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A Ghetto without Barbed Wire

by Abraham Finkler

The cry “Jews, the synagogue is burning!” echoed through the streets of Szydlowiec in the middle of the night in early 1940. In an instant the whole town stood around the burning building not knowing what to do. The Polish firemen did not appear . . . Several Jews, led by Zisha Weisbrot, risking their lives, ran into the synagogue, brought out a few of the Sefer Torahs. Everything else went up in flames.

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Before very long, the deputy District commissioner in Radom, a man named Kerklis, appeared with a squad of uniformed Germans. “Where is the Jewish Council,” he was yelling. “Why have the Jews set fire to their house of worship? Donnerwetter, I'll have you all shot!”

According to the neighbors across from the synagogue, several uniformed Germans had entered the synagogue a half hour prior to the fire, stayed there five or ten minutes and then driven away in a car. A few minutes later the whole building was in flames.

Very quickly all the Jewish Council members gathered in the large meeting-room of the city hall. Kerklis, flanked by two soldiers, was declaring at the top of his voice that he would not tolerate this kind of thing in his district – people burning down their own house of worship – and then the whole world would write that the Germans had done it and thus besmirch the good name of the German people. Shmuel Silberstein, a Jewish Council member, tried to ask him a question, but Kerklis stormed over to him with clenched fists and ordered him to shut his mouth.

The result was that all the members of the Jewish Council signed an “affidavit” (already prepared) stating that “Jews burned down the synagogue” but that the exact identity of the culprit was unknown. At the end of the meeting Kerklis “appealed” to the Council to turn over all prayer books and minute-books older than a hundred years; also old spice boxes, silver candelabra, etc., because these were museum pieces that should be kept under guard and thus would not be destroyed in such files. They promised to do so.

 

City without a Ghetto

Szydlowiec was one of the few cities in Poland (and Eastern Europe generally) whose Jews were not locked into an

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area surrounded by barbed wire during the Hitler occupation. At the end of 1941 we heard that the Nazis were planning to set up a ghetto in Szydlowiec. The Judenrat was ordered to “resettle” all the Jews in an area that was one-fourth the size of the city. The area they had chosen was the poorest part of town. According to a map they had drawn up, this ghetto was to start at the marketplace, including Bazniczne and Rabinowa Streets and the street leading to Radom Road; also Redlich's button factory.

This news hit the Jewish Council like a thunderbolt. It was frightening to imagine ten thousand Jews crowded into a fourth of the city. It would have meant that three and four families would have had to live in one home. To avoid panic, the Judenrat kept this order secret and set about trying to get this order countermanded.

A delegation went to the district governor. (His name was Lolein.) It consisted of Yerakhmiel Morgenbesser, Michal Rosenbaum and myself. Lolein was somewhat accessible to us. He had a certain amount of humanity in him. He loved music and art. He had always listened patiently to our grievances. It was not easy, however, to get in to see him, because all current Jewish matters were handled by Kerklis, a Lithuanian and a pathological anti-Semite. All the Jewish Councils in the Radom district were deathly afraid of what he might do. We took advantage of an opportunity when he was not present and were received by the governor himself.

The delegation simply wept copious tears. We felt that he was listening. We told him that we were already too crowded, what with 2500 refugees from Plock and other places sent to us by the Third Reich, that we had no choice but to accept them and settle them in various Jewish homes. We reminded him that there was a typhus epidemic in the city that was claiming scores of lives every day, and that if we packed still more people into the already crowded quarters, the contagious

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disease was likely to endanger not only Szydlowiec but the entire district.

Lolein assured us that he would do everything possible to have the order revoked and we left his office feeling a little better.

We then went to see Dr. Chimiengo, the district physician. He had often helped us when he came to Szydlowiec with Kerklis and Lt. Frost on their routine hygienic inspections. Of Ukrainian descent, Dr. Chimiengo served the German authorities, but at the same time did Jews a lot of favors. The day before the deportation he hid Dr. Leybush Dimont and his wife Carole and their son. Dr. Dimont was killed when the Gestapo found him Dr. Chimiengo's farm. His wife and son escaped and are now living in Paris. Dr. Chimiengo himself was arrested for hiding Jews and sent to Auschwitz. After the war we met in Lodz, where he showed me a certificate from the camp administration at Auschwitz.

We also went to see the district commissioner of Jewish affairs, who promised to send the governor a satisfactory report about Szydlowiec.

But the person who did the most to annul the ghetto decree was “Madame X.” She was governor Lasch's mistress and it was she who persuaded him to allow the Jews in Szydlowiec to remain in their homes. The official version was that a ghetto was indeed being established in Szydlowiec – but the ghetto boundaries included all of Szydlowiec.

We heard about this decision, it was our joy that knew no bounds . . .

Madame X, of course, did not do this merely for a share in the world-to-come. Not long afterward, Yerakhmiel Morgenbesser and Michal Rosenbaum stepped into a military limousine with Madame X, accompanied by two policemen, and drove to the Warsaw ghetto. During a ten-day period they bought up the most beautiful and expensive jewelry and

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watches, as well as men's and women's fur coats. Morgenbesser and Rosenbaum stayed in the ghetto during that time. Madame X and the two policemen drove into the ghetto every day to try on the coats and to appraise the jewelry.

I don't think that people who didn't live through that danse macabre themselves can imagine what it meant to get a decree of the Hitlerite authorities revoked.

For this extraordinary achievement and for similar daring activities which representatives of Szydlowiec Jewry overtook, credit must go to two people – Abraham Rosenbaum and Pinchas Shteinman. Although they personally never went to see the various German officials in Radom and actually never met them face-to-face (except when they invited various Gestapo officials into Rosenbaum's house “for a drink”), they had a tremendous influence in convincing the three “traveling representatives” to try every possible means and that it was worth taking all sorts of risks, if there was the slightest change of helping the Jews of Szydlowiec. More often than not they were correct.

More than once, when I felt we were walking straight into the lion's mouth, Pinchas Shteinman, a devout Hassid, would say to me:

“What would your grandfather, the Radoshitzer rebbe, or your father, the Radoshitzer rov, have done in order to save just one Jewish life? Here the life of a whole community of Jews is in jeopardy, including your own family.”
Like a magic wand, these and similar words would make me less fearful of entering the private homes of high Nazi officials that were always heavily guarded by the Security Services, of whom they themselves were afraid.

The encouraging words of Avrom Rosenbaum and Pinchas Shteinman, the thought that we could help Jews in such a terrible time and improve our “communications” with lower

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and higher officials in the German apparatus – all that saved us from more than one calamity. For example:

During one of the unexpected roundups in 1941 the Ukrainian Werkschutz from Skarzysko, led by an S.S. Sturmfuehrer, came to Szydlowiec and rounded up young Jews for the “Hasag” ammunition factory. Two big trucks drove up to the Catholic Church and waited for victims. We immediately called our “contacts” in the Radom Labor Control Office on the telephone and asked them not to permit our people to be taken to another labor district because we ourselves were suffering from a shortage of hands. They asked us to put one of the German officials on the line, so they could give him the order directly. This time we were lucky. By chance, a gendarme patrol, headed by a fat German guard whom we called “Der Tatte,” was riding through. We brought him to the phone and it was he who got the order from the labor office not to permit even one worker to be transported out of Szydlowiec.

Meanwhile the two big trucks had been filled, ready to start out for Skarzysko. The chief guard then asked the S.S. man in charge to show him the order from the Radom labor office permitting him to take workers out of the city. Since the S.S. man had no such order, “der Tatte” overruled him and the Jews were released.

Such “miracles” happened now and then. But the greatest one was getting the Germans to allow Szydlowiec to remain without a ghetto. Who knows how many Szydlowiec Jews owe their lives to this miraculous circumstance.

* * *

German troops marched into Szydlowiec in September 1939. I was then on the way to Warsaw, with the idea of crossing the Vistula. I wanted to put as much distance as possible between myself and the Germans. They caught up

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with us, however, on the other side of Radom and arrested all the men. The women and children were permitted to go back to Szydlowiec. I was with several Jews from Radom and Szydlowiec, among whom was Abraham Redlich, head of the Szydlowiec kehilla. A couple of thousand non-Jews and about a hundred Jews had lined up to register. When the Germans noticed that I had a pretty good command of their language, they kept me there as interpreter. My supervisor asked me what my nationality was. “Jewish,” I answered. “Jude, you're lost for eternity,” he said, and that was my “official” reception.

From there they took us directly to the prison at Kielce, where we stayed for three days without food. Then they took the Jewish prisoners to the Great Synagogue, registered our names and sent each man back to his own city, on condition that he report to the local military command.

At that time there was already a military command in Szydlowiec headed by a man named Rose, who had made a good impression on the population, an illusion which didn't last very long. One morning Mayor Zulkowski ordered the “leading Jews,” including the rabbis, to report to the city hall in one hour. There he introduced to us the head of the Radom Gestapo, Major Fuchs, and his two aides. I had been secretary of the kehillah for a few years and was therefore one of the “invited guests.” Fuchs told us briefly and bluntly: It was the Jews who had started this war and it was they who were responsible for the boycott of German goods, so he was levying a tax on the Jewish population of Szydlowiec in the sum of 50,000 zloty, a fantastic sum in those days. Further, the money had to be raised in eight days.

This announcement drained the color out of our faces and cut off our tongues. Only the president of the kehillah, Abraham Redlich, managed to ask a question, but almost simultaneously Major Fuchs rushed over to us and screamed “Heraus!” We barely made it to the door.

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That same evening the Jewish Council held an emergency meeting in the Amshinover shtibl, which had been built by the Steinman family. We sat down to draw the “taxpaper” list. Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitch stayed with us all night. Yehiel Zucker, who knew everyone in Szydlowiec, drew up the list of contributors. It was dawn before we reached the required sum, almost time to start the morning service. We prayed that day with intense devotion, and at the words oshamnu, bogadnu” we beat our breasts in a silent entreaty that we would be able to raise that tremendous sum of money in such a short time.

When I asked Commandant Rose for a little more time, he replied that he had nothing to do with Gestapo. But he grabbed his head and protested, “My God, what crime have the Jews of Szydlowiec committed that they must now pay a fine for it?”

Precisely on time we stood at the entrance to the Gestapo office in Radom with a valise full of Polish banknotes, money we had extracted from people who didn't know what sins they were paying for. The delegation consisted of Yerakhmiel Morgenbesser (at that time still Vice President of the kehillah), Michal Rosenbaum and myself as secretary.

Major Fuchs kindly agreed to accept the 50,000 zloty.

 

The Judenrat Tries to Reach the Murderers

Fate decreed that the first Jewish victim in the ghetto should be an innocent 10-year-old boy, Samek Redlich, son of the head of the kehilla and later Chairman of the Judenrat. It happened this way. Abraham Redlich, the owner of a button factory, owed taxes to the “Sick Fund.” The manager of the local Sick Fund, a Pole who came to collect, decided he was not getting enough money, so he confiscated various things in the factory and in Redlich's home. One of the items was a camera that little Samek was playing with. The child refused to give it up. No one paid attention to the incident and it was

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forgotten. The Pole, however, had written in his report to Radom that the boy had interfered with him in carrying out of his official duties and that he had even cursed the Poles and the Germans. A few days later several Gestapo-men drove up to the house and picked up the boy.

The Jewish population was aghast at the implications of this act. Suddenly we clearly understood that if we were going to be exposed to the death penalty by every denunciation by a Pole, then none of us had the slightest possibility of surviving the war. We did everything we could think of. We traveled to Radom scores of times to speak to the Jewish Council there. We offered huge sums of money. But to no avail. They kept giving us excuses that the child was being questioned, that it wouldn't take much longer, that he would soon be coming home, etc., etc. By accident a Gestapo-man revealed to us that Samek had been killed in the dungeons of the Gestapo.

This tragic episode convinced us that we had to find ways to get to know the heads of the various political, administrative and police offices in Radom, so that we could intervene immediately in such cases. To do this, two things were necessary – large amounts of money and people who were willing to risk their lives in pre-offering such “gifts” to the right officials.

At an emergency meeting of all its 16 members the Judenrat asked for volunteers for this highly secret work. The only volunteers were Yerakhmiel Morgenbesser, Abraham Rosenbaum and Pinchas Shteinman. They became the triumvirate that later planned all the strategic undertakings in the ghetto.

At that meeting the Council also decided that Morgenbesser, Michal Rosenbaum and A. Finkler would be the ones to travel to Radom to contact the relevant German authorities. They were given full authority to act and they were to report only to the “triumvirate.”

Each delegation would

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consist of only two people, and either Morgenbesser or Finkler must always stay in Szydlowiec to handle emergencies. This decision was a secret one and all the Judenrat members swore not to speak about it to anyone.

Day in, day out, the “travelers” left for Radom early in the morning and returned late at night. They established relationships with very important persons in government positions there. They were so successful that when a member of the Jewish Council in Radom was arrested, its Chairman, Diamond, sent people to Szydlowiec with a request for help in saving that individual.

These daily interventions swallowed up enormous sums of money and valuable gifts, such as fur coats, jewels, etc. It was impossible to increase the already oppressive taxes on the Jewish population. The Judenrat itself had a large administrative apparatus employing scores of officials for labor, provisions, hospital an isolation ward, social insurance, post office, Jewish police, a court. The cemetery required a larger apparatus because of the addition of refugees from other cities. Szydlowiec was known as the “city of refuge” where Jews could hide under assumed names without having to register, because the Szydlowiec Judenrat, in its monthly reports to the political section of the Gestapo, never submitted the correct figures on “immigrants” or “emigrants.”

The Council therefore decided that it must have a source of funds to provide for all these departments, the most important of which was the maintenance of its contacts with the Germans. Fortunately we were able to establish a “relationship” with the heads of the Traffic Department in Radom, which was empowered to issue permits for Jews (in exceptional cases) to travel by train in Poland. Up until that time the Judenrat in Radom had had the exclusive right to do this. When we received the first shipment of permits, the Council in Radom objected strenuously, but Governor Lasch

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decreed that the Szydlowiec Jewish Council could also exercise its right in exceptional cases.

The result was that from all corners of the German occupied areas in Poland Jews appealed to us for travel permits. We were able to handle this quite efficiently. Jews used these permits to travel on business to Warsaw, Krakow, etc. The Szydlowiec kehillah received a great deal of income from this and was thus able to distribute money left and right to the “murderers in white gloves” in order to save Jewish lives.

* * *

Gestapo Demands Names of Jewish Political Leaders

One day the Mayor's “Polish Administrator” came into the Judenrat office with an order from the Gestapo: the Jewish Council must report in his office in 20 minutes.

A few minutes before the scheduled time the entire Council was present in the large room of the city hall. Waiting for them was a tall, heavy Gestapo man with blood red cheeks. He came right to the point. “I am Major Post.” The name was synonymous with terror in those days. It was he who had sent out the first victim from among the Radom Jewish Council members, the son of Avremele Goldberg (a well-known shoe manufacturer) to the camp at Gross-Rosen.

Major Post read us a document ordering the Judenrat to supply within 24 hours a complete list of the leaders of local political parties, as well as of known thieves and other “criminal types.” The Council members knew the dread significance of this; they had already seen what happened to the political leaders in Radom after the Jewish Council there had provided such a list.

One hour later the entire Judenrat gathered for an emergency meeting. It was one of the most tragic and stormy meetings I have ever attended. The main question was: Do

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Jews have a right to send other Jews to death in order to save their own lives? The Council was made up of people from various parties and movements: Hassidim, Zionists, wealthy men, Bundists, others. The members made fiery speeches, took positions on the fundamental question: Does the Council have the right to make decisions on matters of “who shall live and who shall die.”

The most powerful speech was made by Pinchas Shteinman, a merchant, a Hassid, a progressive person with a healthy sense of justice. The essence of his speech was this: Today they are demanding that we be the Angel of Death for our own brothers here in Szydlowiec. Tomorrow they will demand a list of our children. Will we do that too, in order to save our own skin? Will you be ready to die with a clear conscience if you do this? If I cannot say with a clear conscience – “My hands have not shed this blood,” then it is better that I die now, while my conscience is still clear, and let there be an end to this spiritual and physical agony and degradation.

The effect of his words was so moving that all the Council members – even those who had previously held the opposite view – voted as one: We will die rather than submit. The meeting lasted five hours.

At the end of 24 hours Major Post arrested the entire Judenrat and locked them up in the city jail. Two days later he appeared again at the office of the Judenrat. First he raved and ranted about the office being dirty and chaotic. I explained that the work of the Council was now paralyzed, since every Council member was in charge of a department, and in his absence the work stops. It was therefore extremely important, I suggested, that all the Council members be released and given time to reconsider their decision. My hope was that as long as they weren't sent to Radom we might be able to work out some kind of compromise with Major Post.

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Apparently my suggestion made an impression on him. He took me over to the city hall and ordered the Judenrat members released, but first he made a long speech to me: Nothing would happen to the people on the list. It was only a matter of keeping an eye on them, so they wouldn't engage in political or criminal activity. He was going to leave now, he said, and when he returned, he expected to find the lists of names waiting for him on the table, otherwise the Council members would not be released.

I showed him my passport and explained that I was not a native of Szydlowiec and that I knew hardly anyone here. I also asked him if there was anything he needed but had not been able to find here. He thought for a moment and then he said, “Man, if you could get me a horse, I'll pay whatever it costs but it must be the best.”

I promised to fulfill his request, although at that moment I didn't know how we could “fill his order” when every horse was now registered and had a brand-mark on it. But knowing that this Angel of Death needed something from his victims meant that Jewish lives might be saved after all, and this gave me hope and courage.

As soon as Major Post left I ran to tell the Council members what had happened. They immediately sent for several Jewish horse-traders and horse experts. They apprised them of the danger that confronted the Jews of Szydlowiec, particularly the Council. Whereupon Abraham Shadman volunteered to carry out his task. He assured us that he knew where he could get such a horse (naturally for a large sum of money), but he was afraid to bring it into the city. The Council assured him that nothing would happen to him. All he had to do was get it into the courtyard of the Judenrat building.

It didn't take very long. Shadman brought the horse into Szydlowiec. The Polish police seized it immediately for not

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having a brand-mark. He told them who it was for. They retreated without another word.

That same day Michal Rosenbaum and I rode to Radom in a buggy with the horse tied to the back. Along the road, Germans from various military formations stopped us and peppered us with questions about the horse, but as soon as they heard it was for Sicherheitsdienst and for Major Post personally, all their curiosity vanished.

Late in the afternoon we brought the horse to the Gestapo gate and reported to Major Post. He came out at once, took one look at the animal, and amazingly his face changed expression. A pleasant smile covered his mug. It was no longer the same man. He patted the horse's flanks so tenderly that I couldn't help but wonder how a man could have such humane instincts for a beast and such beastly instincts toward humans.

We stood there and waited. How would this Gestapo Angel of Death thank us for this precious gift? But the only thing that came out of his mouth was: “Goddamn Jews, they have everything!” Then he motioned us into his office and handed us a receipt stipulating that he had bought and paid for the horse. We signed it. In a burst of good feeling he even gave us a whole zloty for the ride home.

But he never again mentioned the lists of political leaders, thieves and criminal types in Szydlowiec.

* * *

I want to add only one thing to the story of this tragic episode. I don't know whether all the landsleit, or just ordinary readers, especially those who did not live through the Hitler gehenem themselves, can ever imagine the fateful and enormous responsibility that lay on the shoulders f Jewish Council leaders working under the muzzle of the Nazi gun. Who can comprehend the deep inner struggles of a Jewish Council member who wanted to remain in harmony with his

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conscience? As an example of this, and in connection with Pinchas Shteinman's role at that secret meeting of the Council, I feel I must say a word here about that honorable man.

After the first deportation, Shteinman and his family were sent to the labor camp at Wolanow near Radom. When the Nazis announced that four new ghettos were being established and that one of them was Szydlowiec, he decided to go back home. I could not convince him that this might be only a trap. He told me that rather than allow himself to be stepped on by every pig and let his blood be drained one drop at a time, he preferred to go “straight into the oven and let there be an end to it.” He and his wife perished during the second deportation to Treblinka.

 

400 Jews Rescued from Janicziew

Every day we received terrifying news from the labor camp at Janicziew near Lublin, to which several hundred young Jews from Szydlowiec had been taken. The work there had to do with water improvement. The living conditions were unbearable, the food was bad, they slept on the ground on beds of straw and the work norms were impossible to fulfill.

One evening the parents of the deported youngsters stormed the Judenrat offices.. Weeping and screaming they compelled the Council to take up the matter immediately. At a meeting of the entire Council it was decided to delegate two members, Dr. Leybush Dimond and Aaron Sharfhartz, along with the Secretary, to see what could be done about it. We were warned at the outset that Lublin had become a dangerous place for Jewish Council members from other cities – the S.S. had orders to arrest them on sight and send them to Belzec.

We went first to Radom, the labor office of our district. We had decided to try to get from them an official letter releasing the Szydlowiec Jews from the camp, on the basis that Szydlowiec was outside the Lublin district. The response to

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that, however, was that they had no jurisdiction to make such proposals; that such a decision could be made only by the Labor Department of the Governor's office in Lublin, with the agreement of the S.S. chief there, a man named Globatznik.

We brought this unpleasant news back to the Judenrat, which decided nonetheless to continue its efforts to get our children out of Janicziew. That same evening we were supposed to take a train to Lublin, but Dr. Dimont suddenly became ill. The delegation thus consisted only of Shafthartz and me. One of the leaders of the Zionist organization in Szydlowiec, Aaron was a fine, sensitive young man from a Hassidic family.

When we arrived in Lublin the next morning, I went straight to my cousin Moshe Rabinowicz (a son of the Rabbi of Suchedniew and a son-in-law of the Rebbe of Skerniewic). He received me very warmly. Aaron stayed with a friend, not far from my cousin's house.

In Lublin the Nazis conducted daily roundups of Jews for labor camps. It was very difficult for strangers to stay hidden very long, but it was necessary for us to move about. So after two days of anxiety, Aaron decided to return to Szydlowiec and I was left alone to carry out this mission.

By various subterfuges I finally got in to see Dr. Hecht, chief of the Labor Department. I presented the problem to him. The Jewish workers in Janicziew must be sent home, because there was urgent and important work for them to do in Szydlowiec. With my heart pounding I asked him for his home address. When he gave it to me without any questions, I felt a little calmer. That same evening I visited him at his home. He instructed me to see him again the next morning in his office.

That night, however, the local S.S. carried out a major roundup of Jews for Maidanek. I had fallen sound asleep. My cousin woke me and then took his family up to the attic through a hidden passageway behind a bookcase. I was unable to follow them because the front door had already been broken

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down by two S.S.-men, who grabbed me by the throat and started dragging me out. I barely managed to show them my documents from the Governor of Radom, but they paid no attention. One of them swung his rifle at me, but I ran out to the truck that was waiting in the street below.

By that time t he truck was already filled. They took us to a large square near the S.S. headquarters, then unloaded the truck of its human cargo, beating people unmercifully. All night we stood there in the cold. At 9:30 in the morning Glolbatznik and his men arrived, accompanied by a pack of dogs. Simultaneously, large trucks drove up to transport he two-three thousand Jews who had already lined up, holding their passes in their hands. The S.S.-men didn't even look at them; they merely kept yelling “Forward!” When they came to me, I shouted at the top of my voice that I was there on Dr. Hecht's order. The name “Dr. Hecht” had the desired effect. One of the S.S.-men turned to me, examined my papers and pulled me out of line. To make sure I was telling the truth he ordered another S.S.-man to make a telephone call. Fifteen minutes later he led me over to the gate and yelled: “Disappear!”

When I finally got back to my cousin's house, everyone embraced me and bombarded me with questions: How did it happen and why did they let me go?

Two o'clock that afternoon I reported at Dr. Hecht's office. He already knew about my arrest and my release. The documents ordering Szydlowiec workers freed were already prepared. My name was listed as the transport leader from Janicziew to Szydlowiec. I asked Dr. Hecht to send an S.S.-guard with me to Janicziew – at my expense. He agreed.

When we arrived at Janicziew, my guard handed Dr. Hecht's order to the head of the camp. Later I found an opportunity to ask the camp chief to telephone someone in Juzefow who could arrange for trains to transport the 400

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workers to Szydlowiec. Sunday at dawn he accompanied us to the station at Juzefow and turned the documents back to me.

The joy of the youngsters unexpectedly released from the camp was beyond description. Sunday evening the whole Jewish population of Szydlowiec, including the Judenrat, was waiting at the city hall. The reunion between parents and their children was heart-rending. I looked around at the young people – all of them had once been my students. Now they were tattered and barefoot, their faces drawn and gloomy, almost unrecognizable. Involuntarily the cry of Rabbi Levi Yitzhok of Berditchev tore out of my lips:

“God in heaven! Why are you doing this to your people Israel?”
Alter Freedman in the Hands of the Gestapo

One Saturday morning, more dead than alive, Yerakhmiel Morgenbesser fell into the Bialobzeger shtibl to bring me the news that the Gestapo had arrested Alter Freedman and was beating him in the Polish police station. S.S.-man Erdmann refused to talk with anyone about it. Since he had very often come to the Judenrat during the last two years to “buy” all his “accouterments,” and since I had been involved with this, Yerakhmiel asked me to try to talk to him.

The arrest of Alter Freedman had upset everyone in Szydlowiec. Alter was a teacher, a scholar, a man of erudition, a simple and righteous man who did not concern himself with worldly things. He had his own ideas about the meaningless life of this world, and no one could ever convince him otherwise.

On the day of the deportation I remember running around half-crazy, looking for my wife and child, and I happened to bump into Alter on Radom Street. He was dressed in his somber black overcoat underneath it I could see his long while Yom Kippur kitl. I asked him where he was running to with that kitl on him. Very simple he told me: “I know the Evil

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is going to kill us, so I'm running to the mikveh to cleanse myself before I enter the next world.”

And now this kind of Jew was in the hands of murderers. Within a few minutes, Morgenbesser and I were on our way to the police station. When we got there, Abraham Rosenbaum was already waiting for us. The three of us went into the station-house.

Erdmann came out to greet us with his fists waving. “None of your thievish tricks will help you now!” he screamed. “That goddamn Jew insulted the German people and the Fuehrer!”

He was really frightening. It took us a while to calm this raving Gestaponik down enough so he could at least tell us why they had arrested Alter Freedman.

Two German soldiers had come into his hardware store and asked him for a couple of boxes of nails. Instead of money, they paid him with a chit. He threw the piece of paper to the ground and started cursing them – the Germans had already bankrupted him, he had a drawerful of these chits which weren't worth the paper they were printed on. And so on.

As he finished, Erdmann leaped from his chair with such an outcry that sparks flew from his mouth.

“Well, what do you have to say now? This one is going to have his head cut off, I can assure you of that!”
Somehow we managed to persuade him to allow us to see Alter. We also asked him to stop the Gestapo from beating the prisoner. When he opened the door of an adjoining room, Alter was lying on the floor, trying to cover his bare head with his hands. As soon as he saw us he got up and ran over to us. His first words were: “Yerakhmiel! Avrom! Why did you take away my yarmulke? Where is my yarmulke?”

His face was white as a wall. Blood ran from his mouth, his head, and his nose. He kept his hands on his head – that's all he seemed to be concerned about . . .

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We assured him that he would get the yarmulke back and that we would do everything possible to free him. In our hearts, however, we had very little hope of prying him loose from the claws of the Angel of Death. When they started taking him away he begged us to ask them not to do it on the Sabbath but to wait at least until after Havdalah . . .

An hour later, Rakhmiel and I were already in a carriage going to Radom. From experience we knew that whatever we could do had to be done immediately – tomorrow would be too late.

In Radom we telephoned Madame X. She was beautiful, blond German woman, about 21, bright, intelligent and well educated. She was married to a high-placed German in the Radom government, but was also Governor Lasch's mistress. For Szydlowiec she performed miracles.

We told her the story in brief. We explained that Alter Freedman didn't speak German, that the soldiers simply had not understood what he was saying. The whole thing was a terrible misunderstanding. She told us that the following day she was having a big birthday party to which the cream of the city's society had been invited, as well as the sicherheitsdienst. She promised to do the best she could, but that we were not to phone her until Monday morning.

The story spread quickly through Radom. The leaders of the Jewish Council there “consoled” us with the comment that if we got out of this with only one victim we could have to raise our hands to heaven in a prayer of thanksgiving. They themselves refused to lift a finger, however, to help us in this matter.

Several days of great anxiety and tension followed as Madame X kept telling us: “Tomorrow, perhaps.” We didn't want to go back home empty-handed. Finally – it was Wednesday afternoon – we heard the good news over the

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telephone: tomorrow at three o'clock, Alter Freedman would be released.

The tension reached its culmination on Thursday at three as we watched the gate open and a human lump rolled out into the street as if someone had just kicked it. When Alter caught sight of us he began running toward us with his silk yarmulke on his head. “Where can I get a tallis and tefillin?” he pleaded.

When we brought him back to Szydlowiec, the whole town was waiting for us.

* * *

I must add a word here about “Madame X.” This German woman performed extraordinary services for the Jews in Szydlowiec under Nazi occupation. In 1946, after the war, I met her in Germany. Today she occupies a high position in the German government apparatus. To my great regret, I still cannot reveal her real name. She was afraid it might hurt her career. Perhaps in time, when she is no longer afraid of her former wartime friends, we shall be able to record the name of this German woman who did so much for Jews during those terrible years. The world should know about it.

 

Informers in the Ghetto

In 1939, several weeks after the outbreak of the war, a young Jew suddenly appeared in Szydlowiec driving a German army truck with military license plates. His story was that the German military authorities had given him the truck as a reward for heroic service at the front during the war against Poland. His story was not only suspicious but it made no sense. The Jews of Szydlowiec, however, had more important worries at that time and didn't dig any deeper into the matter. They used the driver and his truck to take people to Lodz, where

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they went to do business and earned a lot of money in the early days of the war. Naturally, the “fare” was very high.

The writer of these lines also made one of those trips. The passengers were covered over by a military tarpaulin and ordered not to speak a word to anyone during the trip. Through a small opening in the cover, however, we could see that when German patrols stopped our driver, he showed them various documents and they waved him on.

This line of communication between Szydlowiec and Lodz did not last very long. One fine day the Security Police drove into Szydlowiec, stopped at the young man's house and arrested him.

But a few months later he was back, this time in the service of the Price Control Police. He rode around in a droshky, stopped at certain addresses, broke open a brick wall or a padlock and removed hidden stores of goods such as leather, textiles, etc. He would write down the name of the owner in a notebook, and several weeks later the Jews whose name he had written down would be arrested and no one would be able to learn what happened to them.

The resultant panic among the Jews in Szydlowiec was completely understandable, because most of them now lived on what they had managed to hide before the Germans came in. As the “raids” by this young man became more and more frequent, the Jewish population began to appeal to the Judenrat for help.

The Council's decision was to undertake certain “Jewish methods,” but this time they didn't work. We tried the head of the Price Control Office, but without success. We went to a higher authority with a request that they move the Price Control Police to another district, but that didn't work either. Meanwhile the number of local Jewish informers who joined the driver increased. It was clear to us that without these local

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informers the driver, a stranger in town, would have been unable to find the hiding-places.

The Judenrat then called the young man in and offered to give him a weekly stipend if he would stop ruining the lives of Jews and creating Jewish widows and orphans. He agreed, and also asked for a stipend for his “assistants.” This too was granted. One day later, the droshky reappeared on the street and resumed its old business. The stranger had informed the Price Control Police about the “deal” the Judenrat had offered him.

The Police immediately ordered the Judenrat to come to Radom. Yerakhmiel Morgenbesser, Abraham Rosenbaum and Pinchas Shteinman did so and were given a stern warning that if there was any further sabotage of the “fight against speculation” they would be held personally responsible – and the punishment for that crime was death.

In connection with this there was a tragic fight in the forest. The Gestapo had arrested several Jews who were found with hidden goods. Among them were Shapshowich and Yehiel Oser Shotland. By chance, several of the Gestapo-men who had taken the arrested Jews to Radom met at the home of Abraham Rosenbaum and after a few drinks, one of them let slip a secret:

On the way to Radom they decided to shoot their Jewish prisoners one at a time in the forest that lined the road. Two of the guards led the victim into the forest, one in front and one behind. The third man stayed with the truck. Yehiel Shotland was a tall, strong young man, and not easily cowed. The instant he heard the first shot coming from the forest, he attacked the Gestapo-man who was guarding the truck. Unfortunately, one of the other Germans had already come back. He hit Shotland over the head with his rifle butt.

The situation became intolerable. We started thinking about more drastic measures to get rid of the informers. For

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this purpose the Executive of the Judenrat met at the home of the rabbi. The dayanim were also present. They discussed the classic issue of what one is permitted to do “if someone comes to kill you.” They consulted all the rabbinic sources, from the earliest to the latest, and finally they found the applicable law.

Several days later the gendarmes knocked at the driver's door in the middle of the night, arrested him and took him to Radom. The Price Control Office tried to save him but this time was unable to do so. Thus Szydlowiec rid itself of its worst Jewish informer. All the local informers were frightened by the downfall of their “leader.” They came to the president of the Jewish Council and swore that they had nothing to do with the betrayal of Jews and that they would never have anything to do with such things.

 

A Few Episodes

Leybush David Schwartzfuter was the only Jew in Szydlowiec who poisoned himself on the day of the deportation. He is buried in the Jewish Cemetery there.

The rabbi and Yitzhok Shteinman, on the day of the day deportation, cried out to the Jews: “Don't weep! They may take our bodies but they will never take our souls! Our God is great! Am Yisroel Chai! The people of Israel lives!

On the day of the deportation, one of Shiya Lederman's daughters was hiding in an attic. She began to give birth. Out of fear that the newborn baby's cries would expose the hiding-place and all who were hidden there, they suffocated the baby.

During the deportation, I managed to escape to Starachowic. After that I spent two years in various camps, from September 1942 to August 1944. Then I escaped to the forest, where I spent eight months. We were liberated by the Red Army, which appointed me City Commander in

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Szydlowiec. Akiba Liberbaum, (later killed in the Kielce pogrom) and Yoske Minzberg, were two other Szydlowiecers in my group.


Running From Death

by Motl Eisenberg

(Notes in a Diary)

On the 18th of August 1939, as on every Friday, I came to visit my family, who were staying in a summer-place not far from our town in the village of Charniecki-Gura. What I found was an upheaval. People running around breathlessly, deathly pale, frightened, the women's faces tear-stained. T he war has broken out, they tell me. Men and women carrying bundles, valises, bedding, lounge-chairs, out of their rooms and cottages – t hey are hurrying to get to the railroad station.

By nightfall the resort is empty. Only a few Jews have stayed. The Sabbath passes in a nervous mood. Everybody is gloomy, uneasy.

According to the radio news, the panic is premature. No general mobilization has been called yet. But rest and good cheer are out of the question. The general mood is somber; people are quickly packing up and going home.

In Shidlovtse itself, people are running to the food stores, buying everything they can. Soon the shelves are empty. Whoever has the money is laying in provisions. At night, the streets are not illuminated. Automobiles ride by with only their dim lights on. Posters warn people to remove anything made of wood from their attics and to prepare supplies of water and sand. Finally, it comes: general mobilization.

Friday September 3, early morning, we hear it on the radio: Kowal, Krakow and other cities were bombarded during

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the night by German planes. German troops have crossed the Polish border at many points. The war has begun.

The men in our leather factory come to work that morning as usual, but nothing gets done; the work falls from their hands. Nerves are stretched taut. Everybody is aware that a world conflagration has begun and that it will spare no one. Squadrons of enemy planes appear in the sky, flying very low, obstructed by no one. They are headed for Skarzysko, where there are large ammunitions plants and a transfer point for many railway lines. Soon we hear the sound of anti-aircraft guns and explosions of planes that are shot down.

The next day the whole Jewish population of Skarzysko appears in our town, some on horse-and-wagon, some on foot. They have left all their possessions behind.

Far into the night we sit by the radio listening to broadcasts from Polish, German and foreign stations. The Polish radio reports: “All the German attacks were repulsed.” The German side is not reporting any victories. No newspapers arrived from Warsaw – all the rail lines have been cut by German bombardment.

Several days pass. The first refugees appear on the main highway linking Krakow and Warsaw. Jews and Poles. Whole families. Wagons carrying children, household goods. Many people have made the trip on foot; they are weary to exhaustion.

The weather is unusually hot. It feels as if fire is dropping from the sky. People are too tired to move. They sit down on the sidewalk. They try to find a place to spend the night; tomorrow they will be running again – toward the east. Curious crowds surround them, listen avidly to their stories. They've come from the Czenstochow area – the German army has penetrated deep into Poland.

The wave of refugees keeps mounting every day. The streets are full of strangers.

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Tuesday evening, September 5, we learn that the local police are getting ready to leave town. The German army is approaching Kielce, forty kilometers west of Szydlowiec.

Wednesday morning, the sixth, a group of us decide to take to the road. There is no time to think. The panic is growing worse. People pack a few pieces of clothing and some food and start off in unfamiliar directions. My wife and the wives of my friends take the smaller bundles and carry them through side streets, far outside the town, trying not to attract attention. We all meet at the prearranged place.

While we were packing, Yakov Shteinhorn, our factory expeditor, came in accidently and saw what was happening. He didn't utter a word, but as he left he squeezed my hand and burst into sobs, like a child. Some relatives also came in. The goodbyes were brief. All eyes were moist.

At the outskirts of town our wives are waiting for us. My older son Moyshe has come with me. We are a group of nine men.

The road to the railroad station lies through fields where the grain has already been harvested. A hot summer's day. We come to a forest of young pine trees which border the station and sit down to eat our breakfast. Everything is quiet. The air is pleasant. Nature is peaceful. But the bloody reality gives us no rest. According to our plan we must cover 30 kilometers today if we are to reach the city of Driltch (Ilcza).

We walk through Polish streets and villages. People are standing in front of their houses. We try to buy food from them, but they tell us they have nothing to sell.

Closer to Driltch, where a number of roads intersect, we find an army of refugees, all of them heading in the same direction – the Vistula. There we'll be able to rest, because the Polish army will make a stand at the river. Or so they say.

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In the villages we meet Polish farmers, weeping and wringing their hands. The Germans are close by, they tell us. We assure them it isn't so.

When we finally reach Driltch, it is pitch black. A road goes through the town, straight to the Vistula, 50 kilometers away. At dawn we find ourselves in a large village. Here we rest and have something to eat. We find a peasant who agrees (for a good price) to take us by horse-and-wagon to Lipsk, the closest town. For the first time since the outbreak of the war, we meet a regular Polish army unit – it too is marching toward the Vistula.

Here we also learn that the largest part of the Jewish population, led by the rabbi, is hiding in neighboring villages because of the frequent air raids. We are barely able to persuade our peasant guide to take us to Solec, where a bridge crosses the Vistula River. On the way we see many squadrons of German planes flying toward the bridge. The booming of anti-aircraft guns is ceaseless.

Before noon we arrive at a point about a kilometer from the bridge. The peasant, badly frightened, tells us that he will not go a step further. We gather up our bundles and hide among the trees. The German planes keep dropping bombs on the bridge. The anti-aircraft fire is keeping them high up and the bombs are missing the target. We can see Polish homes burning on both sides of the river.

For two hours we watch the battle for the bridge. German planes are still attacking every half hour. We use the “recess” to head for the bridge, but there we find Polish soldiers who check anyone trying to cross. Soldiers are also stationed along the length of the bridge, calmly observing the hordes of refugees trying to get across.

Our group finally gets on the bridge, but halfway across everyone starts running wildly, with their last bit of strength. We can feel the danger in the air. Our group is separated by

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the crowds. My son races ahead, turning his head every few steps to keep an eye on my whereabouts. I run with all my strength, but I can feel the weight of my years. Desperately I grab hold of the edge of a wagon, maybe it will help me run faster. A man riding in the back of the wagon points a gun at me and I let go. (Later we learn that the wagon was carrying secret Polish documents.)

We barely make it to the other end of the bridge, rush pell-mell down the hill and hide among some trees. When we catch our breath and calm down a bit we start walking again. We have to move fast and get away from that dangerous spot. Soon we are in an orchard. Polish soldiers motion to us to keep away from two trucks carrying ammunition. Three enemy planes appear overhead. We throw ourselves to the ground. Ten steps in front of us, outside a barn and camouflaged with a covering of hay, stands a cannon. Two soldiers stand beside it. The muzzle of the gun is pointing to the sky. A few seconds later the cannon is spitting fire.

When the planes retreat we start walking on the road that leads to Apole, the next town. We meet up with the rest of our group. We are too exposed here. There are no trees along this road to hide in. By the time we reach the village it is good and dark. We approach a farmhouse. The peasant is friendly, heats up some tea for us, opens two stalls lined with straw, and we fall fast asleep. (I want to note here that during the entire period of our wandering the Polish peasants were friendly toward us.)

A few hours later several wagons carrying soldiers pulled up outside our stalls. We had to leave. We picked up our rucksacks and marched to the town of Apole, near Lublin.

A big, broad marketplace, one store right next to the other. We quickly find our friend Goldzamd, who had owned an apothecary in Shidlovtse. We breathe a little easier. There is no panic here. We can get anything we want to eat. We begin

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to feel we are finally out of the war zone Jews are sitting outside their little houses, talking calmly about the war. Once in a while a truck drives by filled with armed Polish soldiers. Whenever that happens, the Jews jump up from their seats, remove their hats and greet the soldiers sincerely.

Friday. We buy some basic necessities and that evening we start out again, but this time with a Jewish coachman. He takes us to the town of Lenczic, a little closer to Lublin. Around midnight we stop at a big marketplace, but there's no one in sight. We look around in the darkness for a place to sleep. The glow of a lamp leads us to a group of young Jews – two young women and several young men. They welcome us and put us up with several Jewish families. Since it is Friday evening we find ourselves eating at tables with white cloths and silver candlesticks. The warm Jewish intimacy is almost palpable.

The next morning, all the stores are closed. The Jews, dressed in their Sabbath best, gather in the street. A squadron of Polish planes flies over overhead. The Jews take this to mean that these are French flyers who have come to help. This is the first time since the war broke out that I have seen Polish aircraft.

Our spirits rise. One gets the impression that Polish resistance is stiffening, that a strong front will be established at the Vistula.

Saturday passes without incident, but in the evening a squadron of Polish planes again appears on the horizon.

We decide to bypass Lublin and go toward Chelm. That evening we arrange with our Jewish coachman to take us to Bichowa. We reach there around midnight. It is not a very pleasant place. The first thing we see are ruins of old buildings. There are still a few Jews here. They point us to a small Jewish inn. We knock for a long time before someone opens the door. An empty house with nothing but a table and a few chairs. We

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bring in a bundle of hay from our wagon, spread it on the floor and fall asleep.

The next morning we travel to Zilkewa on a dirt road. The dust gets into your mouth, your nose. The wagon moves with great difficulty. The people and the horses are exhausted. Around noon we enter Zilkewa, a small town along the road t hat goes from Lublin to Chelm. Even before the wagon stops we are surrounded by a group of young Jews. Where are we coming from? Where are we going? Eventually they put us up with a few Jewish families.

After a little rest and a good meal we start out for Chelm, some 60 kilometers away. As we get closer to Chelm we learn that the city was bombed during the night, so we take a road that bypasses Chelm. On the way we meet a Jewish family hiding in the bushes. They tell us that many Jewish families are hiding in the forest nearby.

We wait till evening and head for the forest, where we meet many other Jews, but we decide to go a few kilometers further to the village of Leshnitczowke. Here we find a Jew who owns a house and a barn full of freshly harvested grain. It is comfortable here. All the rooms are filled with Jews who left Chelm. Bundles are everywhere. We spread out in the courtyard, wash ourselves, buy something to eat. That night we slept in the barn with all the other Jews.

Among them with a small group from Lublin, headed by an energetic young man about twenty. They are Communists, they tell us, who had been arrested by the Polish government and served time in prison. We become friendly with them and the next morning we start out together. We are heading for the Bug River. The road becomes wider and wilder, sandy, with ditches. The surrounding landscape is flat, not a house in sight, as though we were wandering in a desert. Night falls and for a long time we walk in the dark. Around midnight we come to a

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little town near the river. The marketplace is crowded with wagons and people, all of them anxious to cross the River Bug.

At a bridge, which is at the other end of town, are some Polish soldiers, who tell us that we must have a permit from the local military commander before we can cross. The whole crowd heads toward the command post. T he commander assures us that it makes no sense to run now, because the German planes can run faster. Cities like Zdalbunow, which is even closer to the Russian border, have already been bombed.

Without a permit there is no use even thinking about crossing the bridge. Having no alternative, we managed to find a peasant who let us spend the night in his barn. In the morning, back in town, we find a few dozen Jewish refugees. It is Erev Rosh Hashonah. We appeal to the local Jewish “mayor” and he puts us up in several Jewish homes.

The next morning we take a walk outside of town and strike up a conversation with several Jews there. They tell us that the Bug is not a deep river. There are even a few places where we could easily walk across. Without thinking too much about it, we get together on the other side of town. There we find a crowd of Jews who have also discovered the secret. We take off our shoes, roll up our trousers, walk across the river and head toward Libevne (Lubomil), the nearest town. Our feet are blistered. We sit down on the grass alongside the road to rest.

Finally we arrive in Libevne. It's the second day of Rosh Hashonah. A nice little shtetl in the east, on the way to Kovle. We are put up at the home of a Jewish leather merchant. Every evening we sit at the radio for hours, listening to the news. One evening the Moscow radio reports that the Red Army has been ordered to cross the Polish border and march to the Vistula, in accordance with an agreement with the German government.

The next morning our host comes running in and tells us fearfully that the Polish army is retreating and is going to set

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fire to the city. Quickly we put on our rucksacks. Our host and his family are also ready to leave the house. Together we wait to see what will happen next. Through the window we watch the panic set in. Suddenly – crash! Artillery shots. A few minutes later a German tank stops in front of the house. Several Jews appear from nowhere and start a conversation with the German soldiers, who explain that they are only passing through and that soon the Russians will be coming in to take over. There are now thousands of refugees in Libevne, Jews and Poles. (Soon after the German army came in, most of the inhabitants, especially the Poles, had taken to the roads going westward.)

On the road where the Germans are marching stands an old Ukrainian. He is shouting: “This is what I call an army! This is a power! And this is the army that Poland wants to fight? This is the end! Poland is finished!” His eyes blaze as he screams on and on in a drunken frenzy.

At dawn on the first day of Succos a Russian military unit enters Libevne. For the shtetl it's a great sensation. The whole population comes out to great them. A holiday mood. Fear of the German has vanished. People are optimistic. The next day a whole army marches in, armed to the teeth, motorized, with countless tracks, light and heavy tanks. They are marching toward Lublin. Large crowds of refugees march along with the troops. The same steam that was previously flowing eastward is now going to the west.

Our group separates into two. My son, my brother and I decide to go to Lwow; the others, to Vilna.

The week of Succos. As soon as it becomes known that a train is going to Kovle, we start our travels again. The train proceeds normally. We find one going to Lutsk, and from there we get to Lwow, where I have many friends among the businessmen. They help us find a place to stay. At first we were happy to escape from the Nazis. After a little while, when

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the Soviet authorities began introducing their system, life was not so pleasant here either. Meantime, letters arrive from our families in Szydlowiec, begging us to come home.

In January 1940, after tortuous journeys and dangerous mishaps, we somehow managed to get back home.

In Szydlowiec, things are relatively quiet. Now and then an auto with German soldiers appear and people grow panicky. The Germans have come to round up people to clear the snow off the roads, or they are looking to buy provisions. I myself feel very depressed. I can't make peace with the big changes that have taken place. I've just come from a place where Jews can move around freely and suddenly I've fallen into an atmosphere like this. For a long time I haven't been out of the house. I spend as much time as possible with my family.

When the partners in the leather factory gathered at my home and began talking about business matters, it upset me very much. I've long since grown unaccustomed to things like this.

My wife has told me about her terrible experiences during the time I was away, about the Judenrat that now has complete authority over the Jewish population, about the tremendous taxes that have been levied against the Jews in the city, about the repressive measures they take when these taxes are not paid on time. Once, when we didn't pay our installment, the Judenrat arrested my oldest brother and his wife. When my wife tried to intercede with certain members of the Judenrat who were old friends of ours, they refused even to listen to her.

One cannot say that the actions of the Judenrat were always free of great wrongs. During the period when enormous amounts of money were being exacted from the Jews by the German authorities, certain members of the Judenrat – wealthy men – used their position to avoid paying their share

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and even helped their relatives do the same. And they did even worse things.

After several weeks went by, I began to interest myself in the business again. I put the books in order. I filled out reports on the condition of the merchandise and the balances for the past several years.

Periodically, German officers come in and demand leather. Many of them pay the set price; others pay nothing, employing various kinds of threats. One German commander from Skarzysko became well known among the Jewish leather merchants. From time to time he appears and “confiscates” large quantities of leather. One of his methods consists of pulling out his revolver and firing at the merchant, but in such a way that the bullet “only” grazes the victim's cheek.

One day at the end of 1940 I'm sitting in my office with the bookkeeper. A knock at the door. A tall, slim gentleman in civilian clothing enters, behind him an aide and a secretary. The gentleman behaves very formally. In Polish he tells us that he has been appointed by the German authorities as Commissar of the local leather factories. He counts the money in the cash box, takes the keys, and leaves. We “intervened” and managed to get another Pole appointed commissar.

The winter of 1940 passes without any major calamities. A larger wave of Jewish refugees has come from Lodz and Kalish, from the area that was incorporated into the German Reich. The Germans routed them out of their beds in the middle of the night, took them by truck to the Polish border – and dumped them into a field.

The poverty in Szydlowiec keeps deepening. Jews are allotted 7 ½ decagrams of bread a day (about 3 ounces), plus a similar amount of sugar and marmalade. Many are therefore running to the villages to buy food products and sell them in the city. Others wait for Polish tradesmen who come here to buy leather goods and shoes and they act as brokers for them.

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Jewish butchers slaughter cows for non-kosher use. Some take jobs in the leather-good factories or in the tanneries. Many Jewish storekeepers live on hidden goods and sell off their reserves a little at a time.

To our great shame, Jewish informers have also sprung forth out of the earth. Early in the summer the district police appeared and conducted mass inspections, acting on “leads” supplied by Jewish informers. One of these characters, a refugee from Kalish, takes part in the inspections personally. They are usually done at night, when people are asleep. The police beat the Jews unmercifully, rip up floors, dig up the ground, test the walls for hiding-places. If they find hidden goods they arrest the owner and send him to a place from which he never returns. These inspections have been going on for weeks. People are afraid it will end by driving all the Jews out of the city while the Germans search all the Jewish homes. Such things have happened in some of the smaller towns in the area. The Jewish population is terrorized by this. When they go to bed at night they are so uneasy that the slightest sound awakens them. If they get through the night without incident they consider themselves lucky.

The Judenrat is trying to “persuade” the Germans to stop these inspections. They arrange feasts for the officers, give them expensive gifts, try to convince them that the Jewish population in Szydlowiec consists mainly of petty tradesmen, and that the small stocks of goods they still have is from before the war, that the Jews must find a source of income since they can't exist on the 3 ounces of bread.

Late summer an order is posted: All Jews age 16 to 25 must report to the labor office. A doctor there determines which ones are capable of doing heavy labor. Part of this group is sent by train to the Vistula, part to Belzec, near the Russian border, to dig anti-tank trenches. The families of these young people are getting worrisome letters. The work is very hard, the

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living conditions inhuman. The supervisors are S.S.-men. Food must be bought at one's own expense. There have been casualties. Some of the workers had to march fifty kilometers from one work-place to another; those who lagged behind were shot on the spot.

This news has so alarmed the Jews that mothers besiege the Judenrat offices; whenever one of the Council members appears on the street the women noisily demand that the Judenrat supply food for these workers and ease their life. To make matters worse, the sons, brothers and relatives of Judenrat members, are not sent to these work-sites – each one of them has a pass showing that he works in some capacity for the Judenrat.

The German occupation authority has gradually taken over the whole economy of Poland, including the leather industry. They have set up a central office that handles all trade in rawhide and supplies the leather factories with raw materials. They have also opened a leather store which has the exclusive right to buy up the finished goods.

Our factory is working under the supervision of a Polish commissar. The work is going very slowly; there are problems with raw material and fuel. Frequently, military personnel comes to Szydlowiec and demands leather; some do it politely, others by threats. If we show them the circular hanging on the wall, which says that it is forbidden t sell leather to military personnel, they laugh. The Polish commissar is also afraid of them and we have no alternative but to hide whenever a military vehicle appears in the neighborhood.

One day during the summer a tall, stout German appears at the door of our warehouse. He is accompanied by a young Jew named Mordecai Zucker. The warehouse has a thick door with an iron bar. The windows are grated. The young man points to me and the German orders me to open the door at once. I try to tell him that I don't have the keys. He hits me

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over the head with his blackjack. The workers in the courtyard cry out in alarm. My wife comes running with the keys. We open the warehouse, in which there are a lot of finished leather goods. Several high S.S. officers appear, carry out all the goods and load it into trucks that have pulled up outside. All this time my wife has been with me in the warehouse. Then my brother's wife comes in, along with her son and another worker. The German locks up all up in the warehouse, like prisoners. My son runs to the local police station. Two gendarmes arrive, stop the cars with the S.S.-men and force them to return the keys to us and put the goods back in the warehouse.

Autumn arrives. The Polish commissar is replaced by a German, an older man from Vienna. Of Czech origin, he speaks Polish with an accent, but he knows the Polish scene very well, having been a master tanner in various Jewish leather factories in Radom. We get along well with him.

With the outbreak of the German-Russian war the situation in Szydlowiec becomes a thousand times worse. The life of the Jews grows more difficult every day. We can feel the noose tightening around our necks. Every day new decrees which place another heavy stone on the backs of the starving Jewish population. The Judenrat makes every effort to ease the effects of these decrees. A special Council member is assigned to supply gifts and good meals for the Nazis.

From time to time cars drive into town with German soldiers who raid Jewish homes, drag out the young people and send them to various work sites outside the city. Some of these people run away and come back home to Szydlowiec.

In our factory the situation has grown worse. The friendly Viennese commissar took sick and was replaced by a sadistic anti-Semite whom we knew very well. We called him “Heine.” This man, after he had been put in charge of the leather factory in Kielce, deported all the Jewish leather

[Page 175]

manufacturers to concentration camps and confiscated their factories.

On the second day of Succos several trucks drive into town carrying the chief of the leather office in Radom, the newly appointed commissar Heine and a group of young Poles. They spread out over all the Jewish leather factories (which had been closed for a long time) and begin making strict inspections. The same evening I'm summoned by the new commissar, a big, red-faced German dressed in hunting clothes and wearing a green hat with a feather. At his side, a big, fierce-looking dog. He doesn't get up from his chair; his general demeanor is supposed to let me know that he is now the boss here, the prosecutor and the judge combined. Without looking at me he orders me to prepare a room for one of his aides who will manage the factory. Later a young Pole carrying two valises comes and takes over the room.

A week later, Heine is back, accompanied by a Polish young man named Shiwak, who is his deputy in the two Jewish factories in Szydlowiec that are still working. The following morning, the partners in the factories are summoned to the commissar's office. We stand inside the door like convicts. He calls each man's name, asks him what his function is in the factory, then tells us that he can get along without us and that from now on we are not to enter the factory. My younger brother, Wolf, is permitted to continue working as a master; also the bookkeeper and my nephew as his assistant.

Whenever Shiwak and the commissar's other aide get reliable information about Jews who are producing leather goods in secret, they arrest them during the night and then collect hefty bribes for releasing them.

My wife is upset and embittered. Our home has become a jail for us. Our partners live with us and order us around. We would prefer to be “evicted” from our own home, but we're afraid to run away because it could provide a pretext for

[Page 176]

further harassment. Gradually we begin moving things out of the house in secret. One afternoon my youngest son, Shlomo, carried out a valise full of underwear. Shiwak happened to notice him, stopped him, and smiled: “You're moving out?”

The Jews still working in the factory are very worried. The master and the bookkeeper are certain that pieces of leather are occasionally missing. They are afraid they will be blamed for it; who will the Germans hold responsible, if not the Jews? So they buy leather in the market and replace the missing pieces.

One day a representative of the leather office comes into our factory and selects a shipment of leather. It is all noted in the record and numbered. The representative says that in a few days he will come and pick it up. That night the Jewish factory watchman knocks at my window and tells me in a trembling voice that ten minutes ago Shiwak had come in, opened the warehouse, put the stuff in his valise and taken it home.

We are at our wit's end. We know the danger that faces all the Jews who work in the factory. We discuss it with the bookkeeper and decide to report it to the police. It all happened very quickly. When Shiwak appeared in the street with the leather he found a Polish policeman waiting for him, along with my brother's son. The policeman took the pack of leather from him. But we are still worried. Won't the Jews be held accountable for this too?

The Radom leather office was immediately notified of the scandal. The head of the office came down, investigated, checked the leather in question, asked about the circumstances of the robbery. Before he went back he told us that we were very lucky that he was there personally to establish Shiwak's guilt. The next day the commissar himself arrived, very upset. He screamed and carried on about why he wasn't informed about this immediately. The day after that he came with a civilian inspector. They interrogated all the Jews who were

[Page 177]

Involved and ordered them arrested. After intervention by the Judenrat and the German police from Radom (Szydlowiec was under their jurisdiction) the arrested Jews were released.

My brother Wolf and I are of the opinion that the matter has not ended with this. Heine will not take this lying down. We must get away from Szydlowiec. We make the necessary arrangements to get a pass for the train and one night we slip out of the city and get safely to the railroad station.

We got to Pietrkow, where the Nazi authorities were less brutal than in other places. From there we went to Warsaw, where my other two brothers and a sister were living. After a few weeks in Warsaw we saw that their troubles were even worse than ours, so we went back to Szydlowiec, which by that time had officially been declared a ghetto, although without any barbed wire fences.

The Jews here think that the first thing they need for a little security is a work-place, so they try to get jobs in various German firms in Szydlowiec and vicinity. There are, however, work-places which they try to avoid. So the Germans and their assistants begin rounding up young people in the street, raiding Jewish homes at night, dragging people out of their beds and sending them to different work-places.

Here I must mention the sad role of the Jewish police, whom even their own friends shunned. Also, a deep chasm has opened up between the masses of Jews and the Judenrat, who, with their relatives, were a privileged class. Their self-satisfaction was shocking, as were their parties in the local taverns . . .

More and more frequently we hear rumors that mass executions of Jews are taking place. One day we heard it directly from two refugees from Krakow, but we lulled our fears with the “theory” that it was happening only in the larger cities.

Meanwhile, we are becoming poorer and poorer. Food is

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scarcer and scarcer. Entire families go out begging for a piece of bread. A meeting is called to set up a free soup kitchen. Such a kitchen had been opened before, but had closed for lack of provisions. Many people came to this meeting. Everyone speaks about the terrible plight of the hungry, about the necessity for a soup kitchen that must be kept open despite all the difficulties.

Yitzhok Shteinman, a religious young man, proposes that we go to all the well-to-do Jews in Szydlowiec and confiscate whatever we need. He pledges to pay 500 zlotys a month to the kitchen, in addition to the several pots of food that he cooks himself every day and distributes in his own building. A butcher takes the floor, shouting that we dare not remain indifferent to the misery all around us. He offers to set an example: even though he has to risk his life to earn money, he pledges a certain quantity of fat for the kitchen.

A committee is elected that goes energetically to work. They arrange with well-to-do Jews to collect an initial sum and then monthly payments. The Judenrat also pledges to provide a certain quantity of food products every month for the kitchen. Several big rooms in Fishel Eisenberg's factory are fixed up with big kettles fastened to the floor. The necessary personnel has volunteered. The work proceeds on a large scale. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of a group of people, especially the Shteinman family, the kitchen continued to function almost up to the day of the deportation. The number of lunches distributed daily often reached 1800.

People are becoming more and more dispirited, however. Human life means nothing. Jews wander around like lost sheep waiting for the slaughter . . . there is no voice to offer us comfort or encouragement. The whole environment seems to be staring down at us sullenly, impatient for our final hour.

We keep hearing tragic news of deportations of Jewish communities nearby and far away. We feel that the fateful

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hour is approaching also for us. People are frightened, hopeless, lost. They liquidate their homes, sell whatever they can. They give away clothing to friendly Poles, hoping that if they survive . . . People make rucksacks and pack up their basic necessities. They are getting ready...

Everyone has his own opinion about what must be done now. Some go to work camps; others maintain that the arms factories are a safer place. Some build hiding-places. Others look for a way to hide with farmers whom they know. Most of the Jews, however, are passive and prepare for the worst.

I sent my younger son, Shlomo, to the Starchowicz arms factory; my older Moyshe, my wife and youngest daughter to Wolonow. I myself remained in the factory. The commissar assures me I have nothing to fear.

Szydlowiec is in turmoil. Every day we hear about liquidations of nearby Jewish communities. Smaller communities have been ordered to move to Szydlowiec in the next two days. Long lines of wagons appear, carrying furniture and bedding. They stop at the Judenrat building. The police run around, “settling” the new refugees in Jewish homes.

Events happen in quick succession. Police appear, Gestapo, military units. They go from house to house, select furniture, clothing, blankets, and order the owner to bring the stuff to city hall. From there – who knows where it goes? The district chief appears. He calls together the Judenrat and the Jewish police and makes them responsible for collecting past and present “taxes” in the next three days – a sum of 50,000 zloty.

Rumors are spreading that the infamous cattle cars are already at the railroad station; tonight the deportation will begin. Jews sit with all their clothes on, their bundles ready. When morning comes, they take a deep breath. Another day's grace. . . We live from hour to hour.

Saturday night about twenty of our young men come

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Running home from a labor camp – they've heard that the Germans are getting ready to deport the Jews of Szydlowiec and they want to be with their families.

Erev Yom Kippur comes the announcement: the Jewish population must bring in a “contribution” of 15,000 zloty. On Tuesday, 3 o'clock in the morning, the town is surrounded by Ukrainians, Gestapo and police. The firemen ring their alarm bells. The deportation has begun . .

A few days before the deportation I and my younger brother had informed the commissar that we were leaving our work to be with our families. The truth was that we went to meet with a peasant who had promised to hide us. Through various side roads he led us to his house and took us up to the attic. The floor of the attic was covered with straw.

After several days in the attic, the worm of despair begins gnawing at us: Will we lie here like this, waiting for the end of the war? What will happen when the villagers find out about us? And what will happen when winter comes – will we be able to survive it?

Another few days pass and the peasant tells us that the deportation has taken place. That night some of his neighbors come to visit. From our hiding-place we hear them talking far into the night about the events of that “holy day.” Most of them are glad it happened. They warm-up to the subject and their voices rise: “The Jews must be destroyed to the last man, woman and child.” A few argue that without the Jews things will be worse – there will be no trade and no jobs.

The peasant has been in our factory. He bring us a letter from my older brother, who has remained there: the Jews who are employed in both leather factories, as well as the Jewish police and a group of young men who are putting the empty Jewish homes “in order” will not be touched. Tomorrow there will be a registration of all those who remain in Szydlowiec to work. His advice is that it will be better for us if we are present

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at the registration. Late that night we set out for Szydlowiec, with the peasant as our guide. On the way, however, we meet a Jewish workman from our factory, who tells us that the Gestapo has been in the factory today and has instructed the commissar that no Jews are to continue working in the leather factories. So we decide to turn around and go back.

The peasant is unhappy with our decision. It is already growing light – we will have to hide somewhere in the field or in another farmhouse and not come back to his place until dark. All that day we were in constant danger. Some farmers surrounded us and threatened to turn us over to the village magistrate. It took a lot of money to get ourselves out of their clutches.

Our farmer didn't come back for us, as he had promised. We assumed he wanted to get rid of us, but having no other choice we managed to get back to his house that night and rapped at his window. He hid us again.

A few days later he tells us that after the deportation, many Jews were found in their hiding-places, among them my father, who had been hiding in an attic in the factory. The Germans had taken the Jews to Skarzysko – the younger ones to the local arms factory the older ones were deported along with the Jews of Skarzysko. My older brother and his wife escaped to the home of a farmer who took them to Pshyskhe. My brother's son Abraham-Isaac and his bride escaped to Ostrowiec.

After a few more days go by, the peasant tells us that he can't sleep nights; he is afraid to keep us there any longer. We get word about this to my brother. Soon afterward his son Jacob comes and brings us two special passes to travel by train to Starchowicz. There we meet many friends from Szydlowiec, including our own children, who had been staying with a leather merchant. We are overjoyed to see each other again. Everyone has a different story to tell.

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When the news comes that the Germans are going to liquidate the camp at Starchowicz, we set out for the camp at Wolonow, where our wives and some of our children are. The camp at Wolonow is much worse than the one at Starchowicz. The German overseers along with their Polish and Ukrainian helpers are running wild. Hundreds of Jews have been shot here by these murderers.

It is horrible to think about. It's not bad enough these Nazis in Wolonow kill innocent people; they also enjoy torturing them before they kill them. I saw it with my own eyes.

I have learned that a group of Jews is going out tonight to see how the ghetto is being set up in Szydlowiec. My younger brother and I decide to join this group. We crawl through a hole in the fence and after trudging through some snow-covered fields, we arrive at the home of one of our workers outside of town. We know and they let us in. We climb up to the attic, where we learn that some Jews have gathered at Fishel Eisenberg's factory. After dark, we go there and find that a number of small field kitchens have been set up in the yard for the poor and the hungry.

It should be noted here that even under these most difficult conditions Jews displayed phenomenal energy and inventiveness in finding food and places to sleep.

Every day new groups of Jews arrive; people who stayed in the towns after the deportations or who come from liquidated work-places. When the crowding becomes intolerable, a second “ghetto” is created in two large apartment houses in the Jewish marketplace. In moving from one ghetto to another many Jews lost their lives.

The Gestapo has appeared again, this time rounding up young people whose whereabouts the Polish criminal underworld has exposed. They are taken out to a back street and shot. Sometime later a fleet of taxis appear, carrying

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German soldiers; they round up the Jews who had come from Driltch because among a group of captured partisans they have found several Jews from that town.

The murder of Notte Eisenberg's wife was particularly shocking. She had moved from one neighborhood in the ghetto to another, “escorted” by a Jewish policeman. From a distance, Polish policemen had shot her, dragged her body to the cemetery and robbed her of 28 zloty. Evidently they had expected to find much more money on her.

The new ghetto in Szydlowiec is becoming more and more dangerous. Every day, Jews are being robbed, beaten, murdered.

Wandering around the ghetto one sees utter misery. Several thousand Jews are inhumanly packed together into a small area. The Nazis have one objective: to extinguish the last spark of the human spirit, to turn people into subhuman creatures. This cannot continue for much longer. They are obviously collecting the remnants of Jewish communities here in order to destroy them once and for all. From these Jews we hear gruesome stories. Some have come from Wolonow to try to escape a typhus epidemic there.

Poles from surrounding villages also come to the ghetto, offering to hide Jews in return or large sums of money. My younger brother Wolf and I meet with a young man who is hiding at a farm in a nearby village. He tells us that the farmer in whose house he is hiding “needs” another person who can pay well. December 18, 1842 we leave the ghetto. After an hour's walk we come to the house. There is no furniture in it but a bed. The floor is covered with straw. This is supposed to be a hiding-place for three people. The next morning the farmer comes and warns us that our presence there must remain a deep secret. Not only are our lives in danger but the lives of the farmer and his family as well. We are afraid to move around. We speak in whispers. The food is worse than

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primitive, but the farmer can do nothing to arouse the suspicion of his neighbors.

After a few days he comes back from Szydlowiec and tells us that police and Ukrainians have entered the town, stationed armed guards all around and herded all the Jews into the railroad station. We sit there speechless, as though we had just returned from the funeral of our closest relatives.

One of the things the farmer had told us was that the trains for deporting the Jews of Szydlowiec were not quite ready in time, so the Nazis had taken the Jews to a brick factory in the woods. People who were still wearing decent-looking clothing were taken deeper into the woods, robbed and shot. The next day the train arrived. Several families, among them Pinchas Shteinman, had put their arms around each other and refused to get into the trains. They were all shot, but not before they managed to tear up all their money and toss it into a field.

The farmer also told us that several trucks had come into the ghetto with Jews from the Hasag camp. Seeing that the ghetto was empty, they started walking to the railroad station. Before they got there, however, the Nazis came upon them, shot them and left their bodies strewn all along the road.

Life in our hiding-place is becoming impossible. Not a breath of fresh air, not a ray of light. Our thoughts gnaw at us. How much longer can we go on this way? If the hour for the final destruction of all the Jews has struck, can we be the exception? We are afraid even to groan. The local peasants are afraid that the Germans will raid the farms for cows and grain and find us, so we must go down into the cellar. A big rock is laced on the cellar door as a precaution.

The farmer has brought us a newspaper put out by the Polish underground in the city. We read about the defeats the German army is suffering on the various fronts. A spark of comfort rises within us. The paper also tells about successful

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attacks on the Germans by partisan groups. Our farmer also recounts an episode which shows how frightened the Germans are becoming. In the village of Pogzala, it happened that a dog went mad. The peasants, brandishing clubs, chased the dog onto the highway. At that moment an auto drove by with some German civilians. Seeing the peasants with their clubs, they jumped out of the car with their hands up!

The underground newspapers are sounding an alarm: As soon as the Germans have finished with the Jews they will turn their attention to the Poles. Hundreds of Polish villages are being evacuated to make room for Germans from the Baltic lands. Polish peasants are putting these villages to the torch.

The farmer has brought us news that he must change our hiding-place again – he has been ordered to make his house available for quartering German soldiers.

I don't think I'll be able to hold out much longer. The new hiding-place is a grave with thick walls that let in no light. I'm getting terrible headaches. My eyes have become infected; I can hardly open them.

New arrivals keep coming into the ghetto. One evening the Germans brought in 1200 Jews from Radom alone.

* * *

The weather has turned warmer. Life in the ghetto is becoming more organized. A new Judenrat has been formed, new Jewish police. Jewish doctors are organizing medical help. Even trade develops. Jews are rushing to nearby villages to buy food products. A restaurant is opened. Poles come into the ghetto bringing things to sell. They are buying clothing, underwear, watches, jewelry.

Suddenly, completely unexpected, our situation has changed radically for the better. On January 14, 1945 the Germans left the farmhouse. That evening the farmer came

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into the cellar with terrific, almost unbelievable news: the Red Army is now in Szydlowiec!

We crawl out of our grave, dirty but happy. Not until that moment did our “host” tell us that partisans had hidden ammunition in his stable.

Before dawn we are walking on a back road to Szydlowiec. I can barely move my legs. We come into the town. It is hardly recognizable. It seems impossible that only yesterday thousands of Jews lived here.

With a group of other survivors, we walk through the Jewish part of town. Our hearts are heavy. In the cemetery the oldest of the Finklers takes a little siddur out of his pocket and says a prayer. We all repeat the words softly after him. The tears run silently down our cheeks. When we come to the kaddish, all of us break into a spasmodic weeping.

 

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