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[Page 131]

Between Two Regimes


The Year 1939

by Dr. Aharon Machtey

Translated by Ann Belinsky

On the morning of 1.9.39, the Polish-German war broke out. Life continued as normal until the afternoon hours. It was on a Friday, market day in Steibtz, and it was not felt in the market that war had broken out. In the afternoon, the Polish authorities made further administrative arrests. People from all circles and professions were arrested and sent – according to the “war order”– some to Bereza-Kartuska[1] and others to exile to Volyn. Life in the town continued as it always had. The battles were still far away, only the partial enlistment, and the participation of the enlisted townspeople in battles (several were killed on the first day of the battles near the city of Malcha[2]), depressed many families. The young people planned if the Germans drew closer, to try to cross to Russia. On Rosh Hashanah, the Germans bombed Baronowicz and the surrounding area. The atmosphere was depressing and despairing.

Early on Sunday morning 17.9.39, the noise of hundreds of airplanes and tanks was heard. Frightened, we all ran outside for the fear of bombing was great. To our relief, we saw that they were coming from the east. Half an hour later, we heard shots. We ran to the center and there we came across the first Russian armored forces. The small garrison, and also the Polish police in the town, did not try to fight. Most of the populace was happy, and those of sober judgment – depressed, for they knew that the existing order of life would come to an end, there would be changes in the economic structure, and the Jews would probably suffer a lot. A Red Guard was organized, comprising mostly Jews (the first were the Bundists[3] all of whom were later expelled) for keeping order. After a short time, the regime became based and established its institutions, including the police and the Party. Jewish-owned shops began to be shut down and the worry of earning a living bothered and depressed. Many Jews were accepted to work in almost all of the governmental institutions, but not to the police. A Soviet Jew was appointed mayor. The regional secretary of the Party was also Jewish. The Jewish population in the town grew to about 2000. These were refugees from Western Poland. The first to arrive were Jews from the defeated Polish army, who had been captured by the Russians. Residents of our town, including Yocheved Altman and Idel Dovid Kopilovitz, supplied them with civilian clothing and helped them get out of the railway cars which were transporting them east. There were many skilled workers and members of free trades among the refugees. For them, it was much easier to manage in the town. Most of the town's Jews absorbed the refugees into their homes. Later, a special type of refugee arrived at us, the people from Vilna. Most of them were specialists in sewing gloves. Because of their leftist views, they left Vilna with the Soviets' departure. They established a cooperative for leather glove-making. When we heard that “Vilna was moving to Lithuania[4],” unrest began among most of the Zionist youth who wanted to move there, but only a very few managed to get to Vilna (Tanchum Rabinovitz and a few others). Most missed the opportunity (it was hard to leave a home, family, parents – at a time when their situation was unclear) and the border was closed. During this time, Yosef Kaplan came to us from the main leadership of Hashomer Hatzair. He met with a few members of the movement, explained to them the situation of the movement in the special conditions of the Soviet authorities, and urged them not to become discouraged.

Once the government became established changes were introduced to the school system. Tarbut school became a Yiddish school (all the previous teachers, together with the teacher Alter Yossilevitz at their head, remained to teach, of course, in the special Soviet Yiddish). The general elementary school became the Belarus school (Das Atiletaka[5]). The teaching language was Belarusian. The gymnasia became a Russian school. Several Jews went to study at these schools. It was interesting how they learned the Belarusian language so quickly. Teachers also arrived from the east.

Synagogues: The first to be closed was the Old (Great) Synagogue and the glove-making cooperative was established inside it and, to reawaken the spiritual life in the town, the New Synagogue was appropriated (naturally, the workers requested it is closed…). They added on to it and built another wing on the old cemetery land (which bordered the synagogue), and a film theatre and club were established in it. The rest of the small synagogues remained open. It is interesting, that Christian churches were not touched. At this time, a newspaper in the Belarusian language began to appear – Golos Si” Lanina, which was printed in Molchadski's printing house (which had been nationalized). The editor was Russian and the newspaper did not reflect life in general, especially not of the Jews.

With the Russian conquest, all the Zionist parties, and also the Bund, were shut down. No organized public activity took place. Private commerce was nationalized. (The Jews were deprived of their livelihood and were in a very bad state). Most of the craftsmen organized into cooperatives and their situation were better, relatively speaking.

[Page 132]

Connections between Steibtz and the rest of the world were quickly renewed, and also the connection with Eretz Yisrael, but the post arrived with great delay, via Moscow and passed a censorship check. Aliyah[6] and emigration stopped completely (the only possible option of aliyah – via Vilna). Despite the annexation of our area to Russia, there was a need for a special permit in order to travel there, which was not given to everyone. Several Russian Jews, who were born in Steibtz or were previous residents, came to visit. They told us about the destruction of Jewish life in Russia. The authorities announced, that whoever wished to return to the western part of Poland (meaning the refugees), could register. A large part of the refugees, who had separated from their families and whose situation was difficult, registered to return to their place of residence. This was only a trick. On the night of 13 April 1940, policemen appeared at the houses of those who had registered. They were ordered to take only hand luggage, brought to closed railway cars (freight cars), and transported to Siberia. Two more expulsions like these took place before the war started between Germany and Russia on 22 June 1941. In all the expulsions not a single Jewish family, of the veteran residents of Steibtz, was exiled. Refugees who had registered or gentiles close to the Polish authorities were exiled.

Open anti-Semitism went underground. The gentiles thought the Jews were close to the authorities. Anti-Semitism in Russia was outlawed, but the population identified the Jews with the authorities, blamed the Jews for everything bad caused by the authorities, and said that when the day comes, it would take revenge on the Jews.

The war broke out on the morning of 22 June 1941. On the first day, nothing special was felt. Enlistment started, but life continued as usual. The next day the situation changed, the flow of those escaping east increased. Fear began to steal into our hearts. Maybe we too would become refugees?! The fate of the refugees here, and their difficult situation, frightened many and discouraged them from thinking about escaping. The Red Army retreated quickly. In the town – anarchy began to reign. The regime packed its suitcases. Groups organized to flee, mostly the young. Most of the Jews could not escape (families with small children, aged or sick parents). Unfortunately, several of the Jews who left the town (mostly by foot) and got to the old border, were returned by the border guards, who said “the Germans will never get to Steibtz.” A few succeeded in crossing the border in the first days. With the entrance of the Germans on 27 June, a few more people succeeded in escaping. Most of the Jews of Steibtz remained in the place.

No one could imagine the day of massacre and robbery that awaited the six million Jews of Europe by the Nazi regime, by order of Hitler – may his name and memory be erased.

My Steibtz, how you were led like sheep to the slaughter, on that bitter day.

My Steibtz, I will never forget you.

Translator's footnotes:

  1. Bereza-Kartuska – (now Byaroza, Belarus). Return
  2. Malcha – Possibly Malech [Rus], Malecz [Pol], Maltsh [Yid], Maleč [Bel], Maltch, Malch, Moletch (JewishGen town finder). Return
  3. Bundism was a secular Jewish socialist movement whose organizational manifestation was the General Jewish Labor Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Its members were called Bundists. Return
  4. This refers to the Soviet plan to restore Vilna to an independent Lithuania instead of keeping Vilna as a part of Poland as according to the agreement following World War I. Return
  5. Das Atiletaka –The Athletic (Sports) school. Return
  6. Aliyah – (lit. “Ascent”) – immigration of Jews to Eretz Yisrael. Return

A Story of Wandering

by Avraham Borsuk
(in memory of my brother Noach)

Translated by Ann Belinsky

It is difficult for me to write about a man who was so dear to me and whose life was intertwined together with mine. The cruel war caused the death of my dear and unforgettable brother. Numerous troubles and great suffering fell upon us together during the upheavals and wandering from place to place.

My brother Noach was a cultured man, of quick perception and liked by all, many found in him a good friend and colleague. He was used to encouraging anyone in trouble.

I remember when we left Steibtz, which came about suddenly. At the end of 1939 it became known to me that it was possible to reach the Romanian or Hungarian border. At the same time at that time, Noach was working only slightly, for in the days of the Russian rule, we were both hungry. When I returned home, I told Noach that I wished to leave Steibtz, and with a handshake to our mother of blessed memory, Noach promised that he would take care of me in our wanderings (for I was the youngest of the family), and my brother indeed fulfilled his promise to our mother. It was difficult to leave everything and not take farewell of friends and family. It is hard to describe the terrible suffering until we arrived to Turek (in Galicia). We turned to the Rabbi R' Yerechmiel Layzerzon of blessed memory and begged him to help us cross the Hungarian border. After some time a man was found who brought us to a Christian who was supposed to bring us across the Carpathians, but in the middle of the way left us in the lurch. Thanks to Noach's alertness we came to a farmer who treated us well, but since his home was on the border and the border guards would come to warm themselves in his house, the farmer got us a guide who would take us further. After several kilometers we arrived at the house of a Jew who lived already in the Hungarian area side. We were hungry and wet. In the house of the Jew they gave us plenty of food, and we lay down to sleep. In the middle of the night we were woken and told we had to leave. With tears in our eyes we left to continue on an unknown way without knowing the local language. Thus we walked until we got to Munkács.

In Munkács we were well received at the Rabbi's house and there we felt that we were in a Jewish home and among devoted people. When it became known in the town that two Zionists had arrived, people came and treated us well.


Noach Borsuk

[Page 133]

In the meanwhile we made contact with the family in Eretz Israel, who began trying to obtain certificates for us. We found out that Shlomo Lipsky had arrived from Eretz and he was organizing illegal immigration. And therefore we turned to him. After several days we received a letter from Dobkin and from Zalman Shazar, with a recommendation that Lipsky would take care of us. But it was already too late. Lipsky promised that when he returned to Eretz, he would not rest until we would be brought to our destination. We also received letters from Anschel Weiss from Bucharest, who took an interest in us. After a short time a certificate for Noach arrived. In the meanwhile, Turkey was not giving a pass to refugees and we were transferred to a concentration camp where I was separated from my brother Noach. Noach was attacked by bouts of fever without water or medicine, I absorbed cruel beatings before I managed to get to where my brother was lying. I had no idea what to do and how to help him. After two months of suffering and hopelessness, the Baroness Wertheimer suddenly came to us from the Red Cross. With difficulty I got to her, I started to beg and request her to help Noach and that he be brought to a hospital in Budapest, and to allow me to leave Hungary. The Baroness promised, and after two weeks, a license arrived, permitting Noah to travel. However, he insisted that he would not leave me in these bad conditions. I explained to him that I was well and could overcome everything and why should both of us suffer, and in the end he listened to me and left. Our parting was difficult and terrible. Noach improved a little in Budapest and after that he was given an ultimatum to return to the concentration camp or to leave Hungary. Noach chose a new way to cross the border to Yugoslavia illegally. It was hard for me to remain alone in the difficult conditions and without food.

Noach got to Yugoslavia and was really happy, for he found a place to start teaching the Hebrew language to immigrants from Vienna and from Germany. He dedicated himself with all his energy to educate the youth on their way to pioneering.

In his letters to me he wrote that if I could be beside him then he would be happy. A long time passed until I could finally get to him. I will never forget our meeting. He hugged and kissed me and said: Avraham, from now on we will never separate! I told explained to him that in a few more days' time there would be illegal immigration and I would be among the passengers. But he didn't agree to this. Many people were then in line to make aliyah and there was no room for everyone, and also some ships had run aground. I was forced to stay. We dedicated ourselves to help the newcomers who didn't know Hebrew and we also worked in the Gordonia youth movement. Noach got sick again. I began to write letters to the immigration office and requested that he be among the first to make aliyah to Eretz. In the meanwhile I got a letter from Switzerland from Nachum Shvelbeh, a childhood friend where he wrote: “Avraham! The land is in flames! Whoever can help himself should help the others.” Of course I wanted Noach to immigrate and this they promised me.

After I got the letter, I collected several youths and we travelled to Belgrade to the Polish Consulate and demanded that we be drafted as soldiers. At first they didn't want to hear about this, but after several days a telegram arrived from London to take out all the Poles from Yugoslavia. And thus I was amongst them. Noach came to Belgrade two days before the outbreak of war between Yugoslavia with the Germans. I would travel to Turkey and Noach to Eretz. We met at the railway station. He was very weak as a result of his prolonged illness. He pressed my hand while trembling and said: “Avraham, Maybe you will wait for a certificate and I will wait too and both of us will travel”. He had no money. Suddenly I felt a box of cigarettes in my hand. Choking back tears, I separated from him. And that was the last time that I saw him. He was cut down in the prime of his life and while still alive was thrown into a pit with others on top of him. In 1945 they were bought to burial in Eretz Israel.


The Borsuk Family

Sitting: Moshe and Sasha Borsuk
Standing from right: Esther, Mordechai, Noach, Chana, Avraham


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