One day ten Jews were to work and in the evening they were told to come back next day and woe to them if any of them were missing or exchanged for somebody else. One of them, however, broke down. He feared the heavy work more than death and also shirked responsibility towards the rest. So he disguised himself as a woman and slipped off to Makov. My uncle David Wolensky volunteered to go instead of the runaway and so the nine others were saved.
At the same time another group was made to build fortifications. The murderers killed Shmuel from the oil-mill while he was working. We were bewildered and felt helpless. One of the "good" Germans advised us to try to get away: "There'll be no life for you here." So we moved to Makov, but couldn't stay there either. The priest, one of the honest Gentiles, bribed the Nazis in order to make them let the Jews alone. They agreed on the condition that strangers who had arrived as refugees leave the town. So we had to clear out in all haste and come back to Rozhan. We stayed overnight with a Gentile woman, called Brengoshova, whose son was known as a rabid Jew-hater and had become infamous for his cruelty to the Jews of Rozhan and the vicinity, when the Germans occupied the town. Yet, oh wonders! It was his mother who took good care of us that night, in the teeth of her son's resistance. More than that; at her behest he went out to see that there were no Germans around so I might go and save something from our old home. I arrived there under his protection but found it destroyed. So I returned to the Brengoshova, where we also found the Greenwalds and my aunt Rebecca and her children. We understood that we had to move as soon as possible. Mother went to the market to buy some food for us and for the rest, but one Polish woman hit her over the head and shouted: "How dare you show your face here and buy things that are for Christians?" So that mother could buy nothing.
We went to Dlugoshlodlo and near the road we found corpses of Jews who had just been murdered and who were still bleeding. We slipped away to Govorovo. There we found a wooden shack at some distance from the town and hid in it. We hoped to rest after the tiresome journey, but very soon I felt like choked. I rushed out crying: "It's terribly hot in here!" We all rushed out and saw that the shack was on fire. The Germans had found out and decided to deliver us to certain death: to roast us in our hideout. So we ran into the open field as best we could. They descried us, began to shout "Halt!" (Stop) and showered us with bullets, one of which hit my uncle. We wanted to stop and assist him but he only raised his head calling: "Run, children, Escape, don't tarry." One of the Germans walked up, hit him over the head and finished him off with the rifle butt, not to waste another bullet on him. Next he turned on us. We saw that we couldn't get away, that he'd reach us, so we came back to him, hugged him and kissed his uniform and entreated him to let us live. Somehow he had pity on us and let us go. We couldn't go further and spent the night in the field. Next morning aunt Chajtcha and somebody else went to bury my uncle, in his clothes and in the very place where he had died. They found on him a charity box, which he had saved, hoping in vain to carry it to its destination.
When we reached Govorovo we were at once directed to the Market Square where the inhabitants had been assembled. After a long while people were ordered to gather at the places of worship: the Jews in the synagogue and the Christians in their church. As we entered the building I could see many Jews lying on the ground in the courtyard bleeding from severe wounds. It seems they had failed to hurry while squeezing in and the German has shot them and left them where they had fallen, some dead, some dying. I shall never forget that sight. Some had been shot in their faces, blinded and gored with broken skulls, past recognition.
Horrible beyond description was the sight of the girl whose belly had been torn open so that her bowels were spread on the ground. There was also our neighbor Judith Schreiber lying between the dead, wounded in her face, distorted and writhing in pain. I saw more people of Rozhan who were no longer living: Shlomo Zinamon, Shemlke Plotka - I do not remember all the names.
I have no remembrance of how I managed to squeeze in and get out again. When all the Jews were inside, the Germans sprayed the synagogue with kerosene and set it on fire. Suddenly, I felt as if dried up, choking and terribly thirsty. I went for a drop of water from a pump in the courtyard with a little cup in my hand. That very moment a car drew up and stopped. A short, rather fat officer stepped out and asked: "What's the matter here?" Lower ranked soldiers - his subordinates explained: "Here we can destroy all the Jews at one stroke." He interrupted them and in a quiet, determined way told them: "This is too much." He gave the order to open the doors and shouted: "Out!"
Only one word but, it worked like magic. The Jews came pouring out, while the walls were already on fire. Half-naked people bounded over each other - it had been so hot inside that many had begun to pull their clothes off. At first being outside, I didn't grasp what was happening. One of the Germans seized me and tried to push me back, but was swept on by the crowd that was breaking out.
I was standing a little distance looking for somebody whom I knew. I saw my father coming out of the door, running, while he held a Talith (prayer shawl) in his hand. Everybody was running down to the river for some water. The turmoil was terrific. Down there I searched for my parents, my family. I was afraid - I had never entered the river alone, but now I had to cross it. Instinctively I raised my braids over my head and managed to get across. My parents were not there. I was running around like mad - like everybody else and crying. One German soldier with a tender and merciful look on his face approached me and tried to soothe me. He even offered me some food. But I wouldn't take it. I was only looking for my parents and repeated my quest again and again but in this he couldn't help me - nobody could. In the end we found each other, the whole family and we returned to Rozhan - where else could we go? We crossed the river in a boat and came back to Rozhan, which was in ruins. We were not alone. A number of families with children joined us. On the way we met some Germans who forced the Jews to cut off each other beards, to dance and to sing. They also gathered the children together and made us dance and sing. We sang, we danced, we cried, sobbed - and were afraid. For some time they enjoyed themselves until tired of it they let us go. In fact they did not set us free, but all of a sudden, we realized that they had gone. So we went back to our parents and continued on our way. In Rozhan there was no place where you could lay your head. So we left and turned to Kossov, where the Jews received us with open arms in an unforgettable way. It was the Sabbath, but everybody was eager to help: they brought us clothes and food. The adults were given a place to sleep in the synagogue, while the children were taken to different families and returned to their parents in the morning. Next day we left these dear Jews of Kossov and went on to Bialystok, and from there scattered all over the world. Some to Russia and to Siberia. We were among the few who were rescued. But the great majority perished, the Jews of Kossov among them - as the Germans were already entering their town, when we left. My father died in Siberia, Meshullam Negal in Turkestan. They are both buried in Jewish cemeteries. At the end of 1945 we arrived in Eretz-Israel.
From Rozhan to the Hell of Ostrov Three days before the war my regretted wife gave birth to our daughter - our boy was 4 ½ years old at the time. I was then employed at the barracks of the Polish army as a saddler, and was earning well. I had good reason to dream of a rosy future: many children and a decent return for the handiwork I was doing. In a word, I felt happy and the German bomb attacks, which came as a surprise to the Polish state, shattered my life, too. I was awestricken and bewildered.
We knew that Rozhan, as a fortified place, would be a target for bomb attacks of the Germans who would first of all want to destroy the bridge over the river Narew, to cut off the town and to vent their spleen on it without hindrance.
Therefore I decided to leave for Govorovo, but two days later firing started there, and we continued our flight to Ostrov-Mazovietzk. There was panic, no cart was to be hired and went on foot. The Germans spotted the refugees and their planes pursued us. They were flying low and strafing us with the machine-guns. We would run, drop to the ground each time a plane approached and then continue to run. In this way we made 35 km. with the noise of planes and the shrieking of the bullets over our heads all the time wearing us out.
When we reached Ostrov our baby seemed lifeless. We refused to accept the fact and even with the primitive means at our disposal we succeeded in reviving her and she lived on for a while under the Nazi terror. The Germans reached Ostrov two or three days late and immediately began to hunt for men to work for them. They behaved like dogcatchers. Two or three of them would assault a Jew in the street and carry him off to a concentration point for slave laborers. The work itself was of no importance to them. Their aim was to degrade us with the show of their power. That's what gave them satisfaction and pleasure, and they liked to take pictures of such "historic scenes" - the devil knows what for?
As time went on they improved their methods. They would invade Jewish homes - as Jews would no longer venture out into the streets - drag the men out brutishly and force them to go to the appointed place, with hands raised. There they would be kept for hours on end with their hands up. The process would take hours. As a place of assembly they had chosen the courtyard of the town hall. On the balcony a Nazi was standing, machine-gun in hand, watching the Jews intently. Woe to the man who would let his hands down for a moment: the culprit would be beaten mercilessly. That was the first day and we were afraid that they had gathered us here to liquidate us. When after hours of this ordeal, we were permitted to sit down, we felt better; yet there were more hours of anxious, nerve-wracking expectation. In the end two Germans appeared on the balcony and one of them explained that from now on no Jew would be allowed to be in the streets after 5. Trespassers would be shot on the spot. Windows in Jewish houses must be darkened any crack of light would be fired into. It was forbidden to assault any German and Jews had to salute Germans they met by taking off their hats.
After this "illuminating" speech we were told to go home. The hour was already half past five, when any Jew was liable to be shot without warning. People began to run like mad for their houses. We were thousands of refugees from many places, running, pushing, stumbling, falling down while the shots were ringing, some to frighten us and some to kill. As it happened we encountered a column of Nazis who began to hit us with their rifle-butts over the head and over the most sensitive parts of the body. When we got some distance away from them, they began to fire indiscriminately. I ran and hid in a courtyard where many Jewish victims had gathered. I didn't know the place and it was already dark and cold and I stayed hidden there all night. In the early morning I ran back to my family and before long I knew who were the dead in the courtyard where I had been hiding. Soon I heard of additional victims and I saw myself how they entered a bakery and murdered the baker's son. After a short while we were again called up for forced labor under the same circumstances: "Hands up! Walk! Run!" Vexation at work, scorn and photos to commemorate the event.
Two more weeks passed and in the streets appeared posters of the kind which later on made you shiver in your bones. They said: "All refugees who do not belong to the original inhabitants of Ostrov, must leave within 24 hours! Contravention to be punished by death on the spot!" Together with my father (of blessed memory) I ran to find a cart, in order to save what might be saved. On the Russian side we found a Gentile who was ready to come, stay overnight and next morning carry our belongings over the borderline. It was agreed that he stay with us, but at four in the afternoon he had second thoughts about the arrangements and we had to leave at once, as he demanded. I had some difficulty in persuading my father that the earlier the better. He worried about our younger brother, who was at forced labor outside town. My mother, who had a permit, ran to his working place to hurry his arrival and as soon as he turned up we set out. It was already late afternoon, when we left and reached the Russian side at a few km. from Zambrov.
Compared with the German soldiers with their shining uniforms, the Russian soldiers looked rather poorly dressed. They were a depressing sight and I began to doubt the solidity of their system. We did not want to stay near the place where the Nazis had humiliated and tortured us and went on to Zambrov. A Jewish tailor took us into his house; otherwise we would have found it hard to find shelter, as we were in fact two families: my parents together with my brother and two sisters and my own family.
The atmosphere in town was gloomy and frightening. People had no hopes and tomorrow's portents overshadowed everything. On top of all this, the Jewish authorities were entirely different from what we had witnessed at Ostrov. Here the heads of the community had become giddy with their power. We decided to leave Zambrov behind, too, and to go to Vilna, where we had a brother and the Russian administration was stable and orderly. Rumor had it, that the authorities there were more liberal and that ways to the outside world might be found.
We travelled by way of Bialystok. Communications were bad and trains didn't run on schedule. Nobody could tell when our train would be moving. We waited not knowing why it had stopped and when it would go on. The Soviet regime, that pretends to supervise man in all his doings and prescribe his way of life and thought, revealed itself in all its nakedness. Shiftlessness, lack of concerted action and order were the hallmark of everything.
In the end, after many vicissitudes, we reached Vilna and felt much better.
Our brother received us well. We could wash and rest and sat down for a
regular meal at the table. Hope was again kindled in our heart. A few days
later my brother rented an apartment for us. We settled down and began to
live again. Temperatures went down to 25 degrees C. below zero. It was an
exceptionally cold winter. I did roadwork, which was hard, but we managed to
get by on it and support our morale and the will to endure. My comrades at
work were Polish scientists, professors, judges, senior officials and released
criminals. One had to queue up for the meager food rations and prices rose
from day to day. Our comfort under these difficulties was that maybe, from
Vilna we might escape abroad. Here I met Hannah Blum and her family. Welwel,
Beilis, Rivka Nagel (Mallakh). Our common birthplace, Rozhan, made us draw
together and we talked about our several plans.
Welwel Beilis had two sons and a daughter. The elder son, Moish'ke escaped to Japan. Welwel began a trade in hides and had already a forged travel document and was about to leave. Then, one Saturday morning, when I was going to work in a driving rain, all wrapped up in my rags, I saw a truck standing before Welwel's house and Russian police dragging him out, with his wife and son, and beating them with their rifle-butts. The daughter was not with them. They were exiled to Siberia and I pitied them and their lot, but owing to this they got away with their lives, while the daughter was in the ghetto together with me and later on was martyred in Slonim, where one of her relatives had taken her expressly to save her. Those were the wondrous ways of those days.
In fact, that day the Jews were made to dig pits - their own graves - and when they had worked all day and their forces were spent, they were killed in the very pits they had dug. To this day I don't know, what the doorkeeper meant by his story; maybe he knew the truth and wanted to spare us. My brother was among the first victims of Vilna-Ponar and then began the manhunts; everyday the "catchers" passed through the ghetto streets, seizing people and leading them to the Ponar for extermination. From six in the morning till six at night they were at their job, apparently to fill the quota they had to hand in. My father too fell victim to one of these manhunts.
I as a saddler was working for them. Because of this I got a pass and was able to bring some food to my children. Until the ghetto was finally sealed, I used to work on Plotzki Street for the Lithuanian mounted police and was reckoned as a "highly useful Jew". When the ghetto was sealed off, the S.S. officer in charge of the workshop tried to obtain a permit for me to leave the ghetto, but he failed and I had to stay inside with the rest.
Our condition worsened from day to day. The manhunts became more and more frequent and in one of them my mother, sister-in-law, two sisters and a cousin were caught - may their memory be blessed. A Friday was the last day of their lives. The hunt occurred near our house and they were in fact taken out of our apartment.
I was saved by a marvel and this is how it happened: before the manhunt I crossed from our courtyard to the neighboring one - through a gap in the fence - I had heard that there was a secret vault there, where one could hide, and I wanted to prepare a shelter for the family. However, the vault didn't look right and I decided not to put the children in there for fear they might smother even before we were detected. So I went back home and suddenly I saw my wife running towards me with both children in her arms. So we ran together and entered a room where many Jews were huddled together. There we stood waiting for what we thought was inescapable death. Suddenly a door opened close to the spot where I was standing and a hunchback peeped into find out what all the hubbub was about. We all crowded into that room in panic and by chance somebody moved a cupboard uncovering a secret door, through which we passed to safety, the door closing behind us.
From the window I could see the miserable Jews who were being carried to the
Ponar. I could hear their desperate cries and wails as they were beaten while
being loaded on the trucks. I knew that my dearest were among them, but could
not rescue them.
In the evening we returned to our apartment, to life... Those who had been near and dear to me had been sent to their deaths. I would never see them again and yet we returned to live. My greatest care was food for the little ones. Risking my life I slipped out of the ghetto to get something to eat for them and so we carried on. It was a miracle that we managed to keep our two little ones alive, while only the strongest and the rich remained hidden in bunkers in the homes of Gentiles who demanded large sums for their help.
After six in the evening the street became quiet. Instincts prompted me to stir among the ruins. I found matches and a thermos bottle. I stepped down into the street and looked for a place to hide and shelter us. The house bordered on the courtyard of our former dwelling place. I went down Spital Street, where on the one side the Jewish hospital had been and on the other the Jewish police. It was dark by now and one could see nothing. Suddenly I heard footsteps on the opposite sidewalk: I cried out: "Hello! Can you hear me?" It was a Jewish policeman, who was dumbfounded when he heard me speaking Yiddish. Then he called back: "What're you doing here? Are you mad? Gans will come and do for you!" I knew who Gans was and began to cry and to beg. I told him of the tragedy in the cellar, how I had managed to save my baby's life and I asked him to help me get her into the hospital - maybe she would be safe there and for us, too, it would be easier to hide. He refused, and only advised me to put her down at the gate - maybe passersby would find and rescue her. I didn't accept his advice, wouldn't abandon her. In the deep darkness I couldn't see the expression on his face: was he softening or did he still insist? I entreated him and in the end he acceded and went to the hospital to find out whether they could take her in. Meanwhile I went back and brought my wife and children down from the attic. They had already despaired from ever seeing me again.
Meanwhile the policeman came back and told me: "Give me the baby. Let's see, something may be done." My wife went with him lest she begin to cry and would have to be soothed. We couldn't even kiss her good-bye; from afar I could hear the parting. Both my wife and our daughter were sobbing. She felt she was giving up her dearest. When she returned we began to make plans where to hide next.
We passed by the cellar of our misfortune and found a woman there under a pile of rags. She came out and joined us. Next we returned to our house, beyond the wall, where the Golomb family used to live. I heard some noises from below the floorboards. I found the house empty but the pounding and noises were distinctly audible. I found a large kitchen knife and pried loose two of the boards and then something occurred which I shall never forget: clouds of vapor arose from the opening I had made as if from a bath house - it was the pent-up breath of the hideaways. Good God! How could they have been breathing down there? These Jews had to be saved. Had they escaped death at the hands of the Nazis only to die from asphyxiation, which is the most horrible form of death?
I tried to pry loose another board to widen the exit for them, but then one of them climbed out and wanted to kill me for betraying them. I managed to reassure him and the others and explained that I only wanted to conceal my wife and child while I would stay outside and cover them up. I was dead tired, covered the bunker and went to look for a hiding place for myself. I returned to the courtyard, which served a number of houses with outhouses and coal shacks. In one of these I decided to stay hidden overnight. I leaned a number of boards obliquely against the wall and spent the night underneath them, like a horse in its stall after a day's work. I stood staring into the empty darkness, unable to think; only heaving a sigh of exhaustion and despair from time to time. In the street I could hear the cruel shouts of the Lithuanians, drunk with lust of murder. Even these didn't stir me. Suddenly I hard shouts of joy from the drunkards and the desperate cries of a little girl of maybe, ten: "Let me live! I am so small! Mercy! Let me go!" But they didn't.
For two days I was left standing hidden behind those boards and, when the three days allotted to the annihilation of the ghetto came to an end, I crept out. I ran straight back to my dear ones and opened the bunker. Again clouds of vapor came forth and stifling smells, but nobody had died. They all climbed out and began to settle again in their empty houses. I went to see my little girl in the hospital. My heart was beating as a rumor had been spread that among the many thousand victims there were also the inmates of the hospital. I found her however alive - only her curly hair had been shorn.
I strolled through the streets to get something to eat for my family. I saw people who had bought their yellow cards and others who were selling them, as they had been unable to obtain the cards they were entitled to. The Germans were looking for skilled artisans and couldn't find any. Now they became aware of the cheating but didn't do anything about it. They had to issue additional "living certificates" that were now called "extra papers" (Zugabe-Scheme). For these, too, you needed "pull". With great difficulty I got one from the Jewish authorities for a bribe and ...because of party affiliation. I sold a blanket and gave the money to somebody who was employed by the S.S. and so, in the end, I obtained the cherished piece of paper.
As I began to work I found ways to bring food home. I was employed in my own profession on Politzker Street. I worked for the Lithuanian mounted police and for the Germans who were quartered in the former Polish barracks there. With me there was another elderly Jewish saddler, and a number of Jews, men and women, were employed in various services. My situation was good. I received a laissez-passer and was allowed to go by myself and not in a group led by a "brigadier", as was the custom. I was able to take things from home to the barracks, to sell them there and to buy victuals instead.
I had a round toolbox, with which I never parted, as it also served me as "advertisement" of my trade. I had my working tools hanging outside, while inside I used to keep other things. I also used to wear two pair of trousers, the under one tied round the ankles, so that I could use them as bags for potatoes or groats, while the upper pair served as camouflage. Flour I used to carry in little bags, put as padding on my shoulders. The risk was considerable, but I had no choice. At the ghetto gates they frisked people and the Lithuanians enjoyed the double fun of their booty and the beating of the victim the search would entail. Each time to enter the ghetto was like entering Hell. As I could go to work and come back by myself, I sometimes hid my stuff somewhere in order to save me the trouble. Sometime I even left things valuable to myself and to the family at my place of work and came home empty-handed.
The head of the mounted police, an S.S. Lieutenant, did his murderous job with gusto. One day a horse got a bruise from the saddle, whereupon he called us to report to him. We knew what was in store. We went in terror and bewilderment. He asked: "What to do in such a case?" One of us took his courage in both hands and said: "Must be padded above." That answer maddened him and he shouted with all his might: "How do you talk? Don't say 'above', above is only one - God; you should say 'higher up'" - and then in the same breath: "Is there a God in this world or no?" So we kept silent and he added with biting sarcasm: "How could there be a God? It would be impossible for him to look on how you are tortured and do nothing."
This time we got away unscathed. He left us the saddle to mend and stalked out.
My partner at work was a native of the place and had many acquaintances in the villages around. He used to take pieces of leather from our workshop, bring them to the peasants and, in exchange, would receive butter and eggs for his family. One time a German sergeant, who used to search those who were returning from work, met him in a village, and I saw how that German brute killed my elderly mate, felled him to the ground and left him there. He never touched me. I made him halters for his horses and sometimes gave him pieces of leather, which he would sell when going on leave to Germany. He also brought me pieces of cloth from his home in barter for items he wanted. He fairly shielded me from all evil.
In the ghetto the Germans heard of my skill as a craftsman, so they set me to work to make warm galoshes of felt and leather for the Nazi soldiers. They paid me some money and from the food they gave me I could spare some for my family.
One day they took a group of people to work outside the ghetto. I, too, was in that group and there I met Rivka Nagel (Mallakh). She was barefoot, had a peasant woman's kerchief on her head and wore no yellow-rag on her clothes. So I could see, that she had gone underground and was living in freedom outside. I didn't talk to her, so as not to attract attention, but we both knew the secret. I never saw her again.
A few days later after the ghetto was sealed off, rumors began to spread of intentions to liquidate it, of quotas for forced labor and, finally, extermination. One felt utterly helpless; yet, as long as we lived and somehow found means to feed the children, we allayed our fears and tried to console ourselves with all kinds of logical arguments; the whole thing doesn't stand to reason. We have survived the liquidation; we are being useful; there is no sense in destroying us - and other illusions and self-deceptions.
The truth was, however, that the extermination process went on all the time, although only few people were aware of the fact. At one time partisans came in and confirmed the fact; they had witnessed some cases. So the danger became concrete and it was never out of mind. Two women and a girl joined us, who had escaped from a death pit at the Ponar. They had hidden under a heap of corpses and when the shooting ceased they climbed out of the pit, naked, picked up some of the clothes that were lying around, and returned to the ghetto. So the rumors were confirmed. The Jewish police isolated these women at once to prevent the story from spreading - but the news was already known and all the ghetto was seething.
There was talk of a delegation of partisans who came to see Gans (the head of the Judenrat), told him that they were planning a rebellion, and asked him to prepare his men for the event. They also revealed, that some of their people and groups within the ghetto had hidden arms in one of the lanes. Gans was of the opinion that a rebellion would achieve nothing. The Nazis and their local helpers were too strong and there was no chance of overcoming them. He thought that the best thing was to continue as before, in spite of more executions and victims, in the end some would survive, while, in case of a rebellion the whole ghetto would be wiped out. It was related that the delegates finally acceded to this view. His arguments had convinced them and it was agreed on both sides to encourage the escape in to the woods. For that the Jews had to find arms, as the partisans would accept nobody who came with empty hands. Gans knew this and undertook to find arms.
From then on Jews began to leave for the woods by tens, every day. This was an unprecedented rescue operation and hundreds of people owe their lives to it - but it did not last long. Among the last group of escapees there was a Pole, whom the Jews had agreed to take with them out of pity and he turned traitor. The night on which the group's departure was planned he did not turn up. He had betrayed them. The Jews were arrested one by one and executed after indescribable torture.
One morning we were ordered to get ready to leave, as the ghetto was to be terminated. We began to pack whatever we had in bundles. I prepared small rucksacks for the children and then we went down into the cellar. However, the memories of former experiences down there were frightening. So I ascended, covered up those who were hiding downstairs and stayed outside with the members of my family. Better trust on a chance miracle to happen than endure the stifling air in the cellar. Later on I learned that I had been right and all the others lost their lives. The bunker became their grave. Next day we were led out to a siding, where those who were to be liquidated were assembled. We passed a double row of soldiers armed with machine-guns and at the end we were sorted out - those who were to die at once, and those who would have to endure still more. That walk between the double wall of hatred was terrible. Children were crying, the bundles were heavy, despondency and the feeling that the end was near tagged at the nerves to breaking point. When we had covered a distance of about one-kilometer, we were separated: men on one side and women and children on the other. I wanted to take the boy with me and help him by the hand, but a Lithuanian officer tore him away with a shout: the order was that children had to follow their mothers. I never held the little hand again. I never was to see my wife and my little daughter again.
That night even the skies wept and a pelting rain poured down while we were standing between that double row without roof or shelter over our heads. The desperate cries of the parting mingled with heart-rending wails of little children who asked for some protection against the wet and the cold. We could hear the children crying in spite of the distance between us and in spite of the rain and wind, but we were unable to help them.
We were left at the siding for a whole day and night, waiting for what our tormentors would do next. The Lithuanians exploited the darkness and our miserable condition and they robbed us of our last belongings and the little food we had prepared in our bundles. In the morning the Germans came to search for "rebels" and took the members of the "Judenrat" with them. I thought they were looking for skilled workers and ran after them crying: "I am a craftsman, one of those you need." But meanwhile I understood that again treason had been at play. There were indeed rebels amongst us and they were handed over.
They were four men and a woman. The Germans hanged them in public, so that we might see and be cowed. Therefore we all saw these heroes going to their deaths. They mounted the platform with sure steps; each one put the noose around his neck, with his own hands and then jumped off. I could see the scene in all its details, as I was standing near the gate. If there is heroism in man - here it was. None greater than this!
Meanwhile he tried to get through that narrow opening which was impossible, but it exemplified our miserable and desperate condition. Such a fat body trying to squeeze itself through that small window, which was barred - all in terror of death. We pulled him back, lest he push his head between the iron bars and choke himself to death and if not for fear. The Germans might see him, take this for an attempt to escape and then we all would have had to suffer. I too thought of getting away, but not by way of the window. I planned to use the opening in the floor but I hesitated for fear of hurting myself when falling upon the sleepers of the railroad. I could not muster the courage to throw myself down and stayed inside with the rest.
We were crowded together, aching, hungry and thirsty and when in need to relieve ourselves we had to step over human bodies to reach the only hole in the floor. Thus it went on for a couple of days until we reached Estonia. The cities there received a quota of slave-labourers in return for faithful service to the Nazis. At each stop a carload of slaves would be left behind while the train moved on.
One morning, as we were standing in a station, we could see, by the window, Jews who had arrived on a previous transport. Among them I recognized three brothers from Vilna with whom I had been working at the students' house, serving the Nazis who were quartered there. I approached the window in order to talk to them and then I learnt that we were in Estonia. They had no belongings at all and were all in rags and tatters. "They take away from you everything." News of that kind we had met with so often.
We were unloaded with much cruel beating. Soldiers and Ukrainians, who had been brought in to assist the Gestapo, stood ready for our reception. They made us run over a long distance until, tired out we reached the Labor camp. The harsh conditions there were a kind of relief to us. We felt better as we were needed now for work and we had a new lease on life. In the camp we were led into a courtyard, in military order thirty in a row, a distance of three steps between the rows. We stood ready but no order to move was given. After exhausting hours of standing and waiting we got the order: "Three steps forward. Leave bundles where they are!" Only then, without our bundles we were sent to our barrack blocks, divided into groups one to each hut. We never got our bundles back.
Next day we were sorted out for labor. We were asked if anyone of us knew German, and as Tripilevits did, he was appointed "camp elder" and saw to it that we received food rations. Two big cauldrons were set up to provide hot food. Eighty women were there, who had been picked up and brought to Estonia before the liquidation and they did the work in the improvised kitchen. Food was not bad. A loaf of bread for three working persons. This was not given for any humanitarian reasons but only to keep people fit to do their job.
We used to work in the factory, dig trenches for defense or do other kinds of hard work. Hardest of all was the pushing of the cinder lorries. The brown coal left a great amount of ashes and we had to run in order to keep us with the clearing. The cinders piled up in heaps and we used to erect platforms from which the lorries might then glide down to be emptied. The cinder heaps used to slip and were stopped by the corpses of Jews who had been shot on various occasions and were left here to serve as barriers. We know this and had to behave as if these horrors were nonexistent.
For eight months we stayed there. The Kibiuli camp was the "best" in all Estonia. We had rabbis and doctors. We had a Tora-scroll and prayed in a "Minyan" every day and read the weekly portion. Our food was Kosher and under the circumstances that was a great comfort. It was a boon to know that we were able to maintain our Jewishness. Food was sufficient. There were two brothers among us, gangsters from the underworld. They were employed in transportation and could bring some additional victuals for all the inmates of the camp. And finally there was Tripilevitz, the camp elder, the soul of honesty, who gave his loving care to any and everyone. All these circumstances combined to make the Kibiuli camp better than others and we though it might go on until the day of freedom would dawn. However, as the Russians began to advance to the west, the labor camps near the Russian border were wound up and we, too, had to move west.
The last days in the camp were days of unforgettable horror. Germans from camps that had been closed down were transferred to ours and here they let fly. Tripilevits lost his former connections and he, too, came under attack. Conditions worsened from day to day and sometime we were on the verge of despair. We felt that our foe was near his downfall, but the heart was full of doubt whether we'd live to see that day. Meanwhile we got hold of a radio and received underground newspapers, so we heard of the events on the world scene and of the situation on the war front. The teacher Tabatchnik and his brother used to listen to the news at night and in the morning they would tell us what they had heard or read. We knew that the end of the Nazis was drawing near. We were waiting for the Day of Liberation and our patience grew thin. We thought that before long we would be rescued from the hell we were in and set free. Tortures and humiliations became unbearable, yet as time went on new troubles arose with ever increased and refined cruelty.
Among the Jews there were Dr. Volkovsky, Shoshkes and another man, whose name I forget. They would carouse with the Germans and, when spirits were high, they tried to secure all kinds of alleviation and promises for us. Once when they were thus sitting together and talking over their meat and drink, one of the Jews said to the Germans: "You are near the end of you tether. The wicked among you and their helpmates will be punished, but you are our friends and benefactors. We shall speak for you and save you."
The German medical orderly overheard this and told the Gestapo, who began to watch Shoshkes and the doctor. They also changed their attitude towards Tripilevitz. Next day a German doctor, a Dr. Bitman, arrived instead of the Jewish doctor and the new man decided to sort out the Jews and separate the weak from those who were fit for work. He arranged for a parade and passing between the ranks selected about 10% and ordered them to step aside. When the first 20 had thus been set aside and handed over to the guards, some Jews made use of an opportunity arising when the guards attention was averted and rejoined the ranks. Bitman remarked this. His lust of murder boiled over and, breaking into the first ranks, he seized some 25 young men indiscriminately and murdered them.
On the same occasion hundreds of Jews were "selected" for certain death. They were transferred to the military camp and held there all night. Among them were Dr. Volkovsky and Shoshkes. Tripilevits was still with us, but under house arrest. That was an unforgettable night of horror. We knew perfectly well what would happen to those who had been taken away and it was anybody's guess what was in store for us.
In the morning Tripilevits was still in charge of the daily parade. He knew it was his last. The Nazis had told him that those who had been removed were being sent elsewhere and he would be with them and let them "partake of his valuable experience". Tripilevits was dressed in his best white overcoat and white trousers and we just stood there and wept. We knew what would befall him and our hearts ached at his innocence. But he surprised us. While leading the parade he told us: "Dear friends and brothers, Fellow Jews! Why do you regard me with such sorrow and bewilderment? I put on my burial clothes in time. Don't be sorry for me. What must happen - will happen, and what happens must happen." We had loved him very much and wept like children when we saw him go fully conscious to his death.
After the parade he was taken to the other camp and together with those selected the day before he was carried to a little wood and there they were murdered one after the other. We had spoken with the victims and asked them to leave notices on the trucks to tell us of every detail. When the trucks came back, we found some slips of paper and learned that some Jews had assailed the Germans and tried to kill them. But the Germans, who were heavily armed, had overcome them and shot them on the trucks. Their blood was spattered all over the trucks, soaked into the boards and defiled them forever. The papers also related how the Nazis had torn out gold dentures from their victims' mouths while they were still breathing.
From Stutthof they took us to a nearby concentration camp as bad, as if not worse, than Auschwitz. The incinerators were working at full "capacity". Poles were in charge of the operations and did their job with all the pig-headedness and sadism typical of them. Bloodthirsty criminals entered the buildings and dragged out the Jews to be burned. On the way the victims were beaten with axe handles and the blood spattered all around. We were told we would have to pass a general cleaning and disinfection and this would be done in the bathhouse. Those who had been here before told us that in the bath-house people were stripped of everything from valuables to clothing, and we in a fit of madness began to bury in the ground whatever we had: gold, rings, watches, and also prayer shawls and Tefillin (phylacteries) so as not to have them fall into the unclean hands of the Poles.
We proceeded to the bathhouse under a hail of blows. We were allowed to take with us one day's bread ration - to this day I don't know what for. In the bathhouse we were stripped naked, while the Poles all the time urged us on with blows to hurry, hurry. We had an ice cold bath and then we were told to crawl on all fours onto a table and so standing as cattle, every hair on our bodies was shaved off; this was done with a blunt razor, so that the hair was almost pulled out with the skin. Next came the searches after diamonds or gold and they were thorough. They pressed their fingers into every cavity of the body causing acute pain with ever-increasing cruelty.
I managed to escape this ordeal. I was in the middle of the line and when I saw this shameful torture I took the risk and slunk away. Better die at once than undergo this prolonged ordeal. I was so excited that I even threw away the piece of bread I had been holding in my hand until the last.
After the bath we were given "official clothes": a kind of nightshirt, drawers and slippers. The Poles chose to hand tall people narrow clothes and vice versa. When looking at each other we broke into hysteric crying, mixed with spasmodic laughter. It was heaping insult on injury. The slippers were studiously unfitting and either two left or two right ones. The adroit ones would throw the slippers into a heap and pick out what they needed. When I did the same a Pole found me out, approached me and beat me senseless. I was bleeding in rivulets. With great difficulty I got away from him. We were housed in wooded huts where the only "furniture" was four tiered bunks with four people to each tier - the space being, of course, insufficient. The procedure of going to sleep was barbarous. The Poles in charge of the huts (Shtubovy) used us of performances. We had to undress within two minutes, to arrange our clothes on a bench, to jump on the bunks and to fall asleep at once. The weaker ones, who did not manage to jump up fast enough, were pushed aside and the Poles would beat up stragglers mercilessly. Then they would pull down those who had already stretched themselves out and beat them up for pushing aside the weaker ones.
In the morning there were similar scenes, only in inverted sequence. One had to jump off the bunk, snatch up the clothes - which would be mixed up on purpose - within seconds all under a hail of blows and abuse. Once a day we got a mess of weeds, nettles and other plants. We were supposed to get ten kettles of coffee, but the Poles gave us only four, while the rest was shared out to those they "favoured".
From nine in the morning we waited for work, milling around, left to our own devices, which was the most awful humiliation. A few "fortunate" ones were sent to work in the forest, but they came back scratched and bruised, so that there was no reason to envy them. Those fit for work were selected at a special parade: we had to pass between two barbed wire fences and all the time received blows left and right.
One day an orderly came running like mad and announced that saddlers were required. This didn't occur in my block and I didn't hear of it. But one of our Polish tormentors, one Weychorek, a native of Rozhan and a bad drunkard who in our home-town had served as a "shabbes-goy", remembered and when, next day, they asked again for a saddler, he gave my name and together with four more Jews I was sent to work in my profession. First thing they asked me, if I could make harness fit for thoroughbred horses - if not, they told me, they'd kill me like a dog. The question was put to me by the commander of the camp himself, a criminal released from prison, where he had served a sentence for the murder of his wife and two children. Next to him stood the Rapport Fuehrer (Sergeant Major or Record Keeper) and other Gestapo men to whom he gave strict orders: "The block wardens shall give this Jew what he needs: tool and material and let him set to work."
It was now the end of Elul (the last month before the High Holidays) when one's frame of mind is apt to be gloomy anyway. I was afraid and near despair. I hurried to the block warden for tools and material, but he had nothing. In the end he collected a hundred and twenty leather belts. I asked for additional material for the collar lining that has to be broader than a belt. I had to make myself a workbench and some kind-hearted Jew at the locksmith's shop made me a cobbler's knife and the rings and buckles I needed and so I set to work.
Time and again I applied to the block-warden for more leather, but in vain. He also disregarded the order to give me decent food and a place to sleep in the shower room. Two days later the commander came in and realized that I knew my job and had already made some progress and from then on he began to take me seriously. He asked if I had enough to eat and at once called in the block warden Kostak, told him off scathingly and gave him orders to supply me the best food available and fulfill all my demands.
By then the Allies were approaching Magdeburg and began to bomb the city. Thousands of planes dropped their bombs and we were afraid to perish on the very eve of liberation and at the hands of friends. Now the Nazis made us put up barricades out of the debris of destroyed houses. Even when their downfall was imminent they treated us with their usual cruelty. We had to work without food and were beaten up all the time. The bomb attacks caused disorder, but one could not just slip off and disappear. We would scatter and run for shelter, but as soon as the attack was over they would again assemble us. Until the very end they would not let us go. We were the only joy left in their inhuman existence. They already knew that they were lost, and yet they wouldn't forego the pleasure of mistreating us.
On the occasion of one of these "exercises" I was left alone hidden under a pile of boards on a railroad siding. It was Thursday and I remained there until the following Sunday. From my hideout I could hear that the S.S. had again entered the camp and were ordering the Jews to come out in order to be transferred "elsewhere". On that Friday many of those who were to be sent "elsewhere" and among them many young people were killed.
On Sunday they detected me and one other Jew in our hideout, brought us to the camp and made us stand facing the wall. Apart from us there were other Jews, who had been brought in. When we were several dozen we were told to form a column and to march off. This time our guards were Hungarians, with rifles pointed at us. It was already dark when we entered a little wood and many began to melt away between the trees. The Hungarians fired and shouted: "where are you running to? We are taking you to a place of safety." Nobody would believe them, but it was true. We reached a little town by the name of Alt-Grabow and there we were sorted out. It was a medley of all nationalities and now, suddenly, we, the Jews, became very important people. Anybody who professed himself "Jude" was received with great honor.
By and by we discovered why we had become so very important. The Germans, who now were aware of their condition and their chances, were eager to surrender to the Western allies instead of falling into Russian hands. We were to serve them as witnesses of their good behavior, as proof that they had saved us from the Nazis.
Fate willed it otherwise. Three days later the Russians arrived. We were set free, while all the Germans, the Nazis as well as their followers, fell into their hands.
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