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[Page 216]

On the Edge of the Abyss

Hanna Tenzer

The day after the war broke out, a bomb fell in town. Classes were cancelled, so we had to continue our studies in private. The munitions factories in town made us assume that we would be bombed, and almost everyone started fleeing to the neighboring town of Iłża. Our family – father, mother, my sister and I – also fled. We took only our personal belongings, silverware, Jewelry and so on. I remember that some Poles came to us, asking us to donate all manner of valuables “for airplanes”.

We spent about two weeks in Iłża, staying with friends, the Zylbersteins, who owned a grocery store.

To save our lives we went with the Zylbersteins to a building by the town hall, which was sturdier than most. We stayed there for a few hours; people were praying, lighting candles, and suddenly a bomb shell fell inside the building! A panic broke out and people started running out, gunshots were heard and many have died, among them the town's rabbi. We were scattered, but my parents finally found me. We stayed there for a few more hours and then returned to the Zylbersteins, until the Germans came in. Upon their arrival, a rumor spread that we should escape to Russia and the youths started swarming eastward. They also turned to my father and told him “Come with us,” and he liked the idea and decided to join them. Since he was a traditionalist, he first picked up his tallit and his tefillin and then started bidding us goodbye. But his decision agitated so much that we started crying, and he changed his mind and stayed. All of us therefore stayed for a while longer in Iłża, with the Germans. Later, we got a wagon and went back to Wierzbnik. We had to earn a living and show resourcefulness and adaptability. People went to the big city of Lodz and brought supplies from there. I remember that there was a severe shortage of yeast (this was The supply to have), and there was also no bread. There was a bakery next to our house, whose owner was called “the Kielcer Baker”, and we would all stand in line there to get some bread. Things continued in this fashion for a few months and life “got back on track,” until one day came the order to wear the mark of disgrace on our sleeves. About two months later the streets were classified and the Jews were forbidden to live in some of them. Whole families had to move to a new place, and since we had a large apartment we had many relatives and friends staying with us.

A while later, a labor camp was established in Wierzbnik, next to the munitions factory, and Jews sent to Wierzbnik from various places were employed there. They told us about the ones who were not so fortunate and were sent to the concentration camps instead. At first we thought that it would never happen to us, but eventually we realized that the scourge will not spare us. Every person prepared packages and people sowed gold coins into hidden places in their clothes, to serve as emergency funds. Tensions intensified day by day.

A German soldier was found dead at a certain house, and all residents of the house (all Poles) paid dearly for it. The Germans demanded that the local authorities provide ropes and recruited all butchers in town to serve as executioners. The next day, every resident of the house, man or woman, was taken to the center of town and hanged for an entire day (it was on a Sunday, and most of the Poles went to church).

It was not long before the Holocaust was fully upon us. With a loud clamor the Germans, Gestapo and SS, came and drove all the Jews – men, women and children – to the town's commercial center, the Rinek. After a brief wait, most people were led to the train station and crammed into the waiting cars, to be sent to Treblinka. Only a few of them were sent back to Strzelnica and others to Majowka. Most of our family – my father, my mother and I – was sent to Strzelnica and my sister to Majowka.

We walked for about 4 hours, tired and sweaty. We were forced to throw away many things along the way, while the gentiles stood by the sides of the road, gloating and gathering valuables at their leisure. When we arrived, we were told to hand over all the gold we had and throw it on the pile. Some secreted their valuables in various hiding places while we naively gave away everything we had. From this place we were led to our new “living quarters”. We settled in cabins and started a “new” way of life: my father did physical labor in the camp along with others while my mother and I worked in the kitchen.


Cherinska fought like a lioness

This is a tale from those days:

A lady doctor named Cherinska, who arrived before the war, was living with her elderly mother and her daughter named Natasha. During our eviction from town, they wanted to take away her daughter and leave her, but she refused. She fiercely held on to her daughter Natasha and fought for her like a lioness until the Germans realized they could not separate the two. Finally they gave up and added the mother to the shipment….

After a while, we were transferred from both Strzelnica and Majowka into one camp located next to the factory, and the people continued working there, manufacturing munitions and doing hard labor. The most common task was manning the furnaces at the munitions factory. It was very hard work. People worked three shifts. Things continued in this manner for about a year and a half, until one day we heard the scream of wheels on the railroad tracks by the factory, a sound that made us all shudder. Our hearts told us that those cars were meant for us. People started fleeing, although the place was fenced and patrolled by Ukrainian guards. During the night, they broke through the fences and escaped. Some of them reached Russia and survived while others were shot down by the guards. In the morning, we found the bodies of the dead in the yard, along with the wounded crying for water, but the Germans refused to let us approach them. Fearing that we might try to escape again, they took away our shoes.

During this time, my father came down with partial paralysis. Unfortunately, there was no medicine and we paid much money to a Ukrainian who brought us some leeches. At first it seemed to help, we noticed some improvement in his condition and were happy that he was feeling better, but after a few days his condition deteriorated and he became completely paralyzed. My mother had to feed him and he continued to suffer until he finally passed away. We covered him with an overcoat and buried him in Strzelnica.

The next day, the Germans ordered us into the cars, but after a significant number of people already went in, the Germans decided for some reason to call them back out. A few days later, they drove us back into the cars, separating the men from the women. Our family was also a part of this turbid flow this time. The cars were so crowded there wasn't room left to fit a needle. We received no food or drink during the entire journey while being forced to listen to the terrible cries coming from the cars. Gradually the voices fell silent and everything became quiet. At dawn the train arrived at a station called “Auschwitz”. People outside opened the cars and told us to get out and wait by the cars. My mother, my sister and I stood together. When the rest of the cars were opened, especially those of the men, we saw that one of them was filled only with dead people, who suffocated from the crowdedness and lack of air.

We looked around horrified. We saw electric wire fences and behind them people who looked more like skeletons. We thought this to be a madhouse; a jumble of languages assaulted us on every direction and we didn't understand a word.


To the bathhouse

We stood there for about an hour before our entire shipment was marched on foot to the Brzezinski camp, to the “bathhouse” (sauna). Before the entrance to the sauna was a trench 50cm deep, filled with water, and every person had to walk into this trench with his shoes on, for reasons I never learned. From there we proceeded to a large hall where a few men were walking around and they ordered us to take off our clothes. They shaved our heads, tattooed a number on our arms and dressed us in slips and dresses – “camp uniforms” – and wooden shoes (clogs). The same number that appeared on our arms was also on our dresses.

This entire process shocked us, because we didn't know what was going on. They took us outside, where we met the men. They were dressed the same way we were, and it was impossible for people to recognize each other, even among husbands and wives. The sheer absurdity made this perhaps the only moment when a person might smile…

The women were all taken to Birkenau, and placed in a large cabin numbered 25. We lay on bunks that were attached to the wall in special grooves, two stories each. Every bunk was shared by 10 women and we had to sleep “head to toe” because there wasn't enough room. The place we were put in was considered “quarantine”, no one comes and no one goes. We sat there for hours, knees bent, with nothing to do. From time to time we were taken out for a few hours.

In the morning they conducted a lineup before the cabin and while we stood there, they gave each line soup from the same bowl, which passed from mouth to mouth. There was nothing to launder since we only had one dress, but the women used every spare drop of water for laundry and because we had no other clothes, we had to walk “dressed” in the wet clothing until it dried.

The nightmare reached its peak at night, because we could see the incinerators from afar.

At the end of the quarantine period, they took us to work loading stones on cars. This was very hard work even for men, let alone for starved, exhausted women, but the suffering was greatest when a car derailed and had to be put back on track. It was unbearable.



We also worked by a river whose name I no longer recall. During the cold winter, we had to make coal from the wood of a tree called “predator”, while another group would leave camp to work among the reeds. The women would alternate between the three groups. I recall that when we were working in the “out” group that went to collect reeds, we would pass by a band which was always playing the same tune, “Rosamunde”. The walk lasted 4 hours and those who fell behind were severely beaten. I was feeling particularly distressed because I was part of the last quintet in line, followed closely by the SS with their hounds… some women used the opportunity to make the reeds into a broom, which they sneaked into the camp and traded for some food. I wanted to make such a broom once but failed to hide it. The Germans at the gate caught me and beat me up.



One day while we were standing before our “block” we were approached by two prisoners who worked at the infirmary. They wrote down our numbers and told us that we must report to the infirmary on Sunday. Needless to say that any deviation from our routine filled us with dread, and when we told the block manager she said this was bad…we already considered this a bad omen, but the supervisor's words stunned us. Our lives became nothing more than stress and anticipation of that special day, knowing that whatever will be, will be. When the ill-fated day came I bid my mother and sister goodbye and went to the infirmary with the rest of the women so ordered. When we got there we were sent with an escort to camp Auschwitz, inside the city, and there we were led to a big structure that served as a hospital. When we went inside we saw men walking around wearing white coats. From the waiting room we moved to a room that was filled with stretchers covered with white sheets. We already knew that the Germans were experimenting on prisoners and figured this to be the torture awaiting us, leaving us dispirited and desperate. Before long, someone directed us each to a special, separate room, sitting in wheelchairs. Everything must have been prepared for us, because the same number that was on my arm was also on the chair's armrest… but to my astonishment, no experiments were conducted on me; they merely took shots of my head from every possible angle, the same as they did with the others.

We never learned the meaning of this act, but we can assume that it was necessary for their insane research into matters of race and so on.

After the strange photo session we were taken back to “our” block, and life returned to normal.



And then one day we heard the sound of a whistle followed by the order: “Block 25, line up! We're going to the sauna!” We lined in fives and started marching toward the “bathhouse”. There was a great mayham by the building. Fear and desperation mingled. People were whispering: Eviction or the gas chamber… it's all over, there's no escape!”

And while we were all panicking at the thought of the death waiting for us, we were approached by the shiny uniform of Dr. Mengele, “the doctor”, the hangman who murdered millions of innocent people. He came in person to continue his murderous work. He was tall, his eyes glittering with authority and his demeanor full of pride and a sense of Prussian superiority as he stood before a pathetic group of defenseless, naked women…

His face showing his shameless satisfaction at carrying out this diabolical role as his elegantly gloved hand rose slowly and with the slightest gesture of a finger pointed out who would live and who would die. Who would go to the gas chamber and who would merely be evicted.

My mother's turn is drawing near. “Good lord,” I whispered, “Have mercy! Protect her! Don't let her die!” Another second, and my heart is pounding, I am trembling. My breath is caught in my throat! I want to close my eyes, but they refuse to listen to me… the gloved hand rises apathetically and points towards the gas chambers… I cannot bear to see this!

I was shocked, my head dizzy…

My life lost all meaning that second.

My turn came, and my eyes were already devoid of life. The light that flickered in them a moment ago died. I apathetically stared at the hand of the murderer move, but to my surprise, the finger “said” eviction this time.

I could not accept my bitter fate, the separation from my mother. I decided – it is all over, I cannot return to life. If my mother is doomed to die I will die with her! I moved…

The sadist noticed my hesitation. His stare measured me from head to toe and his bored voice echoed through my ears: “How old are you?”

I do not recall my answer anymore but I suppose I told him I was younger than my 14 years. When I answered he smiled, took a whistle out of his pocket and whistled shortly, a sound that meant: put me with my mother!

I sighed with relief. I no longer cared about my fate so long as I foiled the attempt to separate me from my mother.

At the end of the selection, the SS monitors whipped us to hurry us along – “Dress up!” The supervisor came quickly and read out our numbers. With every reply she crossed out a name from her list, the entire process carried out with meticulous German order. As far as she was concerned, we were crossed out from the book of the living.

When she finished the process of reading and crossing out names, we were ordered into rows and marched toward the gas chambers; gas! We trembled at the sound of this word. For three years we avoided it and now we are led like lambs to the slaughter. We felt alternating despair and rage. “Alas! If only I could attack this sadist, this villain, this devil!” I thought in my heart, “if only I could claw his eyes out!”

But what could I, a poor, defenseless girl, plot and dare?

Time was also against us, events were unfolding rapidly. The end was urging, leaving no room for thoughts. We left the sauna, approached the fence and crossed it into the second yard.

The SS women were leading us to the gas chambers. This is the last chance to run! But where to?!

We arrived at another building and formed a long line before the door. We were ordered into the barracks-like house and the monitors pushed us inside, a total of 120 women one after the other, hitting and cursing us.

I don't know where I suddenly got the idea from that I should help the other women present. The entrance was narrow, so I tried to take the door off its hinges, but my efforts were in vain.

When we were inside, all hope was lost, as if the end was drawing near, and utter despair spread. Suddenly I spotted a ventilator in the wall, like a glimmer of hope. I formed a plan immediately – to break the ventilator during the night, get out through the hole, crawl to camp “A” and reach block 25. This was naturally a false hope, a kind of sweet illusion, merely a figment of my imagination. Weak and exhausted, I fell down. I couldn't cry anymore, my eyes were dry, my heart turned to stone. My fear of what was coming gave me no rest. From time to time I awoke from this nap of oblivion. My eyes measured the hall and in the darkness I noticed a nail-studded plank on the ceiling, a rope hanging from its center reminding me of a gallows, and here and there were piles of rags and hair, seated by “living corpses”. This was the gate of Hell, at the edge of perdition! Closed cars came here to be loaded with those condemned to death and take them to the gas chambers.

I sat next to my mother and hugged her. We tried to comfort each other, but suddenly my mother grew angry at me for choosing death of my own free will. “Why did you do it?” she asked me “Hanna was crying, you are so young and have your whole life ahead of you!” She seemed to try and comfort me when she added “Life in this world is but a corridor. Our real life starts in the next world. We will meet your father there.” But despite her harsh words, I was glad that I didn't forsake my mother. I was at peace with my decision.

Suddenly, the door opened and my blood froze at the sound of the devil's footsteps. At the door was the SS supervisor. She put her hands on her hips, tilted her head back domineeringly and asked loudly: “Well! Who among you is willing to be in charge? Who wants to be a kapo?” But when she saw our confusion she added, true to the deception policy: “Sort out the rags and after you finish you will go to camp C while the rags go to the incinerator.” She was saying the exact opposite of her true intentions. In truth, she meant for the rags to go to camp C while we would go to the incinerators. She left the room after hitting my mother and me.

We had no choice but to cling to any shred of hope, and so we rose and started “working”. We deluded ourselves that this might help us, but in our hearts we felt it was the end. Outside we heard orders, shouts, cursing, and I was jealous at the people outside who were “only” getting beaten… suddenly the light went off and the ventilator stopped working. The door opened and two SS men wearing gas masks entered the room.

One of them threw an open canister filled with a white powder into the room, and while we instinctively drew away from this canister, they left the room, shutting the doors behind them. We sat quietly and apathetically, waiting for death to come. I was sure these were my last moments, and my entire short life passed before my eyes. But nothing happened. I suppose they were trying to unnerve us again. From behind the doors came the sound of loud laughter and the song “Rosamunde”.

After a short time, the spectacle repeated itself. The same sadists came in again, holding guns. “Are you still alive?” they mocked us and asked “Where is the gun?” pointing at the floor. We didn't understand what they wanted from us but they gave us five minutes to “find the gun”, threatening to shoot us if we couldn't find it. Eventually it turned out that they meant the box they threw into the room earlier and we were left like this for 48 hours without a drop of water and with no bread.

We recovered a bit during that time. When they brought us into the room, we thought we would die immediately, but the postponement of the execution gave us some small hope. Might we live a little longer while our loved ones are certain we are no longer among the living? Dear God! Could we be luckier than our millions of brothers and sisters, who perished in the gas chambers?!

Suddenly we heard a whistle, the call for a lineup! The doors opened, the block supervisor showed up and screamed: “Out!” in an inhuman voice. The date was November 2nd 1944.

Tired and weak we left the place after 48 hours of hunger and fear. At first I was looking suspiciously for cars that will take us to the incinerator, but no, the supervisor of block 4 told us briefly “You are free”.

We all surrounded her, hugged and kissed her. We were then taken to the “recuperation” block. In time we solved the riddle of our survival: it turned out that the battle on the front lines, which were drawing closer, forced the murderers to destroy the incinerators and evacuate the prisoners.

[Page 223]

To the Wilderness of the Taiga

Rachel Laor (Dreksler)

Unlike many of our townsmen, we have not fled the city despite the risk of military activity due to the presence of munitions factories in Starachowice. I do not know if this was the result of confidence or fatalism and acceptance of fate, but the fact is that during the first three months after the Germans moved into our town, we stayed put despite all the changes.


A common funeral

Only at the end of that period did my parents come to the conclusion that staying there could doom us, leaving no chance of escape in the future. It was therefore decided that we will cross the Wisła to “the new world”, that is, the Russian side.

My father rented a wagon and we left in the morning, accompanied by many Jews who considered our actions a sort of public event and being tied to my father in thousands of different ways, saw fit to accompany us for a while.

We were not alone at the start of our journey from town, although in retrospect it is truly regrettable that only 20 people, most of them youths, traveled with us, while most of the Jews in town stayed behind.

The road was hard and arduous, and we were not used to this kind of “mobile” life. In addition to the physical hardships involved, we had suffered at the hands of people, local anti-Semites who took every chance to torment us.

The border between Russia and Germany, that is, the areas that the two countries have snatched from Poland, was marked by the Bug River, which was our closest destination. But before we could reach it, we had to cross a bigger river, that is the national river of Poland, the Wisła, and this natural barrier posed a major problem. These were not normal times and we were not normal citizens, who could travel safely, but rather Jews, second rate citizens, and facing the unknown at that. Any bridge we crossed would most certainly be guarded by German soldiers and it was uncertain whether they would let us cross. On the other hand, we didn't know if there was another way of crossing. But lady luck has smiled on us this time, and when we reached the river, we found a barge and used it to cross.


Have you no shame?

We were now somewhat relieved. After overcoming this first obstacle, we continued eastwards in the direction of the Bug. Ahead of us traveled another Jewish refugee family in a wagon, with two young girls. A German patrol was slowly advancing towards them, then stopped by the wagon and ordered the girls to get off. Not only that, but they ordered the two to undress…

It is easy to understand our panic as the Germans led the two naked girls into some yard and returned to the road without them. It was now time for our wagon to advance towards them, and my parents feared that they would do the same to me. I decided to resist them no matter what! But fortunately for me and my family, things did not get that far. When our wagon approached them they indeed stopped us and when they heard where we were headed they started swearing angrily, complaining that we were headed for the Russian pigs. Then they turned their eyes to me – part in question, part in doubt, and asked “And what is she doing with you?” My father, who could act in a calculated and wise manner even under pressure, showed his resourcefulness at this point; he immediately responded that they “picked me along the way”. This answer implied that I was not Jewish, and the Germans appeared convinced as they started chastising me: “Have you no shame that you are riding with these Jews?” I pretended not to speak German and the situation absolved me from answering them.


Advance scout

After this exchange of “compliments” they let us pass and slowly we made our way to the Bug River. Here it was decided for some reason that I must cross first to the other bank, like some kind of advance scout, and find out what was waiting for us there.

While doing so, I met on the bridge a girl from Wierzbnik named Yehudit Fishman (today Landau, living in Israel). She was alone and the two of us continued together to the other side of the Bug River, while my parents stayed on that side of the river waiting for a signal from me.

Luck was on our side this time, and no one stopped us from crossing – on either side of the bridge. After we saw that everything was well, we continued to walk toward the city of Łuck, where we hoped to find aid on our arduous journey. My father had business ties with a mill-owner who lived in that city. My father also told me when I headed that way that the town's rabbi was a relative of ours and that I should go to his house, and ask for help or at the very least some advice. My friend Yehudit also had her share of addresses to turn to and so we split up, each going her way.

I easily found my way to the rabbi's house, because everyone knew where the rabbi lives, but instead of finding advice and support I was disappointed. The house was locked and deserted, nothing around but silence. On the door I found a notice saying “A feudal lord lived here, and we sent him to Siberia”.


The people standing by the shop window

I required no further explanations, everything was clear to me. But my long journey and the disappointment both showed their marks. I could not continue on foot and went to rent a carriage that will take me to the second address.

While riding through the streets of Łuck I looked to the sidewalk, where a man and woman were standing by a shop window and looking into it. My heart seemed to leap in my chest. The people standing before the window were so familiar to me that I could recognize them even from behind. Another second, no, a fraction of a second and I had no more doubts! They were no other than my brother and my sister-in-law, standing here in the center of Łuck, looking casually at a shop window.

With one empathic gesture I stop the carriage and jump into the arms of my relatives. How? What? How did we end up here all of a sudden? We pause for a moment and take a long breath, and the mystery is quickly solved: like me, they had the rabbi's address, walked to his home and when they found the notice mentioned earlier, they turned back and intended to go to the same address I had… and to pass the time, they were looking at shop windows.

We therefore continued together, and on the way I was told by my brother that about 20 people from Wierzbnik have gone to the rabbi and are now scattered across town. I also learned that the people waiting across the Bug grew tired of waiting for the results of my patrol and decided to take a risk and cross.

Three more days passed before my parents crossed as well, practically the last people to cross the border. Now that all the people from Wierzbnik were in Łuck we tried to decide what to do next.


Going to Siberia

We decided to go to the town of Łuniniec. Why? Because we had a “contact” there in the form of a teacher who used to work at the Tarbut school. The man was very popular and was considered an important part of town and those facts made us hopeful. Therefore, the whole group from Wierzbnik headed to Łuniniec and the home of the teacher, Lupta. Our hopes came true as the teacher welcomed us, willing and eager to help!

We settled in town and slowly started to familiarize ourselves with the new place. The Russians considered us an unknown factor that required definition, and gave us questionnaires to fill out. Among the more routine questions was a significant one: Where would we like to go: Germany, Russia or Palestine?!

Since we were dealing with a new and unfamiliar regime and considering the difference between the Germans, who sought to kill us, and the Russians to whom we fled to escape the Nazis, we trusted them and never even suspected their intentions. My father therefore decided to answer the question with the word “Palestine.”

Our disappointment came swiftly. A few days after we submitted the forms, a Russian who seemed important came to see us and unofficially announced that my parents would be deported to Siberia, suggesting that I hide so I could stay. I have naturally refused him, and he left as he came. And indeed, the following night we were visited by policemen who took our family to the train station. We were surprised to see other residents of Wierzbnik there, such as Sola Kleiner, her future husband Wiesenfeld, and others. We were loaded into freight cars and rode the train for a long time, until we reached a station near the town of Arkhangelsk, by the primeval forests, where we were ordered to disembark. After a brief wait, during which we were counted, we were led into the forest and succinctly told the famous Russian word “Stroits”, meaning that from now on we had to get by, that is to live and work here.


Everyone on horseback

There were cabins inside the forest, ready to “welcome” us, and 50 people were housed in each. We were not incarcerated, we were free to go as we pleased, but the odds of leaving the place were close to none, both because the it was forbidden by law and because the geographic conditions and the climate made it all but impossible.

The temperatures dropped as far as -50c, and even lower on the wild taiga, and the amount of food we received was minimal, a slice of bread a day and nothing more.

Nevertheless, my father was optimistic. On the way to Arkhangelsk he already had a kind of prophetic vision, which eventually came true.

While the rest of us were depressed about heading to Siberia, my father claimed that we were going to Israel. We were astonished and wondered how that was possible, but he insisted that we were destined to end up in Israel. He preached patience, and said that the road will be long and winded but we will end up in Jerusalem.

Time went by and we started working because the bread we received was not free. We worked in the forest, cutting down trees. After a while, my father and brother were given wagons and charged with transporting the lumber. I was given a horse as well, and the entire Dreksler family turned into carters. We were hungry and needed more food to sustain us. Whenever we visited the nearby kolkhozes, we tried to trade items for food. Since I excelled at my work, I was given another job, coordination of the work groups, and our situation slightly improved.

As time went by, the Polish general Sikorski struck a bargain with the Soviet government and we were released as part of this agreement, along with thousands of Poles and Jews who were Polish citizens before the war.

After our release we traveled to Middle Asia, where we crossed the border to Persia in orderly fashion and from there to Israel. It was the fulfillment of the vision my late father had during those dark days.

[Page 227]

Going to Palestine

Chava Faigenbaum (Shraga)

It was not enough for the Nazi murderers to plot the annihilation of the Jews in a systematical manner, using calculated and detailed procedures. Nor did they settle for the help of their villainous, venomous, anti-Semite servants among the local populace, who were eager and willing to help them carry out this mass murder.

In addition to the aforementioned methods, the Germans also relied on vile lies, diabolical plots, trickery and cunning, to distract people from the terrible danger that lurked behind the wall.

Knowing about the affinity of the Jews to Israel and that Zion is forever inscribed in their hearts (“As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart, with eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion”), they cruelly decided to exploit this deep affinity for the sake of their annihilation plans.

There were two stages to this scheme: first they started to collect the Jews from neighboring towns in Szydłowiec. They were not part of the local population but the remnants from various places, who the Nazis had no time to kill or send to the death camps. Since their mass murder was no longer a secret by the time this took place, the Nazis were weary of surprises and decided to disguise their actions from now on. They therefore named the concentration zone in Szydłowiec “Judenstat”, that is “the Jewish State”, supposedly hinting that there was some kind of “plausible plan” behind this transfer and concentration.

The next stage was even more cunning and despicable: posters suddenly covered the town, announcing the organization of a collective journey of Jews to Palestine, and that those who wanted to go should come and register.


The snow turned red

This act of trickery managed to mislead people, drawing into their web even those who managed to go into hiding and bringing them one day to the lot by the train station.

When we arrived there, the tragic meaning of the “operation” became dreadfully clear to everyone. The human mind refuses to grasp the terrible event which took place there. First, we were forced to stand for days on end, with no food or water. Every once in a while, someone was pulled out of the ranks, just like that, and murdered on the spot.

Their cruelty was even greater when it came to children, infants, and babes. The Germans would throw babies against the walls of houses, killing them. I can never forget that horror.

The days were days of winter, and the snow that covered the area turned red with the blood of the victims. Among those murdered were some from Wierzbnik – Jechiel Weintraub and his wife, Blumenfeld, Yaakov Kornwaser with his wife and daughter.

At the end of these 6 terrible days came the order to “March” and after walking for 2 kilometers we arrived at the railroad tracks, where the cars were waiting, ready to “receive” us.

Three trucks were also brought to this station, pulling trailers full of Jews dressed in rags and paper bags, all of them exhausted, half-dead and yellow faced. The shipment from the trucks was murdered on the spot, practically to a man, while we were loaded into the cars and the train took off towards Treblinka.


Would they kill healthy people?

My father's contacts in the resistance afforded him extensive knowledge of the German plans, and he knew that we were doomed for certain death. Therefore, he started planning our escape the moment we entered the car. He explained the situation to everyone and instructed them how to jump from the train. Unfortunately, he was faced with the ignorance of people who could not or would not believe. They simply refused to believe or understand that we were all being led to the slaughter.

I remember a couple named Herschman that was in our car. The woman answered my father's explanations by saying “I can't believe they would take strong, healthy people like us and kill them. I don't believe it and I don't want to jump”.

Seeing that it was pointless, my father ceased his efforts and focused on instructing those who showed understanding, teaching them how to jump from the train.

After we covered some distance, my father jumped from the car with me right behind him, and for a time we were safe.

[Page 229]

In the Claws of Death's Minions

Avraham (Moshe) Minkowski

It all happened suddenly. Despite the unusual activity and the tension in the air, people refused to believe that it could happen so quickly. And then the bombs fell. We feared the bombardment would continue, because there was a munitions industry in town, and so we fled, my brother Avraham and me, to Słupia, a small town with no industry where we had an uncle. We went to him and he welcomed us, so we stayed there for about 10 days. During that time, we were cut off from our town and didn't know what was happening there, although the army movements we saw made us feel at war. There was a prison for political prisoners sentenced for life in Słupia, and during those days they were evacuated by the police and taken elsewhere. The day after their evacuation the Germans moved in, both regular and armored forces, and we stood in the streets and watched the gentiles welcome them with flowers. The Germans, however, started abusing the population indiscriminately, burning down even the houses of Christians.

I stayed with my uncle for a few more days then went back to Starachowice since I was in German occupied territory anyway.

When I came back home I heard that the Germans kidnapped certain dignitaries and forced them to do physical labor – mostly heavy lifting. Next they started abducting Jews off the streets and taking them to do dirty work at the train station. My father was a sales agent for the Singer sewing machine company all his life, but the Nazi occupation forced him to quit his position because the gentiles refused to pay. After a time, the Germans organized workplaces for us and my father, my brother Aharon and I all went to work for them chopping wood for heating. We would ride the German trucks to the forest where we would chop down trees and bring them back to town. In return we received coupons that were worth a small amount of food that had to be enough for the whole family. This lifestyle continued more or less until 1941. At that point, the Germans ordered us to wear the mark of disgrace on our sleeves. Until that time we worked at a bakery, and worked hard until the late hours of the night, but after the edict concerning the mark of disgrace was issued we could no longer work there, because Jews were not allowed to wander around at late hours. We, on the other hand, were interested in working longer hours to get more bread. Despite the desperate situation, we decided that the risk involved in refusing to wear the mark of disgrace was worth earning a little extra food. Fortunately we were never arrested or inspected. There were others, however, who did not wear the mark and were caught, earning harsh punishments: beatings, abuse and so on.

A while later, the Germans ordered a curfew and limited the time Jews were allowed to stay out of the house.

In 1942 they built a camp at the “Starachowice Mining Factories” munitions factory, and sent many Jews there to do hard labor, but we stayed put for the time being.

In the meantime, German terrorism was escalating with every passing day. I remember a time when they hanged 12 men, young and old, at the center of town, because they shot a German. We were later ordered by the Germans to take the hanged men off the gallows. I remember this case in particular; when we arrived there, they laid all the convicts on the ground, their arms tied behind their backs, exhausted and beaten and desperate. None of them were in any condition to resist, of course. When we were ordered to take them down from the gallows I approached and saw some familiar faces among them, which made things even worse for me. Later my father and I were taken to the main warehouse, to do all sorts of tasks, while the rest of our family was sent to the death camp in Treblinka and never heard from again. We stayed in this camp until my father fell ill and passed away. Afterwards I was taken along with the other prisoners to Auschwitz.


Evicted to Auschwitz

When we arrived in Auschwitz we were directed to the gypsy camp, where I immediately underwent a selection “orchestrated” by Dr. Mengele, before being transported to the “Buna” factories where I worked in construction, in the 105th commando, until January 18th 1944 when the camp was abandoned because the front line was getting closer. The Germans were unwilling to risk leaving us behind and forced us into the infamous “Death March” in the harsh winter cold, to the point where people were falling around us like flies and the snow ran red with the murders carried out by our SS escort. First we went to Gliwice, where we worked at a brick kiln, and later we were loaded on trains but it turned out that the trains had nowhere to go and so they unloaded us set us marching again. We crossed a forest, rushing on because we suspected that they planned to kill us there. Suddenly a shot was heard and panic broke out. We started running while our escort opened fire on us. A few moments later, an officer arrived on the scene and said “Those who are alive must get up, and no harm will come to them.” When we rose to our feet we saw that many have died during the shooting. We were ordered to line up and started marching again, for a whole month. The only food we got was a little bread and coffee. Throughout the journey we stayed in public buildings, until we arrived at the city of Landshut. There was no place to house us in this town and they had to put us inside a big tunnel that only had one entrance. After a short while we realized that there was no air in the tunnel, although there was light. A riot started, with everyone pushing their way towards the entrance, and people chocked to death and got trampled, while some committed suicide (the barbers who had shaving tools). In the morning, when we were let out of the tunnel, we learned that dozens have died. This bloody event was followed by a short investigation and they decided to give us two days of rest as a reward. Later we were housed in cabins that used to house French prisoners who were evacuated, and the Germans announced that we will be leaving the place in two days. But since I did not trust the Germans I decided to escape.



Five of us have banded together. One day I told them about my plan to escape. They encouraged me, because I was exhausted and had no chance of going on. That night, after we received our food in the courtyard, I entered the cabin with some tools and built myself a hiding place made of lumber inside, by the window that also served as an entrance to the cabin. My friends piled lumber on top of me and I lay there until 6 in the morning.

At that time we were called out for a lineup, but I stayed put. The SS conducted an inspection and those who couldn't walk were taken to a cabin and killed. During the inspection, an SS soldier came into our cabin and stood on the lumber piled over me. I held my breath so he wouldn't notice me but I was mortified by the notion that the dogs might smell me.

Half an hour later everyone left while I stayed for several hours under the lumber. Then I went out of hiding and saw that no one was around. I was wearing camp uniform, clothes dangerous to be seen in, but I had a blanket that I tore up and used to cover my pants. I turned out my hat and walked dressed in this manner. About 200 meters away was a cart shed that had a barrel of tar in it. I took some of it and smeared it on my prison uniform to mask my identity. I noticed a cabin in the distance and entered it, and when I found out it was empty I waited there until nightfall. I was hungry and infiltrated the house of gentiles, but when I took off my hat they realized I was an escaped prisoner. I said I was hungry and got some food.

At night, I heard the sounds of cannon shells and realized that the front lines were drawing closer. I concluded that I shouldn't stray far but wait until the danger passed. I prepared for my stay: I found a cement storehouse, built myself a kind of tunnel, and collected some food that I took from German houses. After a while, I met a German woman who asked me: “Do you want clothes?”

I said I did and climbed a tree, afraid that she might try and trick me. Fortunately, she proved me wrong and brought me a bundle of clothes. I was now dressed like a French forced-laborer and could walk around. People gave me food but bid me to go away, because it was still dangerous. Unfortunately, they were proven right before I had the chance to listen to their advice. One day a peasant came and took a bed from the cabin. He was followed by four SS soldiers who asked me “What are you doing here?” “Making bread”, I answered, but they didn't believe me and discussed what they should do with me. In the meantime, they made me stand between the fences and then they decided to harness me to a wagon like a horse and made me pull it until I collapsed. At that point they started interrogating me, beating me and demanding that I tell them where the gold is hidden… And then they harnessed me to the cart again and made me pull it.

The night of their departure arrived, but no orders came for them. The block supervisors wanted to know what was going on “outside” so they “fought” to keep me. I came into the block and received some food. The next day they harnessed me again and the show repeated itself for four days.

Then the order arrived, to head for the anti-tank trenches. All of them left, but I was forbidden to leave and placed in a cabin under guard. There I sat until May 5th 1945, when the Russians came and freed us.

After the war I went back to Wierzbnik but didn't stay long in that vale of tears. I crossed the border to Czech and immigrated to Israel. I arrived in Israel aboard the ship Altalena, as a kind of finale for my dramatic adventures during the years of the war.

[Page 232]

In Desperation

Pinchas Hochmitz

After the Death March to Auschwitz I arrived at camp Mauthausen and a few days later at camp Ebensee in Austria, which turned out to be one of the worst we have experienced. We worked hard in the stone quarries there, and dug tunnels for the German arms industry.

My situation was very harsh. Among other things I worked at shoveling snow off the roads and bridges near the camp, and my limbs froze from the cold and caused me indescribable pain. During the nights I put cold water compresses on my feet to prevent them from warming up, which made me feel sharp pains like the prick of needles. In the morning, my friends would help me walk my first few steps and slowly I could resume my work. This spectacle repeated itself day after day, causing me indescribable agony. After a while, I went to the infirmary and they wanted to send me to the hospital, but I knew from experience that staying at a Nazi hospital meant a certain death sentence and so I waved this “privilege”. Fortunately, I got some advice during my visit to the infirmary, from a Yugoslavian doctor who told me to rub my fingers in the snow or keep my feet in cold water for a while.

I continued putting a kind of compress (rags) on my toes to keep them from warming up but to no avail. One night, when the cabin was warmer than usual and the pain became unbearable, I was squirming in pain and finally gave up hope. in desperation, I decided to rid myself of this suffering once and for all, by escaping. I was burdened by my condition, as well as the war and the hardships and the dark future awaiting each of us there, and so I decided to end my wretched existence. At that moment, I saw in my mind's eye the image of the people entangled in the electric-wire fence and I decided to follow them. To give you a full picture of my situation I must add that I was also sentenced to 25 lashes, which were hanging over me like the sword of Damocles. I had nothing to lose, because I felt that in my condition the flogging would be the end of me anyway. And so I used the last of my strength to drag myself out of the cabin and headed for the fence. Although I could not see the distant fence when I left the cabin, I sensed my way towards it. I covered some distance and could already notice the fence. The night was wintry and cold, and snow covered the ground and was still falling. Suddenly, someone grabbed me from behind and fervently called my name, saying: “I know where you are going and I understand your reasons, but promise me you would not go further and would not repeat this attempt. Swear to me that you would not do this again, or I will do the same and our family will have no remnants left, not even someone to tell what became of us.” It was my uncle, Shlomo Weisbloom, who was with me the whole time.

He continued, saying: “The war would have to end eventually and if we held on so far, there is no reason to despair at the last moment, which we know is has come.” He also reminded me of the registration for immigration to Israel that had taken place when we were at the camp in Starachowice, and said: “Our brothers are waiting for us there,” because he had 2 brothers and a sister in Israel. He convinced me and we returned to the cabin together, where I promised to heed his words.

When we arrived at the cabin and after I recovered from the ordeal, I asked how he found me there in the field and he told me that while he was sleeping on his bunk he dreamt that I was marching toward the electric fence in despair, and when he awoke and saw I wasn't next to him he jumped, ran out, saw my footprints in the snow and ran as fast as he could until he saw me.

The next day I turned to the local infirmary and for a time we were separated. Later we met at the same infirmary with him exhausted and in very bad shape.

He was suffering from a terrible disease that filled his mouth with sores and prevented him from eating, making his condition even worse. I turned to an acquaintance of ours, Feldsher, and asked him to help my uncle, but our efforts were in vain, and he passed away in my arms a day before our liberation.

[Page 234]

The Death March from Auschwitz

Ida Rosenberg (Bialik)

Winter was in progress, the cold penetrating the dried and shriveled bones of the exhausted prisoners and prickling their living flesh like a thorn. Only in some hidden corner of the heart was a flicker of hope: maybe the miracle will happen? Perhaps we will reach the day we waited for!

During the earlier days, we never entertained such thoughts, of crossing the bloody, hellish maelstrom of Auschwitz and surviving. But now, with the echoes of the mortars on the front lines reaching the ears of the prisoners, telling them that the time for redemption is near, something was awakening in our hearts.

But then again, the danger is felt even more keenly: will the wolves accept their fate? Won't they strive with all their diabolical vigor to wipe out the evidence of their horrible crimes and leave no witnesses alive?

Those fears came true quickly and dreadfully. Without a second thought, the Germans decided to take all the Muzelmans[1] and transfer them to Germany. And since they didn't have any trains left to use, the skeletons would be forced to walk, even if they could barely move a limb. Most of them would probably fall along the way, but that was not a snag but rather part of their main plan – to get rid of those Jews…

Of the residents of Wierzbnik in Auschwitz, only a few remained, among them Mrs. Pola Wajzer, Gucia Singer, Esther and Regina Weisbloom, Lea and Yocheved Rosenberg, Pola Unger, Hanna Tenenbaum, Mania Goldstein and others. It was no use begging, people were ordered to march in the cold, in the snow, wearing rags, hungry and thirsty, with the Germans threatening and forcing them to pick up the pace. It was only natural that most of them succumbed to exhaustion while those that held on continued until we reached some station where railroad cars were waiting on the tracks. They loaded us into those cars, ignoring their limited physical capacity. Every car, suited perhaps for holding 35 people, was crammed with over 100 people and our ride was an indescribably crowded one. The result was easy to fathom, its full cruelty revealed when we reached Bergen-Belsen, which was our last stop.

Many have suffocated on the way, and when the doors of the car were opened their have corpses spilled out. The few who remained alive were ordered into a ramshackle cabin and settled on its dirty bunks.


The death of fair Helena

Among the residents of our shack was girl named Helena Tenenbaum, who was known in town for her beauty. Little of her beauty remained now, but she retained her pleasant voice and despite the harsh conditions she started singing, breathing hope into the rest of the prisoners, so they would gather the last of their strength and fight the despair. In this way she would disperse the gloom that covered the “block” we were imprisoned in every day.

One day, the girls in the cabin no longer heard her voice and when they approached her bunk, they found her lying lifeless. A brief look showed that she died of starvation. Her death saddened even those people who were staring death in the face on a daily basis, like an old acquaintance.

Fair Helena's corpse was taken from the cabin and tossed on the pile of corpses in the yard. Cars came around and “cleaned” the area.

Sadly, she passed away only a short time before our liberation, but she was not the only one. A similar fate, crueler than anything imaginable, was shared by thousands of women, including my own sister Lala, who were monstrously locked up by the Germans with no food or water, until they perished.

  1. Prisoners in a state of near-death Return

[Page 236]

A Mountain of Corpses in Korenwasser's Yard

Gershon Rosenwald

The entire picture is still before my eyes in all its gruesomeness, and I ask myself: could I have gone through this? Where did we find the strength at that time to bear this? This year the 16th day of the month of Heshvan falls on a Tuesday. Twenty-eight years ago on a Tuesday in 1942, it was then “Black Tuesday”, the darkest day of our lives. That was the last time we saw our dearest ones. The Wierzbnik survivors remember it despite all the assurances of the Judenrat [Jewish Council] that Wierzbnik would escape deportation because the Wierzbnik Jews were useful Jews, who worked in the Hermann Göring Works.

Jews from other cities came and paid all their money and valuables in order to receive a work card and the Judenrat assured its validity. Black Tuesday showed this to be false. The people in the ghetto were awoken at dawn from their exhausted sleep after a whole day of hard labor, with shooting and shouts telling them to run quickly to the market. The terrible moment, that we didn't want to believe, had arrived. The city was surrounded by Germans, Lithuanians and other drunken murderers, who had been provided with drink throughout the night, when the shtetl knew nothing about what was going to happen. The crying of children and screams mixed with shooting broke our hearts. Everyone raced to the market. At 9:00 AM the marketplace was filled with Jews. The older ones, who couldn't run quickly, were shot. I suddenly saw that there was already a mound of corpses in Kornwasser's yard. Children whose parents had a few days previously handed them over to good Poles for large sums of money were abandoned by the latter in the market that morning. It was a nice fall day, the sun was warm, but in our eyes everything was dark and bleak. Jewish blood flowed like water in the center of the market.

The Poles were walking home from work and with a smile on their faces watched how in one fell swoop Jewish life became completely forfeit and the world kept silent.

From the rows (which had to be 5 in a row) they removed the healthy to one side, and the parents who were holding their children were permitted by the murderers to remain with all those intended for deportation. I believe that none of those who remained ever forgot how the Lithuanians beat them on their heads, and everyone remembers how those who had been taken out to work looked at those who remained with a feeling of pity, and those allocated to the transport were accompanied only by tears. The parents only blessed their children who were standing on the work side and in their eyes could be read the words “perhaps he'll survive”, and be able to avenge us and tell the world what the murderers did to us…

The road of those who remained to work was a terrible one. Starvation, epidemics. I was also among those who remained and could still withstand cold and warmth.

[Page 237]

We Ate Grass and Coal

Natan-Neta Gelbart

In memory of my unforgettable brother – Shmuel Gelbart, of blessed memory

From his earliest years, Shmulik was active in sports (football, ping pong, etc.) and excelled in it. Always in a good mood, happy, looking to tell good jokes, he was really loved by all his friends. The Christian youth also took him into account, because they knew that he would react to every insult – and it wasn't worth starting up with him…

The time of his blooming youth flowed without worries. A year before the outbreak of WWII, Shmulik married Manya Kazimierzski. When the war broke out, Shmulik, like many other young people, was also drafted into the ranks of the fight against Hitler's Germany. He took part in many battles and endured a great deal, but he nevertheless came home whole.

When the Polish defense system was broken down and Hitler's Germany had overrun all of Poland, the persecution of Jews immediately began. Confiscations, robbery, forced labor, etc. Fright and panic ruled everywhere, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. Many young people were immediately dragged off to Lublin for forced labor. In the sadly famous square on Lipowa 17, where among others Shmulik, Avraham Goldstein and the writer of these lines spent two weeks, the prevailing frame of mind was heavy, with bad conditions and bad food. Thanks to the intervention of the Judenrat in Wierzbnik, we were freed, but the forced labor didn't stop. At the direction of the Gestapo, a labor office was opened, which demanded that people go to a variety of jobs. Every morning young people marched in long columns, accompanied by the policemen of the Ordnungsdienst [Jewish police] to various jobs. Shmulik and the writer of these lines went to work at the Wielki Piec. In this way the young people became worn out and defeated. The poor nutrition on one hand, and the sense of being lost on the other. Life without hope made the situation worse every day, both materially and morale-wise.

In 1942 news began to arrive that in various cities deportations were taking place, with the Jewish population being transported to Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz, and that there men, women and children were being gassed and incinerated in the crematoria. However, none of us wanted to believe it. We didn't permit the thought that such a thing was at all possible.


To the Umschlagplatz[Gathering place for deportation]

The cracking sound of weapons was already freely heard. Men, women and children with packs and bags with food, a bit of clothing, etc. were dragging themselves to the Umschlagplatz. Jews who had been shot were already lying in the streets, and everyone was looking death in the eye. The Gestapo murderers ran around with automatic weapons and revolvers – to murder anyone they pleased. Money and jewelry were robbed under threat of being shot. The Gestapo took away sacks full of money and jewelry from the Umschlagplatz. The people fit for work were led away to the work sites, but the majority of men, women and children were placed in railway cars and taken away to a place from which no one ever returned… The most terrible picture to be seen was when each person in that huge mass of people, with a face filled with fear looked for an opportunity to escape from being deported with the “death cars.” It was a nightmare that I will never forget. In July 1944 the evacuation of the Wierzbnik Jews began, as they were shoved into freight cars to be taken away to the death camps. Those who were afraid of a slow death from hunger and thirst poisoned themselves. There were also those who jumped off the cars and were killed on the spot. The trains arrived in Birkenau concentration camp filled with corpses: poisoned, starved, smothered, and those who remained alive were humiliated, apathetic, resigned. Much has already been written about the selections and crematoria in Birkenau and there were few who could endure it, but thanks to my brother Shmulik, of blessed memory, who with great risk organized food and shared every bite with me, I was able to hold out in Birkenau concentration camp, despite the hardest physical labor.

In January 1945 the directors of Birkenau tore up and demolished the crematoria, and evacuation of the camp began. The prisoners fell on the food stores in order to supply themselves with a bit of food for the unknown march. My brother Shmulik, of blessed memory, had also managed to organize some provisions, with which we fed ourselves during the Death March. People who had been shot were lying on the road from Birkenau to Breslau (Wrocław), and we saw large bloodstains on the white snow. Those who didn't keep up were cold-bloodedly shot by the SS. The majority of the prisoners reached Mauthausen frozen, dying of thirst and starving. Those who remained alive were sent to a cold bath, when everything around was frozen, and silent snow fell as though everything surrounding us in nature was pastoral and nothing had changed… My brother Shmulik, of blessed memory, before being chased off to bathe, had still managed to hide a gold 20-dollar piece, to use it to buy a piece of bread at some time. Unfortunately, the
SS examiners found it on him, and as punishment broke a thick stick across his back…

From Mauthausen they sent us a few days later with a transport to Melk, to work with great physical exertion in stables. Within a short while our strength slowly left us and we grew weaker and weaker from day to day.

In April 1945 we were transferred to Ebensee Krapierungslager [punishment camp], with a daily provision of 40 grams of bread mixed with sand, peels from a potato soup and a little black coffee. Not human beings wandered around Ebensee camp, but devils. All sources of life were used up. We looked for something to eat with our eyes, but we didn't find anything. People said that there were those who cut off human flesh from dead bodies, and ate it…

The writer of these lines ate grass and embers!.. Under such conditions we were still pushed to work in Unach-Fichheim to repair damage after the bombardment by the American army…

Once, coming back from work, I lost all my strength; I fell over and couldn't get back up. My brother Shmulik, of blessed memory, with his close friends carried me into the camp this way and laid me in a corner. I felt that I was an immediate candidate for the crematorium…

One day later, Shmulik, of blessed memory, came running with a face gleaming with unexpected joy, saying that a white flag had been hung onto the camp!... The Germans had surrendered and we were free!

The prisoners' shouts of joy were wild and incomprehensible, as all the sources for life had dried out, only the energy to remain alive kept up our strength.

That was May 5, 1945, when the American army marched into Ebensee camp and liberated us. That was the day of rebirth for millions of worn out, enslaved, prostate and depleted lives. The better nourishment, which we received after liberation, was detrimental to many people; they came down with dysentery, from which many died…

After three months we gradually regained our strength and decided to travel to Poland, in order to get something out of the Poles. We believed that we would get something back from what we had left with them. The welcome from the Poles was very cold and they warned us to immediately leave the town of Wierzbnik, because the Jews that were coming back from the camps were being shot, i.e. there was a reign of murder and terror. Consequently we returned to Łódź on the same day.

At the end of 1945 we left Poland forever.

In 1948, when the major immigration from Germany to Israel began, Shmulik and his family were on the first transport. A short while after their arrival, the War of Independence broke out. Being a trained lock mechanic, Shmulik worked somewhere with defense equipment. At that time Tel Aviv was bombarded by the Egyptians and he left his place of work in order to hide somewhere, when shrapnel tore up near him and stole his young, blooming life…

He fell at his post – at the age of 31. His last words were “my wife, my child…”


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