HOUNDS OF HELL
1 . Blitzkrieg
When at our last meeting you cautiously asked me if I would care to talk about the things that happened. . . that time. . . I couldn't answer you. I didn't know if I could bring out in words what I had seen, what we had gone through. It is not that I feared stirring up the old wounds, the pain and anguish--no, these have been with me all these years thirty seven, thirty eight. Sometimes it seems to me that it would be better to forget, not to carry the black thoughts within me, not to let the past throw a dark shadow over the serenity of my happy family my wife, my son, my two lovely daughters. But I cannot forget, I don't want to forget it would be a betrayal of my murdered parents, my brother, my three sweet sisters. No, we must remember, and not be silent, and let the world know what evil deeds were perpetrated by those beasts in human shape. May they be damned forever!
You know that in September 1939 Hitler and Stalin divided Poland between them. Our town, Shershev, fell into the Soviet zone, lying only about thirty kilometers east of the boundary line. The Russians arrived peacefully, without any opposition, since the Polish army had been annihilated by the Germans in only two weeks. They were received with mixed feelings by the indigenous population. The peasants generally considered them kinsmen, but were wary of the possible loss of their land and of being forced into collective farms. The Jews too were uneasy they knew from sad experience that change might spell trouble. The younger people looked forward to relief from the rampant Polish anti-Semitism, relying on the Soviet Union's avowed equality of races, but the older Jews feared the suppression of religion and of private enterprise. All were shocked by the apparent rapprochement between the Nazis and the Soviets, but no one believed that there was a real conciliation between the two antagonistic ideologies--the pact was considered to be nothing more than a cynical political stratagem to regain territories lost in 1919 by the establishment of an independent Poland. Stalin was thought to have outmaneuvered Hitler in the deal, having acquired half of Poland without firing a shot while the Nazis were expending themselves in battling England and France. We considered ourselves lucky to be on this side of the fence, outside the area of actual combat.
Well, it didn't last long. The German attack on Russia began suddenly, on a Sunday morning in June 1941. The day before, on Saturday, it was announced on the radio (we had loudspeakers installed on the market place) that there would be air maneuvers, people should not be alarmed. On Sunday airplanes appeared over the town. We came out to watch, not even suspecting that they were not ours, when bombs began exploding outside of town. The attack was on a newly constructed aerodrome a few kilometers away, nearer to Pruzhany. Many people were killed, mostly children who had an outing there that day. I don't know who made the announcement about maneuvers, whether the Russians were really planning it or it was a German trick to confuse the Soviet defense.
Already on Sunday afternoon Russian troops began moving through the town. There were tanks, artillery pieces, all moving hurriedly, but I do not know if they were advancing or retreating. The soldiers looked scared, bewildered. They were covered with dust and mud, and didn't seem to know what was happening. This movement continued through the night and on Monday, in disorder, and it was obvious that things were going bad for the Russians.
The Germans started coming in on Tuesday, thousands and thousands of them. They kept going through for three weeks, we could not believe our eyes, there were so many of them a whole army. The first troops were on motorcycles, with machineguns on sidecars, thousands of them. Some were set up on street intersections, the guns pointed at the houses. Then came tanks and big guns, moving on and on without a stop. People were hiding inside the houses, afraid to come out, but we were peeping through the slits in the closed shutters and we saw. Even if we hadn't watched we would have known by the deafening noise from the tanks rolling over the cobblestones. Everything in the house was rattling like in an earthquake, and we could hardly breathe because of the fumes that came in through the doors and windows even though they were closed.
2. First Victims
The killings started on Wednesday, the second day the Germans were in town. They found a Russian soldier in a field outside and led him into the market place. He must have surrendered, but they shot him anyway right there. Then they went into some houses and rounded up twenty men. They lined them up against the closed stores of the market place and mowed them down with machineguns. Fourteen were Jews and the other six gentiles. There was no explanation, no reason was given the men were just lined up and killed.
Then the soldiers or maybe gendarmes who knew what they were. They wore all kinds of uniforms began entering the houses on the market place. They banged on the doors with their rifle butts, and smashed the doors if they weren't opened fast enough. Some of the people inside, especially men, were slapped or hit with the rifles; all were terrorized many people saw how they shot the twenty men in cold blood.
We had a nice new house, also located on the market place. As we were looking through the shutter slits we saw three men coming toward the house. One of them must have been an officer he wore a nice uniform and had a revolver, but the men with him carried rifles. As soon as they knocked my mother opened the door. They pushed her aside and walked in, didn't say anything at first, then told us to open the window shutters: "Aufmachen!" They then looked into every room, opened closets and drawers, and then waved the rifles at us: "Raus! Alle heraus!" (Out! Everybody out!). We rushed outside and waited, thought that perhaps they would take some of our things (we had seen soldiers carrying out things from other houses), and then go away. But one of the soldiers came out, pointed the rifle at us and yelled: "Weg! Weggehen! Schnell!" (Away! Get going! Quick!) We started running in terror, my parents, three sisters, my brother and myself, expecting to hear shots behind us, and didn1t stop until we rounded a corner where the soldier could not see us any more. We made our way to my grandfather's house, thankful to have gotten away with our lives, and not even having been beaten. We never ventured near our house again, having learned that some German officers were quartered there. Everything we possessed was left there all we came away with were the clothes on our backs. We stayed crowded in grandfather's house for the next three months, after which Shershev became only a memory.
3. Face of the Beast
The following two days we cowered inside, afraid to stick our noses out. Then, on Saturday, a few Jews were pulled out of their homes and brought to headquarters, where they were asked for the names and residences of the prominent Jews in town. The latter were then rounded up and also brought to the headquarters. Five of these men were designated to constitute a Jewish Council, known as Judenrat, which was to be responsible to the Germans for carrying out their orders, on pain of being shot. No one wanted to serve on the Council, of course, but there was no choice. The five men were directed to tell the people to go about their usual occupations, and that they would not be harmed if they complied with the German demands.
That was easier said than done. The first order was to supply gold, several kilograms, within two days. If not delivered on time, people would be shot. Where was that much gold to come from. Men were appointed to go from house to house and collect whatever was available: old coins, jewelry, and mainly wedding rings my mother gave her wedding ring. I don't know how much was collected, but the Germans were apparently satisfied, since no one was shot. We were not so lucky with the next order. Several men were killed because the quantity of leather demanded was not supplied- there just wasn't that much leather in town.
Next the Judenrat was directed to submit a register of all ablebodied men, listed by trade or profession. Shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths and other such craftsmen were put to work in town, to repair or make new articles for the officers and soldiers. All work had to be perfect and done on time to escape a beating or worse. The other men, who had no special skills, were assigned to labor on improving roads or to lumber in the forests. Most of them had no experience and were not used to such hard work, but any misstep or show of fatigue brought down the clubs of the overseers on their heads or backs. Anyone who became too exhausted to go on was shot on the spot. Perhaps these were the lucky ones they were finished with the degradation and torture which the rest of us had to endure for a while longer, only to end up in the ovens of Auschwitz.
The old men, women and children who remained at home fared no better. All lived in a constant state of terror. There was no safety anywhere, day or night. Germans would come into houses at any hour and take whatever they wanted: good clothing, especially furs; linen, tableware, watches, knickknacks, even such items as sugar, tea or homemade preserves anything that could be sent home to their darling Hanschens and Gretchens.
This life, if it can be called life, went on for three months. Many Jews, perhaps forty or fifty, died of beatings or were shot there didn1t have to be any reason, the life of any Jew was subject to the whim of any one of the brutes. Then, on September 25, all males between fifteen and sixty were ordered to assemble on the market place with tools: shovels, rakes, hammers whatever was available. Anyone not reporting would be shot. I was eighteen years old, so I reported together with my father, he carrying a shovel and I a hoe, tools which my grandfather had for use in the vegetable garden. We were surrounded by guards in green uniforms with brown cuffs, armed with rifles and clubs. We were lined up in rows and counted there were about three hundred and fifty men. After the count was completed, which took about an hour, an officer announced that the entire Jewish community would be moved to a work camp where we would be given lodging and food in return for our work. We were ordered to go home and return in two hours with our families, bringing along clothing and food for two days, and to be sure not to forget our tools. The officer warned us that any Jew, regardless of age or sex, who failed to show up at the appointed time would be erschossen shot to death. We knew that this was not just a threat, after what we had gone through during the preceding three months.
It was about noon that the entire Jewish community was assembled on the market place old people, babes in arms every living soul. Everybody carried a bundle or a small valise containing food and what was considered most useful. Who could decide what to take along from a lifetime home where one had been born, grown up, lived in the shelter of parents and grandparents; and which was to be abandoned forever in two hours on pain of death!. Despite the horrors endured for three months there still remained some sense of security, of permanence, within the four walls of the family abode, in a community built up by countless generations of kinsfolk, where every stone was familiar, where the very air and sky seemed part of you. There, in the home, one could still dream and hope that this too would pass, that some day, somehow, the nightmare would vanish and life would resume its wonted course. But now, this, the uprooting, the deprivation not only of one's possessions but of the very essence of existence this left no more hope, it was the end.
5. Death March
The Germans with their rifles and clubs were all around us, augmented by motorcycles with mounted machineguns. An order was given: All males from fifteen to sixty, with their tools but without their bundles, to form a line three abreast, the others to stand aside. My father and I were in the line. A command rang out: "Vorwaerts! Marsch! Schnell! Schnell!" (Forward! March! Fast! Fast!) Our movement obviously was lacking in military precision, so blows from the clubs began falling on those who were lagging or did not keep in line-- on legs, shoulders, heads, any place. As we passed a designated spot near the exit from the market place we were ordered to drop our tools in a heap, except for ten shovels. We thus marched out of town with the wails of our women and children resounding in our ears more painful than the blows.
It was a hot day. Many put on extra clothing, not knowing where we would be going. I wore_two pairs of pants and a warm jacket. We were covered with sweat, were gasping for air, could hardly ,drag our feet, but the march went on-- schnell, schnell no food, no water, no rest, not even a stop to urinate some of the older men got their pants wet. . . . No, I have to correct that, we did have some rest periods whenever an older man or a weak one fell down and could not get up, out of sheer exhaustion, despite encouragement by the clubs, he was shot on the spot. The shovel group was then ordered to bury him in the field next to the road, while the rest of us received the command: "Sitzen!" ("Sit down!") This happened four or five times, and we had a chance to catch our breath, paid for with the lives of the victims.
In late afternoon we heard the rumble of motors in back of us. We were ordered to lie down in the ditch alongside the road and not look up, but we saw just the same- as the trucks rolled by we saw our women and children were in them. They saw us too, were wailing and calling out to us, but we did not dare to answer or even to wave- the rifles and machineguns were there on the ready.
Toward evening we came to a village and were crammed into a huge barn. We flopped down wherever we could, hungry, thirsty, exhausted in body and soul. We were numbed, had no more feelings, just to lie down, not to think. . . sleep. . .forget.
We were roused early the next morning. Again three abreast, without food, but water galore it was raining, one of those fine but penetrating drizzles common in our area in the fall. Our clothes got sopping wet, heavy, clinging to the body. Our escorts also got wet, so they speeded up their motorcycles and ordered us to run, not on the road but in the ditch where the water was draining off. This time many more did not make it and were shot thirty, forty I don't know, the killing became wholesale: two, three, five at a time. All were buried in the field like the day before.
One of the burial stops was not far from a forest, maybe a hundred meters away. Suddenly one of our men started running toward it across a potato field. The Germans began shooting, and he fell down. When they stopped shooting he got up and was running again. More shots were fired and he dropped again. And it's hard to believe when they ceased shooting he jumped up once more and made it disappeared among the trees and got away, despite all the shooting! I knew him, he was a strong guy, husky, but it did not help him he got killed anyway, was reported to other Germans by the peasants. After he disappeared our guards started beating us with their clubs, anyone who was nearest to them. Then they picked out twenty five men, the older ones, at random: "You! You! You!" All twenty five were driven into the potato field and mowed down with machineguns. We had to lie in the ditch while they were buried in one big grave. They made some of us, me too, replace the other diggers.
The march continued. More men dropped out and were killed. Suddenly I noticed that my father was beginning to totter. I grabbed a hold of him I was pretty strong-- almost carried him so he should not fall. I don't know how long I would have been able to drag him along, but luckily we were suddenly ordered to halt. The man in charge yelled out: ¿Does anyone of you know how to read a map? The town doctor stepped forward. The German said that we were to go to Antopole, that our families were there, and showed the doctor on the map how to get to the place. Then they got on their motorcycles and rode away, all of them left us alone. We thought it was some new trick, new torture, but we had no choice, no other place to go. So we went to Antopole as directed. We arrived there at sunset, and for once the German did not lie our women and children were really there! But eighty men were missing from our group. . . were in their graves all along that road.
What our meeting was like you can well imagine the condition we and they were in. And the ones whose husbands and fathers were butchered on the road need I tell you. Maybe those eighty men were the luckier ones their trials were over.
We spent the night in Antopole with our families, in synagogues, barns, private homes wherever places were found. We were told that the previous day two hundred men from the town, only men, were taken away by the Germans who departed with them--destination and fate unknown. The town was left in control of the local police, made up of young peasants from nearby villages. Our respite lasted only three days. The locals, whom the Germans supplied with small arms, ordered us to leave-- they had enough Jews of their own and had no need for more. They said we should go to Drohyczyn, fifteen kilometers away. We begged, pleaded, but to no avail--they threatened to call the Germans if we didn1t leave. So we were on the road again, this time together with the women and children. The remaining Jews helped us all they could, shared with us their meager supply of food, but we were outcasts again, without a roof over our heads, not knowing what would happen next. The little ones were tired, had to be carried, cried for food and water which had to be doled out sparingly. But at least we didn't have the green-uniformed torturers to dog our every step, were able to stop and rest when too weary to go on.
The peasants along the way had been ordered by the Germans not to give us food or even water, but a few helped despite of that. Some peasant women cried, felt sorry for us, and even asked that we leave our little ones with them. "We will keep them, take care of them, why should they perish? They meant well, but how could we? Leave the babies? With whom? It was torture what should we do?
We spent the night out in the field, and arrived in Drohyczyn the following day, broken in body and spirit an entire community turned into homeless beggars. We were like hunted animals, no place to escape, not knowing what the next day would bring.
Jews in Drohyczyn had not been molested up to then. The town priest had interceded for them, especially with the native police. The Jewish population did everything in their power to help us with food shelter, shared whatever they had with us. But we were allowed to remain there only a short time, over the Holy Days. Just like in Antopole, the local police told us to move on maybe they had orders from the Germans, who knows? Despite all pleas they insisted that we go, and suggested Chomsk, a nearby town, where there were many empty houses Jewish houses since the whole community, men, women, children, infants in arms sixteen hundred and eighty people every one of them had been massacred by the Germans and their local helpers. They were buried in two mass graves.
Chomsk was twelve kilometers from Drohyczyn. Nobody wanted to go there, to the homes of the slaughtered. Some families had relatives in Drohyczyn and tried to remain with them. We were not a united group any more, each had to decide what to do next. In our family it was decided that my mother and I should go to Chomsk to see what the situation there was like we both looked less Jewish than the others. We started out in the morning, stopping at villages on the way trying to find out what was happening. Some peasants said things were quiet, others said it was terrible: "They beat everybody, Yours and ours" In one village I remember the name, Minki we stopped at a house to beg for food, at least some water. Two women were in the house, an old one and a young one. They had a big fight: the young one felt sorry for us and wanted to help, but the old woman yelled that she shouldn't she was terrified that the Germans would find out and punish them. The young one did give us some bread and milk. Milk! We hadn't tasted it since we left Shershev.
We arrived in Chomsk in late afternoon. The center of town, where the Jewish houses were, was empty like a cemetery the houses were like the gravestones for the people who had lived there. Some doors were open the people must have been chased out in a hurry, with beatings. Even the local gentiles were so horrified that they did not come to take what the Jews left furniture, clothing, linen, household things. They came later, after the shock wore off and the Germans left. What did it matter- the owners were all dead, buried in the mass graves outside of town, on the spot where they were butchered.
As we walked along the street, the block thoughts in our mind, we suddenly heard a voice calling to us in Yiddish. We almost jumped with fright-- it seemed like sounds coming from a tombstone. But it was a live Jew calling us into a house. His wife and children were huddling together inside like scared sheep, trembling at every sound that come from outside. No, they were not Chomsk Jews not one of those escaped the murderers. This family come here the day before, to see, like we were doing. The man said that there were a few other Jewish families in town, there were no Germans, and the local police did not bother them. We were given some boiled potatoes, another treat we hadn't had for several days, and were urged to bring the rest of our people- they felt so forlorn, were yearning for the presence of kindred souls, hoped there might be some safety in numbers, at least from the locals. Mother and I spent the night with them and went back to Drohyczyn the following morning. Our family and others took counsel and decided to go to Chomsk we had no other choice anyway, since the police were after us to leave town they had enough Jews of their own.
So we started on foot again to Chomsk, this time the whole family, other relatives, and three additional families about sixty people in all. There were a number of small children who had to be carried, but at least we were on our own, no Germans with guns and clubs, so we could help each other and rest every once in a while.
There were plenty of nice houses in Chomsk, all empty, so each family selected one for itself. We found a fine house, apparently of a well to do man, a real balabos who took good care of his property. There was good furniture, bedding, utensils, even clothing and food. We also found children's toys, school copybooks a constant reminder of the former occupants, of what happened to them and a foreboding of what might happen to us, too.
Most important to us was a sizeable plot of potatoes in the back garden. We dug these up and had enough to eat for the first time since we were driven out of our own homes. They were real good potatoes, kept us alive-- we had no other food. Next to one side of the house was a pile of firewood logs neatly stacked up you could see the hand of a balabos enough for cooking and heating the house all winter. The other families who came with us found similar conditions. Some even began practicing their trades: tailoring, mending footwear, carpentry working for the gentiles who paid them with the most important thing food. Life might have gradually taken a more or less normal course were it not for the dread of what the Germans might do next, which was constantly on our minds. All sorts of stories were reaching us through the town gentiles and villagers none of them good.
One of the rumors was that in Pruzhany the Germans established a large ghetto where Jews were allowed to exist and manage their own affairs. As you know, Pruzhany was the nearest town to Shershev we had relatives and friends there. By the middle of November our stock of potatoes began to dwindle. No one in our family had any manual trade useful to the gentiles, and we did not know how we would get food after the potatoes were gone. It was decided that father and I should go to Pruzhany and see the situation there. We started out, on foot of course, taking along some boiled potatoes for the road. We reached Malcz, a shtetl on the way there, without incident. As we feared, Malcz was empty of Jews. We were told by a gentile that they were all driven out by the Germans, that many were beaten and shot. We did not have to imagine the details-- we knew from what we ourselves went through.
A short distance beyond Malcz we noticed a tall peasant heading toward us from a side road. As he reached us he yelled out in Yiddish: ¿Jews, where are you going?! They will kill you!" He turned out to be a village Jew, a yishuvnik, looked and acted like a peasant, and we would not have taken him for a Jew had he not spoken to us in Yiddish. Born in a nearby village, the man was now afraid to remain there among people with whom he had lived all his life, some of whom threatened to report him to the Germans. He was also planning to escape to Pruzhany, abandoning everything he had in the village to his "good" neighbors in order to save his life. He too had heard about the ghetto where Jews were allowed to live and were not treated too harshly, reportedly because Pruzhany was to be included into the jurisdiction of East Prussia, whereas the smaller towns were to be allotted to the Ukraine. Supposedly that was the reason why those towns were left in control of the local police. The man cautioned us to be extremely careful when crossing the imaginary "border" somewhere along the road, but did not know where that was. We went ahead anyway there was danger everywhere, border or no border-- we had to see what was happening in Pruzhany and if there was a way of getting the family there.
The "border," wherever it was, was passed without trouble and we reached the outskirts of Pruzhany. A kind gentile explained to us the exact location of the ghetto and the safest way of getting into it. At that time there still was no wall around it, so by following the directions we got there without incident-- perhaps the dangers were exaggerated, or maybe we were just lucky in not running into Germans either on the road or within the city on the way to the ghetto. What we found there was plenty of misery, of course, great congestion, forced labor for the Germans, and occasional abuse by some of them. But life was directed by Jews, a Judenrat, and even the police was made up of Jews, without firearms. Everything was organized, people helped each other as far as possible, but most important, there was a spirit of determination, of hope something we did not have any more in Chomsk. So we went back there the way we came, with the usual difficulties on the road, but we were already used to that. We got safely to mother and the kids and began preparing for the trip to the ghetto.
By then it was already December and winter had set in. Everything was covered with snow and it was bitter cold. When we were driven out of Shershev in September it was still hot, so we wore only summer clothes. The warm jacket I had put on was thrown away during one of the burial stops on that death march. So we had no winter clothing of our own, but we found all we needed in the Chomsk house I told you it was a well todo family that had lived there. We outfitted ourselves with warm underwear, winter overcoats, felt boots, fur hats-- the dead in the mass graves had no further use for these things. The only food we had for the road was potatoes, boiled in the skin (no bread we had already used up all the flour we found in the house), salt, some sugar, a bottle of oil, a jar of preserves, and half a liter of real good vodka to warm the insides.
Thus we started out: my parents; my three sisters: Sheva, twenty; Sarah, ten; and Lieba, eight; my brother Leibel, twelve; and me, eighteen. We trudged through the snow, each carrying a bundle of food. We were covered with sweat from exertion despite the cold, but luck was with us again it was sunny and it did not snow. I don't know what would have happened if we had run into a snowstorm.
Pruzhany was about sixty kilometers from Chomsk, and it took us three days to get there. We spent the two nights in peasants' barns the sight of us must have been so pitiful that the villagers didn't have the heart to refuse us shelter and let us freeze outside. The second night the peasant woman even brought us some hot cabbage soup it was a real lifesaver. This woman also offered to take in my two younger sisters, Sarah and Lieba promised to care for them like her own children. All the peasants knew what was being done to us, considered us doomed. Whether they wanted the children out of charity and commiseration, or for conversion, or to have more work hands in the family who knows? It was of course unthinkable to abandon our sweet little girls, our own flesh and blood how could we continue to live after doing such a thing?!
We reached Pruzhany late on the third day, and got into the ghetto. The Judenrat housing committee assigned us a room in an already overcrowded house, but what did that matter! We were in a warm house, among Jews, people who cared and tried to help each other. We remained there till the end of January, 1943 when the real end came the "final solution" program caught up with us.