To the Memory of the Shtetlekh
|Editor: David Stockfish
Do Not Forgive
by Yitshak Brat
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
They live with us those whose lives were cut short, who were tortured and murdered. They walk with us, the sacred souls of our dearest, most beloved. They remain with us, hover before our eyes. They are etched in our hearts and nest there. Like the Biblical pillar of fire they accompany and light the way for us as we wander over towns and lands. In days of hopelessness, of deep despair, they have consoled us, encouraged us. When we stood at the very edge of the abyss they kept us from falling into the deep chasm. They instilled in us the hope that we would survive the horrific times and swim to a safe shore.
They, the holy martyrs of the towns Rafalovka, Zoludzk, and Olizarka, where we first saw the light of day, do not abandon us. And we, too, do not abandon them. We are tied together with unbreakable threads, forever, until the last breath. We have brought them with us here, to the old new land, to the Jewish state which they did not live to attain.
With great respect we remember them not just every year, but even every day and every hour. We include them in our celebrations and in our mourning. We see their faces before us, looking as they did in those days when they smiled at us warmly and even when they got angry, when a mother caressed a child's head or a father took his son to synagogue.
Who can forget those pure, honest, and sincere people? Who can forget the holidays of the past, the weddings for which people prepared for months. The sweet music of the orchestras that accompanied bride and groom to the khupe [wedding canopy] at the town synagogue still sounds in our ears. Not just the family, but the entire town rejoiced because everyone lived there as one family, sharing joy and suffering, hoping and dreaming of better times.
The spiritual resources which those people instilled in us, with which they endowed us, enabled us to live through the evil years under the Nazis, the wandering over the endless territories of the Soviet Union, Siberia and Central Asia, and in other places of exile and escape in forests
and work camps, until we reached this, our own place, and built a new life.
I see those people from our destroyed towns as if they were brightly illuminated. They never pursued a life of luxury, they didn't even know what such a life looked like. A life of seeking earthly pleasures was foreign to them. They considered life on earth as a sort of corridor that led to a lovely room the world to come to a better, more beautiful world, to a world of spirituality which only the very holy can attain.
So they strived to donate to charity; even when they themselves were poor they helped those who were even poorer and in need of their help. They established all kinds of charitable associations, collected money to help the town's poor, to marry off orphans, support the elderly, doing it both openly and in secret.
As I said, they didn't pursue luxury. On the contrary, what they strived for were an aliyah [call to read from the Torah in synagogue], or the opportunity to recite the kedusha prayer, to pray at the pulpit. Even in the worst blizzards, the most extreme cold, as soon as they heard the knocking on their shutters and the call that summoned them to arise and go to pray, they got up, rinsed their hands with the ritual negl vaser, washed their faces, pulled on their trousers, grabbed their jackets and book of psalms and ran through the snow covered streets to synagogue. After saying the requisite number of psalms, they recited the morning prayer, kissed the mezuzah and hurried home. After grabbing the heel of a loaf of bread, they went out to their shops of to the market to find a way to earn a bit of money.
In their homes there were no water faucets or bathrooms. Water didn't flow from pipes; it had to be carried from a nearby well in two buckets hung on either side of a yoke carried on one's shoulders. The water was drawn from the well by turning a wheel or pulling it up, brought home, and poured into large wooden containers. In a corner stood a copper
pitcher and a large basin with which you could wash your face. There was also a washtub for bathing. Also, every Friday people went to the public baths. They walked there, quite far outside the town, to take a steam bath and scrub themselves with little brooms.
It was worse in winter when the well was armored in ice and the area around it was slippery. Sometimes the ice reached as high as the opening to the well. On top of that, the cold burnt your face and the wind penetrated your body. But even in such conditions, people somehow managed. There was no lack of water, no one could turn off your water. There were no water meters, no electric meters. The only kind of meters or measuring devices they knew about were the large pocket watches on long chains that young men received as wedding presents.
In all the towns in the area you couldn't find a single refrigerator, not even an ice box. Still, the Jewish housewives managed quite well. The food didn't spoil and their digestions didn't go bad. People then couldn't imagine a thing like a television, a radio, a stereo; nor were there telephones in people's houses. They did without such modern things. The important things were the synagogue, a heder [religious school] for children, a school, a library, all the Zionist groups with their conflicts and squabbles, just like in the big cities. Even the smallest town had a drama group, a sports club. So what did young people do when their town had no theater, no movie, no discotheque? They didn't just sit around doing nothing. They read newspapers and books; held box evenings [where people discussed questions drawn from a box]; conducted literary and political discussions; collected money for the Zionist National Fund and United Israel Appeal; and went to hakhshore [Zionist training camp] to prepare to make aliyah to Eretz Yisroel.
On the Sabbath and holidays people lived it up. Even the poorest person had challah, fish and meat to eat, and wine to make the Kiddush blessing. And if they didn't have wine, they were content with the challah.
On Friday, before the Sabbath, people would put their pots of cholent [Sabbath stew] into the large ovens, sealing them with clay. The stew would cook the entire night and was taken out after the Sabbath prayers the next day. The browned potatoes and the stuffed kishke spread delicious aromas throughout the house. People sat down at the table, Father, at the head of the table, said the blessing, and Mother began to serve the meal. Delicious dishes were brought in the rich kugels, the golden broth. On Friday, Mother got up before dawn, when it was still dark outside, and baked big flat rolls called pletzls. The children got up, washed their hands with negl vaser, rinsed their faces and fell upon the hot pletzls with grivenes [cracklings with onions]. Their pleasure and joy were boundless.
On Simchat Torah, after rejoicing and dancing with the Torah in synagogue, masses of Jews went out into the streets, going door to door, eating kugel and other baked goods that the women of the house served them. This was a celebration that everyone rich and poor, young and old took part it.
The small towns that we describe here, in Volin, in Western Ukraine (earlier, Poland) were thoroughly Jewish. There were a few nonJews, but on a Sabbath or Jewish holiday the streets were completely empty, all the shops closed. The only people to be seen were hurrying with their tallis [prayer shawl] bags to synagogue and then home for the Sabbath or holiday feast.
Rafalovka, Zoludzk, Olizarka and the other small towns in the area were scattered amidst fields, woods and orchards, as if they were hiding out. Their streets were not paved. The sidewalks were covered with boards. They had never seen asphalt or automobiles, just horses and wagons. No one was afraid to cross the road. There were no red and green lights, just the sun shining on lovely summer days and the snow glistening in the cold winter months.
Like oases on small islands these Voliner towns spread out, surrounded by a sea of Christian hatred and enmity. The lava of bestial wildness that had previously been contained broke out when the Nazis spread their black wings over Europe. All the animals in human form
attacked their helpless fellow citizens, the Jews, to kill them and appropriate their property.
They waited impatiently for the day when the Jews would be completely liquidated. And when the murderers surrounded the entire ghetto in 1942 and drove thousands of Jews to the graves they had already prepared in the nearby forest, the Ukrainians celebrated. We're finally rid of the zhides [pejorative for Jews] and can grab their houses and possessions.
The Germans did the killing and the Ukrainians, the good neighbors, helped. Together they spilled Jewish blood, which calls out from the earth.
I was not present at this ravine of murder, this Rafalovka valley of death. The Nazi Angel of Death did not manage to catch me. I escaped in time, at the last possible moment, to the eastern part of the Soviet Union and thus survived. But we who survived were also wounded on that day of mass murder. We will always feel the pain and will never forget our loved ones whom we lost in such a horrifying way. May their shining memory be sanctified.
by Arye Yadushvili
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
September 1, 1939, the day the Germans went to war against Poland, evoked various thoughts and opinions among the populace. The elderly, who knew what war meant from their experience in World War I, were surprised and frightened. The young were completely unable to imagine what war entailed.
By the next day there appeared announcements about mobilization, about covering the windows and about how to take cover during bombing attacks. The Polish radio began these announcements, Attention, attention to the following. From the announcements one would think that in a few days the war
would be over. But then why were there so many German planes flying around? A peasant who came in from the field said that he had gone out very early with his horse and wagon and a German flyer flew right past him. I was very scared, he said, and the flyer was sitting in the plane laughing, but you don't see a single Polish flyer.
After a few days, the situation became clear. The Polish radio fell silent and at the home of the teacher Misha Kontsevitsh, who had a radio that worked on batteries, we heard the news from Moscow that the Polish government had fled and abandoned its people. On the streets of Old Rafalovka one saw suspicious looking people, those who had been released from prison, some of whom were Jews who had been in prison for Communist activity. Also there were Polish soldiers, some in groups, some alone, wearing their uniforms, some with and some without their weapons. That was how the town looked from September 1 to September 15.
On September 16, the Soviet radio announced that since the Polish government had run away and left its people defenseless, the soviet government considered it its sacred obligation to protect its brothers in Western Ukraine and Western Bielarus. Accordingly, the Soviet authorities issued an order to cross the border and liberate the territory of Western Ukraine and Western Bielarus. A few Ukrainian youths organized themselves and began seizing their weapons from Polish soldiers. Among these was a Jewish girl who had been liberated from the Rovne prison. They stood at the fire station in the center of town and whenever an armed soldier passed by, they took his weapon. Some of the group wore red armbands.
A young lieutenant rode his motorcycle down from the mountain into town. One of the group pointed a rifle at him and ordered him to halt. Having no choice, he gave them his revolver. They also took his motorcycle. The older people looking on shook their heads, saying Nothing good will come of this.
Then a military car came down the mountain. One of the group went out with a weapon in hand and ordered Hands up! The car
stopped, and an officer surrendered his revolver, but instead of continuing on his way he turned around and drove back up the mountain.
At this point it became apparent that things would not go smoothly. Around 12 o'clock on September 17, the group stationed a watchman on a bicycle on the mountain. If he observed any movement by the military, he was to rush down and alert them. At about 2 o'clock the watchman appeared and told them that he had seen two busses driving toward the town. Shortly after, two busses with military men stopped at the bottom of the mountain, at the entrance to town.
The civilian population went indoors. Suddenly, a rifle shot was heard. I saw a nonJewish acquaintance of mine who was active in the group running, tearing off his red armband as he ran, and throwing it and the rifle away. What happened? I asked. He answered that Ivan Sniezshke, a well known thief in town, had been killed by the first bullet fired by the Polish soldier.
Soon, the soldiers from the two busses entered the town in a hail of shooting that lasted two hours. We lay hidden in a cellar and were very frightened the entire time. The busses with the soldiers then drove away. They had also planned to set fire to the town, but a Polish teacher approached them and explained that the population was trustworthy and not at fault, that the whole game was carried out by the freed prisoners. The soldiers were persuaded not to burn the town.
The next day we participated in two funerals, that of Ivan Sniezshke and that of a Jew we didn't know who had also been killed in the action.
We heard that the Russian Army was already in Solne and we eagerly awaited their arrival. In the meantime, we went to the offices of the Zionist organization where the Tarbut library and the Betar Club were located and took down the slogans and the pictures of Dr. [Theodore] Hertzl and other Zionist leaders, because we knew that the Soviets were not in agreement with Zionist activity. The days passed until one September day
we learned that the Soviet army would arrive in town the next day. And so it did. At dawn the buildings were decorated with red flags. Reb Yone Yartshun, gabe [administrator] of the Libashayer synagogue also hung a red flag on the synagogue. The children of the public school lined up in two rows with their teachers. The soltis [village magistrate] and Ivan Ivanovitsh, representing the Ukrainian population and Yenkl Bas, representing the Jewish population, stood together with the residents near a table with bread and salt ready to receive the comrades.
Around 11 A.M. the first divisions of the Red Army drove in, loudly hailing the liberation and their friendship with Western Ukraine. There was great rejoicing. Because there was no bridge over the river, they had to cross by ferry and it took a very long time before the town was filled with Russian soldiers. The older people tried to converse with them in Russian. Every Russian soldier carried packages of Polish cigarettes which they had snatched up from shops and warehouses when they crossed the border, and they generously distributed them to the population.
Things slowly began to get organized. Every evening meetings of Jewish and Ukrainian young people took place in the fire house. Some began to sign up in the Komsomol [youth organization of the Communist Party]. From an economic standpoint the conditions were as follows: The tradesmen worked for the peasants, who paid partly in rubles, partly in goods. Meanwhile, brokers from the Soviet Union arrived to see about harvesting and exporting wood from the forests, and transporting it, mostly to the Donets basin coal mines.
The Jewish population in Rafalovka began working in offices as bookkeepers, brokers and the like. Some became militia men. Others worked in cooperatives, staterun shops. It seemed that things were calm and going well, that there would be peace and prosperity. In truth, part of the population were suspected of disloyalty to the
new regime, because it was believed that children would follow in their parents' footsteps, that the son of a worker would be a worker. Taking into account that a certain number of the Jewish population were merchants, and others had a history of Zionist affiliations, people were often at risk of being sent to Siberia, as happened in a number of Jewish families in the areas.
So people adapted to the new way of life although not everything was good from a Jewish standpoint. Some of the young people began working on Saturday as required by their Russian bosses. Others, who had become members of Komsomol, avoided going to synagogue because of the antireligious stance of the Party. There were even cases of false denunciations, something that was implemented by the new government. The Polish school was turned into a Ukrainian school and the Jewish children had trouble pronouncing the Ukrainian language and the poetry of Taras Bulba.
At the beginning of March 1941 they began to take almost all the Jewish boys to somewhere near the Romanian border where, as was later learned, they were employed to build trenches. Incidentally, I remained at home, because in my military papers I was designated as being on a special list of disloyal elements because of my Zionist past. This secret about me was told to the Soviet agent by my comrade L. from the Rafalovka station, when they made up the list of youths eligible for military service.
In June, 1941, several days before the GermanRussian war broke out, the boys returned to town, exhausted by work under extreme conditions. They didn't have much time to recover because a few days later war broke out and they were mobilized.
The news on Soviet radio on June 22, 1941, that the Germans had bombed Kiev, Odessa and other cities, hit us like lightening on a clear day.
The next day Stalin gave his famous speech announcing the Great Patriotic War. We stood next to the radio like frightened sheep, not knowing what to do. One of my aunts, Henie Aplboym said, Well, Hitler will soon have his neck broken; it's not the same nation that conquered Russia. Today, as I recall this, I understand how logical was her understanding of the situation. But she did not imagine that she along with all the Jews of the town would not live to see the victory because they would be killed by the Nazis.
I write elsewhere about the troubles and suffering that we endured in the period after the Russians left and before the Germans invaded. Here, I will tell in general that soon after the Germans arrived they posted announcements that ordered:
The Ukrainian young people began to participate in the new regime. Some of them became members of the police, and their antiSemitism exceeded that of their German bosses. Christians of our age who had been our classmates in the Polish school and in general former friends of Jewish youth, had a change of heart, and completely failed to recognize their old comrades and neighbors of Jewish background.
Rafalovka had a Ukrainian family; the father was called Mosei Palmortsiuk and he had four or five sons, all musicians, who played at Jewish weddings. The family was famous in the region for their fiddle playing. They could play the entire Jewish repertoire, before and after the wedding ceremony, the broygez tants [where the couple's mothers act out anger broygez toward each other] and others. The family prospered from their playing for the Jewish population.
When the Russians
came, the children of the family were among the first members of Komsomol. When the Germans came, they were among the first police and servants of the Germans. The oldest son, Ivan, became the chief of police in Bilskovole, in which position he was in charge of Jewish property. He ordered that they bring him silver forks and spoons and other valuable items. He declared, America has been revealed to me. He had never dreamed of such a life.
In truth, the father, Mosei, understood that no good would come of this, but he had no influence over his children. The end of the story was as follows: One winter night in 1942 a group of partisans, a large part of whom were Jews from Rafalovka, entered the homes of people whose children were serving in the police and actually killed entire families. The next day, the Rafalovka priest had to officiate at the funerals of more than 30 victims of the partisan operation.
Various accounts of that unhappy era of the German occupation note that the majority of the decrees that the Nazis issued to the Jewish population were published on the Sabbath or on holidays. On Yom Kippur 5702 Jews were told that they had to wear yellow patches. The AntiSemites apparently couldn't bear it that Jews wore on their sleeves a white band with a blue Star of David which symbolized for them something of former dignity; so they ordered instead that Jews 10 years old and up wear yellow patches, 9 centimeters in size, one to be worn on the right side and the other in the middle of the back, so that no matter which way a Jew turned he would be recognized by the yellow symbol. I stood in synagogue and looked at the black caftans of the congregation with their yellow symbols and my heart wept to see how depraved the Nazis could be, to see how low we had fallen.
In winter of 194142 we were still in our own homes, although trouble, suffering and fear were our daily bread. After the collection of gold, (which I describe in another chapter), the Germans demanded that valuable fabrics and long fur vests be turned over for use by their army. Girls were assigned to knit woolen gloves for soldiers, the men were seized from time to time for forced labor. Our lives were bitter in those days. But thanks to longstanding business connections between the Jewish and Ukrainian populations, at least in the villages, they could still bring into town some potatoes, eggs, a wagonload of wood, which enabled us to survive the winter.
I once visited Yidl the tailor, an elderly Jew, who with his son Hersh Leyb sewed shirts and pants for the Ukrainians. Yidl always liked to tell jokes and quote witty sayings. In earlier times, you never saw him with a sad expression on his face. But now he said to me: Help! Tell me, please, what do these murderers want from us. These simple words expressed the tragic state in which we found ourselves at that time.
It even happened that Germans would beat up Ukrainians. If you asked a German why he did that, he would say that his father always told him how the Ukrainians had stripped him naked during the retreat of the Germans after World War I, and he wanted to take revenge for his father's suffering.
Although the Germans did not permit the Jews to travel from one town to another, we still learned of the horrible acts against the Jews in neighboring towns. So we heard how in Manievitsh the Germans killed 300 Jews. The same occurred in Sernik. This news was unbelievable and in order to ease our fears we would say that it wouldn't happen to us, our local commissar is a fine person, he wouldn't let that happen.
Around Purim it became known that on May 15, 1942, all Jews in the area had to be concentrated in a ghetto, at the station in Rafalovka. Jews from Old Rafalovka, Olizarka, and the villages had to go to the streets that were designated as the ghetto. In a word, the expulsion had begun. The Judenrat, which had earlier been chosen by the Germans to help them carry out all their decrees, began confiscating residences where the Jews form the area would be settled.
The Jews from Old Rafalovka began to transport things to the station a wagonload of wood, a sack of flour, a couple of sacks of potatoesso that they would have something to help them survive. Anyone who had a nonJewish acquaintance gave that person their house and other things of value. If not, their property was forfeited.
In the last days before May 15, the terrified, helpless Jews of Old Rafalovka gathered in the Stepiner synagogue with its walls, its Torah ark, with everything generations of Jews had experienced in pain and joy. Now their hearts told them they were parting with these things forever. With them, into the ghetto, went the holy books and other ritual items.
On May 15, which was lovely day, men, women and children drove in wagons to the station in the ghetto. Next to our wagon was the Yartshun family. Reb Yoyne Yartshun, an elderly man sat wrapped in his caftan, looking as if he were trying to figure out why he had lived to such an old age. Around us, Ukrainians were working the fields, plowing, harrowing and sowing. They looked at us from a distance. Some felt sorry for us, others perhaps were happy about our misfortune. As Mendel Moykher Sforim wrote: The nations [nonJews] with their festive melodies, but Israel with its lamentations.
At last we were in the ghetto. The few streets that had been designated for the ghetto looked like one large, locked cage that you couldn't enter or leave. Except that every morning 50 men and women had to report for work on the Polonover bridge, which the Germans were rebuilding in order to carry the train from Kovel to Sarne. In those days boys and girls would meet in the street and because of the pain and sorrow we felt we couldn't look each other in the eye, as if we were guilty for our fate. Now it appeared to us that the worst, fatal mistake we had made was not to have left with the Red Army. But how could everyone have done that?
One person had an elderly father, another a widowed mother. How could they abandon them?
In time, signs of hunger began to appear. Being cut off from the peasants and from the neighboring area, not having the ability to buy and sell, families were very impoverished. Even those who had a bit of flour and some potatoes began to live sparingly, not knowing what tomorrow would bring.
Meanwhile the Germans took Jews to work at the sawmill in Bilskavole because they needed wood for the Polanover bridge. The Germans also permitted several Jews from Old Rafalovka to be assigned to work in the forest, and a small number of tradesmen were even allowed to work for peasants in the villages.
Those designated on a list would leave the ghetto on Monday at dawn to work outside the ghetto in Old Rafalovka, Bilskavole and other villages and stay there the whole week. On Saturday we returned to our families in the ghetto and sometimes brought with us a loaf of bread or some beans which helped those who remained in the ghetto to stay alive.
Around Shevuot they began to talk in the ghetto about the Germans' plan to conduct a count of the Jewish population, to see if everyone was in place. This led to various guesses and opinions. What did the Germans mean by this? Did they intend to assemble all the Jews in one place in order to kill them? It turned out that this time, all they did was count. This was a trick to get us to let down our guard and to strengthen Jewish trust in what the Germans said.
The count took place on the 1st day of Tammuz, 5702. Very early, all Jewish residents went to the counting site. Everyone assembled on one side. Names were called from a list assembled by the Judnrat. When your name was called, you had to cross over to the other side. Five Germans and ten Ukrainian policemen attended the spectacle. Then everyone was sent home.
Meanwhile, the economic situation in the ghetto became very bad.
Most of the population was running out of the small bit of food they had. Signs of hunger were visible on people's faces. The situation was hopeless; it wasn't as if people could believe that their hunger would soon be relieved, that they could look forward to eating their fill. In the ghetto they had lost hope that a day would come when one could eat one's fill. It wasn't surprising that I heard elderly people say, It doesn't matter to me if I die soon, I just wish that before I die I can eat a proper meal.
When hunger afflicts a person's body, he doesn't have the strength even to lift a stone; his legs can't run; apathy reigns over even the strongest. (Let the last few words serve as a lesson for those who weren't there and permit themselves to ask the questions: Why didn't you resist? Why didn't you run away?)
The few exhausted, starving Jews were simply not able, even if they had weapons with which to fight the murderers, to do something on the eve of slaughter.
In the middle of the month of Ab, a tragic event occurred that shook everyone to their core. If there was perhaps someone left who unconsciously dreamt or hoped that a miracle could happen and the situation would improve, this event made clear the truth of our tragic reality.
As I have written, the Judnrat had Jewish police to help them. In addition to the yellow Star of David they wore on their right sleeves a band with the inscription, Jewish Police. They kept the lists of those assigned to forced labor and in return they were exempted from labor.
But people began to agitate and demand that the Jewish police should also go to work. One day they went out to work on the Polonover bridge. As evening approached
they did not return to the ghetto as they did every day. It was already dark, and still there was no sign of them. People ran to the Germans, who lived in the building belonging to the town. The Germans said that the police were spending the night at the worksite. Early the next morning the Germans came and demanded that people report to work. But where are the ones who didn't return from work on the bridge yesterday? we asked. When today's group of workers arrives at the site, yesterday's group will return, was the answer. Our hearts fell, especially those of the families whose children or husbands hadn't returned.
The second group of workers was forcibly assembled and fearfully set off for the bridge. As soon as they approached the station, they encountered a Christian from the neighborhood who warned them: For pity's sake, go back. Yesterday they killed all the Jewish bridge workers. Have pity on yourselves and go back.
Scared to death, they returned to the ghetto. A few days later we learned what had happened at the bridge. A group of Germans from the Sonderkommand had killed all the Jewish residents of the Tshartorisk station, which was close to the Polonover bridge. At the same time, they took the opportunity to take the Jewish bridge workers and brutally murdered them along with the people from Tshartorisk.
After this we didn't go to work for two days. But the Germans again demanded we provide workers and they sent us to the bridge.
This was how life in the ghetto continued for another month. Some of the Old Rafalovka Jews went to work at the Bilskavole sawmill in the forest and their families in the ghetto waited day and night for their unavoidable fate.
In some houses, people began preparing secret hiding places. No matter what might happen, maybe they would be able to hide before the fateful day.
The Polonover bridge was almost finished. A large part
in building the bridge had been played by Jewish forced labor. And according to German practices, the Jews of the Rafalevske ghetto had now become superfluous.
Then came Tuesday, the 12th day of Elul, 5702. The ghetto was surrounded by Ukrainian police and the order was issued that every Jew working outside the ghetto must return. We had heard that graves were being dug in the area of the forest near the station. Also, some of the people who went out to work had heard this from Ukrainian peasants. As soon as the order to return to the ghetto was issued, they ran away to the forests at night, to places where they could hide.
As noted, the ghetto was surrounded on Tuesday. At night some young people attempted to break through the Ukrainian guard and some succeeded. On Wednesday a few Jewish women smuggled themselves out of the ghetto, disguised as Ukrainian peasant women, with baskets on their backs. On the night of Wednesday to Thursday the guard was increased and no Jew remaining in the ghetto could get out. Until the evil Saturday, 16th day of Elul. As my cousin Avraham Aplboym later told me, on that day, they ordered everyone to leave their homes and drove them to the graves. They took the old men, women and the sick in wagons that had been mobilized. German and Ukrainian guards made sure no one remained in the houses or to her hiding places. Walking to the graves, the condemned heard the whistle of the locomotive which was travelling over the Polonover bridge for the first time, on the way to Sarne. No miracle happened. As our national poet Chaim Nachman Bialek wrote about the Kishenev pogrom [in the poem City Of Slaughter: The slayer slew, the blossom burst, and it was sunny weather.
I do not have the power to describe what occurred at the graves, where women, men, children old people were mercilessly killed. Those who weren't there will never be able to tell even a thousandth part of that horrendous Saturday,
because they weren't there that day, when the lives of the Jewish inhabitants of Rafalovka, Olizarka and Zoludzk were cut down. God will avenge their blood.
by Arye Yadushvili
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
After the old dayan [religious judge, rabbi] of our town died, around 1933, Harav [rabbi] Posmanik replaced him. He was a young, energetic rabbi who introduced various new ways. For example, he summoned the congregation to gather in the synagogue and strongly chastised them for not maintaining a sufficient distance between men and women when they bathed in the river. He ended the sermon by saying Whoever does not strictly comply with my order will be bitten by a snake. The impact of his words was so great that a few days later, when my cousin Avraham Apelboym was bathing in the river and hurt himself on a barbed wire, he kept screaming that a snake had bitten him.
Rabbi Posmanik's fatherinlaw was the rabbi of Lomaz, a town in western Poland. He was an elderly man who occasionally would come to our town to visit his daughter and soninlaw.
His sermons to our congregation were a combination of Torah, science and wisdom. Since the congregants didn't have any other place to spend their time, they would remain in the synagogue between the evening and night prayers and listen to him speak. Whenever I saw the old rabbi, he always had a book in his hand. He died in Old Rafalovka at the tragic end of its existence, killed along with all the other Jewish inhabitants.
He came to live in our town after the town of Lomaz fell into German hands in 1939. Those close to him advised him to move in with his soninlaw in Old Rafalovka since our area in Western Ukraine had been taken over by the Soviets
and in the years 193941, conditions there were safer. Accordingly, many Jews from Poland had fled there.
True, a lot of Jewish occupations were in ruins, like merchants, shopkeepers, dealers and tradesmen. Many people were terrified of being sent to Siberia. But for the majority of the Jewish population life was relatively safer and everyone tried to adapt to the structure of the Soviet economy. Even the young rabbi began to work as a book binder under the new regime.
In contrast, his fatherinlaw, the old rabbi, sat in the Libishayer synagogue and studied. It seemed as if the elderly rabbi had liquidated his accounts with the world and all of his thoughts were devoted to a higher sphere of existence.
Under the influence of the Soviet regime our way of life underwent great changes, especially for young people. All of our young people tried to get work in the offices of the forestry industry, but that entailed working on the Sabbath. The young people began to enroll in Soviet organizations, mostly Comsomol, the Communist youth organization, where one of the tasks required of members was to inform Party authorities about what family and acquaintances did.
When people would sometimes on a Saturday ask the old rabbi to say something to the congregation, he didn't always agree. Citing religious authority, he would say, In bad times the wise remain silent. And under the Soviet regime people were afraid to speak.
As is known, the calm didn't last long. In June 1941, the Germans declared war on Russia and it felt as if a dark fearsome cloud was approaching. A new wave of refugees began to stream in. German airplanes constantly flew overhead, their drone never stopping. Defeated divisions of the Red Army dragged themselves through the sandy streets of our town. From time to time, people would cook up a kettle of kasha in a courtyard for the retreating soldiers. From their talk we understood that the Soviet forces did not have the power to contain the German attack. We young Jews would meet in those days
with fear hidden in our eyes. Where was there a way out? Unfortunately, the intelligent had lost their wisdom; the strong had lost their strength; and older people had forgotten what they had learned from experience. We all became like fish who had fallen into a net and couldn't get out.
One summer evening, about an hour before the lighting of the Sabbath candles, a loud dynamite explosion suddenly shook the town and the walls of the houses trembled. The old rabbi, as was his custom, was sitting in the Libishayer synagogue, studying. Hearing the explosion, he came into the street and asked, What happened? The synagogue walls are shaking. Later we found out that the last retreating Russian soldiers had blown up the iron Polonover railroad bridge, which carried trains from Koval to Sarny, and which was 7 kilometers from Old Rafalovka.
The destruction of the bridge symbolized the end of Soviet rule and every face expressed the tragic question, What will happen? What will the future bring? We didn't have to wait long for the answer, which was provided to us by our Ukrainian neighbors.
Our neighbors had always been greedy for Jewish possessions. Now a time had come when Jews and their possessions were unprotected. Groups of young Christians organized and as soon as it got dark they would go from house to house and seize whatever they felt like. In the beginning they still had a bit of shame; after all, they had known the Jews so long. They would cover their faces with rags, so as not to be recognized. But after a while, they lost their shame and for 13 days in a row the town was subjected to looting by the Ukrainian bands.
Not surprisingly, Christians from nearby villages also came to town with the intent of joining in the robbery of Jewish property, but our local Christians wouldn't let them in. Their objection was that the Jews of the town, along with their property, belonged to them. And so they took their share of what we had.
Conditions became intolerable. On the Saturday of Parsha Ki Tavo, 5701, at prayers, several of the welloff householders asked the old rabbi to say a few words to the congregation. And so he began:
The prophet [Isaiah] says in the Haftorah for today: ‘Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth and thick clouds the people. But upon you the Lord will shine and his presence be seen over you.’ After the First World War, when many nations became independent, like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and others, it stood to reason that the Jews too would obtain their own land. But as the prophet says, darkness will cover the earth and clouds all the people. It will happen that the entire world is condemned to destruction and so thick and strong will the darkness be, and from the dark you will shine out and God will be seen over you.
I can see him as if he was before me, this great gaon [brilliant person.] He stood before a depressed and frightened small congregation from Old Rafalovka and a spark of prophecy was in his talk that Sabbath day.
In the meantime we found out that a few Germans were already at the station, presumably representatives of the new regime. So a few prominent townsmen, including Reb Yoyne Roznfeld, Yankev Bas and Yakev Rabin, got together and went to complain to them about the ceaseless looting by our local Ukrainian bands. We waited eagerly to hear the answer they would receive. Regrettably, the first meeting between Jews and Germans was not pleasant. To the request that the Germans put an end to the lawlessness in town, the Germans replied:
The river Styr runs through your town. We offer you the opportunity to throw yourselves into the river.
Nevertheless they warned the Ukrainians that they would be severely punished for looting, and it did stop. But in truth there was nothing left to take and it would have stopped anyway.
The first decree that the Germans imposed upon the Jews was the gold kontributsie. Every person had to turn over 3 gold rubles and 27 Soviet rubles. The decree was issued after Rosh Hashone 5702 and the money had to be brought in within 15 days. In the meantime, the Jews were in charge of collecting the money; if they failed to turn it over, the Gestapo would take over the job.
The decree hit like a bolt from the blue. The Jewish inhabitants of Old Rafalovka had never been distinguished for their wealth. Maybe there were several families with three people who had enough to bring in nine rubles. But there were families of nine who had difficulty just making it through the week and in such cases, it was a very dangerous situation. Everybody understood that it would end not just with the theft of gold, but also with the sacrifice of people.
Under these circumstances, it was decided that anyone who had gold rubles must turn them over to the kehile [organized Jewish community]. Then each person would be given objects of value equivalent to the value of the rubles. And in order to assure that everyone who had gold would bring it in, they decided to impose a kherem in the synagogue.
On the day after Yom Kippur, all the men and women gathered in the Stepiner synagogue, which was located at the river bank, far from the Ukrainians' murderous eyes, so that they would not rejoice in our misfortune. The Torah Ark was opened and candles were lit on the balamer [desk from which Torah is read.] They asked the old rabbi to recite the words of the kherem.
When I close my eye for a bit and my thoughts go to that gathering, I see how we stood, men and women, bent over, each of us wearing the nine centimeter yellow patch sewn onto our outer garments.
And now I see him the old gaon as he gets up from his seat at the Eastern wall and with quiet, measured steps mounts the balamer and begins to speak: It says in the gemora that when the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah [men of the Great Assembly] enacted the Shimone Esrei prayer, they left out the Prayer Against Slanderers. So wise men came to the Nasi [head of the Sanhedrin] Reb Shimen Ben Gamliel to ask him to tell them the words of the lost text. He replied, ‘Because the words are from a prayer that contains a curse, I don't want to accept responsibility and I won't
tell you. Go to Yusi Hakatan who is a man of great virtue and good deeds; maybe he will tell you the words of the lost prayer.’
The old rabbi continued in a loud voice, holding his white beard in one hand: I have never in my life uttered a curse. And here in synagogue at the end of my life you ask me to say a curse. But with the greatest hope that maybe from the curse will come a blessing and we will be rescued for the hands of the enemy, I accept this obligation. And he recited the words of the kherem.
It is impossible to convey on paper the mood of the people gathered in the Stepiner synagogue in that situation. It seemed that not only the people but also the Torah scrolls in the open Torah ark and the thick brick walls wept over our destruction and hopeless state.
The old rabbi went to the ghetto along with all of us. He lived with his daughter and soninlaw in the Wayngarten house. The torah scrolls from Old Rafalovka were also brought to that house. Two of them were taken by Reb Itshak Meyer Szhuk and his wife to Israel where they are now in the synagogue they helped build in Kiryat Khaim.
I encountered the rabbi a few times in the ghetto. He walked slowly, leaning on a cane. His frail body was even more shrunken. When I asked him if someone was seeing to his needs, he answered, Yes, thank God, I lack for nothing. I even get a glass of milk every day. That was a rare thing in the ghetto.
In this way he spent his last days, the great gaon of Lomas who was brought to a mass grave with all the Jews of Rafalovka. May God avenge him.
by Yitzhak Meyer Shzuk
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
I, Yitzhak Meyer, son of Gershon, relate my experiences in honor of my wife, who was killed by the Germans, along with my five children. My wife's name was Pesl Shzuk. My murdered children were: my oldest daughter, Khane, age 20; my son Sholem Shzuk; age 18; Hinde; Khaye Brayndl; and Yakhtse.
My experiences under Hitler's rule began in the ghetto. On a Wednesday, the Germans took me from Rafalovka to work for a Christian in the village Polonov making plaster. On the following Saturday they killed off the Jews in Rafalovka, including my wife, four daughters, son, father and my three sisters and their families.
I worked in the village two days. I had taken with me two tfillin [phylacteries] and placed them on the table of the Christian I was working for. On Friday morning I said my prayers and left for work. A woman from the village came to me and quietly told me to run away, because on Saturday they were going to kill the Jews. So I immediately ran away. I left my tfillin behind on the Christian's table.
I went to the forest, where there were Christians from the village whom I knew, and with whom I got along. One of them took me home with him to stay overnight. After that, I went into the forest, and moved around; I knew it well.
Around 4 o'clock I encountered my neighbor from town, Zlata Fuks, who was with her two daughters. They had run from the slaughter; she told me that the Jews had been killed. We spent the night in the forest. In the morning I told Zelda that we should separate; she and her daughters should stay together, and I would stay alone. If we were caught, perhaps someone would survive. That is what happened. She and one daughter were killed and one daughter remained alive. She lives now in Hadar. Her husband is from Rafalovka; he also escaped from the Germans. His name is Ruvn Portnoy; his father was Koyfman from Zoludzk.
I went off alone on Sunday. I had nothing to eat or drink all day. In the evening, after sunset, I decided to go to the Christian with whom I had stayed Friday night, to get a bit of bread and water. He was a good man, but his son was with the Ukrainian bandits who helped the Germans kill the Jews. He informed them that a Jew was coming to his father's house in the evening; they should go there to finish him off. They did in fact come to the house around 4 o'clock and sat quietly waiting for me.
The sun had set when I entered. I came into the corridor, barefoot. I approached the door, but didn't open it. I heard people talking and knew they were waiting for me, so I ran back into the forest. On the way I met the wife of the son who had summoned the Ukrainians; she was holding a glass of milk. She told me, Run away. They have been waiting for you for 3 hours.
I went into the forest, to the village Sukhovole, where the corpses of the murdered Jews lay. I walked all night. When it became light, I went to a well and drank my fill. The Christians there knew me because I had a windmill in the village. I went to the house of a Christian; they were glad that I had survived. They quickly gave me something to eat and a shirt to put on. He took me to his barn and prepared a hiding place for me.
I stayed in his barn for a month until the Germans came in search of Jews. The Christian took me to the forest where he made a place where I could stay. He would bring me food. We arranged that when he came with the food, he would whistle, so I wouldn't get scared. I would stay in his house at night and leave at dawn for the forest.
I was with him for three months, until winter came. He couldn't keep me in his house, so I went to another house, actually in Rafalovka, to a Pole, Pranek Bialevitski a son of Nartsis. I arrived at his house at 2 o'clock in the morning. I had taken a wrong turn in the forest and wound up at the mass grave of our martyrs in the village of Sukhovole, near the woods, on a hill. I approached the graves and wept my heart out. Two dogs stood there
shuffling with their feet. They sensed that bodies lay there. I left at dawn and found my way to the Pole. I knocked on the window; he and his wife saw me and kissed me. I told them why I was there. They agreed to shelter me until Hitler was gone and I would be free.
The wife knew me as we were neighbors in Rafalovka. She told her husband that they had to shelter me until the end because I used to help poor people. He told me that he was hiding a man and his wife from Rafalovka in the forest. When night fell he would take me to them.
In the evening I went there and learned that the couple came from Chelm, but when the killing began they ran to the Pole. He had been hiding them for three months by the time I came. The upshot was, that since I had arrived, he could hide only me, and not them. He couldn't provide enough food for three people. Where could they go? But he couldn't feed three. So I implored him to keep them, we would share the food. And it was agreed. He couldn't keep us in his house, but we dug out a ditch outside, on the street and covered it with boards and straw and earth. Early in the morning he drove out to the forest and brought back oak leaves and covered the ditch with a mountain of leaves. We made an entrance under the cellar that led to the stable where his calves lived. He gave us food through that entrance. We would go out into the stable when necessary. We stayed there for six months, until Passover. The man from Chelm was named Gedalye Bakaltshuk. There was also an 8 year old boy, Felik Birnbaum, whom the Pole took to another Pole, where he remained until the end of the war.
We left on the day before Passover, because people discovered the Pole had been hiding us all that time. At night we went to the Partisans outside Pinsk. There we found a lot of our townspeople: Moyshe Aplboym and his two sons, Shmulik and Avraham; Leybel Yadushlivi and his wife Rokhl; Gershon Graber; Yosl Berezniak; and Kantse Berezniak. Not far away, about 10 kilometers, were about a hundred Jews. We stayed with them two days. We asked them where they got food. They said
that they begged in the village, going to the homes of Christians and asking for bread. So I, Gershon, Yosl and Kantse went to the village. There were no Germans in the village. So I set myself up, with the others helping me, working for a Christian making ovens and heating stoves. I also plastered and applied shingles to houses. The Christians paid us with food. The Jews from the forest would come to me every week and I would give the entire sacks full of food bread, potatoes, barley. Then the little Birnboym boy, the one Pranek had taken to another Pole, joined me and we stayed there together until Hitler was gone. Then Khane Berezniak and Sorele Olizarka, the shoykhet's [ritual slaughterer] daughter joined me.
My mother's yortsayt is the 28th day of Shvat, so I told Sorele that I would go to the synagogue in Rafalovka on that day. We arrived in the evening, in time for night prayers. I swept out the synagogue. There was nothing there no religious books, no Torah scrolls. I took home the ones I had with me. When I got to my house, there sat a priest. When he saw me, he got scared. Here I was, the owner of the house, and he, the priest, is living here along with two Christian women. I told him to empty out three rooms. He gave the children bread and tea. Suddenly, the priest died. About twenty Jews stayed in my house for a year and then left Rafalovka for Eretz Yisroel.
We didn't have any Torah scrolls to put in the synagogue. So I went all over town searching the houses. In one house, I found a shofar [ram's horn] and a couple of tfillin. In another place, I found ten Torah scrolls, standing in a corner. In the same room stood a cow and under her were two Torah scrolls.
All the scrolls were torn; there wasn't one that was complete. I and another Jew immediately got a crate and took the scrolls to his house and put together one complete scroll. We took the ones that were soiled to the cemetery and buried them. We took the complete scroll to the synagogue.
We prayed in the synagogue for a year. After that, the Russians took us to Lodz, and I took all the torah scrolls with me. I gave 7 of them to the kehile [Jewish community] and took three with me to Erez Yisroel. My wife, Hadas[?] carried one, I carried one and Feyglshteyn carried one.
Before we left Rafalovka, a Pole showed us where a Jewish woman from Manevitsh was buried. She had been a friend of mine. We removed her body, put it in a crate and took it to the cemetery.
The Pole who had hidden me gave me a gift a cow and a calf. I took them with me to Lodz but couldn't keep them there. I sold them, because I was going to Eretz Yisroel. I was in Lodz for two months.
In Eretz yisroel I immediately began working and was able to buy a house. I moved in and set up one room to hold a minyen [prayer group] where we prayed in the morning, evening and night, and on the Sabbath, until I established a synagogue. I installed the Torah scrolls in a beautiful ark and I placed a memorial in memory of our shtetls Rafalovka, Olizarka and Zoludzk.
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