by Jonah Friedler
Translated by Susan Rosin
Our Splendid City
Stryj, on the low laying plain in the southeast of the historical region of Małopolska (Lesser Poland) was a corridor to the mighty Carpathian mountains. Flowing among the green pastures, fields and forests was Stryj river completing the pastoral picture. The river was a blessing to the town's population, as it was moving the wheels of the seven flour mills and also enjoyed as a recreation area during the hot summer months. Geographically, the town is located at a crossroads and during Franz Joseph's days it was an important hub connecting eastern Galicia with Hungary by a railroad line of StryjLawoczneBudapest to the south, Stanisławów to the southeast and Przemyśl to the northwest.
The neighboring towns and villages of Rozdół, Żydaczów, Mikołajów, Sokołów, Bolechów had sizable Jewish communities. Stryj is close to Drohobycz, Borysław and Schodnica that were rich in oil deposits providing employment to most of the population. Stryj had a population of about forty thousand, divided almost evenly between Jews, Poles and Ukrainians. Economically, the Jews dominated almost all branches of commerce food, clothing, furniture, building materials, fuel etc. as well as most of the crafts such as leather works, tailoring, tinworks, blacksmithing, glassworks, painting, building, upholstery, fur processing, watchmaking, gold and silver works and works of art. Most stores in town were owned by Jews. Many Jews from the neighboring villages made their living in agriculture. Some owned their land, and others leased large areas of lands from the Polish barons and squires who owned estates. Others leased taverns, based on a tradition where the lease passed as an inheritance from father to son.
The community of Stryj was served by many scholars. Rabbi Arie Leib HaKohen Heller author of Ketzot Hachoshen and Avnei Milluim; the prodigy rabbi Yaakov from Lissa, the son of the prodigy Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Lorberbaum. He was the author of ten books and Torah interpretations. He passed away on the 25th day of Iyar 5592 (May 25th, 1832); Rabbi Meshullam Igra, the author of Tshuvut (answers); rabbi Enzel a son of the distinguished and wealthy Halpern family; Rabbi Arie Leibish Horowitz from Stanisławów, the author of Harei Besamim and one of the most prominent scholars of his day. He established the Or Torah yeshiva that was headed by the brothers Raphael and Abraham Kitaigorodsky from Lithuania. Before the First World War, rabbi Shalom HaKohen Jolles from Mościska the son of rabbi Uri from Sambor served as the head of the rabbinical court a position he shared with rabbi Shraga Feivel Hertz from Głogów. Then, the chief rabbi was Eliezer Ladier, the stepson of rabbi Horwitz from Stanisławów. The last rabbi was Yeshayahu Asher HaKohen Jolles, who perished in the Shoah, the son of rabbi Shalom, and his brother rabbi Efraim Eliezer HaKohen Jolles that later became the chief rabbi in Philadelphia. A number of famous authors also originated in Stryj. A.M. Lifshitz, the author of the Rashi monograph and later the head of the teachers' academy in Jerusalem; Dr. Zvi Diesendruck, a teacher, philosopher a teacher in Jerusalem and later in Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio; Jonah Garlenter, an author and teacher in the high school in Vienna; Dr. Isaac Silbershlag, an author, a poet and a teacher and the head of the Teachers' academy in Boston; Dr. Nathan Kudish, an educator and a teacher in a high school in Tel Aviv; Dr. Moshe Steiner whose articles were published in Hebrew and English, and others that became famous in the Jewish world.
Many folkloric stories were interwoven into various literary works among them the story about rabbi Enzel a guest for Saturday in the famous work of Shai AgnonVehaya Ha'akov Lemishor (The Crooked Shall Be Made Straight).
The kehilla leaders were elected in the spirit of the times. Until the First World War, the kehilla was led by the notary dr. Abraham Wiesenberg, an assimilator who did not understand his people and their needs, but was liked by the district supervisor, a fact that determined the elections outcome. After the war and with the spring of nations awakening, the leader was Shlomo Goldberg, who had a traditional Jewish education, a Zionist and a delegate to the first congress in Basel. He was followed by Dr. Zeev Presser (who perished in the Shoah), an intellectual and a man of action, Dr. Mordechai Kaufman (who perished in the Shoah), a dedicated Zionist and wellliked by the community. The last leader was dr. Norbert Schiff (who perished in the Shoah). The last two also served as deputy mayors.
Our town was small, but productive and colorful life was abundant. Most of the Jews in town made their living from trade and the crafts. Even before the first war, the wealthy started to send their children abroad for higher education, mostly because of the numerous clausus (educational quotas a practice to limit the number of Jewish students in higher education institutions). Since then, the professional intellectual numbers among the Jews grew in town.
The orthodox Jewry was divided among the various Hasidic groups such as Żydaczów, Czortków, Bojanów, Belz, Bolechów, Stratyń and others. In the initial days of Zionism, there were many struggles between the young Zionists and the orthodox. Between the two world wars, the national conviction grew and the Stryj community became a major force in the national movement in eastern Galicia and made a significant contribution to the building of the homeland in Eretz Israel. Many youths joined Hashomer Hatzair and HeHalutz, growing on the ideals of Haim Brenner and A. D. Gordon. Many of them fulfilled their dream and emigrated during the third Aliyah in the years 1919 1923.
These youths who are no longer young contributed much to the building of Israel and they could be found in the kibbutizim, villages and cities. Many from Stryj participated in the fourth Aliya (1924 1931), and they could be found in almost every village and town and they too were an integral part in the building of the state of Israel. Stryj pioneers were among the pavers of the Sarafand (Tzrifin) road during the administration of the high commissioner Herbert Samuel.
The Hebrew school Safa Brura was founded before the First World War by Moshe Wohlmut (perished in the Shoah) one of the most active Zionists in town. After the war, the school extended its reach and provided Hebrew language training to the Zionist youths. The devoted teachers were: Zvi Garlenter, Moshe Helfgott, Josef Shapira, David Korn, and Yaakov Zeman. These dedicated teachers carried out the dream of reviving the Hebrew language and passing it to the next generation in an environment that was hostile because the orthodox Jewry and the various leftist parties objected to this idea.
Between the two wars, a technical school was established under the leadership of Dr. Schindler. Students were trained in the areas of precision mechanics and metalworks to become productive contributors in the building of the homeland in Eretz Israel and most of them fulfilled their dream.
The Ivriya society was established before the first war as a result of the national awakening in Eastern Europe. The purpose of the society was to disseminate the Hebrew language and culture. The activities of the society were interrupted during the war. After the war, the activities were renewed with much energy influenced by the Balfour declaration. The society was headed then by Naphtali Siegel, Levi Teitler, Isaac Sturmlauf, and Arie Derfler. Various literary subjects were discussed led by lecturers from town and outside of town. Among the lecturers were Abba Hushi, Meir Yaari, Dov Sadan (Stock), dr. Josef SchusterShilo, Jonah Gelernter, Joshua Tilleman and others. The enthusiasm of these literary discussions was great. The first Hebrew library was established, and spread the knowledge of Hebrew among the student and the working youths. The founders and pioneers of the society were Joshua Oberlander, Dr. Moshe Eisenstein, Naphtali Gernter, Hiam David Korn, Yaakov Zeman, BenDavid Schwartz, Dr. Nathan Kudish, dr. Moshe Steiner, prof. Isaac Nussenblatt, Naphtali Siegel, and Jonah Friedler.
All the various politicalnational parties were united in the Arbeitsgemeinschaft.
The national awakening was strongly felt in the academic societies of Emuna, Hevronia and Kadima.
The merchant's society Oseh Tov was led by dr. Norbert Schiff, Moshe Spiegel and David Zeidman (who perished in Shoah) and was active in the economicprofessional sector with national leanings. The craftsmen were united in the Yad Harutzim society headed by Abraham Levin (the fatherinlaw of the author and Hebrew teacher Naphtali Siegel) and Shalom Schwartz.
The great synagogue was a magnificent building decorated by famous artists in biblical motifs. On both sides of the synagogue were two houses of study (batei midrash) and across the street was a Talmud Torah housed in a two story building. It was managed for the glory of God by rabbi Israel Yehuda Nussenblatt, rabbi Eliyahu Zeldowicz, rabbi Shmuel Friedler (my father) and rabbi Shlomo Drimmer. The bathhouse was under the supervision of the kehilla and used by all of the town's people. The Jewish hospital was supervised voluntarily by the Jewish doctors.
This was the picture of our town Stryj, the place where our forefathers lived for generations. Simple, Hassidic believers, where they worked, studied, and created an existence unique in their customs, their dress and their language. The religious officials, the wealthy, the educated, the merchants, the peddlers, the shopkeepers, the middlemen, and the loafers. All of them lived strictly by the Shulhan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law). The center of their being besides making a living was the rabbi and the kloiz. In their spiritual lives they found a reward to their gloomy daily existence. We, the last generation of enslavement and the first generation of redemption and salvation followed them.
On September 1st, 1939 at the outbreak of the war between Poland and Germany, a black curtain dropped on European Jewry ad their fate was sealed on us the Jews of Stryj.
The Days of Thunder
The next day, the Messerschmitt aircrafts were already over our town. Like eagles descending on their prey, so did these airplanes dropping their bombs. Sometimes, they shot from automatic weapons. The question on everyone's mind was where are the Polish defense canons?. One of the bombs was dropped in the city center and destroyed completely the house of Nathan Elner. Twenty six people including women and children took shelter in the cellar of the house and all were killed. Among the victims was rabbi Motel Rothaus who was a much loved and respected scholar and a man of high moral standing. At first we were shocked by the bombings, but soon we got used to them, as there was no relief during the day or night.
Quickly we went into the cellars we thought naively to be safe. The sight of carts with families from Poland and all their belongings that were passing through town on their way from western Galicia to the east depressed us even more. The worries intensified as we saw the ŚmigłyRydz army retreating towards Hungary. The soviet army crossed the border along the Zbrucz river and was getting closer. In the meanwhile, the German army occupied Stryj. They were welcomed by the Ukrainians from the surrounding villages who wore their best clothing for the occasion. They erected a victory arch on Drohobicka street with the banner we will pave the roads for the German army victory with Jewish skulls.
Festivities took place in town. The Jews were hiding in cellars and attics expecting the worst. Rumors started to circulate about dividing Galicia between the Soviets and the Germans, making us live somewhere between fear and hope. On the third day after the German occupation, the army commanders of the two sides met on the Bolechów bridge of the Stryj river and agreed that the German army will retreat to the river San.
It is hard to describe the joy of the Jewish population seeing the retreat of the German army. On Yom Kippur eve, September 22nd, 1939, the Soviet army entered the city. For the time being we were written in the book of life.
Under the Soviet Rule
It is hard to describe the joy of the Jewish population when the red troops entered town. My happiness was great when I was able to speak Yiddish with Jewish officers of the red army. Under the soviets we suffered food shortages compared to the abundance in Poland before the war. But, we were not discriminated against as Jews, and we suffered as the rest of the population. We were fed Marxist and Leninist doctrines and were ordered to obey the Stalinist rules: those that don't work do not eat. Although we lost our riches, we rejoiced that our lives were spared. The front moved to the west, and we felt that for us the war was over. One of the reasons for the signing of the nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviets on August 22nd, 1939 was to prevent dual fronts, thus allowing Hitler to concentrate his efforts in the west, the rest of Europe and Africa without the threat of being attacked from the east. We also saw trains loaded with fine wheat traveling via Stryj from the Ukraine to Germany, which proved the excellent relationships between the two countries…How terrible was our disappointment when on June 22nd, 1941 airplanes appeared in the sky. At first, we were not able to identify if they were our friends' our enemy's, but soon they started dropping bombs. When we asked the Soviet officers about the situation, they tried to calm us down telling us these were military exercises. It is worth mentioning that in the Soviet Union, the people were not privy to any political or diplomatic information until it was too late. The media was full of success stories of the Pyatiletka (5 year) plan thanks to the Stakhanow efficiency method, but no political information was discussed. We could hear the cannons from the direction of Drohobycz Przemyśl and the planes dropped bombs nonstop. The soviets made preparation to leave town. Trains headed to safety in the east across the Polish Soviet border were loaded with the families of the military and the party activists. However, many of the trains were destroyed by the German bombers.
Before leaving town, the soviets arrested in the middle of the night several Zionist activists to be exiled to Siberia. I can recall only a few names: Shmuel Klein, his son Benjamin, BenZion Radler, Eliyahu Zeldowicz, Arye Schwamer, H. D. Korn, BenZion Garfunkel, Levi Oper and others. Luckily for me, one of the NKVD people whom I befriended told my wife in secret that I was on the deportation list as well, so I hid with a Polish family, thus avoided the exile.
The bombardment intensified day by day turning the town into wood and stone rubble. Lviv was already occupied by the Germans that attacked from the northwest. We were terrified by the future and prayed for salvation. But, our prayers were not answered. The soviets retreated towards Stanisławów, the Poles were indifferent, the Ukrainians rejoiced and we were heading towards annihilation. It is hard to describe the joy of the Jewish population seeing the retreat of the German army. On Yom Kippur eve, September 22nd, 1939, the Soviet army entered the city. For the time being we were written in the book of life.
The Destruction of Jewish Stryj
Now I must begin to describe the liquidation of the Jewish Community and the end of Jewish Stryj. How painful it is to write those words! They include the precious, holy and pure souls of thousands of people, belonging to the families of those who read these lines; souls which were extinguished before their time by suffering and anguish to which nothing can compare since mankind came into being. Neither the legends of the Destruction of the Temple nor the Book of Lamentations, together with the works of the most outstanding and expressive writers, nothing written by mortal hand, could or can express even the least part of what it was my bitter fate to experience and see with my own eyes. The powers of human expression are incapable of recounting the cruelty of the yellow, murderous beast which came forth from its den in order to introduce a New Order in Europe. Where is there a Scribe and where one to weigh ?.. And as for me, I am neither a scribe nor the son of a scribe. My hands fail and the pen sticks in the inkwell. O Lord, I beseech you to strengthen and sustain me so that I may be able to tell my brethren in Zion and those who are dispersed throughout the world what the Germans and the Ukrainians did to our brethren and sisters, our children and little ones; in order to ensure that those of our blood are imbued with the duty of vengeance for generation upon generation. And be that my consolation.
The armored units of the Germans came down on the city like a tempest. The earth crumbled away under the tracks of the gigantic steel and iron tanks. They were followed by the S. S. with black skulls and crossbones on their caps; and they brought death with them. Each one was a merciless professional murderer, a bloodthirsty executioner.
When the Nazis arrived the pits in the courtyard of the Municipal prison were opened. Those pits were full of corpses of slain people, covered with flour and rice. The Russians had not had time before leaving to take with them all the political prisoners who were enemies of the people. Among them were several Jews, but most of them were Ukrainians belonging to the party of Bandera which aspired to establish an Independent Western Ukraine. They had all been shot and flung into these pits. Now the German murderers were astonished to find that anybody contested the monopoly of killing and murdering with them.
Who had killed these people? The Soviets - meaning the Jews! The Jews - the eternal scapegoat, symbolizing the red devil in the eyes of the Germans, and the Bourgeoisie and Wall Street in the eyes of the Russians. Military and civil representatives were summoned together with priests, pressmen and photographers, in order to display Soviet-Jewish cruelty to all. Thousands of townsfolk and others came to see the gruesome sight. The first step to poison the air against the Jews, and incite the population against us, had been successful.
Posters were issued to the effect that war was being waged only against the enemy. The peaceful urban population, without distinction of race or creed, is our friend. We promise them peace and order. They have only to obey the commands of the Military Command. It was signed by General Von Brauchitz. Further notices appeared requiring the Jews to bring their telephones and radio sets to the Town Council where they would be given a receipt for them. Those who did not do so would be punished in accordance with the Emergency Regulations. It was signed by Haupmann Weide, Military Town Commander.
The German District Officer appointed Oskar Hutterer, the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Eliezer Ladier, chairman, and ordered him to select the members of a Judenrat (Jewish Council). This council had a double task. It was to maintain contact with the German Command, carry out its orders, and handle all the internal affairs of the Jews themselves, who from that day forward would constitute a separate body entirely cut off from the Aryan population. This Jewish Council was chiefly intended to serve as a bridge for passing on the decrees of the Nazi Command to the Jews. The Council was given authority to collect taxes from the Jews, and establish a Jewish police (Ordnungsdienst) which would be under its orders. These Police were composed of young people belonging to all groups and classes. Among them were fine young men belonging to the national and academic youth, and also those from poverty-stricken groups. The Council was provided with food supplies for the Community. The policemen were promised additional rations, and therefore the young people willingly registered for police duties. There was also the attraction of gleaming buttons on uniforms, and the round cap with the dark yellow linen band round it. They were armed with rubber truncheons. The Jewish Council Building was the House of Rabbi Jacob Ettinger at the corner of May 3rd and Potockiego Streets. Departments were set up for taxes, housing, furniture and food, with secretaries, telephones, typewriters, storehouses and shops. A complete state apparatus, one might suppose, down to the last details.
The German officers brought their families with them. The Jewish Council was ordered to provide furniture for their dwellings. The Jewish police set to work with exemplary devotion. They took furniture, household utensils, pillows, quilts and linen first from the homes of the rich Jews and then of the well-to-do and finally average people. Some gave willingly and others unwillingly, but the watchword was: Better give our goods than our lives. Yet it was a vain slogan. First they gave their property and afterwards their lives as well. For now came the first blow: The Ukrainians
gave the police names of ten Jews. Those were people who had spoken badly of Germany under Soviet rule, or who had put pressure on Ukrainian workers in factories where Jews had been appointed foremen. Among them were Ephraim Bucchnbaum, Philip Dunkel, Engineer Schatzker, and the son of the lawyer Kerner. They were executed in the neighboring village of Duliby. The murderers behaved with a certain amount of consideration in these first cases, and permitted the families of the slain men to bring their bodies to Jewish burial.
The front moved east. Here and there a barber shop or a shop for light refreshments opened. There were no goods because private trading had been forbidden under Soviet rule. A Jewish shop had to be marked by a Star of David and a notice Jüdischen Geschäfts (Jewish business). The peasants of the neighborhood began to bring their crops to the market. The Jews were allowed two hours, from ten to twelve to buy food, and woe to anybody who was caught after that time. That person was murderously beaten and flung into prison. During those two hours the Jewish purchasers were received at the market with jeers and curses both by the peasant salesmen and by the crowd, who gnashed their teeth and bitterly cursed the Jews for causing the rise in prices, the war and all the trouble that was coming.
Law and order were supervised by the Schupo (Schutzpolizei or civil police), the Kripo (Kriegspolizei or wartime police) and the Gestapo, and at the top was the Ukrainian police. Here a few lines must be devoted to our Ukrainian neighbors with their hands steeped in blood, the offspring and descendants of Bogdan Chmielnicki, that nation whose evil deeds are recorded as an everlasting horror in the history of Polish Jewry. They were the axe in the hands of the Gestapo. Their hatred of the Jews led them to savage murders and the robbery and pillage of all that was Jewish. They murdered and robbed. While the Germans shot from automatic rifles the Ukrainians murdered with their own hands. The Ukrainian peasants slaughtered the village Jews like so many sheep with scythes and sickles. They literally cut them to pieces with knives. We had been living in their midst for hundreds of years, both sides had benefited from mutual trade and we had never done them any harm. On the contrary, the Jewish tradesman, peddler and innkeeper had provided them with clothing, footwear, food and drink many times on payments which were often not paid. The Ukrainians had destroyed the basis of our livelihood in Eastern Galicia even before the Second World War. They had organized the village peasantry into Cooperative Societies which supplied all their needs, and thus eliminated the Jews from their economic positions. The priests in church preached in favor of the societies, and forbade all contact and business with the Jews. The Polish Government not only did not prohibit it but looked favorably on this poisonous activity, which diminished Jewish influence in the commercial sphere. Since we were the minority we were always the scapegoat in the political and economic intrigues between the Poles and Ukrainians. Both of them hated us bitterly. Now that the Germans had come the Ukrainians, drunk with joy, regarded them as angels who would deliver them from the Polish-Jewish pressure, and would fulfil their national dream of a free and independent Ukraine built on the ruins of the Jews.
The Ukrainian Police was made up of thieves, murderers, drunkards and scoundrels, and underworld mob. These scoundrels, who had always been dressed in rags and with whom no decent person would come into touch in normal times, now received new army uniforms with gleaming buttons, rifles or revolvers. Now they were given a free hand. Municipal affairs were handed over to the Ukrainians. The Mayor was Engineer Bandera, manager of the Ukrainian Cooperative Society.
On the day after the invasion a German soldier entered my apartment, accompanied by a Ukrainian hoodlum who served him as a guide to Jewish dwellings. I recognized him as the attendant at the bathhouse, where he was always asleep. I was summoned to work and ordered to fetch a pail, broom and rags. On the street I joined other Jews who were taken from their houses. We were led to the town square in order to clean the tanks, collect the bricks from the bombed houses and arrange them in equal-sized squares. The work was not in the least boring, for from time to time the German supervisor brought his whip down murderously over our heads and backs, to the joy of Ukrainian idlers and vagabonds who laughed at our distress. I had the impudence to ask the supervisor why he was beating me if I was working as I had been ordered. Before I had finished my question the German hit me over the face to the accompaniment of unrepeatable curses. The blood began flowing down over my face.
Next day the Jewish police hurried me along to work at the railway station. We carried all kinds of screws, wheels and heavy pieces of metal from place to place on our backs. While I was working I met a young Ukrainian, a high railway official whom I had known from the good old days. For hundreds of years, he said, you have been sucking our blood. The Ukrainian peasant sold you the fat poultry and geese
while he himself made do with the black bread the Jews sold. The Jews always lived luxuriously. All the houses in town belonged to them. The town is ours, the house yours. Ukrainian hands built them. We were always your servants, your doorkeepers, your boot polishers, your cesspit cleaners. You wore the most expensive clothes, you lived in the finest apartments, you ate our bread and drank our water. Now the time has come to settle your debt. You'll pay with your lives. Now your end has come, the day we have been hoping for, for so long.
This pained me far more than the whip the day before. When I took off my shirt at home, the skin had peeled from my shoulders and my back was covered with blisters. Yet these two episodes are not even a single drop out of the sea compared to what happened afterwards.
Work was mandatory for every Jew between the ages of 16 and 60. A vast number of institutions were established in the city, including military stores, military laboratories and private German firms. I shall mention some of them: Heeresverpflegungsdepot (Army Supply Depot), Baudienst (Building Service), H.K.P., Wasserwirtschaft (Water Authority), Karpathen Ohl, Altstoff (Old Clothes), etc., Heeresbarackenwerke (sawmill of Zelig Borak), A.S.A. Clasfabriken (Classworks - in Neubauer's flour mill). The Ukrainians and Poles traded and made money. We were forbidden to leave the town limits. Every morning we went out in our thousands to work at the above places. In return for our work we were given rations of bread and soup. We submitted to this situation humbly, maybe even willingly, for we were still living in our own apartments. This general calm made some innocent ones among us delude themselves with the vain hope that work would save us, since in wartime work is an important factor and the Germans could not permit themselves to kill productive people like us. Who then would work in our places? And on the other hand, they argued, it was impossible that the German nation of poets and philosophers should simple indulge in the mass slaughter of millions of Jews. And what would the world say? But the bitter reality came and proved otherwise. Death is a dreadful thing, but sevenfold more dreadful was the way that led to it.
A few months later the order establishing the Jewish Quarter (Jüdisches Wohnviertel) was published and paved the way for the Ghetto. It meant that the Jews were separated from the Aryan population. The Jewish Quarter began from Kilinskiego Street (the Lachowicz Bookshop) to its end (at the corner of Iwaszkiewicza-Drohobyczka Streets). It continued on the other side along the Stojalowskiego Boulevard, Zamkowa, Rynek, Berka Josselowicze, Kusznierska, Lwówska; Batorego to the Zielona Street. The Jews of the Aryan Quarter were transferred to the Jewish Quarter and crowded into the apartments of the Jews already living there. It was permissible to enter and leave the Jewish Quarter. Jews with work permits were allowed to enter the Aryan Quarter, while Aryans were permitted to enter the Jewish Quarter. And an alternative was promptly provided for those who did not feel comfortable enough in the Jewish Quarter because of overcrowding. At the time the Quarter contained about 12,000 persons. The Jewish Council was ordered to make room for another 11,000 persons who had been expelled from the small towns of the district, which were thus made Judenrein. Beds of two or three levels were made of boards. The overcrowding led to filth and increased diseases. Before long, an additional easement came, that was worse than the first. The Actions began. This was the name given to the systematic extermination carried out in accordance with a definite plan, and with precise German order. On this occasion, for example, orders were given to kill 1000 Jews between the hours of 4 and 12. If by chance another Jew came along after twelve, the murderers sent him away until the next Action.
This was in November, 1941, at 5 a.m. before dawn. There was a tremendous downpour. The heavens were weeping for us. Squads of German and Ukrainian police came into the Jewish Quarter. Twelve hundred men were taken out of their beds and led away to prison. After three days of beatings and torture the miserable victims were taken to the Holobotow forest near Stryj. There they dug a common grave for themselves, and were all murdered. Now began the feverish building of bunkers in the houses and courtyards. Jewish intelligence, together with a natural sense of self-preservation, enabled us to invent hiding places which were beyond all human imagination. Blind brick walls were built in cellars, attics, cowsheds, on the ceilings of lavatories, in rubbish bins, in cesspits, in places where the German hounds would never dream of searching. The main difficulty was to hide the entry so that it should remain invisible. For the greater part a few bricks were removed in the corner of the blind wall. We crawled in on all fours through the little hole and afterwards the bricks were cautiously replaced so as not to leave any signs of cement or brick. Sometimes the entries were made through the floors of a room, shop, storage area,
or cowshed after some bricks or wooden boards were removed from the floor, and then carefully replaced from within after those who were hiding themselves had entered. One exceptional invention which required special skill was the entry from under a window. The window-sill was removed. The middle bricks were taken out of the wall leaving space for a thin person. The entry to the bunker was through the hollow in the wall that was under the sill. The last to enter put the sill back in place from the inside precisely where it should be, with handles underneath especially made for the purpose. This was done with the utmost precaution, so that there should be no sign of the window-sill having been moved. The danger of death was the mother of strange inventions, of which nobody could have dreamed in normal times. Yet the clever inventions of flesh and blood were not always lucky. There were cases when those who had toiled to hide themselves ten feet underground were discovered, while others who hid themselves in an empty upside-down barrel or behind doors succeeded in escaping, until they fell into the hands of the Germans, that is, in the Actions that followed.
In December, 1941, in midwinter, Joseph Goebbels of accursed memory, called on the German people to generously donate winter clothing for the German Forces fighting on the Eastern Front in order to liberate the civilized world from the Communist peril. The Aryan population had the choice of doing so or not; but for the Jews it was an order. Notices were published ordering the Jews to bring their furs to the Town Command Office. In order to make sure that this decree was promptly fulfilled, the German and Ukrainian Police did not wait for the Jews to fetch the furs themselves, but went from house to house to collect them. Their energy repaid them. They collected furs were worth thousands of dollars. Some were delivered to the Command Office, but most were sold on the black markets in Lwów and Kraków and the money received was spent on liquor. The drunkenness which then spread among the Aryans, and particularly among the police, is simply indescribable. It expressed their joy at the victories at the front and at the destruction of the Jews. A Ukrainian looking through a window saw the martyred Moshe Goldfischer hiding his fur in the double back of his cupboard, which was so skillfully made that its existence could not be seen. The Ukrainian informed the police about his Jewish neighbor who was hanged by the Gestapo.
The Polish winter descended upon us. The Jewish Council received orders to transfer unproductive families, idlers, and particularly widows and women whose husbands had been taken to the Soviet army, to forsaken hamlets in the heart of the Carpathians, in the direction of Smorze village. The purpose was obvious. Even in normal years the peasants of that dreadful region lived on dry barley bread. Now in wartime there was no doubt that within a few days these people would all perish of starvation. On a cold winter night about 500 souls were loaded on wagons guarded by Ukrainian police on horseback, and taken up to villages that were to be their graves. Very few of them returned some weeks later, bloated with starvation and wrapped in rags and tatters.
Meanwhile the Nazis were preparing public opinion for the idea that Jewish life was worthless. Army cars carried slogans Death to the Jews. Caricatures were shown in public places displaying fat big-bellied Jews from Europe and America sucking the blood and marrow of the Aryan workers and neighbors through pipes, which brought piles of dollars into their pockets. The Nazis now had the sacred task of purifying Europe from the Jewish monster and eradicating this dangerous international microbe. It was not long before the satanic propaganda had its effect. The ground was prepared for murders and Actions. As we marched in ranks to work in the mornings Ukrainians attacked us and beat us without mercy. In the alleys Ukrainian police regularly stripped off the clothes and boots of Jews, and paid for them with murderous blows.
As remarked, thousands of Jews were engaged in hard labor in all kinds of factories, barracks, mills, stores and military institutions. In addition the Jewish Council sent hundreds of those remaining in the Jewish Quarter to engage in public works every day. But the Nazis did not rest satisfied. From time to time German and Ukrainian police came to the Jewish Quarter in order to kidnap Jews for cleaning cesspits and lavatories. And naturally such kidnappings were always accompanied by blows. Deaths due to these thrashings were numerous. Among the victims was my father-in-law, the martyred Hillel Landau, a God-fearing Jew of exceptional qualities who was widely known for his integrity and charity. The Nazi police caught him in the street, beat him and trampled him underfoot. A few days later, he went to his eternal rest on the 26th of Tevet, 5702.
As usual in times of trouble people yearned for miracles. Maybe Soviet Russia would finally strengthen and proceed to the offensive. Jews were forbidden to buy or sell newspapers. But sometimes we secretly managed to obtain the Lemberger Zeitung, from a Polish worker while we were working. The news depressed us even more. Despair spread on all sides. At the end of 1941 German submarines sank British warships and aircraft carriers.
Italian torpedo-ships attacked Alexandria in Egypt and wreaked havoc. We reckoned we were already dead. But what was going to happen to Eretz Israel? Our last hope was that we should rid ourselves of the doubt and fear that the Nazis might reach the Land of Israel. Now the fear that the Nazis will attack the land of Israel was growing stronger. German airplanes sunk the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales. On February 12th, 1942, the German battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen succeeded in crossing the English Channel in spite of the British blockade, and endangered the eastern shores of England. The political horizon was absolutely black. We had the feeling that in a little while the whole of Europe would lie at the feet of the Nazis. Whence would our aid come? Our peril increased a hundred fold. The Germans were preparing to slaughter us.
It was in May 1942, before the Shavuot Festival, that the Jewish Quarter was surrounded on all sides. Anybody who tried to escape was shot and killed on the spot. This time the murderers found empty apartments. Everybody who could had taken shelter inside the bunkers. But the walls were smashed with hammers, pick-axes and hand grenades. When the murderers entered the apartment of the Schor family, an aristocratic Hassidic family who had been Turkish citizens for generations, the latter showed them their Turkish passports. The Gestapo murderers tore them up on the spot. Turkey will not go to war with us because of a few dirty Jews! they proclaimed and added the whole family to the transport. The Jewish Hospital was full of patients. They were all shot in their beds.
After the Action the Jewish Quarter looked like a battlefield. In the hour of danger, when people ran in confusion to hide in the bunkers, many families broke up. Each crawled on his own in to the very closest bunker, for there was no time to choose. After the Action those who were still alive came out of their holes in mourning, bereaved of their dearest ones. Children were orphaned and parents were left bereft. Wives remained without husbands and husbands without wives. At that time a stony indifference resulting from despair and complete hopelessness began to overwhelm the survivors. People wandered gloomily and bowed, without greeting one another. All the civilised politeness of society seemed to have vanished.
After each Action the murderers came to confiscate the property of the victims on behalf of the Nazi institution Verbreitung des Deutschtums im Generalgouvernement (Dissemination of Germanizm in the General Government). Stores for Jewish loot were opened in abandoned Jewish homes in Batorego Street. These stores swiftly filled up to the ceiling with the furniture, pillows, quilts, and linen of the victims of the Uebersiedlung (resettlement) which was the official name given to the Extermination Operations. The cynicism involved does not call for comment. The furniture of the victims was pillaged and given away to Ukrainians, who came in their thousands with wagons from the villages in order to receive their share of the Jewish inheritance.
As the Jewish population dwindled on account of the Actions the Nazis began to reduce the area of the Jewish Quarter. It started at the House of Adela Katz in the Batorego Street and ended at the house of the martyred Abraham Apfelgruen on the Berka Joselowicza Street.
But the Germans did not permit our tears to dry. They had not yet quenched their thirst for the Jewish blood they were shedding like water. The slaughter of the 3rd of September, 1942 came like a sudden blow. The Action lasted for 3 days and 8,000 persons perished. This time the Gestapo, Schupo, and Kripo together with the Ukrainian Police assailed us with full military equipment. Having learnt from previous experience they now brought with them all kinds of instruments for breaking down the bunkers. Freight cars were waiting at the railway station and the victims were taken to them in groups. It was late summer and hot as a furnace. The victims were flung into the wagons on the heads of those already inside, till they were completely stuffed. Quite apart from the blazing heat outside, a choking heat could be felt in the wagons. It was caused by a chemical powder which produced choking smoke clouds. The Gestapo had put this powder in the cars in order to increase the heat and the airlessness. Nobody paid any attention to those who fainted, for each person felt as though he too were about to faint. Those who shrieked for water through the apertures near the wagon roofs met with the laughter of the Nazis who opened the wagon doors and beat them till they bled. Some tore their clothes off themselves, while others voided themselves for very fear and dread. In one of the wagons was the saintly and martyred Rabbi Mechele, grandson of the Hassidic Rebbe of Stratyń. He ripped his minor talit to little pieces and roared, Lord of the Universe, I served you all my life with full devotion. Is this the reward of Torah? After that he fainted and died choking. The earth did not open its mouth and the world was not destroyed.
In the wagon carrying my martyred brother-in-law Shabtai Landau with his wife and child there were a number of brave strong young men who had taken wrenches and various implements for self-defense. From the aperture in the wagon it could be seen that the train was moving towards Lwów.
This meant that it would cross the bridge across the River Dniester near Mikołajów. Before the train crossed the bridge it usually slowed down. As soon as the train began to move the young men started to use their wrenches. It was hard to shift the bolts and nuts because they had rusted with age. But people become unbelievably strong when they are in danger of death. By the time the train began to slow down on the ascent to the bridge the bolts had been removed. The boards of the door, reinforced with iron bars, were broken and the young fellows began to jump out. But Gestapo men were standing between the wagons and promptly began to shoot. My brother in law Shabtai Landau jumped with his child on his shoulder and was shot. His wife jumped after him. She was saved with a handful more. Those who succeeded in returning to the town had the skin torn off their bodies when they jumped. But what was the use? They were saved only until the next Action. The train went on its way, from which none returned. At Belzec the flesh of the martyrs was ripped from them. Their fat was used for making soap. Yet no matter how the polluted ones try to cleanse themselves their sins stain them forever.
Before we had recovered from this the Nazis planned the last blow against the surviving Jews of the Holy Congregation of Stryj. People began whispering of the establishment of the Ghetto. I shiver at the memory of the word.
The news was received with strange feelings. Some said it was a sign that Stryj was not to be made Judenrein for the time being, as had already been done in many cities, nor would we be transferred to a Ghetto somewhere else. The fact that the Ghetto was to be erected made it clear that they did not intend to kill us for the present, since they were establishing a restricted area in order to separate us from the Aryans. And that was all. Maybe deliverance would come meanwhile. But those who did not wish to delude themselves regarded the establishment of the Ghetto as a final step before complete destruction, in accordance with a prearranged plan for the entire Occupied Zone which had been prepared by Hitler, Himmler and Kaltenbrunner. Both groups alike saw that the last Action had been worse than the proceeding ones. In the earlier ones people with work papers had been released, but in the last no distinction at all had been made between workers and idlers. Experience had also proved that the bunkers were a broken reed. If by some miracle a bunker was not discovered today, it was almost certain to be discovered at the next Action. People with money, which in those days meant gold dollars, found hiding places with avaricious Aryan families eager for Jewish gold. If somebody was out in the dark, he gave his wallet to a gentile as the Talmud puts it. First the gentile took his wallet and afterwards his life. Some were compelled to leave their hiding places after only a few days because those who hid them feared that they would be killed themselves. The good gentiles robbed the money and sent the Jews away. But mostly the Jews were murdered and flung out into the streets. Jewish bodies lay rotting on the banks of the River Stryj. They were a regular sight. The Jewish Council was ordered to clear them away. The Jews bore with that impossibly difficult burden called life, life of which they themselves had become weary of until finally they were rid of it.
Large posters consisting of many paragraphs and signed by Hans Frank the Head of the General Government announced the establishment of the Ghetto in Stryj on the 1st of December, 1942. Entry and exit were permitted only to those Jews with work cards stamped by the Gestapo. Those breaking the law were liable to the death penalty. The Aryans were warned not to approach the Ghetto limits. Selling or giving food or offering Jews any kind of help would be punished by hanging. The Ghetto area consisted of the following streets: Berka Joselowicza, Kusznierska, Krawiecka and Lwówska. It had two main entrances, in the Berka Joselowicza and Lwówska streets. Thick wooden posts were set up on both pavements and across them a long pole was placed as a barrier which was raised when necessary. Policemen watched the gates by day and night. Streets that led to the Aryan quarter were blocked with high wooden fences. And now the rope round our necks was tightened to strangle the last of the Jews. The Ghetto was set up with the definite purpose of being destroyed. Its end was inherent with its beginning. Now we were caught like birds in a trap.
Once the Ghetto was established the Jews were divided into two: Those who were working and helping to bring about the Nazi victory, and the idle, weak, aged, women and children. The former wore square patches with the letter W meaning wichtig (important). This meant that they must be protected, and that the Gestapo must not do them any harm, while the rest were to remain in the Ghetto and wait for their day to come. Day by day thousands of Jews went out into the Aryan Quarter to all kinds of public works, accompanied by Jewish Police. Sometimes lesser ghettoes were set up near the work sites, for those marked with the letter W. Thousands of our finest youth were working there. They were entrusted to the Gestapo so as to be protected from any trouble that might befall the main Ghetto,
so that these productive workers might be able to work calmly. The Germans said mockingly about them, These will survive the War. The Jewish workers employed at the Borak sawmill, which was called Heeresbarrackenwerke, were given the ruins of the barracks opposite Bolechowska Street. The A. S. A. glass factory, the Wasserwirtschaft, the Karpatenöhl, the Altstoff and a number of other German firms placed their Jewish workers in small houses on Franko Street near Bolechowska Street. These houses were emptied of their Jewish inhabitants, who had already been killed in the Actions. Every morning we were lined up like soldiers and went to work under police guard. This was both ridiculous and tragic deceit. In theory the policemen were supposed to protect us, so that the Ukrainians should not beat us on the way to work and the Gestapo should not take us away during an action, but actually the Ukrainians beat us while the Gestapo kidnapped.
Baking and cooking were prohibited in the Ghetto. Shlomo Sauerbrunn's bakery in Lwówska Street was the only one which baked bread on behalf of the Jewish Council from the coarse flour provided by the Nazis for the Ghetto prisoners. From time to time policemen came to the Ghetto to see whether the chimneys were smoking. A German soldier went patrolling with his dog, which was trained to smell the scent of meat. The cesspits were not cleaned in the ghetto, and it is hard to describe the results. Both electricity and gas were cut off. The water cisterns were stopped up. They left a single pump in the courtyard of Isaac Reich in the Berka Joselowicza Street, and another in Kusznierska Street. People had to get up at five o'clock in the morning and stand in line with their pails, for in case of an Action it was clearly advisable not to enter a bunker without water. Starving people wandered about and lay on the street.Even the healthy looked green and yellow. The bunkers left their mark upon them, as death had cast its shadow over them. All that was left of the wealth of Stryj was a cart and one wizened mare, on which the dead were taken to the cemetery. The burials were handled by the martyred son-in-law of the Dayan Rabbi Saul Lusthaus, and by Mordechai Jungman. Although we were sick of living, conversations in the Ghetto turned chiefly on signs of our end. How many more days would they let us live? How many more Actions would there be, and when? If a mere two German policemen were seen approaching it was enough to start the alarm, They're coming! That terrible cry passed through the Ghetto like lightning; and whenever it was heard every living soul vanished from the streets and houses, and we all began crawling into the bunkers. Nor were they always wrong with their fears. From time to time little Actions were carried out by the Jewish police under Nazi orders. Why should the Nazis bother to hunt the despicable Jews if the work could be done by the Jews themselves? It was so easy to set Jews against Jews. How tragic! How low we had fallen! The kidnappers came to the ghetto to find the bunkers of their fellow Jews and hand them over to be killed. The order of the Gestapo required a certain number of Jews to be handed over, and the police had to supply that number. Sometimes there were thrashings and absolute murder when they found a bunker. Those who were caught were first taken to the Great Synagogue and were kept there under police guard until they were handed over to the Gestapo. The well-to-do who could pay a ransom to the Jewish Council were set free, and others were caught in their place. Trade in human Jewish life flourished. But before long all alike found themselves facing the same fate.
The Jewish Council imposed a compulsory tax on the population of the Ghetto. Everybody paid whatever was demanded for fear of being caught and taken away at the next Action. The younger people began to feel very bitter with the Council arguing that this money could be used to buy arms for self-defense during Actions. We knew perfectly well that we could not defeat the Nazis. But we wanted to kill as many of them as we could before we were killed ourselves. But the Council carried out the orders of the Nazis like abject slaves. The chairman of the Council thought that all the ghettos would be liquidated but that of Stryj would remain.
New faces began to be seen in the ghetto. They were the remains, the vestiges of communities near and far. All alone, without families or kin, these poor people wandered about as though they were struck insane after their own ghettos had been liquidated. Near me, for example, lived Gerengross, the owner of the largest department store in Vienna, with his Aryan wife who refused to abandon her husband in his distress. During one of the Actions the poor folk pleaded to the Gestapo, We are Viennese. But their blood mingled with that of our brethren. One young fellow escaped when the camp in the Janowska Street in Lwów was liquidated. He told me that 70,000 Jews have been murdered in a single week on the Piaski a suburb of Lwów. My martyred younger brother Joseph succeeded in escaping to Stryj form Stanisławów. There he stood in a long line of thousands of Jews at the cemetery, surrounded by S.S. troops and Gestapo men. The pit was very deep and wide. Those who reached the pit had to strip quickly, put their clothes in order on one side and their shoes on the other, separately. The victims walked over a board and young S.S. men about 18 years old shot them with automatic rifles. The victims fell straight into the Pit. Those who were not killed by the bullets were soon choked to death under the weight of bodies. The crush was dreadful. Everyone
wished to be done with their life as soon as possible. The long line moved closer and closer to the board. The people around my brother, and he himself, began to unbutton their clothes and unlace their shoes, to be ready for their turn. To their astonishment the shooting, suddenly ceased. The action was to have been finished at five o'clock, and precisely at five it stopped. Go away, dirty Jews! shouted the murderers. See you at the next Action!. If anyone doubts the German punctuality and order there was the proof.
Through the Carpathian Mountains
While the days of the Ghetto were numbered and we were all as pretty much dead, there were Jews living normally only twenty miles away beyond the Carpathian Mountains on the other side of the Hungarian border who knew no ill. A Ukrainian peasant wearing a white band over his arm appeared in the ghetto, bringing a letter to someone or other from his relative in the village near Veretzki, the first little town beyond the Hungarian border. The person receiving the letter was warned to overcome his fear, to risk his life and to cross the border at once by winding paths through the mountains, where the guards did not venture. Following this letter people with relatives beyond the border sent them letters by Ukrainian villagers eager for money, who were paid after bringing an answer back from the relatives. At the same time a rumor spread that the son-in-law of Haim Wolf, the owner of the soda-water factory, had succeeded in crossing the border and reached Budapest safe and sound. People began to whisper about the possibility of escape, and did their best to see that the Jewish police heard nothing. Who could be wise enough at such a time to weigh the pros and the cons? Anybody who put a foot outside the Ghetto was risking his life and was in danger every step of the way, until leaving town. Once outside, there were new perils. These came from both the local police and the German police guarding the bridges along the roads. The Ukrainians knew that whoever tried to escape would be carrying all their money with them. They ambushed in order to kill and rob. If anyone succeeded in crossing the border in spite of all these risks and perils he had to find a place where he could hide on the other side, for the Hungarian police were keeping strict watch all along the border area. If they caught any Jews from Poland they returned them to the Gestapo in Ławoczne. Anyone who found a good hiding-place to stay a few days, he could wait for a suitable opportunity of getting to Munkács (Munkatch) and from there to Budapest.
Yet in spite of the perils and pitfalls, which maybe one in a thousand could evade, it was still worth risking a life that had become worthless. However, the weaklings and cowards in the Ghetto thought otherwise. As long as there were no Actions, they argued, the Ghetto was the sole refuge in which it was possible to live for the present. Leaving the Ghetto was as good as suicide. Why should a Jew go to meet the Angel of Death? Better wait for the Angel of Death to come for him.
The physicians Dr. Shützer and Sobel succeeded in crossing the border and reached the first Jewish house on the soil of Hungary. When they knocked at the window to ask permission to enter, they were met with animosity and contempt. The poor fellows explained that they had just escaped from Poland, and entreated for a place to spend the night. Their pleading and tears were of no avail. It is shameful and painful to have to reveal the reproach of some Hungarian Jews. One even brandished an axe and warned them that they should leave at once otherwise they would be handed over to the border police. They were driven away by force and returned to the hell of the Stryj Ghetto. Hiding a person who escaped from Poland was punishable by up to three days detention. At the time that Polish Jewry was being systematically murdered, Hungarian Jews were afraid of imprisonment.
In spite of everything, people set out to cross the mountains. Hersch Benczer, Moshe Schechter, Manny Kron, Michael Wang, Moshe Kess and others succeeded in reaching Budapest. The delivery of letters to Jews had long ceased. Those happy persons who had reached Budapest wrote letters to Polish addresses in Stryj. The letters were brought to the Ghetto and encouraged people to risk their lives and cross the Hungarian border whatever happened. My three dear martyred brothers Isaac, Joseph and Pinhas, with Ephraim Kramer and his son Saul, engineer Haim Vogel, Leib Risch and David Sobel and their families, Shlomo Ladier, Mendel Meller, the brothers Rosenman and others like them whose names I have simply forgotten in the course of time, these brave people, who decided not to wait for the Nazi murderers and to stand in line by the pit were all shot on the border. The Carpathian ranges, both on the side of Ławoczne and on that of Dolina- Wyschkowo and Perehińsko-Osmoloda, were soaked with the blood of these holy martyrs.
Dozens of people who tried to escape to Hungary were shot on the way
at Morszyn or at Synowódzko. A few were wounded and returned to the Ghetto with bullets in their backs and legs, happy that they still had a refuge to which they could return. The Wohlmut, Reiner, Grimm and other families and persons dug bunkers in the Skole district in the Carpathian forest. Soon enough the bunkers were discovered by Ukrainian shepherds who brought the Gestapo there. Moshe Wohlmut was the only one to escape ad he managed to reach Rozdół and Dolina. Ukrainian youngsters searched for Jews in the forests in order to get a reward from the local police. All those who went to the forests and were not discovered returned one by one to the Ghetto or the camps, for they could not face the perils of forest life. Only a handful were saved and survived in these hiding places.
There was a feeling that the Ghetto was nearing its end; and a drowning man will clutch at a straw. Two well-dressed young fellows, who did not look like Jews entered the Ghetto from the Aryan Quarter. They came from Warsaw and with them they brought the Aryan document plague. They sold birth certificates, documents of the Meldungsamt (Registration Office) and the Arbeitsamt (Labor Office) in Warsaw. All the client had to do was to give them any Polish name he chose, two photographs and a down payment. Five days later they brought false Aryan papers from Warsaw. A number of persons particularly those who did not have a Jewish appearance and who spoke Polish well, purchased these bargains, and carefully learned the Christian prayer of Our God in Heaven by heart. For if a suspected person was caught, the Police would tell them to recite the Morning Prayer. With these false documents, they hoped to be able to leave for another town before the liquidation of the Ghetto. The Germans discovered this trick as well. Strict watch was kept at the railway station. First they inspected all documents and stared straight in the eyes of the passengers. Afterwards they physically examined those they suspected. Jewish men and women by the hundreds were hung in the railway stations. Only a handful of those who tried to escape from Stryj to Warsaw succeeded in saving themselves with the false documents. Among them were the physicians Schleifer, Hausmann and Kindler, the Brothers Apfelgruen and a few more. Women had a better chance than the men of escaping with the aid of such papers. Is it possible to describe the distress of parents waiting to die in the Ghetto and saying goodbye to their daughter who was going out into a world that was full of peril at every step? Their parting blessing was, Listen carefully, daughter, and pay attention. Forget your people and your family.
The Hell in the Ghetto
The murderous situation developed an animal-like instinct within us for feeling the storm before it came. There were clear signs of an approaching action. The kidnapping in the streets stopped. They did not put pressure on us or thrash us at work. The police at the gates did not inspect us, and did not pay attention. Sometimes they even vanished into the neighboring pub. This meant that we were simply not worth guarding any longer. For who guards the dead? Even the Gestapo inspections at the camps, of which we were deadly afraid, stopped. Now the camp was unattended. So when we did not feel the whip and the pressure we knew that this was the calm before the storm, before the last storm that preceded the final everlasting silence, the calm and silence of death. Those who were not prepared to accept the terrible thought that they had to wait with dread for death at the hand of the Nazis, those whose will to live was not yet fully destroyed and who still thought of rescue, had to decide between four alternatives: To hide with non-Jews, to escape to Hungary, to escape to the forests and dig a bunker there or to try to get to another town with false papers. All of these options had a 99.99% probability of death. Those who risked one of these methods of escape had one more temporary option. If the non-Jew did threw him out, or if the conditions in the forests compelled him to return to the town, he could still take shelter in the Ghetto as long as it existed. But after the liquidation of the Ghetto there would no longer be any place for a Jew to hide and could be murdered by anyone as his life is worthless. Those were our thoughts in the spring of 1943.
I will never forget Passover 1943, until the day I die. At the time I was working at the A.S.A. glass factory. Kneeling naked I drew glowing glass vessels out of the furnace. Once a day we got a portion of soup which was not fit for dogs, and a piece of black bread. After work we went to the camp on Bolechówska street at the house of the Nawalnicki sisters. The furniture consisted of two tiers of boards which were infested with lice. Three persons lay side by side on such a bed of boards. The camp was surrounded by tall wooden fence and the gate was guarded by a policeman. The events in other cities made it perfectly clear to us that the Ghettoes would be liquidated first and then the camps in which the productive workers were kept. The Ghetto was generally regarded as a dangerous area, for nobody could guess the day or hour of the next Action which could be sensed in the air.
On Passover Eve I stole into the Ghetto. My three martyred brothers were no longer alive. They had met their death in the Carpathian Mountains. I, the only survivor, wished to spend the night with my parents, no matter what happened. I had the feeling I would never see them again. Jewish refugees from other towns were staying with my parents who had always been hospitable. They sat around the table, on which burnt a dim candle made of fat that my mother had specially hidden for the purpose. A few black matzas made of coarse meal and hot water had been prepared for the festival. We said the blessing over the matza. When my father asked me to repeat the Four Questions I remembered the Passover Eves of the good years, when we all sat around a table on set with shining dishes of gold, silver, and crystal-ware, and had gaily and cheerfully sung the words of the Haghadah to the traditional tunes.
My tears choked me so that I could not utter a sound. Nor did the eyes of the others remain dry. Suddenly the young fellow who had been watching on the balcony burst into the room. They're coming, he shouted which cut like a scalpel through the living flesh. In the distance he had seen two shadows approaching the Ghetto, a sign that the Action was impending. Within a moment we were all in the bunkers. This time it was a false alarm. Some people had heart attacks because of such alarms and maneuvers, while others lost their minds.
Next day I saw the martyred rabbi Shlomo Drimmer in the Ghetto. He was a learned Jew, and the secretary of the Talmud Torah. With him he carried a volume of the Mishna text. In answer to my question he told me that he was going to the Czortków kloiz (synagogue), where a minyan (a quorum of ten) Jews met every day. Each of them studied a chapter of the Mishna for the salvation of his own soul, and then said Kaddish after himself. For who would say Kaddish after us if extermination were decreed for our people and not even a memory would survive us? All the synagogues and houses of study were already destroyed. The Ukrainians had smashed, ruined and burnt the Torah scrolls, the books and the furniture. Or else they used them as fuel and for wrapping up goods in the shops. The windows had all been smashed. I stood in front of the Geyle Kloiz in Kusznierska Street, the Temple of the God of my youth, my old house of study and I trembled. The holes and spaces of the windows seemed to face me like a man whose eyes were gouged out, humiliated. Should I weep at its destruction, at our own or at both alike?
As I walked in line back from work I entered a Ukrainian shop at the risk of my life in order to buy some tobacco. The shopkeeper wrapped up the leaves in a page of Gemara. Sheets of a Torah Scroll were spread out on the floor. I was shocked and felt my knees and heart shake. Scalding tears suddenly burst from my eyes at the sight of my people's sacred objects being trampled by impure feet.
The tension in the factory increased. People whispered to one another, They're digging! a phrase that caused our stomachs to turn. Pits were being dug at the Jewish cemetery in readiness for the day of the impending Action. The terrifying news was brought by Aryan workers from the Baudienst. That day the men in charge did not drive us hard at work. Such easy-going days always boded evil and catastrophe. Our hands simply did not respond to the work, but seemed to be paralyzed and we stared about like trapped wild animals. Nobody slept at night.
What we feared came about. In May 1943, between the Passover and the Feast of Shavuot, the Ghetto was surrounded. By this time the work of the murderers was far simpler because the area of the Ghetto had been reduced. There was no escape or refuge. Gestapo units were brought from Drohobycz to help the Stryj squads. Those in charge of the slaughter were: Oberleutanant Klarmann, Ebenrecht and Huet of Stryj, and Hildebrandt, Minkus, Josef Gabriel and Gerber of Drohobycz. The murderers and their assistants were all drunk. The echoes of the shots and explosions that reached our ears pierced our souls. It is beyond my powers to describe what went on within us. It is beyond all human comprehension. While we were working for a German victory only a few hundred paces away from the Ghetto, hell was swallowing our families. When the murderers entered cellars or other suspect places, they put their ears to the walls in order to try and distinguish movement or human voices. At such tense moments all those in hiding held their breaths. If anybody coughed or a child began to cry, they all promptly covered him with their clothes and choked him. The children and babies found in the houses on upper floors were not brought downstairs but were dragged from the arms of their mothers and flung from the windows. Their little heads smashed against the pavement, while the little bodies were trampled underfoot by the Nazis and Ukrainians. Bunker walls were smashed open. Those who never heard the yells of the beasts roaring, Raus! Los! (Out! Quick!), and those who never heard the weeping and wailing of the babies and little children trampled and murdered in the streets, cannot imagine hell. Hundreds were shot in the streets. Thousands were taken to the Great Synagogue and from there to prison and the cemetery for mass Slaughter. It was obvious to the Nazi murderers that the Jewish Council and Jewish police had to play an active part and help in carrying out the Action. The Jewish police who were called upon to participate received special white jackets. Their task
was to take the corpses out of the houses, pile them in heaps on carts and take them to the graveyard. Blood dripped from the carts and the cart-wheels on the Stryj soil. Those Jews who survived this action, and who were not yet done away with by the murderers, washed and scoured the streets of Stryj after the Action, removing the bloodstains left by their brethren. This time the victims were not taken far. Some had prepared cyanide for themselves and committed suicide in prison. They included Dr. Malka Leibowicz and her son, Dr. Schnier, Dr. Kiczales and others. When the victims were sent half-naked out of the prison and climbed on the trucks that took them off to the cemetery, a crowd of Ukrainians gathered at the gateway to see and satisfy their lust for Jewish blood. And let this go into the record: The Ukrainian beasts beat the naked bodies of our brothers and sisters with nail-studded clubs while they were being taken away to be slaughtered. The blood of 8,000 Jews was shed that day at the cemetery. Poles who lived in the Pomiarki suburb next to the Jewish cemetery told me after the Liberation that they went up on the roofs to watch the murder. After the Nazis left the field of slaughter the level of the graves had been raised because of the sea of blood that had been shed. For several days afterwards dogs licked the blood that oozed from the earth.
After the Action was over the Jewish Council received an account from the Gestapo listing the precise number of bullets used up in carrying it out. The Council was requested to pay for the bullets.
After having cut us limb from limb, the Ghetto was ready to be liquidated. The only bunkers left there were those that had been built by really skilled workmen in hidden places where even the murderers would never dream of searching, and those that had by chance never been discovered. After the last Action, which was on an unheard before scale, the desire of the survivors to keep themselves alive and escape by building bunkers had very definitely weakened. What was the point of saving one's self again if the Ghetto was going to be liquidated anyway? Physical strength was at an end. Some died of starvation and grief or of infectious diseases, while others just committed suicide. Despair spread from the Ghetto to the camps. It was obvious that once the Ghetto was liquidated it would be the turn of the camps. We secretly began building bunkers within the camp itself.
During the middle days of Passover 1943 four young men came to the Ghetto. They had reached Stryj from Warsaw with forged Aryan papers, after running away from the Destruction and crawling to the Aryan part through the sewers. They told of the heroic deeds of the Ghetto fighters who raised the blue-white flag in the burning Ghetto, which was defending itself to the last. The cadaverous faces of the Stryj Ghetto inhabitants grew bright at these tales of bravery. But our joy did not last long. The liquidation of the Ghetto began on 10th July 1943. Ukrainian guards of armed police forces were stationed at all the Ghetto entrances and exits for two weeks. Those who still retained a spark of the will to live left the bunkers, went up to the attics, dug holes between the attics, and paved a way to the Aryan quarter and through the attics reached the house of Fleischer, at Rynek corner of Cerkiewna Street. From there they stole at night to our camp at the Bolechówska Street at the house of the Nawalnicki sisters.
The fires of hell were literally burning in the Ghetto. The murderers went from house to house seeking victims, and completely destroyed the buildings. Where they suspected the existence of bunkers they flung incendiary bombs or flooded the cellars with water. Those who did not drown were buried alive under piles of bricks, stones and dust or else were burnt and choked in the smoke. Some perished by water and some by fire, some by strangling and some by stoning, as the prayers for the New Year and Day of Atonement put it. Not a single person survived in the last bunkers, which were regarded as unconquered fortresses, at the homes of Moshe Rosenbaum and Ezekiel Reder in Lwówska St. and the home of Moshe Kron in Berka Yoselowicza Street. The sound of bombs and rattle of automatic guns made the town shake to its foundations. We in the camp listened with bated breath to the echo of each bomb and it tore our hearts.
A Jew from the Skole District who escaped from the Ghetto hid in the attic of Isaac Reich at the corner of the roof, and through a crack in the wall saw what took place in the courtyard of my parents. He succeeded in making his way through the attic route to the camp, and this is what he told me: My parents left the bunker in sheer exhaustion. As soon as they entered their dwelling the German murderers appeared, accompanied by Ukrainian police. My parents were taken through the outer stairway down to the courtyard. A German knocked my father's skullcap off with his rifle and shot him. Afterwards he shot my mother. May the Lord take vengeance for their shed blood. The murderers emptied my father's pockets, removed a few marks and his watch and chain. Then came the Jewish police and loaded the corpses on a cart.
When the Ghetto was liquidated the Offices of the Jewish Council were burnt and the members were shot, together with the Jewish police. All that was left was the death cart
with the skinny mare. She was brought to our camp, whose turn had now come. The last survivors of the Ghetto who had found refuge in our camp hid wizened with starvation in the attics and the cellars. Those who managed to obtain cyanide took their own lives, their final satisfaction being that the Nazis had not touched them. As for the remainder, the last spark of life gradually dimmed in them, and they wandered around like shadows, more dead than alive. The commandant of our camp, A.S.A., August Schmidt of Stuttgart, a glass-factory owner, informed the Gestapo that illegals from the Ghetto had stolen into the camp. One fine morning before sunrise early in July 1943 we were startled to hear sudden shots in the camp itself; shots which flung us off our lice-infested boards. Before we could find out what was going on, we saw through the windows that we were surrounded by Nazi, and Ukrainian forces. The medley of shouts and shots left us highly confused and unnerved. The Jewish police urged us with their rubber truncheons to dress quickly and go down to the courtyard. Through the sound of the shots could be heard the voices of the commanding officers: A.S.A. workers with the W mark in one row, and the rest in a second row!.
I stood among the A.S.A. workers and pinned the W badge to my chest; for its absence meant death. My eyes sought my wife and mother-in-law, who had hidden themselves in a bunker under the roof. Shots sounded in the attic. A Schupo and Gestapo men climbed on the roof and shot those who were running away. Their riddled bodies fell into the courtyard beside us. People were dragged out of the chimneys and shot on the spot. Two Jews in an attic defended themselves with knives, and so as a result I saw two bandaged Nazis in the neighboring courtyard. Those who had tried to escape lay weltering in their blood at the camp entrance. This Action was conducted by Oberleutnant Klarmann. His shirt was unbuttoned, his face was red and he looked like a savage and bloodthirsty beast. His head was bare and he had an automatic rifle in his hand. He stood on the steps in the courtyard giving orders. At his side stood Isaac Stark the commander of the Jewish camp police. Through my skull thundered the order: Count the 165 for the A.S.A. The rest to the second row! My work card was numbered 164, which meant that I was among the living. When they reached my place I felt my pulse, my muscles and my eyes to see whether I was dreaming or actually awake in this valley of slaughter. I felt that my senses were leaving me. My legs were shaking. Klarmann spoke: We have taken the Ghetto filth out of your camp, for they dirtied the camp which is intended only for the good workers. It is your duty to work and work, and henceforward let your camp be clean!
The row of illegals was loaded on trucks with yells and wailings whose echoes still resound in my ears as I write these lines. They were taken to the cemetery to be killed. We, the 165, were led away to work at the factory.
The Altstoff and Wasserwirtschaft and some other smaller camps were liquidated. The three remaining labor camps in Stryj were those of the A.S.A., Heeresbarackenwerke, and the H.K.P.
There was no longer any doubt that theses would be liquidated too. The question was which would come first. Or maybe they would be liquidated together. Who could guess the plans of the murderers? Those days were just a corridor leading to death. The factory in which I worked was surrounded by grassy areas and trees. Whenever I passed I breathed their scent as deeply as I could, wondering to myself meanwhile whether my feet would be treading this earth tomorrow, or whether I would already be rotting in a common grave. I would be rotting but the grass and trees would continue growing for years to come. And maybe they would even see the downfall of the wicked. In silence and despair we gripped the wooden bars which fenced us in. Any hope and possibility of rescue had vanished. All we could do was to moan in silence and wait for death. Beyond the fence lay the Aryan Quarter, noisy and swarming with life and liberty. How happy were those who had not been sentenced to death like us, and who might come and go as they pleased. Beyond the camp fence people went about their affairs and their work, some smiling, others serious. They looked at us as though we were some kind of show. Thoughts rushed through my head: Why haven't they been sentenced to death like me? Why don't I have freedom of movement like them? Whom have I sinned against?
Underworld types, the scum of the earth, emerged from their dens. Thieves by day and robbers by night, suspect janitors, prostitutes and all kinds of despicable types wandered about by the camp fence. Despite of all the warnings they were not afraid to approach the fence and talk to us. They stood around the camp like crows about to swoop down on corpses, all of them waiting for blood. If anybody still had any article of clothing, a watch, a ring or anything else of value, he exchanged it with them for food. We who were going to die did not need any belongings. The dead are free from needs. Among them were also rescuers who came to suggest hiding places and to bargain about it. Some people went with them at night and returned a day or two later, after having been robbed of all they had.
Some did not return at all. These merciless people took their victims into their cellars and then invited a friend disguised as a Gestapo agent to extort a ransom. Wherever you turned there was death, death and death.
The most dramatic night of my life was the night of July 19th, 1943. I clearly felt the footsteps of the angel of death approaching the camp. My heart told me that our hours were numbered. Demoralization and anarchy prevailed in the camp, an atmosphere preceding Action and death. There was no authority. Some drank to intoxication. Some laughed hysterically or wept to ease the terrible tension racking the brains and turning the stomachs. The two stories of the camp and its courtyard had turned to a true madhouse. I could see my own thoughts reflected in the alarmed and confused eyes of those around me. The nervous tension reached its peak. In a little while we must break down. And was it surprising? Hundreds of young men in the prime of their youth, all innocent, had been driven into this filthy unbearably stinking cage. The last drop of blood was being sucked out by exhausting labor, dry bread and a few drops of water. After they extracted the last drop of blood out of the body they were now about to take the souls as well; and we were just waiting for them to come. Each of us could see them in his mind's eye. They were coming, the Germans! They are coming like a storm, in their spick-and-span green uniforms with faces like wild boars. They would surround the camp as usual. They would line-us up in a straight line because they so greatly loved order and discipline even in the face of death. They would take us through the streets of Stryj, through our own streets, straight to the cemetery. People in the prime of their youth, with their vast desire to live, were to be taken alive to the grave like sheep to their slaughter. They would walk to their last resting place on their own feet, direct to the spot where people are carried. On their legs they would bear their bodies and souls straight to the pit! There we would undress. Undress for the last time. We would walk the plank which crossed the pit like a diving board. We would take our last step. I would ask for only one thing from God, my very last wish - let the bullet hit the brain or the heart directly and be done! For if I fell injured into the pit there was no saying how long it would take to die, until I would be covered over by the heavy weight of corpses, and be choked by them
All of a sudden I awakened as though from a fever. My thoughts were interrupted by the tune of Tango that came from beyond the fence. Barely ten steps away the rooms were lit up gaily. Cheerful voices and laughter mingled with the melody reaching my ears. Through the windows I could see the dancing couples. The cursed Ukrainian bastards were dancing while death mounted in our windows. Thunder did not smite them from heaven, nor did the earth open her mouth to swallow them up. The pits in the cemeteries were waiting for our bodies. I felt that a critical moment had been reached and a time to make a decision. Either life or death! I did my best to concentrate my thoughts on this single point. No matter what might happen, we had nothing to lose. We had to escape that night. Tomorrow might be too late. My dear wife who had always supported me in times of struggle and bitter stress now stood beside me silent, trembling in despair. She sensed my thoughts and the brewing storm within me in these decisive moments. In answer to my question she replied that she also thought the end had come. We decided to leave the camp that night, no matter what might happen. From nine o'clock on there was a curfew in the town, while a Jew could expect a bullet in the daytime as well if he went beyond the camp fence. But anyone who was thinking of escaping had to put the word danger out of his thoughts. In my mind I weighed the two perils of staying or escaping. The first seemed like the worse of the two. We left the camp at midnight. Our very souls seemed to depart from us, and our breathing stopped at the echo of our own footsteps. When we left the town behind and entered an abandoned cowshed, our clothes were soaked with the cold sweat. I imagine that a person sweats that way only once in his life, when his soul departs from his body. This is not the place to describe the perils and adventures from that night until liberation, on the August 8th, 1944. Indeed, they simply cannot be described.
In the morning of the July 20th, 1943, five hours after we left the camp, the murderers liquidated all the A.S.A. workers who wore the letter W. Most of them were shot in the camp courtyard, the rest at the cemetery. After the Action was completed the Municipal Fire Brigade came to wash the camp courtyard and the neighboring streets clean of Jewish blood. A few days later the Heeresbarackenwerke, the largest camp in town, was also liquidated and many good fellows lost their lives there. The poor fellows had arranged that one of them should give a signal on the way they were being led, and then they would all scatter and flee. As soon as they reached the prison courtyard, Hirsch Finkelstein of Slobótka shouted the signal. Most of them scattered and ran away at once. Many were shot on the spot and the rest at the cemetery. Only a few escaped. The H. K. P. Camp was liquidated the same day. The murderers attacked it in the morning. Those who did not dress quickly enough were shot in their beds. Among them was my dear young brother-in-law Joseph Landau may God avenge him.
The city of Stryj was Judenrein.
Stryj was occupied by the Red Army on August 8th, 1944. I was one of the first Jews to enter the town. When Ukrainians saw me their eyes bulged out of their heads and they crossed themselves. In their eyes I saw the astonishment of those who witness the rising of the dead. On that great day of liberation, while the thunder of the cannons still shook the town, the few Jews who had escaped went to the graveyard to pay a last visit to their martyred brethren. How dreadful the scene was! The holy ground had become a grazing ground for cattle. It was covered with thorns and thistles. The fence had been broken down. The German barbarians had used the tombstones for road-paving. Along the paths lay fragments of skulls and scattered bones. We dug a grave for them and gave them a Jewish burial.
My feet led me to the ruins of the Ghetto. The weeping of the stripped and homeless souls hovering round me reaches my ears still as I pen these lines How great is the pain
That is the story of the destruction of Stryj, where my mother gave birth to me. During the winter nights of my childhood I walked the streets, a little oil lamp in my hand, when we returned from cheder. I grew up within the walls of the houses of study. There my father hid his head beneath his prayer-shawl when the Priests chanted their blessing. There I became bar-mitzvah. Through its alleys I hastened to the Slichot prayers in the chilly Elul mornings, in order to knock at the heavenly gates and ask for forgiveness for all Israel. That is where I decorated the sukkah, where I recited the Hallel prayer when we prepared Matza shmura for the Passover. On this soil I wove the dreams of my youth, the dreams of a return to Zion. On this soil I grew up and became a man. Stryj! It was my fate to see both the prosperity and the destruction of Stryj, her beauty and her fall; when the enemy set his polluting hand on all her beauty, consumed Jacob and destroyed his home. Those voices of prayer which once tore through to the heavens have grown silent in her synagogues. The sad sweet chant of Torah has departed from her houses of study. No little children recite their verses at the cheder. There are no more disputes between the Hassidim, and no more disagreements between the parties. The Jews have no place in her markets. Her sons have gone and the earth covers the Jews of the Holy Congregation of Stryj forever. The burning bush has been consumed. On her graves and ruins, ruins of wood and stone, scraps of parchment sheets and paper scorched and burnt, I absorbed within myself the holy spirits of the souls which quivered in the empty area of the destroyed ghetto. I absorbed within myself the moan of our brethren and sisters, the death-gasp of tortured and tormented infants and babies who were slain and who call for avengement. Who call to avenge the holy congregation of Stryj, which gave up its collective life to sanctification of the divine name.
When I left the Ghetto ruins I turned my face back and prayed: Germany! Happy be that repay thee thy recompense for what thou hast done to us. Happy be that seizes and dashes thy babies against the rock. May I yet be one of those. May my feet stand in their blood, and may I wash in their wicked blood as they washed in ours.
We always held dear the memory of the departed. For their sake we used to study Mishna, and particularly that chapter There are some who rise in the Tractate Mikvaot, which was held to aid the souls of the dead to rise aloft. We recited the Kaddish, we drank to the memories of the departed, we lit candles, and we said prayers at the graveside. We gave charity and baked special loaves for distribution to the poor, in order to aid the soul of the dead to mount aloft. All this we did in memory of the single individual. What shall we do to mark the memory of six million of our brethren, including the 12,000 souls of our holy congregation? To mark the memory of men, women and children, all of them slain, burnt, drowned and choked by poison gas and in the furnaces.
May these pages be a soul-light to their memory, and may they be bound up in the bundle of life. Let us pass onto all coming generations their last will and testament calling for vengeance, as a memorial stone to those martyrs who have gone aloft.
Stryj on earth was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943, in the year 5703 of the Jewish era. Stryj on high will live in our memories till our very last day.
Would that my words were written indeed.
Would that they were engraved in a book,
With pen of iron and lead.
Hewn forever in the rock.
For I know that my redeemer lives,
And at the last will rise to avenge on the earth.
Brooklyn, Av 5714 (August 1954)
Eleven years after the destruction of the Holy Congregation of Stryj.
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