In The Ghetto of Dvinsk
With Latvian and Lithuanian Jews
The Bloody Prelude to prison
Do you have any conception of what is meant, in the twentieth century, by ghetto, ghetto-life, ghetto-organization, stock shares (or shareholders"), yellow patches, liquidations, and so on? Ghettos are not an everyday phenomenon, and it is difficult to digest such a phenomenon. So I will try to convey to you information about ghetto-life and ghetto-death in a dose that is not so strong as we ourselves had to take.
However, before I conduct you into the ghetto-life peculiar to Dvinsk, I must acquaint you with the prelude. Ghetto-life began in Jewish homes and on the streets and roads. It reached its culmination in the great prison of Dvinsk, situated not far from the freight train station.
As soon as the morning after the Germans had taken Dvinsk, a hunt for Jews and for Jewish wealth began. The population immediately sensed that Jewish lives, Jewish blood, and Jewish belongings were there for the taking. Near neighbors, hoodlums from the street, peasants from the villages, and ordinary hooligans of every type quickly went about their bloody work. Whoever wanted to (and who didn't want to?) loaded themselves up with stolen Jewish belongings. The leaders in that activity were the hooligan-fascist organizations like the eizsargs in Latvia and the shaulists in Lithuania. The official German forces did not concern themselves with the Jews for the first few days.
Anyone who had a grudge against the Jews or an old score to settle with them or even a false accusation they had thought up would denounce the Jews as communists. Hundreds and hundreds of Jews were taken from their homes, from the streets, from the roads and from the surrounding towns and villages where they had hoped to save themselves. Those who were not shot to death on the spot were locked up in the great prison of Dvinsk, where the most gruesome fate imaginable awaited them. They were tortured there in the most refined fashion. They were made to suffer from hunger and thirst. Their fingers were broken; needles were stuck under their fingernails; bums and electric shocks were inflicted upon them. Every night the guards used to sort through the miserable prisoners, picking out a specific number to be tortured again in the morning and then taken to the prison yard and shot. Among the victims were hundreds of Lithuanian Jews who had fled through Dvinsk but had remained stuck in the town or the surrounding villages. Hundreds of women, children, and men who were among the fleeing Lithuanian Jews were collected together on the roads and in the villages around Dvinsk, and they did
not get out of the Dvinsk prison alive.
Those things happened, as the Hebrew proverb puts it, without a law and without a judge, for no rhyme or reason. What was alleged, without any basis in fact, was that the Jews were communists, and that they had previously tortured Latvians who were not communists. It was also alleged that the Jews had set fire to houses in Dvinsk and committed other such sins with which they had had absolutely no connection. The Christian population of Dvinsk used to calmly watch the torturing and shooting from their surrounding houses and hilltops. Then they would eat and sleep as though nothing had happened.
That is how the rule of the Germans and their loyal partners, the Latvians, began in Dvinsk. The fortunate Jews were the ones who managed to run away to Russia and save themselves there.
When I visited Dvinsk after the war, I found in the bloody prison courtyard a peaceful, innocent garden planted with cabbage and other greens. Under those long, straight garden beds lay hundreds and maybe thousands of tortured citizens of Dvinsk and Latvian and refugee Lithuanian Jews whose names we will now never know.
The Dvinsk Ghetto an Old, Half-Ruined Crepost
The ghetto of Dvinsk looked different from conventional ghettos. It was not situated in a separate section of the town like the ghettos of Riga, Kovno, Vilna, Warsaw, or Lodzh. Instead, it was on the opposite side of the Dvina River in a part of the old fortress-in what was once the Dvinsk crepost (a Slavic word meaning prison). That alone was enough to make the ghetto-life there peculiar, more difficult, darker, and more torturous in every respect.
Half-ruined, melancholy, dark stone buildings fused together into a massive block perhaps a kilometer in length with a long, narrow courtyard-that was the setting of the ghetto of Dvinsk. I remember turrets, protective trenches, water holes, shooting portholes, a wall of barbed wire, watchtowers, a command center, a narrow exit ramp, and a special pontoon bridge over the Dvina.
Crowded together in the wet, dark barracks, stalls, storage areas, and passageways of the former fortress were thousands of men, women, and children, both old and young. Pregnant women were there, and women who had recently given birth, along with the weak, the sick, and the wounded. They were sitting on the bare ground, and on stones, boards, bags, and packages, or standing in long lines for a bit of bread. They were washing clothes, taking care of their human needs, and cooking pots of food in the dirty backyards, passageways, and kitchens. Those were the inhabitants of the ghetto.
To give the full picture, one must also take note of the German· supreme commandant with his assistants and advisers, with the S. S. and S.D. people. The Latvian commandant and his policemen and eizsargs played important roles as well; indeed, eizsargs carried out most of the slaughter of Jews in
Latvia and other countries. Finally, there was the Jewish ghetto-committee with its Jewish police officers, managers, food distributors, work assigners, doctors, and others. Such was the power structure and management of the Dvinsk ghetto.
The official date by which all the Jews of Dvinsk and the trans-Dvina territory were required to leave their dwelling places and proceed to the ghetto was the 26th of July, 1941. The order was strict and categorical. The police, composed of German officers of higher rank, with Latvian volunteer servants, eizsargs, hooligans, bandits, and outlaws of every kind, saw to it that the order was carried out exactly. Those who did not obey quickly were thrown out of their houses by force or shot to death on the spot.
Have you ever gone, or more accurately, have you ever been driven into a ghetto? If not, you must try to imagine the weird, heart-rending scenes. Hundreds and thousands of Jews from Dvinsk and surrounding territories drag themselves three or four kilometers from the center of town into the ghetto with their few possessions on their backs, or in hand carts or wagons. They drag themselves using their last ounce of strength; they fall down; they cry and scream. They say goodbye to the old settled places, and to possessions that are so necessary and dear to them, that seem to them like a part of their own lives.
And they are driven on-who knows where? To a life of abandonment, of torture, of mockery, and perhaps...to their death? Who knows? And the children, the babies, the elderly, and the feeble-what do you do with them? What will happen to them? Christian neighbors watch, openly or covertly mocking. The fate of the Jews does not trouble them. On the contrary, they are waiting to get a lick of a tiny bone, or perhaps even a big fat bone. They want the Jews' abandoned and hard-earned wealth. And the drivers drive the Jews on-time is short. They chase them; they beat them; they shoot them. That, you see, is the way one goes into the ghetto. One is not at ease in one's heart. Oh, not cheerful!
The Head Jew and His Assistants
On the 5th of August, 1941, when I fell into the Dvinsk ghetto, I found that ghetto-life was in full swing. A small, artful, organized mass slaughter of a few thousand Jews had already been carried out. The Jewish ghetto-committee was fulfilling all its functions like a solicitous father. As soon as we came into the ghetto, the committee provided us with yellow patches (huge yellow Stars of David). We were ordered to sew them onto the back, the chest, and, for men, the left knee of our clothing immediately. With that action, we became fully entitled ghetto-citizens.
The Jewish policemen, with yellow bands on their sleeves, worked quickly and with courage. They gave a push and a kick on the left and on the right, and all at once, on the ground, in the passageway between two stalls near the
men's latrine, there appeared a place for us among the backpacks, sacks, and baggage. In such a manner were we provided with a dwelling in the ghetto.
The food service was also an outstanding success. In the ghetto kitchen there were a few large kettles boiling with rotten cabbage and worms. Even though we were newcomers, not yet recorded in the long lists of those entitled to food, the ghetto-committee promptly refreshed our souls with plates of warm soup from these kettles.
Many sins, and even some very weighty sins, were blamed on the leader and the other members of the ghetto-committee-on the policemen, work distributors, food suppliers, and other wailers (or complainers), as they were called. I don't know whether all the charges were justified, but I know that to a great extent they were. The fact is that those who aspired to all the higher positions were mostly the sort who, during the time of the great Jewish calamity, wanted only to live a longer, more comfortable life. Their main goal was to buy themselves some favor from the very highest Nazi officials. In order to achieve that, a large number of them had to trample underfoot all normal notions of honesty, justice, and decency. That was a general norm, and although there were exceptions, even some very bright and enlightened exceptions, the Dvinsk ghetto-committee and their assistants did not stray far from that norm. Ghetto-life, the infected Nazi air and soil, corrupted people. Even people who, in normal times, were good, honest, and intelligent were transformed into dull egotists.
In the hands of the following persons lay the internal power and administration of the Dvinsk ghetto:
• Engineer Mischa Movshenson with his wife Grunia, born Rapaport, and her father and mother RapaportThe two Diamond brothers and the former soap manufacturer Nachum Pressman and his son, who, along with Fagin and a few others, carried out various functions of the committee.
• Galperin, a bookkeeper and community factotum, and his wife
• Dr. Daneman and his wife
• The pediatrician Dr. Vovsy and his wife, born Shtark
• Mrs. Landau, who ran the food stores and later also the workhouses
• Pasternak, a Jew from Kreslau, who was the head of the order police
Engineer Movshenson was the leader, or the head Jew, as the Germans called him. He was a small, limited little man, from among the formerly rich and privileged Jews of Dvinsk. He lacked moral principles and was incapable of carrying on his shoulders the yoke and pain of the Jewish calamity. These traits were very great virtues in the eyes of the German authorities, and besides that, he was clean of any suspicion of communism. People who were
closer to him used to intimate that he found himself under the bad influence of his wife, who proposed to play the role, in the ghetto, of a parvenu, a proud aristocratic lady.
Though people in the ghetto didn't have much respect for the head Jew, it is hard to know how much truth there was in the accusation that occasionally, at the request of the Germans, he took upon himself the duty of distributing sentences to the ghetto Jews-deciding who would live and who would go to their death. That is a terrifying accusation, but the truth, it is clear, will remain buried in the earth along with the suspect and those he may have condemned.
The head Jew Mischa Movshenson and the other members of the ghettocommittee were not elected by the Jews but appointed by the Latvian and German authorities. For a long time, the management group consisted of the former elite, the honored and privileged Jews of Dvinsk, who were for the most part connected with one another as relatives or friends, and who protected and helped one another. But towards the end, the masses, most of whom were laborers and craftspeople, began to protest strongly, and representatives of that group were also allowed to assign living quarters, distribute food, and perform other management functions.
Thus, briefly said, is what the Jewish management structure of the Dvinsk
ghetto looked like.
We Settle Down in the Ghetto
According to the calculations of the ghetto-committee, a total of fourteen to sixteen thousand Jews passed through the prison and ghetto of Dvinsk. After the liquidation of the great-ghetto on the first of May, 1942, less than 450 remained. By 1943 these few had been scattered to various concentration camps and work camps.
Who were these Jews, the inhabitants of the Dvinsk ghetto? How was their ghetto-life organized? What became of them? Let's proceed in order, and penetrate into the thicket of the Dvinsk ghetto-life.
Jews from Dvinsk and the trans-Dvina territory proper formed the nucleus of the ghetto population. Most of the other inhabitants-about one quarterwere either Jews driven into the area from surrounding villages like Kreslava, Indre, Iluksht, Livenhof, Subat, Dagde, Korsova, Lutzin, and Reshitze, or Lithuanian Jews who had been stranded in Dvinsk or its environs as they fled to Russia. The Latvian eizsargs ran around the region like hungry wolves and murdered most of the Jews right where they found them, dividing up their belongings and money. Those who managed to escape that first round of slaughter and were brought to the Dvinsk ghetto were among the lucky ones. They had the privilege of living a bit longer on the earth.
Indescribable chaos, congestion, and filth reigned during the first weeks of the ghetto, in the dark, dank stables and barracks of the old Dvinsk crepost. There was no bench or bed or table; there wasn't enough water; there were no
kitchens, no place to get washed or cleaned. The congestion was reminiscent of herring lying pressed together in a tin can. The poorer population, who had no household goods, clothing, gold, or other valuables they could trade with the Christians for a bit of food, went hungry from their very first day on. Hunger became a constant companion. Most of those people never had a single day when they had enough to eat, right up to the last moment of their lives.
But even very great wealth, even property including houses and factories, did not guarantee protection from hunger or starvation. The proof of that lies in the sad fate of one of the richest Jewish families in Dvinsk, the Grilliches family, who owned the largest leather factory in the region. I don't know exactly what happened to the part of the family that, starting in 1940, lived under Russian communist rule (certainly nothing good!) but I do know that the others-a mother with small children and an old grandmother-were sentenced to hunger in the Dvinsk ghetto just like the poorest of the poor. And I know that if any member of this formerly proud family did not succeed in dying of hunger, the murderous hand made haste to end their lives.
However, Jews do not so lightly renounce their inborn lust for life, their
stubborn drive to fight, to organize communally, and to resist all decrees and difficulties. It didn't take long for ghetto-life to begin to normalize and settle in, insofar as the limited possibilities permitted.
The ghetto-committee was appointed and set about its work. It organized
the Jewish ghetto police, responsible for maintaining internal order. It also organized a commission for management jobs-for example, assigning living spaces in the huge barracks rooms and dispensing wood to make furniture such as sleeping benches. A second commission was put in charge of food, and third was set up to deal with other kitchen matters.
Unfortunately, along with the bits of good that those groups did, there was,
mixed in, dirt, rot, corruption, neglect, and everything else that is normal in the unhealthy and abnormal environment of a ghetto or concentration camp. Committee leaders charged with matters such as shopping, cooking, and distributing the small amounts of food designated for the children, the hungry, and the poor sinned quite a lot. Their own stomachs and appetites were more important to them than the lives of thousands of strangers. But other committee members were not blameless. At the cost of tremendous human suffering, including hunger and fear of death, conscienceless parasites, small-hearted egoists, and unashamed users feasted, and even permitted themselves parties, dances, and other infamies. In that sense, the Dvinsk ghetto was probably indistinguishable from others. Blatantly neglectful, rough, unjust, and unprincipled-this was what the human soul became under the pressure of Nazi barbarity.
The Jewish Doctors and Their Fate
Almost all Jewish doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, and others who
had had some connection with medicine were concentrated around the pathetic ghetto hospital. There was no shortage of good doctors, or of the sick and wounded, but there was a real shortage of medicines, nourishment, and caring attentiveness. Nevertheless, the doctors did help the sick in the hospital, as well as the children, the weak, and the ill who lay around in various ghetto areas.
The doctors, together with their families, relatives, and servants, created a kind of higher caste, which enjoyed many privileges. These people held on firmly to their top-level status until the liquidation of the great-ghetto.
Since I knew the doctors and their families quite well, I shall mention their
names and tell about their subsequent fate:
The pediatrician Dr. Vofsy with his wife and Dr. Daneman, who were in the ghetto-committee, perished together with the entire committee on the first of May, 1942, during the liquidation of the great-ghetto. Dr. Vofsy left behind a reputation as an honest and respectable person who often, at great personal sacrifice, attended to the needs of weak, sick children.
Dr. Gurevitch played the role of an idealistic leader, and witnessed the provincial Jews action, about which I will give more precise details later. Dr. Knoch and his wife perished in the slaughter of the seventeenth of August, 1941.
Dr. Damye, a surgeon, was an enormous asset to the hospital. He perished together with the ghetto-committee. His wife, also a medical doctor, was sent away to Riga in 1943, and after that perished, it appears, in a German concentration camp.
A second Dr. Vofsy, a dermatologist, was Dvinsk's only specialist in skin diseases. As such, he alone was allowed to work in the town hospital together with non-Jewish doctors. But even so, he had to wear his yellow badge and walk in the middle of the street when he left the ghetto. In 1943, he was sent with his wife and son to Riga where, until September 1944, he worked in lenta, a work unit of the Gestapo. Together with others, he disappeared in 1945 in one of Germany's concentration camps. His wife was gassed to death in Schtuthof, Germany.
Dr. Rosenblum was, after the liquidation of the ghetto, employed in various work units as an unskilled laborer. In 1943 he was sent out to Kaiserwald, near Riga. From there he was sent, along with many other Jews, to a punishment corps that dug up dead bodies and burned them. There he was shot to death. His wife and daughter, sent away to Germany, did not, apparently, remain among the living, either.
Dr. Yudin and Dr. Itzikovich (from Kovno) were transported, in 1943, to Kaiserwald, and from there to Estonia. Since almost none of the Jews in the Estonian concentration camps survived, their fate must have been the same.
Dr. Goldman poisoned his sister and himself in 1943, when the few remaining Jews were collected to be transported out of Dvinsk.
Mrs. Pressman, the dentist, died in 1944, in the great slaughter in schtrassenhof, (Riga).
The dentist Mrs. Voyen (maiden name Kalk, from Libove) died in 1944 of typhus, in Schtuthof or somewhere nearby.
The surviving doctors and their families, whom I encountered afterwards, were Dr. Landau and his wife, veterinary doctor Blachman and his wife, the dentist Abraham Magid (whose wife and daughter perished), and the dentist Mrs. Muller. Landau and Blachman were able to save themselves because Latvian farmers that they knew gave them a hideout for a long time.
Noteworthy but tragic was the destiny that played itself out for Dr. Kretcher of Dvinsk. He was a Jewish convert to Christianity, married to a Christian woman, and became a prominent member of Dvinsk society. In the beginning, the Nazi power structure did not bother him, but his Latvian doctor colleagues began bit by bit to undermine him. In the end they denounced him to the appropriate authorities. In the summer of 1943, Dr. Kretcher received the order to leave his government post, his house, and his family and join his Jew-comrades in the ghetto.
Dr. Kretcher, however, consumed poison on the way out of his house and collapsed on the way to the ghetto. The small-ghetto was already, by that time, inside the town (on Postoyale Street), and there they laid him down, a dying man, in the great hall together with a few dozen Jews. I then took a look at his pale green countenance, with his sunken eyes and the foam on his lips, and my friend Laib Bobrov said out loud what I was thinking: His was a noteworthy life. He was born a kosher Jew, he lived as a kosher goy, and now he is destined to die...once again as a kosher Jew.
Dr. Kretcher's only son, who was a loyal Latvian S. S. man and fought at the front, was fortunate to have died in battle. If not, he might have had to endure more suffering because of his father's impure Jewish descent.
The Chase After Work and Tags to Stay Alive
How strange, wild, and twisted ghetto-life was! There never was enough work or occupation for everyone, and Jews would compete with one another to get work, to earn money, to do drudgery for the bloodthirsty enemies, to be driven daily the ten kilometers to and from the workplace.
Some of the craftspeople, and also young children and women, worked in various workrooms in the ghetto itself. In that way they could address to some extent the needs of the ghetto inhabitants. There were organized workrooms for shoemakers, taiiors, carpenters, kitchen workers, cleaners, and so on. In addition to being paid money for their work, each craftsperson would also get better food, an extra plate of soup, a piece of bread, potatoes.
I bid farewell to my former calling as an agronomist and worked my way up to chief carpenter of the ghetto. I hammered nails left and right, learned how to make benches, berths, plank cots, and tables. I renovated doors, win-
dows, and roofs, and in that way made a living. In the evening and at night, after the official workday, I and my friend Kartagin, a Jew from the town of Griv, learned how to make small tables, cupboards, stools, and beds for the private use of the wealthier inhabitants, and for that work we used to get sugar, an extra piece of bread, and sometimes butter. I was fortunate to be able to gratify my wife and children with these extras.
Those who worked outside the ghetto would assemble every morning at the ghetto gate, where assignments would be handed out. Hundreds and thousands would rush to the gate and beg to be driven to work in the town, or in other parts of the Dvinsk fortress. Those who caught the eye of the German attendant or the Jewish work distributor felt fortunate (the poor things). They were favored with a day of work, while the rest were left standing at the gate, disappointed to be confined to the ghetto.
Where did this weird striving for work come from? First, everyone wanted a tag signifying that they labored for a military or semi-military work unit, because that kind of tag, they hoped, would save them from being chosen during the selection for death that occurred periodically. Second, going to work gave people the opportunity to meet Christians and exchange with them, for food, whatever articles they possessed. And third, there was a general desire to tear oneself away, at least for a while, from the ghetto atmosphere and take a look at the living world, however woeful the sight of that world might make us feel.
Tattered and dejected, with huge yellow Stars of David on their backs and chests, with sacks and kettles hanging off them, groups of Jews, in columns, under the guardianship of Germans or Latvians, were driven every morning to different workplaces in the town. At night they were again confined behind the wall of barbed wire. Tired out, hungry, sleep deprived, and in continuous
fear of death-under the influence of various rumors that tomorrow or the next day they would again be taking (that is, selecting for death)-people in the ghetto were depressed and worried for days, weeks, and months. They hovered between life and death, until for each one the appointed hour of destiny arrived. I came to express our mood and feelings in a kind of song. Afterwards, everyone called it The Ghetto-March and sang it in the Dvinsk ghetto, and also elsewhere.
I titled the song The Living Dead, and here it is:
|Deep in the woods, far over swamps
Both in rain, snow and wind
And when frost cuts, as with knives,
They drive them like stray dogs.
Do you see there? With whips, canes,
In mud up to their knees
They drive gaudy-colored striped creatures
Not human beings and not cattle.
They are the living dead...
We, the living dead,
The living dead are falling ... etc.
Human beings who can barely stand on their feet,
|With torturing them sadistically
And annihilating young and old.
They are torturing the living dead, etc.
Night comes...and back to the camp
The living dead are groaning and moaning, etc.
And people think, people dream:
The living dead are dreaming, etc.
It is still night, already they are shouting Get up!
The living dead are dying, etc.
And yet the dead still hope, and wait:
|Will deliverance come quickly?
Oh, to live to see the enemy's downfall!
It seems that it is already on the threshold...
Even though stone cold and dark
Is our heart, as though in a dead body,
Yet a spark still glows in the heart
A spark of hope for a miracle...
The living dead are hoping...
(Written in the Dvinsk ghetto, 1942. In the Dvinsk ghetto and the Popervalen and Dundaga concentration camps it was called The Ghetto-March and was sung to a variety of melodies.)
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