Translated by Dalya Yohai and Harvey Buchalter I am far, very far away from my home, my place of birth. Here, things are good; I feel safe and free. But still it is hard to forget my home from long ago, as well as my home for the years of the War, 1939 1945. It's hard to forget my close friends, neighbors, and all the people I knew all of whom were so tragically murdered. It's so hard to forget the burdens, the troubled times, and the shameful events we saw before our eyes. How hard it is to forget and not assign blame for the murders committed within the confines of our town, to blame the local residents those who played such a huge role in the murder of all those dear to us.
On the other hand, it is impossible to forget the few good farmers who risked their lives and hid some Jews, protecting them ferociously. They were extremely patient for a long time, and took care of their Jews until the day of liberation.
With one of those families in a Polish farmer's house my family went into hiding my wife, our baby boy, and me. We were there for 500 days. This poor Polish family husband, wife, and a 20-year-old son helped others as well at the time of the Actions. We can say that 13 people survived because of them!
During the first big Action, they let 13 people come into their house. They hid and fed them, and then let them go when the danger was over. And they were not people they knew. They did this altruistic work in return for no favors. In the year-and-a-half my family was there, I saw them quickly aging because of the worry; they had terrible fear of being discovered. The day of the liberation, they needed to leave their home and run away from the Ukrainians who wanted revenge on people who hid Jews. I helped them move into town but the gangs set fire to their house and the father of my friend (an 80 year old man) was burned alive. He had known about us, and in many times of danger he ran to the fields with my son. And for this sin of rescuing a Jewish boy he was punished and burned alive. To this day I am heartbroken that I couldn't help him out.
But even in town we were not secure, despite the presence of the Russian Army. Thus one night, we stole some Soviet vehicles and drove 40 kilometers to Poland. With the help of my brothers, my family immigrated to the United States, but our saviors stayed in Poland in Upper Shlezia. Our good-byes were very emotional, especially for our son Gustav. We cried as well, but we were comforted by the thought that we would be able to help them from the States and maybe even bring them over.
Unfortunately, nothing worked as we planned. Everything we sent them, including money, was claimed by their relatives who gave them a hard time for what they had done.
It is important to tell more of this amazing story of rescue by a local Polish family. And it is also important to know who were the ones who helped to take Jewish lives.
In our town of Horodenka, almost touching the Romanian border, together with the neighboring villages, there lived approximately seven thousand Jews before the War. Of those who remained alive, only a very small number, scarcely 25, were hidden by Christians, most of whom did it for large sums of money and material goods. A few dozen Jews also escaped to Russia and Romania in the midst of the Holocaust. Others escaped to the other side of the Dniester River, and some joined the Partisans. It is not necessary to ask if more might have been saved. Many more could have been saved, because in our region there was a German civil, not a military presence.
At the beginning of the war between Poland and Germany, our town was occupied by the Hungarian Army. They were not totally innocent, but they were human. When the Germans took over, the town had a Kreizehoptman (minister of the county) and some German clerks. The police force had 15 people, two of them members of the Gestapo. They didn't intervene in our lives and actually sometimes helped Jews. For example, when Ginka Lucas, Neta Lehrer's daughter, was put against the wall awaiting execution with her two lovely children, two Gestapo agents gathered them up and took them to their home. The local German headquarters employed 40 people, mostly Austrians, who made a lot of money for hiding Jews or taking them out of the area to Romania.
The Polish Militia also behaved quite fairly. The minister, the agricultural inspector, and the head of the labor department acted as the mayors. They were not very good people, but over time, the Judenrat, consisting of the dentist Kaufman, the lawyer Tav, and Meir Koch, found a way to talk to them and influence them on our behalf,. The real enemy was the assistant to the minister Obersturmbenfuhrere Dopler. He oversaw the Ukrainian militia, the Polish police force, and 20 30 Gestapo members who came to lead the Actions in town. The Ukrainian population conducted killings and lootings, and also was instrumental in finding the hidden Jews. The inteligencia participated as well. This included the priests and teachers like the principal Dereshinsky, who organized meetings where he told the people to take every opportunity to get rid of the Jews. He was one of those who from the first instructed and incited the rabble. In the villages, he often promised the mob the mountains of gold if only they could promptly rid themselves of the Jews and that this was the appropriate time to do so. The people listened to them and responded enthusiastically.
Dereshinsky, the principal of the school and main inciter of hatred against the Jews, had held an honored position in the Soviet regime, until 1941. As far as the Nazis were concerned, he was an important nationalistic figure because of his fervent pro-Hitler stance and his title of Security Chief. He was a second Josef Goebbels in our midst. And now, as far as the Soviets are concerned, he is a Soviet Patriot deserving of important offices of authority. In spite of what either the Soviets knew or didn't know about his true identity, or if they knew his deeds under the Nazis, he continues to lead a charmed life. He took over the grand estate and all of the adjoining property of the Jewish wholesale merchant Berl Shpierer, who was sent into the depths of Russia by the Soviets, and perished there. There were many of the likes of Dereshinsky amongst us. They cried out. Why are you putting up such a struggle? You can plainly see you're all going to die. These, the two-faced, wanted to kiss and make up following the liberation, shouting ba-ahu, thanks be to God, that you have remained alive. To even bring up their memory is too emotional for me. I still remember all of it. I, too, would have wanted to live as everyone else lives to laugh as everyone else laughs but it caused me too much pain to see these people live freely and laugh, knowing that it was only yesterday, or perhaps tomorrow, that they would forget the murders they committed.
Not many people helped the Jews. Even after the annihilation of the rest of the Jewish population in September 1942, there were Jews who were in hiding having been helped by Poles, Ukrainians, some Germans, but mostly Armenians. Most of them did it for a lot of money and assets. The decent people among them kept the Jews, but sometimes were tired of living with the fear of the Jews being discovered. The crooks took the money and handed over the Jews eventually. In some instances, relatives let the Gestapo knew about the hidden Jews.
Among the first casualties were the poor-folk who didn't possess anything worth selling. Next were the Jews who were unfortunate enough to believe they'd be saved, upon being hidden by the [Ukrainian] peasants and essentially signing over all of their possessions, which the peasants swore to hide for them. These trustees knew from the first how they would get rid of the Jews so that the few rags they possessed would become theirs. If the rescuers didn't slit the throats of the Jews, they had their neighbors do it; then they shared in the wealth.
Josef Hirsch Reichman and his wife, perhaps the richest couple in the town, lived in a village with a Ukrainian family who hid them well. One sister (in the family) and then another wouldn't so much as give them an onion to eat. The peasant soon became tired of their Jews and turned in them in to be shot, taking their possessions. The youngest son of the schoolteacher Nard was hidden by his servant for more than a year under the bed. And because she either couldn't or wouldn't help her brother do fieldwork, he turned her in. Both the little Jewish boy and the servant were taken from Serafinitz to town. The servant cried and begged them not to shoot the little boy, to shoot her instead. And the murderers heeded her request, shooting both of them.
Much attention was paid to the peasants' frequent bouts of drinking, carrying-on, and their spending sprees which brought unwanted attention and made their actions suspect. There were special investigators and intelligence officers, who spied on them in order to see what and how much they purchased, or who was buying German-language newspapers for their Jews. Many more Jews would have been saved if they (the Jews) had been more circumspect in deciding who their rescuers would be. They should have never looked up an old friend, be he an acquaintance or friend from school or business, because he would have been paid off by the agents. Rather, they should put their trust in the poorest of the peasants. And an even surer bet would have been the dwellers of the criminal underworld, the card-players (gamblers), petty thieves, or the suspicious characters. They never once stepped foot in a church, never picked up a newspaper, but they realized the following: If they succeeded in this little piece of work (sheltering Jews) America would pay them handsomely. They possessed more wisdom, more refinement, more pride and were less easily scared. As townspeople, they were not our favorites. But our Jews were too cautious, too afraid of these types, instead seeking more established, more intellectual ones instead.
Surprisingly, most of the saviors were poor Polish and Ukrainian families who helped with no expectations at all. They did it just from the goodness of their hearts. Many more of us would have been saved if we went straight to them instead of going to the wealthiest for help.
The family who helped us was really poor. Not too far from my fields and mill there were six other families who owned mills. Even though they didn't always live harmoniously with one another, the mills provided them with food and a steady income. In addition, there was also an old peasant with three sons and two daughters; one of the daughters ran our household. The peasant, the boss, made a living by working the fields with a pair of horses.
In 1939, when the Soviets took me far away to perform some work for them, I was not able to take care of my fields. Before leaving, by accident, I met the boss in town one day. Why don't you work my fields, I said to him. Take over my land and my livestock, so that you can be in charge. Go to work, and if you make something extra, put it aside for me. We immediately agreed upon this and both of us left very satisfied with the arrangement. During the Russian occupation, I was very busy and didn't see him; he became wealthy because of my fields.
When the Russians were retreating I was far away from home, on the other side of the Dniester. I was not able to come back because of the destruction of the bridges on the river. My wife spoke to many farmers about helping us, but to no avail. The Gaspadarsh [boss], the man who worked my fields, came to ask about me and heard where I was. He took his horses and brought me home, dressed like a Ukrainian peasant so nobody could recognize me. He wouldn't allow me to pay him anything.
A couple of days later he came again and told me that he and his wife would be very happy to be able to express their thanks to me. You, he said, helped me when the Russians were here. Now it's my turn to help you. Since I've had your fields, I've become a wealthy man, and now I want to thank you and your relatives.
He started bringing food to my family and my sister's as well. (It was forbidden to transport food at the time.) Then he remembered that the lawyer Blum from Sniatyn, had helped him once, and he started to bring him food too. When the ghetto was created he became an expert smuggler.
At the time of the first Action that lasted two days, Thursday and Friday December 4-5, 1941, this family had 26 Jews in the house. 2500 Jews lost their lives in this Action.
The farmer came as an angel on Wednesday, although he used to come on Sunday, and took 26 Jews, including my family with him. He put everybody in his cellar; his wife cooked and he and his son brought us food potatoes and cornmeal, and milk for the children. He was very happy and said it was a festive day for him to be able to do this. Twelve of these 26 Jews are alive today and they will never forget him.
After the Action he took us back to our homes. One day his wife complained to him that some of the Jews didn't thank them and he said to her, If these Jews were not alive today, would it be better? And he continued to smuggle food to the ghetto.
Some time after the first Action, I asked him if his family would be able to take my son in. Two days later he came and said yes and they even had an excuse for the neighbors. They would say that he was the wife's sister's son from Kolomyja. I had a big fight with my wife about taking our son away from her, as he was still breastfeeding. But, that night the farmer took the baby, covering him with a rough looking coat, and left at midnight. Two weeks later, my son still cried for his mother; then he got used to it and stopped. They burnt all of the child's clothing and toys and cut all of his hair. He let him creep around the floors barefoot and dirty, so that he would look like an authentic peasant's orphan child.
I knew our rescuers were taking pains to guard our child. This was especially true during the summer work in the field, when it was necessary to be particularly careful, as many day laborers would spend the night. They had to watch him all day long. The child even wore bandages, concealing the fact that he was circumcised. But it was worse at night. The child could uncover himself when strangers were about, so they decided that one of them would wake up in order to hold and cover the child should someone want to see him or play with him. They had a huge job to do. I truly felt for them, and also shared their fears that times could not get any worse for us Jews.
At the time of the second Action, on Monday, April 14, 1942, my wife couldn't stay with them because she feared that our son would recognize her and reveal himself. So she hid this time with another person who had worked for me in the past.
By the summer of 1942, it was obvious to everyone they could hear, see and feel it in the air that death was our fate. There was no way of saving us, only a miracle would work a miracle that could come only from the other side of the ocean, from America and England. Only they could give us a reprieve from the gathering forces of destruction, if only to give the unfortunate Jews a bit more time. Our savior hinted that if it had not been for the presence of the child, he might have been able to hide us from the murderers as well. But if we were all together, it wouldn't be safe. On top of everything else, he lived in constant fear of his wife's relatives, one of whom was a thief and a murderer. If he were to bicker with her, it would have opened the door for betrayal, and then everything would be lost.
The period between the second and third Actions, when we were living in town, we had a daughter. My wife begged me to keep her at least 6 months and then give her away, but unfortunately she didn't survive. It looked like we were not destined to come out of this without paying a terrible price.
At the time of the third Action, September 7, 1942, which went on for a few days, the Germans were looking into the houses to see if any Jews were hiding; they found my daughter. She was with an elderly couple who lived in a small room that belonged to my family, since my father's day. They asked us to give them the baby and they promised to look after her if we gave them the deed to our hut. They said that they loved the child and would take her with them into the fields in the event of another roundup of Jews. The child was now taking nourishment from a bottle. They promised to guard the child well. I believed them and gave up not only the ownership of the hut, but of the entire house as well. But the day of the Action they wanted to go and loot the houses of the Jews and they left her alone at home instead of running away with her to the country. The neighbors had told the Gestapo about the Jewish baby in the house and they came to kill her. First they played with her, she smiled at them. But then one of them left to take Luksenburg to the meeting place and the other took her, put her on the floor and shot her. One of the neighbors told me the story. He came to the stable where I worked. I was one of the Jews to be left alone because I worked.
Word went out that on Monday, September 7, 1942, all workers and remaining Jews were to report for registration. This went on for four days. In addition to the thirty Gestapo agents who had come from Kolomyja, the Ukrainian militia, and the Polish Criminal Police, eighty percent of the Ukrainian populace from the town and nearby villages poked around and searched in the town, villages, fields, and forest looking for Jews. No one could be sure of the number of Jews captured because many had escaped by crossing the Dniester; things seemed rather calm in the Tarnapoler region. Many escaped from the wagons that carried them off. Several hundred were captured later and taken off to the Kolomyja ghetto; some were able to escape to Romania; some two hundred were able to find refuge. I took heart from their success.
Approximately one thousand of those captured were separated from the rest and put into a stable on a Horodenka estate, and given nothing to eat for four days; then the murderers put them on a train and took them away. The few who remained, famished, delirious, but fortunate, if only for a short while, were eighty useful Jews that the local murderers had asked be spared until their own (the Ukrainians) could learn the trades and professions formerly performed by the Jews. They were not truly fortunate, though, because they were all taken from their families who were either exterminated or hidden in a cellar or trench. The useful Jews didn't dare try to have their families alongside them; they were all forced to live in one barrack so that it would be easy for the murderers to gather them up in the coming three weeks.
Until September 7, 1942, I had worked as a field hand, something of a foreman, for the murderers and was able to reside in our home. Afterwards, my house was confiscated and I was forced to live with one of the other Jewish field hands. Their intention was to isolate us in this way, so that we could be more easily found and rounded up.
At the time of the registration I had a plan: if I didn't go to the registration and a roundup was instead declared, I would climb to the stable's loft and stick myself into a corner. Instead, one of the drivers (a Gentile) who wanted me to live for at least one more month took me to the registration (with the understanding that nothing would happen to me). But as the proceedings unfolded, more Jews realized that this was a roundup, not a registration. Then two automobiles appeared with two murderers inside. The Ukrainian militia, under Inspector Brash, joined with the Judenrat officials to gather up the Jews who now knew they had been deceived. I would rather have served ten years of hard labor than to have witnessed these ten minutes from my perch on the wagon: the desperate, tragic Jews, and the actions of one of the Judenrat police who whipped one of his underlings for having let a Jew off too easily. I watched the murderous Ukrainians and Poles laugh at our plight. The so-called friend of the Jews, Dr. Bialy laughed his high-pitched laugh at how he was able to deceive the Jews into being caught in a trap. I was obsessed by these ten minutes for four entire days, which was how long the roundup lasted. I felt a little less afraid, because I knew that if my co-workers wanted me dead, they could do it first thing in the morning.
The first three days of the Action my wife was hiding again at my former coachman's house (she was there for the second Action as well). On the fourth day, he came to tell her that the Germans were now looking in the farmers' houses to find hiding Jews and it was known that she was hiding in his house. The farmer's wife suggested she go and hide in the garden. But in the garden were Ukrainian boys who helped the Ukrainian militia look for Jews. She didn't know where to go and started walking into town.
Although she had been there during the first roundup, it was at night, and they had traveled there by wagon. Seeing only unfamiliar faces all around, she became disoriented once she got close to her destination. As she approached, the goyishe neighbors' threatening looks meant death. Another time she came close to the holding area for all of the detained Jews. A few times she found herself in the middle of the ghetto, near the synagogue, not far from the stable, but paralyzed by fear, she didn't approach. Shkotzim ran after her to see if she was a zhiduvkeh, a Jewish woman who was out alone. After several hours of fruitless wandering she made her way to the outskirts of the town, to the train station. Tired, hungry, and thirsty she sat down and burst into tears thinking that her child was probably dead by now, begging God for one last glance of her only son and her husband.
The farmers were now leaving the fields. She quickly wiped away her tears, as almost all of them cursed, There goes another Jew. Her strength was almost gone and she didn't know where to turn. What consoled her was the thought of our rescuer miraculously arriving, and as if heaven had delivered a miracle, she noticed him standing only a short distance from her. He had come thirteen kilometers across the railroad tracks, past a town and a village. He motioned to her to follow him at a distance. She struggled to follow him until they arrived at our old field. He had her sit so that she could see all that was going on around her. He brought her a piece of stale bread and some water and told her to wait until late evening; he would return after his relatives, his neighbors and even the child would be asleep. He did indeed come for her late at night, bringing her some warm milk. He brought her to his house. She was able to quickly glance at her sleeping child, but then the dogs began to bark. The rescuer's son, who was standing guard outside to make sure no one was spying on them, told her to go to the stable attic to hide in a corner that had been prepared. He told her that the following day an even more secure hiding place would be made ready. You should know that my wife had a greater fear of mice than of Gestapo agents, and so she spent the rest of the night in a state of total and complete fear in the hayloft, alone in a stall, aware that mice were all about.
The next morning our rescuer went to town to see how I was doing. He didn't find me, but they told him I was still alive, and that another roundup was in progress.
When I found out in the morning that my wife left her first hiding place, I became so desperate that I lost my mind. I blamed myself for leaving her alone. The German I was working for volunteered to go and look in the place where Jews were arrested to find her but he came back empty handed. Only at noon, our savior came back with a letter from her telling me what happened to her and where she was. He was very sorry about the people he know that were killed and was glad to help some other families to find a hiding place including Heynikh Neyman and his family, and the daughter of Menash Bilder and her husband (called Grinberg). He promised to help move them to Tluste, where the local Jews were living in relative security; and he kept his promise.
After all that, my German employer got me a written license from the Lands Comissar to be able to walk free my wife and I under the condition that we live with the other Jews and that my wife be the cook. She came back and we lived together in the Tsoyderer house. He had a special permit as a farmer, but we spent most of the time in the stable where I worked. The cooking job didn't last long because they started kidnapping the last Jews that were around. I saw and felt that it was the last month for us that they were going to kill us soon.
The Lands Comissar got rid of his Jewish coachman (Spigel) and I was working very hard. I was not traveling with the boss and thus had to collect the furniture from the deserted Jewish homes and also to carry stoves for new roads. It was hard work for 18 hours a day. The work drained me and I couldn't decide what to do. The Guspodarsh had transferred some families to Tluste, but on his last trip some Ukrainian thugs robbed and beat the Jews, chasing them to the other side of the river half naked. He himself was beaten and ordered to go back to his house. So we cancelled the plan to go to Tluste. With the rest of my money, I managed to get my wife Arian papers, so she could travel with them to Lvov, Warsaw or even Germany. But she postponed her departure every day. She didn't want to live without us.
One day the Kreislanowirt (the person responsible for the county's agriculture) had a conversation in the presence of his secretary Genia. As I came in I saw that something was wrong because of her face. The inspector poured a wine glass for each of us and said to me, I will be able to employ you only one more week. I'm going on vacation and my advice to you is to hide wherever you can, but don't trust the Ukraisians. If I can still hire you after I return, I'll do that.
He gave me 20 zlotas (enough for 20 cigarettes) for my hard work in the last months and left the room. His secretary told me later that he cried after he left the room.
The feeling that overtook me and the impression this meeting made upon my wife cannot be put into simple words. We stayed awake the entire night. We made all sorts of hare-brained plans. It was evident that when morning came my wife would have to flee, to be hidden by our rescuer, if he would take her, and that I would stay behind and make the best of it. And after the eight days were up, I would find a hiding place among people I knew in town, and so wait out the official's return from furlough.
Our rescuer came to see us almost every day, often walking the twenty six kilometer distance, to see if we needed anything from him. One day, I told him of our plan that my wife would have to travel that night to his house. He would pick her up with his wagon and then find a hiding place for her. He was very satisfied with the plan because he had previously thought that we had been afraid to go to his home. He said that many others had expressed this fear, because it was known that his family had a reputation for being thieves and murderers. He said, I will dig a hole for the both of you, because I now know you will also come. This kind and worthy farmer didn't ask how much it would cost to hide us, or for how long. Rather, he rejoiced in being trusted to help us out.
That same night my wife arrived in his wagon without incident. That day he had made a hiding place for her in a haystack. I remained alone, without a home or a family, miserable for eight days and nights, obsessed with being betrayed by someone. I stayed with several known and trusted Christians. But I was still disappointed because my other good friends, Poles and Ukrainians whomever I asked for assistance all made the same poor excuses, saying that I should either sit in a field somewhere or in a burnt-out empty house, or in a basement. They all said they would bring me food from time to time.
During this stretch of time, I drove around the Lands-Comissar who had always liked me. He asked me where I lived and if I was set for winter. On the seventh day he summoned me again. He asked me drive to the railroad station and pick up a load of potatoes and take them back to my house for the winter. My house, my home, no longer existed, and I was not in need of a load of potatoes. He felt slighted, and then suggested that the Ukrainian militia might be sent to arrest my wife and me. But before anything else happened, the cleaning-maid arrived and said, The pharmacist, Passman, was just rounded up. A police officer and the manager, Buchovski, are also here. They're going to throw him into the cell at the ammunition center.
There was still a bit of daylight and I was able to see Buchovski, with the key in hand, followed by the Land Commissioner. Bringing up the rear was the poor pharmacist, stooped over white as a sheet, still in his white outfit. I stopped what I was doing, darted away through the field, and went to the home of the driver, Sarakovski.
Later on the watchman, Paraska, one of the other drivers, came and reported that right after the pharmacist was locked in his cell, they came looking for me in the stable. That afternoon, at five o'clock, they returned, but I had pleaded with Paraska to tell no one where I had gone.
The driver (Paraska) took me in as his houseguest. But on the second day, he began to feel a bit wary and stated that a safer place for me to hide would be with his brother-in-law. He said that the Land Commissioner had inquired about me again, threatening to beat him up if he didn't reveal my whereabouts.
When night came, I went with him to his brother-in-law's. I lasted there for a week before he threw me out. I had pleaded with him to allow me to stay one more night, because Paraska, had promised to bring over my sister and her child from Kolomyja. (Her husband had been taken away that week; she had pleaded with me to save her.) But it did no good; I realized that if I didn't make my getaway right now, they would hurt me. Even though it was very late at night, I knew it was the time to leave.
For the next eight days our rescuer arrived bringing milk, butter and cheese, flour, and greetings from all who knew me. Each day I would send him back with the letters I had written to the Christians I knew in town, telling them I was on the opposite side of the Dniester River, asking them to take me in and provide me with a hiding place.
There was a fellow named Mika who owed me a favor from way back. Dispirited and fearful, I made my way through the back streets always concealing myself when anyone came close. Thus, I was able to reach Mika's house. He immediately escorted me to the attic, because a washerwoman was at work in his house. I was feeling very cold, but my soul felt warm and I felt hope because my new hiders told me I could stay with them as long as I wished. In truth, they did much for me. They paid attention to my needs: they fed me well and comforted me. But it was not to last for long. They didn't do as much for me in the second week as they had done in the first. By the time the third week came, I knew I would have to leave.
During this time, I asked my sister by mail what I could do to help her and I informed her how I was doing. I even dropped hints as to my location. Meanwhile, my good friend Brash came back from his furlough. The dentist Kaufman and his family were still free within the boundaries of the town, even feeling a bit secure because he was working on the Land Commissioner's false teeth! We sometimes ran into one another at night. I pleaded with them to find out what was on the official's mind, but I was not to get an answer from them. Immediately after he fitted him with his false teeth, they all fled to a village hiding place provided by their old servant. Their hard work paid off: they survived and ultimately made their way to Israel. It was foolish to believe that me, a lowly driver, would be considered useful when the last Jewish doctor and dentist were no longer necessary.
My last best hope for a hiding place for my wife, my child, and me was with our worthy rescuer. Our destiny would be to either starve or be saved together. That night, dressed in clothing to conceal my Jewish identity, I traveled alone through the town by wagon. (Our boss wanted to be sure we didn't travel together. If he were captured with me, his whole family would be implicated and then killed.) I moved about like the worst sort of criminal, along back streets and through fields in order to avoid the most dangerous zones, especially through the Polish village of Losyach. After three rough hours of driving, I finally arrived at our rescuer's home. Aside from my little boy, everyone else was awake. They awaited me, praying that I would safely arrive.
Our rescuer's son was in the field some distance away. He wanted me to walk with him through the fields so that the neighbors would not be able to see where we were headed. My wife and I spent the night and the next day in an opening of a haystack, barely able to discern daylight. After spending the night this way, we decided to dig a hole for ourselves because the haystack was barely tolerable, and secondly, because we were too likely a target to be searched out.
It was very difficult. We three, the boss, his son and I, dug throughout the night; the horse hauled the dirt away. But we were able to finish only half the job. So we had to spend another day in the haystack, risking capture and being sent on to Germany. Fortunately, early snow began to fall early that morning and completely covered the freshly-dug earth and the wheel ruts. The boss wanted to delay our next move for one more day: first, the snow was still falling; second, they wanted us to travel by night so that we could get some sleep by day. But this was not possible. A pig from a neighboring village was missing and our boss' brother was being accused of stealing it. We were certain that they would come in search of the pig in the morning, because the village militia didn't do this sort of thing at night.
We dug the entire night, easily performing the work of ten people, but it was still not deep enough to lay down boards for a floor. We finally dug through the moist soil until we hit the water level. At four o'clock in the morning, December 15, 1942 we were finally able to descend into the pit. Above us we could hear footsteps. The pit was so cleverly fashioned that it was impossible to take notice or to find it even if a massive search was launched.
The pit was actually within the confines of the house. After we dug it out, we covered it with a false floor and made a kitchen area on its surface. The entrance to the pit was a small opening on the outside wall. In winter it was covered with straw; in summer, with turf. Each night the opening was uncovered so that we could go out into the fresh air, stretch out bones a bit, take care of our bodily functions, and have a hot meal. Early in the morning we could have some milk, bread and water, and then descend into the pit, the dank, dark hole, for sixteen to eighteen hours stuck and bricked-in so that no one would notice we were there. For the first few days we felt fortunate because we were all together again as a family, and more than anything else, near our dear son who was still in the rescuers house. Living in constant fear had worn us out. Before, we hadn't had enough sleep; we felt as if our bodies would fall apart. But now, all we did was sleep all day long.
After some time had passed, we were afflicted by the dark thoughts and wonderings about what might have happened to our relatives who resided in town, hiding here and there. Ever since the pit was dug, I constantly worried about their fate. And even our rescuer, who had always helped them in any way he could, was now fearful of leaving the safety of his house, afraid that he would be arrested. Truly, without him we would have been lost. As time went on, our bodies began to suffer badly: we had toothaches and aches in our arms and legs from having to sit so long in unaccustomed positions.
And then our lot became even worse than before. Things were not only going badly for us, but our rescuer and his family were also suffering miserably. They constantly had colds; they felt worn out from having to live in fear both day and night of being arrested. Soon a brother-in-law who had known about our child came to live with them. At every waking hour he ranted at them for keeping the child because this was putting all of their families in danger. He said they should do to him exactly what other farmers were doing with the Jewish children they had promised to keep safely hidden: take them into town and abandon them, or kill them and then bury their bodies. When we heard this kind of ranting and raving, we felt our rescuer's wife and son would become angry and discouraged and would try to figure out how to finally get rid of us. I would then sit with them and promise them that my brothers in America would help them to become rich one day. The good boss would then continue his old ways of helping us, and things would quiet down once again.
The worst times for us were when the boss had to leave home. We felt uneasy, insecure in the pit because we always had to keep an eye out to be sure the entrance was well concealed. And it seemed that our son only made matters worse and they were becoming less patient and careful for his safety. One sister-in-law wanted to verify if he was a Jewish boy or not. She became very angry with them and made serious accusations. But the boss and his wife were truly angels. For the two years that she came around, they watched over our child, stopping her from grabbing the child and literally slitting his throat.
Once, in March, 1943 the boss was not at home. His sister in law endlessly scolded them about the little boy's presence. So the other family members hatched a plan to counter her. One night, when I entered the house, I noticed a high level of anxiety and anger. They told me that although they loved the child very dearly, it was becoming impossible to keep him given the attitude of the sister-in-law. They said that the child was becoming increasingly hard to handle because he didn't listen and had a mind of his own. They pointed out that my mother and sister, both in Tluste, could take over care of the child. Therefore, the best thing would be to send the child to them. But we knew that if we sent the child there, he would be lost to us forever. I would rather have perished then and there rather than take the chance of having to give my child up to the murderers. Meanwhile, the murderers on our side of the Dniester were coming over to the other side to do their share in the liquidation process. We grieved because there was no end in sight. I convinced the boss to supply my mother and sister with some food; I desperately wanted to hear some news about how they were doing, and I harbored the thought of joining them. He departed, carrying food for them, But he returned in two days with no news HB because the bridges over the river had been destroyed and it was impossible to get across.
That night, in the stable, he consoled us, saying that he would never give away the child. He said it was his duty to assure the survival of us all. You cannot even begin to imagine the sense of gratitude I felt toward him. My wife and I cried with happiness because fate had brought us such a good, kind person in our terrible time of suffering. We kissed him, and he cried as a deserving father might cry; he calmed our fears. He also talked with the members of his family and soothed their fears and their anger and they subsequently became kinder to us. They promised to take better care of our son. In those three days we aged ten years. My wife made a vow at this time to fast for two days each week, for a year. This lasted until the day of our liberation.
Our son was growing up. He went around covered in filth, in torn clothing, barefoot even in winter, in snowfall but he was still a smart little kid, and very handsome. Even the German murderers would carry him about lovingly and give him gifts of money. The other farmers felt compassion for him because (as they believed) his mother was in Russia and he was such a poor little child. They would say, He's just as smart as a Jewish kid!
The beggars who were still living in our old house, the same ones who had our daughter killed, still had nothing and so went around the area. They even traveled the twelve kilometers to the home of our rescuer. This happened in July 1943. They immediately recognized the child from before.
That evening, our guardians told us about their presence. They were pained and fearful. They felt that now everything would come to an end because the beggars would certainly inform on them. The boss' wife said that the beggars said nothing. They simply stared at him, smiled, took the pittances they were offered and left the premises. The wife's brother scolded her for sending them on their way. He would have beaten their heads with sticks until they were dead and then buried their bodies. And no one would ever find out. Even the boss, when he returned from the fields, scolded her for not detaining them until nightfall. He too, would have murdered them, and not even a little bird would let out a peep over it.
We were considering how best to take our child and hide him. One plan was to start a rumor that the beggars were enemy spies who should be immediately arrested. I thought it would be better to bribe them with gifts from my household and with promises of safety so that they would not reveal anything to anybody. The worthy and patient boss followed my instructions, with the stipulation that if anything were to go wrong, he would do what needs to be done. The beggars were very happy about the bribe, promising to not reveal anything. The boss returned home satisfied, and every week he delivered food to the beggars. He even made moonshine for them from sugar cane he had stolen.
A few months later another bad thing happened, bringing with it fear and anxiety. The same sister-in-law who had previously argued with the boss undressed our little boy when she was alone with him. She was now convinced that he was a Jew. She began to threaten that she would reveal this information, and once again we thought that all was lost. We again began to hatch plan after plan to save ourselves, and we even began to wish our son would not continue to live.
The sister in law's husband, who was the boss' brother, also became angry, wishing that his wife would just go ahead and inform on the boy, but three conditions prevented him from doing so: first, he loved the child a bit; second, he too feared the Germans and preferred to be a low target for them so that he wouldn't end up a forced laborer in Germany; and most importantly, came the news that Italy was out of the war and that the Russian army was approaching. And even though his wife had told him about the child's Jewishness, she grabbed him in her strong hands threatening to strangle the living daylights out of him, bury him and flee alone into the woods if he divulged this fact to anyone. The child's parents could be important people in England or America, and if the Soviets were to find out what we did to him, we would be goners, she said.
She then became quiet. She knew her husband would keep quiet. At about eleven o'clock in the morning, our dear rescuers let us know that the sister in law would keep her mouth shut. Still, this did not quell our fears. It wasn't until they told us how she had threatened him. All of a sudden, two potential enemies were silenced, not to mention the good news about the advance of the Soviet troops. Even though our rescuers now tried in every way possible to keep us alive, my health was getting worse day by day. The damp ground, the lack of fresh air and adequate space had made us sick. Everything we touched was wet and mildewed. My wife's hair was beginning to turn white. The straw floor was always wet and moldy. Our heartbeat was becoming irregular; our bones became brittle; we suffered terrible toothaches and we stifled the pain with alcohol until they seem to crumble. Our eyes hurt from the filth and the lack of light. Our heads pounded day and night. We knew we couldn't ask more from our rescuer than he was able to give, nor did we wish to anger him in any way. But the worst part was the news, particularly the bad news which the boss's wife always delivered first about what was going on all around us in the villages.
The Rsenboym family, two sisters and a brother, were captured in their hiding place in a Polish home. They were beaten and tortured to death. The Polish man ran away from home and his family was put in prison. The Kvetsher family was discovered because of a suspicious baker who wondered about the amount of bread that the Polish family was buying. The Ornshteyn family, husband, wife and two children, were attached together with barbed wire and were taken like that through town. Many of the Polish citizens ran after them, spat on them, and watched while they were executed. The brother-in-law of our Gospodash was among the watchers and came home late.
The Hoizknecht family from Horodenka thought it could find a place to hide in the meadow after the initial roundup. The woman of the house and her two children, a boy and a girl, had fled there. The man was found dead three days later. After all the roundups were done, they succeeded in escaping to the other side of the Dneister River, but they were grabbed along with others in a subsequent roundup and most were shot and dropped into a pit. The son had been previously chosen to cut the hair from the heads of the dead. He was able to extract his mother, whose hand was broken, and his sister, who had been shot in the foot, from the pile. He was able to pull them to a spot in the woods near Yasenov. There, they were able to stay alive for three months, hiding by day and begging for food at night. The local murderers were informed of their presence. They proceeded to capture them, taking them to the cemetery and shooting them to death.
Not a week went by when we didn't hear such news. We listened to these stories in horror, and it took its toll on us. The news newspapers, broadsides, and general announcements all recounted the final judgment of those who would dare hide Jews death and forfeiture of all belongings. This inspired the deepest fear in the local farmers. Rumors circulated that all of the Ukrainians in Poland would be exiled to Russia, their places taken by selected Germans and those who had been disabled in the War. A special edict was issued stating that identity cards would be required by all, even children, certifying that they were Christian. In addition to this, surprise visits were conducted. The murderers visited us a total of thirteen times. Once they came with long staves, searching everywhere, tapping the walls, the floors, the attic, the basement, and the stables, poking at the hayloft. They even poked the earth in the vegetable garden to verify if Jews were hiding in pits. We knew, because we had discussed this with our rescuers, that if the murderers came, that they would notify us by tapping the floor three times when they arrived and twice when they had left. We would then dress very quickly and extinguish the lamp, hold our breath and wait for the murderers to come. It was a piece of luck that they never found us.
Not far from us, Itzeleh, a Jew from Toporovtse, was cornered. He used to visit us at night for something to eat. He had been hiding in a hayloft. He told us that when they poked him with their sharp staves, he was able to contain a shriek. Itzeleh wasn't quite normal any more: he would run through the fields like a lunatic, screaming loudly at God, blaming Him for taking away his wife and children. The peasants and sheepherders would give chase, but they were never able to lay their hands on him. He spent his days in a foxhole, creeping out of it at night to search for food. He held America responsible for his sufferings. From my hiding place, I once saw and heard the boss talking to his wife about him: Itzeleh is here and he's hungry. Go give him something to eat. She said there was no food. He said, Give him the leftovers that you save to feed the hogs. Just give him something. And he grabbed the last piece of bread, a pot of sour milk, and other leftover remnants of food and took it to Itzeleh. The fact is that Itzeleh is still alive today. He survived the terrible epoch, got married, and now resides in Czernovitz.
Our rescuers were typical poor farmers. Thirteen surviving Jews, now dispersed all over the world, were rescued by this Christian, his wife, and son from the murderers and the local anti-Semitic thugs. If Itzeleh's shirt needed to be washed because it was lice-infested, our rescuer would give him one of his own, or perhaps one of mine. He worried about Itzeleh's well-being. He cut his hair and trimmed his beard, knowing that he would never be paid back in any way, even though Itzeleh had once taken him to court over money owed for payment.
The last weeks before the liberation, we were almost on the verge of total exhaustion. Our saviors started feeding us with chicken, eggs, honey, and cakes. When needed, he went to the doctor to get us medicine, telling the doctor it was for his wife. Being afraid of informers, he needed frequently to submit to the demands of neighbors and work for them or sometimes give them different items from his home. When his wife complained about it, he consoled her and promised her that soon the situation would change and liberation was close. This went on until the 24th of March 1944, the day of liberation.
Allow me to describe the great day of our liberation. My wife and I were overwhelmed with happiness. I laughed and cried, shook and trembled. Mt wife acted as if she had lost her mind. She ran around, not being able to stay in one place at a time. The boss had to quiet her down, since calm was necessary at that moment.
As we heard the sound of nearby gunfire, we went to the entrance of the pit. Perhaps, as some had said, the Germans were burning the homes as they fled. It would have been dangerous to remain behind because the smoke might have choked us. Countless peasants, both on foot and in wagons, carried loot from the sugar mill and the ammunition dump that the Germans had not taken with them in their retreat. My rescuers also wanted to get in on the action, but we cautioned them not to do so.
Their son was always on the lookout for the latest news. When he came running toward the house in the afternoon, we knew that the Messiah had come! Their son came to the entrance of the pit, followed by his parents, blurting out the news that the Soviets had arrived in town! All three embraced us and we all cried in happiness. The son had spoken to the Soviet soldiers; he had seen the defeated Germans, with their heads hanging low, dirty, and unkempt, but he saw not a single Jew. He advised me not to travel to town, but I couldn't contain myself and went there two days later. At nightfall, he took me to the home of my two trusted friends, the ones who had hidden me for three weeks at the war's onset. These worthy Poles knew our hiding place. They would keep newspapers and have them sent to us. They consoled the boss by giving him hope for the future.
We were overwhelmed by our good fortune. But our sadness was also very profound. I was consumed by worry over the fate for my dear sisters, my mother, and sister-in-law; overcome by anguish for my friends and all the people I had known. I had known almost every Jew in town. I had gotten along well with all of them. The Soviet soldiers' lack of warmth and concern for us was palpable. If a Jewish soldier came by, one with a good Jewish soul, he empathized with us. If we pointed out one of the locals who had murdered our people, he tried to make it right. If only he could. All the other soldiers were indifferent or outright anti-Semitic. The only difference was that they were not murderers. A good and fine officer, a non-Jew, helped me send my first airmail letters to my brothers in America. He advised me to seek safe haven in Moscow, a strange city where no one knew who I was. He further advised me to live there as a Christian. This caused me to feel great sadness. And if not for the experience I shared with my rescuers, I would have felt that everything I had lived for was nothing but a waste, a sham.
The first Jews I encountered were the dentist Kaufman and his wife and two sons. I was so overcome with happiness upon hearing that they were still alive that I ran to them that night, having pleaded with a Jewish soldier to guide the way since it was still not safe to travel alone. We had known and loved one another for years. They had done everything they could for other Jews while they had lived with the Germans. They had given away everything they had. They had been jailed as criminals. But they had saved themselves by escaping to the home of their old servant. I found comfort in their company.
Little by little, twenty Jews showed up, arriving from the villages, from the fields and forests, from the other side of the Dniester. They were all in terrible shape, worn out in every way possible. Two families, the Frischlings, had successfully hidden in town and thereby saved themselves.
We, the chosen survivors, enjoyed our happiness only momentarily. Things were turning bad on the front. The Russians had retreated from beyond Stanislav and were now fifteen kilometers from our town. The Germans had launched an artillery offensive which pushed the few remaining Jews back to Czernovitz. We barely made our way back to our rescuers. But once there, despite the so-called liberation, it was impossible to remain, even if we had gone back into hiding: roaming bands of Ukrainian thugs were killing Soviets, Poles, and Jews and burning everything in their wake. Traveling at night was perilous. For two nights we sought refuge in a vast field, but the bandits were still close by. We fled to Sniatyn, not far from Czernovitz. But it was unsafe there as well. On the way back to Horodenka, I met the only remaining Jew who survived in Horodenka, successfully hidden by a Polish family. His name was Michal Heyman. His feet were still swollen from being stuffed in a cramped hiding place. He told me that his rescuers had to move out twice. They had to carry him away in their wagon.
We had to take back our child from our rescuers. He cried endlessly day and night because he wanted to go back home to his mommy and daddy. They were saddened that he was leaving, but consoled us by saying he would quickly get used to us again. There was nothing more for me to do. My feeling of gratitude was endless, and mere words could never express the extent of it. This was the first thing I could do for them: after I had met a high-ranking Jewish officer (who brandished medals from the Battle of Stalingrad), he agreed to excuse him and his son from the required work details then in effect. When we took the child away, he made us promise we would always be attentive to his needs.
The situation in town was becoming worse. We tried to convince our rescuers to abandon everything and find refuge elsewhere. They heeded my advice and fled that night, only to be assaulted by bandits along the way. The younger family members were able to run for cover, but the older ones, the father of our rescuer who had done so much for our son, was captured and burnt alive, as everything around him was destroyed in the inferno. I had previously tried to find a place for him in a shelter for the elderly-infirm, but the family could not let him go. We were overcome with grief at his death. I was able to find a good place for our rescuer to live. I worked for the Soviets in an ammunition magazine. I also arranged for his son to work there.
If we were to remain, it would be amongst the resident murderers, in a state of constant insecurity, alone when loved ones lay in mass graves or in meadows or fields worked by farm animals, amongst horses and dogs, where tombstones become paving stones for the sidewalks with the lettering facing up and amongst the Soviets who were all evidently anti-Semites who allowed the Ukrainian militias to plunder and round up Jews. All of this is still a fresh memory.
This, all of this, was not why I had survived. Neither did I wish to abandon our rescuers, because I knew the Soviets would not let me cede ownership of my property . Thus, we left, leaving everything behind, for Krakow. We stayed in a refugee camp for a few weeks along with thousands of others. I wandered about aimlessly, taking in everything, noticing all the evidence of anti-Semitism.
From there, we went to Upper Silesia. I began to do something I had never done before: deal in contraband merchandise. My rescuers had received a letter from my brothers in America. We knew we would soon see them and everything would get better for us. I had spent more time worrying about my wife and son than actually providing for their welfare. But I knew I had to provide for my rescuer. I secured grain, two cows, a horse, swine, and fowl for them. But it was so little compensation for all they had done. I gave them everything I had.
But the day of reckoning finally came then we had to bid farewell to them. With my brothers' help, and the help of the Jewish Worker's Committee in Silesia, we obtained a visa to travel on to Sweden that listed me as an agriculturalist. I arrived in America as a visitor. If I had had the opportunity for my rescuer to accompany me to America, I would have grabbed the chance! They had earned the right. They deserved this honor! And I would also declare to all our fellow Jews, and non-Jews, as well, the following: Whoever truly wanted to save a life could have done so! I sent them whatever assistance I could from Sweden; we sent them help from here as well, but it is never enough. My desire is to bring them here so that I can support them and eternally show them my gratitude. My son should always be able to call them mommy and daddy, and know that they are as much his true parents as we are, because they saved him from certain death.
We are finally free. We are now safe and secure. But our rescuers are suffering: their neighbors and extended family members are jealous because they receive packages from us. They are all unflinching anti-Semites who feel cheated because some Jews had been rescued. They take some of the things we send to our rescuers. They curse the rescuers saying that no decent Pole would ever think twice about not saving Jewish lives that Poles such as these do not deserve to reside amongst them. They say Poles such as they should be buried. The rescuers now survive in fear in their own fatherland, surrounded by native enemies.
If only I live long enough to have the chance to bring them here to live with us so that we may properly thank them on our behalf, and on behalf of the other Jews they saved from certain death.
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