At first no one was permitted to leave the camp, even though the Gentile factory owners pleaded for their Jewish workers. The Germans said they were afraid of an epidemic.
But after a while under the pressure of their war needs, they yielded. Sixty men locksmiths, bakers, cobblers and other artisans were released for work. Dr. Rosa Einhorn Pshenitski as a dentist whose services were much needed, was also permitted to leave and to occupy her own office. She was even allowed to take her daughter Dora with her.
The workers were not brought back to the bunkers at night but were taken to another camp occupied by Polish Gentiles and others of the general population assigned to forced labor. Gradually the number of Jewish workers was increased. This improved the situation somewhat for the Jews, as the workers were able to secure food and supplies for themselves and to send a certain amount to the bunkers, even though the Gentile shopkeepers charged the Jews exorbitant prices. That winter it was intensely cold.
The daily routine began well before dawnwhen darkness still covered the earth. The workers had to line up early in the court of the bunkers, the women would seek the means of heating some water for the little children. Most pathetic were the efforts of the mothers to care for their young. At the toilet outside two lines were formed, separately for men and women. Within the bunkers the bedding would be arranged, then some would go for water, others would join the bread line. The Jews would congregate in one of the bunkers for prayers. The rabbi would proclaim a formal fast, for certain groups each in turn. They recited Selichoth (penitential prayers), chanted the Ovinu Malkenu, Our Father, our King, bring us speedy salvation. The prayer leader would pray aloud with intense emotion, and the congregation would respond with sobs. They stood, crowded together in the filth, in the half light, some wearing their prayer shawls and phylacteries, some without them, pleading with their utmost strength, clamoring for help at the gates of Heaven.
In the evening the workers would return, one bringing a stick of wood, another an onion, another a beet, occasionally one would be fortunate enough to receive a loaf of bread from a peasant. As soon as it grew darker the people would crowd into the bunkers, each one lighting up his little corner with a bit of candle. They would [sic] climb up to the shelves upon which they slept, and it would take considerable time before they could adjust their bodies for sleep, crowded as they were in the
narrow restricted space. A pious Jew in a corner would recite a psalm, another the Shema (Hear, O Israel), a woman would mutter to herself, a young woman would rock her child in her arms, an asthmatic would grasp for breath and cough. Finally weariness would overcome them all and for a few hours a measure of silence would reign. Thus the days would pass, fear and dread of the coming day hovering over them.
A strange kind of smuggling was introduced. It was customary to remove the waste of the bunkers daily in large containers which were emptied upon a great pile within the camp. Daily, also, corpses were removed from the camp for burial in much the same way as the waste. This made possible a number of escapes. Living persons with the help of Yankel Paltes were sometimes taken out mingled with the muck and the waste and the corpses, and once outside, managed to flee toward Bialystock. However, the smuggling did not last long. The Nazis suspected something was afoot and sought to seize Yankel Paltes. Paltes made his escape to Bialystock, but there he was caught and shot. Some of the others who escaped in this manner were seen by the Poles who reported them and they were also caught and shot, among them Chvoynik.
The Nazis were tireless and unceasing in the savagery, malignity and greed. They tried to make it appear that the Jews of Wolkovisk had better accommodations than the Jews of other towns and to stir up envy among the others. They would accept bribes of money, bits of jewelry and the like, to transfer men from one bunker to another. The penalty for any infraction of the rules was death by shooting. A word or look that displeased them, and death ensued.
Such was the fate of Siome Galin. Galin was a communal leader, one of the most beloved personalities in Wolkovisk, and director of the hospital and of the Toz (Ose) activities. In the bunkers he was placed in charge of the camp kitchen. His genial personality and optimism gave courage to many. He would say: We will destroy them yet, and it became a cherished phrase.
Once, when an old Polish Christian acquaintance driving the water tank brought him some water for his kitchen, he
asked for a little benzine for his small lighter. In some way the Gestapo learned of this and beat him so terribly that he had not the strength to call out or utter a sound. When the blood flowed freely from many wounds on his swollen body they left him lying on the ground. Some Jews went out and carried him into the bunker. Before dark that day the cold-blooded Nazi supervisor with pretended concern asked how Galin was getting along. He even bade the doctor not to neglect him. About nine o'clock in the evening, Dr. Noach Kaplinski examined him and found him in a dangerous state, barely able to speak or even breathe. At 11 P.M. when the Jews in the bunker had retired, everyone was startled by the loud shouts from without: Galin, come outside, Galin come outside. The Jewish police within the bunker went over to Galin and told him he must go. All lying there lifted themselves up to look and 500 pairs of eyes watched the pain-wracked form rise. A deathly silence fell over the bunker. As he was leaving, Galin stood for a moment at the door, turned painfully around, summoned all his strength and in a husky voice called a parting blessing, May all be well with you! He then disappeared in the darkness. Wild cries and three shots were heard, and then there was silence.
In the morning at the entrance to the bunker they found the fallen body of the gallant spiritone more innocent victim of unspeakable Nazi brutality.
The night Siome Galin was slain, his son Izaak found means of escape. He joined the partisans, and now resides in Wolkovisk.
Kasriel Lashovitz reports that about this time there were a number of such escapes, chiefly among the youth. There were times when the cold and hunger and the meeting with Poles and White Russians eager to report them to the Germans, drove them back to the bunkers. But the lust for freedom would not die down and some who returned would make a second attempt at escape. Lashovitz tells of his own experience. He had succeeded in getting away from the bunkers, but the suffering in the winter forest was beyond his endurance and he was forced to return. After a short stay in the bunkers he decided to make another escape. One day he and a group of Jewish workers were led under guard to their work near the central railroad station; just as they passed the railroad tracks a train came along and acting upon a sudden impulse he darted behind the moving train and slipped unnoticed into the woods. This time he made
no effort to return. He met other refugees from the town and bunkers and they organized a partisan band. They made raids on the edges of nearby towns for supplies, attacked sentries, took away their rifles and ammunition and carried on sabotage. Once his band was surprised by a large German force, a number were killed, but the rest escaped deep into the forest, there to reorganize. There were several such bands operating in the immediate neighborhood. The chief source of anxiety was being seen by the peasants who would immediately report them to the Germans to be hunted down.
Upon one occasion Polish peasants discovered footsteps in the deep snow and immediately reported the fact to the Gestapo. A considerable number of guards was sent out with dogs to trail the fugitives. They came upon a group of Wolkovisk Jews and a battle ensued. The Jews were greatly outnumbered, some broke away and made their way to another place in the forest. In the struggle, however, seven were killed, three captured. The prisoners were brought back to the bunkers and in the presence of Noach Fuchs and several others were shot down as a warning to all who might be contemplating attempts at escape.
Occasionally bribery was effective in bringing about some arrangement which made it possible to get some of the people out of the bunkers. One particular instance should be recorded here. A number of girls of Bialystock had been assigned to forced labor in Wolkovisk. Some of these girls managed to get back to Bialystock unknown to the Germans. In their systematic way the Germans had kept record of the number of girls that had been assigned to Wolkovisk from Bialystock, but because they had no record of those who had secretly returned, their figure was actually greater than the number of girls who still remained in the camps. Ephraim Barash, as chairman of the Council in Bialystock, had secured permission for the Bialystock girls to be sent backthe full original quota. It was decided to fill in the quota with Wolkovisk girls. It was arranged that the sum of 2000 marks be paid to the woman in charge for each girl from Wolkovisk replacing a girl from Bialystock. Departure from the bunkers under any circumstances was regarded as a means of freedom. A list was made up and it was ruled that only one girl of a particular family was to be chosen. In one instance there were two sisters who, both being anxious to go,
decided to leave the choice to their mother. Their mother said: Which of you wants to go? Simultaneously each answered: I want to live! The mother looked at them, a choice was impossible. The younger sister finally withdrew in favor of the older one. Shortly thereafter she too fled from the bunkers and met her sister in Bialystock.
Toward the end of November 1942, the camp supervisor informed the Jews that a number of them would be released from camp very soon, that they, their wives and children would be brought to the interior of Germany where they would be put to work but would be able to live normal lives together with their families. Naturally the majority had little faith in these assurances, but nevertheless it did have the effect of quieting the fears of the more easily persuaded in the camp.
Two days later, the Jews of Rusznoy received orders to be ready to leave at two o'clock the following morning, and to submit a list of all persons in their group, name, age and occupation. The Rusznoy bunkers were located opposite those of Wolkovisk, a barbed wire fence separating them. The Jews of Rusznoy had suffered most; their bunkers were so overcrowded that many had to sleep out-of-doors in the cold, snow and rain. Theirs had been the largest death toll, seldom less than 20 daily, although their number was only a third of that of the Jews of Wolkovisk. Now they were to be the first to be sent to their doom.
Exactly at two the Nazis began driving them out, shouting at them, pushing them forward, shooting in the air. Gathered in one place they were lined up in fours under strong guard. They were then led to transport coaches standing in the open field. The cold that day was intense and there was a heavy fall of snow. Moans and cries arose from young and old standing in agony in the cold and snow. By morning all the Rusznoy Jews were gone.
Three days later their bunkers were ordered cleaned out. Amidst the rags and pitiful odds and ends left behind, were the corpses of men and women who had been too ill and feeble to leave with their relatives and friends.
On the same third day after the departure of the first group, the second transport left. This time the group included the Jews of Zelva, Porzeve, Most, Piesk, Yalovke, Liskove and
Amstibove. Their departure took place by daylight. They were lined up in the mud and snow in front of the Wolkovisker bunkers on the other side of the intervening barbed wire fence. They stood thus for four hours. A Wolkovisk Jew handed over something through the barbed wire to a Zelva Jew in line and soon out of the pitiful possessions that their awful poverty had left them, the Jews of Wolkovisk were putting their arms through the barbed wire, tearing clothes and flesh, handing over to Zelva Jews articles of clothing for warmth, crusts of bread, a boiled or raw potatoanything that might help sustain them on the road to the unknown. Finally at a word of command the line moved forward to the transport coaches awaiting them.
These first two large movements of Jews westward, were followed by several others. After each departure the remaining Jews were ordered to clean out the vacated bunkers, removing rags and other effects.
By the end of November, 6000 or more Jews were left, about 1000 from Swislotch, about 5000 from Wolkovisk. When Fuchs developed a bad cold that showed signs of developing into pneumonia, the Nazi supervisor of the camp remarked to him in cold-blooded fashion that he had better get well, for it was planned to place him in charge of a camp of 70,000 persons.
There was much agitated thought over the destination of the Jews, but there was little doubt in the minds of the Jews that it was to a place of doom. In a short while they learned definitely it was to be the gas chambers of Treblinka.
Noach Fuchs and Shamai Daniel visited a number of times the German labor officials in Petroshovtze near Wolkovisk. They offered them bribes to postpone the complete evacuation until at least August 1943, but the officials would not agree to permit more than 1700 persons to remain, to include men up to the age of 50 engaged in civil or war work, and 100 women. No children were to be allowed to remain under any circumstances. Among the 1700 there were to be included about 200 Jews of Swislotch who had paid heavily in bribes and had supplied the Germans with certain articles of leather in the manufacture of which they were experts.
The situation became tragic beyond measure. It was left to the Jewish Council to draw up the list of 1700 person who
were to remain. Actually it meant that the Jews of the camp were to decide for themselves who was to live and who was to die. A struggle began in which the most extreme traits of human nature manifested themselves. On one hand was Treblinka and its gas chambers, on the other at least another six months of life in the bunkers. The bunkers became substitute for Paradise and six months reprieve became eternal life. It was a fearful test for frail human nature to undergo. There were those who made the wildest efforts to survive, but there were also men and women who rose to the heights of moral grandeur. Within the next few days the Council was besieged with pleas by men and women, in behalf of themselves, their wives, their children, their relatives, their friends. Fuchs and his associates wrote and erased, again wrote and erased; the list would be completed, only to be changed the following day. A person would be placed on the list of those who were to survive, only to refuse to be separated from wife and children. One would go to sleep at night assured of survival, only in the morning to find that another had taken his place. Hope flared up and died, and flared up again and died again, amidst arguments, pleadings, weeping. There were those who calmly and grimly declined to accept life from the Nazis at the price offered. The Nazi supervisor, in the meantime, would enter and demand that the list be finished and turned over to him. It was particularly difficult to make the list of women, the number to be chosen were so few, and so few could be used for the work the Nazis found useful.
Of those who accepted death rather than survival upon Nazi terms, were the stalwart brothers Gans, Abraham Yunovitz, Engineer Rock, and many others who had been placed upon the list because of their obvious physical fitness. These men refused to part from their wives and children. The word went around: If we are to die, let us die together.
Naturally enough not all could rise to the heights of self-sacrifice. There were those who tried by various devious means to save themselves. The behavior of these few casts a blot on this story of noble martyrdom.
On the seventh day the list was finally finished, and that night the Nazis ordered all Jews who were to remain to enter the bunkers that had been vacated. Those who were on the
list of the 1700 were order to enter a particular group of bunkers set aside for that purpose. That night at the gate leading to these bunkers stood members of the Jewish Council, the list in their hands. On either side of them stood the armed Gestapo troopers. Desperate Jews pressed forward to force their entrance past the gate. The troopers fired into the crowd, killing and wounding many, but this did not deter the people who understood that unless they passed through the gate, death would in any event surely be their portion. It was known too, that the transport to the gas chambers was to leave that very same night.
Yitzchak Choper relates an experience of his own. He had been sent that day to town for supplies. Upon his return he was informed by his wife of the situation which had developed during his absence. Both their names had been placed on the list for survival. He sent her forward with her child to pass through the gate, he remaining behind. She stood there in the cold for three hours until her turn came. The SS trooper insisted she must leave her child behind and refused them admission. She returned to her husband and they both went to the Jewish Council to plead for the child, but were assured by the Council they could do nothing. Then Choper had an inspiration. Seizing the child in his arms he went back to the Wolkovisk bunker he had been occupying, there dosed him with sufficient luminal to put him to sleep, and placed him in an old potato sack.
He threw the sack with the child in it over his shoulders as though it contained his effects, and pushing his wife before him, entered undisturbed one of the assigned bunkers. Others followed his example. The sacks with the children in them were piled in a careless heap in a corner, like so much baggage.
Moshe Vloski gives a description of the terrible scene of parting between those who were to be sent forward to their doom and those who were to remain. Parents and children, husbands and wives embraced, knowing it to be the final farewell. One hour's grace was granted them. Vloski sat together with his mother and four sisters. He and his oldest sister were to stay, his mother and three others were to leave. The youngest sobbed: Let me remain with you, I want to live. The mother said, Moshe, live and avenge our innocent blood. The bunkers were filled with sobs and cries. The noise and confusion at the very last scene became indescribable, particularly at the gate. People kept pressing forward and running to and fro, holding onto their children, seeking a means of entrance to the Rusznoy
bunkers, the bunkers assigned to those destined to survive. The Germans forced them away from the gate, some they shot, others they drove back with blows. Two hours later Zirka the Nazi supervisor came with his troopers to make the count. However when they heard he was approaching, the parents had hastened to give the younger children additional doses of the sleeping potion to prevent their awakening. A few of the older who understood enough to keep silent were hidden in the dirt under the lower bunkers. The dim light of the bunkers helped to conceal them. The Gestapo went from group to group, counting carefully, until Zirka called out The number is complete, and ordered the gates be closed. So were the fortunate ones separated from their dearest and nearest.
At two o'clock in the morning, according to Roitman, SS troopers entered the concentration camp in the city which had originally been a slaughter house and ordered all the sixty workers to come with them. They were led in the direction of the bunkers. Going along they heard the sounds of cries and sobs coming from the direction of the central railroad station. They understood that the Jews had been removed from the bunkers and were already in the transport. But a moment later they were led away to the camp. It transpired that at first the group of workers were being led to the transport, but that a German officer had notified the SS commander that it was a mistake and that the workers were to be placed in the bunkers with the 1700 left behind.
For three days, December 6th, 7th, and 8th, transports kept leaving with the Jews of Wolkovisk and Swislotch.
Of the 20,000 Jews who were assembled in the bunkers the week of November 2, there now remained only the 1700 workers together with the children they had succeeded in concealing. All the other bunkers now vacant were nailed up and where there had been intense life, however tragic the circumstances, there now was quiet as the grave itself.
Dr. Noach Kaplinski was one of the first to view the deserted bunkers. In one of them his eyes beheld a fearful scenea great mountain of half naked corpses, with bloody heads, broken arms and feet. These were the remains of persons murdered by the Nazis during the last hour of evacuation. The floor was covered with rags, cooking vessels, articles of every description,
everything covered with the blood of the victims; the stench of blood and sweat filled the air. Outside an old woman with matted grey hair ran from one person to another pleading: Why was I not killed? Hand me over to the Germans that I may also be shot.
Among the bunkers there were 80 persons, the sick and the old and some children, who were supposed to depart with the others, but who had been left behind, either because unable to move or because they had hidden themselves. The SS troopers gathered them into one bunkerBunker No. 3. There they were kept for three days. Zirka approached the Jewish doctors and demanded they give them poison. The doctors refused point blank. Before dark of that day all the bunkers that were vacated, and Bunker No. 3 where the 80 persons had been placed, were tightly sealed. In all these bunkers vessels containing sulphur were placed. The horror of that night in Bunker No. 3 only the dead could relate. Two days later when it was entered the corpses were found in various distorted positions, the agony of slow death registered upon all faces. A few still breathed, a young girl groaned weakly, asking for water. The eyes of the dead were open, staring. Among those who died thus, were some of the leading citizens of Wolkovisk, men who had built the town, great merchants whose names were known throughout Poland, and beyond its borders.
Between the end of November when the first Rusznoy transport was sent out, and December 9th when all but the 1700 were left, numerous transports were dispatched.
The Jews transported to Treblinka from the bunkers of Wolkovisk numbered 18,000.
Sanitary conditions in the bunkers were so bad that there soon broke out epidemics of typhus and dysentery. All efforts to do away with the lice failed and the food was scanty and bad. Daily dozens of people succumbed. The chief fear of the sick was lest the Gestapo learn of their condition and isolate them. It was felt to be quite certain that once the Gestapo learned that the sick were removed to a separate bunker, that bunker would be sealed up and all within would be doomed to die of disease, hunger and thirst. As a result the sick mingled with the well and the epidemics spread. At first Engineer Y. Fuchs and
the apothecary Nachum Kroll had set aside a couple of beds in one of the bunkers for the sick and set up a small clinic. Dr. Horn of Wolkovisk who later resided in Volp, was placed in charge. Several other physicians cooperated with him. When both Dr. Horn and his associate, Dr. Eliezer Epstein, were taken ill, Dr. Chaim Salman was placed in charge.
With the spread of typhus it was seen that something more than a clinic with a couple of beds would be needed. A hospital large enough to accommodate one hundred persons was established in one of the bunkers. It was soon filled. The Jewish Council arranged for the securing of medicines and also a better diet for the sick. Nevertheless the epidemic continued to spread, although in the beginning the mortality was kept down. In the course of the epidemic practically all the physicians were seized with typhus but fortunately not at the same time; and no sooner would a physician recover when he would resume his work. The physicians labored day and night and their devotion and that of the nursing staff was beyond all praise.
By the middle of January 1943, there were about 800 persons, of whom more than 30% were workers, stricken with typhus. The three bunkers then set aside for them proved inadequate. As a result many of the sick had to be cared for in other bunkers where they would be visited by the physicians. Living conditions for the sick were actually no better than those provided for the well. On the 26th of January 1943 when the entire camp was evacuated, there were 400 persons still ill; 200 had recovered and resumed work; the heavy death toll accounted for the rest. During the period of the epidemic the mortality rate had mounted steadily. It was because of thisthat the Nazis decided to evacuate the camp before the date originally set.
On the 23rd day of January, 1943, Zirka, the Nazi supervisor, visited the Jewish camp. Even before anyone knew his errand, his appearance threw the camp into a great panic. From bunker to bunker spread the conviction that a new danger faced them, that death hovered over them. Zirka called on the Jewish Council and stated that all persons hitherto transported from the camp had been provided for. It was now the turn of those who were left. He said arrangements had been rather difficult for those who had left on previous trips but it would not be
difficult to make arrangements for the last group. All would be brought to another camp where they could live under better conditions. He demanded a list of all who remained in camp with information as to age, occupation, etc. He gave assurance that the ill would be borne on sleighs to the train. On January 25th an order came for all to leave the camp the following day. It was ordered that the sick be gotten ready a couple of hours in advance of the time set for departure, at nine o'clock in the evening. The tension increased from minute to minute. Many of the sick rose up, some were in high fever and summoning hidden strength began to move about the camp. They feared that the Nazis would put them to death on the spot rather than burden themselves with helpless people. The rest, confused and depressed, occupied themselves with their preparations, arranging to take along with them an additional loaf of bread or other necessary articles of clothing, etc. Many thought of means of escape to Bialystock, as the ghetto of Bialystock was considered the most tolerable of all places under Nazi rule, and it was the dream of all in the camp to find their way there. It was reported that in Bialystock, Jews slept in beds, worked in factories, and had sufficient food. During the entire period of life in the bunkers about 200 Jews had managed to escape to Bialystockbut there too, few escaped their ultimate fate at the hands of the Nazis. The policy of the Council, however was to do all in its power to prevent such escapes. It maintained that only the more well-to-do could bribe their way out and their money was needed to prolong and make more endurable life in the camp. The Jewish police stood guard to prevent further attempts to get away. Shortly after the announcement of the departure to take place the following day, the Jewish police discovered and frustrated plans of escape by a group of persons. In this group were wives and children of the members of the Council. The women had prepared their bundles, the children had been dressed in warm clothes, and they were obviously preparing to leave. The Jewish police told them that their escape would not be permitted. Nevertheless a few individuals did manage to elude both the police and the Nazis. Among them were Dr. Noach Kaplinsky and Dr. Isaak Reznik, who, as already reported, were hidden by Christian friends until the arrival of the Red Army.
On January 26th 1943, at three o'clock in the afternoon, the office of the Jewish Council was crowded, everyone hoping
against hope that at the last moment the command would be annulled. There was considerable confusion in the camp, people wandered about in bewildered fashion; the sick, wrapped in blankets, eyes burning with fever, walked about like ghosts from another world, many of them walked with tottering steps looking for objects upon which to lean. In the bunkers lay the very sick unable to rise.
In the evening they got ready the typhus patientsabout 200 in all. They were clothed and placed at the entrance to the bunkers to await the sleighs that were to bring them to the station platform. Many of the ill summoned strength to make their way to the station on foot. The camp all the while was surrounded by the Nazi soldiers.
At one o'clock in the morning shouts and the noise of shooting were heard. The Nazis called out: Come out of all the bunkers or we will shoot you down. They actually did shoot several who were too ill to move including H. Chantov and his wife, and the wife of Noach Shein, and the wife of David Joseph Kaplan. Several others who attempted to break through the Nazi lines were also shot, among them the son of Nackdimon, the son of Niome Lemkin, and Berl Katkovsky.
From Yitzchak Choper comes the story of the last glimpse of Rosa Einhorn Pshenitzki. He relates that his wife and son were among the sick but that there was no sleigh available to take them to the railway station. He stood outside in the darkness at one in the morning looking about, wondering what to do. Suddenly there appeared a private sleigh driven by a Pole who consented to take them to the station. Choper carried his wife and child from the bunker to the sleigh and was helping them within, when he espied the figure of Rosa engaged in searching the ground. She was weeping and told him she had lost the small package of her belongingsher last possessions which might have been useful in securing better treatment for her daughter Dora. In the snow and mud and enveloping darkness it was bound to be a hopeless search.
All were lined up in rows of ten and marched down to the railroad. Here they were quickly forced into the dark unlighted, railway cars. They were driven like sheep without mercy, under the blows of the Gestapo. In the confusion members of families became separated from each other, some thus parting forever without a word of farewell.
Thus did the remnant of Wolkovisk Jewry depart, and so ended the history of a Jewish town rich in Jewish tradition, where had lived men and women who, whatever their human failings, had loved the paths of peace, had loved their God, and who had wished no evil to befall anyone, Jew or Gentile, in the whole troubled world.
The train now taking them away from Wolkovisk was a long freight of many cars, each car encircled with barbed wire and guarded by Gestapo troopers. At intervals there would be a car filled with more Gestapo troopers. The cars were filthy, with snow and dirt on the floor. The sick were mingled with the well, and in each car there were packed about 80 persons.
At five o'clock in the morning, January 27th, the train left the platform. Everybody then felt certain they were bound for Treblinka near the station at Malkin. Aboard the train everyone was silent, staring through the barred windows, trying to determine the route the train was taking. When day began to dawn only a few rays of light filtered through the small windows of the cars. The air was heavy and vile. The sick still suffering from high fever underwent the pangs of thirst. Without, the ground was covered with snow, but within, there was not a drop of water. Moreover there was not a single toilet available.
The train continued its way toward an unknown future. Through the bars they searched continually for the names of the stations, and every-time the name was other than Malkin, a feeling of relief for the respite swept over all. When they finally arrived at Malkin every one held his breath as though frozen stiff. Then they began to bid each other farewell. Suddenly the train moved forward once more. A ray of hope seized them and they began to embrace each other. Perhaps they thought the Germans had really relented and had decided to send them to Germany as promised.
From Malkin they traveled another night in the crowded and vile-smelling cars. For the sick it became continuously more difficult, the high fever of typhus troubled them greatly. They kept demanding waterbut there was no water. In the morning their groans became more terrible. Arriving at a station the Jews would call to passers-by for water or for a little snow from the ground. Some complied; others looked at them as if
they were felons and refused. Some who desired to help were driven away by the guards.
A number of Jews died on the way. When the guards would discover a dead body, they would cast it off the train, dropping it into the open field. As far as possible the Jews concealed the bodies of the dead, in hope that when they arrived at their destination they would be able to provide them with decent burial.
Another two days and they arrived at the station of Auschwitz. In Wolkovisk they had been told they were to be taken to Auschwitz, but had refused to believe it. They thought they were to be taken to Treblinka. The meaning of Treblinka was known; but not, as yet, the significance of Auschwitz.
On the third day after leaving the bunkers on the 26th of January, before darkness came, the train carrying the Jews of the last transport form Wolkovisk came to a halt. With bated breath and beating hearts all waited to see what would happen next. Everybody prepared to alight. Those who were well, stood with packs on shoulders supporting the sick and awaiting the orders of the Nazis. Suddenly the doors of the cars opened and the order All out at once! echoed through the air. Leave behind your packs, came a second command. The packs were thrown off and in a confused state of mind all who could jumped to the ground below. The sick and weak who lacked the strength to alight by themselves were simply dropped to the ground. The command to move forward was accompanied by blows from the sticks of the Nazis. As they did so, they were unable to avoid stepping on the prostrate bodies of the sick.
They arrived at the foot of a ramp leading to the entrance of the camp, where the men and women were lined up separately in rows of five.
A few yards away from the lines of men and women stood a number of SS officers. One of them, stick in hand, scanned the faces of the men and women as they passed by. He indicated to each man and woman the direction he was to take, to the right or to the left. Those who looked weary, old and unfit for labor he sent to the left, those who seemed young and fit for labor he sent to the right.
Zwi Roitman who had not quite recovered from typhus was at first sent to the left. Although he could not really know which direction led to life and which to death, he felt instinctively he was being sent to his doom. Not fully realizing what he was doing he muttered to the officer, I am an electrician. The officer took another look at him and ordered him to the right. Kotliarsky's young wife was ordered to the right, but when they tried to take her child from her, she refused to obey and deliberately went to the left. Dr. Yitzchak Goldberg standing in line noticed the weary, careworn physicians ahead of him were generally directed to the left, but that when the turn came of Dr. Marek Kaplan, he was directed to the right. He decided that this was because Dr. Kaplan looked physically fit notwithstanding the terrible ordeal he had lived through. Dr. Goldberg thereupon pinched his cheeks to give them color. When his turn came he was directed to the right. His brother, however, was sent to the left. Those who had been sent to the left were gathered together in one group.
Long before the end of each line was reached, a voice rang out ordering a count, and when the SS trooper reported that in the lines on the right there were 280 men and 87 women the order was given to march them ahead on foot. The others remaining behind uncounted were ordered to join the group on the left. All the left group were then placed in automobiles. The sick were left lying in the snow and mire.
At this point the nature of the new tragedy that was about to take place dawned upon all. Again sobs broke out. Roitman remarked upon the strange development, many of the sick and weak were allowed to remain alive whereas such strong young men as Katz, Botwinsky, Mordetsky, Siroco and hundreds of others were doomed to die merely because the allotted number of persons to be permitted to live was filled. Of the 1700 who were the last to leave the bunkers of Wolkovisk only the 280 men and 87 women were for the present, to be permitted to survive. The others were immediately sent forward in the automobiles to the gas chambers.
Under a strong guard the men and women chosen for survival were led to the labor camp situated about three kilometers from the railway station. On the way they were passed by the automobiles crowded with their nearest and dearest bound for slaughter. It is clear that the Jews in the automobiles knew the fate awaiting them. Heartrending cries were heard.
From one automobile came a cry from the father of Shlome Frack who recognized his son marching along the road: They go to life while we go to our death. From another automobile the voice of the daughter of Panter was heard: Jews, tell everyone of our end. Take vengeance!
SS troopers on motorcycles accompanied the automobiles. They were followed by a line of cars marked with the Red Cross. Within the cars were carried the poisoned gases. Thus the Red Cross, which was intended to be a symbol of succor, was used to conceal the means of death for the innocent victims of Nazi hate.
The large camp in Auschwitz actually was comprised of a collection of camps, each designated by letters of the alphabet and the name of the town from which its internees were brought. One camp was reserved for quarantine purposes for the newly arrived. Another was reserved for Czech families brought from Theresenstadt. In this camp there were about 20,000 Jews who at first were given special privileges and were required to write favorable reports home. Their letters helped the Germans in bringing the Czech Jews to the concentration camp. When the Germans brought them all in and gathered them together, they put them all to death in the gas chambers.
Beyond the camp for Czech Jews there was one reserved for Jews from Hungary and Lodz; next to it was a workers camp for men; and beyond that a gypsy camp for Jews of Lodz, Radom, Skarashiska and other towns. A separate camp was reserved for the sick. There was a camp also in which the Germans stored the property of their victims and where this property was sorted, counted and packed. There was a considerable amount of such property for the Germans actually persuaded many Jews to take their effects along with them, assuring them that they would find them homes and employment.
The camps were built in a straight alignment, in each of which there were a score or more of bunkers, or the usual type of wooden barracks. The barracks were windowless, and surrounded by a high fence of electrified barbed wire three meters thick, held in place with high poles of iron or cement. In all the camps there were approximately 60,000 persons, Jews and Gentiles. In each of the bunkers used by the Jews were crammed from four to five hundred persons, and at times when there
were many new arrivals, there would be about 900 persons. The Jews, as was to be expected, received harsher treatment than the Gentiles. Three kilometers from the central Auschwitz camp was Birkenau, where there were located five large crematoria. There were special cars to transport the victims from the camp to Birkenau.
By the time the persons were selected for survival, from the last transport from Wolkovisk, night had fallen and lights burned in the bunkers. The new arrivals were immediately led to the bath, where they were ordered to remove their clothes. Everything was taken away from them.
The bath was located in a deep cold cellar and the men stood outside, some five or six hours until well into the night, their teeth chattering, awaiting their turn. After the shower there was another long wait and each person was given some rags of clothes to put on. Frozen and thoroughly fatigued they were driven outside, beaten with sticks by the guards and their assistants who supervised the camp labor. Then followed the formal registration. On an arm of each person was tatooed a number. The numbers tatooed on the arms of the men of Wolkovisk began at 95,000. From that moment they existed no longer as persons but as animated numbers. They were driven to the barracks. For three days they were held in quarantine and separated from the rest of the camp. When the quarantine was finally lifted, they were set to work. Such was the pattern for the reception and treatment of all new arrivals who were brought in on transports daily.
Along the length of each bunker were constructed three tiers of ledges or shelves of cement or brick. Still wearing the rags which were worn all day at their work and without removing their shoes, the Jews would throw themselves upon the cold hard ledges and fall into the sleep of exhaustion.
Hardly had a little warmth entered their bodies when they would be summoned forth again and those slow to rise would be driven with sticks to make haste. Apparently it was the custom to be particularly severe with the new arrivals, although beatings were part of the customary daily routine. For a couple of hours the men were put through a course of calisthenics.
These calisthenics were repeated in the evening. Sometimes they were forced merely to stand in the mire and cold.
The daily ration consisted of a single slice of bread of between 150 to 200 grams in the morning, a liter of warm soup during the day, and one-fourth of a liter of cold tea at night. Of the food set aside for an entire block of persons the supervisor Leon Stachoviak would take two thirds for himself and his assistants.
In rows of five they were marched daily to their work to the music of an orchestra. The work for the worn-out and hungry Jews was extraordinary hard. They were compelled to labor under a strict guard, and hardly permitted to catch a breath. They built new bunkers, dug deep pits in the hard ground, and made roads. Half nude, they labored with their spades until the evening, often knee deep in mud. For the most insignificant cause, and often for no conceivable cause the SS troopers would beat them unmercifully. Those who could endure it no longer and found it impossible to continue the work would often be beaten to death where they stood or lay.
Daily, corpses were brought to the camp. They were always brought into the camp because the German commandant demanded an accounting for every person listed and the number of persons returning to the camp had to agree with the list. The Capo, as the supervisor was called, who brought in a greater number of corpses to the camp would be rewarded with larger rations. The capos were Aryans, mostly Germans, who were assigned to the camp by way of punishment for some offense. Into their hands was entrusted the fate of the Jews.
Within the camp itself the conditions were not better. The supervisors and their assistants would carry on their work in the strictest and most brutal manner. They also would beat the Jews at the slightest pretext and often for no reason at all. At every step one heard the sounds of the blows accompanied by the words, Did you come here to live? Under the circumstances it is not surprising that the morale of the Jews began to break down and their endurance to give way.
Particularly notorious was Bunker No. 7. Whoever sought release from his woes needed only to find his way to this bunker, and release would come quickly. It was known as the Bunker of the sick, and there one could really soon get over his ills.
From time to time when the bunker would be filled with people, the Nazis would come with automobiles, clear the bunkers of all persons, and take them to the crematoria. For this reason such of the sick as were not quite prepared to die, would avoid this bunker, and even those who were suffering from typhus would conceal their condition and keep away from the camp physician, for that official would immediately send him to Bunker No. 7 from which he was not likely to leave alive.
Noach Fuchs died at Auschwitz but escaped the gas chambers. He was badly hurt when struck by a stone thrown by a block leader who nursed a grudge against him incurred as chairman of the Jewish Council of Wolkovisk. He died as a result of the injuries thus received.
During the dark days following, there were many suicides. Shepsel Faitelevitch the hairdresser opened an artery of one of his hands, Arkin the dental mechanic hanged himself. A number of Jews at night pressed their bodies against the wire fences and permitted themselves to be electrocuted; some deliberately instigated the guards to shoot them down; some voluntarily registered for the crematoria. Thus did the population of the camp grow daily smaller. The greatest number of deaths came during the first six weeks of their confinement. At the end of this period, there remained in Auschwitz camp of the 220 Jews of Wolkovisk who had entered, but 60 survivors; two weeks later there remained 25 persons. That any survived at all the long bitter agony was due to the spirit of devotion to each other that prevailed among them.
All the men and women of Wolkovisk who are alive today pride themselves on the fact that never did they at any time assist the enemy in his work of destruction. Not one held the post of Capo or other position, in the discharge of the duties of which it would have been necessary to bring about the death of the innocent. They helped each other, giving each other moral support and comfort insofar as it was humanly possible.
The 87 women of Wolkovisk chosen to survive were at all times kept from the men. Upon their arrival at the camp they underwent the same treatment and humiliation accorded the men. Their hair was shaved off their heads, and they were
compelled to wear the green uniform of the Russian prisoners. Upon their bodies were tatooed their camp number, beginning with 31,000. Then they were all driven to the same barrack, 12 to each tier. Life in the women's camp was much the same as in the men's, the same conditions obtained, except for the supervision, which was much more severe. Apparently because it was more difficult for them, their tasks were made the more onerous. The sanitary conditions were worse than in the men's bunkers. The bunkers were filthier, darker and overrun with lice. The day began at three in the morning when they were forced to go out of doors and stand in the cold until six. The morning inspection lasted three hours. At six, they were led to their work. At six in the evening they would be returned to the barracks. But from six to eight they were compelled to stand in the cold for the evening inspection. Their ration was much the same as the men's. They each received 150 grams of bread daily with a small quantity of margarine, and in the evening tepid soup. This ration was handed out to them as they stood outside. There was no line and considerable disorder prevailed at meal time, with the result that the weariest and weakest among them would often get little or nothing. The women of Wolkovisk however shared their food with their comrades taking care of those who had been unable to secure food for themselves.
As soon as the women would leave their bunkers for work, a group of Gestapo would enter to give the place a thorough inspection. Anyone found there because of illness would immediately be brought to the crematorium
Sheine Lifshitz relates the story of the end of Dora, the daughter of Dr. Rosa Einhorn Pshenitski. They slept in the same barracks, near each other. Dora told Sheine that her Christian nurse Stevka who had brought her up from childhood begged to be allowed to take her away to her village home where Dora could be hidden in safety and where she would be cared for. Dora refused to part from her mother and remained in Wolkovisk. Her father, ill with typhus and unable to leave with the last transport had been shot by the Nazis. She came to Auschwitz with her mother, who had been sent immediately upon her arrival to the gas chambers. She alone of her family had been permitted to survive and she had lost all will to live. She was given the same heavy tasks as those allotted to the other young women and soon they proved to be beyond her
endurance. She managed barely to carry on her tasks and so continued to live on until the month of April, when she became very ill. The girls of her bunker would take her along to the work, doing her share for her daily, in order that the supervisor might not recognize her physical condition. But she grew daily worse.
One day she was unable to rise, her feet badly swollen. The girls were compelled to leave her behind, although they feared that the worst would happen. That evening when they returned to their bunkers they found Dora gone.
Sheine Lifshitz relates another episode as a result of which she lost her only sister. Some trifling object was lost in the women's barracks. The German commander, unable to secure a confession of guilt from anyone ordered all of them to line up in rows of five. At haphazard he selected a row of five and sent them to a barrack reserved for punishment. In that row of five was Sheine's sister. The five women were never seen again.
The women suffered more than the men, as evidenced by the greater mortality among them. Bunker No. 25 in the women's camp was comparable to Bunker No. 7 among the men's. Bunker No. 25 was known as the Death Bunkerfor from this bunker the women were usually sent directly to the crematorium. Not only the sick went to Bunker No. 25 but also all others who deliberately chose to die. So it transpired with the sister of Moshe Vlovsky. Her only comfort in life was the fact that her brother was also in the camp. She often stood near the barbed wire fence where she could catch a glimpse of him. But one day after a long time had passed without sight of him, she decided that he had been unable to survive the typhus from which he had not fully recovered upon arrival at the camp. Thereupon she voluntarily sought death.
Choper tells us that once when he was working near Bunker No. 25 he saw before him a frightful picture. Dozens of women were lying on the ground with arms outstretched, in death's grasp. From time to time the supervisor would approach them and with her foot shove aside the heads of the prostrate women in order to find out if there was life left in their bodies. When there was no sign of life she would throw
a rope around the body and drag it over the stones to the open death trench.
One of the frequent occurrences in both the men's and women's camps, usually on a Jewish holiday, was the inspection, under the eye of the camp physician and an SS trooper. All were compelled to stand nude in the open air. The physician would indicate by a glance the victim chosen for death. It usually meant that about fifty per cent of those in line were doomed for the crematorium. Some pleaded to be put to death with a bullet and the Germans would oblige. This selection which meant who was to live and who was to die was a fearful strain upon the nerves of all. Particularly terrible was the selection in the hospital. There the percentage of those chosen for the crematorium was ninety-eight per cent. Therefore, however ill they were, all who desired to live tried to keep out of the hospital if it was at all possible.
great pits dug in which the bones of thousands of Jews were burned.
In September 1944, when the Russian army was approaching, the Germans began the evacuation of the Auschwitz camp. Some of the internees were brought to the Stutholz Camp not far from Dantzig. On one of the transports was Moshe Vloski.
Those who were left in Auschwitz began to consider plans of escape. The guard was strict, but nevertheless an underground was organized by a number who decided to attempt escape at any cost.
Some months before this, during the summer, a revolt broke out in the camp. One of the crematoria was burned down and quite a number of persons escaped. Among them was Roitman. However, the Gestapo hunted them down, Roitman and a number of others were brought back. Such fearful punishment was inflicted upon them that they were unrecognizable when they returned. They were given the most difficult tasks and constantly beaten. This lasted for five months. Finally the order came to evacuate Auschwitz and Birkenau. They were all sent to another camp, thence to the camp at Dachau, which the Germans planned to enlarge. In this group were about 1000 persons, among whom were Zwi Roitman, Josef Kotliarski and Niome Levin of Swislotch.
The first to return to Wolkovisk were the Jewish partisans who during the war had been hiding in the surrounding forests and had carried on warfare with the enemy with the limited means they possessed. Among them were Bom Zuckerman, Isaak Galin and Eliezer Kovensky. Then came those who had managed to escape from the camps and were hidden from the Nazis by Christian friends, among them Dr. Noach Kaplinsky and Dr. Yitzchak Reznick. Later there returned to Wolkovisk a number of Jews who had also undergone all the horrors of the German occupation, of the bunkers and of Auschwitz and other camps, who had survived the entire Gehenna created by the Nazis, among the Moshe Shereshevsky. There came back to Wolkovisk also a few families who during the Soviet occupation, had been sent to Siberia for refusing Russian citizenship, and with them, finally, were several who had managed to get
away from Wolkovisk during the war period and had made their way into the interior of Russia.
Most of the people came back to their home town in the expectation of finding their relatives and friends. They found their homes in ruin and learned of the destruction of the entire Jewish community.
There are now left in Wolkovisk the remnants of 15 Jewish families, probably 25 souls in all. The Jews who have remained are for the most part the partisans and those returning from the interior of Russia. The others have found it impossible to stay, lacking the physical and spiritual strength to renew their lives amid the dead ruins of the town, over which hover the souls of those nearest and dearest. With frozen hearts and with the tragic picture of their old hometown, before their eyes they have left the place of their birth, perhaps never to return.
Moshe Shereshevsky reports upon the present appearance of the town. He mentions the few neighborhoods still standing amidst the great destruction.
There remains standing the quarter surrounding the new railway station near where the barracks stood, a small section of the Zamostche area, the Kartchisne area, the Pritzishe Gass and the area near the Rosh hill (Rosher-barg). Also left are a small section of the Grodno Gass and the Neie Gaessel.
The Germans, just before their retreat, burned down the Jewish hospital, the Polish mayoralty, the old railway station, the post office, and the barracks.
The business center facing the Breite Gass with its shops erected around an open court was utterly destroyed and the place entirely cleared, leaving only an open square. There is no vestige left of the little streets that ran down from the Breite Gass to the river. Piles of rubble are left where houses once stood. The streets such as the Breite, Ostroger, Tatarski, Cholodowski, Milner, Mitzrayim, have not a single house left standing upon them. The entire neighborhood of the Synagogue is filled with rubble except the Talmud Torah building which remains.
The new market area was kept intact and here the peasants still come to trade. Also left is the old cemetery, grown high with weeds and grass, the fence fallen in and the finest monuments torn down, the others lying on the ground.
Dr. Yitzchak Reznick writes as follows: Wolkovisk as a city no longer exists. Almost everything is overgrown with wild grass, weeds, thorns, and little yellow flowers. This is no exaggerationit must be taken literally. There are to be found today many new paths, short cuts leading from one section of the town to another across the land upon which once stood Jewish homes.
Eliezer Kovenski writes of his visit to his home and Wolkovisk immediately after its liberation by the Russians.
I came back to the neighborhood of my old home in the village of Stutchin where I was born, immediately after the freeing of the town, and found no one. I saw only graves and more graves. But when I arrived in Wolkovisk, when I came to the beloved town, where my best years were spent, where I was married, where my dear children were born, I did not even find a grave. The Wolkovisker Jews have been transformed to ashes in the crematoria of Treblinka and Auschwitz. I wanted to throw myself upon the ground and weep, weep without end. A Gentile acquaintance, Bolish Shareika, met me. He invited me to his house and asked me if I wished anything to eat. 'No,' I said, 'I am sated. Thank you'. 'Give me' I asked him, 'a bit of earth out of friendship'. I took the earth and covered my head. So I went out upon the Neie Gaessel where my home once stood and sat down upon a stone. I sat Shivah for my wife, for my children, and for all my dear friends, the Jews of Wolkovisk'.
'The Gentiles gazed upon me with sympathy, 'Now,' I said, 'Now it is well with you. There are no more Jews here. Now, now you will live forever'. They replied they were not responsible, they had nothing to do with what had happened.
'I found the few partisans who were in town and bade them farewell, and placed my bag upon my shoulders and took to the road. I went through ruined towns and villagesvillages without Jews exactly as though it were the Day of Atonement when all Jews are to be found in the synagogue for Kol Nidre. So it appeared everywhere. I turned Eastward upon the road that leads to the Land of Israel.
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