The history of the Jewish people is drenched with suffering, tears and blood, starting with the Pharaoh of Egypt who enslaved and tortured the Jews, going as far as ordering their newborn sons thrown into the Nile. Another villain was Haman, who plotted to kill and annihilate them. The Spanish inquisition has burned thousands at the stake. The Ukraine pogromists, Chmielnicki and Petlura. And the Arabs, led by the mufti Hajj Amin al Husseini who carried out pogroms, robbing and murdering Jews.
But this entire bloody trail of suffering, persecution and murder could not amount, in scope or cruelty, to the vile precedent of the Nazi regime.
In the entire history of martyrdom, Jewish or gentile, there was never such genocide, planned and carried out in cold blood using advanced methods and calculated to the finest detail. Our generation was the first to see a such a mechanism attacking a peaceful, defenseless population men, women, old, children, infants and babies and destroying them in any manner of deaths: famine, shooting, hanging, killing, burning and suffocation, all carried out with terrible methodicalness while other countries kept silent and allowed the blood to flow. 8.25 million Jews lived in the European countries conquered by the Nazis before World War II. 6 million of them were murdered by the Nazis and their assistants during the Holocaust. The Jewish people, which numbered 18 million souls in 1939, numbers only 12.5 million souls today. The criminal precedent also lies in the fact that this unmatched mass-slaughter was not carried out of spontaneous urge or the plot of few, but rather by a criminal alliance, in which thousands and tens of thousands took part, whether in uniform or not, as well as organizations and units whose sole purpose was carrying out the criminal task.
Dark clouds settled over Poland. Day by day, almost hour by hour one felt the oncoming war approaching and becoming inevitable. The skies turned black and threatening over the towns and villages where the Jewish population was concentrated. Every news item on the worsening situation, every runner with a mobilization order increased the uncertainty and fright among the masses.
The fact that there were ammunition and arms factories in town was sufficient to arouse people's thoughts of what was in store for the place once hostilities broke out. They thought, rightly as the events proved later, that the presence of those factories would invite the German bombers to unload their destructive charges on the densely populated area in the very near vicinity.
Fifth columnists knew how to exploit this fact in addition to their other subversive activities, only encouraged the rumours in order to create a panic amongst the people and create difficulties for the Polish army authorities.
Meanwhile the Poles themselves started to dismantle the arms factories with theintention of putting them up in some safer place (hear-say mentioned Kubel). This official step only increased the fear of what was ahead. Slowly, the shopkeepers emptied their stores and people prepared themselves to flee to the neighbouring towns and villages, which they thought to be safer. At about this time a Civil Defense was organized under the auspices of the authorities. Among the organizers were also Jews, Isaac Laks, Josef Unger, Yitzhak Singer, and others.
We are all in the same boat.
I joined the Civil Defense when a neighbour, a cafeteria owner in our neighbourhood, presented himself as the man in charge of our block and appealed for volunteers among those who were free of army service or had not yet been called to the flag. He assigned me for duty on a certain stretch day and night because the blackout was already in force.
About a week before the war broke out the congregants of the Great Synagogue in Wierzbnik were indeed surprised when during the Friday night service no people appeared but the District Inspector of Police, in person. His sudden unprecedented appearance in Shul in those troubled days certainly was dramatic. He didn't waste any time and came straight to the point. As the responsible authority of the District including Civil Defense, he asked for volunteers to dig trenches in all parts of the town. To make the point, he stressed the fact that the Jews and Poles were now bound by the same bonds of destiny and in his own words, We are all in the same boat. No one needed any convincing that indeed we were on the verge of war.
The next morning, in spite of the Shabbat, many volunteered to dig the trenches together with the Poles.
Special mention must be made here of Professor Godel Janisevitz, the leader of the Union for the light industry, who was the first to take an active part in this matter.
The inevitable came On the first of September 1939, the first bomb fell on Wierzbnik next to the plywood factory of the Lichtenstein Brothers. This was followed in the afternoon by a second one, which fell near the house of Chaim Brodbekker, and although this was expected, it nonetheless shocked the people who became more wary as what was to come.
Next day, the atmosphere became somewhat lighter when the news came that England and France declared war on Germany.
Jews started to leave town, one after the other houses in the Jewish streets became empty. Only those who did not have the possibilities of hiring a cart to stack their belongings or those who had an active part in the Civil Defense stayed behind. The big yard of Maschliburski was nearly empty. In this block only my cousin, Josef Unger, my Father, my sister and myself were left.
When we heard that all the offices of the government and the local authority had been evacuated to the district capital and that the town mayor was advising everyone to leave, we too on second thoughts, decided to follow suit. On the 5th of September, we started out on foot, because no more vehicles of any description were available in town. It soon became apparent that more people shared our thoughts and decided on the last moment to leave town, amongst them, our family. Since they were setting out to Vashniew, we joined them.
German tanks crossed the village
I couldn't leave town without seeing two of my friends, Dr. Jacob Kramacz and Prof. Leon Korta, who were on duty this time of night at the public bathhouse and to warn them of the situation.
When I got there they were asleep. Without disturbing anyone I awakened them and in a whisper told them of my intention to leave town advising them to join me and after some hesitations and upon my insistence, they quietly and without anyone noticing came away with me.
Together, we made our way through the night uneventful. It was only at dawn, upon meeting the local police sergeant, Oupile, who told us that three German tanks had broken through the village down the road, that we became aware of any change.
These tidings greatly upset us. Instinctively we increased our pace until we started running... Thus we continued marching, taking a little rest here and there until at sunset we reached Vasniew. This was a typical Jewish village, which we found half deserted and in turmoil. We decided therefore to continue our flight.
By then we were quite exhausted and after a few hours sleep all of us, except Unger, took to the road again. This time we went in the direction of Ostrowic.
We felt the effort of the continuous marching and the walking became difficult, besides the strafing from the low flying German planes.
We reached Ostrowic in the early afternoon. The streets teemed with refugees, many from our town. Amongst them we met a close friend of the family, Mordechai Lipstein. Tired from our journey, we sat down to rest when suddenly the streets emptied as German troops were marching into the town.
The German Occupation
The Jews were horror struck, and feared of what was to come. Trouble started soon enough. The Germans immediately imposed a curfew from sunset till 6am. A few Jews on their way home from Mincha Mariv prayers were killed by German patrols.
We stayed a few days with friends, Kleiman family. When we heard that the roads were clear, we decided to return to our town. We hired a horse and wagon and soon arrived back to Wierzbnik. The sight that met our eyes was shocking! There were few people around, all the stores had been broken into and looted. Our flat we found as we had left it so was our provision stock intact that we had prepared before the outbreak of the war.
The bakeries were ordered by the German authorities to open and the people, including Jews, were queuing up for bread. Soon the Poles started to point at the Jews, who were then forcefully removed by the German guards. Daily, Jews were being rounded up for all kinds of jobs: to clean German army vehicles, to clear public buildings of materials and furniture, loading, unloading, etc. This work was carried out with beatings and mistreatment.
The night after Yom Kippur, we smelt a strong smell of smoke. We climbed to the roof to see if we could detect anything, but in vain. Next day, however, an awful sight awaited us. The Synagogue in Nieska Street and the adjoining building of Talmud Torah had burned down completely with al the Torah scrolls, religious objects, the furniture as well as the community offices. (The burning of the Synagogue is described in a separate article by D.P.).
As it transpired later, the Germans had perpetrated this act, since this very same night many Synagogues went up in flames throughout Poland. The Germans had apparently intended to commit this arson on Yom Kippur night but were misled by the Jewish calendar. This event left a deep sorrow on the Jewish community in town.
A series of proclamations, decrees and orders against the Jews followed one another. To cite only a few of them: the turning in of foreign currency, jewelry, gold, silver and other precious metals. Orders about restriction of movement: It was forbidden to go by train or any public vehicle without special permission, it was forbidden to raise prices as food rationing and new taxes were introduced and etc.
As life became more difficult, so the tension rose day by day. In many cases, Poles so called Volksdeutsche betrayed Jewish shopkeepers, whereupon the Germans put through ruthless searches. Not a day passed without a few Jewish families being ransacked. An enormous quantity of material was taken out of the cellars of Yaacov Guterman. The stores of Shmuel Cohen, Josef Drexler and others were completely emptied. The German authorities expropriated the sawing mills and timber yards of Mordechai Lipstein, Yitshak Rosenberg, Uri Helstein, Meir Steinbaum, Moshe Tentzer, Shmuel and Yaacov Kleiner, Weitzman, the father-in-law of Yaacov Zuckerman. The factory and sawmill of Shmuel Pochachewsky were confiscated, as was the plywood factory or Hortzi. Here I have to mention the tragic case of Shmuel Kleiner, who upon hearing the news that his timber yard had been expropriated had a heart failure and passed away on the spot.
The Sign of Dishonor
The current beatings and seizing of Jews paralyzed the life of the Jewish population altogether. And if the Jews still tried to get about in spite of the atmosphere, this became impossible with the latest and most humiliating of all decrees: the wearing of the yellow patch.
That decree caused great confusion amongst us, everyone felt as if he was being branded and a deep sense of shame overcame many. Not surprising therefore that the first days of the decree most of us did not leave our dwellings, but life continues and slowly people started to show their faces outside.
The Poles meeting us on the street grinned and smiled of satisfaction. In their satanic minds they were convinced that all the furor and enmity of the Germans would be directed only against the Jews, whilst they would enjoy special privileges. Whereas to the Germans, the yellow patch indicated a person who could be taken for forced labour without having to account to anyone.
Another order, which caused us great embarrassment and humiliation, ordered us to take off our hats before a Germans in uniform
The local authority was taken over by German officials, and a Volksdeutche (a Pole who declared that he was of German origin) was named as its head.
At the same time the Germans set up a council through which they could govern the Jews, and demanded a special contribution for this purpose. This sum had to be handed over within 24 hours, and the people had to collect it within this time limit. With the setting up of the Jewish council, the random seizing of Jews in the streets ceased, but the council had to provide the necessary manpower in accordance with the German demands. Soon there were two groups: those who were always sent out to work on the one hand, whilst the other group comprised of those who paid ransom money.
The community was ordered to draw up a list of males between the ages of 14 and 65, which actually made up the available manpower for them to draw upon. The Germans made a point of it that all those who appeared on the lists underwent a so-called medical inspection. In fact it was a farce since the doctors did not receive any instructions on the subject. Jewish apostates too were forced to register and were included in the lists.
The Death of Engineer Hidokewitch
A Polish engineer named Hidokewitch, was murdered in the beginning of 1940 by partisans who suspected him of cooperating with the Germans in putting the ammunition factory into production again. Following this act, hundreds of Poles were arrested. The Germans were fully aware that Jews were not involved in this murder. Yet, they arrested a number of them. They were held a whole month in the central prison of Radom and were subjected to harsh treatment. Amongst them we count Dr. Leon Korta, Zwi Feigenbaum, Abraham Shmuel Eisenstadt, Beni Zuckerman and his Father, Josef Paflower and son, Meir and Moshe Brodbeker, Yaacov Guterman and others.
Since they did not succeed in finding the perpetrators, they released the Jews, but not before the community paid a decent sum as a special tax for their release.
Owing to transfer of population orders, which the Germans had enacted, Polish refugees of the Furmon region arrived in Wierzbnik. They found refuge in different places in town. In March a train-full of Jewish and Polish refugees arrived from Lodz. The Jewish community went all out to help them and saw to their needs as far as they could. Part of them traveled on to Warsaw, mostly those who had relations and friends there.
A short wile afterwards another train arrived with Jewish refugees from Plotzk, but now the community could not help much considering the previous influx and settling of refugees in town.
The great number of refugees spelled out need and poverty, and it soon became necessary to put up a public kitchen, which provided them with regular meals. The community with the help of volunteers supported the kitchen. A great number of women were active, but special mention should be made of the few who excelled themselves in this task: Yehiel Schechman and his wife, Mrs. Avisa Milman-Herling, Mrs. Hochnitz, Yeshayahu Jona Sharfhertz, Haya Brank-Weisblum, Yeheskel Morgenstern and Moshe Feldman.
Most of the refugees belonged to intellectual circles and it was not easy for them to adapt themselves to the new conditions and to the fare of the public kitchen.
A special effort was made to provide additional nourishment to needy children. Every Friday bread was collected for them and at Shabbat they were guests at a communal meal with the family Steinbaum which was always accompanied with song.
Within this framework, my sister Gutzia Tentzer, organized a children performance The Trial of the Good Mother. The following took part in this performance: Natasha Zirenska, Sara (Slusia) Scharfhertz, Rivka (Regi) Milman and her brother, Hanna Tentzer, Issy Siskind, Mietek Wiegensprech, Mondek Holtzman and Rachel Milman.
The children played their parts with great gusto and the event was no doubt a bright spot in their dark lives.
Quite a number of refugees were ill, stricken by an epidemic of typhoid, which spread amongst them. The community organized a hospital in one of the houses on Ilitzka Street, where conditions were not ideal due to overcrowding and other physical shortcomings.
If my memory does not fail me, the ghetto was established, like in other parts of the General Government in mid-April 1940.
The district governor ordered the Jewish council to establish the ghetto and gave them 3 days time to arrange the evacuation of certain streets and to concentrate all the Jews within the quarter, which had been proclaimed as Jewish. The boundaries of the ghetto included as follows: the streets of Kilinskiego, Nieska, Wisoka, a small part of Rinach (ie. The pavement from the corner of Visoka until the corner of Nieska only, Krotka, Koliova, Jedushveskiego until the Jewish Cemetery, an alley leading from Koliova Street until the house of Miriam Drexler, Ilsetzka Street until the plywood factory of the Lichtenstein Brothers.
And yet there was something particular about the ghetto in Wierzbnik, which as we learned later was the only place where the ghetto was not completely closed up (where none could come or go). One was free to move to and from other quarters in town.
Credit for this exceptional feat is apparently due to the Community leaders who succeeded in influencing and convincing the Germans to demarcate the ghetto as described above.
This allowed the Poles to move freely in the ghetto, a fact that made life easier for us from the aspect of food supplies, as well as for communication with the outside world.
The refugees who had arrived earlier in Wierzbnik from Lodz and from Plotzk were ordered also to move into the ghetto. This meant overcrowding and with it a spreading of the typhoid epidemic.
Since the healing and the prevention measures called for the isolation of sick persons who were infected by this contagious disease, the overcrowding became still greater.
The Germans transferred part of the refugees from Plotzk to the neighbouring town of Bodzentin.
Mistreatment and Beatings
Life became almost unbearable as new decrees and orders followed one another. One of the decrees, which hit Jews most severely, was the restriction on trade. One had to procure a special license for each deal, and so high was the demanded payment that it was almost impossible to bear.
Many remained without making a living, with the setting up of the ghetto, and were forced to look elsewhere for their wellbeing.
Until May 1940, the Germans used the Jewish manpower for a variety of jobs: ie. Log cutting, cleaning of houses and offices, loading and unloading, street clearing, snow clearance, and etc. All this changed when one Saturday in May 1940, hundreds of men were taken from their homes to an iron ore mine at a distance of 12 kilometers from town. There they had to work hard labour. The Jews were not used to such hard physical tasks and this left them in a state of shock.
A few days afterwards saw the sudden appearance of S.S. troops belonging to the Skull and Cross-Bones Regiment. They entered the ghetto, broke open the doors of houses, meted out brutal beatings indiscriminately and forced everyone to the streets. From there they were driven in the direction of the metal factories, which were part of the Starachowice plant.
That same day I was in the office of the Jewish Council together with Moshe Feldman, Abraham Goldstein, the teacher Laps and twenty others. All of us had been called upon for secretarial work, when before we had time to settle down to work, the same S.S. men entered the building and started to beat everyone up with their rifle butts. We tried to flee to the other rooms in the building but none were available. They hit us mercilessly. I received a few blows to my head and ran home from there covered with blood. I had to stay for six weeks at home.
About the time of these bloody events, the Germans started to employ the Jews at the Starachowice factory. They were organized into working parties and worked in three shifts.
Until this period it was possible to avoid duties by paying ransom money, but now this became impossible and everyone, without exception, went out to work.
With the entrance of the Germans in Wierzbnik they ordered the rationing of food, which was distributed in small quantities with food cards. When the factory was put into production again, the workers received supplementary rations of bread, marmalade, fish and a small quantity of sugar. The food rations were insufficient and the people turned to the black market that of course was very dangerous. Trading in the black market was punishable, even with the death penalty.
In spite of the fact that the Jews worked in a factory, which had first priority, all the Jews were taken one summer afternoon and transported to the Lublin region to work in fortifications on the German-Russian border. Working conditions were beyond description, whilst their supervisors were brutal and whipped them.
Most of the men had families, who stayed behind without the minimal economic means of existence.
This happened on Thursday, Tisha Be' Av, with the women weeping in the streets bewailing their fate.
The council of Jews, after many efforts, succeeded in bringing about the release, after four weeks, of the married men. The bachelors were released after the fortifications were completed.
Hanging and Murders
During the summer of 1940 a German patrol was fired upon from a house at the end of the town, were upon all the inhabitants, Jews and Christians alike were arrested. The Germans soon came to the conclusion that the Jews were not guilty, and released them accordingly, whilst the Poles were held in prison. After a few days the Germans put up a scaffold in the middle of the Ring, and the whole non-Jewish population was forced to witness the execution of the arrested. Amongst the executed was an old woman of 67 years and babies.
Midst 1940, a well-known personality, Itzhak Rosenberg, was murdered by a Ukrainian policeman upon leaving his factory under the pretense that he had ignored this order to halt. This event caused great sorrow by all Jews in town, especially on the workers of the factory who had worked with him. He was a fervent Zionist and a staunch supporter of the national funds, to which he was the biggest donator.
The Collection of Furs
The beginning of 1941, the Jews were ordered to hand over all furs to the Germans. All had to bring in fur coats or any other article made of fur to the police station without receiving anything in return of course. Believing that the Jews had not handed in all furs, the Germans started house searches. A funny thing happened when a German policeman came to the house of Hershel Feigenbaum to look for concealed furs. Upon his question of where is the fur? everybody kept quiet except a little girl who thought he was asking about the cream of the milk, which in Yiddish has the same expression like fur, Peltz. In all innocence she answered, The cat has eaten it. The German chuckled and left the house without further ado.
In spite of the threats and depression exercised by the Germans in the ghetto, there were a few who had the courage to resist by all possible means, These activities were not without danger to their lives. Such was the group which members included (among others), Shmuel Cohen, Shlomo Lev, Buslig Melamed, Zvi Feigenbaum, Hershel Herblum, which somehow got hold of a radio set which they hid in one of the cellars. They used to gather regularly to listen to London radio, and afterwards spread the news underground from one to the other.
Every week they used to meet in the house of my wife's Grandfather, Josef Reuven Lichtenstein, a well versed and enlightened man, to discuss the political and military situation and to exchange ideas. They somehow got German newspapers and learned to read the truth between the lines, with the help of the radio in London.
What we feared happened when the Germans arrested Shlomele Ben Zelig Melamed and Itzhak Trupa, the son-in-law of Libish Binstock. Their friends were afraid under torture they would disclose all. But Shlomele assured Hershel Herblum, who was arrested by the Jewish police so as to get him in the prison to contact the arrested, that he would never give his friends away, even if it cost him his life.
From prison they were transferred to a concentration camp where Shlomo Lev died soon after his arrival. His wife received notification to that effect. Itzhak Trupa on the other hand, as told by his brother living now in Petah Tiqua, fell one day before the end of the war during a bombing raid.
The Witch Dance Around Work Permits
1942, was the worst and bitterest year fro the Polish Jewry. On Seder night, a relative of Simcha Mintzberg came to us, who had been in Lublin and had succeeded to escape from there during the expulsion of the Jews and had reached Wierzbnik. The girl by the name of Bianca told of the horrors, which had passed in Lublin, and of the expulsion of the whole Jewish population to an unknown direction. At the same time, news reached us of the concentration of all Jews from the surrounding villages of Warsaw, who were subject to expulsion as well. The Poles spread rumours that the Germans were transporting Jews in wagons to certain places in the Lublin region and returned with empty wagons from there. They also told us that German drivers replaced Polish engine drivers at a certain spot and that was as far as their knowledge went, but added that over the whole area hung a sickly smell of corpses.
It became also known that many of these Poles living in the area went down with jaundice.
Unfortunately, very few took these stories seriously and put them down, as pure fantasy since it did not dawn upon them that is was possible to destroy people, just like that, and without any reason.
The rumours persisted and became louder day-by-day, and fear overtook all for the future. The Germans were at the peak of their success at the front and the political situation worried the Jews still more. The Poles on the whole were hostile, and even those who were active against the Germans refused to take Jews into their ranks. When I addressed myself to an old acquaintance of mine, Jankowsky, on this subject, his answer was curt, Impossible without any explanation.
In the registry office I met a non-Jewish comrade with whom I had studied together at college in Konske, and he gave me, without any payment, identity papers with Aryan names for my two sisters, my wife Ida Birentzweig. The last two named in fact, hid themselves with the help of these identity papers with Polish families and thus saved themselves.
Beginning of the summer of 1942, the expulsions started in our vicinity: Ostrowice, Skarzysko, Radom, Kolzev and other places. Those who had succeeded to escape reached us and told of what was happening. With all these facts at hand, it became finally clear to the people that danger was approaching. At the same time it was rumoured that people who were engaged in essential work would be exempted from the expulsion order. This brought rise to a witch dance around the procurement of work permits, and all kinds of agents appeared overnight who led a brisk trade with these permits, which sold at exorbitant prices. The permits sold were fictitious and were especially wanted by elderly people. For them it represented a question of life or death and was therefore willing to pay these prices. There were those who acquired permits with their last savings, to be on the safe side, for a few priority factories like Starachowice, the electricity works Zeorg and the sawmill of Heler.
The town was full of refugees, and they too joined the market for work permits. This caused the prices to rise further still.
A month before the expulsion, a work camp was put up by the Germans in the Majowka district. The camp consisted of wooden huts and the non-local workers from Starachowice could live there. The Jewish workers willingly went to live there for two reasons. First of all they wanted to make sure that they had permanent employment in a high priority plant and secondly because it offered a certain security.
This plant was divided into two parts, upper and lower. Whilst the work camp in Majowka was intended for those working in the lower part, the other camp called Szczelnica served those working in the upper part.
In October 1942, Gestapo men and German gendarmes visited the houses of the well off and robbed and plundered all they could lay their hands on with a special eye on precious objects. Early one morning, I was still in bed, they came to our house too and without a word went straight to the cupboards and emptied them.
Seeing what was happening, the Jews tried to sell their belongings, at least what was left, to the local non-Jews. And that was not always easy; so many objects were passed to Polish neighbours for safekeeping.
As the days passed, the first signs appeared of the German's brutal intention of expulsion of the whole Jewish population from the town. Jews from other places like: Wychock, Szidlowiec, Suchedniow and other villages told of the dire fate of the Jews there when all men, women, and children were expulsed to an unknown place. Another fact which supported these forebodings, was the sudden demand of Germans, who had ordered shoes or suits with Jewish tradesmen, for their orders whether completed or not. This was most suspicious since no reasonable excuse was given.
These ominous signs brought dark shadows on every Jewish house. All the elderly feared and infirmed that they would be the first victims of the expulsion with all its consequences. The speculation begun with a logical reasoning that if and when the expulsion started, it would include all those who were within the ghetto whilst the workers who would be at work in the factories would not be affected. Tine was to prove their reasoning to be right. There were even those who tried to work two consecutive shifts at work, so as to spend as much time as possible in the factory and so to save themselves.
The 27th of October 1942, this date will always be remembered with horror. Jewish police entered at dawn the courtyards of the houses in the ghetto and announced sorrowfully the German order that everyone without exception had to leave his home and concentrate in the Rynek. Everybody understood what it was all about and took with them small parcels of personal effects that had been kept at hand for some time now.
I was among the first who made their way with their families to the central square, Awaiting us were companies of S.S. troops, Germans gendarmes and for the first time we saw units of Lutishim (Latvians) who were the actual executors of the expulsion, They ordered us to line up five abreast. I stood facing Krotka Street.
The Separation of Families
After a short interval, the Latvians went through the lines and demanded that all money and precious objects be handed over to them. By force accompanied by insults they robbed what they could. An hour or so afterwards, they called on all who had work permits to step outside the lines and group up separately. This caused an immediate splitting up of families, since not all the members of one family had a permit. Heartrending were the scenes that took place.
People with work permits refused to part from their dear ones, relinquishing thereby voluntarily the opportunity to be exempt from the expulsion, but the Germans took them by force from their families into the other group.
Having completed the disposition of the groups, those with the work permits were ordered to march off in the direction of the Szczelnica camp at Starachowice under the guard of Ukrainians, who were called Werkscutz. The distance from the Rynek until the camp was about 7 kilometers uphill, which we had to run with the guard at our heels beating, shooting into our ranks and murdering. Among the victims was the son-in-law of Shmuel Cohen, Josef. I remember this event very clearly because it happened right next to me and secondly because he was a close friend of mine.
Tired and exhausted we were pushed into a trench while Germans with machine guns at the ready towered over us at both sides, and again we were ordered to hand over money, precious objects and etc. At the same time they got a hold of Jacob Rubinstein to take him to the kitchen and asked him whether he had anything of worth in his possession. When he gave a negative answer, they searched him and found some money. The Germans wanted to execute him on the spot. Under the threat of death he begged for mercy and implored them for his life, with difficulty he did save himself. This incident was sufficient for all others to start to dig deep into their pockets and other hiding places and handed over all that was left to them.
Something unexpected happened when a young lad started to curse the Germans loudly. The commander, Althoff, murdered him on the spot. We were taken to the barracks in the camp, which was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and efficiently guarded.
The people who remained in Rynek were again divided into two groups, one group was taken for forced labour in the sawmill or in the electricity plant, whilst the rest were loaded into wagons and transported to Treblinka.
We learned later that 42 people, old and sick who could not or did not want to go to Rynek and remained in their homes, were murdered in cold blood. My wife's Grandfather, Reb Josef Reuven Lichtenstein and his wife Gitel were amongst them.
The Germans went through every house and murdered everyone indiscriminately they found; a young girl, the daughter of Pinchas Manela was among the victims.
On the day the war broke out, September 1st 1939 (on Shabbat Eve) I was in the Polish city of Warsaw. I arrived there with my sister-in-law, Rivka Zoberman (today in Bnei-Brak), accompanying my brother-in-law Shmuel Zoberman, who was sent by the doctors for surgery at the stomatological institute in Warsaw. I stayed there from Friday evening to Sunday. My wife and children, unaware of my whereabouts, were concerned for me.
That night I already knew about the German bombardment that started on Friday. I was also told that the local residents were leaving town. Logic dictated that I look for cover in nonstrategic places until the threat was over, away from factories and railways which were the first targets for bombardment.
At first light I went outside to talk to neighbors and learn about the situation, but most of them have left the city. I went to the Beit Midrash to pray and met three people there (of which I remember only Akiva Shefla), who told me that everyone was leaving and they would be following them today as well. The people left in different direction but the majority left for Iłża.
I prayed. I never imagined that this was the last time I would pray in this synagogue.
When I finished my prayer I heard the buzz of airplanes followed immediately by strong explosions that covered the entire area with a cloud of dust, blotting out the sun. I ran home and noticed the impact crater of a bomb, whose fragments spread as far as my home. Curious, I picked up a fragment, something I have never seen before, but soon I realized that there was no time to wait and I immediately went to rent a vehicle (a wagon and horses) to take my family to Iłża.
After many hardships we arrived in Iłża during the night and found the place quiet and life going on as usual. Curiously, the situation actually led to some prosperity. People were renting rooms, selling goods and earning plenty of money. I too rented a room for my family and we started settling in
We naively believed that this matter would not last more than a few weeks, and so I insisted on the right to extend the lease on the room for another two months beyond the month I paid for. We all felt we were acting according to common sense. Except for one person the admirable and honorable Chanoch Biderman and his honorable wife Rivka. While some brave young men remained behind to watch their property, he was the only man of means who would not budge. He refused to listen to advice. He also never told other people what they should do. But he didn't want to go to Iłża.
Tuesday went by and Wednesday was normal until noon we listened to the radio, intent on every piece of news. We also received news about events in our town from messengers, young men traveled back and forth between Wierzbnik and Iłża for this purpose.
On Wednesday noon the radio fell silent! There was no more news. We imagined that the station in Warsaw was hit by a bomb. And here come the messengers a tank division came as far as the entrance to Wierzbnik! The 42 antiaircraft cannons that surrounded the factories opened fire on them. Three were hit, leaving the damaged tanks behind
We quickly learned that the radio station was unharmed, but the entire Polish defense was compromised. The future was already clear, but the tank battle also confirmed that our departure for Iłża was a smart move.
Thursday: news followed news. The Germans were advancing on all fronts, Kielce was also conquered as well as the nearby Słupia. Some of the people from Wierzbnik escaped to Słupia. Its innocent residents never imagined that the Germans would arrive so soon. The experts decided that it was a French armored force, coming to the aid of the Polish army. They were welcomed with cakes and flowers a mistake that has saved them (and the refugees of Wierzbnik among them) from pogroms. Those details would have been amusing if they were not so tragic. We didn't know yet was the future held in store. What we already knew beyond doubt was that in a couple of days, we would also find ourselves in the maw of the vicious German beast, because it was unreasonable to assume that their advance would be halted at the gates of Iłża.
We prayed for one thing an eventless transition. The fact that Iłża was a minor, negligible place, gave us hope that the place would change hands in a relatively uneventful manner, because we believed that the strategic or military value of the place was a key factor. The Polish high command, however, thought differently, and decided to stage the defense of the region in Iłża
Buried on the front line
Among the refugees from Wierzbnik were the two rabbis of Wierzbnik, Rabbi Ben Zion Rabinowicz and Rabbi Menachem Tenenbaum. The latter, an old, frail man, was effected by the hardships and terrors and his condition degenerated. In the evening, a messenger came to inform me of his sudden death. I hurried to his apartment where I found Leibish Herblum (now in the States), his son-in-law (the husband of his daughter Rachel) Akiva Shefla and Shmuel Tenenbaum, who later passed away in Roma and was buried in Jerusalem. We immediately contacted the local Hevra Kaddisha and decided on a burial location and the time of the funeral, which would be held first thing in the morning.
The general situation was already tense and we barely gathered ten people for the funeral, among them four members of the Wierzbnik community: Akiva Shefla, another man whom I do not recall, Leibish Herblum and the author. The cemetery, which was customarily located outside of town, was on a hillside. On our way we stumbled across the front lines of the Polish army. The front line under the hill boasted soldiers armed with machineguns crouching in their ditches, horses standing and stretched telephone lines. Before we arrived at the open grave, I heard the observer make a phone call: Hello, sergeant, the tanks are coming in on the left! The Polish soldiers gave us no trouble, but I realized that we were directly between the two fronts and the oncoming clash. I said: We must carry out our task as soon as possible, because there is no time to waste. The grave was still being dug and we tried to reach the necessary minimum. We lowered the deceased, placed the seal, covered everything with earth and asked forgiveness according to tradition. We then headed to town. I said again: Gentlemen, we must get to town as quickly as possible, even if it means running, avoiding the main roads traveled by tanks and taking side paths instead.
My first act was gathering my family, wife and children. My second act was searching for a house with a concrete ceiling. The only such building I found was the bathhouse and that was where we headed, for the lack of other choice. Those who were inside the town had no idea what was about to happen. I told them that they must all find cover right away. The bathhouse filled with people, and the shooting began soon after. First light arms, then heavy arms. First machineguns, then light artillery, escalating more and more the shells were falling among the houses! We heard more and more explosions. This is no longer a joke, said some people. But suddenly the bathhouse was alight, burning all around us we felt we must leave the building now or we never will. We burst out. Bullets whistled overhead. My daughter Faiga was grazed by a bullet. We jumped into the river passing through the town. We ran in the water until we found ourselves between houses. I noticed a stone house and we burst inside. The house was filled with people from Wierzbnik, the rabbi among them. We were welcomed with open arms. But the shooting continued. Suddenly I realized that my eldest daughter Chava wasn't with us. I could not get over my anxiety for her. After two hours we received word of her location. In another street. I took advantage of a short cessation in the shooting and ran to her. They day had come and gone. We are in the dark room of a Jew named Holtz, who was a soldier during the Japanese War. He was laughing at the explosions. Fires broke out in the neighboring houses. I stood in the doorway and after every explosion poked my head out to examine our situation. Polish soldiers were standing under the walls in the street next to us and firing. I went and talked to them in between the shots. And things continued in this manner until dawn. The Germans must have noticed the fire coming from our position and aimed their fire this way. We escaped, my daughter and I, and arrived together at the house I left to look for her. We were all together again, happy but afraid.
At 10 in the morning, the Polish army ceased fire. Quiet. But only for a short while. The buzz of aircraft deafened us. They flew in waves, unloading their bombs on the houses of Iłża and us inside them. A new wave unloaded its bombs on our street. The houses right next to us were shaking. The people gathered started crying Shma Israel! They were all upset, frightened and alert. The rabbi turns to me and asks, Should we run out? But before I can think of an answer comes the answer from heaven a bomb hits the wall of the house and everyone rushed outside.
In the street, confusion. People are running in all directions. Another wave of airplanes fires into the crowd with machineguns. The fire is aimed right for us. We press against the walls and hide under them. A break. Vanishing. We run again, beyond the houses. Arrive in a small grove, lie on the ground among the trees. Around us the houses are burning and there are sounds of machinegun fire. Apparently we are close to the front line again. Late in the afternoon, after the bombardments, we had some casualties. Some are residents of Wierzbnik Michael Gutholtz, the daughter of Noah Gutvil and her husband, the son of Shmuel Vakselman from Lipie.
Sunday morning, and we have yet to see a German soldier. They dare not enter the town yet. But things are quiet. Vehicles carrying the refugees of Wierzbnik, led by the brave, are starting to go back home. Yaakov Kornwaser rented a wagon. I joined him too. In the Marcule forest we met two men from the Hevra Kaddisha of Wierzbnik, Pinchas Manela and Kalman Lebman, who came to burry the Jewish soldiers that fell on the front lines, with the permission of the German authorities. Tanks were passing by the hundreds. No one addressed us. Only at the crossroads in Lubienia did we meet guards who ordered us down. They conducted a search, looking for weapons. They found me carrying the knife I used to butcher poultry. They took me aside, and everyone panicked, as did I. The guard asked me What is this? I managed to give an answer that seemed to satisfy him, and he released me. But I didn't realize it until the people in the wagon told me Come back!
When we reached home, we were surprised. Thank god, everything is still standing. There were no changes. Their tactics turned out to be beyond us. They were interested in leaving the factories whole and gaining control over them. They sought to use the bombardments to scare people and create a panic. To ensure that no one removed the machinery. They didn't touch the population either, in case the engineers and craftsmen necessary to run the factories were among it. That was the reason they left our town unharmed, after all of us save for Chanoch Biderman escaped from it. He turned out to be right, his intuition accurate.
By God's will we returned, but not all of us. Of those who left Iłża that afternoon, about 100 were arrested, beaten and led to the camp in Kielce. They were kept there for three days with no food or water. Underwent severe torture. Only on the fourth day were they allowed to return home as well.
We slowly became used to the new way of life, the German regime (whose first act was burning down the synagogue, a story told elsewhere), a time for saying O that it were evening! in the morning and O that it were morning! in the evening. And although the new hardships outweighed the old, we could never forget the beginning of the scourge, Iłża
About a month after the German occupation, the Germans have ordered all youths to register. We assumed that registration would involve hard labor, and since I did not wish to labor for the Nazis, I decided to escape to the Russian side. I talked to friends The Drajnudel brothers and Hershel Lipstein (alive today in Canada), and we took a train to Przemyl. When we approached the border, we left the train and headed to the house of a smuggler, whose address we got in Wierzbnik. We found him according to the description we received and paid him to help us cross the border.
During the night he handed us over to the German guards he bribed, and they pretended to check us, looted a few choice items and allowed us to cross the border, accompanied by the mocking remark Go ahead, off you go to paradise.
We crossed the river and continued through Russian territory until we arrived by train to the city of Lvov, where we found a pleasant surprise. We discovered a large group of townsmen from Wierzbnik, who also arrived there at different times and from different places. We debated whether we should go back to the German side or stay there, because the conditions were very harsh. The situation was very depressing and many have unfortunately returned to the Germans and perished later.
After a while, I was arrested along with other people who came from the German side, and imprisoned in Lvov for about nine months under unbearable conditions. 100 of us were crammed in a small cell and suffered from the lack of food and room. At the end of that period we were transferred to a prison in Cherson where the conditions were slightly improved, however shortly after our arrival we were given our verdict, which was in itself a farce. They hardly interrogated us, I heard no charges and there were no legal deliberations. There was neither defense nor prosecution. One day I was simply summoned to an office where they corroborated my personal details such as first name, surname, age and so on, and gave me papers to sign. When I asked what I was signing I was surprised to learn that I was put on trial in Moscow and the Troika sentenced me to 8 years at a labor camp. I innocently asked what would happen if I refused to sign the papers, since no trial was held for me, and the manager answered me, half mocking half dismissive, If you don't sign, I'll sign. I laughed back and signed.
After that we were transported by train through Charkov to the northern area of Arkhangelsk, where the cold reached a temperature of -50c and below. The trip took 18 days, with the railroad cars closed and guarded by armed soldiers.
When we arrived we were led to the cabins and told that this was our new home. The prisoners were mostly Uzbeks, who were exiled there in droves back in 1936, practically whole villages of them. Many of them died of the cold there and the ones who survived have adapted somehow to the harsh conditions. They told us that their sentences were extended every so often and that they already accepted the fact that they will never leave this dark life of slavery. After a while we were divided into groups and sent to work in the forests every morning, accompanied by guards and dogs. We chopped down trees, laid railroad tracks, and also performed other tasks. Each of us was given a fairly big work quota and the food was distributed according to our productivity. Many perished because they could not stand the harsh conditions the climate, the work, the cold, the diseases and the lack of nutrition. A disease called Tsinga was common there, brought on by the lack of vitamins and causing the gums to swell and teeth to fall out. I too wouldn't have been able to carry on if not for an older Polish prisoner I made friends with and who saved me: as partners, I gave him whatever tobacco we received because I did not smoke. Others would cherish it, while I gave him mine expecting nothing in return, a fact that made him like me very much. In time, he was discovered to be a surgeon and put in charge of the camp's hospital. In this role he was able to help me by keeping me at the hospital, giving me food and so on.
Word from Pratzovnik
After a long stay in that camp I was transported along with a group of other prisoners to a different camp, closer to the train station, because during my incarceration the Russians had signed an agreement with General Sikorski concerning the release of Polish citizens. In this camp I met one day with a Jew whose leg was amputated, and during our conversation I learned that he came from a town near Wierzbnik, Szydłowiec, and escaped with our townsman Meir Pratzovnik to Russia. The two of them have somehow ended up in the same labor camp. One day he suffered a bad accident; a tree he was cutting in the forest fell on his leg and the hospital staff was forced to amputate it. When I asked about Pratzovnik's whereabouts he replied that he believed the man dead, because he left him exhausted and in very bad shape.
After my release I arrived in the city of Samarkand and met the Dreksler family from our town. They told me that another man from Wierzbnik, Shlomo Lipstein, was in town, suffering from poor health and in need of help. Unfortunately I couldn't find him; I found another townsman called Hilel Frimerman, who also mentioned Lisptein and gave me 500 rubles to take to him, but I couldn't find the man I was looking for. A few days later I learned that Hilel Frimerman drowned while bathing in the local river. In the city of Karmina, where the Seventh Division was stationed, I met with our townswoman Malka Weisberg, who was at the time sick and feverish.
On board the last ship
The next day I was taken to the station and wanted to board the train going to Krasnovodsk, and then cross the Caspian Sea on my way to Israel. Luckily I met another acquaintance who put me in an officers' car, and the two of us got as far as the port city. Suddenly, I saw a ship being boarded by people while Russian policemen checked their certificates. These were the Poles who crossed the border according to the agreement with General Sikorski. I also wanted to board but I was pushed back by the Russians since I did not have the necessary papers. With me was another Jew and the two of us sought a way of boarding the ship. After much skulking we found the rope mooring the ship to the dock, climbed it and jumped into the boat. To our surprise I found the Dreksler family on board the same ship and from that moment on, we traveled together.
After a relatively short trip we arrived in Persia, but since we had no papers we were arrested and taken to prison, where we met 30 other Jews. The local authorities wanted to return us to the Russians but we claimed that we were Polish citizens and fortunately, the Russians refused to take us back. In the meantime, a delegate from Israel came and promised to look after us. A few days later all the prisoners, and me among them, were drafted into the Polish army, where I also met our townsmen Yoseph Birenzweig and Yehuda Rybak. The Poles brought us to Teheran and from there, through Iraq, we reached Israel.
It was a dark day for our town, Wierzbnik-Starachowice. At approximately 5 a.m. in the morning, we suddenly heard the SS beasts screaming and shouting: Jews out, out!
Anxious and miserable we left our homes, every Jew in town, and headed toward the marketplace, where the Nazi beasts were already waiting to line us up in rows of five. From time to time we heard the sounds of gunfire from the direction of Jewish houses, a bloody echo to the murder of those Jews who did not leave their houses quickly enough.
My whole world was shattered
We were forced to stand like this until late noon, when they started screaming fall in line! and immediately thereafter we were forced to march forward on the road to doom. Downcast, our hearts bleeding, we marched toward the train station and during this march I was approached and pulled out of line by the oppressors, to serve in the cleanup unit (Raum Commando). I was shocked and didn't know what to do. I was wondering What would come next? What should I do? Is this my last chance to bid my dead family and friends goodbye?
I asked myself why I, Leibish Herblum, was chosen for this sacred task.
Apparently I was deemed worthy because of my 30 years of service to Hevra Kaddisha, a service that allowed me during this Holocaust to offer our martyrs a Jewish burial. And indeed, I only got one last look at the martyrs that were about to be shipped on their final journey, my wife, my children, my relatives and friends. My entire world was shattered and tears of blood fell from my eyes, soaking the road to death, while a silent prayer played in my mind: God, avenge the spilled blood of servants, the blood of the innocent and the pure!
The cleanup unit, which numbered about 20 men including myself, was ordered to march toward the Jewish cemetery in town. When we reached it we were struck dumb by the indescribable horrors we witnessed. Every few minutes came a new shipment of murdered town residents, practically a martyring. 48 corpses, among them 22 women and 26 men were found scattered across the terrain. We were ordered to burry the murdered victims and started digging two large graves, one for the women and one for the men. While we were working, a member of the cleanup unit, a young man from the town of Bodzentyń named Eliyahu Shapir, broke his leg and was squirming in agony. The murderers saw it and shot him on the spot. The bullet went through his mouth while he was thrashing and bleeding. Though he was still alive and fully conscious, the Germans ordered us to burry him as well. We wanted nothing more at that moment than for the earth to swallow us alive with the rest of the universe! How can you burry a living, breathing man? At the last moment, an order was somehow issued, to carry him to the cabin we stayed in, but his luck did not hold and the next day he was murdered, again.
With awe and respect I buried the following holy women: Dvora Morgenstern, Miriam Kojfman, Fraindl, the wife of Fishel Menashe. Among the 26 men murdered by the soldiers were Yoseph Reuven Lichtenstein, Moshe Pinchas Lichtenstein, Henoch Kojfman, Fishel Dreksler, Moshe Kumetz, Moshe Krojzman and Shlomo Melamed. Three of them had tallits to cover the bodies with. I did above and beyond my ability to bind them respectfully, to honor them and our God. And so did our town fall before our eyes.
When I returned from the cemetery there were once again two SS soldiers waiting for me and I was told to follow them to the police station in town, where I found the bodies of two people who were shot earlier. They were the brothers Aharon and Noah Zylberberg, the sons of Avraham Zylberberg. When I left the police station I found another corpse, that of a child named Mordechai Kornwaser. Somehow I managed to get a cart, loaded the corpses on it and gave them a proper burial.
On Friday morning, the third day of that insane murder spree, I was once again led by an SS killer to a place where I was told to bury two young children. They belonged to Rosa, daughter of Shmuel Isser. My heart bleeding I used the rest of my strength to offer those young martyrs a proper burial. When I returned to the cabin, accompanied by the nightmares of this hell, I was called again by a Nazi killer to bury a young woman who was laid before the cabin, and immediately afterwards I was called to take another victim out from under a bed and bury him. The corpse was that of Moshe Naftalis.
I am incapable of describing in detail the horrors and murders we have witnessed as part of the cleanup squad I was with. I doubt any man can. The lord avenge them and console us with redemption during our lifetime.
These are the horrifying facts that were delivered to me by one of our important survivors, the capable Mr. Leibish Herblum, who risked his life every moment and moment to carry out his sacred duty and provide a proper burial for the martyrs of our town. This dear Jew is worthy of special mention in this memorial book, for his courage and dedication during those days of despair and horror (Yaakov Katz)
The town is burning, said the mourner of the Holocaust, describing the ruination of the European Jewry. The bane's first step in his destruction of Wierzbnik was burning down the house of our lord. The central synagogue of the community, a place which was sacred for every Jew in town, was set on fire at the end of Yom Kippur 1939. That is, during the year where the Jews have finally faltered before their persecutors, who defamed Israel's glory.
Compared with the situation elsewhere, it can be said that the Nazis did not treat the Jews of Wierzbnik harshly during the first days. In Lipsk, for example, the houses were set on fire while the Jews were still inside them, and those trying to escape were shot, among them a resident of Wierzbnik, 80 years old Efraim Zimerman. In Ostrowiec, a Yeshiva student named Berl Hercig was shot to death. In neighboring Kazanów, the Germans took 180 Jews and shot them to death, among them the brother of the honoured Zvi Wajzer. In the neighboring town of Wąchock, the Germans set the town houses on fire as soon as they arrived, while Wierzbnik enjoyed a relative calm.
The Polish mayor, Sokul, was assigned the continued management of the town affairs and the supply needs of the residents. The merchants were ordered to open their stores and sell merchandise to any client. The butchers received certificates that allowed them to venture to the villages, buy cattle, lead it to the slaughterhouse to be butchered and sell the meat in their shops. The kosher butchers also accompanied them and made sure the butchering was carried out properly and the Jewish community did not have to suffer a cleaning of teeth. Although some Jews, including myself, were abducted to carry out certain undignified tasks from time to time, we could still get by somehow and survive. There was only one exception: the synagogue was closed and gatherings were forbidden. However we did not see fit to provoke the sleeping dragon
These events took place during the days of forgiveness, and the prayers were being said in privacy this time, each person in his home. On New Year's and even on Yom Kippur, the synagogue was empty of Jews. We have found an alternative by arranging for Minyans in private houses in different neighborhoods, where neighbors gathered to pray for the return of peace during our lifetime. For who could imagine that the annihilation of Europe's Jewry was already sealed, and we were sinking into oblivion?
Even two years later we could scarcely believe it was possible. What we felt was a need for heaven's mercies. The prayers were said quickly but wholeheartedly, the moans and the weeping accompanying them whispered in fear of eavesdroppers. Lookouts were placed for that purpose. Any hint of a German presence caused the house to empty immediately, the presence of prayers removed completely from the room. The occupation army instated blackout regulations. When we snuffed out the small candles we lit, we went to sleep feeling that this holy day is our private matter and the evil plans of outsiders have nothing to do with it.
On Yom Kippur morning the streets were quiet until the end of the Morning Prayer. At noon, however, while praying Musaf, we learned that they have not forgotten the Jewish date. The news of their appearance spread quickly and the Minyans emptied, but they managed to surprise a single Minyan in Iłżacka Street, at the home of Mordechai Rotbart. The supplicants were in the middle of the Musaf prayer when the Germans stormed the synagogue. The trembling, frightened Jews faced a group of loathsome pests with their arrogant commander. The order came: to work! And the Jews wrapped in tallits were led by an armed escort, silent as lambs with their heads bowed down. It was the reign of evil
Late in the afternoon, they have finished unloading the coal from the cars on the railroad track. The work was carried out as ordered. Quickly and while still wearing the tallits. But the evil ones are still dissatisfied. They know it is a holy day for Jews and they want to oppress them completely. Now that the work is done, it is time for a few exercises, says the commander. His subordinates know his murderous intents. Exercise while wearing tallits! Drop, rise, drop, rise! Roll in the mud with your Tallits! On your back! Face up! Like so!
When they were done mocking us, they said Now that you carried out the Perzenunstag properly, you can go home.
Word about this abuse spread quickly in every neighborhood. If they are capable of this, there is no end to their evil. And if that is the case, what will become of us? Concern started nagging even in the hearts of the most optimistic.
And then at midnight we all woke up in a panic. Something terrible was taking place. A fire. A great fire nearby, which lit up the entire district, the yards and houses. This light, flickering from afar, came through the windows into my apartment
A few minutes later, all of us big and small were dressed up. If the fire comes any closer, we will have to get away from it and perhaps save something. This concern gives way before a greater concern, since the gentile neighbor tells us: the synagogue is burning, it was set aflame
Our world was shattered. The Devil outdid itself. There are 365 days in a year. In numerology, the number of the Devil is 364, because on one day of the year he is forbidden from prosecuting us, and that is on Yom Kippur. And now our sins have allowed him to claim this day as well. We thought that the holy day ended when we said the closing prayer, which was uttered from broken, gloomy hearts. But the prayer of Israel was rejected. The Devil reigns. He concluded the day by burning the holy place. Jews said the separating prayer and the prayer to the maker of the orbs of fire over a pair of lit candles, but the Devil felt the need for a great fire that would turn the glory of Israel into ashes
But the need to do something overpowers me. The synagogue, with all its torah scrolls and book cases, is on fire. Those who see it are compelled to tear. Tearing instead of reading. But then I felt as if Yom Kippur was still upon us. I therefore went to my bookcase and took out the Book of Psalms, went back to the window and opened it in chapter 79, where the poet Asaf mourns the burning of the Temple. I started repeating his verses, which are compelling even in normal times. But now, under the light shed by the burning synagogue, I feel no distance between us, in neither time nor space, it seemed to me as though this temple is a part of the Temple in Jerusalem and the arsonists stand together with the soldiers of Titus and Nebuchadnezzar where are the priests who will climb to the roof with the keys of this synagogue and hold them up to the sky, to be joined with the keys of the Temple? And again, holding the book of psalms I feel as if my hand is holding the edge of Asaf's coat while he reads the words and I repeat after him O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; the have defiled your holy temple, we are objects of reproach to our neighbors, of scorn and derision to those around us pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you why should the nations say 'where is their God?' May the groans of the prisoners come before you
Without realizing it I find sanctuary in the world of limitless thoughts, neither in place nor in time, and it comforts me. But I am immediately called back to the tragic reality: a German is in my yard. He approaches my apartment. I stood ready. I refused all suggestion to hide. He opens the door and turns directly to me. Come! I follow him. We leave the yard. Outside, the light and darkness blend together. Fire and smoke pour from the synagogue and the Talmud Torah. A group of soldiers and local firefighters are busy spraying water on nearby houses to contain the fire while another group of Germans is concerned mostly with ensuring that the synagogue burns down completely. I am also ordered to participate in the operation. I was placed by the well at the plaza between Niska, Visoka, Kilinska and Starachowicka Streets, ordered to turn the wheel drawing water from it. A few others are there with me, turning the wheels, drawing buckets of water and handing them to the firefighters, replaced by others and so on. I myself was in a daze, merely mumbling pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you
The fire was contained. Embers lay smoking on the floor of the synagogue. The soldier approaches me again and orders: Home!
Unintentionally I snatch another look at the burnt synagogue before marching back home. When I touched the lock to my house, I felt as if I was returned to a new reality that we could not imagine before.
What would happen next? What did the future hold in store for us? Were the stones and timber the final manifestation of the enemy's wrath, or was it just the beginning and a sign of things to come? It occurred to me that we say Pour out your wrath while the house is alight, on a night of redemption and freedom, while we should be saying it when the house is dark, on the night of the Ninth of Ab, a night of destruction and enslavement
And the next day, when people wished each other May you be inscribed in the book of life, the greeting came out tainted with concern. The lips of every person whisper What is going on? What will happen later? What do you think? Anxiety. News follows news. Germans appeared by the burned down synagogue, entered the home of a Jew living across from it, Shmuel Isser, and demanded of the neighbors to admit that the fire was caused by the Jews themselves, who lit candles on Yom Kippur eve at the synagogue according to their customs.
And before we could comprehend this appalling libel, we were surprised by a horrible rumor, a bad sign.
At 10 in the morning, two Gestapo officers came into the home of the community's rabbi, Rabbi Ben-Zion Rabinowicz, demanding a list of community elders in order to establish a Judenrat. The rabbi mentioned a few people who are capable of representing the community even in times of danger, among them experienced public figures who, unawares of the danger, came forth. The order was clear: to establish a council of the Jewish elders (Judenrat). Following the Judenrat came the uniformed Jewish policemen (OrdnungsDinst). It was the beginning of a supposedly organized community under the reign of the Nazi conqueror.
It is only natural that this immediately became a matter for consideration, as the optimists (and me among them) wished to see it as a chance for shaping proper relations between the occupation force and the Jewish community. Perhaps things will work out after all, allowing us to weather the storm.
However the faint optimism was accompanied by the nagging and worries brought on by these terms which were both old and new: oppressors, elders, policemen
In time, we learned the diabolical plan, calculated in fine detail, drawing on the persecution of every evil in this world: Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar and Titus, whom I imaged at the end of Yom Kippur, standing together with the arsonists by the burning synagogue.
Moshe Sali (Kerbel)
There was a Jewish community Wierzbnik, but woe and alas it no longer exists. The hands of the bloodthirsty murderers annihilated it and tore up the deeply-rooted and wide-branched tree of Polish Jewry. Their memory, inscribed in the hearts of the hundreds of survivors who are sown and spread throughout the world and in Israel, will live forever.
A Jewish settlement, one of many, one that was respected and enrooted in the area, which in the period before the destruction had reached the utmost heights of nationalsocial awareness, with all the light and shadowy aspects, with the positive and the negative that was embodied in that struggle for an independent Jewish life in the Diaspora and in an alien land. The Jewish shtetl, which seemed as though sleepy and sluggish was actually a lively and very tangible cell in the body of Polish Jewry, and all the sectors of Jewish life in Poland before the destruction were reflected in it.
From the mighty stream of all the nationalistic, social and political movements of Polish Jewry, Wierzbnik contained branches of all the parties and movements. For the hundreds of Jewish children and young people the deep-rooted Jewish home was their foundation, and the heder [school for young children] and the melamed [teacher of young children] were the main source of their education and spiritual nurture. However, under the influence of the youth organizations and of the local Zionist movement, the aspiration for an active Zionism grew ever stronger, and the Land of Israel was the topic on everyone's lips. In those tempestuous times an inner awakening emerged, and everything was lit with a new light. The Jewish youth became convinced that they had no egress from material and moral pain. Concluding that they had lost their way in a complicated way of life, they began to actively strive for change, to abandon the regular daily way, because the continuation of the existing situation provided no solution for the requirements of the time and especially for the longings and desire for redemption that were concealed deep in their souls. And just as the Zionist movement served as the house for establishing the foundation of the Zionist spirit and the Hebrew language, so also Hechalutz and the other youth movements served as the anvil, on which pioneering labor Zionism was forged. With a great deal of effort, moral values, which were transformed into personal and common property, were assembled and determined. From being takers and the recipients of influence, we were transformed into givers and disbursers of influence, and on the Jewish street a trend for basic changes in cultural values came into being and many people began to weave their life in the movement framework, full of enthusiasm and a powerful faith.
One after another, types and figures of the Jews of the shtetl pass through my mind, the public and individuals, they and their life, their conversations, talks and worldviews, their actions, achievements and failures, the week-days and the Sabbaths. This wonderful gallery of figures and institutions against the colorful background of all the sectors, the poor people, the tradesmen, shopkeepers and merchants, property owners, professionals and regular scholars and just plain Jews. All this was embraced by the life in the shtetl, which sparkled and aspired to national and general human redemption a shtetl that was destroyed along with the other holy communities. Thus was the magnificent strand of pearls that beautified and crowned the Jewish people broken and torn apart. The light was extinguished, the fire of enthusiasm was quenched, the constantly flowing spring of energy, initiative and the mighty Jewish undertaking dried out. Let us hope that we have the ability to bring out just something of the bygone days, in order to perform a real act of grace for the dry bones, and to commemorate and mourn the martyrs, of whom only a small remnant remains here and there as a keepsake.
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