by Yisroel Hittelman
(Givatayim the son of Berel and Khaya Esther Hittelman)
Translated by Pamela Russ
(top of page 271 is in Hebrew, Yiddish begins mid to bottom of page 271)
Hitler Is Already Catching You
Large whitered posters with the Polish eagle announced to the people of Kurow the outbreak of World War Two, on September 1, 1939. At that time, I was alone at home, and hearing a tumult, I went outside. Tens of people had gathered at the poster and were reading the mobilization orders with trepidation. Soon a discussion between two readers came about. Some asserted that the Polish army would defeat the Germans, others the opposite. That is how they were discussing and altercating, until
Zhabe's son took the helm, he was one of the Jews' enemies in town, and looking at the announcement, he proclaimed:
Nu Jew, Hitler is already catching you!
Hitler is already on top of you, the good times are over, we will slaughter you like dogs, let them just get here.
Slowly, one by one, everybody disbanded. The discussions ended. From the rascal's words, the intention of the war became clear to everyone. It became clear that the Polish piggish soul was already longing for
the Jewish belongings. For us, the war was a double tragedy. The swastika fought us hand in hand along with the Polish eagle.
That same evening, the following orders came: Blacken the windows without exception. The tension grew. Airplanes began to hum. We, the children, were curious but also terrified of every unusual news item, of each rumor. Our mother, that same night, told us all kinds of stories of the other war. She told us repeatedly the old story of how our grandmother was cooking rice during that war and the bullets flew directly into the pot through the chimney, and a few other such stories.
The following morning fresh news:
The Germans crossed the Polish border and were continuing forwards. The German airplanes were bombing without stop. Panic grew. We began to pack bundles and to hide them in the cellars, buy up food, and stick down the windows so they should not break in case of being bombed.
Actual Beautiful, Sunny Days…
That is how eight days of increasing fear passed. September 8 fell out on a Friday. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and warm. In the early morning hours it was still. The Jews were out walking some buying things for Shabbath, some going to work. It appeared to be the calm before the storm.
At around 11 o'clock in the morning, suddenly a fleet of airplanes appeared over the sky in the town, and we tried to figure out to whom the airplanes belonged, and we already heard the first explosions of the bombs that had been dropped. A dense smoke appeared next to the market and flames surrounded the town. Immediately, people began to flee from the town. People with bundles of rags over their shoulders, clutching children's hands, elderly people, everyone fled from the fire that was spreading as an arrow from its bow. The airplanes did not stop circling over the city and poured more fire onto the quarters that were not yet aflame.
When we arrived to the yard behind the Polish cemetery, we remained still, tens of people gathered there and waited for what was to happen next. Black smoke clouds enveloped the town, it was tragic to see what was happening there.
In the afternoon, when the fire had abated somewhat, the first rescue groups arrived. It was the Polish military that was stationed in the yard. They came into the town and we thought that they were sent by the headquarters to rescue whatever was still able to be saved. But the Polish veneer had not changed even one hair: we very quickly saw the Polish heroes crossing the town with wagons full of Jewish possessions, which were…
salvaged from the fire. And another incident that is worth mentioning:
When they arrived in this city, the Polish soldiers brought along with them the son of Ulrich. He was the founder of the Kurow electric works a Volksdeutsch [ethnic German living outside of Germany] (as we later found out, Ulrich directed the German airplanes as to where to bomb Kurow because of the location of the large garrison). We were sure that the patriotic Polish army would take revenge on the German that they had captured. The Polish headquarters in the courtyard actually did decide to shoot him [son of Ulrich] immediately, but the officer who was supposed to carry out the order was himself a Volksdeutsch. He allowed his socalled comrade to escape, shooting at him in the air.
Lighting the Candles
Night fell and we already had nowhere to rest. My father, and his older brother Avraham, of blessed memory, left to Plinik and organized a place for us at Pavel Majnke's. In the late night hours, in the glow of the burning city, the farmer's wagon moved slowly and took us to a nearby village. Our mother, loyal to tradition, and while in the wagon turned her face towards the city, and covering her face with her hands she quietly blessed the Shabbath candles with the flames of the burning city.
In The Village of Plinik
A barn full of hay and straw became our home, replacing what had already gone up in flames. Shabbath morning, several Jews gathered and we were able to pray as a group. We began to think about what to do next. For the time being, it was impossible to return to the city because it was still burning. Rumors had already spread that the Germans were coming closer. We had to come up with solutions of how to get a roof over our heads.
It was Monday when my father and I first returned to the town. The entire town was one massive destruction. As we came to the side of the hoiwilitze [?] to our house, from there we were able to see the police officials who were from the other side of the city. The black protruding chimneys cast a fear with their long shadows. We found other Jews who had come here. And we all agreed that to come back here and to start something new made no sense, but there were others who argued that we should come back and not leave the city where many Jewish generations had had a home. We were confused and downtrodden as we returned to the village.
On Tuesday, the Germans marched into Kurow and on that same day they visited the village. The
black steel helmets and the swastikas announced the arrival of the murderers.
We decided to go to Bielziec to my father's sister, in order to settle in a Jewish community, and at that time not to be separated from the Jewish People.
The following morning, we began our trip and in the afternoon we arrived in Bielziec.
Until May 1941, it was still tolerable. The Germans really did not leave anybody alone but at least we were all still together. Jews worked a little bit and earned money for a little bit of food and thanked God every day that we survived.
Once, in the middle of a day in the year 1941, suddenly, the city was surrounded by an SS unit of Ukrainians and they issued an order that all men should immediately gather in the marketplace. The Germans began to chase everybody out of their homes, beating and shooting from all sides. A great tumult erupted. Jews fled and hid wherever they could. At that time, I was alone with my mother in the house. We did not know what happened to my father who was not in the house at the time. Hearing how the Germans were approaching, my mother immediately put a small package into my hand and said goodbye to me. The first German that came into the house screamed at me because I was still in the house and wanted to beat me with his whip. Quickly orienting myself, I ran to my mother and jumped off the steps which were one floor high. Once outside, I joined the lines of Jews that were being herded to the marketplace.
Three long rows of terrified Jews surrounded by a chain of Ukrainian soldiers who were meanwhile enjoying themselves were beating right and left.
Father and Son
With wide open eyes I began to search for a familiar face and with fear I noticed my father standing not far from me. I quickly jumped over and went into his line. When he saw me, my father broke out in sobs because I had come there. The Jews knew that this was an Aktzia to send them to Majdanek. This did not give my father any rest. He already knew that there was no return from there. He began to search for a way to save me. The line where we were standing was across a narrow street, it was just enough to cross the sidewalk to get there. Meanwhile, the grabbing and chasing had stopped and the order to turn right was given. The lines turned right and were now ready to march to Lublin. At that moment, my father took off
|Berel and Khaya Esther Hittelman , Yisroel's parents|
the large jacket from me, it made me look a few years older, and said to me:
Go out of the lineup and very slowly cross the street. With God's help, if the Ukrainians do not notice you or if they think you are a Aktzia [nonJew] you will be able to save yourself, I have to risk it. I do not want that both of us should die. You are still a child (I was 15 years old at the time). And maybe you will survive the war!
Not thinking too much about this, I went onto the sidewalk and slowly went onto the small street. My heart beat rapidly but I felt that I was going to be saved.
Grab the Jew!
The Germans had already left with the Jews but I had not yet encountered danger. Each nonJew was able to capture me. I went along and then turned from the street and then went into a narrow path of nonJewish houses. A nonJewish woman recognized me as a Jew and shouted to her neighbors who began to chase me screaming:
Grab the Jew
I jumped over a fence and ran into a barn that was full of wheat. It seems that the nonJews did not notice this and panting heavily, they passed by the barn and continued running, ignoring the fact that I had disappeared before them. Only in the late afternoon hours did I quietly sneak out from my hiding place and run home. My mother thought that I had gone with all the rest, also with my father. I found her crying because she knew what it meant to go to Majdanek. Seeing me so suddenly, she fainted out of joy. She was in a very difficult state for a very long time. My brother Avrohom, who at that time was working for a farmer as a field worker, was saved
from the Aktzia. He only found out about all this at night.
This is how the first Aktzia in Bielziec went. Whoever remained, remained.
The Second Aktzia
Once again, we had to start some sort of work. Life demanded this kind of existence. We had to struggle for the daily piece of bread.
The German attacks became stronger and stronger. The Jews struggled with the Angel of Death. All Jewish shops were closed down. There was talk of a ghetto. Panic grew day by day until the day came of the great evacuation of Bielziec.
At dawn, this town was attacked by hundreds of SS men and Ukrainians and all the Jews, without exception, were chased out of their homes. As we waited for these attacks, in our house we prepared a cellar under the floor, in a boarder's room, where there was a large cabinet. As we heard the first shots, we went into the hiding place and stayed there the entire day of the Aktzia. We heard the screaming and the shots of the Germans who were searching for people in the house. If they would have found us, we would have been shot immediately.
A Few Hours Passed Grey
In the afternoon, when the Aktzia was over, the Germans began to drag out all kinds of furniture from the houses. They also went into the house where we were hiding and began to drag out the furniture that they liked. With pounding hearts we saw how they began to take apart the cabinet under which we were hiding. Feeling that the last minutes of our lives were upon us, we tightly held onto each other and awaited death. Suddenly, an order came from an Elder, that they should stop what they were doing because they were leaving. The Germans immediately stopped and left the house. After a few hours, we tried to open the cover of our hiding place, and we saw that only the bottom piece of the cabinet was left. The top pieces and the rest of the furniture were gone from the house.
When it became dark, we left the hiding place to find out what was going on in the town. As we came out, we noticed that my mother had become grey, actually white as snow in a few hours. Individual Jews, as shadows, were wandering in the streets, trembling from each sound that was heard.
The Final Khesed [Kindness]
Rumors circulated that at the synagogue of the old cemetery which was the gathering point of the Jews during the day, there were tens of Jews who had been shot who had to be buried. Very soon, a group of Jews who had been saved, organized themselves and took to the task of attending to the dead.
Trembling in fear, we got through the night and waited for the news that the next day would bring. The following day we went out into the street. It seems that in town, there were approximately 600 Jews who were able to hide themselves from the Aktzia.
Leaving the Town
The Polish gemina [municipality], right away in the morning, issued an order that the Jews who survived must leave the town immediately. The picture looked exactly as the pictures of the Spanish expulsion. The elderly bentover Jews, women with children in their hands, all were marching without a goal, not knowing their destination. As they told us we had to go to Piaski, near Lublin, where a gathering point for the Jews in the Lublin region was designated. For three days our feet dragged to the destination of Piaski. A few kilometers before this, the nonJews told us that in Piaski there was actually no gathering point. Every group of Jews who came there was taken to the Jewish cemetery and that is where they were shot. Hearing that, I, my mother, and my brother Avrohom, tore ourselves away from the group and managed to get back to Bielziec. Our thinking was that we did not have to rush to be killed. If death found us, we would know that we did everything to escape it and that we fought it until the end.
With these thoughts, we went into the forest. Realizing that nobody noticed us, we quickly increased our steps and ran through the forest the entire day. By evening, we were already 20 kilometers from Bielziec. According to our calculations, we should be arriving within four to five hours. We continued like that until it was very dark, and since were already tired, we decided to spend the night in the field in order not to appear before the nonJews who would no doubt give us over to the Germans.
In the field, we spread out the cover that we had brought with us, and lay down to go to sleep. Early the next morning, we continued and soon we arrived behind the city. It was Sunday and we decided to stay in the field all day, and only when it would be dark would we enter the city. We desperately wanted to know if there were any other Jews in the city. Fortunately, we met an old farmer who told us that there were
several Jews remaining in the town who were staying in the shul and beis medrash [Study Hall].
When it became dark, we entered the city and went to the shul. Several Jewish families who had paid large sums of money, received permission from the municipality to remain in the shul, but it was impossible to join them.
The Murderer Is Cunning
At night we slept in the fields and during the day we had to hide. But it seemed that the German murder apparatus worked more efficiently than our minds. They decided to allow all the Jews who were hiding in the entire area to be concentrated in one small camp so that they could exterminate them all together at once. Several tens of Jews were evacuated into the shul and the beis medrash, and that's how a new camp was formed. With time, everything became more crowded, the number of Jews grew to 700. There were all kinds of Jews there, some who had fled from the evacuated towns, from the transports of the entire area, even some partisans who had been fighting merely to get a small piece of bread. As long as everything was going its way as usual, they put us to roadwork and we received a half a kilo of bread a day and a little bit of soup. But two incidents put an end to everything and terminated the existence of the Jews in Bielziec.
My Brother [Went] to Poniatow, My Mother [Stayed] in This Place Her Final Plea
During the first Aktzia, they collected 165 young boys ages 1830 and sent them off to Poniatow. Among them was my brother Avrohom (the Poniatow camp was destroyed a year later, in the year 1943). During that same Aktzia, 50 elderly men and women were murdered.
The second Aktzia took place on May 8, 1942. Very early on, the camp was surrounded by a
|Avrem'le Hittelman (Yisroel's brother)|
large number of SS men and Ukranians. The women were separated from us. The German thug selected from the 100 young women those that he allowed to live. The rest, 450, were taken to the old cemetery behind the shul where we were and they were shot group by group. Groups of our men dug the graves and immediately buried the dead. The women who were slightly wounded were thrown into the ditch along with the dead and covered up. Rivers of blood were flowing in that place. The Christians who lived close to there, calmly watched the naked, tortured Jewish women. A few minutes before separating us, I parted with my mother, and crying, she asked God that I remain alive so that I should be able to tell the whole world about this.
In a New Camp
After killing all the women, we were selected, and whoever was not found to be appealing was shot in the public bathroom. During this Selektzia, my closest friends were killed. Miraculously, I was saved by a Ukrainian who demanded 500 zlotys from me. A Bielziec Jew who was standing near me immediately gave me the money. After this Aktzia they put us onto wagons and took us to the death camp Budzyn near Krasnik. Exhausted from the horrific days, we arrived in the Budzyn death camp where the murderer Fajks, who carried out the Aktzia in Bielziec, was the camp head here. Soon after we arrived, there was a second Selektzia. Everybody walked by the hangman single file, and he indicated with his hand whether to go right or left. Meaning: right to life, left to death. Approximately 60 people went to the left. They were immediately taken behind the camp and shot on the spot. All the others were divided up into the large barracks, which before this had served as stalls for the Polish military. Exhausted, broken, and starving, we heard from the Jews who were already there the gruesome details that were going on here. Every day, Jews were shot for the most insignificant detail, often without any reason. The hangman Fajks and his Ukrainian assistants conducted a systematic murder Aktzia in the camp.
I Do Not Want to Say Too Much
It is impossible to give over all the horrific stories that the old survivors told us just the first night of our arrival in Budzyn. In the year 1943 alone, in the small camp, approximately 2000 Jews were tortured and murdered.
I do not want to repeat all these stories about which entire books have been written, and
there still will be a lot written about this. I would just like to briefly describe what I experienced from Budzyn until my liberation in the year 1945.
The Budzyn camp existed until the fall of 1943. From there, we were taken to a newly built camp, five kilometers away from the old camp. The new camp was built with all the details of a concentration camp, with electrical fences, etc. After five months we were sent from there to Radom. We were in Radom until the beginning of 1944 and as the front of the allied armies began to get closer, we were taken away from there. The evacuation understandably was done on foot. All the people who were weak were left behind on the road and then were shot there on the spot. After a threeday rush, we arrived in the city of Tomaszow. They did not know what to do with us, so for the time being, they set us up in a large material factory. After only one week, they packed us up in sealed wagons and they took us onto an unfamiliar road.
If It Is Meant To Be
We were already completely indifferent to everyone. The hope and will to live had died in all of us, and nobody cared anymore where they were taking us. Everyone merely hoped that death would come very quickly so that we would not have to suffer for long.
After a threeday travel, we arrived to the infamous Auschwitz camp. Even though we had already been in all kinds of camps, at this point, in each of us, our blood froze when we saw this hell.
As it appeared, we were not welcome there. After a Selektzia that cost the lives of tens of people from our transport, in that same wagon in the evening, we were sent to Germany. After a fresh journey of a week, we came to a camp that was not far from the city of Stuttgart. Once again, the same barracks with the levels three stories high. Once again, the Apeln [roll call] was at 3:00 in the morning. Again 150 grams of bread and a drop of soup, and once more, hard labor: in an airplane factory underground. But if Gd says that you are going to live, then no pain or suffering will make a difference, you will have to live.
This is how another six months went, and I was sent with a group of 200 men to a new camp in unteriksingen [?]. It was a small camp, some of the inmates worked in stone masonry and the others worked in repairs of the train tracks that were always being ruined by the bombings of the Americans. As the front got closer, we were sent to a new camp in Korndorf near Wirtenberg [Wittenberg]. This was one of the most wellknown prison camps [for criminals]
|Packed into sealed wagons, they were sent to their unknown or to already known destination|
criminals who had already been here for ten to thirteen years. They were the rulers there and conducted the work of murder better than the German SS did.
The work there was laborious and horrific. We worked in a dried out salt ditch, approximately 500 meters underground, and at around three in the morning we would go out to work, six kilometers on foot, and worked until around five in the afternoon. We built a large weapons factory and the work went at a feverish pace.
Death and the Liberator
About a week passed like that. Every day, they took us about 3040 kilometers into a forest, and we received an order to lie down. The Germans
|Yisroel Hittelman on the way from one camp to another|
had machine guns pointed at us and we were already sure that our salvation was coming, that we would be freed from all torture. We were always sure about one thing: that the Germans would not let us live even for one hour before their surrender. So, it would already be better for us to stay in the forest as dead rather than to continue on marching. Not one of us was able to stand up and continue on. Also, all the provisions that the Germans had for us were gone and they had nothing left to give us. Until this very day I cannot understand why the Germans had their arms aimed at us and did not use them.
Once Again, on the Way
We stayed in the forest for two days. On the second day they brought us something to eat and ordered us to keep going. As we marched all night, we finally came to Ulm at dawn. That same day, they loaded us on to coal wagons, about 7080 of us in one wagon, and we started to go. The German guard who took over was very agitated and nervous because of the constant bombing and the Germans looked at us as if we were guilty for this tragedy. They did not stop hitting us and torturing us. Some of them also discovered an original game for their entertainment: They threw sticks at us on which they had put nails at the edges. That is how one nail hit about two centimeters above my right eye, and the nail remained stuck in my forehead.
If Gd Wishes
The German warned me that if I would not cover my forehead, he would shoot me. With my hand dirty from coal, I covered the fresh wound. But as they say, if Gd wishes me to live, then nothing will make a difference. The wound healed quickly; already the following morning there was no sign of anything.
As revenge, I lived until the following morning to see a bombing of the train station from close up. The Germans, like rats, ran from the wagons leaving us alone. The train station was demolished as well as some of the trains that were there. Our train remained complete and not one of us was hurt.
To Dachau From Dachau
On the third day we arrived in the famous camp, Dachau. The day after we arrived I became sick with high fever. They were supposed to take me to the camp hospital where every day material was prepared for the crematorium. But my friends did not let me go there. I survived the illness without any medical help. On the third week, I, along with all the 2000 Jews there, were sent away.
After a week of traveling, we came to Tyrol, not far from the Swiss border. Rumors spread among us that they were sending us to Switzerland, but this was only an illusion.
After we had spent the night in the village of Tyrol, they once again loaded us onto the coal wagons. We did not know where they were sending us. Of the transport, we now remained a small group. When we arrived to the station, we did not see anybody else. As we soon found out, all the Jews from the transport, the two wagons, were sent to an unknown place and we were the last group.
From the Train Car, in an Open Car
Very early, we were herded out of the coal wagon where we had been crowded in all night and they now loaded us onto a large cargo truck. We were about 8090 Jews. The SS who were with us sat on the cover of the cabin cars with guns aimed at us. And that is how the truck went its way.
After going for a few kilometers, we saw at the side of the road, among the trees, several fugitives dressed in the prison clothes with the white stripes. They stood there without any guards. We did not understand where they had come from. As we continued going, we saw more prisoners like that.
Told to Run and No Shooting
As we came to about two kilometers before the GermanAustrian border, the truck stopped and the SS commander ordered us to quickly get out of the truck. Terrified, we got down from the truck. Then he ordered us to start running away. Now we were sure that he wanted to shoot us. We started to run right on the main road.
After running like that for about ten minutes and not hearing a single shot, we turned around, and to our great surprise, we did not see the truck or the SS men. For the first time in three years we stood alone, unguarded on the road.
The SS Had Run Away
Breathing a sigh of relief as did everybody, we slowly returned to the town which we were able to see from a distance. When we came to the town Mittenwald, the first town on the German border, we were greeted by German police officials. And to our great surprise, they greeted us in a friendly manner and showed us the way to a restaurant where there were many Jews from our transport.
They told us that the night before, they were taken in two wagons to the direction of Mittenwald to a place of rocks and water. They were spread out across the rocks and surrounded by machine guns in order to be shot there. But suddenly, the commandant of the transport ran away as he heard that the front was very close, and the Americans were approaching.
When they saw that, the remaining SS also ran off. They [the Jews] remained alone just as we had, and they arrived to this town as we did.
To the Alps
In the afternoon there was a panic. The Germans said that the Americans were 15 kilometers outside of the city. But for us Jews it still seemed as if they had enough time. The civilian military began to chase us out of town in the direction of the front. I, and four other friends, separated ourselves from the transport and went into the direction of the Alps that surrounded the town. This was April 30, 1945. A dense snow fell and it was very cold in the mountains. In the evening hours we heard severe bombing from the cannons onto the town. We stayed in the mountains in a small house that belonged to a German. Seeing that we would have to spend the night outside in the snow, we decided to go to the German and ask that he let us spend the night there. To our good fortune, he turned out to be an old doctor. His wife, sensing that the Americans were already at the door, allowed us to remain in the corridor of the villa. She even gave us a little bit of warm food to eat. We spent the night on the floor of the corridor.
Before daylight, the old German woman came to us and gave us the news about the liberation. We ran out of the door and saw below us on the highway a long line of American tanks. Dizzy with joy, we rolled down in the snow of the mountain and threw ourselves down at the feet of our liberators.
The frightened American soldiers looked at the horrifying faces of the halfdead people that surrounded them and they greeted us with a how do you do.
And not understanding a single word, we repeated what they said:
How do you do! and we pointed with a finger at our mouths because we thought that they were asking if wanted anything to eat.
Food, Food, Food
Tragiccomic scenes played out that day in town. Emaciated Jews, downtrodden and ragged, roamed around the city and begged for food from anyone they could. Everyone filled their pockets with food and others filled their clothing with all kinds of things that they tied to themselves with rope. Every single person only wanted to prevent further hunger.
Even though the Americans reassured us that we were now free people, that finally the story about the camps and slavery had ended, for a long time we could not accept this, we could not begin to understand the great meaning of the word freedom.
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