|Jewish Brethren , Hold Stead Fast!|
1. The Ghetto in
On The Way To Eretz
personal memoirs of Shumel Mordechai Rubinstein z"l
The Ghetto in Kartuz Breze
Now I return to our story. I told you how I distributed my possessions. I also had a fine milk cow, which I decided to give to a landowner of my acquaintance. We had done business together for a long time. The estate was called Kabakier Hoif in Yiddish and it was 6 kilometers from town, on the road to Kartuz Breze. I admit that what I did was entirely unplanned - I had the opportunity, I took it, and it worked out well! Ill get back to it. We arrived in Kartuz Breze and were told that we could live with any Jewish family, if they agreed. We came to the home of a relative. It was a fine house, nearly new, and they were very happy to see us, rather than someone else. We were delighted to be received so warmly and heartily. There were five of us: myself, my wife and my lovely son, loveliest of children, may G-d avenge them, my pure and virtuous mother in law z"l and my brother in law Shmuel Chomsky n"y (Naro Yair - lit.-> may his candle (life) stay lit ; trans.-> may he live a long life).
After unloading the cart I rushed to the community council to hear the news. I heard them calling for members of the Maltz council and told myself I dont exist! Then I said to myself If G-d saved me so that I came out of Maltz with clean hands and a pure conscience, I will now live like every other Jew, and I will not take responsibility. Thank G-d it was well that I did so. Those who went in told me later that the first thing they were asked for was a list of all those with money, gold, merchandise or other valuables.
I was ordered to report immediately for work. Together with many other Jews I walked 6 kilometers to the Lodny train station. There they loaded us onto a freight train and we were taken as far as Bruno-Gura, a very large forest. It was already winter. The region was very sandy and our job was to fill the traincars with sand. We didnt know that we were preparing mass graves for the ghetto of Kartuz Breze and other Jews. On the way to Bruno-Gura we passed a freight train with open cattlecars crammed with starving Russian prisoners of war, bareheaded and freezing. Who can describe in simple words the horrors we witnessed? Who knows how many days and nights they had been travelling thus, without food and drink, in the freezing cold, until they arrived at Lodny? The Germans began tossing dead bodies out of the carriages, and we saw dozens of them, thin and tortured, with protruding eyes, thats how they looked in the concentration camps. And when we returned, we saw how they dragged the corpses as if they were the carcasses of animals, hurling them into the pits. At the side of the pits stood military officers of the elite units, taking photographs, and then administering a kick to shove the body into the pit... The blood freezes in my veins and a coldness creeps into my bones as I recall those scenes.
When I returned home I made up my mind to escape and began making plans. The place was too dangerous! The main Warsaw-Moscow highway passed through the town. It was the towns main road, traversed non-stop night and day by soldiers and of course the army stopped to rest right in the middle of town. Once I decided, I acted immediately, but first I had to rescue the cow.
I contacted the butcher and told him that I would sell him my cow for a certain sum of money plus 5 kilo of meat. I also made a special request for the cows hide. I made up my mind to bring him the cow, but I still had to figure out how to do it. I took with me my 18 year old brother-in-law Shmuel Chomsky, and we set off on foot for the Kabaky estate. When we arrived at the cowshed, my heart was beating probably 150-200 times a minute! The cowshed stood right on the main road. It was very long and large. We were in hostile territory without a permit, at the mercy of any ruffian who happened to see us, but I was afraid to ask the landowner for permission to take my cow, because I strongly doubted that he would be willing to return it. And even if he did, the odds were that he would send a couple of servants to kill us. So, under the circumstances, I decided to steal the cow.
I looked around - nobody was in sight, so I opened the gate and nobody was inside either. My cow was chained nearest the gate. What can I tell you? My eyes fill with tears even now when I remember how that mute, blameless animal recognized me. When I removed her chain she followed me like a tame dog, and we all ran like mad without looking back - my brother-in-law, the cow and I - across the fields and into the forest. It took about an hour and a half to get back to Kartuz Breze and deliver the cow to the butcher. I entrusted my fate to the Holy One Blessed Be He, and early next morning I went to the Pruzany ghetto, looking for a way to bring my family there, a distance of 36 kilometers. It was a Thursday, and I arrived there around 2:00 in the afternoon, going straight to the lane where my relative lived. Suddenly two soldiers appeared in front of me, each one about 2 meters tall. Thats all I needed - to be caught by these two! Instinctively I turned to the nearest house on my right, made for the door, opened it and dived in. I stayed there for a couple of minutes until they passed, and then continued on my way.
That day, through my sister Taibel ò"ä who lived in Pruzany I managed to obtain a licence to bring in 2 laden wagons, a woman and a child, and of course 2 waggoners. Why only one woman and one child? I probably didnt want to ask for more, fearing that permission would be denied. As the saying goes If you take too much youll end up with nothing. I also bought some tobacco which I tied under my belt, and on Friday morning I walked 36 kilometers home, but this time I decided to make a detour via Maltz and visit my house, where I had a sum of money buried in the garden. I had become a lawbreaker, although this is not my nature.
Gentiles were already living in my home, but I found the money and once again I fled across the fields. By this time I had blisters and sores on my legs and the pain was agonizing, so I walked slowly. Night began to fall and I was still 3 kilometers from Kartuz Breze. Suddenly I heard a horse-drawn wagon coming towards me on the road to Lodny. There was only one gentile on the wagon, so without fear I stepped into the road - I think he was more frightened than I was. I offered him a packet of tobacco in exchange for a lift to Kartuz Breze. Why not all the way home? Again, the same reason - If you take too much.... or perhaps it was plain stupidity! He brought me to town and I gave him what I promised. But the pain was so great that I could hardly move. In severe pain and with great difficulty I made my way home. It took me an hour to cover a distance of ten minutes. How can I describe their joy when they saw I had made it safely home. The important thing was that I arrived, but I spent the next 24 hours in bed.
I arranged with a waggoner to load up my family and our few belongings before daybreak, and off we went. I deliberately chose the main road, and we deliberately went by the longest route. Soon youll know why... Previously I had had a conversation with a gentile who lived in a small village on the main road about 13 kilometers from Kartuz Breze. He owned a flour mill. I gave him leather for a pair of boots and he promised to bring 300 kilos of flour in 4 large sacks to Pruzany. I arrived with swollen feet and he immediately loaded the flour onto his cart and came with me.
So far everything was going well, but my fear and dread did not leave me for a moment. On all sides the devil seemed to lurk in ambush, because I was responsible for my beloved family, taking them on such a long and dangerous journey. A man requires great spiritual and physical strength, as well as nerves of steel, to overcome his fears and reveal no sign of weakness to the frightened family by his side. We had to pass Maltz, where the danger was even greater because every Christian child knew me and my family. We still had 10 kilometers to go before that, and hundreds of gentiles on the road might recognize me. To salve my conscience and justify my actions I reminded myself why I was fleeing. Was it not from the gravest danger? Was I not seeking a safer haven for a while? What happens to a mouse in a trap? He runs madly in all directions, seeking a hole to escape. And if there is no hole he begins gnawing with his teeth, chewing the board to make an opening. Man behaves the same way to save himself and and especially to save those for whom he is responsible .
Thank G-d we passed Maltz safely and continued westward to Pruzany, another 18 kilometers. Here, too, there was no lack of friends and acquaintances. Five kilometers west of Maltz was a large village called Baiky, and on its perimeter ran the Warsaw-Moscow railway line, which the Germans defined as the border between Eastern Prussia and the Ukraine. A hut stood on the highway, manned by German border police, who asked for our permit. One of them read it: two waggoners - OK! A woman and a child - OK! He would not allow my poor mother-in-law, my brother-in-law or me to cross the border, but sent us back. This shows that I hadnt thought things through, or I would have prepared some kind of bribe like a piece of soap or a little bottle of vodka, to make the permit legal. It doesnt help to be clever after the event... The time had come to gnaw with the teeth and chew the board...
Night was falling - what could we do? In the entire village of friends and acquaintances, nobody was willing to take us in. After all, Jews were a plague, a dangerous plague. On the other side of the village was a schoolhouse where all the teachers were Poles. During the Soviet regime I had done them many favours, but they refused to let us stay there, suggesting that we go to the estate of the widow Marilka Stasevich. The estate was named Baikyer Hof, for the village of Baiky 800 meters away. I had known the widow for many years, doing business with her husband and later with her. Now she was our last hope. We arrived there and she welcomed us, not very warmly, explaining that we couldnt stay overnight for fear of the Germans. Instead she suggested that we stay with one of her labourers - she had many such families, what we called servants, and I knew them all very well. Interestingly, although I still had blisters and sores on my legs I could suddenly walk as if reborn. Another interesting thing: By nature I am easily moved to tears, but from the beginning of the Soviet regime until the day I was saved from the Nazis, through the hardest and bitterest times, even when I was beaten and whipped, I never shed a tear. The first time I cried was when I was told that we had been liberated. Then I wept in mingled joy and sorrow for all that had passed...
I went into one house after another. Each family was very sorry for our plight, but told us that we would have to sleep at the neighbors house. By now it was very late, bitterly cold and snow was falling - what should we do? I made up my mind to break into a barn so we could sleep on the piles of hay and straw. But before doing so, I decided on one final attempt: summoning up all my nerve and chutzpa I returned to Marilka Stasevich. Dear Lady, I said, Not so long ago your situation was no better than mine is now. You see how fast the wheel of fortune turns - who knows what tomorrow will bring? And another thing - there are those who merit the world to come in an hour, and there are also those who lose the world to come in the same time. Perhaps this is your chance to attain the world to come? She looked stunned, but after a moments thought she said: You can stay.
She served us food - potatoes, white bread and cream, and told one of the servants to spread straw on the floor. She brought sheets and blankets and we lay down to rest and make plans for getting to Pruzany, because my wife and child would be very worried, not knowing what happened to us. We arose before dawn and continued on our way. We walked fast and soon the blood was racing in our veins. As the Cossacks say: Suffer, Cossack, soon youll be an officer! It was very foggy out - a good time to be sleeping. The heck with the border, why should we go the long way? We approached the railway track/border and crossed without hearing even a dog bark. Then we ran like crazy. Two kilometers away was a very large forest, about 3 kilometers wide, where the Germans had stockpiled vast quantities of artillery shells, so of course it was full of soldiers guarding the ammunition. Before reaching the forest we came across a gentile driving a wagon in the direction of Pruzany. In exchange for a packet of tobacco he agreed to take my poor old mother-in-law in the wagon. And so we came to Pruzany.
The ghetto was not yet entirely fenced in, so it was possible to pass in and out almost freely. I immediately took the opportunity of handing my permit to a Jewish carter, whom I paid to bring my parents to the ghetto. Two days later they arrived and moved in with my sister, while we found a room in a house which we shared with another 2 families. The house was cold and the landlord was strange - he wouldnt turn on the stove, so there was no heat... We didnt stay long. I went looking and found an empty house with three large, clean rooms, newly painted. I was surprised that such a fine house was standing empty, but without any hesitation we moved in.
That night a swarm of tiny creeping insects attacked us. In Yiddish we called them preisen, but I tell you without shame that I have no idea what theyre called in Hebrew. Theyre longer and more jumpy than bugs, and their sting is equally unpleasant... in short, we couldnt sleep all night. We fought valiantly but they won! The following night we were smarter and placed a pan filled with kerosene under each leg of the bed. They didnt like this, so we were certain that they wouldnt reach the beds. We cleaned each bed thoroughly, and left the windows open all day, hoping the frost would discourage them. No such luck! In the evening we closed the windows, heated the house a bit and settled down to sleep. No sooner had we put out the light when they were back, attacking us like thieves! How did they do it? By climbing up the walls to the ceiling, and simply dropping down on us! No wonder the house had been standing empty! So once again I went looking for an apartment and found a tiny room which would do for the time being, but still I continued looking, together with my other brother-in-law Yaacov Yungerman, who had a family of 6. We found a small gentile home for his family, our poor mother-in-law and Shmuel, while we stayed in the tiny room of another house, but we ate all our meals at Yaacovs place.
This partnership paid off, Thank G-d. I am happy and grateful that there were no complaints and nobody lost by it. The time came to find work. The first day I worked on an airfield built by the Soviets, which was now used as barracks for the Military Police. Their sleeves were a very dark brown - its a pity their eyes werent the same! The snow was at least a meter high. About 100 Jews arrived there with a police officer. He was a little guy but he had a very big dog. Apparently his feelings of inferiority for his lack of size drove him to be a tough guy with the Jews, and of course it was far easier to act tough here than in Stalingrad! First of all, for sport, he made us lie down in the snow and get up and so on, then he divided us into groups, one to clear the snow from the road, the others for different tasks... My job was to chop wood, with another two men. It wasnt bad, because we worked in the storeroom, unsupervised. To chop wood you need tools, so I was sent to a hut for axes and a saw. I went in and nearly fainted - three dead bodies were lying there. One lay on the table, another underneath the table and the third was lying alongside. My heart said Jew, dont get so excited! There I saw signs of what those murderers are capable of doing, where their expertise in torture lay... I had the idea of checking whether they were Jews, and indeed, they were not. I was therefore exempt from washing my hands, for a gentile does not make one impure...
Imagine how little value they placed on Jews, if even gentiles were treated this way! But dare I say, without sounding like a bad person, that it was also in its way a small comfort - if they didnt also treat gentiles like this, the Jews would get even harsher treatment. For example, in the streets of Kartuz Breze, before the ghetto was defined, you couldnt go on the pavement, you had to walk in the middle of the street with a yellow six-pointed star, 10 cm wide, on your back and another on your sleeve, while cars and army lorries rushed by like the wind. Add to that the gentiles with their wagons - need I say more?
I left the hut (the slaughterhouse) and returned to work without telling my friends what I had seen. I thanked G-d that we made it through the day without being beaten, and we went home happy. On the way, we passed one of Pruzanys jails - there were two, one white and the other red, and thats how they were referred to. The white one for for serious offences and the red one for lighter sentences. The Germans turned the red one into a labour training camp. If you went in and succeeded in coming out, you were trained! Most of the counselors were Poles. A Jew from Maltz of my age named Neta Tannenbaum æ"ì was taken in there once. They beat him three times a day, 25 stripes each time, and then told him to beat his wife until she came up with some money. What choice did he have? He did so, and a few days later he was taken out and shot. He was buried together with many gentiles in the forest, near the barracks where I worked for most of the time that I remained in Pruzany ghetto. Ill write more about this later.
The following day, after working at the airfield I was sent to work on another road, the road leading to Sharshev. There, too, we had to clear the snow off the road. Our minders were not army men but members of the Public Works Department, who were responsible for the upkeep of roads and railways. In addition, they were plain murderers, by order of the Fuhrer. One of the minders sent a Jew to bring something, telling him in German to run to the khurve, which in German means bend in the road but in Yiddish and Polish means prostitute. The Jew ran off and returned empty handed, declaring that he didnt find a khurve.... Come with me, said the German. He took him to the bend in the road, showed him what it was he wanted, and then hit him hard a couple of times - so then we all knew what a khurve is...
A few days later I was sent along with another 10 Jews to work at another barracks. On the first day we reported for work we were received by a feldwehbel (sergeant-major), who was stationed there together with 10 soldiers, thieves all of them! The barracks was spread over a very large area, and included many large and smaller buildings. It had been built by the Russian Tsars, but changed hands many times since then. If those walls could only speak, what tales and history they could tell! Far better than I could...
The sergeant-major lined us up next to their sleeping quarters and ordered us to pull up the grass with our fingernails. The blades of grass were too tiny to grasp, the earth was hard as rock, and there he stood with his club in his hand, thrashing us on our backs without ceasing, all the time yelling faster, faster. I was lucky not to be beaten, apparently I worked energetically. The other guys were crying, and whispering to each other not to return the following day... But I spoke to them out of experience and with confidence, encouraging them to do their best and assuring them that all would be well. After half an hour he tired of it - apparently even the tastiest treats like beating Jews become tiresome after a while... He turned to me and said Youre responsible for them. See to it that they work well! and went into the building. I have no idea why he picked me. He entered the corridor and I followed, calling: Sergeant sir! so he wouldnt think I was running after him to kill him. He turned to me: What is it? Quietly and secretively I murmured Would you like some vodka, sir? He asked Do you have some? and I replied Tomorrow Ill have...
Thats good! Everyone knows that its good for all pains and troubles... Meanwhile he brought me into his room, took out a bottle of vodka and poured me a glass. He spread cheese on white bread and said Eat! I came out of there somewhat tipsy and told the guys to relax. If each man would come up with 10 marks we would have a decent place to work and hopefully wed even earn something. When we came to work the next day, the sergeant received his vodka and saw that I keep my promises, so he became fond of me and we remained friends. He waved his hand in the general direction of the buildings and told us to clean them. No guards, no restrictions, a real pleasure. Have you ever seen the like? We began to clean the buildings. Apart from the walls we left him nothing - for us, everything was a commodity. We removed every electrical part from the building, even the rags could be sold!
The Russians had fled, and whatever we found went into the ghetto. There was a drawback - every day we had to walk 6 kilometers to the barracks, hauling a crate of lemonade from the ghetto for the soldiers, and on the way back we returned the crate with the empty bottles. But in those days, under those conditions, it was worth it. the important thing was that the work was not difficult, in fact most of the time we didnt work at all. It was possible to more or less support ones family. What more could one want, at a time when we were expecting one of two things: either a miracle from G-d, bringing about the downfall of the greatest Amalek who ever rose against the Jews from the time of the creation of the world, or else our death, G-d forbid! At every moment, our lives were hanging by a thread. The amazing thing was that people didnt spend all their time fearing the worst. Man is by nature optimistic, living in hopes of a better future, especially if he is a man of faith. Another cause for hope was that the year was drawing to a close, and somehow this made us more hopeful. Even though we received bad news every day - here they killed, there they slaughtered, towns had been destroyed... Each of these tidings renewed in us the sensation of living in a cage, like a crate of chickens outside the slaughterhouse, while inside the slaughterer works efficiently...
One day the sergeant-major notified the Judenrat (community council) that he required a horse and cart for the work. This was swiftly provided, and from then on we took turns riding to work. In the ghetto I had a friend, a Jew from Bialystok. He was an excellent goldsmith and watchmaker, and spent his time making gold and silver rings, monogrammed with the initials of ones name. His work was truly beautiful. Naturally everything he made was used by the council for bribing the soldiers. For 5 marks he gave me a ring for those vultures whenever I needed one, especially for my friend the sergeant. In truth I should not curse him - he was good to me and my friends, and in particular he let us live without bothering us and even his soldiers became negligent about beating us... Meanwhile our situation continued to deteriorate. Worst of all, we could not find firewood to cook with and to heat our homes.
I have mentioned that the barracks stood in a vast forest, and the Soviets had built many wooden stables nearby, which now stood empty. The walls were made of dry timber, perfect for heating. How could I possibly overcome my evil inclination and refrain from stealing some wood? Or rather, how could I bribe Satan not to interfere and permit me to take? In short - there are also shoemakers in the world, and the Holy One Blessed Be He created all of them, not only for His glory but also to serve mankind. I knew a shoemaker who could make really good slippers out of thick fabric. He charged 5 marks for the work. I tucked a pair of slippers under my coat and greeted my friend with a cheery good morning. He spotted the slippers and I thought he would go mad with joy. The question I anticipated was not long in coming: Perhaps I could get a pair like that for my wife? I replied Certainly, sir. All I need is the size (I would happily have brought him a coffin as well!). But I have a request as well.
We have no wood for cooking. Permit me please to take a few sticks of wood.
It never occurred to him that the stable walls were good for kindling. So I explained to him, what did I care? After all, it wasnt as if we were discussing his grandmothers legacy. He agreed without the slightest hesitation, so I also asked him for a written permit - anything, so long as it had a German stamp. I promised not to show it to anyone apart from the Polish pigs guarding the ghetto gate. I received this too. Before leaving for home that day we entered the forest, and within seconds a wall was down and the wagon was loaded with wood. Thank G-d we arrived at the ghetto without incident, and everyone received a tree trunk, except for me and the brigadier who represented the Judenrat - we took two each.
This went on for quite some time. We demolished more than one stable, using the same permit each time, and in this way we stockpiled wood for the entire winter. The wood burned very well - I wish the Nazis burned likewise... Naturally we worked 7 days a week, apart from 2 or 3 of the guys, who were rather unruly, like hooligans - they should forgive my saying so! But somehow we managed to avoid doing any real work on the Sabbath.
On the Sabbath it was my ironclad rule never to do anything for profit, and I tried hard not to work on that day. I endeavored to observe the sanctity of the Sabbath in so far as I was able. Each of us had a monthly permit to leave the ghetto, because we went to work without a police escort. Not far from Pruzany - about 10 kilometers away - was a large village known as Grosdorf. One Thursday night partisans attacked the village, killing a Nazi soldier and the head of the Council, who was a known collaborator. On Friday morning we set off for work as usual, and noticed that behind us the sky was black with smoke. A huge fire was raging in the vicinity of Grosdorf. The bloodthirsty Nazi murderers had wasted no time... Immediately after the partisan incident they surrounded 7 villages, sending all the men to the white prison because naturally they were all dangerous criminals, no?
The women and children were driven from the villages, to go wherever they pleased. The cattle and horses were burned together with the buildings, to demonstrate the long arm of Nazi justice. And that wasnt all. The following morning, on Saturday, as we went to work we saw canvas-covered lorries on the road. They were packed with gentiles, guarded by soldiers and Gestapo, and escorted by vehicles full of murderers with machine guns. These were the inhabitants of the villages, the dangerous criminals who had been sentenced to death and were already taken out to be slaughtered. Before we reached the barracks we heard the sound of exploding hand grenades and the orchestra of machine guns.
We were all shocked and agitated, although our common sense told us that this had nothing to do with us. On the contrary, it should have made us rejoice, because they had rejoiced when our blood was shed and they even helped the killers and looted our homes. Now we had our revenge. But the Jewish soul is different. The Jewish soul cannot bear to see bloodshed. The gentlehearted Jew cannot tolerate wickedness, or killing for the sake of killing.
At the barracks we heard that two gentiles had fled by jumping out of a lorry. They dived into a cornfield and vanished. How could the orderly Germans tolerate the escape of two criminals? They called out the local gendarmerie and the Defence Forces to round them up. I said before that we had 2 or 3 hooligans in our group. That day, in the barracks we came across a locked storeroom filled with notebooks - a valuable commodity in the ghetto. We found a way to enter through the roof. I warned the guys that the road would be far from peaceful today, apart from the fact that it was Shabbat, so I asked that nobody take anything. In any case we couldnt empty the storeroom in one day, it would require many days work. But two of the hooligans didnt pay attention to me and filled two sacks with notebooks. To make matters worse, they were written in Russian....
No sooner had we reached the road on our homeward journey when 2 gendarmes appeared. One of them, a redhead, was a well-known murderer, of whom many tales were told... He yelled at us to halt, and demanded to know what was in the sacks. Our two heroes were struck dumb, and I could see that we were all in trouble. Against all logic, we would all be punished with a beating. So I said They dont have anything to cook with, so they took some garbage - old papers to light the fire. He put his hand into a sack, pulled out a notebook covered with Russian writing and asked me what was written here? I scrutinized it carefully, as if I were some kind of expert in Russian, meanwhile trying to make up something to tell him. Eventually I began to read a letter from a Russian soldier to his family at home, requesting a parcel of food because he didnt have enough to eat. The ruse succeeded... Apparently he liked the idea of a food shortage in the hated Russian army, so he let us continue on our way. I had what to say to the young ruffians, but we were all happy to get off so lightly...
When Rosh Hashana came I wanted very much to attend the synagogue rather than work in the barracks, but I didnt consult with anyone. This, by the way, is one of my failings, even though it sometimes works out for the best. Sometimes you must act spontaneously, without asking the opinion of others, because youre likely to get all sorts of advice, everyone adds his own suggestions, until youre beset by doubts, and you give in and change your mind. So without asking anyone, as I said, on the day before Rosh Hashana I went to see my friend the sergeant with a small request. Since the following two days were our New Year, I requested permission for us not to work. Without a moments hesitation he agreed. I thanked him fervently and rushed off to inform the guys that for the next two days we were exempt from working and could celebrate Rosh Hashana in peace.
The three ruffians promptly announced that we have to go to work! Nothing I could say had any effect on them. I said that anyone who so wished could go to work - I wouldnt be joining them, and every G-d fearing man should stay home. And thats what happened. The three persuaded another man to join them and they all turned up for work. The sergeant was most surprised and asked them:
Dont you have a holiday today?
Yes, a holiday...
So why are you here?
He stood there with his club, and pretty soon he had them working harder than usual. They came home in the evening, bruised and disgruntled. And whos fault was it? Rubinsteins fault, of course! If it wasnt for him, they wouldnt have been beaten!
They decided to lodge a complaint against me with the Judenrat (community council), so through deceit and lies they concocted a story about how I incited the men not to go to work - all exept them. For this reason they had been severely beaten! Naturally, they didnt tell the truth, and the sergeant ordered them to report for duty the following day, which was the second day of Rosh Hashana. If you dont want to observe the holiday, youll work instead! How is it written? As the Jew keeps the Sabbath, so the Sabbath keeps him...
One of the members of the Community Council, the Minister of Labor, was a relative of mine, but even he could not allow this to pass over quietly. The Council decreed that I could no longer work at the barracks. Henceforth I would work on the roads. To add to my troubles, my monthly work pass was due to expire within two hours. A problem - what should I do? To think that two or three idiots could triumph over me and pay me back in such a deceitful fashion. This must not happen! I poured a quarter liter of vodka into a glass and dashed off to my friend. He lived not far from the ghetto, in one of the military buildings on the aryan side. Within minutes I was knocking on his door and he was ordering me inside. I went in to find him stretched out on his bed. I apologised for the intrusion and he shook my hand. We chatted for a while and I gave him the gift, regretting that I had no more to give him at present. Then I told him that someone had informed on me to the Judenrat, saying that I incited the men to stay away from work and some other men were beaten because of me. My licence was therefore taken away and they wouldnt let me go to work for him. When he heard this, he jumped off the bed as if bitten by a snake. Where is the Department of Labor? he demanded. I described exactly where it was to be found, and he told me to go home, assuring me that all would be well.
He rushed out of the house, yelling Walter, saddle up my horse! Within seconds he snatched up his club, sprang astride his horse and galloped off as if there was a fire - perhaps the fire of his wrath... and I went home. No sooner had I arrived than a messenger ran in with a permit for the month, and a severe warning not to work anywhere other than the barracks. I innocently asked what had happened, as if I had no idea, and the messenger described how the sergeant arrived, how he shouted and threated the Minister of Labor with what would befall him if I failed to show up for work. To my relief he didnt harm anyone. He just yelled about the best worker he ever had. Thats when I learned that one should not always bow to the inevitable, remaining dumb and vanquished!
In the vicinity of the barracks was a power plant which supplied electricity to the entire area. It belonged to the army and the police. Three Polish gentiles worked there, 2 brothers who lived near the barracks and a third man who lived in Pruzany near the ghetto. From time to time I assisted them in the power plant and we became friendly. The father of the two brothers was a farmer - if I remember correctly, their name was Struglou. One day my friend the sergeant left the barracks, and his place was taken by a sergeant with three stripes, a real animal. He looked like a murderer, a thief and more. You can imagine how we felt. I wasnt at work that day, I dont remember why. In the evening the guys told me the bad news. He sent them to work guarded by two soldiers with clubs, who were not reluctant to use them and showed great talent in doing so...
What could we do? I asked whether he had ten fingers - if so, its OK. I swear to you that Im a terrible coward! But when there is no alternative I dont lose my wits. I suggested that each of the men should contribute one mark and Id see whether his fingers were flexible - if so, wed grease them very quickly. Bribery is the best and strongest grease. The following day we came to work and there stood the devil with his two henchmen, armed with clubs and rifles, ready and waiting to receive us.
As soon as we arrived the sergeant ordered his two soldiers to take us to clean one of the huts, and to make sure that we worked well. You know what he meant by that... He turned and walked away, leaving us to march to the hut with the two soldiers. I rushed after him, terrified that one of the soldiers would shoot me. I shouted at the top of my voice Sergeant, sir... The guys thought Id gone nuts! The sergeant stopped and turned, I stopped running, with the soap ready in my hand, and without further ado I put out my hand and said Servus, which is how Germans greet one another. He had good eyesight, he spotted the soap at once and put out his hand so that it passed into his possession. Then he said Seife? (soap). By them soap is a precious commodity. Later I learned a secret - you should pardon my mentioning it, but their lice are no more cultured than the others which survived without sanitary conditions.
In short, the lad changed immediately. I was still standing by his side when he called off his two soldiers and ordered them off on another task. I was put in charge of our men to make sure they did their work - Yes sir! I returned triumphant and told them Guys, its OK, hes going to be our friend... We entered the hut, which until now had always been out of bounds for us. The building was full of straw, a pleasure to lie on... I bent down to move the straw and discovered treasure indeed - 10 packets of Russian tobacco, 3 new shirts (one slightly bloodstained) and a fine kettle - a fine business day, thank G-d. We continued searching, and everyone turned up something. We later learned that the place had served as a hospital for the Russians.
By the third day of the new regime, when we arrived for work the lad waited for us by himself, without soldiers. When I greeted him, he told me sadly that the soap was very good, but unfortunately someone stole it... What a big lie, sewn with black thread on white fabric! Of course I pretended to believe him and told him not to worry, Id bring him another soap... Once again contributions were required - one mark each - and once again we had a fragrant bar of soap. The two of us were now bosom buddies. Then he let me in on a secret - he needed some porcelain tiles. In Russia and Poland the tiles were different to those we have here. They were called kachel, attractive and white, and they were used for covering ovens. OK, if thats what you need... So many houses now used by officers and sergeants had once housed Polish families, and doubtless each house had an oven. He wanted me to prise the tiles of the ovens - me!!! Well, why not? I would even have prised my head off if that was what he wanted...
To make a long story short, I took a hammer and a chisel and gradually became a world expert in removing tiles from ovens. And he, the thief, sold them to gentiles in neighboring villages in exchange for butter, pork, sausages and other good things that he sent to his family. There were so many different kinds of ovens - and each house also had a summer oven. What is a summer oven? Its a low oven with two metal plates on top. Each plate had two large holes covered by hoops, one smaller than the other, so the hole could be regulated according to the size of the pot you were using. Naturally I took the metal plates for myself, because in the ghetto we were so terribly crowded that each small building housed 2 or 3 families, each needing to cook. One such plate on a few bricks made a fine cooking stove.
On the other side of the road by the barracks stood the border guardpost, which Ill tell you about shortly. In one corner of the camp was a huge building, just 4 walls and a roof, without a floor. The Polish army had included a cavalry division (the Uhlans), and this building had been constructed especially to protect the horses from ice and snow while the trainees learned to ride, and to do all the other tricks which they were required to master in order to.... lose the war!.
The Gestapo and the SS had a more humanitarian use for the building - they decided to turn it into a concentration camp. No sooner said than done! Two of the soldiers in the barracks had a black deer, tethered by a long rope so it could graze freely. When the SS men came to implement the concentration camp project, they stole the deer and slaughtered it. They skinned it and took the meat - in short, all that was left of the deer was the rope. In consequence of their actions, we Jews were involved in the incident of the deer.
The two soldiers, idiots that they were, got it into their heads that we had stolen their deer, and we couldnt convince them otherwise. We were terrified that they would hand us over to the SS, who would use us to inaugurate their new creation, the concentration camp. The soldiers were in no hurry to do so, but in the meantime they searched every nook and cranny for clues as to the whereabouts of the deer. I was busy dismantling ovens, although by that time very few ovens remained to be dismantled. Or rather, the ovens remained, but they were as naked as one whose clothes are stolen by a thief while he swims in the river. The way he looks when he emerges from his swim, that is the way the ovens looked...
One day, I was sitting in the exact spot where the deer was butchered, busily dismantling a summer stove. I had just discovered two metal plates, when the two soldiers turned up.They were armed with rifles, which was unusual. They were also very angry, demanding to know what I was doing there. I replied calmly that the sergeant had given me instructions. They turned to one another, and one of them said: Yes, that sergeant has already ruined these barracks, and with that, they left. I finished my task, and looked outside. Nobody was about, so I hid the two metal plates in the grass. I had previously purchased 50 kilos of potatoes from the Struglou brothers and their father who worked at the power plant. I left the potatoes at the barracks gate, and before leaving for the day I went to collect the metal plates, but I noticed that they were cracked, so I threw them away. Now I sat on my sack of potatoes, waiting for the wagon to come out, because it was time for the workers to go home.
Opposite the gate, on the other side of the road, was the large building used by the border police, who were now playing a game of basketball. Suddenly I spotted the two soldiers running towards the gate, one holding a tree stump. I realized that they were coming towards me, and I went to meet them, because I didnt want the border police to see this performance. I realized at once that the two of them had watched me from concealment, and seen me hide the metal plates. When they went to unearth the plates they discovered the deers hideand bloodstains on the grass, so putting two and two together they assumed that I was the thief. I came towards them without showing any trace of fear - it amazes me to this day that I was able to do so. Where are the plates? they demanded. I replied I wanted to take them, but I saw they were cracked so I threw them away somewhere around here. Where? Well, I looked around, but unfortunately I couldnt find them. The one with the tree stump raised it in both hands, preparatory to bringing it down on my head, and like a wild animal I sprang at him, snatched it out of his hands, and threw it aside. The second soldier yelled What? Do you think you can lay hands on a German soldier?. He grabbed the piece of wood and prepared to finish me off. Once again I sprang, snatched the wood and threw it down, shouting: Dont you dare hit me. Lets go to the sergeant. When they heard that, they left me alone. The other workers were arriving, so they dished out a slap here, a kick there, and as far as they were concerned, the incident with the deer was over.
But for me it wasnt over yet. When I went back to sit on my sack of potatoes, two border policemen noticed me from the other side of the road, but they couldnt see clearly because the trees hid me from view. When the wagon arrived at the gate and I loaded up the sack, they came across and started asking questions: Whose potatoes are these? I said they belonged to me - what else could I say? They told me to report to them tomorrow and then let us go - at least they didnt take the potatoes! Who knew what the following day would bring? All we could do was pray for G-ds help. I didnt mention anything at home, but I didnt sleep a wink all night. Who knew how badly I would be beaten and what the end would be? The night dragged on, and I arose before dawn to pray with extraordinary fervor.
Near the ghetto lived a man who worked in the barracks power plant. He rode to work every day on a bicycle. I left the house early to find him, and poured out the whole story with the potatoes, leaving out the incident with the soldiers. I wanted to claim that he had given me some potatoes in exchange for helping him so well in the power station. I emphasized that this was a gift, and no money had changed hands, otherwise he would also be in for it. We arranged that he would leave for work before the rest of us, to give him time to explain the situation to Struglou and ask him to stick to our story. If Struglou agreed, my friend would stand motionless as we arrived at work, but if Struglou refused to back us up, he would scratch his head, thus giving me time to come up with another story. What can I tell you? This gentile faithfully did as I asked.
When the workers arrived, the two border policemen were already waiting in the road for their victim, while the other man (the messenger) stood a little way off, as straight as if he had been planted in the earth. I understood that Struglou had agreed to back me up. Actually he had no alternative, because selling food to Jews was forbidden. The policemen marched me into a corridor, stood me outside a door and told me to wait. Thats when I stopped being afraid, because I really had no choice. The sign on the door read Commandant, with his name underneath. The cleanliness of that corridor was exemplary. Suddenly the door opened and out came the Commandant, short and ugly - it would really be a shame to receive a slap or a beating from such a rat, but as it is written: Sufficient unto the day... He demanded to know where the 50 kilo of potatoes came from. I replied: Sir, first of all, its not 50 kilos but a few potatoes, nobody weighed them. Second of all, I received them from Mr. Struglou who lives not far from here and works at the power plant with his two sons. I help them from time to time, and they are so pleased with my efficiency that they asked their father to give me a few potatoes as a gift, and thats the whole story... Well, he stood there, and he listened, and then he asked again: Is Mr. Struglou so wealthy that he can donate 50 kilos of potatoes? Once again I answered: Sir, I told you that there were only a few potatoes, not 50 kilos, and furthermore the gentleman lives not far from here, so you can easily verify my story. You wont believe this, but the next thing he said was Return to your work. I replied Thank you very much, and vanished. When I arrived, the other guys were already long at work, and my buddy the sergeant had been asking for me, so they told him... The sergeant stood on the road, waiting for me. When he saw me his first question was So, did you get beaten? I said No and told him the whole story. His reply was At any rate youre a fool - why didnt you come to me first? My reply Where were you and where were they? They were waiting for me on the road. Well, the important thing is that you werent beaten. Now go and find me some tiles. I didnt tell him about the incident with the two soldiers and it was just as well that I didnt. Where was I going to find him tiles? I hunted around and came to the concentration camp building, which was already fenced off. Inside were beds (pritches) like all the other camps, but there were no prisoners yet, neither were there dogs. Next to the fence was a small windowless hut, its door open, nothing but a table inside, just what I needed for my work. The oven was nice and tall. I climbed on the table and began my vandalism... Suddenly 5 tall soldiers appeared, as if they had materialized out of the ground! They were all high ranking officers - generals and lieutenants from all the murderous divisions: Gestapo, Zonderpolizei, SS and Gendarmerie. They had caught their rabbit in this disgraceful trap. One of them demanded to know, in his pleasant Germanic tones, what I was doing. In a hushed voice I explained that I was repairing the oven, sir. Ah, very good, very good, continue...
They left through the door and I immediately sprang out of the window. I ran like a madman to my buddy, the sergeant. He could tell from a distance that something was up, and when I told him he clapped me on the shoulder and congratulated me on my cleverness. At least that time I was no fool - from that moment the supply of tiles came to an end. I was finished with it, but I still needed an income, because life still went on somehow, thank G-d. Inside the barracks was a locked wooden hut. Every now and then it was guarded by a soldier with a rifle, but not all the time. We used to wonder what was inside, and how we could look in. One day as I passed the hut I noticed that the padlock was not in its place, so I entered and found it to be empty apart from a large crate, filled with bits of leather and felt. No big deal for the Germans, but a real treasure trove for us...
I went to tell the guys what Id seen. Some of them wanted to go and get it immediately, but I explained that it was risky, and nobody should go there alone. We should think it over and between us we would come up with a good plan. By this time nobody believed that I would pull it off. The following day I checked on the hut but it was locked again, although there was no guard. That afternoon I asked the sergeant whether he would like a pair of slippers as a gift. What kind of question was that? Of course he would!
And no doubt you have a wife? I asked.
Naturally, came the reply.
Well, in that case, if you give me the measurements you will receive two beautiful pairs of slippers. I have just one small request.
And that is?...
If you would just give me the keys of one or two storerooms...
What business do you have there?
I explained that once when the storeroom was open I noticed that it was empty apart from a crateful of scraps of felt (pilts), unsuitable for anything other than slipper soles, and thats why I wanted them. Without a word he passed me the keys from his drawer. We emptied the storeroom, filled a sack, locked up again and I returned the keys to the sergeant.
That day we didnt have a wagon, so we took the sack together with the crate of bottles and started for home. On the way we tried to figure out how to smuggle it into the ghetto, because the Polish police wouldnt permit it. No ideas came to mind, but we were scared to carry it further. However, miracles do happen. Behind us came a cart drawn by two horses, driven by two soldiers transporting hay. Without thinking I stepped into the road and signalled the soldiers to stop. Without asking, I motioned to the guys to place the crate and the sack into the cart, and jumped in as well. They didnt say a word. Maybe they were frightened because they took us for partisans. At any rate, I explained that we worked for the soldiers in the barracks and these things were for them. I also promised them two lovely pairs of slippers, if they would only drive via the ghetto. They liked the idea of slippers, and asked the price. I told them that it would only cost them two packets of tobacco (the cost to them was only a couple of pfennings and they didnt like tobacco anyway, but for us it was a fortune). The problem was that they were forbidden to enter the ghetto. I burst out laughing: What forbidden? Are you afraid of the Polish pigs? Theyll open the gate before you get there, and you can leave by the second gate. If that doesnt work, next to the gate is a path where you can turn right. Ill manage to carry the stuff on my back. Meanwhile I was thinking that if they get to the gate, and I unload the things from an army cart, the police wont refuse to let me into the ghetto.
The soldiers took my advice and drove into the ghetto. The police opened the gate as soon as they saw them, and we entered without any problems. Soon we reached my home. I unloaded the sack and the bottles, thanked them politely, asked for their shoe sizes, and made a pair of slippers for each. When I brought the slippers, they had no tobacco, only cigarettes, which they valued more but which constituted a loss for me. I told them that if they have no tobacco they must pay me 5 marks each, which infuriated them both but they paid up anyway. To tell you the truth, I regretted it afterwards - I shouldnt have done it. The guys were totally amazed by my bravery and daring. I told them: Listen, if only you knew what a coward I really am, but as the Russian proverb has it - necessity is the mother of invention. When the knife is at your throat, and life is cheap, you take chances. After all, this is a battle for survival, so you must do whatever you have to do. As the saying goes: if the Holy One, Blessed be He, wills it, even a broom can fire.
Now things began to change - new edicts were issued every day, rumors and whispers spread rapidly, and the fear grew. One day I was approached by the barracks cook. He had a favor to ask - perhaps I could get him a pair of boots? I told him doubtfully that perhaps it could be done, but it would cost a great deal of money, 100 marks at least. I knew that good quality merchandise couldnt be obtained for that price but I was also aware that for him 100 marks was a fortune. I hoped to divert him into finding another way. So I suggested, as if struck by a sudden thought, that there really was no need to discuss money. All he needed to do was give me some foodstuffs from the kitchen and he would have a fine pair of boots. But he protested that his job was to feed people. I told him quietly not to be a fool - he could give them sh-- to eat, werent they stealing enough from the farmers in the villages? And anyway, how much was I asking, after all? It took all of 15 minutes for him to reappear with a basket filled with good things - rice, flour, sugar, butter, Swiss cheese and more... He presented me with the laden basket, and I asked him: Idiot, do you want to have us both killed? How to you expect me to carry this?
So what do you suggest? he asked.
Wait a minute, said I, Do you have a bicycle? Take this on your bike. Ill go in front of you, and when I get into the ghetto Ill wait near the bridge. Cover the basket with a coat, and when you get to the gate, youll happen to see me, and you can yell out something like Wait, youve forgotten to take my coat for repair, and Ill apologize politely. The Polish policemen will be treated to a fine performance, Ill take the lot and tomorrow youll have a pair of boots.
He liked the idea, and he followed my instructions to the letter. He came to the ghetto and discovered me by the bridge. His shouts pierced the heavens. The Poles enjoyed the spectacle and so did I - I could purchase 2 pairs of boots for a basket of food! I sold a small amount, enough to pay for the boots, and the rest stayed in my house. The following day I brought the coat and the boots and he asked what he still owed. I very generously agreed to take only one similar basketful of goods, which he promptly gave me. Individually they are really fools, but as a nation they are clever and industrious. If one only had to deal with one at a time, one would manage very well, but once they received orders they were all transformed into murderers, thieves, bribe-takers. Actually, they were like that even without orders.
I have already mentioned my friend in the ghetto, the goldsmith from Bialystok. I visited him every day after work, just to sit and chat. One day a soldier suddenly entered, a murderous officer of the Gestapo carrying a whip, who asked for his ring. I wanted to slip away, but the tiny shop had only one entrance, and the soldier was blocking the doorway. I had the feeling that I would not come out of this safely so I decided to sit quietly as if this had nothing to do with me. My friend brought out a beautiful gold ring, mounted with a lions head, a true work of art, and the bandit was most impressed. He ordered the Jew to weigh the ring, expecting it to weigh 18 grammes, but it was perhaps a quarter gramme short. This so enraged him that he began to rampage with his whip, like a wild animal. My poor friend tried to explain that it is impossible to have exact weights with such fine work, but the other bellowed: You cursed Jews will yet thank our leader, he will make a nation of you... He ranted and raved, snatched up the ring and left. I asked my friend where he obtained the gold for the ring and he explained that the officer had commissioned it, so the Judenrat provided the gold. He had received a fine ring, and instead of expressing his thanks he had run amok.
The winter of 1942 was severe, and especially so for the Jews. There was no firewood, clothing was scarce and even the Germans on the Russian front suffered from the cold. The Judenrat was ordered to collect fur coats from the Jews and give them to the Germans. When the Germans issued an order, it was not like a Jewish Agency declaration, or a rabbinical appeal to support a yeshiva or give to charity. A German order came accompanied by the Angel of Death! Without threats or warnings - the ghettos were their supermarkets. Whatever they wanted, whatever they desired, whether it was the local government or the supreme command, they simply instructed the head of the ghettos Judenrat and it was provided without any argument. Otherwise the entire committee would be liquidated, or perhaps some other dignitaries. After one such action, they received everything they wanted and more...
The order for fur coats was issued during the day, and that night the ghetto police - who were, of course, Jews who worked for the Judenrat - conducted a search of Jewish homes. This was not difficult to do, because everyone who had a fur coat had two uses for it: a coat by day and a cover by night. It had not occurred to anyone to hide his fur coat, because Nazi propaganda was aimed at dehumanizing Jews, portraying them as ugly, dirty, vermin-ridden, uncultured and leaderless. If so, why would they take our coats for their noble, delicate-natured soldiers? Apparently they had no problem with this, and that night thousands of coats were collected. As it happened, they didnt spot my fur coat because it didnt look like fur on the outside. It was the only coat I had. The next morning I thought the aktion was over, so I went outside wearing my coat. A Jewish policeman approached, somebody I knew well, as it happens. He lifted the corner of my coat and realized it was fur. And then he took my only coat! I never would have expected such dedication for the fatherland from a Jew...
Oh well, one could live without a coat - one could become accustomed to anything! In the house next door lived a woman who was a member of the Judenrat. Her husband was the Minister of Labor. I went to see her, not to complain or to ask for something, because thats not my nature. I thought perhaps Id hear something... They were fine people, but apparently their nerves werent as strong as mine, because no sooner had I stepped inside and greeted her when she burst out yelling, advising me to hang myself! I was astounded, but without getting excited, I told her quietly that I had only come for advice, nothing more. But as she had already given me a suggestion, I had one for her as well: I was already accustomed to many things, and was mentally prepared for everything, but seeing that she had not yet experienced everything that I had, my advice to her was that she hang herself before me, and before.... Then I walked out. In Auschwitz her husband asked me to give him a potato, and I would willingly have given him that and more, but to my sorrow I had nothing and I myself was as hungry as a stray dog...
Since the ghetto was a supermarket, the mayor (burgermeister) ordered the Judenrat to supply him with sheets of tin. Where do you find sheets of tin in the ghetto? The Lord in heaven has solutions. The head of the Judenrat ordered his police force to go through the streets, noting every house with a tin roof, and listing the number of sheets. It must all be removed and given to the Germans, we had no choice. Jews could spend the winter in houses without roofs. When I heard that I told the brigadier (he was the brother of the Minister of Labor and came from Pruzany, not a refugee like me) that he should advise the head of the Judenrat not to touch Jewish roofs. The brigadier was responsible for the work gangs who went out of the ghetto, and he was our liaison with the Judenrat. I added that for 10 marks per tin sheet we would get him as many as he required...
The brigadier asked where I would get them. I answered that first he would see them, and he shouldnt ask questions. Off he went, returning with a positive answer. I bought a fine ladys purse, wrapped it nicely and went to work without telling anyone what I had planned. At work I greeted the sergeant with a hearty good morning and presented him with a gift for his wife. He was as excited as a little boy. The purse was really lovely, it cost me a mark, and he didnt know how to thank me. I let him calm down and, as if embarrassed to mention it, I remarked that I had a small favor to ask of him. I explained that I really needed some sheets of tin. He gazed at me as if I had taken leave of my senses, and asked where I thought he would get them. I laughed: What, dont you see all those empty buildings covered with tin? Lets take off some sheets - simple! He said I could take them, but I wanted some assurance - it wasnt that simple.
I told him that the guys didnt listen to me, so he should tell Axel and David (the two hooligans) who were very agile, that they should bring down a few sheets. I said a few - before that I said some - never indicating a specific number. He went outside and told Axel and David to bring down tin sheets, instructing me to show them where to go. Apart from the brigadier, nobody knew why and for whom the sheets of tin were required, so they thought they were for the sergeant. I told them to bring down 100 sheets. They worked at top speed, and within two hours we had 100 sheets of tin. I requested an invoice from the sergeant for the tinsmith, we loaded them and roped them onto the wagon, and they arrived at the Judenrat. We were paid 1000 marks. I deducted the cost of the purse and divided the rest among the guys - everyone was satisfied. I found it very amusing: the mayor needed sheets of tin, so he applied to the Judenrat who turned to me, and I supplied the mayor with sheets of tin from his barracks... which he couldnt obtain for himself!
The Nazi demands continued relentlessly. Something was always needed, always from the supermarket. One such demand was for beds, because a large contingent of murderers was expected in Pruzany: Gestapo and SD (Zonderdienst - these were the hangmen par excellence), and they required beds. And where on earth were beds to be found? From the Jews, of course. The refugees had no beds, the only ones available belonged to those of the population who were still living there. When I heard the edict I remembered that the barracks where I worked housed a large store of beds, nickel-plated with fine springs. There was just the matter of getting them from the barracks to the Judenrat, and from the Judenrat to the murderers. Once again I sent the brigadier to the Judenrat with a bid - not too high, I willingly settled for a small profit, because Im a businessman, after all. The Judenrat joyfully accepted my proposal. I again employed the old method - a gift for my friend, a new story with a new request, and once again I had to tell him where the beds were kept. I obtained his approval, and the time came once again for me had to bring them out...
The storehouse stood right next to the road, separated only by a fence. With a deal like this, the fewer people who knew about it the better. Near the storehouse was a gate, which probably hadnt been opened since the time of the tsars. It wasnt locked with a key, but many branches had twisted round it. After a short consultation, we decided to open this gate. Meanwhile the beds had been loaded onto the wagon and tied securely, and off we went. Nobody ever noticed how the merchandise arrived at its destination...
It should be mentioned here that unlike other places the Pruzany ghetto was lucky to have a Judenrat whose members were decent and talented people. Nevertheless, the noose was drawing tighter and tighter around us, as the ghetto became more and more constricted. The hardships were felt most keenly by the refugees and the elderly, who didnt know how to manage. They received no payment for work, and even those who had money could not buy food, because most of the food was purchased outside the ghetto. If they somehow managed to obtain food, there still remained the problem of smuggling it in.
People swelled up and died of hunger. We heard evil tidings as one town after another was destroyed. The inhabitants of the ghetto at Kartuz Breze were slaughtered in the Bruno Gureh forest. In that place, where we went for sand, my older brother Hershel (Zvi) died, together with his wife Chaya and their only daughter Blume z"l. At the same time good news came from the Russian front of the fall of Stalingrad. There was hope that perhaps the Lord would be merciful. But as the defeats increased and the Germans were forced to retreat, the long arm of the Nazis oppressed the Jews more and more. As the Nazis suffered more reverses they speeded up the annihilation of the Jewish people. The methods varied from place to place, the techniques became more sophisticated and the machinery of destruction became ever more efficient. It was much easier to wage war against the Jews than to fight on the Russian front, especially since the non-Jewish population provided such fine assistance... The Jews had nowhere to flee. Even the forest was too confined for the Jews - even there death lay in ambush. Some Jews from Pruzany ghetto managed to flee to the forest, where they were wiped out by gentile partisans. Hatred of the Jews knew no bounds.
The Last Days of the Ghetto
Meanwhile the Germans increased the number of guards around the ghetto, positioned more projectors around the fence and cut down on the number of laborers permitted to work on the outside. Germans were posted at the gate in the morning, when we went out to work, and in the evening when we came back. They counted and registered the number of those leaving and those returning. One day the mayor (burgermeister) informed the Judenrat that on a certain day nobody would be permitted to leave the ghetto. There would be no work details, instead everybody would assemble in the longest street of the ghetto in groups of ten, in straight lines, so that they could be easily counted. Anyone too ill to leave home must be registered by name and exact address. Trusting Jews, believers and optimists by nature, finding hopeful signs everywhere, decided that since the mayor was new, and known to be crazy about numbers and lists, this was no big deal. Nothing to worry about, no need to fear. As the saying goes: the drowning man will clutch at a straw... Anyway, did we have a choice?
The morning of the counting, all the Jews stood like one man, while Jewish ushers from the police rushed hither and thither, making sure that the lines were straight and each numbered exactly ten. Every child was included, and heavens forbid that a mistake should occur. The mayor himself with some of his retinue attended the counting. He personally checked on each reported case of illness, to make sure he wasnt being cheated. After the counting was over he left. The crowd dispersed, with many whispers and conjectures. People cudgelled their brains and used their imaginations to make up the news...
Meanwhile rumours spread that some people were preparing tunnels and caves for concealment, and I, too, became energetic. We had a store but it had no floor. I worked like a donkey, digging a large, deep pit the size of a storehouse. I arranged ventilation by means of a camouflaged pipe, with a corner inside for our bodily needs. I did this out of despair and nervousness. After all, how long could twelve adults with four small children possibly remain in such a shelter? What about food, water and air? And what would happen after we had succeeded in hiding for two or three days? Where would we go? Why didnt we go right now? Would it be easier later? The soldiers were experts in ferreting out such tunnels. When they found them, they didnt exert themselves, one grenade always did the trick! We decided not to use our place of concealment. Whatever would befall all the Jews would also be our lot...
By this time no labor details were carried out beyond the ghetto walls. This was a very bad sign. More sentries were placed on guard around the ghetto. People scurried through the streets, waiting for a miracle. The rabbis decreed fast days, and many fasted without any decree, since they had nothing to eat anyway. A few people still worked inside the ghetto, including the shoemakers, and I worked with them, as a stitcher.
My mother of blessed memory was lying ill in my sisters house. My father was hospitalized in the ghetto hospital, which more closely resembled a cowshed. It was overcrowded, lacking mattresses and medicines. Once there had been food, but now that, too, was lacking. Worst of all, nothing could be done to help them. I managed to visit my father and speak to him in the evening. The following morning, while I was at work, they came to tell me that he had passed away. I immediately began to arrange his funeral. The cemetery was situated outside the ghetto, and access was forbidden, but there was also an old cemetery inside the ghetto, which hadnt been used for many years. I got hold of a horse and cart to bring my father to his house, next to the cemetery. My brother was still at work outside the ghetto, and had not yet been told of my fathers passing. I called on the Hevra Kadisha (Burial Society) which was still functioning at the time, and they requested payment. They knew that my sister and I had no money, but counted on my brother Meir Eliahu æ"ì, the capitalist. The head of the Hevra Kadisha asked me slyly whether it would not be better to bring the deceased to the home of my brother. I decided that the hint was too subtle, and asked what he meant by this suggestion. He explained that it would be a greater honour. I replied: Nothing has changed for you. You dont feel the ground burning under your feet. Just say straight out that you want money and Ill give you whatever you want, you neednt seek honour for my father. I ran home and brought them a watch. I told them I have no money, but I can give you this watch as surety. I will pay you and redeem the watch, otherwise its yours...
They hurried to carry out the funeral before my brother could participate. For some reason there was ill-feeling between him and one of them - I dont know which one or why. At that point I got up and said Stop! Nobody interferes - the funeral will take place when my brother returns from work. He hasnt gone out to enjoy himself, he didnt choose to stay away! He returned before nightfall and my father was buried in the old cemetery next door. I lived on the other side of the cemetery. In this way my father received a proper Jewish funeral, and we even managed to sit shiva. Two days after getting up from shiva we left the ghetto.
By this time everyone was distraught. People wandered around as if demented, trying to decided what to do. What could be done? Every evening they gathered at the office of the Judenrat hoping for news, and the chairman would come out and announce that there is hope that we could all sleep peacefully tonight, because no aktion was expected. The crowd would disperse. As it is written: In the evening you will wish it was morning...
But on the last evening the mayor arrived with another murderer to bring a message to the chairman of the Judenrat, probably about the liquidation of the ghetto. He was lucky enough to find the perfect excuse - when he entered the building he found two or three partisans there. These armed Jews, true heroes, instead of killing Germans or robbing gentiles had come to steal from the community. Instead of killing Germans they were fired on by the mayor. I dont remember whether anyone was killed or whether they escaped, but the mayor informed us that our fate was sealed, and departed. That night some of the leaders committed suicide, which added to the overall depression. My brother Meir Eliahu æ"ì suggested that we flee. I told him that this is not the time to ask for advice or to to give advice, no one knows anything. Everyone should do as he sees fit. I had accepted my fate and refused to be parted from my family, even for a moment. I would go with them. He parted from me with a heavy heart and remained with his family. Unwittingly, I had lied to him. Although I accompanied my dear family, I alone survived, through no fault of my own... I truly did nothing different from others in order to save myself. I went with everyone else, suffering the same tortures, the same beatings and humiliations, the same filth and contagion. It seems that the Almighty wanted me to survive. He had another purpose for me... Moreover, one cannot ask questions, because there are no answers.
Liquidation of the Pruzany Ghetto
That last night nobody slept. Some walked about, some sat in fearful expection, not knowing what the next second might bring. Before daybreak gentiles with carts came streaming into the ghetto, and soldiers with drawn pistols went from house to house, even though everyone was already in the street with their bundles, awaiting the final edict. Yet the soldiers still entered each house looking for - what? Who knows what? Finally the order was given to climb onto the carts (they were, in fact, sleds) in groups of four. The date was January 28, 1943. In this manner street after street was emptied. We departed from the ghetto while all the gentiles on the outside stood by their houses and watched. Most of the houses were Jewish property, stolen from Jews when the ghetto was established. The gentiles stood there with smiles on their faces and gladness in their hearts. Whenever an accompanying soldier cruelly and arrogantly out of the goodness of his heart tossed a bundle off the wagon for the looting gentiles, they pounced on it shamelessly, as if it were priceless treasure. Ah, Almighty God, what pain was inflicted on our hearts without stabbing or bloodshed! As we departed our Nazi escorts checked our wrists and removed watches with the cynical remark: You wont be needing this anymore...
In this way we arrived at Lineve station, where a freight train with cattle cars awaited us. The separation of men, women and children continued until nightfall. I gave my beloved a final kiss - my beautiful, black-eyed, red-cheeked Marika. I will always remember that last kiss on her dear face. May G-d avenge her.
After the men had been separated from the women and children, the doors of the freight train were opened and everyone climbed into the cars, trying desperately to keep close to their loved ones. People were crammed together, almost on top of one another. The doors were closed from the outside. The tiny windows, 10-15 centimeters high, were barred with barbed wire. We tried to guess our destination - were we being taken to a forest to be killed and buried in a mass grave, in pits prepared by others, as was done to others in the area, or were we destined for some other grotesque death? When the train finally began to move, we realised that we were heading west. We had never heard of Auschwitz. We knew about the work camps but nothing was known about extermination camps. I should mention that we were vigilantly guarded by soldiers with machine guns, in case one of us succeeded in escaping. They stood there like watchdogs. They had comfortable carriages at their disposal so they could rest when they came off duty. We travelled all night, arriving at Teraspol, 10 kilometers beyond Brest Litovsk, early the following morning. On the way to Warsaw we peered through the cracks and saw Polish gentiles, who gestured with their fingers across their throats to indicate that we were being taken to be slaughtered, as if we didnt know... There was no way of telling whether they were trying to warn us or whether they simply wanted to add to our distress and our pain. I dont remember how long the train stopped there. We were desperately thirsty, but there was no water. Nobody even thought of food, even though I had a bit of bread and salt in my knapsack.
Friday came and we travelled all day crowded like sheep. The train swayed from side to side, the wheels rumbled, and gradually more space opened up between people. Some found room to sit on their bundles or on the floor, and napped. Those who remained standing were dead tired, and they also slept. Later we changed places - those who had been sitting stood up and those who had been standing sat down to ease their cramped muscles. On Friday evening we arrived at the Warsaw train station, which was teeming with Polish collaborators. We begged them for a drink, and those who had a gold coin or a good watch managed to obtain a bottle of water. German money or a cheap watch would only get you a handful of snow! People handed over everything they had just to be able to wet their dry lips - food wasnt even mentioned, even though nobody had eaten in two days. You can survive without food if you must, but to go without water is pure hell! Some people fainted. In addition, no provision was made for our bodily functions.
Once again the train began to move. We continued through the night and on Shabbat morning we arrived at Czenstokow station, where we saw Jewish labourers. They also gestured to us to escape because we were going to be annihilated. The finger they drew across their throats was entirely different. This was a Jewish finger, trembling with pain, anguish and sorrow. I said to myself Youre giving us advice? What about you? Why dont you flee? You havent been caged up in death traps yet... But I knew the answer: they also had no choice and nowhere to flee, just like us. They, too, prayed for G-ds mercy. We uttered our last prayer - it was the Shabbat when the prayer for the new month of Adar is recited. Next to me sat an old man whose name I wont mention. I watched him try to steal a piece of leather from another mans parcel, and it so sickened me that I can hardly describe it. I couldnt refrain from saying to him Reb.... at a time like this? When we dont know what will happen to us within the hour? I dont remember whether he took the leather or not. I think he left it, but he would not speak to me out of shame. At midday our train stopped in the middle of an open field. The soldiers opened the doors and encircled us with their machine guns. People were permitted to get down from the train to relieve themselves. I didnt get out, I had no need - I was transformed into an angel... I thought we would be buried right there, but everyone returned to the train, the doors were closed and we moved on.
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This document was posted here with the permission of the Rubinstein family.