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[Page 209]

The Destruction of our City

by Nachum Pushteig

Translated by Jerrold Landau

I am the man who witnessed tribulation by the staff of His wrath.
It was I whom He led to walk into darkness and not light.
To me He turned His hand against me over and over again all the day.

(From the Book of Lamentations)

I was born in 1902 in Zlotniki. I married a wife named Klara in Podhajce, and our son Munio was born there. I lived in Podhajce and earned my livelihood from my galanteria (fancy goods) store. The entire Nazi Holocaust engulfed me from 1941 until the end of the war. It is not easy to survey this terrible era with a few words; and is it even at all possible to describe in human terms the depths of suffering and despair that I endured for the entire time? This is a matter for a writer who has yet to be born, for he must stand in the company of the author of the Book of Lamentations and describe the destruction of a Jewish community with a population of 6,000 souls that was destroyed along with all the Jewish communities in sorrowful Poland.

At the outbreak of the war between Russia and Germany in June 1941, the Nazi German armies entered Podhajce. At first they did no harm to the Jews. Only with the arrival of the Gestapo did they begin to pillage and steal anything that they wanted without recompense.

The first thing that they did was to organize the Judenrat (Jewish council) whose members were appointed by the recommendation of the mayor. At first, the members of this council did not know what their task was, and what was expected of them. The members of the Judenrat were Leibish Lilienfeld, Shapira, and Dr. Margolies. Later, the Judenrat appointed the Ordenungs-Dienst (Service for the Maintenance of Order). Their first task was to collect punitive fines – money, furniture, and bedding – everything for the gendarmes and the Gestapo. The task of the Judenrat was to collect the money from the Jewish population.

Later they began to enlist Jews for labor. At first they enlisted them for work in the city, and later they established a camp in the region. The Jewish council was obligated to draft people for work. By chance, I had acquaintances in the post office who arranged the distribution of the mail of the Judenrat – only for the Jews – and through their recommendation, I began to work as a postman.

Thus did the situation continue for almost an entire year, without aktions and without any other activities. The first year went by only with forced labor, collection of fines, the removal of furniture from the Jewish homes, etc. However, the waiting was tedious, and there was great tension throughout the entire time. We knew that difficult times were awaiting us, without knowing when and how the matter would unfold. Indeed, that which we anticipated took place.

The first aktion in Podhajce was on Yom Kippur of 1942. Then, they drafted the intelligentsia for labor. They invited the young men and finest girls for “labor”. They were all sent to the Belzec death camp. Approximately 1,000 people perished during this first aktion. I saved myself and my entire family by hiding.

After the first aktion, a few people who endangered themselves and jumped from the train wagons returned. They told us the “secret” about to where they were being sent. Indeed, we knew the secret even prior to this, in accordance with the popular adage, “A secret for all the people of the group”. The people who returned had Polish acquaintances, who said that they were being sent directly to the crematoria.

The first aktion served as a paradigm for the following aktions. In the following aktions, a panic ensued in the city when people were snatched for labor. People hid and did whatever possible to evade the fate that awaited them. However, many fell into the trap, including my brother-in-law.

My hiding place was in the house. There was a cellar in the entrance near the sill. We lifted the trapdoor, entered, and closed it behind us. The snatchers passed over us and did not detect us. We heard them milling about and searching here and there. Finally they reached the conclusion that all of the people had already been taken from there. They began to erect the ghetto after the first aktion.

During the second aktion, I remained in the hiding place until 3:00 p.m. The snatchers did not find us. The second aktion was conducted on the 2nd day of Cheshvan. (I recall the date very well, for that is the date of the yahrzeit of my father Shmuel Pushteig of blessed memory.) My father lived in Zlotniki, a town near Podhajce, whose residents were forced to leave their homes and move to Podhajce. My father was 81 years old at the time, and since he already knew why they were all been taken, he did not want to go to the roll call. Uberstormfuehrer Mueller of the Gestapo dragged him against his will. Father did not want to go and said to him: “Why are you dragging me? For what purpose do you have a gun?” Then the German shot him on the spot and murdered him. My sister and her two daughters were also taken during that aktion.

It was told to me that when they took the family members of one member of the Ordenungs-Dienst, the Gestapo man said to him: “If you give me

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such and such a quota, I will free them”. This man knew my hiding place, opened it, and took us all out during the second aktion. When I arrived, the transport was prepared to depart, and we were the last ones. I was informed that when my father saw that I was not in the gathering place, he said, “It is good that Nachum and his family are not here”. When I arrived, he was already no longer alive.

The member of the Ordenungs-Dienst who revealed our hiding place was a Jew by the name of Lutner, who remained to the end. He made a great deal of money. After the final aktion, he went out to hide with his family. The gentile with whom he went to hide murdered him and took his money.

My brother David and my sister Rivka with her two daughters were also taken during the second aktion. My brother fled immediately and was not sent with the transport. I went with my entire family to the train. Next to the train there were already people who began to think about how to jump from it. They took along tools for that purpose. I wanted to place myself near people who had initiative, but suddenly I was dragged from behind. A Gestapo man approached me with a big stick, dealt me a blow on the head, and blood began to drip from all sides. I still had a sum of money. I gave it to my wife and told her that if she could flee, she should flee.

The Nazis acted with deceit. They said that the men would be taken in a separate train wagon to work. They loaded 120 of us men onto one wagon, and the women and children onto other wagons. I do not know how I found the energy to board the wagon. I grabbed my hat with my two hands and the blood clotted. I boarded the wagon, and it was stifling and foul smelling. Aside from this, we had not eaten or drunk all day. My fortune was that as soon as I entered, the train began to move. I looked for a place near the wall so that I could lean. Suddenly, I heard “Shma Yisrael”, and they began to open the small window of the train; I heard how one person jumped; the second person jumped… I was the fifth one to jump. I jumped from the train as the train was moving fast. I felt that the station was close, and I jumped with all my energy.

I fell on my hands. To my fortune, I did not fall under the cars. I was tossed, and the blood began once again to fall. I do not know how long I lay there. Suddenly I woke up and I saw that I was alone there, and the train was gone. I began to walk back beside the tracks, and there I met other people who had jumped. There were people who had acquaintances in the area. There were “feld shtiber” (field rooms) in the fields. We went to someone's house, and remained there all night and all day. We returned to the ghetto in the evening. I returned to the house, and the only one I found there was my brother. When we met, I wept the entire time and asked, “Where is all the family? Where is my wife? Where is my son?” He was a five-year-old child, and was so delicate that it was difficult to cross the street with him… When they took my brother-in-law, my wife told the child that she was going to bring him something. However the child said to her, “Mother, come home, I am afraid here, we will go out when the Russians will arrive.”

I then went to live in the ghetto with my brother. Nothing was left for us in the house. After they removed the people from the house, the Volksdeutschen (local Germans) came and took everything, without leaving a thing.

Before Passover, rumor had it that there would be another aktion. My relative Yisrael Silber began to organize people to go out into the forest. He was a firewood merchant, and knew his way around the forest. At first, he took his family to his acquaintance in the forest. I went there with my brother, and we spent ten days with that man, a Ukrainian named Zacharechki. Later, it became clear that nothing happened, and we returned. In the interim, my brother David and Yisrael Silber began to arrange provisions of necessities and weapons.

We remained in the ghetto until before the festival of Shavuot. My brother, Silber, and his family already went out to the forest, and were supposed to come on Sunday to take us to the forest. The third aktion took place that Sunday – the liquidation aktion – and I was still in the ghetto. On the Sabbath there were rumors that there was going to be an aktion. We fled in the middle of the day – through some passageway from the ghetto – into the fields. We remained for the entire day among the stalks, which were still green. Later, it became clear that there had not been an aktion, and we returned to the ghetto at 10:00 p.m.

I began to get undressed to go to bed – when they came and told us that the ghetto was already closed and the Kovanchiks (in Russia there was a colony of Germans) had arrived to assist with the carrying out of the aktions. It was said that the entire ghetto was surrounded by the Kovanchiks. I jumped and went to the place where the family of the Ordenungs-Dienst Lutner was located. He prepared a hiding place for them, and I entered with them. We were approximately 50 people. There was also a cellar, but the O.D. had closed it and placed things upon it so that it would not be recognizable. It was terribly stifling there. There was a passageway from the cellar to another hiding place, so that if someone opened up at night and asked, “Are you still alive?”, they would think that we had suffocated there and they would say, “You can come out if you are still alive”.

We went out and everything was empty… This was not an aktion for Belzec. They had taken people to dig pits in Zahajce near Podhajce. They put planks over the pits. People were supposed to strip and walk onto the planks. They shot with machine guns and the people fell into the pit – alive or dead.

It was night. The conscience of O.D. Lutner bothered him that he had taken out my family. He knew that my brother was in the forest and he said, “Don't worry, I will arrange for you to go”…

People remained in the ghetto after the aktion, and the Germans said that whoever remained would be taken to work. There were also people who had prepared

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poison for themselves. The head of the Judenrat, Lilienfeld, prepared poison for himself as well. He and his wife poisoned themselves during the liquidation aktion.

People ran about not knowing what to do with themselves. Among them were people who had prepared to go out to the forest but had not had the chance. They knew where to go, and took me with them. The O.D. man took money and a gold watch from us, and gave it to one of the Kovachniks so that he would not be present at the time of the passage. At 10:00 p.m. approximately ten of us set out for the forest.

We wandered around in the forest all night and all day, until my brother and Silber came during the second night and took us to the rest of the people who had fled to the forest. We were more than 100 people there.

We had a small amount of arms, but this was not a forest that was able to sustain partisans. In addition, there were also families with children, etc. They prepared a pit in which to hide temporarily. This was already the 3rd of Sivan, three days before Shavuot. I recall that there were people who took tallises with them and still recited Akdamut (a Shavuot prayer). People put up some sort of tents made of trees and leaves, but this did not help at all, and the rain fell upon us…

At first, we were all together in the forest, and later we organized into groups. We remained in contact with the Ukrainians, from whom we purchased food.

I was so despondent after I had lost my family. I arrived in the rain, and sat down to rest. I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt the following dream. I went to worship in the Beis Midrash of my city. There was a Torah scholar there by the name of Yaakov Rellis who went around all day in the Beis Midrash wearing his tallis and tefillin until 11:00 or noon. Youths studied there, and when they had questions, they approached him. He knew how to answer their questions. He came to me in a dream as he was in the synagogue, with his tallis and white beard, and said to me, “Blessed is G-d day by day” – thus did I have the strength to persevere. To this day, when I pray, I recall the elderly Yaakov Rellis of blessed memory.        

Afterward they formed groups, and I remained in a group with my brother and Silber and his family. Thus things went until the 20th of Tammuz. These Ukrainians were Benderovches. They knew about our places and wanted to take our money. They attacked us at night on the 20th of Tammuz. I was not in this group, but Silber was there. First they searched him since he was a man of initiative, and they wished to get rid of him. This was a group of 39 people. They came at night and told everyone to take their things and stand in a line, for they wished to take them to the partisans. With this pretext, they then murdered them with axes. Silber was among them, but his family was not in this group. His wife, brother-in-law and three children were in our group.

My brother, I, and Silber's family were in Zacharechki's group. He told us that he would make a special hiding place at his home for us. However, when we heard what had happened to Silber and the rest of the group, fear overtook him and he told us to leave him for he was afraid. He did not tell us anything about what had happened. At night, my brother, Silber's family, and I went out to search for the people. There was still a third group that remained. Thus did we go at night. My brother already knew a little about the paths. Suddenly he heard someone approaching us. He feared that we had fallen into the hands of a band of bandits, but it became obvious that this was the third group. They thought the same about us, and one of them had a grenade in his hand to throw at us. However, my brother suddenly went out and shouted “Shma Yisrael”. When they heard “Shma Yisrael”, they knew that we were Jews, and we united. Then the question arose, what to do now. We said that one group would return to Zacharechki, and the second would remain in the forest and make some arrangements to be able to remain. The lot fell upon the Silber family and I to go to Zacharechki. They wanted my brother to go with them, but since I had to go, my brother went together with me. One group remained in the forest, and I, my brother, Silber's children, and Mrs. Feldberg with her husband and two children all went to Zacharechki.

Zacharechki agreed to take us in. He knew that we still had money – dollars – gold – and he was a businessman. He told us that he also had a son-in-law in the forest, and he promised that he would bring us to him, that he would make a hiding place for us, and we could remain there. We went to him and remained in that situation until the 20th of Av.

Apparently, someone had informed on us, and on the 20th of Av, a Ukrainian militia with Volksdeutschen attacked us. Some of us had to remain alive nevertheless… I, Silber's three children, and the mother and two children – went into some hole and hid. My brother, Mrs. Feldberg, Silber's wife and brother in-law all remained, and the Ukrainians took them. My brother attempted to flee, but they shot and killed him. I heard the groans from my hiding place, without knowing from whom they were coming. Later, they told me what happened. They shot Silber's wife on the spot as well. His brother-in-law and Feldberg were taken to the area of Zawalow. They dug a pit for themselves, and then they were shot.

Later, Zacharechki was also afraid to keep us. We went out and scattered. There was a valley with a small grove. We entered, and I remained there all day. The children disguised themselves, and I heard them talking. I remained the entire day in the sun without a drop of water. At night I went to the son-in-law of Zacharechki, who told me that they had shot my brother. When I heard this, I said that I had no more reason to live. My brother was strong, he had taken me out to the forest, and now I remained alone, and I did not know what happened to Silber's children. Later it became clear that they survived, and they came to us. Zacharechki's son-in-law was afraid to keep us, and he brought us back to Zacharechki.

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Once again we were all together with Zacharachki. Silber's children included a son of 8, a son of 12, and a daughter who was perhaps 14. There was also Mrs. Feldberg with her 2 children. We remained with him for one day, and then he said that he would bring us to a place in the forest where nobody ever comes. There they made for us some sort of tents between the trees. I made a tent for myself, one for the woman and two children, and one for Silber's three children. We made a sort of roof above the tents. We placed leaves upon it so that the rain would not penetrate, and it would be warm inside. My tent was like a doghouse.

At first we still had some money. The woman still had gold dollars, and Zacharechki brought us a little food each day.

It is interesting to state that I knew that I had a small Siddur (prayer book) among our belongings. I asked that they bring me this Siddur. Day to us was like night, since we could not go out. I was fortunate that I had this Siddur. I prayed every day, and recited the entire book of Psalms every day.

Later, he organized us into groups. He said that I should come each day with a different group of children to obtain something hot to eat. We suffered so much then. It was not easy for us to get there, for we only walked when it was pitch dark. I was again fortunate. Silber's 12-year-old child had a good sense of direction, and he knew the way, so I went with him each time.

If one is predetermined to remain alive, every step leads to life – even though we were already on the way to death. We once went in complete darkness. We had to hold on to each other so we would not get lost. Suddenly the child said, “Nachum, I saw someone light up like a lamp”. I told him that we need to go off from the path and walk through the fields. We walked through the fields and reached Zacharechki. He told us, “You have good fortune; this was a Ukrainian from the militia.” If the child had not seen the light, we would have fallen directly into their hands.

However, in the interim, life became quite loathsome to us. We had not changed our shirts. We had no water in which to wash. I had dropped to 38 kilo. I had grown a beard like a Nazirite. Once there was a bit of sunlight. I then went among the trees and got undressed. I sat that way, and suddenly I heard the noise of some “shkotzim”, but nothing mattered to me anymore and I was apathetic. I got up and returned. At night I went to Zacharechki and told him what I had heard. He and his wife laughed. It became clear that these were children who had gone out to gather wood to heat the house in the winter. They saw me, got afraid and fled. They came home and said that they had seen a demon. Indeed, I looked like a demon.

Zacharechki still had some hiding places. He took us to rest a bit at his home. This was on Rosh Hashanah, and he wanted to give us some festive food. At night he held us in his home, but he sent us out at night. We hid under haystacks. I recall that I had my Siddur, and I spent the entire day of Rosh Hashanah lying under the haystacks and praying.

Once, when we were all together, a group of Ukrainian and Polish partisans attacked us and snatched us. They spoke Polish. First they took Zacharechki and beat him terribly. Then they came to us and said, “All of you lie on the floor, one on top of the other, and then we will throw a grenade on you”. They indeed had a grenade in their hands. However, it became clear that they were just playing a trick on us. They went out, closed the door, and left without doing anything do us. However, they did beat Zacharachki.

We went out again to the hiding place at night, and remained there until the snow began to fall. When the snow fell, it was difficult for us to walk, since our feet sank. We also felt that Zacharechki's attitude to us was no longer as it was before, and he was already tired of us. I then said in my heart, “Would it be that a miracle would take place for us, we would find a different place, and Zacharechki would not know to where we disappeared”. Indeed, the Master of the World helped us.

We thought that the second group was already in America. We were seven souls and they were sixteen people. They were connected to the “Subbotniks”[1] who were in our area. These were not truly Subbotniks, but like Baptists (they had many groups). They did not believe in the Pope like the Catholics, but only in Jesus. When they wanted to worship, they went together to a house of prayer. They did not worship from a prayer book, but rather each one on his own. They regarded the spreading of their faith as their mission. These sixteen Jews were from Zawalow, and were their acquaintances. They established contact with them. The guardian of the forest was also their acquaintance, and he gave them a good place to dig a pit. They entered it and hid, and he gave them food. Thus they had come into this group of Subbotniks. I knew about this already.

When I realized that our situation was hopeless, I told the children who were with us: “Now we have no choice, for we cannot remain here any longer”. For example, at night I took a bottle of water from Zacharechki that was supposed to last the entire day. If one child wanted to drink a bit more, the other would shout: “Enough!” He also gave us bread, which we divided up by lottery so that one would not suspect that the other got a larger piece. And in the winter, the water in the bottle froze…

In the group of 16 Jews there were men and women, and only one child. They did not want to take us because of the children. Nevertheless, I went with the woman and children, and we entered some small house in the forest with the risk that if there was a good gentile there, it would be good, but if there was a bad gentile there, we would suffer. He stood at the time next to the well with the cow, and he suddenly heard my footsteps coming. He said, “Yes, I already know who is coming.”

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He brought us in and received us pleasantly. His whole house was the size of our kitchen. There was a pricha[2] there, which also served as a kitchen. The light came from a wick stuck into a bottle of oil. However, when we entered there, we felt as if we were entering a palace… The smoke covered me, and I smelled the aroma of the food that was cooking, for he was preparing dinner.

This was a small house in the middle of the forest. Afterward we were told that before the gentile joined this sect, he was one of the dangerous men. He did not have an oven for baking bread, so he baked on the stovetop. He prepared fresh bread, and mushrooms with potatoes, and gave us all of his food. I can still feel the taste of that food he gave us in my mouths today. Simchat Torah fare is no sweeter to my palate than that food.

I no longer remember the name of that man. I still had two dollars. I took them out and wanted to pay him, but he refused and said, “No thank you. You must thank the Master of the World, and I will give thanks to the Master of the World for giving me the opportunity to do this good deed. He gave us some bread for the way, and then we entered. Zacharechki no longer knew about us.

This gentile showed us the way to the guardian of the forest. We went to him. There, there was a trench that was still from the First World War. We entered it, and made ourselves a roof. We remained there for approximately two weeks. After that, we had no other options. I spoke to the guardian of the forest and told him, “If you do not want to take us into this group, I am not responsible if they catch us and I reveal something.” I asked him to take only the children, and it is not important what happens to me. I told him that this group entered the forest thanks to the father of these children, for my brother and Silber were the organizers of those who went to the forest, and now we have no other options. If they would not take us in, we had no more to do. None of this helped. However, it is interesting to note that until they took us in, they had made three hiding places that had been revealed… until they took us in. Thus was the story:

They said that there was a hiding place prepared for us, but it was difficult to be all together. They would be in one hiding place, and we would be in a second one. However, this was a trick – this was the hiding place that had been revealed. However, I had no choice and we went there. They told us that they would provide us with food.

We entered the hiding place. A few days passed and they did not come. There were potatoes inside, but there was no water. There was only snow, and we did not know how to make water from the snow, for first one had to melt the snow, and then filter it. We did not know this. We cooked them in this manner, and we were unable to eat them. We fasted for approximately 14 days. I then said to the oldest child, go see where we are. We walked and walked until we reached a path, and we more or less knew where we were.

I wanted to go out the next day, but I had no strength. I went out and fainted. The woman had a black and dirty piece of sugar. She placed it into my mouth and I came to.

Suddenly one day, on a Sunday, two Ukrainians with axes came. We were all afraid of such strong gentiles… However, they said, “Do not be afraid!” It became clear that they had been drafted for work in Germany and they had escaped – at least that is what they told us. They entered out hiding place and asked us, “How do you manage? From what do you live? And if someone attacks you, how do you defend yourselves?” We answered, “Who, the children will defend?” However, I could not speak for I was so weak. They once again said, “Do not be afraid”, and they left. I thought that they had already left us. Suddenly – after I had gone back in – they told me: “Go out! The women and the children saw that they were occupied with me, and they fled.” I still had an Omega watch. They took my watch, my coat and a few dollars – and left.

I went out the path and the children returned. I then said that we should flee, and we fled. What strength did the Holy One Blessed Be He give me, for after a fast of 14 days, I ran approximately 5 kilometers. The woman and the young children fled leftward, and I and the oldest child fled straight, not knowing to where. We wanted to reach the guardian of the forest. I thought that I had already freed myself from the two Ukrainians. Suddenly they ran after us, and saw that the child still had boots. First they said, “Why did you flee? Come, the Germans are waiting there…” The child started to cry and I said to him, “What do you want from me?” They took the boots. Suddenly we felt that a wagon was approaching. They beat me and said, “Go to hell”.

We did not know the way, and did not know where we were. We ran and ran until we reached the house of the guardian of the forest, without knowing the way, this was providence… The children and the woman saw some house in the field and entered the barn. They entered a stall that also belonged to a Subbotnik. Had they entered another place, they would have fallen into the hands of a Ukrainian who murdered Jews. We entered to the guardian of the forest and waited until night.

They guardian of the forest had a daughter who was as righteous as a rebbetzin. She saw the child and me, the child without boots, etc., and began to weep. She immediately took a dish of cold water and put his feet into the water, and gave him and old sweater. She made us food and said, “Do not leave here now until the group will take you”.

In the meantime, they put us in the barn. It was cold there, and we thought hat we would freeze. On the second night, the Pole brought the woman and children, and we were together again. This was in the winter, December 1943.

Later, the guardian of the forest went to the group and told them, “Now there is no choice, you must take them”. They came at night to take us. The 12 year old girl who was with us already had no strength to walk, so they carried her with their hands.

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We came there and entered into what looked like a palace. We were 23 people in the hiding place. When we entered there, they no longer recognized us, me certainly not… But there was already sufficient food there.

The guardian of the forest provided us food, but not only him. At all times, a group of the people of this religious sect came and brought us bread and other food. We cooked it there. We remained there until the liberation. This lasted for three months, until March 1944. Members of this sect, as well as the daughter of the guardian of the forest came at all times. We sang together, we prayed together – we were already one group.

Russian partisans came to the hiding place in March 1944. They came to tell us that the Russians had already arrived. We then went out of the hiding place and started to walk. We had no more energy to walk along the route – this was in the month of March – but we reached some village where their army was stationed, and where there was also a kitchen. When they saw us they realized that we were Jews. They took us in and gave us food. From there we returned to Podhajce.

The few survivors who remained alive gathered in Podhajce. We were 23, and there were others who returned from among the gentiles. We all went to one room. I went to my neighbor, and he asked, “Who is this Jew?” I looked in the mirror, and I also did not recognize myself.

We remained in Podhajce for a few days, and we heard that the Russians were retreating. It was snowing, and it was difficult to make connections, but we fled along with them. We fled to Skalat and passed Buchach as well. A few hundred people, perhaps a thousand, had remained in Buchach. They did not flee, and they once again fell into the hands of the Germans. We passed through Buchach and reached Skalat.

I was embarrassed to go among people when I arrived in Skalat. I had no button on my clothes anymore. I had some coat that I had received from Zacharechki after they took mine, and I turned it inside out. In Skalat there were storehouses with goods that the Germans had pillaged from the Jews. I went there and looked for something that I could change into, but I did not find anything. Shortly thereafter, I heard that they had liberated Tarnopol. I went to Tarnopol, and there I also went into the storehouse of the Germans. I found some shirts and soap. I also took a backpack. It was hard for me to remain in Tarnopol. I fled from Tarnopol to Mikulinitsy.

In Mikulinitsy I found a family that had survived. I went in to them and said, “Now something must be done…” Among the Russians, there was a Jew who was responsible for the bathhouse. This was an airforce battalion. I went to the bathhouse and cleaned myself thoroughly. I threw out everything that I had, I changed my clothes, and went to the barber to get a haircut.

There was a gentile from Kiev who knew how to speak Yiddish. He asked me, “What do you do, Jew? You need to earn a living; we buy and sell liquor…” I worked there for 3 months, and was already a different person. I had a bit of money. A Jewish doctor who was with the Russians helped me, and gave me some medicine. They gave me some money, and helped me with clothing.

About three months later, after Podhajce was liberated, I returned there. When we arrived in Podhajce, there were already about 50 people, and we lived in two houses. We had to make arrangements, and I was in charge of food distribution. This was strictly a formality, in order to receive a work permit. However, the official from Chortkov did not want to provide me with such. He said to me, “You cannot be a director here; you must open up your own store.” I told him that I was not able to, but he was stubborn and said that I would open up my store and give him a bribe. I did not open up, and he threatened to send me to Dombas. Suddenly someone from the N.K.V.D. came to take me and send me to Dombas. I said to myself, “I was saved to the Germans, and now he will send me to Dombas?"” I said to the man standing guard that I wanted to go home to get something, and I fled. I had money. I paid some gentile some money for the journey, and I reached Tarnopol. I joined the “escape” group in Krakow. We stole across the borders to Czechoslovakia and Austria. From Austria we went to Italy and from Italy to Cyprus.

I made aliya from Cyprus in the first movement. I have already been working in the post office for 16 years. I got married and have a son. I live in Kiryat Shalom, in Tel Aviv.

My Dear Town

How much did I love you, my dear town!
We lived in you for years, my parents and I;
An extended family, involved in community,
With the tradition of generations, with a Jewish essence.

And you yourself – an enchanting, delightful corner;
From you – the “valley” covered with trees,
All covered with grass and flowers,
Giving their aroma – to restore souls.

At the foot of the mountains – a stream flows,
The moon washes its face in its waters,
It sends storehouses of gold exchange,
The river hides them all in its depths.

However all of this was, and is hidden forever,
There is no forgetting and no forgiveness
For everything that was perpetrated by the impure murderers
To my people of Israel and my dear town.

Klara Reich – Elbaum

[Page 215]

The Story of One Family

by Ada Weiss (nee Gross)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Our family lived in peace and tranquility until the outbreak of the Second World War. My parents were well-to-do who attained an honorable social position due to their hard work. My father managed the bakery he owned with great success. A pleasant atmosphere pervaded in the home, primarily thanks to my father, who was an optimist by nature. He conducted himself throughout his entire life in accordance with the adage of our sages: “Who is wealthy – he who is happy with his lot”. My eldest sister was already married. There were three other children at home. As I mentioned, we lived a life of tranquility and comfort until the outbreak of the war.

It is hard to know why our family began to feel the effects of the war immediately after the capture of the government by the Soviet powers. For some reason, my father was entered into the list of Capitalists, and the Soviet authorities confiscated all our property and expelled us from our home. The decree of confiscation did not affect all of the bakeries, even though most of them employed hired workers, as did we. It seems that we were expelled since my father was more successful in his business than others. It is possible that there was also some private accounting of one of the local Communists. In any case it was clear to me that the way this situation was dealt with was completely unjust.

Without having any option, we left our home and went to live in an attic in the home of the Walden family. We moved from a comfortable home to a small, cramped dwelling. Our source of livelihood was lost – we lost everything at one time. We also lived with constant fear that we might be exiled to Siberia. After some time we moved to a more comfortable dwelling in the home of the Friedman family. Thus almost two years passed in fear and distress until the entry of the Germans to the city.

My youngest sister was seriously injured in the only bombardment of Podhajce at the time of the Soviet retreat. She died from her wounds after some time. With the arrival of the Germans, we returned to our home and lived like all the Jews under the yoke of the Nazi occupation. The first year passed in relative quiet. We sold our clothes in order to sustain ourselves in some manner. We went out to backbreaking labor, and we comforted ourselves that the wave of tribulations would pass without affecting us.

Then came the first aktion. This took place on Yom Kippur. My parents went to worship, but it was my turn to go out to work. Suddenly, the German S.S. men arrived in automobiles and the aktion began. Before the Germans surrounded us, I succeeded in removing the band with the Magen David from my shoulder, and I set out as quickly as possible for home. I was fortunate, for despite the fact that many of the Christian residents of our city recognized me, they let me go. I arrived home, and in the interim my parents and brother also arrived home. We all hid in our house. My parents hid in the cellar next to the bakery, and my brother and I in the attic. The bakery workers knew that we were in the house, but they behaved well toward us. They closed the entrance to the bakery and told the Germans that only the employees were in the bakery, and that nobody else was there. Throughout the entire day, we heard from our hiding place the screams and weeping of the Jews who were captured by the Germans. Thus passed the aktion, and we were saved by chance and by a miracle.

After the aktion, my father insisted that our family not remain together, for if we separated, there were greater possibilities to be saved. My brother-in-law Leib Kressel had good connections with the farmers of the region, for he was a wheat merchant and lived among the farmers in Stara Miasto. He arranged a hiding place for my parents with the Babiarchok family in the village of Holendri. Our family found a place with a Ukrainian family in the village of Mozilov. My brother set out with Klar(Kral?) to work in Germany as a Pole, and I also found a place to work as a Pole.

We began to liquidate the household and prepare for our departure – to our respective hiding places or workplaces. My brother and I succeeded in obtaining forged birth certificates and identity cards as Poles.

My brother set out with Kral(Klar?), but he returned after a few days. He felt that it was better to live in the ghetto and be in danger only during the times of the aktions, than to live as a Pole which would imply constant danger. That very day we debated the accuracy of that claim.

My brother returned on a Friday morning, and the second aktion took place on Friday night. When I found out that the aktion had begun, my mother hid with our neighbor in the bunker of the Shulman family. However my father, brother and I went up to the attic, for we had our hiding place there. This time, apparently the employees of the bakery hinted to the Germans that we were hiding in the house. The Germans came with Tovia Breines. They broke down the wooden partitions and took us out of the hiding place. During the incident, my brother jumped from the roof. He broke his leg and one of the Germans shot him. The next day, when my mother left her hiding place, she immediately stumbled over his body. My father and I were taken from the attic, and we began to flee. The German raised his gun, but to our fortune, he had no bullets. When he captured us, he beat us soundly and dragged us to the concentration area in the Stara Targovicza.

From there we succeeded to escape once again (to that end, I bribed a Ukrainian guard with a diamond ring) and we hid in a cellar in one of the nearby buildings, under a pile of coal. However, at nightfall

[Page 216]

before all the people had been cleared from the area of concentration, a German entered the cellar and removed those who had hidden there.

Until the end of my days, I will not forget the gloomy march to the train station. The Jews walked in the middle of the road, men, women and children, all of them tired and broken (after having remained for almost the entire day in the concentration area). The Christian residents of Podhajce stood on both sides of the road and stared at us. At the train station, the loading of the people – men and women separately – began. My father wanted me to enter the men's car as well. He believed that he would succeed in saving himself, and that he would also save me. I refused to enter the men's car, lest they discover me and beat me or kill me. We separated, and I entered the car filled with women and children. These were cars for the transport of cattle, with two small windows on the top. It is hard to describe what took place in this car. We all stood cramped together, for there was no room to sit. The air was dense and foul smelling. The children wept and wailed.

The train began to move after some time. We slowly became accustomed to the dark, and then I realized that the windows were closed with wooden boards and wire. The planks were tied from the outside on one window, and from the inside on the other. We tried to remove the boards from the inside, and with their help, we broke the boards on the outside, and tore the wire. Thus was the route for jumping from the car opened.

Mrs. Heller, a teacher in the high school, was among the women, and she suggested that I be the first to jump from the car. I hesitated to jump, for I was very afraid. I suspected that I might jump as the train was crossing the bridge in Bozhikov-Litvinov, where jumping would be a certain death. The train continued to hurry along its way. It arrived in Potutori and stopped there. Fear overtook me when the train stopped. I was very hungry, and felt a general weakness, for no food passed through my lips all day. Suddenly, I decided to jump from the train. I knew that if I would continue to travel in the train, I would arrive at the Belzec death camp and go up in smoke, and if I would jump, I would have a chance of surviving. While the train was still stopped I went to the window and jumped out. Tzipka Noss, the daughter of the shochet, followed me. We rolled to the side of the train track and started to run. The Germans shot at us, but in the interim, the train began to move and they did not touch us. We intended to run in the direction of Podhajce and return to the city, but as we later discovered, we ran in the opposite direction. In the darkness of the night, we entered the house of the guardian of the forest. We told him that we were Poles, and we had traveled to Lvov with merchandise, but the Germans took all of the merchandise from us since it was forbidden to do business in agricultural products, so we fled in order to save ourselves from arrest. I do not know if the guard believed our story – he was “convinced” only when Tzipka removed her wristwatch and gave it to him. In return for the watch he allowed us to remain with him until the morning. He woke us up early in the morning and sent us along our way. This was also a Sunday. We went on foot. We passed many villages in which the residents looked at us suspiciously, but they did not turn us in.

We returned to Podhajce in the evening. There I found out that my father had also jumped from the train and was saved. My mother had succeeded in burying my dead brother in the interim. The next day I went to my “workplace” which was also my hiding place. A short time later, my father and sister also left the ghetto.

My parents remained in the home of the Babiarchok family in the village of Holendri for 14 months. This was a proper family. They received all of the movable property of my parents, and they were promised that they would receive my father's fields after the war. The head of the household was a good and wise man, but his wife was a bad woman as well as a miser. She treated my parents like dogs. Their hiding place was in the attic above the barn. In the summer it was very hot and in the winter it was very cold. The food was bad and scanty. The potatoes that were served were for the most part hard and cold, and even water was given in an insufficient measure. My father had always liked to drink a lot, and when they came to the barn to give the animals to drink, he asked that they also give him water. However, they would first give the animals to drink, and if there was any water left in the bucket, they would give some to my father.

The relationship between them continued to deteriorate, primarily because this situation lasted longer than they had thought from the outset. Furthermore, the Germans became stricter with their punishments for hiding Jews. This situation continued until March 1944, when the Soviet army arrived in Tarnopol and remained for a day in Podhajce as well. When the Soviet army arrived, my parents decided to leave their hiding place the next morning, but in the meantime the Soviet army retreated, and they were forced to remain in their hiding place for an additional three months, until the final liberation in the summer of 1944.

The relationship between my parents and the family that hid them is very good to this day. My parents continue to send money and valuable packages to them – for after all, they endangered their lives in order to save the lives of my parents.


My married sister, her son, her sister-in-law and her husband Abba Rubinsztok and their son found a hiding place with a Ukrainian family in the village of Mozhilov. My brother-in-law Leib Kressel also joined them when he escaped from the work camp in Tarnopol.

This Ukrainian family belonged to the Bendera (Benderovches) organization. They regretted that they had granted refuge to Jews, and they began to pressure the two families and demand that they leave their hiding place. On account of the pressure, the two men, my brother-in-law Leib Kressel and his brother-in-law Abba Rubinsztok left the village of Mozhilov in order to find a different hiding place.

[Page 217]

They were caught by their neighbors in Holendri and murdered. This took place close to the house in which my parents were hidden, and my mother mentioned that she heard the shots and felt that someone from the family was killed.

After the murder of the two men, the Ukrainians let the women and children remain in their hiding place. They remained in the bunker under very difficult conditions, suffering from hunger and thirst. My sister became very ill as a result of remaining in the bunker, and to this day, her legs hurt her as a result of this illness.

In March 1944, when the Soviet army arrived in Podhajce for one day, the two women and their children succeeded in escaping to Skalat. They all fled barefoot, with their feet covered in fags. Only after the liberation of Podhajce in June 1944 did they return to their city.


The work place that my brother-in-law Leib Kressel found for me was with the Czewa family. Mr. Czewa was of German origin, from the village of Bekersdorf. At the outbreak of the war, he worked as the secretary of the city hall in Staro Miasto, from where he knew my brother-in-law. During the period of the German occupation, Czewa was appointed as director and supervisor of several farms in the region of Berezany. He was an educated and cultured man, and he related to me well during the entire time that I was in his house.

His wife was also a good woman who deported herself with simplicity. To this day, it is hard for me to understand what moved them to employ me in their house and thereby endanger their lives. It is possible that they wished to prepare an alibi for themselves in the event of the change of regime. After his appointment as the director of five farms, the family moved to the region of his new work. This family had four children, and I moved along with them as a house maid and nanny to the children.

We lived on a large farm in the village of Hinowicza near Berezany. I indeed worked hard, but in return I had good conditions: a clean bed, plentiful food, and freedom of movement. These were conditions that of which a Jewess could not dream of during the era of Nazi rule. At first, they were suspicions about my origins, but I told everyone that the Soviets had exiled my parents to Siberia and I remained alone. I was very afraid lest my origins be revealed, even though externally I did not look Jewish and my Polish accent was flawless. Nevertheless, I imagined every night that the Germans were liable to find me out and murder me.

Once, a strange and dangerous event took place to me During the time of the second aktion, when they placed us in the train cars, a sum of money was given to one of the Germans who promised to not lock the door of the car in return for this. Needless to say, the German did not fulfil his promise. A long time after we arrived in Hinowicza, Mrs. Czewa sent me to serve tea to the German officer who had come to visit the farm. I entered the office with the tea, and to my surprise I saw before me the German who had been bribed in the Podhajce train station. I was frightened and my knees knocked, but I immediately overcame my fear. I thought in my heart: there were so many people there, and it is impossible that the German would remember me and recognize me.

We arrived in Hinowicza at the end of 1942, and remained there for an entire year. At that time, the Benderovches began to attack the farms, set them on fire, and kill the German supervisors. There, I was restricted in my movements, and I attempted to refrain from going out on the street, since the place was close to Podhajce, and someone was liable to recognize me. As the front approached to Berezany and the Germans retreated, Mr. Czewa, his wife, and two of his children fled to Lvov. Mrs. Czewa's sister and the two other children remained with me in Berezany in order to guard the family property. We all remained there until the Soviet army arrived in the summer of 1944.

Immediately after the liberation, Mrs. Czewa's sister traveled to Podhajce in order to find out if any of my family had survived. She immediately returned with the happy news that my parents had survived and are in Podhajce, and my sister and her son are in Skalat.

Of course I immediately hurried home on foot. The appearance of the city frightened me. Wherever one turned there was destruction and ruins. The stores in the market square were in ruins, and nobody was on the streets. Thus did I arrive on the street where our house stood. From afar I saw a barefoot woman wearing a winter robe (it was the middle of the summer), with a red tie serving as a belt. I thought to myself, “Who is this strange creature!” As I approached her, I realized that it was my mother. She was bloated, and she had a frightful appearance with this “splendid” garb. “Mother, mother!”, I shouted at her, and I did not believe that my mother looked like that.

My father sat on the steps of the house. He was also barefoot, of course, and wearing tattered pants. The joy of this reunion cannot be described. I remained at home for only one day, for I had obligations to the Czewa family. I remained with their children for two more months, until I succeeded in selling some of the property, and transferred what was not sold to Lvov. In the autumn of 1944, after I brought the Czewa children and the rest of their property to Lvov, I returned home. We remained in Podhajce until the end of the war, and immediately thereafter, in May 1945, we arrived in the Silesia region of Poland.

We lived in the city of Walbrzych in Silesia. There my widowed sister got married, and I also found my match. My parents made aliya to the Land in 1949, and my sister in 1950. My family and I made aliya only in 1956. My husband worked as a chief engineer in a large factory, and the Polish government was not anxious to authorize the departure of people with academic skills.

[Page 218]

From Podhajce to Soviet Russia

by Yosef Kressel

(A section of testimony from Yad Vashem)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

… In September 1939, the Soviet armies entered Podhajce. The life of our family did not undergo any serious changes with regard to this. My father continued to manage his tailoring workshop, and I continued to attend the public school. Of course, with the arrival of the Soviet army, organized activities of the Zionist youth, to which I belonged, ceased.

Podhajce was a typical Jewish town in Eastern Galicia until the outbreak of the Second World War. The population of the town included 7,000 Jews, 2,000 Ukrainians and 1,000 Poles. The vast majority of the Jewish population was poor. The youth had no good prospects for the future, despite the fact that the desire of the youth was for education and knowledge even with the difficult conditions, and they streamed in their masses to technical schools and even to universities. At the conclusion of their studies, they joined the ranks of the unemployed holders of academic degrees. The only factories in the city were a factory for wood and a flourmill. The Jews worked in commerce and services. There were several Ukrainian villages and one Polish village surrounding the town.

The Ukrainian population was extreme nationalists. Prior to the war, the Ukrainians in the region of Podhajce and its environs commenced serious activity toward the aim of self-determination. As a result of this, several “pacifications” were conducted by the Polish authorities: that is, activities to promote peace and order by means of punishments and judgements – after which the Ukrainians would live in quiet.

After these regions were annexed to the Soviet Union, the Ukrainians raised their heads. The Hitlerist agents were particularly active in their regions, and the Russians revealed that Hitler's men had a particularly great influence in these regions.

Immediately after September, 1939, the Ukrainian nationalists began widespread terrorist activity, and the representatives of the Soviet government fell victim to their attacks. As a result of the counter-activity from the government, there were many expulsions of participants in these activities and Germans to remote regions of the Soviet Union.

With this situation, the war of Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union broke out on June 22, 1941. The Germans bombarded Podhajce on the first day of the war. My father was injured on his head by a piece of shrapnel from a bomb.

Even though Podhajce was located near the border, the invading Germans refrained from conquering all of the areas immediately. They conquered our city only after two weeks. In the meantime, the Russians succeeded in evacuating their families. They told the local population not to leave, so that Podhajce would not fall to the enemy. Indeed, one morning, we realized the true situation as we saw that the Soviet authorities had retreated completely from the city. In this situation, it was impossible to postpone the escape. The route to Monasterzyska was almost completely open, but there was nobody with whom to travel.

Father, Mother and two of their children succeeded in finding a place in a wagon. In the meantime, my brother and I went to search for and purchase bread. However, when we returned, we no longer found the wagon. I was separated from my brother during the confusion that ensued in the city. He had set out eastward, whereas I had prepared to set out with an organized group of approximately 20 youths. We succeeded in finding our way and crossing the old border with Russia. We reached the city of Zhitomir on foot. The group broke up in this city during the bombardment, and I remained alone.

I immediately presented myself to the Voynkomet and requested to be enlisted as a volunteer to the army. I was not yet 17 years old, and aside from this, I was short. The army did not want to accept me, but they turned me over to a work brigade that was sent to Melitopol. We worked there in digging ditches to protect the approach to Kachovka. Throughout the time of my work, I attempted to convince them to send me to the battlefront, but without success. Instead of this, they placed me among the guards of the armaments trains. I was slightly wounded along the way. Then, they transferred me to Stalingrad for an investigation. There, they issued a decision without the option of appeal that I was too short and too young for the army. I was fired from my assistance work in the army in November, 1941.

(The chapters that follow in this testimony include details on: a) the journey to the Polish general Anders and the kolkhoz; b) the strike of the Jews in the kolkhoz; c) meeting my brother; d) “The organization of the Jewish brigade”; e) protecting the important strategic position; f) being wounded for the second time and the hospital; g) organizational work and being turned over for judgement.)

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Subbotniks refers to Sabbatarians, and would be akin to Seventh Day Adventists – although that is not how they are known in Polish. Return

  2. I do not know to what this is referring. Return

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