When the war broke out, anxiety and fear escalated. The harsh bombardments made everyone panic and flee, not even knowing where. My family and I moved to Ostrowiec and the first victim we stumbled across in that town was Berl Hercig, from Wierzbnik.
Before the high holidays, we decided to go back to Wierzbnik accompanied by a few other families. On the way, we suddenly lost Chaim Tuvia Tenenbaum, a warm, kindhearted Jew and one of my closest friends. His death came to us as a great shock and we had to make an effort to provide him a proper burial in Wierzbnik.
The very act of escape made the situation unbearably tense, and resulted in a fare share of casualties. The same could be said about the escape to nearby Iłża, which resulted in the death of local teacher Mendel Tenenbaum.
As I already mentioned, a few days before Yom Kippur we returned to town, where we keenly felt the tense atmosphere that resulted from the Nazi invasion. The night of Yom Kippur, when the synagogue was set on fire, signaled the beginning of many sleepless days and nights, of threats and regular murders. All of which never stopped the Minyans that gathered for prayer, including one at the home of Avraham Mordechai Rotbart.
On Yom Kippur, in the middle of prayer, while those gathered were standing wrapped in their tallits and pouring their hearts before God, German soldiers burst into the house, dragged all the prayers and led them to the train station, where they were ordered to unload heavy cargos from the cars. The prayers were weak and tired from the Yom Kippur fast, but they made superhuman efforts to carry out this forced task. This proved inadequate in the eyes of the villains, who forced them to sully their clothes with mud and slime, hoping to humiliate and daunt them. Among them was also my son, Mendel.
A few days after Yom Kippur, the times of fear and suffering started anew. Jews were captured in the streets and carried off to do hard labors involving indescribable humiliations. These events were naturally very disruptive, completely paralyzing Jewish life, because people dared not leave the house; we practically locked ourselves in. During those mad days, I was approached by several of the landowners and asked to find a way of overcoming the intolerable situation and make it easier to move around without a risk. I could not refuse them and so I made a rare, risky move. I sneaked out and somehow made my way to town hall. I found several members of the city council there, including mayor Sokul and the senior Nazi officer representing the government. I turned to the mayor, explained the situation and asked for his help, but he explained to me that he could not do anything to help because he had no control over matters. After receiving this answer I risked my life and introduced myself to the representative of the military regime. I explained to him that the lives of the Jews in town were made unbearable by the partisan abductions of Jews walking the streets for forced labor. During our conversation he accepted my offer to organize Jewish teams that would be assigned for work in the different areas, according to a daily schedule. We formed a list of candidates for work with the help of a certified town clerk, and every day we sent a group of Jews out to work according to that list, bringing a stop to the abductions in accordance with the representative's promise. The Jews breathed a little more easily, more Jews were seen on the streets again and life went back to normal. Furthermore, Jews of means paid others to go to work for them.
Things were slow during the first months of winter. I, being the initiator and organizer of this activity, was free to walk around the streets, with a ribbon on my arm saying city council member in German. One day, a German officer passed me by and seeing the words city council member started swearing at me, tore the ribbon off and beat me severely. When I went to complain before the representative, he told me that he could not intervene in such matters.
The dark days and nights of fear returned. The persecution escalated from day to day until finally we were told that every Jew must wear a mark of disgrace in the shape of a David's Shield embroidered on a piece of cloth and worn in a highly visible place. Life became harder and harder and the rumors that started spreading were terrible and made the public anxious. After a while, we were ordered to prepare for a shipment of Jewish refugees from Lodz. We immediately made preparations and waited for the newcomers by the train station. The arrival of the refugees left a shocking and depressing impression on us. The weather was cold and the Jews who arrived were exhausted, scared and physically and emotionally broken, covered front and back with yellow patches.
First we removed the yellow patches of disgrace from them, and then some of them were sent to towns nearby while the majority settled among us. We immediately started an extensive aid drive, collecting clothes, linen and money, because most of the refugees were torn, ragged and hungry. We opened a soup kitchen and a minute hospital to offer the aid necessary to the sick, making the lives of the refugees more humane under those conditions.
Life continued in this manner while we were looking to the future with anxiety. Strict martial law was declared in town, but the Gestapo murderers were not seen yet. Shortly after, we were struck left and right with edicts, the noose tightened around us and life became unbearable. It should be mentioned that when the Nazi officer took control over city hall, he removed from office all the chosen members of the city council, including the mayor, and his first edict was that the Jewish public must pay a collective ransom of 10,000 zloty within three days or else lives would be lost and blood would be spilled.
Raising that much money was impossible for us at the time, since most of the Jewish population was poor and bereft of financial means. We made great efforts and were able to raise a significant portion of the tax and postpone the deadline.
This was not enough for our nemesis, and a few weeks later he levied us with another payment of 40,000 zloty. No doubt the enemy knew it was an impossible demand, but he was looking for an excuse to spill blood and kill Jews. We made superhuman efforts to collect the necessary sums and thwart his plans.
Another decree required the entire Jewish population of ages 14-60 to provide forced labor, while at the same time we were told about an incoming shipment of refugees from Płock. It is hard to describe the anxiety that struck the Jewish public, poor people who were forced under such horrid conditions to take in 500 refugees among them women and children, sick and infirm in addition to 150 Jewish refugees that came not long ago from Lodz. Nevertheless and despite the hardships, we made every effort possible to house individuals or entire families with local families, cramming them together. The soup kitchen was expanded and the destitute refugees joined our townsmen, whose condition was bad enough to begin with.
These events took place in the middle of winter, while the weather was cold and accompanied by frost and snow. And then, on the cold eve of Christmas, came a new edict ordering us to give the Germans all our furs and warm clothes and stipulating that Jews found in possession of such clothing would be killed. The stir this edict caused was unbelievable. People gave whatever they had, furs of every kind and warm clothes, and our hearts ached seeing the fur collars and covers taken off our children and given to our enemies. Large trucks collected warm fur coats for two days and every one of us took part in this funeral, as if it was for the dead. The next day, we felt and saw the terrible results of this operation, which left children, women and men bereft of warm clothes, dressed only in rags and shivering from cold.
And then the abductions resumed, and Gestapo and other uniformed Nazis were everywhere, treating the Jewish population with lawless brutally. But the height of persecution and torture was the creation of a crowded residence area for Jews called a ghetto. To this day I cannot fathom how anyone could force a population of 3,500 locals and about 1,000 refugees from other places into a crowded area consisting of a few dark, narrow alleys. People were stuffed like sardines. But the urge to live was so strong, that even under these inhuman conditions we all did our best to hold on.
I would like to describe two events that stirred the public and bred fear and panic among the Jewish population even before the establishment of the ghetto.
The edict was withdrawn
One day, the Polish engineer Hidukewitz was murdered by the Polish resistance, an act that resulted in the persecution and arrest of many Jewish and Polish suspects. The Jewish suspects arrested were 23 men of means and dignitaries, and they were sent to the prison in Radom. The arrest caused much grief to the Jews in town and bitterness, fear and despair gnawed at their hearts. But through various means and efforts, we managed to have this edict withdrawn, release our people from jail and bring them back home.
The second event happened a few days before the New Year in 1940, when a delegation of Gestapo came to Wierzbnik from Radom, ordered all the Jewish men to gather, and after beating them up and swearing at them they took 120 youths and sent them to the labor camp in Lublin County. Later on we learned that this event repeated itself in nearby towns. It is impossible to describe the despair this act caused us, and particularly the sorrow of the families of the ones snatched away.
It occurred to me that we must try and fight this. Along with my friend Yoseph Tenzer and a few other friends, I decided to try and save them. We drove to the local central bureau that was located at the time in Radom and after many efforts received from the military authorities in Radom a letter, addressed to the military bureau in Lublin County, ordering the release of the abductees. I remember that it was Friday when we talked with the rabbi of Wąchock, Yoseph (father of Rabbi Rabinowicz of our town), and asked for his permission to travel on Shabbat to Lublin to save lives. The rabbi gave us his blessing and wished us luck in our task.
When we arrived in Lublin we found that our people were still all at the infamous transfer camp in Lipowa Street no. 7. We tried various ways of reaching the top ranks of the government and stayed there until after Sukkoth. I was staying with a relative who was one of Lublin's dignitaries when, one night, the Germans conducted a hunt for Jews. They took my relatives, myself and Yoseph Tenzer out of the house, loaded us on trucks and took us to the same infamous camp on Lipowa Street no. 7. The cold was terrible; we felt horrible and were forced to lie face down on the cold floor until morning. A selection took place in camp and people were sent to work in different places in Poland. However thanks to the efforts of various people on the outside, we were released from custody my relative, myself and Yoseph Tenzer as well. As soon as we were out again, we renewed our efforts to free all our people and our efforts met with success. Upon their release, we walked together in the streets of Lublin to the amazement of its people. I would like to take this chance to mention the extensive role played in the release of our people by an important public activist of the Lublin Jewish community, David Werber, who not only freed those 120 men but convinced the authorities to add two freight cars to the train that was carrying us directly to Wierzbnik. The joy of the release brought us new hope, but sadly none of them escaped from the bitter fate shared by most of the Jews, and they died later under tragic circumstances.
I mentioned these two events to prove that even during those harsh days of persecutions, abductions and attempts to annihilate us, we were occasionally saved by the efforts of our people, which made our dark lives easier to bear. We must take into account that during those days, every Nazi hoodlum was as good as a governor and the Jewish population suffered scorn, ridicule and abuse.
Annihilation draws near
Towards the end of the summer of 1942, a few years before the annihilation, the Nazis built a labor camp called Yulag, which was supposed to house about 2,500 Jewish workers and was split into two different places: one that was called Strzelnica and the other Majowka. No one knew the purpose of those two camps, but when the Germans started recruiting people to work and registering them, everything became clear.
By that time, we already knew we were headed for things unlike any before. Every person sought to find refuge, either by getting a safe place to work at, or a place to hide. Some paid Polish acquaintances to adopt their little children in hope of saving them from extermination, as there was no longer a way to escape and the fear of future events was mounting. During the last Shabbat before the annihilation, we still managed to gather a Minyan for prayer at the house of Yaakov Rubinstein, including people such as Chanoch Biderman, Yankel Mandelzis, Jechiel Lerman Leibish Rubinstein and myself. We were reading the portion of the week, with an empathic, bitter intonation, when we heard a racket. We learned that all 700 Jews of the nearby town of Wąchock were brought to Wierzbnik. It was a sign that our complete annihilation was drawing near.
The dark days of grueling work, abuse and insults continued, but in our hearts there was still a spark of hope, that we might somehow delay and prevent the complete extermination of the remaining Jewish public. On the night before the annihilation we made many efforts to delay the threat, but we failed because the entire town was already surrounded by murderous squads.
This bloody day, 27.10.1942 was carved into my memory as a dark, bitter day, a day of cruelty and murder. As soon as dawn broke, we heard the screams: All Jews out! and humiliated, tortured Jews flowed out, their feet buckling under them and their faces stricken, men, women and children all headed to the place of gathering. A little while later, the entire town square was filled by nearly 5,000 Jews, locals and refugees alike.
The place was surrounded by bloodthirsty brutes, led by Becker who was brandishing a pistol. Dozens of Jews, men and women, were killed on that accursed day, and their names are carved in this Yizkor book. These victims were buried by our townsman, Leibish Herblum. Of those who lived, some were considered capable of working and were ordered to the labor camp in the forest called Strzelnica. The rest, the majority of our people, were led toward the train station, where they were loaded on the death cars on their way to annihilation.
The march to the labor camp claimed a victim: Yoseph Rosenberg, son-in-law of Shmuel Cohen. When we arrived at the camp, the gates were locked and we were ordered to surrender all personal effects and valuables in our possession, or die. Piles of personal belongings formed quickly and people were left literally naked and barefoot.
Running in a circle
Our lives continued, filled with fear, despair and destitution and bereft of both sustenance and hygiene. A hellish life of suffering that lasted for 19 months, until the end of July 1944. It is hard to describe all the terrors we suffered daily at the hands of the Nazi devil. I wish like to focus my memories and review the daily lives of the Jews in both labor camps Strzelnica in the forests of Starachowice and infamous Majowka.
One night, in the middle of Christmas Eve, we heard the rattle of a car followed immediately by a hysterical scream: Everyone out in one minute! This happened in Strzelnica and we all ran out in a panic, including sick people who suffered from a 40c fever. It was a clear, moonlit night and at the center of camp stood the infamous oppressor Althoff, who ordered us all to run around the camp. After a while he screamed: One minute and you're all asleep. To him, this was a Christmas game spiced with mortal dread and humiliating abuse.
Life continued in this manner, filled with despair and anxiety, hunger and destitution, slavery and harsh physical work all day long. At the end of the work day we lay on ragcovered wooden bunks that lacked humane sanitation, uncertain of what might happen to us on the morrow. These crowded conditions that lacked even the most rudimentary hygiene were naturally a hotbed for various diseases, especially the typhus plague that spread and infected many in the camp who were too exhausted and weak to overcome it.
One day, we received an order to prepare a special bunker to quarantine the sick women and children, but it turned out to be merely an excuse. The master butcher Althoff eventually murdered everyone inside the bunker, and ordered the bodies buried in the forest.
A few days later, as the number of sick people rose again, it became necessary to allocate a special cabin for them. Even under those conditions, the survival instinct was so strong that people recovered from the disease and regained their strength without actual medical help. After a while, however, the oppressors Althoff and his assistant Mayer returned. They went into one of the cabins where the sick lay and murdered them all.
The murder at the Bugai
The days of murder and the days of reprieve continued alternately and time moved on. The cold, the sickness and the murders left their marks on all. And then one day, the bloodthirsty Althoff showed up again, accompanied by a gang of Gestapo murderers, and ordered everyone to gather outside. He pulled 120 people out of the ranks and led them in the direction of the Bugai forests, where special pits were dug for them in advance by other Jews, who did not know their purpose. They were all brutally murdered on the spot and tossed into the pits.
This premeditated mass slaughter received the name Operation Bugai.
Things calmed down a bit before Purim. A small infirmary was set up in camp, a place that provided the sick with whatever minimal aid possible. Sanitation, hygiene and cleanness were all observed more closely. The public breathed more easily for a while, and tensions slackened a bit.
By the time Pesach rolled by, the camp was in a state of relative relief, affording us time to plan our celebration of Pesach and the matzahs. My friend Leibish Herblum and I started organizing things; the people who worked in the factory outside camp managed to sneak in some flour and Leibish, who had experience with baking, built an oven from broken bricks. The women kneaded the dough and used empty bottles as rolling pins. Our resourcefulness allowed us to uphold the commandment of eating matzahs in camp despite the oppressive regime, symbolizing our strong yearning to go from darkness to light, and from enslavement to redemption.
Camp Strzelnica was abandoned immediately after Pesach, and those who remained were transferred to the labor camp Majowka; and so the summer of 1943 began, with a faint hope in our hearts that we will be saved from annihilation. But the Nazi beast refused to let go of its prey and thoroughly planned the destruction of us all. On the very day of the uprising against the enemy in the ghetto of Warsaw, the Nazi hounds showed up in our camp, took away some of the people and led them to Firlej, on the road to Radom, where they murdered them. In this manner they thinned down our ranks from time to time, sowing death and oblivion everywhere.
One night, between the 5th and 6th of June 1944, I was in our cabin (a few weeks before the camp was abandoned) when the murderer in charge of the camp, Schrott, came running in and ordered me to report immediately to the Werkschutz guard. This event has remained a mystery for me to this very day. When I arrived at the Werkschutz, I met two Gestapo soldiers who led me out of the camp, put me in a car that waited outside and accompanied me to the forest. All kinds of thoughts were racing through my mind at the time and I was certain of my doom. But after a long drive, we arrived at the prison in Wierzbnik, where they locked me up alone in a cell. I was desperate and helpless and didn't understand the meaning of this incarceration. In the morning, a Polish officer standing guard, who knew me before the war, whispered to me through the keyhole that they were taking me to Radom, which was indeed the case. At 7 in the morning, two armed soldiers came into my cell, handcuffed me to a Polish prisoner and led me from the place. At that very moment, an elegantly dressed Jewish girl came into the prison, holding a small suitcase. She was the sister of Avraham Zukerman (Kosovski). I asked her what she was doing here and she replied that she was at camp Heller, where she was told to dress in her finest clothes and take her precious belongings because efforts made abroad allowed her to leave Poland and go to Israel. We walked together toward the train station, accompanied by armed guards, and I helped her carry her suitcase with my one free arm. By the train we were separated, and I never saw her since (unfortunately, we later learned that Mrs. Kosovski, whose only wish was to reach the safety of Israel, was deceived and led instead to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. There, in the vale of tears, she met before her death with my daughter Rivka and told her about her sudden encounter with me at the prison in Wierzbnik).
In Radom I was led to the SS commander and put in a dark prison cell that already held about 40 Polish prisoners. The conditions there were very harsh and a special guard was watching over us. The following morning we were taken out of the cell and put in another room, where a couple of Gestapo interrogators asked me all kinds of questions such as: How many Jews are still in the camp? What are they doing? Who among them are considering escape? I told them that I had no idea about any escape attempts, because if someone was planning such a thing he wouldn't tell the others to keep the secret safe. And so I sat with my arms shackled, while they wrote the protocol. When the interrogation was over, they put me back in prison. This cross-interrogation followed by my return to prison repeated itself for three days, from Wednesday to Friday. To this very day I do not understand what their purpose was and how I managed to survive. It must be Providence that saved me to serve as a living testimony of the torment suffered by the community of Wierzbnik and to observe the fall of the bane. My sudden disappearance from the camp made the atmosphere there even gloomier, and particularly shocked my dear wife and the children who remained at the camp. At the end of the interrogation, I was taken from the jail and transferred to the renowned prison on Warsaw Street, where the infamous Nazi serpent Koch waited for me and tortured me in ways that I dare not mention in this book.
I suffered through five weeks of torture until 11.06.1944, when I was moved to camp Gross-Rosen. I was there only for a few days when I heard that they were looking for a civilized person to serve as a clerk. I volunteered and received the position in another camp, Funf Teichen (five lakes), which housed a large munitions factory. Memories come and go, and I recall one Yom Kippur Eve that was carved deep into my heart: most of the Jews were sick and weak. We sat and whispered the holiday prayer with broken hearts and called Min hametzar karati Yah, but our liberation failed to come. I also recall one Hanukkah Eve when I was with the rabbi of Săpânţa and the two of us humbly observed the commandment of lighting Hanukkah candles. We became true friends from that night onwards (the rabbi resides today in Bnei Brak in Israel). These things happened mere weeks before our liberation and on 23.01.1945 came the day we hoped and longed for, the day of liberation and salvation.
Zvi Unger (Heshek)
Another indication of our helplessness before the life and death regime implemented by the Nazis in the extermination camps is perhaps the cynicism and whimsicalness with which the various superiors treated the life and deaths of the prisoners. These whims pushed us to oblivion at times, but sometimes also gave us a ray of hope
I am living example of this fact: while taking my daily walk down the paths of death and despair in camp, I suddenly discovered a spark of light that never would have expected. It was during my first days in camp, before I was dressed in my royal garb, and I was still wearing my Shabbat suit, the only suit I had left after all my travels, the persecution and the hardships I have been through. One day, while I was walking to work, I was stopped by a Ukrainian camp guard, who bluntly demanded that I take off my suit and give it to him. I begged, saying that I could not walk around naked, but he ignored my pleas and grew even more aggressive and impatient. I realized that he was looking for a quicker, simpler solution to this problem, and that he was going to kill me, because under those circumstances my life had less value than the life of a fly, which one commonly squashes to be rid of its buzz
I had no choice but to take off the suit and continue walking naked to work. But when I arrived I immediately attracted the attention of the German overseer. Surprised, he asked why I came to work dressed in this manner, and I told him what happened to me on the way. The latter immediately ordered to line up all the Ukrainian guards and asked me if I could identify the person who stole my clothes. I was naturally afraid to do such a thing, because the Ukrainian guard or his friends could easily take revenge on me and murder me.
I voiced my fears before the German supervisor, saying that I could identify the man but was afraid of doing so when he heard my concerns he promised me that nothing would happen to me if I pointed out the man, giving me his word as a German.
I was already caught in the loop of these events and so I agreed to identify the Ukrainian guard. We walked along the lineup, looking at the faces of the guards. Unfortunately, I was too nervous to remember what he looked like (they all seemed alike to me for some reason) and I found myself helpless. I told the German that I cannot identify the man, but he refused to give up. He ordered the guards to bring their belongings, bags and suitcases and so on, line up in a row and place those belongings before them. He then ordered the bags and suitcases opened and we looked through them. Finally we discovered in one of the suitcases a suit that matched the description I gave to the German when I reported the case. He took the suit and returned it to me, threatening the guards that should something happen to me, they would be held responsible. The threat seemed to impress the guards, because they stopped harassing me.
Another kind of cynical behavior that I remember from those terrible days was associated with the archvillain who once swore to save human life and instead did everything in his power to end it, the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
He was in command of the Selections that determined the fates of thousands and tens of thousands who would live and who would die. The flick of his thumb this way or that was a final, absolute verdict. One day, I was standing with my father in line for selection and Mengele's finger nudged me towards the abyss, while my father was allowed to continue his agonized existence. An innocent boy, I made a daring move; I stepped aside a bit and with a yearning for life in my voice I begged Mengele to let me go with my father. He did not beat me up for my insolence as usual, but smiled cynically instead, while his lips whispered softly: Don't worry, you will all meet there
I am sitting down to write this contribution to the memorial for the martyrs (kehilas koydesh) of the Jewish community of Wierzbnik with mixed feelings of yirashakoved, great respect, and hatred.
Perhaps it seems paradoxical. How can a person have two such extreme opposite feelings at the same time?
Yet, this really is my state of mind as true as the Five Books of Moses.
For someone who was not in the territory of the Holocaust during the annihilation of our people, it will be difficult to understand such emotional turbulence. This spiritual turmoil is such a flood of associations and memories about the frightening catastrophe that befell our people.
However, driven by an inner impulse to memorialize our nearest and dearest while at the same time to carry out their last wishes of not to forget and not to forgive. I cannot formulate my thoughts other than with Kaddish for their holy memory, and curses against their barbaric murderers.
Thirty years have already passed since that dark day of October 27, 1942 the 16th day of Cheshvan, when the savage Nazis and their bloody collaborators destroyed our hometown. Three decades have passed, almost a third of a century, more than enough time to have an historic perspective and provide an objective assessment of the horrific genocide of our people.
Now, in 1972 it has become obvious and there is no doubt whatsoever that it was not a geographical coincidence that the fiendish Adolph Hitler, may his name be erased, chose the land of Poland for his concentration camps and death factories. Today, in 1972, after witnessing the historical fact that Communist Poland under Wladislaw Gomulka completed the job of exterminating the Jews, which the fascist National Socialists began in the general government under the leadership of Hans Frank we need no clearer indication.
Yes! Hitler's experts deliberately chose the accursed Polish earth as the best location for their gas chambers, crematoria, and the production of soap from the bodies of Jewish children.
No! It was not mere coincidence that Auschwitz was in Poland, Treblinka was in Poland, Belzec was in Poland, and also Maidanek, Sobibor, and others as well. The Nazi leadership carefully studied the Polish mentality and came to the conclusion that the majority of Poles would remain indifferent to the extermination of their Jewish neighbours. A greater number would even happily participate in the killing them and only a few would have the will and profound humanitarian desire to save Jewish souls.
Therefore, the opinion of this writer is that while we are publishing this memorial book, a monument to our murdered town, we must not hide from history or from the sad truth about the Wierzbnik Poles, who so willingly cooperated with the German beasts in liquidating the centuries old Jewish community.
Let those criminal Poles, who conspired together with Hitler's wild beasts like sly hyenas and jackals with drooling mouths waiting impatiently for their plunder, be placed on the same pillory as the murderers.
Let this be a hellish enlightenment for those naive and often cynical questioners who cannot grasp why we, went like sheep to our slaughter.
No, ladies and gentlemen! Jews did not voluntarily go like sheep to their death! They were treacherously dispatched to their deaths by Polish swindlers and shmalstovnitses. Those Poles, who for two kilos of sugar per head, handed over Jews to the Gestapo. If Jews had only been forced to contend with external German hatred, they would perhaps have had a chance. But to fight on two fronts, against an external occupier on the one hand and an internal enemy on the other, was too difficult to accomplish.
Chief of Police and Loyal Servant of the Gestapo
The name of Wierzbnik's Chief of Police was Chmielevski, a typical Polish name with a Chmie in the front and a ski at the end. A tall and boorish man with a swollen crotch and belly, he personified the local authority, the keeper of law and order. In truth he was a corrupt degenerate and bribe-taker, who without any hesitation at once put himself at the disposal of the S.D. (security service) and the Gestapo, instructing his underlings to be completely loyal to the builders of the new Europe.
He did this with deceitful joy over the fact that now, under the wing of the satanic Reich's eagle, he was in full control over the life and death of his Jewish subjects and could do what he wanted with them.
One only had to observe his proud entry into Jewish shops and houses, asking with mock concern, How are our Jews? One would then know that this glutton and guzzler with the red face and drunken eyes would cause a great deal of trouble for the Jews.
And so it was! Soon, in January of 1940, he diligently went on his first mission to gather Jewish hostages. Accompanied by his Polish policemen in their dark blue uniforms, he entered Jewish houses and with vicious brutality dragged out twenty men, the crème de la crème of the Jewish population, and threw them into the commissariat.
Among those arrested was my father Shmuel Zukerman, the dentist Dr. Kurto, Dr. Kramazh, Hershel (Shuhat am'sh), Yudel Tchatchke and others.
In the evening after coming home from work and hearing what had happened, I, a 17-year old boy, went to the police station to find out why they were detaining the prisoners and what they would do with them.
Chmielevski received me without standing on ceremony. He sarcastically asked me if I was Zukerman's son, and upon hearing my reply he simply grabbed me by the collar and threw me into the cell with the others and added with a laugh, The more the merrier.
A few hours later the Gestapo came and Chmielevski handed over his catch, while in the freezing weather they began to load us onto sealed trucks.
We arrived almost frozen at the Radomer Gestapo Criminal where we sobered up with special welcome exercises, and after we were black and blue from the sticks they used on us.
For almost two months we endured gruesome tortures at the hands of black uniformed guards with skull and cross bones on their caps. As though deaf and dumb, they never exchanged a word with us, never said what we were charged with or how long we would be held or what would become of us. But every night in the middle of the night, we were wakened from our sleep and forced to do Gestapo-style gymnastics, leaving every part of our bodies bruised and battered.
Fortunately, when the Radomer Judenrat found out about our isolated quarantined existence and of course this was before the infamous Wansee Conference on the final liquidation of the Jews, they immediately contacted the Wierzbnik community leaders. With some pull (proteksia), great pain and effort, and most importantly a heavy amount of ransom money we were released, only to be later recaptured and share the fate of all Jewish victims.
City Student Denounces Me to the S.S.
In the meantime, anti-Jewish antics grew more pronounced and menacing. Extortion of money and belongings became a daily event. The Germans always needed something: boots, manufactured goods, clothing, furs, down blankets, curtains for their lodgings, furniture, pianos, and leather valises in which to send home the plundered goods.
A new symbol appeared, the 9-centimetre band with a blue Star of David, which we had to wear on the right arm to designate ourselves as Jewish untermenshen and candidates for all the dirty work in and around town.
Grabbing Jews for work became a new reality. Jew hunting became a popular German pastime and indeed also an unlimited source of unpaid labour for the master race.
We walked the streets with our senses heightened, in constant terror, and looking in all directions for somewhere danger was lurking. There was the real danger of being invited for hard labour rewarded by physical insults and beatings.
The Germans knew how to identify a Jew by the Jewish armband he wore or by his beard or an especially Semitic appearance. But I, being a young man with fair hair and an Aryan nose, most of the time managed to avoid the humiliation of being kicked in the behind like a football onto a waiting truck. Until one late summer day, suddenly, as if out of nowhere, I caught sight of an S.S. man not far from Pzshititshki's store on the magisterial side. For a moment, busy with the other people who had been caught for work, he did not notice me. In that moment, I decided to take off my armband and continue walking in his direction as though nothing had happened with a carefree expression on my face, like a real non-Jew.
Hey you! Are you a Jew? He stopped me with a fierce roar.
My head instinctively began to move from side to side, which he interpreted as a no and he let me continue. Unfortunately for me, however, at that same moment a young Polish student was walking toward us, who recognized me from my Father's men's clothing shop, or from school and on principle did not tolerate Jewish liars. In a giddy voice he began to shout to the S.S. man as he pointed at me with his finger, Pan! Jew! Jew!
The furious Nazi, red with rage, called me back and punched me so hard! First with his fist and then a rod hit me and within seconds most of my teeth were lying on the sidewalk. Blood flowed from my split lips and torn gums to the obvious enjoyment of my informant, who was holding his sides in laughter.
The spectacle was not yet over. With a theatrical gesture of sympathy, the Nazi Scoundrel took an apple out of his pocket, wiped off the dust and politely passed it to me, telling me to chew the fruit with my bloodied gums an old, inquisitorial practice of giving torture a touch of the grotesque, the comic he was.
My young Polish compatriot, perhaps raised in the Christian spirit of compassion, stood and took true delight in the fact that he had delivered a Jew into the hands of German justice.\
I, doubled over in pain, looked at him and thought: My G-d, this is not an ignorant peasant, but an educated urbanite, which like the majority of Poles hated the damned Germans. But when it came to the Jewish question, he was an accomplice in their devilish deeds and prepared with the same cannibalistic cruelty to take an active part in their beastly anti-Jewish excesses, including the taking of lives.
Late at night, while going home from Starakhavitz, where we cleaned outhouses and washed trucks, I read the underground revolutionary slogans on the factory walls: Poland for the Poles, Palestine for the Arabs, Jews to the scaffold!
Poles Begin to Inherit Jewish Property
A human being is stronger than iron, yet a Jew is stronger than steel!
Life went on despite the ever-increasing persecutions. Polish commissars and socalled trustees (Treuhandler) were placed in all Jewish businesses and factories. This is how Poles from Posen and Silesia suddenly and painlessly found themselves the virtual owners of Jewish property, which they officially managed.
The Nazis devised this system of piracy as a brilliant strategy to accomplish two objectives in one stroke. First, to create for the Poles an image of the Germans as Robin Hoods who steal from the Jews, but give to the Poles! Secondly, to serve as an explicit and clear message to the Jews that their careers as merchants were definitely over. To reinforce this message, signs were posted all over town stating that all Jews, men, women and children were forbidden to walk in the town under threat of the death penalty.
Survival became a daily struggle even for a piece of bread. Middle-class Jews and former merchants lived by selling their hidden merchandise and risking the confiscation of their last valuables. Ordinary Jews simply gambled with their lives by going to the villages to exchange their personal belongings for something to eat. A new industry sprang up for the poorest. They presented themselves for forced labour in the place of the well-to-do folks, who would pay someone else to do the heavy labour of cleaving rocks, loading coal, and to endure the customary accompanying beatings.
Nevertheless, there was not one case of suicide. Never. Jews stubbornly made every effort to survive the bitter times and used every ounce of Jewish genius to outwit the German barbarians. With Jewish mills requisitioned and flour a forbidden item, Jews invented hand mills out of baskets and secretly ground their own flour at home. In truth, this product was not first class. But we would no longer die of hunger. In the ghetto we did not expect white challah. A fresh piece of black bread was also delicious.
The German rulers could not comprehend Jewish vitality and the mysterious power to adapt to the most inhuman conditions. Despite all the laws and orders, threats of shooting and concentration camps and under the very noses of the Germans, Jews smuggled in animals and slaughtered them. Grain merchants in small numbers, of course, sold sacks half full of corn and wheat. Tailors remade clothes left and right and tinsmiths found new, cheaper ovens, which cooked and heated with sawdust.
Together with oppression came the ability to resist and immunity to problems. Jews even organized their own medical services and with every means at their disposal, tried to save the sick. Soup kitchens were created for several fugitives and those no longer able to sustain themselves.
So, another year of Jewish survival went by challenging the German policy of Jewish annihilation until June 22, 1941, when things took an unfortunate turn for the worse. The outbreak of war with the Soviet Union was a signal for the authorities, once and for all, to solve the damned Jewish problem according to the Fuhrer 's (leader's) wishes.
The deportation chapter was accompanied by the outbreak of typhoid fever and typhus. Jewish villagers were brought into the town. Moreover, transports began to arrive from Plotsk and Lodz with Jews who were forcefully shoved into overcrowded Jewish dwellings. The living conditions were truly unbearable. Jews began to sign over property, orchards, houses, gardens and land outside the ghetto in exchange for occasional provisions needed to sustain life. These Christian friends gladly accepted the officially transferred property with all kinds of promises, which turned out to be empty. The famous Polish proverb, The houses are yours, but the streets are ours was now changed to, The streets are ours, and the houses are ours also! The phase of final extermination of the Jews had begun.
Animals of Prey in Human Form
Feverish days came to Wierzbnik. What the Nazis were preparing to do with the Jewish population was clear beyond any doubt. The angel of death could be felt in the air.
Polish railroad workers began to talk about cattle cars, in which Jews were being brought from all over Europe to mass killing places. On walls and billboards appeared caricatures from Geobbel's Folkischer Beobachter and Stretcher's Stiirmer. A poster showed a Jewish butcher in a skullcap with a beard and side locks grinding rats into meat for the Christian population. In another, a Jew with a hooked nose covered in lice from head to toe knowingly spreads the infectious disease. The posters would say things such as, The Jew is a spider which must be eradicated. The Jewish Communists provoked the war. The Jew is responsible for all the evil which exists.
On the streets one felt that a pogrom was imminent. It would not have taken much for the Poles themselves to send a lynch mob after the Jews. But, the Germans loved order! After the hate propaganda came more moderate bureaucratic requirements for every Jew to wear a yellow armband and each Jewish landlord had to post a list of all his tenants and subtenants, including their birth dates and occupations on the gate of his building. The intent of these orders was obvious to everyone; the Nazis wanted comprehensive statistics for technical purposes in the event of a deportation so that no one would be able to escape.
Disorder and confusion beset many families. Some believed that young people would be taken away immediately and should not be put on the list. Others were convinced that one should avoid, at any cost, listing people over sixty years of age whom the Nazis considered useless bread-eaters.
A mania for building bunkers and hiding places gripped everyone. Under floors, between double walls, in cellars, under roofs and even in doorways, hiding places were built in the most fantastic ways.
Worrying about a place of work became another psychosis, which lasted even after the liquidation of the ghetto.
New occupations arose with hastily acquired qualifications. For example, my sister Chaya-Sara Nisker (now Lentshitsky) became a fire putter-outer in the cafeteria of the Starachavitser Hermann Goering Werke. Her task was to watch that the small pieces of coal lying around did not catch fire. Others quickly became experts on wood and went to work in Vanatsia in Helem's sawmill which, provided boards and veneer for the Wehrmacht. Tradesmen, tailors and shoemakers went to the Consum to sew uniforms and make boots for the military elite.
In the many departments of the Starachovicher munitions factory, Jewish slave labour was used for producing explosives, ammunition, pressing machines, locks, as well as in the foundry, smithy, and the smelter. The most punitively difficult labour later turned out to be among the columns of people transporting ore to the great oven (gikhta). The worst and most dangerous place among the workers, who were later placed in barracks, was the former rifle range built up with barracks for Jewish workers encircled with barbed wire and watchtowers. That was where the sadistic German blackguard Althof (Obersturm-Wachfuhrer of Werk-Schutz in charge of the factory guards) used to walk around and suddenly shoot in all directions as his own personal way of maintaining a suitable work environment. The revolver is a cure for everyone, he would pontificate. It cures laziness and eliminates unwanted elements and above all illnesses. True to his revolver philosophy he once came into a ward full of Jews suffering from typhus and shot every one of them to death.
The sound of bullets exploding in Jewish bodies became a frequent occurrence and in the neighbouring but not yet emptied Jewish towns and villages as well. In Ostrovste, the two infamous arch murderers, Peter and Bruno went into a Jewish courtyard on Stodolga Street and arbitrarily shot a large number of Jews. In Tsoysmer (Sandomierz) the gendarme Lesher, may his name be erased, victimized and took Jewish lives.
Everywhere there were punishing angels (malakhey habole) ready to fill the quota of Jewish victims.
Terrible news also arrived from the largest Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, about an Umschlagplatz on Stavki Street. From this spot thousands of Jews were transported every day in locked freight cars.
Once again Polish railroad workers brought gloomy information about the mysterious Treblinka and Auschwitz, where the giant Jewish transports were taken and disappeared as though into the abyss. To lend credence to their news, they described the terrible smell of burning human flesh from huge smoking ovens.
A death decree for all the Jews was approaching with giant steps. Every day was full of new job-like stories about Jewish slaughter. Local Poles began to talk business and urged the Jews to hand over their personal property for safekeeping, volunteering to become the unpaid guards of Jewish labour. Others were more forthcoming and not shy at all about their larcenous eagerness to appropriate Jewish belongings by appealing to the Jew's logic, You, Moshke! Your officer's boots are no longer of any use to you. Better give them to me! Why should the Kraut take them?
The highest point of Polish villainy and greed for Jewish property I witnessed was on the day of the resettlement (the deportations). Only a great poet like Bialik could properly convey the scene of how our own landlord Spitkovsky of Drildz Street near the pond, broke down the wall between his apartment and ours and like a wild animal, still in our presence, began to grab everything that was left.
As long as I live, I will not forget the 27th of October 1942 at 5 a.m. The outside of the ghetto was surrounded by S.S. Lithuanians and Latvians armed from head to toe and preparing themselves to complete the aktsie. I stood with my Father, Mother (Brindl Yankev Bzizhers-Golombiovski), my sister Chaya-Sara and her 9-year-old son Yankev who was already dressed in several pairs of underwear, layers of suits and dressed in sweaters with backpacks and yet still shivering with fear and trepidation. The gentleman who had taken a fortune in key money from us for his rented room and kitchen was selecting with predatory composure the silver spoons and forks as well as linens and tablecloths. Working quickly he pulled out drawers looking for jewellery. He didn't deny himself pieces of furniture, which he dragged with the help of his daughter to the other half of the house!
In the moments of Jewish destruction this was the behaviour of a Pole, a produce dealer, a churchgoer, an upright citizen of the town of Wierzbnik.
But this was not yet the highest level of Polish abomination and plunder.
In another part of town, a much bloodier drama was playing itself out where the thief of Jewish property was a member of the intelligentsia, neatly dressed and an official of the pre-war municipal justice system.
His name was Tomchik, a secret agent by profession and educated man. He had just sent three Jewish children he had hidden in his home aged 5.5, 7.5 and 8.5 into the marketplace where they were shot. Rose Millman (now Heriing), the owner of the bakery, had given this vile secret agent everything she had in exchange for his promise to save her children (Manyele, Chaim-Yosele, and Roche-PesI). The murderer took the money and the gold and sent the children to their deaths.
However, Polish anti-Jewish banditry was not limited to businessmen and the intelligentsia. Yitzhak Rosenwald had hidden himself under an oven in the foundry. A simple worker, an ordinary proletarian that noticed this handed him over to the Ukrainians who gave him a bullet in the head.
In the surrounding forests, Polish soldiers who had organized the A.K. (Armia Krayava) settled their own accounts with captured Jews by cutting off their heads as though with a guillotine, to once and for all to free the Polish fatherland of the yids.
Soon after the war they [the Poles] reinstated this patriotic heroic tradition of throatcutting when they chopped off the head of Abraham Kadishevitch for the Jewish chutzpah of selling a house. What kind of ideological motive made them savagely murder two women survivors, Wolfovitch and Anisman or to kill three children and throw Rifka and Marmele Silvemian from a moving train remains a secret mystery and a matter for a study into the pathological Polish hatred of the Jewish people.
Let these stories of the deceit of Polish blackmailers, collaborators and hangmen be forever recorded in our memorial book! Let future generations know that during the massive slaughter of the Wierzbnik Jewish community, Poles were murderers and profiteers.
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