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[Page 23]

The lost years

D. Steinbock (Australia)

The Jews of Zaglembie were the first to taste of the poisonous cup of the German presence. Though the Germans conquered the whole of Poland in an incredibly short space of time, yet we in Zaglembie had been forming the first front-line of that lightning war.

The actual resistance fighting in Zaglembie was over already on the third day of the war. And on the morning of the 4th of September all was quiet in Sosnowiec. No more sounds of alarms to be heard; no more running to the shelters. But the quietness was far from relaxing. With it came a strained stillness, which hang over the town, disturbing and preventing people from being able to rest or do anything, driving them from place to place. I too could not bear that tense stillness, and so I left for the house of an acquaintance at the Malachowski Street.

After a while we caught a sight of the first German patrol. We went down to the cellar where we stayed for the rest of the day. In the evening the Germans broke into the cellar. We were ordered to leave the cellar and go out into the street with our hands raised. I shuddered at the sight of the street which was full of German tanks and armed cars, and the pavements of which were crammed with Jews being pushed and hit by the Germans. We, the women, were allowed to go home, but all the men had been detained by the Germans, and taken no one knew where to.

All that night I sat through sleeplessly, filled with heavy forebodings. The night seemed to stretch into eternity, and I was praying for the daylight to come so that I could go home and find out what was happening there.

I ran home with the first light of dawn. Reaching our house I came upon a group of wailing women and children. One of the women kept crying repeatedly: "My husband! My husband!", another was lamenting over her sons. The children were weeping after their fathers detained by the Germans. I met my sisters with tears streaming over their faces, for also my father had been seized by the Germans.

On the 5th of September the Germans ordered all the remaining Jewish men to report at the Town Hall. Whoever failed to obey this order was to be shot. Darkness spread over our town, but there was nothing we could do.

At the Town-Hall all the Jewish men who reported there had been first subjected to severe torments, and then transferred to the Shein's Hall, at the First of May Street. Neither food nor drink could be delivered to them in spite of all our efforts.

After a couple of days of torturing, the Jewish men had their beards plucked out together with strips of flesh. Bleeding, half-starved and exhausted, at last they had been let off.

All the while we were sitting at home and praying to God for our dear father to come back. We knew that great numbers of Jews were being shot daily.

My heart stood still and my breath stopped when I saw my father with his beard cut. I could not find a word of comfort; in this case there was no comfort to a Jew like my father. With a Jew of his kind, the beard was a symbol of his pride, worn with outstanding distinction. When at last I was able to open my month, I burst into tears.

On the same day my mother with my two little brothers returned. They too had been through difficult days, and survived only by chance. The train on which they had been flying from Germans had been bombarded and they were among the very few who stayed alive.

In the days that followed the situation in Sosnowiec was growing worse and worse. Jews were afraid to show themselves in the streets; the Nazis let themselves go – wherever they spied a Jew they shot him for no reason. On one occasion they caught a group of Jews whom they took to the waste-fields by the mines and ordered to dig graves, into which they had been shot. Another time they seized a Jew in the street and ordered him to dance in his Tales and Tfilin. Having had enough of the performance, they started to torture him with which they went on till they saw him expiring his last breath. Incidents of this kind occurred every day. The Jews, overcome with fear, shunned the streets, which looked desolate.

There were many places of worship in Sosnowiec, but in my mind's eye I still treasure the memory of our Great Synagogue in its full splendor and shine. I can still visualize its magnificent air, the rays of joy it emanated, its bright light spreading far over the streets and followed by the hearty Jewish tunes. My heart would flutter with joy in those days, I was so happy that our house neighbored the Synagogue.

And then, when the war came, the Synagogue stood enclosed in a shield of darkness. No living soul could be seen there. Whenever anybody had to pass it, he did so quickly and stealthily. The Synagogue itself seemed to have shrunk from sorrow. Fear was staring from its every corner. The light, which used to spread over the streets and alleys had been put out. The songs, which used to burst from its walls and embrace the whole of the town, had been dumped. The House of God was desolate. Why, I still keep asking myself, did it deserve such a fate, for what sins?

It happened on the 9th of September, about seven o'clock in the evening. All the houses had already been locked and there was not a living soul in the streets. The streets themselves were struggling with their dark terrifying shadows. The darkness was thick, it could almost be touched. An indescribable fear spread its wings over the whole of Jewish Sosnowiec, which was lying compressed in its prayer to the Almighty. In that deep darkness we heard a sound of sudden explosion. We shuddered at the thought that something must have happened to the Synagogue. And then we saw tongues of fire rising from the Synagogue straight into the sky.

The Nazis were carrying out their devilish design of blowing up the House of God. I watched the fire from the corner of our house. The Holy Books and Bible-scrolls were blazing away one after another. It seemed as though not our Synagogue only, but the skies above it were being engulfed in flames; the clouds looked ablaze. The painful grief in my heart grew with every moment. I wanted to cry out to God, but I found myself speechless; my mouth was dry, my body stiffened with horror, and my hands and feet would not obey my will. "God in Heaven", I thought, "what is happening?" Why am I looking at it with my own eyes, and yet I cannot do a thing?" And meantime the flames were growing higher and higher, consuming all our sacred things. I strained all my strength to look for some power that could stop the angry flames from destroying our Synagogue. To my deepest sorrow there was not such a power, neither human nor divine. And the flames were already attacking our adjacent to the Synagogue house.

The Germans were standing around and laughing spitefully as they watched the burning walls of the House of God. I could not endure the thought that the beautiful Synagogue of Sosnowiec should be reduced to black remains of walls without doors and windows. Instead these last only huge, burnt through holes could be seen now looking terrified at Dziekierta Street.

I decided to run from Sosnowiec.

We agreed with my fiancé to marry without delay and then to leave. On Wednesday, the 1st of October 1939, our families met by Rabbi Shvartz who married us.

Four days later we left Sosnowiec parting from our nearest and dearest. The parting was heartbreaking; seeing that I was leaving all my dearest behind, I could not overcome a terrible outburst of tears. Neither at the station, nor on the train did we encounter a sole Jew. German soldiers who were checking that not a Jew should get in, let us through taking us for Poles. We reached Yaroslav without any obstacles.

We wanted to cross the border by the river San and we found thousands of hungry, dirty Jews waiting in the fields for the border to be opened. As hick would have it, the Germans opened the border just as we arrived. On the other side of it the Russians received us friendly and let us go wherever we pleased.

We started for Zhulkev, my husband's hometown. There we stayed for a while with my husband's family, but since there was no work available there, we volunteered for work in the Donbasmines.

The work in the coalmines was hard and involved in life-risk. After working for a while in those mines, we moved to a small village where my husband could work in his own profession, in the fur-trade.

But since I was expecting a child and wanted to be together with my family, we decided to move back to Zhulkev.

In Lemberg, while waiting at a bus-station, we came across a young man who told us that he was studying at the University there together with a student from Sosnowiec. We soon discovered that that was my brother.

We settled down in Zhulkev where we made our home; our family and my brother used to visit us often, and at last we were living in a happy, warm atmosphere.

But not for long. One Friday night the agents of N.K.W.D. knocked on our door, came in, ordered us to pack our belongings and go with them. All our efforts to explain and persuade them that my husband was a resident there, that he was born and had always lived there, were of no use. Our fate was not different than that of so many thousands of other Jews - we had been loaded in freight-wagons and sent off to Siberia.

The journey was long and exhausting. Throughout the whole of the way we were being kept under the lock, and water had been denied us; every evening we were being given a slice of bread with dry herring. We thought we were perishing of thirst in those wagons. Completely worn out, we at last reached our destination.

Our destination proved to be a spot in the huge, out of the way taiga-area. In the one and only barrack standing there on the verge of a forest twenty families had to accommodate themselves. The many other camps existing in Siberia were too distant to get in touch with.

We started a new chapter of extraordinary hardships in our lives. We had to endure frost, hunger, and the lack of the most essential means of life. There was no medical help of any kind. In those days of Siberia misery I gave birth to a girl, sweet as an angel, whom we named Ruth. In those dreadful conditions we were bringing our child up while waiting for better days; our daughter was our only source of hope and joy, and her arrival restored and strengthened our will to live.

After having spent two years in Siberia we learned that the first phase of amnesty for Polish citizens started, following the treaty between Stalin and Sikorski. Our joy was limitless and we left Siberia on the first opportunity.

We decided to move to warmer places; we went to Ushtuba, a small town in Kazakhstan. Our daughter was taken ill on our way there, but she had been refused the admittance into a hospital. When we at last succeeded to get medical help, it was already too late – our daughter died of measles.

We had lost our only treasure; the only ray of light in our dark lives had been extinguished. At the sight of my daughter's small corpse I broke down, losing all control over my feelings. I kept pressing the already stiff body to my heart and would not let it be taken away from me.

For a long time it seemed that we would never be able to leave the place where our daughter had been buried. But our family was urging us to join them. So we wandered once more, taking with us a little earth from our daughter's grave, which we kept forever.

At that time the victorious offensive of the Allied Forces began, and Ukraine had been freed by the Russians. In Order to be nearer to Zaglembie we moved to Mariampol where we lived in a near-by Kolchoz at first, and in the town itself later. I can still remember the morning on which the liberation of Sosnowiec had been announced on the radio. We left Mariampol immediately in order to join other Jews staying at the Kolchoz. There we awaited the war's end.

But our joy with the victory evaporated as soon as we crossed the Polish border. All our hopes that at least one of our whole family had survived, were dissolved at once. The nightmarish days after our coming back to Sosnowiec are still vivid in my memory. I cannot even remember by whom and when I had been told the story of my family's fate. I only know that, except one of my sisters, they all died in Auschwitz.

Their memory is sacred to me.

Seeing that Zaglembie was in rums and that there was not even a grave upon which to shed a tear, we decided to leave Sosnowiec as soon as possible. I left that cursed soil forever. From my past longing for my home in Sosnowiec there remained only deep, incurable wounds.

[Page 28]

My evacuation from the Buchenwald camp

K. Neuman

We were about six thousand prisoners who were driven to the railway-station. There sixty open train wagons stood waiting for us already. We had been crammed into the wagons – hundred twenty Person in each, and the train did not waste a moment longer. Immediately after it moved it had become apparent that the locomotive was too weak for the heavy transport, and therefore its progress was slow and interrupted by frequent stops. On the second day of the "journey" each of us had been given an unusually big portion of bread. In comparison to the previous transports I had been through, the order on this one was exemplary. A special wagon with bread had been attached to the transport, and that was thought to suffice for the whole of the journey.

On the second night after our departure from Buchenwald we stopped for a long time. This was nothing new to me, for this sort of thing used to happen often enough an any transport - as soon as the train came to a hill, it would stop, and the locomotive would work hard pulling the wagons up gradually. This time, though, we did not move for over twenty-four hours. Nobody knew what was happening, and no bread was given out during the whole of that time. Only on the day after we learned from the SS-men about what happened. The locomotive with half the train moved on till the next station, after which it was supposed to return for the rest of the Wagons. But, the SS-men added, we were extremely fortunate in that we had been left behind, for the departed Wagons had been mistaken for a military transport because of the heavily armed SS-men seated an its roofs, and therefore bombarded by American aircrafts. Having first destroyed the locomotive, the American fighters left the train stranded and flew off. Soon another group of aircrafts arrived, and these bombarded the Wagons themselves. One Wagon with prisoners had been completely smashed, and there were many wounded in the other wagons.

Upon my hearing about the tragic fate of the camp-prisoners who were in those destroyed wagons, I became even more convinced that my dear Mother spreads from the Haven her defensive wing over me, rescuing me from every danger.

Our train stayed stranded in the fields for two nights and one day, until at last a locomotive appeared which took us to a small railway station, where the other part of the train, stood waiting an a side-line. The cries and groans of the wounded were heartbreaking. The extent of the disaster was evident from the sight of the Wagons splashed with blond. From there our train proceeded already much quicker, with two locomotives. But no one knew where we were going to. On our way to the unknown destination, we passed the well-known Czech health resorts Karlsbad and Marienbad. I felt the fatal irony of us being shown the world in all the beauty and fragrance of its most delightful places while we were being taken on our last way.

At last we got off the train, at some unknown Station from which we had to march 30 kilometers to the camp Flossenburg. When the transport was ready for the march, the SS-men declared that those unfit for walking could stay behind and wait for trucks, which were to come especially in order to take them to the camp.

It was my lot to be ordered to join a group of prisoners who were to unload the Wagon with the SS-men's belongings. While we started to unload, the transport marched away. Those who decided to wait for the promised trucks had been ordered to go into the Wagons, already overcrowded with the wounded victims of the bombardment. The majority of the exhausted prisoners did so, not suspecting anything. But a Small number of them hesitated in the last moment, doubting the sudden German generosity, and turned quickly in Order to join the departed transport. Alas, this was ton late. The SS-men forced them into the Wagons with the wounded and shot them all together. Seeing what was happening around us and hearing the tantalizing groans of those agonizing in the wagons, our only thought was how to run away from this scene of horror. We worked on with devilish speed, and we were happy when at last we had been ordered to run and join in with the transport.

The whole procedure of the march to Flossenburg was not different from that of all the other marches of the transported. Those who legged behind were being shot on the spot. That night on our way to Flossenburg we had to lie down for our rest in a field overflooded with rainwaters.

On the next day we arrived in Flossenburg. Approaching the camp we could smell an irritating smoke and stink of human flesh – the flesh of the bodies being burned in a valley outside the camp. The crematoria obviously were not sufficient, though they were working without break. With our arrival we were led into a huge factory-hall, where we had to stay until our bath and our camp-uniforms had been prepared.

A couple of hours after our arrival in Flossenburg we had the opportunity of witnessing another arrival, that of a several hundreds completely exhausted prisoners who were driven immediately further, without getting any chance of rest. Later I became aware that those were the remnants of the 1500 men from Buchenwald selected some time before at a special Jews-parade. They had been sent marching all the way from Buchenwald, and been refused the entrance into the camp of Flossenburg because of their being Jewish. They went on, hustled by the Germans, without getting as much as a drink of water. Already after the liberation I came across one of the survivors of that transport, and I learned from him that only about 150 prisoners survived that march.

After having spent our first night in Flossenburg in the factory-hall, we were taken the next morning into the camp. There we went through a bath after which we were given fresh sets of rags, and then dispersed in the various blocks. The camp of Flossenburg was overcrowded with the evacuated from other camps, in the same degree as Buchenwald and Großrosen were. We slept in fours and fives on beds too narrow for one person. But nobody minded it; at least we could lie under a roof, not as in the wagons where we hardly could stand, nor as in the snow and frost of the open fields.

In Flossenburg the fever of the Nazi's last days was felt distinctly. No matter how hermetically we were shut up from the outside world, various news were being spread constantly with the quickness of a lightning. We were taking the news in, while lying on our beds and dreaming of the nearing liberation, the liberation, which countless numbers of our dearest did not live to see.

After one week of our stay at the Flossenburg-camp a rumor spread that the Swedish Red Cross was negotiating with the Germans about taking us under its care. Our happiness was limitless, we just wept for joy. Our block-oldest informed us that white flags were fluttering all over the camp and that the guards had been taken off from the watchtowers. He asked us to behave calmly and not try to get out of the blocks until the arrival of the representatives of the Red Cross. That night nobody could sleep in the camp, so great was the joy of awaiting. My feelings did not differ from those of all the other camp-prisoners, yet I could not free myself from a sense of fear. An inner surmise told me not to believe in it all. I was waiting impatiently for the day to come. To my deepest sorrow, my forebodings proved justified. Our hopes dissolved with the daylight - the guards had been put back on the towers and all the white flags had vanished.

After a while the German supervisors appeared on our block. They ordered all the German prisoners to report at the camp-commander's office. There the German prisoners had been told that they could be released from the "Katzet" an the condition that they would put on the SS-uniforms and carry guns in order to help in the evacuation. The German prisoners grasped this chance without hesitation. On the next day the evacuation of the camp of Flossenburg began; the camp had to be evacuated in one day's time.

In the morning of that day we were given soup only for our breakfast. There was no bread left in the camp. Each of us got a ration of raw rye corn-grains instead of bread; every prisoner was allowed to take with him his soup-ball and a blanket. I was fortunate in securing an iron-box to keep my corn-grains in.

The whole camp had been divided into columns, 3000 of prisoners each. The columns were leaving the camp in equal time-intervals. Our barrack left in the afternoon. We marched on for the whole of that afternoon and the following night. We were being followed by constant detonations from which we could make out the closeness of the front.

Flossenburg was a well-known town in Bavaria, situated in a mountainous area. We had to make our way through hills and valleys, woods and fields. During the night a great number of prisoners tried to escape; the SS-convoys kept shooting constantly into the dark woods.

I still did not think of escape – not for as long as I could keep myself going. I was convinced that because of the nearness of the front the Allies would reach us soon and liberate us. Besides, I speculated, all the area must be full of German troops, so that even if I succeeded to escape, I would be caught and shot by the Germans.

At dawn we had been led up to a field where we were told to rest. For the whole day we were left lying there without any food or water. At night we were driven further, with double speed. On the next morning we were given only a short rest. I could not overcome my tiredness and fell asleep. I had been waked by the tumult of the SS-men shouting "Get up! Get up!" and hitting and pushing the prisoners with their guns. At that time I felt already at the end of my strength. The whole way from Flossenburg I walked together with a young man with whom I had male friends in Flossenburg where we slept on one bed. We helped each other throughout the march in every way possible.

This time he helped me to stand on my feet, urging me not to give up the fight for life at a time when the victory and our freedom were so near. But walking seemed out of the question because of my swollen, aching legs.

On that day I decided to escape without further delay, for I could not walk on for much longer and therefore should be shot by the SS-convoys an the road.

The way on which we now proceeded was covered with the corpses of those who, being ton exhausted to march on, quietly lied down and waited for the final, delivering bullet. It was towards the end of April. The snow melted in the fields from the rains and mild weather and the channels on both sides of the road were overflowing with blood, the blood of the victims persecuted and finally done with on the very eve of their deliverance. The SS-men's guns were being used to smash the heads of the prisoners who lingered an their way, and then the victim's brains would splash all over the road. Some of the starving prisoners picked them up and ate them. Heaps of corpses piled up on the fields by the road.

Towards the evening I was dragging my swollen legs with my very last strength. For the night we had again been led up to with water overflowing field. I lay down by my friend's side and we covered ourselves with one blanket. But the sharp pain in all parts of my body kept me awake and forced me to get up. As soon as I stood up, one of the SS-men jumped at me ordering me to lie back down immediately, under the threat of being shot. I asked him to shoot me, and thereby to free me from my suffering. "You are not worth the bullet, you swine", he shouted back, and knocked me down with a strike an n my head. Certainly this brutal deed of his, which had me lying in my own blood, saved my life, for I was bent upon approaching another SS-man and asking him the same "favor" of quick deliverance. As it was, I fainted and could not move anymore. After that accident my friend did not leave me for a moment. After bringing me back to consciousness he cleaned my face and body, and comforted me until I finally went to sleep.

The morning after, when everybody was getting ready for the march, I felt that I could not get up. My legs refused to obey my will. My distressed friend begged me to overcome my sore condition and get up. The field was already nearly empty and I knew only too well what would happen to all staying behind. I asked my friend to leave me and save his own life. But he would not move a step. He just kept a persuading me as he would a child: "Give me your hand and lean an me, and I shall help you to stand up! But you must strain all your strength and stand up!" I obeyed him. I gave him my hand and with a tremendous effort I forced myself up. Leaning on a stick and half-lying on my friend's shoulder, I tried to move my legs. The pain was unbearable, and yet the will to live came back. Soon the sound of the first shots being fired on those still in the field reached our ears, but by then we were luckily out of their range.

Coming back to the marching columns I pulled myself together. I felt new, hidden powers stirring up within me, and the belief that I should survive grew stronger with every step. It seamed even that the terrible pain in my limbs started to retreat. So advancing I noticed a change in our march. Previously we had been marching in the middle of the road, surrounded by our convoys on both sides. But by that time we had been pushed to the side of the road, and the road itself filled up with the running German troops. The SS-convoys started to speed us up. In the general confusion I lost my friend.

As I mentioned before, the roads of Bavaria cross its hills, valleys, woods and fields. The idea of an immediate escape suddenly crystallized in my mind, though I had no clear plan as to how I should carry it out. First of all I freed myself from the blanket and the iron-box in which I still had some corn-grains. Though my chances of escaping in the broad daylight were nil, I decided not to wait any longer. After losing my friend I could not manage to march on for very long. Thus I moved to the edge of the road and while walking on was looking out for the right moment to run. After a while I noticed that we were approaching a forest, and as we came closer to it I left the column quickly and started to run into the forest. White running I turned my head once and noticed a number of other prisoners who followed my example.

The German shouts "Halt! Halt!" spread immediately all over the forest. I kept on running without looking back. I came to the end of the forest and stopped at the edge of a field. Behind me I could already hear the wild barking of the dogs of the Germans. Also the shooting was becoming closer with every second.

I threw myself upon the ground, closed my eyes and started to pray and say my confession. Suddenly I saw the face of my deceased mother before my eyes, with the tears streaming over it, as they did when we parted before I went off to the gathering-point in Dabrowa. "Do not weep, dear mother", I asked her in my dream, "soon I shall be by your side".

So lying I heard steps around me and in my subconsciousness I was already feeling the bullet, which was to pierce my head. I do not know how long it lasted. I only remember saying once more the confession, and then the thought that I was still alive had suddenly struck me.

Slowly I raised my head and looked around. A few SS-men with dogs were running after other escaped prisoners in the field. When they moved further away it occurred to me that I ought not stay in that place for one more moment. The SS-men were turned with their backs to me.

I caught a sight of a near-by pine tree and decided to climb it up. I did it like a cat, quick as a lightning. Until this day I find it difficult to grasp how I managed to climb that tall and bare tree in the state I was in. Obviously, when one sees one's death before one's eyes, one acquires superhuman powers. When I came to the top of the tree I found there a Young boy, who had also run away from the transport. I was happy to see another person alive beside me.

Sitting of the top of the tree I watched the SS-men gathering all those caught in the field and shooting them one after another. At that moment I perceived that I was again in danger for the tree stood by the very edge of the forest and as soon as any SS-man east a casual glance in our direction, we would be spotted. I climbed down quickly and went back into the forest; running back towards the road, which was completely deserted by now, for the transport had moved on further.

I crossed the road and entered a forest at its other side. All was quiet and still there. I kept on running, moving further and further away from the road, until I finally fell exhausted. I lay so until dark.

At night I walked further. I did not know myself in what direction I was moving until I came to a village-house. There were haystacks in the yard. I went in and tried to pull out a bundle of hay in order to put it under my head on the ground and go to sleep. A dog barked wildly and I escaped with a bit of straw back into the forest. There I fell asleep immediately. I did not eat for three days, and the hunger waked me soon.

At dawn I went down to the edge of the forest to watch the only peasant-house, which stood by the forest. I saw an old man walking around the yard, and no living soul except him. My hunger urged me to take the risk. I approached the peasant and toll him that I escaped from a transport of Katzet-prisoners and that I could not stand on my feet from hunger and exhaustion. I told him to hand me over to the SS, if he wanted, but I asked him to give me some food first, and then do as he wished. He took me into his house, gave me some food and calmed me down saying that no wrong would be done to me under his roof. He let me wash myself and then I asked him to let me sleep in the barn, so that if the SS-men came and found me, he could say that he did not know anything about my being hidden there.

With my stomach full and my body clean all over, I fell asleep immediately. I do not know how long I slept; I woke when I felt that someone was pulling my feet. I opened my eyes and saw the old peasant. At First I did not realize what was happening. Being still only half-awake, I did not remember a thing of the latest changes. But the peasant would not let me off; he kept on shaking me and shouting into my ear that I must run for there appeared a group of SS-men in the nearest village. The word "SS" sufficed to sober me up immediately. The sleep and the food refreshed me and I was able to walk again.

I went quickly out of the barn and back into the forest. From there I kept moving close to the edge of the forest until I caught a sight of a peasant working all alone in a field. I approached the peasant so as to learn where the front was. But so great was my fear that I could not utter a word and I only stood stammering. The peasant relieved me by telling me that the Americans were already in the nearest town. He showed me the direction in which I was to go and also warned me to watch out against the SS-men hiding in the woods from the Americans and shooting every escaped camp-prisoner they happened to come across.

The feeling of freedom becoming nearer with every single moment made my heart pound, and I simply could not catch my breath. God Almighty, I asked in the depth of my heart, let me live. I am on the very brink of salvation. I did not keep to the wood anymore; instead I started across the fields in the direction mentioned by the peasant. I would stop now and again and observe the whole area around me, and then walk on.

At sunset I noticed the first American tank. I was unable to restrain myself and I broke out in a loud cry. I cried over the last three years of my life. Three years that stretched out into eternity. Three years in a deep jungle with blond-thirsty beasts. I wept over the lost who did not live to see the first American tank.

I reached the nearest town, Kam, at dark. The place was full of ex-Katzetniks. They came in tens of thousands from all over the country. All of them where prisoners from the last transports, whom the Germans were evacuating and driving to Dachau. All the surviving Katzetniks had been freed on their way by the Americans.

My transport moved on much further since I left it, and I never found out what its fate was.

Like a shadow I walked around the town among hundreds of similar shadows. I did not know what do to with myself, where to go. My only wish was just to be able to lie down. I was looking for borne corner to do so. A great number of houses belonging to the escaped Nazis had been destroyed by the ex-prisoners. The town grew more chaotic with every filament. Thousands of exhausted camp-prisoners simply lied down in the streets, looking no different than corpses. But their cries and groans could be heard all over the town.

The Americans were unable to take care of all the miserable survivors who could not stand on their feet. Thousands of them died without having the opportunity to enjoy their longed for freedom. All the schools, churches and bigger flats had been turned into temporary hospitals. But there was a shortage of doctors and nurses qualified to look after the sick.

We also suffered from the lack of proper food, for in our exhausted condition we were unable to digest the products, which were available. The German conserves of horsemeat left even the stronger among us sick with dysentery. And so still more thousands of the survivors died of dysentery, for there were no medicines to cure it.

1 too did not escape that frightful disease. I fell ill on the second day of the liberation, and after a few more days I also caught the spot-typhus. I was taken into an American hospital, where they had American doctors and medicines.

For seven days I lied in high fever, swaying between life and death, already after the liberation. The screams and groans of the sick ex-prisoners in the hospital were indescribable. Many dead were being taken out every morning; people were dying at the peak of their fever, groaning till the very end. I learned later from other patients that I too, like everybody else, screamed and moaned while I was feverish and unconscious.

When I gained back my consciousness, the first thing I did was to pray to God: "O Lord, you who have saved me from so many deaths until now, let me live at least until I have seen my old home again, until I have met my nearest and my dearest, who might have been saved from the most horrid hell an earth."

The incident, which I shall now relate was to me an instance of the bitter irony of our lives. In the days of my delirium, when I was struggling between life and death we had the privilege of being visited by a German priest who came to give the Holy Sacrament to the sick. He approached also my bed and began to mumble his prayers over me. When I remarked that I am Jew, he answered without a moment's hesitation that he did not mind whether I was a Jew or not. He would pray to Jesus also for my sake, for Him to forgive me my sins. He, the German, a son of the murderers-nation, was the innocent one. I, the persecuted and the tortured Jew, I was the sinner. I was destined to survive also this dreadful illness. After a few weeks at the hospital, I was freed. I was cured, but still exhausted. Gradually I gained back my strength. My only wish now was to go back to my old home.

In August 1945 I arrived at Dombrowa and Zagórze. Even today, after so many years, it seems impossible to me to express what I felt at the sight of what I found there.

Thought twenty years have gone by since that time, I am still followed by the murderous eyes of the Poles from Dambrowa and Zagórze, the eyes of our former neighbors and customers. They could not forgive me that I stayed alive, that I came back. Their wonder at my not being dead, their contemptuous question. "Ty zyjesz?" drove me to run away from the place, which once upon a time was my only, my dearest home.

Let these lines of mine be a brick in the great monument-work of the Book of Zaglembie; let it perpetuate the memory of my dearest father, mother, sisters and brother with their families. Let it be a reminder of all the Jewish settlements in Zaglembie, and among them my native Zagórze, all of which perished in the Sanctification of God's Name, by the hands of the German murderers, Yitgadal Veyitkadash.

[Page 38]

The past horror

J. Orbach

In the memory of my comrades killed in action against the Nazi-murderers in the two Ghettos of Grodno and in the woods of Grodno and Druzgeniki.

It is the month of May 1943. The year is one of the darkest in the human history, and one of the most intense misery in Jewish human history, and one of the most intense misery in Jewish records.

At this point my dwelling-town Grodno is already "Judenrein". My wife Chaike, once a well-known, active member of the Bund, a proud representative of the tobacco-workers in Grodno, and later a member of the rebellious group in the woods of Pishkie, had been caught in one of the groups' operations and murdered by the head of the Gestapo in Grodno, Errelis. Both my children had been murdered by the bloodthirsty murderer Kurt Viso. And now we are sitting in the woods of Druzgeniki by the river Niemen, which separates us from Lithuania. We are about fifty refugees from the Ghettos of Grodno, among us the fighting-commander of the Ghetto No. 1 and about ten women. On this particular May-evening we are sitting by an extinguished fire, whose dead ashes look like the remnants of the burnt down bodies we remember from the time of the German "action" in January 1943. Against the free, tall oaks and pines we feel small and worthless when we remember our past beautiful, straightforward lives. Looking at these trees we remember the best, the kindest of our comrades, Chaim the leader of the "Zukunft" ["Future"] in Grodno. We remember Chaim Bendetson's last words before he went back to the Ghetto: "Friends, there is no heroism in leaving your parents, your near ones and all the helpless women and children, to their fates, while you yourselves are saving your own wretched lives under the poor pretext of taking revenge upon the murderers. I shall go the way my nearest went, the way my friends went. And you, if by a chance you do manage to save your lives, judge me then and judge yourselves as well, and say who was the hero, you or I?"

Now, in the stillness of the wood, these words go on ringing in our minds, and the idea he expressed would not leave us now, when all is over there, in the ghettos.

Our depressed silence is suddenly broken by Ephraitshik, the ex-captain of the "Morgenstern"["Morning Star"] football-team in Grodno. He collects some more dry branches and relights the fire angrily. The effect of the revived flame is calming. We look up to Ephraitshik who is our unofficial leader. There is an air of tenseness around him; we are awaiting his words eagerly. He opens in the same tone he was using once while addressing his football-players before their match:

"The coming Sunday the Gestapo-men of the Grodno-district are holding a conference in Druzgeniki. Apparently, there will be present there also the criminal Kurt Viso and his assistants. On his way there he will pass not far from us, about eight o'clock in the morning".

His voice rings with pain and rage. We know that Ephraitshik's contacts with the "Judenrein" Grodno are kept through the White-Russian peasants, and that they are exact and reliable. Ephraitshik knows that we are burning with the desire to do something, anything, to revenge the countless numbers of men, women and children murdered in the most perverse, atrocious ways by Nazis like Errelis and Viso.

After a while Ephraitshik adds suddenly in his steely voice:

"We cannot say that none of the Gestapo-men shall reach Druzgeniki, but we can and we ought to say that Viso shall not reach it alive". We sit on in deep silence for a while, in tenseness casting side-glances at each other. We are all waiting for one of us to answer and our fingers are feeling and stroking secretly our weapons and grenades.

At last I break the tense silence, saying quietly:

"I am going with you. This will be my first fighting meeting with the murderers. Though I have not had very much practice in shooting, I hope that my automatic gun will not fail me."

Ephraitshik, who is an old friend of mine from Listovskiego Street in Grodno, smiles slightly and goes on in his captain's tone, gut quieter now.

"My experience has taught me that the larger the group the greater the death-danger. Now, that there is no way back to the ghettos of Grodno, we shall have to divide into smaller groups. Each group will have to try on its own to get through to the White-Russian Partisans concentrated in Shtshara by Nieman. Myself, Orbach and eight other comrades whom I shall select - we shall carry out the assault on Viso and the other murderers. If we succeed, we can all meet again near the village Bakshti, where we met already once, a few weeks ago".

On the Saturday of the same week in May 1943, at noon-time, a group of eight men and two women led by Ephraitshik left the clearing in the wood, parting from their forty comrades, the refugees of the Grodno-ghettos, whose only will was to survive and turn into free human beings once more.

Late in the evening we came close to the Grodno-Druzgeniki road. Walking in the Wood we felt that we had turned in to an organic part of the wood-life, that we had become one moth-headed, hungry and bloodthirsty animal, ready to bite into the throat of any German.

After a few hours of wandering by the side of the road, we found a small sandy clearing surrounded by a thick group of green trees which did not let any light through. That place was to us as hidden as the mysterious valley of the distant, legendary Garibaldi-fighters, and we trusted its seclusion and felt safe there.

The next morning with the first stroke of light, Ephraitshik ordered me and Levashevski, a one-time house painter, to get up and get ready. Without a word of farewell, the three of us left for the road.

After some time a noise of approaching trucks and cars had been heard, echoing over the woods. We hastily retreated behind the trees at the side of the road and there awaited the murderers.

Ephraitshik gave his orders in quiet whisper: "Only one shot at a time, not everybody together. The first one will open the fire when I give the sign, upon my order."

From afar we could already recognize the fair, tall figure of the Aryan of the Nordic race, the chief murderer of the ghettos of Grodno and its surrounding villages, the commander of the Grodno-ghetto No. 1, Kurt Viso. I felt a cold creeping through my heart and prayed in my soul for my hand not to shake.

I felt I was stiffening with fear as the small German car was advancing. Apparently that was also how my friends felt. In the front-seat of the car I could now clearly see Viso in his elegant Gestapo-uniform, and a fat young SS-man beside him, in the driver's seat. The sight of Viso's face brought back to my memory the faces of my dearest whom he murdered – my wife Chaike and my two children, a daughter of nine and a son of four. And then, with my eyes never leaving his face, I shot at him straightaway, without waiting for the order.

Ephraitshik jumped at me angrily, as though he was meaning to hit me with his automatic gun. But they both realized that there was no time for disciplinary punishments. Both started to shell the driving on Gestapo-men with the grenades, and then opened on them fire from their automatic guns. The peaceful stillness of the woods had been disrupted by the sharp screams of the Germans, scared to death by the shooting.

When we were retreating into the woods, I followed Ephraitshik closely, as though afraid of losing him. I felt a sharp need of sharing my immense joy at the thought of my having shot the masses-killer, the murderer of my family. I looked at him and at Lavashevski; Ephraitshik grasped his gun stronger, avoiding my eyes; I went on maintaining on obstinate silence.

Through the darkness of the wood the yellow shine of our sand clearing welcomed us back. We heard the voices of our comrades crying: "They are coming!"

Our seven comrades greeted us excitedly, overwhelming us with their questions. But all the three of us persisted in stubborn silence. And only after having had some Wodka with the brown farm-bread and onions, did Ephraitshik Break our silence by saying: "Orbach got six bullets at least into him". Our comrades regarded us with extraordinary respect and admiration. They discussed the Operation vividly, strengthening each other's cherished hope that Viso had been killed and not just wounded.

The days that followed stretched out into an eternity of nightmare. I, with three other comrades, met with two of the other groups, which had been formed from our former bigger camp. That meeting took place in the agreed place, near Bakshti, and in its outcome the four of us left for the then still existing Bialystok-ghetto in order to collect some money, arms and ammunition for our fighting groups. We succeeded in our enterprise and, despite the numerous dangers we encountered on our way back, we arrived safely in the woods where we rejoined our group. At the time of our return the German military units, helped by their murderous partners' the Vlasov men, started on their infamous campaign of liquidating the partisans' groups in the woods around Grodno and Vilna. Pursued by the Germans, we had to keep on running from one part of the woods to another, losing tens of our comrades every day. In the year 1944 a small group of then still surviving comrades, the writer of these lines among them, had fallen into the hands of Germans.

In the year 1965, twenty-two years after the tragic experiences described above, I met once again face to face with the murderer of thousands of Jews, the killer of my family. This time I was being confronted with the war criminal Kurt Viso in the Bielefeld Court. The experienced children-killer had lost the impressing gloss of a fair Aryan of the purest German Teutonic stock, and his face bore now the brainless expression of a plain criminal.

No longer was there any need to fear him, whose terror hung over all the Grodno Jews in 1943. Pointing at him decidedly, I declared that he was guilty of the extermination of thousands of Jews in Grodno and its surroundings. But in the course of the process this chosen pure-blooded Aryan denied everything, every single proof of his crimes, even maintaining that he had never seen me before. Only after the judge Neumann had read my evidence, given previously at the German Council in Melbourne in which I had related the story of the assault in 1943 on the Grodno-Druzgeniki road then, only then did the cowardly criminal react. He cried out in rage, pointing towards me:

"Yes! This is the murderer who shot at me from an ambush". And he screamed on: "For six months I had to stay at the Grodno hospital, and until this very day I am suffering from the wounds I received from the bullets he fired at me".

The prosecutor Neumann turned to him with a smile: "So you do recognize him, after all".

Twenty-five years after the bloody harvest of the Grodno Jews, twenty-five years after the slaughter of the Jews of Zaglembie, twenty-five years after the extermination of the Eastern-European Jewry, let these few memories of a son of Zaglembie and a resident of Grodno be his bunch of roses on the unknown graves of all his comrades who fell in heroic resistance, and among them the captain of the Grodno "Morgenstern", Ephraitshik.

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