by Arie Liwer
Translated by Nitsa Bar-Sela
Due to the small space allocated to this summary I am, unfortunately, unable to tell, at proper length, about the great and important deeds of tens and hundreds of young men and women who participated in the resistance against the Nazis and their helpers, and especially of those members who came from afar to encourage and guide us, and set an example of courage and magnanimity, such as Mordechai Anielewicz, Eliezer Geler, Mark Folman, Aron Mencer and the girls Tosia and Riwka Glanc.
A) The First Encounter with the Nazis
I will always remember those days. It was a magnificent morning in the year 1939 in Poland. We went about our daily lives, anxious and worried about the situation and the future of the Jews. The hostile policy of the Polish authorities depressed us so much that many believed that only a serious shock from the outside, an unexpected shift, might change the situation.. The heart predicted but did not know what, and then all of a sudden
That Saturday night, a day or two after the announcement of a general mobilization, we were informed on the radio of a meeting of the Sejm in which representatives of the parties, amongst whom was the Jewish delegate Szwarcbart, at the end of which there was a sensational, staggering announcement, that Westerplatte was getting ready to defend itself
The fear of a war spread, but nobody knew clearly what was going on. However, already the following day, on the Saturday, masses of people started to flee from Silesia eastward, to the center of Poland. On Saturday night I was still on duty, in the Civil Guard station, and the idea of escape had not yet occurred to me, but on Sunday I left Będzin in a westerly direction with the stream of refugees. No, it was not a flight of despair but rather an escape until things would calm down. Many believed, wanted to believe, that even if the war had broken out and the Nazi army had invaded Poland, in the end the Polish army would recover, fight the Nazis back, and with the help of its allies defeat the Germans Don't forget that the atmosphere in Poland was one of pompous nationalistic militarism, and in addition they did not believe in the Germans' military and economic capabilities However, things happened extremely fast, and even as the Polish radio announcement was being broadcast, the motorized rows of the enemy infantry were moving uninterruptedly onto Polish land
And along the way German airplanes were flying low spraying the people on the road with their machine guns, and there was no way of escape. I had intended to reach Kielce, where my parents were staying at that time, but Jędrzejów, the village which I had to cross on my way to Kielce had already been occupied by the Germans who had invaded it from the rear. So I returned through Wodzisław and Książ Wielki and finally, having taken impossible paths, I reached the village of Pińczów where I experienced my first face-to-face encounter with the Nazis. On Thursday morning we heard loud shots. We went down to the cellar. Terror, fright, shots, screams, tumult, an endless flow of motorized army and orders: Get out! Hands up! Out! And first victims
We started to file out of the cellars
At the entrance to the market heavy tanks were firing in all directions. The soldiers shot at houses and at those coming out of them. Running quickly across the square I saw tens of people falling from the Nazi bullets.
From the square they directed one crowd of people to the Christian church, and another to the Jewish synagogue. I was with the first group, all on our knees, hands up in front of the priest and Rabbi Rapaport, all of us surrounded by armed German guards who changed from time to time. There were thousands of terrified, shocked people, helpless, surrounded by a wall of guards, paralyzed, afraid to disobey orders, totally abandoned, doomed to die. And units of the German army flowing endlessly eastward They released the priest and we stayed on our knees, outside, on the ground (later we were allowed to sit down), day and night without food and nearby the whole village was burning. The Germans had set fire all around and not a single house remained standing. Many of those who had taken shelter in hideaways and cellars and had not obeyed the order to come out were burnt alive. The air was filled with the smell of burning flesh and in front of us, on posts, the Germans hung the black uniform shirts of a few of their tank soldiers who had been killed (probably on the first clash as they invaded), to remind us that we were all held responsible for their death.
During those hours I was thinking: We are lost! And not because I myself was in danger then, but because I realized that there was no army that could fight against the invaders. I lost my hope that an army would appear and defeat the Germans. I discovered that we were helpless and doomed to trouble and suffering, though to what extent none of us could predict
At first they released the local Poles; late in the afternoon they announced that refugees of Silesia could return home. As for the Jews only on the following day did we notice that the guard had suddenly disappeared We slowly got up and went out to the street. There was an outcry of woe and heartbreaking screams. The Jews of Pińczów saw what the enemy had carried out their houses and entire property had been burnt down. There was nothing left to do but to begin to wander
When I arrived at Pińczów, to find temporary shelter until times changed, I happened to meet my brother and his son. Together we rented a room with a woman whose husband had fled and she lived with her parents. We paid a month in advance. We still believed that the front would stabilize, the war would not last long and we would return home. But again we were confronted with blood and fire, smoke, terror, a powerful, amazingly well-equipped, fast invader. We were overwhelmed by shouts and orders. Also the Poles, who called themselves Volksdeutsche [Ethnic Germans], were everywhere along the roads, shooting at the refugees.
We decided to return home, to Będzin. We traveled over dangerous routes and across burnt bridges, hiring a wagon and for safety sake also took Gentiles with us. The Jewish villages we saw on our way had been robbed and burnt down. In Sławków the Germans had massacred the Jews together with the Poles and thrown the dead bodies into the river. We managed to return to Będzin unharmed , after a two-day journey, only because we had traveled along side roads.
We arrived late in the afternoon. The town, which had always been full of life and movement, was dead. Here and there a man could be seen hurrying home like a shadow. Soon the curfew would start and complete silence would wrap Jewish Będzin with fear of what might happen next.
At home I did not find anybody. My parents were in Kielce, and the other members of the family had not yet managed to return. Only the Polish servant, who had worked for many years in our house, maintained it, supplied all that we needed, stood in lines in order to buy provisions, and brought back potatoes from the village
Despite the serious and depressing deterioration of the situation, people still
believed that it would not take long and everything would return to normal.
Indeed, we had fled together with the retreating Polish army (and at the rear
of the advancing Germans it was mainly the Jewish soldiers who continued to
fight, some being killed and others captured); indeed, many of Będzin
citizens fled and did not return, and horrifying messages arrived from
But the great nations of England and America would undoubtedly very soon set out on their way to fight against the Germans and defeat the invaders Therefore it was very important to hold on, adjust to the new situation as soon as possible, wear out the enemy Indeed, we had already experienced horrors and catastrophes, but no one had predicted or suspected the forthcoming events.
And on the soil of Poland, which had soaked blood profusely, a wondrous autumn prevailed, that was unusually warm. That was the autumn in which the fear of Hell began.
A bloody encounter with our greatest ever enemy
B) And Thus The Youth Activity Began
I am in Będzin again, my hometown, but it is a different Będzin, different from what I had known all my life, because it was the second week since it had been in the jaws of the blood-thirsty Nazi beast. Sadness and depression prevailed all over. There was no longer the joyful noises of merchants and the tumult of youth. Many thousands had left the town, thousands would not come back. Those who were left are old parents, many widows and orphans without breadwinners to support them.
There is deathly silence in the streets. Worry. The stores are still open but buyers are few. And the Germans plunder us, of course, and there is no protection. More than once there is a murder of a Jew in broad daylight.
So, people stay at home, but here too depression and despair prevail. Jewish life is in the hands of the lawless, left to torture, beatings, forced labor. And at home permanent anxiety: any moment they may confiscate your house and loot your property.
Every morning there are long lines for bread and food, separate lines for Poles and for Jews: Germans and Volksdeutsche do not stand in line. Very often Jews returned home empty handed, having stood in line for many hours. Restrictive laws, persecutions, degradation and humiliation, but the British radio broadcasts promise the approaching fall of the Nazis, and rumors spread that the Americans are about to join the war.
The public life with which Będzin had been blessed collapsed as well. The youth groups which had been so active and full of hope and gaiety had all disappeared. The clubs were occupied by the homeless and those whose house had been burnt down. Those of the activists who were left were concerned and depressed. Under the given circumstances I decided to do all I could in order to revive public activities and bring back to life the energy which was left, as required at this fateful hour.
I had an appointment with Szlemek Cymerman, and this meeting was the starting point for all the youth activities and life in Będzin in the years of the Holocaust. I put forward a program to continue the key activities for the youth in the underground. Szlemek was my pupil in Gordonia, very talented and devoted, and when the war broke out he headed the local youth club (ken).
This meeting is engraved deeply in my memory because it determined the fate of the youth movements in Będzin and its environs during that historical era. I spent that night in his house because of the curfew and our conversation never ended.
At first he hesitated. The war would be over soon, he said, and we could resume our activities without jeopardizing ourselves, the youngsters and their parents. It was doubtful whether any of the parents would agree to allocate a flat for our underground activities, and even if they did, there was always the danger of the neighbors or the Judenrat finding out about us. And where would we find leaders for the meetings? As for the youth themselves, was there any certainty at all that they might respond to our appeal to commit themselves to the movement under the conditions of hunger and terror that prevailed? Our conversation was filled with doubts and questions, and I tried to make him feel that the decision was his to take, that he was the one to decide in this very significant matter.
After hours of considering and deliberating we decided that we could not desert the youth. If we appealed to them, they might respond. Moreover, the secrecy and the underground conditions would only attract them to act and commit themselves to the movement. Dangers? Of course they existed, but they were there anyway. As for the Judenrat, our attitude to them was well known, and if the youth were strong and well-organized, they would be taken into consideration and become influential. Even today they helped us in saving our friends from the claws of the Judenrat. Finally, we concluded that during the following week, we would gather the members and resume action.
After a frugal meal we went to bed. That night I could not sleep. I was filled with doubts. Was I right about the plan of a daring action, or perhaps those who supported the Judenrat were right? And who had given me the right to risk the lives of our youth in underground activities whose results are doubtful?
A night of insomnia came to an end and the feeling that we must not give in to despair and helplessness, that we must get organized, act and fight, took the upper hand over all the doubts and hesitations.
Szlemek Cymerman had prepared the meeting in which the question of the need to organize the youth was no longer on the agenda, but only the ways to carry it out. The first suggestion was to organize youth groups of 3-5 members each, all of elementary school age, and continue the studies with them that had been interrupted. It was beneficial to have lessons every day, but it depended on the situation and on the number of leaders we had. If one group was discovered, its activities would be independent and with its own responsibility, and would not risk the other groups.
At that meeting most of the participants felt that the plan was minimalistic and requested that it be expanded. It was also decided that it should be brought to the attention of the other groups and be carried out. Needless to say, what was concluded at that meeting added fresh content and a new spirit to our life during those dark and fearful days.
As a result of that meeting, and after long and numerous arguments and encounters in Kibbutz Borochov, the Brit Hachaluzim [Pioneer Pact] was finally established. Its goals were to assist the youth at this fateful hour, educating them in preparation for the days to come, establishing an ongoing connection with the Chalutz (Pioneer) center in Warsaw and the branches nearby and fighting against the Judenrat.
Not a great deal of time passed before we saw the first results of our enterprise. Despite the very difficult conditions, we activated tens of small youth groups. The activities took place in private homes. Amongst the parents were some who objected, who were frightened of the dangers, but there were also those who encouraged their children and were glad that they were busy and studying instead of roaming the streets which were dangerous and frightening to be in. In addition, most of the parents were absorbed with their own troubles and struggle for survival, and weren't capable of looking after their children during those troubled days. And of course, also in this activity we clashed with the Judenrat who were inevitably aware of our deeds.
And this is the time to elaborate on the foundation and nature of the Judenrat.
C) How The Judenrat Started
As soon as they entered Będzin, the Germans summoned the members of the
municipality, including the Jewish members, and ordered them to continue their
work in collaboration with the German mayor. At the same time they chose the
Fürstenberg school as their permanent quarters. After about two weeks,
they ordered the setting up of a separate representation for the Jews.
Two Jewish communal workers Rubinblicht, the former deputy of the mayor, and Kozlowski, the representative of the communists (and by the way, a considerable percentage of the members of the Będzin municipality was communist) agreed to organize Jewish representation to the Germans and added the engineer Gustaw Weinziher and others. This institution was active only for a short while and its effect was barely noticeable except for the revival of the Chevra Kaddisha, the opening of a small kitchen for the needy and so on.
And then the rise of the Jewish elder, Meryn, began whose father had worked with the Germans during the First World War. He started by expelling the old representatives and organized the Judenrat in the same format as the other institutions of its kind in the district.
This immediately caused a bitter dispute within the Jewish public and in the circles of the activists concerning the attitude which should be held towards the Jewish elder and the institution which he had founded. There were those who were against any kind of cooperation with it because they considered it as a tool of the Germans to execute their schemes against the Jews. Others believed that it should be used, being the less of two evils, and at the same time tested and observed its activities and the community would not be abandoned and after a while a position could be taken.
I was against the Judenrat right from the beginning. I refused to have any
connection with it. So did the parties of the Hitachdut and Poalei Zion. (This
is why they expelled Molczadzki). The other parties fell apart as soon as the
German regime began and their activists fled. The communists did not have any
active efficient underground either.
D) With Zionist Community Workers
After my conversation with Szlemek Cymerman and the setting up of the Brit Hachaluzim I decided to head the delegation of the Hitachdut party to the chairman of the Zionist Organization in our town, Mr. Icchak Wygodzki. After we put forward our plans, he expressed his surprise at our courage to think about continuing the Zionist public activity. After we had explained to him the dangers involved in joining the Judenrat, especially with the inclusion of Zionist community workers in it, he gave his blessing to our initiative and even agreed to participate in a meeting with the representatives of all the Zionist parties which would be called in order to learn about the situation and the different roles that it calls for.
Wygodzki refused to contact the Judenrat for a long time, despite pressure placed upon him, until the Germans imposed a huge contribution of gold and money on the Jewish community in Będzin. (Small contributions and confiscations were a daily practice). In order to hasten the investment, tens of Jews were arrested and held as hostages. Then Meryn set up a public committee to raise money for the release of the prisoners. Wygodzki was invited to join this committee. Later on he started to work in the Judenrat for a regular salary in the affairs of the Chevra Kaddisha (his financial condition had always been poor). As fate had it, that devoted Zionistic community worker would one day pay the last honors to the tortured Jews of Będzin
Wygodzki did not have any meaningful influence on the affairs of the Judenrat. I continued to meet him in various occasions and it was clear beyond doubt that he had never been among the secret helpers of the Prezes [chairman]. For instance, in order to carry out their actions, the Judenrat would practice tactics of surprise and camouflage of their evil intents. If they intended to exile 2000 boys, they would leak the information that 2000 girls were about to be exiled. Then we knew that the boys had to leave the town until the aktzia was over. However, more than once we received very valuable information in time Still, Wygodzki did not know what was really going on inside the Judenrat.
More than once he warned us about haphazard activities. When we asked him whether if our way was not the right one he would answer: You are talking about the way of truth and I about results. Indeed, he was always worried about the consequences.
We also visited Neta Londner, the second in rank in the Zionist hierarchy in our town. His answer was vague. He asked: Has Meryn invited you to the Judenrat? When he does, we will decide what to do. We knew that pressure had been put on him to join the Judenrat, and for a long time he had been trying to avoid them because of medical reasons. Finally, he yielded to them and worked (with intermissions) in the department of housing and professional training.
The consultation meeting of the representatives of the parties that we had tried to hold was not carried out. In April or May, 1940, there was a fruitless meeting with some of the Judenrat members. Amongst the participants were Wygodzki, Manela, Londner and Laskier, Mosze Openhajm (Hapoel Hamizrachi), Sobkowski, Cukierkandel (Poalei Zion), Dawid Liwer, Israel Gertler and myself (Hitachdut). Molczacki refused to take part. His typical argument was There is no Zionism in wartime. He refused to have any kind of public discussion on this subject. I gave up any attempt to convince him (others were somewhat persuaded) because I had known his weak character even before the war, when he was active in the Keren Kayemet. In every argument and discussion he used to take the side of the strong against the weak, and now, not surprisingly, he was nominated by Meryn to be his man in the department of social help in the Judenrat and also his so-called expert in the affairs of the youth.
At that meeting N. Londner remarked that although it was not the right time for arguments, this session was called upon to hear about the concerns of the members regarding the Judenrat. Manela on the other hand gave an account of what he defined as 'the rescue acts of the Judenrat'. I, however, stressed that we were approaching the total annihilation of the Jews, and any temporary alleviation was nothing but a cover up and we must not assist in that scheme. A day would come and we would have to answer for it. Openhajm did not ascribe any importance to that meeting. Anybody who wanted to go to the Judenrat had already done it, and he who believed that he must not, did not need to be convinced and would not change his mind. Sobkowski said that everybody was entitled to hold his own opinion, but those who were at the head of the movements must not work in the Judenrat because they should set a good example. Laskier responded with a tone of 'who do you think you are'. I refuse he said to share my place in Heaven because of my work in the Judenrat Wygodzki kept quiet and did not express his opinion.
Londner closed the meeting by saying that a larger meeting was needed. However, there was no follow up to this.
To sum up, in that meeting a large variety of opinions of the community workers was expressed regarding the major question. It was still the early period of the activities of the Judenrat. It is not hard to imagine that the difference in attitudes, those who supported and those which opposed the Judenrat, grew only deeper and stronger with time, as the ruses of the Judenrat multiplied.
At that time the Judenrat preached that the Jews should willingly volunteer to
work in labor camps. They promised good conditions, payment, care for the
parents, safe return and more. When it was found out that all those promises
were only a deception volunteering ceased. Then the Judenrat started
delivering call-up orders and used the support of the militia people and the
Germans. When this pressure did not achieve the expected fruit, they started to
deport the youths' parents from their houses to Auschwitz. Obviously, their own
children were not on the recipient lists of such orders. As for the rich, they
could easily redeem themselves with money.
In order to be able to maintain their organization and their actions the Judenrat had to impose taxes on the Jews, and those who could not pay were sent to their death.
As for supplies, the little that was allocated by the Germans grew even smaller once it passed through the Judenrat depot. They collected products for themselves (flour for white bread and so on) and the rest filtered through to the black market.
The high points of the Judenrat activities were the deportations (or aktzias, as they were called by the people) to the Auschwitz extermination camp. The Judenrat, who knew about the German plans, not only refrained from informing the public about them but also assisted, with all the means at their disposal, in successfully carrying out the extermination project.
The first deportation was announced by the Judenrat as a transportation of a number of Jews to another locality. In order to gain the trust of the public they promised that doctors and Judenrat members would accompany the transport. On the basis of personal invitations, about a thousand people with their luggage reported and were sent to Auschwitz. It was evident that there were neither doctors nor Judenrat members or their relatives amongst them.
Only three months passed and the Judenrat invited all the Jews, not personally this time, to report on a certain day at two centers. The purpose of this gathering, according to the Judenrat, was to register the citizens. The claim that there was already an accurate register of all the Jews and that there was no justification in making thousands of people, who were doing vital work for the Nazis, cease their daily activity did not bring about any convincing response.
The Judenrat called tens of meetings in which they used threats, persuasion and pleas that everyone should report. Those who refused were threatened that if one person did not report it would entail the deportation of the whole family or even of all the residents of the building where he lived. As for those who hesitated they tried to convince them that a complete turn up was to our advantage because the registration list would prove to the Germans that most of the citizens were employed in productive work, which would remove the danger of deportation. The supporters of the Judenrat and the indifferent people were asked not only to report but to convince others too.
The result of obeying the Judenrat and reporting was the deportation of eight thousand people directly to the gas chambers and of many others to concentration camps.
After the first two deportations all the inhibitions disappeared and the Judenrat continued performing them as a matter of routine.
The Germans planned and the Judenrat executed the deportations to the letter.
All those steps exposed an unquestionable aspect the immorality of the
E) A Disappointing Attempt
In the midst of this tense atmosphere we (the Brit Hachalutzim) were informed that a delegate from Vienna was about to arrive to take care of the youth immigration. We were anxious to have even the slightest connection with the outside world, especially with Eretz Yisrael because we were under siege, isolated and almost completely cut off from the outside world. One day a young man who worked in the Judenrat told us that a delegate, Arie Menszel, had arrived.
A committee which consisted of Chaike Klinger, Herzl Szpringer and myself hurried to the Judenrat in Sosnowiec. We waited for Menszel in the corridors for a half a day whilst he was sitting in a meeting with the Judenrat who gave him the proper description of what was going on in the town and of the role they had assigned for him regarding the youth.
On our way back, in the tramcar, when we expressed our opinion against the Judenrat, he disapproved of it vehemently. He spoke very favorably about the Judenrat, as if they were perfectly correct in their activities. His words depressed us immensely.
On that same Saturday evening Menszel was invited to a ball held by Meryn. In contrast to Meryn's original intention, that ball had a negative effect on Menszel, who changed his mind about the Judenrat.
Later on we held a gathering in the orphans' home hall with him and with 200 participants from Będzin and its neighborhoods. Molczadzki was also there and he began discussing the possibility of the cooperation of the youth with the Judenrat. I responded so reproachfully that he left. Arie Menszel told us about the activities of the Jewish underground in Vienna, about training courses for youth and expressed his hope that an opening for aliyah would soon be initiated.
As a matter of fact, Meryn meant to use Menszel as a tool to convince us that cooperating with him and acting under the leadership of the Judenrat would prove beneficial to us. We, of course, turned down his suggestions in this matter. We saw the inherent dangers, but agreed, finally, to organize training courses in the name of the Judenrat, that is, the Judenrat would send their delegate to our board of directors and we would appoint him head of the board on the condition that our autonomy would remain untouched. Menszel put pressure on us and promised that we would not lose anything from this relationship , on the contrary, we would be able to take advantage of the permission to commute to different places legally and so on.
Eventually we signed an agreement but Meryn evaded signing it. His first representative, Dr. Liberman from Sosnowiec, resigned after he had heard about the plan, because Meryn had given him different orders: he had intended nothing less than setting up a youth organization which would be under his command and serve his plans.
After Dr. Liberman's resignation, Meryn invited us and proposed a few candidates (all being his followers) none of whom satisfied us. We tried to propose candidates from Poalei Zion circles but it annoyed him so much that he started to threaten us. Fanny Czarna, who participated in all our meetings, tried to calm him down. After he had left the room, she tried to appeal to our common sense and asked us to collaborate with the Prezes [chairman] who only wanted the best for us, and in the end she proposed Jozek Kożuch as the coordinator of the Jugendberatungsstelle [Youth Advice Center].
We looked at each other (Szpringer, Tencer and myself). Under that very tense situation we could not afford to give a negative answer. Without consulting us Tencer told her that we would give her an answer within a few days.
Kożuch was one of the activists of the Zionist youth in Sosnowiec before the war. He was not one of Meryn's people, but as an official in the Judenrat he was trusted by Meryn and sent by him as a commissar (as the Judenrat's leaders were called) to the little town of Kłobuck. In his position he had to carry out activities which he did not like, so he asked to be released from that job. We, of course, had not known about his conflict, and saw in him, irrespective of his past in the movement, as a collaborator with Meryn.
Since we had promised an answer, we decided to meet with Kożuch. And here we were pleasantly surprised. In the two meetings we held with him we found out that he was a young man undergoing a serious crisis. He regretted every minute he had spent with Meryn and decided, at all costs, to discontinue his work in the Judenrat. He agreed with us about everything and was ready to act with us hand in hand, and although he did not believe that Meryn would allow us to act as we wanted, he was ready to take on the role, because in that way he would get rid of his former hateful duty.
We agreed on a plan and waited to see what would happen. We decided that
Kożuch would not hand in our original plan to Meryn since there was no way
that Meryn would accept it.
But the abridged plan was not accepted either. Kożuch, of course, refused to act against us. So this brought to an end Meryn's dreams to tie us down to his policy
This was the only cooperation attempt between the Zionist Youth in Będzin and the head of the Judenrat, an attempt in which every aspect had a different goal which was eventually abandoned.
With the cancellation of the Jugendberatungsstelle program (that was the name of the so-called organization which Meryn had intended to set up with our help) we faced a few new problems. We knew that this time Meryn would not give up the idea which had become public and sooner or later he would turn again to the only address, which was Brit Hachalutzim. On the other hand, despite its numerous achievements as the main youth organization, the Brit could not adapt to the new situation. The leadership of the Brit consisted of representatives of the movements (Gordonia, Hanoar Hazioni, Hashomer Hatsair, Dror-Freiheit, the religious youth and the Kibbutz) who occasionally changed according to the decision of the movements, and whose names could not be kept secret. Neither could the very existence of the Brit be kept hidden.
We announced the cancellation of the Brit. Meryn himself considered it his own victory, and when he brought up the idea of organizing the youth again, he did not approach the regular representatives of the Brit but rather the activists of every youth movement separately.
With the cancellation of Brit Hachalutzim it was decided by a small group and in the utmost secrecy to establish a new framework called Lakrav [To Battle]. Its role was to deal only with matters of defense such as acquiring weapons, training and so on.
I was chosen to be the central commander, Pejsachson the secretary, and Baruch Gaptak the weapon's coordinator.
And these were the objectives that stood before us: obtaining weapons, training combat group commanders and, preparing bunkers and training.
The main problem was getting hold of weapons. We began by collecting axes and all kinds of iron tools, preparing Molotov cocktails and training the members in the use of these kinds of weapons. By April 1943 we had managed to obtain 5-6 revolvers, all through our comrades in Częstochowa.
All our efforts to find weapons in the nearby area were in vain. Despite the existence of a strong communist party, and an even stronger socialist party (P.P.S. ) [Polska Partia Socjalistyczna] in the area before the war, these movements had not established any proper underground. The situation amongst the right-wing Polish parties was not any better.
As the situation was becoming worse, we intensified our activities of informing the public. Using leaflets and by word of mouth we informed the public of the destination of the transports and of the situation in the labor camps and called people to rise up and resist.
Unfortunately, only a few believed us. What disrupted our campaign were not only the Germans but also the Judenrat, who treated our leaflets as materials designed to provoke the workers. Also, after every deportation they announced that they had been assured that the Jews of the area would not be touched again
We started to dig bunkers of two types: as resistance posts and as concealment shelters, until the storm passed.
At first we were looked at as a bunch of idlers, but gradually a mania of
bunker digging developed, so that there were no buildings without a few
bunkers. A lot of thought and hard work were put into this bunker making, so
that in most cases, if the people only managed to get into them before the
aktzia, they were saved from the hands of the Germans and their helpers. All
this refers to regular aktzias, when the Germans did not perform
any specific searches and were satisfied with getting the number of people they
had determined in their original plan.
|Two members of the Jewish Police
in the ghetto
In bunkers which had originally been built by the movements as resistance posts there was indeed armed resistance, proportionate to the small quantity of ammunition which they had.
Youth activities during the period of Nazi occupation in Będzin turned around two pivots: Kibbutz Borochov and the farm. In 1939 the kibbutz was at its peak. Everybody worked the girls in the mechanized laundry and on the farm and the boys in all the branches of industry in town.
When the war broke out and with the advancement of the Nazi troops, most of the men left town, including the kibbutz members. Those who fled did not manage to get far because of the bad conditions of the roads, the air-raids of the Germans and the attacks by the Poles and the Volksdeutsche along the roads forced many to return. The motorized German army advanced faster than the waves of refugees and surrounded them. Thus began the obstacle-filled journey back. Half of the kibbutz members, including Szpringer, Gaptak and Finkelsztajn, returned.
As the kibbutz was abandoned, Sztajnberg, a member of Gordonia, agreed to undertake guarding the property which had remained, and thanks to him almost no damage was caused. Neither was the place occupied by the many homeless people whose houses had been burnt down during the great fire which had destroyed a synagogue and the old house of learning together with a whole quarter in Będzin.
Gradually kibbutz life revived despite the hardships during the period of the
Nazi occupation. A Jewish public life started to develop around it.
F) The Farm Project
This project, which was almost unique during the period of the Holocaust and the annihilation in Poland, was like a continuation, under the extraordinary conditions of the occupation, of the tradition of pioneering training.
Why had the farm been founded?
It started in May, 1940. At that time we were informed that the Germans were setting up buildings in Środula using Jewish workers who had been sent by the Judenrat. Their intention was to build a labor camp for workers in agriculture.
As soon as this information reached us we started consulting activists of Brit Hachaluzim, who gathered around Kibbutz Borochov, concerning the stance we should take regarding this labor camp and the possibilities it involved.
At that time the Judenrat put greater pressure on the youth to go to labor camps. Every night the Ordnungsdienst [Jewish Order Service; Jewish Ghetto Police] of the Judenrat organized manhunts in order to complete quotas which were required by the Germans. During the daytime the Germans kidnapped anyone they could get hold of and sent them to camps. Someone who had money managed to find a place in one of the shops.
Because most of our youth were poor (and did not enjoy any favors in the Judenrat either) it was decided: if we are forced to do hard labor, let us at least stick together so that we can help each other and be helped by the comrades who had stayed in town.
Herszl Szpringer was the one who put forward our proposal to the Judenrat. At the first meeting the Judenrat people did not accept the proposal, but they did not reject it either. Meanwhile we continued the building of two large huts and small buildings which were near by. Finally our proposal was accepted by the Judenrat and we decided to send the youth to work on the uncultivated 100 morag [a morag is approximately 5 dunam = 1,000 square meters, about 1 #189; acre] field which was the property of the mines company. As soon as the construction of the buildings in Środula was completed and the experts were brought (a gardener from the municipality, a graduate of the agricultural school in Częstochowa and a Jewish German gardener, whose grandfather lived in Będzin and he came to see him in the war), the kibbutz members and the youth started to frequent the farm. The foreman was a kibbutz member, from the Bloy Vays blue white, a talented youth called Pohorila. Still, the first steps of the farm were not successful, especially in the field of a work regime. A small number of members slept in the premises in a room rented from a Pole. The rest returned to town before evening. Only later were the huts transferred to the farm. Every Saturday the representatives of the Judenrat would come to pay the farmers of the area from whom they rented horses and work tools, and at the same occasion they would have a picnic
In July 1940 Herszl Szpringer called a meeting to discuss the farm issue and it was decided to continue the farm activities and see to it that it would run a pioneering regime of which I would be the director. In the discussions held on this topic I declared that I refused to cooperate with the Judenrat in running the farm. I put forth my conditions: the farm would not belong to the Judenrat but to us although it was financed by them; the managing of the farm would be autonomous so that all its problems would be dealt with by us, including the appointment of the workers. The farm would be maintained by the youth movements according to an accepted key of representation. Naturally, I did not go to the Judenrat to negotiate these conditions. In the end the Judenrat agreed that the youth themselves would run the farm and the members that would be sent to work on it would be equipped with work- cards by them, which meant temporary postponement of deportation to forced labor camps. However, more than once Judenrat members put pressure on us to accept their sons or the sons of their relatives, but we stood firm and I do not remember even one case when we gave in to this pressure, unless, of course, it was a social case or likewise. All the farm workers were members of the youth movements. In fact, the Judenrat regretted having established an agricultural farm, but they could not back down because of the Germans. They did not pass on the management of the farm to me willingly, but the farm had gradually fallen apart because the youth refused to accept the authority of the Judenrat. It is possible that the Judenrat hoped that by passing the management of the farm to the youth we would eventually change our attitude to the Judenrat.
As soon as I took charge, I found a dilapidated farm no implements, no proper experts who worked together, no discipline and mutual responsibility. The lands which we had received had been neglected for decades. The members would leave work whenever they liked, the food was poor and never served on time. In addition, every Judenrat member considered himself a landlord of the farm. I set up a committee, which I headed, and appointed a secretary and a person who would be in charge of planning a daily work timetable which would be put up on the bulletin board of the dining room every morning and the members would be committed to abide by it. I saw to it that the huts would be transferred to us, and we obliged all the members to live in the premises. The general assembly of all the members decided on communal life and from that moment until the liquidation we all lived in a commune. It is important to add that not only did nobody avoid work, but we also had considerable achievements in all areas. The members learned all the types of work and carried them out as if they were born farmers. There were also instances of mutual help a member who worked in the kitchen gave his shoes to another who worked in the field and so on. I myself moved to the farm and lived there permanently for three years until just before its end.
When the Germans ordered the Jews to make a list of the cows and horses which they owned we obliged the Jews to transfer the animals to the farm because the Germans would rob them anyway. But the Jews still did not believe that it would really happen and refused to move their animals to our farm and only a few coachmen gave their horses to the farm to work there for pay. In high season the farmers too would work in the farm fields.
Gradually, the whole public life and youth activities, which increased in numbers and intensity, were transferred to the farm. The farm served as a secret location for meetings of hundreds of youngsters from all the youth movements each of which had a regular day every week. We carried out the printing (on stencil) of the movement pamphlets. In addition, we maintained a strict regime of life and work. There was a permanent night-watch in the fields. The best organizers of the work timetable were Chaike Klinger and Israel Diamant.
And indeed, a strict regime was indispensable. One night, for example, during the curfew and blackout, I came across a group of youngsters who ignored the dangers and lit a fire. On another occasion, a group of youths aged between 14-15, who had stayed to spend the night in the farm's barn, lit a candle
The Judenrat sensed what was going on though they never knew the full extent of the activities on the farm. Herman Sztrochlic, the manager of the administration department of the Judenrat, used to warn us again and again, orally and in writing. His only motive was to save himself, because he had received many complaints.
At the time the farm consisted of 120 regular employees. Its size was about a 100 morag, a third of which was pasture and the rest agricultural land. The produce was sent to town. We were not lacking in raids by the Poles, especially by the residents of one particularly aggressive village. There were looting, fights and beatings. At the beginning they would go into our fields and harvest them in front of our eyes. I appealed to the vicar, but he himself felt intimidated. I threatened to inform the Germans, but that did not always help either.
Nor did the Judenrat leave us alone. One day they required that the farm
members should report and carry out various orders of the Germans, orders of
deportation, looting and plunder of Jews. We refused. On that day all the farm
members left the town and spread out. On another occasion we were ordered to
reduce the number of the farm members by two thirds, and also to wear the hats
of the Jewish Order Police which would guarantee our security
Again we refused. The demand to send part of the farm members as foremen to the camps was never erased from the agenda. Sometimes they kidnapped members from the farm with the intention of deporting them, in order to prove to us that they did not take us into consideration. And we, as much as we could, released our friends from the clutches of the Judenrat. We had learnt to take advantage of the inner conflicts and the competition among the Judenrat members. We never gave in. And it seems that they respected us for that, because why else did they not take the most extreme steps against us despite the constant struggle that existed between us.
A special chapter in Meryn's history is his attempt to set up a sort of a Meryn-Jugend a Jewish youth movement which would cooperate with him. This attempt was doomed to complete failure. The youth activists were invited to a meeting with Meryn, in which he lectured to them on the vocation of the youth to assist the Judenrat in carrying out its policy. He claimed that the Jewish community in Będzin existed only thanks to the Judenrat. He also dispersed promises that he would take care of their parents and so on. I must stress here that all the youth groups turned down his proposal unanimously, and this rejection, considering the conditions which prevailed those days, involved great courage and audacity. Later Meryn tried to set up a youth department of the Judenrat, headed by a certain Borzykowski but he did not succeed in founding any organized youth group.
The farm was engaged in an continual struggle for survival, and it was a life center for the Jewish youth (including those not in movements) in the darkest period. At the same time it was not cut off from what was going on in town and from the life of the Jews in the Ghetto. Sometimes members of the farm interfered actively in order to rescue Jews from deportation. When the Ghetto was set up and it was impossible to get in or out without passes, the Germans became used to the fact that farm members were free to come and go uninterruptedly.
At the end of 1942 the disintegration of the farm began. This development was obviously connected to the general situation in the Ghetto in those fateful days. Every body realized that the end was not far ahead
The members lost their families and left the farm to take care of those who remained. There were those who left the farm hoping to find a job in one of the shops to secure their lives. Quite a few were kidnapped during their visit to the Ghetto and were sent to the camps, and we could do nothing to help them
On the farm itself there were permanent shortages. The Judenrat had never paid the farm members for their work. In better times the farm members were allotted a small addition to the regular quotas which all the Ghetto Jews received. It was very little, but in a communal kitchen with the addition of the farm products we could provide the members with enough food which was also good in comparison to the food in the Ghetto. Members who ploughed or harvested received enlarged portions.
Now the farm did not receive even the regular quota. A similar process took place in the Kibbutz. Without the supportive help of Cymerman, who worked in the Judenrat kitchen, the farm and Kibbutz members would have starved to death.
In February 1943 I moved to the Ghetto but continued to run the farm business
until I was arrested on April 21, 1943. At that time there were about 30
members on the farm who stayed there until the liquidation.
G) How I was saved
How I was saved is an affair in itself, which reflects the terrorized atmosphere of those days.
Our connections with overseas Vilna, Constantinople, Switzerland had existed since 1940 (except for our relations with Warsaw). The letters (postcards) had been written in German, in a family style, with hints. Because members of the movement started to receive family postcards, we found out that that was the only way of corresponding between members of the movement abroad and us, who were locked within the walls of Będzin. We would send the answers through the office department of the Judenrat who had a postmark of their own, or through the mail outside the Ghetto, with the help of Polish acquaintances. In time it became harder and harder. Anyone who sent a letter abroad had to report to the post office and prove his identity. Very few of the Poles were ready to do it, not even for a large sum of money. In our replies we tried to inform them of what was going on, for example deportation visited us 'death-zki' married two thousands and so on. As early as 1940 Natan Szwalb wrote us in one of his letters that his relatives want to send us a birthday present and asked what we would like aunt certificatke or uncle passport to send us We smiled because we did not believe then that there was a possibility to leave occupied Poland. Even when the writer repeated the same questions we did not respond. When Dr. Natan Eck arrived in Będzin he confirmed the possibility of leaving Poland with a foreign passport. In time he himself received in an envelope sealed with the censor's stamp with a photocopy of his passport.
Now we started to take care of the Dr. Natan Eck's departure. I took his passport and was taken as detainee to Sosnowiec (there was no other way to leave the Ghetto) in order to meet with the person in charge of police affairs, Aron Lewinsztajn, at the Judenrats center and to consult with him. I asked him in general, without mentioning names, about the fate of those Jews who in the past had not registered according to the authorities' decree and were in fact foreign citizens, but the Germans knew about them and probably had their names and certificates written down in the censor. I did not mention Eck's name in order not to endanger him in the event of a negative reply. Lewinsztajn promised to ask the authorities about it and let us know. And indeed, in our next meeting he told us that he contacted the German police who explained that the owner of such a passport had to hand it in to the police and wait until they came and took him to a special camp for foreign citizens. Eventually, policemen of the Jewish Order Police took Eck to the Judenrat and from there to Tittmoning camp in Bavaria. After a while I received letters from him in which he wrote that he had arrived safely. That was the first case of rescuing a Jew from the Ghetto (except for cases of the exchange of Eretz Yisrael citizens for German detainees).
At that time the youth began a bitter and fateful discussion concerning the direction they had to take, now that the situation was becoming more and more dangerous: should they remain in the Ghetto with its people to the bitter end or search for ways to be saved. Here and there was talk about active resistance and rebellion against deportation and extermination. Finally the youth decided (each movement separately) that they should stay with the Jews till the end. Later it was decided to get passports for only two representatives of every youth movement so that they could survive to tell what happened to the Jews of Będzin.
The story about the passports affair, in general, and Dr. Eck's escape in particular, left a strong impression in the Ghetto. Thousands of letters were sent to Switzerland and in all of them pictures and a more or less disguised request The letters were sent mainly to Dr. Silbersztajn and Szwalb. The addresses were obtained from the post-office officials in exchange for payment.
In addition to the above mentioned hundreds of letters were sent to private people such as A. Szwarcberg , Boczko and others.
Due to the severity of the situation, as a result of the flood of applications,
Dr. Silbersztajn asked me to set up a committee which would represent the
parties, (Familienrat), and take care of the issue of passports. After some
consultation it was decided not to set up a committee of the parties but to let
each party individually recommend people according to their own decision.
|Meryn's letter to Alfred Szwarcbaum in Switzerland,
in which he asks not to contact people other than himself
This flood of letters was cut short by the Judenrat who confiscated most of the letters. Only letters of those related to the Judenrat, or of those who knew how to manage outside of the Judenrat post, were sent.
Although everybody spoke about the drachia, we did not know anything about it. When the Germans invaded Poland, they put up notices announcing that all foreign citizens must report to the authorities and would be sent to special camps as prisoners of war. In most cases the Gestapo did not care whether the Jews were citizens of other countries or not, but since there were places where the Germans didn't distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish foreign citizens, Jews started to request from their American relatives abroad to send them certificates or a consular document confirming their citizenship.
It is hard for me to determine whether Dr. Silbersztajn who headed the rescue committee in Switzerland and sent hundreds of passports to the countries under Nazi occupation is the one who invented the idea of passports for rescue. It is possible that he initiated the idea and turned it into one of the most important tools in his intricate rescue operations.
As mentioned before, the Nazis did not respond unilaterally to owners of passports, but those who did manage to reach a camp for foreign citizens did not always survive. The cases of the Vital and Bergen-Belsen camps are well known. The Germans withdrew 200 people from the first camp and nearly 3000 Jews who held South-American passports from the second camp and sent them to Auschwitz (according to Dr. Eck's survey).
In this way I too received my passport and some more people as well. It was at the end of March, 1943. On April 23 of that year I was arrested. I handed my passport to the Judenrat who passed it on to the German police. Then came the people of the Jewish Order Police and put me under temporary detention for about a month, and from there, on May the 14th, 1943,. I was sent to Tittmoning camp, where I met, among others, Natan Eck.
Here I must mention two meetings which shed light on those who volunteered to head the Jewish public at that fateful hour.
We had another two passports for female members in our possession which we could not present to the authorities together with ours because at that time the girls were in Częstochowa. We managed to smuggle them across the border, but meanwhile we had already been arrested. Their situation was particularly difficult because not only did they not have Sonders (permits of occupation of the special authority the Sonderbeauftragter), but they were illegal as well (not on the list of residents).
The leadership of Gordonia determined that I must convince Lewinsztajn (my pre-war friend) to add the girls to our list. I told the jailer that I did not feel well and wanted to visit the doctor. On that day the new, young Dr. Zylberszac arrived. I told him that I wanted to get to the Judenrat's center. For that purpose I had asked to be sent to the doctor. Dr. Zylberszac informed the prison director of my so-called illness and suggested that I be sent to a doctor in Sosnowiec. The following day a jailer took me to the Judenrat and from there, accompanied by a Jewish policeman, to Sosnowiec.
Lewinsztajn tried to leave a good impression but he could not arrange the addition of the two girls to our list. He promised that they would come with the second dispatch.
I took advantage of that opportunity and raised another problem. Icchak
Bornsztajn, a member of Poalei Zion, had traveled to Columbia before the war,
and in 1940 had sent a certificate from there for his wife who remained in
Będzin confirming that she is the wife of an American citizen.
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