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[Pages 21-28]

This is How it Began

By Wolf Berensztejn

Translated by Rachel Karni

It was the day before Yom Kippur.1 We were holding a minyan in Avraham Wilskier's home. Veisler, who was a refugee from Katowitz and was the teacher of German language at the Russian school, came to us and told us that he had been called to the Jewish community offices and been asked to find out what the Germans wanted and what they intended to do. He went to the office of the Germans, located in the home of Dr. Jakobson, and the Germans demanded that he arrange four rooms for them with all conveniences.

The Jews took off their talesim and went to look for rooms.

To accomplish this task Moshe Chusyd, Y. Akerman, Hertzig Milman, Motel Segal and Fromke Gitleman were chosen. They looked at many houses and only found the apartment of the Jakobsons, which had four rooms, a kitchen and a dining room, and so they decided it would be used for this purpose.2

They found decorators to arrange the interior of the apartment. The German owner of the estate from Berzitz, who was representing the Germans, was in charge of this project. He said, “If you don't get this done within 35 minutes, it will be very bad.” While he was speaking, he grabbed one of the Jewish representatives by the ear, pulled him toward his gun, and added, “If this job isn't done on time, this gun will do it for you.”


 At the mass grave


Veisler went to the bakeries, which were by then controlled by the Germans, and asked that bread be distributed to the community. A Ukrainian, Sergeve Matlivka, who worked for the Germans and was in charge of the distribution of the bread rations, announced that it had been decided to give every person 140 grams of bread a day.

Later3 the Germans, and their local henchmen, announced that a Ghetto had to be established within one day, and all the Jews were to be concentrated there. The fence had to be 2.5 meters high, and it was to go from the Haim Wilskier's brewery to the home of Shprecher, and then pass near Nahum Kotzik's home. In spite of this last directive, the fence ended near Shprecher's house.

This is how the Ghetto was established:

It was a winter day. Jewish people, working together quickly and energetically, on their backs brought doors that they had removed from all the houses, and put up a fence in the allotted time. Then an order was given that within three days all Jews were to move into the Ghetto area.

Within three days our homes were abandoned and we moved into the Ghetto. Opposite the home of Yehoshua Duchowny was the gate, through which everyone entered the Ghetto.

Near the gate there was a control point, manned by Jews and Ukrainian Shutzmanim.4 The Jewish residents of Shumsk, most of whom were owners of homes, began to get settled, each family in one room. The morning after the establishment of the Ghetto the Jews were informed that they would have to supply workers upon demand. A committee was immediately set up. Reserves of Jewish workers were organized, so that there would always be 80 people available for any urgent order.

Workers were assigned to cleaning the roads, and loading grain and flour at the mills.

Jews worked at the sawmill in Surage and Andreshivka, and they felled trees in the forest a mile from Andreshivka. Haim Cisin, together with his brother Buzia, supplied bread to the Ghetto from the bakeries.

Ahead of each group that left the Ghetto for work there was one person -- and another person behind the group -- who were responsible for them. The police located near the gate of the Ghetto would check the workers to know what they were taking out and bringing into the Ghetto.

There was a German there named Adenauer, who organized the Jewish militia which would accompany the Jewish workers to Moskalivski, where there was a dehydration plant for medicinal herbs that had been established in the time of the Poles. I was responsible for the group. The responsibility was very heavy, and it was also necessary to see to it that no Jews ran away.

We would go out at 5 a.m. and return at 5 in the evening. I would count the people when they left the Ghetto and on our return. When we finished the work at the herb dehydration plant, we went out to work on the roads from Malinov to Hodak.

The road work was difficult and included many additional tasks along the roadside.

One day we received an order to fortify the bridges so that artillery could cross them. The work was hard because fortification was done by using heavy oak beams, 6 meters long and 3 to 5 meters thick.

Each one had to carry a beam on his back and place it in the water. Our “reward” was a beam 1 meter long and 6 inches thick. Anyone who couldn't carry this home would be beaten. They beat Yisrael Bryk until he was unconscious. He was elderly and weak, and he had to be carried home. This was cruelty for the sake of cruelty.

In the meantime they decreased the portions of bread from 140 to 120 grams per day. Later the portion was decreased to 70 grams, and then to nothing, and many people died from starvation, after swelling.

In the Ghetto a kitchen for the needy was set up in the home of Karl Vestroll, the Czech, and Malka Offengendler was in charge. Every Jew would bring food to the kitchen -- from the supplies that that were smuggled into the Ghetto and from the food that we managed to smuggle in when returning from working -- and at the kitchen food was distributed to the needy.

The Judenrat5 had been established immediately upon the arrival of the Germans, as per the “order of the day to the Jews.” In the Judenrat were Motel Segal, Y. Akerman, Naftali Akerman, Mordechai Akerman and Reb Yosele. The treasurer was Grisha Akerman. I was appointed to be in charge of health, together with Grenoch, who was also a refugee in Shumsk. The chairman of the Judenrat was Veisler, and the Cisin brothers were responsible for bread. Other members of the Judenrat were Froike Gitelman, (Herzig Milman was not), Moshe Offengendler, Itzik the Mezshi, a horse trader who lived near Avraham Boychuk's, and Motel Chazen. Naftali Kanfer was responsible for the tannery and he worked there.

There were serious people on the Judenrat and there were some who exploited their position to their own advantage. A lot of gold was found at Veisler's, and it became clear that there were those who took money from people without having been ordered to do so. But it must be said that Veisler atoned for his wrongdoing and died like a hero, with Jewish honor. He was the first to strip off his clothing, and he said that he didn't want to remain alive in spite of the fact that Germans told him that they would allow him to live. He jumped into the pit and Motel Chazen jumped in after him.

The sanitary conditions were horrendous. The children were in a terrible situation. They were not studying, and they would spend most of the day listening to the conversations of the grown-ups. They spent a great deal of time in the company of their parents absorbing all the despair, cynicism and helplessness, and who knows what their little hearts were experiencing.

The main synagogue, in which there were 36 Torah scrolls, had become a public latrine. When I spoke with the rabbi and suggested that we save the holy books, he spread his hands in despair and said, “They were books, but now they are not books, they are 'shames.'6 Do what you want with them. It doesn't interest me.”

The Liquidation of the Ghetto:

The Ghetto existed for eight and a half months, but it seemed like years, like generations. The liquidation of the Ghetto was gradual. First to be taken out were Motel Chazen, the rabbi, the physician, Dr. Fiershtein, Grisha Akerman, and others.

This group put on white clothing and strode to the grave willingly. I heard Reb Yosele, who stood up at the home of Meir Sztejnberg and said approximately the following: “We have to be united. This is a heavenly decree and there is nothing we can do about it.” He called upon the workers to obey the instructions of the Judenrat, to come to work on time, and to supply the needs of the people, so that the members of the Judenrat would not be tortured. People were led in a procession to the pit, while the elderly were loaded onto wagons, like pieces of wood, and brought ready for the massacre. No one rebelled, there was no show of force, there were isolated instances of resistance. Nachman Sosna beat a Ukrainian Shutzman to death when he arrested him.

David Zak did four quotas at the sawmill because he thought it would help him to survive. It didn't help him. He remained strong until the very end.

Idel Zak came to the rabbi, Reb Yosele, and said, “I want to distribute money to the poor, according to a list.” The rabbi prepared a list of people for him and he brought the money and it was distributed. Then Itzik (Itchke) the Mezshi came and said that he should have received more money. He argued with David (Zak) and slapped his face, but the latter was so strong that he grabbed Itzik and threw him into the air. It was with great difficulty that Itzik was extricated from his hands.

After some time information came that pits 14 meters wide, 22 meters long and 4 meters deep were being dug. There were three of these pits, one for men, one for women and one for children. The children were taken first so that the mothers would see the death of those who were most precious to them. After that they took the women. The men were divided into a number of groups. The manpower was used until the very end, and even today it is hard to understand how, and according to what criteria, they determined the end.

In Malinov I heard from a non-Jew that a German had been to see him and told him that the Ghetto would be wiped out within a few days. I returned and told this to the rabbi. Immediately a meeting of the council was called. The veracity of this information depended on the trustworthiness of the person who passed on the information to me, and it was judged that the rumor was correct. The person who gave me this information was trusted by everyone. But it was decided that nothing could be done. I decided otherwise. Since I was an excellent swimmer I told my daughters that if the rumors would prove true, and the liquidation would begin, we would escape through the river.

My wife and my younger daughter didn't want to go. My wife believed that she would be saved by money, and my daughter didn't want to leave her. I jumped with my older daughter into the Sanil near the brewery, we swam across and we found ourselves outside the Ghetto. For three days we sat among the reeds, listening to the incessant shooting within the Ghetto. In the meantime, a few Germans were sent to find us. We saw them. They walked around the fence of the Ghetto and fired without stop in the direction of the Ghetto. After some time they gave up and went back inside the Ghetto.

We weighed our next move and decided to go to Olibus. In Rachmanov I went into the home of a Polish policeman, the son-in-law of Plishki. He told us that we should escape immediately, due to the imminent danger. But we hadn't eaten for three days and so I asked him first for bread, and he gave us some. We ate a little and stuffed the rest into our pockets. Then we stood up and ran in the direction of Yuzick Lishtzinski's house, in order to get some honey. When I said to him, smiling, “Give me a little honey,” he thought that I had lost my mind. “There are mass graves, what do you need honey for the grave?” Still, he gave me two liters of honey, and I took it as if it were something most precious.

I walked to Moskalivski., where a Jew named Koskovitch lived, but just then the Banderovtze7 surrounded his house and took his guns and all the ammunition which he had in his possession, since he was a forester. I didn't manage to find out exactly what happened to him, I heard the noise and I ran. I went to Bankovski, but there too he was surrounded.

Snow was already everywhere. We made ourselves a hut from wooden shingles. Both of us, my daughter Freida, who was 22 years old, and I, worked energetically. We sat in the hut for a few nights, and when we went out it was as if we were hunted animals. When we went out we met a robber, a leader of a gang of Banderovtze. I recognized him immediately. He was the son of Olsko, a longtime acquaintance and customer. I had once given Olsko 80 zloty and he was supposed to bring me wood, which he didn't deliver. His son had a pistol on him, and my daughter was shaking with fear. For some reason I felt he would not harm us. He asked me in Ukrainian, “What are you doing here?” I said to him, “Olsko, I'm very hungry. Give me something to eat.” He answered, “I would invite you to our home, but they are searching us every evening for weapons, and so I can't invite you.” From him I learned that there were Russian partisans in the area. I said to him, “You know me.” He didn't ask any more questions, just said, “Stay here. I'll bring you some straw and you will stay here.” My daughter didn't believe him and wanted to run away, but I said, “If he comes accompanied by someone else, I'll grapple with him and take his pistol and we'll escape. But if he comes alone it's a sign that he doesn't intend to harm us.”

After a quarter of an hour we saw him skipping and running in our direction with baskets of food in hand, and I knew that his intentions were good. The basket had hot soup and bread. He said, “During the day you can come to my house, but don't come at night.”

And then he added, “You know, I have an account to settle with you.” I was so frightened my stomach turned. In spite of this, I summoned up my courage and said, “I haven't come to settle accounts.” But he said, decisively, “This can't be,” and he told me that his father had passed away, and before his death he had commanded his children to pay me 80 zloty. “It isn't fitting to die owing money,” he had said. I said that I would forgo the money, of course. But he ordered us to remain there. “Tomorrow I'll come and bring you previk,” which was a kind of whiskey that he made himself. We agreed that he would knock twice on a tree as a signal that it was he who had come to us.

We sat down and ate the hot soup, feeling so much better.

The next day we saw a woman running toward us, terrified, and she told us that her son had gotten drunk and told his friends about our presence here. She concluded, “Don't remain here. They want to come and slaughter you. Get away from here, for your own good.” I said to her, “If you are Olskos, I'm not afraid. Go in peace.”

But as soon as she had disappeared, we ran in the direction of Isernei. On the way I saw two Banderovtze standing on the bridge and smoking cigarettes. There was no time to think very much, and no possibility of turning back. We walked slowly on our way, as if we were looking for fish. We were dressed like non-Jews and passed near them. They didn't notice us, and we went over the hill and ran until we got to Hodak, about six kilometers from Olsko's house. At the entrance I saw an armed Russian, and he pointed his gun at us.

I recognized him. He was Smolinski, one of the good non-Jews of that time. I didn't want to believe that he had changed. I said, “What? Do I have to run away from you?” I don't know if he recognized me or not, since his facial expression was very serious, and he let slip, “We are in the forest. Our home has been burned down. Stay with us. My whole family is living in the forest. There is honey and bread. Come to us.” We followed him and came to a gypsy tent -- a few sheets on some trees was their home. His mother grabbed my daughter, embraced her and whispered, “Here you won't die of starvation. Whatever will happen to us, will happen to you. Don't be afraid. Everything we have here belongs to all of us.”

In the meantime an order came, saying that Poles could return to Shumsk.

They left us, and went. We remained alone, but they didn't forget us. From their home they sent us sausages and bread, which they sent with Glushuk, a Czech neighbor of mine in Shumsk. He brought us the food and a note from them, saying that we should turn to them for whatever we needed and they would give it to us.

Glushuk searched for us in the forest for three days before he found us. In the meantime the Ukrainians started burning the homes of the Poles and so they escaped from Shumsk and returned to us in the forest with a supply of food and fruit.

Together we suffered and planned a way for our common rescue, until a unit of Russian partisans reached us.

The partisans began to battle with the Banderovtze, who were concentrated in thousands near Isernei-Zeloni-Dov, and the Russians were forced to retreat.

I remained with my only daughter in the forest. For two or three days I was at a complete loss as to what to do, exposed to the dangers of starvation, freezing cold and death.

In the meantime it became known in Shumsk that I was alone in the forest, cut off from any ties, and to this day I don't know how this became known. I only know that when this information was passed on to Isidor Rovlevski, a Pole who owned a ---------- in Shumsk, he sent Smilanski (also a Pole) to me with the keys to his house in his hand, and his personal order as a friend, that I should leave the forest immediately and come to Cherinki, half a kilometer from Shumsk, straight to his house.

I listened to their advice and at night again walked many kilometers through forests and dangers. These were nights of frost and snow, after 19 months of wandering. I reached his home. I opened the door. The house was empty.

The owners of the house had gathered in the house of Yarmolinski, together with other Poles, who had fortified themselves there with guns in hand, in self-defense against the Banderovtze, who had decided to cleanse the Ukraine of the Polish.

The empty house terrified me. I felt that something bad was awaiting me here. The very fact that they had abandoned the house with all their possessions, including the livestock farm, was a sign that death was a surety here.

These were hours of doubt and fear for me. I didn't know what to do. Towards evening Rovlevski's brother arrived. He had decided to stay in the house to guard their possessions, and he tried to convince me to stay with him. I was almost tempted to do so, but a hidden sense of caution, which had developed during the time that I was a “hunted animal,” didn't let me stay with him. I took my daughter and we went to join the Poles, in order to stand with them in self-defense.

Indeed, that very night the Banderovtze attacked Rovlevski's house, killed his brother, stole their cattle and horses and destroyed the house.

Smolinski welcomed me warmly, made up a bed for me and offered me food. Then he told me that Pinchas Geldi (now Giladi) was nearby, hidden in a concealed latrine pit, where he had been for a number of months.

I demanded that they show me where he was and we went to him. I found him hidden in the pit, with the toilet above him, hiding him. I knocked on the door and asked him to open it. He heard my voice, recognized it, and came out to me. He was completely unkempt and frightened, but he didn't want to come with us because he had given his boots as a gift to the person who brought him food, in addition to the gold coins he had given that person, and he didn't dare walk barefoot in the terribly cold weather and the deep snow.

He told me that his benefactor had left. But before leaving he had passed on word of Geldi's presence to Levoyarski, the well known Shtundist,8 and the latter had lovingly cared for him, at risk to himself, and what is more, at Geldi's request had brought him books to the pit together with a kerosene lamp, and so Pinchas Geldi spent his time in incessant reading.

He joined us together with his books, and from then on we remained together.

Haim Cisin also joined us.

While the Germans were still in Shumsk two Hungarian Jews happened to be in Cherinki, and they constantly begged the non-Jews to show them Jews who had survived.

Yankovski got two pairs of boots from them and brought them to me.

At first I was suspicious, but when one of them showed me the picture of his father, a well known Hungarian rabbi, I was reassured and spoke with them.

It turned out that these men were two medical officers whom the Germans had allowed to survive because their professional qualifications were needed. One was a physician and the other a pharmacist. Now they had escaped from the German army, and they had with them a great deal of medical equipment that the German army had left behind in retreat.

They asked me how they could help me. I told them that I was a qualified pharmacist and if they could give me some drugs I would be most grateful.

The day after this conversation, the pharmacist appeared with a soldier, who was carrying a large sack full of medicines. I was frightened when I saw the soldier in German uniform, but they reassured me and I got the pharmaceuticals, which helped me a great deal in life. Two weeks later, the Germans left Shumsk and the Russians came and entered the town.

People from Shumsk began to assemble. The son of David Shrayer, the wonderful tailor, who is now in the United States, arrived. Yitzchak Szczogil, ill and very frail, had been a watchmaker, and thanks to the gold he had, had been taken care of by a non-Jew. We tried to save him, but his heart was not strong enough and he died. We buried him and I remember that we were missing one person for a minyan to say Kaddish.

Yaakov and Malka, and Beni Michael, the blacksmith, also returned. They are now in the United States. The other children, Shimon and Pesi, were either killed or remained in the Soviet Union.

The son of the “wagon driver,” who was later the owner of a car, came back, as did Moshe from Andreshevka and others.

Shumsk had turned into a city of ruins. It was all one open lot, mostly ruins. The great synagogue was burnt, the other synagogues without roofs. My shop remained, because they had used it as an office. Kovka Bursztejn's house also remained standing, as did some others.

The Russians immediately drafted me for the Ministry of Health, and I was forbidden to leave the town without the permission of Dr. Alexander Tominski. This doctor was a wonderful person. He gave me a lot of clothing and the best of food.

Under the Russians I was sent to a medical course and appointed as the regional supervisor for health sanitation.

During that period the Germans succeeded in pushing the Russians back, and again we were forced to go underground. But this lasted for only a few days. The Russians returned and again I returned to my job.

In the meantime my daughter had been assigned to work as a bookkeeper in the government offices. I was not pleased with this at all, since she had already completed two years of medical studies and in addition, I didn't like the people in whose company she was working. I managed to get assigned to travel to Lvov for purchases. There, at the University, in the Department of Medicine, I found her records. I brought these back with me and she was immediately freed, as per the law, for continued education.

I moved her to Lvov and I remained in Shumsk. From Lvov she wrote me that all the Jews were moving to Poland. I joined her and we moved to Lodz and did not return again to Russia.

My daughter continued her studies in Lodz and I worked in Lower Shlonsk.

When my daughter completed her studies she remained there for four years, working as a physician, and then we moved to Warsaw and from there came to Israel.

My daughter arrived here six months ago and I came to Israel shortly after she did.9

Translator's Footnotes

  1. The year was 1941. Return
  2. Dr. Herman Jakobson had passed away in 1934. In 1941 his widow was living at the home of her daughter in Rovno. (Source: Irma Benyaminov, the granddaughter of Dr. Jakobson.) Return
  3. Just before Purim 1942. Return
  4. Shutzmanim: Term for the local Ukrainian police. Return
  5. Judenrat: (German) The name of the Jewish governing body which the Germans ordered Jewish communities to set up and through which edicts were imposed on the Jewish population. Return
  6. Shames : (Hebrew) Religious books or Torah scrolls in bad repair which have lost their sanctity, but which would have normally been treated respectfully and buried. Return
  7. Banderovtze: Ukrainian nationalist militant groups who were violently opposed to control of the region by non-Ukrainians, including the Polish and later the Soviet Russians. They terrorized those in the local population who they perceived as cooperating with these groups. Return
  8. Shtundists: Members of a neo-Lutheran Protestant sect of German origin who had long ago settled in the area, and who were known for their pro-Jewish sympathies. Return
  9. Wolf Berensztejn and his daughter arrived in Israel in 1957. His daughter, Dr. Freida Utzenik, a physician, is now retired. Return

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