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Thus the City was Destroyed[1]

by Ben–Zion Sher

Translated by Amy Samin

(As told by an eyewitness)

“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath”
(Lamentations 3:1)

 

Chapter One

(From the entry of the Nazis to the city
through the destruction of the first ghetto)

 

Recruiting, Supposedly, for Work

On the first day of the entrance of the Germans to the city, several Jews went out, including Leibush's son–in–law Pessiah Resilas and his sixteen year old son, into Trisk Street. They, and six other Jews, were immediately kidnapped and taken to Kovka Bukser courtyard. They were ordered to dig a pit and climb down inside. When they were lined up inside the pit – they were killed where they stood. Later, they came in the middle of the night and took away the lawyer, Goverman. He disappeared without a trace and none knew his fate.

The Germans began recruiting men and women for work. They also asked to recruit Rabbi Valula, may his blood be avenged, who was old and weak. The Trisk followers made an uproar that the rabbi not be taken for forced labor, collected three kilograms of gold, delivered the money into the hands of the “gevitas komissar”, and thanks to this he was put into the Jewish hospital as a patient.

About 60 of us went to work in “Vyturio Kovel”. Between the tracks was a canal, where people would throw broken glass, barbed wire, and scraps of tin. They ordered us to take off our shoes and dance barefoot on the broken glass. One of those with us was the butcher Isaac Hochman, husband of Rivka Aidless. Rivulets of blood trickled down his legs, and we lifted him in our arms.

On the third Shabbat after the Germans' arrival, trucks appeared in Macheib Street and Lutzka Street and gathered about 20 people. They told them they were being sent to work. However,

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when we saw that they were also loading all sorts of weaklings, disabled people, the elderly, and the sick into the cars, our hearts shuddered and we were engulfed in a cloud: Are they really sending them to work?

The next day, a goy came from Bychawa to buy a horse. Trembling with fear, he told us that the day before trucks filled with Jews had arrived in Bychawa, where they were ordered to dig a large hole. The Jews were thrown into the hole, and cries of “Shma Yisrael, Adonai Elohainu Adonai Echad” [Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one.] rent the heavens. Then it went quiet, as all of the Jews were shot and covered with dirt.

At first we didn't believe his story, but when we saw that the goy was trembling and terrified, we started to believe him and were torn apart by these tidings of Job.

Before the killing, they told the unfortunates to write letters to their families, saying they were near Kobryn, alive and well, eating and drinking, wanting for nothing. After a month, six weeks at the most, they would return to their homes.

The poor families, in their innocence, believed what was written in the letters. Wives waited for their husbands, sisters waited for their brothers, brides waited for their grooms, and children waited for their fathers. But when six weeks had passed, and two months had gone by, and people saw no signs of life – the unfortunate families ran to the community council, to learn when, finally, they would return. A messenger from the community came with the happy news, that tomorrow all of the people who had been taken away to work would return.

The next day, all of the women and children went out, walking all the way to the village of Zamshany (between Ratne and Kovel). They waited a day, then two, and not a single person appeared. Then the women understood the depth of their disaster; that, in fact, they had no one for whom to wait, that their husbands would never return, that they had been widowed and their children orphaned.

 

The Burning of the Torah Scrolls

About a month after the Germans arrived, a few German policemen came to the community council and demanded 20 men for work. They took the workers to the great synagogue. There they were told to go to every house of study in the city and remove the Torah scrolls and lay them down next to the great synagogue. Anyone who left even a single Torah scroll in the ark would be shot on the spot.

From the great synagogue we removed 32 Torah scrolls. Inside the synagogue there was the carpenters' house of study – we took out five Torah scrolls from there, as well. We took Torah scrolls from the Ruzhyner, Trisker, Karliner, Kotzker, and Naskizer synagogues, from the large house of study, and from the tailors' house of study. Altogether, we collected about 200 Torah scrolls.

Being in the Trisker synagogue, I took a Torah scroll and hid it in a

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closet near the seat belonging to Mordechai Hari of blessed memory. The Germans searched the house of study and never found the hiding place of the Torah scroll.

They told us to lay the Torah scrolls down next to the carpenters' synagogue and to arrange them in stacks, four scrolls in each column and arranged one on top of the other. The Germans provided us with gasoline and ordered us to burn the Torah scrolls. The scrolls burned, the letters vanished in the air, and the wind scattered the ashes in every direction.

When I arrived, after a while, from the ghetto on the Sands to the ghetto in the city, I went to the Trisker synagogue and found the Torah scroll there. I left it with a goy, an acquaintance of mine, named Pliushk.

Three years later, when I returned to the city, I went to Pliushk and found the Torah scroll – minus its ornaments and decorations, and with a few sections cut out. When I was in Lodz I added all of the missing sections. That Torah scroll has remained in my possession to this day.

 

In the Shadow of the Gallows

I had a partner, the butcher Moshe Feldman of blessed memory. On the eve of Passover Manthei [Translator's Note: the police commissar], may his bones be crushed, entered Feldman's barn on Michkabitza Street and found a piece of sochatin there, stiff leather, which had sat there for many years. Manthei was looking for an excuse to blame Feldman, who slaughtered cows, preparing them for the Jews to eat for the Passover holiday. He immediately ordered his arrest. The next day, the first day of Passover, six Germans came and took him out of jail, leading him to the tavern owned by Gedaliah and Lazer Soinuich, may their blood be avenged.

The gallows and the noose had been ready since the night before, and underneath them stood three crates. Feldman, who was a sturdy fellow, wouldn't let them put his head into the noose and showed great heroism. He kicked the hangman in the leg, and gnashed his teeth in the faces of the killers, knocked them to the ground, and the Germans couldn't hang him. So they called for reinforcements, Ukrainian murderers. After a hard and desperate struggle, the murderers succeeded in overpowering him, put the noose around his neck, knocked away the crates from under his feet, and Feldman hung there.

But a miracle happened: the rope came loose, and Feldman remained alive, standing on his feet, and swooped down on the hangman like a wounded lion. The Germans hung him again, and again the rope came loose. Gradually Feldman lost his strength, and when they hung him for the third time, the rope remained intact, and Feldman breathed his last after a prolonged death rattle.

At night, when we returned from working in Gorky, we found Feldman hanging, and over his heart a tin sign that said “Hung for slaughtering cows in order to prepare meat for the Jews for the Passover holiday…

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His body may not be removed from the rope for three days, so that the Jews will hear and see and sin no more.”

Feldman continued to hang there for the first day of Passover. Through the efforts of his brothers and community representatives, Manthei was persuaded that it would be fitting to remove his body from the rope on the second day.

His brothers, Hane Feldman and Joseph Feldman, whose knees were shaking from grief and sorrow, asked me to lower their dead brother from the rope and to bestow upon him the final kindness. They had an apprentice, who worked with them in the slaughterhouse, named Avrasha. I told the young fellow: “Come and help me.” The young man begged me, saying “Ben–Zion, have mercy on me. I can't do it, my hands are shaking.”

I went to the yard of Gedaliah Soinuich. I took a ladder and found a sharp knife, and I went to cut the rope. I saw a frightful sight: Feldman's head was all swollen, blue, his tongue hanging out, and the rope had dug deeply into the flesh of his neck.

We brought him for burial in the new cemetery. We found an available spot next to the grave of his father Zvi Feldman of blessed memory, and there he was buried. The rabbi Nahum Moshele, may his blood be avenged, told us that Feldman must be buried in his clothes, because he was holy.

The burial took place on the night of the second Seder. All of the Jews of the city, including those who had matzah and wine, did not hold the Seder. No one ate, no one drank, everyone cried and mourned, because they saw Feldman as a communal sacrifice.

 

Manthei's Acts of Cruelty

Manthei would not eat breakfast until he had killed three Jews. At five in the morning he would start his motorcycle and set off in search of prey. The very rattle of the motorcycle brought the fear of death.

One Friday we worked on Horodlatz Road. When we returned from work, we sat near the house of the road engineer and waited for the employees who worked in the slaughterhouse. From far off we could hear the rattle that heralded the approach of Manthei. We took cover in a canal, and saw Manthei riding along armed with an automatic weapon. After him came three trucks full of Jews with shovels in their hands. Among them, I recognized Leibel Lushik and Aharon Shczupak. We thought in our hearts: what do Jews have to do in the cemetery on the night of the Sabbath?

Next to the gate of the cemetery, the murderer ordered them to get out of the cars. He opened the gate and put them inside. Then he lowered his automatic weapon and started firing on the Jews. The poor souls ran between the tombstones and fell. Within minutes he had killed all of the Jews who had arrived in the three trucks. We were afraid to go home, and remained near the engineer's house all night.

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The next day I climbed up on the engineer's barn and I saw the horrific atrocity: all of the Jews had been left lying over the tombstones, dead.

 

Establishment of the Ghettos

About a year after the Germans arrived in town, the Ukrainians whispered in the ear of the Gebietskommissar asking what was the point of having ghettos in all of the towns in the Volhynia, and yet Kovel was being given favorable treatment?

Two ghettos were established in the city. One was in the city, and the other on the “Sands”. In the first they gathered all of the merchants and owners of free professions, women, children, old people, the handicapped, and the sick. In the second they concentrated all of the workers of various professions. Between the two ghettos there rose up a sort of Chinese wall, and there was no communication between the two. The command threatened with death any worker who crossed into the ghetto in the city, and any merchant who crossed into the ghetto on the Sands.

Together with the refugees who had fled from their own communities nearby, there were at that time about 24,000 Jews. The ghetto in the city held about 10,500 people, and in the ghetto on the Sands there were concentrated about 13,500 people.

On the night the ghetto was established, Fishel Roitenberg went to his Polish neighbor, to hear the news from him. He told him that heavy clouds were piling up over the heads of the Jews in the city. Policemen were arriving from Naskij, Matzyeb, Holoba, and from all over. Terrible slaughter was imminent. He must flee from the city lest he and all the Jews be killed.

Fishel, may his blood be avenged, came to me and told me of this. I had a Polish neighbor, who had told me at the time that if, God forbid, something happened, he would give my children shelter in his home.

At two o'clock in the morning, I woke my children from their slumber, dressed them, and took them to the home of my neighbor. To my great amazement and dismay, the Pole renounced me and refused to open the door. After my tears and pleas melted his insensitive heart, he listened to my insistent pleading and told me that I must send my children out with the cows, and he would send his children out with his cows. The children would spend time together, and the murderers would not notice them. I did as he said.

In the morning I went out to check on the wellbeing of the children. I was stopped by a police squad of about one hundred men. They didn't touch me, but they informed me that in about half an hour I must be inside the ghetto. I could bring with me the clothes I was wearing, and my children. By the time I found my children, the extension they had given me had passed. In my house sat one of my neighbors, a Polish woman, with whom I had deposited all of my property. I wanted to take some garments for my children, but she would not allow me to enter the house.

I went out into the street, which was deserted. The city was like a graveyard. I went to Hane Feldman's house, which was inside the ghetto, to find a corner for myself and my children. The house was full

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to bursting. Everyone stood crowded together. No one even dreamed about a place to sit. From there I went to Beryl Zweiter, but I didn't find a place there, either. With no other choice, my children and I stayed in a cowshed.

In time, I found a place to stay with Avraham Matisis, whose house bordered the Dolgonos church on Trisk Street. Many of us remembered the priest of that church. Who could have guessed that this priest, who was considered a friend of the Jews, possessed a soul that was diabolical, dark, satanic, and murderous.

I remember: On Sunday, which was a day of rest for us in the ghetto, I saw a gathering of villagers from Dolgonos, Lubliniec, Kalinovka, and Kortelesy. These masses streamed into the courtyard of the church. The priest climbed up on a tree and gave a hate–filled speech, which I give here word for word: “Darling people,” the priest said in a loud voice, “dear people! We must give the Nazi kingdom our last crust of bread, the last cow, the last egg, the last drop of milk! We must give our sons and our daughters to the Nazis, that they may do all of the hard work, because woe to us, all of us, if the bandit comes here, the mustachioed Kolhoznik [i.e. communist].” The priest continued, “Dear people, darling people! I ask you and I warn you: do not give a single crust of bread to a Jew! Do not give him a drop of water! Do not give him shelter! Anyone who knows the hiding place of a Jew, find the Jew and deliver him to the Germans. There must not remain even a trace of a Jew, we must obliterate the Jews from the face of the earth! Only when the last Jew has ceased to exist will we win the war.” All of the villagers applauded, kissed the feet of the “Holy Father”, came together and swore, and rejoiced in the coming obliteration of the Jews in the area.

 

The Vast Slaughter in Brisk Square

On the seventeenth of Sivan in 1942, at five o'clock in the morning, the gate to the ghetto opened and Moshe Perl, Leibel Bass, the butcher from Lodz (who served as the police commander), and Shalom Erlich came out and approached us. “Jews, everyone go out to the Brisk Square – those who are found there, we guarantee their lives. But anyone who hides in a basement or an attic – the hand of the killers will be upon him, and his blood will not be on our heads.”

I told my wife, may her blood be avenged, “If the community leaders promise, no misfortune will befall us. Let's go out to the square and be with the large community of Jews.” Unbeknownst to us, the killers had misled our community leaders.

We went out. I saw a huge crowd of about 10,000 people.

Suddenly, Kasner (the Gebietskommissar) and Manthei, his right hand man, appeared. They stood in the center of the market, looking at the multitudes of Jews, and none of us could have guessed at what was about to happen

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to us. We were sure that the promises made by Kasner to the community leaders that we were to be sent to work, were firm and valid.

However, soon all of our dreams were dashed. Suddenly there swooped down on the square about 4,000 armed Ukrainians. We were surrounded. We saw clearly that a great slaughter was imminent.

In the great crowd was the rabbi Nahum Moshele, may his blood be avenged, the son in law of reb Yaacov Leibenow, may his righteous memory be blessed, who never ceased studying Torah. He asked permission to say a few words to the Jews of the city in the final moments before dying. In a voice choked with tears the rabbi said: “Dear Jews, I see before my eyes a terrible slaughter, the likes of which our people have never seen. An outpouring of blood is about to drown us. Dozens of generations of mankind to Noah, and dozens of generations from Noah to Avraham. Every generation left behind a remnant of memory, and every son would pray for the elevation of the soul of his father. We are more wretched than all of the generations of Jews who came before us, for they are slaughtering all of us, our wives, our children, and our infants. No one will come to prostrate themselves on our graves, no one will say Kaddish for us, no one will hold memories of us in his heart. Our flame is extinguished; we will all descend, very soon, into the dark pit. Dear Jews, the world is so beautiful, the trees are blossoming, the birds are reciting poetry, and we must descend into the pit. Our people thirsts for life. Our rabbi Moshe, peace be upon him, when his sentence was pronounced, asked the Master of the Universe, that he be laid to rest like the grass–eating beasts of the field, or like the bird floating in the four directions of the world.” Lord, look from your holy dwelling place and see – who have you harmed, upon who have you vented your rage. We have sinned, our sons have committed a crime, but these angels, these infants, these pure angels, these babies, what sin have they committed that your wrath be spilled upon them? What is their crime; that they must rot in the pit?”

“Jews, we are approaching martyrdom. Let us be united as one person. Let us go to our deaths with gladdened hearts. This horrible moment shall pass, and the merciful Lord above us will give our souls repose under His wings.”

After him the teacher Yosef Avrech, may his blood be avenged, spoke. He looked at his many students, who had gathered around him, and said, “This wonderful youth, how much energy was invested in nurturing and educating them! We built a house of study, a splendid Hebrew gymnasia, and now everything is about to go up in flames. Lord of the nations, do not cover up our blood, do not smother our cries. Let our moans and prayers ring out in the vacuum. I feel deep sorrow when I see this glorious man, these precious ones, thirsting for life, wrapped in their vision of redemption, wellsprings of Torah and wisdom gurgling in them – my heart breaks to see you being led like sheep to the slaughter.”

Turning to Manthei, he said, “The people of Israel fight with all the force of the universe. Their memory is lost, but they will live forever. Many killers rose against us, and we saw our downfall, yet we will also see

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your downfall. Don't imagine in your soul that you will win the war. I tell you, your defeat will soon come. It's a shame, such a shame, that we will not see your downfall.”

When Avrech finished speaking, Manthei took out a large pistol, pointed the muzzle at Avrech's head and shot him, and his brains spilled to the ground.

When they saw Avrech fall to the ground, wallowing in his own blood, panic ensued. People started running about wildly. Dreadful shouts were heard, and everyone began running towards the Ukrainian police. The order to fire was given. When they saw the many who had fallen from the bullets of the killers, they prostrated themselves on the ground. Many trucks arrived, and they forced the people into them and took them to Bychawa.

A bullet hit me next to my ear, a lot of blood flowed from the wound, and I fell to the ground, unconscious. I lay there from 6 until midnight. I opened my eyes and did not see a single person. Live people I did not see, but I saw many dead people. The corpses of the dead were scattered all over the square. Those were the days of grid, dry days of summer heat, and woodworm – all kinds of creeping insects sucking the blood of animals – sat on the corpses, which were showing signs of decay. Ukrainian policemen came, pushing wheelbarrows. They collected with shovels the puddles of blood into the wheelbarrows, dug a hole in the center of the square, and buried all of the dear and copious blood that had been spilled.

Later an order was given to collect all of the corpses and pile them into three stacks. Altogether, 277 people were slain. Two Ukrainians approached me thinking I was dead, one grabbed my legs and the other my arms, and they tossed me into a pile of dead bodies.

The Ukrainian policemen left, and once again silence reigned. I sat up on the bodies, and suddenly I heard the sound of weeping coming from the second pile of the dead. I got up, approached the spot and saw a young girl with an injury to her leg. I recognized her. It was Baba Rojter, may her blood be avenged.

The wound was bleeding, and the infection pained her. She begged me to help her stop the pain. I didn't have a bandage to put on her injury, and I tried to quiet her. I told her to control her pain, because the Ukrainians would hear her cries and return to kill her. “Let's wait until morning, perhaps help will come.” I left her, and went back to sit on the pile of the dead with sorrow in my heart and thoughts of mourning in my brain, from whence will come my help?

With the sunrise came 100 Jews from the other ghetto in two vehicles. They were accompanied by six Germans. They had been sent to rinse away the blood and bury the bodies. The Germans left to enter the ghetto in order to plunder the homes of the Jews, taking wine and all sorts of foodstuffs, and ordering Motke Weiner, who served as an overseer of that group of Jews, not to dare to touch any of the dead in their absence.

In the other ghetto they knew nothing of the eradication of the first ghetto. When they saw the

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dead lying before them they wept piteously, pulling out their hair and striking their faces with heartrending cries. This one recognized his father among the dead, that one his mother, another his sister, yet another recognized his wife, and another his small son, and they began mourning the horrifying lamentations: “Oy for what has happened to our parents and our children! Dear fathers and mothers, how they have orphaned us! How we grieve for you! Oy for the radiance that has been turned to darkness!” One looked at his dead son, embracing him and clasping him to his heart, crying bitter tears: “My dear son, my son, my dear son, would that I had died beneath you! How the light has gone out from your eyes!”

When the Germans entered the ghetto, I rose up from the pile of the dead and stood on my feet. Motke Weiner helped me out of my bloodstained coat and threw it onto the dead and with his spittle scrubbed away the thick layer of blood that covered my face.

The Germans returned from the ghetto, bottles of wine in their hands, and ordered the people to load the dead into vehicles. Motke Weiner supervised that unhappy “work” and ordered me to carry the dead. In the pile of the dead I found Isaiah–Leib Freedman (the brother of Yodel Sofer) and Ariyeh Landoi, may their blood be avenged, with shrouds under their armpits. The shrouds were red with blood and stuck to their clothing. The unfortunates had thought they would receive a proper burial in a Jewish grave and made sure to bring shrouds.

We approached the pile where Baba Rojter lay. I wrote a note, for I could not speak after the shock I had received, “Go slowly gentlemen, for here lies a living person.” They lay her above the dead so she would not choke. The girl lay there silently, not a sound came from her mouth. Her legs were swollen.

They opened the gates of the ghetto, and we traveled along Trisk Street in the direction of the cemetery. We entered the cemetery, and saw there Russian prisoners digging a pit next to the purification room near the tents of the righteous. We dropped the dead into the pit and prepared to fill it. I said to Motke Weiner: “What has become of the girl? Have we buried a living person with our own hands?” Motke replied: “She is lost anyway. We will tell one of the Germans about it, perhaps a miracle will happen and he will let her live.”

The Germans approached us and asked why we were hesitating to fill in the pit. We answered them: “This is what happened.” One of the Germans pulled out a gun and shot Baba in the head, then shot her again, and the poor girl fell into the pit. “Now you can fill in the pit,” said the German with satisfaction in having succeeded in solving the complex problem.

To my happiness, the Germans did not count the people. They were sure that I was in the documents, that I was on the list of the one hundred, and thus I was able to return with them to the second ghetto.

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The Bitter End of Rav Valulah,
May his blood be avenged

Before I move on to describe the second ghetto, I must recount my meeting with Rav Valulah of blessed memory before his death, because in terms of chronology, Rav Valulah was among those from the first ghetto who were slaughtered.

One day I appealed to the community council to arrange work for me near the Jewish hospital Bikur HaHolim, because I longed to meet the rebbe.

As will be told later, we were forced to shave our heads, and it was forbidden to wear a hat during working hours. I took a handkerchief, tied four knots in it, covered my head with it, and went into the rebbe's room.

The rebbe sat disconsolate on the bed, wearing a white robe. He had a yarmulke on his head and tears pooled in his eyes.

The rebbe was very surprised – why was my head shaved and why was I covered with a handkerchief? I didn't want to make the rebbe sad, so I deceived him as to the bitter reality, and replied that we worked very hard and I did not have a summer hat to hand, so I wrapped my head with a handkerchief. The rebbe didn't believe me; he could feel that the situation was growing worse. I tried to console him. The situation had improved, I said. The portions of food were better, and we hoped that Hashem had not left us.

But the rebbe was not convinced: the situation was worsening. The rebbe felt that this would be our last meeting, and who knew whether we would have another. This time, he even denied me the blessing he was accustomed to giving me: that I would reach the ghetto safely and no evil befall me. But in this silent meeting, he seemed very sad, very depressed, and he parted from me with coldness.

I continued to take an interest in his fate. The goyim told us that they saw with their own eyes six Germans taking the rebbe to the jail. We didn't believe their story; we believed they were trying to torment us, nothing more.

Again I asked the community council to send me to work near the Jewish hospital, because I wanted to know the truth. I went to the hospital, but did not find the rebbe. There were Polish nurses working there, and they told me things as they were: six Germans entered and asked “Where is the man of God? Where is the holy Jew?” They replied that he was in such and such room. The Germans dressed the rebbe and took him away, with him dragging his feet.

While I was living the life of a partisan in the forests, two people appeared with their hands bound. They told me they had escaped from the jail, where the Germans were killing all of the prisoners. The weak and the elderly they had thrown into the deep pit of the lavatory.

When the Germans were defeated and the Russians entered the city, they removed 300 corpses from the pit,

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which was 70 meters deep. The corpses were disintegrating, and they wrapped them in blankets. The goyim said that among the corpses they saw a human corpse adorned with a beard. According to their understanding and estimation, it was Rav Valulah, may his blood be avenged.

The corpses were taken to an unknown place. And until today the resting place of the Rav Valulah, may his blood be avenged, is unknown.

 

Chapter Two

Life in the Second Ghetto

Oh that my words were now written; oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Job 19:23

 

For the Babes and Sucklings

As I have told, the second ghetto was made up only of workers and professionals. I stayed with Leibel Bebchuk, who enjoyed freedom of movement because the Germans considered him an expert in laying asphalt. Bebchuk tried to arrange work on my behalf on Horodlatz Street. And why was that? On that road there were farmers I was acquainted with, who would occasionally throw a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk to me.

The children, whose fathers for some reason did not work, did not get any bread, and it was expected that they would starve to death. I had a small bottle, one tenth of a liter, which I filled with milk and soft bread crumbs. I hid the bottle inside my sleeve. When we returned to the ghetto the policemen would only check us in the chest area, so I was sure they would not discover the bottle's hiding place.

The mothers would add ten parts water and dry bread crumbs to that milk, put the pap into a handkerchief, and the babies would suck it like wine. From that small bottle twelve mothers would feed their children. The babies recovered thanks to this food, looked good, and smiles even began to light up their faces.

 

The Abuse of Corpses

Once I walked from Horodlatz Street to the ghetto. I passed Kantorska Street and came across a murdered boy. I took a good look at him and I saw that it was the 18 year old son of Leibel Bebchuk.

With great effort we managed to bury him. The community council sent me and

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Fischel Roitenberg with a stretcher. We approached Kantorska Street and collected the precious blood in a bag. We put the deceased on the stretcher and brought him to the cemetery.

At the cemetery a horrifying picture was revealed to us: local farmers had vandalized the grave of the 277 who had been gathered in the Brisker Square. Bodies had been flung from the pit and stripped of their clothing, rings had been removed from fingers and watches stolen, gold teeth had been pulled, and the corpses had been abused. The dead were scattered about, some inside the pit, and some in a large area surrounding the pit.

I entered the purification room and found Esther Stefek there in a state near death. No one knew how she had gotten there. She lay there naked, opened her eyes and closed them, unable to speak. I could hear her sighs, and for a moment I listened to her death throes. The heart was as a fossil, and even the living saw themselves as dead.

 

Terrible Working Conditions

We smuggled food into the ghetto in various ways. I had an acquaintance, a goy, in the village Karsyn. When I would bring the dead for burial, he would prepare milk, flour, slices of bread, and potatoes for me. I would fold these riches into the stretcher I carried the way a soldier carries his rifle, and thus I entered the ghetto unmolested.

With us in the ghetto was Moshe Pressper, may his blood be avenged, who had two daughters. Those daughters, may their souls rest in Heaven, paid with their lives for bringing food into the ghetto. They had Christian friends from their school days with whom they were still in contact.

The girls would bribe the policeman with gold coins, and this payment would allow them to leave the ghetto for a short while, and they would take milk and bread from their Polish friends for the starving Jews of the ghetto. Once, the mother and the two girls were caught near the Amernick mill and were killed on the spot.

Thus the Germans learned that the Jews were smuggling food into the ghetto. They decided therefore to give us distinctive marks, so they would recognize us, even from far away. The women were ordered to pull back their hair in a ponytail, and the men were ordered to shave their heads and to go about bareheaded. It was clearly stated in the announcement that anyone found to have a hat in his pocket would be killed on the spot. The situation worsened every day.

It was during Tammuz [June/July] and the heat was unbearable. The sun beat down on the shaven head. Due to this torture of hell, the skull swelled. The head was purple like a watermelon, and eyes bulged out of their sockets. These unfortunates lost their human spirit and became monsters. Facial features were so greatly changed that I didn't recognize my own neighbor. Moreover: wives could barely recognize their husbands. No medical assistance was offered, and many – a great many – died in great agony.

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Desecrating the Dead

In the first days of the ghetto's existence, they didn't delay the burial of the dead. The Germans allowed the dead to be removed from the ghetto, and taken for burial. Later, an order was given that the dead could not be buried individually. When a person died, they waited until five more had died before burying him. Only when six people had died would we be given a cart to transport them for burial.

One Sunday Ben–Zion the butcher, may his blood be avenged, the father of the teacher Yosef Avrech, may his blood be avenged, died. On the same day, two small children also died. Sunday came to an end, Monday passed – and there were no further deaths. The bodies began to decay, but they wouldn't allow us to bury them. On Tuesday, a young man died. On Wednesday an older man died. We had only five dead. Where could we get a sixth body? We went to the community council, and said, ‘We are suffocating from the stench of the dead.’ Our entreaties did not help: we were not allowed to bury the dead.

I went to remove Ben–Zion the butcher from his room. I took a hold of his legs, and the flesh fell from them and remained in my hands. I fainted. When I awoke from the syncope, I asked them to give me a blanket. I wrapped Ben Zion, may his blood be avenged, in it and thus we placed him in the cart. We set off to bury the dead accompanied by two policemen.

We returned to the ghetto from the cemetery and as we passed the gate we saw Manthei, Kasner and their secretary. Next to them was a small auto, and they ordered us to put all of our money into it. I had only 11 pfennig in my pocket. They didn't pay attention, and allowed me to enter the ghetto.

Among us was Yaacov–Yitzhak Kishkarnik, who worked in the slaughterhouse. He had a decent amount of money which he kept in the rubber boots he wore. The secretary ordered him to remove the boots and found the bundle of money. Next they approached the son of Kartaflia the tailor, who had a glass shop next to the bridge over the Sands. They found a decent bundle of money on him, as well. Kasner pulled out his Nagant [a revolver] and killed them on the spot.

In the morning I was sent, with a few other Jews, to take the two who had been killed for burial. They allowed us to bury them without waiting until another four dead bodies had accumulated, because they fell outside the walls of the ghetto.

I was shocked, and even today it is difficult for me to avoid the difficult impression: the wives of those who had been killed did not even come out to see their husbands who had been killed, they didn't come to say farewell, they didn't shed a tear, because their hearts had hardened, they had lost their minds, they daydreamed while awake and did not comprehend what had happened.

 

We Return to the First Ghetto

On the 20th of the month of Av the community representatives announced that permission had been given to move to the empty houses in the first ghetto, and everyone must register.

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I lived with Avraham Gunik, may his blood be avenged. The Germans employed him as a cattle assessor, and saw him as a “useful” Jew. When the poor unfortunates were taken from Brisker Square with Gunik among them, to be destroyed in Bychawa, Manthei asked: Where is Gunik? When he was told that Gunik was in Bychawa, he rushed off like a crazy man on his motorcycle to the place of destruction, and removed Gunik, literally, from the pit. Gunik's wife and son he was unable to save, for they had already been destroyed.

Gunik said to me, ‘Since you know the city so well, choose a suitable house and we'll move in there together.’ I told him: ‘There was a tailor with us, Kalman of Trisk, who lived next to the house of Shia Bar Bakar, opposite the Talmud Torah. The house is clean and has been renovated.’ Gunik went and registered the house in his name.

On the 25th of Av the order was given to move immediately into the first ghetto. All of us were equipped with a few garments, two suits and, under the armpit, a pair of shoes. We set out late at night. We reached the ghetto and found the houses empty. The furniture was brought to the great synagogue, and the clothing to the school named for Moshkitski. Every day they sent groups of sixty people to sort the many garments, which filled the building from the foundation to the rafters.

The son of Yitzhak Roitenberg, may his blood be avenged, a lad of 17, recognized a tie from home and hid it in his pocket. They checked his possessions and found the tie. The unfortunate youth was hanged on the spot, from the wall of the school. They hung a sign on him on which was written: “Hanged for stealing clothing.” Only after three days had passed did they cut him down from the noose.

Since there was no furniture to be found, we lay down on the floor and went off every day to work.

 

Erecting Bunkers

Opinion was divided amongst us: some said that the workers and professionals would stay alive, and others said that it would be a complete slaughter, and we would all be obliterated. The second opinion won, and we began to prepare for what would come.

There were some excellent professionals in the ghetto – carpenters, blacksmiths, builders – and they began to build bunkers under the sidewalks and the streets, and secret hiding places in attics. At night we would hear the muffled sound of hammering.

One night, Avraham Gunik said to me: “Do you hear the sounds of work?” Gunik's son–in–law served in the police force, and from him we knew of the big plan of the preparation and installation of the bunkers. He told us: “Don't be under any illusions. The situation is dire, the Germans are planning to wipe out the last remaining vestiges of the Jews of the city.”

We called one of the carpenters, to explain to us why they were building bunkers. His advice was

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to build a secondary–wall, a double wall, connected to the oven, and people would enter the space through the opening of the oven. He also advised us to hide the part that was removed between the first and second walls, and to cover the opening with planks, so that if – God forbid – our hiding place was discovered we could quickly flee to the attic.

It seemed to us a good idea. The carpenter took down some planks from the Talmud Torah and from the House of Study of the followers of Stephan, and built the wall. He covered it in plaster and the wall became an integral part of the room, and did not rouse any suspicion.

According to the capacity, we could hide only 12 people. But with cramming and squeezing, 18 people would fit.

On the 6th of Elul we went into the space behind the wall. The ghetto was in turmoil. We heard shouts and terrifying howls. They were forcing people into vehicles. Manthei knew about the bunkers and he decided to destroy them, once and for all.

Children played a very tragic role in the discovery of the bunkers. More than once a child burst into tears and endangered the lives of all. The bunker–dwellers would attack the parents of the child: “Because of your children we will all go to hell.” The poor parents, with no other choice, were forced to send their children out of the bunker.

When Manthei saw Jewish children wandering about, he understood that the parents must be somewhere close by, and in that way he would locate the bunker and take those hidden inside out to be killed.

We stood in the hiding place for twelve days, with no food or water. During that time, Manthei emptied almost the entire ghetto under the ground. Once he seized 300 people and took them to the great synagogue, and from there to their destruction.

Manthei and his band of murderers sniffed around our hiding place. The head thief stamped his foot and said: “There are Jews hiding here!” The smell of sweat coming through the wall of our hiding place worked against us. From the smell, the murderer assumed there were living people in the place. The killers cut away the floor, turned the entire house upside down – and didn't find a thing. And so the day passed safely. The next day, they came back. “There are Jews here!” Manthei shouted in a hysterical voice. They began destroying the walls. They ripped out one wall – and were unsuccessful. But when they broke into the wall of our hiding place, one plank fell and we were exposed.

“Get out!” the murderers shouted. I kept my composure, and when the first people left the hiding place, I jumped up and with my head I moved the boards that covered the exit opening and climbed up to the attic. Avraham Gunik, his son–in–law, Yosef Zin, the carpenter, and Berel, son of Haim Trisker, came with me.

Since the killers had already checked and rummaged about in every corner of the attic and didn't

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find anyone, they didn't check there again. After they had gotten all of the people out of the hiding place, they left.

 

The Tragic Event

Avraham Gunik, may his blood be avenged, suffered from asthma. We saw that there was a mere step between him and death by strangulation. He told us, if he drank at least two teaspoons of water he would be able to restrain his cough and he would catch his breath.

I risked my life and, at night, left the attic and entered the house of Shia Bar Bakar. I found a tub full of laundry there. I found two kettles in the kitchen, and I squeezed the water from the laundry into them. It was full of soap, lime, and lice. I went back to the attic with the two kettles filled with water.

In the attic we found a small cover to a kettle, which could hold two teaspoons of water. We all agreed that each of us would drink two teaspoons of water in the morning and two in the evening, and that Avraham Gunik would drink whenever he had a coughing fit.

Yossel Zin downed two spoons of water and started to cry. We asked him: “Why are you crying?” He answered: “This thirst is torturing me. Let me drink two more spoons, and I won't drink in the evening.” Avraham Gunik said: “His crying could bring down a holocaust on us. Let him drink and calm down.”

We lay up in that attic for ten days. No one bothered us. We took two shingles off of the roof, and through the opening we saw that they were putting people into the great synagogue, and in the evening leading them in the direction of the cemetery. In addition, we saw groups of children whose parents had sent them out of the bunkers, wandering about. The Ukrainian policemen gathered them up and also put them into the synagogue.

Over time, the beard of one of those who was with us in the attic grew. He said that the hair of his beard bothered him, and that he thought he would go down into his house and bring back a barber's razor. We begged him not to do such a thing, because he would be putting all of our lives in danger.

He didn't agree to our pleas, instead insisting on doing what he wished. To our misfortune, as he was descending he tripped and fell to the floor with a great deal of noise. The Ukrainian policemen standing outside heard the noise, came inside, brought all of us down from the attic and took us to the great synagogue.

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Chapter 3

The Horrors in the Great Synagogue

That the generation to come might know them, the children which should be born, who should arise and declare them to their children.
Psalms 78:6

 

The Last Farewell to Life

Next to the great synagogue stood a force of Ukrainian policemen, who checked us and emptied our pockets. When we entered – we found all sorts of people, women, children and infants. We were ordered to squat with our heads down and between our legs. Anyone who raised his head could expect a bullet from the murderers. Only mothers who held infants in their arms were allowed, with no other choice, to sit upright, because the murderers were not interested in committing mass murder inside the walls of the synagogue. For the same reason, they allowed the children to wander and stroll about. Children of the city, my heart goes out to you! Who will give validity to your sorrow and grief! Oy, the lamentation that will be said for your great sorrow. Blood dripped from my heart when I saw the tears spilling from your eyes.

The children wandered through the hall of the synagogue with bowed heads, looking at the people who had been brought low, and crying bitterly: ‘No, that's not my father!’ Later, they approached a group of women, looked into their lowered faces and cried loudly, ‘No, that's not my mother!’

At 11 o'clock in the morning Manthei arrived, and ordered us to get up and gather into one corner. He counted the people and wrote the number in his notebook. He separated out 35 men, who looked healthy, and put them in a different corner. A vehicle came and collected them, then set off in the direction of the cemetery. Manthei accompanied them. When they arrived, they were ordered to dig a pit. The pit was three meters deep. Its length and width were determined based on the number of victims gathered in the synagogue that day.

The death of that group was “easy”. When they finished digging, Manthei ordered them to face the pit, then he killed each and every one of them with a shot to the brain with his Nagant. When we arrived at the cemetery in the late afternoon, we found them dead inside the pit.

At 5 o'clock in the evening, six trucks arrived at the synagogue. Manthei entered accompanied by policemen and ordered us to get up and get into the vehicles.

Everyone knew that the end was near and his days were over, and the unfortunates instinctively approached

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the walls of the synagogue and wrote their first names and their surnames, and that on this date they became martyrs. And if someone remained alive, he should avenge the blood that was shed.

I approached the wall to write my name. Avraham Gunik called to me, ‘Write my name, also, because my legs are paralyzed and I cannot move.’

I told him: ‘Izzy, your son–in–law, will write your name.’ Izzy said to me: ‘I only write in Polish, and I want my name to be written in Hebrew letters and in Hebrew writing.’

I approached the wall and wrote: ‘On such and such day we shall become martyrs. If there remains a trace of the Jews of Kovel, remember us and avenge our blood that has been spilled.’

I must mention that Manthei did not disturb us while we were writing, although when there was a pause in the writing the Ukrainian policemen lost their patience and with the butts of their rifles began to pry us away from the walls: “Enough, you bloody Jews! The trucks are waiting,” they shouted.

Avraham Gunik, may his blood be avenged, could not stand on his feet. I took his right hand, and his son–in–law took his left, and we led him out of the synagogue. He begged us, while weeping bitterly, to put him on the first truck, for he wanted to die quickly. He and his son–in–law got into the third truck, and I boarded the last one.

Each vehicle was accompanied by 16 armed policemen. The trucked headed in the direction of Trisk Street. As they passed over the river, the victims threw their jewelry out into the water. Along the way I saw people jumping out of the trucks. The policemen allowed them to jump, but as each victim left the vehicle, he was immediately shot in the head.

The vehicles stopped near the cemetery, which was surrounded by many policemen. The victims entered and gathered near the purification room. They were told to undress and throw the clothing into the purification room.

Everyone undressed together – men, women, even children and six month old babies. When the people from the first vehicle had undressed, they were led to the pit. Entire families went together to the slaughter, even brides with their grooms. The children clutched their parents. A ten year old boy wrapped tightly around his father's thigh, and the small children and babies were held in their mothers' arms.

The extermination was carried out thus: two boards were stretched over the pit. They told the unfortunates to stand on them facing the pit. Three murders stood behind them, dressed in white and with their faces masked, their hands covered in white mittens and holding automatic weapons.

They aimed the muzzle at the brain of the victim, so that the bullet wouldn't miss its target, although the kill shot hit the heart, the earlobe, and other places. When the parents fell into the pit, their children were pulled in after them, and most of them died of suffocation.

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While they eliminated the people from the first vehicle, those from the second vehicle were ordered to undress and approach the pit, where they were eliminated. And thus the horror was repeated over and over, until the end of the last victim.

Not a single word came from the mouths of the victims. Their hearts were fossilized. They did not weep and they did not sob. Husband did not speak to wife, and groom did not speak to the bride who stood to his right.

I approached the pit, which was filled to the rim with the dead. As I stood on the plank, I saw Yisrael Ishiner, who had been shot in the heart, and he was twisting over the pile of the dead, the entire length of the pit. This atrocious sight made my head spin, and I fainted and fell into the pit.

The last of the victims were killed, and the pit was not covered with dirt for it had passed the edge. I lay there unconscious until 11:30 that night. Suddenly I realized that I was alive, but I didn't know if I had been hurt. I tried to move, but the dead lying on me were pressing on me and suffocating me. Only my head was above the dead bodies.

With the last of my strength I freed one hand, and then the second. The blood of the dead was still warm, and it flowed from my hands. I wiped the blood from one hand. I believed I had been wounded, but lo and behold my hand was uninjured. I tried to free my head – but in vain. There lay upon me a woman whose hair was tangled with mine.

During the night the wind blew, clotting the blood that had been spilled, a kind of stew, on a thick night, and it was difficult for me to separate my head from hers. I started to rip out her hair.

 

kov429.jpg
The new cemetery
Here our dear ones, who left the great synagogue, were destroyed

 

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After a great deal of labor, I succeeded in freeing my head. I propped my hand on the dead and with inhuman force I freed the rest of my body and climbed up.

From my body flowed streams of the blood of our dear dead. I stood next to the pit and saw it rising and falling, rising and falling. The moans of the suffocating people were horrible. Six hours after the actztia, the victims were still fighting with Mr. Death.

 

Putting Me Back in the Great Synagogue

The first question that tormented me was: what now? Where shall I go? I was naked as the day I was born, with only underwear covering my skin. The cold overcame me. Goosebumps gripped me at the sound of the groans of the suffocating.

I left the cemetery, desolated and completely covered in blood, alone in the dark of night. Behind me – the groans of my brothers and sisters, the great Jewish community of Kovel, and before me – the fear of the darkness, the fear of extinction, the fear of loneliness, and the fear of the great devastation.

As I stood by the gates of the cemetery, an inkling of an idea came to me: I knew a farmer named Hoder from the Karsyn village, who had bought a small house not far from the cemetery. Hoder had a white horse. He worked for me, bringing the calves to the train station, and he made good money.

I said in my heart, I'll approach Hoder, maybe he'll save me, because I had saved him by giving him an advance on his salary so he could buy things he especially needed.

Hoder had a large dog, scary and threatening. Although since the dog knew me, I thought to myself, maybe he won't attack me.

I approached the gate. The dog began to bark ferociously. I thought to myself, the dog is barking and Hoder will come out towards me. The door opened, and there to my annoyance were four policemen, who approached me. Two of them were from Kovel. One of them, named Elioshik, lived on Shelkatchka Street, and the other was named Kandratovich, and he lived on Kantorska Street. The other two were from the village of Bitnia.

They asked me: “Where did you come from?” I replied: “I came out of the pit of death. I fell in still alive, and I got out. My appearance testifies to that.” They asked me: “What do you want?” I replied: “My request is, take me back to the pit, the place where my brothers and sisters are buried. Shoot me in the head and let my blood mingle with theirs.”

They replied: “That we will not do.” I added a plea: “If you don't want to go to the trouble, call for Hoder to take me into his yard and kill me. Hoder has a white horse that can carry my body to the cemetery. No matter, never mind. Hoder can carry me in his arms for burial. I deserve that.”

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The policemen responded: “That we also will not do.” Those two policemen knew me well, and apparently, out of a misguided sense of conscience, they couldn't bring themselves to kill me with their own hands. And so they said: “We will show you mercy and take you back to the great synagogue.”

I told them: “This is not mercy you are showing me, for you are doing me a great wrong. Why prolong my death throes? In any case, tomorrow they will execute me. Better I should die today, and not tomorrow.”

Kandratovich lost his temper and hit me hard with the butt of his rifle, and told the two policemen from Bitnia to take me to the great synagogue.

 

I Persuade Zydel to Avenge our Spilled Blood

When those gathered in the great synagogue saw a naked man covered with blood, they were consumed with horror. Even the Ukrainian policemen stared at me in amazement. On the pulpit was a large pile of the coats of the slaughtered. I shook from cold – the chattering of my teeth could be heard from far away. I thought in my heart, who will give me a coat and warm me? The son of Moshe Hijick sat next to the pulpit. Putting himself in danger, he took a coat from the pile and threw it to me.

The synagogue was in darkness. Next to the clock, on the western side, there stood a lantern that gave off a faint, melancholy light. The people hinted to me that they wanted to know what had happened to me – but we were not allowed to speak.

The night passed, a night of horror and terror. In the morning they brought children, whose parents had been removed from the bunkers, and they brought a group of about 70 people down from the attic of the synagogue of the tailors.

Suddenly we were startled by the sound of gunshots. In the synagogue was Sarah Erlich, who was seven months pregnant. They brought her, together with her husband Yosef. In the synagogue, they separated them. She lifted her head – she wanted to see her husband in the final moments of her life. The murderers shot her in the belly, and her bowels spilled out. She rolled and writhed in her suffering from the pulpit to the stairs. They took her out and put her in Rabbi Goldshmid's house, opposite.

At about nine o'clock, they brought a group of people, and among them were Zydel and Moshe Shach, along with their wives. Zydel and his friend looked sturdy and clean–shaven. They had hidden in the dairy farm of Sarah Erlich, and had been found there.

Zydel saw that I was covered in blood, and asked me to explain. I told him what had happened, and added that at five o'clock Manthei would come and count the people, and then we would all be taken out and slaughtered. And since he looked healthy and sturdy, he would surely be forced to dig the pit and would be killed while digging. “Anyway we are going to be killed, and it is irrelevant whether we are killed now or at

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five o'clock. So I'm asking you, in the name of all of our brothers who have been put to death and those who will be led to the massacre today, and those who will be led tomorrow and the day after until the last memory of the Jews of Kovel becomes extinct – I ask of you, at the moment Manthei enters and begins to count those gathered here, throw yourself at him and with your teeth tear out his throat. So the world will see what the Jews of Kovel did to the Minister of Massacres. So that the world will see, and know, that the Jews of our city were not slaughtered like sheep.”

As they sat with their heads down, Zydel and Moshe Shach indicated to me that when the bandits came in they would throw a few coats on him and confuse him. I said: “I will throw my coat, and I will risk my life and take two more coats down from the pulpit. When Manthei asks me the reason, I will say I returned naked from the cemetery and I am cold.”

At 11:00 in the morning Manthei arrived. “Get up and gather in one place,” yelled the murderer. Zero hour had arrived, and we couldn't miss even a moment.

However, when Zydel saw Manthei, he became discouraged, his face paled, and he ran off to the side.

Manthei counted the people, and took Zydel and his companions off to dig the pit. Zydel walked off in quiet surrender, like a sheep being led to the slaughter.

 

The Orphan's Kaddish

At five o'clock, the vehicles came to take us to the cemetery. Once again those gathered approached the walls, writing their names and the date they became martyrs.

As I went outside, my eyes fell upon an act of cruelty which, each time I recall it, my slumber is devoured. Policemen wandered about, holding in their hands planks studded their entire length with nails 20 cm [nearly 8”] and longer. I saw a woman who could barely walk, with a baby in her arms. With one hand she held her baby, three months old, and with the other hand she struggled to climb into the vehicle. One of the killers approached her and struck her in the back with the plank with the long nails. When he pulled it out of her body, her liver and lungs fell out onto the ground. He grabbed the baby and beat him against the pavement; his head was thrown one way and his tiny body was thrown the other way. The killer threw the brutalized bodies of the mother and her baby into the vehicle.

This time I boarded the fifth vehicle, and not the last one, for I was in a hurry to die.

There was in our town a Jew called Moshe the Old Butcher. He had a son named Zalman who was married to a woman named Devorah, the daughter of Old Trek. Zalman, his wife, their two sons and their daughter sat with me in the vehicle.

He sat there pale and silent. Suddenly, he jumped from the vehicle. Immediately, gunshots were heard, and Zalman was left lying dead next to the daughter of Yehoshua Kovritz.

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When Devorah saw her husband lying dead in the ditch, she took her two sons and brought them near to me, saying: “Their father is dead, say Kaddish with them for the elevation of his soul.” With copious tears, I said Kaddish with the children. They recited the Kaddish like grown men. All of those being taken to die in that vehicle sobbed brokenheartedly, repeating the words: “May his great name be blessed forever and ever” with the devotion and eagerness of those about to die in the name of the Lord. The recitation of the Kaddish continued until we reached the gates of the cemetery.

 

I am Returned Once Again to the Great Synagogue

When we reached the cemetery, the gates opened, the people were removed from the first, second, third, and fourth trucks, and then – “Stop!” They didn't remove any more people. The guards were surprised, and didn't understand what was happening.

Soon we learned the secret: at two o'clock they had brought two truckloads of Jews from Bitby, Lyubytiv, and Poane, killed them, and threw them into the pit. Since the capacity of the pit was only six truckloads, it turned out that they had “taken” our places and the pit was overflowing.

With no other choice, it was decided to return us to the synagogue. When we arrived, those gathered there were seized with joy. If people were returned from the cemetery, it was a sign that salvation was coming. At last God was showing His mercy to the Jewish people.

To my great sorrow – I disillusioned them. I told them how things really were, that salvation had not yet come, that the wings of the angel of death were still spread over us, and that the devil still held the knife in his hands and he would paint it with our blood until the last drop of our blood was shed.

 

The Desecration of Our Daughters' Honor

Once again I shed tears over our children. The coming of dawn brought a new group of children, whose parents had taken them out of the bunkers. The children looked pale, tired, hungry – for 14 days no food had crossed their lips. In one of the corners was piled the feces of children who had tarried here and were then taken out and executed. The wretched children burrowed in the feces of their lost friends, put them into their mouths and began to vomit. The heart breaks with such sorrow, for it was not in our power to save them and bring back their spirits. The Ukrainian guards watched the children, writhing convulsively with hunger – and laughter filled their mouths.

At seven thirty in the morning, some guards entered – chose 10 pretty girls aged 15–16 and good looking, and told them they had been chosen for work, washing windows and floors. They took them to the house of Rabbi Goldshmid, across the street, where they defiled them. From all the torture

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they suffered, they had no strength left to stand on their feet and we had to carry them back to the synagogue.

Those wretched girls sat, sobbing softly. In their eyes, all the well–springs of sorrow and grief had overflowed. Alas, that I saw them so! Why did God not extinguish my sight? In my heart, in the language of silence, I wept a bitter lament: ‘what sin did you ever commit, that you should be so abused?’ I began to revile God. I, Ben–Zion, a God–fearing Jew, turned accusingly to the Creator of the Universe: ‘Why did you vent your rage on these cherubs, why did you spill your wrath on these tender flowers, on these gentle girls? No one will prostrate himself on their graves, no one will remember them, no one will recall them, no one will plant a flower on their fresh graves, for no marker will be left for them. Shall we live by your sword?’

 

The Horrors I Beheld in the Synagogue

I had scarcely lamented the desecration of our girls' honor, when I was shocked by new horrors: a man with a threatening appearance was thrown into the synagogue. He looked like he was insane, unkempt, with eyes that gleamed and blazed and bulged out from their sockets. I looked at him, and murmured: ‘Is that him or not?’ I strained my eyes and looked into that threatening face. ‘Yes, it is him. It's Asher Frankfurt, may his blood be avenged, the principal of the Hebrew Gymnasia.’ Frankfurt was brought in with his wife and son. They had hidden in the attic of the Naskizer house of study. The killers found their hiding place, took them out and brought them to the synagogue.

The woman sat with the young man, though Frankfurt refused to sit. We were sure the guards would kill him with a bullet. But to their eyes, he was just a man who shook his head from side to side – they thought him insane and didn't harm him. In the evening, they took him along with all those gathered and killed them in the cemetery.

I had not yet recovered from the shock of Frankfurt when along came another new horror: I saw a man brought in who ran to the bima in panic, and began spitting fragments of tongue, throat and gums while blood flowed from his mouth without ceasing. I looked at him, and it was Nahum, the son–in–law of Shmuel Zeletz, may his blood be avenged. After him came running Heike his wife, pulling out her hair. They separated her from her husband and forced her to sit together with everyone.

Although the woman sat some distance from me, I implied that she tell me why her husband was spitting blood. Despite the danger, Heike told me: they had hidden in the attic of the home of Lazer Kaditch, together with their three year old daughter. Their daughter burst out crying, endangering their lives and those of the others hiding with them. Her husband lost his mind, and went down into his house and brought back a barber's razor. He grabbed the child by her arm,

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slaughtered her with the razor and threw her out of the attic to the ground. The child, of course, was crushed – her small body became like stew of meat, blood and crushed bones.

When his sanity returned and he took an accounting of what he had done to his small daughter, he again went down into the house and drank sulfuric acid, which immediately began to burn his mouth, tongue, and throat. He began to produce terrifying screams: “Shoot me! Fire is burning inside me!” Because of the pain, he left the hiding place and went downstairs. The police found him and brought him to the synagogue. When Heike saw that they were taking her husband, she got up and went after him.

The poor fellow lay on the bima, then deliberately got up so that the guards would kill him. But, infuriatingly, they did not harm him, for they wanted to prolong his death throes. Terrible were his moans, and those of his wife, who had pulled out all of her hair, leaving not a single strand on her head.

We were sure that when Manthei came at 11 o'clock to count the people, he would be killed and put out of his misery. Although he came, counted the people, and took 35 with him to dig the pit, he did not harm Nahum. It became apparent that Nahum would die before they came to take him out of the synagogue.

At 10 o'clock in the morning, six guards entered. They selected 8 people, including myself. They took us out of the synagogue and led us behind the municipal bathhouse. The area was filled with tall shrubs. The guards told us: “Many corpses are rotting here in this place. Get them out of here.” They stood off to the side, their rifles pointed at us, and warned us: “Anyone who tries to escape will be killed on the spot.”

We walked between the shrubs and started searching. We came upon many corpses, though it was difficult to get close to them. They were crumbling and covered with swarms upon swarms of flies. My work partner was a young man from Brisk named Wolf. The Germans had a dugout of peat on Meichev Street behind the house of Pelek Peidel, may his blood be avenged, and this young man served as the manager of that dugout. We found the body of a woman. We lifted her, and the body fell to pieces. We pulled her by her hair, and the hair came away in our hands. Wolf was squeamish, and began to vomit.

Another work pair carried a dead body with the flesh falling away from it, the internal organs spilled out. In spite of that, they carried it over and threw it into the wagon. We couldn't pick up the dead bodies. I lifted him, but Wolf turned his head away and didn't move from his place.

The guards saw what happened, pointed their rifles at poor Wolf and warned him: “If you don't pick up the body – soon you will be just like him.” I asked Wolf to gather all of his strength and pick up the body. But the young man told me: “What difference does it make if they kill me now or a few hours from now? Better they should kill me at this moment.” The guards told me to come out of the bushes. When I stood next to them, they shot the young man and he fell next to the corpse of the woman.

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They gave me a different partner. We picked up the woman in our hands. Along the way her organs were left behind. We threw her into the wagon, in which there were already three bodies. We did not recognize the faces of the dead. The eyes had come out of their sockets, and in their place were swarms. The whole body was rotten and crawling with worms. When we had lifted the bodies onto the wagon, we returned to the synagogue.

 

Chapter 4

My Flight from the Synagogue and My Rescue “How is the gold become dim!”
Lamentations 4:1

 

The First Echoes from the Outside World

When I returned to the synagogue, I saw that the guards were bringing in an entire family: husband and wife, a small boy, and a girl of about 17. I recognized the man, although I had not seen him in the ghetto. Apparently he had paid a great deal of money to one of his Polish acquaintances to obtain Aryan certificates for the entire family, and they had been living all this time as Poles. But to his misfortune, a dispute broke out between the wives of two Polish neighbors, and the other went and reported on them to the police, and he and his family were brought to the synagogue.

I told him of the things that had happened to me, and that I was about to be sent to my death for the third time. I said to him: “All the time that you went about freely, you probably read a newspaper and have some knowledge of what is going on out there in the world. He replied thus: “If can you hold on another 3 – 4 days, I am sure we will be saved.” I asked: “On what do you base that?” He replied: “On the night of Shabbat the Soviets bombed ‘Vyturio Kovel’ From there they have drawn the conclusion that there will be a decisive turn in the course of the war. If the Soviet pilots go deeper and they reach Kovel – the conclusion is that the Germans are about to be completely defeated. Tradition has been in our hands since the days of the evil Haman, the scourge of the Jews: ‘…before who thou hast begun to fall, thou shalt not prevail against him, but shalt surely fall before him.’ [Translator's note: Esther 6:13] In my opinion, Ben–Zion, if you survive the next few days, my faith is great that you will remain alive.”

I said to him: “And what can we do? When people jump out of the vehicles, they shoot and kill them on the spot.”

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How did I Escape from the Great Synagogue?

The things I heard from my neighbor got me thinking. Perhaps, in truth, my hope was not lost? Perhaps there is a path to rescue? Maybe it is not G–d's will that I be among those who fall into the pit?

While I sat deep in thought, the trucks were approaching. They had come to take us on our final journey. “Get up!” Manthei screamed. I approached the wall and wrote my name for the third time. Manthei showed patience. Let the Jews write to their hearts' content. But the Ukrainian policemen removed us with the butts of their rifles: “That's enough, you bloody Yids! Stop dirtying the walls!”

I turned my head and saw three Jews approaching the Holy Ark and hiding under the stairs. I said: “I'll try my luck.” I approached the stairs and begged: “Jews, let me in.” They replied: “The place is narrow and can only hold 4 people.” I answered: “It is not my intention to bring disaster upon you. I will go to the slaughter, together with all of my brothers.” There was a young man there named Shtuper. He told me: “I have been lying here for 8 nights. Tonight my soul will leave me. Anyway, I'm dying, and what's the difference if I die here or in the pit – I will get out, and you get in under me.” He got out and I took his place. Among the three people who were with me was the son–in–law of Chava Erlich and an old man, a grain merchant named Aharon. I do not remember the name of the third. They said: “He has slept in this hiding place for 4 nights, and that one for 6 nights.” I said to them: “And what will be the end? What is the point of laying here if there is to be no rescue?” They replied: “When they have taken all of the people out of the synagogue and they bring in no others after them, the guard will be removed from the synagogue, and then it will be possible to take advantage of the opportunity, and jump out via the window. But the problem is, they take out and then immediately bring in new victims, and we are still yearning for that opportunity. Maybe G–d will be merciful, and tonight they won't bring new victims, or they will bring them late at night – we'll take advantage of the darkness – and run away. Let's shake hands on it that each one of us will go in a different direction, so that we won't all be caught together.”

The people were taken out, no new ones were brought in, and the guards left the synagogue. We said that if by seven o'clock the hall was still empty – we could move. But, to our misfortune, new victims were brought in from the bunkers. We left the hiding place and mixed in among the people. The next day, we decided: tonight we will hide under the stairs, and if we don't succeed in escaping – we will get into the trucks and be taken to the slaughter along with everyone else.

The hall emptied. It was six o'clock – and there was no one there. Zero hour was approaching – seven o'clock. I said: “We won't miss the opportunity. We'll get up and run!” I left the hiding place and stood up on a bench along the eastern wall. I opened a window, stuck out

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my head, and saw that the place was very high. I said: “If we jump, we will all be crushed. My advice is that we take 10 coats from the bima, throw them outside, and if we fall – we will fall on a soft surface and there will be no danger to our lives.” My suggestion seemed right to them. Yoska, the son–in–law of Chava Erlich, climbed onto the pulpit, and from the pulpit to the window – and jumped out. I jumped out after him. With Reb Aharon there was a problem. He was an old man, clumsy, and when he climbed on the pulpit it began to squeak. The guards who stood outside heard noise from inside, and went in to investigate the matter.

Reb Aharon was able to run away, although his head was hit hard on the wall of the synagogue, and he lost a lot of blood. The guards were making up their minds whether to shoot him to death, and in the end decided not to waste the bullet since, anyway, he was going to die. I hid beneath the floor of the Ryzhin synagogue, and from there I heard the sighs and moans of Reb Aharon, may his blood be avenged.

 

The Great Tragedy of Three Small Orphans

I lay under the Ryzhin house of study until midnight. Silence prevailed. The voices of the guards fell silent. I left the hiding place and entered the bushes; I reached the home of Hane Feldman, may his blood be avenged, which was behind the bathhouse.

For what reason did I go, of all places, to the Feldman house? On my first day in the synagogue, I saw the names of Hane Feldman, his sister, his brother, Yosef, and the wife of Moshe Feldman – written on the wall. I understood that the house was empty. I went into the bedroom – there were about 20 beds there. I jumped from bed to bed and reached the last one. I lifted a blanket and covered myself. I thought in my heart: ‘I will enjoy a good night's sleep before I die.’ While I was laying there and contemplating my soul, some guards entered the house with Ukrainian girls. I was sure they were chasing me and had found my footprints. But it soon became clear that this was not their purpose. They had come for robbery and looting. They opened the closets and filled their sacks with all the goods and wealth to be found in the Feldman house, then ran off.

At dawn I fell asleep. I was sure that during the day the policemen would not bother me, because Manthei was on patrol during the day, and he was sure to put to death any policeman who robbed a Jewish house without his knowledge and permission.

When I awoke, I sensed according to the position of the sun that it was about ten o'clock. I lifted my head and looked at the Trisker Bridge and saw my Polish and Ukrainian neighbors walking at their pleasure and no one harmed them. My heart stirred within me, and I turned complaints to G–d: ‘By what right do they move about freely and enjoy the sunshine, while I am pursued like an animal? Why?’ I shouted in a loud voice. I was still yelling and pouring out my heart, when there

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I saw standing before my eyes a figure out of the valley of the ghosts. She was filthy with mud, grimy with ash, and black as pitch.

The figure spoke to me in Yiddish: “Don't you know me? You were at my wedding. I am the sister of Yankel Zalman, the butcher. The bride of Forshteller of Monopoliova Street.”

She began to tell me: “Seventy people hid in a bunker, among them the good and beneficent Dr. Shatz. Seven days ago the killers came and took everyone, and I stayed alone with my two children and the son of my sister in law.” I asked her: “Where is the hiding place?” She replied: “Under the foundation.” I wanted to enter and see the children, but the entrance was so narrow that I could not pass.

I went up to the attic, removed two shingles, and saw all of the Jews who had been kidnapped and taken to the synagogue.

The woman calmed down a bit, climbed up to the attic and said: “In the bunker are scattered lots of dollars and gold that the poor unfortunates left behind. We'll take a basket, gather the money, and take it to the police. Maybe they will have mercy on us and take us out of the ghetto.”

I asked her: “And the children, what will become of them?” She replied: “I'll leave them.” I told her: “Without the children, I will not go.”

I asked her to show me the children. The oldest was eight, the second five, and the girl six and a half. The woman left the attic, brought the children out, and told me: “Come and see them.” When I saw the children I started crying and pulling the hair from my head. Woe to the eyes that saw such a sight! The children lay on the floor, for they couldn't stand on their feet. From lying in the mud and mildew, the muscles of their legs had cramped, their legs were crooked, the bones of their bodies were sticking out, and they looked like living skeletons.

The woman said that starvation had wreaked havoc on their bodies. If we could have gotten some food and fed them, they would get back their strength and be able to stand.

In the home of Hane Feldman, may his blood be avenged, there stood a half barrel of beef fat, and I also found some potatoes, millet, and lentils. In my heart, I thought: “If we feed the children 2 or 3 times a day, maybe we can get them back on their feet.”

In the house I found many Primus stoves, fuel, and matches. I peeled some potatoes and grated them into thin pieces. The Primus wouldn't start, and I couldn't find a needle to clean the eye, so I poured fuel onto the top ring of the Primus and in that way I cooked the potatoes. Of course they stayed as hard as they had been, though the fat melted and was soaked up by the potatoes. I put the ‘casserole’ onto a plate and brought it to the woman. After a few minutes she returned and her face was beaming with joy: “My children's souls have revived. They licked the plate clean.”

After four days of healing, I told the woman I wanted to see the children. When I saw

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them – my heart fell. Their condition had worsened. I lifted the boy, and he fell down. Lift, and fall. “Uncle, let us lie down, we haven't the strength to stand on our feet,” the children begged me.

I understood that I must leave the woman with the children – and get away from there. I left the attic, gathered pliers, a hammer, and scissors. I got up at midnight and escaped from the house.

I walked along the river towards the Monopol. It took me over two hours to cut through the wires of the fence, which were so dense that a fly could barely get through. I wanted to get out – but I couldn't, because my clothes got caught in the sharp wires. I was afraid the dawn was coming. Every moment could be fatal. I undressed and left my clothes on the other side of the fence. With no other choice and completely naked, I entered the river. My conscience troubled me for leaving the woman and the children behind, and I hoped I would drown in the river. Although the water was shallow, I heard that under the Monopol there was a deep hole that would, every year, swallow up a couple of human victims. I looked for the hole, but in vain. The dawn broke, and I spent the whole day in the water. At night I heard the droning of the Soviet planes that bombed ‘Vyturio Kovel’.

 

Life in the Dark Pit

For two days I hid in the woods in Dolgonos. I feared that the farmers who came to the woods would find me and turn me over to the killers. I moved from my place and walked in the dark of night until I reached Ruzhin. That night I heard people speaking Yiddish. I followed the voices and found four young men, aged 18 – 19. Two of them were the sons of Moshe Belker, who lived next to Yodil Sofer. The other two were from the Sands, and I do not remember their names.

The youths knew that I had acquaintances among the farmers, and told me: “If we could get hold of half a loaf of bread, we could hang on for a month.” I pitied these young men, whose bellies were swollen from drinking water and their only heart's desire was to eat a slice of bread before they died.

A kilometer and a half away lived an acquaintance of mine named Yaacov, whom I had done many favors. We crawled on our bellies until we reached his house. The youths remained outside, and I went inside alone. I had a bag belted at my waist. When the farmer saw me and recognized me, he began to hit his head and asked after my wife and our four children. I told him it wasn't the right time for such stories. “Bring me a slice of bread and I will leave here.” The farmer told his daughter in law to pack bread, cheese, butter, and clothes into a bundle. Suddenly my friend and redeemer looked out the window and his face

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went pale. He told me: “You'll get no bread from me, for they are watching me. Nazi “law” states that whoever gives a slice of bread to a Jew – he and his whole family will be killed. I am willing to lie in a pit with you, but my daughter in law and her children, what sin have they committed?” He began to weep. I told him: “That's just an excuse. Just say that you refuse to feed me a piece of bread.” The farmer took up a large, sharp knife and said: “Take the knife, cut off my arm, and rub your body with my blood and it will warm you.”

I saw that the situation was very bad and I left the house the way I had come. The youths who had waited outside confirmed the farmer's words, for they had seen the shadow of a man pass by the front of the house.

We lay down to sleep. Since I was naked, I lay between the young men so they would warm me. Then our greatest fear came to be: the commandant of the village, Varmachok, walked 8 kilometers on foot to Koshri, reporting to the Germans that Jews were hiding in the grove. In the morning, the commandant arrived in a wagon accompanied by 10 Germans.

I do not know if it was coincidence or fate – in the morning I parted ways with the youths, and lay down alone under a shrub that was about 15 meters from the shrub under which the youths were hiding. The Germans approached the shrub, found the young men clinging closely to one another. There was one shot; the bullet went through the back of one and into the heart of the second, killing them both. The other two youths began running, and they were shot as well. Since they had been told that three Jews were hiding, and they had found four, they were sure that their “mission” was completed, and did not go on to search the other shrubs.

In the morning, some non–Jewish children from the village came, dug a pit, and threw the murdered youths inside of it.

Once again I was left isolated and alone in the world. I went on my way. I reached Kalbachek and entered the pit under the mosque. I stayed there for 25 days. I returned to the Dolgonos woods, dug a hole with my fingers, covered it with twigs, and made that my home. I lived in that hole for a year and two months, and I subsisted like a beast of the field. Ukrainians wandered around, recounting stories of the killings still going on in the city, and my ears absorbed every word of the horrendous tales.

After a year and two months had gone by, I said in my heart “I must leave this hole, for no matter what – anyway I will not prolong my days here. Once, when I left my hole, from far off I saw one of my Polish acquaintances chopping a tree in the grove. It turned out he was the head of a company of partisans that meted out punishment on the Germans. I joined the partisans – and this was my salvation.

 

Footnote

  1. For many nights I sat with Ben-Zion and wrote down his testimony, and I spent quite some time on the arrangement and wording to give them a proper Hebrew appearance. I put a lot of effort into this work, because I was convinced that this testimony was unique. This is an authentic historic report, written by a man who with his flesh and his own eyes witnessed all of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews of Kovel. With this testimony, the Kovel Yizkor Book exceeds local boundaries and becomes a universal Jewish document, so that even those not of our city will read these shocking words with bated breath. A. Leoni Return

 

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