by Manus Goldenberg
From Kremenitser Shtime, 1932
English translation by Yocheved Klausner
[Translator's Note: The following poem was published in Kremenitser Shtime, the Kremenets Jewish newspaper, in 1932. The grim situation described in the poem and the sad, depressing images must thus be attributed not to World War II and the Holocaust, but to the horrors of World War I and the Jews' terrible economic hardships, combined with cruel anti-Semitism, which prevailed in the 1920s in Eastern Europe.]
|A gift for my little daughter Lili
A town by the river, destroyed and forgotten
The windows are shining, bright lamps through the night
Poor was our town, God help us all,
Crooked little streets, dirty and flooded
And there was another street, muddy and full of children,
Today they are beaten and humiliated,
Way up the street were the shoemakers: Vanke and Sashke,
The old little market, with so many carts
Smart and strong women crying, Come here!
There are also quiet and clean streets, where the rich live,
A house with high fences, on one side and the other,
The carpenters still make beautiful things,
The turners and their barefoot assistants
From the trade union members just a few remained,
The cart owners, happy and in a good mood,
The policemen would hide in the corners
The old people tell stories, Once upon a time,
The cemetery at the lake is desolate and neglected,
Bibliography and Notes
by B. Shvarts
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
I shall convey here, as a testimony, everything that is in my power to express, from memory and from feeling. Horrible pictures flutter in front of my eyes, and my ears are torn by the pitiful, moaning cries of the dying.
The question, the distressing riddle, surfaces again and again: how could that have been possible? I ask myself: was it at all possible that parents would knowingly abandon their children to blind fate; a brotherhis sister, childrentheir parents? That masses of people would let themselves be driven like sheep to the slaughter, take off their clothes, and lie down in the death pits to be shot together with their children? Bitter fears squeeze our hearts: why haven't we, the survivors, lived to see a revenge on our hangmen?
The world has remained indifferent to our catastrophe. The spilled innocent blood demands revenge.
Dieburg-Hessen, March 10, 1948
Of my beloved father and teacher Simche son of Yitschak Shvarts, my mother Rachel, daughter of Betsalel, my brother Yisrael, my sister Zisel, my wife Lusye-Male, her parents Fayvish and Leye Rozenblit, and my daughter Miryam Etel.
The Beginning of the War
Immediately after the German-Polish war broke out, Kremenets suffered air raids. Most of the first 40 victims perished not because of bombs, but from machine-gun fire from low-flying airplanes, spreading death among passers-by in the street. Fortunately, our region was not occupied by the Germans right away. According to the Stalin-Hitler agreement, part of Poland was given over to the Soviet Union; Kremenets was situated in that region.
The catastrophe began after war broke out with Russia. The fighting around town lasted 10 full days. Kremenets was in a strategic defense position. On Wednesday 2 July 1941, the 11th day of fighting, the first Germans soldiers entered the town. Some of the residents took refuge in the mountains; others left town and fled wherever they could. Thousands tried to follow the retreating Soviet army but were forced to return to town. There they found that a small group of Russian soldiers remained in town and took control of a bakery, intending to take bread and brandy for the road. From inside, they shot at the German soldiers, the result being that many civilians were hit and wounded, among them Shlome Basis the blacksmith's wife, and his daughter, Golde. A German soldier was killed, and they buried him in Pinye Fridman's backyard.
A decree was issued stating that the Jews must take off their hats when they passed by that location. On this occasion, many were beaten and arrested.
The First Pogrom
The next day, Thursday morning, a plundering raid began. All the Jewish shops were robbed by the soldiers, with the cooperation of civilian gangs. Since war had begun unexpectedly, no one had had time to prepare food. Soon, there was a milk and bread shortage, and long lines formed in front of the bakeries. The members of the hastily organized Ukrainian militia also turned against the Jews, beating them and driving them away from the bread lines. With cries of You have sucked our blood long enough! the bandits began their killing spree. They caught everyone, old and young, arranged them in rows, and led them, beaten and bleeding, to the tower at the Rovno Gate. Elye Reznik managed to run away but lost his mind, Potiche soon died, and Gun died before the eyes of his entire family. This first pogrom was carried out by Ukrainians and Poles, with the full cooperation of the German SS soldiers and the Gendarmerie.
During Russian rule, several people had been shot in the tower, and now the Jews were blamed. Under severe beatings, the Jews were forced to dig the corpses out with their bare hands and wash the bodies. They were beaten, and some died from the blows alone. Gangs of Ukrainian hooligans from the surrounding villages, armed with sticks, marched into town, pulled people out of their houses, and murdered them on the streets. Most residents of the Dubno road were killed and thrown into pits.
This bloodbath lasted throughout Thursday and Friday. It is impossible to describe the cruel tortures suffered by the people in the tower. One of them, my wife, crawled out from under the mountain of bodies that covered her and, under cover of night and through roundabout ways in the mountains, managed to reach our home. Others tried to run in several directions, but some were caught and tortured to death. Mr. Barshap's son was caught near Koponov village. He was tied to barbed wire and later thrown into the lake. Others perished by other horrible means. Women were raped. Dr. Groyzenberg's daughter lost her mind.
With gifts in their hands and fear in their hearts, a group of Jews approached the commander and asked him to stop the slaughter. The commander was very surprised by the news… and ordered a stop t the murders. During those few days of the pogrom, about 800 Jews perishedmen, women, and children. Some Jews who had remained hidden in their houses were pulled out after being exposed by Ukrainian informers, and they disappeared without a trace.
The City Administration soon established a Judenrat [Jewish council]. Its members were esteemed Jews in town, joined by some refugees from Western Europe, who had a good command of the German language. The Judenrat offices were located in Roykhel's courtyard, on Slovatski Street. Catching people in the streets, beating them up and dragging them to workthis stopped. The Judenrat's duty was to provide the required number of slaves for forced labor and also to dispense bread to the workers and to poor families in town.
News began to arrive from the smaller towns and villages in the area, that slaughter had reached those places as well. The majority of the Jewish residents of the nearby town of Vishnevets perished, and that was also the fate of the Jewish population of Ostrog, the town of the MHRShA.
[Translator's Note: MHRShA stands for our teacher the rabbi R' Shmuel Eydels.]
It was difficult to estimate the number of Jews in Kremenets, after so many refugees from other towns rushed in to seek shelter. Before the Nazi plague, the Jewish population numbered over 20,000 souls. It is known that in the summer of 1942, 8,500 Jews were in the ghetto
Standing at left is B. Shvarts
No-Man's Jews, Unprotected
A period of utter anarchy began. Ukrainian gangs, in full collaboration with the Germans, plundered theJewish houses. In addition, Jews were required to make various contributions; they tried to save their lives by complying, willingly or forcibly. Every Jew was required to wear a white band with a red Star of David on his right arm. Walking on the sidewalks was forbiddenif someone forgot, he was killed immediately. The Judenrat managed to obtain an annulment of this decree from the town administration, but the German and Ukrainian street guards continued to beat trespassers on the sidewalks. The Jews were outside the law. Chasing Jews out of their houses without allowing them to take any belongings became commonplace. The Jews were commanded to take off their hats every time they met a Germanoften the German so honored would beat up the poor Jew A Jewish child who went to the market place to buy food for his family would be forced by a Nazi to stand on the table and dance for the spectators around him, and then the murderers would spit on the table and force the child to lick it clean. The prohibition to buy not in the shops but only in the market enabled Ukrainian bandits to arrest some buyers. Often, these people disappeared altogether. This piece of news we heard from Nute Barshap, himself a victim of that inquisition; once a strong, physically powerful man, he became a broken man.
All this, however, seemed only a prologue to what was about to happen with the arrival of the Gestapo, who took power. Soon a series of arrests began. Also among those arrested were Poles and Russians who were considered pro-Soviet elements.
The Judenrat was ordered to supply people of various occupations for work. It is hard to say whether the Judenrat knew what bitter fate awaited these people. The fact is that after liberation, in summer 1945, a mass grave was found in the valley near the town, containing all the victims. Only one was identified, by his clothesthe engineer Rozen, an active member of the ORT organization. A Soviet Historical Committee investigating Nazi crimes discovered another row of mass graves near the tower and in old defense trenches on the road to Podlisets. People living in the neighborhood knew about the killings but kept silent. The Jewish population couldn't believe, or didn't want to believe, that such cruelties were taking place. In order to avoid panic, the Judenrat supported the story that those sent to work were safe and that nothing had happened to them. One Jew who was released from work and managed to return to town, however, related that the people had been murdered and that some of the victims had been torn to pieces by cruel dogs.
In this action, the Gestapo murdered most of the Jewish intelligentsia and religious officials, such as rabbis, ritual slaughterers, judges etc. It was a horrible moment when the victims' relatives and wives brought food for their family members. The Gestapo took the food and led the relatives to the place where they could see their beloved. None of them returned alive. Among those who perished was Sheyne Shklovin, B. Shnayder's wife, who had come from Argentina to visit just before the war broke out and remained there. The fact that she was an Argentinean citizen was of no help. She brought food for the veteran community worker, Eng. Ovadia. Her son died after terrible torture in the first action, poisoned by very slowly flowing gas. The Gestapo's first action took 800 livesall this happened by the end of August 1941.
The Old Great Synagogue in Flames
One night, all the Jews were awakened by a huge fire in town. At first, nobody knew what had happened. They thought that the light was coming from the Soviet side of the borderthe Soviets preparing for attack; the feeling was that soon the town would be liberated.
But they realized the mistake very soon, when it became clear that flames had engulfed the Great Synagogue. They wept bitterly. The synagogue had thick walls, built out of large stones. The day before, the Gestapo had stolen all the valuable objects from the synagogue and placed barrels of gasoline inside the building and firefighters around it to make sure that the fire would not spread. All the wooden furnishings inside, including the beautiful Ark with the Torah scrolls, burned down. Only the walls remained. After the fire, the Gestapo came to the Judenrat to investigate, thereby forcing it to sign a protocol stating that the Jews themselves had set the synagogue on fire.
A few days before, German soldiers set up an inquisition-play in the synagogue. They caught a Jew named Lipin and forced him to gather a minyan in the synagogue. The ten Jews were forced to put on their prayer shawls and pray. In fear and desperation they covered themselves and prayed silently. But the German animals demanded that they pray in a loud voice. They turned over the prayerbook stands and forced Lipin to beat his friends and order them to dance around the stands. When Lipin's too-merciful beating was not enough for the soldiers, they killed the poor victims. After this devil's dance, all the Jews who had gathered there were chased away.
Jews Crowded into the Ghetto
In the spring of 1942, an order was issued to lock all the Jews in a ghetto. The area allocated as living area was 1.5 square meters per person. The ghetto was situated in the western part of town, from the Jewish Hospital to Gogolevska Street; from there to the High School, down to Shiroka Street; then along the east to the fire station. This was about one mile in length and 100 meters wideenough to be suffocated! The petitions and pleas to increase the area did not help. The ghetto was enclosed in a wooden fence three meters high. Although the Jews were permitted to take with them any belongings they required, they had to leave most of their things because of the lack of room. They sold what they could, and with the money they bought mostly food supplies. By December of that year, the ghetto had become even more crowded because of the stream of Jewish refugees from other towns. As could be expected, many disputes and quarrels broke out, and the Jewish Police had to deal with and resolve them.
At about that time, Commissar Miler ordered the Jews to tear down the walls of the burned synagogue and plant grass over the area so that no trace of the synagogue would remain. However, all the Jews who were able to work were laboring for the military forces, and only the elderly, the weak, and the sick remained in the ghetto. Proper tools to tear down the thick walls were not to be found.
The Judenrat mobilized engineers and blacksmiths, but the stone walls were as strong as rocks, and they withstood all efforts to move them. Even the bricks were glued together, impossible to take apart. Meanwhile, the deadline for finishing the work approached. The Judenrat somehow managed to postpone the deadline, but even at that time half of the walls were still standing, and Miler the murderer warned for the last time and threatened to shoot if the work was not completed. Panic spread among everyone involved. The Judenrat ordered that children 14 years old and adults of 55 join the hard work. It was shocking to see how people swollen with hunger toiled with their last strength. They all went to work voluntarily, since the third deadline was approaching and the Jews felt the danger of death in the air. The Judenrat issued an order for the Jews who worked for the German army during the day to join the demolition teams at night. The engineers tried to use various means to accelerate the process, but with little success. It was also necessary to keep the bricks intact, since the Germans intended to use them for building a tobacco plant. After some time, the workers had an idea: they poured soft earth around the walls until it reached the upper level of the remaining walls so that no parts would stick out. On this earth they sowed grass. But this work cost lives. During the demolition of the walls, one wall collapsed and buried several people. The cries for help were horrible. This time Commissar Miler, riding on a white horse, allowed the firefighters to help dig out the victims, who had been injured so badly that they were unrecognizable. The only person who was identified was Moshe Milman's 17-year-old son, a handsome youth who had just returned from work at the army barracks.
Cracks in the Ghetto
When the Judenrat was established, the first members were the leaders of the community. They made every effort to help and very often risked their lives in the process. It was their responsibility to carry out the Germans' various orders, supply the number of workers demanded by the Germans, and distribute the rationed food. Often the Judenrat would intervene when robberies or beatings occurred. Among the members were Dr. Bozi Landesberg and Dr. B. Katzboth Zionist leadersand Dr. Lione Grinberg, a Bundist. In fulfilling their tasks, they suffered many difficulties.
From the first days of the Judenrat's establishment, the life of Dr. B. Landesberg, who struggled against the Nazis' cruel decrees and their continuous demand for contributions, hung by a thin thread. He was treated murderously by the Germans, and one day he tried to take his own life with the help of a razor blade. He was saved by a miracle. His wife Sonye, Yitschak Poltorak's daughter, ran from house to house, begging the Jews to conform to the Nazi demands.
The same danger loomed over the heads of the other Judenrat members. B. Katz was arrested and kept hostage because some Jewish workers were late for work at the military barracks. Only thanks to the fact that other workers arrived soon was his life saved this time.
The Judenrat's duties became more difficult as a result of various new Nazi requests day by day. Some of the refugees from Western Europe who knew German joined the Judenrat. One of them, Dr. Mandel, organized the Jewish Police. He chose the best people for this duty, but it turned out that two members of that police force behaved like German agents. I could tell a great deal about the others as well, but as a Jew from the ghetto who is trying to understand the psychological circumstances, I would rather keep silent. Two of them must be mentioned, howeverthe Czech Jew Bronfeld and Itsi Diamant from Lodz.
In the summer of 1942, Bronfeld became the chairman of the Judenrat. He compiled a list called people for work. My brother-in-law Lemberger was also on the list, but he didn't go with the group. Actually, he told me that nobody wanted to go, since people never returned from work. Bronfeld had taken money from the families allegedly to help find their relatives, but he never found them.
Diamant tried to compete with him. He had an assistant, Nutin; both were connected to an international group of thieves. Nutin was more human than his associate was. That summer, the broken and tired-out Jews reached bottom and could barely stand on their feet. They simply could not go to work. Nutin understood the danger of that situation, so he began to hand out money to those who would agree to go to work, and thus saved the Jews from a catastrophe. What was the source of this money? Whether the Judenrat or another sourceI don't know.
The refugees who knew German and were Judenrat members established relations with the Germans, even with the bestial Commissar Miler, who was bribed constantly. But the main player in the murders was the aforementioned Bronfeld. He was befriended not only with the commissar but also with the head of the gendarmes, Shuman. Those two supplied the men who were sent to death in the labor camp.
Bronfeld and Diamant figured as Schutzjuden [protected Jews] of the two rulers, Miler and Shuman. Diamant was Miler's Jew, and Bronfeld was Shuman's. They competed in loyalty to their masters, each showing exaggerated devotion.
In this strange competition, Bronfeld won. Searching Diamant's house, in the presence of the Jewish police, they found diamonds and other expensive stolen objects. Finally, he and his assistants were shot at the tower. The competition went on between the two German murderers as well, in the sense of if you beat my Jews, then I'll beat your Jews. Reports on the happenings reached the higher German authorities, and Bronfeld and his helpers suffered the same fate as his friend. This rough playing with Jewish lives lasted from fall 1941 until summer 1942. After their death, the aforementioned Dr. Mandel from Krakow became Judenrat chairman. He served the Jewish population devotedly until the last day of the ghetto's destruction. In addition to the regular sections of the Judenratfinances, food, work duty, and Jewish police, they established a soup kitchen in the firehouse.
By Commissar Miler's order, Jews had to change the Star of David band that they wore on their arm to a yellow patch, sewn to the back of their clothing, beneath the collar. With my own eyes, I saw a Christian neighbor weeping when he saw this mark of disgrace… By the same order, Jews received a ration of 75 grams of barley bread a day. The death rate increased, to 10-12 people a day.
The murderer Miler kept issuing new decrees every day. Five hundred death sentences were executed on the prisoners in the tower, for various crimes. For example, 10 young people who worked in the German camp were shot under the suspicion that they had stolen gasoline. Every week, another contribution was demanded: money, bedding, clothes, white winter coats for the army. In that way, the Jews were robbed of the last of their property. And if this was not enough, they suddenly asked for 25 tons of grain. The Jewish police, led by the Judenrat, broke into basements and bunkers and confiscated the provisions that had been hidden there. During this operation, heartbreaking cries, from fear for death by hunger, would be heard. Many contributions had to be bought outside the ghetto and exchanged for the remaining few hidden objects.
Men were not allowed to grow hair, and women had to keep their hair cut short.
Just like the synagogue, the Jewish cemetery was destroyed as welland the work was done by Jews. The tombstones were uprooted and used as building materials, and so was the stone fence around the place. Only very few tombstones on the hilltop were left standing.
The sadistic desire to humiliate the Jew as long as he breathed went so far that the cruel Miler ordered the Judenrat to erect a house of shame for youths 16 to 19 years old.
Every youth was obliged to visit the house and show a certificate that he had actually been there. The only way to escape from that was to pay another contribution of money. It was rumored in the ghetto that the source of this devilish idea was the same Diamant.
Many Jewish houses outside the ghetto were demolished by the Commissar, and the contents sold to the farmers in the surrounding villages. Some houses were given to local Christians.
In August 1941, again by the order of the murderer Miler, the Jews made a contribution of gold and silver: 11 kg. of gold and tons of silver, including silver objects from the study halls and synagogues.
The Jewish Police
The Jewish police were organized by the Judenrat. Before the Jews were locked in the ghetto, the function of the police was to assign people to work and collect contributions. Every Jew was required to work three times a week. The police would go from house to house and take people to forced labor. Those who did not turn up on time were forced to work six times a week. This problem of trying to avoid work caused the Ukrainian police to join in the patrols through the houses, and then they had no choice but to go They were all assembled in one place. Their food consisted of half a liter soup and 250 grams bread for the whole day. Hard work and such meager sustenance soon reduced their physical strength to minimum, and they tried by every means to find a hiding place and thus evade work duty.
At first the Jews were not very anxious to join the Jewish police. This changed, however, when the Jewish population was forced to live in the ghetto, which was watched by the German Gendarmerie and the Ukrainian militia. The situation turned much worse. The Jewish police were burdened with difficult tasks. The hungry population was devoid of any physical strength. People died of hunger in the streets. The corpses were thrown onto a wagon and taken awayno funeral and no grave. Diseases spread among the population, and in this situation people were still forced to go to work. At the Judenrat's instructions, the Jewish police helped carry out these orders, as they did with other orders. True, the Judenrat believed that this way the Jews were saved from being shot on the spot, although in Rovno at that time, fall 1941, 17,000 Jews perished.
It was a miracle that in that crowded place where hunger ruled, an epidemic did not break out. This was certainly due to cleanliness and hygiene. We had three wells in the ghetto. Early every morning, a long line would form to get water for the day. Lines would form at the public toilets as well, but everything was kept clean, despite the water shortage.
The police, wearing yellow caps and shoulder straps, was very strict about keeping everyplace clean, including bakeries and grocery stores. After seven in the evening, no one was allowed on the street.
Naturally, among the police there were some brutal elements as well. They used drastic means to collect the contributions. The Judenrat treasurer decided how much every person or family was ordered to give; there were some that had nothing to give but their souls. On the Judenrat's instructions, the police conducted house-to-house searches and confiscated everything they could find. When there was not enough to meet all the demands, we would buy things outside the ghetto and carry them inside, often by bribing the guards; this way we could deliver the entire contribution punishment.
The Jewish police took their part in the cruelty, but objectively, it must be said that as long as the ghetto existed, we could at least breathe. We did indeed risk our lives by smuggling in food, but it was meant to sustain our lives. These smuggling operations took place at night, while the Jewish policeman would distract his German or Ukrainian colleague's attention, meanwhile fulfilling his own family's needs. However, when the order came to liquidate the ghetto, contributions or any other means of appeasing the enemy would be of no help.
Days of Anguish in the Ghetto
Beside forced labor and the struggle to survive the day, our hearts would shrink from the fear and anxiety that always loomed. Someone returned from his work duty outside the ghetto and told us that the SS were advancing toward the town with machine guns; another said that he had heard from a German that he next day a new contribution would be imposed; still another brought the news that additional people would be taken to work, or that a new action was being prepared for sick people, children, and people unfit for workand other similar news. The atmosphere was depressing, the people's mood miserable. We thanked God for the arrival of night and asked for it to go on forever. This was a day in the ghetto.
Early in the morning, people were on their feet, often accompanied by Judenrat or police, ready to lead them to work. But first they would hurry to the well to get a place in the line for water.
[Page 427] Then came street cleaning, meanwhile trying also to reach the kitchen to get a little soup and the distribution places for a piece of bread. Sometimes we left empty-handed. Sometimes there were argumentsand the police had to intervene. At the same time, the corpses lying around in the streetsthe people who had died during the nightwere loaded on wagons and taken to be buried. No one was impressed any more … on the contrary, some were envious, saying that this was a deluxe death.
Then the gathering at the ghetto gate began. Young people were taken to the workplaces. Our hearts trembled with worry about their fate. At the head of each group, a policeman led them out through the gate. Outside, German gendarmes and Ukrainians performed a search, and if they found something they liked, they took it away. Beating was added as well. But much worse was the search when they returned from work and were about to enter the gates. If they found an onion or an apple, on someone, probably obtained by begging, everybody was beaten. A woman who dared hide an egg for her child was beaten murderously. It was a miracle that she was not arrested, which would have meant certain death. Sometimes one or two were fortunateas the guard standing at the gate had some human feeling and would look away. Then people would say, Today was a lucky day; we could bring something in to the ghetto. Those miracles, however, were rare. When it did happen, the Jewish police and a hospital employee would be at the gate, and part of the smuggled goods would be taken for the hospital patients. We did this wholeheartedly, because the hospital did not receive regular support to buy food or medicine. There were many cruel moments at that gate to helllike murderous beatings for hiding a small piece of bread, but one would risk his life for the hope of sustaining that same life with a piece of bread.
There was an illegal market in the ghetto. The Jewish police would look the other waysince the policemen themselves would often purchase what they needed. But as soon as one felt even the faintest smell of a German, the entire market would disappear in a wink. When danger was over, everything resumed, as before.
On Y. B. Levinzon Street, near the kloyz, people were lying around, disfigured and swollen from hunger. They warmed themselves in the sun and waited for death to redeem them. They lived in the kloyz on two rows of wooden boards covered with straw. Dirt was all around and worms multiplied, and no disinfectant helped. They burned the straw, but the crawling insects returned. This was the place of poverty and despair in the ghetto.
Even in the former Grand Hotel, the air was rotten and deadly. Like flickering candles before going out, people would become extinguished. These poor souls, together with the sick in the hospital, were the first to be taken in every action.
One day, a drunken German entered the ghetto and walked along Gorna Street. People became frightened and fled in every direction; only the children remained. The German began to hug and kiss them, handed out candies, and wept in a loud voice: Poor Jewish children! Why does cursed Hitler pursue you?
The Jews were horrified, thinking of what the results of such a scene could be if the authorities found out. It did happen sometimes that such a German, who had some form of heart, would wander into the ghetto and show human feeling toward the Jews. We had a special saying for such Germans: For a good Germana good death, for a bad Germana horrible death. By the way, every Jew in the ghetto paid a per capita tax of 20 rubles for the Germans.
Among the guards at the gate were some who would let a wagon or two loaded with food pass through the gate into the ghetto for a good bribe. Sometimes it was possible to smuggle in some meat. This was done during the night.
Hiding from Death
News about the extermination of Jews in other places began arriving in the ghetto. We feared that a Jewish cleansing action was in store for Kremenets as well. People began to plan for ways to avoid certain death. Some slipped out of the ghetto during the night, relying only on God in Heaven; some tried searching for a safer place, where the knife was not yet at their throat; some fell directly into the murderers' hands. The majority, however, remained in the ghetto and began digging underground hiding places and building bunkers. Naturally, the bunkers were very crowded, and not every ghetto resident could find room for a 14-square-meter area where 24 people, adults and children, would have to squeeze in. There were many who could not take it anymore and willingly surrendered to the murderers. There were some exceptions. A very few managed to build real shelters for themselves and their families, even with electricity and sanitary installations. However, it did not help in the end. The Nazis set fire to the ghetto, and there was no escape for anyone.
Crowding and shortages led to moral breakdown. We lost control of ourselves and over the children.
Young people felt that the end was near and behaved shamelessly. Although many decent people gathered into the ghetto from other placesamong them intelligentsia, scholars, and the like, there was no lack of immoral and underworld elements. No one, even the leaders, had the strength or interest to lead the community on the path to normal human behavior. Life was sunken in the fear of death, and every person's desire was sharply pointed to one aim: escape, rescue.
The food situation worsened from day to day, and hunger spread. Smuggling food from the outside became almost impossible. The number of dead increased, and begging from the Christians on the other side to sell a piece of bread was of no help. With no attention to danger, desperate people tried to crawl under the fence, only to be caught by the murderers. The watch around the ghetto was reinforced by adding Ukrainian guards. The Judenrat warned us against illegal trade, and the Jewish police made extra rounds. But the power of hunger was so strong that people were ready to risk anything.
A 16-year-old girl who could not bear it any more risked her life, with her parents' consent. With a basket in her hand, she was on her way toward the fence. As she began climbing, she was hit by two Ukrainian bullets and fell, landing on the outside. Somehow the Germans were moved by the beautiful face and punished the Ukrainian guards.
Among the Christians, with whom Jews had left some of their belongings in hope for better times, some would toss parcels containing food over the fence. Most, however, waited for the last execution, to become the heirs.
Forced Labor Becomes More Cruel
The Judenrat work office received larger and larger demands for workers. Exhausted people were driven to slave labor. Some of the seven overseers of the seven work details were good people, and they tried to help the beaten and the humiliated workers by paying ransom money from the more affluent elements. However, the work was so hard and so terrible that people simply wouldn't go, even though they risked their lives in doing so. The work office was aware of the danger and decided to investigate the situation. They found that the workplace was tobacco plantations, having a fixedand very largeamount of produce that the workers were asked to deliver every day. Those who could not meet the demands were beaten murderously by the Ukrainian supervisors.
The head overseer, Tsiger, informed the German commandant, Hamershteyn, and as the latter realized the truth, he killed some of the Ukrainian guards and sent the rest to work in Germany.
For his goodness, Hamershteyn was thanked by gifts bestowed on him by the cautious Tsiger. The same Hamershteyn conducted the action in Dubno, because he had not received such gifts.
Although there was a demand for work in town outside the ghetto and many women were prepared to go, they were not accepted. Only through bribes could such work be arranged. The women hoped that they would be able to smuggle some food into the ghetto as they returned from work. Every morning, a crowd of women would gather in front of the work office, demanding noisily to be included in the day's working group. Many tried to sneak through the lines, but of no avail.
To Rovno, for Work
After the first action in Rovno, a workforce shortage was felt in town, and the Jewish work committees from neighboring places, including Kremenets, were asked to supply workers. However, no one would go voluntarily; the committee registered men who did not have families to care for, but they found hiding places and did not report to work. Finally Hamershteyn ordered that people be caught wherever they could be found, and the German gendarmes, aided by the Ukrainian and Jewish police, conducted raids. People were caught and thrown on wagons. Women's and children's heartbreaking cries cut through the air, and we were certain that this was the beginning of the annihilation of the ghetto. Workers who had just returned from work, tired and broken, were taken againwhich strengthened the feeling that this was the end. Christian residents outside the ghetto looked on, laughing happily; very few showed any sympathy. If someone jumped off the wagon and tried to run away, the Jewish police would catch them and bring them back, although, rarely, they looked the other way, and the poor Jew managed to escape. Running through fields and forests, the runaways finally returned to the ghetto.
Outside the ghetto, wagons loaded with people brought from surrounding towns were waiting to be taken to the train. There was a rumor that they had been bought by Tsiger from Hamershteyn, to be sent to Rovno for workand the rumor turned out to be correct.
Another rumor said that they were fed properly. Following all these rumors, people were fighting to be included in the next transport to Rovno.
Soon, the fateful moment arrived for the heads of the Jewish Work Committee: Hamershteyn was transferred to Dubno, Tsiger lost his protective power, and the murderer Miler took his place. On his new orders, even the dead were not allowed to be taken out of the ghetto for burial without his permission. Once they managed to smuggle out a dead man and tried to bury him, but Miler was informed and he gave an order to arrest Tsiger and his family, and they were all shot. This was how he took his revenge on Tsiger, who used to satisfy Hamershteyn with gifts…
Catastrophe Is Near
In August 1941, news arrived about the Jews' extermination in several places. Refugees from Rovno related that the city had become cleansed of Jews. Meanwhile, in our ghetto we continued to bear heavy hunger, went to work, paid contributionsbut we also heard rumors, news picked up by the radios outside the ghetto, about German defeats and Russian victories on the battlefield. Jews sought consolation and hope, waiting for a miracle from heaven, dreaming that they would be saved. But the dreams and hopes were soon shattered.
One Sunday morning, a week before the action, a call was heard in the entire ghetto, through megaphones mounted on cars that crossed every street in town: the population was called to kill the Jews. Sabbath, August 9, was their last Sabbath. That afternoon, the work committee received the order to send everyone those returning from work to the train station, to load grain. It was a cold, rainy day. The Jewish police waited near the ghetto gate, and as soon as a group of workers came back from work, tired and soaked by the rain, they were pushed into the wagons. Any Jew who tried to reach the ghetto gate was caught by the Ukrainians and pushed back. The Germans knew very well that it was the last day for the Jews, but they wanted to gain another night of slave labor from them. The poor, suffering workers returned to the ghetto only late at night. Just like the darkness of night, the fate that awaited them in the morning was also unknown to them.
A Night of Deadly Fright
In the middle of the night between August 9 and 10, the ghetto was shaken by gunshots all around. A deadly silence fell upon the ghetto, and a silent desire that the darkness would last forever.
The shots did not stop, however; they became stronger and closer, and bullets began to hit the ghetto. Loud screams were heard from Gorni Street and from around the synagogue. Soon the murderers tore down the gate and broke into the ghetto, found the hiding places, and took all the Jews away, constantly shooting in every direction. People fell dead all around. The deafening screams of children and adults filled the air. People ran like hunted animals, trying to find shelter, whether in a cellar or attic. Children trembled their mothers' hands, looking for protection from death. It was a night of horror, on the eve of annihilation.
The night came to an end, however, and a beautiful sunny day began to shine upon the ghetto.
A rumor spread that 60 Nazi gendarmes, reinforced by the Ukrainian SS unit stationed in the neighboring town of Biala-Krinitsa were about to storm into the ghetto, under the pretext that there was an uprising of the Jews. They ordered the Judenrat to bring all the fit-to-work to the gate, to be taken to work. The Judenrat appealed to everyone to obey the order, but very few appeared. The gendarmes and the SS decided then, according to certificates they had received from the work places, who would be taken away from the ghetto. During this selection process, almost the entire population of the ghetto, men, women, and children, gathered along the wall.
The victims were placed in two long linesone from the Great Synagogue to Y. B. Levinzon Street and Tailors Street, and the other along Gorna Street. The Ukrainians stood between the two lines. No shot was fired. The Jews could have easily disarmed them, but unfortunately no one dared. They were at the lowest stage of despair. They were also too weak to counter the cruel beatings. Everybody moved toward the gate, perhaps thinking that they would find a way to escape. Even the sick and the swollen from hunger crawled out of their beds and joined the crowd. Meanwhile the selection went on: the fortunate were led away from the gate and in groups of 400 were sent to Biala-Krinitsa. The few who tried to escape were pursued by the Ukrainians and shot, and their clothes were taken off. The Ukrainians warned that the same fate awaited anyone trying to escape. I looked at the Christian passers-by, and on some faces I saw laughter. I saw Sonye Goldenberg-Shpigel-Gurevits being pushed by a policeman and beaten with the butt of his revolver. The child in her arms looked on with deadly horror…
On the Road to Death
On the Death Road, people tried to comfort one another. Some still believed that life would be given back to them; others said that they did not want to live without their families.
When we arrived at our destination, we were all crowded into stables, surrounded by a human chain of Ukrainian SS. We sat on the ground. Many of us cried bitterly, mourning their beloved.
Next to me sat the lawyer Lione Grinberg, his head in his hands, and he wept: I am a criminal, he said to me. I left my wife and my children in the ghetto; why did we behave like that? Like a thorn stuck in the heart, the question remained in the airwithout answer…
After the selection and after some of us were sent to Biala-Krinitsa, those who remained in the ghetto sought shelter in the bunkers. But there was not enough room for all of us. The first victims were the residents of the Grand Hotel and the hospital patients. The Ukrainians and the German gendarmes drove them to the synagogue yard, and from there they were driven, in wagons or on foot, to the old barracks outside the town, where the defense trenches dug during World War I were still intact. The victims were beaten and forced to undress; then they were forced into the trenches and shot by an SS murderer.
Those who were not hit by bullets were finished off by the Ukrainians, who were standing ready around the pits. The screams, especially those of women and children, reached to heaven. There were also many Christian local residents who came to enjoy the spectacle. Every row that fell into the grave was covered with earth and limewhile some of the murdered were still moving, in death convulsionsand over them, a new row of people was shot. Some tried, naked, to escape, but the bullets caught them. The living were forced to throw them into the pits and then were thrown in after them. After this operation was finished, the Germans and Ukrainians began raiding the bunkers. The children's cries helped the murderers find the hiding places and take the people to their deaths. In some cases, parents covered their children's mouths, and they suffocated. In other cases parents gave the children poison injections and after that killed themselves rather than fall into the murderers' hands. In the assembly place, Dr. Shklovina begged the Germans to kill her, and one of the Germans had mercy on her and did just that. Her three-year-old grandson was thrown alive into the pit.
The selection was carried out systematically: men fit for work separately, women and children separately. When a child was spotted among the rows of the men, he or she was cruelly pulled out.
Two children clung to their father. The older, a girl, begged the murderers to let her stay with her mother, but suddenly, deadly pale and deadly silent, she broke away and joined the children who were being loaded on the death wagon. The younger child clung with all his strength to his father, screaming, Father, I don't want to go! But he was snatched away by a kick of the murderer's boot and then thrown through the air from murderer to murderer until the last one threw him into the wagon.
To make all the Jews come out of their hiding places, the Germans spread the rumor that those who were still alive would not be killed; they were asked to come out of the bunkers and help identify the possessions of the dead. Accompanied by Germans and Ukrainians, the Jews who did come out walked through the houses, calling: Jews, come out; no harm will be done to you. You'll just have to go to work.
Many of the hidden, hearing the words in Yiddish, or even recognizing the voices of their acquaintances, fell for this ruse. As soon as they came out of their bunkers, they were caught and arrested. They were forced to collect the dead from the streets, and then they were all taken to the tower yard and killed there. Some bribed the watchmen to let them out of the ghetto, but they were shot at the gates anyway. One woman, with a small child in her arms, tried to jump over the fence near Gogol Street, and the guard shot her on the spot. The child was still whimpering when they threw them on the wagon.
A Mountain of Ruins
The liquidation of the ghetto lasted two weeks. In spite of all the horrors, some did manage to remain alive in the bunkers. However, the murderers' final act was to set fire to the ghetto from all sides. All around the fence, on the outside, firefighters were stationed to make sure the fire didn't spread to the rest of the town. The fire forced the hidden Jews outside; most were murdered by the Ukrainians or the firefighters.
Then the Nazis spread another rumor: that the Jews themselves had set the ghetto on fire. This rumor, however, was not taken seriously even by the Christian residents, since they had seen with their own eyes how the Germans lit the fires all around and forbade anyone to extinguish it. They made sure that the ghetto would burn to the ground, with all the Jews who were still hidden in the bunkers.
After the fire, the Christians gathered the burned corpses lying among the heaps of ruins.
Sometime after the fire, the murderers discovered living Jews who had been hidden in the cellar of the Milshteyn house. Milshteyn was the kvass brewer. Jews were also discovered in the bunker under the Feld family's house, where soda water was produced. There was the entire Feld family, as well as Basis, Golde and Shlome the blacksmith's son, with their families and several children. All those remnants were taken out and killed after great agony. They were kept locked up until 100 victims were gathered. Weak and broken, suffering from hunger, they died a horrible death. The corpses were thrown in prepared pits and covered with earth; then the earth was plowed and a garden was planted, so that no person would know or remember their bones' final resting place.
In Vasilivke village, near Biala-Krinitsa, old farmers caught fugitive Jews and pulled them back to jail. Others first agreed to hide some of the Jews, among them several young girls, and later betrayed them and delivered them to the Nazis. One of the partners of the Gofman-Yaspe firm transferred his property to a Christian neighbor. During the liquidation, he tried to seek refuge in that neighbor's house, but the latter took him out to the murderers. They beat him up so severely that he lost the appearance of a human being, and when he was brought to the jail, the jail doctor had mercy and put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.
The fateful hour for the jailed people was near. One of the hangmen announced that the day of judgment had come and that the Jews would not be able to suck the blood of the Christians any more. At the graves near the military barracks, one Jew dared to speak to his friends around him, saying that there would come a day of revenge for the innocent blood that had been spilled. The son-in-law of Leybele the ritual slaughterer, Hokhgelernter's brother-in-law, comforted everyone present, promising revenge for the murdered innocent victims.
On the eve of the war, a Jewish doctor named Meler took residence in Kremenets. One of the Germans was charmed by his daughter's beauty, and he was interested in keeping her alive. After the parents were killed, the child, who was still in jail, was under the watchman's close supervision. He tried to comfort her and would even walk with her in the garden sometimes. One day, he received an order to finish off the child. He took the girl for a walk, and while she played with the flowers, he shot her with his revolver.
In an old chronicle about the Chmielnitski massacres of 1648-49, we read,
In Kremenets, the murderer took the ritual knife from the ritual slaughterer and killed several hundred Jewish children, asking his friend whether this would be kosher meat or not. His friend replied not kosher, so he threw one little corpse to the dogs. Then he took another slaughtered child and carried it to the slaughterhouse, opened it, and asked again the same question. This time the friend answered kosher, so he stuck it on a pole and carried it through the streets calling: Who wants to buy little lambs and little kids?
The author of the chronicle finishes this gruesome tale with the words: May God avenge their spilled blood.
From a Jewish community of 19,000 Jewish souls, only 13 people remained alive from Kremenets and 7 of the refugees from other places who sought shelter in our town. Another 20 Jews survived by hiding in Christian homes, 8 at a Christian woman's home and 4 in a man's home. This man was later murdered by the gang led by the bandit Bandara.
This Jewish town Kremenets [in Hebrew Ir Vaem BeYisrael = a mother town of the Hebrew nation] was cut off. The bulk of Jewish life, Jewish culture, Jewish work, and Jewish fruitful creativity was wiped out from the face of the earth. May you be damned, you and your murderers!
We shall forever cherish the memory of the murdered martyrs. Forever, forever they will remain etched in the memory of the nation.
by Eliezer Barshap, Ramla (Israel) and Netanel (Sanya) Kagan
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
Eliezer Barshap, Ramla (Israel), recounts:
On 16 July 1945, I returned to Kremenets. Only two or three Jewish families lived there at the time. I stayed with Duvid Rubin, who lived near the monastery; every day he awaited Kremenets survivors and gave them a place to sleep.
The first terrible shock was when I was shown the site where the Kremenets Jews were murdered. It was on the Dubno road near the coalmine, not far from the cotton factory. I met Sanya Kagan, and we both went to the site. A horrible picture unfolded before our eyes: three large pits where the Jews were murdered; scattered around were bones and heads with hair, bones of small children and torn pieces of clothing and shoes. Cows were grazing in the area.
I went to Kovalski and asked to build a fence around the place; he agreed at first, but he soon changed his mind because he feared the murderous gangs.
The Jewish ghetto extended from the Gindes pharmacy to the Geler house. The entire area was ruined. When cleaning up the ghetto, the workers found many gold coins. Was there anyone who hoped to return and find their money and houses?
Netanel (Sanya) Kagan recounts:
… Early the next morning, we stepped out onto the street. The town appeared before us, completely ruined. Nothing was left of the streets where the Jews had lived. The sites where the houses of learning, the Jewish hospital, and Jewish houses had stood were now no more than mounds of broken bricks and stones, partly already overgrown with grass.
Beginning from the site of the high school, there was less destruction around, but the houses were unoccupied. The entire area was a dead wasteland.
We met many Ukrainian acquaintances, who stared at us and asked how and from where we had come. They had been certain that we were all dead. In spite of our enemies, many young people have survived, and they will avenge the blood of their parents, brothers, and sisters this was what we told them; but deep in our hearts, we thought: how we wished it were true
We also met one of the eight Jews who had managed to hide and survive. He showed us his hiding place: a cellar with one small window.
We were told that a considerable number of Jews in the ghetto decided to commit suicide rather than die at the hands of the German murderers. One morning, they carried out this decision by blowing themselves up in the houses in which they were locked up. This ended the great chapter of Jewish life in Kremenets.
by Yitschak Vakman (New York)
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
In 1947, being in Europe, I decided to visit Italy to meet the surviving Kremenetsers in the refugee camps. Our relief committee had received many letters from the camps, and we knew that some of the refugees had crossed the border from Austria to Italy, on their way to the Land of Israel.
It was a very cold winter when I arrived in Milan. The town was in ruins after the war. People in rags were begging in the streets. It was difficult to obtain a taxi at the train station. Despite the hardships, I managed to get to Turin, to the refugee camp. I wandered in the camp for over an hour, searching, until I finally found a few of the survivors: Mani Okun's son, Shlome Fingerhut's son, R' Tsadok the ritual slaughterer's grandson (his daughter's son), Ayzik Kutsher's son, and several other Kremenetsers whose parents I remembered, and some whom I had known from the time they worked at R' Ayzik Shteyner's. From the camp, we went by train to Milan, where we spent the time talking and reminiscing about our old home. With luck, I managed to revive them a little, and I felt like a father who had found his lost children. I gave them some money from the committee, and I left with the decision that our duty was to continue to help them leave for the Land of Israel as soon as possible.
by Tovye Troshinski (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
On your threshold I fell, broken with despair,
Driven by a storm in a furious hour,
Suffering and scorned, lonely and tired
Silently I knocked on your door seeking relief.
Night fell wildly Dark wild shadows lingered
Like a veil over the world, wasting, devastating
Heavy clouds have hidden clear skies
A cold and angry wind extinguishing the last stars.
Silently I knocked on your door seeking rescue.
Only you can heal my wounds, only you can give me comfort.
My path of suffering has led me to your door
With one last spark of belief: you know, you feel, you understand
It was not the dew that covered the field with pearls,
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Mourning in front of your door, I am awaiting my sentence,
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Mourning in front of your door, I await my sentence.
Kermina (Uzbekistan) 1943
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