50°19' / 24°29'
Translation of Witkow Nowy from:
Sefer zikaron le-kehilot Radikhov
Edited by: G. Kressel
Published in Tel Aviv, 1976
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Translated by Shuki Ecker
|Title||Map of the Town of Witkow Nowy|
|Credit||Drawn from memory by: Yitzhak Schuman with the help of Y. Witeles, Tishri 5735 |
|Roads||Right: To Radziechow
Left: To Krystynopol
|Areas||Upper right: The stream Kvoikrav?
Upper middle: Livestock market
Middle: The market squares
Lower right: The garden of Khat, the garden of Charag
|Sites||1. The bet midrash (house of study)
2. The shul platz (temple square)
3. The public bath
4. The stiebel (small prayer room)
5. The Polish church
6. The Ukrainian church
7. The school
8. The slaughterhouse
Stripes indicate non Jewish [areas]
9. The bazaar
by Yosef Chaim Peltz
Translated by Haya Vardy
|In memory of my father, Yehuda Tsvi, son of Shalom, and my mother, Chaya, daughter of Zalman (of blessed memory), my sisters, Miriam, Sheindel, Mindel, Frymci and the children Rivka, Zissel, Avraham and Yehuda Tsvi who perished in the Sokal Ghetto in 1942/43|
The story of my life is hereby dedicated to my grandchildren, Ronit and Noam, who one day, for sure, will be interested in knowing about their grandfather's and grandmother's life, and about their sufferings and tribulations.
I was born on November 11, 1906 in the small town of Witkow Nowy, which had a population of about 4,000 inhabitants including about 850 Jews. The local farmers, Ukrainians, Poles, and Germans used to bring their agricultural produce into the town, while the Jews engaged in commerce and trade. The majority made their living from the production of ropes and nets made of flax. Most of the Jews in the towns were poor and lived from hand to mouth.
On weekdays the town was quiet, and only on Thursdays, did it come to life. This was market day. On this day, the farmers from neighbouring and more distant villages streamed into town and brought their goods for sale: seeds, vegetables, fruit, horses, cows, calves, sheep, pigs, fowl and any other livestock they had managed to raise. On those days, the Jewish shopkeepers worked hard and the takings were large because the farmers bought all types of merchandise and various products that day. I remember the commotion, the farmers that got drunk on market day, and the policeman who was all-powerful in the town, who knew everyone, meddled in everything to do with order, mediated and decided all disagreements and complaints, and was treated with deference and respect by everybody.
On the main street of the town, most of the shops belonged to the Jews, whereas the rest of the streets were comprised of residential dwellings and apartments around the shops. The Great Synagogue stood at the end of the street, near it was the small synagogue (di kloyz) and opposite was another synagogue called dos shtibel. On the right, in contrast, there was the town's bathhouse. There were three water pumps standing a few hundred metres from each other, and the Jews came there to draw water. Actually there were the regular water-carriers, one called Wolf the shamas (caretaker of a synagogue) and the second Moshke the crazy one, but only the wealthy could afford to pay for the water carriers. The majority were dirt poor, overloaded with worries, but also always full of hope. If there wasn't enough for the weekdays, the main thing was that they would have challah, meat and fish for Shabbat, even if only a little.
Our house, like all the other homes in the town, was a stone house with two rooms: a bedroom and a kitchen. The toilets were outside. Eight people - my parents and six children lived there and I never felt that there was a shortage of space.
Shalom Peltz, my grandfather on my father's side, was known in our area as a religious Jew dedicated to Torah and miztvot (commandments) and he was also very rich in property. For many years, he was the economic advisor to the landowner named Janwora, the owner of a large agricultural estate and forests near the village of Tetewczyce. Since he had the full trust of the landowner and managed his affairs to his full satisfaction, the latter had awarded him handsomely, and my grandfather was successful with his own property. My paternal grandmother, Hinda, was a devoted wife. Love and generosity pervaded their splendid home, and my grandmother was also very generous with the grandchildren. They passed away at a ripe old age before the First World War. Their children - seven daughters and two sons: Ruchcze, Mindel, Feige, Yocheved, Gittel, Bayla and Bluma; the sons: my father Yehuda Tsvi, and Shimon Dov. Of all the children, only one daughter, Bayla who married Alster, immigrated to Israel. She lived long in Kiryat-Tivon and died in 1975. All the rest perished with their families in the Holocaust.
My maternal grandfather, Reb Zalman Mach, a resident of the town of Sokal, was a rabbinical teacher, known to be kind and wise. Because of his expertise in world matters, his acquaintances frequented his house for advice and guidance on various problems. He never tired of listening, advising and welcoming everyone. His wife, my grandmother, also remained at his side as his support. She managed the household perfectly and was busy with charity and help for the needy. They lived long lives and died when times were still normal.
My father kept mitzvot, careful with the light ones as with the severe ones. He had a sweet voice. When serving as the prayer leader, he gave real pleasure to all listeners: he was a Chassid of the righteous Rabbi Dovidl of Brody.
I remember the journey to the Rebbe every year for the High Holidays, in which I also took part several times. Joyfully we took leave as the neighbouring Chassidim came to wish us a good journey and a good year. I remember particularly the spiritual elation that everybody experienced in the Rabbi's house and the extraordinary pleasure given to those who heard the voice of the famous chazzan, Reb Moshe Korsower. He made all hearts shudder with his piercing voice and, in general, the Chassidic tunes were sung with sweet, enchanting voices.
When I was four, I remember my father carrying me on his back to the cheder of Rabbi Chaim Melamed (the teacher). The size of the cheder was four by four. There were many children of my age. In the middle of the room there was a table and around it benches for the pupils and a special chair for the rabbi. Near him was a whip. In the same room there were also two beds, a bookcase, a kitchen, a water barrel and other furnishings. The children were afraid of the rabbi and particularly dreaded his helper, Shepsil, who was a young man who wore a torn, dirty kapote (long coat). He was so hard of speech that it was impossible to discern about what and about whom he was talking. Slowly I managed to gain his trust and friendship so that matters somehow went on.
During the First World War, my father was drafted into the Austrian army and served several years in Hungary. He succeeded in getting through the war unharmed and came back home in one piece. I will not detail all the events which are deeply etched in my memory. At the time of my father's absence, I was still very young. I had to take the position of a grown up and help in making a living. Understandably, these were hard times for us.
In 1918 I became a bar mitzvah. This special holiday celebration for me took place before my father's return home. My grandfather, Reb Shalom, had to say Baruch Sheptarani (blessing a father recites upon his son reaching bar mitzvah) instead of my father. My mother tried to make this day into a proper holiday. She baked cakes and my rabbi and teacher, Reb Zelig Korsower filled my mind with the knowledge of tefillin procedures which I remembered by heart. We drank l'chaim, and the blessings for peace and health indeed came true.
Between the two world wars, life proceeded peacefully. I helped my father in making our living, and I also learned how to become independent in life. I created an eternal bond with my partner for life, Rachel nee Barlach. It was a first love, pure and innocent, like the embodiment of the love described in the Song of Songs.
In the year 1925, I joined the Mizrachi youth movement. In our town, there were several Zionist organizations. These were good and devoted Zionistic youth who did a lot to make the activities successful for the benefit of the Zionist funds. They had shows, parties and many cultural activities. The youth bubbled with life and got ready for a national revival.
Among the young people who joined the Mizrachi movement, those who stood out were: Yitzhak Auster, who now lives in the USA, Fishel Baral, Yekutiel Pastel, Yisroel Perles and others. Others belonged to Gordonia and Boselia; fine, educated youth went on hachshara (preparation training) and got ready to immigrate to Israel. Regrettably only a few succeeded.
In the year 1929, I was drafted into the Polish army. My parents dreaded the mobilization and they tried everything in searching for a way out for me from this punishment. I was advised to lose weight and go through all sorts of abstinence so that I would not be fit; but I, aware of the new ideas blowing in our world, that the people of Israel must learn to fight, and training our youth in military proficiency was needed by us like air for breathing, ignored my parents' intentions. Fortunately for me, unfortunately for my parents, I was found to be in fully fit for the military and suitable for army service.
I will not dwell on the lamentation when I left for the army and when I was in service, which, in any event, passed without any obstacles. I was even raised in my rank.
After my return from military service, I started out in business and got ready to stand on my own feet. The crisis which existed then in Poland didn't help with my first steps, nevertheless I was successful and I began to move forward in fulfilling of my wishes.
In 1939, I married my chosen, beloved Rachel. This event was for many years for me the peak of my aspirations and dreams. We found a small apartment in the town of Sokal, but meanwhile the Second World War started and the heart got filled with fear and worry. Many plans were cancelled, amongst them - my move to Sokal, which did not take place. My parents moved instead of me, and I remained stuck in Witkow.
At the start of the war, a huge wave of refugees arrived from the west, and in their fearful escape, they brought the horrible news about the Nazi atrocities. We managed to avoid the Shoah by almost two years. The Russians arrived in our town and managed to stop the German advance. The border between them was set at a distance of several dozen kilometres. Under the Russian regime, life was still considered sort of bearable, though the livelihood of the Jews, which was mainly based on trade, took a turn for the worse. But with typical Jewish survival talent, we knew how to adapt to the new regime, and most of the Jews got public or state positions. I, too, was employed in administration in a plant for building a Soviet army barracks in our town.
Under the Soviet occupation, we managed well in many respects. In March 1941, our daughter, Rivka, was born in good fortune, and was named Rivka after the grandmother. Rachel recovered quickly and learned easily how to care for the baby who developed well and was clever and cute like her mother. Unfortunately, our happiness didn't last long, dark clouds covered our sky.
The Nazi Occupation
On Sunday the 22nd of June 1941 at 4:00 AM, I heard an explosion. I woke up, surrounded by all my frightened family members with a questioning look in their eyes. I tried to calm them down, despite the fact that deep down I sensed approaching disaster. I went out to the street and found frightened Jews. Even though the optimists amongst them still hoped that the Nazis would be bitterly defeated in the war, there wasn't much confidence in the strength of the Russians. The shooting became more frequent, noises and thunder came closer and closer, the sky became redder and all the surroundings were covered by a huge cloud of smoke. Our town was only about 25 kilometres from the German border. Suddenly crowds of people were seen running to save themselves.
These were the Russians who worked in the plant for building army barracks - and their family members. I also worked at this plant. At 10:00, we heard on the wireless the voice of Molotow, who announced that the German enemy had suddenly attacked the homeland. Everything was already clear. There were many Russians with their families in our town and soon they were seen loading their belongings on lorries and joining their escaping brethren. The Jews saw all this commotion and remained standing, frozen and helpless. On one hand, the front was very near, but it was impossible to find any transport or vehicle, and on the other hand, no one believed that there was any benefit or salvation in escaping with the Russians and in that way survive. There was evidence about the attitude of the Russians toward the Jews from the letters of the Nazi refugees who had arrived from the west in 1939, at the start of the war, and were deported to Siberia for no reason. The situation was so bad, and there was no choice but to wait for miracles. And again, no one thought or suspected that those wild beasts would be able to carry out murders and exterminations in front of the whole world.
At midday the shooting stopped. Uncertainty and disquiet grew from hour to hour and fear consumed our hearts. We burned all the Russian literature and all the newspapers that had accumulated in our house, in order to not give a pretext for persecution as Communist sympathisers. We tried to hide valuables, but any place we considered was subsequently rejected as not safe enough. We were also frightened by our Ukrainian neighbours, well-known Jew haters, for it was clear they would use this time as an opportune moment.
On Monday morning, not far away there was a tank battle between the Russians and the Germans, and consequently the Germans won and finished them off. We were very frightened, and we ran away from the house to distance ourselves from the battlefield. Soon this fighting ended and we returned home.
As soon as the fighting ended, the town was flooded by a wave of the German army. The first were the motorcyclists and behind them were a crowd of soldiers with their cars. They flowed through the village like a high water wave, young and upright, armed from head to heel, screaming victoriously as they marched. They even entered Jewish homes to wash and shave. In their pride and confidence, they looked as if they are not going to war but rather to a hunt or a tour. After a while, they were ordered not to enter Jewish homes, instead they made various demands for services culminating in maltreatment and endless demands.
This is how the Germans marched, singing Horst-Wessel which told of spilling Jewish blood by knife and of the satisfaction it gave them.
The Ukrainian population received the German army with flowers and applause. They erected a victory arch decorated with German and Ukrainian flags. By the way, about a year and a half earlier when the Russian army entered, they had erected a similar arch decorated with Soviet flags. In a brief time, a Ukrainian police force was established, ready to serve the new rulers. The Jews hid in their homes, bitter and desperate, not knowing what would happen the next day. The hunting of Jews started and their property was rendered open for the taking. They started mobilising Jews of various ages and from various strata for labour. The army took Jews out to perform various jobs in the town such as repairing and smoothing streets. The Ukrainian police took Jews for various tasks in the town. The mobilising was done with no sense or order, in the most degrading and hurtful way. After finishing one day's work, a Jew was then caught on the way home, tired and hungry, and sent on another job. The Ukrainians established offices for their authorities and the Jews were obliged to supply them with all the furniture and fittings, and the Jewish girls were ordered to do all the cleaning while they were being mocked, degraded and offended.
On the first day, the bet midrash (house of learning) was destroyed and ransacked by the Ukrainians. The anti-Semite, Pietro Zwickelewicz, a native of the town, supervised the destruction. They used to get the Jews out to work in the morning by shouting, Jews [come] out. They brought work tools which were just a shovel. The work was mainly on the roads that were damaged from the continuous movement of heavy vehicles and tanks. The Jews were obliged to fix and smooth all the holes in the road. Stones from the destroyed synagogue were used for the repair. It was in the company of the rabbi Reb Hersheli, Reb Shalom Shochet, and other scholarly men that this work on the roads took place, and rivers of tears flowed for the destruction of the prayer houses and the ruin of my people.
Being home was worse than working on a job outside because occasionally someone would burst inside and drag men and women out for all sorts of jobs. It is impossible to describe all the suffering and humiliation, the blows and the curses, that were inflicted on us by the Germans and by the Ukrainian police.
In our town, they also created a Jewish council called a Judenrat which consisted of five men. Herman Gruber was appointed the head. He was a very nice Jew, also an enthusiastic Zionist, and as we found out later also very honest. The rest of the members were Abisch Letzter, Natan Silber, Jozef Arzt and Eliezer Mann, all honest men with very good intentions. Our council was under the authority of the local council of the town of Radekhov. They also organised a Jewish police force. On the whole, there were no complaints against this organisation. They made efforts to help the needy, and in the beginning, even succeeded at postponing a lot of suffering. That is why in the beginning there was an illusion that we would still see their [the Germans] demise.
After about a month, a command was given that every man and woman over the age of 10 had to wear a white ribbon with a blue Magen David on their sleeve. In other places there was a yellow patch. It was forbidden to leave your living quarters and to be in touch with the Christian population. Anyone who broke this rule risked their life. It is clear that this prohibition is the one that ended any possibility of the Jews of the town being able to survive and make a living.
In November 1941, they demanded that the Judenrat send 38 youngsters to a labour camp in Zawonie 50 kilometers from Witkow. This was when the tumult and the commotion started. There was lack of clarity about the type of the camp, and fear grew. They had to organise the whole group within one day. The Judenrat called a meeting for deliberation and added additional factors. After a long discussion, they decided to send unmarried men from families that had more than one unmarried son. Weeping and shouting, the mothers of the candidates for the labour camp leapt on the Judenrat. They demanded that this harsh ruling be cancelled, but there was no choice, for there was a clear threat that if this ruling was not carried out by the Judenrat, the Germans themselves would take more people without consideration. The members of the Judenrat also had brothers and sons, and here I must emphasise the honesty of Abisch Letzter of the Judenrat who did not differentiate and added his own son, Itzhak, as well as his brother-in-law to this group. Warm clothes and boots were gathered for those who did not have their own, and they promised to replace them with others within a reasonable time. This would continue for a set period, as long as such was possible.
In December 1941, a command was given that all the Jews were obliged to hand over their furs. The gold, silver and other valuables had already been plundered. They took the head of the Judenrat as hostage as well as another member to guarantee that this order would be followed. They were transferred to the German police in Radekhov. The Jews understood that there was no way to avoid or outwit the Germans, and everybody brought whatever they owned, fur linings, collars and all other types of fur. In the middle of the winter, the Jews were seen freezing in the cold in their coats without collars and without the inner linings. There was darkness and cold in the apartments as there was no wood for heating. This is how they sat, disconnected from the entire Jewish district without knowing what was going on and very anxious about the sound of every little leaf that rustled.
The problem of food became worse every day. The little we could get could be exchanged for clothes or household goods. The main food available was potatoes. Thus, the remaining objects of worth and family mementos passed down from generation to generation were exchanged for food down to the last of the belongings which satisfied the Ukrainians' suppliers.
Communal prayers stopped some time ago. The synagogue and the bet midrash were destroyed as we said by the local Ukrainians under the leadership of the criminal Zwickelewicz, the head of the Ukrainian Police. They desecrated and burned Torah scrolls along with the other holy books. At the same time, the daughter of Zelig Baldasz, Chana Dvora, was shot when she tried to enter the bet midrash to save the Torah scrolls. They burned her body with the Torah scroll that she held in her hand, may her memory be blessed forever.
One dark morning, we suddenly heard the pronouncement from the shamash of the local council who used to make announcements by drumming; every Jew over the age of 16 needed to congregate in the middle of the town, line up five in a row and wait for orders. On hearing this announcement, everybody was terrified but we had no choice, we were in their hands. We congregated and waited a very long time until the Ukrainian policemen appeared hollering at us to stand still and ordering everyone to shout, Heil Hitler. They insisted that everybody follow this order and whomever they suspected was not calling out the name of the murderer was beaten. Thus, an elderly Jew named Nachum Eidem was badly beaten. He fainted and died the following day from the beating. The rampaging by the police and the torturing of the Jews went on for several hours. At the end, there was an order given to disperse by running. Later the members of the Judenrat found out that the head of the Ukrainian police, Zwickelewicz, had planned the anti-Jewish pogrom. He planned to take them into the nearby woods and liquidate them there. A miracle happened and this plan became known to his father, an old farmer, probably with a conscience. He called his son and told him clearly that if he did not leave the Jews alone, he would commit suicide immediately in his presence. His intervention had an effect and this horrible plan was cancelled.
A few days after this incident, the local government made a proposal to the Judenrat since the local Jews were experts in the production of ropes and other flax products. The tradesmen were given an opportunity to move with their families to Mosty Wielke near Lwow for steady work in a newly-established rope factory. There they would have equipment and the possibility of surviving. In order to be given the right to be accepted for this secure work, every candidate had to hand over a quarter kilogram of gold in the form of jewellery, watches or chains to a man named Remer who was the head of the Gestapo in Radekhov. All this was to be handled by the Judenrat. The registration was supposed to end within three days. Jews did not think long and everybody who was able took the jewellery out of hiding and handed it over by weight to the Judenrat. This action was well planned and everyone who handed over the required gold received a certificate entitling him and his family to move to Mosty Wielke to work in rope production. The writer of these lines was also among the payers of the required fee and joined these fortunate ones. After two days, 10 large buses appeared and transferred all the qualified individuals and their meager belongings to Mosty Wielke. There were about 250 souls who presented themselves accompanied by three members of the Judenrat, and so we went on our way.
Despite the fact that we were considered the saved ones, there was a fear in everyone's heart that we might have escaped from one trap to a worse one, but there was no way back. When we arrived at the place there was tremendous fear and dread. The place was out of town. They took us into three large sheds, and inside there were beds with very thin mattresses. These were prepared for us. However, there was no sign of a factory. Four soldiers stood in the middle shed, outside were army kitchens, and the soldiers gave us food. Everyone got a quarter of army bread and half a litre of sweetened tea. It was enough to refresh us. We barely managed. We had a few bed linens but it was not enough for everybody. We went to bed full of fear, but the situation, the anxieties and the sad thoughts did not let us fall asleep. At seven o'clock in the morning, the commander of the camp, a Gestapo officer, appeared. The doors were opened and they ordered us outside to prepare all the equipment that we had in order to move it to the correct place. After an hour, two soldiers appeared with a truck and started to load the equipment. The men helped with this. I did not take out the equipment and stayed in the cold bunk. My Rachel stayed sitting on the metal bed with our one-year-old little girl in her arms. We both cried over our bitter fate. Rachel's family members approached us to try to figure out how to leave this place. We wanted to move to Sokal and join my parents who lived there, but how and from where would the help come? I went out of the bunk, and in the distance I saw the one responsible for the camp. It was an SS officer. I did not think long and slowly approached him, all of me shaking with fear. I approached him carefully and asked him to oblige and listen to my plea. He hesitated for a moment and in the end agreed to listen to what I had to say. I told him that I was a member of a family of nine, amongst them an old couple and a weak baby of one year, and in the cold bunk the baby would not survive. Therefore I asked if he was willing to take pity and to save us - to help us reach Sokal where my parents were. I was ready to pay any price for this transfer and I hinted that he would also get an ample present. With tears in my eyes, I stood and waited for his verdict. He stood and looked at me, thought a bid, and said, Okay you win. I will help you. Have 500 Polish zloty and in an hour I will send you a car with someone to accompany you on a transfer to Sokal; and in one hour you have to be ready to get on your way. My family received this happy news with tears, and we waited for the vehicle impatiently. The people around me wondered about the change and perhaps envied us for this success. Within an hour, the officer appeared with the car and soldiers. I handed him an envelope with the money along with a gold coin. In exchange I got confirmation that we were allowed to move to Sokal.
My parents were very happy when we arrived even though our fate was bitter in this Nazi hell. We were now nevertheless together.
We were five months in my parents' house. The conditions were relatively good and we thanked G-d for succeeding at leaving the previous place, even though we also had trouble here. In Sokal, the men were forced to register in the labour office, and every morning we were joined by the municipal employees to perform various jobs. It was particularly shocking to see the picture of Jewish scholars, famous sages, and important people forced to sweep the streets for long hours and carry out a variety of dirty tasks.
Girls and women were enlisted for cleaning and housework in the houses of the Gestapo officers and other captains. They worked in the town's gardens arranging flowers, cutting grass, etc., all this under conditions of hunger, want and confinement. Before the transfer of the Jews to the Sokal ghetto, they were rounded up by the hangmen in the centre of the market. A selection was made and 400 people were led to the structure behind the town, and there they were exterminated. It was probably an attempt to frighten everybody before locking all the Jews in the ghetto. On August 15, 1942, the location of the ghetto in the town was designated. Within several hours, everybody was forced to move to the area of the ghetto. A barbed wire fence was erected and policemen were stationed near the entrance gate. It is hard to describe the mayhem and suffering of those who had to move from their regular apartments to the extremely difficult and confined space of the ghetto. Ten to 15 people were crowded into one room. In my parents' apartment, which by coincidence was within the ghetto, we were 28 people. There was an outbreak of typhus in the ghetto, and the Jewish doctors worked very hard and tried to help the sick. Regrettably, they lacked the means and could not help much under these conditions and in the absence of basic medicines. My parents and I and all those who lived in the house became infected with typhus. The doctors, Dr. Kindler who lived with us in Israel, and Dr. Babad, may his memory be blessed, visited us every day and helped the sick with superhuman strength.
There were rumours that the Germans were preparing for an Aktion. The Jews started building underground hiding places and shelters. We also dug a shelter of this nature in the area of the house. During the day we worked hard on the roads and we were hungry, and at night we dug with what was left of the last of our strength. With difficulty we finished digging the shelter which was spacious enough and had room for 20 to 30 people.
On the 16th of September 1942, we heard from a reliable source that the Gestapo had already prepared the destructive tools and they would carry out the Aktion that night. We all went down to the shelter. The biggest dilemma was how to take our little girl of two years old into the shelter. She would wake up regularly and cry, and in her crying, she could endanger all the people who were hiding. With deep pain and sadness we were forced to leave her in the bed alone hoping that G-d would take pity on her and protect her from evil. With endless kisses and tears, we parted from the girl in her bed and went down to the shelter. There was no way to describe the pain and the sorrow of this action. Did we have a choice? The night passed with fear and trembling, and at 4:30 before morning, we heard shooting and an enormous noise roar into the houses in the ghetto. We heard shouts and cries as the murderers burst into our house and shouted out, Where are the Jews. We heard the last cry of our daughter. The murderers took her. My Rachel fainted in the shelter from her loss and with difficulty regained consciousness. Eighteen hundred Jews were taken and led to be exterminated, and amongst them, our dear two-year-old daughter was sacrificed.
Immediately after this murderous Aktion, Jews from Radekhov, Stojanow, Witkow and other places were transferred to the Sokal ghetto. The overcrowding in the ghetto became unbearable. Hunger grew worse and according to the rumours, there was supposed to be another Aktion. On the 28th of October 1942, we heard that there was going to be another Aktion that night. We remained awake in the bunker throughout the night, and in the morning we could see Ukrainian policemen, many who had come from the outside. We went down to the shelter again and heard the familiar sound of the murderous screams. Again about 2,000 Jews were kidnapped and taken away for extermination. It was only by a miracle that they did not find our shelter even though there were very substantial searches.
Getting food became harder and harder and was associated with many risks. It is important to stress that Dr. Kindler and his wife sustained many of the hungry with their own food supply, which he managed to get in one way or another as a senior doctor. He said that as long as he had enough, the Jews in need would also have enough, without exception.
The last stage of the liquidation of the ghetto had arrived, it was on the 27th of May 1943. We heard that they were planning to remove all the Jews that night and thus declare Sokal Judenfrei. All the Jews who lived in our house hid with us in the bunker, and again we heard terrible crying and the familiar fear of death. For three days, they searched in houses, gathered and transferred about 4,000 Jews, the last of the survivors, to Belzec. There was a fear of being seen outside after this event. My brother-in-law, Lipa Pozner, went out of the shelter once at night to see what was happening and returned immediately as pale as a sheet. He reported that the situation was horrendous, houses were demolished in the ghetto, no living soul was visible outside, and it was as silent as a graveyard in the ghetto.
We decided unanimously to go out at night and leave this valley of death and to turn in the direction of the forest around Sokal and Witkow. We were 18 people divided into three groups, each group had a guide who was familiar with the roads and the forests in the area. The first group, of which the writer of these words was the guide, included my mother, my wife and my wife's two brothers. We five people separated and left at midnight in the direction of the village Poturzyca. We arranged that we would wait along this route for the other two groups of 13 people who were supposed to leave the ghetto in two hours, one group per hour. We waited many hours for them, to our great sorrow they never arrived. They were caught by the Germans and they were all killed. These were the victims: my father Yehuda Tsvi; my three sisters Sheyndl, Frymci, and Mindel; my wife's parents, Eliezer Mendel and his wife Keila; my wife's sisters, Peshi and Feigele; my cousin, Golda Baral; my brother-in-law, Lipa Pozner; and three of our neighbours: Meyer David and his wife Malka Kugel; and Freyda, may G-d avenge their blood and may their memories be blessed forever. Two of my brothers-in-law, Yoseli and Israelki were killed later in the forest. Of the 18 people who were saved in our bunker, the only survivors were the writer of these lines, my mother, and my wife who passed away a few years ago in Jerusalem.
In June 1943 after we wandered around for a few nights confused and without knowing where we were, we finally arrived exhausted, hungry, and worn out in a forest near Witkow. A good acquaintance of my wife, a Christian named Salanicki, lived in the corner of the forest. Very late at night we knocked on her door and she simply restored our lives. She let us in and gave us food and drink. She was happy that we survived and she expressed her true sadness about those missing. She told us that from time to time some Jews who were in the forest came to see her to get some water because in the forest there was no drinking water. We stayed at her place the whole night. We asked her for a hiding place so we could wait and meet the other Jews that came to her. For safety reasons, she advised us to remain in the nearby woods and when the other Jews came she would let us know. We waited impatiently to meet friends with whom we shared the same fate, and she provided us with hot food and drink. At night, three Jews who had also escaped from the Sokal ghetto arrived; my good friend Yehoshua Gottlieb, Ephraim Auster and Itzhak Eisik Roher. They told us that their group had 15 people, 14 from Witkow and one from Mosty Wielke. All of them escaped from the Sokal ghetto. They were very happy to see us. Now the family grew to 20 people: Tebel Sigal, Eliezer Mann and his son Izio, Rivka Podhoretz, Rachel Podhoretz, Itzhak Podhoretz, Shalom Sigal, Moshe Lam, Yoseli Bari, Hersch Auster, Duni Melman and Nachum Werner.
With the help of two good Christians who assisted us in our need, we settled into two bunkers that were dug in the forest. They were: Ignatz and Ivan Olitski. In the beginning we managed to get some food from people we knew but later we stole it. The main thing was that we weren't hungry for bread, and we even found meat here and there.
In the winter, life in the forest was very hard. On top of the harsh, cold weather, the snow added extra difficulty because it covered the whole terrain and made it such that every step and every exit from the forest left footprints. This made it easy to discover those who had escaped and were hiding in the forest. This required extra care and vigilance. There was a terrible anxiety in my heart and in my wife's heart because of the unique situation we were in: when we left the Sokal ghetto, my wife was four months pregnant.
As the birth date approached during the harsh winter, we knew that the conditions were impossible. There was even a kind Christian at the edge of the forest with whom we were in contact, and he was willing to take my wife into his house and then let the baby stay with him, but my Rachele did not agree. One rainy night, she went into labour, surrounded by all those who shared her fate. They prayed with devotion and recited Psalms of the Tehillim (book of Psalms). After several hours of birth pangs, a child was born, beautiful and healthy. There was great danger because of the sanitation conditions. But with G-d's mercy, the mother survived the dangers. Because of the conditions in the forest, the child lived only one week, and his soul was returned to the creator. I conducted the burial according to the law of Israel, and I planted a tree in his memory on the place of burial.
It seems we had not suffered enough, and we were not even given the opportunity to continue living in the forest under difficult conditions. Suddenly we were attacked by a Ukrainian gang that had discovered our hiding place. They opened fire to frighten us, approached our bunker and demanded money. We handed over to them whatever was left, but the murderers were not satisfied with the money and property. They also came to murder. Without waiting, they opened fire on the bunkers and the choice was: to escape with our lives. Luckily the forest was thick, but four members of our group were murdered. They were my wife's two brothers, Yehoshua Gottleib, and Moshe Lam, the last survivor of the Mosty Wielke.
After this tragedy, we gathered and buried the victims of this attack in a communal grave, and we also dug another burial place in the same forest for my cousin, Chaya Podhoretz, a wonderful girl, aged 21, who was murdered by a Ukrainian gang of robbers.
The Liberation of 1944
One bright morning, our Christian friends, Ivan and Ignatz Olitski, arrived and brought the news of our redemption; the Germans had been defeated and left. The Soviets entered in a parade of victory, and we were allowed to leave the forest. Our hearts found it hard to believe that the human skeletons, oppressed and downtrodden, were already allowed to come out from darkness to light and liberty.
We arrived with uplifted spirits in Witkow. It was dangerous to remain in the town because of the remnants of the gangs, and that is why we moved towards Radekhov where the new regime had started establishing itself and the presence of the army gave a sense of safety. In Radekhov, we met a number of other Jewish survivors including the Kitzes', the Weismans, the Golds, the Waldbaums, my cousin Peshi Menaker and others.
We started returning to human life, and I looked for work as was expected of a proper Soviet citizen. Within a week or two, it became possible for me to get in touch with Bezalel Tenenbaum and his brother-in-law, Meir Fish, who had restored a national enterprise for the use of forests for wood production. I worked for this enterprise as an accountant for half a year. We were broken after all the tragedy and torment we went through, and it was not easy to return to normal life. In the meantime, we got a happy message from Sokal through Dr. Kindler that my brother, Dov, had survived in a monastery by disguising himself as a priest and that he was preparing to join us. His story and the way he was saved appear in a separate section of this book.
We decided to leave Radekhov and move to Krakow. There, together with my brother who had come back from the dead, we started to plan our departure from the valley of tears. It is hard to describe our emotional meeting, but the most important thing is that we immediately started to fulfill our aspirations: making aliya to Israel. In Krakow, there were already representatives from Eretz Israel who were facilitating the emigration of the survivors. The road was no longer open to us, but the representative prepared suitable papers for us. Dressed as Greek refugees who were returning, we were transferred with Soviet accompaniment across the Polish-Hungarian Border, and we arrived safely in Budapest. We stayed there for one month and then we had to cross the Hungarian-Austrian border, but this time not in a vehicle but on foot. The crossing was illegal, and took place in the dark of night through mountains and forests led by professional smugglers. In this manner, we arrived safely in Salzburg in the area of the American occupation. From there to Bad Gastein, we emerged again from darkness to light. The conditions were truly excellent, and the accommodations were wonderful too. Our daughter, Carmella, was born in a convalescent home in Bad Gastein at a fortuitous hour, and she was named after Rachel's mother, Keila. In May 1949, we left Austria on our way to Israel. The journey was not smooth, we were not spared difficulties on the road, but the main goal was achieved, and with G-d's help, we arrived successfully in our Holy Land.
by Yitzhak Shuman
Translated by Haya Vardy
The image of the town appears before my eyes each time I think about it or meet people who came from there. The town and its history are known to me only through little snippets of memory that I got from my mother and from the elders of the town. My memories relate to a relatively short time from approximately 1918 to 1933, the year I made aliya to the Land.
The town was pretty and clean. The government was very strict about cleanliness and those who threw rubbish on the street were liable to be taken to court and receive a heavy fine (Jews viewed these regulations as an expression of anti-Semitism and there was a hint of truth in it), but the result was very good despite the fact that there was no municipal rubbish collection and also there was no special place to dispose of the rubbish. How did it disappear? It is still a mystery to me.
The living conditions were very primitive. There was no electricity and no running water in the houses. Water was brought in buckets from three water pumps near the town. The lighting came from oil lamps and, for heating in the winter we used wood which was plentiful in the surrounding forests. There were no sanitary toilets in the houses except perhaps in a very small number of houses owned by the rich. Admittedly, they tried to organise public toilets behind the bath house, but it was unsuccessful. That place was so filthy that even now I am amazed by the Christian farmer who lived next door and put up with this and just continued his business as usual. This was the darkest and most embarrassing corner of the town, but everyone turned a blind eye to it because of the natural beauty of the town.
The town was built on flat land and was surrounded by large pine and oak forests. The forests were blessed with many types of fruit starting with red berries and all sorts of other forest berries: black, red, sweet and sour. There were wild apples, wild pears, and even nuts and a whole variety of edible mushrooms that you could pick for a small fee. The scent of the woods perfumed the air of the town, and youth and young families spent beautiful hours amidst these forests every Saturday. Not far from the town there was also a small brook called Boskov [Peresyka] which was a tributary of the Bug River. The brook went round the north of the town and round the ancient citadel which was near the Polish church, and it also added a dimension of beauty to the area. The fields around the brook were green in the summer. They were not tended by humans except the grass was cut for fodder once in the summer and once in the winter just before everything started to get covered by white snow. There was beauty and cleanliness everywhere one's eyes looked.
I think that the natural condition of the area had an influence on its residents. All the population stood out with freedom of thought and there were no extremists in the Jewish sector nor in any other sector. The townsfolk were open to progressive ideas. The Zionist movement and later the Chalutz (Zionist pioneering) movement found fertile ground here and became well established. At the beginning of the 1920's, the first pioneers from here left and immigrated to Israel, and the movement of realisation included the best of the town youth. There were Zionist and cultural activities in all the different classes in the town. The minority, including the Belz Chassidim and many others, could no longer interfere.
The elders of the town talked of two eras, the first before the big fire and the second the era before the First World War. According to what had been told, the whole town burnt down and was immediately rebuilt, this time seemingly with planned engineering. Houses were built with fired bricks that were created in a Jewish brick kiln from local raw materials.
The town was then the capital of the region under the government of the Austrian Empire. It was the administrative centre and business centre for all the villages of the area and remained so until the First World War and until the railway was built from what was then the Russian border to the big city of Lwow. This railway passed about 12 kilometres from the town near the neighbouring town of Radekhov.
During that period, the town was blessed with many sources of income and a solid economic situation. Several rich Jewish families lived there and they had big businesses. (Their grand homes were the proof of their wealth. After the war those grand houses were abandoned by their owners and some of the older and poorer residents of the town as well as refugees from the First World War who arrived in the town lived in them.) The weekly market and the annual market became well known throughout the region. Merchants with large import export businesses came and manufacturers also exhibited their products on these market day. In contrast, there was also a plentiful selection of local agricultural produce, and Jews conducted business. All this was before the First World War.
During the war, the town changed hands several times. In the beginning, there were the armies of the Central Powers of Austria and Germany. Later they retreated and the Russian Cossacks arrived followed by the Ukrainians, the Soviets, the Poles and again the Ukrainians. Finally the Poles established a stable regime that continued until the Second World War. Then the Nazis arrived followed by the Soviets. Today the town is in Soviet Russia.
Every passage of enemy armies through the town was associated with looting, murders and degradation of the Jews, and I remember (when I was a little boy) the screams of women and men, the victims of the soldiers who were wild. All this was on top of formal demands for the Jews to supply the army with gold, jewellery and supplies. Even though they complied with these demands, the army continued to destroy the town. Life in the town during the war was like cave living. There was darkness in the heart of every human even as the sun shone. All the valuable objects from the synagogue were hidden. The synagogue was dark and grey even on holidays. Economic life was at rock bottom. Many of the local residents were starved for bread. An impressive system of mutual help developed, and finally after the war, help arrived from the American joint and there was some relief for the local poor.
The war ended. The atmosphere in the town lightened. The synagogue was rebuilt and all the decorations were taken out of hiding. The polished copper chandeliers were hung. This was a big and exciting occasion. The men came back home from war. The prayer houses were full on holidays and Shabbat, and it seemed that everything would go back to how it was before. But it did not happen like that.
All the attempts by the leaders of the town to return business life to the pre-war greatness failed, and the town sank into a hopeless poverty. The local residents worked very hard in order to satisfy the needs of their families for Shabbat and many were left with only a herring for Shabbat. The main livelihood was commerce: either as a shop keeper in one's own shop or carrying one's wares on one's back from one market day to the next throughout the entire region. Others walked by foot from village to village and sold their wares, which they carried on their backs, and bought whatever they came across. They walked on foot in exactly the same way that the town policeman led a handcuffed criminal from the most distant village in the region. Both were walking on foot - the criminal handcuffed, and the policeman with his gun behind him.
There was no transport other than two horses and carts that connected to the train. There were also merchants who owned large warehouses for agricultural products such as: grains, hides, flax and other fibres. They used to send their merchandise in transport carts to Lwow which was about 80 kilometres from the town. There were also horse and animal merchants, butchers, collectors of junk and rags, etc.
Another part of the town's Jewish residents, close to half of the population, worked very hard from early morning until late at night mostly as tradesmen such as: tailors, shoemakers, hatters, smiths, builders, plasterers and glaziers (and even today I do not understand how they had the strength to walk on foot to the various villages with two boxes of glass on their backs), and in industries such as: grain mills, production of edible oils from linseeds, poppy seeds, etc. There was also a unique industry in the town which was the production of ropes. Many worked in this industry as hired workers producing a variety of ropes and flax strings for internal use, heavy and wide straps for industry, and particularly thick ropes for use especially in ships. These were for export. All this industry was operated by machines run by humans. Presumably those workers barely made a living and they, along with all the other needy, made up the very poor classes. The business owners probably made enough to remain well fed but not much more beyond that.
A typical fact was that despite the great poverty, when I socialized with those people there was not a sense of frustration or unhappiness. I do not remember that there were cases of violence or crime in those poor families. Those people had evident decency even though they did not belong to the educated class and it is doubtful whether they sat longer in the cheder than with the beginner's melamed. There is also a doubt about whether they finished more than three or four classes in a public school - if at all. Their lives were very hard. But they were capable of being happy and they had a strong will to live and to progress in life. From amongst them, many joined the youth movement which started in the village.
I was not involved in the matters of the local community but I learned a little bit about what was happening from the meetings that took place in the bet midrash on Saturdays before the reading of the Torah. Clearly there were conflicting interests within the community; and when it involved matters of internal taxes, the appointment of a rabbi or a dayan, the maintenance of the bathhouse or the allotment of places of honour in the synagogue, there were loud arguments and sometimes it even ended in a fight. There was a struggle there between the different classes about how to share the burden equally and about how to avoid being unfair in matters of honour and the like, but I think that on the whole things settled down and life continued as usual.
The population was mixed, half Jews and half non-Jews. The Jewish population in this town lived in the centre, and, except for some nuns who lived in a large building relatively central to the town and perhaps another Christian family that was hidden in a dense tree grove, there were no other Christians amongst the Jews. The Christians lived around the Jewish centre and had agricultural farms and supporting businesses. They lived in houses surrounded by gardens and fruit trees. Not so for the Jews, their houses stood exposed to the street with no sign of a plant or a tree.
The relationship between the Jewish and Christian population was orderly. They sat together on the town council and took action to get the town's needs from the government, and I do not remember a case worth mentioning of fights or other criminal cases. Jews could walk around in their neighbourhood without fear and there was a sort of superficial friendliness shown as well. This was based on the fact that the Jew always made an effort to appear to be modest when he met a gentile, and it did not matter whether it was a simple policeman, a chimney sweep or a post office worker. The Jew always used to take off his hat first. Our youth, to be truthful, tried to stand tall and to keep their self respect, but the elders did not look at this positively and sensed it endangered the peace of our community. They also tried to interfere with the youth. I remember being summoned to the police station as a responsible member of the Zionist youth movement and warned not to preach Communist ideas to the youth. It seemed strange to me and I even said it there, but an officer explained to me that he received a complaint about it from Jews. I understood these Jews who could not shake off thousands of years of traditional fear that was embedded in their core. These were the fears that gave rise to the subservience of the outsider who was stronger than them and ruled over them.
At the same time many changes to the economic structure took place in Poland. Industry and labour could not compete with the technological developments. The result was that the economic situation deteriorated further and further until there was partial unemployment, and the youth started wondering what the future would hold. This was a period of quotas in Poland and the admission of Jews into colleges was severely restricted. This was a period of anti-Semitic riots by nationalist students in the universities and in the streets of various cities. This was also a time of suppression of Jewish commerce through very heavy taxation. The future was very unclear and those who had a bit of initiative started planning their path. Some youths started to move into new occupations and also viewed immigration as the solution. However, in this area there were not many possibilities. Most countries were closed to Jewish immigration and also the Land was not totally open. It was a very depressing situation which did not change in the subsequent period. On top of this, there was strong anti-Semitic propaganda by the nationalistic Polish and Ukrainian organisations, and the Church played its part as well. All this was apparent first in cultural activities and later in attempts to take control of the commercial activities by opening a food cooperative, a dairy cooperative and a meat cooperative in the centre of the town. The Jews understood where it was all leading to but remained quiet. What could they do?
The strongest expression of this nationalistic propaganda appeared at the time of the German Nazi occupation of the area. Among the locals, they found helpers and collaborators in the process of expulsion and extermination. It is important to state here that there were also exceptions, those who endangered themselves and hid Jews.
As it is well known, the world shut its ears to the begging and calling of our brothers, and they were exterminated. The Jews were expelled to labour camps, to the ghettos in the area and then to extermination camps. A small number, mostly youths but not just youths, succeeded in escaping to the forests or hiding in bunkers, and from there they planned their struggle against the Nazis. They showed unity even though in the later period they were quite divided in their views. There were Zionists amongst them, Bundists, Communists, and also lovers of the Paritz (Polish landowner) G-d forbid.
The earthquake that was inflicted on them destroyed all their illusions. Now anti-Semitism was fully exposed, and later on some of them even tasted the Soviet Garden of Eden. This was when the flame of the Zionist Nationalist ignited; it was planted in childhood, and they started to long for redemption within the Jewish Nation. Today we can bless them for coming here and integrating as loyal Israeli citizens for the nation and the state.
Based on my memories and the stories of the generations preceding the survivors who recently arrived, I tried to weave together a monument in memory of the town of Witkow Nowy. The town was beautiful and the scent of the forest engulfed it. It had an atmosphere of freedom and happiness but apparently it was not for the Jews.
As mentioned, today the town is under the Soviet Regime and it has no Jews. Perhaps this memorial will give the younger generation growing up with us here in Israel a concept of the origin of the parents and maybe they will better understand the longing of the parents for national liberation and political independence in our homeland, and they will not continue to ask questions about why we need a land of our own and why we have to fight for it.
by Dov Peltz
Translated by Haya Vardy
In the days of the Hitler persecution, every Jew chose his own method for saving his life. There were those who escaped to the forest, those who pretended to be Christians, those who got documents for essential professions, those who went to work in a hospital as an Aryan, as well as those who used other tactics. The main thing was to stay alive. I myself chose the difficult path of acting as an Aryan which was fraught with great difficulties.
The Hitler storm caught me during the period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av in June 1941  in a large city in Galicia where I worked as a dental technician. I approached my Christian patients who were very kind to me and housed me for two weeks. Then my sister arrived and transferred me pretending to be dangerously sick to a small town where my parents and the rest of the family lived. In those days young people were kidnapped for work, but because of my long absence from the town they did not look for me at all. It was clear that I could not continue on like that for much longer so I decided to take a very dangerous step. I went to the hospital director - a Ukrainian - to ask for work in my profession, and after I lawfully registered I was accepted for the job. I continued to work until the spring of 1942.
By the spring of 1942, the situation for the Jews deteriorated. Those who weren't employed were grabbed in the streets and in the houses and were led to the brick factory (cegielnia) to be shot or to be sent to an unknown place. Also the lives of those who worked at the time were also in danger. They endured many selections and their ranks dwindled from time to time. Then came the First Aktion. A Gestapo man who came to the hospital to have his teeth fixed said that the Jews were taken out of the synagogue on Shabbat and murdered in their prayer shawls. In the autumn they established the ghetto and in October 1942 they held their Second Aktion. Since I was safe in my position as a hospital worker, I went out during the Aktion to see what was happening and I was caught. My claims that I had a job were rejected and I was led to the marketplace, a place where many other Jews had been collected to be deported. It was my luck that a hospital assistant passed by, I made signs to him to hurry and let the director know about my situation. The director arrived immediately and after exhaustive negotiations, he succeeded at the last minute in taking me from the hands of the capturers.
And so I continued to work in the dental clinic separated from the other Jews. One evening, I was in the X-ray department which was run by a nurse who was a nun, with whom I became acquainted, and this served as the source of this story that I am now describing. The nurse started to take an interest in my personality, discussed religion and faith and later asked me if I would agree to convert. I answered that the fundamentals of religion were not based on the act of baptism but rather on awareness and conscience and the awareness came with time after learning the principles of what one wanted to believe in. She liked my direct answer and it was agreed between us that I would give her an answer in a reasonable time after I had considered it. In fact I saw this offer as a way to gain time and as another possible way of saving my life in view of the systematic process of the destruction of the last of the Jews.
At the same time, another Jewish doctor in the hospital and I initiated an alternative plan aimed at saving not only our lives but also our families who still lived in the ghetto. There were cellars under the hospital building through which water and electrical pipes passed. There was one person working there who was in charge of these machines and luckily this person needed false teeth. I promised him the teeth and very carefully offered that instead of payment he would help us in carrying out the salvation plan meaning the building of a bunker in the cellar. This took three months to build.
At that time it was quiet in the ghetto and there were no new Aktions. - There was a very severe typhus epidemic which killed many, particularly the ghetto residents, about 30 to 40 cases a day. The Gestapo - it was rumoured - reckoned that it was not worth initiating anything as the Jews would die in the epidemic. In contrast, a very vigorous movement began amongst the residents of the ghetto in order to acquire Aryan papers for themselves, but this action was doomed to fail because the Gestapo had planted people in the ghetto who reported each case. When one of those Aryans disappeared, the Gestapo would get his entire family. This situation had a decisive influence on our course of action, and we put great importance on the transfer of our family to the bunker so that at the right time we could disappear together with them.
One evening after work, the director informed us that the atmosphere outside had become hot and oppressive. He advised us to prepare Aryan papers and to be prepared to disappear, for the hospital was no longer a safe refuge. Even the nurse advised us in the same manner. She told us that she had the birth certificate of her brother, who had gone to the front in 1939 and had not returned. Since the ages were appropriate, she could prepare a citizenship document for me permitting me to appear in public with greater security as the brother of the nun. She said and she did - she took two photographs of me and prepared the papers for me with the active assistance of the underground Polish assistance committee. With these papers in my possession, I did not abandon the matter of the bunker since the well-being of the family was important to me. Despite the faith that I had placed in the electrician, I harboured a suspicion in my heart that at a certain time, he would take our property from us and be rid of us. For this purpose, I also brought the nurse into the plans. It was better that he knew that the secret was known to someone else other than him. I told the nurse that for myself I was choosing the path that she had advised me, and the bunker was designated for the families.
And so the spring of 1943 approached. All the towns in the area were already Judenrein (free of Jews) and now it was our town's turn. The Gestapo as well as the Judenrat (German-created Jewish council) promised us that our town would remain and even started to collect money and gold from the Jews as ransom, but those who knew understood that it was only a trick to stop us from running away, and so it was. After a week, we heard shooting at the crack of dawn. We sent Jan to find out what was happening and he brought the sad news that the ghetto was surrounded by the Gestapo and the Ukrainians were shooting nonstop. Our hearts filled with deep sorrow because we understood that we were too late to move our family and we went down to the bunker. Jan kept bringing the tidings of Job from the ghetto and said that Jews were being led to the cegielnia. Some of them were killed there and the rest were sent to the train.
Generally there was a different atmosphere amongst the workers in the hospital. We were depressingly affected by the escape of a young man from a lorry near the hospital. One of the hospital workers chased him, caught him and handed him over to the Gestapo. After a few days, Jan told us that the director asked about us and this fact raised a certain measure of suspicion. Meanwhile the doctor left the bunker and his whereabouts were unknown and I remained there all alone. According to the news Jan gave me, the murderers continued to search for hiding places and to loot Jewish property. Following my request, the nurse went to the ghetto to check whether anyone from my family remained, but came back empty-handed and reported to me that the wild crowd of Ukrainians were running amok and even taking apart the houses to find perhaps Jews in hiding or objects.
And so passed more than two months of my staying in the bunker, lonely and G-d forsaken, consumed with despair and mental depression. I felt that I could not go on in this way and I notified the nurse that I would like to go and study in the monastery. For this purpose, she went to the bishop and meanwhile left me with the catechism so that I would gain some knowledge in the matter of religion before my interview with the bishop. After a week, the nun came back and told me that there was no place for me in that town, besides that they were about to transfer all the nuns to the western region for safety reasons and maybe they could find a place for me in the monastery in the new place. She sent a messenger to the west to look for a suitable apartment for herself and meanwhile she took me to her current apartment and dedicated herself to my education and my studies so that I would arrive there as an advanced student.
It is interesting to tell here a typical episode from those days. One day, frightened and with urgency, the nurse burst into her home and announced that the Gestapo was coming to check the vacated apartment so it would be available for the Germans. She pushed me quickly into a closet, locked it up and went out to receive the guests. After five minutes I could already hear the voices and the remarks about the quality of the apartment. When they got to the closet in which I was hiding, the nurse declared that she had forgotten the key in the hospital. Consequently they gave up checking the closet and they left the place. Meanwhile the messenger arrived and announced that he had found a comfortable apartment and that it was necessary to get ready to travel immediately. A very difficult question popped up here, how to fool the border guards who were standing on the bridge at the entrance to the town who checked the papers of everybody coming and going. And so an idea popped into my head and since the nurse was not at home, I put on her clothes which fitted me perfectly so much so that the nurse herself found it hard to recognise me in my costume. She approached the Polish Union immediately and prepared identity papers of a nurse for me and she let the hospital know that another nurse arrived to help her prepare for her journey.
We left the hospital at a good hour. We peacefully passed the checkpoint on the bridge and we arrived at the train. I sat in the carriage with the umbrella in one hand and prayer book in the other and I studied it with great concentration. Under these circumstances we decided to get off the train one stop before our destination. We went into the nearest woods and I changed my dress because I was in fact supposed to appear as her brother who was coming to study in the monastery. When we arrived at our new flat in the town, the nurse went immediately to the local monastery and announced her wish to the priest to admit her brother. The priest tried to stop her from doing this explaining the difficulties in becoming a priest, for example, giving up the outside world, acceptance of monastic responsibilities, etc. Finally her wish was granted and she brought me in front of him. After an exhaustive interrogation and questioning, he told me to come every day for one hour, to learn the doctrine from his assistant. After I took an exam, I would be sanctified as a priest in the customary ceremony when the time came. And so I continued on with learning and prayer and particularly with poignant thoughts about everything that happened to me and my family from my early childhood up until that day…
So I went through the period from the summer of 1943 to the summer of 1944 enjoying personal safety behind the walls of the monastery. The guiding principle for me in my monastery life was that at the time of my solitude in my locked cell after my day's work I felt free, natural and at one with myself, but when I left my cell next day to busy myself with the daily routine of the monastery I felt like an actor on stage. This effort exhausted me psychologically so much so that sometimes I felt an internal urge to expose myself publicly, to tell the nerve-wracking truth and to put an end to all this.
Once during a confession, I told the priest that previously I had worked as a dental technician and so he said that if I wished I could continue working within my profession while continuing my service at the monastery. And so it was that I was promoted and sent to a big city so I could continue with even higher education and also to specialise in dentistry in the hospital next to the monastery. And so I studied and worked until mid-January 1945 when the Russians arrived in Poland. Then the nurse arrived and expressed her great satisfaction when she found me diligently studying even after the Germans left.
At that time the first Jews who came out of hiding started being seen. I had asked the nurse if I could travel to my town and find out whether anybody from my family survived. After two weeks she came back with the good news that my mother, my brother and his wife had survived the Holocaust. I contacted them in a letter and let them know about my existence but asked them to write to me at the address of a certain doctor. One day I was travelling in a tram and I saw my brother through the tram window. I jumped out, caught up with him and both of us went to the doorway of one of the houses and there we cried on each other's shoulders. One day we gathered in the house of the doctor who remained alive thanks to Aryan papers. For a long hour we argued and made plans for the future and finally we decided to leave the accursed land and to move to the land of Israel.
I approached the provincial who was appointed above me by the monastery and asked him for permission to travel to the east so that I could get back the estate that was stolen from us. After heated arguments, I was given a two week holiday and I was allowed to wear civilian clothes for this purpose.
One bright day, I took off my black gown which weighed on my heart like a heavy grinding stone and I wore my Jewish clothes and went on my way doubly liberated from the valley of tears and from my miserable costume.
|From left to right: Yaakov Podhoretz, Rachel Pelz of blessed memory, and my he live long Yosef Chaim Pelz
Below: Mindel Pelz and Chaya Podhoretz
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