I tied my wild curls back and ran outside. At that time, we lived in Grandfather's home in the center of town next to the marketplace. The area was primarily Jewish. Outside, I saw many Jews gathering in small groups and discussing what was happening. My parents, like most of the Jews of the town, did not leave. They had to concern themselves with my grandfather and grandmother. Escaping with the remnants of the Russian Army seemed too dangerous. And to remain?… It seemed that it was difficult to conceive of what was about to happen.

 

The Germans Arrive in Town

I recall well the day that the Germans entered town. It was literally in center of town, and it was possible to see very well what was going on in the entire city from Grandfather's house. Their entry was with great splendor and fanfare. The Ukrainians greeted them with joy and flowers. The Poles appeared less merry. The Jews hid in their houses, waiting for what was to come. The streets of the town were decorated with German flags and yellow Ukrainian flags.

The Jews were not left for long in false hope about the future. The decrees were not long in coming. When the evil began, it broke out without break, and without any possibility of catching one's breath and getting a reprieve. As we were still groaning from one decree, the next one came -- harsher and crueler than the first one. First, they ordered the Jews to bring their furs in order to contribute to the wartime efforts of the Reich. After this came the ban on Jewish children from attending school. All of the children, starting from age 12, were forced to wear the Blue Star of David as a sign of their Jewishness. The Jews were forbidden from selling anything to the gentiles, and the gentiles were forbidden from providing food provisions to the Jews. Thus did the tension of the Jews increase even before the aktions.

At first, the Jews attempted to circumvent the decrees to the best of their ability. People continued to conduct barter transactions with the gentiles in order to obtain a bit of food, and we children continued to study. A small group of children was organized, to be taught in secret. We studied Polish and Ukrainian. The conditions of study were not simple. We had to change the place of our studies each week. During the hours of study, someone had to stand outside constantly and guard us. I was among the few children who continued to study in this

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organized manner, but this did not last long. The danger increased continually. Our studies ceased completely when the large aktion came and our teacher was caught in it.

 

The Era of Atrocities and Fear

The summer ended. These were not easy days. Slowly, our human image and the source of faith in humanity were removed from us. Hunger tormented us. Many people went bankrupt. Here and there, one could see people swollen with hunger, but for most of us this was still a period in which it was possible to live somehow - and was a Jew not schooled in suffering and tragedy? During this period, they did not yet nullify our lives with force and suddenness, but rather in a gradual fashion… Nevertheless, this allocation did not satisfy the Nazi beast, and the period of mass murder began with the aktions.

 

The First Aktion

The first aktion took place at the beginning of winter. This was on a Wednesday afternoon. I was sitting with a neighbor when another neighbor entered and reported that she had seen Ukrainians dragging away a Jewish woman. We did not want to believe this, but we went out nevertheless to see what had happened. When we realized that this was something suspicious, and we all fled to my grandmother's residence. I was sent to call another neighbor who lived near our house. I went, but I did not reach her home. I stood for a few moments pondering what was transpiring, and I did not grasp what my eyes were seeing. Ukrainian policemen could be seen around, dragging men, women, youths and babies behind them. I stood for a moment and suddenly understood that something terrible was unfolding before my eyes. A deep fear overtook me, and, with a sudden instinctive decision, I turned back and ran to Mother. When I reached the door, I already saw her going out to look for me. Everyone was already worried about me. We all sat down in my grandmother's dwelling on the second storey of the building and waited. We sat that way all night, avoiding all light. We did not shut our eyes. My father and grandfather were not at home, and we were worried that we were already separated. Thus did we sit until 4:00 a.m. Then, we decided to go down to a small, back room on the first floor, which seemed to be safer at that time. About a half an hour after we went down to that room, we heard footsteps approaching the dwelling which we had left. We heard strong knocking on the door, and then a wild voice. Our hearts melted. We did not believe that we were indeed saved.

At 5:00 a.m., we heard light knocking on door of the room in which we were sitting. This was my grandfather. He joined us, and from his words, we found out what had happened to him. That whole time, he was

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in a neighboring house, when he suddenly heard footsteps and knocking on the door. All the men in the room went down to the cellar. From there they heard how all the women, who had remained in the house, were taken. The men were unable to help, so they continued to lie down in the cellar, frozen. Toward morning, my grandfather went out to go home. Along the way, he saw a flickering light that was lit for a moment and then went out in the small room in which we were. This light led him to us. He ended his story with sadness, “The truth is, I thought that I had nobody left, and therefore I decided to endanger myself and go out.” He was very perplexed, and from that time, he became very hard of hearing.

This aktion ended at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday. Then my father also appeared. We found out that, at the beginning of the aktion, he escaped to a certain house and hid there.

When we returned to my grandmother's dwelling, we found that it had been broken into. The rooms were desolate, and the cold was terrible. We were hungry, thirsty and in despair. The news on what had happened arrived later, when people already dared to leave their houses. We found out that about 500 Jews were taken in the aktion. Children were not taken in that aktion, and mothers who held their children next to them were also saved. Pieces of news of the atrocity arrived in quick succession. The 500 people were murdered by the Germans close to the city, in a place called Cygalnia (the brickyard). The Jews were shot into an open common grave.

We were distressed. All possibilities had been closed off. We understood what awaited us. They had already succeeded in “domesticating” us. We had already entered into a state of dulled senses and the lack of all options of a “sit and do nothing” state.

The aktion passed, and life, as is customary, returned slowly to its “normal path.” The story of our salvation seemed to be ludicrous and illogical, for people hiding in more secure places had been exposed and perished in that aktion. According to the Germans, the pretext for that aktion was the capturing of several Jews at the border with furs. Of course, it later became clear that the reason for stating pretext of this aktion was the premeditated, pernicious politics, the purpose of which was to mislead, subdue, and apparently convince the Jews that this aktion was a singular occurrence due to a one-time deed; and that there was no need to fear and suspect anything so long as they heed the commands and fulfill them with precision. Indeed, this was just a portion of the opium that was fed to the Jews in order to mislead them in a grand fashion… And this was only the beginning of 1942.

 

The Second Aktion

The second aktion was not long in coming. It took place on a Sunday at the beginning of the summer. It began very suddenly. My mother and I were in the city on our way

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to my friend, when we suddenly saw a Ukrainian policeman running. My mother fled, and I followed her. Our paths separated. Jewish men quickly took me into their home. My father and several other Jews fled to the Jewish cemetery where they hid until the end of the aktion. After a short time, my mother succeeded in finding me, and we remained in a hidden room at the home of a Jewish family. We returned home at night.

This aktion, which only lasted for a relatively brief time, was very cruel. Anyone who was in the path of the murderers, including elderly people and youths, children and mothers, were taken. This time, they did not pass over the communal officials. In this aktion as well, the Jews were taken to a place outside the city and murdered between Rozluch and Volosyanka.

*

The aktion passed, and those that remained returned to their torments. The hunger grew in the city. Many people went bankrupt. Potato peels became a desired commodity. Most of the Jews had already traded their property for a morsel of bread or a few potatoes. The nice furniture was removed and replaced with old, broken furniture. Clothing was reduced to a minimum. Incidents of Germans torturing the Jews became daily occurrences.

The situation became progressively worse in our home as well. I often felt pangs of hunger, despite the fact that the four adults withheld food from their mouths in order to provide for me, their only daughter, to the extent possible. At the time I did not realize, and I only found out later, that they went to lie down at 6:00 in order to skimp on supper, which they would then give to me.

My mother and grandmother sold everything in order to purchase food. At that time, my parents decided to move to the dwelling in which we lived before the arrival of the Russians. This was in a house on the other side of the bridge, close to the Jewish cemetery. During that era, the Jews began to better understand what was awaiting them. Hiding places were prepared in every house, so that they would not be as completely helpless as they were during the first and second aktions. Our plan was to escape to a hiding place at my grandfather's. In the meantime, the residents of the house in which we now lived decided to prepare their own hiding place, and we joined in as well. They decided to break the floor on the first floor to create an entrance to the cellar, and to camouflage the entrance. However, the Germans did not wait until the end of the preparations… The third aktion, later known as the Large Aktion, began the day after the commencement of the work of preparing the hiding place.

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The Large Aktion

It was early in the morning. We woke up to the call of our neighbor, who awakened my mother and told her that she saw a woman knocking on the door of a neighbor. After she told us what she had to say, everyone got up and fled from the house. We got dressed quickly, and my father ran to the communal office to find find out what happened. When my father tarried, my mother sent me also to call him. I ran and returned quickly to tell them that I did not find him there. When I returned, my parents and other residents of the house, one large family, were standing and preparing the little bit of provisions that we had. The food was packed, for we were going to escape to our grandfather that day, because the hiding place that we were going to prepare in our house was not yet ready.

Suddenly, shots were heard from all sides. We stood there without any possibilities. We were trembling like captured rabbits, surrounded by hunters. Without any choice, we went down to the unfinished hiding place, which seemed like our last resort for salvation despite its obvious shortcomings. Our eight-person family, as well as my good friend of the same age, sat there together. Despite this, Father decided to try to go to Grandfather and Grandmother, come what may. He indeed succeeded in getting to their house, but he no longer found them there. Their good hiding place that they had prepared had been broken into, and was empty. He returned in despair and joined us.

We all crowded into the cellar. My mother and I took the place closest to the door. We all sat there trembling from cold and fear. After sitting there for about a quarter of an hour, we heart the shouts of the Jewish policemen announcing that all the Jews must present themselves at the train station with 15 kilograms of luggage. I loved traveling by train very much, and I wanted to go up to our home to begin to pack our belongings - but my mother displayed exemplary calm… She said that in her opinion, we would not hold up the train, for it was impossible to fit all the Jews from the city and area (the Jews of the area were also gathered for this aktion) onto one train. We continued to sit there, waiting for what fate would bring us.

We sat quietly. The announcements stopped. Here and there, we heard isolated shots. There was a barn nearby, and we heard the mooing of the cows from afar. The isolated shots that we heard on occasion proved to us that there were other Jews who, like us, did not go to the train. The feeling that we were not alone strengthened us, and we continued to sit in the darkness, crowded, hungry and thirsty.

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This aktion lasted for four days, and the little bit of food we possessed was used up. The thirst particularly afflicted us. We sat in quiet, when we suddenly heard the voice of a man speaking in Ukrainian to our neighbor, a Ukrainian girl. She opened up the door of her locker in the cellar. They broke into the other lockers one after another. They got closer to our hiding place, which was in the last locker in the cellar. The locker next to us had been broken into. The knocking of the Ukrainian policemen approached, and their voices grew louder. My heart stopped beating out of fear. I nestled up closely with my mother in order to quiet the chattering of my teeth and to draw from her the full quota of strength and hope that she had in her power to give me. We waited - and the moment arrived. They reached the door of the locker in which we were sitting. We heard the knocking on the door of our locker. It was clear to all of us that this was the end from which we had tried to escape. From fear, we continued to sit there, frozen and paralyzed. Suddenly… the knocking stopped. In the quiet that pervaded, we heard the voice of one of the Ukrainians: “There is nobody here, don't waste your energy.”

They left the cellar… and we began to breathe. It was hard to believe that we had been saved that time as well. This was on the first day of the aktion. We continued to sit there as each of us tried to express our feelings and thoughts at the moment we heard the knocking on the door. We all began to believe in some strong power that was watching over us and directing our steps. We continued to sit there for a day or two (I do not know exactly for how long, for we lost track of time due to the extreme darkness) until we once again heard them entering the cellar. The locker door of the Ukrainian girl was broken into. Then, they came to the door of our cellar. This time, it was the Germans - but they satisfied themselves with several knocks on the door of our locker, and they disappeared. We were once again saved with a new miracle. It is hard to understand why they passed over this locker. There was no difference between it and the other four lockers that they had broken into previously. However, as we saw, strange events took place that cannot be explained or understood with straight logic. After the second visit, we understood that there were still Jews in hiding, and that we were among many others. Needless to say, this feeling imparted us with a certain strength.

This terrible aktion lasted for four days. At the end of the aktion, we went to our dwelling, which had not been harmed or pillaged during this aktion. My mother gave the Ukrainian girl many presents. The girl told us that she told the Germans that we had already gone to the train. We were not certain about her trustworthiness, but we attempted to maintain good relations with our Ukrainian neighbor.

Almost every family, including our family, lost some of their relatives in this aktion. This time, my maternal grandfather, my aunt and uncle were taken. (My uncle later jumped off the train -

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and was saved). My paternal grandmother and grandfather, whom I especially loved and with whom I had grown up and been educated, were taken. We later found out the story of how they were captured. When Grandmother heard the announcements, she hurried to pack two suitcases, one for her and one for Grandfather. After she called other neighbors, they all set out for the train. Along the way, near our house, Grandfather attempted to escape in order to find out if we too had left. He was beaten by a Ukrainian guard when he attempted to turn to us. Only then did they realize that something is amiss, but it was too late.

*

The loss of Grandfather and Grandmother affected greatly. After that aktion, I sat and cried a great deal. I could not pass by the dwelling in which they had lived without bursting out crying. After some time, I got brave and went to their dwelling. I saw a terrible sight. The house in which I had grown up, ran, danced, rejoiced and played stood before me empty and ruined. Letters from my uncle in the Land of Israel were scattered on the floor. This was a terrible moment, and I have no words to describe what was transpiring in my soul. Only then did I realize that everything that had taken place around me affected me directly. Indeed, everything that had taken place happened in order to accustom me to the idea that death was lurking, and would soon catch up with me. I left the place and ran home with my remaining strength. I fell upon my bed and lay down paralyzed. My heart was about to burst from the great pain locked up within it. After some time I succeeded in bursting out crying, and the tears eased my pain…

That night, I spoke at length to my father. I told him that I was afraid of death, that I wanted to live… My father tried to calm me, or more precisely, to lead me to acceptance of what was awaiting us. He explained me that all of those killed go directly to Heaven, where things are good. There, they receive a recompense for every feeling of the pangs of death. He promised me that there I would meet my grandfather and grandmother, and that my parents would also be there. All of this calmed me. Indeed, from that time, I stopped being so afraid of death. Certainly, I did everything to guard my life, but death seemed very close. Again, there was something about it that was good and recognized. The fear that had overtaken me earlier was assuaged…

 

The Fourth Aktion

It was a Saturday, and we were all still lying in our beds. (At that time, another family, the Richter family who were friends of my parents, lived in our house). Suddenly, we heard strong knocking on the door and heard shouts from the other side of the house. We had nowhere to flee

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this time… Everyone instinctively searched for some sort of shelter. My mother jumped under the double bed. My mother's friend, Chancha Richter, who slept with my mother that night, jumped into the closet. I ran under the third iron bed that had no mattress, and upon which nobody slept. My father was the only one who sat quietly on his bed and began to get dressed. In the meantime, a policeman broke the door of the kitchen and even broke into our house. He approached my father directly shouting, “Where are the others?!” The policeman did not wait for my father's response. He bent down and began to beat my mother who was lying under the bed. I saw blood flowing from her leg, and no longer had the power to remain quietly in my hiding place. I came up from under the bed and pleaded with the policeman to stop beating my mother. I told him that I was already dressed, and would go. He looked at me, and with a final act of mercy stopped beating my mother before my eyes. He ordered us to get dressed quickly, and left the room in haste. All of this lasted for a few minutes. My father finished getting dressed and went out. My mother went out to the front porch in order to see what could be done, and returned immediately. On her way to the stairwell where all the residents of the house were gathering, she succeeded in telling me that I should not leave the house under any circumstances, but should go to hide under the bed. I decided to hide under the quilt. We debated for a few minutes. My mother suddenly ran out of the room, and I chose a place under the quilt, for I thought that they would certainly not look for me there.

I lay down quietly without moving. A policeman entered the room to check whether we had all left, and I continued to lie quietly. It began to rain outside. I heard shots and the barking of dogs. I lay down, trembling in fear. I was especially afraid of the dogs. In the eyes of my spirit, I saw a giant dog falling upon me and tearing me apart with his teeth. I felt sorry for myself. I understood that I would not be able to mislead a dog. I recalled all the stories of the good hiding places that had been revealed with the help of the German dogs. In the meantime, everything became quiet around me. Even the barking of the dogs became more distant. I continued to lie quietly, afraid to move a hand or foot. Hours passed in this manner. I got off the bed during the afternoon and walked about the room. I suddenly realized that I remained alone… I began to weep quietly. I knew now that instead of dying next to my father, I would die alone.

Suddenly, I heard someone calling my name. The closet door opened, and my mother's friend Chancha got out. It was easier for me, for I was no longer alone as the only Jew in the city, as I had thought. I resolved in my heart that I would never leave her if she would only agree to go with me together. I asked her if she would take me now (of course, I already understood at that time that we children were often an obstacle in the path of escape of the adults). Together, we tried to leave the dwelling in order to hide in the cellar or the attic. We tried to open

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the door, but to our dismay, the door was locked form the outside by a hanging lock. We were in despair. Having no option, we returned to our hiding places. After a short time, we again heard a strong knocking at the door. The door was broken into with force. In the room, we heard the loud voices of the Ukrainian policemen, including that of the infamous Vlochok. (As is known, before every aktion, they would bring in Ukrainian policemen from Stara-Sambor to perpetrate the deed.) The door of the closet was opened, and I heard how they captured Chancha. They demanded silver and gold from her, but she told them that she had nothing to give them. They continued to search through the room for hidden people and money. I continued to lie quietly, without moving a limb. The policemen lifted the quilt of the bed next to mine, and tossed it on the bedpost. Then they approached the bed in which I was lying. They felt through the quilt, but did not lift it up as they had done on the other bed. They lifted a pillow that was resting at the edge of the bed, and threw it in the middle, right where I was lying. From under the bed, they took out boxes with various things, and put them on the bed, that is, on top of me, searching for gold and silver, as they had told Chancha. They then took her and left. I remained quietly in my place, without daring to move. Then, I put my head out a bit in order to breathe. Again, I was not taken. Again, I remained alone, having attempted to protect my eight-year-old life. Even today, as a 14-year-old girl, I am unable to understand my behavior of that time. Apparently, this was the urge to live, an instinct of self preservation, a feeling of a pursued animal that urged me to continue and seek salvation.

After a short time, I again heard voices in the room - this time, quiet ones. For some reason, I let down my guard and raised my head. The lifting of my head caught the attention of two Ukrainian policemen, who approached the bed. I lay quietly, but some of my hair was apparently exposed. I heard their conversation as they approached my bed. One policeman said to the other: “Here is a young Jewess - is it worthwhile to shoot her?” I did not wait for an answer. It was clear to me that if I were to look at him directly, he would simply kill me. I jumped out of the bed and looked straight into the eyes of the policeman who asked the question. He shouted at me to lie down quietly. I heard him answer, “Leave her, there is no reason anymore.” I again lifted my head and asked them to save my parents. I told them that I would give them money in return for this, but they laughed at me. I was afraid to lie down, and decided to go outside.

I put my shoes on quickly and left the house in a hurry, leaving behind the two policemen to pillage anything they wanted. I went down the stairs. After thinking briefly, I went to our Polish neighbors who lived in the next house. I entered, told them what had happened to my parents. I asked them if they knew anything about my parents, and if perhaps they would be able to let me

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stay with them until the end of the aktion. Then I would try to check who is left of my family, and figure out what to do. I knew this family well. They had a daughter of my age with whom I used to play frequently. I often visited their house. But this time, they literally chased me out, “Jewess, your presence here will endanger us all. Go, go.” I stood there for another second attempting to hold back my tears. I suddenly felt how alone I was: without parents, without a protector, with a short skirt, with old, wet shoes (it was raining outside). I again lost my will to live. I went out and started to amble through the streets, looking for my parents, waiting for the moment when they would take me too, for what was awaiting me that was worse than death itself. On the street, I met the Ukrainian girl who lived in our house. In the meantime, she moved to live somewhere else, in a less Jewish neighborhood. The girl asked me to come with her to her dwelling. I realized that the danger existed that she might take me straight to the Germans. She was very friendly with the Ukrainian policemen who came to town. Despite this, she often said that she wanted to help Jews. Our relationship to her was “honor her but suspect her”. I agreed to her offer. I began to walk with her, or more precisely, to walk behind her, so that we would not be seen walking together. As we approached her house, I heard a voice calling my name. This was Bruner, a friend of the family and a customer of Grandfather's store. I then thanked the girl for her willingness to bring me to her house. I explained to her that anything could happen to me at any moment, and I preferred to be together with Jews. I entered Bruner's house, told him everything that I knew, and asked him about the situation. He told me that the snatchings have now stopped. The train already left the city, but the policemen are still present, and it was not clear if this was the end or simply a brief break. Perhaps another train would arrive and the aktion would continue.

I remained there for a brief time, and felt the stifling atmosphere of fear. I felt that I had no more energy to sit in a closed Jewish house and flee whenever I would see the face of a German or a Ukrainian policeman. I decided to continue wandering through the city. Outside, the rain had stopped, and the air was clear and pleasant. I wandered through the streets of the city, without even stopping at puddles. Before I stepped in such a puddle, I stopped for a moment and recalled the warnings of my mother not to walk in puddles. I then deliberately stepped into it, as if to say that I can do whatever I want… I no longer had a mother or father who would get angry, and I should enjoy the brief bit of freedom that I still have before they take me as well. I recall that aimless ambling through the streets, without any purpose, as I enjoyed the freedom after the stifling atmosphere of the hiding place. I walked and visited all those places that I loved, as if to bid them farewell… I was enjoying the clear air after the rain for the last time. I ignored

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my thoroughly wet shoes, and the incidents of people pointing to me, saying, “See, a Jewess remains!…” Here and there, I heard derogatory remarks about the little Jewess. I was already immune from these remarks. I was fully engaged with my inner world, recalling memories of my brief childhood and my dreams that would never be fulfilled.

On my strange walk, I passed the house of a member of the communal leadership. Awakening from my thoughts, I decided to go up and hear if perhaps they know something about my parents and my relatives. I went to them. They listened to my story in agony, and told me that they do not know anything about my parents. They added that the situation is still unclear, and they advised me to remain with them until it would be possible to clarify anything. There, I took off my wet shoes. They gave me big, warm boots to wear until my shoes would dry out. We all sat in the kitchen, as one of them looked out of the window to see if the Germans or Ukrainians were approaching. Once, two Ukrainian policemen were seen coming in the direction of the house. They all escaped to their hiding places. They left me behind, saying that I was small and could hide behind the bed. I did this. It was not pleasant for me to remain alone again, but I had no choice. Apparently, they did not want to bring me into their hiding place and reveal it to me. It is also possible that they were not looking for another person whom they would have to feed. (They were not bad people. They were not at all worse than the others, but such was the situation. Everyone worried only about themselves and those closest to them. They concerned themselves with a hiding place and food, and were not prepared to add another concern to their concerns.)

After it became clear that the incident with the policemen was a false alarm, we returned to the room and sat together until nighttime. We all ate something. They also gave me something to eat, and told me to go to sleep in the other room. It was hard for me to fall asleep. I only fell asleep after a long cry, and I woke up on occasion with nightmares. I got up very early in the morning, and entered the kitchen where voices were calling out. I entered - and good news awaited me. They quickly told me that my father had survived! He came to them at 12 midnight, and they told him that I was there. He looked at me and did not want to wake me up. He decided that he would come the next day to take me home. I did not have the patience to wait. They covered me up in a large sheet, gave me a pair of boots several sizes too large - and I went home. It was still dark outside. Encouraged about the news of my father, I hurried home. I would have actually run, but the large boots held me back. I finally reached the gate of our house. I knocked and called out “Father.” He heard my call, and came to greet me and open the gate. The gate opened, and my beloved father stood next to me, hale and whole. I fell into his arms crying, and asked about Mother. He told me that Mother had also survived. With this news, we went up to our dwelling.

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It was clear that they had not slept all night. A light was burning in the kitchen. Mother prepared coffee. Father's friend Elisha Richter was also in the house. I had been a witness to the snatching of his wife Chancha. I told him everything that I knew and had heard about his wife before she was taken. The family that lived next to us, who had been with us in the previous aktion, had also been taken. The house was almost empty. Our house had been pillaged. Only a few old things, which the robbers did not succeed in taking, remained.

We all sat together, and each of us told our story.

 

Father's Story

As I have already stated, my father had left the dwelling and entered the stairwell, where the policemen were gathering all the residents of the house. He went down to the yard with all of them. There were many other Jews from the nearby houses there. He took advantage of the confusion, with the shouting and weeping, and began to run. The policemen shot after him. One bullet skirted his sleeve. He continued to run and did not stop. He managed to reach a nearby house where he hid in the cellar. After things quieted, my father left the cellar, and went up to our dwelling to see what had happened. It seemed to him that the dwelling was empty, so he decided to lock the door. He then escaped to the cemetery and the fields, where he hid until night. After he heard that the aktion had ended and that I had survived, he returned home. When he reached home and knocked on the gate, Mother opened up. She was weeping for me. From him she heard that I had also survived.

 

Mother's Story

After she left me in the room, she went out to the stairwell. There she saw that the policemen were surrounded by Jews who tried to offer them everything in return for their lives. There was a great commotion. Mother decided to take advantage of the commotion to save her life. She quickly removed the patch with the Star of David from her arm, opened the door of the large porch that was common to the entire house, and went out to the porch in “security,” pretending to be cleaning the fence of the porch. From below she heard the voices of the local Ukrainians and Poles pointing to her, “Here is a Jewess.” Mother answered them “with self-assurance,” “stop joking; you know that I am not a Jewess.” She continued to clean the porch in this manner until she reached the side of the porch that was hidden from the yard in which the Ukrainians were standing. There, she thought about jumping down, but she realized that there was no chance of landing in one piece from such a height. An old, disintegrating mattress had been tossed in that corner of the porch. Mother lay down on

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the porch, covering herself with the old mattress. Thus did she lie quietly. In that area of the porch, there was a window that looked across to the stairwell, between one end of the stairs and the other. There, my mother heard how they were all going down the stairs. She lay down quietly. When it quieted down somewhat, she opened the window and jumped into the stairwell. She ran to the door of our dwelling where she had left me, but she found that the door had already been locked from outside. She quickly went up to the upper storey and hid there. Another neighbor was hiding there with her baby. In the evening, the neighbor's husband came to inform her of the end of the aktion. My mother went down to the dwelling of this neighbor, where he remained until my father arrived.

*

This aktion took place on Saturday and lasted for about half a day. It was perpetrated with great suddenness, so most of the people were captured in their houses, without any possibility of escaping to the hiding places or the fields. This was the final aktion before the liquidation. There was indeed another aktion after this aktion, but it was perpetrated by Jewish policemen from Sambor, and lasted for a night and the following half day.

 

With No Way Out

It was the winter of 1942. It was already clear that the end was beginning. There was clear talk of liquidation, of transferring all the Jews out of the city and concentrating them in the Sambor Ghetto. Only few Jews remained in the city, and they tried to save themselves in any manner that they could. A large number tried to escape to Hungary, where the situation of the Jews was still secure. However it was not easy to reach Hungary in those days. It was the height of the winter, and crossing the border was fraught with danger, especially the danger of being followed. Some of those to be transferred collaborated with the Germans. Often, after they received a large sum of money from Jews, they would haul them directly to the hands of the Germans.

Some of the Jews of the city tried to hide with gentiles in the city or the region. Another group, the younger ones in particular, built bunkers in the surrounding forests and hid there, with light weapons that they succeeded in obtaining. However, the majority of the survivors sat and waited passively for the liquidation, which was indeed carried out in December 1942.

Another group of the Jews of the city chose to commit suicide rather than falling live into the hands of the Germans. The most common form of suicide was poisoning by coal fumes. The victims did not suffer much in this manner. I heard my father discuss this possibility with my mother. This

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was at night, and my parents apparently thought that I was sleeping - but I was awake and heard the entire conversation. From that time, I was very afraid of sleeping. I was also afraid of leaving my parents alone. One day I told my mother about my fear and about my concern that they were going to flee to Hungary and leave me alone in a different hiding place. My mother promised me that under no circumstances would she leave me against my will. These words of my mother calmed me a bit. At that time, my mother would frequently run from one of her Polish or Ukrainian friends to another, attempting to find a hiding place for all of us, some of us, or at least for me. Many parents tried to hide their daughters, for the most part, with the farmers of the area. My mother prepared a packet for each of us with necessities. She also sewed three small sacks, one for each of us, where we put the bit of money that we still had.

*

After a great deal of searching, my mother succeeded in finding a place for me with a Ukrainian family. I was not happy to leave my parents and to remain alone again, as had happened during the aktion. At the same time, however, I realized that my parents had found a good place for me, and this would be the only way I would be able to survive. The survival instinct again guided me, and I agreed to the advice of my parents. My father explained to me that they would be freer without me, and that they would find some way to escape and save themselves. My father told me, “You must remain alive. You have seen and understood everything that happened. Most of our family has already been murdered. Someone must remain alive to tell the story of what happened. You, as a child, have great chances for this.” They made me memorize the address of my uncles in the Land of Israel, and commanded me that if I survive, I must write to them immediately. I must tell everything to the relatives in the land, and they would take care of me. (My father had two brothers in Israel, and my mother had one brother.) Equipped with the blessings of my parents and their charge to me to continue to live in order to tell the story of what happened to our family and many other Jewish families of the city, I parted from my parents.

During the final days before leaving the house, I saw my mother standing all the time near the oven and weeping. She would look at me on occasion and weep again. The day of my departure approached. It was a cold, snowy day. My father set up a meeting with the gentile outside the city. I approached my mother to bid her farewell. She was standing, as usual, next to the oven and weeping. She hugged and kissed me, and we wished each other that we should survive and see each other again. I parted from her, trying not to think about what was going to happen in the future. Father accompanied me outside the city. Waiting there was the wagon with the gentile, who was to transfer me to another gentile with whom I would live. Father walked in front of me holding a blanket in his hands, and I walked behind him in order not to arouse

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attention. My father carried me up to the wagon, covered me well with the blanket, told me, “Be successful, my daughter,” and left. The wagon moved quickly, sliding over the white snow. Through my tears, I saw the precious image of my father getting smaller and smaller. He continued to walk straight, without turning his head toward me. His image disappeared in the distance. That was the last time that I saw him.

I went to a Ukrainian family in the village of Komarnik, and my parents went to the Sambor Ghetto along with the remnants of the Jews of the town.

 

With the Ukrainian Family in Komarnik

My first stop was the village of Borinya, where I stayed with a gentile acquaintance, and from where I was transferred to a Ukrainian family in the village of Komarnik. My parents did not know that family. The eldest son of that family, Pyotr, transferred me. He came the next day at 2:00 p.m. to fetch me. This Pyotr did not live with his parents, but rather in the village of Borinya. He wanted to reach his parents' home in Komarnik in the dark in order to avoid the attention of the neighbors. The journey from Borinya to Komarnik seemed endless to me. I lay down in the wagon, doubled over and frozen, constantly asking when we would arrive. We arrived at dark. I heard the barking of a dog, and Pyotr told me that it was their dog. Our journey ended.

When we arrived, the entire family came out to greet Pyotr. He descended from the wagon and called his parents aside. After a brief conversation with them, they all turned to me. They took me down from the wagon, brought me into the house, and sat me near the oven so that I could warm up a bit. They received me politely. After I warmed up, they gave me something to eat, and then we went to bed. I was a given a place in a joint bed where four other children were sleeping. I was very tired and I fell asleep quickly.

The house was a small cottage that consisted of three compartments - a medium sized dwelling area, a grain storehouse, and a barn. The room was low, made of wood. There was a bit of poured concrete on the floor. There were two small windows, such that if a person was passing outside, one would only see the middle of his body. The furnishings in the room were simple and typical of poor farmers. The oven occupied the lion's share of the room. In the room, there were two beds, a chest for dishes, and a large table with two benches on the sides. A closet was hanging on the wall, the size of a large chest. This was all the furniture in the house. The room was clean and neat. The seven-person family lived in the room. Aside from them, the following people were part of the family: Pyotr

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who lived in Borinya and who brought me there; another son who was taken to work in Germany, and two adult daughters who lived in Drohobycz where they were employed as household help.

 

The First Crisis

The crisis of my soul already began the following day. I suddenly found myself in strange, unfamiliar surroundings. In my great despair, I began to cry and beg them to take me back home. It was enough, I was not looking for places to hide and save myself, I wanted Mother and Father, and anything that would happen to them would happen also to me. The gentiles were good to me, and tried to comfort me. Pyotr succeeded in convincing me by promising to go to my parents and bring my mother. This idea calmed me, and I decided to really be good so that the gentiles would agree to keep us.

At the beginning of my stay, I was able to walk around freely in the room. I only fled and hid on top of the oven, below it, or in some other place when I heard the dog bark. Sometimes, the dog did not bark, so I did not succeed in hiding quickly. Then I would run to some place, and there was already a suspicion that the person who came saw me. They were very afraid, and they told me that my stay with them would only bring disaster to them. After a short time, they decided to no longer endanger themselves, and to return me to their son Pyotr when he would return; however, Pyotr simply did not come, and I lived in constant fear. I began to suspect that the farmers might kill me themselves out of great fear. (It later became clear to me that there was no basis for this fear.) I already understood that I should not wait for the arrival of my mother. In the meantime, all the Jews of the city were transferred to the Sambor Ghetto, and the city of Turka was officially Judenrein.

A new era began. We heard terrible things that happened to the Jews who were captured at the border as they attempted to escape to Hungary. We also heard about Jews who were captured in the forests and were even found with gentiles. All of this news was spread on Sundays, when the farmers returned from the churches in the nearby towns. In essence, the church was the primary source of information. There, they found out everything that took place. In this manner, they later found out about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, albeit without exact detail. I recall well that on a certain Sunday they said that there was a large-scale Jewish revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto, and that many Germans had been killed. Incidentally, the words of the priest of the church had great influence upon these farmers, who for the most part were believers. At times, when the priest delivered a sermon from which one could understand that one should help the Jews, they returned home very encouraged.

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In the mean time, the Germans issued a decree that demanded that all gentiles of the area turn in the Jews who were hiding with them. Whoever did not do so would be put to death. The gentiles with whom I was hiding did not know what to do; they were afraid for their lives and the lives of their children. They sent urgently for Pyotr to discuss what to do with me, but Pyotr only came after three months. He received their shouts calmly and promised that he would come very soon to take me. At that time, he also brought them a few things, such as clothing, money, etc. I even began to take out money from the pocket that my mother had given me, and I gave them a bit of money on occasion. Thus did I succeed in remaining there. In the meantime, I learned Ukrainian with great diligence. I also diligently and quickly learned their prayers. Within a brief period I spoke fluent Ukrainian and properly pronounced the letters R and L, which are pronounced in a unique manner by them. They praised me and added that nobody would ever be able to claim that I was not a Ukrainian by birth, based on the language and the prayers that were fluent on my tongue. However, my external appearance was a disadvantage. They all had blond hair and blue eyes, and I had black hair. My dark hair attracted everyone's attention. I realized that they were proud that they had turned me into a good Christian, and I did everything in order to appear such… hoping that this would protect me, for they would want to protect and save my soul for Christianity.

 

After a Year

The days marched on slowly, and a year passed. Christmas arrived. When my hosts returned from the church in the city, they brought me a cigarette box filled with candies, and told me that my parents are still alive in the Sambor Ghetto and want me to write to them. I quickly wrote a letter, but I never received a written word from them that would prove their existence. Nevertheless, contact was maintained. From that Sunday, they would bring me weekly greetings from my parents. The contact was maintained by their brother-in-law who was in contact with the Jews of the Sambor Ghetto. Once, when this brother-in-law expressed the request of the gentile that my parents take me back, my parents, having no choice, gave their assent. This was in the winter of 1943.

My gentiles were completely desperate. Once again, they feared for their lives and the lives of their children. The liberation was tarrying in coming, and the danger to their lives was close by and real. Their primary goal was to extricate themselves from me as quickly as possible. The hope that my parents would take me from them encouraged them greatly. They decided to take me to the ghetto at the beginning of the summer. I was happy at the opportunity to return and live together with my parents, even though I knew that the possibilities of surviving with my parents were quite small. I thought a great deal about the meeting with my parents; how I could help them with housework and cooking at home.

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One day at the beginning of the summer, the gentiles came to me and told me to get dressed. We went to their brother-in-law in order to take me to my parents in the ghetto. I got dressed in the clothing of a Ukrainian village girl. I covered myself up and walked with the mistress of the house to her brother-in-law, with whom I was to be taken to Sambor. After a long walk, we arrived at the brother-in-law, who lived in the center of the village, whereas the family who hosted me lived at the edge of the village. I arrived at the home of the brother-in-law completely exhausted. Sitting on top of or under the oven for long period of time weakened my legs, and I had no power to get up and walk. When we finally arrived, the brother-in-law told us that something had occurred in the Sambor Ghetto in the meantime. He added that he was prepared to take me only after he clarified what had happened, and if my parents were still alive. After a brief consultation between the brother-in-law and my host, they decided that I should return with them, and he, the brother-in-law, would travel to Sambor the next day to find out what had happened. Thus it was. When the brother-in-law returned from his journey, he said that there had been a very large aktion in Sambor (in the summer of 1943, in which the children were liquidated from the ghetto). Many Jews had been liquidated, but my parents still succeeded in surviving. Under these circumstances, they decided to transfer me to the ghetto as quickly as possible. I prepared for the journey. Toward evening, the gentile woman took me once again to the home of her brother-in-law. The next morning, we were about to go to the ghetto. However, there was a very bad storm that night, and they decided that time as well to delay the trip. I once again returned to my usual place, while the brother-in-law went again to set up a meeting place with my parents. However, when he returned that time from Sambor, he told of the liquidation of the ghetto. The remaining Jews were taken outside the city and shot. My parents were among them. (When I was in Sambor at the end of the war, I visited the communal grave in which those Jews where killed during the liquidation of the Sambor Ghetto were buried.)

The ghetto was liquidated in the middle of the summer, in July and August of 1943, and I was saved once again. Now I was very suspicious that the gentiles, who were no longer able to transfer me to my parents, might look for another way to free themselves from me. However, this was no longer a simple matter. News of German defeats, or at least of the failure of their advances, began to reach us. The hope of a speedier liberation from the yoke of the Germans was awakened in our hearts. Therefore, the possibility of turning me over to the Germans was also not so simple. A year and a half had passed since the command to turn the hidden Jews over to the authorities had been issued, and I was again with them. Indeed, they intensified their surveillance of me. I no longer remained in the house. The gentiles would take me out of the house early in the morning and bring me to the storehouse atop the barn, where I would remain for the entire day.

[Page 263]

The Tribulations Prior to the End

It was summer. Everyone went out to work in the fields, and I remained alone in the storehouse. To my good fortune, there were Ukrainian books there, and I continued to study how to read and write Ukrainian. Throughout this time, they often changed my hiding place. I hid in a tall bean field, in haystacks, in nearby groves, in the forest near the house; as well as on top of the oven, beneath the oven, and, in the latter period, in a pit in the barn. At that time, I would also go into the hiding place that they had prepared for me in the barn. I would enter this place immediately after breakfast, and remain there until late in the evening. On day, I tarried in the house for a long time, as was unusual. This was a cloudy fall day, and I simply did not have the desire to leave my place on the oven and to go into the hiding place in the barn. I would be alone in that hiding place all day, and therefore, I did not like it much. That morning, I spent a long time eating the meal, and also spent more time remaining in the house. Plusia, the farmer's wife, urged me to finish my meal. She went out to check if the path to the barn was clear. She immediately returned, quickly and with a commotion, for she saw a German and Ukrainian a short distance away approaching the house. I was immediately sent under the oven, where I lay curled up and afraid. The German and Ukrainian went strait to the barn - my regular hiding place at that time. The only searched in the barn. When they found nothing, they returned to the village. This was a clear case of informing. After the Germans went away, the gentiles transferred me to the nearby forest, where I remained until late at night. (I will never forget the deathly fear that fell upon me when I was forced to remain alone in the grove, especially during the nighttime hours. I was afraid of wild beasts. There were many wild pigs and other such animals in the area. This fear of wild beasts and of remaining alone at night disappeared only after some years. Repeated nightmares of persecution and attacks by Germans and Ukrainians, and of wild beasts, afflicted me even during my first years in the Land of Israel…)

They brought me home at night, hungry and damp to the bones. The days continued to march on. We heard news of the advance of the Red Army, and also of revolts of the Jews in Poland. All of this encouraged me and imparted me the desire to continue to live. It would be unfortunate to be caught and put to death now in particular, when the future began to look brighter. The summer days came to and end and the winter days arrived, with the following dangers: the fear of footprints in the snow, and the difficulty of remaining in a grove or in the forest without freezing. Then

[Page 264]

a greater danger arose: One day, the Germans were seen in the city, and they were very close to the house. The possibility of bringing me to the grove was no longer in the calculations. My hosts remained without recourse, not knowing what to do with me. The farmer's wife took charge, for she had to protect the lives of her children. She grabbed a blanket, quick as lightning covered me in it, and ran me in the direction of the well near the house, where she buried me in the snow. This was the only possibility of hiding me without leaving any trace. I was indeed saved from the Germans, but there was only a hairbreadth between me and death - from freezing. After the Germans left, the gentiles quickly took me out of the snow and I slowly recovered.

Then, when the possibility of hiding in the area and in the grove no longer existed, they dug a pit for me in the barn, where I had to lie quietly without moving (indeed, there was no practical possibility of such). The pit was small, narrow and musty. My bed consisted of a bit of straw with a burlap covering. This was my most terrible hiding place. Were it not for the liberation, this pit would have led to my demise. I constantly saw mice in that dark pit, and they were so active that at times, I burst out in hysterical cries of fear. The gentiles sometimes heard my screams, and they threatened me that if I do not behave properly - which might lead to their deaths - they would simply throw me out.

I did the best I could to control my frayed nerves. I had no internal energy to continue to suffer. At times, continuing to live seemed to lack any purpose. To live? -- Why do I need life?… Who needs it… I was an orphan, and possibly the only Jewess in the region. What could I do with myself… I asked myself and repeated this and other questions to myself many times. I could not do anything else in that terrible pit, so I continued to ask, and think… This was the situation to which, perhaps, one should not go: The twisting of the thoughts was apparently dangerous.

 

The Echoes of the Hammer of Hope…

The spring days, filled with hope, approached. After the gentiles realized that, despite all my promises, they heard talking from the barn - they hastily took me out to the grove. There, I strengthened a bit: The clear air; the beauty of the budding trees and the blooming flowers; the wild berries and mushrooms - all of these enchanted me and distanced me from my thoughts… They healed me. However, this was during the day… The day was wonderful; the forest was green; the birds returned and filled the forest with their songs; and the heart was full of pleasure… However, the night was difficult. The fear of wild beasts, and the thoughts that afflicted me returned.

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I remained in this grove for the final month prior to the liberation. I received sufficient food. From afar, I could hear the sounds of the cannons - these were the echoes of the hammers of hope… The Russians were approaching. It was 1944. The Russians arrived. The liberating army passed through Komarnik on its way to the Hungarian border. I remained with the gentiles, for I did not know what to do with myself and my life that I had tried so hard to save…

*

One day, the gentiles informed me that a certain family was searching for me diligently, and I should return to the city. I traveled to Borinya. There, I remained for a short time with a certain family, and then I continued on to Turka. It then became clear that the Bruner family, who had survived, searched tirelessly for me in all the villages of the area. This is what happened. My parents knew that Bruner was not going to the ghetto, but rather, to hide with a gentile. Before my father was taken to the ghetto, he asked Bruner to promise that if he survived, he would not forget me, and do everything to return me to a Jewish environment and my uncles in Israel. Bruner fulfilled this promise. He spared no effort to find me. When he found me, he and his family took me in to his bosom, as if accepting a true daughter by birth. They were good, pleasant, and dedicated to me. They raised me, educated me, and fed me. Primarily, their good heart and trustworthiness slowly restored my faith in humanity. It was only thanks to them that I succeeded in overcoming the tidings of Job with respect to the loss of my parents. It is interesting: They told me, and I realized, that my parents had been killed; however, subconsciously, I continued to wait for years - perhaps, despite all, they would appear from somewhere…

I remained with the Bruner family for a long time. They took me to Poland. There, we parted, and I went to an orphanage in Bielsko. The Bruner family took me once again, and I went to Germany with them. There, we wandered from one displaced persons camp to another. We were in Regensburg, and then in Fernwald. I remained in the latter camp until April, 1946. Then I joined a group of children, with whom I went to Israel. After a period in the Atlit Camp, I reached the bosom of my family in May 1946.

*

The dream of many years was realized. The circle was completed in April 1958, when my first born son was born on Holocaust Remembrance Day. This son bears the name of my murdered father.

Translator's Footnote:
  1. As a follow-on to this story, Mrs. Ester Roter of Jerusalem is featured in a YouTube video describing her story, and her subsequent meeting with the family who saved her, who were designated as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem in 2005. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMxnZfy3mnU Return

 

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