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[Page 627]

The Last Days of Ciechanowiec Jews

by Simcha Burstein[1]

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

Donated by Dr. Miroslaw Reczko,
Chancellor of Bialystok University of Technology

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

On June 21, 1941 at the break of day, because of the proximity to the border, the Germans began to bomb the shtetl with both air raids and artillery. As a result, 30 Jews died in a short time. On the same day at 9 a.m., the first German military detachments entered the shtetl. One can imagine what an impression this made on the Jewish population, catching sight of their new “liberators”.

After a few days the Ciechanowiecer 'Volksdeutsche' (ethnic German living abroad) Richter, became the temporary mayor of the shtetl. And soon a number of laws were passed in relation to Jews:

  1. Every Jew must be marked with a white band and a yellow ציון (“Zion”) on the arm.
  2. Jews are not allowed to walk on the sidewalk.
  3. Every Jew must go to work.
But the German murderers were not satisfied with such “easy” laws. A certain bandit named Romanus was sent into the shtetl. He had already proved his wild deeds and sadism towards Jews from Ostrów Mazowiecka. In the first days after his arrival in the shtetl, he aroused fear and horror among the entire Jewish population because of his murderous deeds and his kind of laws. In view of the fact that the white bands were too aesthetic in appearance, he decreed that additionally the Jews must be marked with yellow patches. Very early he also planned on relocating the Jews to certain neighborhoods, which was soon implemented. He frequently used to conduct house searches in Jewish homes and in doing so, took with him whatever he liked. All men and women ages 14 to 60 years old

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had to do the heaviest physical work every day, like building highways, houses, and so on. But the bandit Romanus wanted to oppress the Jews not only physically, but also spiritually. So, it was strictly forbidden to pray. All of the religious books were hidden by the Jews immediately after he had said that they should be destroyed.

At the same time he called the Jews together for “parties”.

Since there was standing a memorial to Lenin in the shtetl (erected by the Soviets in 1940), the mayor called for all Jews to gather in this square in order to smash the memorial into small pieces. Everyone would get a piece of it.

After that, everyone had to line up and march through the streets in a big “parade” with singing and shouting, “Down with Lenin, down with the Soviets” and so on. In this way, one went to the river, where the pieces were thrown into the water.

This is how Lenin's “funeral” was arranged. In addition to the mayor, there were even a few more murderers in the shtetl who played an active part to realize Hitler's plan of exterminating Judaism.

These included:

  1. The head of the post office, a certain sadist, who used to beat the Jews murderously even at work.
  2. A certain translator of the “Schutzpolizei” (title of a branch of police in Germany) , a Pole from the area around Poznań, named Piotrowski.
  3. The labor supervisor named Dawidczuk, a Pole from Ciechanowiec, who once arrested a passing Jew from Czyzew. After the man was handed over to the “Schutzpolizei”, Dawidczuk cruelly killed the Jewish man.
At the end of January 1942, 18 Jews from the shtetl were arrested on the pretext that they were communists. Among these accused were the father Lin with his two sons, Jacob Zlotalov, one of the Midler brothers, and others. It is simply impossible to describe everything that the above-mentioned Jews had to experience in the three weeks from their arrest to their murder. The innocent victims were continuously beaten and tormented with the most brutal Hitlerite sadism. The victims even asked that they should be killed faster. But the German beasts actually did it the other way around. They tried to keep the people alive as long as possible, so that they could be tortured even longer. Those who were already at death's door

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were transferred to the hospital and pepped up a bit, only to be beaten again in custody, so that death dragged on for three weeks.

Neither the interventions of the Judenrat, nor the colossal sums of money and gold that were specially collected among the Jewish population, helped. The murderers seized the money and said, “This is in no way yours, because Jews have no right to own gold. And therefore, we will do what we have to do!”

One early morning, the 18 Jews were led slightly away from the shtetl, where a grave had already been prepared. They were all thrown into a pit and then taken under fire. But of course, not all were shot immediately. Some were just wounded. Anyway, the Hitlerites hadn't expected that and ordered the Jewish workers to fill the pit. And when the earth started to be poured on the people, one of the victims, Faivl Vortshin, reached out his hand asking, “Jews, save us!” The Jews turned to the Germans with the request that they should at least shoot the wounded because they couldn't just be buried alive. But the bandits replied that there were no free bullets for Jews.

Two months later 6 Jews were arrested, including Manes Lev and Itzchok Zeliker. They too had to go through the same hell as the 18 victims before. In order to bring about death more quickly and put an end to suffering, Manes Lev attacked the mayor. The mayor pulled out the revolver and shot him immediately. The remaining 5 people were also killed after a few days.

On November 2, 1942, 5:00 at dawn, the Ciechanowiec ghetto, just like the ghettos everywhere, was cordoned off by a section of the Gestapo. Panic broke out among the Jewish population, and a certain number of people fled without knowing where to go. The Hitlerites started a shootout, and soon the first victims fell. At that time, a few dozen Jews managed to escape. Unfortunately, not all of them were lucky enough to experience Liberation Day. In the difficult days of the occupation, many of them fell into the hands of the murderers. Of those Jews who escaped, only 18 survived.


Footnote

  1. The recorder of this testimony was born in the shtetl Kleszczele (Bielsk Podlaski region), a town about 40 miles from Ciechanowiec. We received the material from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Return


[Page 630]

In Days of Terror, Anguish and Murder

by Leibel Soloveitchik

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

Donated by Dr. Miroslaw Reczko,
Chancellor of Bialystok University of Technology

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

On June 22, 1941, at three o'clock in the morning, we heard terrible noise from cannons and planes. Soon, the first Jewish victims fell. In the “old-town” Rachel Leah Tzigal, her grandchild, and Chaya Risha, the daughter of Shaya the carpenter, were killed. Michal Drabczyk was wounded and lost his speech. And so, namely mute, he lived in the ghetto until his last day. In the “new-town” Chane-Baile, the wife of Leibel Yarmus, was killed. Immediately after the Germans started bombing the shtetl, many Jews fled, and I was among them. Several kilometers away from Ciechanowiec, the Hitlerists caught us and brought us back to the shtetl.

But to our great pain, there was no longer a home that we could return to. We couldn't find our houses because they had been burned by the bombing. The “new town” was badly burned out and destroyed. When we were brought back, evening was breaking. There was great panic in the shtetl because horrific rumors spread that Jews were being killed.

However, for the time being, the killers didn't carry out any mass killings, but drove us into forced labor. Our first job was to bury the hundreds of German and Russian victims of slaughter who had fallen near the shtetl. We buried them in the woods of Nowodwory. Then we were ordered to lay out a swastika made of chopped up bricks and cobble stones. We deposited this immoral filth across from Alter Shemkowsky's house.

A mayor arrived in the shtetl and settled down in the house of Lubowicki, the miller, on Brań ska Street. To his credit it can be said that he was a calm and solid person who did not cause the Jews any particular worries. For his support he chose the vice-mayor Richter, a German from Ciechanowiec.

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But the relative calm didn't last long. Word got around that the mayor was treating the Jews too well, and he was removed from his position. A bloodthirsty animal called Polke, who came from the “Death Corps”, was put in the position. He was dressed all in black and on his hat was a sign with a Totenkopf (skull) painted on it. It was clear to us that the murderer would bring us death and victims.

His first regulation was to separate the Jews from the Goyim. But still he did not call this isolation by its explicit name “ghetto” in order to mask his murderous intentions.

Anyway, over time this arrangement was transformed into a closed ghetto hell for the Jews.

Polke created two such isolation places, one in the “new-town” and one in the “old-town”. In the “new-town”, the ghetto - as soon as you arrived from the “old town” - stretched on the right side up to Kuczyń ska Street. In the “old-town” the ghetto stretched from the house of Ayzik Kozak on Kozarska Street to the house of Kotik, the baker, on Malecka Street. From there the ghetto stretched to Asher, the carpenter on Pocztowa Street; from there to Itshe Luzem (Zarembski), then to Ben-Tzion Nabozny on Kozarska Street; and from there to the bath, that is, to the river.

Polke decreed that a 'Judenrat' was to be formed. The Judenrat consisted of the following members:

1) Ben-Tzion Nabozny, 2) Alter Shemkowsky, 3) Bertshe Peretz, 4) Chona Vinowitz, 5) Josef Lipshitz, 6) Yitzhak (Itshe) Zelizer, 7) Pinchas (Pini) Vinowitz, 8) Velvel Yakovtziner (from Wysokie Mazowieckie), 9) Velvel Kagan, 10) Shmuel (a son-in-law of Lebendez).
Polke began to impose huge taxes on the Jewish population. For this purpose, he created a finance commission at the Judenrat with the following comrades:
1) Yitzchak Burstein, 2) Hershl Yaskolka, 3) Manus Okun, 4) Ezra (a son-in-law of Yacov Winer), 5) Yitzhak Kulaski, 6) Isser Soloveitchik, 7) Yeshoah (Shaya) Rogovski.
The Judenrat met in the house of Boruch Flig, the carpenter, on Pocztowa Street.

At that time, we believed that Polke belonged to the highest level of creatures with murderous intent and bloodthirstiness, but it turned out that there were even much more terrible and dangerous beasts in the Hitlerist zoo. After Polke left, he was replaced by a terrible sadist from Koenigsberg, named Romanus.

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We used to read about predators like Romanus in ancient legends, and we believed that such monsters only existed in the world of fantasy and had no relation to reality. Ciechanowiec had drawn the bitter and sad lot that there actually was such a terrifying beast roaming its streets, which used to bathe itself in Jewish blood.

Romanus didn't just kill the Jews. Most of all, he tormented them. He took pleasure in watching the victim wriggle in his hands. And when a tormented Jew was already at heaven's door, Romanus used to let him come to his senses again so that he could continue to torture him.

The “kaboles-ponem“ (reception before a ritual ceremony) that Romanus imposed on the Judenrat, was made from all the rules of a sadistic “Shulkhan Orekh” (code of Jewish law). He ordered the councilors to crawl on their stomachs from Boruch Flig's house to the post office - a distance about 700 meters. It goes without saying that none of them did not try to crawl towards the goal. But everyone was left lying in the middle of the road and unconscious. They had to be carried by hands to the Judenrat and could hardly be saved.

According to Romanus' ideas, this was a “mild” sentence. And he was actually right, because his further terror was even more appalling. One fine morning he arrested three Jewish communists from Czyżew named Aizik Wrona, Kowadlo, and a third one, whose name I have forgotten.

He held them for several weeks and hit them horribly on their heads three times a day. The result of these gruesome blows was that their heads were so swollen that they became wider than their shoulders. Their faces were totally deformed, and they no longer had any human features. They looked like everything but familiar living beings, and it was a shock just to look at them.

Once, on a Friday, he ordered the councilors to come to pick up those arrested. Since they were unable to walk, the councilors had to carry them with their hands. Romanus ordered the “Hatikvah” and other Jewish songs to be sung. He led them to the forest near the “new-town” and brought them to the place that had been designated for the execution of Jews. But, at the last minute, the murderer changed his mind and ordered the convicts to return to the ghetto. The doctors soon helped. With their surgical utensils they simply cut off pieces of the swollen flesh from the heads of the detainees to restore them to normal appearance. To great astonishment, the dangerous

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operation succeeded and all of them stayed alive. One of them, Aizik Wrona from Czyżew, was lucky enough to see Hitler's downfall.

Under Romanus there was a strict law that he had to kill a few Jews every Friday, otherwise his murderous blood would not calm down. He had faithful helpers among the Polish population who used to give false testimony to certain Jews, and Romanus soon afterwards sentenced them to death without examination. Such informers were Antek Żukowski (a leader of the firefighters) and Kazik Janicki, whom the Germans accidentally killed. Because of such denunciators Yitzhak-Aryeh Lin and his two sons, Chaim Hirsh and Moshe, Molke Rogovy (the barber), Shepsel Krzemien, and Faivel Vortzin (the son of Josel, the cobbler) were sentenced to death.

Romanus ordered the ghetto to be closed with barbed wire. He also ordered the Judenrat to gather in the ghetto.

The Judenrat organized a Jewish guard whose job was to carry out the orders of the Judenrat. The commandant was David Treibatsh, the guards were: Motl Heller, Falik Danowitz, Moshe Winer, Yisroel Żołądź, Leizer Turinsky, Leibel Soloveitchik, Zavl Mankuta (from Nur), Binshtein (a son-in-law of Josef Grudka) and Itshe Yablkovsky.

Life in the ghetto was more or less “normal”. You went to work with the farmers, swept the streets, and so on. There was even a wedding in the ghetto. Batya Żółw, daughter of Sender the tailor, married Abraham Lew. They also gave birth to a child. In view of this, we see how great the confidence of our unforgettable ones was to stay alive and survive the terrible enemy.

But Romanus thought differently. His plan was to liquidate the ghetto quickly and completely. However, critters like him were afraid of a human revolt by the youth. So, he came to the Judenrat with an ulterior motive. In his opinion, it would be a good thing if the Jews were to be divided into more jobs. He therefore 'advised' them to send workers to the villages of Pobikry and Perlejewo. Romanus wanted to weaken the resilience of the ghetto. Therefore, he sent the strongest and youngest men away to the villages. They were used as Jewish overseers in the relevant places. Itshe Bolender became the overseer in Perlejewo.

[Page 634]

Romanus once appeared in the Judenrat and ordered that messengers were to be sent to the villages to check if the correct number of Jews had been sent. Itshe Yablkovsky was sent to Perlejewo. When he arrived in the village, Itshe Bolender gave him two loafs of bread - one for his family and one for Yablkovsky himself. When Yablkovsky got back to the ghetto, he met, unfortunately, Germans who had sneaked in quietly and unnoticed, wearing slippers. As soon as they saw Itshe with the two loaves of bread, they grabbed him, beat him severely, and took him to the Polish police.

Every day at 9 a.m., Romanus used to go to jail to see who was arrested. And when he discovered a Jew named Yablkovsky, who was there for smuggling bread into the ghetto, he beat him so gruelingly until he confessed who gave him the bread.

Soon after, Romanus ran to the Judenrat and ordered Bolender to be taken to the ghetto. Since I knew that such a “sin smelled like death”, I, together with my brother, informed him through a Gentile that his situation was very critical and that he should save himself in time.

Bolender had meanwhile settled in very well with the Germans in Perlejewo. When he got the news, he told the Germans that Romanus was looking for him. Knowing what a terrible murderer Romanus was, the Germans gave Bolender a certificate that he was looking for them for bricks for construction. And so, he finally was saved; his steps got lost in the void.

Romanus didn't want to know anything about it. He announced that he would kill 30 Jews if Bolender was not brought to him. In the meantime, the commander of the Polish police, Piotrowski, came to the Judenrat, informing its members, that 7 Jews were needed as workers in the “Schutzpolizei”. However, since it was known that 30 Jews had to be killed, no one wanted to leave.

First the Germans waited a little, but when they saw that no one was coming forward, they went into the ghetto and grabbed anyone they met. My cousin Mendel Soloveitchik, (the brother of Yitzhak Soloveitchik) was among them, as well. After a few minutes they came back with the terrible news that they had been ordered to untie ropes. And it turned out that the ropes had been used to bind the Jews.

I knew the fate of the ghetto was decided. I therefore said to

[Page 635]

my brothers that we would have to flee the ghetto that night. My father had been arrested already for two weeks for withholding a fur.

When going to the gate of the ghetto, we saw a Polish policeman standing there. We held out a watch to him so that he would let us out. But as soon as he held the tip of the watch in his hand, we snatched it from him and ran away with the watch. We knew the policeman would not make any commotion because he would face the death penalty for letting a Jew out of the ghetto.

We ran through the darkness of the night and climbed the attic of a stable that belonged to a farmer named Zdrojkowski. At around 1 a.m. we heard a heavy shooting in the ghetto and thought that they wanted to catch the 30 Jews who were on the run.

When it got lighter, we looked through the cracks and saw that masses of Jews were being driven from the ghetto of the “new-town” into the ghetto of the “old-town”. Then we knew that it wasn't just 30 Jews, but something much worse.

Early in the morning, when the maid came to the barn to milk the cattle, we heard her talking to a well-known gentile young man and understood that my father Isser Soloveitchik and Yitzhak Yablkovsky had been killed in prison. And Sholem-Yitzhak Pelchowitz was murdered in the “Schutzpolizei”, as well as the brothers Josel and Shmuel Kulasky and Hirsh-Velvel Winer.

For two days, we lay in the attic without eating or drinking. In the end we decided that we should show ourselves to the gentile (maid). When she saw us, she was very shocked and reported that the German police had been looking for us in every corner.

A well-known gentile young man helped us to leave the shtetl. He led us through the park, and we said goodbye to him very warmly. Then we started to go on our thorny path. Our first stop was in Bujenka village.


[Page 636]

The Brutal Murderer Romanus

by Yehuda Ritz, Herzliya, Israel

Describing the dastardly deeds of the murderer named Romanus (by coincidence his name was the same as that of an ancient military people) reminds me of an old fable. A tyrant was asked why he was so quick to sentence people to death for small offenses. The answer came back, “I believe the death penalty should be enacted for even the smallest transgression. For greater crimes, I haven't thought up as yet the appropriate punishment.”

Romanus, a Nazi officer in the Ciechanowiec area, tortured and murdered people for no reason whatsoever. His hatred for Jews was virulent and its all-consuming flame burned within him. There was no way to extinguish that hatred.

Under his command, Jews were tortured mercilessly as they engaged in forced labor. One time, he was sprawled out beside a ruined wall which was being worked on. The Jewish workers watched in horror as a pile of bricks fell on Yaacov Kiejsmacher, crushing his hand. Blood gushed from the wounds and in his agony, Yaacov screamed out for help. But no doctor came to his aid. I ran to him and tried to stop the flow of blood with the primitive means available. Romanus watched the spectacle with great enjoyment. And then, having enough of that entertainment, he forced poor Yaacov to continue working despite the severe injury to his mutilated hand.

Romanus would amuse himself by randomly firing his gun into open windows. One time, while strolling in the ghetto, he began shooting into the home of my brother-in-law, Moshe Plisky, scaring his child nearly to death. Moshe took his family and tried to rush to the home of Shayna Wrona the midwife. But the sadist and his assistant intercepted him, tied him up, and then brutally beat him. After that they forced him to return to his house.

Ephraim, Herschel, and Yaacov “the Smuggler” Plisky also had a confrontation with the savage murderer. Romanus accidentally caught the three of them trading with the Polish peasants. . Romanus threw them into prison. Over a two-week period, they were severely beaten. If they lost consciousness from the beatings, Romanus would revive them by splashing cold water on them. In that way they would be awake for continued torture. Temporarily freed by their tormenter, they returned home, pulling themselves by their hands, as their feet and legs were broken. They remained lying in their beds, half dead, without any medical attention. They were incapable of eating or drinking. They were bedridden in that sorrowful state for two months.

By no means was their suffering over. Somehow Romanus heard that these Jews were feeling a little better, so he ordered them to appear before him. For four consecutive days they were beaten, virtually without interruption. They were not given even one drop of water. At last, he looked upon their miserable condition and couldn't decide which one should be next for continued beating. They were all on the verge of death so Romanus, in his “mercy” released them. That way they might recover for renewed torture.

Another time, when I was forced to work on Shabbat, Romanus rode by on his horse along with his bodyguard. The murderer accused me of slacking off in my work. He made me run in front of his horse, all the while beating me incessantly. We continued all the way to the cemetery of the New City. In the cemetery they made me kneel on the ground. While in that position, Romanus and his accomplice bore down upon me astride their unruly horses. The ordeal ended with the intense blow of a bludgeon on my head. I blacked out and remained unconscious on the ground. As I stirred, I was only aware of the blood oozing from my throbbing cracked head. I was unable to see anything. Finally, and with great effort, I arose and dragged myself to the house of the Gentile where I was assigned to work. The blood was washed away and my head was bandaged. I stayed in bed in the Gentile's house until nightfall and then returned to the ghetto.

I had lain in enormous pain for two weeks before returning to work. But that bloody Shabbat incident troubled me beyond the injuries. I felt that a terrible storm was before us. I sensed that Romanus' terror was merely a prelude to an awful catastrophe that was, sooner or later, to afflict the Jewish community of Ciechanowiec.

Conditions in the ghetto deteriorated day by day. Rumors spread that the nearby community in Czyzewo had been liquidated. We did not want to believe it, but we attempted to find out the truth behind that terrible news. We made contact with a Ciechanoffzer Christian, paid him a handsome sum, and sent him to Czyzewo to learn of the situation there. When the Christian returned from his journey, he broke the awful news that he had seen no trace of any Jews in that town.

Each day we awoke expecting an “aktion”. The Jewish population wandered aimlessly around the ghetto, not knowing what to do with themselves. Pious Jews prayed that HaShem would not desert His children in a time of such peril. Just as He had taken our father Abraham from a furnace of fire, and Daniel from the lion's den, at the last minute He would demonstrate a great miracle and we would all survive.

As the situation in the ghetto became more and more critical, I noticed that Jews were no longer compelled to work. Romanus seemed unconcerned with our activities. We could not sleep because of the terrible nightmares. We continually thought about what might be in store for us. “What are we up against? Would we suffer the same fate as the Czyzewo Jews?”

I observed what was happening within the ghetto and that our spirit was being broken. I had no illusions. It became clear to me that I must escape from this trap - and fast. I knew of a secret trap door which led to a tunnel that would allow escape. My wife Faiga did not agree with this idea. But I was desperate and took my two grown children and went to the house of the Gentile for whom I had worked. We hid in the attic until one in the morning. A deep feeling of ruin and despair hung in the air. My children began to whimper, “Father, let us go home.” Aside from us, nobody had yet escaped from the ghetto. I took pity on them and returned to the ghetto. My wife said to me with reproach, “All the Jews are in bed, sound asleep. Only you seem to be so afflicted.” I answered her, “May G-d grant that we come out of this situation in one piece.” With that, I lay down in bed, fully clothed.

I was suddenly stirred by the thunderous sound of gunfire. It was a blood curdling, ear splitting noise. I ran out in the street and there I saw Jews, literally, hanging from the barbed wire that penned in the ghetto. In their desperation, they were trying to escape and the murderers were shooting at them with automatic rifles. I could see my landsleit falling like hunted prey. We knew this was to be the end. Romanus had decided to liquidate the ghetto. Two days earlier, he had brought in reinforcements of German troops along with Polish supporters. And, ominously, there were large numbers of wagons with which to cart away the dead.

At the last minute, I opened my secret door. Together with Shmuel Voinowitz, I escaped to the nearby forest. While running, we encountered the watchmaker who was Matta's son-in-law. He drew near to us and advised, “Let's stay together and see what the future has in store for us.”


[Page 643]

The Bloody Days of the Ghetto

by Zvi Blutman, Ramat Gan

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

Donated by Dr. Miroslaw Reczko,
Chancellor of Bialystok University of Technology

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

On June 22, 1941 at 4 a.m. Ciechanowiec was bombed by German cannons. The projectiles fell on the “old town” and sowed death and fear. Overwhelmed with fear of death, the Jews hid in their homes.We were wrapped in deep sorrow, but our hearts refused to believe that the end was near, even though all the signs indicated that we were at the mercy of cruel sadists and our lives were abandoned to lawlessness.

The Batei-medroshim (Houses of Study), in which the intellectual and social life of the Jews was concentrated, where they used to forget their worries about a page from the Gemara or a psalm, had been closed, and the murderous government had forbidden us to pray there. Also, individual prayer was viewed as a crime; and the tombstone engraver Poliak, who was watched sitting in his house wearing a prayer shawl and tefillin, was seized and brutally beaten. Already in the first few days after their arrival, the Germans caused a bloodbath. They seized 7 strong Jewish youths, among them Shepsel Krzemien and Shayke “Klopot” (Polish word for trouble). They were tormented for a long time, and already very close to death, they were executed.

A long line of Jews used to queue in front of the bakeries just to get a wretched piece of bread. A Pole, a sadist and an underworld character, who was called “the malyerl” (house painter), was appointed to supervise the line of waiting people. After everything was allowed and you could do whatever you wanted with the Jews, the sadist showed what he “could do” and without mercy he used to torment and mock the Jews, who were only waiting for a piece of bread. The tormented people would return to their homes with their little piece of bread, stained with blood that oozed from their wounds.

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For the piece of bread, we had to do various types of forced labor that sucked the marrow out of our bones. The work was accompanied by lashes that broke our spirits and weakened our belief in humanity. Before going to work, we used to say goodbye to all our loved ones, because no one was sure whether they would return.

Anyone who was fated to work for the postmaster had hell on earth. That villain perfected his means of torment day by day. He trained bloodthirsty dogs. The dressage was carried out on the bodies of Jews. To do this, he used to grab a Jewish youth, tie his hands together, and order him to run. Then he sicked the dogs on him, which would attack him, tear his clothing and bite their sharp teeth in his body until rivers of blood flowed from the body of the unfortunate. During the night, sounds used to hang in the air from the groans of the wounded, who waited longingly for their death, because although the pain was unbearable and indescribable, no medical help was given to the unfortunate.

However, these atrocities and torments were only a prologue, a prelude, to the great catastrophe that “Nebuzaradan” (reference to the commander of Nebuchadnezzar's guard who was the Babylonian executioner who burned down Solomon's Temple and exiled the Jews to Babylonia) from Koenigsberg brought us. Romanus - may his bones be crushed! This murderer was sent to us from the city where the great thinker Kant had once lived - who had written a treatise on “Eternal Peace and Eternal Love” - what an irony of fate!

Romanus was a born murderer. His arrival signaled that the end was near. The mere mention of his name terrified us. His eyes were those of an ogre. His ritual was to smash a Jew's head before breakfast. Jewish blood stimulated his appetite. His thirst for blood even exceeded that of a predator.

On weekdays Romanus was in the habit of contenting himself with “only” one victim, but on Friday, he staged mass murders. On that day he used to execute whole groups of Jewish youths on the pretext that they had belonged to the 'Komsomol' (Communist Youth Organization of the CPSU) among the Soviets. Those young people had been the best and most valuable ones from Ciechanowiec.

Romanus did not immediately murder them, but first mocked their bodies, which he pierced and cut. When we were schoolboys, the Rabbi used to tell us on the Eve of Tisha B'Av (Jewish mourning day to remember disasters in Jewish history including the destruction of Solomon's Temple by the Babylonian Empire and the Second Temple by the Roman Empire) the

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legends from the Talmud regarding the 'khurbm -bais-rishn' (destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC): “And the horses sank in blood up to their heads, and the waves of blood carried great rocks with them, and the stream of blood poured four miles into the sea”. But woe, woe - these are no legends! For us, it was the cruel reality. We saw with our own eyes what the Gemara (part of Talmud) said. From the blood which Romanus had shed, the water of the Nurzec turned red, and the gentiles used it to fertilize their fields.

I will devote myself specifically to one victim who was murdered by Romanus' hands, because his pilgrimage to martyrdom is unique in the history of Jewish martyrs. In Ciechanowiec, there lived a young Jewish man who was like all of us. Neither he nor his father were heroes. He was made of the same material we are all made of. But in the time of the great disaster when the terrible catastrophe had befallen us all, he developed an enormous spiritual strength. His name was Moshe Rubinstein.

When hunger in the ghetto had become unbearable, and people were lying around bloated and unconscious, Moshe sacrificed himself to smuggle food for the hungry.

Once, Romanus caught him holding a package of food in his hand. He attacked him like a bloodthirsty beast and forcibly dragged him to the police. There, he beat him horribly, until Moshe's whole head was covered with bleeding wounds. When the murderer realized that his victim was already dying, he gave up and ordered him to be taken back to the ghetto. His relative, Doctor Rubinstein, operated on him with primitive surgical instruments and saved his life.

Before the ghetto was liquidated, Moshe managed to escape from the arms of death. But the longing for the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto drained him, and he returned, to die together with his tormented brothers. When he reached the gate of the ghetto, he met Romanus. The murderer 'greeted' him with a devilish smile, accompanied by a resounding slap. Moshe bravely called out to his killer, “We want to see who will laugh last!” Romanus responded to this 'impertinence' with

[Page 646]

a series of blows. Moshe revived, ran right up to the villain and spat in his face. Furious, Romanus dragged Moshe into the prison and chose a death so terrible for him that the blood in our veins would freeze if we only remember it. Romanus hacked long nails into Moshe's hands and feet and crucified him on the prison wall.

May Moshe's merits continue to work in future generations and may all those who die in order to achieve higher goals, walk in the light of his holy memory and his martyrdom.

The tightness in the ghetto was unbearable. Many lay in the courtyards and epidemics broke out. As soon as night fell, we had to lock ourselves up in the houses. We sat cooped up in the darkness. Life began to flicker and die out, and we waited without hope for our bitter fate. Our downhearted mood can be described in a verse from the Pentateuch: “In the morning you will say, if only it were evening! And in the evening ‚if only it were morning!” (Dvarim 28:67)

The Poles were indifferent to our misfortune. Their only worry was whether the Jews would sell them their furniture and jewelry for dirt cheap. When they passed the ghetto, they urged us to sell to them sooner because we would, anyway, be liquidated in the near future. After Romanus announced that he would give a reward for catching an escaped Jew from the ghetto - a tin can with kerosene and a few kilograms of salt - many Poles volunteered to do this shameful work.

In the ghetto, we were completely cut off from the outside world. We had neither radio nor newspaper. We were hermetically sealed and isolated. But my family had been able to make certain connections with Poles from the other side of the river Bug, who used to visit Ciechanowiec. We learned from them in early 1942 that Jews were being exterminated in Treblinka 24 hours a day. Today we know that 800,000 people were killed in Treblinka, most of them Jews. But at that time, nobody wanted to believe that this harrowing news was the truth. We treated it like a horror story, and nothing more.

However, bit by bit the gruesome news penetrated the consciousness

[Page 647]

of the Jews in our shtetl. The signs of the time showed that we were facing a gruesome disaster, and everyone saw clearly that the apocalypse was approaching - the end of days.

God-fearing Jews, unshakable in their trust, anchored their trust in the Talmudic saying, “Even if a sharp sword is resting upon a person's neck, he should still believe in mercy!“

And they were waiting for a miracle. But youngsters with a realistic sense of reality saw that there wasn't the slightest bit of hope left. Yitzhak Kulaski and Leibl Blutman went house to house, encouraging the Jews to burn everything so that the enemy might not enjoy it.

Burning their goods and chattels, our parents, sisters, and brothers began to prepare for death with clear awareness. Terrible scenes took place, “vidoy” (Jewish prayer before death) was said, parents bade goodbye to their children and asked their forgiveness, people hugged each other and cried miserably.

But not all viewed the khurbm as an inevitable fate. Daring attempts were made to escape from the ghetto. Israel Rubinstein, Mulja Peretz, Elyanek Shpilman and Ester Kulaski fled the ghetto and hid in the Zabiele mill. But they lost their lives as a result of an accident. They cooked a meal, and the smoke that rose from the chimney plunged them into disaster. A Pole who discovered the smoke reported it to the Germans. And soon the killers came and murdered the group on the spot.

A woman with her three children from the Zaszków family of Jacob Rozenblum managed to escape from the ghetto, as well. She hid near the village of Tymianki. But gentiles discovered her footprints and reported this to the Germans. They forced the miserable mother to dig a grave with her own hands, in which she was buried alive with her children.

On November 2, 1942, Romanus decided to liquidate the ghetto for good. The day before, he invited Hersh-Velvel Viner and Josef and Shmuel Kulaski, whom he had employed as agents. He informed them that it was not in accordance with his “sense of honor” to suffocate them, as “useful Jews”, in the gas chambers and to burn their bodies. Therefore, he would choose a “noble” death for them, according to their usefulness, that is, to shoot them. And

[Page 648]

shortly thereafter, he drew his pistol and punctured their heads with a series of shots. Early in the morning at 5 a.m., the murderers surrounded the ghetto. They reported that they were supposedly sending us to work in Crimea. But everyone knew that this was a lie, and it was clear to us that we were going on a path of no return.

Many fled. Itke Ptashek, Abraham Moshe Ptashek, Rubin Josef Chazan and his family managed to escape. However, many were murdered while fleeing. Mordechai Shemkovskiy did not want to leave his hiding place, so he was shot on the spot.

Markl, his wife and child, hid in a certain place. During the night, the child started screaming, causing the death of itself and his parents.

May the second of November remain deeply imprinted in our hearts. On that day, the lights of the Ciechanowiecer Jewish community were extinguished. On that day, our loved ones were tied in ropes and taken away to the train station in Czyzew, and from there to the extermination camp in Treblinka.

(Translation from Hebrew to Yiddish: Eliezer Leoni)


[Page 649]

A Chapter From the Destruction of Ciechanowiec

by Ephraim Winer, Bolivia

Translated to English by Beate Schützmann–Krebs

Donated by Dr. Miroslaw Reczko,
Chancellor of Bialystok University of Technology

Edited by Judy Baston and Susan Kaplan Stone

When the war broke out, I was staying in Bialystok with my brother Itzhak-Shimen and my sister Toibe. We had mills there. The Soviets soon began to send those who had assets to Siberia, because they were considered enemies of communism. Fortunately, I managed to hide myself. Under great danger I left Bialystok and returned to Ciechanowiec.

There was panic in the shtetl. Hitler's army was not far from Ciechanowiec, and we knew that Germany was preparing for the Russian invasion.

The first news about what Hitler was doing with the Jews came from girls who had fled from Kosow Lacki to Ciechanowiec. They told of the cruel deeds that had been done to the Jews of Kosow Lacki. We didn't want to believe this and assumed that the girls were not quite in their right minds and just wanted to scare us. A short time later Ciechanowiec was taken by the Germans, and we received the news that the Nazis had shot 5,000 Jews in Bialystok, among them a Ciechanowiec Jew by the name of Meir Rudek. This confirmed that the girls definitely were in their right minds and that their news had to be taken seriously.

Events then unfolded with alarming speed. Soon the main executioner, Romanus, was sent to us, who, with the blood and tears of the Ciechanowiec Jews, confirmed that the Kosow Lacki girls spoke the truth.

Romanus chose as his private secretary the Pole Święcicki, the former principal of the Polish elementary school, who also appeared as the official director of the “Tarbut” school with regard to the government. As it turned out, the elegant anti-Semite was waiting for an appropriate opportunity to publicly demonstrate his hatred for the Jews. The first victims who fell through him were, of all people, the students of the “Tarbut” school.

My brother, Hersh-Velvel, and Velvel Kagan soon realized that the situation

[Page 650]

was very critical. They understood that if they spent all day in the ghetto with idle hands, they would head for their own bitter end. They therefore organized many Jews into cooperatives to make them productive. The thought was, if Romanus saw that the Jews were of use to him, he would not massacre them. And indeed, this quenched his murderous anger a little.

When Święcicki realized that the Jews were looking for ways to save themselves, he began to incite Romanus. How could he watch the Jewish communists, the most dangerous enemies of the Third Reich, walk around freely and were not being exterminated?

When Romanus heard the diatribe of his faithful servant, he raced out into the street like a bloodthirsty animal and grabbed 21 Jews, among them Yaacov Yeger, Shepsel Krzemien and the son of “Yosl the Black”, put them in a locked car, and led them off toward the river. At the same time, I and other Jews were captured by murderer groups. We were handed shovels and forced to dig pits without knowing for what purpose. When the pits were finished, the locked car with the imprisoned Jews approached. Romanus ordered them to jump right into the pits, and he immediately began shooting at them. The bullets hurt them badly and because of the great shock, they fell into a state of mental confusion, into madness, and began to dance and jump in the pits, making strange grimaces.

Romanus watched the bloody game and laughed with all his heart. Święcicki made an announcement with great pleasure, “There you see Mister Romanus, how the Jews play theater! “

Little by little the “theater play” ebbed away more and more, when the unfortunates collapsed in a great pool of blood, breathing heavily. When Romanus saw that the Jews were still alive, he quickly ordered them to be buried with earth. The son of “Yosl the Black” managed to escape from the pit and walked, badly wounded, to the village of Kozarze.

But there the Polish scoundrel, whom they called “the Molyerl”, seized him and made him trudge himself back to the pits. After Romanus first terribly tormented him, he ordered that he be buried alive. After the pits were filled up, the earth began to lift. The unfortunates were still struggling with death, and for hours the earth was still rising. When we returned to the ghetto at 3 o'clock at night, there was still movement in the pits.

[Page 651]

When Święcicki realized how strongly his agitation was affecting Romanus, his appetite grew, and a few days later he brought Romanus a list of 21 Jews to be killed. Hersh-Velvel asked to have his name added to the list and Święcicki did him the “favor”. Under Romanus there was a law under which the names of those sentenced to death had to be read out. When Romanus heard the name of Hersh-Velvel Winer, he asked which “Winer” it was?

Święcicki replied that this was the “Winer” that organized the Jews into cooperatives and made them productive. In response, Romanus asked, if that were the case, for what reason he had come on this list? Hersh-Velvel asked Romanus to allow him to say a few words, and his request was granted.

And like a real “meylits-yoysher,” (angel defending a condemned man before the heavenly court) my brother proved that Święcicki had devised a smear campaign against the Jews because the Poles wanted to take revenge on us. “It is not true that we are Communists. The Jewish people are not fighting against the Germans. We never have killed, not even a single German mercenary!” He talked for a whole hour. And Romanus was so moved by this speech that shortly thereafter he issued an order to release the 21 Jews. He went out into the street and arrested 21 Poles, put them in a locked car, ordered them to dig pits with their own hands, and then shot them. After Święcicki recognized that the path of slander and Jew-hate speech was dangerous both for him and for the Polish population, he reached an agreement with the Jews that mutual atrocity propaganda would be stopped from then on. Neither the Poles should accuse the Jews anymore, nor vice versa.

After this agreement, the mass murders ended for a time, but Romanus' terror against the Jews did not stop. There was a case with the coachman Hertzke Lis (Tande). He had sinned against Romanus, but what exactly happened is not known. Romanus put him on three chairs. One German held his head and two his feet. Three Germans with whips in their hands whipped his naked body in time: one, two, three! One, two three! And so, they whipped him to death.

This happened before the eyes of the Jewish police, who received the dead body for burial.

Thus 18 months of Romanus' cruel regime passed.

On November 2, 1942, late at night, I went inside the ghetto

[Page 652]

with Sheindel Ser and Golde Arwowska and contemplated the dangerous situation in which we found ourselves. We talked at length about what to do in case of liquidation. During our walk we saw that the ghetto was heavily guarded by Polish policemen who wore snow-white clothes, so as not to be discovered. Soon they began shooting at Jews who were outside.

There was a big commotion and while I was running, I lost Sheindel and Golde. I did not go back home, but gathered all my strength, jumped through the gate of the ghetto and ran towards the river. There I discovered my brother-in-law Shmuel-David Migdal, who was swimming with his last ounce of strength. He had left his coat on the bank because it would bother him while swimming.

I shouted, “Shmuel-David! Shmuel-David!” but my voice did not reach him, because he was already too far away. I took from his coat pocket 20 marks and a sharpening-stone from his razor, which I still have as a reminder to this day. Later, farmers told me that Shmuel-David had been captured and murdered.

I ran into the forest to hide. On the way, a Christian told me that he had seen two Jewish women with a small child and added that they were the daughters of the miller. I concluded that they were my sisters and went looking for them.

I came to a property of a Christian named Szabłowski and assumed that they were hiding in his barn. Quietly, I crept in and began to call the names of my sisters. They were startled but recognized my voice. Crying vigorously because of the great pain in their hearts, which threatened to almost suffocate them, they called me to them. We hid in the barn for two days until the landlord spotted us and ordered us to leave the place immediately.

We ran away through a forest in the direction of Bransk. On the way we carried our brother Yosef. We, four children of our family including a two-year-old infant, were looking for ways to save ourselves. We realized that it was dangerous to hide out with a Christian because the Poles either killed the Jews or tied them up like sheep in ropes and handed them over to the Germans. So we decided to dig a “grave for the living” and hide in it. We returned to the area where Szabłowski lived and dug a pit in his forest on the banks of a river. We stayed there for 6 weeks. But when it started to rain and the water flooded our pit, we had to leave the place.

[Page 653]

I had the idea of digging a pit under Szabłowski's water mill and hiding there. We were sure that nobody would think that Jews could hide there, because Germans were coming into the mill every day. With immense effort and under great danger, we dug the pit at night. We threw the earth into the river, covered the pit with boards and branches, and then we hid in it.

However, the question arose as to how we could satisfy our hunger. Since I knew the architecture of a water mill well, I had the idea to crawl through the turbine into the mill at night to get flour. I stripped naked, went into the water and slowly squeezed through the turbine. With a sack on my head I reached the flour boxes. And when I came back, the sack on my head was filled with flour! For a whole day we ate flour in order not to die of hunger. However, the raw flour caused us great pain, and our lives were in danger. In this hopeless situation, my brother Hersh-Velvel appeared to me in a dream. He told me to go towards the river. There I would find a hut where a laborer, who had once worked for us, lived. The laborer would help us and provide us with bread.

When I woke up from sleep, I told my brother Yosef about the dream. I left immediately because we had no other choice. To my great surprise, I realized that the dream was correct. I saw a small house with a little lamp burning in it. A dog started barking heavily. The owner came out to see who had come. I ran up to him, mentioned his father's name and said that he was surely his son. He confirmed. I told him who I was and asked for a piece of bread. The gentile cried intensely and said that he himself had nothing to eat. However, I said that I had enough flour and that my request was that he bake me some bread.

For 14 months I brought the flour on dark evenings and returned with a bag of fresh bread, which kept us alive. Until again in a dream my brother came to me and advised me to be careful because they were looking for me. I understood the dream to mean that I had to stop visiting the Christian, because he was a communist in hiding, whom the Poles

[Page 654]

were keeping an eye on. Jewish partisans also used to come into his hut, among them Berele Moncharz and Lipshitz's son, the tailor.

For three weeks I did not go to the gentile to bake bread. When I visited him afterwards, he fell right around my neck, kissed me and told me that in the past three weeks our former worker had been staying with him in his house. This person was now a policeman and had the task of searching for Jews. Only two days before, he had left his house again. The gentile said in great awe, “This shows that you are led by God! If you, God forbid, had shown yourself here during the past three weeks, you would no longer be alive! But my own end is near! “ And so it really was. The A.K. (“Armia Krajowa”) bandits murdered him.

We lived in the pit for a whole 18 months. Once little rascals saw mice running under the mill. As they were hunting for the mice, they discovered the pit and immediately raised a big alarm that Jews were hiding there. In the middle of the bright day, we quickly ran out and fled into the forest. Soon after, 12 Germans on horses arrived, arrested the miller and tormented him severely for hiding Jews. He swore, however, that he had not known anything about it, and finally the Germans let go of him.

In the meantime, the days of liberation were approaching. There were only 6 weeks left until liberation by the Soviets. In the fields the grain was already half a meter high, and we hid among the ears of corn. Seeing that the Soviet front was approaching Ciechanowiec, we dug a pit by the Nurzec river, opposite the small Sówka mill, which was located across the river.

As we went into the pit, we noticed that the Germans were spying on the square next to us in order to resist the Soviets, who were advancing at a rapid pace. It did not take long for the Germans to approach, dig trenches next to our pit, and deposit machine guns right above our heads.

We were sure to be lost! But, like an angel from heaven, a skinny, blond German officer (I saw him when I looked through the entrance of the cave) exclaimed that the place was not strategically suitable. Because if one could shoot, one would hit the

[Page 655]

mill, and that would be counterproductive in achieving the goal. That is why he suggested moving a few meters away to avoid hitting the mill. And so it happened. The battle went on and the shells flew over our heads for 12 days and nights. In the pit we only had 15 onions and decided that only the small child should get them. We dug a small hollow in the pit until water came out and fed on the water with its worms for those 12 days and nights.

On Friday, August 18, 1944, at 3:00 a.m. we heard that the German guns stopped firing. We concluded that an important change was imminent. Either the Germans would advance, or they would flee. Each time the shooting next to us got a little weaker, until it stopped completely.

Suddenly we saw that on the river next to us, they started to build a bridge, and we heard Russian language. At the same time, we saw men and women taking a bath in the Nurzec, and music was playing. One said: “Tovarishch komandir!” (comrade commander)

Then we knew that it was the Russian army! When it became light, we left the pit. But our limbs were swollen, and we could not walk. The Russians took us to a hospital in the village of Grodek and ordered the doctors to help us quickly.

When we were able to walk on our own feet again, we set off and came back to Ciechanowiec. Our mill had burned down, and our apartment was occupied by the Soviet General Staff. When I went in and faced the General Staff, I noticed that some officers were crying violently when they looked at us. These were Jewish officers.

At first, we did not meet any Jews, but soon Yosl and Leibl Soloveitchik, the Chazan family, Velvel Ptashek, Berele Moncharz, Lipshitz and others appeared. We began to consider our future existence. And since the turbine of our burnt mill had remained intact, I built a new machine from some burnt machines. With the help of the Soviets, I got wood and built a small mill. I hoped to earn an income with it, save up money, and then leave.

On the first Sabbath after the mill went into operation,

[Page 656]

a Christian, a beggar, came to me asking for a handout. I took a shovel of flour and gave it to him. The beggar then embraced me in the presence of many Poles and said, “I come from Grajewo, and from none of the Polish did I get what I received from you, a poor Jew!” He squeezed my hand and said, “When you, the Jews, lived here, we lived too! But now, we the poor Polish people, have no more place in the world to live!” He thanked me a lot and was about to leave. But when the Poles heard his speech, they began to beat the poor Pole and shouted “You Jewish lackey!“ The poor farmer remained silent and left.

On the second Sabbath the beggar came back to me, drew three grenades from his pocket and said, “Jew, you must flee from here! I have just come from a meeting that took place in a mill in the village of Kuczyn. And I heard with my own ears and saw with my own eyes an order that was given to two ruffians of the A.K. (“Armia Krajowa“)… Namely to kill you and Yosl Soloveitchik!” And the beggar continued, “I will not leave here until you have saved yourself. I do not want you to fall victim to them. In times of danger these three grenades will protect you!”

We soon got to a Soviet car and left for Bialystok. On the same evening of our departure, a pair of siblings from Danir, a brother with his sister, arrived at my apartment to join the surviving Ciechanowiec Jews. When they did not find me, they went to sleep. During the night, however, the A.K. robbers came and murdered them.

In Bialystok, together with Reuven Chazan, Reuven Butzkevitz, my brother Yosef and Alter Drzevke, I opened a store with salt and sugar. Business was not bad. The Poles, however, begrudged it to us and denounced us to the government. Once, when we came from Warsaw, a friend of my wife's from Knyszyn came to see me. His name was Moshe Shuster and he was vice commander of the Polish “Schutz-Polizei”. He told me that my name was on the list of people to be sent to Siberia, because supposedly I was engaged in economic sabotage. And if I did not leave soon, he would have to arrest me. I left everything and fled to Lodz. There I hid with the Lodz rabbi, Reb Abraham, who was a yeshiva-school friend of my current father-in-law. He hid me between linen in a shed because he knew that people would come looking for me.

[Page 657]

And indeed, it didn't take long, and a house search took place at my sister's house in Lodz. She was married to Yosef Soloveitchik. They were looking for me! She claimed that she knew nothing, and so they let up on her. A few days later all the Ciechanowiec Jews from Bialystok came to Lodz. We got to know the messengers of the “Machteret” (underground) movement, who brought us to the Czech border. From there we arrived in Germany via Austria, to the Waldstadt camp near Pocking.

We had been a family with 10 children. I, my brothers Chaim and Yosef, the sisters Toibe and Malke stayed alive. My brothers Itzhak-Shimen, Hersh-Velvel, Moshe, and Shlomo, as well as my sister Sheine-Feige, perished.

 

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