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[Page 385]

“Trifles” about the Great Human-Catastrophe

by Eliezer Davidovitch[1]

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

When we heard that the Germans had crossed the border from Germany and crossed into Polish territory, Poland still considered itself to be quite strong. It maintained that we would win the war. Without doubt. So Poland maintained. But while there were radios in Bielsk, we sat by those radios all day and listened to the news. People wanted to listen to the radio because there were no newspapers. People sat together near radios and listened to the news. At the beginning of the evening we sat by the radios, hundreds of people, and discussed the situation of the war. But as we heard through the radio, every day grew worse. The war was going according to the German plan. As the German army moved forward, the Polish army ran further and further away. Soon we saw in Bielsk how the Polish army was running. They had no transportation for fleeing. They went on wagons that they had seized from the peasants in the villages. With their broken wagons and boards we saw how they fled through Bielsk, toward Grodno. Not only toward Grodno but also toward Walkovisk. Not only did they lack machines, but they had no fuel. If a driver had a flat tire - he would not have a spare. In this way, the Polish army was totally routed. They had no leaders, because their leaders had fled earlier. Together with the army, the panicked civilian population also fled. Many went on foot. Those who could - traveled with whatever they could.

One nice morning we saw strangers wandering around. The Germans sent advanced troops, and we did not know who they were.

They went around the city like priests or noblemen, and we did not know who they were. Poles in Bielsk grabbed one of them. They said he was a spy - a priest. They led him around, and everyone followed. The police freed him, and to this day no one knows who he was. There were hundreds of such men who were suspected, but

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no one knew if the suspicions had any basis. This was the psychosis of panic.

How did this happen? - Poland and Germany had coexisted well before the war. Goering had been with us. Goebbels traveled through Bielsk to hunt in Bialowieza, and the Polish government befriended them. Certainly they were “at home” with the Poles. Because antisemitism was also so strong in Poland, people beat and killed Jews in Poland, following the example of Germany. Poland and Germany shared that ideology. Espionage was sometimes more and sometimes less. In those last days, Warsaw was heavily bombed. Warsaw fell and was taken. And Jews ran further. Among the other refugees, many came to Bielsk from Warsaw in flight from the Germans, and from Bielsk they went further. We did not want to believe the horrible things they were saying, because the German occupation of 1918 had been far different. The Germans had given Jews the same rights as other people. Later on we acknowledged the Germans, and we did not have to recount the rights that we had had under them.

Meanwhile they continued the heavy bombardment until the Polish army was defeated and the Germans took over the country, including our city. As soon as they took Bielsk, they spread throughout the city and then went further. They went further - and everyone fled from them. But not everyone had somewhere to go, and many returned.

For four weeks we were with the Germans, and after four weeks there was a treaty between Stalin and Hitler. They divided up Poland, and the Germans withdrew. The Russian army came to Bielsk.

Understand that when the Germans were there, many hid from them, and when the Russians came there was much happiness and many people returned to the city. In our city a civilian government was set up, with police, and life returned to a somewhat normal state. Later, cooperatives were established: for tailors, shoemakers, and others, and people went to work for them, because there was no private property and everyone was legally required to work. So I went to work. Just as in Russia, people began to create “collectives” and as in the past to share sugar, candy, bread, and so on. One could not go into

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a store to purchase, pay, and leave. One had to go to the collective for everything. And a collective was not for 10 people but for 500 or even a thousand, and one could stand at the collective for whole days and nights in the bitter cold. People would go to the collective in the middle of the night, dressed warmly, and finally one would get a flask of whisky. But often when your turn came, they told you, “We have no more today, none at all.” So one went home. So the time went by. And as time went by and one could not survive on what one earned at work, people began to stay in the collective to speculate. If one stayed in the collective and managed to get a flask of whisky and then sold it, he managed to get three times as much as he would in the same amount of time at work. So it developed that people did not want to work and would rather stay at the collective. Jews also went to the collective in Bialystok. Everything was there. I myself went several times to Bialystok to stand in the collective and get sugar, herring, sweets, and other things.


The Beginnings of the Nazi Regime

One nice morning (June 22, 1941), we were all sleeping and aware of nothing. People had discussed whether or not there would be war, but we slept at night, the whole population of Bielsk. Suddenly that night - we were being bombed. At first we did not know who was doing the bombing. People thought it was maneuvers. My home was right opposite from the shul, and in the shul were soldiers and pilots. This was directly opposite from my house on Beis-Medresh Street where they shot and bombed. They wanted to know where the soldiers were. But still we thought this was maneuvers. As more bombs fell - so I remember - I began to tear open the shutters. I put on a cap and ran out into the street. I saw soldiers running naked. Victims were lying there and people were fleeing. But people did not know where to run. Then people realized we were at war. People threw on clothes and came outside. In the streets the soldiers were running here and there and said that war with the Germans had begun and that the Germans had invaded Russia.

So passed a day or two, until the whole Russian army in our area was defeated, hacked up. And all the machines

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that stood at the airport and at other places, planes and tanks, all were shattered and destroyed.

Pecker and I were then working for the army in Piliki. That was where the airport was, and after that night we could no longer work because everything had been bombed, the airport and the road leading to it, and we could not get to work

Two days later the German army arrived. Everything around was burning, and there were already many victims. At Yarka Bradzhinski's a bomb had fallen and his daughter was killed. People searched for her without knowing where she was, because the bomb had exploded and made a mountain of wreckage, and she was under that mountain. My brother and I, along with Yarka's older son, searched for her for a long time, but my brother said, “Where can she be when they keep bombing everywhere?” She was simply destroyed. We dug through that mountain and pulled out her dead body. The bomb also destroyed half a house. No one had ever seen such a thing. A second bomb had fallen near Birger the lawyer and killed him. Another bomb had burned the entire area around Zucker, killed Mushke Guterman, and many other victims had fallen. These were the Germans' first victims. Christians were also killed. This was all before the Germans had arrived, German victims from a distance: from bombing and artillery.

Since the Russian army was already long gone, the Germans arrived from Bransk - a fine army, much finer than the Russians. As soon as they arrived, Jews began to hide, because as soon as they arrived, they shot Leibke the glazier. He had gone to get something to eat or drink. He was named Leibtshe Bagavski. In a couple of days, Russian prisoners had been taken and shot. They made no big deal of it, and they made no distinction between Russian civilians and soldiers. In a week or two came the order to form a civilian government in the city that should replace the military government that had replaced the Russian government, a kind of city council that should convey orders to the people in the city. As soon as the civilian government had been formed, things got worse. It conveyed rules, outrageous rules, from Germany. These were edicts for Jews. The first said that Jews must not be under the same roof as Christians. If a Christian were with a Jew in a building, the Christian could remain, but the Jew must leave. Not the Christian, but only the Jew had to leave. And where should he move to?

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Only among Jews. Then the conditions became difficult, because there was an order that people had to move out not in months or weeks but in a few days. And where? - They didn't care. In a Jewish area. Not, heaven forbid, in a better apartment. Everything was designed to make things harder and worse. Anyone who had a room or two was required to take in a family. Thus they crowded the Jews in. People were forced out and the Gentiles could remain while the Jews were gone. When this was done, all the Jews were in one area so that the Germans did not have to search for them.


The Ghetto[2]v/The Jewish Council[3]

When all the Jews were in one spot, an order came to form a Jewish Council. This meant that Jews themselves conducted Jewish life, the Jewish community. A Jewish Council with leadership, with a Council head. They received instructions from the Germans and had to convey them to the population, to the Jews. The Jewish Council with its leader and its whole apparatus was located on the premises of the Great Synagogue, the Yafeh Einayim Beis-Medresh; with a police force, with a commander, with everything, its own government. About internal matters the Germans had nothing to say. They would only send a note that this or that had to be done, thus and so. And all orders had to be carried out. And then every Jew received a yellow ribbon.


We bring the first victims of the Nazis for Jewish burial

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In two or three months an order was issued, when the Jews were all located together, that a ghetto must be created in such and such a time. The ghetto was made over a large area where Jews now dwelled. We ourselves made everything, but where could we get materials? We took all the rotten fences, everything that could be found in old buildings, and so on. And we ourselves made the fence. The fence was made so that no one could go through it; with wire, with two towers: one tower was on Kostshulavska near Smiatitzke, where one went out onto Beis-Medresh Street, and the other tower was made on Yeruzalamski. Two large towers, high, and near the towers stood on one side a Jewish guard and on the other side a Polish soldier. No Germans stood by the chief tower, only a Polish guard, because the Poles worked together with the Germans. The Germans would not have accomplished what they did with Jews if the Poles had not shown them how. Everything that the Germans did was done in the name of the Poles. They spoke and the Germans carried it out. It happened to me that when I still received leather from Vinnytsia, before the ghetto was created, two Germans came to me so that I should give them the leather. I said, “I have none,” and they went away. They searched and searched and went away because they were sure I had none. As soon as they were gone, they met a Pole as they went emptyhanded. He saw this and asked, “Nu, what's going on?” They said there was none. He said, “He has it. He has a lot of leather.” So they came back and began to search in my home, in the attic, overturning crates, and they searched until they were successful. When they found it, they came to me and said, “Why did you say you had none? Why did you deceive us? You should have given it to us right away.” And they began to beat me, then took it away.

When the separation came, Poles, guards, and Germans all had the right to enter properties,. All had the right to enter and indicate that such-and-such a Jew had such-and-such property. “Go take it. He'll give it to you.” And so it was. But when the ghetto was created, not everyone could enter. Only government gendarmes, Gestapo, SS murderers could enter. They had the right to enter and seize. They did not have to steal. They would go to the Jewish Council and say that they needed 50 butters [perhaps pounds or sticks]

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furniture, boots, suits, and so on, and the Jewish Council presented them. They had to present what was ordered. Nothing was too difficult or too dear. And if we did not have it in Bielsk, it was brought in from Bialystok. It was purchased and must be presented. So did our lives go. It was a weekly thing.

We stayed in the ghetto. We were almost our own bosses. We had almost nothing to do with anyone. We had our own government in the ghetto. So? - The rules came from the Germans to the Jewish Council and the Jewish Council carried them out, whether they wanted to or not. We worked plenty, whether we wanted to or not. The Jews had to be kept busy. Without distinction, we had to dig holes and then fill them in and do it again. We were not paid for our labor. We were paid with trifles that were worth nothing. It once happened that they took 20 men, led by Zavl Barkhat, as I recall, and sent us to work at Lev the pharmacist as diggers, to dig holes, although they were not needed. But the Germans feared lest someone escape, so they stenciled numbers on our foreheads, from 1 to 20. So if one escaped, they would know who it was by the number. So it was. Such tricks did the Germans perform with the Jews.

Then came the order that Jews should wear a yellow ribbon. The ghetto had already been made, with its towers and so on - people would go out to work. But heaven forbid someone should go out without the ribbon, a ribbon on the shoulder, a yellow Magen Dovid and a ribbon on the chest. And if someone caught a Jew without a ribbon or not exactly as had been ordered, he would be badly beaten. And in walking, one dared not walk on the sidewalk, heaven forbid, because people walked on the sidewalk. The Jews had no right. They were like dogs and beasts. A beast walks in the street and we walked, as an insult, in the street at the same time as the filthy Poles who were there could walk on the sidewalk. Thus we went to work. Thus we built roads with broken stones. We were driven to work in the harshest days of winter. What could we do? If the Jewish Council put out a list and said that people had to go out to work, we went. Others thanked God that they would go out to work so they could buy a little milk or a piece of

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bread. Otherwise there was no way of getting nourishment. One would meet with a Christian, give him boots in exchange for things, because there was no money. You would give a pair of shoes or some little merchandise, and he would give a bottle of milk, a piece of bread. In this way people would bring into the ghetto what they needed to eat. All brought these bits of food for the little children, the women and men. Then came the order for tributes. That was what they called the taxes. One time three kilos of gold were demanded, and then another time (I do not remember how often). If the Jewish Council received an order to present gold, they presented gold. One time, two times. But this was not the whole tragedy. We would have given everything that we had if we had been allowed to live. But regretfully this was not their intention. They wanted to extract everything they could from us and then exterminate us. We could not be sure of life or of Yiddishkeit. For us there was no Yom Kippur, no Shabbos - always we worked. We never thought about Shabbos or Sunday. We worked. People thought that perhaps their labor would save them. They said that those who worked would be saved.

The leader of the Jewish Council was Freidkes. He lives no longer. And Shomke Epshteyn was an important member of the Jewish Council. Letshtsh was another leader of the Council, and Mendel Gallant. There were others, but my memory fails me. They had to convey the orders and carry them out. There was also “our own” police force. Weinshteyn from Orla was the commander, and we even had our own court system, led by Melemadovitz and by Muskant the lawyer and others. Thus was the Jewish Council led.


Closed off from the World

We were closed off and no one knew what was happening to the Jews deep inside Poland. We could not even tell how many were involved. We heard nothing. I came to my brother-in-law, Yankel Eppe. A couple from Warsaw had come to him and were asked, “Why have you fled from Warsaw?” One responded, “Don't you know what's going on in Warsaw? They take Jews and put them in the train cars with lime, close up the wagons, and take them away. We saw such things and we fled.” We thought this was an exaggeration. Perhaps these were blackmailers and they went around fooling everyone in order to get money or other things -

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We simply could not believe them. We could not believe what the Germans had done. But those who saw it with their own eyes knew that it was the truth.

Our Jewish Council did what it was required to do. We heard that there were cases in cities where Jewish Council members took bribes. In Lodz, for instance, we heard that the Jewish Council leader was such a person. By us, however, there was no such thing.

Before the ghetto was established, 30 men were chosen as hostages. They were among the best men in the city, the intelligentsia of the city, 30 men, among them a shochet with his son, Aharon the shochet, and Aharon Nissl the teacher, and Geyer. I cannot remember all of them after so many years. They were taken away - no one knew where or how. When the war ended, no one knew where there remains were. This group of hostages was taken so that the population would not begin to rebel. They took not only Jews. They also took Poles. Later they demanded the best things - butter, furniture - they demanded everything. And they demanded that we give it to them. The Jewish Council ordered us to give it to the Germans. Thus did we live in the ghetto, shut up as if in jail, for we knew not how long.


We Bury Jews - The Ghetto Is Shut In

One month before the ghetto was liquidated, the Jewish Council purchased potatoes for the people from the Germans. The Jewish Council bought them and we bought them from the Council. But where could we keep them when our homes were full of people? Two or three families were crowded into one dwelling place. We were stuffed together. People dug holes big enough for the potatoes they had bought and each buried in those holes the potatoes from the Jewish Council so that they would have something to eat in the winter. Then they prepared butter, meat, and so on. But what was the result? - One nice morning we heard through the loudspeakers that the whole Bialystok region was to be evacuated. And soon a placard was hung on the Jewish Council headquarters that everyone should be prepared to be taken to the Black Sea for labor. They needed people to work. Everyone should prepare things to take with them. In order to make the population useful, the ghetto, which had been closed, was now opened - the gates were opened and the Germans would take people out to work. As soon

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as the order came, the gates were closed and no one was allowed out. On every side stood strong squads of Germans. No one was allowed out. People could see death, but they could not hide. The screaming and crying were terrible. There was awful panic. People escaped from the ghetto through the fences that they broke down, but to what end? All around stood the Ukrainians. I remember when Velvel Kreinberg and Yankel Reiber ran from the ghetto, they were immediately captured and shot, and their bodies were thrown back into the ghetto. They were buried near the beis-medresh by the Chasidic prayer house. I was there and saw with my own eyes how they were buried. Both together. Two comrades went out together and were buried together. After that there was a case of a family from Durgatsh in Bielsk, a fine man, a fine Jew, a Chasidic man. I cannot remember his name, but they lived in a room with my brother-in-law. They were sent to us from Durgatsh by the Russians, because it was by the border and they were well off, rich, and rich Jews did not dare to remain by the border, near the Russian government. They feared for their wealth. There were many such in Bielsk, and at the time of the panic they - two brothers and a sister - escaped from the ghetto. A Christian betrayed them to the Germans and they were captured, shot and thrown into the ghetto. They, too, were buried in the ghetto, between the shul and the beis-medresh. I remember it as if it were today, because I was near the burial and my father said:

“Children, may the earth close over you. Fallen, that is your fate. Destruction, the law, the edict, fallen children.”

And then my father buried the two sons and the daughter. There were other such cases when people escaped and were not saved. All who escaped from the ghetto in an attempt to save themselves were caught, shot, and thrown back into the ghetto.


The Bielsk Ghetto Will Be Liquidated

From Bielsk itself we were sent on the last transport. We were forty-some families that worked for the Germans. All were craftsmen, shoemakers and stitchers. Earlier we had done unskilled labor. But then when the terrible cold of Stalingrad occurred, when we saw

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with our own eyes how trucks came laden with frozen Germans - the Germans made a factory near us and we worked to make warm boots and felt garments that they sent to the front, so that the Germans could be warm. Many envied us, because we would remain alive. They said it was good for us that we worked for the Germans.

We worked until they liquidated the Bielsk ghetto. How did they liquidate the Bielsk ghetto? - Earlier they had brought to Bielsk Jews from the surrounding towns, where there were no trains, such as Bransk, Orla, Bocki, Narew. They arranged transport after transport of Jews with their belongings, with small children, carrying them like gypsies. In this way they were brought to the ghetto. They opened the gate, with a large squad on both sides. They were led in and counted; they were brought in before evening and the Jewish Council was given an order that as soon as they were in, the Council had to get them to the train station. Soon there were vehicles to take them to the station. When they had gone, an order appeared at the Council that all the refugees should be at Jagilonski by the gate [at the intersection of currently named Jagiellonska and Mikolaja Kopernika streets]. There they were arranged in rows and counted, then led on foot to the train station through back streets. They were urged on with rifles and thus led to the station. At the station they were thrown into the cars like animals. They were taken away. We did not know where or why. In the morning there was another transport, and each time it was strangers, not Bielskers. One day the Jewish Council received an order to begin assembling transports of Bielsk Jews.


How They Took Us, the Last Ones in the Bielsk Ghetto, Away

We were 42 families. There was a general working spot, a German working spot outside the ghetto and a Jewish one inside. We were registered in the German area because we were working for the Wehrmacht there. We heard that the 42 families would be evacuated to Bialystok as people, without train cars. There were special machines to take us. They began to lead us to the waiting vehicles. Everyone envied us because we were the luckiest and would remain alive. I remember well, as if it were today, when Baranietz from Parowa Mill was with his rescued ones. He said to me:

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“Take my valise with you. It will be worthwhile for you. Take it with you to Bialystok.”

What he thought was that the valise would make it possible for him to travel with us or to come later. The rumor was that we would be rescued. I said to him:

“I have a brother, sisters-in-law, and their child and I cannot help. I can't take them with me. You can see my whole family standing and crying. My brother-in-law's girl stood near me and begged,

“Leyzer, perhaps you can take me along?”

How could I? An SS man was standing there with a list in his hand and he called out each person's name and his children. We were thrown into cars, which were filled up and closed. So many people were packed into each car that it was hard to breathe. The sweat dropped like rain from each person. How could we have brought along anyone else?

In this way we arrived in Bialystok. There we were taken out directly to the Jewish Council. From there they sent us to a school that was so small that we were one on top of another. They did so in order that we would suffocate, without food or drink, so that we would die.

In Bialystok we worked for 4-5 months in the same kind of factory in which we had worked in Bielsk.

At the end of 1942 we were taken out, and the selection in Bialystok began in 1943. When we worked, we had just enough food to be hungry. We were the first selection from Bialystok. Not only us, but 800 men were chosen. The Jewish Council had to come up with 4000. That was a huge transport, and people were chosen without making any distinctions.

As we were concentrated in the school, as I recall, an SS man would be there with a rifle that he shot into the air. People ran. People hid. People did not want to go. People took their little packs, holding their children, and went out into the street. We were taken to the highway. It was snowing. Around us, on the sidewalks, were machine guns. Anyone who thought about moving would be shot. We were arranged in alphabetical order by names and we were taken to the Police Station via Bialystok's back streets. They had brought wagons of bread, and each person received some. Our group was better off, because we were put into open wagons - passenger cars, though on the benches of the wagons stood Gestapo men

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to shoot anyone who jumped from the train. There were many cases of people jumping from the train. They were taking us we knew not where.

On a Friday night they were taking us, but we did not know where. We traveled and traveled. The woods came to an end and there was wilderness. We kept on going. We were all being taken, I with my whole family, with my father and mother. We all worked in one factory, I and my sister and brother-in-law and their four children, among them a pair of twins, and we all traveled in one wagon. A brother and sister-in-law remained in the ghetto, and one brother had escaped from the Bielsk ghetto. So we were being taken, but no one knew where we were going. Only when we arrived at Warsaw-Praga [a neighborhood in Warsaw] did people recognize where we were. Where would we be going was the question. We did not know. Our lips were parched because we had gone for so long without a drop of water. Later we came, as I recall, to Czestochowa - a large station. People were working on the train line there. We saw that they were Jews, because they were wearing the Mogen-Dovid. We begged them to throw pieces of ice into the car. Those who were being deported on the train threw watches and other things so that the people outside would throw in pieces of ice, because we were afraid that our lips would wither. In this way the whole group proceeded.



From Czestochowa we went on to Kopalnia, where they dig for coal. There we deduced that we were in the region of Katowice. We traveled and traveled and traveled and saw nothing until we arrived at a spot where the train stopped.

The train stopped in a place where a special line went to the camp of Auschwitz, but we did not know where they were taking us, because we had never heard of Auschwitz. They brought us to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

How did we know we were in Auschwitz? The train halted, when the sun had stopped shining. The snow on the ground was melted and smooth. We could see the camp from a distance. The electricity burned. The spotlights shone. All around were electrified fences, so that anyone who

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dared to get near them would be finished off. All those lights indicated that this was the place.

When the train stopped, we saw through the windows how the Gestapo men, those killers, came out of the camp with clubs, while the officers gave the order:

“All shit out of the train, all shit out of the train.”

So it was. Everyone began to exit the train. Many were already dead from the cold, from thirst, from hunger. Who paid attention? Those who remained alive left the wagon. They counted us and began to sort us, young, old, left, right - you to the right, you to the left. I remember how my father went with me. Someone asked us,

“What are you doing?”

In the meantime, he was struck with a rifle and he was taken to the older people. I was sent to the right with the younger ones. They sorted and counted. Soon large trucks arrived. They set up steps by the trucks so the women and children could get in. I remember that my wife and children came to me and she said, “Leyzer, we are saying goodbye forever. We will never see each other again.”

And they kissed me.

The women and children were taken away in the trucks. The gates of the camp were opened, guarded by many Gestapo men, and they were taken away from Auschwitz. Where they were taken no one knows until this very day. Probably they were taken to the crematorium in Birkenau that was 3 kilometers from Auschwitz. Birkenau was a large camp, with many barracks, and there was a crematorium to incinerate the deportees. In Auschwitz there were once military barracks that were turned into a large camp. Auschwitz and Birkenau were one and the same. But Birkenau was the larger incineration place in volume. The majority of deportees were incinerated there. There, too, there were selections between the young and the old. Children were especially kept separate. But children - how could a child save himself? There were also cases when women sent their children away with the idea that that would save them. We men were lined up by the Gestapo, led to the gate, counted again, this many and this many, and led away to the camp. There we were turned over to imprisoned Frenchmen who had already been in the camp. The snow grew heavier. In the camp

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itself there were no SS men. Everything there was done by different prisoners.

As they led us, our new overseers said,

“Friends, if you have gold, watches, dollars, hand them over now, because there you will be forced to turn them over. Better you should give them to us. It's all the same.”

Many did give their things, and many did not. Because whoever had desirable things in the camp had an advantage. Even in the camp business was conducted.

We were led we knew not where. It seemed correct to us that we, too, were being led to death. But we were taken to a bathhouse. Every transport had to go through the bathhouse, and before that everyone's possessions were taken. We were ordered to undress. Everything was taken and we were led into the bathhouse. In front stood an SS man along with a French prisoner. Both of them spoke to us. The SS guy also spoke Yiddish. People understood what he said with an ugly expression. He said,

“Whoever has gold should take it out and throw it into the valise row by row.”

Everyone in the row went and threw into the valise whatever possessions he had.

When I left my house in Bielsk, when I was put into the vehicle and taken to Bialystok, I took along a pillow so I could lay down my head. But in Bialystok many things were taken from me, so that here I had brought with me no more than a watch on my wrist, nothing else. I joined the transport and left. When we were brought to Auschwitz and taken to the bathhouse, there was a long line of men who were already naked, everything having been taken from them. There was a huge pile of seized valuables in the valises.

So we went into the bath this way, all our bones broken and our limbs in pain - the bath was heated, a pleasure. Working in the bath were French prisoners who had been in the camp for a while. We were told to climb on the steam-benches in the shvitzbath [steam bath]. We were hungry and broken down, but we quickly climbed up. Water was poured on the hot stove and steam arose. The steam covered the men, and it was indeed good. But that was not the main thing.

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This lasted for only half an hour. Earlier in the bath, we were told that many men were waiting together, but now, when we were separated for the final journey, those who had bathed were singled out.

After the shvitzbath, when everything was good, we were herded into a large room, with large cracks. It was winter, January. The cold tore through those cracks and we were ordered to take a cold shower! From the hot shvitzbath to take a cold shower in a cold room! How can one take a cold shower in January? Anyone who held back was forced on with clubs and blows. The result was that we were forced under the cold water. This was all done in order to kill people. Afterwards we stood naked and we waited. We had no underwear or clothing. We stood in a line and waited, still wet in the bitter cold. Later, each of us received a kind of pajama-suit with stripes all around and a cross, as a sign lest someone should escape from the camp, so he would be easily recognized as an escapee.

Then we were forced again to stand and wait. Those who physically were able, stood, and those who could not, we quickly recognized, had lung infections and would not last long. They were already done for. They were taken out of line and led to death. Those who had held up were put in a line. But it was not so simple. Everything was done with a list and we were led, but we did not know where. We saw the men who had fallen. They had high fevers. There was a Bielsker, Burtshok, another who had fled to us [in Bielsk] from the Germans, and Barnatzka.

I remember those three.

They had been taken away. We saw that they were no longer human. The first had had his shoes removed, but we did not know where they were. We were taken away to Birkenau.


We Are in Birkenau

Having been taken into the camp, we were settled in a block. In the block there were already Jews who had been brought from Grodno before us. There we saw an image of the eve of death, Jews who could not stand. They had not been given food. During the day they were given 200 grams of bread and a little water. They fell like flies and we saw near the door - not a door, but a kind of gate - how

[Page 401]

people fell to sleep on the tri-level bunks. Later they were helped down from the bunks, everyone, including those who could not be saved, as people saw that they were already not alive. They were thrown as if they were alive among the dead on the floor. We were given bunks. In the morning we were taken out to the street and forced to drill like soldiers. I do not remember how many of us there were. About 80 men remained from the transport. We were not only Bielskers but also Bialystokers were mixed in with us. In the bathhouse there must have been 80 men, and we were missing one. So there were 79. There was an alarm over what had become of that man. The camp was overturned, but the man was not found. The Gestapo thought he must be in the bathhouse. They overturned the mound of things down to the floor and found the man. He thought everyone was being taken to be killed, so he hid in that mountain of things. He was by profession a tinsmith and might have been allowed to live, but after he was caught, he had little hope of remaining alive. He was brought back to us where we stood and drilled. They brought him back so we could see what they would do to him. They killed him as only human beasts could. The Gestapo made a game out of shooting him. After the first few bullets he was dead, but each of them continued shooting, more shots. They taught us. An SS man stood there and taught us. This was the lesson: Take off your hat, put on your hat. Off, on. This had to be done immediately, as one learned in the army. “Yes, sir.”

We were there for six weeks and were taught such lessons, and then we were taken to a gypsy camp near the Brzezinka area, a few hundred meters from the crematorium. We were fenced in there with barbed wire in a special section. There were blocks there. The water and mud were so deep that if one stepped into them, one could not pull out his shoes. The crematorium was 200 meters from us. For six weeks this was our home. Those six weeks were a lifetime. Those who stood up to it could perhaps continue living, but it was hard to do so. We had nothing to do there. We had to carry sand to make a road. We had to carry the sand in a hat or in the pocket from a jacket. This meant treating people as nothings. During those six weeks

[Page 402]

the cold and the snow became worse. We slept on bunks that were on three levels. Eight men slept on each level on bare planks. I remember how it was at night. The bitter winter blew the cold through the cracks and the cold bit into our flesh like needles and gnawed and cut. When we had to lie down to sleep, our shoes had to stand evenly, as if they had been measured against a board they had to be even. Going to sleep and getting up had to occur at a precise time, and anyone who was late in bed could be killed.

In the morning we were given a little bitter coffee and then forced out into the street, where we had to stand until we were ordered to go back inside. But we were nearly naked out in the cold, so we rubbed up against each other like chickens to get a little warmer. You can imagine what it meant to be shoulder to shoulder to get warm, one against the other, through six weeks. That is how we lived.

At that point we were moved from one block to another. At one time we had a block leader, a dear Jewish school head's son. A scoundrel, he made our time seem like years. He behaved like a Pole. Do I know what he meant by that? After that petty tyrant we had a block leader who was French, but as much of a killer as the Germans. After everyone else, they brought into our camp 10,000 German Gypsies with wives and children - I guess they came from good stock - and we had to bring them food from the kitchen to their camp. Whole barrels of food that required the efforts of 3-4 men. These were potatoes with skin. We had to carry the barrel a distance, a half kilometer, but as we carried the barrel, it became half full. They noticed this and issued an order with heavy clubs to those who carried the barrels. That did not dissuade us, because hunger was more powerful than beatings. When we carried those potatoes, we would go into an empty block, unload half the barrel of potatoes with skin, and hide them. Later we took them out and filled ourselves with them. Blows did not help. They beat us savagely for these constant thefts.

Those Gypsies were fine people, officers from the German army who were called out of the army because they were gypsies. Gypsies and Jews were for the Germans the same thing. Gypsies and Jews should be killed. So the Germans killed

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the Gypsies. We brought them food and everything, but they were killed down to the last one, like Jews.

Finally, when we were taken from Birkenau, we had a block leader, a manager, a Pole, a good boy. He gave us food and comforted us:

In Polish he said, “Children, be strong. The sun will shine for us, too. Be strong and you will stay alive.”


Back to Auschwitz

Six weeks passed, and an order arrived that we be taken to the central camp of Auschwitz. Being in Birkenau had carried with it the odor of burned human flesh. We had the odor of human bodies as well as burned flesh or skin over long distances. Thus we constantly had the odor of burned bodies. They brought in the people, took all that they had, then led them into the gas chambers, and from there to the crematorium. We did not see it with our own eyes, but we knew that they burned us. This lasted for six weeks, and we were taken to Auschwitz itself. Going from Birkenau to Auschwitz - 3 kilometers - we were chased and prodded to run faster. Arriving at Auschwitz, we saw the pattern of a camp. Auschwitz was not made of simple blocks. There, even before Polish times, had been superb military barracks, two-storied blocks with paved roads and footpaths. Altogether a fine camp. When we got there, we were given other things to wear and on the next day wooden shoes as well.

We spent the whole day in the block. On other days we were all summoned outside to the camp square and arranged according to our profession. They came to me and asked my profession. I was a shoemaker. Someone else was asked, “What are you?” “A tailor.” So each one gave his profession. In the morning we were rushed out to roll call, as in the army. Every morning they rang a bell for when we should get up and when we should go to sleep. After the bell, we would stand in the square of the camp. In the camp we stood as if in the army. Before the gate stood an orchestra, a fine orchestra. I never saw such a thing in Poland. Leaving the camp, we all had to go as if in the army, “one, two,” while they

[Page 404]

played music. We would march out to where the SS men stood, to whom we were handed over and who led us away. We were taken to the Auschwitz workplace, about 3 kilometers away via the road. A large building was there, a factory, fenced in, with watchtowers, and there 800 men worked, not only in my profession but in all professions. Each one was seated at a table for four, me and Chaim, my brother-in-law, at one table, along with another man and a Greek. There were Greeks and Poles. When we were brought in, they raised a commotion. They were there from earlier. The Poles had the highest standing. They had more rights than we did. When we came in, they gave us clothes with stripes, like pajamas, with a yellow number and Mogen Dovid and a red stripe on the chest with a printed number 1941. That was my number. I wore that on my chest and one on my side, a yellow one. They had to be kept clean so that they could be recognized. They gave them to us, and we had to sew them on.

Soon after our arrival in the factory, they sat us at the tables. Since we were new, the Poles began to make fun of us. It was pretty bad. They hit us, tormented us. That is how they treated us in that time. We worked there for four months or more. Things were better for us. We were given a quota, and we had to fulfill it. From all the transports that came in from all of Europe, from wherever Hitler set foot, they took people's clothing, shoes, and so on. The people were incinerated, but the things they left were brought to us in the camp and we sat there and repaired them.

We worked the whole week. On Shabbos at 3, the work stopped. We had to clean, wash the floors. Earlier the Poles had done this, but now we had to. We had to do everything, and they were the superiors. Those in charge, the kapos, the big shots, were all Poles. But as we were in the camp for a little longer, when they told us to do something, we responded, “You're just like us,” and we would not serve them until they realized that they were just like us.

We worked for a time in group 14 in Auschwitz, which was called the “clothing group.” We clothed the whole camp. For us this was a good group. We did not have to work outside but in a closed-in building, a factory, where we had more chance of snatching a bit of bread. There were

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times when one received blows or beatings that led to bloodshed. One time I broke an awl, and when I went to the chief to ask for another, he gave me two such blows that for a time I could not hear out of one ear, all because I broke an awl. He was not a German but a Pole. When the Germans were the officers in the camp, I seldom received blows from them. One time when I was in the Bielsk ghetto, I received a blow from a German, but the Poles struck me often, for no reason, for no infraction, just because. If you broke a needle - a blow. So we suffered and declined. People get used to things.

On Shabbos at 3 we had to clean the whole factory. There was a bell [rung] and we had to descend from the second floor. We assembled in the square. We had a civilian overseer, a German, a terrible sadist. If he gave someone a blank stare, that man was dead. A blow from him would knock a man down, and if by chance the man remained upright, he would hit him over and over. A killer, a civilian overseer. He was in charge of the whole factory.

At 12 they would ring a bell and we would go up to eat. They would give each person a liter of food. One thing that happened there was that when they would bring the shoes from a transport from Poland, each time you would find something there. There was a case when a transport came from Greece and the seized shoes of the victims fell to me. I was supposed to repair them. I took a shoe to cut off the rotten part and I found some money. In others I found dollars. Later, two diamonds, then many other things as I worked in the workshop. But when one found such things, you understand, one had to turn them in. If not, the punishment was immediate death! Once I found German money in a boot and I carried it away. My friends mocked me for doing such a thing. Later I did not turn in what I had found, but to keep it in my pocket was dangerous, as it was to keep it in my room. So I had to find a place to hide it. One time in the factory, I put it in the tips of the large shoes that I carried so no one could see, but when we went from our work to the camp and into the block, one of the workers noticed, despite my care, and took the money from me.

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In the block we had to eat, because the night was mine, if not the day. We had to eat. Once I took a hundred dollars and went to a French Jew named Levitzki whom I knew. I said to the Frenchman, “Levitzki, I have money, but I need bread.” He replied, “Good.” I gave him the hundred dollars. In the camp, a hundred dollars and one dollar amounted to the same thing. Dollars were not lacking. Dollars in the camp were not so precious. Money was not lacking in the camp. I arranged with Levitzki that for the hundred dollars, he would give me 32 pieces of bread, and he began from time to time to give it to me. But after 10 or 12 pieces, I saw that he had stopped. He gave me no more, so I said to him,

“Levitzki, didn't you promise 32 pieces?”

He replied,

“Where should I get bread. If no one gives it to me, I can't give it to you. From where should I give it to you?” Nothing came of the business. Each of us had a bed that served as a closet, a counter, as everything. One could not have money. I once took two American gold twenty-dollar pieces and hid them in my mattress and stuffed the whole in my mattress with straw. I went to work. For the roll-call after work, as usual, with the orchestra at the entrance to the block, we had to stand in the square and a bell began to ring for roll-call. A crowd of 10,000 men. And the camp officer gave an order: “Stand for roll-call!” Everything was quiet. Shh. By every block stood 100 men, and each block had a leader, that is, a lower-level leader. The block leader was a prisoner like everyone else, but he had the responsibility of recording, as the overseer of the block. Also each block had an SS man who stood there and counted the men, that so many and so many were there. All had to stand at attention and not move even their heads. The SS man counted and if, Heaven forbid, one was missing, the whole camp was overturned and they had to go and find the missing man. The same was true if there was one extra. There must not be more nor less. After roll-call there was also a bell. Everyone was counted and each went into his block. I entered mine. I gave a look, and my bed was missing. The beds were numbered. My bed was not there. I said to myself, I've lost the gold pieces. I was doomed! They have taken my bed with the mattress to another place and I don't know where. And I could not cry out that they had taken

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the bed. What could I cry out, foolishness, hopelessness. In the morning it was the same. We went to work. In general there were many cases when money and valuables went missing in the camp, but it hardly seemed important.

Thus we worked the whole time. There would also be occasional selections. I went through three selections, one of them a really big one. Twice I went through selections that were conducted by Kaduk, a high officer in Auschwitz, whose trial happened recently. For his selection, the men were stripped naked in the bathhouse and then they went before a commission. Kaduk stood alone by a table, and the prisoners went by him. When he noticed one who was more phlegmatic, he would ask for his number. He would write it down, hand it to the block leader, and order him that the prisoner not go out to work the next day. And when a man was told not to go out to work, it was a calamity. Not only in our block, but in many blocks men were thrown out, each time a couple of hundred Jews. It did not matter who the commander of Auschwitz was. Anyone who was picked out of the line would not go on living. When I went through and was not selected, I just went on. I was not interested in what happened to anyone else, since I was through [the selection]. I went to the block and washed, because one had to be clean. I shaved, adjusted my shoes, and lay down to sleep. In the night, as people lay sleeping, so they awoke.

Once before my time in the camp there was a case when there was a roll-call in the middle of the night, a nighttime selection! But in the selections that I experienced, I was fated to live! So that I could be a living witness to life in the Jewish ghetto. So went my time in Auschwitz. I was lucky, because others were taken away in transports.


Jews Blow Up the Crematorium and Burn the Administrator

When one undertakes to move a person from one spot to another, he is already broken, because everyone wants to stay in his place. From the transports, many Jews did not return.

I was there and worked until the end, until the downfall of the Germans approached and they began to retreat from the front deeper into Germany. We were then in the center

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and they began to evacuate the camps. There were camps for 40 kilometers around Auschwitz. I was even there when there was an uprising in the crematorium, when Jews blew up the crematorium and there burned the man in charge, whom they threw alive into the oven. All of the prisoners fled, but regretfully, almost all were captured. What I know is that several young women from Pruszana who worked to supply arms were accused by the Germans of supplying arms and explosives and they were burned. [This revolt occurred on October 7, 1944. The four women who were accused of supplying the materials for the revolt were hanged by the Germans.]

When the head of the crematorium was burned, it caused a terrible panic. There was an alarm. The sirens began to wail, because the prisoners were scattering and the Gestapo, with the help of airplanes, sought to capture them. Seven of the men who escaped from the camp I saw. I did not see how they escaped, but I saw when they were captured. They were brought back to the camp, and they were killed as one kills animals in a slaughterhouse. All seven lay cut to pieces on a table. Near them was a sign that read: “Look at this!” Then they gave an order that everyone had to gather around the 7 torn up bodies: “Attention!” Everyone had to look. There were others who had been caught and were hanged.

Then the end began. As the front grew nearer, the Germans began to evacuate all of Auschwitz and the whole surrounding area. They took everyone out of the hospital in Auschwitz and released them. We thought that they would blow up the hospital and not even allow the ailing to escape. But no, the hospital remained whole and we were evacuated. We were taken at that time - as I recall - by foot in deep snow - this was in 1944. They took us to Germany. Anyone who had good shoes could make it, but anyone who did not have good shoes was betrayed by his feet.

What was not among the least of our sorrows was that there were Jews who at that last minute begged for death. But we arrived and experienced the end of Hitler, may his name be blotted out. We must console ourselves with that.


Editor's footnotes
  1. Leizer Davidowicz contributed to a Holocaust testimony, given in 1946, in the Yad Vashem archives. An English translation can be read on the JewishGen Bielsk Podlaski KehilaLinks website. Return
  2. A page on the Bielsk Podlaski KehilaLinks website is dedicated to the collection of testimonies, information, maps, and photographs of the ghetto. Return
  3. Appointed by the Germans during World War II, a Judenrat (pl., Judenräte) was a Jewish council. The activities of the Judenräte mark one of the most controversial issues of Jewish life during the Holocaust: some regard the councils as institutions that weakened the internal strength of the Jewish communities, while others claim that Judenräte helped the Jewish public carry on its struggle for survival. See “Judenräte and Other Representative Bodies” in the online YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe for a thorough explanation. Return

[Page 409]

I Was One of Them

by Fayvl Shpira, Baltimore

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

I feel obligated to retell clearly and accurately everything that I experienced in the terrible destruction of Bielsk Jewry. Having been one of them, it is terribly difficult for me to relive that hellish experience.

I will be as accurate as my memory allows me to be, in order not to make errors about dates or to confuse names, because our martyrs are too sacred and dear, those who were so barbarously murdered, and because it is our responsibility, for as long as we live, to convey to future generations accurate facts, to revere the pure tragic truth of what happened and thereby to present the life and the tragic obliteration of those who were dearest to us in the world.

I am stating facts that I personally saw and that, with the martyrs, I suffered, the pain and suffering that we experienced under the savage regime of the Nazi beasts, may they forever be accursed.

I do this not so that I may be published, Heaven forbid. That has long been far from my mind. I do this for their honor and because we are all obligated never to forget, always to remember, always to tell, so that our pure, holy martyrs should not be forgotten and so that the world should not be freed from the horror that we lived through and so that their consciences should be afflicted because they were silent or they took part.

* * *

On a hot summer day in 1942, after marching from one camp to another, coming from the Bialystok Tenth Regiment, the place that they had transformed into a concentration camp for Jews, from which I had escaped by a miracle, after going almost barefoot from Bialystok to Bielsk, I arrived at about 6 o'clock outside of the city and stood near the first house. I was afraid to go further. By instinct I sensed danger. That feeling prompted me to stand still. Full of fear, I stood and felt darkness cross my eyes. I seemed to pass out. The whole time I was going, my bloody foot worked, but the moment that I stopped moving, my heart refused to pump blood.

[Page 410]

At that moment I noticed Duvidke Lieshkes, an electrician who worked for us in electronics. He would not allow me to leave. He led me to his home, where I fainted and he revived me.

When I came to, Duvidke told me that the day before, the German murderers had carried out a terrible slaughter in Bielsk of sixty Jews and hung signs on them that said that sixty Jews were shot for their communist activities.

He did not mention that Polish hooligans had pointed out the wealthy Jews of Bielsk and its intelligentsia. Our Polish neighbors led them from street to street and dragged them from their houses, mothers away from children, men, brothers, ordering them to bring shovels and brooms, as if they wanted them to go to work. In this way they took out a hundred Jews and brought them to Kosciuszko Street, where police headquarters was located. After a brief inquiry they arranged the artisans, the merchants and the intelligentsia in separate rows.

They employed Lieshkes in his profession, and they freed the artisans. The remaining sixty Jews they loaded onto trucks and took them in an unknown direction. Gentiles told us later that they had been shot in the Piliki Woods [Forest].

I don't remember all of their names. Those I remember I will list, and we should never forget them.

  1. Sheika Komm
  2. Hershel Komm (his brother)
  3. Talia Kaplanski
  4. Meytshek Kaplanski (his brother)
  5. Moyshele Planski (Sender's son)
  6. Hilke Charblavskis son (a student)
  7. Yanas Veinshteyno-a lawyer
  8. Shimshon Kash
  9. Yakov Valtshik (A teacher, Yaskolski's son-in-law)
  10. Alter Muzikant (Sheya's brother)
  11. Zeltzer (A teacher, Yaskolski's son-in-law)
  12. Shmuelik Levin (Liba's brother-in-law)
  13. Chaim Itsche Gevirtz
  14. Itsche Bakenshteyn (a restaurateur near the train station)
  15. Yenkel Bzhezhinski
  16. Yosef Katz (the well-known teacher)

Sadly I do not remember the other martyrs. My memory had its limits. I can only give the names that I definitely remember,

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and their memory should remain sacred to us Bielskers wherever we are.

Two days later they took another seven men, of whom I recall only the older Gevirtz and the painter Itsche Varana. With the excuse that they were communists, all were shot.

In around 10 days they seized ten Christians and shot them as well, apparently for being righteous men of faith who chastised the Poles for their collaboration with the killers. They paid with their lives. Among them was that fine, upstanding priest Borowski and the last mayor of Bielsk, Senator Erdman.

In the first group of sixty martyrs was also Shlomo Epshteyn. Him the murderers had singled out and nominated as elder of the Jewish Council [Judenrat]. He spoke German after his studies in Switzerland, and they needed him.

Sholomke Epshteyn had followed their orders and organized a Jewish Council with the following members:

There were also a few other members, but the same thing-I don't know why I can't remember them. We should remember with honor their sacred names. The Bielsk members of the Jewish Council served in a kosher manner. They were righteous until their last breath. The Bielsk Jewish Council made sacrifices for every Jew. Bless their memory.

Then began a regimen of slavery and forced labor. The Jewish Council had to supply slaves for bitter, degrading work. Every day it also had to pay tributes. And every day there were new decrees, one more difficult and desperate than the next.

On the first day they had to assemble ten pounds of gold. Jews had to take off their gold and silver. Everyone had to part, in tears, with their wedding rings, their earrings that had been an inheritance over generations, their grandmother's watches or their mother's brooches. And the next day it started all over. We were responsible for clothing our own murderers so that they would not, Heaven forbid, feel the cold. We had to take off our boots, our overshoes, our furs and

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give them away. It meant nothing that we were left naked and barefoot in the cold, but we had to pamper them, the German killers.

In this way the days, the weeks, and the months drained us. After two years of sacrificial slavery and tributes, they created the ghetto. In September of 1940 they established it and used it for our displacement and extermination until November of 1942, the killing of our martyrs.

The Jewish Council met in the Yafeh Einayim Beis-Medresh. The place around the beis-medresh, nearest to the smallest streets and Jagelonski Street, and next to Bathhouse Street and the street where the butchers had lived, a very small area of Bielsk. A fourth of the city was burned, beginning from Valdman, Zabludovski, Matielov, Farber, and all of Kopernicus was burned, as well as part of Zamkovsker Street. Thus the Jews, the “Jewish settlement,” so to speak, was concentrated in a well-defined area.

Hunger and poverty grew from day to day. People sold whatever they possessed while they sat and waited for miracles, if not for a quick death.

So passed those days of slow agony until the very worst arrived.

It was five o'clock in the late afternoon at the beginning of October, 1942. I had left the ghetto and gone to Briansk [Bransk] to my parents. I assured my wife that after Shabbos I would come for her after I had prepared a place for us. She accompanied me to the gate, holding our little daughter in her hands.

And three days later the news came to Bialystok that during the night the ghetto would be closed. A horrible fear gripped everyone; fear for what had befallen the ghetto brought people to madness. People ran about, ran from one to another. Perhaps someone knew details. Perhaps there was still a shred of hope. Even the so-called eternal optimists were broken and went about like shadows, in deep silence. Everyone knew full well what the news meant.

When night fell on Sunday, we suddenly heard the loud roar of trucks that approached the city. The noise of the empty, rattling machines pierced those fear-filled souls. It was dark. The lights on the trucks were turned off. The only sounds that could be heard were the rattling of chains and springs. The heavy trucks groaned and

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wild voices of savage, bloodthirsty, infuriated human beasts accompanied them. Thus they came closer and closer to the city, to the ghetto. When they were only a few meters from the ghetto, they began to shoot in heavy salvos. A hail of bullets fell, incessant and terrifying. Soon more than twenty victims fell, mothers with children in their hands. Old parents who had waited for their stronger family members to bring help were the first to fall. The night had hidden some of the secret of death, but when the sun came up, we could see and know who the victims had been. We could not bring them to Jewish burial. They were buried in a corner of the ghetto.

I quickly sent a peasant whom I knew, whom I found with great difficulty, making him understand that he should go to Bielsk and try to make my wife understand why I was late coming to get her, and so on.

The peasant returned and gave me the bitter news that the Bielsk ghetto was surrounded by a double rank of Gestapo men and Polish bloodhound police and it was impossible even to get near the ghetto. There was no way at all.

From Sunday until Shabbos, the Briansk ghetto was blocked and isolated. On Shabbos they ordered a hundred peasants to come with harnessed wagons, and they shoved all the Jews into the them, murderously, the whole ghetto, and took them to the Bielsk ghetto.

They did the same to the Batka and Orla ghettos. All were transported to Bielsk. The mechanic who had long worked for us delivered my wife after I had been freed.

She related:

The Germans raised an alarm in the Bielsk ghetto that the Jews would be taken to work camps for labor. Jews, they said, could take with them whatever they could and be prepared to begin a life of productive labor.

The Jews began making backpacks of what they had left. They took what they had and went to the road. When they had left their homes, they were put into columns and led along Zamkov Street to the train station. On the station platform, when they had all been gathered, their oppressors used knives

to cut the straps of the backpacks, and their last parcels of hope fell from their backs and remained on the platform for the thieves with their cheap, dirty Polish

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assistants who sold their filthy souls for an old dress and a pair of pants.

Then the Jews were loaded-packed-into cattle cars, as many as two hundred in a small car that was built for horses. Without food and water they were stuffed in, old and young, women and men, like herring in a barrel.

In those wagons, hundreds of Jews quickly found their deaths. The survivors were taken to the Treblinka death camp.

The end of all Polish Jewry was also the end of our Bielsk women, children, brothers, sisters, parents, and friends.

How can one be silent? How can one forget?


A Look at Bielsk

After the horrible deaths of our dearest ones, I fled to the woods. Alone, forlorn, like a hunted beast, I found refuge in different hiding spots in the dense woods and in the fields, seeking sustenance for my soul and trying to overcome the private hell of loneliness, hunger, fear, and suffering.

For two years I lay in dirt and filth, in need and fear of people-the worst creatures in the world.

In the summer of 1944 came liberation.

A week after the liberation, on a beautiful, bright, mild summer day, I headed for Bielsk.

The darkness of death, the stillness of extermination, emptiness, hollowness ruled in the desolate city of Bielsk.

The streets empty, the houses silent. Grief stared out of the windows and doors. The houses were ruined, destroyed, and there was not a Jew to be seen.

Instinctively I went to the electric station, where I had spent 15 good years and I encountered what I expected to encounter but what I did not want to encounter. The same machinery, the same office, the same building, the same neighbors, but not my dear, my dearest, Jews.

No more Jewish clients, no more of my companions, my Jews, my friends.

Forlorn is our town, without people saying prayers, without beis-medreshes, without Yiddishkeit, without shuls. No Jewish parties. No community. All is up in the smoke of the gas chambers and murderous torture. Gone as if it had never existed.

There in my dear town I felt alone, abandoned, more so

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than in the woods. On every street and from every home lurked the deadly hatred of the thieves who lived in fear lest someone remained alive and would return for what had been stolen.

Jews make a mistake when they say that non-Jews will feel regret after they see that antisemitism always serves as an attraction [to lure them in]. In order to put themselves at rest, Jews think that they [non-Jews] will come to the conclusion that they should reconsider [the value of] Jews and return to them their places and their possessions.

A mistake. Gentiles are bloody creatures. Today, as always, they take pleasure in the blood of those who are weaker than themselves and especially in the blood of the weakest people in the world-in Jewish blood.

A mistake.

We have to be strong. We have to remember not to take vengeance but to remember that everything can return [be reversed]. Especially now, when the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians, and the Russians, in their darkness, are all enjoying the Jewish goods and possessions that they stole, they wait for another opportunity. The upshot is: remember and be strong. Be stronger, and do not count on the Gentiles.

And remember our martyrs, because with their sacred deaths we can teach the living our lesson. Remember, write books, and be strong.


Survivors in Bielsk bring for burial Jewish bones from the communal grave

[Page 416]

From the Bielsk-Bialystok Ghettos

to Auschwitz-Birkenau

by Mikhal Davidovitch

Translated by Theodore Steinberg

The Days before the Ghetto

People heard on the radio that the Germans had powerfully attacked Poland, and the war talk in the city turned into a panic. The panic increased when the Germans began to bomb civilian cities and towns. At the end of September, 1939, they entered Bielsk. Then came the treaty between Russian and Germany about dividing Poland, and four weeks later the Germans left and were replaced by the Russian army.

In the 3-4 weeks of the German presence in the city, they did nothing to the inhabitants. During those four weeks, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur went by and everything was as usual. They changed nothing and tampered with nothing. The Russians were with us for half a year.

With the first German attack on Poland and their bombing of Polish cities, our city also suffered. They destroyed the barracks and one beis-medresh. I was then 20 years old. For the Russians I worked as a shoemaker. For the Germans, I also worked at my craft. And when the ghetto was created, I also made shoes for them. I made shoes, boots, etc. I worked normally and I was paid. The Judenrat[1] [German for Jewish Council] that had been formed had to supply the leather, and the whole shoe business operated for the benefit of high Gestapo officers. The leather and the accessories for the shoe business were smuggled in from the outside. Money did not appear to be lacking among the Jews, and everyone contributed to this cause. Taxes for the Germans were replaced by leather manufacturing. Thus, too, did people bribe the leaders so that they would make our lives easier. From the leather goods that I received for shoe manufacturing, I worked things out so that some would remain for me. In this way, I made my life a little easier. Whether the Judenrat knew about this or not, I do not know. But the fact is, everyone did it. It was hard to control the complications. That's how people lived. We also all believed that what we were doing for them would save us. Not only the shoe products did we deliver,

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but everything that they ordered: gold, silver, money, ransoms. There was never any question of whether we should fulfill their commands. There were also some well-off Jews in the city who had shoes and clothing made for themselves and paid for it. Only German currency was in use.


The Beginning of the Ghetto

The ghetto began in 1942. Life became abnormal and tragic. Everyone fought for his existence in whatever way was possible. Whoever had, as people said, strength and endurance and a little luck could go on living. Most Jews lived in extremity, in terrible need, and the Judenrat had the duty to help them. On the Judenrat sat manufacturers, merchants, and ordinary wise people.

Before they built the ghetto, we worked at paving the highways, cleaning the streets, and building barracks.


Labor and Slave Labor

Bielsk was responsible for supplying a certain amount of workers, and we had to be careful that the work progressed. In that unfortunate circumstance, a rich Jew, if his circumstances were good, made money from good labor or from smuggling, and he did not have to go to compulsory labor. We would take a poor Jew in his place who would work for him and get paid. The others, who worked for the Germans, many of them took on little bits of work and were paid a pittance.

We must also distinguish between two kinds of work. What I mentioned above was not compulsory or slave labor because the Jews organized it, so it was not compulsory in that case, quite clearly, although it was required by the occupiers. Forced labor, openly forced labor, was the secondary labor that the Germans themselves organized. They would go out in the streets and seize all the Jews that they encountered, take them to various places, and force them to perform various kinds of work.

Such kidnapped slaves had to stay where they were and go from there to work, sometimes for a week, sometimes for two whole weeks. They could only go home once a week or once in two weeks to their despairing families. According to this double system, it turned out that almost all Jews did compulsory work for the Germans, without pay, involuntary, and not according to their abilities.

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In the city there was produced a list of work skills that encompassed everyone and was divided into categories such as age, ability, skill, etc. In this way we could cope with the Germans' murderous caprices and supply men according to needs, though we must say that this did not always operate properly, neither in the matter of dividing up the men nor in managing the daily lists. Sadly, there were also some who enjoyed a kind of protection and who could not always be followed. So it was. People will be people, and so it was with those who gave out the work. Every other week they would issue a list, according to which people went to work.

According to their work were people considered legal citizens of the ghetto and, it needs to be said had the right to ration cards. It happened that those who avoided work lost their rights in the ghetto and could not use ration cards. Later, as the number of ghetto inhabitants multiplied and so did those with rights to ration cards, God knows the truth. Jews used bribery to get to the German murderous, antisemitic fanatics.

One must not forget that it was not a simple thing to emerge from illegal status... The Germans kept a list of those who worked and even gave them nominal identity cards. Then suddenly there was a stream of Jews coming to the ghetto. The Germans saw this and great danger ensued that these new arrivals would be driven from the ghetto, from the city, and would be left without ration cards. Then many of them stayed and enjoyed all rights. But some were sent away, who knows where, and some of those who remained were condemned to hunger and need.

We all had a feeling that they would work out a Jewish regime, that they would choose Jewish representatives and turn Jew against Jew, and we greatly feared this. But by adjusting the lists of those who had rights in the ghetto, the Judenrat helped. For example, my brother. For entrance into the ghetto, every day there was a parade for a head count. Everyone who was listed was called out, and with a clear and secure list, they entered the ghetto. When an “illegal” was seen in the parade, he was seized and led away. How my brother entered and became legal I do not know. Everyone was controlled by his identity card. So he was there and remained with all the Bielskers in the ghetto. My older brother simply took a card from an invalid, mingled with the legal residents, and

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smuggled himself back among the invalids.

All the work we were required to do was for the Germans, for their wives, and for their dwellings. We had to clean their rooms, take care of their clothes, and attend to the streets near their homes.

There were also office jobs. Whoever could do office jobs did them.

There were times when the German women paid for the work. A few Jews even, it's too bad to say, worked as personal assistants, water bearers, shoe shiners, and other such jobs and considered themselves quite lucky.


Liquidation of the Ghetto -- German Murders

When the Germans took us away to Bialystok, they took us in closed trucks. The Germans took 40 families to a large factory in Bialystok. The leader of the Judenrat, Shloyme Epshteyn, went with us. Why the Germans chose him from the whole Judenrat I do not know. It could be because he was the oldest member of the Bielsk Judenrat. After that, we do not know anything else about him.

We came to Bialystok at the end of 1942 -- at the time of the holidays. We were there for three months. At that time the Germans liquidated the ghetto and took the whole Jewish population to Treblinka. Aside from the 40 families in Bialystok, no other Bielskers remained. All of the rest were in a different camp. With me was Dr. Eisenshtadt. He died two years ago in Israel. All the rest of those who escaped were those who were sent to or fled to Russia. More than a few of those who had served the Russians during the Russian occupation as well as openly political communists were among those who went with the Russians. One was a policeman, another a cashier in a bank, etc. The Jews who did not go with the Russians at the time of their withdrawal from Poland did not believe that such a tragedy was possible. None of us ever thought that such destruction would fall on Jewish heads, and consequently the greatest part remained in their places and in their homes. Another thing: The entire withdrawal of the Russians and entrance of the Germans happened so suddenly that people had no time to consider and evaluate the developing situation. Things were so confused that even people who were already on the Russian side came back to us and our hell on earth. There were also cases

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when people who had fled here and there were killed on the roads and no one knew when or where. There was also horror propaganda and reports of what the Germans had done. But we truly could not conceive that a cultured people could do such things. A married couple came to my brother-in-law from Warsaw. They said that the Germans seized people and threw them into wagons with lime. My brother-in-law said they were mistaken, that it was impossible, that what they were saying was totally false. This couple had just returned from Russian territory. The Russians did not allow everyone into their territory. Many people were forced to return to Poland.

Some returned because of the condition that at home they had, kina hora [literally “may they have no evil eye”], large families with children and sources of income, parents, sisters, brothers, in-laws that made it difficult to escape, which presented great danger. One had to risk one's life. One heard of many atrocities, and no one had good fortune among those who returned from Russia, people who had suffered much. People told about people who had starved and died from hunger and cold. When the Russians left, and along with them many Jews, some of those who headed for Russia then returned to German territory, not only to Bielsk but to all of German-occupied Poland. Tens of thousands of Jews crossed the border from Russia back to German territory. Among those who had earlier escaped from the Germans to Russia, many felt it was impossible to live there and returned to German territory.

The second German advance was, I have said, sudden, so that there was not the slightest possibility or talk of escape.

Here is how sudden. At 3 in the morning, the Germans began the bombardment. The people did not know what the bombs meant. Some said these were just maneuvers, exercises, etc. I was across from the Great Synagogue, where Russian soldiers were standing. I looked around and said to my wife - “War!” Naked and barefoot, the Russian soldiers began to run; I went out into the darkness. They were bombing. Soon a bomb hit a civilian home. The rabbi was at that time at Grodzinski's - the rabbi was Ben Tzion Bendas. He had a daughter and her son in the country. The bomb killed Yorke Grodzinski's daughter. People searched for her immediately, but they could not find her, and later

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her body was found. In this way many people from the city fell. People could not escape because the Germans were shooting artillery and other weapons from all sides. The rabbi no longer had his previous spiritual strength and his influence on his congregation. The former Jewish life and its institutions no longer existed. Other unfortunate men represented the Jewish city. There was chaos in Jewish life. Hunger was rife. People began to hide food first and then other things, whatever Jewish minds could conceive of. They began to smuggle. Some were jobless and some worked. Everyone's face reflected the confusion.

In the ghetto, everything that had characterized ordinary life no longer existed. People did not leave the rabbi in bad circumstances, God forbid. They gave him what he needed to exist. But the rabbi was no longer an institution in the city. There was no individual in the ghetto to whom people listened or who had the confidence of the city. Epstein, who at first was the elder of the Judenrat, became young, a student and an active man. But he, too, had no influence or power over the Jews in the ghetto. His duties were more directed at the Germans than the Jews, such as finding workers and so on.

Aside from the daily worries over food, the people were dejected and depressed. Some worked, while others did not work and wandered around in sorrow, occupied with all their worries.

The situation of children was terrible. They had nothing to do. They went around blankly; mostly people used the children to go out to the Gentiles and smuggle things into the ghetto. Thus the parents could nourish themselves. There were also some children - as well as older people - who looked like Gentiles. They could mix with the Gentiles and bring provisions into the ghetto. There was one who used to bring in flour, apples, meat, and even living animals. People used to risk their lives by breaking through the high fences, walls, and obstacles and bringing in whatever they could. Among the Gentiles there were some known to the Jews who helped with smuggling; but there were also Gentiles who simply did business with the Jews for the goods that the Jews were selling, simple business.

In Bialystok, too, we were all in a ghetto. There were former schools into which we were conducted. It was cold,

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terrible, unheated. The walls were coated with frost. The Jews sought straw sacks that those in charge had thrown in, and we lay down on those sacks. For eight hours a day we worked in a factory. That was slave labor. For that labor we received a few groschen a day to live on. Aside from that, the Germans sometimes gave us a bit of sausage. Sometimes, too, we worked extra hours for private Jewish concerns in the ghetto and earned a few groschen. Mostly we had to buy various articles of food that people had smuggled into the ghetto. Those who had funds, even those who did not work, could use those funds to buy things and to live.

The Germans, as I said, paid for our work, but not so much that people could live on their earnings. They gave out cards for portions of bread, but nothing else. The bread cards were given out by the Germans not for Jews in the ghetto but for the Christian population. They had the ability to work for the Germans and to work and earn in other ways. They could survive, but woe to those who had no way of earning. They lived with great trouble. It was also possible to steal from the factory small pieces of leather and sell them. People also dealt with smuggled cigarettes. Everyone had to have a “commercial sense.”


We Are Taken to Auschwitz

I worked in Bialystok in this way for three months. At the beginning of 1943 I was transported to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, as is well known, the Germans immediately liquidated a number of the new arrivals, that is, they cremated them. Some remained in the camp and some were sent to Germany and deep into Poland for slave labor.

As soon as those being transported left the train cars, the Germans beat and shot them, and many perished immediately. They stood up the rest and asked each one his profession. I said that I was a shoemaker - the SS man sent me to one side. At that time, the Germans in Auschwitz assigned those who remained alive different labors. I, for example, had to carry stones for no purpose from one spot to another so as not to be idle. Later they brought a transport of Roma to Birkenau, near Auschwitz, after they had brought us there. The difference between Auschwitz and Birkenau was that they called Auschwitz a labor camp where the inmates did

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some work, and Birkenau was a crematorium where the Germans brought people exclusively for liquidation. When the Roma arrived in Birkenau, they required the [housing] blocks, and so some of us were sent back to Auschwitz. The Germans' goal was to kill the Jews and the Roma. There were Roma who were European and cultured, officers and clerks in the German army. They, too, were killed. The difference between them and the Jews was that Jews were killed together with their families. The Roma were not. We were very close to the crematoria. We saw the people who had been sent to be burnt, and the smell of burning corpses was like the smell of burning meat at the kiosks. So it was, day and night. When we were taken back to Auschwitz, which was 4 kilometers from Birkenau, there were camps, and we were divided up according to our work. Eighty of us were chosen out of a transport of perhaps 2000. At the time of the separation, the Germans gave us a lecture about good behavior, how we should react to every order. “Get up. Get down.” They counted off 80, but it appeared there were only 79 - one was lacking. Only one. They had a rule that there should be not fewer and not more. If they said 80, that should be the exact number. They turned over the whole camp and sought the one who was missing from the 80. The Germans found him in a stack of clothing in the bath that had been left there by those who were going to be gassed. The Jew hid there out of his great terror. And as I said, he was found there. Certainly he was the one missing from the 80. The result was that he was taken out, and only the devil could describe the kind of death he suffered. Twenty SS men stood around him and beat and tortured him with their revolvers, and then they filled him with bullets. He lay dead on the ground, like a sieve, and they continued to shoot his body. We all had to stand there and watch. He was not from Bielsk but from Bialystok. The poor fellow made a mistake and thought that he was about to be gassed.

Our ration of bread was 200-300 grams per day. We were in a block together with Jews from Grodno who had been brought there before us. When we arrived, we met them and people who had been brought even earlier. We saw

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people who were all swollen or who had already died of hunger. The Germans gave those concentrated in Auschwitz-Birkenau nothing to eat. There was also nowhere to ransack food. Everything had already been taken by earlier transports, and people died of hunger. But they could not wipe out everyone because they needed people for labor. Work skills thus rescued some, allowed them to drag through and survive.



When we were brought to Birkenau, after the bath we were conducted according to the numbers on our arms. Among those who suffered with us were some Jews, and they warned us they would beat and kill if we did not carry out their orders. So our Jews were also block-kapos, mainly a group from Warsaw who had been brought from Germany. They looked good, fed, while we were hungry and thirsty. I remember the day, one of the darkest days of my life. I was near to fainting, and I saw a faucet, so I ran to take a drink of water. I bent down and began to lick the drops that were leaking out. But one of those guys ran toward me and warned that I should shut off the faucet and not dare to commit such a crime to save my life. At first I thought he was one of those German dogs, but I saw that he was also a “Jew,” and I realized how terribly awful our disaster was. Our sufferings had turned men into beasts.

The same was true of my block elder. He had an assistant, a captured Pole. Among the captives there were snitches who gave important “information” to the leaders. When they saw that a Jew was chewing a bit of a rind or if they found someone with a potato and so on, for such “sins” they would kill.

In Auschwitz after Birkenau I worked at my profession, shoemaking, the entire time until the arrival of the Russians into Polish territory. Then the Germans began to flee and to liquidate Auschwitz. In Auschwitz there was not only shoemaking. There were various workshops, for clothing, mechanics, locksmithing, etc. But even with this work we could not be secure about our lives. The kapos stood by the entrances to the workshops, and whenever they wished,

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they could kill someone with blows or shoot someone without cause. And as we worked, they would stand over our heads and seek reasons to bully us.


Final Selection

After the Jews were exhausted from working without food or drink, they had to remain on their feet because as soon as they appeared worn out and starving, they would be selected and sent to the gas ovens for cremation. I had been chosen for such a selection. I was a candidate for burning. I was ready to give up on life, but by luck I was sent back to the camp. People were chosen every day for gassing, but by luck I was overlooked. I did nothing to that end. I was apathetic about life. It happened by itself. The selections always occurred after the work day. The Germans would hold a roll-call. The Jews would stand to the left, and the Gentiles would remain standing outside their blocks. The selections took place even in the frost, and the order came for us to be naked, to hold our bundles under our arms, to stand in rows, to count out, and then to go to the bathhouse. According to the orders, each row had to enter the bathhouse. There stood a Gestapo man who judged by looks who was weak unto death and sorted out the “strong” who could still be useful. He stood and noted with his eyes according to the muscles, the gait, the mobility of each individual as if at a slave market. Whoever went by him slowly, phlegmatically, he would note down his number. He said nothing. He did not even blink his eyes, but we knew when someone was a candidate for extermination. Those who passed by him heroically and strong he allowed to move on to the designated spot. They could go on living. But with the favor of his look, woe to us, those who had been noted and whose number was written down were reported to the block leaders and on the next day were not sent out to work. They were taken away by trucks and led to liquidation.

One time there was a special order and the Germans with their helpers made a general selection at night. The selection lasted the whole night. They woke the entire camp. All the Jews

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and non-Jews spent the night naked for the selection. That same night they took all the children that they had brought from Lodz, crowded them into a block, and locked them in for a night and a day. We thought for sure that this was not a selection but that they were going to exterminate everyone. But - and I do not know how - there was a miracle, and everyone was released. Even those who had been marked for death were released. The camp was locked up like a crate. There were watchmen. Everything was crowded and locked up, and there were watchmen at every exit. There was no possible place to hide. Aside from the fact that the Germans kept an account of how many and who had to be in each block, there was no possibility of hiding. That was how it always was, and especially that evening.

Every evening there was a roll-call, and they knew as soon as someone was missing. The roll-calls occurred every day and sometimes twice a day, and each SS man was responsible for his group. The camp was really huge, 40 kilometers square. It was impossible to disappear there. When it happened that someone disappeared and was missing, they turned the whole camp upside down until they found him. And when they found such a prisoner, we were forced to stand there and watch as they executed him. They had a gallows prepared and they brought him all beaten up and bloody to the hanging spot.


The End of the Nazis, May their Names Be Blotted Out

When the end of the war began to approach, the Russians bombed the German occupiers. The Russian bombardment always happened in the afternoon. We worked in the factories and joyfully awaited the airplanes, even though some of us were killed. We knew when the Russian planes would come, and we ran to the shelters with joy. We began to believe in vengeance for those beasts. The bombs often hit the factories, and some of our Jews were killed or wounded.

One time forty men were killed on the spot. The factory looked like a battlefield, bloodied and full of mangled bodies. It pained the heart to see what had minutes earlier pulsed with life, but the feeling of vengeance and the joy of overcoming the German enemy eased that feeling.

Later on, we learned that the Russians had bombed our camp

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by mistake. In the camp was a radio station. Instead of bombing the station, they had bombed us. As we sat in the cellar, the explosion of the bombs buried us under pieces of concrete and sand, and it was not easy for us to escape. But we managed, and we were taken to the Auschwitz hospital. They washed off the dirt and dust and gave us medical aid and something refreshing. The hospital belonged to the camp, and the prisoners received medical help there, but only those that the Germans needed, that is, those whom they could use for labor and as porters for the evacuation. Later an SS man came to us and chose among us. They began especially to attend to the living with bandages. For them the doctors prepared injections. Each of the ailing was asked how long he would be in the hospital. Each one was entered on a card, and it was written how long he had to remain. If someone had only 2 days, he was released. If someone had more than a couple of days, that was recorded. What they were writing down we did not know. Later, big trucks arrived and took all those who had been written down, whether they were bandaged or not, whether they had a cast or not. They were all taken out of the block on the trucks. I was afraid and trembling, but again I was lucky.

We were terribly harmed in the cellar. My “partner” was badly wounded by glass shards and concrete. Luckily, I was lightly wounded. As a badly wounded man, he lay for a short while in the hospital, and when the bombs fell, from terror he would cower against the wall and seek refuge. Until today he suffers from that. They could not take him anywhere. The doctor told me that I had to stay in the hospital for two days and no longer. That meant that after two days I could return to work. The lightly wounded had to stay at the work station, so that what they ate was not useless; but those who had to remain longer, that is, they ate and were useless, the Germans sent off to be gassed. They were confused and frightened. They still had it in their minds to destroy Jews. They were so confused that they often forgot the severely ill and allowed people to stay in the hospital for a longer time, those whose lives had no value for them, and they did not notice, until the dulled SS men

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were reminded to make a fresh selection according to plan. The selection lasted a little while, and then the ill were taken. I was operated on, but I left the hospital with my last bit of strength. The doctors left a bomb fragment inside me, and I suffer from it until this very day.

Later on, after the liberation, the Americans operated on me at Landsberg[2] and removed another fragment. I was wounded around 1945. Then we had to work again until the Russians approached and the Germans tried to liquidate us.

They forced us on the so-called “death march” in the deep cold. Anyone who had youth and strength and struggled along with everyone managed to live, but whoever lost strength and could not keep up, the Germans shot during the death march.

In this way we were led to Grosshausen. There we spent a night and a day, and then we were led to Dachau. In Dachau we remained, abandoned, for 4-5 months.

There the Germans held a fresh selection and from there sent us on to Walldorf. I was there for a short time, because the Russians increasingly pursued the Germans in their own land. In Walldorf the Germans intended to liquidate us altogether and drove us to the train station, because the trains were special targets. It was my bad luck to get a touch of typhus. I had to go one and a half kilometers to the train. But there was a work camp - separate, with no crematorium. The camp was fenced off for the healthy who could still work. Those who were ill would be taken to the other side of the fence. There the ailing received smaller portions of food with the idea that they would soon be dead.

Meanwhile, we heard shooting and the train was shot. The Germans ran and the cars were destroyed. I ran quickly and hid among the trees in the woods, not far from the station. A couple of SS men approached with Russian prisoners, and we were led to camp number one in Landesberg. I spent the night there, and in the morning I heard more shooting and shortly after that, salvation - the liberation, via the Americans.

I could barely believe that I was free. The Germans left all kinds of good things in the city. There was the best food that they used to devour and the nicest clothing. Uniforms with fancy buttons and

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other things. When I saw all these things, I could really believe that this was the end of the war.

But at the same time, I was alone and desolate. I began to cry like a little child who was left alone. Soon I noticed an American jeep driving around with soldiers. I went to them, but how could I speak to them? But right there were two Jews who spoke Yiddish, American Jews who cried out:

“Jews, you are free! Don't leave the camp, because the battlefront is nearby.”

None of us knew at that moment what we should do, how we should react, run or stay. I stayed for two days. American trucks came with straw and we were taken to the hospital. They gave us good food and warned us not to eat too much. Nevertheless, many people became ill from eating too much and suffered from dysentery and diarrhea.

This was in Germany. I spent a year in the hospital. When we had somewhat recovered, we were taken to Poland, to a camp with the Poles. There I spent some time in recovery, until I was better. I spent a couple of years in Poland until I made aliyah. The Poles wanted me to go right back to Bielsk, but I did not want that. For me, Bielsk was dead. I had no one there. We had all been separated, and I neither heard from nor knew about anyone.

* * *

Little Things that I Remember

When we were brought to Bialystok via Tchekhanov [likely Ciechanow], we were held there in the train wagons for a whole day without food or drink. Everyone was already emaciated, and we were taken out of the wagons and were forced to lie down in another spot where murdered Jews were already lying. Then a Jew appeared - a young fellow, a block leader, and he said:

“Look out now. Take off your shoes and boots!”

All of those half-dead men were lying on their bunks, and the block leader was taking their boots. A young man who had worked with horses came by and was crying. I asked him why he was crying. He said that he had an educated sister who voluntarily went to block

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7 in order to be killed. She saw no other way out except for death.

The Germans were such killers that they took no account of anything. When a Jew who was in his death agonies was brought to us, we had to bring even him to the roll call.

* * *

One time some very learned Jews were brought to us from Germany. They were so foolish that they demanded that the rules should be followed. It did not take more than a week before they were dead, their bodies taken out of the block and thrown in the mud.

* * *

Issar Bashevitz was on an agricultural training camp in Bielsk. Then he left the kibbutz and came to the city to work. A little later he got married in Bielsk. When the war broke out, he worked in the same place as us stitching boots. After we had been taken to the ghetto, he was together with the 42 families. In Bialystok, he still worked together with us. As the Germans took us to Bialystok, he stayed with us. In Auschwitz, too, he was with me on a team and even in the same block. Once I was ill and I could not eat my ration of 200 grams of bread and it lay there under my pillow. In the morning, I realized that my ration was not there. Someone stole it. Bashevitz had noticed how I had hidden my ration and he took it from under the pillow on my bunk. After the war, when we met, he said to me, “Do you remember the ration that was missing from under your pillow? I took it.”


Murderers of Themselves/Czech Workers Give us their Food

I was once standing and saw how an airplane had bombed Auschwitz - the camp itself. The Germans used to put markings on the roofs of the trains to disguise them, so that the pilots would think they carried no soldiers or weapons.

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So it was in Auschwitz. They built special new buildings, workshops for labor, but near these large buildings lived the SS and the Gestapo men. The airplane that bombed Auschwitz had not aimed precisely and hit the workshops rather than the Gestapo. The bombs were heavy and brought down four-story buildings, so that we in the cellars could see the open sky. Many, many people were killed by the bombs. Buna was heavily and frequently bombed. [Buna was a sub-camp of Auschwitz.] There was an I.G. Farben[3] chemical plant there, and many prisoners died. When there was an alarm by us, the Gestapo men hid in the bloc with us. Then the Russians bombed further from us and the Americans took over. When during the bombings people tried to escape, the Hitlerites began to shoot so that they could not flee. Around Auschwitz there were Gestapo posts, and it was dangerous to do anything that was forbidden. They simply threw a scare into all the Jews in the concentration camp, and those in the street had to fall to the ground and lie there until there was an order to get up. Then they would count how many remained and how many had fled. Then they killed all who had been captured and led all the rest back into the camp. They sent the badly wounded to the hospital and the lightly wounded back to their block. Then there was an order that when there was a bombardment, everyone should be in the camp and not in the factories. And so it was. At every alarm, everyone would go to the camp and wait until the alarm was ended. As the front neared the camp, the Germans began to evacuate the camp. This was the Russian front. Some were evacuated to Mauthausen (Austria), others to Landesberg. My transport went to Mauthausen. There were then in Auschwitz thousands of men who went in transports. Each transport could consist of a thousand men. It was winter, with deep snow. People who fell behind were shot on the spot. Our transport arrived at a train station in Austria. We were put in train wagons - each wagon was stuffed with 140 men and then taken away. We did not know where we were being taken. We came to a Czech train station. The people who worked there threw us their food packs that they had brought from home.

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The packs of food that those good Czech workers threw to us in the wagons we grabbed, and we snatched morsels from each other. They led us in this way until we reached a certain spot. They themselves did not know where to take us, because the fronts were everywhere and they did not have time to liquidate all of us. In this way we were taken to Mauthausen, where there was an international concentration camp with many peoples.


Bones of Bielsk martyrs


Editor's footnotes
  1. Appointed by the Germans during World War II, a Judenrat (pl., Judenräte) was a Jewish council. The activities of the Judenräte mark one of the most controversial issues of Jewish life during the Holocaust: some regard the councils as institutions that weakened the internal strength of the Jewish communities, while others claim that Judenräte helped the Jewish public carry on its struggle for survival. See “Judenräte and Other Representative Bodies” in the online YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe for a thorough explanation. Return
  2. Landsberg was a concentration camp that became a displaced person camp after the liberation. Return
  3. I.G. Farben was a German company that was a conglomerate of eight German chemical manufacturers, including Bayer, Hoechst, and BASF, which at the time were the largest chemical firms in existence. It was allied with the Nazis and manufactured the Zyklon B gas used to commit genocide against millions of European Jews in the Holocaust. Return


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