My Tragic Night in Zelechow
by Chanka Oszlak (Australia)
Translated from Yiddish by David Lukowiecki
I do not have the strength to describe all my experiences during the war. I do, however, want to retell one experience which is engraved in my memory, because it took place not during the war, but after the liberation, when the world had already begun to breathe fresh air, when our terror of the German murderers had passed. When the world had already returned to its normal order of life, I survived a terrible night, more terrible than the nights in Majdanek and Auschwitz, where I spent almost two years.
On May 17, 1945, I was liberated by the Red Army in the town of Bulivada, in the Czech Sudeten.
Together with me was my comrade in suffering, with whom I had endured every camp, and we remained together in freedom.
After spending a month in a village in Czechoslovakia, we traveled to Poland to find out whether anyone in our families was still alive. We rode to Lodz and then to Warszawa, and to our great sorrow, found none of our relatives or close friends. We decided to travel to Żelechów, where I had relatives before the war; my mother was from Żelechów. I had heard a lot about this remarkable town and thought: perhaps someone from my family had survived there. My girlfriend didn't want to part with me even for one day, although she had no one in Żelechów.
One evening when it was already dark, I don't remember the date, we arrived in Żelechów. I went to the address of a Polish acquaintance, Wlodarczyk. Before the war he had been the treasurer of the court in Żelechów and commander of the firemen. He didn't recognize me. When I explained to him who I was, he remembered my family. I asked about my family and received the answer that none of them was alive.
After a brief conversation, the Pole took us to two Jews who lived with the Jewish family Gugala.
We really didn't have anything left to do in Żelechów. We decided to spend the night and return to Warszawa the next day. But fate had it otherwise. We prepared places to sleep. Two other Jewish women came; there were 6 of us Jews, 4 women and 2 men.
As soon as we dropped off to sleep, we were awakened by a commotion at the door and window. We jumped up in terror. I managed to put on my slippers and throw on a coat over my nightshirt. The others were also halfnaked, and we were driven out into the street by the men who entered. I don't remember how many there were. I only remember that everywhere I looked, the barrels of pistols and rifles were pointed toward us.
We four women were led out in front of the house and ordered to sit down on a bench. Then the men were led out naked and shot. A boy of twenty fell some three meters away from us. His name was Shlomo Hefner; he was from Żelechów. He had survived the war in the Soviet Union, returned to his hometown after the war, and fell at the hands of the bandits. The second Jew escaped. The bandits shot at him, but fortunately they missed.
Seeing this, we began to ask the murderers for mercy, not so much asking as simply begging for our lives. One of us, a pregnant woman, knelt and kissed the bandits' feet. She was answered with shots. The woman fell dead not far from us; they also shot at the second woman, Perl Fajngezycht. I was third on the bench, and then my girlfriend. She suddenly jumped out, ran off into the Pole's house and hid under the bed. I ran after her instinctively, and received a bullet in the fleshy part of my left leg. Fortunately, the bullet only grazed me, and I was able to keep running. When I ran into the house, my friend was under the bed. I turned to her:
Saba, where are you? Turn toward me, I want to hide next to you, I'm wounded.
There's no room here, there are suitcases under the bed, hide somewhere else, answered Saba.
I went into another room, hid under a sewing table in a corner, and covered myself with pieces of cloth.
The murderers came into the room and turned to the Polish family: Where are the two Jewesses who ran away?
No one replied. They searched under the bed with an electric flashlight, and found my poor girlfriend. They wanted to pull her out from under the bed, and she pleaded with them in moving words which I will never forget:
Sirs, don't kill me, I've lived through such a terrible war, I've lost everything and everyone, give me life, I want to live…
A few shots resounded, and my comrade was silenced forever. Her name was Saba Edelman, and she came from Warszawa.
Immediately after they killed her, the bandits began searching from me. They came into my room where I was hidden. They searched every corner, under the bed, in the cabinets. They didn't search in the pile of cloth where I was hidden.
Thus ended the one night I spent in Żelechów after the liberation. Out of the six Jews in the house, only three remained alive. One woman received a bullet, was slightly wounded, and feigned death. When the bandits chased after us, the wounded woman got up and ran away. One person ran away at the beginning, and the third was myself.
My beloved girlfriend, who lived through Hitler's hell with me and was murdered at the threshold of a new life, was buried together with other victims of that night in Żelechów, the town where she had never been before, and of which she had never heard.
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