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[Page 332]

My Bundle of Troubles in the Russian Military[1]

by Yitzhak Rosenwaks, Z”L[2]

Translated by Allen Flusberg

I Am Mobilized

I am writing my memoirs some forty-odd years after my return from the Russian military as a veteran soldier in the year 1914. For more than three years I served the Czar Nikolai II. It is possible that by using standard means to create a deformity in an arm or in some other part of my body I could have avoided military service, but for understandable reasons I was completely unwilling to do so. Deserting was also unthinkable because of the severe monetary fine (300 rubles) that the Russian regime imposed on the parents of a deserter. Therefore I made the firm decision to present myself for military service and to actually serve.

In the small towns of Poland there was a strange custom: before leaving for their service recruits would carouse for a night or two, conducting various pranks in the town. For example: breaking down fences, removing wagon wheels, and the like. And I, too, carried out this “mitzvah[3].

There were three of us Jewish recruits from Dobrzyn: Yaakov Krystal, Baron and I. We rode by wagon to Ostrolenka[4], and from there by train to Warsaw. This was the first time I had seen Warsaw. In Warsaw I visited acquaintances and my cousin, Yossel Atlasberg; and from there I continued on by train to reach the place where I was to serve.

After three days we reached Tula[5], far beyond the Pale of Settlement[6] of those days. There we went out into the street to meet the local Jews. From the announcements we had read we had found out that on that evening a large dinner sponsored by the chevro kadisho[7] of the city was to take place. Understandably, we went straight over there, and we had a reasonably good time. On our way to the dinner we met some passek players. Yeshayowitz from Rypin, who was with us, got the urge to play with them, and in this way, within only a few minutes, he lost the 10 rubles that he had had in his possession. The fellow was quite upset afterwards, but we calmed him down, telling him we would make sure that he would get his money back. At the dinner they honored us with all the best food. We told them the story of what had happened to Yeshayowitz, and immediately taking up a collection from those present, they collected 25 rubles. Yeshayowitz got his money back, but with a warning not to do this again.

After a few days in Tula we continued by train for several weeks, until we reached Barnaul[8]. There they temporarily split us up and apportioned us among the local peasant farmers, who did not know enough to distinguish between a Jew and a Gentile. I actually fell in with a good peasant who treated me courteously, but two days later I was already in the military barracks.

[Page 334]

We Reach Siberia

When I had signed up in Plock[9], I had described my vocation as saddlery. But since there were no horses at the place where we were being divided up, the orderly sergeant, a Jew, advised me to say that I was a tailor. I did so, and right away I was assigned to a tailor workshop. I did know how to sew by machine. Since Shloimo Yakir, a friend of mine who was a good tailor, was working right near me, he would do the most critical part of the job and I would finish up. In the course of time I learned how to sew well, and I truly became a full-fledged tailor, even sewing for the officers. The soldiers who had arrived in the camp together with me quite simply were jealous of me. While they were going out on maneuvers in heavy snow during the cold winter days, I was sitting in a warm room, working slowly. Meanwhile I learned drilling exercises from a book that I had already bought in Warsaw. In it there was also a section on how to handle arms. Even as a tailor I had to know all these things.

Shortly before Passover we received three packages from home. An officer sent one of the soldiers to the post office to retrieve them. The soldier returned with three wooden boxes that contained sausages, sardines, and, most importantly, bottles of vodka. The latter were immediately opened, and with the help… of the officers emptied on the spot.

In the course of time Yeshayowitz became ill. They took him to the hospital, and after some time he was released from military service. This event irritated the Jewish soldiers a bit, who began looking for possibilities… of becoming ill in order to be released. It is to be understood that this was not an easy thing to do, since even under normal circumstances the Jewish soldiers who originated from Poland were treated with suspicion.

[Page 335]

The First Passover

In the meantime, Passover was approaching, and we Jewish soldiers were looking for a way to be at a Seder[10] in the city. Permission for something like this could be obtained from someone with the authority of our captain; he was not a Jew-hater, but to get permission one of the soldiers would have to go to his office and hand him a request. Since at that time I had given the officer some vodka as a gift, the burden fell on me. I did my duty and I succeeded in obtaining the permission we had requested, but on condition that the soldiers behave properly in the city, that they not get themselves drunk, and that they return on time. To some extent he had made me responsible for them.

A group of us Jewish soldiers marched into the city, in the direction of the synagogue, where we also encountered a large number of other Jewish soldiers. When the prayer service ended we wished one another a happy holiday, sat down in sleds and were off to the Seder, somewhere far away from the synagogue. As soon as I arrived there, however, I decided that we would not celebrate the Seder in this place, because members of the underworld were gathered there. Bread and sausages, together with other similar treif[11] dishes, were spread out on the tables. A gramophone was playing, and disreputable couples were dancing to the music. I immediately declared that my soldiers would return to their barracks unless the tables were cleared and the unsavory people would leave. My words were effective: the disreputable element was expelled from the hall, and we went in. But it was dark in the hall, so we lit two lamps. Sitting down at the tables, we wept somberly as we recalled the Seders back home. We didn't stay there very long; we drank a toast, ate some matzo[12], completed the Haggada[13], and returned to the barracks.

The next day we again went into the city and made our way to the synagogue, where we met a large number of people attending the service. Our friend Zeinwill, who had a beard[14], was with us, too. The local residents wanted to invite him home for a meal. However, he demurred, telling them he had heard about their “good deeds” against the shochet[15] and baal-tefillah[16]: they had turned them in to the police, who then had them imprisoned for not having city-residency permits[17].

Approximately 800 [Jewish] families lived in the city, among them a large number of wealthy people: merchants, officers, and people with high salaries. Among them were also intermarried couples. Most of them came to the synagogue for hazkoras neshomos[18] or to say Kaddish[19], at the same time contributing money or candles to the synagogue. The money or the candles were handed over to the old gabbai[20], who would give them a receipt in return.

Passover ended. I was back in the barracks, but right away a new trouble began: the time for the soldiers to be sworn in was approaching. The soldiers had to be ready and had to know this very “torah”[21] well enough to answer questions that were going to be asked by the general who was to swear us in. Understandably, these questions were not so easy for us recruits to answer. But presently we had some luck: the swearing-in day arrived, and the general—an outspoken anti-Semite—arrived with his entourage, and began asking the questions of each soldier individually. To my great joy I answered all the questions precisely as required, and I was now a full-fledged soldier.

Maneuvers began, but truthfully I didn't have a very strong desire for them. What I wanted was to get into the “shvalnie” (new workshop) and there engage in tailoring work as I did previously; thereby I would be saved from maneuvers. I was successful in this business after I provided the officer with a small “gift” and promised him that I would sew him a nice pair of trousers.

My future brother-in-law, Baron, had signed up for officer school. With the passage of time he received a rank and was appointed head quartermaster. His job was to supply the soldiers with food and drink, as well as to take care of their cultural interests. He had 30 men under him who conducted the physical labor in the storerooms; they also helped prepare banquets that the officers had arranged for their civilian guests. As an observant Jew, my brother-in-law did not taste any of these foods[22].

At one of these banquets we met a prominent Jew, who told us that on Passover they had collected a nice sum of money for the soldiers and that a committee was involved in all these matters. Right away we sent a delegation, consisting of two soldiers, to the head gabbai to find out what was going on. He didn't receive us particularly well, and as soon as we explained the reason for our visit he began shouting at us. However we were not intimidated; we immediately contacted a different gabbai, a Polish Jew, who sympathized with our request and treated us well. He declared that on the following Passover they would arrange a Seder for all the soldiers, and that we would be able to bake our own matzos. Expressing our gratitude, we left the gabbai's home with satisfaction, being certain that we were already ensured with a Seder for the following Passover.

We were also concerned about the hundreds of arrested Jews, among them political prisoners, who were languishing in prisons. Many times I had been given the job of transporting arrested Jews from one prison to another. On these occasions I would treat them to cigarettes and various treats. We received a promise from the gabbai that they would ensure a Seder for the prisoners, as well.

A short time before Passover, the gabbais sent us several wagonloads of flour for matzos, but when we opened the first sack it turned out not to have any flour in it, but actually bran. Our baker reacted, telling the gabbai who was present that we would not bake any matzos from this flour. The gabbai got upset, but a second gabbai got involved, promising that the bran would immediately be exchanged for fine, white flour. The first gabbai, who had expressed himself by saying that our soldiers were “shnorrers[23], was struck by one of our soldiers, whom he then threw out of the synagogue building. After this incident he was not selected to be a gabbai anymore.

For the night of the first Seder, we invited our colonel, whose wife was Jewish. He came with his adjutant. He ate gefilte fish with us; he thanked us properly; and he gave us his best, heartfelt wishes. The next day, his visit was described in the official daily regiment report. On the second day of Passover, as well, we conducted a Seder in the synagogue building with many invited guests from Barnaul. We were warmly welcomed by a well-respected resident, and we finished up with a tasty meal. Late in the evening we returned to the barracks—calm, quiet, and sober—all the Jewish soldiers together, not a single one having remained behind in the synagogue building.

Several days later the Christian holiday of Easter was observed. At that time they gave all the Christian soldiers leave, allowing them to march to a prayer service in a church. On the first night 20 soldiers went missing. And when on the next day they sent out 100 soldiers to look for them, ten more went into hiding. This made the company captain very angry. The next day he gathered many hundreds of soldiers into the main hall of the barracks and gave them a speech. In it he said: It is well known that Jews avoid military service as much as possible, but it is also clear that once they are in the military they are serious, proper, and dedicated. “Just take, for example,” he continued, turning to the Christian soldiers, “the behavior of the Jewish soldiers on their holiday, Passover. With all due respect, not a single one of them went missing; not one of them got drunk; and they completed their holiday without any scandal. From among the Christian soldiers, on the other hand, we have only disgrace and shame from their behavior in Barnaul: drunkenness, beatings, people with knife wounds, and, finally, 30 soldiers who have disappeared. Those that did return came back in tatters and barefoot.”

The soldiers that the military police had been looking for were severely punished. For a period of 20 days they were forced to stand in the blazing sun carrying a full military backpack that weighed 25kg. They were not allowed to move at all, and whoever did move was forced to stand an additional two hours.

[Page 339]

Military Maneuvers

Some time afterwards the entire regiment was taken out on a difficult maneuver in heavy rain. During the maneuver, one of the soldiers fired live ammunition, and one of the bullets happened to pass through the colonel's hat as he was riding on his horse. He immediately suspended the maneuver, saying, “I will give a reward of 50 rubles to the soldier who will tell me the reason for the sudden suspension of the maneuver.” No one answered. Then, with tears in his eyes, he said: “Someone wanted to pick me off, but God was watching over me. I will not neglect my military duty on that account; I have already served our Czar for 30 years and I will continue to safeguard the glory of the Russian crown.” With that he ended his message to the troops and rode off back to the barracks. Afterwards an order came down that we should all return to the barracks. As soon as we got back, the barracks were occupied by military police, and each person's personal storage case was inspected. It was clear that the bullet had come from one of the 30 soldiers who had been severely punished for being absent without leave. Later the colonel was transferred to a different regiment.

Because of the bad attitude of one of the senior officers I requested a doctor's appointment, so that I should be hospitalized for an illness that I was feigning. I was given an appointment with a feldsher[24] that I was acquainted with, and he sent me to the hospital. A few days later a lady invited me to a party for civilians, and with the doctor's help I left the hospital and went to the party. But suddenly I was astonished to see my colonel walking into the hall as a visitor. I immediately fled via a side door back to the hospital, but it turned out that he had already noticed me. Just as I lay down in my bed, telling the doctor what had happened, the colonel arrived at the hospital. He asked the doctor how many patients he had in his department. When the doctor told him the number, he said: “You are mistaken; there is one less.” The doctor immediately took the lantern and went through the department with him, showing him that all the patients were present. Realizing that he had failed, the colonel remained silent and left.

But then he encountered me in the workshop, where I had gone because I had to prepare a pair of trousers for an officer. Here too I seemed to get away. Soon after that incident I left the hospital, and immediately afterwards I was given a month of house arrest, which meant not leaving the barracks for an entire month. I told one of the distinguished ladies of the city, who used to visit us, about this. She was sorry, but said nothing. Several days later they transferred the colonel to a different regiment in Omsk[25], and several weeks later they moved our regiment to Omsk.

[Page 340]

In Omsk

We knew that Omsk was a place where soldiers were released, and we hoped that we would be released from there. But as it later turned out, we were still far from being released, even though we had already served out our three years.

Arriving in Omsk, a large city with a fairly small number of Jews, we immediately made the acquaintance of the local Jewish functionaries: the rabbi, the gabais of the synagogue and the heads of the community, who generally had a very good attitude to the Jewish soldiers—the members of the two regiments, Regiments 42 and 43, which were stationed there. When we reached the barracks we were immediately given different outfits, and in general we were treated like new recruits. We attempted to get information about our release, but we were completely unable to find out the truth. There were no newspapers, but from the local soldiers we found out that in connection with the strained political situation all releases had been suspended.

In Omsk I immediately set myself up in my trade, in the tailor workshop. Via the workshop I became acquainted with the officer corps, for whom I sewed trousers or made alterations. At that time new soldiers arrived in the city; among them I met my friends, those with whom I had traveled from Poland to Russia. It was a joyous moment, and later we became close friends, maintaining a certain connection with one another.

The colonel of the regiment, Feinburgmeister, a German, loved to hold a parade, at the front of which he would always ride on his horse. Knowing that he had experienced soldiers who knew how to march, he would from time to time take us out to parade in the city. In general the Barnaul regiment was renowned for its excellent soldiers.

In the meantime information about the murder in Sarajevo[26] reached us, and we understood that from now on it would be much more difficult to be released from the military.

Meanwhile we had to participate in some exercises arranged by a new officer who wanted to utilize our experience to aggrandize himself. He was actually making us miserable, but since he was an elderly man we quite simply felt sorry for him. When we did in fact get our revenge, it was serendipitous. One day several hundred soldiers of the 4th Regiment arrived. Almost all of them were drunk, and each had an extra bottle of vodka in his pocket. The depravity and brawling were spreading through all the barracks. Our commanding officer ran from one barrack to the next, bewildered, but was completely unable to calm them down. With no alternative, he turned to us, asking us to quiet them down one way or another. Right away we—who were experienced soldiers—separated out the ones who were the most intoxicated and put them to bed, giving them at the same time three days' leave. There was a bit of a ruckus, but we succeeded in establishing order.

Among the drunk soldiers there was also a Jew from Żuromin[27], an unsavory character—a drunkard, a thief, and furthermore a bully. Once, when he was on night watch, he took his dozing companion's gun away. When the other soldier woke up and couldn't find his gun, he straight away ran to report it to his officer. An investigation was initiated, and it was concluded that this was the work of the fellow from Żuromin, who was immediately arrested and threatened with 10 years in prison. As a representative of the Jewish soldiers I turned to a Jewish lawyer in Omsk, asking him to take the case as defense attorney; meanwhile I had to pay the lawyer 25 rubles out of my own pocket. When the day of the trial came the defense was prepared: we had already bought off the sergeant whose testimony was the most critical, and the young man was declared innocent. It is worth noting that later, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the fellow deserted; when he was caught he was brought before a military field court and was shot.

Aside from the usual day-to-day troubles that most of the Jewish soldiers experienced in the Russian army, there was no shortage of other troubles in my regiment. I recall the troubles we went through when a Jewish soldier had an argument with a Kavkaz[28] officer.

[Page 343]

For the Sake of a Dagger

In our regiment there was a fellow from Lomzh[29] who was a good dancer. Once he was invited to an officers' evening to demonstrate his skill. His repertoire also included a Kavkaz dance, for which he needed the costume of a Kavkaz officer, as well as a belt with a dagger. After managing to obtain all these things, all borrowed from a Kavkaz officer, the fellow succeeded in doing his dance. Afterwards he returned the outfit to the Kavkaz officer's orderly. A short time later he was summoned by the Kavkaz officer, who called his attention to the fact that the dagger was missing from among the items he had returned. The fellow from Lomzh swore that he had returned everything, but it did him no good. The officer gave him warning that he would kill him if he did not return the dagger within 14 days. Now the fellow was walking around worried, looking for a way to influence the orderly to return the dagger; but the orderly claimed he had never received any dagger. So the fellow turned to us for help.

I took this matter into my own hands. First, together with a companion, I went to see the Kavkaz officer and told him that if there was anyone at all to blame it was his orderly. We also proposed monetary compensation, but the officer explained that since the dagger was an antique—an heirloom passed down for many generations—and was about 300 years old, it was not a question of money; he must get his dagger back unconditionally. I left the officer with a heavy heart, not knowing what to do or where to turn to. But then I remembered something I had once been told: if a Gypsy cheats you, ask another Gypsy how to handle him. So we decided to turn to a Kavkaz attorney to ask for his advice. We promised him a nice sum of money for his trouble, on the condition that he should extricate our fellow from his plight.

And the Kavkaz attorney actually did find a way to reveal the theft. He engineered a brawl in which the officer's orderly would also participate, and in a moment of anger the orderly pulled out his dagger to stab his opponent. Then, with the help of two soldiers, he was tackled, and his dagger was taken away from him. It turned out that this was the Kavkaz officer's dagger. The dagger was immediately returned to the officer, the orderly was arrested, and our fellow was saved from serious trouble. Understandably this business cost us a lot of money, but we—the Jewish Soldiers' Committee—always had a sum of money set aside for when we would need to get a Jewish soldier out of trouble.

[Page 344]

My Release from Military Service

The day on which I would be released approached, and quite unannounced they called me into the regiment office and stated that in three days I had to be ready to leave the barracks; after returning all military items in my possession I would be free to return home. During those three days I made all my preparations, and in the course of a month I was already back in Dobrzyn.

In those days making a trip from Omsk in Siberia to Dobrzyn in Poland was not one of the easiest things to do. Nevertheless I did get back to Dobrzyn, healthy and cheerful. The joy at my homecoming was indescribable. The entire town gathered together in my house, and everyone shook my hand. For weeks on end the neighbors didn't stop visiting us, asking me various questions. Additionally relatives from various other places, outside Dobrzyn, came to greet me. It took quite a bit of time before I again became a resident who was no longer greeted by the word “welcome”.

[Page 345]

The First World War

For a short while I worked in Dzalin, an estate that belonged to Jewish landowners. When the rumors of mobilization became more earnest, I returned to Dobrzyn. I no longer slept at home because I didn't want to be up against a fait accompli. Meanwhile the Russian soldiers that made up the border guard left the town one at a time. On the other side of the border, i.e. in Golub, one could discern a concentration of German soldiers, and it was nearly certain that this meant war.

In the meantime hundreds of refugees arrived in Dobrzyn. They came from all corners of Poland, looking for a way to cross over into Germany. Among those that did cross, most were immediately interned and sent deep into Germany to work camps; only a small fraction returned to Dobrzyn.

A few days later, on a Sunday at 12 PM, the German army entered Dobrzyn, first a few dozen riders and afterwards hundreds carrying heavy weapons. They quickly spread out through the town, searching for Russian soldiers or officials. The few Russian officials that had apparently not fled were at first taken into custody, but later they were freed.

After a few weeks of occupation, the town residents began to feel the flavor of the German conquest. Every day the inhabitants were assembled in the town square, where those among them who were most fit for labor were selected and sent to dig trenches. Those who had horses and wagons had to work along with them. Those who hid, whether they were Jews or Christians, were severely beaten when they were found, and only then were they sent to do the hardest labor.

As time passed thousands of captured Russian soldiers were transported through the town on their way to Germany. They had been captured in the first large battles near Plock.

The general situation in the town became worse than ever. No supplies of food were brought in, and there was no way to make a living. Those whom the Germans took for labor did receive food, but their families at home went hungry. I once had an opportunity to travel around in the vicinity of the town, and together with my older brother I paid visits to peasant farmers whom I knew in the villages surrounding Dobrzyn, in order to acquire food from them; some of them even refused to be paid for it. Towards evening, when I returned to the town, my father assembled needy Jews, and, sharing the small amount of food that my brother and I had brought back, kept almost nothing for himself.

When the economic situation became even worse, deteriorating on a daily basis with no solution in sight, people in the town began to look for ways to feed their families. Many put knapsacks on their shoulders and filled them with of all kinds of fine merchandise that they could barter in the villages for a bit of food. They were pleased if they acquired a few potatoes or a little flour during the course of a day.

[Page 346]

Away at Work in Germany

As time passed, the Germans let us know that whoever wanted to register for work in Germany would be able to get work with good terms. Young, healthy people signed up immediately, and I was one of them. A few days later they assembled us in the square, brought us over to the Golub train station, and from there transported us deep into Germany.

The crying of the elderly and relatives when we parted from them is hard to describe in writing; heartrending scenes transpired. But there was nearly no other solution: we were looking for a way to avoid starving, and it seemed to us that this was the way.

It was a pleasant afternoon when our train left for Torun. At the Torun train station people were actually throwing stones at us, swearing at us and cursing us: “Damned Russians! Filthy Russians!”, etc. So we were pleased when the train started moving out. But at all the other stations the same thing happened again and again, until we reached the Holstein station. There they ordered us to leave the train cars. It was already late at night.

Frozen and tired from the difficult journey, we were led for several kilometers on foot to the camp. One of us, Leib Ruska-Bulka, didn't feel well and wasn't able to tolerate the march. A soldier came over to him and hit him on the head with his rifle, and an officer who was right there didn't say anything to the soldier.

Finally we arrived to our destination, which was surrounded by barbed wire. Forests were all around it. We were quartered there in long barracks, 60 men to a barrack. Right away they gave us tattered military uniforms and old felt boots. They made us shower and cut off our hair. Putting us together with prisoners and foreign citizens who had been interned in Germany, they brought us into the barracks. There were 800 of us men, with no food and not even any water. An armed German soldier stood in every corner. At the same time they gave us notice that everyone must turn in any matches or cigarettes, as well as pocket knives or other tools that we might have in our possession. If any of the above items were found on someone, the penalty was going to be death, with no trial.

For a short time we were in the camp, busying ourselves with setting things up, digging, cleaning up, and other similar labor, meanwhile not receiving even minimal portions of food. Later we were split up to either work for farmers or to work in factories. I was assigned to a large carpentry workshop. There were 12 of us workers there. When we complained to the owner that we were hungry he immediately sent his young son to get us some food. After we had eaten our fill we thanked him and got down to work.

After a few months a series of wandering around began again. We were sent to a different place. We traveled for several days, circling around all of Germany, stopping finally in the town of Friedland, near the border with Holland. There were 63 of us Jews. The people working there, who had been sentenced to hard labor, were digging a canal. Here, too, they quartered us in barracks, again giving us notice about the death penalty for not turning in the above-mentioned items that we might have in our possession. In any event, the food they gave us was superior to that of the previous camp. The Jewish butcher who supplied meat for the camp promised us that he would see to it that we 60 or so Jews would be provided with kosher meat for the holiday—it being shortly before Rosh Hashana—and he would also take care of getting us machzorim[30]. But then afterwards we didn't see him again.

After two days in the camp they led twelve of us men out to the train station, where several train cars stood waiting. On one of the platforms of the cars about ten engineers and German mechanics were standing. We twelve had to push the train car, there not being any locomotive present. It took us two hours of pushing to reach the destination.

[Page 348]

Cruel Treatment

At the destination, giant machines were digging the canal. With us were several Poles who did not understand the German language, and they were immediately given a few blows by the supervisors. In contrast the Jews, who understood what was being demanded of them[31], obediently did their work… In general the local mechanics treated the laborers very poorly. They didn't take weakness or illness into account; everyone had to do his work even if, while working, he collapsed from exhaustion. We tried to intervene with management, but it didn't help at all. Then we decided that as an attempt at protest we would not go out to work on the Sabbath. When we presented ourselves Saturday morning, about to go out to work, I came forward and declared that, in the name of the 63 Jewish laborers, I was asking that we be given off from work on Saturday. I had barely completed my statement when I received a blow on my face from the work supervisor, and my blood dripped down like water. I raised a terrible cry, all the workers threw their tools down, and a ruckus started. Immediately they quieted us down; a junior officer stated that he was not authorized to give us off from work on Saturday, but that he would ask a higher authority. Meanwhile we did go to work, and when we got to the work place they separated us Jews from all the other workers and assigned the hardest labor to us.

In the meantime we were forced to work on Sabbaths and holidays, but after various twists and turns the entire matter came before the court. We declared before the judge in good German that we were not Russians, but rather came from a town near the German border; that we possessed German culture; and the like. The verdict was that on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays we could have off from whatever work there was, but that we would all have to work on Sundays instead. In connection with this verdict they increased our food rations, and our supervisors' attitude towards us improved. But the general conditions of the prisoners and forced laborers worsened.

In the vicinity of where I was, there were more than 60,000 prisoners, most of them Russians. The hygienic conditions were actually intolerable, with a typhus epidemic prevailing in nearly all the prison camps. Every day a large number of dead bodies were taken out of our camps, although all measures to treat erythema were being given in the hospitals. I myself was then working as a hospital orderly, and I had the opportunity to observe the methodology used by the German doctors. This was in the year 1916. The battles on the various fronts were in full swing, and Germany was simply unable to satisfy the needs of the German army. For this reason even the least of our needs were not satisfied, and yet to some degree we had to remain silent. Still some circles of the camps showed signs of an uprising as a result of desperation, not seeing an end to the troubles that spread from one day to the next.

I recall that on one of the Sabbaths most of the forced laborers from Dobrzyn gathered in an open field far from the barracks, looking for a way to free ourselves from this hell and return home. As far as I can remember, the following men were present there: (1) Hirsh Wolf Russik; (2) Nachum Frager; (3) Shmerl Bramberger; (4) Mendel Lent; (5) Shlomo Neumann; (6) Yaakov Gornie; (7) Yechiel Zissholtz; (8) Chaim David Broyn; (9) Yaakov Wier; (10) Binyomin Isser Nobleski; (11) Shlomo Lasher; (12) Mordechai Zilberman; (13) Fishel Boruch; (14) Shloimo Yakir Landberg; (15) Binem Bich die Zodektes; (16) Chaim Patchek, a grandson of Nachum Milifyes; (17) Henech Katcher; (18) Lipman Dratwa; (19) Henich Chamand; (20) the blind Yitzchok; (21) Iksya, a relative of the cantor's; (22) Shiya Katz; (23) Chona Zaklikowski; (24) Leib Ruska-Bulka; (25) Michael Dratwa; (26) Hillel Dratwa; (27) Yisroel Kankowalski; and myself.

At that time, Abraham Hirsh Kohn was the representative of the Dobrzyn Jews to the German authorities. We decided to appeal to him in writing, asking him to intervene in favor of the Dobrzyn forced laborers and to have them released. As it later turned out, however, he had been trying to intercede all along, but to no avail.

[Page 350]

My Liberation from the German Camp

And thus I languished under the severe yoke of the German regime until 1917. Then by happenstance I was liberated, while all my friends had to remain as prisoners longer. As the first one liberated, I was received with great joy by all the residents of Dobrzyn, Christian and Jewish alike, particularly by the families whose children or parents had remained in the camps. Among these my homecoming renewed the hope that they would soon also merit being reunited with their loved ones.

I didn't stay in Dobrzyn for very long. I went for a long visit to my sister in Szrensk[32]. There I had the opportunity to utilize my capabilities and experience as a hospital orderly when a typhus epidemic broke out near the place I was visiting.

In some instances I gave hygienic help that succeeded in localizing the illness. In Dobrzyn, as well, they utilized my techniques for cases of typhus. Here I would like to point out with joy that in many instances this helped.

Some time passed. The war ended. Poland obtained its independence, and new troubles began. To a certain extent the transition from German rule to that of an independent Poland threatened the security situation. Polish drunkards and pogrom inciters were able to go around unhindered. They would beat people up a bit, trying to plunder from Jews in a gentle fashion. After an appeal was made by the Jewish representative to the temporary Polish authority, a militia consisting of Poles and Jews was organized. To them was assigned the task of guarding the town. I was one of the members of the militia, and it happened many times that I was put in the position of defending a Jewish citizen whom Polish militia members intentionally wanted to harm.

Shortly thereafter, when also a portion of Pomorze [Pomerania] went over to the Poles, we suffered from the well-known Hallercheks[33] that used to beat Jews up, cut off their beards, and also do some plundering.

I must note here that authority had not yet been established in Poland; there were then two camps: the socialist PPS[34] and the extremely nationalist party ND[35]. The subject of the conflict was who should take over authority. But meanwhile the Jews, not having anyone to protect them, suffered from excesses. From time to time various unsavory military and police officials would descend on the town. Their function was singular: to make the lives of the Jewish population miserable, to confiscate merchandise, and to limit trade.

They reached a record during the Bolshevik invasion, in the year 1920. They accused the town's Jewish population of aiding the Russian soldiers, of pointing out to them where the Polish military positions were, and of giving them food and merchandise. Understandably the result was arrests and never-ending troubles. Only after intervention with the military authorities by the central Jewish Community Representatives of Poland did the incitement against the town's Jews slowly die away.

[Page 352]


When the Balfour Declaration was issued, a lively Zionist movement was launched in the town; the dream and aspiration—primarily of the Zionist youth—was to leave darkly anti-Semitic Poland as quickly as possible. My family and I were one of the first to immigrate to the Land of Israel. In spite of the fact that our economic situation had been good, we did not want to remain in Poland, and in the year 1921 we reached the Land of Israel.

Photographs Appearing in This Article


[Page 333]

Chana and Yitzchok Rosenwaks and their children


[Page 337]

Shmuel Prum and his son, Shemaye


[Page 346]

Yaakov Yosef Lichtenfeld reading Tehillim[36]


[Page 352]

Yaakov Yosef Lichtenfeld with his
wife and daughter, Sarah Wechne


[Page 353]

Yitzchok Rosenwaks, one of the first Dobrzyn
[37] in Israel. One of the dedicated battlers for
the security of Jerusalem in the early 1920s.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. From My Town: In Memory of the Communities Dobrzyn-Gollob, edited by M. Harpaz, (published by the Dobrzyn-Golub Society, Israel, 1969), pp. 332-353. Return
  2. Z”L = zichroinoi livrocho = of blessed memory, i.e. the author was already deceased at the time of publication. Return
  3. Mitzvah = a religious commandment or good deed; here used facetiously to denote an immutable custom Return
  4. Ostrołeka, Poland, which lies 200km due east of Dobrzyn. Warsaw is 120km south of Ostrołeka. Return
  5. Tula, Russia lies about 1500km northeast of Warsaw. Return
  6. Pale of Settlement = area within the Russian Empire where Jews were permitted to reside legally. Outside the Pale Jews required special government authorization for residency. See the following link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_of_Settlement. Return
  7. Chevro kadisho (Aramaic) = Jewish burial society, whose members prepare the body and ensure a proper burial. In some places these societies also took on the function of fraternities. Return
  8. Barnaul, Russia (in Siberia) is located about 4000km due east of Tula. Return
  9. Plock is a city on the Vistula, about 90km south of Dobrzyn. Return
  10. Seder = Passover meal, during which the story of the Exodus from Egypt is ritually recounted Return
  11. Treif = non-kosher. In particular, ordinary bread is strictly forbidden on Passover. Return
  12. Matzo = unleavened bread, eaten on Passover instead of ordinary bread Return
  13. Haggada = ritual recounting of the Exodus story, traditionally read from a book called a Haggada Return
  14. His beard indicated he was more religiously observant, hence the invitations by the locals Return
  15. Shochet = ritual (kosher) slaughterer Return
  16. Baal-tefillah = synagogue prayer leader Return
  17. See Footnote 6 Return
  18. Hazkoras neshomos = prayer for the dead souls, recited in the synagogue on holidays, and associated with giving charity in their memory; the prayer is also known as Yizkor (after the first word of the prayer) Return
  19. Kaddish = prayer recited in the synagogue by mourners; also by relatives on the death anniversary of their loved ones. Their selective attendance for these prayers indicates they were not very knowledgeable. Return
  20. Gabbai = synagogue treasurer functionary, who, among other duties, collected contributions and organized the provision of charity to the needy Return
  21. “Torah”used figuratively here to signify a complex subject that requires study to master Return
  22. Since they were not kosher Return
  23. Shnorrers = moochers or spongers (literally, beggars who go from door to door asking for alms) Return
  24. Feldsher = a health-care provider with no degree in medicine. See the following link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feldsher. Return
  25. Omsk is about 1000km west of Barnaul. Return
  26. The June, 1914 murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, which sparked the beginning of World War I Return
  27. Żuromin, Poland, lies 60km east of Dobrzyn. Return
  28. Kavkaz = Caucasus, southern part of the Russian empire that included Chechnya, Dagestan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia Return
  29. Łomża, Poland is situation about 200km east of Dobrzyn. Return
  30. Machzorim = prayer books for the High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) Return
  31. German being intelligible to the Jews, whose native language was Yiddish, a sister language of German Return
  32. Szrensk is located 90km east of Dobrzyn. Return
  33. Hallercheks = members of the Polish militia that was commanded by Jozef Haller. See the following link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B3zef_Haller Return
  34. PPS stands for Polska Partia Socjalistyczna = Polish Socialist Party Return
  35. ND stands for Narodowa Demokracja = National Democracy Return
  36. Tehillim = Biblical Book of Psalms Return
  37. Olim = immigrants to Israel Return


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