Not one of us could imagine what was happening. News of a war between Poland and Germany had not yet reached us. With great anxiety, we gathered around the radio, waiting for news. At noon, we finally heard that Germany had declared war on Poland.
The government immediately set about the mobilization of the army reserves. I remember the Polish soldiers boasting, as they sat in the buses, and proclaiming with great assurance that We will not allow even one button to be cut from our uniforms. That bravado was a sad and tragic daydream. Even before they could reach their bases, the German planes strafed them. The Polish army suffered grievous losses.
Already we were feeling the effect in town. Hunger was mounting as all the stores were closed. The ovens of the baker were cold and there was no bread. No food was available anywhere to alleviate the hunger. We foraged around but all we could find was dead, spoiled fish. From where did this abundance of dead fish arrive? The German bombs had fallen on the river and nearby targets. The fish were forced onto the banks where they were gathered by Poles into large baskets. That was the available nourishment.
German parachutists dressed in civilian clothes were dropped over Ciechanowiec. The Polish government ordered that any unknown people be handed over to the police. Very quickly, the jails on Malzer Street were filled with the Germans. The radio kept informing us that the Germans were pressing ahead and were coming closer and closer to Ciechanowiec. Many Jewish people left town. The first to go were the members of the auto corporation because they had the facilities. Their business circulated automobiles to Czyzewo, Brainsk, Semiaticzi, and Bielsk-Podlaski. And so Velvel Kagan, Avraham Gavronietz, Yitzhak Kolsky, Chono Kuropatwa, and Ziske Neiman and their families were able to leave. Fleeing with them were Yudel Elkes, Isaac and Avraham Grodzinski, Yeshaya (Shaika) and Chava Zlotolow, Mendel and David Soloveitchik and their cousin Leibel. They took whatever victuals they could and went as far as Nesvizh.
This sad turn of events continued until September 8th when we heard that the Germans had captured Zambrow and were approaching Czyzewo. In the evening we saw the long light beams of searchlights. The Germans had come within three kilometers of Ciechanowiec. The lights were mounted on the German tanks. We were very frightened and instinctively broke out in a terrible cry. We knew that the German soldiers would be in Ciechanowiec at any moment. The streets suddenly were emptied of people. Everyone tried to run and hide in the houses. The town took on the appearance of a cemetery. With pounding hearts we listened to the noise of the attacking German tanks.
In the light of the next morning we could see the enormous, gruesome strength of the German forces. Immediately, they demonstrated that strength. They broke down the doors of Jewish stores and robbed everything they could. A platoon of their soldiers entered the synagogue and forced many Jewish men into trucks until they were filled. They were then taken to the New City where they saw a ghastly sight. The Polish soldiers who were stationed in nearby Nur had put up a strong fight in the battle for Czyzewo. They fought to the death. Now their bodies were strewn about amidst their dead horses. The Jews were forced to take away the dead carcasses and bury them near Marashewski's palace.
The German army proceeded to march eastward towards Brest-Litovsk (Brisk). They had with them vast quantities of arms confiscated from Czechoslovakia's armaments industry. They were very smug and sure of themselves riding through Ciechanowiec on their conquering path. So while in our town, they thought to have a little fun at the expense of the Jews. One of them jumped off a tank and with scissors in hand ran over to Gershon Yach the baker. Grabbing him, he snipped off Gershon's beard, leaving only two small points. All the German soldiers thought it great entertainment and laughed heartily.
While all this was taking place, the Germans and Russians had signed their pact which divided up Poland. The Bug River served as the border between their two zones. According to the agreement, Ciechanowiec fell into the Russian zone. The German army left town and not one trace of their military forces remained. But there was no money anywhere - no German money, no Polish money, and no Russian money. The Germans had a temporary office in the house of the dentist Lewin. It became her duty to turn over the administration of the town to the Russian government, who were to arrive any day.
For three days Ciechanowiec was without any government. Before leaving, the German officers had called a meeting of the Polish leaders. Orders were given that every street should choose some watchmen to prevent banditry, robbery, and murder. On the very next day after the Germans evacuated, you could see the Jewish communists appearing openly in public. They had been imprisoned by the Polish government in Warsaw and were now set free by the terms of the German-Russian pact. Those who arrived from prison were Moshe Elkes, Yitzhak Aryeh Lin, and Kristal. They were very happy about their freedom and the coming communist government. They made a big holiday and built a triumphal gate that reached from Alter Lubavitcher's house until Lipe Rubinstein's on the corner of Maltzer and Kowalski Streets. They decorated the Parade Tower with various adornments that glistened in the light and hung signs that said, Long live the Soviet government, and Welcome!
On the holiday of Hoshana Raba in the year 1939, the Soviet soldiers arrived in Ciechanowiec. They were a pitiful sight. They appeared exhausted and their horses were thin and tired, just skin and bones. This was the White Russian militia - poorly dressed, dirty, and hungry. They were accompanied by a large band that sat down in the middle of the market and played various Russian marches. They were polite to the people and paid for anything they took.
After a certain time had elapsed, the Russians ordered that all the stores be opened. But some of the owners had fled and the stores were operated by new people. The fabric business of Lipe Rubinstein was now under Yeltshe Bunde and Chaim Butchkevitz. The stores of Leibel Bloom and Chaim Gonshak were now run by a cooperative. The book store of Manik Bachashewski (a Pole) was converted to a fabric store.
One had to be patient and stand in long lines to obtain food or fabrics. People got in the habit of getting up in the early hours of the morning to try to be first in line. They stood for a few hours in the wind and cold in order to be able to buy some food.
Conditions for the workers improved. The Soviets ordered that all shoemakers, tailors, and carpenters should organize into cooperatives. Each craftsman had to bring his own machine into the cooperative. Those who could not bring the equipment were barred from joining the cooperative. For that reason, I wandered around idly. Finally, I became a night watchman. My job was to guard the cattle that were brought in by the Soviet government. I was the night watchman and the bookkeeper Yitzhak (Itzel) Shapiro and his son Yaacov guarded them by day.
The town was swelled by refugees from the surrounding areas. Many women who were natives, but married to men from other regions, also returned home. The Russians posted a large announcement that those wishing to return to their houses must be registered for that purpose. Even though some of those places were under German control, many registered. They had heard that the Germans wouldn't harm the Jews and it was possible to deal with them. You might even earn a livelihood.
One night about two in the morning, I heard the noise of wagons. I went out into the street and saw Jewish families being transferred to the train station. These were those who had registered for return to German territory. Rather they were being sent to Siberia, what we called White Bears. In the long run, it turned out to be a favor to them; they remained to live. Among them were natives of Ciechanowiec, men and women like Dvora Peretz, Sarah Semiatitzky, the family of Leibush Gottleib, and the Kolode family. Later, they would write that they were fairly well off in Siberia, but they missed Zeidel the baker (They don't make bread here.), Lipe Rubinstein (They have no clothing here.), and Issur Soloveitchik (They have no meat here.). They didn't really say these quotes. Listing the various people and their professions were code expressions to tell about the real conditions in Siberia.
In 1940 the Russians started to mobilize Jews, as well as Christians, for the military. On Rosh Hashanah of that year, the first group left to serve. Among them were Mottel Dmoch and Yoske Einbinder. The second group went away on Yom Kippur. In this group were Sokolowsky and David Kukes, the grandson of Yeshaya the Skiritzer. The third group left on Hoshana Raba. Included were Ezriel Lew, Simcha Kopytowsky, Yisrael Grzybek, Yaacov Kaze, and the writer of this article.
I left the town with a premonition that I would never see it again. It is my biggest regret that the feeling came true in a much more tragic way than I could ever have imagined.
The new regime immediately promulgated rules which affected all of us. All private homes and assets were confiscated. Well-to-do Jewish homeowners were thrown out of their houses, but Christian homeowners were left alone. The displaced unfortunates were settled in a small street of the Old City near the edge of the New City and not far from the Volya (Circle). Stores that were confiscated were changed into large modern shops. The Reds seized the house of Chaim Reines that stood in the market. They knocked down the interior walls and made a huge store out of it. Weiner's water mill was taken over by the Russians, as was the mill belonging to Zabiela.
All the stores of the New City market were removed. The market grounds were fenced and a monument to Lenin was erected in the center. All workers were ordered to create cooperatives. Tailors like Sender Jolf and Moshele Zlotolow organized a co-op. Shoemakers organized another cooperative, and so it went. Hertzke Klode, Leibush the butcher's son-in-law, did not join the barbers' cooperative. He understood that the rule was not enforced, and he continued to operate his private barbershop in the New City. The communists saw to it that his end was very sad. Papers were filed accusing him of spying for the Polish government in exile. He was arrested and after a year-and-a-half he was executed at Zabludow, near Bialystok. His wife and children now live in Kordoni, near Haifa.
Those who were once very wealthy, such as Lipe Rubinstein, Manes Okun, Bertche Peretz, and others were forced into hard labor, building a new bridge over the Nurzec River. They were given big shovels to penetrate the hard ground.
I, together with all the doctors of Ciechanowiec, were forced to work in the newly founded emergency room of the hospital for contagious diseases. The group included Dr. Shapiro, Dr. Rubinstein, Dr. Byer, the dentists Lewin and Basha Szmiewska, and Dr. Silverblatt. I had worked in the medical institutions prior to the Russian arrival. Although qualified by experience, I didn't have a formal degree. I was offered the opportunity of going to Minsk for a year-and-a-half to finish my studies and be awarded the medical diploma.
So it came to pass that I went to Minsk. I was almost finished with my studies when the catastrophe befell us. It was the eighth of June in 1941 that I saw my wife and daughter for the last time, though I didn't know it then. None of us could imagine what awaited us. On June 22nd Hitler, may his name be erased, invaded Russian territory and I never saw my family again. My wife and daughter were annihilated at Treblinka, with all the other Jews of Ciechanowiec. My son and two others friends were in hiding but were betrayed by Poles who reported them to the Nazis. The three were shot on the spot. It took just a few days for the Germans to reach Minsk. Everyone evacuated the city as best they could. I reached Zheleznovodosk and later got to Kharkov. Then, once again I was evacuated to the border area near Ablostan. People from Kharkov, Kursk, and Voronezh were thrown together in one hospital. I worked there for seven months. On February 26, 1942 they suddenly swooped down and arrested me, accusing me of being a counter-revolutionary (according to paragraph 58, point 10). I was sentenced to ten years at forced labor, the last five years to serve without the rights of citizenship. For four months I was imprisoned in a camp at Kupyansk. I was living on a daily diet of 150 grams of hard black bread, a little salt, and two glasses of water. Three times a week they gave me some barley in water, that they called soup.
After four months, the German army approached Kupyansk. They bombed the central railroad station, which was a major depot for the region. We evacuated in the middle of the night. About 3,000 prisoners were pushed into windowless coaches and locked inside. For eleven days we traveled in unknown directions, suffering from terrible hunger pangs and from thirst. The sanitary conditions were horrendous. Many prisoners died on the way. On the twelfth day we reached Kazan, our supposed destination. I was ordered to work in the internment camp. At first, I was doing general construction work and other manual labor. They were breaking me in. My life hung by a thread. I was both swollen and dried up at the same time. My teeth started to loosen and my gums began to bleed. I was also bleeding internally and was extremely weak from loss of blood. Then I came down with rickets from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. People were dropping like flies and dying before my eyes.
My work was to unload carts at the airport which was six kilometers from the camp. It was my good fortune that on the way I discovered a field covered with wild sorrel, or sour grass. In our home, we used to make delicious borscht or schav from this plant which is rich in vitamin C. This was, at least, one of the medicines I needed to counter the nutritional deficiencies from which I was suffering. I picked as much of the sorrel as possible and packed it into my pockets. I chewed on it and ate as much as I could. Finally, the rickets symptoms abated and the internal bleeding stopped. My gums stopped bleeding as well. But I continued to weaken and was put into a hospital. Again, good fortune struck. The head doctor in the camp was Jewish and he took an interest in me. He listened to my story and promised to help. He kept his word. I was given the best food and attention that was available under the circumstances. My health improved and the good doctor took me to work in the hospital. My qualifications were demonstrated again and again so he turned over half the hospital to my supervision.
From that point, my situation improved markedly. I was given the official title of Doctor and worked independently for four years. After four years and seven months of detention, I awoke one morning to the good news that I was to be freed. It was September 2, 1946. Two days later I left the camp as a free citizen. I drifted and wandered for a few weeks and finally on September 28, 1946 I was able to leave the Red Paradise and step onto Polish soil.
I traveled through Bialystok where there were still about 200 Jewish souls. I heard the first news about Ciechanowiec. Walking by Lipowe Street, I recognized a priest from Ciechanowiec, a brother of Jan Bachashewski, whom I knew many years earlier. He was still a student then and I was the house physician of the Bachashewski family. The priest also recognized me and was happy to see me. We talked earnestly for about an hour while walking up and down the street. Towards the end of the conversation I mentioned that I was planning to visit Ciechanowiec. He became very serious and advised me not to go. I was shocked. Here was a town that I lived in for a quarter of a century. I was raised there with a whole generation. There was no house I was not familiar with - Jewish and Christian. I knew every inch of the countryside to a radius of 15 or 25 kilometers of Ciechanowiec. And now I was told that all these places would be very dangerous for me. With heavy heart I took leave of the priest, and I did not go home to Ciechanowiec.
Two years later, in 1948, the Polish government was more established and able to control the anti-Semitic riots a little better. Though the violence was not completely rooted out, I decided to risk a visit to Ciechanowiec. It was a very difficult journey and I will try to express my impressions in a few lines. Even at the train station in Czyzewo, I discerned the changes. There were many Christians from farming villages like Usza, Luniewo, Kuczyn, Tymianki, and Bujenka. They were loaded down with bales and bags of merchandise they had smuggled between here and Warsaw. They had taken over the Jewish trade.
In Ciechanowiec, I went to the widow Pjotrowski, the one who had killed her husband, the fat Ushik Pjotrowski. I stayed with her for three days. During that period, I sold the lot that was behind my house. The house had been burned by the Germans. It was not the only one. All Jewish homes in the New City, beginning with Karamelnik's house, Manes Okun's, Plonski's, Rubinstein's, Danowitz, etc., on up to the synagogue were torched to the ground. Vigodsky's house was also burned. I learned that Stepak Vigodsky and Michel Zolyewsky were shot.
I encountered a similar situation in the Old City. A whole line of Jewish homes destroyed - that of the dentist Lewin, Moshe David Kizak's house, and many others. Not a sign was left of the synagogue or schools. All the stores and fixtures that once made up the market had disappeared. Christians now occupied any houses that escaped the destruction. Christian farmers, who had moved in from the countryside, took over the Jewish merchants' functions.
Some of the Christians recognized me and outwardly acted friendly. They greeted me, tipped their hats, and even invited me to visit with them. They expressed sympathy over the loss of my family. Others brought me pictures of my dead family, others had pictures of me; pictures they had obtained by sacking my house. When I asked if they would like for me to return and settle in Ciechanowiec, they put their heads down and did not answer.
In short, Ciechanowiec was wiped from the face of the earth. For us, it no longer existed. All that remained were our memories of the past. Regardless of how sad and tragic was the ending, those memories and our sentimental ties to the Ciechanowiec of years gone by, have not disappeared. I think they will remain with us until the end of our days.
Romanus, a Nazi officer in the Ciechanowiec area, tortured and murdered people for no reason whatsoever. His hatred for Jews was virulent and its all-consuming flame burned within him. There was no way to extinguish that hatred.
Under his command, Jews were tortured mercilessly as they engaged in forced labor. One time, he was sprawled out beside a ruined wall which was being worked on. The Jewish workers watched in horror as a pile of bricks fell on Yaacov Kiejsmacher, crushing his hand. Blood gushed from the wounds and in his agony, Yaacov screamed out for help. But no doctor came to his aid. I ran to him and tried to stop the flow of blood with the primitive means available. Romanus watched the spectacle with great enjoyment. And then, having enough of that entertainment, he forced poor Yaacov to continue working despite the severe injury to his mutilated hand.
Romanus would amuse himself by randomly firing his gun into open windows. One time, while strolling in the ghetto, he began shooting into the home of my brother-in-law, Moshe Plisky, scaring his child nearly to death. Moshe took his family and tried to rush to the home of Shayna Wrona the midwife. But the sadist and his assistant intercepted him, tied him up, and then brutally beat him. After that they forced him to return to his house.
Ephraim, Herschel, and Yaacov the Smuggler Plisky also had a confrontation with the savage murderer. Romanus accidentally caught the three of them trading with the Polish peasants. . Romanus threw them into prison. Over a two-week period, they were severely beaten. If they lost consciousness from the beatings, Romanus would revive them by splashing cold water on them. In that way they would be awake for continued torture. Temporarily freed by their tormenter, they returned home, pulling themselves by their hands, as their feet and legs were broken. They remained lying in their beds, half dead, without any medical attention. They were incapable of eating or drinking. They were bedridden in that sorrowful state for two months.
By no means was their suffering over. Somehow Romanus heard that these Jews were feeling a little better, so he ordered them to appear before him. For four consecutive days they were beaten, virtually without interruption. They were not given even one drop of water. At last, he looked upon their miserable condition and couldn't decide which one should be next for continued beating. They were all on the verge of death so Romanus, in his mercy released them. That way they might recover for renewed torture.
Another time, when I was forced to work on Shabbat, Romanus rode by on his horse along with his bodyguard. The murderer accused me of slacking off in my work. He made me run in front of his horse, all the while beating me incessantly. We continued all the way to the cemetery of the New City. In the cemetery they made me kneel on the ground. While in that position, Romanus and his accomplice bore down upon me astride their unruly horses. The ordeal ended with the intense blow of a bludgeon on my head. I blacked out and remained unconscious on the ground. As I stirred, I was only aware of the blood oozing from my throbbing cracked head. I was unable to see anything. Finally, and with great effort, I arose and dragged myself to the house of the Gentile where I was assigned to work. The blood was washed away and my head was bandaged. I stayed in bed in the Gentile's house until nightfall and then returned to the ghetto.
I had lain in enormous pain for two weeks before returning to work. But that bloody Shabbat incident troubled me beyond the injuries. I felt that a terrible storm was before us. I sensed that Romanus' terror was merely a prelude to an awful catastrophe that was, sooner or later, to afflict the Jewish community of Ciechanowiec.
Conditions in the ghetto deteriorated day by day. Rumors spread that the nearby community in Czyzewo had been liquidated. We did not want to believe it, but we attempted to find out the truth behind that terrible news. We made contact with a Ciechanoffzer Christian, paid him a handsome sum, and sent him to Czyzewo to learn of the situation there. When the Christian returned from his journey, he broke the awful news that he had seen no trace of any Jews in that town.
Each day we awoke expecting an aktion. The Jewish population wandered aimlessly around the ghetto, not knowing what to do with themselves. Pious Jews prayed that HaShem would not desert His children in a time of such peril. Just as He had taken our father Abraham from a furnace of fire, and Daniel from the lion's den, at the last minute He would demonstrate a great miracle and we would all survive.
As the situation in the ghetto became more and more critical, I noticed that Jews were no longer compelled to work. Romanus seemed unconcerned with our activities. We could not sleep because of the terrible nightmares. We continually thought about what might be in store for us. What are we up against? Would we suffer the same fate as the Czyzewo Jews?
I observed what was happening within the ghetto and that our spirit was being broken. I had no illusions. It became clear to me that I must escape from this trap - and fast. I knew of a secret trap door which led to a tunnel that would allow escape. My wife Faiga did not agree with this idea. But I was desperate and took my two grown children and went to the house of the Gentile for whom I had worked. We hid in the attic until one in the morning. A deep feeling of ruin and despair hung in the air. My children began to whimper, Father, let us go home. Aside from us, nobody had yet escaped from the ghetto. I took pity on them and returned to the ghetto. My wife said to me with reproach, All the Jews are in bed, sound asleep. Only you seem to be so afflicted. I answered her, May G-d grant that we come out of this situation in one piece. With that, I lay down in bed, fully clothed.
I was suddenly stirred by the thunderous sound of gunfire. It was a blood curdling, ear splitting noise. I ran out in the street and there I saw Jews, literally, hanging from the barbed wire that penned in the ghetto. In their desperation, they were trying to escape and the murderers were shooting at them with automatic rifles. I could see my landsleit falling like hunted prey. We knew this was to be the end. Romanus had decided to liquidate the ghetto. Two days earlier, he had brought in reinforcements of German troops along with Polish supporters. And, ominously, there were large numbers of wagons with which to cart away the dead.
At the last minute, I opened my secret door. Together with Shmuel Voinowitz, I escaped to the nearby forest. While running, we encountered the watchmaker who was Matta's son-in-law. He drew near to us and advised, Let's stay together and see what the future has in store for us.
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