[Pages 271-285 Hebrew] [Pages 285-305 Yiddish]
The Destruction of the City of Sarny
by Yitzhak Geller
Edited by Karen Leon
This memoir appears twice: once in Hebrew, pp. 271-285 , and again in Yiddish, pp. 285-305.
The two versions are faithful to one another, and therefore only one translation appears here.
The Russian Conquest
On September 1, 1939, war broke out between Germany and Poland. German bombers reached the environs of Sarny after several days and began the destruction of the rail lines. There was a pervasive sense of confusion and bewilderment, and the general morale of the people descended profoundly. Everyone sensed that an impending terror was nigh, but it was difficult to anticipate what the future held hidden. The heart foretold bad things.
The Russians captured the city between the 9th and the 27th of September. Immediately after the conquest there was a dearth of bread, sugar and meat. One had to stand in line all night in order to obtain a kilo of sugar, yet this endeavor was not always successful. Linens and paraphernalia were totally unavailable unless someone who worked in the government storehouses could get some there. The salaries paid to workers barely covered one week out of the month. Stalin provided a place of work, but in order to make a living, everyone had to look after themselves. If you did not steal, you had nothing. The masses were seized with fear to the extent that everyone was careful about expressing their thoughts even to friends. Informing spread throughout, the prisons grew full, and many were exiled to Siberia.
The entire citizenry was divided into Easterners and Westerners. Those who arrived from Russia, the Easterners, seized all the instruments of power, and control of the food stocks, clothing, and the like. We, the Westerners, had to make do with much less.
People stopped attending the houses of worship because the Soviet regime did not recognize religious holidays. On Yom Kippur 1940, I requested a leave of absence from the manager of our workplace, and received no answer. Our way of living grew more difficult from day to day.
It was not a secret that trainloads full of food were sent to the German army from the Sarny rail station. This was Molotov's present to his friend Ribbentrop in the wake of their agreement regarding the partition of Poland. Russia aided the fortification of Germany by sending them food, oil, benzine, and steel.
At that time there were about two thousand refugees from central Poland in Sarny. By and large these people had nothing, and their presence placed a heavy burden on the residents of the city. Most were sent off in sealed train cars to Russia.
The period of the Russian conquest continued from September 27, 1939 to June 22, 1941, the day upon which the Russo-German war began. During the period of their conquest of Sarny, the Russians accomplished very little for the benefit of the city and its residents.
The Nazi Conquest
On June 22, 1941, war broke out among allies, Russia and Germany. Sarny was close to the border that split the city of Kovel, and the people were panicked by the upsetting news about the war. The majority of the residents wanted to flee to Russia, but the municipal government was opposed to this, and attempted to block the ability to leave by withholding exit passes. Very few individuals managed to get permission to leave, and others fled on their own recognizance. Most of the Jews remained in the city and threw in their lot with its fate. They knew that joining the tribulations of Sarny's Jews was only a half-comfort. Whatever their fate, it would certainly be the same as the majority of Jews .
On July 5, 1941, the swastika-bearing Germans captured the city. Terrifying reports reached us immediately about the murder of Jews by the Germans, or at the hands of the local Christian populace, who operated with this sacred duty even before the arrival of the Germans. Many of the Jews were skeptical about the truth in these reports, and saw them as deceptive. To our sorrow, we quickly learned that what we were told really materialized as fact.
The first act of the Germans in the city was the seizure of adult males for forced labor. The Jewish residents were forced to clear away the wreckage of the train depot and iron rails that the Russians had blown up before they left, and other forms of heavy labor. This work continued from dark to dark, and the payment for this was murderous beatings, and in some instances, death. The prettier women were compelled to clean bathrooms with their hands, and anyone with the nerve to refuse received a cruel beating.
The local Ukrainians and Poles took delight in the misfortune of the Jews, and even attempted, in their malevolent way, to exceed their masters. The Ukrainian intelligentsia enjoyed special privileges. Their leaders were like spiritual shepherds who directed their flock with their outlook: to kill and exterminate, because Jewish blood was worthless. The Poles, as well, showed no added humanity. In connection to the Jews, these two parts of the Christian populace were aligned in their ideas and in their enmity.
On the first day of their push into Sarny the Germans set up the Judenrat, whose sole responsibility was to facilitate the many German orders and decrees, which to our pain, were not lacking. These orders multiplied from day to day, each one being more cruel than the previous one. I was an eyewitness to one incident when the Judenrat was ordered to procure 70 adult suits of a certain kind and 100 pairs of shoes, to accommodate 50 officers. In a very short period of time, gold watches, chains, diamonds and pearls were added to this demand. The Judenrat was ordered on a daily basis, to provide 300 men, and 100 women for forced labor. They had to clear the wreckage of the bridge across the Sluch River and rebuild the depot at the railroad station. In addition to the rigors of the hard work, there were also rivers of Jewish blood.
From the first day, we were compelled to wear a blue and white insignia with a Magen David in order to differentiate us from the other local residents. After three days of rule, the murderers levied a punitive fine in the amount of five golden rubles per head. The Germans had a detailed list of all the Jews of Sarny.
The Jews received absolutely no financial compensation in exchange for their work. Every Jew received 80 grams of bread, whose content was a bit of flour and a bit of potato starch mixed together.
The Jewish community suffered from hunger, and the Christian neighbors stood their ground and did not sell us food. They expected to obtain our dwellings and belongings upon our extermination. They paid very little money for clothing items that were set out to be sold, and frequently took what they wanted by deception, without any payment at all.
German demands and requirements increased, and grew more burdensome. On a daily basis new Germans came from Germany and there was pressure to find rooms for them. All the good furniture and bedding was removed from Jewish homes. There were also Germans who shipped our furniture to their homes in Germany.
During the first week, the Germans publicized their economic rules of allocation, involving the turning over of all livestock, such as cows, horses and goats. The Germans gathered up more than 2,000 cows and tens of goats from yards of the Jews.
The Jewish children looked like living skeletons. They loitered about the Handlowa alley and in the alleyway where Goldman's restaurant was located, the seat of the Judenrat. Our little Moshes, Shlomo'lehs and Rivkas walked about here, with faces as ashen as whitewash, and their eyes dull and sunken from hunger and fear. Lord God, how is it that you hid your countenance from them, and abandoned them to the clutches of hunger and death? The Jewish mother was wracked with pain, crushed, with her face and body radiating scrawniness, her eyes were a wellspring of tears, observing her young wasting away from hunger. The men and women looked like the living dead. The men gave up on everything, and prayed for death, that the earth should swallow them up. The lives of Jews became utterly worthless. It was forbidden for a Jew to walk on the sidewalks, only in the middle of the street. Every Christian was given the right to spit in a Jew's face. From six in the evening until six in the morning, it was totally forbidden for a Jew to show himself in the street.
All men from the ages of 12 to 65 were taken away for forced labor. It is difficult to describe the conditions under which these men were forced to work. There was no recess from work, not even for a minute. And for every infraction, no matter how small, they were beaten murderously with batons. The situation became entirely unbearable. People grew swollen from hunger and beatings, and there were even instances of death from hunger.
The Jewish community did not know what the Sabbath or Festival Holidays were anymore. The houses of worship were seized by the Germans and transformed into warehouses and stables.
The lawyer, Mariniuk, was appointed by the Germans as the head of the city of Sarny and the past secretary of the town, Kostrun, was appointed to allocate labor. These two scourges caused the Jewish community to live under excessive tribulation. Kostrun was guilty of the death of the Jews of Tuchyn. When he was the manager of the warehouses in the town adjacent to Tuchyn, he personally killed hundreds of Jews with his own hands. After this, he fell into the hands of the Red Army, and he was strung up on the gallows in the Lublin fortress.
This was our life under the accursed Germans. My pen does not know how to articulate the sorrow, the torture, and the suffering that the Jewish settlement underwent, whose sole and solitary sin was that they were born Jewish.
The End Draws Nigh
We learned of the terrifying slaughter of the Rivne Jews from a refugee who reached Sarny. He told the Judenrat the details of the cruel murder of thirty-thousand Jews in the groves of Soniki, a distance of two kilometers from Rivne.
No doubt remained in the heart of anyone that a similar fate awaited us. We hoped for a miracle, but we knew from reports that the Germans had reached Stalingrad, a far distance from Sarny.
On October 1, 1941, on the exact day of Yom Kippur, all the Jews were assembled in the sports field. Every Jew was ordered to remove the blue and white insignia and to sew on two yellow round circles: one on the right chest, and the second on the back.
It is difficult to describe the torture that we underwent on that field. We were certain that the end had arrived. Everyone was resigned and hoped for death. Our strength had given out to suffer the indignity of hunger on a daily basis, to do the work of slaves, to be the recipient of beatings and deadly torture, and on top of all this, to watch the sorrow and suffering of the children that we had brought into the world, without us having any possibility to provide them even with a stale piece of bread. We were held on the field for four long hours, at the end of which, we were sent back to our homes. On that same day, the Judenrat was ordered to raise a second punitive levy of five golden rubles per capita.
On the first anniversary of their occupation, the murderers issued a new decree, that a Jew was forbidden to have a sewing machine.
The Jews were taken to their work and counted like a flock of sheep surrounded by police on all sides. At the entrance to the ghetto, the Ukrainian police searched their clothing. If, God forbid, someone managed to get a potato or two into his effects, the sentence of death was carried out right on the spot. Lucky, the manager of the oil storage facility in Dabrowica, and Yitzhak Finkelstein, were caught with some potatoes in their pockets for their families. Their fate was a bitter one. Not only were they taken to be executed, but the murderers came to their homes, arrested their wives and children, and all the families were killed together.
In December, the Judenrat received an order that under penalty of death, they were to collect all of the warm fur coats of the resident Jews, for the German soldiers who were freezing in Stalingrad. The Judenrat carried out the German orders, gathered up the warm clothing of the citizenry, and turned it over to the German soldiers.
The Judenrat was a tool of service in the hands of the Germans.
The ghetto in Sarny was created on March 3, 1942. Within it, were included the streets of the left side of Ulica Pilsudski, the entire left side of the Ulica Third of May, up to (if I am not mistaken) Ulica Ogrodowa. As a further clarification, I will add that the Ghetto was on the left side, and the house of Dr. Kozhakhov was outside the ghetto.
The entire ghetto was ringed with barbed wire. Every one hundred meters, or less, stood Ukrainian police guards who sedulously guarded against any Jew who would, God forbid, cross over to the Aryan side.
On the Jewish side of the ghetto, Jewish police who were unarmed, stood guard under the control of Jonah Margolis. The ghetto was pervaded with a fear of death, in which all joy had ceased, and no sound of singing, as if people had forgotten how to laugh, such that even the laugh of an innocent child was not heard in the ghetto.
The Ukrainian police fulfilled their obligation faithfully. If a Jew wanted to cross over to the Christian side, the result was a bullet in the head right on the spot, without any trial. The crowding in the ghetto was enormous, with eight to ten people living in one small room. The sanitary conditions were so foul that I have no desire to put them down on paper.
If one of the Jewish residents fell ill, no medicines would be found for him. The pharmacist, Barzam, nevertheless continued with his work, but the pharmacy itself no longer belonged to him. He merely worked there as an employee.
Many people died for lack of medical attention and hunger. Many of the living envied the dead, who had, at least, died a natural death and received a Jewish burial.
On August 25, 1942 the authorities ordered the Judenrat to levy a third punitive tax that consisted of seven gold rubles per capita. After the first two levies which resulted in a great deal of gold and silver already turned over to the Germans, this time it was difficult to collect the money demanded of the Jews. In order to obtain the mandatory sum, the Judenrat resorted to force. Mr. Mendl Zindl was tied up with rope because he refused to turn over the sum that was levied on him. People were compelled to extract their gold teeth in order to meet the gold tally.
It is important to recall the people in the Judenrat and assess their actions. Mr. Gerszunok, the head of the Judenrat, was a man of noble spirit and excelled in his post. I am certain that he did not transgress against the community at large. In like fashion, I wish to recall the names of Moshe Pickman and his son, who did much to save Jews from the hands of the Ukrainian police. Honor the memory of these Jews!
The lawyer, Neuman, who came to Sarny from the Polish Congress, served the Germans loyally as the secretary of the Judenrat. Perhaps he thought that he could save his own life. If this was his thought, it turned out to be a fatal error. He was taken out to be killed along with the entire Jewish community, despite the fact that he was the sole officer in the Judenrat who instilled fear of himself in everyone.
The head of the Jewish police was Jonah Margolis, a noble man, who despite the nature of his position, knew how to engender the affection of the people through gentleness and honesty. In general, the Jewish police acted nicely within the community. If there was, here and there, an occasional unfortunate incident, most of the time it involved people from the underworld or from among the refugees who arrived from nearby.
The Day of Slaughter
On August 25, 1942, the gendarmerie of the Ukrainian police surrounded the entire ghetto. They did not take the men out to work. Christians spread the news that a four foot deep and wide pit had been excavated in a grove on the Poleska side. We deduced for whom these pits had been dug, and we understood that the bitter and hapless end of the Jews of Sarny was drawing near. I do not have the power to describe the terrified panic that welled up in the city. Mothers were seized by attacks of hysteria. There was wailing and screaming that rent the heavens. Many recited verses from the Psalms and scenes of predation ensued in the streets.
A Fighting Group
When I saw what was happening at this point, I discussed the situation with many young people, and we organized a fighting unit under the slogan, Let My Soul Die With the Philistines. I was the head of this group, to which Jonah Margolis, Simcha Murik, and others were appointed. We had three rifles in our possession, a number of revolvers, and hand grenades. I divided the members of this group into three units. The objective of the first group was to disarm the Ukrainian police and turn them over to us. This objective was easy to implement because the Ukrainian police were by and large drunk, and, in general, gathered beside the Jewish community building.
Our plan was to assault them from the rear, surprise them with two hand grenades, and take their weapons. This was the objective of the group under my command.
The assembly of the second unit was in the hands of Tendler. Tendler was a carpenter, and a man without fear. His mission was to destroy the electric power plant.
The objective of the third unit was to set fire to the entire city.
All of this was supposed to take place at night, into the morning of August 27, 1942. To my sad disappointment, the plan was not implemented. The lawyer, Neuman, learned of the matter and ordered two policemen to bring me to him. Neuman shouted at me, saying that through my deeds, I would l bring about the annihilation of the city, and that I was rebelling against the government. He instilled fear in me, that if I did not abandon the plan, he would have me put in irons, and with his own hands, turn me over to the Gestapo. Under pressure from Neuman, Jonah Margolis, Simcha Murik, and others, left the group.
Having no other option, I too abandoned the plan.
The Last Night
I will never forget that night before the slaughter.
There were many victims. With my own eyes, I witnessed the death of Abraham Moshe Korowoczka and his wife. Mr. Korowoczka wanted to go over to the Aryan side, and right there, on the spot, met his death. Blizhowsky had the same idea. He was wounded in the stomach and died. Dr. Cohen and his wife and children met their death through an injection of poison. They were not the only ones who utilized this method. One of the Sarny residents who owned a soda factory in Sakhalin committed suicide by hanging.
While the Jews were being brought to slaughter, the following shattering event occurred. One of the women, Dr. Schwartz, a dentist by profession, who reached Sarny with the refugees, succeeded, along with her four year-old son, to go over to Ulica Ricraska which was on the Aryan side. A Gestapo man arrested her, forcibly removed the child from her hands, grabbed the child by its feet, and with great force, smashed the child's head against an electric lamp post. The child was killed instantly, his head was crushed, and was turned into a lump of flesh that leaked blood. The hapless mother lost her mind, grabbed the damaged head and pressed it to her heart. The German released her from her suffering and killed her as well.
R' Noah, the son-in-law of the Shokhet R' Pesach El'yeh, had modified his home to create a mikva for ablutions, despite the danger that was involved with that undertaking. I met him on the killing day in the street, and he told me with excitement, that he had already managed to make his ablutions in the mikva, said his confession, donned death shrouds, and over them, his Sabbath overcoat. In a loud voice he added, The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.
At 5:00 AM, the Gestapo penetrated the ghetto and began to drive out the Jews in the direction of the ghetto gate on Ulica Topolowa. With German punctiliousness, they called out the names of all the residents of the ghetto in alphabetical order, and drove them, on the run, in groups of 200 people, as armed Gestapo men were walking as if to work, all around them, to the concentration point. I walked with my wife and dear children, carrying my young son in my arms, in one row, along with Gerszunok and his wife, and Yaakov Gozenstein.
The concentration camp was in front of the Starostwo, the central municipal headquarters, at the broad field that was surrounded on three sides by barbed wire. Three buildings that the Russians had erected during the time of their rule stood within this parcel of land. When we reached this place, we found to our surprise that the Jews of Dabrowica, Klesow, and Rokitno had been brought here by train. The Jews of Bereznica were brought on foot, with approximately half of them exterminated on the way to Sarny. Most were wounded and covered in blood.
The Jews of the surrounding area entered the buildings while the Jews of Sarny remained outside on the field. The field itself looked to be sown with the bodies of the killed, old and young. To this day, I can see the image of a body before my eyes, a lad of six or seven who was murdered merely because the murderer wanted to test his automatic rifle to see if it was working properly.
It was with this attitude, and coldness of heart, that the German murderers prepared for their war on hungry women and children, who had no protection, or hope.
That Bitter, Rushed Day
August 27, 1942 was an exceptionally hot day. The sun bore down on people and oppressed them, as they stood hungry and thirsty, from dawn onwards on the uncovered field. Children fainted from thirst. Close to the fence there was a gully in which muddy water flowed. Anyone who dared to approach the gully to scoop up some water from it was killed on the spot with a bullet. The Ukrainian police made a substantial amount of money that day, from the sale of these polluted waters. The murderers received a gold ring worth 5 rubles, a gold watch, or some other jewel, for a small cup of this water. There were horrifying scenes beside the gully of water. People who did not have money or anything of value assaulted those who were able to get a bit of water, in an attempt to extract it from their hands. The outcome of these clashes was the same in every instance. The murderers shot them dead with their automatic weapons.
I recall how fortunate I was when I was able to get a bit of water from a Ukrainian policeman who I knew. I wanted to offer the water to my children, when the son of Barzam, the son-in-law of Kantorowicz, came running toward me, and begged for a bit of water to slake the thirst of his infant who he held in his arms.
After all of the Jews of Sarny had been driven from the ghetto and concentrated in the field, the Germans went house-to-house, looking in every corner, in the yards of the houses, for Jews who had hidden themselves. During a search of the house of Kantorowicz, they found him with his two daughters in the cellar. The murderers took them out into the yard and murdered them. This was not an isolated incident. Many people were murdered this way.
When I returned to Sarny after the War, I became aware of details concerning these Jews who succeeded in hiding for a while, but were captured afterwards and taken out to be killed in the Jewish cemetery. Among them were Leib Mucznik, his wife and children, Moshe Cirulnik, Zerakh Danenberg, and many others. Mendl Zindl was also seized in his home by the murderer Antak Wascki, who carried out a very thorough search in order to find gold and other valuables. R' Mendl was dragged to a grove of trees near the Starostwo by the murderer who had a hold on him by the nape of his neck, and beat him murderously. R' Mendl Zindl was killed by this murderer in this grove.
The slaughter commenced at precisely two o'clock in the afternoon.
The members of the Rokitno Judenrat were invited, and immediately led 500 of the first people to the pit. After a few minutes went by, the sound of shooting was heard, accompanied by screams of despair. After the first group, additional groups of the Rokitno Jews were taken away, and after them, the Jews of Klesow.
Surprisingly, an uprising erupted on the killing field. A Jew by the name of Mendl brought several pieces of metal with him, and Tendler, who I mentioned above, had secreted an axe. Both of them started to tear down the fence. At the same time, the three buildings were set on fire. A horde of people turned to push through the broken fence. The Germans shot over the mob with automatic weapons, and threw hand grenades into it. I was also among those who sought to break out, who had torn down the fence. I begged to die before seeing the death of my beloved wife and children. Hordes of people knocked me down, and stepped on me. I was covered by a pile of human beings, who were either killed or asphyxiated when people fell on one another.
I estimate that during the breakthrough of the fence about 2,500 people were murdered, and more than one thousand succeeded in escaping.
The Ukrainian police together with the Germans organized a hunt in the streets of the city, and killed a great many of those who were fleeing. Almost all of the resident Christian populace participated in the hunt, and they stripped the dead and wounded of their clothing. Approximately one-thousand people, mostly women and children, were burned alive in the three buildings that were set on fire.
As I recall, I had resigned myself to my fate, and was prepared to die. However, an unrelenting force drove me on and on. I succeeded in fleeing and escaping, and I was saved, contrary to my own will. My place was beside my wife and three children, together with the larger Jewish family of Sarny, who were killed and slaughtered in Sanctification of The Name.
On that bitter day, between fourteen and fifteen-thousand Jews were exterminated in Sarny by terrifying deaths.
Four huge, deep pits took them in. There were three in the wood grove that was behind the Starostwo, and the fourth, the largest and deepest, was a small distance from there, in a place that had previously been a factory for making pitch.
This pit was filled to the brim, and when it was covered it was transformed into a hillock.
Children up to the age of twelve were thrown into a separate pit alive, and were exterminated later by the dropping of hand grenades into the pit. It was by a cruel death of this kind that our dear ones were exterminated.
At the head of this cruel action, that of the extermination of the Jews of Sarny and its vicinity, stood an elderly Asmodeus, sixty years of age, the head of the S.S., the murderer Obersturmfuhrer Kurt Schumacher, may his name and memory be forever erased.
Gypsies in the Ghetto
Approximately one hundred Gypsies, men, women and children, were also brought to the Sarny ghetto. They were billeted in the big building of the Winzowsky brothers, a tax office used for storing valuables. The Judenrat was forced to deal with them. The Jews wore a circular yellow insignia, and the Gypsies wore a long yellow stripe. The Gypsies were antagonistic to the Jews. They argued with the Ukrainian police, that they were Christian, and would show the crosses they wore on their necks. The reply of the Ukrainians was, today we have received an order to take all of you out to be killed.
On the day of the slaughter, they were the first to be exterminated.
The Attitude of the Local Christians
A separate chapter in the tale of the ghetto and German rule, concerns the attitude of the local Christians toward the Jews.
At the hour that the Jews of Sarny were taken to the killing field, the sides of the streets were lined with hordes of Christians who looked upon the scene, not with any empathy or compassion, but rather with great joy. There was a basis for this joy. They had longed for this day. They knew that they would take control of the Jewish houses and assets which had been built with sweat and blood over the course of decades.
Almost the entire Christian populace, whether Ukrainian or Polish, participated in destroying the Jews and taking them to be killed. During the hunt that the Germans organized in the streets, the Christians perpetrated a great deal of killing among the Jews, without showing any mercy towards women and children. They immediately stripped off the clothing from every one who was killed or wounded.
The first were Ukrainian policemen, the worst among them, whose names will live in eternal obloquy were: Dobcynski from the village of Dorotyshche, Kozlow, the three Notkin brothers, Kolya, Pablo, and the worst of them all a brutal murderer, who with his polluted hands, sent hundreds of Jews from this world, Sirozhka. He filled the position of deputy commandant in the Ukrainian police, and it was in his hands that the keys to the jail were to be found. This Sirozhka was taken out and executed by the Germans because he released his friend, a murderer who had been sentenced to death by the Germans, and in his place he seized an innocent farmer, and killed him in his place. The Notkin brothers plundered and despoiled a great deal of Jewish net worth. Two other murderers from among the Christian residents, who inflicted cruelty on the Jews, were Antak Wascki, and the builder Roczko. Wascki, with his own hands, killed tens of Jews, and among them was Mendl Zindl zl.
Roczko had lived on the second side of the city, in Poleskia. By profession, he was a builder. He was a syphilitic and his nose had rotted. On the day of the slaughter, when tens of Jews had managed to escape from the killing field, the murderer Roczko pursued them with an axe in hand, killing them with a level of brutality that is indescribable.
However, he too, met his end. His wife, who fell in love with a German, informed on him, indicating that he was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease, and therefore exposed his wife and children to danger. A Gestapo man came to his house, took him out to the grove beside the Starostwo building, and murdered him on the spot.
The head of the city, Mariniuk, was friendly with all of the murderers. Day in and day out, he spent time in their company, getting drunk with them, while at the same time demanding that the Judenrat supply them with all manner of good things.
The engineer of the electric company, a low life, also belonged to this group. A week before the mass killing, he entered Lifschitz's house, and said to the family that they should not dare to take anything out of the house because it all belonged to him. It appears that he knew from the outset, and beforehand, about taking the Jews out to be killed, and he lacked the patience to wait until the plan was carried out. After the Russians returned, he was arrested by the N.K.V.D. and he was killed in the prison when it was struck by a German bomb.
A Ukrainian teacher lived in the Sakhalin section of the city. The most beautiful house in the neighborhood belonged to him. I can no longer recall his name. This man took over the assets of tens of Jewish families and accumulated a treasure. On one Saturday, his family, that numbered eight souls, sat down to eat the evening meal at home, when it was hit by a two-ton bomb that buried them all alive.
All that was left, as a remnant, from this house, and the entire family of the murderers, was a wide and deep pit.
Only a part of those who fled by breaking through the barbed wire were saved and succeeded in fleeing into the forests in the vicinity of Volodymyrets and Korosyn. During my flight, I was accompanied by a young girl from Dabrowica, a lad by the name of Lipa Finkelstein, whose father was the owner of a tanning factory in David-Horodok and who was exiled by the Soviets as a persona non grata in Sarny, and the two children of Asher Fishbein from Volodymyrets. All together, we were five people.
We reached the Horyn River beside the village of Korost. We could not cross the river in a ferry in this place because it was possible to fall into the hands of the Ukrainian police or local peasants, who in those days were transformed into a sort of animal of the worst kind. At nightfall, we found refuge in the tall grasses by the riverside.
Late at night a deep silence fell on the place. From the distance we saw columns of smoke rising heavenward from the buildings on the killing field.
I forded the river by swimming, with the objective of finding a small boat, in order to transport my four companions. On my second pass across the river I found a boat without oars and I was able to get everyone over without trouble. My desire was to reach Pinsk, where Jews were still confined to their place in a ghetto.
We walked all night through the fields. We avoided getting close to villages because death lurked there for us. Tired and exhausted, we reached a meadow, and hid ourselves in heaps of ruins. We were in these ruins for two consecutive days, during which time we had no food or drink. By the third day the hunger oppressed us more intensely. The Fishbein children, who were familiar with the area, went to the village of Ozery, which was not far from our hiding place, in order to stock up on some food. They knew that their father had hidden a substantial amount of money with two peasants there. The peasants seized the two children and tortured them to death. Accordingly, only three of us were left. We hid in the forest, and blackberries served as our only food. We slaked our thirst from the waste water about us.
On the fifth day after the slaughter, we left this place and turned northeast, through the forest, in the direction of the city of Pinsk.
Along our way through the forest we were surprised to find buildings and hear voices. We sent the lad, Lipa Finkelstein, to find out where we were. After several minutes we were frightened by the sound of screams of help coming from the boy. I ran quickly in order to avoid the attention of the sawmill guard. The boy and girl ran off, and to this day, I do not know what became of them. It appears that they were captured by murderers like the rest of their siblings.
I received murderous blows from the Ukrainian watchman, into whose hands I had fallen. As a result of this, eight of my teeth were torn from my mouth. Similarly, he stripped me of my clothing, robbed me of everything I had, and treated me like a pack of garbage. To cover my nakedness, I got a pair of torn trousers from him, made of a coarse fabric. After this, he put me in a pen, in which there were about 40 workers from the sawmill. All the workers mocked me, especially one, who warned me to be prepared for much worse. The murderer tied my hands behind me, using my belt, and he tied my feet with rope, and threw me into a corner of the pen, and then lay down to sleep beside the threshold. He undoubtedly toyed pleasantly with the hope that he would receive a bounty the next day for the Jew that he had captured.
This was the case, because you must know that the Germans paid a bounty of ten kilos of sugar for every Jew captured alive. After midnight, when everything grew still, I convulsed with pain and was near fainting. The second guard came over to me and asked me to turn over any gold in my possession. I agreed to tell him the location of the hiding place of the gold under the condition that he would free my bound hands from behind me, and tie them in front. He offered me some water to drink and to wash my bruised mouth. I told him my address in Sarny, and I explained to him that I had hidden my gold in a pot under a plum tree in the yard of my house. I I said that no one was living there, and if he went there to search for the gold, he would find it. The guard was pleased with my revelations, and tied my hands loosely with my belt and my feet with the rope.
After the guard went outside, I saw through the windows that the day was growing lighter, and I realized that I had to work quickly. It remains a mystery to me, as to where I drew the strength to do this. I unbound my hands and legs, and with a leap, I passed over the murderer who was sleeping on the threshold of the room, and I found myself on the outside of the cage. I jumped between the piles of boards in the yard of the sawmill. All of the workers raised the alarm, and pursued me. Despite all of this, I eluded my pursuers, and found a hiding place in the nearby thick woods.
Now, I finally knew how to behave. I frequently changed my hiding place. When I ran into someone who saw me, I immediately changed my location. If I encountered an elderly peasant who was traveling to collect wood, I helped him with this work in exchange for a piece of bread. I did not fear the elderly peasants because I felt stronger than they were. A few of the peasants were sympathetic to my sorrow. One of them took off his thin, filthy shirt and gave it to me, since I was nearly naked, and all I had on were a pair of torn peasant's trousers.
I was seriously ravaged by the case of dysentery that I came down with while I was hiding in the forest, because of the polluted water I drank. This caused me to become scrawny to the point that I looked like a living skeleton. To this day, I don't understand how I remained alive. It would appear that some Greater Force was at my side, and directed my fate and my steps.
It was in this fashion that I continued my travel in the direction of Pinsk. On the eleventh day after the slaughter I became daring enough to make my way in broad daylight. When I was walking through the fields of the village of Radyzheve, north of the town of Volodymyrets, two Ukrainian youths seemed to sprout out of the ground. They seized me, and brought me to the police station which stood on a hill and could be seen in the distance. One held me by the shoulder and hands, and the second guarded my tread from the second side. Sensing danger, I lifted a foot and kicked the one leading me between his legs, with all my might, and he passed out. When the second one realized what had happened, I hit him with massive blows to his face and between his eyes. A tree branch that I spied within an arm's length served as a stick with which to beat them, and I hit them with all my might. I left them in a state of collapse, and went off to seek a hideout in the nearby forest.
The peasants who were working on harvesting potatoes in the nearby fields rushed to help these young men and alarmed the police, who then launched a hunt for me in the middle of the forest. With cries and shouts, they passed by the tall oak tree under whose cover I found refuge. The hunt continued until it grew dark. As silence spread, I set my course in a reverse direction. It was a dark night, and the skies were covered in clouds. I walked for the entire night, even while rain fell. Before morning, I found myself in the forests of Lypne, at a distance of nine kilometers from Volodymyrets. I found out, yet again, that during the past two weeks, I had circled this town.
It was already the end of September and the beginning of October. I found myself alone in the forest, During the daylight hours I searched for hiding places in the swamps. At night, I went out into the fields to find whatever bit of potatoes I could, which I roasted in the dying fires that the peasants used to leave behind in the fields. This was the only food that I had with which to sustain my life.
The nights grew cold. I saw that my expectations to remain alive were tenuous. I found out from the elderly peasants that the Ukrainian police continued to hunt for me, and searched the forest on a daily basis. The peasants told me that the police were waiting for the first snowfall that would reveal my footprints and give me away, and make me fall into their hands. I decided that by one means or another I would put an end to my life. I had a belt and several ropes in my possession that one of the peasants gave to me. I tied the ends of the ropes together, created a noose out of my belt, put it around my neck, and threw myself with a violent motion from a high spot. However, the noose tore open, and I fell, wounding myself severely. Despite the lack of success, I tried a second time to end my life, and this second intent on my part also failed. The families of the peasants who were filling sacks with potatoes not far from the place where this was happening, deduced what was happening. When they saw me hanging from the tree they ran over and cut the rope.
When I finally opened my eyes, I found myself lying in a puddle of muddy water, created by a man and woman who ladled it out of the nearby gully, and poured it on me. The name of this peasant was Zakharko Bazako from the village of Ondrowa.
A week after the slaughter, this very same peasant murdered a Jew from his village with his own hands. It appears that he experienced regret over this. He chastised me for what I was trying to do, and gave me a large carton of potatoes. He also gave me the implements to make a fire: a piece of steel, a flint, and a piece of a tree branch suitable for kindling, and let me go. My neck was swollen after this incident, and for the next two weeks I experienced difficulty swallowing any food.
After 9 weeks of solitary blundering around the forests, I thought that I was the only Jew left alive in this accursed land.
The Remnants of Jews in the Forest
On one of the days, I met up with a Jewish youth from Volodymyrets named Herschel Kamin, who was later drafted into the Red Army, and killed at the front. The joy of the encounter between the young man and myself was boundless. From that time on, we kept on the same path together. We changed our hiding place five times a day.
Most of the days we spent in the swamps and at night, we went out into the fields to scrounge a bit of carrots and beets, because the potatoes had already disappeared from the fields.
After we got to the month of November, we decided to leave these environs before the first snow arrived. Our situation became unbearable. The cold grew more intense day by day. The stacks of hay piled by the peasants were loaded onto wagons and brought to their yards. There was no other means to hide, but to go into the bales of grain stalks in the peasants' granaries and dig deeply into the stack in order to sleep. There were instances where I was buried inside such a stack for two to three days with no possibility of getting out. The peasants arose at three o'clock in the morning. The women spun thread and wove linen and the men fed the cattle. For the most part, the peasants tarried in the granaries by the light of a lantern until daybreak.
On one Saturday night, young gentile boys and girls came into the granary to have sex. I had no possibility of getting out of the place. And here, in the middle of this cavorting of young people, I was seized with coughing. The gentiles became frightened. One screamed, there are demons here, and a second, this is a zhid, and began to stab into the stack with a pitchfork.
It was only by a miracle that I remained alive that night.
After this incident, we decided that we had to extract ourselves from the peasant granaries. We wandered to the swamps, and dug an underground shelter there, on a small island, and lined the shelter with dry grass, branches and pine needles. We kept a small fire permanently going. That warmed up the shelter, and we remained in it until the end of December.
We were incredibly filthy. The hair on our head grew so long and we did not have a razor with which to shave our beards for five consecutive months.
With the fall of the first snow, we left this place and headed for a large town surrounded by the Svarytsevichi forests. We heard from the peasants who had invited us into the forest that there were partisan brigades among whom were many Jews. After walking for two nights, we ran into the partisans.
We found about 150 Jews in the forest, mostly from the city of Sernyky, part of the residents of the town of Horodewa, a few from Rafalovka, and one youth from Rivne. The Jews here were partly organized. A number of them had sons among the partisans, who looked after them and provided them with meat, bread, and potatoes. In general, there was not a lack of food here. The solitary wanderers were compelled to loiter around in the village, and beg at the yards of the peasants.
Two months after we arrived at this place, a group of nationalist Ukrainians fell upon the Jews in the forest and killed approximately sixty people. The rest scattered in all directions. On the following day, the Germans bombed the village of Svarytsevychi and reduced it to rubble.
After the destruction of the village, we fled to Tyulkowicz, a village also surrounded by thick forests. Here we found about thirty Jews from Rafalovka. We encountered the three Berezniak brothers and a very sympathetic young man named Gershon Gruber. They hosted us in a very nice way in their shelter, and offered us roasted potatoes, which were the tastiest and most delectable of tidbits.
Circumstances again became unbearable. We received news that bands of Ukrainian nationalist murderers, the Banderovtsy, were orgvanizing for the sole purpose of exterminating and wiping out the Jews who had managed to save themselves from the talons of the Germans. Our men wandered about in shabby, torn clothing worn out from overuse. They looked like hungry forest animals. Many fell sick with typhus. For what purpose had we remained alive? each man asked his neighbor.
There did not appear to be any hope to extract ourselves from this terrible situation.
I decided to align myself with the partisans. I joined the Polish Kosciuszko partisan brigade. I excelled at the activities of the brigade rather quickly. My distinction in battle did not come from heroism, but rather out of a desire to leave a life that had no point to it. Mostly, I was the first to enter into battle. The Poles sent me to execute the most difficult of the tasks. After a while, from the military standpoint and the knowledge of strategies, I rose above the members of the brigade because I did not fear death, and I wanted my soul to die with the Philistines, who had murdered the Jewish nation.
The Polish brigade was rife with anti-Semitism. The relationships that I had developed with the men of the Soviet partisan brigades enabled me to transfer, at my first opportunity, to the unit of Major-General Bagma. Here, for the first time, a year after the slaughter, I ran into Jews from Sarny, among them, Pinchas Neiman. My joy at this encounter was great. I also encountered a young man, seventeen years old, from the Klass family, who afterwards, was drafted into the Red Army and fell at the front.
When I came to the partisan airfield near Korosten, I met up with Nahum Zeigermeister and his little daughter. At this time they are in America. From the airfield, we were taken to new battles with Ukrainian brigades in the vicinity of Sarny. I participated in the battles that ensued with the peasantry of the villages of Trypitnya and Haranya. We torched the village of Trypitnya. As we passed by the village of Ozery, beside Korosten, I met up with Lifsha and her three children, and another woman, whose name I have forgotten. I was happy to meet up with Jews, and I attempted to help them out with food and clothing. My elation doubled when I encountered people from Sarny. In the village of Ozery, I was told that Ber'l Bick was to be found there, along with another Jewish man from Sarny. I looked for them, but did not succeed in finding them, and we ended up leaving the place.
Pursuit of the Enemy
The Germans sustained one defeat after another. The Red Army advanced forward from Stalingrad without pause. We heard about the capture of Rostov, Kharkov, and Kiev. The front drew closer and closer. My eyes grew weak from yearning and longing to reach Sarny.
We attacked Rokitno with heavy cannon fire and we caused the Germans significant damage. In general, the partisans wrote a distinguished set of pages in their war against Hitler's troops. Entire ranks of Germans were wiped out by the partisans. The Germans were afraid to use the secondary railroad lines. Trains ran on the central rail lines only during daylight hours because at night they would be derailed from the tracks, and blown up in powerful explosions. The Germans took heavy losses in their clashes with the partisans who would not take them as prisoners, but killed them on the spot.
I remember a sortie beside the village of Lyudyn in the vicinity of Dabrowica. One-hundred-ten Germans were killed In this battle. Among those captured was a German officer. The German officer pleaded not to be executed in consideration of the fact that he had a wife and two children at home. I answered him, I also had a wife and three children, and they too wanted to live, but your comrades murdered them cruelly.
I participated in many engagements against the Ukrainian bands, and we wiped out their men by the thousands.
It is my desire to underscore especially that fear was not only the destiny of the Germans. The Ukrainian murderers who were captured alive cried like weak children, begging to be allowed to live. Every one of them made excuses and said that they never touched Jews in a harmful way, or plunder their valuables.
From Rokitno, we turned through the forests in the direction of the town of Stepan and Huta-Stepanska, where we entered into battle with large German forces which had surrounded us. We suffered a loss of seventy men in this battle. After bitter fighting during the course of six days, we succeeded in breaking through the ring as we mustered our forces in the vicinity of Rafalovka.
The attitude of the local residents to the Ukrainian bands was distinguished by their admiration and encouragement. They provided those bands with all manner of goods and nicknamed them, Our Boys. In contrast to this, they nicknamed the Soviet partisans with a pejorative name, The Red Leprosy. The bands were properly armed with automatic weapons of all types, and hand grenades. The Germans gave these supplies to the bands for the purpose of exterminating the partisans. There were frequent instances when bands of 2,000 or 3,000 men fell upon partisan brigades that numbered 500 to 600 men. The outcome of such a battle was always to the detriment of the bands, who always left behind a substantial number of killed in the field, and the majority would scatter to all the winds. These bands recorded only one victory to their credit, which was the extermination of 95% of the Jews who succeeded in saving themselves from the talons of the Germans by fleeing into the forests. The men in these bands ambushed the Jews, set traps and pursued them, and if they caught them alive, tortured them with exceedingly cruel methods.
The relationship to the Jews in the Soviet partisan brigades was not very civilized. Many of the partisans were themselves, Jews. Many Jewish partisans, however, were felled by Russian bullets, from their own comrades-at-arms.
I had an experience in which I came across two Jewish partisans who had been killed, and a third, mortally wounded, who told me that they were shot by a scouting battalion of Soviet partisans.
At night, when conversations occurred around the fireplace in the forest about political matters, more than one time I heard one say to the other sarcastically, Hitler exterminated these parasites, Abraham and Sarah, who want bread and butter.
On January 22, 1944 we met up with the Red Army beside Rafalovka, and on the 29th I reached Sarny. My elation was rapidly extinguished when I saw that in this city, formerly burgeoning and thriving with Jewish life, there remained not even a trace.
I burst into bitter weeping.
In Destroyed Sarny
The Christian residents had set themselves up in the Jewish houses and inherited all their assets. They greeted us with disdain, enmity, and fear, on the thought that perhaps we would demand that they return the plundered Jewish property. Everyone of them swore up and down that they had saved Jews. To my question, Where are the Jews that you saved with your own hands? they did not provide an answer.
In the streets, the residents walked about wearing the jackets and fur coats of the Jews. Most of the young people exchanged their clothes for the more modern suits taken from the property of the Jews of Sarny and its vicinity. New merchants appeared In the marketplace whose principal business was trafficking in plundered Jewish goods. The appearance of the city, in general, was like that of a large cemetery.
Slowly, and a little bit at a time, the survivors who were able to save themselves from the Gehenna trickled back in. Before the destruction, Sarny numbered more than 6,500 Jews. Perhaps twenty returned from the forests and partisans. At the same time, refugees began to arrive from the Soviet Union.
My first undertaking after arriving in Sarny, was to deal with the four pits in which the martyrs of Sarny and its vicinity had been concealed in burial. The pits were not fenced off and the ground above them was unkempt and uneven, such that there was no way to know what was buried underneath. A road for freight wagons passed over them. Domestic animals and pigs trod all over them. I was one of those who worked on digging deep trenches around them, and fenced them in with barbed wire to prevent anyone from walking over them.
I recruited a number of men from the ranks of the survivors of the Jews of Sarny, Rokitno, and Dabrowica (there was not a single surviving Jewish person from Bereznica), and provisioned with shovels, we completed this sacred task. We dug deep trenches around the pits and piled up the earth in the middle in a large heap.
No trace was left of the Jewish cemetery in Sarny. The fence around it had been torn down and broken, gravestones had been removed and used to pave the streets with them in the vicinity of the Starostwo. I made an attempt to return these gravestones to the cemetery. I even had words with a Jewish Red Army officer who promised to place a freight truck at our disposal. To our sorrow, this never happened because this officer departed from the city. As we found out later, the teacher, Walkin, succeeded in carrying out this sacred mission, and the gravestones were returned to the cemetery.
In the meantime the Germans slowed their retreat. They set up a base of operations in the environs of Kovel and from there, they came at night, in hundreds of planes, and bombed the transgressing residents of Sarny, who had acted towards their Jewish neighbors with the cruelty of beasts. Those residents received their punishment. Many were killed by enemy bombings, and a greater part of the city was wiped out and destroyed.
Our mission in Sarny had ended. We decided to make aliyah to The Land, and if necessary, to sacrifice our lives for a free Land of Israel.
To our elation, our dream was realized.
(Taken from the notes of Yitzhak Geller zl by Yaakov Tzuk-Kotelczuk)
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