by Shoshana Yakubovitsh
Translated by Leonard Prager
Appeared previously in The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language, Vol. 10.006 [Sequential No. 171]
I have taken pen in hand many times. I wanted to write about beloved and good-hearted Vitye Fomienko. I'm sorry I can't remember the names of all the people he helped so much, but the faces of the Jews whom he saved are clear before my eyes.
I saw Witold (Vitye) Fomienko for the first time after all our families in the Lutsk Ghetto had been killed. I stayed alive due to chance and escaped to a small village by the name of Podhayets. Quite a few Jewish boys and girls worked in the fields there and Vitye Fomienko visited them often. He helped them get needed documents and medications. Among other things, he brought oxygen-water for the Jewish girls so that they could dye their hair blond, flee the village and save themselves.
I was then eleven years old and looked like a little blond gentile child. At Vitye's request, his mother took me in despite the fact that he was already hiding three Jews in his home.
Living with them I noticed how persons of all ages filed into their house in the evenings and slept there as though it were a hotel. With the exception that in a hotel you pay your bill, and here the Fomienkos risked paying with their lives for their hospitality. Fomienko found hiding places for terrified and hunted Jews with a number of Christians, not once by paying from his own pocket. For hiding Jews he promised the world to these Christians when the war ended. Unfortunately, the war went on longer than people thought it would and neighbors of the good Christians began to see they were shielding Jews and reported them to the police. Often this led to arrest of the Jews and their subsequent execution. Then new troubles arose for Vitye and his family. He was up day and night and kept watch through cracks in his door fearful that his home would be searched for Jews. Luckily no one informed on him. But frightened Christians who managed to escape from the police and whom he had urged to shelter Jews began coming to him for help. And Vitye had to find alternative hiding places in other locations for those he was already hiding.
More than once a Jew managed to escape the clutches of the Germans and returned to Vitye, who with renewed energy began to search about for a new place to hide him.
Vitye's mother was also a fine, good woman; his father was a fine and gentle person. I loved them very much. I myself received from Fomienko's family the best of food and clothing. I owe my life to them.
Vitold Fomienko -- Mayn Reter ('Witold Fomienko -- My Rescuer'), an account of a young girl saved by a courageous gentile, is corroborated in the records of YadVashem in Jerusalem. Together with Shoshana Yakubovitsh's personal testimonial we cite the official recognition of Witold Fiomenko's actions as recorded in YadVashem:
Witold Fomienko hid scores of Jews in the Lutsk region of the Ukraine, braving threats from Germans and hostile local kinsmen. [cited from Yad VaShem's Righteous Among Nations website].
There are over 30,000 recognized Righteous Gentiles in the Yad Vashem memorial. They constitute a tiny minority of the gentiles of Europe among whom millions of Jews were murdered, yet how much they strengthen the human spirit by their example. In assessing their deeds we must keep in mind the conditions under which they lived. Here is a typical Nazi declaration against assisting Jews:
The Penalty for Helping a Jew in Occupied Poland:
The following proclamation was issued by Dr. Ludwig Fischer, the German district governor of Warsaw, on November 10, 1941: Concerning the Death Penalty for Illegally Leaving Jewish Residential Districts...Any Jew who illegally leaves the designated residential district will be punished by death. Anyone who deliberately offers refuge to such Jews or who aids them in any other manner (i.e., offering a night's lodging, food, or by taking them into vehicles of any kind, etc.) will be subject to the same punishment. Judgment will be rendered by a Special Court in Warsaw. I forcefully draw the attention of the entire population of the Warsaw District to this new decree, as henceforth it will be applied with the utmost severity.
by S. Shiloh
Translated by Sara Mages
Rosh Hashanah 5719 [15 September 1958]. I sat down to write my unfortunate story, the story of an eyewitness who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. This time I will only tell about one part, because I don't have the strength to tell everything.
It seems to me that generations have passed since I last held a prayer book in my hand. It was on Rosh Hashanah 1942, when a minyan of Jews gathered in the second ghetto, which was three weeks old. It was impossible to recognize those who only yesterday came out of their hiding places. Every man wore a fine garment, and every woman wrapped herself in a headscarf not her own. - After all, many objects were scattered in the abandoned ghetto. The Jews deluded themselves that everything was fine. Maybe, in the depth of their soul they felt that this was their last holiday? A middle-aged man, adorned with a white beard, stood by the reader's desk. His voice was not broken as the situation requires. Also a heartbreaking cry didn't fill the space. There is no crying after despair. Or, maybe each of us felt the doubt if there is someone to cry to? Even, in Untanneh Tokef, no one wiped a tear from his eyes, after all it is said, Neither will the dead praise God (Psalms 115:17) - and the celebrants were considered dead.
Several figures from that minyan are still etched in my memory, and I see several figures in a blur, as if through a heavy fog. The one standing next to the reader's desk is an elderly man, but healthy and robust- maybe this is the first time that he is serving as a prayer reader. Next to me stands a crippled Jew, leaning on crutches, he is also tall and sturdy - dark-skinned with black Jewish eyes. He lost his left leg in the First World War. Occasionally, he glances at my prayer book and shows with his finger the place of prayer at that moment, because I didn't understand what my lips were saying and prayed slowly. A third Jew, whose name I once knew - we hid together in the cellar- sat in the corner with his son. They are bent over one prayer book, and from time to time I send jealous glances towards them, or rather, towards his son. I am a thirteen-year-old boy and already an orphan from my father. Indeed, it was not an unusual situation then, but it was difficult for me to come to terms with my fate. To this very day I have not gotten rid of my jealousy of a son hugging his father. The room was full of men and women. My mother, Dvora zl, stood between a woman and her daughter, and helped them to find their place in the prayer book. They were probably not used to prayer. The daughter was dark-skinned and very beautiful. About 16-17 years old. Her eyes - two pearls from which compassion and despairing hopes were reflected. Her father hid with them in the attic, one evening went down to look for food - and was caught. Both, mother and daughter looked extremely miserable. I didn't hear them say a word. They stepped on the road carefully, and fearfully, for fear that they would disappear without a trace. It seems to me that they were the only ones who lacked initiative. They didn't know how they got to this ghetto, and even how they remained alive. Their fate was willingly handed over to their captors. Only the daughter sighed occasionally and threw her black braid over her shoulder. It seemed that in the depths of her soul she rebelled against her bitter fate. Behind my mother sat two slim sisters who looked alike. They were covered with one headscarf and their eyes were glass eyes. They try to cry but they can't. The tears spring was blocked. Another two, or three, women were concentrated on their prayer. Everyone stood aside and I don't know if they listened to the cantor, or listened to the inner voice of grief. This is how the holiday of Rosh Hashanah looked in the city of Lutsk in 1942. It was the only and last minyan.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year, for good life immediately - one wished the other. What an irony! What a mockery! Also the custom of inviting guests was also not missing. One house invited the other house for a meal. I say house because there were no families. Food, as in the days of Piłsudski, was placed on the table. We ate greedily, because no one knew if this was our last meal. A smile and also a festive song were heard from here and there. German gendarmes, and Ukrainian hooligans, sometimes walked on the road and looked with mockery at the strange and crazy herd. We didn't know... but they knew very well that the next day, at the end of the holiday, all will be led to the pits. Indeed, a nice holiday! After the meals everyone lay down on the beautiful and tidy beds to observe the mitzvah of sleep. A sweet sleep, without worry, without sorrow for the thousands of Jews, brothers, parents and family members, who, only a week or two ago, were slaughtered like sheep. Will the dead eulogize his death?! Indeed, there were rumors that England and America intervened and the Germans were forced to stop the killing. And, is there a Jew who will not believe? And why wouldn't he hold this belief? Was there another belief? After all, the belief in the great omnipotent God ceased to exist. And if Jews gathered for prayer, they did so out of a strange habit, or perhaps out of the illusion, as has been said: Maybe it is after all!
* * *
How did we arrive to this ghetto?
It was a clear day, a beautiful sunny day, when my brother, Miki, knocked on the iron door leading to the cellar and announced in a trembling voice: Jews, we have been saved! The action has stopped! Everyone can go outside! As if running, we crawled towards the light that came through the open doorway. No one had the strength to stand up. One helped the other. When we went up, and the sunlight hit us, we closed our eyes and held on to the walls so that we wouldn't fall. Dizziness attacked us all. We sat down on the objects scattered across the room and forcefully swallowed the food served to us by my brother, and two, or three, other Jews from the labor camp who worked collecting Jewish property for the Germans. Silence all around, everyone chewed the portion he received. A German walked in the middle of the street and didn't look at us - and we were not afraid. The ghetto was emptied. Three weeks ago, when we went down to the cellar, the square was full with thousands of men, women and children, who ran ,here and there, looking for a crevice in the wall, or a mouse hole, to hide his head in. Now - nothing. The whole crowd is no longer alive. The traces of slaughter are visible in every corner and house. A thin cat howls and rubs against our legs. It is also lonely and abandoned. The houses are broken into, and thousands of pieces of furniture and household items are thrown, overturned and broken, in the street. And whoever enters any house must step on people's clothes, children's shoes and feathers. Feathers, endless feathers! The murderers not only tore apart people's stomachs, but also pillows and
covers. Maybe they were looking for gold among the feathers? We stepped on photos, lots of photos, of families and individuals. From the photos happy and festive faces looked at us. Here is a father with two girls in his arms, dressed in festive clothes and smiling. Here are two large photos, a grandfather with a beautiful beard and a yarmulke on his head, and a grandmother dressed in a nice dress and a wig on her head. Here is a photo of young people in bathing suits on the bank of the Styr River. A class of gymnasium students photographed together with their teachers, and the date 1938 is engraved above them. A fat baby, with a big head and a gaping mouth, looked at us with his beautiful eyes and laughs. How much happiness this baby gave his parents! Where are you all?! Where?! Their blood is still boiling in the big pit in the grove in Hnidawa (Gnidawa).
We walked around the yards looking for food and clothes. The doors are broken and the horror of death is seen through the open windows. Absolute silence. We hear nothing but our steps and... the noise of the windows on their hinges. At every corner we were accompanied by the terrible noise of windows swaying in the wind. To this day I hear that squeak. To this day I can't stand a window rustling in the wind. Over the years, the rustling of the window became for me - the symbol of the Holocaust, the grating sound of death.
We found beautiful and strong clothes that fit us. We quickly took off our filthy clothes to put on clean clothes. And then, alas, what was revealed to our eyes! I will never forget the picture when Berale, my second brother who was three years older than me - held the old clothes in his hands and looked at the millions of lice. The pants were covered with a layer of lice, and until then we didn't feel them. Only then, I saw my brother cry for the first time, a soft cry. Look Shmulik - he opened and said to me - Look well, well, and if you stay alive, don't forget it. - No, my dear and beloved brother! I have not forgotten, and would never forget that picture and that sentence, that you said to me.
Already that day, when we went out into the air of the world, we started running from place to place to find valuables. My older brother, Miki, was irritated and angry that we were not rushing around looking for valuables. He was afraid that the Jews, who remained in the ghetto and in the camp, would find all the wealth and we would have nothing left. After all, we will need every precious object, without that we can't dream that some gentile will give us a slice of bread as soon as we escape to the forest. Berale and I also took a bit of a beating from him - because we didn't make an effort. This whole game disgusted us. We just didn't want to live. - My dear big brother, Miki! - I didn't get angry at your beatings because I knew you meant for our good. You wanted us to live. You took on a heavy burden when our father was no longer alive, and our mother was weak and confused out of despair. Were we happy that we remained alive? No! My brother Berale didn't care at all, he was ready to die at any moment. Because, why do we deserve to live when everyone died? My mother only asked for one thing: to leave her alone and that we, the children, would escape. That's what she told us. But, I know that she wanted to live, she wanted very much to live.
My two older brothers, Miki and Berale, joined the labor camp. My mother and I - took our belongings and went with all those who were left to the second ghetto. There, on the narrow street between the two bridges leading to Hnidawa, where the river flows on the right and the marshes spread out on the left. The Germans knew where to house us. We went because they didn't touch us, because they gave us food. I don't remember exactly if we sat in that ghetto for two or three weeks, and, as described above, the last day was a holiday.
* * *
At night I woke up to the sound of an engine. I looked outside and a strong jet of light illuminated the boundaries of the small ghetto. I immediately woke up my mother and told her what I see. But my mother is smiling and comforting: Nothing will happen, nothing will take place. Just now I saw my mother in my dream. She brought me sweets for the holiday and told me to distribute it to the children. Sleep, sleep... God willing everything will be fine. - Yes, my mother appeared before me. With reluctance and anxiety I followed my mother's advice. I put my head on her warm palm and slept deeply and peacefully. Open immediately! a command sounded. A knock on the door! We quickly jumped out of bed. Daylight burst through the windows. Open the door immediately!! The command sounded again. My mother, shocked and scared, ran to the door and opened it. In front of us stood a Ukrainian policeman with a rifle in his hand and ordered us to go outside. We started to get dressed, and at the same time my mother tried to negotiate with the policeman to let us escape. But, he stood still, smiled and shook his head to signal - no! How lucky we were. He was a human policeman. He didn't drive us out of the house in our nightgowns as others have done. He also listened to our request and asked us to get dressed faster. The fever of life gripped us. My mother is ready to kiss his hand so that he will let us go. We knew that if we left the house - we would be in a hopeless situation. The door burst open again and with a wild roar, a second policeman jumped at us. They both pushed us out. Several dozen Jews stood lined up on the road. I didn't want to join them. I held my mother's hand and pulled her aside. The policeman raised his rifle, rattled the bolt, and aimed it at us. And lo and behold! We were not afraid. I didn't feel a shred of fear. The Jews, who stood lined up on the road, persuaded us not to insist: Come, come, there is nowhere to run - everything is lost. We joined them and the feeling of doom enveloped me. Indeed, it is all over. In an hour, or two, we would no longer be alive. This is the first time I asked myself, what is death? How is it to be dead? I put my hand in my mother's arm and we walked silently with everyone, surrender and silent. Next to every house the same picture occurred, as it happened with us. Terrified and shocked people try to run away in every direction and, in the end, they quietly join the death procession. Here we passed by one house and no one came out of there. We were happy that some Jews managed to outwit the Germans and one day they would tell about us, about the last of the ghetto.
We left the ghetto. Walked up Karlova Jadbiga Street, we didn't know where we were being taken, and where we would be executed. In the distance a lump of earth poked out, and then we thought that this is the place, in the middle of the city, and in this place they will kill us. It was Sunday. The Ukrainians beat us all the way to speed us up - and we kept quiet and continued to walk at the same pace. Men, women and children stood on the sides of the street and looked at us. None of them smiled or uttered a word. They were dressed festively as they were on their way to church. I will never forget a picture of a gentile woman who came out of her house. When she saw us she backed away and pressed against the wall of her house. How good it was to feel the participation in grief from one person, when animals and murderers run around you, roaring, pushing and laughing.
God gave us a beautiful day, probably to make our departure from the world more difficult. The sun shone, warmed our limbs, and all the trees, houses and people - were dressed in splendor. I walked and, from time to time, I threw jealous glances at the happy gentile children who were running after us. The word
why? is bursting out loud from my mouth. My mother looks at me and quickly turns her eyes away from me. She is ashamed that she cannot save me. I look at the sky and speak to the sun: Oh, it will also rise tomorrow too and I will not see it! And all the gentiles around - will live, also tomorrow, and also the day after tomorrow, and they will enjoy the sunshine. Suddenly I had the urge to sing Hatikvah. I wanted to raise my voice, to sing in a full and clear tone, but when I saw the Germans I fell silent. Only in a whisper, as in a prayer of confession, I sang the entire song. None of the people walking beside me opened their mouths. They didn't say stop singing, nor did they join me. Only my mother occasionally took my hand away from her and said: Don't be attached to me, try to escape. I was completely terrified, I grabbed my mother's hand and didn't let go of her. I didn't believe that I could escape and go alone to death - I was afraid, terribly afraid. The very idea that I would die alone was enough to shake my whole body. Next to us walked the same crippled Jew that only yesterday prayed with me at the synagogue. The only one who didn't stay silent all the way. No, he didn't complain, didn't curse, not a man or God. He just comforted us with his quiet voice. Everything will pass, he said. It is nothing, Jews, you only die once. Oh well, this is how it was decided. After a moment of silence he sighed and blurted out: We are going to die, and, yet, I have the urge to smoke a cigarette. To our right a young woman, dressed in a nightgown, is walking and whispering: I thought that when you're going to die, you don't care if you're cold. But, I do care. I'm jealous of my husband, he already been through it all- a kind of emission of sigh is heard from the same mother that my mother took care of her, and her daughter, in the synagogue. But I want to live, her daughter answered her - I am sixteen years old, I haven't lived yet!! Mother, I want to live. And tears fell from her beautiful eyes. The moment I heard the daughter's piercing voice, I woke up. My eyes searched everywhere, looking for refuge, To live, to live! my lips mumbled. The will to live stuck to me in all its strength. It didn't let go of me. No! I will not die. I must live, no matter what! They brought us to Lubart's Castle and put us in the school building. Like hunted animals, everyone ran around the empty rooms. Everyone was looking for a way to escape. But a policeman stood everywhere. Young women begged them to let them escape through the window, they shoved them with their rifles - and laughed. I remember two young men older than me in years, tall and handsome. They stood next to their mother and begged her to let them do what they wanted: to fight, to fight with everything available and to die with dignity - this is their last wish.
I, like the other Jews, started running from room to room with my mother chasing me. Suddenly, I noticed several people going up the stairs. I asked my mother to stay in the room where we were standing and not to move from her place, and I will go upstairs to see what the situation is there. I was afraid that I would return and not find her, and go to the pits alone. That was the last time I saw my mother. Abandoned and lonesome, she remained in the room among dozens of people running and desperate. The will to live pushed me up, up. I climbed the stairs without looking back, without throwing a single glance at my mother. I believed with all my heart that I would find a hole to hide in and return to call her. On the second or third floor, I passed a window that led to a strange ascent that surrounded the house. When we entered we noticed several young men who opened holes under the wooden floor. Very quickly we lowered ourselves to those holes. It was a double floor, below us it served as a ceiling and above us as a floor for a large hall. It was only while I found myself hidden that I remembered that my mother was waiting for me downstairs. I was lying not far from the opening and it was easy for me to get out. I begged before several Jews, who were lying ahead me, to let me pass. Finally, after mumbling and nervous movements, they let me out. I quickly ran towards the window... and, woe to my eyes! A Ukrainian policeman, short and fat, stood by the window beating anyone who tried to pass. I immediately jumped back and crawled under the floor with all my strength. I didn't try to get out anymore. It was good for me there. I abandoned my mother. I was not ready to risk my hiding place to save my mother... Indeed, I was a faithful son to you, mother! To this day I am ashamed of myself. Maybe I will find tiny comfort in the fact that all those, who will read my story, will know that I, Shmuel Shulman, abandoned my mother, Dvora Shulman, to save my skin. Four days and four nights I lay in this snake pit. This time I was far from the opening, completely at the edge when ten, or fifteen, people were lying ahead of me. On Monday, cars arrived and the Germans began to take the Jews out of the house. I heard the sound of shouting and sobbing and only one shout reached me - my mother's shout. I bit my lips. I held to the wood floor so as not to jump out. Yes, my mother is down there, lonesome and abandoned. And how dare I to hide here? I didn't move. The will to live overpowered my love to my mother. I saw myself as a criminal. What will I say to my sister, who is in a safe place, when I meet her? How would I be able to look at myself? - Get up, Shmuel, and get out! Don't let your mother go alone to die! Thoughts flashed and pounded in my head like thunder. But' I didn't move, I didn't move a limb.
* * *
The Germans and the Ukrainians also came to us. At first they shouted into the opening, and to this day echoes in my ears - Raus! Verfluchte Juden! Raus! [Out! Cursed Jews! Out!]. When no one moved they tried their best: Why do you want to starve to death here? You are all moving to the labor camp in Krasne. We need your work. And indeed, there were some logical Jews who came out. The rest remained. The Ukrainians pushed long sticks and beat the heads of those lying down. From time to time they pointed the rifles at us and played with the bolt. If you don't come out we will kill you on the spot. The Germans shouted. I decided to die on the spot and not to get out. Better, I said in my heart, to die here lying in the dark where I cannot see their faces, than going to the pits, looking into their murderous eyes, undressing and lying in a deep pit among other dead people. Every moment I was waiting for a bullet that would pierce my body, because those who lay before me came out one by one without me noticing it. I remained alone. The Germans' voices and the rattle of the bolts didn't scare me, because my decision was firm... to die on the spot. I finished the piece of sugar that was all my food a long time ago. I put a finger in my mouth and sucked with all my might. I didn't listen to the threats. I completely ignored the presence of the Germans. I fell asleep and probably slept for many hours. Suddenly I woke up from powerful knocks on the floor. The floor is being destroyed above me. They are looking for me. The Germans insisted, and I insisted too. Here they are getting closer to me... Here, they will find me... I already imagined their terrible faces. I already felt the murderous blows they would lay on me. For a moment I felt like throwing up, crying and praying to God. Shema Yisrael! I whispered the whole time. I am ready for anything; just not to fall alive into their hands. The ax blows stopped, they didn't find my hiding place and they
probably didn't want to destroy the entire floor. Again, a shout near the opening of the floor, rifle loading, threats, persuasions - they tried everything on me, but I didn't move.
Hours passed, and the only ray of light that broke through the opening - disappeared. I knew it was night outside. Quiet. The cries of those condemned to death are not heard. All were taken out. From time to time I hear the laughter and shouts of the policemen. I decided to do something. Slowly, slowly, listening and ready for action, I crawled out. The crawling was on the back and with the help of the elbows and feet. It was impossible to turn around because the place was very narrow. From the outside, in the attic, I collected pieces of dry plaster, stones and garbage, and very patiently pushed them into the hiding place. Since I couldn't turn around, I pushed the trash inside with one hand. This job was horrible. My body weakened and was covered in sweat. From time to time I wanted to stop the painstaking work, but the will to live and the last hope motivated me to work. I worked tirelessly for hours until I felt that the material was enough. I crawled in all the way and with acrobatic means, which are revealed only at such a critical moment, I arranged a wall behind my head from all the garbage I had collected. That way, if a policeman will peek inside he won't see me and think that it is the end of the niche.
The trick was successful. When the policemen showed up the next morning they were surprised to see an empty niche. At first they shone with a flashlight and the jet of light, which passed through the crack in the wall I had erected, took my breath away. I got hot, for a moment I saw myself lying exposed to the eyes of the devil. But the flashlight went out, and the sweet redemptive word was heard in the space: hema (nothing). What a wonderful word! How much happiness a simple word like, hema, can cause. I was relieved. I decided to wait until nightfall. But life is not given easily. The school's janitor decided that at least a hundred Jews were hiding under the floor. A short time later he returned accompanied by policemen and a Polish boy. The boy was given a candle and ordered to crawl inside and see if there were any Jews there. Again, anguish in the heart. The dream of life vanished quickly. The heat spread throughout my body. I stopped breathing. I opened my mouth to ease the heavy breathing. The candlelight flickered through the crack. Here he sees me - a thought crossed my mind. I slowly put my hands above my head in order to create resistance in case the boy will try to push the trash. And so it was, the light increased and the boy's breath reached me. His every movement, and every rustle, thundered in my ears like mighty bombs. One blow to the leg, another blow... and I don't breath or move. Also my wall is not moving. Damn! What's up there?! - the policeman yelled at the boy. Hema (nothing). The redemptive word was heard again, for the second and last time. The Polish boy came out. And I, to this day, don't know if he saw me or not.
At night, when everything was quiet and only the guards' steps indicated their existence, I got up from my hiding place. After countless adventures, which lasted within the limit of two hours, I managed to escape from the fortress. I went out into the air of the free world where any gentile child could lead me to the Gestapo, or kill me with his own hands. Behind me lay the silent fortress. The Jews, who only yesterday filled its space with cries of despair, were no longer alive.
Translated by Sara Mages
Our city, Lutsk, was liberated from the hand of the Nazis in the month of February 1944.
Immediately after the Red Army entered Lutsk, the surviving Jews came out of their hiding places in the city and the immediate area. On the day of liberation I was with Ignatz Szac, son of Pesach Szac, who went through all the wanderings and hardships of the days before the liberation with me.
Two, or three weeks, before the long-awaited day the tension increased immeasurably. In addition to the danger of being discovered, and the subsequent extermination by the Nazis, the activity of the Banderowcy increased. They searched with great force for hiding Jews in order to murder them On the other hand, news began to arrive about the rapid advance of the Red Army to our region, and a spark of hope lit up in our hearts...
About two weeks before liberation we were with the Czech family, Jensa, in the village of Lychany, east of Lutsk on the road to Rivne (Rovno). In the evenings we used to leave the house and visit our neighbors that most of them were Czechs. And so, when we returned one evening from such a visit, again to the Jensa family, a Czech farmer stopped us and informed us that just a few minutes ago a group of Banderowcy was looking for us at the Jensa's house. We immediately left the village and decided to reach the city and get in touch with the Polish priest, Bukowinski, who was known as a friend of the persecuted Jews. We arrived to the city in the evening and managed to enter the cathedral (the church next to the castle). The priest, Bukowinski, welcomed us cordially. We told him about our difficult situation and asked for a shelter for several weeks. The priest explained that the matter was serious and he needed a few days to contact one of his friends in the area. We, Ignatz and I, decided to move in the meantime to another Czech village on the eastern bank of the Styr River north of Lutsk. The priest offered us financial help, but we refused to accept it because at that time it could not help us. Indeed, after many hardships we arrived in the village. We gave greetings to one of the residents of the village from his relatives in Lychany. Of course we were not asked to do so. This invention allowed us many times in the past to receive shelter for several days. And indeed, also this time we were given a place to stay thanks to this greeting.
The next night strange things were happening in the area. The echoes of the explosions were heard from the Lutsk airport. What happened? According to all the information given to us, the Russians were in the vicinity of Zhytomyr. And what was the meaning of the operations in this area? Are the partisans acting, or is it the action of a regular army?
The next day, when the first soldiers of the Red Army entered the village, the mystery had been solved. It turned out that a cavalry division from the Red Army unexpectedly penetrated through the Polesia marshes and captured Lutsk and Rivne in one day.
That day we returned to the city with mixed feelings. When we entered the city we were quite surprised to find ourselves imprisoned by the Russians. The reason -
the lack of documents. After we explained, and told them what we had been through, we were released.
|The Prinzenthal family|
Slowly the surviving Jews began to arrive. At first we, about two dozen Jews concentrated in Zemen's browar (brewery). It is understood that the meetings between the few surviving Jews were full of sorrow and pain. In one of the meetings I met a Jewish woman, a resident of one of the towns in the vicinity of Lutsk. When she learned my family name she handed me two letters written by my father, Chaim Prinzenthal zl, to my brother, Yakov, who immigrated to Israel even before the war. As she told, she received these letters from a Czech farmer. According to her, the Czech told her that my father asked him to do the last favor for him, to send the letters according to the address (Ma'ale HaHamisha, Eretz Yisrael) after the war ended.
The Czech fulfilled his obligation in the first meeting with surviving Jews, immediately after the liberation of the city.
Some comments on the content of the letter.
In a certain passage in my father's letter to my brother he mourns my mother and me. He didn't know that I managed to escape at the last minute from the Nazis' aktion. I learned about my father and his hardships in the villages from a Jew, a road contractor, who returned from his hiding place and arrived in the labor camp at the Theological Seminary. The aforementioned told me that he saw my father entering a house in the village on the way to Rożyszcze, where he himself was hiding, and asked for food. Out of caution, the landlady didn't allow the contractor to get in touch with my father, but from his hiding place he overheard their conversation. For all kinds of reasons the Jew had to leave his hiding place and return to the labor camp in the city. I received precise details about the house where my father asked for food, and one evening I arrived there with a package of clothes. The homeowner informed me that two days ago my father was there, and according to what he said, it seems that he moved to a more distant area. I left the package and added a letter in which I informed my father about my situation. That night I came to a field in which many piles of straw were piled up. I found a hiding place inside one of the piles and felt that this hiding place also served my father. A week later I returned to the same farmer, and again, asked him if he knew anything about my father.
From his answer it became clear to me that on that evening a week ago, when I looked for him in his place, my father was at his neighbor's house (my father's announcement about his walking to a distant area was said with the intention of misleading). The package and the letter were given to my father. Out of excitement that I was still alive my father decided to look for me in the city. And here, on the way, he was captured by the Nazis.
When I found out I made an attempt to save him, In those days, after the liquidation of the ghetto, when the Germans caught individual Jews they concentrated them in one of the former shops in the ghetto until their extermination. I was able to join the group of laborers from the labor camp who worked in the area of the former ghetto. I approached the shop and communicated with the Jews imprisoned inside it. I remember that inside the shop were all the members of the Goldberg family who were caught in their hiding place a few days earlier (their daughter Chaya Goldberg-Zilberberg is in Rishon LeZion in Israel, and their son Asher Goldberg is in Haifa). I could not get a clear answer about my father's fate.
Later, the labor camp was moved to Pinchuk's flour mill. There, I met a Jew who was imprisoned together with my father at the Gestapo office, which was in Glikilich's house (formerly the Polish police station), and from there, as the Jew told, my father was executed.
May his soul be bound in the bond of eternal life.
Y. Prital (Prinzenthal)
Translated by Sara Mages
These two letters are saturated with horrors, but they are dear to us, to his two sons and their families. Love for the family and the cry of the Jew and the man as one, emerge from these lines.
As a teacher, he felt that even lines written on worn out paper, have the power to penetrate beyond terror and the period, their echo will be heard and they will remain engraved forever.. And indeed, my feeling was verified.
My father, Chaim Prinzenthal, was known in our city by the name, Chaim der Lerer [Chaim the teacher]. He began teaching his students in the early hours of the morning. And so, he ran around during the day from student to student, in all corners of the city, teaching the Hebrew language, Hebrew history, and the Bible. For years he was engaged in teaching. Dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of his students live today in Israel and abroad. Besides the love of the Hebrew language, he instilled in his students the longing for Israel as a natural continuation of his teaching.
I remember, when I was a child he sat me on his lap and wonderful legends poured out of his mouth, about the tomb of King David, and about his son King Solomon, about the Maccabees and more and more legends, and a strong longing for Israel arose in my heart. He was a Zionist not only out of consciousness, but, more correctly, out of the depth of his feelings. And he instilled all this in his sons and students.
His sons, and his grandchildren, among them a grandson who was named Chaim after him, are living and working in the country of his dreams and speaking the language he had taught. It's a pity, a very pity that he himself didn't get to live here and see it with his own eyes. But he won, won that his image, and his teachings, were deeply engraved in the hearts of his family members and his beloved students who are scattered across the country.
by Yoyl Perel
Translated by Leonard Prager
I traveled to Lutsk in 1945 in a mood of one visiting a parent's grave, deep sadness in my eyes, looking indifferently at everything and everyone about me, my heart grieving
I wandered along the main thoroughfare, Jagiellonian Avenue, and looked for a familiar face, for someone I knew. Through clouded eyes I still saw the blood-stained words of the inscription on the coarse painted sheet-metal memorial slab supported by two steel rails on the improvised mound in Polonka: 18 thousand Hebrew residents of the city of Lutsk murdered by Hitler's murderers. Eighteen thousand! Among them my mother, four brothers and three sisters! Is there really not a single survivor?
Crossing the Bazilyaner Bridge, near the cathedral I noticed a few Christian market-wives setting out their wares. One of them looked familiar a slender woman with a pale face, deep dark expressionless eyes, thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes, thick black hair with a wide streak of gray that was almost white and I tried to fix who she was and where I knew her from. She noticed me looking at her and seemed about to move towards me when she suddenly hesitated and, pulling back as though she had forgotten something, she lowered her eyes in a bashful manner. I now remembered who she was, approached her and whispered, Don't you recognize me, Bashe? I recognized you, she answered in a voice lower than my whisper. But seeing how the other women stared at them with great curiosity, she quietly said, You can visit us this evening. I live She gave me her address.
I continued my walk. The Prakov Cathedral still stood. Opposite it were the ruins of my parent's demolished home where I had spent my childhood and youth. The house near the main highway where my sisters Freyde and Reyzl and my brother Bentsien lived still stood, though the lower wall, the firewall, had fallen in leaving the kitchens exposed. (It seems that during the night that I arrived in Lutsk the wall caved in.) In that house hung my brother's tapestries; his furniture, sewing machine, even his radio were there. I saw the fearful and yet insolent glances of the Ukrainians who had squatted on the properties and I quickly moved on.
Almost all the Jewish homes in the vicinity lay in ruins. The little side streets were covered with trash and with pieces of glass that reflected the sunlight. It was like a desert wasteland.
The wooden, tall-windowed Karaite Synagogue stood intact. Of the Great Synagogue only the walls remained, the roof having caved in. The Tailor's Synagogue and the Morning Synagogue were also ruined.
In my mind there echoed the melody with which we recite the Book of Ecclesiastes. Lines from Bialik's In the City of Slaughter came to mind: The sun shone and the shokhet slaughtered.
Turning back I walked along the bank of the Styr River. Suddenly there faced me a young man, Yoshke Liberman, Shmulke's younger brother. We kissed and he took me home with him and introduced me to his wife, a blonde German woman, much older than him, and to his little daughter. His wife, who was once his nursemaid, had saved his life. She received me warmly, speaking to me in a passable Yiddish, telling me many things of ghetto life which I was eager to hear.
My mother, she explained, did not want to leave with her children and remained at home. She insisted that this was where she had given birth to her fourteen children and here she would die. She met death in her black satin dress.
Going by the outer wall of the Krishtalke home, built by a father for his daughter with so much effort, I thought of the woman I had earlier recognized Bashe, Bashe the Apostle. I recalled how she looked as a girl with long pigtails. They were five sisters two blonde and three black-haired. The oldest sister, Hannah, blue-eyed and with long blonde pigtails, was a friend of mine. All the sisters played mandolins and guitars. Their home was like a club, always full of young people. They had an older brother, Yekhiel, dark-complexioned and with heavy, masculine negroid facial features; he had a deep bass voice and sang in the synagogue with Cantor Rosmarin.
Bashe was the youngest. Boys had not yet begun to notice her she was still a child. But unobserved by anyone she grew up and developed into a mature young woman. She was a pupil in the seventh class of the Powszechnie ('Public' ) School.
People used to whisper that she went around with gentile boys by the Lyubart Castle.
She fell in love with a Polish boy, a musician who played the saxophone. Her parents and sisters tried to influence her to break off with the sheygets ('gentile lad', used contemptuously) so as not to disgrace the family. Weren't there plenty of Jewish boys? But nothing helped. Her father used to call her names and even tried to beat her. Her mother walked about like a shadow and found no rest anywhere. Home became a hell for Bashe. One night she did not return home. It turned out that the sisters in the nunnery were teaching her the Catholic prayers. She went to church with them and prayed with them.
Her older sisters hurried to marry. Mother and father observed the traditional seven-day memorial period for the dead (shiva), as though she were dead. It was forbidden to speak her name in the house.
This is how my day passed.
In the evening I cautiously rang the doorbell. Someone stepped quickly on the other side of the door. A young blonde-haired man with bright catlike eyes opened the door. The manner in which he greeted me told me that he was Bashe's husband and that she had told him of our meeting earlier in the day.
Bashe got up, put down the spoon with which she was feeding her daughter, walked a few steps towards me and held out her hand. She held my hand longer than mere greeting required, as though wishing to assure me of her friendly feelings towards me. I saw how pale she looked, how tearful her eyes were, how measured and slow her movements.
-Let me introduce my husband and daughter, she uttered in Polish.
-Happy to meet you, I replied to her husband, shaking his hand. Turning to the bright-blonde child with little blue eyes and a turned-up Polish nose like her father's, whom she took after, I asked, What is your name?
-Zosyenka, Zosyenka Shtsherbinska, she answered with a hearty child's smile.
-Tell me, Zosyenka, what is your father's name?
-My father? Vladislav.
-And your mother?
Bronislava Shtsherbinska, she answered proudly, pleased with her successful performance.
-Vladislav, be so kind as to put the child to bed, Bashe asked of her husband. It's time.
The young man lifted the child into his arms and said to her: Now say goodnight to everyone.
-Dobranoc, mother! The child said goodnight to her mother with a strong kiss. Father and daughter left the room immediately. He evidently understood that his wife wished to be alone with me.
-Is your name really Bronislava?
-That is my Polish name. It is the name the priest gave me, she answered simply.
-That name surely proved useful. Thanks to it you stayed alive.
-It was not the name that saved me, nor my being a Polska; it was my sister Hene who saved me.
-I don't understand. How did your sister save you?
- This is how it happened, she began. It is unbelievable but true. During the occupation my husband and I and our child lived as Christians outside the ghetto. 'Lived' if one could call that a life. My husband entertained the drunken German officers in restaurants and earned enough to feed us. But I was dissatisfied. A great longing for my parents, sisters and brother who were suffering behind the ghetto walls gnawed at my heart like a leech and gave me no rest. During the six years in which I was separated from my own family, I hardly missed them. Occupied with my husband and child I forgot them. I lived in a different world. I became an ardent Catholic, at the outset from pressures but later with my whole heart. In my prayers I prayed too for my family, prayed they be forgiven for casting me away, All my former acquaintances and relatives distanced themselves from me. Everyone has their pride. I understood that not only was I dead for them, but they were dead for me as well. There is no road back to the past, but now that they were suffering so hopelessly I missed them. I could neither sleep nor rest. I felt pity for all the Jews who begged to die behind the ghetto walls. I used to go to church every day to pray for them, but not even my prayers lightened my pain. I saw how the murderers transported wagonloads of people, half-skeletons with glassy eyes, to murder them some place far away. My heart almost burst with hurt.
Once, after a long night of anguish and of thinking matters through, I left home, left husband and child, and went to join my parents in the ghetto. If I was to die, then better to do so together with them. My parents received me with open arms as though I had returned from a distant land. With tears in our eyes we kissed and were silent. My sisters, however, were angry with me for abandoning my husband and child. But they showed such warm feelings toward me, so much concern and consideration that it was hard for me to bear.
It was hard to recognize them,they were so thin and emaciated-looking.
In a few days time, our turn came. My parents and my sisters with their husbands and children filled a vehicle.
In the last moment my sister Hene grabbed me and pulled me up into an attic where we hid for several days. The Ukrainian police rummaged everywhere and finally found us and threw us into an empty store off Weissman's wall near the church. They squeezed many others into the same space. We were there for three days with no bread, without a drop of water, with no fresh air. We prayed for death and envied those whose agony was behind them. On the fourth day we were transported to a mass grave. We were forced to undress and lie down on the rows of corpses of those who had preceded us and not been covered. I lay near my sister Hene. I was half-dead, indifferent to all, but thirsty for death which took too long to arrive. Suddenly my sister Hene raised herself and with a force unlike her own, cried out: Whom do you want to kill? A Catholic Polish woman lies here. There has been a mistake. Why does she deserve to die?
The murderers answered her outburst with drunken laughter: Well then, out with the Polska, we'll attend to you separately.
I remained where I was. I did not want to crawl out, but Hene, with her last remnant of energy, pushed me out of the grave. Soon I heard a resounding volley. After that I saw and heard nothing. They revived me and handed me a dress to put on. I answered questions mechanically. Who was my husband and where did I live? How long all this took I don't remember; I lost all sense of time and place. When my husband came running with our child in his arms I looked at them with indifference and resignation as though they were strangers.
Since then years have gone by. I live, I eat and drink. But I have lost all joy in life. I have lost the human smile . I have lost my belief .
The two selections I have chosen and which I give both in their original Yiddish and in English translation, struck me in particular. It is overwhelming to consider that the memorial literature of the Shoa, a large proportion by untrained writers, is dense with such powerful narratives. We will never fathom the full horrors of the Shoa, but we can avoid a coldly statistical approach by listening to individual narrators relating their own experiences. Bashe's heart-rending story as perceived by Yoyl Perel (about whom, incidentally I as yet know nothing) documents the reverberations of a normal Polish-Jewish domestic tragedy under the extreme and unsupportable pressures of the Shoa.
The teller's description of the Ukrainian squatters as both fearful and insolent corroborates Jan T. Gross's view of Polish post-Holocaust antisemitism as a special case (see his recent Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz). The Jews are afraid of the gentiles who in turn are afraid of the Jews, afraid of losing Jewish property they have requisitioned. Post-war Lutsk is a wasteland. The somewhat literary teller thinks of Ecclesiastes, of Bialik's BeIr haHarega ('In the City of Slaughter'), of broken glass reflecting the sun with total indifference. But the physical wasteland of Judenrein Lutsk is less terrifying than the battered soul of Bashe, who was once a charming young girl with long pigtails and played guitar and mandolin.
by David Prital
Translated by Sara Mages
It was difficult to imagine that the Jewish hospital next to the Great Synagogue would serve a refuge for Jews during the Nazis' great aktion. During the war, the Germans turned part of the Jewish hospital into a hospital for Russian prisoners of war. The doctors, as well as the entire staff, were Jews. When it became a hospital for prisoners of war, the area around it was placed under the supervision, and direct command, of the German army. This fact took on an extraordinary meaning.
On the day when the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Lutsk began, the hospital was like a closed and protected island in the sea of calamity. By chance, my mother and I were able to sneak into the hospital area thanks to my friend, Sheindele Gelernter, a refugee from Congress Poland who worked there as a nurse. It is impossible to describe the feelings of the people who were inside and saw, with their own eyes, how dozens of trucks full of men, women and children, passed on their last journey in the section between the Great Synagogue and the bridge to Hnidawa. When the trucks returned from the killing ravine, they carried the clothes, luggage and packages of the executed. The Nazis gathered all these packages in a big pile near the synagogue. I still remember today the great shout that Dr, Rosenkrantz, the director of the Jewish Hospital, shouted when he saw his wife's suitcases. Apparently, he was given a promise that as the wife of a hospital doctor she would stay alive.
The liquidation continued and the terror that prevailed among the Jews in the hospital gradually increased. Who knows how much longer the Germans will let go of us? This thought crossed the minds of all the hospital refugees. Rumor followed rumor, and a nerve-racking nervousness took hold of everyone. A number of people collapsed after they swallowed poison or injected themselves with a lethal drug. The first to end her life in this way was Mrs. Dr. Bakshet. After she had done the deed, she passed through all those who were there, dressed in new clothes as if for a wedding, and parted from each one separately with a handshake and a hug. At the end of the farewell the body and soul became one.
This act encouraged many to follow in her footsteps. Dr. Rapaport, and Mania Meidan from the pharmacy, also attempted suicide. To this day I remember her face - the face of a happy person who was freed from torture. She lay on a bed and the poison that infiltrated her body ended her life. She was saved for a short time, but eventually died in great agony (the testimony of Dr. Pinus and his wife).
I also remember that according to his mother's vigorous request, Dr. Rosenstrum from Wolka injected his mother with an injection of grace in order to redeem her. Kronstein's business manager (Pesach) also did it. Several nurses from the hospital, who were in possession of morphine injections, also followed this path. There were also "good" Germans who, for a lot of money, were ready to provide cyanide. In conversations with the hospital staff they encouraged the act of suicide, stating that it was the "logical" solution in this situation. They even promised to erect a monument in their memory after the war… and who can articulate the genius of the German race!!
The sight was horrifying. In the great hall people lay on the beds and waited for the redeeming death. But not everyone was lucky enough to die a peaceful death. Nurses and doctors walked in the corridors with syringes in hand - ready for the decisive act - and one asked the other: what is happening outside? Is there still hope?
Suddenly a rumor spread: we have been saved!
The encouraging rumor came after a strange incident in those days. Ukrainians, the Nazis' servants and helpers in exterminating the Jews, approached the hospital to take the Jews out and lead them to extermination. And here, they encountered a refusal from the German soldiers, who did not let them enter the hospital area, which was clearly a military area. The German sergeant major stated that he would not allow anyone to enter without the approval of his military superiors. It was a typical German phenomenon. Apart from that, there were also personal motives that I would explain later.
A faint light of hope penetrated the Jews who were in the hospital. The thoughts were directed first and foremost to those who only a few minutes ago committed suicide. A frantic rescue work began on those who had not yet been killed by the poison. The children of the man, who worked for Kronstein, were brought back to life after they drank poison. For a long time after that they were tormented by severe torture. There was a case when one of the two Shultz sisters woke up (the younger, Leah) due to the rescue operation. The second, Bozia, died. The elderly parents, who were on the hospital premises, participated in the rescue operation of the two sisters. Beforehand, these parents witnessed their daughters' suicide. It is impossible to describe the sight of the rescue operation, which was only partially successful and created horrific family situations.
As I said above, the German sergeant major had personal reasons to guard the place. I know that the aforementioned had a Jewish friend who worked at the hospital, and she was the one who influenced him to delay the entry of the Ukrainians and the Nazis. Of course, relying on formal practices, but it can be assumed that his authority was limited. According to Shpivak (the surviving hospital administrator), the sergeant received encouragement from the commander of the prisoner of war camp (Jobst was his name), a man with human feelings and a sincere desire to help the Jews. He was the one who responded, back in the ghetto period, to the offer of the Jewish hospital workers to open a wing for soldiers prisoners of war, and made every effort to protect the Jewish staff for the entire time (according to Shpivak).
There was also a case when a German soldier arrived by boat into the hospital grounds and took out a young woman, a refugee from Polish Congress (Not long ago I happened to meet this woman, Today she is married to a Jewish husband and has sons). According to her story, the German soldier kept her, and her sister, out of devotion, in the military church in the barracks in Lutsk until they traveled as Poles to work in Germany.
I also know of one case of escape. It was Shlomo Roiter, who climbed over the fence and was then a boy of about 12 years old. We accompanied him to the fence, with blessings from the bottom of our hearts for the success of the act. It is a wonder to me how this Jewish boy managed to get to Romania and from there to Israel. I met him in the training core in Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha when I immigrated to Israel. Indeed, it was a reward for courage and daring.
A few days have passed, days of anxiety, hope and anticipation of what was to come. The murderers went on a rampage outside the hospital walls, and the total annihilation of the Jews of Lutsk continued. And we, inside, were full of sorrow and depression for the fate of our loved ones who were led to death by the executioners.
My mother, Gitel of the Eidelman family, and I were in this hell. I will not exaggerate if I say, with full responsibility, that during all this time my mother was calm out of a desire and decision to die.
It is not worth living in such a world. Am I better than the thousands of Jews who fell yesterday and are falling today? These were her words, and from here her calmness and composure stemmed from.
Those who discuss and research the passive behavior of the Jews in the face of the Nazi extermination machine, will find in this opinion, which was said by a Jewish mother in a city that is being destroyed, the deep truth which undoubtedly expresses the mindset of thousands of Jewish mothers and sons.
A few days later, the murderous hand was silent and a deathly silent prevailed in the ghetto. The Germans concentrated the survivors in the small ghetto, in the area that stretched between the first and second Hnidawa bridges.
According to Shpivak, sixty people remained in the hospital after the great liquidation. Three selections were held during the fall. The Nazis constantly pressured the commander of the POW camp, Jobst, to reduce the list of people he needed to maintain the services, but he had done everything to delay the extermination of his workers.
According to Spivak's testimony, in one of the selections a Jew from Lutsk, a butcher by profession attacked the police officer, Buch, as he passed through the hospital rooms to check if there were any Jews hiding there, and crushed the German's head with an ax.
The last ones left were: Dr. Rosencrantz, the nurse Sima, Shpivak and his wife, the sergeant's friend and her sister. Dr. Rosenkrantz tried to escape together with Sima, but the next day they were caught in their hiding place. The two sisters were also eliminated. Shpivak and his wife managed to escape in time.
by S. Shiloh
Translated by Sara Mages
December 9, 1942.The ground was covered with snow. About four hundred Jews gathered in the rooms of the camp's houses and brought up memories from the home that was, and all the dear figures who were lost and no longer exist. The people didn't talk about the figures of the dead, the parents, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren stood alive before their eyes. Here, one burst into tears and drew all the rest after him. It was a regular picture - a handful of men, healthy and robust, sitting and crying loudly. One magic word had the power to stop the grief: revenge! This word was like a miracle cure for the aching hearts. Plans, upon plans, were made.
My brother, Miki Schulman, who came to the camp after failing to form a partisan group in the forests, aroused the Jews with fictitious stories so that they would go out to the forest. At the head of the group, which was organized under my brother's influence, was Moshe the tinsmith. Moshe moved from room to room, encouraged the people and directed the feelings of revenge into a realistic channel. His plan was simple: to obtain weapons and escape to the forests. Not to save lives but to fight the enemy.
In those circumstances it was the only way, but the most difficult. Every Jew who left the camp without a permit risked his life. We only had one defective gun. I, the boy whose face was as light as the face of a gentile boy, was sent to the address of friends to obtain weapons. All my efforts failed. No Gentile wanted to help us,
even for a payment of a large sum of money. Our hands were empty, but our heart was encouraged by the idea of escape. And so we prepared to leave. Another day, or two, we will escape from here. Suddenly, at eight o'clock in the evening of December 9, a shout passed through the camp: We are surrounded. A terrible running around began. People tried to break the policemen chain - but in vain. Shots pierced the air and the Germans' shouts terrorized everyone. We are finished, We are late - these words echoed throughout the camp.
The camp was centralized in three buildings. One big building that once served as a Jewish high school, and two other two-story buildings. On that fateful evening I was in the kitchen and warehouse building, and my brother remained in the central building. I didn't see him again. I didn't know what his part was in the organization of the uprising. Over the years, after the liberation, two, who were near him and survived, told me that he was sure of his success in breaking through the police chain and escaping.
About fifty Jews lived in the house where I hid - cooks, storekeepers, office workers and department managers. The living spirit of this group was the goalkeeper of the soccer team, The Hashmonaim, which existed back in the days of Poland. From the moment the entrances to the camp were blocked, and the hope of escape vanished, he was the preacher for the uprising in this house. Iron and wooden beds were piled in the corners of the rooms. The Germans sensed the preparations for the uprising and acted cautiously. Almost all of them wore a steel helmet. On the main street, across from the camp, machine guns were placed on armored vehicles. All the Jews from the central building were moved to the second building where the carpentry, the shoemaker and the leather workshop, were located. Everything that happened in the place mentioned above - during the night and day, until the last uprising that I saw with my own eyes. - I am telling from what I have been told by witnesses who were there and remained alive.
After the Germans crowded most of the Jews into one building and depression took over the people, Moshe the tinsmith stood up and in his hoarse voice declared: Let my soul die with the Philistines! We will not go like sheep to the slaughter. Jews! Take axes, knives, whatever available - and we will all die with honor! Anyone who will try to hide and will not lend a hand to the uprising - will bear the responsibility! Most of the Jews, led by the organized group, followed him. The courage, which was hidden in the secrets of the soul, burst forth for all to see. The joy of despair spread among everyone. The food, they had stored for a time of need, was put on the tables and the last meal was held. Vodka bottles were passed from mouth to mouth, the intoxication of the impending battle ignited the hearts, and the Jews, who just a little while ago bowed their heads, stood proud and ready for the terrible battle. Only in one corner stood Jews wrapped in tallitot reciting the viduy. One o'clock after midnight was set as the zero hour. The connection between this house, and the house where I was, was very weak. The Germans did not let us to open the windows to talk, but one thing was clear to both houses: resistance by force. One o'clock in the morning has arrived. The lights were turned off, and everyone stood ready to leap through the windows. The Germans did not hesitate and opened fire. Broken glass, bundles of plaster and bricks, flew around. A commotion arose. The cries and the screams of the women and the elderly brought disorder, and it was impossible to hear any command. A depressing exhaustion took over again. Only one gun, only axes, knives, and bottles of acid against machine guns. The lights came back on and the shooting stopped. A heated argument broke out. Moshe barely managed to calm the people down. The elders demanded to wait until morning and not to provoke the Germans. Moshe was determined to take advantage of the night. The majority supported to speed things up. Frantic preparations began. Barricades were set up near the doors and work tools and bottles of acid were distributed to each person. The tables were dismantled and their legs used as poles. An inner wall was destroyed and its bricks were piled up next to the barricades. A young man, whose name was also Miki like my brother's name, emerged as a clear leader.
He naturally became Moshe's deputy. He encouraged and organized the people. Anyone who tried to hide felt his blows and his knife. Most of them were divided into positions under the command of those who suddenly emerged from the crowd at the inevitable moment.
The darkness has passed. The morning light heralded the arrival of the terrible day. It was quiet all around. No one said a word. Only the heartbeats were heard. Everyone is waiting for the Germans to start: here come trucks and stop on the main street. Ukrainian policemen and one German approach the front door and order everyone to leave: Juden raus! [Jews out!] - the German's threatening shout is being heard. No one is moving. The German repeatedly shouts. The hearts beat strongly. The eyes widen and a cold sweat covers the body. They are going up - a whisper passes between the defenders. The wooden stairs make the sound of sure and quick steps. Who will be the first to dare? A thought passes like lightning among all. Suddenly, a shout is heard from one of the young men: death to the Germans! and pieces and wood, bricks and acid bottles were thrown at the policemen's heads, and with them wild shouts of encouragement. Blood! Blood for blood! The policemen retreated wounded. Their German commander covered his face with his palms and ran like a madman. The acid water put an end to his sight! All the policemen, who stood ready around the camp, looked stunned. The fear stuck to them as well! The joy of the mock victory spread among the Jews who leaped as one man towards the stairs to participate in the battle. With great difficulty Moshe was able to return everyone to their places.
Now the Germans used a trick. They took out all those who were hiding on the first floor, allowed them to take as many objects as possible, and even added a loaf of bread to each person. They politely began to put them on the trucks. Then, one gendarme stood at a distance and called everyone to come out without resistance, because they are being transferred to another labor camp: the front is getting closer and Jewish craftsmen are needed in the rear. Anyone who refuses will be killed on the spot.
It was hard to resist such a temptation. But no one moved from his place. The mere daring to raise a hand against the Germans instilled a spirit of heroism and self-respect on everyone. The desire for revenge - even the smallest revenge - fulfilled their wishes. The Ukrainian blood, which was spilled before the eyes of the Jews, was like oil for the fire. Everyone lay on the floor like persecuted animals fighting for their lives. In a moment they will break out with a mad roar and sink their claws into the flesh of their enemies. A group of lost Jews decided to die as heroes and save their honor and the honor of their people.
The rumor about the heroic war of the Jews in the camp quickly spread throughout the city. Businesses were closed and laborers stopped working - in anticipation of the results. Later, when I wandered through the villages, they still told about the heroism of the Jews of our city, and thanks to them they also respected me.
The Germans decided to attack. A squad of Ukrainians and Germans advanced on the steps as their weapons spit fire. The first young men fell. The wounded are writhing on the floor. For a brief moment it seems that all is lost and the murderers will break through the barrier. Suddenly, the cry of the rebels increases
and the whistling of the bullets seems to get lost in it. Wave after wave they charge at the attackers: stones, axes, stick and whatever is available, they throw at the murderers' heads. Hand-to-hand combat. The Ukrainians, stunned and afraid of death, jump back and escape. Bricks and bottles of acid water fly after them. Some of them are already basking in their blood.
The second attack was pushed back. Our dead are respectfully placed in a single row in the farthest room. The severely wounded receive medical treatment and the slightly wounded remain near the barricades. The little water that remained was divided among the wounded.
The Germans tried a second ploy: they sent Natan, one of the leaders of the Jewish police in the ghetto, to convince the Jews. Nathan climbed the stairs, and before he could say a word, Miki tore his stomach to pieces. The Germans understood that the Jews' answer is - struggle. They called for reinforcements, and began break into the lower floor from several sides at once to capture room after room. In some places they were pushed back, and in other places they managed to capture dozens of Jews. Those caught were brutally tortured in front of everyone. When those who remained on the barricades saw the Germans' acts - they lost their spirit for a moment. Physical weakness gripped many to the point of nausea and vomiting. To die quickly, to hurry and die - was their wish. Some found a hiding place in all kinds of cracks and holes - no one prevented them from hiding. A day passed. The winter sun stood behind the camp. The time was 4-5 toward evening. There was no more strength to withstand this desperate struggle. The number of defenders dwindled.
The final decision has been made: to attack the chain of policemen surrounding the camp, and die in hand-to-hand combat. No one hoped to get out of this struggle alive. People parted from each other with strong and prolonged handshakes. Unequivocal glances. Many lips whispered Shema Yisrael before the final leap. The command has been given and the fire took hold of the four corners of the house. With mighty singing they jumped, one after the other, in front of the repulsive faces of the Ukrainians. The chain of policemen retreated, and the young men frantically climbed on the high barbed wire fence.
In the house I was in, only whispering and shuffling of feet could be heard. Everyone hurried to the windows. I jumped out my hiding place behind the stairs and quickly ran upstairs. I heard the rattle of machine guns and the fragmented singing of the Soviet Anthem. I rushed to the window and I was stunned. Great many young men were trapped in the barbed wire fence, and the machine guns tore them apart from all sides. We escaped from the windows. Great fear gripped us all. The spirit of heroism, which still flickered in the handful of young men, gradually faded. The wooden and iron rods, our weapons, were thrown away. Helplessness was all around. We ran from room to room, searching for a hole and a crack - just hide, to hide.
I walked to the hiding place that I had already prepared. With trembling hands I began to cover myself with the pieces of peat (turf). The machines guns rattled non-stop, and when they fell silent, I found myself covered only up to half of my body. What should I do, God in heaven? How can I cover myself? Every moment is precious. The Germans will break into and I'm still visible.
Suddenly the door opened. A young couple I knew well burst in. Panicked, they started to dig with their hands in the peat. But the place was too small to accommodate the three of us. No - they said to each other - either we live together, or die together. Desperate, they decided to look for another place. I don't remember if I asked them to cover me, but the picture was etched in my memory. I lie down, and the young man throws piece after piece of peat on top of me and covers me completely. His wife pulls him by his other hand, begging him to leave me and think about himself. And he, like a Redeeming Angel, gets down on his knees and throwing pieces on me, more, and more and more. And while doing so he speaks to his wife in a soft and quiet voice: never mind, either way we will not stay alive, but he might be saved. He is a boy, he might succeed. And to me he turns with a commanding voice: If you remain alive, remember, remember us - remember, because you must avenge the revenge of us all. Do you hear? You must avenge the revenge of us all!
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