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Chapter 5


In the Ghetto

The order to create the ghetto was issued on Thursday, April 30th 1942/13th of Iyar 5702, and it was short and stringent: All Jews who live in streets not included in the ghetto must move there tomorrow, May 1st, before 4 p. m.

The Ghetto Area and its Boundaries
The ghetto area had the shape of a large rectangle. It was fenced in on all sides with barbed wire. Its limits were as follows:
  1. To the south: Zavalna and Albrekhtovska streets, from Lahishinska (Pilsudskiego) to Wishniovietska Street (one block before the Lishche woods).
  2. To the east: Wishniovietska Street from Albrekhtovska to Theodorovska Street.
  3. To the north: Theodorovska Street, following the fence of the Karlin cemetery to Lahishinska Street.
  4. To the west: Lahishinska Street from Theodorovska to Zavalna Street.
The main streets, Zavalna, Albrekhtovska, Wishniovietska and Lahishinska, were not within the ghetto boundaries. The barbed-wire fence was put up alongside the courtyards behind the houses of these main streets and for that purpose the buildings that were in the way had to be torn down. The reasons for this were: (1) to prevent any possibility of contact between inhabitants of the ghetto and passersby in the above streets; (2) to conceal what happened inside the ghetto from the sight of non-Jews.

[14 KB] Map of the Ghetto - History of the Jews of Pinsk (Part One: The Holocaust)

There were 3 entrance gates to the ghetto area:
  1. On Listovska Street, a couple of dozen meters from the corner of Zavalna Street.
  2. On Polnotsna Street (Siver), at some distance from the corner of Albrekhtovska Street.
  3. On Albrekhtovska Street, behind the little church.
In the beginning, a fourth gate was opened to Lahishinska Street to facilitate the movement of doctors, who had been nearly all quartered near the fence, on this street. It was, however, closed after a few days for fear that it might serve trade.

The ghetto was very small, considering the number of Jews – some 20,000 – who had to move there. This had been the worst and most highly crowded part of the town even in normal times. It was the quarter of the poor, the slums: Linishtches.

The Relocation
By decree they were permitted to take to the ghetto only kitchen equipment, bedding and some clothes (one of the eye-witnesses gives the following list: one change of underwear and two suits, one for weekdays and one for the
Sabbath). [46] No furniture of any kind was permitted and the use of carts to transport the bundles was strictly forbidden; yet witnesses assure us, that much more than officially allowed was brought in.

Very early, before daybreak, the streets were thronged with men, women and children, old and young, carrying bundles on their backs. Those who resided near the ghetto area were lucky and they assisted those who dwelt farther away. Those who lived nearby were able to make several trips, while the others did not have enough time, as the move had to be completed by 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Worst of all was the situation of lone women, whose husbands had been taken away in the previous actions. They were close to despair. The last thing left to them in life, their humble little corner, was now also taken away. Each householder had to lock his house, to write down his name and address on a slip of paper, tie it to the key and hand it in to the Judenrat.

On that very day, after the Jews had left and gone to the ghetto, most of the houses and the property left in them were seized by Gentile inhabitants of the town and its surroundings. Some Jews left their property in the custody of friendly Gentiles hoping to get it back, if they survived. Bent under their loads, thousands of Jews wended their way towards the ghetto. At every corner Nazis were standing with Polish police and the mob, urging the Jews on with their shouts. They also rummaged in the bundles and grabbed whatever they liked, caring little for the sobs of women and children or the few old men. At the three gates, German gendarmes and Polish policemen were checking the loads, and whenever they found anything above the permitted items they would take it away and beat up the bearer mercilessly. [47]

Conditions in the Ghetto
Over 20,000 people, including Jews from the vicinity, were closed in the ghetto, which had been the most crowded area in the town anyway. The Judenrat had prepared the allocation of rooms in advance, allotting to each family its dwelling space: 1.20 square meters per person.

In the turmoil of the day, the arrangements planned by the Judenrat were forgotten; three to four families, no fewer than ten people, were crowded into each room. Everyone had to sleep on the floor, as there was no place to put up a bed. Few as were the possessions, there was no room for them. Many families had to take turns cooking on one stove and some had their turn only late in the evening.

Courtyards, too, were full of people, and the crying of babies and children filled the air. A favorite game with the children became “funerals”. They would cover up a chair with a black cloth and feign crying and weeping.

“The first week in the ghetto,” relates one eyewitness, “was terrible, unimaginable for anyone who wasn't there. Many families were left in the open, others went to live in stables or warehouses. Worst off of all were families without men. People of various habits were crowded together and this led to frictions and altercations. Hardships endured together did soften relations to some extent, but quarrels continued to the bitter end. Total strangers, men and women, ceased to feel any shame of each other, dressed and undressed without caring, children were born: we lived like animals.” [48]

Only two water pumps existed in the ghetto, in Bolotna and Polnotsna Streets respectively. People would line up near them and the ghetto police would maintain order. Even minimal hygienic conditions were lacking and contagious diseases spread at an appalling rate. Hunger, too, made itself felt. The number of deaths rose steadily, reaching thirty to forty per day. A famous slogan in the ghetto was: “Eat your fill once and then die.”

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Ghetto Workers Lists
Found in Judenrat Building

The Judenrat in the Ghetto
The offices of the Judenrat were moved into the ghetto as well, to a building (known as Samorin House) on Albrekhtovska Street, where the Tarbuth School had once been. The main entrance was on Albrekhtovska Street, and this entrance was used by the Germans, as well as by some of the Jewish laborers who were sent to work outside the ghetto.

The Judenrat was a kind of government in miniature. Its responsibilities grew and its departments had a heavy workload. The Jewish police force too was increased to a total of fifty. In place of Asher Feldlait who died of a stomach operation, Goldberg was appointed to the post of Chief of Police. Jewish police had to keep order inside the ghetto, while Polish police guarded the gates from the outside.

The Judenrat opened a number of shops in the ghetto, where people could get their daily bread ration on cards, 300 grams for adults, 150 grams for children at two to three rubles per kilogram. The flour was allotted by the District Commissioner, who also assigned a certain area for vegetable growing – in the Kaplan Gardens beyond the railway tracks, opposite the Albrekhtowa property. Workers on the payroll of the Judenrat grew potatoes, cucumbers, beets, mangolds and other vegetables.

The District Commissioner gave the Judenrat a number of horse-drawn wagons to carry the produce to the shops inside the ghetto, where it was sold on ration cards. The flour was sold to the Judenrat according to the number of inhabitants and the fixed ration: only, the price was exorbitant. The Supply Department had to keep the accounts, with the shopkeepers on the one hand, and the Germans on the other.

Once a week, the Jewish bakers were allowed a special permit to leave the ghetto in order to receive their flour ration. This provided an opportunity for them to buy some extra flour from the peasants, which they would add to the regular supply and bring into the ghetto on the same license. The bakers were able to sell bread over and above the ration, but it was so expensive that only a very few could afford it.

The flour supply was anything but regular and sometimes no bread would be baked for several days. The flour was of poor quality, made from scorched rye or wheat from the silos that had been set on fire by the retreating Russians. In addition, the Germans added sawdust to the flour, which made itself felt in chewing and digestion.

The Judenrat issued special money, valid only within the confines of the ghetto. A hospital was opened in a wooden structure, in front of the little church near the Karlin cemetery. Its expenses were paid for by the Judenrat. The hospital was always full of people stricken with hunger, edemas, typhoid and other diseases. The doctors were Jacobson, Praeger, Mayles, Lemishov, Yooz, Lev, the municipal doctor Greenberg, the gynecologist Glauberson, Prof. Rubin, a specialist for stomach diseases, and Dr. Weinberg. Nearby was a clinic managed by Dr. Lev, assisted by a pediatrician, Dr. Elstein; and doctors Einbinder, Mayles, Cogan, Kaplan, and the nurses Masha Busel, Fliskin, Riva Greenblat and Milya Ratnovsky, who worked for minimal salaries. Most important were additional food rations, sometimes allotted to the personnel, including a few fish heads or horse bones. There was only one pharmacy in the ghetto, run by Bertha Shwartzman's husband.

The orphanage, expelled from its spacious home at the corner of Zavalna and Dominikanska streets, moved into a small house inside the ghetto, allotted to it by the Judenrat. The poor orphans had to suffer hunger, cold, squalor and overcrowding, just like all inmates of the ghetto. Their devoted youth leader, Liov, continued to serve them under the horrid new conditions. His assistant, Feivel Eizenstat, had been killed in the first action.

The Judenrat set up a soup kitchen for the needy, sick and old. It had to serve an enormous public, and the chaos around it was nearly unbearable, although the food distributed was only a bare minimum.

The ghetto area had its own court of justice and a jail. The judge was attorney Elstein, and he was aided by Mr. Gorinowski, who also headed the Orphanage Committee.

The cases brought before this court were mainly quarrels between one Jew and another, generally over trifles. The court also had to deal with people who had failed to comply with demands of the Judenrat. If, after investigation, it was proven that the accused had refused to pay, although able to do so, he was sent to prison for a few days.

The members of the Chevrah Kaddisha [Burial Society] too were on the payroll of the Judenrat, and there were dozens of burials every day. These took place in the Karlin cemetery, whose fences had been pulled down. [49] One of the witnesses recalls what Dr. Jacobson said at the funeral of Dr. Yooz's wife: “The world is upside down: they have pulled down the fences around the dead and erected them around the living: when shall this be put right again?” [50]

Without Cultural or Communal Life
The Judenrat did not organize cultural activities of any kind. Most of the teachers, intellectuals and public servants of former days had been killed in the August action. No one was left to teach school or give a lecture. Nothing is known of any attempt to provide entertainment, put on a performance, a celebration or anything of the sort. Even the popular artist, Josele Kolodny, who lived in the ghetto too, fell silent. No mention has been found of any youth or party organization. A number of synagogues were open, those attending being mostly old people. The Rabbi of Karlin, Avraham Elimelekh Perlov, who lived in the ghetto, tried to the best of his abilities to alleviate suffering – writes Menashe Unger in the New York Yiddish Tog-Morgen Journal. He went to his death at the head of his followers in the last action.

There was also no place in the ghetto where a couple of hundred people could have gathered. Before the exile to the ghetto, Jews had been afraid to step outside their houses; now they felt “free”.

On summer evenings the inmates of the ghetto would walk about in the open. They would meet at the corner of Perets (Bolotna) Glinishchanska and Shiroki Streets. Somehow the Germans did not compel the Jews to work on the Sabbath and then the Jews would usually walk in the Karlin cemetery.

What were the topics discussed, whenever people met? Bread and how long do we still have to live; the second topic would usually end with the wishful prayer “Would that we might see the downfall of the Nazis before we die.” [51]

Work and Workers
At seven in the morning thousands of workers used to gather near the gates, in groups, by professions and places of employment, in columns of three abreast. Each group had a Jewish foreman (the Germans called him Gruppenführer, and the Jews, with their bitter humor, named him “ Juden-General ”) appointed by the factory or workshop, who would read out, from a list, the names of the workers, and only they would be allowed to leave the ghetto. Next came the Polish policeman who checked the papers and frisked the men, to prevent anything prohibited from being taken out. Only then could the workers leave. This routine was repeated in the evening, when people returned from work. The laborers would march in the middle of the street, three abreast, and gate-checking by name, examination of papers and frisking would take place. [52]

After the war, one of the leaders of the Bund , Leizer Levin, was passing through the town on his way back from Russia, and among many other documents, he found lists containing thousands of names of people who had been allowed to leave the ghetto for work in June 1942. The forms used had apparently belonged to one of the Christian churches in town. At the top of the original column of names, inscribed in Latin characters, were written in German the details to be given.

The details were as follows: serial number, date of recording, number of persons, surname and first name, place of work, address, valid till ... The lists in our possession include forty-two pages of twenty-nine lines each. They begin at number 1971 and end at 5779. In between, a number of pages are missing. The list contains the names of 3654 breadwinners, about 20 % of the inmates of the ghetto, yet probably close to one half of those actually employed. On each of the 1218 lines, the permit holder's name is inscribed. In many cases, in the number-of-persons column, figures from two to fifty are inscribed, which means that the permit was issued to a group of workers under the name of its foreman. On the strength of these lists, the 3654 workers were classified by places of employment. In some cases, a number of places were lumped together. Here are the findings:

Private employment: This refers mostly to women who worked as household help in Christian homes outside the ghetto. Included under this heading are some who worked with Gentile artisans.

Offices: Under this heading we find details about the following places of employment: City Administration, Licensing Department, Court of Justice, sanitary service, railway station, district offices, cinema, food administration, post office, food stores and the offices for import and export, fish and wood-floating.

Agriculture : The list contains details of employment on the farms at Hai, Albrekhtovo, Zapole, Potshepowo.

The Kommandantur, Gendarmerie and German Police: Jewish policemen inside the ghetto are included, along with Judenrat employees.

These lists give us only a partial view of the state of employment; yet this is first-hand material enabling us to draw a more general picture. There was much truth in the saying that the Pinsk ghetto was made up of working people. The Germans, too, appreciated this contribution to their war effort: witness the letter from the Supreme Commander of the S.S., Heinrich Himmler, to General Prutzmann.

The Struggle for Food
Jewish workers made use of the stay outside the ghetto fence to obtain some food: a few slices of bread, groats, potatoes or fat. The question was how to bring it in. In this respect a real art of deceit developed. Groats were hidden in socks. Potatoes were cooked, diluted with water and taken in as soup distributed at the place or work. Women used to hide slices of bread under their clothing. Polish policemen carried out a search at the gates. Among them were a few who were human, such as policeman number 27, who was said to be connected with the partisans, or policeman Biletski. These just went through the motions of searching and confiscating something, leaving the rest with the Jews for their hungry families. Such policemen however were rare. Most of them were heartless and cruel, and we must mention here the worst to their everlasting shame: number 15, named Dzevietski; and number 41, named Holibnya; and numbers 9 and 17, whose names are forgotten. Any sequestered food was thrown on a heap near the gate and the carriers were beaten up mercilessly. Women fared no better then men at these searches.

Yet, even the danger of death did not restrain the ghetto dwellers; everybody tried to outwit the enemy and to bring in some food to the starving children. Many paid for this with their lives. [53]

“I saw”, relates a witness, “the Jew Glauberman murdered at the gate by Deputy Commissioner Ebner, after they found a little butter he had hidden.” [54]

Starvation grew even worse. Beatings and murders did not stop the struggle for survival that was going on between the Jews of the ghetto and the Nazis and their local helpers. In this life and death struggle, Jews of all strata and ages took part. It went on in the free part of the town, in the surrounding villages and at the gates. Countless deeds of heroism occurred and the struggle engendered noble deeds and sacrifices.

Children in the Struggle
Children too, inscribed their noble chapter: every morning tens of them would crawl under the fence each carrying a knapsack. They used to scatter over the neighboring villages, stretch out their hands and implore the peasants' mercy. They begged for a little bread or some potatoes. Many peasants were moved by the sad countenance of these half-starved children and gave them some food. Thus, during the day, the children managed to gather a little food, which at night they carried back to their sick mothers or little brothers and sisters – fatherless orphans, left without their provider after the first action.

Yet not all returned home. Three or four would be killed at the fence or while crawling under it. There were Polish policemen who specialized in picking off children while their attention was focused on the barbed wire, so that they did not become aware of the rifle or pistol pointed at them until a shot was heard and an anguished cry “Mama” would bring some unfortunate mother to the spot, to find out whether the victim was her child. [55]

Sometimes children dare not leave the ghetto, but hovered near the gate, hoping someone would give them a crust of bread. Hence, returning from work, we would see long rows of children near the gate, sitting on the sidewalks bloated from hunger, listless large heads and swollen feet, marked for death. Every few days there would be new faces – the first ones having died, but the new ones too were doomed. [56] Slow starvation was also the lot of the adults who could not find work. People tried to draw out life by substitutes, like chopped weeds or potato peels, but this would not do for any length of time. It happened that people dropped dead from hunger at their places of work outside the ghetto.

Then the Judenrat applied to Deputy Commissioner Ebner to request increased bread rations for the workers. The German Commander asked to see the death certificates and checked them carefully. Finally he remarked cynically: “Not enough Jews are dying.” But in fact the number of those who died from hunger and disease increased from week to week.

The Slaughter of the Sick
One day in July, Ebner arrived at the Judenrat Office, accompanied by the District Medical Officer Dilevski. The ghetto was stunned: what next? They did not have long to wait. Ebner asked for a list of the mentally disturbed and of the incurably ill. “We want to take them all to the hospital at Brzesc (Brest-Litovski). The Judenrat tried to evade the issue, saying they didn't know whom he meant.

“The list has already been prepared by Dr. Dilevski”, said Ebner, “and if you don't cooperate, we shall fetch the sick ourselves – but, as a punishment, together with their families.” Faced with this dilemma, the Judenrat, together with the Jewish doctors and policemen, compiled the list of about forty victims. Two days later, a number of German trucks arrived at the ghetto gates for their prey. The poor sick people and their families knew what was in store for them and they tried to resist the Jewish policemen who had come to take them to the vehicles.

“It was a heartrending sight to see the sick being dragged towards the gates by Jewish hands. As far as I can remember, this was the only case in Pinsk when Jews were compelled to deliver their own people into German hands.” Two trucks, full of Jews, drove off in the direction of Brzesc. A few hours later they were seen returning empty and very soon the truth was known. The sick had been shot near the village of Kozlakowicz. To calm the agitation that swept through the ghetto after this operation, Ebner and Dr. Dilevski came back to the ghetto and promised that no more sick people would be taken away. Another witness relates: “The woman psychiatrist, Dr. Yooz, a refugee from Warsaw and member of the well-known Davidson family, who had been tending these sick with great devotion, committed suicide the very next day. A few days later a madman nicknamed «Nahumke Tepele Schmaltz» reappeared. «How did you save yourself?» people asked. «I ran away: how could a community exist without its madman?»” [57]

Partition into Two Ghettos
On the occasion of this visit, Ebner and Dilevski ordered the pulling down of all fences within the ghetto, except those no higher than 80 cm. The reason given was to make it easier for the guards to supervise the entire area. [58]

About the same time, all skilled workers in the ghetto were told to inscribe – on two yellow pieces of cloth – their place of employment and their personal number.

The Gentile foremen, we were told by a printer, came to the printing shops, where we were working, with a supply of yellow patches on which we had to print the names of places of employment. [59] We were informed by this Christian that the engineer Friedman had been summoned by the secret police, arrested, and told to compile a list of the Jews who were working outside the ghetto. Permission was given to bring him food and also for him to meet the members of the Judenrat.

Rumors spread to the effect that the ghetto was to be divided into two parts: A and B. Into the first would be transferred skilled workers in workshops and factories, while the second would be populated with old people, children and the sick,
i. e. those unfit to work. The intentions behind this measure were abundantly clear to the inmates to the ghetto: the workers would be allowed to live, while the others would be liquidated.

Those who were not working began a mad rush to be registered at any place of work. Gentiles reaped great profit, as they were paid large sums for inscribing a Jew on their payroll. They had to apply to the German engineer, Sieg, who was in charge of the labor department in the District Commissioner's office, and tell him that they needed additional workers or skilled men. As a matter of fact, many more Jews got work outside the ghetto. Rumor had it that only 10,000 Jewish workers would be allowed to live, while the others would be sent to camps. Jews tried to console themselves and others, saying this would not happen in Pinsk. Pinsk was a busy town and its industries were vital to the German war effort; there was a plywood factory, sawmills, tanneries for the processing of hides, shoe factories etc.

When it became known that Jews in the neighboring townships had been liquidated, there was pressure on the Judenrat, and its members urgently applied to the Commissioner, told him what they had heard and asked for explanations. The Commissioner brazenly admitted the facts: “We do not intend to kill them,” he said, “we shall pick out the young and ship them to Germany to work there, while the old will go to a labor camp. However, what is that to you? Nothing will happen to you. Nearly all the people of Pinsk are skilled workers and they are doing their jobs diligently. This is an industrial town and we shall bring in even more Jews from the countryside, as we need more hands. You have nothing to fear.” [60] Yet his answer did not allay the forebodings.

Liquidation of Jews in the Neighboring Towns
Although the Germans did not allow Gentiles from outside to enter the town, so that they would not reveal what they knew about the slaughter of Jews, they could not prevent news about what had happened to the little towns of Polesia and Volhynia from filtering through. Some Jews at first refused to believe that these horrors could be true, but even they had to admit that they had erred. “That was the day when survivors from the slaughter of Sarny arrived in the ghetto, among them two natives of Pinsk. Bankowski the ironmonger and a young man whose name I have forgotten. They told us that the Jews of Sarny had been brought to an area outside the town, fenced in with barbed wire, where they were kept several days until all the Jews of the vicinity had arrived. They had been told that from there they would be sent to labor camps. Neither food nor drink was given them during those summer days. Jews were offering gold for a cup of water for children and babies who were fainting from thirst. Finally German trucks arrived; onto each of them dozens of Jews were shoved, driven away a short distance and shot. At this point, some of the young men cut the barbed wire and started to run. A host of people burst through the breach and in the uproar women and children were trampled to death. The “fortunate,” who had managed to break out, were shot by the Germans. Only a few, among them those who made it to Pinsk, survived. Here, they had heard, a Jewish community still existed. [61]

From Brzesc, too, came news that the inhabitants of the ghetto had been exterminated, except for a few skilled craftsmen. On July 25th, the Jews of Drohiczyn were slaughtered, and we learned to our horror of the terrible end of the Jews of Janov, only twenty-five kilometers west of Pinsk. Forewarned, Jews had dug trenches behind their houses and in the gardens, bunkers and subterranean passages from one street to the next, in order to hide; but the murderers had set the houses on fire and the smoke forced the victims out into the open, where most of them were shot. Only a handful reached the forests; out of the eighty Jewish craftsmen, whom the Germans had spared, a few managed to run away; the rest were shot. Before Yom Kippur, refugees arrived in Pinsk from the nearby township of Pohost-Zagorodski. In the large wooden hut of the soup kitchen, where prayers were being held, the refugees from Pohost told sobbingly of the bitter end of their community. The annihilation of these two communities, so close to Pinsk, was a heavy blow to the people in the ghetto, which was now the very last one left in all of Polesia.

Sketchy but unmistakable news reached Pinsk about the Jewish uprising at Lakhva, where they had even succeeded in causing a number of German casualties (this happened on the 2nd or 3rd of September). An echo of the armed resistance at Lakhva resounded in the words of Deputy Commissioner Ebner, who boasted in the presence of the Judenrat that, because of this rebellion, he had exterminated all the Jews in the vicinity. [62]

There was a growing feeling that the noose was tightening around the necks of the Jews of Pinsk, too. The last glimmer of hope seemed extinguished. The struggle for survival had exhausted their energies. Yet, there were some who never gave up, even though they were beyond despair. It was said that the expected action would last a couple of days and those whom the murderers did not apprehend might survive. Therefore, many began to dig shelters under the houses and stables, in courtyards and gardens, and even to construct double walls, ceilings and floors. Each person made himself a hiding place as best as he could. Digging went on by day and by night unflaggingly. People believed that was the way to be saved.

The Commissioner, from whom nothing remained hidden, demanded delivery of all spades, hoes and axes, in order to save himself the “trouble” caused to the Germans by the Jews of Yanov.

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