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[Pages 649-652]

Chelm During the Ghetto Uprising

By B. Alkwit

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

che649.jpg
B. Alkwit

 

With all that the yizkor books, chronicles and scrolls tell of their cities and shtetlekh [towns], they describe Jewish Poland in depth, describe, so to say, the hinterland of the great Jewish uprising: how was it possible, from where did it get its strength that those suffering and bowed rose up, that they became fighters, became heroes - they, the heroes of eternal tolerance, the carriers of Job's patience - heroes and martyrs in the struggle against the enemy in a time when the entire world hit them in the face.

One of the cities was Chelm - the first ghetto uprising was in Chelm.

Chelm, yes, Chelm of the Chelm stories. Who had not heard of Chelm? It was a small city, a poor one and, it was said, a foolish city, as in the stories - of fools, and they also say, sages. But there is no sage whose wisdom is as famous in the world as the nonsense of Chelm - unless, indeed, the wisdom of King Solomon.

The glory of Chelm is like the glory of a wonderful story. There are people who even think that Chelm is itself a story, a fable. But it is here, there was such a city - and for the Chelemer it was a city not just of jests. But the uncertain truth, which gave the city its name, can sometimes be the cause of a mistake that Chelm is also Chelmno, or the opposite - that it probably is motivated by the publisher of a Yiddish book - it is quite a distance from here to Posen [Poznan] on the other side of Warsaw. Chelm is also east of Lublin, not far from the Bug River; Zamosc, where Y. L. Peretz was born, is to the south.

Chelm was a very old Jewish city, on a mountain - just as in the stories, but Jews lived in the valley in great Jewish poverty. There was one street there with stairs. It was the oldest Jewish street, but it was called Neye [new] Tsal and the stairs led down to the market, to commerce, and to Minkhah-Maariv [afternoon and evening prayer] in the large synagogue, in the ancient House of Study. In the 1930s, the population of the city numbered 30,000 souls, approximately half Jewish.

The beginning of the history of the Jews in Chelm is in the wall of the synagogue. Here in the wall is hidden the grave of the groom and bride who perished under the khupah [wedding canopy]

[Page 650]

in the synagogue courtyard during the slaughter by Chmielicki's Cossacks. The Cossacks slaughtered 400 Jews. With the strength of a new Jewish generation, Chelm restored itself. The famous Chelemer Yeshiva [religious secondary school] grew. Reb Elihu bel-Shem [miracle worker] arose. And in our time, a Shmuel Zigelboim (Arthur). Zigelboim was the manager of the worker home, which the Bund founded in Chelm.

How the treasure of folklore was created here is hard to say. Researchers have found that by the 16th century stories were told in poor Chelm about other foolish cities - Gotham in England, Schildberg in the former Germany - settled by Jews. But the Chelm stories are different, different in their morals, their general fantasy - there communal assemblages.

A meeting is called about all of this. The rabbi is here; the parnes-khoydesh [monthly city official] is here; but Chelm, Jewish Chelm is the oldest democracy in Europe. Even if someone would come in with an idea, as for example, let us capture the moon in a barrel of water, he is heard and the parnes-khoydesh calls a meeting.

The bloody scroll of the events after the meeting is now assembled. The first news, the yellowed clippings that lie before me like sacred old documents, was written by Yitzhak Fajgenbaum, a well known worker for Poalei-Zion in Poland, at his return to America at the beginning of January 1941.

He described:

“This that happened in Chelm has no equal in the entire martyrdom of the Jews of Poland under the Nazi regime because in Chelm there was something that could not be expected, namely, an armed resistance of Jews against the Nazis; there the Jews fought like lions…

“This was in November, when the Nazis hung out announcements across the entire city that all Jews in Chelm must leave the city during the course of three days and go in the direction of Lublin. Chelm is not far from Lublin, but a spirit of rage and opposition enveloped the Jews and voices were heard that they would not go. The Chelemer Rabbi turned to the Nazi commander asking to be permitted to call several businessmen to organize the departure from the city.

“There were three opinions among the Jews who assembled with the rabbi. One - obey and surrender

[Page 651]

to their bitter fate. A second opinion was that it is better to die here before dragging themselves on the roads and being tortured by the Nazis in an unfamiliar place. And the third opinion was - fight against the Nazis. Yes, there were those who said that they would not let themselves be chased like dogs. Before they would leave the world, they would give the smell of gunpowder to the Nazis. They would fight and take as many Nazi bandits with them to the other world as they could.”

Yitzhak Fajgenbaum says that the representatives at the “third meeting” were “two prominent Chelemer Jews, one a doctor and the other a lawyer.” No one tried to argue with them, against them. “There were no arguments.” The situation was just discussed a little; the bestiality committed by the Nazis in the city, the looting, the violence and rapes, were described.

Now, however, the Nazis began to go through the houses, to violently drag the Jews to Lublin; they had to “respond with a blow”… and the murderers were answered with fire.

The uprising was carried out with guns. The guns and a few bullets were brought home from the army when the Polish army crumbled, by young people, former soldiers and reserves.

The power that the Germans then had in Chelm was not enough when the Chelemer opened fire. The Nazis called out reinforcements to defeat the uprising. And here is a report from the Silesian Zeitung [Newspaper], dated the 12th of January 1940.

“In Chelm,” the Nazi newspaper relates with sadistic pleasure, “our fighters had both a difficult and an easy assignment. The easy assignment was when they entered the Jewish houses in order to send the Jews to Lublin, It was discovered they had committed suicide. The Jews did not wait for us to be done with them, but eliminated themselves. Others presented a fight against the government and shot at our soldiers with Polish guns. These were reservists who were dropped from the Polish army and did not surrender their weapons. The local regime immediately set the houses on fire, smashed and annihilated the attackers.”

Thus the great regime of the Third Reich, in its conquering march across Europe, also led to the uprising of the Chelemer Ghetto and the Chelemer Jews. The Silesian Zeitung writes, “The Jews ‘received a lecture about how to conduct themselves against the German army.’”

Those who remained alive were forced on the road to Lublin.

But the plan for a “reservation” for Jews in Lublin collapsed and some of the Chelemer returned to Chelm. In time, Jews from the surrounding shtetlekh began to arrive - and later - also from other countries.

At first it was not known what this meant. Some

[Page 652]

time passed and nothing was heard - there was enough to be heard, so they did not ask about Chelm. But frightening rumors began to arrive and then confirmed reports that the world, as well as the non-Jewish bloodied world, actually became struck with fear about them.

The Germans transformed Chelm into a death-center for Jews not only from Poland. Jews were brought here from the Russian Ukraine, from White Russia, from Holland, Belgium and Czechoslovakia and Greece. It was a slaughterhouse and here they experimented on the Jews with scientific death. They tested gases; Jewish old men, women and children were gassed in order to see how they worked, if they could be used in gas attacks and before finally - annihilating, exterminating the Jews from Poland, from Europe.

This was seen while seeking and researching chemical methods of war, which Hitler's chemists worked on for gas attacks on the Allied armies or also on the population.

Anthony Eden, England's Foreign Minister, read to Parliament the reports about what was happening in Chelm in the form of a declaration and the American Secretary of State included the declaration among the State Department documents, which he presented to the public.

This was at the beginning of 1943. Later when Hitler's collaborators were tried in Nuremberg as war criminals and criminals against humanity it was learned what they had done in Chelm.

Then an issue of the German journal Di Handlung [The Action] arrived in America with a memoir by the German, Paul Herzog, who served in the German army in Chelm. His memoir is called: Chelm - a Mountain of Skulls. And this “mountain” was received in America as the first confession of regret by a German.

In his confession he describes the systematic routine savagery of the Germans on crushed and trampled people, when they fell at work. He describes the camp of prisoners, how beaten and wild non-Jews were incited to take revenge on the Jews for the debasement they endured, for the blows they received from the Nazis; how the imprisoned were held in earthen stalls in the camps and literally were transformed into cannibals.

Part of this memoir by Paul Herzog needs to be included in the scroll of Chelm, the nearly legendary city, on a mountain that once swarmed with stories about fools, stories of jests. But the German devils made a mountain of skulls out of the mountain of stories and a valley of death out of the valley.

This was in 1943. At the end of May, in that year of destruction, a famous Chelmer Jew - Shmuel Zigelboim, the Jewish representative to the Polish government in exile in London - united the hearts of the world with his suicide in protest against the indifference to the annihilation of the Jews in Poland.


[Pages 653-656]

Chelm Right After the Liberation

By Moishe Gantz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

It was in the month of July 1944. I was then in the ranks of the Red Army in a forest in the Kowaler area. One night the strong movement of people was heard. This was a Polish military division that occupied a place in the same forest area. Only the dirt road divided them from our members of the Red Army.

The leader of the Polish soldiers reported then that Chelm was freed of the Hitler hangmen.

After several shots of salute, the Polish and Russian soldiers came together, sang, danced, played harmonicas together.

When I heard that there were no more German murderers located in Chelm, I began to think of various ideas. I had a great desire to go to Chelm to see who remained alive. But the idea was disrupted - I was in the military, at a position and the military duties were colossal.

On the same night, a member of the Red Army came to us with seven German captives. I observed the Germans by a weak kerosene lamp. I asked them from where they came. One, a yeke [derogatory term for a German, often a German Jew] from Leipzig, told me that he had been taken prisoner in Chelm. I immediately asked him how long he had been in Chelm and through which streets he had gone. From him I learned that Jewish Chelm was juden-rein [free of Jews].

At daybreak we loaded the vehicles with ammunition and food and started on our way. We drove past Ljubomil; I remembered the shtetl. In 1939, when I left Chelm I had been there for several weeks. I looked and wondered: where are the Jews? The shtetl was enveloped in deathly quiet. The windows of the houses were sealed with boards. The shtetl was emptied with no bit of life.

At the crossroad stands a member of the Red Army, directing heavy military traffic. We travel farther, in the direction of Chelm. We stop in Jagodzin. I go to a peasant, take from him - for we soldiers - a few potatoes and sour milk. Our group eats, smokes an inferior kind of tobacco. I want to know if we were going to Chelm, but we are not supposed to ask because only headquarters knows the routes. This is a great military secret.

My every limb trembled. My thoughts were taken by my home city. I then went to our chief, a first lieutenant, and in fear asked him if we are going to Chelm. I asked him cautiously in order that he not have any suspicion. I told him that I was a Jew from the city of Chelm, born there and had lived there until 1939.

[Page 654]

The chief pleasantly answered me that we were going to Chelm, adding that he would help me look for my family.

We crossed the temporary bridge over the Bug River. Our vehicle went fast. I looked around; at first everything looked unfamiliar. But I immediately recognized several roads and woods, Chelm's neighboring villages.

The former Sobor [cathedral], the tips of the Catholic Church were visible in the distance. My heart began to beat quickly. We entered Chelm through the train street. Our vehicle stopped on the corner of Sienkiewicza and Szkolna. I exited the automobile, looked around me; my first look fell on Szkolna Street. I looked into the large courtyard of Mr. Borukh Wajnrib (Tsales) - a deathly silence. Where were the many Jewish families of the courtyard? Where were the shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers], the butchers, the fur pelt traders and artisans? I sought, searched, perhaps I would notice someone, but there was no sign of life.

I looked at the other side, in the direction of the Talmud-Torah [primary religious school for poor boys]; I was looking with a

 

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Empty square and the ruin where the Kuzmir shtibl [one-room prayer house] of the Kuzmirer Rebbe, may the memory of a righteous man be blessed, was located

[Page 655]

great thirst for a Jewish face, straining my eyes, I searched for the Jewish children who made noise here day and night, strained my ears, perhaps I would hear a childish voice, a Jewish voice from the open windows of the Jewish homes. But it is dead silent. Everything is dead, no trace of a soul.

I went farther along Szkolna Street, closer to the center of the city. I went by the spot where the large old synagogue had been located for centuries. It was a ravaged square with clods of earth and stones. I stood with a grieving heart.

I went to the corner of Szkolna-Lubelska Streets; it was quiet here, too, no living soul. From the Rynek [market place] I noticed that our house was no longer here and the entire Przechodnia Street, the opposite from Berish Kuper's building, stood in ruins.

I move closer to the location of our house. I see a little pile of stones and scraps. I go to my chief and lead him to the house where my family and I had lived until 1939.

I go across the “skating ground steps.” I look for the Jewish women, the women merchants, the young kheder [primary religious school] boys, the Jewish water carriers, the artisans, the tailors, the shoemakers, the cabinetmakers, the bakers - where are they all?

I went to Josef Goldhaber's apartment. I entered; a Polish family lived there. I

[Page 656]

asked them, what happened to the Chelmer Jews? The Polish woman answered that she had been living here only a year and she did not know anything…

I entered the house of the Shvartser Bekerin [the dark woman baker]; Christians lived there, too. I stood as if my feet had been knocked out from under me and saddened. [It felt as if] there was drilling in my brain: Where can one learn anything? Where can one find a Jew?

A Pole suddenly arrived from somewhere; I asked him if any of the many thousands of Jews who had lived here were still alive. The Pole indicated that a few Jews lived at Pszczowa Street, number 39. I went there immediately. In the courtyard I met Izer Blachermacher, who stood in fear. I told him that I was a Chelemer Jew; I mentioned my family. A few more Jews immediately appeared, skeletons, among them: Monis Cytrin, Yehiel Szczupak. At first they did not recognize me, but they immediately fell on me, hugged, kissed and cried heavily with hot, boiling tears.

I asked if they knew about my family. Crying deeply, they told me that no one survived; their close family members also perished; the Hitler murderers brutally annihilated all of the Jews, young and old.

Then I understood and clearly saw the dark end of more than 18,000 Jews.


[Pages 655-656]

That Which I Lost Will Never Return

[the author is unknown]

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Ten years have already passed,
but still the wound bleeds.
I hear as if it were now
my mother's cry to me
through stifled tears:
“Farewell!”

It was the second day of Sukkot
when I brought home the news
that the Russians were leaving the town
and the Germans were arriving.
My father sat in gloom at the window
and looked at the sun shining outside
as if he wanted to ask it:
Would you let a beloved son
go wandering in foreign parts?
The sun kept smiling as if to answer him:
I shine everywhere,
so why should you grieve?

My father always said
A child will do as he wishes.
He said to me, uncertainly:
You've been my son for 18 years,
Do what you think best.
These are hard times in goles [diaspora]
Things worsen by the day.
A father cannot even give advice
to his own son.
So if you choose to leave
I will not stand in your way.
May you go in peace
and in better times,
may you quickly come home.

I strode through half the world
and never wearied,
through hunger, want and toil.
I never forgot my dear home,
held it always in my heart.
And when the happy time came that I returned,
my heart felt nothing but pain,
weighted as if by a stone,
oppressed by the catastrophe.
But I could not shed a tear.
My sorrow drove me away
like a beaten dog.
I found no place to rest.
My sorrow found no voice.
I kept searching, though I well knew
that which I lost
will never return.


[Pages 657-658]

When Chelm Fell

By Yankev Tsvi Szargel, Petah Tikva

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

It was the end of September, 1939. A copper–red sun shone without warmth (like a stepmother, as the mothers of Chelm used to say), looking down over the town with sorrowful rays.

At the former ring–plats [Jewish business district] in the middle of town stood a group of terrified Jews, like calves led to slaughter, surrounded by The German criminal bands of the SA and SS. The Jews were singing zmires, songs, as ordered by the Nazi wolves. A cloud spread out, the red of the sun disappeared, a light snow began to fall and crept into the upturned collars and the holes of their shoes. A biting wet cold assaulted them. Tears ran from their eyes and melting snow from their beards. The uniformed soldiers, dressed in their metal helmets and ammunition belts as if on military parade, armed with bayonets and machine guns, surrounded the former market place and cast an aura of terror and despair.

Across from the square, from various streets – Lubliner, Lvover, Kopernik and Shul streets – unhappy mother and girls wrapped in blankets and bedcovers stuck out their heads in painful suspense. Orders were shouted, motorcycles and trucks sounded their whistles and roared, adding their noise to the screams and shrieks that came from every direction. There were beatings and chasing and shooting. People fell dead – dead mothers, fathers, sons, brothers. The death procession spread out. At Hrubieszower Street there was shooting. No more Jews in Chelm; no more Chelm.

No more Chelm?

No more?

What is Chelm?

For a long time now, Chelm has not been the legendary town of wise men and fools, who challenge the religious leaders with jokes and stories. Chelm is a beautiful, hilly town, surrounded by thick forests and a vibrant Jewish life, the living Jewish expression of the struggle for existence – young people, political parties, schools, classes, lectures, libraries, theater. Chelm is the Hasidic groups – Belzer, Kuzminer, Trisker, Tomashover, Kotsher, Husiatiner and Radziner, as well as the Left Poalei Zion, which sends the largest percent of town council members to the anti–Semitic town council.

Chelm is arriviste assimilationists, competing with the Tarbut schools and kindergartens. It is a combative and creative Yiddishist movement which is already erecting a building for its elementary school and runs evening classes, a children's home, and a chorus. Chelm is the kibbutz, Hechalutz, Zionism and a daring, risky Communist movement. Chelm has a Shtern, a Hapoel, a Macabee and other sports clubs. It has a large Talmed Toyre and an even bigger yeshiva, a large, modern Barachov Library with thousands of Yiddish and Polish books for the young people and workers; a large Peretz library which lends out Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish books. It has a bourgeoisie and a deprived, ignored and illiterate underclass.

Chelm expels an upstanding Jew from a Hasidic shtibl because his son has stopped wearing the flat, round cloth cap , the Jewish hat, while the sons of other men from the same shtibl – Beker, Goldraykh, Kuper and Szargel – organize both Jewish and Polish workers!

Chelm sends the first Poalei Zionist deputy to the Polish sjem [legislature] – Dr. Yitzhak Sziper.

Chelm produces artists, actors, journalist, poets and political activists. Let me note just some of these whom I remember: A.Goldberg, editor of “Haynt;” Moyshe Lerer, Secretary and staff–member at the Vilna YIVO; Shniur Wasserman, poet in Argentina; Yisroel Levenshteyn, poet, translator, co–editor of the Warsaw “Shriftn;” the famous singer Dora Dubkowski; the renowned actors from the Warsaw Yung Teater – Fayvele and Pinyele Ziglboym; their brother Arthur, renowned labor leader and central figure in the Bund, member of the Polish National Congress in London, who will be forever remembered for committing suicide in protest against a world that did nothing to stop the murder of the last Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto; the famous Hendler family, the father a painter in Paris, the daughters violinists, the concerts of Ida Hendler hugely successful in European capitals and in Tel Aviv; the famous painter Sheymi Monshteyn, whose international prominence was a source of pride for the Polish government; the brothers Shimen and Yoysef Milner, Yiddish and Hebrew writers and cultural activitists. There are many more but my memory is dimmed by pain and sorrow and I am unable to give them the tribute they deserve.

The heroic boys who languished for years in Polish prisons for their dedication; the network of trade unions who defended the interests of the Jewish as well as Polish workers; the fighters for civil rights for Jews in the town council and gmines [small towns]; the disseminators of the idea of shivat tsion [return to Zion] and more and more young activists who contributed to Jewish culture in various fields – that is Chelm.

Chelm published two Jewish weeklies at the same time – one by the Left Poalei Zion called “Folksblat”, the other the bourgeois Zionist “Chelemer Shtime” which was published up to the time of the Holocaust.

Chelm had for many years a highly professional drama group led by

[Pages 659-660]

Fayvele Dresler, who brought theater performances to nearby towns.

Chelm had a handworkers' union and a gmiles khesed fund [free loan society] and a lines hatsedek [housing for the indigent sick] and biker khoylim [aid to the sick] and hakhnose kale [aid to indigent brides] and more, and more, and more.

And the town was proud of its shul, hundreds of years old, that had been fashioned from a church, and its Jewish cemetery, where the renowned miracle worker Reb Eliyohu Bal–Shem had lain buried under a heap of stones for hundreds of years. And if it should happen that bad times should befall the house of Jacob [i.e. Jews] in the holy city of Chelm, people will run to the holy man's grave, cry and pray, light candles at his head and the evil decree will, with the help of God, be annulled.

Then what had been the ring–plats became the former ring–plats. Everything there was wiped out. What does that mean – the “former ring–plats?”

It is the shame of Fascist Poland, that is, the dark, bloody politics of Jozef Beck [Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs] that opened the gate and paved the way into independent Poland for the Schwabian barbarians [Germans] who trampled and crushed centuries of human effort, hundreds of thousands of lives, and in the first ranks were the confused, lost and defenseless Jews.

I myself never saw the “former ring plats” (It is possible that it already has a new name,) but this is what my friend Shmuel Szargel wrote to me in July, 1939:

“You have probably heard about the sadly renowned “urbanizatsie,” the effort to reconstruct and modernize Jewish commercial areas and make them more like “big town” centers. As with every misfortune, you don't want to believe it, think it will never happen. But then the holiday Shevuot arrived along with a huge rainstorm, odd for Shevuot – in spring to have such a wild rainstorm. And our government found it necessary to carry out its “urbanizatsie” in three of the poorest Jewish houses in the poorest Jewish neighborhood, the “Naye Tsal.” A band of peasants came in and with noise and fury threw out the meager belongings of 24 Jewish families out into the pouring rain. We, the Poalei Zion comrades, quickly “intervened.” We opened up the classrooms of the Talmud Torah and packed in the unfortunate families with their possessions.

“Now, the religious people are angry at us for having disrupted the children's religious education.”

“But in the end, in the oldest Jewish street in the heart of the crowded Jewish section stood peasants with iron bars and hammers and spades and shovels who tore down Jewish houses on a rainy Shevuot.”

“But that is not all. Do you remember the rinek (the ring–plats)? Do you remember the historic building, built in the style of the town halls at the end of the Middle Ages? – a big building, long and rounded like an egg, with a roof like a hat with a visor – and around it 80 Jewish shops with round niches and tin–clad doors. On weekdays the merchants tug at your coat –‘Mister, cheap shoes, pants, shirts, buttons, yeast, poultry, soda water.’ On Saturday and holidays when the stores are closed the rinek looks like a giant with a huge belly circled by an iron sash over its hips. ”

“Do you remember this source of livelihood for Jewish Chelm? Now not a trace of it is left. The “urbanizatsie” by Polish anti–Semitic military officers demolished the building as well as the 80 shops and left an empty space in the middle of town. ”

“A smoky dust hangs over the entire town, as if after a terrible fire. A whole town full of Jews walks around in mourning and are too embarrassed to look at each other. ”

“What will so many families do now? Who can they turn to? Who will help them? ”

“In the meantime, we provided lodging for the 24 families until the community can do something. But what can we do for the 80 families whose source of income was destroyed by urbanizatsie?”

“June, July, August, September, October, November – on November 30, 1939 the Nazi authorities in Chelm issued an order that tomorrow all men between 15 and 60 must assemble on the former ring–plats, that is located on the main street of the town.”

“The old Krasnower rabbi told us to light black candles: ‘It is the end, Jews, the end’.”

And we know what the end was. Woe to us.

 

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Dora Dubkova, renowned singer; murdered

 

[Pages 661-662

Eyewitness Account

By Bela Szargel[a]

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

The war broke out when I was 5 years old, living in Chelm, Poland. On a Friday afternoon 8 days after it began the Germans mounted their first air attack. Terrified, we left the house through the windows and hid in the fields until the bombing ended. Then we left Chelm and went to stay in a village for a few weeks, before returning to Chelm. When it became clear that the Germans were nearing Chelm, we crossed the Bug River into the Soviet Union, where we settled. My parents found work and sent me a Jewish kindergarten.

We lived in the town Lutsk for 7 months until one summer Saturday at dawn, they rounded up all the Jewish Polish citizens and sent us to Siberia. Along with others we were stuffed into a truck, taken to the train station and loaded into train cars. We didn't know where we going and felt very despondent. It was in the heat of summer and there were many people in the train cars. It was hot and airless; you couldn't catch your breath. There wasn't any water to drink. They said they were taking us to the “vayse bern,” [lit.”white bears”; a punning synonym for Siberia]

I still remember one horrifying image. At one of the stations, someone jumped out of the train to get hot water. At the same time they started to rush people back into the train, and he fell, scalding his entire body. He screamed in pain and threw himself down on his belly, like a snake. They left him in a hospital and our group kept going.

After traveling for three weeks we arrived in Siberia. It was evening when we were unloaded from the train. We sat down among our baggage. When night fell it became very cold. In the dark, Soviet trucks loaded with wood drove up and distributed the wood. We lit fires and warmed ourselves and told stories. Our first night in Siberia my parents wrapped me and my little sister in bedcovers, but we couldn't sleep. I lay and listened to the despairing words of the people sitting near us. The next day they brought us to the bank of a river called Tshulim. There we and our baggage were taken to a very large barracks where we lay down, and extremely tired, quickly fell asleep.

We were awakened by the whistle of a steamboat that was approaching the shore. It was raining hard. I saw the NKVD , who were waking people up and ordering them to carry out their baggage. In the morning another boat came and we shipped out. We traveled for two entire days and finally arrived at our destination, a village that extended for two kilometers along the river Tshulim, called Berie Gayeve. There we were assigned places in a large barracks, very dirty and in disrepair. When we lay down to sleep, bedbugs rained down from the ceiling. We couldn't stay there and spent the night outside. But even during the day we couldn't rest; the mosquitoes sucked our blood mercilessly.

Gradually we got used to all of it. We did heavy labor, despite freezing temperatures which reached –60 degrees [Celsius], as well as heavily weeded terrain. We lived this way for 16 months until we were freed and left the taiga.

Finally we arrived in a warmer climate in Central Asia, in Kirgizstan, in the city Osh. We arrived in winter and there was frost on the ground. We were taken to a kolkhoz [collective farm] and were given a clay house and settled in. My father worked, and I and my sister went to a Polish school.

The first winter was very difficult. Many people died of hunger and cold. In this way we survived the difficult time of the war, living to see the defeat of the cursed Nazis.

We then returned to Poland. As soon as we crossed the border, we knew that a horror had occurred there. We didn't stop in our hometown, but went directly to Silesia, and from there to Berlin, from which we will go to Eretz Yisroel.


Original note:

  1. Born Jun 4, 1934 in Chelm, Poland, now living in Israel. This piece was written in the Jewish Displaced Persons Camp in Berlin–Schlachtensee run by UNRAA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) during the time she was a student in the Hebrew language school there. return


[Pages 663-664

Chelm

By I.I. Sigal, died May 1954 in Canada

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

I

Even Chelm, the Chelm of childhood,
even dreamy Chelm, my friends,
was crippled and destroyed,
stone by stone, by the Germans.

How will its genteel refugees,
those who managed to survive,
find a place, a corner,
in the cold, prosaic world?

How will they get used to
their vapid languages, their talk,
to the way they sorrow, like aged children,
to their joy that is splendid but coarse.

How will their peaceful wisdom
get along with our cunning and fraud?
They will be destroyed, brothers,
lonely, diminished, and adrift.

So let us call a meeting
and let us consider the matter
and see to it that our town Chelm
is provided with walls and a roof.

Let the other places
wait a bit –– you hear!
And let's restore our brothers of Chelm
to their rightful place on earth.

And let us lift up our small wooden shul
from the ashes.
And let us restore our rabbi
to his holy seat.

It won't take us long to do this.
It takes only a bit of cash.
And Chelm will again become Chelm
and put forth a new generation.

And from afar we will hear again
of the piety of the rabbi of Chelm,
and news of all kinds of good things:
the wisdom of the dayan [religious judge],

the wonder of the merchants,
smiling and praising God
for preserving the existence
of this holy Jewish town.

II

The rabbi of Chelm teaches mides [section of Mishnah]
but he writes no holy books
and when he starts to explain religious law
every Jew becomes pious.

Every Jew becomes quiet
and lowers his head.
Isn't that enough? After all,
we already have gray hair.

Some of in their 30's and 40's,
the rest even older.
Praised be God for another shabes,
for another day, another week,

for another morning prayer,
for the prayers at evening and night.
Your song makes each small day exalted
and every good hour a gift.

Why do we deserve your gifts?
Perhaps because we don't ask much.
A Chelemer Jew doesn't seek riches;
a Chelemer Jew just goes to the fair

because all the other Jews go there
and he wants to meet up with his kind,
to hear the voice of another Jew,
to look another Jew in the eyes.

and to assure himself that there are
other Jews everywhere
who observe all of God's laws
and are honest, good and pious.

And that's enough for him.
And he returns to his home,
to his thatched roof and to the stall
where his goat awaits him.

And on the roof a white rooster
stretches out his neck and crows,
a crow that signals cooler weather
and even perhaps some snow.

He quickly goes into the house
and washes his hands
and slowly chants: “And he is merciful,”
an evening prayer after the fair.


[Page 665]

Witness Testimony

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Name and family name: Ruth Englender
Residence until the war: Chelm
Education: Student in the 6th class of the Hebrew Public School in Berlin, Schlachtersee.

I was born in Chelm, Lublin Voivodie [province] in 1933. The city was not large, but it was interesting to me.

We lived in Chelm until the outbreak of the war. The war with the savage Germans began in 1939. Chelm was the first city in Poland that was bombed by the Germans. I was then six years old. Although I cannot remember everything or impart it all in writing, I will try to communicate several memories and facts that I can never forget.

When the first bombs fell on the city, everyone – in the confusion – ran to wherever they could. We ran to an orchard and crawled on the ground in order to save ourselves from the bombs. I was running then and became separated from my mother, not knowing where she was. I lay completely still, with a neighbor. I only whispered this question to him: “I beg you, tell me if we will stay alive?...” I repeated these words several times in deadly fear.

The terrible bombardments lasted for several hours. When things became quiet, I saw the destruction of Chelm and the blood of shattered people.

We escaped to a village to a Polish acquaintance on the second day in order to calm our nerves a little and to free ourselves of the fear of death that floated over us. It was calmer in the village than in the city. We hid in the village for a month. Then we returned to the city where great anxiety and fear reigned. It was continuously said that the Germans would enter in a week.

However, the Red army entered and urged everyone to go to Russia where it was calm, quiet and there was no war.

My mother decided without wavering to go away to Russia. She folded a pack of things and we left Chelm with other people in overflowing trucks and arrived in the western Ukraine.

In about a month an uproar about passports began. Every refugee had to apply for a passport that only provided the right to live in a village. Therefore the large majority of escapees from Poland did not want to obtain passports because it was said that they would be sent to Siberia with these passports.

Finally, one day the Soviet regime brought together all of the Jews without passports and they

[Page 666]

were sent to Siberia by transports with up to 50 people in a train wagon. It was very suffocating and difficult to breathe. There was no water to drink in the wagon.

We traveled under guard – in such conditions – for more than a month until we arrived in Siberia. It was winter. We lived in barracks that were crowded and dirty. Several built barracks and others worked in the forest to earn a piece of bread.

It was very bad for us there in Siberia. People walked around swollen from hunger. Through a miracle, we were only in Siberia for a few months.

We left Siberia for the Urals. Life there was a little easier. My mother was employed in construction work and I went to study in a school.

The German-Russian War broke out in 1941 and all of the Jews were freed from the barracks and the camps. After living in the Urals for a year, we were permitted to live anywhere in all of the Russian cities where anyone wanted to live. We then traveled to Asia.

In Asia we settled in a kolkhoz [collective farm]. My mother spun cotton and I helped. However, it was difficult to live from this work and my mother was forced to sell several of the things she had brought with her from Poland in order to buy a little barley flour.

We lived in Asia for four years. In one regard it was good for us there because I had the opportunity to study in a Polish school. However, we waited impatiently for the end of the war in order to return to Poland.

When the war ended in 1945, the happy news arrived that we had waited for during our long wandering – that we could be repatriated to Poland. We left for Poland immediately, but we also found that our home had been destroyed and saw the destruction with our own eyes. We learned the facts of the terrible slaughter of the Jews. Therefore, we immediately decided to leave Poland as soon as possible.

Now we are in Berlin and I am studying in the Hebrew school with which I am very satisfied. We now wait for the day when we will leave here, from the land of the assassins and murderers.


[Pages 667-668

Poems

By Sholem Shtern, Canada

Translated by Miriam Leberstein

Arise, Dear Jews, to Serve the Creator[1]

Elul, the time of slikhes [penitential prayers]
The Jews of the town are sleeping in the valley of death
Morning unfolds, as always, cool and red.
The bloodied grasses wilt in the garden.
The shames is hanging from a wire fence.
Hungry, screeching crows peck at his skin
Who will wake the dead?
Who will summon them to serve God?
The Almighty may yet, God forbid,
Grow angry and punish the congregation.
Jews, why are you still sleeping?

The shames is dead.
I will wake you
before the first red tinges of morning
flame out.
Dear Jews, don't you hear me,
Knocking on your shutters:
“Arise, arise, dear Jews, to serve the creator.

No one awakens.
The bright lamps burn in the shtiblekh,
In the besmedresh, in the old shul.
God waits on his throne of mercy
for the prayers which do not ascend.
The wood merchant Moyshe Shmuel, stares face–up,
his tongue a loosened screw.
I bang on the closed shutters:
once, twice.
A terrifying echo resounds
in the frightening void.
In the market place Jews
Iie like slaughtered sheep.
I stumble on Moyshe Shmuel's broken body.
My tears moisten his cold brow.

Where can we run? From whom can we plead for mercy?
One, two, fearsome blows on deaf shutters.
God, I will not move from this place.
Stiffen the hammer in my hands.
The blood freezes in my body.
I want to lie down near Moyshe Shmuel
I want to rest in the valley of death
together with this holy folk.

 

Tears

In the land of Poland
in Jewish cities and towns
the shekhine [divine presence] dwelt.
The river blossomed, as clear as a mirror.
Green were the open roads, the plains,
and the quiet, grassy hill.
The hometowns, cozy and wistful,
snuggled up to the forests.
In spring, the lilac branches
caressed like warm fingers.
A true joy shone on the meadow,
on the shepherd's tent.
Light and love, courage and faith
poured out from pure Jewish hearts,
from students and apprentices.

Now, the sun, ringed by smoke, is like a glowing brick.
Jews lie slaughtered on their thresholds.
Horrifying images – a bloodied cradle,
rusted bolts, paintings ripped from the eastern wall.
And the shekhine flutters with broken wings
and sobs over the holy martyrs
and my tears flow over the great destruction.


Footnote:

  1. In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the shul knocker (Yiddish: shulklaper or shulrufer), often the synagogue's shames [beadle], would wake up his fellow congregants in time for morning prayers and in the middle of the night for slikhes, the penitent prayers recited throughout the month leading up to the Days of Awe. He would rap on the shutters with a hammer and call out some version of this poem's title: Arise, Dear Jews, to serve the Creator. The Yiddish word used for Jews in this case is “yidelekh,” a diminutive denoting affection. return


[Page 670]

The End of a Jewish City

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

 

che674.jpg
Histadrut [General Organization of Workers] Zionist-Socialists in Chelm

Sitting in the center from right to left: Sh. Szafran, Retich, M. Sztajn, Y. Zilbersztajn, Chaim Feldhendler, M. Lang, Berl Liberman, (unknown woman), B. Feldhendler

 

The heart has become empty and hollow.
The joyful nights – a sad morning.
A deep tear brings pain somewhere –
A dark cloud sways over the head.

Memories run, run back through the years,
To the shtetl [town], to the alleys, struggle with memories!
There was spring, there was youth – and it is not there –
A former Jewish city is lost…

Deep in tears, the wound infected,
What happened to everyone, to our own?
What did the enemy, the monster want? –
Our fists clench in grief, in rage.

Where are our comrades, young, dear friends,
With whom we wove dreams,

[Page 671]

Studied with Reb Avraham Yitzhak the melamed in the kheder.[1]
Learned to be pious, to not commit any sins.

And pale Jews, driven in multitudes,
Driven to the gallows, to dug out pits:
Small children, babies, shot on the sidewalks –
And in flames: synagogues, Jewish houses and rooms.

It was the devil who shot and murdered them:
Fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers.
Our hearts have become empty and hollow –
A Jewish city left only with graves.

H. Sziszler

 

che671a.jpg
Chelm Jews in a camp in Austria in 1948 during a memorial service for the Chelm martyrs

 

che671b.jpg
Chelm Jews in Berlin-Marendorf in 1948 during a memorial service honoring Chelm Jewish martyrs

 

che671c.jpg
A group of Chelm Jews with their wives and children, who are in Toronto, Canada, during a memorial service for the Chelm Jewish martyrs

 

Translator's footnote
  1. A melamed is a religious teacher; a kheder is a religious primary school. return

 

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