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[Pages 80-86]

Shumsk, My Tragic Host
(Memories of a Refugee in Shumsk)

By Moshe Grenoch

Translated by Shimshon Bahat and Rachel Karni

In 1940 I was in Brisk, having fled, via the Bug River, from Lodz, which had been occupied by the Germans. One night the Russians rounded up refugees in the vicinity and arrested about 500,000 people -- 99 percent of the refugees there.

I was living then in the home of a relative where a non-Jew, who was a member of the NKVD[1] command with the rank of captain, was also lodging. That very morning he had told me to leave the house and not come home for the night. I took his advice and stayed overnight, together with my wife, at the office where I worked. The following morning when I left the office I found out that all of the refugees had been sent to Siberia or to the area of Karle Pinski (near Finland).

When I wanted to enter my house, I saw the captain looking through the window. He then came out towards me and said, “I have packed your belongings for you. Hire a carriage immediately and go to Kremenets.” I didn't know what Kremenets was but he explained that it was a town, some distance from the border, which the Russians had turned into a veritable “city of refuge.” There a refugee could even reveal his true place of birth, receive an identity card and live unharmed.

Kremenets was crowded with refugees. Some 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish refugees had gathered there. The Soviets sent people to work outside the town. I was sent to Shumsk, to work as a bookkeeper.

And so I remained in Shumsk for about a year under the Soviet rule, and afterwards under the Germans.

When the Russo-German War broke out on June 22, 1941, I tried to escape like many others, but did not succeed. I was already 100 kilometers from Shumsk, but was forced to return because of the mortal danger. The farther one went the worse it got.

When the Germans entered Shumsk we were immediately conscripted for road construction.

This was hard labor, with no water or food, carried out under an incessant barrage of floggings. The Jews were dispersed among the German engineering corps, each German soldier working together with one Jew. But whereas the German soldiers had sufficient food and worked six hours a day, we worked a 12-hour day with no food or water -- yet the same output was demanded from the German soldiers and the Jewish workers.

It is interesting to note that the soldiers who worked with us sometimes tried to give us a little of their coffee to drink or a bit of their food, but if their sergeant caught them doing so he would flog the German soldier as well as the Jew. I saw that I was not capable of taking this. I slipped away, went into the woods and returned to Shumsk. There I hid in stables, barns and cellars until the road construction was completed and that German unit left the area.

At this point another German unit came into Shumsk. They left us alone for one week. They also protected us, strangely enough, when Ukrainians in their thousands gathered to start a pogrom like the one in L'vov and other cities. It was the Germans who protected us, even inflicting casualties among the hooligans. And so quiet returned to the town.

Life in town began to stir, although the shops were still closed and it was forbidden to sell anything to Jews. We were all marked with a yellow patch and leaving the town was forbidden. The authorities were making preparations for the erection of the Ghetto. But in spite of all this the feeling was that we were leading active lives, grappling with life's problems. We managed to subsist by barter with the non-Jews of the area. They came to us surreptitiously at night, bringing, for example, 5 kilograms of potatoes in exchange for a pair of expensive new trousers, or a half a pud[2] of flour in exchange for an expensive walnut cabinet, and so we continued to survive.

In the autumn the situation improved. When the Soviets had been in Shumsk they had established huge farms, which did not have any private owners. After the Soviets left, the Germans appointed managers for these farms, and we were asked by the managers to do the farm work, especially that of harvesting the crops. Although the managers were Christians -- Poles or Ukrainians -- they displayed surprising fairness, and treated us well. They paid us daily for each day's work. The payment was partly in provisions, so that we would not be forced to return the following day if we didn't wish to do so. The payment was generous; we earned a decent salary and were able to stock supplies for the bad days ahead.

One day I was approached by one of the Polish managers, an agronomist specializing in fish breeding who knew me from the Soviet period when I was the supervisor of the grocery stores, and he offered me the job of organizing a group of workers who would help him to clean the many fish ponds which had been assigned to him. The work also entailed transferring the fish from the ponds. The Ukrainians didn't want to do this kind of work, since they had now been given easier jobs in the police force, in administration and in containing the Jewish population.

I formed such a group of 16 Jews, and we started to work.

This agronomist was one of the “righteous Gentiles.” He employed us per job, did not rush us and paid us the same wages as Aryans received, without deducting the special tax for Jewish employees. In addition he saw to it that we would receive a hot loaf of bread each morning before work began. It was clear that we brought most of the bread back with us to the Ghetto, since in the meantime the Ghetto had been established and those inside had no way of obtaining food.

At the beginning of the winter we were put into the Ghetto, under a heavy guard of SS men and the well known Galician Ukrainians. We were locked in with no way out.

In the two weeks that remained before we entered the Ghetto we tried to sell everything we had to the non-Jews of the area. By selling furniture and clothing we succeeded in bringing a small supply of food with us into the Ghetto.

To the credit of Shumsk, my host town, I feel I must mention that even before this period the Jewish townspeople of Shumsk had displayed exemplary public spirit by opening a special kitchen to provide food for the needy. This kitchen continued to operate in the Ghetto. Since I am certain that others have written about the kitchen I will not go into details, but I wish to emphasize that even today I view this as an exemplary act of human kindness. This kitchen kept many people alive, and those who survived did so thanks to it.

When we were locked into the Ghetto our spirits fell, our despair deepened and we were left without a shred of hope.

As long as there were Germans among us, and they were very few, there was still room for illusions, but from now on we lived under oppressive terrifying horror.

We started to get used to life in the Ghetto.

In conformance with a German order an auxiliary Jewish police was formed and they began to send out work details for work in the sawmills and in the forests so as to fell trees for firewood, for construction and for raw material which would then be sawed and shipped to Germany. Work outside the Ghetto had one advantage -- it allowed for contact with the Christian population of the area and made it possible to sell items and to buy food. These work details were the source of the meager food in the Ghetto.

The Jewish police of Shumsk, composed of the finest of Shumsk's young people, were quite liberal and behaved in a brotherly manner.

The Jewish policemen who arranged the work details saw to it that people who were in need of food were assigned to a detail. They often risked themselves in using this criterion. They considered their responsibility a sacred task.

People smuggled food into the Ghetto when they returned from work. The food was smuggled inside their trousers or shirts or on their bodies, and the Jewish policemen helped the smugglers get the food into the Ghetto under the very noses of the cruel Ukrainian police. The Jewish police also arranged large-scale barter deals with the Ukrainians, and succeeded in bringing large quantities of food into the Ghetto, which assisted our survival for days, weeks, even months.

I remember the period of the Ghetto as one when the people of Shumsk and its leaders were tested and were not found wanting.

There was one incident which shook the Ghetto. The Judenrat was ordered to send about 20 young men to work outside of Shumsk, some distance away.

I cannot tell how the list of workers was formulated, but many complained. They thought, for some reason, that the Judenrat knew that this would be the first group to be annihilated. Who is able to judge such things? One thing I do know. This group was really sent to work for a German construction company (similar to our Solel Boneh[3]). A few of them returned to Shumsk. As we found out later, they were sent to work but succeeded with the help of a German engineer in surviving and escaping before the engineer was due to hand them over to be killed after the work was completed. This German engineer, who was an officer in the SS, later became known for his kindness to Jews in other instances.

In July 1942 I was assigned to be the assistant to the chief bookkeeper of the Ukrainian dairy, together with a 16-year-old girl, whose last name was Wajsbrot
(I do not remember her first name). We received permits to leave the Ghetto. We left each morning, came back at noontime and went out again to work. At the dairy two young men were doing the work of two horses -- they were pulling the heavy wheel that operates the paddle of the butter-making machine. One of them was named Cisin, a tall, sturdy good-looking fellow, and the other one was older, and also from a well-to-do family in Shumsk.

We heard a rumor then that the Germans were preparing a mass extermination. Nervousness and fear intensified and people were envious of those who were working outside of the town.

One day we awoke in the morning to find the gate closed. No one was allowed to leave -- not even I, despite the permit I had. The Ghetto was surrounded by an enormously enlarged Ukrainian force. The following day there were loudspeaker announcements (I think that's what it was) instructing us to leave our homes and to go to the square in front of the synagogue. The police were given the job of seeing to it that everyone left his home.

During these days people imagined that whoever had a permit to work (a work permit or a work card) would be regarded as needed manpower and would thus be saved. There was pressure on the Judenrat, who, some supposed, issued such work cards to people close to them, and great terror was mixed with disgrace. Since my wife didn't have a work permit, I decided, together with Welka, the owner of the house where we were lodging in the Ghetto, not to leave the house. We succeeded in turning his cellar into a camouflaged bunker and so were saved for a short time, until the bunkers were discovered after the great massacre[4]. When they found us, the survivors who had hidden in the bunkers, we were forced out of the bunkers and told that since we had survived we would remain alive. We were brought to live in the synagogue, where we were kept under heavy guard. We were deceived on purpose, so as to serve as bait for other Jews who were still hiding in bunkers, so that they too would come out, and be found -- and so that all of us would be killed

During the Russian period in Shumsk I had served for some time as an electrician at the power plant in Rajch's flour mill. Now two Christian workers at this plant had disappeared, and I was called by the Germans to do some repairs. I took Shajke Kac, who was then a 16-year-old boy, to be my assistant. We took some backpacks, got together some tools and began to work. Shajke escaped. He survived the war -- I met him afterward in Munich, studying dentistry. Now he lives in Germany. By chance, Lusik Ginzburg looked like Shajke so I took him as my helper and continued working with him. We made great efforts to work outside the Ghetto. I did all kinds of repairs and even metal work, just to stay outside the Ghetto.

We knew all the time that the final extermination was not far off. I heard a rumor to this effect when I was working outside the Ghetto, and I reported it to everyone. I also said that the massacre would be carried out on the day after Yom Kippur.

On that morning I tried to go out to work, in spite of the fact that I wasn't allowed to do so. But I did manage to get out together with Lusik. When we returned in the evening the group that remained was very small. My wife was not there either.

The entire period of the Ghetto I was in shock. I did not believe that I would survive, but that day I was totally devastated. I really did not want to live, to exist, or to do anything for my survival.

But here is what happened.

Once, during the Soviet period, I had been sitting with one of the Jews from Shumsk, when a non-Jew by the name of Chmelnitzki came in. It was a “Fair Day” and Chmelnitzki had come to the fair as was his wont so that this Jew would sell his wares for him and do his shopping, in return for a commission. I was asked by the Jew to act as host to Chmelnitzki while he went to the fair to take care of Chmelnitzki's business. Chmelnitzki was a distinguished person, a leader among the Shtundists[5], a good conversationalist and a deep thinker. That day was engraved on his memory, something which I hadn't realized then. Now on this day, while I was standing with Lusik doing our work near the power plant, this same man, Chmelnitzki, stopped his horse and wagon about fifty meters from me, afraid to come any closer lest some German might notice. He pretended he was fixing the horse reins and while doing so cursed the horses and shouted at them, but actually was speaking -- as loud as he could -- to me. He called my name and tried to convince me that the fact that he had met me by chance this day was a sign from heaven that I would be saved, and that I must do everything in my power to survive. In the course of his words, which were peppered with curses, he described in detail the way in the forest between Kuty and Stara Hotta. I would reach a small duck pond near an isolated house where his senior student and assistant, called Senka, lived. Chmelnitzki, who was well-to-do, had helped Senka financially, and I was to go to Senka's home and say that Chmelnitzki had sent me to him.

His words convinced me. I shook off my gloominess and began to think about escaping, but was still apathetic.

A day or two later I met a Pole by chance, and he too suddenly tried to convince me with all his heart to make an effort to hide so that I would remain alive. He also told me to go to Stara Hotta, the Polish village, whose inhabitants would help me to survive. And interestingly, the route that the Pole described to me was identical to Chmelnitzki's description. These two gave me the will to survive.

When I returned to the synagogue that evening I told the survivors, my comrades in destiny, my soul mates, that I was about to escape. That encouraged others, and we began to make plans. I took Lusik Ginzburg with me to be my partner.

At 10 o'clock everything was ready. The hole in the fence, through which we would escape in another hour, was already marked. And then Haim Cisin[6] appeared. Where he came from, I do not know. I knew Haim Cisin from the Soviet period. We had worked together and kept in touch. I knew that he was one of the few who had escaped the massacre. I was surprised to see him that evening, and surprised at his appearance. He looked awful. His facial expression was like that of a person who was mentally unbalanced. I asked him why he had returned and he burst out laughing. He mocked us. “Where will you escape? To whom will you go? The Gentiles are indiscriminately killing Jews that have escaped with hatchets and saws. They are torturing them to death slowly and cruelly. I barely succeeded in escaping from their hands. I want to die quietly at the hands of the Germans, without extraneous torture. That's why I returned. Don't do this stupid thing! Don't be crazy!”

I was not influenced by his words or his state of mind. I remained steadfast in my decision. Moreover, I decided to take Haim Cisin with me, by force if need be.

I was forced to apply drastic measures to drag him with me. It was only when we reached the deep woods in the middle of the night that he calmed down and continued with me of his own free will.

Toward morning we reached Senka's house.

From that day on our lives were in the hands of that seemingly unimportant sect of Shtundists, who were called “Novaya Yebrey” (New Jews). Despite the fact that many thought their faith could not withstand tests, they saved our lives with great devotion and tenacity and at great danger to themselves and to their families and children. Thanks to them we remained alive. Thanks to them, many, many more survived. Their actions deserve to be made known.

We were passed from hand to hand. When it became dangerous to remain in one hiding place we were transferred to another. If there is anything which restored my faith in people, it is the behavior of these Shtundists. I see it as my sacred Jewish responsibility to make known what these Shtundists did, and to remind all Jews who are interested in this chapter of the rescue of Jewish lives in the Holocaust, that it was these people who saved the three of us. Many others who were in our situation will verify this statement.

Chmelnitzki's name is engraved on the hearts of many people who were helped by his devoted care. What is more, he undertook the task of supplying food to all those who were saving Jews from the claws of the Germans. He used his great wealth to help those who were saving Jews so that would continue with, and increase, their efforts. There is something else that I am reminded of that deserves mention when I speak of Chmelnitzki.

On the eve of their Easter holiday I received a note from Chmelnitzki that I should wait for him on Easter Day at a certain place. At first I hesitated, since I didn't know why it was necessary for me to do this, but I had faith in him, and was sure he had no evil intentions. Certainly the man couldn't have changed since I had first met him. I didn't believe that his name was a trap for me, because no one knew my hiding place, but by a miracle he could have found me. This was a sign to me that he was keeping track of our hiding places.

And so I went to the place he had designated in the note.

There were twenty Jews there besides me. In the house where we met festive refreshments had been prepared. The meeting with Chmelnitzki was a most warm one, one of brotherly love. We spent a whole day together, in small talk -- and that was it.

For many days -- even now -- I wonder: Why did this man take the trouble to travel secretly for twenty kilometers, at great risk to himself, to find us? Someone who was there remarked to me many years later that Chmelnitzki didn't even try to use this meeting as an opportunity to influence us to convert to his religion.

Truly, Chmelnitzki was a righteous man.

* * *

I remember one cold winter night. A snowstorm was rampaging, scattering icy particles. I was staying with one of the Shtundists. I was sleeping above the oven, as was the custom, and the owner of the house was awake, going outside from time to uncover any danger that might befall us. Suddenly he came in hurriedly and told us that Germans were in the village. In one second I jumped up and with his help we sneaked out and I went into the forest. This was a last desperate search by Germans for Jews.

The forest was deep. I crossed six to eight kilometers to the peaceful side. I felt that I was freezing, since I had gone from the hot stove into the freezing cold night, dressed lightly. I decided to go into the first warm house I encountered. I knocked hard on all the doors and all the dogs began barking, but no one opened a door for me. I went back again and knocked again at the same locked doors. I felt that I was freezing to death. Suddenly I saw a boy standing near the entrance to a house. He looked Ukrainian, and he asked me in excellent Ukrainian, “What do you want here?” I answered, “What's it your business?” From my accent and intonation he identified me as a Jew and he answered me in Yiddish, “Bizt a Yid? (Are you a Jew?) Come in quickly.” He was a Jewish boy, named Libke, disguised as a Ukrainian. He was a native of one of the villages in the area, and had grown up among non-Jews. He too had run away this night from his hiding place with acquaintances in his village, to the home of a Pole named Karsitzki. The name of this village was Zlani-Dov. I went in and they fed me hot food, massaged my body and saved me from certain death.

This family had many sons who had been drafted by the Germans to work on the fortifications against the British in Belgium. Thousands of people fell during the construction of these fortifications, but these boys managed to escape and returned home. Clearly, they too were hiding now, and our situations were similar. They were as alert as we were to danger.

The old man gave us hatchets to use for self defense in case we were surprised by the Germans.

It was quiet all that night. We were about to disperse when there was a knock on the door. Alarmed, we positioned ourselves with the hatchets behind straw bales which were in the entrance hall, ready to face any enemy. The old man went to open the door, but first he asked, “Who is knocking?” From the other side of the door we heard a soft, childish voice, pleading, “Sir, please let me in. I'm a little girl, freezing in the cold.”

The door opened and a little girl, about 8 or 9 years old, came in, clad only in a thin nightgown, up to her knees. She came in, politely greeting us, “Good evening.” The old man became terribly frightened. He took the little girl in his arms and cried, “My G-d!” and tears choked his throat. He put the little girl into his wife's bed and they both rubbed her with spirits to revive her.

It turned out that this was Pela Munderer, the daughter of the principal of the Tarbut School in Shumsk. She had been adopted by a Polish family which had many children and lived in the village Ruska Hotta, from which I too had run away. Their large number of children served as her “cover” but that night one of the neighbors had informed on the family and had seen to it that she would be handed over to the Germans. When the Germans arrived they took her out of bed and brought her to the yard to shoot her. While the huge German was busy fumbling with his rifle, Pela escaped, literally running between his astride legs, to the fields leading toward the forest. The German feared the darkness of the night, but she did not.

This was her good fortune. It also transpired that her foster mother had sat with her at the window each Sunday, showing her the forest and this particular place, which was distinguished by its three huge oak trees. She had prepared Pela for the escape to this house, whose inhabitants were long-time friends. And so Pela arrived at this same cabin, and was saved with us that night.

I met her once in Tel Aviv and we reminisced. Now she is the mother of two children and many details are blurred in her memory, for her children's sake.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. NKVD: In the Soviet Union (of which Brisk was a part at this time) the NKVD was a government department that dealt with internal affairs. Return
  2. a pud: a measure of weight; a pud is 16 kilograms or a little over 70 lbs. Thus a half a pud of flour would be approximately 35lbs. Return
  3. Solel Boneh (Heb.): An Israeli construction company. Return
  4. The massacre took place on August 14th 1942. Return
  5. Shtundists: people belonging to a Lutheran sect living in the area who were known for their strong,religiously motivated pro-Jewish feelings. Return
  6. Haim Cisin's wife Paula, the daughter of Pesach Bat (who had been killed, together with her children, Pesach and Shalom, shortly after the massacre, when the bunker in which they had been hiding was discovered) was the aunt of Shimshon Bahat, translator of this article. See the article written by Haim Cisin (pages 49-52.) Return

[Pages 87-95]


From One Hell to Another

by Avraham Krejmer

Translated by Rachel Karni

Editor's Note: The author of this article, Avraham Krejmer (1923-1986), was born in Shumsk to Dov Beer and Perel Krejmer, who perished in the Holocaust together with their children Sarah, Yerachmiel, Yitzchak and Breindel. Avraham Krejmer established a large business in Haifa and was active in the Shumsk Society in Israel, being instrumental in the publication of this Yizkor Book and in the erection of a memorial to the destroyed community of Shumsk in the Holon Cemetery.

In the middle of 1939 I was sent to a seminar of Hechalutz Hatzair[1] which was held near Warsaw. The seminar lasted a month and a half, after which I was sent to Cracow to work in the Hechalutz Hatzair branch there. In September the war broke out and it was clear to me that I had to flee from Cracow. Everyone was fleeing, including the Polish army and Polish government officials. I didn't know in which direction they were running. Perhaps they were leaving this country, which had been attacked. To me the direction was clear. I fled home, to my town Shumsk.

I was 16 years old, alone and bereft. My entire social framework, my whole life, had disintegrated and I was alone in a strange, turbulent world. There was no one to whom I could turn to ask for advice or guidance. I was swept up in the mighty stream of refugees and began walking. When we left the city of Cracow I felt confused and lost. Everyone else was going west. I had to go east and the roads were jammed. In the meantime the German air force hailed us with bombs. I alone was walking against the tide, going east. There were many difficult moments in my solitary trek, the most critical of which was the moment I reached the Bug River near Sokal. This is a large, fast-flowing river, and there was no one to tell me where crossing points were. I ran like a frightened, drugged dog along the banks of the river until I found a lone bridge. I crossed it moments before it was blown up.

I walked in the direction of Orachov. There there was a large branch of Hechalutz Hatzair and I had many friends among its members. They received me warmly but I didn't stay long because I was anxious to reach my parents in Shumsk and not to be alone. I continued walking to Berestechko, from Berestechko to Kremenets, and from there home.

All the time I was moving on foot. The way from Cracow to Kremenets is approximately 500 kilometers, and I did the entire trip on foot. I was a 16-year-old boy, walking at night and sleeping on the outskirts of fields or in the depths of a forest like a hunted dog. The Ukrainian population along the entire length of my route was celebrating the collapse of Poland with indescribable rioting. The lives of non-Ukrainians were fodder for their unbridled passions. It was then that I learned that a child can suddenly become a hardened adult under the pressures of life's necessities and that the night can suddenly become a haven for human life. My childish concepts changed. There was another reason that made me move only at night. The September of 1939 was a beautiful month, different from the usual September in Poland. Rain did not fall and it was too hot to walk during the day. I was 16 years old and I walked 30-35 kilometers a day, but no more. I didn't have any food. I would go into a farmer's home at the edge of a village and ask for a slice of bread and they would take pity on me and give me some. During the day I would rummage in a field and find some root vegetables to stave my great hunger. I would crouch in a hidden corner on the slopes of a field, find some shelter from the non-stop air attacks and fall asleep, only to awake at dusk to continue my nightly wanderings.

It is funny to remember how the road was strewn with abandoned cars. If I had had a little gasoline I would have been able to reach home in an expensive car in a matter of a few hours. But gasoline was unobtainable and so instead of a few hours I reached Shumsk after 20 days of dangerous, difficult walking.

* * *

I found Shumsk very troubled and perplexed. I reached the town as evening was approaching. I remember that near Shimon Sivker's house, outside of the town, I met some young Jewish men. Since I was younger than them I didn't know them personally. It looked to me that they were on guard duty -- whom they were watching for or why I will never know.

A rumor of my arrival spread immediately. All of Shumsk had been worried together with my parents about me, their lost son. Something had stirred in the hearts of the Jews of Shumsk, but I still don't understand it. Enveloped in the warmth of my townspeople I suddenly reverted to being a child of my age again, and could not answer the many questions I was asked. I ran breathless to see my parents, worried about my sister who was in the kibbutz at Luck and wanting to know if she too had arrived home. Thus I don't remember what it was that made me feel that the faces of my townspeople were stamped with an expression of deep confusion and despondency. For me Shumsk was the bosom of my family, which I had missed so much. Everything else about the town was a trap. This, in any case, is my memory of my impression at that time. There was a feeling of impending catastrophe. One had no choice but to sit and wait for its arrival.

* * *

A year of the Russian rule in Shumsk passed, for good and for bad, and then the Russian-German war[2] broke out. From discussions with German Jewish refugees that I had had in Cracow the horrors imposed by the Germans were engraved in my memory, and now I found out about an initiative to escape. The people of Shumsk didn't agree with this. There were those who were awaiting the end of the Communist rule. I decided to escape to Russia no matter what. I disclosed my feelings to my parents and to my close friends. My words struck a chord in their hearts and motivated many to leave. I remember that almost 50 percent of the residents of Shumsk started out with the exiting Russians, for Russia. I am certain that most of them would have survived. But suddenly a rumor, which was probably vicious, spread that the Germans had suffered defeats and were retreating, and many returned to Shumsk. It is so tragic to remember this, but there were those for whom it was difficult to leave their few possessions, and there were those who cried over the cabinets with the dishes they had abandoned in their homes and they returned, tempted by baseless rumors … and so we have remained such a small group of survivors from Shumsk in our country.

I too returned to Shumsk.

But my escape from Cracow had instilled confidence in me in my decision to escape. One evening I remember I went out wanting to walk around the town and I saw Russian government officials packing their belongings. I immediately hurried back. I went to my close friends and encouraged them to escape, this time determined not to return in mid-flight.

I tried to convince my parents to join us, but they didn't want to. They felt it would be a shame to leave their belongings. My sister didn't want to leave either. My dear parents and my dear sister were victims of their few possessions. Who can assuage this terrible feeling I have? I parted from them with bitter tears. To my sorrow I did not succeed in persuading them. There were many others who did not accede to my entreaties. This time I left Shumsk with just five of my loyal friends: Yitzchak Malinboim, Yossel Erenberg, Aharon Zuber, Azriel Berger and Moshe Sosna. During the night we went to the outskirts of the town, forced our way onto a farmer's wagon which was transporting a Russian family, and traveled with them. In the morning we reached Staro-Konstantinov. The Russians, it seemed, wanted to get to a train station and there was one in the vicinity from which one could continue into the interior of Russia.

The crowds in the train station were indescribable. We were pushed by the pressure of the mob into one of the train carriages, literally walking on the bodies of people, and the train started moving. And so we were saved.

This was the very last train that left this station, and thus we were saved from the heavy bombardment that shook the station of Staro-Konstantinov minutes after our departure.

We didn't have any money with us at all. Our clothes were not suited to the cold weather, which became worse as we traveled further on. At each train stop we got off to get a little “kipiatok” (boiling water). We “found” some canned food and slices of bread. We demonstrated rare ability to care for each other. We wanted very much to remain alive.

* * *

The train brought us to Stalingrad. The trip lasted many days and we were accompanied by continual heavy German bombings. Every once in a while we were forced to jump from the train and search for shelter in newly reaped wheat fields. The attempt to push our way back on the train again was even worse than jumping off it. People were nervous and selfish and vented their anger on each other. They were especially angry with us. Suddenly we found ourselves completely isolated. Our speaking Yiddish angered them. They thought that we were Germans or German agents. The tense, extremely suspicious situation was clearly life-threatening. We barely succeeded each time in persuading them that we were Jews, persecuted because of our cooperation in stabilizing the Russian rule in our town. Until they finally understood we went through a hell of fear and danger again and again. Then we reached Stalingrad.

We were supposed to stay here for some time. We couldn't continue; we were starving, filthy and covered with lice.

We asked to be sent to work. We were sent to a kolkhoz[3] in Novi Olisk in the Stalingrad area. We were placed in the home of a local family who fed us and treated us nicely.

Every morning we went out to work, sifting grain. This was done in the old-fashioned system where the grains were thrown toward a blower and the chaff was thus separated from the grains. But this process could not be done all at once -- rather, the grains had to be “thrown” numerous times, each time being transferred from pile to pile. I still cannot understand how this method could have been in use in the Soviet Union, with its widely photographed tractors and famous mechanical equipment.

Toward evening the brigadier would arrive and write down our accomplishments for the day and we received food rations according to our output. In the course of time we learned to have such good relations with the brigadier and we reached such high work norms that we were considered “Stakhanovites.”[4] We received good food, white bread, meat and milk and were able to bring these to the people with whom we had been quartered.

* * *

In the meantime the Germans reached the outskirts of Stalingrad. We were hard, industrious workers and the management of the kolkhoz did not want to lose us. We were the only young people in the place. All the others had been drafted but we couldn't go anywhere without the permission of the kolchoz management. We were worried about what would happen to us as Jews if the Germans did succeed in taking Stalingrad. The management did not pay attention to our explanations and so we were compelled to leave without asking for permission.

One night we rose quietly and left the house. It was 30 kilometers to the train station and we walked the whole way. When we reached the station we didn't know where to go. A train came into the station that night and we were told that it was headed for Tashkent.[5] We heard people say, “Tashkent is good.” It was warm there and there was bread. We boarded the train. There were many Jews there, and a continuous stream joined us. We traveled to Uzbekistan. We were stopped at Nomenbad.[6] Winter there was similar to the winter in Israel, but the sweater that I had taken when I left home was now threadbare, our trousers were worn out and full of holes and the cold nights tormented us. The kolkhoz did not want to accept us. There was hunger everywhere. On the sidewalks people swollen from starvation lay, unattended by anyone. We asked people what we should do to survive. We begged for advice but everyone was indifferent to our fate. Life had become cheap. We fell into deep despair and became apathetic about everything. All five of us roamed the streets, looking for scraps of food, but we found nothing. We were so happy when someone left scraps of food or garbage at a soup kitchen and we were able to stave off our terrible hunger.

* * *

We roamed the streets of Nomenbad day after day, stumbling over dying people lying in the street to whom no one paid any attention.

One day my eye fell on one of these dying people. I felt that he looked familiar to me. Even though he was swollen to at least three times his normal size his face looked familiar. I went back and looked more carefully, and saw it was Sender Prelucki. He lay there without moving, completely paralyzed from utter exhaustion but fully conscious. I had recognized him because for many years we had lived near their house. I spoke to him and he answered me and it was a horrific spectacle. His voice emanated from his half-dead body like a voice from the netherworld. We ignored the general situation and his condition, spoke about this and that, and he participated in the discussion, fully cognizant of his condition. We couldn't help him. We too were candidates for his fate. We parted from him, with complete apathy, as if this was all inevitable. I don't know what happened to him, but I can imagine.

* * *

We were concerned about how to support ourselves. To start doing business? We would have done so if we had the wherewithal. We were just on the verge of depression when we found work.

A good Jew from Vilna or Riga, a refugee himself, who managed a Russian printing press, took pity on us and hired two of us to set the type for announcements and print them. This job was doubly good. We got “legitimization,” with all that that entailed, we received food ration cards and we didn't need to find a place to sleep. We put blankets on the piles on paper and slept in the printing plant. It was warm, pleasant and good.

The printing press was powered by human beings -- in this case us. We rotated the huge wheel in shifts. This was extremely difficult to do and we changed places with each other after every 160 to 200 turns. Once I asked the manager why they didn't fit an engine to the printing press. He got very angry and replied, “If you want to work you had better ask fewer questions.” We understood the hint and continued working.

We were compelled to leave this place. We had managed too well. We had a lot of food and a good supply of canned goods. With the sense that everyone in the Soviet Union developed, we felt that we had to leave.

* * *

In the meantime one of the boys from Shumsk had been arrested. We knew that he was being kept hidden from us. We wanted to get him released but they said, “You won't be able to help him, even with money.”

One night I remember Malinboim was not in the room. He was working at the printing press. I had already stopped working there. People from the NKVD[7] knocked on the door and Azriel Berger was with them. He said, “You know I live here with them.” This was not true; he didn't live with us. We couldn't say that he did live here since the landlord had an exact list of the tenants. We said, “Yes. No. No. Yes.” They woke up the landlord and found that he didn't live with us. They began to suspect us and decided to conduct a search. It was dark. We lit the miserable kerosene lamp to give them light. I have never seen such a search. They opened the seams in clothing. To my joy they didn't find anything and they left the place. Toward morning Malinboim returned from the printing plant. I said, “Friends, I want us to leave immediately. Another minute will be too late.” They listened to me, Berger, who remained, and Malinboim. We couldn't help Berger. I don't remember who else was with us. In any case Zuber, the son of Berel Zuber, remained in the room. He said that he would stay, he was not afraid, he was “clean,” etc.

We were afraid to travel by train lest they were already searching for us. It didn't enter our minds to travel by bus. Perhaps there were no buses there. We went the whole way on foot to a kolchoz where Raizel Berger lived. She is now in Israel. We knew that she was living there. We told her that we were in trouble but we didn't want to cause her any problems. She welcomed us warmly, in a motherly fashion. Her husband was then very ill. We stayed with her for two or three days -- maybe a week -- and we left. We were afraid to remain and we traveled to Stalingrad.

We got work at a flour mill. We were not skilled workers; we worked as porters. In the mean time Zuber also joined us. We were a shift of five. The work was very difficult. The norm was, if I am not mistaken, 150 tons a day. We received sacks weighing 80 kilos from the transmission. We placed them in storerooms and when train carriages arrived we took the sacks from the storeroom to the cars. We were awoken at night to do this if necessary.

We were afraid to complain. We received monthly wages that were sufficient for one week's subsistence, but there was a dining room attached to our workplace and as good workers we received ration cards for two meals a day, and so we survived. We couldn't manage just on our wages and we started wondering how all the other workers, who had families, subsisted. We noticed then that everyone, when he left work, took something with him, whether it was flour, barley, etc., and so we did the same.

We poured pearl barley, flour, etc., into our trousers, which were stuffed into our boots. At home we placed this food in bags and there were soon people who would come to take it.

* * *

We did this until someone squealed to the authorities on us, because we took out too much. Malinboim and I were put in jail. Then Malinboim was released from prison and he, together with some other Jews, hired a lawyer to save me. I was tried and even though I was not found guilty I was given a sentence of 3 years in jail.

Until the trial I was kept in inhuman conditions. I was later jailed in Palestine by the British, but one cannot compare the heaven of that prison with the hell of this one. Many people were crowded into a narrow, hot, airless room. We were naked, with a pail for defecation in the room, and I was the only Jew among 60 or 70 hooligans. My good fortune was that there were five Russians there who welcomed me warmly. The others were Tadzhiks.

Although no proof (of my wrongdoing) was discovered in the trial, the prosecutor demanded that I be punished “as an example,” but a Jewish attorney came up to me and said, “You will be sentenced to jail, but you won't be imprisoned. Don't be frightened.” So after all, Jews are Jews.

Before I was supposed to be sent to Siberia I was called to appear before a medical board and I saw that they liked me. I told them that I had appealed the decision to send me to Siberia and asked them to allow me to wait for the answer of the appeal. I saw that the doctors were mostly Jews. They asked me questions that were not pertinent to the discussion. I was not taken to Siberia.

After this I appeared before a number of other boards and it was decided to send me to Siberia after all. Just before the trip I entered a bathhouse to wash up. Suddenly I heard my name announced on the loudspeaker system. I was told to take my clothes and to pack up all my belongings. I said that what I had with me were all my possessions. I got dressed and went into the office. Someone told me, “You are free and can travel. Tell us where you want to go and we will give you a train ticket and a little money.” I chose to travel to Malinboim, who was even more than a brother for me.

I came to him, in the area of Stalingrad. We worked again as porters and earned good wages.

* * *

One day a friend who was not from Shumsk suddenly came to us and asked that we allow an acquaintance of his, who was coming from far off, to stay with us for a night. The fellow came in and started to speak Hebrew. This was something very exceptional. He told us he was from Warsaw, “a member of Hashomer Hatzair[8] from way back.” He poured out his heart to us and we also brought up memories. During the discussion I showed him some group photographs that I had of Hechalutz Hatzair summer camps and other pictures.

The fellow got up the next day, said his goodbyes and left us.

A few weeks passed and suddenly someone appears at our workplace and calls Malinboim to the draft office. This looked suspicious. We knew that fellows from the Ukraine were not drafted because they were not trusted. When Malinboim returned to our room I felt that he was broken. He didn't want to speak. But at night he said, “Avraham, they are demanding that I work in their secret police. They spoke nicely to me but they hinted that that all other avenues are closed to me.” They had given him a second date to appear before them and then they asked him more serious questions, and among them they asked about my photographs. This time they probably didn't treat him with kid gloves. He was depressed. I went outside for a moment. It was night. I checked to see that no one was following us or listening to us. I came back and Malinboim said, “Try to remember to whom you showed the photographs.” We remembered that fellow who had stayed with us and suddenly we remembered that that very fellow had visited two fellows from Warsaw when we were in Nomenbad and they had disappeared. Then we knew that this was very serious and we could expect anything.

We decided to join the army. This was the only way to save ourselves. It wasn't easy and cost us a lot of money and some very expensive gifts.

We joined the army. On the way, at a train station, they came and took Malinboim off the train. I feared for his fate. Before the train started moving again he returned, completely devastated. He had been hit with the butt of a gun and threatened, but he had a very strong character and didn't incriminate me. We arrived at a transit camp and there Malinboim was released. I decided to join a fighting unit of the army. I was tired of living as a suspect and of people pointing at me and saying, “My husband is at the front and this fellow is living the good life.”

* * *

It was 1943 when I joined the army. After two weeks of training I was sent to the front. Conditions were difficult for everyone. In one of the battles on the attack of the city of Pskov I had to cross the Velikaya River, which was as wide as a lake.

It was here that I was separated from Aharon Zuber. When we two, who were such good friends, left Shumsk his father told him, “Aharon, go wherever Avraham goes and always stay together with him.” But here I lost him. I don't know what happened to him. Many, many people were killed. I was wounded. After Pskov was taken I was sent to a hospital beyond Leningrad.

* * *

In the hospital I was in a daze with very high fever when, as if in a dream, I heard a non-Jew speaking Ukrainian with a Shumsk accent. I felt a sharp pain in my heart. I had already heard what these people had done to our families.

I wanted to hear more details from him yet not to disclose my identity.

I began to speak to him cautiously. “Where were you wounded? Where are you from?” and so forth. When he told me that he was from Zapadanya[9] in the Ukraine I said that in 1941 I had been in that area with the Red Army. I pressured him to tell me exactly what place he was from. He said, “You won't know. It's a very small town near Kremenets.” I controlled myself. Later on he told me that he was from Shumsk, from Rochmanov.[10] I couldn't restrain myself any more and disclosed that I was from Shumsk, the son of so and so. I saw on his face that he knew my father but pretended that he didn't. I asked him point blank, “What is going on in Shumsk?” He looked like a person who was being electrocuted and wanted to stop speaking. But I didn't let up. Using both persuasion and forcefulness I begged him to tell me what he knew. He told me that he didn't know very much, that he wasn't there during the time of the German occupation. But he did know that one fellow from Shumsk remained alive, and he was the son of Nachum Asher Geldi who had a store in Rochmanov. I knew that Nachum Asher Geldi had an only son, Pinchas. I mentioned some identifying details -- he was short and plump. Was he sure that Pinchas remained alive? He did know that the peasants of Rochmanov had found him hiding from the Germans. “They ran after him, beat him and one threw a stick at him which hit his head so that he was bleeding.” But he succeeded in escaping, and Pinchas was the only one he knew about.

* * *

Now it was the end of 1943.

In the meantime I had recuperated and had been sent to the front again. I fought again, and again I was wounded. At this time I learned that a Polish army was being set up and Polish citizens were being allowed to transfer to its ranks. I decided that the only way to get to Shumsk would be to be assigned to a front near my hometown. I managed to get transferred to the Polish army and was sent to Majdanek.[11]

At Majdanek I was able to see everything “fresh.” The Germans hadn't managed to even cover all of their victims. Everything was still open, the pits with eyeglasses, the pits with shoes, those with bones, everything. For me it was a horrendous shock. I hadn't imagined to what cruel depths the vandals had descended.

I reached Chelm with the Polish army. As I had done in Majdanek, I went to look for Jews. I didn't find even one Jew there and neither did I find any Jews in Lublin.

This was immediately after the liberation. Perhaps there were Jews there but they were afraid to “appear.”

* * *

At this point the dates are confused for me. But it was in the middle of 1944. Part of Poland -- up to the Visla River -- had already been liberated. Warsaw was still occupied by the Germans.

In spite of this I didn't tire of looking for Jews. In Chelm I learned that there was a place where Jews from the Russian army, from Poland and from the towns in the vicinity met.

I was standing in this house, which had a few rooms, with a group of soldiers, when my eyes locked with those of Pinchas Geldi.

Our meeting was very difficult. I couldn't get a word out of him. In the course of time he told me a little. We planned to leave Poland together. For some reason it didn't work out. Both of us were in different army units.

Ours plans were to desert, but I couldn't carry this out. Pinchas, it seems, was able to do so.

Malinboim is in Israel. Zuber was apparently exiled to Siberia. Of the five, Moshe Sosna has remained in the Soviet Union under a different name. Yosef Ferber[12] is there too. Azriel Berger died in Shumsk after the liberation.[13]

* * *

When the war concluded I had reached the rank of second lieutenant in the Polish army. The commander of our brigade was a Russian, and I got along with him. From among the Poles, he chose to befriend the Jews. He trusted them more than the Poles. I asked him for leave to visit my hometown and to try to find remnants of my family.

We were then stationed near Warsaw. In the meantime I had met friends from my days in Hechalutz Hatzair and also met my leaders, among them Antik (Zuckerman) and Tzvia Lubetkin. I began to speak with them about my desire to reach the land of Israel at long last. My departure was planned with them. I received a month's vacation, as the law provided, with food from the army canteen, a uniform and a pistol. I spent one month in Poland at the Kibbutz near Bendin. Then I received papers saying that I was a Greek refugee who had been taken by the Germans to concentration camps and was now returning to Greece.

One day I crossed the Polish-Czech border in the area of Katowitz and reached Czechoslovakia. I had an address of someone from the Jewish Brigade whom I was to contact. They welcomed me warmly and gave me a uniform of the Jewish Brigade. I spoke Hebrew from my days in Shumsk, and so I became an Israeli in every way.

I traveled to Belgium and was in Bergen-Belsen, where there were soldiers of the Brigade who were active in caring for those who had remained alive. I worked together with them. In Bergen-Belsen the traces of what had happened there were still clear. The Jews who we were caring for were themselves survivors of the camp, living testimony to this place and a mark of shame to the cruelty of the Nazis.

My way to Israel was the usual one: a short preparatory period in Poland, passage on the “illegal” boat the Tel-Chai, a British blockade, incarceration at the Athlit camp, and the State of Israel.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Hechalutz Hatzair (Heb.): Literally, “the young pioneer.” A Zionist youth organization, very large and active in Shumsk, that educated members in socialist values and for pioneer living in Eretz Yisrael. Return
  2. The war broke out in June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Return
  3. Kolchoz: A collective farm, of a type established in the Soviet Union. Return
  4. Stakhanovites: In the Soviet Union this was a name for outstanding workers. It came from the surname of a Soviet worker who was legendary for his productivity. Return
  5. Tashkent: Capital of Uzbekistan. Return
  6. Nomenbad: today called Muminabad, a city about 160 miles south of Tashkent. Return
  7. NKVD: The Soviet secret police under Communist party leader Joseph Stalin. The letters stand for the official name given in 1934, the People's Comissariat for Internal Affairs. Return
  8. Hashomer Hatzair (Heb.): Literally, “the young guard.” A Zionist youth organization educating its members in radical socialist values and for pioneer living in Eretz Yisrael. Return
  9. Zapadnaya: A location in the Ukraine, far east of Shumsk. Perhaps the man mentioned it because it was well known , being the site of a meteor crater. Return
  10. Rochmanov: A village very near Shumsk. It actually existed before Shumsk was founded. Return
  11. Majdanek: A Nazi concentration camp near Lublin. Return
  12. Yosef Ferber: Earlier in the article the author refers to him by another name, Yossel Erenberg. Return
  13. See the chapter written by M. Fuks (pages 110-116), which describes a meeting with “Azriel Dundik” in Shumsk after the war. Return

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