TERROR IN THE GHETTO
Being confined to the ghetto, we knew nothing of developments at the various heaters of the battlefront, where the Germans were beginning to suffer setbacks; but we did sense their viciousness growing with each passing day. Initially, the German army had reaped success on every front. On July 25, 1941, it was already locked in battle with the Red Army on the outskirts of Smolensk. On Stalin's orders, the Russians initiated their "scorched earth" policy; on August 27, they demolished the Dniepropetrovsk dam. But their efforts were to no avail. On September 18, the Germans cut off the Crimean peninsula. Kiev fell. On October 6, the Germans launched their assault on Moscow, and the Soviet government hastily removed itself from the city. By the 26th of the month, Odessa and Kharkov had fallen, and Leningrad was under siege.
But then the tide began to change. On November 30, the Russians recaptured Rostov; ZHUKOV launched his counter-offensive on December 6, and on the 14th of the month, the Germans were forced back from the outskirts of Moscow.
In North Africa likewise, the tide was turning. On November 4, 1942, ROMMEL was defeated at El Alamein. Four days later, Allied forces landed in French North Africa. The British recaptured Tobruk and Benghazi. ROMMEL was checked at El Ageila. Shortly afterwards, the British Eighth Army entered Tripoli.
The Germans, being aware of the situation at the battlefront, responded with savage fury against the captive population they held in thrall. From time to time, German soldiers forced their way into the ghetto, where they went on a rampage of robbery and violence. Particularly outstanding in this regard was a Nazi sergeant named LEIMAN. One day, he picked on the local rabbi and a group of elderly Jews: having ordered them to enfold themselves in their prayer shawls and tefillin (phylacteries), he commanded them to dance and sing for him in the street. Finding this pastime amusing, he repeated it time and again, inviting his comrades to watch the show. Sergeant LEIMAN was ultimately persuaded to desist when Judenrat members collected money to offer him a payoff.
At dawn on November 1, 1942, large German units surrounded the ghetto. Machine guns were positioned at regular fifteen-meter intervals. No one was permitted to leave. Persons employed outside the ghetto had their exit passes suspended. The ghetto inhabitants were overcome with panic. "What's going on?" they demanded of one another in terror. "There's no way of knowing," came the response: all contact with the outside world had been severed. Everyone in the ghetto was infected with a fear that grew with each passing hour.
A joint decision to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the S.S., was adopted at a meeting of the ghetto's intellectuals - physicians, teachers, attorneys, etc. - including DR. OLIA GOLDFEIN, FEIVEL GOLDFEIN, DR. ROSENKRANTZ, his wife and baby, Dr. PIK, his wife and their baby, JOSEF SCHREIBMAN, his wife and baby, the wife of VELVEL SCHREIBMAN and their son, and FANIA POMERANTZ and her daughter.
That evening, they and their families congregated at the home of VELVEL SCHREIBMAN, the deputy head of the Judenrat, where they proceeded to carry out their awesome resolve. Poison injections were given, to the children initially, next to the women and finally, to the men. SCHREIBMAN was chosen to wait to the end, to ensure completion of the task.
However, he soon realized that no one had died, the poison had merely put them to sleep. In desperation, SCHREIBMAN kindled the charcoal stove and blocked the chimney, filling the room with a dense cloud of asphyxiating smoke.
Dawn having broken in the meantime, troubled townsfolk in quest of news now began knocking at the door of the Judenrat's deputy chief. "There's no reply." Those who first arrived told neighbors who arrived in their wake. "Let's break in!" Someone suggested. "Something may have happened to the Schreibmans." The front door was broken down to reveal a gruesome sight. Prompt resuscitation efforts saved most of those in the room, with the exception of ZELIG GOLDFEIN's son-in-law, ZVI NITZKIN.
A few days later, with the same abruptness that it had previously been imposed, the siege of the ghetto was terminated. Exit passes were reissued to persons employed outside the ghetto, and food supplies renewed; there were even a few allocations of meat, a ration for each inhabitant.
It emerged subsequently that the blockade was part of a systematic German effort to dull the alertness of the Jews, so as to facilitate their planned extermination.
One day, the Nazi commander announced his intention of carrying out a census in the ghetto. “ AIl inhabitants are to report outside, in lines of ten." Such were the precise instructions. The Council of Jews tried to persuade the Germans to conduct the count by means of home visits. MICHAEL (the son of ELIYAHU) BIRNBOIM was appointed to conduct the census, and assistants were placed at his disposal. The latter went from door to door, filling in detailed questionnaires that served for preparation of a well-ordered card index; this was presented to the Nazi commandant .
"lt's not good enough! declared the officer”. “The census must be conducted in the manner I laid down." He promised that no harm would befall the Jews as they reported for the census.
There was nothing for it but to obey. All of the ghettos inhabitants – men, women and children - lined up in the open air, standing there from early morning till midday. It was noon before the Nazi commandant put in an appearance. He counted those present, determining that the ghetto numbered 9,976 inhabitants (of whom 6.000 were local residents, 2.000 from Bialystok and 2.000 from the nearby townships - Sherschev, Hainowka, Bialovez and Malcz.
On completion of the count, we were dismissed to our homes, with no harm to any of us. Why, then, was the census held at all? In all probability, for the sole purpose of killings, rnassacres, deportations and wholesale annihilation; the accounts poured in from sundry quarters, near and far.
"You can't trust rumors”, said the more hopeful souls. “They're designed to break our spirits and rnake us down-hearted. Each passing day brings closer our deliverance, and the downfall of our tormentors!" Such hopeful sentiments were mistrusted by the more skeptical. Declining to wait for salvation, some young people in particular, resolved to flee the ghetto and try their luck in the nearby forests.
I was too young to consider flight, but others older than myself slipped out of the ghetto. Those who absconded hoped to join the partisan bands active in the nearby forests. A few did indeed enlist with the partisans, but others were rudely rejected, some even being handed over to the Germans. Of those young men who contrived to find a haven outside, some would return periodically to the ghetto to acquire food and other necessities; updating the inhabitants on external events, they offered the ghetto its sole connecting link with the outside world.
On January 27, 1943, at seven in the evening, two young townsmen now with the partisans - one was MORDECHAI-BER SEGAL, the son of SHLOMO SEGAL, walked into the Judenrat offices to demand money and boots. The head of the Judenrat, YITZCHAK JANOWICZ promised to meet their request while they were in conversation, however, the head of the local Gestapo entered. "Who are you?" he asked the two young men imperiously. As they stood there in a daze, he seized them and searched their clothing. His hand brushed the pistol one of them had concealed under his coat, where upon they both hurled themselves at him, flinging him to the floor before making a bolt, followed by several other chance visitors to the office.
The Gestapo chief scrambled to his feet and opened fire with his pistol, instantly killing the building's watchman, an elderly man from Bialystok, and severely injuring Judenrat members DAVID ROSOKHOVSKY and ZISHA SPEKTOR. He arrested Judenrat members YITZCHAK JANOWICZ, ZE'EV SCHREIBMAN, SHLOMO YUDEWICZ, ABRAHAM BRESKI, FEIVEL GOLDFEIN, LEBENHANDLER- LEVITZKY and MICHAL JANOWICZ, accusing them of contacts with the partisans. He insisted that they reveal the names of the two partisans.
"We don't know them," the Council members said, feigning innocence. "They forced their way in under the threat of arms." Furious, the Gestapo chief stalked out of the building. Within a short time, the ghetto was surrounded by a reinforced cordon. All Judenrat members were ordered to report at the Council offices the following morning at six, for sentencing. Yet again, terror filled the hearts of the ghetto's inhabitants, who remained sleepless all night. At the stroke of six the following morning, January 28, 1943, the Gestapo chief stalked into the offices of the Judenrat to notify its members that the residents of certain streets, 2.500 persons in all, were to prepare for departure within a few hours.
"They are being sent to work in Silesia," announced the Gestapo official. "They are to take all family members, including the elderly, babies and invalids. They are authorized to carry small packages, and are advised to take their money and jewelry, and all valuables." Thus commenced the evacuation of the Pruzany ghetto. It took four days to complete.