My beloved mother Leah, of blessed memory, used to say to me: Remember to always look who's behind you and not who is in front of you, in order to encourage yourself about your situation. Her advice accompanied me for many years, along the many hardships that I went through, and not once gave me hope during the most difficult times.
In this book I would like to tell about the events that I went through, at times, to the smallest details, in order to illustrate the journey of sufferings and terrible tragedies that I went through during the Second World War and after it, in the Germans' terror camps and in the Russians' coercion camps, under the conditions of hunger, cold, and hard labor, under a brutal regime and unbearable living conditions.
How I managed to survive the hardships and the torment that killed so many, including those who were much stronger than me? Was it a strong willpower? The will to survive? Or maybe I, the sole survivor among them, was saved so I will be able to write about the fate of my family members? Or maybe it was, above all, luck? I was never able to find an answer to these questions, and they will forever remain a mystery among other deceptive enigmas of fate.
I'm writing this story in order to tell and commemorate, even slightly, the terrible agony that I had suffered together with the millions of other innocent victims, the victims of the Nazi extermination machine which cut down from the world the life and the culture of millions of Jews who lived in Europe for centuries.
I would like to dedicate the book to the memory of my family members who were murdered by the Germans during the Holocaust - my father Lejzor, my mother Leah, my brother Srulik and my beloved sisters Freidki, Chaya-Zelke and Rutkah.
Family Background and my Life in Szczuczyn
Until the Outbreak of the War
I was born on 21 November in the year 1920, 10 Heshvan 5681, to my parents Eliezer (Lejzor) and Leah-Gitel (from the Kovarski family) in the city of Szczuczyn, which lies 96 kilometers north-west of Bialystok in northern Poland.
The background of the city of Szczuczyn:
Szczuczyn is mentioned in the sources as early as 1222. At the end of the 17th century it was granted the status of a city. At the end of the 19th century small industrial plants were established in it, among them brandy distilleries, flour mills and a factory for the production of carpets. In the period between the two world wars a soap factory, an oil factory and a grinding mill were added to the city.
Jewish families already started to settle in the city of Szczuczyn in the 18th century, and in the 19th century, the number of Jews increased in it due to the uprooting of Jews from the villages to the cities. At the end of the 19th century the number of Jews in Szczuczyn reached to about three quarters of the city's population. In the first decades of the 20th century the number of Jews decreased due to the migration of young people from the place.
In the first decades of the 20th century the majority of Szczuczyn's Jews engaged in craft and small trade, mainly in tailoring and shoemaking. The city's bakers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, milliners and the barbers were Jews. However, the economic situation of most of the Jews deteriorated during this period, mainly due to the impoverishment of the agricultural population, which caused the local farmers to minimize their purchases. Another factor was the boycott that was imposed on the Jewish trade and on the services of the Jewish craftsmen.
In 1925, a number of financial institutions, which support the residents, were established in the city: the Association of Jewish Merchants for Mutual Aid, the Association of Craftsmen, and also a local cooperative bank which assisted with loans. At the same time charitable funds also operated in the city.
The city of Szczuczyn was very advanced culturally. There were two libraries which contained books and news papers. The city's residents, especially the youth, read a lot and were exposed to culture
All the Jews of the community of Szczuczyn were religious. There was a Great Synagogue which stood for centuries, two Batei Midrash, and also a number of shtiebelekh (small houses of prayer and study) in the city. Until 1931, the genius rabbi, Rabbi Yoselle ztl, was the rabbi of the community of Szczuczyn. He was known in the Jewish world for his personality, modesty and his knowledge of the Torah and in the Halakha.
Even the Christians believed in his holiness, and Polish farmers begged him to bless their crops. Many attended his funeral, which was held in 1931, among them were rabbis from all the corners of Poland. The last rabbi that served in Szczuczyn was HaRav Tzvi Efron.
The Jews of Szczuczyn were also very Zionist, and the Zionist activity in Szczuczyn was very lively, and first Zionist organization, Bnai Zion, was established in the city in 1898. Branches of the Bund and Poalei Zion were established in the early years of the 20th century. In 1916 a branch of the Zionist federation was established in the city, and branches of the various Zionist parties started to work in the city. From 1920 and onwards branches of the various youth movements were opened in the city. Branches of almost all the Jewish and Zionist parties, which existed at that time in Poland, operated in the city: HaMizrahi, Torah Vavoda, Hashomer Hadati, Tzionim Klaliym, Poalei Zion, Hashomer Hatzair, HeHalutz, Hanoar Hatzioni, Betar, Mizrahi, Maccabi, Agudat Yisrael, and the Bund. In 1925, the Halutz movement operated a Hachshara Kibbutz in the place to train Halutzim [pioneers] for immigration to Israel. Additional Hachshara Kibbutzim were operated by Betar, and Poalei Yisrael. The Maccabi association organized the sport activities among the city's Jews.
Most of the city's young people, who joined these movements, sought to immigrate to Israel. But at that time the authorities of many countries refused to accept Jews. In the years before the outbreak of the Second World War, the authorities in the United States banned the entry of Jewish refugees to their country. The immigration to Israel was also limited because the British restricted the number of entry visas. Jews, who were able to leave Poland before the war and arrived to countries like the United States, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Australia and Israel, saved their lives.
A few years before the beginning of the Second World War, at the beginning of the 1930s, the political party Endecja (ND Narodowa Demokracja) was established in Poland. The party, which had an anti-Semitic platform, started an economic boycott and pogroms against the Jews. The Jews of Szczuczyn suffered a lot from the economic boycott and from damage to property and lives. The Jewish youth wanted to leave Poland, but it had nowhere to turn. Some left in an illegal immigration to Israel, but it was only possible for a few.
On the eve of the Second World War there were approximately 3,000 Jews in Szczuczyn who constituted about 55% of the city's population.
My father's family:
My father Eliezer (Lejzor) was born on December 16, 1890 in Grajewo, which lies 14 kilometers north-east of Szczuczyn. The city was slightly larger than Szczuczyn and strong cultural ties existed between the two Jewish communities.
My father's parents, Zishki and Sara-Feiga Wertman, worked as bakers, a profession that most of their family members engaged in, including their brothers and sisters. My father decided to shake himself free from this family tradition and studied millinery. Later on he opened a millinery shop in the city of Szczuczyn. He was quiet and industrious in his nature and drew away from public activities and politics.
My father was the eldest in his family and had four younger brothers.
One brother, named Shmuel, was killed in the following circumstances: In 1920 there were heavy battles between the Polish and the Russian forces in the north-east front of Poland. The Russians, which were repulsed by the Poles under the command of General Haller, managed to escape with the help of seven young Jewish men from Grajewo. Among them was my uncle Shmuel, my father's brother. The Russians continued to retreat toward Augustów while the seven young Jews hid in the village of Bargłów. When the soldiers of the Polish Army entered Bargłów, the Gentiles handed the young Jewish men to them, and they killed them immediately. I was born that year and was given the second name Shmuel after my uncle who was murdered.
who was murdered by the Poles in 1920
My father's second brother was Chaim Berel. He became ill and died before I got to know him, but I know that he was a great Torah prodigy.
My father's third brother was named Shepsel. He was killed in Treblinka during the Second World War while trying to protect another young Jewish man.
My father's fourth brother, the youngest, was named Yitzchak (Itza) Meir. In the 1920s he left Poland and immigrated to Mexico. A few years later he tried to settle in Israel but in 1939 one of his children became ill and he returned to Mexico. In 1951 I located his address with the help of his brother-in-law, who immigrated to Israel from my city, and kept in touch with him.
In addition to the four brothers, I think that my father also had another sister who died at a young age.
next to the grave of the seven young Jewish men who were murdered by the Poles in Bargłów
My mother's family:
My mother, Leah-Gitel, was born on December 4, 1893 in the city of Szczuczyn. Her parents, Yitzchak and Chaya Kovarski, passed away before I was born. As far as I know, they owned a grocery store. My mother was the youngest daughter in her family, and she had two sisters and five brothers, who were older from her. Her two sisters got married and moved to live with their husbands in the city of Grajewo.
All of my mother's brothers immigrated to the United States before the First World War due to the recruitment of their eldest brother to the Czar's Russian Army. One Saturday night, shortly after his induction into the Czar's Army, my uncle arrived, accompanied by two Cossacks, to say goodbye to his family. The family members offered the Cossacks food and drink and at the same time my grandfather took my uncle and fled with him from the Polish territory, which was dominated at that time by the Russians, so he won't have to return to the Czar's Army. After my uncle crossed the border he immigrated to the United States. His four brothers joined him later on. My mother's parents didn't want to join them because they were more religious than them.
In 1920 or 1921, one of my uncles came from the United States to visit my parents' home in Szczuczyn. He wanted us to join him in the United States and even submitted a number of emigration requests, but each time these requests were denied by the American authorities.
After the war I located the address of one of my mother's brothers, Ezri Kova, in the United States, and a contact was created between us. He offered me to come and live with him in the United States, but I opted to live in Israel.
My mother's sisters stayed with their families in Grajewo. Except for few of their offspring, who migrated to other countries, they, and most of their family members, perished in the Holocaust.
My childhood and youth:
My father and mother met and married each other on November 15, 1916, when my mother was 22 and my father was about 25. They chose to live together in Szczuczyn. My father worked as a milliner, and sold the hats that he made in a shop which was adjacent to our home. Besides him there were two other milliners in Szczuczyn, but the hats that they made were simpler than hats that my father made.
My mother was a homemaker and devoted her life to the care of her children and to the many household chores.
My parents had two sons and four daughters: my eldest sister Freida (Freidki) was born in 1918, I was born in 1920, my brother Srulik (Yisrael-Chaim) was born in 1923, my sister Chaya-Zelke was born on May 31, 1925, and my youngest sister Ruth (Rutki) was born on 5 January 1928. Before my eldest sister was born, my parents had another daughter named Chaya who died of meningitis when she was six years old. I don't remember her at all.
Our home was a religious Lithuanian home. Every morning we used to pray in the synagogue. We always received the Sabbath with special preparations: my mother cleaned the house for the Sabbath, made challot and cakes every Thursday night, and on Friday took them to the bakery to bake them. She also used to bring the cholent that she made to the bakery. On Sabbath morning, like all the other Jews in the city, we took the cholent home for our Sabbath meal.
Shortly before the entrance of the Sabbath, the synagogue's dayan walked between the shops in the city and announced that it was time to close the shops for the approaching Sabbath. All the city's Jews - men, women and children - gathered in the synagogue for the Sabbath prayer. Guests, who arrived to the city, were always invited for a Friday night dinner at the homes of the city's residents. During the festive meal Sabbath songs were sounded from every house. After the meal, every Friday night and also on the Sabbath, we wore our best clothes and went for a stroll in the city's main street.
We also celebrated the Jewish holidays in the city's streets. On Purim, we used to go out into the streets in costumes. Of course, the costumes were much simpler than those of today: we used to turn the coat to the other side and smear different materials on our face, in particularly coal, and that was the entire costume.
We celebrated the holiday of Passover properly. We always cleaned the house thoroughly for the holiday. My parents took out all the dishes and books from the cupboards to air them out, and brought down all the special Passover dishes from the attic. We helped them with these chores and it was a very emotional experience for us. Mother prepared special foods for the holiday such as Griven - a delicious dish made of geese fat, and also pancakes that were made from crushed Matzot. We crushed the Matzot with a lager wooden mallet which was passed from house to house.
We used to celebrate the Seder within the limited family circle. Father always had a headache on the night of the Seder because the men, who came on that day to his shop to buy a hat for the holiday, almost always came after they visited the barber shop and all kinds of odors evaporated from their hair. Father was sensitive to these odors and got himself a headache for the rest of that day.
Economically, we weren't very rich, but also not poor. We lived in a rented house next to the shop. It had two rooms and a kitchen, and the bathroom was in the yard. The living conditions in those days demanded a lot of work: we used to draw the bathing water, which weren't good for drinking, from a well in the yard. A Gentile woman brought our drinking water from the river. We bought fresh milk from a Jewish woman called Pearl the Millachika (Pearl the milkmaid).
We heated the house with a porcelain stove, which stood between the two rooms, and lit a fire in it using wood and peat (and later by coal). There was a stove for cooking in the kitchen that we also lit with wood and peat. For the winter we bought a stock of firewood and peat for the entire winter, and stored it in a shed in the yard. In the same shed was a small coop with a number of chicken which were intended for slaughter or for the Kapparot roll on Yom Kippur.
Market days, in which we bought various products from the local Gentile farmers, were held in the city every Tuesday and Friday. The farmers' wives sold dairy products such as cheese, butter, eggs and chickens, while the farmers sold peat, wood and also various vegetables such as potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables. We especially bought large quantities of certain vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots and beets - a number of sacks that each one weighed dozens of kilograms - to suffice us for an extended period of about three quarters of a year. During that time we kept them in the cellar of our home. We covered the potatoes with straw to keep them from spoiling during the winter. In the cellar there was also a barrel of pickled cabbage that we prepared ourselves.
In the summer we bought different kinds of fruit from the Jews who leased orchards from the Gentiles. They grew the fruit for several months, until it ripened, and then sold it in the market. At the end of the summer we made fruit jam from various fruits such as apples, cherries and plums, and also made wine for Passover.
When I was a teenager the first tomatoes came to our region. At first we didn't like their taste and we ate them seasoned with salt or with herring.
As a baby, I was a very sick. My mother traveled with me to different doctors in the area and to rabbis who gave her charms for me. She told me that at one time a skeptical doctor examined me, and immediately after tried to comfort her: Never mind, you're still young and you'll have other children. But, I overcame the diseases, and maybe because of them I became strong and immune, and my body was able to withstand the severe hardships that came on me later.
As a child I was diligent and quite. I had a singing talent from a very young age, and at a tender age I climbed on the table in our house and sang Cantorial music.
Until the age of six I spent my time with my family and not in any educational framework. At the age of six I started to study at Talmud-Torah in Szczuczyn. We studied there from morning to evening with two breaks during the day. The studies were mainly based on the Chumash, Tanakh and Gemara. We learned to read the Hebrew letters so we'll be able to read the Bible and the prayers in Hebrew. Those, who weren't able to read at the end of the first grade, had to repeat it until they were able to read. As a result of this method, there weren't any illiterate students in our school. In fourth grade we also started to study other subjects: Polish, history, geography and arithmetic. Since then, I've always tended to the fields of geography and history.
As children we used to play different games: we made balls from various rags and played with them or with a hoop that we rolled on the ground with a wire. In the winter, when we studied at night, we used to make lanterns for ourselves.
We took the bottom part of a shoe polish box, created three holes in it, put a candle on it and covered it with the upper part of a bottle. We tied it with a wire, and then, we had a lantern.
When I was about eight and a half, my father bought me and my little brother a new pair of shoes for the holiday of Shavuot. They were made of canvas with rubber soles. It was an exciting new product for us, but within a short period of time these shoes have caused me a very serious infection with a large amount of pus, until I wasn't able to walk. The local doctor didn't know how to help me. I lay at home for several months until my grandmother from Grajewo said that there was a military doctor in their city who treats such problems. Mother left all the housework and traveled with me to the doctor in Grajewo. It was just before Rosh Hashanah. The doctor gave me an ointment and a special liquid against infection, and I washed my feet with it. He assured me that in ten days, when I come back to see him, I will walk on my feet, and so it was.
At the age of 11 I suffered from a sever ear infection, and again, I had a lot of pus secretion. I traveled with my father to the city of Bialystok (he used to go there to buy goods) to a doctor named Rigrotzki. The doctor examined me and prescribed medication that we paid a lot of money for. After awhile, the pus flow stopped but I continued to suffer from terrible pain because the pus remained inside the ear. We traveled again to the same military doctor in Grajewo, and he healed me.
After six years of regular study at Talmud-Torah, I continued to study in the same institution in a Yeshiva class. After I completed my seven years of studies, I wasn't able to continue my education in our city because we didn't have a high school.
I was faced, like all the other people in the city, with a number of options: one option was to study in a Yeshiva high school in one of the nearby cities like Grajewo, Łomża or Bialystok. The other option was to study in a regular high school in one of these cities. Only a few chose to go to such high schools because the studies were held on the Sabbath. The third option was to stay in Szczuczyn and study a profession.
I chose to travel together with several friends to a Yeshiva high-school named Nawardok (in Hebrew Beit Yosef) in Grajewo. In the Yeshiva we prayed every day and studied religion, Talmud and Gemara until late at night. Apart from religious and Gemara studies, a lot of emphasis was placed on our moral education (from here grew our nickname Musarnikim [moralizers]). We studied books of ethics, and a lot of emphasis was placed on the morality of our behavior. We weren't allowed, for example, to read newspapers and look at young women. So, for example, when I came home for a vacation I refused to shake the hands of my sisters' girlfriends. In our education there was also a great emphasis on modesty and humility. We used to put ourselves before different tests of self-abasement to adapt ourselves to the desired modesty.
For example, my friends used to lie on the ground and asked us to step on them, or go to the pharmacy and asked for a product that wasn't available, such as nails, only to feel the taste of humiliation.
1933 (Yitzchak is standing at the extreme left)
The year in the Yeshiva was divided into two semesters - the first from after Passover to Rosh Hashanah, and the second from after Sukkot to Passover. We were on vacation during the holidays. During each semester we had an arrangement according to which we ate every day of the week at the home of another family. My father used to come to Grajewo before the semester to organize my meals with different families, and the fact that he was a native of the city helped him with that. The practice of eating at the homes of different families was very common at that time. Children also ate dinner at the home of my parents in Szczuczyn. Children, who didn't have an arrangement for one of the days, existed all that day on black bread and tea which was brought to them. During that time no one complained about his lot.
I studied in Nawardok for two years until my eyesight was damaged. I decided to stop my studies and returned to live in my parents' home in Szczuczyn. I learned the millinery trade from my father and helped him in the shop. Until then, he had students who learned the profession from him and helped him to produce the hats. Father was very happy that I came to work in their place because I saved him the payment of their wages. Even though I was a young man, my father always consulted with me before buying new merchandise, about the color, type and the dimensions of the hats. Before the Jewish and Christian holidays there was a great demand for hats, and then we sat all night and sewed hats. Occasionally, we received special orders of hats from the Polish Army. Overall, the income was enough to sustain us. During those years I also helped my mother with the many household chores. In the winter, before the war, it seems to me that mother contracted pneumonia or typhoid and was very ill, but in the end she recovered from her illness.
As mentioned, during my youth many youth movements like - Betar, HeHalutz, Hashomer Hatzair, Mizrachi, Macabbi, and Agudat Yisrael - were active in Szczuczyn, and the youth spent a long time in them. There were various social and cultural activities in these movements, the members learned Hebrew and received training for immigration to Israel.
When I came back to live in Szczuczyn, at the end of my studies in the Yeshiva, I joined Pirchei Agudat Yisrael movement. We used to meet and talk, and also organized Bible studies. At that time I also studied Hebrew with one of the rabbis.
Yitzchak is standing fourth from the left
Later on I also joined the Betar movement where the members were at a higher level. There, I learned to play chess, and played for hours and hours until I reached a very high level, and was able to play in a number of tables simultaneously. We also played other games there, like ping-pong, gymnastics and soccer. At the age of 15 I started to wear glasses, and for that reason I was forced to stop playing soccer and started to play volleyball.
the members of the Betar organization in Szczuczyn, 1939
At that time I also went to the Macabbi organization's club. There were many options for activities there: at the entrance was a reading room with a wide range of newspapers from that period. Next to it was a huge hall which contained various facilities such as a piano, radio (which was very rare at that time), a ping-pong table, and various gym equipments.
There was also a library at the Macabbi club with about 3,000 books in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish. Most of the teenagers exchanged books there. At the age of 17 I was appointed director of the library. I read all the new books that arrived, mostly in Yiddish and a few in Hebrew. My sisters, on the other hand, mostly read in Polish.
In addition, there was also a choir at the Macabbi club, and I joined it. We also organized banquets and bazaars, in which we sold products made in Israel, and the income was dedicated to Keren HaKayemet [the Jewish National Fund]. We were very Zionist and thought a lot about the Land of Israel. Among others, there were times when we forbade ourselves from speaking Yiddish because we decided to only speak in Hebrew.
Srulik, and my mother.
Sitting on chairs (right to left): my uncle Shepsel (my father's brother), my grandfather Z'iski,
My great-grandmother Sara-Feigel, and my father.
Sitting on the floor (right to left): my sister Rutka and my sister Chaya-Zelke
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