It is late summer of 1942. The day is warm, sunny and bright. A carriage comes to me from the hospital to the ghetto, with Dr. Smirnov in it. "Kolezhka!", he addresses me affectionately, "come quick, I'd like to show you something!"
Smirnov is now director of health services, and his wish is an order for me. I have known Smirnov since our high school days in Kobryn, under different circumstances...
When I first entered high school, Smirnov was one grade above me. When I was completing the final grade, the eighth, he was repeating his seventh grade. The poor fellow was a bad student and had difficulty even in memorizing the fact that water boiled at 100ºC. On my graduation from high school I was refused. as a Jew, admittance to a university in Poland. Smirnov, however, did manage, two years later, to enter the Vilno School of Higher Learning, and even to study at the Faculty of Medicine. Somehow he pulled through during the war years, when the Russian occupied Vilno. When the Germans arrived, he became important - a man with Slavic Aryan blood in his veins and a diploma in his pocket. It did not matter much what he had, or did not have, in his brain. It was this Dr. Smirnov who was brought by the Germans from Kobryn to Antopol to be entrusted with all the functions which 1, the accursed Jew, (verfluchte Jude), had been charged with before - director of the health service for the region and of the hospital (which I had built in Antopol during the time of Russian occupation, beginning in 1939 and continuing until the German invasion). Whenever something happened in the hospital, which Dr. Smirnov did not know how to handle, he would come running out of breath to the ghetto to ask my help.
This time, too, the carriage clattered loudly on the cobblestones of the Kobryn highway. In it were seated: Dr. Smirnov, the director; I with my yellow badge, and the coachman (who, when no one was looking, would take off his hat before me, as in olden times). The three of us drove out to Janyszewski's farm, at the end of the Kobryn Lots, where the hospital was situated. I found there a child sick with whooping cough, suffering from strong attacks of coughing and an eczema under the skin of the throat and on the upper part of the chest. Apparently the pressure created by the coughing caused a rupture in the windpipe, and air entered under the skin. The child was hurt by the pressure and looked terrible. I asked for a couple of coarse needles, pricked the skin and the air came out. The distended skin contracted and the suffocation was relieved. I administered some bromophorm to the child and he was saved.
Dr. Smirnov accompanied me on my way home. There was no need to hurry, so we walked. I wanted to gain time and perhaps obtain some information from this stupid fellow about what was being planned for us, Jews, in the ghetto. For several minutes my colleague kept tapping his forehead and muttering: "It is all so simple, why didn't I think of it? You prick the skin with a needle and you relieve the coughing. A puncture in the skin makes the air come out. Then you administer bromophorm to relieve the coughing." It looked just as in olden times, when he used to rehearse to himself "H20 is water, H20 is water." I let him complete his course in the subject, thinking to myself:
There he is, the Pan Direktor of today, the man who is superior to me, greater, more handsome, the more pure blooded specimen of the human race in this world. He rules and leads me as one leads a dog by a leash into its kennel - the ghetto. And here is the yellow badge on my back. That is the rope which stifles me, and weighs me down. This dull-witted brain on two legs trudging like a bear, and carrying a living carcass shaped like a human being, this thing is my superior, the one who lords it over me, and I am the Jew, for whom nothing will avail - neither science nor industry, nor talent, nor culture. I am the one who is not wanted, not needed. I am the hated and despised, the one to be destroyed. Why? Why did the Poles admit this total zero to the university in Vilno but would not admit me, the Jew? Why is this absolute nonentity now a free physician in control, even though it is clear that the distance between him and the Jew-dog is the distance of long years of evolution of the human species on earth ? Why, after all, is he sure of his life and is entitled to it, while I am sure of death and am not entitled to live?
That beautiful summer day, as it was nearing its end at twilight, while Smirnov and I were walking back to the ghetto, I received the answer to my query.
Dr. Smirnov began: "It is a pity that you are a Jew, a zhid. You understand, a great ruler arose in the world, a great judge. He issued a verdict which ordered all Jews to be destroyed. There is no appeal against this judgement. That is plain, no mistake about it. You've got no one to appeal to, no one to discuss it with. You cannot defend yourself, and I am sorry about you, because you have been helping me (the unassailable logic of a numbskull!)."
Smirnov went on: "It seems it won't be long now. Pan Chronimsky, the Mayor, told me: 'Just wait, a short while and you will soon be able to take a walk with your lady in the ghetto freely'. (Pan Chrominsky is the postman turned German - a Volksdeutsche - whom the Germans appointed Mayor of Antopol).
Smirnov spoke some more. He offered me to save my equipment by taking it for himself and hiding it. According to his way of thinking, that ought to make it easier for me to take my bullet in the head, or console me somehow, when my end comes, with the rest of the Jews, and my stupid companion will be able to stroll over the blood-drenched soil of the ghetto, drenched with our blood. He kept on talking and talking, but I kept quiet. Here I was given my verdict of death not subject to any appeal. 1, my family, and all the remaining Jews of the ghetto were soon to be put to death. All of us knew about it or felt it, but none of us dared to formulate it so plainly, the way this descendant of the Khmelnitzky killers blurted it out. The cold bullet, 8 grams of lead, already entered my brain and dazed it, killing the best that there is to be found in a human head and leaving an automatically propelling, numb body. This body took leave of the Pan Direktor of the hospital, who continued to mourn: "Too bad, panochku, that you are a zhid, because I need you. But a verdict is a verdict."
Time passed and, during the period still left for us to live, the wound made by Dr. Smirnov was healing. What is to be done? The first thing decided by myself, and all those to whom I repeated my conversation, was to make arrangements about the children. In a few days we deposited our little girl Vera at the doorstep of a Christian household (our daughter was five months old at the time. She stayed with them in the Pinsk Lots. The woman saved her and took good care of her. After the war, following strenuous efforts, we got our child back).
A few weeks later they knocked at our door at 5 o'clock in the morning: "Get up! the Judenrat has been arrested, the ghetto police is disbanded and the Germans are guarding us." I jumped up from bed with the thought: Smirnov's prediction has come true. The 8 grams of lead will bring the end. It makes it so much easier that our baby is not with us, that we saved the Deutsche Wehrmacht the expense of 3 pfenning for a bullet. And immediately thereafter a new determination came into being: If there is no appeal, let there be a fight for life or death. This is a fight of a hunted against the hunter: be has the gun, but the animal has the swift legs, it has justice on its side, the right to live. We are such animals. We must flee, out of the ghetto, and then we shall see. The decision was taken and carried out...
A non-Jewish farmer denounced the young man to the Germans as a communist. He was arrested, though he was pretty far removed from communism. Meyshe managed to escape from the police station and hid in the Pahonie (a large marshy field), where cows had their night pasture. The enraged Nazis were furious. Two motorcyclists came from nearby Kobryn. They called up the Judenrat (Council of Jews) and announced that if "the communist" failed to appear within the coming 48 hours, they would shoot his wife and child, his parents and ten prominent Jews. The next day Meyshe's wife and child and his parents were shut up in a brick-built store, with a guard posted in front of the store, and a warning was issued: We are waiting 24 hours more.
Ivan Baiduk, a representative of the local gentile burghers, a supposedly progressive man who was literate enough to be able to sign his name, met me in the market place and said: "Mister Doctor, it looks bad Moshke is not coming. The rulers are sure to take another ten Jewish notables. In that case, dear doctor, we may lose you. We have got to do something about it."
Life had already lost its value with us. No one dreamt of acting along the lines suggested by Ivan. We knew Meyshe would be put to death as soon-as he fell into their-hands. Would anyone betray him? Sell him out? Would anyone do anything to please the Germans, give them cause to feel triumphant? And why should Meyshe get this? Is he a communist or any sort of an activist or communal leader? He is nothing but a nice, quiet, decent and hardworking good man. And even if he were some sort of a party-man who believes in his ideal, does he deserve to be shot without a trial, just because some peasant wanted to have him dead?
Everyone in town knew that at night Meyshe came from the Pahonie, and sneaked into his house. On the first night he saw his wife and child, his father and mother, and together they grieved. They wrung their hands, sought out friends to ask for advise, had no food and no sleep. What was there to be done? On the second night the house was empty, because his nearest and dearest were shut up in the store. In the dark of the night he knocked on the doors and windows of his friends: "dear friends, what can be done? The heart is about to break, the head is whirling, the air is tight and life is a curse!"
They quietly sighed with the unhappy man. They felt for him and were sorry for him. The young man had become transformed. He was no more good looking and bad aged. They quietly parted. Meyshe went back to the Pahonie.
The next morning be reported at the police station. He put in his appearance before the killers, as if to say: "Here I am, hang me but let my wife and child and parents go. They are innocent!"
He was put in chains, although there was no chance that be would try to escape again. He had taken a decision to give his life for his family. That same day he was taken to Kobryn. Not far from the tall bridge over the river, several scaffolds had been prepared. Within a few hours the body of the innocent brave man was swinging off one of the nooses.
May the memory of Meyshe Friedman live forever!
Fate willed it that only seven Jews were left of the residents in the ghetto of Antopol. Among them were Dr. Cherniak, his wife and child, and four other girls, namely: Shoshe Wolowelsky, of Grushev street; Itka Mazurski, the daughter of Itzl Mazurski; ReizI Kagan, Yankl Tebin's daughter, of Kobryn street, and the writer of these lines, daughter of Naftoli Kaplaniker. How each one of us remained alive is a subject for a book about the period when we saw death before our eyes every day.
I lived in the ghetto of Antopol from its first day, together with my whole family. During the final operation, when the last remaining Jews -in the ghetto were being driven to the railway station for shipment (in October of 1942), 1 managed to escape and hide with a Polish Christian acquaintance, Arcyszewski. To remain in Antopol was out of the question, since at that time there was not a single Jew left in town.
Arcyszewski took me, a few days later, into the village of Novosolok, to a Christian family's home, where he had prepared for me a place in a pit under a cowshed in the backyard. It is difficult to imagine life in a pit in the cold and in the dark, isolated from the world, but yet this is how I was saved.
I was fed as it was customary to feed a cat or a similar animal in rural places. There were moments of fear, when drunken Germans visited the family, and I used to hear their wild voices from my hiding place. The unhygienic conditions for a long time caused my getting ill very often. There was no hope for medical care. It took great strength and endurance to bear all this. I had about six months of this tortured existence, until I could not remain in the village any longer. The man who shielded me feared for his life all the time, because he risked death for harboring a Jew. He told me that Dr. Cherniak and his wife lived in the nearby forest among a group of partisans, and advised me to seek a way to contact them and apply for joining them. We managed to make the contact, and one day a sleigh drove into the yard of my host, who hid me under a pile of straw and sent me with the driver into the forest.
A different type of life began for me in the forest. The partisans lived in primitive conditions, in tents and booths. They often had to be on the move, in order to escape the pursuing Germans. Spread out in the famous Pinsk marshes, the partisans had to endure unusual hardships in the wintertime, when they suffered from a shortage of clothes and footwear. It was my good fortune to get quarters in the same tent with Dr. Cherniak and his wife, who contributed so much to the cause of the partisans, and he enjoyed great respect and popularity with them. If it were not for him, they probably would not have admitted me, since they seldom agreed to admit women. Dr. Cherniak and his wife looked after me as if I were their own child. We carried on in the marshes as best as we could until the summer of 1944. We took solace from the defeats which the Germans were beginning to suffer in the front, and we nursed the hope that we would live to see a better day. Finally liberation came. All of us returned to Antopol. It is difficult to describe the impression we bad on coming back to our native town, and meeting the other survivors, namely: Itka Mazurski, Shoshe Wolowelski, and ReizI Kagan.
After the end of the war, another dozen families returned to Antopol, coming from distant parts of Russia, where they served in the army, or through other circumstances which brought them there.
We all nurtured the idea of building up connections with the outside world, and beginning a new life. In 1945 we left for Poland with the intention of proceeding thence to Israel.
Thus came to an end a long chapter of the Jewish community in Antopol.
No Jews are left in the whole neighborhood. There are no Jews in Horodetz, and there are only four Jewish households in Drohichin. The same picture is to be observed in Kobryn and all other towns in the region.
Finkelstein, until the 1950's, was manager of a Kom-Khoz (communal economy). He utilized his position to convert the large market. place into a municipal park. He had trees and flower-beds planted, walks and benches in. stalled, and the old market-square was gone: the stores were hidden from view by the trees and the whole scenery changed.
Yitzchak Zack was at first a member of the party, but he was later expelled and he is content with being an official in the Regional Consumers' Cooperative (Ray-potreb-soyuz).
Now there are in Antopol three thousand Russians and Poles, some of whom are the former Gentile inhabitants of the town, while the others are newcomers from nearby villages in Russia and White Russia.
The Christian population presents a different story than that of the Jews. Two kolkhozes were established:
The "First of May", which includes Pryshikbvost, and "Gubernia" with the other district. Work groups (artels) were organized, as well as co-operatives and other such bodies. The former Jewish prayer-house on Kobryn Street now houses an artel for combing wool. Other artels were formed to carry out various kinds of building jobs. Houses were built along the cobbled Drohichin highway as far as Pryschikhvost. A new street called 'Niekrasov" opened up at the right side of the highway.
At first the authorities planned to create in Antopol a "Regional Committee" (Raykom). In order to carry it out they began building a two story brick house on Feiwel Bendet's lot. Later it was decided that the town would become, administratively, a "Posielkov Selsoviet", or Village Council, attached to the Drohibitz Region. The new edifice was converted into a children's home. Kobryn, too, became a regional centre, including also Horodetz and Khadlin, under its jurisdiction.
The internal appearance of the town changed a great deal. Various institutions were built. The rabbi's house in the synagogue courtyard was confiscated. The same fate befell Feldsteins house on Pinsk Street, the Orphanage on Grushev Street, the Squire's prayer-house, the ice-cellar and many other buildings. The Tarbut Hebrew school building was converted into a dairy restaurant; Polchuk's brickhouse became a Soviet orphanage; the Talmud Torah building is being used for a secular school, the old frame prayer-house now houses a cinema; and the new brick building of the synagogue was occupied by the offices of the Regional Union. Bales of flax are stored in the old large brick prayer house. The "Squire's" prayer-house was moved to the village of Holovietz, where it was used to build a Church. The old school building on Pinsk street is used for a ten-year secondary school. The hospital on Kobryn street has been enlarged, with the addition of a surgical department and a staff of four physicians.
The Gentile population of Antopol is still busy rummaging in the ruins of the Jewish houses, hoping to unearth some treasures. They did succeed in finding some valuables in the cellar of Itke Miriam's house. The police confiscated them.
That is how the once Jewish town of Antopol looks like after the brutal murder of the Jewish men, women and children by the Nazi horde. Where 2000 innocent Jewish martyrs found their graves there are now some 3000 Christians, mostly newcomers, living a life free of Jews. Some of them remember the past and secretly yearn for it and for the Jews. But where are the forces that can bring back to life the souls which still live in the hearts of the few survivors scattered all over the world?
The ever unanswered question arises; Whence will come that moral force which can stir up the conscience of mankind which watched with equanimity the vandalism of the Nazi brutes, while now everyone seeks to obscure and forget and obliterate every trace of the perished Jewish population, or as to be able to succeed to its heritage undisturbed.
But we cannot forget. 'Remember what Amalek hath done to thee,"
Everybody knew Reb Elie, who lived opposite the old post office and had a glass porch, which served all the year as a veranda, and during Succoth - as a Succoh.
Reb Elie Mass enjoyed the respect of everybody, young, and old, small and grown up. You got to like him from the first time that you saw his aristocratic-patriarchal countenance.
He used to pray in the Pritsishn Beis Medrosh, on Kobriner Street, and he was always on hand to answer queries and solve disputes.
Always dressed neatly, on the Sabbath Reb Elie wore a top hat and a white collar shirt. He knew all about the big metropolises of the world, and people said that he learned to wear a top hat in America.
Still he knew nothing of the neighboring villages around his home town, until one day a war broke out between Nikolai of Russia and Willhelm of Germany, and the Germans advanced as far as the other side of Pinsk. When the local farmers fled deep into Russia, the local Jews and Reb Elie among them harvested their crops in order to feed their own families, and thus they got to know all the villages around, and the fields surrounding them.
Then came a declaration, by U.S. President Wilson, famous for its fourteen points, followed by a war between Poland and Red Russia. This fire also swept Reb Elie's town.
It came about in the month of Elul, when the sun usually celebrates its last days of summer, the air is clear, full of blossoms, and people feel fresh and prepared to pick all the ripe fruits to preserve them for the winter, when everything will be covered with snow and ice. In these very days the Jewish people were hiding in dug-outs, awaiting death any minute.
On the last day of Succoth, the air was filled with the noise of bullets, houses crumbled under fires, and the Poles were driving the Bolsheviks beyond the other side of town. While passing by, the Poles advised the hiding Jews to put out the fires. Reb Elie instinctively looked out to see the fires, when one of the soldiers asked him for the road to Sweklitch.
Reb Elie came out and, approaching the commanding officer, tried to give him directions. But the officer ordered him to lead them in person as a scout.
Night came, and they were still walking. When they approached the outskirts of the village, Reb Elie began to feel better. He outlined the place to the officer, who checked with his map and verified it. But now, after telling Reb Elie what would have been his fate if he had misled them, they ordered him to go into the village and return with information as to the possibility of the Bolsheviks still being there.
Reb Elie walked over, tired and exhausted, and came out reporting that the village was empty. But now they ordered him to continue to the next village. He had to go on. On the way he prayed the evening prayer which he had missed before, and it made him feel better, until he reached the village. And then onward... by the time he reached the third village he knew what to do. In that village there lived a farmer named Mikita. Reb Elie woke him up and asked him about Bolsheviks, and the latter replied that he would not know for sure. Reb Elie came back and related what he had heard.
Now they told him to walk ahead together with Mikita. The Batallion halted as the two went forward scouting. Suddenly:
- Who goes there?
- Yours, followed by Poles.
Lie down, quick. We start firing on them.
Both armies began shooting while Mikita pulled Reb Elie down to the ground. Then he took him back with him through back roads until they reached the village, and then he sent him on his way to his home-town.
Now Reb Elie continued alone on his way until he reached his town, all dirty and exhausted.
_ Dear Papa, his children met him, where have you been?
- Hush children, we have a great God. If not for the war, I would not know the villages, and if I would not know the villages - what would be my end? I come from "no man's land" and I came out alive from the fire. Who would have thought that Mikita would earn himself a place in Paradise?!
* In an email to Stephen P. Morse dated September 8, 2002, Leah Hammond wrote the following:
"Mr. A. Warschaw starts the chapter with the naming of three men who were the only Jewish inhabitants living in Antopol.
He has omitted my family who resided in Gorky street. Indeed my sister was born in 1947 in Antopol and I was born there in 1950.
Our family name is Projansky, my mother's name is Tamara, my father's name was Shachney (Sacha) my sister's name was Regina (now Rachel) and my name was Ludmilla (now Leah). I believe I am the last Jewish person to be born there.
My father's family had lived there before the war and all perished during Nazi occupation.
My father died very recently which has started my search for my roots." Return
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