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[Page 536]

Nearly Two Years in a Bunker

The story of Mordecai Brener

Translated by Selwyn Rose

At the beginning of 1939 the peoples of Europe still entertained the false hopes generated by the “Munich Agreement” which was intended to be used as “real guarantees” in the face of the Hitlerite danger but now, towards the end of the year the picture had changed completely and all the hopes and illusions had been shattered on the rock of the new reality. The threat of Hitler and the inflammatory broadcasts of Goebbels on one side and the race to arm the German army on the other, had their effect – the whole of Europe became a dangerous volcano waiting to erupt with millions of frightened people sitting in its shadow. agitated and doubtful for their future and their fate.

 

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And indeed, the very thing they feared came upon them – with the dawn of Friday, September 1st 1939, the wheels of the mighty German war machine began to turn. The erupting and boiling lava from within the gaping crater of the new–age Moloch inundated countries and wiped out entire peoples and sowed in its path death and destruction. Poland was the first victim…

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Mobilization orders, commanding me to report immediately to the Polish military barracks in Bialystok arrived while I was still standing in front of the oven of Glonsky the Tykocin baker.

Without wasting time, I gathered together my few possessions, took a little food for the journey and together with my brother Moshe and my brother–in–law Moshe Brainsky, we left for Bialystok and each of us reported to his respective unit. But the Polish army at this time was no real army and the hodge–podge mixture of defeated soldiers and undisciplined fighters was simply fleeing for their lives before the German army. My own unit as well joined the flight eastwards and thus, without knowing how or why I suddenly found myself on Russian soil.

On Rosh Hashanah 1939 we were in the Russian town of Równo as soldiers of a victorious Polish army when the following day the official order was published releasing all soldiers from military service and everyone was free to leave his unit and make his way home. There was great joy of course but before we had time to take the first steps of freedom we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by units of the Red Army who treated us as prisoners–of–war and transferred us to a prison camp in Shepetovka. To my good fortune the camp was not well–guarded and so one night I managed to sneak out and return to Równo. I found shelter in the local synagogue away from the eyes of detectives of the local Soviet militia, hunting for deserters and Polish soldiers. The local Jews fed me and gave me supplies of water and even exchanged my uniform for civilian clothes. When I again became a civilian I turned my steps to the town of my birth – Tykocin.

My first stop on the road to freedom was Baranowicze (Baranowich). (The brother of the “Lachowitzer Rav”, who acted as town Rabbi in Tykocin, gave me shelter in his home. As the son of the well–known Tykocin synagogue sexton, I was treated as a privileged guest in every place and shown respect; everywhere I went I was greeted with smiles. I lacked nothing, but all the time I was on the look–out for some means of transport that would get me closer to my desired destination – Tykocin.

And then, one day, when it seemed as though all hope had gone and I was sitting depressed and despairing, a rumor spread in town that a special train to Bialystok was due to pass through Baranowicze (Baranowich). Already on the day before hundreds of Jews filled the platform of the local railroad station waiting impatiently for the train to freedom and salvation. When eventually the

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train arrived in the station the Russians announced loudly: “The train to Bialystok, train to Bialystok” the hundreds of Jews swallowed the bait charged the railcars as if they had found an enormous cache of booty. Something seemed to me to be very suspicious about the whole thing and I treated the great “bargain” with much circumspection and decided to take my time. I hid behind a trolley of parcels at the end of the platform and watched to see what would happen – and I didn't have to wait for long to be vindicated for indeed, hundreds of Jews fell victims to the baited trap that had been prepared for them by the Russian militia. The train had hardly started to move when it changed direction and instead of continuing westward towards Bialystok it suddenly changed its direction to the east towards distant Siberia.

Clearly, I could no longer trust the established transport system and only after super–human efforts and the use of my best trickeries as a professional “border infiltrator” did I manage somehow or another, to get to Bialystok. Purely by coincidence I met my friend in Bialystok, Fishl Silverstein, from Tykocin, who, like me, had also been mobilized by the Polish army but was released after being wounded in one of the battles he took part in. Together we hired a carriage to take us to our hometown and during the Festival of Tabernacles to our joy and the joy of all our family members, we arrived in Tykocin.

I immediately returned to work in Glonsky's bakery and continued to work there throughout the Russian occupation of Tykocin. During the entire period Tykocin remained undisturbed by war–time disruptions and Jewish community life carried on as normal and without significant interruptions. However, one couldn't ignore the reality of the general atmosphere which was very tense. It was possible to feel the storm that was about to break. Everyone was busy with feverish preparations for the oncoming confrontation and the armed forces prepared themselves for renewed war. In Tykocin the Russians busied themselves day and night with the creation of a gigantic air–force base.

On the 21st July 1941, early in the morning, I suddenly heard the humming of aircraft, an unforgettable occurrence in Tykocin and the surroundings. I went out to the courtyard and to my amazed eyes beheld the exciting scene of an air battle taking place in the blue skies of Tykocin: A Russian fighter plane and a German fighter plane were manœuvering around each other. Suddenly there was the sound of a long burst of machine–gun fire. One of the aircraft was hit, burst into flames and fell towards the earth leaving behind it a long trail of thick black smoke. A few second later, before it hit the ground just outside Tykocin, I saw the pilot jump from the cockpit and his parachute blossomed above his head. Many early risers and those who had awoken in the meantime at the sound of the guns saw the dog–fight from a distance ran towards the site. We found the pilot caught up in a tree and all tangled–up with it, wounded and

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covered in blood. He was a lieutenant in the Red Army and his first words were: “War, war!” – Thus we learned war had broken out. Panic spread all over town and no one knew what advice to give or take, or from whom. Many left the town. Bialystok was the metropolis that drew all the refugees from the area like a magnet.

I, too, and my two friends Avraham Baranowitz and Zaidka Shtzinky decided to go to Bialystok. The main road was already held by the Germans, long columns of German soldiers and their equipment marched endlessly along. We were forced to make our way by short–cuts along twisted paths at the road–side and the journey took us three days. We found Bialystok deserted and desolate. We spent the anxious and confused first days of the Nazi conquest of Bialystok in the attic of my uncle's house. Through a small opening in the attic I could look out and see the area and examine all the actions of the Germans. I saw how they went from house to house bringing out all the Jews, especially the young ones, concentrating them in Bialystok's central synagogue. It was Friday afternoon when suddenly the whole town shook from a massive explosion. It was the first stage in the liquidation of the Jewish people of Bialystok. The Germans had confined all the Jews in the synagogue, closed and barred the doors, laid down dynamite and blown up the building. Anyone who tried to escape from the trap was shot down by machine guns posted around the building. The Cantor's son Shlomo Goldberg of Tykocin was shot at that time when he was engulfed by flames and tried to escape by jumping out of one of the windows of the synagogue.

The Germans were not satisfied with that. Immediately after the explosion groups of Germans methodically went from house to house setting fire to all the Jewish houses. For twenty–four hours the flames ate away at the block of houses encircling the synagogue. When the flames took hold on one of the neighboring houses close to where we were I jumped from my hiding–place without anyone seeing me and stole into a neighborhood of stone–built houses in Sosnowa Street near the old Jewish cemetery. Many people from the town were hiding among the tombstones

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The following morning the Germans organized work–details from among the Jews and dispersed them out throughout the town collecting the burnt corpses that lay strewn around the streets. Hundreds of bodies and the burn remains of bodies were cast into one large trench that had been dug in the cemetery. My friend Zaidka Shtzinky (May G–d Avenge His Blood), who had been mobilized for that work returned towards evening broken in body and soul.

Like vultures smelling carcasses from a distance any piece of flesh from a corpse, so were the Poles who seemed to sense that here was a place to find booty. They came in their masses from the entire area and even from more distant parts and isolated villages. Among them were even a number of Poles from Tykocin and from them we learned that in Tykocin all was quiet and nothing had happened. I regretted ever having left there and was sorry to have abandoned the house and immediately determined to return to Tykocin, come what may.

I knew that every Jew who used the roads in those days was taking his life in his hands, because tens of Christians waited in ambush at the roadsides with axes and scythes in their hands and fell upon all the passersby, robbing them of their possessions and the Jews were tortured and killed. In spite of all this we left for Tykocin. And indeed we were waylaid by one of these gangs; they were satisfied with our coats and our shoes which they removed from our bodies but good luck was on our side and the Poles didn't take our lives which they gave us “….as a present” – in their words.

We found Tykocin entirely sunk in fear. Although the Germans had not yet started organized searches and had given no sign of plotting actions against the Jewish population, for all that the Christians, who sensed that Jewish blood was “cheap” organized a few pogroms against the Jews and their property was looted. Avraham Baranowitz (May G–d Avenge His Blood), who was saddened by the situation in town, decided to return to Bialystok but he had not progressed far – about three kilometers from Tykocin, – when he was set–upon by Christians who killed him. He was one of the first victims of Tykocin.

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I remained in Tykocin until the bitter day of 22nd August 1941 when the order came that all Jews were to report to the market square. I asked my father what he thought I should do. He told me to wait and while he considered opinion of the town Rabbi Abba (the brother–in–law of the “Hazon Ish” [1]). After some time my father returned and told me that in the Rabbi's opinion I and my brother Berel, who was wealthy and known throughout the town, should “disappear” from town for a while.

In the darkness of the night we crossed the river in a boat we borrowed from a Christian friend. The whole night long we wandered around the village on the opposite shore and to our surprise we discovered that we were far from being the only ones there. There were other Tykocin residents there, such as: Shie–Leib (the son–in–law of “The Master–Baker), Trachomovsky the cattle–dealer, Khashke Malshewsky, Meir Shigansky(?) and Pesah Zilaza.

When morning came we lay down in shrubs overlooking the town. It was an excellent look–out point and we could see the main road leading to town and all who travelled along it. At about 09:30 we suddenly saw a column of people walking along and had no idea of its meaning or purpose. There were some who supposed that they were being taken to the ghetto at Łomża but as it transpired later, they were led to Zawady, about nine kilometres from Tykocin, where they were all loaded onto trucks and transported to the forest of Łopuchowo.

At noon we heard the sound of shooting that continued time after time throughout the day until eight in the evening from the direction of the forest. Wave after wave of Jews were brought to the forest, stood on the edge of a trench and then machine–guns opened up on them. In the evening we saw the trucks returning to Tykocin. The following morning the horrifying spectacle was again carried out…

Shocked out of our senses we wandered around the fields and forest without knowing where we were going or what we should do with ourselves. Like the others from Tykocin who had managed to escape the holocaust that had struck our dear ones, we wandered around the area without being able to break the cord that bound us to Tykocin. Many among us were caught by the Germans and they too were stood along the third trench in the Łopuchowo forest among them: Mordecai Hirsch Shadelsky, Moshe Koblinsky, the young man, Kafka, and others – May G–d Avenge their blood.

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For a year the Germans never repeated the act of liquidation they had carried out in the Bialystok region. All that time I was in my sister's house in Knishin (Knyszyn). But when, in the summer of 1942, the area of Bialystok was declared Judenrein [2] I began another period of wandering.

Knishin began to suspect that Tykocin's fate will be visited upon them. And if there were still some who doubted that and considered they wouldn't be affected by the evil, they were given the opportunity to change their mind when one day thirteen dignitaries of the Jewish community were taken out and executed in the streets of the town. During the intermediate days of the Succoth festival 1942 the town was flooded by tens of German soldiers. The following day tens wagons, mobilized from among the local farmers entered town. I knew what was going to happen to the Jews of Knishin and looked for a way of escape from the town.

There were already tens of Gestapo men wandering around town and they began to concentrate the Knishin Jews in order to transport them to an extermination camp. Together with my sister–in–law and her ten–year old daughter I left the house secretly and stealing across town through the orchards and gardens of the Christians I arrived at the approaches to the town. Here we had to cross an open field completely exposed. We began to run. Suddenly we heard shouts behind us: “Halt! Halt!” Without turning my head I continued to run like mad. Bullets began to split the air. I didn't even notice them, I just continued running with the little girl along–side me. Only when I arrived at a small copse of trees at the edge of the open field did I stop and look back in the direction of our pursuers. I saw them dragging my sister–in–law and a few other Jews, who were caught attempting to escape from the town over the fields.

We couldn't wait too long because another platoon of Gestapo had spotted us and began to run after us. We crawled into a large barn nearby and dug our way under a massive pile of straw. We heard the Germans come in the barn after us. We heard them shouting that if we didn't come out they would set the whole barn on fire and began prodding the straw with their bayonets but to our relief they didn't find us.

After some moments of terrifying anxiety that I will never forget, after the Germans had left the place, I recovered myself a little. I picked up the frightened little girl in my arms and under the cover of night began to march in the direction of Jasionówka. I left the little girl in my

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aunt's home in Jasionówka, while I carried on towards Tykocin. I had heard that in Tykocin not a single Jew remained and so I assumed that the Germans wouldn't come there either. But my hopes were quickly dashed. There was still a large force of German soldiers and from my acquaintances among the Christians there was not a single one who was willing to have me in his house and there were even some who threatened to hand me over to the Gestapo.

I wandered around the Tykocin area for three weeks, starving from hunger but the cold was even worse. My feet were frozen and with great difficulty I managed to drag myself back to Jasionówka. On entering the town what little strength I still had left failed me, and I fainted and fell unconscious. I don't know how long I lay there in the snow and by what right I should be saved but by chance I was found by some Jews who took me to their home and revived me.

The little life that remained in me in Jasionówka made clear to me beyond any shadow of a doubt what awaited this town. The Bialystok ghetto in my eyes seemed at the time, a secure place. But how to get there while it is stilled a closed area and closely guarded by a heavy force of SS? At the end of winter 1942 I managed at last to infiltrate through the walls and into the ghetto. This is where Aaron Peler was of great help. Every day he took all the trash and garbage out of the ghetto. He hid me in one of the containers on his cart and thus he smuggled me into the ghetto.

The ghetto seemed like paradise almost, by comparison. The Jews were not hunted and their lives were safe – at least for now.

Quite suddenly the situation worsened. Every day had its stories about how this Jew or that was beaten, tortured or executed, groups of Jews taken outside the ghetto for labor and simply disappeared without trace or without anyone knowing what the Germans had done to them. The atmosphere was tense and pregnant with dangers. This was in the days leading up to the first “Aktzia”.

One day I met Hirsch Hershtein of Tykocin who was working in the Jewish hospital in the ghetto and he told me: “Mordecai, why did you come here? You know that all the Jews in the ghetto will be killed?” I decided to escape; with the same measure of determination and decision that had first driven me to get into the ghetto, I now wanted to leave it.

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In January 1943, after a number of failed attempts, I succeeded by way of a factory courtyard that backed onto the walls of the ghetto to escape from the Bialystok ghetto. I made my way back in the direction of Jasionówka which was the only town in the area that had been left open by the Germans and every Jew seeking refuge and valued his life, could enter freely and settle there with no difficulty. The Germans, who wanted to stop all the escapees and wanderers in the forests, simply declared Jasionówka a “Sanctuary City” and indeed tens of Jews from all around, desperate because of the cold and hunger, came to Jasionówka in the hope they would find there some rest – but the German Asmodeus [3] had other plans.

And behold, one fine day we found Jasionówka also became a closed town. Dozens of the Gestapo surrounded the town and commanded all the Jews to congregate at one place. This was no new phenomenon for me and my instincts of self–preservation told me immediately what I had to do. Without any hesitation, I rushed out and ran out of the town. This time I was not alone in my alarm – tens of Jews who had learned from experience, like me, started running towards the nearby village. The Gestapo opened fire with machine–guns in all directions. About eighty Jews were killed on the spot. Only a few managed to reach the forest.

Together with another two men from Korycin we went deep into the forest and there we stayed for more than three weeks. We tried vainly to make contact with the Partisans. They too were in hiding but if we found them they wouldn't be happy letting unarmed Jews join their ranks.

To our good fortune, the two men from Korycin found a Christian they knew who had worked all his life for their father and he agreed to give us shelter. He was an old man, G–d–fearing and devoted to his faith as a Christian, who, in addition to the money that we poured on him and before we promised him more, was endowed with a measure of humanitarianism and stated that he was against the murderous barbarism that the Germans specialized in. It was pleasant to hear these things coming out of the mouth of a Christian in those days and he seemed like an angel from heaven to us and indeed he was like a life–raft for us in a sea of satanic, blood–soaked persecution that perpetually threatened us.

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The Christian feared to keep us in his house and dug a bunker for us on his land, at a distance from his house. The bunker was about one meter by two–meters and just over a meter deep. He covered the bunker with planks and iron rails and tipped over the whole thing a thick layer of earth, ploughed it and sowed wheat. He dug a narrow channel from the bunker about six meters long leading to the nearby pig–sty.

Squatting and bent almost double we sat in the bunker all the daylight hours without moving or uttering a sound. Our meals we received twice a day when the good man came to feed his pigs. Only at night, after crawling with difficulty along the tunnel could we secretly come out, do whatever was needed, and fill our lungs with fresh air.

We spent more than eighteen months in that bunker, me and the two men from Korycin and afterwards we were joined by a seventeen–year old youngster that our Christian friend had found exhausted and saved. He said that he wasn't rich enough to sustain four people but we wouldn't die of hunger. And if he can endanger himself for three Jews, then he may as well do it by hiding the fourth. Clearly the conditions in the bunker became worse but we didn't give that much thought in those days. There were days when we sat packed together and we dared not even whisper to each other; the only sound that came to our ears was the heavy footsteps of the Christian, when he plowed the land above.

With the coming of spring of 1944 the conditions in the bunker became much worse. The Christian couldn't get enough food for us and we suffered much from hunger but worse than anything was the period of thaw when the water began to seep into the bunker. During the day we were spread out in the thick mud while at night the still cold temperatures turned everything into freezing cold ice. How and where we found the strength to withstand those conditions to this day I don't know but with G–d's help we overcame that period as well.

In August 1944 the Russians conquered the Bialystok area and we became free but the danger had not yet passed. The Red Army advanced westwards leaving the area in the hands of the Poles. The National Polish Partisans were known for their hatred of the Jews and continued the depredations of the Germans and whenever they caught a Jew he was killed because of his religion. Even our benefactor the Christian who sheltered us on his land was murdered by them for giving refuge to Jews.

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My first stop after coming out of the bunker was Tykocin. When I arrived at my home town I found in it only dust and ashes. We were a group of survivors from the Holocaust every one of whom had left his hiding–place and rushed to Tykocin. For upwards of five months we remained in our home town where we had spent most of the years of our youth and now we are forced to see its ruins and stand on its grave while the tearful voices of our brethren, our parents and children call out to us from the earth…


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Literally “The Vision of Man”, the magnum opus of Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz Return
  2. “Cleansed of Jews” Return
  3. The King of Demons Return


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Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire

The Story of Sharaga Perko (Fejwel Prezik)
– A Tykocin Holocaust Survivor

Translated by Selwyn Rose

 

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In 1939, before the Germans entered Tykocin, they bypassed it on their way to Bialystok. Life carried on normally. I was walking along Kaczorowska Street when a car pulled up along–side me with a screech and a German officer got out and called me. When I approached, he asked: “Where is the railroad station?” – “There is no railroad station in Tykocin,” I answered. He asked me again this time shouting: “Where is the railroad station, jackal?” I repeated my reply telling him there is no railroad station in Tykocin. Then he asked me if there was a store selling textiles. I directed him to a nearby store, but he told me to get in the car with him and three other German soldiers. We cruised around the street of the town and I feared for my life. All the time I shouted: “Here is the store, here, here!” but he continued to drive. Eventually he stopped near a small bridge and asked: “Here?” I saw the store of Avraham Turek and pointed it out to him. He entered the store, taking me with him. I noticed the complaining look on Turek's face but what could I do?

The German took three bolts of cloth and released me. I was too scared to walk along the high road and arrived home using the alleys between the houses. My family members were crying. They had heard the rumor of my “kidnapping” and thought that I was the first victim of Tykocin's Jews.

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In 1940 the Germans entered Tykocin. When they collected all the Jewish men in the big church I fled from the town. It was lucky for me that I did.

Before that, in the time that the Russians dominated the town, I was a member of a group the Russians had formed and I was afraid that the Poles would tell the Germans that I had been busy with propaganda on behalf of the Russians. I stayed with acquaintances in Wysokie Mazowieckie but I maintained a close contact with my parents, but that contact was suddenly lost when I heard of the great tragedy that occurred there. I immediately returned to the vicinity of Tykocin. I found no remnant of Jews in the entire area. I was devastated when it occurred to me that I was the sole survivor of Jewish Tykocin.

One night I went to see a Polish acquaintance. When I opened the door, I was in time to see another door hurriedly close. It turned out that Haim Arieh, the son of the miller from Zawady, was also hiding in the house. He was able to tell about other Jews who were hiding out in the area.

We spent a day and a night in the barn of a Polish acquaintance of ours. The following night we went to Jeżewo where there was a Polish acquaintance of Haim Arieh. The man's name was Grabowski and hiding in his house was Mordecai Szarenski, his two brothers–in–law, his sister–in–law and the sister–in–law of his wife. We hid in Grabowski's house for two months and we never left the house except to gather some food. I remember I gave a gold coin as “hush–money” to a Pole who saw me crossing his courtyard. On another occasion it cost me five Palestine pounds that I had received from my grandparents who lived there for a similar situation. I once met a Pole who lived near–by who asked me: “Would you like to see how Jews are killed?” I went with him to the roof of the barn and I saw two SS men dragging Yosske the miller. One of the Germans shot him and they just continued on their way on the cart.

One day, towards evening, I had met Yehuda Wiloga and Witke Teshtzinsky when I was walking to the graves of Tykocin's martyrs in the cemetery near the Łopuchowo forest. Our hearts were torn apart when we saw the immense trenches in which our dear ones had been interred but instead of crying there was nothing we could do.

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Grabowski feared for his life and we had to move. We dug a bunker for ourselves in the nearby forest covered it with branches and straw and on its opening we stood a tree complete with its roots as camouflage and then spread black pepper all over to put off any dogs that may come searching for us. We never left the bunker except to bring food. We usually did that on Sundays because the villagers put out their freshly baked bread that they had prepared Saturday night, to cool. Their milk churns and cream they would hang with ropes inside their water tanks. With no one watching we occasionally took one of the churns from there and thus we managed somehow to survive for three months. Since it was apparent to the villagers that we were not the only ones hiding in the forest, they brought a platoon of the SS. They arrived one day with their dogs and that same day we forgot to spread pepper round the area. The dogs discovered us and one by one we exited the bunker and surrendered. They fired their rifles into the bunker to ensure that no one else was hiding there and took us to the prison in Rutka. One of Mordecai Szaranski's brothers–in–law, who was a police officer, remained in the bunker. He had flattened himself against one of the walls of the bunker and was unharmed by the shooting. The following morning some Poles caught him and killed him.

We were kept in the prison in Rutka for two days and transferred to the concentration–camp at Zambrow where there were 19,000 Jews.

Yirmiyahu, one of Mordecai Szaranski's relatives succeeded in escaping from the camp and returned to Grabowski. He hid him but in return he made Yirmiyahu steal for him and work his land at night.

We stayed in the Zambrow camp for two weeks. We ate what we had brought with us or what others who came after us brought; the camp supplied nothing. There were no sleeping arrangements either and we slept outside on the ground. At the end of two weeks, on a freezing night, we were put on a train and squeezed tightly into the wagons. We received no food and we had to relieve ourselves where we were. Many of us died from hunger and exhaustion, others from illnesses caused by infections. Only the strong and healthy managed to survive. We couldn't escape because of the German sentries but especially because of the violent snow–storms that raged outside. The situation was beyond despair. After three days we arrived at Auschwitz.

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We were stood in long rows on the field. The Germans selected about three hundred young men and I was one of them. During the selection I was told it was because of my trade – “Meister–bau[1]. All of the selected were taken into the camp and put in a barrack–block. We were told, “Here you will live, here you will eat, and here you will attend to your needs. You are forbidden to go out!” The food ration was about 200 gr. of bread, half a liter of soup and a cup of tea.

There were many different nationalities in the selection camp but they were all treated the same. The Jews were identified by the Star of David on their clothes. The Poles wore a red triangle and the Russians a black triangle. Even the German prisoners wore a triangle on their clothes. The Communists – red, and murderers – green. All of us had numbers on our chest and on the thigh.

The block “Kapos” were also of different nationalities. The one in my block was a young Jewish French communist named Greenbaum. He was tall and broad shouldered and always wore heavy leather boots. He was noted for his cruelty to the people who were placed under his control, especially the Jews. He used to say: “It is easier for me to kill twenty Jews, rather than get a reprimand, or worse, from one of the Germans,” while there were German Kapos who preferred a reprimand to killing. I too was beaten by Greenbaum and with my own eyes I saw how he killed another Jew. He laid a thick stick across the victim's throat and stood on it with his heavy boots until the man died of asphyxiation. That was his method. Others used other methods.

I fought with myself not to lose what little sense of humanity that I still had. I also tried to encourage others and told jokes even during the hardest times. Once, I told a Jew a joke, and a Kapo named Gaida, who was a priest from Łódź, passed by me and asked: “Would you like to come and join my work group?” I agreed. But Greenbaum was against the change. The Kapo obtained permission from the head office and I joined the priest's group. Greenbaum didn't forget to give be a good parting kick in the pants. I transferred to the work camp. I did different jobs there, such as sorting clothes and shoes from those who had been exterminated. Our food was minimal compared to our daily needs. Conflicts erupted over food, two Jews from Tykocin among them: Nahman Rumianek and Yehezkiel Meierowski. May G–d avenge their blood.

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We were all hungry. The lot of the “Kapos” was no better than ours, they too were hungry except that sometimes they continued to get rations for those who were dying or dead or had been killed. I noticed that the Kapo of our group barely managed to stay alive and suggested that he give me a free hand to operate and ignore my actions, if he gave me a part of what I managed to procure.

Possessing any food or article of clothing not given by the camp administration was punishable by death. But whoever surrendered to that reality and failed to acquire for himself by some means or other – was in any case condemned to death by starvation. When I took that message to heart I took the initiative and began to create a trade within Auschwitz. The trade was conducted “underground” and each and every step was accompanied by life–or–death danger; a trade without money, by ghost–figures, with products that under normal circumstances were either useless or inedible. Even so it blossomed and when I was lucky it reached a value of thousands of dollars by the price of things in the camp, in those days. And without the Kapo or without my health, physical strength and resourcefulness and more than anything – good luck, who knows if I would be among the living today?

One day all the men between 20 and 30 years of age were ordered to report on the parade–ground. I was among them and my name and number were registered. I had no idea what they intended to do with us until the Kapo of our barracks whispered in my ear that they intended to castrate us. I ran to the head office and asked the clerk, also a prisoner, to remove my name from the list. He refused. I suggested I was willing to pay any price and in the end he agreed to do so for a liter of alcohol (the price on the black market in Auschwitz was $1000). I sneaked into the adjacent civilian compound where workers who received wages were located. Among them was my contact. I had to “coax” him to leave work, rush to Krakow on his motor–bike and bring me a bottle of alcohol. I made my way back with the precious cargo in my hand. It was a dangerous route, full of trash–cans and rubbish but by a miracle I arrived. But the incident didn't end there. By mistake the clerk had erased a name similar to mine that appeared on the list. When my name was called Perko, Brokhe the clerk went white, recognizing his mistake and at the last moment erased my name.

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On another occasion my life was saved by the person in charge of the adjacent women's camp. When I was working there one day I saw this young miserable looking girl, sick, white as a sheet and beaten and felt sorry for her. I arranged with the charge–hand of the barrack–block to give her an extra portion of bread as compensation for the cigarettes she received from me now and again. One day, as we were about to finish our work there and return to our own camp, this same overseer told me that she had been informed that they were searching everyone in our group as we went through the exit gate. I had hidden on my body various articles which, had they been found would have cost me my life. In the few minutes left to me I rushed to the kitchen and found two stale slices of bread that were so moldy that even the starving prisoners would have rejected them. I put them in two of my pockets and presented myself for inspection. The German began searching my pockets and when he touched the bread that was already a green semi–liquid mess, he was nearly sick and started swearing angrily but I was spared an efficient search and my life was saved.

There were many incidents and experiences like that – countless ones and with each one my life hung by a thread and I don't know by what good fortune and chance I survived.

My number 88678 became, in the process of time, a number that indicated significant seniority that not many obtained. I remember on one of the last days of my stay in Auschwitz I met an SS man while I had half a loaf of bread in my hand. He immediately asked me my number but when he heard it he reluctantly said – “You old 'bandit' – go on, clear–off!” – even they related to long–surviving prisoners with a certain respect or awe that we had managed to survive and hang on for so many years and maintain a certain image of humanity.

There were two other people from Tykocin who managed to hang on until the end – Avraham Kapitsa and Avraham Yablonsky. I remember how I managed on one occasion to get a small package of tobacco for them that they divided into small portions as if it were bread.

Courage was not absent from life in Auschwitz, either. Just before Passover, a transport brought thousands of children between the ages of 5 and 10 from the Bialystok region who were previously held in Theresienstadt. We saw the smoke gushing from the tall stack of the crematoria – even though our souls were already bruised from many deeds of horror, we were shocked to our core. Rabbi Sochaczewski, who worked in my group, became hysterical. Lifting his head he cried: “O, sun – are you not ashamed to shine on such a sight as this?” and with those words threw himself on the electrified fence and died.

[Page 553]

One of the transports came with a young Jewish girl carrying the baby of her sister. She spoke to a German standing next to her saying: “If it is ordained that I must die, so be it, but this little baby has committed no sin!” and so saying, she placed the child in his hands. He threw the baby to the ground. At that, she quickly snatched his pistol from its holster and shot him.

Once I was present when they hanged a French girl. In her last moments she shouted: “We are the last ones. After us comes the liberation!” Then they released the trap–door. In any event, she wasn't the last one.

At the beginning of 1944 I was transferred to the Bona camp close to Auschwitz. There were about 8,000 people there working in factories manufacturing rubber, arms and ammunition. The conditions there were incomparably better than in Auschwitz.

As the Front approached all the prisoners from all the camps in the area, including Bona and Auschwitz, were taken on a forced march lasting four days. At the end of it, we were all given a double ration of bread and salted fish and loaded on to railroad cars in crammed conditions, traveling westwards. We spent six weeks in that train without a drop of water to drink. Apart from water that we got from melted snow on the walls of the wagons not a drop of water passed our lips and the salted fish we had been given created a maddening thirst. Men urinated in each other's mouth. The dead from thirst piled up. By the luck of the devil I had not eaten the fish.

We arrived six weeks later at the Nordhausen camp; we were put into a wash–room full of faucets. Of the 30 thousand Jewish prisoners who had been on the trains only 6,000 arrived alive at Nordhausen. From these 6,000 who entered the showers, only 1,000 remained alive. It was an additional satanic plan of the Germans who had received orders to liquidate us without the use of weapons. I succeeded in overcoming the burning thirst and didn't drink the water.

From Nordhausen I was transferred to Ostróda camp and from there to the coal mines at Zohlstadt(?). Our treatment and conditions improved, our food ration was three–times what it had been in Auschwitz. We were not beaten and we were considered workers rather than prisoners.

During one of the bombing raids I escaped destruction that spread throughout the camp and ran for the local forest. Next to me were a Pole and a Russian. The Russian shouted: “Damned Jew, clear off!” About ten minutes later he was shot and injured by one of the guards chasing us.

[Page 554]

I was also injured on the jaw by a bullet but the Pole and I managed to get out of range of field of fire and into the forest. We wandered around aimlessly not knowing where to go. We ate weeds and drank the sap of the bazhuzha(?) tree which was potable. We decided that if we had to cross a dangerous or exposed area, like a road or bridge we will toss a coin and the loser will go first. But we hesitated to leave the safety of the forest because we were dressed as prisoners and would be instantly identified and we also had no idea which direction to take.

After about a week, we met an old German carrying an axe. I told him to put down the axe and stripped him of his clothes. He also gave us the direction to the Austrian border. After two weeks we came to a road we had to cross. The Pole who had lost the toss began to cross the road while I hid in the forest. Suddenly I heard a shout: “Halt!” and then a shot.

I remained alone in the forest. The weeds served as bedding and food. I started at the slightest sound of rustling leaves in the wind and every dangerous crossing of roads and bridges now fell on me. More than once I nearly fell in the “frying–pan” and escaping from that I nearly fell “into the fire”. I slipped past guards on duty but was on the point of despair and the helplessness began slowly to eat into my heart. Eventually I realized I had slipped over the Czech border.

One evening I met a young couple in the forest and noticed they were speaking Czechoslovakian, a language I spoke fluently since working with Czechs. When the young man noticed me he didn't ask who I was or where I came from, he asked: “Are you hungry?” I was filthy dirty stained with blood from the wound to my jaw, several months beard and with difficult still standing on my feet. At that time I weighed about 33 Kg. The young man ran to his home and brought some bread and fat, thrust into my pocket 100 Koruna and said: “Don't be afraid, there are no Germans here.”

Not far away was the village of Fisk (Viska?). I knocked on the door of one of the nicer houses. A pleasant young farmer opened the door who, as soon as he saw me, invited me in and put a meal in front of me and only after I had eaten, asked me who I was. I told him I was a Czech from Prague. He was shocked and cried out: “Jesus Maria!” For the first time in months I showered and shaved and slept in a bed between white sheets. Everything seemed like a dream. Such a long time had passed since I last sat at a laid table and slept in a bed – things that had been so normal to me.

[Page 555]

Slowly, step by step, I returned to feeling like a human being. I lived in this same man's house who had welcomed me on my first night in the village, I worked on his farm and earned his trust and he often sent me into town with his horse and cart on his business. No one thought I was Jewish. Every Sunday I took his two daughters to church. I often sang the only Czech song I knew – “Zlatá Praha” (Golden Prague) and I hid beneath a bandage of some kind the number tattooed on my arm. Everyone called me “Pepik” and in time I got used to my new name but although I was treated as family and had plenty of food it took a long time until I managed to overcome the temptation of hiding extra food some place or other.

After three months news arrived that the Russians were approaching Frisk. Because I came from a big city, I was considered a learned man and intelligent so I headed a delegation of citizens and children arranged in two long columns that went out to greet the troops at the town entrance. I held in my hand a tray containing a loaf of bread and some salt. As the first tank approached I stopped it and presented my offering [2] to the officer. He stopped in wonderment but recovered from his surprise when I addressed him in fluent Russian. I told him of my experiences during the war and it was the first time the townspeople heard that I was Jewish. But their attitude towards me remained unchanged and my host continued to have me in his home.

The following day I was invited to the Russian headquarters and after an interrogation and brief lecture of instructions, I was accepted as a translator to the county supplies officer who was also Jewish. I was able to convince him not to impound the farmers' cattle but he confiscated 20% from the wealthy townsfolk. He was also granted my request for a sack of flour and sugar for my host. He also fulfilled yet another request of mine – he seconded me to one of his reconnaissance units giving me the opportunity of killing some Germans with my own hands.

But life among the Russians wasn't all that secure either. I left and made my way towards Tykocin. When I arrived at Krakow, I heard that the Poles had murdered two Jews and it became clear to me that there was only one place on earth that was safe for Jews and set my face towards Italy where soldiers of the Jewish Brigade put me aboard the “Enzo Sereni” and thus I arrived in Palestine in 1946.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Master–builder Return
  2. For comparison see Genesis Chap. 14; v 18–20 for the origin of this ceremony. The salt in this case is a reminder of the incense offered up in the Temple at the afternoon sacrifice. Return

 

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