by Zvi Pearlstein
The Germans occupied Sarny in July 1941. The first thing they did was to commandeer 50 Jews to work in the warehouses, issuing an order that, if anything happens to a German, these 50 Jews will be put to death.
In the first days, the Germans permitted the Ukrainians to plunder Jewish assets. In the following 3 days and three nights, the Ukrainians in Sarny and its vicinity plundered Jewish assets. Nobody stood in their way. After those three days, the Germans drove the Ukrainians away, and stopped the plunder.
At the end of July 1941, the German military demanded the creation of a Judenrat. They demanded of the former President of the Sarny community that he place himself at the head of the Judenrat. Not taking note of the fact that he was already 70 yearsold, he assumed this obligation, against his own will, to manage the Judenrat, and to fulfill all of the demands of the Hitlerauthorities. The Judenrat was composed of the following five Jews: The President was the 70 yearold Gerszunok, VicePresident Kantorowicz, Secretary Neiman, Treasurer Grossman and Pickman jointly. The first demand was that all Jews must wear white bands on their right arms, with a Star of David sewn on it, and all Jewish houses must have a Star of David drawn on them. If this order was not carried out, the authorities imposed a fine of 30 rubles and murderously beat the offender. It was the Ukrainian police who were mostly involved with this.
On August 15, a month after the capture of Sarny, the German authorities levied a demand on the Jewish community for a contribution of 13 kilograms of gold. This had to be accomplished in the course of 8 days. Every day, the authorities took 400 Jews to do labor. They had to saw wood, build bridges over the Sluch River to replace the ones the Russians had destroyed, dig peat, etc. The women carried bricks from one end of the city to the other. Workers received 100 grams of bread a day. Part of the Jews lived off stores that they had from before the war. Others bartered with the peasants, giving away their best possessions for a bit of bread, and the largest part went hungry. Through the Judenrat, the German authorities began to confiscate Jewish assets: cattle, horses, radios, furniture, bedding, etc. The President, Gerszunok would shout: Jews, give everything that is demanded of you and they will let you live. ‘A cow that is milked will not be slaughtered.'
On the eve of Yom Kippur 1941, a new demand arrived: in place of the armbands, all Jews will have to wear yellow emblems on their back, and over their hearts. These emblems were to be 8 centimeters in length. The authorities issued an order that all the Jews, on Yom Kippur, should assemble at a place near the city. At that time, a frightful panic erupted among the Jews. We understood what they wanted to do with us. But whether they wanted to or not, all the Jews, wearing the yellow insignia, came to the designated location on Yom Kippur.
All the Jews turned over their gold watches to the GebietsKommissar, golden feathers, etc. Then all the Jews were registered, men and women. The younger ones were sent off to do work in the city, and the older ones, for the time being, were released to return home.
For the time being the day ended only with fright.
Then the harsh winter of 1941 set in. During the month of October, an order came from the authorities, that the Jews had to turn over fur coats and boots for the army, and so the Jews gave away their fur coats and boots. Apart from this, it was demanded that we sew new coats and boots for the army.
A number of quiet months passed, and we all thought we would be able to live peacefully. Suddenly a fresh tragedy: In January 1942, an order arrived that every Jew had to pay a contribution of 7 grams of gold per capita. As there were 5 thousand Jews in our city, it was necessary to pay 35 kilograms of gold. This was a massive tragedy, because among us were many Jews who had fled from other cities, after 1939, and it wasn't possible to demand anything from them.
Accordingly, it was very difficult. But seeing that we had a good relationship with the GebietsKommissar he would say that the Sarny Jews were good ones, they will not be ‘made kaput,‘ he deferred the contribution for several months. A little at a time, with a great deal of trouble and suffering, the contribution was paid off. And so, with troubles, with hunger, and with cold, with great need and pain, whoever sustained themselves, and whoever didn't, managed to survive the severe winter.
In the month of April a fresh decree arrived: A ghetto to be created for the Jews in the course of 15 days. The Jews themselves must divide off several back streets of the city, and cordon them off with boards. Then the terror began. The Jews left their homes, and everyone ran, as if fleeing a fire, into the ghetto. At the same time, a Jewish Police force was set up, with the commandant Margolis at its head. Their mission was to maintain order in the ghetto, stand at the gates, and not permit Jews to leave the ghetto, and not permit Ukrainians and Poles within. Jews were permitted to leave the ghetto only through the gate, in accordance with a special permit from the police commandant. If a Jew was caught outside the ghetto without such a permit, he was punished with a monetary fine and a murderous beating. There was an instance that a woman went out of the ghetto without a permit; she was caught, and she and her entire family, consisting of 7 people, were shot the same day.
In addition to this, the Germans began to bring people into the ghetto from the surrounding villages. The Germans took everything away from them. News arrived that Jews were being killed in Rivne, Kovel and other cities around Sarny. The situation grew more critical and worse every day. Hunger began, accompanied by death from hunger. We saw that the catastrophe was unavoidable for us as well.
It was at that time that I had concluded with my comrades and neighbors to stage an assault, burn down the city, and flee to the forests. Many were of the same mind as I was, and a portion were opposed. They said that … one should not summon the wolf out of the forest, if he does not come of his own volition. And in many places, the ghettoes had already been liquidated: it will not come to that with us, because we go to work, and we pay all of the contributions, but we must be ready for any circumstance. Should the day arrive God forbid we should be organized, be able to mount a resistance, and not allow ourselves to be led off like sheep to the slaughter, as it had occurred in other cities.
Indeed, we had begun to organize ourselves. This became known to the Jewish Police Commandant, Margolis, and he was not opposed to it. He said: Keep yourselves strong, friends! We will not allow ourselves to be stabbed like calves. One time, while sitting with the President of the Judenrat, Gerszunok, who was a neighbor of mine, we conversed about the sorrowful end of all the cities around Sarny. When I secretly approached him about the organization of a resistance, Gerszunok replied: You don't have to tell me anything, but do as you find it necessary to do. From his answer, I understood that he agreed with us. This bolstered our work to make ourselves ready, and the entire city of Jews was taken with the thought of declaring war on the murderers.
We were in the ghetto from April until August 1942. On the 26th of August the terrifying days of the liquidation of the ghetto began: the Ukrainian police encircled the ghetto, the Jewish police were no longer given access to the guard posts, and no one was taken out of the ghetto to go to work. We understood that this was the last of our days, and we no longer had anything to lose, and the time for vengeance had come.
On Wednesday, the 26th of August, almost all of the Jews in our ghetto gathered together in the Judenrat. We divided the men up into groups of 50 men, with a group leader at their head. Each group had a mission to carry out. We had provisioned grenades, caustic soda to burn out the eyes, and benzine gas to set the city on fire. We waited for an order. The chief commander of the day was the Police Commandant Margolis.
We received an order from the Germans, that on Thursday August 27th, all the Jews must present themselves at the ghetto gate, and each family will be called out of the ghetto in alphabetical order. We received this order on Wednesday. We had until early Thursday morning to get everything ready. However, here, the secretary of the Judenrat, Neiman stood up against us, and explained to the gathering that we were not being called to be killed, but only to select out healthy men for work. The people permitted themselves to be misled by him, and did nothing. We also received an order from the Commandant Margolis, that we should not take matters into our own hands, but wait for Thursday, August 27th.
On the night of Wednesday into Thursday we did not sleep at all. We got iron bars ready, and sat ready at the door, to await the murderers. In this way, the night passed in fear, thinking about our end. On Thursday, August 27th, at 6AM, people began to arrive at the ghetto gate. When 300 people had gathered, they were taken away. Within the ghetto, Ukrainian police circulated, and looked into the houses. Jews, who had not left the houses, were shot by the police. Many Jews committed suicide, out of anxiety, using poison.
In this manner, my family too was taken out: my mother, sister Sarah, with two children, my second sister Toiva with two children, myself, my wife and child, uncles, aunts, brothersinlaw, sistersinlaw, male and female cousins. We were all taken over to the second side, to a place ringed with two rows of barbed wire. There was a distance of one meter between the two barbed wire fences. In between the two fences, German and Ukrainian police circulated. When someone got close to the fence, they shot them to death. Two machine guns were set up near the gate of the ghetto. When we were brought to the camp, there already were inside, Jews from the surrounding villages and towns: Dąbrowica, Bereznica, Rokitno, Klesów in total, 14,000 Jews.
I complained to Margolis, about the fact that he had promised that we would not let ourselves be stabbed like calves, and in the end, he did not let us carry out our preplanned attack, to which he answered: It is lost, and this is our fate. What were we to do? Flee, save ourselves and leave our wives and children in the hands of the murderers who would cut them to pieces? It is better that all of us go into the pit together! These were his last words.
While there, I encountered one of my brothers, with a wife and four children, brought from Klesów. They and us, the entire family, lay and waited for a terrifying death. It was intensely hot, and people fainted from thirst. For a small bottle of water, gold watches and gold rings were given away to the Ukrainian police. Paper money was torn up and thrown into the toilets out of a fear of having money in one's possession.
On August 27th at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, all of the residents of Rokitno were called out of the camp. Five hundred came out. Immediately at the gate, their bundles were taken away, and everything they had, which was loaded onto wagons, which had been readied for this purpose at the gate. A kilometer from the camp, there was a small forest, in which three large pits had been dug. The Germans led away the victims, the first 500, and ordered them to undress, and lie down in the pit, and the murderers shot them there.
I stood there, like that, and tried to manage our hopeless situation with friends. Suddenly, I see people running, and the barbed wire fence is breached. This jolted me like an electric shock: Run! I did not understand what or where, but only that it was necessary to run! I left my friend Vartszun standing, and began to run, forgetting even that I had a wife and child. When I ran over the barbed wire, there had already accumulated a mound a meter high of dead people, wounded people, and people who had fainted. They fell from the shooting of the German and Ukrainian gendarmerie. I also saw that the barracks, full of people, were burning. It was the Germans who had fired on them.
I ran, coursing over the piles of the dead bodies. Bullets whistled by my ears. Grenades fell, it was a fire and a Hell on all sides. I ran at that time, but I did not know what I was doing. When I found myself about 400 meters from the camp, I heard the voice of my sister Toiva. She was running after me, and shouted: Stop, wait, let us not get separated, let us run together! When we came to the first street of the city, the bandits blocked our way. We lost one another. She ran into the house of a Pole, and I, along with two other Jews, leapt into a Pole's attic. There was a bit of straw there, in which we hid, lying down. In ten minutes, we heard that the Germans were going through the houses searching. A Polish woman had said: Here in the stall, three Jews have hidden themselves. The Germans came into the stall, and began to shout. We did not reply, and they went away. Many Jews were found in the pens, orchards and gardens, and shot on the spot. An hour later, the Ukrainians came to search in the stall, and up in the attic. However, thanks to the fact that we had hidden ourselves in the straw, they didn't find us. At about 12 midnight, when we heard the shooting and the explosions lessen, all three of us tore off the side of the roof, and crawled out of the attic.
The night was bright, and it was the 14th day of Elul. We crossed over many dead bodies, that lay in the gardens. Through back alleys, over fences and gates, we fled the city, reached the Sluch River, and walked the entire night along the edge of the river, until we reached the village of Lyukhcha, 7 km from Sarny.
Here, our situation, again became serious. We did not know what to do, where to put ourselves. We feared the sunshine, even our shadow. We trembled, fearing that at any instant, the bandits would seize us again. Our anxiety was great. Mr. Olshansky said to me: Let us throw ourselves into the river and drown! I answered him: No! If I have saved myself from the murderers, am I to drown myself now? I've got time to wait for that!
A difference of opinion arose among us: I wanted to go into the village, and the other two of my friends wanted to go into the forest. And so, indeed, they did go off to the forest, thinking that they will be able to conceal themselves better there. I went to the village of Strzelsk, because I knew some people there.
In the village, I hid out among the peasants for a longer period of time, suffering mightily from want and cold, contracting all manner of diseases. In the end, I saw that I will not be able to hold out there, and so I went off into the forests, where I joined up with a partisan group, and survived to the liberation.
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