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[Pages 405-428]

My Experiences in the Ghetto

by Kopel Berman

In memory of my mother, who was killed in the ghetto at the age of 85.

I am responding to the assignment to inscribe the memories of experiences, my own and those of others, that took place among the general Jewish population of Wolomin–it is difficult and a heavy responsibility. Fate fell out that I am among the few survivors, hidden by a miracle and detained there for a certain time after the war, though I had to leave quickly because of the threats from the Poles.

It is clear to me that I do not have the power to convey the whole story. It is impossible to remember all the dates and names. Still, I write because I feel it is a sacred duty to record in the Yizkor Book the destruction of the Jewish community of Wolomin.

We came to Wolomin at the end of 1933. Before that we lived in the neighboring shtetl of Yodove. This was one of the scores of Jewish shtetls in Poland. In Yodove, ninety–five percent of the population was Jewish. Most of them were merchants and craftsmen. There were also quite a few who lived on air, or on miracles. Once a week, on Wednesdays, was a market day, when the peasants from the surrounding villages brought their products for sale and used the money to buy kerosene, salt, and other city goods that they needed.

Three kilometers from Yodove was the Arleh train station, where there was a large woods to which hundreds of visitors would come from the city in the summer, which contributed to the incomes of the Jewish residents. One could say that fifty percent of the population lived on the income from the summer season.

My financial standing in the shtetl as a watchmaker was no better than that of the others. My profession did not allow me to exist, so I had to seek a position with better prospects, which is what brought me to Wolomin.

Wolomin had that time had about twenty–five thousand inhabitants, of whom there were no more than three thousand Jews. The populace was closely bound up with Warsaw, where people worked as clerks or in other jobs, but because of the lack of apartments, they lived in Wolomin.

So it was among the Polish population and among the Jews.

Many of Wolomin's Jews worked in Warsaw as knitters, suitcase makers, and at other jobs. The economic position of the Jews in Wolomin was somewhat better than in other small shtetls. I was successful and did not do badly financially, and also socially I became acclimated.

Gradually I got to know the Wolomin Jews, those who took an active role in community life. People used to come to my home in the evenings, where we discussed various topics, political and societal, that were in the air.

Community life in Wolomin was colorful and intense. There were two libraries and supporters of all the parties, from the rightist Zionist organizations to Bundists and communists. There were many activities. There was also a Maccabee Sports Club. The leftist parties had members in the PPS Sports Club “Pramien.” The Bundists also belonged there.

In 1933 there was a sharp rise in Poland of anti–Semitism, and Wolomin's Poles joined in that devilish dance, which seemed more pointed than in other small shtetls because the Jews were a small minority and the Poles were in close contact with the anti–Semitic centers in Warsaw.

People started to feel it in the economic realm. They also saw attacks on Jews in the streets. The members of the anti–Semitic organization NARA in Wolomin demonstrated their hooliganish acts, set up pickets by Jewish shops and businesses and did not allow entrance to Christian customers, and attacked the Jews, particularly those who appeared in Christian neighborhoods. In the evenings, people even feared to walk in Jewish neighborhoods.

On summer Shabbos days, when Dluge Street was filled with strolling Jews, one of them, Taybloom, was hit by a bullet from a revolver. A NARA criminal had shot him from behind. Naturally no one caught the criminal. No one would be a witness.

It became a habit to travel in groups, especially in the evening. It often happened that a Jew would arrive home from a trip with a split head. It also happened that Jews were thrown out of trains in the middle of a trip.

 

The Outbreak of the Second World War

With each day, the situation became worse, more dangerous.

A short time before the outbreak of the second world war, in hindsight it appears that the situation of Wolomin's Jews became a little better.

As the Germans were agitating against the Poles, many Poles recognized that they must do something, so a committee was formed in Wolomin, including Jews, for the purpose of raising funds for armaments.

This activity began with a huge loan, in which Jews played a large part. At the same time a committee was formed for the defense of Wolomin. This activity consisted of digging trenches around the town and preparing the populace for war in case the Germans threatened Wolomin. In those days, Jews and Christians sent outside the town to dig trenches.

On September 1, 1939, it was my turn to dig trenches. Early in the morning, as I stood at the worksite with my spade in my hand, two airplanes suddenly appeared in the sky. One plane was chasing the other and shooting at it. No one realized that it was a German plane chasing a Polish plane and shooting at it..

We did not know then that Germany had attacked Poland that morning. We were sure that these were the maneuvers of Polish flyers and we returned to our work digging trenches.

It was not long, however, before someone came from the town with the news that he had heard on the radio, that the Germans had attacked Poland at several spots on the border.

The first reports were that Poland was putting up a strong defense, but we threw up our hands, laid aside our work, and headed for home. A heavy depression fell on the shtetl, particularly on the Jewish residents. Chaos and horror seized the whole population. People saw how the police and the officials from the magistrate's office and other institutions prepared to flee, burning the archives and important documents.

The roads were full of people fleeing, in wagons, in cars, and on foot. People were heading east, in the direction of the Russian border. Among them were almost all the Jewish young people, intending to find safety on the other side of the Russian border.

Sadly, very few succeeded. The Germans attacked the roads, captured the people, and held them in camps. After a long while they were freed, and they returned to Wolomin, dirty and starving.

 

The Town is Bombed

A week before the occupation, the town was bombed by German airplanes, which flew around above Wolomin for several hours and sowed destruction and obliteration. Nothing disturbed them. Their target was the train line, but at the same time they got Warshawski Street, Patschava, and others. The planes dropped incendiary bombs and shot their machine guns at the civilian population. People ran through the streets seeking shelter, but were killed.

On that day there were scores of dead in Wolomin as well as many wounded. For two days the buildings burned, but there was no one to put out the flames.

The next morning from the ruins appeared the shadows of those who had hidden, and they looked with horror toward the sky to be sure there were no planes. Normal life stopped. It was hard to buy anything to eat, and hunger was soon felt in the homes.

People lived on what they had stored and some traded whatever they had for bread. Food supply came to a halt. The shtetl became lawless. There was no one in control, neither the Poles nor the Germans.

This situation lasted for a whole week, until the Germans arrived.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, at seven in the morning, the town was bombarded by shells that landed in many houses but did little damage or hurt many people. In the afternoon came the first Panzer vehicles with German soldiers. No one dared show themselves in the streets.

From our hiding places we saw great streams of motorized troops. After several long hours, one military unit, led by an officer, stopped in the shtetl. The soldiers began to make their rounds in the shtetl. First they broke into Goldvasser's liquor store, which was quickly emptied. That was a signal for them to begin looting, along with the Polish mob. The Poles showed the Germans which shops belonged to Jews, and therefore the Germans left for them whatever was not worth taking.

On the third day, the situation quieted down a bit. A military command was established, and it ordered that stores be opened. The people were ordered to remain calm. A curfew was instituted from six in the evening until seven in the morning, though this did not stop the German soldiers and Polish hooligans from breaking into Jewish businesses both early in the day and late at night.

 

The First Decrees

Then the first decrees concerning the Jewish populace were issued. The Jewish slaughter of animals was prohibited; when a German soldier appeared, a Jew had to get off of the sidewalk; a Magen Dovid had to be shown in the windows of Jewish businesses; and on the front of Jewish businesses, the word “Jew” had to be written in large letters.

Transgressing these orders entailed strict punishments.

Right away there began a hunt for Jews to kidnap Jews for work details and assigning them to clean the streets or restore the rail lines. One man was beaten so badly while working on the rail lines that he died the next day.

Women were also seized for work, such as washing the floors in the dwellings that the Germans occupied. The women were forced to wash the floors with their own undergarments.

 

Leaving Wolomin

In those days began the second exodus from Wolomin. This time not only the young people left, but whole families. The Germans made no special difficulty. There were even times when the military commander provided lights to indicate the direction of the German–Russian border.

Two of my most trusted friends, Moyshe Vaynbroom and Moyshe Zucker, for the second time left Wolomin, intending to go to the border. I intended to go as a third party with them, and I made all my preparations. We planned to meet at five in the morning at my place and set out from there.

But in the meantime, I had to change plans. My wife and children broke into a pulsing cry, and at the last minute I gave up my resolution. When Vaynbroom and Zucker arrived at the appointed hour, I had to disappoint them. I had decided not to abandon my family. Sadly, my dear friends did not succeed in escaping. They were killed in Soviet Russia.

The bells started to ring to announce the German–Russian agreement, according to which the Russians could go as far as the Vistula, which would become the new border with the Germans. There were times when people approached the German commander for a document allowing them to cross the border, and he replied that it was not necessary because the Russians were coming. People said that already nearby the Germans were yielding. Thus the stream of immigrants ceased. Everyone waited with anticipation for the coming of the Russians, as if for the coming a new messiah.

 

The Shul in Flames

On Hoshanah Rabbah, at night, when religious Jews were in the shuls, waiting to celebrate at midnight, suddenly German soldiers appeared and began to jeer at the Jews. They ordered them to take the Torah scrolls out to the courtyard, forced them to strip off the covers, and set fire to them along with the shul.

This was a signal for the Poles that it was permissible to go wild, since the Jews were fair game. In a few hours, nothing remained of the shul but a memory.

Those who had expected that the Russians would come lost their last hope, as they learned that according to the Ribbentrop–Molotov agreement the border would be established between the Arva and Bug Rivers.

Again it became necessary to try to escape from the town in the direction of the Russian border, but now it was much more difficult. The border was closely guarded, and crossing it was very dangerous. The best possibility was that the Germans would seize whatever goods one had. In the late–winter months, scores of thousands of people filled the border passage awaiting the moment when they could make a break for Russia. Many died from the cold and from disease.

Several times the Germans rounded up all these people and sent them back to their homes, but this was not always the case. Many were shot along the road.

The German civilian administration took over power from the military. The criminal police, the Gestapo and the SS arrived. The Polish police immediately began to work with them.

Again they began to issue new decrees: every Jew, men and women twelve years and up, had to wear on their left sleeve a white band with a blue magen dovid; they must report to a work brigade and must do whatever work the Germans assigned them.

One decree followed another. Their purpose was to humiliate, depress, and poison the lives of the Jewish populace.

On one day they arrested the Jewish council members and held them for two days without food or water. Among them were: Mendel Vagenshteyn, Abba Fromm, Goldgrom, and others. During those two days, they were tortured. On the third day they were released with an order to organize a Jewish council with a Jewish head. The task of the Jewish council was to carry out the orders of the German authority, making them personally responsible for every order that was not carried out.

 

The First Tribute

The first order was to collect a tribute of a quarter of a million zlotys from the Jewish population of Wolomin. That sum had to be assembled within fifteen days.

This new decree prompted a new round of flights to the border. Young and old went by different roads and byways, best by terrible dangers

Wolomin looked as it had looked in the first days after the bombardment. The streets were deserted, empty. One saw almost no young people. At that time I also tried to escape from Wolomin. With great difficulty I managed to hire a cart, on which I loaded a few things and, with my wife and child, set out on the way.

When we got close to Jadova, it appeared that we would miss the train. Jadova lies on the way to Malkin, near the Russian border, and the town was therefore overrun with wanderers from every corner of Poland, fleeing Jews, who were stuck in Jadova and could not get across the border. They waited for news that the border guards were changing and a “good one” was on duty and would accept their bribes.

But such things seldom happened. Mostly those who tried to cross the border were beaten bloody and robbed of all they had with them.

In such circumstances, only the young could escape, for they had nothing to lose and were prepared to do anything to save themselves. It was harder for families, who could not decide whether to abandon their last possessions that they had brought with them in order to save the lives of their families.

The road from Jadova to Malkin was clogged with people, people in wagons and on foot. People went toward Malkin and back from Malkin. Those who returned from Malkin, who could not cross the border, remained in Jadova. Perhaps, they thought, better news would arrive and they would be able to escape from the German Gehenna.

I, too, decided to stay with my family in Jadova and await an opportunity that would allow us to cross the border. Eight days we stayed there with my wife's parents and waited for the longed–for news, but each day the situation worsened and the outlook was terrible. Living conditions in Jadova were unbearable. It became clear that we could not sustain this mode of living. Our final decision was to return to Wolomin, so that whatever befell the other Jews would happen to us as well.

Arriving back in Wolomin, we sought ways to accommodate ourselves to the new conditions. Like drunkards who grab at straws, we struggled for hope that the Germans would eventually settle down and retreat from their wild hatred for Jews and perhaps we could co–exist with them.

 

The Newly Formed Jewish Council

The newly formed Jewish council consisted of the old councilors and some new ones who had been forced into the position. At the head of the council was Blumberg. The council was responsible for collecting the tribute, and when they paid it, they were forced to agree to the Germans' demand that they account for the required number of laborers.

This seemed to be a simple accomplishment, because the wild hunt to capture Jews for work was always accompanied with blows and humiliation. No one was ever sure he would live through the end of the day.

Every day a messenger came from the Germans and brought to the council a list of things that they had to deliver, from furniture to foodstuffs. The council had to meet all their demands.

It was a lawless time.

A Jewish militia was formed. Life for the Jews was a bitter gehenna. Hunger dwelled in Jewish homes. Refugees continued to arrive, people who had escaped from their homes or who were expelled from other shtetls, from Vishkov, from Nashelski, from Poltusk.

A people's kitchen was established to provide lunches to those in need. This helped a little, but it did not solve the problem of hunger. The lunch consisted of a bit of miserable soup that could not satisfy the hungry Jews.

In charge of the people's kitchen was a young man named Toleshnik, a fine young man who devoted all his strength to easing the lives of the starving. He made superhuman efforts, but it was beyond his power.

 

Typhus

The first signs of typhus began to appear. Because of the lack of medication, many died. We had to conceal the cases of typhus from the Germans, because the Germans would isolate the houses of the afflicted, not allowing the inhabitants to go out or anyone to go in.

Outwardly things were growing worse. A Jew with a bead would not allow himself to be seen in the street. Many wrapped their beards in scarves, as if they had toothaches. They did this when they had to go outside, but it did not always work.

In the evenings, after six o'clock, people shut themselves in their homes, while outside the Polish hooligans, accompanied by German soldiers and the SS, robbed and destroyed businesses.

I was the only watchmaker remaining in Wolomin, so I had a lot of work, even from German soldiers, who often gave me bread and other kinds of food for my work. Materially, I was not badly off, so I could help others with foodstuffs and cigarettes that I received from German soldiers as though exchanged among acquaintances.

The problems began in the evening. German soldiers often would knock on the doors, when it would take me a little while to open up. The German soldier would force it open, with yells and curses, demanding that I would sell him a ring or some other bauble for his girlfriend. That girlfriend was usually a Polish girl who stood by his side, and he wanted to pay her for the love with which she had graced him.

Understand, I tried to explain that I dealt only with work, not with merchandise. Then he would hold a gun to my head. Helplessly I told him that he should look for himself, and if he found anything, he should take it.

Each soldier then conducted his own search, and when he was disappointed he would leave, letting out his anger on everyone in the house.

Such visits were frequent, and they always had the same end.

Thus went this degrading life, hunger, humiliation, and oppression.

 

Lost Books

At Pesach, 1940, several Gestapo officers from Warsaw arrived and arrested more than twenty people, including Moyshe Teyblum. When they came to arrest him, he was, by chance, not at home. They took his wife and left a note that he should come to Gestapo headquarters and they would then release his wife. Early in the morning, he complied and was quickly arrested, but they did not free his wife. Neither of them ever returned home. The Christian families who were arrested at the same time were sent little boxes with the ashes of their husbands and a note that they had died of illness. The Teyblum family received no such boxes and no one knew how they had been killed.

During this whole time, there was practically no cultural life in the town. The few synagogues that were in Wolomin were burned down early on by the Germans. On Shabbos, neighbors would gather in a private dwelling where they could pray with a minyan. Observant Jews were afraid to be seen in the streets.

There were no newspapers to read. The few Polish papers that were published were bought up by the Poles. No one was interested in these papers, which were full of lies, of false reports. No one could listen to the radio. The Germans had confiscated all receivers. The Jews in Wolomin therefore conveyed news by word of mouth, always with optimism, with convincing hope for better times.

Before the war, there were two Jewish libraries in Wolomin, which were liquidated even before the Germans arrived. When the Jews were forced out to Sosnovke, people found most of the books from the Peretz Library in a stable where Yossel Berger had lived. No one could understand how the books got there. It was discovered by Shmuel Rozner, a Jewish policeman with whom we lived in the ghetto, just outside of Sosnovke, and we decided to sneak the books into our house, where we had a hiding place under the roof. The books were welcome there and were our only taste of intellectual life in the ghetto.

 

Life in the Ghetto

There are a lot of rumors as people get used to a ghetto. Rumors had begun to spread since people had started to build a wall in Warsaw around the Jewish streets. There were many people who reacted indifferently. They believed that with the separation of the Jews from the rest of the population, the Jews would be more secure and have no fear of going into the streets. They would have more secure lives. There were others who pretty much did not believe the rumors that the Jews would be shut up in a ghetto. “How would we live?” we asked each other.

At the end of the summer of 1940 came the order that the Jews of the whole district must by the fifteenth of October, 1940, separate themselves from the general population and live in separate places set aside for them. The German authority immediately began to carry out the orders. In Wolomin the ghetto was established in the summer resort of Sosnovke. The Jewish council tried to have this order negated, but they were unsuccessful. Nothing could change the order.

The ghetto began in the area of Shtutman's houses, a small quarter that was about a kilometer from the town. In normal times, that area could not accept even half of the Jewish population, because so many refugees who had escaped from other towns had fled to Wolomin.

The separation of the Jewish population by certain deadlines fell to the Jewish council, which had to be sure that not even a single Jew remained in Wolomin. The members of the council had to determine a spot for each person.

The well–to–do and those who had nice apartments in Wolomin could trade with a Christian inhabitant. Thus was established a wealthy quarter in the area of Shtutman's houses, according to the Jewish council's orders. The simply built summer homes of Sosnovke were taken over by the remaining Jews.

The deadline was very close and the Jews had to leave the town, and before the orders for their new dwellings could be completed, many people, with their poor belongings, lay in the streets. People were cramped together as if in a henhouse. On top of this, many of the poor from Rodzimin arrived and had to be accommodated in the ghetto.

According to the orders of the German authority, people could bring into the ghetto a single suitcase with their necessities, but regardless of the order, each person brought whatever he could. In particular they brought with them articles of food for the first days.

For several weeks the ghetto stood open and it was possible to obtain articles of food that people bought with their last groschen from the peasants, but that did not last long. Soon the Germans ordered the ghetto sealed for its nearly three kilometer circuit, surrounded with barbed wire, and on the entrance tower two Jewish watchmen had to be sure that no one could leave without permission and that no Aryan could enter the ghetto.

On the tower was a banner with the inscription: “Achtung, infectious disease. Entrance forbidden to Aryans!”

But that did not stop the Germans from coming every day into the ghetto with their orders for the Jewish council or to seize things, even people, whom they sent to work on local projects or to work camps.

With the closing of the ghetto, the Jewish council became a rule within a rule. The Jews were subject to the rulings of the Jewish council. The council could arrest people for disobeying their orders, and they had their own prison.

The head of the Jewish police was a member of the Jewish council, but he was subject to someone else.

Even a greater problem was the typhus epidemic, which took on catastrophic proportions. People lived in awful conditions, almost on top of one another. The plague spread with the speed of lightning, and the three doctors who were in the ghetto–Frank, Friedman, and Reznick–were helpless. There was no medicine. Dr. Friedman alone himself became ill and died.

In such circumstances, people had to be chosen for the two German work camps, in Wilianov and Isabelin, beyond Rodzimin. In the camps, people worked in unbearable conditions, and after a short time became quite ill. There were some who were sent back to the ghetto and who had to be replaced in order to satisfy Wolomin's quota.

The two work camps used up a great deal of youthful strength, so that older men had to be used for the local labor. No one was exempted from labor. The wealthy could pay others to work in their place. There was never a lack of people who would work in place of others for money.

From day to day, hunger grew sharper. Supplies that people had brought with them dwindled, and no fresh supplies were available. Children left the ghetto and bought a few products that they brought back to sell in the ghetto. These children were called “little merchants.” There were also adults whose poverty forced them to leave the ghetto in search of something to eat.

In 1940, leaving the ghetto did not mean death. In the early times, before the German–Russian war, people managed to get a supply of flour to bake bread. There were still a few bakeries. The allocation was a hundred grams of bread per person, but it came neither regularly nor often. The rest people bought on the black market. For outrageous prices one could get enough bread. The bakeries also received flour from outside the ghetto, which peasants during the night brought to the barbed wire and from there was smuggled into the ghetto. There was a time when Christians came to the Jewish bakeries to buy bread which they sent to Warsaw for the black market. Such trade took place at night. There were also many primitive mills that in a variety of ways got corn to grind.

Finally, it was the same with heating. People obtained coal from the other side of the barbed wire. The Polish kids stole coal from the wagons and carried it to the wire where customers stood ready to buy the merchandise.

In Sosnovke, they also cut down the trees, which sufficed for burning during the first winter. In a short while, the famous summer resort stood without its woods. Hardly a single tree remained.

I remember a curious thing. I was at a wedding in Sosnovke, one of numerous weddings that took place in the ghetto. The groom was Konyakovski and the bride was Morgenshtern, Yisroel Morgenshtern's sister. The wedding was modest. In the middle of the wedding, the police came in, with Commandant Goldgram at their head.

They were on an inspection tour of the area of the woods, to be sure that no one cut down the last trees. As they passed by, they saw the wedding and came in.

It seemed that they were already a little tipsy from earlier. They took some refreshments and happily enjoyed themselves. Goldgram made a speech wishing the young couple a happy life together. Then he moved on to current topics, and he ended with humor: “People say that after the war I'll be hanged from a tree, but where will they find a hanging tree when the woods are no longer there?”

The defeats that the Germans suffered at the front had repercussions in the hinterlands. On the Jews in the ghetto fell the responsibility to provide warm clothing for the front. Jews had to give their fur coats. There was a deadline, and anyone who was found with a fur after the deadline would be shot.

The Jews in Wolomin turned in their furs precisely at the deadline.

Of course, there were a few who hid their furs in secure spots or with Christians. So it was with the Jews Fried, Pomerantz, and Loskovski, who hid their furs with a Christian. Someone told the Germans, and they arrested all of them and sent them to Rodzimin, where they were shot.

A short time later there was an alarm that every Jew who left the ghetto would be shot on the spot. The alarm came from Rodzimin, where a Jew had been shot for leaving the ghetto.

That same week, a young man named Novogradzki left the ghetto and wanted to take care of business in the town. By chance, some gendarmes approached and seized him. They tied him up with a rope to their sled and forced him to run after the sled, in which they were sitting. When his strength gave out and he fell, the sled did not stop and dragged him to Moranav Place, where they shot him.

Such scenes later became daily events. When the gendarmes came to Wolomin, they would grab anyone and play out such tragic scenes. Once when they had not found in Wolomin any victims, they called out a Jew who was standing near the barbed wire, and as he approached, they shot him. The gendarmes Shteyn, Schumacher, and Hoffa excelled in sadism. With them used to go a blond German beast who led them in their hunt for Jews. Having done their little work, the gendarmes came to the Jewish council and demanded that they should be paid two thousand zlotys for every bullet they shot. After receiving the money, they wrote out a receipt and left the empty cartridge cases. They casually said that the cartridge cases belonged to the Jewish council, because they had paid for them.

 

The End Approaches

In May of 1942 came the bitter news that the Jews of Tluszcz, Postelnik, and Varki had been driven out and taken to the Warsaw Ghetto. Many died on the way. In Tluszcz the Jews had been lined up in rows and ordered to hand over their money and valuables, with the threat, as later events would show, that anyone who held back would immediately be shot. There were some who tried to hide in secret places. Thorough searches were made, and if money or jewelry was found in anyone's home, that person was shot on the spot. In the square lay the bodies of scores of executed Jews. Many others were shot on the road when they could not maintain the tempo of the gendarmes, who were riding on horses.

The rabbi of Tluszcz was in those days in Jadova for the funeral of a prominent Jew, because there was no Jewish cemetery in Tluszcz. He therefore remained overnight in Jadova and was not in town for the liquidation. The Germans did not neglect to ask where the rabbi was and why he was not where he belonged. Someone told them that the rabbi was in Jadova. The next morning the Germans went to the Jadova Jewish council and demanded that they immediately produce the Tluszcz rabbi or they would shoot ten Jewish policemen. Turmoil erupted in the shtetl. People knew that they had no good choices. The agitation lasted a short time, but in the meantime the rabbi knew that the Germans were looking for him and had decided to make a martyr of him. With his head held high, he approached the murderers. The gendarmes fell on him with murderous rage, beat him horribly, and then shot him. They ordered him buried right there, in the courtyard of the Jewish council.

In 1948, we led the exhumation of the Jadova martyrs who were shot at the time of the liquidation of the ghetto and at other times, and we then buried them in other places. We also made every effort to find the grave of the rabbi and transfer his remains to the cemetery, but sadly we could not find them. The building that housed the Jewish council had been destroyed. Far and near was desolation, sown with potatoes. We negotiated with the Christians who had sown the potatoes, wanting to pay them for the damage, but they would not agree. It happened to be a market day, and at the cries of the Christians, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered. We saw that we could accomplish nothing and therefore turned to the Polish police, who approved our efforts at exhumation, but unfortunately we could not find the rabbi's remains.

 

Transports to Treblinka

Rumors flew that the Germans planned to create four large ghettos in which they would concentrate the Jewish population of all of Poland. We already had enough evidence of how the deportations from the smaller ghettos looked. The first victims were always the refugees from the destroyed shtetls. Those who could tried to send money to relatives or acquaintances in Warsaw. Some were also able to send clothing. The German tactics against the Jewish population was always a secret, and no one could know the method or the terms of transfer from one place to another. The officials always gave false information to calm the Jews down, saying that no harm would come to them. It did not occur to anyone that the Warsaw Ghetto would suffer first. We were the first to know the bitter truth about transport to Treblinka. The Germans told everyone that the transports were headed east, where work camps were set up and there would be better conditions. The Wolomin ghetto lay along the railroad tracks, so that we saw each transport that went once or twice a day to Treblinka. We heard the cries that emanated from the cars. It happened that a transport stopped at the station and we heard complaints and pleas for a little water; but by each car stood soldiers with rifles in their hands, ready to shoot anyone who tried to approach the cars. On the way back, Polish rail workers yelled at us and showed us in gestures what was done to the Jews. It would happen that a Wolomin train worker would enter the ghetto and tell us that when the trains arrived at Treblinka, German rail workers would take over and lead the train into the camp. On the way back, the cars were filled with clothing headed for Warsaw. The Germans who were in charge of the empty transports once told the Poles what had been done to the Jews.

At first people reacted to this news with disbelief. People did not want to believe in all these horrors. Even the most pessimistic could not bring themselves to believe that these things could happen. We took what the Polish rail worker said to be a nightmarish fantasy. There were some who held that he spoke with the intention of scaring us. There was even a case of a Wolomin shoemaker, who came from Vogrov and did not look like a Jew. He often went to the Aryan side. He himself spoke with a Jew who had managed to return from the camps by hiding in the clothing that was being taken to Warsaw. He related that the Jews who were being taken in the transports were told to take off their clothes and were then led to the gas chambers, where they were gassed, after which their bodies were burned. That Jew had been in a labor battalion, which had to sort the clothing of those who had been gassed. That gave him the opportunity to get into a train car and cover himself with clothes. When the transport had left the camp, he jumped out of the car. Most of the Jews in the ghetto held that his story was a false rumor.

When the awful truth finally became known, there was a terrible outcry in the ghetto. There were many who began to flee from the ghetto and who took things to hide. Some tried to obtain false documents with Aryan names. The young made for the Russian border. That journey was beset by grave dangers, and many from Wolomin paid with their lives. The goal of those fleeing was Zembrov, which was then at the German–Russian border, but seldom did people make it there. The danger began when exiting the ghetto. Polish gangs wandered on every road, and when they caught a Jew, they robbed him and left him naked. Those who went on a train were identified by the Poles, who either turned them over to the Germans or threw them from the moving train.

Those who remained in the Wolomin ghetto also had no peace and tried to find ways to leave the ghetto through the underground. There was an attempt to turn the ghetto into a work camp that would supply labor for the Wehrmacht. That would have to be done by those who ran Warsaw's trades and factories that worked for the Germans. Such attempts were also made in Minsk Mazowiecki, Lafyanka, and other shtetls. People began seeking protection from higher–ups, but without success. At one point there was an appeal to the railroad authority to set out a work plan for the Wolomin ghetto, saying that the train line required renovations because it was in bad shape thanks to the constant traffic of the transports that took war materiel to the Russian front. The rail authority should form Jewish work brigades in the Wolomin ghetto. The plan was approved. The Jewish council put out a notice that people should come and register for work. With mixed feelings, full of doubts and hesitations, people began to register. No one was sure if that would protect us from anything. It went on because of fear for men's wives, children, and parents.

Each day in the square near the Jewish council, a group of about a hundred fifty men gathered under the supervision of the Jewish police. They were led out of the ghetto to the train station, where they were divided into groups, which the rail officials assigned to their jobs.

The labor was difficult. They had to tear up the old ties to which the tracks were attached and lay down new ones. There were various other jobs, like, for example, gathering stones and putting them between the ties.

I was among those who registered for such work, not because I believed that I would be saving my life, which had little worth when there was no assurance that my family would be spared. I regarded this labor as a way to get out of the ghetto and into the fresh air. Understand, it was not a question of getting a little pleasure, just a way of changing places.

This was in the days of the transports that came from the Warsaw Ghetto, each day two or three transports of thirty or forty cars full of people. From a distance we heard their moans and pleas, saw the SS personnel, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Ukrainian bandits who guarded them, with their rifles pointed at us so that no one would try to approach the trains. One time a transport was made up of German luxury trains whose passengers, whom we could see through the windows, were dressed elegantly. We could see their beautiful suitcases. A few of them stood near the windows and, seeing us with our Mogen Dovids sewn on our shoulders, one of them made a joke. Showing a yellow Mogen Dovid that he had on his chest, he asked where they were being taken. They received no answer from us. The train cars went further, toward Treblinka. For us it was remarkable that their wagon was not guarded. Our consciences bothered us because we had not told them the truth. Perhaps some of them would have hidden themselves by jumping out of the moving train.

Meanwhile, more bad news arrived about the liquidations that were taken place across Poland. Even those places that had been turned into labor camps were being liquidated. Also in Warsaw they had stopped making exceptions for the workers, for those who had been designated as necessary Jews, who worked for the war industries and who in the beginning been spared. It was not long before they, too, just like the other Jews, were loaded onto the trains.

We no longer had any illusions that labor would save us. Many stopped showing up for work. And those who did show up no longer had any hope that it would save them. People walked around mechanically. Some believed that they would be in the ghetto for a while and they would stick with the work. Others went with the aim of getting food from outside the ghetto.

Every day people died from hunger and disease, and from being shot. They went around as if in the throes of death, sentenced to perish. And there were arrangements for entertainment. Even in this time of woe, of fear of death and peril, there was “Trouble Enough in its Time.” It was founded by several bright young men and women who had a bit of acting talent, and they prepared a performance for every Shabbos afternoon. They performed pieces by Yaakov Gordin, by Sholem Aleichem. After the performances, people went to dig hiding places in secret places where they intended to hide themselves in case of a sudden raid. Strangely, no one believed it would be possible to survive this horrible time, but even so, each one sought a way to hide himself. These preparations lasted several weeks. We prepared food and water, some clothing, but no one needed it. On the night of Shemini Atzeres in 1942, the Polish police unit came to the Jewish council and delivered the news that during the night the SS, the gendarmes, and the Polish police would surround the Wolomin ghetto and the ghetto would be liquidated.

Understandably, this prompted a terrible outcry. People wanted to say that perhaps a miracle would happen, because similar rumors had been spread around earlier. In recent days rumors had spread, supposedly from official sources, that the shtetls of Wolomin, Rodzimin, and Jadova would not be liquidated, because they supplied food for the vital work camps. But that illusion was destroyed when people learned that Jadova had been liquidated ten days earlier.

Desiring to learn whether this news was false, I left my home together with my wife and child. I wanted to hear what was being said in the streets and if there was any news. This time the voice of the street was more intense that usual. Previously, the Jewish council had tamped down and given the lie to dispiriting rumors. This time, everyone was dispirited and acknowledged that the situation was desperate. People telephoned Rodzimin, where people reported that the situation was the same and urged that whoever could escape should. This time it appeared that the Wolomin ghetto was taking its last breath. We never returned to our home. Empty–handed, we fled in the dark along the train line.

Our hearts pounded from fear that we would encounter someone on the way. We left everything that we had prepared for our flight in the house. Before my eyes I saw my eighty–five–year old mother, who could not possibly have come with us. To this very day I am pained. I do not know how her last minutes seemed and how she died.

No one who did not experience all this can comprehend how it was possible that families that were so tightly bound together could suddenly be torn apart, as each person ran like a wild beast trying to avoid death.

After the war it appeared that only a few had escaped. Whole families who wanted to stay together were killed.


[Pages 429-432]

The Beginning of the Liquidation

by Miriam Feigenboim–Gradzitzka

Our home in the ghetto consisted of two little attic rooms and a kitchen. We called it a garret. It Is hard to grasp how we organized things there. Fourteen people lived there: our mother, my brother Yechiel with his wife and three children, my brother Matisyahu, my sister Chaya–Gitl with her husband and two children; my brother Yakov's two children, and myself. That which seems impossible was in that environment of abnormality simple and self–evident. At that time there were worse things. People survived harder situations that our clearer understanding today cannot grasp.

It was the last night of Succos. The situation in the ghetto was intense. Sadness and worry ruled over Jewish homes. On Yom Kippur, all the surrounding shtetls had been emptied of Jews. Remaining were only Wolomin and Radzimin, where the Jews lived in despair, awaiting their terrible end. There were moments when our nerves could not stand it. Some people hoped that the end would come quickly. Waiting for death was harder than death itself.

No one had any doubt that death was approaching.

No one who has not experienced and survived such dreadful days can dispute the horror of waiting for the end. The fear of death was horrible, but a thousand times worse was waiting for it and not knowing what further terrors the murderers would dream up for us.

The Jews in the Wolomin ghetto, religious and Godfearing people, wanted to observe the holiday with all its customs and did not want to darken it with sad thoughts. My brothers along with several other Jews organized a secret minyan and gathered in a neighboring apartment. They prayed, quietly sang the holiday prayers, but their hearts were like lead. The atmosphere was hardly that of a holiday, but my mother said, “Children, today is a holiday. Let's try to forget our sorrows and celebrate the holiday as God commanded.” A deep sigh came from her heart. Her eyes quietly took each of us in, as if she wanted to satisfy herself with seeing us one last time. Perhaps she had a premonition that this was the last night that we would sit together.

Quietly she moved to the table and laid out two tiny pieces of brown bread. They had to be our holiday meal in the ghetto. She had set up two little homemade candles and went to light them. She covered her eyes, from which tears were running. These were bitter tears that did not lighten the burden on her heart.

My brothers returned from davening. Matisyahu washed his hands and prepared to say Kiddush, but at that moment, when he stood with wet hands, about to pick up the hand towel, suddenly the door opened and my brother Mordechai's daughter, Chanatshe, entered. Her face was deadly pale. She wanted to say something, but no words came from her. Without words, we all understood: the end has come, the end that we had expected for long weeks and that even so left us thunderstruck.

The truth is that as long as we did not know for a certainty that the end was inevitable, in our hearts we nurtured a tiny hope for a miracle. Everyone harbored in her heart a hope that at the last minute something would happen that would allow us to survive.

Everyone in the room remained standing, as if they had turned to stone. Misfortune was painted on our chalk–white faces, and no one tried to say a word. Nothing can erase from my eyes the picture of that moment when we grasped the bad news and Mordechai stood with two wet, dripping hands, as if petrified. I cannot even tell how long that moment lasted, perhaps a minute, perhaps an hour. The deathly silence was broken by a childish cry from Chaya–Gitl's little daughter, a four–year–old child: “Mama, what happened? The police are coming to kill us?…Why, Mama?”

The liquidation of the Wolomin ghetto would begin at dawn. My mother and my sisters begged me to try to escape and run away. They also decided to hide themselves, and their plan was that when I found myself outside the ghetto, I would find some way to save them.

That night, I managed to get out of the ghetto. I went with a heavy heart, but I trusted that I would be able somehow to help my mother, my sisters and my brothers, but in the morning, after the ghetto had been emptied, when the murderers searched for Jews in hiding places, they found them and shot them on the spot.

This was the end of the Wolomin ghetto, which had experienced all seven measures of Gehenna from the German killers. Every day there were new decrees, new persecutions and killings. From among the horrible images that are engraved in my memory, one that recurs is of Yoel, who had been shot. Our apartment in the ghetto was not far from the wire fence. Opposite our window was an empty lot. Once, as I looked through the window, I saw Yoel lying in the grass. Even now I have no idea why he was lying there.

Looking at the beautiful world outside the ghetto and thinking about how nice the world was, though not for Jews, I saw from a distance the approach of the police, who came into the ghetto. Fear drove me from the window. I knew that every approach of the police signified bad luck for the ghetto. Soon I heard a fearful shriek that pierced the air. I went right back to the window, and before my eyes I saw a terrible scene: the police dragged Yoel outside of the ghetto, told him to run, and with two shots killed him.

On the blood–smeared faces of the police appeared happy smiles. Then they went to the Jewish authorities and demanded that Yoel's corpse be brought back into the ghetto.

 

In the Valley of Pain

Alter Carmeli

No words, no comfort, no names for the killers. The murderers took our dearest that we had.

 

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