(Excerpts from the book City of the Dead, Teverski, Tel Aviv, 5707 [1946/47] )
by Dawid Liwer
Translated by Lance Ackerfeld
Before moving on to the last tragic description of the total expulsion, I wish to focus on a point of great interest: Even in the most gray and bitter days of the Nazi occupation, frivolity and jokes were not abandoned by the Jews regardless of whom or what it concerned, and even concerning the troubles themselves. More than one political joke that began in the Polish ghettos grew wings and transcended borders and oceans to reach the Jewish Diaspora. But this is a matter for the folklorists. Here I will present one such example.
We didn't know what the source of the rumor was. We discussed it at great length and reached the conclusion that there was no truth to it, even though we foresaw that the Germans were capable of this. We could not envisage the implementation of this Satanic program, of which it is difficult for a cultured human being to conceive. However, a fear gnawed away at our hearts, and we didn't know what element of truth was contained in the jokes that the Jews of Będzin made up on this subject.
There was a soap that was rationed by the Germans, of the poorest quality, which left colored stains on the face if one washed with it. The soap was called Rippel, and its abbreviation R.J.F. (by which it was commonly known) the Jews jokingly interpreted as reines Judenfett (pure Jewish fat). And so fun was made in such quips as, With a face like his, the Germans won't make Rippel from it. In contrast, pointing to a Jew with a tendency to obesity: Nu, the Germans are going to make a fair size piece of soap from you, and so on. Good friends that bade farewell in these difficult times, not knowing if they would ever meet again, would say to one another, See you later on the shelves, as if to say, See you on the shop shelves after the Germans have made soap out of you. All sorts of witticisms of this kind reached German ears, and they made use of them in conversation between themselves. Thus, for example, we would call a Jew who had fallen in step with the Germans as verbachert, meaning failure, so the Germans would not understand. However, with time the Germans themselves made use of this expression, but in a distorted way; verbachert was used for an informer of a certain type in the police or the Judenrat. To the insiders, he was known as a screw turner, to mean someone running more than one businesses at once (a double dealer). With time, when the Germans would frequent the Judenrat and needed a high official, they would ask for the screw turner.
This is a story which was told by a friend, who on January 15, 1944, jumped from the train in which the last of the Jews from the Będzin-Sosnowiec labor camps were being transported for annihilation at Auschwitz:
In the rail car, when it was clear that the end was near, one of the men,
Majer Shajntel (Majer Kakker), a popular Jewish character from Będzin, pulled
out a bottle of whiskey and called out, Jews, let's be joyous, and may
the names and memories of the Germans be erased. Don't dismay, Jews, l'chaim,
[Click on the picture to enlarge it]
We stand in the Judenrat house and wait: The air is unclean, in our vernacular: Worrying rumors are spreading that tonight something serious will occur, and we wanted to know how much truth there was in these rumors. The medic, Scher, whispered secretively that tonight an action would undoubtedly take place against political suspects. As for me, he said, I'm ready for every eventuality. They can do all they want to me, especially now that I've learned my two sons have arrived safely in Eretz Yisrael. This Jew, an exceptionally bright scholar, had a warm Jewish heart, had worked in his profession in our district for over forty years, and was very popular among the people of the town. His very presence at the home of a sick person had a positive influence on the patient. In those days, he was despite all in a happy mood as his children had managed to reach Erez Israel! From Judenrat circles came the calming news that tonight would pass quietly. We left the house, since nine o'clock was approaching, and soon the police hour the curfew would begin. I walked, accompanied by Shlomo Lerner and Chanka Bornstein, who told me that I should come over to their place, a bunker located on a farm. If anything should happen, in spite of the calming news, it would be easier to undergo the experience together.
At half past two, I was awakened by a neighbor who had stood guard that night. What's happened? Something? I asked.
I noticed a greater than usual amount of traffic on the road and around the headquarters, he said. I promptly left Mati and climbed up on the roof. Heavy fog consumed the Sosnowiec ghetto. Dead silence. In spite of this, I noticed movement in the shadows from the direction of the large ghetto and in the headquarters in Będzin (the small ghetto in which we were situated was located near both of these two places). From time to time a flashlight was lit, and after a few moments I heard the clear cry of the Germans Halt! echoing in the night. It was clear, therefore, that the German police had arrived.
I woke my family and we left our house quickly, in order to make our way to our friends at the farm. However, this was no longer possible. A chain of police encircled us, guards stood in all the nearby fields, and every exit from the Little Srodula ghetto was blocked. Thus, there was no choice but to hide out in the bunker. My family, my sister and her daughter, and also a neighbor seven people altogether went down into the bunker, taking food and water that we had found in our house at the time. The entrance to the bunker was through a cupboard, appropriately disguised. The bunker contained one bed and several chairs. Air came down through two thick pipes that protruded up into a covered garden but were hidden under a pile of rocks.
At four o'clock in the morning, we heard the first sounds of shots. No doubt
someone had tried to save his life by running away, breaking through the chain
of the siege. As long as it was night, the Germans were frightened to enter the
confines of the ghetto, and only when dawn broke did we hear their cries:
Juden raus! [Jews, come out] accompanied by shots. Bayonets and
iron bars in hand, the Germans stormed in and smashed doors and windows. The
cries of beaten men and women and the weeping of children rose up to the
heavens, interspersed by the sound of glass being shattered and the shots of
the Germans. This horrific pogrom continued without ceasing all through the
day. From our bunker we heard the bloody riot going on outside. And then there
were footsteps approaching our hiding place, and they were in our house several Germans
together and they're shouting Juden raus!
They are silent; they are definitely hiding, says one of the gang,
There is certainly a bunker here. We heard clearly how they broke
into the cupboards, turned over the beds, and toppled everything onto the
floor. And here they were, standing next to the cupboard that covered the entry
to our bunker an old, heavy cupboard. All that was in it, old pots and
various kitchen utensils, were tossed out. My heart was pounding in terror, and
we held our breath. They would soon move the plank that served as a kind of
door, and they would throw aside the few rags that were used for camouflage,
and they would discover the entrance. Here they were about to find us
Nichts (nothing) one of them finally uttered, and they began to
move away from the place. We breathed a sigh of relief. But the Jews are
probably hiding somewhere one of their voices was heard again. And once
again they returned and searched and poked into every corner, hammering the
planks with iron bars, trying to find the location of the cellar. After two
hours of fruitless searching, they left the house. However, after less than an
hour they returned and the same drama ensued: A second and third group of
Germans came to look for us and find our hiding place. Now they were rummaging
through the drawers, looting any items of value. Thus it continued throughout
the day: one group of Germans would go and another would come, and each
rummaged and looted, and each time it seemed that they would soon discover us.
The next day, with dawn, the Germans returned to loot our house. In the house next door they discovered a bunker in the attic the walls were breached with iron bars. The residents of the bunker were thrown out into the street. And so the Jews that were found in the second and third houses were led away. Suddenly we heard the sound of a horse's hooves. The clear voice of a horseman reached me through the water pipe: Ach, ihr Judengesindel, marsch! (You gang of Jews, move!), and the shouts and cries of the beaten, and the whimpering of the children, filled the void. The horse tramples people, stomps on children, breaking skulls (I later chanced to meet with this rider, Officer Fulter). And again another day passes of horrendous sights and gloom. Wouldn't it be better to swallow a dose of cyanide here in the bunker and be freed of this unending and hopeless nightmare? Still I overcame and dispersed these bitter thoughts. High up here, breathing is becoming more and more difficult in the stifling atmosphere of the bunker. In this choking atmosphere a match will only light next to the ventilation pipes. Only at night can we open the entrance to the house upstairs, in order to breathe some fresh air. The supply of water has also run out. In the darkness of the night, my wife fetches a bucket of rainwater, and we quench our thirsts, after which she brings another bucket for the coming day. The Nazis cut off the water supply to the ghettos and it was good, at least, that it had rained. But what would the future hold? Again on the second and third nights, rifle and machine-gun shots continued unceasingly, and at times there were dynamite explosions. I was certain that at night the Jews who were caught in the bunkers were executed, and perhaps they are completely destroying our ghetto and wiping it off the face of the earth in the same way they did to the Warsaw Ghetto? Only later, by chance, did I get to see what the Germans had instigated. They used, among other things, a sort of noisemaker that produced sounds of shots, in order to induce horror
We lost track of time. Here, in the bunker, the one dark night continued
endlessly. The water ration was exhausted, as was the bread. And so we decided
to leave the bunker and take our chances, since we could endure no more.
Perhaps we'd manage to break out of the Sosnowiec ghetto; perhaps we'd find
other Jews? We returned and entered our apartment, and initially we could not
see anything, a profusion of light blinding us. Soon an appalling sight was
spread out before us, a pogrom: sheets, scraps of clothing, flour, beans,
photos, spoons, broken plates all scattered in a crazy jumble. We breathed
deeply the air that we had badly missed in the days that we'd been in the
bunker: we sat silently, like mourners beside the dead, and waited. The fear of
death passed and disappeared. We are no longer frightened. We are prepared for
it, if only it will come quickly and be delayed no longer.
Suddenly we heard human footsteps. A German soldier entered the apartment, weaponless, no doubt coming to look for gold and valuables. When he saw us, he stepped back, full of fear. We called him back and dared to suggest that he help us get out of the ghetto in exchange for all that we have. The soldier replied that this was impossible, since a large army surrounded the ghetto, and the situation was similar in Sosnowiec. They were clearing the whole region of Zaglembia of Jews. He suggested that we go with him in order to spare ourselves, at least, the torment of blows and beatings. We took clean underwear out of the pile stacked up in the middle of the room. We took off our filthy clothes and put them on, in the process of which my son called out, Mother, take the white apron along. What do we need an apron for? I asked him. It will come in handy, he said, without knowing then, of course, that this would save us from death. The soldier took us up to the headquarters, where there were already a number of other Jews. They stripped us naked. They stole all our remaining possessions money and watches. A small quantity of cyanide had been sewn inside my niece's skirt. The Germans discovered this. She begged that they give her back the poison, but they just howled with laugher. The women were immediately taken to work cleaning floors, while my son and I were taken to move furniture for the German soldiers.
At five in the morning, we were taken to a central courtyard in the large
ghetto, preceding our expulsion. Next to the house, where the
kibbutz was located, I saw Herschel Springer, Hajka Klinger, Sara
Koklaka, Aliza Zintfeld, and other kibbutz members, who were being taken, like
us, for expulsion. I called out to him from across the way,
Herschel! He covered his mouth with his hand to indicate that we
shouldn't speak to him.
I remained by myself. Fifty meters away stood my mother, wife, son and sister; and a sword of destruction hung over their heads. I decided to set out in the darkness of night to join them, but the gates of the camp were locked. A blow from a rifle butt to my shoulder threw me aside with, What are you doing here! I returned to the cabin. Twenty people were sprawled across the floor, wearing their patched clothing. I squat on the floor but I can't manage to sleep. The cabin is lit brightly as every half-hour a guard comes to check that everything is in order. I look at these twenty Jews and ponder, Is this all that remains of the great Będzin Jewish community, which once numbered thirty thousand people? How did it happen? And it seems that this is just a nightmare, which will soon pass with the darkness of night. However, I soon reawaken and return to this terrible reality. Every couple of minutes someone wakes and a groan is heard oy, mother! All of these people belong to a branch that was broken from a sprouting family tree. There those sprawled on the floor, and their eyes display a look of gloom that reflects the terror of the last few days .
Dawn breaks. People rise awkwardly, treading heavily, oblivious to everything.
They don't wash their hands. They don't rinse their faces. And why is this?
Will anything stop today's expulsion?
We don't know how these 2,800 victims fell, although typically they had forcibly resisted their expulsion. Yet to my great dismay, there are no living witnesses, although we undoubtedly know the truth behind the horrific genocide that occurred during the expulsion. The following is a small chapter of this bloody affair, as conveyed to us by our friends, Herschel Wandersman, later murdered by the Germans in Budapest, and David Rojznes, who drowned when the ship Mefkuda was sunk by the Germans on its way to Erez Israel.
We stayed in a hideout in the attic. Through holes in the walls, we saw the German police approaching the house opposite ours. As they opened the gate, they shouted their familiar cry of Juden raus; and a group of desperate Jews armed with sticks, rocks and knives fell upon them. The battle between the Jews and the enemy, whose numbers were superior and were heavier armed, did not last long. After half an hour, all the Jews, to the last man, had fallen.
If not for the brigade of the dead, we wouldn't know how the Frumke Plotnitzka group fell. They relate:
Seven kibbutz members were in the bunker Frumke Plotnitzka, Baruch Gaptak, Frumke Dolnarova, Cypora Boczian, Chedva Bernard, Tuvia Devorski and Pnina Yaakobovicz. All of them were members of kibbutz Dror in Będzin. On the fourth day of the expulsion, two Germans approached the bunker's spyhole. Baruch Geftak, thinking that the bunker had now been discovered, did not take time to deliberate and opened fire on them right away.
Two high-ranking Gestapo officers had fallen victim. The Germans immediately lay siege to the house and opened fire on it from every direction. The comrades returned fire and prevented the Germans from approaching them. But due to the intensity of the assault, the windows and the floor of the house caught fire. The comrades in the bunker continued to return fire. Frumke didn't stop shooting with her pistol for a moment. The Germans were then compelled to call the fire brigade, who flooded the hideout with water. Later, the Jewish police were ordered to retrieve the seven bodies that were still writhing. Frumke tried to lift herself up and speak, but a Gestapo soldier attacked her, kicking and trampling her, and the others that were still alive, with his boots until they breathed their last.
We don't know how the members of Gordonia, who were hiding out in a
farm cellar, fell. Shlomo Bornstein, Shlomo Lerner, Natke and many others of
these devoted pioneers,were brave boys, who found death in the farm or were
slain at Auschwitz.
Here is a small shoe that has been flung from a child on his way to annihilation. A short distance away from this a prosthesis. Torn bedding lies tossed on a balcony. A small tallis flaps on a fence and twists its fringes, as if trying to oust the defiling forces, the evil spirits, that have penetrated the ghetto. There are three hats lying near a small house. Just a few days ago, they covered the heads of living Jews, a father and his two sons (Herskowicz, the carpenter, and his sons) who were murdered here; their hats survive to bear silent witnesses to that which has taken place next to this rent and ruined house. Bricks have been taken from the oven, shattered and smashed. Floor tiles are cracked, walls are destroyed; everything is upside-down and in disarray. All that had been in the cupboards and drawers has been thrown outside underwear, pots, photographs, a plate, salt, clothes in one jumbled pile. It is impossible to stay in this house.
The chimneys of the houses whose smoke no longer rises from them stand upright
as silent gravestones above this city of the dead.
We came across the bodies of murdered Jews while cleaning up the Jewish houses.
We entered a house. Darkness. A dark sheet still covers the window. We
immediately sense the presence of a dead body in the room. We open the window,
and there before us lies an elderly couple in bed. We approach them and look at
them closely. The bloody stains on their clothes attest to the way that they
died. In one of the attics, inside a large tank, lies the huddled body of a
child with a piece of bread in his hand. It appears that he ran away during the
commotion and sought refuge in the tank where he'd died. In the bunkers, the
bodies of children and young babies were numerous, some lying in prams and
bassinets. The German overseer later ordered us to burn the bodies. Every few
days, we were forced to prepare a special kind of bonfire: a pile of books,
Jewish texts, the Babylonian Talmud and books of the Zohar, the Lagretz Jewish
History book and Tzlika Hapruah, Lasgolovicz and many more and
on top, a boy's body. We poured kerosene on the pile and ignited it. Books
the strength of the nation and its future all their raging
hatred was poured out upon them. For those who had shown hardly any resistance,
this bloody persecution had reached new heights in their lives and in their deaths.
particpating in hard labour
|The last children's institute
Among the twelve martyrs whose bodies we took for burial in the Czaladz
cemetery was Mrs. Vandersman, who died in the bunker where she had hidden with
her son, Hershel (who later left with us for Hungary and was later murdered by
the Germans). The German policeman who accompanied us selected the burial
plots. After we had said kaddish, and as we prepared to leave,
someone noticed a tombstone nearby with the name
Vandersman engraved upon it. This, by chance, was the burial plot of the
husband of the woman we had brought for a Jewish burial, and her bones rested
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