By Ruth Sztejnman Halperin, daughter of Jacob and Miriam Sztejnman
Translated by Dr. Gila Hertz, daughter of Ruth Halperin
Edited by Lynne Tolman
The town was as quiet as a cemetery. The windows and shutters were closed both day and night; the streets were almost entirely empty except for a few hours during the daytime.
One morning, at sunrise, the roaring sound of motorcycles disturbed the silence. I saw them through the cracks in the window's shutters. They came like waves of locusts. Our hearts stopped beating. We felt that something awful was about to happen. Jews in town did not open their shutters.
At 8:00 in the morning when sun was out, the sound of loudspeakers was heard. They called the public not go out to the streets. On top of the church, a flag with a swastika had been flown. It was the first time we saw it. We did not know what it meant. What would our future be?
Outside, at a public gathering, we heard some calming words, We ask that everyone keep quiet. Nothing will happen to those who cooperate, but those who resist will face death. This announcement was also posted on walls throughout the town. The notices had been written in German, Ukrainian and Russian, but not in Yiddish. We saw the notices were everywhere, as if they covered the entire town.
Then, the motorcycles left. A small patrol squad of three or four Germans remained behind. They would later stay till the very end. They would complete the extermination job with no additional German assistance. They would give the orders and the Ukrainians would follow them to completion.
After that day, our town became quiet again for a while. People returned to their normal routine. The Jews took over and managed the cooperative shops, left behind by the retreating Russians. The Ukrainian villagers, who believed that the Germans would not be coming back, began looting the stores. Within a day or two the stores were empty. Jews remained in their homes, stocking items and as much food as they were able to get.
The Germans appointed a Jew whose function was to recruit workers for hard labor jobs, such as building roads and bridges, chopping wood, etc. They also appointed a German-speaking individual, a refugee who had fled Katowicz, to serve as a liaison with the Germans. Later, when more workers were needed, a Jewish council, the Judenrat, was appointed, headed by our beloved rabbi, Rabbi Yosele. Dr. Viselberg served as his translator. The rabbi had called the people to meet in the synagogue. At the meeting, the public was asked to send representatives to the council. I cannot remember all the names of the council members. I remember a few, including Israel Akerman and Munderer, our two beloved veteran teachers, Motil Hazan, Herzog Milman, as well as Wolf Berensztejn, Hertzl Misiaznik and Chodorof. The latter was a wood merchant who had settled in town before the war. All the members of the council were decent people, dedicated members of our community. Later, the position of head of the council was transferred from Rabbi Yosele to Dr. Viselberg,1 and the rabbi devoted his time to matters of welfare.
The council recruited workers for various jobs. They were responsible for complying with demands for contributions of valuables such as silver, gold, grains, food, and later furs and jewelry, copper, copper pots and samovars. Periodically, every Jew was also forced to pay ransom money of 20 German marks per head. The German mark was the only currency allowed. Russian currency was not considered legal tender. Trade consisted primarily of exchange of goods. People were selling valuables they had accumulated over the years in order to buy food, which they stocked for the future, and also to pay the ransoms.
The Germans appointed the Ukrainian police to keep law and order in the streets. Given this authority, they made our life miserable. Only a handful of the policemen treated us humanely.
The German authorities later curtailed the allowance of bread and food. Each person now received an allowance of 200 grams of bread per day. We received this amount until we were transferred to the Ghetto. Most of our food, however, came from stored supplies that we had bought through barter from our Ukrainian neighbors over time.
The Germans provided flour to the Judenrat, who in turn supplied it to the bakers. With the money received from the bakers the Judenrat were able to pay the Germans for the flour.
End of September 1941
Our life had become progressively worse. At night, a curfew was strictly enforced. Individuals who violated the curfew were shot and killed. The Ukrainian police, now reinforced, in effect controlled our streets. They received orders from a German. The German presence was noticed only when Schumann, a German commander whose base was in Rovno, appeared in town. His visits, always accompanied by new restrictions, created fear and panic. They meant additional workers, demands for more money and goods. Schumann had a spacious office reserved for him in the center of town. I was selected, along with eight other girls, to clean the German offices. It is strange, but of those girls who worked with me in those offices, I can only remember Breindel Szerman and Shifra Szrajer. It is hard to figure out the mysteries of human memory.
During this period, the synagogues remained open. They served, primarily, as a gathering place for the community. More than ever, everyone was drawn to the places of worship. There, in the synagogue, rumors from far away were circulated; notes from neighboring towns were read to us. This was where the Jewish heart was beating and the Jewish brain was hard at work. Daily prayers were said, but were not as important as the actual chance to meet with other Jews. We rushed to finish the evening prayers before sundown so we could get home before the curfew.
The children of Shumsk
The children in town participated in every aspect of adult life. They expressed their opinion in discussions and conversations. They overheard and understood every sigh, moan or nod of head. Spending long days and evenings with adults, their little minds had been forced to learn of bad news and to cope with tragic events. There were no schools. (The Tarbut school2 had been closed by the Russians. Most parents had refused to send their young children to the public elementary school because of its location outside of the town. For them, it meant long hours of frightening separation from their small children). These young children now studied in the Talmud Torah3 that had been opened by the community as a replacement for the Tarbut school.
Older children, age 12 to 14 and over, were recruited for forced labor for the Germans. As soon as a child was physically able to do the hard work, he became part of the work force. These older children were subject to the same regimentation as adults.
The evenings and nights were unbearable. The streets were empty. Young couples stopped strolling down the town center. The families gathered at home, trying to stay as close to each other as possible. Fear of separation created a strong desire to remain together. Every once and a while, a door opened and someone came in to exchange information with a neighbor. People shared fears and a sense of helplessness.
Schumann's visits in town became more frequent. He had come sporadically from Rovno for a quick visit, but each visit had caused a shock wave in the community. Before and after each visit one could sense the depression in the town. People were in panic when they heard of his impending visit. He always came in order to extort money, precious objects, furs, gold, etc., and to enact new hair-raising restrictions. His demands were delivered to the Judenrat, which, in turn, ordered individuals to provide the requested goods. Occasionally, the Jewish police had to use force against those who refused to fulfill a demand. At times, the suffering of the enforcers was greater than that of the individuals who were forced to give their property away.
The Jewish police consisted of 40 men, with Naftali Akerman as their head. It was hard for us to see the Judenrat and the Jewish police enforcing German orders. But we did not hate them. We understood their miserable situation. The Jews in Shumsk treated the Jewish police with respect and understanding. They believed that they were doing the best they could to help. The Judenrat members did not wear yellow stars. They wore yellow cuffs on their shirt sleeves.
Purim 1942-- in the Ghetto
Rumors about the Ghetto had spread quickly. We had developed a sense of foreboding, able to predict what was going to happen. Or maybe notes carried from one community to another had hinted at what was to occur. The Germans had announced that within three months we would all move into the Ghetto. On one Thursday, just before Purim, the construction of the Ghetto was completed. Within one day, the entire town with its children and elderly, 5,000 people from Shumsk and neighboring villages, moved into the Ghetto. Our long journey into the unknown had started.
Our belongings had been packed in anticipation of the move. We were living out of suitcases and bundles. On the day of the move we grabbed our possessions and started to move.
For the move people used every possible vehicle: baby carriages, wheelbarrows, carrying boxes, etc. Some managed to pay Ukrainians who had come into town to use their wagons. There was a case where a Ukrainian brought some wood for sale and Jews paid him for the wood just so that they could use his wagon to move their belongings. We knew that whatever was left behind would be lost to looting and theft.
As per an order of the Germans, Jews were allocated wood, and were ordered to build wooden walls 3 to 4 meters high around the ghetto. The Ukrainian police secured the gates. As soon as they entered the Ghetto, we were ordered to stay put. We were not allowed to move into or out of the Ghetto. On that first day, a Jew came close to the fence and a policeman killed him on the spot. On Friday, the next day, a German came in, wearing a new suit. He called Asher Szpric, one of the best tailors in Shumsk, and told him, Thank you for the suit. You did a great job and now I have to pay you. He pulled out his gun and shot him in the face. He turned away and left. No one was able to do anything. That was the beginning of our life in the Ghetto.
In the Ghetto, each family lived in a room, joining families who had lived in this area before the establishment of the Ghetto. The owners of the apartments inside the Ghetto shared their rooms in understanding. True, they were looking for a tenant that they liked, but the sharing was carried out quietly and without too many difficulties. The Germans did not interfere with the living arrangements. Someone said that they had wanted to create a rift between the Jews over their shared properties. But these things worked out. There were many cases in which Ukrainians or Poles who lived in apartments within the Ghetto borders gave their rooms in exchange for the Jewish homes outside of the Ghetto.
The Germans compiled lists of skilled Jewish workers, to work for the Ukrainians. I was working as a clerk and I took the Ukrainians' order for workers. My teacher, Mr. Munderer, was the head of the workers. The work shops were outside of the Ghetto and the workers left for work in the morning and returned in the evening. They brought with them food and supplies. They were happy.
Organization of life in the Ghetto.
We started to organize our affairs immediately after the move to the Ghetto. Those individuals, lucky enough to get work outside of the Ghetto, were able to bring food back to their families. Those who stayed inside the Ghetto remained hungry. Soon after the establishment of the Ghetto, a soup kitchen for the needy was organized. There were many families, probably the majority, who had initially brought a lot of food into the Ghetto. The food was sufficient for years of feeding many people. There were also those who, before the Ghetto, had been poor. They carried their poverty into the Ghetto. Obviously, it was necessary to distribute the food more fairly and to see to it that those who were hungry would have food. The soup kitchen was organized to fulfill that function.
Many Ukrainian farmers, from surrounding villages, crowded the gates of the Ghetto to exchange goods with the Jews. They exchanged food for dishes, kitchen utensils, clothing, cloth, etc. Occasionally, Jews who passed through the gate on their way to work took off their own clothes in exchange for jars of honey, beans and flour. They smuggled the precious food into the Ghetto, by hiding the food under a shirt or in a trouser leg. The food items were expensive, but the feeling was that our future depended on them. For the people locked inside the Ghetto, the return of their loved ones from work meant food and life. We felt that if we could survive a few days, we would be free. Maybe we would even live in an independent Jewish place. All of a sudden, the meaning of Zionism became more understood, more real to us. We needed the food for the survival of one Jew at a time.
A strong sense of community had always characterized our town. Now in the Ghetto, that sense was focused on the very basic needs of our existence.
The Jewish police supervised the exit and entrance of the Jewish workers. They had been warned by the Germans about the harsh consequences of food smuggling. However, in spite of the danger, they helped their town comrades. Oftentimes, the workers, back from their job, carried packages that were too big to carry or too obvious to pass through the gates. The members of the Jewish police would collect the packages and throw them over the walls into the Ghetto to those waiting on the other side. They also arranged the work rotation so that everyone had a chance to go out to work and thus obtain food products.
Smuggling of food became a project of the community, carried out by individuals. It served as the basis for the establishment of the kitchen for the needy.
Kitchen for the needy in the Ghetto
The Germans provided food to those who worked for them. This was often based on the performance of the workers. In addition, food was distributed to the Judenrat (in exchange for frequent transfer of ransom sums), which, in turn, provided it to the needy. The food, mostly consisting of thin watery soup and a slice of bread, had been paid for by special taxes imposed on the community. The Judenrat established the soup kitchen. They made sure that the needy received three meals a day. The kitchen and the dining room had been set in the house of the Jankowski family. The Judenrat selected a couple of refugees from Katowitz to manage it. It provided food primarily to a few dozen families of refugees who had come to Shumsk during the time of the Russian control. The majority of them had been poor. Most of the residents of Shumsk, however, did not use the community kitchen. They cooked in their own rooms with whatever means available to them. When I think nowadays of this community feeding operation, I feel warm positive feelings about my town. Our community took care of its needy. Many individuals who turned down public assistance did not do it out of pride but out of the desire to care for the needs of others. Those who availed themselves of the kitchen knew that they would not be viewed as parasites, but rather as partners in the quest for survival, which became an important goal. Above all, the Judenrat and the Jewish police managed to help Jews, often placing their own life in danger, acting honestly and in the serious manner that the period demanded.
Children, families in the Ghetto
Inside the Ghetto, a curfew had been imposed from evening till morning. During the day, most of us were locked in the Ghetto. In the evening, we were locked inside the houses. Families were gathered together, parents with their children. The space was tight, but also the need to be close to each other created an emotional and physical closeness. The children heard and saw everything. All of a sudden, they lost their childhood. They participated in family discussions and participated equally in making decisions within the family. There were no children playing together and no childish games. The family became the center of all activity. Small children smuggled food through the walls. Some of them were the sole little providers for their families. Often times, they managed, with their small bodies, to crawl under the fence in order to deliver messages and to bring precious items to their families, such as firewood for cooking. Sometimes it was the youngest children who were the greatest source of support for the family.
These children were partners in the deliberations and decisions about, for example, whether the father should go out to work or not, and whether he would return or not. They were fearful for the safe return of a brother who had not come home at the expected time. Remaining together with the whole family and helping in its support was the central concern of children.
Inside the Ghetto, there were four houses of prayer, the large red brick main synagogue, the gray Beis Hamedrish4, the Kloyz5 of the Yermelintz Hassidim and the synagogue of Rabbi Berneyue, now headed by the beloved Rabbi Yosele.
Jews continued to go the houses of worship in the mornings and in the evenings, praying three times a day. Mincha and Maariv, in particular, were carried out in haste, so that everyone could be at home before sundown with its curfew.
The prayers as usual provided opportunities to get together, to communicate, to circulate rumors from outside the Ghetto, to assess the situation of Jews in other communities in the area and the situation at the Front, and to pray for one thing, Please, God, bring an end to this evil.
One could say that the center of Jewish life, even of those Jews who were secular, was the synagogue, and that the central prayer there was for the defeat of the oppressor and the safety of the Jewish people. Every child was partner to this dangerous, unspoken wish, with its underground implications, any mention of which endangered many people.
At sundown, life in the Ghetto streets stopped. Only the members of the Judenrat were allowed on the streets. They too, once they convened their meeting, did not finish work until late at night. There were many matters to be dealt with: work rotations, food for the needy, ransom for the Germans, new edicts, etc.
Typhus epidemic in the Ghetto
Ghost town. Silence. You could not hear a baby's cry for his mother's breast. Neither sounds of happy children playing in the streets nor voices of young lovers whispering into the night could be heard. This was the Ghetto in Shumsk from its establishment and throughout its nine months of existence. But once, for a short period of time, this depressive silence was disturbed. It was during the outbreak of typhus. It started in the poorest neighborhood, probably resulting from malnutrition and difficult living conditions.
A hospital for the sick was immediately established at the brover, the former beer brewery of Haim Wilskier. A Jewish woman physician, Dr. Fiershtein, took care of the sick. Everyone was deeply concerned. At the peak of the epidemic, a brother and a sister, the children of the Walloch family, succumbed to the disease on the same day, as well as Esterke Cizin, and these were not members of needy families. The entire community was helpless.
After the epidemic, the Ghetto was emptied of people during the day for a thorough cleaning. Everyone was recruited to clean the crowded living spaces. Since the same room was used for sleeping, cooking, eating, resting and social interactions, and also served as the storeroom for food supplies, the process of cleaning a room was enormously difficult. Each area to be cleaned involved moving innumerable objects, examining them and then folding them to save space. Whole days were spent in this thorough cleaning, in an attempt to prevent a further spread of the epidemic. A miracle happened and the epidemic stopped before it took a higher toll. Even the oldest woman in town, Mrs. Offengendler, survived the disease, in spite of her wishes to die. Soon she would join the rest of the town in the final Aktion6, but it was then that she wanted to remain alive.
Daily life in the Ghetto
Every day, we got up at dawn, as if an important job was awaiting us. At once, worries about the day and its unknown events would take over. Would there be bread? Would food be distributed? What news would we hear? Most of the time we did not know what was happening outside the Ghetto walls. Sometimes a neighbor would come in, especially one of those closest to our family's room. There were no newspapers but we read a lot of books. In the evenings we engaged in conversation about an unknown future. I always talked with my sister about the fact that at the first opportunity we needed to make Aliyah to Israel. These conversations gave us encouragement and hope. At times we were so involved in the conversation that we were able to imagine ourselves already there. Otherwise, the evenings were tough. After sunset, it was pitch dark in the Ghetto. Inside the houses people used candles and lanterns. In some homes that had been wired for electricity, people used electric lights. To this day I wonder how the electricity worked. Who paid for it? Where did people get light bulbs? But outdoors it was completely dark and all the shutters were tightly closed.
Life inside the home was tough. Even though there was a great need to be together, fights among family members were common. Individuals blamed each other, Why did we stay? Why didn't we leave with the retreating Russians? This is how we spent our time. It is interesting to note that no games were played in the Ghetto, neither chess nor cards. The people of Shumsk never were card players but the refugees among us used to play cards all day.
Preparation for the extermination (August 14, 1942)
We began to hear rumors that something awful was about to happen. Nobody knew exactly what it was. Ukrainian villagers told that they had seen people digging pits along the way to Krilitz, a small village about two kilometers from Shumsk. No one paid attention to these stories.
It was in the middle of the night. A neighbor woke us up asking if we had heard loud thumping sounds. In spite of the fact that we lived close to the gate, we had not heard a thing. Suddenly, we heard loud sounds from the other side of the wall, the sound of pounding footsteps of many people walking nearby. By then, a stream of people and cars had already passed us, without noticing any of us. Apparently, in the confusion and chaos, the Germans believed that someone had already stopped in this first house. This is how we were saved. We managed to go down to the bunker (which we had prepared before, by closing the opening of the hall and placing a cabinet in front of it). We entered the bunker from a small opening in the attic. Altogether, about 20 of us were packed in the bunker, whose dimensions were 1 meter by 2 meters. On the first day, a man by the name of Mony Efrus, who was not from our house, joined us. He was a large, broad-shouldered man but he was frightened and distraught and was unable to stop screaming. We managed to calm him down for most of the day, but in the evening he left the bunker, never to be seen again.
We stayed in the bunker for six or seven days, with little air and no water. Each person had some bread in the bunker, but no one had any appetite for it. The problem was the lack of water. We would endanger our life to get some water. In the evenings we came out of the bunker and went upstairs to our room to bring water. We saw that the house had been searched. Our room had been ransacked. We were unable to see the other houses from where we had been hiding. Later, when there was no more water found in our room, we had to go further to neighboring houses to search for water. The situation grew more dangerous every day.
In a bunker next to ours, the daughter of Mordechai Gejlichen had been hiding, along with her husband and two small children, one a little 3-year-old girl, and the other a baby. Unfortunately, the little baby kept on crying. His mother had tried desperately to calm the baby down by pressing his head against her breast. The baby suffocated. Upon realizing that the baby had died, the poor distraught mother started to scream. People asked her to leave the bunker. The family left the bunker and went up to their apartment. Shortly afterwards, their family and all the other people in that bunker were caught and taken away.
We realized that it was getting more dangerous every hour. The Germans, knowing that many people were still hiding in the area, moved about and called out that if we did not leave the houses the entire place would be blown up. We stayed put and were not tempted to leave. From outside of the bunker we heard the cries and agony of those who had been caught and led away. The danger was so great that we did not leave the bunker even for water. We went to the bathroom in the bunker if we had been unable to go out at night. The stench was unbearable. Early one morning, however, it all ended. I do not know how we were discovered, but when we came out, two Ukrainians guards were standing there with their guns pointing at us. I remember their first remarks, Such pretty girls and so dirty and stinky.
We were told to line up and were led by the two armed Ukrainian guards. I remember that my mother had only one shoe on. They led us to the militia building. Along the streets, I saw some of my Ukrainian neighbors looking on, as if they were surprised that we were still alive.
It was around 2 p.m. when we arrived at the big courtyard of the police building near Jankowski's house, on the road to the Reika mill. We were very thirsty and asked for water. I remember drinking so much water. To this day I cannot understand how much water I was able to drink in such a short time.
In the courtyard we found and recognized many people from Shumsk. We sat on the ground. I saw the parents of Zeev Berg, who had gone away with the Russian army. His father comforted himself that at least his son was alive. He prayed that Zeev would avenge his family. Today, Zeev is a school principal in Jerusalem. Other people shared their food with us. We sat there, guarded by the Ukrainians, not knowing what we were waiting for.
Time went by slowly. We asked our guards why they had not taken us away to the mass graves, as we knew that killing us was their final goal. We were told that Fitzka, the local commander, had gone to the town of Kremenets to obtain ammunition, which they had run out of, and that they were waiting for him.
At night, we were locked in the local jail. About 150-200 people were crowded together in a cell, the size of 6 meters by 6 meters. Some old people did not stop praying for mercy from Heaven. Babies cried. Each family sat together trying to console each other. We waited till the morning. We could not close our eyes for a moment throughout that horrible night. That night, I determined to try to get out. I told that to my sister Dina and we both decided to run away. Our plan was that each one would run separately in a different direction. That was what we decided to do.
Meanwhile, morning came and we had not been taken away yet. At noontime, a Ukrainian guard came in and told us that Fitzka had come back with an order to leave 100 young men and women to help with the final cleanup and collection of the goods from the Ghetto. We were told to stand in two long lines. Fitzka with a small cane was standing at the head of the line directing people to go either to the right or to the left. When our turn came Fitzka ordered my sister and myself to move to the right side. My parents were told to go to the left. We understood right away that we were being separated. I begged him to keep us together. He finally moved our father to our side, but refused to move my mother, who was sick and weak, and she remained in the left line. Hanna Wilskier nee Rojzman and her daughter were with us as well. The mother and daughter had now been separated. The mother was determined to stay with her daughter and asked to move to the other line. At that moment, the girl pushed her mother away and yelled, This is not my mother. Go away! Apparently, she thought she could save her mother somehow. She was only 7 years old.
After being separated, we were taken away from the courtyard. We saw those who stayed back. I saw my mother waving at us, saying goodbye for the last time.
We were taken under heavy guard to the main synagogue inside the Ghetto. We were told that our lives would be spared and that we would be getting work certificates. As soon as we arrived at the synagogue, people started to accumulate everything. We went into deserted apartments and collected everything that could be useful, in the hope that we would later be able to exchange these for basic necessities in the days to come. Women cooked in enormous quantities, making omelettes from dozens of eggs that they purchased from the Ukrainians, who, in the meanwhile, had gathered about us to exchange food for objects we gave them. All of this lasted 10 days.
The first thing we did on the day that we arrived at the synagogue was to pack food for the people who had been separated from us and had remained in the prison court. We sent the food accompanied by policemen, the food itself being carried by a number Jews. But they returned with the food in their hands. There was no one to whom to give it. All of the people had been killed that very day.
Fitzka -- the eve of the final liqudation
I don't know how it happened but suddenly we discovered additional Jews who joined us. We were known as The One Hundred -- fun de hundert -- and these other Jews considered themselves illegal and felt compelled to hide whenever someone official showed up.
We, The One Hundred, were told to go into homes around the Ghetto, to collect goods and to pile them up in an orderly fashion near the synagogue.
Food was plentiful in the synagogue. Even butter and cheese were not missing. These were purchased from the Ukrainians.
Outside the synagogues piles of objects were mounting -- beds, blankets, dishes, glassware, etc. Everything had to be classified and placed in separate piles. The Germans came, loaded their trucks and took the goods away.
Meanwhile, we exchanged items from the piles for food brought in by Ukrainian villagers. This happened, at times, under the eyes of the Ukrainian policemen, who looked the other way. They knew that their own family members could benefit from the exchange. They were able to get hold of expensive items which would otherwise have been unattainable for them.
Therefore, food in the synagogue was abundant. This whole period lasted for 10 days. During the night we slept in the synagogue. Every morning, we were counted in the presence of Fiztka, the commander, his assistant, Hermann, or both.
They counted the official 100 only. One day, during the morning count, Zioma Rojchman made a comment. At that moment, Fitzka pulled out his gun and shot a bullet right into his mouth. We saw Zioma's lips get swollen before he collapsed and died on the spot, right in front of our very eyes.
I remember another horrible story involving Fitzka. Oda Wilskier, a woman in Shumsk, had been unable to bear children for many years. She finally became pregnant in the Ghetto. When we had been led out of the bunker, her family had still been in hiding and they were subsequently not discovered. Her due date arrived, and Oda asked her husband to arrange for a special place for the occasion. She wanted the birth to be in the traditional manner -- festive, warm and impressive. At her request, her husband went out of the bunker to search for an appropriate place. He found beautiful white bedding and selected the lovely apartment of the owner of the soda factory. He made a fancy bed for his wife for the delivery and the birth took place in the traditional fashion. As it turned out, at that time Fiztka passed by the house and heard the baby crying. He came in, amazed to see the happy couple with their baby. He pulled out his gun and forced the husband to dig a pit near the house. The woman then came downstairs with the baby in her hands. As they came close to that pit, he shot and killed the woman and her baby. He then forced the husband to bury both of them on the spot. He then brought the husband to the synagogue. The poor husband managed to tell us his horrible story, before he became distraught. He screamed and cried uncontrollably. Right away, they took him outside and killed him.
I also remember that one evening Hermann came to the synagogue. We were all scared. He looked around and his gaze stopped on my sister, who was a pretty 17-year-old. He called her, had her sit on his lap and said, I have a daughter like you at home. We all thought that something might have caused him a change of heart and new hopes were raised. But, alas, later, he would be the first to exterminate The One Hundred.
We spent all those 10-days cleaning the Ghetto's homes and yards. We bribed some of the Ukrainian policemen to inform us when we would be killed. They had been waiting for a command from Kremenets that would determine our fate. (Interestingly, during the daily count, we saw Fitzka taking out a small book from his pocket, calculating how many Jews were missing). Meanwhile, in the synagogue, there were 100 legal Jews and another 50 Jews who had joined us over the time and disappeared whenever the Germans arrived. They hid their children in the synagogue attic. The children, who had been forced to grow up prematurely, kept quiet. One day, Rachel Duchowny-Glinik, from Lanowitz, came up to me, took out a gold ring from her pocket and said, I will not live. Please keep an eye on my 16-year-old daughter, Hannah'le, and use this ring to save her. To this day I keep her ring.
At that time, most of the young people in our group resolved to run away. The older people were indifferent. They had lost their will to live.
One day, we felt that the Ukrainian policeman we had contact with was hiding something from us. We pleaded with him to tell us the truth. He finally told us that the order to exterminate us had arrived.
At 6 p.m. on that same day, a few minutes after hearing the news about the extermination, my sister and myself crossed the fence, pretending to go out to work. At that time, our father, at our request, had already been hiding in a neighboring house and had not been present at a number of roll calls. (The police had been guarding the synagogue to prevent people from running away.)
We had on torn, worn-out housedresses and old shoes. We did not take any of the abundant food around us, nor did we take extra clothing or shoes. We went through the fence, as if we were innocently going to work, and went straight to Yankowski's house, near the brewery. The Yankowski family was a Polish family, known to have helped Jews in the past. Mr. Yankowski's wife hid us in the attic of her barn in the straw.
On the following day, Father came to say good-bye. He brought us a few things, risking his life by doing so. A few days later, another family, the Szrajer family, arrived at the house. They had also planned to stay with this family. They informed us that the Germans were looking for us. They told us that Fitzka was demanding that we return and had been pleading with all the people who knew us to turn us in. People's lives would be saved if we return to the synagogue. They said that the extermination had been delayed and that Fitzke would forgive us if we returned. And the extermination of the remaining Jews of Shumsk was delayed an entire month while waiting for someone to turn us in. . Although the Szrajer family were upset to find us in the shelter that they had prepared for themselves, and we were confused, we refused to leave and decided to remain there. The following day, Father came back with more goods to buy our right to stay at the Yankowski house.
Meanwhile, rumors of Russian partisans present in the forests in the area had spread rapidly. A Russian soldier who was married to a girl from town, and had remained here after the Russian retreat, was said to have contact with the Russian partisans. Therefore, one day, dressed as a Ukrainian woman in clothing which I had received from the Yankowskis, I came to see this soldier, who was living in the Sztejnman home, to ask him to take us to the partisans. He told us to come to a meeting point on the next day. I somehow sensed that this was a trap and we decided not to go. Sure enough, on the next day, the police showed up looking for us at that meeting point.
From Yankowski's house we were able to see the synagogue's lights every day and doubts started to creep in. Maybe we should go back. Maybe the rumors were untrue and there is not going to be an extermination. More than once, we considered the possibility of going back and begging Fitzka to forgive us. It was especially hard on Rosh Hashanah. We saw the synagogue well lit, as if people were praying there. I choked back tears.
One evening, Mr. Yankowski's wife came in and said that the hiding place had been exposed and that soon the police would come to get us. She was hysterically frightened and most anxious. Shifra Szrajer, who was also staying in the house, thought that this was a lie and refused to leave. Dina and I believed Mrs. Yankowski and decided that we would leave that evening. Indeed, we left the house that night for the home of a Shtundist.7 Shifra stayed on in the house. That same night, the house was searched. The Germans looked everywhere but were unable to find her; she hid in the doghouse. This was how the Yankowskis were saved as well. (Shifra survived the war, later married a Russian fellow and is today still living in Shumsk.)
We went to another house. Our host kept us for the night and over the next day. On the following night, Yankowski's wife came to transfer us to another Shtundist in the village of Krilitz. It was just before dawn. She was walking ahead of us. We followed her, keeping a small distance behind, so as not to endanger her. We passed near a small village when the sun was rising. All of a sudden, the woman disappeared and we found ourselves in the middle of the village in full daylight. A Ukrainian saw us, recognized that we were Jews and said, Where do you think you are going? There are Germans all over the place if you continue in this direction. He let us inside his home, fed us and allowed us to warm up a little. (We wore summer clothes and it was around Yom Kippur when it had already started to become chilly.) Two days later we returned to Jankowski's house and on the following day she repeated the same thing. We realized that she wanted to get rid of us. This time we followed her closely to Andreshivka, a village about 12 kilometers from Shumsk.
We stayed in Andreshivka for six months, at the house of a farmer by the name of Arsen Melnik He was a Shtundist, who hid us in his home out of humanity and not for any monetary reward. At the time, the Banderovtze, who were Ukrainian gang members, started to appear, spreading fear in the villages. Oftentimes, they stole food and wheat from local farmers. In spite of those unwelcome visits, our host kept us in his home. Sometimes, he did it while endangering his own life.
There were a number of Shtundists in Andreshivka. All of them wanted to help and to ease our suffering. We knew of other Jews from Shumsk who had found refuge in their homes. (Shay'ke Kac , Moshe (Michel) Grinoch from Lodg and others.) Occasionally, our hosts even arranged for us to meet with other Jews who had been hiding in the area. These were evenings that I will never forget.
Through these meetings we managed twice to meet our father. On his last visit, Father was quite optimistic, as he had heard that the German front in Stalingrad was falling. He promised to visit us again.
One morning, we heard that the Germans had killed a few Jews in a neighboring village settled by Poles. We later found out that our father had been hiding in that village and that some Ukrainians had divulged the presence of Jews to the Germans. He had been among those killed on that day. On that same day, Hannah'le Duchovny, for whom I kept the ring, had also been killed. I have kept the ring with me all these years.
During the time that Nazi Germany was in power, in 1942-43, a war between the Banderovtze, who were Ukrainian nationalists, and the Poles erupted. The Polish government had transferred many of its citizens to the Ukraine to create heavily populated Polish communities when they had taken control of the area (after World War I.) This had been done to create a protective belt along the Polish-Russian border and to hasten the process of assimilation of the Ukrainians in Poland. Now the Germans collaborated with the Ukrainians and promised them complete independence. The Ukrainians used this opportunity to cleanse their country of the Poles. The Banderovtze, therefore, intimidated the Poles, stole goods, spread fire in their estates and caused panic among the Polish farmers. But they were careful not to challenge the Poles face to face. This they left to the Germans, who acted against the Poles when the Ukrainians informed on them.
The people of a small Polish village named Stara Hota had welcomed a group of Jews to stay and hide in their homes. The Ukrainians found out about the Jewish presence in the village. They informed the Germans right away. The Poles had managed to help the Jews run into the fields, but they were all caught and killed during their escape.
The winter of 1942-43 was bitter cold. It was registered in the world as the coldest winter in Europe's memory. When we had first come to the Shtundists' house, we had almost no clothing and shoes. The Yankowskis had taken everything we had. Our hosts tried to help us, but they were poor and did not have much to offer. They managed to feed us twice a day and at night allowed us into their home to warm up. Most of the days, though, we spent in the barn, which was damp and cold at a temperature that was below zero.
Somehow, we managed like that for a while. One day, however, I became very ill. I felt a sharp pain in my back and could not breathe. I thought that my end was near. Our kind host, Arsen Melnik, had the same thought. He invited me into the house at night to explain to me that I should be prepared to die and that we both should make some decisions about burial arrangements. Amazingly, we had a real discussion. Melnik was very serious. He worried about the potential danger that my death could cause. I remember him arguing that it would be impossible to keep a body around because the dogs would smell it right away. On the other hand, it would be also impossible to bury a body in the frozen ground. To make matter worse, on that particular day we had heard that the Banderovtze had been staying in the village. Melnik was afraid that they would come to him to extort food and supplies because he was relatively wealthier than the others.
Obviously, it was impossible to get me out of the house in daylight. It was also not a good idea to send me back into the cold barn. So, instead, he placed me on the shelf above the oven. It was the warmest spot in the house, heated for baking bread. I fell asleep quickly and broke into heavy sweat. I slept for many hours. When I finally got up, the flu was all but gone. Melnik's wife was very happy to see me recover and proceeded to cook chicken for me. I remember this very festive meal. They all thanked God for saving my life.
My hosts saw my recovery as a sign from God. They believed that God had punished me for being a non-believer and that now God was on our side.. Melnik called the other members of his group and they said a special prayer for us. They prayed for our longevity and good health. Inside, however, I knew that my illness was not a sign from God. I had contracted bronchitis because of the exposure to the cold and harsh conditions.
Nevertheless, after this incident, Arsen Melnik realized the danger involved in keeping us in his house and wanted to get rid of us. He especially wanted to do this to ease his wife's constant fear, which she attributed to her lack of sufficient faith. Since he was now certain that we were destined to live long lives, he felt free of his responsibility for us. He felt he had done his share. So he transferred us into the house of another brother, Big Joseph (I cannot remember his last name). Big Joseph kept us in his barn.
One night, two other Jews, a man and his wife from Meziretz, stopped in our barn without Big Joseph's permission. The dogs were barking and Joseph, alarmed by their barking, feared a search. He came out to the barn and found the couple hiding with us. He asked them to leave. Later that night, Ukrainians who had been searching for Jews killed the couple. Big Joseph, concerned for his safety, asked us to leave immediately. He transferred us to a third brother to hide until things calmed down. This brother was Little Joseph, a very talkative person. He kept us in his home for a few days only. We then moved back to Big Joseph's house where we stayed for many days.
The house was situated on top of a hill, near a forest and was enveloped in the fragrant smell of resin, singing birds and a small stream. His wife, a tall woman, was kind and optimistic. She said to us, These difficult days will pass. You will experience better days and hope is near. If it had not been for the constant danger and imminent threat, these days at Big Joseph's house could have been idyllic. But then, during that time, we did not see the beauty around us. Each day felt as long as a year
We often moved from one home to another within the brothers family. One time, in the spring of 1943, while staying at the house of Stephan and looking through the window, we saw many soldiers at the center of the village. They were wearing German uniforms. We panicked. Stephan managed to open the door and let us quickly into the attic, just in time, before the German soldiers arrived at the house. They searched around the house till they finally found us in the attic. We thought we would be killed immediately along with our hosts. We had always thought of our hosts' safety before our own. The four of us, our childless hosts and ourselves, stood there terrified. But then, something very unusual happened. The soldiers took some canned food out of their knapsack and handed it to us. One of them noticed that I was barefoot, went out and came back a short while later with a pair of partisan's shoes. I got good use out of those shoes.
It turned out that these soldiers were Hungarian Magyars, not trusted by the Germans, and that they had been removed from the front lines. We thought they too were perhaps Shtundists. Could that be possible? We didn't understand their language and they did not understand ours, but at once we felt a tremendous relief. During his stay in the village, the soldier who had brought us the shoes came back to visit us a few more times. He kept our secret. When he left, along with the other Hungarians, the village became quiet again.
During our stay we helped our hosts as much as we could and had many chores: We milked the cows, picked potatoes and even learned to weave flax. In fact, both Dina (as Tuska) and myself (as Marusia) became part and parcel of this family's life. We hand-sewed clothing and spent hours patching torn clothing, an activity which occupied most of the long winter evenings of the Ukrainian farmers. During those times of relative calm, a pause between fear and alarm, I would write in my diary. It was a book full of events and memories. As an introduction I wrote, I am not sure if I am going to make it through these times or if the world will survive either, but if someone does survive, he will be helped by my diary to tell the world about all the things we went through. When the Germans retreated and the first Russian forces arrived, they searched through our possessions and found my diary. It was taken for investigation and was never returned to me.
The diary was lost, but all the facts I have related here are the plain truth.
The Germans showed signs of fatigue. They had lost their confidence. Their dedicated annihilation machine weakened a bit. The Jews were gone and the Germans lost their drive.
One day while moving from one place to another, we met two men from Shumsk, Shayk'e Kac , the son of Mechel Kac, and Grinoch, a refugee who had come to Shumsk during the war. Jews often hid in pairs, sometimes with a person with whom they had had no previous acquaintance or special compatability, just to allay their loneliness and fear. They asked us to help them get food. Shayk'e told us that he had left an expensive watch with a Ukrainian in the village of Krilitz (near Shumsk). They had been able to survive by paying the people who had hidden them with gold and other valuables. He believed that without this watch he would not be able to continue to survive the war .I decided to help him. The next day I dressed up as a Ukrainian woman and left early in the morning for Krilitz, about 20 kilometers away. On my way, I passed through a number of villages including Shumsk. I was curious to see the town again, the place that held the secret of my motivation to continue to survive. Luckily, no one recognized me, and I continued without any untoward incident. I met Germans on the way and was terribly frightened, but I finally managed to reach the house of the man I was going to see. It was an early evening hour and he had sat down for dinner with his family. I asked him to come outside to inform him of an important secret. He invited me in and when he heard my story he was shocked. He was sure Shayk'e had long gone from the face of the earth. His immediate response was, No, I do not have the watch. I will not give it to you. I pleaded with him, appealing to his conscience, telling him that the watch would surely save many lives. At first, he threatened to call the militia. I wasn't frightened. I told him that if he didn't return the watch he would hear it ticking every minute of his life-day and night -- and it would give him no peace. The fate of four people depended on this watch. Eventually, he changed his mind, pretended to be looking for the watch and finally gave it to me. I brought the watch to Shayk'e. I know that years later Shayk'e took the watch with him as a talisman for good luck when he moved to the United States. He finished medical school there, but died of cancer at a young age.
Gronich lives in Israel and is a clerk in the municipality of Natanya.
All of this happened in Andreshivka, a village I will never forget. In this village, I spent the first and last moments in my escape from Shumsk. Each house is a symbol of humanity, having served as the hiding place of persecuted people whose benefactors willingly endangered their own lives to save others. How shall I bless you, Andreshivka? May you be blessed for all you have done for the people of Israel.
Fall 1943 -- the partisans
During the time that we stayed at his house, Arsen Melnik was actively engaged in saving other people too. To this day I don't know where he disappeared to for short periods of time, or what he was doing. But each time he returned home he brought stenciled leaflets with good news about the war front. The information in the leaflets was based on rumors and not authenticated, but this is how we kept in touch with the outside world. We wanted so much to hear good news concerning the war's end. And then it became clear that the leaflets we had read did contain some truth.
At night, we started to hear the echoes of unexplained explosions from an indeterminate distance. We thought that the explosions were coming from someplace not too far away and that they were the result of Russian partisan activity. Indeed, on one of the first days of the fall, the first Russian partisans entered our village. There were many Jews among them.
During this same period the Banderovtze were fighting both the Germans, who had disappointed them with their promises of Ukrainian independence, and the Russians, whom they knew would never give them what they wished. There were instances when the Banderovtze formed temporary alliances with the Germans against the Russians and other cases where they joined the Russians to fight the Germans. We understood that we had to hide from both the Germans and the Banderovtze.
At around that time, Arsen's wife, who was weak both physically and spiritually (as she put it), fell ill. She complained of general weakness, pain and stress. We knew that the patience of our hosts, as kind and caring as they were, was running out, and that we should free them from the strain of having us around. We had heard that the Russian partisans had been frequenting the neighboring villages and we wanted to join them.
Very early one morning I told Dina that we should leave and try to reach the woods. We walked for the entire day, hungry and tired, with no direction or goal. In the evening, we reached a small village of Czechs, near Dubno. We saw a truck with Russian soldiers, and asked them to take us to their command center. They brought us to their headquarters where they questioned us, took my diary, fed us and kept us for a few days. There, we also remembered our femininity A few soldiers bothered us. We complained to their commander and he placed us in a separate room and protected us.
We came to Rovno. The partisans had liberated this place. Rovno was totally controlled by the Russian partisans -- an island surrounded by enemies. There was no continuous contact with the Red Army.
Rumors of freed Rovno, at a time when Warsaw was still locked in a ghetto, spread in the area and in the first two days, about 100 Jews came in from various places in the area.
The large number of Jews among the partisans, often young men from the surrounding towns, was striking. They had been privileged to survive the war and now joined the partisan groups who were searching for and killing Nazi units remaining in the area. There was also a group of Jewish physicians, who had joined the partisans, among them my husband-to-be, Dr. Melchior, from Radom. The name of their platoon was Otriad diadia Patia (Uncle Patia's Platoon).
Most of the Jews who came to Rovno from the surrounding hiding places were hungry, tired and weak. They were indifferent, aged prematurely, without the will to live. There were a few children among them. They were pale and sick. Shayk'e and Grinoch, whose wanderings had paralleled ours, also came to Rovno. They were so pitifully thin that they looked like ghosts. My sister and I were the only ones who had somehow retained a modicum of physical and mental well-being.
The Russians provided housing to the newcomers. I cannot forget the behavior of the poor individuals who came in. Sanitary and hygiene conditions were horrible, as people were indifferent to their surroundings. We could not sleep there more than one night and asked to be moved to another location. We received a separate room. We both started to work in the town office. First we worked in bookkeeping and later in the grocery stores that the Russians had opened.
I also participated in the organization of everyday life for these poor people. We gathered everyone in the synagogue. There, we gave speeches about the Zionist movement and the need to go to Israel. Avraham Lidovski, Lev and Schuster joined us. Somehow, the Soviets showed a strange tolerance to our activities. I remember one person in particular from those days: Dr. Morgenstern, who came to town with his wife and children. He was fatigued, hungry and so weak that he was unable to work in his profession. We cared for him till his recovery.
At that time we learned about the help that the group of partisan physicians provided to the Jews in Rovno. I particularly remember Dr. Erlich from Koval, Dr. Ratnowski from Warsaw and of course Dr. Melchior from Radom.
When we had first arrived in Rovno, the city had been relatively intact, undamaged by the bombing that had ruined other cities. There was one destroyed neighborhood near The New Hospital, but the streets The Third of May and Soviski were untouched. However, because of its important crossroads location, the Germans now came back to bomb the city. It was then that Rovno was destroyed completely. Interestingly, in those confusing days, Dr. Melchior and I decided to get married. We were married in a civil ceremony and it was a sign for us that some hope for a future existed. Every night we left the city and stayed about five or six kilometers from the town to survive the shelling. One time my husband had been on call at the hospital and a friend, another doctor, asked my husband to change shifts with him. So my husband and I left the city for a little trip. That night the hospital was bombed and dozens were killed, among them his friend the physician.
We lived in Rovno until May 1945. We were busily occupied with many activities, in many spheres, but overall was the overriding desire to come to our own homeland. And truly, all the people who were in Rovno at that time did come to Israel, first via Poland, where they went with the repatriation.
Last look on Shumsk
Before our immigration to Israel, I decided to go back to visit Shumsk, my birthplace. I found it completely destroyed. Whatever had not been destroyed by the Germans when the Ghetto had been constructed had been destroyed by the Ukrainians, who had used materials from our homes to build their own houses. Only a handful of the larger Jewish homes remained intact. Ukrainians had moved in and taken those homes. I could not bring myself to stay there overnight. Shumsk was a place where Jewish life had been permanently desecrated. First, I went to see Mrs. Yankowski. She was truly glad to see me alive. On the other hand, when I went into the home of the Shtundist who had transferred us to Arsen I found our bedcovers. When I asked him to return them to me, he refused to do so. Eventually, he did after I showed him my family's initials, which had been sewn into the covers. I heard that he had become quite wealthy. His religious beliefs were not strong enough to protect him from plunder.
Before leaving Shumsk for good, I decided to put up a fence around the pits outside the town where all of our loved ones had been massacred. I went to the house of Kostiuk, who sent me to the municipality. At our initiative a group of Christian workers was organized to build the fence. Before I left, they promised to complete the job, but unfortunately they never did. Actually I had gone to the house of Kostiuk as I was told that a small child from Shumsk, Pela Munderer, the 9-year-old daughter of my teacher Mr. Munderer, was staying with them. I wanted to take her with me, but she refused to go with me and the Kostiuk family did not want to part from her. I do not know what happened to her.
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