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[Page 305]

Our Attic

Fragments from a Diary

by Machtche Zilberberg-Zhabner

Translated by Pamela Russ

[ ] translator's remarks

On the last Shabbat before the evacuation, we sat all evening together with the family Stachelberg, who at that time lived with us. We spoke quietly, as if not wanting to awaken the coming day that would bring the terrible news that death was already flowing through our poor city.

I don't know what time it was when my cousin, Machtche Warshavsky, who saved herself from the Warsaw ghetto along with her young daughter Tzipora'ke and then came to us, arrived together with a neighbor and told us that the following morning there was, without doubt, going to be an evacuation. And she added that those who wanted to hide had a chance to live through this. Her plan was that we should all go up into the attic of our house. We had the key to the attic, which was why they included us in their secret plan. Truthfully, our attic was not a hiding place. Opposite us, there lived some Poles, terrible anti-Semites, and they well knew that we would go into the attic, but the one who is drowning grabs onto the blade of a sword.

My father, of blessed memory, did not really believe in all these plans, nor in the news about the evacuation. He was sure that this was a fabrication of sick minds, because they had heard shooting in the Judenrat [Jewish Council]. His religious approach to issues did not permit the thought that the world had turned over. As much as he knew the German sadists, he did not believe that, because of a few Jews, they would desecrate their Sunday. He was sure that this would not happen on Sunday. But when everyone faced him with definite proof, he agreed to join the other Jews and believed that this was an atonement for his beloved name.

We had nothing prepared and we had to hurry, since time did not stand still. We had to go up into our so-called hiding place while it was still night. So, each of us took a piece of challah [braided bread] that was left from Shabbat, and a few other small things, and packed them into a backpack that I had quickly sewn together. The most important things were my father's talis and tefilin [prayer shawl and phylacteries], and for more – there was no time or space. That's how, like shadows, we sneaked to our new “home” through the dark night, on a small ladder. We were 17 people in total: I and my father Chaim Aaron Zilberberg, Meir Erlich, may his memory be blessed, with his wife and daughter Teme, my cousin Machtche and her young daughter Tzipora'ke, Elimelech Rozental with his wife and young daughter Pele, from the Lodz ghetto Mrs. Stachelberg from Kalisz along with three daughetrs – Gushe, Malish, and Beni – and Mrs. Silberberg and her two young daughters – Rivtche and Ida.

Among those mentioned above, there were three young children – three, four, and five years old. These were Benish, Tzipora'ke, and Pelyusha. Ida was already nine years old and considered herself a big girl. The little children did not understand what was going on, and no matter how we tried to make them understand that there was a death decree given against their young lives, they could not grasp the idea. On the last minute of closing up the attic, miraculously, Yankel Stachelberg appeared with a bucket of water, quickly left us, and ran off to his work place.

We went to sit in separate corners with our families. No one slept that night, drowning in dark thoughts. The tragic news did not take long to arrive. When dawn broke, we heard the military marching and their commanders giving terse orders. These were

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the Lithuanian bandits who, during the evening hours, had already surrounded the ghetto. Soon we also heard how the Jewish police were chasing everyone into the marketplace. I cannot forget the statement that Tobtche Ginzberg, our landlord who lived over the attic, said to her husband when they went out of their house:

“Chaim, button up your overcoat. It's cold outside and you can catch a cold.”
My blood froze in my veins, thinking:
“Master of the Universe, your Nation of Israel is being led to their slaughter and the world is asleep. It is quiet all around, how dark and quiet it is after the midnight darkness swallows them up…”
The tragic echo of the steps of those who were leaving rang in our ears for a long time, and we sat as if in mourning for an entire city of Jews. We remained sitting stonily like that, terrified to make the slightest move. I don't know how long this went on, this cannot be measured in time.

 

The Neighbors Steal Our Possessions

The silence was broken by the wild screams of our Polish neighbors, who with laughter and bedlam, came into our house like thieves, and stole everything that was possible to move. The children, who had fallen asleep on the ground in exhaustion, awoke from the noise. We all trembled in great fear of being discovered because of the children's cries, as they [the children] moaned and pleaded for food. Try to explain to young children why their breakfast was a small piece of dried challah, and that after such a cold night you could not ask for a warm drink. In general, they were not allowed to do anything: no talking, no moving around, no making noise, and on top of that, there was only dry bread, and even that was not filling … In the best case, our provisions were only enough for two days, and who knew how long we would have to remain there.

In order to calm the children, the mothers gave them sweets, but even sweets end quickly, and the children became too bored to sit still. And it was even worse when the children wanted water to drink. We had to use the water very sparingly so that everyone would be able to wet their lips which were very dry from the dust that had collected in the attic, for who knows how long.

 

I Have a Discussion with My Father

I remember when my father did not indulge in drinking a little water, but used the water to wash his hands so that he could recite Psalms and pray. In my entire life, I had not spent as much time with my father as I did those days and nights in the attic. The partition – that was in place in religious homes between adults and children - was removed. You would not dare speak your mind in the presence of your father out of great respect, and the father's authority in the family; but here he often heard me out, and not only listened but also asked my opinions about certain subjects. He showed me his most beautiful characteristics and the elevated behaviors of a spiritual person who lifts himself out of this dirty world with its earthly demands. He ate hardly a morsel, just enough to stay alive, but at the same time he was unnerved by the singing of the Lithuanian murderers who had gone to their barracks after a day of killing.

“How can murderers sing so beautifully, isn't it still

 

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Evacuation

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an issue of heart and feelings?” He could not stop wondering about their beautiful singing.

“What does a murderer feel?” he philosophised, and he still believed that he would survive and see vengeance taken on Hitler.

The days dragged on, the nights became colder. But we see through the cracks in the boards that for our neighbors the Poles everything went on as usual: They dressed well, they went strolling, they laughed, and their children played in the street with torn Jewish sefarim [religious books]. And almost spitefully, the weather outside was beautiful. The sun warmed the earth that had absorbed so much innocent Jewish blood.

As I watched all this, protests tore themselves from my throat:

“Master of the Universe! Why do we and our children deserve such a bitter fate? Why are the non-Jewish children able to live so freely, laugh, and play, while the children of your selected nation – either they are no longer alive, or if they are still alive, then they have to lay suffocating without air, without food, without drink, as tiny birds, poor them … I am choking back my own sad, heretical thoughts, so that they do not touch my father and his religious feelings.”

 

My Father Wants to Hang Himself

On a certain day, suddenly, screams in Polish and German ripped through our attic: “Here it is! Here is where the people are hiding!” We each held our breath and we were scared to death. We felt that our fate was sealed. Our neighbors, the Poles, certainly revealed our hiding place, and here they came to grab us out of the attic. My father, hearing the yelling and being certain that now we would all be snatched up, said the following to me:

“Dear daughter, forgive me, but I will not allow myself to be taken into the hands of those filthy murderers while alive …”
Saying this, he took out his gartel [sash] and wrapped it around his neck. He said to me:
“You are still young, you have to try to save yourself in any way possible. But I am going to hang myself on the top beam as soon as the murderers come to get us out of here.”
I did not do anything hysterical nor try to talk him out of his plan of suicide. But I answered him quietly:
“Father, I am coming with you, we are going to have the same fate. Here, I have some cord.” With that, I wrapped the cord around my neck.
With a heavy breath and a broken voice, he said to me:
“I don't know what you will do, but I will be the first. I cannot watch and cannot see you hanging.”
As mute statues, we went to stand near the beams overhead that were under the roof and we waited for our bitter fate. Our neighbors in the attic pleaded with us to have mercy on them, saying they could not withstand a double suicide. But my father explained to them that if the Germans would capture us, then our lives would be worthless anyway…

We heard as the screams came closer to the entrance of our hideout, and we watched the door the entire time, but it remained shut and no one tried to open it from the outside. Suddenly a shot exploded. We moved closer to the beams, wrapped our necks more tightly, I with the cord and my father with his gartel, but we always watched the door which no one tried to break open, and it remained shut. Our ears caught angry shouts of one German to another, and the footsteps and voices distanced themselves from our house and attic. We did not believe it – that they have left our hideout, or maybe, we think, that it was a trick to get us to come out of our hideout?

Silently, we looked at one another and tried not to express our thoughts that were full of hope that we would live, and even outlive the murderers. Our mood was one of combined confusion and hope.

Night arrived, then a new day, and our situation became worse. The little bit of water in the bucket was gone, the children were licking the empty bucket with their tongue; my father scrubbed his hands in the sand [instead of using water] in order to be able to recite Psalms and

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pray; the air became suffocating because everyone had taken care of their personal needs in a corner in the attic. We quietly discussed what to do, because we could not continue hiding without water, and aside from that, we could not force the children not to cry from hunger and thirst, so that no matter what, eventually they would find us in our hideout.

Thinking about what to do, we suddenly heard voices speaking Yiddish near our house, and this proved to us that there were still Jews in the ghetto. First, we did not believe our ears, but we decided to try and go down and find out whose voices those were and what was going on. We did that at night under the cover of darkness. Our cousin, Machtche Warshawsky, went down, to so-called look for water, but very soon she returned with water, and with great joy she told us the news that our house and yard and the surrounding houses had been designated as places for the remaining Jews to live, those Jews who worked at certain work posts in the ghetto. Also, in our house, there were Jews living, those who had come back from their work places in the ghetto – this is what she said happily…

 

The Jewish Police Discovered Us

Hearing her words awoke in us all our hopes to live. Everyone in the attic became filled with this hope. Our joy, however, did not last too long. Soon, Jewish police came up and ordered everyone down from the attic. For us, this was very disturbing, which we could not understand with our minds. A miracle had just happened to us when the terrible murderers did not find us, and now the Jewish police found us and were chasing us into the hands of the murderers – this was the whole point, which the German murderers had devised as a plan. The cries of the mothers and the young children made no difference. We were all forcefully dragged out of the attic and placed where we would be sorted and taken away.

When I saw this bitter end, I ran to try and get help to save my father; I ran away from that place that was surrounded, ran to look for someone familiar, a friend, a close person, someone to help save my father. But I became very confused when I saw the wild devil's dance, and no one wanted to acknowledge me and listen to me in this terrible chaos that was going on … Confused and exhausted, I hurriedly went back to the place, but there was already no one there. All those people who had been sorted earlier over there were already taken away… That is how my father, and all the other Jews, went on their final route.

I was upset, but reality forced me to look for a new place to hide, but that is already a new chapter.

 

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