By Neta Shtern (from Israel)
English translation by Theodore Steinberg
It has already been more than 20 years since I left Kremenets. For those who left Kremenets in the normal times, that is, in the years before the war, it is certain that the memory of their hometown and their relatives whom they left behind in a normal fashion is somewhat forgotten or crushed … such is the way of human psychology: time and years take their toll…. But it is different for those who survived even the beginning of the awful holocaust and then fled as though from a burning ship. Forever, for our whole lives, the beginning of the great cataclysm will live in our memories, along with the cries of those who were left behind, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers.
It was September 12, 1939, 12 days after the beginning of the PolishGerman war. It was a beautiful sunny day. The streets of Kremenets were crowded with tens of thousands of people, most of them refugees from all corners of Poland. After the great onslaught of the German army in the western regions of Poland and the siege of Warsaw, hundreds of thousands of people fled toward the east (among them, of course, many Jews who fled the Germans, even though people did not yet know of the bestial plans of the Germans to murder the Jews). Kremenets, as I said, was flooded with tens of thousands of refugees. The Polish government and the president also found themselves in Kremenets, as was well known to the Germans. The streets were black with people and with cars. Also on the streets were scores of cars belonging to all the accredited ambassadors in Poland. The cars were covered with the governmental insignias of the individual governments so that the German pilots could recognize them and not bomb them. The people in the streets were restless and horrified, though no one expected any particular misfortune … not hundreds of kilometers from the front….
Soon three airplanes appeared over the city. People thought that they were Polish planes, so they paid no attention to them. But soon the planes descended and began to shower the city with bombs and to shoot with machine guns. There was terrible panic…People fell in the streets. Windows broke in almost every house. The streets were covered with bricks and plaster from damaged houses, often stained with human blood. Later on, it looked like Kravetska and Kladboka Streets incurred the most damage.
At that time, I was in the Charity Bureau office, where I worked. The office was in the house of H. Motshan (of the geese), near the Great Synagogue. When I heard the terrible shooting, I went out into the street, I saw an awful picture in front of me. Lying on the ground with a wound in his chest was H. Motshan's soninlaw (whose family name I cannot remember). I, along with several other people, grabbed him and began to carry him to the Jewish Bolnitsa (hospital), which was located not far from the Motshan house. On the way, we encountered many people who were carrying or leading badly or less badly wounded people. I can still see the image of a woman who carried a bloody child in her arms. (That was the convert's wife who lived on Kravietska Street and Pekla, where Yoel Kishke the teacher lived.)
When I arrived home (we lived on Gorna Street), I did not even have time to ask if everyone was all right when someone came running in and begged us to rescue the wife of Gertsfeld the bookkeeper, who lived on Kozeniowski Street across from Papare the shoemaker. It seems that the woman was seriously injured in the ruins of their house. Since we had no tools aside from a couple of shovels, we dug hurriedly with our hands …. After 15 or 20 minutes of hard, intense work, someone noticed a blackened hand (covered with blood) under the ruins…. In a couple of minutes, we had dug the woman out, and to our great joy, she was still alive. (Later on, she recovered fully.) Since our house was near the Russian Bolnitsa, the whole time I was seeing people running back and forth from the hospital with heartrending cries and shrieks that announced the deaths of their relatives, or else their severe wounds.
September 12 was the first mournful date in the developing disastrous history of our city.
|Group of workers and sympathizers from the professional union|
By Duvid Rubin
English translation by Theodore Steinberg
The yizkor [remembrance] prayers that we say on yizkor days [four holidays during the year] can be divided into different categories: The first yizkor is the one that occurs when the prayer leader calls out in a loud voice, Say yizkor! And children and adults whose parents are still living have to leave the sanctuary while everyone else, men and women, recites yizkor in the stillness, with tears, with weeping, with a broken heart. They recall the names of their dearest and most loved, of their relatives and friends who are no longer alive, who died in a variety of circumstances, whether from old age or from illness or from fatal accidents. Everyone who says yizkor sheds tears; women shake and then compose themselves; everyone sighs and then returns to their routine, that is, to their daily business. And everyone must believe that what happens is according to nature. If Moses died, who will not die? And until He swallows up death forever (Isaiah 25:8) becomes a realityI am forgotten as a dead man out of mind (Psalms 35:13) will be the case ….
Far different is the second kind of yizkor with which God has blessed us … during the years of Hitler's rule, may his name be blotted out. This yizkor recalls for us a communal cataclysm, a catastrophe of a people, a huge misfortune, a sorrow that poured out over the heads of all of Israel!
With trembling we recall our grandfathers and grandmothers, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, near and far away; relatives, acquaintances, good friends, tiny children, who were, in the most shameful way, through a variety of methods, so atrociously destroyed by the Nazi beasts and the Ukrainian murderers, may their names be blotted out and their memory obliterated.
The second yizkor reminds us of the dejection, the helplessness of the greatest part of our six million victims who, without a bit of resistance, allowed themselves to be led to the killing fields, like sheep to the slaughter, because they were morally and physically overcome and worn out.
A shudder runs through our limbs, as we know and feel the sorrows, the suffering, the terrible tortures that our martyrs suffered in their bodies, alas, until their souls departed as one. The fiery flames of the crematoria consumed their bones, burned and roasted their bodies, choked and poisoned in the gas chambers.
Could anyone present a greater misfortune, a tragedy, than when the destroyer, the criminal, before the eyes of a mother, grabs her only child and swings its little body and head with force against a pole or smashes it against a rock, until its skull is crushed like straw and its childish brain has sloshed and spattered on the surrounding slaughter. Horrible! Horrible! Horrible!
Those whom I bore and reared my enemy has consumed (Lamentations 2:22).
And how great is our pain, when we know that a large number of our martyrs, under the blows of the criminals' rifle butts, had to dig graves for each other and then lie in them and be shot, and the cries from behind the shot ones went to the heart of heaven! But he stops his ears from listening (Isaiah 33:15) …. It is my decree. It is God's word! …
His master destroyed in great wrath.
Yes! The second yizkor is more than shuddering!
The people who escaped from the sword (Jeremiah 31:1) stand with bowed heads and hear the ordinary God, Full of Mercy, which the prayer leader intones with suppressed sobs …
The orphaned people hear the humble plea, Therefore, Master of compassion, shelter them in the shadow of Your wings forever and bind their souls in the bond of everlasting life ….
In the air are waves of lamentations, cries of woe, groans, wails, shrieks, death rattles, screams, resigned Shema Yisraels with all of their nuances ….
And never until the end of all generations will there be an end to the lamentations of pain, woe, and resentment that swirl in the airsilent and battered ….
Six million souls float in the hollow of the world!!!
The Master of mercy will compensate them, will satisfy them for the injustices that beset them. He, God, has accepted the plea from the earthly body of beseechers and he will take them under his wing and bind them in the bond of life …. But they thank him and reject him….
Already it is 21 years that the six million souls float under God's heaven; they will not enter in a short time or a long time, they desire no rest; not the Garden of Eden and not the wings of the Shechinah are for them a consolation …. It is for them a compensation…. Too much suffering, so much pain! They resent so deeply he gives death and who gives life! Their bitterness cannot be sweetened with oldfashioned world to come confections, with heavenly Shechinah fortunes.
Their question: Why and what for? For what transgression? And this can only be answered with He will avenge the spilled blood of His servants (Psalm 79:10). This is their demand! They know that when Nebuzaradan [in 2 Chronicles] wanted to quiet the blood of the murdered prophets that bubbled from the earthhe ordered the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of lives on the blooduntil the blood was stilled… So how many drops of the murderers' blood must be spilled to still the innocent blood of the six million martyrs?
The principle is determined by the specific….
Also our town of Kremenets with its 14,000 Jewish citizens, with its sophisticated cultural and educational institutions, with its fine intellectuals, with its simple population of excellent merchants and storekeepers. Kremenets! With our everyday Jewish working class, like carpenters, locksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, coppersmiths, tinsmiths, and others. Kremenets! Which produced a great sage in Israel like R' Y. Ber Levinson (the warrior against the blood libel). Kremenets! With its studious youth and its athletes. Kremenetsthe district that represented 11 towns, large and small; Kremenetsthe center of ideal education, which influenced the culture of all the surrounding towns; How did she fall so appallingly?
A calamity befell the town. The foe has laid hands on everything dear to her (Lamentations 1:10).
Fourteen thousand souls destroyed in pain and agony.
I will go to my ancestral burial place, to my father, to my mother, to my brothers and sisters, to my relatives and friends, to converse, to weep, to speak from my heart…. I will join them … I will mourn with them…. But alas for me! I do not know where their bones are laid without pity (Lamentations 2:2).
Kremenets with its 14,000 souls is wiped out, obliterated, without a town! Without a shul! Without a cultural center. Without our beloved 14,000 Jewish folk. The devils, the troublemakers, the thievesthe Germans, the Ukrainians, may their names be wiped out, have destroyed and stolen everything. All that remains for us is to weep and lament, grind our teeth, and with our fists held high to cry out, The Glory of Israel does not deceive (1 Samuel 15:29). Israel lives yet!
And we, gathered together for yizkor, unite with the rebellious, unquieted holy souls and protest against the socalled civilized regimes, who saw and waited and knew how the Jewish people of Israel went forth in blood, and thought it unnecessary to raise a cryStop! Also, from our great excitement we must turn against Heaven and boldly (arrogance toward Heaven is effective) announce: The God of Vengeance is not in order for us, or for himself, because Let not the nations of the world say, 'Where is their God?' (Psalm 79:10) is now, as it were, not so impressive…. And we beg and we demand that you Avenge the spilled blood of your servants (Psalm 79:10).
And if Israel is too weak to take vengeancethe Guardian of Israel should confuse the thoughts of the murderers, of all those who took part in the slaughter of a third of our people so that they should be wiped out, one devour the other.
And we, the remnant, miraculously rescued, gathered togethersend a curse, a curse on the heads of our enemies, to whom nothing has been done. Their blood should be splattered, because they wanted to annihilate, to destroy the whole Jewish people; they should not be allowed to live!
We say yet another yizkor on yizkor days, which cannot be compared to the other yizkors. The third yizkor symbolizes the fortitude, the heroism, the sacrifice of a people that calls itself the smallest of the nations.
The third yizkor, so meaningful to us, so moving to us that we shed tears when the chazan recites God, Full of Compassion and intones, For the souls of the heroes of the nation who fell in the war for the sake of their battalion and for the honor of their people and their land. Then the yizkor, the recitation, is far different from the abovementioned yizkors, because the great loss of our best sons and brothers is compensated for with a gift for their sake, that is, that our martyrs, our heroes who fought with their lives to win the Land of Israel, that their sacrifice should not be in vain! …The Land of Israel is a strong fortress for the people of Israel, who have been persecuted and harassed in the lands of exile!
They, the killed and injured, look on with great satisfaction as hundreds of thousands of goodlooking children develop physically and morally in a free atmosphere, without fear, without terror, without discrimination, without constantly hearing, Mangy Jew ….
Yes! The spirit of our heroes and martyrs, who were truly sanctified, is alive. It stands sidebyside with the Israeli sabras, with the soldiers, men and women, with our border guards, with our watchmen!
Together with the livingthe spirit of the fighters fallen at the front, on the borders and watchtowers, as our children, our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, and all of our worn out, weary immigrantsthey should no longer sorrow, should no longer be persecuted by those who hate Jews, should no longer suffer evils.
The spirit of our fallen heroesis in the Israeli army and will always go from soldier to soldier! From success to success! And our enemies will always see the victory remain on the side of our famous army, which will always be praiseworthy!
The righteous in their deaths proclaim life! Every military man who has given his life for freedom and for the honor of his people Israelis a righteous person, and never, through all generations, will he be forgotten and not counted among there dead, among the fallen, because his spirit will live!
Therefore, this yizkor, which we say for the heroes of our nation, however much it may be tragic, however much it may bring us sadness, from deep in our heartsso much and more it brings us contentment, pride, and faith.
The soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life.
Three yizkors, three God, Full of Mercy styles, all identical, but they differ in object and meaning ….
Because Man Is a Tree of the Field
Almost all of us have observed how a large stretch of woods, with its huge, high, thick trees, has appeared at the time of blooming to be fully mature; when the green of its leaves, the growth of its thick branches has reached its highest point of development when their perfumelike scent, their aroma, has taken away our breath.
When the forest as a whole looks like a thick, steadfast mass, so that under the branches are reflected the most beautiful idylls of people, birds, and animals … when we have also used many superb mushrooms, fruits of all kinds; when we used to sit in its shadows to cool off in the summer and to shelter from storms and rain in the winter.
Yes! So the woods appeared, until the destroyers came with axes, saws, hammers, blades … until the thick stretch of forest stoodjust a stretch, without trees, without birds, without animals, without anything! Only stumps remain, scattered around the woodlot, and like gravestones they stand, engraved with tears of resin, prompting feelings of nostalgia …. And on a solitary, small birch tree, a crow swings with a heartrending Caw! Caw! Caw! and go figure out what the crow means. Or what the Caw signifies.
Yes, dear brothers! We lost a town like that forest; we lost a population of 14,000: wellestablished homeowners, young people about whom one could boast, an awareness of all fields of study, and stages for growth.
We lost a town with fine houses, a fine synagogue, with beautiful, orderly institutions, such as a hospital, a community chest, and various other charitable associations, such as a Talmud Torah, a library, and others. But what have I encountered there? Dark and empty is our life. No streets remain, no more houses, gone is the Jewish populace. Of the 14,000 lives, only a few remain there…. Only a blank, empty tract remains! There are no mourners. I see where lots of people caw lamentations over the wilderness of the former Kremenets, and with spontaneous crow mourning they call attention…. Who knows what they are thinking with their crowing? … Perhaps they are the mourners? Perhaps they feel even more the great misfortune that befell us…. Perhaps? …
Israel, Kfar Chasidim
|A Group of Kremenets Young People from Hashomer Trumpeldor|
By Chayke Kiperman
English translation by Theodore Steinberg
Sometimes the question arises for us of how we survived and experienced everything, and there are moments when it seems hard to believe that everything we experienced actually happened; on the one hand, one cannot believe that people (even Germans) can be so barbaric toward other people, and on the other hand it is hard to believe that we could experience such hard times and still remain alive and able to tell our story to others.
And if we ourselves, who went through this hellish fire and miraculously escaped, can hardly believe it, how can others, who did not experience this horrible fire, believe it? And how can our children believe such things, children who were born hereborn in a free, democratic country, where the whole environment is completely different from that in which we lived; how can our children believe that such things could happen?
Because of all this, I have found it necessary to write down only a small part of what I went through during the war years, and thereby to convey that I am among the few fortunate ones who succeeded in saving herself and remaining alive, who could tell with pride and with joy that which we experienced in those terrible times, and that there wereand regrettably are no longermillions who suffered before us and who have disappeared and been silenced forever. If the millions of murdered could relate only a part of their awful experiences, there would arise a cry of lamentations such as the world has never yet heard.
I will try to write down just the small part of my experience that is forever engraved in my memory and that I will remember until the end of my life.
I will begin with the awful date when the Germans entered our beloved and no longer existing hometown, Kremenets. For eight days the Germans fought with the Russians around Kremenets, in the surrounding area of Krolewski. Before the Germans arrived, the Ukrainians were the police and the bosses of the city and attacked the retreating Russians from behind. In those days people spoke about the 36 murdered Ukrainians. Also when the first German scouts (razvedchiki) arrived, they were shot by the hiding Russians, and they felt that they would have to repay the Jews for such things … even though they did not know that the Jews were guilty of either action. On the second day after the Germans' arrival, the Ukrainians flew into a rage and began to seize Jews for labor. At the same time, they beat up and murdered many Jews. Already on the second day, people spoke about 300 murdered Jews in the Dubno suburb and also in other places.
Then it grew silent. But it was the silence before a storm, and in that silence the Ukrainians set up red pennants in the places where dangerous Jews lived, on whom they decided to take vengeance.
For several days I lived in a place outside the city, together with my little brother, Ruven Shames, who was 12. We lived with a good gentile, who hid us. Then the boy went to the city, and we did not know where he was. After a couple of days, he returned, bringing greetings from our family and terrible greetings from the town.
After that, I fled with my brother to the village of Kozin, which was about 30 kilometers from Kremenets, and I remained there for a long time. When I had a chance, I visited Kremenets.
After about a week, when the Germans were in Kremenets, on a Friday night they burned the synagogue, but not only the synagogue but also the people who were inside. They had set up guards so that no one could escape or hide. Also, the firemen who had been called did not dare to put out the fire but only made sure that the fire did not spread to other nonJewish structures. No one knows how many Jews were killed in this holy fire, and no one will ever know.
In the village of Kozin, where about a thousand Jewish families lived, the Germans at first did not bother the Jews, but turned that job over to the Ukrainians, who were no worse at it than the Germans. Almost a year after the Germans arrived, they created a ghetto in Kozin, where the Jews were locked in and imprisoned and later murdered, though at first no one could imagine how people could carry out a slaughter of living human beings. At that time, I was away in Kremenets.
Also in Kremenets, on the Sabbath after Shavuot, they created a ghetto for the local Jews, and then when the Jews were confined in the ghetto, one day the Germans and Ukrainians surrounded the ghetto, went into the houses, dragged out the Jews, and led them to specified graves and killed most of them or buried them alive. They singled out those capable of hard labor and did not kill them. Later the Germans, and even more so the Ukrainians, conducted searches in the houses and took everything of value.
From the Shabbos after Shavuot until Hoshana Rabba, there was quiet in Kremenets. But those who worked on the roads told us that a new slaughter was in preparation, so I, along with a hundred others, fled through the wire enclosures. At first, I fled with an eightmonthold child and later with an older child of two and a half. The first child lived only a couple of days, and the police took it; and with the older child, together with another woman, my cousin, and a child, we lived in a mine, and Christians brought us food to eat.
While we were sitting in the mine, a Christian came and said that he wanted money to help us escape. He demanded a large sum, which we did not have, so he took a portion of the things that we owned. That same night my cousin went to a nonJewish acquaintance, and I was left alone in the field with the child. As I was lying alone in the dark, a strange man arrived, told me to stand up, took the child by the hand, and sought possessions, which he understandably could not find.
Early in the morning, I was off with the child to a peasant in a small town and I promised him valuable things. The peasant agreed to keep me only that night, but in the daytime, I had to go to the fields. His wife took the child from me and took it to the police.… What I felt then is difficult to convey. Perhaps I felt nothing at all. But when others who belonged there came to the fields, the small children yelled after me, Jew, and the fields were inhospitable. Luckily at that time I succeeded in hiding, disguised as a Ukrainian, with a German evangelist, where I worked, and this is how I survived that time.
But later on came the Bandera Gang [an ultranationalistic Ukrainian organization], which was worse than the Germans. They put a rope around the evangelist's neck because they argued that it was a shame to waste a bullet on him. Incidentally, such things happened often with the Bandera Gang. In another place they killed a priest who had hidden a Jew.
I saved myself another time by a miracle, one of many miracles that happened to me during the 22 months that the war lasted. I learned that not too far away was a Czech colony that helped Jews to escape, so I went there.
Although the Czech colonists showed such goodwill toward Jews, it was hard for us to live in their hard conditions. This was because the Czechs were poor and could not provide us with food, and we had to hide in mines. Some of the Jews died there, and only a small number managed to escape and can be found today in Israel. There, too, we were often visited by the Bandera Gang, who killed Jews and those who protected them.
During one such ambush, I fell into the wolf's mouthto the Bandera Gang, which recognized that I was a Jew, even though I was dressed like a Ukrainian. They took me into a room, and I saw certain death before me. I was overcome by the feeling that before I died, I should eat a full meal … and the Banderas agreed. I seized a moment when the one who was guarding me went off with a woman, and I began to run away. I would be killed in any caseso I thoughtso I began to run across the cornfields and thus escaped.
In the course of time I have hidden in closets, behind stoves, and once even in the house of a Bandera Gang bandit who knew my husband. For a short time one winter, I was with a Christian who made brandy. An acquaintance of mine showed up there and did not recognize me.
When the Germans were gone, I was with Germans who did not know that I was a Jew. The Red Army came and exchanged fire with the Germans, and the Germans were taken captive.
I was also captured, but this captivity was actually liberation for me, and it was the first time that the Germans realized that I was a Jew.
By Neta Kiperman
English translation by Theodore Steinberg
Memories of our vanished, murdered city float up, various times and various moments, and it is difficult to decide which should come first.
I will begin with the end, with that day that was historic not only for our city of Kremenets but was tragically historic for the whole world, and especially tragic for our people, who, since that day, began to pay a terrible, bloody penalty for uncommitted sins, or perhaps for the possible sin of belonging to our eternal Jewish people.
I will begin with the tragically awful day of June 22, 1941, when the Nazi battalions began their barbaric march against Russia and flooded their path with Jewish blood and tears. That was also the day when I left our deeply loved birthplace Kremenets, which I later left forever.
The German ambush was unexpected and unforeseen. The Red Army tried to resist. But try to resist firespraying lava or a fierce windstorm. The Red Army's strategy was limited to not being surrounded by the German battalions or encircled by their armored tanks, which, cut like fiery whips through the interior of the country, capturing one city after another, often without or with only symbolic resistance.
The city was mobilized. All the men capable of work or fighting were mobilized. I was also among those mobilized. I had to travel to Lemberg [also known as Lvov] to be taken into the army,
But getting to Lemberg by the normal road was, in those first days, impossible because of the terrible German bombardment that destroyed the train lines and bridges that led from our city to Lemberg.
Three times I and my companions tried to go from our city to Lemberg, and all three times we had to abandon the journey. Finally, we decided to go to Dubno and wait there for the train that went from Kiev to Lemberg. But in Dubno, too, we encountered the same picture, though before we got there the German artillery had already fired on Dubno. The Ukrainian fascists led the Germans through back roads and trails that appeared on no maps, and the Germans often overran the retreating Red Army.
But near Dubno there was a bitter battle. The Russians put up a desperate resistance against a far larger and stronger army. The main thing was that the Germans had air superiority, and their aerial bombardments were terrifying.
The German air force, like their army, showed its viciousness, for which it later became so tragically famous. Their bombardments had to military purpose.
Their only purpose was to sow terror and panic among the civilian population; they bombed no barracks or bridges but only places where there were unprotected civilians. From our group of Kremenetsers, a number fell as sacrifices. I remember how someone we all knew, Boni Baytsh, who was famous as the comedian from our workers' club, was torn apart by the fragments of a German bomb. The picture of his body parts flying in all directions comes now before my eyes and will remain engraved in my memory for as long as I live.
But he was not our only sacrifice who fell there. There were many, the first but not, unfortunately, the last sacrifices of our city who were to fall in foreign, unknown, and faraway places; fallen so that we do not know even where their graves may be. It is a fact that from a group of 1,000 men who left Kremenets in those days, barely 20 can be found.
Not all were killed there. Many of them were scattered in different directions, and an even larger number returned to Kremenets. If they were going to die, at least they would die among their own people.
I also turn back to our beloved, wholesome, and no longer existing city of Kremenets; I turn back in my thoughts and bring up many memories of things that happened in the past in our birthplace, our hometown.
At the time of the beginning of the GermanPolish war, I was in the village of Kozin, where I received a summons to the Polish army, but I really did not want to serve in the Polish army, which was suffused with antiSemitism. But the GermanPolish war did not last long, especially in the socalled Ukrainian section, where, within two weeks after the war, the Russians entered, and for them the war was over. After the call, I came to Kremenets.
Before the Russians arrived, they had created a militiamostly made up of Jewish workers. This militia arrested the Polish mayor and the Polish chief of police, who were greatly hated by the populace, particularly the Jewish populace. When the Russian army arrived, the Jewish militia still had the power in their hands for the next couple of weeks.
Refugees from all parts of Poland arrived in the city, especially from the larger Polish cities, Warsaw and Lodz. The provisional civilian government made dwelling places in the stores. Mishke Rabinovitsh was the mayor of the city, Abrasha Rayz was the labor commissioner, and Niunye Bernshteynpolitical commissioner. Mishke Rabinovitsh lent me a place to live.
I remember that when the Russians arrived, it was the day before Rosh Hashanah, and everyone in the city was at the market. On the Bona was someone who was supposed to be a watchman for airplanes. This observer was a German who gave a false indication that the Polish leadership was in the Bona Hotel, so they bombed it and destroyed Moshe Pomp's dwelling. In the dwelling were Moshe Pomp's children Yoshe and Leyzer, who fortunately escaped and today live in Russia.
While the Russians were in Kremenets, I was occupied with Physical Culture, because I had previously been a soccer player. I had the opportunity to work with Elik Fridman, who was a wealthy fellow and now a leader of the city. Together we decided to improve life for Jewish young people. The Jewish population as a whole did not live badly. They worked in the nearby mines, on the trains, in construction, and so on. The situation had hardly changed from when their predecessors had been workers.
The trades had organized themselves into cooperatives, or artel. The Poles, who before the war had been strongly antiSemitic and who had written against the Jews and even beaten them, an affection for the Jews during Russian domination developed. Also, the Ukrainians, who had hardly been the Jews' friends, tried to hide that fact, and the Jewish populace, which had become impoverished, tried to be happy according to Sholem Aleichem's motto Poor but happy.
But this situation lasted only a short while. The tragic day of June 22, 1941, arrived, which was tragic for the whole world and the beginning of the end of the vibrant Jewish community in Kremenets.
I remember still how the streets and market in Kremenets became dark from the German bombardment, and this darkening will be before my eyes for the rest of my life.
As I have already said, I, like many of the Jews from Kremenets, tried in those tragic days to get away, first to Lemberg, which was not possible, so later we went to Dubno. But everywhere the German destroyers blocked our way. Of the thousand men who left Kremenets with me, barely 20 remained. It was the Ukrainians who first went over to the Germans, and others simply did not have the strength to go. It was not so much the long and difficult road that tired them out as the living conditions that arose, not to go or to run away.
I, with my small group, located ourselves in a shtetl on the way to Shumsk to rest up and spend the night. But then a Komsomol came to me, a Ukrainian who was the manager of the Kremenets mill, and he told me that the Germans were only 15 kilometers away and that the Ukrainians would massacre any Jews who stayed there. I conferred with Tovye Gluzman, Velvel Oks, and Fishke Fishman about what we should do. We also consulted with the Russian leader, who advised us that we should lie down, pretend to sleep, and when everyone else was asleep and thought we were as well, we should run away.
So we did, and we managed to escape. We stumbled around for the whole night and the next day. The Ukrainian had given us bad directions. He had done the same to the Russian troops, who followed his instructions and came to, or fell into the hands of, the Germans, who had stationed themselves there.
Before we got to Shumsk, we were terribly tired and tried to refresh ourselves by bathing in a small stream. Meanwhile, we heard calls from people we knew, who had just escaped from Kremenets. Among them, several had their own horses. We considered the situation together and decided to head back toward Kremenets.
Near the city were many Russian soldiers who came from Yampol. They lay on the ground and awaited the enemy so they could make a symbolic resistance. The Russian soldiers allowed us to pass, and when we arrived in Kremenets, it was dark and cheerless. Fear fell upon us. Even a dog would have been afraid to go on the street.
Later we encountered a couple of acquaintances and also Mishke Rabinovitsh, who until the last moment had not left his office. He warned us to go through Katerburg to Lanovtsy. From Lanovtsy we took the train to Tarnopol to get to our assigned regiment or get through to Lemberg. When we arrived at Tarnopol, the Germans had barbarously bombed the city, and the Ukrainians took up positions in the basements and from there shot at the Russian soldiers.
We stayed in this Gehenna for a day and encountered our fellow townsman Berl Kremen (the hairdresser's son), who greeted us with tears and joy. He showed us a shotup German aviator with four burnedup Germans. Because of the fusillade from the Ukrainians, we could not take the usual road to Lemberg and had to go through Podwołoczyska, Volochisk, and Proskurov, although on this secure road lay dead Jews and, hardly the same, dead horses, all shot by the German military. We also came across a completely destroyed airport.
Arriving in Proskurov, we were hungry for three days until a Jewish baker from the governmentrun bakery took pity on us and gave us bread and later on also bits of herring. In Proskurov we were assigned to our correct battalions, some in the infantry and some in the artillery, and we were sent to Vinnitsa. In Proskurov, our townsmen Yisrael Popalik, Shpigele, and others disappeared. We never heard from them again.
The road to Vinnitsa was worse and bloodier. Also, it rained, with thunder and lightning. Consequently, we were in a tent that protected us from the German planes. In Vinnitsa, we received uniforms, were assigned to a regiment, and sent onward to the Dnieper. Near the Dnieper there were many Russian troops who crossed the river on improvised ferries made out of sticks and trees. The Germans knew about this and bombed them, and many Russian soldiers were killed on the stormy waves of the Dnieper.
In anticipation that the Germans would enter Vinnitsa and because the roads were bad, the NKVD (the Russian political police) gave us civilian clothes and sent us in the direction of Kursk. There we were with 900 Jews from Lemberg and 100 Jews from Kremenets. The Ukrainians had fled, and soon we heard from a second battalion a joyous outcry: Kremenetsersthis was the cry of Niunye Bernshteyn, who had become a political instructor in the army.
Later I spent a couple of years working and wandering through the hinterland near Sverdlovsk, in a place called Sukhoy Log, in a sawmill. While crossing a river, I caught a terrible cold and became a secondclass invalid; and in 1944, when the war turned against the Germans, I was lying in a hospital, where I received a letter from distant Kremenets. The letter said that my wife was still alive. The letter was given to me by the Jewish doctor Shmukler from Rovno, and I began to make plans to go home.
I received documents and permission to travel to Kozin. The trip lasted more than two weeks. There were no passenger trains at that time. Furthermore, along the roads were bands of Banderas (Ukrainian fascists) who killed Russians and, above all, Jews.
In the fall of 1944, after much wandering around, I arrived in Kozin and met up only with my wife. Both of our children were dead. I was in Kozin for only a couple of days, and I was drawn to Kremenets. I wanted to see if I would see anyone I knew.
But I encountered only ruins. Of all that had previously existed in Kremenets, only stones remained. In the center of town, only Bentsion Gorenshteyn's house remained whole, and I encountered only three homeless Jews, like myself: the watchmaker Shatskes (who now lives in North America). I also met Margolis, who had grown a beard and sought a certificate that he was a rabbi so that he would not have to enter the army. The third was a Jewish young woman, Moshe Treger or Moshe Dan's daughter.
During the hard days, she had been hidden by Antonia the cobbler, who lived near Spodik and spoke good Yiddish. I also ran into Vitel's daughter, whom Bekovski had hidden and later married. When I had been in Kremenets for several days, Yudel the watercarrier's daughter) arrived from Russia with her child. There were no other Jews in Kremenets.
From the stock exchange on up, everything was in ruins. Only Melamed's hotel, Trakhtenberg's house, the courthouse, Pak's house, Shteynvartsel's house, and all the nonJewish buildings remained whole.
I could not stay long in Kremenets. I went back to Kozin and enlisted in the special battalion to root out the Bandera Gangs and other bandits (though my wife did not leave me). For a year and a half I was in that battalion, and the battle was difficult, because the Banderas were devious and the Ukrainians did not know on whose side to fight.
From the battle with the Banderas, I remember several of their crimes. One day the Banderas kidnapped 36 Ukrainian girls, tied them up around their necks, and threw them into a well. On another day someone with many awards came from Russia and the Banderas burned the house where he was hiding and the only thing of his that was found was a pocket knife….
One day I received an order to go to a certain place where all the big shots of the Banderas would be. We were taken care of by a 12yearold boy, who told us that he was Jewish, and he showed us where the Banderas' headquarters were. We began to fight the bandits and killed all of them. Only one survived to escape.
We took care of the boy, who went around in halftorn clothing, giving him an award and sending him to Lemberg. But in Lemberg he bought a bicycle and returned to us. Now he lives in Israel.
With these notes I have conveyed only a small part of my experiences and the pain of those terrible times.
By Volf Oks (Buenos Aires)
English translation by Susan Sobel
You can't remember everything terrible that happens to you during terrible times. At a terrible time, the time when the Germans were here was even more terrible than usual they were actually horrible times. At such times, you spend most of the time thinking about how to survive or save your nearest and dearest. And at such times, you can't always remember extraneous facts about those times or the possibility of saving yourself.
Some things, however, are etched in your memory so deeply that you can't ever forget them, even if you want to. You have to recollect and record some of them so you remember and so people who weren't there and can't imagine such horrible things will know about them and remember.
I'll describe them as well as I can, because you have to be a master and great painter to recount everything that happened to the Jews and, in particular, to the few who managed to survive. I'll try to describe some of the horrible things I saw and lived through, as much as my poor memory lets me.
May these recollections serve to memorialize the thousands and millions of fallen martyrs and serve as information for our children, so that, God forbid, neither they nor anyone else will ever have to live through the difficult and horrible things that we did.
As the Germans were overrunning most of Eastern Europe and soaking it in Jewish blood, I found myself in the village of Mizoch, 30 kilometers from Kremenets in the direction of Zolbenov. When the Germans entered our village, all the Jews were united and strongly believed that it would be spared from destruction. But we didn't rely solely on miracles, and we made the mighty Germans pay a high price.
When the Russians occupied Mizoch, they set up a place for all the barbers, and I ran it. When the war began, they mobilized me and sent me to Dubno. However, when the Germans invaded, they captured a big bunch of recently uniformed soldiers, took them to the non-Jewish cemetery, and shot them all. Another soldier who was already a veteran of the war and I were the only ones who managed to survive and return to Mizoch.
As soon as the Germans arrived, they organized a Ukrainian police force, which did horrible deeds deeds much worse than the Germans'. They searched for and looted Jewish businesses during the day and even more so at night. There was a Jewish mayor in town, Aba Shtibl, who didn't know any German, but the Germans linked him up with several homeless people who knew German.
They formed a Judenrat and, later, a Jewish police force, whose task was to consent to and carry out German orders, which meant taking gold, money, fur coats, and other contributions from Jews.
After about two or three weeks, the barber's guild was reorganized, but this time under German auspices. The German police chief ordered that all equipment appear in half an hour and it took no more than 15 minutes for everything to be in place. One of my hair clippers was missing a spring, and they beat me so hard that I was sick for a full two months.
Later, the Germans organized a work market, where you had to come every day and ask what work was needed, which was a way of identifying those considered weak and sending them to do the worst, most humiliating work. Bunyes, a rich Jew, who was known for his nervousness, was sent to nurse a baby . We lived, you understand, by selling goods, the things we had earned.
Immediately, there was an edict that every Jew must wear a patch with a Star of David on it. Later, a new edict proclaimed that you must wear two yellow Star of David patches when you went to the market. Jews, however, were permitted to come to the market only after two in the afternoon and were forbidden to sell products such as milk, eggs, and meat. In addition, Jews could only be employees and were forbidden to be in business for themselves.
Jews secretly looked for a cow or calf to slaughter for a piece of meat. This is how Gelman the slaughterer remained occupied. But the Ukrainians informed on him, and when the Germans came in and saw the meat, they removed Gelman, and two days later built a gallows in the middle of the street and hanged him. He hung for a day, and then the gallows with the murdered Jew was taken to the neighboring villages. They also looked for the Christian who sold the cow, but no one revealed his identity, and they didn't find him.
After that, they created a ghetto in the village. There were no longer any Jews in the surrounding area, and we wanted to be with our own people and know what was happening in other villages, mainly in Kremenets. We sent a Christian there, who brought back very sad news. He told us that Jews were still alive but that the number was diminishing and that a large number of Kremenets Jews had been liquidated near the brickyard.
Meanwhile, life continued as usual in Mizoch. Other than in the case of Gelman, no one was harmed until 1942. There was Rabbi Getsel, a tall man with a stately appearance and a snow-white beard, who commanded respect even among non-Jews. The rabbi received permission from the Germans for us to gather in the synagogue on the Days of Awe and other holidays, and when the permission was given, he interpreted it positively, because if they let us congregate, the rabbi pointed out, it was evidence that we would live through the hard times.
All the Jews, even the freethinkers, came to the religious services, and not just on the Days of Awe but on all holidays until the last day of Simchas Torah, when we heard sporadic shooting. It became louder and more frequent, and we saw that the synagogue was surrounded by soldiers and firefighters. Many who tried to run away were shot.
I hid in the prepared hideout, but my mother-in-law said she would stay in the courtyard. When a German arrived, she saved herself by giving him a ring. Meanwhile, the synagogue was set ablaze, and those who tried to jump out were shot. I myself saw them shoot Katshke, an old man of 90. I saw my neighbor Azriel's daughter, who was insane, run into the fire.
And that terrible night, the Jewish village of Mizoch was burned down and wiped out.
I ran away and went to a poor Pole, a broom maker who was known as a good person, and asked him if he could save me. He answered that he could hide me at his place, and in return I gave him my clothing. However, to my misfortune, a Ukrainian policeman, a known scoundrel, found me and demanded money. Because I had no money, he took me to the Mizoch commissariat, where I ran into my acquaintance Volodka, who wanted to rescue me but was afraid of Nikepor. At the commissariat, I saw my wife and my children a boy and a girl. They threw us all into the cellar, where we had to wait for more people and a semi-crazy person who made prophesies. He foresaw that I would be saved.
With our bare hands and our nails, we ripped out pieces of stone in the shape of an eight. We made a hole and tried to leave. My child started crying, and the Germans starting shooting. However, the escape, including mine, turned out well.
I returned to the Pole again, who again agreed to rescue me and hide me in the loft. However, I heard the husband and wife arguing, with the wife saying she'd inform on him. In the meantime, the infamous Nikepor also came, took my belongings, and let me go.
I aged over the course of the next few days. My beard grew, and when I ran into a policeman, who barely recognized me, I begged him to kill me. The policeman gave me a piece of bread and told me to go to his village, where Jews were hiding in haystacks. When I got there, I saw dozens of haystacks. I asked a non-Jewish boy where the Jews were, and I broke into tears.
At night, the boy took me to Semyon, his father, who was the leader of the Bandera Gangs. However, the Bandera Gangs were then fighting only for an independent Ukraine, not against the Jews, and he led me and a group of Jews to a camp, a pit on an island.
There in the pit, Barukh, a boy, developed typhoid fever. The only medicine we had for him was a bit of snow, and not surprisingly, he quickly died from such a remedy. Where do you put him? We left him in the pit, put up a marker, and set aside a second pit to dig. We stayed there for eight days, and the second boy, Yisrolik, got sick, became delirious with fever, and died there, too.
At night, I ran away from that cursed place and went back to Semyon's. He asked me how I had gotten so swollen. His wife gave me a piece of bread, which I hadn't had in a long time. Later, I came to a lone peasant's, who usually ate alone. At night, I took his horses to pasture, and the peasant treated me with respect. In the village, a rumor spread that I was a saint or an angel and that nothing could kill me . Once, a peasant begged me to spend at least one night with him, and I stayed for three days.
At that time, I met my current wife, whose hair had turned gray from distress. I cut her hair, and a peasant made us a special hiding place in the woods and brought us food daily.
One day, Alenkovsky, a peasant with a moustache, came and told me that there were 20 Jews in the woods. I went with him and saw 20 Mizoch Jews who had survived, all fearful and unkempt and, as you say, with one foot in the grave.
The first thing I did was shave them with a sharp knife and give them a bit of courage.
Right at that moment, a band of 60 Ukrainians began shooting at the Jews. They shot through my shirt and hat. The peasants heard that the tshloviek (the mentsh, as they called me) had been killed, and when they saw that I was alive, they crossed themselves, and one peasant took me into his bed as a cure
Later, we set ourselves up in the woods, where we lived like wild men. We hid from the Germans and the police many times. One day, we learned that there were a number of Jews in the village of Tshekhen, and we went there and found some people we knew and some we didn't. I met a Jew named Nachum Kopet (who now lives in Israel) and found my current wife, Bronye, whom I had already lost track of; Hershke and Mekhel, two boys I knew from Mizoch; the Fliteres brothers; Hershke and Meir Rozenblat; Max Kotovits; and many others. There were also Czech partisans, who were friendly to the Jews.
I wanted to stay there. I even tried to give them some money two fivers but it was impossible for me to stay there, and they told me to go with God and my money.
I wandered far and for a long time. On the way, between some nice houses, I found a broken-down barn and stayed there. A few days later, I heard gunfire, and they told me that the Russians had arrived.
The Russian intelligence arrived, and one of them was the former Dubno procurer, who treated me and the other Jews very well, even though we also found an anti-Semite among the Red Army men. From that moment, we were free men, and our constant running from death came to an end.
|Group of Kremenets Survivors at a Memorial Service in Germany for the 14,000 Martyrs|
|Jewish Primary School in Kremenets|
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