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[Page 250]

Our Krynki Holocaust Tribulations

by Eliyahu Kushnir

Translated by Hadas Eyal

 

The Border Pharmacy

When the Krynki Jewish ghetto was set up on December 13, 1941 it's barricade ran through the yard of my pharmacy. Jews who worked outside the ghetto and were able to somehow find food, would throw it towards the pharmacy and we would throw it over the fence into the ghetto.

Life in the fall all of 1942 was a nightmare of terror and constant fear of death. There were frequent rumors from neighboring towns of slaughter and “transports” of children and elderly to unknown destinations.

On November 1st, 1942 rumors spread that something “special” was about to happen and my family urged me to move into the pharmacy beyond the barbed wire. My wife and I crossed the barricade that night. We went up to the attic and laid there. At 6:00 a.m. we heard an earsplitting uproar of wild yelling, wailing and gun fire from the ghetto, followed by a commotion of moving carriages, an entire camp. We didn't know what was going on.

The pharmacy did not open that day. It was managed by a Polish professor brought in by the Nazi commissar but when I heard movement from there at approximately 10 a.m. I snuck down from the attic and peaked into the pharmacy through the back door. I asked the Christian intern to call the pharmacist professor and from him I learned that all the Jews were taken out of town. Among them, my entire family.

Jolted and shocked, we decided to end our lives. We were even able to obtain a box of poison but the pharmacist let us stay in the attic for one more night so I decided to wait for the next day.

Early the next morning we woke to desperate cries in Yiddish: “Oy, where are my children?” We ran down and there was Yosel Goltz the Judenrat, running, crazed, wringing his hands, looking for his family that disappeared. He told us that some Judenrat and professional workers, mainly tanners, were left to work in Krynki. Yankel Shinder and others assumed that the Jews who could be of service to the Germans may be able to successfully escape hell.

Goltz also told us that the Germans, with whom he came into contact as a Judenrat and whom he regularly bribed, warned him in advance that the ghetto was going to be liquidated. He rushed to prepare his family a hiding place where he left them while he went to pay a ransom for their lives. When he was late to return, his family left the hiding place and asked a young acquaintance to lead them to the place where all the Jews were rounded up. By the time Goltz returned – he couldn't find them. We also found out that my mother-in-law, aunt and the children willingly left their hiding place because they heard the Germans “promised” that the town people would be moved to ghetto Grodno.

[Page 251]

The Empty Ghetto

In order to maximize our chances of saving our relatives and the children we had to first become “legal” in the ghetto. We left the pharmacy attic and snuck into the ghetto to our apartment. The apartment was already taken over by other Jews who barely vacated a corner for us. The Germans we met told us we will soon see our relatives.

House gates and doors in the ghetto were flung open, lamps were on. You would go into an apartment and see before you a dish ready to be cooked; here a sewing machine with a shirt half-sewn; there bread dough with finger marks sunk into it; next to a grater – a whole potato; on the table – a crumpled tallit, an undone tefillin, and a Siddur open to “Shmoneh Esrei” in the middle the Amidah prayer. The beds are ruffled. Clearly the Jews were torn and snatched at dawn.

 

In the Tannery with the Remaining

We were lucky. The wife of the German tannery manager happened to our apartment to see the seamstress who lived with us. In return for silverware and Czech cutlery we were accepted to the tannery - I as a medic and my wife as a nurse. With time I befriended the manager. From time to time we would bring him gifts that were easy to find: anyone could walk into an apartment and take what they wanted. If a Christian would take a plate out of the ghetto he would be shot, but the Jews were uninterrupted because the murderers knew that sooner or later everything will remain in their hands.

The tannery manager, an SS man, agreed to at least return our son. This is when we found out that everyone taken from town was gathered in the transport camp in Kielbasin . A car was eventually sent to bring the child but returned empty – they were all sent to Treblinka the day before.

We stayed at the tannery camp 12 weeks. I bandaged and treated the Jews with a great deal of luck. Despite not being able to sanitize needles and lacking any alcohol, there were no inflections.

Polish people from town who were once communists and now dangerous hooligans also worked in the tannery. One day in January 1943, a Polish woman spotted my wife's felt boots. She suggested that my wife give them to her as a gift because “she will soon not be needing them anymore”. We understood the hour of Jewish extermination is approaching.

Shortly after that day, the guard told me someone is waiting for me outside. It was Piotr Biganski, our former landlord. He came under the pretense of urgently needing a certain medication, asking me to concoct it. He then whispered that he was willing to hide my wife and I at his place.

There was tension in the camp those days. People would sneak out at night to look for a hiding place in the area, retuning disappointed. I therefore asked to send a message to Biganski that the medication I prepared for him is ready. He appeared and repeated his offer. Although I did not take him too seriously because I knew he was an unusual man, I got hold of a coat, two window drapes and several lady stockings that he asked of me and passed them to him when I had a chance.

On Shabbat, January 23, the tools were taken from the craftsmen – a bad sign. When I asked the manager about it he said that “if anyone will be left here, you will be the first of them”. The situation was clear. Not only did our Polish co-workers not express emotion or any kind of worry for us, they were outwardly happy they would be able to enjoy the things we leave them. We were so angry, we began to throw into the oven and burn everything we were meant to leave behind. The Polish raised a commotion about us burning “things that already belong to them”.

Most of the Jews in the camp were young and sought life. However, we knew nothing about whether there were Partisans among us.

With us in the camp was a worker called Zelig Vacht whose wife I threated for open tuberculosis. She died in my arms. He became a close friend and tried to be in our company as much as possible. We told him and a few other close friends our secret of the possibility of finding a hiding place but that we do not trust the person willing to hide us and we do not have the money we will need for that. They all persuaded us to take the opportunity because there is nothing to lose, and maybe, if we stay alive, there will be someone to tell the story of the Shoah that fell on the Jews of Krynki. Vacht also took it upon himself to get us out of the camp that was now surrounded by the Gestapo with only a single section guarded by a Polish policeman. It was our last window of opportunity.

 

Hiding Underground in a Crate

We approached that fence section in the dark of night. Vacht whispered to the Polish policeman that he will show him treasures buried underground if he moves a bit from the gate to let us leave through it. The trick worked after we also shoved several money bills into the hands of the policeman. In pouring rain, we plodded through mud until we reached Biganski's yard. We knocked quietly on his window. A woman's voice answered that she is bathing and not open, so we hid in a cellar we discovered. Biganski found us there later by chance when he came down to check that the rain water didn't reach the potatoes in the cellar shed.

He was perplexed at first then greeted us. But he turned pale when he lit a match and saw another man with us. After pleading, he eventually agreed to hide Vacht as well. We took off our watches and handed them over along with all the money we had. Now he invited us into his house, fed us and led us to the cellar.

Our dwelling was in a crate that was 140 centimeters long and one meter in height and width. It was meant for two people laying with their legs bent. The third person was forced to stand in turn inside the chimney through which we were lowered to the crate. The chimney was covered on top with wood planks. On top of the planks, Biganski threw mounds of potatoes.

The first 24 hours we laid hungry and swooning until he returned home apologizing he did not bring us food earlier because he was busy slaughtering a pig at a party. He took us up, fed us dinner and gave us instructions we needed to obey without question because we were surrounded by enemies, especially his hating brothers who came into the cellar to take their food supplies.

Biganski also told us that all the Jews were taken including those from the camp and that eight of them who tried to escape were caught and shot to death in the cemetery.

[Page 252]

Sheltered in Sodom by Two Righteous People

He would bring us food every night when he came down to the cellar to collect potatoes for his cows. He also took the bucket we used as a toilet. Once every two weeks he took us up late at night to bathe after a thorough inspection around the house and if no person was expected to visit. Only then would he command: Come up! We'd quickly sneak into the house while he covered the windows and locked the doors. Bathing night was a celebration. Mrs. Biganski, smart and infinitely generous – a true angle from heaven – would cook us food then allow us to use their beds to catch a human nap with our limbs stretched out.

One evening, there was a knock on the window while we were bathing. We all turned pale but Mrs. Biganski did not lose her resourcefulness. She answered as she always did in these situations that she will not open because she is bathing. Turns out it was one of Mr. Biganski's brothers who was looking for his horse and came to check if anyone saw him. From then on we could no longer bathe.

In the spring of that year Vacht contracted tuberculosis and his coughing got continuously worse. Biganski moved him to the attic where he got worse, probably due to a cold, and the sound of his coughing could be heard in the street. Vacht begged Biganski to take him to Bialystok ghetto where he had friends. Putting himself in great danger, Biganski hitched the horse and took Vacht there. With utmost mercy he also offered Vacht to return when his health improves. After the war we learned that Vacht and five other Jews escaped from the Bialystok ghetto just before it was liquidated but they were caught and shot on their way to Krynki. Only Shteinspir survived – the sole living witness to this escape.

We stayed in the attic after Vacht left even though it would have been easier to discover us there. After harvest, Biganski installed a new crate under the hay and began to feed us better food to make us healthier and stronger. Moreover, our friendship with this family grew to the point he would even bring us the newspaper. [Page 253]

An additional man in the den of evil

Once it happened that a goy climbed to the attic to look for something and saw me crawling from the crate to get the newspaper. The man recoiled, pale as whitewash from what he saw, but left without a word. He was smart and kind because he did not even mention it to Biganski. He would bring our landlord a large portion of freshly collected honey from his bee hive saying: “Take, take, you need it!”.

In the winter of 1943/1944 the Germans brought Ukrainian police. Two of the families were housed in our yard. They exposed their evilness straight away: they found two Jews hiding in the field, the first they buried alive and the second they gave over to the Germans. We found this out only later because our landlord did not want to worry us.

We were surprised one day by a baptism party in the attic. White sheets were hung around the walls and tables were set. Biganski's neighbor guests, brothers and the policemen ate and drank all day while we were in the crate beneath the hay, hearing the praying and partying of the Ukraine murderers. After the guests left that night Biganski served us schnapps, meat and candy as refreshments.

 

Approach of the Red Army

The Red Army was approaching us, delayed near the town of Svislach where the Germans displayed stubborn resistance for several days. Before they left Krynki the Germans set out to demolish the place. They blew up the factories and set the homes on fire. Our landlord Biganski moved around like a crazy man fearing more for his house than for our lives despite all the efforts he invested in saving us.

He came up one day and curtly commanded: “Out!” He led us across the field within the artillery range until we reached his plot. There, he commanded us to lay under the grain and he left. We laid there the whole night with the loud noises of the German command ringing in our ears.

In the morning after an additional night, Biganski came to inform us that the Soviets arrived and he left again. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at his house. The neighbors who saw us could not believe their eyes, that some Jews remained alive. Our landlord and his wife came towards us with a sly smile. We were given the same apartment the police had stayed in. We were swollen and our eyes blinded from being in the dark for so long.

 

The Goyim Take Revenge On Our Saviors

Word quickly spread in town that we were saved. Other Jews who hid in the nearby forests also survived but there were no acquaintances of ours among them. The town goyim now began to go after our landlord, snitching on him to the Soviet authorities.

We ran to the Russian officers and high rank Soviet clerks to beg for his life and telling them about his total devotion and self-sacrifice. Our efforts were unsuccessful until a high ranking NKDV commander who happened to be Jewish passed through town. After hearing our story, he asked to meet our savior to thank him personally.

Biganski returned home. The next day the commander arrived with an entire battalion. Biganski was called outside and once in view, the commander gave a command of “Attention!”, took his hat off as a sign of respect as Russian custom, kissed our savior and his wife's hand, and thanked him for saving our lives. From then on all the high officers and clerks who passed through Krynki treated him the same way.

We stayed in Krynki several more months. The other eight surviving town Jews moved in with us and it was much more pleasant for us. However, the hatred from the goyim continued to increase. They were unable to forgive us for surviving and our landlord for saving us.

We therefore moved to Bialystok. Although there were few Jews left there, mutual ahavat-yisrael (love of one's fellow Jews) was everywhere. Even Jews who did not know each other before would hug, kiss and cry when they met and realized they are not the one and only Jew left in the world.

Biganski came to visit us in Bialystok several times. As long as we were in Krynki, no harm was done to him. But when we left – the goyim constantly harassed him. We received no response to our last letters to him. We do not know the fate of this Righteous Gentile and his gentle kindhearted wife.

In November 1945 we miraculously managed at long last to get to Eretz Israel.

 

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