[Page XXXVI English] [Page 369 Hebrew]
The Last Months in the Ghetto
Job's tidings reached the town from all sides. Every day the German Moloch was demanding new victims and cruelly and systematically destroying one community after the other. News of towns, large and small, which had completely vanished in accordance with a satanic plan worked out in all its details from the beginning, demonstrated to our town, as in a bright mirror, the fate that was lying in wait for it. The fate of Kielce and Ostrowiec, Opatów and Tzusmir (i.e. Sandomierz), Chmielnik and Busko-Zdrój, Lagów and Klimontów and many more like them served as warnings of the dreadful danger approaching at giant's paces.
At the same time we consoled ourselves in those days with the possibility of some kind of armed resistance, which part of the organised youth were thinking of and planning. For many weeks a roof executive consisting of representatives of the local organisations sat preparing plans in the dwelling of Judah Goldhar, may God avenge his blood. The composition of this executive, as far as I remember, was as follows: David Shnipper and Mendel Tanenbaum of the Shomer Hatzair; Zvi Leibovitz and the writer of these lines of the Zionist Youth; Suche Diesenhaus of the Communists, and two more from other organisations, whose names I do not remember. This Executive aimed at two main objectives: First, organising the youth and familiarising them with the idea of armed resistance; and second, obtaining any arms whatsoever, as rapidly as possible and at any price.
In order to achieve the first purpose the organisation of the youth began, and in complete secrecy individual cells each of five persons were established. Not one of them knew of the identity of the others except for the liaison officer between them.
With regard to the second objective, without which all other activities were useless and valueless, it was promptly found, after energetic searches for arms began, that the only possibility of obtaining any in quantities suited to our requirements was the Polish Communist Party. It was therefore decided to send the said Sucha Diesenhaus, who herself was an honoured member of the Communist ranks and had good contacts in those circles, to request arms for our organisation at any price that might be demanded.
In our innocence we supposed that since the Communists were by that time the bitter enemies of the German conquerors, who were then with great success conducting a destructive war against Russia; and since Russia appeared in the eyes of the Communists to be their only homeland, the adored and hallowed homeland of the World of Tomorrow, while they themselves were being bitterly persecuted by that conqueror and we therefore thought that this fact would be enough to turn them automatically into our allies, at the least, as regards arms supply, in accordance with the familiar principle: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But the messenger brought us back the brief and unequivocal answer: We have no connection with the Jews and you have absolutely nothing to hope for from us in the way of help. That made two things clear to us. First, that their hatred for us counterbalanced all their Communist ideology and their love of Russia; and second, which was the decisive thing in our position: How isolated and surrounded by mortal foes we were.
The disappointment was bitter and had grave effects on the morale of the youth. If even this way of let me perish with the Philistines, that last ray of light of heroic death and some vengeance against the monsters had been smashed to pieces in so treacherous a fashion - then there was absolutely no way out and there was no escape or refuge from the fate in store.
In this state of absolute confusion and dread, as an inevitable result of the state of mind that lies beyond despair in the Judenrat, headed by the daring Ephraim Singer, a Jew who incidentally risked his life more than once when he faced the authorities as representative of the community - believed that it could do something which would help to save a handful. It sent a request accompanied by a considerable gift to the Labour Office (Arbeitsamt) in Ostrovitz, for the employment of several hundred people, chiefly of the youth, who were capable of work, in the Hasag camp, which was an arms factory in Skarżysko-Kamienna.
In due course, on Saturday, 10. 10.1942, four lorries arrived to take the volunteers. When they appeared the confused and alarmed Jewish population suddenly had to answer the fateful question: Shall we volunteer or not? And who could be clever enough to know what way would lead to life and what to death, and whether fate offered life to any of us at all?
An atmosphere of dejection was found wherever there was a Jew. Feverish family consultation took place. There were no illusions about the desperate situation, and many people decided to grasp at this straw. There were heart-breaking leave-takings and there was silent and restrained weeping. I looked through the window and saw one man after another placing himself in the lion's maw; and the lorries in the middle of the market-place began to fill up with the best men and youths of the ancient congregation of Staszów.
Many came running and hurriedly jumped onto the cars as though they were being compelled to stream of thoughts and doubts coursing through their brains. Others came bowed and bent, busy with their own inner thoughts, and climbed up onto the cars as though they were being compelled to do so.
At that time my mother of blessed memory was lying on her sickbed. In the state in which she was it was hard for me to tell her what was happening outside, and about my inner conflict: Whether I should allow myself to be carried away by the stream or swim against it. Yet on the other hand I could not bring myself to leave, in case I were to decide to go, without telling her, taking her advice and receiving her blessing. Finally I gathered my strength and very delicately and in round-about fashion began to prepare her for what was taking place. My mother, a simple but very shrewd and practical Jewess, immediately grasped the situation, hesitated a moment or two and then said decidedly: Don't go searching for trouble
I accepted her advice with a feeling of relief. The lorries set off carrying about three hundred people. With an uneasy heart the townsfolk let them go, while the air seemed to be full of unasked questions: Would we ever see them again? And would they ever see us?
In order to illustrate on the one hand the feeling of the approaching destruction which every Jew could sense at that time, and the difficult and complicated situation in which we found ourselves on the other, I can tell this authentic story: I have already mentioned above that my mother of blessed memory was seriously ill then. One day I asked Doctor Eliahu Freedman (who escaped to the forests and is now living in America) to visit her. Doctor Freedman, a shrewd fellow, measured me from head to foot with his eyes, maybe mocking or maybe pitying my blindness and stupidity. Then he burst out: Erlich! These days it's a great privilege for anyone to die naturally in his bed and in the bosom of his family, and you have to come and ask for medicines for your mother so that ---
I did not let him finish the sentence but said, Well then, Doctor, do I have to become my mother's murderer, even indirectly? No Doctor, I can't! Come with me!
The Five Ways
During the last weeks and days before the Expulsion, when it had become clear to everybody that the sentence had been passed and could not be evaded - the community seemed to cease being one organic entity, although the Judenrat existed as the institution representing the community before the authorities. It was transformed into a herd of individuals or small groups of people, chiefly neighbours or relatives who separately and in the utmost secrecy made plans for escaping from the calamity. It was inevitable by the nature of things in that tragic complex of special conditions, which nobody had previously experienced and no cold logic could disentangle, that there should be a desperate attempt to escape from the strangling noose. There were many different people who decided to try their own solutions, each in accordance with his own estimate and view of things.
Still, it seems to me that I shall not be in error if I classify the differences of opinion as basically five:
A. Finding a place to work which might be regarded by the Germans as more or less vital for their War Effort, and thus becoming recognised as a useful Jew. Such places of employment were reckoned to be the Ömler road building company, the workshop for sewing army uniforms, and a number of smaller places such as that of Andretski the Volksdeutch, etc. On the day of the extermination it was found that the use of all these smaller places burst like soap bubbles, since they had only served a number of Germans and Poles as a source of extortion for accumulating money. All those who had trusted in them were transferred to the general transport and shared the fate of the whole congregation. Even the Ömler men were ordered to join the transport, and it was only after they had gone about half the way that orders were received to take them back to the camp.
It was then said that this was the result of energetic steps by Gulik the camp manager. The only people left where they had been were those in the workshops, who were not touched. Finally, however, they all met their end in Poniatów, including my father Reb Alter Erlich and my two sisters Henia and Rachel may they be avenged. However, a large part of the Ömler men passed through various experiences and finally succeeded in surviving.
B. Building hiding places, bunkers, in the vague hope of fixing up somehow after the expulsion; almost in the words of Isaiah the prophet, Enter the crag, be concealed in the rock, hide for a bare moment until the fury passes. This method ended in a most tragic fashion. As far as I know only isolated individuals remained alive.
C. Buying hiding places with Polish acquaintances. Of these as well only a negligible proportion succeeded in surviving the war. Most of them were expelled contemptuously, some of them in their underwear, by their benefactors after the latter had robbed them of all their property. This happened to Elimelech Besser and others. Incidentally, Elimelech Besser's two daughters, Mania and Gutcha, were murdered some time after by the Poles.
D. Escape to the forest and building bunkers there. Of almost a thousand people who tried this method there remained alive, together with those who tried method c., close on a hundred persons.
E. Sit still and do nothing. Those who tried this method constituted the overwhelming majority of the Staszów community and the Jews who fled to it from the neighbourhood. The great majority of them were so indifferent to their fate that they did not have the spiritual strength to go on struggling. Some of them went this way either because they could not make use of any of the others or else because they did not believe in any of them. Of this large, innocent and holy assembly not one, I believe, has remained alive.
8th November 1942--28th Marheshvan 5073
A detailed account of the day of expulsion and the extermination of the community which was perpetrated on that day, the day we dreaded and which came, -- will be found in the diary of Joseph Goldstein, in The Last Struggle by Menahem Lifshitz and in the Memorial Address of the present writer.
9.11.42--l.12.42, 29 Marheshvan--21st Kislev 5703
From the day after the extermination the Germans, jointly with the Polish authorities, started to sell the Jewish property, as the liquidation of this great event. The sales was announced in gigantic posters in and around the city. The local riff-raff and those of the neighbouring villages gathered in their masses, invaded the house or houses which stood for sale on that day, and purchased anything that came to hand for cents. This marked the end of Jewish property whose owners had toiled for it during many generations. In the course of this abominable measure many hiding-places were discovered, and those who were found in them were immediately taken and executed. Yet it was not only incidentally, while seeking for hidden Jewish goods, that Jews were discovered. Many found their deaths because of direct denunciation by Poles, who had the declared and open intention of helping the Germans to destroy the last of the Jews. This happened to the shelter containing Yisroelkele Weizman, the Lipshitz family, Yossele Glicklich the goldsmith, and others.
Between the 20th and 22nd of November, 14th Kislev 5703, the sale of property reached our house. The riff-raff buzzed and hummed like a beehive, buying bargains, seeking and snatching and benefiting from the robbery and looting.
As usual they pulled up floors, destroyed walls, etc., in order to find hidden goods. When they had the luck of finding living people as well they went quite crazy with joy and their thirst for Jewish blood. In that house the big attic of the Segal family served as a hiding-place for a number of families. In it were hidden my father, my very sick mother, my two sisters Rachel and Leah (Henia was at the workshop), the aged Rob David Goldfeder, Weinberg, Beinish and others. Until the liquidation it had been my habit to steal up there every second night to bring some food to my family, and in particular to give them a little water in order to quench their thirst. Isaac Weinberg (now in Israel) did the same for his parents. But during those three days it was obviously impossible to approach the place, because all kinds of questionable characters were wandering round at all hours of the day until late at night, searching in every corner. If I had been caught I would not only have endangered my own life, but would also have made the spot suspicious and would have led to the discovery of the shelter. So the people for lack of choice remained without any water for three whole days and were compelled, as they afterwards related, to drink urine in order to wet their lips; this quite apart from the danger of death hanging over their heads, since they were liable to be discovered at any moment. They were three terrible days for me as well. Since I was not sent out to work (I served as a clockmaker at the camp), I could choose a look-out point from the large courtyard of Rob Itche Monchnik, may he be revenged, which was in the area where the workshop men lived; and for long hours on end I could watch, with confused and terrified eyes and with ears that heard every sound, all that was going on in our house.
On the 23rd of November, 14th Kislev, the activities died down. The joyous tumult moved on to more distant houses in the direction of the Krakovska Street. During the whole of the day I no longer noticed anything suspicious. That night I went out from the camp unseen and stole to the shelter. As the entry to the stairway was closed I climbed over the balcony of the second floor with two bottles of water in my trousers' pockets. I gave an agreed signal and father of blessed memory approached, opened the secret door and weakly and in a voice choked with tears told me of the terrible days through which they had passed. He told me that mother, fearing that her constant coughing would be heard outside, covered herself with as many quilts and pillows as possible and choked and died because of lack of air. The old Rob David Goldfeder has also passed away in that hiding place.
Before I left Beinish Weinberg came to the tiny window and begged me with heart-breaking entreaty to fetch a little water for him as well, otherwise they would all perish of thirst. So there I faced a cruel dilemma. Should I harden my heart and refuse? By that I would be endangering their lives. Yet if I were to agree and go the same way twice, I would endanger not only myself but also all those who were in the hiding place. So I told him: Rob Beinish! I can't promise because I don't know whether conditions will permit me to keep my undertaking. But I promise you that as far as it depends on me I'll do what you're asking.
|Erected in Tzuzmir in memory of the Boim and Vintzigster Families and another 15 victims who fell in the Golejów Forest near Staszów. They were removed and buried by Leibish Wintzigster, who survived the Forest. The 15 victims were: Ania and David Glat; Isaac Diteltzweig; Kalman Solnik; Gross and his wife; the son of Gabriel Becker; Leibel Schwartz and his wife; Shlomo Boguchval; Meshulam Forsteher; Baltshe and Abremele, son of Moshe (the Butcher); David Leibovitz; David Cohen.|
I climbed down from the balcony with Rochele, my little sister, who had been shocked and stupefied by all that had happened to her, clinging to my shoulders. When I brought her to a safe place I equipped myself with another two bottles of water and set out again. I said nothing to anybody, not even to Isaac, Beinish Weinberg's son, for fear he would not be careful enough and might God forbid let it be known.
I brought the precious burden to its destination. The man's tongue literally clove to his palate because he did not know how to thank me. I was preparing to return when a burst of shots split through the air. Once again I had to decide. Should I go back? Then I might be caught and bring all of those people into danger. Or should I enter the hiding place? Then what would be the fate of the people without any contact with the outside? I waited a while. When the shooting stopped I decided to go back, trembling with fear.
I reached the camp and simply fell into my dwelling. My neighbours in the room, Mendel Friedman, Leibish Fefferman and Pinhas Dombrovsky who is happily with us, together with the others, saw how shaken I was. When I told them of my double mission they rebuked me in fatherly fashion for the risk I had run. But I was really happy at having passed this test of aid, in spite of my heavy dejection because of the tragic death of mother and the anguish and suffering of father and my sisters who were compelled, under the peculiar conditions then current, to see this terrible sight without being able to help.
The Remnants Seek a Way Out
Part of the remaining Jews who were outside the Ömler and workshop camps, and for the moment had escaped extermination (either by being hidden in bunkers of all kinds or because they had succeeded in getting out of town), feverishly sought some anchor of salvation. It was necessary to find some way to escape the fate of the hunted beast which might be rent apart at any moment by the cruel murderers. There were then two possibilities: a. The narrow crack leading to the workshops; b. The big gate to the Judenrat in Tzuzmir. It was whispered from mouth to ear that a few places in the workshops had not yet been filled. I used the opportunity and in the evening I stole to Sukhon, the cunning and bribable mayor. I bribed him with a considerable sum and in return he added my father and sister Rochele to the workshop list as from 1st of December 1942. Many envied me at my great success and to be sure, that was how it seemed at the time.
The Great Lie 1st--10th December 1942, 22nd Kislev--2nd Tevet 5703
The fact that a relatively large number of Jews had disregarded the laws of extermination and had dared to escape from the executioners, whether in local bunkers or with their Polish acquaintances or by running away to the forests, roused the fury of the Master race, that race whose sense of blind discipline constitutes its categorical imperative m an imperative which is decisive for life or death without any appeal or limitation. The satanically cunning Germans then prepared a new plan in order to trap the helpless and hopeless Jews.
During the second half of November 1942 the murderers stopped shooting at the illegal Jews who were caught. Instead they sent them to Tzuzmir, which had become a concentration centre.
On the 1st December 1942 the Germans announced on huge posters that from that day forward the Jews who remained after the expulsions could stay alive on the express condition that they all concentrated in Tzuzmir, which was proclaimed one of the five refuges established in the General Government; and that from 1st to 10th December Jews might pass freely along the roads leading to Tzuzmir. In these posters the Jews were offered the right to existence under decent conditions until the end of the war, without any external disturbances. But those Jews who did not respond to this notice and were found outside the refuge after the said date would all be put to death.
As the result of the unimaginable sufferings involved in the game of hide-and-seek, and in the absolute absence of any reasonable prospect of continuing the game until the end, many of the survivors tended in spite of themselves to believe in the promise of the Germans; and sure enough, during those ten days, it was possible to see the strange sight of Jews who had come out of their holes and began to move about freely, gathering into groups and hiring carts to take them to the Tzuzmir refuge. Contrary to the promises the local conditions there were dreadful, the overcrowding and Poverty were unimaginable and the epidemics which broke out as a result were devastating the population of the Ghetto.
Yet many hoped that this time at least the Germans would keep their promises and leave alive all those who had survived the chaos. But that was not the German intention. They had prepared their diabolical plan of set purpose from the beginning, in order to set up an ambush for the survivors through their lying promises which were proclaimed with so much publicity.
Liquidation of the Workshops 15th December 1942 – 7th Tevet 5703
The faint hope of the continued existence of the workshops did not last long. They were liquidated on the 15th December. The people who had been at the machines were loaded on carts and transferred to Poniatów in the Lublin district. I parted with a feeling of depression from my dear father and sisters, just as others parted from their families. As before, so now as well the cruel question was hovering over us: Would we still live to see one another? But our hearts were already so petrified that all the sources of weeping had dried up and there was not a single tear in our eyes; not even when a young Pole standing not far away shouted You're going to soap! (Na mydlo jedziecie).
It should be noted that this time the people really were transferred to a fresh working place. We remained in contact with them for more than ten months. As we were afterwards told, the calamity befell them when the Germans, on the 5th Marheshvan 5704, conducted a search in the camp, found weapons and had all the people executed. The Germans remained faithful to their purpose of destroying, slaying and exterminating; and this time as well they exterminated a camp of thousands of people, including several hundred from Staszów. May God avenge them.
31.12.1942--23rd Tevet, 5703
The new lords and masters arranged parties at any and every time; and most certainly they did so for their own festivals. When the New Years' Night came round at the end of 1942 the local gendarmerie arranged a real feast after their own impure style. They gourmandised and swilled in a fashion worthy of Prussian Teutons belonging to the pure Aryan race, and when their liquor had cheered them up they remembered the Jews and decided to amuse themselves a little on our account.
No sooner said than done. At 11 p.m. the gang reached the camp headed by their commandant, Becker the wrestler. It was a cold winter's night. A mantle of snow covered everything. Everybody was sleeping the sleep of the just after an exhausting day's work. All of a sudden came the shout: Appell! (Parade). We were called out at lightning speed, barefoot, and ordered to line up. The tall commandant orated nonsense in a hoarse voice. He took every tenth man out of the rank, shone a pocket-lamp in his face, laughing and mocking, bragging and threatening, exhaling the fumes of wine and vodka enough to give us nausea. He approached Mordechai Cebularz and spoke to him sternly as though he were about to attack him. Then he left him and turned to someone else and came back. We were compelled to stand barefooted like that for about two hours in the snow, with the bitter cold piercing our bones and the fear of death hovering overhead.
After feasting their eyes and sating their pathological spirits on the sight the order came: To bed Within the twinkling of an eye, terrified and shivering with cold we all fled to our holes. But our hearts, taught by bitter experience, prophesied evil. And sure enough a burst of shots split the air a little later. When the murderers went their way we found that the night's crop came to two precious victims: Meir Pomerancblum, a tall and good.hearted lad, the son of Reb Ella Meir Ettel's, and Elijah Jacob Freedman, the son of Reb Yisroelishel the Hebrew teacher.
Special mention deserves to be made of the fact - which would doubtless be of importance to students of psychology - that we did not learn of a single case of anyone catching cold as the result of that night. Yet among us there were a number of men who were close to the age of sixty, like Mendel Freedman, Leibish Fefferman, Isaac Shanietsky and others. How great the human capacity for suffering is!
Tzuzmir, the Safe Judenstadt
10.1.1943--4th Shevat 5703
When the job was finished and the Germans who claimed to be establishing a New Order in Europe succeeded in concentrating the despised and rejected in one place by their fake promises, they carried out, on the 10th January 1943, the blood- stained expulsion from Tzuzmir, -- the safe Judenstadt -- to Treblinka. Here as in Poniatów several hundred of Staszów townsfolk met their end, including my sister Leah. Only a handful of those who had fled in good time, or who escaped from the transport, succeeded in remaining alive. And once again the people of the New Order proved for the thousandth time what they were really like.
The Injured Superiority Complex 2.2.1943 - 27th Shevat 5703
Meanwhile the war was going ahead with all its force. The Nazi war machine had reached Stalingrad on the Russian front. The Nazis were advancing from strength to strength and it seemed as though they were going to conquer the whole world. Yet power does not endure forever! In the counter-attack which lasted from 14.9.1942 until 19.11.1942 the Russians succeeded in cutting the invaders off from their bases. The injured beast struggled hard, but the pincers dosed tighter and tighter and finally on 2.2.1943, after a siege of two-and-a-half months, the Germans had to surrender. That was a great day for the whole world and above all for us, the survivors! That event proved one basic fact which was of decisive importance for the enslaved. It was that even these braggart Nazis were not invincible. To be sure, the way to their final breakdown was still very distant indeed, but the first and decisive step had been taken and the first signs of hope for an end could be seen on the horizon. The surrender brought a spark of hope into the depressed hearts and supplied food -- admittedly very little and very late -- for the feeling of vengeance which had found no relief. For the Germans, who were already accustomed to regard themselves as the absolute rulers of the world in the nearest future, it found expression in the announcements made by the Wehrmacht and their press. It was an exceedingly grave shock. All of a sudden they felt that their prey -- servitude and exploitation of all for the purpose of satisfying their lowest instincts had been dragged from their hands by force!
Raging and furious, a number of local gendarmes appeared in the camp that morning in order to vent their fury on the Jews. For who was responsible for everything if not the Jews? As usual at that time the people were at work outside the camp, and the only ones there were those attending to the services and a number of skilled workers. The gendarmes rioted and attacked anybody whom they met. They entered the dwellings, found Isaac Shanietsky and maltreated him. Afterwards one of them came upon the writer, pushed him into the camp office, ordered him to empty his pockets and turned him to the wall. After he had poured any amount of curses and hysterical threats out at me, with his rifle pointing at me, he asked me three questions:
First: Do you know who Adolf Hitler is?
The greatest man in history, the reply came like lightning.
Second: Do you know what the German army is?
The strongest army in the world, I answered in the same style.
Do you know what Stalingrad is?
I pretended to be innocent and said, I don't know what it is.
When he found that I did not know anything about the shame of Stalingrad, that Stalingrad which had so affected their superiority complex, he calmed down and said, I can see that you're a decent fellow, you can go free! (Man sieht dass du ein feiner Mann bist, bist frei!)
As long as the Ömler camp was in existence the problem of food was satisfied as a rule without any great difficulty. The overwhelming majority of the men did not live only on the rations they received from Ömler, but satisfied the rest of their needs from other quarters. Some did so from property they had deposited with Polish acquaintances and some from hidden places, while part of them managed it by negotiations with Poles who were anxious to purchase Jewish property for next to nothing. For a long time everything was in order and passed quietly, but one day round about Purim 1943 an incident happened which shook the people in the camp. Two young fellows, Berger and Joseph Goldfluss, left their working places and as usual entered the home of a Pole to sell something. A sudden check was held and the two were found to be missing. When they learnt this, Joseph Goldfluss decided to run away but Berger returned to the camp when work was over. His comrades tried to dissuade him, but he paid no attention, being sure that nothing would happen. That evening the Schupo came to the camp and there was an immediate Appell. The bloodthirsty commandant Becker called on Joseph and Berger to step out of the ranks. Only Berger stepped out. Where is Joseph? thundered his voice. He repeated the refrain a countless number of times, cursing and menacing, finally driving the people back to their rooms. While they were still on the way back a shot split the air.
And once again another mound covered the blood of a lively young lad, and a fresh victim was added to the long row of Staszów corpses; this time one of those whom the Germans had recognised as useful Jews.
The Ömler Camp
The happy quota for the Ömler camp was fixed at 250. In actual fact there were a few more people known as illegal whom the German camp directors admitted in return for a considerable bribe.
Seated, from left to right: Sarah Troper, Rachel Vintsigster, Israel Vintsigster, Leibel Zilberberg,
Standing: Hayyim Tsinamon.
Work at the Camp
The people were employed in dressing stones and making pavements and roadways. The work was hard and exhausting but you soon became accustomed to it; and the former merchants, needle-working, tailors, shoemakers and watch repairers quickly became experts, knowing precisely where to hit the largest stone so that it should split. They acquired similar skill in paving roads and pavements, and this fact was recognised by the camp directors so that we achieved fame as excellent workers. This fact was of great importance, and not only locally. It is quite possible that this is what afterwards saved us at Skarżysko-Kamienna, as will be told below.
Removing the Gravestones
During the very first days after the 8th November some of the Ömler men were taken to the new Jewish cemetery and ordered to remove the gravestones and use them for laying the pavement. Many hearts broke at this profanation of sanctity, which they were compelled to engage in with their own hands. To make matters worse there was one exception. This was Itchele the Goy, a Jew who really shone with happiness at having this opportunity of taking vengeance on anything in which there was the slightest scent of holiness. He engaged in this work with real devotion and fervour, but of a kind that was by no means holy.
Places of Work
The men were engaged at various places in the city and outside it. This included the Golejów road through the length of the forest, where many Jews were hiding in those days. At the time many people exploited the opportunity to dash into the wood in order to meet relations, companions and acquaintances, to do various things for them and provide them with food and clothing as far as possible.
This is the place to note the fact that the very existence of Aralet made things easier in a greater or lesser degree for the illegals. Under cover of the darkness some of them sometimes visited the camp and received aid from kinsfolk and others. This aid found expression according to the conditions, needs and possibilities, in food, clothing, lodging and even medical assistance. I know of one case in which important medical aid was given in spite of all the risk it involved. The one who benefited from it was Nathaniel Erlich, who is living with us here in Israel.
Hunting the Illegals
To define the position of the Ömler men who were in the hands of the Germans for weal or woe as severe and unbearable was true. Yet there can be no way of describing the miserable situation of the illegals who went wandering against their own desire from one place to another, while all kinds of different groups collaborated in seeking them out in order to destroy them. The following are the groups who took active part in this unholy labour:
a. The Polish riff-raff
Immediately after the expulsion this riff-raff started to show its strength to the unfortunates. Part of them did this for the sake of profit, while others devoted themselves to this contemptible work for ostensibly ideological reasons, doing everything in their power to help destroy the Jewish people. Any Jew who came the way of either group was beaten murderously by them, and handed over by force to the Polish Police or German gendarmerie. They made an end of Yehiel Pomerancblum, the second son of Reb Ella Meir Ettels, of Eliahu Bulwa, the son of Abish Bulwa, and many more like them. They also killed Israel Eliezer Tannenbaum, who hid in the forest, when he came out to find something with which to slake his hunger. It is told that his murderers also desecrated his corpse by tying it to a galloping horse which dragged it to the cemetery.
b. The murderers of heirs
Together with this there were other Poles to whom Jewish property had been entrusted. They made every effort to finish off the heirs in order to become the owners of the property left in their hands. It is related that one of those who used this method was the teacher Wdowiak, who murdered the brothers Zvi and Jonah Leibovitz.
c. Jendrek, the Volksdeutch from Sheletz
This scoundrel faithfully and devotedly served the new masters. He did his best to be like them and even to exceed them in his cruelty. He has to be credited with many victims who fell at his hands, including Yehiel Silberstein son of Moshele Silberstein, Jacob Urish Kozuchovitch and many more.
d. The Schupo and the Polish Police
Among the principal murderers were the Schupo, who collaborated on all fronts in close contact with the Polish Police. They destroyed all the Jews who fell into their hands, inside the town and outside. They searched for the unfortunates and ambushed them ceaselessly, killing scores and hundreds.
Yet the crown of their activities was to conduct a thorough search of the forest, in which hundreds of Jews were hiding, from time to time and sometimes for several days in succession. Every such hunt had its victims.
All these groups together drastically cut down the number of those fleeing destruction, and this is the sad result of their bloodthirsty activities. Of a thousand persons who escaped from the liquidation of Staszów and Tzuzmir and found refuge in different places, chiefly in the woods, there have remained alive a total of less than a hundred.
The Departure from Staszów
3.6.1943--29th Iyyar 5703
We came to the Appell that day as was our regular practice. To our great astonishment we were informed that we would not go to work. The reason given was that we were to go to the baths during the afternoon.
A rustling whisper passed through the ranks. Everybody felt disquieted. Someone dared to express the apprehension which was actually to be found deep in the soul of every one of us, that this might be our last day. Deep alarm filled our hearts. Yet who could be clever enough to know what was being prepared for us? All of a sudden, at 11 o'clock in the morning, we heard the hooting of lorries. We looked out and saw Schupo men and S.S. men jumping off at lightning speed. Some of them took up positions round the camp while the other burst in and two by two, brandishing pistols and fully armed, took up their positions beside each house where they deafeningly gave the order: Pack your belongings and he ready for the journey in ten minutes! While we were still wondering the lorries arrived and we were loaded on them. After several hours of travel we reached Skarżysko-Kamienna, an arms factory known as Hasag Werk A. Incidentally, when we reached the Grizi-Kamien Mountain and the lorries had to go slow, several of the men exploited the opportunity and ran away. When we arrived, some of the men were put on other cars standing nearby and were taken, as we afterwards learnt, to Radom. A few of us ran to these cars by ourselves on account of the uncertainty and disbelief which always accompanied us and the, in the circumstances, obvious wish to defer the decisive hour as long as possible, with the faint hope that meanwhile something would happen and we would succeed in escaping our fate.
When we arrived at Skarżysko-Kamienna we were taken to an isolated building in the camp where armed Ukrainian guards were put in charge of us to search our belongings. Before the search we were ordered to hand over voluntarily everything of value such as ready money, jewels, etc. We were warned that anybody who disobeyed this order and with whom anything was found would be shot on the spot. The search was conducted to an accompaniment of savage beatings and curses. Finally many people were left cleared out without a penny in their possession. Only a few of them, where no more than a superficial examination was conducted, succeeded in saving some of their property.
4.6. 1943--1st Sivan 5703
The day after we arrived in the camp we were again summoned to an Appel, that institution which had become part of our daily life. After we lined up the first twenty people were set to one side. They included Mendel Friedman, Leibish Fefferman and Isaac Shanietsky. Nobody knew what this meant or whether it was good or bad. Before long we found that they had been transferred to the most difficult and hardest working place in Skarżysko-Kamienna, which was the notorious Werk C.
Work in the Camp
The Hasag Arms Factory where: incidentally thousands of Poles were also working freely and in return for payment in the various plants, employed the greater part of the camp inmates in arms manufacture. But within the factory there were also departments which dealt with other kinds of work. One of these was the Bauhaus Department whose task was to carry out all kinds of activities in the factory and elsewhere, such as: building, carpentry, locksmith work, unloading, loading, etc. Ail the people from Staszów transferred there.
Departmental Director Gorsky and His Assistants
The department director was the Pole Gorsky who was known as the technician. He was a cunning young man who loved money and was an absolute Jew-hater. He treated us as cruelly as he could, with a sarcastic smile always on his face as he cursed and abused us. The Works Directors who assisted him in the various departments were also Poles, including Olshevsky, Koperek, etc. They were bloodthirsty and illiterate hooligans who had a rich past and ample experience in murdering Jews. This included quite a number of men from Staszów who had arrived in Werk C before the liquidation of the town.
The Beating and the Appeal to the Camp Director
This praiseworthy team also began to maltreat us. There was a dreadful period of cruel beatings. Blocks of wood, hoes and hammers were flung at us like hail. They paid particular attention to Pinhas Dombrosky, who for some reason they called Brylarz. The situation grew worse as a rumour spread that the Staszów men had a lot of money which had to be taken away from them at any price. And if it was a matter of Jews, then all steps taken were in order. In that desperate situation where we knew we had nothing to lose, we resolved to take an unprecedented step and appeal to the head of the camp, the German Inflink. The latter was himself a degraded murderer with a very questionable past, and while we were staying there we saw him more than once with his pistol in his hand, shooting to right and left. In spite of this he intervened and ordered them to stop mistreating us.
Two reasons led to this murderer's intervention on our behalf:
First, we had a reputation as diligent and talented workers.
Second, the lack of fresh transports was already having its effect by that time, and in spite of his personal attitude towards the Jews as Nazi and murderer, he as camp director could not do without workers in excellent physical condition since he could not replace them by others. And the evil angel answers amen in spite of himself. But it is possible that a third reason, by no means a negligible one, also has to be added, namely: The arrogant German was hurt by having the Poles -- those lower-grade slaves sticking their noses into an area which was the exclusive privilege of the Germans. Beat the Jews? By all means! But members of the 'Higher race' are there for that. What right have you low Poles to interfere in it? In either case we were delivered temporarily from the blood-stained hands of our Polish friends and obtained a little relief.
Conditions in the Camp and the Link with Staszów
Skarżysko-Kamienna continued to be a death factory even after the criminal attacks on us ceased following orders from above. The exhausting work on the one hand, and the nutrition of 200 grams of coarse sticky bread full of sand that grated on the teeth every day together with a litre of soup on the other, taken with the living conditions of thirty to forty men in a room four meters by four, with all the outcome in respect of elementary hygiene, were each sufficient on its own, and certainly taken together, to transform life at the camp into a hell on earth. In this situation, without help from outside or within, it was impossible to exist very long.
With the money which some of us had succeeded in smuggling in, as described above, it was possible to obtain additional food which was brought into the camp both by those who were working outside and by contact with the Poles who were working in the factory. But those who did not succeed in this -- and the present writer is one of them -- suffered the pangs of starvation itself. However, after five to six weeks had passed from the time we entered the camp a gleam of light was seen. Contact was established with Staszów by sending a messenger -- naturally a Pole -- to Polish acquaintances in the town, requesting aid on account of the property deposited with them. The most important of those in whom the present writer had placed his trust was Mr. Rzadkowolski, director of the K.K.O. Bank, with whom I had deposited most of the watches and jewels I still had left (after all the robbery and pillage of the Germans during the war). The latter, who had made an impression of a cultured and sensitive person, immediately revealed his true face. To be sure, he sent me five hundred złotys, but at the same time threatened the messenger and me that if ever I dared to communicate with him again about money he would hand us both over to the Germans. It is unnecessary to add that I never dared to run the risk of asking for help again from him. Thenceforward I directed all my efforts to seeking for possibilities of survival within the camp itself, and it must be said that thanks to my profession of watchmaking I succeeded in large measure. By repairing watches for all kinds of officeholders an appreciable improvement took place in my situation, both in the form of additional food which was decisive for going on living, and also in a considerable easing of physical labour. Incidentally, other Staszów people did still succeed in getting something from time to time from their Polish acquaintances in the town. But there were a few who entered into negotiations with the Poles working in or outside the factory, in spite of the dangers involved. This was particularly the case with those who were employed outside the camp and who were accordingly in a slightly better situation.
Signs From the Outside and Warning
Meanwhile the situation on the various fronts improved. The camp received plenty of news about what was happening in the world. Newspapers were smuggled in, and there was no lack of radio news which was passed on from ear to ear. An optimistic and reinvigorating state of mind passed through the camp. It seemed as though in a little while there would be an end to our suffering and the day of vengeance on our murderers. The dry bones absorbed the signs from the outer world and a new spirit seemed to enter into them. As a result of this spiritual change with all the hopes to which it led, many of us planned to escape from the camp. The generally current opinion was: Those who were inside were certainly doomed to destruction. It was therefore necessary to dare to break through to the other side of the wall, and we were sure to be saved. For how much longer could the war go on? According to the rumours it was even possible that this could only be a matter of a few weeks more. Those who had any daring would most assuredly succeed in making some kind of arrangements outside and saving themselves.
And so at that time the son of Pinhas Dombrovsky, together with Joseph Weinbaum and Magister Stern, escaped from the camp and were followed by Mordechai Cebularz, Hayyim Pakhtchiarek, etc.
The results of this flight were very tragic. It became known at once that three of them had not reached their destination. Only Mordechai Cebularz succeeded in escaping, doubtless owing to his exceedingly Aryan appearance. This served as a grave warning. It proved beyond any doubt, if any such thing as proof was necessary, that the way to the outer world was hermetically sealed before us, that there was no possibility or reasonable prospect of breaking the vicious circle surrounding us or escaping our bitter foes outside, just as we could not escape our foes within.
Spirits fell once again and the unfortunate inmates accepted their situation afresh. Our only consolation lay in the defeats which the Germans were suffering on the various fronts. Our fervent prayer was that they would not succeed m carrying out their evil purpose on the few survivors who still existed here and there.
New Year 5704
Together with the depression which was rife among those doomed to destruction after it became clear that the angel of death lay in wait even beyond the walls - and if anything more actively there was a great thirst to find out what was happening in the world. Every encouraging piece of news brought hope to our hearts and tidings of consolation to us in our distress. Corresponding to this spiritual need, it is impossible to describe anything more precious to us in those days than a newspaper. If we succeeded in obtaining one our joy knew no bounds. And it was far, far more important if the paper was the Krakauer Zeitung, which was published in Cracow, then the capital city. This newspaper contained a vast amount of news, not only in the military field but also in the political, and in a more or less objective form. The exhaustive surveys published in this paper enabled those who knew how to read between the lines, and who could understand hints in particular, to learn about many of the political plans of the free world.
So it is not surprising that any glance at that paper provided ample material for conversation and served as an important spiritual support for us in our miserable situation.
On Rosh Hashana 5704 the following incident happened: I learnt that a newspaper had been brought to the hut of the Rabbi of Radozhitz by the night shift. As I had been given an alarm clock for repair by the Polish foreman and had accordingly been exempted from outside work, I exploited the opportunity and went to that hut at the noon hour in order to look at the paper, but it was my bad luck that just at that time a Ukrainian works guard passed by and noticed this. He followed me in, ordered me to accompany him and led me the entire length of the camp to hand me over to the German guards on the other side of the gateway. On the way I tried to appeal to him by promising him a large sum of money. In reply he turned his pistol on me and said, Do you want me to finish you off here? For lack of choice I accompanied him to the unknown but very definite destination, while he marched several steps behind me. All of a sudden, when we were only twenty or thirty paces from the exit, one of the Jewish policemen in the camp, Gillik Goldfarb, arrived running and punting. He spoke sternly to the guard, saying: Leave him alone, I'll attend to him! And to me he whispered. It'll have to cost --. I'll give all I have, I answered. And so he saved me from certain death.
How strange are the recesses of the human soul! Good and bad can exist there in confusion. Sometimes a man is cruel when there is no necessity or advantage, yet on occasion the same man will perform a human act of the highest level, risking his life for another. Let me add that this man did what he did for somebody who was almost a complete stranger to him, and with whom he had had a brief conversation for only a few minutes by pure chance when introduced by a common friend named Kornfeld (now living in Israel) who had arrived a few days earlier from Maidenek -- and under those conditions when there was not the slightest value to a human life - The riddle becomes far, far greater. And though, to be sure, this fact does not counterbalance the entirely unnecessary acts of cruelty performed by the man it is nevertheless a proof that such men cannot be judged by ordinary accepted and apparently objective standards. For those conditions were so entirely different from the normal ones that any attempt, no matter how objective, to comprehend their way of thought or judge their motives must inevitably be defective and meaningless.
The spiritual revolt which accompanies feelings of nausea and disgust on the part of people outside against the abominable things done by some of those who held office in the ghettoes and the camps - that revolt, comprehensible and justified in itself though it may he -- does not bring with it the slightest right to judge. This phenomenon of Jewish life under Nazi rule is as far as can be from all spiritual concepts and states which the ordinary mortal can imagine or suppose. There is no standard whereby an outside person is entitled to pass judgment according to the accepted laws of justice and logic. Is there anybody who can really place himself both physically and spiritually on a level with one facing death, who lives twenty-four hours every day in that nightmare, and does so for years on end? And who does this while facing a dangerous and cunning enemy whose deeds are done with diabolical trickery and who from time to time kindles fresh sparks of hope in peoples' hearts? Can anybody argue that under those self-same conditions he would be capable of acting differently? Our sages taught us long ago: Do not judge your fellow-man until you find yourself in his place. In his place in every sense, with the whole range of circumstances in which that fellow-man was to be found. And if, in this case, it is impossible for anyone standing outside to reach his place - then neither has he any right to or justification for putting on the judge's robes. These are matters that no stranger can understand; and if anybody at all is entitled to pass judgement on the heroes of this terrifying period, then it can only be those who themselves lived through the same conditions and on their own flesh and in their own souls felt the whole weight of the horror.
The working conditions, the nutrition and housing in which we existed could not but exert their influence on the camp prisoners, weakening their physical resistance. As an inevitable outcome there was an epidemic of typhoid which wrought havoc among the men. There were a great many victims, including many of our townsfolk such as Leibish Fefferman, Hayyim Goldfarb, Elijah Linzfeld, etc.
During the middle days of Sukkot 5704, soon after the incident of the newspaper related above, I also fell a victim to this illness and was taken to the hospital. The hygienic conditions there were indescribable. Lice by thousands and tens of thousands were to be found everywhere. Medical care was virtually non-existent. Apart from that a selection was carried out from time to time and at a single wave of the hand the patients were delivered from their troubles. The humorous Germans had it that the people were sent to the Heaven commando. Only those of the patients who had devoted kinsfolk or friends obtained any kind of care, as well as a little food which was so necessary under those dreadful conditions. And here I must in particular mention one of the people thanks to whose devoted and unceasing care I am probably still alive. This was Meir Rosengarten may he be avenged, the son of Reb Tuviah the baker. This man, incomparably patient and kindhearted, spent days and nights either helping himself or getting other people to do so. I remember that whenever I woke up from my sleep or became conscious I would always find that good angel beside my bed, encouraging me and trying to persuade me to eat something that he had prepared himself or that had been prepared thanks to his intervention. And this continued not for one or two days but for twenty-eight days on end.
To be sure, other townfolk also did a great deal for me. They made the effort, raised money, and a non-Jew was urgently sent to the town of Skarżysko-Kamienna to fetch injections for me. I was also given ample help by Pinhas Eisenberg of Kielce, grandson of Reb Eliezer, Eisenberg the soap-factory owner of Staszów. Yet the said Meir Rosengarten did more than all of them, toiling unweariedly to help me as best he could, and mostly beyond the limits of his own strength. He was there in the morning before he went to work. He was back again as soon as he returned from the hard and exhausting toil. Before he went to sleep weary and hungry he came back once more. In brief he was there at all times, and whenever it was possible he showed his good nature, doing whatever he did faithfully, quietly and effectively.
He met his end in the transport from Flossenbürg. May his memory be blessed!
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