|Jewish Brethren , Hold Stead Fast!|
1. The Ghetto in
On The Way To Eretz
personal memoirs of Shumel Mordechai Rubinstein z"l
My father wrote his memoirs after he retired in 1978. For the most part they describe the Holocaust, beginning with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1938 and the subsequent division of Poland by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty, and ending with his arrival in Israel after the 1947 War of Liberation.
He was a brand plucked from the fire - the sole survivor of his family. He spent 27 months in concentration camps, first in Auschwitz in southern Poland, and eventually Evenzy in Austria, where he was liberated by the Americans. A man of strong faith, a staunchly believing Jew, he stood firm in the face of adversity and miraculously survived. He looked death in the face and triumphed.
Over the years we heard the stories and imagined the events as he described them in his colorful and descriptive prose. Unlike many Holocaust survivors, he talked frequently about the Holocaust, transforming the horror into human stories, telling us how he endured the unbearable while retaining his humanity, his faith in God and his sense of humor.
He set down these memories for his children. The purpose of this book is to tell his seventeen grandchildren so that they should know his story and never forget. They are the fresh branches of the mighty tree that was cut down. They should know the story of this simple Jew, one of millions of Jews who were flung into hell, who managed to escape sound and healthy both in body and soul. This is a tale of endurance, of daily dealings at the brink of hell with the angel of death and his minions on earth.
In order to preserve the vitality of the story and to convey my fathers direct speech, I have made hardly any changes. I have added a few maps to illustrate the text and my comments are added in square brackets.
I have also added a chapter written by my father in 1985 on the small town of Maltesch, and I have included a collection of his stories and letters. At the end of the book are some Yiddish poems which he wrote in the Santa Maria di Bagnia refugee camp in southern Italy, before coming to Israel. After his death I found these poems in an old notebook with yellowed pages among his papers. Yaacov Orlovsky, my father-in-law, deciphered the writing, copied it down and translated it into Hebrew. I have included both the original and the translation.
I have ended the book with our family tree. The tree is incomplete - information is lacking and some branches have been severed. May the Almighty avenge them.
For many years, on Holocaust Memorial Day my father used to tell his story to students in the Midrashiah in Pardess Hanna, to fulfill the injunction to remember. It is significant that Holocaust Memorial Day fell during the week that we sat Shiva for our father.
May this book serve as a memorial to the martyrs and heroes of the Holocaust.
Exactly twenty days ago I completed an important chapter in my life, after many years of hardship and suffering. There were years of happiness, joy and fulfillment, which also included hard work and toil, until finally I arrived at retirement age. The decision to stop working and live a life of leisure was not an easy one to make. But, as the saying goes, time achieves what logic does not. Time is the best adviser, and it helped me to decide.
Now I had to make another decision: I had to decide whether or not to write down all my memories and everything that befell me. I have no pretensions as a writer, neither do I intend to write a book - I do not have the necessary talent. My intention is to relate extraordinary events, in simple words, in order to pass them on to my beloved children. Perhaps it will stand them in good stead in their future lives, reminding them that life is not always strewn with roses - there are also thorns, and sometimes there are difficult obstacles in the road. Whatever happens, one should not become bitter or lose ones head, but should always look for a way out of every difficulty. Always live with hope and faith.
Once I decided to relate my memories the problem was where to begin? There was also another problem: I had no notes, so I had to work entirely from memory, which gave rise to chronological inaccuracies. Eventually I made the decision to begin from the outbreak of the Second World War, on September 1, 1939.
A few words about the place where I was born. It was a very small town called Maltz, or Maltesch in Yiddish, part of the Gorodna province during the reign of the Tsar of Russia. It later became part of the Polish district Wojewodstwo Polesk, Brest Litovsk. Maltz was a poor town. There were no paved streets, its lanes were muddy, and the houses were small wooden structures, thatched with straw. Whenever one caught fire, there was a very real danger that the whole street would go up in flames. The very primitive fire fighting apparatus consisted almost entirely of Jewish volunteers. We tried very hard to prevent non-Jews from joining, for fear that they would take over and cause a great deal of damage to Jewish property whenever there was a fire. This was always a golden opportunity to take revenge on Jews with no chance of proving evil intent.
There were no schools, apart from a single Polish school. By law, Jewish children were required to attend this school together with gentile children, who made up the majority. The gentile population was Russian. The region consisted of many small villages, as well as some small towns, nearly all of them without a single school, and the few in existence had only two or three classes each. Jewish children learned Jewish subjects from a melamed in heder in groups of 15-20 students. Some of the melamdim were great Torah scholars. The more modern among them taught grammar and mathematics, as well as Tanach and Talmud. But many of them were simple Jews who were themselves not particularly well educated. When there is no money, teaching children is also a livelihood.
Most of the Jewish population was extremely poor. Many of them were artisans - shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, and so on. A few owned shops, and they were somewhat better off. Maltesch (Maltz) was renowned for its great Yeshiva, which existed until the First World War. Its rabbis and teachers included Rabbi Zalman Sander, Rabbi Breinsker, Rabbi David Tweill Zeinovsky. Rabbi Zalman Sander passed away in Israel at an advanced age. He was a great scholar and a fine man. He was succeeded by Rabbi Shimon Breinsker. (I did not know them personally but I heard a great deal about them). I knew Rabbi David Tweill Zeinovsky because he lived in our town for some years after the First World War. He lived a life of poverty, like everyone else.
The town burned to the ground during that war. All the gentiles fled to Russia, for fear of the Germans. Fields were abandoned. The Jews had no cattle or work animals. They knew nothing about farming and had no income. Even then the Germans did not treat the civilian population well. All adult males were sent to forced labor and the women and children remained at home. Our hunger and suffering cannot be described.
Between 1917 and 1919 the non-Jews began returning home from Russia. I remember one particular winter when entire families would go to sleep at night and be dead of cold and starvation by morning. There was not even wood for coffins. The dead were buried in their rags and in jute sacks. The priest refused to attend single funerals. He would wait until afternoon, when eight or ten bodies had accumulated, and then he would walk at the head of an entire procession. The situation was truly terrible - gentiles came begging to Jews. The Jews were also hungry, but the gentiles thought them evil and miserly. When they were given a potato or a slice of carrot they kissed their hands.
A few years later the town was rebuilt, and life began to improve. The food shortage was a thing of the past, but the poverty remained. I mentioned previously that the rabbis were very poor. I remember a shocking incident, when I was still a young boy. At that time the rabbis salary was paid as follows: the rabbis wife would sell yeast to the Jews at a special price, and every Jew would buy 10-30 grams of yeast to bake hallot for the Sabbath. Each woman would also buy two candles to light on the Sabbath eve. There were approximately 100 families in town, and this was how the rabbi earned his living. When Rabbi David Tweill Zeinovsky could bear it no longer he came to the synagogue to ask for his salary, and poured out his heart before the balebatim (I want to emphasize here that Rabbi Zeinovsky was one of the most learned Torah scholars of his time). An old Jew sprang up immediately - I wont mention his name out of respect for the dead, he was murdered by the accursed Nazis - this man lived in a nearby village and every Shabbat he came to town to attend the synagogue, he was a dear and important man. He shouted out, Does the Rabbi want to impose another contribution upon us? This gives you an idea of the care and worry that made up our lives. The Rabbi had no choice but to make his request, and this man cried out because he didnt have anything to give him.
[This section was written later, on January 14, 1985, and inserted here]
I was born in a very small town which was poor from every point of view. My birthday was approximately May 5, 1909. Why approximately? Because not only did I not know the exact date of my birth, but I am quite sure that very few people knew their birthdate. There are several reasons for this. First of all, people never mentioned their age, for fear of the Evil Eye. When Pharaoh asked the patriarch Jacob: How old are you? Jacob replied The years of my life have been few and painful, even though he was 130 years of age at the time. The second reason was that in those days, when a child was born, nobody rushed to register him, because they were already concerned about what would happen when he came of army age. A typical story relates of a Jew who came to the rabbi to register the birth of his son. As he stood there, he calculated under his breath whether to register him a year before his actual birth, or perhaps a year after. The Rabbi asked: Why not enter the correct year? and the father replied: You know, I never thought of that...
In our neighborhood there was also a third reason: The Russian Cossacks were the last to retreat from the Germans during the [First World] War. Our town had no public officials and it did not occur to the people to collect a sum of money and be on the alert to bribe the Cossacks, so the Cossacks simply burned the villages to the ground. Ill come back to this later. All the books were destroyed in the fire, so there was no way to prove anyones age. When Poland was established in 1918, our region was included. They began to set up schools, and we were forced to enroll in them even though we learned in heder. In order to enroll in school I had to give my birth date. I made my own calculations, based on what my father z"l had told me - that my brit was three days before Shavuot. My birth date was therefore 11 days before Shavuot, which was May 5. The First World War broke out in 1914 and I figured out that I was five years old at the time, so if I was really six years old, I apologize for the error...
Thats how I arrived at the date of May 5, 1909. When I grew up and required a passport, the procedure was different. One had to travel to Kartuz Breze and present oneself before the mayor together with two witnesses, who would testify that they are acquainted with this person, and they remember exactly when he was born. The court would give its approval, and the person would then receive a fully accredited passport. Now the problem arose of finding two acceptable witnesses and bringing them from Maltz, a distance of 18 kilometers and the loss of a day for two people. Even though the waste of a day didnt incur great financial loss, and travel expenses werent exorbitant, nevertheless under those conditions and those times every penny counted...
So what did I do? In Kartuz Breze lived an old Jew who was born in Maltz. He was a good man, like all the Jews of his generation, who performed many mitzvot and good deeds. Any service that he could do for his fellow man counted as a good deed and would earn its reward in the world to come. He would find a second Jew, and together they would testify for anyone from Maltz requiring a passport, affirming that they knew him and his exact birthdate. In this way I was also born on May 5, 1909, and if that wasnt the real date, well, what difference did it make?
The First World War broke out on Tisha BAv 1914. I dont remember exactly when the Germans approached or how long it took them. I just remember that as they advanced, there was terrible panic. Someone tried to buy a horse and wagon in order to flee - but where? I dont think anyone had any idea. In any event, my father and two neighbors bought two horses and a large wagon and everyone began to load up all their movable goods. My father called this bebbe kess which I cant translate - you might say innards.
Of course everyone tried to save as much as possible, the wagon was well and truly laden and all three partners were apparently great experts on the subject of horses. Apart from the parcels and utensils there were also quite a few small children.... To make a long story short, when they tried to get their two chargers to move, the animals had other ideas - they werent sure they wanted to go anyplace... They seemed to be the sort of horses that Mendele Mocher Sforim wrote about - the kliatsche. After everyone tried pushing the wagon, the children got down and walked behind, like a funeral procession. It was very lucky that the children were not on the wagon because as we reached the outskirts of the town an axle broke, the wagon overturned and bundles were strewn everywhere. Everyone began to carry parcels back home, but they couldnt be taken into the houses since the town was already on fire.
Not far from our house was a large, charming garden with a pond, which belonged to a relative of my mother Š"ý We carried everything to the edge of the pond. Many Jews joined us there, and every time we heard the boom of a cannon, everyone cried out Shema Yisroel. So many impressions remain fresh in my memory!!! The last troops of infantry with their bayonets - the Russian rifles had long, narrow bayonets. I remember one Cossack who entered the garden and approached a woman who made candles for a living. He strung together a number of candles on a rope between two trees, and threatened to set them on fire. Of course, everyone was frightened, but Im not sure why. Perhaps because, like Jews everywhere, we were afraid of gentiles, especially Cossacks. Some rubles were hastily collected for him, and he went away, leaving the candles hanging from the trees.
I remember the first airplanes. I thought they looked liked padlocks, they did not drop bombs, neither did they shoot. I also remember the last Cossacks to leave the town after torching the houses. They galloped away at top speed and were never seen again. I dont know how long we crouched next to the pond. When night fell we took the parcels to the home of a relative of my mother - Baruch the Potshter, the postmaster. He owned two houses, neither of which had burned. One house was very large and impressive, and some of his relatives and their families moved into it, including us, since our house had burnt to the ground. All the local non-Jews had fled to Russia. Some of their homes were burnt but others remained intact. The same night that we moved into Baruchs house the Germans came and chased us out. They requisitioned the building for their headquarters.
So once again we picked up our bundles and we carried them into a gentile familys house. It was typical of the non-Jewish homes of the time: one big room with a vast cooking stove near the entrance and wide wooden benches ranged along the walls. At night some of the family would sleep on the benches while the rest slept on top of the stove. There was also a large hall used for feeding pigs and chickens and for hanging laundry. In addition they had cowsheds and a broad threshing floor, a big vegetable garden and many cherry trees. It would have been fine if there had been someone to do the work.
When the war broke out my big brother Zvi z"l was drafted into the Russian army. He was a sickly boy, only 18 or 19 years old. For several weeks he did what many others did in order to avoid the draft - they stopped eating and spent the nights walking. When they ate, they chose food which disagreed with them and caused diarrhea. They also inflicted various injuries on themselves - anything to avoid being drafted. None of this availed my brother, and he was sent to the Front. When he was in Kaskatin he still managed to get home sometimes for brief visits, until his transfer to the front lines. You can imagine the mood at home.
I had three older siblings. Avraham Eli was the eldest, he was 12, then came my sisters Bluma (Shoshana) and Eidel (Adina). They all died before I was born. They were never spoken of at home, and I never asked when did they die? how did they die? I didnt even know where they were buried. When my parents went to visit their graves, they would leave the house secretly. I only knew that sometimes memorial candles would be lit for them, and when I grew older the neighbors told me how beautiful my sisters were and that they both died of diphtheria in the same week. In those days there were no medicines for this disease.
My rebbe told me about my brother Avraham Eli, and I couldnt understand what he was telling me. He said: If only you knew what a brother you had. What a head he had - at the age of 12 he could already learn a page of Gemara. Thats all I ever heard about him and it remained in my memory.
Our home was poor, like most of the houses in our town. My father z"l had four younger sisters, but for army purposes he had a white card which registered him as an only son. Only sons were not drafted, except in wartime. Holders of red cards were not drafted even in wartime. I may have confused the colors but that was the policy.
In 1905 war broke out between Russia and Japan. The Russian Chief of Staff boasted that he would defeat the Japanese with hats - he would not even need to use weapons against them. But the Russians were so soundly defeated that not only their hats but their heads remained on the battlefield. My father feared that he would be drafted and forced to fight. He obtained a passport on someone elses name and fled to America, but he was stopped at the border and while his passport was inspected he forgot the false name under which he was traveling. As it happened, they inspected everybodys passport, and everyone was in the same situation. The customs officials were very smart - instead of asking each persons name, they called out the names on the passports and waited for the named person to respond. My fathers false name was near the end of the list, and as they called out his name, he remembered it. He approached and they asked: is this you? He answered yes, received his passport, and crossed the border.
He reached Chicago, where he had many relatives: His aunt Rivka and her husband, his uncle Shmuel Mordechai, my grandfathers brother, and his two sons Eliezer (Leizer) and Zvi (Herschel). It seems that Herschel (Zvi) was the name of my fathers grandfather. My father spent three years in America. He worked hard - in those days, 80 years ago, it wasnt easy to earn money. Then he fell ill. I dont think his illness was serious, but he missed his home, his wife and his children. He already had five children, and the sixth was born after he left. My father was a devoted family man. Every month he sent money to my mother, who lived in a rented apartment. When he realized that he couldnt save very much he decided to return home. His aunt Rivka and his uncle begged him to stay, but he returned. This is another sign that I was probably born in 1909... After he crossed the border he sold his passport to someone else, who was thus able to travel to America on a kosher passport. My father brought home 150 dollars, which was then worth 300 Russian rubles.
He bought a small house - two rooms and a kitchen, with a thatched roof, like most of the houses in the area. Meanwhile three children oldest children had died, and only four children, including me, remained at home. I began learning in heder before the age of 5. My mother wanted me to be at least a rabbi. She taught me the alef beis and took me to a teacher, Yisroel der Kolhever. In Hebrew, kolhever translates as one who walks with crutches, but thats not exactly right. Anyway, one of his legs was shorter than the other, so that even his toes did not reach the ground. I confess that I hated that teacher passionately, and perhaps I still hate him.
Apart from being a teacher he was also a barber. He was as about as good a barber as he was a teacher. He had no barber chair, only a square stool on four straight legs - unlike his own legs, one of which was shorter than the other. He would seat his client on the stool and work on his head. In place of a knife he had a towel! He had no razor because of the Torah prohibition and not because, as was rumored, he didnt know how to use it! He had three hairclippers, numbered 0,1 and 2 - the higher the number the coarser the cut. He also had scissors, brushes and two sheets. I remember this very clearly and for a very good reason: I liked his barbering much, much better than his teaching.
Between lessons he cut his clients hair and then his pupils would play and shout and generally have a good time. Behind the house was a large pasture. We would roll in the grass and yellow flowers that covered the field. But woe betide the child who didnt hear when he was called back to the study table, or who came late - after the rabbi had finished the haircut.
I enjoyed both worlds - first of all I could watch without learning, enjoying the spectacle of my teacher hopping around his victim on his longer leg, supported by his crutch. His hairclippers were the latest design, although they tweaked a bit. This also depended on when he last oiled them. Every tweak was visible on the faces of his clients - you could even tell whether it was a soft tweak or a hard one. For a soft tweak the client would close one eye and wince, but a hard tweak resulted in two closed eyes and an Ouch... Upon which the barber would remark, Its nothing, just needs a little oil...
Why three hairclippers? Number 1 was his substitute for a razor blade. Number 2 was for cutting hair. And number 3? Some Jews who were not very devout felt that a long beard was not modern, but at the same time they didnt want to appear freethinkers without any trace of a beard. Their beard was removed with blade number 3. My father, for example, was a man who had seen the world, as the saying goes. For the first seven years of his marriage he lived in Warsaw. When he fled to America to avoid fighting in the Russo-Japanese War he apparently shaved off his beard, which upset my mother very much. If, by accident or design, he removed his beard with blade number 1 or 2, my mother would have something to say about it: You look like a goy, arent you ashamed? He would apologize until she calmed down. For this reason, blade number 3 was ideal for looking more or less like a Jew. When the rebbe finished his barbering he returned to teaching with renewed vigor, which included wielding his cane energetically.
He had a Hebrew book which included a chart of the alphabet, which he taught each child for about six months. First he taught the letters, then he went on to the vowels. It was my misfortune to study with him. He should forgive me for saying so, but he was a sadist. I never heard him tell an interesting story or even utter a word of Torah. But he knew very well how to hit. He had three straps hanging on the wall. One had one thong, and he called it the parve strap. The two-thonged strap was the milchik strap and the three-thonged strap was the fleishig strap. The lessons went like this: the classroom held a table and two benches, one for the students to sit and learn, and the other for whippings. The room was small, so all the children would play outside apart from three or four who would sit near the table, practicing the alef beis or reading while the others watched and listened until it was their turn to read. After a while, if the pupil knew what he had learned, well and good. Otherwise he would be forced to lower his trousers and lie on the bench while the rebbe whipped him.
If he pulled down his pants and lay down without objecting, he was kindly beaten with the parve strap. If he cried a bit and tried to object, and the rebbe had to help him onto the bench, the milchik or fleishig strap was used, depending on the rebbes mood. When he finished with the first three or four pupils, they would be sent outside and the next group would be called in. Anyone who came late was immediately flung onto the bench, with his pants yanked down, and given a good few whacks with the fleishig strap, without any chance to explain. I hated him violently, though he never once managed to beat me. I would run from the room when he started his beatings. I was caned several times, but never whipped. Once I made him so angry that he prepared to whip me in front of the whole class, because I called him a cripple. He sat down next to me with the whip in his hand and ordered me to lie down, but I was a sturdy child and I knew he couldnt force me, so I refused. He ordered me again and I yelled no! All the children gathered around to see if he would help me onto the bench. I snatched up one of his crutches and tried to hit him on the head but he punched me hard on the nose. Blood poured out like water from a tap.
I screamed at the top of my lungs - not really with pain, but rather to scare him, and he really did get a fright. They brought a bowl of cold water but nothing stopped the bleeding. By the way, until the age of 19 or 20 I continued to suffer from this - whenever I would bend down I would have a nosebleed! That was the last straw - I was sent to learn with a new rebbe who I liked very much. He liked me too, and thought me talented. He let me help the weaker students going over their lessons. I did learn one thing from the crippled teacher - how to cook fish. His wife was not very good at cooking so he became proficient at cooking fish. He was very proud of it and spent a lot of classroom time describing how much salt he used, how much pepper he added, how long he let it cook and so on, and all this remained in my memory.
By that time we were living in a gentile house in a gentile street, because they had all fled to Russia. This happened just before the High Holy Days, and some of the harvest was still in the fields, the threshing floors were full of grain, only the livestock was gone. I dont remember how they took the animals, but not a single horse, cow or fowl remained. Only two gentile families remained in the whole town - two brothers and their families. The church remained intact in the center of the town. It was an imposing building with a metal fence and white pillars. In the courtyard were two graves, topped with gravestones of the most expensive marble, each with a large cross. Another two places remained for the third brother and his wife - Felle and Moylke Stasavich. I later witnessed his funeral, and he was also buried there. His wife was the farmowner with whom I stayed during the Second World War when I fled from the ghetto in Kartuz Breze to the Pruzany ghetto, and the Germans stopped me at the border together with Shmuel Homasky and his mother, my mother-in-law.
When I was a child the distance from the gentile street to my heder was very long, and I had to pass the church. It frightened me, and perhaps for that reason I would throw a stone at the windows every time I passed by. The windows were very large, and whenever a stone landed inside the church its echoes would resonate again and again. I would flee like a wild thing, even though there was nothing to fear. I never saw a living soul when I passed, and in this way I eventually shattered all the windows on the street side of the church.
As long as there was grain on the threshing floor, my father would thresh some rye, so we always had something to eat. When that finished, the Jews began to starve. Families with older children managed somehow - they planted a few things and starved less. I remember German, Austrian and Bulgarian soldiers wearing blue trousers with a red stripe down the side. The Germans imposed taxes - everyone who owned a cow had to bring them a certain quantity of milk every day and anyone who owned a chicken had to bring two eggs a week.
I remember that one day the Germans searched every street to find out who owned poultry. We had two chickens and didnt know where to hide them. At the very last moment my mother tied them together and thrust them under a wooden box. The Germans came in, asked whether we had any chickens, looked around and left. In this way we were saved.
From time to time the Germans would round up the men for all manner of hard labor. One winter, when the snow lay one meter deep on the ground, a neighbor called through our window at the dead of night that the Germans were going from house to house, taking the men away, who knows where... My father dressed hastily and the two men fled to an abandoned village where they hid until the danger had passed. Meanwhile the famine increased daily. There were rumors of pits in which the gentiles had stashed away all the valuables which they couldnt take with them, or thought they would return to... People prepared long sticks with sharpened metal points and began poking every place that looked suspicious. If the stick hit something hard they would dig the ground at that spot. In this way all manner of good things were discovered - boxes of flour, corn, cloth and so on. We also found such a pit in the hall of the house where we were staying, and once my brother Meir Eliahu Š"ý found a pit in the cellar of a burnt house. The dirt floor of the cellar had been scraped open and he saw something which he thought might be fun to play with. When he came closer he felt the outlines of a box in the earth and rushed home to tell the family. A woman named Matke saw my brother rushing out of the cellar and became curious, so she went down to the cellar and discovered the secret. We came out and begged her to calm down and wait for evening.
The Second World War broke out on September 1, 1939. That night, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and the entire country came under bombing attack by German planes. That same morning the Polish government decreed a war loan. There was terrible panic, especially among the Jews. Already in the first few days the country filled with refugees. People fled on foot, by bicycle, in horse drawn carts without knowing where they were going and why. The Polish front crumbled and the Germans advanced with almost no resistance from the Polish army, which had no ammunition.
The Polish refugees fled eastwards, aiming for the marshes of Pinsk (approximately 80 kilometers from Maltz). After 10 days of fighting, the German army were 12 kilometers from Maltz. It was the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the terror which gripped the Jewish population was indescribable. That day all the police in the region held a meeting in our town to decide in which direction to flee. Naturally, they had the same plan - the marshes of Pinsk. Before Rosh Hashanah, the head of the local council, together with the Chief of Police and the commander of the local police, called together all the town dignitaries, both Jews and gentiles. People who had no criminal past but were known to volunteer frequently on behalf of others addressed the notables, and laid out the situation plainly: the Germans were advancing without any resistance. They gave us instructions on how to maintain law and order and how to prevent looting and worse at the hands of criminals. Thus we would be able to hand over the town to the conquerors in orderly fashion. To this end they also left us some ancient rifles.
We expected the Germans to come from the west. Nearly 2 kilometers from that side of town was a canal, about 12-14 meters deep, spanned by a wooden bridge. The police dug 2 ditches on either side of the bridge, cut down trees to stop the tanks and then blew up the bridge. It was a mighty deed, both wise and brave. But not a single German approached from that direction at any time. They advanced on Pruzany, which was the central town in the region, following the road to Brest Litovsk. They didnt remain there, nor did they arrive in our town, and we could not understand why. The day after Rosh Hashanah, Russia announced on the radio that they had crossed the border and were advancing on Brest Litovsk as the result of a secret agreement between German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop and Russian Foreign Minister Molotov. Our alarm and terror were transformed into happiness and rejoicing.
Before I talk about the rejoicing I should mention that the Polish police force departed from our town during the night after Rosh Hashanah, leaving in charge those who had been elected for this task - 3 Jews among a group of gentiles. The Jews now had even more to worry about! In addition to fearing the Germans we now had the added fear of the Christian populace who might undertake a pogrom until the Germans arrived. We ran to every Jewish house to warn every man capable of wielding an ax or a shovel to be on guard. I was walking through the town center, carrying a rifle, when to my relief I saw a mounted Polish battalion advancing in the darkness. The officer requested my help in finding temporary lodgings for his troops, and in exchange I asked for his promise to assist us, if necessary. I had an idea. Not far from the town was a fairly large farm. I directed him to it and he thanked me.
When news of the Russian advance reached us next morning, several hundred Russian civilians made a very convincing speech to the Polish soldiers: on one side were the Germans, the Russians were coming from the other direction, so why should they wait to be taken prisoner? It would be better for them to disperse and vanish. And thats exactly what they did, abandoning both weapons and horses. The gentiles seized the weapons, and we immediately relinquished our ancient rifles as well, so as to avoid provoking them and becoming their first victims. Fortunately one of them issued a strict warning that the weapons must not be used for any criminal purposes whatsoever. Transgressors would immediately be tried by a field court. This warning helped.
After two days of uncertainty the first Russian tank rolled into town. Who can describe the joy and the redemption that we felt? Tons of flowers were tossed onto the tank, red flags waved in all directions, and the dancing - its very difficult to describe... The area gradually filled with tens of thousands of soldiers and thousands of tanks and airplanes. Gradually the joy was replaced by reality. Its very hard to rejoice for long without food. Life requires work, food, clothes and so on. With the onset of winter it became very difficult to obtain anything. Shops were closed, trade ceased and a black market was created, but even there nothing could be obtained because the reserves were small.
There was a wave of arrests and exiles to Siberia. Hundreds stood in line for every little thing that appeared in the official shops. People very quickly learned to fear one another, because any breath of slander was sufficient to destroy a man or an entire family. Small towns were assigned the status of villages, whose population was not issued identity cards. Without an identity card a person could not move around. He could not stay overnight in another town. Furthermore, in a small place one is always being observed by watchful eyes, and if you dont work youre a parasite. They began to round up civilians for forced labor, to carry out an old Polish project. The Poles had planned to connect the Dnieper with the Bug along the Mochwitz river, using convicts in order to save money. This was intended as a ten year project. The Bolsheviks declared that the populace were no better than convicts, so they issued an order for everyone to work at this task. Everything was done by meetings. Nearly every day a meeting would suddenly be called for a different purpose. Naturally anyone suspected of opposing the regime would make quite sure to sit close to the front, so that everyone would see him participating and clapping very loudly in agreement with whatever was said. And of course each speaker ended his remarks with high praise for the Illustrious Leader, Sun of the Universe, Father of the Nations, Comrade Stalin. At these meetings they would announce that workers were needed, or they would declare that laborers were required to chop down trees. Sometimes they would announce that a tax had been imposed. Anyone who did not appear that same day to pay, or turned up a few hours late, was immediately suspected of opposing the regime because he had not turned up bright and early, delighted and eager to pay up...
It was my fate to work for three days on the canal at Kobrin, 50 kilometers from my hometown. To get there you had to travel by train, which was a story in itself: Whoever said that a train must arrive on time? And whoever said that when it finally arrives it will stop so passengers can get on? After all, theres a war on, and furthermore the bourgeoisie who live in a bourgeois and fascist country must be taught socialist values... Somehow or other we arrived in Kobrin and looked for a place to stay. Where? Wherever we pleased, naturally. After all, everything is ours... In every house we entered we were welcomed by a homeowner, as confused and scared as a rabbit fleeing a hunter. He was delighted to see Jews, but his house was already taken up by tens of gentiles, and the stench was unbearable. The work continued in shifts for three days. The floor was covered in straw, and returning shifts bedded down there. We went from house to house until we found a place which still had room for a third shift. In this way we managed to go out to work at 2 in the morning.
A large restaurant had been set up at the work site. You needed really strong elbows to get in. You could get a kilo of clay-like bread and a liter of tea which was really colored water. All of this cost money, of course. I will never forget the sight which met my eyes when I arrived at work - swarms of men, horses and wagons, overshadowed by huge posters bearing patriotic slogans. Anyone who succeeded in filling or exceeding his quota of work had his name inscribed on a large merit board, but anyone who didnt fill his quota found his name on the dishonor list!!! There were 6 Jews from our town, working together and digging together. We worked diligently and well, because we really wanted to fill our quota of 5 or 6 cubic meters. At the end of the shift the foreman came over to measure, and of course he concluded that not only had we not filled our quota, but we were far from it...
I quickly caught on, and told my comrades that it wasnt worth the effort, because we would never fill our quota, no matter what. So the next day I suggested that we stand around looking busy, but not doing any real work. Meanwhile I stood in the line where vodka was being sold (they said it was being distributed), because the money was not what counted, the important thing was to achieve... At the end of the shift, when the foreman bent down to measure, I dropped a quarter liter of vodka on the ground, and everyone was amazed to learn that we had filled our quota for that day... After working for three days, we were sent home. When we went to collect our pay, we were told it would be brought to our homes. The amount we were supposed to receive didnt even cover the cost of the journey.
I arrived home to find another 3 day work order waiting for me. I realized that this was a method of servitude designed to crush and dishearten the people. I looked for an acceptable excuse, and discovered that I could obtain a deferment on family grounds, if I promised to go at a later date for a longer period. I was lucky enough to get the deferment. Meanwhile somebody arrived to pay the money we were owed. In all innocence I requested my money and was informed that I did not appear on the list of workers... I had wasted a quarter liter of vodka for nothing!
The Shoemakers Cooperative
I organized all the shoemakers in town and established a cooperative (they called it an artel) and in this way I avoided hard labor. Others, including our Rabbi z"l were sent to chop wood in the forests, and they also had a quota. You can imagine how much these Jews, led by the Rabbi, knew about woodcutting, or how capable they were of doing it. Naturally they collected a sum of money which they presented to the foremen, and then they went home with a paper attesting that they had not only filled but exceeded their quota!!! This was of course at the expense of the goyim, who filled not only their quota but that of everyone else...
I managed to bring another Jew, a merchant, into the cooperative, as an accountant, thus saving him from ruin. I also brought in a gentile to act as chairman and supervise that all was done correctly, so that nobody would suspect us of wrongdoing. Before I begin telling you about the cooperative, Ill tell you a story: In our town lived a poor shoemaker with many children who had no food or clothes. I always felt very sorry for them. The Joint Distribution Society had set up a charity fund, of which I was treasurer, so I was able to provide them with a few zlotys. Another shoemaker, an elderly Jew named Reb Kadosh Chomsky z"l, who was honest and kindhearted, would collect contributions every Friday to repay the debt, and when it had been repaid in full he would notify the pauper, who could then take another loan.
When the Bolsheviks arrived, the fund dried up, together with all the other institutions - and this was still in the time of rejoicing. I was walking to shul, carrying my tallit and tefillin, when I heard a familiar voice shouting the rich are finished, now its our turn, and I was amazed to see that same poor fellow who I had pitied and tried to help. Now I was a capitalist and it was all over for me... I was very angry. I didnt yet know that it was forbidden to react or in any way speak out against the new situation. At any rate, I told the fellow that he was rejoicing too soon, and I added in Polish: Where there was water before there will be again. The difference is that in the past people were sorry for you and helped you. Now those who have what to eat will live and those who dont will die, so stop your dancing, and I went on my way. A few days after I set up the cooperative, acting as treasurer and calculating costs and wages, that same miserable wretch approached me to apologize. Every day I remember what I said to you when you were on your way to shul. I am deeply sorry for the stupid things I shouted at you. Please forgive me and help me to earn a little more, because my family is starving. I did as he asked and helped him as much as I was able.
I set up a cooperative, but I have not yet told you why or for whom. As I mentioned before, the Communists changed the status of small towns to villages, whose population was not issued identity cards. People were therefore not free to move around. The only occupations open to villagers were collective (kholhoz), such as woodcutting, laying railway lines, linking rivers by digging canals, and so on. The work was carried out by people suffering from hunger and with no place to sleep. Very suitable for Jews...
I organized the towns shoemakers, set up a cooperative, and appointed myself cashier and deputy director of finances. The chairman of the local council was an anti-semitic gentile, Comrade Strizich. He was a communist who had served time in Polish jails as a common thief... He hated me bitterly, because he knew I was an ardent Zionist and a religious Jew, and thus obviously I hated the people and the regime. In this he was partly correct. I didnt hate the people but I certainly hated the regime! He brought all manner of false charges against me in his efforts to oust me from my position, as a first step to exiling me to Siberia together with my family. I had to constantly think up new ruses and strategies to counter his efforts.
One day the work manager of the shoemakers, a very fine man named Reb Nachman z"l, came to tell me that he had been summoned to the police. We were accused of working only for the rich and discriminating against the poor, a very serious charge indeed. I was furious at him for dragging me into it - why couldnt he answer the charge himself? I took our receipt book and accompanied him to the office of the NKVD officer, who asked us to sit down. When they ask you to sit, you may find yourself sitting for a long, long time... His first question was Why do you discriminate against the poor? and you could say that I prepared myself mentally for anything, because I couldnt see myself getting out of their hands without a visit to Siberia. But I replied with perfect composure Its possible that were only working for the rich, but there are no poor people in our area. What can I do? My job is to make sure that the shoemakers earn a living, so I have to provide them with work and I take whatever comes...
I claimed that I didnt know all the people, which was a big lie. Heres the order book and the receipts. Call the head of the council, hes bound to recognize the names and hell tell you the truth about the people. In their dialect butrak was a poor person, while kollek stood for a rich person. My receipts recorded precisely what work had been carried out, the sums of money involved and the exact address of each of our clients. When the council head had been summoned, the conversation proceeded as follows: So and so - is he a kollek? - No, hes a butrak, and so on... until the kolleks were reached. My honesty impressed them and I was permitted to leave. There was only one secret which I never revealed to them: when a rich person requested something special, his order was never recorded...
One sunny day, when our stock of raw materials had run out, it was impossible to repair shoes and we had no leather for new ones, I was sitting on the verandah. It was a Sunday, the Christian day of rest. In Russia, the five day work week was the norm, and the sixth day, Friday, was the day of rest. Since most of the shoemakers in our cooperative were orthodox Jews, we worked a six day week and Shabbat was our day of rest. The gentile who was chairman of the cooperative had no problem with that. In fact, as long as we continued to supply him with alcohol to drink, he had no objection to anything... That Sunday, a long line of people were bringing their shoes to be repaired, and in the middle I noticed someone unfamiliar, who looked suspicious. I didnt pay particular attention, because I was busy listening to each persons instructions, accepting the requests of all those whose repairs didnt require materials. For those who needed leather I had polite and dishonest excuses and explanations, just as our life was one big lie! These explanations were necessary to avoid insulting the regime, heavens forbid! For example, it was forbidden to say that there was a shortage of something, because we were supposed to have everything, even fever...
It was, however, permissible to say I dont have it at the moment, although there is plenty available, but our shipment has been delayed. The merchandise will arrive and we will of course do our utmost, but in the meantime they will have to wait! They would then observe that the entire nation apart from the army are barefoot... And so it went until it was the turn of the suspicious character. Good morning. Good morning, can you make a pair of soles? We can, but not right now, comrade - everyone was a comrade - Why not? Well, we simply dont have any leather right now, the shipment has been delayed. Here in Russia (we were forbidden to say thank God) there is more than enough, its only here that we have a temporary shortage and were expecting it to arrive any minute. Were waiting for the messiah...
He: How much does a pair of soles cost?
Me: Seven rubles and fifteen kopecks.
He: Can I see your books?
Me: You may, but might I ask the comrades name?
He: I am a member of the district communist party.
This was dangerous! I gave him the books.
He: How do I know that youre not charging too much?
Me: Theres an official price-list put out by the government, and I charge ccordingly. Each receipt is a record of what was done and how much was charged.
He examined everything thoroughly, thanked me and left. A few moments later a young lad appeared, the son of a friend, who had joined the communist youth. He told me that the other fellow had been sent to investigate me and check on my attitude to the public and whether I was arrogant in my dealings with them. He soon returned, full of praise for my politeness and for my logical and patriotic explanations, which I had uttered like a true Russian citizen - as if Russia is the only place where one can encounter politeness...
They only drink from black bottles... There was a Prugol law of tardiness, whoever was late more than 5 minutes and they served ....
(a page is missing here from the original document)
......Thank you, I called to the work foreman, and he took his measurements. The NKVD officer then requested that I make him at least a pair of soles. This confirmed that I had not been mistaken when I said that although I have no merchandise I could arrange to make one pair of soles. Naturally I took the officers boots, handed them to two skillful shoemakers and asked them to finish the job within 15 minutes. Then I went outside and stood in the outhouse in the freezing cold. I didnt go back into the office simply so they wouldnt ask any more questions. I wasnt bothered by their personal questions as much as I feared their questions about others. They were experts in getting people to inform on each other, so you always had to be on your guard. A quarter of an hour later I went inside. The soles were ready and I presented them to the officer. He was delighted that they were ready so quickly, paid his seven and a half rubles, thanked me and off they went. Three days later I brought the new boots to the investigator. He was asleep, so I put them on his bed and fled. He brought me the money on the first day of the month.
One day there appeared at the cooperative a tall man, well-dressed in civilian clothes, who introduced himself as an auditor on behalf of the oblest. Just as there was a riyun (district), there was a higher level called the oblest which encompassed several districts. As soon as I saw the auditor I recognized him. He was a Polish Jew who had been an agent for the Suchard chocolate company before the war. I met him on Christmas Eve in Pruzany, at the wholesaler where I bought merchandise, and I remember that he told me a lewd joke which was rather cute - I cant repeat it here... I didnt want to let him know that I remembered him in case hed be offended, so I cheerfully remarked I have a joke to tell you. I repeated it to him and he smiled and asked where Id heard it. Then I said On Christmas Eve 1937 I was at Klinitzky the wholesalers when a Suchard agent came in and told us the joke. He looked at me, smiled, and punched me lightly on the shoulder as if to say Youre OK...
I suggested that we go for lunch, and then took him to the house of the work foreman. He was a fine Jew, and together we served up a hearty meal. During the meal the auditor told me that he had just been to see the council head of cursed memory, who informed on a black member of the cooperative - black of skin and black in his anti-socialist views. He must therefore be removed since he is a poison to society, and other such complimentary remarks. This was of course directed against me. I asked the auditor what he planned to say, and he said that he would let me know after handing in his official report. Immediately after the meal he went to the village council, and then returned to the cooperative. He told us that he had informed the council head of his visit and told him that if he so desired, the black Jew could be dismissed right away, but it should be clear that the cooperative would then collapse because he constituted the soul that held the body of the cooperative together! That shut him up!!!
One day to my horror I found in the till 6000 rubles which were not accounted for. I spent an entire day reviewing the books to discover the error, but in vain. If there was too much money it meant prison for sure... I had no alternative but to tell the accountant. Fortunately he was a Jew who had been in dire straits before I hired him, and he was also a personal friend. His immediate response was that the money was his. I was of course astounded by his words and asked him how he could say such a thing, since he never handled money. I added that I was prepared to divide the money with him, and if the mistake was discovered we would return it. There was no punishment for deficits - the money would merely have to be returned. So we would pay it back... if not, the profit was ours...
About a month later a short little goychik in an army greatcoat turned up and introduced himself as the auditor for the Regional Communist Finance Department. A chill of fear crept into my bones. With a smile pasted to my face I welcomed him, first offering him a drink... A liter of vodka already stood on the table. He drank one glass after another and the vodka vanished without trace. The auditor produced 30 rubles - the black market price - and asked for another liter, which he also downed rapidly. When the bottle was almost empty, I brought him the account book, which he stamped without a single glance, scrawling on the bottom that he had checked and found everything to be in order! Then off he went to check the tailors cooperative, which was administered by a qualified accountant with a diploma. There he raised a huge fuss, threatening them with prison if he found the accounts in such disarray next time, and adding: You should learn from the shoemakers how to keep accounts... nobody does it as well as the shoemakers....
After the High Holidays came Succoth and the problem of not desecrating the sanctity of the holiday. I didnt sleep nights for worry. We had to be very careful, because 2 Jewish members of the cooperative were beginning to provoke us, demanding that we work on Rosh Hashanah. I took the chairman of the cooperative, who was a known drinker, filled his glass with vodka and together we traveled round the region to see how Jews in the other cooperatives were handling the problem. We were told that each individual simply requested two days leave, which was approved without objection. We rushed back home, because it was already late in the afternoon of Erev Rosh Hashanah. I kept the chairman at my place, drunk as a lord, while I notified all the members that they should submit requests for two days leave, each of which was approved. The tailors cooperative had another ruse: they all woke up very early to pray before going to the cooperative building, where they sat and did nothing on the grounds that there was no work to do...
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah the village chairman went to check whether work was being done or not. Naturally he found the Shoemakers Cooperative closed, so he came to the synagogue where I was praying and called for me. Out I came, conspicuously wrapped in my tallit, to inquire in surprise why he was there. He asked where the shoemakers were, and why they were not at work. I innocently asked how I was expected to know, since I was on leave. He realized that I was a tough nut to crack, and walked away fuming.
Yom Kippur fell out on Shabbat, so that presented no problem. But what to do about Succot? I began to worry about the shoemakers, who were not earning enough because there was no leather to be had, and without leather, how could they work? We could improve the situation if we built a soap factory because there was no shortage of carcasses, which provide excellent raw material for soap. But no building was available. I tried to use up all the materials in the storeroom and finish all repairs, so by Succot we had no work to do. We rose very early that morning and went to pray in the synagogue. Then the Board Members joined me in searching for a suitable building to purchase, while the rest of the shoemakers sat in the workshop... At the end of the first day we returned with the good news that we had found a suitable building but the price was too high, so the next day we would have to try again. The same trick worked the next day as well, and we still did not buy a building. Now we only had to get through the last 2 days of the holiday... Succot ended without any desecration by any Jew, and the soap factory is still being built....
It was impossible to obtain kosher meat because ritual slaughter was forbidden and the sale of kosher meat was totally prohibited. You could sometimes arrange something, but what could you do with an entire cow? However, seeing that we were a cooperative, and a privileged one at that, being shoemakers, we decided to try and slaughter a cow. We divided the forequarters equally between all the members and sold the hindquarters to a government restaurant under the management of a gentile who was amazed to see meat at such a low price... We did this several times and everyone was delighted to be eating meat and so cheaply too! Until one day I said Thats enough, everyone must fend for himself or else he must do what everyone else does when theres nothing to eat - go to sleep hungry..., because I knew that I, the black one with the anti-social views would pay the price!
One day all the raw materials in the storeroom were finally used up. There was no work. Our Board had too many members - for ten shoemakers we had a staff of 6 men: a chairman, accountant, cashier, storekeeper and two foremen. We couldnt have it any other way! It was indeed impossible to run such a large factory without merchandise, without work and with a smaller staff. So I was chosen together with one of the foremen to travel to Brest Litovsk, our oblest (the chief town in our district), to try and obtain some leather. The distance to Brest Litovsk was 80 kilometers. The journey could only be made by train but tickets were not valid beyond Zhebinka station, which was 30 kilometers from Brest Litovsk. It was forbidden to travel to Brest Litovsk because it was on the German border, so anyone who arrived there without a pass was automatically assumed to be a spy!
We arrived at Zhebinka and continued on foot. I had a place to stay at Brest Litovsk because I had relatives there on my wifes side, as well as numerous acquaintances from my service in the Polish army. We arrived safely. Our feet were swollen but we were happy, and we began sniffing about for merchandise. It was hinted that officially I could only obtain what was available in the entire blessed country at that time - fever!!! We went to Tolchiuk (a sort of flea market) where practically everything could be had, because thousands of Jewish refugees had arrived there in their flight from the Germans, selling everything they had salvaged from their homes in exchange for food. Naturally they didnt want to work - work for what purpose?
I worked and earned 180 rubles per month, which was a good wage. I could therefore afford 1 kilo of the cheapest cooking oil. There was one good thing - nobody asked how you make a living. So long as you were working, it didnt matter how. So when the cooperative had no merchandise we had to find a job to cover the travel expenses... I acquired two pieces of white cloth which in better times was used for underwear and G-d forbid also for shrouds. Nowadays elderly Jews searched for white cloth for the latter purpose, because if they waited until they died they would travel naked to the world to come... So smart people bought without delay. Each piece of cloth was 17 meters long, and still in its original package. The problem was, how to get it home? I was wearing a long, wide fur coat. I stuck the cloth into the waistband of my trousers, tied it tightly with string, donned the coat and off we went to the train station. There we found hundreds of people standing in line for the ticket office, which was closed. The train was due in 20 or 30 minutes - how could we buy tickets? But God always has a solution.
Dozens of NKVD police and detectives were surveying the crowd with eagle eyes. I told my traveling companion that we should clear out. I was familiar with Brest Litovsk, and I knew that 1 kilometer down the line was a small station where the train made a very brief stop. We made our way there, and sure enough the station was empty except for a few laborers. We bought our tickets, the train arrived, and we hopped aboard. For whatever reason I found a seat by the lavatory. The other fellow laughed at me and made his way to the middle of the carriage. No sooner had the train started to move when an NKVD officer appeared. I pretended to sleep, and he decided to sit right next to me - he couldnt find a better place to sit? Meanwhile the string around my waist became loose and the bolts of cloth began to slip!!! I carried on sleeping... The officer was fed up with sitting next to a lazy dolt like myself so he went away to snoop somewhere else. Swiftly but with difficulty I locked myself into the lavatory before the cloth fell all the way to the floor. I rearranged myself and came out again, leaving my place and going to sit in the middle of the carriage next to my friend. The officer had already gone further into other carriages so we came home safely, with a profit on the side. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I lost my place on the cooperative. While we were in Brest Litovsk an investigative committee visited the cooperative and determined that the staff was too large. I was the one who got fired.
Passport: What could I do? Without an internal passport (identity card) from a small town, a person was lost. Well, not really lost, but sentenced to hard labor with no hope of staying alive. In our town there were some such Jews. I heard a rumor that in Prozhini, the central town of our district, there was a large flour mill, an oil press and a very large sawmill. Seeing that there was no shortage of trees in Russia or Poland, there was a lot of work to be had and they needed a lot of workers (incidentally, before the war this large plant belonged to a Jew named Krutzel), so laborers were welcomed and provided with identity cards. Four of us organized ourselves as a team and off we went - what wouldnt one do for an identity card? We arrived and found the Commissar in his office, a fine-looking and polite man, who asked what we wanted. We said nicely that we had come to look for work, and he took out 4 contract forms and started to fill them in. There was no argument as to wages, in fact we didnt even ask...
He wanted to sign us up for a year, but I said: Excuse me, please would you sign us up for 6 months?
Me: Perhaps were simply not good enough. Perhaps were physically incapable of doing the work? We havent even been tested.
He wrote down 6 months on the form and told us to join the night shift. At 8 in the evening we showed up for work. They gave us a trolley and showed us where to load up the tree trunks, which we then took quite a distance away and unloaded in a special way. We loaded up and began pushing. It was windy and bitterly cold, the snow came up to our knees, our eyes kept closing in sleep and our hearts were bursting. My brain kept chanting: You bum, you idiot, where have you stuck yourself? What will you do and how will you look on Friday night? I began to cry silently so that my companions wouldnt hear.
By the afternoon of that day we had already handed in our letters of recommendation and our photographs at the office. They told us to come back in two days and collect our documents. I had decided in my heart that I would continue until I had my identity card. It would mean desecrating the Sabbath, apart from which I had no idea how I could keep going for another 3 nights. We finished the shift and were desperate to sleep. Who even thought of food, drink or a place to lay our bones? We reported back to the office, and they took us to a room open to the wind with a table covered with snow, and said we could sleep there... I would happily have let Comrade Stalin, the Sun of the Universe, sleep there. I would even have let him sleep under the table so as to protect him from the snow...
I went to town, to try and warm myself at the home of a relative, and to pray that G-d would help me find a way out of this trap - but with an internal passport! I came to the home of a relative and good friend, and there I prayed devoutly, with great fervor. I then drank a glass of tea and left. In the street I encountered someone from my town - Chaya Rivka (today she lives in Canada). She asked what I was doing there, and I poured out the bitterness of my heart. She then informed me that she was employed as bookkeeper in the office of a chain of restaurants which served krupnik (barley soup) and clay-like bread. I wondered where she had acquired knowledge of bookkeeping, but as the saying goes - you can learn anything... She offered me the job of deputy bookkeeper if I would accompany her to her office. Deputy bookkeeper sounded fine to me. Anything was better than dragging treetrunks, starving and sleeping on a snow-covered table. So far so good, but how could I get out of the work contract without landing in jail?
I screwed up my courage and went to the Commissar. As I entered his office I felt exactly like someone who enters a lions cage to clean it...
- Good morning, Good morning!
- What do you want?
- Comrade Commissar, I have a request.
- Ive come to get my contract back.
- What, are you tired already?
- No, Comrade Commissar, Ill tell you the truth. If I didnt think you were a clever man, I would lie to you. But since I respect your wisdom and understanding, I decided to speak frankly. The truth is that I dont want to work at all, I want to earn a profit. (In Russian this has a double meaning).
He was most impressed, and the way he looked at me encouraged me to continue:
- When I had no prospects I was even willing to work here, but now that I have found a bookkeeping job, I see no reason to waste my time doing labor that any simple slob can do.
He drew out my contract and handed it to me. In a trice I ripped it in half and tossed it into the bin. Then I took his hand in both of mine and held it more fondly than even his mother ever did. And then I shot out of there like an arrow from a bow. The other guys asked me where I was going. What could I tell them? To look for food....
In Chaya-Rivkas office I was given a table and chair and I started work. My heart was light and my head was busy planning how to get the internal passport? I also wanted to be home for Shabbat...
Two days later I picked up my passport, went straight to the bookkeeper, Chaya Rivka, and said: Do me a favor, dear, go tell our manager that Im worthless, Im useless, I dont know how to work and this has all been a big mistake. She was astonished:
What, you dont want to work here?
Ill keep looking until I find something that suits me.
As the saying goes, everyone has the right to please himself. She did as I asked and within seconds I was fired without any pay. Three hours later I was home. My friends slaved and sweated for 6 months, and never understood how I managed to get out so easily.
I returned home but my passport could not provide food. Food was still available but to earn it one must work. Five kilometers from town was a farm that I knew well. A troop of soldiers had been garrisoned there and they had a canteen. The manager was a Jew who wanted to give it up so I started to figure out how I could obtain the position. I consulted with a friend who told me that to get it I needed a letter of recommendation from an army officer. Where does one find an officer? I went up to the first officer I saw and explained that they were looking for a suitable man to fill the position and I was looking for work. All I needed was a letter of recommendation. Without saying a word he took a paper and pencil out of his backpack. He asked me my name and wrote me a very warm recommendation. I immediately set off on foot for the farm, without even notifying my family. I found the correct captain and presented my letter. He asked what I was doing before the war. Oho, what a big business I ran... In that case, youre hired!
He gave me a letter of recommendation for the head office in Kartuz Breze, so I walked a further 13 kilometers, straight to Kartuz Breze, where I found a Jewish woman from Blotzny (a small town with a famous, large railway station). The former manager of the canteen was from her town. He was desperate to leave, but until a replacement was found they wouldnt let him go. She was delighted to see me, handed me pen and paper and instructed me to write my resume. I did so and she told me to report at 7 following morning and the canteen would be handed over to me. So off I went, home on foot - another 18 kilometers, but I was happy as could be to bring home the glad tidings that I had found work.
Early next morning I made my way to Kavky, which was the name of the farm. The same woman was waiting for me there, together with the captain and the manager. They made an inventory of the stock and handed it over to me with the keys. I knew that they cheated me with the prices, but I kept quiet, because she was trying to protect the former manager from losses. I soon realized why he could not make a success of the place. First of all, it was in a loft with a rotten ladder. Second of all, the roof leaked, and thirdly he brought in merchandise which he was unable to sell, and until he disposed of it he could not bring in different goods. I asked the captain whether he preferred a canteen or a pigeon loft without wares. Of course I want a canteen, he replied. Then find me another place, I told him. Together we chose a nice room, arranged for it to be whitewashed, added shelves and brought in the merchandise. This consisted of a large crate of good tobacco which the Russians are not partial to. They prefer korishkes - when the tobacco leaves are removed the stalk remains. They dry it, chop it fine, roll it in newspaper and smoke it. The smoke pours out like a chimney. In those days nothing was known about cancer, and anyway nobody was concerned. Fine tobacco was more suited to the city, where it cost fifteen rubles instead of five, and people were happy to pay the price.
In short, the box was sent where it was needed. I also had two boxes of plain, simple buttons. What good were they to soldiers? On the other hand, tailors needed them desperately and didnt know where to find them. I provided them cheaply, so neither I nor the canteen took a loss.... and the tailors were happy. I was left with 2 crates containing 50 kilo of pig lard. What does one do with it? I asked the captain for a wagon or a lorry which was used for transporting bread. He gave me a wagon and we travelled to Blotzny where a large bakery was located. There I requested 100 loaves of bread. They were astounded. Usually 10 loaves are sufficient for two days and now you want 100? Why? I answered them: Just because that idiot forced the officers wives to trudge to Meltz for a kilo of bread you expect me to do the same?....
They gave me 100 loaves of bread. It was forbidden to sell food to soldiers, but I had to get rid of the lard. I called in a soldier, and whispered to him that I would give him half a loaf of bread and half a kilo of lard, but he mustnt tell anyone. The soldier couldnt believe his ears, he thought I was making fun of him. I gave him the foodstuffs and he rushed off to his regiment. Pretty soon another soldier appeared with imploring eyes. Within half an hour, not a scrap of bread or lard remained, and I was left with a pile of money. I approached the captain: Give me a wagon to bring merchandise from Pruzany - there was a warehouse there. He gave me a wagon with two horses and an officer to escort me. We arrived there to find everything the heart could possibly desire. I loaded up the wagon, signed, and off we drove via Maltz, because on top of the pile were all sorts of good things for the house... I explained to the officer that at my home a bottle was waiting whose contents would warm the heart, as well as something good to eat. We stopped at the house, I unloaded my things, and saw to it that the officer received a glass of very good vodka and some fried liver.
No sooner had we arrived at the canteen and unloaded the merchandise when the officers wives caught sight of us and fell upon the wares like flies, buying everything they could lay hands on. I did some buying as well - half for me and half for them. Two days later I had a sackful of money and off I went again, once to Kartuz Breze and again to Pruzany. Everyone was amazed: Whats going on here? Nothing was ever sold in Kavky before and now everything goes! My reply: There was an idiot here before but now theres a manager! One item of my inheritance still remained in the form of two boxes of after-shave cologne. It was made of poison alcohol but the Russians would drink it. It was on a Sunday that I called over a soldier and revealed a secret: I have some cologne. He asked for two bottles, but I told him he could only have one, and he shouldnt tell anyone! It worked wonders - they came running, one after another, and within an hour not a bottle remained...
I went home. On Monday morning I had not yet arrived at the shop when a soldier informed me that four soldiers had been jailed in the cellar for getting drunk on cologne. In my heart I felt as if I had received Jobs tidings, G-d forbid. I had barely unlocked the door when Captain Politrok arrived - he was the overall boss, and everyone was afraid of him.
He: Good morning
Me: Good morning
He: Tell me, did you sell a lot of cologne yesterday?
Me (with great confidence): Yes, Comrade Captain Politrok
He: How many?
Me: 5 or 6 bottles
He: Is that a lot?
Me: Of course its a lot. Sometimes days go by without a single sale. Comrade Politrok, is something the matter?
He: Nothing at all
And off he went. He expected me to deny it. I would probably have done so had I not known about the prisoners. The information saved me. The captain knew that I was lying, but he didnt know that I was aware that he was lying as well...
The Invasion of Russia (Barbarossa Campaign)
I ran the canteen until the day war broke out between Germany and Russia on June 21, 1941. Early that morning my mother-in-law came in while I was still asleep and announced that war had broken out. She added that bombs had already been dropped on the railway lines near Maltz. I forgot to add that it was a Sunday.
Two days earlier, on Friday June 19 two families were arrested in Maltz before dawn. My opposite neighbor, Vassil Avgustinovitz, a very smart gentile, was a pig merchant who also manufactured all sorts of sausages. They took him to jail and sent his wife and seven children to Siberia on a train. The second family was Jewish - Shmuel Rosenbaum. He was also put in jail, and his wife and three sons were sent to Siberia. What a sad day it was. I rose quickly and went to work. When I got there I wanted to know what was happening in town, so I borrowed a cart and went to Kartuz Breze. There I met the woman from Blotzny who told me in a whisper what was happening at the train station. Two freight trains packed with people like herring in a barrel - women, children and some men as well. I had a lot of money. I handed over the money to the cashier and returned home, fearful of what the next day would bring. All day I was entirely crushed.
On Sunday the war broke out. I rushed to work, in the hope of seeing and perhaps hearing some news from the soldiers. On the way we thought we saw German planes, but we werent sure. I say we because another Jew was with me, a painter who worked for the army. When we arrived at work we saw soldiers eating breakfast as usual, so we assumed it was all a lie. Five seconds later a siren sounded, soldiers began running like crazy and cars drove out with blue headlights, announcing that war had broken out!!!
Sergeant Politrok came into my store. He was a Jew who always spoke like an atheist. Now his face was almost black with worry and fear as he told me that only God could save us. He told me about the speech made by Hitler, may his name be blotted out. He described his raging hatred of Jews and communists. When I asked where the battlefront was he told me that there is no battlefront, and we dont know where to go, everything is totally confused and there is no information. Meanwhile the battalion moved out into the forest near the farm and I regretted the money I had handed over on Friday...
At 3 in the afternoon I closed the store. I took a little food and the money which had been deposited that day, as well as a few more things, and went home, thinking that tomorrow I would decide what to do. Man makes his plans... At that moment I met a neighbor, a Jew, with a wagon, but I did not return with him to the store, because I wanted to avoid surprises. All night there were troop movements, and in the middle of the night an officer who owed me money came in, and gave me the keys of his house, instructing me to take everything in payment for his debt! I asked him where the battlefront was located, but again I received the reply that there is no battlefront, the Germans are very close!!! Nobody slept at all that night, and early next morning I went to see how my canteen was faring. The road was already becoming dangerous. I arrived to find everything smashed and looted by gentiles from the area. I went on to the officers house to find the same thing - not even the doors and the windows remained, everything was gone. I came home to find panic and terror everywhere - the Germans were already in Pruzany, the jails were open and all the prisoners had fled to their homes, including my neighbor and the Jews, but not their families.
I wanted to end the section on the Russians here, but I have remembered some scenes which I wanted to add. As I said in the beginning, I don not always keep to chronological order. I have therefore allowed myself to go backwards, to the time when the Russians arrived. The first thing they did was retaliate against everyone who had ever opposed them, or who they even suspected of so doing. This included opponents of the communist regime and those suspected of helping the police to arrest communists. Communism was banned in Poland and anyone involved in communist activities was very severely punished. Now was the time for revenge. In our town was a Polish policeman. He was quite old, in fact he had been pensioned off before the war started. I remember that he wore a sheepskin coat like all the goyim. He was a big anti-semite, stirring up trouble against the Jews. It was rumored that he also informed on the communists, carrying his tales to willing ears. On the first day of Succoth, which was 9 days after the Russians arrived, he was arrested and taken to Pruzany for trial. The road went by a forest. They took him into the forest, broke his arms and legs, cut off his limbs and left him there. He had no children, and his wife brought his body back in a wagon to be buried.
One day I went to Pruzany and saw this scene: some civilians were leading a policeman they had captured. Suddenly some people (not Jews, of course), fell upon him. They came swarming like flies from all sides, and with swords and knives they hacked strips from his body. Pieces were already lying on the ground, but he remained remained standing until suddenly he fell and became a heap of scraps... Well, Ill stop for now. I must begin to describe the worst and bitterest time of all, when darkness fell upon every place on earth where Jews were living.
The Germans arrive
On the Wednesday after war broke out, Wednesday afternoon June 25, to be precise, the Germans entered our town. Before doing so they bombarded us heavily with cannon fire. When they encountered no opposition, they sent in the infantry. For the first few days they did nothing. Occasionally they would enter a Jewish house, and when they realized where they were, they would make the gesture of passing a finger across the throat. Occasionally they also stole, but they were mainly occupied with rounding up thousands of prisoners - Russian soldiers who had remained in the area, unable to flee. Whenever they caught one or two, they put a bullet in their heads. When they caught a larger group, they herded them with sticks, exactly like sheep, beating them all the way to make them run like cattle. This is my reply to those clever people who ask how the Jews could allow themselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter. These prisoners, hundreds of mainly young, trained soldiers, surrendered to the supervision of 20 or 25 German soldiers who treated them shamefully and beat them mercilessly. The prisoners submitted, although they had no families to worry about and they did not fear reprisals such as the collective punishments which were imposed on Jews for every little thing.
Many of the German soldiers rode around on motorcycles, half naked and suntanned, rifles slung across their chests, looking like real heroes. I once mentioned this to my good friend V. Nusselboim of blessed memory, who was a very wise and intelligent man: Its not suprising that they are conquering the world. See how heroic they look, and what weapons they carry... He replied If you see them in retreat, you will see how they look then... Thank G-d I saw them in retreat, and I saw that he was right! One week later the flood of soldiers lessened somewhat, and the edicts began to rain down, in clusters...
The first things was white ribbons, 10 cm wide, with a yellow six-pointed star, to be worn on the sleeve. For the first few days the gentiles envied the Jews, when they saw the ribbons. You see, they had been saying that the Germans would slaughter the Jews and now they saw inspectors with ribbons. They couldnt read so they didnt understand the announcements. Once the decrees were published in German and Russian they realized that their dreams had come true. Only one thing spoiled their happiness. The civilian police had been appointed from the ranks of those who had opposed communism, gentiles who had suffered under the communists and hated them. The important activists fled, but the junior members remained hidden wherever they could. Many gentiles belonged to this group, but only two young communists were Jewish, and perhaps three girls. Dozens of communists were taken out and shot, and this clouded the happiness of the gentiles at the misfortunes of the Jews.
The order came immediately to form a Judenrat - a Jewish committee for Jewish affairs. My gentile neighbour Vassily Abgostinovich was elected Police Commandant. He was a shrewd man who passionately hated the communists. Once I saw him in the middle of the street opposite my house, beating the the chairman of my shoemakers cooperative. His anger was frightening to see. I remember wondering how he could bear it. Later I learned to understand how one can bear it... They asked my friend V. Nusselboim, whom I mentioned previously, to form the committee. He suggested that I join him but I refused. Still he persisted: Look, I dont want all sorts of opportunists to join the committee, thats why Im asking you and the others on my list. If you refuse, the police will force you. I had no choice but to agree. I didnt know at the time what price I would pay, but nevertheless I sensed that I should refuse. However, as I said, I had no alternative. Fortunately, and to my gratification, during the short period of our tenure until the town was destroyed, there were no calamities and we were not called upon to carry out or assist in any such activities.
We were in the Ukraine, and the railway lines outside Maltz to the west were the border with East Germany. As long as the town remained standing, there was luckily no famine, and somehow everyone managed. The first edict required that we give the army 10 cows in exchange for a certain sum of money. We decided that since nearly every Jew in town still had a cow, we would do the following: the first cows would be taken from families without children or elderly dependents, and the other families would pay a fixed amount to make up the price of the cows, as compensation. In addition, everyone received a certain amount of milk each day from the remaining cows. With G-ds help everyone accepted the decision with understanding.
Apart from this a soldier had attached himself to our town. He came every week to demand eggs, and sometimes chickens as well. We knew that it was possible to refuse him because he behaved like a partisan and he himself was scared. But the committee decided that it was not worth courting calamity over such a small matter. We would go out and collect 20 or 30 eggs for him, and then he would leave. As time passed they began to order the Jews to go out to work - the type of work was not important, the main thing was to make them slave, for free, naturally. Fortunately there were no army bases in our area, nor were there roads to repair or other essential labour for the army and the war effort was similar to that in other places. They found us work with landowners and farmers. There was always something needed, whether it was pulling up potatoes in the fields or threshing grain and so on.
The work wasnt bad, but the hurt and the indignity were. To be the slaves of Jewhaters, to hear their jibes and antisemitic comments such as: Never mind, its about time you learned how to work... as if Jews never worked in their entire lives. The silence, the choking silence when you cant reply out of fear. Fear of whom? Of those who only a few weeks ago hid in holes like mice, shaking with fear at every footfall, lest they be taken to Siberia. Now the redemption was at hand, the Russians fled and the German murderers arrived and compensated them with Jewish prey to exploit and to degrade, which was even better. Its hard, very, very hard to describe the humiliation. The committee had the job of drawing up lists and informing everyone where they would work, and I dont need to tell you what sort of blessings we received. But the committee didnt really need to defend itself, because we began to hear many tales of woe from other places. We heard about the terrible decrees, the butchery and the deportations from towns and villages to another city, and these reports of murder, killings and torture made people forget their anger about the work and the committee...
Maltz is liquidated
Unfortunately this difficult state of affairs did not last for long in Maltz. It ended on Shabbat Parshat Noah, 1941. It was the Shabbat of the blessing of the new month - Marheshvan. How bitter and sad was that Shabbat. The night passed peacefully and uneventfully. But early next morning, it was as if a volcano had erupted. What a storm burst upon us! We heard the arrogant voices of Nazi collaborators and local policemen, thirsting for Jewish blood - those who were suspected and hated by the communists during the communist regime had enlisted with the Nazi police. Now they ran about shouting: All the Jews must gather in the central marketplace.
What did it mean? People began to flee and to hide. We didnt know that before the shouting and the orders to come outside, German soldiers - Wehrmacht - had encircled the town, shooting all those who fled so that nobody could escape. Some people managed to flee, including my brother Meir Eliahu Š"ý. I never thought of running away, because I always knew that whatever happened to my family, I would stay with them, sharing the same fate. As long as G-d kept us alive, I would not abandon them to their sufferings. Even though a father cannot help his son or his wife under such circumstances, nor can a son help his father or his mother, or a wife her husband. Nevertheless something happened - apparently it was my fate to be tested yet again. Two of my friends ran over to me and urged me to flee with them. Without thinking I grabbed my tallit and tefillin and another few things which I thought were items of clothing, and together we rushed out, not along the main road but through the yard of my neighbour, the gentile Vassil Avgustinovich, who was commandant of the police.
From there, out to the field. Nearby, 200 or 300 meters further, was an estate with a very large fruit orchard, surrounded by a pine forest. There we met several other smart guys like ourselves. A gentile woman, wife of the gamekeeper, came out and told us to run away because the place was crawling with soldiers. We had two options, both equally dangerous. We could return to the town, but we would most likely encounter a soldier who would shoot us. Or we could run into the forest, which meant crossing an open field and following a path between the trees. A brief consultation! I said we shouldnt all stick together, but divide into two groups so that we wouldnt all be killed. Unfortunately I and my two friends were chosen to go first. I gave my bundle with the clothes to the woman to hide for me... and we began to run. Before we could get to the path that led to the forest, we saw the murderers begin shooting from behind the trees. I yelled out: Everyone back, and keep down as much as you can, and we ran in zigzag fashion. Meanwhile it had begun to rain hard, and we had to cross a ditch in order to reach the town. We arrived safely and joined the round up of the Jews.
There were some Jews in our town, refugees, who had come from Bialystok and Sharshev. They were brought into the large synagogue. We were sure that it was a fiendish plot to burn them together with the building. The Jewish inhabitants of Maltz were sent to the large Polish school outside of town. On the way I saw a Jew from Pruzany lying dead on the ground. He had tried to flee back to Pruzany, but met a murderers bullet on the way. All the gentiles along the road who saw the body thought it was me - in fact there was a strong resemblance and we were wearing identical coats.
We entered the school, surrounded by policemen, and began to pray. We were waiting for one of two things: either they would take us out and kill us on the spot, or they would deport us to another town, as was the case in neighboring villages. We sat and waited until evening, when the order was given to return to our homes. The following morning, Sunday, we were instructed to come to Kartuz Breze with our families - a distance of 20 kilometers. A harsh decree, but thank G-d not more severe. Meanwhile the well-connected gentiles, those who hated bolsheviks, together with the soldiers and police conducted searches from house to house. I returned home to find my house full of friends who knew what I had in the house - they were my friends because during the communist regime I had cast my bread upon the waters, as the saying goes. I had helped all the gentiles as much as possible and they appreciated it, so now I began to share out all my belongings between them. The way I figured it, if I remained alive I might some day get some of it back, and if not, what difference would it make which gentile inherited from me? I only asked that one of them provide me with a horse and cart to convey my family to Kartuz Breze, so that I wouldnt have to carry my 3 year old son on my back together with a heavy parcel. After all, as long as one continues to breathe one requires other necessities. All my possessions together did not make up the price of a cart, but one man said that if I would provide a pair of leather soles for his father, he would take us. I agreed, and in this way I saved my family for the time being from the difficulties of the journey and was also able to take with me many necessary items.
I mentioned previously the refugees from Bialystok and Sharshev. Every day more arrived. In the summer of 1941 Sharshev was destroyed. It was much larger than Maltz, but nevertheless the Jews came to us. The distance from Sharshev to Pruzany was 12 kilometers, but they were deported on foot, with bundles on their backs, all the way to Antopoly, 70 kilometers to the east. Many people were shot to death on the way, and the bodies required burial. The other men, women and children were permitted to rest in the meantime, and the best place to do so was near water. Night was falling - what if someone managed to escape? They locked them into goatsheds and stables overnight, because the murderers also needed to rest. In this way they brought them to Antopoly.
When they arrived, the crowd began to disperse, looking for a place to live. However, in such a distant place they had no relatives and nobody to turn to for help. So we brought 10 families to live with us, receiving them like brothers in distress. We provided them with homes and all the necessities. I took into my home a family of four. The community council distributed free bread, potatoes, vegetables and milk, but I didnt let my family take any of it. I told them that whatever was in the house we would eat together, and so we did, like one family, until one day, a few weeks before our town was destroyed, they decided to move to Pruzany ghetto. I gave them beds and other things which we could spare and which they could use. This also worked out well for us, because when we finally arrived in Pruzany ghetto they were happy to return our belongings and we were grateful to receive them. This is what I mean by cast your bread upon the waters, for in the fullness of days you will find it.
Soon after the arrival of the Shershev refugees, a large number of refugees came to us from Bialystok. They had previously been in Pruzany ghetto together with hundreds of other families. The poorest, most poverty-stricken people were selected from that ghetto and sent east, and in this way 70 or 80 families came to us. It was impossible for us to absorb them because we already had some 110 very poor families living with us and the houses were very small, even the wealthiest people lived in homes of 3-4 rooms. Most of the refugees realized this and continued eastward to Kartuz Breze, but about 25 families remained in our town, most of them living in the large synagogue and a few with local families. Although there was a great deal of overcrowding, there were no arguments.
Until the town was destroyed each refugee received 1 kilo of bread, free potatoes and vegetables daily. For Rosh Hashana we distributed free chickens so that each person received half a chicken. Before Yom Kippur each person received a whole chicken. One family of two was not satisfied with chickens. I gave them a kilo of butter but they were very angry and cursed me bitterly. I still think of them to this day because it may be that those curses kept me alive. The Almighty transformed them into blessings. How was it possible for us to distribute bread and potatoes so freely? I was acquainted with some kindhearted gentiles, and some of the council members had gentile friends, so we asked them for a little rye and a bit of barley to grind. This we smuggled into the bakery, and they baked it for us, so we had bread. Potatoes came from the local Jews, because each had his own plot of land, and sometimes we would get a few potatoes from our workplaces as well.
| Next (Part 2) | Malch page |
This document was posted here with the permission of the Rubinstein family.