By Michael Cohen
Translated by Allen Flusberg
For many long years we lived in my birthplace Dobrzyn, where I was brought up until the second decade of my life. For various reasons we left the town in 1929, and my family settled in Zgierz, an industrial town not far from Lodz. However, we kept up our connection with our friends and acquaintances of Dobrzyn for many years, and whenever one of them visited Lodz he would also often be a guest at our home.
I recall an accident that David Pieniek had when he was driving to Lodz in a truck, loaded with cartons of eggs and butter to bring to a major wholesale dealer. He was accompanied by Yaakov Yechiel Bielowski, y.b.l.h. Several kilometers before they got to Lodz the truck overturned. Bielowski managed to get out unharmed, but Pieniek was injured badly. Since they weren't very far from Zgierz, Bielowski ran over to Zgierz to get us, leaving Pieniek in the field with the damaged merchandise. When I heard what had happened, I immediately took a car and two workers and drove over to the site of the accident. First I brought Pieniek back to our place and gave him first aid after calling in a doctor. After that I went back to the site of the accident. I collected the merchandise, which was not in good condition, and brought it to the dealer in Lodz. David Pieniek stayed at our home for several days, and when he began to feel better he went home to Dobrzyn.
In 1932 my older brother, Oizer Ber z.l. left Poland to set out for Israel during Aliya Bet. His journey was organized by Betar. In Israel the first place he lived in was Petah Tikva, and he wound up remaining there. He was a dedicated member [of Betar], and was also in the underground. He was willing to do a favor for anyone anytime, which is how all his friends remembered him. Unfortunately he died young in a tragic accident: while riding his bicycle to work he was hit by a truck and was killed on the spot. He was only 26 years old.
From the moment this sad news reached us, my parents began considering building our home in Israel to implement the plan that my brother Oizer z.l. had devoted so much time and thought to right after he arrived in the Land, but which he unfortunately was not privileged to fulfil. My parents made an effort in various ways to obtain a certificate [of immigration], which was not very easy to obtain in those days. But that didn't prevent my sister Chava from joining an illegal aliya, and in this manner she reached Israel in 1935. But my parents had various formality difficulties; also the events of 1936 in Israel prevented them from achieving their life's dream. In the end they perished in the Holocaust together with my youngest sister, Ita. I have never succeeded in obtaining details about [what actually happened to] my parents and sister; I know only that they were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to a Death Camp.
I was mobilized several days before the war began. We were not very far from Lodz while the German Luftwaffe was bombing the city unremittingly, murdering hundreds of innocent people, mainly those who lived near strategic points. The Germans knew the precise locations of these points thanks to betrayal by the GermansNazisof Lodz. We fled in the direction of Warsaw; along the way we saw towns and villages in flames. The population was fleeing in all directions, not knowing where to go.
In this enormous din of fire and flame we arrived in WarsawPraga, where we were put up in private homes for the time being. When we found out that it was Rosh Hashana, we went out into the street, weary and covered with dust, where we saw Jews, dressed up in holiday clothing, streaming by the hundreds to synagogues, as well as to services being held in private homes. Wethat is, I and the one other Jewish soldierwent into a private home where a few dozen people had gathered to pray. When they saw us they were at first quite frightened, but they calmed down as soon as they heard that all we wanted was to participate in their communal prayer. One could sense the disaster that was approaching in the sorrowful cries of the people as they prayed.
As we left the service we saw a huge line of people waiting for bread in front of a bakery. Suddenly a German fighter plane, a Messerschmitt, came swooping down, and in a few seconds half of the people were mowed down, staining the street with their blood.
That year Yom Kippur fell on a Sabbath, and we were then holed up in trenches not far from Warsaw. The incessant bombardment was deafening, and we knew that Warsaw's days were numbered. That Tuesday Warsaw surrendered, and the Germans marched in freely, illuminated by the flame and fire that had engulfed almost all of Warsaw. With the fall of Warsaw our company was sent to Skierniewice.
Altogether we were the only two Jews in our company. After the Germans captured our company the two of us were very fearful that they might find out our secretthat we were Jewish.
One day they brought us to the train station to send us to Germany, but the train didn't show up and they brought us back. On the way back we saw a German policeman cruelly tormenting a defenseless religious Jew dressed in a kapote.
Using some subterfuge I managed to get a pass, and so I made my way back to Zgierz. Once there I found out that my parents had been hidden away in the home of a family, and I went straight over to see them. I am incapable of describing the convulsion that gripped both me and my parents during this short meeting. I had to part from them in silence and sorrow, with a deep lament in my heart, as I imagined the fate that was awaiting themas well as me.
After a difficult, dangerous journey I reached Bialystok. I immediately signed up with the Russians for work, believing that by doing so I would survive, at least for the time being. But already then the Russians were conducting mass arrests of the Jewish refugees in Bialystok, sending them to labor deep within Russia. As much as I tried to hide away to avoid being arrested, I was forced, in the end, to make my peace with it, and I joined the large number of those who were transported away.
After a long journey we arrived in Russiain the city of Arsha. Right away the NKVD began to come after us. They searched under every little button and tore the soles off our shoes. After that they put us up in a large prison under a heavy guard, with big dogs monitoring us. There were about 150 of us in each room, and there was simply not enough room to put one's head downnever mind the unimaginable sanitary conditions.
After some time they transported us to a camp in Finskiy Zaliv, on the sea, not far from the border with Finland. There I came across Kasriel Isaac; we were delighted to see each other. Right away he told me how the place operated, and specifically about the bread rations, which were the major problem of all the refugees in Russia.
Kasriel was receiving packages of food from his brother Yehuda, who was still in Bialystok. But as quickly as a package would reach him it would be taken away. This was the work of a group of underworld gangsters who were in the camp. As soon as I intervened with the gang leaders, however, their thievery ended.
Kasriel was generally very apathetic about life as he observed how deadly the troubles we were having were.
One day, with no forewarning, I was sent with a group far to the north. There we started new lives at a temperature of 40 degrees below zero. Many of us got frostbite in our noses and ears. The Russian work supervisor assured us that they would be finishing us off the same way the Arabs had taken care of the Jews in the Land of Israel in 1929. This was at the time that Hitler's army was approaching Moscow. We submitted a complaint to the commanding officer and requested an investigation. The work supervisor disappeared, and we never saw him again. Later, however, it turned out that they had transferred him to a different camp where he was given a higher position.
One daya short time before we were liberatedwhen we had just completed our work in the forest and began to leave, one of our group lingered behind; he was picking a few berries to satisfy his hunger. The soldier who had accompanied us trained his rifle on him and shot him dead on the spot. Shouting and wailing, we tore up our bread ration cards in protest and demanded an investigation. Right away an officer arrived on horseback. He was accompanied by several soldiers, who surrounded us. The soldier [we were protesting against] claimed that he had shot the worker for attempting to escape. The officer accepted this explanation; he told us that if we did not line up in orderly rows he would shoot every second man. We complied, of course, and the officer, in his great mercy, gave each of us a piece of bread without the ration cards.
After we were liberated, when we were already on our way back to Poland, we came across many Russian Jews, and we thus had the opportunity to observe the extent of their ignorance: they were completely unaware of how the Jews were living worldwide.
During Chol HaMoied of Passover we arrived in Warsaw. At the railway station we were met by representatives of the Jewish community, and among them I found one of my parents' acquaintances. He wanted to help me get settled in Warsaw, but I had my sights set on Israel. Before continuing on my journey, however, I took a little free time that I had left to go for a walk in the area that had been the Jewish part of Warsaw. But to my sorrow all I saw there was rubble and burned walls.
I took the first train to Kutno to visit the brothers Kasriel and Aharon Isaac. I left my wife and child there and travelled to Zgierz, hoping to find out something about my family. I found our house, plundered and in ruins. I wanted to have a look inside the mill, thinking that I might come across someone there. But a Polish worker standing at the entrance said to me very plainly: You have nothing to look for here. This was my welcome back to liberated Poland.
Shortly thereafter I joined up with Bricha. When I got to Germany, I ran into Yehoshua Goldberg and his wife. Together we made inquiries in BergenBelsen about his sister Brocho, whom we were searching for.
Broken in body and spirit, we finally reached Israel, where we began to build our home anew. After the great destruction in Europe, this is our only comfortthat we are living in independence in our own state.
|Hirsch Arnow, grandson of R. Zalman Chossid |
By Mrs. Degala
Translated by Allen Flusberg
It was during the month of August, 1942, in the Tschenstochau Ghetto, that suddenly, quite unexpectedly, several dozen police burst in. A terrible panic ensued. After a few minutes they led 20 men out of the ghetto, bringing them into a nearby cellar that they then encircled with police. For three weeks they held them in the cellar under barbaric conditions, barely giving them anything to eat. Once when we did see them we could not even recognize them: they were emaciated, pale, and completely indifferent, knowing as they did what awaited them.
Several days later a car arrived in the camp bringing a group of Gestapo members with prefabricated gallows for the twenty arrested men. The entire camp of men, women and children were ordered to assemble in the main square, where the executions were to take place. Men were ordered to dig a long pit as the twenty for whom the gallows had been prepared looked on. As they led them to the gallows, there was dead silence, everyone choking back tears, for an order had been given for us not to scream or cry. Among us stood policemen, their guns drawn, ready to shoot anyone who dared open his mouth.
For eight hours, on a very hot day, the men were left hanging, until the smell of death began to be noticeable. Only then was the order given to cut them down. One at a time the bodies were carried to the large pit, and all were buried together in the common grave.
Only then, once the Nazi beast had satisfied its thirst with the blood of the twenty who had been hung, was it quiet in the camp for some time.
By Yehoshua Goldberg
Translated by Allen Flusberg
Our little house had stood for generations in the famous market square of Dobrzyn on the Dreventz River, my birthplace. There my family lived; and we also worked there in our business and clockrepair shop, which was the destination of hundreds of Dobrzyn families when their clocks didn't work right. For everyone in town knew that whatever Shmuelik the watchmaker repaired was guaranteed for some timeand it was really true.
Not far from us was the wellknown passageway to the Lange Gass; this passageway, known as the Lik, served as a shortcut from the Lange Gass to the town squareand back again. People avoided the passageway because of the unpleasant odors wafting up from behind the Lik, odors that were caused mostly by those who took the shortcut. But the smell wasn't very much of a deterrent, and passersby made use of the Lik from sunrise to late at night.
One of the town's most highly regarded assets was the Dreventz River, which separated two nations from each other: Russia on one side and Germany on the other side of the river. Until the outbreak of the First World War hundreds of families in the town made their living from the riverbanks. Thousands of young men from various locations in Poland who were obliged to serve in the military, but were not too excited about putting on Russian uniforms, found their way to Dobrzyn ahead of time. There those of our brother Jews who specialized in this calling made sure to transport them not only across the river to Golub, but often all the way to the Golden Land, as well. Traffic also flowed in the other direction: dozens of small boats, laden with German merchandise, crossed the narrow little river to the Dobrzyn side; from there the merchandise was transported to various cities and towns in Poland. It is worth mentioning that the Russian officers of the border watch didn't suffer any loss from this businessnone whatsoeverand meanwhile the Jews of Dobrzyn enjoyed flourishing livelihoods from it.
The river also provided the inhabitants of the town with a place of recreation in both summer and winter. In the summertime peopleespecially young peoplewould go to the Dreventz shore, which in some places was overgrown with small trees. There they would spend many hours, quietly reading books, or carrying on conversations with friends, while they snacked on tasty delicatessen that they had brought along from home.
On hot summer days many groups of young people would congregate in the shade of the thick wooded areas. In winter you would see them skating on the frozen river. Setting out in groups, wearing iron skates, they would skate several kilometers along the length of the river. This sport was repeated year in and year out. And there were hardly any young people in Dobrzyn who didn't know how to skate or to swim.
Often we would visit the famous castle, visible from afar, that stood on a high mountain in the neighboring town of Golub. In it was a museum with many artifacts that were ancient, hundreds of years old. On each of our visits we would learn something new about these artifacts, each of which had its own particular meaning.
The contrast between the two towns, Dobrzyn and Golub, was significant. For the most part it was noticeable in organizational life: in Dobrzyn there were Zionist and Socialist parties, sports associations and various youth clubs; whereas in Golub there was only a single, nonaligned partyand not because Golub was smaller than Dobrzyn, but simply because the German Jews of Golub had no interest in such things. They were interested in family, business, and entertainment. As a result any affection between the Jews of Dobrzyn and Golub was very subdued; the young people of Dobrzyn lived in their own secluded domain and made no attempt to approach the German young people, in spite of the richer culture of the latter.
The library with its beautiful reading room, the Zionist club HaTechiya, the theatre performancesthese were things that the Golub Jews almost never visited or attended. Even lectures on all kinds of subjects, given by renowned invited speakers who had been brought in for this purpose, did not interest them. Only in 1918, when Poland achieved its independence and Pomorze became part of Poland, only then did the Golub Jews become closer with the East European Jews. One who helped this process along was the Golub pharmacist Dr. Riesenfeld, who was also a dedicated Zionist. But the majority of the Golub Jews left for Germany.
The first time the two towns felt a bitter taste together was during the Bolshevik invasion of Poland in 1920. The Russian soldiers did not physically terrorize the inhabitants of DobrzynGolub. Economically, however, they impoverished the local businesses by appropriating the best goods from the merchants in return for rubles that even at that time had no effective value.
In the late 1920s, when the economic conditions in Dobrzyn grew worse, several Dobrzyn families moved to Pomorze. Although the sympathy of the Polish population there for Jews was not satisfactory, economically the situation was considerably better [than in Dobrzyn]. We were one of the families that lived in Chełmża, Pomorze for many years. Our relationship with the local Polish population was no bed of roses, but we did endure there until shortly before the war. Seeing what was taking place, we understood that the sooner we left Chełmża the better. And so we returned to Dobrzyn.
Several days before the war broke out, as sometimes happens in moments like these, it came back to me how I had accompanied my brother Mordechai, of blessed memory, when he began his journey to Israel together with a group of pioneers from Dobrzyn in the early 1920s, and how during all that time our dream had been to unite with him again. And even after his death in the early 1930s we had not given up our longing for the Land of Israel. But practical difficulties made our dream unattainable.
Together with tens of thousands of other refugees we tasted the dark exile of Russia with all of its ramifications, but miraculously we did survive. And finally we reached the Land of Israel. Here we established a family and began a new life, leaving behind the brutal past of the war.
May these lines of mine serve as an eternal monument memorializing my beloved and faithful ones who perished.
|Left: Yisroel Szaijnbart, the mikvahnik of Dobrzyn|
by Gavriel Katcher
Translated by Allen Flusberg
At the outbreak of the war, I was with my sister, brotherinlaw and their five small children in the Polish port city of Gdynia. When the Germans began bombarding the city and dozens of people were killed, I understood that we must find a way to flee. At first I was concerned for my sister, brotherinlaw and the childrenhow was I going to rescue them from Gdynia? Our goal was to transport them back to their birthplace, Dobrzyn. The trains were packed, and it was almost impossible to get any space in them. I began by bringing the most necessary items, which were already packed, to the train station. After that we all ran together to the station, where we waited for a train that was supposed to arrive one hour later. It is impossible to imagine the crush of peoplethree times as many as the train should have held. The sound of the women and children crying and screaming was deafening; as thousands of people pushed from all directions to get into the train, many were being trampled underfoot. Everyone wanted to leave the citythe target of bombardmentas quickly as possible, although danger was in fact lurking in every corner of Poland. To this very day I do not know how I found the strength to push them onto the trainfirst my sister and her husband; and then afterwards the children, whom I got in through a window.
After the train had begun to move I went back to my apartment, unable to stop worrying about them, wondering whether they would manage to make it to Dobrzyn. But a day later I received word that they had arrived safely.
Meanwhile I remained in Gdynia, trying to decide what to do next. When I realized that there was no alternative, I reported to duty in the Polish army and was sent straight to the battlefield. After 19 days of battle, my entire outfit was taken prisoner. Right away they interned us and sent us to hard labor. I destroyed my passport and indicated that I was a Christian. In the barrack I was the only Jew among sixty Poles. One day, while I was standing outside, a Pole came over and said to me in a loud voice: But you are a Jewwhat are you doing here? On the very next day the Gestapo officer had already found out that I was Jewish. He began to carefully watch every single move I made. The same Polish soldier had recounted, in the presence of the Gestapo officer, that when the German military had marched into Poland the Jews had thrown stones at them and had poured boiling water on them.
The next day I was ordered to appear before the commandant. When I came into his officehe was an older officer, who had already been a soldier in the First World Warhe straightaway asked me, Bist du Jude? I told him that I was Jewish. He then said: See to it that you get out of here as quickly as you can, adding, It was your comrades who informed on you that you are Jewish. I went back to my barrack, tormented by the realization that they were keeping an eye on me.
From fright I came down with a high fever, and the next day was not able to go out to work. The supervisor who counted the workers every morning and noticed that I was missing came straight into my barrack. Seeing me lying in bed, he warned me that if I did not go out to chop wood he would send for the Gestapo police, who would finish me off on the spot. Ignoring my high feverand in spite of the weak condition I was inI picked myself up and went out into the courtyard. I stood there in the bitter cold chopping wood, and it was really a miracle that I was able to endure it.
Aside from the difficult conditions we also suffered in the barracks from bedbugs and lice, and so we were not really able to sleep. This motivated several prisoners to run away. We saw them going out a window; immediately we woke the supervisor up and told him what we had seen. He quickly reported it to the Gestapo, who, with several tracking dogs, followed the escapees; but they lost their tracks in a nearby forest. They returned and began investigating usparticularly me, since I understood German. They beat me very hard with a rubber truncheon, demanding that I tell them the truth. But of course they couldn't get anything out of me, and eventually they freed me from the interrogation.
I was imprisoned as a forced laborer in Germany until the end of the war. When liberation came I was a sick, broken man. After a short investigation I found out that I was the only survivor of my entire family. My older brother, Zalman Boruch, his wife Tsirl and five children; a second brother, Avrohom Yisroel, his wife Miriam and five children; my two sisters, Zisl and Perel and the latter's husband, Avrohom Shafran, also with five childrenall of them had perished.
After marrying in Germany in 1947, I left immediately for Israel, where my wife gave birth to our two children. In 1959 we immigrated to America, where we still live.
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