MEMOIRS OF SHERESHEV
By MOISHE KANTOROWITZ
The officer in charge positions himself in front of us, so that we can all see him. In a loud voice he yells “Judenrat” (Jewish committee), step forwards. My father whispers to me; now they will finish off the committee. Those of the committee that are with us step forwards. The officer asks; can any of you read a map? The doctor, a member of the committee, hesitantly takes a step forward. The officer takes out a map from his pouch, shows a point of the map to the doctor and says, here you are, seven kilometers down the road is a place called Antopol, from here on you can continue on your own. There you will find your women and children. With those words, the Germans turn to the boys holding their bicycles, mount them and without looking around, peddle back the way we came. For a moment we think that it is another Germans trick, but they disappear in the distance. We realize that we are free. The first impulse is to fall into each other's arms for joy that we are alive. That joy lasts for seconds, for immediately the realization sets in of the events of the last thirsty six hours and the dozens of unmarked graves we left behind. Exactly how many slain there were in those two days nobody knew, but we figured anywhere between seventy-five and a hundred.
What do we do now? We cannot go back. Some of us know this road and agree that it leads to Antopol. Antopol was more or less the same size as Shershev but with somewhat of a larger Jewish population. Maybe they are still in their homes undisturbed. If so, they will take us in and let us catch our breath. To be among Jews in a Jewish home for a moment. The group of crushed in spirit Jews started to drag themselves forward to look for their wives and children. We are afraid to say a loud word. We speak in whispers. Rumors and assumptions are being mixed with despair and tears. Why? What have we done to deserve it? Where are our families? What have the Germans done with them? With grieving and heavy hearts we drag our heavy feet. It is dark all around. There is not a light to be seen. Not a sign of a human presence.
The four of us, my father, his brother Reuven, the youngest Eli and I are walking together. Each burdened with his own dark thoughts. We make it finally to some houses. It is Antopol but in the street it is pitch dark. The first two men we stumble across are our own from Shershev. They got here a bit earlier and tell us to be very quiet for there is great apprehension and fear in shtetl, because only today, the Germans came in town collecting two hundred Jewish men. They marched them away. There are rumors that they were shot as soon as they were out of town. Nobody knows if those Germans are still here or left to do their gruesome work somewhere else. To remain in the street is not safe. Some of us go into a nearby yards. We find an open door to a barn where in a corner we spend the rest of the night. With dawn we are out of the barn into the street. We see others of us crawl out from all kinds of hiding places and holes going in the direction of the town center. We join the crowd. In the center among Jewish homes we see two synagogues close to each other as if in one yard. We enter and to our astonishment we see our Shershev women and children all over the yard. Everybody starts looking feverishly for his or her own. The women standing look with expectation and fear for their men. Our two days march and its consequences have reached them already. Nobody is in a hurry to tell the newly became widows or bereaved mother of their losses. So they stay there with waiting for their loved ones to appear.
Not finding my mother outside, I run into one of the synagogues where there were sitting one next to the other tightly packed women, children and old people. Some were sitting on their pitiful little bundles; others were sitting on the floor with little bundles on their laps. Among this group of unfortunates, I found my mother and children. We looked petrified at each other not daring to ask one another about the past two days. Two steps from my mother sat Sara-Brina MALCEK with her old mother Yachna. Sara-Brina’s husband Pesach with his three sons; Nachum, my friend Itzik and the youngest Moishe were all in the march. Her husband Pesach was one of the victims and at that moment the oldest son, Nachum was just telling his mother about it. She broke out with a loud cry, so did the oldest son as well as the youngest Moishe. The only one that did not was my friend Itzik. He just stood there looking stubbornly at a point on the floor without uttering a sound. Next to them sat the family ROTENBERG, the parents of my good friends Lazar and Litek. There were Yosef and Raya with their three daughters, Pola, Lisa and Mina. Next to them was Raya ROTENBERG’s parents Yoshua and Bluma PINSKY, both in their seventies. My mother’s face brightened for a second when she saw us, despite the hopeless situation in which we all were, but only for a second the reality was too much to bear. There was so much crying so much despair.
Raya ROTENBERG having heard from her son Litek how the Germans were shooting after her son Lazar, as he was escaping, started to lament and mourn him. We started to quiet her down, especially my mother who heard from me that he ran into the forest. She only got quieter after I had sworn on my life that I should only live as sure as he is alive. It is difficult to describe the lament of dozens upon dozens of woman who suddenly found out that their husbands or sons were put to death or the cries of hundreds of freshly created orphans. There was not time for gentility or niceties and when a woman with apprehension and fear asked about her husband, one did not hesitate to tell the truth, regardless of how heart breaking it looked at that moment when that woman used to break out with a horrible and unbearable cry. In our hopeless situation we did not even notice the absent of any local Jew or offer of any help. From the experience of the last two days we felt that the whole world had rejected us. The absence of local Jews soon became known, as the fresh grave of the two hundred local men was discovered not far from shtetl. They too, had their losses and their own mourning to do.
Before we had a chance to have a good look at each other or exchange a few words of compassion, members of the local police appeared. Those were of the same category of ruffians, untamed rowdies that made up the local police in Shershev. They ordered us to leave the town immediately and without delay. But where shall we go? The answer was simple: OUT!! You may go eastwards. Our family had barely time to get together. Besides the seven of us there were my grandparents Yaakov-Kopal and Chinka KANTOROWITZ with their son Eli and my father’s brother Reuven, his wife Chashka and their three children, Michla, Shalom and Shevach. We went together with my grandparents in their seventies who could barely drag their feet and joined the throng.
By chance my Aunt Chaska noticed something. Without saying a word she disappeared behind a house coming back within a couple of minutes with a loaf of bread under her coat. To our question as to where she got it, she answered that as we were passing by that lane she smelled freshly baked bread. Following her sense of smell, she came to a bakery where half begging and half by force she got the loaf of bread. This was the only food that my entire extended family had for the next two days. And thus two days after our cruel expulsion from home, from Shershev, we experienced another one. If we had during the first one a promise of work and a roof over our heads, now we did not have this much either.
So we left Antopol, the entire community of Shershev, minus those that we left behind in the ground during the two days march, unescorted by the local Jews, who were either hiding in their homes or sitting “Shiva” (the seven days of mourning) after two hundred of their men were murdered two days earlier. Yet we did have an escort. It consisted of the local police, the so-called Ukrainian police, as the Germans into what they called Ukraine included those parts. Those ruffians, still in civilian dress with their Soviet rifles and “Automats” (automatic light machine guns) rode along us on bicycles while others passed us by stopping at every farm house along the way warning the farmers not to give us any food not even a drink of water. Some of us on the verge of fainting from hunger or thirst tried to knock on a door only to be refused and driven away. Those farmsteads were a couple hundred meters apart and each had its own well. Those wells never ran out of water and what grieved us in our situation was the fact that they refused us even a drink of it.
To look at the multitude of homeless and forsaken could break anybody’s hearts. I tried hard not to think of how my parents must be feeling. Our family walked or dragged itself along. Some passed us and some fell behind. We were just along the family PINSKY and ROTENBERG. We looked at each other and Bluma PINSKY broke out in a heart-rending lament. My mother walking near me whispered: It hurts me to see her cry like this, they in their age (in the mid seventies) leaving behind such riches (in real estate and land, unquestionably the richest in town). To have to find themselves homeless wandering over desolated forsaken roads without a bite to eat or a place to put their heads down. I don’t know if out of sympathy with them or our own hopeless situation, my mother cried with her. It broke my heart, but what could I say or comfort my mother with hen I felt so helpless myself.
Some ten - twelve kilometers past Antopol our police escort turned back. The farmers along the road began to show us more sympathy, permitting us to fetch water from their wells. I even saw a couple cases where a farmer came out on his porch cutting up a loaf of bread he handed the pieces to the children. As the day progressed, so did the hunger and some parents began to accompany their children in begging for a piece of bread. I looked with pain, as my uncle Reuven went with his son Shalom, not quite twelve years old yet, to a farmer’s house. When the door opened, the farmer’s wife came out on the porch holding a loaf of bread and a knife. She started cutting up the bread and distributing it to the surrounding mob of children. My cousin Shalom, not being an aggressive child was pushed aside by other boys. My uncle standing from a distance pointing at his son said, “Please give him a piece of bread.” Those words were not easy for my uncle to say, for I noticed a tear rolling down his cheeks. I thought to myself, how could it be, my uncle Reuven. Reuven KANTOROWITZ, for sure the richest man in negotiables and cash in Shershev, stands now begging for a piece of bread?
Our progress on the road was a slow one. We covered about fifteen kilometers when the sun began to set. We are in the middle of a road that runs between fields. We cannot go back and do not know what is expecting us ahead. Meantime the night is falling. An entire destitute community was under the open sky with nobody to turn to. We have no choice. We got down the embankment along the road. Some sit, others lie down. Maybe some dozed off for a moment. Most did not shut their eyes; still there was not conversation. Everybody is engrossed in his or her own dark thoughts. Now and then a German vehicle used to pass by. They did not stop. Just slowed down to look at the unusual scene that played out before them. With break of day we were on our feet and dragging on. Those that knew the road say that we are going towards Drohyczyn-Polesky, which we reached that afternoon. Drohychyn was so far untouched by the Germans although the Jewish population of some neighboring shtetls has completely been slaughtered since the German attack on the Soviet Union two months earlier like the shtetls of Chomsk and Motele. Others like the small shtetls of Ivanovka where all the males were slaughtered on July 6, 1941 or the town of Pinsk where 8000 males were slaughtered on August 4, 1941. There were rumors that the orthodox priest intervened to the Germans on behalf of the Jews. How much substance there was to it, I cannot say.
The shtetl Drohychyn was not much bigger than Shershev but the Jewish population was almost twice the size. We suddenly found ourselves among Jews who despite their own concerns and fears responded very warmly. They saw to it that each family got some bread and before nightfall, provided each family with some accommodation with the local families. It grieves me that I forgot the name of the family that we were assigned to, but it has been almost sixty years and so much has happened since then. They certainly deserve to be mentioned. I do not even remember the name of the street. They did not just empty a room or two for us, as many have done, they just took us in with them vacating beds and bedding us making us feel as if we were family. They were a family of four, a husband and wife, with a daughter of about thirteen, and the wife’s sister. The house was although not new, big with a large garden in the back. The garden had all kinds of vegetables; the potato bed was over an acre in size. Wanting to make myself useful, I volunteered to dig potatoes for them but they would not hear of it. They finally agreed to let me dig only for our needs, pointing out where the good potatoes grow.
A couple days later a few Shershev families moved on the quiet to Antopol from there we have just been driven out. They had some family there. Meantime the Drohyczyn committee started looking for a place to settle the Shershev families. Eighteen kilometers north of Drohychyn was a shtetl Chomsk. A month before our expulsion from Shershev, it was said that it took place on the night of Av, August 3,1941, the Einzatz Gruppen (Special duty troops of the SS) slaughtered the entire Jewish population. The local Christian population collaborated with the Nazis, knowing that they will inherit the Jewish possessions. They searched and made sure that not a single Jew remains alive to claim anything. After the slaughter they plundered everything the Jews left behind. Now they needed the Jewish skilled tradesmen and artisans to make for them clothes and shoes or to make over the plundered Jewish clothes that did not fit properly. Being almost exclusively farmers, they needed blacksmiths, carpenters and others. They agreed to let in between eighty and a hundred Jewish families from Shershev.
Thirty kilometers east of Drohychyn was a shtetl Janow-Polesky where a few Shershev families wandered away. Another small shtetl or village of several dozen Jewish farmers families was situated between Drohychyn and Janow by the name of Ivanevke. To supplement their income the Jewish families used to keep vacationers in summer that used to come from Pinsk. A dozen or so Shershev families found temporary shelter there. The rest of us remained for the time being in Drohychyn. We, not wanting to overstay our welcome at our generous host, decided to go to Chomsk. Before going there with the children, my mother and I decided to take a look at the place. It was a nice warm September day when my mother and I left Drohychyn for Chomsk. The road was a second grade one and worse. It ran between fields and swamps, kept up by villagers from around that were forced by consecutive governments to dump gravel and stones to keep the road from sinking into the Pripec swamps. We walked with apprehension, fearing to encounter Germans and what’s more, local police who would recognize us as Jews much easier then the Germans. Having covered more or less half the way I asked my mother if she would like to sit down, to what my mother answered with the question, if I am tired. I said yes, which was a blatant life. But I was worried that my mother might be tired and this was the only way I could make her sit down. We sat down on the embankment of the road. After a short time my mother said to me; I am grateful to G-d that my legs can still carry me, you an eighteen-year young man is already tired and I could still go on. I too was grateful to G-d that my mother could go on, but said nothing. We did not sit long. At about five in the afternoon, we got to Chomsk.
Like most eastern European shtetls in those days, Chomsk’s outskirts were inhabited by Christian farmers. We found ourselves in a Christian street. There were few people in the street, but those few Christians that we met gazed at us in a way that told us everything that we did and did not want to know. Already after passing the first half a dozen houses, I noticed that the few glances that came our way expressed less sympathy than one favors a stray dog. With fear and dread we continue. The Christian part of the street is a short one and we enter what was five weeks earlier the Jewish part. It is easy to tell by the lack of little gardens in front of the houses. The Jewish homes are closer to the road. But the most obvious sign are open doors and windows of the Jewish houses that served as warm homes for generations of Jews. The windows with their dark background like big holes from which their eyes were torn out and the light gone out. The doors big wide mouths that scream into the street to every passer by asking: Where are the Jews that lived within my walls for generations? The ones that kept me warm and illuminated, that rejoiced and grieved, laughed and cried? What have you done to them? Why? There is not a living soul in the street. Even the Christian neighbors that helped the Germans, with so much ardor, to do their gruesome work do not come in the Jewish houses. They had five weeks to take everything that was moveable and now there is nothing left to take.
We walk in a dead street among dead houses slowly and carefully as if not to awaken the dead. It looks like we are in the center of the shtetl, not quite like Shershev. It has not got a town square or market place. The few bigger houses must be the center. There are only three streets extending from the center. We take the middle one. It looks like a former Jewish street. We pass a couple houses and notice between the houses a man. He is from Shershev and got here two days earlier but is afraid to go into the street so he huddles between the houses. We ask him for Yosl and Brina POMPERANIETZ. My parents used to be good friends with them. Their haberdashery store was next door to ours. We have heard that they went to Chomsk. The man points to a few houses farter down. We find them and they are talking us into coming to Chomsk. They are two lonely people, have no children and would like to have friends close by. I look around and see a small house completely empty except for a small table that shakes so badly that even the plunderers would not take it. They are in Chomsk two days and eat potatoes from the garden in back of the house. We are invited to partake in the supper. We spend the evening in the dark speaking in subdued voices about our helpless situation. The bare wooden floor does not seem inviting so we sit up till late in the night.
In the morning after the same breakfast as the supper, that is a few potatoes; Yosl and Brina took us to see the resting place of the Jews of Chomsk. We continued along the same street which apparently must have been all Jewish, for except the couple houses after the theirs in which Shershev Jews have moved into in the last two or three days, the others cried out for loneliness. We came to the end of the street whose length was no more than half a kilometer from the beginning to end and came to where the farmer’s fields began. There, no more than fifty meters from the last house, in which only a few weeks ago lived a Jewish family, we see two mounds, one on either side of the road. Each mound was about five meters wide, the one n the right side was some thirty\thirty five meters long, the one on the left side between twelve and fourteen meters long and their height about one and a half meters. It was situated between the shtetl and the fields, in the middle of a lush green meadow. Despite the green grass around, there was not a single blade of grass on either of the mounds, as if the grass refused to grow on the mass graves of innocent victims as a protest to G-d and reminder for humanity for generations to come of their cruelty and barbarism.
Yosl and Brina POMERANIECTZ told us in halting sentences what took place on this spot five weeks ago. They heard it from the local non-Jewish population that so diligently helped the Germans in their gruesome work. I would like to repeat word for word that what I heard from them then and what was told to me by the local gentiles and the dozen Jewish young boys and girls that managed to save themselves from that slaughter. All this was confirmed to me during our three and a half month stay in Chomsk. It happened on the ninth of Av, August 3/1941, a day earlier or a day later, when the shtetl was awakened to sounds of shooting and screaming that came from all directions. The shtetl had a population of seventeen hundred Jews and half as many Christians. It had hardly been visited by any Germans in the month and a half since the start of the war as it was situated on a sidetrack in the middle of the Pripec marshes. Still there were circulating rumors about German atrocities against Jews, making the Chomsk Jews uneasy. The sudden appearance of many Germans in such a violent display manner put the local Jews in panic. Unfortunately, the panic was well founded. The shtetl was surrounded by a cordon of Germans at daybreak. Others entered the shtetl and began to gather the Jewish inhabitants. In the confusion and as a result of the shooting and screaming some Jews started to run. Those were shot while running. This increased the panic and some Jews began to hide.
The Germans with the very active help of the local Christian population began to conduct searches making sure that there is not a Jew left hidden. The entire Jewish population was then marched to the meadow where the mass graves were situated. All males, a total of four hundred and eighty were ordered to dig a ditch. When the ditch was finished, the Germans started lining up groups of women, children and old at the edge of the ditch. A machine gun that stood a couple dozen meters away used to mow them down. The bodies as a rule used to fall right into the ditch and the Germans used to line up another group to mow down. The killing took place in front of the entire community of Chomsk that was watching and waiting for their turn to be shot. While this was taking place, the men were kept busy throwing in the bodies that did not fall inside the ditch and laying them down evenly over the entire ditch. If the few souls hidden thought that with night the horrible action would stop, they were mistaken. The Germans continued with their hideous tasks all through the night till the next midday, when they murdered the last woman and children of Chomsk as well as the last hidden ones they and their helpers could find.
Satisfied that there are no more Jews in Chomsk, and the Nazis were unaware of it so, in the dark of the night, a dozen young boys and girls managed to sneak through the German cordon. The Germans ordered the four hundred and eighty men to cover up not a mass grave but a high heap of humanity consisting of innocent Jewish women, children and old people. When the men had finished covering their families and loved ones with that blood soaked earth, they were ordered to dig another ditch across the road. When the ditch was finished they too, the entire four hundred and eighty of them were shot in the same manner as their families. They were covered by the gentile population.
The dozen boys and girls that managed to save themselves from that slaughter did not dare to come back to Chomsk. They returned only after we, the Jews of Shershev, came there. Even then they tried as much as possible not to be seen by local Christians who ere not interested in having witnesses to their cooperation with the Nazis in the slaughter of the local Jews. Our yesterday entry to Chomsk, the walk through the Jewish part of the street, the long till after midnight gloomy and depressing conversation with Yosl and Brina Pomeranietz plus the few hours on the bare floor with sinister thoughts in our head and now the sight of the two gigantic mass graves was too much for my mother and she broke out in a heart rendering lament. I must admit that looking at those two mass graves I tried to imagine what it must have looked like, but in no way could. My mind could not grasp the enormity of it all and it defied comprehension. In that gloomy and depressed mood we left Chomsk. We hardly exchanged a few words on the way back. The picture of a dead shtetl and above all the two mass graves pressed hard on our mind. Coming back we shared our experience with my father and sister Sheva. If the younger ones, my brother Leibl, sisters Sonia and Liba, understood all of it, I do not know. I know that they knew fear; I saw it in their eyes. A decision had to be made and my parents decided on Chomsk.
A couple days later, after bidding farewell to our gracious hosts, we left Drohyczyn on foot for Chomsk. We walked into a former Jewish house on the same street where most of us from Shershev were, that is the street at which end were the mass graves. As we were one of the last families from Shershev w had to settle for one of the last houses on the street and the closet to the graves. One more family moved in after us. It was the family of Hertzka KAMINKER (nick named Der Minister). The house we went into was small, two rooms and a kitchen, completely empty of everything. The local Gentiles left it empty. Fortunately the door and windows were left intact. The little barn in the yard had some hay and firewood the owner prepared for over the winter. There was a garden behind the barn with some potatoes still in the ground. Bringing in some hay and spreading it along one wall in one room we converted the room into a sleeping room.
The next morning I started walking over the unoccupied empty Jewish houses coming home with two old tin cans, a couple twisted spoons and a knife with half the handle gone. The larger can was used as a pail with which I used to go a couple of times a day to the well for water and the smaller one my mother used as a pot for boiling potatoes three times a day. A day or two later I found an enamel bowl that had more rust on it than enamel which we used to wash in, although we had no soap. My mother’s foresight to put on extra underwear before leaving home and clothing proved to be a blessing. We could put on another set while my mother and sister Sheva tried to wash the dirty ones in water mixed with ashes. After such a wash it used to look a bit cleaner. We dug up all the potatoes in the garden and took it into the house. Eating only potatoes three times a day we knew that we would run out of it before spring.
When we left Drohyczyn for Chomsk, we left in Drohyczyn my father’s parents, that is my grandfather Yaakov-Kopel and grandmother Chinka KANTOROWICZ with their son, my uncle Eli. Also with us were my father’s brother, Reuven, with his wife Chashka and their three children, Michla, Shalom and Shevach. Several days after our settling in Chomsk, my uncle Reuven came to us to see if it is worthwhile for him and his family to come too. He, like us, came on foot as this was the only means of movement for Jew and this too was very risky. Like us, he slept on the floor with a bit of hay underneath. In the morning I took him to the two mass graves. Standing near him I watched his face wanting to see the impression it will make on him. For a moment he remained speechless and motionless, then I heard a barely audible murmur coming from his lips; “G-d in heaven, make them pay for it.”
With this picture before his eyes my uncle turned around to go back to Drohyczyn. He just stopped to say good-bye, at that moment he was not sure if they would come to Chomsk. That was the last time any one of us saw him. Apparently he decided to remain in Drohyczyn. About him and his family I will return later when I will come to events in ghetto Pruzany.
Under Soviet rule, the Bolshevics put up a brickyard works near Chomsk where there were several men employed. As there was no owner now, the local authority took it over. Being short of funds and unable to pay the workers, they turned to the Jews for free laborers. My turn used to come once a week. There in the middle of fields we used to help ourselves to the nearby potato fields and bake the potatoes in the fire. They were delicious. Another place where we, unemployable, older boys and young men used to work was a dairy where we used to churn a huge churner all day. The generous manager used to reward us for that days work with a liter of buttermilk. It used to be a real treat after a constant diet of unsalted potatoes, but we were not destined to enjoy this treat more than a couple of times. There were more aggressive boys than I who became permanent churners for such a highly paid job as a liter of butter milk a day.
Among the Jews of Shershev that came to Chomsk were a large proportion of tradesmen and artisans. They started to work at their trades and had it much easier. All a tailor or dressmaker needed was a needle and thread. Some procured a pair of scissors or even a press iron. True, those tools were in such condition that even the local plundered did not want it, but in a need and in professional hands, those tools served the purpose. The same was with blacksmiths, carpenters and other tradesmen. All the above worked for the local and the surrounding population, all of whom were farmers. They worked either in their living quarters or went to the farmers. In particular to those who had sewing machines plundered from the Chomsk Jewish tradesmen. As there was no money in circulation; the tradesmen were being paid in produce, like flour, potatoes cereals and sometimes a few eggs, cheese or even a piece of butter.
A week or ten days after our coming to Chomsk, my close friend, Lazar ROTENBERG came to his parents in Chomsk. His parents, a brother and sisters, as well as his grandparents, Joshua and Bluma PINSKY came to Chomsk a couple days before us. Lazar’s experience I would like to record in the next few lines. On the second days of our march as he was running from the Germans in the potato field, he felt a light blow, like a lash, to one thigh and then to his other. In the excitement of running for his life he took it for a lash from a twig or a potato plant. Still he had the presence of mind to trick the Germans three times by falling to the ground. Reaching the forest he continued to run over wet and swampy ground for a couple more hours. His shoes came more and more of a hindrance so he threw them away.
After spending the night in the forest he lived for the next three days off whatever he could find in the fields. Only on the fourth day did he venture to get close to a village to find out where he was. Having straight blond hair and blue eyes he was taken for a Soviet soldier still hiding out from the Germans. The local villagers who did not sympathize with the Bolshevics, never the less felt a kinship with the soldier and pointed out to him the safest road east. One villager pointed out a distant road, warned him not to take it for it leads to Kobryn where there were many Germans. That was exactly where Lazar turned knowing that Kobryn is eighty percent Jewish with over ten thousand Jews. Covering a few kilometers he noticed ahead a German patrol on a bridge. All those crossing the bridge had their papers checked except those that were dressed and looked as if they are from the vicinity. Waiting at a distance he saw a group of farmwomen getting closer with all kinds of sacks and bundles. Approaching one he offered to help her with her burden. His offer was eagerly accepted and the women knew not to ask too many questions. She took him for a Soviet soldier. All the German patrol saw was a bunch of farmwomen and a young farm hand carrying grain and vegetables home. They did not even stop to check him.
In Kobryn, Lazar went to the Jewish committee who sent him to a doctor. Fortunately the three places he was shot through were in the fleshy part of both his legs. Those were the lashes he felt running. Few days later he was informed that the Jews of Shershev are in Drohyczyn, from there he was directed to Chomsk. When he came to Chomsk, his wounds were not fully healed, but he could get around. Within a month he was his own self. One job I and others felt duty bound was to volunteer for, was to cover from time to time the partly dug up mass graves that the local gentiles used to uncover at night in order to search the decomposing bodies for valuables that might have been overlooked by the Germans during the mass killings. This should give the reader an idea of the kind of people or rather animals of pray we lived among.
In the later part of September, when the days became noticeably shorter and the evenings longer, not wanting to sit in total darkness, we used to burn kindling wood in the open door of the brick oven. The light of the burning wood chips was enough to see how to move about in the house. There was no need for much light in a house consisting of two rooms. We had nothing to read, besides the strained nerves would not permit us to sit down for more than a minute or two at a time. So we used to walk around in the house from window to window looking out into the dark street or yard for a suspicious shadow which would signal the arrival of German or local police.
About midnight we used to go to sleep on the hay covered floor. If one could call it sleep is questionable, lying there on the floor jumping up to every sound, every distant bark of a dog and running to the window to look for any motion that would betray the dreaded murderers. Before sunrise we were up knowing that the German “actions” (slaughter of Jews) used to start most of the time at this hour of the morning. In such an atmosphere of tension and fear we spent our days in Chomsk.
On Saturdays, some young boys and girls used to get together in one of the houses of survivors of Chomsk slaughter, listening to their stories of escape. At times we just used to talk and even tell jokes to which not only we from Shershev used to laugh but even the boys and girls of Chomsk. In those rare moments of laughter I used to look at those young people of Chomsk trying to understand how they are able to laugh after what they have seen and lost. I used to think that in their place I would not even want to listen to jokes, never mind the laughter. At that time I did not know the extent of human endurance, its recovery ability nor the strength of its spirit.
With fall the weather changed, from the rain the street and lanes became muddy. In such a day I and several others my age were told to move “Sforim” (religious books) from one former Jewish home into another. Both those houses were in a little lane that extended from the main street that in itself was not very impressive. Passing by the main street one in my group pointing to an ordinary house saying to me: Here lived the local druggist with his family, the local Christians intervened in his behalf during the slaughter. They live in the house afraid to go out.
I looked at the house. It did not look empty. It had curtains but neither did I see a sign of life in it from the outside. During the over three months we spent in Chomsk, none of us had ever seen a member of that family. Some told me they spoke to them. They perished with all the Shershev families on the second day of “Rosh Hashana” (Jewish New Year) September 13, 1942.
We walked through the muddy lane to the given house where we found a room half full, that is, from the floor heaped half way to the ceiling with “Sforim” (Jewish Prayer books). It pained me terribly to see it, knowing that their owners are all in the ground and their holy books which they treated with so much respect and gentleness, not letting them out of their hand without a kiss, are lying here desecrated by the Nazis and their collaborators.
Our task was to take the books to a nearby house. Upon opening that house we found it full of books. Literally every room was heaped with books from the floor to the ceiling. If there were among them Yiddish or Hebrew books we did not look. We were too depressed looking at the mute witnesses of a recently slaughtered Jewish community.
What hurt even more was the number of “Teffilin” (Phylacteries) that was scattered in the mud over the lane. The local gentiles tore off the “Rtzuot” (leather straps of the phylacteries) and broke open the teffilin looking for hidden valuables. The murderers with their blood dripping hands not content with murder alone had to desecrate our sacredness. To my mind came the part of the “Yom Kipper” prayer about the martyrdom of the ten sages, when Rabbi Yishmual lifting the head of Rabbi Shymhon cried out: How is the tongue, skilled in the words of G-d, brought low to lick the dust.” Dispirited and sad we finished our task and went to our families.
Not all Shershev families wanted to stay in Chomsk where the constant reminder of what happened to the local Jews stared them daily in the face and what at any time can happen to them. Some dragged themselves from shtetl to shtetl, wherever there were Jews to try to find a place for themselves. Some got to Pruzany. There was a rumor circulating that Pruzany is becoming a Jewish town.
My grandparents who were with their son Eli in Drohyczyn decided to go to Pruzany as they had there a son and a daughter with families. They found a farmer who drove them there. Why my uncle Reuven and family did not do the same will remain a mystery.
In the beginning of October my parents started talking about Pruzany. There was no other choice, as our potatoes would end in December that for us meant starvation. If the Jewish Pruzany should to be left in its place, at least my father had there his brother and sister, who before the war were comfortable. Still before we make such a move my parents decided that my father and I should go and take a look for ourselves.
A couple days later the two of us set out for Pruzany. Leaving behind in Chomsk my mother and children. The distance of the eighty odd kilometers led through forest and fields, a dirt road that used to turn muddy in rain. Even though we took off the yellow stars we still had to be on guard, not so much of Germans as off local police who could tell easier who is a Jew and who is not.
Before entering a village we used to ask farmers in the fields if there are police in the village. If the answer was positive we used to circle the village putting on extra kilometers. At dark we came to a village and went straight to the village elder, who personally led us to a farmer where we stayed over on hay spread on the kitchen floor. The farmer would not let us leave without breakfast of boiled potatoes washed down with milk. Before nightfall we reached Malch (Malecz), a small shtetl of seven hundred Jewish souls and half as many Christians. There lived my father’s two first cousins. They were the sons of my grandfather Yaakov-Kopel’s sister Lieba and her husband Berl NISELBAUM. The names of those two sons were: Yoshua and Zalman. Malch was a typical Poliesie shtetl with its small Jewish houses and muddy little street and alleys where Jews lived for many generations dreaming of going to “America” or the land of Israel.
We asked and got to my father’s cousin Joshua where we spent that night. That evening as we were sitting and talking about our situation, in comes the chief of the local police who is greeted warmly by my father’s cousin. Joshua introduces my father to the chief. It turns out that this chief was also the chief of police in Malch before the war when my father’s cousin Joshua was the “Soltis” (village elder) in Malch. The chief escaped the Bolsheviks into the western Nazi occupied Poland. Now with the Germans he came back to assume his old position. The chief spent the evening in conversation during which my father told him about the experience of the Jews of Shershev in the last couple of months. As expected for a chief of police under German rule, but still being friendly with a Jew, he did not make any comments, just kept on nodding his had lightly. When he left, Joshua said to my father: Actually he is not a bad sort.
The next morning we left for our destination Pruzany, a distance of twelve kilometers. About half way between Pruzany and Malch used to run a railway track that under the Germans became the dividing line, a kind of border between East Prussia and the German created Ukraine. There was no permanent border guard, only from time to time a German patrol used to pass along the tracks.
Before we would get to the track we had to pass a small village. As we walked along the village, I turn my head backward to see behind us some thirty forty meters, a German walking along with a farmer who is carrying in hand a basket. Without loosing time we slipped into the nearest farmers house. We were confronted by a middle age peasant woman and her daughter twenty-two years old. The older woman recognizing us as Jews, asked us with hostility in her voice as to what we came for. We naively told her that we came in to wait until the German passes by. While we were talking to her we were hoping that the German did not notice us and won’t come after us. The peasant woman started yelling and cursing us, screaming on top of her voice that we should get out of her house. To our defense came the farmer’s daughter who kept telling us we should stay and wait until the German will pass. Within seconds a heated quarrel developed between mother and daughter. It seemed that the daughter was communistically well indoctrinated using Soviet slogans and reasoning in our defense. I could see through the window the German and farmer passing by. We thanked the girl and walked out. We gave the two men headway and followed them some fifty meters behind. They crossed the track and turned left on a field path and we went straight ahead in the direction of Pruzany. Near Pruzany we noticed a large group of Jews returning to town from work. We jointed them and got into the ghetto without a problem.
In fact it was not yet a ghetto in Pruzany in the full sense of the word. Almost all the Jew remained in their homes, except those who lived on the main street “Pacewicza” and its continuation “Pocztowa” up to the narrow gage rail way station. The not many Christian homes that were among the Jewish ones were taken over by Jews. The Christians have taken over the many and bigger Jewish homes on the main street.
Jews from many places were being brought into Pruzany from places like Bialowieza and Gajnowka who were expelled from their homes and towns even before Shershev. Half of the Jews of Kamieniec-Litewski, Jews from small shtetl left their homes and places of birth voluntarily before being told to move. They were looking for security or safety in numbers. Places like Linovo-Oranczyce, the rail way station twelve kilometers from Pruzany, some families from Malech, and Selce, from villages like Suchopole Popielewo, Szubicze and others. To add to this multitude, five thousand Jews from Bialystok were in process of being shipped to Pruzany. The expulsion of the few Christian families and the huge influx, although involuntary of Jews, gave the impression that indeed Pruzany is being made into a Jewish town as the Germans claimed.
Entering Pruzany we went straight to my father’s sister Sheindl. There we found besides her and her husband Leibl, daughter Lisa and son Sioma, my grandparents Yaakov-Kopel and Chinka with their son Eli. They came from Drohyczyn a month earlier. To our surprise we found there my father’s brother Hershl who came with his wife Sheina from Kamieniec-Litewski. After spending at my aunt and uncle a couple of days, much talk, resting and listening, our relative advised us to come to Pruzany. Having made our decision we left Pruzany on a Friday afternoon. Because of the muddy road it took us over three hours to cover the distance of the twelve kilometers. Arriving in Malecz just before dark. My father had in Malech one more relative besides the two brothers NISELBAUM. His name was Tzalkah (the baker). I do not remember his second name or the relationship. This time we went there. He was indeed the local baker. A man of about sixty lived with his wife alone in the house. I do not even know if they had children. In any case they lived alone in the house.
That Friday night his wife gave each of us a piece of Challah (a twisted white bread eaten on the Sabbath. It was the first time that I tasted Challah in over two years, as it is baked with wheat flour that was not available in our parts during the Bolsheviks. Never mind the Germans. It turned out also to be the last time for the next four years. We went to bed early, we tired from the long walk, the older people after a days work. Apparently I slept well in a soft bed covered with a comforter, for when the first shot woke me it was just past five on the old clock on the wall. It seemed to me as if I just fell asleep. We jumped out of bed and dressed in seconds. It was still dark outside but out of the still darker room I could see two men running with rifles in the hand shooting at random into the street.
The last two months in Chomsk have conditioned us for such a moment. Not losing a second my father and I run to the door which opened with one kick, without slowing down crossed the street and somebody’s yard, over a fence and we found ourselves in an open meadow. Just now we started to run in earnest, away from Malch. It was dawn and I could make out a few more running in the meadow. A few minutes later it was possible to tell who those people some fifty meters ahead of us were. My father panting said to me; this is the rabbi, his son and the “Shamas” (beadle). Still further to our right I noticed a girl that used to be my sister’s classmate in gymnasium. Her name was Symah POMERANIEC.
Our only objective was to get away as fast and as far from the place from where all the shooting was coming and which is doomed to share its fate with Chomsk. Running I turned my head to see if we are being chased, I noticed several men behind the fence we just climbed, their rifles resting on the fence firing in our direction. As I was turning back my head in the direction we were running, I glanced at the girl Symah who at that moment seemed to have lost her speed momentum and fell to the ground. My sincere prayer became even more pleading if it was at all possible that the bullets aiming at us should miss their target. How far we ran or how long we could not tell, but in the confusion we lost sight of the others. When we finally stopped to catch our breath, Malch was a couple kilometers behind. We could still hear the shooting but not so continuously as before. In our imagination we could already see the Jews of Malch being driven to the slaughter. The only road left for us was Chomsk to my mother, sisters and brother. From a distance we could see the winding road that leads from Chomsk to Malch that we, a few days earlier, used. Making it to the road we took I in the direction Chomsk. After a couple of kilometers we encounter a tall farmer coming in our direction. When we came face to face with him he said in Yiddish, in a form of a question, Jews? We were taken a back, he noticed it and continued. I am a Jew too. I spent all my life in that nearby village. This morning Germans came to me and ordered me to leave everything behind and go to Malch. We told him what we saw this morning in Malch. But this only added to his confusion. Still he continued in the direction of Malch, not having where or to whom to turn. We could not understand that this Jew in his farmer’s attire and looks went on to Malch. How said it is that a Jew who lived a lifetime among Christians could not in a time of need to turn to one for help.
A little bit farther I noticed in the distance two Germans coming in our direction. Glancing at my father I saw that he was looking down at the road not to step into a deep puddle and did not notice yet the Germans. Few meters ahead to our right was a single homestead without a sign of life in the yard. I also notice d a well behind the house. Grabbing my father by the sleeve I pulled him off the road leading him behind the house at the same time telling him that I am very thirsty. From where we stood we could not see the road or the passing by Germans.
Not wanting unnecessarily to worry my father I lowered the pail slowly into the well, bringing it back even at a lesser speed. Putting the pail on the rim of the well, I drank very slowly. Even when I could not drink any more I still held my face in the pail pretending to drink. My father finally asked me, how much can I drink? I only stopped pretending to drink when I felt that the Germans had passed the house. After I talked to my father into taking a drink we emerged from behind the house onto the road. By then the Germans had not only passed the house, but were a nice distance away. I did not say anything to my father just nodded my head in their direction. My father said nothing, but I knew that he understood the reason of my act. We did not lose time that day just kept on plodding on the muddy road towards Chomsk. There were a few villages on the way. Fearing that there might be Germans in there rounding up the single Jewish families living in the area, we used to inquire before entering a village. If there were, we used to go around them.
Before dark, we entered the village “Minky” knowing that there are no Germans or local police, we went to the village elder, telling him that we left Malecz this morning as many Germans arrived, not mentioning the shooting. The local farmers had, so far, heard nothing of it. The elder said that a couple local farmers have left this morning for Malech and are due back any moment, we can wait and find out if something is going on there. Within half an hour, the farmers arrived. It seemed that they were ordered to leave Malecz immediately or were not even permitted to enter for they did not know much of what is going on there. All they said to us was: they are shooting yours, and ours but yours more. The reason why some of the Malecz local non-Jews people are being shot we understood. It was quite common in those days for the gentiles to start plundering the Jewish homes the moment Jews were being rounded up. The Germans, wanting to have the first choice, could just as easily shoot Christians. Apparently the couple farmers did not know or did not understand the reason for shooting Christians which upset them and spoiled the mooed of the villagers.
Where do we go in a dark and rainy October night? My father asked the elder if we could spend the night in the village. Here again he took us to a farmer where we spent the night on a hay-covered floor. We did not have any nightmares, as we could not sleep after the experience of the day; the escape from Malecz, the fear of being shot, the tension of every step. Behind us, Malecz is being massacred. The road to Pruzany is closed. We escaped for a moment with our lives, now trying to get to Chomsk. Death looms in every village where there are Germans or local police. And when we get to Chomsk, what then? For how long will Chomsk be left alone? Why?
Everybody was up before daylight. The farmer’s wife gave us boiled potatoes with some milk. The rain stopped overnight and the road began to dry up, but most of our walk took place across fields and forests, as we had to avoid the villages. About noon somewhere near a forest we stumbled on a single homestead. We entered the little house and asked for a piece of bread. The farmer’s wife took out from a cupboard a crust of dry bread and handed it to us. As she did it, I noticed her looking critically at it. Realizing it meant nothing for two men, she went over again to the cupboard, took out freshly baked bread slicing off another piece she gave it to us. We left the house, my father holding the two pieces of bread. He looked at it and handed me the bigger piece that happened to be the fresh one. Without thinking I gulped it down. It was after I finished my piece that I looked at my father who was struggling with the piece of dry crust. I hated myself for being so thoughtless. But it was too late. I had eaten it.
In mid afternoon we entered a little village six kilometers before Chomsk. In another hour and a half we will be in Chomsk. Not that we had any good news nor were we safe in Chomsk, but after the last two days o be with the rest of the family. No matter for how long, to know that we are still here and together would be good. Suddenly, from the few houses around appeared a few farmers’ children with mocking faces yelling at us. Hey Jews! Where are you going, to Chomsk? There are no more Jews in Chomsk. They are all slaughtered. The fact that Chomsk’s Jewish community has been murdered and if the Nazis have don it once they can do it again with the Jews of Shershev compounded by the fact that we were running from what we assumed to be a slaughter in Malecz, it made sense that it could have happened in Chomsk at the same time. Here our entire world collapsed. We remained numb unable even to think and the village children jump around us with shouts and laughter.
Dimly aware of our action, we get out of the village, if only to escape the laughing children. A couple hundred meters from the village we stopped, the two of us alone in the world. We have nobody to go to, nobody to come to. Why did we abandon them? To be with them in their final moments, to hold my little sisters hands at the edge of the ditch. Why did we have to go to Pruzany exactly now? Why did it have to happen? Why? G-d, in heaven why? In the distance, from the direction of the village is approaching a farmer’s horse and buggy. We don’t want to hide. We don’t want to talk to anybody. The horse and buggy pull up. In it sits a farmer of about sixty, dressed like all farmers but cleaner and better fitting. With a friendly face and encouraging smile he offers us a ride. We wonder if he is making fun of us. He has such a good face and is an older man, why would he do it?
We tell him what we have just heard from the village children and that we were on our way to my mother and children. He listens with a serious but critical expression on his face. When we finished he says to us; I am a village elder from not a far away village, if something would have happened in Chomsk I would have known, the children are most likely referring to the original slaughter. Do not be afraid. Get on the wagon and let us get closer to Chomsk. We had nothing to lose and got on. We started talking. He points at a sewing machine in his wagon and says: This was a Jewish machine; a friend of his plundered it from a Jewish home. He borrowed it from him as his wife needed to do some sewing. He expressed his sympathy with our plight. Thus listening to expression of compassion for the first time from Christian lips we entered Chomsk. The little lanes were empty and quiet in Chomsk that dusk. We thanked the good Christian not knowing that our paths will soon cross again. With great emotion and relief we greeted and hugged my mother and children.
The news about Malecz soon spread among the Jews of Shershev in Chomsk. But the desperate situation and hunger could not stop some from attempting to get to Pruzany. Within a week the events in Malecz became known to us. It turned out that the Germans came to Malecz to inform the local Jews that they are being transferred to Bereza-Kartuska, a shtetl some thirty kilometers away with a population of over three thousand Jews. True to Nazi tradition they came at an ungodly hour of the morning to assemble the local Jews in order to inform them of their intention, using the Nazi method of screaming and shooting in the air. The Malecz Jewish population knowing what the Nazis are capable of and what they have done to Jews in neighboring shtetls panicked. Some began to run for their lives like my father and I. The Germans seeing Jews running away, no matter the reason, began to shoot them down. The local police did not need encouragement and followed suit. It only stopped when the entire Jewish population was herded together in the center surrounded by the Germans. It was only then that they were informed that tomorrow Sunday, they are to move to Bereza-Kartuska. Their crude and terrifying arrival has taken a couple dozen lives.
The next day the Malecz Jews left their centuries old homes. They were permitted to take with them a horse drawn buggy full of belongings. The Germans were so sure that the Jews would obey their orders that they did not bother to attend the transfer. A few families took the chance and moved to Pruzany instead of Bereza-kartuska, among them my father’s two cousins Joshua and Zalman NISELBAUM with their families. After our recovery from the experience of Malecz, my parents came to the conclusion that even in Pruzany we will to a great extent depend on help from the family, for whatever money my father and I had with us was taken from us during the march. The Germans took from the women too. The little money my mother succeeded in hiding from the Germans was insignificant, even though it was in U.S. dollars. The jewelry and gold coins was buried in Shershev. To come and get it was out of the question if even it was still there and not found by the local gentiles. My parents came to the decision that we will remain in Chomsk for as long as the potatoes will last and then go to Pruzany.
Late fall is and always was a rainy season in our part of the world. That one was no exception. The mud in Chomsk Street or alley was harder to put with than in Shershev. There at least the streets were cobblestones and two of them had sidewalks. Chomsk had neither. To go to a neighbor was a problem was we had no proper footwear or attire. So we used to sit on the only piece of furniture we had, a broken bench or on the hay on the floor in the dimly lit room. The only light used to come from the burning kindling in the open door of the brick oven. In the semi darkness of the room we could not notice the soot floating around in the air but in the morning in daylight, we could see each other black and full with soot nostrils. We, the grown ups used to be able to wash it out ourselves, but the little brother and sisters needed help, the poor dear sweet children.
We lived in one of the last occupied houses in the street. After it were few more unoccupied Jewish homes. Behind them were the two mass graves. In the last occupied house lived Hertzka0 KAMINKER with his family. It was eerie and weird to live in the last inhabited house and that Hertzka used to come often to us “to be among living people” as he used to say. During the day we used to come in to each other’s house, simply to escape the depressing atmosphere in the house only to find it in somebody else’s. People in desperation wanted by force to bring salvation by all sorts of rumors and even interpreting each other’s dreams. The circulating rumors were not encouraging, some well founded and some just rumors, like: in some places the Germans killed only the men. That was interpreted that the women are being left alone and safe. In other places was the opposite. In our desperate situation we failed to see the reality at which we stared every day, the two mass graves in which men, women and children, young and old lay shoulder to shoulder, without regard or compassion for sex or age.
Everyday brought its full quota of rumors that used to upset us to the limits already agitated nerves. From all my friends at home all I had in Chomsk were the two brothers ROTENBERG, with whom I used to spend a fair amount of time. In those days my friend Lazar, the older of the two brothers, the one that escaped during our march, decided at the age of twenty to marry a girl from Chomsk. She was one of the dozen young people that managed to save themselves from the slaughter. To say that the wedding was a modest one would be greatly exaggerated. It took place without a rabbi, without kiddush (benediction over wine), just in the presence of two witnesses. The wedding was befitting the times.
With November came winds, cold and snow. Fortunately it was warm in the house. The previous owner provided himself ahead of time with wood for the winter, which he did not live to see. In a November day I had to cut wood in the schoolyard for the school that was now attended only by Christian children, as the Jewish children were lying in the mass graves. The logs we had to saw and split outside and bring it in by the armful inside. As I was coming in to the school with arms full of chunks of wood, I passed the corridor where the pupil’s coats were hanging. I froze to the floor. Only a Jew that grew up in our parts of the world would notice and understand it. There in front of me on rack after rack were hanging Jewish children’s coats. Let me explain. Jewish children outer garments were different from the non-Jewish farmer children ones. While the farmer coats were made of the homespun wool material, the Jewish ones were made from manufactured yard goods. There, in front of me, a Jewish child owned every single coat only a short time ago. Now the true owners of those coats were decomposing in the ground, while the children of those who so diligently helped the Nazis in their atrocious and savage act, are wearing their victims clothing. Looking at those Jewish children coats, I wanted to scream: “not only did you murder, you have also plundered.’ But what good is the cry, when they are the law, judge and enforcer?
The potatoes in the corner of the room were disappearing fast. My parents started talking about Pruzany in earnest. But Pruzany is at the end of an over eighty odd kilometer frozen and now snow covered road, on which every few kilometers is a village in which there might be local police, Germans or both. For a Jew to be caught by either of them spelled death. We cannot delay the trip either, for the moment we finish the last pot full of potatoes will also be our last meal. Exactly what day it was I do not know, I only know that it was in the second half of December when my mother boiled the last few potatoes dividing it among us. We put on all the clothing we had and with nothing to carry we left the house that sheltered us for three and a half months. After covering a couple kilometers we reached a forest. Leaving the snow covered road we entered the forest and proceeded at the edge along the road under the trees that protected us from the falling snow. From a distance we noticed an approaching horse and buggy. When it came closer we recognized the same farmer, the village elder who gave us a lift to Chomsk when we were running from Malecz, the same that expressed so much sympathy and compassion for us Jews. Seeing that friendly Christian we came out of the forest to greet him. He recognized us too. It led to a little conversation. As we were talking we noticed at a distance several Chomsk policemen on bicycles with rifles over their shoulders approaching in our direction. The village elder seeing them said as if to himself, what are they doing here, it is not even their territory? Turning to us he asked, "Did anybody see you leave Chomsk this morning"? We said we did not know. He nodded his head knowingly and said; go on you way but stay close to the forest, and may G-d be with you. Giving a pull the reins he started out towards the approaching policemen.
Behind the tree branches we watched to see what would happen. They met and a conversation ensued which lasted about ten minutes. We watched with relief as the policemen got on the bicycles and were going back to Chomsk. It is possible that the policemen were after something that the village elder could help them with, so they turned back. It is also possible that a Chomsk local could have seen us leave and reported to the local police who did not want to miss a chance to dispose of a Jewish family by shooting them. The truth of that coincident will never be known but I want to believe that the good Christian was sent to us at that moment as if from heaven.
At noon the weather changed. It cleared and turned frosty. The snow began to crackle under the feet. My two little sisters Sonia going on ten and Leiba not yet eight yet were struggling in the deep snow. So was my brother Leibl, barely eleven. Their little faces red from wind and cold, the eyes tearing from exposure to the hostile weather, holding on to my father’s and mother’s hands with their bare hands which did not give any sign of sensation. My father still had his worn by now winter coat. My mother was wrapped only in a shawl that was supposed to have protected her from that bitter wind and cold. That sight pained me terribly. Yet I was trying to imagine how my parents felt. Especially my mother who, since I can remember, was so protective of us. We were forced every hour or so to knock on a door of a homestead that were by the roadside every several hundred meters. Out of compassion those ordinary farmers used to let us in to warm up. Some used to give even a piece of bread for the children.
Coming into one house that same afternoon, we must have presented a very pathetic picture, for the farmer and his wife started literally begging my parents to leave with them the three children. That is my brother Leil (Liova), my sister Sara (Sonia), and my sister Leiba. They were quite outspoken and said openly to my parents in those words: “You know what will eventually happen to you. With you, the children stand no chance so leave them with us. We will look after them as if they were our own.” We, that is my parents, my older sister Sheva and I knew that those people are telling the truth. But how do you do such a thing as to leave your own children, you own flesh and blood with total strangers at such a young age. How out of the blue do you tell your own children; Dear children, from today on you are no more ours, you will never see u nor hear from us again. These total strangers will from now on be your guardians. They will feed you and look after you for better or for worse. Can one imagine the scene when children start begging, pleading with parents not to be left behind with total strangers? Children that are telling parents that they would rather die with them than live without them. On the other hand, who are those people? Is it a normal reaction of decent people to a heart-breaking scene that moves them for a moment? What will be their reaction an hour or two later when they will realize that they have extra three mouths to feed? Will they still feel the same way or will their altruism evaporate? On the other hand, in our hearts was still smoldering a spark of hope, no matter how vague or naïve, that we will be safer in Pruzany. Why then would the Germans go to the trouble of creating a Judenstadt Jewish town there?
As for me I could not have parted with my little brother and sisters. Looking at their tears swollen eyes for fear of having to remain I could not even dream of it. I guess my parents felt the same way. We thanked the good people and left. Before dark we got to a village and asked for the village elder. We asked him if he could put us up for the night. Apparently we must have been presenting a pathetic and sorry looking lot, for without a single question he took us to a farmer where we spent the night on the kitchen floor. The following day we again entered a couple farmers’ houses to warm up. In one we were again asked to leave the children behind. This time however, my parents did not hesitate to thank the good people, but gave a negative answer.
In the late afternoon we approached Malecz with great apprehension. There were no more Jews in Malecz. Not my father’s cousins Joshua and Zalman no Tzalka the baker. Nobody, not a single Jew to take you in. In fact, a Jew was not allowed to be found there. If even there were no Germans there was a local police force. To go around Malecz was out of the question. It was too late in the day. We would be stuck in open field deep in snow and perish for sure. Having no alternative we entered Malecz. What we feared most happened. As soon as we entered the street we came face to face with two local policemen. I can still see the smirks on their faces, as they were leading us to the police station. On their way most likely planning our execution. Bringing us into the station they led us right into the office of the chief. I can also see the surprise on the policemens' faces when they, leading us in, saw the chief get up from his seat, stretch out his hand to my father with the words: Mr. KANTOROWITZ, how are you? We both recognized the chief of police we met at my father’s cousin Joshua NISELBAUM on our way to Pruzany in October. The two policemen immediately changed their attitude towards us. Referring to us in their report and saying that we met these people (not Jews) in the street. My father told the chief the reason for our being in Malecz and asked if he can find us a place to spend the night. The chief said that we would have to break up in two groups, as we will be too many for one household. In between he mentioned that there is a man in Malecz whom we might now. My mother and children went one way and my father and I went to the one the chief said we might know. It was my former boss Pietrukiewicz, the manager of the Soviet warehouse I worked for a year. We spent the night there. Reminiscing with him until late at night about the good times in Shershev. In the morning we set out on our last leg to Pruzany. The crossing of the railway track, the so-called border, passes uneventfully. We meet no Germans on the border or on the way to Pruzany. Nothing had changed in Pruzany since my father and I left it two months ago. We entered via Seltzer Street, where already the first houses were occupied by Jews.
Despite all the circumstantial difficulties in existence, Pruzany at that time was a safe haven not only for the local Jews but also for the Jews of the nearby shtetls as well as for individual Jews who miraculously managed to save themselves from the slaughter of their respective shtetls and succeeded in getting to Pruzany. Credit for the order and organization has to be given to the leadership of the community that followed the tradition of previous generations of leaders who guided the community with justice, compassion and honesty. That experience and devotion came in handy to the “Judenratt” (Jewish committee) in dealing with the Nazis until the final hour.
A day after our arrival the committee assigned us accommodations. It consisted of two small rooms and a kitchen that we had to share with two women who lived in the same small house. The two women, a mother and a daughter who was a teacher by profession were brought to Pruzany from Bialystok. My father’s sister Shaindl and brother Joshua gave us a double bed, a couch, a table and a couple of chairs. We already had more than in Chomsk. The house belonged to a Christian who had to vacate it as it was within the perimeter of the ghetto area. The allotted bread per person was distributed under the supervision of the Judenrat (committee) at a minimal price. There were some destitute who could not afford to pay anything. They used to receive their brad for free. Thus did the committee made sure that every inhabitant of the ghetto was provided with a roof over the head and a piece of bread.
For some unknown reason, Pruzany enjoyed certain privileges that no other shtetl in our district did. For example, the Germans reintroduced the so-called market days. They used to take place every Monday and Thursday, when the farmers from the surrounding villages used to come to the city to sell their produce and buy other necessities. Those market days were a tradition older than many only could remember which the Bolsheviks abolished. Now it started again, but not like it used to be. In the olden days the farmers could bring to the market anything they wanted to sell, then go to the stores, many of them Jewish and buy whatever they needed. There were no more Jewish stores now. Still, some former storekeepers managed to hold on to some of their merchandise and could barter now with the farmers. But mot of the local Jews used to barter some of the house items or their clothing for food.
The farmers too had restrictions of sorts. They were permitted to bring in potatoes, cabbage, beets and carrots. No meat, butter, eggs, cheese and alike. Yet some of it found its way into the ghetto via the sack of potatoes. Those who had what to barter with had what to eat. All this was applicable to the local residents who so far, remained in their homes with their possessions. Here I want to point out that at that time the ghetto was as yet not fenced in and accessible in many ways. Thus keeping the food prices reasonable.
The late fall of 1941 was a tumultuous time in ghetto Pruzany. The Germans have just finished transporting five thousand Bialystok Jews in there. Unknown to the Germans, many on the quiet began to move back to Bialystok. The same happened with the Jews of Kamieniec-litewsky. Some of course remained, among them my uncle Hershl and his wife Sheina. My uncle Hershl’s reason for remaining were; the safety in numbers, his financial independence and the fact that Pruzany was incorporated in east Prussia, making us German citizens. Thus privileged Jews (how naïve). Not to mention the fact that his extended family was there like his parents, brothers and sister. All this does not mean that local Jews knew no hunger. Here I am speaking of these who always lived hand to mouth, like the many Jewish tradesmen, artisans and even petty merchandisers; the Jewish masses that had no savings or merchandise. However, as long as the ghetto remained open, Christians could get in and bring with them work in the form of raw material for the Jewish tradesmen. Jews could also get out to work in Christian homes.
Despite the tension and uncertainty life in the ghetto pulsated that late fall of 1941. There were still things and material to fulfill the German demands and when need be bribes. Everything was done to postpone the inevitable, hoping upon hope of a miracle. Among others the Germans had a constant demand for workers. A certain group used to work for the Gendarmerie or as we used to call them “Schuz-Polizei” where work meant hell on earth. From there the men used to come home beaten and bloodied and had to be replaced almost daily. Another place used to be the Ortscommendantur where soldiers from the eastern front used to come for a rest. There were other establishments where physical labour was needed. Many used to go out daily to clean the street of snow, mainly the main street Pacewicza that used to be a Jewish street. Now taken over by Germans and their collaborators.
For me, Pruzany was a change for the better. No more did I walk among the dead or walking dead like in Chomsk. Here I was among the living who dared to hope. In Pruzany I found two of my friends. One Kalman KALBKOIF, who lived with his parents and four sisters in one half of a former Christian house. In the other half lived a local Jewish couple by the name of Kotlar. The second friend Itzik Malecky too lived in the same little street called Rezky. He lived with his mother Breina, an older brother Nachum, a younger brother Moishe and a blind grandmother Yachna. Their father Pesach was shot on the march during our expulsion from Shershev. They too lived in a small former Christian house that consisted of a meter wide and three meter long hallway and one 3x3 meter room that served as a living, dining, bed room and kitchen. The hallway besides protecting the entrance to the one room, also served as a storage room. In it they kept a little turf that the committee used to distribute to the needy refugees.
The turf was dug up by a group that used to leave the ghetto early every morning. After a march of several kilometers to the peat hole, dig the turf and return to the ghetto after dark. The work, any kind of work done for the Germans and their Polish fawns, (as many Poles returned with the Germans to where they lived before the Bolsheviks) was done without any compensation. We were grateful if we got away without a beating. I must admit that despite my previous experience in Chomsk I still did not realize the importance of helping my father in providing the most elementary items for our survival. I use to leave it to my father, not wanting to assume the responsibility, taking it for granted that he will somehow manage.
Among the many regrets this is one for which I cannot forgive myself even today. How could I have been so unfeeling as not to understand, so blind as not to see. After all, I was going on nineteen. Going out to work through the ghetto gate I used to get a quarter of a kilo of bread that I greedily used to eat up. I never stopped to think that maybe I should bring it back home. Coming back from work, my mother always had for me a piece of bread and a bowl of soup. I never thought of asking my mother how she managed it, or if she had eaten. True, I never saw my little brother and sister emaciated, but I remember my mother who was always a weighty woman slowly, loosing weight since our expulsion from Shershev. Why didn’t I think of asking my mother or father if they had eaten, or are they going around hungry? These are part of the thoughts that haunt me and gnaw at me today. The feelings of regret and remorse that constantly gnaw at me, I will come back to later if time will be on my side.
The large influx of Jews into the ghetto had stopped but not completely. The difference was that now Jews themselves did not do it by the Germans but. Now only single individuals or small family size groups used to come in. It was no more than a trickle. Those were Jews that managed to save themselves from their respective shtetls that were slaughtered. Wandering through fields and forests at night, hiding during the day, managed to avoid Germans and local police and made it to Pruzany. Some Shershev families in Drohyczyn and Chomsk followed our example too and came to Pruzany in that winter 1941-42.
In one February cold day, the Gestapo, whose headquarter was in Biala-Podlask ordered the Judenrat (Jewish committee) to deliver five hundred Jews, preferably entire families for deportation east. The meaning of such a deportation was no more a secret. The committee was given three days time to deliver those people. Otherwise, the Germans will do it themselves. Everyone in the ghetto knew that if the Germans will do it themselves, many more lives would be lost. The committee was faced with a double task. One, if at all possible to annul the decree, the second, if not possible, who will it be? How do you tell someone, you and your family have to die?
The time began to pass in tension, apprehension and outright fear. The out-of-towners or refugees knew that if a list for delivering the five hundred souls will be made, it would not be local but contain outsiders and we the outsiders were doubly concerned. The committee tried hard to annul the decree. The intermediary was Zalmen SEGAL, a member of the community, as he was called in the ghetto as the foreign minister. Born in Pruzany, he spent many years in Danzig. There he learned his German language and learned to deal with them. A tall man with a military gait, he looked very much German, and apparently understood their approach, psychology and attitude towards Jews. Maybe because of it he could at times anticipate their next move or intentions. Of course, it was all temporary, for at the end, they had outwitted us all. At that moment, a couple hours before the deadline when the committee was supposed to have delivered five hundred Jews for the slaughter, it sounded like messianic times. When a messenger sent by Zalmen SEGAL from the Gestapo bureau where he was sitting that evening in difficult negotiations with the chief of the Gestapo, brought the news to the office of the committee. It consisted of three words “it is good”. Although the full text of the negotiations became known only the next morning, the contents of the three words spread within minutes over the ghetto, despite the late hour.
It is my opinion that the day was the happiest in the short life in the ghetto Pruzany. When does a pauper rejoice? When he finds the nickel he has just lost. The success of those negotiations could to a certain degree be accredited to two factors: the talent of the negotiator and the susceptibility of the Gestapo big wigs to bribery. Sometimes money used to suffice, sometime leather boots and coats, fur coats for their wives, liquor and sometimes all of those things. It all depended on the severity of the decree.
From the refugees’ point of view, the locals, that is the Jews of Pruzany proper, had it much better than they, the refugees. After all, the majority of the locals remained in their homes, with the furniture, bedding, clothes, dishes, cutlery and the like. They could always find something to barter, no matter how difficult it was to part with. The refugees on the other hand had nothing to sell; all their possessions were on their backs. Anything else was either given by relatives, by acquaintances, by a mercy full Jew or by the committee. To supplement their existence some tried different means like dabbling in anything they could find among the ghetto Jews and with Christians on market days.
A few Shershev Jews living now in Pruzany used to sneak in at night into Shershev and try to collect things that they gave to their Christian neighbors for safe keeping, or simply to get some food by begging. Those who did not dare go to Shershev, as it was life threatening, used to send messages via Shershev Christians to their Christian friends to come out to Pruzany on market days. Some used to ask their Christian confidants to dig up something in their previous yard or in their double caused walls and bring it out.
Of course in such cases there used to get involved a third partner, the Christian that was at that time living in the Jewish home. There were cases that something used to be gotten back. Even a third was better than none. But most of the time those attempts used to be futile. As soon as the Jews have left the shtetl, the local gentiles threw themselves at the Jewish possessions. When that was plundered, the searches started in the yards and ground. Hardly anything escaped detection and if something did, the new people that moved in the Jewish homes continued the search. There were cases when the so-called confidants used to share it with the new tenants, forgetting the true owner.
My father did succeed in recovering some leather that we hid in the double floor of our house. He did it with the help of the nurse’s husband, when the couple lived in our house before the war, at the time when half of our house was serving as a health clinic. After dividing it in three parts, there was not much left.
Some weeks later my father asked the same man to get several pairs of new shoes we had hidden in another place. The man came back claiming that there were none to be found. It is possible that hose shoes were found before the new people moved in, it is also possible that those people found it, or… In any case, this was our last attempt to recover anything hidden in our house or yard. And to think how handy those things would have come in.
Throughout the winter the trickle of Jewish refugees kept on coming into the ghetto. Among them were those Shershev families that were really starving. Having no other choice they were compelled at the risk of their lives to get to Pruzany where despite difficulties they were welcomed. The allotted bread and potato ration could not fill ones stomach and those who could not or were not able to supplement extra food, were at times forced to stretch out a hand that was never sent back empty.
Some refugees, most of them from Shershev, took awful chances in order not to become a burden on the committee or anyone else. There were some Shershev men that used to go on foot, a distance of one hundred kilometer to Drohyczyn. They carried in knapsacks, saccharine and exchanged it in Drohyczyn for tobacco. A couple of them even procured a horse and sled for this purpose. The Christians along the villages they used to pass soon found out and started to ambush them, taking away the merchandise horse and sled. Having no other alternative those men had to go on foot by a different route every time. In such a way some needy Shershev families survived the winter.
I, not being even a partial provider for our family, maybe because of my immaturity, maybe because life did not demand it of me until those difficult times, left it to my father. When I think of it, I realize that I don’t know what my father did all that time when I was at work out of the ghetto. Nor do I really know to what extent my uncles and aunts helped us; that they helped us this I know, especially my father’s sister Sheindl. it is quite possible that my father dabbled a bit in petty items. It is also possible that my mother did succeed in hiding some valuables from the Germans during our expulsion. To these questions, I will never have an answer.