By Shlomo Helman


I was born in the year 1920 in Chomsk; a small town without infrastructure; without a train, without electricity, without water and 20 kilometers from the nearest train station. Our house was in the village called Zabar, about 5 kilometers from Chomsk.   Our parents were Schmuel and Tzipora Helman, who had four sons and two daughters. The oldest was Chaim, the second Yaacov, later came Zahava (Zlatke), Itzchak, and me Shlomo, and lastly the small Muche Rochel. I was 8 or 9 years old when my father, who was in charge of land sales and in the fish trade, died from tuberculosis. Mom became the leader of the family and worked hard to maintain it. Eventually, the family began to split up. Yaacov was sent to Argentina to prepare for our emigration. Chaim, the oldest, emigrated to Israel bearing a certificate as a member of the "Hechalutz" movement. Before him, my sister Zahava (Zlatke) emigrated. We later had another misfortune; my younger sister, Mushe Rochel died.  My brother Itzchak was mobilized in Polish army. He studied in a "Yeshiva" and for this reason he did not show up, and was considered a deserter. Finally, he emigrated to Israel. I was left alone with mom in the house, but she got sick after her great effort and the doctors prohibited her from making additional efforts.


Through a "shadchen" (matchmaker) she met a rich widower, friend of the family whose name was Asher BOKSHTEIN, and whose nickname was "Osher the butcher". He lived in Kartuz Bereza and they married. Mom's new husband had 6 children. Three of them (the son Simcha, and the daughters Sorke and Ester Reizel) were at home. Mom and her husband agreed that I would also live with them. I want to highlight that my mom and her family always had a relationship of fraternity and respect. When mom married, we left Chomsk, and here begins the chapter of my life in Kartuz Bereza.  I remember that we arrived in Kartuz Bereza before May 3 when a Polish patriotic party took place. This day, a military parade was in the streets headed by the firemen’s orchestra, the majority of whom were Jewish.  This, and the general aspect of the city made a very strong impression upon me. What impressed me a lot was the military camps of the town, the uniforms of the soldiers and especially those of the marines. On the lake near the city, there was a bridge. We called it, in Yiddish, "the second bridge". I remember that, in summer months, youths went to there, took a bath in the lake and rowed on "kayaks". There were fields nearby where we played soccer.


When I was thirteen years old, my mother and her husband decided I had to study carpentry. For the amount of 50 zlotes a month, Leibel, the carpenter trained me in this craft that was considered as an occupation in demand. Mom and her husband wanted me to know carpentry before my "aliya" (emigration) to Israel. They expressed it this way: "to have a craft is as having a Kingdom".  After one year as a carpenter's apprentice, I then worked on my own.


I remember that in those days, the jail was installed in the military camp that was known by the name, "Lager". There we saw movies such as "The Dibuk" and "The  Agreement" (Tkiat kaf). I also remember the pond of natural water that was in the center of the town (we called it "Pustvanik"). It served as water supply for the firemen, and in the cold days of winter, when the water froze, it became a place to ice skate. As the firemen were very astute, they demanded money for entrance to the pond.  When Nazis assumed power in Germany, signs of anti-Semitism began to be noticed in the town. They put up different posters. One of them is very engraved in my memory. It showed a big potato, cut in half. The potato symbolized Poland. A part of the potato that symbolized the Jews, was rotten and with mold, while the other half that symbolized Poles was pretty and complete. Waves of anti-Semitism ascended and then lowered, but in end worsened as time passed. I remember that they placed turkeys in front of Jewish businesses which was a sign to influence clients not to buy in those places.


After the agreement by Molotov - Ribentrop for the partition of Poland, Germany occupied one part of Poland and Russia occupied the other part. When Germany attacked Poland the Poles said that they would not give them one single  button but in the end they gave them all the clothes.


There was a blackout every night, and Jews feared that Christians would assault them and would steal from them. My neighbor Mordechai, the butcher's son, and I were on guard. The climate was depressing. Suddenly the under-major of the city arrived, and took us to place that we didn't know. On the road, we went together with another three or four groups of guards. We arrived in a place and were put in the jail. At the same time Poles were already willing to ride on their bicycles to an address in Brest.  They made us enter a big room that had a plate with many keys. Each key had a note of the cell to which it belonged. They told us that we should liberate the prisoners in those cells. We were astonished. We look around; we saw suits for prisoners and manacles. We went to see if there were policemen in the place. We discovered that they weren’t any. There were only prisoners. We entered the bakery of the jail and we found a lot of baked bread on the shelves. Also there were groceries, an abundance of sugar, flour and potatoes; everything of the best. From there we went to the infirmary, and we saw people left on the floor, some wounded, and other sick persons. The wounded had been badly beaten by the policemen.  Then we entered the policemen’s quarters. Their clothes were in perfect order. There were clothes and special boots for policemen. In their hurry to escape they left everything and they went to an address in Brest.


In another part I found three army officers typewriting. We went to the storeroom where personal objects of the prisoners were kept. The prisoners’ clothes had been removed as well as their clothes, clocks, glasses and everything all of which was in good order. On each package was the personal number of the prisoner. In the middle of the room, in a wallet and in small bags, were the objects of value of the prisoner's, such as rings and money, which also were in astonishing good order.


We saw that according to the quantity of food, clothes and personal objects, there should have been a great quantity of prisoners. We were afraid that their release would result in a pogrom in the town. We waited until the following morning and we began to liberate the prisoners  The first ones made a lot of noise as they left, they hit chains, doors, and everything else. They took off the numbers that they had on their shirts and they trampled them. Among them were rabbis, ritual butchers, doctors and priests. All were in prison without any trial. The liberated prisoners hurried each one to their own home; there were some that did not bother to take off their numbers because they were in such a hurry to escape.


As long as they would agree to leave the town, the residents gave the liberated people drinks and groceries. All at once Christians from surrounding towns came to the prison and a pillage began. Firemen hurried to stop them. Jews of the town thought that, with the arrival of the Russians, they would survive and their situation would improve, but they realized that instead of a paradise it was a hell. Russians began to buy everything available. Merchants hid their merchandise and sold only a small part. Long lines were formed and, to keep order, a person with an accordion was put in different locations. They showed movies on the communist revolution as propaganda. Then the Jews met and sent a delegation with a request to be annexed to Russia like Russian citizens.  


During 1941, they began to mobilize us for the red army. It happened to all that were born during the years 1917-1919. I was mobilized in spite of the fact that I was born in 1920, but in my documents it was interpreted to mean I was born in 1919. They didn't mobilize me immediately, because my vision was weak. The Russian army didn't accept those that used glasses, so I was deferred for almost until one month before the army of Hitler attacked Russia. I remember that there was a total blackout, and a great many caravans of the army traveled at night to the Russian-German frontier. I was called up to the army and, for this reason,  I said goodbye to my mom. The farewell was very hard. Mom was very close to me, and me to her. I never saw her again, nor did I receive any letters from her, although I sent many to her. Mom, my uncle and other relatives, were murdered by Germans. Christian residents told me that my relatives as well as all other Jews were robbed of their clothes, killed and buried in a common grave in Brona Gura, be their memory blessed!


Men of my unit were loaded on cattle boxcars and we traveled for almost two weeks.  We arrived at an Air Force base called Tambur, which was an aviation school. The training there was very severe, and maneuvers were very difficult. At night they woke up us with an alarm, and said we had to get dressed in a short period of time. After two weeks in that place Hitler attacked Russia. We got ready immediately for emergency work. We painted all the buildings white where the airplanes were kept. After several weeks they took us for maneuvers near the Arul border. They told us that they would send us to the battlefront. For that reason we went on maneuvers both day and night, and they were very difficult and exhausting. We received very little food, not enough to for the number of soldiers to be fed. I remember that there were occasions when we went tp the dining room only to find it so crowded that we were sent on maneuvers again.  Then, Russia decided that all persons who came from the area of White Russia and the Ukraine that belonged to Poland, should be incorporated to the "Stroy Battalion". That meant forced marches. They took us to boxcars without identity documents. These boxcars were more appropriate for cattle transport than for people. We traveled to the Ural mountains. On the way they made us leave the boxcars near a forest, and we built an airport there. We did not have appropriate equipment. We leveled the land and we dragged the waste a great distance which took a lot of effort. We did not have any protection when it rained. We worked this way under terrible conditions until winter. During winter we received hats to protect us from the cold and they loaded us on boxcars bound for Nidzinitagir in the Urals. The cold was terrible, almost minus 40 degrees and sometimes colder. It was impossible to work when it was so cold and people froze and when they fell it was as if they were pieces of ice. In Nidzinitagir there were heavy industry factories and companies, but we were not allowed to work there. We could only do the more difficult work like heavy lifting to support the industries.  Housing were in barracks, above there was a roof, and below it was directly the earth. Certainly, under these conditions, it was easy to freeze. Some 150 people slept pressed together like sardines. We slept close one to the other to keep warm. There were only three small redwood ovens to heat everything. The worse part was that we did not always get firewood to heat the fire, and when we did get some, it was damp.


We worked in groups to dismantle boxcars, and we carried things from one place to another. There was a single entrance door to the barracks alongside a window. Those that worked with tractors were privileged, since they slept near the door. An element was used to maintain the fire, because wood was not very dry. Once, by mistake, they tossed gasoline on the fire and set fire to the barracks. Men who were close to the fire were lightly burned and some suffocated by the smoke. This passed in silence since nobody was interested in causes and consequences. Work was abundant, but food was scarce and poor. Living conditions were very hard: a lot of dirt, lice in abundance and nits that penetrated in the body, including the terrible cold that we lived with. We went took showers at night so as not to lose work time. Sometimes we were awaken at night and sent to dismantle boxcars. A lot of young people, who could not survive under these conditions, died. Our clothes and footwear were not adapted to these conditions, and we could not protest because, according to regulations, we were of the unit of punishment, the Stroy Battalion. From there they took us to build a steel company. The Director established a food system and he distributed to each a the sufficient amount that would enable them to work. Each worker received 800 grams of bread per day, 200 during the morning , 400 in the afternoon and 200 in the evening.


We worked in this place for nearly one year and a few died. When we finished this work, they took us to a small town that had been the prison of rich nobility in czarist time.  These prisoners had been released but were not entirely free. Each one was given a land parcel in a forest where they cut down trees and threw them into the river. Our working conditions were terrible. We had to climb the mountain, pick up trees, take out branches and build rough beds for ourselves with the trunks. It was winter and we walked in the snow. The dining room was far from the work place, sanitary services were bad and there was a lot of dirt. Lice and nits penetrated our body. There were all kinds of illnesses and many died. Sometimes, as part of the work, we lit bonfires to warm. Then the lice began to go for a walk our body. We took off our shirts, we heated them and we took out the lice that so much bothered us. I swelled for lack of food and for working so much. From using an axe, my hands became swollen. I had a lot of fever. I went to the doctor and received an illness permit. I was in bed in the barrack exactly when sugar coupons were distributed.  These coupons were distributed very few times. I received soup and another worker received sugar. We exchanged them. The amount of sugar was half kilogram.  I ate it and this strengthened me. I was alone that day.


The Director saw me and asked me if I had permission. I showed him the permit. He was a Russian sent from a "kolhoz" to manage us. His wife abandoned him, and this poor man was hungry because he didn't receive the package of food from his family. I gave him some sugar and we became friends. He ordered me to bring water to the engineer’s house. When the engineer's wife saw me, I told her that they sent me to bring water for them. She doubted if I could carry it, because she saw that I was very weak. She told me that for three days they didn't have water. I went down the hill and saw that water flowed; I brought some for her. She invited me into the house, put a big plate with meat, noodles, soup and bread before me and told me to eat! For one week when I brought her water, she asked  me to come in and gave me food. Once she asked me in a brittle Yiddish, “are you a Jewish boy”?  I said, “yes”. I asked her, “How did you get here”? She answered, “They were mobilized in the red army, and were sent to work from White Russia to the Stroy Battalion". She decided to keep me in her house to work for them. They had two girls and her husband was the Engineer. Then I found out that he was also a Jew. I worked in their house and received a payment for my work until the German army left the vicinity of Moscow.  Then she had to return to Moscow. By that time I have accumulated a lot of mony. They took me with them until we came to Sverdlovsk. Another Engineer came. He ordered me to get his wife and I did so. He was aChristian and a good person, but his wife was not very nice.


My job was to dig wells with an air compressor. Dynamite was inserted and the rock was exploded.  This was repeated until we had reached the appropriate depth. Great explosions were heard which gave the impression that we did a great job. For that reason we were considered specialized workers, and we received many benefits. We worked in this company until we were sent to Poland. German prisoners were brought to take our place. I didn't see them because we left before they came. During 1946 we were transferred to boxcars, and traveled for three weeks until we reached the Polish border. By luck, the train passed though Kartuz Bereze. When we arrived near the iron bridge, the train stopped. I jumped off and walked towards a house in Bereza. I reached the first bridge and looked toward the hill. There were no signs of the town. Everything was destroyed. I was in shock, and tears fell from my eyes. I trembled but I began to walk. I arrived to where our house used to be and from there to the market. I saw a Christian picking up stones from the house of the family Kabran. It was a family of shoemakers. I recognized him but did not speak to him. I was walking around the market, and saw that they were some construction remains. I continued and found a "Yeke" (German) by the name of Fritz. He recognized me at once.  "Buskshtein" he asked. "How did you survive"?  He told me that my brother Simcha was alive in Bereza and he told me where. I ran to this place but he was not there. A Christian woman told me that he had gone to Brest and from time to time he came back to the train station to ask if any of the family, or in general any Jew, was alive.


One day my brother Simcha found my friend Mordechai KATZKE from Bragenia, who told him that I had jumped off the train. Immediately Simcha ran to look for me in our former house. We got together, we hugged each other and we cried. Although he was my mother husband’s son, I felt like his real brother. During the war he was a partisan and was hurt in a knee. I asked him join me, to leave Bereza, that we should travel together whatever happens. Simcha refused and remained there. I had a pair of shoes that I received while I worked and gave them to him as a gift. I said goodbye and left even though I knew that his health was bad and he subsequently died from pain. Be blessed his memory!!.


I continued my trip by train. In Brest we passed the frontier control and arrived in Poland. From there, we went to Dulnishlonsk where there formerly lived a German who the Poles kicked out when the war ended. On the road, we found young Jews that mobilized survivors and prepared them for the life in the "kibutzim". I joined them, as I wanted to leave Poland as soon as possible.  I stayed in this place for about two months, then we crossed the frontier secretly and passed into Czechoslovakia. The train arrived at the station and we ran to look for water. I do not why I lost track of time but the train continued on without me and with my belongings on it. I continued in some way until Bratislava, but there they stopped me for not having documents. People of the Jewish Agency liberated me, and took care of me for two weeks in a hotel. Meanwhile another train arrived with Jews from Poland and, among them, was a very pleasant girl who, after some time, became my wife.


From Czechoslovakia we passed into Germany. We arrived in Regenheim near Munich where there was a place for orphans of the Shoa. I was there almost one year and a half working in the kitchen. I got into communication with my brother and sisters in Eretz Israel. They immediately sent me a certificate stating that I was an Israel citizen whose return they claimed. I arrived in Israel January 1, 1948. The British command was still in control. I joined the army in the "Olani" service. I felt like a proud Jew and a free citizen in my happy homeland, because I was a witness of the proclamation of the independence of Jewish State.  


When I completed my army service, I found my lady friend Shoshana Maves again. We married and we had three children.  My older son has my father's name, Shmuel. and my daughter my mother's name, Tzipora. We lived in the Moshav called Even Yehuda.