by Yekhiel Shmushkovitsh
Translated by Ruth Murphy
This is what we were called in Swerznie. My father, Reb Moshe Shmushkovitsh (peace be upon him), was the first to travel to Prussia, to Königsberg. There he planted a garden consisting of cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, beets and various other vegetables. As my father told it, this was in 1870, during the time of the Franco-Prussian war. In time, other families from Swerznie began journeying to Prussia and sowing gardens there. This became a very steady livelihood for people like our neighbor Reb Eliyahu Tsalkovitsh, my two uncles Dov and Zev Klyatshuk, and other families.
If one of them married off a daughter, Prussia was given in her dowry, that is the son-in-law was taken to Königsberg and taught how to plant the gardens. This was a respectable occupation with a secure existence. When the children grew up, they were taken to Königsberg in order to help their father and in time, they too remained in this occupation. So, in Swerznie, eventually, a significant number of families were involved in this livelihood.
Reb Eliyahu Tsalkovitsh (of blessed memory)
The above-mentioned market-gardeners would leave their homes in Swerznie right after Passover and return after Sukkot. They would take with them, from Swerznie, the nasenye, that is, the seeds to sow the different vegetables.
In Swerznie, the Prussians [the market-gardeners] were regarded as distinguished families and they occupied a respectable place in the town society, as do, for example, synagogue presidents and heads of societies.
In 1914, as soon as World War I broke out, the German authorities of that time sent everyone back to Russia. The only ones left were me, my brother Zev, my cousin Mikhael Klyatshuk and Zalman Reznik. We kept in the same line of business until Hilter (may his name be obliterated) came to power. In 1936, we left Königsberg and went to Israel.
With this, the history of the Prussian market-gardeners in Swerznie, ended.
by Manya Protas
Translated by Ruth Murphy
When I recall my childhood years in Swerznie where I was born, I see before me the hard-working Jews of the town who, as they said to us, didn't even have time to wipe their noses. I see how we young ones would walk along the mountain and shout, Children, a train is coming. I see the trees of the pine forest. Green fields. Gardens cultivated by the town's Jews. The lake by the watermill, where people would sail in small boats. And sometimes to play a trick on the miller Srogowicz, we opened up the dikes at night
and let all the water out of the lake. In the morning there would be a mess in town; people would call it in Hebrew The Jews in Swerznie.
I remember how part of the Swerznie youth studied in the high school in Nyesvizsh, around thirty kilometers from us, as our town did not have a high school. On Fridays, we would walk home for the Sabbath.
M. Protas by the bridge over the Nieman
In summer-time, when the youth did not have to study, they would occupy themselves with different tasks: some with gardening, some in one of the surrounding villages, others would walk to the nearest forest very early in the morning collecting berries or mushrooms. Each one would try to pick as big a jug of berries as possible, or as big a sack of mushrooms as they could. It was a joy in the early morning to hear the echo of our voices among the trees of the woods.
After the long, cold winters, the Jews in the town would begin to prepare for Passover. One could already sense this right after Purim, when the Jewish residents of the town began to bake matzoh. They prepared the Passover utensils that had been lying packed up the entire year, as if they were waiting for the moment when they would be used again. On Passover eve, in every Jewish home, the floor would be covered with straw and the table with sacks or something else, a sign that everything was ready to welcome the festival.
The youth in town were inclined towards Zionism. We were busy raising money for the benefit of the National funds. There was a person in town by the name of Yosef Sagalowich who could write Polish and the Christians in town would go to him to write petitions to the authorities. He donated his pay for writing the petitions to the Jewish National Fund. The revenue from performances that were produced by the local dramatic circle was also donated to the Jewish National Fund.
One's heart aches, knowing that all this is, and all those, are no longer here.
In 1945, the sad news arrived that our parents, brothers and sisters from our hometown had perished in a brutal manner, by the Nazi murderers.
Those few Jews from our town who survived, arrived in Israel in 1946, and we began to look for a way to memorialize those who had perished.
Feygl Protas (of blessed memory)
passed away in Jerusalem
In 1953, the first memorial evening took place, for those who perished from our town, and since then an annual memorial evening is held in memory of the Jews of Swerznie who died.
It was a beautiful Jewish town, and it is no longer here. Murderers destroyed it. We, who are in the Land of Israel, honor the memory of those who lived there, with our work in our Land of Israel.
My written recollections of my little town of Swerznie, should serve as a gravestone for those who died and those who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis my family Protas: My father Mikhael, son of Mordekhy; my mother Sorre, daughter of Peretz; my brother Aharon (Berke); my brother Mordekhy (Motl) and his wife Shifre; children Mikhael, Feygele; my sisters Badane, Itke and Tzipporah.
by Simchah Reznik
Translated by Ann Belinsky
Swerznie, the town of my birth, appears in my imagination and stands before me as if alive, with its small houses and sundrenched glowing lanes in the spring and summer days; cool and gloomy, covered in mud in the autumn; wrapped in deep snow in the winter, as the smoke from the chimneys of the houses spirals up to the frozen and clear heavens.
Here is the rise in the market square, on which there once stood a brown marble monument in remembrance of the victory of the Russian army over the army of Napoleon in 1812. Alongside its fence, children of the town played their various games, and their joyfulness echoed in the streets and in the lanes close by. In the winter when everything was covered with a mantle of white snow, red-cheeked children, happy in their fun, slid down the hill on wooden and steel toboggans and various sleds.
East of the town, the waters of the Niemen gush and flow peacefully towards the Baltic Sea. A stream of pure water divides the town into two, a lake whose waters move the flour mill. In the silence of the evening in the bright light of the moon, small boats sail slowly on its smooth surface. In the boats sit young men and women together, captivated by the radiance of the moon and the enchantment of their youth. A delicate water lily gazes at them dreamily as if listening to the murmurs of the water and the longing of the heart. Wide meadows spread out into the distance and surround the town and beyond: forests, thick forests wrapped in mystery, sprawl out and blend into the horizon. Behind the town rises Meytshe's Mountain that we would climb in the summer to hunt birds and lizards and wage wars, and in the winter we would pull our sleds up to its peak with great effort and slide down to the bottom at dizzying speed.
Swerznie was a sleepy and peaceful town, with a few Jewish families - about 75 in all. Working Jews mainly, who lived their lives with integrity and buried their dead with honor. Most of them walked peacefully and quietly every day to the synagogue on the banks of the stream, with their tallit and tefillin under their arms. They observed their ancestral traditions and did not change their stable way of life for generations. One Rabbi in the town with inadequate income, dealt with the religious needs of the townspeople, and one ritual slaughterer, made his living from slaughtering, cantorial singing and as a teacher, all together.
The synagogue was also used as a cheder. In the women's section, I learnt for the first time, from my teachers Meir Yosef Shwartz and Yosef Shkolnik that our land is there where the cedars are dense and the waves of the Jordan gush... There in the women's section the love and longing for Zion was woven. Afterwards, down below in the Shtiebel in the cloudy and snowy winter days, we absorbed the prophetic vision of the end of days from Shmuel the ritual slaughterer and Noach Rubentshik.
They say that once there were glorious days in the small town. Every week the farmers from villages in the area would flock to the weekly market. Inhabitants of the nearby town of Stolpce (Steibtz) on the other side of the Niemen River would come to the town to do their shopping and to sell their merchandise. Indeed, they say that once upon a time but I remember a peaceful and sleepy town herds of cattle and sheep lazily returning in the evening from their pasture, their baaing and bleating accompanying the sun sinking slowly in the west. Wagons laden with grains and sweet-smelling hay slowly make their way and disappear down its lanes. Sounds of the bells of the Provoslavic and Catholic churches called people to prayer between the sinking sun on the horizon and the tranquil dusk.
They say that once, in our small town of Swerznie there were public institutions of a mainly religious character, such as Hekdesh, Bikkur Holim and the like. However, I do not remember them. Communal activity for charity was very limited in the last years in our little town, except for the great enthusiasm of the Zionist youth movement activities for the Keren Kayemet leYisrael and the Keren Hayesod.
My memories of the youth movements relate to the years 1927-1936, although also before then, from time to time, youth movements were organized that were mainly Zionistic.
An important turning point, both materially and socially in the life of the town began with the establishment of the big sawmill at the edge of the town. From cities and towns, both near and far, from surrounding villages, workers streamed to our town to work in the sawmill. Clerks and artisans were brought from afar and even from outside the borders of Poland. These people rented apartments mainly from Jewish families and mixed with the population and their presence brought about an awakening, mainly among the youth, who also began to work in the sawmill. The economic situation in the town improved and the extrinsic conditions inevitably caused the youth to awaken and to feel free and independent.
The Russak brothers
It did not take long before a few people also dared to shed the burden of tradition and religion. So much so, that they began to work on the Sabbath, although this break in tradition created a difficult spiritual crisis for them. But necessity made it so, for without their work on the Sabbath, they would not have been able to work at all in the sawmill; many were not in a position to endanger the economic situation of their families, several of which existed and were dependent on the wages of their sons or fathers.
First row: (Right to Left): Moshe Rubentshik, Tamar Piness
When the cracks in the wall of tradition became breaches, and the wall of tradition trembled, the youth distanced themselves although not completely from the cherished values passed down from generation to generation.
With the invasion of many, mainly young men, from the different cities and towns to our small town, and with the improvement that began in the economic situation, a stormy period began for the local youth that continued for a number of years. This was a period of social and political organization, a period of relatively extensive cultural activity, and of energetic and welcome Zionist activity. Most of the youth were organized in specific youth groups and most were Zionistic. Only a few remained outside the framework of the youth groups.
The first amongst the youth groups was Gordonia, which was organized by a branch of Hitachdut in the town, and on the active initiative of Avraham-David Shkolnik. At that time the Swerznie branch of Gordonia concentrated the finest youth within in its framework. Most of them were graduates of the elementary Polish school in the town. As a Zionist organization - and at that time in particular - all the Zionist activities in the town were centered only in this branch. It also exerted great influence on the remaining sections of the Jewish population in the town.
I remember that one day I was present at one of the meetings of the Gordonia branch, which took place in a private house. How I then envied those organizers. To this day I cannot explain why I abstained then as did other young men and women of my age - from joining this movement.
After some time, several members of the Stolpce branch of Poalei Tzion Ts.S. began to visit the town with the aim of organizing a branch of Freiheit in our town. These were Hirshel Kumak, Yankel Vadonim and Guttel Bernshtein, who visited our town from time to time. They spoke to the unorganized youth but did not have much success. I, the writer of these lines, joined the Freiheit branch in Stolpce on my own, and afterwards another girl joined me Rachel Epshtein. Only after two years, we succeeded in establishing a branch of Freiheit in our town.
However, HaShomer HaTsa'ir preceded us and with the help of the Stolpce branch they succeeded in setting up a well-organized branch of HaShomer HaTsa'ir in our town. Young men and women of great strength, initiative and devotion joined the branch. For many of its members, the HaShomer HaTsa'ir movement was not only an organized framework, but also an ideological framework, and the principles of the movement were for them, a future way of life. Most of my school friends and youth of my age joined this organization.
At approximately the same time, the Gordonia movement in the town began to weaken because of a lack of youth to continue its activities, to take the place of those who had meanwhile graduated.
A short time after the establishment of the HaShomer HaTsa'ir branch in our town, a branch of the Poalei Tzion Ts.S. Freiheit was also established.
I would have a guilty conscience if I did not mention another movement that tried to establish a branch in our town at the same time. This was the Beitar Movement that was also successful to a certain extent. If my memory serves me correctly, a site of hachsharah training for Beitar, was established in our town but existed for only a short period. A few of the youth however, joined the Stolpce branch of Beitar.
It is obvious that the branches of HaShomer HaTsa'ir and Freiheit strove to
influence the Zionist activity in the town, which was mainly expressed in fundraising campaigns for the Keren Kayemet LeYisrael and the Keren HaYesod Foundation Fund.
The two organizations managed cultural-educational activities among their members with great energy. Their activities often deviated from the limited framework by organizing question-and-answer evenings and also by organizing parties that were aimed mainly to gain the attention of the youth of the town. The competition between the two organizations caused an awakening of the youth of the town, and more than this, a rise in income for the National Funds.
The Freiheit branch had better cultural strength thanks to the help of members of the Poalei Tzion branch from Stolpce, while the HaShomer HaTsa'ir branch excelled in its size and its more efficient organization. In addition, HaShomer HaTsa'ir also succeeded in organizing most of the younger children.
But slowly the enthusiasm was weakened. Because of the small Jewish population in the town, there were not enough continuous age groups and the gap in ages between the youth resulted in the failure of regular organized activity. There were not enough people to fill the places of the seniors and so it happened that at the beginning of 1933 the two branches: Freiheit and HaShomer HaTsa'ir stood on the threshold
First row: Sitting (Right to Left): B. Doktorovits, A. Manches, Z. Doktorovits
of breaking up completely. Signs of their weakening were evident in Zionist activity and especially in the activities for the National Funds. But some of us did not agree with this fact and raised the idea of establishing a branch of HeChalutz in the town, where the two branches could find their place together without intruding on each other's policies.
It was one of the spring evenings of 1933 that I remember more than any other evening. A small group of young men and women from the two organizations mentioned above were walking to spend time alone. I don't remember what was spoken between us then. I, the writer of these lines, Fruma Vilitovski (now Greenberg), and I think Avraham Rubin, of blessed memory, were walking separately, and one of us raised the suggestion of establishing a branch of HeChalutz in the town with the participation of HaShomer HaTsa'ir and Freiheit.
The suggestion was accepted enthusiastically, and on the same evening in a small group beneath the open sky, a plan of action was worked out. Within a week we exchanged letters with the HeChalutz center in Warsaw and after that with the Galil Council in Baranovitz, and the existence of a branch of HeChalutz in our town became a reality.
It was not the first branch of HeChalutz in our town. It was preceded by a very active branch of HeChalutz that had existed for a number of years and some of its members had gone to live in the Land of Israel. The same branch had established a very valuable social and cultural framework at that time. One of its cultural activities was to establish the only library in the town, containing hundreds of books, mainly in Yiddish.
However, the HeChalutz branch that was created in 1933 was not a continuation of the previous branch. From the previous branch it took possession of the seal, which was later changed to a different one, as well as the unutilized library of books that had been stored for some years in the house of one of the inhabitants.
The official announcement of the establishment of HeChalutz took place on the 20th Tammuz at the annual assembly in memory of Dr. Herzl, of blessed memory, but even before that, the branch was already well organized, and in possession of a ma'on for meetings and where most of the youth of the town gathered.
Officially HaShomer HaTsa'ir and Freiheit were established separately, parallel to the HeChalutz branch, but in actual fact
their activities and their activists dedicated themselves to organizing the activities of the HeChalutz branch. In the ma'on of the HeChalutz branch, the youth found a place to express their feelings and experiences, and often also to unload the burden of daily worries. The ma'on was like an extension of the family home for members of the branch.
The members' subscription payments to the branch treasury were not enough to maintain the ma'on financially, to purchase textbooks, material for cultural activities and new books for the library. In order to obtain finance, members would go out in teams to work for the Jews of the town, mainly in sawing and chopping wood for heating. Each one donated his share and no-one avoided contributing to the cause. The work was beneficial from a certain point of view as preparation for future training but also served to consolidate the feeling of mutual responsibility.
It was clear to all members of the HeChalutz branch that all their activities were aimed at preparing them for the agricultural training farm and after that, immigration to the Land of Israel. Many were indeed ready to leave for the training farm and after 9 months of the branch's existence, one of us was afforded the opportunity to leave for agricultural training. The first was Yisrael Shlimovitz who was only 17 at the time. Almost all members of the branch accompanied him proudly and with envy, to the train station. Later more members left for the training farm.
One year after establishing the HeChalutz branch, the HaOved branch was established on its initiative, and within its framework their leaders accommodated those who aspired to go to the Land of Israel, but could not go to the training farm for various reasons. The first people of HaOved branch who helped in its establishment were: Yisrael Epshtein, who immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1936, and Tuvia Levin, of blessed memory. Apart from Yisrael Epshtein, no other members of the HaOved branch managed to immigrate to the Land of Israel. Most of them had families and did not have the money needed to finance their immigration.
I would note here, the name of one of the members of HaOved, Chaim Druker from Nesvizh, who married one of the women from our town and raised a family. He was a simple man and did not refuse any work. He was among the first who joined HaOved branch with the clear aim of immigrating to the Land of Israel, although he knew that he did not have the financial means. He did not stop believing that he would ultimately manage to reach the Land of Israel, but like the others, he too, did not succeed.
For about 3 years, HeChalutz was the only organization that functioned in the town and its activities were felt in the life of the community and mainly among the youth. But in 1936 an organizational decline began in HeChalutz activity. Many of the branch members went to the training farm, some went to the Land of Israel and for those who remained in the town, it was clear that most did not go to the training farm. Those active members who were not yet permitted by the HeChalutz centre in Warsaw to go to the training farm, tried to continue the activities of the branch, but it was clear that the branch could not continue to exist, if new blood would not be added in place of the veterans.
At the beginning of 1936, Moshe Rubentshik of blessed memory, and I, received permission to go to the training farm and we were the last to go there. We felt, that with our exit from the town, the activity of the branch of HeChalutz in our town would also come to an end. And indeed, our feelings were correct. The only one among the activists of the HeChalutz branch who remained in the town Avraham Rubin tried for a little while longer, to continue the branch organizationally, but after a short time the branch dissolved. There was no longer a reason for its existence, when it was clear that its members were not going to the training farm and making aliyah.
In letters that I received from the members in our town, they wrote about the emptiness that prevailed in the town with the discontinuation of HeChalutz. Some useless attempts were made to renew the branch, but without result. The only Zionist activity that did not stop was the activity for the Keren Kayemet, thanks to the help of the veteran Zionists, inhabitants of the town; but also this activity declined.
The HeChalutz that was established in 1933 was the last Zionist organization that was active in our town. With its discontinuation, no organized and planned Zionist activity took place any longer until the destruction of the town.
It is only right to note, that most of the HeChalutz members of the branch who did go to the training farm at that time, immigrated to the Land of Israel and are presently in the land. In addition to them, members who did not go to the training farm also made aliyah.
Here I feel obligated to especially mention Moshe Rubentshik of blessed memory. I worked with him in the branch in our town and together we went to the training farm. He was the youngest among his brothers and sisters (his six brothers and sisters were all murdered by the Nazis and there were no survivors of his family). While very young he joined the HeChalutz and was dedicated to it with all his heart. He endeared himself to all of us and was one of the activists in the branch. What he did was done with integrity and with complete faith that there was value in his work. He was level-headed, did not aspire to greatness and did not seek honor. When he came to the training farm of Kibbutz Borochov in Lodz, he tried to integrate in the life of the kibbutz of 400 young men and women from all parts of Poland. As in the HeChalutz branch in our town, here also in the kibbutz, he was one of the workers. Everybody knew and admired the young lad, who was accustomed to sit for many hours after work in the reading room, immersed in reading. In 1938 he was sent by the kibbutz to participate in a seminar of the central HeChalutz in Warsaw. On his return from the seminar he became one of the central members of the kibbutz.
In 1938, when dozens of members of the kibbutz were approved to make aliyah, he was not amongst the happy ones, for he was assigned to fulfill responsible roles in the kibbutz. In his way, he accepted the verdict without arrogance and resentment in his heart.
Indeed, he was destined to fulfill important roles, but he did not succeed in attaining the role that he had set himself. While he was still so young and striving for life, he met his death when travelling with a group of the Warsaw ghetto fighters to organize a partisan activity in the Rubyashuv Forests. In the book The Destruction and Revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto by Melech Noy, Moshe Rubentshik is mentioned twice in the lists of active underground fighters. On Page 403 of the above book, a dedication to his memory is made quote:
One of the activists of the pioneering movement, a smiling face, good natured. Diligent and thirsting for knowledge. An avid reader, who enjoyed a casual conversation. Pleasant to friends and socially involved
With the Nazi occupation, he moved to Warsaw. He was one of the activists of the commune of the movement on 34 Rezshalna Street. He was one of the managers of the general kitchen that was supported by The Joint, where about 600 members of the movement ate. When the agricultural farm was restarted in Gruchov he was appointed manager, responsible for contact with the authorities. Tzvia and Frumkeh mention him in their letters as one of the activists in the underground movement. With establishment of the Jewish Fighting Organization, he was a member of the fighting company of 'Dror'. In the second half of 1942, he was sent with a group of partisans from the 'Dror' fighters from Warsaw to the Rubyashuv Forests, and there he gave his life.
At the end of September 1938, I visited our town after the Soviet army had entered parts of White Russia and Ukraine, which until the outbreak of the Second World War, were within the borders of Poland. I had a feeling that I had come to see the town of my birth for the last time.
Indeed, it was the same small town that I had left 4 years earlier, but confusion reined among the Jews of the town.
The Soviet army and the new rulers who had been appointed by the Soviet authorities began to introduce a new regime into daily life. The uncertainty and the anxiety from one day to the next existed in every home. Most people tried to adapt themselves to the new regime that the Soviet army began to impose, but the atmosphere was filled with worry and fear.
I came to the town in the evening of Simchat Torah. On the same evening the Jewish children in the town did not rejoice when waving the Simchat Torah flags. The Jews of the town did not wear festive clothes when going to the synagogue to rejoice in the Torah. A gloomy sadness enveloped the town. There was deep grief wherever one looked.
I was only in the town for one day. On that day I met with several members of the HeChalutz branch. They too were confused and in a mood of no-choice. The reality was difficult but clear. It was as if a divide separated me from them. Our paths diverged.
On the same day I also met with my friend from the Party Tuvia Levin his eyes expressed deep sorrow, his voice trembled when he spoke to me about the new situation that had come into being. He suggested that I stay in the town and adapt myself to the reality as well. When I rejected his suggestion, he understood how I felt and said Go, I wish you a successful journey. I wish that I could go with you too. And tears were visible in his eyes. Oh! How good it would have been if he and many others had gone too.
The day after I arrived, I left the town. This was on Simchat Torah towards evening, in 1939. The youth, who had meanwhile matured, and some others, went at the same time, to a public meeting that the new regime had organized. Other friends accompanied me part of the way to the outskirts of the town. I did not imagine then that this would be the last time that I would see the Jews of the town where I was born and grew up. I fled from the reality with which I could not reconcile. I did not envisage that this was the beginning of the destruction of the small Jewish community in my birthplace.
This was my last visit to the town. At the same time, its destruction had begun.
(Right to Left): M. Doktorovits, R. Grinvald, Tz. Grinvald, H. Shinkman, G. Menaker, Y. Goloventshitz
by Chanah Vineberg, Lodz
Translated by Esther Libby Raichman
If not for the cruel world war, many of us would certainly not have known the meaning of the word refugee, or that a little town of Swerznie exists.
In 1940, Swerznie had a Jewish population of approximately 400 inhabitants, and accepted a few hundred refugees escapees from towns and villages in Poland, that had been occupied by the Germans.
The main reason that so many refugees settled in Swerznie was, that they were not allowed to settle in the towns, but in Swerznie they all found a workplace at the sawmill.
The refugees found housing in the homes of Swerznie Jewish residents, and some lived with the White-Russian residents of the town.
Most of these refugees were lonely young people, among them, also some as young as 15-16 years of age, who still needed to be under the supervision of parents and educational institutions. They left their homes and went out into the world, not knowing their destination. Whole families moved into the Swerznie synagogue, and none of them thought that they had taken leave of those closest to them, forever.
The surroundings of the town were very beautiful on the one side, the mountain, and on the other side, the strongly flowing Niemen River, that formed the border with the town of Stoibtz. Life for the refugees was hard. Their longing for their homes and the families that they had left on the other side of the Bug River, made their lives difficult.
The new arrivals into the town were from various towns and villages in Poland, each with their own mentality, and of differing social strata: merchants, artisans, workers, retailers, as well as those who were educated. With time, they all became like one family, sharing the same fate, and living in the same circumstances. The existing population of the town also experienced the crisis.
Everyone had become workers, and the religious and national life changed. People had to work on the Sabbath and festivals. Early every morning, people could be seen coming out of all the small side streets into the main street, all on their way to work at the sawmill.
The refugees would come together, specifically to share their daily concerns with the others. The main thing was to have a good landlady who would assist and understand the fate of the refugee.
Every refugee waited impatiently for the time when their workday ended, because then, the postman Velvl Kliatshuk would hand out the letters that were received from the other side. The letters made it clear to the recipients, that despite their difficult life, they needed to be happy that they were not there together with their families but regretted that they were separated from those closest to them.
We understood that we had to take life as it was, and we grew accustomed to our circumstances. Each day we went to and from work. The salary was very small, and many began to suffer from lack of nourishment. The clothes that we had brought from home had become ragged at work and we remained without sufficient clothes and shoes. Those who had suits of clothes for the Sabbath wore them to work and for that reason, one of us was given the name Burmishtsh. It was not for pleasure that we wore those clothes to work.
The folk song Here the market, the synagogue, the church and the important cultural centre, the fire station, was very appropriate for the little town of Swerznie, for it was indeed in the building of the firemen that gatherings took place, at which unfortunately, one had to listen to the propaganda of the authorities. Movies and other entertainment also took place there.
After a certain time, a Jewish dramatic group was established that presented the play 200,000 by Sholem Aleichem. A few weddings also took place between the refugees and the Swerznie residents.
Despite this, the yearning for their former homes, remained. Their longing was aroused particularly on Friday evenings, when they went out into the streets and through the open windows, saw candles burning and families sitting together at their table. When the opportunity arose, each one of us talked about our past and what we dreamt, about our homes.
Life continued in this way until the sad day when the first German aircraft appeared. No one imagined that we were already surrounded by terrible anti-Semitism. Everyone was confused, not knowing what to do. No one imagined that in a couple of days, the Germans would be in the town. There was an order not to leave the workplace, and yet, many tried to flee the town and go to Russia but most of them returned because they would not have been able to travel that distance with small children; however, a large part of the youth left in the first days, and they managed to reach far into Russia.
The Germans entered the town on the 27th June 1941. That was when the tragedy began the town was bombarded with heavy artillery. The first victim was a refugee, Marian Laufer, who died from a bullet as he was running on the steps of the synagogue where he and his family were living. His two sisters-in -law were there with their infants. Marian died on the spot. One of his sisters-in-law was severely wounded, holding her tiny baby in her arms. She died the next day, leaving a victim for the Germans her new-born child. Everyone was sorry about Marian's death, but no one imagined then, that Marian Laufer and his sister-in-law were fortunate that they died, because they were saved from the fate of the other Jews.
Marian was a young man of 20, always with a smile on his face. He would always sing on his way to work. His death cast a fear on the town. One no longer saw the Jewish youth in the streets. Everyone locked themselves in their houses. It resembled the calm before a storm.
All those refugees who lived with the White-Russian residents had to leave their accommodation. Many of the houses were burnt down, the refugees had to find homes, there was no food allocation and hunger prevailed. Many refugees gathered in a house and established a co-operative enterprise. They would take off into the fields at night with a sack and steal beetroots, carrots, cucumbers and unripe potatoes. They lived from day to day.
This lasted for as long as they were able to move around freely. Sad news was received daily from the neighboring town of Stoibtz. Those who were educated in that town had been shot.
The more the Germans triumphed at the fighting front, and the deeper they went into Russia, the more, the cruel fate of the Jews became increasingly closer.
The first mass-murder that was carried out in the town and that terrified the Jews, took place on the eve of Yom Kippur 1941. Thirty of the youth, in the prime of
their lives, were taken to the Jewish cemetery and killed there. A few Jews, who were standing nearby, covered the grave with soil.
A deep sadness descended on all the Jews in the town, the parents of the victims, their sisters and brothers. Everyone felt that this was only the beginning.
Among those who perished were Rita Hust aged 20, from Warsaw, Dodke Mandelboim 19, from Lodz, Batya, a girl of 16, a sister-in-law of Laufer, a son of the Zisk family, a daughter of the Freiman family, and others whose names I have forgotten. Those who were murdered and still had someone remaining in the town were mourned. Perhaps the others also had relatives somewhere, but those relatives did not even know the how a close relative perished, or where their graves were.
Each day brought new decrees and the previous day, had to be forgotten.
One of the refugees, Shvertak, from Warsaw, was a member of the Judenrat in the town.
A short time later we were notified that all the Jews in the town would have to be locked into a ghetto, over the course of a week. Those who were assigned to the ghetto began wandering around in their houses. Whoever found it possible provided themselves with food. They were only afraid of hunger …
Mostly, the Jews worked in the sawmill, some of them were sent to work elsewhere.
A short time after settling in to the ghetto, an order was received, that all women and children, as well as those who were not employed, must assemble at the marketplace in the morning. It did not occur to anyone that all these people were being assembled for the last time, and that their lives would end as cruelly as they ended.
The men left for work at the sawmill. In the distance they heard shooting with machine guns. It did not enter their minds that in a matter of a few hours, the German murderers, with the help of the White-Russian police, had killed all the women, children and older men.
When the men returned from work, the ghetto looked like the aftermath of a slaughter. Many of the children, who wanted to run back into the ghetto area, were shot from behind and that is how the bodies of these children remained. Another boy, the son of a refugee Adon Olam was pursued by a policeman who, with the butt of his rifle, split the boy's head. All these bodies of the children - who so yearned to live were buried in a mass grave in the ghetto.
Whole families perished. The lonely men who remained, without their wives and children, looked like shadows. On the next day, the ghetto was settled with Jews who were brought from the town of Turetz, where the Jewish population was massacred, and the town was made free of Jews.
Soon we were informed that we were no longer in a ghetto but in a labour camp, as Jews who were needed for work. The camp was enclosed, a general kitchen was organized, and the workers were taken to work and back every day, walking in rows, guarded by a German.
Some of the Jewish artisans with expertise were attached to the carpentry workshop. A refugee, Rosenberg, also worked there. When the Swerznie policeman Kandibovitsh turned to him and asked him to adjust a wooden part of his automatic rifle, Rosenberg told him that he would not make anything that would serve to murder women and children. The murderer Kandibovitsh told him that he would get even with him. Rosenberg knew what awaited him and disappeared. His fate is unknown.
The remaining Jews understood, and knew what tomorrow could bring. Yet, each one thought: perhaps I will survive.
But the youth began to organize themselves and seek ways to avoid being slaughtered. The main idea was to access guns.
Once, on a summer's day, after returning from work, police entered the area of the camp, looking for guns in the house of Rubin, of whose family, only one son remained. The search was without result, but not without victims. They apprehended Shvertak, the leader of the camp, and another five Jews and escorted them to the Stoibtz police station. Shvertak, who could extricate himself from every situation, this time, lost his life. No one came out alive from the police station. One of the refugees, named Kazshik Reichman, became camp leader after Shvertak.
In this tragedy, a heroic deed was performed by the tailor, Menches, who, together with his son Gedalya, worked in the tailoring workshop at the sawmill. Among the five Jews who were arrested and accused of purchasing guns from the Ukrainians, was Gedalya. Menches was arrested at the sawmill and detained. When they came to take him the next morning, they found him hanged. It appears that he did not want to die by the hand of a murderer. He was the last of his entire family.
We all deeply mourned the death of
Menches the tailor. While working at the sawmill, he helped many of us with food.
Rumours circulated that there were many Jews in the forests, who had fled from places where Jews were murdered, but people were afraid to talk about it. It was known that there was a man named Shpiegel in the forest who had lost his wife and child in Swerznie. Those Jews who worked at the sawmill picked up various items of news. The fact that they were seeing transports of wounded German soldiers passing through on the railway line that ran through the sawmill, brought us great joy.
A Jewish girl worked in the office of the sawmill, a refugee Steppa Tsharnetzka from Warsaw. When one looked at her, one would think that she had absolutely nothing in common with Jews. She had a dwelling, received a salary from the Germans, and had access to newspapers and the radio. She immediately communicated every news item that she thought would give the Jews pleasure, for example, when the director was supposed to travel to Minsk, and did not go because the partisans had blown up the railway line - and other such news that was of interest to us.
Once, she heard that Sudeten Jews would be able to bring food and clothing from home, so she went to the German director and asked for a Propusk (a permit to be approved). She was happy if she could do something for the Jews. She also delivered part of her produce to the camp, for those who were most in need of food. More than once she joined the rows of Jews being escorted home from their work, so that she could stay overnight with everyone in the camp. She said that she would be happier if she could be together with all the Jews, as she knew, that the privileges that she received because of her work with the Germans, would not save her from the fate of other Jews.
Steppa Tsharnetzka looked like a gentile, she possessed a fine character, a Jewish heart. She used to say, that if she had someone with whom to escape, she would do it. Unfortunately, she was not successful.
Those who were at work began to notice that the triumphant Germans were beginning to suffer defeat. Part of the Ukrainian prisoners of war began to flee, every day more transports of the wounded passed through, and more often, news was received of acts of sabotage that were carried out by the partisans. Jews in the camp, who wanted to escape, organized themselves into groups. They were only restrained by the fact that they knew that the remaining Jews would suffer. This created friction between the youth and the older people. It reached the level of fighting. It was fortunate that the Germans did not get to know about it; everyone acted with restraint, but also with suspicion towards one another. Everyone slept with their eyes and ears open and listened to every rustle outside.
In the entire vicinity, in all the towns and villages, there were no longer any Jews, except for the Swerznie camp, and the last 200 remaining Jews in the Stoibtz ghetto. Those remaining did no longer want to surrender their fate easily, and in every house, there was someone who was prepared to resist, if it would be necessary.
The following incident happened unexpectedly on an extremely cold day in the month of January, when everyone was walking in rows on their return from work. In these same rows, on the same route into the camp, walked the heroic partisan, Hirsh Prossesorsky. Under his peasant coat he had guns. He had come to take the Jews out of the camp.
Only a couple of people knew about his presence and yet, a distinctive quietness prevailed among the Jews who were returning from work. Those who knew about it, thought with beating hearts, about the fate of the remaining 320 Jews.
A few hours later, when everyone was preparing to go to sleep, Prossesorsky ordered that people should go from house to house to notify all the Jews in the camp that each one, old and young, should be prepared to leave the camp.
Not everyone however, accepted it so easily. Not everyone agreed to leave the camp, and a panic developed. It is difficult to understand what deterred them. What did they have to lose? Or perhaps they no longer had the strength and had become indifferent to suffering, and it is possible that each one of them believed that after all they had experienced, they would yet remain alive.
There was, however, no time to think. Leaving the ghetto had to happen quickly. Part of those who had left the camp that night turned back. The others ran further and did not turn back. Only when they reached the first forest, could they breathe freely. Each one was somewhat confused, and still not able to understand what had happened and still did not have time to think about the whereabouts of the others. However, we learned that the Germans assembled them all, and shot them. How tragic it is, when one remembers that many young people who could have saved their lives, remained in the camp and surrendered themselves to a cruel fate.
Hirsh Prossesorsky achieved his goal. He took out a large portion of the Jews from the Swerznie ghetto and lifted the spirits of those who remained alive. The little town of Swerznie remained free of Jews, and all that was left behind was plundered.
Prossesorsky did not receive great honor from the natshalstve (official leader), for bringing a few physically and spiritually broken Jews. If he had brought tens of guns instead of Jews, he would have been regarded as a hero. At that time, guns were of utmost importance. For the sake of guns, Prossesorsky later gave up his young life.
In the forest they were overwhelmed by the new regulations and they wandered from place to place. One rightly felt, that here too, Jews were not liked, but each one knew, that one would not perish here in the same manner as in the camp, where one's life depended on the Germans.
This was a time when one did not know what tomorrow would bring. One could not stay in one place, it was difficult to acquire food, and Ukrainian bandits armed by the Germans, were rampant.
After a short time in the forest, on an initial venture to bring food, a few people died, among them the refugee, Barek a young man of 19, who was born in Warsaw.
Some time later, a dead person was found in the forest. It was the refugee Mietek Milgrom from Warsaw, who was one of the people in the group that left with Prossesorsky.
The circumstances of the Swerznie Jews who had fled into the forest, was difficult enough and became more and more difficult. The official leaders of the Partisans came to the conclusion that the unarmed Jews were a disadvantage to them, and they divided some of the Jews into various combat groups. They also began sending out unarmed groups of Jews, and as they would have said, go and do what you will.
The Jews, however, took this up with courage, the forests were enormous, and the Germans did not enter them. The danger for the Jews were the Ukrainian and White-Russian bandits who were armed by the Germans and wandered from forest to forest.
Despite the difficulties that they experienced in the forest, no one died of hunger.
Those Jews who were assigned to the partisan groups, fought bravely together with all the other partisans, and also excelled in their heroism. One of these was Pela Rosenzaft a girl from Lodz who volunteered to blow up a factory in Slutzk, carrying an explosive in a loaf of bread. As a policeman told the partisans, peasants caught her and handed her over to the Germans. They tortured her terribly and hanged her publicly in the marketplace in Slutzk.
When the first news was received that the Red Army had liberated the vicinity from the Germans, everyone rejoiced. We began to take account of our situation. We were again left without a home and there was nowhere to go. Many of the refugees died in the Swerznie camp, among others: the doctor of the camp Arbuz, and his wife and son, the two
Kazia Finezilber, may the Lord avenge her blood
Born in Warsaw 1919
friends Rita Hast and Kazia Finezilber two female students from Warsaw who dreamed of continuing their studies, a son of the Zisk family with his young wife Mala, Tshusniak with his wife Frumke who was one of the first refugees in Swerznie, Rivka Rosenowitz and Regina Goldberg, both students from Lodz and more, whose names I no longer remember.
With the liberation of the area by the Red Army, the shedding of Jewish blood did not end.
Some of those who saved their lives while in the forest, were sent to the front, and lost their lives there, among them: Velvl Ruzshe, who left behind a wife and a small child, Kalman Stolovitze, Elek Mandelboim aged 18, Krishtal Henyek who left behind a wife and child.
The town looked terrible after the destruction.
The houses that were destroyed looked like ruined gravestones without homeowners, women and children. The street at the township was paved with the gravestones from Jewish graves. One was driven to leave the orphaned little town as soon as possible.
At the cemetery, where innocent women and children were murdered, there was no sign of graves. Wagons that drove over them left deep tracks of their wheels. A silence prevailed, and yet it seemed that one could still hear the screams of the women and children who died.
(A chapter from the Memorial Book of Ostrov-Mazovyetsk)
by Alter Rostker
Translated by Ruth Murphy
During sleepless nights when varied images and thoughts about the tragic past come to mind, the whole nightmare of those horrific past years, one can hardly believe that all this actually happened, that it was a reality: that all these people, friends, relatives and acquaintances, each of whom was a world in their own right, perished in such a cruel manner: at that time, two people stand out most distinctly, who through their deeds, deserve to be included in the history of Jewish heroism, in the various ghettos.
My first hero is a boy aged ten, I have forgotten his first name. His family name was Leibovicz, (the son of Ette Yakov, son of Chane Feige, A. D. Sh.). I will tell about him quite briefly.
In 1939, when the German troops occupied our town Ostrov-Mazovyetsk, all the Jews ran in the direction of the Soviets. My family and I lived like many refugees in the White-Russian town of Swerznie, three kilometers from Stoibtz, close to the Polish-Russian border. We lived like this until 22nd June 1941. Part of the White-Russian population and also part of the wealthier peasantry, received the war with joy. They all lived fairly well under the Soviets. There were various reasons for this: the wealthy peasant was afraid
A. Rostker, of blessed memory,
Died in America in 1960
Esther Rostker, May G-d revenge her blood,
Perished in the Swerznie ghetto together
with her two children, Yudel and Batya
of the collective farms; others simply wanted to plunder, they had already tried to do this in 1939, when the Soviets occupied the eastern part of Poland. Then the White-Russian peasant plundered the possessions of the Poles, the so-called settlers that the Polish government had settled in the White-Russian areas and given them big concessions, in order to make the area more Polish.
The only ones who looked on in sorrow, pain and fear at the last retreating Soviet military units, were the Jews. With the approach of the German soldiers, true hell began for the Jews. Some White-Russians joined the police with the aim of plundering Jewish possessions. Dark and cruel days and nights began. We were without any legal protection. Any White-Russian peasant could do with us, what he pleased. At night they would shoot into Jewish homes. The children, in fear of death, would cling to their parents. They would come at night to take Jewish girls, supposedly to wash the floors at the police station. There they would torture them and rape them. They would arrange the so-called gatherings of the Jews, chase them through all the streets, without sparing any beatings. Criminals ruled over our lives, the underworld of the worst kind, so that our lives became absolutely wretched. We became degraded and humiliated even by those non-Jewish people who took no part in the torture.
For certain reasons, we had to modify some passages.
In addition, they regarded us as an inferior people with whom one should have no contact. We felt isolated and devastated, surrounded by enemies. It was therefore no wonder that we became indifferent to death. The White-Russian spies incited terrible anti-Jewish propaganda. Dr. Shtshort and Shkutke (two young non-Jewish men from Swerznie - A. D. Sh.). These were two Russian characters who fled to Berlin at the time when the Polish Government dissolved the White-Russian party Hramada to which they belonged. Hitler cultivated them and waited for the moment when he would be able to use them for his plundering purposes. These were candidates for the promised White-Russian state. In the meantime, they travelled around delivering venomous speeches in all the small towns of White-Russia and poisoned the already polluted air.
On the 10th October 1941, the gestapo arrived and selected 30 Jewish girls and other youth from Swerznie and shot them. After that everyone understood that our fate was sealed. On 5th November 1941, they chose a few people capable of working, and the rest were transported in groups to the cemetery where a huge and terrible grave had already been dug. They forced the victims to go into the grave themselves, and in this way, they shot dead, all the Jewish people in the town: old people, women and children. On that day, the White-Russian women sat at the cemetery all day waiting for the clothing that they would remove from the victims. The little Leibovicz boy, whom I knew, and whose appearance always drew my attention and whose face now bore expressions of stubbornness and confidence mixed with nervousness. I used to see, when he played with other children, that he was an unusual child. That day the 10-year-old boy went with his mother, sister and brothers to the cemetery. He did not want to go into the pit. He tore himself away from his mother's hands, hastily grabbed handfuls of sand and stones and threw them at the murderers. He did this in a flash, until they shot him, but not in the pit. They had to pull him into the pit themselves. This is how David's descendant stood, in the battle against the greatest Goliath of all times, who were armed to the teeth, while the boy possessed only a little sand from the
cemetery . . ..
The second hero was a Jewish farmer from the village of Kisyelavshtshinne, three kilometers south of Swerznie. His name was Fyvl, who was known as the best farmer in the whole vicinity. He ploughed, sewed and reaped his fields himself, and lived the life of a farmer.
When the hangmen began to cleanse the villages of Jews, Fyvl met with the same fate. From quite early on, his house was guarded on all sides by White-Russian police, awaiting the arrival of the chief of the police, who was due to come. When he came, they wanted to take Fyvl and his family out to be shot. He did not allow them into his house and firmly closed the door. They then opened fire on his house, killing his wife and two children. Fyvl then opened the window and began a desperate battle with the murderers. He hurled stones at them, bottles, weights and anything that
came to hand. He hit a policeman on the head with a bottle, wounding him severely. Then he saw that they retreated and opened an even stronger fire. He then poured out kerosene and set his house alight from the inside. He himself exited from a rear window, ran about 200 meters and fell from a bullet that hit him in the fields, that he had toiled with sweat and blood over the course of tens of years. The peasants of his village later boasted that our Fyvl did not go to the slaughter himself. For a long time, I saw the German murderer walking with a bandaged head. One person from our camp asked him who had beaten him, and he answered with German bluntness: what did the Jew have against me? After all it was an order.
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