Dov Nir (Sztatfeld)
Kiryat Amal, Israel, 1951
Autumn had almost arrived and in a few days the summer holiday would be over. A new school year was about to start; I was going to be in third grade. On this day I was going back to town from the nearby village where I had spent most of the holiday with my grandfather, on the big estate where he worked and lived with his family. My grandfather was in charge of selling the estate's dairy produce in the nearby town. The estate was very large and contained cows and horses, fishponds, pastures, fields and fruit orchards.
Near the estate there was a neighborhood where all the day workers lived with their families. The manor's landowner was very wealthy and had many workers. His mansion was separated from the workers' houses and was surrounded by gardens and woodlands. Near his house there were big dogs, his hunting dogs. The landowner was a frightening old man and I was terribly afraid of him. He liked scaring children when he encountered them, and would burst out laughing when he saw them running away crying. He himself did not have any children. He was apparently unmarried; he lived in his big house with just his servants.
It had been so good, spending my holiday in the country, away from the town. Most of the time, I would go hiking in the big meadows or walk out to the fishponds. Sometimes I would go to watch how they milked the cows or cleaned the horses. Most of the workers knew me and treated me nicely, sometimes teasing me just a little.
Near my grandfather's house there were many pigeons. They belonged to my Uncle Moshe, my mother's younger brother. He was known here for his acts of mischief but everyone liked him, even the landowner. Moshe had built a large loft in the attic on top of the house, where he raised dozens of pigeons. He did all kind of tricks with his pigeons to attract other pigeons that were flying around; occasionally he got into fights with boys from the village because of it. I was very fond of my Uncle Moshe, even though he caused a lot of trouble for my grandmother and grandfather. He was not afraid of other boys, who teased him and called him names just because he was Jewish.
He knew how to ride horses and take care of them. Sometimes he even let me ride a horse. Moshe had three older sisters, Rivka, Sara and Perla. One of them worked on the estate and another helped Grandmother around the house. There were also three older brothers, Baruch, Elyakim and Tzvi, but long before they had left home, headed for Warsaw, learned professions and settled there. My mother, Perla, was the oldest of the sisters and she had not moved far away, only to the neighboring town, where my grandfather took the dairy produce every day.
Early in the morning, as the first light of dawn was breaking on the horizon, people would get up and go to work. My Aunt Rivka would take the milking bucket and go to the cowshed to milk the cows. Grandfather would prepare the wagon for the ride to town and grandmother would get the dairy produce ready for sale. Everything was done quietly, without a word, as if they were reluctant to disturb the peaceful night prematurely.
Once everything was ready and loaded onto the wagon, Grandmother and Grandfather would mount the wagon and head for the town market. Once they had gone, I would usually crawl back into bed to get a few more hours of sleep before the day started. But on this day I was going with my grandparents back to my parents' house in town. The summer holiday was almost over and I needed to get ready for school. My older brother, Joshua, had left the estate a few days before me.
The road to town was very poor and had many potholes. The wagon shook and woke Grandmother, who had fallen asleep on the ride. As we neared the town, the road was paved with cobblestones. The wagon wheels were coated with steel bands and made a deafening noise on the stones. Here we came to the street entering town; the horse struggled while climbing the steep road. Grandfather tried to encourage it with affectionate words and finally got off the wagon and pushed; to help the horse he called, Giddy-up! Encouraged and helped by Grandfather, the horse mustered up strength and broke into a quick trot, pulling the wagon into the market square.
The market square was a vast expanse in the center of town where people from all around the town would come to sell their produce and buy what they needed. At this early time of morning when we arrived, the place was still quiet and most of the shops were closed; Grandfather's wagon was the first to arrive. Grandfather directed the horse to the usual place, close to the pavement, in front of the coffee house.
As soon as the wagon stopped, we all got off and stretched ourselves after the tiring ride. Grandfather tied a feed bag to the horse's neck and set it loose. Later, after it had cooled off a little from its effort, he would let it have some water to drink.
I was back in town but for some reason I was not anxious to rush home. I liked watching Grandmother sell the dairy produce, measuring the milk into the buyer's vessel. Butter was sold in pieces, measured in a wooden tool made for it. Cheese was sold in wedges, each in a small, white, canvas bag. As Grandmother went on selling everything she had on the wagon, other wagons rolled into the market place, bearing different products to sell. Now that I had seen enough, I parted from my grandparents and walked home, carrying some dairy produce as a gift from them for my mother.
At home everyone was still asleep. Gently I knocked on the door and Mother opened it for me. She was very happy to have me back home. She was very glad to see me, asked how I had gotten back to town and wanted to know if I had heard the news. I told her I had gotten back with Grandmother and Grandfather and I wondered about the news she was referring to. Mother did not say anything else about news and I continued to wonder. Meanwhile, Simcha, my father, and Joshua, my brother, had gotten up. Father got ready to go to the shop, we quietly ate breakfast and everyone went about his business.
My brother was out in the yard, splitting wood to be used for fuel during the winter. I went out and asked him about the news Mother had referred to. You don't hear any news in the village, I said to him, trying to get an explanation to Mother's question. My brother kept quiet, as if he had not heard my question. I urged him to tell me but he brushed me off, saying I was disturbing his work. I went out to the street, where I met some of my friends, but did not go and play with them or ask them about the news. I went on walking around the streets, but I did not see any change. The streets were the same streets and so were the shops and the scary policemen with their frightening hats with metal visors.
I passed by our shop and walked in. The shop was empty except for my father, who was arranging clothes on the shelves. I was not welcomed with the regular pinching of my cheek. Father looked sad and worried. Something had happened but nobody was telling me what it was.
I went out to the street again. Here, too, people looked sad and worried like my father. Here and there, groups of people were standing and talking quietly. I went up to one group and listened to the conversation. It was not long before I found out the secret my mother and my brother had tried to hide from me and the reason my father looked sad. There was one word that was being repeated by the people over and over WAR.
A war was about to start and it looked as though everyone was afraid of it. I was not afraid. Somehow I thought of all the soldiers I was going to see passing through town. It was something I had dreamt of for a long time. Now that the secret had been revealed, I walked back home and I went back to my affairs.
In three days' time school was about to start but there was great doubt as to whether it would begin as scheduled. There was talk about war on every street corner. Any child could hear it now, wherever adults gathered. Some people listened to the news on the radio and passed it on to others.
The first of September 1939 the first day of school. War started today. Everywhere people were talking about it, disseminating the news heard on the radio. The German army had invaded Poland. The Polish minister of defense spoke on the radio and called upon the Polish people to fight the invaders until their last drop of blood.
Panic came to town. Shops were closed and goods were removed from the shelves, causing prices to soar. People started hoarding food in order to face the expected shortages. The town itself looked different. The streets had emptied and people, Jews in particular, were not walking in the streets but behind the houses, in order to avoid the unknown.
At home there was chaos. Father brought goods home from the shop; things were packed up and hidden in the basement and other hiding places. It looked as if we were about to leave town.
It had been more than ten days since the war had started and there was great tension in town. Nobody was in the streets. No police, no army and no other authorities. People were saying that the German army was about to enter the town. A few more days passed. Then, one morning, we learned that German soldiers had camped in town, having arrived the previous night. First came a number of soldiers on motorcycles. Crossing the main street, they encountered a Jewish boy and shot him dead.
During the day, Polish residents accompanied by German soldiers entered Jewish homes. They went in, stole various things and beat the residents. Some German soldiers came to our house with a Polish man who knew Father. He took a few things and left with the soldiers. Meanwhile, preparations to leave town continued. It was the same in the other Jewish houses. Some people left for nearby villages, while others distanced themselves further from the German troops.
In town Jews were taken away to be slave laborers for the German army and were forced to wear a mark on their clothes signifying that they are Jews. Jews stayed off the streets in order to avoid being taken for slave labor. The German troops stayed in town for two weeks and left as suddenly as they had come. The town was left without any ruling authority. The new situation caused anxiety among the Jews, who feared an outbreak of riots and acts of robbery by Polish residents.
Polish groups formed, threatening to attack the Jews, sabotage their shops and steal their property. Those bullies did not go into action, probably due to rumors of the approaching Russian Red Army troops. For two days the town was in a state of uncertainty and on the third day a Russian Red Army patrol came to town and inspected the outskirts of town; other Red Army units then followed it.
The Red Army soldiers were warmly welcomed by the Jewish youth who belonged to the Communist party and pioneering youth movement. They set up a gate of honor near the town hall, decorated it with flowers and wrote the word Welcome on it in Russian. All the Jews were waiting for the soldiers along the main street, while most of the Polish residents restricted themselves to staring through the windows or from back streets. Thousands of flowers were thrown at the marching Red Army soldiers as they entered the town. One of the old Jews, who had served in the Czarist army, read an impassioned speech, standing on the stage of honor. After the ceremony, soldiers were invited into the Jewish homes.
Once the Russians had settled in town, life went back to normal. Shops reopened, many of those who had left came back and trade with the army units was established. Farmers from the vicinity started flocking into town, bringing their produce to market as before and selling it to the army units, as well. The Red Army troops camped in the center of town, in the market square, and parked their vehicles and cannons beside the market wagons. In the middle of the square, a big screen was set up and every night Russian movies were screened for everyone, free of charge. People watched movies for hours.
For us children it was like paradise on earth. The whole day long we strolled from truck to cannon and from cannon to tank, eager to see more of the unusual, new scenes we had not even dreamt of. The soldiers were very friendly, showing us how their weapons worked and even letting us mount the tanks and trucks. Our happiness and joy had no bounds, thanks to the friendliness of the soldiers, since we had been accustomed to fear anyone wearing a uniform. Unfortunately these wonderful days did not last long.
Two weeks after the Russians came to town their commander informed the Jews that his unit had been ordered to evacuate the town within 24 hours. This was due to an agreement with Germany that determined that the town belonged to the German territory of occupation. The Red Army units had to withdraw 30 kilometers. Along with the evacuation announcement, it was stated that the Jews were invited to move into the Russian zone of occupation. Many Jews took advantage of the invitation and moved with the soldiers, utilizing their transport. Most of those who had been active in the welcoming ceremony left town.
The day after the Red Army had left town it was as quiet as a deserted town, silent as before a big storm. No one dared go out into the street for fear of the Germans, who were about to enter town at any time. At home, feverish preparations were made to leave town, even before the Russian left, but we did not manage to complete them in time. Father went to the nearby village to buy horses and a wagon. My Uncle Tzvi, Mother's brother, came back from the front. He had been living in Warsaw when the war started and was drafted into the army. His unit was disbanded during battles near the German border and he came back to join us.
At sunset the German troops entered town again. This time they came with the intention of staying. They camped on the market square, cooked dinner and cleaned their weapons. No reception was conducted this time but our people seemed more vigilant, prepared for acts of vengeance by Polish residents.
It was about eight o'clock when a machine gun opened fire on German soldiers stationed in the square. Gunfire came from the yard of a Jewish house in the street across from the market. Only Jews were living on that street. The German soldiers were taken completely by surprise by the attack. When they had recovered from their initial surprise they started firing back at the source of the fire, and then entered the houses, shooting everyone present. After searching the entire street, killing 16 Jews, they torched the street and burned down the town center.
Different theories about the shooting were discussed. One version was that it was a Polish army unit that had entered the town, while other version declared that it was a Polish provocation, shooting on purpose from a street where only Jews lived, knowing what the German reaction would be. This latest incident increased the panicked flight of the Jews. Many families left at night, either walking or in wagons with horses, heading for the Russian border.
The next day my father came back with a wagon and two horses. We packed everything we could, mounted the wagon ourselves and together with other families we headed toward the Russian border. With us were my father Simcha, my mother Perla, my brother Joshua, my mother's brother Uncle Tzvi, and I. The convoy consisted of ten wagons, led by a farmer who was familiar with the area. Our guide promised to help us cross the border in a place where there would be no German army units.
Almost all night we traveled on the side roads, away from the main roads, and bypassed all the villages on our way. We tried not to make any noise in order to avoid attracting roving bandits, who were everywhere. In the early evening we arrived at a point from which we had to continue on without our guide. We continued to travel a little while but got stuck in a swampy region. Only after unloading some of our belongings and with great effort, we managed to get through the swamp and continue our journey. We continued to travel in this way, not knowing where the road would lead us.
In the light of dawn we were discovered by a German border patrol. They came toward us and ordered us to follow them. At first we thought we are being taken back to town, but later it turned out that we were going in the opposite direction. After a short time we arrived at a village and went into one of the yards, where the headquarters of the German border patrols were located. We were ordered to unload all of our luggage from the wagons. People were pushed, one by one, into a building and examined thoroughly.
While the people were being checked, all our valuables were taken as well as the good luggage from our wagons. After the inspection was done we were ordered to load the rest of our belongings and mount our wagons. The gate of the yard opened and one of the officers, pointing to a nearby stream, said we could leave and go wherever we wished, even to our friends on the other side of the border. Indeed, the stream, not far away, was the border between the German and Russian territories.
My father, understanding the hint in the officer's words, told the adults to get off the wagon and, whipping the horses and helped by a push by the grown-ups, made the horses burst into a gallop, crossing the little stream and going on into the fields. We did not stop even after we reached the Russian side. It was only when we heard a gun being cocked that we stopped. We waited for the Russian border patrol to approach, and were told to follow them to a place where many Jews who had crossed the border during the night were waiting. We registered with the authorities and one day later we resumed our journey. We did not have a specific place we wanted to go to. Our main concern was to get as far away as possible from the border.
We were wandering along the roads. During the day we rode according to the road conditions sometimes fast and sometimes slowly. The adults walked beside the wagon to make it easier on the horses. At the end of the day we tried to camp for the night in places where there were Jews. At night the roads were very dangerous to travel on. Robbers were everywhere, ambushing the refugees, who by now were on the roads in large numbers, most of them Jews and most of them heading east.
After a week of traveling we arrived in Lvov. This was a big town. Even though it was already dark we did not stay for a night's sleep, for Father did not like crowded places. We drove past the town, which was unusual to travel at that time of night. Very late at night we approached a small town not far from Lvov, called Vinik. We asked if there were Jews there and were directed to one of the yards. We entered the yard with the wagon, asking for a place to spend the night. The owner, an old Jew with a long white beard, let us use a big room in one of the houses in the yard. Immediately we unloaded what we needed for the night, mother prepared a quick meal for all of us and we went to sleep. The next day we would continue to travel who knew where to. The next morning we slept late. Father decided to stay in town for a while and, thinking that it might be worthwhile to settle here and end our traveling.
Vinik was a small town, upon which the influence of the nearby, large town was clearly visible. The residents were mixed: some Ukrainians, some Poles, some Jews and even some Germans. Most of the residents had been living there for a long time. There were a few factories in town: one of them manufactured cigarettes, another one nails and another one bricks. Many of the residents worked in nearby Lvov. The town seemed very nice on the outside, with nice houses, buildings several stories high, public gardens, cinemas and a theater. The owner of the house seemed to be wealthy. The family lived in a big, two-story house with a large bakery located inside. There were more Jews living nearby and the synagogue was across the yard.
In the morning we went out into the street and saw Jewish children from neighboring houses. They did not dare come close to us, but stood staring at us from around the corners of the houses. It seemed that their parents had told them to avoid any contact with us. People did not seem happy with the fact that a refugee family had settled there. My brother and I peered into the bakery from the yard and talked with the workers inside. Inside the house my parents and uncle were discussing our options. Finally they decided we would stay for a while and see what would happen.
The owner agreed to let us stay for a week and then we would have to find another place in town or leave. Father started looking for work, as we had no money to supply our needs. Most of our belongings had been stolen before we crossed the border. Father did not want to have anything to do with trading. Since we were in Russian territory, he said, we needed to find real work and be loyal citizens.
Father found a job and so did Uncle Tzvi. Soon mother was going to get a job at the cigarette factory. One day another person joined the family: Father's younger sister, Rachel, who used to live in Vinik before the war started and who had now decided to settle there. Rachel also got a job at the cigarette factory; in fact, it was with her help that Mother got the job. Aunt Rachel did not live with us; she belonged to the Komsomolsk and got a room at the Komsomolsk residency near the factory. In our apartment it was very crowded, with five of us in one room, but we did not have much of a choice as apartments are hard to find and very expensive.
School had started long before and it was time for us to resume school. There were two schools in town: one was a state school and the language of instruction was Ukrainian, while in the other school the language of instruction was Polish. Most of the Jewish children studied at the Polish school but my brother and I were registered at the Ukrainian school: my brother in the fifth grade and I in the third grade.
Father accompanied us on the first day. The school building was a big one, three stories high, surrounded by a large yard and gardens outside. We saw many joyful children playing and shouting in Ukrainian. We went to the office of the schoolmaster, who welcomed us warmly with a wide smile, speaking to us in Ukrainian. Ukrainian is very similar to Polish and it was not hard for us to comprehend, as he spoke Polish when needed.
After meeting our teachers, we were left on our own when Father went off to work. The children around us were looking at us wonderingly; some of them asked where we came from or what class we would be in. A loud bell rang and the patter of feet was heard rushing up and down the stairs as pupils make their way to classes. I entered my class, found a vacant seat and sat down. The teacher entered the classroom; everyone stood up and sat back down.
This is our new pupil, she said, asking me to stand up so that everyone could see me. His name is Boris; he just recently came to town and does not speak our language, only Polish. He is going to be in our class this year and you should help him with the language. That was all the teacher said before signaling for me to sit down. In the first lesson the teacher read a story while the pupils followed along in their books. Although the language was new to me I understood most of the story and afterwards tried to tell it to my brother back home.
The first school day was over for me and I sat in class, waiting for my brother, who was still in his class. When he finished, we left school and went home by the same route we had come in the morning. No one was at home; everybody was at work. Each day Mother started work at noon; she was in the second shift out of three in the factory. Joshua and I would eat the lunch Mother had left for us and then do our homework or play in the room or out in the street.
We made friends with children in the neighborhood, both Jews and Ukrainians, as we did at school. Things seemed to be going fine for us, as we learned the new language and were not left behind in the other subjects. Father worked as a builder's assistant and Uncle Tzvi as a storekeeper at a supply warehouse. We all gathered for dinner, except for Mother, who was still at work. We were busy, each one of us with his or her own activities. Aunt Rachel was busy with her Komsomolsk activities. Frequently we went to the first showing at the cinema.
Winter had arrived and we went on a skating trip. My class got the skates from the school's sports club and we went out to the frozen lake near town. I felt really good at school and had everything I needed. Like most of the children, I joined the Pioneers scouting group. Every week, sometimes twice a week, we stayed after school and had different activities. Our leader, Volodia, a boy from the eighth grade, taught us various games, conducted army-style drills and took us on small trips near town.
After a while we had a special meeting with our leader, Volodia, and someone else who was older, in which they told us that we were about to receive a red Pioneer tie with the Pioneer logo. But first we needed to pass a test to become eligible for the Pioneer tie. Each one of us had to conduct three acts of helping others and to try hard not have low grades at the end of the school term. A Pioneer should have a clean, decent appearance and respect for adults. Those not passing the test would have a second chance but in that case they would not get the Pioneer tie. We were all tense and tried very hard but it looked as though some of us were not going to make it. Two days before the ceremony we were told we were going to take an oath in which we would give a hand salute.
It was the day of the Pioneers' tie ceremony. I was afraid I was not going to be among those who passed the test. There was an impressive parade with all the Pioneers in school. There was a fearful silence when the head of the Pioneers read the oath and all of us repeated word for word. Then we got our ties and the ceremony ended with a loud call, Be prepared! from all of us.
School was coming to an end; the summer holiday was about to begin and we would go on trips and to summer camps. All the parents were invited to school for the graduation ceremony. On this day each pupil would get his or her diploma, from first graders to graduates finishing their school studies; some received an additional diploma of excellence. After a lot of preparation, performances and small plays were presented, followed by the headmaster's and parent committee's farewell; it all concluded with refreshments. It was all over now and we would start our summer holiday. School was closed and everyone would go his or her way to spend the summer. For part of the summer I was going to be in a summer camp organized for children of the cigarette factory workers.
What a wonderful place for summer camp. In the heart of a forest there was a huge, luxurious building that had once been a manor house. The building was surrounded by fruit orchards and gardens with playgrounds. The rooms were clean and white, with a bed and cupboard for each child. From the balcony of my room I looked out upon a small lake with a little creek in a valley, which was in the middle of a forest with green and yellow fields. There were no villages around, so it seemed that these had once been the fields of an estate. In the daytime we were busy with scouting games and in the evenings we have a lot of fun around the camp fire. I spent two weeks at the summer camp; it was something I had never even dreamt of. But then I was home again, as the holiday was almost over and soon I would be going back to school.
One day as I was walking along the street, I suddenly saw German officers coming towards me. There were three of them walking side-by-side on the pavement. At the first moment I panicked and wanted to cross over to the other side of the street, but then I thought it would seem suspicious and decided to go on walking towards them. It simply could not be that the German army was in town, I thought to myself; I had not heard anything about it. It had been quiet and peaceful lately; what are they doing here? Thoughts flitted through my mind in the blink of an eye and there they were so close to me. I stared at them as if to say, Look at me: I'm a Jew and I'm not afraid of you at all.
The German officers passed me as if they did not care about me or even notice me. I turned around and started to follow them. They were walking down the main street, heading toward city hall and the local authorities. As I followed them I saw them entering a building without being stopped or questioned by the guard. I did not get an answer to my puzzlement as to what German soldiers were doing in town. At dinner I told about my meeting with the German officers and received an answer to my question: they had come to help the German residents move back to Germany.
The holiday was over. Hundreds of school pupils had been gathering since the morning in the big yard in front of the school building. Each class formed rows and was headed by its teacher. The school principal stood at the top of the stairs and there was silence as he raised his hand. The principal briefly welcomed us to the new school year; when he had finished speaking we all walked in order into the building. First to go in were the small children; for them it was the first year in school. Last to go in were the oldest pupils; for them it was the last year. We went into a new classroom, bigger than the one where we had studied the previous year, with large windows looking out onto the big yard in front of the building. The number of pupils in my class had increased compared to the past year.
I sat at a desk in the middle of the first row with my friend from last year. He was also Jewish. We were the only Jews in class; there were only ten Jewish pupils in the school. Our teacher was the same one we had had the year before, in third grade. She was a very good teacher, helping all of us so we would not be left behind in our studies. The year before she had assisted me with the new language but by now I had mastered the language as well as the rest of the class. I could write essays without any mistakes and many times I was asked by the teacher to read them aloud in front of the class.
One day, something terrible happened. In the middle of class, I had a fight with one of the pupils. The teacher started crying and went to call for the principal. It happened this way: on the first day of the week we were asked to write an essay about a fictional trip to a forest. During the second lesson some of us, including myself, were asked to read our essays aloud. When we had finished reading, the teacher made comments to some of the pupils and complimented others, including me. One of the pupils got up and said to the teacher that she had complimented me because she liked me even though I was a Zhid [a derogatory term for a Jew]. I got up and said to him he was a Chochol [a derogatory term for a Ukrainian]. We started shouting at each other, calling each other names and then started a fight, hitting each other.
Our teacher tried without success to separate us; she then went to call the principal. When he came into class we were standing in the aisle with scratches all over our bodies, as our main weapon had been our fingernails. Without a word the principal showed both of us the way to his office. We both got a severe reprimand and a warning that if such an incident were to happen again we would be expelled from school.
That was not the end of the affair, as the other pupil's parents were also asked to meet with the principal. They were warned that if any anti-Semitic incident were to occur again, their child would be expelled from school and legal action would be taken against them. The fight was the talk of the day and many pupils pointed at me with obvious hatred. For a while after this incident, I avoided going alone to places where I might meet a group of boys, like around the cinema or public gardens. I was afraid my adversary's friends might try to hurt me.
We had a new member of the family. When I came back from school one day I was told I had a little sister. Mother was not at home; she had remained at the hospital. The next day we would go to visit her. The hospital was far away, on the other side of town. It was a nice, new building. Mother had a bed in a white room. Everything there was white: the nurses' clothing was white, the bedding was white and even people's faces seemed white. Mother was going to stay in the hospital for a while, a week or perhaps more. She needed to rest and regain strength so she could take care of my little sister, whose name was Frida.
Mother came back after a week in the hospital. She was at home all the time now and did not go to work, since she had a long maternity leave. It got crowded at home, not just because of my little sister, but because my mother was home all day. Sometimes I had to go out to the yard to do my homework. Father started looking for another apartment that would be more suitable for our new needs. Our landlord wanted us to leave but he could not tell us to.
We had an opportunity to get an apartment in another place. We were liable to be evacuated from the place we lived in, as, according to the authorities, we were not allowed to live less than 100 km from the German-Russian border. This rule applied to all refugees in the Russian territory. Since we had gotten identification certificates and did not want to go back to the German territory, as many Jews had done, we are allowed to stay on only temporarily. This time, evacuation was postponed until the end of the school year; the presence of a baby at home helped us with the authorities.
Meanwhile, mother was back at work. She would take the baby with her, leaving her in the factory nursery while at work. During work she would go out a few times to feed the baby and then return to work. My mother's job was to pack the cigarettes in boxes. Once I visited her at work. She was sitting at a table with a lot of cigarettes spread on it; at an incredible speed she would package the cigarettes in a box, the same amount in each box. On the same visit I also saw my Aunt Rachel, who was feeding all four cigarette-making machines at once at a furious speed. She was an excellent worker and twice got a prize for filling quotas.
We were told we had to leave; all the appeals had been rejected, and we were going to leave as soon as the school year was over. Father had already gone looking for work in the region where we are allowed to settle, which was about 30 kilometers east of where we then were. Relatives of our family lived in a village there and it seemed that we were going to settle in this village. There were many changes at home. Uncle Tzvi went to another town where he was going to stay. Aunt Rachel stayed in this town; she was not a refugee so the evacuation did not apply to her. All our possessions were packed for moving.
At school, the last rehearsal was held for the big party. Our class was preparing to recite in front of all the pupils and parents. We were told that the best pupils from each class were going to get special diplomas. The last school day had arrived. My parents could not come to the ceremony since they were occupied with packing up to leave. All the pupils were sitting in the big hall. The ceremony began with the headmaster's speech and the choir singing. After that came the diploma award ceremony, as each teacher called his or her class to get their diplomas. Only those with good grades in all subjects, behavior included, were eligible for a diploma. Now it was my teacher who got up and started calling the names of pupils from my class. There were four pupils and I was one of them.
School was over and so was our time in this town. We left town and went to live in the village about 30 kilometers from town. We had tried everything with the authorities but without success, so we were compelled to move further away from the border. We did not want to leave. We felt good and safe where we were; everyone in the family had work and it was a good place for us children. Lacking any other choice, we left for the new place. We got there on a train that passed close by the village.
This village had been given a German name, Unterwalden. In the past it had been inhabited by German farmers, who had settled in the village when the tsarist dynasty had ruled Russia. They had stayed on when all the other German citizens were evacuated back to Germany. Our relatives in the village were my father's family. We got an apartment in the same building where the village synagogue was situated. The house was on the road going from Lvov to Kiev. The road passed through the center of the village and there were houses on either side of the road. There were a few dozen Jews living in this village and the nearby village. Most of them had lived here for many years and owned land and farms; some of them had shops. Most of them worked in factories in the region or on their own farms.
We settled into a new apartment, which was not as comfortable as the one we had had in town. Father stayed in town, working there and only coming home for the weekend. It was not long before we made acquaintance with both Jewish and Ukrainian children in the village. We saw the school building, a big, nice building, which was unusual for villages. We would study there when school started. There was also a military airfield there with many airplanes. We would watch them flying over the village, training and doing acrobatic maneuvers; we gradually got used to the noise they made.
One morning we woke up to the sound of explosions and gunfire from the airfield; the very early hour was an unusual time for army training. From the direction of the airfield we could see clouds of smoke ascending upward. We thought it was army training, but still it seemed suspicious. Soon we saw several airplanes taking off from the airfield. Gunfire and explosions were occasionally heard. An airplane caught on fire and plunged down.
Information very soon reached us about what had happened at the airfield. The date was 22 June 1941, the day the Nazi German attack on the Soviet Union began. Out of the blue, airplanes attacked the airfield. Just a few Soviet pilots managed to take off, wearing only their underwear. This was a murderous attack, with many victims amongst those in the airfield. When the attack by the German airplanes ended, quiet prevailed over the whole area.
After a little while, the quiet was disturbed by the deafening noise of a single tank, which passed rapidly along the street, heading eastward. All the inhabitants of the village stood outside on both sides of the road and observed the occurrence. Great anxiety prevailed amongst the Jews in the village, while the Ukrainian residents were happy about the possibility of the Germans occupying the village. Many of the young Jews, members of the Komsomolsk, made preparations to leave town immediately and flee eastward. About two hours after the tank had passed, increased movement started, consisting of convoys of vehicles, wagons and people on foot. These were both army convoys with all their equipment and families that were being evacuated from places too close to the border.
The pressure in the street becomes increasingly great, and the movement slowed down. Cars and other vehicles were abandoned alongside the road after breaking down. Masses of soldiers and citizens stopped off in the village and spread out, searching for needed food and drink. The stream of people did not cease all through that day or the night that followed.
In the evening we listened to Moscow Radio and heard an announcement by [Premier Vyachelslav] Molotov, who, sounding greatly shocked, informed his listeners in Russian, Listen comrades, Moscow speaks. Today at 4 four o'clock in the morning, soldiers of the Fascist army assailed the borders of Soviet Union and started an invasion. This announcement was very significant for the Jews, as we already knew what was likely going to happen to us. Should we arise and go eastward again together with the retreating Soviet army? Clearly we had to leave this place, but there was no possibility of finding any means of transportation. The next day the retreat march intensified. Airplanes appeared in the sky above the village and disappeared. At noon airplanes re-appeared, firing on the road and dropping bombs. One after another the airplanes dove down, spraying machine-gun fire on the road.
It became dangerous to stay in our house, so close to the road, so we decided to move to another part of the village, away from the road. We moved our belongings to our relative's house and stayed there. People who had came from the road during a cease-fire told about those who had been killed or injured by the air attack. They also said there were cases of firing from houses in the village on the retreating Russian army. Judging by the rush of the Russian army retreating eastward, it was apparent that the German army was going to take control within a matter of days.
Two weeks after the war had started, a Wehrmacht patrol came to the village, riding on motorcycles. They were followed by army units in cars and trucks; most of them just passed through the village on the main road heading east. One unit set up its base in the village, making sure the area was clear of any remnants of the Russian Red Army.
Before sunset on the day the Germans entered the village, we sat, two whole families, in front of the house. We've talked about the new situation and in particular expressed our concern about the Ukrainian people, who were known for their hatred towards the Jews. My father was sitting with us, holding my little sister on his lap, when two Germans with drawn pistols appeared in front of us. They ordered my father to hand over the baby girl to my mother and then aimed their pistols at him and ordered him to walk towards the road.
We were shocked and astounded. The manner in which they took my father signified bad news. Several hours of anxiety passed before my father came back, safe and sound, just as suddenly as he had been taken away. He was not the only one; a few dozen men, not only Jews, had been taken by the Germans to dig graves for the Red Army soldiers who had been killed near the village in the clashes with the Germans.
The next day there were no longer any Jewish men on the streets of the village. People sought a place to hide: in basements, in barns or in houses of dependable farmers.
The army unit that had taken over the village moved on, leaving the village after a few days. In its place, units of the permanent authority arrived, consisting of SS troopers. The new regime hunted down the Jewish men of the village, and within three days they had captured and murdered 16 people. For the next three days Gestapo squads went from door to door and demanded the extradition of all Jewish men. One of these squads came by our house, where we lived alongside another family after having left our former house by the road. There were only women and children in the house, as my father and the other family's men had hidden elsewhere in the village.
Some of the Gestapo men took us outside, lined us up and aimed their machine guns at us, while the others made a thorough search of our house and the stable. They searched for hiding places and it seemed they were experienced at it. The search took a long time and all the while we stood with gun barrels pointed at us. Where are your men? their commander asked my mother. We don't know, the other woman answered. They're Communists, your men. All the Jews are Communists. We'll eliminate all of them, they said. We were silent.
Don't worry, the Gestapo man said while pointing at us, You're women and children. We don't fight you; we only fight men. Those were his last words. He left with his squad and moved on to our neighbors, who were also Jewish. We stood still for a while, waiting for them to withdraw before exchanging horrified looks amongst ourselves. Towards evening we managed to contact my father, who was hiding in some farmer's barn. He came home under cover of darkness and stayed with us until sunrise.
Over the next two days the search for Jews continued, with the assistance of the village residents. Some of them pointed out every Jewish house and provided information about the families who lived in it. After three days the hunt stopped, leaving 16 bereaved families. The Gestapo unit left the village after establishing a local authority, consisting of German supporters and Ukrainian nationalists. A local police was set up, alongside a village leader, and they were subordinate to the local authority of one of the bigger villages in the area.
Life returned to its normal track. We went back to live by the road, but in a different house. We resided in the house of an old widow who owned a cow and a piece of land, which we took care of. Living by the road was dangerous, as the movement of army units to the battlefront never ceased. Many of the convoys stopped by in the village, looking for fresh food like milk, eggs and chickens. They bought the food for a fair price and never took it by force. The peasants did not hesitate to negotiate the price with the soldiers.
From time to time soldiers came by our house and we would pretend to be non-Jewish if no one had told on us already. A lot of the soldiers did not pay attention to the Jewish issue, but some of them were intimidating Nazis, so it was dangerous to be at home when they came. Once in a while Jews were severely beaten, so as soon as the soldiers came my father and my big brother would go out to the backyard and wait until they had left the house.
That whole year we were not overly harmed by the authorities. Jews were forbidden to move from place to place and from time to time were required to provide work as demanded by the local authority, mostly road repair jobs as the road was severely damaged from the constant traffic. Many of the village Jews smuggled food to the surrounding towns, were the situation was even worse, although a ghetto had not yet been set up.
Many of the others owned land or a cowshed in order to provide for themselves; we were new in the village and had nothing. Earlier on we had coped with the help of my father's job, but he could not work at it because of restrictions on mobility. My parents found a job at a farm and were paid in produce and food instead of money. My big brother also worked on the farm while I herded the cow which belonged to the widow we lived with.
We would wake up early in the morning and head out to work. My mother took my little sister with her and took care of her during the short breaks from work. We worked from sunrise to sunset. On harvest days we all went down to reap the wheat in the field with sickles. There were sometimes dozens of workers and our employer provided food for all of us. It was customary for entire families to go to help their neighbors in the harvest and vice-versa.
Before the winter of 1941 we had gathered enough food to last us through the winter days. At the beginning of the fall, my father, my brother and I went to the nearby forest and gathered firewood on our backs. Some days we went back and forth a few times. We split the stumps and sorted them in our storeroom. Despite our best efforts, our situation did not improve and there were few jobs, with many people competing for them.
The main occupation in the wintertime was grinding and threshing. There were a few millstones in the village, operated by hand, and it was a very difficult work since I had to rotate the grindstone with one hand and place the grains on it with the other. The fall was cold and frequently rainy but I kept herding cows alongside other villagers. When it rained we would sit with bags over our heads and share stories. Almost daily we would make a bonfire and bake potatoes that had been left uncollected in the fields. Some of the herders were mean to me on account of the fact that I was Jewish; sometimes I was the only Jew there and they would beat and curse me, yet there were others who would defend me from the bullying.
The first snow signaled the beginning of winter and I stopped going out with the cow. We prepared some fodder for the cow but it wasn't enough for the whole winter. It was a good cow that had provided us with large amounts of milk, which was a very important element in our household. It was a big upset for us when our widowed landlady sold the cow to a Ukrainian peasant for a fixed amount of milk and steady payment. The milk was needed most by my sister, Frida, who was not yet eating solid foods. From then on we were compelled to buy milk from our Ukrainian neighbors and we had to sell some of our furniture to pay for it.
During one of the winter nights our Aunt Rachel, my father's sister, showed up at our doorstep from Lvov. She arrived under cover of darkness because a lot of the villagers knew her from before the war and knew of her membership in the Komsomolsk. She came to us from the Lvov Ghetto and told us of her activities since the beginning of the war. As mentioned, Rachel had stayed in Vinik after we had had to leave there.
She said that when the war broke out she had meant to leave along with the Soviet authorities, but the retreat took place so swiftly that many did not manage to escape due to the lack of means of transportation and the poor state of the roads. When the Germans entered the town, which had been a German colony in the past, they murdered most of its Jews. Rachel fled to Lvov and remained there when the ghetto was founded. There was a severe shortage of food and Rachel drove with false documents to the surrounding villages, buying food and smuggling it into the ghetto.
Rachel had a non-Jewish appearance; she was tall and pretty and looked proud and confident. Nothing about her aroused the suspicion that she was Jewish. She wandered unhindered for months, but our region was more dangerous for her because people knew her there. Rachel spent a few days at our house without leaving the premises, and after equipping herself with food we had bought from the peasants, she went back to Lvov and promised to return and visit.
Since that time Rachel had continued to visit now and again, and she was the only one who told us about incidents that happened in other places. We found out from her about the Nazis' Aktions [a German term used for any non-military campaign to further Nazi ideals of race, but most often referred to the assembly and deportation of Jews to concentration or death camps] in the ghettos and concentration camps. Mostly she told us about the detention camp of Janow near Lvov, where tens of thousands of Jews had been murdered and then incinerated in the infamous forest near the camp.
The ghettos were at first set up in the major cities and only later in the smaller towns. In our region the Jews were forced into the ghettos only towards the end of 1942.
The winter went by without any particular incidents in our village and around the area. Towards the spring we began to run short on our food supply, as did the Ukrainian villagers. Lots of Jews from all around the area came to our village in order to buy and ask for food, despite the strict prohibition to exit their towns. We hurriedly prepared the ground next to our home and planted vegetables and potatoes.
By the beginning of the summer our food stock ran out completely. You could not even get grain or potatoes for money. We only had limited milk produce that we bought from the neighbors. When we started to suffer from hunger we went to the fields and gathered some kind of wild plant, which according to some folks was edible. We cooked this plant and dipped it in butter and it was our only food for a month. The taste of the plant was disgusting and I suffered from it more than anyone; I refused to eat it and every time I ate a little bit of it I vomited it right up. My father forced me to eat it in spite of my protests. We all got weaker as a result of the continual hunger and our bellies swelled up.
As the situation deteriorated, my brother and I were sent off to work as herders on the farm of some peasants, so that we could get some food for ourselves and maybe even for our family. A job was found for my brother on the other side of the village, about two kilometers from our home. He became a cow herder and farm worker. I went to visit him one time and he shared his meal with me. Shortly afterwards, after intense searching, a job was found for me, too, at the farm of one of the wealthy farmers in a village nearby.
My father and I went to see the farmer early in the morning and after he had served us some cherries, we conducted brief negotiations and I got the job. I started to work right away and since the cows were already out in the field, I split some wood and cleaned the yard. For lunch I got more food than I had eaten in days. The family included the farmer, who was about 50 years old, his wife and his two unmarried daughters. It was obvious that this family had never experienced hunger. The farmer had a lot of land and he employed several more workers in his vast farmstead.
The next day I woke up very early and headed out to the field alongside the farmer and his younger daughter, who led the cows. I had to learn the places where I could herd the cows, because it wasn't allowed everywhere. When we arrived at the field, we all sat down. One of the cows had wandered far off and the farmer sent me to bring it back. I ran towards the cow with a stick in my hand, and when I approached, it attacked me, head-butted me and knocked me to the ground. The farmer and his daughter rushed over to check on me and when they saw that I was fine they burst into laughter. While they laughed, I could barely hold back my tears. I restrained myself because I was afraid that the farmer would fire me for being tenderhearted.
Later the daughter explained to me that the cow always attacked strangers and that it needed a few days to get used to me. She also advised me not to turn my back on the cow if it attacked, but to use my stick to control it. I already knew how to herd cows, and I did not need much guidance. The next day I already went out alone to work with four cows, two wagons and two horses.
I used to go out very early in the morning and return at around 11 o'clock, when it got hot outside, and then go again late in the afternoon. During the break hours I had various jobs to do in the yard, like cleaning the stable and the cowshed or throwing out the garbage. When I got back in the evening with the cows I prepared them for the evening milking and then I was given tasks to do by the farmer's wife. After dinner I was finally free to go to sleep at the barn. I spent the whole summer at that place and my parents came to visit me a few times. The situation at home remained extremely difficult until the harvest began and the first potatoes were ready to be harvested.
The year 1942 was a year of terrible hunger. Thousands died throughout the country while in search for a small quantity of food. Many people were found in ditches beside the roads, their bodies swollen and emaciated. When the harvest began, there were a few jobs in the village alongside the farmers; with the small pay it was somehow possible to survive. The fact that my brother and I stayed with our employers helped a little with the family burden. At that time my parents continued to go out to work in the field together with my little sister. With the money we all got from our jobs we started to collect food again for the future.
In the middle of the summer the Jews were ordered to go to work on the roads. It was mandatory work that applied only to Jews; mobilizing of the men was executed by the committee of the Jewish community. Day after day, a group of men would go to work in the morning and come back at night. The job was done without any police supervision, so there was still some amount of liberty to it. Many Jews hired others to replace them in this duty. My father fulfilled his own duty and was also hired for the job in place of others. Sometimes my big brother went as well, to replace those who were willing to pay to get out of their duty.
One day in the autumn of 1942, while my father was working on the roads, the commander of Jakhtorov, a forced labor camp for Jews, arrived at the site and wanted to know the number of people who were working on the roads and where they were from. The Jewish man in charge of the men handed him the details and he continued on his way. When my father got back home he told us what had happened and said that he would not go to work the next day because he believed that the workers would be taken to Jakhtorov.
The next day my father did not go to work. He stayed home and did not even go to a different job in the village. Around noon, all the Jews who were working on the roads that day were brought to the street, escorted by a few armed Ukrainian cops. According to the policemen, they were indeed headed for the Jakhtorov labor camp. The Jews were accompanied by some of the villagers' sons and a few old men, who cursed them and revealed their satisfaction at getting rid of the Jews. As the group passed by in front of our house, they took a break and the commanding officer ordered us to provide the men with food, clothes and blankets. While they had stopped, many more of the village residents gathered around to watch the Jews being sent off to the camp.
One of our neighbors informed the commander that there was a Jew who resided nearby but was not among the detainees. While saying this, he pointed at our house. That whole time my brother and I had been observing what was happening and we warned our father to hide before the policemen entered the house. The commander furiously burst into our house and demanded that our father show up and join the detainees on the road outside. Where is your husband? he yelled while rattling his rifle. I don't know; he went to work in the morning and hasn't returned yet, she replied. His answer was, You're hiding him inside the house and if you won't tell me where he is, we will immediately kill everyone in the house.
The officer was enraged. He brutally made a mess of the entire house, tearing everything from its place, even my sister's cradle, which caused her to cry fearfully. My mother tried to bribe the officer with money but he snubbed the small amount that was offered to him. He put some of our belongings in his pockets and stormed out. Upon departure he announced that he would wait for another 15 minutes and if my father had not shown up by then, he would keep looking for him and would shoot him once he had found him. To emphasize his threats, he cocked his gun and shot a few rounds in the air.
Our Aunt Rachel was with us that day and seeing the seriousness of the situation, she offered to go as a replacement for my father. The commander consented at first but then changed his mind and refused. Fifteen minutes later he re-entered the house and when he realized that Father had not turned up, he continued to threaten us. But in the end he decided to leave the responsibility for finding my father to the committee of the Jewish community, demanding that he report the next morning in Jakhtorov.
That whole time the Jews had been kept waiting on the road and their families supplied them with tools. The commander ordered them to start moving towards the camp and long after they had all left, we remained scared and worried for our father. We did not know exactly where he was. Once we had warned him when he was in the entrance and precisely when the officer went in, Father hid behind the door. When the officer turned right to the living room, my father sneaked out to the warehouse.
In the warehouse there was a ladder to the attic; Father climbed up and took the ladder with him. The cops who searched our warehouse looked everywhere, even for hiding places in the floor, but they did not bother to check the attic because there was no ladder. That whole time, while the commander was searching our house, my father sat in the attic and waited. He hoped that if the commander did not find him he would be satisfied by making threats and our father could then report to the camp in the morning.
In the evening my father started to get ready to go to the camp. He took clothes and food and said goodbye to all of us. The next morning he was supposed to go to the camp but fortunately there was another Jew from the village who had hidden the day before and who was required to arrive at the camp. That Jew offered a bribe to the cops' commander and he agreed. Thanks to that payment, both men stayed with their families. This time my father had avoided the labor camp and could stay on with us.
Summer was drawing to a close and there was less work in the fields. During the summer we had managed to collect a stock of different kinds of food that we had gotten as payment for work. I still had my job as a cow herder with the farmer. The days became chilly, bothering me most during the early morning, when I used to take the cows out to the pasture. The dew looked as white as snow and I was barefoot, as I did not have any shoes. Arriving at the pasture, I tried to cover myself with my short coat, which barely covered my feet. The intense cold bothered me, but walking in the frozen dew was like walking in snow. I would sit there, my feet frozen, crying until the sun came out or I had to take one of the cows back. Every day I cried bitterly because of the intense pain of my frozen toes. While I still had my herding job, my brother was fired by his farmer employer and went back home.
Autumn came, with rumors that a ghetto for Jews had been established in the nearby town of Przemyslany. Witnesses reported that residents had been driven away from many of the streets and told to settle in a limited area that had been surrounded by barbed wire.
One day we were told that the villages' [Jewish] residents must also leave their homes and move into the ghetto. A date was set for the move, with a death penalty for violating it. It took a lot of persuasion and bribery of district authorities at a very high price, gathered from all the villages in the district, to postpone the edict. Postponement of the evacuation was only for a month. The hardest thing was the fact that we had to leave just before winter. From rumors, we knew what to expect in the ghetto, packed with people without a place to stay and without food supplies.
At home we started intensive preparations for the possibility of evacuation to the ghetto. We gathered as much food and wood for fuel as we could. One day cars carrying Gestapo came to the village. Everyone assumed they had come to carry out the evacuation order. Most of the village Jews fled out to the fields, hiding there until evening. I was away from home, working at the farm. My parents came and told me about the Gestapo visit. We asked the farmer to let us all stay in the farm. The farmer agreed, on condition that we leave early in the morning. That same night my father went back to the village to find out what was going on. When he came back he told us the Gestapo had left without any searching or investigations. That night we stayed at the farm, deciding to go back to our village the following day.
The next morning we all went back to the village. I went with my parents, as the farmer had told us he would no longer need my help. Other families came back, as we did, but the tension and fear of the unknown did not fade away. We stayed alert for any possibility, not knowing what to expect.
A few days later, just as things had seemed to calm down, we were informed of the renewal of the evacuation order. A lot of money was collected and together with much persuasion with the authorities, the order was again rescinded. We were saved from the evacuation for the moment, but everyone could feel that it was not for long. It looked as though the authorities enjoyed sending out orders and canceling them, in this way pressuring the Jews to give money. We knew that sooner or later the order was going to be executed.
We did not have to wait long for the third evacuation order. This time no persuasion or bribery helped. The order was given with a final date, 31 December 1942, forbidding Jews from staying out of the ghetto after that date. Since we had run out of options, we started preparing to depart. Aunt Rachel, who used to visit us frequently, went to town and arranged an apartment for us. We hired a wagon from one of the farmers, trading it for some of our furniture. The rest of our belongings we left with a farmer, a friend of the family. On the morning of 30 December 1942 the wagon, harnessed to two horses, came into our yard. We loaded all our possessions, mostly food, supposedly enough for six months. The rest of the Jews planned their departure for the same date.
The farmers, who were idle from work due to the coming winter, stood along the road leading out of the village, most of them with smiling faces, happy to see us go. Loading did not take long as everyone did his or her part. As everything was being loaded we put on our winter clothes to be ready to leave. Mother was taking care of my little sister, Frida, dressing her in warm clothes and wrapping a blanket around her. For the last time, I passed by the house and yard, heading for the wagon. Mother had just come out, walking to the wagon too. There was no room for more than my mother with my sister on the wagon, but my sister burst out crying loudly, refusing to mount the wagon despite all the efforts to calm her down by showing her the horses.
My mother decided to walk beside the wagon like the rest of us. We turned toward the main road leading to town, accompanied by the other Jewish families coming out of their yards. The distance to town was not far so we all walked beside the wagon, except for mother with my little sister, who had eventually fallen asleep. It was about noontime when we came to town and entered the ghetto gates. Aunt Rachel was waiting for us there and led us to our new residence. After she made sure we are settled, she said goodbye to us and went to Lvov, planning to come back in a week.
Our new apartment consisted of one long, narrow room with a brick heating stove. The only window overlooked the town square, which was outside of the ghetto. The door opened into a small, enclosed yard with the area outside the ghetto on one side and the wall of the neighboring house. Our house was the last one on the street, with two walls facing out of the ghetto. Next to us there was another family and across the entrance lived the landlord with his family. Our room had once been a tobacco shop. There were two additional rooms but they were not occupied because of missing windows and holes in the ceiling due to a bomb that had hit the building. A torn, old sofa and some other broken-down furniture stood in one of the empty rooms.
The sofa hid the entrance to an underground bunker that had used to be the cellar, as in most houses. The original entrance was blocked and plastered over. In order to enter the hiding place one had to move the sofa, lift one of the floors boards and climb down a ladder. One person had to remain outside to conceal the entrance. Most times that was the landlord, who afterwards found shelter with a neighboring Ukrainian.
When we first came to our new room we knew nothing about this hide-out. We arranged our things in the small room, hoping for better days to come. The day after our arrival in the ghetto we went out to the street. The streets of the ghetto were packed with people standing around in groups, discussing the latest news and the future. Many of them offered merchandise, mostly food. It was crowded everywhere. The town was rather small, numbering about 10,000 residents. The ghetto walls surrounded a few streets where the entire district's Jews were squeezed in, also about 10,000 in number.
On our third day in the ghetto we were awaked very early in the morning by the noise of cars and shouts in German. Looking out through the window shutters we saw cars with policemen and soldiers. There was no doubt that the Germans were surrounding the ghetto. We woke the others in our house and in the neighboring houses and people ran in panic into their hiding places. We went with our landlord's family to their hide-out. In our rush we did not manage to take much into the hiding place, except for the clothes we had on and some food for my baby sister. After a short time we heard gun shots from all over the ghetto. The Aktion had started.
There were about 20 of us, composed of four families, hiding in the cellar, alerted by any sound coming from the outside. We had a little baby with us who was liable to start crying at any time and turn us in. My mother had some sleeping pills that she gave Frida to put her to sleep but the pills did not always work. There was great tension in the hide-out and people were very sensitive and nervous over any light movement. We had to stay still for hours; the darkness was the most distressing part. Since there was very little air it was impossible to light a candle; it stayed lit for a short while but went out due to lack of oxygen.
It was about noontime when we heard footsteps overhead. People were moving around, knocking on the floor and listening for hollow sounds. To avoid that hollow sound we had packed the entrance board with sacks of sand. The first group searched the house for a long time and then left. During the day other groups, consisting of Germans and Ukrainians, came searching. In the evening the sounds of shouting and shooting ceased as the searches stopped.
At night people went out of their hiding places, but seeing people in the streets they thought might be Germans, they went back into hiding. We figured the Aktion was still going on so we stayed where we were during that whole night and the next day. We heard people walking around in the rooms and were sure the search was still going on. The second evening we went out to discover that the Aktion had ended the night before, while we had stayed in our hide-out. We did not find any of our belongings; they had all been stolen by people who had emerged on the first night. They took all our food supplies and some clothes.
The day after the Aktion the ghetto was less crowded. About half of the ghetto residents had been captured and taken by train wagons to Belzec. Over the following days, people started coming back from the train. A few hundred returned. All those who came back had jumped off the train at night and walked back. The survivors told about many who were killed or injured jumping off the running train or shot by the German guards. People were put into closed train wagons and squeezed in, standing, almost unable to move. Still, many of them managed to break down the small windows and jump out as the train slowed down when approaching stations on the way.
Not many were killed inside the ghetto during this Aktion. The troops carrying out the Aktion consisted of Gestapo units from an area close by, Ukrainian militias and Jewish militias. The Jewish militias took part in the Aktion but only in a few cases did we hear of real co-operation with the Germans. In one of those cases, we heard that the head of the Jewish militias from the Lvov Ghetto was among the Gestapo soldiers; he was armed and was crueler and more brutal than the Gestapo. A lot of rumors of this kind were heard during these times.
A week or two passed and life in the ghetto went back to normal, although the population had gotten noticeably smaller. Trade and smuggling went on as before and working groups left the ghetto in the morning, returning in the evening. Once in a while there were manhunts in the streets where men were taken to concentration camps. Almost only women and children were seen in the streets, as men avoided going out.
As mentioned before, we were late in relation to others in getting out of our hiding place after the Aktion and were left with nothing. Our food supply, which would have been sufficient for half a year, was for the most part stolen; we had no money to buy foodstuffs from supplies available in the ghetto.
The German authorities gave a ration of 100 grams of bread a day; it was bread made ??mostly of potato flour and was inadequately baked. From these food rations it was impossible to survive. We waited for the arrival of Aunt Rachel , as she had promised, but she did not come. We did not know if something had happened to her while looking for an opportunity to make contact with the farmer in the village and ask him to bring us some of the items we had left with him. All this did not happen. My older brother and I started looking for some work to support the whole family, because Father had to stay in hiding.
In our search we came across a store that sold lime, just outside the ghetto. Next door to it was a row of shops, all of them on the outside of the ghetto. These stores had belonged in the past to Jews but were now owned by Ukrainian unhabitants of the town. The lime store was one of those stores. Near the shop there were a yard and a gate that separated the ghetto area from outside the ghetto area. The key of the gate was kept by the store owner. At first Joshua and I started to work in the shop without pay, and the owner would give us some potatoes and occasionally flour. Every morning we would sneak out of the ghetto through a gap between two houses and go to the store. Anyone caught exiting the ghetto would receive the death penalty.
In the shop it was our job to unload the lime carts and weigh the lime for the farmers who wanted to buy it. Farmers from surrounding villages brought food supplies with them. We would buy supplies from them and smuggle them into the ghetto through the gate by the shop. We would buy food while at work in the lime shop and would hide it there. Then, in the evening, we would move all the suppies over the gate and into the ghetto. The owner knew, of course, about our actions, but did not say anything. It was the salary paid to us for our work. Sometimes we would stay with the owner and help him count the revenue and make the calculation for him, as we knew how to do it better than he.
One day we bought a large quantity of potatoes, but it was impossible to transfer them as usual over the gate. We received the key to the gate, opened it and took all the potatoes into the ghetto. One evening we stayed with the store owner to help him count the money. He put all the bills which had filled his pockets on the table and told us to arrange them by size. We had always conducted this activity unattended by the owner. We knew that there was no way of him knowing what the revenue was and therefore he would not know if we pinched some money, and occasionally we did take some small amount, as a kind of informal wages.
That evening the owner told us he was going out to close the gates and told us to count the money. My brother motioned to me not to take any money this time, as he thought the owner was standing behind the window and watching us. As we left on our way home that night it turned out that my brother had been right, because the gate was still open. That evening we had withstood the test of faith and were confident we could continue working there as long as it remained quiet in the ghetto.
The food that Joshua and I smuggled into the ghetto gave us enough for the whole family and we could even save up some stock for times of emergency. In this way our father avoided the risk of leaving the house. As the number of men in the ghetto grew smaller, the Gestapo began to conduct searches not only in the streets but also in homes. Upon hearing about this kind of hunt, Father would go into hiding with other men who were in the same house. This hiding place was not so secure and we were afraid it would be discovered someday.
My brother and I decided to build a hiding place in the lime store outside the ghetto, without the knowledge of the owner. In the evening when the owner had left the shop, we went back in secret by climbing over the gate and built the hiding place. We dug a hole in the floor of the dark store. To conceal the tracks, we took out all the dirt and carried it into the ghetto. Every night after we had finished digging, we covered the hole with boards and a pile of lime so it would not be noticed by the owner.
The hiding place entrance was made of a box full of lime that merged with the surroundings. The only drawback was that someone from the outside had to secure the hide-out. Since the hide-out was designed especially for Father at the time of searching for men in the ghetto, we could cover the entrance after he went in. It took us about two weeks to build the hiding place and it was completed without the store owner noticing our activities. Every time when there was a manhunt in the ghetto, we moved Father by a secret route to the lime store and put him into hiding. The main difficulty was entering the store without being noticed by the store owner. In such cases, we would direct his attention to something outside and in the meantime we would bring Father in.
It had been three months since we had come to live in the ghetto and Aunt Rachel had not yet come to us, nor had she sent any information about herself. We feared that she had been captured by the Germans or by the Ukrainian police in the nearby area. But there was no confirmation of our assumption. Ghetto life flowed normally. There would be groups of people in the streets during the quiet times and empty streets during the hunt. Aktion panic had dissipated somehow, and news and stories spread: of miracles performed by famous rabbis, of orders to stop the extermination of the Jews, of Jews being transported to work in Russia, of Judenrat people being taken hostage, of news of defeats and victories on various fronts and other stories.
Every morning I would sneak out of the ghetto through the narrow passage between two houses and go downtown, turn left and walk a hundred paces to the lime store, our workplace. Two hundred steps down in a straight line ahead of me was the ghetto gate and next to it were the Jewish and Ukrainian policemen. They were liable to notice me emerging from the narrow passage right into the street, but so far it had not happened.
One morning, as usual, I turned and went straight across the street on my way to the store. Out on the street a loud German voice boomed Come here! I froze in my steps; I could not move. When I looked in the direction where the shouted command had come from, I saw the fat Gestapo commander, standing on the street corner, looking straight ahead and addressing me. I turned right and walked toward him. I passed by him but he did not notice me at all. I walked on in the street outside the ghetto and I paid attention to hear if there was someone following me. I walked aimlessly around the outside of the ghetto, circling through different streets and then went back to the ghetto through one of the many breaches that was unguarded. I ran home and found my mother, my father and my brother, who were petrified with fear and worry about me. They had heard the shout of the Gestapo commander immediately after I had left and they were sure, like me, that it was directed at me. I told them what happened and then we all realized what had really occurred.
The Gestapo commander, standing on the street corner, had shouted toward the ghetto gate, 300 steps ahead of him, to one of the officers, urging him to approach him. I emerged just then and I was sure the shout was addressed to me. But he was looking at the gate and did not even notice me slipping out of the ghetto only ten meters away. This event caused me great agitation. For several days I stayed at home before I got back my nerve and could to go back to work at the lime store.
For a few days I walked around the streets of the ghetto and did not go to work at the lime store, outside the ghetto walls. My brother told the owner that I was sick. If your brother's sick I'll need to hire another boy to work in the shop, the owner said. Holidays are coming and I can't stay without experienced workers. He'll get better soon and come back to work, my brother assured him. He had no wish to bring in someone who was not part of the family and to reveal the hidden secrets. Also, the benefits of food supplies were important and he had no desire to share them with others. There was no choice; a few days later I went back to work. Again I got up every morning and slipped through the narrow passage outside the ghetto.
From then on we were more cautious, first looking through a crack in the shutters to the street facing the Aryan side, listening to the voices coming from the street and only then, abruptly, going out. The two of us never left together. There was always a bit of a time between my departure and the departure of my brother sneaking outside the walls. Normally there was no traffic in the store; time flowed slowly, and most buyers came late in the afternoon.
One day one of the German policemen entered the store. Speaking in German to the owner, he ordered 50 kilograms of lime for the German headquarters. Joshua and I pretended we did not understand anything and then he turned to us and spoke in Ukrainian. He looked at us, asking a few questions about our work and our actions and left. We became suspicious of his questions. Why had a special messenger from headquarters been sent to buy lime instead of ordering the owner to send it? The next day we did not go in to work, but we did not say anything that would worry our parents. We said the shop was closed for the day.
Our fears were substantiated the next day when Ukrainian police officers came looking for us in the shop. The owner told them we did not work there anymore. The next day he told us the whole thing and added that he was afraid to take risks, that he could be punished if caught employing Jews. It was becoming dangerous; one needed to be more cautious. The police were liable to come back and ask about us again.
Since the owner decided to take precautions, but do not want to forgo our work, we began working early in the morning and in the early evening. There was a lot more work here than mere selling. Only one of us would actually be selling now. Since I often did not stay in the shop by this time, I was selling food in the ghetto all those supplies that we bought from the farmers coming to the store. We would transfer supplies to the ghetto and sell them at a profit. Sometimes I would ask a farmer for a quantity of birch brooms and would sell them on the ghetto streets.
During this time I was becoming more aware of what was going on in the ghetto. Because it was a period between Aktions there were a lot of rumors everywhere of reassurance and salvation. Most of the rumors regarded acts of miracles and some were about promises of the Germans. More people were becoming complacent, hoping for a better future, but were no less concerned. People proceeded to build shelters and hiding places, hoard food and look for jobs that provided certificates of the German authorities. Each morning the ghetto gate opened and a convoy of coercion workers, the quota of workers, went out to work. The Germans did not insist on people's names, just on a number of people. Those who could afford to would hire a replacement, and many did so.
One day a convoy of workers went out in the morning but at the regular time in the evening did not come back. There was panic. The Germans announced that the workers had remained in the camp where they were working due to lack of transportation, but the people did not return the next day, either. A few days later the Germans announced that the people would remain in camp and we could send them food, clothing and money. Again, the number of men decreased. Now a new hunt began. The Gestapo ordered the Judenrat to arrange for a new quota of workers to provide for the repair of the roads. Here came the legwork. Jewish police took people off the streets; they entered houses and took out any man they found.
This first phase, for the time being, had no German intervention; they simply waited for the quota to be filled. Jewish policemen performed their acts cruelly, beating people with rubber truncheons, breaking and destroying anything and everything that stood in their way. They knew in which houses there should be men, but did not always find them.
In such a case, of course, Father would not be at home. The police came to our house, inquiring about him, saying they needed our father, but he was not there waiting for them. Father was already in our hiding place, which was more-or-less safe. Because the quota had not been not filled, negotiations started with the Germans. When offered ransom money, the Germans would take it, but would soon renew their demand for people, and this time they rounded them up by themselves.
Police cars stood at the gates of the ghetto; the Gestapo and Ukrainian policemen searched the houses, taking the men out. The streets were empty. That month, there were rumors about the liquidation of ghettos in other places. Everyone felt that our turn would soon come; it was just a matter of time. Now people were talking about labor camps as being a rescue anchor. People were going voluntarily to the camps, where they hoped they could survive.
Until this point our family's togetherness had been maintained, but it seemed that it was time to part. After much hesitation and discussion between Father and Mother, it was decided that Father would also volunteer for the work camp. Father prepared a knapsack with supplies and we accompanied him to the ghetto gate, where he departed for the work camp at Kurowicz. Before he left we agreed that if necessary, we would try to join him at the camp.
Our solitary room was even starker with Father gone; it had already been a full week since his departure and we had only received word from him via someone else. My brother, Joshua, and I continued to work in the lime shop; tension in the ghetto had heightened recently, and rumors had been making the rounds of an imminent Aktion. Mother sought for a drug that would lull my sister, Frida, to sleep, since in the event that we might need to descend to a hiding place, the little child would have to be asleep during the searches.
One piece of bad news followed another. People told of police cars that came to the police headquarters in town. Many people left the ghetto. Some of them left for the forest and the fields, while a few went into hiding in farmhouses. Most of the wealthy people among the ghetto residents could pay to be hidden by farmers, who, however, could not be trusted. The Gestapo demanded that the Judenrat fill the quota of Jews who are required to work in the camps. In the afternoon a large group of Nazi policemen appeared; they encircled the Judenrat building and took the Judenrat officials hostage until the quota was filled. Searches in the houses yielded unsatisfactory results for the Gestapo. The number of men remaining who were fit to work was very small, and the few men left stayed well hidden.
On this day an unusual event occurred: one of the men who had been caught by the Gestapo shot and injured one of the Germans. He had been captured during the search and brought to the Judenrat building, where all the Jews who had been hunted down had been brought. He tried to escape from the building and when he ran into a Gestapo guard, he pulled out a gun and shot him. He escaped and disappeared immediately. After that event the tension was much greater in the ghetto, as everyone waited to see what the Gestapo would do in return. The punishment was not long in coming; more people were rounded up as hostages under the threat that they would be put to death if the man who shot the German were not turned over to them.
A great commotion broke out among the Jewish residents. Great efforts were made to find the man, and at last he was found and turned over to the Gestapo. Naturally, his fate was sealed. After some time it was rumored in the Ghetto that the man had not been put to death, but had managed to trick the Germans and to escape to the forest, where he had become the leader of one of the armed groups there. After the hunt for fit men had ended, the Judenrat officials were set free, while the other hostages were sent off to the work camp.
Over a period of several days we were visited several times by one of the people from the Jewish police, a young man from our village, who would come and inform us of impending danger. He told us that there was talk of liquidating the ghetto and that he feared it would happen very soon. He promised to come and warn us if he heard anything more. That same evening, we went to sleep with heavy hearts, after descending once more to our hiding place and checking to see that everything was prepared. We made up our beds and went to sleep. We slept in our clothes, removing only our shoes. Each of us had prepared a bundle that we would take with us the moment we had to hurry off to the hiding place.
My little sister slept in her cradle; Frida slept peacefully and felt nothing, not understanding anything yet. Looking at her, I remembered the first Aktion and our stay in the hiding place. We had stayed in that airless space for a full day and night, and from time to time my sister had burst out crying. Mother had made every effort to keep her quiet but had not always been successful. That time, Father had still been with us; now we were on our own.
Early dawn, Lag b'Omer 1943. Through the window blinds we could see the sunrise. I lay in bed and listened tensely. From the direction of the plaza in front of the ghetto gate we heard shouts, and then, suddenly, bursts of gunfire. I peeked out through the blinds and saw that the entire plaza was full of police cars and policemen. It was completely clear what was about to happen. There was another burst of gunfire, this time just beyond our window. Everyone jumped up out of bed; Mother took Frida, while my brother and I grabbed the bundles and ran for shelter. The rest of the people in the building came to the entrance to the hiding place, too, and everyone shoved to get inside. Everyone was desperate to get in first. Finally we got in and went down the ladder, found a corner and spread out our blankets. Mother laid down the baby, who had awoken by this time. My brother and I went back up to our room to bring a few things that we hadn't had time to take with us before. After everyone had gotten in, the entrance to the hiding place was closed with a floorboard that had been pulled from the floor. The board was padded on one side so that there would be no empty space to give us away.
The landlord had remained upstairs; he did not descend with us into the shelter. He carefully disguised the entrance and moved the sofa over the opening. Then he went to stay in the hiding place of a Ukrainian acquaintance on the Aryan side of town. After the opening was closed, everyone went over to his or her corner and sat with his or her family. There were about 20 people in the shelter; it was crowded and almost completely dark. Only a faint light came through a crack that was a few centimeters wide. After great effort, Mother managed to calm the baby down and get her to sleep. We all lay there and waited. What were we waiting for? We were all thinking the same thing: when would we hear the sound of boots on the floor overhead and the shouts of the Germans?
And indeed, sooner than we thought, suddenly we heard banging upstairs. It was quick and energetic, like a man running. Right after that we heard the creaking noise of the sofa being moved aside and some knocking on the entrance to the shelter. It could not be that these were Germans; it could only be a person who intimately knew the location of the hiding place. Again nervous knocks were heard from above and right after them the call in Yiddish: Open up quickly. We were still hesitant and did not open; we could not know if this was a trick by the Germans. Again the call: Open up, it's I, Yitzchak! Yitzchak? Those near the opening asked, Who knows someone named Yitzchak? The answer came: Yitzchak, yes, that's the name of the fellow from the Jewish police, who always comes to us and warns us to take care. The bolt was slid open and he came down the ladder; it was indeed he. He had been wounded in the leg and had barely made it to us. He wanted to hide with us. How had he been injured?
Just yesterday, related Yitzchak, all the Jewish policemen were brought together to the Judenrat building, which was surrounded by Ukrainian policemen, who did not let the Jews out. This morning Gestapo units and other police entered the ghetto; the Jewish policemen were then attached to the Gestapo and commanded to lead them and show them the hiding places. I went with a few policemen, but at the first opportunity I got away from them and ran off. They shot at me and wounded me in the leg. I managed to warn most of the people I know and this is the last place I went to. I thought of going back to my family's shelter but then I heard shots and shouts and so I was compelled to go into your hiding place, which I knew the location of. Yitzchak told his story as Mother and another woman bandaged his wound. After that questions came at him from all sides: Did the policemen see where you went? What will happen now that the entrance is not properly disguised? What are the Germans doing now? Is it a regular Aktion or are they exterminating the ghetto? Yitzchak had no answers to give.
We hoped that things would pass and our hiding place would not be found, but deep down I knew that we were liable to be discovered in the first search. Our hiding place was of the simplest sort, and everyone was aware that much better places had been discovered in the first Aktion, but meanwhile we stayed in the shelter.
The hours flowed by in disturbing silence. We tried to light a candle but it went out. There was not enough air inside for a candle to stay lit and all our efforts were in vain. Upstairs, we suddenly heard steps and pounding in various corners, words spoken in German and Ukrainian, and then the steps got fainter and we breathed a sigh of relief. Again, steps above our head; my sister woke up just then and my mother tried to quiet her, but she refused to drink. The sweetened water had a medicinal odor; it was from the sleeping powder that Mother had put in the water. But the powder proved to be a disappointment, for it had almost no effect on the baby.
Above us, the murderers continued to trample about, and then the cry of the baby was heard. We all held our breath; had they heard the child's cries? Mother grabbed a quilt and wrapped up her daughter in it, trying to stifle the crying. Hysterical whispers were heard from every corner: Shut her up, that little bastard, shut her mouth so she doesn't give us away! Smother her, someone whispered from another corner, or we'll all die, all of us, because of one baby. Two men got up and came over to us. The noise overhead stopped, but started again a few seconds later. They seemed to be listening and searching to see where the voices were coming from. The people stretched out their hands to our sister, but my brother and I made a firm stand against them. Two children against two men. We wouldn't let them strangle our sister. They made a plunge for the baby who lay in our mother's arms, and we all grappled with each other. All of a sudden the sounds of steps stopped; we heard them getting farther away as the murderers overhead left.
We were safe for the time being; the two men left us and went back to their place. Five more times during that same day we heard the footsteps of the Nazis as they searched for hiding places. Each time voices were heard in German and Ukrainian as they said, Look in the attic, open the oven and see if there's an opening to a basement what about this sofa, maybe there's a mouse-hole underneath it. Leave it, answered a second voice, it's full of lice and there's no one here the apartment was abandoned ages ago. And again they left. Each time we fought the battle for the life our sister and did not let the people with us harm her.
We had already been in the shelter for many hours and did not know whether it was day or night. There was less and less air and we could not light a candle. Hours had passed since the last time we had heard steps of the murderers. Now we began to consider leaving the hiding place, but we had to take care. If this was an Aktion to liquidate the ghetto, then that meant that there was no way out, because anyone emerging would be caught and killed. After discussing the issue it was decided to send out one scout who would check the situation. We went to the opening and lifted the board. Outside it was dark, indicating that we had stayed inside for a full day. After some time the scout returned with the landlord, who had been hiding with his Christian acquaintance. They told us that the ghetto had been liquidated and everyone caught had been sent to Belzec. There were also many dead bodies in the streets and courtyards.
Things began to happen. The landlord took his wife and son out of the basement and they went into hiding in the Christian's house. Yitzchak, the wounded Jewish policeman, decided to go and check on his family and to see whether they had survived or had been taken away by the Germans. Others exited the shelter and departed. Suddenly shouts were heard outside and then shots. Apparently those people had run into the police guard. The ghetto was still surrounded by police who were waiting to ambush all those who left their hiding places.
My brother, my mother and I consulted with each other: what should we do now? We did not know where to go, but could not remain in the shelter, since we would eventually be discovered and also had very little food. There was no farm in the vicinity where we could hide, and so the only alternative that we had was to go to the work camp where our father was incarcerated. It was about 20 kilometers outside the town. If we were to walk along the railway lines, we could find our way there. Since there had already been quite a bit of activity that night around our house, we decided to wait and leave the following night. Several others stayed with us. We ate what we had and went to sleep. We wanted to take advantage of the few quiet hours of the night to get a short rest, and while our baby sister slept we could also sleep.
The arrival of the next day was announced by banging overhead, shouts in Ukrainian, laughter, the neighing of a horse and rustling of wheels. These were not police units, but town residents and local farmers who were raiding the ghetto and plundering the property of the Jews. From the noises we heard, we figured out that they were removing the furniture from our house. The noise continued all through the day, and again we had to make every effort to prevent the sound of our sister's crying from emerging from the shelter.
When silence finally came, we understood that the day had ended. We began to prepare to leave; everyone put on all his or her clothes and packed a small bundle to take along. After I had finished getting dressed I sat down and thought things over. What was I thinking about? About my baby sister. How could we manage to take her out of the hiding place and walk with her through the night to our father's camp? She was liable to burst out crying suddenly, and then she would be heard and we would be discovered. Now she was asleep, and mother went over to her and covered her with a quilt. We still had some time to wait; it was still early and there was a lot of movement on the streets. My sister woke up, and my mother took her in her arms and breastfed her, but she cried.
It was time to go; four other people left the shelter before us. We pricked up our ears to hear what was happening. Everything was quiet: a sign that they had gotten out and had not encountered police guards on the ghetto walls. It was our turn; Mother removed her breast from her daughter's mouth, laid her on the quilt and told us to climb up. She came up after us and immediately afterwards we heard the sound of crying, of heart-wrenching crying. My sister was left alone in the shelter; she was only one and a half years old and could not comprehend what was happening. We left her there her mother, who had given birth to her, left her in the dark shelter, abandoned to murderers and thieves.
We left the opening to the shelter open, and the sound of crying accompanied us on our way. We ran out of the house and yard, entered a narrow lane between two houses, walked to the corner and stopped. Now we had to flee the ghetto, cross the main street and enter the lane across the way. At first Mother stood and listened. We did not hear steps, only faint crying. We raced out of the ghetto, crossed the street and descended into the town's outskirts. Now we had to hurry and reach the fields, where we would be able to hide. In about an hour we should reach the railroad tracks and then turn in the direction of Father's camp. We had to be very careful not to encounter any Ukrainian residents. Any one of them was liable to turn us in to the Germans in return for a promised reward.
When we reached the fields we began to look for the tracks, but could not find them. We wandered around near the town for most of the night, not knowing where to go. Since dawn was breaking, we hid in the tall grain and decided to wait for the next night. All day we could not go anywhere, but we could see the place where we were situated. From the sounds of the steam engines we could tell where the tracks were and which way we should walk that evening. In the meantime the fields filled with life and noise: the farmers came out to work and we greatly feared that we would be discovered by the fieldworkers. We knew that many of the local residents spent their time looking for Jews, whom they robbed of their money and clothes and then turned over to the Germans.
Around noon we were found by a boy who happened to enter the grain field. He ran away and then came back with his whole family, who worked in the field. We begged them not to turn us over to the Germans, and they did nothing to us, but only warned us that we should go into the nearby forest, or else we would be found by hunters of Jews who roamed the fields. In broad daylight we left our hiding place and went to the forest. We reached it safely and hid in a clump of bushes. When it got dark we left the bushes and headed in the correct direction, since we now knew which way to go. We just had to be careful of the towns on the way.
But as we headed for the fields a farmer with an ax in his hand stood in our way. He came toward us and told us to follow him into the forest. Mother refused to follow him, and offered him various things that we had with us, but he refused to take them. We struggled with him for a long time, until he finally agreed to take most of our possessions and leave us be. We hurried away from that place and hid again. Only about an hour later did we dare to continue on our way. The night was very dark and it was hard to find the way. The barking of dogs and solitary lights warned us of the location of nearby towns. After we found the railroad tracks we continued alongside them in the correct direction. Only when we approached a train station would we take the long way around, in order to avoid falling into the hands of guards.
Towards morning we reached the village where we had lived before we had left for the ghetto; here we knew all the roads. We entered the village and reached the yard of one of the farmers, with whom we had left some of our possessions before being uprooted and sent to the ghetto. We stole into the barn and hid there in the hay for two days. We stayed in the barn without the farmer knowing; we ate nothing and drank nothing. We were very thirsty and could finally hold back no longer, and so Mother decided to let the farmer know that we were in his barn. At noon, when the farmer's wife came in to get some hay, we called out her name. At first the woman was very frightened but she recognized us right away. She left the barn and returned with food and drink for us. She told us that the police were searching for Jews who were hiding in the town and the fields and that her family could expect the death penalty if the policemen were to discover us here. We asked her about our father's work camp but she had heard nothing about what was happening there.
Early the next morning we left the village and walked through the fields to the camp, a walk of about eight kilometers. As we approached the camp we met many Jews from the ghetto, women and children and whole families who had survived. This was an unusual type of camp. All the men lived in a camp surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by Ukrainian guards, and not far from there was a separate camp for women and children that the camp commander knew about, and there was also a group of young people who lived outside the camp and worked the land, a sort of training camp. These had come into existence only in the days of the last commander, an SS man named Kamka. My mother and I joined the women's camp while my brother joined the men's camp, where he stayed together with Father.
All the men went out each morning to work on the road, which was the main road from Lvov to the Russian front. Large convoys of soldiers and tanks often passed over this road and it was in need of frequent repair. When work was taking place on the road the guarding was not particularly strict, and by paying a small sum to the Ukrainian guard one could get off work for an hour or two. During this time, the men would go off to the nearby village and buy food from the farmers. The food provided at the camp was not too bad, either. But the main activity at the camp took place at night, after the lights were extinguished. All the prisoners, about 200 of them, lived in one large shack that had once served as a meeting place. After the official lights-out time, candles were lit next to the bunks and then the men traded food. Anything could be bought, from vodka to cake. This went on almost every night. Usually everything went fine; sometimes the guards or the camp commander visited, but even then nothing happened. The commander received various gifts and ignored the goings-on.
I joined the men's camp after a few days and stayed with Father and my big brother. During the day I did not go out to work on the road, but stayed with the other children and played near the camp. Mother stayed with the other women. The mothers and children saw each other every day and we could go over to our mothers. The Ukrainian guards were not very strict about what went on in and around the camp. The German commander also visited the place only infrequently. There was no fear of the prisoners running away, for there was no place to go.
We lived this way for about two months after arriving there from the liquidated ghetto. At the end of July the guarding at the camp became more strict and harsh, and people told of defeats that the Germans had suffered on the Russian front. At night large convoys would pass by on their way to the front, and everyone feared for the end of the camp. It was said that similar camps had already been closed down in other areas, and some survivors from them reached us. We all hoped that the camp would not be closed down since the men were performing vital work by repairing the main road.
Many people did not rely on our immunity and fled to other places of shelter. Most of the young people from the training camp disappeared; we knew that they had a hiding place ready in one of the forests in the area, where they had prepared food, bunkers and a small amount of weapons. Guarding of the camp was increased and freedom of movement became limited.
On 22 June 1943 we awoke in the morning to the sound of barking dogs and knew right away that the camp commander had arrived. This was an unusual event for that time of day. We peeked out of the windows and saw that we were surrounded by special guards. The door of the residence hall opened and the camp commander entered and announced, Everyone leaves today for work in the Jakhtorov Camp nearby for a few days; 30 men are to stay here to maintain the camp. We all knew that he was lying, and that this was a trick to take us away without us offering any resistance.
We got dressed, packed the food that we had and went out to the yard, where transport vehicles were already waiting. One after another we got onto the trucks, about 50 people per vehicle, with six armed guards at the back end. My father and I were some of the last people to get onto the last truck. My brother remained hidden in the yard, but was discovered by guards and loaded onto our truck. Everyone had been loaded up, and the only people left in the yard were those who were to maintain the camp. The driver switched on the engine; in a minute we would be off. At the last moment I jumped off the truck and ran into the yard. On the way in, one of the policemen caught me by the arm, but I got away and ran into the residence hall. There I hid under the bunks in the meantime. When the trucks had gone off I left my hiding place and blended in with the people who had remained; no one came searching for me.
The guards ordered us to collect all the possessions that were left in the hall, to clean everything up and sweep the hall. After we had finished cleaning we sat and awaited fresh orders. In the afternoon a few of the Jews were called before the commander, and when they returned half an hour later they told us that the commander had announced to them that the camp was closed down and that we had nothing to do there any longer and were free to go anywhere we wanted. It would be best if we were to leave as quickly as possible since he was no longer responsible for the camp. This was a very strange announcement. As a matter of fact, we had been liberated by a Gestapo man and were free to save our own lives; but our options were few.
The sky filled with clouds and it began to rain. Most of the people left the hall and headed for the fields. I, too, left with them but where would I go now? No one wanted to take me with him. I cried and begged a few of them, but it was no use. I tried to follow some of them but they drove me away and I retraced my steps. Not far from the camp, where the training camp people had lived, I sat down on a rock and cried. I was left all alone; everyone else had gone. My tears fell like the rain all around me. I sat for about an hour and cried loudly. I wanted for someone to hear me, for someone to come and take me. But no one did; there was not a soul around. Not knowing what to do, I started to walk back to the camp, without thinking what awaited me there.
As I approached I saw the Ukrainian policemen walking about in the yard. Danger pounded in my brain and I began running away into the fields. After running for about 15 minutes I stopped and looked back; no one was following me. I sat down on the side of the path on some damp weeds and began to consider what I should do. If I were to return to the camp, certain death awaited me. If I were to stay and wander around the fields, farmers would catch me and turn me over to the police. The only option left me was to reach the camp to which my family members had been taken; at least then I would be together with them. The other camp, called Jakhtorov, was about 16 kilometers away. If I were to walk through the fields parallel to the road, I could get there easily. On my way I passed by the village where we had lived before being banished to the ghetto.
It was already late in the day when I got up and began walking. Because of the mud I could not walk quickly in my wooden-soled shoes. I walked through the fields next to the road and thus could not, of course, mistake my way, since the road passed right by the gate of the camp that I wanted to reach. Although walking through the mud was hard, the rain came to my aid. It was the beginning of the harvest season. On a nice day in this season, the fields would have been filled with farmers; but today not a living soul was about. While walking, I went back over things in my mind and thought out the various options.
One thing aroused my suspicion: the sound of shooting that emanated from the direction of the camp toward which I was headed. Of course I could not locate the exact spot where the shots were coming from, but that was the direction. Another thing that troubled me was that I had never been in the vicinity of the camp and did not know exactly how to approach it; I only knew, from the descriptions I had heard from time to time, that it was surrounded by a high wall and guard towers. If I were to reach there at night I would certainly not know how to get in, so it was better to spend the night somewhere and continue on in the morning. And another thought that occurred to me was that I should find out something about what was going on there before entering. So I decided to enter the village that had once been my home, which was on my way to the camp, and sleep there.
When I got near the village it was still light and I had to wait in the grain fields until night fell. Under cover of night I crossed the road and entered the village. Here I knew exactly where to go; I knew every house and every yard. I took care when walking behind the yards, since I was liable to bump into the village guards. The many dogs were also a danger for me. Luckily, I entered the village in the early hours of the evening, before the dogs had been set free from their chains. Only later, before going to sleep, would the farmers set their dogs free to prowl around the yards. I wanted to reach a certain house, the house of the same farmer where we had spent time on our way from the ghetto to the last camp. After stopping several times on the way because of people walking around outside, I reached the farmer's yard and quietly entered the barn, which was the same one we had been in before.
I was cold and very hungry; I burrowed my way deep into the dry hay and cried quietly for a long time, and then I must have fallen asleep. A murmuring noise on top of the hay woke me out of my sleep. Right away I knew where I was, and the first thought that crossed my mind was that I was being searched for because I had been seen going into the barn that night. The murmuring continued and got closer. Someone touched my hand and immediately drew away. There's something here in the hay maybe the farmer hid something to eat in here, a man whispered to his companion; the language he spoke was Yiddish. Let's get it out and see what it is, continued the whispering voice in Yiddish.
Although he spoke in a whisper I immediately recognized his voice: it was my father's. My father was here in this same barn. He did not know that I was there, for he knew that I had stayed behind in the previous camp. Father, it's me your son is here, I said only those words and no more. Both of us were struck dumb by the surprise meeting; neither of us had expected to find someone in the hay and certainly not a father his son or a son his father.
The moment of silence went on for many seconds and then we hugged each other. I told my father everything that had happened to me since that morning, from the moment we had parted at Korovicz Camp and until this moment of our meeting again. Father was not alone; with him was another man whom I did not know. But my mother and brother were not with him. What happened to all of you since this morning, where are Mother and Joshua, my brother, and how did you get here half naked? I asked him and waited to hear his answer.
Father did not reply right away. He paused for a long, tension-filled time. During this silence I had the time to think of all sorts of things regarding my mother and brother. My thoughts were interrupted by my father's voice as he began his story with these words, What I have to tell you is very sad. You must be strong to hear it, but you must know the truth. As you saw this morning, we left Korovicz in trucks and traveled in the direction of Jakhtorov. There were 40 people in the truck and four policemen. As we rode we spoke amongst ourselves about where we were going, and no one believed that we were really going for just a few days to work, as the commander of Korovicz had said before we left. We could easily have overcome our guards, stopped the truck and run away, but we thought that perhaps we were indeed being taken to work, and if we were to run away, then where to?
After driving for about half an hour we reached Jakhtorov Camp. The camp was surrounded by a wall, barbed wire and a thick chain of guards. We entered through the gate. Several hundred Jews were sitting on the lot in the center of the camp, men on one side and women on the other. We were also separated by sexes. Mother went with the women and Joshua and I went with the men. There was no physical barrier between the sides. When we came in contact with the people who were already there, we learned that they, too, had been brought there today from another camp. We sat on the ground and waited. All the time more people continued to stream in through the gate.
The courtyard was completely filled with people. By about noon there were several thousand Jews in the camp. Over the loudspeaker it was announced that everyone was to turn over all the money and jewelry that he or she had. Anyone who kept anything back would be put to death. People began giving up their money. Some hid it in their clothes and some even threw it into the drainage opening in the yard. One of the men was caught throwing jewelry into the drain. He was knocked down by the Germans and in front of all those present, his body was slashed to pieces by guards wielding pickaxes.
When all the money and jewelry had been turned over, they began taking groups of people out of the camp gate. First they took out the men, each time a group of 50. There were fewer and fewer men left. Joshua and I moved back each time, in order to delay the moment when we would have to leave, but in the end they got to us, too. We parted from Mother, who was with the women's group, and went with our group. I held Joshua by the hand the whole time so that we wouldn't be separated. Outside we were ordered to get onto a truck and were transported a distance in the fields, accompanied by armed guards. The path led in the direction of the forest. Not far from the forest we got down from the trucks and were ordered to strip, leaving only our trousers on. In that place there was a new group of guards, numbering about 15 Germans and Ukrainians. The truck left. We were arranged in rows of four and led toward the forest. On the way we passed through a field and on each side there was almost-ripe wheat.
While walking in this way, surrounded by armed guards, we realized that we were being lead to our death. There was no doubt about it. I walked with Joshua in one row, with our arms around each other. From among the rows came murmurings of revolt. People began to say among themselves that we needed to run away; that anyway we were being led to die and there was nothing to lose. The information about an escape plan spread from person to person, but no one was yet found who would give the sign. In the meantime we got closer and closer to the forest and there was not much time left.
Suddenly a shout was heard; everyone looked in the same direction and saw that one of the men had broken out of formation and begun to escape. Immediately shots were fired from many weapons and the escaper fell. At that moment the shout was heard and we began to run in all directions. Tall grain was growing on both sides of the path and we ran into the fields of grain. Joshua and I ran, holding hands. All around we heard shots as bullets shrieked in every direction. After a certain distance, suddenly Joshua's hand slipped out of mine. I ran on for a bit and then stopped.
I looked behind me and saw Joshua lying on the ground. I crawled to him through the grain, and when I got to him I saw that he had been shot in the stomach. His eyes were closed and next to him was a big puddle of blood. I spoke to him; he recognized me but could not see. He asked me if he still had legs. I tried to lift him up, but I saw that I was unable to carry him and that there was no way to get him out of there. He grunted loudly; gradually his voice grew fainter. All round us the shouting and shooting continued; the policemen caught some of the people and led them to the forest. I moved a short distance away from Joshua and waited. Some time later his voice went silent; I could do nothing. Joshua was dead.
Mother had remained behind us in the camp and was also led to her death in the forest. I remained alone and even thought of going out and giving myself up to the Germans, but held onto the hope that I would find you, my son, and so I decided to go back to the previous camp and search for you there. On the way here I met another Jew who had run away and survived. We came in here, to the barn in the village, because I wanted to get some clothes from the farmer and then continue on my way back to Korovicz. So now we've met in this place and are together again.
My father fell silent; he had finished his story. I was also silent, and did not ask even one question; nor did I cry. I did not shed even one tear. The well of my tears had already dried up that day. The pain was so deep that I could not even weep. Truth be told, it seemed completely natural, what had happened. What was completely incomprehensible was the fact that we were still alive and had met again under such unexpected circumstances. Now we had to think about the future. What could we do in order to stay alive?
But we delayed those thoughts for the next day, when we would know what was going on around us. We wanted to get this information from our farmer. We slept that night in the barn and woke up only when the voices of people talking in the courtyard reached our ears. Day had come and the farmer's family awoke and went off to work. They did their work in the yard, came into the barn to take straw for the cows, milked the cows and hitched up the horse to the cart. Then they went out to the field to work, for apparently the harvest had begun.
After the farmer and his family had gone off to work in the field, it became quiet in the yard and in the entire village as well. Towards noontime the wife returned from the field with her two children. The son came into the barn to get some hay and noticed us. He became very frightened and ran home. After some time his father entered the barn and demanded that we leave immediately. He did not want to put his family in danger. There were many policemen in the village, looking for Jews who escaped from the camp. If they were to find us here they would burn his farmstead and would kill him. It was true; this was the immediate punishment to be expected from the Germans.
We begged him to let us stay until nightfall, but he refused. Father said that we would not move out in daylight because such a move would ensure certain death. There was no doubt that we would fall into the hands of the police. We refused to leave the barn. This whole argument had been conducted up to this point quietly between the farmer and ourselves. The farmer warned us once more to leave the barn and then left. A few minutes later he re-appeared with several men. They removed us from the barn and told us to go away; otherwise they would call the police. We had no choice. In the meantime some more neighbors had gathered from the area and the rumor of Jews being there began to spread. We hastily left the yard and headed for the field.
The farmer's house was on the very edge of the village and we could go right into the field and enter high grain. We looked back to see if we were being followed, and saw that no one was following us. Under cover of the high grain, we distanced ourselves a bit more from the village, wiped out the traces of our footsteps and lay down. We had to wait until nightfall and only then go someplace else. The place where we were hiding was not at all safe. Fieldworkers, shouting and chattering, were everywhere. The bustle all around was great. We feared that the reapers would reach the place where we lay; we were even more afraid that the police would begin searching for us after they heard about us, and that one of the Gentiles would report us to the police. The Ukrainians were not Jew-lovers, and were always happy to turn Jews over to the Germans.
In the time that we had until the evening, we planned what to do. In fact, we had only one way to save ourselves, or at least, to hope to save ourselves. We decided to go to the forest; there were many big forests in that region. We looked as far as we could see and saw a black forest in the distance. We knew that many Jews had already fled to the forests and lived there for long periods of time; we did not know where these Jews were located. To our left, about ten kilometers away, there was a forest, but we would not go there, for that was the forest to which the Jews had been led to their death on the previous day. The other forest seemed to be much farther away, but we decided to go there. We had to wait for it to get dark before we set out.
As night fell, the noises of the farmers returning home from their fieldwork fell silent. Lights went on in the houses of the village. We could not leave immediately, since we first had to get some food and clothing. Although it was summertime, the nights were very cool. I had clothes and shoes with wooden soles, but Father and the man with him had only trousers; they were shirtless and barefoot. Father had to get clothes somehow.
A lot of our possessions were still in the house of the farmer who had thrown us out. Before we had left for the ghetto, we had left most of our good clothing with him, for him to keep until the danger had passed. We had hoped that one day, we would be able to get it all back. Now Father would go to the village, to the farmer, and would ask him for clothes and a bit of food in exchange for all the other things that we had left with him. Going back to the village involved great danger but there was no choice. We decided on an agreed-upon signal between us and Father set off. The other man and I remained in the field and waited anxiously for Father's return.
About two hours passed before we heard the agreed-on whistle. I answered with a whistle of my own and immediately afterwards my father appeared. He had not been completely successful, but he had still gotten something. Father brought two loaves of bread, a small amount of milk and cheese, and a coat and two shirts. The coat had belonged to my late mother, Perla. That was all our friends had agreed to return, of all the possessions that we had left with them. Naturally, we had no choice but to take what was given us. The farmer told Father that many Jews had been caught during the day around the village by the Ukrainian policemen. He knew that the Germans had put all the Jews from the camps to death and that the area had been declared by the Germans to be Judenrein cleansed of Jews.
When the sounds from the village stopped, we left the high grain in the field and headed for the forest. That night there was a bright moon and we could see from afar the black line demarking the edge of the forest. We did not look for roads or paths, but walked in a straight line toward the forest. We had to be careful to avoid coming close to any town or village. From time to time people came along and then we hid until they were far away. The walk was exhausting and full of tension, as we took big steps. Father walked on ahead, I in the middle and the other Jewish man in the rear. We hurried because we wanted to reach the forest under cover of darkness. We had no sense of time; all the time we kept thinking it must be almost daylight but we were still in the midst of the fields.
I do not know how many hours we walked, but it seemed like a great many, as if time were expanding on purpose. Exhausted and covered in sweat despite the cool night, we finally reached the edge of the forest. Here, on the threshold of our new home, we sat and rested fully for the first time. Now time was on our side and we no longer had any reason to rush, for at night we would not walk inside the forest. After resting we entered a thicket, prepared a bed of soft leaves and lay down to rest. It was not easy for me to fall asleep; I was too tense and too tired. I recall that I thought then of the family members I had lost. I went through the events of the previous day in my mind. I checked the events in light of the thought: what if all our family members had been together with my little sister. Would we still be here now?
On 23 June 1943 with the first morning light, Father and I reached the forest. This was one of the forests in the area in which we lived throughout the war. It covered a vast expanse of land, and people who were unfamiliar with it could easily get lost there and not find their way out. But we were not the first or the only people for whom it was to be the last shelter, which was an unfamiliar place.
After wandering for several days we reached the other side of the forest and saw farmers from the nearby village working their fields as usual, without any hint of all the changes that had occurred. But this turned out to be a mere illusion, for over time we learned that the villagers, too, had not been leading a peaceful, tranquil lives.
There was no choice but to come in contact with the fieldworkers in order to get a bit of information and food. I stayed in the depths of the forest, among the almost impenetrable bushes and trees, while my father left the forest and went out to the villagers. I was very frightened about staying alone in the forest when my father left, especially since the place where he was going was unsafe and I was not sure whether he would return to me or not. Lacking any other choice, I remained alone, lying among the bushes. I could hear the mooing of the cows and calves in the field nearby. From within the forest I could hear the sound of falling trees as they were chopped down by the farmers to warm their homes and for building.
In those minutes, which added up to hours, various thoughts swarmed around in my mind, all of them directed toward my father. I imagined all the things that could possibly happen to him on the way. I made plans for the future, for what I would do if my father returned and what I would do if he did not. In my state of great worry and expectation, every tiny noise around me upset me. My emotions caused me to cry bitterly, which would sometimes bring me great relief. But all this was of no use, of course. The need to find ways to survive pushed aside all such thoughts and feelings.
Exhausted by my imaginative thoughts and plans, I fell asleep. Afterwards I awoke to the sound of steps that were coming in my direction. I did not know who was coming, and so I lay quietly and motionlessly. Only after hearing my father's and my secret whistle did I answer with a whistle of my own; Father had come back. It seemed to me that he had returned from some distant land. He brought with him a fresh, fragrant loaf of bread, a bottle of milk and something more. Now we sat together and dined after two days of hunger.
Father told me about all the things he had seen and heard from the farmers. Descending from the mountain to the edge of the forest, he had gone out to a farmer who was working nearby. This farmer was not at all surprised by the unexpected visitor. From the farmer Father learned that we were now near the only Polish village in the area, which was called Hanczov. All the other villages in the vicinity were Ukrainian. The farmer also told him that beyond the valley, in the other forest, were many Jews from work camps, who had reached the forest not long before, following the liquidation of the camps and the declaration of cleansing the area of Jews. All these things about the Polish village and the Jews in the forest we had known before, too, but we had not known where the forest was and how to reach it. Here, much about our future activities became clear to us. It was not by chance that the survivors of the camps had chosen this very forest for shelter. The existence of the Polish village about two kilometers from the forest was the most important factor in the possibility of our survival.
The Poles were a minority in the surrounding area amidst the Ukrainian population. There had always been friction between these nationalities in the Ukraine. The fact that the Poles were also persecuted by the local residents led to mutual aid between the Jews and the Poles. The farmers from this village viewed the Jews as brothers in dire straits. Largely due to this, we were able to hide in the forest.
Since we now knew many details about the surroundings and the population, we decided to spend the night beyond the valley and to connect up with the rest of the people who were hiding in the forest. By evening we could rest and store up energy for the walk that night; but my father did not yet rest. He decided to descend to the field once more and bring food for the trip, so that we would have some in case we did not reach our goal. When he returned, the sun was already very low in the sky. The farmers had begun to return to the village at the end of their day in the field.
On his way back, inside the forest, Father came across the forester and another man. He made great strides in the opposite direction, but they followed him swiftly. When he stood still, they stood still as well. When the two of them hesitated and did not draw closer, he put his right hand in his pocket and acted as if he were about to take out a pistol. One of them got scared and ran into the bushes, while the other one cursed his friend for running off. My father, of course, took advantage of his pursuers' confusion and escaped into the forest. It was an act of bravado to scare off two men without really having anything in his pocket. In the future, too, bravery and quick thinking would be required in order to survive the great dangers that we would be faced with. This was only a very modest beginning.
On that same night we set off and reached the forest that was beyond a narrow valley. It took about two hours and passed without any hitch, since my father had gone over the path on the same day before our walk. We entered the forest and lay down to rest for the night. In the morning we lingered by the main road that led into the forest and waited until the people in the forest came out of their hiding places. We had not waited long before we saw Jews going along the path in the forest. They were people we had known previously, in the work camp where we had lived together. From them we learned that that a fairly large number of Jews were in the forest, having arrived in the last few days. Some of the forest residents had prepared the place for them ahead of time, before the liquidation of the work camps, and had gotten here right afterwards.
The people in the forest were very cautious and did not want to join up to create big groups in one place, in order to keep their hiding place secret. On that same day we reached the first place of concentration. Here, about 200 meters into the forest, we found several dozen young people, men and women, who were armed with two guns and one pistol altogether. My father did not want to join this large group and so we chose a place not far from the earlier residents and settled there. It was to become a permanent settlement for several months.
We built a hut of branches to offer protection from the dew and rain, which fell not too infrequently in the summer. The days were hot and sunny, but the nights were cold and clear. After we had decided on our place we started to take care of our needs for food and water. The problem of water was easily solved. Within the forest there was a broad valley that served as a grazing ground for the flocks in the area. A clear brook flowed in the valley; its water was cool and pure. Every evening when it got dark we would go down there and bring water from the brook. We also bathed there in those early times, when we had not yet foreseen danger from the Ukrainian farmers who were owners of the fields.
The Polish villagers, as mentioned, supplied us with food of all sorts, but not without payment. We had almost no money and thus my father had to risk his safety for a slice of bread. Going into the village involved danger since the police frequently visited there. Every evening, at about ten o'clock, many of the forest residents would go down into the village, including my father, to buy food. For money or in exchange for clothes, one could buy anything, from stale bread to fresh cake. Father would buy our food from one of the farmers with whom he had made ties. A couple of hours later the people would return from the village, bringing all sorts of good things. Those who did not want to endanger themselves by going to the village bought the things that they needed from suppliers. From this commerce within the forest my father made enough for both of us to live on.
The scene at the edge of the forest was like a small marketplace. One by one the people would come back from the village and sit down to rest. Then the market would begin to operate. The buyers would haggle, inquire about the quality of the goods and in the end pay what had been agreed and leave the site to go to bed. The whole time when Father was in the village I would sit among the bushes in the forest for safety's sake and wait for him to return. Sometimes I had time to fall asleep and would wake up when I heard his footsteps. The main products that they would bring were bread, spirits, butter and potatoes.
This scene of the small market repeated itself almost every evening. In the early days, people behaved cautiously and operated in complete silence for fear that the Ukrainians would sneak up upon them and attack them. But after some time they abandoned their careful ways and one could hear them talking in the twilight for a long distance from the forest. Life in the forest followed this routine for a couple of months without any particular incidents. It seemed that fear had overtaken all the farmers in the area who had previously been willing to turn over Jews or to kill Jews themselves. And that is how it really was during the early period of time.
The farmers spread the rumor among themselves that the Jews in the forest were well equipped with good weapons and even cannons, and thus they were afraid to enter the forest to chop down trees or hunt for mushrooms. If this belief had lasted for a long time then we could have stayed there safely for the long run, but it was not to be, as the truth reached the villages quite soon. All the Jews in that area of the forest had perhaps ten rifles and pistols altogether, which had been purchased from the farmers. Through contact between the villagers and the Jews from the forest who bought food, the truth came to light and the villagers learned that we were virtually unarmed and were relatively few in number. Their fear of us quickly dissipated and they began to be seen in the forest.
Once several young Poles came, who belonged to an underground anti-Nazi organization, but we did not know whether they were really spies who had come to see the places where we lived. The forester also visited frequently and had the opportunity to tell the police about our hiding places. The initial, short period of quiet deluded us into becoming less aware than we should have been regarding what was going on around us. But we did get information about the intentions of the police, and there were people from the village who told us every time a large number of policemen came to the village.
One morning, about two months after we had arrived in the forest, my father went to a different part of the forest where there were also Jews. He took some food products with him to sell there. Father went along his way and I stayed behind, lying in the hut. At about eight in the morning a number of shots were heard coming from the ravine in the forest. This raised people's suspicions, but everyone stayed where he or she was. About half an hour later there were suddenly shouts in German and right after that, shots from a sub-machine gun. There was a big commotion and everyone began running about in the forest. The forest was so thick that a person could see only about five meters in front of him or her.
When I heard the shots I jumped up and began running straight ahead of me. I took off and went on running, when I suddenly heard someone shouting Stop! Stop! behind me and then the click of a trigger. But I did not hear a shot. I did not even turn my head around, but continued to run straight in the direction my father had gone that morning. On the way I took off my shoes and threw them into the bushes. Being barefoot, I could run faster. Once before I had been to the place where my father had gone that day; it was about five kilometers away. All the way I ran so quickly that I would have gotten good results for long-distance racing. I do not know how long I ran like this or how I remembered the way there, but within a short time I had arrived at the spot and quickly encountered my father there.
They knew nothing there about what was happening in our section of the forest. Due to shortness of breath and great fear, I almost could not get a word out. Without me speaking, the people there understood what had happened, although my father at first thought that something entirely different than an attack had occurred. He berated me severely for leaving all our belongings, food and clothing inside the hut, for now we were left barefoot and with only trousers and shirts for the cold nights of the coming autumn; and my father was right. We were to suffer greatly from the cold during the coming days.
On the very day of the attack my father decided to go back to our place to collect the things if they were still there. In the afternoon we made the trip back. Since we were walking through an old, sparse forest, where people were visible for several hundred meters, we progressed slowly and very carefully, at times even crawling. We had gone about half-way when we suddenly came upon Germans on horses turning around, about 200 meters in front of us. The appearance of the Germans indicated to my father that the police had apparently not yet finished its Aktion and was continuing to search. We lay down there behind some thick trees and carefully began retreating to the place we had come from.
As we returned to the people in that forest, a large commotion began among them. Everyone thought that the Germans would continue to eradicate Jews in their part of the forest as well. The panic caused movement among all those present. People began to run about and look for hiding places, not knowing which places were good and which were bad. We were like mice caught in a trap.
When night fell, almost all of the people gathered together in one place, searching each other's faces for a solution. In that place there was a group of young people who were natives of the area, and who knew the place well; everyone was following them. All night long we walked through the forest, or rather ran through it one after the other, without knowing where we were going or for what purpose. After a night of wandering and running, everyone sat down in one place among thick bushes and waited to see what the day would bring.
The next day brought nothing new. Nothing happened, despite all the commotion and the information about the intentions of the police. Gradually the people calmed down and began to return to their former places. My father and I also went back to our place, but we did not settle in exactly the same spot as before. When we came back, we found all our things in place, with the exception of my wooden shoes. I remained barefoot as winter approached.
For a while we stayed in the new place until things quieted down; later we went back to our old spot. When we returned we found out all the details of the attack. The Germans had come accompanied by guides, who knew well where we lived, and had there not been that one incident in the morning, they would certainly have surprised us totally and killed all of us. That incident saved most of the people, who managed to escape from the huts and scatter about in the forest.
It had happened like this: that morning, as the Germans progressed from two different directions to our hiding places, the group that was riding in the valley ran into a fellow, one of those in hiding, who was going to fetch some water from the brook that flowed in the valley. The fellow was already making his way back to the forest with his bucket when he suddenly saw the Germans approaching. He began to run in the direction of the forest. The Germans saw him as well, and opened fire and killed or wounded him. These shots jolted us awake and we remained alert for what was to come. When the Germans came across the first hut, shouts and shots were immediately heard, which gave all the others time to flee. Still, about 20 of those who had hidden in the forest were captured or killed.
This was, therefore, the first, small attack, since the one that came after it would yield greater casualties. Life went back on course and we returned to our old spot. The other people, as well, went back to their old spots, although not everyone returned. Father would go down to the village a few times a week to bring foodstuffs. As autumn and winter approached, it became colder during the night as well as during the day. We were not dressed at all for the European winter.
In late autumn the forest residents began to think about a suitable winter abode. We simply could not stay in the existing wooden huts, and thus had to dig bunkers in the sticky loam soil. Not far from our present spot, we chose a narrow ravine among some trees and bushes and began to dig. Our digging utensils were a shovel and an ax. We and another family from the forest decided to live together and thus to make the digging work go easier and faster. Every day two of us would go out to the digging spot for several hours, and in this way we gradually progressed in our preparations for the winter.
In the meantime a new but very common trouble hit us: typhus spread among the forest residents. Most of the old people who caught it died within a few days, due to total lack of medical care. I caught the disease and lay inside our hut as the autumn rain came in. All day I lay there with a fever of 40 degrees C; the only sustenance I had was warm milk and water. Father worked during the day at digging the bunker and in the evening went to the village until late. At night we slept together under the same covering, which was not at all free of typhus-carrying lice, but Father kept healthy and did not come down with typhus. That was our only piece of good luck, since if we had both fallen ill at the same time there would have been no chance of staying alive. Mutual aid in these difficult conditions, in contradiction to what common sense would dictate, was very minimal or non-existent.
After three weeks of high fever I began to get better. Now I had a huge appetite, but there was nothing to eat; I drank spirits every day. This was a very common drink in the area and was said to offer a healing remedy against the cold and physical weakness. Other foods such as milk, bread, butter and potatoes were found for me. These foods were brought from the village and sold in the forest to the people who did not dare leave the forest themselves and had enough money to live for a year or two without doing anything. The profit from this risky commerce was sufficient for us to live on.
When autumn was in full force we moved to our winter home. I was too weak to walk and my father carried me there. It was located in a ravine and there were four bunkers there. Between five and eight people lived in each one of them. Inside the bunker there were bunks made of tree branches, padded with bundles of straw, and in the walls there were niches for keeping food and other things. Next to the entrance there was a fireplace in the wall, and emerging from it was a chimney that led upward. The bunker could be closed with a fitted cover so that the bunker was almost indiscernible from the outside. Inside it was quite warm, due to it being dug deep into the thick, loamy soil.
After we had settled down in our new place there was a sort of feeling of security and a belief that we had found a safe shelter for the wintertime; however this feeling lasted for a very short time. I continued to stay in bed since I could not walk after my difficult illness. In the meantime winter approached, until one day we awoke in the morning and found that everything outside was coated with a thick, white layer of snow. This was at the beginning of October. All the previous night there had been a heavy snowstorm, which had prevented my father from returning from the village. He had stayed and slept over at the house of one of the farmers. When daylight came I waited impatiently and nervously for my father to return, and he did indeed return, but in a very unusual state. He came back barefoot and without bringing anything from the village. I heard only a few days later what that happened to my father that morning, since he had no time to tell me that day what he had gone through.
My father told me, In the early hours of the morning I left the village on my way to the forest. In the open field there was a fierce snowstorm, so I wrapped myself up in a sweater and went in the direction I knew, without looking ahead. When I was half-way there, I suddenly saw a line of German soldiers progressing through the field; we were destined to meet up at some point before the forest. In order to avoid arousing their attention I did not go back in the opposite direction, toward the village, but continued walking straight, while slowly and slightly changing my angle so that I would not encounter the soldiers. I don't know exactly how, but they either didn't notice me or let me go, knowing that I was walking into a certain trap. In any case I continued on my way and reached the forest at a slightly more distant point than I had intended to get to. Upon entering the forest I could breathe freely. The wind wasn't felt at all among the trees and I could relax a bit after my hard trek. After a short break I continued on my way, on the path leading to our bunkers.
I had not walked more than 100 meters when I saw, coming toward me, a group of Ukrainian policemen shouting, 'Stop!' and pointing their weapons in my direction. Straight away I turned around and ran in the opposite direction, but from the other side, as well, came German soldiers shouting 'Halt!' and cocking their rifles. They did not shoot, because they intended to catch me alive. At that moment, as I stood between the two groups of policemen at a distance of about 30 meters from each group, I threw down my load and my shoes, which were too big for me and made it hard for me to run, and leapt into the thick forest.
The policemen did not pursue me; they only let off two shots and I escaped, barefoot, into the snow. (The policemen avoided shooting in order not to alert their potential victims in places where they lived that the police knew about.) All this happened at about six. For close to two hours I ran around barefoot among the trees and could not return to the bunker, since the snow had covered all the paths that were familiar to me. Finally I reached the bunkers and announced to the people there about what was about to happen.
This is what my father told me. He arrived at the bunker at about eight o'clock, shivering and with ice-cold feet. Right away we took a bottle of vodka and began rubbing his feet. He recovered quickly and we began to discuss how to deal with what was liable to come. In the bunker with us were another father and his two sons, both ill with typhus, who had high fevers and were unconscious.
Barely 15 minutes had passed from the moment Father had entered the bunker, when suddenly lethal fire was shot from machine guns in the direction of the valley. The minute the firing was heard all the residents of the bunkers burst out and began running, becoming easy targets for the bullets of the attackers. We did not burst outside with everyone else, but stayed inside for a few moments until the firing had died down and we heard the voices of the policemen coming closer and speaking Russian and Ukrainian. At that moment Father and I went outside and ran in the same direction that the others had taken.
When we got to the edge of the forest we suddenly heard shouting and shooting from that direction as well, and we understood that all those who had fled before us had been waylaid in the ambush that had been set for them. So we turned back to the forest and began running among the trees although it is hard to describe what we did as running since it was the first time I had gotten out of bed since my illness. After about half an hour of running around with my father barefoot, since he had no shoes, we reached a bunker that we had not even known about and in which just two people sat.
They were an engineer from Lodz who had returned from the Land of Israel just before the war, and another man who had nursed the engineer when he was sick. We had a good chance of staying here without fear of discovery since no one knew of the existence of this bunker and there were few signs of it aside from the tracks that we had made. This place was not far from another bunker, which the policemen reached and all of whose residents they killed. Until early that evening we heard the shouts and shooting of the policemen.
This Aktion, as we called it, had been well planned and was based on precise information of the places were we were living. The residents of the Ukrainian village, and perhaps the forester, gave the police the exact details. Of the five bunkers that were attacked, in which about 30 people were staying, only four people remained alive: Father and I and two more, also wounded. All the rest were shot and killed. At the beginning the sick people who did not leave their bunkers were caught alive but they were then killed by grenades being thrown into their bunkers. That same evening my father went out to the bunker area to see what had happened there. Two more people came to look for their relatives. There were no wounded people; everyone had been killed and burnt inside the bunkers. The people left alive, who had not been in bunkers, removed the belongings that remained of the dead and buried all those who had been killed inside the half-ruined bunkers. No one intended to ever return to that place.
In the forest there had been one more, big bunker that was not damaged at all by the police attack. Several families who were natives of the neighboring Polish village lived there. We left this spot and moved to a different place outdoors, since we were afraid of living in places that were known to the police. In the meantime the first snow, which had come before its time, melted, and beautiful autumn days returned. The site of our new home was in the old, sparse forest, which was not at all safe since one could be seen in it from a long way off.
After two weeks of hesitation we moved back to the young, thick forest and set up house in the first bunker, where other people had lived before us. In the same bunker there were now six of us: the engineer, Father and I, and three young men. In the end only four of the six left the forest after liberation. One of the young men died of typhus; he had been a Jewish policeman in the camp where we had been before the forest. He was a sort of Kapo, but of the worst kind. For three days I lay beside this Jew as he lay dying and I did not even care. I saw it as recompense for the deeds he had perpetrated against his brothers in the concentration camp. Not one of us wanted to nurse this horrible, contaminated soul.
The engineer, a highly educated and very gentle person, was never able to grow accustomed to our difficult life, and did not manage to survive. One night when the snow started to melt, part of our bunker collapsed. A huge chunk of earth fell from the ceiling and landed right on top of him as he lay on his bunk. Within a short time he had suffocated to death. Our bodies, too, were half covered with earth. We quickly freed ourselves and began to free the engineer with our hands, as more clumps of earth fell on us sporadically. But our efforts were in vain, for we had not managed to remove more than a few shovelfuls of earth when the victim's voice went silent. We continued to try to save him but eventually gave up when we realized that there was no point. The engineer remained buried there and we left the spot.
All this happened at the beginning of spring, but during the winter, too, our life was not tranquil. In the winter my father continued his trips to the village and I would stay behind in the forest and care for the house. I gathered dry twigs for a fire to heat the place and bought water from the brook in the valley; I also cooked all the meals. In the evening I would sit by the fire until it was late, awaiting Father's return. Each evening I waited anxiously for him to come home. I was always in danger of being left an orphan, without any way to take care of myself. The trip to the village involved great danger that not everyone was willing to undergo. Only those who did not have money, and had no weapons with which they could take part in the robbery of manors and farmers, were compelled to earn their bread by bartering in the village.
A few kilometers away from where we stayed there was another group of Jews. They were mostly young people who were armed. This group made its living by robbery alone. At night they would go out to the villages in small groups and steal food and clothing from the wealthy farmers and the estates. The clothes that they stole were mostly things that had been stolen previously from the Jews by those same farmers. Such activity naturally involved great danger, but these bandits lived very well and accumulated great wealth. They did not particularly help needy people, who died of hunger at a time when this group had lots of meat to eat. Whole flocks of animals were brought to the forest and served as the main food for the bandits.
In the middle of the winter something happened that raised the spirits of the people there and raised our hopes of being liberated by the Red Army. This was during the period after the well-known fall of Stalingrad. The news about this huge German defeat reached us through the radio in the nearby village as well as through newspapers which were published by the Fascist conqueror. Although there was a complete blackout of news from the front, we already knew very well the meaning of the term planned withdrawal that was announced by the German radio station.
During that time several Russian partisans arrived at our forest. They consisted of three men and a wounded woman, the only ones left from a large group of partisans who had been making their way to the forests in the western Ukraine in order to organize bands of partisans in our forests. This big group had been wiped out by Ukrainian nationalists while on their way, and only those four reached us. They stayed in the abandoned house of the forester at the edge of forest. Jews from all over the area began to visit the Russians, wanting to hear news from the front, which they received on the transmitter they had. My father was among those who visited the Russians, and he always spoke of their daring and their intention to organize a band of partisans that would carry out sabotage activities. The presence of the Russians was made known to the police in the region and a cleansing Aktion was soon to come.
One day I was walking alone in the forest, a few kilometers away from where we stayed. I intended to ask the bandits for a piece of clothing for myself. That same day, my father had gone to the forester's shack to visit the partisans. After a few hours, while I was in the other part of the forest, shooting was heard coming from the place where we lived, and I did not know what was happening. I began to return, but then retraced my steps and waited for my father, since I knew that he would come to me. And indeed, Father came to the place and told us what had happened there that same morning.
That morning, while my father was visiting the partisans, several other Jews were there as well. They sat and talked with the Russians. Father left the house and returned to the bunker, but he had not yet reached it when he encountered some people who appeared to be Germans but they were not really Germans.
After Father had left the house it was surrounded by German police from the district. The house was surrounded by about 30 policemen and there was no way to escape from it. When the Germans drew closer to the house and opened fire from all sides, all the Jews who were inside burst out and were wounded by German bullets, but the Russians kept their heads and did not attempt to flee. They returned fire and threw grenades, and did not let the Germans come inside or get near. In the meantime they stuffed the wounded woman up the chimney and the three men continued to defend themselves. One of the Russians was killed and their ammunition was running out. One of the Russians, Vassia, whose wife was the wounded woman in the chimney, carried out, in this desperate situation, a clever act of bravery.
He let one of the Germans come closer and enter the house. The German took the bait and went in. Inside the house the Russians killed him and then stripped him, and one of them put on his uniform. While aiming his gun at his friend they both left the house in view of the Germans, who were standing at the edge of the forest. The Germans thought that their comrade, the soldier, was taking the partisans prisoner and thus did not shoot. The two Russians succeeded in entering the forest, which was a few meters away from the house, and fleeing from the Germans. The Germans soon caught on that they had been tricked, but they did not pursue the partisans out of fear of going into the forest in small numbers, after they had already lost a quarter of their men in the battle with the Russians. Those two Russians, one of them dressed as a German soldier, ran through the forest until they reached our bunker.
Father, who was walking to the bunker at that same time, thought they must be real Germans and ran away, but the two Russians asked one of the young men to show them where the group of young people who had weapons lived. The Russians, with that young men, came to the site where I was that day and asked for help in attacking the Germans and saving the woman. My father had also come over there and so we stayed and did not go back to our former place, out of fear that there would be an even bigger Aktion by the Germans.
That afternoon a group of men, led by the two Russian partisans, went to try to recapture the house from the Germans. They arrived too late. The wife of the partisan was already dead and the house was in flames. Under the circumstances, the men returned without taking any action, since they could not reach their goal and in any case they had very little ammunition. The two remaining Russians left soon after that and moved to a different site. There they organized a band of partisans composed of Russian soldiers who had fled from German captivity and had reached the forest on their way to the front lines.
We stayed in the new place for a few days and waited for the results of the battle and for German casualties, but these did not come about. After that we went back to our place and stayed there the whole winter, until the incident with the collapsing bunker that I told about. After our bunker collapsed we stayed in a new place of concentration, near the bunker of a different group. We did not dig a new bunker, but instead built a new hut. In an isolated spot we built a hut to sleep in at night. During the day we did not stay in any permanent place. At the same time we dug a very small bunker for two people, to be used only as a hiding place in time of trouble. The entrance to the bunker was very well hidden by bushes and could not be discerned from the outside.
Our second summer in the forest began. There were very few people left in comparison to the previous summer. Only about a quarter of the people had survived. At that time a special period in the life of the forest began a period of heightened caution. We did not speak loudly, did not light fires during the day and did not move around on the paths. Not only in the forest was there a change in the lifestyle, but in the surrounding area, as well. The control by the government in the region grew very lax and there were many robberies and clashes everywhere between the Ukrainians and the Poles.
In many villages where isolated Polish families lived, a good many Poles were murdered and their houses were torched. Many Poles fled from the villages and Ukrainians came to villages with Polish residents and even came to hide in the forest. In the Polish village near us, Hanczov, the farmers took security measures to guard against assaults by groups of Ukrainians from the neighboring villages. The farmers shut themselves up in their houses at night and sent guards to patrol the village yards. The villagers had weapons that they would use to protect themselves.
In view of the difficult situation of the Poles, their relations with the Jews in the forest grew closer. The Jews could trust the villagers more and were less afraid of being turned in to the policemen when they came to the village from time to time. The collaboration reached such a level that groups of Jews would descend every evening to the village and take part in guarding, together with the villagers, against assaults by the Ukrainians. More organized groups of Russian partisans appeared, which began to carry out acts of sabotage on the roads and railroads. The partisans established their center in the Polish village of Hanczov, and spent the days there, as well.
Following partisan activity and the laxness of government in the villages, many Jews went down to the village for the first time since coming to the forest. For a whole week we stayed in the village, in one of the houses, and we hoped that we would be able to pass the time in this way until the Germans retreated. According to the news we heard at that time, the front was drawing closer and everyone expected to be liberated within just a few weeks.
One morning while we were staying in the village, we awoke to the sound of shots coming from various parts of the village. At first we thought it was an assault by a Ukrainian gang on the village, but when we looked out we saw that armored cars had entered the village from the direction of the regional city of Przemyszlano. It was the Germans. We ran out and headed for the forest, but it was too late. The village was surrounded by a great many soldiers and there was no chance of reaching the forest. At that time a group of partisans was staying in the village and this was what had drawn the ire of the Germans and the desire to punish them. A gunfight took place in the village between the Germans and the partisans, as the latter attempted to burst out of the village and into the nearby forest.
Father and I stayed for the time being in the house and watched the goings-on. The house where we were staying was very close to the main road that went through the town and to its entrance. After about two hours of shooting, silence fell. We did not know what the results of the battle were. Afterwards we saw groups of Germans entering the village and conducting searches in the houses. After searching and removing the people who were still inside, they would set the house on fire. The search was thorough and went from house to house, and every house was torched.
Since we were in one of the first houses and our turn was approaching, we left the house and ran through courtyards of houses to the other side of the village. Father thought that we could perhaps leave the village through the fields on the other side and then return to the forest in the evening, but our attempts to leave the village were unsuccessful because it was surrounded by Germans on all sides. Since we had no choice, we went into one of the houses, which was vacant, climbed up to the attic and looked out through a small window. By afternoon a search group had reached the house where we were hiding. Five soldiers entered the yard, searched the barn, the cowshed and the house and shouted to their commander that there was no one there. They did not ascend to the attic since we had pulled the ladder up after us. The group left and then a short time later a second squad came. It, too, conducted a search and continued on its way. This went on for several hours. About five squads searched from house to house as we sat up there in the attic.
Toward evening yet another squad appeared. It conducted a search as the previous ones had done, and then set fire to the house, the barn and the cowshed. The house started burning and we could not get out, since there were Germans in the yard. With the house being consumed by flames, Father decided that we must flee, even if we were to fall into German hands. With great effort we were able to descend and flee the burning building. The rest of the structures in the yard were also on fire. The yard was full of smoke.
We ran into the yard in the direction of the cowshed; on the way Father noticed a pit near a pile of dung and we got into it. It turned out that it was not just a pit, but an entrance to a narrow hiding place under the dung pile. We crawled inside, into the narrow place, and lay there. It was so crowded that there was barely room for the two of us to fit lying down. We lay there for a couple of hours. The fire from the cowshed had spread and the dung pile also caught fire. Thick smoke began to penetrate our hiding place. There was no way that we could stay there, because we had begun coughing and choking. We crawled out and hid in the shade of the fireplace of the burnt house. By that time it was already beginning to get dark and fortunately for us, no more search squads appeared.
Gradually silence fell over the village. We heard no more shots and no shouting in German, and we were sure that the Germans had left the village, so we decided to run straight to the forest. Under no circumstances did we want to spend another night in the village, since we knew that the Ukrainians from the surrounding villages would come at night and steal everything that was left. Going from yard to yard, we made our way through the village and back in the direction of the forest.
As we approached a church we suddenly heard someone shout in German, Halt! We stopped. Three German soldiers emerged from one of the yards; pointing their weapons at us, they ordered us to walk in front of them. As we walked, Father began speaking to me in Polish, explaining to me obliquely that we would tell the Germans that we were Poles, refugees from one of the Ukrainian villages in which all the Poles were murdered, and that we ran away and came here. The soldiers led us to the church. In the churchyard there were armored cars and wagons hitched to horses. There were many soldiers and SS men, which we recognized by their tags. We were brought before one of the officers, who interrogated us. Father claimed that we were penniless Polish refugees and had gotten here by chance. After not finding our relatives here we wanted to go to the city of Przemyszlano, since at night the Ukrainians were liable to kill us.
The Germans said that we were partisans and afterwards said that perhaps we were also Jews. If you're Jews then this is to be your fate, said the officer, indicating a number of corpses lying in the courtyard. We're not Jews, Father insisted. You can ask one of the villagers. They know us. Fortunately for us, none of the villagers was present, nor were any Ukrainian policemen. The soldiers jested amongst themselves; one of them tried to stammer a few words in Polish and again asked us if we were Jews. Father laughed, too, and said, Of course not! If we were Jews you could check that right away. He undid his belt and began to pull his pants down. The soldiers burst out laughing and said there was no need for that. That was a bold move on Father's part. Thanks to his offer to let them check whether we were circumcised, the soldiers' trust in him grew.
The officer told us, through the soldier who spoke a bit of Polish, that we should wait because soon they would be returning to the city. There, in the police station, they would find out who we were. The soldiers and SS men organized themselves to move out. The cars and armored cars went first and behind them were a number of carts. We were ordered to walk in front of the carts. We set out, walking in the middle of the road with carts full of soldiers behind us.
At first we walked quickly so that there was quite a distance between us and the carts behind us. As we walked Father quietly explained to me what we would do. He said that through various pretexts we would begin to lag behind, so that the carts would pass us and we would be trailing behind them. When we reached the place where the road led into the forest, it would already be dark and then we could flee into the thicket. We carried out the plan exactly as Father had planned it. At first I started limping, and so I sat down at the side of the road and took off my shoes. Meanwhile two carts passed us. I walked barefoot for a while and then sat down and put my shoes back on. The soldiers tried to rush us from time to time, but they did not order us to return to our places in front of all the carts. As we approached the forest it was already dark. By that time we were lagging behind the last cart and some of the German soldiers riding on it were half asleep. We walked slower, until there was some distance between ourselves and the cart.
At a certain point Father squeezed my hand; that was the sign. We leapt over the ditch at the side of the road and were inside the forest. Someone shouted, Halt! and a few shots were fired behind us. We ran like crazy in the thicket, with me holding onto my father's hand. It was completely dark. We ran and fell, picked ourselves up and ran some more, never looking back. We ran for a good half hour before stopping, because I could not run any more.
Breathlessly I dropped to the ground and lay there for a long while, until I got my wind back. We heard no noise or shout and were sure that we were not being pursued. After resting and recovering from our astonishment that we had succeeded in escaping certain death, we headed for the places where the forest dwellers lived. Despite the darkness we found our way, since the area was familiar to us. That night, when we told the others what had happened to us, they did not want to believe us. We were among the few who had survived that day. Most of the Jews and partisans who had been in the village that day were killed, and only a few managed to flee to the forest together with the retreating partisans.
After the shocking test that we had withstood, my father decided that from then on we would be much more careful and would not put ourselves at risk by flippant acts. We knew that the day of liberation was drawing near. At night we would hear muffled echoes of cannon shells from the front lines. By listening to Radio Moscow we heard the news that cities and towns in the Ukraine were being liberated. By their names we knew the distance from the front.
In the forest, as well, there were some outstanding changes. Not only Jews lived in the forest. There were many organized bands of partisans and on the other hand there were organized groups of Ukrainian nationalists who were called Bandrovaczi [roving bandits]. They had collaborated with the Germans during the conquest. When the German government began to crumble, they intended to grab control and establish an independent Ukraine. The Ukrainian nationalists then fought against both the Germans and the Soviet partisans. They treated the Jews worse than the Germans did.
During that time we stored as much food as we could and did not go out anywhere during the day. Only at night would we go to the sites of concentration of the large, armed groups. This situation continued for several weeks; every day we hoped that salvation would come. When our food supplies ran out we went to gather berries in a different part of the forest. We lived off of raspberries alone for a whole week. One day while we were gathering berries and conversing loudly in Yiddish, we suddenly heard a shout in German.
We saw two uniformed Germans not far from the place we were standing. We leapt into the thicket and fled. We reached one of the partisan bands and told them about the unpleasant encounter. The partisans went off to look for the Germans and even caught and later killed them. It turned out that these were soldiers from a company that had retreated from the front and many of them and come to the forest. In the following days more German soldiers were found wandering through the forests.
In the second half of July 1944 there were battles in our immediate surroundings. At that time we would keep watch from within the forest on the road leading toward the Polish village, and we observed German army convoys heading westward. On the night of 21 July we heard the sound of vehicles and tanks driving on the road. Rumors spread that these were Red Army soldiers, but we did not believe the rumors and did not dare leave the forest. Most of the people who populated that part of the forest gathered together that night in one place and waited until daybreak, to see who the passing soldiers were. In the morning a few people climbed trees to observe the military columns.
It was decided to send a number of people to the edge of the forest. When the delegation returned, they claimed that the marching soldiers were Russians. We sent more scouts until at last everyone decided to descend to the edge of the forest and watch. When we observed the road from there, we saw machines and tanks as well as very many foot soldiers. We heard their shouts and there was no longer any doubt that these were Red Army soldiers.
It was about two kilometers from the forest to the road, but we did not immediately go out. We were afraid to suddenly emerge from the forest for fear that the soldiers might think we were Germans and open fire on us. The people began to discuss with each other what should be done, how to go out and what to do with the weapons that many of us had. We began to shout in Russian to the troops, and some of us went out into the field, waving arms and shouting all kinds of greetings in Russian.
The soldiers noticed us. Some of the tanks stopped and waited for us to draw near. As we approached them with our hands raised and began explaining to them that we were partisans and Jews from the forest, they told us to come up to them. Even those who were still suspicious began to run and crowd around the tanks. An officer came and began to ask us questions. When we said we were Jews he answered that he was also Jewish and was the commander of the tank company. The Jewish officer only knew a little Yiddish, but it was enough for us to place our trust in him. When everyone had arrived, he instructed us to give our weapons to the soldiers. Then we climbed up on the tanks and vehicles and rode into the Polish village of Hanczov.
The company stayed in Hanczov for some time. While in the village we gathered around the Jewish officer and told him of our fate during the period of conquest. We stood in a large circle not far from the church and spoke. The officer went away and came back a few minutes later with a young German soldier of about 19. The imprisoned soldier was brought into the center of our circle and we all stood around him. We all started asking him questions. We are Jews, we said. Do you know what you have done to the Jews? The soldier claimed that he knew nothing, that he was only a soldier who had been drafted into the army against his will, and that he wanted to return home. He hated Hitler and the war.
The officer said that the soldier had been lying in ambush not far from there and had rained bullets on the company. He had refused to surrender until a tank rode over his trench. They had picked him up wounded. While the officer was talking, suddenly two shots rang out and the prisoner fell within the circle. For a moment I did not comprehend what had happened and the others were also astonished; then, when I looked at the officer, I saw that he was holding a pistol in his hand. I had not noticed him taking out his gun and had only heard the shots and seen the German fall. It was a kind of revenge and consolation for us.
As we stood there, a few of the Jews went and removed the German's boots and clothes. Later on we were informed that the company would stay overnight in the village; we also stayed there. We got food from them, lit bonfires and lay down and went to sleep.
The next morning German warplanes appeared overhead; they bombed and strafed the village. We scattered and took cover in the field and trenches. After the bombing we were informed that the company was going to continue on its way. We parted from the officer and we, too, left the village but in the opposite direction, toward the regional city. We were afraid to stay in the village, in the heart of the Ukrainian settlement. We reached the city of Przemyszlano and from there rode in military vehicles to the main road leading to Lvov. Lvov had not yet been captured so we began to go in the opposite direction, to Tarnopol. Father said that the safest thing now would be to stay with the army, since in the village we were liable to be murdered.
Even then we heard of incidents of murder of Jews in the various villages in the area. This happened especially when Jews went to the farmers and asked them to return the possessions that had been deposited with them. We wandered for several days along the main road and spent our time in the presence of soldiers.
On our way we passed one site in which a big battle had been waged against several German regiments that had been surrounded. For hours we wandered around the expanse of fields, in which thousands of dead solders lay along with hundreds of vehicles, cannons and tanks. The solders told us that the surrounded Germans had not been willing to surrender under any conditions, and almost all of them had been killed. It was a terrible scene that is difficult to describe, but I was not saddened by it; on the contrary, I felt great satisfaction. Afterwards we also saw a German general and several officers who had been taken prisoner in that same battle.
Father wanted to return to Poland, but we had to wait until that part of it had been liberated. After a few days we returned to the city of Przemyszlano. This was the city in which we had been in the ghetto. We found an abandoned room in an apartment and decided to wait there until we could go back to Poland. Soviet rule had been established in the city with a military town mayor. Other Jews from the vicinity and the forests also came.
The government requested volunteers for the local police in order to guard against robberies and assaults by the Bandrovaczi. Many of the Jews volunteered to be policemen, my father among them. The Jews were actually the only ones whom the new government trusted. The volunteer policemen received food from the government and so we had something to live on. Father went out every day for guard duty in the city and also patrolling in the area. He also underwent training in weaponry.
One day, he and I went to patrol in the parts of the city where the ghetto had been. Most of the houses there were completely destroyed. We reached the house where we had lived while in the ghetto, but it was hard to determine exactly where it had been. There were only piles of bricks left. We wanted to find the entrance to the bunker where we had hidden during the Aktion and where my little sister had been left when we had abandoned her sleeping there.
In those days the thought took hold of us that someone from the city or one of the nearby villages might have taken her and she might still be alive. Father asked some of the residents in the streets bordering on the ghetto, but no one could tell us anything; they could only say that the Germans had killed everyone they found after the extermination and had blown up the bunkers and houses. After desperate attempts to locate the bunker, we gave up and stopped our search.
We stayed in the city of Przemyszlano for several weeks. During this time the Red Army rapidly advanced westward and liberated a large part of Poland. When we heard on the radio that Lublin had been liberated, we knew that the area of our former hometown had also been set free. Father decided that the time had come to return and see if any of our relatives had survived. We did not go together; Father remained in the city and sent me alone. He did not yet want to leave the place, in case other family members might be found in Przemyszlano.
One day I walked out with Father to the road, on which there was heavy traffic of only military vehicles. I tried to hitch a ride but no one would stop. When a truck passed by slowly, I grabbed on to the back of it and crawled aboard. I waved good-bye to my father and set out on my way. Of course I had no idea where the driver was going, but the general direction was good enough for me. I had to go in the direction of Lvov and from there would see how to progress. I had two options, which we had marked on a map before I left.
The vehicle drove a good many hours, and when it stopped I woke up and saw that it was nighttime. I peeked outside and found myself in a big city. I knew that it could only be Lvov. The soldiers with whom I had ridden in the military vehicle noticed me and asked me what my business was there. I told them that I had ridden in the truck and where I was headed. They gave me food and hot tea. I sat with them next to the fire that they had lit in order to keep warm. It was cold that night. One of the soldiers gave me a big sheet and told me to go to sleep in the truck. The next morning the solders woke me up and told me that they were going back, and that if I wanted to come with them then I was welcome to. I thanked them but decided to continue on my way. They gave me a lot of provisions and wished me luck.
I left the place where I had stayed with the soldiers and walked on. I had to get to the far side of town, to the main road leading from Lvov to Rawa-Ruska and to Tomaszow Lubelski. I began wandering the streets of the city aimlessly. I had never been in such a big city: long streets, tall buildings, electric tram lines in the middle of the streets. I was thrilled by everything I saw. The streets were empty except for military people and vehicles. I walked the streets and gazed around, dumbfounded, without noticing where I was going. As I walked I bumped into an electric pole. I must have gotten quite a bump on my head, for when I regained consciousness I discovered myself lying on the sidewalk next to the electric pole. Suddenly I felt very much alone and began to cry. I sat and cried; the tears poured out of their own volition; I could not stop them; I was at my wit's end. I wanted to go back to Father.
I got up and began walking in the direction of the place where the military vehicles had parked, but I could not find the place. I despaired of finding the soldiers who had been so kind to me and gave up on the idea of returning. As I continued to walk through the city streets, I met someone whom I asked in Ukrainian how to get to the main road going to Rawa-Ruska. In the afternoon I reached the road that led out of the city and even got a ride to Rawa-Ruska. From there I continued on to Tomaszow, which I reached at night. I did not know what to do at night or where to go. I did not know if there were any Jews in the city.
I decided to wander around the city, looking for Jews. I went from house to house, listening to the voices emanating from them. I hoped to hear Yiddish from one of the houses; my hope was not in vain. After a short time I heard people speaking Yiddish in one of the houses. I knocked on the door and tried to open it but it was locked. Someone inside the house asked me who was there and I answered that I was a Jew requesting to pass the night there.
They opened the door and let me in, asking what I was doing there. I told them that I had ridden in a vehicle and told them who I was and where I was bound for. I asked them if they knew anything about Jews in my town or the surrounding area. The people knew that many of the Jews from the region had hidden in the forests and stayed alive. Some of them were now living in Tarnogrod (the city where I was born). They did not know any of the survivors by name. That night I slept in the home of that hospitable Jewish family; the next day I went on.
My next stop was Zamosc, the city of I.L. Peretz [a well-known Yiddish and Hebrew poet, writer, essayist, dramatist, and cultural figurehead]. I reached there before noon that same day. I went to the part of the old city that had previously been the Jewish quarter, and there I met many Jews. I asked them how I could reach my goal, and immediately set out for the city of Bilgoraj, which was the last stop but one. Towards evening I got to Bilgoraj; all my trips were in vehicles of the Red Army.
Bilgoraj was a small city about 20 kilometers from Tarnogrod, the place where I was born. I had never been in Bilgoraj but I knew a lot about the city. The ties between the two cities were very strong before the war; we had relatives there and every Jew knew most of the Jews in the neighboring town. Without any problem I found Jews who welcomed me into their home. They were all Holocaust survivors who had hidden in forests or in the homes of Gentiles in the area. From them I learned that my mother's brother and sister were still alive and were living in Tarnogrod. I told them that I would like to get there as soon as I could. Naturally, I did not leave that night.
Great danger lurked on the roads in the form of the gangs of A.K. [Armia Krajowa], the underground movement that supported the exile government situated in London. These gangs injured and murdered Jews, even after the liberation. There was no chance of finding any kind of transportation from Bilgoraj to Tarnogrod. It was a small place; the army did not go there and there was no other form of transportation except for carts. The people advised me to wait until I could get a ride with the police when they conducted patrols in the area. The police did not appeal to me as escorts and no one knew when such a patrol would take place.
I waited another day in Bilgoraj and then set off by foot to Tarnogrod. I had to walk about 20 kilometers. I walked along a road paved with uncut stones, a hellishly bumpy road when riding in a cart. On the way I came to the river that flowed by there. The bridge had been destroyed, but I saw carts fording the river in a shallow place. I removed my shoes and crossed the river. As I walked through the water a number of carts passed me, but I did not ask them for a ride. I did not wish to endure inevitable questioning by the cart owner as to who I was. I reached the town without further incident at about noon.
At the entrance to the town I sat down to rest. I sat and tried to imagine what was about to take place. What would I say; how would I tell my relatives about my mother, my sister and my brother and the other family members who were no longer alive? While I sat and pondered, three Gentile boys came down from one of the hills near the road. They looked at me and then began to shout, Zhid! Zhid! and even threw stones at me. I also flung some stones back at them. Then I took my shoes in my hands and ran up the slope that led to the town.
I raced across the bridge over the brook and continued the steep ascent up to the church, and there I stopped. No one was pursuing me. I sat down at the side of the road, put on my shoes and after a short rest I walked along the main street into the town. This was such a familiar street, where we used to stroll on Saturday afternoons. Here was the place where there was a hollow log, where my father used to hide candy for us when we sat down to rest on our stroll, and he would always claim that the candy grew out of the tree each time anew.
There was no change in the lower part of the street; everything remained as it had been. Here, I passed the lane that led to my school, and here, I approached the first houses in which had Jews lived before the war. I went up to the first house that looked occupied and knocked on the door; the answer was in Yiddish. The door opened and my Aunt Sarah stood before me. I recognized her right away; she did not recognize me. I did not look very well; I was small for my age and very thin. I called out her name. Sarah, don't you know me? I'm Bearish! [nickname for Boris, which was Dov's Polish name; Boris and Dov both mean bear]. We hugged each other. She held me and kissed me as tears streamed down her face. We both cried; we stood embracing and wept. The voice of another woman came from inside the house. It was the voice of Esther, my new aunt the wife of my Uncle Baruch. The same scene played itself out again. Baruch was not at home.
I was still standing by the door and holding my meager bundle, which contained a few slices of bread. As I stood near the entrance I was pelted with questions, one after the other. Esther stood in front of me, tears pouring down, and asked questions. Where is Mother? I answered: killed. My answer was immediately followed by a new outpouring of tears and cries of grief and hurt. Where is Father? He's alive, staying near Lvov. Where is Joshua? Killed. Where is Frida? Dead. Where is Zvi? I don't know. Where is Rachel? Killed. And many more times: Where? Where? Where? And the answers repeated themselves.
My Aunt Esther was the first to recover; she removed my bundle from my hand, took my hand and led me to the table in the room. She gave me something to eat and drink and urged me to eat, for she thought I was hungry; in those days everyone thought about food. My outer appearance was not particularly encouraging. I was 14 but looked like a boy of ten. I was skinny and short. I did not eat, for I had no appetite. I just sat at the table and joined the chorus of cries and weeping of my two aunts. Then it was my turn to ask questions; I asked about my grandparents, about my aunts and uncles from my mother's and father's side. I asked about Moshe, my uncle who had the dovecote in the estate of Fritz, the landlord.
No one remained; they were all murdered, some earlier on and some later, some in the ghetto and some in the forest. Only they, my two aunts and Baruch, had survived out of the two extended families of my parents. They had spent two years in the forests. Many Jews went into the forests, but only a few remained after two years, as had happened in our forest. In the afternoon Baruch returned; he had been in the surrounding villages. Again, the meeting was emotional. In the evening we sat at home and I told them everything. Detail upon detail about everyone. The next day Jewish acquaintances who lived in the town and had known my family began to stop by to visit. I had not known all of them, but I remembered some of them. I told my story again and again.
I went out to wander around the town and see the places that were familiar to me. Nothing had changed during the five years of my absence. The Jewish quarter near the marketplace was desolate and burnt, as it had already been in 1939. Most of the shops (which had been Jewish-owned) were closed. Almost no one was to be seen on the street. The marketplace was desolate; there were no carts and no hagglers there. Everything was very glum, as if lifeless. The whole town center had been settled before that by Jews but only a few dozen of them had returned and settled in the abandoned houses.
I spent a week in Tarnogrod and then told my aunts and uncle that I had to make my way back to Father as he and I had agreed. There was no postal service and no way to send a letter to relay to him to come.
I put on some better clothing and took along some food, bade good-bye and departed by the same route I had taken on my way there. Again I hitched rides with military vehicles and soldiers. This time I also took advantage of the trains. From Lvov I took a train that was going towards Przemyszlano, and got off when the train took a turn in a different direction. At that station, which was not far from Korovicza (the place where we had been in the work camp during the time of conquest), I got a ride to Przemyszlano. My ride was with a convoy of wagons hitched to horses that were transporting an army unit to the city. The soldiers welcomed me willingly and offered me food and candy. I told them who I was and everything that had happened to me during the war. I was not afraid of them because from their speech, I knew that they were true Russians, who were not considered anti-Semitic and would not hurt Jews. If, by contrast, they had been Ukrainian soldiers of the Red Army, I would have been afraid to tell them that I was a Jew. And so we traveled slowly along the road; from time to time we dozed.
As we drew close to the city we had to pass through a patch of forest. The soldiers were ordered to hold their weapons in their hands and be ready for action. The unit commander feared assaults by gangs of Ukrainian nationalists, which were a common event in those times. As we reached the entrance to the forest, someone suddenly let out a sharp whistle. All the carts halted and the solders, holding their weapons, jumped into the ditches by the sides of the road. I, too, jumped out and lay in a ditch. The soldier next to me set up the machine gun that he had, loaded a disk-shaped magazine of bullets, and aimed at the opposite side. We saw a group of armed people in the forest. The unit commander shouted to his soldiers to aim for the people in the forest and wait for the order to fire.
I looked at the people in the forest and right away I recognized them. They were not Ukrainian nationalists. I ran inside the ditch to the commander and shouted at him not to open fire. These were not gang members but local policemen who were training in the forest. I explained to him that I recognized them from their outfits and if we were to get closer to them I would recognize some of them personally, since I knew many of them. My father belonged to this group. The unit commander was not immediately convinced by my words. He ordered his men to put the safety-catch on their firearms and wait in the ditch.
Then he shouted at the people and called for them to come out of the forest, and I also shouted and called my father's name. And indeed, my father was with this group of policemen and he came out toward the road. I jumped out of the ditch and ran toward him. I told him right away what was going on. It turned out that they had not been at all aware of what was happening and a horrendous tragedy could easily have occurred.
In the meantime the unit commander ordered his soldiers to return to the carts. He approached the policemen and told them that they had been very lucky. Everyone was saved thanks to the fact that I had recognized them; otherwise the soldiers would have opened fire without warning, since they were sure the people were Badrovaczi. I parted from the soldiers and returned with my father to the city.
I conveyed to my father everything I had to tell about my journey and what I had found in the town. By this time it was obvious that we should return quickly to Poland, but we did not decide exactly when. We stayed in Przemyszlano for a few more weeks until Father decided to leave. At that time the policemen had begun going out to patrol the surrounding villages and even the forests to hunt for Badrovaczi. Father said that he had no intention of endangering himself and so we had better leave. In any case we could not see a future for ourselves there. Of course, my father could not just come out and say that he was leaving. He might not even be permitted to go. But he had a gun that the military governor had given him, and he had to turn it in. Using some excuse, he returned the weapon. We had no other possessions.
One day we left the city as if we were going for a walk, and then hitched a ride to Lvov. When we reached Lvov it turned out that by that time it was difficult to cross the new border between Poland and the Soviet Union. We decided to travel, not by the same route that I had taken the first time I went, but via Przemysl. From the rumors we heard in Lvov, it would be easier to cross the border in this way. We went to the railway station of Lvov and tried to find out when there was a train to Przemysl. There were no civilian trains at all; all rail travel was intended only for the military. We walked around in the huge station and eventually heard soldiers discussing travel in the same direction that we needed to go. We found the military train that was leaving for Przemysl. When we saw that it was about to pull out of the station, we climbed up onto one of the train cars and hid in the place where two cars were hooked together. In this manner we departed from Lvov.
During the trip we emerged from hiding, climbed up onto the roof of the car, slid across it and managed to descend into one of the freight cars. There were soldiers in the freight car, but they did not disturb us, since they were used to having civilian stowaways on the trains. The train traveled all day and stopped only at night. The soldiers told us that there would be a border check at this place. We were close to Przemysl. Naturally, we had no travel documents and could not even hope to be permitted to cross the border. We left the train car and again climbed up on the roof. It was raining and was very cold, but we lay on the arched roof for several hours, since it was hard to get down from it during the ride. When the train reached the next station we got off.
In this way we reached Jaroslav. Here we met Jews and asked how we could get to Tarnogrod. From the details we received, we discovered that the way was very dangerous. There were no roads and no transportation in the direction we wanted to go. We would have to walk or ride in carts when the opportunity arose. On the roads there were bandits and murderers. We waited for a few days, considering the option of returning to Lvov and traveling via the other route, but in the end we decided to continue in the same direction. We got to another town and found a few Jews there as well. From there we continued on foot and by cart for two days until we got to Tarnogrod.
We reached the home of my aunts and uncle and lived with them for some period of time. Father began to do all sorts of business in order to make a living for us. He would go out to the neighboring villages, purchase foodstuffs and then sell them in town, and also send them to other cities. Uncle Baruch and his wife and sister decided to leave the town and settle in Lublin. We also felt that we should leave the place, for the town was insecure and there were many instances of Jews being assaulted in the surrounding villages, which hastened the departure of the few Jews who still lived in the area.
At the beginning of 1945 we left Tarnogrod and went to Lublin to live with Uncle Baruch. Father would travel every week for a few days to the town of Tarnogrod on business, while I lived with Baruch. Many Jews lived in Lublin, for most of the survivors from this part of Poland were concentrated there. The city also served as a temporary capital for the Polish government, since Warsaw had not yet been liberated from the Germans at that time. When a Jewish school opened in Lublin I went to study there. The language of instruction was Yiddish and we also learned Hebrew. The school principal was named Koren; he was a senior teacher and educator. In Lublin we lived on Lubartowska Street, where almost all the residents were Jews and which was the center of Jewish commerce in the city.
One day I visited the office of the Jewish Council with my father. There I heard about a Jewish children's home that existed in Lublin and also about the group of HaShomer HaTzair there. I met a member, Sonia Katzman (a member of Kibbutz Beit Zera). I joined the group and participated in all the activities that took place in the house of the senior group that lived in the commune. In the commune I built strong ties with Jewish youths in Lublin and also made ties with the youths of the Jewish children's house. The children's house was in a separate building. I frequently went there to visit, but only when the administrator was absent, for I was afraid of her. The children from the children's house were forbidden to come to the commune, but many of them came in secret. The children's house was under the auspices of the government and received aid from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency).
Toward the end of 1945 I told my father that I wanted to join one of the groups of HaShomer HaTzair. Sonia Katzman met with my father at my request, and explained to him what the benefit of these groups was. Father initially put off his decision, but eventually agreed for me to join. I had to part from my father and move to Lodz to live. In that town there was a children's house of HaShomer HaTzair which collected and brought together orphans from various places. At that time a whole group of children came from the children's house in Lublin. In the house where we lived, on Kilinskiego Street in Lodz, there was also a group of young adults who were organized in HaShomer HaTzair. Our guide-leaders were Sonia Katzman and Misha Shmutter. Aside from the children's house, there were also a number of children's houses of other movements, including Dror Gordonia, and a big orphanage called Kordinazia. All the children who were of all different ages studied in a Hebrew school of the Jewish community.
In the winter of that year the senior group went out to the winter colony. It was in Helanovek, not far from Lodz. We all lived in a farmer's house that was surrounded by frozen brooks and forests. We went on many hikes and occupied ourselves with scouting and ice skating. In the colony with us were two guide-leaders and a number of armed adults who guarded us. The winter colony in Helanovek lasted for three weeks. Those were three weeks in a different world, of activities, trips, scouting games, and youthful gaiety of young people who were haunted by the Holocaust. Here something new was built, some kind of remedy for our shattered souls.
We returned to Lodz and to the children's house, to our studies and activities in the framework of the youth movement. In the spring of 1946 an epidemic broke out among the children. Most of the children fell ill and lay in bed. The older youths took care of us. During that time we received a surprising gift: oranges from the Land of Israel. We did not eat them right away, for that would have been a shame; we saved them as our piece of the Land of Israel, which we were destined to reach.
Two incidents took place in Lodz during that time, the beginning of 1946, which I remember well. The first post-war congress of HaShomer HaTzair in Poland took place in Lodz. At the big movie theater in the city, hundreds of us representatives gathered together, the remnants of the movement that had re-organized after the war. We, the young people, participated in the congress as guards standing next to the banners of the communes on stage behind the leaders' table. Along with the festiveness and spiritual uplift, there was also a good deal of tension at the congress.
At that time in Poland there were cases of unfair treatment of Jews by anti-Semitic Polish circles. There was fear that a massive assembly of Jews like this one might attract their ire. The congress passed peacefully, but some time later we participated in a different event that I recall.
Four Jews had been murdered by the A.K. [Armia Krajowa] gang in the vicinity of Lodz. The victims' bodies were brought to Lodz and buried in a mass funeral, which turned into an enormous demonstration of all the Jews of Lodz. Thousands of Jews marched in the street with banners and slogans, while along the sidelines stood Poles with hate-filled eyes. There was a strong suspicion that violence would break out and there were demands to cancel the mass funeral, but the pioneering movements would not give in and took it upon themselves to secure the route.
The senior group of the children's house, together with the guide-leaders, took part in the funeral. At the end of the funeral we returned home together. We passed though a side road and there we were attacked by a group of Poles. It started with obscene shouts, which we answered with shouts of our own. After that stones were thrown, then sticks and bottles. A battle was held in the street between us and the Poles. We were beaten and injured. Many of us were hurt and bruised. Sonia was severely beaten, Mendel got a black eye and others were wounded and had their clothes torn.
At the end of spring we began to discuss the possibility of leaving Poland and going to the Land of Israel. Only a small group of a few youths were to stay in Lodz in order to absorb new youths. At this point I paid a short visit to Lublin to spend some time with my father. I returned to Lodz two weeks later to find that the children were gone; they had been sent to Austria and Germany. I stayed with the group of those who stayed. At that time new children began to arrive.
Every week trains came by, carrying children who had returned from the Soviet Union. The trains would continue on to western Poland and would stop off at Lodz for just a few hours. Sometimes we would wait at the station for many hours, until a train with Jewish refugees pulled in. As it stood in the station we would board it and go from car to car, trying to convince the children to alight from the train and stay in Lodz; we were often successful.
Among the refugees were many orphans from children's houses in Russia. In this way we were able to collect dozens of children within a few weeks, and the dormitory rooms of the house became filled once more. Most of these children did not know a word of Yiddish and spoke only Russian. We, the senior scouts, became a kind of guide in addition to the more grown-up guide-leaders who had stayed with us.
Aside from the railway children, boys and girls of all ages were collected and taken in by the children's house; they reached us from convents and monasteries and after being hidden by farmers during the war. In the summer of 1946 there were already over 100 children in the house, divided into age groups as was customary in the movement. At that time I was the guide-leader of a group called Children of the Desert.
We were about to leave for the colony again, this time the summer colony in Helanovek. We were put up in a big house in the village, not far from the children's house of Helanovek. It was surrounded by a fence and had a gate. In the courtyard we set up tents and all sorts of facilities, with a flag in the center. Next to the gate there was a tent for the seniors who were armed, and who guarded us at night. During the day we went on trips in the forests and performed various activities. But the summer camp had to be cut short: one day a message was conveyed to the leadership that an assault was being planned and we had to leave. For several nights there was increased guarding and Russian soldiers even came to guard. In the end it was decided to evacuate the camp and we returned to Lodz. Military transport of the Red Army came to collect all the children and bring them back to the city.
A short time after the summer colony, we were informed that we were leaving Lodz for Germany; before we left we were given detailed instructions on how to behave on the way. First we had to reach the Czech border. We went by train to a place near the border. From the railway station we went on foot until we reached a house that was the smuggling point for getting across the Czech border. Here we were instructed to get rid of anything that could identify us as Jews. Our cover story was that we were Greek refugees who were returning to Greece. We were told to speak only Hebrew, which non-Hebrew speakers would hopefully think was Greek.
Towards evening we were brought to a concentration place with other groups of youths and adults, who were about to cross the Czech border near Nachod. At night we were divided into groups, each with a guide-leader who knew the way. We set off soundlessly. It was a walk of several hours among rivers and woodlands. Occasionally we sat down to rest and then continued. As we walked we suddenly heard shots. The guide-leader told us to run after him. We ran for a long time until we reached a dirt road, where we sank to the ground, exhausted. We were told that we had just crossed the border.
After resting for a long time, we continued to walk until we got to a bunch of big shacks. We were welcomed there by a group of people, apparently the Czech smugglers, who showed us where we could sleep until the next morning. When we woke up we continued walking until we got to a railway station. We clambered up on board the cars and went to Bratislava. We stayed there for a few days and continued on to Prague. From there we took another train to the German border and crossed it at an official border-crossing station. Our first stop in Germany was the camp at Badreichenhall. This camp served as a refugee camp for Jews. At this camp I encountered my father, who had left Poland for Germany at the same time as I, and was also on his way to the Land of Israel.
From Badreichenhall we went to Rosenheim Camp, which served as a camp for youths in organized groups belonging to various youth movements. We spent the winter in Rosenheim, studied at the ORT school, conducted youth movement and sporting activities and waited for the continuation of our wandering. In the spring we moved to the region of the French occupation and settled in the curative spot of Jordenbad, where the first group that had left Lodz before us was staying. There was a concentrated group of HaShomer HaTzair people there, composed of members of a kibbutz named after Joseph Kaplan now Kibbutz Megiddo and other youth groups, as well as a number of families.
Again we began a course of regular studies as well as sports, scouting and trips. We stayed there for about half a year. During this time I went to the area of the American occupation several times to visit my father and aunt who were staying there.
In early 1947 we left Jordenbad and joined a concentrated group of HaShomer HaTzair youths in Lindenfels. From there we were to leave for France, on our way to board a boat for illegal immigrants going to the British-occupied Land of Israel. We waited in Lindenfels for several weeks until all the groups designated to make Aliya had arrived and gathered together. From Lindenfels we left in a convoy of vehicles up to the French border. On the way, more convoys joined in, so that a line was formed consisting of several dozen vehicles, all of them from the British Army, taking us via Schwarzwald to the French border. Near the border we got off the vehicles and arrived at a railway station. We crossed France by train and reached the city of Salon, not far from the place where a vessel was about to cast its anchor in the Mediterranean Sea.
In Salon we waited for about ten days; we occupied the time by devoting ourselves to training in face-to-face combat and other means of defense. There we received explanations as to how we would make Aliya and the way to conduct ourselves on the boat and when in contact with the British. We did not know when we would sail; no one knew how long we would stay there. We were not allowed to leave the confines of the yard next to the house. Friction and irritation were caused by the crowded housing conditions.
The announcement that we were moving out came one evening. Within a short while we were ready to leave, each of us with a knapsack on his or her back that was limited to a weight of 20 kilograms and had already been weighed. We got in trucks and drove through the night without headlights until we reached the port. When we got out of the trucks we saw crowds of people sitting by the dock, each of them with a knapsack. It took many hours to board the ship, but finally our turn came. We got up on deck and then descended into the belly of the ship.
There each of us was assigned a section of a bunk; the bunks were three levels high. One could not sit on the bunk, since it was not high enough; I crawled into mine and lay down. Darkness overtook the place; here and there sobs could be heard, and shouts of people looking for someone. The first hours were very gloomy ones; we spoke very little and were not permitted to go up on deck. Each of us lay quietly in place and waited. We spent the first night in the belly of the ship in darkness and silence; perhaps some of us even slept.
When the first rays of light penetrated the bottom deck, I went out and up to the top deck and saw water all around me. We were already in the middle of the sea without having felt the ship leaving the port. More and more people began to stream up onto the deck. The captain of the ship spoke into a loudspeaker and gave orders as to how to behave during the sea voyage. Arrangements were made for passing out food and water, and we were told that if an airplane were to appear in the sky, everyone was to evacuate the deck very quickly, so that we would not be seen from overhead.
The sea voyage entered its routine; most of the time we were on the top deck and roamed from bow to aft and back again. We watched out for each other when there was a storm. And so the time passed. One day we discovered a barrel of wine in the bow, which had apparently been placed there for the staff. Someone found a rubber hose; we opened the barrel and secretly drew out wine one after the other.
As we approached the shoreline of the Land of Israel, an airplane appeared that circled around overhead a few times and then disappeared. The plane returned time after time, and each time we cleared the deck and descended into the belly of the ship. One night we saw lights off in the distance; these were the lights of the shoreline of the Land of Israel. At the same time, vessels appeared. At first there was one ship, which accompanied us for a considerable way. It was a naval vessel of His Royal Majesty's navy. Later on, three more naval destroyers appeared. One of them got very close to us; it was lower in height than our ship.
This was at twilight on one of the days toward the end of April 1947. The British spoke to us by loudspeaker, telling us that we could not enter the country, and had to sail after them toward Cyprus. Naturally, we refused, standing on the deck and singing. When it got dark three more destroyers closed in on us. They turned their floodlights on us and again tried to convince us to sail along in their wake. Their attempts were of no use, of course.
Our vessel, the Theodore Herzl, continued on its way to the Land of Israel. The destroyers surrounded us and the soldiers on board tried to board the deck of our boat. They dropped down from their ship's mast with ropes and threw rope ladders, up which they climbed from boats that they had lowered into the water. The soldiers were repelled and thrown into the sea, and bombarded by a hail of bottles and cans. All along the rail around the boat, we stood crowded together, armed with sticks and throwing anything and everything we could find at the soldiers and on the deck of the destroyers.
Their attempts to board our vessel failed. Then the British set off tear gas bombs. The bombs were fired from mortars and landed on our deck. Smoke filled the deck; people coughed and rubbed their eyes. We ran to the water to moisten handkerchiefs and place them over our eyes. The struggle went on for a long time, for several hours. Still the attempts to board our vessel failed. Suddenly shots rang out. Later it was said that there had been Beitar people on the boat who had been armed with weapons and that they were the ones who had fired on the British. The British returned fire from machine guns. The people on deck scattered and then the soldiers were able to board the boat. They took over the bridge and drove away the people into the belly of the vessel.
The next day we went back on deck and saw them: soldiers in helmets, armed with gas masks, eye protectors, weapons and rubber truncheons. Next to the command bridge there were four dead bodies covered with blue and white flags, four victims who had fallen in the battle, killed by British bullets. We sat on deck and were silent. The British went among the people, offering us candy and gum, which we refused to take. Sometimes we would take a piece of candy from a soldier's hand. He would smile at us, as if in thanks at the kindness that we had shown him, and then we would throw the candy into the sea. This act amused us and irritated the British greatly.
In the morning we stood motionless; the vessel was unable to move. According to orders, the engine had been sabotaged right after the British came on board. They tried to tug it to shore, but the rope broke several times. At last they managed to tug the boat toward Haifa. We reached the port at night. The city was lit up, but we knew that we would not reach it. The lights twinkled in front of us. Again we spent the night in the belly of the ship. It was a sleepless night, a night of unending explosions under the water. The British set off underwater explosions in case anyone tried to escape from the ship. The next day we were transferred to a British ship, a prison ship covered with thick netting.
In this vessel we set sail for Cyprus. Here we were to spend the next eight months, until we made Aliya to the Land of Israel in December 1947 after the decision had been reached to establish the Jewish State.
Dov Nir was born in 1930 as Boris Sztatfeld, the son of Simcha and Perla Sztatfeld, in the town of Tarnogrod in Galicia, part of what is now the Ukraine. He was the brother of Joshua, who was born in 1928 and of Frida, who was born in 1941.
His father dealt in trade of farmers' agricultural produce and often traveled among the villages in the vicinity. About two years before World War II began, he opened a shop for used clothing and in this way barely made a living for his family.
The home was a Zionist one. Dov's father, Simcha, was active in a leftist organization, Poalei Zion, and even planned to make Aliya to the Land of Israel as a pioneer before he married and had children, but for various reasons his Aliya was delayed. In later years, after the birth of his children, he again wanted to make Aliya, but the difficult situation in the Land of Israel deterred him. In the end he realized his dream after the hardships of war, and eventually got to live in Israel.
The Sztatfeld family did not especially observe the Jewish laws and traditions, but the children were sent to study in Hebrew school after the regular hours of study in the Polish public school. The Jewish people's occupation with Zionism in their town consisted of learning the Hebrew language and culture with the goal of making Aliya in the future. Dov did not join any Zionist youth movement, nor was he even aware of their existence in his town.
Just prior to the beginning of the school year in 1939, as Dov was about to begin third grade, war broke out. Immediately the Germans entered their town and the Jewish residents greatly feared for their lives. Dov's family left the town and moved to the territory under Russian control. They hid on farms and wandered frequently from hiding place to hiding place. In 1942 the family was caught and its members were sent to their death, but Dov and his father managed to escape and hide in the forests.
This heroic time of survival under difficult circumstances undoubtedly gave shape to Dov's character and personality for the rest of his life.
Dov reached Kibbutz Ma'anit in 1947 as a member of Nitzanim (Buds), a group composed of young people who were Holocaust refugees, after they had spent several months in a detention camp in Cyprus. Dov knew a little Hebrew and this made his absorption on the kibbutz somewhat easier. In 1950 Dov married Fruma, his girlfriend from their Cyprus days, and went to study teaching at Oranim Seminary near Haifa. In 1951 he wrote his memoir, which was still fresh in his mind, in Hebrew; any inconsistencies in the narrative date back to that time.
During the period of Dov's studies, his oldest son, Yitzchak, was born in 1952. A second son, Ofer, was born in 1956, and two daughters, Hagit and Yael, were born in 1962 and 1970, respectively.
Dov's father, Simcha, eventually remarried and had a daughter, Masia, by his second wife, Sabina. The three of them made Aliya shortly after the State of Israel was founded and Simcha died at the age of 90 in 1992.
Dov worked in education until 1967. After that he worked for several years in the field crops of the kibbutz, and later held positions of a financial nature: kibbutz treasurer and then marketing manager, export manager and bookkeeper of Galam, the kibbutz factory. He was also active in Techen, a conglomerate of factories of the Kibbutz Artzi movement. In 1991 he began to work at Givat Haviva, the seminary of the Kibbutz Artzi movement, as treasurer and financial manager, and kept at his work until he fell seriously ill.
Dov was a political person and was very involved and active in Mapam [formerly the main leftist party in Israel] and later in Meretz [the successor to Mapam]. He often participated in activities and demonstrations, and gave unstintingly of his time and strength in the struggle for causes in which he believed.
All through his life on the kibbutz Dov filled positions in the realms of education, culture and economics. He was outstanding in his integrity and his personal honesty and was a man of principle. He was very involved in kibbutz life and would frequently fight for what he felt was right, or would oppose what did not suit his personal outlook, in various realms. Not infrequently, his struggles hurt his popularity among the other kibbutz members and Dov drew a lot of criticism and reservations from them, but he never recoiled from voicing his opinions and fighting for them.
Despite his adherence to the principles of kibbutz life, Dov did not attempt to fight against the changes in the kibbutz lifestyle over the years, and acknowledged their necessity. He joined the Team for Change and worked incessantly in favor of the fairness of the changes for all layers of society. His activity with this team stopped only when his illness became severe.
Dov was a lover of culture of many kinds. He read books, especially Hebrew literature in the original, and also newspapers and world literature in English. He loved classical music and the theater, and for many years held subscriptions to the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra and the theater.
He was a man of broad horizons who thirsted for knowledge; he was largely autodidactic and learned in various formats over all his life. He was a lover of nature and enjoyed taking trips both in Israel and abroad. Gardening was one of his hobbies and he nurtured a glorious garden next to his house.
Dov was a warm and devoted family man. His relations with his four children Yitzchak, Ofer, the late Hagit, and Yael -- were very close. Dov and Fruma were a couple to be admired. They created a warm, nurturing family atmosphere for their children and their children's mates. The couple together withstood great grief upon the death of their daughter, Hagit. After her death they warmly embraced the new family of her widower, Jacky, and thus enlarged their extended family of grandchildren.
Dov always kept his youthful, mischievous spirit, and thus had a common language with members of all age groups, young and old alike. He had a very special relationship with his grandchildren, for whom he was both grandfather and friend, and they loved him and rewarded him well for his devotion.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Nir Family - Two Stories - One Journey Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2023 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 22 Apr 2022 by LA