Nineteen Days of the German-Polish War,
by Moshe Lev (the son of Yaakov Michel Lev)
Translated by Jerrold Landau
At the outbreak of the war between Germany and Poland, the dread of the approaching Nazi enemy fell upon the Jews. Their fear increased with the rapid advent of the Germans. Then we found out in Ruzhany that the enemy was approaching Brest-Litovsk. Something like this had never been heard of before -- that such large areas were conquered in such a short time. Everyone was wondering how it could be that the Germans succeeded in crossing hundreds of kilometers of enemy territory within a few days? How did they penetrate so deeply into the warring country with the clap of one hand? And when the news later arrived that the Germans had reached the nearby city of Pruzhany with six tanks, the youth of Ruzhany fled to Batun on their route to Russia. Leibel Babicz (Moshe's brother) came after those who were fleeing, riding on a bicycle, and told them that the Germans had retreated, and that White Russia all the way to Brisk, including Ruzhany, will belong to Russia.
The youth returned. Gentiles from the village of Bereznica, who were known as Communists, immediately arrived to Ruzhany armed and organized the guarding of the city. The Poles fled.
On September 17, we waited impatiently for the arrival of the Russians. We went out to greet them with flowers in our hands. We were informed of the approach of the Russians from the nearby town of Slonim. There was great joy when their first tank arrived. Everyone wished each other Mazel Tov.
The new guard began. The Russian police and post office were housed in Sobol's two-story house. Through them, the young Communists ran the civic affairs. These included David Rabinowich, who was the director of the sawmill and flower mill of Pines; and Chaikel Wissotzky (the son of Simcha the hat maker) who became the director of the hide factory. Yaakov Meir Maruchnik, a tanner from the Other Side of the River Lane, who was not previously known at all as a Communist activist, became one of the most active members in the Communist movement after that time. Obviously, when the Communist rule began, he was appointed by the government as a representative to the Minsk Soviet.
During the first days of Russian rule, disarray fell upon the city. Several of the wealthy people and merchants of the city, including Noach Pines and his family, Chaim Turn and his family, and Yekutiel Sherman were deported to Siberia. Difficult life began in the city itself. The shops, which still remained open for a brief time, closed. As well, the independent tradesmen were not able to maintain their stand, and were forced to join one of the cooperative groups and receive the wages of a worker. For the most part, the workers remained without work. I, for example, worked for the tailor Chaim Kimerman. They joined him to the tailors' cooperative group, for he had a machine, but I, as the employee, was not accepted for the reason that I did not have a machine, so I was let go from my work.
I was forced to work in the forest. When I did not have work in the city, I suspected that they would send me out
from my city to another work place. The door could have opened at any moment, and one of the young Communist workers -- David Rabinowich, Chaikel Wissotzky, the Kaganowicz brothers, and Sheindel Joselwicz -- could come to inform me that I must travel to work in such and such a place that is outside our city. This indeed happened. Once I was sent to dig a ditch near Kobrin where the Russians had demanded workers. The young activists in the city fulfilled their request, as usual. I was very happy when I returned home, for a person's food supply was more secure in his home, where he had stockpiled stuff beforehand.
Therefore, I made efforts to obtain work in the city, so that I could remain there. I worked at digging mortar and other jobs, as is written, with mortar and bricks, so that I would not be sent outside the bounds of the city.
It was difficult to obtain bread. In order to do so, one had to get up in the night and stand in line in order to be among the first to receive the kilogram of bread. People wasted a great deal of time standing in the lineup. There were those who put their allotment away and then stood in line once more to receive an additional kilogram, for what would a person not do to sustain himself and his family? People also received clothing by standing in line for a long time. People even stood in line to obtain liquor, even those people who did not use it for drinking, but rather for selling. The vodka was received for a cheap price and later sold for an inflated price, which of course lightened the budget of the person.
On April 23, two months before the outbreak of the war between Germany and Russia, the Russians drafted people from the 1918-1919 age cohort. The draftees from Ruzhany at that time included: me, Yosef Lev, the son of Yaakov Michel Lev the shoemaker (today in the Land); b) Moshe Babich (today in the Land); c) Moshe Foksman the grandson of Chasha Malka's (today in the Land); d) Itsha Yosha Brazovsky the son of Rafael the Kotlier. He was killed in an accident in Poland while riding on his bicycle after the war; e) Yitzchak Gamerman, who went missing, apparently killed during the war; f) Yaakov Slonimsky the grandson of Leibitshka the doctor (today in America). However, the Russians did not draft everyone of that cohort, for those they did not trust were not called up and were exempt. Among those were Moshe Karlinski the son of the formerly wealthy man Anshel, and others. After a short time, the following people were also drafted: g) Moshe Berman the son of Shlomi Stier's (today in Leningrad); h) Bulia Krolitzky the son of Simcha the Brukirer (the paver).
I left the city when I was drafted, and I was far away from everything that took place there and was decreed against it from that time
by Meir Sokolovsky
Translated by Jerrold Landau
With the entry of the Russians, weeks and months of getting accustomed to the new living conditions ensued. The merchants whose stores were liquidated and closed remained without a staff of bread. Many other people of the city were also left without livelihood. Both groups looked for work so that they could sustain themselves. They transferred from job to job because they could not get used to difficult work conditions due to their older age, or because a job that they had started with had ended, and they had to look
for another. In most cases, the salary was insufficient for livelihood. Roza Michnovsky writes:
I only earned 180 rubles as a teacher, and this only met my needs with difficulty. Father worked and only earned 150 rubles.
How did Roza suddenly become a teacher during the Russian era? We learn this and many other things from those days from the letters of David-Noach Sokolovsky. His letter of May 14, 1940 states:
We did not suffer from the retreat of the Polish army. Shimon returned from the army. Father is working. We are healthy, earning money, and satisfied. The Germans did not reach us. Today we feel ourselves calm and secure under the protection of the mighty Red Army and in our great homeland the U.S.S.R. I organized the school in the town. Ethel and Michla are taking a short course that will enable them to be teachers. Roza is with them as well. They receive stipends that enable them to study and complete the course.He tells in his letter of September 9, 1940:
I already do not live in the town, but rather in a village called Milkhovich, a distance of 14 kilometers from Ruzhany. I come to town once a week on the outing day. (This is what Sunday was called, which was a day off for everyone regardless of religion and nationality.)From this letter we learn that the Jewish Sabbath did not exist as a rest day for the Jews during the Russian era. It was not only the Sabbath that disappeared from the horizon. Even before this, the Tarbut Hebrew School had disappeared. We read about this in a letter from David-Noach on November 2, 1940:
It was good for Miriam, for she completed her year with excellence, despite the abnormal conditions. She was studying in the sixth grade in the gymnasium, and was forced to change her language of study three times in a brief period. At first she studied in the Tarbut Hebrew Gymnasium, where the language of instruction was Hebrew. When it was closed by the government, she was forced to transfer to a Polish gymnasium, with the national language being the language of instruction. From there, she transferred to a Belorussian high school, with Belorussian as the language of instruction.The letter of January 13, 1941, tells that Miriamka was not disappointed, and completed her studies with excellence.
David-Noach's wanderings had not yet finished, and he tells in his letter of February 27, 1941:
I am studying the German Language in the Pod-Institut in Bialystock. When I finish this upper level school, I will be able to teach German in secondary schools. Write to me at[Page 153]
the Ruzhany address, for my own address is not permanent, as you have found out. For some time, I was situated in my city, then they suddenly transferred me to a village, and now I am in the large city of Bialystock. By the time you answer me, I may very well be in some other place.With these last words, and in another sentence in one of his last letters: Oh would it be that we will see the end of the war, and be able to see each other or at least hear good news from each other. -- we can see that he suspected in his heart what might come. Indeed, these things suddenly came more than we could have suspected, and far more than we or they could even describe.
by Chana Kirshstein
Translated by Jerrold Landau
In July 1941, two weeks after the invasion of the Germans and their entry to the areas of White Russia, I, Chana Kirstein -- a native of Kalusz -- and my husband Julian Kirstein arrived in Ruzhany. We had come from Volkovisk. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, we fled from Kalusz to Volkovisk, and now, with the entry of the Germans, we moved to Ruzhany.
|Heda Chana Kirstein|
During the first days of the German-Russian war, the Germans heavily bombed Volkovisk. Most of the houses of the Jewish quarter there went up in flames, and we did not have any place to live. My husband took a map in his hands and said, Since the city of Ruzhany is located a distance of 50 kilometers from Volkovisk, and has no train station, it will be quieter there. Aside from this, we have acquaintances there, the members of the Miller family from Kutno. At a time of difficulty, it is good to be together with close people. We packed our few belongings and moved to Ruzhany.
The First Victims
About ten days after we arrived in the town, the first victims fell, including my husband and the teacher David-Noach Sokolovsky, another acquaintance from Kalusz, where he had worked for ten years as a teacher. It took place like this: My husband, David-Noach Sokolovsky, Mr. Miller and I were in the house of Mottel Zazhvir, working on political matters. Among other things, we talked about the ghetto that the Germans wanted to set up in the town in the near future. It was twilight. We suddenly heard noise on the street. We went out in order to hurry home. According to the decree of the German government, we had to be closed into our houses before dark, a time when a Jew was not allowed to be found on the streets. We saw Germans on the streets, who ordered us to run to the Great Synagogue. I wanted to run along with my husband, but the Germans did not allow it, and commanded me to go home, promising me that my husband would return immediately. The Germans rounded up approximately 1,000 men next to the synagogue. Indeed, Jews were not gathered from every street. Zazhvir, for example, who did not go outside, remained in his house. The Germans placed the men who were gathered together into rows, with their faces toward the wall of the synagogue
and pointed machine guns at them from behind. The men thought that their end had come. The fear of death fell upon them. The Germans approached the men who were standing and asked them their professions. Those who mentioned that they were tailors, bakers, or other tradesmen were asked to remain in place. My husband who said that he was an electrician, David-Noach Sokolovsky who said that he was a teacher, Yaakov Kaplan who said he was a bank official, and other members of the intelligentsia whose names I do not know, approximately 15 in number, were ordered to board a vehicle that transported them to an unknown place. They were taken at nightfall. The heart predicted bad things.
|From right to left, standing: Michla, David-Noach and Ethel.
Sitting: Miriamka Sokolovsky
The Germans informed the Judenrat that there is a possibility to redeem the prisoners for a specific sum of silver and gold. I removed my ring and gave it over. As a refugee, I had no other gold. Other people gave over their silver and gold, and the Germans obtained more than they had demanded. However, we did not see our loved ones again.
I decided to go and search for my husband in the fields, villages and forests, to find him alive or dead. The teachers Ethel and Michla Sokolovsky, David-Noach's sisters, wanted to join me, but their mother told them that her heart was telling her that David-Noach, her dear son, was no longer among the living, so why should she lose them as well? I went out alone despite the mortal danger on the route. I reached as far as Pushcha Bilobiska, and to 20 kilometers beyond Slonim. I searched, but for naught. The gentiles said that the Germans took the fifteen outside the town, shot them and buried them.
Fear and Oppression
The fear and oppression grew continuously, even though we sensed such even before. A few days before the murder of my husband, a German came to our house and asked my mother, who was peering from the window, whether there was a Jew present. My mother was astounded, and did not know how to act. If she said that there was not, and they entered and found one, they would kill him without doubt. She answered the Germans, Yes... Yes... The Germans commanded that he be brought out. My husband went out to the Germans, and they took him to work. When my husband returned from work healthy and whole, we were very happy, for a Jew was forfeit, and his life was hanging by a hook at any second.
I said that my mother was peering out the window. Why? Because with our great oppression and broken hearts, we waited for a miracle from Heaven that might bring the Nazi nightmare to an end. At night, when we sat imprisoned in our houses, gathered in our corners, our minds were filled with only one thought: would it be that the night would pass, and we will get up in the morning with a different face on the world, and that
the dread of the Nazis would disappear. We would lift up the curtains a bit from the windows and peer outside to see what was transpiring on the street. When we saw a German approaching, looking sad, we would be comforted that apparently they had suffered a defeat, and our salvation was very near.
However, the salvation was far off from us, and the oppression and degradation that began at the moment of the entry of the Germans to the town continually increased. I was absent from the town during the first weeks of Nazi rule, but the Ruzhany residents told me that various decrees were imposed on the Jews immediately upon the entry of the Germans. First of all, every Jew was obligated to fasten a yellow band on his clothing; it was forbidden for a Jew to walk on the sidewalk -- he must set his path in the middle of the street along with the animals; every Jew had to remove his hat before a German; and other such decrees.
Immediately after their entry, the Germans appointed a Judenrat from amongst the community notables. Among others, members included Shlomo Jezrenisky. Some of the members of the Judenrat served as guarantors who would receive harsh punishments if the decrees of the Germans were not carried out in full. The Judenrat appointed Jewish policemen, whose job was to carry out the decrees of the German regime and the requests of the Judenrat. The headquarters of the Judenrat was in the Great Synagogue.
One of the tasks of the Judenrat was to find people for forced labor on a daily basis. The workers received only a piece of bread in payment. The men worked at gardening, paving roads, and other such jobs. The women cleaned the floors of the houses of the Germans and washed their linens. Despite the difficulty of the work, people went willingly, for they received a meager piece of bread for their work.
After the proclamation of these first commands, the Germans gathered the Jews in the town marketplace -- as was told to me by Ruzhany natives -- men, women and children, and placed them in lines. The Germans mocked them, poured water on them, and commanded several Jews to dance before them. The gentiles stood around and laughed at the straits of the Jews. Many of the Jews were beaten with murderous blows for no fault at all. Thus began the first days of physical and spiritual oppression, which did not let up for one moment. The cheders and schools were closed by the Germans as soon as they took control. The spiritual decline, which led to physical neglect, began immediately after they came.
All of this took place in the first weeks, before I came to Ruzhany. Daily and hourly torments disturbed the calm of the Jews. However, the murderous acts had yet to start. About ten days after we arrived in the town, the terrible murder of 15 city notables and refugees took place. Before the wound of the disappearance of these people had healed, a new terrible blow was perpetrated against the population of the city. Several Jews were imprisoned as apparent Communists, including
Sara Gamerman, who was indeed secretary of the district committee during the Russian era. A monetary fine was again imposed in order to free the prisoners. Once again, the required sum was collected, but once again our brothers and children did not return to us. They never returned. The mourning and grief grew. The feeling that we were imprisoned without an exit oppressed us endlessly.
The fear was so great that we were afraid to go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur lest the murderers take the opportunity to surround the synagogue and kill us. Only a small number of people endangered themselves to attend the synagogue despite everything. Most of the people went out to work.
The establishment of the ghetto, about which our dear ones talked on the day of their and our tragedy, was created a short time after their deaths. We were locked into a narrow ghetto, in which there were a small number of houses. Its eastern boundary ran from the house of the Tuchman family until the Kanal Stream. There were only four houses along this boundary. To the west of this boundary, the ghetto only included the Shulhauf. Most of the other Jewish houses were given to gentiles and Germans. This tiny area of the narrow ghetto housed the thousands of Jews of the town along with the refugees.
The crowding was terrible. For example, the Tuchman house, which consisted of two small rooms and a dark kitchen, housed four families: 1) the Tuchman family consisting of a mother and her daughter Gisha. (Mrs. Tuchman's son Moshe was not with us. He was taken to work in a certain area and was not in the town when we were later removed from Ruzhany). 2) My mother and I. 3) Moshka Goldin (he later died in the bunkers of Volkovisk). 4) Miller and his wife.
We maintained the hygiene despite the crowding. We drew water for washing as well as drinking from the wells.
Obtaining Food Provisions
Man does live by water alone. Food is also required. From where can food be obtained, if we were forbidden to leave the ghetto to purchase food? What did they do? Some people snuck out secretly to purchase food. There was no fence around the ghetto. A Jew was forbidden from buying meat and butter. If a German saw a Jewish child eating a piece of bread and butter, he would ask the child where he lived. When the child innocently responded to the question, the German would enter the house of the parents of the child and beat the parents soundly. The parents would later recite Birchat Hagomel since the German was satisfied with only beatings. A gentile was permitted to bring foodstuffs for sale outside the bounds of the ghetto. However, the gentiles acted craftily and snuck the food into the ghetto in order to sell. Of course, they received full value for every provision, and when the money ran out they were given the equivalent of money in the form of clothing and other objects.
The Jewish settlements near Ruzhany remained in existence, and they greatly eased the situation. I worked for some time in the settlement of Konstantinova. We received potatoes and other vegetables from the farmers of the settlements.
I also obtained wood for heating. How? The gentiles would bring the wood mainly to Germans, and they gave some of the wood to Ida Kaplan, the daughter of Yaakov, who had been murdered. How was Ida able to do this? She was a laundress for them. She gave some of the wood that she received to me. Despite everything, it would have been possible to manage somehow. In some manner, it was possible to work
and remain alive, had the Germans not later taken us out of the town to the bunkers in Volkovisk and from there to the ovens.
Everyone obtained some sort of work. Gisha Tuchman was a weaver, who created very fine items. She had plenty of work, but in return all she received was bread and marmalade. This meager food was insufficient to sustain the body in a state of proper health, and therefore her work quota declined.
The shoemakers and tailors had plenty of work. The Germans needed various types of clothes to be sewn for themselves. Often, a German would demand from some tradesman or another that they give preference to his order over the order of another German. Yaakov Pitkovsky the harness maker had plenty of work, as did the other tradesmen. The Germans also employed people at the hide factory in the town. The Germans exported the lions' share of its products to Germany, but they kept a portion locally for the needs of the Germans of the town.
The Life of the Jews Becomes Cheap
The life of the Jews became wanton. There were no bounds to the torment and degradation. Once a German entered the home of Shlomka and Ethel Pitkovsky. When he saw their pretty eldest daughter, he desired her and attempted to take her. He threatened that if she did not go with him, he will kill the entire family. The girl raised a loud cry. The cries were heard in the ghetto. Fear and trembling took hold of everyone, but they could not offer help. We were lacking in means. A miracle happened in that the German became startled from the outcry and left her alone.
A Jewish refugee living in the town was working as a translator for the Germans. This refugee kept his distance from the Jews, and even educated his son as a gentile. One day, the Germans hanged this refugee in the middle of the marketplace before everyone. Apparently, this translator knew too much. Thus, this person who distanced himself from his nation gained nothing from such.
The Germans would impose various punitive fines (contributions) upon the Jews of the town. They demanded that the Jews give them beds, bedding, closets, clothing, kitchen utensils, and tableware. When winter came, the Judenrat received a command to provide fine, clean blankets. The district policemen were sent out to bring what was demanded, but a Jew would get out of giving over the little that he still possessed by sending the policeman to his Jewish neighbor who was apparently more wealthy than he. Thus, disputes broke out between the Jewish policeman on one side, and their neighbors on the other. In such a manner, the Germans fomented strife among brothers, and this internal strife further degraded us. Finally, we were forced to give over what was demanded, for if the Judenrat did not fulfill the demands of the Germans, the members of the Judenrat, the Jewish police and the Jews themselves would be held accountable.
Aside from the official punitive fines, the Germans did not hold back from demanding additional money from the Jews, for who told them what to do? Often, a German would take a Jew out of his house, bring him to the German's house, and order him to do various jobs without any payment at all. On the contrary, he would also give the Jew an appropriate beating accompanied by a false charge, as if the Jew was responsible for the war. And he, the accursed Jew was the prime cause for Germans having to wander off afar.
Once I met a German on the road, and he called me to work for him. I went, for what choice was there? The German told me to clean a slaughtered fowl. I did my job and took comfort that I might receive a small piece of meat in exchange for my work. When I gave the German the cleaned goose, he demanded that I clean it more. I worked once again. Then he told me to cut it up, for he wished to send the goose to his family in Germany. I did as he asked. However, he fell upon me with curses: You stupid, accursed, dirty Jewess, you cut it up too much. How can this get there in this manner? I was happy that I left healthy and whole, albeit without payment.
Pillage in the Houses of the Town
Once again, they expelled us all from our houses to the meadow (Voyan) that was behind the bathhouse. Even the gentiles were expelled from their houses this time. This public tribulation was a sort of half comfort. If we were together as Jews and gentiles, the matter is not all that bad. As both groups stood together, the Germans passed through the houses of the Jews and the gentiles and stole everything that they could. They found almost nothing in the houses of the Jews. Therefore, they stole from the houses of the gentiles, which had no small amount of pillaged Jewish property. With all this, the Jews were punished once again. The gentiles accused them of bringing the tribulation of the pillage onto them as well. For example, the house of the gentile Botkovich was full of all sorts of good things, for his daughter was the friend of the German mayor (Amst Kommissar). When this gentile returned from his field and discovered that his treasures had been pillaged, he blamed Ida Kaplan, the daughter of Yaakov, who had been murdered, for causing the plunder of his home. How? That day, she did the laundry in a German home, who was delayed in going out to the field on account of her. She, the neighbor of Botkovich, directed the Germans to his house. Therefore, he threatened to kill her and her entire family, mother along with children. Ida and her brother wept, fell before his feet, pleaded, and swore that Ida was innocent of any wrongdoing. The Germans themselves knew how to get into every home. The sight was terrifying. The life of the Jews was forfeit from the time that the Germans entered, and every gentile could murder them. Were it not for the fact that this Botkovich received his entire fortune back with the help of his daughter, who was the friend of the German mayor, who knows what the fate of the Kaplan family might have been.
As mentioned, this Ida Kaplan earned her bread from washing the linens of the Germans. At times, she also included me in this work. Once, we went after work to bring the washed laundry to the house of a German. He came out quickly and in confusion, as he ordered us to flee for our lives, for a guest captain was inside the house. This captain had gotten angry and asked, How come there are so many Jews wandering about here? In Minsk, they have already liquidated all of them. We fled, of course without receiving a piece of brown bread with marmalade in payment. We were happy that we had escaped from death.
We Wanted to Go Out to the Forest
It was April 1942. The frightful Nazi rule had already lasted for three-quarters of a year. Spring time arrived, but the winds of death hovered over us. Gisha Tuchman, Ethel and Michla Sokolovsky, and I along with other young men and women decided to go out and join the partisans in the forests. Luck had it that, at that time, two youths from Slonim reached us in a state of great perplexity. They told us that they had fled from their city in which the Germans had murdered most of the Jews, and were setting out to the forests in order to join the partisans. However, it became clear that we had gone from the skillet to the frying pan. The forest was swarming with hungry and naked Russian soldiers, who were no less dangerous than the Germans themselves. They would attack every person entering the forest, pillaging everything from them, stripping them of their clothes, and taking their lives as well. There was a double danger for women, for they did not hold back from rape. (These Russian soldiers were unable to leave the forests and surrender to the Germans, for the Germans were murdering them by the hundreds and thousands.) The two youths did not return to the forest, but rather remained in Ruzhany. The mother of the Sokolovsky girls, who was not pleased with them going out to the forest on account of the danger, was very happy that this was canceled.
The Words of Warning of a German
Germans would often come to our house to have their watches fixed by Moshka Goldin the watchmaker. One Friday, as the Tuchman mother and my mother were lighting the Sabbath candles in a corner of the room so that they would not be seen outside, a German entered with his head down. We were astounded at his appearance. He opened his mouth and said, Hitler, Hitler! How far have you gone with your evil deeds? A great deal of culpability rests upon you and your conscience! The blood of the Jews of Slonim who had been taken out and murdered this morning in their pajamas, shouts until the hearts of the heaven. Flee, oh Jews, hide in hiding places, and save yourselves. We said to ourselves that the bad spirit of this bearer of tidings was due to a defeat that the Germans had suffered, and therefore he is telling us these stories of atrocities, so that we would not rejoice.
However, a Ruzhany girl who had fled from Slonim, and a few other people who had come out of the pits into which they were tossed after the shootings, and had by chance not been injured and were able to escape after the German murderers left, confirmed the atrocities.
We prepared a hiding place. We constructed a double wall in our wood storage shed in our yard. This would be our hiding place when we would be taken out to be killed (the aktion). However, we did not have a chance to use it, for when a decree was issued shortly thereafter that all of the Jews would be taken out from the town to work camps, there was no reason to remain in the hiding place, where we would be found and murdered.
Relative calm pervaded in the summer of 1942, before we were taken out of the town. We did not realize that this was the calm before the storm. The Germans then permitted us to purchase foodstuffs and prepare them for the approaching winter, our second winter under the Nazi yoke. I prepared potatoes in the cellar, as well as butter in a pot for my mother. However, I did not have any meat. I did not realize that we were preparing this for the murderers.
The Day of Deportation
The terrible day of November 2, 1942, arrived. During the entire previous night, the bicycles of the Germans buzzed around in the darkness of the silent night as usual. We, who were closed into the houses all night,
were unable to sleep this time, for our hearts prophesied ill tidings. Masses of Germans swarmed around the city. Polish policemen helped them. At dawn, the Judenrat was informed that all of the Jews must gather immediately in the meadow (Voyan) behind the bathhouse. Everyone must take only a bundle of clothing. Every person should also take his silver, gold and jewelry, if he has such left, for they will be not returning to their homes, but rather going to a labor camp. The bundles must be placed in the wagons that the farmers had provided in accordance with the command of the Germans. The children will be transported in the wagons as well. The adults will walk on foot. Many did not believe that their destination was a work camp, and did not take anything. Everyone thought about escaping. The edict stated that if one person of a family is missing, those remaining would be shot. People streamed across the meadow. With perplexed eyes, they parted from their houses and their native town in which they, their parents, and many preceding generations first saw the light of the world. Women screamed. Children cried. A few went along quietly. Along the way, I wanted to commit suicide. A German who saw me called out to me, You are crazy, you are going to a work camp.
Our eyes looked upon the houses of worship that stood silently. Sonia Ivan the seamstress, who married the refugee Fuchs of Kalusz during the time of Russian rule, approached the great synagogue, and left her eight-week old child there saying, Perhaps someone will come and take him, and he will live. I told her to take the child now, but she refused.
In the morning, the meadow was full. The children were tossed onto the wagons. Babies were also tossed on them. Everything became one heap. The danger of suffocation existed for many children. When one mother approached to remove her baby from the heap and place it in a more comfortable place, she was shot dead on the spot.
On the Way
The order was given, and the caravan moved along the dirt road of approximately 50 kilometers long that led from Ruzhany to Volkovisk. Immediately with the first steps, a woman who was limping and was not able to keep up with the required speed was shot. The armed Germans rode on horses, and the people were forced almost to run. Whoever stumbled during the brisk walk was shot on the spot.
It was an unbearably hot day. The dust that was raised by the footsteps of thousands of people marching on the dirt path was choking to the dry throats. We licked aluminum pots in order to cool our burning lips. It was no wonder that many children, particularly those who were 7 - 8 years of age, jumped from the wagons and attempted to moisten their dry lips when they saw a river or even some sort of sewage pit. The Germans mowed them down with machine guns. The gentiles related that the route was strewn with corpses. Many mothers who were moving along separately from their children did not know at all that their children had been murdered. The Germans behaved as wild beasts. They became angry and shot mercilessly at the smallest infractions. Everything was in order to instill their fear!
Along the way, a Polish policeman shouted to us, Escape! They are taking you to slaughter! We did not believe him. We continued on in a group. It was perhaps better and safer together. We were afraid to take one step to the side. It is hard for me today to believe this. Whoever has not experienced this cannot understand it.
The fear was very great. A person was not a person. At the sight of every house, everyone thought: I was unable to remain in that house. Next to every pit, everyone thought, I was unable to disappear there. The youth comforted themselves, We are young, they will take us to work.
We reached Podroisk toward the evening. There we stopped to spend the night on the street. We met with our brethren in tribulation, the natives of Liskova. Bonfires were lit around us all night, so that we would not escape in the dark. Here was given the one and only chance for mothers to nurse their children. A slice of bread was distributed to each person.
The next day, we continued on our terrifying journey until we reached Volkovisk. We were placed in bunkers. Along the way to the bunkers, the mother of Tuchman found comfort in reading letters from her son in the Land.
In the Bunkers in Volkovisk
Each family began to gather together once we were brought into the camp of bunkers. Mothers searched for their Moshele, Shlomole, Rivkele and Miriamke. Only then did they find out how many of them were lost along the way. Heartrending weeping shook up the air of the earth.
Here was a Ruzhany native with a baby in his arms. His wife had been murdered in the concentration area in the meadow when she tried to straighten the seat of that baby. He approached a German and asked him to shoot the baby, saying, His mother has been killed, and I have no milk for him. Shoot him. The so-called merciful German fulfilled the request of the poor father and shot the baby. I stood there and wept bitterly. This took place before my eyes. The father remained alive, because he had three other young children and how could he leave them alone?
The hot day passed. Evening came. The cold worsened. A heavy dew covered the ground upon which we rested all night.
The next day, members of the Kaplan family and another family were brought by car from Ruzhany. They had hidden behind a double wall that they had set up in their houses, and did not leave Ruzhany together with us. The Germans found them, and brought them to us, after administering deathly beatings to them. They made the young and old stand together for the entire day without food. Their appearance was terrifying and their suffering was immeasurable.
The hunger began to leave its mark. Gisha had a gold watch. Her mother did not want her to sell it, but she sold it for a piece of bread. She gave us also a piece of the small slice.
I remained with the people of Ruzhany for only two nights. Then I transferred to the bunkers of the people of Volkovisk, where I found my sister who had married Salomon the watchmaker from Volkovisk.
The Germans misled us with false promises that they would keep us alive. A doctor came to check if there were any people who were healthy and fit for work. A few of us thought that we would be transferred to arms factories in Germany. Our only thought was: to live, to live! We clung to the thread of life with our remaining strength.
The hunger and torment was great. The eyes came out of their sockets. The feet swelled. Children did not pay attention to their mothers and fathers. Fathers did not pay attention to their children. Some mothers showed signs of concern for their children. It is hard to describe the torment of hunger.
The Germans brought a wagon full of potatoes to the bunker camp. Many stormed the wagon in order to grab a raw potato. The Germans shot them, and the entire area around the wagon was covered with corpses. The Germans brought a second wagon that day. The storming and the shooting
repeated themselves. The same scene took place the following day. The Germans brought these wagons deliberately and murdered many people.
Many people reached the end of their strength. One old man was lying above us -- we slept on platforms three high -- who no longer had the strength to get down. He urinated on us the entire time until he expired. He lay there dead, and a foul stench came to our nose. There is no movie film that is able to describe the atrocities that we endured. The bathroom was designated for both men and women. From a moral perspective, we were trampled to the dust. We ceased being human beings. Thus did the murderers oppress us more than their killing.
Taking Out to the Ovens
One night, the Germans took out the Ruzhany natives from their bunkers. They walked as shadows in the dark. Frightful cries reached us. Were they thus being taken to Germany for work?
We almost died of hunger. Men went out to work and brought a beet or a loaf of bread back with them. The man who returned peeled the beet, and many people gathered around him to gather the pieces of peel. It was hard to grab them. Many hands competed for a piece of beet peel. They did not take us women out to work, only the men. The hunger was too difficult to bear, and did not give me any rest. I had to leave the camp in order to save myself from death by hunger. I had to bring something for my starving mother. I removed the pants of a dead man, dressed up as a man, and went out with the crowd of thousands of men going to work. Along the way, my hair stuck out from my hat. The men recognized that I was a woman and advised me to escape. Otherwise, I would be shot immediately by the Germans who were accompanying us to work. Along the way, we passed an alleyway. I snuck out from the row of marchers and entered the alleyway without the Germans noticing. I approached the house of a gentile woman who took me in. From then, I lived as a Christian woman.
by Dr. Noach Kaplinsky
Translated by Jerrold Landau
I left Slonim at the end of July 1942 on my way to the environs of Volkovisk, Bialystock, etc. We heard that the Germans had not yet harmed the Jews in those areas. We explained to ourselves that these areas were annexed to the Deutche Reich (Germany), so they avoided a general annihilation of Jews there. The situation in Slonim, Baranovich, etc., which were included in the occupation zone of White Russia (Gebeits Komisariat Veiss Rotenien), was different. There was a border with toll collectors (Tzol-amt) between the sectors.
During the months of July - August 1942, the era of smuggling across the border began. It was conducted by Christian guides, mainly young men and women. They would come from Slonim, and for a price of 30-40 dollars per head, they would transfer small groups of three or four Jews from Slonim to Ruzhany, the first town across the border. Jews who were apparently saved from the depths of the area of the Reich went from Ruzhany to the direction of Volkovisk and Bialystock. Those who were primarily concerned with transferring them were the members of the Ruzhany Judenrat.
Along the Way from Slonim to Ruzhany
I set out in a group of four people being guided by a young gentile who walked a certain distance from us. It was evening when we left Slonim. We removed our yellow patches. We went along twisted routes through fields and gardens. We crossed the road that leads to Ruzhany after we made sure that nobody was traveling on it, and that there was no danger for us to walk on it for a few seconds. We again walked through routes that were not real routes, through forests, fields, and hidden paths. We crossed the border in the darkness of the night without sensing it, and were now in the sector of the Third Reich.
Toward morning, we reached the farm of a farmer who was among the group of smugglers. We sat locked up in his barn until the following evening. In the darkness of the second night, we continued along our way following the gentile woman, who appeared again and took us to Ruzhany.
I arrived in town in the early morning hours. Rain was pouring down, literally a flood. We got wet until the bones. Streams of water came down from our clothes. We blessed the rain with a heart full of joy; for thanks to it, we did not meet one living being along the way, either on the way to the town or in the town itself. This is indeed what we wanted! The gentile brought us to the house of a Jew, and then she immediately disappeared.
We knocked on the door of the house whose residents knew about our arrival from before. We rested in this house until the morning. At dawn, we dispersed, each of us going to a different house.
Two Days in the Town
I remained in Ruzhany for two days. During this time, we sent our request to the people of the Judenrat, who concerned themselves with putting us up, finding food, and most important, providing documents and means of transportation so that we could move on in the direction of Volkovisk-Bialystock. Indeed, within 24 hours we had the personal documents, signed by the German commander of the city. These documents permitted each of us to reside in Bialystock, and to move along the roads in that direction. Armed with these documents, we boarded two wagons hitched with the horses of local farmers, and we left Ruzhany in the light of the day, openly and before everybody. We arrived in Bialystock in peace.
Thus did I find myself in Ruzhany for 48 hours during my wanderings in 1942. (We went from the skillet to the frying pan, even though we did not know that from the outset.) Of course, I did not see much of it, since we were not permitted to move about in a free manner, so that we would not arouse suspicion about the many refugees there. However, something remains in my memory from those two days. First and foremost, the deep impression of mutual assistance that was given to the many refugees with the full cooperation of the Judenrat members remains etched in my mind. I should note further that the assistance was given with great risk and self-sacrifice, and in the most effective manner. These were deeds done with a lofty spirit to give assistance to one's persecuted brethren without any payment and without any bounds. May this be remembered positively for them. The disparagement of all the Judenrats is not just. This Judenrat operated honestly and with dedication, without any equal. I did not pay even one cent for my document, for I did not even have such. Not only this, but furthermore, I received everything for free, without payment, as if it was owed to me. To the best of my knowledge, the natives of Ruzhany acted in this manner to every persecuted brother, and at times
with great personal risk. The matter was well organized, with widespread participation of the broader community who opened their hearts and homes to a tormented brother. I spent the two nights in two houses. This was done so as to hide me well, and keep me away from any bad eye. I felt at all times that I was welcomed with open arms and with a warm Jewish heart.
Something of the Lives of the Jews During the German Era
The Jews in Ruzhany were forced to live in special houses, so that they would not share a roof with Christians; however, their freedom of movement was not taken from them.
The Judenrat in Ruzhany organized the sending of the men to work according to the daily quotas as demanded by the work office of the German authorities. The Jews worked at backbreaking labor both in the city and in the forests.
The members of the Judenrat fulfilled all of the demands of the Germans, including the taxes and fines (contributions) that were imposed upon them. They provided the Germans furniture, clothing, linens, hides, and all sorts of other things that the government demanded with their various and strange desires.
However, to this time, the hand of annihilation did not reach the Jews of Ruzhany or the other cities that had been annexed to the Deutsches Reich. However, the frightening tidings of Job that the refugees of Slonim and its region brought with them about the general annihilation of all the Jews of White Russia (Veis Rutenien) instilled their fear and dread upon the Jews of Ruzhany, who crowded into their homes with the constant fear of what will the day bring? The terrible nightmare of the slaughter of the Jews across the border drove away the calm of the Jews of Ruzhany. The only thought that granted a ray of hope into the hearts and did not let them give up completely was that such a mass slaughter beyond all legality would not take place in the areas included in the Deutsches Reich, for the world would not be silent at such news.
However, the enemy did not think that way. The enemy had various ways to murder the Jews. The turn of the residents of those sectors that had been annexed to the Deutsches Reich had now come. A new way of executing the diabolical plan of murdering the Jews down to the last one appeared once again.
Until November 2, 1942, there was no sign of impending change with respect to the Jews of the Reich. However, early in the morning of that day, about 20,000 Jews were suddenly taken out of their homes: men, women, and children from the cities of Volkovisk, Ruzhany, Mosty, Prozowa, Piesk, Swisloch, Izabelin, and the rest of the nearby towns. They were concentrated into bunkers in one of the suburbs of Volkovisk. How did this transpire?
Early in the morning of that day, the German authorities ordered the Jews to gather in one place in each town, so that they would be transported to Volkovisk, and from there to work camps in another place. The execution of this edict was given over to the government of each city. If the fate of the Jews of all the towns of the district was evil and bitter, both as they were being rounded up in their towns and as they were marching to Volkovisk, a frightful journey -- the fate of the Jews of Ruzhany was sevenfold more evil and bitter. From the first day a terrible fright fell upon them.
The men of the German government accused them falsely as they were being rounded up in the city, and tortured them along the long route. Those who fell behind were cruelly beaten and also shot. Neither food or water was given to them. The babies particularly suffered. They cried from hunger and thirst, and the parents were not given the opportunity to feed them or give them something to drink.
In the Bunkers of Volkovisk
The Jews of Ruzhany drank the poison cup completely. Those who succeeded in completing the frightful journey were housed in bunkers that were called The Ruzhany Bunkers. These bunkers were the smallest, most crowded, and worst of the bunkers. Even though it was a time of heavy rains, and the nights were the cold, frozen nights of the beginning of the winter, hundreds of Jews were forced to remain outside under the cover of the heavens, for the bunkers could not accommodate everyone. To our misfortune, the offices of the camp commanders were next to the bunkers of the Ruzhany residents, and they were always supervising us -- of course, not for positive reasons.
20,000 people were sent to structures, with up to 500 people in each bunker. There were three layers of boards along one side, and each person found a place for rest and sleep. Of course, the crowding was great even when lying on one side. The sleep was not sleep, and the rest was not rest.
The Jews lived in stifling conditions of filth, hunger and thirst, with the fear of death hovering before their eyes: men and women, elderly and children, pregnant and nursing women, healthy and ill people, strong and weak, youth and children -- all of them mixed together in heaps of bodies, under the staff of the camp commandant and his soldiers. They were waiting moment by moment for the bitter end. Hundreds already met their deaths during the first days of these living conditions. The death rate in the Ruzhany bunkers was especially large. There were days when the death rate reached 20 people in one day. These bunkers also housed the largest number of sick people.
The first transport of food -- bread and potatoes -- was brought only after three days in the wagons. The crowds, crazed with hunger, attacked the wagons in order to get a few potatoes outside the line. The camp guards opened fire on them. Despite the fact that people died or were wounded as a result, these stormings repeated themselves on the following days. The daily ration was ¼ kilogram of bread and a plate of soup. Not everyone received even this meager ration.
The issue of heating, necessary for some warmth, was very difficult. Many were beaten and a few were even shot for every attempt to remove boards from the fence.
Daily Life in the Bunkers
The residents of the bunkers suffered unparalleled suffering at every moment and every hour. Who among us can imagine 24 hours in the bunkers? It was still dark outside when the day in the camp began. The workers lined up in the yard at an early hour. The women searched for means to warm a bit of water for the children. There was great motion near the outhouses. The internal toilet in each bunker was designated for the use of the children and elderly only, and anyone able to go outside was not to use
them. The situation outside was no better. This was a large stable with room for 20 people. Two lines were formed, one for men and one for women. After each group of men, a group of women entered, and this repeated itself. A lad said to the women, Women, go in together with the men. Don't be embarrassed. Either way, they will toss us into one grave...
Each person made some sort of order in the bunkers after the night. Then, they scattered, some to fetch water, and some to stand in line for the rotting bread. In one bunker, dozens of groups of Jews gathered for communal prayer. The rabbis decreed a public fast, recited Selichot (penitential prayers), worshiped fervently, and recited Avinu Malkeinu verse by verse. Bring us salvation shortly -- the prayer leader wept out loud, and everyone answered after him. When he reached act on behalf of the suckling babes, and on behalf of the schoolchildren -- the voices pierced the heavens. The Jews stood there, sinking in the mud, in the semi-darkness, some wearing tallis and tefillin -- if he had made sure to take them at the last minute -- and some without, turned into themselves and knocking from the depths of despair on the Gates of Mercy with their last strength.
Tzirka appeared in the bunkers a few times a day. He was a quiet, deliberate, cunning and cynical German murderer. He took apparent interest in the sick and in their care, and promised them that the situation would be much better in the new camp to which they would be sent...
The workers returned from their work toward evening. One would be carrying a block of wood, another some onions or beets that he had managed to obtain, and the third a piece of bread that he managed to obtain from a farmer. Everyone entered the bunkers immediately after dark. Everyone lit up their corner to the best of their ability. One burned some pinewood, and another was astute enough to use a chemical kerosene solution and some straw as fuel. Everyone stared at the lights, and it took a long time until everyone settled down for the night, lying on the side (there was no room to lie any other way). A Jew in the corner recited Psalms to the light of a burning chip of wood, while another recited Shema aloud. A Jewess talked to herself incessantly. A young, tormented women rocked her young sick baby, singing incessantly for three days in a row, with a trembling, heartrending voice: I want home. Others had not yet finished the hunt for lice. An asthmatic breathed heavily and coarsely, groaning, unable to find a place for his sick body.
When I woke up in the middle of the night, I had the impression that the picture had not changed at all. Sleep did not pervade in the bunker, but rather a form of paralysis. Here and there, the recital of Shema could still be heard. The Jew continued to swallow the verses of Psalms. The groans of the sick Jew could still be heard. And the withered, young mother continued to rock her child and sing the same song, I want home...
The first illnesses, of the stomach and intestines, spread very quickly. Later, the lice appeared, and as a result, a typhus epidemic broke out. The people of Ruzhany did not reach that stage, for before that time they were removed from their bunkers to be annihilated.
The people of Ruzhany had the rights of being first in everything, until the end. They were the first to suffer the great suffering of the journey to Volkovisk, the first to suffer from any action of the camp directors against the Jews, and the first for the bitter end. Their removal from the camp
of Volkovisk took place in the darkness of night. The next day, the rest of the camp residents discovered that the people of Ruzhany were no longer among them. Three days later, the camp directors demanded several dozen workers to clean up the empty bunkers. The frightening scene unfolded before their eyes -- a mixture of utensils, rags, torn and worn out bedding, various scattered kitchen utensils, food remnants, holy objects, here a book, there a picture, here a purse, there a letter. Among all of these heaps was the body of an old man, an old woman, and a sick person who were unable to participate in the final march. They died slow deaths, and only after the Germans were certain that the last of them was no longer alive did the Germans command several dozens of young people to open the bunkers and clean them. There is nobody alive today who can serve as an eyewitness to the removal, the transport, and the extermination of these people. The awful picture that unfolded before the eyes of the workers who were cleaning the bunkers can only receive some expression in the suffering of those sentenced to death, who had to still traverse vast distances and suffer additional new torments until their last moment.
The same fate awaited all the residents of the camp, whether they were taken out of the bunkers early, or after weeks or months. However, the Ruzhany bunkers had already given expression to the atrocities of the worst kind, and remain etched in the mind of each of us who saw the people of Ruzhany during their last days in the Volkovisk camp.
The suffering of the Ruzhany people is etched in my mind much more than that of those who were taken out to be murdered in crowds or groups in other cities. Those people saw their bitter end a few hours before they were shot. This was not the case with the thousands who were taken from their towns to the bunkers of Volkovisk, whose death throes lasted for weeks and months with torments every minute, every hour, day by day and night by night. They felt their deaths approaching through libels, degradation, hunger, and the suffering of family members whose fate had been sealed and whose annihilation was at hand. You would see them in terrible death throes, and you would be unable to save yourselves or them. The agony of the parents was especially great at the sight of their young children, who could have looked forward to long lives were it not for the enemy that strangled them and closed off all gates of salvation.
by Meir Sokolovsky
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The picture stands as if alive next to my eyes, and shakes up my soul. The Nazi command that they must leave their houses and native city and set out on a long journey struck the Ruzhany natives like thunder on a clear day. They must walk 50 kilometers from Ruzhany to Volkovisk -- them, their wives, elders and children.
At the Meadow
A crowd of people, mourning and with their heads covered, stood in the meadow of the town. Heartrending sounds of crying babies rise up to the air. They do not understand the nightmare that is overtaking them. The crying of the children congeals the blood. These children grew up before their time and understood very well the fate awaiting them. Before they saw the light, the light of the world was extinguished before them. The hearts of the parents
were bursting. The eyes of many were dripping tears, and the tears were frozen in the eyes of others. They knew that their fate had been sealed, and that they did not care that they would be in this impure world for less time, but with respect to their children who had not yet lived their lives -- who will save them from this certain fate that was overtaking them at the dawn of their lives? Therefore, their hearts were grieving. The gaze of their eyes looked around, but without refuge. Tens, hundreds of soldiers and policemen, armed from head to toe, surrounded them. Behind the wall of steel was an inimical world.
Here was a new command. The children will go on the journey separately from their parents. The hands of the children were pulled by force from the hands of their parents who were holding them as their last support, and were taken from them. Babies were taken by force from the arms of their mothers who were cradling them, and tossed onto the wagon. The young child had to go himself on the route to the abyss. Begging and pleading did not help. The screaming and the fainting were for naught.
Along the Way
The command was given, and the caravan set out. They dragged along for an entire day. Their minds clouded over, their knees buckled, their feet stumbled, but there was no rest or respite. Everyone who stumbled was destined for death. A bullet would put an end to his life. There was nobody to bury him. The dead person would remain as a trampled corpse on the road, and would be destined for food for the birds of the sky and beasts of the forest. For fear of death, people summoned their last strength so as not to stumble behind, but the elderly and weak were unable to keep up. Despite their strong will, their strength abated. A cold sweat covered their entire bodies. They felt the bitterness of death approaching. They fell into the hands of the murderers, who were following on their heels like hunting dogs, and there was no escaping them. With the recital of Shema, they gave up their pure souls. They closed their eyes, facing heavenward with a silent cry and a demand for justice. They demand justice from Heaven: For what reason and why were the hands of the righteous and pure given into the hands of evildoers, the likes of which have not been seen by the face of the sun since the day G-d created the heavens and the earth.
The babies cried bitterly. They wanted to be with their mothers. The babies screamed loudly. They were starving. They were thirsty. The way was long, the hours passed by, and the day almost ended. The parents were not given permission to give food or drink to their children. Suddenly, a screaming mother burst forward toward her children. She was at the threshold of despair and madness. A father also ran toward his child, speaking words of craziness. They were attacked from behind with cruel fury. Wounded and bleeding, they wailed and set out on their way, away from their children. Those who were not sobered from these deathly blows and attempted to approach the wagon of the children despite everything, were killed by shots. Sheindel Epstein, the daughter of Alter the smith, ran to her two-year-old son. A bullet hit her and killed her. The Heavens were mute and the world was all silent.
The eyes of the children saw and were shocked. The screams and the muteness were intertwined. Who can describe the depth of the pain in words? Some children ran to their parents despite the command of death. Starving babies expired without anyone to help.
The journey lasted for two days. During this time, the mothers were given only one opportunity to be with their children and give them some food. The members of the Ruzhany community, including my father, mother, brothers and sisters, went on this tortuous journey for two days. They are all holy and pure, like the entire community of Ruzhany. They were beloved and pleasant in their lives and were not separated in their deaths. Many Jews who stumbled were shot along the way and remained strewn in the fields. Who knows if someone from my own family died in this manner. Perhaps those who died were better off than those who continued along the way.
In the Bunkers
The fate of those who remained alive was evil and bitter. When they arrived in Volkovisk, the survivors of the town of Ruzhany were housed in eight small bunkers at the edge of the camp. People from other towns were housed in other bunkers. However, the thousands of Jews who came from Ruzhany were not able to fit into these eight cramped Sodomic shelters that were designated for them. Hundreds were simply forced to remain outside. The days of snow and cold were beginning. These days were deliberately chosen by the enemy to crush the spirit of the victims and to annihilate them.
Food was not given, and the hunger left its mark. There was no water for washing. The few wells in the camp were barely sufficient in order to assuage the thirst of the masses of people -- 20,000 people from Volkovisk and other towns. The filth spread. The faces of the people changed so much after a few days that nobody could recognize each other.
The hunger increased, and when a strong, well-guarded wagon with potatoes entered the camp, the wagon was broken by the people who attempted to grab raw potatoes. The S.S. men shot them. People fell victim, but others continued to trample over the corpses and to run to the wagon, without taking heed of the danger.
Illnesses broke out in the camp, and there was no medication. It is obvious that many people died on a daily basis. The death rate of the Ruzhany natives was especially great. The number of sick people increased day by day. People looked like shadows. Who can describe the agony of the parents when they saw their children dying of hunger before their eyes, with the diseases wreaking havoc, and nobody to save them? Who can imagine the torment of the children upon watching their parents die, leaving them orphaned and alone in this dark world?
An edict was issued that the natives of the town -- the men, their wives, and children -- must pack their belongings to prepare for a transport to work camps in Germany. They were to be ready that very night. At dawn, with a freezing temperature of minus 20 degrees and a strong snowstorm, the men, women, and children, dragged themselves along partly barefoot and wearing worn out clothing. The crying and wailing reached to the heavens. They were chased out of the bunkers with murderous blows from rubber batons falling upon their heads and bodies. They were allowed to take only one small bundle. It was clear that this train ride was not to work camps, as the Germans had misled them the entire time, but rather to a place from which people do not return alive. The Ruzhany natives were the first to go on this extermination transport. People of the other towns were transported later, at intervals of a few days. All of them perished in the ovens of Treblinka. Not one native of Ruzhany remains as an eyewitness to the final torture in the death camp or in the oven camp of Treblinka.
I was not among them. Only the echoes of the agonies of my family, my townsfolk, and the natives of the towns and holy communities of Poland and other European lands reached me. I do not know who fell on the route from a bullet of the murderers, who perished by hunger and disease in the bunkers, and who was burnt alive in the ovens. I had left the Diaspora years before this. I did not find peace in walking on foreign land. I succeeded in outsmarting the British government who opened up the gates of the Land only to a few, and I made aliya to the Land. I hoped to see my family among us after some time. Some of them tried to make aliya in order to later bring their families, but they did not receive permission. The foreign government guarded the gates of the Land, which were almost locked. They remained locked even when the Holocaust came. The nations of the Land stood aside. The survivors fell on the roads without a place of refuge, for their Land was locked and in the hands of strangers.
by Shmuel Rabinovich
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Everything that is so precious to me, in darkness
Was dragged to the wagon,
Only it remains -- an insipid game --
I am imprisoned in a muddy well -- the wailing
|By Shmuel Rabinovich|
by Zalman Rozanitzky
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Zalman Roznitzky, the son of Itshe Nathan and the grandson of Shimon Nathan of the flour mill, tells:
During the time of the Second World War, on September 20, 1939, I fell into German captivity in the forests of Kompanow near Warsaw. I was sent to Landsdorf along with the Polish captives, and from there to Amr on the French border. I was held in that camp until August 1940. Then the Germans concentrated all the Jewish prisoners who originated in the Russian-Eastern sector of Poland and brought the to Gorlice. From there, they were transported to Lublin in January 1941. There, the Germans set up a hangar for the S.S. men in Lublin. Other Ruzhany natives were together with me there: Yaakov Rabinowich (the son of Beilka), Nota Rotner (the son of the lessee who lived in the courtyard of the synagogue), Moshe Lewin (from a Pawlowa family), Yitzchak Levenbok (from a Konstantinova family), Berl Rodtzky (the son of Eliahu the smith who lived near the market), Shlomo (Einstein's son-in-law), Rafael Movshowitz (the grandson of Yehuda Leib the shoemaker, the son of the sister of Fishel Karpelewich), Moshel Adef (the son of Yaakov Asher the fisher from Hagoszczenecz), Michel Pintlewich (the husband of Hinda Ogolnik, who later died of typhus in Lublin), Eliezer Kanetzpolsi (the son-in-law of Eisenstein the Torah reader, Gittel's husband).[Page 171]
In Lipova Camp 7 in Lublin, there were thousands of Jewish soldiers from the Polish army, who were natives of the eastern-Russian sector of Poland. They housed us in horse stables, which were turned into some form of bunks. We suffered greatly in that camp. We lived from the munificence of the Lublin Judenrat for a brief period. We had nothing with which to cover ourselves. There was complete want. The packages that arrived from home, from Ruzhany, saved us.
From the month of July 1941 and onward, we built Majdanek. Once, during the construction, I was driving with an S.S. man, who boasted to me that the Majdanek Camp would occupy the entire vast area of forests around, for it must house all of the Jews and the population of Moscow.
We were sent to work in various places. Only I remained to work in the hangar. I was one of its first builders. We set up the hangar in the airfield.
Ninety percent of the camp inmates took ill with typhus. The sick people were transferred to the hospital in Lublin that was set up in one of the synagogues. I also took ill and was hospitalized. When I returned to the camp after the illness, a selektion took place. The weak people were sent to the Majdanek Camp, which had been built by us. I was removed from the transport and returned to my workplace in the center of Lublin Trupwirtshafts Lager Der Waffen S.S. Garten Strasse. I was very weak. When I recovered, the Germans took me out to work, and I was the only Jew who went about almost free. I had connections with the previous camp. I supported the camp residents. There were 6,000 people there, including 2,000 women whose jobs were to sort the clothing of the Jews who had been sent to Majdanek.
The Germans brought about 1,500 Jews to the camp next to the airport, including the following Ruzhany natives who had moved to Bialystock: Betzalel Podrevsky, Avrahamel Limon, and Aber Liverant. The Germans sent the families of these people directly to the furnaces of Majdanek. The wife of Zalman, the son of Dov Levenbok, who was also brought to Bialystock, was among the 2,000 women working at sorting the clothing.
The Germans maintained the aforementioned 6,000 people in the camp until November 2, 1943. On November 3, not one Jew was left in the camp next to the airport, in Majdanek or Lublin. The Germans murdered 18,400 Jews in the three camps during those days. Testimony from a reliable source exists regarding this.
In June 1944, I fled from my workplace to the fields and hid. I was afraid of people. I slept among the stocks of grain. I obtained food from farmers by threats. After great suffering, I was liberated by the advancing Russians.
In January 1946, I moved from Lublin to Krakow. In June of that year, I moved with my cousins Shimon and Nachum to Frankfurt am Main in Germany. From there I made aliya to the Land. I arrived in August 30, 1949. I returned home, to my homeland.
by Naftali Kantorowich
Translated by Jerrold Landau
When I was freed from the Red Army in 1945, I moved back home to Ruzhany. I was in a very nervous and edgy state. When I arrived to within a kilometer of the town, I descended from the car and continued on by foot. It was twilight. It began to get dark as I arrived at the entrance. One of the civilian policemen stopped me and asked me, Who are you! After a few moments of silence, I requested
that he bring me before his commander. As I was walking, the thought popped into my mind: my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and I had all been born in this place. I had spent my childhood years there, and now they are asking me, Who are you?!
After checking my documents, the head of the civilian police expressed his sympathy with my grief, with the grief of the town in which not one survivor of my family or of the entire town remained, and the grief of a member of the Jewish nation who was bereaved of his brethren throughout all of Europe. I left the police station. Where should I go? Darkness fell, and a deathly silence fell over the town. Not a person could be seen. Everything had been turned into ruins. I turned to the side lanes of the gentiles, where the houses were still standing. I knocked on the door of one of the gentiles who had been a former neighbor. He was very surprised when he saw me. He could not understand that a Jew from our town had survived. From his mouth, I learned of the bitter fate of my family and of all my brothers or sisters who lived in our town.
The next day I was informed that two Jews who had survived the German slaughter lived in the town. They fought in the partisan units in the forests of Ruzhany. One was Shmuel Bliznansky, the son-in-law of the former tanner Aharke Gamerman. The other was Chaim David, the son of Berl Shepes of the new Jewish settlement of Pavlova.
Deathly silence pervaded in the town. I did not see a solitary person walking alone on the burnt, barely recognizable streets. I walked along, afraid of my own shadow. I passed by the burnt schools. A short time ago, they stood on their foundations, and many Jewish students streamed to them daily, with lively chatter on their mouths and joyful song on their lips. The childishness. My eyes saw what was there, and mass destruction had fallen on everything. Is such a thing possible? From the scattered ruins, it was as if the voices of our young children rose up: Take revenge upon our spilled blood -- Revenge!
I approached the synagogue courtyard, the Shulhauf. I remember the motion in the mornings in my town. The Jews with their tallises under their shoulders were going to worship. The pleasant chant of Gemara rose up from the Talmud Torah through the entire synagogue courtyard. Now it is silent, silent as a grave. Everything turned to ruin. Only the Great Synagogue remains standing alone, as if immersed in deep mourning. It was weeping for its worshippers who were no more. It was as if echoes could be heard from inside: G-d is a G-d of vengeance, G-d of vengeance appear, rise up the Judge of the earth, pay back the arrogant. Where is the G-d of vengeance who will take revenge for our pure blood that was spilled?
The next day, I visited the desecrated grave of the martyrs in the cemetery. Crushed and broken in body, embarrassed and humiliated in spirit, I left my home, the home of several centuries, my town Ruzhany.
by Naftali Kantorowich
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Yaakov Meir Maruchnik amazed the residents of the town twice:
When the Russians entered Ruzhany, they appointed a committee to oversee local matters. Yaakov Meir was on the committee. What did he have to do with them? -- the Jews asked each other -- the rest of the members of the committee were known as being friendly with the Russians, but Yaakov Meir Maruchnik, the modest man who was never involved in communal matters, what was he doing here?
|Yaakov Meir Maruchnik|
After some time, Yaakov Meir became once again a topic of conversation within the Ruzhany community. In the announcement on the main streets, the name of Yaakov Meir Maruchnik was announced as the district representative to the national council of White Russia. Yaakov Meir was among the chief speakers in a public meeting in the town square (an area between rows of stores) in honor of the annexation of Pulsia to White Russia.
The residents of the town knew little about this quiet man who lived in the far-off Across the River Lane. He never stood out as a communal figure or as a man of society. He always belonged to those small people who went about their affairs discretely without disturbing the community by their presence.
The tanners who worked together with Yaakov Meir in the tannery knew of his honesty, his diligence, and his readiness to always come to the assistance of his fellow. He himself was satisfied with little, but he always stood his ground on any matter related to the rights of the working person. Therefore, his friends saw him as fitting to be their trusted representative in professional matters.
The people closest to him knew him as a pleasant person with fine traits and a developed sense of humor. His only weakness was books, which he studied constantly. Of course, he enjoyed acquiring any book that he liked, and his library continued to grow, to the great amazement of his friends.
Yaakov Meir did not get involved in political matters. He was distant from any participation in party debates, and was known as a person who does not get involved in such matters. He was always levelheaded in friendly conversations, but those who knew him from up close said that he would express clear Communist opinions. He was a devotee of progressive literature, and would describe an interesting Russian book from time to time, but always in a non-confrontational or nonjudgmental manner.
When Yaakov Meir Maruchnik became known as a member of the city leadership who fulfilled his role faithfully as a communal representative who was acceptable to the people, the Communists in the town began to spread rumors that Yaakov Meir had always been a secret Communist, and that only few people knew and were in contact with him about this.
The people of Ruzhany felt that this Communist activity was an involvement in foreign streams. Many said that they knew that Yaakov Meir had no connection to Communism, but was rather a man of the people, who saw in his new role a mission to help the Jewish residents in a time of trouble. They also said that Yaakov Meir continued to worship every morning.
Yaakov Meir Maruchnik did not speak about himself, and nobody knew if these rumors were true. The only thing known without doubt was that his ear was open to everyone who turned to him, and he always tried to come to the assistance of the local residents.
When the Russians left the city, many Communist activists left with them. Yaakov Meir Maruchnik remained. He met his death at the first slaughter that took place when the Nazi murderers entered the town.
by Yaakov Shimshoni
Translated by Jerrold Landau
I came to Ruzhany after the Russian conquest, when they kicked out the Nazis. I found two Jews alive there. To their good fortune, they escaped from the hands of the Nazis and lived as partisans in the forests. They returned to their town only after the Russian conquest, and they settled there. One is Chaim David the son of Dov Sobolsky, who escaped from the Volkovisk bunkers. He prepared to steal across the border and arrive in the Land, but later changed his mind and decided to go to his sister in Russia. The second was Shmuel Bliznansky. He did not want to receive me, and the gentiles who worked with him said that he does not feel well. He had apparently taken to drink in order to forget the terrifying atrocities.
Ruzhany was the only town in which nobody remained who was able to tell about what happened to its Jews. The testimony of Dr. Noach Kaplinsky, who escaped from Slonim, where they had liquidated the Jews, and arrived in Volkovisk via Ruzhany, is reliable. He was received pleasantly by the Jews of Ruzhany. The Jews of Ruzhany provided him with papers so that he could continue on his journey. As an eyewitness during the days that he remained in the town, he realized that the situation of the Jews was better there than in other places. However, after he left there, he did not hear anything further of them until they were brought to Volkovisk. Dr. Reznik says that the deportation to Volkovisk began on November 2, 1942. The gentiles from Podroisk claim that approximately 500 Jews died on the route to Volkovisk, but they were apparently exaggerating. In Volkovisk, the Jews from Ruzhany were accommodated in the worst bunkers, and suffered unparalleled hunger. They were deported to Treblinka on November 28, 1942. Many victims fell on the short route from the bunkers to the train.
I was surprised that, unlike the Jews of other towns, the Jews of Ruzhany did not go out to the forests. The gentile Mabroznicki told me (these gentiles, who were Communists, were also the policemen and heads of the city, and had a delegate to the Moscow council. The Jew Yaakov Chaim Maruchnik was appointed to the Minsk council in 1939 at the age of 42.), that on the final day before the deportation, eight Jewish youths organized themselves in order to penetrate the partisan camp in the forests of the region, Gustovski was among them. These lads had arms, leather clothing, and money. The gentile brought them to a hill and told them that they would reach the partisan guard in the Boyalshtshina Forest after they cross the river. The Jews remained on the hill until dawn and did not cross the river, but rather returned and joined their brethren who were being taken from the city. Was it the fear of the partisans, who during the early period did not accept Jews into their service, but rather liquidated them, that impeded them? Or perhaps they misled themselves into believing that the Jews were indeed being taken to a labor camp, as the Germans said? Who knows? There were those who believed the latter and brought their property to a gentile acquaintance, asking him to hide the property until their return. My family did so.
Thirty-six Jews were hidden in the town of Zarela, including the Klibansky family. After all of the Jews were taken out, the gentiles of the nearby village of Molochky said, Shall we leave them alive? They came, killed them, and left them in the field. After a few days, they said, We will go cover them with dirt, lest an epidemic break out. When they began to cover them, Roza, the live daughter of Klibansky jumped out from atop the body of her mother, with wild screams wafting through the air. She attempted to flee, and a gentile chased after her for four kilometers and then killed her. Thus did a gentile woman tell me as I was conversing with her on a sidewalk on the street. She added, Do not be silent about this gentile, pay him back what he deserves. However, my feeling was that this gentile woman said this because she had not reached an agreement with that gentile about an equitable distribution of the loot.
The gentile Kosmovsky told me, I am the only one who did not touch the loot. Even the clergy, both Pravoslavic and Catholic, are not clean from this sin. I did not receive anything... According to his story, the Russians had previously burnt his house, and during the German era he did not have a house into which he would have been able to amass the loot.
My favorite neighbor, Mazurko, had a nine-year-old son Stach. I had a seven-year-old son. This neighbor was one of the many who transported the Jewish children to Volkovisk on their wagons. My son was transported on Mazurko's wagon. Mazurko himself told me this. There were bushes along the side of the road to Volkovisk. My son asked him, Let me hide among the bushes, and when you return, take me as a son, and I will be Stach's friend. The gentile did not heed his request. I asked him, Why did you not fulfill his request? The gentile looked at me as if he did not understand my words! And before this, he was considered as one of the righteous gentiles. From amongst all the gentiles that benefited from my mill, not one of them helped me during my time of distress. He was the only one who would bring me flour for Passover; and his heart had also turned on him, and he did not take heed of the request of my son and did not understand my question. This is the point to which things had reached!
by Meir Sokolovsky
Translated by Jerrold Landau
I went to Poland in the summer of 1938 to visit my family in my hometown of Ruzhany. I had long conversations with my parents, my brothers, my sisters, my friends, and the Jews of other towns -- my brethren and fellows of my nation. Who would have believed that this was our last meeting? Who would have believed that the Holocaust was standing just behind the wall?
The residents of the town in general, and the members of my entire family in particular, stand before my eyes as if alive.
My mother, Chana the daughter of David Noach Rozenfeld of Porozovo, stemmed from a rabbinical family. My grandfather was a great scholar who taught Torah to all the lads who were not able to go to the Volozhin Yeshiva and drink of the wells of that Torah source. My mother's entire aim was to see to it that her children would be great in Torah -- first through the cheders and the Talmud Torah, and later through the Tarbut Hebrew School. She withheld bread from her mouth and ours, and did not sew clothing for herself or for us if she did not first have the money to pay tuition. She brought her children to the level of knowledge so that they would be educators in Israel.
My father Yitzchak-Izak, the son of Reizl and Efraim, loved labor, just as his muscular, work-loving father who worked all his days, and was active and vibrant until his eighties. All his days,
my father toiled to earn a livelihood so as to provide bread for the increasing number of children in his house. My father also loved to serve as the prayer leader and Torah reader in the synagogue. The tune that he would always sing of the weekly portion at home before the Sabbath or the festival still resonates in my ears to this day.
|Yitzchak-Izak Sokolovsky, his wife Chana,
and their youngest daughter Miriamke
My brother David-Noach worked in teaching. He devoted the lion's share of his meager salary to support our parents, leaving for himself only a small amount to sustain himself modestly, saying that he is in debt to his parents who raised him, educated him, and brought him to that point.
My two younger brothers were Yaakov and Shimon. The latter, who was a member of Hashomer Hatzair in our town, reached the age of 20 and served in the Polish Army. This army was overrun by the Nazi troops, and Shimon returned home. He suffered the same fate as the entire family and community.
My sisters Ethel and Michla, who had now come of age, began teaching at the time that the Russians entered the town. They taught in the villages that were near the town. When the Germans entered, their fate was known from the outset.
Dear Miriamke, the youngest daughter of our family, who had superb talents and excelled in her studies much more than her brothers and sisters, was unable to complete her studies in the gymnasium on account of the German invasion. When the Germans invaded, all of the studies of the Jewish children ceased, and their fate was sealed.
You all wanted to make aliya, and were unable to do so. The Mandate government locked the doors of the country with seven bolts. My efforts did not succeed for my brother David-Noach, who would have been able to make aliya for a student like me; and for my brother Shimon, who could have been accepted to Mikve-Yisrael, or the rest. Who could have imagined that the Holocaust, which was unparalleled in all of world history, was about to begin? After hellish torture, you were all turned into dust by the impure Nazis. The fate of this family was the same as that of all the families of Ruzhany. They were beloved and dear in their lives, and were not separated in their deaths.
All generations who issue from us should recall this forever. That which the German Nazis did to us should never be forgotten. We will always do great things in the Land, as if all of those holy martyrs are standing beside us and assisting us. Their spirit will be guarded with us forever.
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