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[Page 61]

Chelm

by Shneier Wasserman, Argentina

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

 

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Shneyer Wasserman

 

Many cities and shtetlekh [towns] of devastated Europe had the sad privilege of having their devastation written about with more or less accuracy. The Holocaust literature takes the place of honor in the Jewish post war creativity. It is a natural impulse to console both those who have personal testimony from the greatest destruction in Jewish history (and in this case most of the Holocaust writers usually were not writers) and from the writers who did not see the destruction with their own eyes, but with their hearts. The recent efforts try to do justice artistically to great destruction and this is one of the most difficult tasks for the artists of our generation, whose horrified mood perhaps can shout the pain, but succeeds very little in giving it artistic form.

Some of this kind of literature expresses itself in providing the chronicle of the destroyed homes. In this case very important scrolls of destruction were written about the larger cities: Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna and so on. Historically, very important bloody documents, whose authors were surviving writers – witnesses of the great tragedy.

On the contrary, I have reservations about the descriptions from people who picked up a few episodes from someone returning from a camp or ghetto and about those (from quickly told episodes) who seek to create literature in books of hundreds of pages. In several cases it appears that the sort of book that was published had only a scarce connection with the narrator himself.

In order not to err in the manner of making literature of the Holocaust, I have fulfilled the desire of many landsleit from my city Chelm, as well as from the publisher of books that I should write memoirs about the city of Chelm, so well-known in Yiddish folklore.

I already have spent a quarter of a century far from Chelm. During this time important events have taken place in the city of which only a few reached me. In addition, it is not possible to write only about the pre-war [events] and omit the most important [occurrences] in which everyone is interested: the terrible days of the Hitler occupation. I waited. Perhaps one of the survivors would unfurl the bloody scroll of Chelm or would at least search for authentic evidence of the horrible events that would provide

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a report about what took place. In time, I received such evidence.

The first survivor who came to Argentina was a childhood acquaintance of mine, Noakh Szucmacher.

He survived the first months of the Nazi occupation and was in the group of Jews who were led out of Chelm to the Bug [River]. Therefore, his testimony about the first bloody mass-drama is believable.

Tankhn Nisenbaum is the second witness on whom the largest part of my chronicle is based. This man belonged to the “fortunate” 15 Jews who survived in Chelm itself. I met him in Sao Paulo, Brazil at [the home of] his brother-in-law, Moshe Klerer – well-known in Chelm and a resident of Brazil for many years.

However, the information that Tankhn Nisenbaum possessed was incomplete because of the isolation in which he found himself, as we will later explain.

Thus, the chronicle of destruction must be limited to this scant information that I have collected up to now.

If other survivors are able to complete this bloody chronicle with more information, it would be very important for the history of the destruction of Chelm and for the history of the destruction of the Jews in general.

If no one else does this, with my notes I will save at least a part of the available information about our tragedy from forgetfulness.

And before this – a little about the former life in Chelm.

* * *

At this moment, 25 years have passed as I begin to write my reminiscences of a vibrant Chelm, which means of the past when there was a lively Jewish community.

However, I lived in Chelm for more than 20 years; first under the Czarist yoke and later under the Polish aristocratic enslaver … in those “happy times,” when the Jewish community in my city along with all Polish-Jewish communities wrestled for survival, for their own culture and language – for the right to their own life as a national minority.

The 20 years that I lived in Chelm beginning with my early childhood years provide me with the ability to be able to record the more important episodes that remain in my memory. Let this be a poor matzeyvah [headstone] for my city, which occupied an important place in Jewish folklore, in Yiddish literature and, particularly, in communal-cultural life.

It must have been during the years 1904-1905, during the period of the stormy years in Czarist Russia – when after a fire in our wooden shared barracks in the village

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of Adolfin, nine kilometers from Chelm, that we moved into the city.

One peasant wagon was enough for all our “bags and baggage” and all our household effects. The wagon stopped at the first house on Hrubieszow Street – this became our city home.

I was then four or five years old.

From then on began my acquaintance with Chelm. Chelm, like the entire, great Russian Empire, was then full of revolutionary turmoil and revolutionary events and the first impressions that I absorbed as a child were connected to them. Impressions that provoked my curiosity imposed fear at the same time.

An unframed paper portrait of the last Russian czar and the czarina hung on the wall of our narrow, wooden room. My father – a believer in the czar's mercy and in the czarina's good-heartedness – had brought the portrait home from an annual fair when we still were living in the village. The portrait of the imperial couple was saved from the fire along with the inherited brass candlesticks and the broken sewing machine.

My mother's nephew, Solomon Sztajnworcl, or as we called him, “the Nikolayever,” because he lived in Nikolayev [Mykolaiv, Ukraine] for a long time, suddenly arrived on a Friday night, when my mother already had put the food in a warm oven for Shabbos [Sabbath]. He arrived with a comrade. Both were hungry, in rags and with daggers in their chest pockets – in the revolutionary style of the time. The comrade pointed to the pitiful czarist portrait and the scoundrel, like one of the family, tore our portrait off the wall. He tore it to pieces with his fingers and both revolutionaries stepped on him with their feet.

My father was concerned about the desecration of the czar and was ready to argue with the rebels, but my mother, who was concerned with her own problems and not with those of the czar and czarina, quickly gathered the torn pieces of the paper portrait, threw them into the burning oven in order to erase any trace of the “crime.” To still the argument between the two sides, she took down two fresh round crackers that she would bake every Friday from the “café” and gave them to both rebels – here and let there be peace.

The “strikers” or “cyclists” – as these people then were called – had perhaps not anticipated such a high reward for their efforts. However, it came of good use for them; this was seen with the appetite with which they devoured the crackers.

My mother was ashamed of her nephew and despised him no less than did my father. The family would have been less ashamed of a thief. This, on average, was the view of the older generation of Jews toward the revolutionaries of that time, who were the lighters of the bonfire for the later great October fire…

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Shortly after this the Chelm streets witnessed a bloody spectacle about which I first read many years later and learned the sense, or the nonsense of it:

I sat at the window, looking at the events outside and cried. Only we children were in the house. Our parents were at the city fair and therefore I maintain that this was on a Tuesday because the fairs in Chelm were always on Tuesdays.

But here were our parents on a peasant wagon coming from the fair, quickly taking the little bit of old clothes into the house. The street was lively, peasants, too, quickly left the fair, whipping their exhausted horses. Young people with great “pompadours” in black blouses – the traditional dress of the revolutionaries then – walked around the streets and searched for underworld people, such as a thief, an “author” – that is what the one taking the stolen goods was called – or another sort of member of the underworld. He was dragged out of his hiding place, received broken bones both dry and “wet” and, beaten he was thrown onto a peasant wagon and taken to the hospital.

The building in which we lived immediately became full with the “strikers.” They were suspicious of our Christian boss, Szundecki, not only him, but his wife. She was a strange person: a mixture of a swindler, thief, rich woman and “mother” of all the beggars and the neglected. All kinds of clothing, furs, sofas, that she would buy from the thieves or get through fraud was found in her attic. She would use them or sell them. She herself was in rags and tatters. The group learned of this and went up to the attic and took away two full wagons to the police along with her husband with whom they had earlier carried out a sentence. The innocent hard working Szundecki – a giant, a gentile – perhaps did not know at all of his wife's illegal commerce, but he caught the blows.

And during the disturbance, when everyone was busy with the treasure in the attic, a “striker” hastily entered our room. He took a shiny dagger out of his chest pocket and quickly asked, as if he were dealing with a gravely sick person: “Where is the eastern wall?”

He stood [there] and recited the afternoon prayers…

Meanwhile, a pale Jew, a pious man, immersed in a good pedigree from his payos [side curls] to the tip of his long coat was led out of the neighbor's house. But piety does not lead to an income; because of his bitter income, he did business with a small amount of stolen objects to earn an income. The pious Jew was led by the hand and one of the “best men” was our Solomon. He truly felt like an in-law at a wedding and he called out self-confidently to my mother, who was standing on the porch and watching: “Aunt, do you see? This is your God's Cossacks!” My mother was ashamed and went back into the house. I still hear how the Jew being taken pleaded with each “punch” he received from his

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“best man”: “I am the father of small children. Have pity. You are still Jews…”

This event in which I became interested in later years took place not only in Chelm.

The reason for such strange events was that the underworld for many years had supplied sorts of gangsters who would mix into conflicts among workers and bosses and always on behalf of the latter. Every sort of request from the worker for his improvement would be rejected by these people with strident voices. For many years, somewhere in a tavern, these people with shiny cap visors, their hats [worn] impudently on the side and with knives in their bootlegs were the distributors of justice between workers and bosses.

With the awakened consciousness of the workers in the great contest to free themselves from the czar, it was necessary to first free themselves from the little “tsareles” [Yiddish diminutive of czar] – the despotism of the manufacturers and bosses, for whom the procurers stood in service. This feeling of revenge of the workers against all kinds of people from the underworld, therefore, was self-evident. And it was not simply revenge – but neutralizing them.

As I was informed many years later, the czarist police gave permission that day across the entire country for the workers to settle accounts with the underworld, and the revolutionary organizations, it appears, agreed to this.

This was a provocation from the police to expose active revolutionary elements that was successful. The police, who were passive on this day, immediately in the morning, put out its nets not for the intelligentsia, but for the rebels against the czar.

While one can understand this strange act in the larger cities like Warsaw and Lodz where the underworld was dense and harmful to the evolution of the worker organizations, as we saw earlier,

 

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May demonstration of the progressive workers movement in Chelm in 1936

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it was not justified in Chelm. Here it was quickly a pious imitation of the large cities.

The best known of the thieves was Kishl the thief. This was a short and agile Jew who became a partner with a large gentile and they divided the roles between them thus:

The large gentile, dressed in a wide fur coat, would come to a place, push himself in where it was crowded to make it even more crowded and the small Kishl would move through unnoticed moving his fingers into the pockets of the naïve, toiling peasants and disappear. His partner remained as if nothing had happened here and would order something from the tailor. The peasant who had been robbed would tear his hair in surprise; but no one had been here!

Meanwhile, Kishl would slip part of the stolen items into someone's hands and divide the remainder with his partner…

After the yearly fair, before traveling home, Kishl would drop into the Jewish restaurant, eat at the same table as all of the fair merchants and often buy the recitation of grace for himself, as a thank you to the Most High for the good “transactions” that he had made…

 

Mentshn and Workers

The Jewish population in Chelm consisted of artisans and workers, but it is appropriate to refer to these workers with Sholem Aleichem's term: “mentshn” [people]. These are the “people” hired for the term of a year, from khol hamoed [intervening days of a holiday] to khol hamoed with food, drinks and a place to sleep.[1] Bosses mainly were as poor as their “people,” who had their beds in the workshop itself, where the meager meals were distributed. There were no larger industries in Chelm as there were in other Polish Jewish cities. No Jewish workers were employed in the only foundry located there. Jews only worked in the two mills along with non-Jews. The tailors, shoemakers, cabinetmakers and house painters were small enterprises with few workers. The “inherited trades,” too: watchmaker, hatmaker and bootleg maker worked in similar conditions. The same unhygienic, crowded workshops in the residences of the 'heirs” as with the “simple” artisans.

The remaining part of the Jewish population consisted of small traders, brokers and undetermined pursuits.

Great poverty kept the Chelemer Jews in its grip and the poverty was particularly noticeable in the area that was called (I do not know why) the Neye Tsal [new number]. This street stretched parallel with the main street, the Lubelsker (Lubliner) only a little below. Chelm is a hilly city and one part of the city lies lower, the other – higher.

The Neye Tsal actually was the oldest area of the city and its houses were more ruins than houses.

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From this deep poverty an organized working class, in the modern sense of the word, began to spread out at the end of the First World War with its professional and cultural organizations.

 

Chelemer Panorama

Certainly, the cities and shtetlekh all over Poland were similar to each other and, each city described, possessed the main characteristics of another. Yet, I will try to show the face of Chelm, as it is preserved in my memories.

Perhaps, the only thing that distinguishes Chelm from a number of other cities is its hilliness. I am not talking about such mountains that entice the interest of tourists, but there are enough hills to make the panorama of the city interesting. There are steps in some places that lead down or up from one street to another. They are present from the Lubliner Street to the Neye Tsal. However, in most places one went down and up without steps. There were ideal ice-skating spots during the winter for rascals, kheder [religious primary school] boys in comradeship with the gentile boys.

The church (the Greek Catholic church) occupied the highest spot in the city. The church gazed down very unexpectedly from the highest point with its brass cupola and its bronze crosses, like gilded epaulets on a Czarist general. At the side of the church was the aristocratic Greek Orthodox cemetery. There rested the aristocrats: the religious hierarchy and their allies, the military. The spot was considered as the most beautiful place to stroll in the city. However, no Jewish strollers were permitted there. This place was too sacred for Jewish steps. Young Jews made their first walking excursions in this beautiful spot after the First World War at the rebirth of Polish independence.[a][2]

The church was converted into a Polish Catholic Church. According to the premise of the Poles, the Russians had once expropriated this church for their ways of God, the Poles took it back after the liberation and, since, Poland's rebirth was a “democratic” one, the Jews were free to go everywhere. However, all sorts of hooligans also had the freedom to do what they wanted to do to the Jews. This beautiful strolling spot was the place of daily attacks by the hooligans on the Jews. Yet the Jewish young people continued to stroll there and the hooligans did not cease “amusing” themselves on the Jews.

A little further, but also on Lubliner Street, was the old and blackened church, as if blackened

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like Poland's fate under the Czarist rule. As was said, the Russian-Czarist regime did not permit the renovation of the Catholic Church in order to discredit it in the eyes of its believers.

According to legend, the synagogue building had been given to the Jewish kehile years earlier by a Polish prince, a friend of the Jews.

The synagogue and houses of study were located in the center of the city and, therefore, the street was called Szkolna (Shul – School Street).

The Jews believed that the remains of the Prague golem [creature believed to have been created by magic by Rabbi Judah Loew in Prague to defend the city's Jews] lay in the attic of the old synagogue and, therefore, one should not enter it. How did the golem from Prague happen to be in Chelm? – But, one does not ask such a question.

The repairs for the Jewish kehile took place when a rich widow, Gitele, [Chana's daughter] (Arnsztajn) died in the city. From the money that she left according to a will or what was taken from her heirs, a fence was erected around the cemetery, a new roof was placed on the house of prayer, the synagogue was renovated and a Talmud-Torah [school for poor young boys] was built.

Paintings of Jewish historical locations – the Western Wall, Rachel's Tomb and other sacred places – appeared on the wall of the synagogue, whose color was unrecognizable from age.

Painters were brought all the way from Lublin for this refined work. The entire renovation occurred when Anshel Biderman was the head of the kehile.

The forest near Hrubieszower Street, or as it was called in Yiddish, Rubishover Street, also belonged to the city panorama. This was a forest of over a viorst in length [a little over one kilometer] at an end of the city on the road to Rubishov. An entire week, the forest that stretched in two straight lines on both sides of the highway served as a wood reservoir for Jewish as well as non-Jewish paupers. Ignoring the usual ban and Gajawa and his unmanageable aids who guarded the forest, they gathered the thin branches that had been broken off by the wind or the thin branches that they themselves broke with the help of long scoops and placed them together in bundles. There, they would also gather blackberries and mushrooms during the ripe summer months, some for their own use and others to sell. This was during the week. But, from Shabbos morning into the late night, this forest was made Shabbosdik [in the spirit of Shabbos]. They did not gather any more [branches] and came there for a “May picnic.” The forest's Shabbosim began with the arrival of spring and it ended with the arrival of autumn. The Shabbos dawns began with the singing of Jewish young people who strolled into the forest in groups. On the way, they knocked on the windows of friends, woke them up and took them along. Thus, the group grew larger along the way. There was hunger, a lack of hope for

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a large number of the young, but it was life and especially Jewish life.

During the years 1904-1905 secret gatherings were held in the shadows of those trees and many revolutionary acts were planned there. More than one death sentence against a local czarist political henchman or a traitor was carried out there.

In time the city began to become more of a large city and a cultivated area for strolling was created at the other end of the city. A park like Saxon Garden [in Warsaw] was created with an artistic brook and with a music hall over it. During the day on Shabbosim and Sundays, this garden would be full of those strolling.

There were baracks from czarist times. There also were two pulks [regiments] of soldiers from before Polish independence: an artillery regiment and an infantry regiment. The military hospital, which was among the largest in the country, was a particular pride of the city middleclass.

 

Jewish Way of Life

However, the Jewish way of life did not become more urbane. The education of the Jewish child lay in the old Sephardic khederim and Talmud–Torahs [religious primary schools for poor boys]. There was no communal library. At that time there was one private library that lent books for “rent” for those readers who were no longer satisfied with the books for a kopek from the itinerant bookseller. I do not know how long this library had existed. I knew of this library from when I became a reader in 1914–1915. Its owner was named Bibkowski. This was a “Russian” Jew who had done his military service in Chelm and had married here. The library was in his private residence. He also had the only Jewish newspaper kiosk on the main street at Lubelski that at that time was the only modern corner of culture in the city.

The Jewish religious life at that time in Chelm, as in all Jewish communities in Poland, was strongly rooted. It appeared that modern winds never would have any influence on the local Middle Ages way of life.

In addition to the synagogue and house of prayer already mentioned, there was a large number of Hasidic shtiblekh [one–room houses of prayer] where the old and young Hasidim from various sects studied and prayed. These were the Hasidim – mainly followers of pious, good Jews. At that time, as I remember, Chelm did not have its own esteemed Hasidic rebbe. The only rebbe, who drew his chain of descendents from several generations of Chelm rebbes, was Reb Nutala.

He was a quiet, modest Jew. He did not maintain a large court and did not preside over a large table.[3] He did not create a sensation with miracles.

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A group of the Chelm Jewish intelligentsia and culture workers
The deceased poet, L. Malach [Leib Malach, pseudonym of Leib Salzman] is in the center

 

During the summer one would find him sitting in his small garden before the house he inherited on Lubliner Street, where he enjoyed the pleasures of this world with a glass of tea. He sat on a soft chair with a hand hanging from a white cloth that was tied around his neck. His hand was in the mentioned position for his entire life. Whether this was the result of something that occurred at his birth or from an accident I do not know. Reb Nutala was the last of the Chelm rebbes. He did not have any children and after his death, his [rabbinical] seat was inherited by Reb Pinkhasl, a distant relative from a different city.

In the same courtyard, where the Rebbe, Reb Nutala lived, his brother, a grain merchant, also lived. The latter's children left on their worldly way and his oldest son, Moishe Lerer was the last chairman of YIVO [Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut – Yiddish Scientific Institute] in Vilna under the Soviet regime.

Moishe Lerer was a man with a deep Jewish and worldly education. During his early years, he studied in “distant Odessa” as a teacher. Jewish folklore was his beloved field of knowledge.

When the Jewish folks–shul [people's school] was founded after the First World War, Moshe became its teacher [and remained there] for many years.

In 1939, when the Soviets occupied the bordering nations, Moishe Lerer, as mentioned, was the chairman of the Vilna YIVO. He remained in this cultural office until the Nazi invasion and he shared the tragic fate of the all of the Vilna Jews.

 

Chelm Stories and Anecdotes

When people learn of my Chelm lineage, hundreds of people ask:

“From where do all of these stories and anecdotes about Chelm come?”

Others simply ask:

“Must there not be something in the fact that those from Chelm are called “fools?”

There are also soft–hearted people who do not want to shame anyone or want to comfort me and say:

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“ There also can be exceptions in Chelm.”

Indeed, there is no lack of those from Chelm who deny their origins. They are ashamed to admit their Chelm background. They say they are from Lublin. They save their prestige and it is not a big lie because Chelm belonged to and still belongs to Lublin gubernia [county].

Yet the further question is: why was such a “strong” defamation of fools thrown down on Chelm, or the opposite: why do they ascribe such smart stories, the most beautiful anecdotes to Chelm?

The answer is that there is no scientific–historical reason or that no one arrived at this explanation. There is no lack of hypotheses and some of them also sound very witty.

In the old home, every city and shtetl, just like every person, also had a nickname in addition to their own name. For example:

Pinsker khazeyrim [pigs], Warszawer freser [Warsaw gluttonous eater], Lemberger fifkes [sly ones], Piasker ganovim [thieves], and so on. Among others, the nickname “fools” had yet to fall on one. This name fell on Chelm for the same unknown reasons as the nicknames of other cities. However, if this is so, if fools, let this be woven into the material with a witticism somewhere, a story, an anecdote, as it happens, for example with Hershele Ostropoler [a prominent character in Yiddish humor], in whose name witticisms were written of which he had no idea. Chelm was a sort of collective Hershele Ostropoler.

I scarcely believe that there are such readers who would consider these lines as an attempt to defend Chelm. There is no reason to justify the city. The opposite, Chelm entered Yiddish literature and folklore as no other city has.

Rare stories and anecdotes were created around Chelm and thereby enriched Yiddish literature. It is enough to remember the two stories by Y. L. Peretz: Der Chelemer Melamed [The Chelemer Teacher] and the Der Shabbos Goy [The Sabbath Gentile]. And not only Peretz. A large number of Yiddish writers drew full buckets from this well. The anecdotes are particularly a blessing for children's literature. Sh. Bostamki, the editor of the first Yiddish children's journal in Vilna, Grininke Beymelekh [Little Green Trees], won the small readers with his “Chelemer fools.” This material is being republished today in all children's publications in the entire Yiddish world. The poet, Aaron Zeitlin, published a comedy, Chelemer Khokhim [Chelemer Fools], a few years ago. And quite a curious case was with their beloved folk–singer, [Menakhem] Kipnis, who in 1923 or 1924 published a collection of Chelemer stories.

Kipnis came to Chelm with a concert of songs and it is said about it that he and his female singing partner, Zeligfeld, strolled along the Chelm streets on the eve of the concert. Seeing the two unfamiliar guests

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passing the black market that had blossomed then, the merchants thought that they were Americans with dollars. They did not lose any time and asked: “How much?”

The guests understood what they meant and answered with a joke:

Zeligfeld said: “80 he.”

And Kipnis answered: “70 she.”[4]

They threw this refrain from the famous folksong at the merchants, instead of dollars. The Chelemer merchants understood the joke and were insulted that they were taken “for granted” and decided to boycott the concert.

They were not satisfied with just not going to the concert, but they also placed a guard at the concert hall and did not let the audience in. Not long ago, I met a landsman [person from the same town] who was one of the guards at the theater – and best of all, who today, 30 years after the event, is still incensed by this “insult”…

Is this not itself a fine Chelemer anecdote?

Kipnis took “revenge” on Chelm for this failure with a fine collection of Chelemer stories.

If the failed concert really led to this or it was more because of his inclination to folklore, Chelm created such a hypothesis because Kipnis published the stories immediately after the failed concert. It also can be that Chelm, with its version of the failed concert, took revenge on Kipnis.

Revenge for revenge…

And Kipnis did try to give an explanation of where the name “Chelemer fools” originates.

He tells in one of his stories:

The angel who distributes souls to those who are being born flew with two sacks of souls across Chelm. On one side he carried a sack of smart souls, on the other side, a sack of foolish souls. Just when he had to pass the Chelm mountain, the sack of foolish souls got entangled in the mountain and all of the souls were scattered in Chelm…

As mentioned, the wellspring of the Chelemer fools is not yet exhausted. Writers and painters have available a treasure of inspiration for a long time, although Chelm, as a Jewish community, is no longer here.

 

A Great Fire

The church bells suddenly started [ringing] with all of their bronze strength on a Shabbos morning. Sleep in the city was interrupted. Everyone got out of bed and began running to the place of the fire.

The Neye Tsal [street name] was burning.

The old, wooden, dried up little houses surrendered to the flames without any resistance. The shingled roofs and the wooden walls burst into flames one after another. Men stood helpless and women rang their hands. The pozarne komande (firemen) with their barrels of water and hoses did their

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duty. However, their work gave the impression of children at play or of ridicule. After every spray of water from the hoses, the flames answered with wanton “screeches” and knocks and proudly spread further. The few tin roofs on which the na´ve observers of the tragic spectacle lay their hopes that they would stop the spreading of the flames, these roofs began to spring up and roll like megilus [scrolls] of fire and surrendered with crackling.

After the fire, half of the Jewish population remained without a roof over their heads. My two Torah [study] rooms also disappeared in the fire. The first, at Itshe Szepel's [house] and, the second, at Pesakh the teacher's [house]. Both were crowded, wooden cellar rooms, where the beds, kitchen, the table with wooden benches for teaching and the chickens with which the rabbi's wife traded in the market, lived peacefully together.

Half a room at Itshe Szepel's was fenced off with a “folding screen” and rented to a young couple for a “golden temple.” That was then when I studied, just after the wedding.

Various rumors circulated in the city about the fire. One of them stubbornly blamed the regime. The czarist administration with the regional police superintendent at the head – a box–shaped, fat swine, an angry little dictator – a kind of mini–czar – had set fire to the poor part of the city as a means to remove Jewish poverty. It is possible that the rumors were not groundless because at the time the czarist regime intended to convert the Polish city into a Russian gubernia [province].

 

Chelm – A Russian Province

Chelm belonged to the Lublin gubernia for all the years, but there was a long conflict about its authentic Polishness.

The population in Chelm and mainly around Chelm was a mix of Poles and Ukrainians. The surrounding villages had mainly Ukrainian–speaking peasants who spoke Ukrainian or as they called it, khakhlatske. Every Polish–speaking peasant was thought of by the other peasants as an aristocratic maniac, a poser, a boaster. However, the population in the city, in the surrounding shtetlekh, mainly spoke Polish and the official language was Russian during the Czarist times.

It mattered even less to Czarist Russia that it was the ruler of the 10 Polish gubernias, but it crawled out completely from its bearskin to Russify Chelm. Indeed, it used the pretext that the majority of the population there was not Polish. Naturally, they did not ask the population. Power was in the hands of those who had won the conflict.

According to a Czarist ukaz (decree), Chelm or, as the city was called in Russian, Kholm, was designated in 1913, as I remember, as an independent Russian gubernia.

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The former Siedlce gubernia with a governor with his own personal retinue was moved to Chelm.

The Russians celebrated their “victory.” The Poles walked around with lowered mustaches and the Jews really were at wit's end.

Rumors about various acts of terror ran ahead of each other.

[They] learned of the Shedlitz [Siedlce] pogrom on the Jews during the time of this governor who was now the absolute ruler of Chelm. And more rumors from which the hairs on the head stood up. Thus, in the national political fight about where Chelm belonged between the Russians and the Poles (I do not say Poland because an independent Poland did not then exist) there also was a third side – the Jewish one.

In truth, to the average Jew, the concern about the entire struggle about Chelm was whether it was good for the Jews or not good for the Jews. The Jews thought of every change in political life in Czarist Russia as a new evil that would fall on their heads. The Jews remembered the Cossack whips very well. Therefore, the choice between the two led to the question: which of them is worse…

The gubernia was created and the Russification machine for the Chelm population started with all of the power of the czarist functionaries. Poles were punished with jail for speaking Polish in public places.

The excesses were not anything new for the Jews. In truth, they did not have to wait for pogroms until Chelm became a Russian gubernia. Jews did not have to wait until then to hide in the cellars, in the attics and in the neighboring shtetlekh and villages.

However, this Russification did not last long. In 1915, German–Austrian troops occupied Chelm as all of Poland. The national status of Chelm went through its last convulsion at a separate peace that Junkerist [junkers – German word meaning country squires who had great political power in Germany during this period] Germany made with the White Guard Ukrainian Hetman [Pavlo] Skoro padskyi

 

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A group of male and female friends from Poalei–Zion
[Workers of Zion – a Marxist–Zionist group] in Chelm

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in 1917 when Germany generously assigned Chelm to Ukraine.

 

After the German–Austrian Occupation

Chelm, along with all of Poland and a large part of Europe, was under the military boot of Germany and its partner Austria for three years (from 1915 to 1918).

The population experienced a difficult life under this occupation. The honeymoon – the hope that the Jews then associated with a German victory over the Czarist Army – quickly dissipated. They simply had changed the czarist whip for the German riding crop, exchanged one evil for another. The oppression of the occupying armies was quickly felt. Forced labor, hunger and epidemics became a dark specter in every house.

In 1915, cholera, which made the Chelm population sparser and the number of victims in the old cemetery larger, already had appeared. Cholera retreated with the coming of winter and in its place typhus arrived, which raged the entire winter and completed what the cholera had begun…

The population experienced a bitter life.

Yet among all the horrors, young people grew up who yearned for life. Military service was not a problem for the Polish youth, so the young remained physically and spiritually thirsty for a more beautiful and better life, for a revived life.

And suddenly – such an unprecedented will for a new life! The October Revolution.

The glow of revolutionary fire in Russia lit many corners of the world. The revolutionary waves were carried across Poland as across other European lands. The Jewish youth in Poland broke with the way of life of the Middle Ages. A war broke out between parents and children, not as if there was a difference in one generation, but in tens of generations.

The narrow, stifling Chelemer houses also opened their shutters to the new events. The young sharpened their ears for the sound of the new times. They

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began to create organizations, professional, cultural. First of all, they thirstily turned to self–education. They wanted to make up for the lost years when their entry to the world was closed.

They began to read modern books. And a communal Jewish library was founded in the city still under the German–Austrian occupation.

Feywl Frid was the initiator of the communal Jewish library in Chelm.

After long years of absence, he suddenly reappeared in the city. Where had Feywl Frid been? Where did he come from? – No one could answer this [question] for sure. Some said that he escaped from czarist exile in Siberia; others said that he came from abroad. And he himself? – He was silent about this.

Yet he was not such a quiet one.

At the initiative of the energetic, intelligent Feywl Frid, the first Jewish People's Library was founded in Chelm at the end of the First World War.

And Feywl Frid was not only the founder of the library. He should be considered the father of modern communal and spiritual life in general.

He was a man who boiled over with initiatives and he had the strength to influence people to accomplish the initiatives. His contribution was invaluable to the Jewish population during the first years of the Jewish renaissance in Chelm.

At first, he was busy with private lessons. Later, [he was occupied] with the founding of the Folkshul [people's school – secular public school]; he became one of its teachers. He also was one of the first lecturers of cultural history for the adults.

During the days of the Nazi invasion, he and several hundred Chelemer Jews together evacuated to the Soviet Union. After the war, he returned to Chelm. But he did not remain there for long. His wife (née Fiszer), a medical doctor, had perished with their daughter.

A little later a man who became heartrendingly famous during our tragic time, began to influence Chelemer communal life, although in another direction. This was the Bundist worker, Shmuel (Arthur) Zigelboim.

A workers club was founded then in the city for the first time. Lectures, readings, etc. would be given. Workers and people who simply loved culture came to the workers club. Almost no political hue of any kind was known at that time. They would come mainly on Shabbos. But the premises also were not empty on weekday evenings. It was the primary communal meeting spot and, therefore, a pleasure for the culturally thirsty young people. A beautiful library was quickly created and the young people just swallowed the books. It cannot be known who read with an explicit interest in [acquiring knowledge] and who took books because it was the fashion, but

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everyone carried around books. It is said that if only today, in the American nations, there was a trend for Yiddish books… That the trend to read would be so great that non–readers would be ashamed and at least learn a few of the names of books and writers so as not to remain embarrassed in a society…

From the beginning, the library and the club were non–partisan and were not named after any personalities that would give the institutions a certain political coloration.

But on a certain Shabbos, the club was disturbed by the first political arguments:

“Someone” had nailed a political label over the library. It was given the name of the deceased Bundist leader, [Bronislaw] Grosser.

From then on it was not just a library, but [it was] the “Grosser Library.”

This was the first public party work of the young Shmuel Zigelboim.

The harmony of the non–partisan club disappeared because of this and sharp quarrels took its place.

Group meetings began in private locations. Political differences began to emerge, pecking out of its hard shell of previous indifference [of] workers or “people hired on an annual basis.”

The first political grouping among the Jewish workers in Chelm was the Bundist under Zigelboim's leadership.

A little later the Poalei–Zion [Workers of Zion – Marxist–Zionists] party was founded. Feywl Frid again played a leading role. These two groupings were the only two political workers groupings in Chelm for several years. In time, Poalei–Zion became the main power for the Chelm Jewish workers, taking over even more from the Bund. The communist party first became a significant strength in the Jewish neighborhood in the later years.

Meanwhile, both the Bund and Poalei–Zion were housed under one roof in the [earlier] created club that still was considered non–partisan. The cultural work

 

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Cultural communal workers breaking the ground for a new building for the Jewish Folkshul in Chelm

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still was done jointly. Evening courses were given for adults through which many later leading male and female comrades received their first elementary education.

In time Poalei–Zion separated and rented its own premises on Lubliner Street at Koper's in “Komenice,” which I think was then the most beautiful house in the city.

 

Inheritance from the Austrian Occupation

Several Austrian–Jewish officers, who contributed to the shaping of worldly Jewish life in the city, remained in Chelm immediately after the German–Austrian armies were defeated and the Austrian Empire fell apart.

Dr. Kanfer, an Austrian first lieutenant, was a man of wider culture. As soon as he threw off his military uniform with the collar covered with stars, he began to speak a very charming eastern Galician Yiddish and became active in Chelm Jewish society. He would appear with instructive Yiddish lectures and quickly became the manager of the Folkshul that already was in existence.

His speech was calm and his actions were not hasty, laden with knowledge, of his own time; his speech was eagerly listened to and his views were respected by various groups even though Dr. Kanfer was counted as a right Poalei–Zionist. However, his beloved area was literature, although he was occupied with communal and pedagogical activities. Therefore, he also worked with Polish–Yiddish publications in his free time.

I once entered his Folkshul director's office and saw a new Yiddish book on his desk. Dr. Kanfer was sitting inspired, his gaze warmly caressed the book that had a personal inscription from the author and he spoke enthusiastically:

“What a distance the author has covered from his A Roman fun a Ferd–Goniv [A Romance of a Horse Thief] to now!”

This book was Y[osef]. Opatoshu's just published In di Polishe Welder [In the Polish Woods].

Dr. Kanfer and his family were in Chelm for several years. He occupied the post of director of the Folkshul without interruption. His wife was the teacher of Polish at the same school. Later, he left for Krakow and, according to arriving news, edited a Polish newspaper. There were rumors before the [Second World] war that Dr. Kanfer died in Krakow.

A second colorful figure was the Bundist communal worker, Dr. Fensterblau, an inheritance from the Austrian occupation.

I think he also came from eastern Galicia, from Krakow or near Krakow. His Yiddish was a very familiar one, like he would never have worn

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an Austrian officer's uniform. In addition, he was a very temperamental speaker and communal worker.

At that time, the two political parties – Bund and Poalei–Zion – were most active in the Jewish neighborhood. Later, after the split in Poalei–Zion, the left Poalei–Zion remained the most important.

 

Workers Struggles

The “people” or “the people hired on an annual basis” who were tormented in the crowded workshop rooms of the Chelemer artisans where they worked, “ate” and “slept” together, these “people” truly became encouraged. The “idyll” between the worker and owner disappeared. The workers from the various trades began to organize in their trade unions, too, with the rise of modern organized Jewish communal life.

Professional communal workers and leaders emerged from among the workers themselves. Collective demands began to be presented and strikes became a frequent occurrence. Despite the fact that there were no large industries in the city, a strike involved hundreds of workers. They would last for weeks and thanks to the patience and stubbornness of the workers, the results almost always were in their favor.

It happened that I took part in several such trade strikes and because of their importance, in my opinion, I will spend some time on them:

It was during the first post–war [First World War] years, when the Polish currency fell so low that printing small banknotes was not worthwhile to the state. Paper, ink and printing would have cost more than the value of the banknote. They would tear one banknote into four even parts and each part had the value of a fourth of the torn banknote.

There were cases in which someone sold their house for a designated sum and by the time the house had formally been registered and the agreed upon sum was received, he could buy a pair of shoes for the sum or just a herring.

The wages for which we began working on Sunday lost half their value or more when we were paid on Friday.

I speak about it deliberately do that today's reader can have an idea about the character of the economic struggle at that time.

Therefore, all of the agreements between the owners and workers using Polish money were groundless. They had to look for a solution.

This example was given by the government itself: it designated a sliding scale wage–price list for the state and municipal employees.

The wages were designated according to a firm foreign currency – according to the American dollar. In paying the wages they would take into account the price of the dollar and pay the equivalent in marks, or later, in Polish zlotes.

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Such a program already existed in the larger cities and was a common occurrence in private undertakings but was still new in Chelm.

Naturally, the owners opposed such a demand. Strange, too, is that a number of workers fought this demand with the pretext that it was not achievable. In truth, this demand was fought by those workers who had other political beliefs than those in whose hands lay the leadership of the strike. This was “natural” in the inter–party struggle of the time.

In truth, the strike was a hard one, long drawn out; it lasted five weeks. However, the workers won completely. This was a strike by the tailors of men's clothing.

In addition, it was typical that although the trade unions already were well organized in other cities as in the entire country and the workers already had graduated from a school of struggle, the kinship between the owner and the worker had not completely disappeared.

According to the agreement that was reached after the strike in the first floor premises in Kuper's “Komienice” of the Artisans Union, my brother who is now in Buenos Aires signed for the Artisans Union and I in the name of the Workers Union.

At that time we, the representatives of the two fighting sides, both still lived in our parents' house…

This was not an exceptional case at that time.

Naturally, the victory of the workers in that complicated strike immediately found a reverberation in other trades. The tailors of women's clothing struck a short time after this. There were no strikebreakers because the place was small enough; everyone knew everyone and was ashamed for one another. But efforts by the workers themselves continued because of political party opposition to their actions.

This strike also was won. Although the win must be credited to the good organization of the strike, a man, actually from the opposition, contributed something here.

Berl Kelberman was then the leader of the women's clothing owners. Later, he was one of the 15 Jews who remained alive in Chelm itself, working in a Gestapo workshop.

A slender man, neatly dressed and just as tidy in character, he felt in his conscience that the strike was dragging on and he rushed his owner colleagues to end the strike in behalf of the workers.

As already mentioned Berl Kelberman was one of the 15 artisans who survived the Nazi hell in Chelm. He is now in the United States.

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The strikes that broke out were not the only ones in Chelm. If I spend time on them it is because these [strikes] are known by me. I also believe that mentioning all of the strikes would be an unnecessary repetition of similar struggles.

 

Cultural Flowering

The workers and the young in general were not very satisfied with just economic wins. The thirst for “spiritual nourishment” was never stilled even [when those then working in] the cultural field were called na´ve. Some of the young in Poland, in Lithuania and in other eastern European lands are the creators and users of culture today in the most varied American nations, as well as in the compact and small, secluded American communities. These are the present buyers as well as readers of the Yiddish book, the listeners to Yiddish literary lectures. You can recognize them by the flame of enthusiasm in their eyes. When they speak of Yiddish literature, when they quote a Yiddish poet, whose poetry they would hear sung or recited at various literary–oral evenings, as they then would call the Friday night evenings. Whoever speaks, when they quote a writer, whom they have heard or seen themselves – and this was a frequent phenomenon – there is no greater joy to equal this.

I do not remember any one empty Shabbos in Chelm, not one Shabbos without a reading, without a lecture throughout the years. Lecturers, party leaders and writers would come from Warsaw with various lectures. I remember the martyr Yisroel Shtern [a poet and journalist deported to his death at Treblinka in 1942], singing out a complicated lecture; Uri Zvi Grinberg, the blond who then was beloved by the young with his just published Mefisto; the tall, thin, quiet Z[usman] Segalowicz, Yisroel Mastbaum, Peretz Markish and so on. Party lectures were self–evident. Each of the parties brought in its speakers and there was no lack of an audience. Not only the Chelm young people stormed the premises where the lectures were given, but young people came together from the surrounding shtetlekh: from Rawicz, Wojslawice and Grabowiec and others. Some came on foot, some in wagons, but they tried not to miss a lecture and at the same time to spend a little time in the large city.

However, the city tasted not only “imported” culture. Its cultural life did not remain backward in comparison to larger cities in Poland.

I already have mentioned the Chelm folkshul, which maintained its existence until the Holocaust and even progressed despite obstacles and all of the material and political difficulties caused by the Polish government. A Hebrew gymnazie [secondary school] also existed for many years until the Holocaust. The Bakalar family among others occupied the posts of teachers and director of this gymnazie. This was an intelligent

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Literary circle at the Jewish gymnazie

 

family and one of them was a better reader than the next. I think this family was not from Chelm, but were in Chelm for years and influenced the cultural growth of the society.

On a higher lever were those, almost systematic lectures on cultural history that contributed significantly to the worldly ideas of the Chelm young people. The first one who gave these lectures was the previously mentioned Feywl Frid. This was right after the German–Austrian occupation or during its last months. Shmuel Zigelboim [taught] the same course at the Bundist premises a short time after this. During the winter of 1921, I directed this course in the premises of P.Z. [Poalei–Zion] on Lubleski, three times a week. The course was attended for a certain cost by the young people of all [political] leanings, even by guests from the surrounding shtetlekh for a certain cost.

However, I believe that the central place for self–development was the library. The city already had several community libraries that served the readers every evening. Yet readers had to wait in a line to receive a book to read. There were so many readers.

Writing about my city that was tragically annihilated by Hitlerism as all other Jewish cities in Poland, I do not try to give any preference to any one communal movement. Yet I give more detailed attention to several organizations and less detail to others or none at all. I was close to the organizations described; I was an insider and a [participant]. However, it is difficult for me to speak about every movement from which I stood completely at a distance because of my beliefs. Speaking and writing only from memory, particularly after all of my own as well as not my own perished by the same terrible death, would be a disparagement of their work, life and death.

I only know of the existence of the Zionist movement with all of its branches, about the existence of a group of politicians with a certain influence in the

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artisans union. I remember the scout organization, but all of this I remember as just an on–looker and I am concerned with just recording their existence. Alas, I cannot provide more facts.

 

The Dark Beginning

That which I am going to relate or record I heard from the mouth of Tankhn Nisenbaum as I already said in my introduction. I met him in Sao Paulo, Brazil, after his arrival here to [visit] his sister and brother–in–law, Moshe Klerer.

The storyteller was among the 15 Jewish artisans who worked for the Gestapo, isolated in the Chelm jail and thus escaped from death.

Here I will only present the storyteller, Tankhn Nisenbaum, who told me everything that he saw himself and that which he heard from others. His speech is simple without polishing and corrections like he himself, the young, strong carpentry worker, Tankhn Nisenbaum.

Tankhn Nisenbaum sat across from me, on a chair in the home of my landsfroy [woman from the same town], Sura Rywka, who was my neighbor in Chelm on Hrubieszow Street and spoke.

His story was – as [could be expected] – a lava eruption of personal remembrances and, against my will, I often had to restrain his rush of words in order to get facts and dates from his [story of a] general character:

The Nazis Army occupied Chelm on the 9th of October 1939.

They did not wait for long in Chelm to begin the terror that already horrified the world.

A group of Nazis immediately drove up to the well–known family [of] Moshe Pomeranc at Refomacka [at the] corner of Agrodowa [and] chased the entire family out of the house without permitting them to take with them the smallest thing from there. And they settled in the house. However, this would have been the mildest, the least [thing] that one would have expected from these beasts.

The Nazis were not satisfied with this alone:

The Pomeranc family, which was thrown out of its home, was forced to wash the bathrooms of its own house with their bare hands, wipe them, wash the toilets with their own shirts and then put them back on their bodies accompanied with the wild mockery of the Nazis and their local collaborators – the Endekes [members of the Polish National Party] hooligans.

The effect of those wild deeds by the Nazis on the frightened Jewish population in the city is easy to imagine. The tone was set and the Jews awaited in anguish further dark deeds by the Nazis and their Polish collaborators. And they did not have to wait long for the “further [actions].” Acts of individual torture and murder were daily events.

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The looted Pomeranc family residence had to be kept clean. The Germans were “civilized” people and believed in hygiene. So they caught 15 Jews in the street to clean the residence. After their work, these 15 Jews were forced to box under the command of a Gestapo officer. Yosef Stoliar's eye was knocked out during this “spectacle.”

Most of the 15 Jews died after the boxing.

One [act of] vandalism chases another:

The Kuzmirer Rebbe's son, himself also a rebbe, was living in Chelm at that time. The beasts entered his residence, chased out the rebbe, ignoring the fact that he was paralyzed, took along the shamas [synagogue warden] and the Hasidim who were there at the time. They were all forced to wash the Nazi automobiles. This was not enough. They [the Germans] thought of various practical jokes to insult and humiliate the victims for the enjoyment of the torturers and the local Polish masses.

It was clear to the Jews in Chelm that their lives and possessions were [being treated] completely recklessly, as never before even during the dark moments of Jewish history. The words law and moral were a bloody mockery for them, the Hitler hordes, and together with their Polish and Ukrainian partners they were now the exclusive bosses over the lives of the Jews in Chelm. These hordes in Chelm, as all over Poland, did not even try to mask their dark deeds along with the ridicule of the Jews for their own pleasure, as well as for practical objectives, as they had done in other nations.

During the first days of the occupation they tore open the Jewish businesses and the occupier and their underworld members were let loose. Whoever wanted to, took.

An “exception” was made for the Jewish furniture businesses, which, instead of just looting them, they became the “legal” property of the Chelm Ukrainians.

The evil decrees immediately began to pour over the heads of Jews, one worse than the other:

The first decree was that the Jews in Chelm could not go outside into the streets later than six o'clock in the evening. Otherwise it was known: death!

After this came a contribution of 100,000 zlotes that only the Jews in Chelm had to pay immediately. The money was collected by the kehile among the Jews in the city and the occupier was paid what was demanded on time. As soon as the demanded sum was paid, a new [demand] was made of 40,000 zlotes. The Chelm Jews did the impossible and the sum was also provided. A little hope still shone among some Jews that perhaps they would get off with money – and in addition, Jews are accustomed… However, as soon as the second contribution was paid,

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the occupiers demanded a third – this time only 10,000 zlotes.

As frightening and difficult as these material offerings were for the poor Chelemer kehile that was then completely looted, it was a “trifle” in comparison to the blood offerings, with Jewish lives that would soon be sacrificed in mass volume on the Nazi sacrificial alter.

 

The Bloody March to the Bug River

The arbitrariness began during the first minutes after the ravaging Nazi–boots set foot on the soil. An hour had not passed without looting, without persecutions and without Jewish blood. However, the first extermination took place on the 1st of December 1939. Seven weeks after the occupation of the city.

Noakh Szuchmacher, who also took part in the bloody march to the Bug and was one of the few fortunate ones who survived, told about this mass murder. As already mentioned, he also was the first Chelemer who arrived in Argentina after the war.

As he told it, this occurred in the following manner:

The Nazi chief, Fisher, gave an order to Anshl Biderman, the head of the community, that all Jews, aged 16 to 60, should come on the first day of December. This included only healthy men. Approximately 2,000 Jews came.

The head of the community ran around all night to Jewish houses and presented this dark order. However, he did not mention that this applied only to the healthy afraid that because he was afraid that everyone would say they were ill and he would not be able to provide the required number of Jews. Sick and healthy came to the marketplace as they were ordered. As soon as the number of Jews were at the spot, they were surrounded by the Gestapo and they began to lead them to the Hrubieszow highway on the way to the Bug River with the pretext that they were being taken to the Soviet side.

The first victim in this bloody march was Itshe, Shepele's son. I knew this man from my kheder years. He was a melamed and I studied Khumish [Torah] and Rashi with him. He lived in the Neye Tsal at that time. His father was a Nikolajevkser [one who had served in the army of Tsar Nikholai I] soldier. I knew his brother's son as a young communist and, I think, today he occupies an important office in the Polish government.

When Itshe Shepele's, found himself among everyone at the marketplace, he realized that he had made a mistake: they had demanded men from 16 to 60 and he already was older. He was already 63. He went to the Gestapo leader with his papers in his hand and showed him his mistake. The answer from the brown [shirted] murderer was – a shot from his revolver.

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Itshe, Shepele's son, was the first victim of the bloody march to the Bug. The second one annihilated was a son of a well–known family, Menasha the headstone engraver. The family was itself distinguished from others by this profession itself. But it was better known because of the sons who were considered as members of the Chelm intelligentsia. Their family name was Mendelbaum. Some brothers lived in Paris until the last war. The only son who remained in Chelm with his father was a cripple and this was the reason that he was shot at the marketplace before the march began. The baker, Yankl Brilant, also was shot there.

With [the events] before the start of the bloody march, it already was clear what the march itself would bring.

And the mass slaughter began one kilometer from the marketplace.

Two thousand Jews were being led on their last “stroll” through the Hrubieszow forest, in whose shade they had once spent their time reading, and in discussions and in arguments.

Twenty people were shot immediately at the entrance into the forest. Among those shot were:

Dr. Aks, Sekuler, the old well–known dentist, Benya Salan, Shimeon Zajdradem and Gecl Majer, Ahron Grinman, Yitzhak Goldman and his son, Avraham. The female Dr. Feldman, also was with them, although, it was said that there were only men in the group. It is possible that Mrs. Feldman went along herself or she accompanied someone in the group. The story–teller did not remember the remaining men who were shot.

Hrubieszow is located seven miles from Chelm and there was a highway between the two cities on which would stretch unending caravans of business owners. Day and night, heavily laden wagons harnessed three and four horses across would be pulled over the highway and the jabbering by wagon–drivers to the horses never stopped. This was the trade transport between Chelm and Hrubieszow.

Here, the peaceful highway was escorted by Jewish corpses on the 1st of December 1939.

Over half of the 1,200 Jews were left lying on the peaceful seven–mile highway between Chelm and Hrubieszow.

Frightened peasants from the surrounding villages came to Chelm another day and told about what they had seen: that hundreds of Jews who had been shot were lying on the road.

The remaining families of the group that had been sent out ran in despair to the Nazi authorities to seek justice, to ask for pity. The city steward was then a Chelemer Volks–Deutsch [ethnic German]. Szuchmacher said [they told him – the Volks–Deutsch] that he should go to the military commandant

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‘to inform’ him about the injustices that were committed against the group of Jews sent out.

The commandant listened to him and “calmed” his Volks–comrade with the words:

“Today we are taking the Jews for breakfast. Tomorrow if we need to, we will take the Poles for lunch. And you,” the commandant answered – “go home and do not mix into our things.”

The intervention of the Volks–Deutsch with the commandant rings a bit na´ve to the reader, as na´ve as it rang for me when I was told it, but I relate it as I heard it.

The Germans brought together 800 more Jews. They joined the remainder of the Chelm Jews and they were led to the Bug together. Not more than 400 Jews remained of the two groups, from the Chelemer and from those from Hrubieszow, [who were marched] to the Bug.

The Nazi commandant gave a speech to the remaining half–dead Jews before crossing the Bug River and promised them that none of those remaining would be killed. However, he warned them that after they crossed the Bug to the Soviet side, none of them could return. Anyone who returned would be shot immediately.

This time the Gestapo commandant kept his word; none of the remaining unfortunate ones were shot.

They chose a flat place in the river through which the several hundred unfortunate ones were driven across the river. Those driven, with guns pointed behind them, went into water up to their chests in the middle of a winter night, carrying the weakened ones who could not go by themselves.

Eight Jews died from exhaustion and cold crossing over to the Soviet side.

After a short time on the Soviet side, they [the Soviets] sent back those who had come over. They were placed on boats and sent back to the German side.

The Jews who were sent back did not all reach home. Of all those who returned to Chelm through various roundabout ways, there only remained 150. The remainder perished on the road from exhaustion. The only name that the storyteller remembered of those who perished on the road home was Chaim Itshe Szpader, a butcher with the nickname “Tshela.” He died from injuries to his legs.

Szuchmacher returned to Chelm. As a returnee in fear, grasping the true nature of the Nazis and the consequences for [returning] moved him to a daring step:

He again crossed the Soviet border, leaving his wife and children and the remaining family in Chelm, whom he believed were not in as much danger as he was.

Later, he did his military service in Anders' Army. As already mentioned, after the war, he was

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the first Jew from Chelm who arrived in Argentina. A little later, he settled in Australia. His entire family perished in Chelm.

Tankhn Nisenbaum, from whom I have taken most of the information about the destruction of Chelm, later worked in the Gestapo workshop and even saw the photographs that the Nazis took of the terrible slaughter in the Hrubieszow forest.

 

The Hospital for Mentally Ill

Chelm was not a very large city, but it always had the largest hospitals. The military hospital near the Hrubieszow forest that was inherited from tsarist times was one of them. The sick would be brought here from distant areas. A very large military cemetery, not very far from the hospital, arose there during the course of time, particularly at the time of the First World War. Straight wooden crosses over the graves told of the same fate and ancestry of those under them.

Another hospital arrived at Wygon [a village near Chelm] for the mentally ill. This place and the good forest air were appropriate for a healing institution. A city for the sick grew there with a great deal more comfort than for the healthy. The ill were sent to this hospital from throughout Poland.

There were 300 patients in each hospital when the German hordes occupied Chelm. The “superior” German race immediately showed its “superiority.” Gestapo members broke in there [in the hospitals] and sent out all of those in the hospital. The sick, who had come there to heal found their graves at Wygun, where the hospitals stood.

 

Murder of Children

Tankhn Nisenbaum told of a case of the torture of a child that made the hair stand on end. No matter how much one is accustomed to hearing

 

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Charming Jewish children, Sulka and Leibl Nisenbaum,
who were annihilated by the Hitler murderers

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about the deeds of the Nazi scoundrels, I always shudder when I hear of the torture of children. In addition – this was not done at anyone's order, but for their own sadistic pleasure. Nisenbaum, the storyteller, who himself survived the frightful horror and told this story often, was moved by what he was saying and he controlled the tears that choked him.

Here is what he related:

Among the names of the S.S. murderers, one of the schar–fuhrer [squad leader], with the nickname of the “the blond” excelled the most. This was a scoundrel, a sadist who surpassed all of his colleagues with his cruelty.

In a terribly cold winter morning, this “blond” rode out on a bicycle. A 12–year old Jewish boy came towards him. The scoundrel sprang off his bicycle and gave it to the child to lead with his bare hands. Each time the child wanted to warm one hand and lead the

 

che089.jpg
Jews at forced labor under the Hitler tyranny

 

bicycle with the other, the “blond,” whipped him on his frozen hands with his riding crop. The child led the bicycle with his bare hands for a long time before the eyes of a helpless city; they could do nothing but cry and gnash their teeth, until the child's hands froze completely and the flesh peeled off the bone.

Later, the child's hands were cut off at the hospital.

 

The Gestapo in Chelm

The storyteller, Tankhn Nisenbaum, had been caught at that time with a number of Jews for work. The work, in the courtyard of the Gestapo, began with moral and physical torture of the workers by the Gestapo gang. The work consisted of cleaning the rooms and polishing the boots of the murderers. The Jews had to polish the boots, sort each pair and know to whose feet each pair of boots belonged and to place them in front of the door of their owners. In case of

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an error – and there were many such, because they were not shown earlier to whom the boots belonged – they received blows. From the highest floor where the gang was located, the boots were thrown down right at the heads of the Jews, with scorn and laughter. This was such a morning entertainment for the Nazi murderers.

The Gestapo then consisted of these:

First chief – [Herman] Rohlfing; vice–chief – Fisher; aides – Schlesinger, Urban, [Rolf] Maurer, Steinert, Feldman, [Emanuel] Schafer, [Johannes] Krauz, Braunmiller, Ashendorf and [Rudolf] Theimer. The last two were especially for Jewish problems.

A larger number of Jews, caught in the streets, as was the way, worked serving the Gestapo at the beginning. In time, the young, strongest and most capable were chosen from among those gathered together.

The latter thought that because they worked for the murderers themselves, they were temporarily secure in their lives. However, something else occurred:

On a certain day the vice–chief of the Gestapo left on furlough for his bloody fatherland, to his thieving home. The Jew, who previously had served in his residence, remained there, as before. On the eve of the vice–chief's return to Chelm, the man who cleaned his room tried hard to have his work please the murderer and he asked a second Jewish worker at the Gestapo to help him with the work. As a wage for the help, the former treated him to a small glass [of whisky] from a bottle that was in the vice–chief's room.

When the murderer returned, he immediately noticed that there was not as much in the bottle as there had been when he left it at his departure.

The young man who had served in his room confessed his “crime” and told him under what conditions this had occurred.

The sentence from the Gestapo–murderer was carried out on the spot:

Still very young men, both the one who drank and the one who treated him, they were harnessed to a horse and a wagon, which they were forced under a whip to pull and to gallop through the entire city, to the train station. On their backs was pasted the tag:

“Thus are Jewish thieves punished.”

When exhausted, half–dead, they pulled the wagon to the spot. They were shot by the vice–chief himself.

 

Jewish Police

However, it was not enough for the murderers to kill. For their sadistic pleasure, they determined that the annihilation of the Jews would also be carried out by Jewish hands – this was, by the way, the devilish tactic all over Poland and everywhere that their bloody paws reached. They created in Chelm as everywhere a Jewish

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police. This occurred right on the eve of the devilishly conceived total annihilation of the Chelm Jews. Along with the Polish, Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian police that the Gestapo had at its service, they also created the Jewish one. The Jewish police recruits were communal scum just as those from the listed nationalities.

This was at the beginning of 1942.

Someone named Szwarcblat, from Libewna, three miles from Chelm was designated as the chief of the Jewish police. Vice–chief – a certain Genik. The latter previously was a guard at the Warsaw Jewish Hospital on Gęsia Street. I do not know if he was from Warsaw or ifhe only worked there.

The Jewish police immediately received their “responsible” work to carry out.

 

Creating the Ghetto

After the Jewish police [force] was created in Chelm, the driving of the Jews into the ghetto – the last isolation before their complete annihilation – was carried out with their help.

The following streets were designated for the ghetto:

Szerlecka, Pocztowa, Katowska and a little of Lwowska to a point opposite the Polish cemetery. There was an “exchange” of the non–Jews who lived in these streets that were designated for the ghetto and the Jews who lived outside the ghetto.

The Jews had to leave everything that they had in their previous residence in contract to the Christians who took everything up to the last feather from the residences they left.

The Jews came to the ghetto with empty hands. In the short time that they were given to live by the Germans, they had to begin to arrange [things for themselves] anew.

Even more painful was the fact that there were Jewish partners to the German robbery and murder of the Jews.

The class differences under the slaughtering knife of the slaughterer also did not cease. The community providers, the bale–takses [person responsible for collecting the government tax on meat] took the designated ghetto under their control and traded with it for as long as the trusteeship of the Jews was still under their authority.

The community leaders distributed the residences [in the ghetto] when the Jews were driven to the ghetto. However, the size of a family was not taken into consideration with the distribution of a larger or smaller apartment. The size of the sum of money that was given for receiving a better, more comfortable apartment was considered. The richer Jews also purchased more comfortable residences in the ghetto and the worst were distributed to the not well–to–do families.

The shameful trade went on in the clutches of the angel of death.

Alas, the date that the Jews were driven into the ghetto and the manner of their expulsion is

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unknown to me. It would be easy to allow my own fantasies, but I am not writing any kind of novella, but a bloody chronicle.

The only “facility” in the ghetto that Nisenbaum knew to speak about was the special Jewish jail on Siedlecka Street.

 

The First Deportation Action

The first mass extermination of the Chelm Jews took place erev Shavous [the eve of the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah], during the same year in which the ghetto was created, 1942.

Meanwhile, the first sent to the gas–ovens were those least capable of working:

The old, the weak, children and those who did not have any ransom money. This time, too, the Jewish community carried on a bloody trade and provided 3,000 Jews of both sexes from among the very poorest to the Gestapo. Meanwhile, the richer ones ransomed themselves.

Tankhn Nisenbaum, the storyteller, already was working then in the workshop at the Gestapo and the deportation did not affect him. But, he had left his wife, his mother and a brother at home. He could not rest knowing the danger that threatened those closest to him. Although he did not have permission to leave the workshop, he risked his life and left for the marketplace where the unlucky 3,000 Jews stood. He looked for them among [the 3,000 Jews]. He considered that in the worst case he would ask the Nazi commandant who was the same one for whom he had worked. His chief, who was occupied with the deportation, did notice him and was angry with him. He warned him that he could join them because he was not the head leader of the bloody deportation, but one who had arrived from Lublin especially because of it. Nisenbaum open–heartedly told him why he had come and why he was ready to risk his life.

Meanwhile, more and more new groups were brought to those already standing in the marketplace waiting for their dark end. Nisenbaum noticed his brother among a new group and succeeded in asking for his life for another bit of time…

The deportation had run its course: it began at a designated hour and was supposed to end at a designated hour. However a minute after its conclusion, a Chelm Volks–Deutsch brought the hiding Pinya the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer]. This Volks–Deutsch had beat the Jew with a stick the entire way from the Jew's hiding place to the collection point, shouting:

Yude, host gevolt krig. Nadir, krig!” [Jew, you wanted a war. Now, have a war!]

When he brought the half–dejected victim to the commandant, the latter looked at the clock!

It was a minute after the designated hour and the commandant told the Jew to return home.

This is what is known as German punctuality!…

The 300[5] Jews all were packed into trucks

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and they were taken to Sobibor. The smaller children were placed in sacks like rags and thrown into the same trucks.

The devilishly devised gas–ovens surely did not have to be used for the children.

Nisenbaum could not relate anything about the fate of the remaining Chelm Jews after the deportation of erev–Shavous 1942.

Earlier, when he worked for the Gestapo in their residence proper, he still somehow had contact with the outside world. Later, the Gestapo workshop was isolated in the Chelm jail. The 15 Jews then in the workshop lost every possibility of maintaining a connection to the rest of the Chelm Jews.

Yet, as the several survivors in Chelm itself and the several hundred Chelm Jews, who evacuated to the Soviet lands, established at the congress in Silesia after the liberation, the last extermination of the Chelm Jews took place on the days of Shavous 1943.

Exactly to the day of the first deportation.

On this spring day and the day of Matan Torah, when the world was given the Torah, on this day the remaining Chelm Jews were taken away to the oven of Sobibor.

Shavous, 1943, is the day of mourning for their martyrs for all of the Chelm Jews throughout the world.

May the Chelm Jews, wherever they are, in whatever corner of the bloodied earth, sanctify this yahrzeit [anniversary of a death] for their own, for all Chelm Jewish martyrs!

 

15 Jews in the Gestapo Workshop

What happened to each of the Jews who survived is one of the thousands of wonders. I provide this wonder as Tankhn Nisenbaum, one of the 15 surviving Jews in Chelm, told it to me.

It is already known from previous sentences that 15 Jews were caught to work at the Gestapo. At first they did house work, served the murderers in their residences. Later they were allocated to a workshop. The workshop exclusively served the Gestapo gang and their families. The jail was allocated as a place for the workshop and various artisans worked there: tailors, hatmakers, shoemakers and carpenters. Tankhn Nisenbaum, himself, was a carpenter. Berl Kelberman was a tailor of women's clothing. One of my neighbors from the same street, a long time friend of our household, Chaim Sobel, a gaitermaker, also was there. My childhood friend, with the same trade, Manes Citrin, also was there. These were some of the 15 surviving Jews whom I knew.

These 15 Jews worked in the Gestapo's workshop for 22 months in the most frightening conditions. They were completely isolated from their families and from the world in general. And then at the beginning of Germany's end, at the victorious march of the Red Army and by the Allied armies,

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when the Jewish workshop that had worked for Germany a result of which they had delayed the hour of their death for a little while, then, when there was an order to take the Jews from the workshop on their last road, the Chelm Gestapo left the workshop whole. They hid it from the higher powers.

Why did it [the Gestapo] do this?

There was no humanitarian spark in their action. The opposite, this was in blind self–interest.

The Chelm workshop did not work for the government, but privately for them, the Gestapo murderers and for their wives and concubines. They needed the looted goods to be altered to be taken with them when the sharp slaughtering knife of justice was on their chest and the never–stilled revenge by the tortured nations and even more by the Jewish people had brought out a “feeling of regret” from a number of Nazis.

On the eve of the [Jewish] New Year, on the eve of the complete dispersion of the German “undefeated” armies, one of the Chelm Gestapo chiefs, very intoxicated, acted out a scene of revenge in the jail where the workshop was located.

Dead drunk, he also forced the tortured Jews to drink with him, and drinking, he began to beat his chest, crying and swearing that he was not at all guilty for what the Nazis had done. Just the opposite, he was just a believer in equality for all people…

Oh, what a drunk Nazi is capable of!…

When the Red Army neared Chelm and the brown mice ran in panic, they did not have any time to liquidate the workshop with true German exactitude, but they did, after everything, think to shoot into the jail so as not to leave any living Jews.

With luck, however, the Jews lay hiding and the bullets being shot did not hit any Jews.

 

che094.jpg
Wolf and Chaya Ruchl Waserman,
parents of Manasha, Shlomo and Shneier Waserman

[Page 95]

Tankhn Nisenbaum described the “miracle” that none of the bullets hit anyone with this interesting event:

Three nights before the arrival in Chelm of the Soviet Army, Soviet shrapnel ripped open a deep hole in the courtyard of the prison where the 15 Jews were located. The Jews were aware of what was happening outside and made use of this accident: they all entered the hole and covered it with a clothes closet that was located there.

When the suspicious stillness ceased outside, one of them tried to stick out his head to see what was happening.

To their joyful surprise a Ukrainian member of the Red Army stood near the jail.

The Red Army member grabbed for his gun and asked:

“Who are you?”

“We are Jews” – was the answer from the half–dead 15 happy Jews.

This was enough of a legitimization for the Red Army member.

He gave a whistle and a Soviet rezvedka [scout] immediately came riding. The officer jumped down from his horse, seeing a miracle before him – living Jews – he began to kiss everyone.

The officer also was a Jew.

With tears in his eyes, the Jewish officer told them that he was from Stalingrad and that he was searching for Jews and until them, he had not found one living Jew. They were the first living Jews he had found.

Still more Red Army Jews joined them. They tried to console and help the victims in any way they could at such a time and in such a place behind the front lines.

It was the eve of the Days of Awe. The surviving Chelm Jews, for the first time in years, again gathered freely somewhere in an improvised small synagogue together with a number Jewish members of the Red Army and poured out their hearts at the great crime that had happened to those closest to them and to a great number of the Jewish people and simultaneously rejoiced in the victory that then was certain over the Nazis.

 

After the Liberation

Tankhn Nisenbaum's story about those rescued ended here.

The additional [information] was taken from telegraphic news and from letters.

Chelm was the first larger Polish city the Red Army took in its advance on Germany. Therefore, the Polish Democratic People's Republic was proclaimed there with [Boleslaw] Bierut as its president. Later, the government moved to Lublin and with the further advance of the Red Army

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and the Polish Armia Ludowa (People's Army), the government later settled definitively in the permanent capital, Warsaw.

According to the arriving news, in addition to the 15 surviving Jews, two women were hidden with Christians. Later, a number returned from the Polish and Soviet armies. Several hundred who had evacuated to the Soviet land also returned. All of these together perhaps would have founded a Jewish settlement in Chelm. But the life of the survivors again was threatened. This time not by the Germans who lay hiding in their lairs during the first phase of their great defeat. This time the danger came from “our” own liberated Poles.

The Chelm medical man, Dr. Evri, came with the first divisions of the Red Army. He was the son of the well–known wealthy baker, Shlomo Evri, who in his time lived a worldly life and permitted his children to study [secular subjects].

Dr. Evri was the oldest son and he received his medical diploma from the Russian–Tsarist University. He younger brother, Motka Evri, was a councilman in the Chelm city council, elected on the list of left Poalei–Zion [Marxist–Zionists] and was murdered at that time in an armed robbery in his house.

Dr. Evri, it seems, went along with the Red Army during the German invasion and worked there at his post as a medical man. At the liberation of Poland, he had the good fortune to be among those liberating the city of Chelm. As with every Jew, his joy at the liberation was mixed with sadness because of the Jewish annihilation and the death of his own family. And he also was destined to share the fate of his family and of all the annihilated Jews.

Dovid Goldrajch, who returned to Chelm from the Soviet Union, wrote in a letter:

“Dr. Evri and another Jewish colleague were also destined to find their grave on a hill outside the city.”

In the evening, when Dr. Evri sat in his house with his friend, they were shot by a Polish pogromist.

They were not the only returning Chelm Jews who were murdered by Polish hooligans.

It was told of a Chelm butcher that when he returned to the city and approached his own house, a Pole, who had grabbed this house and its entire contents, came out opposite him and threatened:

“You should disappear, if you do not want to get a knife in your back”.

The threatened one left for Italy.

Of the several hundred Jews who returned to Chelm after the liberation, I think that no one remained

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because of the pogroms during the first month of Poland's independence, with its bloody finale in Kielce. Several perished at the hands of hooligans and the remainder dispersed.

In a second letter, the above–mentioned Dovid Goldrajch wrote to me:

“We are in Chelm with the children, the last 50 Jews; most of them not from Chelm. And, we, too, are on our way. We will all leave the city quickly.”

And a short time later I received a letter from him from Silesia.

Dovid Goldrajch's wife, it seems, had hidden in Chelm itself as an “Aryan.” Because in his letter there was the following two–line postscript:

“I have to play the tragic role and laugh when my heart bleeds.”

 

che097.jpg
Work card of Irena Szreder [Goldrajch]

Yankl Beker and his family, who returned to Chelm from the Soviet Union after the liberation, also quickly left for Lodz and he now lives in Israel.

 

Family Chronicle

A son of my brother with the same mother, Chaim Borukh Warzoger, and his family, who saved themselves in the Soviet Union, returned from there to Silesia. One of his younger sisters, Fraydl, temporarily remained in Lutsk with one of her uncles and she perished there [at the hands of] the Nazis.

My brother, Avraham Sholem Warzoger, or as he was known, the Chelemer baker, lived in Chelm for dozens of years. A number of his sons were active in the Polish revolutionary movement long before the Second World War and thanks to them the entire family was saved in the Soviet Union. The sons entered the Red Army there and a number of them distinguished themselves in the fight against the murderers.

Two daughters died during the evacuation.

Later, everyone returned to Poland and lived for a time in Silesia. Now, the family has

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settled in Israel. One son, Shlomo Warzoger, became known as poet in the [concentration] camp, who contributed to our Holocaust poetry.

Yehuda Warzoger, another of my brothers, lived for many years in a village near Chelm. He was a good–natured blond giant with grey child–like eyes. He went through the Russian–Japanese War and the First World War and the revolution in Russia and came home healthy. He lived for dozens of years in the village, in the best of relationships with his non–Jewish neighbors. The same neighbors murdered him and his wife during the first days of the terror of the Nazi occupation. Their sons survived in the Soviet Union, joined the Red Army in the fight and a number of them remained there.

Three of my sisters with many branched families, with children and grandchildren, all perished. I do not even know the place, the time and manner in which they were murdered by the German killers.

One, Ester, a loving sister, and her husband, Yitzhak Gorn and their three children all perished.

Hinda, my sister with the same father, and her husband, Ahron Tuchsznajder and their children perished.

Eidl, a widow, in accordance with her husband's name and origin, perished with her children and grandchildren. Only one of her daughters, Czarna, and her child survived in a camp.

Other more distant relatives, too, whose number and names it is impossible for me to know. They all went on the road of the martyrs – the largest and bloodiest in our history.

These were all my own sisters and brothers remaining in Chelm who were a part of the 18,000 Chelm Jews who perished.

If the sad duty to record this bloody chronicle fell on me, to erect a stone at the head of the unknown mass grave of my 18,000 landsleit [people from the same town], I have taken permission from them, from the martyrs, to record the names of my own, the blood of my blood and the flesh of my flesh, [the memories of] whose shortened lives will follow me to my grave.

* * *

Not deviating from my established task to record only the chronicle of the destruction, I omit the names in this chapter, “Family Chronicle” of our family members and even of my own brothers who left Poland a long time before the war and are now located in various lands. I do not even mention those of them who achieved esteemed places in Jewish society.

I dedicate these few lines to avoid possible mistaken dissatisfaction by those who are not mentioned here.

If only there were even more survivors who were not mentioned…


Note:

  1. The Polish anti-Semitic authorities also forbid Jews to enter other places. An inscription at the entrance to the spacious steps said: “Forbidden for Jews here.” The Polish hooligans made use of this to beat Jews when they found them there. Return


Translator's footnotes

  1. The holidays referred to are either Passover or Sukkos – the Feast of Tabernacles. Return
  2. The article refers to the Greek Catholic church and to the Greek Orthodox cemetery. The article then indicates below that the Russians had expropriated the church. The article is referring to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Return
  3. Hasidic rebbes presided over tables at which their followers gathered to hear the words of the rebbe, to sing songs and enjoy refreshments. Return
  4. This exchange echoes the words of a popular Yiddish song, Achtsik Er un Zibetsik Zi – Eighty He and Seventy She. The words of the first verse are:
       “Today marks the fiftieth anniversary
       The old couple have been so happy together
       They have both gotten older.
       Eighty he, and seventy she.” Return
  5. The number previously was given as 3,000 Return

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