A Transport of Last Jews
Not yet the last road-we're still alive...
They keep us locked up in crowded, semi-darkened freight cars three days and three nights, without food or drink, and who knows where they are taking us? Dead tired from such a long, dragged-out journey, and exhausted mentally and physically from all the last experiences and from the horrifying suicide scenes in the freight cars, we finally arrive at Riga. Yes, it's Riga, it seems. Now we can see inscriptions through the cracks in the freight cars: RIGA.... The Capital of Latvia.
As through a thick fog, tattered fragments of thought press in upon my tired and frozen mind. This means that here in Riga-the idea remains stuck in my mind like a sharp needle-this means that what is waiting for us is the final liquidation, the last road! And more: What do we do? Maybe there still is a way to save ourselves, to run away .... The bits of thought swim up from somewhere, from the frozenness, and disappear into the same mental and physical discouragement.
How many hours have our freight cars already been standing in one place? We hear and see nothing. The fright grows. It is hard to bear the thick atmosphere of death in the freight car. And the thoughts, the cutting thoughts about death and helplessness-woe to anyone who can still think....
They are getting a place ready for us.... They are digging the graves....
One of us lets drop this thought in the semi-darkness of the freight car. Everyone is silent. Nobody answers, nobody reacts. Then a child, the only child who is with us in the freight car, throws his arms around his father and suddenly shrieks like someone possessed, Oh, I don't want to, I don't want to! I don't want to go to the graves! Don't let them take me, Daddy, don't let them!
A dozen voices, angry, wild, frightened, shout at the father: Calm the child! Stop up his mouth! Woe to us-he might bring some new trouble upon us with his screams! Well, stop already, stop already!
The father tries to quiet the child, talks to him, begs him. He says, We must not shout. The Germans might hear a child's voice, and it could be very bad for that child and for everyone. But the child can't calm down. For a long time his spasmodic crying and blubbering goes on: Oh, Daddy, I don't want to go to the graves, don't let them take me, don't let them take me!
Suddenly we hear a clatter from outside. With a storm, with yelling, the freight car door is pried open, and in comes a beam of light from an early morning harvest sun, along with a rush of commands: Get out! All of you .... Line up! Men separate and women separate! Go twenty paces away from the
freight cars! Stand still!
German and Latvian policemen encircle us. They are counting us. Something is wrong! They count again; they drag out the dead from the freight cars; they calculate-yes, now it's correct. Only two are missing. It turns out that in one freight car Jews were successful in cutting the barbed wire on a small window. Four men were able to crawl through and jump off while the train was moving at full speed; thereby one man was killed, another was shot dead, and two disappeared.
The escorts tum us over to the new bosses, to the Riga Gestapo. A man from the Gestapo signs a slip of paper saying that he has received so many and so many live merchandise, and he takes over command of us.
He says, Just don't try to run away as those four of your people did. There two of them are lying dead. The others we will also take care of. All of you are now going to the Riga ghetto. March!
We take our packs on our backs and begin to walk. Others pull after themselves very large baggage, in which the last of what they own has been packed. The women and the men are mingled together again. I take a look, and there is the Dvinsk dentist Madame Voyen with empty hands. I ask, Where is your baggage? and she answers with a philosophical smile, I took with me only a towel and a toothbrush. It is foolish to drag all that baggage, because in any case you won't be able to drag it with you. It will be taken away. Why make it any harder for yourself?
We walk a short distance from the railroad train, and a few wagons filled with Jews come toward us. We look at them with curiosity. From the armbands they are wearing, we recognize that they are Jewish ghetto police. They climb down and inform us that heavy baggage is permitted to be loaded onto the wagons, and also that the weak and the sick, if there are any such among us, may take a seat in the wagons. Naturally, there are more than enough weak and sick people among us. A loud racket starts up around the wagons. But here come shouts from the German escorts:
Maintain order! Only the weak and sick, you've been told!
And now the Jews remind themselves that showing a relationship to the category of the weak and sick is dangerous. There is no longer a rush around the wagons.
We ask questions of a few of the Jewish policemen, and they answer us:
Don't be frightened, Jews. We are taking you to the Riga ghetto. Nothing bad will happen to you. You will share the lot of all the remaining Jews of Riga. Things are not bad in the Riga ghetto. One can still live a little there....
They calm us down, and we easily allow ourselves to be calmed down, be- cause the Riga ghetto is a lot more attractive to us than the prospect of going to mass graves.
Living like an animal is nevertheless living, and remarkably, a hope comes back to life in us. We think, This is not yet the end of everything! I (I myself)
still exist! In an uncertain predicament such as ours, the smallest glimmer of encouragement allows renewed strength to stream up from somewhere in the human soul. One feels, again, the inexhaustible drive to exist, to be, to live....
And that's the way it really was, for now they had brought us, alive, into the Riga ghetto.
Inside the Riga Ghetto
After they had taken us through the small passageways in the barbed wire fencing into the center of the Riga ghetto, after we had stood for a few hours in the street, on the stones, a couple of men and women ghetto orderlies appeared with a great big table, and an even greater kettle of coffee. They welcomed each of us with two large pieces of bread spread with margarine, and with half-sweetened coffee, as much as we wanted. Feeling faint and very hungry, we threw ourselves like wolves upon the food and filled ourselves with warm coffee to the point of stomachache. Nevertheless, I and quite a few others hid a portion of the bread for later, for worse times. There was no limit to what might happen later, and you must think ahead-that was what we had learned from the last few days.
We did not remain in the Riga ghetto for very long-all together, a few days. We slept that night on the bare ground, in a couple of large, cold rooms, and in the morning they began giving us only pieces of dry bread with a cup of coffee. During this time I became a little more acquainted with the residents of the Riga ghetto, and they told me about their life.
The ghetto was situated in a section of the Moscower suburb of Riga that was fenced off from the rest with barbed wire. It seemed more pleasant and home-like than the Dvinsk ghetto, because even though it was crowded, people at least lived in separate houses, with certain conveniences. But the ghetto regime, including selections and slaughters, was played out just as systematically as in Dvinsk and elsewhere.
Some ten thousand Jews were concentrated in the Riga ghetto. At first they came from Riga and other places in Latvia, and after that they were brought from Germany, Austria, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. The vast majority of them were wiped out through actions and other methods and buried in different places around Riga, such as the known mass graves of Salspiels and Schtrassendorf. A number of great, world-renowned Jews perished in the Riga ghetto, among them the famous historian Shimon Dubnov.
During the time we were in Riga, the ghetto was already quite close to the final liquidation. Only a couple of thousand people lived there. These few were already in barracks-that is, settled as slave laborers in various factories and other work units such as lenta and voyrugs. We, too, and other groups, were expecting at any hour to be transported-who knew where?
Suddenly one day there was a clatter. Some Germans had come to select
new transportees. A little while later we saw separated groups-a few men, but mostly women and children with frightened and questioning eyes and remnants of formerly good clothes. These were national groups of German Jews, Austrian Jews, Czech Jews, Lithuanian Jews.
A few well-fed young and middle-aged Jews, attractively and elegantly dressed, were helping the Germans with their work. These were the orderlies. They spoke excellent German. They knew all the details, how and what to do, and in all their movements they were like fish in water, much freer and bolder than the Jewish orderlies of Dvinsk were. We could see that the Germans relied on them. Mostly they were German Jews, but a portion was local, from Riga.
In the evening a few trucks appeared to take us away. We wanted to take our packs of belongings, but at that the orderlies intervened:
For what purpose do you need to take that with you? After all, you are going to Kaiserwald, and there they will take it away from you anyway. Not only that, but also money, a little watch, a little ring, a comb, a little knife, if you still have any.
Better leave everything here, and we will give it back to you later....
We didn't want to believe them, but they were all telling us the same thing.
We left our packs behind of our own free will in the middle of the street, and some of us gave our new Riga acquaintances our money, rings, knives, and other small articles as well-on the condition, of course, that we would get them all back afterwards. A few did the opposite: They quietly tore up the last of their money and threw it away so that it wouldn't come into the hands of the Germans.
At the last minute a woman I knew from Kovno ran up to me and asked what she should do with the six hundred German marks that she had. I told her to do what everyone was doing-deposit the money with one of the Riga ghetto residents.
No! she cried. Can't you see that they are deceiving us in order to get the last of our possessions? They will never give that money back to us.
If that's the case, then there is a second way out of this, I said. Tear up the money and throw it away.
But that she didn't want to do. She knew that I didn't have any money, so she stuffed the six hundred marks into my pocket. She told me to hide it and take it with me. Later I was to return four hundred marks and keep the rest, one third of the amount, as a reward for my risk and work....
I took the six hundred marks, pushed them in under the half-tom soles of my shoes, and my acquaintance walked away, quite calmed down. With me she was sure.
We were loaded onto the trucks, so crowded together that we had hardly any room to stand. At the edges of the trucks people were almost falling out.
At every bend in the road there was an outcry. Those on the edge held onto those in the middle, and they just barely kept from going overboard. In the crush, I caught a glimpse of the laughing eyes of Madame Voyen, and she shouted to me through the howl of the wind, Well, who was right? Where are all the packs with the possessions that we dragged with us? Now we are all equal-!with my towel and toothbrush and the others with their heavy baggage. Why suffer more than you have to, and why tie your own hands, dragging those unfortunate packages with you? For what?
They will give it all back to us in Kaiserwald, called out a voice from the crowd.
Don't talk any foolishness! she answered. It seems you have learned very little in these last couple of years. And also those Jews who have now inherited the last of your possessions, they too will lose them. You will meet them again somewhere, in a concentration camp or in the next world, and you will say to each other, 'Oh, this keeping yourself tied to your packs, to your possessions! That has held back perhaps thousands of us, unable to run away when the time was right. Their hands and feet were tied, and in the end, they were buried....'
I did not encounter Madame Voyen again anywhere, but I would often remember her and her bold, prophetic words. She was a clever woman. She stood a good ten heads taller than the average beaten-down ghetto person, and how much she wanted to live! She made plans and dreamed dreams about running away, about hiding out, about stabbing to death at least three or four of the murderers, taking revenge for her child, her husband, everybody. She ran away twice from her barracks post and was caught both times. In the end, she slowly died of typhus and hunger in Shtuthof or a nearby camp.
How torturously, how painfully, how cruelly fate plays out!
(Photo: G. Kadish, Kovno, 1943)
The third New Year, Rosh Hashana,
In the ghetto darkness and anguish...
Did anyone believe that there would also now
Still be a remembrance of us here?
For this third year of the days of awe
Many of us are already among the missing;
Those who remain, a small group of Jews,
Are quietly getting ready for evening prayers.
In a crowded space, among beds and tables,
Praying in the proper days of awe fashion
I open a prayer book, and leaf through it,
I am at home, at my father's and mother's,
I go to the synagogue for high holy day prayers
And I conduct myself respectably, as is fitting.
They greet one another, Peace be with you
To the entire village, great and small...
Quiet! ...the cantor and his choir are singing!
How sweet the melody sounds, how beautiful!
No evil eye, a village of Jews!
They drive them, throw them out of homes.
|They are leading to their death the whole congregation.
The old rabbi walks at the head.
He takes a look at his Jews
And calls out to heaven: God! Why?!
Why have you allowed such a thing to happen?
To make a mockery of you and us?
Where is like the mercy of the father for his children?
Where is your compassion? Answer, God!
Where is your Truth, Fairness, Divine Justice,
The old Rabbi is shouting to heaven,
...There is no more hope, no salvation from God...
They are slaughtering squirming people...
Kill! Shoot! It's your time!
Hush! Why am I shouting?-!rub my eyes:
I look in the prayer book, seek an answer,
And again I seek in the prayer book,
In the face of our sins
|And uprooted and ragged,
Fate had scattered us on the world
And across foreign lands and peoples
Had dispersed us, the weak and homeless.
And abandoned then became
Yes, I understand! We are strangers;
(Composed in the Dvinsk ghetto and in the Popervaln concentration camp, 1943)
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