Berel Kirshner

 

PRUZHANY's DESTRUCTION[i]

 

June 21, 1941

 

It was a beautiful summer day. Pruzhany streets were empty. The whole village waited trembling the entrance march of German troops. This march, began at mid day. No Jewish inhabitant appeared in the streets. Christian inhabitants marauded the streets, received with flowers Germans that were in their surveillance positions , to welcome the army that entered.

 

Christian's underworld population, very well known by Pruzhany Jews, were first in allying with German "liberators". In their hands was given Jewish population's destiny. Immediately pillage began. Day and night, they plundered, they hit, they violated, pulled Jewish beards. Nights were terrible. Screams of aid came from assaulted houses. Jewish life and their goods were to the drift. Jewish residents settled hundreds years ago with a long tradition, felt suddenly amid a lot of enemies. Local Christian population, that found comfortable seeing Jewish neighbor in worst situation that their own, immediately found a common language with the new occupant, and enjoyed Jewish suffering.

 

When arrived German civil power, first ordinance was to place on clothes "the yellow patch". Were obliged to fulfill this order all Jews starting from ten years old. Local police was designated to watch over the execution of this order, and later was recruited Jewish population for this objective. Approximately three months after the entrance of Germans, began the creation of Pruzhany's Ghetto. Jews began to leave crawling basements and holes, and run over to enter inside Ghetto limits.

 

The Ghetto embraced narrow back streets around the synagogue yard, including three streets: Seltzer, Kobrin and Shereshev (Brisker) which were cut. In narrow Ghetto limits were pushed and squeezed, besides the 5000 Jews of the city, Jews inhabitants of near towns as Shereshev, Popeleve, Malech and other that entered the Ghetto to survive momentarily. During complete days, streets remained empty. From time to time appeared in Ghetto streets some Gestapo members directed by a Christian youth, the son of FONTSHAR that lived in the suburbs. In one of those "visits" were detained the first 15 Ghetto Jews and were the first to be killed.

 

All lifetime in Ghetto was concentrated in work organization, and was directed by Pruzhany's inhabitant LEIBL GOLDBERG. It attracted the attention of all Ghetto inhabitants to go to work and to return from it. Workers were accompanied until Ghetto entrance, and at evening Jewish mothers waited anxious and concerned the return of their children. Every day arrived sad news. Jews were hit, bleeding, and were fatal cases.

 

...Rosh Hashanah 5703 (1943). From outside was a day as every other day in the Ghetto. The same spikes wires and surveillance positions, the inhabitants locked in their houses looked through the windows.

 

It was a beautiful sunny day, but inside homes the windows were covered, and sanctity descended. The mother sobbed in front of lit candles, Jewish children were the first ones in noticing the arrival of "Terrible Days" (days that go from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur). They sat down in their places as if they were waiting an order.

Terrible fear caught Jewish children when seeing surveillance and spike wires. Which was their sin? What for attacked them so much fear? Did they see - maybe in their infantile fantasy - the terrible punishment, and also the "Moisheles" and "Shloimeles" when verdict has to be dictated (TN: verdict of G-d which consists in a prayer of Yom Kippur): "Who will die for a sword and who for hunger, who in the water and who in fire"? They are seated, their pale faces were looking with fear to the eyes of mom and dad as asking: will bring the New Year more wickedness? Or a total redemption?

 

With ritual mantels hidden under their clothes, Jews crawl thought Ghetto narrow back streets, passing next to wire fences. Under piercing look of German and Polish guards, they walked in address to Great Bet Medresh, to the place where this synagogue is, the only building in inside limits of Ghetto that was not inhabited by Jews until that moment.

 

In the old Bet Medresh met a small group of Jews. Were covered with their ritual mantels, with their faces directed toward the East. From time to time they looked toward the almost dark window, to see if a stranger comes close. To the front, an own surveillance was bet some buildings before the Bet Medresh, to prevent in the event of appearing some SS, and to communicate it to parishioners. This brings a sensation of insecurity among afraid attendees.

The Rabbi, for security, remained in his house. A silent cry starts up of each heart and all together becomes a single cry, a scream to the Almighty. Among sobs sprout interrupted the words that year after year arrive to celestial throne. The Great Bet Medresh that gathered thousands of Jews in normal times, this time gathered only some dozens.

 

Other dozens of Jews, met in different places, they stayed in internal rooms so neither a bird discovers the seas of tears spilled in silence, begs tear souls ...Through closed shutters, arrived a silent cry, a suffocated request: "Forgive our sins, and leave alive our innocent creatures"...

Those young people, same as every day, left to work.

 

Ghetto was as silenced. Life stopped. The supreme judge today should judge us. Old mothers are seated in small spaces, and the whole day were an immersion of prayers. Young mothers hugged against their chests their innocent creatures, covering them with their warm tears. And in their heart there is a curse for rulers and murderers. The sound of the "shofar" made more evident the deep wound. Each sound should not cross the closed shutters, and of the hurtled hearts came off a burning call: "G-d, hear our clamor, You - Merciful Father."

 

Many men and women dismayed. All the pain and suffering were concentrated on narrow rooms. The "more than human " experience found its repair in the words of prayers book.

...The continuous purification action of German extermination battalions, emptied of Jews all near areas. Pruzhany Ghetto is like an island in a Christian circuit. A Ghetto isolated from world, fenced with spikes wires, and from the day of it's installation was three times "modernized", and finally interwoven in zigzag.

In this limited area, Jews were mobilized, worked and woke up for ordinance, and waited anxious the day in which all this disappears as a bad dream.

 

Thousands of Jews that filled almost destroyed houses and holes in the Ghetto, tried to sow a belief, a hope: "To Pruzhany will be avoided a general misfortune, because they no longer could demonstrate it ..". And they had an evident test: on a surface of thousands of square km, all signs of Jewish life was erased, and only were alive privileged Jews of those places who were brought to Pruzhany's Ghetto. Jews in the Ghetto paid their taxes on time in money, gold and silver. In the shops made coat clothes, cotton stockings, and skin coats. They tried to justify their work. Maybe this work would bring the desired miracle of redemption.

 

A sudden disillusion woke up Jews of their lethargy.

Hundreds of men of police defense, a mixture of German and Polish volunteers, surrounded the reinforced fence of the Ghetto. A question that was hidden in their mind for months appeared suddenly: What should we make? How survive?

The inhabitants that fought until yesterday for their self maintenance , a fight against hunger, foresaw a near misfortune. The day of the disappearance. "We are not able to get a better destiny than Jews of the proximities."

 

Of mouth in mouth circulated the question: how to continue, maybe get ready to ...fire the Ghetto? ... Should we organize and rebel against the sanguinary enemy?... Should we be divided in areas to defend of intruders? ... And ...why we waited up to now?...

Thousands of these questions were in youth's minds, thirsty of beginning the fight, but it was defenseless, without any preparation to begin the fight. Then a fever of secret work began. Dozens and maybe hundreds of channels or graves were simply built and camouflaged under earth. A competition began: who could create a more sure underground refuge? Other got ready to leave in address to the big forests.

 

A melancholy descended on the Ghetto. The issue of the death expelled everybody to the street, and didn't give rest. Old Jews locked in their narrow spaces, and prayed chapters of sacred book of Psalms without interruption, while they rejected the compulsive measures. Youths walked in the streets looking for a challenge, they observed, they made plans about how to save of the closed cage.

 

The refugees street Fatafuvke revived. In the narrow back streets among shanties with sunk straw roof, hundreds of Jews flowed toward the open field, to the wires. The back streets where always reigned hunger, and shanties where penetrated by depression among hungry people, now became a strategic point. From here was observed surrounding neighborhood . Here were hidden in the deposits, the food that could satisfy hungry Jews.

 

When night came, whole green field was covered with the shade of a mass of people that slithered on their stomachs, near the wires. Whispering voices arrived from mound to mound, from person to person, but before spike wires a fortified watch stopped them in their route to freedom. Only a great quantity of victims was able to break the whole surrounding strength.. The few almost destroyed shotguns that there were in the Ghetto, could help little in this offensive.

 

Hours passed and in a beautiful and clear moon night, thousands of Ghetto Jews went to bed waiting... Hundreds of "orders" went of here to there, Jews waited only a call, but people were as frozen. Lost eyes observed during hours murderers that were on other side of wires, face to face, but nobody moved.

For the whole Ghetto it was a waiting night. What will bring tomorrow?...

 

And in same dramatic night, whole Ghetto, without forces, was in front of a crossroad: to set on fire the Ghetto so the sanguinary enemy doesn't have anything to plunder, or cross the Ghetto fences and leave to fight. Then the elite of the Ghetto met in the house of Judenrat Vice-president, and decided in a peculiar way to put an end to their lives, and not to fall in hands of murderers. After meditating thoroughly, with the participation of Dr. Goldfayn, the whole group of intellectuals extended on the floor, filled the room with smoke (gas) and this way wanted to finish their lives, to be taken to eternal habitation, according to law of Israel.

 

Very early, when inhabitants of the Ghetto after an insomnia night appeared on the streets, hundreds of Jews met around the great yard on Kobrin St.. A white smother filtered for the window toward the street. They went taking out one after one the almost dispelled people, and after providing them medical help, they returned to normality, and only one of last name NITZKIN was not able to survive.

 

...Blood signs covered lateral paths on which during night stepped Ghetto martyrs . Weak was Ghetto fence in front of unyielding desire of Ghetto fighters. In front of wire fences was only the strong guard.

 

In a cold January winter day, two partisans, SEGAL and MAITSHIK, Ghetto inhabitants, arrived to visit Judenrat office through an underground tunnel. They had weapons under rural skin coats, and President YANOVICH dialogued with them about the help to Pruzhany men in the forest. The President who was short, was interested of all legal and illegal problems related to the Ghetto. He was informed of everything. Besides the suffering, exhaustion, and daily concern of Pruzhany's Ghetto Jews, he was also interested in the help that should arrive to Jewish and non Jewish partisan groups, who for that time already controlled all roads and forests.

 

The two partisans were forest men's emissaries, and for that reason they frequently appeared in the Ghetto to transmit news, to give courage, and to follow paths they indicated.

The Ghetto strait limits and it's peculiar life, structured a new type and quality of Jewish man that spoiled of everything, indifferent to sufferings and concerns, waiting the uncertain...

 

Were created a quantity of groups, they played cards, were distraction places. Of meager earnings and of small savings, women prepared cheap foods. Feigned partisans that never met the forest, marauded the Ghetto and lived extorting Judenrat people for their apparent "objectives". The shanties of the peasants, in the means of the Ghetto, where lived in hardship dozens of families expelled from old establishments, attracted the hopeless Jewish young men of the Ghetto.

 

By the light of gasoline lamps and fat candles, couples sworn eternal fidelity. Among Ghetto's wire fences new couples were intertwined, and created a new fresh nest of family life, with new candidates for the new existence.

For the high hardship in the Ghetto and the decrease of control to work commands, something was moved in the Ghetto. The two antagonistic tendencies - partisans and bunker Jews - , maintained a silent fight to achieve power inside the Ghetto. The fight was for the most important merchandise: weapons. Each group threw for its side, and as a consequence big discussions and spills of blood arose in Jewish lines.

 

In these days of tension, in afternoon hours, the two partisans up mentioned seated calm in Judenrat building, with the security that nobody in the Ghetto would betray them.

But maybe by chance, in that circumstances Ghetto Commandant came into Judenrat building (how could he arrive so on time? , will be an eternal secret). Met face to face with the two partisans. His bullets impacted in the old building guard, watered in blood. The victim was a symbol for the whole Ghetto. The result of this encounter was immediate.

 

Same day arrived an order: both partisans should be presented to German power, because contrary case the whole Ghetto will be evacuated. In that critical night, in all roads and paths hundreds of peasants' sleds went to the Ghetto. In voluntary form, dozens of peasants flowed with their carts thrown by meager horses, to get rich of Jewish misfortune.

It was a night of fear and uneasiness. Thousands of fat candles illuminated faces dead of fear in Ghetto bunkers and basements, with the piercing question: stay or leave? ...Watch for own body, or go the same suffering as old fathers or mothers, or of small creatures, those that can not longer go?.

 

The whole Ghetto was in darkness. Only from the Judenrat window was profiled .a weak light The whole night everybody was thinking, trying to discover last events.

Under dark Ghetto windows, thousands of hearings listened the noise of sleds that every time arrived to the Ghetto, filling the whole area of local market. Here and there, was perceived in the darkness a human figure, accelerating his step toward the house of some neighbor, a friend, to help to pack some few elements and bed clothes. The order of evacuation arrived very early, to the dawn. In the thresholds of the houses, were prepared bundles and valises. In the Ghetto floated the aroma of recently baked bread, which should supply people during the sad trip.

 

Dozens of fruitless meetings were carried out by different groups. Help from outside didn't arrive. Old friends from gentile side, became sanguinary enemies. Christian neighbors came with "protection" to the Ghetto, to haggle some clothes and elements of value. For the time being.... Promising to take care of it and to hide it until epidemic passes ...

On behalf of Judenrat the last intents were made to reject orders. Many norms were rejected by means of gifts for murderers women and lover's, expensive skins and rings. This time the opportunity was very expensive for those that waited impatient to stop the order of absolute extermination.

 

As a sad convoy, inhabitants of the Ghetto were loaded on sleds bet in long Seltzer St.. Behind came SS. forming closed lines headed by their Commandant.

The resigned Jews went up the sleds loading their belongings and bed clothes, house elements and valises.

 

...A death silence reigned along the street. Only steps were listened, in the crispy snow that cut cold air. Of house to house, of room in room, SS hurried Jews designated to death, toward the way of extermination.

This happened January 28 1943. The "humiliation" to Jews of Pruzhany's Ghetto lasted four days.

 



[i] Notes of a book in writing