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[Page 175]

My Journey to Kamenetz in 1965

by Dov (Bertschik) Schmidt

In the summer of 1965, I was notified that I would be allowed to participate in a seminar on fishing which was to be held in the Soviet Union. My first thought following the news was that I would visit Dora Galperin, and then make a pilgrimage to my parents' and forefathers' graves in my hometown Kamenetz. Dora, whom I knew from early childhood, survived the war in Kamenetz and lives in Poland now. From her I expected to hear the whole terrible story of the catastrophe that befell the Jews of Kamenetz.

Although I knew that no remnants and no traces of their graves exist, I felt the urge to see it with my own eyes. After applying for a special visa at the Embassy of the Soviet Union, I was allowed to visit Brest and to receive there permission to travel to Kamenetz. I decided that on my way to the Soviet Union I would spend three days in Poland to visit Dora and to hear her personal account of the Disaster.

My hometown Kamenetz on September 20th, 1965 Kamenetz is in the Soviet Union now. It is situated close to the present Russian-Polish frontier which runs in a distance of five miles from the town, in the direction of Bialowieza, and cuts across the Bialowieza Forest.

At the edge of the Forest, in the village of Kamienyoki, the Soviets built a hunting centre, with hunting lodges and hotels, which serve the Soviet leaders who come there to hunt in the summer days. Kamenetz provides the necessary supplies for this center. Therefore, the town is barred to tourists, and those who do not live there need a special permit to travel from Brest to Kamenetz.

I explained to a N.K.V.D. official in Brest that the only reason I cared to make the trip from Israel to the Soviet Union was to visit my birth-place; thereupon I received a permit to stay in Kamenetz for five hours. That is how, on September 20th, 1965), I left Brest in a taxi and set out for Kamenetz. I was accompanied by Clara Sapir, a native of Kamenetz, Misha Serba, a, native of Brest, and a Jewish student from Bobruysk, whose acquaintance I made in Brest. The road which leads through Ciechanowczyce is wide and covered with asphalt. On my way I stopped at Ciechanowczyce, which I knew from the many trips I used to make from Kamenetz to Brest. Rahel Leah's inn is still standing and so are all the Jewish houses – only the Jews are in their houses no longer. In fact, nothing seems to have changed there, except the asphalt road. The wooden houses with thatched roofs looked as low and humble as ever and peasants with bored looks could be seen in the houses' backyards. I noticed only few changes in the villages adjoining the highway, but near Vidomla and Branka I saw tractor stations and collective farms ("Kolkhozes"). Here and there appeared chimneyed buildings. Those, I was told, were plants for agricultural products. At noon I arrived in Kamenetz from IC, the direction of "Odalina". I could not recognize the entrance to the town and the Brest Street, which is much longer and runs alongside the main highway.

The windmills which used to greet you at the entrance to Kamenetz exist no longer. Residential houses, three stories tall, were built in their place and they occupy the entire length of the street. Only the mill of Shostokovsky has remained.

There is no trace of the Jewish cemetery in Brest Street. There, where once was the Catholic priest's courtyard, now stands a four-storied Government building, surrounded by a large square. Lenin's statue was erected in front of the building. On the place once occupied by Geier's house, the Soviets built a three stories high "Gum" Store, a kind of state-run supermarket.

The old Catholic church and the Municipality disappeared. They gave place to a spacious bus station provided with a large restaurant and good conveniences. Till then I image of found it difficult to reconstruct in my mind the Kamenetz I had cherished so long. Only when I got to the market place ("Rynek") I recognized a familiar sight and I knew I arrived in Kamenetz. But this was merely the outward, physical appearance of my hometown. Its living spirit was not there anymore.

My Kamenetz

The market square did not look the same either. A garden was planted in place of the shops and in its center stands a monument commemorating the Red Army soldiers who fell in the Second World War. The houses round the square, however, are all standing as they did once, as if I had returned to Kamenetz after a day's absence and as if nothing had happened in the meantime. The house of the ritual slaughterer (shochet) Reb Itshak I the houses of Halperin and Vigotov, the pharmacy and the Russian Orthodox church are still there. So are the houses of the religious Judge, of I Shmuel Golobchick and David Rosenstock. Only Hayim Shayke and Hana Bobro are missing on the sidewalks; only the Jews are missing in their houses and Jewish children are not playing in the streets.

All the lanes and streets adjoining Kobrynska Street, with their wooden houses sustained no damage and were untouched by the Disaster.

Brest Street is now an asphalt road, leading to Bialostocka, through Zastavye to Kamienicki. But the other streets are paved with the same old cobblestones. The sidewalks are old and decrepit, the house-fronts unchanged. Only the front-porches disappeared.

I paid a short visit in Yuzek Grigorevsky's house. Yuzek had saved Dora by hiding her in various places. He did it endangering his own life and the life of his own family. When we met, Yuzek was even more moved than I. All the time he kept on repeating: "They murdered everybody and I could save only one with difficulty! Not a single one of 'you' remained!"

The Great Synagogue (Der Mayer) together with the Talmud-Torah were converted into a factory. The remnants of the ancient fortress ("Slup") were reconstructed and a museum consecrated to the history of the Bialowieza Forest and the antiquities of the region was set up. The adjoining houses were pulled down and gave their place to a parking lot and to a square which surrounds the museum.

I carried on my way, wandered in the narrow lanes, glanced at the windows of the houses I had known in the past, and just could not accept the fact that everything was left standing, but that life itself had been uprooted. It seemed to me that all the strangers did not realize what had happened there – or did not want to remind themselves of it. Either they lent their helping hands to the murderers or their consciences bothered them, because they did not lift up a finger to help the victims and only wanted to seize the inheritance of their Jewish neighbours.

The people I came across in the streets, in the supermarket, and in the stores, looked at me with curiosity at first, believing I was a tourist who had come there by mistake. However, upon learning I was a Jew, a native of the town, their attitude changed. Immediately, they seemed shocked and stepped aside, In the eyes of many of them I saw an expression of bad conscience, as if they were reminded of something unpleasant, as if I had brought them a message from the world of eternal truth. While I was walking in the streets in the company of Yuzek, people sometimes asked him: "Who's that man?" And he kept replying: "Don't you remember the son of Hayim. Schmidt?" Following his reply people reacted in various ways. One said: "Is that the truth?" Another one distorted his face as if this had reminded him of something bad. A third one expressed pity and uttered a loud "Bozhe Moy" (My God).

I shall never forget the only person who received me with tears during my visit to Kamenetz. While I was walking in Litevska Street with Yuzek's children, an old Christian woman went out from the yard of the house opposite Yuzek's and asked me: "Aren't you the son of Hayim Schmidt, the butcher?" When I said "Yes, that's right", she burst out in tears and flung herself at me to kiss me.

The woman wailed loudly: "How the wild beasts murdered you! Why was your fate so bitter! Your father and mother and all your family were good, upright people! Why did they murder you! Have any Jews from Kamenetz remained in the world?" So this simple, honest Christian woman lamented and cried together with me.

I also went to my house where I was born and lived for 19 years, I knocked softly on the door and opened it even before I heard an answer. An old woman went out of the second room which had been my parents' bedroom. Tears choked me. I felt paralysed and unable to utter a word. Apparently, the woman understood my feelings and she began whispering, as if she were talking to herself:

"Yes, I knew the owners of this house, Hayim and Rahel and their children and grandchildren. They were good people and did only favours to others. The Nazi beasts murdered them! I thought no one of you was left. Oh, my God, is it our fault if the authorities allocated the houses?"

I could stand it no longer… Dazed and heart-broken I went out and saw two children in white shirts playing in the yard of my house. Seeing me and my camera they asked me to photograph them. I took their picture, with my parents' house in the background… That was the only souvenir left.

For another hour I wandered in the Kobrynska Street, and the adjoining lanes, near the houses of my sister, my friends and acquaintances.

I calmed down, gathered strength and was bold enough to enter the Government House. Perhaps I could obtain some official information on the period of the catastrophe which befell my townlet.

Effacing the Memory and the Past

I entered the Secretariat and turned to the Soviet official who was sitting at the table. I told him about the purpose of my coming from Israel and about my desire to hear from him something about the fate of the 500 Jewish families, among whom were my parents, sister, uncles and aunts, who perished with other inhabitants of the town.

With marked coolness and reserve the trim official responded: "Citizen! You can see all there is, and what happened here in the past does not concern us anymore. You are allowed to see, to look around and to receive your own impressions. That is all."

With these curt, dry and smooth words, the representative of the regime of liberation effaced the past centuries, the ways of life of many generations – the entire Jewish small town! I left the Soviet Government office. It was five o'clock in the afternoon. The validity of my permit to stay in Kamenetz had expired. Feeling dizzy I entered the taxi, and without turning my head I said to the driver: "Go straight ahead!"

The life had been smothered and the stones are valueless. But I shall remember! We shall remember and tell the story to the generations to come!

I felt as if I were returning from a funeral. The funeral of my parents, my sisters, my uncles and aunts, my friends and acquaintances and all the Jews who had lived in Kamenetz, my home-town.

kam175.jpg [20 KB]

[Page 182]

Our Heritage

by Samuel Lipchick (New York)

Yes, Polish Jewry was the crown of the Jewish people, and our little Kamenetz-Litovsk, a shining gem in that brilliant crown. We had our own cultural and benevolent institutions and movements, synagogues and Hebrew schools,organizations and youth clubs, we had our own capable leaders and instructors, and, as I have already stated, our families were among the most recognized and cherished.

But all this altered with the coming of the Second World War, in the "night of the long blade". The black Nazi regime wrought upon us the worst destruction in our history, exterminating, one third of our people, and all our achievements through the countless generations.

As one who has been fortunate enough to come to America, and thus avoid the tragic ending that befell the rest of our family, I feel it my duty to tell you about them, and inform you that you are their spiritual and moral inheritors.

You may have to answer our enemies that often ask: Why did your Polish cousins allow themselves to be led, passively, to their death, as do sheep? Why did they not fight to defend themselves?

Our nation is a nation of giants, and, even during the Nazi occupation, they showed unmatched courage and heroism; they fought in ghettos and concentration camps, they were partisans in the woods and forests and so took revenge. They fought in the armies of the Allies until victory was won.

The Jews were mostly from Poland, and among them those from Kamenetz-Litovsk.

It is understood that Israel needed, and still needs help from the Jews in the world. There was a vast desert, where cities had to be built to accommodate millions of Jews, displaced persons from Europe and other countries of exile. This can only be accomplished by our help.

No one will help us if we don't attempt to help ourselves. "If I am not myself, who will be for me, and if not now, then when?"

Kamenetz-Litovsk exists no longer as a Jewish town. All the Jews are gone. Our friends now reside in Israel and everywhere in the world. The memories in this book are all that remains of our "old country".

This is our heritage for the generations to come.

kam175a.jpg [30 KB]
Dov (Bertchik) Shmidt and Dora Galperin
in Auschwitz 1965

[Page 184]

To Their Memory

With deep emotion, we are setting our hands to the sacred undertaking – the publication of the Kamenetz Litovsk Memorial Book which will perpetuate the memory of the hallowed martyrs of our town.

WE SHALL NOT FORGET the simple people of our town, of the difficult burden of your everyday existence, means of living for their families.

WE SHALL NOT FORGET you, dear parents who, in spite who toiled in the sweat of their brows to obtain and despite the oppressive measures of the changing rulers of the town, spared neither efforts nor care to teach your children to perform good deeds. You sent your sons and daughters to the Land of Israel to build it and to build their home there. Large is your share in the establishment of the State of Israel, though the Nazi murderers prevented you from seeing it restored.

WE SHALL NOT FORGET our brothers and sisters and the pure, innocent souls of the children of the town who were led to slaughter.

WE SHALL NOT FORGET the teachers of our town, who despite difficult conditions took great pains to instil cultural values and knowledge among the youth and to prepare them for a life of work and creative toil in the restored homeland of our people.

WE SHALL NOT FORGET the many students of the Torah in our town and for mostly the Rabbis Reuven Burstein and Barukh Baer Leibovich who educated the young generations to live according to the precepts of the Law, to perform good deeds and to love the fellow-Jews.

WE SHALL NOT FORGET the community workers in Kamenetz who were driven by their concern for the welfare of the fellow townsmen and established charitable, cultural and social institutions.

WE SHALL NOT FORGET the youth organizations which in spite of the social and political differences existing among them, were faithful to their people and strove to come to the Land of Israel and to participate in the establishment and defence of the State.

We shall remember all of you!

Let us not pass over in silence over what the terrible Nazi Amalekite did to us!

This Memorial Book will provide historical documentation for the scientific researchers who will, in the course of time, explore the sources and will be able to learn about the characteristic features of the communities of Kamenetz-Litovsk and Zastavye that perished and will never rise again.

This book will serve as memorial candle and genealogical table to our sons and their descendants. From it they will gain knowledge about their forefathers, their origin, the circumstances in which they lived, worked and suffered in various periods. This book will tell them about the holocaust and the heroism, about the struggle against the savage Nazi beast and about the yearnings of the victims who longed, in the last moments of their lives, for a free life in Zion.

Let the future generations know about their origin and be proud of the deeds of their forefathers.

May their memory live forever!

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