by Naftali Grudzinski (Grodnai)
Translated by Sara Mages
I was sixteen years old when this horrible war broke out, which ended in a terrible holocaust for humanity and the attempted extermination of the Jewish people in Europe. I dedicate my lines to my hometown, Bielsk. It was my terrible fate to see it a few days before its destruction, and to be with its beloved Jews a few hours before their death, when they were concentrated in the Jewish quarter and the ghetto, imprisoned and awaiting their bitter end.
In fact, I lived in Gajnówka after my parents moved to live there in 1933, but, my entire childhood world would remain tied to Bielsk with strong emotional ties. I know Bielsk in spirit and soul as the region of my longings, as a person in moments of nostalgia and as a child in his hours of diving into the world of his memories and the depths of his innocence. I was also drawn to Bielsk during the years of terror, when my father zl was murdered, and I was left the only man in the family, and planned to move to Bielsk, the city of our extensive family and a city where we could alleviate our sudden loneliness and satisfy our hungry soul.
Gajnówka, or Hajnówka, was a city of 25,000 residents, but the number of its Jews was very small, only about twenty percent. When the Nazis entered, the Jews were imprisoned in such a way that they could not move at will, nor save themselves and escape from the hands of the Nazi guards and their local Christian helpers.
A short time later, the Jews of Gajnówka were taken to the Pruzhany Ghetto and I was among them. While leaving the city, on the way to Pruzhany, dozens of Jews were shot for no reason. They were murdered out of the bloodlust of the murderous rulers. Among those murdered on the way, which were not buried and remained dead in the fields, was also my father, Yosef Grudzinski zl.
In this manner I became an orphan and the head of a family in a brief moment. My mother was exhausted and broken from the death of her husband and days of bereavement and hunger, and my twin sisters, Esther and Gitel, relied on me, the man in the family. Our situation was difficult. We were hunted like animals when we walked to Pruzhany Ghetto. Jews were beaten and pushed and they tripped and fell, to speed up their way to the death cells and the murder centers.
On the way another thought oppressed us. Apart from those worries that bothered everyone we had our own private concern. All, or most, of those who left for Pruzhany were equipped, more or less, with foodstuffs or rags to sell for food. We left destitute, without a ration of food for the first day in the ghetto. The first thought that came to our mind was - to escape and go over to Bielsk.
We did not know the situation in Bielsk. We knew that preparations were being made to concentrate its Jews in a ghetto, but we did not know for sure if it had already been done, or if it was within the scope of plans for immediate execution. In any case, we wanted to be in Bielsk the city of our family, the famous city of mutual aid. We wanted to be with the Jews of Bielsk in times of trouble.
Pruzhany Ghetto was tightly closed and it was difficult to get out, very difficult, but the situation was urgent. We had no bread to eat, no clothes to wear in the intense cold of that winter and no
bedding to cover us for the night. That's how we came to the decision that I would go out first, I will check the options, and how we would be able to move to Bielsk and stay there. Fortunately for us, at that time there was a connection between Pruzhany and Bielsk. The first produced slippers to warm the murderers' feet in the winter, and the second provided the raw material for these slippers and luckily for us, Pomeranz, a Bielsk man, carried out this connection. He was in charge of the truck with the wool and occasionally came to Pruzhany.
He was a good Jew with a warm heart, a daring Jew who did not shy away from danger. I approached him as a Jewish child, to the father of Jewish children, and he agreed to take me in his truck while I was hidden and covered with layers of materials that he was transporting.
It was in the winter of 1941. The cold was unbearable. The policemen, who guarded the entrance, sat wrapped in their coats, hiding themselves in the corner from the cold. When they saw the truck they thought from afar that it was a German truck and let us pass without inspection. The Germans did not tolerate their inspections and they tried not to carry them out.
In this manner I arrived in the winter of 1941to Bielsk, my miserable city.
There was still no ghetto in Bielsk. The Jews were concentrated in a small quarter that extended in a small square between the street leading to Bialystok and the small river, and between Orla Street and the butcher shops street. The quarter was guarded from all sides and had only one entrance. Then, the quarter was surrounded by a fence and became a prison for the Jews, ghetto in the language of the murderers of my people.
I managed to get in and stayed there for two or three days. As mentioned, I traveled to collect a few items for my family's needs, and to check the possibilities of our move to Bielsk and our stay there. I was a youth very focused on my responsible task, but these unfortunate people, cut off from everything, treated me seriously and warmly. As a person, who came from the outside, they talked to me a lot and told me many things. In these conversations I learned that close to their entry the Nazis gathered all the Jewish intelligentsia of Bielsk, their leaders, and murdered them without explanation or reason. Then, with no representation for the community, they began the arrangements for their annihilation, and the confinement was the condition that made it easier. They also told me about many murders in the street, in daylight and in the evening hours. Jews were murdered in the street, at work, on their way to and from work, or just walking from house to house, from neighbor to neighbor. Every Jew outside his home, his four walls, was intended for murder.
The situation in Bielsk was somewhat surprising. In any case, in my eyes, the eyes of an innocent youth, death certainly hovered over everyone, the murderers' intentions were known and clear, the Jews were full of anxiety and yet... the Jews were equipped with food and clothing and had their meals as on normal days. They bought what they lacked from the gentiles around them in exchange for clothes and other rags that they brought with them from their homes to the enclosure. Something from the stupidity, and the blurring of the brain, befell them and they lived in complete - or deliberate - disregard of the situation and its seriousness. Their main concern, so to speak, was given to food, their daily meals and the next day's meals. I remember, with a laugh, that there were those who started to take care of the stock of wood for the next winter, so that they would have enough to heat their houses when the new year, and its cold, will arrive.
I left Bielsk in danger, with death waiting for me every step of the way, but, for the sake of my family, I did and succeeded.
Between the first and second trip to Bielsk I left for Bransk disguised as a Pole, to stock up on additional equipment, all with the thought of returning to Bielsk when we are equipped with a necessary supply of food and clothing.
Bransk was still free. Not a quarter or a ghetto. We also had a family there, but we were attracted to Bielsk, and on my return to Pruzhany we looked for advice on how we could all move to Bielsk.
And again, as per our previous plan, I left ahead of the family. This time I had to look for an apartment for us, to return and realize our aspiration for our family there.
I waited again for the good Pomeranz. Again he had to risk something for us, the people of Bielsk in exile. We also wanted him to take the whole family out.
Pomeranz came, and as at the beginning the same trick. I am hidden in the truck. The truck leaves safely as rulers' car. And again, the policemen will surely be afraid of the Germans' scolding and won't check the vehicle, and we are in Bielsk. But this time something happened
We were stopped by the Germans who ambushed us on the way out of Pruzhany Ghetto. We were taken back to the police station outside the ghetto. I don't know what happened to Pomeranz, I was put in prison. A 16-year-old criminal who wanted to unite his separated family in time of trouble, a youth, whose whole sin was, that he wanted to exchange a ghetto with a more family ghetto. A Jewish boy whose only desire was to continue living and this was one of the most serious crimes.
I sat here until the Jews of Pruzhany Ghetto were evacuated. I was returned to them when they were taken to Auschwitz, to the gas chambers and crematoria. I was taken out together with my family to Auschwitz.
Here I learned later, that in 1942 a ghetto was established in Bielsk in the area of the former Jewish quarter. This time, besides the Jews of Bielsk, the Jews of its surroundings were imprisoned there, and at the end of 1942 the Jews of Bielsk Ghetto were taken to Treblinka and exterminated there. On the way out a number of Jews tried to escape and were shot at the place of their escape. They were murdered without mercy. Among the murdered, who were left dead on the spot, was also Pomeranz. He tried to jump over the fence, was shot while holding onto it, and remained hanging on the fence.
I was in Auschwitz with my mother and my sisters until the selection. My mother was murdered in the selection, and burned in the crematoriums along with many of the inhabitants of Auschwitz camp. My sisters held on and lived. Two weeks after our mother's death Esther fell ill with dysentery. She was fed up with her life. She turned to the camp authorities and asked to be sent to the crematoriums. They fulfilled her request and she was burnt while fully conscious, because her death was better than her life. Gitel, her twin, followed her and also voluntarily burned herself. The separation from her beloved twin sister was very difficult for her.
That's how I remained in my youth, orphaned and useless to myself. But friends, who were older than me, took care of me and with their help I held on until the days of my rescue. Thanks to them I registered as a carpenters' apprentice, as a required professional, I worked, sunk my troubles in the tedious labor
and forgot my grief and longing to the dear souls, which were cut off before my eyes, and I was so in need of their closeness.
Dear Jews surrounded me all the time. They taught me the carpentry trade while caring for my life. This friendship of these people to my family helped me and I stayed three consecutive years in Auschwitz until I wore out my future murderers.
When the Red Army approached our camps and the Germans began to retreat and dragged us along with them. This is how we arrived in Mauthausen, from there to Ebensee in Austria, and here we were liberated by the Allied army.
In my three years in Auschwitz I knew many hardships, I also knew selections, in which people close to me perished, and my feelings of terrible loneliness were renewed from time to time after each selection. Nevertheless, something beat in me and told me: Live! I lived at any cost. I escaped from the selections. I risked my life to stay alive to wear out the terrible enemy. From every escape I returned risking my life to live again with my family's friends, with the remnants of my benefactors. I hid so as not to be discovered. I was in terrible situations, when the murderers were angry with me for being able to escape from under their eyes and live, while for them I was marked for death. I remained alive.
In the end, I wanted to return to Bielsk, as I saw it in its last days and after the Holocaust. I did it out of a double impulse - also because its memory is associated with the memory of many things in my childhood, and also because I carry with me the horror sight of Bielsk after it became the object of German genocide.
As mentioned, I saw Bielsk during my three days stay in the Jews' enclosure in their quarter. Then, I was engrossed in the matters of the task assigned to me by my mother zl and my sisters. But I remember it clearly. Bielsk, in the winter of 1941 was partially burned. As was their custom, the Nazis burned it to abuse its Jewish residents who were evacuated, to imply to them that they were preparing a destruction that would never be rebuilt. For some reason they left the ghetto quarter untouched and also other quarters remained undestroyed. The burned section extended from Moshe Leib Ferber on Orla Street to the Catholic Church. The rest of the streets remained standing. Orla Street, in the section where the carriages stood, also remained in existence.
They did not touch one synagogue. I don't know which of the many that were in Bielsk they didn't dare to touch. It's possible that it was Yefe Einayim, or the new Beit Midrash, but it is clear that one remained and I saw it as it was.
The state of partially burned Bielsk more than doubled the anguish of its horror, its houses, empty of Jews, emitted horrors and anxieties. The abandoned streets before our eyes emphasized that here was Jewish life, the beauty of youth, the joy of children, the murmur of lovers, the fervor of believers and the longing for the coming of the Messiah, and all of this was destroyed and gone.
But Bielsk, to the horror of it, remained largely unburned, a legacy of murderers and human abusers of the lowest kind, and this I would like to emphasize in the Bielsk Book.
by Yehiel Cherblowsky
Translated by Sara Mages
Before I left for Russia in 1940 I started to work as a baker. There was a bakers' cooperative there. I earned a good salary. My younger brother also worked. The Jews were still organized and there was brotherhood between one another. In September 1939, when the Germans entered the city for the first time before the Russians came, they treated the Jews well. Despite this, there was an escape from the city. There were youth who fled and came to Slonim in all kinds of ways. Then, my cousin Cherblowsky, Ludovski and others also came. I then met Bielsk's famous fire engine with the firemen. They fled together with the car. I asked them how they got there, and they said they left the city at night, before it was captured, and advanced together with the Poles. When the Germans entered the city for the second time, they had a chance to escape with the Russians, and they did not escape. Their parents did not allow them. They remembered their suffering as refugees during the first war and told them, children, why do you want to escape they will not do anything to us. You just wasted your money when you escaped before, it's a shame that you will escape now. That was the tragedy of the youth who remained there. If it had been like the first time, I estimate that the youth from the movements would have fled to the forests, or in other ways, and would have been saved. Later, when they wanted to escape, it was too late.
When the Russians came I returned home and started to work. I was caught by the Russian police, and was expected to be imprisoned for up to ten years because they found meat in my house. There was a trial, but I was acquitted because I was about to enlist in the Red Army. Those who sat next to the judges were gentiles who knew my family, and they did not want to punish me. It was a civil tribunal. I remember the trial. My lawyer said: if the judge would be this and that, I think that you will be acquitted. And indeed, it was that judge. He himself said that I should join the Red Army, and he thinks that they would teach me to be a loyal citizen. A few months later I was taken to the army with several other friends. But, because of that, we stayed alive.
We left Bielsk for the Ukraine. Six months later the war, which caught us in Russia, started and we stayed alive. When the war broke out we were taken off the front because we were Polish citizens. We were sent to work in a labor camp, and another year had passed. We worked in units of special battalions that were engaged in building factories.
It was terrible work. We had no food and no clothes. The situation was such that I lost my strength. I thought that in another month, another month and a half, I would go like many of my friends who died from these conditions. By chance I met a friend that I
hadn't seen for a long time and he said to me: go to a certain manager. He is a Jew from Moscow. He helps the Jews a lot. Speak to him in Yiddish. I followed his advice and went to him. When I started talking to him in Russian, he told me, speak to me in Yiddish, after all, we are Jews. I told him: I want to work but the conditions are so difficult that I cannot work. Very soon I will die from these conditions. Then he said me: Well, I will give you a note for your commander. Tomorrow he will send you to be a guard by the door when the train enters the warehouses.
I brought the note to the commander and he attacked me. What is this, what kind of favoritism is this Jew doing here? He took the note and sent someone else in my place. In the evening, I went to the manager again and told him what had happened. He gave me another note and wrote on it, if you don't send this person, tomorrow I will send all your companies back. I no longer accept workers.
He sent me for the second time and I started to work there. I had to go out and open the gate for everyone who entered. There were food warehouses there. The work was easy. There was food, and I began to regain my strength. Once the manager walked by and asks: How are you? So I said, I thank you very much. Then he said, you know what, I will put you in another job, I see that you can write. He put me in transport, and there I became the station manager. All those who left to bring machines were registered with me. I sent people. I received a daily report on the machines and registered the workers. I progressed in these jobs and could even help others. All the members of the group were Jews, and we helped those who had trials and were sentenced to prison. We sent them packages. At that time I met Brenner, Labkovski and Zelorovski. Once, I traveled to Sverdlovsk for work and met them there. It was a great experience for all of us. They left after we parted in the Ukrainian forests, and I stayed for about another year in the army. We saw each other often from the day I met them. That's how it was until I returned to Poland in 1944. When the war ended all of us signed up to go back to Poland.
I left Sverdlovsk for Krakow with the first transport. When I arrived in Krakow, the members of Hashomer Hatzair movement were already at the train station. All the movements came to take their members and bring them to the kibbutzim. When I heard that there were representatives of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, I decided to turn to them because I was educated at the movement. I said that I was also in Hashomer Hatzair. I was taken to the kibbutz leadership in Krakow. A day later I was sent to Lodz to the main leadership of Hashomer Hatzair. There, I met with many instructors I knew from before the war. They sent me to organize the kibbutzim in Dolny Úlônsk [Lower Silesia]. Groups of survivors were sent there and I had to arrange accommodation, beds and workplaces for them. There, I received a message that I had to leave with the children who were traveling to Germany. These were one hundred and fifty children who were bought from Poles, taken out of monasteries, and had no parents.
At night we crossed the border with the children near Kłodzko. There, we crossed the border into Czechoslovakia, and the Czechs helped us carry the children to the other side. This was border smuggling done at night. There were days when the Czechs opened the border to let us cross. A few days later we traveled to Germany and arrived in Ludlik- Dorf. Hashomer Hatzair already had a youth home there and we arrived with one hundred and fifty children and five instructors. We were given a big hotel that belonged to a German. We concentrated there and started doing activities with the children, educating them and teaching them Hebrew. I was an instructor of twenty-five small children. I told them stories, went out to play with them and worked very hard. Later, we moved to Darmstadt, where there was an Air Force base, and all these children concentrated there. In this place I worked with the poet Anda Pinkerfeld and another poet whose name I have forgotten. We divided the children according to age. There were problems with the older children who could not adapt. There were escapes of children who wanted to return to Poland. There was a case of a sixteen year old girl who lived with a Pole and did not want to talk to us all the time. We couldn't get anything out of her about her family and how she stayed alive. Anda Pinkerfeld said:
We will arrange something with a young man. Maybe he will find access to her and through romance will bring out her history in the Holocaust.We had a party in the basement. We took the older girls and the young men. We brought beverages. A young man went out with her and she told him that she had left a beloved young man there, the son of the man who kept her all these years, and that's why she wants to go back. Once, she got up at night, ran away and was caught. Then, Anda Pinkerfeld arranged for her to be sent to Israel by plane. A year later we received an order to transfer the children through France, and we began to prepare for the departure. At the last minute I was instructed to stay in Germany and the children would leave with other people. I was sent to a large camp in Pocking-Waldstadt [Germany] where there were 15-20 Jews. I started to work there as an instructor of Hashomer Hatzair. This was the beginning of Hashomer Hatzair Workers Party, and I still remember the trips, parties and balls they held in the theater for the camp. I went out with my children. They sang the Hebrew songs I had taught them. Everyone looked and sang along with us and it gave me full satisfaction. Nevertheless, I already wanted to emigrate [to Israel].
At the end of 1947 we left for France. We passed a Palmach course near Marseille and left illegally for Israel on the ship Mali. Today it is a warship in our fleet.
We arrived a few days after Haifa was captured. We were the first ship to dock at the port after the liberation of Haifa and we were recruited from the ship. My wife and I went through the Palmach course together, and returned here to Haifa.
Then, the great battle took place in Mishmar HaYarden and I was sent there. When I arrived in Rosh Pinna, to the 24th Carmeli Brigade, I was sent to an intelligence battalion. I went through an intelligence course, and when Manara was attacked I participated the battle near Al-Nabi Yusha'. Several members fell in this battle on the hills. My role in this battle was to
bring ammunition to the positions above. When I reached the hill with the ammunition the wounded had already left the posts, and we began to establish ourselves in Kibbutz Yiftah. The shelling of Kibbutz Yiftah was very heavy at night. Early in the morning we received an order to go and collect the wounded in the hills. Our sergeant told us not to go because the hills were occupied, but the order was to go, no matter what. We were given an armored vehicle and left. Halfway the armored vehicle got stuck, we got out of it and with our own strength we got back to the kibbutz. A few days later the operation began on the road to Safed. I was discharged from the army in 1948. I wandered around without a job for six months, until I got a job in the army with the help of the elderly Tikotzky from Bielsk. To this day I work as a manufacturer of weapons at the Ministry of Defense.
A visit to Bielsk that no longer exists
When I arrived in Lodz from Krakow, the first thing I asked for was to be allowed to see Bielsk before I started to work. I said that I wanted to come to my city to see the destruction with my own eyes. I left there a mother, two brothers, two sisters, and a brother-in-law, and I want to see what was happened there. I heard that Tikotzky was there and many other friends. It was the last chance to see my city with my own eyes. I received money and arrived in Bielsk via Warsaw. When I got off at the station I did not see the city. It was completely destroyed. In the distance I only saw the city's clock. It was a tall tower and nothing hid it, neither houses nor people. In the distance I also saw the bath house and the churches. When I arrived at the place where the city hall once stood, I was met by gentile acquaintances who asked: how did you stay alive? We thought no one was left. One of them told me that my house remained. He took me and brought me to my house. The whole city was burned, my house remained. I entered the house where I lived. A gentile family from some village, who occupied the house, was there. They looked at me as if I arrived from heaven. They told me that my cousin, also named Cherblowsky, is in Bielsk and lives on the other side of the house. He is a relative of mine who later went to America. We were very excited when we met, and he told me how he remained alive. He was also a butcher in the city and when the Russians entered he had a butcher shop where he sold meat. The Russians saw him as a merchant and imposed high taxes on him. When he couldn't pay they said that he boycotted them, and he got ten years in prison.
He sat in prison in Brest. When the war started they took all the prisoners and sent them to Russia, and that's how he remained alive. When the Germans began to retreat, and the Russians advanced into Poland, he advanced along with them and arrived in Bielsk a few days after the liberation of the city. He was a prisoner. He was released after the signing of the Sikorski agreement and received permission to return to Poland since he had a decoration from the first war.
And what was left of the Jews of Bielsk? And what was left of my family? And from other families?
No one is left of my family, not even from my cousin's family. A gentile told me that my brother-in-law, along with his other friends, wanted to leave the ghetto, but, when
they got as far as the Białowieża Forest the Germans caught them and killed them. It was at the time when Bielsk Ghetto was established. They sensed the calamity that would come and wanted to reach the partisans, assuming that the Germans would be afraid to reach the forests.
When I was in Bielsk there were a father and his son, Shafferman and Davidovich, who returned from the camps. Blumenthal and my cousin Cherblowsky were there. Tikotzky and a tailor from Ginewka. We met the father of Blumenthal zl at the Hassidic synagogue. There was a meeting there of all those who remained from Bielsk. We talked all evening and they told me everything that happened to the Jews of Bielsk. They also talked about the need to stay, to sell property and make some money for living. I said: I only came to see this place. For me, there is nothing here. Not even a house. I can't live here. The next day I left and never went back.
What I have heard:
The Poles, who remained in the city, told me that the fire was before the Germans left, and the Russians' advance exacerbated the situation. There was a great battle at the entrances of the city. Many public houses were destroyed. The big theater that was built before the war, the magnificent building on 3 Maja Street, remained. They did not have the time to blow it up. They also wanted to blow up the big city hall building, and left it and the municipal bath house. I heard that the central Great Synagogue was dismantled and its parts were sold. The elderly Blumenthal said then that he couldn't understand such a thing. When he came half a year after the war, everything was dismantled and all the bridges were uprooted. The bridge, which connected us with Bilowsk, was blown up. When we were young, we used to walk across the bridge to the villages on the other side where Jews also lived. On Ostowa Street, which led to Orla, once lived the Geir family. Their daughter was my friend from childhood and until I left for the army. I have been told that when the Germans entered the city they took the first four most beautiful girls they met, abused them and shot them. Among them was Geir's daughter. They told terrible things, what happened to Zeitlin who was a respectable man in the city, and to Stopnitzki the principal of Tarbut School who was among the veteran Zionists in our city. How the Germans tortured them when they entered.A Pole, who lived in the Jewish neighborhood and grew up together with Jews until he spoke good Yiddish, told me that all the Jews were taken from the city and brought to the Bielsk Ghetto which was on the other side of the river. In the entire area of the street of Beit HaMidrash, Talmud Torah and the butcher shops, to Mickiewicz Street next to the center, and Orla Road from the side of the railway station to the big market.
by Yochanan Olejnik (Bashourai)
Translated by Sara Mages
The Russian regime, which ruled Bielsk from 1.9.1939 to 22.6.1941, took good care of the children, and the Jewish children among them. They established educational and entertainment institutions for us, and also took care of our physical development. And so, thanks to their concern, I was cut off from Bielsk and thrown into a distant and foreign world when I was a very young boy.
It was on 3.6.1941. We were taken, together with several other children from Bielsk, to a convalescent home in Druskininkai. Among them were only three Jewish children, Chaim Wolfson, Edna Lev and me.
About one hundred children from the entire area were concentrated in this convalescent home. Eighty percent of them were Jews from Bialystok and its suburbs. The director of the institution was a Jew from Leningrad named Pevzner, who, apart from his devotion to his party, did everything possible to make our stay in Druskininkai pleasant, there was good food and quite warm treatment. However, confusion reigned on the day the Russian-German War broke out, and he took us in the morning to a concentration place to bring us back to our parents' home. We traveled in the direction of Bialystok, but, in the meantime, the Grodno bridge was blown up and we couldn't go back home.
We progressed east, towards the original Soviet Russia.
I was cut off from my hometown. I was among the older children. There were younger children around me, seven or eight year olds, and this imposed a kind of early maturity on me. We were so busy with each other until we, the older children, did not feel the meaning of this moment. We were simply cut off from everything that was dear, familiar, loved and normal to us,
Multinational municipal choir during the Soviet rule - Bielsk 1940
and departed for a very foreign distance, very different, and not ours. We were suddenly left without a mother, father, brother and sister. Cut off from schoolmates. At once we were thrown into a wide and terrible world.
German planes bombed us all the way. We jumped out of the train cars, hid on the side of the road, in the forests, in the ditches, and continued. We changed a lot of trains until Minsk. Pevzner took care of us with great devotion, always got us a place on trains crammed with soldiers, refugees, retreating and wounded. There were times when we jumped out of the train, and when we returned it was destroyed by the bombs, and we had to wait for another train and for the track to be cleared from the bombed train. In places, where we had a break, Pevzner made sure to get us food and a place to stay. When we arrived in Minsk thousands of bombs were dropped on it. The city, and its suburbs, turned into hell. We barely had time to jump out of the train to hide among the piles of rubble, and be saved. This horror scene haunted me for many days, and to this day it is difficult for me to free myself from it. It is difficult to define what bombed Minsk was for me at the dawn of my childhood. I was amazed at the strength with which I freed myself from these horrific images, when I was 13 years old in a group of trembling and scared toddlers. Over time, these horrors returned and stood before my eyes, but it happened precisely when we arrived, after these discouraging wanderings, at a permanent place and rest from the roads. In the wanderings, at the intensity of turmoil of death and destruction, I did not remember them. I put them out of my mind a moment after they happened until they became a complete blur.
In the meantime we advanced north and reached the Urals. Here we were supposed to stay far from the fields of wars and their terror, and maybe also because it was possible to find housing, work and food for us there.
For several months we stayed in a place whose name I have forgotten. Then, we arrived in the village of Krakolniko, where Pevzner found an abandoned orphanage and we were housed there. On the way we were joined by the teacher, David Tobiash, who helped Pevzner to withstand the enormous difficulties of our care, our food and clothing.
The village was a village without Jews, and yet, it was infected with anti-Semitism of the most primitive and severe kind. They simply hated Jews of all ages. They openly hated us, the Jewish children, and at every opportunity revealed their animalistic feelings towards us. They insulted us, oppressed us, and didn't let us forget that we are Jews despite our orphanhood and complete separation from our parents and relatives. We suffered a lot from their hatred and contempt for us.
The Krakolniko period was the hardest in our difficult life. Most of the children in the institution were Jews, from the age of seven to the age of twelve-thirteen, who were far away from their families. The longings were terrible, the nights, and the dark moments of the twilight of the day, turned into terrible nightmares which were doubled when one was infected by the crying of his friend. We, the Jewish children, cried for our parents more than all the children of the world. An awful cold prevailed in the institution. We did not have clothes, or suitable blankets to cover us at night, in the harsh winter conditions of the Urals, and we also did not have enough food. The suffering was great, during the day due to the hunger and cold, and at night due to the cold, hunger and insomnia. But, most of all, we were depressed by the longing for our parents, our brothers, our home and our environment. I don't know what caused these longings and how we overcame the heartaches.
In the summer it was a little easier for us. It was hot, the heart wasn't pinched by the cold, the hands and feet weren't pricked by annoying and torturing needles, and we worked. I think that's the main thing. The work relieved the many feelings of distressed and gave interest to life. We had an auxiliary farm at the institution. We worked hard, made a living from it, and we loved it. It healed our mental wounds that gnawed and hurt to the point of suffocation. If it weren't for the anti-Semitism of the hostile environment, we would have been able to relax in mind and body, but, for some reason, they did not leave us alone. When we were rescued from the torture of frost and hunger, the hatred of our hosts jumped on us and oppressed us again, because they couldn't overcome their disgust towards us. Even when they showed us an attitude of mercy, it was a humiliating and painful attitude. First of all by its exaggeration, as if they did not want us to forget, even for a moment, our terrible orphanhood, but also because their humane attitude was entwined with oppressive racial animosity. They took pity on us, not because we were orphans, but because we were born to Jewish parents and were orphaned by them. In other words, how terrible is the blow to an orphan that he misses such parents, Jewish parents, and it hurt a lot. In their great primitiveness, and lack of any expression of politeness, they exaggerated the significance of their feeling of pity towards us, until we could not ignore it. They also expressed rude and cruel statements towards us because we dare to live, and we are Jews who should not be allowed to live. And if that wasn't enough, they sent death curses towards us
It was very difficult to be a Jewish child in Krakolniko. Pevzner eased our situation with his concern, and Tobias had done more than was required of him. He simply deepened in us the sense of honor to be Jews, until it became a protective armor against those who despised us. We started to despise them, their ignorance, their racist stupidity and the poison of hatred that fermented in their veins.
Tobias knew how to transfer us to a world of royalty and Jewish culture also in the most difficult moments of our childhood. In the middle of the tormenting winter he held a Hanukkah ball, and warmed our hearts with our enthusiasm for the actions of the Maccabees, our people. It was in the winter of 1943. Tobias, who had a broad understanding of political matters, realized that the Russians were conducting a false affair with the Jews of the world who fought the Nazis, and took advantage of this opportunity to receive from Moscow, through the Jewish Committee there, the means for the ball and a blessing for its organization. The ball was impressive. It was traditional in all its details, and yet, extreme anti-religious Russian party members were also invited, and they, supposedly, rejoiced in our joy, the joy of the victory of the few Jews against the many gentiles. For us, this ball, and its familiar atmosphere, was a source of pride and hope. We have not forgotten it for years.
It can be said that thanks to Tobias we have not forgotten our origin. Over the years it was easy to forget it there.
In the spring, Tobias held a traditional Passover Seder for the institution's children. This Seder was done in secret, under underground conditions and in an atmosphere of fear and sanctification of God's name. I can't remember what changed from Hanukkah to Passover. Only the older children in our group participated in the Seder. The preparations were made with all precautions, and while it was held there was also a guard outside so that it would not be known to the hostile environment.
I don't know how Tobias managed to get wine and matzot for the Seder, everything was done in secret. Maybe it was a year after the Hanukkah ball. In this year the Russians were seen at the height of their treachery, maybe because they freed themselves a little from the Nazis and were able to manage without flattery to the Western world, with its influential Jews. However, I remember well the Seder, and its tense atmosphere, as an event whose echoes circulated in the soul and the sensory system, and as an eternal revelation that is not measured in the time and place where it happened.
In this manner our oppressed Jewish childhood continued, for me until 1945 and for the younger children until 1946. That year I was already an adult and traveled to Moscow to study in high school. There, the atmosphere was easier. There was no trace of anti-Semitism. The general attitude was quite good. Discrimination was not felt at the boarding school, and there were no national divisions.
The end of my wanderings in Russia was good, and all is well.
I arrived in Israel via the paved route. Training for work and defense in kibbutzim in Warsaw, Austria and Italy. Later, Cyprus and the Etzioni Brigade. All this information is for the Bielsk community in Israel, although there is no general value in it. But, there is a Bielski value in it. It is expressed in my constant longing for Bielsk. It is expressed in my origin, that I see myself as a Bielski.
When I think of belonging, I think of Bielsk. Many children were lost to our Bielsk, few remained, and we should remember how, and under what circumstances, Bielsk's children remained in the Holocaust and in exile.
by S. L. Shnayderman
Translated by Sara Mages
The road, leading from Zabłudów to the district city Bielsk-Podlaski, is paved with gray bricks. This magnificent road, which continues for many kilometers, is soaked with the blood of Jews, the forced laborers. The road was built by the Jews of Zabłudów, Bielsk-Podlaski, Orla, Krzywa, Wasilówka, Zambrów and other cities from the Bialystok area.
As in Egypt, here too the Jews had to provide the materials, produce the bricks and pave the roads that were submerged in mud. The responsibility for the quick execution of the work was assigned by the Nazis to Rabbi Halperin from ORT, and the chairman of the community committee, Shmuel Weinstein, who owned three brick factories in the vicinity. Both were beaten to death by the Nazis for refusing to urge the Jews to work faster
Bielsk-Podlaski was a city of a great Jewish center in the Bialystok District. At the outbreak of the war there were over twelve thousand Jews in Bielsk-Podlaski. It was an almost pure Jewish city. In total, there were a few hundred non-Jewish families. There were Jewish cultural and economic institutions, a bank, schools, and dozens of synagogues.
In the years 1939-1941, when the area passed a number of times from hand to hand, several thousand of Jews from the surrounding area crowded into Bielsk-Podlaski. Probably, because of this reason, the Nazis were late in establishing the ghetto in this city.
At first, the Jews were forbidden to live in the same house with Aryans. Then, they were forced to crowd in several streets, but a barbed wire fence was not erected around them. Only in May 1942, the official decree was issued to establish a ghetto in Bielsk-Podlaski, and, according to the order, the Jews erected the wooden fence around the ghetto with their own hands. S. Burstein, who wrote the history of the ghetto, referred to it as a coffin.» The Jews of Bielsk were forced not only to build the fence, but also to provide the wood and the nails for it. Since there was a shortage of planks they were forced to use their furniture. Understandably, this caused quarrels among the Jewish population.
Only eight families remained in Bielsk-Podlaski after the deportations and exterminations. When I came by car with my friend to Yisrael Kaplanski, all the city's Jews immediately gathered... It is worth mentioning the heads of the families by names: Yisrael Kaplanski, Yisrael Bińkowski, Yosef Isboutsky, Eliash Pogoda and the three Grudy brothers.
In the spacious rooms of Kaplanski's house, I saw three huge crates made of pine wood which spread the smell of the forests. Here, the belongings were packed for the family's aliyah to Israel. In one of the crates was a modern piano.
Kaplanski, who was a cattle trader, admitted to me that he had made a good living in recent years, and now, when more freedom was given to trading, he would be able to earn even more. But, he
decided to make an aliyah to Israel because in Bielsk, and also in Bialystok, Jewish life was fading away, and there is a will to live the last years in a Jewish environment.
Kaplanski, and also Eliash Pogoda, the latter the director of the state linen spinning mill, were called for the presidency of the National Committee in Bielski, and the committee chairman, together with other officials, tried to influence them not to leave the city.
Eliash Pogoda admitted that the committee chairman, his personal friend, spoke in sincerity when he said: Don't go, it will be boring without you. You have nothing to fear. What happened will not happen again.
The three Grudy brothers were also ready to leave for Israel. As talented traders they planned well their aliyah to Israel. They sent, as a pioneer ahead of them, their eldest brother Eliezer, with his seventeen year old son. Eliezer Grudy, and his son, left together with a group of twenty two Jewish farmers from Lower Silesia. It was a special journey of thirty six wagons with cows, horses, sheep and farm machinery. The Grudy brothers sent six cows, nineteen sheep and a tractor. When they arrive in Israel, they will find a farm near Haifa that was prepared by their elder brother.
The Grudy brothers, including the handful of Jews from Bielsk-Podlaski, do not reflect the situation of the Polish Jews, most of whom are poor people who will need help and food immediately upon their arrival in Israel.
The Grudy brothers did not get rich suddenly. They suffered badly in the early years of the communist regime in Poland. Fishel Grudy was arrested in 1950 when the regime was tightened, and suppression of all private initiative began. The Bielsk-Podlaski police falsely accused him of trading in US dollars. After lengthy investigations and trials, the four lawyers - three Poles and one Jew - managed to obtain a light sentence of nine months imprisonment. Before the trial he was brutally tortured. The Jewish lawyer, Erlich, is already in Israel. Two years after his release, in 1953, during the days of the Doctors' Plot, he was arrested again. This time he was accused of being in contact with the underground. Twelve policemen came to the Grudy brothers' house and literally took out everything that was in the house. A few days after Stalin's death, when the doctors were released in Moscow, Grudy was released without a trial and his place in the prison was taken by the public prosecutor and the investigating judge of Bielsk-Podlaski. It turned out that they stole all the silverware and other valuables from the Grudy brothers' house.
The trial against the public prosecutor, and the investigating judge, was conducted behind closed doors and they were sentenced to eight years in prison. They were released under Gomulka's amnesty. The investigating judge returned to Bielsk-Podlaski but worked as a porter. When he was released from prison, he came to the Grudy brothers and apologized, saying that everything he had done to them was according to the party's order. The party secretary demanded that he sentence the brothers to five years in prison.
The hardships of Fishel Grudy, and his wife, reflect what happened to the surviving Polish Jews. During the Nazi occupation Fishel hid with Christian friends and his wife wandered across Russia. In 1941, she was deported to Soviet Bashkortostan, and she was then a twelve year old girl. Until 1945 she stayed in the city of Ufa. She became
very attached to a Jewish family, Kramar, from Stanislawow [now Ivano-Frankivsk], and in 1945 returned with them to this Galician city.
In 1947, she arrived in Warsaw with the help of her uncle, Chaim Schreier, who sent her the necessary documents for that purpose. When she arrived in Warsaw she did not find her uncle because he was already in Israel. In a small town in Lower Silesia she met Fishel Grudy and married him. They now have three children.
They are sitting on the luggage and waiting for a message from the Polish ship that will take them from Gdansk to Haifa.
|The editorial staff's note:
We give this excerpt from Davar 1954 (?), because it reflects Bielsk, and its exiled Jews, twelve years after the extermination of the Jews of Bielsk, and because it mentions the names of survivors from Bielsk. Its value is that it tells about the people of Bielsk after the Holocaust, a value that is important for the people of Bielsk in their Diasporas.
Translated by Sara Mages
|The editorial staff's note:
This letter is one of the first, if not the first, that brought the news of the Nazi disaster to the attention of the Yishuvat a time when Jews were still moaning under the Nazis' yoke.
Tel Aviv, Tuesday - the first shocking news about the fate of Bielsk-Podlaski's Jews was received in a letter that arrived on 2.9.44 from the nearby city of Siemiatycze, from G. V. to her sisters in Tel Aviv.
G. V. is writing in her letter: On November 1, 1942, all the ghettos in the Bialystok District were surrounded by the Gestapo. Some of the Jews were exterminated on the spot, and the rest were sent in freight cars in which chlorine was sprinkled. In a car that had room for 40 people, 150-200 crowded. Tightly closed, so that the sun's eye would not reach us, we were transported under the pretext that we were being driven to work in the Black Sea. Later, it turned out, that the Black Sea was changed to the famous station, Treblinka, and there, in a nearby forest, was the slaughterhouse which was specially established for thousands and millions of Jews.
Some tried to escape by breaking windows in the cars, or by jumping from the train when it was in full motion - and thus to find death, to escape from the Nazis' claws. The greatest happiness was to be redeemed by death by shooting. But this happiness=8; was not given to the Jews. They were murdered by torture, clubs, hammers, or burned alive.
- - - We recently lived in Bielsk-Podlaski. From the two thousand families who were there, four people remained alive: me (the writer of the letter), my husband M. and a doctor with his wife from Siedlce.[Page 162]
- - - At the end of 21 months of wanderings, hardships and frost, we are now in Siemiatycze hungry and destitute.
Like dung on the open field [Jeremiah 9:21]
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