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Geven a Shtot Lutsk, Geven un Umgekumen
Written by: Yoysef Retseptor [Joseph Receptor]
Published in Paris, 1962
Leonard Prager zl
Mrs. Laure Receptor
This is a translation from: Geven a Shtot Lutsk, Geven un Umgekumen, (Once There Was a Town Named Lutsk and It Was Destroyed)
by Yoysef Retseptor [Joseph Receptor] (1904-1986), 15 pp, Paris [privately printed], 1962.
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In memory of our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, relatives and friends,
who came to their end in such a horrible way at the hands of the murderous Nazis.
May their souls rest in Peace.
A few months ago a valuable book named SEYFER LUTSK [The Book of Lutsk *] was published in Tel Aviv by our countrymen in Israel with the cooperation and help of people of our town from all over the world. Nevertheless, I think that my brochure will serve a purpose, for no matter how much is written about the khurbm ['the Shoa'], there will always remain much more to tell of the horror and hell that was inflicted on the victims by the Nazis and their allies.
If we compare SEYFER LUTSK to a makhzer ('a compendious high-holidays prayerbook'), then this brochure is just a siderl, ('a small book of prayers'), a simple gravestone. It relates in short that there was once a city named Lutsk, a city where the Jewish spirit filled the air, where Yiddish was spoken in the streets, where the Sabbath and the High Holidays could be sensed at home and in the street.
It was a city where musicians and family led bride and groom to the marriage canopy by the synagogue. A city where on at the beginning of each month, a Jew could bless the New Moon in the open without embarrassment or disturbance. Where on the day of Simkhes Toyre [Simkhat Tora ('Rejoicing in the Torah')], Hasidim would dance and frolic through the streets from one synagogue to the other. And then a tragedy took place, a tragedy worse than a plague. Nazism arose and butchered, murdered, burnt the Jews. And there were no more Jews in the city. Yiddish was no longer heard and the Jewish look and feel of the city disappeared.
The world that could allow such horrendous destruction will no doubt soon forget the streams of innocent blood that flowed. If we do not make it our duty to keep alive the memory of how in the twentieth century a civilized nation butchered and burnt millions of people simply because they were Jews, who will?
When I think of Lutsk my heart begins to throb! Pictures come to my mind of the hell our dear parents, sisters and brothers went through and the terrible end they came to at the hands of the Nazi and Ukrainian murderers in that month of Elul [August/September], 1942.
Other images come to mind as well: the quiet, modest city where as a small child and young boy I spent lovely, careless days. I see myself walking to kheyder on a cold and frosty winter day, fur cap over my ears and hooded cape around my neck, pondering how I would spend the 20 kopecks my mother had given me to buy something to eat with my two pieces of bread -- on a piece of sausage or of halvah?
At night, on my way home along dark alleys with lantern in hand, I used to recite passages from the Psalms which I knew by heart as a remedy against my fear of rustling sounds and shadows in the dark. In the summer I would spend my free afternoons in the meadow playing football or boating on the river Styr near Bene's Mines. I see myself on Lag B'Omer [a Spring holiday] marching behind the white and blue flag to our own music along Yogelonske Avenue [Jagellon -- dynasty of grand dukes of Lithuania] in white uniform with the Hashomer Hatsair Youth Movement.
I see myself sitting next to my father (may he rest in peace) on a Sabbath afternoon in the Trisker Synagogue, in front of the massive oak lectern studying Pirkey oves [Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)]. During the late afternoon meal on the Sabbath I sat among the Hasidim at a long table with the leftovers of the small khales used for the blessing of the bread, singing Hasidic songs in which a Jew expresses his faith and finds hope and consolation.
A few years later, when I had become somewhat emancipated, I would spend Sabbath afternoons at lectures on the works of Leivik, Bialik or Sholem Asch in the community auditorium or on Jabotinsky in the municipal theater, or serve as a witness at a literary trial on Peretz's short story Bontshe Shvayg. Or I might go to a rehearsal of a play that our teachers were preparing with us for the yearly Hanukkah Evening in the High School. During the intermediate days of Passover I attended an evening celebrating the anniversary of Peretz's death. During the long summer evenings my friends and I sat on benches in the municipal park, or (especially at the close of Sabbaths and holidays) strolled along Yogelonske Avenue, where the few Christian merchants in between the long rows of Jewish shops indicated the ratio of Jewish to Christian inhabitants.
The long Yogelonske Avenue, Vilke Street, Novostroyenye Street (that ended at the Jewish cemetery), Doline Street, Yarovitse Street, Krasne Street, Mitsraim Street, Karaite Street and Nidev Street, Bolnitshne Street, Trinitarian Street, Dominican Street, the market place, where in the summertime Jewish market-women would sell hot corn-on-the-cob from huge tin tubs and where, especially on Thursdays -- market days -- Yanish's shmaltz herring was very popular with the peasants, who had come to sell wood, grain, fruit, poultry, fish, eggs, straw, fir branches and willow twigs. Street, kheyder, synagogue, high school, schoolmates, friends: everything was so homey and so heartily Jewish.
What Sabbaths and holidays we had! Fridays and holiday evenings had a different look and taste than all other days. The odor of Friday's pot roast and the smells of fresh baked khales and kikhlekh ['cakes'] filled the street. Sabbaths and holidays were not only experienced in the home, but also outside: shops were closed, the market place was empty, there were few horses and carts, all of which made the non-Jewish population aware that the Jews were celebrating the Sabbath or a holiday.
The non-Jews, our neighbors, were Poles, Russians and Ukrainians. There were also thirty or forty Karaites. Altogether the non-Jews formed but a small minority; from the thirty some thousand inhabitants of Lutsk almost thirty thousand were Jews. You could have called it a Jewish city. There were over twenty synagogues and study houses, as well as a yeshiva, a Talmud Torah, a Hebraist Tarbut school, a Yiddishist folkshul, a Jewish high school, a Jewish hospital, Jewish commercial banks, sport clubs, literary circles, etc.
The majority of the population belonged to the middle class: small and not so small merchants with all kinds of shops, businesses, and commodities -- cereals, timber, fruit, foodstuffs, haberdasheries, dry goods, ironware, paint, tar, etc. The laboring masses included the manual workers, the unskilled employees and journeymen of various trades, such as tailors, cobblers, joiners, carpenters, bricklayers, house painters, blacksmiths, furriers, finishers (of semi-finished goods) and also those employed in small industries like tanneries, grain mills, sawmills, soap-boiling works, etc.
And then there was the transportation business. The forwarding agents would distribute the merchandise that had arrived at the depot to the businessmen it was meant for. The cabbies normally only drove passengers from the town to the railway station or from the railway depot into the city but the draymen with their wooden carts and meager horses, had to make their scant living by delivering a bag of grain, a casket with herring, a bag of salt, a package with merchandise, some planks, a few thousand bricks, etc.
In this line of business we should also include the poor water carriers and porters. In every profession or business, work would start early on Sunday morning. On Friday afternoons gears would go into reverse. Whether a Jew had earned his weekly expenses or not, he would put aside his work, go to the Turkish bath house or wash at home, put on a change of clothes, shine his shoes and go to the synagogue. On returning home he would find a well decked table with candles burning in their shining candlesticks. The smells of the prepared Sabbath dishes would drift in from the kitchen. Who would not remember the tastes, the pleasure and charm of those Sabbath eves and of the holidays? The calm that came over the house and the spiritual gratification in the synagogue. On Sabbath and holidays the synagogue contributed more to our spiritual life than it did on weekdays.
Besides praying, one would study there a chapter from the Mishna; he would then partake of the late Sabbath afternoon meal; last but not least, he would meet there with neighbors and relatives to talk not only politics and business, but any subject that might have a bearing on his existence. The synagogue was important to the Jews both religiously and socially. On top of the 52 Sabbaths in a year, they would, God forbid, not let one single holiday go by without celebrating it in the appropriate manner. Each and every holiday had its own character and would leave behind its particular impression during our youth.
As soon as Purim is over the preparations for Passover start. A visit would be paid to the textile-merchant to buy new bedding and material for a suit. The tailor would take measurements. The house would be whitewashed. A porter would deliver the huge basket with matses [matsot, 'unleavened bread'] and the cupboard, scrubbed clean and koshered would be filled with them. Mother would bring a few dozen eggs from the market and she would render the fat of a chicken to keep in store for the Passover kugel. Father would press the soaked raisins for the obligatory four cups of wine. And then it is finally the evening before Passover [Yiddish: erev-peysekh]. The Passover crockery is brought down from the attic and I help to unpack. The unpacking of the drinking cups and of the three-legged silver salt-cellar pleases me best. When the wooden crockery box is put back in the attic the pleasure of trying on my new clothes is next. A new suit, new shoes, a new shirt with starched cuffs and even a new arbe-kanfes ['four-cornered ritual garment'].
We go with father to the synagogue, where the illumination of numerous electric lamps reminds us that it is a holiday and provides the right atmosphere. People talk to each other while waiting for the Evening Prayer. They take pleasure in removing their silver or leather cigarette cases from their breast-pockets and offering a cigarette to those around them. Back from synagogue, father placed on a big plate the scorched bone, bitter herbs, egg [Standard Yiddish ey; text has hey], parsley and khroyses [Hebrew kharoset 'a brown sweet paste prepared from nuts, apples, spices and wine; a reminder of the clay used by the Jews in Egypt making bricks']. Then, reclining on the freshly recovered pillows, we would start the seyder ['the 'order' of the Passover feast, as prescribed in the Haggadah'].
Many years have passed but the vivid memories of our ruined home, especially those of Sabbaths and holidays, will never be wiped from my mind. The preparations for Passover, the seyders, how we borrowed our neighbor's wooden pestle to break up the matses to make farfel and matse flour. On Shvues we spread sweet-smelling grasses around the house. At Tishebov we children threw plant darts at one another. [Yiddish: um tishebov dos varfn zikh mit di bozhikes]. On the Jewish New Year the men gathering at the river side for the tashlekh ceremony [shaking out pockets over the water as a symbol of washing away sins]. Mother blessing the candles on the eve of the Day of Atonement. Helping father put together the suke [Hebrew sukka 'booth'] from old planks and doors unhinged for the occasion.
I can still almost taste my mother's Passover kugel; her Shevuos blintses [text: mlintses]; her kreplekh [a kind of ravioli] on Hesheyne-Rabe [the seventh day of Sukkot]; her latkes ['pancakes'] on Hanukkah; her mondlekh ['poppy-seed buns'] and teyglekh ['pellets of dough (teyg) cooked in honey'] on Purim. On Sabbath morning a sweet kikhl with a piece of faynkukhn [fankukhn 'pancake'] and a cup of tepid coffee or chicory. During a Sabbath afternoon father would lie down to nap and mother would sit down to read her Yiddish Pentateuch [Yiddish: taytsh-khumesh] and she would doze off as well.
It was a pleasant Jewish life. It was destroyed and is no more. In Lutsk Sabbath and holidays are no longer celebrated, for there are no Jews in Lutsk. The city was not destroyed by an earthquake or a plague. You will find the former Great Synagogue, the study house, the Talmud Tora, the former Jewish High School and the Jewish hospital in the same places as before.
Kroynshteyn's Wall is still there, as are Petits's Mill, Shnayder's Brewery and Fridman's Mill. The buildings of the Jewish businesses are all still in the same place. Here was Zvuln Perkal's manufacturing business; here was Leybstsi Fish's ironmongery; here Rikhter's printshop; here Motl Vaksman's haberdashery; here Getsi Shtrakhman's ready-made clothes store; here Motl Frayzinger's crockery business; here Yankl Bakovyetski's shoestore. From the basement of this house on the eve of the Sabbath fat Yekhiel and his son Arn sold sunflower seeds and cantaloupes. Here was Dal's apothecary; here Zoretski sold soda water. Here was Barzakh's ironmongery. Here stands Yitskhok Shternfeld's newspaper kiosk.
In that house Dr. Mininzon had his practice, here Dr. Rafalovski, here Dr. Abramski, here the dentist Bromberg, here the dentist Poltorak, here the lawyer Rotfeld. Here lived the cantor Rozmarin, the leader of the choir in the Great Synagogue. Here lived Mendl the Feldsher ['barber-surgeon']. Here lived Khaykl Vayts, the former vice-burgomaster of the city. Here lived Yehoyshue Berger, principal of the Tarbut school. Here lived Varkovitski, director of the Jewish bank. Here lived Lipe Diner. Here, Yisroel Vayntroyb. Here, Yosl Zhitin. Here Motl Libuber. Here Yankl the Cabman, here Froyem Shoykhet, here Yidl the Carpenter, here Yude-Arye the Miller [text = muler; cf. Y. milner], here Khayem the Water Carrier, here Anshl Vaserman, here Moyshe Hobernik. In this house lived Khaye-Rekhele Kroynshteyn, here Mekhele the rabbi of the Trisker Synagogue and here Dovid the Cantor. Almost all the houses are still there, but you won't see any Jewish inhabitants.
Also the shops are were they were before, but you won't see any Jewish shopkeepers or Jewish customers in them. There are no more Jews in Lutsk, no more synagogues. No Jewish hospital, no Jewish High School or Jewish bank. The Jewish spirit is gone from Lutsk, perhaps for ever! The Hitler plague that annihilated Jewish life in hundreds of towns and townships in Poland, Russia, the Baltics, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and elsewhwere, the third great khurbm ['Shoa'] also ravished our city.
The inferno started for the Jews of Lutsk in June 1941 (the Jewish month Sivan of the year 5701), with the occupation of the city by Hitler's army. Three days later white posters announced that men aged 16 to 60 had to volunteer for work. They had to bring their own axes, shovels, pickaxes, hammers, crowbars, etc. They were to assemble at the Lyubarta Palace.
About 3000 men presented themselves for work. Alas, none of them was ever seen again. The Ukrainian and German murderers killed them with the very tools the victims had themselves brought. The whole city grieved and was anxious, weeping for the innocent victims and wondering whether this was the start of total extermination. The period of normality for the Jewish population of Lutsk was over. A life of misery, pain, repression, shame and abuse had begun. Indeed, the extermination was in process.
In the streets they chased Jews and beat them to death. Their dogs literally tore chunks of flesh from Jewish bodies. Jews were spit at and insulted. It became impossible to appear on the streets. Jews were forbidden to do business or to assemble; they were left to the mercy of murderous Germans and Ukrainians. After several months of this complete arbitrariness, the ghetto was established. On a rainy day of Elul [August/September] 1941, Jews were driven out of their homes like a herd of cattle into a ghetto in the area of Dominican Street and the market place, in between Basilica Street and Nidev Bridge.
Cut off from the outside world, having no possibility of approaching anyone for help or justice, huddled up in rooms, cellars and shops, in worse conditions than in a prison, the ghetto Jews did everything possible to keep themselves and their children alive, hoping they would be set free by a miracle. Weeks went by, months and it was only sad news that spread from door to door: A man has been shot on the streets, another has been clubbed to death. Someone has been arrested and his fate is unknown. Someone else has been forced most cruelly to dance in the street. And so on. Fear reigned.
Moreover, hunger, cold and sickness made their entrance into the ghetto. Life became torture, an abyss, a dark and cold night without any prospect of a ray of light at dawn. Any thought of individual or organized resistance against the cruel oppressors had to be given up as soon as one realised that it was a mere fantasy, impossible to carry out. In the first place because of the overwhelming superiority in force of the enemy and the utter impossibility of opposing him with empty and enfeebled hands. Secondly because the slightest act of revenge might have provoked the murder of your own people or of the community, at a time when the great majority still entertained a faint hope of rescue, if not of oneself, maybe of a child, a wife, of father and mother, and so on.
The Jewish Council [Judenrat] and the Jewish police were responsible for the daily life (what a life!) in the ghetto. They were instituted and controlled by the Germans. This Jewish Council could not accomplish much. Their main function was to deliver, on Mondays and Thursdays, the financial contributions demanded by the Nazis: Jewish furs, Jewish gold, silver and jewels and also the requested number of laborers to be employed on different jobs. Among the members of the Jewish Council and those of the Jewish police some tried with self-sacrifice to wangle some little favor from their German superiors for the sake of their hungry and exhausted brethren. But, sorry to say, there were also those who carried out their evil missions with even more zeal than demanded by the Germans, only caring for their own interest and profit.
It did happen that Christians aided with a piece of bread and some even risked their lives by giving shelter in their homes to Jews who escaped from the ghetto. But such escapees formed the great exception. The great majority, or more exactly almost the whole population of the ghetto, was utterly helpless. They had no means or opportunity to go into hiding and evade the oncoming catastrophe.
The situation turned from bad to worse. Bread rations were cut. Furs, gold, jewelry, money were gone. People fought against hunger and cold with all their might. It was even more difficult to fight off disease. Zlotski's apothecary had been designated for use by the inhabitants of the ghetto and was still open, but the boxes in the medicine cabinets were empty. For the physically debilitated and morally cast down, life in the ghetto became more and more unbearable. The mortality rate was high and the resistance of the survivors was low. The faint hope of rescue diminished likewise. The abyss deepened and final ruin loomed. The shadow of the Angel of Death was felt to be at the door. Soon one would not even be able to breathe. Unfortunately, they were not mistaken.
During the night of 10 Elul 5702 [August 1942] the chapter of the ghetto would be closed and the life of Lutsk Jewry would come to an end. During that dark night a great number of empty trucks driven by German and Ukrainian drivers rolled noisily into the ghetto compound. Doors and windows were broken open, people were pulled from their beds and chased onto the trucks. Little ones and grownups shouted and lamented, but in vain. No one had come to the rescue. The Angel of Death was present now. There was nowhere to run to, to save oneself or a child, a wife -- impossible. The wild beast would be at their heels covering every victim with a rifle or revolver. Every house was searched and when a child or grownup was found hidden in a cellar or attic they would drive them towards the crowded trucks, smacking them with the butts of their rifles, as if they were dogs.
In the past, mostly early in the morning, stray dogs would be caught on the streets of the city. They would be thrown into a cart that looked like a chicken coop and brought to the butcher. Some dogs would escape this fate if their owners came to ransom them. There was no one to ransom Jews, no one to defend them, to fight the injustice done them. Only the murderers were there. They looked in every corner to make sure they had not missed some hidden soul that hardly dared to breathe in his hideout. The murderers went after escapees like famished beasts and hastily pushed them onto the crowded trucks. The sooner they got rid of the Jews, the sooner they would be able to loot their houses and divide the spoil, the last of the Jews' possessions.
Having rounded up all the Jews of Lutsk, and having put them under a strong guard, they transported them to their death. It was a short distance and did not take long. The transport crossed the Nidev Bridge, the dike along Nidev Hill, and arriving at the road that led to the village of Polonka, stopped next to three deep trenches, each about two-hundred meters long and eight to ten meters wide. These were the graves that Jewish forced laborers, guarded over and beaten by German and Ukrainian policemen, had dug during the previous day for their parents, their children, their sisters, their brothers, their wives.
The mass murder had been prepared systematically, in a cynical and bestial manner. Even stairs had been thought of for the victims to walk down into the graves where they would be shot. The miserable people now stood eye to eye with death, petrified, realizing it would be impossible to do anything to save one's child, one's wife, one's mother or one's self. Their hearts were torn apart by their misery and despair. All hope had gone, the last illusion of salvation had faded away. Here were the graves, here stood the Angel of Death with his scythe raised above his shoulder.
Everybody cried and wailed, shouted with the last force they could muster, hoping that someone would hear their last call for help. Mothers shouted the loudest, convinced that their almost inhuman, heartrending shouting would induce some feeling of mercy in the murderers of their children. But to no avail. The rattle of machine guns and the whistling of bullets making their speedy way toward the heads and chests of the distraught members of the Jewish community was the only answer of the murderers. The bodies riddled with bullets were thrown into the pits like logs of wood or branches, one on top of the other. With punctured skulls and broken limbs the victims lie soaking in the blood streaming from their corpses.
Not all died at once. The ones that were still alive were smothered to death by the ones thrown on top of them, the corpses of the people just shot. The pits were full. In the top layers some bodies amongst the not yet completely dead corpses were seen to be moving, as though trying to crawl out of the bloody mess of thrown-together corpses. But the henchmen had not left yet, they were still there to finish the job in their devilish murderous way. They covered their victims, partly still breathing and struggling with death, with slaked lime and soil.
This is how Jewish Lutsk was murdered, how the Jews of Lutsk came to their end. Who could do justice to the story of their troubles, pain and suffering? Who will put their gruesome tragedy into words? Who will avenge them and punish the murderers for shedding rivers of innocent blood? Who will remind the world of the great injustice and loss we Jews suffered to satisfy the beast of Hitler Germany? Who will remind the world that it was not only the German hangmen and their aides who were responsible for our great catastrophe -- they carried out the murders -- but also liberal leaders of nations and religious leaders who knew that innocent people were being butchered and did not raise their voice in protest, which could have lowered the numbers of victims. And who will remind the world that deep-rooted and still tolerated anti-semitism, hatred toward Jews, has for generations led to pogroms and mass-murder?
As long as we live this will remain our duty, our sacred duty. We should not fail to imprint this duty on the minds of our children, in order to ensure that it will be handed over from generation to generation. This must certainly have been the last burning wish of our martyrs, at the moment they shed their blood and lost their lives in the pits at Gurki-Polonka.
The author of these lines obtained his information about the life of our people in the ghetto and about their end from his countryman (landsman) Kh. Gak, at present living in Canada. He personally experienced life in the Ghetto and he succeeded in saving himself. Sad to say that he was one of the very few exceptions -- they are to be counted on the fingers of one hand.
* Seyfer Lutsk (Memorial Book of Lutsk); Editor: N. Sharon; Published: Tel Aviv, 1961; Publisher: Former Residents of Lutsk in Israel. Pages: 608. Languages: Hebrew, Yiddish.
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