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[Page 506]

A Young Man Converses with Death

The Story of Avraham Kapiza

Translated by Selwyn Rose

 

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It was just a few days after my Thirteenth birthday – I was a “Bar–Mitzvah” boy – when the war broke out.

Like the rest of the community, my father, too, never expected what awaited us (May G–d avenge their blood); that just a few days before he had laid upon me the onus of the 613 commandments and with much feeling recited the traditional blessing: “Blessed art Thou O, Lord, for releasing me from the burden of the sins of this child.” He could not imagine to himself that indeed a horrible punishment of an entirely different kind awaited him in the future and the rest of his brethren – the Tykocin (Tiktin) Jewish community.

The first indication that a catastrophe was upon us was the mobilization of my father into the Polish army. The economic situation deteriorated from bad to worse. Only with the Russian conquest, my father's release from the ranks of the defeated Polish army and his return home did things improve slightly but even that didn't last long.

At the end of June 1941, the Russian army retreated and a garrison force of German soldiers appeared. In the beginning the new regime didn't bring about a reign of terror or repression as in other communities. Jewish Tykocin was not confined to one place in town, their

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movements were not restricted and they were not even required to wear the yellow star as was the case in other towns under Nazi rule. In Tykocin life continued normally in appearances, although in practice, a group of Germans took over the town's court–house and threw a vague sense of foreboding and fear over the people and left doubts gnawing at the heart of every Jew about what the future holds.

Towards evening on Sunday on 20th August 1941, the town crier, Karpachefski, walked round the streets crying: “All Jews, from the youngest to the oldest, except the lame and sick confined to their beds, must report in the Market Square tomorrow morning at 7 o'clock.” Suspicions grew and everyone wondered what lay behind the strange order. Rumors and stories, surrounding the digging of large trenches in the łopuchowo Forest spread throughout the town, but the rumors too, had their own explanations. There were those who claimed that the trenches were some sort of military project for strategic purposes and “…not intended for Israel.” That consoling opinion was accepted and dwelt in the hearts of many that found confirmation in the thought that the Germans had made a large order of boots from the Jews and that would conflict with any program of harm they intended to the Jews.

On the other hand the senses warned of the satanic intentions of the Germans. Everyone was still under the strong impression left upon them by the horrific slaughter of the Osipowicz family in their own home, May G–d avenge their blood. It had happened only a few days earlier: A crowd of Christians surrounded the house of Avraham–Iser Osipowicz (Osipovitz) and carried out a barbarous attack: every family member found in the house at the time – men, women and little children – were slaughtered. The Germans didn't react; in fact on the contrary – they began to display a tendency of strong hostility towards the Jewish community. Jewish blood had become cheap.

Virtually the entire Jewish population of Tykocin took part in the funeral of the martyred family and accompanied them to a common grave in the ancient cemetery of Tiktin. Taking the opportunity, many mourners spread themselves on the graves of their own departed and poured out the bitterness in their hearts.

The Jews spent a restless night. With the dawn of Monday, about an hour before the appointed time, the people began to hurry to the Market Square through all the streets, alleys and lanes and gathered in the Square. Many were wearing their best winter clothes and had small packages of food in their hands because in the meantime a rumor went round that all the Jews were being transferred to the ghetto in a near–by town.

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The Market square was humming with people. Many began to coalesce into groups discussing ideas and guesses…the heart prophesied otherwise.

While we were still standing around and before the Germans arrived, my father ordered me home to guard our property and possessions from our Christian neighbors. At first I refused to leave the market but when my friend Moshe Kafka agreed to come with me we left the square. We had barely gone more than a hundred meters or so when we heard the sound of trucks. Tens of armed soldiers enclosed entirely the market square – no one entered and no one left.

Moshe and I found hiding places in our garden and there we stayed until evening, frightened and worrying about the fate of our families. From our hiding place we heard the noise of trucks and the murmur of crowds of people moving along the road towards the highway. To our ears, came the melody of the “Hatikva”, gradually fading into the distance.

Silence after the storm fell upon the town. Towards evening, I left my hiding place and from a Christian I knew, I heard the following story: “They organized all the Jews into rows of four. At the head of the column a few musicians walked with their instruments – Daniel “the tailor”, Shmuel Sokolovitz and others, playing “Hatikva”. Under heavy armed guard, everyone was led in the direction of Zawady (about 15 Km from Tykocin). The women and children were loaded onto the trucks and they, too, were taken in the same direction.

A significant number of Jewish residents still remained in town and during the night, under cover of darkness they began gathering together in secret, exchanging plans and advice on what to do. Many turned to Mr. Shmuel, the town's ritual slaughterer to ask his advice and resourcefulness but he was also confused and uncertain.

At night, the Polish police came to all the Jewish homes and began confiscating the property. When they arrived at our house, I gave them the horse and the cow and asked them what would happen to me. One answered slyly that they are taking all the Jews to the ghetto in Sokoly and I “…would be better off going to the Square in the morning and joining my family.”

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I didn't know what to decide. But towards morning, when I saw the daughter of our neighbor Itzak – Brayndle, and her mother leaving town, I joined them together with my friend Moshe Kafka. Before dawn, we got to the Jewish cemetery and there we parted company; Moshe and I went towards the łopuchowo forest where we met a number of other escapees, mainly younger children and youths.

When Tuesday morning came we stayed in the forest and throughout the whole day we heard shouts, screams and cries piercing the air, accompanied by the intermittent rattle of machine–guns. Only then did we understand the fate that had befallen our loved ones.

Shocked into paralysis and without advice, we stood – a group of scared youngsters, not knowing what we should do. Suddenly, a youngster from among us, loosened his belt, slung it over the branch of a tree intending to hang himself. “Why am I alive when all my family has been murdered?” he shouted.

Together with my friend Moshe, we wandered in the forest all day and only with the coming of evening and darkness, I dared to leave the forest for the surrounding fields. When I met a Christian and asked him what had really happened to the Jews he replied ironically: “Didn't you hear the shooting?” He offered “Achitophel[1] advice – that I give him all my clothes because in any case, I won't need them any longer.

On the Wednesday morning I stole back into town. The town was as silent as a grave everything was quiet and without a sign of a living soul in the vicinity. I hid in the bushes of our garden all day long under drenching rain. Towards evening I went into our stable where I met our neighbor, a Christian girl, who milked our cow and treated our home as if it were her own. She told me that during Tuesday, they had taken all the Jews out of Tykocin and transferred them to a school house in the near–by village of Zawady and from there they were taken to the giant trenches that had been prepared in the łopuchowo forest where they were shot or buried alive. She advised me to leave the town. When the church bell struck midnight, I woke my friend Moshe and together we stole towards the banks of the river Narew next to the bridge. We found the bridge guarded and so we untied one of the boats and crossed the river to the other side. From there I intended to make my way to my grandfather's home in Knyszyn (Knyshin).

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Relative peace and quiet reigned in Knyszyn for the time being, and no one wanted to believe me when I told them about the fate of the Tykocin Jews. For a whole year I hid in my grandfather's house and only when the entire area of Bialystok was declared “Judenrein[2] did my wanderings recommence. In the meantime, my friend Moshe Kafka had returned to Tykocin where he met his death on the edge of the third trench in the forest of łopuchowo, May G–d avenge his blood.

As one who had already experienced a pogrom and barely avoided the horror of the liquidation of a complete Jewish community, my instincts were sharpened and when, one night I heard the suspicious sound of vehicles, I woke my uncle and together we jumped from the window under the very noses of the approaching Germans. All that night we hid in the loft of the cow–shed of a neighboring Christian and were witnesses to the terrible holocaust perpetrated on yet another Jewish community.

During an entire week we moved around the near–by villages hoping that one of our Christian acquaintances would offer us a safe place in their home, but they all sent us away and even threatened to turn us in to the Germans. In the meantime the rumor spread that in the village of Jasionówka was a large group of Jews and the Germans had left them alone without interfering with them in any way. The Germans even advertized the fact that all Jews who were refugees from other towns and villages can find shelter in Jasionówka, and with the promise that no harm will befall them the Germans managed to convince many survivors of the destroyed communities to settle there.

The hard winter months of 1942 we spent in Jasionówka. One morning, in the depths of winter, we awoke to find the entire town surrounded by Germans. My uncle and I climbed to the top of a hay–stack, thinking to hide there until the anger subsided. But towards evening we were found by a Pole who informed the Germans. They brought us to the square where they pointed to two Jews who had been shot after being found hiding and threatened to do the same to us but at the last moment they brought to the square an old couple and changing their mind ordered us to carry them on our shoulders to the market square where the rest of the Jews were already gathered.

We were taken on carts to the Knyszyn railroad station where we were crammed into cattle–wagons. The stench was intolerable and many fainted or begged to die. The train started in the direction of Bialystok but the rumor spread that the destination was the extermination camp of Treblinka. A mass escape started, many jumped through the windows from the moving train (at that time, the Germans didn't know that the Jews would do such a thing from a fast–moving train and there were no guards on the roofs of the wagons) and the wagons began to empty. Nevertheless, many died or were killed jumping from the train, few remained in the wagons. Nearly all jumped – I was among them.

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For some time I wandered around the forests but later I was forced to find a way into the Bialystok ghetto where the last concentration of Jews from all the area after it had been declared “Judenrein” was found. I spent my hardest days throughout the various “Aktzias” in the Bialystok ghetto. During one of them I had a fever and was delirious; the people in the bunker didn't want to endanger themselves and sought to throw me out but at the last minute the body–count of 16,000 for the transport to the extermination camp was filled and the “Aktzia” came to an end.

Between one “Aktzia” and the next, I worked in Work–Battalion No. 42 on building projects outside the ghetto. In August 1943 the second “Aktzia” was due to start and the Germans announced that the ghetto was going to be liquidated and there was no point in hiding any more.

After a few days of living in hiding I was forced to give myself up to the Germans. The last remnants of the ghetto Jews were collected in the fire station and from there we were transported: the women to the extermination camp at Treblinka and the men to Lublin. Asphyxiation spread throughout the wagons, many became unconscious and even died. There was no possibility of escape – the doors were bolted securely and a heavily armed guard of Ukrainians opened fire on any wagon where there seemed to be a disturbance or an attempt of breaking out.

At Lublin, together with my friend Avraham Yablonowitz, also from Tykocin, I was selected for the work brigade as an artisan. They stripped us of our clothes and dressed us in standard work clothes. Thus I became Concentration Camp Worker No. 3066 – a number displayed on my chest and on the right leg of my trousers.

In August 1943 I arrived by transport with other artisans at the Blizyn concentration camp. I spent a nine–month long nightmarish period of terrible suffering and fear in that camp, of wondering what the day would bring. I worked and toiled in a quarry and carpenters' shop and existed on a miniscule ration of 100gr bread each day and a little weak, tepid tea. The daily conditions were appalling; the Germans acted brutally towards the workers and many died under lethal beatings, others on the “Appel–platz[3] during a group punishment “crusade” and those not killed by the Germans died during the hard work or Typhus plague that struck the camp.

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Half–way through 1944 the camp population was halved and the camp destined for liquidation. The few survivors, I was among them, were transferred to the work camp at Auschwitz. To my good fortune, I wasn't “selected” in spite of looking like a skeleton, and was again sent to a working party, tattooed on my left arm with the identity number B–1537 and transferred to work–camp ‘D’ of Auschwitz where I met a few others from Tykocin: Chezkel Cymes(?), Feyvl Perczyk, Minkowsky, a woman from Tykocin – Shprintsa and Yazki – all of whom gave as much help as they could.

As long as they kept us working we were more or less safe but when the work stopped for a few days for some reason, again the permanent danger hovered over our heads that nearly always ended in being sent to the gas–chambers and crematoria hovered over our heads – a “Selectsia”.

From Auschwitz I was transferred with a few hundred other workers to the work–camp at Monowitz–Buna. It was a massive camp numbering more than 100,000 prisoners–of–war and at the center a number of barrack–blocks reserved for skilled Jewish artisans who were all employed at the I.G. Farben Industries which supplied weapons and ammunition to the German army. The Allied armies, who apparently knew what the factory was doing, paid them several “visits” and showered the factory with tons of explosives and incendiaries. In spite of the heavy losses that we suffered because of the bombing, we were all happy with the “visits” that told us that the end was coming nearer.

At the end of 1944 they collected together all the Jewish inmates of the camp and transferred them to the work–camp at Sosnowiec. We were employed there on skilled work like carpentry, welding and iron–work, in a factory manufacturing bombs and artillery. Although our work was forced labor and toilsome in the extreme, the living space and food beneath all standards, it was – for all that – a change for the better, mainly because of the fact that while working in the factory we didn't have a German guard or the “ Kapo” who embittered our lives in the camp itself, standing over us. But the “Idyll” didn't last long. After one of the successful air–raids that left Sosnowiec almost entirely a heap of collapsing rubble, all the Jews – 900 survivors from a camp numbering thousands of individuals – were ordered to form groups of 25, harnessed to wagons loaded with loot and ill–gotten gains to capacity and beyond, and the journey began – hauling them all the way to Germany.

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It was nothing less than a death–march, the worst experience I had ever had. The harsh Polish winter was at its height. The roads we were using, harnessed like horses or mules, were covered in deep snow. On our bodies (if it is possible to call the skeleton of creaking bones, covered in dry, withered skin – a body), were the tatters that were all that remained of our prison summer clothes and one torn blanket that we used to cover our frozen feet. Before beginning the journey we were given half a loaf of bread that we swallowed in one go and on the strength of that ration we walked for 13 (thirteen!) days. On one occasion during the march we were given two rotten frozen potatoes that appeared to us at the time, a meal fit for a king. Our thirst and need for water we slaked with ice or snow scooping up handfuls and putting it straight in our mouths as we walked, because whoever stopped, lagged behind or hung on to the sides of the wagon in order to ease his fatigue was dragged out of his place in line and shot on the spot.

The road we traversed was littered with the bodies of the prisoners from the previous convoys, our convoy as well “contributed its share” to the terrible and gruesome sight of men's bodies strewn along the sides of the road. From the 900 souls that we were at the beginning of the journey there remained after the death–march of thirteen days not more than 300 shadows of what had been men who were also begging to die.

When we passed through the streets of Bratislava the Czech population came out in force and in spite of threats from the Germans, threw us loaves of bread and other items of food. Towards evening they led us into a slaughter–house just outside the city and without providing us with food or drink, locked us in behind the heavy iron doors. The starving people fell upon the drainage channels, gutters and drains, lapping up the remains of the blood, chewing the remains of flesh, bones and intestines from the slaughtered animals. Tired to the point of utter and complete exhaustion, we simply collapsed onto the freezing concrete floor and thus we slept – many, forever. Only a few survived to awaken the following morning, the rest, close to two–hundred souls, died in their sleep, lying on the chilly floor.

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Those remaining alive, were added to the survivors of other convoys, crammed into railroad cattle–trucks – a hundred to a hundred and twenty in each and the doors closed and not opened for another four whole days. Many died there in the railroad wagons, the others had no strength left to move their limbs and just lay on the floor next to the dead bloated bodies; it was impossible to distinguish between the living and the dead.

When the train arrived in Vienna, with our last reserves of strength we cried out: “Water! Water!” The German population showered us with snow–balls and stones, thrown through the windows of the rail–cars. The snow added to the cold and turned the floor of the wagon to mud and the car itself to a morgue full of the dead and the half–dead.

When we arrived at the extermination– camp of Mauthausen, or Mord–Hausen as we Jews pronounced it, not one of the new arrivals was able to move himself independently; they loaded us onto trucks and only under a cold shower in the camp was a prisoner able to get the different parts of his body to move…for more than a month they held us under abominable conditions in the enormous camp where were imprisoned together members of many different nationalities. Only as the allied armies drew closer the Germans withdrew all the Jewish prisoners from the main camp and settled us in a tent encampment on the edge of the Mauthausen camp, although without any form of control or guard inside and without any source of food and water either. The camp, which was well–guarded outside, became a real hell. Jews began assaulting their brethren over a rotten bone or a piece of moldy bread. After one of the bombing raids which for some reason had all the bombs falling on the Jewish camp causing many deaths, the people left alive fell upon the torn remains of human flesh sent flying everywhere by the bombs. Human flesh had become something to lust after and the basis for arguments for many who rose up against their fellow–man. The Germans themselves dared not enter the terrible camp and stood guard only outside, looking in at us with sadistic pleasure.

In the hell that was the camp I was together with my friend Avraham Yablonowitz, as refugees from Tykocin we always tried to find a close neighbor as a friend and we even owed our lives to one another.

Two weeks before the Americans entered, the Germans gathered all the Jews of the area, nearly 15,000 and crammed us into a small clearing of the forest near Gunskirchen. Utter chaos and lawlessness reigned throughout the camp, again abandoned by the authority and any semblance of control came from a heavily armed German platoon outside. The small amount of food thrown into the camp by the Germans was not collected by the inmates. Bodies were piled in every corner of the compound, many of the corpses used as sheets to lie on by those still just

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alive and who sustained themselves by feeding on the remains of those who had died close to them. Those two weeks were a nightmare and a living hell on earth.

On the 5th May 1945, during the afternoon hours we suddenly became aware that the camp was without a guard outside – the Germans had vanished.

Everyone who was capable of doing so went out through the gates of the camp. They fell in their dozens upon the stores of food they found in the Germans' living quarters; many were trampled to death in the rush of starving humanity, others simply succumbed to the disease of dysentery that felled many among the liberated camps.

The following morning a pioneer corps of the American army arrived. For a month, we were held by them in special barracks where we were fed and treated until we began to regain something of the image of that had been lost. When my strength returned to me I made up my mind, and was determined to return to Tykocin and avenge myself and my family upon the Christian murderers. Armed with a pistol with bullets destined for that holy cause of vengeance and reparation, I made my way eastwards towards Tykocin, the town of my birth…

In Budapest I met Shmuel Peler who had just returned from Tykocin. He told me how the town looked and persuaded me not to go there because danger peered behind every wall for any Jews, in the anti–Semitic towns of Poland.

With the “Bricha[4] movement that was beginning its organization in the European countries after the war, I immigrated to Palestine in 1949.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Achitophel was the advisor to King David greatly renowned for his sagacity. Return
  2. Free of all Jews Return
  3. Roll–call area/parade square Return
  4. The nascent, not yet fully organized group for creating Illegal immigration to pre–State Palestine – “Aliyah ‘B’” Return

[Page 516]

The Story of Avraham Yablonovich

Translated by Selwyn Rose

On Sunday 22nd August 1941, in the early hours of the morning, there was a quiet knocking on the door–panel of our house; it was Rabbi Ab'eleh. He whispered something to my father. My father's face became serious and picking up his coat they both left hurriedly. When I asked where they were going my father answered curtly: “To Rabbi Ab'eleh”.

My father (Z”L), was a member of the town council and from experience we knew that when our father was called urgently to a meeting, like this, it could only mean trouble and it was bad news for the community. Tensely we awaited his return.

There was not much good news at that time and since the Germans had entered town the situation had been deteriorating from bad to worse, day by day. First many of the Poles instituted an economic boycott on the Jews and many found themselves without basic necessities. Then there were hot–headed people among the Poles who attacked those Jews who wandered out of town, robbing them of their belongings. But lately the situation had become intolerable. It was as if the entire population rose up against the Jewish community in order to annihilate it. Hundreds of Poles, who were consumed by their hatred of the Jews, among them the farmers of the surrounding villages and also the urban intelligentsia, instigated pogroms that became a regular occurrence at the time. Frightened and confused, the Jewish population confined themselves to their homes but when the Polish hooligans saw that the Jews didn't venture out of their homes, the broke into the houses, striking right and left indiscriminately, destroying and pillaging whatever came to hand, shattering and breaking whatever they couldn't carry away.

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After some hours, tired and depressed, my father returned from the Rabbi's house. It had been decided at the meeting to send an official deputation from the community to the German officer in command of the town, requesting him to impose peace and order in the town and safeguard the security of the Jewish population. However, from experience they knew that it was impossible to trust German good–heartedness and fairness; they collected money among the Jewish community with the intention of “sweetening” the evil one.

After our father told us what had been decided at the meeting he added: “I heard from the Secretary and Aaron Peler that they are digging three large trenches in the Łopuchowo forest to be used as graves for the Jews of Tykocin. But most people were of the opinion that they were intended, in the worst case, for those who collaborated with the Russians. In any event, you will all take some food with you and get out of town as quickly as you can until the situation clarifies.” After a discussion we decided that “…if we're going then we're all going together,” and that very evening our family left Tykocin.

After an hour we arrived at Sawino Kolonia. My father, mother and two sisters, Haya and Sonia entered the house of a Pole with whom my father had commercial dealings during better times. My brother Mordecai and I returned to Tykocin to see what had been happening there. We had both worked in the surrounding villages during better times, returning home only on weekends and festivals and from that time had learned all the “highways and by–ways” of the entire area.

We arrived back in Tykocin towards evening and found the town in a state of shock and confusion. A short while earlier the “town crier” had walked through the streets announcing that… “All Jews must report to the Market Square tomorrow morning.” Many, who thought that the town was surrounded by Germans, relaxed a little when we told them that when we entered the town there wasn't a German in sight. We returned very soon to our father in Sawino Kolonia.

That same night the family separated. Our mother and father and the two girls stayed in Sawino Kolonia while the three boys, Ya'acov–Moshe, Mordecai and I, made our way to the estate of the landowner Grodska, which was close to Sanniki (Leśniki?) where we had worked in better days. We spent the night sleeping on a pile of straw in the big barn and remained there the following day because of the heavy rain that was falling that day. Only my brother Ya'acov–Moshe took the herd of cows to pasture and led them in the direction of Tykocin. At nine o'clock he returned and told us that he had heard the sound of heavy trucks and a general commotion, shouts and loud altercations but couldn't understand what it was about. While he was still talking another Polish neighbor arrived and showed great surprise to see us alive because, so he said: “All the Tykocin Jews had been killed that morning and buried in a common grave in the Łopuchowo forest.”

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At mid–day, we saw the estate–owner's wife and her sons talking with a Polish neighbor. A short while later her son Bogdan saddled–up his horse and galloped off towards Tykocin. When we asked her if he had gone to bring the Germans to the estate she said yes. “We are too afraid to have Jews in our house,” she said.

We left the Grodska estate as quickly as we could. Crossing the fields we walked to the house of a Polish acquaintance about three kilometers distant from the estate. While we were walking, we heard the sounds of shooting and voices reciting the “Shema Yisrael[1]” prayer. At midnight we left the house of the Polish man and returned to Sawino Kolonia, the hiding place of our parents and sisters.

For three weeks we hid in the attic of the Pole who supplied us with all our needs. But even though we trusted him, we were frightened that one of his sons would betray us to the Germans and one dark night we all moved to the house of another of our acquaintances, a poor Pole by the name of Yablonsky. We stayed there for five months. He kept us in his barn and at night we would go out and get supplies from Polish neighbors returning to the barn and staying under–cover throughout the day, barely moving. Only we boys wandered around a bit to other places because our father had divided the family into two “camps” saying: “If the murderers come to one of the groups and strike it at least the others will escape.”

Our present hiding place that had seemed so secure in the beginning also became unsafe and we were forced to leave. Yablonsky himself was prepared to hide us in his house without fear or hesitation but his daughter, who was timid by nature, was strongly against it. Our presence was no longer a secret and when we saw that the neighbors were whispering to each other about us, we decided to leave for the forest and dig a bunker for ourselves. One dark night we three boys started to dig while Yablonsky and our father kept watch and guarded us. We dug down about three meters, spread straw over the bottom and covered it with thick logs and the branches of shrubs and bushes as camouflage. When we finished our work it was impossible to see that underneath the bushes was a large trench more than three meters long and two wide, but nevertheless we hid ourselves and stood watch all day long and when we saw that there were no passers–by there, and it was not used as a route by anyone, we called the rest of the family and that evening we spent together in our new “house”.

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We spent the entire winter in the bunker with the straw as our bedding – both sheets and covering – piling up. At night, my brother Mordecai and I went out crept stealthily into the surrounding villages and brought back food for the family. In the beginning we would receive supplies from the villagers and farmers but in the long run we were again faced with refusals and we were forced to steal from the farms in the district. One night we broke into one of the estates and took two cows and a number of sheep and took them to a Pole near an estate close to our bunker and he provided us with one hot meal a day in return.

Virtually twenty–four hours a day were spent in the bunker except for the short excursions Mordecai and I made. To our good fortune we were seven souls in the bunker – the whole family together so we didn't feel alone or isolated. Our father was a great conversationalist, holding us together and encouraging us, raising our spirits and our elder brother, Ya'acov–Moshe, a Seminary student, would fill in after with stories and legends from the Book of Proverbs.

Up above us, it was impossible to suppose that beneath all the shrubbery was, to all intents and purposes – an “apartment”. At any rate – so we thought until one day we heard two Poles talking above our heads. “I think there are ghosts in this place,” said one of them. “Let's search for them,” said the other and for an hour we heard them searching around above the bunker and the immediate surroundings. We all remained silent and tense, waiting for the results of their search. Suddenly, while one of them was actually standing on top of the bunker on the very spot where a bush hid the entrance, he slipped. Before we could understand what had actually happened, there he was falling in on top of us. We don't know who was more surprised – we, or the two Poles. For a few seconds we were all shocked into stunned silence and immobility and then the Poles recovered, and began a startled, panic–filled retreat running for their lives and by the time we ourselves climbed out of the bunker, they had disappeared from sight. This had occurred during the days of Passover in 1942. Of course, having been discovered we left the bunker that same evening. Our friend, the Pole, told us later that the next day some Poles grouped together around the bunker and called out for the people inside to surrender. When they realized that the bunker had been abandoned the rumor circulated that Partisans had been hiding there.

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We walked to the village of Sokoly where our mother's sister lived. Up until this time, the Jews of Sokoly were unharmed. We were free to wander around the town but were forbidden to leave. We all wore the yellow Star of David on our clothes.

The Jews of Sokoly were engaged in forced labor by the Germans. My brother worked in the Dapu train factory in Łapy. I, together with a group of Jews including Fishl and Taivel Silverstein, my friends from Tykocin, worked in a quarry outside of town. We toiled with the German and Polish oppressors whipping us to hurry all the time.

For the first four weeks of my stay in Sokoly, and together with Joseph Perko and Avraham Kremesch (Shaye the butcher's son), both of them from Tykocin, I was involved in trading with the Bialystok ghetto – an exceptionally hazardous undertaking. We bought produce from local farmers in the area and occasionally were able to smuggle it into the walls of the ghetto until a convoy of five wagons loaded with goods and food was caught by the German guards and my dreams of buying warm winter clothes for my family vanished.

On November 1st, 1943, the day before the liquidation of the Sokoly Jews, we left secretly one after the other and met outside the town and organized ourselves in two groups and thus, under cover of darkness moved towards Tykocin. We had no definite plan or program in mind. Our sole purpose was to get away from Sokoly as quickly as possible and we hoped to meet a Polish acquaintance that seemed likely to pick us up and take us to his home – or at least help us to find a hiding place. But our group separated. The first group included my parents, my brother Mordecai, my sister Sonia and me returned to Yablonsky. The second group comprised my brother Ya'acov–Moshe, my sister Haya and also Fishl and Taivel Silverstein who had joined us but arrived there only two days later. They were delayed on the way and hid with another Polish acquaintance.

Once again we began another period of wandering around the farms in the area, stealing food. We divided the booty with the Pole who was hiding our parents. He told us that the priest suggested that thefts like that, which were committed by people hiding for their lives and stealing only to survive, were permitted.

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At that time we decided again to build a bunker on the estate of another Pole whom we knew. In one night we dug the bunker, covered it with wood and planted on top bushes as camouflage, as we had the first one the previous year. When we had finished the work we returned home to eat and when we approached the bunker on our return, we found the opening exposed and the plants cast to one side. The Pole who had harbored us told us immediately that he was no longer prepared to have us on his estate and that we had to leave. This was a low betrayal on his part to send us away after we had been exploited for all we had. We returned again to our friend Yablonsky.

Yablonsky hid us in his house for a short while but we soon parted. My mother, who had suffered many hardships during the constant moving around from place to place wanted us to sneak into the Bialystok ghetto and join family members who were there and indeed, one night we sneaked her in with my brother Ya'acov–Moshe and my sister Sonia. My father and brother Mordecai hid in the surrounding forests of Tykocin searching for a secure hiding place.

For a short while my sister Haya hid in the house of the town secretary of Tykocin. Later on she dwelt, together with Elke Pikervitz, in the house of a Polish farmer, to all intents and purposes as an outright Christian. I, myself, wandered among the farms and villages, sleeping here and there, sustaining myself mainly by stealing food and trying to maintain contact with the various parts of my dispersed family. I habitually visited Yablonsky who told me a murdered Jew had been found naked at the roadside. Rumor had it that it was Josef the miller of Tykocin. In fear that the Germans were embarking on searches in the area, I rushed to escape and fled to the forest to hide. It was winter and bitterly cold. The good Pole who tracked me down with his dog, found me half frozen and when he got me home I felt I couldn't move my frozen limbs but I decided to waste no time and shortly went out again.

I was concerned for the fate of my mother, brother and sister who were in the Bialystok ghetto and was determined to get them out of there. When I got to the gates of the ghetto they were closed, no one could get in or out. That same hour the first “Aktzia” took place. But they were lucky and managed to save themselves hiding in Peler's house.

After the “Aktzia” life returned to normal in the ghetto; I could enter the ghetto and visit my mother. I urged her to leave the ghetto with me and join father in the forests but she asked me bring a letter from my father. On my way out of the ghetto to my father I passed by the hiding place of my sister Haya and she told me that our father had been killed when he went to the village of Długołęka, looking for a hiding–place.

[Page 522]

I hurried to my brother Mordecai who was hiding with my father and found him at the farm of a Pole near Sanniki (Leśniki?). He waited for our father to return from Długołęka, and when he failed to return went looking for him. When he crossed the bridge and entered the village, he heard the terrible news. It was June 1943. Our father had been caught by the sons of the dedicated Jew–hater Djulbic, who cruelly beat him until he fainted, covered in blood and turned over to the Germans who executed him in the nearby forest.

I returned to the ghetto and again tried to persuade my mother to leave but she demanded a letter from father. I kept from her the fate of our father and told her that in these mad times I couldn't carry a letter written in Yiddish. I told only my brother about the tragedy and asked him to go to the synagogue to say Kaddish[2] to our father's memory.

Our mother, Ya'acov–Moshe and Sonia remained in the ghetto and perished there. Haya was also murdered by the Germans. I survived the ravages and wanderings of the war together with my friend Avraham Kapitsa and he suffered the same experiences and agonies, writing about them in his “Story of Avraham Kapitsa”.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. “Hear O. Israel” – the affirmation and confession of the Oneness of G–d, recited three times daily and incumbent upon Jewish people on the approach of death. Return
  2. The prayer recited on the death of a nuclear–family member. Return

[Page 523]

Forever on the Run
The Story of Bezalel Wiloga
a Survivor of the Tykocin Holocaust

Translated by Selwyn Rose

I was standing on the street corner in Tykocin chatting to two young Polish boys when a small car pulled up. Two tall Gestapo officers got out and asked us in German the way to Knyszyn (Knishin). Because I was fluent in Yiddish I understood their question and answered: “Turn left and then straight ahead.” The taller of the two, the size of a knight weighing more than 100 kilograms, asked: “Are you a Jew?” – “Yes,” I answered. He lifted his hand in a wide sweep and brought it round landing it on my cheek. In spite of it being a lovely bright day with the sun shining out of a clear sky, I saw stars dancing before my eyes. It was a blow that I would remember for many, many days.

I was 16 at the time. From that moment a terrible fear of the Germans settled on my heart, a fear that no explanation, no convincing would ever remove. It was enough that I should hear the word “German” and I would immediately flee. Apparently that fear cast its shadow over me for the rest of my life.

A few months passed. It was the end of 1940 and the situation was very hazy and unclear. The Polish army was retreating from the area and the Russians were expected to arrive at any moment. We Jews were hoping that under Russian authority our situation would improve and we awaited their arrival with a measure of satisfaction.

I was the first to see the Russian soldiers entering town. My father's windmill was situated out of town on the main road into Tykocin. I was in the yard of the mill when I suddenly saw two Russian soldiers approaching me. They asked me a couple of questions but when they saw a platoon of Polish soldiers who's line of retreat also passed by our mill, they hurriedly left. The Polish soldiers, who saw me talking to the Russians, surrounded me and without any kind of investigation or demand stood me against a wall; they thought I was a communist, collaborating with the Russians and all my denials failed to move them. They were quite ready with their rifles, drawing the bolts with an ominous sound and aiming them at me. At literally the very last moment a local Pole appeared who had witnessed the whole incident and convinced them they were mistaken.

[Page 524]

A year later, I again found myself facing death. With the retreat of the Russians from Tykocin, I also left there and moved to Bialystok. The Germans entered Bialystok just a few days later and on their first day, a Friday, carried out a pogrom. Hundreds of Jews, me among them were marched to the synagogue and imprisoned there. Towards evening, when about four–hundred Jews were inside, the Germans set it on fire. The doors of the synagogue were locked and the Germans had set up machine–gun posts… “The sword without and the terror within”[1]. Many were consumed by the fire and many more by the German machine–guns. Only a very few managed to jump out of the windows and flee for their lives. Fate was kind to me and I was among the last group. I immediately made my way to Tykocin.

I arrived in Tykocin Sunday morning. On the way I gave everything I had in my possession to farmers, even the clothes on my back and when I arrived in Tykocin I had only my underwear. During the following five weeks I stayed with my parents working in my father's mill. They were five weeks filled with terror for the Jews of Tykocin. Polish hooligans emerged, carrying out acts of violence against us and turning our lives into a living hell. Our possessions became spoils and with heavy hearts and much anxiety we awaited the future.

Then came the most terrifying and horrifying day in the annals of Tykocin: the Jews of Tykocin, men women and little children, under orders from the Germans, congregated in the market square. Only a very few didn't go and hid themselves in their homes, among them my family. The following day the Germans burst into our house and dragged us all to the market square, except my father, my brother Yehuda and me. My father hid at the house of a Polish neighbor who surrendered him to the Germans the following day, who then murdered him. My brother Yehuda who escaped to the surrounding forests succeeded in remaining alive until about three months before the end of the war, when he was discovered, handed over to the Germans and murdered.

I, also – who since the forceful slap round the face from the Gestapo officer about two years previously – feared everything connected with word “German”, fled to the surrounding forests. Once again I was fortunate and many farmers who knew me from their need to frequent the mill, helped sustain me. But not one of them agreed to have me in his house for even one night. Thus I wandered hither and thither in field and forest, sleeping in different hideouts or under the stars.

[Page 525]

I stayed in correspondence with friends in the Bialystok ghetto, among them Aaron Peler from Tykocin. They wrote to me that the situation in the ghetto was relatively quiet and advised me to join them. I hesitated to confine myself willingly between walls guarded by the Germans and preferred to live a nomadic life in the forests where, after all, I was master of my soul. But the conditions outside were hard, cold and hunger consumed me until eventually I succumbed to the repeated pleadings of my friends and in 1942 I entered the ghetto of Bialystok. At first I had the feeling I was consigning myself to death but in time there was the feeling as if indeed, life in the ghetto was tranquil, ordered and better than what had been, in effect, the life of a hunted animal outside. Until suddenly one day the number of guards round the ghetto was significantly increased and the gates of the ghetto were closed…and the first “Aktzia” began. Thousands of Jews were collected up as easily as abandoned eggs and the chances of escaping the net were virtually zero. But the gates of the ghetto were opened for a few days and I bolted from there while there was still life in me.

I returned to my nomadic way of life in the forests encircling Tykocin until a Polish farmer by the name of Stanislaw Roshkowsky, took pity on me and took me into his house and granted me a corner in his barn for a dwelling place. A short while later Shmuel Peler came to join me in the same barn.

One summer day in 1943 a platoon of soldiers arrived searching for Partisans operating in the area. When Roshkowsky told us that Germans were coming we sped away from the place into the marsh–land close–by. Throughout the whole day we stood, terrified and neck–deep in the water listening to the shouts of the Germans continuing their search, our bodies quaking in fear. The Germans also searched Roshkowsky's house and the barn that had been our shelter. He later told us that they had used their bayonets and pitch–forks to prod the piles of hay of what had been our home.

[Page 526]

That evening we returned to Roshkowsky and dug a bunker in the ground about one meter wide, two long and about 70 centimeters deep. We refrained as much as possible from leaving the bunker but clearly we could not sit in it for long stretches of time; there was not enough room to stretch ourselves or even move and in any case we had to worry about food for ourselves. But nothing bad happened to us when we went out. The bunker was well–camouflaged and we made sure we left no marks on the ground behind us; no one could suspect that two Jews were hiding in that place.

It was now winter and we needed to renew our clothes. I took my life in my hands and one dark night sneaked into Tykocin, a distance of about 10 kilometers from our hiding place. One of my Polish acquaintances gave me a bundle of clothes but by the time I started back again it was almost dawn and I didn't want to find myself still in town and even worse that it would soon be complete daylight with me out in the open and still on the way back. My Polish friend advised me to go to the Jewish cemetery that had been turned into a pasture for horses. He picked a horse for me to ride there. When I got there I was seized with anxiety. There rose up and stood before me my murdered dear ones who had not been permitted to be buried as a Jew should, in a Jewish grave. Then I remembered the effervescent Tykocin of before, now defamed and abused. I felt then the sense of emptiness and loneliness and sorrowful thoughts settled in my traumatized heart. The ghosts of the holy ones beneath seemed to grasp at me from the darkness and a great fear descended upon me as I stood alongside the large tombstone and mausoleum on the grave of a great Rabbi and I grieved deeply. Silence enveloped the cemetery, only the darkness whispered, saying: “Here are the fallen of this cemetery!” In one of the corners of the pasture I managed to catch a horse and rode on my way, shocked and saddened with heavy tears choking my throat.

We spent the winter of 1943/4 in that same bunker. During that time, Eliezer and Ziskind Olsztejn and Yitzhak Peler had managed to jump from the death transport taking them and thousands of others from the Bialystok ghetto to the extermination camp. For some time they had wandered in the forests and when they heard of our hiding place they joined us. Together we passed the time until the liberation and in August 1944, with the entry of the Russians into our area, we returned immediately to Tykocin and after us a few other survivors of the holocaust, the handful of wretched and depressed remainders of that glorious community.


Translator's Footnote:

  1. “Between the devil and the deep blue sea” – or, in more modern usage “Between a rock and a hard place” see Deuteronomy Cap. 32 v. 25. Return

[Page 527]

Encounters with Death
The Story of Yona–Taivel and Her Brother Fishl Silverstein,
Survivors of the Tykocin Holocaust

Translated by Selwyn Rose

In the beginning only a few Germans entered Tykocin. The Poles, the smell of booty in their nostrils, found it convenient to loot and they did so; they came rushing to Tykocin from all around the local area with their horse and carts and began to go wild robbing the Jewish homes at will.

A great fear fell upon the Jews. Only a very few dared to oppose the rioters, like our neighbor, Rebecca the daughter of Slepak the Shoe–maker, who resisted them stoutly but in the end left the house, like the houses of others – with not a stick of furniture – not even a chair. Others still, like Avraham Iser Sipowitz and his family, were murdered in cold blood.

Our house was also pillaged by the rioters, among them Rodansky, Kwitkowsky, Philiss and other poles who were among our acquaintances; they hid their faces behind masks and stole whatever came to hand.

German authority became established. All the young Jewish males were taken for forced labor in camps that had been previously used by the Russians. Young Poles were put in charge of us; they had been our colleagues at school and only one or two years previously we played together and now for some reason they believed that the Jews were Communists. “You ‘danced’ with the Russians,” they said, “now you can work hard!” I remember once being told by one of them: “Tomorrow they will slaughter all of you,” and while talking drew his hand across his throat.

About six weeks later the town–crier, Yablonsky announced that all healthy Jews, from the youngest to the oldest must report in the market square next to the memorial statue.

[Page 528]

The town of Tykocin was confused. Many thought that the Germans were considering closing us all in the ghetto at Łomża, others thought they were going to select the fittest and choose from among them the youngest to be sent to labor camps but a heavy and deep feeling nestled in the heart and many were skeptical of the “report” – and the implied, “or else…?” Opinions were divided in our house as well. My father (Z”L), who took counsel with Rabbi Ab'eleh, said we should go while my brother Fishl, who had fought the Germans in the Polish army, was injured and escaped, decided to flee the city.

In the evening my uncle, Shalom Yitzhak Olcha came and took me and my sister Malka to his windmill at the edge of the town. Our mother and father, who had remained in the house alone went to the home of a Polish acquaintance of theirs named Ostrowsky who hid them in his potato fields. Our home remained deserted.

The day of horrors dawned. A heavy silence spread over everything; the Jews stayed closed up in their homes and dared not raise their voices. No one knew what this day would bring forth; no one knew what he should do. We walked, my sister and I, to the Yekutiel's mill close to my uncle's own mill. Many Jews were also hiding there who didn't know what the fates had in store for them – whether to report or not. A Polish acquaintance of ours, who passed by, said that the Germans only intended to transfer all the Jewish population of Tykocin to the ghetto in Łomża and we both decided to report to the market square. Suddenly our brother Fishl arrived. He had met Ostrowsky who told him that our parents were in hiding at his place. That information tilted the balance and we decided to join our parents. On our way to the potato plantation where they were hiding, a truck passed us by loaded with Jewish people being driven in the direction of Łopuchowo.

Towards evening, we heard the rattle of machine–guns from that direction. Ostrowsky, who had gone to town, returned to his home shocked and wanted to send us away from his house immediately. The Germans, he said, were threatening death to anyone hiding Jews in their house. We begged him, for our lives and our mother even offered him money and he agreed to hide us until morning. He also gave us an explanation for the shooting. The bitter truth was almost impossible to absorb. Ostrowsky explained: “…today was the first transport…” In the morning we had to leave our shelter with no idea which way to turn or where to go.

[Page 529]

We turned our faces towards Sokoly where we had relatives. At the railroad station near Łapy we met a Pole, a good–hearted man as it happens, and he told us that the family of Moshe Lifschitz, whose wife Shifra came from Tykocin, was hiding out in the nearby village of Wizna (Vizhna). We stayed with them overnight and the following morning continued on to Łapy. There we stayed for a few weeks, my mother and sister with the Pikervitz family and I stayed with the Zilaza family both of them from Tykocin. My brother, Fishl who was hiding with a friend in the forests – joined us. The family was once again united and we walked to our relative Haim Yehoshua Olcha in Sokoly. All the Jews we told about fate of the Jews of Tykocin were unable to believe it as being true.

The Jews of Sokoly lived under the threatening authority of the Germans. Their property was appropriated and the young people were taken for forced labor. I worked with the women of Sokoly drying peat, cleaning stations and working in different laboratories that were given over to Polish control. Jews who had hidden their property were hanged. I was present at one of the executions where the wife of the victim clung to his dangling legs kissing them hysterically and I told myself that if I have the strength to survive all these horrors that I shall be able to relate them to the whole world.

That same November 1942, the local Jews were ordered to congregate in the market square of Sokoly. Word of the murders that took place in Tykocin had already arrived and many of the Jews, especially among the young, had fled to the forest. My sister Malka had gone to our relatives. Our father, mother, my brother and I, others from Tykocin who had found shelter in Sokoly and many from Sokoly itself, fled in the direction of Tykocin because according to the rumor peace and quiet now reigned there. We walked in groups, close to each other but suddenly we were spotted and fired upon. The groups disintegrated and we started running. I ran alongside my brother, breathless and covered in thick mud that I churned up together with the first snow of the winter that had fallen that night. All together there were seven of us from Tykocin: Mordecai Yablonovich, Haya and Sonia his sisters, Altar Katz, Moshe–Haim Wisky, my brother Fishl and me.

At dawn we arrived at Kurowo. We were all starving and freezing cold. We knocked on the door of one of the houses and we were given food. The owner even permitted us to hide in his barn. On Sunday he returned from church with the news that people who were found hiding Jews were likely to be executed and sent us away.

[Page 530]

We had it in mind to go to the Bialystok ghetto because we believed our parents were there and we had lost all contact with them since the escape from Sokoly. We wandered around aimlessly: In the morning we said, “Would G–d that it were even!” And in the even we said, “Would G–d that it were morning!”[1] because of the fear in our hearts. Our group dispersed and I remained with my brother. From then for a year and a half we wandered among the villages in the area, the ground a pillow for our heads and light cotton garments covered our bodies. Sometimes we hid in barns without the knowledge of the owners; we received or stole food and shared it in small portions so that it would last as long as possible but remained hungry. We were very hungry and looked like skeletons.

 

Tyk530a.jpg
 
Tyk530b.jpg
Yona–Taivel and Fishl Silverstein

 

One night, a dark, cold and snowy night, shivering with cold, hungry and wet, we were in the vicinity of a small village, we took a chance and knocked on the door of a house a little distant from the village. An old woman, by the name of Wishniwsky opened the door. We asked her to allow us in to warm up a bit. Her sympathy and pity were clearly visible on her face and very touching but she explained to us that she feared her young son would inform on us because the Germans were granting white flour to anyone who reported Jews to them. Within a few days we found ourselves in the same area and by mistake we knocked on the same door. The old lady Wishniwsky opened the door and when she saw who it was her sorrow showed plainly on her face. “My heart froze within me when I sent you away from here into the storm and the snow,” she said. “Come in.” When her son, a young man of about 19, whose had never been seen without his knife stuck down his boot, saw us, sank into deep thought and decided: “I'll go without the white flour: I won't turn you in to the Germans.” Apparently, we were worth more than white flour!

[Page 531]

Nevertheless, the danger of being sent away hung over our heads and we did everything we could to prevent being sent back to the cold world outside.

Our “hostess” was an elderly widow and with her lived a married daughter and her husband and a son and daughter as well. The daughter knitted for herself a costume for the upcoming festival but the festival was approaching and the garment was unfinished. Because I was adept at knitting, I suggested that she let me do it and I worked day and night and finished it in time to her great satisfaction. But when her favorite son was again absent, we were afraid once more that we would be sent away. Here we were saved by the jealousy that erupted between the son and his sister: he demanded that I knit him a sweater and so he continued to allow us refuge in the house. My brother played checkers a lot with the youngster – it was his favorite game, and he made sure not to win too often in order not to antagonize him.

We stayed at their home three weeks. Every knock on the door was greeted with a rush of anxiety and when guests arrived we hurried to our room to hide. From beyond our door we heard their conversations which on more than one occasion turned to the fate of the Jews. Most of them greeted the slaughter of the Jewish people and spoke of Hitler as a savior sent by G–d to destroy the Jews as the killers of Jesus. These conversations made clear what awaited us if we should ever be discovered by the Poles themselves – nothing would help. The Wishniwsky family feared for their lives and once again saw us as having no value and asked us to leave their home. Once more we were wanderers in the fields where behind every bush death lay in ambush.

On another occasion a Polish woman hid us while her husband was on a business trip to Bialystok but when he returned and heard his wife was hiding two Jews in the house he became enraged and began to abuse her violently. Our situation was very unpleasant and we were concerned he may well inform on us and we left immediately. The woman hung a crucifix round my neck and said: “Look after the cross, walk in its way; it is the right way and G–d will help you to survive all the perils of the war safely.” She kissed me on the forehead and separated from us with tears in her eyes saying: “When you get to America, send us some dollars.”

[Page 532]

In March 1943, we arrived in Baranowo where an acquaintance, Josef Ulsha, was living. He too, kept us because of my knitting skills. One day Altar Katz appeared at the house. Altar was a master tailor and he also was hidden by Ulsha's son–in–law by virtue of his skills and was sent to sew for Ulsha. When his work was finished we were sent by Ulsha to his brother–in–law Kuliekowsky. He gave us a room, Altar Katz sewed, I knitted and Kuliekowsky was a good businessman. He used to say: “if I am in danger by harboring Jews in my house, at least I can enjoy it by making a living from them.” He was a gambler by nature and hid brandy, destined for the black–market, in our room, and even maintained contact with secret dealers and the Jews of the Bialystok ghetto.

I once gave Kuliekowsky a letter for my parents who, according to information I received from Altar Katz, were in the ghetto in Bialystok. I asked him to throw it on the ground somewhere in the Jewish neighborhood so that any Jew who sees it will recognize that it is written in Hebrew and pick it up immediately and deliver it. In the letter, I asked my parents to do everything in their power to get us into the Bialystok ghetto, a place that seemed to be more or less secure. And it worked. The letter arrived at the ghetto committee and from there to my parents. Later they told me that my parents had made all the necessary preparations and bribed the “right people” to get us into the ghetto but the ghetto was liquidated and to my good fortune the plan wasn't acted upon.

Kuliekowsky exploited us for all sorts of work, among which I had to prepare for him a lovely Christmas tree. But we passed six weeks of peace and quiet in his house. I remember that his mother, an old simple Polish woman, who related to the liquidation of the Jews with calm satisfaction. “What's the matter,” she said, “Didn't the Russians kill the Jews? And in any case, the Jews murdered Christ!

After six weeks Kuliekowsky transferred me to his brother–in–law Sabitzky in Sanniki who also required a worker. After about two weeks my brother also arrived together with Altar Katz. Sabitzky's wife, a contemptible, rabid anti–Semite worked us like slaves and at the same time half–starved us and housed us in a barn. One day, the evil woman burst into the house and shouted: “Clear out of here immediately, clear off!” Apparently in the nearby barn two Jews were hiding, Haya and Mordecai Yablonowitz. A Pole, Slotinsky by name, discovered them, closed them in the silo, created a loud disturbance and called the police.

[Page 533]

Obviously we ran for our lives and hid in the nearby forest. In the evening we ran into a group of Poles. “Hurry up and escape,” they said, “just today in Sanniki, they caught two Tykocin Jews two Tykocin Jews hiding in a barn.” The brother, who refused to go to the police station, was cruelly murdered by Slotinsky. The sister was taken to the police and killed there.

We escaped from Sanniki in the middle of May 1944. For two months we wandered around the local forests until we finally made our “home” in Ulsha's barn without him knowing. From there we made forays into the surrounding area to steal a little food and we slept under the wheat in the barn.

The front came nearer and the German army began to retreat. One morning one of their battalions arrived from Sanniki and encamped in Ulsha's barn. Hundreds of German soldiers made themselves comfortable on the wheat…with the three of us underneath it holding our breath. We dared not move a finger and we lay there frozen under the produce for the whole day and the night following. Eventually my brother fell asleep from fatigue; the Germans heard him snoring and caught him. An immediate uproar took place in the barn. The soldiers looked for pitchforks and began prodding around. A pitchfork punctured may hand which began to bleed and in the end we were all three caught, including Altar Katz. To our good fortune the soldiers were not from the Gestapo but Wehrmacht[2] and they took us under armed guard to Bialystok where we were transferred to the Gestapo at 15, Sienkiewicza Street. We were interrogated for a long time especially concerning our origins and where we had hidden in the past few years. We didn't tell them we were from Tykocin because they would think we were Communists and of course we didn't tell them the names of the Poles whom had hidden us.

We were placed in the death cells. On the walls we saw graffiti from the Jews who had preceded us, their names and the dates they were arrested and executed. That made clear to us just exactly what we could expect and gave birth to pain that after all we had suffered, the timeless wanderings we had endured, the cruelties we had seen with our own eyes and the number of times we faced what seemed to be certain death and always at the last moment – we were saved – now we were to die with the liberation days or perhaps only weeks away! But yet again good fortune lent a hand and we were saved once again.

It was noon and Mittagstunde[3] is Mittagstunde even at 15, Sienkiewicza Street and the place became as silent as if everyone had left and there wasn't a soul in the building. Very stealthily, my brother managed to loosen a large block of stone from a massive stove standing in the corner of the room by carefully scraping round the edges with a nail. He immediately climbed through the exposed hole with Altar behind him. With some difficulty, I managed to climb through and join them but the escape hole led only to a corridor. We noticed there were

[Page 534]

many mattresses piled in a corner and immediately hid underneath them. My brother, who had been first out, lay to the extreme right, Altar Katz in the center and I at the other end. When we had relaxed somewhat and my brother peeked cautiously out from under, he stood up gave a signal to Altar to follow him and tell me to join them. But they had gone out by the time I got through and didn't hear them. A short while later I heard heavy footsteps, the rattle of keys and an outburst of curses – “The Polish pigs helped them to escape.” It was to our good fortune that they assumed we had escaped with the help of Poles and left the building and they made no thorough search for if they had they would most certainly have discovered my brother and Altar hiding on the roof of the garage in the courtyard and me, just a few steps away from them under the pile of mattresses.

At night I heard my brother call me. I went out into the courtyard and joined them. We spent the next six days and nights – the longest days I have ever known. We waited for the liberation hour by hour but very long those hours seemed to us when we expected to be discovered any moment and die. And even if we are not discovered there was the real possibility of dying of starvation, without a crumb to eat or a drop of water to drink. But what could we do other than hide on the roof and hope that the good Lord – who had not left us these long years, will not desert us now!

On the seventh night of our stay on the roof it happened: the Germans retreated. But they did it with a “scorched earth” policy, they destroyed and burnt everything. The flames approached ever closer to our roof and we had no option other than to jump from the roof down onto the street below. Luckily we landed on a grassy area and I found some water that was flowing on the earth so lay down on the ground and began to drink it. One of the others caught me by the hair and dragged me away. We ran in the direction of the ghetto and hid in one of the buildings that was still just about standing. We saw light shining from one of the nearby houses but we were afraid to leave our new shelter because the Germans were still waging street–battles in Bialystok. Eventually my brother took a chance and knocked on the door. His appearance was horrifying: from hunger, torn and ragged, dirty with two week's growth of beard. When the door opened he quickly announced “I'm a Jew,” and asked for a little food. After a short while he reappeared and in his hands a pot of steaming oatmeal and a loaf of bread.

There was an intelligent Russian family living in the house. They apologized for not inviting us in to hide because they were afraid of the Germans but invited us to come back the following day as well. They fed us for the following three days. On the fourth day, 27th July 1944, the town was liberated by the Russians.

[Page 535]

The Russians frightened me and we settled at the opposite end of town far from the battles. We were still scared to leave the house because the street fighting had not yet subsided; only my brother went out occasionally to see what the situation was. Once he returned with some news – “Landowners are back in Bialystok”

Two weeks later we returned to Tykocin, the city of my birth that was now destroyed and plundered. Where our house once stood was now an empty lot. What had been my uncle's house was still standing. A Polish family was living there. We evicted them and settled in. Very slowly fourteen survivors of Tykocin returned and settled in, among them Moshe Turek, the doctor who treated us. We were there for about six months working in the factory for domestic oils. But the levy upon us of suffering and wandering had not yet been fulfilled. The Polish Nationalists, who were opposed to the Russian authority, hid out in the forests and busied themselves mainly with murdering Jews. Other Poles also exposed their true face and rumors of pogroms against Jews came to our ears. In Tykocin there was a murder when Bella Bialistotzky, a young Jewess from Bialystok who had hidden during the war in the Tykocin area was shot on her doorstep. She was taken to the doctor but died from her wounds. In our hearts the awareness took root that again we needed to continue our wanderings with our staff in our hands. This time only one destination came into our minds – The Land of Israel.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. A personalized direct quote from Deuteronomy 28:67. Return
  2. Ordinary armed soldiers Return
  3. Mid–day – Siesta time Return

 

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