by Shoshana Yakubovitsh
Translated by Leonard Prager
Appeared previously in The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language, Vol. 10.006 [Sequential No. 171]
I have taken pen in hand many times. I wanted to write about beloved and good-hearted Vitye Pomienko. I'm sorry I can't remember the names of all the people he helped so much, but the faces of the Jews whom he saved are clear before my eyes.
I saw Witold (Vitye) Pomienko for the first time after all our families in the Lutsk Ghetto had been killed. I stayed alive due to chance and escaped to a small village by the name of Podhayets. Quite a few Jewish boys and girls worked in the fields there and Vitye Pomienko visited them often. He helped them get needed documents and medications. Among other things, he brought oxygen-water for the Jewish girls so that they could dye their hair blond, flee the village and save themselves.
I was then eleven years old and looked like a little blond gentile child. At Vitye's request, his mother took me in despite the fact that he was already hiding three Jews in his home.
Living with them I noticed how persons of all ages filed into their house in the evenings and slept there as though it were a hotel. With the exception that in a hotel you pay your bill, and here the Pomienkos risked paying with their lives for their hospitality. Pomienko found hiding places for terrified and hunted Jews with a number of Christians, not once by paying from his own pocket. For hiding Jews he promised the world to these Christians when the war ended. Unfortunately, the war went on longer than people thought it would and neighbors of the good Christians began to see they were shielding Jews and reported them to the police. Often this led to arrest of the Jews and their subsequent execution. Then new troubles arose for Vitye and his family. He was up day and night and kept watch through cracks in his door fearful that his home would be searched for Jews. Luckily no one informed on him. But frightened Christians who managed to escape from the police and whom he had urged to shelter Jews began coming to him for help. And Vitye had to find alternative hiding places in other locations for those he was already hiding.
More than once a Jew managed to escape the clutches of the Germans and returned to Vitye, who with renewed energy began to search about for a new place to hide him.
Vitye's mother was also a fine, good woman; his father was a fine and gentle person. I loved them very much. I myself received from Pomienko's family the best of food and clothing. I owe my life to them.
Vitold Pomienko -- Mayn Reter ('Witold Pomienko -- My Rescuer'), an account of a young girl saved by a courageous gentile, is corroborated in the records of YadVashem in Jerusalem. Together with Shoshana Yakubovitsh's personal testimonial we cite the official recognition of Witold Fiomenko's actions as recorded in YadVashem:
Witold Pomienko hid scores of Jews in the Lutsk region of the Ukraine, braving threats from Germans and hostile local kinsmen. [cited from Yad VaShem's Righteous Among Nations website].
There are over 30,000 recognized Righteous Gentiles in the Yad Vashem memorial. They constitute a tiny minority of the gentiles of Europe among whom millions of Jews were murdered, yet how much they strengthen the human spirit by their example. In assessing their deeds we must keep in mind the conditions under which they lived. Here is a typical Nazi declaration against assisting Jews:
The Penalty for Helping a Jew in Occupied Poland:
The following proclamation was issued by Dr. Ludwig Fischer, the German district governor of Warsaw, on November 10, 1941: Concerning the Death Penalty for Illegally Leaving Jewish Residential Districts...Any Jew who illegally leaves the designated residential district will be punished by death. Anyone who deliberately offers refuge to such Jews or who aids them in any other manner (i.e., offering a night's lodging, food, or by taking them into vehicles of any kind, etc.) will be subject to the same punishment. Judgment will be rendered by a Special Court in Warsaw. I forcefully draw the attention of the entire population of the Warsaw District to this new decree, as henceforth it will be applied with the utmost severity.
David Prital, Israel
Translated by Sara Mages
This article is dedicated to those few, the Righteous Among the Nations, among the Poles, Ukrainians and Czechs, the hardworking people in the village and the city, who helped persecuted Jews during the German occupation. They had done the rescue work out of self-sacrifice, out of danger to themselves and their families, and in this manner also saved the dignity of humanity. They were like lonely islands in a sea of evil, and this only increases even more the magnificence of heroism in their actions, which today sound like the words of a legend.
By the barbed wire fence of the camp in the (former) Jewish gymnasium, I said goodbye to my friend Shlomo Rutter. I said to him, I hope everything will be fine and tomorrow morning I will return to the camp as usual. It was on 11 December1942.
In the darkness of the night I walked through the city streets with quick steps.
The road was quite long. I had to go through the entire Charobi Street, starting from the gymnasium, to Yagilonsky and Krasna streets. I finally arrived to a Pole, who according to the information I had, was willing to accept a number of Jews for money. I entered into negotiations with him and we reached an acceptable agreement. The plan was successful. The gentile made a good impression.
Now, I had to find a Jew with the means and I, on my part, brought the hiding place into the partnership. In the morning hours I decided to return to the camp. In those days, it was not one of the simple things that a Jew will walk during the day in the streets of Lutsk, after the two liquidations in the summer. But, this was not my first trip, and for months got used to breathing the air outside the camp. At first, the exits to the other side were accompanied by many fears because of the danger that was lurking for me, but, I knew, that if there's a chance of ever saving my soul, I should try to maintain connections (or seek connections) on the Arian side.
Deep in thought, I approached the Russian cemetery bordering the camp in the gymnasium. I started to wonder from which side to enter back. And here I'm at the gate, and in front of me is a shocking picture. The camp is surrounded by German and Ukrainian gendarmerie.
The end has come for last remaining Jews in Lutsk - a thought crossed my mind. As quickly as possible I crossed the street out of the decision to stay away from danger. Luckily for me the Germans were busy inside the camp.
Now I faced with the question; where to go? I could not return to the Pole whom I visited yesterday because he expressly informed me that he was only willing to keep Jews for a fee. I decided to go to the Polish Brun family, who lived in the Udenice colony behind the railroad tracks. I was on friendly terms with this family for a whole year, but they never promised to help me in time of need.
I arrived there in the evening and asked them to let me sleep for one night. Mr. Brun, when he saw me in this condition, granted my request. I felt the tension in the house because of the dangerous guest, who could cause disaster for the whole family. I passed the night thinking about my friends that I had left behind in the camp.
The morning dawned and with it the great anxiety: What now? Where would I go? I decided to do something. I entered the kitchen, turned on the fire in the oven and began to peel potatoes for breakfast. My hosts were surprised to see me engaged in this work and were also happy that some work was done at home before they got up.
Not bad, said Mr. Brun, The night passed and not a single German came. Let's hope they don't come, are they really able to guard every house? I felt that the tension had worn off to some extent.
Mr. Brun and his daughters went to work after breakfast, and his old and sick wife remained at home. I understood that I must be useful in this house, and during the day I did all kinds of housework. When they returned from work, the family members were happy for the clean floor and the help I provided to the housewife. But, A Jew is in the house! only yesterday the Germans exterminated the survivors of Lutsk Jewry when they led them to the place of killing! - I saw the hesitation and indecision in Mr. Brun's eyes, even though he was a man of noble spirit. He didn't remind me that I asked to be allowed to stay only one night.
Behind the window were seen the first signs of the harsh and cold Russian winter, and the hearts of my hosts didn't allow let them send me away from their home. I stayed to sleep there the second night and continued to help with the housework. One night, I started a serious conversation with Mr. Brun and explained to him my plans that were connected with the arrival of spring.
Mr. Brun, I said to him, Let me stay at your home only during the harsh winter months, and in the months of March and April, I will try my luck in the Ukrainian forests. My savior host, who was a man full of optimism, understood my feelings and agreed that I should stay with him. In the meantime, the Christian holidays were approaching and, as usual, there was a lot of work and my help to the housewife was considerable.
Mr. Brun constantly tried to alleviate the restlessness and tension of his family members because of my stay with them, and not once there was a real reason for this fear. Here they caught a Jew (a road construction contractor) at the Polish woman Wilk, and she paid with her life for the help she extended him. Another news item said that they caught the Jewish woman, Riva Bersh, when she walked in the city streets in the evening, etc. I tried
to make it easier for my hosts in various ways. Occasionally I went out to the city in the evening, visited Christian acquaintances to find out if there were any Jewish survivors and where they were. I felt that I shouldn't keep my Polish friends in constant tension and I went on a lot of walks, sometimes without a purpose. On one of these walks I met a young man, Shmuel Schulman, who was hiding in the vicinity of the brick factory. When I returned home I told wonderful stories about the hospitality I received from my Christian acquaintances and that they also keep Jews in their homes. There is no doubt that my words encouraged the members of the Brun family quite a bit. I realized that in order to get help from people, it is necessary to try to appear as a bold hero who always has all kinds of plans and connections with people. I also learned that people are willing to help the brave, and therefore I tried my best to look like such a person. At night I sat with Mr. Brun, a former Russian officer, and heard from him wonderful stories about the Russo-Japanese War. Already then, Mr. Brun was sure that the war was coming to an end and that we should expect the entry of Turkey the war, and this fact could be crucial regarding the liberation of Poland, because, relatively speaking, the distance between Turkey and southern Poland is not big.
The ways of thinking, and the origins of love in humans, are interesting. Mr. Brun, a former military man, was anti-religious in his views, hated the clergy, believed in mankind, loved nature, animals and plants. In moments of depression he used to say:
Mr. David, I'm old and I have seen a lot in my life. And here, I have come to the conclusion that everything in our world passes, both the good and the bad, and believe me that also the German occupation will pass like a terrible nightmare.
His wife - an old woman, pious, observant, treated me in a very humane and fair manner, almost motherly. I remember that during the days of preparations for their holiday, she felt my tears and started to comfort me:
You too will be free, one day you will raise your family and celebrate your holidays among your loved ones.
At home were two daughters who worked as clerks in the city. One of them, the younger one, turned to me in a tense moment and said:
I'm calm only for one reason. We didn't do it because of greed for money, and God will surely help us.
However, on the other hand, the older sister was usually full of prejudices about Jews which she didn't even bother to hide.
Easter was approaching, and as is customary with devout Catholics everyone visited the priest for confession, of course, except for Mr. Brun (Mrs. Brun suffered quite a bit because of this fact). Since she could not go to church due to her illness, it was decided to invite a priest to the house. One day the priest came. I remember how Mrs. Brun came out after a conversation with him with tears on her face, saying:
Now I'm completely calm: the priest Bukowinski said that I'm doing good deed by helping a Jew to hide in my house. I'm so peaceful now...
Indeed, the priest's moral support was timely. After months of tension and sleepless nights the encouragement was like a sedative for the Brun family. After that I met the priest and immediately recognized him. I reminded to him that we were once in the same Soviet prison and various details related to the tragic events of those days. There was no end to his excitement:
What a wonderful meeting, he turned to me, you were also there?
On this opportunity I expressed my appreciation for his courage in providing spiritual aid to the wounded of all religions that were in the prison. We sat and talked for several hours, I heard political news from him and what was happening on the war fronts. It was the days of Stalingrad (I think), and there was no doubt then that t Germany would be defeated in this war. At the end of the conversation the priest very gently asked me if the tragic events didn't affect my worldview in the field of religion, and if so, he is willing to help me. I explained to him that I'm not ready right now to enter into a debate on these questions, since I'm the weak side who needs the support of others, and I will postpone the discussion until the time when both sides are equal. I added that after what happened, when my people were killed en masse just because of their Judaism, I feel myself more and more connected to Judaism. Mr. Bukowinski understood me point of view and moved on to other topics. When we parted, he assured me that if I would ever need his help he would be ready to give it to me.
Spring burst through the windows in our house. I remember my hard feeling when I saw again the budding of the trees, the awakening of the flowers.Is it possible that nothing has changed in nature after everything that had happened?
With the beginning of spring, serious problems arose for the continuation of my stay in the place. After all, I promised that with the arrival of spring I would leave the house and try my luck in another place. Recently, many Jews were caught in the city, a matter that brought an atmosphere of nervousness in my host family. Gone are the days when we could keep the house locked and the shutters closed as is customary in the winter days. There was necessary to open the windows and I felt that I must leave the place. And so stood before me the fateful question: where?
During the last few months I have pondered the matter quite a bit. I wanted to join the partisan movement, but that required connections.
Because of the special political situation around Lutsk, a partisan movement of Ukrainian Nationalists, who were known for their hostile attitude towards Jews (Banderovites), ruled the villages around Lutsk. The Russian partisans were far away and the road to them was very dangerous. And the question was difficult: where?
I realized that I have to find people who by their very nature and outlook are kind to people. But - where are they? Who are they? In the long winter nights I remembered the trips I took together with my grandfather in the villages for his business. I remembered a visit to a farmer, who, according to my grandmother, was righteous. He belonged to one of the many religious sects that were in Wolyn. And I also remembered the prayers and the strange ceremonies of the sects members held on the banks of the Styr River. In my youth I love to watch the baptism ceremony of these people, and listen to their peaceful singing. They were small Baptists sects. I also remembered the image of the housekeeper in our yard that also belonged to such a sect. I remember he peace of mind and her love for the Jewish people, and I had a determined decision in my heart: I must find them and with their help to arrive to Ludmir Ghetto - the only ghetto where Jews remained.
I left the Brun's house in the morning hours of a nice spring day. Because of the curfew, you couldn't go out in the evening, so I had to take a risk and cross the city streets to the light of the day in order to reach the village. When I approached the former bakery of the Firere family, I suddenly heard a Ukrainian voice demanding me to stand. My heart
stopped beating. I stood. The Ukrainian came closer to me and without looking in my eyes remarked that my shoelaces were untied and dragging on the ground. Without thanking him I walked a few steps down the bakery's alley and started to tie my shoelaces (now, when I preach morals to my son about the importance of order in life, this story of mine is a classic example). I waited until the order-loving citizen moved away, and walked down Piłsudskiego Street. I decided to visit Pomienko's barber shop which was located right across of the synagogue in the doline (next to the Agricultural Bank). I hoped to get information from him about Jews in hiding, and maybe also the possibility of a hiding place. Legends circulated in the ghetto about Pomienko. This was the man who entered the ghetto with sacks of bread to distribute them among the wives of the barbers who were taken in the first exterminations. This was the man who encouraged the depressed Jews with optimistic stories and jokes at the Germans' expense. To this day I remember the story about Pomienko expressing his noble worldview:
A Jew met Pomienko on Jagielloński Street. To his question, where are you headed, Pomienko answered that he was going to pray. Where? asked the Jew, and Pomienko answered: I haven't decided yet, either I will enter the synagogue of the Trisker Hasidim of the Christian church, it depends on which is closer. After all, there is one God in the world and in both places.
Pomienko himself was an apprentice for the barber Sofer. As is well known, Sofer also played music at weddings and Pomienko learned the profession from him, and thus got know the Jews' way of life and customs, and above all the common people - and fell in love with them. We used to burst out laughing when he recited in juicy Yiddish the story of Yakov the water-drawer which described his adventures in the Russo-Japanese War...
But, there was no time for many reflections in this strange walk of a Jew in the streets of the city of Lutsk during the day in 1943, when mortal danger lurks at every step. I arrived at the crossroads of Rivne-Dubno. and to my great joy I met a German Lutsker, a carter by profession, who at the time of the ghetto was in contact with the Eydenberg family. The aforementioned was known to me as a friend of the Jews. When he saw me tears flowed from my eyes. I told him that I was looking for a hiding place after I had to leave the Polish family. In response to this, he explained to me that he could not take me because he was hiding a Jewish couple who live in his stable without his wife's knowledge. In spite of it, he agreed that I could come to him if I would not find another place. I wanted to know the names of the Jews hiding with him, but he didn't know their names, only their occupations and the names of the streets where they lived. I met these Jews after the liberation. It was Meir Rothman and his wife. There were no words in their mouths to describe their feelings when they received the note I sent to them, it encouraged their spirit for many months.
The news that I heard from the carter that there are more Jews in hiding, filled my heart with great joy. I decided to send them a note and wrote these words in the street while holding the piece of paper on the carter's back:
Dear Lutsker Jews, I'm David son of Haim Prinzental the teacher, sending you my sincere blessings and I wish you to get through the war in peace. I ask to send a greeting to my brother Yakov who is in Eretz Yisrael.
After that I parted from him and turned to walk in the direction of Dubno Road. And here, in the neighborhood bordering the village, a very dangerous surprise awaited for me: a Ukrainian Christian woman, who brought milk to the city, recognized me and shouted: Jew!
Windows and doors opened and dozens of people came out of their homes to see the terrible monster that has not been seen in Lutsk for a long time - a Jew. I gathered all my strength and with a dizzying run I passed through alleys, yards, until I felt that no one was following me. And here I'm behind the city, through the fields, close to the house of the Polish farmer I have known since the ghetto period.
I'm walking along a field road and a man is walking towards me. When he saw me, I felt insecurity and hesitation in his steps, as if he wanted to avoid meeting me. Nevertheless, he passed next to me and looked at me with curiosity. Apparently, he also felt the uneasiness in my eyes. I was almost certain that he was Jewish. He was dressed as a farmer going to the city. He held in his a handkerchief and in it a plate with food as is the custom of the farmers who come to visit the city, but despite all the distinct signs of a farmer there was something artificial about his appearance that cast doubt that he was a farmer. I wanted to talk to him, but the constant sense of caution and fear stopped me from doing so. We passed one by one, I turned my head back and he also made the same movement. I was sure that he was also examining me and considering whether to turn to me. We moved away from each other and also from a great distance I saw that he was still turning his head towards me. To this day I remember the look in this man's eyes that spoke of curiosity and restlessness.
Who was he? Where did he go? I have no answer for that.
I finally arrived to the Polish acquaintance that lived at the edge of the village of Lychany. How much everything has changed in such a short time. Indeed, the Jews were exterminated in Wolyn, but the earth is not quiet. As if the blood of the persecuted and tortured cried out from the earth:
There will be no peace on earth after what happened to our people!
The Ukrainian Nationalists, who had finished the work of exterminating the Jews, now turned their anger against the Polish residents who lived in the villages. At night Ukrainian gangs burned houses and large flames lit up the sky. Armed men killed Poles at night and by this they thought to force them to leave the village. And, in general, the night was used to settle various accounts. The killing and burning reminded the well-known stories in the book By fire and Sword. The elderly among the farmers said:
This is for the Jews.
The young Polish farmer received me with admiration: how did I manage to stay alive until now! His situation now was also very dangerous. He received a letter from the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) that he must leave the village with his family. If he wouldn't leave he faces the death penalty. But, he was brave and vowed that nothing would deter him from staying in his home. At the end, a sensational surprise awaited me: he told me that there are two Jews in the barn. With mixed emotions and a beating heart I entered the barn. I started mumbling a few words in Yiddish, a language I haven't spoken for a long time. One of them was an older man, the owner of the flour mill in Lychany, and his relative Katz, a young locksmith from Lutsk. Here I heard a story about sleepless nights full of dangers. The owner of the flour mill had many acquaintances and friends among the Ukrainians and they helped him so far. His entire family was murdered in Lutsk Ghetto and also the young man's family. They received me with a warm Jewish heart and during the night I
told them about my family and everything I had been through so far. I was with them for a few days and eventually it was time to part. I could not make it difficult for them in my presence. Their method was simple: they stayed with each of their acquaintances for a week or two and wandered on. On the day of parting, and also before that, they were interested in what I intend to do and what my plans are.
They said to me: We have many connections in this area. We know every path in the villages. But what will happen to you? You are a stranger here.
I told them about my desire to reach Ludmir Ghetto in which there are still Jews, and in the meantime to contact the farmers who belong to the Baptists sect. They praised the idea of finding a way to the Shtundists (as they were called in the villages).
That's right, confirmed the mill owner, these people are known for their deep love for the Jews.
I was able to trust his opinion. He knew every house and path in the area. We approached the crack in the barn door and he showed me a farmer's house, of the kind of houses that can be seen in Ukrainian villages.
In this house lives one of them. But be careful, right next to him lives his brother who, without any hesitation, will kill you with an axe. Try your luck
Shortly before sunset I left the barn. I walked in the direction of the house whose roof was covered with straw. I walked on the path between two fields and my heart is full of anxiety. Suddenly the figure of a Ukrainian farmer, who walked peacefully in the fields, appeared before me. My sense, which stood me through so many attempts, told me not to be afraid of this meeting. He approached me and immediately understood who was standing in front of him. He reassured me with tears in his eyes and invited me to his home. We entered together and I immediately felt that I had managed to meet a wonderful man.
God brought an important guest to our home, he said to his wife. Come and we will thank God for that.
He and his wife fell on their knees, and from their mouths sounded a prayer that emanated from their simple and good hearts, and is not written in any prayer book. I heard a song of thanksgiving to God for giving them the right to meet a Jew in these troubled days. They asked God to help the survivors hiding in the fields and the forests.
Is this a dream? Are there still such people in the world? Why didn't I think about them in the ghetto? After all, with their help, and with a successful organization, many could have found refuge.
They got up from the prayer. We sat at the table and ate. His wife served us milk and potatoes. Before the meal, the homeowner read a chapter from the Bible.
Indeed, I thought in my heart, This is the great secret. It is the eternal book that raised their feelings to such a high moral peak. It is this book that filled her hearts with love for the Jews.
After the meal he started a conversation.
You have to understand, I'm also a Jew. I was amazed. Where am I, in what world? But I'm a spiritual Jew, he continued, and this meeting with you gives me material for many thoughts and verifies the words of the prophets that the Sh'erit ha-Pletah [Surviving Remnant] will be saved.
I remember his efforts to save my soul by convincing me that the Christian Jesus is the Messiah, and I must trust him. And this is where the big quarrel started. I told him:
I really appreciate the help you are giving me at this moment. But, would it really be moral on your part to pressure me at the time when I'm so lonesome and weak? Where were you when they killed Jews in the ghetto? Why didn't you break the fences and didn't bring words of comfort to those who thought at the last moments before they died that the whole world had left them? You sat in your homes, led your normal lives, worked, and I believe you prayed. However, nothing really changed then, while a nation was being destroyed before your eyes.
Apparently my words had a profound effect on him. Tears ran down his cheeks and he only muttered.
You are right, you are right.
In the late evening hours the homeowner led me to the barn for a night's rest. Unfortunately, as I have told, my host lived next to a neighbor who was known for his hatred of Jews. For reasons of prudence, I had to be transferred to another farmer of his religion, and also there I was received cordially and with a desire to help me in everything. But there were serious limitations that resulted from the special situation of the members of the Baptist denomination. They were a small minority within the village, a minority surrounded by Russian Orthodox neighbors who harbored hatred against them. I could not stay for a long time with one farmer and had to wander from place to place. Today I remember such a case. Once one of them turned to me and said:
We usually believe in our people, but a person is tested in difficult situations. This evening we suggest that you go to a farmer and ask for a refuge. We didn't inform him of your arrival and this will be a serious test to his attitude and responsiveness towards you. Of course, you will not in any personal danger. At least, he won't want to receive you, but for us it will be a source of information about the depth of his loyalty.
After receiving an explanation about his place of residence, I set out at night after midnight. Finally, after losing my way, I arrived at the house which according to all the signs (the tin roof, the place of the barn, the place of the dog, etc.) was the house of that farmer. I knocked on the door. I heard the frightened movement of the family members inside: Who is that? I said:
A homeless person asks for a refuge for several days.
An argument started inside. The wife pleaded to her husband not to open, and in my heart I thought that these people were really facing a difficult test. The nights 1943 were nights of murders and arson in Ukraine. I heard a voice saying to me:
We don't open the door at night.
I answered: what times have come when a Jew asks for refuge and is not accepted.
The homeowner turned to his wife: after all, he's a Jew, how can we not accept him?
The door opened, and the hearts of the good people were opened, and as usual I stayed in a place for a few days and then moved to a new place. But I will never forget one meeting that caused me great excitement.
Once, when I sat in the barn, the homeowner came in and sat next to me:
I see that you are sad and discouraged, he said, I will sing you a song that might strengthen your spirit.
The farmer opened his mouth and began to sing chapter 126 in Psalms, When the Lord returns the returnees to Zion, in Hebrew
I managed to meet with two more Jews. They were very happy about my association with the Baptists.
But they were murdered one night by the criminal hands of the Banderovites. My Baptists friends told me about it. It was a sign for me
that I should be more and more careful. At night, while wandering in the fields and the forest, every rustle caused anxiety in my heart. I heard a noise - I stood up, listened, and continued to walk.
Yes, danger lurks everywhere... Last night, the young Polish farmer who hosted me was murdered and his family fled to the city.
Only a short time ago he helped me... Tonight I sleep in the barn while his house is deserted and the wind is swinging the open door
Once, I found out that Jews were staying in a desolated barn (I think the Tzel-Burstok family). At the time, when I wandered, my longings for a meeting with Jews were very strong. It's been a long time since I saw a Jew. Therefore, there was no limit to my joy when I heard the news about the presence of Jews. In the early hours of the morning I came to the barn as my heart was pulsing with excitement and tension. I entered, and in an excited and restrained voice I said: Jews, don't be afraid - I'm David Prinzental, son of the teacher Haim, I want to talk to you. I don't need your help. I simply want to meet you.
No one answered me in the big barn. I repeated my words several times. Silence, I'm alone in the barn. Suddenly I was attacked by fear. The voice, as if it were not mine, cast terror in the space. I left the place. I went out to the fields.
The next day I tried again to contact the Jews - but without success.
I met Mr. Yanse thanks to a farmer. Listen, he said to me, I'm a coward by nature and I'm afraid to let you stay. But I advice you, go to Yanse and I'm sure that he would help you.
To my question, what is the basis for this confidence, he replied that the meeting with the farmer - would prove the truth of his words.
I arrived to him in the morning. His house stood inside the forest. His neighbors were Czech farmers - who immediately showed sympathy for the Jews. I immediately liked the place.
In my first meeting Mr. Yanse immediately recognized me. I asked for the possibility to work - and without much hesitation he agreed and invited me to breakfast.
Several days later it became clear to me that I'm in a very interesting company. In his home worked a fourteen year old Jewish girl from Lutsk (by the way she remained alive) as a cow shepherd. A Russian prisoner of war, also a Jew, even though he strongly denied it, and a Polish couple whose situation at the time was somewhat similar to that of the Jews. I definitely was a natural addition to this decent company. In short a group of people that the law and the environment sentenced them to death. Before me stayed here a Jewish woman from Lutsk who moved to another Czech family. I think she was the sister of the tailor Kretzer (?).
It should be noted that my jobs were very interesting, especially in the darkness of the night, such as making vodka and guarding the horses during grazing.
Those who didn't know Mr. Yanse could be surprised at his willingness to give shelter to suspicious people. He himself was a former communist who fled to Russia because of a ruling by a Polish court that sentenced him to prison. He was arrested in Russia but managed to return to Poland - and from Poland to Czechoslovakia where he finished his studies in agronomy. After the amnesty he came to Poland and managed his parents' farm.
The man didn't know what fear was. Sometimes I had to reject his offers, such as working to the light of the day for reasons of caution. Nevertheless, I won his heart when I agreed to travel with him to the city and deliver grain to the Germans. For a long time I had been longing to visit the Brun family and this was an excellent opportunity. I sat next to him and the cart moved. We passed through the city streets. No one stopped us. After all, we were decent people. We bring supplies to the Germans. We are in the yard of the Brun family. I hear voices in the house: farmers. We entered the house, I took off my farmer's hat and here is a shout of excitement: Jesus Maria- this is our uncle.
I calmed them down and introduced the agronomist Mr. Yanse to them. I didn't come with empty hands. We brought milk and cheese with us to the Brun family. We sat by the table and ate. For a long time I didn't know what a table was and here I'm sitting and eating with respectable citizens.
We returned home without any incidents on the way. Outside the city I met Pomienko. According to his words he visited a farmer for a commercial deal. After the war I learned that it was a very important deal: a visit to the Fridbaum family who hid with the same farmer...
Nevertheless, I had quite a bit of trouble at Yanse. The Russian prisoner of war, who worked for him, constantly pressured him and demanded that I would leave the place (maybe he was right...). I was forced, not once, to do so because of his threats. But, without a choice, I returned.
Once, arrived to the place a group of armed Ukrainians (Milnikovicim, who was in favor of pro-German orientation) to remove trees from the forest. They visited Yanse's yard. It was in the winter and I - in the stable's attic, full of tension and anxiety - was waiting for the moment when they would leave the place. Suddenly I hear someone climbing the ladder and opening the door. It was a prisoner of war.
Well - he said to me -You claim that I'm a Jew. Let's go down to them and together we will deliver the message.
I admit that my nerves betrayed me at this moment. Despite the fact that I was sure he was Jewish and if I had offered to come down - he would have surely refused.
I politely told him to leave me alone - and if he wants to hand me over to the Germans - what will he get out of it?...
Now, he said, stop claiming that I'm a Jew...
The Ukrainians left the place and I the attic, and the prisoner of war rejoiced in his victory over me.
I'm on the way to the pasture riding a horse tied to five other horses. The night is quiet, the horses eat peacefully. I'm listening - someone is approaching. Yes, a cart is approaching and coming in the direction of the pasture. On those nights only the Banderovites made night trips for the purpose of robbery and murder. What to do? Will I have the time to lead the horses to the forest? Too late. I ran into the forest and abandoned my horses.
In the morning, I informed Yanse about the abduction of the horses. Mr. Yanse was tense and he didn't say anything to me. I felt guilty. But could I have done anything differently? I explained to him how this happened. Mr. Yanse reassured me, he is not the first to suffer from this.
I walked in a bad mood. Horses for a farmer! Who can estimate their value? But a miracle happened. At noon all the horses returned home. It turned out that that when the Banderovites found out who the horses belonged to, they quickly released them out of courtesy to the homeowner.
Indeed, I came to know that Mr. Yanse was a man that the environment respected him.
One day I had the privilege of meeting Jews. It was at Yanse's and probably not by accident. People, who wanted to fulfill their duty towards the Jews and were not willing to help - guided and indicated Yanse's address as a place where one could find refuge.
I'm in the barn and two Jews entered, one of them young and the second older. They were Pesach Shats and his son Ignacy. They fled from the city after they hid with a group of Jews (among them Dr. Goldenberg and Teitelbaum) in a cellar of a Russian engineer in the doline. The aforementioned constantly showed unusual devotion to the Jews hiding in his house. In the end, there was a mishap and everyone was forced to leave in the daylight and look for a new hiding place. As a precaution, Mr. Shats, separated from his eldest son and tried his luck with his younger son, Ignacy, in our vicinity. They came to us by a difficult route.
A few days later we were forced to part. The Russian pressured us to leave the place.
Mr. Shats turned to me in these words:
I see in your eyes that you will survive the war. Take my sons of Ignacy - and I will try my luck with a Czech acquaintance in a neighboring village.
I agreed to this willingly. The time has come for the separation between father and son. It was a farewell forever. Mr. Shats was murdered and wasn't rewarded to see the liberation (we learned about this at a later date).
We both stayed and I became emotionally attached to my young friend. He was a gentle and cultured young man. He won the hearts of everyone he came in contact with. All the time I remembered Mr. Shats' last words:
You, David, will be my son, I hand over Ignacy to you and you will take care of him like a brother who takes care of his younger brother.
And again I turned to the Baptists whom I had not visited for a long time. In a dark night, when strong winds uprooted trees and rain and snow fell - I left for the road with him. We passed through a grove and fields and arrived at a Baptist's lonely house. I asked about the situation in the village. After I received an encouraging answer - I introduced Ignacy. And here began a story about strange dreams that the boy supposedly dreamed. The story was really fascinating. Ignacy's mother appeared in a dream out of flames- ordering him to turn to the sect members - because he will find his salvation there. The farmers were excited and agreed to receive him, and I, in order not to burden the hosts, returned to Yanse. A few weeks passed and I decided to visit the farmer Savko that Ignacy was in his house.
As usual, I chose a cold and dark night, in which it is not advisable to even take out a dog, and arrived at Savko's small house. Despite the late hour of the night - after midnight - a candle was lit in the house. Singing voices emanated from the window. This was nothing new to me. Such was the custom of the sect members Why sleep? - they claimed - when the heart is full of emotion and want to express words of glory to the Creator. The homeowners received me cordially and also Ignacy, and continued to pray in honor of the guest. Each person prayed to himself in his own words. Ignacy's turn has come.
Ignaz opened his mouth and in good Ukrainian (he studied the language in the Polish gymnasium) turned in prayer to God to shed his light on his brother David... There was no limit to my happiness, the boy adapted well to the place. We climbed to the attic, covered ourselves with blankets and started talking. Ignacy opened:
David, I started to believe. They are right. Think about everything that happened to us. Is this a coincidence?
I answered, Listen Ignacy - I was the one who directed you to them and instructed you how and what to say. After all, it's absurd for you to be talk to me like that
And he was adamant. I finally understood. Ignacy, a boy who had seen so much suffering in his short life, clung to his saviors' faith
Things developed over time. Ignacy started to write poems in Ukrainian and added a melody to them. The songs were sung in the villages. Legends circulated about the poet and a great privilege fell on those who could meet him...
Once, Ignacy was at Savko's house. Suddenly, the village was suddenly surrounded by Germans who began to conduct meticulous house-to-house searches. Here, they are getting closer to Savko's house. Ignacy decides to leave the house so as not to endanger his benefactors. They refuse and do not letting him to leave. Instead, they offer him to pray. And like in a legend... the Germans (probably tired) skip the small house... and the news of the miracle spread among all the sect members... They saw in this an act of God...
(In parentheses I will mention that we survived the occupation period. And here a spiritual turning point took place. That young man with a soul rich in emotion, decided to enlist in the Red Army. Ignacy fell as an officer in the Red Army in East Prussia).
what happened? Mr. Yanse panicked and shouted at me: Run fast and hide in the barn. Figures of people appeared from the woods, apparently Germans. I'm by the barn. For some reason I didn't enter inside it. I wanted to get away from the place of danger. I'm running through a plowed field. My legs are not obeying to me. The ground is a mixture of mud-snow and any foot stuck in it is difficult to extract.
Suddenly shots, I hear gunshots buzzing around my head. Is this the end? God, save me! I fell on the field. I must take off my shoes otherwise I wouldn't be able to run. I don't have the strength. A barrage of gunfire is pouring around me, but I continue to run. Here is the young forest. I got out of danger. I have to cross a small river. I crossed it. I'm moving forward - torn, wet, barefoot, tired to the point of death in the direction of the village of Borochov.
I entered the first house. The farmers are frightened by the sight of my face. They give me bread and ask me to have mercy on them and leave their house, the Germans are close. I enter a second house. When the housewife sees me - she crosses herself; in panic and almost faints. I must leave. I directed my steps to an isolated house outside the village, and I was lucky again. Simple people, Russian Orthodox, took me in. The elderly woman in the house was especially nice to me. I warmed myself, dried off, and my strength returned to me.
Night. I decided to leave the house. I realized that the news that a Jew was hiding in the village must have been widespread, and eventually they might end up here.
Where are you going, my son, rest, said the old woman.
I must go.
I wrapped my feet in a sack cloth. I must return to Yanse. I remembered the three Jews who remained in a bunker, in the grove bordering Yanse's yard...
And again I walk in the fields. And my thoughts returned to the day when the three Jews appeared - a doctor and his brother an engineer from Kraków, and a Jewish lawyer from Brisk. They were forced to leave a neighboring Czech village. I brought them food from Yanse's kitchen. I brought them tools and we immediately built a bunker... Did the Germans find them? Maybe they were in the neighboring Czech village?
I returned to Yanse and from him I learned the details about everything that happened. Indeed, the Germans, and a group of local policemen, searched in the grove for a body of a German. By chance they came across the bunker and found all the Jews!
Savko returned home upset. Miracles happen in the world. He passed by the school and a policeman called him and gave him a package of clothes: You are a poor farmer - take this.
Savko unpacked the package, took out a coat and put it on. A shudder ran through his flesh, the coat belonged to the Jewish engineer from Krakow. There were signs of blood on it...
And another one whose name I forgot, but I will remember his voice forever.
It was the voice that saved my and Ignacy's life. It was in the winter of 1944. Snow covered the fields and the roofs of the houses. I returned from a visit to a Czech acquaintance. Should I enter the house of a second Czech farmer? We peeked through the windows...no.
We will go back to Yanse and to our warm stable. Enough to walk tonight... We were in a good mood. Good news reached us. Zhitomir is in the hands of the Russian army. Very soon liberation will come. Suddenly we heard a shout - who is this? Yes, the Czech farmer is shouting - does he mean us? We stood, a moment of passing thought, a life changing moment. We waited - the farmer, excited and agitated, told us that a few moments ago a cart with Banderovites was there. They were looking for you. They were at Yanse's house. Don't go there...
I forgot your name. But I will remember your voice shouting on a winter snowy night -, a voice that saved our lives and proved that good humans didn't cease to exist...
How did I get out of Yeslinski's yard alive? To this day a shudder passes through me when I remember that I was so close to death.
I've heard a lot about Yeslinski. According to the Baptists' information, he was one of the most faithful people of their community. But, it's a problem that he lives in a remote village and in an environment where gangs of Banderovites operated. According to the state of affairs, the time has come for me to visit him. As I explained before, I tried not to burden my hosts too much and I often changed my place of residence.
I slept in the field and in the morning hours arrived to his yard. Since he was not at home, I walked around the yard for a bit and waited until I will meet him.
He finally arrived with signs of panic on his face.
You are in danger! he said, and led me to a supply storeroom. Yeslinski left me in the storeroom and went out. After a few hours he returned with food in his hand. From him I learned that a unit of Banderovites, who smelled that a Jew had arrived in the yard, is in the barn.
Their murderous blood awoke within them and the decision was fell on the spot, to immediately look for the Jew. And here, Yeslinski and his wife appeared as saviors.
Have you thought what you are intending to do?! This Jew, a wanderer, homeless and familyless - what has he done to you? The blood of the Jew- that you now want to murder - will shout forever and will not give you rest! Let him go his way.
In these words Yeslinski turned to them.
The murderers recoiled. Yeslinski promised them that I will leave the place that day .I stayed the whole day in the storeroom. In the evening I left for the fields...
I'm on my way from Yanse to the Baptists. As an intermediate stop I chose a farmer's barn - in which I decided to sleep. The fields were covered with snow. The cold penetrates the bones. Small lights in the windows of the houses hinted at warmth and peace. I quietly opened a plank on the side of the barn and entered it. I must be careful. After all, the homeowner doesn't know that an uninvited guest is staying in the barn.
After digging a few meters inside the straw - I'm trying to fall asleep. I woke up. I hear the sound of cars. Maybe it is only a passing convoy. No! They are approaching the village. Several cars entered the yard. Shouts and curses. Through the crack I see a completely unpleasant picture. Germans - soldiers positioned themselves in the farmer's house. I notice the officers, probably the headquarters. I see a guard in the yard.
A thousand thoughts run through my mind... Maybe they only came for one day? I returned to my bed, hidden deep in the straw. The hours crawl slowly. The barn door opened. Who is this? Probably the homeowner. He went out. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I'm hungry. I have bread and a bottle of milk. The bread froze from the cold. The night has come. And again a day came and with it the hope that the Germans would leave the place. But, in vain, they are still there. The guards are walking back and forth.
It's already the fourth day. The milk has run out. I can't eat the bread. I felt that my strength was running out. And above all this cold! I must get out of here! But how?
And the door opened again. Someone started shuffling in the straw. Maybe this is the worker I met at Yanse. I should try to talk to her. I barely crawled through the straw. Yes, that's her. I try to talk to her. Words don't come out of my dry throat. I feel dizzy in my head. The worker, when she saw me, almost fainted. But very quickly she controlled herself and understood my situation.
Yes... she whispers to me. This is an opportunity to go out... the guards entered the house to eat...
She opens the barn's back door. I left for the snowy field. Luckily, no one felt me.
I arrived at the house of an elderly widow - a noble woman, a Russian who lived alone. She served me hot Ukrainian borscht. My strength returned to me little by little.
And again I'm ready for new struggles.
A note from the writer of the article:
I tried in fragmented chapters to tie my memories to one central issue and it is - the heroism of those individual Christians who showed courage and helped me in my wanderings. I could not always maintain a chronological order.
Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha, 1960
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