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[Page 345]

The Final Way

By Menakhem son of Shim'on Katz[1]

To my father, Eliyahu David Roth

Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Jane S. Gabin



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A documentary description of the liquidation of the forced labor camp in Brzezany.

As the sole survivor of the German “Wehrmacht” labor camp in Brzezany and as a witness to the annihilation of the last of my city's people, I found it my holy duty to describe and memorialize the last hours of my brothers in this chapter.


Town's View

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In the winter of 1942-43, a few dozen Jews in Brzezany were “protected” by the German Army - the Wehrmacht, and employed in the service of the German war effort. Their main task was cleaning guns, collecting war material and items plundered from Jews (rags and metals), classifying them, maintaining them, and providing general services to several officers of the local Wehrmacht headquarters. This group had a unique status. In addition to the white band with a blue Star of David, they wore a W tag on their chest with a Wehrmacht stamp on it, which entitled them to a special privilege: they could travel freely outside the ghetto during the day. To be free, to move about among the other second-rate citizens of the “General Government Protectorate,” was a privilege, a small gap into Nazi Europe, a shred of security, a conscious illusion of the hope of being rescued.

To possess a W tag was the dream of every Jew in town. The magic tag proved to be worthwhile. Their owners were not snatched for the work camps in Kamionka, Tarnopol, and the like, and those who were, found themselves released through the intervention of the army and put back into their jobs. This single fact increased the illusion of security.

Rumors, whispers, guesses, and promises Jews made to each other created a legend, the legend that the “W Jew” status could not be violated by the Gestapo because its bearer was vital to the war effort. “W Jews” would not be murdered, they were needed, they were vital, and they would live.

To live, to live at least as a second-class citizen, to live while the rest of the Jewish people were being exterminated day after day, to live and wait for the war to end, for salvation, for resurrection – no words could describe it. This will to stay alive and generate super-human strength, which the mind of an ordinary person could not perceive. It could drive one into anything: to sacrifice property, forego one's pride, and put aside reason and logic. People of a hopefully required trade and the affluent tried any possible tactic to obtain the magic tag – even paying a fortune for it.

The cunning Gestapo knew that the “W tag” could serve its vile objectives, and as of the winter of 1942-43, the much-desired camp was constructed outside the ghetto boundaries.

The house of the late Dr. Falik, who, together with his family, lost his life for being proud of his nationality, and two adjoining houses, which together formed a fortress-like structure, were selected to accommodate the “Wehrmacht Jews'” camp.

The buildings formed a fortified court, which opened toward Tarnopolska Street. On that side was a tall iron fence and a massive iron gate. To the north, the houses bordered a stream, to the west, a street, and to the east, an empty lot with the ruins of the Reb Yiddle Synagogue. The choice of location was not incidental, but rather a well-planned scheme for creating a detention camp that was easy to guard. The place had the appearance of a residential camp, and except for the sole entrance, which was staffed by a Jewish Ordnungsdienst guard, no signs of the Nazi regime were to be found. During the day, the camp was almost empty, since except for a few women who were busy cooking,

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all its inhabitants were working outside. At dusk, they gathered inside, and this too varied according to the general mood in the ghetto.

People whose trades were needed by the local Wehrmacht headquarters, gatherers of war supplies, and others who managed, through bribes or connections with the Judenrat, to get permits to live there inhabited the camp. It was quite common that only men, or one of a family, lived in the camp, while the rest of the family lived in the ghetto. For this reason, when the atmosphere in the ghetto was relatively safe, people tended to stay there overnight.

At the beginning of the summer of 1943, when the extermination of Brzezany's Jews was approaching, Gestapo soldiers consented, through Wehrmacht people, to admit into the “camp of the fortunate” a few more Jews who pleaded to get in.

This was a trick by which a few more Jews were trapped in the cage, so that on the day of extermination – the Judenfrei – would already be gathered in the “protected” camp and there would be no need to look for them in hiding places and bunkers in the ghetto.


The Camp map

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About two weeks before the extermination day, my father, E. D. Roth, a beverage specialist, got a permit to spend nights at the camp, without being entitled to wear the “W tag.”

It was Friday around dusk, Sabbath Eve following Shavuoth (Pentecost) of 1943. The atmosphere was tense. Rumors about the extermination of the Pszemyslany and Podhajce Jewish communities were alternately proved and disproved. People were running around for news. Was the end truly imminent? That it was a matter of days was quite clear, but still, everyone looked for a sign of hope, a miracle that might take place. Despair and hope, illusion and the bitter truth, a lie about some chance to be rescued, were the only topics of discussion during these last moments. As if trapped in a cage or surrounded by the fire with no outlet, shadows of stooped, terrorized figures were wordlessly slipping away along the alleys; each running to a place that seemed safer. Here and there, in small groups, people whispered in each other's ears, sharing a secret, which would never be retold.

I also stood with my father, mother, and two of our neighbors at the gate to our yard, trying to figure out what to do. A sentence here, an idea there, a meaningful gaze, silence, and over again, but time did not stand still. The sun's last rays cast long shadows, but the despair was longer. The neighbors left; time was pressing. What should we do? The last words exchanged between us were: “Should we go to sleep at the camp or not? That was the third night I had to sleep at the camp. Should I say goodbye to my mother and father and go to the camp, or should I go to the bunker I had outside the ghetto, where I slept all these years? My father was desperate, my mother was in favor of going to the camp, and my father agreed, but then hesitated and changed his mind. The light was getting dimmer and dimmer, the zero hour was approaching, and the decision was made – a few last warm kisses, and turning my head back for the last time, seeing my mother disappearing in the shadow of the hallway, we, my father and myself, stooped and hesitantly sneaked into the camp.

I was one of the last few who walked through the iron gate into the camp's court at Dr. Falik's house. The gate closed; no one walked in, no one walked out. This last Sabbath Eve did not look like any Sabbath Eve. No sign of Sabbath, no trace of a Sabbath atmosphere, no trace of anything human – it was all over.

The camp was full, about 350 people. People who knew each other and lived together for many years. That night they seemed like strangers: stooped, silent, buried within themselves, as if they were mute from birth as if they could not stand each other's presence.

Intolerant toward others, intolerant toward themselves, unending despair numbed all feelings. Silence – they were silent externally, toward their environment, yet their insides ached and cried out for help, revolt, revenge, ceaselessly bursting within themselves, turning spiritual suffering into physical pain. Overwhelmed by pain, people walked from room to room, seeking advice, and making plans. To escape, to hide, to sneak away at the last moment. Escape – but how? Where? To the forest? To a gentile acquaintance who was not trustworthy? What would they do? How would they pay? How would they get food in a hostile environment? How would they survive in the ocean of hatred awaiting them on the other side of the locked iron gate?

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And again, they withdrew into their thoughts or ran over to a friend who occupied a bunk across the room and whispered their thoughts into his ears. Whispered, because everything was secret as they did not want others to steal and use their plans, their ideas about how to live, how to escape, how to get hold of a shred of hope for survival. Another reason for the whispering: traitors who could inform the Judenrat of people's plans and ruin them.

That evening a few people advocated an uprising: to break the iron gate and scatter through the windows. To run away and be free, even for a few hours before the imminent end. That was the wish. People talked to each other, whispered, gave advice, and reconsidered weighty questions: What about my wife in the ghetto? What about my wife who is in hiding? What about the children who now stay with this and that person? How is it going to be in the forest? Will I manage? And silence. The silence of depression and hopelessness characterized this morbid evening. At the last moment of life, my mates did not find the strength to instigate an uprising that night, just as they had not in the preceding two years of persecution.

The absence of active leadership, which could have established more partisan troops, was the reason for our failure to fight the enormous, sophisticated mechanism contrived by the monstrous Nazis.

Even though no clear information was available, no one would have announced an Aktion ahead of time, a feeling that the end imminently prevailed and felt everyone's heart. The dim light of a kerosene lamp, helplessness, and mental and physical fatigue made most people curl up in their bunks with their clothes on and retire early in the evening. Most did not sleep, but only lay silent, each wrapped in his thoughts and pain. Every once in a while, the silence was interrupted by a loud cry, which was nothing but a deep, heartbreaking groan, followed by a boundless stillness and no response.

Occasionally someone would climb down from his bunk for a short, hushed conversation with a friend, or look through the window into the darkness of the night, and quickly return to his place.

A few times during that night the iron gate opened. Some of the Ordnungsdienst people returned from the ghetto, and those who were not asleep tried to get some news out of people whom they knew. But there was no news. By ten o'clock it was completely dark, the last night of the camp. Some, those who could, slept placidly, and others quietly suffered their last hellish night on earth. Before dawn people began to climb down from their bunks, wandering around for news. Had anything happened in the darkness of the last hours? Stillness and pale sun rays announced the first Sabbath after Shavuoth of 1943.

Everybody waited for the gate to open so that they could leave the camp at the end of the tormenting, long night. But on this day the gate remained closed, following an order the camp commander had received that night from the Gestapo.

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The news spread in the camp with the speed of lightning. Everything was topsy-turvy. The clear, cloudless sky of that Saturday (12 June 1943), the fragrance of blossoming gardens, and the joyful twitting of birds, all failed to lift the gloomy atmosphere. The streets around the camp were still deserted and no living soul could be seen or heard. “It's still early” explained the optimists, while the realists kept quiet and the pessimists uttered: “This is the end.”

Restless, unwashed, unshaven, straight out of bed, people wandered around, not uttering a word, avoiding eye contact, and passing each other in the narrow passages between the bunks. Occasionally someone would walk swiftly across the yard to other wings of the camp for news, perhaps the damned Judenrat members knew something.

It was still early. The stillness and emptiness enveloping the building, the streets, and the adjacent, yet invisible, ghetto increased the tension.

Suddenly, around eight o'clock, an open Gestapo car emerged with a shriek onto Tarnopolska Street, manned by four soldiers in green uniforms. It was followed intermittently by other such cars full of soldiers in various uniforms. A car would appear and disappear, leaving behind the same morbid stillness as if nothing had happened.

With the vehicles going in the direction of the Gestapo headquarters at Sondova Street, it was clear to all that the Aktion was imminent and would be carried out with notorious German precision. The tension increased, and so did the silence, as people withdrew deeper into themselves.

No one came into or left the camp except for a few Ordnungsdienst people, who went to the ghetto “on duty,” which was mostly to collect information.

Around half past eight it was confirmed that an Aktion was taking place in the ghetto, but what kind? Was it a “regular” or a “final” one, a “Judenfrei?” Nobody knew. Nobody wanted to predict the near future. Occasionally people would gather in small groups to discuss the situation, trying to delude each other.

Perhaps it was only a “regular Aktion:” Those who would be captured would be captured; the rest would stay particularly the camp inhabitants.

And perhaps it was a “final Aktion,” but the camp inhabitants would stay alive for a while longer, and in the meantime, maybe the war would end. Nothing was known, and the end was still hovering in the air.

And then, around ten o'clock, a few distant shots were heard from the ghetto. Everybody froze, for their meaning was known to all.

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Several hundred yards away an anonymous Jewish soul ceased to exist. Someone I knew had breathed his or her last breath while shot by a German murderer. I felt as if my blood had stopped circulating. The first shot that day was crueler than the pogrom and killing that followed, a clear sign of the horror, which was beginning in the ghetto. Petrified, I leaned against a doorframe, unconnected thoughts flashing through my mind.

What should I do? The only thought that insistently recurred in my mind, and in the minds of the others who were with me was: “Escape!” Run away at any cost, anywhere, without thinking of the immediate consequences. But how? In a moment or two another, brighter solution would surface, a shred of hope, a chance to be rescued, a subconscious voice that would guide me.

But no!


Brzezany map, Ghetto, and Camp marked in black

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No logical thinking could lead to a possible, reasonable rescue. Perhaps one of my friends or relatives would come up with something. But why think of a relative when my father was the closest? Yes, my father was there with me.

I went over to him, looked him in the eyes, and a barely audible whisper uttered a single word … father! He looked at me, firmly held my shoulder with his muscular hand, and remained silent. He could not utter even one word of solace, for he had none.

We knew each other all too well to tell lies for consolation. His hand tightened over my shoulder, and I took it for an answer: Be strong. A gentle push and a release of grip ended our next-to-last meeting. We both looked through the window toward the ghetto, where my mother and sisters were hiding in a bunker, and buried our silence even deeper, for we could see a cloud of smoke swirling and rising from a burning ghetto building.

Reassured for a moment by a fatherly touch, yet desperate, my thoughts drifted through the endless conversations I had had with him. “Be strong and maintain your dignity.” That was the motto in our home. And now… what dignity? What strength?

A flash of bright thought – to be strong means to be fully aware of the present. At the speed of lightning, I began to contrive a scheme of escape. Another followed one thought – a scheme began to form and seemed to turn into reality. The spirit of juvenile rebelliousness was still with me. My conscience and lust for life screamed from within – do something, follow your spontaneously worked-out scheme. Do something quickly and you will be saved.

And indeed, with the instantaneous drive and the scheme I had in mind, I quickly moved toward the window to check a certain detail, and instinctively jumped backward, into a shadow cast by the wall at the side of the window.

Instead of the detail, I wished to check, I saw the muzzle of a machine gun located on top of the ruins of the Reb Yiddle Synagogue, and a soldier in a green uniform aiming it at me.

My scheme dissolved and cruel reality manifested itself. We were surrounded. The Gestapo and its supporting forces surrounded the camp and manned all its corners with armed guards.

The situation became clear in an instant – this was the end. The news that the camp was surrounded spread at once among its inhabitants. Then everybody was silent again, and only a few understandably tried to find out whether the rumors were true. Here and there someone approached the window, trying to take a look at the guards through a slit between the window frame and the half-open wing. Some went up to the attic, and from there, through some slits, had a clear view of their executioners, who were idle by their guns, fooling around and smoking cigarettes, showing no trace of concern regarding the upcoming slaughter. These German soldiers seemed rather content to be guarding a camp with some 350 Jews locked in it.

At about 11:00 a.m., there was a burst of fire from a distant machine gun. Everyone froze. In the room I shared with my death-mates, one could hear a fly crossing the room. Our dulled senses sharpened and our ears

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seemed to grow longer and wider to better perceive indistinct, distant echoes of the shooting. Bursts of fire followed each other, some longer and some shorter, becoming more and more frequent. Nobody moved. Petrified, we, the Holocaust victims, either sat, stood, or lay on our bunks, waiting for the end. Descriptions of death and the last waves of life ran through my mind. What was it like? How could life end on such a beautiful summer day? Was it at all possible to die under the bright sun amid spring blossom? I? So strong, young, healthy, I would die in a few hours, just as my soul mates were dying out there, not very far, in the town's cemetery?

Yes, everybody knew, and there was no trace of doubt, that those shots signaled a major slaughter taking place in the cemetery. This was the final Aktion in the ghetto. No one dared to interrupt the silence of the first death wave of that Saturday.

At this stage, the machine guns blasted continuously for half an hour and then gradually dwindled into less frequent short bursts until they stopped. A few moments later, we felt a release of tremendous tension. Here and there one could see someone stealthily moving his hand or shifting position. The eternal silence had not yet taken hold of the living crowd.

The first shock of the first death infliction of that day was over. People resumed their whispering and moving about the place. Then the silence was replaced by agitation. People went restlessly from room to room, unsuccessfully trying to communicate with each other.

Close to noontime, Raful Freundlich, a friend of my father, returned from the camp's west wing with the news that some people had killed themselves by taking drugs: Fogel, the pharmacist, his wife, and Dr. Trauner. This news did not make a particular impression but led to mild arguments. Most remained indifferent. Some supported the act and overtly envied them for having the drugs and the courage to take charge of the last stage of their lives.

I was standing at the door of my room when suddenly the figure of my father appeared before my eyes as he returned from a talk with Benjamin Mitelman, the Judenrat leader. His face was frozen. His large, strong body seemed to me at that moment like the body of a giant. He stood in front of me, erect and somewhat pensive. With the slightest movement of his hand, he signaled me to move to a quiet corner in the hallway. With no further questions, I stepped back and he followed me. I sensed he had something important to say to me.

He was silent. We stood facing each other for a few seconds. Very very slowly, and without blinking he turned his gaze toward the window facing the ghetto, through which swirls of smoke were still visible. Quietly and with unshakable strength he said: “It is all over.”

He put his hand on my shoulder and continued: “Look, son, toward the burning ghetto. Mother and my other children are probably gone, and as for myself, I have nothing to do here without them. I am about to finish in a few seconds.

“As for you, I only want to remind you of your promise.

Take it perhaps…” More he could not utter and it seemed to me that a tear appeared in his eye.

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He did not cry. He put his hand in his pocket, pulling out his black wallet with some documents and money. He released the chain of his watch slowly as if trying to gain time. His hand glided down my back, vertebra by vertebra, and then he calmly handed me the wallet and watch.

I took them, put them on the nearest bunk, and remained silent. My father grabbed my right hand, pressed it tightly in a painful way, and an unwavering voice repeated: “Remember your promise, keep your dignity… and be strong.”

These were the last words I heard him say.

He abruptly released my hand and held my body tightly against his. We stayed that way for a few seconds and released each other abruptly. Before I could utter a word, he stepped back and disappeared behind the door of the next room. The door closed quickly, and I doubt if my cry “Father!” reached him.

I stood where I was for a few minutes without noticing that some people were standing around watching me silently. Naturally, I wanted to open the door, but the hand of Raful, my father's friend, held me back.

“Not now,” he said. “Come with me.”



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We went together to the hallway. Raful, who had always been very fond of me, did not say a word. We stood together before the balcony facing the yard, lost in thought. I was thinking of my father, and probably so was Raful, for he was a close friend of my father until the last minute.

A second wave of machine-gun fire jolted us. I do not remember how long we stood there, but no more than five or ten minutes. The machine guns rattled in the distance. Somebody opened the door and Raful and I walked into the adjacent room, where, on one of the lower bunks, my father's body was lying.

He looked calm, as if asleep lying on his side. His head was slightly tilted down and the only sign of lifelessness was a black phlegm spot on the floor he spit out in his quick dying.

I glanced at my dead father for the last time, and rapidly turned back and walked out of the room.

The shooting intensified, the intervals getting shorter and shorter. Occasionally people would freeze as they heard the bursts, but they grew accustomed to the noise which was heard everywhere in the camp. The utter silence, which characterized the first wave of shooting, disappeared. People talked with each other, trying to interpret the echoes, noises, and sounds in their own ways.

While I was standing in the hallway, my father's body, wrapped in a blanket, was carried downstairs. I watched him silently and respectfully and so did the others around me.

At that very moment, a Judenrat man by the name of Srul Rus went up the stairs. Formerly an affluent man, he was a hypocrite and a traitor, who thought that all the restrictions and calamities were intended for people other than himself and his family. When he passed by the corpse, he provocatively said to the good-willed, benevolent people: “What a fool – why did he do that?”

These words made my blood boil, and spontaneously, without thinking twice, and as I was standing higher than he did, I spat a mouthful of saliva on him. Astounded, sweating, and with an increasingly reddening face, the detestable Judenrat representative did not understand how such a thing could happen to him, and who would dare do that to him, the “community representative.” He approached me furiously, wanting to seize me, but this time his status was of no help. The people who were standing around did not let him come near me.

There was a bitter, short argument between him, the others, and me. Although he was older, I told him he was dumb and brainless. He wanted to protect his dignity by saying that those in the camp are safe while an Aktion was taking place in the ghetto. People around me answered him each in his own way and convinced him to leave the place before my insult took the form of revenge. He immediately disappeared into the adjacent wing.

With no sense of remorse, or shedding of tears, which did not surface in my eyes, or the eyes of any of my companions that day, I sneaked silently to the attic. I figured I could spend some time alone there. I knew I did not have much time, but what should I do with the time I did have?

Cautiously I walked with a bent back between the attic's joists, and in the stifling darkness of the scalding hot tin, I sat down with my head between my hands, leaning on my knees, and let my gloomy thoughts ramble.

Suddenly, unaware of the passing time, I woke up. Somebody hastily passed by me, and in the darkness probably did not see me and pushed me unintentionally. I lifted my eyes and looked around.

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Srul Rus Statues, perhaps mummies or demons? Who are all these? Real human figures or shadows from the other world? At first, I was not quite aware of what was going on, because I had just returned to reality from a world of thoughts. A few beams of light, broken into all the colors of the rainbow, filtered through small holes in the tin roof, each taking its own course, flickering between dust motes and throwing colored spots on the figures who stood by the slits and holes and through them peeped out to the street. Dim light, colored rays in clouds of fine dust, crossed the attic in all directions, on human figures leaning in various postures over slits in the roof – that was my environment. A ray flooded the face of someone, a bright spot on someone else's, floating eyes, not carried by anything moved slowly, as if trying to get through the point of light in the roof. A man with both hands raised, holding two beams, appeared as if crucified, and another clung with one eye on the sloping tin, his hands hanging down as if he were dead. In a corner, someone lay, shrunk to fit the small space, his head toward the slit which let in a beam of bright sunlight. His face was blanched and his red sleepless eyes had a dark frame. The contrast of light and shade made him look like a creature from the world of terror.

I was wide awake, but the attic did not look any different, and the figures did not dissolve or disappear. The moment-before-death reality did not change. A figure moved lazily as if pushed by a ray or an indecipherable force. This was not the gait or movement of someone who was in control of his senses. It was the residue of human energy left in a body devoid of initiative, energy, or the will to live.

The misery of the last two years and the tension of the last day filled people's capacity for suffering. Almost every face conveyed indifference and reluctance to struggle for life. Only a few maintained their vitality and continued to struggle, talking when they could find a tired ear, which would listen.

As I was sitting rolled up on a beam, I vaguely heard something being said repeatedly. I concentrated and figured out what was going on. “Come down, come down.” Illusion turned into reality. We were ordered to go down to the yard – and then where? In no time I skipped toward the stairs leading from the attic down to my room. People moved toward the yard very slowly. Here and there someone seemed to run to the attic to hide, but very soon I saw them coming back. People ran terrorized between the bunks; some went down and back to their rooms but found no way out.

I searched for a familiar face, someone with whom to exchange a last word. I stood at the top of the stairs, by the balcony facing the yard, and watched the slow stream of friends climbing down the stairs. “Raful! Raful!” I yelled to my father's friend, who appeared at the door. He was suffering from severe stomachache and bent forward with his hands tucked under his belt. He came close to me and stopped. His face was frozen, but still, he responded: “Yes?”

“Raful, what should I do?” I asked desperately.

“You should go down to the yard with everyone else or hide in the building. One way or the other, you have nothing to lose, my boy.” Slowly, saying no more, he turned and climbed down the steep staircase. Every step on the wooden board seemed like a hammer stroke on my brain and heart. My blood circulation accelerated, my heartbeat was fast, and my brain began to work rather intensively.

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Hide? Where? In the attic? In the basement, although I did not know where it was? In a hiding place, I overheard someone say that existed in the camp? No! None was a good solution. I decided to wait inside and be the last to leave. Maybe somehow, I would manage to hide from the murderers. I had no idea where or how I would implement my scheme, but still, I followed my resolve to wait, to be the last person in the building.

I opened the door and walked to the balcony facing the yard. I gripped the iron railing as if I was about to bend it. I held my breath for a moment and tightened my grip even more. “Be strong!” I remembered.

The yard filled up. People were coming out of all the building's wings and lined up in groups of four, following the order of some unseen person. Foursome after foursome stood in magnificent order and with hardly any noise. I recognized the faces. Friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and others, all came out of the building and lined up. I was alone on the balcony, viewing this death parade, caring about nothing.

The yard was full, and I saw Gestapo soldiers pushing and kicking people, squeezing in more and more people in groups of four. Then came the last group, consisting of Judenrat members, some of whom had thought Aktion and forced labor were for others and believed they could be saved by serving the Germans. Others knew very well they would eventually share the fate of their people, but still organized the community the way they did. That was their fatal mistake.

And then, from the wing in front of me, the last Judenrat Chairman came down, Benjamin Mitelman, the man who had known, and had told my father, how the Nazi murderer, Hermann, playing with his gun during a meeting had said to him: “The last bullet shot from this gun will be dedicated to you, my friend.”

The chairman was followed by his wife and their two children, other Judenrat members, and last arrived the Ordnungsdienst people in their blue uniforms. All – with no exception – good, stupid, and villains. Jewish fate is equal, regardless of looks or position.

The last groups of four were squeezed in. On the order of Gestapo officers, some of whom were standing on a platform by the main entrance to the Falik house, both wings of the iron gate opened wide. Two lines of murderers in green uniforms, and Ukrainians in dark blue ones streamed to the sides of the Jews. Gestapo people who stood by the entrance turned into the buildings to look for anyone who might be hiding, and then I saw murderer Hubert climbing up the stairs, waving his gun and shouting: “Down! Go!”

Having no choice, I went down to the yard. I was the last person in the line. A few seconds later my uncle, Iche David, and his son appeared and stood next to me. As I was standing, petrified, I noticed the grill over a sewer opening near my feet. I pulled out the money I had on me and threw it in. In a few minutes, a few more groups of four were gathered and the file was complete.

The armed murderers arranged themselves around us, and the order to move was given. The file moved slowly through the gate. At the beginning of Tarnopolska Street stood a few Gestapo officers, as if blocking the way into that street. The file continued into Ormianska Street.

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“To the cemetery,” people whispered to each other. “Do not speak, hold your hands up!” shouted some of the murderers. For a short while some of the people held their hands above their heads, but most of the crowd did not obey the order. Here and there people exchanged some last words between them. We went up Ormianska Street, and the last hope that perhaps we would go to the railroad station through the marketplace faded out. On every street corner, like Miasteczko and Sondova, there was a vehicle with machine guns ready to shoot.

Not far behind them, you could see small groups of citizens, “brave” Ukrainians and Poles who did not want to miss this parade. In every gentile house I saw, at windows, on balconies, and in yards, the indifferent faces of people, nonchalantly watching us in our last march. All kinds of faces, most arrogant, and they seemed amazed to find out that we were still alive.

When we arrived at Generala-Ivashkivicha Street and turned up the hill, I said goodbye to the last shred of hope I had of being taken to the railroad station. The only route ahead of us at this point was the one leading to the town's cemetery.


Sondova Street

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The file seemed to be shaking as it turned. A kind of wave of motion, shivering, a tendency toward scattering streamed through the file. I imagined that here, at the spacious square in front of the Farna Catholic Church, with its trees, gardens, and alleys, everybody would scatter and escape in all directions. I was deeply disappointed when the whispering and agitation quieted down and nothing happened.

The file kept marching, and there was no help. I passed by my house and glanced for the last time at my grandfather's home: the high wall and three stories of windows empty of those who, in the past, had welcomed me with a smile each time I came to visit. But the tenants were gathered in the yard and I clearly saw their amazement as they saw me. Only one neighbor hesitantly waved to me and then turned away. Holding my head straight up I passed by them, looking at them coldly with no trace of emotion.

From there to the cemetery there was only one more turn, to the right, with two last houses on the right, the fence of the priest's garden on the left, and then a section with no houses, leading directly to the cemetery's gate.

The sight of the tenants of the house where I lived, the inheritors of our belongings, diverted my thoughts for a moment, and I forgot where I was heading, but only for a moment. The file turned right. In the face of what would be a humiliating death, people became agitated. Endless thoughts galloped through my mind, changing constantly in response to my environment.

Most of the people were silent and ignored the murderers' shouted orders to raise their hands. Only those who walked next to soldiers, and were periodically hit by their guns, raised their hands, which, after a short while, naturally returned to their normal position.

A few words, short phrases, or questions were heard here and there.

“Father, father, look around, how beautiful the spring and the sun are and I have to die now,” said the 12-year-old daughter of Benjamin Mitelman, the Judenrat's chairman.

The girl continued to march but received no answer from her father, who only held her hand, and the hand of his young son, and with everyone else they proceeded toward the open gate of death.

My uncle, Iche David, who marched next to me, whispered chapters from the Psalms most of the way. As the cemetery gate became visible, he lifted his hands and continued loudly “Ein k'Eloheinu, Ein k'Adoneinu…” [There is no one like our God, no one like our Lord], and part of the crowd joined him.

Unrestrained singing burst forth to the clear, cloudless sky, and was carried with the light wind to the open spaces of blossoming fields. The crowd chanted its last request, the only encouragement they could have, which confidently led to God.

The murderers remained silent for a moment, alarmed by the mass ecstasy, which again seemed about to break the chain of armed guards and scatter in the fields. And at last, the ultimate riot, the natural and only resistance came, albeit too late and too small, but there it was.

Hearing a few shots, which somehow sounded soft against the loud singing, I turned back. To the left, up a slope, and a few yards from the edge of the road, by the priest's garden fence, the first victim of this last group was shot dead. A bullet went through the head of a short man, one of the Viennese refugees, who had served the Wehrmacht as a driver and mechanic. The sight of his brain spewed over the dark soil and his rolled-up body made me turn my head in the opposite direction, to the right, toward the down-sloping fields.

[Page 361]

The figures of two brothers, Velvel and Shaye Klein, expert rope makers, broke off from the group and ran down the slope, but after a few yards, they too were shot dead. At that moment, two more figures, those of the Taller brothers, strong drivers, collapsed while running, quite far from the marching file. Then I noticed another figure running away, with a good chance of success toward the edge of the field and the first peasant house. A few more steps and a plaited fence would have concealed and saved him, but no … a short distance from the first house a machine gun bullet reached him and he collapsed.

These hunters of escaping Jews raced against time, distance, and the number of attempts. Tensely I watched the terrifying mass murder scene, which began before we passed the cemetery gate. The guards became unusually nervous and over the heads of those who were in file, tried to shoot a few people who were escaping toward the downhill slope. Then they distanced themselves from the file so they could better aim their weapons. There was shooting and the rattle of machine guns placed on fences and the roof of a gunpowder warehouse in the distance.

The last rows of the file, including mine, reached some 20 meters into the open field. My mind was fully aware of what was going on and did not stop making plans and contriving schemes even for a second, and then I saw the picture of my bitter end which was only a few moments away. I did not lose even a fraction of a second. I looked at the left side of the file, up the slope. The field was empty. Nobody chose the uphill slope, which was not very steep, as a direction for escape.

I looked again downhill, and far away from me, at the beginning of the file about to reach the cemetery gate, I saw the tall figure of Nathan Katz, my father's brother, detach itself from the crowd and quickly hop over the furrows of a potato field down the hill. My breath stopped. Will he succeed? Yes! Yes! He did, he got further and further away very fast in long leaps, he was already in the middle of the field, and in a second he would be behind the fence on the slope. My heart seemed to have stopped beating. It seemed as if I were with him. I watched his amazing movements. Hope and fear alternated and I followed his figure until a few meters before the fence, and all of a sudden, his body leaped to a height which, to my mind, was impossible. An unusually courageous leap, which, to this very day seems to me beyond human capacity, one last leap and he landed at the bottom of the fence. He was the seventh to have the courage and the strength to challenge the death, which awaited them at the open pit on the other side of the cemetery wall.

“These are the last minutes of your short life. A few weeks ago, you turned 18, and now you have to die” I thought. “No!” Everything in me rebelled.

“To die? OK, but not with such disgrace over the pit.”

The innumerable arguments I had had with my friends and acquaintances about survival flashed through my mind for a fraction of a second. It's all over. This is the end.

Face it in your own way, the way you thought more than once, and act according to your promise. Remember what your father said to you a few hours ago. Live up to your promise not to die over the open pit and wait for the murderer's bullet.

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“Be strong!” my father's last words kindled a super-human strength in me. I looked for the last time at the downhill slope. Nobody was running at that moment.

“I am running away!” I screamed toward my cousin, who marched beside me. Without listening to his reply, I switched over to the left-hand side of the file, to the side going uphill. I forced one of the guards out of my way and quickly leaped into the potato field. The clods of earth were aligned in deep furrows, and since I was strong, I leaped over them quickly. Despite my desire and natural instinct to disappear as fast as possible, in a straight line, I did not do so.

My cool, well-calculated plan did not desert me. I ran forward, as fast as a young man could, in diagonal leaps. A leap and a step to the right, a leap and a step to the left, and straight forward again.

After 20 or 30 meters I noticed clouds of dust popping up around me. At first, I thought these were birds who were flying away, frightened by my fast movements, but a moment later I grasped their significance – machine gun bursts that were aimed at me. I increased my leaps to the left and the right, to make it impossible for the murderers to aim their viewfinders in a straight line toward me.

The deep furrows and the potato plants made my escape very hard, and after 50 meters I stumbled over something and fell for a second. At that critical moment, one of the hundreds of bullets aimed at me hit me. I did not feel it at that moment, and luckily it hit only my muscle and left the bones intact. Instantaneously, as I fell in a fraction of a second, so did I get up and continue with my diagonal leaps. They kept shooting and I continued running with all my might up the hill toward my first destination, a field of tall wheat.

My luck, fate, and courage helped me when my life was very close to its end. Within seconds I reached the edge of the wheat field and dropped. The bullets went on reaping the wheat, but I advanced, crawling along the field.

After a few moments, the murderers lost their target and the shooting stopped. Perspiring heavily and with foam around my mouth I continued crawling on all fours, hidden by the wheat. I advanced toward the edge of the plot and looked for another wheat field to which I could proceed and fool the murderers who would most probably try to chase me. Leaping to an upright position, I crossed potato and low wheat fields and crawled through the tall crops. In that way, I crossed dozens of plots and approached a road leading to the village called Rai (Garden of Eden, in Polish).

Hell was much closer to me at that moment. Exhausted I dropped into one of the tall wheat plots, and crawled along it some dozens of yards and then decided to rest and see what would happen. I covered myself with wheat and lay down.

My mind was hard at work, I was excessively fatigued, my leg began to ache and my sense of security was not strong. I had the feeling I would be chased but decided not to reveal myself. I lay hiding in the wheat and waited. Every second seemed like an hour, every minute seemed a whole year, endless, an eternity.

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What was going to happen? What should I do? Every thought led to others, and my reason kept whispering, “Stay in hiding.” Slowly and cautiously, I crawled to the adjacent plot, and then to a third, and then I rested again.

Rai's town gate was very close to me, and since I suspected it was guarded, I decided to wait inside the field till evening to avoid crossing the road in daylight.

I made myself comfortable and lay down, but remained alert. I counted the minutes. Time went slowly, and ceaseless shooting was heard from a short distance away.

Twenty minutes went by, and I heard voices getting closer and closer to where I was lying. My hope that I was saved vanished, but still, I decided not to reveal myself and to wait. Slowly I covered myself with wheat, lay flat on the ground, and looked up. The voices were getting closer. I said to myself: “I am being chased - they are looking for me.” So I remained lying on the ground, expecting a bullet. My blood froze. I felt the two murderers getting closer to me from both sides of the plot, which was no wider than 12 to 15 yards. I was inside it, between them. About 10 yards before they reached me, I heard one say to the other in Polish: “A few more yards, and he should be here.” My young nervous system did not fail me. I kept lying and waiting. Perhaps they would miss me. I waited for my killers with open eyes. They came very close to me and I saw them clearly passing by. One was tall with a dark blue uniform and a gun, and the other, in a green uniform, was holding an automatic weapon, ready to fire.

They passed by without noticing me and went on. When I was unable to hear them, I cautiously crawled back in the direction they had come from.

Now there was a chance I might be saved. The chase had failed. I switched to crawling on all fours, far away in the opposite direction, and stopped to lie down with mixed feelings but a slightly better sense of safety.

The sun was still high. Time passed very slowly and the echo of the continual shooting gnawed at my nerves. Gloomy thoughts plagued me and I could not get rid of them. The wound began to be very annoying, particularly because I did not know what it was like or how bad it was. I lay flat on the ground for about an hour, and my sense of security grew stronger.

The song of death rising from the nearby cemetery was tormenting and stayed with me for a long time. Lying down, it seemed to me that dusk was nearing. I looked at my father's watch – it was five past five. The sun was pretty far from the horizon, and occasional shooting was heard.

I had been saved once again. Till the next time, I thought. At this moment I understood that my struggle for survival had begun once again. I turned on my side for the first time after an hour of lying motionless on my back. I tied a kerchief around my wounded leg and kept lying there, waiting for the darkness.

[Page 364]

Around five thirty, on Saturday following Shavuoth, 9 Sivan, the 12 of June 1943, the shooting finally stopped.

On this Saturday night, the last of my town mates were killed. All members of the Brzezany Jewish community fell victim to the villainy of the Nazi monster.

That was the end, but the earth refused to accept them. It was not their place. For forty years now, I have been carrying the image of those pure souls in my heart. I salute all the people who passed the test of life, and in their death, they maintained their Jewish and human integrity.

Let their death serve as a warning for generations to come. Blessed be their memory.




Translator's Note:

  1. This is an edited version of the translation that appeared on https://www.oocities.org/brzezany/ Return


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