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[Page XV English] [Page 398 Hebrew]

As Beasts in the Woods

by Gabriel Singer, Israel

Scanned and proofread by Barbara Lipkin

In March 1943 ten of us from the Ömler Camp, conducted by the Ömler Road-building Company, were sent to work at the Klecianow quarries near Cusmir. I was fifteen years old in all, and the youngest of the group. Before long we were transferred to the Ostrowce Railway Station, where we loaded tins on lorries. Through the station passed long trainloads of Jews, who asked from time to time, “Where is the Treblinka Colony?” Instead of answering, the Poles who were working with us used to burst into mocking and sadistic laughter.

On June 3rd, 1943 we were suddenly dismissed from our work and Poles took our places. This seemed strange and suspicious to us. The Poles working while we were idling? That could certainly not be to our advantage! We made up our minds that the safest thing for us to do was to take to our heels and escape.

When it grew dark I slipped out of the camp and climbed onto a freight train which was just passing. Soon after I jumped off and fell between the rails. When I recovered I started to walk off. Naturally I intended to go “home”. I walked through the fields, gradually approaching the main road that led to Staszów. As I walked I noticed a suspicious movement. I stretched myself on the ground, and fell asleep through weariness and hunger.

When I woke up I heard two voices conferring in hushed tones. It was pitch dark all round. I did not know what to do. I was afraid to move for fear I would be caught. At last I rose to my feet and began to run like a startled hare. The two men also began running away in alarm. I was afraid of them, just as they were afraid of me; and neither side knew who the other might be. But before long I realised that they were also from Staszów, and were escaping like me. They were Gabriel Becker and Aaron Breiter. From them I learnt that the Ömler camp had been liquidated that same day in the town, and that they had jumped off the lorries that were taking the men to Skierziski.

So the three of us continued on our journey to Staszów. We passed through fields, we crossed roads and we moved through forests, while hunger consumed us. So we decided to enter a lonely house at some distance from the village, and ask for food.

When the peasant refused to give us any, we threatened that we would burn his house over his head. The threat worked at once, and the peasant gave Gabriel a loaf of bread. That gave us strength enough to reach the outskirts of Staszów.

By that time it was daylight. While we were crossing the railway lines on our way to the Goliew forest, the Germans saw us and directed a fusillade against us. Each dashed off in a different direction and I was left on my own. Young as I was and without any experience at all, the loneliness oppressed me very much. I though that if I remained near the main road I might come across one of the Jews. All of a sudden a man appeared with a weapon in his hands. I was sure that this was a Jew hiding in the forest, but promptly learnt of my grave mistake, which only by a miracle did not cost me my life. This was a Pole, an “A.K.” man.

He stripped me of my upper garments and went his way, remarking: “It would be a pity to waste a bullet on you.”

Now my position was much worse. I was all alone with nothing to eat but forest plants, and without any clothing to cover me properly. I spent about a fortnight like that, trying to think up all kinds of ways of helping myself, but at last I gave up in despair. I could not see any way out. More than once I made up my mind to surrender to the Germans, comforting myself with the illusion that maybe some miracle would happen in spite of everything, and they would send me to work. During that fortnight I was far more afraid of men than animals are. But since I had no choice I overcame my feelings, and one night I went off to a neighbouring village. When I approached the fences round the houses and saw washing drying in the open I took down a number of pieces to cover myself, for I trembled with cold at nights and then went back to the forest.

So the problem of clothing was solved, and that made things much easier, but what next? To be sure, my will to live gave me plenty of energy. I was determined to pass through this bad time whatever might happen. But meanwhile my stomach was empty, my head was aching and how could I help myself?

So I made up my mind to seek and find Jewish brethren in distress. I traversed vast distances. I never spent two nights in the same place. At first, I was absolutely lost in the forest, but before long I became as familiar with it as though I had been born there, and learnt to recognise every corner. I did my best to keep near dense woods, first as a matter of safety and second because I thought I might find Jews there, hiding from any watchers. Animals whose very names I did not know were there in plenty, but I became accustomed to them and they became accustomed to me, and I regarded myself as one of them.

But when a few more days passed without my finding any townsfolk, I once again succumbed to sad thoughts and began to fear for the handful who were still left over. When things were at their worst I remembered tales I had heard at school about a large lake of sweet water where those who rambled in the forest used to bathe. It was obvious that if there were any Jews still alive they would need water. So I began a fresh series of feverish searches, hunting for the lake which might deliver me from my nerve-racking loneliness. Yet in spite of all my efforts I did not succeed. To be sure, I found several streams, but their water was so polluted that it was impossible even to imagine that it could ever have served for bathing in normal times. Still I haunted their banks for several days but in vain. A dreadful despair penetrated to my very bones. Once again I began to think about giving myself up. And in my depression, physical weariness and bitter hunger I fell fast asleep.

When I woke up the feeling of hunger was distressing me even more. Little by little I was losing my strength. With stumbling steps I sought this way and that for food of any kind. All of a sudden I saw two men at a distance. They must have seen me as well and began to move off. My first thought was that they must be the men from whom ! had parted when the Germans shot at us. But taught by experience I did not hurry to show myself. After all, maybe these two were also A.K. men who were out to kill us? I tried to keep track, but in the thick woods I completely lost all trace of them. Still, I did not leave the area. My heart told me that Jews were to be found thereabouts,

 

“OIF DEM PRIPETCHOK”

Meanwhile day followed day. My ears were pricked to catch any sound or whisper. I looked for signs of human life. The birds sang, the wild beasts screeched and squealed -- but the voice of the Jews had become silent.

With much difficulty I overcame my depression and went on waiting near the brooks and the springs. Did I have any choice? This was my only support, thanks to which I still managed to keep going somehow. And at length I had my reward.

Two men appeared at the waterside to fill their vessels. My nervous tension reached its height. Although I did not know whether these were Jews or not I could not restrain myself but shouted in Yiddish: “Who is there?”

There was a tense silence. I called again and saw from the distance that they were arguing together. Then came the sound of some one whistling. It seemed to me that the tune was the familiar Yiddish folksong “Oif dem Pripetchok” (On the Hearth).

Since I did not know the signal I shouted my name and the name of my parents, and called that I was one of those who had run sway from the Ömler Camp. They called me over to them. I became frightened. Maybe they were trying to trap me? Without moving from my place I asked, “And who are you?”

There was silence again. Then at last they gave their names, and to my great joy I found that these were Nathaniel (Sana) Ehrlich and Shealtiel Chanzinsky-Gersht. We fell on one another's necks and embraced each other for a long time. I felt as though I had been reborn. At last, after these nerve-racking wanderings all on my own and in absolute want for about three weeks, I was with my townsmen once again!

I was particularly happy with Nathaniel, whom I had known when I had been studying under his father Reb Yitzhak Melamed. And I should add that Nathaniel had been the most advanced of us. He also knew the reckonings of the Sabbaths and the months, and could calculate all that was needed for the Jewish Calendar.

Now I went with them and found some more townsfolk: Aaron Kunas, Joseph Goldfluss, Mordechai Goldfluss with all his family, and some others. Among them were entire families who had run away from other places and even people who came from other towns. While I was with them I learnt how to live and fit myself into forest life. I knew the meeting places and the signals. It was easier for me in all respects, and I felt incomparably better.

But my joy did not last very long. One day we were attacked. A hail of bullets was emptied at us as though it were the firing line. We did not see the attackers. We scattered in every direction. I ran away with Zvi (Hashu) Goldfluss, and we hid in a dense thicket. When it became dark we made for the meeting place. Only Nathaniel and a very few more arrived there besides us. We understood that something dreadful must have happened, and went back to the place of attack during the night. There we saw the dreadful scene. All the others had been killed and only a handful were left. It was very painful to think that their suffering had been in vain. But we overcame our grief, buried them and moved away to a different wood.

 

Mid-July, 1943

From time to time we were joined by other Jews, who had hidden with Poles and had been driven away by them empty-handed. We mustered twenty-five people, including the wife of Ginger Meir (der Gele Meir) and her little child. In spite of the inhuman conditions, I looked after the woman and her child just as I did after myself. And here I feel it my duty to mention one kind village in the neighbourhood, Czajkow. During those dreadful days, when everybody and everything was united in order to blot out the name of Jew from the earth - it was something exceptional to see the humane way the villagers behaved. these simple people helped us of their own free will, and without receiving any money in return. From them we often heard some kind words, quite apart from the money, loaves of bread and boiled potatoes they gave us from time to time. It was true that the potatoes were sometimes rotten, but to us they seemed like royal dainties. We would fall on them and consume them with an appetite that no normal person is capable of imagining.

Naturally this was not all we lived on. From time to time we raided the potato fields of the district, and brought the potatoes to the forest to satisfy our hunger. That is how we kept up our miserable existence. Weeks passed in this way.

One day one of us went to fetch water. Within a very short while he came back to tell us that on the path in the forest he had seen a great many Jews.

My longing for more Jews made me forget my common sense, and without thinking much I went out to meet them. But these turned out to be Poles, A.K. men. One of them saw me in the distance and ordered “Hands up!' I had no alternative except to obey the order.

As he made his way towards me between the tall branching trees and approached to a distance of three to four metres, I slipped off one of my heavy wooden clogs and flung it in his face with all my force. The blow was enough to confuse him for a moment. I used the opportunity and began to run away towards our wood. When I got there I saw several dead bodies. I went on running. It was my bad luck that I ran exactly in the direction of the bandits, who were chasing those who had succeeded in escaping. So I stuck my head once again into grave danger. As I ran I saw an A.K. man standing by Nathaniel, ordering him to lie down and shooting at him. A calculated movement on Nathaniel's part must have given the murderer the impression that he had finished his victim, for he left him there and began to chase me and shoot after me. I ran like a deer until I was far enough away not to be in danger of a shot, and so was delivered from the claws of death once again.

As I sat down to rest I asked myself, where does the strength come from for such an inhuman struggle, a struggle which there are no prospects of ever ending? Wouldn't it he better to he with these who have already fallen and ate sleeping their eternal sleep without any fear or worry, instead of the suffering we can expect? Yet those moments of despair could not hold sway over me. A tremendous internal force always drove me on, and did not permit me to surrender to the bitter realities no matter what might happen.

I rose and made my way to our meeting point. About ten of us came together, and we returned to the place of slaughter. Heart-broken, we buried those who had fallen and who only a short time before had been struggling, praying and hoping together with us. We said the Kaddish, while on the tip of each tongue was the question: “Who is going to say Kaddish after us?”

Among these who fell in that attack were: Haya Glatstein, the wife of Meir Glatstein, and her seven-year-old son; the sisters Ionia and Sylvia Friedmann; Moshe Ber Kirschenwuerzel; and Pesah Goldfluss, the son of Mordechai Goldfluss.

Once again we faced the question -- where should we settle down?

After prolonged discussion and weighing all kinds of possibilities we decided that the best thing to do was us go back to one of the places where we had been, and where a few of our dear townsfolk had already been killed. The logic, if any, was very simple. Since the place was already known, nobody was likely to imagine that we would dare to return to it. And hence it was the “safest” place. And once again we began to raid the fields in order to garner potatoes for the approaching winter.

 

Winter, 1944

The winter began. We did our best to remain in our hiding places, so as not to leave any tracks in the snow which provided us with water. Since we had no matches, we never put out the camp fires we lit in order to boil potatoes and warm our suffering and shivering bodies. Instead we covered them with earth so as to preserve the glowing embers.

Our stock of potatoes dwindled steadily. Our rations decreased from day to day. At last everything was finished and the problem of what to do next had to be faced in all its urgency. A spiritual depression which paralyzed every idea and initiative spread throughout the group. We all sat in our places as though we were petrified without knowing how to continue. The situation was beyond despair, so the shadow-men began quarrelling. One sent another to do something. There were no volunteers. Not one of us had the spiritual and physical strength for any initiative at all. Yet staying there in a state of absolute starvation meant certain death.

In this hopeless situation I decided to do something. I told Nathaniel I would go out that night, and said goodbye and left without any plan at all. I reached the main road, wandered this way and that and did not know where to turn. Grave doubts troubled me. I was startled by my own daring and decided to go back, but remembered the death by starvation which was in store there. After a harsh internal struggle, I decided to rely upon fate which had already delivered me from dangerous situations, and to make my way to Staszów.

I reached Stazhow after two or three hours, crossed the Stodolna Street and prepared to enter the home of a Pole named Rotkwsky. I raised my hand to knock at the window and drew it back.

The will to live that was within me whispered that Poles were not to be trusted.

At that moment an idea struck me: To enter the cowshed, take out a cow and bring it to the gang. With the speed of lightning and complete internal tranquillity I did so.

I left the town together with the cow. There was dead silence all round while I prayed that nothing should go wrong on the way, and that I might arrive at the haven of my desire together with my precious spoils.

There was not a living soul to be seen all the way, but one thing worried me. If no more snow were to fall they would certainly discover my tracks next day, we would all be in grave danger. But there was no way hack, so I went ahead. To my and our good fortune, my prayer was heard and snow began to fail That gave me redoubled strength and assurance. With vigorous paces we made our way and reached Goliew just as the dawn broke. I tied the cow to a tree and entered the wood from a slightly different point, in order to wait until the day had passed and then make my way hack home after dark. I rubbed my body all over with snow in order to warm myself, and sat down to rest.

That day lasted forever. When it became dark I began to move till I approached the exit point. I listened feverishly, making every effort to catch any sign of life, hut there was absolute silence all round. In spite of the darkness I could recognise the place well, and was quite sure that I had not made a mistake. But still I began to be afraid that I had made some mistake, that my tiredness and hunger had confused me and misled me. And maybe this was the place, hut possibly they had been found while I was away, and were no longer alive. Confused with these thoughts and doubts I stretched out on the ground in order to rest and think things over. To make things worse I had also forgotten the agreed signal. And even if I had remembered, it is very doubtful whether it would have been wise or useful to make use of it. For there were good ground for the suspicion that the A. K. knew our signals.

I could see no other choice, so I whistled. There was no response, but it seemed to me that I saw a spark. Maybe they are trying to light a fire, I thought to myself, and they are blowing on the embers; and of course that takes a long time. ! waited for quite a while hut could see nothing. I whistled again and at last received a reply from Nathaniel. Then I announced my tidings.

They were all astounded at my success. Nathaniel prepared water. We killed the cow with a little axe we had in our possession. It was very hard indeed to cut the animal into pieces without any tools, but we overcame that as well. We placed the pieces of meat in a pail of snow-water and began to boil it. But who had the patience to wait, after ten days of almost complete starvation, for the meat to cook properly? Within a moment we fell on the meat before it had grown cold and began to devour it like wild beasts.

The problem of food was solved for six weeks. This had a good effect. It became clear to us all that there was no reason to despair in a hurry, and that initiative and daring made it possible to find ways of getting out of our straits in any situation. Our spiritual feeling improved boundlessly. We wanted to live and go on struggling. Even Aaron Breiter, who was more depressed than all of them, came to life again.

Now a way had been found. When the meat gave out Joseph Goldfluss and some one else went off, to try their luck as well in fetching a beast. They were also successful but then for some reason we began quarrelling, and during one loud argument it seemed to us that Uszmial the forest keeper had noticed us. We left the cow and vanished in a hurry.

Two hours later we heard shots from the direction of the spot we had left behind. We had escaped, to be sure, but now it was clear to us that our situation, which was bad enough in any case, had become far far worse. Henceforward it was obvious to the A.K. men and the Poles in general, who had not seen us for a long time and must have supposed that we had perished of starvation and cold, -- that we were still alive. And what was more, that we were stealing their property. So we decided to leave the whole district and move to the neighbourhood of Oszich.

But it was impossible to stay for any length of time. The forest in that neighbourhood was entirely different from our own district. No dense woods and thickets were to be found there, suitable for shelter and concealment. And in that district the forest was closer to the villages as well. In brief, the spot was entirely unsuitable for us. In that district, to be sure, the problem of the Jews had been completely forgotten because not a living Jew had been seen thereabouts for ever so long. Still, it was a very dangerous challenge to stay there almost in the open, plain to any passer-by. So as there was no other solution we returned some time later to the Staszów district near Czajkow. The friendly attitude of these visages had not changed. In particular I should mention a certain peasant family named Totach, whose friendly behaviour and help, although it was meagre, raised our spirits more than once. In the course of those wanderings from district to district Nathaniel, another fellow and I separated from the Goldfluss family. When we returned to the Czajkow neighbourhood we met them again, and after that we continued to stay together.

 

Spring 1944

The Spring of 1944 arrived. Heavy rain beat down ceaselessly upon us. We turned into bundles of withering shrivelled rags. The cold penetrated our 'dry bones, worse than in Winter. Our capacity for endurance grew steadily less. Nathaniel and I decided to go to the village and steal into some building or other in order to be done even for a single night with this distressing rain. We entered a properly built outhouse belonging to one of the rich peasants. Our plan was to stay under a roof until dawn and then go back. But weariness triumphed and spoiled our plans completely. We fell asleep with the good feeling of people who had been compelled for many months to live in the open air, had suddenly been brought on a rainy night into a house, and had fallen into a pleasant sleep just because they were there.

It is not surprising that we slept until late in the morning, and we would certainly have gone on sleeping if we had been allowed to. But suddenly we woke up to the sound of a heavy blow on the door. We understood at once how dangerous our situation was. From time to time the peasants banged at the door with all their force, while we kept it closed from the inside with whatever strength we had. And meanwhile all the villagers assembled there.

In the interval between one blow and the next we managed to take out a board at the back, and burst out and ran off. By the time the peasants realised what had happened we were quite a distance away. And so we were saved once more from a situation which might have cost our lives. Back we went to the woods, and never acted so light-headedly again. Sometimes we went to Czajkow in the evenings, where we waited beside the haystack of Mrs. Anielka until she came out and brought us some boiled potatoes. And one evening she told us about the rumours that the Russians would soon be there.

In our despair we could not believe that we would still live to be free human beings. But we kept it in mind and waited in tense anxiety for their arrival. Before very long we heard the rattle of tanks from the direction of the main road.

Then we became dreadfully afraid. We felt that these must be the Germans, who at this very last moment were planning to liquidate us once for all. So we did our best to hide and make ourselves as small as possible in our holes until the fury had passed.

The dreadful and terrifying sleepless night passed, and the traffic died down. We breathed freely again. When we came to Czajkow a few days later they told us that those had been Russian tanks, which had passed and visited the village too.

During those fateful days we did not part from one another. When our water supply gave out, we went together to the spring. And then came the great moment for which we had hoped so much. A file of Russian soldiers were advancing towards us! We ran towards them and fell into the hands of freedom.


[Page XXII English] [Page 449 Yiddish]

The Final Struggle

by Menahem Lipshitz, Giv'atayim

Translated from the Yiddish by Miriam Leberstein

As soon as the Germans attacked Russia in June 1941, the mass extermination of the Jewish population began. Wherever the Germans set foot, seas of Jewish blood were shed, with the voluntary and active participation of Ukrainians, White Russians, Lithuanians, Letts, and Poles. It is true that even earlier, when the Germans had taken over Poland, the Jews had been subjected to all kinds of murderous excesses. But since these did not assume a mass character, the Jews–eternal optimists–believed that this was merely a temporary development.

Their faith was strengthened by the fact that after a certain time the situation actually quieted down slightly, and it began to seem that, in spite of the harsh decrees and laws that made normal life impossible, the great majority would still be able to emerge alive.

But once the German troops began appearing in Russian–occupied territory, the situation took a radical turn for the worse. News soon spread about dreadful events. All kinds of strange tales circulated about the mass murder of Jews in the eastern provinces of Poland. The information that began to spread more rapidly and in ever greater detail was naturally difficult or impossible to verify in the absence of any contact between Jews and the outer world. Thus people did not believe, chiefly because they did not wish to do so and were unable to credit the cruel truth that beat so obstinately and continuously at our ears.

 

Seeing Is Believing

In March 1942, refugee fugitives arrived from Mielec, a small Galician town not far from us, and brought details of the terrifying destruction of the defenseless Jewish population there by the Germans. Three thousand people had been killed on the spot, while nearly another three thousand had been expelled naked and barefoot into the Polish frontier districts. Only then did we begin to understand what the word Aussiedlung[1] meant for the Germans, those masters of using innocent terms for their gravest crimes.

Later other refugees arrived, those who had escaped from the death transports being taken to Majdanek, Bełżec, and Treblinka, the Jewish extermination camps. They gave eye–witness accounts of the overwhelming calamity that had befallen the Jewish population. Then it began to become clear that we were not facing individual or sporadic cases that had no logical connection; this was a carefully thought–out and diabolically prepared plan designed to bring about the absolute physical destruction of the Jewish people.

 

Parizer Seeks a Solution

As soon as it became known what kind of fate awaited us under the new regime, the Staszów Judenrat feverishly began seeking a means of salvation. To do that, they had to make contact with larger Jewish communities in order to obtain more detailed information about how to survive under existing conditions. But Jews were not allowed, under penalty of death, to leave the towns where they resided. A young man named Parizer, from a family of refugees from Łódź, came to the aid of the Judenrat. He was “Aryan” in appearance and volunteered to travel out of town to carry out the mission, risking his life in doing so.

Parizer managed to carry out the mission successfully, obtaining information that provided a vital foundation for further action. The Judenrat learned that there were certain German workplaces for Jewish workers who were protected, temporarily, from the danger of being killed. The responsible Judenrat leaders immediately began to make energetic efforts toward establishing legalized workplaces in order to assure that as many Jews as possible would avoid that fate.

 

Jobs at Ömler

In 1940, the Ömler Road Construction Company based in Stuttgart began building a highway from Germany to Ukraine in preparation for the German-Russian war. The German labor authority in Ostrowiec ordered the Judenrats of all the towns that were located on the route, including Staszów, to provide Jewish workers for the task.

In the beginning, 150 people were employed, all from the poorest segments of the population, who were supported by the Juderat's Work Authority. The better–off people mostly would buy their way out or would send others in their place, mostly refugees who would jump at any chance to earn some money.

Later, when conditions worsened and the matter of obtaining “safe” jobsites became an urgent necessity, the Staszów Judenrat, after great effort and bribes, got the German work authority in Ostrowiec to legalize an additional 100 workers for Ömler, with the promise that the increase was absolutely certain and recognized by the highest German authority, the SS.

We believed it. We had no choice.

 


A group of Jewish forced laborers at the small–gauge railroad [kolejke]

 

The additional 100 people, in return for paying a fee that the Jewish work authority imposed to cover its large expenses, were added to the permanent work roster of Ömler.

 

Jobs with the Forest Authority

Exploiting the circumstance that Staszów was located amidst large tracts of forest, the German Forest Authority established a wood depot near the small–gauge railroad. Its goal was to ship to Germany large masses of pine trees, stripped of their bark, after extracting their resin, in accordance with the German system of commandeering from occupied territories all materials that could aid the war effort.

They at first employed only Christians, but later–in return, of course, for a substantial payment–they hired 120 Jews, who believed that the German and Polish authorities would legalize their status.

 

Shops

The Judenrat faced far greater challenges when it undertook to establish and obtain legalization of so–called “shops”–workshops for the repair and sewing of military uniforms and boots. Unlike the Ömler and forestry workplaces, everything had to be created here from scratch. The initial conditions without which it was impossible to set up working places had to be established. First, premises had to be found; second, the tools and equipment had to be provided; and third, legalization was required.

It was easy to find places for setting up the workshops. The synagogue, the besmedresh [house of study and prayer], and the neighboring gymnasium (high school) were chosen. But the second challenge, of finding the tools and equipment, was far more difficult. It is easy to imagine the feelings of a Jewish tradesman who had been using his machine his whole life long and who knew that this was his only means of making a living, when he was suddenly called upon and compelled to hand it over. There were absolutely heart–rending scenes when the machines were requisitioned, in spite of the fact that as compensation the owners were taken on to be employed in the workshops.

The challenge of legalizing the workshops was incomparably more difficult. This was the peak time for Jewish extermination activities. Yet at this gruesome period, it was necessary to establish contact with the German company in Kraków that held the concession and was under the supervision of the all–powerful SS. When, thanks to boundless self–sacrifice, devotion, and bribery, the Judenrat did finally succeed in arranging everything with the cooperation of a few energetic nonmembers, days of tension and expectation began again as we waited for the promised transports of material, cloth, and leather for the actual work–the transports without which the entire undertaking would naturally be worthless.

During those days, all kinds of contradictory reports spread through the town. Optimists cited various signs and wonders to disprove the arguments of the pessimists. This was no small thing, after all. The lives of several hundred Jews literally depended on the positive or negative reply to the question. And when the consignment did actually appear at the end of October, Staszów did calm down a little. There was some breathing space. People tried to persuade

themselves that they might after all still succeed in escaping from the Angel of Death

with the aid of the Angel of Death himself.

No sooner was the chapter of the consignment finished than a new chapter began that caused no less nervous tension. This time we were waiting for the German commission, which was due to come to approve and confirm the last hope of a few hundred Jews. And when that commission arrived shortly before deportation, everything in town seethed like a boiling kettle. The only question that held sway was Hamlet's “To be or not to be?” Would the commission confirm the workshops or not? When the Judenrat announced that the workshops had been recognized and as a result 800 Jews had been automatically legalized, it was believed that what they had achieved by dint of great effort and much money and nerves had not been in vain, and the townsfolk breathed more easily.

 

100 + 300

At the same time as the efforts to establish workplaces in the town were taking place, a few months before the deportation, about 100 people, mostly from poor refugee families, were sent to work in the Hasag ammunition factory in Skarżysko, pursuant to an order from the German work authority in Ostrowiec.

In the meantime, time passed; town after town was wiped out, and its people were deported. Everyone felt that the catastrophe was approaching; all illusions disappeared; people were overtaken by apathy and indifference to their fate.

In that oppressive atmosphere, the Judenrat again turned, this time voluntarily, to the ammunition factory in Skarżysko, in the nave hope of saving whomever they could. As a result, at the beginning of October 1942, about 300 of the town's finest young people were driven away in trucks provided by the factory to work there.

From those who escaped, we soon learned about the horrific conditions there: grueling work, hunger, disease and ruthless persecution, especially by the sadistic, thuggish Polish foremen. As a result, the vast majority of these lovely, innocent young people very soon breathed their last, and only very few miraculously managed to survive this hell.

 

OD (Ordnungsdienst) [Jewish Police]

The so–called OD constitutes a special chapter in the tragic Jewish struggle for life during the Nazi period. The German authorities had demanded as early as 1941 that the Judenrat establish these Ordnungsdienste, or constabulary services. Formally speaking, the task of the OD was to maintain law and order among the Jews. But the true intention of the Germans was to execute their devilish extermination plans with the help of the Jewish victims themselves.

To begin with, this Police Force consisted of a dozen or so men, because there were very few volunteers for such a doubtful honor as this. But later their number increased considerably and amounted to sixty–odd, particularly after the Germans “promised” security of life and freedom of movement not only for them but also for their families.

When that happened, quite decent and worthy young fellows, including married men, also volunteered and even paid well in order to make their way into the police force.

The behavior of the Jewish police at critical moments was far from decent and was on occasion very brutal. But because of the abnormal conditions of that tragic period, I do not feel that I am competent to condemn them and their deeds, so I rely on the historian to declare an objective verdict about this painful matter.

 

Ghetto

In June 1942, the Germans ordered the establishment of a ghetto for the Jews of Staszów. They were compelled to vacate the northern side of the Rynek [Market Square], Opatowska Street, Kościelna Street, and the suburb called Folwark. The Jews were forced to seal the front gates on the three remaining sides of the market where they were still permitted to live.

The boundaries of the ghetto, which was in two parts, were as follows: The first part included the rear exits from the south and east sides of the market square, along with the surrounding streets, such as Górna and Dolna Rytwianska Streets, Poprzeczna Street, and the little streets running down to the river. The second part consisted of the rear exit on the west side of the market, along with Bóżniczna and Długa Streets and the surrounding cross streets. Krakowska Street was the only connection between the two parts of the ghetto and then only during two hours of the day, and Jews had to run across it quickly in order not to “pollute” the “Aryan” street with their presence.

 


The mayor issues identification papers for the Jewish police to the Judenrat

 

Sleeping in Our Clothes

Until the ghetto was established, Jews were still living in their own homes and for the most part still had their own shops, except for a number of economic areas (groceries, textiles, and leather goods), which from the beginning had been officially confiscated and with which we were forbidden to deal. The situation had been difficult and even hopeless, but people nevertheless still managed to cope and to maintain some kind of contact with the surrounding Polish population. But with the closing off of the ghetto, there was a drastic change. The rupture of every contact with the non–Jewish surroundings gave us the unequivocal knowledge that our bitter fate was very rapidly approaching.

The situation became more unbearable from day to day. Many slept for weeks on end in their clothes, awaiting the dreadful end. Others became absolutely indifferent to their approaching fate. There were also some who actually prayed that it would come quickly in order to deliver them as speedily as possible from the hellish nightmare that oppressed their broken hearts.

 

The Day Arrives

At 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 7, 1942, the sad news spread like an electrical current: the Jew–killers are arriving!

Soon we heard beastly cries of triumph, accompanied by shooting from the Lithuanian–Ukrainian murder squads. They brought with them several hundred dispirited Jews who had been left behind in such neighboring towns as Szydłów and Kurozwęki. These they dumped in the middle of the market square. The gang soon organized a wild, orgiastic party, which the Judenrat had to fund.

At night, an entire array of authorities arrived from Opatów–Gestapo, SS, and gendarmes–and alerted the Polish police, firemen, and the Jewish police to whom they gave the final cold–blooded murderous instructions.

Despite the looming tragedy, the town was as quiet and peaceful as a cemetery. One heard no weeping or groaning, even though everyone was awake. People wandered about like shadows, preparing for their final journey. Some put on an extra pair of pants or an extra shirt; others filled the special rucksacks they had prepared with the most necessary items. Some crawled into bunkers, in which they had little confidence, while others, mostly young people, slipped away from the town through backstreets.

At about 5 a.m., when it was still quite dark, the Jewish police set out through town, going door to door and announcing that within a half hour everyone had to report to the market square. All latecomers would be shot!

People quickly said good bye to each other, and masses of dispirited shadows slinked out of their warm, cozy houses and set out for the designated place. With barbaric German precision, the approximately 5,000 innocent Jewish souls were arranged in rows. Whoever did not precisely follow orders or made some kind of careless motion was immediately shot.

At exactly 8 a.m., the entire helpless group, under strict guard on all sides, was herded onto Krakowska Street on their last journey. When it comes to killing, Germans keep their word–latecomers were in fact shot on the spot!

As was later reported by the Jewish oyfroymungs komande [clean–up crew], by the time they reached Niziny, 700 Jews had died and were buried in a mass grave. The unfortunates continued on foot to Szczucin, where they spent the night in the cold and rain. Some of them, having been shot and frozen, remained lying there. The rest were loaded onto trains, about 120 people to a car, and taken to Treblinka, the notorious extermination factory from which no one emerged alive.

Of the “useful” Jews, only two groups remained in Staszów: the 800 people from the workshops and 250 from Ömler. In contrast, the forest workers lost their protected position. The Polish supervisors, led by Andrecki, betrayed them and took absolutely no interest in their fate. Also remaining in town were the Jewish police and the clean–up crew.

After the transport had been marched off, the extermination Sonderkommandos,[2] accompanied by all the police forces, set out through the Jewish houses and with cold sadism killed anyone who was found alive–the sick, old people, and children. After finishing their work at about 2 p.m., the participants in the mass murder sat down to enjoy a jolly feast, as if nothing had happened. They sat and with song and music celebrated their victory late into the night.

 

Liquidation Groups

After the deportation, a German “liquidation group” stayed in town to sort through the Jewish property left behind. The best items, such as bedding, clothing, underwear, utensils, gold, silver, and so forth, were taken to special warehouses and shipped to Germany. Everything else was “sold” at public auction to the Poles in town and in the surrounding area, at token prices. For about two weeks, masses of Poles streamed into Staszów, on foot or by wagon, in order to “buy” Jewish property.

 

The Polish Police Officer Kaczmarski

A large part of the Polish population became very active after the catastrophe and took great pains to make sure that not a single Jew should, God forbid, survive. Almost every day a Jew was hunted out and killed by a Pole. Some of the executions were carried out by Polish police. The well–known police sergeant Kaczmarski particularly distinguished himself in this endeavor. The majority of the captured Jews were killed by him, with criminal coldness. Incidentally, from what we hear, Kaczmarski still roams Staszów and is even considered a prominent personage there!

 

The Small Ghetto

The roughly twelve hundred surviving “legal” Jews were crowded together into a small ghetto, which consisted of a few tiny side streets and squares around the synagogue and besmedresh, as far as the old cemetery. It was walled off with barbed wire.

A large number of “illegal” Jews began to gather there as well. They included people who had come out of hidden bunkers, which had become unsafe, and also those driven away by Poles who had robbed the Jews of everything in their possession.

 

The Liquidation of the Shops

Fresh troubles arrived at the beginning of December 1942. The Germans ordered the liquidation of the workshops, “promising” to transfer the workers and machines to a different location where they could continue their work. After what had happened, no one believed that this innocent announcement was not a pretense concealing a diabolical extermination plan. They carried out the new decree with heavy hearts, but sadly, there was no choice. The shop workers were soon loaded onto specially prepared wagons, taken to the station in Szczucin, and from there, taken by train to Poniatowa, near Lublin. There, they did in fact have large workshops, which employed around 14,000 Jews.

We learned from special Christian messengers that work and living conditions in Poniatowa were not especially difficult and that the people were managing to cope. The Staszów Jews in Poniatowa were even able to provide a little support to their family members who were working for Ömler and later in Skarżysko.

 

The Germans “Provide for” the Remaining Jews

After the shops were liquidated, around 1,000 “illegal” Jews remained in Staszów in addition to the legal 250 Ömler workers and the Jewish police.

(In order that these figures not appear fantastical, I want to note that, in addition to the 5,000 Jews living in Staszów when the war broke out, the war years brought an additional population of refugees, Jews who had been driven out of the Polish territories occupied by the Germans, from Warsaw, Łódź, and other cities, as well as from such surrounding towns as Połaniec, Szydłów, Bogoria, and others. So that at the time of the deportation the Jewish population in Staszów numbered about 8,000.)

For these approximately 1,000 “illegal” helpless, despairing human shadows, the Germans suddenly began to display great concern. This was expressed in giant, official posters that announced:

Taking into account the difficult situation of the remaining “illegal” Jews, the German regime has decided to establish in the General Government [German occupied zone] several Judenstaaten, cities where Jews will become legalized and will be provided with all the necessities of life and sanitary needs. In the Staszów area, Sandomierz has been designated such a Judenstaat. For 7 days, illegal Jews have the right to move about freely in order to settle in one of the safe Judenstaaten.

In truth, the Jews already knew the German murderers well and correctly assessed their sly intent. But hopelessness, depression, and apathy had reached such a level that people simply wouldn't and couldn't mull over the choice and grasped, like a drowning man a straw, even this doubtful possibility of becoming legal.

So, about 5,000 Jews gathered in Sandomierz from the entire area, among them the vast majority of the illegal Staszów Jews. Once again, the Germans demonstrated their vileness. In blatant contradiction to their official promises, they crowded the Jews in the cursed “safe” Judenstaat into a small, dirty ghetto, in the worst sanitary conditions, where one had to stand in line for hours, even for a little water.

Many Staszów Jews ran away from this hell and returned to their town, hanging around the last remaining legal place, the Ömler camp, which consisted of several dirty, teetering houses next to the old cemetery.

The “law–abiding” disciplined Germans could not tolerate such audacity. At the end of 1942, they again surrounded the Ömler camp and the places where the Jewish police stayed. Taking the opportunity to shoot several Jewish police, they rounded up the captured illegal Jews and drove them back to the Judenstaat under the escort of the Polish police.

Shortly after that we heard about the sad ending of the Sandomierz story: On January 10, 1943, the German criminals and their helpers brutally liquidated the celebrated “safe” Judenstaat of Sandomierz, carrying out, in accordance with their principals, a mass slaughter of the Jews who had been lured there. They loaded the remainder onto a train that took them to the death camp of Treblinka.

On June 3, 1943, the “Last Mohicans,” the 250 Ömler workers, were driven out and taken under heavy guard to the ammunition factories in Skarżysko and Radom. With this, the Germans, eagerly assisted by the local Poles, had achieved their goal: Apart from a negligible number of Jews hidden in the Golejów Woods and other places, Staszów had become Judenrein [cleansed of Jews]!

 

The Summing Up

The war was survived, thanks to all kinds of accidents and chances, by 400 people, amounting to about 8 percent of the Staszów Jewish population before the war and about 5 percent of its population during the war.

At the same time, I wish to stress that all those who escaped owe their lives to chance and only to chance,[3] for, according to German “law,” literally not a single Jew should have survived.

That is the tragic summing up of the Jewish community of Staszów, which had been deeply rooted there for hundreds of years.

And I cannot refrain from admitting, in view of this terrible catastrophe that struck our own brothers, that this was also the inevitable result of their belief and trust in other peoples.

 

Notes
  1. Aussiedlung–“resettlement”; a euphemism for deporting Jews to the death camps. Return
  2. Sonderkommandos–“special units”; especially applied to units of SS or foreign nationals, including Jewish prisoners in the death camps, enlisted to work in the extermination process. Here, the reference is to foreign nationals enlisted to deport Jews from their towns of residence and transport them to the death camps. Return
  3. And, let us not forget, those courageous Gentiles who risked their lives to save their fellow human beings. They, in turn, survived through chance and only through chance and their fellow human beings. Return

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