By Tunka Raiz (Pikholz)
Skalat, July 1941.
The Russians are quickly abandoning their last positions in the city. The local administration collapsed, and everyone looks forward with worry to coming events. The trepidation is great. The new danger of a conquest threatens. The Germans are coming!
We knew that difficult days would be ahead of us. The odor of AntiSemitism arises in our noses along with the knowledge of coming persecutions, conflicts, and discriminations. The reality would exceed our calculations. Even the hangman, in his distorted and sick imagination, could not imagine terrifying episodes of horror such as these.
We resided on ‘3rd of May Street,’ on the main road through which the advance units of the S.S., who conquered the city, passed. The appearance of the troops is astonishing. They look proud, possessing confidence, dressed in splendor, 'the master race' upon its mighty chariots crossing the city.
The first victims were the members of the Schechter family. In their footsteps, a group of Jews was brought to the area of the river in the center of the city. Here the Germans tormented them. They commanded the Jews to enter the deep water. Curses were poured onto the heads of the unfortunate ones. Some immediately drowned, and others were taken out alive, because the portion of their affliction had not yet ended.
The Sabbath passed. The first victims are rolling in the streets of the city. A new day arrived Sunday, silence! But suddenly cries burst out. Shots were heard. My father hurried to hide in the attic, because it was known that the men were the first victims. From the attic, through the cracks, my father followed the events happening in the market square. The Germans together with their Ukrainian allies cruelly forced the Jews out of their houses. Any attempt at resistance was suppressed with physical force. They tormented elders and children. The men were forced to clean military vehicles quickly, while their tormentors watched and laughed.
At the conclusion of the workday, Jews were brought to the Bashta, an ancient fortress in the center of the city. The Germans stood the Jews in rows and shot them. Their bodies were thrown in heaps. Hundreds of Jews lost their lives on this awful, bloody day. The next day, they buried the bodies in a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery of the city.
My family, too, offered up its first sacrifice on this day of terrors. My cousin, Zalman Messing, twelve years old, shared his fate with the rest of the slain of the city.
Several Nazis burst into our apartment, breaking down the doors, and stormed in upon us with shouts. I fled to my former neighbor a woman named Marina. My mother fled to the house of the maid who had once served in our house, and my sisters found refuge in different places.
The apartment remained empty, but not for long. Peasants, who had left the thanksgiving service in the church near our house, burst inside and took everything they could grab. They even removed the pictures from the walls.
I hid all day among the rose bushes, in Marina's garden. She cultivated these bushes as an additional source of her income. Shots rang out from the direction of the Bashta. I was still innocent. It did not occur to me that the townspeople and the Germans were now committing a massacre against my community. Suddenly, a solitary Russian plane appeared in the skies, and dropped a few small bombs. A tumult broke out among the people, but nothing happened. The bombing ceased, but the slaughter continued.
I did not return home for several days. Along with my sister Regina, I found refuge on the threshing floor in Marina's courtyard. We shuddered when we saw the German soldiers who attacked Jewish women at night. Certainly, desecration of ‘the pure race’ was a severe sin in Nazi Germany, but in Skalat, the desecration of Jewish victims was acceptable. Many Jewish women were raped, and then shot afterwards, to leave no witnesses and blur the consequences.
For two weeks, the anarchy continued. From then on, the civil administration began to get organized. The Judenrat was set up. The role of the Judenrat was to maintain the connection between the Jewish population and the German administration, and especially to fulfill all their demands speedily. The desire of the Germans was to find, in the Judenrat, assistance in the destruction of the Jews, and even to require it to carry out part of their heinous plan in their evil work. The first important function imposed upon the Judenrat was the 'contribution' the collection of ornaments and
jewelry from Jewish houses, including gold, silver, diamonds, and furs for the sake of the German army, before its departure to the Russian front. This theft was in part transferred by the German officers to their wives on the home front.
The Judenrat organized the distribution of bread among the poor of the community. A public kitchen was opened, which supplied portions of soup to the needy, and these gradually increased with the passage of time. The Judenrat took care to provide health services to the Jewish population and social assistance to the neediest.
During that period, I worked in the Social Work Department with the wellknown teacher Rosa Pikholz and with Professor Frantzos. Our hands were loaded with work. We hurried to the aid of the young husbands and the Jewish youths, who were brought to the Kamionka Labor Camp, and worked there under very difficult conditions. Their situation was dire. They were hungry, poorly clothed, and liceinfested. Twice a week, we sent a wagon to the camp loaded with loaves of bread, fat, and fresh laundry. We brought back their dirty, liceridden clothing in order to clean it. The families assisted their relatives with our mediation. For individual people in the camp who lacked family, we made ourselves responsible for all their needs, within the framework of what was possible. The bread and fat that we supplied the people was given to us by the Judenrat. The work overwhelmed us. But we felt that it was in our power to lighten the load upon the unfortunate ones in Kamionka, who were condemned to slave away in hard labor in the stone quarries, hungry, and in ceaseless torment. There in the Kamionka camp Shlomo Perl perished, the second victim from my family.
We took care to provide the people in the camp with medical supplies. In this work, my good friend, Pinka Weintraub, who labored with endless dedication and with selfsacrifice in the municipal clinic, was of great help. She always stood at the right hand of the needy.
This work of ours was done without any salary, even though we too were lacking the means of sustenance. We too felt the pain of hunger. The smell of the good bread, which we supplied to the people of the camp who were hungrier and more unfortunate than we were, intensified this feeling of pain.
We had some valuable articles, which we were able to exchange for food, except that this deed was fraught with mortal danger. Hunger increasingly grew. No household escaped it: people, lacking the everyday wisdom of life for the need of this awful reality, and the poor, lacking any means of existence, perished from hunger. With no choice, they ate anything given, even garbage, which was left from any food whatsoever, such as potato peels. People exhaled their souls in the street. Hunger left its marks on many, in the appearance of their faces and in their movements. These did not request support from others. The spark of personal honor was still not entirely extinguished, and so too there were others to turn to. The shortage was the inheritance of them all.
This was how the winter passed for us. The spring of 1942 arrived. Different rumors were spread concerning an approaching Aktion. I did not yet understand the meaning of the word Aktion.
The most awful thing imposed upon the Judenrat was the duty to prepare a list of people who would be handed over to the Germans in order to put them to death. The Judenrat took upon itself the awful task. The list was put together especially including the poorest of the people, widows, orphans, homeless people all those who appeared on the list of the welfare office, which was also run through the Judenrat. At first, knowledgeable people thought that the Germans would transfer the people to special camps. Our hearts refused to believe that the Judenrat had agreed to decide who would be the first victims, and chose them from among the neediest. A feeling of disgust filled me with regard to the Judenrat. I did not
want to cooperate anymore in the Office of Social Work.
At that time, the Germans began to organize a project for the collection of old household items. A special department for the job was opened, including a workshop and an office, using the former Mager family home. The people gathered bottles of every sort, and they were cleaned in the workshop. The items collected were sorted into a variety of categories. The director of this project was of Polish or German origin, one by the name of Malecki. I was brought into this department as Director of Accounts. This was very important for creating jobs and security, and was the best guarantee of livelihood for some few people. It was essentially an assurance that they would not be sent to the cruelly run labor camps.
Meanwhile, the rumors concerning the upcoming Aktion were circulating. The Germans demanded that the Judenrat provide them with 400 souls. The Jews searched for a way to escape the decree. They built bunkers, arranged secret shelters in different corners of houses, created contacts with peasants in the vicinity, and sought help in every place they could.
It is important to point out that despite the dilemma in which the Judenrat was caught up, the members believed they would indeed prevail over those who arose against us. We will live and we will overcome. Everything depended on the course of the battles on the Russian front. Perhaps a miracle would occur and the Red Army would inflict heavy losses on the German army.
My father built an excellent secret shelter in the basement of the house, but with a ‘fat tail and a thorn in it,’ meaning, something seemingly good but with a major drawback. Subterranean water flooded the basement, and blocked the air openings. It was impossible to remain there for long.
Finally, what we feared came to pass. The Germans came and demanded the quota of people, and our Jewish policemen, who acted under the auspices of the Judenrat, would be responsible for carrying out the order. Every policeman was given a list of people to bring to the Central Synagogue.
The silence of a cemetery descended upon the city. Everyone sought out a shelter in which to hide. People in panic fled from place to place, to neighbors, to blood relatives, out of the naïve hope that it would be more secure there.
My family hid in the attic of the dairy, which was at our house. The uncles and aunts, Messingov, Perlov, and their children, hid in the cellar. My sister, Regina, and I decided to remain on guard. We seized a position in the courtyard amidst a defensive excavation against air attacks, by the church, which was next to our house. This excavation also served as a privy for peasants who exited the church. A real public toilet in the vicinity of the place did not exist. A heavy stench filled our nostrils, but we stayed there until morning. A Polish neighbor served us as a liaison with the outside world. Every hour he appeared and told us what was happening in the streets. The Aktion continued all night.
The policemen got drunk before they left for Aktion, in order not to become depressed. They broke down doors, searched in cellars and attics, took terrified elderly men and women out of bunkers. Sometimes they seized young men and brought them to the collection point at the synagogue.
Shouts were heard from all around, wails of crying people who did not know why the hangman had chosen them. We stood guard and resolved not to allow them to take out our dear ones. We would defend ourselves, if necessary, even though no one knew how to accomplish that.
Twice the Jewish policemen entered our house, and searched the cellar. They did not discover the bunker.
Dawn came up. The noise in the streets ceased. We breathed with relief. The family remained. No one was seized. My sisters, Shupka and Regina, had escaped through the cemetery to the neighboring village of Novosilka. I stayed in order to follow coming events, and to defend the family and relatives in the bunkers.
Suddenly, at seven in the morning, my sisterinlaw, Manya Wallach, burst into our house, crying bitterly. Her husband had been killed in the first days of the German conquest. Tearfully, she told us that her mother, my motherinlaw, had been taken. The policemen also had searched for her father, but he had successfully hidden. I left all of them, and I ran to the Judenrat to try to save her. After many efforts, I succeeded in finding a member of the Judenrat, the lawyer Munya Lampert. I sought mercy. He demanded ten thousand zloty and another two hundred grams of gold as a condition for freeing my motherinlaw, Freidel Wallach. We did not have such a large sum of money. My fatherinlaw had hidden the gold, and now with all the tumult and the confusion round about, we did not remember his hiding place. Without a choice, Manya and I went together and, as security, handed over any valuable object that we could round up in our house, textiles, coats, anything that would achieve our goal. Manya quickly returned with money and a gold chain in her hand, and waited to free her mother from the synagogue. It seemed as if everything had been arranged, and that there would be no further delays.
But fortune did not shine its face upon her. She was still waiting when the Germans arrived looking for the payoff. A convoy of trucks was waiting near the door of the synagogue. It was 4pm. At that hour, I was on my way home from the Judenrat building.
Suddenly, everything was silent. Every person had escaped to every secret corner. On the way, people warned me and advised me to flee, since the quota of 400 people had not yet been filled. Therefore, they would take anyone of any age or status and, absent choice, they would even take police officers for filling the required quota. I tore the ribbon of shame from my arm, which was embroidered with the Jewish Star, and without fear, I walked in the direction of the church. I was completely confident that no one would arrest me, although this crime carried an immediate death penalty for those caught.
For completion of the ‘contingent’ the quota of people that had been set a few were missing. The policemen bustled about, seized with frenzy in their search for victims. They detained and arrested Manya, my sister in law, who waited in the vicinity of the synagogue for her mother's release. Of course, they had not released my motherinlaw. All of them were loaded onto trucks, and were transported to an unknown destination, never to be seen again.
Deep despair overtook all of us. It was clear that our turn too would be coming. It was just a question of time. Like the spirits of ghosts, we moved around very depressed. All hope of being saved disappeared. We lacked a rear echelon, a base, or a homefront that would support us. Only a miracle could save us, and it tarried.
My fatherinlaw, Yitzchak Hersh Wallach, remained old and unfortunate. His eyes were wells of sorrow, filled with burning tears. He was a broken man. We brought him over to us and waited, crowded and pressed together in the small apartment, awaiting what was to come. We brought Hanna Perl, because she too had lost her parents.
Together with my sister, I moved about to obtain bread. Secretly, we reached former neighbors and here we exchanged different household articles for kernels of grain, which they ground at Marina's. We preferred the risk to the slow death from hunger.
An Autumn Night. Fierce knocking on the door awakened us. A drunken Ukrainian peasant stood at the entrance and demanded that we bring out my sister, Shupka, who was 15 years old at the time. He was deeply in love, and demanded to know who would withhold her from him in the circumstances in which we were living? My father took his stand like a wild beast, and thus the struggle continued until morning. Only then did the drunken peasant sober up from his drunkenness, apologized, and even sent us a loaf of bread as a token of regret.
We received a loaf of bread, secretly, every day, from the baker, whose bakery was in the vicinity of our house. This loaf saved us from the jaws of famine. We also found other ways to alleviate our distress.
In the evenings, I found work for myself, managing the books of a German company whose influence was well known in the surrounding area. In these offices, the peasants would receive their salary, and more than once they whispered, The Germans kill Jews. But they do not forego their brains.
Sometimes they took us for forced labor in the fields, and there we stole vegetables from whatever came to hand, but only in so far as what was needed to keep the family alive. This labor was beyond human strength. Our German and Ukrainian taskmasters found any pretext to intensify their curses and their cruel conduct. Sometimes they entrusted a pair of horses or oxen to me, and ordered me to plow. Gentiles who saw me in that state asked me more than once, Where is your God? I had no answer. One thing was clear to me, that one had to act, to struggle, and to hold out.
One night, Germans burst into our house. Their fearsome screams awakened us. They saw us, me and my sisters, Shupka and Regina. They looked and retreated, begged our pardon since it seemed to them that Jews resided here. We realized that it was incumbent upon us to create new identities for ourselves.
My sister, Regina, also worked for the German Alt Schtuperfsung Company, which employed Jews in the collection of old household items and trash. But they employed her in cleaning work. About this time, a supervisor for the company arrived in Skalat. His name was Mr. Nowicki, a Jew who seemed like a Gentile, using the subterfuge of Aryan papers. Nowicki was a rich man, an influential person among certain circles, and he had an unusual escape plan. His Jewish appearance was an obstacle for him. Therefore, he surrounded himself with friends who possessed an Aryan appearance. After we became friendly, he suggested that we flee together through the Romanian border. According to his plan, we had to approach the border in stages. We would obtain work in other cities, first in Chortkov, and afterward continue toward the goal of escaping. Meanwhile, Nowicki, in his supervisory role, left for Chortkov, and I began to deal with obtaining new documents, which would confirm my new identity as Christian. I decided to maintain the relationship between Nowicki and me.
It was no simple matter in 1942 to obtain documents such as these in Skalat. Our appeals to certain persons aroused suspicions among them. They simply were afraid to get involved in any way. Finally, I succeeded. A Ukrainian officer, whom I had known in joint work before the war, extended a helping hand. He discovered identification papers, in the local archive, that could be used. He also obtained a Christian prayer book for me, and even provided me with a Christian medallion. The new documents established that I was a Ukrainian girl by the name of Katheryna Lachoweczka, formerly Kachowa. It was difficult for me to remember
my new identity. I repeated the new details over many nights, but nevertheless had trouble remembering. Fear paralyzed my ability to think clearly.
My work in the managing of accounts with the Germans made it possible for me to have free access to official forms and governmental seals. I forged a document with the name of Katheryna Lachoweczka on an official certificate in the office. I sold a sewing machine and a few other articles in order to have some money for our getaway. Meanwhile, I waited for information from Chortkov. My sister, Shupka, was able to get new identity papers also, but my sister, Regina, struggled with the decision of what to do.
Meanwhile, the Germans began to gather all the Jews from the entire city into a small neighborhood, which stretched from my Aunt Malchiyah Bomse's house through the marketplace and the area of shops in Patzini to the Jewish neighborhood near the Great Synagogue. They brought all the Jews of Skalat, those from the neighboring towns of Grzhimalov and Podvolochisk, along with those from other surrounding villages to this constricted area. It was now occupied to the point of suffocation, and became the town's ghetto.
On the day of the opening of the ghetto, I received information that it was time for me to leave for Chortkov. I parted from my parents. That night I stayed over at Marina's, and with the coming of dawn, her son transported me to the train station in the city of Chorostkov. I saw terrifying sights along the way. I saw the Jews of Grzhimalov making their way toward Skalat. My heart ached at the sight of these unfortunate ones. Where would they find a resting place for themselves? What would they do in the new city? Certainly they would perish in the overcrowding, the hunger, and the cold, which were awaiting them in Skalat!
I strove with all my strength to remain alive. I was young. I aspired to save the remnants of my family members. If only I could be successful! I walked toward the unknown, to a new life. I felt great relief and confidence. I believed that I would succeed in surviving. As I entered the train, crowds of Polish and Ukrainian peasants, young and old, filled the coaches, all of them carefree, happy, and well dressed. I looked at their faces with envy, and I thought of my unfortunate family who remained behind. I pretended to look into the prayer book, and I recited prayers by heart. Despite the terror round about, it was wonderful to feel that I was a free woman, with no one pursuing me.
As we approached Chortkov, evening descended. Where will I sleep tonight? Where will I stay tomorrow? I had no idea. The search for lodging was very dangerous. Still on the train, I turned to one of the female passengers and, in my excellent Ukrainian, asked her about a possible place for lodging. She handed me an address not too far from the train station. Leaving the station, I turned toward the address that was in my hand. I entered inside. The lady of the house, an elderly Ukrainian woman, received me kindly, but not one unoccupied bed was left in the house. For lack of choice, I agreed to share a bed with her young daughter.
I was asked to explain my appearance here, and was ready with the story. I was afraid that they would seize me for labor in Germany, and so I fled from my city. Here they promised me work, which would shield me from being detained. My story was convincing. I remained in the place, but every night my sleep wandered. My worry did not leave me. I had to be ready for any new situation
that might arise, to react quickly, and in a correct manner, to any surprise or complication. One thing I knew clearly was that, whatever my situation, I would not return anymore to my city, as it would become my grave!
I walked around the streets of the new city like a free woman. The fear left me. My goal was clear. My mood darkened when I remembered the members of my family who remained behind me, who were sighing under the terrors of approaching death. I know that you will live! my oldest sister Matilda said to me before I left for the road. She showed me a hiding place in which she had hidden our ornaments, gold watches, rings, earrings, and other valuable articles.
The days passed. I looked for work, but in vain. Positions for women were rare. I believed that I would manage to obtain work, but reality slapped me in the face. And so, the first week passed in the new city. Meanwhile, it became known to me that a new Aktion had taken place. In this Aktion, my father, Tuvia Pikholz, was seized, as was my brotherinlaw, Shlomo Bomse, and my fatherinlaw, YitzchakHersh Wallach. More than three thousand people were seized and brought to the death camp in Belzec. This was in October 1942. They told me that my unfortunate father cried silently and found the strength to comfort others. His deep faith was for him and others a source of comfort. To date, I have never found out where, and in what circumstances, my father perished.
The next day after the Aktion, my sister, Shupka, went in my footsteps. She had gotten my address from Shuna Schar, with whom I had remained in contact. However, our paths diverged. On the day that Shupka reached Chortkov, I had left for Lvov. Shupka stayed with the same family to whom I had come first, and remained there during the entire period of the war.
The idea to volunteer for Germany, for labor in factories, took root in Nowicki's mind. I had a good knowledge of the situation and in what was happening. I listened to his advice, but making it happen was not so simple at all. Labor offices inducted people for forced labor in an orderly and organized fashion. Sometimes they kidnapped people on the streets, especially those who had attempted to flee from the threat, only to be sent to Germany for labor. I wanted to travel to Germany and work there, but my chances were poor. I walked around the streets of the city, especially on days on which they kidnapped young men and women for work in Germany. What stroke of luck. They never caught me! I planned a strategy. I turned to the committee that was impressing youths for Germany, and I requested to be sent as a volunteer. The step, in itself, had many dangers. I was bound to arouse suspicions. I took the risk out of a sense of great confidence that I would be up to the job. My personal documents, my secure stance, my ‘good’ facial appearance were all guarantees that I was indeed a Ukrainian woman and even a loyal patriot. As proof of my Ukrainian loyalty, I relied, among other things, on a ‘familial relationship’ to the lady of the house with whom I was staying. My story was convincing, and I was found fit for this important work.
They sent me to Lvov. The journey took all night. There was a huge camp for all those sent and who volunteered for work in Germany here. More than ten thousand people were gathered in this place from one month to another. In the bunk where they lodged us, there were four hundred women, most of them from the mountain regions of Poland. The filth here was unbelievable. Lice swarmed in everything, and even I did not escape it. Strict discipline prevailed in the camp. Frequent musters, medical examinations,
constant disinfection, and meals exclusively at fixed times. All of these were an inseparable part of the schedule of our days. In the women's shower, men observed us and looked at us as beasts of labor.
In this camp, a disturbing experience happened to me. It was a brush with death. Someone in the camp claimed he knew me from the years of our studies in school, in Tarnopol, and informed the authorities that I was a Jewish woman. The director of the camp and his helper entered the bunk and asked every woman of Jewish origin to leave the place. I froze in my spot. The director and his helper passed among the rows of women in the bunk and stopped near me. He ordered me to take my belongings and to follow him. I knew what was in store for me. Two days before, a Jewish boy who was discovered here was shot. The sentence was carried out publicly for everyone to see. That was a shocking scene. It seemed as if my fate was sealed. There was no way out.
With valise in hand, I entered the office of the director of the camp. He demanded that I show him my identity papers. After a basic inspection, he commanded me to pray in Ukrainian. I could not manage to remember even a single word of the prayer that I had repeated so many times. Out of fear, the words flew away from me. In no way was I able to draw them from memory, which now had betrayed me. I was silent. I was humiliated. My identity was clear to him from this point. One thing puzzled him. How had I succeeded in obtaining confirmation that I was Ukrainian, in the office of the Ukrainian Control Committee in Lvov, considered the holy of holies of the Ukrainian administration?
I had obtained the document in the simplest way. I had gone to the Ukrainian Control Committee, which was in the camp, and submitted two documents. Then I requested confirmation that I was indeed Ukrainian. One official tested me strictly. With impudent language, I turned to him and asked him to explain this scrutinizing of me, that if he didn't approve, I was prepared to leave the camp and forego my trip to Germany and return home. My impudence had paid off. They were convinced, and immediately gave me a document confirming that I was a kosher Ukrainian. I still have the document to this day.
The director of the camp searched my valise. His eyes blazed with desire when he rifled through my articles. I saw his weakness, and suggested that he take several pairs of underwear and a scarf for his fiancée, if one existed. He did not object. Then I also offered him the money in my possession. My generosity worked, and he was convinced that I was indeed a Ukrainian woman. I received permission to return to the bunk.
I was at the point where I needed to decide whether to return to the camp and wait for the journey to Germany, or leave the camp entirely and get out of there. The director of the camp gave me the choice. I preferred the first possibility, despite the great risk, since remaining in Lvov would be more dangerous. My identity papers would be doubted, taken, and without appropriate documents, without money, and without work, I wouldn't be able to hold out in Lvov.
So with the first transport available, I left for Germany. They chose me along with another hundred women from the bunk. I was satisfied and actually happy. The train made its way in the direction of LeipzigTuringen. The trip lasted two entire days. Apparently, I was not the only Jewish woman on the train. It was clear that the director of the camp had found a side source of income for himself, and that I was not the first Jewish woman he had dealt with in this way. In the evening hours, we reached Armstadt. They brought us to a camp in the vicinity of a munitions factory.
Nine thousand workers were employed in Armstadt. There were workers from all corners of conquered Europe: French, Croats, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians as well as members of other nations who worked here. Women were in the majority. The residential bunks were three kilometers from the factory. Shod in wooden shoes, we were led to work daily like a herd of cattle. The food was meager and the plague of lice awful, and cruelly, they sucked my blood. I was unable to get rid of them. Even water and soap could not overcome them, and they always returned.
A new disaster threatened me. One morning, a young Christian woman named Tchobtoba from Skalat approached me in the camp courtyard. She was astonished. What are you doing here? she asked me. How were you able to get here? It became clear to me that in this labor camp, there were young Christian women from Skalat. What a disappointment!
During the war years, it was a disaster to meet acquaintances, Poles or Ukrainians. You were never able to know what trouble could arise for you from this kind of meeting. Frequently such a meeting led to denunciation. And then all your plans were for naught. But this time, fortune smiled on me. My sisters in distress from Skalat were indeed Christians, but they were as unfortunate and downtrodden as we Jews. That was my consolation. I did not think that they would hand me over, so, to make sure, I divided my poor ration of food with them. Sometimes I gave them one of my possessions, but eventually these sad experiences came back to haunt us.
Two months later, the bubble burst. One of the girls was not careful with what she said. With great speed, the information spread through the camp. They whispered about me, pried and asked. A few warned me to escape. All the while, the denunciations and slander had not reached the camp authorities.
Escape? Where could I go? Eventually, I felt that I excelled in the factory. The old mechanic, who had charge over one of the machines, was, it seems, a pacifist, and in the course of work, he would commit sabotage through slowdowns and even damage to the machines. We found a common language and mutual understanding in this task. Sometimes, he would secretly bring me soap for bathing, or meals in secret. The man endangered himself greatly, since helping foreigners was totally forbidden.
Under me, the earth burned. The worry about tomorrow took away my rest. I therefore rejoiced at the arrival of Christmas. We received three days of rest from labor. I decided to act. I wrapped the most important things, and staged a journey ‘to my aunt.’ The Ukrainian woman, Diminchuk, my sister in distress, decided to join me in this escape. Her sister was staying in Münster, in Northern Germany, and she decided to visit her. I felt that it was incumbent upon me to do something. Perhaps luck would shine on me in some other place.
We managed to slip away with no one from the camp noticing. My readiness stood me in good stead. I obtained two travel cards, and we entered the train. We traveled all night until noon the next day. The atmosphere of Christmas was all around us. We were hungry, but we didn't have food, and without food cards, it was impossible for us to obtain any. We were in a dilemma. German soldiers traveled with us in the compartment, on a short break from the front. One of them, a high official in the conquered territories from Poltava to Kiev, stood out in his appearance. In the course of a conversation concerning different personal matters, he declared suddenly that he was prepared to employ me in his office, which was in Poltava.
He needed a female clerk who was knowledgeable in the two languages, Ukrainian and German. His enthusiasm increased, and changed to more personal matters. The conversation ended with a proposal to marry me. I reminded him that the law forbade him from marrying a foreign woman, but he was not impressed with my words. Since he was a high officer, enjoying many privileges, he would be able to obtain a special authorization for this marriage from Hitler himself. And since all the obstacles were removed, he asked me to join him on his journey to his parents. I was confused. I suggested that he contact me when he succeeded in obtaining the appropriate authorizations. I handed him a fictional address. Nevertheless, not everything was in vain. When he reached his station and got up to leave, he left me his meat sandwiches as an expression of our friendship. A celebratory feast and the memories of that encounter put smiles on our faces.
We reached the labor camp in Münster. Horror seized me when four girls from Mantiva, a suburb of Skalat, recognized me immediately and greeted me. Again a defeat. And again, it would be necessary to flee to the unknown. I decided that on the way from here, I would get off at the city of Leipzig, but I advised my friend, Diminchuk, to return on the train leaving for Armstadt. She refused, and burst into powerful sobs. She was concerned about traveling alone because she was not knowledgeable about the roads, and feared she would be seized by the police and arrested. There was no choice. I accompanied her back, and returned to the camp.
The execution of the escape plan had to be postponed for another time. On December 31, 1942, a new opportunity presented itself to me. We received two days of furlough. With several pairs of undies, the one dress I was wearing, and without any articles to carry in my hands, I fled the camp. This time I chose to travel southward to the city of Wieden, in Bavaria. I received the addresses of several young Christian women from Skalat who worked as housemaids in private homes. These women were former friends from our schooldays. I had lived in neighborliness with several of them, before the war.
After some travel, I reached Wieden on January 1, 1943. It was a holiday. I did not meet even one of my town mates. It seemed that I couldn't find any of the addresses. My staying here would be dangerous. I had destroyed my documents from the labor camp, in order to obscure traces of my escape. This time, luck was with me. I obtained a room in a hotel and food to satisfy my hunger. The redeeming angel on that day appeared in the guise of a strange man, a Czech who hastened to my aid.
The next day I met my girlfriends, Milka Hinda Boskovna, and Tuska Karbush. They received me with warm, open hearts. They too felt a great hatred for the Germans, and they therefore helped me to get settled in the place. At the labor office, they reported that I was a proper Ukrainian woman. I strengthened their account with a fabricated tale about the escape from the train, which led us to labor in Germany, especially because I wished to meet these girlfriends of mine. The local authorities indeed attempted to verify my story, but the chaos of the war helped me out, and they left me untroubled, and gave me work.
A German family took me in as a housemaid. A variety of jobs were given me. I saw to the cleanliness of the rooms, the kitchen and the bathrooms. I fattened poultry in the coop, and in the winter days, I saw to the central heating of the house. In the summer, I worked in the garden, and I even took charge of the shining and polishing of boots of the elderly German. The work was a lot, but it was good for me here. I lived alone in a clean room. I even was permitted to use the bathtub in the house. My Christian girlfriends from Skalat did not have conditions nearly as favorable. It was my good fortune. The ability to
sleep alone in a room was a great and important privilege, too. I feared that sleep would betray me. I would make a sound. I would speak a word and it would end my life. Incidents like these occurred many times. A person shouted during sleep in his mother tongue. The pains and afflictions which you experienced by day could blaze a path for themselves during the nighttime hours. That was your last scream. It revealed your secrets publicly. And no one could save you from it.
In the afternoon hours of Sunday, on the general day of rest, I would spend the time in the company of Milka Hinda. I was able to converse with her about many things. We even went to church together. She was a young girl who possessed a profound religious consciousness and prayed from deep within. I would observe her from the place where I sat on the bench in church. I felt the exaltation of her spirit during the service. I envied the simple faith and tranquility that enveloped her. With her fierce zealotry, she forced me to promise her that when the war would be over, I would convert and would be a faithful Catholic.
Time here improved my health, especially now, after I had tasted relative tranquility. But I felt the tension of life in different ways, with nervous agitation in my stomach and nasal polyps. I frequently had nosebleeds. I consulted an ear, nose and throat doctor. His treatment was very basic. In the course of my visit with him, he revealed himself as a sharp opponent of the Nazi regime. It was whispered that his wife was a Jewish woman, and that he was hiding her. Frequently and repeatedly, he would claim that the war would be over soon and that Hitler would suffer a defeat. With his help, I was able to obtain medical certification for Milka Hinda, which said she was forbidden, for reasons of health, to work in factories. This noble doctor, named Heller, was able to assemble a consortium of doctors to confirm this diagnosis and determination. Milka Hinda was then able to obtain work as a housemaid.
Dr. Heller even went further. For two weeks, he had us admitted to a German hospital. We feigned illness. We felt deep satisfaction that, in our time there, we were sabotaging the German war effort. During the day, we reclined on the porch of the hospital, and only during the doctors' rounds in the wards, did we get in bed. Nevertheless, we knew that we had to be careful not to stretch these strings excessively. I could not permit myself not to be okay.
A few months passed. I renewed contacts with my sister Shupka. She was living in Chortkov, and sometimes received news from home. Everything there was sad. In the spring of 1943, typhus rampaged within the ghetto, and many people died. Among the victims was my mother Faige Pikholz and many others in my family.
Before her death, my mother, beloved and unforgettable, managed to receive two letters, one from me, from where I was living in Germany, and one from my sister Shupka, in Chortkov. She was happy that it was good for us, and she believed with strong faith that we would get through the difficult period and would remain alive. With this knowledge, my mother closed her eyes forever. Dr. Sass, who was present by my mother's bed in her last moments of life, revealed these details to me after the war.
How was I able to succeed in getting a letter to my mother? Even this is an interesting story. My girlfriend, Tzurbotna, my workmate in Germany, was wounded in her hand. Four fingers of her right hand were
cut off by a machine. As a cripple, she was freed from labor, and permission was granted to her to return to Skalat. I entrusted her with the letter to my mother. She stole into the ghetto, despite the danger, and personally handed over the letter from me, and so my mother knew I was alive. It is fitting to point out that this was an unusual and kind act by Tzurbotna.
A day after my mother's burial, there raged a new Aktion. My two sisters, Matilda and Regina, were seized. Regina attempted to escape from a convoy of Jews who were being taken to death pits. She was murdered on the spot. Matilda also did not return.
At the time of one of the Aktions, my cousin, Manya Messing, was unable to escape into the bunker, due to having a broken leg. The Germans overtook her and shot her. My aunt, Tsila Messing, hanged herself in the bunker. Her husband, Nissim Messing, wandered over the fields for many days. He became deranged, until he was murdered. This is how they disappeared. They perished for their sin of being born Jewish. A sin that was too heavy to bear.
All my dear ones perished, and I alone remained. That was a terrifying thought. I cursed the day of my birth. It was decreed upon me to bewail my dear ones all the days of my life. Nevertheless, the will to live prevailed in me. I wanted to live and to tell the world about the cruelest crimes that were committed by human beasts. I wanted the world to know what they did to us. During many sleepless nights, I dreamed the dream of the future in which all of this would be revealed to the world.
On a Sunday afternoon, we received exit permission. We exploited that by meeting with young Polish people who were freed from POW camps in Germany. Many of them joined the Underground. There were Germans who assisted them, and supplied them with food cards. The work of the Underground charmed me. I helped to obtain food secretly, in order to distribute it among the captives who were fleeing from Camp Flossenberg.
One day, I discovered that the soap I was using was made from human fat. It was ‘RIF SOAP.’ After a while, I found out the actual meaning of the name was Pure Jewish Fat, or Reines Judisches Fett in German. I was astounded. It was so hard to believe, even if the truth was in front of you.
In the circles of the Polish captives, I recognized a Pole by the name of Andzhi Glud who, with endless selfsacrifice, hastened to the aid of any needy person. My situation worsened in those days. The danger that I would be discovered lay in wait for me always. Quickly it became known to me that the police had begun to take an interest in me, in the wake of a letter concerning my identity, which arrived from Skalat. There was no choice left for me except to flee anew. It even became necessary for me to change my name. Andzhi Glud came to my aid. It was he who saved me.
We decided to enter the covenant of marriage. From then on, I was called Antonina Glud. We resided in Neustadt. The traces of the past were erased. After the war, Andzhi was ready to make Aliyah with me to the Land of Israel, and to live there as a free man, but he did not live to accomplish that. Even he was going to disappear in the storm of the final days.
In 1945, I witnessed the downfall of the Germans. There was little joy in it for me. The deep feeling of guilt stayed within me, because only I had remained alive. And were it not for the expectation of the son who was about to be born, God knows how this all would have ended. I also felt a deep need to return to my home, and to discover the traces of Shupka, my youngest sister. Andzhi joined me in this journey.
We stopped in Prague. There our son was born. Nineteen days after his birth, Andzhi was arrested by the Russians because he was a Polish officer before the war. His traces were lost forever.
I was left alone with an infant in my arms as I searched for a connection with my family. That was the beginning of a new struggle, but with totally different circumstances. In the capacity of Antonina Glud, I lived in Poland until 1948. The rise of the State of Israel aroused within me the desire to change my name, and I endeavored to leave.
My son bears the name of my family from my parents' home Pikholz, in honor of my father, of blessed memory, who always was sorry that he had no sons, and that the family name would disappear forever.
(drawn by Tzipporah Hermoni)
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