By Ester Michelson-Choniak, Tel Aviv
|The memoirs of our townswoman, Ester Choniak-Michelson were not included in the first edition of the Book of the Jewish Community in Ostrolenka, 1963. For two reasons, however, we decided to publish them in this Hebrew edition of our book:
Her life story symbolically and tangibly demonstrates the tragic period of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, but at the same time, the renewal of its independence and statehood in the Land of Israel, as well.
Committee of the Organization of the Jewish Community of Ostrolenka in Israel
I was born in Ostrolenka, on the bank of the River Narew. I lived the first twelve years of my life in this district city. About five thousand Jews lived in the city of my birth. The primary school which I attended was a government school and we were taught in Polish, but all the students were Jewish. My parents, members of the middle class (my father was a grain merchant) were not satisfied with the education that their four children acquired in school. Therefore, in the afternoon, we studied Torah and prayers at Bejt Jakow [a Jewish school] and, a few evenings a week, a private teacher came to our house to teach us Hebrew.
My family lived at Mr. Skowronski's, at 13 Goworowskie Street. Our lives ran smoothly until 1939. In the summer of that year, as every year, my family went to the dacha [country house] in the village of Kadzidla, in the heart of the forests, for vacation. We returned home after two months. Clouds of war darkened the skies and word of mouth in our city was that it was not advisable to stay there. In World War I, a great battle was waged in the area and this could happen again. We had already loaded possessions on a horse-drawn wagon and left our home, but father did not want to abandon the house and the grains. After two weeks, we returned. Two weeks later, the Germans came. An irony of fate: it happened on Simchat Torah
As Ostrolenka was included in the zone of the Third Reich, the Germans decided to hurry and cleanse it of Jews. We were expelled to the east. Our family traveled in a horse-drawn wagon to the city of Lomza, where Father rented a room for the whole family. As soon as
we settled in, I was sent to study in the Goldblut Gymnasium, where we learned Hebrew, Yiddish, French and Latin. After a short time, we moved on to Bialystok, a big city with a large Jewish population. After a time, the Russians enacted a law, according to which refugees had to accept Soviet citizenship and distance themselves one hundred kilometers from the border; they were forbidden to live in the capital cities of the Soviet republics. Mother tried to find a place of residence for the family and returned after two days with news: she had found an apartment in the town of Dereczyn, near Slonim. This town bustled with Jewish life. About thirty thousand Jews lived there. The entire center of the city was Jewish.
place where the entire Jewish population and her family were murdered. Dereczyn, August 1991
Father worked at any job that came along and we did not know poverty, although our extended family around us shrank our grandfathers and grandmothers from both sides, as well as aunts and uncles. I accepted this matter-of-factly: so long as Father was by my side, I would not lack for anything.
I was registered immediately for the local Russian school, where they learned in Russian, a new language for me. During my first school year in that institution, however, I got used to Russian and even excelled at my studies. On the Day of the Revolution 1940, I was asked to greet the inhabitants in the name of the students, from a stage erected in the city square. I received warm applause and all those present in the square were impressed by the little refugee who expresses herself so well in Russian.
We did not know that the quiet life we were living in the town was just the calm before the storm. In June 1941, Hitler betrayed his ally, Stalin, and invaded the Soviet Union. Terrible rumors spread. It was said that the Germans killed all the Jews in the nearby town of Halinka. Some tried to calm things down and explained
that this was not a massacre. The town was damaged because a heavy battle was waged between the Red Army and the German Army in the area. Then, the Germans occupied the town where we lived and inaugurated their occupation government by executing one hundred Jewish inhabitants. Later, they took all the men out of town for three days. We did not know what had happened to them. When Father returned safely, he told us that the Germans took them to the forest and ordered them to dig large pits. They returned hungry and exhausted.
After a time, the Germans established a ghetto in the town. Our family, like the other families, was forced to live in one room. The synagogues filled with refugees. Jews were taken out for forced labor every day. Then the Gestapo came, escorted by a Belarusian militia, and the ghetto's Jews were insulted and beaten daily. Every day, our number decreased. Hunger began to frequent the ghetto, but Father made sure that we did not starve.
Rumors flew that Russian captives who had escaped captivity were in the forests near town. Many youths were tempted to escape from the ghetto to the forests and join the escaped prisoners. Other youths also wanted to escape to the forests, but they were not prepared to leave their families behind.
Time after time, rumors of massacres and the destruction of entire towns crept in, but the Jews of our ghetto calmed each other: Nothing will happen here. The more time passed in 1942, however, the more the hope in our hearts faded.
On the Eve of Tisha B'Av [the dates of the destruction of both Holy Temples, the 9th of Av, a major annual Jewish fast day], we went to bed. In the middle of the night on Friday I heard the rumble of the motors of trucks entering the ghetto. Pandemonium broke out. Those who lived in houses with attics tried to hide in them. The Germans succeed in finding everyone and chased them out with clubs and shouts. I managed to slip away and squeezed myself into a corner. There I froze, paralyzed and dumbfounded by the sounds of screams, weeping and blows. The Belarusian militiamen broke furniture, overturned drawers, searched for treasures. Some of them came very close to me, but they did not see me. Finally, silence prevailed, but I did not move from my place until nightfall. When it got dark outside, I crawled out of my hiding place and peeked out of the window. I saw Gentiles taking bodies out of the courtyard. I went out into the street, left the ghetto and met a young girl, Pesia Abramowitz, who worked for the Germans and therefore had a pass to move around a schein.
Esterika!, she called excitedly, What are you doing outside? Quick, come with me!
That night, I slept in her bed, safe from harm.
The next day, my hostess said to me, Stay here and I will go to see what happened at German headquarters.
In an hour, she returned running and burst out breathlessly: Run away now!
The aktzia is still going on! Where should I go? And what will happen to you?, I asked. I'll manage, she said. I learned from her then that the Germans and their helpers took the entire Jewish population, including my family, to pits (which had been dug because of the German bombings) in the center of town, and there mass murder was committed!
I was just a girl of 14 then. I did not know the area, but I had no alternative. I decided to cross the market square, which was full of local Gentiles and German soldiers. I crossed safely, just like the Jews who crossed the Red Sea when they ran from the Egyptians. It was as if an invisible hand led me and a heavenly angel watched over me.
I left town and entered a field of grain. The grain was high and hid me. I ran as far as my legs carried me. I heard shooting. I thought they were shooting at me, but, in fact, I was very close to the place where the murders of the Jews of Dereczyn, including my family, continued. I was afraid to raise my head. I ran until I was out of breath and my legs felt like lead. I tried to run following the telegraph poles, which I assumed stood along the road and a road always leads to a populated area.
The shooting stopped and I thought I was the only one left in the world. A moment of weakness came upon me. Should I return to Dereczyn, perhaps? I decided not to do so. I continued onward!
That night, I reached a small village. I was afraid to enter it. I laid down to rest near a bush. Perhaps I could get to the partisans? I saw a Gentile farmer and asked him were the village of Aziorki was. I had heard about it in the ghetto. He indicated the direction. To my surprise, it did not occur to him to turn me in, although the Germans had promised a prize to every local inhabitant who turned a Jew over to them.
Another day went by without food and drink. Dogs barked at me and I was dazed. Toward evening, I saw people running in the distance. Partisan refugees? I did not have the strength to catch up to them, however, and I was alone again. I wanted to cry, but I forbade myself to break.
On Sunday night, I reached Aziorki. I saw piles of boards with a narrow space between them and pushed myself into it, to sleep a little.
Toward morning, I renewed my steps toward the forest. I met a farmer on horseback, holding a sickle. I asked him, Do you know where the partisans are? He pointed at the forest, then turned his face backward and pointed to a big, roofless barn. There are partisans here, too, he said.
I approached the barn and saw a young man armed with a rifle and a young woman, who ran toward me with open arms and excited cries. Esterika! It was Sara Agolnik (now Wechler, in Israel) from the town from which I had fled. A local inhabitant, she used to wander around the area on her bicycle and knew all the roads. She brought me to the barn, which was full of Jewish refugees, about a hundred in number, many of them wounded. All of them had fled from the aktzia in Dereczyn. Prominent among them was Szmuel Bronsztejn, a schoolteacher in the town.
I was in the barn for a number of hours. It was raining and we all got soaked to the skin because there was no roof on this country structure. The next day, the partisans came and took us to the forest. This was the start of the partisan organization. There were a few soldiers from the Red Army, and many youths from villages and towns, who had escaped from forced labor. I was alone, but not for long. In the forest, I met Sonja Manikow and her mother the midwife, who knew me in Dereczyn. The daughter said to me, Join us!
I learned that when she was in her hiding place in town, her baby began to cry, and finally, it choked while still in her arms. The Germans did not hear its cries! When we were in the forest, we were sent to gather food in nearby villages. Since we did not have money, we used valuables, mostly clothing. My companion took the baby's clothes out of her bundle and burst into bitter tears.
In the heart of the forest, we set up two camps a camp of families and a camp of partisans. The young men were divided by the partisans into companies. Some young women joined each company. There were two groups of Jews. The commander was a Russian officer, Grisha Kozajew. He added Sonja and her mother to his unit. And what will happen to me?, I asked anxiously. What can a young girl like you do?, Grisha queried me. I know how to cook, to sew
I'm ready to do anything, just don't leave me alone. He fixed me with a critical look, and finally said, Let it be The second group was under the command of Dr. Atlas.
In retrospect, it turned out that, as far as I was concerned, this made the difference between life and death. About a month later, the Germans discovered the family camp and wiped out the one hundred and twenty souls in it.
The fighting unit I joined set up a field hospital in the forest. Sonja and her midwife mother were posted to serve in the hospital, and I made the utmost efforts to prove that I was an asset and not a burden.
One day, our commander disappeared and, for some time, we were without a commander. Then a new commander, Wanka Abramow, appeared. He instilled a fighting spirit in our partisan companies. The two Jewish groups felt the need to achieve more than the other units. The Jewish partisans obtained weapons and ammunition and began going out on operations. One of the first was a revenge operation on the Germans stationed in Dereczyn. Not all those who went out on this operation had firearms. Those who did not armed themselves with sticks, knives, any deadly weapon that came to hand. They knew exactly where the German headquarters was located and where the quarters of the anti-Semitic Belarusians were. Non-Jewish partisans joined the raid, in which many Germans and Belarusians were killed. The ghetto was set on fire and many Belarusians who cooperated with the Germans were taken prisoner.
For this revenge, it was worth staying alive!, said the Jewish partisans, who brought a great deal of plunder back from Dereczyn, including a car. It should be noted that with me in the unit was another Ostrolenkan fighter, named Herszel Cukerman. Girls, too, went out on the next operations. They gave me a short assault rifle, because I was so young. On the eighth of March, Women's Day, a unit of partisan women went out on an operation in which German telephone lines were cut. Our situation was very difficult. We had to move around a lot, so that the Germans would not discover our whereabouts; we used to walk backwards in our footprints, in order to confuse their trackers. More than once, we were without water and had to drink water that pooled in the ruts of the wagon wheels, though handkerchiefs. There were days that we envied the dead, because their suffering was behind them. On other days, however, we found satisfaction in the revenge we took on the Germans. The Jewish partisans carried out the most daring operations, derailed trains and destroyed military headquarters, while dressed in the uniforms of German soldiers and officers.
The longer the war continued, and the more the partisans' struggle developed, the more the organization improved and the level of performance increased. By now there were weapons in the hands of every fighter, and each of the battalions was composed of a few companies. Each company had a company commander. I was in Eli Lipszowicz's company, which derailed a German train carrying supplies, weapons and German soldiers. We set up ambushes and wiped out many Germans. [Eli's] brother was the partisans' supply commander. After the war, Eli Lipszowicz was murdered on Polish soil.
To survive the months of snow and frost during the first winter, we had to set up a permanent camp. Every company dug bunkers for its people, who lived in tents until then. In the winter months, we organized brigades from the battalions, and the Red Army dispatched a supreme command to White Russia for all the partisans. During those months, we did not stop initiating raids. In the evenings, the fighters gathered around the campfires and told their comrades about the revenge operations they had carried out.
The problem was, the situation got worse daily. In 1942, the Germans already stood at the gates of Moscow. Sometimes, the chilling thought stole into our hearts: We will not get out of this war alive Immediately, however, another thought came fast on its heels: So long as we are alive, we are free and we revenge! Every additional day that we survived and struck at the Germans we saw as another victory over them in the spirit of the motto Iberleiben!, that is, we will live longer than you and dance on your graves, filthy Germans!
We confiscated food from the farmers, whose fate was bitter because the Germans also confiscated food from them. And then 1943 came and the wheel of fortune turned back.
After the Stalingrad Campaign, contact was made between the partisans and the Red Army general staff in Moscow. We began to receive supplies and weapons by parachute drops and parachutists joined us as commanders and leaders. Our operations grew. A region controlled by the partisans was created. The Germans responded by imposing a siege on the forests and with
heavy bombing, but the forests were large and dense.
We were familiar with them, while the Germans were strangers to them. The Germans' vehicles and tanks got stuck in the snow and the mud, and the partisans extricated them and used them against the enemy.
One day, a Russian prisoner escaped from captivity and brought with him soap, on which was written RJF pure Jewish oil. He told of the wholesale slaughter the Germans had carried out against Poland's Jews. The news was hair-raising and heart-stopping, but on the other hand, news came that the German front had been broken through. The Germans were in retreat. A gleam of hope was kindled in our hearts.
One day, we heard artillery fire. All night, the ground shook beneath us from the heavy shelling. In the morning, we saw tanks. We were already considering escape, but suddenly a tank stopped and an armored forces soldier called to us from the turret, in Russian, Girls, where are you from?
It was 24 July 1944. A stirring meeting on the banks of the Niemen River.
The Red Army liberated us. Each of us received a certificate marking our service as partisans. The fighting still continued, but now it was organized fighting, in which only the men in our units participated. Most of them fell during battles on the front. We, the women, were told to return home. Home? Where? I did not have a home to return to; moreover, I already knew that my whole family had been murdered. So I went back to Dereczyn. I was less than sixteen years old. A field hospital had been set up there. We tended the wounded and asked each of them if he knew someone from our families. Soon enough, we despaired of finding relatives and decided to go to Baranowicz, a large district city. We worked at the local Communist party center. Conditions there were good, because we had living quarters and there was a restaurant for party activists.
During my entire stay with the partisans in the forest, deep in my heart, I hoped that, despite everything, someone in my family had remained alive.
This hope strengthened me and enabled me to go on, until the Liberation. By the time of the Liberation by the Red Army, and especially when I got to Dereczyn, I was completely convinced that I was alone. My whole world collapsed and I wondered if there was any reason to carry on. On second thought, however, when I became myself again, my decision was firm to continue, no matter what, in order to assure the continuous existence of my family.
On the 9th of May 1945, a celebration of the victory over Nazi Germany, defeated in the war, was held. The Russians celebrated and we cried. The Russians arranged the return of Polish civilian refugees to Poland. Simultaneously, emigration to Israel began to be organized. Sara Nishmit, whom I met during my partisan period, was a Zionist and I was greatly influenced by her. I went to my employer and told him that I was leaving. It is not worth it for you to leave a comfortable place like yours, said this good man. But I was bound and determined not to remain on Polish soil anymore. With one of my friends, Szyfra, and her parents, I went to Lodz, where the emissaries from Israel worked on organizing groups for emigration. We met a friend who told us that one of the partisans, Leja Ablewicz, was a leader in Kibbutz Dror. We went to her, and she invited us to an Oneg Shabbat [joy of the Sabbath; a celebratory gathering on the Sabbath, often with food, singing, study, discussion, and socializing]. We dressed up in our finest clothes, went to the meeting place and saw young women and men singing, dancing and greeting each other with See you again in our land. Before we parted, I said to Leah, I do not want to join a kibbutz, but I will join you when you leave.
We left with the Aliyah B the illegal one first for Germany, where we stayed for a few months in the kibbutz camp. From there, we traveled to Prague and from there to Italy, walking eight kilometers in the Alps. On this trip, I met Szaul Michelson, my future husband, who was a native of Sviencian and had also been in a partisan unit near Vilna. We met in Germany. He had also joined a kibbutz just to emigrate to Israel.
We arrived in Milan and rubbed our eyes: in shop windows, we saw food in abundance, fine clothing, jewelry. Suddenly, in the city center, my friend, Sara Agolnik from Dereczyn, came walking toward me! This was the second time that fate brought us together, as if by a miracle.
From Milan, we were referred to aliyah emissaries in Rome, where we lived in Castel Gandolfo while waiting for the ship that would take us to Israel.
We lived in Rome for seven months. We went to the movies and to the circus. Bakenstejn, a relative of Szaul Michelson, worked at the Joint in Rome and invited us on a three-day tour of the city. He offered Szaul work, but the answer was an absolute No!. We were bound for Israel. Work in Rome might tie us to Italy. Szaul was not ready to stay in the Diaspora even one extra day.
Finally, we were told that a ship was waiting for us at the port of Bari. This was the first time I saw the ocean. The ship, Moledet (Patria) [Homeland], was anchored outside the harbor and we sailed to her in rubber boats. She was actually a fishing boat, not meant for transporting passengers, but we crammed 1,500 men and women into her, like sardines. The sleeping bunks were shelves, placed one above the other. We were forbidden to go up on deck, so as not to be discovered by British reconnaissance planes circling the Mediterranean Sea and hunting illegal immigrant ships on the way to Israel, whose gates were locked by the British Mandatory government.
We did not succeed in evading the British. In midocean, two destroyers intercepted us and pressedcrushed us between them. When the Moledet's engine died, the British towed us to the port of Haifa. They demanded that we transfer to an expulsion ship. When we refused, they said our ship was sinking. We responded with a thunderous rendition of HaTikva. The ship began listing on its side. The British stretched wooden gangplanks from their deck to the Moledet's. We threw anything that came to hand at them loaves of bread, pots, shoes. In vain. While our eyes still yearned to see the lights of Haifa, the British transferred us by force to an expulsion ship, which took us to Cyprus.
For a year and a half, from the 1st of April 1947 until the 24th of July 1948, I was in Cyprus. There, in a refugee camp, I married Szaul. We lived in one tent with my friend, Sara. Szaul worked at the Joint and I worked as a nurse. Icchak Arad (at one time Chairman of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem), Tulke, a friend of Szaul's from the partisans, had already emigrated to Israel and volunteered for the Palmach. He wrote to Szaul How beautiful is our little country, but we could not verify this with our own eyes. Every month, the British allowed a limited quota of refugees to go from Cyprus to Israel. Golda Meir, one of the heads of the Jewish Agency and the Yeshuv [the Zionist community in Palestine] leadership, visited Cyprus and rebuked the British: Why are you keeping pregnant women and infants here?! The British yielded to her, but some of the camps' inhabitants complained: While there is justice in the emigration to Israel of pregnant women and mothers with infants, advancement on the list of immigrants pushes others back! Finally, Szaul's and my turn came. From the boat, Szaul went directly into the Israel Defense Forces, which was already in the midst of the War of Independence. I settled in Pardes Chana, as close as possible to Szaul's family, which lived in Afula. We also had relatives in Binyamina. I was pregnant at the time, and they suggested that I join the family in Afula. Szaul, who participated in the conquest of Nazareth, was later posted to serve in a children's village near Afula, in order to be near me. In Afula, I gave birth to my eldest daughter, Chaya, and after three years, to my son, Yechiel (Hilik).
Szaul's parents came to Israel. His father, a businessman in Poland, decided to try his luck as an entrepreneur in the new homeland. He chose to settle in Tel Aviv. We decided to purchase an apartment near Tel Aviv, and bought one in Bat Yam.
Looking back on this period of the decades in my life after the Holocaust, I have come to the conclusion that only the hand of fate led me to this, so that something would remain of the family and that continuing generations would come into being: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For the first time since the war, I visited Ostrolenka, the city of my birth, in August 1991, on the occasion of the unveiling of a memorial monument for the Jews of our city who were tragically killed in the Holocaust.
Bluma Gedanken, Montevideo, Uruguay
In September 1939, when World War II broke out, many Ostrolenkan Jews fled to Ostrow-Mazowieck, hoping to be saved from the Germans. But fate decreed otherwise. Conditions in Ostrowa were very difficult. My father, remained in place: the army's general staff was located in Leszcz and Litwer's stone house; Pinie Gedanken, was opposed to running away. To run to another land, he maintained, is another matter. But to leave our house for a distance of just forty kilometers is not worth it. After two days, the murderers were already on Polish soil and began to institute their kind of order. In Ostrowa, an order was suddenly published, that all men from 15 to 60 [years of age] must present themselves in the secondary school courtyard. It also ordered them to run to the assembly place with raised hands. And indeed, all the men of those ages went there. It was terrible to see children, fathers and grandfathers running together, not knowing what to expect. The women, mothers and sisters, went to see what would happen to their loved ones. They saw the following picture: all the men laid on the ground, one on the other, as in a cage. Around them were Germans with clubs in their hands. The tortured made motions with their hands, signaling that they were thirsty and begging for a drop of water or a slice of bread. Although they endangered themselves, the women tried to give them what they wanted.
At the same time, curfew was announced. It was forbidden to be out in the streets after six in the evening. Our men were detained until seven in the evening. Only then did they use the rubber truncheons. They hit them on their heads, their hands, their shoulders. Then they released them, and began to chase after them in the city's streets. While running, they opened machine gun fire on them. The next day, on Sabbath morning, after the curfew, we saw the streets of the city strewn with the bodies of our men. This happened on the first day they came.
After two days, there was an additional decree: all those from other cities, who did not have proof that they were born in Ostrowa, had to return home. Our Polish neighbors from nearby villages exploited this and demanded hundreds of dollars for a wagon. Whoever did not have dollars gave other valuables: down comforters, blankets, sewing machines, etc. Our good neighbors helped the Germans destroy the Jews' existence physically and morally. Chaja Wajnkranc, Rywka Wajnger, Perla and I rented a wagon together, in order to return to Ostrolenka. The road was full of wagons. When we reached Komorowa, I had a colitis attack. There was no choice but to take me to the German military hospital. My daughter, Fejga Chmiel (who was killed later), and I remained at the hospital and our wagon continued on its way. This time, fate smiled on me. The doctor who treated me was a friend of the Jews. At first, he tried to do everything to refrain from operating. He sat on my bed and began telling me about his private life. His wife was Jewish and, when Hitler came to power, he was forced to separate from her and his children. Finally, he said, I promise you that you will not be fed by the Germans with silver spoons. I am very sorry for your fate. After a few days, he told me that I must leave the hospital and return to Ostrolenka, and that it was possible that our city would be transferred to Russian rule.
I arrived in Ostrolenka with my daughter two days before Yom Kippur. The entire city doors and windows, gates and shutters was closed tight. All around, a deathly silence prevailed. You could hear a pin drop. Everything the gendarmerie in Sredni's
home on Lomza Street; the field police at Aron Zusman's, and the notorious S.S. in Krymkiewicz's home on Lomza Street. Members of the government from all these departments ordered the Jews to deliver elegant furnishings and new mattresses to them. The order was carried out without delay. They threw anything that they did not like out of the windows. Our Polish neighbors, both urban and rural, immediately pounced on the discarded furniture and items as a real find, and collected all the Jewish property.
Rumors reached us that Ostrolenka would be transferred to Russian rule. Therefore, each of us hoped that an end to our troubles would come soon. I was brave and did not fear the dangers (perhaps I survived because of this). I worked at S.S. headquarters as a cook, and they gave me a little food to take home for my family. One day, I came to work and pretended to be very sad. When the S.S. man asked me why I was sad, I told him that I had heard that the Russians were to receive control of the city, and that I was afraid of them. He burst out laughing and calmed me, saying that Ostrolenka would never belong to the Russians, but only to the Third Reich. I felt that our last hope had vanished. I told the Jews the good news.
Before Yom Kippur, an order was published that on Yom Kippur, all men must report for work. Only the older men came. The young ones hid. To the Germans' question as to the whereabouts of the youths, they received a reply that they had been drafted into the Polish Army. The older men lined up in rows in front of the city hall and waited for orders. We, the women, went out into the street to see what they would do to them. At about ten o'clock, they brought a pile of brooms and distributed them to 150 of the Jews, ordering them to sweep the streets. Immediately thereafter came a new order. They had to lay down the brooms and, holding hands, dance and sing, each to a different tune. Anyone who has not seen this, cannot imagine the appalling sight: 150 men, dancing and singing, while over them raged the enemy with rubber truncheons, striking without distinction. Things continued thus until five o'clock in the evening. Then, they put everyone in prison. The women were in despair. In her heart, each had already parted from the man who was dear to her. In the morning, we discovered that they had imposed a task on the men: to clean the prison of filth such as no man had ever dared touch As the Jews, in their eyes, were not included in the category of people they ordered them to do this. Then they released them.
The Germans quickly took over all of Poland and began persecuting the Jews. The first to suffer were the Jewish intelligentsia. The Germans drove them from city to city, with the intention of getting them to Germany. They were concentrated in Ostrolenka. We saw them, dirty, in worn out and torn clothes, unshaven like animals. One's heart broke from such shame. We, the Jewish women, decided to help them. From time to time, we threw them a slice of bread, a carrot, a beet or an onion. When the unfortunates ran to pick up the food, they were struck with rifle butts and clubs; [the Germans] raged over the backs of those who dared to bend down. Whoever lagged after the others was shot on the spot, and the rows advanced.
After three days, an order was published: all the Jews must to leave Ostrolenka. We were given three days to cross the border to the Russian side. Of course, no Jew wanted to remain under German rule. Entire families were unable to walk to the border on foot, however, and needed wagons. Again, the finest hour of our Polish neighbors came. They demanded hundreds of dollars for a wagon and there were Jews who paid. There were also many, however, who could not pay. Even after many left, there were still Jews who remained in the city after the deadline for leaving had passed. These were very poor families, as well as the handicapped. Moshe Ma-Towu and I decided to approach the mayor of the city for help. Our contention was: if you want Ostrolenka to be Judenrein (clean of Jews), you must take care of those who cannot pay for transportation. We are forbidden to remain here; we do not have the nerve to jump in the river. No matter what, you will finish us. He heard us out and promised to help. The next day, he placed fifteen wagons at our disposal, and thus the last Jews left Ostrolenka. Our joy was great we were going to Russia, to the land of freedom When we arrived at Wojciechowice, the Germans robbed the refugees of anything they saw that they liked.
When we arrived in Rydzewa, the Russians received us very well. They gave us sugar and tobacco. The way to Lomza was not easy. The road was full of wagons and pedestrians. When we got closer to Lomza, we saw a terrible sight: the entire beautiful city was burned and destroyed. Smoke rose among the ruins and actually choked us. The streets were so full of rubble,
that it was impossible for the wagons to get through. Wagons that left Ostrolenka two days earlier still stood on the road. It was already one o'clock in the morning and we could not move. I was always brave and did not fear anything. I got down from the wagon and asked where the municipal police [station] was. I reached the place indicated, far from the city center. It was a small house, faintly lit. I walked and fell, tearing my dress, injuring my hands and legs until I reached the Police. Immediately upon entering, a strong wave of heat struck me, spread by the over-heated stove. The smothering air was full of smoke and the smell of tobacco, and I saw a strange picture: men lay on benches and on the floor. I began to complain to them, You are here to maintain order in the city. Your job is to stand on the roads and ease matters for the streams of refugees, and to provide food and drink for the little children. Instead, you lie here at your ease, smoking and drinking. The red ribbon on your sleeves certainly does not testify to a warm heart in any of you. They apologized, jumped up immediately from where they lay and asked me to show them where our wagon was. Three men accompanied me and immediately began to work. They took us by another route and we finally entered the city. I told them that my husband was mobilized into the army, and was immediately given a room.
The condition of Ostrolenka's people was very bad we were refugees. We had arrived in a burned, destroyed city, and it was hard to get work. We were comforted by the fact that when we went out into the street, we saw the familiar faces of our townspeople. The problem, however, that troubled all of us was, how would we support ourselves? It was easier for those who had a profession. The carpenter, Srolke Frum immediately got work at the army barracks. Perla and his family, their son, Dawid, and his wife, Fejga Szyser, knew Russian and did not do badly. Noske Jabek opened a watch repair workshop. The Szrejter family fixed bicycles. Ester Zusman' husband, Aszer, worked as an electrician. I got work running a big restaurant on Ostrolenka Street. I hired Fejga Perkal, who had married someone from Wyszkow. She was in Lomza with her brother; her husband and her brother were murdered by the Nazis immediately upon their entry to Wyszkow. They tied them to a motorcycle and dragged them along the streets, and they died. The ritual slaughterer, Fajwel Chacek, the son of Welwel Chacek, was also killed in this terrible way by the German murderers.
In time, our lives normalized. The Russian regime assisted us a little. The elderly received pensions, the wives of mobilized soldiers received financial aid. Many began engaging in trade, even though this was forbidden by the Soviets. Those who did were Mosze Sarniewicz, Chilke Szafran, the son of Mendel Cuker and the son-in-law of Szlomo Alter. They paid for this dearly: they were summoned for questioning and disappeared. Searching did not avail. Only in Slonim did we learn that they died in prisons somewhere in Russia.
Lomza became a place of refuge for many Jews expelled from German-occupied territories. Men and women worked alongside Russians, in the hope that they had reached heaven on earth. The hopes, however, quickly vanished. People became embittered and expressed their dissatisfaction openly. But the walls had ears and the fields had eyes the words of the dissatisfied reached the right places.
One day, notices were put up, directing those who wanted to return to the Germans to come to register within three days. There were many applicants and they stood on line to register day and night. Each of them remembered their good home and the satisfying life they had left. The Russians gathered all those who yearned to return, put them on trains and banished them to Siberia
One day, the Soviet regime published a notice that anyone who was not a permanent resident of Lomza had to register to receive citizenship, and then leave the city and distance themselves at least 100 kilometers from the city. Cities at that distance were Bialystok, Slonim, Stolin, Rozan, Pruzany, Zelva, Molczat, Pesewa, Wolkowysk and others. The regime placed trains at the refugees' disposal and required them to choose for themselves among those cities. Most Ostrolenkans went to Slonim. A few families remained in Lomza: Eli Zusman, Mejlech Grosman, Szajke Aszer, the Szrejter brothers, Dawid Tobjasz the painter, Szmuel Josef Segal and his wife, Lejke the Baker and others. To Slonim went: Mendel Bialy; Motel Bialy; Reuwen Nachum Gercek with his family; the Szafran family; Bluma Gedanken, my father, Pinie Gedanken, my daughter, Fejga Chmiel, of blessed memory, and I; Mendel Gedanken and his family. The Mejrann, Wygoda, Zamelson, Markiewicz, Szron families. The Szyman family with their daughters and sons-in-law; Sredni; Fejgel Laska; Noske Jabek; Frydman the Scribe;
Mendel Cuker; Jakow Dawid Leszcz; Sojka; Frydman; Zylbersztejn; Blum the Watchmaker; Naftali the Ritual Slaughterer and his family; Chaja Zlocisty née Wolkowicz; the Benedon family; Grosman; Roszeniak, Dan the Elder; Siwak the Tailor; Gitel, the daughter of Mosze Noskes with her husband; Mosze Aron Edel; Brum the Fisherman from Wojciechowice; all the Perkals; Welwel Haczek; Awraham Haczek and his wife; Czipke Haczek and others.
In time, Slonim became part of Ostrolenka. It was not easy for us to get there. First of all, the train trip took about two weeks, in closed cars. When we arrived there, a housing problem arose in the city. The people of Slonim were clearly unwilling to deal with us, the homeless. They did not want to rent apartments or rooms to families with old people or small children. After a great deal of suffering, the problem was resolved, either with the help of money, or with the assistance of the city council. Many, such as the Bulkarz family, settled in schools or study halls. Some moved to small towns in the area. Then, the problem of a livelihood arose. Some worked in their professions shoemakers, tailors and dentists. Others engaged in trade. There were those who received government jobs. I worked as a supervisor in a merchandise warehouse. My job was to send merchandise to the entire Slonim area, and I even earned decently. Jankel Dawid Leszcz was night watchman, at a salary of 300 rubles a month. People began to go to Lemberg and to Vilna for profiteering. Whoever was not caught was lucky. Rejzka Szafran, Necha Roszeniak and the children of Mendels traded on a large scale. Gradually, we got used to the new conditions. Mendel Gedanken did not work; only his wife, Rachel, worked. Her two sons and her daughter also worked in a government office.
So things continued until June 1941, when Hitler's armies beset the Soviet Union. Young people fled, all the roads were full of people. Millions died while wandering the roads. On the first day, Slonim was already occupied by the German murderers.
Now the wandering of the Jews of Slonim began, including the Ostrolenkans. My apartment was on the road leading to Baranowicz. The owner of the house was a Christian. When the German tanks passed in the streets, the Gentiles placed pictures of saints in the windows, as a sign that Gentiles lived there. One of the tank drivers came into the landlady's house, where I lived with my daughter. His first question was whether there were many Jews in Slonim. To our affirmative answer, he passed his hand across his throat, a sign that they would slaughter us all. This foretold perdition.
Immediately upon the organization of headquarters, a notice was published for the civilian population: all corpses lying on the sides of the roads must be collected, as well as weapons. Everyone did this work willingly, in the hope of discovering among the dead some relatives or acquaintances who had escaped before the entry of the Germans into Slonim. (The eldest son of Noach Szcwarcz was also in my group). While working, we suddenly came upon an overturned truck. After we raised it up, the bodies of murdered men were revealed to us. At first, we could not identify them. The sight was horrifying. We looked into their pockets for identification documents. It turned out that our townspeople were among those killed: Eli Zusman, Dawid Tobjasz, Szlomo Wajnkranc, the sister of Chawa Wajnkranc, a boy named Jankele who lived at Chawa's (since Chaja, her sister, lived in Stolin and was sick, the boy was brought up by her; the boy's father, a tailor named Mosze, is in America). We gave the documents and money we found to Kalman Wajnkranc, who lived in Slonim. The question as to how they got to the area of Slonim when they lived in Lomza was resolved in a few days. Eli Zusman's wife and Chawa Wajnkranc said that they had gotten lost on the way and thought that the men had gone on ahead. Then we decided to return the documents and the money to them, because they were about to return to Lomza. This, however, was not a unique incident.
Meanwhile, gradually, they prepared decrees. One commandant left and a new one arrived, and troubles began again. The shoemaker Pepka and his children had a Gentile landlord, and were not badly off. One day, an order was published that anyone who had a bicycle, motorcycle, radio or foodstuffs, like cocoa, butter, chocolate, alcoholic beverages must turn them in to the authorities. Whoever failed to do so would die on the spot! Of course, anyone who had those things in his possession turned them in, and even stood on line to do so. The Gentiles, however, did not rush to fulfill the order. Pepka's landlord had a motorcycle and he hid it in the cellar. When the Germans came to check and found the motorcycle, all the Gentiles said that it belonged to the Jew, that is, Pepka. The Germans took Pepka and his son, tied them to the motorcycle with a rope and dragged them this way throughout the streets of the city,
until the two of them died a terrible death (all this took place near the headquarters building). After a time, notices were put up in all of Slonim's streets especially for the Jewish population that within 24 hours, they must assemble in a certain place. This was the beginning of the Slonim Ghetto. The problem arose once more of moving house Here, again, the entire Christian population came at the right time; whoever had a wagon and a horse appeared in the market square, ready to serve. They did not ask for money in exchange for service, but for possessions only: furniture and anything else they liked. The Jews loaded the wagons with all their belongings and the convoy started out. The Germans stood on both sides of the road, up to the place designated as the ghetto, but they did not allow the Jews to take everything. Every wagon was inspected before entering the ghetto. They took whatever they wanted: fur coats, clothes, blankets. Of superb quality, all of it went right into the possession of the Germans. (To this day, deep scars remain on my right hand from the cut they gave me when they approached my wagon and I dared say just one word ).
In the ghetto, six to seven families lived in one room. The most difficult thing was the cooking. For 20 people, there was one cooking facility (fueled by wood). As I mentioned earlier at the time of the German invasion, Mendel Gedanken's two sons had jobs. Chaim was a teacher and Judel worked as a chemist. They worked in Lida. The two of them went to Slonim, to be with their family. The Germans bombed the roads and the younger brother, Judel (or Jurek) was killed. Chaim arrived at his parents' home, safe and sound. To their question as to Judel's whereabouts, he replied that he had gotten lost on the way. In fact, he had buried him in a field.
One Wednesday, a panic began. The market square filled with Germans. On their sleeves were swastikas, the sign of a skull on their hats. Their cars and motorcycles were covered in black cloth. On that day, in fact, they treated the Jewish population well, distributed food, even lemons and honey This was really a ploy, so as not to arouse panic.
Thursday came. The morning was beautiful and clear, and only the sun witnessed their cruel murders Suddenly, the German military police appeared and, with them, hoodlums from the local population, who pointed out the places where rich, intelligent, educated Jews lived. They gathered about 800 people and murdered them cruelly. These are the names of the Ostrolenkans who were among those murdered: Motel and Mendel Bialy; Szmuel Markiewicz; Chaim Benedon; Icchak Zaborowski; the son of Fat Bina; Brum the Fisherman from Wojciechowice; the young son and also the son-in-law of Big Icchak; Grynszpan the Tailor; Szepsel Szron; Josef Thylim and many others who I do not remember.
The German-controlled city administration claimed that they were taken to work, but a Gentile woman told us what the fate of the 800 Jews was. They took them to a place about 15 kilometers from the city. Because we were forbidden to leave the city, we disguised ourselves as old grandmothers. We were a few women: Fat Bina, Golda Markiewicz, Necha Roszeniak, Chaim Benedon's wife and I. We arrived at the place she had indicated a big, deep pit. With our hands, we removed the upper layer of earth and a great stream of blood burst out. The first of the victims we recognized was Szmuelik Markiewicz.
In August 1941, control of Slonim was transferred to the S.S. and the gendarmerie, who issued new orders and decrees. The first order was that a Judenrat was to be established, composed of important persons of the city. The Judenrat included the following people: Berman, a Jew with a long beard; Munszkowski, an aristocratic person, a textile merchant, and others, whose names I do not remember. In addition, Ostrolenkans got in: Menachem Frydman, Icel Sojka, Mosze Markiewicz and Noske Jabek. The S.S. got the list and suggested adding the three Rutkowski brothers, whom I will tell about later.
An order was immediately issued, forbidding the Jews to leave the city. They had to live in a separate quarter. Walking on the sidewalk was forbidden; they could only walk in the street. Within 24 hours, every Jew had to wear a yellow badge on the left side. All this aroused great panic and we walked around under a black cloud. The names of the S.S. and gendarmerie commandants immediately echoed in our ears: the chief enemy was named Hick, a 26-year-old brute of the rank of Colonel, Officer Schulz and First Lieutenant Magela.
In the beginning, they took us for forced labor. The allocation of work places was arranged by the Judenrat, by order of the S.S. For the most part, the city of Slonim was destroyed. A few hundred men and women were immediately recruited to sort and clean weapons that
had been scattered on the sides of the roads. According to their professions, Jewish workmen were assigned to various workshops that operated for the S.S., the gendarmerie and the Wehrmacht. Jewish women and children also went to work, because everyone who worked got half a kilo of bread a day through the Judenrat. Women and children were employed to sort whole bricks that remained in the ruins, and to organize them on parchment sheets from Torah scrolls that the S.S. had taken out of synagogues and study halls. This was what the enemy, Hick, ordered. While doing this exhausting work, the women and children also received blows if the work did not find favor in the eyes of the enemy. We tried to keep the bricks away from the Torah scrolls as much as possible. The rubber truncheons flew over our heads like hail. Hick stood with his dog, which he called Jude (Jew), and laughed a sadistic laugh. They do not like this work, he said, because I mock their God. But we carry our God with us everywhere. On our belt buckles is written 'Gott is mit uns' (God is with us) and not with you. Among the Ostrolenkan workers were Chana Benedon, Necha Benedon, Bluma Gedanken, the red-headed Chaja and her sister, Ester Szafran, Peszka Gercek and her daughter, Lejke the daughter of the shoemaker (her father was already not among the living), Golda Markiewicz, Cecylia and her daughter, and the wife of Mosze Bomsztejn. In the main, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht guarded us. There were also among them good Germans, who let us buy foodstuffs.
One day, when we went to work, we heard the Germans talking among themselves that they had already conquered the whole world. I approached them and asked: Nu, have you also conquered misa mishuna [Yiddish, an unnatural death]? One of them took out a map and looked for the spot Misa Mishuna. Then he answered me, It will also come Yes, I answered him, it will come Thus we joked. We wanted to laugh a little in the sea of troubles. (At every opportunity, I was the one who set the tone for joking, for exchanging humorous words with our guards, who were not always cruel to us.)
Szrejter, Lachowicz, Grosman and Blum worked as carpenters then. The tailors were Siwak the father and the son, Icchak Markiewicz and Szepsel Markiewicz. Watchmakers were Noske Jabek, Baruch and Mosze Burnsztejn. Needleworkers were Lachowicz (at the time of the war, he married the daughter of Bluma Chmiel), Szafran, Gercek, Makowski. All these worked outside the ghetto, from six in the morning until six in the evening and, in exchange, received half a kilo of bread daily. The Judenrat had to supply everything demanded by the gendarmerie, the S.S. and the Wehrmacht.
Once, all Germans appeared in the ghetto, causing a great panic. They announced that in three days, we had to provide them with 20 leather coats (ten brown and ten black), 20 dozen socks, five women's furs, 50 skins for making shoes and other things. They appeared each and every day with orders, and those in the Judenrat had to rack their brains as to how to acquire the money required. The well-to-do Jews saved their money for better times. It was necessary to receive the Germans' approval to go to Bialystok or Warsaw to buy the things demanded by them. An entire delegation such as this was always escorted by two Germans. Nachum Gercek and Szepsel Markiewicz went to Bialystok. To Warsaw Bluma Gedanken, Rachel Gedanken, Lejbe Rachel Zylbersztejn and Chaim Dorfman. There were also substitutes, because everyone was interested in going.
In the month of September, the Judenrat posted notices that within 24 hours, the Jews had to bring four kilos of gold, all valuables and silver objects, and an additional one hundred thousand rubles. Relief was felt to a certain extent, because it was clear from the notice that whoever would not turn in his jewelry of his own free will, would pay with his life for this. We asked for a three-day extension of time and put together a committee of representatives of all the towns in the area: Ostrolenka, Kolno, Lomza, Ostrowa, Wyszkow and others. The Ostrolenkans in the committee were Mosze Markowicz, Gercek, Jabek and Jankel Szafran. When the money was collected, there were unpleasant scenes, quarrels and blows because of the exploitation of influence. Everyone wanted to avoid paying the sum determined that he should pay. After a great deal of suffering, quarrels and scandals the capital demanded was collected. A wagon overflowing with gold, silver and Jewish property from past generations, escorted by gendarmes and police, rode slowly through the Jewish streets. Pearls and precious stones were carried separately in big suitcases. Gold weighing more than four kilos was collected.
At a secret meeting, the Judenrat decided to give the Germans less than what they had demanded, in order to prove to them how very difficult it was to collect
valuables. The Rutkowski brothers, who the Germans suggested should serve in the Judenrat, participated in the meeting. It was decided to hide the rest of the gold under a board in the floor, for future troubles. The silver and gold were given to the gendarmes and all the other valuables were brought directly to the S.S. chief commandant Hick. Everything exceeded the amount demanded, except that the weight of the gold was three and a half kilos, instead of four! The enemy jumped up from his armchair, stamped his foot and shouted, Warum? (Why?). We tried to explain to him that the short period of three days did not permit the collection of a large amount. The murderer, however, did not calm down. He immediately shot the first victim, Munszkowski. The others went with Hick to the Judenrat. There, Hick immediately pointed to the place where the extra gold was hidden. It was clear that the Rutkowski brothers had informed. Hick, together with the S.S. people, burst into shouts, If I do not see Jewish blood spill I will go crazy, I can't live! It is hard to describe the morbid impression his words had on everyone. We sat withdrawn and did not dare go out to the street. Deathly fear gripped us. Of course, Hick took the hidden gold. He sent all the members of the Judenrat to prison, where they were killed. He ordered a new Judenrat organized, composed of new victims, on condition that the Rutkowski brothers would continue to participate in it. The Germans placed complete trust in them And again an order was given that, within 24 hours, we had to produce two kilos of gold for him. From where? First, no gold was left in the place, and second it was not advisable to show the Nazis that it was possible to obtain gold with such great ease. The Judenrat advised them that there was no more gold in the Jews' possession. The German commandant ordered that all gold teeth be pulled from the mouths of the Jews. To carry out this task, the Judenrat recruited the dental technician, Mosze Markiewicz, and others helped him. Anyone who had crowns or gold teeth in his mouth stood on line and waited for this painful and humiliating operation
After Operation Teeth it seemed to all of us that, from now on, the situation would be calmer. In October, in the rainy season, they suddenly stopped the work in the street. My daughter and I lived in the camp on Slonim Street. Our job was to clean weapons collected on the roads. Eight hundred women and 1,000 men worked at this, supervised by the Wehrmacht and directed by the Gestapo. They took us to and from work under a special guard. Among the guards was an officer, an expert technician, who taught us how to clean the weapons. There were weapons of different kinds and we had to know how to take care of each kind, for example, hand grenades and others. He was friendly to us and regretted our melancholy situation
A woman from Lodz, an actress named Sonja (I have forgotten her last name) worked with us. She was dark-haired, short, and used to compose songs on subjects of life in the ghetto. The officer stood on the side, listened to her songs and recitations and expressed sorrow that such a young and talented girl was wasted here At every opportunity, he would speak to her. She lived with us. Taking advantage of every opportunity when he had to come to the Judenrat while on duty, the officer came to us in his car and left us packages of food. I make special mention here of the decency of this German officer, to point out that, in the great darkness of those days, there were also some points of light. The officer still had a mother. His father had passed away at a young age and he remained an only child. He wanted to bring his mother a present a fur coat. We got him the coat willingly, and he paid us well with food, cigarettes and other commodities everything from the warehouses and, of course, in total secrecy. He left for a ten-day vacation. After he returned, he asked us for a written endorsement that the coat was not stolen from anyone, in order to send it to his mother as proof that the coat was obtained honestly. Of course, we signed the endorsement for him. He showed us a picture of his mother a beautiful blond woman, with a lively expression on her face. On the picture was written, I am proud of my son's behavior and attitude, as opposed to all the others. Therefore, I send him my wish that he should be happy and blessed in his work. In a short time, this officer received an order to find and destroy Russian and other partisan units in pits and hiding places in virgin forests, along a front of dozens of kilometers. This officer was expert in ferreting out partisans. He worked using a special method: when he saw a nest of partisans, he drew away from the group of Jews, distanced himself from those who accompanied him. They called to the partisans in Russian, Don't be afraid, we are Jews. Don't shoot, we are with you!
The partisan camp stretched along seven to eight kilometers. They saw two rifles and a great many books,
some of them arranged on shelves and some of them scattered on the floor. Apparently, this was the partisans' headquarters. When these details were told to him, he ordered them to camouflage the dugout again. These Ostrolenkan Jews accompanied him: Jankel Szafran with his son, Symcha; Gercek's son; Chaim Dorfman and his nephew; my nephew, Jankel Gedanken; Awraham Frydman, Zundel Frydman and a few others from Slonim. The German officer was satisfied with his group of Jews that accompanied him. He refrained from harming the partisans, and there was food in abundance, too. They went out on their way early in the morning and returned to the ghetto towards evening. Of course, he had to show his superiors results of his pursuit; most of the time, he brought back weapons he had gathered on the roads.
Despite strict censorship, news of the big pogrom in Vilna reached our work camp from the Germans themselves. Youths, aroused from stagnation, began to think seriously about their situation. Secret consultations were held about the possibility of our resisting, so that they would not slaughter us like sheep. Precisely then, when we debated resistance, Russian partisans disseminated proclamations in Russian in this style: Jews, the Germans intend to murder you all! We, the partisans, are fighting against our common enemy! Come with us! Bring with you the rest of the money remaining to you, so we can purchase everything necessary and will not have to steal from the farmers. Jews, do not delay! Join our ranks as soon as possible!
The news of the pogrom in Vilna and the Russian proclamations spurred us on to the struggle. Young female and male comrades set real operations. The next day, however, they had already been killed by the Gestapo. It was clear to us that out of every three persons, two were traitors. Every victim who fell because of informants weakened us and delayed our activity for a time.
About three to four kilometers from Slonim was a small town where many homeless people lived. They received permission to come to the city to do various kinds of work for the Germans.
The High Holy Days arrived. The elders prepared for the holy holidays and came to the city. Like thunder on a clear day, we were smitten with the terrible news of their murder. Hick, the bloodthirsty Nazi dog, and his helpers got to them at five in the morning and shot them, about 300 souls! I do not remember the exact date, except that it happened about two days before Rosh HaShana. Among the homeless people were Ostrolenkans: Chaim Szyman and his wife, his son, his son-in-law and their children; Frejdka Szafran and her husband; Awraham Chaim Dorfman and his two children (he had a workshop for bicycle repair); Ita Sredni, her daughter, Zajftel, and her husband, Meir, and two children; and Chana Sredni, her husband and son. Naftali the Watchmaker and his daughters, sons-inlaw and their children. All of them were killed. Among the murdered was also Zyskind Sredni (the son of Ita), who had arrived as a guest a day earlier.
The great suffering in the ghetto did not prevent the Jews, both religious ones and those who observed tradition, from celebrating Jewish holidays properly. Children stood on a side lane and watched for the appearance of the gendarmerie or a truck which always boded ill. The Jews wrapped themselves in their prayer shawls and prayed for a speedy salvation, for release from the Hitlerian hell. My father, Pinie Gedanken, and Icel Sojka led prayers before the congregation on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. My father led the morning prayer and Icel Sojka the additional prayer. These were prayers of torment and blood. It is difficult to describe the ghastly impression of these prayers. The imagined silence, however, did not continue for long. Menacing and foreboding rumors suddenly spread: Danger! The women's section received an urgent order to prepare blue permits, which caused panic. Then, they ordered changes of places of residence. The productive workers, that is, the good professionals, were concentrated in a separate area across the river. Tailors, shoemakers, needleworkers, glaziers and watchmakers lived there, a total of about two hundred people, including their families. Jews employed by the Wehrmacht lived in barracks the size of Cyganska Street in Ostrolenka. Members of the Judenrat began trading in permits designated for workers. Jews with no profession paid hundreds of dollars for the desired permits and permission to live in the district of the privileged. Others tried to get to villages and, for a handsome payment of money and property, to find a hiding place with farmers. I do not remember their names, because this was conducted in secrecy. I will only mention the names of our family members. Mendel Gedanken's wife and her daughter,
Pola, and young son, Jankele, who hid with farmers after the father of the family, Mendel Gedanken, and his two sons had already been killed. Pola worked in the German hospital as a nurse (she had completed a nursing course during the days of the Soviet regime), and therefore, she always knew the latest news. Sara Dwora Zylbersztejn and her daughters, Cwija and Lejbe, also lived with Gentiles.
The panic and worry about how to be saved from the Nazi murderers' claws continued for about two weeks. Meanwhile, the Rutkowski brothers began their contemptible informing activity and, with them, their sister and another Jew named Bayer, from Lodz, the foreman in the gendarmerie's carpentry shop. As soon as these informers told the Germans about the panic rampant among Jews who were seeking hiding places, and about youths escaping to the forest, they immediately placed a heavy guard on all the roads. Hick called the members of the Judenrat and demanded that they immediately stop the flight from the ghetto, so that all the panic would stop. He asked them to announce that there was enough work and that working hands were lacking. This announcement was published on 10 November 1941, but it did not bring about quiet. News on Thursday, 13 November, at six in the evening, that all those who were to live in the workmen's quarter had received blue certificates for their families, served as proof of our suspicion. Simultaneously, we learned that additional murderers had arrived from other cities.
It is difficult to describe our morale that night. The next morning, the Jews left their homes, intending to go to work. This was Friday, the 14th of November. The Germans preceded them with the call, Today is a vacation day! Go home! Today you do not work! I write this now, not with ink, but with my heart's blood.
The Nazi, Hick, and his dog, Jude, together with Brigadier Schulz, entered the ghetto. They informed the Judenrat that all the Jews of the ghetto would be sent to work in the city of Pruzany today, and that everyone should report to the following concentration points: 1. Krasnoarmiejska Street and 2. the big market square. Of course, everyone took the most precious things and those essential for daily use with him. In the house where I lived with my late father, Pinie Gedanken, also lived Shalom Roszeniak and his family, Old Dan and his family, the wife of Szron and her family, the fisherman from Wojciechowice, Old Lady Benedon and her sister Malach and her children. All of them went to the concentration points. Those who did not go were my daughter, the actress I mentioned, Szron's daughter-inlaw and her small son, Old Lady Benedon and I. We found hiding places and hid. We laid there in inhuman conditions, plunged in mortal fear. The prevailing strong cold helped us, in that the dirt and feces that accumulated froze, the smell did not disturb us and the danger of disease was removed. From time to time, I went out to bring a little food, warm clothes or a blanket to cover ourselves. My father, of blessed memory, did not want to go down into hiding with us, maintaining that the Nazis would finally discover and capture us. He prepared for the trip, put on warm clothes, took tea and a great many cigarettes (he was a heavy smoker) with him, and went to the concentration place.
I crawled out to see what was happening there and I saw that our neighborhood was completely cut off. Suddenly, I was in the hands of the Nazis and could not return to the hiding place. A throng of Nazis, as well as Belarusians and Lithuanians who helped them, ran about searching for hiding places, in order to catch every Jew who had hidden. My situation was hopeless; I was also afraid that my daughter would come out of hiding. I saw crowds of Jews in the street, waiting their turn to be sent to work. Escape was impossible. The first trucks were full of men, women and children, traveling slowly old people and the sick went on foot. A river flowed through Slonim, with a bridge over it. When the truck reached the bridge, the Nazis took little children from their mothers' arms by force and threw them into the waters of the river. The screams of the mothers and the infants penetrated the heart of the heavens! The sight was terrible. The Germans' interpretation: you, the adults, are useful for work; as children bother their mothers at work, we are throwing them into the water When the order was given for all the Jews to turn over their valuables, costly clothing and furs it was clear that they were being taken to their deaths. This was certain.
The trucks traveled about three kilometers from the city and arrived at pits that had been prepared in advance. The back door of the truck was opened and people were thrown from it directly into the pit. A volley of fire from machine guns ended their lives We, about 400 pedestrians, remained in the field. Here, we went through selection: the men separately and the women separately. Again, we were required to turn over our valuables and remove our clothing. In front of us
were piles of valuables. Raszka Wygoda, Szafran's daughter-in-law (her husband's name was Jankel), also was in that aktzia. Her hands were wrapped in bandages. She explained that her hands were covered with sores. Later, we learned that, in fact, she had hidden all her valuables under the bandages. With us was also Wajncyer and his wife (their nickname was Kapczuch). His wife received a murderous blow because she refused to take off her fur coat.
The Lithuanians drank to intoxication and also received special energy injections, increasing their cruelty toward the victims. I tried to walk in the last rows. The Nazis did not oppose this; they knew that it was impossible to escape. I decided to save myself. Perhaps I would find an opportunity for this at the last minute? I saw my father dragging a heavy bundle. The cold burned mercilessly. All my thoughts were concentrated now on the convoy of the living dead marching toward the place of destruction. The satanic precision of the murderers was striking. They had a list of 10,000 who were sentenced to death. When it turned out that there were in fact 10,001, they took one eight-year-old blond boy out of the lines and took him back to the city, so that the number would match. By chance, this was an Ostrolenkan boy, Naftali the Ritual Slaughterer's grandson (they had a bicycle store in our city).
As I have said, 400 of us were left, the remnant of the aktzia of destruction. I asked God in Heaven to make a miracle. According to German precision, the aktzia was said to end at three in the afternoon. The skies were red from all the blood that had sprayed upward. We expected a miracle, but it did not come
Meanwhile, they filled special trucks with crates of gold, silver and diamonds, as well as furs and valuable possessions. When the murderers moved off, the Lithuanians removed their helmets and filled them with gold. They shoved dollars into boots and pockets. Although they were drunk, almost passing out, they had enough sense to attend to their own needs. We heard one say to another in Russian, We will not cover the pit today; we'll do it tomorrow morning. Here we were, approaching the pit, which was about 700 meters away from us. I do not remember what I thought about at that moment. I only felt that I was thrown into a huge pit full of sand. Then two or three volleys of automatic fire and there was silence. No one knew if he was alive or not
When night fell and complete darkness prevailed, a groan was heard from time to time from the pile of corpses, sometimes a shout, Gevalt! Someone! Help!, which lingered like a voice calling in the wilderness. Who would come to help? We, the few who had remained alive, were unable to pull those still alive out from under the crush of bodies. We ourselves could hardly stand on our feet, after we had crawled out of the pit of the dead. There were twenty-eight of us. Each of us went in another direction. I only remember that it was already late at night. We were wet with blood, and we were doubtful as to whether we had remained alive. We could not all go in the same direction; it was the only way that there some kind of chance to be saved. I walked I don't remember where my legs dragged me. I saw a weak light in the window of a house in a village. I walked in the direction of the light. I knocked on the door. They opened it for me. They let me wash the blood off my clothes and I dried them until daylight. This was Saturday, 15 November 1941.
In the morning, I went to my daughter first. Had she remained alive in our hiding place? I found everyone safe and sound, and told them what had happened to me. Their joy was indescribable. I immediately took her out of that filthy place. The street was desolate. No one knew if the aktzia was already over. I recounted everything I had seen and everything that had happened to me. We ourselves looked like the dead. It is hard to describe the tears and the screams. In the street, a few abandoned children wandered around, here a woman, there a man Each one sought for a relative. Suddenly, I met Jankele, the son of my brother, Mendel. He was looking for his father. Of the twenty-eight survivors, not all remained alive. The informers, the Rutkowski brothers, told Hick and Schulz that Jews who had been saved from the killing pits had returned. (The [Germans] wanted to convince everyone that we went to work.) On Sunday, 16 November, at four in the afternoon, they took fourteen Jews of the twenty-eight to the Jewish cemetery and shot them to death.
Terrible experiences still happened to us, the few survivors, until the day we were liberated. I lost my only daughter and witnessed the tragic end of Ostrolenkans. I note all this down with my heart's blood, for the
generations to come after us: Never forget what evil the German Amalek, the destroyers of the Jewish people, did to us.
|Bluma Gedanken sent the continuation and end of this interesting and unique material about her experiences at the time of the Holocaust very late.
Therefore, many facts are missing and the testimony is incomplete. The last continuations were received when the Holocaust section was already printed and, therefore, were not included in the book.
(The Editorial Staff)
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