by Meir Khartiner
Translated by Moshe Kutten
|From the Holy City, I remember my holy community, the crowning city-Ternopil,
in tears I remember you from the land of the Jordan River and Mount Khermon!
I left you on a cloudy day when the diaspora land began
to tremble under the feet of Israel.
Then the laws of nature changed, and dawn came from the west
and David's violin began playing songs of glory to Zion:
There is light there and joy, Torah and singing, the foreign land's darkness is forgotten
Oh, who knew that we would remember you laminating,
like remembering a wretched and tormented mother!
* * *
You were like a mother to us, a mother city in Israel,
* * *
Six million, one of every Jewish soul, the cannibals - decedents of the Vandals, annihilated,
|Ruins of the old synagogue in Ternopil after the war
by Avraham Oks
Translated by Moshe Kutten
Under the Soviet regime
Hitler's rise to power and the out-of-control antisemitism in Poland, which reached new heights under the influence of its western neighbor, foretold bad news to Polish Jews. They found themselves in an unbearable situation with no outlet. The ground dropped from under their feet, and not a single ray of light was visible on the horizon. However, the news about Hitler's invasion of Poland and the beginning of the war came down like a heavy blow. The heart prophesied evil, and it knew what was predicted.
During the 1939 summer months, the illusion that the war was preventable prevailed among the Polish residents. The events in Europe since Hitler entered the Saarland, and the signing of the Munich agreement, strengthened that illusion. No one predicted that Hitler would dare to challenge the western powers, who signed a defense treaty with Poland. Even less than that, nobody expected that the end of Poland would be decided in just a few days. The quick disintegration of the country, which declared from the crack of dawn to late in the evenings, of its strength and readiness (silni, zwarci, gotowi) astonished and depressed everybody. In a few days, the glory of Poland wallowed in the dirt, with its spine crushed. If the mighty have succumbed… thought the astonished Jews. They still haven't had time to shake off their confusion when the news about the conquest of the eastern part of Poland by the Soviet army. Poland invested a fortune in fortifying its eastern border. Everything was in vain because the calamity came from the west, from the friendly Germany.
The Soviet army was once in Ternopil in 1920. Its miserable look arose ridicule and repudiation. In those days, the Soviet regime looked like a creature born during the swirl of war and was doomed to disappear once life returned to normal. However, twenty years passed, and at that time, the red army was a regular army equipped with modern weapons and possessed exemplary discipline. Everybody felt that the Russian regime came to stay permanently.
The feelings of the Jewish population toward the ways things have developed were mixed. The initial response was a relief since the nightmare of a Hitlerian conquest was averted. The horrible news about the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the first days of the conquest in Poland reached Ternopil. Although the Soviet rule brought some dangers to the Jewish population, they were dangers of a different type. It was clear that the end has come to the lives before the war and that new lives began. Within a short time, with one swoop, the structure, built by generations, was obliviated. The community, movements, parties, and various organizations that Ternopil was blessed with, were paralyzed. The city activists who dedicated their lives to public activity were pushed aside, and new people, whom nobody knew, surfaced. All of a sudden, communists, in numbers beyond anybody's expectation, appeared and openly declared their affinity for the new regime and claimed that they were always loyal to the ideas of the revolution. The homes of the movements, parties, and organizations were confiscated and transferred to the hands of the new institutions that bore strange names. During the chaos of the first few days, Bar Kokhba's people managed to rescue their archive and hid it in a safe place until calamity passed. Public activity continued only in a very few areas, and the activists illusioned that these areas would remain available for them to work on: assistance to the refugees who escaped there from all corners of conquered Poland, the orphanage, and the hospital.
The first weeks of the new regime brought with it an economic awakening. Thousands of military personnel and officials, who flocked to Ternopil from Russia and neighboring areas, pounced on the goods
in the stores and bought the entire inventory higgledy-piggledy. However, the merchants sobered up when they realized that the value of the currency was low and in addition, it was not possible or advisable to replenish the inventory due to the lack of merchandise in the market and the negative attitude of the authorities toward private trade. That position by the merchants brought upon them the response from the authorities who began to use pressure means toward them. The authorities conducted searches in their homes, and suspects blamed for hiding goods were arrested. The authorities also organized a movement against the merchants they called The Nation's Anger. subsequently, the merchants were tried in show-off trials and sentenced to long jail times.
The regime formats and methods began to take shape slowly out of the chaos that prevailed in the first few days after the entrance of the Soviet army. The first blow was the deportations. In the Ternopil, the families of Jewish officers who served in the Polish army were arrested and sent as prisoners to Russia. Although there were only a few cases, it was enough to evoke fear among the Jews. People wished to prove that they were not related to the Polish regime.
The fate of other areas conquered by the Soviets, formally under Polish rule, was also sealed at that time. A special conference of the representatives of the professional unions, representatives of the factory workers, and others gathered in Lviv. The conference representatives decided to turn to the Soviet authorities and ask them to annex these Polish areas to the Soviet [Western] Ukraine and institute there the Soviet regime. A referendum held a short while after the conference aimed only to approve the conference's resolutions. Nobody dared to evade their participation or to voice their objections for the fear of risking one's life.
The only remaining connection to the outside world was the radio. Everybody listened to London broadcastings and believed that the western powers would begin a major offensive that would defeat the Germans and restore the situation, which existed before the war.
In the meantime, the Jews tried to get used to the new conditions and reality. The social revolution began. One after the other, old occupations were transferred to the hands of the government. The government stores, opened every day, drove the merchants out. The merchants did not receive allocations of goods [like the government stores] and had to make a living from what they had in their inventories. Their days were numbered.
A real revolution took place in the education field. The authorities launched a propaganda campaign to transfer the Jewish children to Yiddish-based schools that were established then. The propaganda found fertile ground. For years, the Polish Jews waged battles for their right to have Yiddish and Hebrew schools, but they achieved very little. And here, the regime granted them the rights they always wanted. There were no illusions about the character of those schools. However, just the fact that Jewish children would study together with Jewish teachers sounded positive, and the opinion that they should not miss the opportunity and overcome all difficulties, such as the lack of teachers that knew Yiddish, won. The Jews hoped that the schools would attract children of assimilators who did not even know the shape of a Hebrew letter, thereby they could serve as a barrier to assimilation.
Dark clouds began to gather on the horizon from many sides. Rumors spread in the city that Zionist leaders were ordered to go to the NKVD - [a service of the] Interior Ministry [called The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, later the Soviet regime's secret police]. The rumors said the leaders were interrogated there at length about the Zionists party's activities and its activists. The interrogees were sworn to secrecy. However, they did not hesitate to tell Dr. Tzvi Parnas the details since his personality was the center of these interrogations. Dr. Lippa, Dr. Horwitz, Kurfuerst, Ekselbirt, and in the end, also Dr. Parnas. A while later, Dr. Tzellermayer brought the news from Lviv about the arrests of the Zionist activists. This served as a warning to Ternopil's activists. The tension in the city increased, and the activists spent the night outside their homes any time suspicious preparatory activity was apparent since the arrests took place only at night.
There were mass arrests among the Poles, who were sent to inner Russia and central Asia. Officials, police staff, and officers were among the first to be deported. These arrests generated fear in the city and infused a depression in it.
The problem of the refugees from the western parts of Poland was on the agenda. Cut off from their families, discouraged by the gloomy reality, and filled with longing for their relatives who remained across the border, they seized the idea of returning. They were encouraged when the authorities announced the possibility of a population exchange of people who got stuck abroad.
When the mixed committee of population exchange was established, many refugees expressed their wish to return home during the census. However, it did not take long for the illusions to evaporate. The Germans refused to accept a large number of Jews, and the Soviet authorities considered these refugees, who refused to obtain Russian citizenship, a hostile element. During the night, mass arrests took place among the refugees. They were taken out of their beds, transported onto train cars prepared for them, and transported to inner Russia, east and north. These horrific nights made a somber impression on the local population, who shared in the sorrow of poor refugees but at the same time worried about their own fate, witnessing the cruelty and rigidity of the regime.
The reality also slapped the face of the Jews in other areas. The illusion of the system of Yiddish schools did not last long.
On a fine day, people found out that pressure was exerted on the school principal, Professor Hirshberg, to make Ukrainian the teaching language. The authorities did not heed the wishes of the parents, expressed in a special assembly, to manage the school in Yiddish. A short time later, the school disappeared, and Ukrainian schools replaced it.
In the meantime, the process of nationalization proceeded at a quick pace. All stores and industrial plants were transferred into the hands of the government, and their owners were left without resources and sources of income. Their bourgeois past played against them, and they could not secure a job in a plant or office. A rent level was established for every class. Subtenants, most from among Russia's officials and their families who flocked to the city in mass, were introduced into large apartments.
The suffering of the Jewish population reached a peak with the issuing of the passports decree and the decree of the nationalization of private property. According to the new law, every citizen residing in Russia had to have a passport. However, these certificates were unequal to all citizens and they were used as a means of supervision. Most of the Jews received a passport marked with the symbol: Clause 11. It was forbidden for a holder of such a certificate to reside in central cities, the location of district offices, large industrial plants, etc… Ternopil was such a city.
An owner of such a passport could not hold a major position in any important office. Thousands of Jews were decreed to abandon their residences and move to small towns. They encountered difficulties finding places to live due to a shortage of available houses. A bigger problem was finding work. There were no large plants or offices that could absorb all the newcomers. Lack of work affected not only the livelihood of these people, but the lack of work carried the bigger danger of being deported to inner Russia.
The second decree was the nationalization of private property, such as furniture, clothing, and linen. Special committees went from one house to another and confiscated whatever they desired. That was an operation of exploitation and oppression.
The Jews proved again their ability to adapt, probably the result of the diaspora's hardships. Most of them joined all sorts of production cooperatives, government stores, and offices. As productive citizens, they avoided being marked with Clause 11 in their identification documents. The former activists were careful to avoid any activity that would arouse suspicion by the authorities, thereby avoiding being subjected to oppression and persecution throughout the Soviet rule encountered by many. In actuality, none of the Zionist activists was jailed or deported.
The Ternopil Ghetto and its Destruction
The Jews did not have enough time to recover from all the shocks they had experienced during the last few years since the outbreak of the Second World War, and once again, a surge of violence was unleashed on them, surpassing in their horror everything that had happened until now.
On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany attacked Russia surprisingly, and since then, events progressed at a dizzying pace. The Soviet army retreated, and high-ranked officials fled the town in a panic. Several hundred activists who collaborated with the Soviet regime and were afraid of Nazi revenge, Dr. Tzvi Parnas among them, were recruited by the Soviets. Escaped as well. Those who stayed behind witnessed with anxiety and fear, the Nazi troops entering the city on the twelfth day of the war. The power of the German army and its dizzying victories brought depression and despair to the Jews. However, even the wildest imagination could not foresee the suffering, torture, and cruel deaths that awaited them.
The Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis with open joy, hoping that their day had come. They became friendly with the Germans and falsely accused the Jews of everything that happened during Soviet rule. The Germans handed the Ukrainians to city management and the organization of the civil militia. The Germans also appointed a Ukrainian mayor.
Three days later, bloody pogroms, unprecedented in the history of Ternopil, took place.
On Friday, July 4, companies of the German army, headed by officers, entered Jewish streets, armed with weapons and hand grenades, shouting: Get out, Jews!. They called out the men, position them at the wall, and killed them in cold blood. The Germans pushed the Jews toward the market from all sides, near the old bath house on Zatzerkevna Street, near the carpentry shop on Ostrogskiego Street, near Gorpin house on Lvovska Street, in Zarodia, and in Sienkievicza Street. They abused the poor people, forced them to dig pits and throw the corpses of the people who were choked to death or shot into those pits. Some of the Germans turned to the houses of prayer and Batie HaMidrash. There, they broke the Holy Arks, took out the Torahs, and desecrated them. After tearing them up, they threw the Torahs into the garbage. They burnt five hundred Jews who gathered in Kloyz Yekel'eh, alive. The tinsmith Klarnet and Sh. Kantzuker perished there. A sea of flames surrounded the Kloyz and the neighboring houses, and cries of the victims tore open the heavens. The listeners twisted in pain because they could not help the victims.
Hundreds of Jews were tortured in the cellars of Gorpin's house and were later killed.
Many Jews who found themselves under a pile of corpses tried to save themselves by waiting for the end of the slathering. Under the cover of darkness, they later escaped to their home in an indescribable state.
Following the formal slaughtering, which lasted for a few days, the Ukrainians conducted their own pogrom. The fact that several tens of corpses lay in the jail yard on Mickiewicza Street served as an excuse for that pogrom served. Hundreds of Jews had to pay for a sin they did not commit. They were dragged to the jailyard and were ordered to wash and clean the corpses, and perform additional deranged tasks under the mockery and joyful eyes of the executioners, who abused and tortured them. In the end, the Ukrainians cruelly killed them all. At that time, some people among the Jews dared to hurl blunt accusations in the face of the murderers. It was told about the old man, Izik Kopler, who prophesied the animals, shaped like men, their bitter end for the atrocities they committed when the day of revenge came.
The corpses lay in the city's streets for many days, and paddles of frozen blood covered the sidewalks and roads.
When the wave of pogroms subsided, Men who managed to survive came out of their hideouts to identify their relatives among the victims, which was not very easy to recognize. Human language is inadequate to describe the horrific scenes that happened there, and the cries and shouts that tore open the heavens. Thousands of people walked around in the streets, and when they found their relatives' corpses, they had to take care of the burial themselves. There was no home where there wasn't somebody who died there. Hundreds of families lost their loved ones. Heartbroken and torn, everyone was looking into their own soul and feeling their own pain, with no one to comfort them. The martyrs were buried in the old cemetery without a ceremony since neither Khevereh Kadisha [burial society] nor community council existed.
About five thousand Jews were killed during those ten horrific days. A heavy blow befell the community and its leaders, shocking them to their core. Overwhelmed by pain, wrapped in sorrow and grief, the Jews walked around. The Jews lost their trust in man. They also lost hope of a possible way out of the horror.
That mood did not change when posters, on behalf of the German authorities, were hung in the streets proclaiming that the Aryan revenge against the Jews, ended and that from that day on, it was forbidden to rob or kill them. However, in parallel to these announcements, the authorities published instructions that put limits on the rights of the Jews, in all areas of life and disassociate them from the rest of the residents. Forced labor jobs for the army and the state and communal institutions were imposed on the Jews. Their food was rationed in meager quantities that were insufficient to vitalize one's soul. These arrangements placed the Jews as inferior people, deprived of any human rights.
The Jews did not have enough time to get accustomed to these miserable lives, and the company of the Einsatz Reinhard (The Gestapo's military arm, attached to the front armies [dedicated to the annihilation of the Jews]) arrived in the city.
At the beginning of July, the teacher Gottfried was invited and ordered to establish a committee of the Jews consisting of at least sixty Jewish intellectuals. According to the order of the Einsatz's officer, the candidates should come to the voivudzetvo [district offices] on Shvinto-Yenska Street, dressed up in holiday clothes, where they were supposed to be nominated as the representatives of the Jews.
When the candidates assembled, the Germans began to make fun of them and abuse them. And before the poor men understood what was happening, they were loaded onto trucks and transported outside the city to the foot of Dogs' Napes (Hitzles Berg) Mountain. They were tortured there and ordered to dig graves. They were murdered one by one. Among the slain people were: Sh. Margalit, the teacher Bentzion Kapon, Dr. Shlomo Horwitz, Yul Kaner, and the two sons of Dr. Shwartzman.
The objective of the operation was clear: To remove from the hearts of the Jews any illusion that normal times would return, and that order was restored. It was also aimed at annihilating all those who could lead the Jewish public as leaders in distress and serve as spiritual and moral support.
As early as in August, the German authorities organized the civil management of the District of Ternopil (kreizhauptmanshaft) and nominated a dedicated official for Jewish affairs - the Nazi Palfinger, who became an expert in Jewish affairs during his service in Warsaw.
Palfinger began his activity by imposing a forced contribution of million rubles on the Jews. The Jews had to deposit the money in a savings bank managed by the Ukrainians in eight days.
The Ukrainians used the money to restore the Ukrainian building Bertzvo Mitzetzenskia, the destruction for which the Jews were blamed. In addition to the money, Jews were forced to work on the restoration for free. The foreman was Dr. Stephen Brukovitz, who enjoyed, not once, in the past from the political and financial help of the Jews.
Now, he probably wanted to atone for his sins' by abusing the Jews, his benefactors.
Among the decrees introduced by the district officer Hager, was the special symbol that the Jews had to wear, limiting the rights of the Jews and their ownership of their properties, forcing them to abandon their residences, and cutting their rations.
To execute the German orders, a special committee was established by the Gestapo called Judenrat (the Jews' committee). Many of the candidates for the Judenrat, including the writer of these lines, avoided their participation using different excuses. In the end, the lot fell on Dr. Fisher to serve as the chairman and Dr. Ya'akov Lipa as his locum tenens. Among the rest of the committee members were Dr. K. Pohoriles, Dr. Sh. Hirshberg, Izik Klinger, M. Brenzon, Ya'akov Labiner, Dr. Baral, Dr. L. Dretler F. Helleriekh, Eric Shafkopf, and L. Ekselbirt.
In the beginning, the population trusted the Judenrat, hoping that it would help to introduce order back to lives, and perhaps sweeten their fate.
The Jews could contact the authorities only through the Judenrat. That allowed it to concentrate in its hands, all the Jewish affairs, to the extent that the Gestapo allowed it. It was the Judenrat that distribute the food rationing vouchers and identification certificates, managed the registration of births and deaths, referred the sick to the hospitals and welfare institutions, and provided licenses to stores, workshops, and apartments (in case there was a need to move to another apartment). Every Jew needed to turn to a sorting committee of the Judenrat, where he received instructions about where and how long he would need to do forced labor work, and what kind of taxes he is obliged by the authorities to pay. The range of authority of the Judenrat was quite wide. It ruled the lives of the Jews, and their fate was in its hand to a certain extent. The most responsible role fell on the lot of the department of work assignment (Arbeit-Einzats), which directed the victim to hard labor in hostile areas. Every outgoing to work was dangerous since only a few returned in peace.
The Jews served as a target for the Germans and the Ukrainians who exploited them in every way sucked their lifeblood in hard labor and robbed them of anything they wanted.
On September 1941, an order to establish a Jewish ghetto was published. In the beginning, the ghetto included the following: Part of Kazimierzowski Square, the market [rynek] and the streets Dolna, Perl, Lvovska, Podolska, Nizczia, and Miodowa, part of Szeptytzkich square to Serberna Street, Chatzki and Shkolna Streets, part of Ruska Street and the small market.
According to the Judenrat's registration records, 12,500 souls were crowded into this narrow area. In the past, that was the poor area where five thousand Jews resided in poor sanitary conditions. Obviously, when the crowding more than doubled, the conditions became unbearable. The people that were forced to move there from places outside the ghetto experienced the worst. Ukrainian thugs attacked them on the way to the ghetto, robbed their movable property, and abused them.
The ghetto was surrounded by fences and barbed wire. The entrance was from two gates: near the Russian church on Ruska Street and at the intersection of Miodowa and Szeptytzkich Streets. It was no wonder that under the crowding conditions, without sufficient water supply (a tiny number of wells) and without gardens or open areas, the ghetto was prone to decease and epidemics from its beginning.
A sign that said Danger of epidemic - entry to non-Jews is prohibited, hung above each gate. That was a bitter mockery since it was the Germans who crowded thousands of people into such a small area and created by their own doing the conditions that yielded decreases.
Life in the streets of the ghetto was nearly halted. The noise was silenced and no laughter could be heard. It was especially depressing to see the children running around hungry and dirty. A struggle for existence commenced. The old sources of livelihood dried out. The gaps between rich and poor and between the educated and uneducated blurred. Everyone was shoved into poverty's melting pot.
Day by day, the hungry, tired, and frail Jews went out to forced work for the Germans. Despite the pain and the disgrace, they also had to give a ransom to their torturers expensive gifts of silver, gold, and fabric. The Jews arranged parties for Germans, either by force or out of a desire to bribe them. However, the latter was insatiable and extorted the Jews continuously and without limits.
In the meantime, the hunger in the ghetto was getting worse. Amounts of food products decreased, and bread was nowhere to be found. People collapsed from starvation in the streets. The typhus epidemic spread, yielding a horrific harvest of victims. Unfortunately, it was necessary to hide the disease cases from the eyes of the Gestapo for fear that they would kill the sick people. There was a shortage of physicians and medicines. The number of non-Jewish physicians was small, even on normal days. Now, the Jewish physicians were recruited to the Aryan side. The Judenrat established a department that handled funerals and kept order in the cemetery. However, when the typhus epidemic broke out, that department was overwhelmed. There was also a shortage of wood boards for coffins and cloths for shrouds.
Assistance to the sick was going on all the time, but, at one point, the Nazis suddenly published an order on behalf of the Gestapo about the need to establish a clinic for the sick,
an institute for neglected children and orphans, and a nursing home. Behind that seemingly humanitarian step, malicious intents were hidden. The intent was to receive lists of the frail people who burdened the public, as it were. To accelerate the death by starvation, The Nazis began to strictly guard against any infiltration of food into the ghetto above the rationed quota. The price of food products in the ghetto rose substantially, and the state of the poor was desperate.
At the end of November 1941, a fire broke out at the old Beit HaMidrash. It was clear to all that the Nazis set fire to it. The people who found shelter there and their number was quite large- remained without a roof over their heads. They were naked and destitute since all their belongings were burnt in the fire. That was the Nazis' satanic plot. To top that, the Judenrat was fined a huge sum of money for the neglect for not acquiring equipment for putting off fires…
Fate did not spare the Jews any humiliation. When the harsh winter started to affect the Nazis' armies, the Jews were again ordered to pull them out of their misery. In December, an order was published that every Jew must hand over any furs they owned. Anybody who disobeyed the order would be killed. Twelve hostages were jailed by the Germans, and the Jews, who froze for lack of firewood, were forced to hand over their fur, even those hidden on the Aryan side. That operation was executed with unprecedented cruelty. The following case will testify to that: During an audit visit to Schwartz bakery on Chatzki, several months after the publication of the order, the Gestapo found several useless pieces of fur that even the bakery's owners did not know about them. Five people were tortured for that and later executed.
In that period, the Jewish militia began to capture an important role in the life of the ghetto. The militia was organized by the Judenrat to keep order. In actuality, it was under the direct mastery of the Gestapo. The following officers served in the militia in various periods: Sh. Kopler, Weinstein, Dr. Rotenberg, and Greenfeld. It was usual for changes to occur in the militia's leadership. The Gestapo demanded absolute discipline that not everybody could withstand, and the orders became harsher and crueler as time progressed. For that reason, Dr. Gustav Fisher and Dr. Ya'akov Lipa were replaced over time. Replacing them was Dr. Karol Pohoriles, who was a submissive servant to his Nazi masters and executed all their orders without reservation.
Initially, the Judenrat's leaders still illusioned themselves and others that following the Gestapo orders blindly would prevent a much greater calamity the annihilation of the Jews. Their motto was not to anger the Germans, appease and lobby them with gifts, and interest them personally in the existence of the ghetto, which served as a source of work and money for them. The goal was to save whatever was savable, to dig in until the storm blew over since the final defeat of the Germans was beyond any doubt. The news arriving from the fronts strengthened that belief. The main thing was to survive until the end of the war. The supreme imperative was to save the youth, which constituted the nation's future. The belief that it was possible to save the youth had some basis since the Germans were interested in the able workforce, and they could only find it among the youths.
The new people in the Judenrat with Dr. Pohoriles at the top (after the war he changed his name to a Polish name: Buchinski), did not even try to cover up their actions with any ideological excuses, so to speak. They served as instruments in the hands of the Nazis, with only one objective guiding them to save their own lives.
Fear and horror befell the Jews when the news about the establishment of labor camps arrived at the beginning of 1942. The task of establishing the camps, along with their equipment, huts for the workers, and apartments for the Ukrainian policemen and the German officials in charge of the camps, was imposed on the Jews.
The camps were established in Kamionka on the road to Pidvolochysk, Velykyi Hlybochok near the quarries, and Zahrebellya.
Young people were taken or kidnapped suddenly and sent to the camps. The people in the ghetto were tasked with keeping them with money, clothing, whites, and tools. Strict discipline prevailed in the camps. Every sign of fatigue or slowing down the pace of work brought harsh punishments, including death. Many workers could not withstand the harsh conditions, and their end was bitter. High mortality in the camps required a steady flow of new workers. Jews from neighboring towns were also brought to the camps.
The camp in Zahrebellya was located not far from the bridge on the Seret River, near the edge of the ghetto. The workers at that camp received food and clothing packages from their relatives in the ghetto. Obviously, bribing the guards were required to allow the packages into the camp.
With sorrow and pain, the Jews performed works that involved blasphemy. They were ordered to smash the fences around the cemetery, uproot gravestones, and pave the streets with them. The workers toiled from dawn to night, in the pouring rain, freezing cold, and hot sun, and woe to a worker who showed fatigue or weakness. The foreman conducted a review daily and checked every worker. He eliminated on the spot whoever did not please him. People went to work sick and tried to hide their illnesses from the eyes of the executioner foreman
(By the way, he was sentenced to death by a Polish court in Bytom).
These holy places still stand desecrated today, and the bones rolled in the dirt and demanded to avenge their insult. The tombstone of Rabbi Munish BABaD zl was miraculously saved and remained whole until today.
Besides the aforementioned camps, the Jews also worked in the army barracks. A few Jews worked near Janowska in building an airport. Luckily for that group, the work there was managed by a Polish engineer from Poznan, He was an exceptional man, and did his best to sweeten the fate of the workers. Thanks to that engineer, several people from that group survived, among them a child which was born to the Ginsburg family, a day before the annihilation of the camp's Jews.
The worsening of the situation for the Jews was heralded by the news, spread in March 1942, that the handling of the Jews was transferred directly to the hands of the Gestapo. Its people broke into the ghetto day and night and caused panic among the frightened Jews. They robbed and looted everything, confiscated all the firewood found among the Jews, and ordered the destruction of fences and buildings.
The Jews sunk under the load of the hard work imposed on them from all sides. They were forced to work on the barracks renovation and other despicable jobs in the houses of the Gestapo men. The Gestapo Komendant, Obersturmführer Miller, was an animal in the shape of a man. His assistants were the Gestapo officers Laks, Maye, Reiman, and Reinish. Their frequent visits to the ghetto were accompanied by hits, kicks, and brutal abuses, ending with shooting. For every small deviance from the law, the most severe punishments were imposed. That was how Miller murdered the former mill owner, Shalom Finkelstein, when they found some firewood in his home, how the electrician Lama Epstein was murdered along with his wife and child, for eating cherries during work, and how the waggoneer Izik Keller was killed in the forest because the killers thought he was going to slow.
However, even during that dark period, when everybody fought hard for their survival, some people worried about others. Dr. Yehuda Friedman, Professor Khaim Hirshberg, Sh. Rosner and others established a soup kitchen for the poor that distributed hot meals to the needy. A committee of several people, among them Avraham Margalit, Avraham Oks, Moshe Wahl, and I. Feldman, collected money to support rabbis and other honorable needy.
The most horrible period in the history of the ghetto began on 25 March 1942: The period of the recruitment of the souls, as it was called by the people. The Gestapo demanded from the Judenrat six hundred people: old, sick, handicapped, and anti-social elements to transfer to other places. The fate destined for those poor people was already known. That was why some of the Judenrat members tried to avoid fulfilling that order. However, the head of the committee pressured and threatened the hesitating until the list was finalized. The Schupo (SchutzpolizeiJudenrat's list. The eyes of the latter were open then, who did not understand, at the time, why would the Germans had pushed for the establishment of nursing homes, hospitals, and orphanages. Like inanimate objects, the victims were thrown onto trucks and transported like sheep to the slaughterer, to Janowska.
The news about the horrible slaughter, which could not have been hidden from the public, felt like a shock to everybody. It evoked mourning and anger against the men the Judenrat, particularly against Dr. Pohoriles, N. Halperin, and the convert Dr. Baral. However, people were powerless, had to swallow their sorrow and pain, and could not show the feeling of nausea they felt toward those traitors.
There was no illusion anymore that indeed, the fate of the Jews was sealed, that after the first Aktzia, there would be more, that the Judenrat was an instrument at the hands of the executioners, and that no help should be expected from anywhere.
The non-Jews deepened the feeling of powerlessness and isolation with their nonhuman behavior toward the Jews. Not only did they show no trace of sympathy to the persecuted Jews or participation in their grief, but the opposite they rejoiced at the Jews' calamity and collaborated with the executioners against the Jews. The Ukrainians and Poles handed over to the hands of the Gestapo, anybody who was suspected in their eyes to be a Jew. There is no doubt that without that treatment, many Jews would have been able to evade the Nazi executioners on the Aryan side, since the Germans, in most cases, could not distinguish between a Jew and a non-Jew just bub their looks. Abandoned by the whole world, surrounded from all sides by predatory animals ambushing their soul and life, they lost all hope, and bitter despair settled in their hearts.
The Jews did not have radios, since the Germans confiscated them immediately after entering Ternopil. However, German newspapers were smuggled into the city. People learned to read between the lines. Sometimes, Jews who transported cattle to Warsaw brought news. In Warsaw, people knew more about what was happening in the world. The news about the German defeats consoled the people, however at the same time people knew that they may expire till redemption comes: whoever survives starvation and epidemics, would be killed by the Nazis. Goebbels' venomous propaganda, and the news about the gas chambers and annihilation camps, did not leave any room for illusion, but there was no way out. However, before they departed from that gloomy world, they had to yield the last of their energy to their torturers.
|One of the many Jewish common graves in the vicinity of Ternopil, found after the War
Several workshops were established in Ternopil during the spring months. The Judenrat provided the raw materials for these workshops. Women worked there too. Nobody was illusioned that they would save themselves by working there. Although they were all already hopeless, they did try to lengthen their lives. The will to live was so strong that it sometimes suppressed the accepted feelings, such as the feeling of family or national unity. By that reasoning, we can explain (although to justify) the behavior of the men the Judenrat and the Jewish militia, whose actions showed unprecedented hardness of the heart and cruelty. That small group of people was the one that stained the entire ghetto and formed an erroneous perception of moral deterioration. In actuality, the Jews, who stood the difficult test, showed great qualities of devotion and courage, and most remained true to the human ideals they were educated about.
The Germans exerted efforts to break the spirit of the Jews, separate between brothers, and imbued demoralization among their ranks. However, before the death blow fell on them, the Jews did not succumb to the Germans' ploys. The contemptible people among the Jews constituted a tiny minority. It is wondrous to realize how minute the results of the satanic activities by the Nazis were, which meant to prove to the world the inferiority of the Jews and their moral retardation. By doing that, they meant to justify, to a certain extent, the horrific actions they carried out. Although we cannot point to individual acts of heroism in the ghetto, the Jewish community, as a whole, showed courage and respect. The Germans did not see fear or hopelessness in the eyes of Jews as they led them to their death. Instead, they saw contempt and nausea toward their murderers.
In August 1942, advertisements appeared on the Aryan side of the city. They were signed by the main executioner of Lviv District, General Katzman. The ad announced the transfer operation that would be held in the ghetto. The non-Jewish population was warned not to assist the Jews. Anybody caught hiding a Jew or helping Jews in any way to evade the Germans would be shot.
The Jews prepared for that event and used any means available to them, to save themselves. A feverish activity of building hideouts commenced. People built false walls behind which there were rooms, corridors, perforations, attics, and alike. These people demonstrated an exceptional innovative ability to evade the claws of the Nazi beast.
On the morning of Monday, August 31, Gestapo men, military, and Ukrainian militia surrounded the ghetto from all sides. By the command of the Germans, the Judenrat people appeared with their families. Jews were chased after when they were caught. The Gestapo thugs and their collaborators busted doors and broke into apartments yelling Juden, Heraus! (Jews, Out) and hurried the frightened Jews, chasing them toward a concentration location. The Jewish militia, who knew the location of the hideouts the Jews built, helped the thugs to discover them and pull out of the hiding.
In a span of a few hours, thousands of Jews were concentrated in the market and Bander [?]. They were ordered to crouch, and whoever dared to move was shot on the spot. The Gestapo officers and their assistants checked everybody and their work permit. Permission to return home was given only to those who worked for the S.S. and the Gestapo.
On that horrific day, the Gestapo commander showed his cruelty. The Jewish militiamen followed after him.
Among the thousands of victims, the Germans pulled out the young ones, able to work. The rest - elderly, women, and children, were pushed with hard hits into trucks and transported to the train stations. In the train cars slated to hold a maximum of 40 people, they shoved one hundred. Some train cars were already filled with Jews from Zbarazh, Strusiv, and Mikulintsy. There, the operation was held two days earlier. The poor people sat down in the crowded and packed train cars for two days without water or food.
The train that carried the phrase: all the wheels are moving toward victory, traveled through Zolochiv and Lviv to Belzec, the death factory. Despite the strict guarding, many dared to drill holes in the cars' walls and jump from the moving train. Many fell under the train wheels, ran over, and were killed. However, there were some a succeeded in escaping. Most of them were robbed by the Ukrainians and handed over to the Nazi executioners. Only a few managed to escape and infiltrate back into the ghetto.
The fate of the wretched people brought to Belzec is known: They were choked to death in the gas chambers and burnt in the crematories.
The operation on 31 August swallowed 1300 people. Those who survived began to look for their relatives but soon realized that the hand of the murderers reached them.
The living, if these could be called life returned to their routine. Those people were hopeless and were waiting for their bitter end, which nobody could escape.
At the beginning of September, an order was published to reduce the size of the ghetto. People who lived around the market, on the streets of Pola, Berk Yoslevitz, and Lvovska (till the big river [Seret River]), and on the streets of Zatzerkevna, Doli, Shpitizki, and Bloniya (on the same side of Ruska Street), were ordered to abandon their homes. They were given three hours to do so. Obviously, they could not have to salvage much of their belongings. The distress of thousands of people, squeezed into the reduced ghetto, deepened again. Their situation was like a chased animal
seeing the encirclement getting tighter and tighter.
A day without visitors at the ghetto was rare. When news spread about an imminent visit by Miller, the streets emptied. The Judenrat operation almost stopped. People did not know where and when the next blow would come. People took turns guarding the ghetto at night so that warnings could be sounded. People went to sleep with their clothing on. They improved their hideouts based on the experience acquired from past operations. Even the babies knew that they had to be quiet so no sound of life could be heard by the people who were seeking their life.
In the second half of September, the people in charge of houses were required to submit lists of elderly people, older than 60, to the Judenrat. Despite knowing what to expect if they got caught, they did not hesitate to edit the lists and correct the dates of birth. Only a few names from among those brave people remained in my memory: Moshe Wahl, Barukh Hirshhorn, N. Kozover, and M. Kalman, and they were not the only ones. To frighten the Jews and the Judenrat, Miller ordered to erect of gallows on Bogata Street near the Jewish militia.
|Common grave of tortured Jews discovered in the vicinity of Ternopil
He announced that anybody who would not obey him and would not execute his orders would be hanged. The militiamen did what they were tasked with diligently.
On 30 September, Miller's deputy, Laks, showed up with a company of the Schupo (Schutzpolizei) and demanded that a thousand Jews be handed to him. The Judenrat probably knew about that ahead of time because Laks collected the Jewish militia people and gave them prepared lists. Pohoriles collected several hundred Jews over several hours and concentrated them in the building of Tarif's mill. The militia people were not idle until the number of Jews reached 750. They then sent the Jews to Belzec.
Several days later, the Gestapo men appeared again, that time in civil clothing, and pull-out Jews from their homes. In that aktsia and other similar aktsias that took place until mid-November, about 2400 new victims were sent to Belzec. The method of kidnapping the victims exceeded in its cruelty everything that happened before.
The criminal opportunism of the Judenrat did not help them. Miller did not consider them reliable enough and suspected them to be too soft. For that reason, he brought over from Zbarazh the famous executioner, Greenfeld, and appointed him the head of the Judenrat. To be able to execute his mission, Greenfeld was also nominated as the head of the Jewish militia. The last stage of the ghetto's existence had begun.
A harsh winter began. The Jews went to work every day dressed in torn and worn clothing that did not protect them from frost. Much to the bitter mockery, the Jews were forced to unload coal while, at the same time, they could not get heating materials for themselves. When they returned home from their hard labor, they sat in the cold and the dark. The municipality was forbidden from providing electricity to the ghetto.
Every object that remained in the hands of the Jews was sold for a slice of bread. The deportations stopped for some time, so the worries of daily life rose again to the top of the worry list. News began to arrive about the Germans' defeats in Stalingrad and North Africa. The Jews saw on the horizon the final defeat of the Germans and took comfort in the fact that although they may not live to see with their own eyes the day of revenge, that day would surely come.
At the beginning of winter 1942/43, Sturmführer Lokita, who headed the Janowska [forced labor concentration] arrived in Ternopil. The account of his cruelty has long since reached the city, and fear and anguish took hold of the ghetto residents.
Rokita appeared at the Judenrat and requested to provide him with everything needed to establish a forced labor camp. That request meant that fundraising and recruitment of people would be required again. All the homes around the new bath house on Podolska-Niszsa Street were emptied and made available to the camp. The Jews who worked on the Aryan side were concentrated in these houses. A kitchen, bakery, warehouses, and clinic were established near the camp's workshops. It was forbidden to leave the camp under the threat of a death sentence. About 3000 people from Ternopil's ghetto and the neighboring towns concentrated in the camp. Above the entrance gate to the camp, the mocking phrase was hung: Work sets you free. Strict discipline was enacted in the camp. At a headcount, held twice a day, the Jews were forced to stand for hours in the frost. Rokita robbed the Jews of their money and clothing and dressed them in rugs and shoes with wooden soles. Every offense was punished with the death penalty. Those who possessed valuables bribed Rokita and managed to free themselves from the camp. The Jews remaining in the camp toiled in hard labor. This time they did not have any illusion that they could save themselves by doing that.
In the beginning the month of February, the Gestapo began a campaign of extermination of the remaining Jews in the ghetto. The Judenrat and the Jewish militia handed over to the Gestapo all those who did not report to work. Blood of the innocents was shed daily.
The last chapter of the Jewish community in Ternopil approached its end. Whoever managed to save some jewelry and valuables and possessed a non-Jewish Aryan appearance acquired from himself and his family, Aryan documentation, and counterfeit birth certificates and identification papers. However, only a tiny number of these Aryans survived. The Ukrainian and Polish population showed great vigilance so no Jew would evade the Nazi's claws.
The lack of response by the world and the world Jewry undermined the faith of the Jews and broke the strength of their resistance. They stood in front of a gaping abyss and the world was silent. Nobody hurried up to help them.
On 9 April, the Gestapo men surrounded the reduced ghetto, pulled out a thousand Jews, and moved them to the camp. They chose the young people, took the rest through the bridge and Petrikov's brick kilns, and killed them all.
A unique event happened when the respected teacher Hirshberg, spoke insolently to the Germans. He foreboded a bitter end for them because of their cruel crimes. The Germans were thunderstruck, remained silent, and did not respond for several minutes.
The Rabbi from Medzhybizh [Mezhybozhe] exhibited honorable behavior and courage when he rejected Rokita's offer to stay in the camp while his family and his followers were led to their death. The rabbi sacrificed himself when he joined the people who were led to their death. [The Jewish militia's man] Leib Fiol refused to follow the order to arrange the victims in rows of four and protested against the disgraceful role the Germans wanted to force him to perform. The policeman
Katz tore off all of his police decorations when he saw his family members among the people sentenced to death and joined them.
There was no quiet day with no kidnapping or victims between April 9th and June 20th, the day of the final extermination. Many families committed suicide without waiting for the executioners. Prices of poisonous drugs rose tremendously during that period. The rope around the necks of the Jews got tighter and tighter. The hope that somebody would save them from death diminished. The searches for bunkers and hideouts were held using the cruelest means. Painfully, some Jews did not stand the test and, in a moment of weakness, revealed the entrances to the bunkers to the Gestapo. The Judenrat and Jewish militia lost control of the situation. On the contrary, by their actions, they accelerated the end of the Jews and their own end. In their despair, the Jews clutched at the only straw left for them: the Rokita's camp. And just like a few months earlier, they may have made exceptional efforts to evade the camp so now, they stood and begged to be accepted there.
Every time groups were brought to the camp from the aktsias for a selection, the ghetto residents envied the lucky people in Rokita's camp with their hearts trembling and contracted by fear.
Everyone was looking for their relatives among the people who were led to death. In many cases, when they saw them, they preferred to die with their families over staying alive without them.
An extraordinary case happened to engineer Winter, who worked in Rokita camp's bakery. Upon seeing his wife and children among the people condemned to die, he joined his family without hesitation. Rokita, who appreciated engineer Winter's professional expertise and organizational skills, wanted to leave him in the camp. However, the engineer insisted, rejected the temptations offered by Rokita with disgust, and went with his family to his death.
Not only the living Jews were exterminated. According to the order by the Gestapo, all the Jewish certificates of Ternopil and neighboring areas, including birth certificates, were brought to Ternopil and burned. The Nazis wanted to annihilate not only the Jews but any trace of them.
On 30 June, formal announcements appeared, on behalf of the district military governor (Kreishauptmann), that Ternopil was declared a city without Jews (Judenrein). Only a few Jews, who possessed Aryan papers, escaped to Lviv, Krakow, Warsaw, and other large cities. There they did not fear encountering non-Jewish acquaintances, who were more dangerous than the Nazis. Indeed a few among those people survived.
On 21 July 1943, the Gestapo surrounded the camp, pull out about 2500 people, and led them to their death. The rest were annihilated two weeks later. The Nazis destroyed the bunkers and hideouts they did not discover until then.
During the same period, the only substantial resistance by a group of Jews in Ternopil occurred. To their surprise, when the Nazis discovered a bunker on Baron Hirsch Street, they encountered armed resistance. The people in the bunker were ordered by the Gestapo to come out. The Jews responded with a barrage of gunfire and hand grenades.
Unfortunately, we do not have details about the heroic act since none of the people in the bunker survived. According to information from the event, the resistance lasted about 24 hours, and several Gestapo men were wounded. The head of that daring act was a young baker named Zelinger zl.
Only a few managed to save themselves thanks to the help of non-Jewish acquaintances who risked their life, sometimes because of their generosity and some other times greed. That was how the family of the author of this article survived. They were saved in their kiln, located on the road to Smykivtsi [Smikovtza].
Many physicians who worked in the hospitals joined the Ukrainian partisan movement. Over time, the Ukrainians were disappointed with the Germans, who did not fulfill their promise concerning the Ukrainian national aspirations, and revolted against them. The Bandera's men (Bandervitzi) organized [as a militia] from among these partisans. They were distinct antisemites but required the assistance of the Jewish physicians and sought their help. However, when it seemed to them that they managed without the Jewish physicians, they did not hesitate to exterminate them. Many families who escaped to the forests were exterminated by the Polish and Ukrainian partisans.
This is the place to infamously mention the Polish priest, Deacon Volenga. He did not hesitate to sermon from the pulpit, during the cruelest against the Jews, that the hand of G-d justifiably reached the Jews. He further included in his sermon that everybody who helped the Jews violated the G-d's will. The sermons of that antisemite in the pretentious cover of a religious man embarrassed the few who did not want to make their religion a fraud.
Out of the eighteen thousand Jews residing in Ternopil when the Germans arrived, only 139 survived. That number was registered by the Jewish committee [Judenrat] during the period of May July 1944 (after the liberation of Ternopil by the Soviet Army). Additionally, about 200 people survived among those who were deported to Russia or recruited into the Soviet Army.
After the end of the war, several Gestapo men who served in Ternopil fell into the hands of the Poles. Among them: Doka, the Komendat of the camp in Zahrebellya, the Gestapo official Karuf, who excelled in his cruelty during the aktsias, Angeles, the Gestapo official in charge of the aktsias in the Lviv district official, and Reiman, the person in charge of the Jewish affairs in Ternopil district.
Some of Ternopil's survivors, among them - Dr. Pohoriles, testified in the trial against Reiman. The latter hurled the terrible accusation against him: After all, you have collaborated with the Gestapo. All the Gestapo men were sentenced to death a little comfort for those who survived.
The glorious Ternopil Jewish community that brought out of its midst, people of Torah, wisdom, and action was destructed and annihilated most cruelly. The city that proudly carried the Judaism flag became a pile of rubble. The life that flourished for generations was destroyed.
Translated by Moshe Kutten
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