My Story of the Shoa
When World War II began, the Soviet
Union occupied the town of Pruzhany, Poland, where Aida Brydbord (Chaja
Czerczewska) was born and raised. The Russians confiscated her father's small
grocery store, and the family subsisted on their savings and on the proceeds of
clandestine sales. Aida was the youngest, the only one of six children still
living at home in this religious family.
With the German occupation, the
Czerczewska family was living in Livono, a small town near Pruzhany. Two
sisters were living in Palestine, two in the U.S.; another, Esther, was married
and living with the family in Linovo. Aida became a teacher of Russian in
village school near Pruzhany. The Jews in Pruzhany were fairly isolated from
the growing cataclysm engulfing European Jewry. Radios were scarce, newspapers
reflected the political agenda of the occupying power, and although
Jewish refugees who passed through
the town told frightening stories of their experience with Nazism, they did not
influence the opinions of Pruzhany's traditional Jews. Aida remembers her
father describing his impression of the Germans as "the same Germans (as
in) the first World War."
During the first few days they
didn't mistreat us too badly. They called us to the marketplace and they
announced that the Jews are the biggest enemies of the people and that the
Gentile people should have nothing to do with us. Within a week or two they
said that all the Jews are supposed to wear round yellow circles on the front
left side and in the back of their clothes.
One day they called my father in. My
father was a very educated man. They asked him to be the head of the Judenrat
in Linovo.1 He didn't want to. He said that he is too
old and that he wouldn't be able to send another Jew to do whatever they'll
demand of him. After this, my parents decided to move to Pruzhany, and lived in
the ghetto there. In Pruzhany, Mr. Janowicz, who knew German very well, was
chosen to be the president of the Judenrat. He was a Zionist and a wealthy man.
Another man, Siegel, had lived in Danzig. He came to visit his parents in
Pruzhany and was stranded there when the war broke out. He was the spokesman to
the Germans because he knew German very well. Rabbi Mandelbaum was not an
official member of the Judenrat. He was very smart, very intelligent. His word
was taken into consideration when any decisions had to be made. Dr. Goldfein, a
woman doctor, was also on the Judenrat. She was responsible for medical
services. Her husband was also a member of the Judenrat.
The ghetto was formed three or four
weeks later. The Judenrat had to carry out German orders: to see that people
are going to work when they are called, to dig ditches, to go to a farm to dig
potatoes, to clean the streets. There was barbed wire all around the ghetto,
with a gate. We could go in or out only when a policeman was standing there
checking us. We were counted when we walked in or out. When we walked in we
were searched. There were two Jewish and one German policeman, or a Polish
policeman appointed by the Germans. I did all kinds of work, cleaning toilets,
washing floors, cooking for the Germans, milking cows, chopping wood, going to
the farmer to dig potatoes and working in a hospital. People my age tried to
work outside the ghetto because the farmer sometimes let you have something. We
tried to sneak in a potato or maybe a handful of greens or a little bit of
butter or something like that. We didn't get paid by the Judenrat because the
Judenrat didn't get paid by the Germans. The food in the ghetto was very poor
quality. There was a lot of sickness. TB was a constant killer.
I remember working in the hospital
in the ghetto. It was originally a Polish Gymnasium. The doctor in charge was
Dr. Goldfein. The head of the laboratory was Dr. Avram Treger. He taught me how
to use the microscope and to detect TB and other diseases. A lot of people died
of TB because conditions were very poor. You have to understand that in one
small room, seven or eight people lived. There weren't enough beds. Bathrooms
were outside. Sanitary conditions were absolutely terrible.
I had a niece. She was five or six
years old. Do you know what children played in that environment? They played
"Germans", Farbalten zach, hiding from the Germans. The Germans are
coming. Where shall we hide? That's what children played. The shul also moved
into the ghetto. Rabbi Mandelbaum was the head of the shul. People went to
daven. The religious Jews went every morning and every evening. Everybody tried
to observe Jewish holidays any way they could. The Germans gave us some food.
You had to stand in line to have your little bit of milk, some flour and
whatever you could try to get. We exchanged things with the natives through the
wires as long as the Germans weren't watching us. You gave them a blouse, or
you gave them a dress and they gave you some butter or a chicken.
There was a shohet (ritual
slaughterer) in the ghetto, so you could kill a chicken and have some meat. As
a matter of fact, once, in the middle of the night, they smuggled a cow into
the ghetto. My house was on the edge of the ghetto near the wire. They put
regular shoes on the cow to disguise its footprints. The shohet slaughtered the
cow in the middle of the night. We already had customers and everybody was
begging for a little bit of meat. By the next morning there was no sign that
the cow had been in the ghetto.
ghetto the situation changed slowly. People were brought to Pruzhany from all
the small villages, and even from bigger towns. More and more they asked the
Judenrat to send people to outside work, to Arbeitslager, from which they
didn't return. Sometimes people volunteered for the Arbeitslager because
conditions in the ghetto were so bad. They didn't have anywhere to sleep. They
had to sleep on the floor. I was living with my parents and my aunt and my
uncle, five in a tiny little room. We had two beds and a sofa and a little
stove. This room was our bedroom, our bathroom, our toilet, our eating room,
We heard the ghettos were being
liquidated. In the summer of '42 a group of people from ghetto Pruzhany went
out to work at Linovo, 12 kilometers away. They told us that the Jews of Linovo
were taken and killed. Among them were my sister Esther and her family. The
Germans pretended that they were taking everybody to work but they took them to
a special place and killed them. The Germans promised Mr. Siegal of our Judenrat
that our ghetto is very valuable to them because Pruzhany is on a strategic
line between Warsaw, Baranovichi, and Moscow. But it looked like our safety
wouldn't last too long.
In 1942, two partisans came into our
ghetto. One was a Jew, Josef Friedman; one was a Christian. Josef Friedman was
originally from Bereza Kartuska. They came to talk to a group of young people
in our ghetto who had already tried to organize a group. We didn't know about
the partisans but there were people who were willing to escape the ghetto. They
tried to bring in pieces of rifles, pieces of shells, bits of ammunition, and
slowly assemble them for a future date, to escape from the ghetto. News was
traveling very quickly that the Germans will finally liquidate the ghetto and
kill us. Those people came to talk to the group and they gave us advice and
they told us where to go in case we want to escape.
I heard about this from my
boyfriend. He told me: "Two partisans came and I want to go away. My
younger brother is also going.” My mother was crying so much about our leaving
that I felt I had to stay. The reaction of the Judenrat was terrible. They
said, "You will ruin us! The minute the Germans know that a group of
people went to the partisans, there will be absolute disaster!" My
boyfriend's brother, Tuvia, was fifteen years old. He went with the first seven
boys to the partisans. They took ammunition and food and they left.
My boyfriend, Paul, was coming to
visit me and he was talking to me. You know how young people are, secretive. No
one else knew anything about what was going on. We were whispering because
everybody lived in one room. Paul's friend asked me one night, "Why do you
let Paul get mixed up with all those people? Why are you in it? See to it that
he should withdraw from the group and not have anything to do with them."
There was a second group that formed to run away from the ghetto. It was boys
and a very few girls, mostly young people. But in this particular group there
were a few elderly men. We took them because they knew the surrounding area. We
didn't have any leader. Every night Paul was assembling ammunition in the
cellar. Because he and others smuggled it in, he was a valuable part of the
group. He told them, "I want my girlfriend to come with me."
We got married on our last day in
the ghetto, January 27, 1943. We had to register with the Judenrat so they
should know that we are a couple. We got a piece of paper. There was a rabbi
from a shtibel for Huppah-Kiddushin. There was no meal, no wine, nothing. Just
to shtell the Huppah and mazel tov and that's all. I had a small ring. We
didn't have any gold rings any more because in the ghetto the Germans took
every piece of gold away from us. Everybody had to give their gold away. How do
you make sure that people are honest and bringing all their gold? You make a
room dark. You put out a Sefer Torah and light two candles. The head of each
family has to go in to this room and swear that he or she gave away everything
that they had. Some religious men were there to see it. I think my father was
even there. The head of the family, the father or the mother, said, "Dos
vos ikh hob und dos gib ikh eikh aveck." (this is what I have and this is
what I give you). Everything was done spontaneously, without any reason or rationalization
if it's wrong or right. Things were done on impulse.
Within a week, we had to run away.
It was the last days of January 1943. The Germans surrounded the ghetto and
they said tomorrow everybody has to be ready with a little package. We are going
to the railroad station, 12 kilometers away. They said they would take us on
sleds and bring us to the railroad station. That's when our group decided to
escape. I went to the house where I lived with my parents. I told my parents I
didn't want to leave them because I am the young one and I could supply them
with food and everything. "I don't want to leave you!" My father said
to me, "You are running away. You are not coming with us on the sleds. You
will be the one who will survive and tell your sisters in the United States how
we suffered." I said, "But I want to go with you."
"No", he said, "You are not coming." Those were his last
words to me. I ran away from the house and I saw the Germans at the beginning
of the street coming to the house to pick them up. I ran away to another
street. Meanwhile, Paul sent out a man to look for me. He took me to the hiding
place where there was a bunker. We hid in this bunker for the day. At night we
went out; the streets were empty. My parents went on the transport and they
were taken to Auschwitz. They perished like everybody else.
My husband Paul and I, and the group
of twelve people ran to the forest. At first we didn't make contact with
anybody. The first group that left was supposed to be in touch with us. If they
heard that something happened in the ghetto, they were supposed to be on the
road to meet us. A day went by and nobody met us. We didn't know what to do. We
sat under the trees and we asked ourselves, "What shall we do? Which way
should we turn? We don't know where to go." Then, most of the group left
us. Paul and I remained, and another girl and boy remained. The girl from the
other couple said to me, "I had a maid. She worked in our house a long
time. I know where she lives. I'll go there." But she never reached that
place because the Germans caught her. The rest of the group came back at night
and they said, "Oh, we didn't leave you. We just went to look for a place
where we can settle." They were jealous that we were couples. The next day
we met more people from the ghetto, and the next night more people came and we
were around sixty or seventy people. We decided to divide ourselves into
smaller groups but not to separate too far from each other.
We lived like this for a few days.
But we were hungry. We had nothing to eat. We didn't take any utensils with us.
We found a little container in the woods for warming up a little bit of snow to
get water. The older people knew the surrounding areas. They said, "We
will go out to the village and we'll bring some food." Six or seven men
took the four or five rifles, and they went to the village. Morning came and
they returned with a couple of sleds of food. We were very happy. The people
who went to bring the food went to rest and the people who stayed behind
started to unload the food, and we heard shooting from all over. Like animals
we started to run, not knowing what happened but knowing that we were in
danger. I was running; I didn't know where Paul was, he didn't know where I
was. As I was running, I met him. As we ran we grabbed some bread. I said,
"If I have to die, let me not be hungry, because my stomach is so
empty." We ran all day long. The Germans were after us, shooting
constantly. By night, everything quieted down and like animals we started to
crawl out of the hiding places, wherever we were. We lost twelve people,
including my husband's older brother, Avrum. He was then twenty-one.
We still didn't meet any partisans.
The partisans didn't know anything about us. We were afraid the Germans would
return the next day. Now we divided up into small groups and each went in a
different direction. We took what food we had because we knew that we cannot
depend on anybody. We were afraid to show our faces in any village. We walked
all night and we came to a place that was just swamps and woods and settled
down there for the night. In the morning, we saw that we were not near any
villages, so we decided to stay there. We started to dig holes to live in. You
dig a hole and you cut tree branches and you camouflage the hole with leaves.
It was winter; it was February and we didn't have any shoes. I wrapped my feet
with shmates. Whatever food we had with us we ate but after a couple of days we
were hungry. I don't have to tell you what the sanitary conditions were. We
were full of lice. They were eating us alive. Our bodies were bloody from
One day we saw, from afar, something
like a mountain. That's the way the peasants protected their food for the
winter. They didn't have any cellars, no refrigeration. The climate is cold, so
they piled up potatoes and carrots and beets and covered them with straw and
with dirt and used the food as they needed it. At night we went over there, dug
up the potatoes, covered it up again and came back to our little ziemlanka. We
found a pail and we were cooking the potatoes. We had no salt; we just washed
one off a little bit in the snow and we cooked it. One potato was shared by the
whole group, two women and ten men. The peels were eaten, everything. Nothing was
thrown away. Everything was full of sand. You just ate the potatoes without
salt, bread, nothing with it. Everybody was having heartburn constantly.
We lived like this for a couple of
weeks, always cold and hungry. We saw light from afar but we were afraid to get
closer. One day one of our fellows looked around the surrounding area, came
back and said: "There is only one house in the vicinity. Maybe we should
take a chance and go in and talk to them. First of all we want some kind of
news of what's going on in the world. Also, we can get something to eat."
This is what happened. Two of our fellows went out. They made up a story that
they got lost but the woman said to them: "We know who you are. You are
not lost. We know that a group from the Pruzhany ghetto ran away and they are
hiding some place near here. I don't care. What do you want?" They told
her that they were hungry. The man told them, "I'll give you something to
eat but you have to be very careful. I cannot show you the way out of here
because the Germans are coming here constantly."
From this day on, this Russian
peasant was our contact. To us he was a lifesaver. He provided food for us. He
gave us all the news. He didn't take any money from us; we didn't have any. I
remember I gave him my coat. It was a maroon coat with a black collar. I paid
him for the bread with it. Whatever article of value somebody had they gave to
him for bread. We lived like that all winter. Spring started to come. The sun
was out. A partisan never takes off all his clothes, only one piece at a time,
which you smoke out over the fire till all those insects are dead and then you
put it back on. You couldn't dig a hole by the water and wash yourself. We
smelled terribly. At night we never all slept at once. Two or three people were
always on watch, to know and see what's going on. One night the watchman
alarmed everybody. What was it? Partisans, the real partisans! Russians,
organized partisans, were walking in our direction. It was a group of about
four or five people. One of them was Paul's younger brother, Tuvia. They got
news that a group of people ran away from Pruzhany ghetto and is hiding. Tuvia
made sure that his group will go through the woods looking for us. He didn't
know exactly who it would be, but he knew that a group of Pruzhaner Jews are in
the woods. Tuvia's name was now Anatole, a Russian name. He wore a uniform, and
with a machine gun he was going on a mission. He said he'd be back this way.
That's how it happened. On their way back, they took us to the partisan Otrad.
It was the Kirowsky Otrad. Our
commander was Juzef Samulik. The group was composed of about 500 people:
non-Jews, Jews, runaways from the army, officers and soldiers. Russian
soldiers. They were mostly men, but some women too. All the "houses"
were ziemlankas underground. As long as it was quiet, the Germans didn't attack
us; we lived like this in a little "town". We went to villages and
took food. If they betrayed us, the next day the whole village was on fire. In
this particular Otrad there were 30 Jews. We were treated nicely but with
sarcasm. "A Jew is not a fighter." The Russians called us
"Abrashas". "Abrasha" means a Jew, from the name Abraham.
But the truth is the Jews were very loyal and brave fighters in the partisans.
I had a gun and I had a rifle. I
knew how to take them apart and put them together. I was cooking for the group
that was going out on military missions. Another group was going out to bring
food. Another group was sewing and repairing the uniforms. If we stayed long
enough in one place, we gathered stones and built a little house with an oven,
heated up the stones, threw water on them, like a shvitz bath. We wore pants
and boots. Boots were the most important. You got your boots where you got your
food, in the villages. We went for what we called a bombioshka. You
"bummed" whatever you could. One night I went out with a group of
other partisans. I climbed up to an attic of a house, probably owned by a rich
man. I threw down boots and overcoats and fur coats from the attic for the
other people to take. That's when everybody got dressed so nicely in boots and
We had a radio for transmtting and
we had a printing press where we printed newsflashes. We had a Jewish doctor,
Dr. Smolinsky, who also ran away from the ghetto. One day a group of five men
and I went to dynamite a bridge. As soon as we started out the Germans began to
shoot at us. We hid in the woods but the mission wasn't a loss. The bridge was
destroyed, and they couldn't find us even though the dogs were after us,
because once you come to water they lose your track.
After this incident, Dr. Smolinsky
said to me: "I need a nurse to help me. You will be my assistant instead
of going on this kind of mission." After that I was working in the
dispensary. I rode a horse to check if the dispensary was in a secure hiding
place. This dispensary was for the very badly wounded. Nobody in the partisans
was sick with ordinary illness. The doctor amputated legs and arms with an
ordinary saw. In the middle of the night, I would go there to look at how they
were, to cook something for them, change their dressings, make them
comfortable. Then I would come back to the camp and talk over the problems with
the doctor. He would give me the medications that we got through our
connections with Moscow. The Communists trusted the Jewish partisans. When
airplanes flew in from Moscow with parachute drops of medication or very
important news, Jewish partisans went to pick it up.
There was an epidemic of typhus once
in the partisan camp and, as soon as I got everybody well, I got sick. But
nobody died from illness, in spite of the conditions. A few wounded died. We
had a cemetery. We had even a clubhouse. After the missions were done, we went
to the clubhouse; we read, the Russian garmoshka was played, and we danced.
We Jews knew when the Jewish
holidays were, but we didn't have any means of observing them. We knew when
Pesah was. Nobody ate bread on Pesah. We knew that we had to be very careful
with the Russians. There were partisans who were killed because they were
accused of being spies. It was very cruel; they were shot. In our group, every
Jewish partisan was well treated, respected because we never said
"no" to a mission, no matter how big, how small, how dangerous. We
were always saved for the most dangerous missions. For sleeping on the guard
post, the punishment was death. That was the law of the camp. Because you were
asleep, the whole camp could be killed. One day, a young Jewish boy either fell
asleep or they told him that he was asleep. We started to beg them, "So
few of us are alive. He's just a young boy. Nothing happened to the Otrad.
Please let him live!" And they did.
Once my husband was sent out on a
big mission. In the back of someone's mind was the hope that he wouldn't
return. One of the officers was making a pass at me. A guy with whom I was
working came to me and said, "Tonight, don't sleep in your regular place.
Go to where all the girls are sleeping." I didn't, so he got mad at me and
he sent me to the Kirowsky Family Otrad, where they had a special place for
families with children. I was working there as a nurse with the doctor's
permission. There were sick children, sick people. The Russians were afraid to
harm me because I had a husband and my brother-in-law, Tuvia, was a very
influential person in the Otrad. He got a lot of medals. The Germans offered a
big reward for him, dead or alive. They knew who he was because he was coming
in the middle of the day, shooting at them in public places, like at the
airport, where Germans were sitting at their posts. He killed them without any
lived like this till the end of the summer of '44. The day when we were
liberated there was a very big fight. I was alone with our part of the Otrad,
without my husband or brother-in-law. A lot of boys went out on a mission and
they didn't return. News came to me that Paul was killed. His brother came back
from a mission. Immediately, he asked me, "Where is Feivel (Paul)?" I
said, "Paul is not here. They told us that he probably got killed."
But soon he returned with the group. After the liberation in 1945 our child was
born, in Pruzhany. Then things got very hot for us. My brother-in-law Tuvia got
arrested by the Russians and was sentenced to death. He was accused as a spy,
even though he was so highly decorated. His parents were rich; this was
"evidence". They found a Polish book in his possession. This was
"evidence". It was enough to arrest him, and he got a death sentence.
By the time we found out about him his sentence was changed to a life term in
Siberia. When he walked out of the courthouse, an officer was sitting at the
desk and asked him, "What is your last wish?" Tuvia said, "I
don't really have any last wishes but one thing I would like. I have very
valuable medals: Stalin's medal and the Red Cross medal. I would like them sent
to my hometown". The officer said, "I don't see that you are such a
spy, such an enemy of our country. Sign this paper." Instead of death, he
sent him to Siberia. When we heard about it, we started to search for him. We
hired a lawyer from Moscow and he said to us, "Are you crazy? Your brother
was sentenced for spying; he is in Siberia. Your sister from the United States
sent you papers to come to the United States. With this combination of events,
you'll be on the list for Siberia too." Then he told us that we had better
do something for ourselves. We forged documents and a friend of ours gave us
his truck to take us to the railroad station to get out of Russia.
The Brydbord family reached Lodz,
Poland, and then smuggled across the border to Berlin. After a series of
mishaps, including the arrest of their baby daughter, they finally reached the
American Zone of occupation, where they had to go through two more marriage
ceremonies in order to obtain the proper documents for immigration to the
United States. Paul's brother was eventually liberated from Siberia and
immigrated to Israel.